Nanowrimo Sample

Nanowrimo is in full swing and I’m actually on a path to completing it this year! I thought I might share the first chapter that I’ve come up with, just to see what people think. Keep in mind that, as a first draft written more for speed than precision, anything or everything in it is subject to change.

The Sun Spark

Chapter One

            The meteor streaked across the night sky, turning it from black to silver as it sped towards impact.

Theoan Ilokar watched it fall as he rode out from his father’s farm. It was a strange meteor, he thought; too slow, and falling at an odd angel. Yet it moved much too fast to be a descending ship, and besides that it was traveling north to south, in the direction of the desert where no ship would be landing anyway.

Meteors, he knew, were the tools of Veiovis, the King of the Gods and master of the stars. Veiovis used them to alert his people that great events were about to take place, or to mark the changing of dynasties. They also could serve as his most terrible weapons of vengeance, but that he reserved only for the most irredeemably wicked of creatures.

As he sped off into the night, heading south into the wilderness on his skimmer bike, Theoan wondered what this particular meteor might portend. He doubted very much it signaled anything concerning Uanmu: the desert planet and all its inhabitants would hardly merit such a display from Veiovis. There was nothing there except for some scattered farms, like that of his father, and a couple of small settlements. It was far removed from the power of any of the three great nations of Metia, Alaxdria, and Saedemon, and nothing of any importance ever happened there, unless you counted the machinations of the drug trade as being important.

Perhaps that’s it, Theoan thought. Perhaps the gods mean to put an end to the trade. Though I don’t suppose Veiovis would consider it to be worth casting a meteor to herald that.

No, Theoan suspected the meteor was a sign for someone who was only stopping at Uanmu briefly; perhaps some great lord or mighty warrior who, for whatever reason, had paused on this most desolate of worlds on his way to more important places, where there were wonders to find and glory to win.

Theoan sighed to himself. He would dearly love to be able to leave this world and seek adventure and honor amid the suns, to see the great nations and their glorious planets. But, though he suspected his father would allow him to go, it was difficult to find any opportunity. Few ships came to Uanmu, except those connected with the drug trade, and Theoan would sooner stay on this world the rest of his life than soil his hands with that. The more respectable ships, when they came, tended to be small traders stocking up on supplies before venturing off to distant colonies, with neither the ability nor the desire to take on passengers. True, there were a few sky liners that would stop off on Uanmu to pick up and drop off travellers, and he could board one of those, but then where would he go and what would he do? Theoan didn’t know anyone outside of Uanmu, nor did he have any clear idea of what he meant to do if he ever left.

So he had to be content to slack his thirst for adventure with hunting trips to restore the family’s scant supply of meat. Livestock was in short supply on Uanmu, and difficult to keep alive. Theoan’s father had attempted to raise cattle once and had lost the entire stock before the end of the season, so the family relied upon hunting for their meat.

Theoan was secretly glad of this, though ashamed of himself for being so. He loved hunting and loved the opportunity to journey and explore the wilds, if only for a short time. It gave him a respite from the tedium of farm life.

He rode for about thirty miles, well away from any settlements of man, and parked his skimmer beside a great boulder that gleamed ruby-red in the light of Koina, the great, red, solitary moon of Uanmu, which lit up the world in a rusty twilight. Hunting, travelling, and much else was best done at night on the desert world; the sun, Vulmen, was fierce and no friend of man, sun though he was.

Theoan dismounted, but before he shouldered his pack or his rifle, he opened a small compartment on the side of the skimmer and took out three yams, the freshest they had, a small earthen bowl, and a tiny box of incense. He found a flat stone beside a tangled thorn bush and on this he set the bowl and three yams, then tossed a pinch of incense into the bowl and lit it with a quick blast from his hand torch. He knelt and bowed his head as the sweet scent rose into the night air.

“Oh, Aytea, mistress of the wild places, huntress most fair and free,

As I honor thy law and as reverence I thee,

What thou givest to thy hunting beasts, give, lady, unto me.”

He stayed a moment before the makeshift altar, hands clasped in prayer, then rose and, leaving his gifts to the lady of the wilds, he took his pack and his rifle from the skimmer and set off into the night.

Theoan always made sure to offer proper obeisance to the lady of the flashing hair before each hunt. She, he knew, was less friendly to man than most of the gods, preferring the wild beasts and open places and resenting man when he invaded her territory and violated her law. But for that very reason, she was generous to those who honored her and kept her commands. Theoan never set traps, never killed mother or young, and had never once come home empty handed.

There were tales of hunters who had pleased Aytea so much that she permitted them to catch a glimpse of her, beautiful beyond mortal imagination, racing through the wilderness with her hounds at her heels, her flashing hair streaming out behind her like a banner. It was an honor not to be asked for, but only accepted, but Theoan couldn’t help hoping that, someday, the goddess might consider him worthy of it.

For tonight, though, he would be content if could only bring home a supply of meat for another week or two.

He soon struck a game trail and followed it south and east, across the rocky, thorn-strewn wilderness, past dry streams and tangled, bare thickets. Insects fluttered about his ears, or else scurried into cover as he past, some of them nearly as high as his knee. He went with care to avoid stepping on anything venomous, but long experience had taught him how to be cautious without sacrificing speed, and he made a good pace.

Nevertheless, as he traveled further south, he began to grow a little uneasy. He was now very near the edge of the northern plateau, and the Uan might be about. The desert people were sofia – they had language, understood signs, and practiced religion – but they were certainly not civilized. They were mostly pacified by now, and could even be seen in the streets of Kath trading with men and other creatures, but out here, far from any retribution and near the desert where men could not follow, they were liable to be dangerous. Theoan’s father, who had been among the first settlers of the planet and had helped to wrest control of the plateau from the desert people, said the Uan, though they accepted their loss, regarded it as temporary. The “sky people” they said would leave one day, and the Uan would take the “cold lands” back.

The vast majority of the surface of Uanmu was uninhabitable by man; an endless desert of silver sand, baked to a blazing point by the fierce rays of Vulmen. It was said that, down by the equator, the heat was so intense that life of another sort flourished, and that there were whole forests of heat-loving fungi growing out of land burned nearly to glass, though no man had ever seen them unless it was from the sky.

However, in the far north there was a vast plateau rising thousands of feet above the level sands, and up here it was cool enough for more familiar creatures to, if not thrive, at least survive. Here there were deep springs of water that periodically welled up here and there to form small streams or pools, about which clustered spiky thickets or bushes. These could lie dormant for years and years, only to spring to sudden life again when the water returned, so that different regions would become green at different times, and it was beyond any art the men of Uanmu possessed to predict when or where this would be. Theoan had seen time-lapsed images taken from space of green patches flashing and failing on the surface of the plateau like sparks flying from a motherboard.

The chief game animals were the colbucks; shaggy, horned creatures about the size of a small horse that roamed about the plateau in small herds seeking the spots where water and green had briefly returned. The trick was to pick up their trail and follow it until you found water, and then wait. Sooner or later they would come.

The only question was whether Uan would come first.

At last Theoan found what he had been seeking; a wide, still, muddy pool surrounded by thick thorn bushes and stunted trees in full leaf, all dyed red by the moon. The pool, however, was only about a hundred yards from the Burning Road: the pass that lead down out of the plateau to the desert. No man ever went that way, for the desert was death; the Uan had made it in ages long past, and though they didn’t often use it after they had lost control of the plateau, Theoan didn’t much like being so close to it. But he must hunt, and since Aytea had decreed that this was the hunting ground, he would trust her and do so. Still he took care to position himself facing the road and with a boulder at his back.

Once in place, with a good view of the pond, Theoan laid his rifle on his knees and waited, listening. A hot wind blew up from the desert, rustling the trees and spreading a burning smell across the land. A few insects and small mammals scurried about in the underbrush. Theoan gazed up at the stars and suns blazing overhead picking out the ones he knew. There was Argea, the sun of Alaxdria, the nearest of the three nations. And Delo and Faunit and Mistu, which held the forested world of the Nelians, and, faint and golden, Vergina the fair about which spun the blessed world of Achaea. He could identify them, though he had of course never been to any of them, and he never ceased to marvel at the idea that he could lie here on the outskirts of the galaxy and look across lightyears of the Kenon – the empty void of space – upon these great and famous places.

So he sat and waited and thought of the places far away that he could see as mere points of light. Slow hours crawled by and Koina passed across the sky, rose to her height, and began to descend.

At last, as the night wore on to its end, he heard what he had been waiting for; the soft ‘flump-flump’ of the colbucks’ padded feet upon the stony ground and the low chuffs of their breath as they came down to the water to drink.

In the red light of Koina, he soon saw them; a herd of about seven; three juveniles, two females, one adolescent male, and one old, dominant male with great backward-sweeping horns.

That would be the one. As the colbucks plodded down to the brink of the pond and began to drink, Theoan very slowly lifted his rifle and aimed at the old male. But he did not fire; the others needed their water, and he would allow to drink before he took his prey. To remember the needs of the beasts whom you do not hunt was part of the Law of Aytea.

So he waited, but the herd had hardly begun to drink when the young male, who was acting lookout, suddenly stiffened in alarm. For a moment, Theoan thought they had scented or seen him. But no; the beast was looking to the right; toward the pass. A moment later, it gave a great bark of alarm and the whole herd leapt off as one, thundering out of sight into the bushes. They were fast creatures in spite of their bulk, and the echoes of the warning bark had not faded before the whole herd had disappeared.

Theoan lowered his rifle, cursing his ill luck. If he himself had made some mistake and so lost his chance, that would be one thing, but the herd hadn’t spooked at anything he had done. It had been something else; perhaps another hunter, one clumsier than he?

If so, Theoan thought angrily, rising from his place and making his way around the pond to investigate. I’ll give him a lesson!

He soon circled the pond and came to the Burning Road, where he paused to listen and look. He saw no sign of living creature, whether beast or sofai, but he heard, coming up the pass, the sound of footsteps upon the rocks.

A man, then, he thought after listening a moment. And making no more effort at stealth than a ship taking off…but what’s he doing in the pass anyway?

Immediately before him, the road turned a sharp bend behind a ridge as it went down into the pass. Impatient, Theoan strode forward and turned the corner, where he found himself face to face with the interloper in the dull red light.

He froze.

For a moment, he thought his hope had been granted and that here, beautiful beyond mortal thought, was the goddess herself. But the thought lasted only a second, for he saw that the girl before him was swaying, weary and near fainting, which showed her to be but mortal. She staggered forward, her dazed eyes on him, and she seemed to be trying to speak. But before she could articulate a sound, she stumbled and pitched forward in a faint.

Theoan recovered from his shock in time to catch her. She was unconscious now, her head fallen back and her face turned unseeing to the sky. She was pale, dirty, and exhausted, and still Theoan thought he had never known beauty until now.

She was slender and lithe of frame, her skin as clear as starlight. Her long, shining hair rippled down past her waist, and her face was soft and lovely. She was dressed for travel, in a pale dress belted at the waist and covered over with a grey cloak that fell back from her shoulders in her faint.

Theoan touched her forehead and felt the fever. Hastily, he carried her to the pond and bathed her in it, scooping some of the water into her open mouth. She swallowed, which he took to be a good sign.

Suddenly, there came a long, keening cry. Theoan looked up sharply. About a quarter mile off he could see a low hill, on which, silhouetted against the star-filled sky, was a squat, insectile shape. A moment later it was answered by another cry, this one from much farther off.

They couldn’t stay here. With luck, they might make it back to the skimmer before the Uan were on them, but only if they left now.

Theoan slung his rifle and pack over his shoulder, then lifted the girl lightly (Theoan was a strong young man, and the girl was light and slender of build) and set off at a run back up along the trail.

But whether the Uan had been content to drive him off, or whether their calls had not been meant for him at all, Theoan saw no other sign of them that night. His skimmer was standing where he had left it, though he noticed the offering to Aytea was gone. He briefly wondered whether she had guided him to that particular hunting grounds specifically to be ready to find this girl. But that was no matter now.

He stood the bike up and stowed his pack and rifle, then took his seat, gently holding the girl across his lap, and switched on the engine. As usual, it sparked once or twice, then died. He tried twice more, gently cursing the machine in his impatience, before it caught and the repulsor engine flared to life. He pulled a lever and the stands retracted, leaving the bike suspended about two feet off the ground. A moment latter, they were skimming across the land, rising over rocks and hills, taking the fastest route back to his father’s farm.

***

Theoan looked nothing like his father, Anchises. Anchises was a thickset, rather short man with a swarthy face, a heavy beard, and thick black hair. His son, on the other hand, was tall and lithe of build, with sandy brown hair and his face was finely lined. He had taken after his mother, more than his father, though he now could but dimly remember her as a distant image of beauty and gentleness in his early youth.

His younger brother Ergen more closely resembled their father, both in looks and temperament. He too was of a broad, swarthy construction, though taller than his father. Now all three were gathered about the unconscious form of their strange guest as Anchises applied salves to her forehead.

In the lamplight Theoan could see that, if anything, he had underrated her beauty under the moonlight. More than that, her face, though pale and sickly from the heat, was kind and noble as well as beautiful. Yet he also saw that she was young: barely older than he was. Say, nineteen or twenty at the most. Here, surely, he thought, was a lady of some great family; someone of importance in the galaxy. He was staggered to think that their humble house in the wilds of Uanmu was hosting such a guest.

Ergen, however, was frowning.

“You say she came out of the desert?” he said. “What was she doing there?”

Theoan remembered the ‘meteor’ he had seen.

“She must have crashed out there,” he said. “I saw a ship go down, or at least what I think must have been a ship. Looked like a meteor at first.”

“That’s odd. What made it crash, I wonder?”

“Hopefully she’ll be able to tell us soon,” said Theoan, looking a question at his father.

“She’ll be all right,” the old man grunted. “She’s just got a touch of the heat is all; lucky for her she landed at night, else she’d be a dried husk out in the sand.”

Indeed, even as he spoke the girl stirred in her sleep. Her eyelids fluttered, and one hand went to her breast. Suddenly, her dark-blue eyes snapped open and she sprang up as though in alarm, leapt off the table and backed away from the three men, but she stumbled with the effort.

“Woah! Easy there, lady,” said Anchises. “You’re safe, no need to worry.”

The girl was breathing hard, one hand still clutching at the front of her dress, looking from one to the other. Her eyes came last to Theoan.

“You,” she breathed. “I saw you, did I not? In the desert?”

“Well, not quite. In the wilderness, rather, but I guess you came from the desert,” he answered. “You fainted, and the Uan were about, so I brought you here.”

It seemed to take her a moment to process what he had said.

“I see,” she said. “Then I owe you a debt.”

She looked around at the three of them and inclined her head. Her hand at last relaxed and drifted down to meet its fellow across her stomach.

“Thank you, all of you,” she said. “I apologize for my ungraciousness just now.”

“No need for that, m’lady,” said Anchises. “Natural enough; waking up after a faint to find you’re in a strange place. But you ought to sit down; you’re not near well yet.”

“Of course,” she said, feeling her forehead and swaying slightly. Anchises guided her to the couch, where she sank gratefully onto the rough cushions. They gathered respectfully about her, waiting.

For the first time, the girl looked around at the place she had woken up in. It was a low-ceilinged, wide, stone room, with no windows, only a flight of steep steps on one corner running up to a trapdoor in the ceiling. There was a table set with three chairs in the middle of the room, a set of two beds set in the wall at one corner and a third, larger one opposite them. At the other end of the chamber was a work bench and sink, and in the center of one wall was a small shrine, with plinths set with idols of Aytea, Pellinor the Valiant, god of war, journeys, and heroic deeds, and Chloem the Bountiful, goddess of farming and harvest. Beneath the three was a bright model of Vulmen, the sun of Uanmu. A spear, telescoped all way down, hung on the wall beside the shrine, next to a badly battered buckler.

The girl seemed to take comfort from what she saw, for she smiled and turned her face back to her hosts.

“Please sit,” she said. “I am not so great a person as that.”

They did so.

“If you please, m’lady,” said Anchises. “I’m sure we’d like to know just who you are and how you ended up in a place like this.”

“As to the latter I’m not quite sure myself,” she said. “Since I do not know where I am.”

“You are on Uanmu,” said Anchises. “About twelve miles south of the port of Kath.”

“Uanmu!” she exclaimed. “I might have known, but that is far out of my way. As to who I am, my name is Nata, and I am daughter to one of the humbler lords of Metia. My father is attached to our kingdom’s diplomatic corps, but he is aged before his time and is unable to travel, so I took his place on an envoy to Achaea. The mission on which we embarked was of tremendous importance, not only to the Achaean League, but to the galaxy as a whole, and it was thought to be kept a great secret. But, alas! My ship was waylaid by pirates and driven off course. The villains finally caught up to us in this system, and I was forced to flee. I…I do not know if any others escaped. I sought to land near the cities that I could see from the sky, but the escape craft was unresponsive and I crashed in the desert. You who live here must know well what I experienced in travelling from the downed craft to the head of the long pass up into the hills. I believe it is only by the help of the gods that I am yet alive. And, of course, by your help,” she added, smiling on Theoan, who felt his heart leap at the radiance of her smile, and still more at her words.

“I think we have the Lady of the Wilds to thank for that,” he said. “She led me to where I might find you.”

“Many thanks to her, but you are the one who cared for me and bore me back here,” she said. “What is your name?”

“Theoan, my lady. Theoan Ilokar. This is my father, Anchises, and my brother, Ergen.”

“Pardon me,” she said turning to Anchises. “I ought to have asked you first. I suppose I am not quite recovered.”

“No worries, m’lady,” he said. “Now, I guess you must be starving after all that. We don’t have much to offer you, I’m afraid; not much grows here, but what we have you’re welcome to.” He turned to his sons. “You two get supper on; best we have, understand?”

They nodded and hurried to the storeroom to get the yams and melons and the few bits of salted meat that still remained from Theoan’s last hunting trip. These Ergen, who was far the better cook, set to frying while Theoan prepared the table and got out one of their precious flasks of wine. Meanwhile, Anchises sat talking to Nata, and Theoan’s eyes kept drifting to that end of the room. Her beauty seemed to increase rather than diminish every time he looked at her, possibly because she was now awake and animated and seemed to be fast recovering from her faint. She was talking to Anchises about his farm, inquiring about Uanmu and its situation and history, and seemed perfectly at her ease. Every time she moved her head, the lamplight seemed to glitter off of her long, honey-colored hair like the sun on rippling water.

She glanced his way, and Theoan abruptly realized he’d been standing still, staring at her, for several seconds. He hastily returned to preparing the dinner. As he turned back to the counter, he saw Ergen throwing him a rather stern look, and he felt himself growing red with embarrassment.

Soon everything was ready, and when they had poured out a libation for the gods they set to. Nata was evidently starved, for though she maintained her poise and grace, she ate ravenously and complimented them on their cooking in a most gracious manner. As they ate, Nata continued to ask Anchises, and now the other two as well, about Uanmu. Theoan tried hard to eat and not to look at her more than was necessary.

“I came with the first wave of settlers, ‘bout twenty-odd years ago,” Anchises said. “That was just about the time of the Darien War, and we were looking for somewhere out of the way, where we could manage our own affairs and not get caught up in the League’s problems, begging your pardon. Anyway, Kath was the first place we founded, and we had a stiff job keeping the Uan off. They didn’t have much use for the plateau, or the ‘cold lands’ as they call it, but they weren’t gonna give it up without a fight. Savage they are, and I don’t think they know what fear is. We lost a lot of good people in that fight, but in the end we won out. Helped that they didn’t know about shields, so we could hit ‘em from a distance, else I don’t know if we could have done much.

“Anyway, in the end we beat them badly enough that they acknowledged our rule of the plateau in exchange of us swearing that we wouldn’t touch these certain places that they count as sacred. These were mostly high rock places we couldn’t get to without a jetpack anyway, so it wasn’t much to us.

“Only, just after we beat the Uan, that’s about when the cartels showed up. Suppose we should’ve seen it coming; a functional space port out in the middle of nowhere, far from League authority, naturally it’s gonna attract an unpleasant crowd. So, about a year after we secured our land from the Uan, we found we were under the heel of the drug dealers. Our great campaign for freedom didn’t amount to much in the end.”

“Then why do you stay?” Nata asked.

“It’s our land,” said Anchises. “Lot of good people died for it, and we don’t mean to make that go to waste. Besides, the cartels don’t bother us farmers too much; they all stay in Kath and Maut and places like that. They buy our wares and we each mind our own business for the most part. Won’t pretend we like it, but we get by.”

“I see,” she said. “Now, as for me, you have been exemplary hosts, but I must be leaving at once. My mission, as I have said, is vitally important, and I am already delayed. Which is the nearest space port?”

“That would be Kath,” said Anchises. “But I think you ought to stay at least another day. Still surprised you survived the desert at all, even at night.”

“No, I am afraid I cannot do that,” she said. “But I am all right, really; your care has been excellent and I am perfectly well to travel.”

“Well, that’s for you to say, lady, but what do intend to do?”

“I must find transport to Achaea,” she said. “Can such a thing be found in that city?”

“I suspect so,” said Anchises. “There’s usually a liner or two coming in on their way to better ports. Only, you should know that Kath isn’t the sort of city where anyone should go alone, especially a young lady like yourself. I’ll have my boys go with you.”

“Thank you,” she said, though she looked a little uncertain. “If you think it is best…”

“It is,” he said. “I’d also recommend you wait until nightfall; travelling during the day isn’t the best idea, and you’ll be less conspicuous at night.”

“No,” she said. “I’ve already lost too much time, and my errand is an urgent one. Day or night, I must be going as soon as may be.”

“If you say so. In that case, we best get started. You just wait here and rest, m’lady, and we’ll make ready to start.”

The journey to Kath was not far; a matter of twelve miles or so (none of the settlers would dwell farther than a night’s journey on foot from the settlement), and so their gear was light; water rations, cooling packs (which they always took whenever they traveled anywhere), a few small tools, and of course their ‘Peks’ – Personal Energy and Kinetic Shields – which just about every civilized person wore if there was the slightest chance of trouble. These shields didn’t guard against fists or blades, but could repel energy blasts or projectiles, at least below a certain size, which was certainly a comfort, especially since the Uan could use rifles.

Once they’d gotten on their gear, the brothers ventured upstairs (their rooms were underground as protection from the heat) to prepare the skimmer, which needed to have its sidecar put on if all three of them were going to ride it. They’d done this many times before, and it wasn’t a long job, though with the sun up and the hot wind in through cracks around the door, it was more unpleasant than usual.

Just as they were finishing, Anchises came up, alone. He had his spear in hand, still telescoped down.

“Before you go I want a word with you two in private,” he said. “First of all, you’ll take this just in case,” he handed the spear to Ergen. “Take your rifle too,” he added to Theoan.

They looked at him in surprise.

“You think we’ll run into trouble?” Ergen asked, accepting the spear automatically.

“I don’t know what to think, except that I suspect she isn’t telling us everything,” their father answered.

“She said herself she wasn’t,” said Theoan. “But so what?”

“I don’t mean that,” said Anchises. “I mean something about her story doesn’t ring true to me. Why is she the only one to get away from the ship if it was attacked?””

“We don’t know if she was; others might have landed elsewhere.”

“Ain’t likely; escape craft tend to hone in on each other and stick together unless they’re told not to. If that was the case, why? If not, why’s she the only one who got off?”

“What are you saying?” asked Theoan.

“Only that there’s more going on here than she’s telling or that we know,” said Anchises.

He frowned, looking back down at the trapdoor.

“I don’t necessarily think she’s lying or doing wrong,” he said. “But she is dangerous. The sooner she’s gone, the better.”

Aleteia Post on Halloween

My first Aleteia post is up, and it’s about Halloween!

However, I also must confess a dislike for the usual proposed alternative of “All Saints Night,” in which children are encouraged to dress as their favorite saints and all the spooky trappings of the holiday are avoided. To paraphrase Jane Austen, that may be more Catholic, but it is much less like Halloween. An alternative that removes the defining elements of a thing is not a very appealing alternative.  

I would like to propose another approach — one that lets Halloween remain Halloween, while placing it in its proper context.

In the first place, we should keep in mind that the grotesque, macabre, and horrific have always been a part of Christian culture. Side-by-side with the celebration of the high and the holy has been the contemplation of the dark and the frightening. Christians traditionally do not shy away from facing evil; we carve monsters on the sides of churches, compose ghost stories and legends of the unquiet dead, hold danses macabre in cemeteries, and even build whole chapels out of bones. What we are to fear makes as much a part of the Christian story as what we are to desire.

This is because the greater the fear and the greater the danger, the greater the triumph. The path to glory leads through the dark valley; Good Friday precedes Easter Sunday; Dante descends into Hell before he can view Heaven.

Read the rest here.

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?

 

Halloween at the Federalist

New post up at the Federalist discussing the original Halloween:

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To understand this film, it is necessary to understand its monster. The thing in “Halloween” is usually referred to as Michael Myers, the name of the young boy in the opening. However, that’s not how Nick Castle is credited. He’s listed as playing “The Shape.” What is a shape? It is form without matter. A circle has the same nature, whether rendered in wood, ink, smoke, or mathematical notation. Thus, the Shape in “Halloween” is some form or reality that can materialize in many different ways, but always with the same nature.

Taken with Dr. Loomis’s pronouncements of the Shape’s inhuman nature, and especially with his final exchange with Strode —“It was the bogeyman!” she says, and he replies, “As a matter of fact, it was”  —  the implication is that the Shape is in fact a supernatural manifestation of evil. It isn’t Myers; he is only the material the Shape uses to give itself substance. This is why it always wears a mask, to the point that when Laurie briefly tears it off, the Shape pauses its assault to re-don the mask.

The Shape needs a disguise to give itself substance. It needs a “mask” of some sort. Even Myers himself is the Shape’s mask. This, of course, explains everything; The Shape cannot be killed because it is not a person but a supernatural entity. This is the same reason it has inhuman strength (enough to effortlessly strangle a German Shepherd with its bare hands) and some power over its environment (it seems able to lock and unlock doors from a distance).

It also explains the Shape’s eerily unnatural behavior. Not just its senseless murders, but the way it simply does strange things at times, such as when it appears in front of Linda wearing a ghost costume and then just stands there. Or when, after dispatching another victim, it pauses and thoughtfully tilts its head back and forth, as though studying its handiwork.

Likewise, there doesn’t seem to be any point to much of its behavior. For example, why the tableau with Annie’s body and Judith Myers’s gravestone? Or, for that matter, why is it targeting Laurie at all? The Shape, whatever its nature, is operating on a clearly alien mentality to anything we the audience can understand. It isn’t human.

Read the rest here.

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Andre Fireson and Nick Windworth in Friends in Need

 

 

They sat across from each other, as they had done once before, just prior to a hail of gunshots that had killed Gallano’s bodyguard and ended up setting his restaurant on fire. Andre thought the mobster had grown even more vulture-like in the intervening week or so.

“You place me in a most awkward position, Mr. Fireson,” said Gallano. “You arrive here, on my own boat uninvited, and during such a delicate time. How do you expect me to respond, I wonder?”

“As for that, you did destroy my car and kill my chauffeur,” Andre answered. “Not to mention nearly killing me.”

“I had nothing to do with that,” said Gallano hastily. “I was not told the whole plan; only that it would require the use of my helicopter.”

“Does that mean you’re not the one in charge?” Andre asked, sensing weakness. “Should I be speaking to someone else?”

“I am in charge of my own operation,” Gallano snapped. “However, I do, occasionally…cooperate with certain others for our mutual benefit.”

“Walter Deaney, perhaps?”

Gallano scowled at him.

“You seem very well informed, Mr. Fireson; so much so that I wonder you need to ask any questions at all.”

“I make it my business to be well informed, Mr. Gallano, as I am sure you do as well. Now, these others you cooperate with…”

“You are not in a position to ask me any questions on that matter, Mr. Fireson,” said Gallano. “We are only having this chat in order that I may decide what to do with you now that you are here. Because you saved my life, I do not like to kill you, but, on the other hand, I cannot permit you to possibly interfere with…with an event taking place tomorrow.”

Andre’s eyes rose with interest.

“Oh? What event is that?”

“One that you may read about after the fact,” said Gallano. “I have made my decision; you will remain on the Fulmine as my guest for today and tomorrow, after which my men shall take you ashore and we shall never meet again. I will then consider my debt paid. However, if you attempt to leave this vessel, or to interfere with my plans in any way, you will leave me no choice but to order your execution. Do I make myself clear?”

“Quite,” said Andre. “I don’t suppose you’d listen to a counteroffer?”

Gallano hesitated. He was, after all, a businessman at heart and always liked to know his options.

“I…will listen,” he said.

“Hand over everything you know about your co-conspirators, especially any cops on your payroll, tell me what you’re all planning, and I will provide the means for you to flee the country and disappear.”

The drug lord stared at him and then laughed.

“That hardly seems an appealing offer,” he said.

“Beats prison,” said Andre.

“Yes, but, you see, I am not going to prison, Mr. Fireson. I am quite well protected. The present…unpleasantness is merely a temporary obstacle. Within a week, it will all be behind me.”

“I’m sure your boss would be happy to hear that,” said Andre.

Gallano’s face twitched.

“This conversation is over,” he said. He nodded to one of his men. “You, take Mr. Fireson to his cabin. See that he is comfortable and that a guard is placed on him.”

###

            A short while later, Andre stood gazing out of the porthole in his cabin at the LA skyline. His room was very comfortable, but he had no intention of staying there. He had found out some interesting facts and had shaken up the old buzzard, both of which had been worth the effort to come aboard. Now he needed to find a way out.

He thought of Sarah and wondered whether she’d made contact with Crane yet. He trusted Benton to look after her, and yet he found he couldn’t prevent himself from worrying. Had he really done the right thing, leaving her like that? Was what he had learned worth the risk?

There was a rap at the door and one of the stewards came in bearing a tray.

“Your lunch, sir.”

“Didn’t order any,” he answered.

“Compliments of Mr. Gallano,” the steward answered, laying the tray on the table. It did smell good, Andre had to admit. He would probably need to keep up his strength if he meant to escape.

The steward bowed and withdrew, closing the door behind him. Andre went to the tray and found it contained a dish of fried chicken, rice, and vegetables, a piece of bread with butter, and a glass of water. The meal wasn’t bad; not up to Benton’s cooking, but then few things were.

He’d almost finished before he noticed the folded piece of paper tucked beneath the plate.

He drew it out and unfolded it. It was a plan of the Fulmine, with his own room and usual positions of the guards marked off in red ink. Along the side of the paper was a message:

I have a plan. Leave after dark. Wait for my signal.

Andre felt his heart hammering with excitement, but his mind was troubled. Evidently, he had an ally onboard. But who? And what was his plan? Most importantly, what was the signal going to be? Presumably he’d know it when it came, otherwise his friend would have been more specific.

In any case, this was good news; better than he could have hoped for. He tucked the plan into his pocket then rang for the steward to take away the tray. Once this was done, he began methodically to memorize the plan as best he could.

He had been at this for less than twenty minutes, however, when there was a heavy thud from the corridor. Andre hastily tucked the map away as the door opened and the steward came in. Only, he didn’t look like a steward anymore; his round, somewhat drooping face was flushed and he moved, not with the rapid deferential step of a waiter, but the confident, direct motion of a soldier. He was taller than Andre, but something about his sloping shoulders and hunched posture made him seem much smaller than he was.

“Hello,” he said. “Change of plans.”

“What?” said Andre.

“We’re not waiting for dark anymore. Have to go now.”

“You?”

“Obviously.”

“Anyone else?”

“Nope.”

“What’s changed?”

“Basically the whole plan, but I’ll tell you on the way. Can you give me a hand with this?”

He indicated the guard who had been stationed outside of Andre’s room; a hefty figure with a huge scar on one cheek. He now lay slumped against the opposite wall.

“What’d you do to him?”

“Whacked him over the head,” said the other conversationally as they hauled the brute into the room. “I was in a hurry. Still am, as a matter of fact. You any good with guns?”

“Rather,” said Andre dryly.

“Good. You take this,” said the other man, handing him the compact assault rifle the guard had carried. “Don’t like guns myself. Bad experiences.”

“Wait, who are you anyway?”

“Nick Windworth,” said the false steward, holding out a hand. “Friends call me Breezy.”

“Andre Fireson,” he answered, taking it.

“Knew that. Good to meet you,” said Nick, dropping the guard’s sidearm into his pocket. “Now we need to get off the boat and quick.”

“What’s happened?”

“Friend of mine needs a hand, and quickly. But don’t ask questions; just follow my lead. It’s not gonna be as easy as the night escape would have been, but then we don’t have as far to go either.”

Andre didn’t understand what he was driving at, but kept his mouth shut and checked the rifle magazine and chamber. It was fully loaded. He grabbed a couple spare mags from the guard’s pockets, as well as his radio, then followed Nick’s lead into the corridor.

They made for the fore stairs, then took them down into the lower decks, where the luxury vanished and the work began. Nick evidently knew his way around the ship very well, and they followed a winding, twisting path through its bowels, making, as far as Andre could tell, for the stern. They didn’t meet anyone along the way.

“So how do we get off the ship?” he whispered as they hurried past the engine room.

“Originally, I meant to take one of the lifeboats,” said Nick. “Figured we’d slip away and they wouldn’t realize we were gone until morning. But that’s not gonna be quick enough this time.”

“What do you mean, quick enough? And what else is there?”

Nick gave him an appraising kind of look.

“I don’t suppose you can fly a helicopter, can you?”

“Afraid not,” said Andre, seeing the idea at once. “Can you?”

“Well, I haven’t done it in a while, but I figure it’s like riding a bike.”

That was not encouraging.

Near the stern they found the after stairwell and began to ascend. Andre’s heart was hammering. He felt sure their luck was bound to run out soon. They couldn’t possibly get away without being spotted, could they?

They didn’t.

They came onto the main deck; the helipad was just outside a set of plate windows. And the pilot and one of the guards were standing right beside it, talking.

“No time for finesse,” said Nick in a low voice. “I’ll take the one on the left, you take the one on the right? And if you have to shoot, make sure you don’t hit the chopper.”

Andre nodded. Keeping low, they slipped through the door and out before the helipad, their guns raised.

“Hands up!” Nick ordered. “Up where I can see ‘em!”

The two men started, froze, but the guard’s rifle was pointed out to stern, and he sensibly saw that he’d have no chance at all to bring it to bear before he was shot. They raised their hands in surrender.

“Cover them,” said Nick. He relieved the guard of his weapons and the pilot of his keys, tossing the guns overboard.

“Now take a swim,” he ordered.

“What?”

“Not in a mood for arguing: there’s the water. Get in.”

He forced them down to the side of the yacht and onto the gunwale.

“You’re never gonna get away with this,” said the pilot.

“Yeah, that’s what I was going to say to your boss,” said Andre, and together he and Nick shoved them off. The two men hadn’t even hit the water before they were racing back to the helicopter.

“Not gonna take long for them to realize what we’re doing,” said Nick as he started up the rotors. “Then they’ll alert their allies in the police, and they’ll have choppers of their own in the air.”

“Then remind me why we’re doing this?” said Andre

The chopper lifted into the air. As it did so, several armed guards came rushing out onto the deck or onto the balcony above, aiming at them. Nick banked hard as the bullets pot-marked the chopper, but most of the rounds missed. Andre leaned out the side and returned fire. He was rated an expert marksman, but even so he had trouble landing a shot. But he did force the men back under cover, and that was something. A moment later, they were flying full-tilt toward the city.

“As for your question,” said Nick, speaking as calmly as if he’d merely been distracted by a matter of protocol. “Like I said, a friend of mine needs help, and she needs it fast.”

“Can be a little more specific?” said Andre.

“I was hanging around old Gallano when he got a call. Couldn’t hear too well, but I was able to gather that Mistretta, who seems to be the main dirty jobs man of this little conspiracy, anyway he’s gotten his grimy mitts on a couple of people they were looking for. One of whom’s Detective Karen Stillwater; friend of mine. Crane’s partner.”

“You know Crane?” said Andre.

“Everyone knows Crane in my line of work,” said Nick.

Andre was about to ask what that line was, but the mention of Crane suddenly put another idea into his mind.

“Who was the other one? The one they caught?”

“Don’t know. Someone named ‘Rockford.’”

Andre swore aloud.

“Know her?”

“She and I were on our way to see Crane and his partner when we got grabbed.”

“Ah, got it,” said Nick. “Well, Mistretta’s got them both, and Crane’s been arrested.”

“He’s what?”

“Sounds to me like they’re done playing around. Whatever’s happening tomorrow, the want to make damn sure we don’t interfere.”

Andre nodded abstractedly. He was thinking of Sarah, captured by a gangster. Why, oh, why had he ever left her? It was stupid, arrogant, irresponsible. And what happened to Benton? Was he dead, or perhaps arrested? Nothing else, he was sure, would have made him abandon her.

He shook his head. He couldn’t worry about that now. They needed to focus on saving the girls.

“You know where they’re taking them?”

“I’ve got a good idea,” said Nick. “But we’ll need to ditch the chopper first.”

They were well into the city by now, heading north and east. Nick was leaning forward, scanning the buildings below them, looking for a likely spot.

“Try my building,” Andre said. “On 7th and Randolph; shouldn’t be far from here.”

“That’s a good idea,” said Nick, banking in that direction. “Don’t suppose you keep spare cars there?”

“Can borrow someone’s,” Andre answered. Then he remembered it was Sunday; no one would be there.

“Never mind; sure to be someone parked nearby,” said Nick.

Andre quickly identified his building and watched it draw nearer. He wondered whether it would be his much longer; even if they survived today, with the police against them he might end up arrested on trumped up charges, like Crane.

So be it, he thought. It wouldn’t be the first time his family had been wronged by a mob. He thought of his ancestor, the Duke, forced to flee France in the wake of the Terror while his brother and sister went the guillotine. To die falsely accused and striving to uphold the right would at least be a fitting end for one of the Duke Duroc’s descendants.

Nick landed the helicopter expertly on top of the Firebird Arms building, and the two men flew out almost before it had stopped moving. Andre’s passcodes got them into the empty building and down the elevator.

“Mr. Fireson!” said Lou the security guard as they flew out of the elevator into the lobby. “What are you doing here? And…”

“No time, Lou,” said Andre. “It’s an emergency. I need to borrow your car.”

“Of course, sir,” said Lou, eying the rifle in his hand and passing him the keys. “Should I call the police?”

“Absolutely not,” said Andre. “If they come by, you didn’t see us. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” said Lou. “I hope everything’s alright, sir.”

“It isn’t,” Andre answered as he and Nick flew into the parking garage.

###

            Sooner than Andre would have thought possible, Nick nodded at a run-down garage on a grim street corner.

“That’s it,” he said, driving past without slowing down.

There was no one in sight save for two tough-looking customers standing by the door.

“How do we do this?” Andre asked as they turned the corner.

“We try to go in guns blazing, he’s liable to cut their throats just to spite us,” Nick said. “We’ll have to be smart.”

He parked out of sight around the corner and got out. Andre followed him, the rifle tucked out of sight in his jacket. Nick turned down an alleyway behind the garage and, motioning for Andre to keep low, drew his automatic.

“No entrances back here,” he explained in a whisper. “So should be no guards.”

The alley was filthy, damp, and full of trash from a Chinese restaurant next door. It stank horribly.

“If there are no entrances, how does this help us?”

Nick shrugged.

Partway down the alley there were a couple sets of of bar-covered windows looking in on the garage. The first of these showed the main garage.

From here they could see the two women. They were each tied hand and foot, arms overhead and bound to the car elevators, which were raised high enough to stretch them to their full length. Their feet were bound to weights on the floor, leaving them almost immobile except for their heads.

Directly between them there was a work table, on which was laid an assortment of knives, drills, saws, pliers, blow torches, and other implements of torture. Mistretta sat beside it with his back to the window, idly fingering each instrument in turn, holding it up and turning it about so that the two women could see it clearly and imagine just how much it would hurt.

“Well,” he said. “Now that we’re all settled, let’s get started. The two of you have been making a lot of trouble for some very important people. So what I want to know is, how much you know, how you found it out, and who else knows about it? First one who talks gets to walk out of here alive.”

He held up a rotary saw and flicked it on. It spun with a high-pitched whine for a moment before he flicked it off again.

“Go to Hell!” Sarah spat defiantly. Karen said nothing, but her face was set even as her breathing came fast and shallow.

“Can you hit him through the window?” Nick asked a low voice.

“Maybe,” said Andre. There was a good deal of clutter in the way, and firing through glass would throw off his aim.

“Well, try, and if you can’t, make him think you can, at least for a second. I’ll go in the front. As soon as you hear trouble, start firing and keep him away from the girls.”

It wasn’t a good plan, but it was the only one they had time to make. Andre nodded and shouldered his rifle, sliding the barrel between the bars into the clearest section of glass he could find. Nick slipped off out of the alley Inside, Mistretta had set down the handsaw and instead picked up a long, thin knife. He fingered it a moment, then turned to Karen.

“Let’s start with you, Chiquita,” he said. “I want you to think hard about my questions.” The woman stiffened, but glared defiantly at him. Mistretta started toward her, idly twirling the knife…

###

            As he left the alley, Nick Windworth fell into a stumbling, weaving gait. His head lolled about and his arms waved meaninglessly. Typical drunk, like you see every day in this kinda neighborhood. He staggered down the street toward the guards, who watched him keenly.

“Hello,” he gulped as he came right up to them. “Would one of gentlemen point me in the direction of…”

They weren’t fooled. In a flash two pistols were drawn.

Oh, well, Nick thought.

He darted forward as quick as a striking snake and caught the wrist of the nearest man, forcing the muzzle of his gun down, and shoved all his weight against him. They were both bigger than he was, but they weren’t expecting this maneuver and so the first guard stumbled back against the second. With and expert hand, Nick twisted the wrist that held the pistol until it was pressed against the guard’s own abdomen, and before the man had quite realized what was happened, two powerful shots split the peace of the afternoon.

The man dropped, clutching his stomach, and Nick took his pistol. The second man tried to pull free as his partner slumped back on top of him. He stepped out of the way of the falling, mortally wounded man and looked up just in time to see Nick level the stolen pistol into his face. A third shot ended the affair.

It had all happened so fast that only now did Nick hear the bark of Andre’s rifle. Hoping that was enough to keep Mistretta distracted, he opened the door and slipped into the garage.

Almost as soon as he did so, more gunfire sounded. Of course; Mistretta had guards inside as well. Two of them, both pouring fire into the window through which Andre had been firing. Nick should have reckoned on that. The window shattered under the assault and there was a hail of dust and sparks as the bullets bounced off of the bars and tore into the bricks.

But he’d done his job; Mistretta had been momentarily forced to duck for cover back behind his table of torture implements. The two girls, unable to move or duck, shut their eyes and winced, trying to block their ears with their shoulders as the gunfire roared around them.

Nick, from his position behind a workbench, took careful aim at one of the guards and fired two quick shots. Them man dropped. The other heard and turned. Nick moved from the table to a metal tool chest, which rocked when the bullets hit it.

Mistretta, meanwhile, had figured their game. He crawled out from behind his table and ran over to Karen, standing so that she was between him and Nick. She gasped as he pressed his knife to her chest, but he didn’t stab her yet.

“That you, Breezy?” Mistretta called. “I know it’s you! You’re sweet on this cop, aren’t you? Wouldn’t want to see anything bad happen to her, right? That’s why you’re here. Come on out, or I’ll gut her slow!”

His ruined face twitched. Nick didn’t doubt for a second that he’d do it. From outside all was silent. It seemed Andre had been hit by return fire. His plan had never been a very good one, and now it was time to face the fact that it had failed.

“All right Mistretta,” he called. “You win.”

“No, don’t!” Karen called. “Stay…”

Her words were cut off in a shriek of pain. Nick leapt to his feet, all his long experience and training suddenly vanishing in anger at the sound of her agony. Mistretta, he saw, had dug his thin knife into Karen’s chest, just below the collarbone. But at that same moment there was another sound. A crumbling, shattering sound.

Mistretta, Nick, Sarah, and the last guard all turned to look at the window. The bars had been torn off. The salvo of gunfire had not only shattered the glass, but had torn chunks out of the brick work, which hadn’t been particularly strong to begin with. That meant Andre was still alive.

Nick registered all this information as he sprang over the table and rushed at Mistretta. He couldn’t shoot for fear of hitting Karen, but he closed the distance within seconds, and as Mistretta turned back in his direction he threw a punch with his left hand that tore open half the stitches on the gangster’s face. Mistretta screamed in pain and fury, dropping the knife, but before Nick could shoot him he came back, caught the wrist that held the gun and forced it upwards. Mistretta was incredibly strong; more like a chimpanzee than a man, and his first blow staggered Nick and would have dropped him to the floor had Mistretta not been holding him up by one arm. The gun fell from Nick’s fingers in the shock of the blow, then he rocked and nearly passed out when Mistretta hit him again. Then Mistretta picked him up and threw him bodily into a tool bench, which was knocked over backwards with the impact.

Nick was dazed, racked with pain, but training and long practice allowed him to focus nonetheless. Mistretta, half his face a bloody mess, was hurrying forward to finish him off. Nick seized a heavy wrench from the floor and threw it at him. It struck dead in the center of the forehead and Mistretta staggered back, clutching at his skull.

Meanwhile, from the corner of his eye, Nick saw that another struggle was going on; Andre had climbed in through the shattered window and attacked the guard while the man had been distracted by the fight with Mistretta. They were struggling for control over the rifle.

But he couldn’t pay attention to that battle; he had his own fight to deal with. Taking advantage of Mistretta’s momentary incapacity, Nick grabbed another wrench, the largest he could find, from the pile on the floor, and staggered to his feet. In the time it took him to rise, Mistretta had recovered. He saw the weapon in Nick’s hand and hesitated, licking his lips. Nick held the wrench out before him, and the two opponents circled each other. Mistretta was far the stronger of the two, that had been well proven, but Nick guessed he was the better trained and he had a weapon. Call it an even match.

There was a sudden bark of gunfire. Mistretta looked around, and Nick struck. He darted in and swung for Mistretta’s temple, but the gangster’s animal-like reflexes were too good; even seeing from the corner of his eye was enough to allow him to block the attack, though not well; the wrench, instead of cracking his skull, instead shattered his wrist. Mistretta yelled in pain, but even as did he caught the hand holding the wrench with his uninjured hand and bent it cruelly back until the weapon fell to the ground. He then swung around and threw Nick against a yellow ‘flammable contents’ locker, which rocked with the impact.

Mistretta charged after him. Nick turned the handle on the locker, opened it, and threw the first thing his hands touched at the oncoming gangster. This turned out to be a plastic canister filled with some kind of oil, and it broke with impact, splattering its contents all over him. Mistretta gasped and sputtered, blinking the stuff out of his eyes and gritting his teeth as it seeped into his wounds.

That gave Nick an idea. He grabbed another bottle from the cabinet, hastily unscrewed the top, and threw it directly into Mistretta’s face. The gangster roared in pain as it got into his eyes, and charged blindly forward. Nick stepped out of the way and he slammed into the cabinet, causing more of its contents to spill out onto the floor. Mistretta turned after Nick and began taking wild swings in the air at where he imagined Nick to be. Nick dodged left, then back, then stepped aside and stuck out his foot. Mistretta fell forward and struck against a set of gas canisters that fed the welding torches.

Meanwhile, Andre knocked the guard out by slamming his head into a workbench, then rushed to join Nick, out of breath but still game.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Been better,” Nick answered, rubbing his bruised and tender cheek.

But Mistretta didn’t seem to have much fight left in him. He staggered, blinded, his left wrist shattered, his face a mass of blood and oil. The two men watched warily as he rose slowly to his feet. Then, both at once, they saw he was holding one of the welding torches.

“No, you idiot! Don’t…” Nick began, but it was too late. The torch flared to life in his hand, and instantly the oil that had coated Mistretta, and which he had dripped and smeared onto the torch as he had fallen on it, burst in flames.

The two men and two women all cried aloud in horror, but their yells were drowned in the scream from Mistretta as his whole body was immediately set alight. He ran, blind, maddened by pain, his arms waving, and all the oil and other materials that had spilled out onto the floor were set alight.

“We gotta get out of here!” Andre shouted. He ran to the table, seized the rotary saw, and began cutting Sarah’s bonds. Nick was right behind him, took a knife, and cut Karen free.

Mistretta was nowhere to be seen, that entire side of the garage was in flames. Once it reached the gas canisters, the whole place would go up. And worse, the flames were blocking the door.

“Out the window!” Andre shouted as he cut Sarah’s ankles free. He didn’t stop to see whether she could walk, but lifted her lightly in his arms and sprinted across the garage to the shattered window.

Nick, for his part, didn’t trust his ability to lift Karen and still run full speed. She was stiff and in pain, but could walk, and he threw an arm around her as together they limped across the garage. It was filling with smoke now, and they coughed as they went, eyes and throats burning. The fire was near the canisters.

At the window Nick lifted Karen and passed her out to Andre’s waiting arms before climbing out himself. The four of them sprinted down the alley and around the corner, and Andre (who was last) had no sooner turned onto the main street than the entire interior of the garage exploded in flames, shattering every window and tearing the doors off their hinges.

People had begun to arrive. Sirens wailed in the distance. Nick led the four of them down the road to where he’d parked their borrowed car. He and Karen got in the back, Andre and Sarah in the front, and a moment later they were driving as fast as they could away from the garage.

“Thanks,” said Sarah as soon as she had breath to speak. “That’s two I owe you.”

“Now what?” asked Karen. Then she yelped as Nick applied an impromptu bandage consisting of his handkerchief and a torn part of his shirt to her wound.

“First thing to do is switch cars,” he said as he worked. “Then find somewhere safe to regroup and decide what to do next.”

“We can use my place,” said Andre.

“Won’t they expect us to go there?” said Sarah.

“Yes, but I’ve got places there we can hide,” he answered. “Call it paranoia, but I like to be prepared.”

“Except they’ll be watching for us on the way,” said Karen. “Staking out the road in front of your house.”

“Then we won’t use the road. Trust me.”

A few blocks away they left the car parked in front of a multilevel parking garage. They walked into the structure and ‘borrowed’ a different car from the second floor. Andre took a long, winding route out of the city, but they saw no sign of pursuit. It seemed they had finally shaken the police. Along the way, they shared their stories of what had happened that morning.

“I hope Benton made it at least,” Andre muttered. “Doesn’t sound good.”

“What were you doing on Gallano’s yacht in the first place?” Karen asked Nick.

“After I’d annoyed Mistretta so much, I figured I ought to go into hiding,” he answered. “Gallano doesn’t know me, and Mistretta’d never think I’d be hiding right under his boss’s nose. Thought it’d be the last place he’d look.”

Karen smiled slightly. “And you still wanted to help,” she said.

“Nothing to do with it,” said Nick.

“Liar,” she replied.

They drove out of the city, and the Fireson mansion loomed into view on its height like a medieval castle. But Andre turned off the road the lead up to the hilltop and instead skirted around its base, where there was a wide thicket.

“I own all this land,” he explained. “Use it as a nature preserve. Good PR.”

They passed a sign reading ‘Duroc Nature Preserve: Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints.” Andre parked the car in one of the few spots then led the others out onto the walking path. It was very pleasant, and if they weren’t all exhausted, sore, and tense with fear they would have enjoyed it.

Andre led them off the path, through the thicket, and finally to a spot where a hoary old tree grew right against the side of the hill. Then, to their astonishment, he reached onto the tree’s side, which was hidden behind a thorny bush, and pulled the entire front of the trunk open.

Nick whistled.

“That’s a neat trick,” he said.

Inside there was a short tunnel, at the end of which was a heavy metal door and a keypad. They slipped in, closing the ‘tree’ behind them. Andre entered a code, turned the latch, and pulled the door open to reveal a stairwell.

“It’s a bit of a climb, I’m afraid,” he said.

That turned out to be an understatement. The stairs wound back and forth so many times that they lost count, ascending straight up into the center of the hill. By the time they reached the top, the two women were nearly dead on their feet and had to be half-carried by their male companions, who were staggering themselves.

At last they reached the top landing, where there was another heavy door and combination lock. Once through this, they found themselves in a low-ceilinged, but otherwise spacious chamber. Crates and boxes lined the walls, sofas stood in the middle, and there was a table with chairs in a kind of kitchenette in one corner. A cluster of television monitors stood at one end, and a set of cots at another.

“Welcome to my safe room,” said Andre, breathing hard. “Bathroom’s through there if you need it. First Aid over there. Room’s sound-proof and not on the original plans, and the entrance is pretty well hidden, so I don’t expect we need to worry about any visitors.”

He went at once to the monitors and began flicking through them. Evidently, he had a closed-circuit camera system in his house.

“But,” he said. “It doesn’t look like we have to worry about that.”

Sarah joined him, while Nick set about giving proper treatment to Karen’s wound.

“How does it feel?” he asked as he finished.

She grimaced.

“I think I’ll live,” she said. She kept drawing deep, steadying breaths. Nick eyed her thoughtfully.

“Bathroom’s through there if you need any privacy,” he said.

She looked at him, swallowed, and nodded. She got up and, slightly unsteady, hurried for the door.

Nick watched her go. He bit his lip, then winced when he found it swollen. His mind was racing with ideas, but none of them related to their current predicament. He’d surprised himself a lot these past few days, but now he was positively stunned by his own thoughts.

Don’t be an idiot, he told himself. You’re way past all of that.

He sighed and stood up. Sarah passed him on her way to the kitchenette. Nick went over to Andre, who was still sitting by the monitors.

“Nice couple of girls,” he muttered.

“They certainly are,” Andre answered.

Nick thought a moment, then asked in a low voice, “Sarah…she your girl?”

Andre turned to look at her, and the expression on his face was answer enough.

“More or less,” he muttered. “I kidnapped her.”

Nick considered this.

“Makes it official, then.”

The two men looked at each other, then began to laugh.

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Sarah Rockford and Karen Stillwater in “Mate in Two”

Detective Crane hung up the phone and turned to his young partner.

“Well, they’re on their way,” he said in a low voice.

Karen Stillwater nodded, feeling a thrill of excitement that she carefully kept from showing on her face. They were making progress at last. Between Fireson and Rockford’s statements and the information they’d gotten from Mistretta’s ledger, they might be able to finally move against the conspiracy. It would all depend on what they said, and whether Captain McLaglen believed it.

She looked around the precinct office to make doubly sure they couldn’t be overheard.

“So, what do we do now?” she asked. She tried to say it in as offhand a manner as she could, not as though she were really uncertain.

“Now we make sure we’re the ones they meet when they arrive,” said Crane. He checked his watch. “Fireson’s house is out of the city, so we’ve got some time.”

He looked over at the pegboard showing an outline of the case. It didn’t show anything about Mistretta or Deaney; only details of Gallano’s fight with the mysterious El Jefe. As far as that went, it was accurate, but it didn’t help much with their current problem.

“Here’s something I don’t get,” he said suddenly. “El Jefe’s lost about thirty people in only a couple weeks. I’m sure he’s got men to spare, but it still seems like a big price to pay just to get a new marketplace.”

Karen frowned at the board. The same thought had occurred to her, but she hadn’t wanted to mention it (thinking it might reveal her inexperience).

“I suppose all empires want to expand,” she said.

“Yeah, but he’d probably make more money just selling to Gallano rather than trying to muscle him out of his territory,” said Crane. “There’s something else going on here; something we haven’t found yet.”

Karen’s heart sank at that. There always seemed more to this case; it was like a bottomless pit.

At that point, the phone rang. Crane picked it up.

“Crane.” He listened a moment, then frowned. “May I ask why, sir?” He glanced at Karen. “I see. We’ll be right there.”

He hung up. Karen looked at him expectantly.

“Captain McLaglen,” he said. “He wants to see us. Says it’s important.”

Karen could sense there was more to it than that.

“That’s not so unusual, is it?”

Crane tapped his fingers, still frowning at her.

“You know, after almost thirty years as a cop, you develop a sense for when something’s not right. And something isn’t right about this. Why now? And why did he so specifically say he wanted me to bring you?”

A cold weight seemed to drop into Karen’s stomach. She saw what he meant, but took care not to show her unease.

“So what do we do?” she asked.

He thought for a moment.

“We go,” he said at last. “But listen carefully; if things go wrong, I want you to do exactly as I say. Understand?”

She nodded.

“Also, I think you should take this,” he said, taking the notebook containing his data on the case out of his pocket and handing it to her.

“Why?” she said.

“Just in case,” he said. “If anything goes wrong, there’s some stuff in there you might need to know.”

She accepted it and tucked it into her pocket, though she didn’t like the implications.

“All right; let’s get this over with,” he said.

Captain McLaglen was a thickset, middle-aged man whose remaining hair was salt-and-pepper grey. He was a thirty-year veteran, like Crane.

As they entered his office, they saw he wasn’t alone.

“Detective Tyzack,” said Crane, nodding. “Detective Aldrige.”

“Crane,” said Aldridge. He was tough and thick, in his mid thirties with a thick brown mustache. Tyzack was a thin, almost bony man with a gaunt, prematurely lined face and deep-set eyes.

“I assigned Tyzack and Aldrige to work an angle of the Gallano case,” McLaglen said.

“You mean my case, sir?”

“Different side of it,” said Aldrige.

“I’ll bet,” said Crane.

“They came up with some rather interesting information,” said McLaglen. “I’ll let them explain. Aldrige?”

Aldrige pulled out his notebook, cleared his throat, and read out:

“At approximately nine-twenty-two last night, Detective Tyzack and I interviewed the manager of the Kiber club on Mellon Blvd. He identified a photograph of Salvatore Puchino, a known associate of Eugenio Gallano, as a regular customer. He testified that Puchino regularly meets with a young woman, with whom he has long, hushed conversations, and to whom he has been observed passing small paper bags. The witness further testified that, to his knowledge, these bags contained sums of money.”

He paused a moment, glancing up at Karen.

“When presented with a photograph of Detective Stillwater, the witness identified her as Mr. Puchino’s regular date.”

A flood of outrage filled Karen’s chest, leaving almost no room for her to register the sense of dread that accompanied it. She struggled to maintain her composure.

“Can you explain this, detective?” asked the Captain.

“Yes,” said Karen, looking straight at Aldrige. “You’re lying.”

“I’m only repeating what the witness told me,” he said.

“Is this witness, by any chance, acquainted with a man named Antonio Mistretta?”

The two other detectives glanced first at each other, then at Captain McLaglen.

“I don’t see how that’s relevant,” said Aldrige. “Do you sir?”

“No, I don’t,” said McLaglen.

Karen looked from one to the other. She felt as though a trap were closing in on her. They were all in it: the captain too. That meant her chances of clearing her name were next to zero.

“Out of curiosity,” she said, squaring her shoulders, lifting her head, and looking straight at them. “How much is Gallano paying you? Or is Deaney the one footing the bill?”

The three men exchanged glances.

“I think that sounded like a confession to me,” said Aldrige. “What do you think?”

Tyzack nodded.

“I think so too,” said McLaglen. “How about you, Crane?”

Crane looked at the three men with an expression of utmost disgust. Then, without warning, he drew his gun so fast the others didn’t even have time to react.

“Hands up!” he snapped. “All of you. Captain, step away from the desk.”

Whatever the three dirty cops had expected of the veteran, it hadn’t been this. They stared at him in blank shock for a moment, then slowly raised their hands.

“You’re making a big mistake, Marvin,” said McLaglen.

“Funny, that’s just what I was gonna say to you, sir,” Crane answered. “In the corner. Now!”

They obeyed, keeping their hands raised and their eyes on the two honest detectives. Karen had drawn her gun as well and was aiming right at Aldrige with a hand as steady as rock, though inside her mind was whirling. How on Earth were they supposed to get out of this? They couldn’t just shoot the captain and two other detectives in the middle of the precinct.

“Karen,” Crane said in a low voice. “Get out of here.”

“What?”

“Find Fireson and all of you get somewhere safe. I’ll keep them here as long as I can to give you a head start.”

“But…” she began.

“That’s an order, detective.”

Karen remembered her promise, swallowed, and holstered her gun. There was nothing to say and nothing else to do; she left the office, closing the door on her partner, mentor, and friend.

In two minutes she was in her car and driving away from the precinct. How long did she have? Not long; ten minutes at best. People were always coming in and out of the captain’s office, and the moment someone knocked on the door or poked their heads in, that would be it. Then the chase would begin.

Her mind, as it usually did in a crisis, had become remarkably clear; she needed to stop Fireson from entering the precinct. He had almost certainly already left, but it was just possible that she might be able to contact him. First, though, she needed to look after herself.

About two blocks from the precinct there was a Lutheran church: Christ the Savior Parish. The parking lot was mostly full, as it was a Sunday morning, but there were one or two spaces left. She picked one as far from the street as she could and hurried into the church.

Services were in progress, but seemed almost over. The congregation was singing a triumphal hymn. In a corner of the lobby, she found what she had been hoping for: a clothing donation box.

With little time, she selected a black t-shirt with the logo of some band or other on it and a brown leather jacket and ducked into the restroom. It gave her a pang of conscience to steal from a church donation bin, but as she was going to be replacing the clothes with much better alternatives she thought it would be acceptable. She quickly changed in the stall, discovering the process that the shirt was a couple sizes too small for her and the jacket a few sizes too big. There was no helping that, though; she couldn’t keep trying on clothes until she found ones that fit. She adjusted her shoulder holster under the jacket and tried to make the shirt reach all the way to her belt. She also put her hair up into a ponytail, just to try to change her appearance as much as possible.

This done, she exited the rest room and joined the crowd of worshipers who were now eddying out of the church. A line of payphones stood just outside the church, and she made for these, concealed in the crowd.

In the phone booth, Karen checked Crane’s notebook for Fireson’s number and dialed. It was answered on the third ring.

“Yes?” asked a low and rather stern voice.

“Mr. Fireson?”

“Who is this?”

“This is Detective Stillwater with the LAPD. I was supposed to meet with him today. Who is this?”

“This is Liu Sho, gardener,” he said. “Mr. Fireson left some time ago.”

“That’s what I want to stop,” she said. “The precinct has been compromised and Detective Crane has been arrested. If Fireson shows up here, he and the girl will be arrested too.”

“Thank you. I shall alert him immediately,” Liu Sho answered with what Karen thought was admirable presence of mind and hung up.

That was that. Karen hung up and waited a moment, thinking. She pretended to be studying the phonebook, while surreptitiously looking back and forth along the street for anyone suspicious.

She’d wait five minutes, then call Liu Sho again to confirm he had gotten hold of Fireson. Then…she didn’t know what she would do after that. She had never considered this scenario. She was herself a fugitive, and though she knew not every policeman was corrupt, she had no way of knowing who was and who wasn’t. Besides, with the story they’d cooked up against her and with Crane holding the captain at gunpoint, even honest cops would be after her.

Unexpectedly, she thought of Breezy Windworth. He probably would know what to do. But she hadn’t seen him since he’d pulled her out of Mistretta’s hideout the other day, and she had no way of contacting him.

Perhaps, she thought, if she could head off Fireson, he might be able to help. He was rich and powerful, and probably had his own way of dealing with problems. In any case, he might have somewhere to hide.

The minutes crawled by as she dwelt on her predicament and tried to watch every passerby and every car without being obvious. She picked up the phone and pretended to be speaking for a while, just so as to appear natural. Finally, she dialed the number again.

Please say you reached them, she thought. Please say they’re on their way back now.

“Mr. Liu Sho?” she said.

“Detective? What has happened to my master?” he demanded. “I called his car phone twice. The first time, no one answered. The second, the line did not work.”

Karen felt icy fingers tapping at her heart. If they had gotten to Fireson and the girl, that would mean she was pretty much the only person in the city who knew about the conspiracy.

“I don’t know,” she answered. “I’m sorry, Mr. Liu Sho.”

She hung up, bit her lip, and tried to think. What to do now?

It seemed almost certain that the conspirators, anticipating the move, had ambushed Fireson on his way to the police station, probably about the same time they went after her and Crane. She had never met Fireson, but Crane seemed to think him a fairly capable man. Was it possible he had slipped the net, as she had? Perhaps. But if so, it was likely he was still making for the precinct, in which case he’d be walking into a trap.

Karen saw what she had to do. She didn’t like it, but that had never stopped her before.

She left the phone booth and back in the direction of the precinct. She would hang about until Fireson or the girl showed up, then hopefully be able to head them off before they went in. And if they didn’t show up…well, then she’d really be on her own.

###

            Sarah Rockford had never stolen a car before. Or rather, she had never borrowed a car from necessity before, as she hastily corrected herself. Then again, she’d never found herself dropped from a helicopter in the ocean and needing to escape quickly before the same people who had tried to kill her discovered she was still alive before.

She was angry at Fireson, less for throwing her into the ocean than for not jumping off himself. Now who knew what was going to happen to him, while she was left soaking wet and in the care of his ex-mobster valet.

“Why didn’t he come with us?” she demanded for about the third time as Benton drove the ‘borrowed’ car away from the pier where they had climbed out of the ocean.

The human refrigerator sighed.

“Like I say, he’ll have his reasons. Probably he wants to see who was behind this and thought he could do that better without worrying over you. Probably he figured one of you needs to get to the station to make your statement and you might have better luck splitting up. Probably a lot of things, but rest assured he did it mostly to keep you safe, so quit complainin’.”

Sarah had to admit he had a point, and so she lapsed into silence. After a while it occurred to her that Benton seemed to be taking a rather roundabout route to the police station: he kept turning around or taking side-streets as if he couldn’t quite remember where he was going. She then realized that he was making sure they weren’t being followed. Considering they had dropped out of a helicopter by an industrial dockyard and subsequently ‘borrowed’ a car five blocks away, she didn’t think that was too likely, but then again she still hadn’t worked out how the bad guys had found them that morning in the first place.

Finally they arrived in front of the precinct: a five-storey, white stone building set on a wide, grassy lot. Benton parked across the street, looked up and down, then got out. Sarah followed, her heart hammering. At last, they’d made it…

“Miss Rockford?”

Sarah jumped and turned to see a young woman hurrying toward them from an alleyway. She looked to be several years older than Sarah and a little more than a head taller. She had jet-black hair tied in an untidy ponytail, large dark eyes, and wore a leather jacket over a black shirt with a ‘Hee-La’ logo on it. Sarah’s keen aesthetic tastes appreciated that she was very beautiful, though in a totally different style from herself (she also couldn’t help feeling a pang of jealousy accentuated by the fact that the woman’s shirt seemed a few sizes too small).

“I am Detective Karen Stillwater; Detective Crane’s partner,” she said hurriedly in a slight but peculiar accent. “You have to come with me.”

“Why?” Sarah asked suspiciously.

“The precinct has been compromised; Crane’s been arrested.”

“He’s what?!” Sarah exclaimed.

“Keep your voice down!” Stillwater snapped. “We have to leave now.”

“Hold on, hold on,” said Sarah. “How do we know we can trust you?”

The other woman opened her mouth, but nothing came out. Apparently, she hadn’t considered this. But before she could come up with a good argument, two plain clothes detectives appeared.

“All right, Detective Stillwater, we’ll take it from here,” said the first, a burly man with a bushy brown mustache. His partner – whom Sarah thought looked as though he were recruited from the Egyptology wing of a museum – merely nodded.

The two detectives had their hands on their holsters. Stillwater’s went to hers, but she didn’t draw. Sarah took a few steps back, not sure what to make of the situation.

“That’s Detective Aldrige,” said Stillwater, still speaking to Sarah. “He and Tyzack are the ones who went to your apartment last night; they’re Gallano’s men.”

“Don’t listen to her; she’s the dirty one,” said Aldrige.

Sarah didn’t feel the slightest temptation to believe him; she’d already leaned that these two were dirty just that morning from Andre Fireson. Only trouble was, now that she knew Stillwater was telling the truth, they weren’t really in a position to follow her lead and get out of there.

“Woah, woah!” said Benton, putting up his hands and walking toward the detectives. “I think we all need to calm down a bit. I know these two gentlemen, and I’m going to take their word for it.”

Sarah didn’t understand what he was doing; he knew these cops were dirty as well as anyone. He’d been the one who had identified them in the first place when they’d come to abduct her the night before.

“I’m telling you…” said Stillwater.

“Now, listen, I think I’ve got a pretty good eye for people,” said Benton, speaking over her. “And I’m sure if we just talk about this, we can come to some kind of agreement.”

“That’s right,” said Aldrige, who seemed to think he’d found an ally. “Listen to him, Stillwater.”

All the while he’d been talking, Benton had been casually drifting closer to Aldrige and Tyzack. Now, with sudden, explosive speed, he sprang forward and his massive fists slammed first into one face, then the other. The two detectives fell like bowling pins under the two blows before they had even begun to draw their weapons, but they hadn’t even hit the ground before Benton was sprinting back towards the two stunned women.

“Best be moving, ladies,” he said, slinging himself back into the driver’s seat with surprising agility for a man of his size.

Stillwater recovered first, seized Sarah by the arm and pushing her into the back of the ‘borrowed’ car before climbing into the front seat even as it peeled away from the station. The altercation had apparently not gone unnoticed, for cops were already pouring forth from the front doors.

“Now what?” Sarah asked as they pulled away.

“First thing, we gotta lose the bacon brigade,” said Benton. “Excuse me, detective; force of habit.”

He drove fast, though not so fast as to draw attention, turning first down one street, than another. Sirens were wining behind them, but there were not cops in sight just yet.

“You’re a cop, right?” said Sarah.

“Yes, a detective,” said Stillwater.

“So, you’ve got a radio that feeds into the main cop channel, right?”

“Yes, but I switched it off…”

“Let me see it.”

“Of course not!”

“I’ve got an idea; come on!”

“Detective, give her the radio please,” said Benton.

“I can’t just give a civilian…”

“We don’t have time for that!” said Sarah. “We’re all in the same boat now, sister; just give the radio.”

With evident reluctance, Stillwater handed it to her. Sarah switched it on.

“Dispatch, tracking fleeing vehicle: grey four-door Ford, traveling south on Rothcar Avenue.”

“You need to give a call sign!” Stillwater snapped.

“This is dispatch; who is this?”

Sarah stared blankly.

“Say Adam 10,” said Stillwater.

“Dispatch, this is Adam 10,” said Sarah hastily. “Repeat, grey four-door Ford spotted heading south on Rothcar.”

“Roger, that Adam 10.”

“See?” said Sarah, switching it back off.

“Good idea,” Stillwater admitted. “Assuming they buy it.”

“So, what happened to Crane?” Sarah asked.

“Aldrige, Tyzack, and Captain McLaglen tried to frame me,” Stillwater answered. “They’re all on Gallano’s payroll. Crane drew on them and made me run for it.”

“But what’s gonna happen to him?”

“By now he’s been arrested,” said Stillwater.

“Well, we have to do something!” said Sarah.

“You think I’m not going to?” Stillwater snapped with her first serious display of feeling. “He’s my partner! But we can’t do him any good if we get caught too.”

The sirens seemed to recede. Sarah’s ruse apparently had worked. They drove on, Benton driving seemingly at random, but always away from the precinct.

“What about you?” Stillwater asked. “Where’s Fireson? And…why are you both soaked?”

“Oh, just the usual,” said Sarah. “We were on our way when a big helicopter came by and picked the car up with a magnet.”

“What?!”

“Mm-hm,” said Sarah. “Crazy, right? My readers are never gonna buy that. Anyway, we all climbed out onto the magnet just before they dropped the car into the ocean, then we saw the chopper was making for this big yacht, so Fireson pushed me off and Benton here jumped in after me. We swam to shore and borrowed a car.”

Stillwater gave a low whistle.

“Wait, this yacht; did you happen to see the name?”

Sarah shook her head. “It was too far off, why?”

“Because Mr. Gallano owns a yacht called the Fulmine. A yacht with a helipad, and word is that he’s been living there ever since someone took a shot at him last week.”

“Sounds like the place,” said Sarah, now more annoyed than ever that Fireson had gone there.

“And Mr. Fireson rode the helicopter to the yacht?”

Sarah nodded. She didn’t want to talk about that.

Stillwater breathed what sounded like a prayer under her breath.

“Don’t worry about my boss,” said Benton. “He knows what he’s doing, and he’s been in tight spots before. Besides, he’s the one who stopped Gallano from taking those bullets, so I think he’ll be alright.”

Sarah nodded vaguely, wishing she could believe that.

After a minute or too, Stillwater said, “I think we might have lost them.”

“Now where do we go?” Sarah asked.

“Back to the mansion,” said Benton. “Don’t worry; there are places there you can hide where no one’ll find you. Trust me, it’s the safest place in the city, and once the boss gets off the boat that’s where he’ll be headed.”

He pulled onto another street and started heading back in the direction of the mansion. For a moment, they drove in silence.

“Where are you from, anyway?” Sarah asked after a moment.

“Springwood,” said Stillwater.

“Where’s that?”

“Little north and east of here. Quiet little town.”

“Oh. Well, with you accent I thought maybe…”

“English father, Mexican mother,” she answered.

“Ah, that makes sense!” said Sarah. “Hope you don’t mind my asking questions; part of the job, you know.”

“I kind of do, as a matter of fact; I’m trying to think.”

“Sorry,” said Sarah. “I’ll be quiet.”

“Thank you…” said Stillwater, but at that moment all idea of quiet was shattered. Sirens suddenly blared, not just from behind, but from all sides. Two cop cars pulled into the intersection in front of them, and two more pulled in behind. All at once, they were surrounded.

Benton swore loudly, as did the two women, but he didn’t hesitate. He was an excellent driver, and as quick as thinking he whriled the wheel about, drove over the corner (narrowly missing a businessman in a brown jacket, whose briefcase went flying as he dove out of the way, spilling papers everywhere), down the wrong side of the street for a moment, then over to the right side just in time to avoid an oncoming pickup. More sirens blared, and the police came racing after him.

“How did they find us!?” Sarah exclaimed.

“I…I don’t know,” Stillwater said. “They’re not using the usual tactics. They must have…must have guessed your ruse and gone the opposite way, kept everything off until they’d found us, then…just all came at once. I’ve never seen this sort of thing before!”

Benton gunned it, barely slowing down as he went around a corner, making for more open areas, but the police had a lot more speed than he did. What’s more, rather than following all in a pack, they seemed to be splitting up and trying to cut off his escape routes.

“I hate to admit it,” said Benton. “But I don’t think I can shake them.”

The two women exchanged glances. Stillwater’s face was pale, but set and focused, as if her whole being was concentrated on their present problem. Sarah wished she felt as calm as that.

“Only one thing to do,” he went on. “If I’m not mistaken, there’s bunch of warehouses coming up where I can cut across from one road to another. There’ll be a few seconds where we’ll be out of sight, and when that happens, you two pile out and hide. Cops will keep chasing me and you can make your way back to the mansion.”

“What?!” said Stillwater.

“No!” said Sarah.

“Boss told me to keep you safe; that means outta jail, and this is the best I can do for you,” said Benton firmly. “I’ll meet you there if I can. Now get ready; it’s coming up.”

He braked hard suddenly, causing the pursuing police to do the same, then gunned it and turned into the warehouse lot. The car seemed to fly down to the end of the lot, then he turned sharply, braking as he did so.

“Now!”

Sarah didn’t stop to think or try to argue: she threw open her door and jumped out. The car was nearly at a stop, but it hurt nonetheless and she scraped her knees on the pavement. Stillwater, with her police training, rolled and landed on her feet. She grabbed Sarah by the hand as she stood up and pulled her behind a dumpster that stood next to one of the doors.

Benton didn’t hesitate a second after they had left the car, but drove on as if he hadn’t stopped, mounted the curbed and bounced into a neighboring parking lot. The pursuing police cars surged after him and did likewise, while the two women crouched behind the dumpster, pressing their bodies tight against the warm metal to try to make themselves as thin and small as possible.

The sounds of the chase quickly receded, but it wasn’t until they had waited in silence for nearly two whole minutes before they dared to speak even in a whisper.

“Do you think he can get away?” Sarah asked.

“He seems to know his business,” Stillwater admitted. “But then, so do our people.” She thought a moment. “Honestly, I don’t expect him to escape.”

Sarah slid down on the pavement, resting her back against the dumpster and her head in her hands. She felt exhausted, bewildered, and scared all at once. Stillwater sat down next to her, leaning back and staring off into space.

“It’s like everything falling apart at once,” said Sarah. “To think just yesterday I was sneaking about Deaney’s house, and now I’m a wanted fugitive.”

“You think that’s strange, I was a cop this morning,” said Stillwater.

They both laughed. It wasn’t really funny, but in their state it was either laugh or cry, and neither was willing to cry. Sarah felt, and thought Stillwater probably did too, that they needed to be strong for each other. After all, at the moment it seemed they were the only two people in the whole city who knew about the conspiracy and were relatively free to do something about it.

“Something I don’t get, Detective…”

“You can just call me Karen.”

“Alright; that’s easier. You can call me Sarah. Anyway, something I don’t get, Karen, is how did they know we were even coming to the station today? Do you think they had your phones tapped.”

“Crane and I thought of that,” said Karen. “We’ve been checking, and no, they’re not tapped. Besides, we never really thought they would do that, since it would be too hard to explain if anyone caught them.”

“Okay, then what do you think happened?”

Karen considered.

“Honestly, Sarah, I think Gallano or Deaney or whoever is really in charge just saw that it was the smartest move you could make and guessed you’d do it.”

“Like a game of chess.”

“Exactly. They anticipate what you’ll do and plan for it.”

Sarah thought about that. She didn’t like it.

“So,” she said, ticking off on her fingers. “Gallano manages the drug trade. Mistretta does dirty work for him to keep the locals in line. Deaney handles shipping and probably does some funding. And someone or other manages the whole thing according to a master strategy.”

“Possibly Deaney himself?”

“I don’t think so,” said Sarah. “I did a lot of research on him, and the guy is smart, but no genius. I think he got hit in the head too many times for that.”

“Well, we’ll work on it when we get somewhere safe,” said Karen.

“You think we can go?” asked Sarah.

They listened a moment, but only heard the sound of normal foot traffic.

“Yes,” said Karen. “But quietly.”

“I thought that would go without saying,” said Sarah, getting to her feet.

“And try not to attract attention.”

Sarah laughed.

“Karen, I hate to break it to you, but you and I walking down the street are going to attract attention.”

“What do you mean?” she said with a slight edge of defensiveness in her voice.

“Let’s just say I hope whoever this master strategist is doesn’t think to follow the whistles.”

Karen opened her mouth, then shut it again. Sarah chuckled. She was starting to like the detective; she had a straightforward sincerity and unselfconsciousness that she found refreshing.

“Never mind; you’ll find out,” she said. “Lead the way, detective!”

The two of them started down the long drive that would take them back to the street, where hopefully they would find crowds and be able to blend in until they could catch a cab or ‘borrow’ another car to take them back to the mansion.

But they never got there.

When they were About halfway down the drive, a van pulled in from the street and began driving toward them. Sarah felt a twinge of anxiety as they stepped out of the way to let it pass.

It’s only a van, she thought. Perfectly normal

But it didn’t pass. It stopped right in front of them. Karen drew her sidearm and pushed Sarah behind her, but as the back of the van opened she found herself immediately covered by two shotguns. Sarah looked back the way they had come, wondering if perhaps…

Then two more men, both armed with rifles, emerged from inside one of the warehouses, aiming at them. Sarah and Karen looked in front, then behind, then at each other.

“Check mate?” Sarah whispered.

Karen nodded and lowered her gun.

The two groups of guards converged on the women, and sooner than Sarah would have thought possible their wrists were handcuffed behind their backs and they were bundled into the back of the van.

There was a man in there waiting for them. Sarah had never seen him before, but he was compact and muscular, and his face…his face made her wince. It seemed to bristle with crudely-done stitches all down his right side, holding together a series of deep, irregular cuts. It looked as though he’d recently had his face slashed by a tiger.

Worse, Sarah felt the sudden intake of breath and rigid tension in her companion and knew that Karen recognized their captor.

“Mistretta,” she breathed in a voice that was half terror, half contempt.

Hola, chiquita,” he said, his face breaking into a terrible, lopsided grin. “I was hoping to see you again.”

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Andre Fireson in Necessary Evils

AL 2

Andre Fireson was no stranger to elegant afternoon affairs like this one. Being the President of a major arms manufacturer, he’d often had to wine and dine his way to a lucrative business deal. They could even be enjoyable at times; there were worse ways to spend an afternoon than among well-educated, successful men and beautiful women in fine clothes.

This wasn’t going to be one of those times. Today he had a very particular goal in mind. He needed to know whether his potential business partner was the monster he was rumored to be.

Once again, it came back to the looming war in Africa and his contract negotiations with the government. Things were moving, and Andre had almost locked down his deal when word broke that Magpie Holding and Shipping, his usual company for moving his product, had been implicated in the breaking Hunar Contractors scandal that was rocking the LA business community. He’d dropped them at once; Firebird Arms didn’t need any bad press right now.

Trouble was, this left him with no immediate way of moving his product around. He needed to find a new shipping company fast, and Roper Transport seemed the obvious choice. It was, after all, one of the top such companies in the Western United States, and the board was pressuring him to sign with them and be done. But Andre had heard too much about Walter Deaney to want to do business with his company. At least, not without first finding out just how much of what he’d heard was true.

So, when Deaney had invited him to come to his party that weekend to discuss their possible deal, Andre had accepted. It would give him a chance to find out just what sort of man Deaney really was.

His initial impression had been unexpectedly favorable. Deaney was about seven or eight years his senior: dark, handsome, and with a strong voice and easy manners. He had, Andre knew, been a professional fighter, and for a while they talked sport. Deaney told a good story, and he seemed affable and charismatic. His house was richly, if not tastefully, furnished, and his food and drink was excellent. Yet the longer they talked, the less Andre liked him. There was something about Deaney’s affability that rang hollow: the expression in his eyes didn’t quite match that of the rest of his face, his laughter was a little too hearty, and in any case Andre had learned to distrust anyone who tried too hard to be liked. A man of real substance, he believed, didn’t cater to the opinions of others; between two decent, honorable men, liking would occur without forcing it. Deaney was too lavish with his compliments, too hearty with his laughter. He was ‘slick’ would be how Andre would put it: as slick as an ice rink.

Andre took a moment when Deaney when to greet some people to take a turn about the garden and chat with a few of his fellow guests. He found them, as he’d expected, to be much of a piece with their host: very friendly, very eager to please, and generally empty of substance.

About an hour later he and Deaney sat down at the bar and got onto the subject of business.

“You understand, of course,” said Andre. “That you would be running extremely valuable cargo for the United States Government.”

“Naturally,” said Deaney. “I’ve handled sensitive material before, don’t you worry. My people can keep secrets.”

Andre studied him thoughtfully. Should he lay his trap now? No, not quite.

“That’s good to know. Still, with such valuable cargo, shipping carries certain dangers. Have you had any trouble with hijackers?”

Deaney sipped his drink and shook his head.

“Nope, never any trouble of that sort,” he said. “My drivers know their business. We can mark the truck as hauling something like potato chips or bowling pins and no one would know the difference.” He grinned. “We take security very seriously, Mr. Fireson.”

Andre nodded. I bet you do, he thought.

“Glad to hear that, Mr. Deaney,” he said aloud. “Now, tell me more about…”

He trailed off, for he had suddenly realized they were no longer alone at the bar. A small, very young-looking blonde girl in a white and blue patterned dress sat almost directly behind Deaney. He guessed she was about eighteen; probably the daughter of one of the guests, and most likely with no idea what she’d sat in on.

“Miss?” he said, raising his voice slightly to get her attention. “Do you mind? This is a rather private conversation.”

Deaney started a little and turned around to see whom Andre was talking to. What happened next surprised him; the girl seemed to jump and her face took on an expression as though she’d just come face-to-face with a cobra. Evidently, she knew who Deaney was.

“Sorry,” she stammered, looking from one to the other. “Excuse me.”

She took her drink and hastened away, both men watching her as she disappeared back into the crowd.

“Suppose this isn’t the best place for private conversation,” said Andre. He had an uncomfortable idea it would be best for the girl’s sake to pass the incident off as casually as possible. “Especially,” he added in a low voice. “As I want to talk to you about some potential…extra services.”

“Suppose not,” Deaney laughed. He checked his watch. “I’ll tell you what, I need to see to a few things, but when I get back, why don’t we continue this in my office upstairs?”

Andre agreed to this and Deaney went off to speak to one of the other guests. Andre sipped his glass thoughtfully. A chance to see Deaney’s private office was too good to miss. If he’d get answers anywhere, it would be there. Besides, it would be best to lay his trap where no one would overhear it.

His valet Marco Benton drifted over.

“Notice anything?” Andre asked.

“Not yet,” Marco rumbled. “Waiters are all with the catering company. Only ones working directly for Deaney are Booker and the maid.”

“Booker?”

“That guy,” said Marco, nodding at what appeared to be a slab of well-cooked beef from the buffet that had sprung to life and put on a tuxedo. “Edmund Booker. There’s a goomba if I ever saw one. If he had anything to do with this spread, I’ll eat my cookbook. Guy’s got no class; you can see just by lookin’ at him.”

“Notice anything about the other guests?”

Marco shrugged.

“Typical rich types; not real gentry like you.”

“Appreciate that,” said Andre. He thought a moment.

“You notice a girl; real short, blonde, white and blue dress?”

The big valet shook his head.

“Nope, can’t say I have.”

Andre frowned, processing what that might mean. Marco was very observant, not to mention had an eye for the ladies. If he hadn’t noticed her, that could only mean she hadn’t been here very long…

“Keep an eye out for her,” said Andre. “Might be nothing, but…you never know.”

“Sure thing, boss,” said Marco, and he retreated as Deaney returned.

“Shall we, then?” he said, gesturing at the hall with his drink.

“Please,” said Andre, picking up his own.

Deaney led the way upstairs and down the hall into a wide, well-proportioned room that would have been elegant had it been more tastefully furnished. Andre’s well-honed sensibilities recoiled at the mishmash of clashing art styles, from the deco clock on the white mantel to the Victorian desk by the window and the Edwardian sofa and chairs before the fire.

“There we go,” said Deaney as they entered. “Now we can be a bit more private.”

“Nice room,” Andre said, focusing on the structure rather than the content in order to make the words sound convincing. “Renoir?” he said, nodding at what he recognized as one of the artist’s more garish works.

“Original,” said Deaney proudly. “Got it off some art galley that went bust. That one’s a Cabanel.”

“So I see,” said Fireson, though how any man could endure having these two paintings in the same room was beyond him. He suspected that framing their price tags would have been more to the point.

“But,” he said, tearing himself from the subject with an effort. “I presume you didn’t take me up here to show me art.”

Deaney grinned approvingly.

“That’s good,” he said, gesturing at one of the armchairs. “I admire a man like you; you know what you want, you go for it. Now, you said you might be interested in some…extra services?”

Firesone sat down on the edge of the chair, looking Deaney hard in the face, trying to read him. He’d have to tread very carefully here.

“Hypothetically speaking,” he said. “Say I wanted to move my weapons to a different client, without my present client being aware of it. Say I were to order your company to take a little extra in a given shipment, deliver it to these other clients, then proceed with the standard order without recording the difference.”

Deaney leaned back on the sofa, his eyes narrowed, dangling a half-full glass in one hand. For a moment, the two men studied each other, almost fencing with their eyes, seeking weakness.

“That would be illegal,” Deaney said at last.

“So it would,” said Fireson. “Do you object to that?”

Deaney smiled slightly, and the fencing match continued for another few seconds. Then he shook his head with a careless air.

“Not at all.”

Fireson smiled and sat back in his armchair, picking up the drink he’d set down on the side table.

Got you, he thought.

“That’s out of the way, then,” he said aloud. “I’m sure you know how tricky it can be to find the right kind of help.”

“Oh, I do,” said Deaney. “And I appreciate your approach.”

But Andre was not done yet.

“One thing further I need to know,” he said. “Do you have any experience in this regard? I don’t intend to trust my reputation and my business to amateurs.”

Deaney seemed slightly taken aback and gave a laugh that was even more out of harmony with his eyes than usual.

“Amateurs?” he said. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that, Mr. Fireson. My people and I have been doing this sort of thing for a long time.”

“So you say,” said Fireson. “Anyone can talk. I never take anything on hearsay, especially a man pitching his own services.”

Deaney sipped his glass, eying Andre thoughtfully. Possibly he was trying to detect trickery, but in this case there really was none; Andre’s father had taught him that rule, and he followed it to the letter in all his dealings.

“Fair enough,” said Deaney, setting down his glass. “Let me show you something.”

He got up and went to the Renoir painting. Andre guessed what this meant, and sure enough, a moment later Deaney had swung the picture away from the wall to reveal a safe behind it. He turned the dial a few times (taking care to position himself between it and Andre), then opened the door. Inside Andre had a glance of several neatly arranged folders containing numerous documents, but Deaney ignored these and instead took out a small, black ledger. He shut the safe door and led Andre back to his desk, where he laid it flat and opened to a certain page.

“Take a look at that,” he said. “But don’t touch.”

Andre bent over the ledger (vaguely aware of a faint smell of oranges as he did so), and studied it. It was a record of shipments made over the past month; shipments where the contents were written in code and the locations were all to or from Mexico. Two entries were marked ‘lost’ and accompanied by the letters ‘EJ’ followed by a question mark.

It was obvious to Andre that he was looking at the record of a smuggling operation, and to judge by the numbers, a very successful one.

“Hm,” he said. “Impressive. And you’ve been doing this how long?”

“Several years,” Deaney answered.

“Never been caught?”

“Never caught,” said Deaney with a satisfied expression. “The cops have had their suspicions, but they haven’t been able to land anything one me. I’m pretty good at covering my tracks.”

“So I see,” said Andre, trying not to look at the ledger as he spoke. Deaney closed the little book and returned it to the safe. Andre followed him, the beginnings of an idea – reckless, but not unworkable – rising in his brain.

“Well, Mr. Deaney, you certainly know how to run a business,” he said aloud. “I’ll run it by my board, but I think I can safely say that we have a deal.”

He held out his hand and Deaney shook it. Andre registered the faintly triumphal look on his face, and the fact that his hand felt as thought it were made of steel wires. He made a mental note to wash his own hand very thoroughly.

“Glad we could come to an agreement,” said Deaney. “Shall we return?”

Andre picked up his glass and followed Deaney out of the office and back down to the party. As he went, he worked out his plan in his mind.

When they entered the living room, Deaney excused himself and went out onto the patio to speak with his other guests. Andre waited until he was sure he was out of sight, then drained his glass and set it aside.

“If anyone asks,” he told Marco (who had dutifully appeared at his side the moment he returned). “I’m in the bathroom.”

“Got it.”

He slipped back out of the living room and into the hall, then up the stairs as silently as he could and back to the office. He guessed he could count on maybe five or ten minutes before he was missed; hopefully that would give him time to get into that safe and get that ledger.

When he opened the door to the office, however, he found that the safe was occupied.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he said, louder than he had intended in his surprise.

The girl jumped back from the safe with a small shriek of alarm. He pulled the door shut behind him; whoever she was, he didn’t want anyone to hear them.

It was the same girl who had been at the bar: bright blonde hair, wide hazel eyes, and barely clearing five feet. She seemed momentarily struck dumb by his appearance and only stared at him with evident fear.

Andre looked at the safe. It was still shut. She had obviously had the same idea he had…only what was she even doing here? More importantly, how much, if any, of the recent conversation had she overheard?

“Who the hell are you?” he asked.

She swallowed and seemed to gather her courage.

“I…I’m a cop,” she said. “And my superiors know where I am.”

This was such a patently desperate maneuver that he didn’t even bother contradicting it.

“How long have you been in here?” he asked.

She squared her small shoulders and gave him a defiant look.

“Long enough to hear some very interesting things, Mr. Fireson,” she said.

So she’d heard it all. She’d been spying on them. That might be awkward for him. But more importantly, if she was spying on Walter Deaney, and if things like her gambit at the bar were her idea of subtlety…

“You’re not a cop,” he said bluntly, still working things out in his mind. “And I don’t think anyone knows your here.”

“That’s all you know,” she said, unable to keep a faint tremor out of her voice.

“You’re right: I do know that,” he said. “If you never left this house,” he went on, thinking aloud. “I don’t think anyone would come looking for you.”

The girl licked her lips nervously. He’d frightened her. Well, good; better scare her off now than have her keep snooping around until an actual crook found her. Andre looked at her, then about the room. He made up his mind and started toward her.

“Stay back!” she said, retreating.

“Shut up,” he snapped. “You’re getting out of here right now.”

“I…what?” she said, apparently confused. This gave him the chance to close in and seize her by the arm; not too hard, but hard enough to ensure she wouldn’t wriggle away. As he did so he caught that same scent of oranges, recalled smelling it by the curtains, and understood where she’d been hiding.

“You are going to walk out with me,” he said in his commanding voice that very few people ever disobeyed. “We are going out the front door, to the gate, and you are going to leave and I am never going to catch you around here again. Understand?”

She blinked, evidently confused that he didn’t mean to murder her on the spot.

“That’s it?” she said. “You’re just gonna let me go?”

“Let you go?” he said, tugging her after him as he started for the door. “No, I’m going to make you go.”

He marched her out into the hall and down the stairs. Andre caught Marco’s eye as they entered the hall and he motioned for him to follow. At the front door they encountered a few other guests.

“Gate crasher,” Andre muttered. “She’s just leaving.”

The girl didn’t struggle and didn’t protest. She accompanied him to the gate without making any kind of a fuss, though Andre could feel the tension in her body as they went. He guessed she still didn’t quite believe he was going to let her go unharmed.

He jammed the switch to open the gate. As it creaked open, he looked around to make sure they couldn’t be overheard, then lowered his face to her ear.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing here,” he said. “But you have no idea what you are dealing with. Stay away from this if you value you life.”

With that, he pushed her through the gate. A little harder than he had meant: she nearly fell on her rear. As she recovered, he jammed the switch again and the gate slid shut.

The girl turned and fixed him with a furious, hateful glare from the other side of the bars. Strangely enough, it wasn’t until that moment that Andre realized that she was beautiful. It seemed to him as though he had never seen a lovelier girl in all his life than the one who stood glaring vindictively at him through the bars.

A moment later, she turned and disappeared down the street. Andre felt strangely dissatisfied with himself as he turned back to the house. Marco had joined him surreptitiously. For such a big man, he had mastered the art of moving quietly.

“Follow her,” Andre ordered. “I want to know who she is.”

Marco nodded, opened the gate just enough to slip his bulk through, and disappeared. Andre stood for a moment, frowning in thought, then turned back to the house

He didn’t feel like going back to the party, and as he’d already gotten what he’d come for there didn’t seem much reason to stick around anyway. So instead he strolled along the path leading around to the garden, looking over the flowerbeds.

The path led him around the corner of the house, away from the direction of the patio and the main party going on in the living room. Things were quieter here; the noise of the party was reduced to a kind of dull hum. He was able to think.

There’d be no going back to the safe today, and probably no more chance for him at all. But there might be ways of getting around that; he had money, and he connections, and the man who had both very rarely found an insurmountable obstacle. In any case, he’d escaped the shame of having his family company linked with the likes of Deaney…at least, assuming the girl didn’t spread the word around, though he supposed he could deal with her one way or another. Bringing Deaney to justice might have to be another man’s task. Perhaps he’d get in touch with Detective Crane and inform him of what he’d learned.

As Andre was musing on all of this and admiring Deaney’s flowers (the man kept a good garden, he had to admit), he suddenly became aware of voices coming from the house. This wasn’t the hum of indistinct music and talk coming from the party; these voices were much closer, low, and serious. Among them he recognized Deaney’s own.

They were coming from a half-open window leading into one of the smaller ground floor rooms. Andre slipped closer to try to hear, blessing the softness of the soil about the flowers that masked the sound of his movement. He stood against the wall beside the window, listening.

“Sure, I noticed her,” Deaney was saying. “Good-looking, fun-sized blonde. Guess she was a gate crasher. What about it?”

The other man hesitated before answering.

“Did you happen to notice what she did while she was here?”

“Not especially,” said Deaney. “Got herself a drink at the bar while I was talking to his lordship, until he shooed her away.”

“Ah,” said the other man. “I see. And you didn’t notice her anywhere else?”

“No, not until he dragged her out of the house. Why?”

“Because I did,” said the other. “I had a nice view of the windows on that side of the house, and I looked up and saw that same girl hiding behind the curtains in your office.”

There was a pause.

“When was this?”

“You figure it out,” said the other dryly.

Deaney swore aloud.

“Did you get her name?”

“She said it was ‘Linda Mitchell,’” said the other. “But she was lying. She’s a good liar, but not good enough. Still, I don’t suppose she’ll be hard to track down.”

“I’ll take care of it,” said Deaney. “I’ll talk to our people in the police; have them pick her up, then we dump her in the ocean.”

“You’d better find out just how much she knows first,” said the other. “I really would rather not have any more surprises just now.

“Right, right,” said Deaney. “Instead of the ocean I’ll have them take her to Mistretta, let him play with her for a bit, see what shakes out. It’ll give him a chance to redeem himself.”

“Very good; I will leave it in your capable hands, then,” said the other. “Only next time, be sure to check behind the curtains.”

Andre stepped away from the window, carefully knocked the dirt off his shoes, then headed quickly back toward the front door. As he did, he met Benton waiting for him.

“Tell me you found something,” he said.

“Drove off,” said Benton. “Got her plate, though.”

“Good,” said Andre. “Because we need to find her. Now.”

###

It was later than Andre would have liked when Benton finally parked the big black sedan around the corner from the run-down apartment building.

“Are you sure this is the place?” Andre asked.

“According to my friends, this is where she lives.”

Among his many other qualities, Benton had a seemingly endless series of contacts, ranging from associates of his days cracking heads for the mob to city clerks, bankers, and tradespeople. Whatever the job, he knew someone who could make it happen. Tracking down the girl had been a simple matter of passing a few bills around the county records office, which had revealed that ‘Linda Mitchell’ was in fact a freelance reporter by the name of Sarah Rockford. In fact, that she had been the very one who broke the Hunar Contractors scandal and so created this whole mess in the first place. If nothing else, the girl certainly had courage.

Andre was a little surprised at the place. He knew she had been playing a part that afternoon, yet it still seemed strange that the beautiful, elegant young woman he’d thrown out of Deaney’s party should live in what he could only describe as a dump.

“Wait here,” he said. “Keep the engine running. Cops show up, try to stall them.”

“I don’t think I have to wait,” said Benton darkly, nodding as another dark sedan pulling up in front of the building.

Andre swore. Going in the front was no longer an option, not unless he meant to knock out two cops. Even if he knew they were dirty that wouldn’t help him much; he didn’t know how far up the scale the corruption went. In any case, if he gave the police a reason to come after him, that would also give them a shot at the girl.

Only one choice now.

“Stall them,” he said. “But don’t engage.”

He slipped out the back of the car and went around the back of the building while Benton got out and made straight for the two plainclothes detectives making for the front door.

The building was about five stories high, and according to the address they’d found, Rockford lived on the third floor. It was one of those old brick buildings that came with a metal fire escape that led down into the alley behind it. From the ground the only way to access the fire escape was a sliding ladder currently raised some ten feet off the pavement.

Andre quickly surveyed the layout, then took a running leap at the alley wall, jumped off, and just caught the lowest rung of the ladder with his outstretched hand. It clanked in what seemed a dangerously loud way.

Though he was a rather short man – only five-foot-five – Andre had worked hard to build an extremely powerful body, and he easily hoisted himself up the ladder to the first platform. He then lowered the ladder before continuing: he had a feeling they would need to get away quickly.

Trying to move as quietly as he could on the rickety metal structure, Andre ascended to the third floor, where he started looking surreptitiously through the windows, hoping against hope that the girl would be in one of them so that he didn’t have to invade more than one apartment tonight.

Andre didn’t believe in luck, which is perhaps why he seemed to have an unusual amount of it. In the fourth window on the third floor, he found her. The room was tiny and cramped, piled high with papers, books, and assorted debris. Rockford had changed out of her dress and was now wearing pale blue pajamas. She was sitting on a kind of combination couch and bed, a notebook in hand, chewing thoughtfully on a pen.

Time was rapidly running out; the police would be at her door at any minute. Yet still Andre hesitated, watching her. Partly, this was because he suddenly realized he had no idea how he was going to approach her; his original plan had simply been to knock on her door and talk to her. However, the fact that he was now obliged to enter through the window made that much less practical, as did the fact that they were on a strict time limit. At the same time, if he tried to enter now, she’d scream and probably try to run…ending up right in the arms of the corrupt cops.

Many years of brutal financial negotiations and hard study had left Andre with a keen strategic mind, and it didn’t take him long to concoct a plan: a risky one, and not likely to endear him to the girl, but one that seemed most likely to succeed. Still watching Rockford from the window (which was partly open to let in a breeze), Andre slipped a hand into his pocket and quickly began to prepare what Benton had euphemistically referred to as “Plan B.”

He had no sooner finished than there was a knock on Rockford’s door.

“Sarah Rockford? LAPD.”

Rockford looked up with a surprised expression, set her notebook aside, and rose to answer the door.

As soon as she turned her face to the door, Andre threw the window open wide (thankfully it didn’t stick) and slipped in behind her. A second later, he had seized her about the middle and clapped the chloroform-soaked rag over her mouth.

She immediately screamed into the cloth and began thrashing and fighting as savagely as a badger that’s been caught in a snare. Her foot kicked sharply up and back, and her elbow jammed into his stomach, but Andre knew how to fight and how to grapple: he kept his knees turned in to deflect the kick and Rockford wasn’t strong enough to do any damage to his muscular abdomen. He held tight to her, gripping her left wrist in his right hand so that his arm encircled her slender body, pinning her right arm to her side and using his greater bulk to hold her in place as much as possible as she kicked and squirmed helplessly.

In any case, the chloroform very quickly took its toll. After a few seconds’ furious and futile fighting, Rockford’s movements became sluggish, and finally she slumped limp and unconscious in his arms.

The police were hammering on the door now, shouting for her to let them in. Andre stuffed the rag back into his pocket and carried the unconscious girl back through the window, which he pushed shut behind them. He slung her over his shoulder – it was a good thing she was so small – and carried her as quickly as he could down the fire escape, which rattled audibly under his tread.

There was a distant crashing sound as the police broke down the door. Andre descended the ladder one-handed, then dropped the last four feet and ran for it just as a voice from overhead shouted, “Stop! Police!”

Andre was around the corner in an instant, where Benton waited in the idling car. He threw the unconscious girl into the back seat then climbed in after her, and Benton was off before he’d even closed the door.

“Close one, boss,” said Benton.

“Too close,” Andre agreed. He threw a blanket over the small, huddled form on the floor, just to make sure no one looked in and saw her. He felt strangely guilty as he did so. Though he’d done it to save her life, and he hadn’t had much choice in any case, it wasn’t pleasant to think that he’d attacked, knocked out, and kidnapped an innocent girl. That was going to be difficult to explain.

Benton chuckled from the driver’s seat.

“What’s so funny?” Andre asked in a sharp voice.

“Oh, nothing,” he said. “I was just thinking of what she’s gonna say when she wakes up.”

Andre sighed and rubbed his temple, feeling suddenly tired.

“It’d be more helpful if you’d think of what I’m going to say,” he answered. “Because I sure as hell don’t know.”