Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Andre Fireson and Sarah Rockford in ‘A Snare of Attraction’

AL+VL 2            Sarah Rockford returned to consciousness with a throbbing headache and a very dim recollection of what had happened the night before. She sat up, rubbing her head and trying to figure out where she was. It obviously wasn’t her own apartment; her whole place probably could have fit in the bed alone, and besides, this room was much too fancy.  The bed on which she lay had very soft, silken sheets of an exquisite pattern. Elegant, dark wood furniture filled the room, and there was a large, curtained window covering most of one wall.

She remembered being at Walter Deaney’s party yesterday afternoon…had she passed out there somehow? No, she remembered leaving. Or rather, being forcefully ejected by one of Deaney’s partners in crime. The memory of that made her angry, which caused her head to throb harder, but also brought back more of the night before. She’d gone home, changed, written down her notes, had dinner, and had been working on compiling a usable story when…

Sarah remembered everything at once: the knock on the door, the attack from behind, the sweet, sickly smell of chloroform. She threw off the covers and leapt out of bed as if she expected it to trap her. For a moment she stood in the middle of the room, trembling a little, trying to think.

She’d been kidnapped; that much was clear. By whom? Probably one of Deaney’s people. Had they brought her back to his house? She went to the window and pulled back the curtains to reveal a spectacular view of the Los Angeles skyline. Deaney’s house was surrounded by trees and a wall; this definitely wasn’t Deaney’s house.

Then where? And, come to think of it, if she had been kidnapped, why hadn’t they restrained her in any way?

Hubris, she decided. Or perhaps they didn’t think they needed to.

She went half-heartedly to the door, which of course would be locked. Except it wasn’t. More and more confused, she pushed it gently open, expecting to find a sentry or something, but the hall was deserted.

Deciding not to look a gift horse in the mouth, and resolving not to be lured into complacency, she slipped along the passage in her bare feet, moving as silent as a beam of light, her ears straining to hear any sound that might indicate pursuit or ambush.

The upstairs hall ended in a glorious double staircase under a gorgeous chandelier. Tense and frightened as she was, Sarah couldn’t help admiring the décor. The walls were richly paneled and hung with paintings; all of a classical school. Most showed scenes of battle and heroism, but a few were portraits. They were so lovely and so interesting that she wished she could have had time to examine them properly. But while escaping from people who’ve drugged and abducted you is really no time for art appreciation.

She padded down the steps, uncomfortably aware of how exposed to view she was on the stairs. If anyone entered the hall, they’d see her at once. At the bottom, three corridors led off in different directions, while another staircase led down. Since Sarah didn’t know where to go, she selected the corridor leading directly away from the staircase on the idea that it might lead to a door.

In this, it transpired, she was right. The corridor led to a kind of conservatory, which led out onto a glorious patio centered on a circular pond surrounded by lush garden. The flowers and exotic plants were spectacular, and so placed as to create the impression that they grew from the building itself. Again she wished dearly that she could have paused and admired them. Whoever had abducted her, she thought, at least had excellent aesthetic tastes.

Yet, at the same time, she wondered again why she had been left alone. She began to mistrust her run of good luck; surely it wasn’t natural for anyone to be this careless? The fear she had felt upon realizing that she had been abducted did not diminish upon finding herself apparently alone in the house. On the contrary, the longer she went without seeing any kind of guard, the more nervous she became. She felt as though she were being led on, lured into a trap. Yet there was nothing to be done but to keep going; to let herself be drawn on to her doom.

Sarah shook herself; thinking like that wouldn’t help. She slipped out into the garden, and the glorious smell of flowers and fruit was all around her. The pond was lined with lilies, and there was even a very lifelike model of an alligator lying beside it to give the impression of a real tropical pool. And on the far side of the garden, under the limbs of what appeared to be a peach tree, she saw a gate.

Sarah hurried forward eagerly, hoping to be through and gone before anyone noticed. But when she reached the gate, she found that it was chained and padlocked. She looked about, but the fence was too high to climb and none of the trees in the garden were tall enough to get over it (and even if they were, she’d only break her leg trying to get down on the other side).

Heart hammering, sure that someone must have noticed her efforts to escape by now, Sarah turned to go back to the house and try to find another way out. It was at this point that she made a most unwelcome discovery; the alligator by the pond was not a model after all, but a living, breathing reptile. It had stood up on its four stubby legs and was walking toward her, mouth half open, green, slitted eyes fixed on her.

###

            “Morning, detective,” said Andre. He had slept little the night before, expecting every minute for either the police or the mob to come knocking at his door. He, his man Benton, and Liu Sho, the gardener, had sat up most of the night with rifles in hand just in case it came to a fight. But no one had come so far, and Andre wondered whether he dared to hope the two crooked detectives hadn’t been able to identify him as he ran off carrying their unconscious would-be victim to his car.

“Mr. Fireson. To what do I owe this early pleasure?” Detective Crane groaned.

“I had a idea that a warrant might be issued for my arrest,” said Andre.

That seemed to make him sit up.

“Is that right?”

“Yes, you see, I kidnapped someone last night.”

There was a pause.

“Is this a confession?”

“Not exactly. I only did it because two of your people were on the way to do much worse. See, I was at a shindig being thrown by Walter Deaney yesterday for reasons of my own and I happened to run into this girl…”

“Short, blonde, and much too confident for her own good?”

“You know her then.”

“Unfortunately yes,” growled Crane. “And I explicitly told her not to mess around with Deaney.”

“Well, she didn’t listen to you.”

“Is she…?”

“She’s safe,” said Andre. “She’s the one I kidnapped.”

There was a pause.

“I’m going to assume there is a way that will make sense.”

“Deaney figured out what she was up to and sent some people to get her, so I had to get her fast. There was no time to explain, so I just chloroformed her and threw her in my car.”

Crane gave a low whistle.

“I appreciate your looking out for the kid,” he said. “She has a tendency to get herself in over her head.”

“So I’ve noticed,” said Andre. “Something you should know, though; the men Deaney sent after her were cops.”

“Cops?”

“Plainclothes detectives. I happened to hear him making the plan; orders were to take her to someone named Mistretta, and…”

“What did you say?”

“I said Deaney ordered two cops to take her to Mistretta.”

Crane swore.

“So Deaney’s mixed up in it too,” he muttered.

“Mixed up in what?”

“Never mind,” said Crane. “Can’t tell you now. Look, who were the two cops? Did you get their names?”

“Benton’s the one who saw them,” said Andre, but at that point he heard a piercing scream from the patio.

“And I’ll let him tell you,” he said. “Sounds like my guest is up.”

He handed the phone off to Benton and hurried out to the patio. Liu Sho followed him, rifle in hand, no doubt to ensure his beloved flowers were safe. They came out of the conservatory, saw the scene before them, and both exploded into laughter. Sarah Rockford was crouched precariously on one of the higher branches of the peach tree while a large alligator stood below, looking up curiously at the stranger who had wandered into his domain.

“Good morning, Miss Rockford,” Andre called. “I see you’ve met Richelieu.”

He walked up to the gator and patted his flank affectionately. The girl was too frightened, too confused, and too angry to answer right away. She just clung to the tree branch, giving him the most withering glare she could manage from her position.

“Don’t worry; he’s mostly harmless,” said Andre. “I think you just surprised him is all.” He patted the alligator behind the head and the beast shut its eyes contentedly. “Would you like some breakfast?”

“Are you asking me or him?” she asked, nodding at the alligator.

Andre laughed.

“Both.”

About fifteen minutes later, the two of them were sitting opposite each other at the table on the upstairs balcony. Benton, after finishing his conversation with Detective Crane, had produced mouth-watering omelets with his usual infallible skill, while Sarah had been given a chance to change into spare clothes that had once belonged to Andre’s mother. The dark blue frock might have been rather out of date, fashion wise, and was a bit large for Sarah, necessitating the use of safety pins to keep it in place, but he thought the color suited her very well.

She sat rigid and suspicious as Benton brought the food out to them, not even touching the steaming mug of perfectly prepared coffee even as Andre sipped his gratefully.

“As I said,” he began. “I can explain everything.”

“You drugged and kidnapped me,” she said. “How do you explain that?”

“Listen and you’ll find out,” he said. “But if you’re thinking I brought you here just to poison you, you’re mistaken. Besides, Benton’s cooking is worth being poisoned over.”

She glared at him, then, as though with reluctance, picked up the coffee and sipped it. Her expression changed at once.

“Oh, I see what you mean!” she exclaimed.

Andre smiled.

“Benton is one of the most gifted chefs I’ve ever met,” he said. “You wouldn’t think it to look at him, would you? He used to crack heads for the mob.”

“And now he cracks heads for you?” she asked, taking a forkful of omelet and gasping with delight as she tasted it.

“Sometimes,” Andre said. “But I’m not a criminal, Miss Rockford.”

“Then I suppose that was your twin brother I heard conniving with Deaney yesterday?”

“I was lying to him,” he said. “Pretending to be crooked in order to find out how crooked he was. I find it’s a useful tactic for straining the scum from my pool. My company, Miss Rockford, is bound up with my family name, and I will not have that associated with any kind of low or criminal activity. We had everything stolen from us once; that is not going to happen again.”

She looked at him with some surprise. Evidently his earnestness surprised her.

“So how did you catch me at the safe?” she said.

“I meant to crack it and get the ledger myself so that I could turn Deaney over to the police,” he said. “Same as you, I’d guess. By the way do you even know how to crack a safe?”

“I know the theory,” she said.

“I know the theory of an atom bomb; doesn’t mean I can make one,” he answered.

“Okay,” she said after a few moment’s consideration. “I’ll admit that your story would explain a lot of things I wondered about, like why you threw me out instead of…of doing anything else. But then why kidnap me?”

“Because Deaney was onto you,” said Andre. “One of his people saw you from the backyard. You were standing in the window, remember.”

“Oh!” she said with a shocked expression. “I didn’t think of that.”

“No, I guessed you didn’t,” he said. “So he sent some of his dirty cops over, and they were going to take you away to torture and murder you. Since I didn’t have time to explain all this last night, I just knocked you out and took you home.”

Sarah looked at him with an odd, far away expression as she absorbed all of this.

“I see,” she said. “Then I guess I should thank you, shouldn’t I? But…just so we’re clear, you’re not going to torture and murder me or anything, are you?”

He smiled.

“Probably not,” he said. “But we’ll see.”

She smiled, a little uncertainly, and they resumed eating.

“I hope you slept well,” he said by way of turning the conversation to more general matters.

“Yes, I always sleep well when I’ve been chloroformed,” she said.

“Benton’s done his share of abductions,” said Andre. “He suggests that I might have overdone the dose slightly. My apologies.”

“I’m sure you’ll get it right next time.”

The conversation then turned to the house, and she asked about the paintings and the garden, and this carried them through the rest of breakfast. After they’d finished, however, they resumed discussion of the day before, and Sarah told him her side of the story, while Andre filled her in on some other details, including the whole conversation he’d overhead between Deaney and his associate.

“That was probably Mr. Cummings,” she said. “He’s the only one I really spoke to, and the only one I told my cover name.”

“So, there’s Deaney and Cummings,” said Andre. “Then Mistretta, whoever that is, those cops…what were their names, Benton?”

“Detectives Tyzack and Aldrige,” he answered.

“A nice little conspiracy,” said Sarah. “’Noted businessman and mathematics professor head smuggling ring.’ Probably have to punch that up, but it’ll make one heck of a story.”

“Detective Crane seems to think it’s all part of something he’s working on,” said Andre.

“You know Detective Crane?” she said in surprise.

“We’ve met,” said Andre. “He was glad to hear you’re safe.”

“That was sweet of him,” she said. “He was pretty adamant about my not going after Deaney.”

“And he was right; you nearly got killed.”

“’Nearly’ is the important word,” she said. “Still here.”

He frowned at her.

“Your story on Hunar Contractors said one of them tried to bury you alive in concrete. That actually happen, or was it just to spice up the story?”

“No, it really happened,” she said. “Didn’t have to embellish it at all; it really was that close.”

She spoke lightly, but her tone didn’t quite match her eyes, or the way she fingered her fork nervously.

“So, you’ve almost been killed twice in, what, the past week or two?”

“Pretty much,” she said. “But, like I say, I’m still here.”

Andre looked at her. He felt a curious pain about the region of his chest. Sarah had turned her head to watch where Liu Sho was tossing bits of meat to Richelieu in the garden below. Andre was struck again by how lovely she was, and how young she seemed. Though only twenty-six himself, he often felt older than he was, what with running a company and carrying the responsibility for his family name. He now felt responsible for the girl across from him, almost as if she were his daughter…no, not like that. Not like that at all.

“The question is,” he said, trying to shake off the feeling. “How do we keep it that way?”

“We catch Deaney,” she said. “Break up the conspiracy.”

“I was thinking of a more immediate solution,” he said. “Why does Deaney want you dead?”

She looked at him in surprise.

“You know that as well as I do,” she said. “I heard him talking to you and sharing all his dirty little secrets.”

“Right,” said Andre. “He wants to kill you before you share what you know with anyone who might do something about it, and he wants to find out just how much you do know. So it seems to me the way to stop him would be to just tell what you know.”

“You mean, go public?”

“No, I mean tell the police. Once they have our statements, the damage will be done and Deaney and his crew will be too busy dodging the cops to want to go after you.”

“Except you said the cops are working for him.”

“Not all of them,” said Andre. “Crane certainly isn’t. We may not know how many of the cops are dirty, but he can’t own the whole department.”

Sarah nodded.

“That might work,” she said. “Especially if we could swear it out to Crane.”

Andre called for Benton to bring the phone, and the valet appeared at once. Andre dialed the detective’s number. Crane must have been expecting a return call, for he answered on the first ring.

“It’s me again, detective,” said Andre.

“Been expecting you,” he said. “Tyzack and Aldrige haven’t said a word about what happened last night; didn’t even put in a report. You haven’t had any visitors this morning?”

“No.”

“Hmm, that’s odd,” said Crane. “I can’t believe you gave them the slip this easily. They must mean to get at you somehow, but I just don’t see…”

“We were just thinking about that,” said Andre. “Listen, the reason they want Sarah dead is that that she’s a witness to Deaney’s corruption. So am I. But if we swear out a statement at once, damage will be done and they’ll have no reason to go after us.”

“That’s probably your best bet, short of actually putting them in jail,” Crane agreed. “We’re at the station now; how fast can you get here?”

“We’re leaving right now,” said Andre, nodding to Sarah who was already standing up and draining the last of her coffee.

“Watch yourselves,” said Crane. “These guys are smart. They might be waiting for you.”

“They’ll be sorry if they do,” said Andre.

A few minutes later, Andre and Sarah were in the backseat of his sedan as Benton drove out of the gate surrounding the mansion.

“Can you handle a gun?” Andre asked, opening a hidden compartment under the floor to reveal two rifles and four handguns.

Sarah whistled.

“Sure,” she said, accepting a small automatic, checking the magazine, and racking the slide. “What do you do; run guns?”

“Of course not,” he said rather sharply as he closed the lid so that it blended perfectly with the carpet. “But I do make them and there’s no sense in making guns if you don’t have them handy. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to tangle with some nasty people. Car’s modified too; it’ll stand up to most things, at least long enough for us to get out.”

Sarah nodded, getting the gist of what he meant.

“You think they’ll try to ambush us on the way?”

“I think we’d be stupid not to expect it,” he answered.

They drove out of the hills and down in the direction of the precinct. It was a Sunday and traffic was comparatively light. Even so there were a good number of cars on the road. Andre and Sarah eyed each of them suspiciously as they passed, watching to see if they made any strange moves.

“So how did you get into the arms dealing trade?” Sarah asked.

“Family business,” he answered. “My father started it after coming back from World War II: made custom hunting rifles out of a workshop, built it up from there.”

“Now you make guns for the military.”

“Partly,” he said. “We mostly target the civilian market, but with the African situation we’re looking to cut a deal with the government.”

“Does it bother you at all, making weapons? I mean, the morality of it.”

He frowned at her suspiciously.

“Just journalistic instincts,” she said. “Have to ask that kind of thing because the readers would want to ask it.”

“No, it doesn’t,” he said. “Because at the end of the day all law, all convention, all civilization in fact comes down to the use of force. I think it’s as honest a job as any to try to ensure the right side has the power to back itself up when it comes to the point.”

She looked at him with admiration.

“That’s a good answer,” she said. “I actually would like to do a story on you sometime.”

He chuckled.

“I appreciate that. Now let me ask you something; you’re, what, eighteen? Nineteen?”

“I’m twenty,” she said a little defensively. “Almost twenty-one.”

“Well, even so, how’d a girl like you end up chasing down stories like this?”

She sighed and gave a little shrug of her shoulders.

“Just trying to survive.”

Andre looked at her, and as he did so he noticed a large semi truck pulling alongside them in the right hand lane, and another pulling up in front of them.

“All things considered,” he said, drawing his own pistol. “I think you might be in the wrong line of business.”

Sarah swallowed and tightened her grip on her gun.

“Benton,” Andre said.

“Sorry, boss,” he said. “Came up too fast…”

All at once, they found themselves boxed in by three large trucks; one in front, one behind, one to the right. On their left was a guardrail and a drop down a steep incline.

“We’ll be coming up on smoother ground soon,” said Benton. “I’ll peel off there. Don’t think they’ll expect us to go off road.”

Andre, however, suspected they wouldn’t be allowed to get that far.

“In the meantime,” he said. “We’re not going to play around.”

He rolled down the window, leaned out, and began shooting at the tries of the rear truck. He got off three shots before he realized that there was another vehicle in play. A large helicopter was swooping low over them, something large and circular dangling from beneath.

The truck’s tire blew out under the assault of bullets and the driver had to pull sharply to the right to avoid going off the edge of the road.

“Clear behind!” Andre shouted.

But it was already too late.

The helicopter swung overhead, and the device dangling from its belly snapped onto the roof of the sedan with a bang as loud as the gunshots. It was a giant electro-magnet.

A moment later, the sedan and its passengers were lifted clear off the roadway and into the sky.

Sarah screamed. Andre and Benton both swore. The helicopter swung around, sending the car’s occupants tumbling about, and headed for the ocean.

“They’re gonna dump us!” Benton shouted.

“Well, there’s gotta be something we can do!” Sarah said.

Andre looked around, thinking. It looked bad; there was no way to detach the car, and even if they did it would just crash against the ground below. They couldn’t reach the helicopter from here; they were at the end of a twenty-foot cable. They had absolutely no control over the situation.

Like rats in a trap, he thought bitterly.

He turned to Sarah, who seemed to be reaching the same conclusion. Her face was pale and frightened, and her breathing was coming quick. Once they were out over the ocean, they were doomed. The car would be dropped, they would ride it down, down to shatter upon impact, either killed outright or knocked unconscious to drown inside the broken vehicle…

Then Andre had his inspiration.

“Out of the car,” he ordered, holstering his gun.

“What?” said Sarah.

“Climb onto the roof,” he said. “Onto the magnet.”

“Oh, I see what you mean, boss,” said Benton enthusiastically as he rolled down his own window.

Andre stuck his head out the window and found a precarious handhold where the roof of the car met the rear window. He pulled himself gingerly up, holding tight against the wind, braced a foot against the window base, then began straightening himself, reaching for the great hook connecting the magnet to the cable. It was almost in reach.

The car shuddered as they hit a burst of air turbulence and he was nearly thrown free. But as he bounced up he made a snatch for the cable and caught it. It was greasy and the metal scratched his palm, but he held tight and pulled himself up onto the magnet itself.

Toward the front of the car, Benton was heaving his huge bulk out of the driver’s seat and reaching for the magnet. Andre caught his outstretched hand, braced himself against the cable, and strained to pull his massive valet up out of the car. Between his own strength and Benton’s the huge man soon sat alongside him on the magnet, gripping tight to the wire.

Meanwhile, the coastline zipped past below them. They were over open water now. Any second the car would drop.

Sarah poked her head out of the window, her blonde hair whipping about her face.

“Come on!” Andre shouted. “You can do it!”

She reached as far as she could, got a grip on the back of the car, and stood on the window base, then reached for Andre’s outstretched hand. They were almost touching.

Then the car dropped.

Sarah sprang clear just as it fell. For one terrible second she hung suspended in mid air, arm outstretched, hair flying, her mouth open in a disbelieving scream. Then Andre, reaching as far as he could, seized her arm in an iron grip. It was a lucky thing that she was so light. There was a painful jerk on both their shoulders, but she didn’t fall. Sarah seized Andre’s hand in both of hers and hung precariously beneath the magnet, while two hundred feet below the sedan hit the water with a terrible splash.

“Are you okay?” Andre called over the wind.

“I’ve been better!” she called back.

Andre pulled Sarah up onto the magnet and a got a grip about her waist with one arm while he clung to the cable with the other. A moment later, the magnet was hoisted up by a winch beneath the helicopter, so that the three were now crouched directly below the undercarriage.

Meanwhile the helicopter, apparently oblivious to its new passengers, banked around and began flying parallel with the coast maybe a half-mile out. It also began to descend.

“Where do you think it’s goin’, boss?” Benton asked.

“No idea,” Andre answered.

The helicopter continued to descend. They had started out about two hundred feet up. Now they were half that and still getting lower. There were a number of boats out today, and it briefly occurred to Andre to wonder what they thought of the sight of three people clinging to an electro magnet slung below a large helicopter.

Then he spotted one ship in particular; a large, elaborate yacht growing nearer every minute. A yacht with a helipad on the stern.

So that was where they were headed, and he thought he could guess whom it belonged to.

The helicopter was now about fifty feet over the ocean and maybe a quarter mile from the yacht.

“Can you swim?” Andre asked Sarah.

“Well, yes, but…”

Andre turned to Benton.

“Go with her and make sure she gets to Crane.”

Benton was too good a servant to argue the point or to fail to understand. He simply nodded.

“Hold on, what are you…” Sarah began.

“Keep your legs tight together and try to fall straight down,” he said.

“No, wait…!” she began, but it was too late. Andre threw her off the edge of the magnet and she fell with a shriek into the ocean. At the same time, Benton saluted and jumped off after her.

The plan was a desperate and possibly foolhardy one. But Andre Fireson wasn’t the type of man to let people chase him all around Los Angeles. He meant to go straight into the lion’s den and see what he could find there.

The helicopter arrived over the yacht and descended to land. Andre sprang clear before he was trapped under the machine and ducked out of sight beneath the edge of the pad. The helicopter landed, and a tall, slender figure emerged from the deck, accompanied by two guards. Andre recognized him at once.

Throwing caution to the winds, he stood up and strode forward. The guards drew their guns, the helicopter pilot swore, and the central figure started visibly, but Andre merely nodded as though he’d just walked into a board meeting.

“Good morning, Mr. Gallano,” he said. “I see we meet again.”

 

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.”

 

The Ten Commandments of Murder: Available Now

I’m a big fan of ‘cozy’ mysteries: Agatha Christie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, I can’t get enough of them. Naturally (because that’s how my mind works), I’ve always wanted to make one of my own. So, I did, and it’s now available on Amazon.

TCM v2.jpg

“A house of many sins is a house of many motives.”

A gunshot shatters the night in the Long Island mansion of Wareham. An odious houseguest has been murdered and rich, directionless Alfred More is found holding the weapon that killed him…only he didn’t do it.

With a charge of murder staring him in the face, Alfred turns to the top private detective in New York: the huge, unpretentious Malachi Burke. Armed with his own ‘Ten Commandments of Murder’, Burke sets about sifting through the secret sins of the household to find which among them has violated the command, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill.’

Available for purchase here.

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Nick Windworth and Karen Stillwater in The Crush of Evidence

 

Karen Stillwater eyed the man before her with distaste. Though a few inches taller than she was, something about his sloping shoulders and somewhat drooping face made her think of him as a little man. He wore a dirty jacket, shirt, and unkempt tie and hung a battered felt hat on the peg by their table. Everything about him, she thought, screamed ‘crook.’

But if she’d wanted to associate only with decent people, she wouldn’t have become a cop. So, carefully concealing any sign of either her suspicions or her dislike, Karen listened as Nick “Breezy” Windworth told his story about happening, during the course of one of his apparently numerous con-jobs, to run across a murder plot involving John Chen’s daughter, who, according to her senior partner, Detective Crane, was in the hospital recovering from a bad bout of influenza. According to Windworth, he’d heroically pieced the information together and arrived just in the nick of time (he had used that pun himself in the course of his story) to stop the assassin after braving imprisonment and torture by Tony Mistretta, the top local gangster.

This, Windworth assured them, had led to a fight to the death in the hospital elevator, during which he had used a concentrated anesthetic to kill the other man in self-defense, explaining the report from earlier that evening about a dead man discovered in the hospital elevator while another man, dressed as an orderly, disappeared out the back amid the confusion.

“You do realize,” she said when he’d finished. “That this would most likely be the first case of self-defense with poison gas in recorded history?”

“Technically, the gas wasn’t poison,” he said. “Just very dangerous.”

“Also that you’re admitting to killing a man under suspicious circumstances, not to mention several other crimes?”

“The thought had occurred to me,” he said. “That sound like something a lying man would do?”

“No one’s accusing you of lying, Breezy,” said Crane. “At least, not yet.”

Windworth shrugged. “I figured it was implied by the fact that you’re speaking to me.”

“Are you a liar, then, Mr. Windworth?” asked Karen.

He turned mischievous eyes on her.

“Everyone lies, Detective; how many lies make a liar?”

“Enough,” said Crane. “We’ll let your story stand for the moment. What I want to know is whether Mistretta and Gallano are really working together, because if so that changes the whole setup.”

Karen pushed her annoyance with the witness out of her mind and considered the matter objectively.

“It certainly would explain a few things,” Crane went on. “Like how Gallano’s able to keep himself so squeaky clean even as his boys tear up the city. Anything too close to him he farms out to Mistretta and the other local gangsters.”

“Meanwhile,” Windworth put in. “He’s able to run you guys ragged trying to keep up with this war of his with El Jefe.”

“Who?” asked Karen.

“Oh, you didn’t know?” said Nick. “That’s what these Mexicans call their employer. No name, just ‘the Boss.’ Apparently he’s a big deal south of the border.”

“Well, we can’t worry about that right now,” said Karen. “Our business is putting Gallano and Mistretta and anyone else involved away for good, preferably before anyone else gets killed. How do you propose we do that, Mr. Windworth?”

He laughed at the appellation.

“That, Detective, is your business. Literally. I told you what I know, now you’re the one who’s gotta figure out a way to use it.”

She scowled at him, but as she started to reply Crane nudged her and she fell silent.

“What I’m thinking,” said the senior detective. “Is that maybe we can use Mistretta to get to Gallano. He’s a weaker target.”

“Don’t know if I’d say that,” said Windworth. “Most people around here are more scared of him than they are of Gallano.”

“That’s exactly the point,” said Karen. “If Mistretta’s at the forefront of Gallano’s power in this area, then he’ll have to be more actively engaged and run more risks. That makes him more vulnerable.”

Windworth nodded.

“Sounds like your girl knows what she’s doing.”

Karen scowled, but refrained from comment.

“We’re going too fast,” said Crane. “First we need to confirm that they’re even working together at all. I’m not saying you’re lying, Breezy, and I’m not even saying I don’t believe you, but it’s only your conclusion, and that from evidence that we haven’t seen. Taking on Mistretta will be a pretty big job, and we can’t afford to waste resources on a wild goose chase these days.”

“No, I see your point; gotta ration the number of lives you’re willing to throw at this thing.”

If that was a joke, Karen thought it in bad taste. Windworth leaned back in his chair, studying the ceiling.

“If it were me,” he said after a moment’s consideration. “I think I’d check out Mistretta’s headquarters. He operates out of a garage on Pico Boulevard; it’s a front for a chop shop. He likes it because there are all sorts of horrible instruments handy in case someone annoys him. But the point is that I’d imagine there’d be some kind of evidence, or paper trail, or something of the kind in his office there to link him to Gallano.”

“Why would he keep something like that?” said Karen.

Windworth smiled.

“That’s the nice thing about us criminals, Detective; we know better than to trust one another. Most of us would turn on each other at the drop of a hat to save our own skins, and since the ones who survive know that perfectly well we tend to keep insurance. Mistretta’s sure to have dirt on Gallano somewhere, just in case the other guy ever tried to turn on him, or just in case he decided it was worth his while to turn on Gallano. Handy, isn’t it?”

“That’s a fine way to live,” said Karen. “Always looking over your shoulder to see who’s ready to stab you in the back.”

“It’s only a matter of being aware, Detective,” he said. “Criminals are no different than anyone else except we understand the world we live in and accept it. I mean, can you honestly say you’ve never been betrayed by anyone?”

Karen shifted uncomfortably, remembering Detective Pallin.

“Never mind,” said Crane. “You say Mistretta’s likely to have dirt on Gallano?”

“Probably a lot of other people too,” he said.

“Do you think we’ll be able to get a search warrant on his testimony?” Karen asked, pushing her discomfort aside.

“Oh, I suspect you would, but wouldn’t find anything,” Windworth said.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Crane asked.

“Only that if Gallano, Mistretta, and their friends have compromised some of the police, they’re likely to have compromised lawyers as well. Probably even a judge or two. By the time you got the warrant, Mistretta will have been tipped off and all your evidence will be gone.”

“He’s right,” said Crane. “We don’t know how connected these guys are. We’d best keep it to as few people as possible until we’re ready to move.”

“And how do we know he isn’t going to tip Mistretta off?” Karen asked, nodding at Windworth. He grinned.

“You don’t,” he said. “That’s the point I was just making. Though if it’s any comfort, he is looking to kill me, so it wouldn’t exactly be in my own self-interest to walk into his shop with all the drills and blow torches and asked to speak with him.”

“If Breezy wanted to do that he wouldn’t have come to us in the first place,” said Crane. “What I think it comes down to is that one of us will have to go in undercover, or sneak in, and see what they can find.”

“Good idea, Detective,” said Windworth. “The best part is that I can’t volunteer, since Mistretta knows me and hates me.”

“Guess it’s up to me then,” said Crane.

“Uh, I wouldn’t do that,” said Windworth. “He knows you too. Most of the crooks around these parts know you, Detective; you’re practically an institution.”

He looked at Karen.

“When did you join the force, anyway?”

Karen saw where things were going and did not like it. In fact, she was surprised by the vehemence of her own revulsion from the idea, but she carefully kept her feelings hidden.

“About two weeks ago,” she said.

“And you made detective that quickly?”

“I was a detective in Springwood,” she said, unable to keep a trace of irritation out of her voice. “I have been a police officer for nearly eight years.”

“Must’ve started young,” he said. “But the point is that you haven’t been around here long enough for the local toughs to have gotten to know you very well. I mean, I didn’t even know you’d taken up with Crane, and I usually know these things.”

“Won’t Pallin have told them about me?” she said.

“He worked for the Mexicans,” Crane reminded her. “I doubt they’re sharing intelligence.”

“Besides,” said Windworth. “You won’t go as a policewoman; we’ll work something out and dress you up so as to draw attention away from your face.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded in a more startled tone than she had intended

He laughed. Even Crane seemed to be keeping his composure with difficulty.

“You’ll figure it out,” said Windworth.

She still didn’t seee what he was getting at and didn’t think she wanted to.

“So, just so we’re clear, you want me to go in undercover to try to get this supposed evidence from Mistretta?”

Crane and Windworth exchanged glances, and Karen felt a subtle shift in the conversation. Before now it had been her and Crane against Windworth. Now the two older men were arrayed on one side and she was on the other.

“Well,” said Crane slowly. “We may have to think about this, but at the moment it doesn’t look like we have much choice. Like I said, it’s hard to know who to trust these days. And Breezy’s right; you’re the only one of us that Mistretta probably won’t recognize straight off.”

“Okay, but even if he doesn’t, and assuming we come up with a good cover story, how am I supposed to find this supposed evidence?”

“If it’s at the shop at all it’ll be in his private office,” said Windworth. “All we need is to get you in there alone for as long as possible. It won’t be anywhere obvious, like a drawer or filing cabinet, but if you search smart you should be able to find it.”

“’Search smart’?”

“You know; use your brains. I assume you have some.”

“As a matter of fact I do,” she said. “But why would Mistretta take me back into his private office to begin with?”

Windworth’s eyebrows rose.

“Detective Stillwater, are you really asking why a man would want to be alone with you?”

Karen opened her mouth, then closed it again without speaking, feeling her face growing hot. She saw what he was getting at. On the one hand, his flippant, cynical manner annoyed her and she did not like the idea of relying on her looks – of which she had never had a high opinion – to get her through a dangerous mission. But, at the same time, and to her own surprise she couldn’t help being rather pleased that Windworth seemed to think she could. In spite of everything, it was rather flattering.

“Of course, the problem is that accent of yours,” said Windworth. “What is that anyway?”

“British father, Mexican mother,” she explained.

“I see. Can you lean it more to the maternal side?”

Karen considered a moment, then asked, in a voice that would have been appropriate to someone born and raised in Juarez, “How’s this? And what are you planning anyway?”

“Perfect,” said Windworth. “So, here’s what I’m thinking…”

###

            The large garage from which Mistretta ruled his kingdom stood on a corner in one of the nastier neighborhoods of LA. A couple unpleasant-looking youths were lounging by the entrance, smoking and leering at passersby. In the neighboring alley a few wino dozed against the side of a dumpster, while stray cats slunk in and out of sight amid piles of trash.

Karen hesitated on the corner across from the garage. She was surprised by how nervous she was, and didn’t like it. Ordinarily she had a very cool head for danger; she remembered once partaking in an armed raid on the home of a trigger-happy meth-head and she hadn’t felt this nearly this uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the prospect of trying to fool a very dangerous man, or that she felt self conscious in her tight, cleavage-bearing crop-top and short skirt. It wasn’t the kind of thing she’d ever consider wearing normally, but it fit the character she was meant to portray.

Who was she kidding? She knew why she was nervous and knew why she had been so reluctant to accept this plan in the first place. It was the simple fact that she’d already cheated death once this week and didn’t fancy the prospect of trying her luck a second time.

That, and she didn’t trust Windworth, whatever Crane said. He struck her as a fundamentally weak, cowardly man who would do anything to save his own skin and had never once lifted a finger to help anyone else. She disbelieved his whole story of saving the girl and thought that he probably had some kind of agenda of his own.

In any case, he was gone now. After they’d worked out the plan Crane had asked him to stay and help them nail Mistretta.

“No sir,” he’d answered. “This is all your problem now. First thing tomorrow, I’m hopping the first train to anywhere not Los Angeles. Just an expression, Detective,” he’d added at Karen’s disgusted look. “I’ll pay for my ticket like an honest citizen.”

“You know,” she replied. “There really isn’t that much difference between an honest coward and dishonest one.”

He had almost laughed at that, confirming her worst ideas of the man.

In any case, this meant it was only her and Crane to try to pull off this scheme. She didn’t like it, but it was their best chance to finally start to make some progress on this case.

With that in mind, she squared her shoulders, threw out her chest, and sashayed across the street. She wasn’t exactly the flirting type herself, but she’d been through vice squad training and so knew the basics. She saw the two sentinels watching her with leering enjoyment and flashed them a vapid smile as she strode right past and into the shop. They didn’t try to stop her, probably figuring she was no danger and that doing anything would only attract more attention than it was worth.

Inside the shop was crowded and noisy. Several men were working on a rather expensive-looking car set up on a rack while rock music blared from a boom box. Workbenches and racks of tools stood along the walls and between the three large garage doors, while the air reeked of gas and oil. The men looked up as she came in, and they continued to look as she sauntered up to the nearest one and demanded: “Where is Mistretta? I have something he wants to know. I mean to tell him something.”

The man she accosted looked at her with a leering enjoyment.

“He’s busy,” he said. “Sure we can’t help you with anything?”

“I don’t need help,” she said. “I’m here to help you. I got something he’ll want to know, and that I want to tell, see? You let him know that. It is about El Jefe’s people.”

That changed the tone of the conversation at once. The men looked at each other, then one of them hurried back to an office in the rear of the building.

A few minutes later, Mistretta himself came out. Karen had never seen him before, but Crane had told her what to expect. He was hard, compact, and square-jawed, without an ounce of fat on him. He wore dirty jeans and a work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, showing the hard muscles of his burly arms. Karen saw his cold grey eyes sweeping her body with a hungry expression. That was good as far as it went.

“You Mistretta?” she said.

“That’s me.”

“I got things to say to you. Things you’ll be wanting to hear, right?”

“I think so,” he said, with a nasty smile. “Come on back and we’ll discuss it.”

He took her arm, not forcefully, but Karen was immediately aware of the terrible, crushing strength of this man’s body, like a chimpanzee. Though she was a strong and athletic woman, she thought he could probably break her arm with ease if he wanted to.

His office was a crowded, narrow space of metal cabinets and a steel desk jammed against the corner. The cinderblock walls were stained and water-damaged, probably with leakage from the bar-covered window looking into the alley. Oddly, there weren’t many papers or typical office equipment in view, though there were several tools lying on the desk.

Mistretta placed Karen in the chair opposite his own, but didn’t sit down himself. Instead, he continued to stand over her, one hand on the back of her chair, leaning over her. It was a very alarming position to be in, and it took all of Karen’s considerable self-control to act as though she didn’t notice it.

“So,” he said. “What do want to give me?”

She gave a vacant smile.

“I don’t like getting’ involved in no trouble,” she said. “I keep clean, see? But I don’t judge neither. So, I am seeing this man, Juan Estravedos. He does things for me, buys me things, takes care of me, see? So I don’t ask too much about what he does for then money. I hear a few things, I see a few things, but I don’t think I care, because I am taken care of, yes?”

“That’s the way to do it,” he said. One of his fingers began fiddling with a stray lock of her black hair.

“But then…” she said. “These last days, I find out that he’s been going about with this blonde piruja. All this time, he’s two-timing me!”

She spat on the floor.

“So,” she went on. “I think, how do I get back at him? Maybe I tell some of things I hear, and maybe he learns what happens when you cross me.”

“And so you came to me?” said Mistretta.

“That’s right,” she said. “I think ‘there is this big fight going on. These gangsters are shooting each other up. I would be glad to see the bastard shot, so I will tell someone how to do it.’”

Mistretta laughed.

“You are a nasty bit of goods, chiquita chiquita.”

Karen squared her shoulders and flicked her head to pull her hair out of his reach.

“I have myself to look out for,” she said. “Maybe my next man knows not to try two-timing me.”

“So, what exactly…” Mistretta began, but at that moment there was a knock at the door and one of his thugs poked his head in.

“What is it?” the gangster snapped.

“Sorry, boss,” said the man. “There’s a cop here, says he’s got some questions for you. It’s about…” he glanced at Karen. “About that thing yesterday.”

Mistretta swore and looked down at Karen.

“You just wait here a bit, chiquita,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

“Oh, I’ll wait,” she said with a smile.

With that he followed his man out, shutting the door behind him.

I cannot believe that worked, Karen thought as she immediate stood up and began searching the room. She didn’t know how long Crane could stall him; probably about five or ten minutes at best.

Windworth had said that the evidence wouldn’t be anywhere obvious or easy to get to: not in a drawer or cabinet, for instance. That honestly didn’t leave much. Karen drew a deep breath and forced herself to look at it calmly.

If she were a gangster, and meant to keep dirt on her associates just in case, where would she hide it? It would be somewhere that no one would just happen upon by accident, but also somewhere you could get at it fairly quickly.

She looked behind the cabinet, but nothing there. She eyed the ceiling, but it was solid plaster. Then she wondered whether there might be a hidden drawer or compartment in the desk.

Karen tugged open one of the bottom drawers, intending to feel about on the inside for a false bottom or a hidden lever. But when she opened it, she found that it contained nothing but bricks. Ordinary masonry bricks, stacked two deep. She checked the drawer on the other side, and it was the same.

Drawers full of bricks. And the desk itself was a heavy, solid, metal affair. It would take a strong man to move it at the best of times, let alone weighted down.

Karen knelt down and looked under the desk. The inner left corner, which, facing from the door, would be right behind Mistretta’s chair, and which bore the brunt of the weight from the bricks, was missing its leg and instead was propped up by a couple of thick leather binders.

She looked over her shoulder. She didn’t know how long Mistretta had been gone. It felt like a long time, but objectively she knew it wasn’t more than a minute. Could she possibly get the binders out of there before he came back?

Karen felt them, but as she’d expected they were wedged in tight and impossible to move. If she got the bricks out she might be able to shift the desk enough to retrieve them. But would she have time?

More importantly, would she ever have another opportunity?

With a hasty glance at the door, Karen began piling bricks out of the desk setting them on the floor. They were heavy and scratched her hands, and every time she set them down on the tiled floor they gave a ‘clunk’ that she felt must be audible from the main shop. But no one came; no angry faces burst in on her.

She was able to take about two bricks at a time, and in about half a minute had cleared out one drawer and started on the other. Her heart hammered painfully against her chest, and the tight skirt she had to wear didn’t make lifting the bricks any easier. Every second she expected Mistretta to return and catch her. The music still blaring into the shop outside made it impossible to hear any signs of his approach.

The second drawer was cleared. Karen ducked under the desk and tugged at the leather binders. Even without its load of bricks, the desk was heavy; too heavy for her to lift by herself. She bent and braced her back against the top of the desk and pushed with her legs. It lifted, not much, but just enough. The binders came free.

For a moment, Karen felt exulted with triumph as she tucked the binder into her purse. But then she realized that, first, she now needed to put all the bricks back before Mistretta arrived, and second that without its brace the inner corner of the desk sagged noticeably; Mistretta would know something was wrong the moment he returned.

Thinking quickly, Karen seized one of the bricks and jammed it in under the desk. The game would be up the moment he looked at it, but at least the desk wouldn’t wobble too much. This done, she began piling the bricks back into the desk. Time was running out; she could feel it, but she didn’t dare go any faster lest the bricks clang loudly against the steel.

Back and forth, two at a time. Every time she looked at the door, she expected to see it open, to see Mistretta standing before her. She had no idea what she’d do if that happened: she had her sidearm hidden in her jacket pocket, but at this close range she didn’t fancy her chances of getting it out in time.

The left hand drawer was filled. Now for the right. Seven bricks to go. Five. Three. One…

Karen pushed the drawer shut, then noticed the dust and crumbs that had come off of them. Hastily, she seized a ledger from the desk and swept it as best as she could out of sight under the desk. It made a nasty scratching sound against the tiled floor. Putting the ledger back as close as she could to where it had laid, heart pounding with her triumph, she threw herself back into her chair.

As though it had been a signal, not five seconds after she’d sat down the door opened and Mistretta came in. He seemed in a bad temper.

“Now,” he said with an attempt at a suave smile that reminded her of a dog baring its teeth. “Where were we?”

He ran his hands along her shoulders and felt at the edges of her shirt. Karen pulled away, standing up.

“Not that far by a long shot,” she said, waggling a finger at him and leaning against his desk. She hoped very much she was screening the brick from sight.

“You all right?” he said. “You seem nervous?”

“Nervous? No! I am angry!” she said. “I think of what this man has done to me, and then I am kept waiting for so long, it is enough to infuriate!”

“Cops,” he said with a shrug. “What’re you gonna do? Anyway, what’s this you want to tell me?”

Karen willed herself to focus through her fear. Though her heart was hammering and she expected every minute for him to peer through the lining of her purse and see the stolen binder, she nevertheless stayed in character and gave her spiel. The information was all fake, but just close enough to the truth to be convincing. She told him where one of the Mexican gangs supposedly had its hide out and their schedule for receiving shipments.

“If you time it right,” she said. “You not only kill many of these pigs, but you get a nice bonus for yourself, eh?”

He nodded.

“I’ll take a look,” he said. “If it checks out, then I’ll owe you chiquita.”

“Just kill Juan Estravedos,” said Karen with a convincing approximation of a hateful snarl. “Then I will be happy.”

Mistretta grinned.

“Well, that’s the important thing,” he said.

Karen nodded, as if to say they were done, and started for the door. But Mistretta put a hand on her shoulder to stop her. Once more she was aware of that terrifying, animal strength.

“You know,” he said. “There are ways to make you happy right now.”

Karen feigned a flattered smile even as a faintly sick feeling came into her stomach.

“Thank you, but I’m not that kind of girl.”

“Oh, I think you are,” he said. His grip tightened on her shoulder. “Or else you wouldn’t be here, would you.”

Karen swallowed and her smile faded, replaced by a hard, watchful look. Her mind was running through several possible gambits to get out of this situation. Once she tried one, she’d be all in, and none of them seemed to offer good odds.

“Take your hand off me, please,” she said.

Mistretta’s face twitched. Instead of complying, he seized her right arm in a grip that made her wince.

“What’s the matter?” he said. “I’m not good enough for you?”

“You’re hurting me,” she gasped.

“Don’t worry; you’ll get to like it before long. They all do.”

Time was rapidly running out. She needed to act now or not at all. She’d knee him in the crotch and make a break for the door, drawing her pistol as she went. With luck, the pain would make him lose his grip, and she’d be armed and out of reach before he could recover…with luck. But if it didn’t work…

Before Karen could start, however, there was a heavy knock at the door to the office. Mistretta clapped a hand over Karen’s mouth and shouted “Not now!”

The door opened, and Karen’s confusion (and probably Mistretta’s as well), one of the winos from the alley stumbled in. He smelled rancid, and a half-empty bottle dangled from one hand.

“Sho-sorry,” he muttered, clearly in an advanced state of intoxication. “I’m jush looking for a bathroom…”

“How the hell did you get in here?” Mistretta snarled, throwing Karen into the chair by the desk. She seized her chance to reach into her jacket and pull out her sidearm…but then something very strange happened.

The foul-smelling wino had stumbled into the office and seemed to be trying to find his way among the metal cabinet. Mistretta gave him a hard shove to the chest, meaning push him out through the doorway. But as he did, the wino suddenly turned with the blow, and using Mistretta’s own momentum pulled him off balance, slamming him face-first in the cabinet. While the gangster was still reeling from the blow, the wino smashed his bottle across his face, dropping him to the floor in a cloud of blood and broken glass.

Karen hadn’t quite registered what had happened when the wino seized her hand and pulled her to her feet. They were out of the office and into the main shop before she had realized what was happening. As they ran through the crowded, noisy space, she saw that Mistretta’s men were all lying incapacitated against the workbenches or stretched out on the floor.

The next minute they were out the door, down the alleyway, and had emerged on the opposite street, where they slipped into the foot traffic. Karen hastily returned her gun to her pocket.

The ‘wino’ kept moving until they could duck into another alleyway and out of sight of the street.

“You all right?” he asked, and his voice confirmed what Karen had been vaguely aware from the moment he’d entered the office.

“Windworth!”

“Please, not so loud,” he said. “I’ve got a price on my head, remember?”

“But…what are you doing here?”

“Saving your hide; what’s it look like?” he said. “Would have been there sooner except I had to deal with the guards.”

“Wait, but, how did you know…”

“I was watching, of course. Through the window. You weren’t lying about having brains, either; figuring out the deal with the bricks was smart work. Gutsy too. Took me a while to get what you were doing.”

Karen brushed a stray lock of her hair out of her face. She was trembling and breathing hard, though she thought she could pass that off as due to running.

“You knew something like this would happen, didn’t you?”

“I knew it was the weakest part of the plan,” he said. “I don’t mean to get sappy, but you are a very beautiful woman, detective. I knew that a man once alone with you would need a lot of self-control to keep his hands to himself. And Mistretta’s not the self-controlling type. So I kept an eye out to see if things got out of hand, and obviously they did, so I came running.”

Karen wasn’t really sure how to respond to that, both because the comment on her looks made her uncomfortable and because she’d never really been rescued before.

“You smell terrible,” she said by way of buying time to collect her ideas.

“Thank you,” he said. “It’s part of the disguise; don’t want someone looking too close, discourage them from getting too close.”

“Well, thanks for the help,” she said. “Where did you learn to fight like that anyway?”

“Boy Scouts. By the way, did we actually get anything from all of that?”

In the excitement of the escape, Karen had almost forgotten the binder. She took it out and flipped it open to find it contained hand-written notes, photographs, and memoranda, which a glance told her pertained to criminal activity.

She smiled broadly, too exhilarated and too frazzled to hide her feelings.

“Got them,” she said.

“That’s a relief,” said Windworth. “Best get that to Crane; I’m gonna get out of town before Mistretta wakes up. This is all your problem now, detective.”

She gave him a shrewd look.

“That’s what you said yesterday, and yet here you are.”

He looked at her with a strange expression she couldn’t quite place, then shrugged.

“What can I say? I’m a liar.”

 

 

 

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Nick Windworth in The Man in Grey

DP 2

The shop bell chimed and a young woman entered. Nick guessed she was in her mid twenties; pretty, though less than she might be. Her fair young face was worn with anxiety and her light brown hair was tangled, probably from the number of times she’d run her fingers through it. She looked anxiously around the shop, then approached the counter in an uncertain manner.

“Well?” said Nick in a gruff tone that suggested she was interrupting something important. “Can I help you?”

“I…I’m here to see Mr. Eickstein?”

“He’s busy. What do you want?”

“Uh, I…I think I ought to speak to him personally…”

“I’m his partner,” said Nick. “Anything you can say to him you can say to me.”

She looked him over for a moment, as though trying to gauge his threat level. He was neared forty than thirty, with round shoulders and a slightly drooping face that somehow made him look a lot smaller than he really was. He wore a dirty old suit and tie, while a battered felt hat hung on the peg by the register. To all appearances, Nick very well might have been the junior partner of a low-rent pawnshop.

The woman swallowed and squared her narrow shoulders.

“I’ve come to redeem a necklace,” she said with more conviction that before.

“Oh?”

“My name Linda Hauge.”

“Oh! I see,” he said, nodding as if he’d been expecting her. Nick opened the logbook and ran his thumb down the figures.

“Hauge: one antique necklace for five-hundred twenty-three dollars. Is that right?”

“Yes,” she said.

Nick checked the tags and found the necklace, but he didn’t hand it to her.

“You have the money, I presume?”

Linda Hauge swallowed.

“No,” she said. “At least,” she added hastily. “Not all of it. But you see, I need that necklace for tonight.”

“Well, that’s awkward,” said Nick. “You need the necklace, I need the five-hundred twenty-three dollars.”

“The thing is, my husband doesn’t know I pawned it,” she explained. “It was…we were desperate. Now he has a new job and things are going well, but his parents are coming in tonight, and it’s a family heirloom, so they will want to see me wearing it, and if I don’t…they’ll be so angry with me. They – they were against our marriage in the first place and this…”

She swallowed, blinked a tear out of her eye and reached into her purse.

“I have three hundred and seventy four dollars,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been able to save thus far. I will get you the rest, I swear, but I need to have it back tonight.”

She placed the roll of cash on the table. Nick looked from her to the money, as though thinking about it. He picked up the cash and deliberately counted it. Mrs. Hauge waited with baited breath.

“Forget it,” he said.

“But…”

“I mean, forget the rest,” said Nick, taking the money and pushing the necklace across to her.

“I…what?”

“You take the jewelry, I’ll take the money, and we’ll call it even,” he said. “I’ll mark your account as closed. But only on one condition.”

Mrs. Hauge, who had been looking stunned and eager, now suddenly shied.

“What condition?” she asked.

“That you never come near this shop again,” he said. He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “If anyone ever found out that we’d done this for you, our business would be over. Understand? So don’t ever let me catch you anywhere near here again, and don’t you dare mention this to anyone.”

“I won’t!” she said eagerly. “I swear, I never…Oh, thank you, thank you so much!”

“Damn,” he said, handing her the necklace with a wink. “And here I thought I was heartless.”

She took it, and to his surprise suddenly kissed him on the cheek before rushing out of the shop.

Nick “Breezy” Windworth rubbed the spot where she’d kissed him, sighed, shrugged, marked the Linda Hauge account as closed, and then put the roll of money into his pocket.

The truth was, Nick didn’t work in that little shop. He didn’t exactly work at all these days. He got by on his quick wits and quicker fingers: picking pockets, forging checks, running low-level schemes when he thought he could get away with it, that sort of thing. In a word, he was a crook. Today’s excursion to the pawnshop was one of those endeavors, though the arrival of Mrs. Hauge had been an unexpected complication. Still, she’d seemed satisfied with the results and he was quite sure Eickstein never would have let her off the hook that easily, so he decided he’d count it on the positive side in that night’s examination of conscience.

Nick didn’t think of himself as a particularly dishonest man…at least, no more than anyone else. One thing life had taught him thus far was that practically everyone lied, everyone cheated, and everyone was mostly out for what they could get. Nick was just willing to play the game with a straight face. Besides, he wasn’t nearly as bad as some he could name: he was just trying to get by, not out to reach some imaginary summit by turning his fellow creatures into stepping stones.

Right now, though, Nick wasn’t really considering any of this; he just wanted to get out of the shop before another customer arrived, as he didn’t think he could square two such missions of mercy in one day. He came out from behind the counter and head for the door, intending to turn the sign on the door from ‘open’ to ‘closed’ and leave, but a man walked in before he’d quite reached it.

He was not a tall man, nor especially large. He was, in fact, almost wholly unremarkable in appearance. He had sandy brown hair, was about ten years younger than Nick, and to judge from his gray suit might have been anything from a lawyer to an office worker. But what struck Nick most of all, from the moment he laid eyes on him, was the way the man carried himself; that confident, cool, predatory poise that comes to men sure of their own power.

It was something Nick was all too familiar with.

Adjusting at once to the new situation, Nick converted his path to the door into a path to adjust a clock that stood on an antique dresser, then turned to meet his new customer.

“Can I help you?” he said.

The man looked at Nick with pale blue eyes. Those eyes made Nick’s blood run cold, but he met them steadily, opting to appear too dense to recognize their expression.

“Where’s Eikstein?” he asked.

“Sick in bed,” Nick answered. “Name’s Elijah Gould: I’m his partner.”

The man in grey frowned at him.

“I’m here to pick up a package,” he said. “Mr. Mistretta said you’d have one for me.”

Nick raised his eyebrows and whistled.

“Well, if it’s for Mr. Mistretta, then we’d better find it,” he said. Though all his instinct screamed against the move, he turned his back on the man and bustled behind the counter, adopting a somewhat lopping walk as though he weren’t used to much activity.

“Surprised he didn’t mention it to me,” Nick went on. “But then, he’s not got the best memory in the world, you know; he doesn’t write something down, he doesn’t know anything about it.”

Morris Eickstein’s bad memory had been why Nick had decided to attempt this angle in the first place. Well, that and his bad temper and habit of charging customers almost double what he’d paid them for their pawned goods. An unfortunate hand of cards had created something of a set-back in Nick’s plans to finally get out of LA and set up shop somewhere far away; further than San Francisco or San Ignatio. Maybe Houston, or St. Louis, or New Orleans. Anywhere no one would know his name and he could start over.

Nick had calculated the amount of money he would need for the move, and had almost gotten there too…until that cheat Lenny Sorrell had started clearing him out. Fortunately Nick had the sense to know when to get out of a game and hadn’t thrown all his cash away, but it had been enough to set his plans back quite a ways.

That’s when he’d hit on the pawn shop angle: pawn his watch, the only valuable thing he owned, get the money, then a few days later come back and reacquire it, crossing out the account in the process. Nick had a handy little gadget he’d borrowed from a locksmith friend, with which he’d made a copy of the shop key before the owner had even realized it was gone. Eickstein’s on coming flu – a pure stroke of luck – had helped with this, and the rest was just a matter of watching the shop until the day he didn’t come in. Now, thanks to both Mr. Eickstein and Mrs. Hauge, he had all he needed and more, and he just wanted to get out of there and start pulling up his stakes.

Instead, he found himself obliged to fill and order for the scariest gangster in Northern LA and what was apparently his pet psychopath. That was just his luck, but then if he could rely on luck, he probably wouldn’t have become a crook.

“You couldn’t possibly describe what you’re looking for?” Nick asked after a few minutes’ searching behind the counter.

“You don’t need to know that,” said the man in grey.

“Kinda do if I’m gonna give it to you,” said Nick. “Like I say, he didn’t write anything down. Suppose that was the idea, but it leaves us in kind of an awkward position, don’t it?”

The man considered a moment more.

“It’s a gas canister.” He said. “About a foot long. Green. Unmarked. Check the back.”

Nick nodded and went into the back room, searching along the shelves. As he did so, he was thinking. Who was this guy? What did he want with this cylinder, and why all the secrecy? What was Mistretta up to?

He soon found what he was looking for; an unmarked, dark green gas canister, but he kept pretending to search a while longer, concocting a plan.

Finally, deciding he could delay no longer, he picked up the cylinder and returned to the main shop.

There she is,” he said. “It was tucked back behind a box labled ‘cleaning supplies.’ Go figure. So, is there a charge for that, or…”

“More of an exchange,” said the man. “You hand it over and don’t mention this to anyone, and you don’t have anything to worry about. Understand?”

“Perfectly,” said Nick, handing the canister over. “I know how to keep a secret, and who not to get on the bad side of.”

The man in grey said nothing, but took the canister and tucked it inside his suit (which was evidently tailored for such a conveyance).

“Anything else I can get for you?” Nick asked, coming out from around the counter as though to offer one of the items on a distant shelf. “We have some lovely…”

“No,” said the man in grey. “Nothing more.”

Nick looked at him, seemed to hesitate, and then nodded as though resigned.

“All right,” he said. “I hope you’ll come again, though.”

He went and opened the door for the man, standing on the near side of it as though to hold it in place with his body. The man gave him an inscrutable look, then passed out, just brushing against him as he went.

As soon as the man was out of sight, Nick locked the door, changed the sign to ‘closed’ and hastened out the back way. Clutched in his hand was a neatly folded envelope that had come from the man in grey’s pocket. He didn’t know how long it would take for the man in grey to notice his loss, but once he did he’d probably know exactly what happened and Nick meant to be far away beforehand.

About a quarter hour later, having travelled down three streets and four alleyways to end up in a run-down diner just coming off of the breakfast rush, Nick ordered himself a coffee, selected a booth with a good view of the door, and sat down to study his find.

It wasn’t much; a photograph and a strip of paper. The photograph showed a pretty, smiling Asian girl of about fifteen or sixteen, he guessed. She looked like a nice kid. The paper had a few terse words written on it:

St. Andrews. 332. Five-thirty.

Nick sipped his coffee, thinking. St. Andrews was a hospital. ‘332’ was probably a room number, and five-thirty was obviously a time…though there was no date, so that could be five-thirty today or tomorrow or next week, morning or evening…no, more likely today, if this is what the cylinder was for.

As for what would happen at five-thirty in room 332 to this girl, he had known that from the moment the man in grey walked into the shop.

Nick hadn’t always been a small-time crook. Back when he was young – strange to think of that now – he’d been around quite a lot; he’d gone to Vietnam with the first wave and stayed for the duration and a little after, did a lot of things with and without official approval, and met a lot of people. Over the years, he’d gotten to classifying people rather like how a taxonomist classifies animals, and by this time he could pretty well tell the genus and species of a man within a few minutes of meeting him. But people like the man in grey he’d learned to spot almost at once. They were predators, and the rest of the world was prey to them.

Mistretta was like that too. Nick had only met the gangster once or twice, but that was enough for him to know to steer well clear of the man. Mistretta was pretty small time compared to the big crime syndicates – Gallano, for instance – specializing in protection rackets, money laundering, and car thefts. Strictly local crimes, but anything that fell under that category answered to Mistretta.

And apparently he wanted the man in grey to murder this girl. The canister, no doubt, had something to do with that. That probably meant it was happening today.

Nick sighed and checked his watch. Assuming the man in grey stuck to the schedule, that left him about eight hours to work. He’d done more with less.

###

            Nick’s first move was to start the information train rolling. To that end, he headed straight for the place that was the secret of his success: the Department of Motor Vehicles.

A good con-artist required two things; the right attitude and the right information. The former he had for free, but the latter required a reliable source and usually a fair amount of cash. Nick’s primary source for most things was a middle-aged, three-hundred-pound tiger whose parents, showing an appalling lack of foresight, had christened Angel Sue Lewee. Had they been more prescient, they probably would have called her “Cerberus.” Like that creature, she was terrifying and indomitable, but could be appeased with the correct type of gift. In her case, that gift tended to be money.

Nick found her, as usual, terrifying some poor citizen who was taking his written driver’s test.

“You think the yellow line means passing allowed?” she snapped, smearing a great line of red across the paper. “Why not do us all a favor and drive yourself into a tree on your way home? Then at least you won’t take anyone else with you.”

“Angel, my angel!” Nick said as the would-be driver beat a hasty retreat from the gorgon. “You’re looking radiant this morning!”

Angel snorted like an irritable bison.

“Cut the crap; what do you want, Breezy?”

“Information,” said Nick, passing her a roll of bills. “And it’s for a very good cause this time.”

“Bull,” she answered, flipping through to confirm they were all the correct denomination before pocketing them. “Your last good cause was a pyramid scheme.”

“Serious this time,” said Nick. “I need you to look and see if you can find anything at all on this girl, and particularly who her parents are and any known connections to crime or criminal organizations.”

He handed her the photograph. She looked at it, then glared suspiciously at him.

“Isn’t she a little young for you?”

“Yes, but this is business, not romance. Besides, you know you’re the only woman for me, Angel.” Then, adopting a more serious expression, he explained. “I think the girl’s in danger and I want to find out why.”

Angel frowned, evidently surprised to see this side of him.

“You serious, Breezy?”

“Serious as can be,” he answered. “I need it as soon as you can, and if you need more cash just name your price.”

“Wow, you are serious,” she said. “You have a name?”

“No, not yet. What me to let you know if I get one?”

“Don’t bother; I’ll probably have it faster than you.”

“Then you’ll do it?”

She considered with a noise like a bear weighing the pros and cons of raiding a campsite

“Fine, I’ll see what I can dig up. But you better not be lying!”

“That hurts, Angel; it really does.”

She snorted. “What are you gonna do in the meantime?”

“If I knew, I’d tell you,” he sighed, walking off with a wave.

Nick didn’t doubt she’d find out what he needed. If you wanted to know all there was to know about someone, the best source in the world was an unscrupulous civil servant with an intimidating personality. Angel didn’t technically have access to the city records, but that had never stopped her in the past. She wasn’t the kind of woman that people generally said ‘no’ to. She’d come through. In the meantime, he needed to double check that the girl was still alive and make sure she stayed that way until he could figure out why someone wanted her dead. To that end, upon leaving the DMV, he headed straight for the hospital.

It is very, very tricky to pretend to be a doctor. You need to be very precise in the personality you convey, as well as have a pretty good basic knowledge of the subject and an air of authority so that you can delegate anything you don’t know.

Pretending to be an orderly, on the other hand, that’s much easier. All you have to do is put on the right uniform and always be carrying something about with a look of purpose.

In this way, with a bundle of towels taken from a supply rack, Nick made his way to room 332. The tag on the door read “Jenny Chen.” He knocked and entered in proper hospital fashion.

It was her alright. She sat propped up in bed, reading a book, looking distinctly paler and more worn than she had in her photograph (unsurprising, since no one looked their best in hospitals). However, she looked up and smiled at him as he came in.

“Excuse me a minute,” he said. “I just need to change the towels.”

“Thanks,” she said in a slightly croaking voice that suggested throat trouble. “But I think they just did that.”

“Really? Well, can’t hurt to do it again. That’s how things work around here; hasn’t been used, so we might as well clean it.”

She laughed, which brought on a brief fit of coughing.

“How’re you feeling today?” he asked as he replaced the towels.

“Better,” she said. “Doctor Johns says I can go home tomorrow. I just wish this hadn’t happened in the middle of soccer season.”

He smiled. As he thought, a nice kid.

Now the question was how he’d keep her alive long enough to go home. That and why anyone would be trying to murder her in the first place.

He abandoned the unsoiled towels in a likely-looking receptacle and descended to one of the employee exits in the back of the building, still thinking. He wondered whether Angel had found out anything yet, and whether the man in grey had yet discovered his loss and, if so, how he had reacted to it.

The latter question was abruptly and unexpectedly answered when Nick, turning the corner on his way from the hospital, was suddenly struck hard on the back of the head and knew no more.

###

            Consciousness slowly returned, bringing with it a throbbing headache and a vague sense of paralysis. The vagueness became sharp when the process was accelerated by a sharp knock on the head. Nick blinked into the veiled light coming through a plastic-covered window and saw that he was in an empty room that looked like it was destined to one day be an apartment, but hadn’t yet made the grade. He was handcuffed and tied to a metal chair, and a breath mask had been strapped over his nose and mouth. A tube ran from the mask to what he was unpleasantly certain was a heavy-duty shop vac.

Two men shared the room with him. One was the man in grey, who stood by the vacuum, glaring at him with silent malevolence. The other was Tony Mistretta.

“Welcome back, Breezy,” he said.

Mistretta was not a large man, but he conveyed an unmistakable sense of power. He was square and compact, with a hard eye and probably no an ounce of body fat on him.

“So, Breezy,” he said. “I hear you been spying on my boy, Serjy, here.”

He nodded to the man in grey.

“’Spying’ is such an ugly word,” said Nick. “More of an accidental point of interest.”

Serjy flipped a switch on the shop vac. Nick immediately closed his air passages as best he could, but still the wind was sucked from his lungs and he couldn’t draw breath to replace it. His body spasmed painfully against his bounds, but his mind remained oddly clear, speculating in a strange, detached way whether they meant to kill him outright or just to torture him for a bit. Strangely enough, he was more curious than frightened. Death didn’t seem to matter that much…

Then the vacuum was turned off and air, blessed air, returned, along with a body-wide ache and a sick, dry sensation in the mouth. His sense of detachment was suddenly gone; now the important thing was to keep the air coming, because air was good.

Serjy turned on the vacuum again, and the whole terrible ordeal started over, except now the detachment was gone. He wanted air, wanted it badly, desperately.

Again it was turned off, and again he gasped for breath, with that nasty sense of dryness in the mouth.

“What were you doing in that shop?” Mistretta asked. “We checked with Eickstein; you don’t work there. He doesn’t have a partner.”

Nick drew a deep breath.

“I had been minding my own business,” he answered. “Your boy walks in and asks for a gas canister, so I gave it to him. Simple as that.”

“Then you picked his pocket,” Mistretta added.

“I…”

The vacuum was turned on again. This time Nick felt darkness creeping around the edge of his vision before it was turned off and he was allowed to breathe.

“You picked his pocket, going straight for his instructions from me, and I’m supposed to believe you met by coincidence?”

This was not a good development. Mistretta now had an idea in his head about how Nick had become involved: an erroneous idea. He thought that Nick had somehow planned the whole thing from the beginning, possibly to get to him, which would imply Nick was working for or with someone for their own ends.

Now, when a man has the wrong picture of a situation in normal life, it’s usually pretty hard to convince him of the fact, especially if his false view includes a ready made reason you might be lying. When he’s a ruthless criminal in the process of torturing and probably murdering you, on the other hand, it’s all but impossible. That was part of the trouble of torture: it’s so easy to get wrapped up in preconceptions that you don’t profit by anything you actually hear.

“Well,” Nick said, playing along. “Maybe not a complete coincidence…”

Mistretta grinned.

“That’s better. Now, why don’t we start with just how much you already know?”

Cautious devil. Best to try to ascertain what the subject knows before you ask him anything else in case you end up telling him more than he tells you.

“Well,” said Nick. “Quite a bit. I know the kings of England, and can quote the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical…”

The vacuum was turned on again, but only for a moment.

“I meant what do you know about my operations,” said Mistretta.

Not so much as the ghost of a smile or the trace of recognition. Uncultured thugs.

“We know the obvious,” Nick answered. “You’re Tony Mistretta, you run just about everything there is to run outside the drug trade in this end of town. Lately you’ve taken to hiring Mr. Personality over here to murder innocent little girls, which, I have to say, we think is pretty low.”

Mistretta grinned.

“I’m sure you do. So, who is ‘we’ here?”

“My friends and I,” said Nick. Then, taking a shot in the dark, he added. “Some of us also suspect that you might be in, shall we say, an expansionary phase?”

“Oh, is that what you think?” Mistretta with a grin, spotting the obvious ploy.

“Well, you know what they say, Mr. Mistretta; you’re either growing or your dying. Me, I’m of the other camp: I think you’re dying and that killing Jenny Chen is an act of desperation. I mean, why else take the risk?”

“There is no risk,” said Mistretta hotly. “You think I’m weak? You think I’m falling apart? I’m on my way to the top! In another week, no one’ll be able to touch me, you understand?”

As he had thought, Nick had hit a nerve.

“I guess that proves me wrong, but then why kill the girl? What’d she ever do to you?”

“Not a damn thing,” said Mistretta. “I don’t know her from Adam, and you know what that means? No motive. No motive, no risk. Simple as that.”

He wiped a bead of sweat away from his forehead, then checked his watch.

“Damn, I’ll be late,” he said. “Leave him here, Serjy. We’ll find out the rest when I get back. Meanwhile, stick to the plan.”

Serjy nodded, then turned the vacuum back on for a moment just out of spite.

Nick was thus left alone in the room, exhausted, but more importantly unguarded. For a moment, he contented himself with breathing the sweet, sweet air, refilling his depleted lungs, and making sure that Serjy wasn’t coming back right away. Then he set to work.

One way or another, Nick had developed a few habits over the years. He never entered a room without immediately identifying the exits. He changed his handwriting every time he signed his name or wrote a letter. And he always stashed little hairpins or razorblades inside the cuffs of his shirts for just such an occasion as this. It was far from the first time he’d been captured.

Feeling along the cuff, he found the stashed hairpin and pushed it out through the small gap in the stitching, and with an expert’s hand began working the lock on the cuffs. He’d opened more than his share of locks in his day, and it wasn’t long before the cuffs dropped away. A moment later he’d torn the mask off his face, untied his ankles, and stood up, wincing from the cramps that came from being bound in place for too long. He rubbed his arms and legs vigorously to get the blood flowing again, then checked his watch. Five after five.

Swearing softly to himself, Nick rushed to the door. It was locked, but a few minutes with a couple hairpins fixed that. He burst of the room and into the hall. It was empty, of course; an unfinished apartment building when the workers were on strike was the perfect place for an illegal detention and interrogation. He took the stairs two at a time to the ground floor and emerged onto the street. There wasn’t a lot of traffic around, but there were a few cars parked by the side of the road.

Nick checked the road signs: Ash and Fresno. That was about a mile from the hospital.

Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, Nick went to the first car he found and, not having time for subtlety, elbowed in the driver’s side window to get at the lock. The noise would almost certainly attract attention, but he couldn’t help that: he’d just have to be quick about it.

A moment later he’d hotwired the car into motion and was pulling away from the curb. As he did so, he saw a pedestrian making for a payphone, eying him with horror and disgust. Oh, well; couldn’t worry about that now.

Nick rode the gas all the way to the hospital, running red lights where he dared, but taking a somewhat circuitous route to try to avoid the regular police hangouts. He arrived with ten minutes to spare. That is, assuming Serjy stuck to a strict schedule, which he doubted.

Leaving the car parked out front, Nick rushed inside. He had to slow down on entering; if he got caught by hospital security that would be it.

“Hi,” he said, approaching the front desk. “My name is Reverend Moran, I’m here to see Jenny Chen. Her parents asked me to come by to let her know there’s been an emergency and they won’t be able to pick her up tomorrow.”

“Oh, dear!” said the desk nurse. “I hope everything is alright.”

“That’s in God’s hands now, ma’am,” he said. “But I need to see her right away.”

“Of course,” she said. “Room 332: take the elevator and it’s just to your left.”

“Thanks,” he said, dashing to the elevator and pounding the ‘three button’ and ‘door close’ in quick succession.

The ride up seemed agonizingly long. It hadn’t been this long the last time, had it? He paced anxiously in the small space, cursing the delay.

The doors slid open. He stepped out into the hall; not too many people about. Room 332…and a doctor just opening the door.

Nick usually tried to act with finesse, to think his way through situations and manipulate events to his advantage. No time now. He darted forward and seized the ‘doctor’ by the wrist.

He and Serjy looked at each other, and for an instant those soulless eyes showed shock and disbelief, but they almost immediately resumed their cold, calculating expression.

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

“Doctor!” said Nick. “You have to come with me this instant! A man is dying, and you’re the only one I’ve been able to find!”

For a moment, time seemed to stand still as each weighed how far he would push this angle. Then Serjy nodded.

“Very well,” he said. “Take me to him.”

Nick took him by the arm and they moved to the elevator. He could feel the tension in the other man, like a rattlesnake preparing to spring.

They entered the elevator, Nick pressed ‘L’ and the doors slid shut behind them.

The instant they were out of view of the rest of the hospital, they both moved at once. Serjy aimed two quick blows at Nick, one at his face, one at his solar plexus, but Nick was expecting the attack and blocked them both before countering with an uppercut to the chin. Serjy reeled back against the wall, surprised.

“You know how to fight, Breezy.”

Nick shrugged as he hit the ‘emergency stop’ button to ensure they weren’t interrupted.

“Beginner’s luck.”

Serjy reached into his pocket. Nick closed as soon as he saw the move and caught his wrist before he could bring the switchblade to bear and bent his wrist hard to make him drop it. This forced Nick to drop his guard and he took two solid blows to the ribs, which hurt a lot and would hurt even more once the adrenaline wore off. He tried to elbow Serjy in the gut, but he struck something hard that bruised his funny bone.

He’d almost forgotten the cylinder.

Serjy took advantage of his momentary disorientation to wrap his arm around his neck in a brutal chokehold.

“This time, you little prick, I’m gonna squeeze all the wind right out of you!” he snarled.

Nick gagged, unable to speak, but didn’t even try any of the techniques he knew to escape the hold. Instead, while Serjy was focused on choking him, he reached inside the assassin’s lab coat and drew out the cylinder. He was fading fast, but his mind was once more remarkably clear. The cylinder was already hooked up to a breath mask. He took this in one hand and before Serjy realized what was happening, Nick jammed the mask into his face and flicked the valve open all the way.

The sweet-smelling gas was practically shoved down Serjy’s throat. He yelled and released Nick, batting the mask away, but already the damage was done. Nick hastily switched the valve off even as he himself gasped for breath, breathing in the gas. Serjy staggered against the wall of the elevator, his eyes rolling up into his head as he tried to stay awake. Nick, feeling woozy himself, rushed against him and again forced the mask onto his face and opened the valve.

This time, the assassin was too weak to push it away, and within seconds he had stopped moving entirely.

Nick switched off the gas, struggling to maintain consciousness. He’d only gotten a brief whiff himself, but it was enough to nearly knock him out. Apparently the stuff was some kind of concentrated anesthetic. He needed to get out of the elevator fast.

Fumbling, he reversed the emergency stop button, taking them down to the lobby. There weren’t many people around at this time of day: visiting hours were over, so no one immediately noticed him staggering out of the elevator. He didn’t dare use the main exit; instead he went deeper into the first floor, along a hall, and into a back room. With clean air to breathe he was able to steady himself enough not to attract too much attention as he moved purposefully to the employee exit.

 

###

 

By the time the police had arrived to examine the dead man in the elevator, Nick Windworth was back in his own apartment, weighing his options.

Jenny Chen was safe, for now, and with such a spectacular failure on his hands, Mistretta wouldn’t try for her again in a hurry. He was much more likely to come after Nick for messing up his plans, whatever they were. Not to mention that he had now killed a man, his fingerprints would be on the canister, and he’d committed auto theft in broad daylight. Not a lot of positive spins you could put on that.

The smart thing to do now would be to get out of town, to disappear just as he’d planned to before all this had started. He knew perfectly well that once he left Los Angeles he could vanish so thoroughly that no one would ever find him.

That was the best option, and he would need to move fast to make it happen. Yet he hesitated, sitting in his tiny room, smoking a cigarette and looking, to all appearances, as though he hadn’t a care in the world. He still ached from torture and the fight; his head throbbed and his side was sore, but he seemed indifferent to the pain. He was thinking hard.

After a short while he picked up the phone and dialed.

“Angel, my love, tell me you have news,” he said.

“You sure can pick ‘em, Breezy, that’s all I’ll say,” she answered. “Jenny Chen is the daughter of Joseph Chen, who is a lawyer with the District Attorney’s office.”

“A lawyer, huh?”

“Right. And here’s the interesting part: for the last few weeks, Chen’s been trying to put together a big case…”

“Let me guess,” said Nick. “Against Tony Mistretta?”

“No,” she answered. “Against Eugenio Gallano.”

Nick started. All at once, Mistretta’s taunt about having no motive for killing Jenny Chen made perfect sense. He didn’t have a motive, but Gallano did. If Mistretta killed her on Gallano’s behalf, it would have been very hard to link either of them to it, since no one suspected…

“They’re in it together,” he groaned.

“What?”

“Mistretta and Gallano have done a deal,” said Nick. “They’re collaborating on select crimes so that neither one is implicated. Local gangs and organized crime in one neat little package.”

Angel whistled.

“If that’s the case, I want I want nothing to do with it,” she said. “Digging up public records is one thing; tangling with Gallano is something else. You best find someone else to do your dirty work from now on.” Then, after a pause, she added (as though grudgingly), “And watch yourself, Breezy; this is all way outside our league.”

She hung up. Nick put the phone down, thinking.

Even with the money he’d paid Angel, he still had enough to get out of town. He could be out of LA within an hour, and free of all this. It would be so easy.

He’d leave it all behind: Gallano with his drug war tearing up the city, Mistretta sending assassins after innocent kids because their parents were trying to do the right thing, a police force that was half corrupt, half oblivious to just what was going on…

LA was becoming a warzone. War was something Nick had had enough of. It wasn’t his job anymore. The police could handle it. There probably wouldn’t be too many more people killed before they figured out the full extent of what was happening, as they surely would sooner or later. It wasn’t his concern.

Nick stubbed out his cigarette, picked up the receiver, and dialed. The phone rang several times before it was picked up.

“Yes?” said a female voice.

“I need to speak with Detective Crane,” said Nick. “I’ve got some…important information for him.”

“He isn’t available right now,” she said. She had a faint, but very peculiar accent that Nick couldn’t quite place, though it was pleasant to listen to. “Perhaps you can tell me? I’m his partner.”

“Detective Archer!” he said, unable to resist. “Sounds like you’ve had a little work done.”

“No, not Detective Archer!” she snapped. “He is on medical leave; this is Detective Stillwater. Who is this?”

“Nice to make your acquaintance, Detective Stillwater,” said Nick. “Just tell Crane that old Breezy has something he’ll want to hear about the Gallano case.”

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Karen Stillwater in Deadly Currents

KS 3-1

It was her first murder.

Detective Karen Stillwater knelt over the body of the young Black man lying in the street, his face turned upwards to the sky, his eyes wide, lips slightly parted as though bewildered by what had happened to him. His gray t-shirt had been dyed red from the three bullet-holes lined across his chest.

It was an ugly sight: tragic, senseless, and cruel. It made her feel queasy. But Karen couldn’t let anyone know that.

Be professional, she told herself. Do your job. Show them you can.

Methodically, without turning a hair, Karen studied the dead man, forcing herself to take in every detail. She looked closely at the wounds, examined his clothes, then checked his hands and his shoes.

She frowned and sat back on her heels, thinking.

“Well, Stillwater?” said Detective Larry Pallin, her new partner. “You done?”

“Yes,” she said, rising to her feet and letting the CSI guys get back to work. She put a hand under her chin, thinking.

“Not a pretty sight, is it?” said Pallin. “Third big shoot out this week, and always someone else getting hurt. Welcome to the big city.”

Karen looked from the dead man lying in the middle of the street to the second crime scene down at the corner, where Detectives Crane and Archer were dealing with the aftermath of the clash between the Gallano crime syndicate and the Mexican cartel. The two powerful crime gangs had been tearing up northern and eastern LA for as long as she’d been on the force, and the police were under more and more pressure to get a lid on things.

Well, she had wanted a challenge.

“You know,” Pallin went on. “You don’t have to go over every body with a fine-tooth comb, especially in a case like this where we know what happened. I know you’re trying to impress us city folk, but you’re overdoing it.”

Karen felt a surge of indignation at his patronizing tone, but didn’t show it. She didn’t like Pallin. He was a heavy-set man with bad skin and small, pig-like eyes; the kind of man she instinctively avoided most of the time. She suspected she’d be paired with him as a kind of hazing ritual; seeing whether the small-town cop could hold her own with the city guys. Well, the fact was that she could. At least, that’s what she told herself. In any case, she wasn’t going to let Detective Pallin spoil this opportunity for her. She pushed her feelings aside and focused on the matter at hand.

“Pallin, does anything strike you as strange about him?” she asked. She had a very unusual voice: low for a young woman, and with slight, but peculiar accent. The product of growing up with an English father and a Mexican mother.

Pallin looked at her and laughed.

“Oh, come on! Don’t try to make a mystery of it…”

“I’m serious,” she said. “Take a closer look.”

He sighed, then as though to humor her looked at the body.

“Nothing strange,” he said. “An unlucky kid walking down the street runs into a shoot-out, gets hit. Happens all the time.”

“Look at his hands, and his left knee,” she said. “They’re freshly scraped. Here!” she said, speaking aloud to the CSI guys. “Check the pavement between here and the curb; look for fibers and blood residue.”

“What are you talking about?” Pallin asked.

“That shows he stumbled,” she said. “Maybe tripped, maybe he was running.”

“Of course he was running; people were shooting half a block away.”

“Then why would he run out into the street?” she asked. She pointed at the sidewalk from which, judging by the position of the body, he must have come.

“There are plenty of places to take cover back there; he could have ducked into the doorway of the shop, or behind a car, or a few more feet he could have gone down an alleyway, instead he races out into the open so eagerly he falls and scraps his knee?”

Pallin looked from the body to the curb to Karen. He waved a hand as though trying to hold her off.

“No, you’re overthinking this,” he said.

“Then what would you say happened?” she said. “How do you account for those scrapes?”

“He could have gotten them earlier today,” he said.

“They look fresh to me,” she said. “Besides, that’s why I’m having them check the pavement. Anything?” she added, addressing the forensic guys.

“Little bit of blood here,” said one of them, pointing.

“Of course there’s blood; he got three 7.62 round through his chest! Look, Stillwater, you probably haven’t been around bodies a lot back in little old Springwood, but most of the time they’re pretty straightforward. This is not a mystery. The kid just got caught in the crossfire. Nothing to see.”

“Maybe that is what we’re meant to think,” she said, swallowing her irritation.

Pallin laughed again, and it took all of Karen’s self-control to maintain her outward calm. If she lost her temper, then they’d all say she couldn’t do this job. They’d call her overemotional and touchy and say she wasn’t cut out for the stress. Or if they didn’t, she herself would.

“What’s going on?” asked Detective Crane, drifting over to see how their branch of the scene looked. “You find anything?”

“Yes,” said Karen before Pallin could speak. “His hands and knee are scraped as if he tripped.”

Crane raised his eyebrows. He was a thirty-year veteran, solid and reliable. If he said there was nothing in it, Karen might decide he was right.

“What do you mean, tripped?” he said.

“Could have happened anywhere anytime,” said Pallin.

“I think,” said Karen, ignoring her partner. “That it shows he was running, running out into the street. Or else…” another idea had just struck her. “Or else that he was pushed.”

“Pushed?”

“Pushed into the line of fire,” she said.

“That’s ridiculous!” said Pallin.

“Does sound a little far-fetched,” said Crane, tapping his chin. “How long have been on the force, Stillwater?”

She sighed.

“About ten days.”

“Before that you were in…Springwood, isn’t it?”

“That’s right,” she said. She wanted badly to say that she had received many commendations in the Springwood PD, that she had been the youngest officer to be promoted to detective in that city’s history, that she’d had a nearly flawless record of solving crimes, even if she’d never had a murder before. But she held her tongue.

“Not a lot of murders there, I imagine.”

“No, sir,” she said. “This is my first. But,” she added, unable to help herself. “That doesn’t change the fact that this man fell to the ground and scrapped his hands and knee shortly before death. But, as far as I can see, that doesn’t fit with the idea that he was just casually crossing the street when he got caught in the crossfire, which is what Detective Pallin says must have happened.”

Crane examined the body, noting the scrapes.

“What do you think, Pallin?” he said.

“I think she’s making a lot out of nothing, sir.”

“Well, I don’t think it’s nothing,” he said, standing up. “All right, Stillwater, this is your rabbit; you chase it. Find out what you can about this guy, see if anyone might have a reason for wanting him out of the way, especially anyone connected with either gang.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, trying very hard not to show how thankful she was. Pallin rolled his eyes.

###

All her life, Karen Stillwater had wrestled with feelings of inadequacy. She didn’t think much of her own appearance; slender, medium height, black hair, dark eyes, nothing special there. She knew most people were smarter than she was, more talented, more athletically skilled. She had that odd voice and was overly emotional.

But, though she was, in her own estimation, unremarkable in every way, she did have a strong capacity for hard work. And so, ever since she was a girl, she’d thrown herself into mastering every challenge that came her way. She wasn’t especially smart, so she’d studied hard every night to maintain straight ‘A’s in school. She wasn’t naturally athletic, so she’d practiced relentlessly until she became captain of the school softball and soccer teams. And when she became a police officer, she’d worked unceasingly to master her job, to make detective, and then to get a job with the LAPD. Life, as far as Karen was concerned, was a series of challenges to be met and overcome through discipline and hard work.

This case was no different.

A little basic investigation revealed the dead man’s name was Rudy Moran, that he had no known living family, and that he worked down at a marina about two miles from where his body was found. Accounts from co-workers were that he was a nice kid who drove his boat well and was generally liked by the customers. Upon further inquiry and some careful guesswork, however, Karen learned that Moran had sometimes done work for a rather unsavory group of men, most of them Mexican, who sometimes hired him for jaunts at night, past the usual times the boats were supposed to be out.

“Rudy needed the money,” his friend Colin explained. “Only, I’m starting to think there must have been something wrong with the whole set up, because he seemed to be getting kind of depressed the last few days. Like, confused, you know? He kept saying like he wanted to get out of this job and do something else, but didn’t know what. I figured he was just getting restless, wanted to move on with his life.”

Karen noted this down carefully and after a little more questioning to ascertain a description of Moran’s unsavory business partners, she radioed it in and received word that the description fitted a gang of suspected low-level dealers who operated out of a crack house down by the LA river

So it was that a little before noon the day after Rudy Moran’s death, Karen Stillwater marched up to the dilapidated old house with her partner trailing reluctantly behind.

The house smelled bad; body-odor, vomit, blood, and urine in a repulsive cocktail of smells. As bad as the smell was the sound; profane rap music cranked obnoxiously loud. The door was opened by a tattooed youth with a shaved head and a mean eye. His first reaction on seeing Karen was to eagerly look over her body, until she held up her badge, whereupon he looked suddenly angry, almost affronted, as though she’d tricked him.

“LAPD,” Karen said in Spanish (she was fluent in the language, having grown up speaking Spanish and English interchangeably). “We have some questions.”

The man leaned against the doorframe, eying her with a predator’s gaze.

“Do you?” he said. “Why don’t you come in and ask them?”

He stood back and gestured at the interior. She could see several more young men, all looking at least as mean as her host, and all turning in her direction like dogs that had scented prey. She suddenly had the nasty impression that, for all she was a cop, she wasn’t the one in authority here.

“Think we can settle this here,” she said. “What can you tell me about Rudy Moran?”

The young man’s eyes flashed with surprise, then anger. Several of the others approached the door, looking at each other.

“Not a damn thing,” he said. “Never heard of him.”

The gang members drifted out onto the porch, fanning out, all looking at Karen like jackals circling a bit of carrion. Karen glanced back at Pallin, who stood behind her on the porch. She didn’t care to rely on him, but he seemed as alert as she could hope, one hand on his sidearm.

“Really?” said Karen, determined to maintain her poise. “Because I am told that you often hired him to take you out to sea at night.”

“We like the water,” said the man, grinning and showing his yellow teeth. “We like being wet.”

“Then you do admit to knowing him?” she said.

The gangster opened his mouth, the abruptly realized his crude comment had cost him his excuse. His face went from a leer to snarl with animal swiftness.

“What do you think you’re doing, girl cop?” he said. “You trying to trick us, are you?”

“You knew Rudy Moran. You paid him for the use of his boat after regular hours,” Karen said, her voice steady even as she tensed with alarm. One hand rested on her sidearm, the other on her chin as though in thought, but really ready to block in case he tried to swing at her.

“So what?” the man snarled.

“So he was killed last night under suspicious circumstances,” she said. “Where did you all happen to be last night?”

The gangster licked his lips and looked at the others. They seemed to waiting his signal, glaring at Karen with dangerous expressions.

“You got no right to ask that,” said the leader. “Now get out, bitch cop! Get out and don’t come back unless you want a hard greeting.”

Karen looked straight at him and raised her eyebrows in an expression of disdain.

“Very well,” she said. “If that’s how you want it.”

She backed away and she and Pallin descended the porch, careful not to turn their backs as they retreated. The gang memebers watched them go, then drifted back into the house.

“That was instructive,” said Pallin once they got back into the car. “What was he saying anyway?”

Karen, who was trying to quiet her nerves following the alarming scene, was unable to disguise a look of irritation. She drew a deep breath, then gave him a summary before adding, “You know, being a cop in LA, you really ought to learn Spanish.”

“Why do you think we hired you?” he said, taking out a cigarette. “Though if we knew what a pest you’d be…”

He trailed off, blew out a stream of smoke, and said, “So, since you’re apparently the expert now, what do you recommend we do?”

“I we report back to Crane, let him know what we found out,” she said. “I think it’s clear these guys are hiding something, so I’ll recommend returning with backup, possibly getting a search warrant. Then we’ll go from there.”

“Interesting,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I was just thinking, we don’t really have a lot to go on; only our own impressions, right? Impressions that these guys are clearly involved somehow.”

“What of it?”

He gestured at the house with his cigarette.

“They know we’re onto them now, right? And if they went through all that trouble to make Moran’s death look accidental, then they must be scared of something. They’ll figure something leaked and maybe try to find a way to plug the hole.”

“You mean…”

“I mean, if we keep our huevos on them, they might just give themselves away.”

Karen smiled. She couldn’t help it. She’d won Pallin over, and at the moment he didn’t seem quite so bad.

“I think you mean our ojos,” she said. “Eyes.”

“Oh, yeah?” he said. “What’d I say?”

“You said huevos. That means ‘eggs.’ Though it also can mean…something else.”

He glanced at her, and they both laughed.

The old house where the gang had its headquarters was separated from the river by a narrow lot that was in the process of being turned into a gas station. No one was working there today, and bits of equipment stood empty while the huge storage tanks remained half-buried in the earth. There were, however, still clumps of bushes by the riverside, from which they could watch the house without being easily seen themselves. In particular, they had a clear view of the rusty van parked behind the house. If the gang was going to go anywhere, they’d be using that.

They didn’t speak much as they watched the house, and the hours crawled by with agonizing slowness. Karen had been on stakeouts before, and she knew the boredom that came with them, though this was worse than usual as, despite their new-found understanding, she still didn’t really feel like talking to Pallin. The neighborhood around them was oddly quiet, apart from the blaring sounds coming from the crack house and the churning of the river behind them (they had had a wet summer and it was running unusually high). So, she ran her fingers over the rosary in her pocket, mentally reviewed all she could recall of the LA penal code, and watched the huge black storm clouds gathering around them.

“Looks like we’re in for quite a storm,” said Pallin after four hours of waiting with nothing better to comment on.

“That will complicate things,” said Karen. “Maybe we should call Crane to have someone else out here…”

“We’ll see it if they try to go anywhere,” he pointed out. “Don’t worry; a storm’d be as big a problem for them as it would be for us.”

Karen didn’t see it that way, but before she could argue the point Pallin opened the door.

“Gotta go take care of a little business,” he said. “Keep an eye on the place, will you?”

He climbed out and Karen couldn’t prevent herself from rolling her eyes. He hadn’t been gone more than a minute or two when the storm broke.

There was no drizzle or lead-in to the storm; it was as though a giant hand had turned over an enormous bucket in the sky, dumping torrents of huge drops upon Los Angeles. They had already had more rain than usual this year, and this storm was already promising to be a monster. The house was almost completely blocked from sight within moments, and the van was soon hidden in the mist and rain.

Swallowing her frustration at this turn of events, Karen tried to consider it calmly. The storm had been predicted on the morning weather report. You could see the cloud build up for hours. Obviously, the gang members in the house had known it was coming. Presumably, they had been waiting for it. It would give them the cover they needed to slip away unnoticed, despite Pallin’s assurances to the contrary. But that cover would work both ways.

She reached behind the seat for her poncho, pulled it over her head, and stepped out into the storm. The rain hit her like bullets, and she pulled the hood down low over her face. Hastily, she made her way around the edge of the construction site, keeping as much to the bushes as possible. She meant to find a spot where she could watch the car in the driveway.

Part way there, however, the heavy figure of Detective Pallin loomed suddenly into sight, his head bowed against the driving rain. They nearly ran into each other.

“Stillwater!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing out here?”

“Keep it down!” she snapped. “I can’t see from the car, so I’m going to watch from the bushes. I’ll radio you when they’re leaving, then you can follow them.”

He gave her an odd, frustrated look.

“No, you go back to the car: I’ll watch…” he said.

This was patently absurd.

“You don’t even have a poncho,” she said. “Anyway, what does it matter?”

He groaned, shaking his head in irritation.

“Damnit, Stillwater, you should have stayed in the car.”

With that, he reached for his gun.

Perhaps he was banking on surprise, or maybe he expected the small-town girl to be slow to react to danger. But Karen had put herself through rigorous defensive training, and as soon as she saw his hand going for his pistol, she reacted instinctively. They were only a few feet apart, and she closed the remaining distance with the speed of a striking snake, seized his wrist to keep the gun in the holster and drove her knee into his groin. He made a noise like a landed fish and sank to his knees, one hand clutching his crotch, his meaty face purple with pain. Karen tore the gun out of his limp grip and stepped back, aiming it at him.

“What,” she gasped. “Are you doing?”

He heaved a deep breath, gritted his teeth, and looked at her with fury.

“You think you’re so smart,” he gasped, speaking in fluent Spanish. “You figure it out.”

Karen’s heart was racing, but her mind was scrupulously clear. She began to put things in order. Moran had been involved with the Mexicans, helping them bring in their shipments. Colin had said he was getting uncomfortable with the job. He wanted out. He probably suspected that what he was doing was illegal, so he would naturally go to the police. He’d speak to a detective…someone like Pallin. Pallin, who had been so reluctant to admit there was anything wrong with the body, whom Moran might have trusted, and who therefore could have been in a perfect position to lure him into a trap. Why? Because he were on the same payroll as the thugs in the house.

“You’re under arrest,” she said.

“Don’t bet on it,” he grinned.

Karen sensed movement to her right. She turned, saw two of the gang members heading toward her out of the storm, weapons in hand. She turned and fired, dropping them in three quick shots. She turned back to Pallin, but he was already up and on her, his huge arms encircling her slender body, pinning her arms to her side. She kicked out, but he’d learned his lesson and blocked his groin with his knee. He fumbled for the gun, trying to make her drop it. It fell from her grip onto the muddy ground, and she kicked it as hard as she could before he could grab it, sending the gun flying off into the storm. She still had her own weapon holstered by her side.

Pallin realized this too, for he suddenly released her and grabbed at her pistol. She caught his wrist as he drew it from her holster, twisting it hard. He was much stronger than she was, but with the right leverage, that didn’t matter. He yelled in pain, and the gun slipped from his grasp. Elbowing him in the face, she dove for the weapon, caught it up from the ground, but slipped in the mud as she tried to rise. Pallin caught her wrist and wrenched it hard. The gun flew from her grasp and went spinning out of sight.

Karen used a reversing technique to break his hold, but with both guns lost she was at a disadvantage. She thought she was likely the more skilled fighter, but Pallin had several times her body mass, and that, she knew, counted for much more in the end. Her best option was to get out of there and call for backup.

With that in mind, she turned and ran. She would be faster than he was, she didn’t doubt it. With the driving rain, she could easily evade him, find a place to radio headquarters.

Karen was not a girl who normally forgot important details. She had a gift for noting and retaining vital information regarding the world around her, which was one of the things that made her a much better cop than she herself would admit. But, in this case, she did forget one very pertinent detail; that they were in a construction site.

She hadn’t gone more than ten paces, when the ground seemed suddenly to give way beneath her. She pitched forward, her knees landing hard on the smooth metal surface of one of the underground storage tanks that had not yet been fully buried. She scrambled to rise, but as she did so, Pallin caught up to her. He shoved her back down, then pulled open the lid of the tank. As she struggled to rise again, slipping on the smooth wet surface, he wrapped his powerful arms around him, lifted her kicking and screaming into the air, and dropped her straight down into tank itself.

The tank was huge; at least six feet around, and already the bottom was covered in rainwater. Karen landed hard on the curved inner surface, falling onto her behind. As she staggered to her feet, a heavy piece of rebar was jammed across the top of the opening, while at the same time the lid was closed over it, leaving about three inches through which rainwater continued to pour in.

Karen jumped up, caught the edge of the opening, and tried to push the lid up. But it wouldn’t budge. On closer examination, she saw that the rebar had been jammed through the gap between the lid and its hinges, meaning that the bar blocked the lid from opening further, while the lid held the bar in place. It would probably be possible to dislodge it by hand, but not from her position.

She dropped back down into the tank, just as Pallin spoke into the gap.

“Can you hear me, Stillwater? This would have been so much easier if you’d just sat in the car. Then when I shot you it would have just looked like the gang had gotten the drop on you. I don’t know what they’ll think now, but by then I’ll be long gone, and so will you. Oh, look at that!” he added with a cruel laugh. “The river’s starting to overflow! Don’t see that very often. Enjoy your swim, Stillwater.”

Momentarily losing control, Karen shrieked a curse at him as he walked off, still laughing.

The water was rushing in at a frightening rate. This was a once-a-decade kind of storm. The heavens were throwing gallons upon gallons of water at the Earth, as though God were again seeking to drown all life. The filthy water surged about Karen’s knees as she paced anxiously across the bottom of the tank, trying to think of a way out. She couldn’t dislodge the jammed rebar, and she couldn’t open the tank without removing it. Her radio, she found, had been knocked free during the struggle.

The water rose about her thighs, and still nothing was occurring to her. The bundle of nerves that was always present in her heart, but usually kept quiet was beginning to quicken. But she still had time. Time to think…

Then more than rainwater began to flow in. The stream became an onrushing flood, and the water seemed to leap up about her body. She knew at once what had happened: the river had indeed overflowed its banks under the downpour and now was beginning to flow across the construction site into the tank.

The water climbed to her waist within minutes and mounted still higher.

“Help!” Karen shouted, panicking at last. She grabbed the edge of the tank and got as close to the opening as she could without putting her face into the onrushing water. “Hello! Can anyone hear me? I’m trapped! Help me!

No one came. No one could hear her over the rushing water, the pouring rain, and the thunder rumbling overhead. She kicked frantically, trying to propel herself higher. The tank was better than half full already and climbing rapidly, and still there was no way out.

Karen had considered that she might die in the line of duty, but she’d never expected an end like this. It seemed wrong, somehow: unfair. To be trapped, helpless, and have to watch her own doom rising about her was not how a policewoman should die.

If only she’d been smarter! If only she’d noticed the signs of Pallin’s duplicity sooner. If she were as clever as she pretended to be, she wouldn’t be about to die like this…

Get a grip on yourself! She thought in sudden fury. You are not stupid, and you are not helpless! Just calm down and think!

Holding onto the edge of the tank, the water climbing up her torso, Karen drew a deep breath of damp, stale air and willed herself to be calm. This was only another challenge, like any other: how does one escape an underground tank that is rapidly filling with water?

The only way out was the hatch. The hatch was jammed. So, she had to remove the jam. Half hanging, half floating, the onrushing water pouring over her head and shoulders, Karen grabbed the bit of rebar and tugged. It was wedged into the latch mechanism; the lid was holding it in place.

So, she had to take some of the pressure off of the latch.

Karen transferred her grip from the edge of the tank wall to the lid itself. The water was now past her chest; if she were still standing on the bottom of the tank it would have been over her head. But the rising water level was a help in a way; it made her buoyant and gave her easier leverage to attack the jammed rebar.

Holding onto the edge of the lid with her left hand, Karen gripped the rebar and pulled. It didn’t budge. She braced one knee against the side of the conical entrance and pulled again. This time it yielded a little, just a little, but enough to convince her its removal was possible.

Only she was rapidly running out of the time. The water was about her throat now, her black hair was floating about her face in a dark halo. She tugged hard and the rebar gave another inch. She spat out a stream of water and pulled again, and it gave a little more.

With terrifying swiftness, the waters rose past her face, and Karen abruptly found herself submerged. Terror bubbled up in her chest, but she couldn’t lose control now, not now of all times. She let go of the lid entirely, gripped the rebar in both hands, braced her feet against the side of the tank and tugged with all her might. The bar gave several inches more, but in the churning, filthy water she couldn’t see how much there was to go.

Karen’s lungs were aching. She was fading fast. She had maybe seconds left before she blacked out. She braced herself and gave one last tug with all her might, and felt the end of the bar come free.

Kicking her legs, feeling as though her lungs were ready to burst, Karen kicked upwards, caught the edge of the tank with one hand, then pushed the lid back with the other, pulling herself up…

Her head broke the surface and she inhaled a great lungful of soggy air. She cough, retched, and pulled herself away from the tank, into the six-inch-deep sheet of water that now covered the entire lot and was spilling over the road. Her arms were sore from the tremendous effort she’d just exerted, and she felt weak and sick.

Crawling, she made her way to the pavement, feeling like a drowned rat. She staggered to her feet, still gulping air as though she could never have enough. She was trembling all over, the terrible thought of just how close she’d come to death pounding on her mind’s door, demanding to be heard.

But she didn’t have time for that. She still had work to do.

Taking one more deep, shuddering breath to steady herself, Karen thrust aside all consideration of what she’d escaped and focused on a single idea: get to a phone. Don’t let Pallin get away.

Moving as fast as her wobbly legs would take her, Karen set off down the road in search of a payphone. She hardly noticed the downpour anymore; she was already as soaked as she could get. All her mind was on this one object.

It seemed to take a long time, but at last, a few blocks from the flooded construction site, she found a phone booth, fumbled a few waterlogged coins out of her pocket and dialed Detective Crane’s number.

“Stillwater?” he said in surprised upon hearing her voice. “What are you…”

“Listen,” she said, interrupting him. “There’s not much time; we might be too late already.”

Hastily, she laid out everything that had happened and what she had deduced of Pallin’s treason. Crane listened with shock.

“I can’t believe this,” he said. “He’s been with the department for almost ten years; we’ve never…”

“Well, that’s over now,” said Karen. Between her impatience to be after Pallin and her recent near-death experience, her self-control was being pushed to the breaking point. “I am telling you, he is in the pay of the cartel and he has already tried to murder me twice. You have to get after him now, or he will be gone!”

“What direction did he go?”

Karen heisted. She really didn’t know. But if her judgment was correct…

“The marina,” she said. “He’s going to take a boat to Mexico. Tonight.”

“In this storm?”

“Perfect cover; no one else will be out. No one will see him go.”

“And he’s liable to drown himself,” Crane muttered. “All right; I’m on my way there. Where are you?”

She gave her location.

“All right; I’ll send a car to take you back to the station…”

“No!” she said. “I want to be there when you get him.”

He groaned.

“I’m getting really tired of girls with pluck,” he said. “Fine; I’ll have them bring you to the docks, and we’ll see if you get there in time.”

He hung up. Karen leaned against the wall of the phone booth, shivering a little. She was just realizing how chilly the rain was. She hugged herself tightly, hunched her shoulders, and watched for her ride.

While she waited, her natural insecurities began to reassert themselves: had she guessed right? What if Pallin was making for the border in a car? They might lose precious hours and he might get away. Then it would be her fault.

She tried to push the thoughts aside, but it wasn’t as easy this time as it usually was. The terrifying experience in the tank had left her more shaken than she would care to admit. Her emotions were pressing against her mind, demanding to be let out. But she couldn’t let go yet. Not yet.

At last the promised patrol car arrived and she got in behind the driver seat.

“Get to the marina,” she ordered to the two patrolmen. “Fast!”

They stared at her for a moment, no doubt shocked by her waterlogged appearance, but they obeyed. Karen brushed her soaking wet hair out of her face and was dismayed to see her hand was trembling violently.

“And I will need one of your side arms,” she added.

Again, the trip seemed to take too long. Surely Pallin would have had time to escape by now, and in this storm even the coast guard probably wouldn’t be able to catch him.

Calm down, she ordered herself. Keep a grip on yourself.

They arrived at last. Crane and Archer’s car was already there. So was Pallin’s. She’d guessed right, but were they in time? Karen leapt out of the squad car and hurried onto the docks. The sea was crashing against the shore, causing the moored ships to buckle and surge, along with the floating piers. Lightning flashed overhead and thunder pealed, but beyond that Karen thought she heard something else: something not unlike thunder.

Gunshots.

Staying low, holding the borrowed pistol high and ready, Karen proceeded along the dock, her eyes peeled for movement. Suddenly, a heavy figure appeared running up the pier towards her. She was behind a piling; he didn’t see her. Karen rose, aiming at him.

“Don’t move!” she shouted. “Drop it, or I’ll drop you!”

Pallin froze, staring through the rain at the soaking wet apparition of his former partner.

“But…but you’re…”

“Drop it!”

He obeyed. The sight of her had broken the last of his resistance. A moment later, Crane came running behind him, cuffs in hand. As he apprehended the dirty cop, he looked at the young small-town detective and laughed.

“Good work, Stillwater,” he said.

Karen lowered her pistol and let out a deep sigh of relief.

###

They were back at headquarters. Pallin, along with the surviving gang members from the drug house, had just been booked and Karen had sworn out her statement against him.

She had learned that Archer was hit in the shootout; Pallin had gotten him in the hip. Fortunately he wasn’t in any serious danger, but it did mean he’d be out of commission for a while.

The paperwork on this was going to be a nightmare, but for now Crane had insisted on treating her to some of the brown sludge that passed for coffee around there.

“This is getting out of hand,” said Crane in a low voice, sitting next to her on a bench in the hallway and eying the cops going to and fro with an uneasy expression. “Bad enough these gangs are turning parts of LA into Juarez, but now they’re getting cops on their side. Cops I would have thought untouchable.”

“We’ll get them,” she said. “It isn’t the first time the LAPD has had to deal with this sort of thing, right?”

“Mm,” Crane said in a dubious tone. “I’m not sure. There’s something different about it this time. Even for a crime syndicate, Gallano seems to have too much money; too many connections. Same with the Mexicans. And despite all the blood and shooting, this is the first real arrest we’ve had in the case. I can’t figure it; it’s as if…as if there’s more going on. More that we can’t see.”

Karen looked at him in surprise and some alarm.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. That’s the trouble.” He sighed and gulped his coffee. “Time will tell, I guess. Always does.”

The old man looked at the girl. He suddenly smiled.

“You know,” he said. “Times like this you appreciate having a good cop to back you up. I’m lucky in that I got one for my partner, but thanks to this business Archer’s gonna be out of it for a while. So, looks to me like we’re both in the market for backup, so to speak.. What would you think of going into it together, at least until this mess is settled?”

A smile pulled at the corners of Karen’s mouth. She fought to keep it down.

“I would appreciate that,” she said. “Thank you for the opportunity.”

“Good,” he said, shaking hands. “Now, since I’m your partner, I can take car of your paperwork. You go home and get some rest.”

“No, I’m fine…”

“Karen,” he said, in an unexpectedly gentle voice. “I’ve been doing this job for nearly thirty years; I’ve seen cops like you before, trying to keep yourself completely in control all the time. After a day like this, if you don’t take some time to rest and let all that inner turmoil out, you’re going to snap like a bowstring. And like I just said, we need cops like you.”

The last thing Karen wanted was to show how badly she had wanted this. So, using up the very last of her self-control, she simply smiled, thanked him politely, and walked out of the station.

The storm was still going when she reached her car. Karen was glad of that. For, with the rain still pouring down, no one would be able to see her when she finally permitted herself to let go.

 

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Andre Fireson in Fire From Behind

AL 2

The alarm went off as usual at four-thirty in the morning. Andre Fireson hit it, rolled out of bed, and switched on the lights. He stretched like a tiger rising from a nap and looked up at the portrait of his father that hung on his bedroom wall.

Time to go win another day.

Andre went straight to the punching bag that hung in the corner of his expansive bedroom. Gloves on, he began methodically working the bag to get his blood going. As he worked, he chanted to himself:

“You’re the boss. You’re a killer. You’re a king.”

The bag was knocked further and further with each swing. Soon he was sending it reeling and buckling with each blow. Andre had worked hard to make his body as powerful as his mind. Also (though he would never admit it), it was a way to compensate for the fact that he only stood about five-foot-five at best.

Finishing his morning workout, Andre toweled off and went to breakfast, which, as it was a fine morning, was being served on the balcony overlooking his back garden. Andre’s house stood at the top of a large hill on the outskirts of Los Angeles, giving him a spectacular view of the distant skyline. The house itself was a stately stone affair that had been built to dominate the hilltop and draw the eye of any passing motorists.

On the balcony, Andre sat down to his usual meal of eggs and toast, prepared by his valet, cook, and manservant, Marco Benton. Marco was so skilled at his job that he had learned to time his cooking perfectly so that the meal arrived, freshly cooked, at the exact same time as his employer.

“Morning, boss,” he said, bestowing his customary chipped-tooth grin on Andre.

“Morning, Marco,” said Andre, settling down to his meal. Marco had a body like a fridge, a face like a sledgehammer, and hands like cannonballs. When he was a young man he’d first put his talents to work as muscle for the mob, before a chance encounter had awakened his love of cooking. He’d gotten out of the criminal racket, entered the hospitality industry, and by degrees had found his way into the employ of the Fireson family under Andre’s father. In wake of the elder Fireson’s untimely death, he had acted for a time as legal guardian for Andre, who was then sixteen years old. Now, ten years later, though they maintained the relationship of employer and employee, they were really much more like close friends, despite their wildly different backgrounds and personalities.

“Here’s your paper,” said Marco, spreading out the LA Times before him. “I marked off what I thought were the most interesting stories.”

“Any word on the African situation?”

“Nothing new,” was the answer. “Seems the President – that’s our President – he’s sending some ambassadors to try to set up another round of peace talks.”

“Seventh time’s the charm, huh?” Andre muttered, skimming the story. He shook his head. “I suppose they have to keep up appearances, but they’re not fooling anyone; least of all Kananga. We’ll have war by the end of the year at the latest.”

Marco made a noise of commiseration as Andre flipped to another story. He’d expected nothing less. As the president of an expanding armaments firm, he had lots of contacts in the military and they had all warned him long ago that this war was coming. The situation in Africa had been a powder keg ever since the formation of the East African Coalition under the barely-concealed hand of the Soviets. Now General Kananga, president of Tanzania and de-facto head of the coalition, seemed hell-bent on setting it off. It was disgusting, but there was nothing Andre could do about it. Stopping the war wasn’t his job; his job was selling the best weapons possible to the US Military so that at least the boys on the ground would be well equipped for the job.

Assuming, that is, he could land one of the contracts the Army was passing out. Andre had already invested a hefty amount of capital towards that end in terms of lobbying and creating new projects. A long-term deal with the military could mean big things for Firebird Arms.

About this point the doorbell rang. Marco answered it while Andre read a piece on the Presidential campaign. So far Senator Alphonso Taft was in a dead-heat with former Secretary of State Howard Taylor.

He looked as Marco came in, accompanied by two men; one a stocky, square-jawed man who looked just the other side of fifty with iron gray hair a deeply lined face. The other was younger; about thirty-five or so, tall and with slick, black hair and a belligerent expression.

“’Scuse me, boss,” said Marco. “But these guys are from the police.”

“Police?” said Andre, laying down his paper in surprise. “What brings you here?”

The older man held out his badge.

“Detectives Crane and Archer,” he said. “Mind if we ask you a few questions, Mr. Fireson?”

“Would it matter if I did?” Andre asked.

“Only to you,” said Archer.

“Then have a seat,” he said, gesturing. “Can I get you anything?”

“No, thanks; this won’t take long.”

The two men sat down and looked at the businessman. Then Detective Crane started right in without any further preamble.

“Don’t suppose the papers have gotten hold of it yet, but there was a bad shooting in Pacoima last night.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“Gang warfare,” Crane explained. “Won’t bore you with the details, but the point is that a heavily armed compound run by a Mexican cartel was hit by a group of men linked to the Gallano crime syndicate. Almost everyone inside was killed. They got some shots off of their own, took out a goodly number of the attackers; about ten people dead in all. That’s not counting the one civilian that got hit by a stray round.”

“That’s terrible,” said Andre. “What’s it got to do with me?”

“Our CSI boys were confused at first, because it looked as though the first few victims were taken out behind a blank wall with precision, high-power shots. As if whoever hit them could aim right through it. Then we took a closer look at one of the guns recovered from the scene:”

He pushed a photo across the table. Andre stared at it. It showed a sleek, powerful rifle with a bulky scope attachment, and blazed onto the stock was the scarlet and orange emblem of Firebird Arms. Not that he needed it; he recognized the gun at once and swore aloud.

“One of yours, then?”

“Damn right, one of mine,” said Andre, who was growing angrier by the second as the full implications of the photograph sank in. “That’s the XR-7 rifle: we’re developing it for the Army, but it’s not on the market yet. He’ll, it’s not even out of development.”

“It shoots through walls then?”

“It uses thermal imagery and an onboard computer to track targets behind concealment,” Andre explained. “Then it fires a high-powered round to go through it.”

“Yeah, it certainly did that,” said Archer. “It went through two walls, then traveled three blocks before piercing another wall to hit an old lady named Mrs. Nochez in her kitchen. I kind of would like to know why you thought the world needed a gun like this, Mr. Fireson.”

Andre fixed the detective with a cold eye.

“In case you don’t watch the news, Mr. Archer, we’re about to get into a war in Africa; I think our soldiers will appreciate being able to spot the enemy through jungle brush.”

“Never mind that now,” said Crane, giving his partner an admonitory look. “What we’d like to know, Mr. Fireson, is how this gun wound up in the hands of Mr. Gallano’s people?”

“Oh, you want to know that?” said Andre in a fierce tone. “Let me tell you something, detective; there are exactly three guns in the world like this, and all of them ought to be locked up in my research department. So I too would very much like to know just how this is possible. Can you suggest anything?”

“So far, only that you ought to have better security,” said Archer.

###

            On the way to the office following his interview with the two detectives, Andre brooded over the unexpected crisis. The more he thought about it, the less he liked it.

First and foremost, of course, it was infuriating to learn that his weapons, which he’d intended to protect the American people, were instead being used by gangs to terrorize them. That was unacceptable.

From a purely business point of view, this couldn’t have happened at a worse time. A security breach like this, where the weapons weren’t just stolen but used in a violent crime, was the last thing the Army would want from its suppliers. If he didn’t get a lid on this soon, he could forget about landing any kind of contract for the near future.

But most important of all was the simple fact that this meant that one of his employees had betrayed him and sold or given one of his guns to criminals. That was more than unacceptable; that was personal.

The trouble was, he had many employees, though not too many with access to the prototypes. If he started looking around the company, then whoever the culprit was might bolt before he could lay hands on them.

He thought about it, then, just as they were arriving outside the building, he reached his decision.

“Marco,” he said. “Get in touch with Mr. Gallano. Find out his phone number, or if you can do that, see that he knows to call me.”

If Marco thought it at all strange that his employer was asking to speak to a crime lord, he didn’t show it. He merely nodded.

“I’ll have him call your office,” he said.

The world headquarters of Firebird Arms was a somber, modern building that wore no airs and gave no sign that it was anything but a normal office building, save for the scarlet and gold logo on the front door. As soon as Andre arrived, he went straight to his office on the top floor, where his secretary, Ida Turner, was already hard at work.

“Little late today, aren’t you, Mr. Fireson?” she said in a perky voice as he came in.

“Ida, cancel my meetings for this morning,” he said in a sharp tone. “And have Dr. Bortel send me a full report on the prototype XR-7s immediately.”

“Yes, sir,” she said with slightly alarmed expression.

She set to work. Andre paused before his inner office door and turned to look at her. Ida was a lovely girl, he thought: rich brown hair, a regal, intelligent face, and a form that made an ordinary gray suit look as glamorous as a ball gown. And she was a good secretary: always upbeat and efficient. A nice girl. He hadn’t meant to snap at her.

“Also, Ida?” he said in a softer voice.

“Yes, sir?”

“I might get a call this morning from a…disreputable person. If he does call, make sure you don’t give him any personal information.”

She raised her well-formed eyebrows.

“I don’t usually give out my home number to callers,” she said dryly.

“I know,” he said, a little embarrassed, but taking care not to let it show. “But just in case he asks, don’t even give him your name. He’s a dangerous man.”

“And you aren’t?” she said.

He smiled.

“Only sometimes,” he said. He checked his watch and scowled. “Send that notice to Dr. Bortel, will you please?”

“Right away, boss.”

Andre passed into his office, sat behind his desk and passed his hands over his face. What a day this was already!

He looked up at the two portraits that hung on his office wall: one was of his father, Louis Fireson, who had founded the company back in the 1940s, starting with nothing but a workshop and two assistants grinding out fine-crafted hunting rifles. The other was the Duke Andre Duroc, the last survivor of an ancient line of French aristocrats stretching back to the Crusades: near relatives of the Bourban dynasty, and noblemen all. Most of the family had been killed in the Revolution, and the Duke had finally fled France following the fall of Napoleon III. He’d wound up in America, where he vowed to rebuild their stolen wealth and shattered position. He’d changed his name to Fireson to reflect his phoenix-like aspirations, and from then on each son in his turn had fought to bring the family a little further back to their rightful place.

Andre didn’t really care that much about money. It was the family name that mattered to him. Wealth was only one way of honoring that. He shared the aspirations of his ancestors, the honor of their lineage, and he wanted more than anything to protect it. And now, thanks to this unexpected crisis, the name of Fireson might end up associated with barbarians like this Gallano or the cartels.

Dr. Bortel arrived soon after, a round, abstracted kind of man with white hair and small, round glasses.

“I don’t understand!” he wailed. “We were running tests on them only last Friday! I locked the safe myself…”

“How many are there now?”

“Just one,” he groaned. “We didn’t need to take them out or check on them for the past few days; that is why we didn’t notice the loss. But how could this have happened?!”

“That’s what I would like to know,” said Andre. He was alarmed to learn that there was a second XR out there in the city somewhere. Even with all his resources, it seemed doubtful he could recover it before the police called on him again with another shooting.

A few minutes after Bortel had left, while Andre was contemplating his predicament, Ida buzzed to let him know that Mr. Gallano was calling.

Andre glanced up at the painting of the Duke, then picked up the phone.

“Hello, Mr. Gallano.”

“Mr. Fireson,” came the voice of the crime lord. “I am surprised to hear you wish to speak to me.”

“Not as surprised as I was to learn that your people have been using my property,” Andre answered.

There was a pause on the other line.

“I…do not understand…”

“Oh, I think you do,” said Andre. “Your people hit a compound of the Mexican cartels last night, and they used one of my prototype XR-7 rifles to do it. I’ve seen the photos, Mr. Gallano, and I know my own work.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you are talking about,” said Gallano with maddening calm.

“Listen, I am not working with the police,” said Andre. “I’ll leave any legal matters up to them. Right now all I am concerned about, Mr. Gallano, is to know how you got your hands on my property. Because if I have a leak in my organization, I need to know about it right now.”

“I understand that, Mr. Fireson, but I do not think that I can help you.”

Even across the phone, Andre thought he detected a smug smile. Gallano, the feared crime boss, didn’t think he had anything to fear from the blustering young businessman. Well, perhaps it was time to correct that notion.

“Let’s put it this way, Mr. Gallano,” said Andre. “You’re a business man, you know what it’s like when you have a very important deal that’ll mean a lot of money for you and your operation. And you know how delicate something like that can be. Well, I am working on something like that right now. And if it that falls through because of this mess, then I’m going to have to find some new clients to make up my losses. Maybe I’ll start looking somewhere south of the border. Understand me?”

Gallano was silent. Andre sensed that, for the first time, he was truly paying attention.

“You wouldn’t dare…”

“Oh, you think not?” said Andre. “You know as well as I do, Mr. Gallano; you don’t rise to the top in any business by making empty promises. Just think on that.”

He slammed down the receiver without waiting for the gangster’s response. That would ruffle Gallano’s feathers a bit. Even if he didn’t give up details on the theft, he’d think twice before doing it again. Andre pulled out a cigarette and was pleased to see his hands were as steady as ever.

The fact was, his threats were empty. Andre wouldn’t dream of selling to the cartels; he’d burn the company to the ground himself stooping so low. But he’d found that when dealing with corrupt people, it was usually a good idea to make them think you were every bit as dirty as they were.

Feeling somewhat comforted by having taken the first steps toward solving the problem before him, Andre set to work dealing with the usual business of the day. Gallano, he was sure, would call back. He was a businessman too, and would recognize when the time had come for negotiations.

Sure enough, when Andre returned from lunch, Ida informed him that Gallano had called and left a return number. Andre grinned at her.

“Knew it,” he said.

“What are you doing, boss?” she asked. “You’re not getting mixed up in anything too…shady, are you?”

“Just the opposite,” he answered with a wink as he went into his office to call the crime lord.

“Mr. Gallano,” he said. “I got your message.”

“I thought about what you said,” came the answer. “And it occurs to me that maybe this is best dealt with in person. Man-to-man.”

Andre had already given this possibility some thought.

“I think you’re right. Where shall we meet?”

“I have a little restaurant not far from your office, I think. Perhaps we meet there about…eleven o’clock? After closing time, when we can speak privately.”

###

            The restaurant was a small, elegant affair down a little-used side street in the downtown area. During the day, this street of shops, cafes, and other businesses would be busy with foot traffic, but by night it was almost abandoned save for the odd pedestrian hurrying home.

“Stay sharp,” said Andre to Marco as they got out of the car.

“Always do, boss,” came the answer. Both men regularly carried pistols, and tonight they’d taken the added precaution of donning light body armor under their suits.

Glancing up and down the deserted streets, Andre knocked. The door was opened by a gorilla in an ill-fitting jacket, who glared over the two men before beckoning them inside. He felt them over and relieved them of their guns before gesturing towards the back of the restaurant.

Eugenio Gallano himself sat at a table that stood against a blank wall, out of view of any of the windows. He was not a tall man, though he had at least a head over Andre, and he was very thin, with pale, wrinkled skin, thin gray hair, a long, bony neck, and a pinched face with a hooked nose. He reminded Andre of a vulture. He did not stand up to greet Andre as he came in.

“Thank you for taking the time to meet with me,” said Gallano. “Please, sit.”

Andre did so. Marco stood behind him, exchanging glares with Gallano’s bodyguard like two rival dogs itching to prove who was alpha.

“I confess, I did not know quite what to make of your phone call,” Gallano began. “You see, I did not steal your rifle.”

“Oh? Then how did your people get hold of it?”

“I purchased it,” said the crime lord.

“Excuse me?”

“Yes, I received a notice in writing from your office last week offering me an advanced prototype rifle being designed for military use. It was in your name, and bearing your signature, so I naturally thought it must be legitimate.”

“Why would I see military-grade weapons to…well, to you?”

“According to the message, you wished to see how the rifle performed in real combat conditions, but I assumed the exorbitant price was the true motive.”

Andre leaned back in his chair, digesting this.

“And you paid that price?”

“I did. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss, with these Mexican animals trying to set up shop my territory. I thought the weapon as described would put the fear of God into them.”

“Well, here’s the problem, Mr. Gallano; I didn’t make any such offer,” said Andre.

“So I have gathered from your behavior, but that makes me wonder who would have done such a thing in your name?”

“Someone looking to make money, I suppose,” said Andre, frowning. That explanation, even as he said it, seemed to fall flat. There was too much effort put into this scheme for it to be a mere money grab.

“Why didn’t you mention any of this on the phone?” he asked.

Gallano smiled. It lent no warmth to his face.

“I have learned it is not wise to say too much over a phone line,” he said.

“I suppose not,” said Andre. “I’d like to see this message you claim to have received. Do you have it?”

“Of course,” said Gallano, reaching into a briefcase by his side. “I knew you would wish to see it.”

He drew out a sheet of paper and passed it across the table. Andre reached for it…and then hesitated. Something that Gallano had said suddenly stuck him as important.

“You said you purchased a rifle. One rifle?”

“Yes,” said Gallano, confused by the hesitation. “As you will see, that is what the agreement was for.”

“But I’m missing two.”

For a moment, time seemed to stand still. Andre’s eyes went from the contract on the table to the painted wall right next to them.

“GET DOWN!” he shouted, and even as he did so the green drywall blossomed white as the huge bullets tore through it.

Andre threw himself under the table. Marco was right beside him. He heard Gallano cry out, then a sickening wet impact sound and something heavy hit the floor.

He looked up, still hugging the carpet. Gallano was on the ground across from him, his face spattered with white plaster dust. Next to them, Gallano’s bodyguard lay sprawled on his back, face up, with quarter-sized red holes in his chest and stomach.

All this he saw in the blink of an eye, for almost no sooner had the dead palooka hit the ground than the whole restaurant was rock in an explosion. The bullets had not just been piercing the outer wall, but finding no other obstacle they had broken through into the kitchen, and the final two shots had struck the gas stove. The kitchen erupted in angry yellow flames, sending the swinging doors flapping like banners in a wind. Almost immediately, the fire caught, feeding on the oak rafters overhead and the wooden countertops as it spread greedily outward.

“Get him out of here!” Andre ordered Marco. “Call the police! I’ll take care of this.”

Marco was too loyal a servant to question him. He didn’t even pause to acknowledge the command, but seizing Gallano by the arm he dragged him to a crouch and hurried for the back exit before it was cut off by the flames.

Andre rose gingerly to his feet. He had helped design that weapon; he knew its capabilities and its weaknesses. With a raging fire at his back, the thermal sights would be overloaded and his own body heat would blend right into the background. At least, so he hoped. It would give him time to get out the front door, behind the cover of one of the parked cars, and hopefully get an idea of the would-be-assassin…

But there was no need. Even as he approached the door at a crouch, it was kicked open and a short, slim figure in black came in, cradling the missing XR-7 rifle.

Had Andre remained where he was by the table, he wouldn’t have had a chance. As it was, though, he was already almost on top of the man. Before the surprised assassin realized what was happening, Andre closed the remaining distance, seizing the barrel of the rifle with one hand and the stock with the other and twisted it free of the man’s grip before body-checking the assassin against the wall. Pinning him there, Andre took the chance to tear his mask off.

Only it wasn’t a man at all.

“Ida!” he exclaimed.

She fixed him with a glare of stinging hatred, and the next thing he knew she’d jabbed him in the stomach with a tazer. He stumbled back, she dove for the rifle, and he threw himself on top of her, preventing her from bringing it around to aim at him. Meanwhile, the fire that had started in the kitchen was spreading; the inner wall was crumbling, and the flames were already climbing the nearest booths.

The rifle went off once more, the powerful bullet slamming through the front of the shop. If this kept going, they were going to kill someone.

Andre hit Ida on the back of her head, hoping to knock her out, or at least take some of the fight out of her. It worked; she gave a gasp and went momentarily limp. He took the opportunity to haul her up and drag her to the door, away from both the rifle and the rapidly spreading flames.

As though some superhuman spirit was driving her, however (or perhaps because he hadn’t wanted to hit her too hard), Ida recovered her senses much too soon. With an animal-like snarl of rage, she twisted in his arms like a snake, slipping his grip before he could tighten it, turning and dropping an elbow direct onto his nose, which shattered with the impact. Momentarily blinded, Andre grabbed at her, catching her by the arm as she tried to make one more grab for the gun. This time he wasn’t as gentle, but threw her bodily in the direction of the door.

Eyes still watering from his shattered nose, charged after her, trying to regain his grip before she could recover her balance. But she seemed to have given up the idea of the rifle, which in any case now lay among growing flames. Instead, she fumbled for the door and staggered out into the street, away from the growing smoke. Andre, coughing, pursued her.

Ida crossed the empty street like a deer, and Andre raced after her, following her down an alleyway just in time to see her vanishing through the back door of one of the buildings. He charged in behind her.

As Andre cleared the door, his foot caught something in his path and he pitched forward, tried to recover, and was struck on the back of the head by something hard and blacked out.

When he came to, Andre found himself in an unfamiliar, bare room. His hands were cuffed behind his back, fixed to a radiator. There was no furniture in sight, only pale, dirty carpet. The lights were off, but a faint glow from a streetlamp shone through a barred window. There was the sound of soft footsteps and faint splashing coming from a door that seemed to lead to a short hallway. But what he chiefly noticed was the smell.

The room reeked of gasoline.

A moment later, Ida came in. As she stepped into the light, Andre was shocked to see how much of a change had been wrought in her lovely face. It was so suffused with hatred that it was almost grotesque.

She was dressed all in black, her brown hair hanging loose and unkempt about her shoulders, her eyes fixed intently on Andre. In her right hand, she held a pistol.

“Why,” she snarled, “did you have to make this so difficult?”

Andre shook his head, trying to clear it. Ida was obviously deranged and meant to kill him. He would need all his wits about him if he meant to come out of this alive. The first thing to do was to keep her talking: to buy himself time.

“So, it was you,” he said, trying to work out the sequence of events in light of this revelation. “Of course, you’d have the means to get yourself access to the prototypes in my name. And to make out the contract for Gallano so he thought I meant to deal. But what I don’t understand is why?”

She shook her head and laughed.

“Of course you don’t,” she said. “You didn’t even realize who I was, did you? The whole thing had completely out of your mind, I’m sure.”

“What whole thing?”

“You remember Norris Tanner?” she said. “Tanner Technologies?”

Andre didn’t, as a matter of fact. At least not…

“Oh, right,” he said. “That…that’s the company we acquired back in seventy-four.”

Acquired?!” she shrieked. “You destroyed it! You drove it into the ground!”

“They were competitors to us,” he said. “We made better product cheaper…”

“Because you had the money to do so,” she said. “Because you were already so damn rich that you could operate at a loss for three years just to ruin my father’s work!”

“No, that’s not how…”

“Shut up!” she shrieked, jabbing the air with her gun. “Did you know that after you ruined him, he completely fell apart?” she went on, clearly relishing the chance to spew her anger. “He started drinking. Staying out late. Gambling. Then, one night, he came home and ate a bullet.”

“I’m sorry,” said Andre. “Really, I am; I didn’t know that. But you can’t blame us; we paid your father handsomely for his company. Offered him a job if he wanted one. It isn’t our fault that he…”

“Yes, it is!” she shrieked, sounding totally deranged. “You ruined him!”

In the midst of his anger and his fear for himself, Andre felt pity for the girl aiming the gun at him. She so desperately needed this to be so that she was deaf to reason.

“So, just as your family destroyed my father’s work, so I’m going to destroy yours,” she said, sounding a little calmer now that she was explaining her purpose. “Of course, it would have been so much easier if you’d just picked up that damn contract!”

“You wanted my fingerprints on it,” said Andre. “To have me discovered killed by my own weapon, holding a sheet of paper linking me to Gallano.”

“That was the idea,” she said. “Although even without that, you’d still be dead now if your damn guns could shoot straight!”

“They’re prototypes,” he said. “Of course they don’t work perfectly.”

“There you go; you are so smart, aren’t you?” she snarled. “Just so right about everything, except you weren’t right about me, were you?!”

“No,” he said. “I thought you were a nice girl.”

She worked her jaw convulsively, as though her anger was too large to put into words. It seemed to Andre that his distraction strategy was rapidly running out of steam and he hadn’t come up with a way out.

After glaring at him for a few moments, her hand twitching as though she longed to just shoot him right now, Ida drew a deep breath and holstered her gun. Then she checked her watch.

“I’ve got to be going now,” she said. “I’ve set an ignition device in the other room, on a timer. It’ll go off in about ninety seconds.”

Andre felt a sick lurch of fear. Helplessness was something he wasn’t accustomed to, but now it seemed to stare him in the face. It couldn’t really be that there was nothing he could do to save himself, could it?

“You know,” said Ida, leaning in close for a final word. “In some ways, I like this better. This way, you get to die thinking about how everything you ever worked for is about to go up in smoke. Just like you are!”

He didn’t know where the idea came from. Maybe just from her getting so close, or just a flash of instinct. Andre swept his legs out, one foot hooking behind her knee, the other kicking her ankle. Ida fell forward with a shriek of surprise, and her head struck the radiator hard.

She slumped, unconscious, next to him.

Knowing he had bare seconds to act, Andre twisted his hands out as far as they would go, wedging the right-hand cuff into the slats of the radiator to get every inch of distance he could.

In this way, he could just reach his left hand into Ida’s left pocket. He felt around, turning it inside out, but no key. Painfully aware of the vanishing moments, Andre hooked one leg over her body and tried to turn it over. The first time failed. The second he managed to get her halfway, grabbed her belt with his hand and pulled her the rest of the way. Only now she was too far on top of him and he had to push her off a little in order to reach her pocket. But again there was no key.

Andre realized that, not intending to let him go, she must have thrown it away as soon as she’d cuffed him to the radiator, perhaps anticipating that he might seek to take it from her.

For a moment, just a moment, Andre teetered on the brink of despair. Then he noticed the gun riding her hip.

Hastily, using his feet, he pulled the unconscious girl into a position from which he could draw the weapon. At last he had it.

As the precious seconds ticked by, Andre carefully turned the gun around in his hand. Despite the danger, he didn’t dare move faster: he might drop the gun, or worse, accidentally put a bullet through his own back.

At last he brought barrel around enough that it was pointed direct against the chain that linked his cuffs. He fired, and the slide jerking back cut into his wrist, but he was free. Andre scrambled to his feet. No time to find the way out; the bared window had an emergency release handle, tucked up where no one could reach it from the outside. Andre pulled the handle, kicked out the bars, and climbed out the window, carrying the unconscious girl with him.

He had not even reached the street when the house exploded behind him.

###

            “So,” said Detective Crane in a weary voice. “It was your secretary.”

“We’d done a full background check on her, of course,” said Andre. “For a while I couldn’t figure out how we missed her connection to Tanner. Then I realized she must be using someone else’s name, and I found out the real Ida Turner had been working at the same secretarial firm as Ida Tanner, but had gotten married and moved to Alaska not long before we hired Tanner. She got ahold of her friend’s resume, made a few edits and presented it as her own. My people are working on ways to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Crane sighed and looked at hospital room door behind which Ida was being treated for a concussion under heavy police guard. Detective Archer was in there reading her rights.

“So the plan was to link you with Gallano, then kill you both in what would look like a gangland shooting,” he said. “That’d pretty much destroy any chance your company’d have of getting that contract you’re after, or any others in the foreseeable future, not to mention basically destroy your reputation.”

Andre nodded.

“About that,” he said. “If possible, I’d like to arrange for her to go into protective custody.”

Crane gave him a surprised look.

“What do you mean?”

“She took a pot shot at Gallano; killed his bodyguard and burned down his restaurant,” Andre pointed out. “He’s not gonna accept the insanity plea and just let her sit out her time at the asylum. However long she goes away for, I’d like for her to live to see the end of it.”

The detective looked at the businessman with new respect.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said. “Though I’m rather surprised to find you taking this attitude.”

Andre smiled.

Nobless Oblige,” he said. “It’s a family tradition.”

Catch up on past issues of Thrilling Adventure Stories:

Construction of Crime featuring Sarah Rockford
-A series of deadly and suspiciously convenient disasters leads idealistic reporter Sarah Rockford to ask whether someone didn’t manufacture the incidents purposefully.

The Clown featuring Cosmo the Clown
-Frank Catelli is an expert kidnapper of rich children, but his latest crime brings him face-to-face with an enigmatic clown who doesn’t like what he’s been doing.

Road Work featuring the Lepus
-When terrorists hijack a shipment of deadly chemicals, it is up to the Lepus and his friends to stop them before it is too late.