Chapter Five of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

See Chapter One here, Chapter Two here, Chapter Three here, and Chapter Four here

Chapter Five
The End of the Known

“You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget.”
-Marlowe, Heart of Darkness

“It took some convincing,” said Bill. “Quite an unpleasant scene, really. But we won him over in the end. He said, ‘all right, Bill, we shall see how you acquit yourself on this trip. If you give satisfaction and show yourself a man, then you’ll have my consent. If you don’t, then I don’t suppose she’ll care to have you anyway.’”

“A glowing endorsement,” said Martin.

“Well, it’s better than I expected,” Bill replied. “Can’t think why I went and blurted it out like I did. Of course I’ve always had a reckless streak in me; act first, ask questions later, what? Did I tell you how, when I was a boy, I went and jumped off the pier at Brighton? Twelve feet straight down, and April, so the water was damned cold. We were gone to seashore for Easter holiday, see.”

“A curious thing to do. Had you a reason for it?”

“This other boy dared me to do it,” Bill answered. “Just shows, doesn’t it, what an impulsive chap I am. That’s why I have to keep it all bottled up, you see?”

“It is certainly an illustrative incident,” said Martin with a hint a dryness in his tone that Bill, unfamiliar with the Austrian’s moods, missed entirely.

“But I am most impressed,” Martin went on, “that you should show such concern to secure your prospective father-in-law’s approval. Most do not in this day.”

“Frances tells me I’m old fashioned,” Bill agreed with a faint laugh. “But you see, she’s very close to her father; they’ve been a bit of a team ever since her mother died, and I certainly wouldn’t want to create a rift between them, what?”

“Admirable.”

They spoke while sitting in wicker chairs upon the deck of a riverboat making its way up the Amazon. A comfortable passage across the Atlantic had been followed by an almost equally comfortable journey up the Amazon to Manaus, where they had remained a few days while purchasing the rest of their supplies before taking another steamer up the Purus. It was the ‘dry season,’ so to speak, though the air was heavy with moisture and the rains still came almost every day. Great, heavy downpours, with raindrops the size of hailstones lashed down upon the mighty river and its green banks, but they didn’t last long and they certainly didn’t cool anything off. Even simply sitting in the shade upon the deck of their riverboat was enough to make Bill sweat as much as he ever had in his life.

“I say,” he said, fanning himself with his book. “You’ve been all around the world, haven’t you?”

“I have travelled extensively with Mr. Corbett, yes.”

“Is it always this hot?”

Martin looked at him with a faint expression of pity.

“When one is only ten degrees south of the Equator, yes,” he answered. “Though, of course, the humidity contributes.”

“Is it going to be like this the whole way?”

“Unlikely,” said Martin. “In the thick jungle, it will be far worse. There will be no breeze, you see.” 

Elizabeth, meanwhile, stood at the rail and watched the ranches and villages of the Amazon basin pass by. She was soaked with sweat, felt feverish from the heat, and the heavy, damp air seemed to resist being breathed. She was smarting all over from insect bites. All in all, she was extremely uncomfortable, and could not remember ever being happier. She was in the Amazon; that great, untamable ocean of life spread across a third of a continent, where man was not and never could be master. She stood only upon the surface now, but soon she would plunge into those dark depths and then the adventure—oh, what a word that was!—would truly begin.

Overhead, the clouds gathered once again and growled with thunder, making the air feel even heavier.

“I thought this was supposed to be the dry season,” she said to Perseus as he joined her at the rail. “If this is dry, I wonder what the wet one is like.”

“Oh, there’s no such thing as ‘dry’ in the Amazon.,” he said. “The rains don’t alter much; you get a few more downpours per day in the summer than you do in the winter, that’s all. The ‘wet’ season is so because that’s when it rains in the Andes, and all that water washes down here and makes the rivers higher and faster. ‘Flooded’ would be the more proper way to speak of it.”

“I keep forgetting it’s technically winter here,” she said. “The word sounds rather funny doesn’t it?”

They had spent a good deal of time together over the past few days. Sometimes he would tell her tales of his adventures, or they would discuss what they might expect in the coming days when they left all civilization behind, but lately they had mostly spent their time simply standing side by side and watching the banks of the river pass by.

At first, on the Amazon, there had been far more settlements and signs of human activity than Elizabeth had expected; towns, villages, cities even, and innumerable boats passing by. As they drew deeper into the basin, the signs of humanity became fewer and small, though they still floated past pretty often. There were small villages full of people of every hue and color, who paid little attention to the familiar sight of a passing riverboat. Here and there they passed great farms and ranches cut from the living jungle, with big, fine houses, some so grand that they made Elizabeth think of her own family estate. These sometimes sparked architectural discussions as they admired or critiqued the taste of the buildings: “What a hideous monstrosity!” “That one is charming; look at the latticework.” “Now there’s a house; classic Spanish style. Wonder how old it is?” “Good Lord! They brought all that paint this far into the jungle to give it that color scheme?” 

But these became fewer and fewer as they journeyed, and the jungle closed in as a solid wall of green about them. Birds of every color imaginable filled the trees, calling to one another with the sharp cries of the jungle. Monkeys gambled about in the branches, watching the passing boat with disinterested eyes, as though they thought the travelers beneath their notice. The banks of the river were high, with vast expanses of mud crisscrossed with fallen trees, and in many places they saw fat caiman basking in the sun, reminding Elizabeth forcibly of sunbathing tourists, the thought of which made her laugh. At one point they saw a big, long-nosed tapir drinking in the shallows, though it took off into the jungle as they drew close. More often they saw small red deer coming down to the water to drink and watching the passersby with big, innocent eyes.

Professor Illingworth spent most of his time in his cabin, going over books and making notes in his journal. On the occasions he joined them on the deck, he would give dry lectures on the wildlife they saw (“Caiman crocodilus, commonly known as the spectacled caiman or white caiman. There are currently four recognized subspecies…”) Or else he would expound a little on a few pet theories of his own (“The evolutionary history of this region very clearly demonstrates the principle of…”). And, when he had nothing better to do, he would entertain himself by yelling at Bill.  

In this way they proceeded up the Purus for several days until they reached their destination. Here, at the very end of the civilized world, the Brazilian government had long ago established a telegraph station, guarded by a small contingent of soldiers. A trading post naturally grew up around it, along with a church, and farms and so, eventually, the small village of Pordesol was born. Here goods were brought in from down river and sold among the villagers and soldiers, or shipped to the ranchers and rubber men up river. The turn off for the Rio Tardas, from which they would find the outlet of the mysterious Noite, was about three or four miles below the village, and as far as anyone knew, the only men who lived along the Tardas were the Catauxi tribesmen, who were generally friendly enough, but not keen for making contacts.

Perseus had known about Pordesol and its telegraph from an earlier trip he had taken into the interior, though he had never been there. This was how he had come to concoct his story of Colonel Torres. Early on in their plans, however, he was surprised to discover that Elizabeth knew of it as well. An old friend of her father’s, Colonel Newgate, had retired from service and left England shortly after the war and had, through a series of events that she didn’t quite understand, had ended up running the trading post in this little village on the extreme edge of the unknown.

Elizabeth having sent word of their coming ahead up the river, he was ready to greet them when the steamer pulled up to dock and embraced his friend’s daughter with warm affection. Newgate was a muscular man of medium height, with a square, expressive kind of face with a slightly elfish quality about the eyes that suggested an Irish ancestor. His greying hair was beginning to recede a little, and his clothes were simple, but clean. Elizabeth introduced him to her companions, and he greeted them with a well-bred politeness tempered by the ease of a man used to living far from society.

The trading post and general store that he ran fronted upon the docks, and his long, comfortable home extended out the back, running parallel to the riverbank. He gave a few quick orders to the comaradas who were handling the receipt of goods from the steamer, then led the expedition onto a shaded veranda overlooking the Purus. Drinks were provided, and they sat in perfect comfort while the breeze blew in off of the waters.

“I can’t tell you how surprised I was to get your telegram,” he said, leaning back in his chair and looking at Elizabeth with a warm smile. “I really thought my days of receiving old friends were over.”

“I had thought of simply surprising you,” said Elizabeth. “But then I wanted to be sure you were still here.”

“Where else should I be?” he answered. “I fully intend to die out here. It’s a good life; the people are pleasant company, there’s enough work to keep me occupied, and the scenery can’t be beat.”

“What made you decide to come out here in the first place?” asked Illingworth. “Seems a strange place for a British officer to retire to.”

“Not at all,” said Newgate. “After the war, I’d had quite enough of civilization. I looked about for the most isolated place I could go. I considered Tibet for a while, but eventually settled on the Amazon. Here, at least, no one tries to blow each other up, and I’m two weeks behind the times, so by the time I get news of trouble, it’s already been cleared up.”

“Sounds most appealing,” said Perseus. “You don’t find the weather a trial?”

“Yes I do, but it is quite worth it. Now tell me; what are you all doing here? Your telegram didn’t quite say. Some scientific survey, was it?”

“Yes,” she said. “Survey up the Noite. Perseus here says that he met an old colonel from the Empire days who I suppose must have been in this very spot, right?”

“I believe so, yes,” said Perseus. He spoke lightly, but inside he was tense. They had reached the point where the truth would soon have to come out, and he only dreaded its being discovered too soon. It suddenly occurred to him that people who lived at this station likely knew that there had never been a man named ‘Colonel Torres’ here.

Newgate added to his unease by shooting a quick glance at him, but he allowed Elizabeth to continue.

“Supposedly there are some very interesting species to be found along the Noite. We’re going to document them.”

“I see,” he said. “But, forgive me, what are you doing here, Elizabeth?”

“I’m funding the expedition,” she said. “Thought I ought to know what my money was being used for.”

“Really?” he said. “Is that all?”

She smiled a little embarrassedly.

“I confess, no. I’ve always wanted to go on a trip like this, and I didn’t know when I would have another opportunity.”

“I see,” he said, frowning a little. Perseus guessed that, like him, Newgate saw that Elizabeth had no idea what she was in for. But he said no more and instead began inquiring after their mutual friends in England.

After they had sat and chatted for a time, Newgate showed them over his house and store, which was remarkably comfortable and well-furnished for being so remote. He gave them a regular tour; showed them his wares, showed them his comfortable, book-lined rooms, his shining rifles upon the wall, and his photographs of old friends from England, whom Elizabeth wasted no time in examining.

“There’s father, of course,” she said. “That was during the war, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, just outside of Toutencourt. Right before the Somme, I think it was.

“That’s what’s his name, Lieutenant…

“Lieutenant Herbert. Surprised you remember him. He got blown up a few days later.

“I remember father telling me about him…and that’s Colonel Blunt, right? He used to come for shooting parties before the war. You met him, Perseus.”

“Oh, yes; he complimented my flower border. Whatever happened to him?”

“Survived the Somme; died at Passchendaele,” said Newgate.

“Hard luck, that,” said Perseus.

“What about this one?” asked Eliazbeth, pointing to another photo that showed Newgate and a much younger man.

“Don’t suppose you ever heard of him; Sergeant Allenby. Good chap from Birmingham. Invalidated out with shell shock and cut his wrists in hospital.”

“Have all these people died, then?” asked Bill.

“Most of them,” said Newgate sadly. “They’re useful reminders in case I ever get the urge to go back to what is called civilization. I think your father and I, Elizabeth, were the only ones here who survived the war, and then of course that damned motorcar…except this group shot, of course; some of those boys made it, I think. Oh, and you of course.”

Perseus, who had been examining the group shot, turned eagerly to this last photo. He recognized the setting at once: the back porch at Sangral House. There were Newgate and Lord Darrow sitting in wicker chairs, and there, standing beside her father, was Elizabeth, just as he remembered her; all arms and legs and tangled hair, wearing a look of unrestrained happiness with her arm around her father, as though she wanted to show him off.

“I remember when that was taken,” she said. “Just before you all left for the war.”

Then it was only a few months after he had left. He looked at the girl in the photo and smiled to himself. That was how he remembered her; that radiantly expressive, hold-nothing-back kind of smile.

He had yet to see that look on her present face. His eyes shifted from her to the man beside her in the photograph and he thought he might understand why. 

They were treated to a delightful supper on the veranda, while the usual afternoon downpour rattled outside. As they ate, Illingworth turned the conversation back to the purpose of their journey.

“Have you heard any rumor of these supposed strange beasts on the Noite, Colonel?”

Newgate leaned back in his chair and looked out on the misty river and the jungle beyond.

“One hears many strange stories out here,” he said. “The Noite holds a certain reputation among the natives. The Catauxi will not travel upon it, and the other tribes regard it as unlucky.”

“What for?” asked Elizabeth.

“It is said that the river marks the path to an evil place; a forbidden place. Some say it is only a part of the jungle, others say it is a great pit or cave in the earth. The legend goes that it is both the abode of monsters and the treasure house of the gods.”

Perseus flinched a little. They were getting very close to the mark. He wondered suddenly whether word of Professor Applegate’s expedition had reached Newgate’s ears, for surely they must have passed this way.

“Do they say what manner of ‘monsters’?” asked Illingworth.

Newgate smiled.

“Cuangi is said to dwell there.”

The rain seemed momentarily to grow more intense and the sky grumbled with thunder.

“What is ‘Cuangi’?” Elizabeth asked.

“A native superstition,” he said. “Most of the tribes of the southern Amazon have one version of him or other. Some say he’s a spirit, others a great beast, and others something in between. The only common thread is that he’s monstrous and all-powerful.”

The rain rattled upon the roof, and a fork of lightning lit up the sky. The expedition members had fallen silent.

“And he’s said to dwell along the Noite?” asked Perseus.

“Yes, or in that forbidden place I mentioned. One version of the legend has him the guardian of the gods’ treasures. Sort of a demonic watchdog. There’s a story that goes along with it.”

“Oh, tell us,” said Elizabeth.

“Ah, well, I only know the one version,” he said. “But it goes something like this. There once was a great warrior of a certain tribe. He was chief and the mightiest hunter the world had ever seen. He was betrothed to the most beautiful maiden in the tribe and, as is said of many a promising young buck, had everything in his favor.

“One night, while performing the sacred rites, for he was also well-versed in the world of spirits, he received a vision. A great spirit spoke to him from the smoke of the ritual fire. The spirit said ‘thou art great, but shall yet be greater. Take thy betrothed and walk into the forest for seven days and seven nights. Then thou shalt come to a great wall. There thou shalt possess the treasures of the gods.’

“So the chief took his betrothed and walked through the jungle. They didn’t need to fear anything, as he was the greatest hunter in the world, and the jaguars and snakes all knew to fear him. He came to the great wall of stone, and in the wall was a gate, and at that gate stood mighty Cuangi. They bowed and made obeisance before him, and the chief said, ‘Oh, mighty Cuangi, it has been given to me to possess the treasures of the gods.’

“But Cuangi answered and said, ‘None may pass my way without an offering.’ So the chief asked what he would have, and Cuangi said, ‘If thou wouldst possess the treasure of the gods, then thy betrothed is the price. Give her to me, or go back the way ye came.’

“And so the chief took hold of his betrothed and gave her to Cuangi, who ate her in one bite…”

“Wait, he did what?” Elizabeth exclaimed. 

“Not very nice, was it?” said Newgate, laughing. “Our friend is not a hero by English standards. But that is not the end of the story. After he had offered his betrothed to Cuangi, he was permitted to pass and to enter the great treasure house. There he outfitted himself the raiment of the gods, took their treasure for his own, and set off to claim his place among them.

“Only, when he tried to pass through the gate again, Cuangi again prevented him, saying that if he would pass, he must offer a second gift, equal to the first. But of course, he only had one betrothed and had already offered her. He protested and said that he had been promised possession of the gods’ treasures. ‘Yes,’ said Cuangi, ‘Thou wert promised to possess them. But thou dost possess them. Thou wert never promised to be permitted to bear them away.’

“And so, the great chief simply had to sit there in the god’s treasure house, bedecked in marks of power that he could never use to command and holding weapons he could never hunt with, until he grew old and rotted where he sat.”

“Overall,” said Perseus after a brief silence. “That is not an edifying story.”

“I’m glad the chief got his comeuppance at least,” said Elizabeth. “Serves him right!”

“Hear hear!” said Bill.

“Let us not be too harsh in judgment,” said Martin. “He merely did what most of us do.”

“What do you mean?” asked Bill. “You’re not saying most men would feed their fiancée to a monster to get his hands on a lot of treasure.”

“After a fashion, yes,” he answered. “Most of us are all-too quick to sacrifice the real good at hand for the mere promise of a better one.”

“I don’t know,” said Newgate. “I’m more inclined to think men too ready to cling to goods that they know, even it means they and others must suffer for it. We are altogether far too conservative a species.”

“I quite agree with you, Colonel,” said Illingworth. “Surely obscurantism is the greater danger. A certain continuation of the evils of the past must be outweighed by the possibility of a better future.”

“But the evils of the past are known and we can, in a sense, manage them,” Perseus argued. “The potential evils of future novelties must be unknown and, for that reason, must be worse.”

“I think there’s something to be said for both sides,” said Elizabeth. “We can’t stop all progress, even at the cost of losing something we love, but then, we can’t simply throw everything onto the chopping block, or else what would be the point? The trouble is knowing where to draw the line.”

“I certainly hope we all agree that it is somewhere on this side of ‘feeding beautiful young ladies to monsters’,” said Perseus.

“Only beautiful ones?” asked Elizabeth. “What about the plain young ladies?”

He shrugged.

“As you say; we can’t stop all progress.”

She laughed, and so did Bill. Newgate, however, did not laugh. He was watching Perseus with a thoughtful expression.

After dinner he showed them their rooms. The trading post also functioned as an inn for the rare few visitors who came that way, and he had two small, but comfortable spare bedrooms made up. He insisted on giving up his own room for Elizabeth’s use and promised that he would be quite comfortable in his study, as he often slept there when he was obliged to work late.

Before they retired, however, he beckoned Elizabeth to join him on the now-empty veranda. She went willingly, not feeling the least bit sleepy. It was just after sunset, and the forest across the river was like a sharp black shadow against the pink sky, both doubled in the river. The rain had cleared and left the air cooler, and the insects sang from the shadows. Elizabeth once again felt a shiver of delight at the thought of where she was.

Then Newgate began without any preamble.

“Elizabeth, how much do you know of this man, Corbett?”

She looked at him in surprise.

“I’ve told you; he stayed with us for two years before the war.”

“Yes, I know that. Have you had any contact with him since?”

She flinched involuntarily at the reminder.

“No,” she said. “Not until a few weeks ago when we got this all together.”

“I was afraid of that,” he sighed. “Now listen; I am going say something that I know you are not going to like, but I owe it to you, and to the memory of your father. I know men like that; that sort of devil-may-care, vagabond type who travels the world doing this and that and never settling to any honest trade. You see them all the time around here, and there were more than a few the in the army. They’re devilishly charming and handy in a tight spot, but you cannot trust them. They always are after one thing and one thing only; money.”

Elizabeth looked at him in shock.

“Thank you for your concern,” she said slowly. “But you’re quite wrong about him. Perseus isn’t like that at all. He has knocked about the world a good deal, but he isn’t in it for money. Why, just to give you an idea what he’s like, he’s the boy I gave that Charles the First medal to, you remember? He still has it. You can’t tell me a mercenary personality wouldn’t have sold that thing long ago.”

“You’re sure he still has it, are you?” he said.

“I…yes, I’m quite sure. But besides that, he isn’t even charging us! Says he’ll take his salary upon delivery.”

“He is taking you into the jungle and not even asking to be paid?”

“Yes. So that shows, doesn’t it, that he’s acting in good faith. It isn’t the money he cares about; it’s the adventure.”

His face did not relax.

“Why would he need to make such a gesture of good faith?”

“Because we did, after all, only have his word for it. Like I told you, he happened to meet an old colonel from the empire days; Colonel Torres, I think it was, and learned about the Noite from him. So, to prove that he was telling the truth, he volunteered to defer payment until his story was verified.”

Newgate looked at her with something approaching pity.

“Elizabeth,” he said. “This station wasn’t started until after the empire.”

“Oh,” she said, taken a little off guard. “Then it must have been another site. What does it matter?”

“Didn’t you hear what I told you about the Noite, and the legends around it? The treasure house of the gods?”

She felt suddenly uncomfortable as she realized what he was getting at.

“You think that is what is after? But that’s just a legend, isn’t it?”

“All legends have a basis in truth,” he said. “In any case, I can much more readily believe him willing to go after a legendary treasure than I can believe a man like that would have such a disinterested love of science that he would propose and undertake a trip like this simply to discover a few new species of butterfly.”

“No, no,” said Elizabeth. She was beginning to feel faintly desperate as she realized the plausibility of his words and, what was worse, that she had no answer to them. “He…he said that he was only interested in an adventure; the chance to see one of the few unexplored places left on Earth.”

“Of course he would say that,” Newgate sighed. “Just the thing to get you hooked. Elizabeth, he is using you! Can’t you see that? He knows what kind of person you are, so he shows up with just the right story to peak your interest.”

“No, you don’t know him!” she said furiously. “He wouldn’t do that sort of thing. He…he can’t have changed that much.”

“How long has it been since you’ve seen him? Ten years? Fifteen?”

“Fourteen.”

“Fourteen years is a lifetime, especially for the kind of life you say he’s been leading,” he said. “Please, Elizabeth, you know I’m not trying to make you unhappy; I’m only trying to keep you safe. I know something of men like that, and I do not think you ought to go off into the jungle with him.”

Elizabeth was too sensible not to see the reasonableness of his request. It was all horribly plausible, and against it she only had her own knowledge of and affection for a man whom she had not seen in many years. But though her head told her that Newgate was perfectly right, her heart recoiled from the idea that she couldn’t trust Perseus.

“No,” she said. “I don’t care what you say, I know him. And Perseus would never lie to me. I’d swear to that.”  

“All right, all right,” sighed Newgate. “I won’t badger you. But please, Elizabeth, think hard about what you’re doing. This will be your last chance to turn back.”

“I most certainly will not turn back!” she said. She drew a deep breath, summoning all her self-control. “I know, Colonel, that you mean well, and thank you for you concern, but I…I know what I am doing.”

He shook his head.

“I hope so,” he said. “I really do.”

Elizabeth turned away from him. She felt something like hatred for Colonel Newgate; hatred of the fact that he had planted such seeds of doubt in her mind, which she could neither accept nor get rid of. She wanted badly to speak to Perseus, and she was just resolving to go seek him out when he stepped into the hall from the study.

“Elizabeth?” he said. “Can I speak with you a moment? In private?”

“Certainly,” she said, endeavoring to appear as herself. “I was just coming to see you myself.”

“I thought you might be,” he said.

They went into the store, which was closed up and deserted. Elizabeth waited for him to begin.

“I…I have something of a confession to make,” he said. “Which I probably ought to have made earlier, but I beg you to hear me out before you judge me.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. The suspicions so recently and unwilling sown in her mind sharpened. 

“It isn’t easy to have a private conversation in a country where the windows are always open,” he said with a grimace. “I heard what Colonel Newgate and you were saying.”

“Oh!” she said, coloring. “I’m sorry; I hope you didn’t take offense or…”

“No, no, nothing like that,” he said hastily. “Newgate’s an astute man, and he clearly cares for you. My confession is that he is…he is not entirely wrong.”

There was a heavy silence.

“What are you talking about?”

He reached into his shirt and drew out a leather bundle. He unwrapped it and handed her the torn notebook.

True Narrative of Certain Events in the Brazilian Jungle, by Robert Cooper,” she read aloud. “What is this?”

“An account of the Applegate expedition from 1910,” he answered. “Professor Applegate was a naturalist, much like Illingworth, and led a party to this region to study the Noite. They followed a native legend to a place they call the Forbidden Valley. The narrative breaks off before they describe what happened there, but Applegate and several others died, and the survivors considered what they found there to be so startling, so out of the ordinary that they kept it a secret from everyone, except for what is recorded in this book.”

She stared at him.

“Then…that is where you mean to go?”

He nodded.

“Where did you get this?”

“Off of a drunk old man I bumped into in Istanbul. Where he got it, I have no idea. He was being assaulted by a gang of toughs and Martin and I stepped in to try and help. The poor fellow was already done for – stabbed – but he lived long enough to give this to me in gratitude for the effort. I don’t suppose many people ever tried to help him. No longer after, on the way to England, a gentleman tried first to buy it off me, then to have it at gun point. I got the better of him, but from what he let slip I realized that there was some sort of gang after the book. I don’t know how they knew about it, or how they knew I had it, but they were clearly willing to do anything to get their hands on it. So I thought it best to keep its existence a secret and to not let our real destination be known, just in case they were on the lookout. I don’t mind being shot myself, but I hate having my friends shot at.”

She did not smile.

“Then, that story you told us, of the Brazilian colonel…”

“Was just a story,” he admitted. “I needed a plausible alternative that would take us in the same direction. But I tried to make it as true as possible; we are going to an undiscovered ecosystem off of the Noite. I only left out a few details about its nature and location. Probably would have been easier to convince Illingworth if I’d told him everything.”   

“In short,” she said slowly. “You lied to me.”

The words landed like blows.

“I am sorry,” he said. “When I decided on that story, I had no idea you were the one I would telling it to. And only did it to try to keep you safe.”

“You might have told me afterwards,” she said. “You could have trusted me to keep quiet about it, couldn’t you?”

“Oh!” he said. “I…yes, I could have. I…I am afraid I didn’t think of that.”

She looked from him to the book in her hands, then back to him. Her face was very red and her eyes were hard and angry.

“Tell me honestly,” she said. “Do you still have that medal?”

He opened his mouth to say ‘yes,’ but the word seemed to stick in his throat.

“It’s safe,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“I…we spent the last money we had coming to London. I needed some to start putting this together, and I needed it quickly, owing to those people being after me…”

“You sold it.”

She said it in a quiet, almost a childlike voice. The realization of what he had done seemed to take everything from her.

“Pawned,” he said. “And I’m making him hold it for a year. It’s only temporary, and it’s as safe as can be. I swear to you, I will get it back…”

“What are you really after?” she snapped, cutting him off.

He blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“You didn’t drag us all out here for a mere lark,” she said. “You expect to find something in that valley, don’t you? That’s why you’re so set on it, isn’t it?”

There was a commanding tone in her voice. It was the voice of one who was used to giving orders and having them obeyed. The cheerful, exuberant girl had faded, and the feudal lady of the manor had risen to the surface.

“Yes,” he admitted. He pointed to the wall. “But whatever he says, I am not using you, and I never would!”

“No, you’re just using my money, aren’t you?” she spat. “Like you used my medal.”

“It isn’t like that!”

“Isn’t it?”

He looked at her.

“Do you really think it is?”

A kind of painful cramp was growing in her heart as she met his gaze.

“A few minutes ago, I swore that you would never lie to me,” she said. “Yet here we are. So I don’t know what to think.”  

They looked at each other for several minutes, both breathing rather hard.

“If you don’t think you can trust me,” he said. “Then it probably would be best if you were to return home. We are going to be going into very dangerous territory, and I would much prefer if you were not exposed to it.”

“First you lie to me, now you try to humiliate me,” she said. “Send me home to be jeered at for spending all this money and then running off when it gets difficult?”

Her vehemence took him off guard.

“I would rather have you embarrassed and safe than otherwise,” he said.

“I thank you for your concern,” she said. “Now are there any other lies you’d care to confess?”

He flinched.

“No,” he said. “But Elizabeth, you really ought to take Newgate’s advice and go home.”

“I appreciate that advice, Mr. Corbett,” she said. “And I thank you for at least telling me this now. I only wish that you had done so while there was still time for me to fire you!”

So saying, she turned and marched back into the house, slamming the door behind her. She fairly ran to her own room, threw herself down on the bed, and began to cry.

Chapter Four of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

See Chapter One here, Chapter Two here, and Chapter Three here

Chapter Four
The Unexpected Outcome of a Museum Gala

“Well, we’ve gone and done it, young fellah my lad.”
-Lord John Roxton, The Lost World

On the following evening, Perseus found himself at the Natural History Museum, dressed in a rented suit and tails, with a ticket in hand that had cost almost as much, scanning the crowed of richly dressed guests the way a lion scans a herd of zebras, looking for that one who stands out as a viable target.

Martin had outdone himself. The gala was being held in honor of an expedition to Borneo that had returned in triumph with several new species of insects, reptiles, and birds, one of which – dubbed the silver eagle for its sticking feathers and nocturnal habits – had made rather a sensation. The reception was held in the central hall of the museum, with specimens from the expedition on triumphal display at temporary stands between the pillars of the gothic space (the live specimen of the silver eagle was perched in a large cage in the center of the hall, shooting warning looks at anyone who ventured too close). Virtually all the most important and influential zoological men of the Royal Academy and the major universities were there, along with their patrons, and all, no doubt, were eager for a ‘silver eagle’ of their own. Here if anywhere, he would find what he sought.

He got some champagne and, putting on his best winning manner, the one that he had used to flirt with tourists when he had worked on a riverboat, he selected the elderly Lord Fitzgibbons and his wife (Martin had provided him a list of notable people who would be present) and began making small talk. They were charmed, particularly Lady Fitzgibbon, and a few anecdotes and compliments were enough to establish a rapport.

But just as he was laying the foundations for his attack, there was a momentary lull in the chatter around him and a voice reached his ears from across the hall.

“Tell me, Lady Elizabeth, will you be making another donation to the museum this year?”

That name. Surely not…

In a flash, Perseus forgot everything and whipped around. His eyes found her at once, standing beside the diplodocus skeleton, not twenty feet away from him.

The same, and yet not the same. The skinny, rambunctious girl, all arms and legs, covered in freckles and insect bites, had become a tall, elegant woman; grace and refinement in every limb. The tangled red hair was now smooth and done up in a kind of crown, like a halo of flame. The dirty, torn frocks had been replaced by a green dress trimmed in gold which emphasized her fiery hair, as well as her firm and blooming figure. Her face was much as it had been, yet somehow more. Beautiful, certainly; it was a face made for the open air, for the adoring, obedient eyes of dogs and horses. An open, kind face that looked as though it would be quick to laughter.

But the eyes—the bright, hazel-green eyes, sparkling with life—those hadn’t changed.

Martin hadn’t said a word…perhaps she was a late addition to the guest list? Or had he deliberately kept quiet to ensure Perseus ran into her. He might have to have words with him later.

“I suspect I shall,” Elizabeth was saying without interest. “I always find human knowledge a good investment.”

“I just wondered,” said the other woman, whom Perseus had barely noticed. “As I’d heard you’d purchased yourself a new horse.”

“Apparently to my shame, I have money for both,” said Elizabeth, coloring slightly. “Horses needs homes just like anyone else.”

Perseus disengaged himself from his new acquaintances without noticing what he said and crossed the room.

“Of course,” said the other, making a note. She was evidently a reporter of some kind.

“Oh, bother, you’re going to make that sound horrible, aren’t you? ‘Lady Elizabeth says that she sees people on a level with horses.’”

“That is one possible interpretation of what you said,” the reporter replied with a smile like vinegar. “After all, I can’t help notice that your donations tend to be, how shall I put it? Abstract. Why not give to something more practical, if you really want to put your money to good use?”

“What would you suggest?” asked Elizabeth.

“Say, the League of Women voters? Or the Peace Pledge Union? Something for the immediate benefit of mankind.” 

“Personally,” said Perseus, sliding into the conversation. “I don’t think people are on a level with horses. I think, taking all in all, that horses are far preferable. Particularly compared with the League of Women Voters.”

Elizabeth laughed, looking at him with grateful surprise.

“And, who are you, sir?” asked the reporter.

“Only a barbarian from beyond the sea,” he said with a bow. “Now if you don’t mind, I should like to borrow Lady Elizabeth for a moment.”

Elizabeth nodded at the woman with elaborate politeness and allowed Perseus to draw her aside.

“Thank you for coming to my rescue,” she said. “I’d a hundred times prefer to be abducted by barbarians than preyed upon by reporters.”

“Does she do it so often?”

“Always,” said Elizabeth. “That’s Sarah Manning, society writer for the Guardian. Rather hot on the subject of the aristocracy and how it is ‘a parasitical tumor upon British society,’ I believe is how she put it. I suppose tomorrow I’ll receive a double-dose of venom for your gallantry, but at least I can enjoy the look on her face tonight, and so for that I thank you, Sir Barbarian.”

“My pleasure, your ladyship,” he answered with a bow.

“I didn’t catch your name,” she said. She tilted her head, scrutinizing him closely. “And…pardon me, but have we met before?”

“We have,” he said. “And I am glad to see that at least the sea monster hasn’t gotten you yet.”

Her hazel eyes widened and her jaw dropped. For a moment, all her good breeding and elegant habits were lost in astonishment.

“Perseus?” she said. “Perseus Corbett? I…my goodness, I wouldn’t have recognized you! You have…well, you’ve grown!”

“So have you,” he said. “I suppose it happens over fourteen years, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it does,” she stammered, hardly thinking what she was saying. “But where on Earth have you been? The last I heard you’d gone off to sea.”

“You heard of that?” he said, surprised.

“Of course. I wrote to ask you to come for Christmas, but your mother said you’d gone.”

“Oh,” he said. He felt thrown by the news; it had never occurred to him that she would do such a thing. “I thought your mother didn’t like me.”

“She didn’t frightfully, but I talked her into it. I was so disappointed to find out you weren’t coming.”    

“I…I’m afraid I had to start earning my fortune,” he said.

“Oh, yes,” she said. She seemed suddenly embarrassed and dropped her eyes, fingering her dress. “I mean, of course I realize that now.”

As they spoke, he thought something else about her had changed. The quickness, the colt-like energy that had marked her every move and expression in the past was gone. She seemed…slower. Tireder. The spirited colt had been reined. 

There was a somewhat uncomfortable pause. The things he really wanted to say to her, the things he wanted to ask her, couldn’t be said. He was trying to get a surreptitious look at her left hand, but she was holding them so that he couldn’t see. They were rescued by Lord and Lady Fitzgibbon.

“Lady Elizabeth! Do you know Mr. Corbett?” his Lordship asked.

“Oh, yes, we go way back,” said Elizabeth.

“Old friends,” said Perseus, watching to see what effect that might have on her. She gave no sign of either approval or disapproval.

“I am surprised you never mentioned him!” said her Ladyship. “Such a charming man.”

Was it his imagination, or was there a twinkle in Lady Fitzgibbon’s eyes?

“It’s been some time since we’ve seen each other,” Elizabeth answered.

“That certainly explains your hasty departure, Mr. Corbett,” said his Lordship with a smile. “Say no more! We shall leave you to your bewitching companion.”

They bowed and drifted off.

“When did you become acquainted with them?” she asked

“About five minutes ago.”

“Quick work. You seem to have made your fortune after all, haven’t you?”

“Looks can be deceiving,” he said, glancing down at his suit. “As a matter of fact I’m here on business.”

“How tiresome,” she said. “But tell me, what sort of business is it that you do? Nothing in London, surely.”

“Not usually, no,” he said with a grin. “I have done…well, quite a lot. I was a sailor during the Great War, and a soldier in one or two little ones. I ran a tour boat on the Nile, I tried my hand at ranching for a bit, I’ve hunted and trekked through most of the odd places of the world, and now I’m dabbling in a bit of field science.”

“My goodness! Then you’ve actually done it, haven’t you?” she exclaimed. Her lovely hazel eyes were wide with wonder, and she looked at him the way a child looks at a particularly good magician. “I mean, all those things we talked about as children that we wanted to do.”

“I suppose I have,” he said. “But I’m sure you’ve done some as well, haven’t you?”

“No,” she said. “No, I’m afraid I’ve turned into quite the boring, stay at home sort; the most adventure I have is the occasional hunting trip or riding party. And never farther abroad than Ireland.”

“Really?” he said in genuine surprise. “Has something happened to Sangral?”

“Oh, no; it’s taking in quite as much money as ever, and I’ve made a bit of an investment or two that have paid off handsomely. It isn’t want of resources; more want of opportunity.”

“I see,” he said, though he didn’t. “And how is the old place?”

“Quite the same as ever,” she said. “Tredwell is still treading about, your uncle is still keeping the grounds lovely. Mother sits home in her conservatory most of the time. And…and I’m afraid Father died some years ago; just after the war, in fact.”

“Did he? I am very sorry to hear that,” said Perseus. “I always liked him.”

“Yes, it was rather horrible,” she said in a dull kind of voice that sounded jarring coming from her. “Especially coming just then when we were all thinking we’d gotten through it.”

“Was he ill?”

“No, it was a motorcar. Some drunken fool ran him down.”

She cleared her throat and rallied herself.

“But never mind that. No help for it. Anyway, I don’t suppose you want to waste time hearing all my dreary news. And most of it is dreary; as I say, I’ve turned out frightfully boring.”

“It can’t all be dreary,” he said. “Come now; no good news?”

He braced himself as she considered the question.

“Well, as you heard, I have some charming horses,” she said. “And I have had a bit of a lark funding expeditions to interesting places. I don’t go myself, but at least I hear amusing stories from the people do. As a matter of fact, I put a bit of money toward this trip, though don’t let Ms. Manning hear that; she did a piece last year on how I only do it to keep my name in the papers. As if I want people to write horrible things about me! But there I go being dreary again, and it’s really too dull for me to recite that sort of thing when I want to hear more about you. Oh! do you still have that medal I gave you?”

“Of course!” he said smiling to cover the stab of guilt in his stomach. “I keep it very safe.”

“That’s a relief! I was just thinking that, with your running all over the world, getting into adventures, and being in the war and all it was…not that I’m suggesting you would be reckless with it, just that it is very precious and all.”

“Quite, quite,” he said, hoping she would change the subject. At the same time he noted the nervous, embarrassed edge to the question, with her perceived need to apologize for asking. That again wasn’t like her. Yes, she was definitely less sure of herself than she had been. He wondered what had brought the change.

“So, what is this business you’re here about?” she asked after another somewhat embarrassed pause. 

“Oh, that,” he said. “That is…a little complicated.”

He really didn’t want to have to lie to Elizabeth of all people. Yet here was an opportunity that he could not possibly pass by. He made up his mind in an instant. 

“The long and short of it is,” he said, lowering his voice, “that I’m hoping to get a little expedition together to go take a look at a backwater of the Amazon. I’ve happened to hear rumors of there being unique species in that region. I was rather hopping to convince one of these scientists to take an interest in it.”  

“Oh, is that all!” she said. “Why the whispering, then? I might be able to help you there. I know most of these scientist fellows. And if you need money…”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that!” he said.

“Whyever not?” she said. “I told you, it’s practically a hobby of mine, and I’d just as soon fund something for you as for a stranger.”

“Well…” he said, hesitantly. “I certainly could use the help, I won’t deny; I haven’t been in England since the war.”

“Come along then; we’ll hash it all out,” she said. “But not here; don’t suppose you want to talk with all these people about.”

He shrugged, nodded, and allowed her to lead him away.

“Damn, there’s another reporter; we’ll go this way…”

After a few more turns and detours to avoid certain guests, she had led him out of the central hall and down the corridors. After checking one or two chambers and finding them occupied by other guests who had sought to escape the main party, she at last deposited him in the hall of reptiles beside a case of various snakes.

“Perfect,” she said. “Now wait here a moment; I think I know just the man you want to see…”

She disappeared, leaving Perseus to try to gather his scattered thoughts. A few minutes later, she returned trailing a thin, elderly man behind her.

“Professor Julius Illingworth, may I present my old friend, Mr. Perseus Corbett.

During one of his many adventures, Perseus Corbett had spent some time in a very old house in the southern United States. One room had held numerous taxidermized specimens of deer, bear, and other creatures, but the house had been abandoned for so long that they had dried out and begun to fall in upon themselves.

Professor Illingworth reminded him forcibly of one of those creatures.

He was tall and very thin, with sunken cheeks and grey hair that was rapidly losing its war with the inevitable. He had a drooping kind of mustache and deep-set grey eyes with heavy eyelids that made him look a bit like an old dog. His grey suit appeared a trifle too large for him, as though it had been tailored for him when he had been more filled out and healthy. But the gaze that met his was sharp and cunning, and Perseus guessed that, however desiccated the man may be, he had lost none of his wits. 

“How do you do, sir?” he said, offering a cadaverous hand as he surveyed Perseus with his cold blue eyes. Perseus could almost feel the old man’s gaze as it swept over his tan, his scars, and took the measure of his frame. “I understand that you have some sort of proposition.”

“I do, sir,” he answered. “I’m by way of being an amateur naturalist myself; knocked around the world quite a bit…”

“Have you?” Illingworth interrupted. “Then of course you would have no trouble recognizing that specimen?” He indicated one of the taxidermied snakes under the glass, putting his hand over the label.

“Naturally,” said Perseus smoothly. “Kanburi pit viper. Lovely creature, isn’t it?”

“Magnificent,” said Illingworth in a mechanical tone. “And are you familiar with its cousin, the Stejneger viper?”

“I have made its acquaintance, yes,” said Perseus. “Not quite so attractive as this fellow.”

“Not at all. And you must then have encountered the Carneddau viper in your travels?”

Perseus sensed the trap.

“I have not, I am afraid, nor have I read of that species,” he said. “Some new discovery of your own, perhaps? The name suggests a Welsh variant.”

Illingworth smiled, a thin smile that did not reach his eyes.

“It has been some years since I have been actively involved in field work,” he said. “There is no such creature, to the best of my knowledge. 

“Ah, I see,” said Perseus. “You were attempting to trip me up? To show me as a fraud and imposter?”

“It has been known to happen,” said Illingworth. “Particularly where…” he glanced at Elizabeth. “Money is concerned.”

“So it has. I could tell you a fair few stories from my travels.”

“I am sure you could,” said Illingworth in a dry tone. “Now, what is this proposal of yours?”

“As I was saying, I have been around the world quite a lot. I was in Portugal a short time back where I chanced to meet a retired fellow from the Brazilian army. Left when the empire was overthrown. Anyway, he had done a deal of work in the Amazon; helped get the telegraph started. Living out in the wilds, he got to know the locals quite well, and they told him tales of a certain tributary, way back in the beyond of beyond, supposedly the haunt of monsters. One day he got curious and paid some of the fellows to show him the way. Well, he told me, after a long journey, they started seeing queer things; things he hadn’t seen anywhere else in the jungle.”

“Such as what?” asked Illingworth.

“He had a bit of trouble describing them to me,” said Perseus. “He was a bit far gone, I’ll admit; stumbled a little in his words, but I gather there were great snakes and huge birds, like the moa, you know. And a variety of large mammalian life; like bears, he said.”

“In the jungle?”

“Quite, that is what I thought.”

“What was your friends’ name, may I ask?”

“He said that it was Colonel Torres,” said Perseus. “Though I confess, from things he let drop, I suspect that was an alias. He kept talking of enemies.”  

“This is all very entertaining,” said Illingworth, in a tone that suggested he had never been entertained in his life. “But I still do not grasp what you want from us?”

“I propose an expedition, sir, to travel up this river and document its wildlife.”

“In fact, you wish us to pay you to travel to the Amazon based on the word of a man you yourself describe as a paranoid drunkard, and who, for all I can see, may not even exist?”

“Not at all!” said Perseus. “I want you to send some of your own people to the Amazon, and I offer my services as a guide.”

“It comes to much the same thing, does it not?” asked Illingworth.

“Indeed,” said Perseus with a bow. “You are, professor, a very clever man, I can see. You’ve got me in a nice little corner here. How can I prove my good faith on such a matter? I have no references in this country, save Lady Elizabeth here, and while I’m sure no man could doubt her good will or good sense, what can she really tell you on this matter when this is the first she is hearing of it as well? If I were to summon my partner to vouch for my story, you would only say that he is as much a crook as myself. What, then, do you suggest I do?”

“What indeed?” asked Illingworth.   

“What are you going to do?” asked Elizabeth. She was watching him with keen interest; like a child watching for the magician to pull his trick.

“Nothing simpler,” he answered. “I will venture to forego all payment until the successful completion of the expedition. ‘Satisfaction guaranteed or services free’. How will that do?”  

Elizabeth’s face broke into a radiant grin that nearly upset Perseus’s air of nonchalance.

“That, I should say, will be most satisfactory,” she said. “You might have had a career in advertising.”

Illingworth, however, though he looked surprised, did not look satisfied.

“May I ask, sir, why this is so important to you?”

Perseus tore his eyes off of Elizabeth to look at Illingworth.

“An adventure,” he said. “I am not particularly concerned with money, you see, but I do like a good adventure. This seems a cracking good one: the chance to explore one of the remaining really unknown places on Earth, to see things that few if any men have ever seen before. That is worth more to me than any gold.”

Illingworth surveyed him with dry skepticism.

“That may be so, sir, but I must say that I see no practical benefit to the museum in this proposal.”        

“No benefit?” Elizabeth exclaimed. “A truly unexplored and undocumented ecosystem?”

“In the first place, I have heard nothing to convince me that such a place exists,” said Illingworth. “In the second, I am sure there are many such places in the world today, but an institution such as ours has better things to do with its time and money than go hauling around the world looking for them on bare and uncertain evidence. It would be a great expense with a very small likelihood of a reasonable return. Much as I care for the advancement of knowledge, the discovery of a few new species of butterfly or lizard or even bird would not significantly impact our reputation or income one way or another, despite what the papers may say.”

Elizabeth looked at him with something of expression she might have given if she had caught him burning the Union Jack. Then a mischievous glint came into her eyes, and she shrugged her slender shoulders.

“Oh, well,” she said. “I can certainly respect your feelings on the matter. We shall simply have to ask elsewhere.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Personally, I am convinced of Mr. Corbett’s sincerity and good intentions, and I, for one, mean to see to it that this river is found and documented. And so, if the Natural History Museum is not interested, I will have to go elsewhere.”

Illingworth’s cold, dry manner slipped a little.

“Lady Elizabeth, you surely are not going to waste your money on such a…” he glanced at Perseus. “Uncertain venture?”

“Why not?” she said. “It is my money, after all, despite what some people seem to think. And I don’t know that it is so uncertain. At any rate, I intend to fund this expedition as soon as I find a scientific organization that is more concerned with advancing human knowledge than advancing its reputation.”

Perseus had to bite his lip to hide his grin. He tried not to look at either of them for fear he would lose composure entirely.

“I…as to that…” Illingworth spluttered.

Perseus could almost hear the thought process going on in the old man’s head; Elizabeth was an important patron of the museum. Whatever the costs of the expedition, losing her backing would be worse.

“Not only do I intend to fund it,” she went on. “I intend to accompany it.”

Perseus’s amusement vanished.

“You what?” he said.

She beamed at him.

“Yes, I think, since I am making an investment, I ought to see what my investment will buy for once.”

“Well, yes,” he said. “But, you know, it’s going to be quite dangerous.”

“Of course I realize that.”

She didn’t, he could tell. No one ever really did until they were there. He hadn’t expected this. It was one thing risking himself in a quest for gold; risking Elizabeth was something else entirely. Especially when he had lied about what exactly they were looking for a and why he was going. He felt hot, prickling shame in his stomach and a sensation like coming fever at the back of his throat.

But it was too late now; if he admitted the truth, there would be the end of it.  

“Much as I would love to have you along,” he said. “I strongly, strongly advise against it. We are going to be travelling in very rough country, and there will be jaguars and venomous snakes and insects and disease and many of the tribes are very unfriendly to outsiders, and that isn’t even considering the hardships and lack of privacy and…”

He stopped. The more he spoke, the brighter her eyes became, and he realized he was only making her more determined. He sighed. There was nothing for it.

“But if you really are determined,” he said. “Then I suppose I can’t stop you.”

“No, you can’t,” she answered. “Now all we have to do is to find another museum to provide the necessary scientific…”

“Oh, very well,” said Illingworth. “If you really mean to insist upon this venture, then I shall at least see to it that some good comes of it.”

“You will back the expedition, then?”

“Yes, yes, I shall,” he sighed. “I don’t know what it will do to my reputation, but so be it. When do you propose we start?”

“The sooner the better, I should think,” said Elizabeth.

“Very well. I shall have my assistant begin work on an itinerary. Now, where is that boy? Bill!”

***

While all this was going on, Martin had waited in the eastern wing of the museum, watching the party from the shadow of the portico with keen eyes for any sign of trouble. Underneath his stoic exterior, he was really rather anxious; he didn’t like Perseus’s scheme very much, and had only agreed to it because he hadn’t been able to think of a better plan. But if he could not prevent it, the only thing to do was to be on hand to try to ensure it came off.

At the same time, he had had an impish curiosity to see what happened when Perseus met Lady Elizabeth at last, as well as to see her for himself (it was partly for that reason that he had neglected to inform Perseus that she would be there). For though Perseus had never spoken much about her, Martin knew enough to guess at what he hadn’t said. He observed their conversation closely, unable to hear, but exercising his keen eye to judge their manners. Once they had disappeared into the west wing, Martin withdrew into the quiet corridors to think and to consider what he had observed.

He rather liked what he saw of Lady Elizabeth. She was certainly a beautiful young woman, and what was rarer, she knew how to dress well. She appeared to have perfectly good manners, but without affectation. A thoroughly charming young lady, he concluded, though he detected an air of anxiety about her that he didn’t quite like. He would have to keep an eye on that. 

For all his sophistication, Martin Halritter really had a very simple soul. He was the quintessential servant; no talk of salary or communal service interested him, nor was he any company man, but personal loyalty to one man or one family was the prime mover of his soul. Many there are for whom it is so, and at that time they were already beginning to suffer from the want of such opportunity in a rapidly changing world.

Perseus Corbett was no gentleman, at least not yet, but Martin had seen in him qualities that he thought would make for true nobility. And so, he had attached himself to him. They spoke as equals, and Martin never used the word ‘Sir,’ yet in his mind he was a valet and Perseus was his gentleman. There was between them that deep, abiding love that is sometimes called friendship, other times simply loyalty, but stands in a class of its own; the peculiar love of servant and master that in some ways is akin to that of father and son, save that neither could say which was which.

As he strolled softly up the hall, he became aware of voices coming from the hall of fossils. Curious, he drifted nearer to try to catch what was heard. A combination of the training of a good servant and many years spent in dark and dangerous places had given him the power of moving quite silently when he wished, and he did so now, gliding down the hall to see what was afoot.

Peering around the corner of the entry way, he beheld two young people standing amid the looming skeletons of ancient monsters. One was a big, amiable-looking young man with a thin mustache, the other a slender girl with long dark hair and an attractive, clever kind of face.

“Bill, this is ridiculous,” the girl was saying.  

“No, but really Frances, I do love you…”

“Yes, yes, you have told me many times, but why you dragged me in here to tell me it over again…”

“Why? You think it’s odd that I should want to talk to you alone?”

“No, of course not,” she said. “But why here?”

“So your father shouldn’t catch us.”

“Do you think I would mind terribly if he did?”

“Perhaps not, but I would, seeing as he’s my employer. And how could I marry you without a job?”

“Honestly, Bill, I don’t know that having you constantly worrying about what my father will think is much improvement over a life in the poorhouse.”

“I don’t worry about what he thinks, but I do respect him and…”

“And you are terrified of the idea that he may sack you,” she said.

“I am not terrified!”

“Is that why you haven’t told him yet? Is that why we’re meeting here, in secret, away from everyone else?”

“No, I…well…”

He stumbled, fumbling for a way to deny the obvious. She sighed and shook her head.

“Bill, I do love you, but I don’t know that I can go on like this. You simply have to tell him and take what comes. It’ll do you good.”

“It’s likely to do me in,” he said.

The girl lost patience.

“Perhaps it will, but I don’t know that I care to marry a man who cannot even risk a harsh word from his employer.”

“But Frances, darling…”

“No, listen to me Bill,” she said, recovering her temper. “A comfortable home and a sure income are not all. I need to know that I can rely on you.”

“Surely my judicious caution proves that.”

“No, Bill; what you call ‘judicious caution’ only shows that you can’t stand unpleasantness. You always try to take the easy, safe way, and that makes me wonder whether you will be there for me if it ever becomes difficult. Do you see?” 

He swallowed.

“I…no, you’re perfectly right. I shall prove my courage.”

At this point, Martin heard the quick, soft steps an approaching servant and silently ducked into an alcove as a waiter strode past him into the hall.

“Mr. Little?” he said. “Professor Illingworth is calling for you.”

“Oh, yes; of course,” said Bill, hastily stepping away from Frances. “I-I shall be there directly.”

The waiter bowed and withdrew.

“Will you tell him now?” she asked.

“I…perhaps,” he said. “We’ll see what he wants first.”

He hesitated, then kissed her in a sudden burst of passion before dashing off. Frances stood stunned for a moment, then sighed, shook her head, and followed. Martin remained where he was, stroking his long chin thoughtfully.

Young people were really very silly.

***

“There you are!” Illingworth snapped as a big, round-shouldered boy with sandy brown hair appeared. “I would remind you that you are not here for your personal amusement; this is work.”

“Yes, sir,” said Bill. Perseus thought he gave the distinct impression of a dog. A big, friendly, likable kind of dog; say a Labrador or a retriever, but definitely a subservient character.

“I want you to begin work on an itinerary,” Illingworth ordered. “It seems that I shall going on expedition soon. You will prepare my schedule and be ready with my apologies once the dates are set.”

“Expedition, sir?” asked Bill.  

“Do you mean you’re coming yourself, Professor?” said Elizabeth in surprise.

“I do. Since I shall be taking full responsibility for this…endeavor, I shall at least go along to ensure the work is done properly.”

“Is that…wise, sir?” asked Bill. “At your time of life?”

“Thank you, Bill, but I assure I am quite fit,” said Illingworth sharply. “This will not be my first trip to the Amazon; I know perfectly well what to expect.”

He drew himself up and seemed to flicker momentarily to life, like a dying fire under the bellows.

“It will probably do me good,” he added. “I’ve been cooped up in that drafty office for too long.”

“Yes, sir,” said Bill.

“What is going on?”

A girl joined them. She was short and slender, with long dark hair and wonderfully formed hands. Her pale skin was appealingly contrasted by her black dress.

“Your father is going on expedition to the Amazon, Frances,” said Bill.

“You are?” she said in evident surprise.

“Yes, and don’t you start about my age,” Illingworth said, though in a different and much gentler tone than he had used with Bill.

“I wasn’t about to,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful! It’s been ages since you’ve gotten out and done any real work.”

She glanced at Bill, who colored a little.

“Ah, before we go any further, sir,” he said, clearing his throat. “There is something I…that is to say…”

“Well, what is it?” Illingworth snapped. “Out with it man! There’s work to be done.”

“Only…”

Bill glanced at Frances, then squared his shoulders.

“Only that I should very much like to join you, sir.”

Perseus saw Frances’ face fall from controlled excitement to open disgust. Illingworth, however, merely frowned.

“Would you?” he said. “Have you any experience with field work?”

“No, sir,” he admitted. “But that is just why I would like to come. It would be a boon to my career to be able to say I accompanied you on one of your trips, and I’m sure I would learn more in a few weeks in the field than I would in years in the classroom.”

“That’s true enough,” said Illingworth. “Well, then, you shall come. But I expect no complaints and no shirking of your duties.”

“No, sir. Also, I would like to marry your daughter.”

“You WHAT?!” Illingworth exploded.

“Quick; come away and let’s start planning,” said Elizabeth, seizing Perseus’s hand and dragging him out of the hall. Her face suggested she was holding in her laughter with difficulty and wanted to escape before it broke free Illingworth’s shouts followed them, echoing through the stone halls. Indeed, as soon as they regained the main hall, she burst into quiet, but heartfelt peals of merriment.

“Poor Frances!” she laughed. “What a way to have it come out! But at least now they can get on with it; the silly ass has been wanting to marry her for years.”

Perseus affected to laugh as well. The genuine amusement he felt at the boy’s clumsy proposal at least helped to cover his discomfort.

“Elizabeth,” he said. “About this expedition. Are you going to insist on coming? I’ve been on trips like these before, you know; it’s very different from reading about them. And I…the last thing I’d want is for anything to happen to you.”

“Thank you,” she said. “That is very sweet of you, and gratifying. And I know it will be terribly dangerous and hard and I’m sure I’ll probably to look back more than once and think what a perfect idiot I was to insist on coming. But then, I’m also certain that if I don’t go, I will always look back and wish that I had. It’s not fair that you should have all the adventures, you know; I’d like at least one.”

“As you like,” he sighed. “And I can’t deny that it will be pleasant to have you along for once.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Partners?”

She held out a hand. He swallowed and took it.

“Partners.”

Chapter One of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

[ I’m working on a new book at the moment – well, the idea for it is very old, but all books are new when written – and I thought I’d drop a draft of the first chapter for feedback and to start generating interest. Enjoy! ]

Chapter One
The Kiss

“Pause you who read this, and think for the moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
-Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

            It all began with a kiss.

The place was the top of the hill overlooking Sangral House, a magnificent old manor in Kent. The time was a fine spring morning in April 1914. And the principles were a fourteen-year-old boy and a girl of the same age.

The girl belonged to the house, being none other than Lady Elizabeth Darrow. The boy’s name, rather absurdly, was Perseus Corbett, and his being there at all requires a little explanation.

His mother, Antigone Brown, was the daughter of a classics instructor at an obscure college in Wales. She had married below her station to a would-be inventor named Kenneth Corbett whose subsequent failures to revolutionize the world eventually left him working in a London garage. Their only child was sickly from infancy, suffering a chronic cough and shortness of breath, the care of which served as a continual drain on the little family’s scanty resources. By the time he turned twelve, his condition was indisputably growing worse and it was plain that new measures were needed if he were to survive.

Kenneth Corbett had originally come from Kent, where his brother Roger was head gardener at Sangral, the country seat of the illustrious Darrow family. Hoping that the country air would work the boy’s cure, Kenneth wrote to his brother to beg him to take the him on for a time to see if his health improved. Having obtained permission from the family, Roger agreed, and so little Perseus was packed off out of London for the first time in his life.

The journey was a wonder to him. The green, rolling hills, the open places, and trees! More trees than he had ever thought possible! And flowers, horses, cattle, all whirling by the train windows like flashing picture cards.

More wondrous still was the noble brick and stone edifice of Sangral itself. It stood back all by itself, nestled among the hills, with great old trees standing about it like attendants upon some venerable king. It was a very ancient house and had been added to and pulled about many, many times over the centuries. The east wing drove out before the front entrance like a defensive arm, ending in a conical tower, while the west wing retreated back, as though seeking the quiet shelter of the trees. It was a house with character, a house that one remembered, and which might have been (and indeed had been) the inspiration for many a romance, many a history, many a ghost story. Its somber brown bricks rested upon one another as sturdily today as when the first of them had been laid back in the fifteenth century, and its many windows flared like bonfires in the evening sun.

The plan was that Perseus should earn his keep by working as an apprentice undergardener, and so the next morning he was set to weed the flowerbeds along the mansion’s western front (this being a job it was judged he would have a great deal of trouble messing up). It was hard work, and his back ached, but the sight of the great house, not to mention the beautiful, fragrant flowers made it impossible to care much. His greatest difficulty was the temptation to stop work and simply gaze at the great house, lost in a daydream. He felt almost like he were back in the middle ages, or the time of the cavaliers; some dutiful servant laboring on behalf of a noble knight, or some great lady. Sangral House was just shy of a castle, after all, he thought. All it needed was a princess.

Then, while hard at work in between these reveries, something fell out of the sky and landed with a soft thud in the dirt beside him, making him jump. The thing had come within a foot or so of landing on his head. It was, he saw upon examination, a round silver medal, with the image of a man’s head on one side and an oak tree on the other.

“You there! Boy!”

Perseus looked up to see a girl’s head with a lot of tangled red hair sticking out of an upstairs window.

“I’ve dropped my medal. Will you bring it back up to me please?”

“What’d you want to drop it for?”

“I didn’t do it on purpose!” she answered. “Could you just bring up, please?”

He felt the sudden thrill of exultation, as boys do feel when they’re asked to do something important. His imagination, already travelling along such lines, conjured images of himself as a knight errant, retrieving the princess’s lost treasure.

“All right, then!” he called back, which was not a very knightly thing to say, but it was his first attempt. Forgetting all about his work, he got up, dusted himself off a bit, and ran for the kitchen door, which was nearest. It seemed very dim after the bright sunlight outside, and he had a fleeting impression of a large, smoky kind of room full of delightful smells and a lot of activity. He darted through before anyone had time to realize he wasn’t supposed to be there and hurtled up the servants’ stairs.

“Here now!” said a commanding voice that caused him to stop. A tall, stern-looking butler stood before him, glaring down on him like an imperious judge.

“What do you think you’re doing in here?” he said.

“The girl upstairs dropped this out the window,” said Perseus, holding up the medal. “She asked me to bring it up to her.”

The butler grunted, as though to say that he was not surprised.

“Very well,” he said. “I shall take it from here.”

He held out a hand for it. He was such a commanding presence that Perseus, who had always been used to obeying his elders anyway, nearly handed it over without thinking. But the fantasy that had taken root in his mind was strong, and he hesitated.

“No,” he said. “She asked me to do it.”

“That is no part of your duties,” he said. “Now hand it over.”

Perseus hesitated a moment later, then borne by a sudden reckless courage that came from he knew not where, he darted past the butler, ducking under his arm, and raced up the stairs two at a time while the old man shouted after him.

He reached the third floor landing and burst out into the corridor. The girl was standing by a bannister overlooking the main staircase, but she turned a smiling face on him as he ran down the hall toward her. Now that he saw her up close, he found that she was about his own age (though being a girl she of course conveyed the impression of being older). She was tall and lanky, with a good-natured, freckled face that had clearly seen a lot of sun, and bright hazel-green eyes. There was something of the air of a young colt about her, in her long, bony limbs and the restless, rather awkward energy of her movements.

“Here…it is…” he gasped, holding the medal out to her. His bad lungs were rebelling against the sudden burst of energy he had demanded of them.

“Thank you so much,” she said, taking it. “But are you all right?”

He nodded, still breathing hard. Meanwhile the butler appeared behind him in an icy rage.

“My apologies, Lady Elizabeth,” he said. “He has no business here…”

“It’s alright, Tredwell,” she said. “I asked him to bring my medal back up. I dropped it, you see.”

Tredwell’s stern face grew a trifle sterner.

“He has no business forcing his way up here,” he said.

“Oh, never mind that now,” she said. “Look, boy, are you sure you’re all right? Here, you must sit down.”

There was a large bay window with a velvet covered seat nearby and she urged Perseus to sit down and catch his breath. Tredwell frowned upon them.

“Could you get him a glass of water, Tredwell?” she asked.

“Very well, your ladyship,” he said with a stiff bow that spoke volumes of what he thought of the arrangement. He retreated, and Peseus slowly got his breath back.

“You’re not very strong for a gardener,” she said after he had his drink and Tredwell ahd been sent about his duties.

“I’m strong enough,” he said defensively. “It’s only that my lungs aren’t quite right. That’s why I’m here with Uncle Roger; they say the country air will make me better.”

“Oh, I see; that explains it. What’s your name, boy?”

“Perseus Corbett.”

“I say, what a funny name!” she said, laughing.

“It is not! It’s the name of a great hero who chopped a gorgon’s head off and used it to kill a sea monster and save a princess.”

“I know all that, but I’ve never met a ‘Perseus’ before,” she said. “Have you killed any sea monsters lately?”

“No,” he admitted grudgingly. “Has anyone chained you to a rock lately?”

“I’d like to see them try!” she answered, throwing her head back and laughing with the careless ease of one who was used to being able to have her own way.

“What’s important about that medal, anyway?” he asked, feeling he ought to take the offensive.

“What’s important about it?” she exclaimed. “It’s only from King Charles the First is all. He made a collection of these during the Civil War and handed them out as gifts to people who’d done him particular service, like my great-great-great…oh, I forget how many greats grandfather, Lord John Darrow.”

“You’re joking!” said Perseus, suddenly interested. He knew a bit of history, and the idea that he had been carrying something that once belonged to the unhappy king filled him with awe. “Shouldn’t that be in a museum, then?”

“No, because it’s mine,” she said. “My grandfather gave it to me personally.”

“So why did you drop it out the window?”

“I told you, that was an accident! I was just leaning out the window, looking at it and thinking about those days and it just slipped.”

“I’ve never met anyone related to a real-life cavalier,” he said.

“Oh, yes; we’re a very old family, didn’t you know? Lords and ladies all the way down. If you like that, we’ve got plenty more like it. I’ll show you them, if you like.”

That, however, had to wait, for at that point Uncle Roger, no doubt alerted by Tredwell, came to demand that he return to work.

“Later, then,” she said. “And don’t you dare be hard on him, Roger,” she added. “It’s my fault.”

Her orders commuted his sentence for a whipping to a stern talking to before he returned to his duties. But punishment or no, it hardly mattered compared with the fact that he had become friends with the young lady of the manor.

From then on, whenever Perseus wasn’t working (and sometimes when he ought to have been), he and Elizabeth would be off exploring the grounds in fine weather and the house in bad. She showed him all the treasures of her ancestral home, telling him what she knew of their history. He saw the portraits of her ancestors and heard what each one had done. He saw the landscapes and miniatures painted by famous artists, the furniture that had been in use for longer than the oldest servant had been alive. He saw the secret passages and the marks on the wall showing where some long-dead relative had thrown something in a fit of temper. He saw the woods and ponds that had been cultivated by generations of gardeners. He saw the stables with their fine horses, the kennels with their barking dogs, the pseudo-Greek folly down by the pond that Elizabeth’s grandfather had built.

Most importantly, the very day after their chance meeting, he saw the library, with its hundreds upon hundreds of books gathered across many generations; books of the kind the creaked when you opened them and breathed forth a wonderfully musty smell, so that even if you didn’t read them, you like to pull them down and page through them anyway. He had loved to read at home; being a sickly child with a mother both anxious and well-educated, it had been the chief source of amusement open to him, and the sight of this infinitude of words filled him with the same feeling as if he had found Aladdin’s cave.

Elizabeth, he found, was not a great reader. Or rather, she was not at all fond of being made to read. She had shown him the library mostly on account of some suits of armor that stood by the library fireplace and the portrait of an ancestor who had been a famous poet in his day. Perseus’s accounts of The Jungle Book, Treasure Island, and The Count of Monte Cristo, however, could not fail to pique her interest, and after they had explored the house from top to bottom and back again, their favorite pastime became finding a book to share. They would then race about the park, imagining themselves as part of the stories, or making plans for going on their own adventures; of voyaging in the West Indes like Robinson Crusoe, or trekking in darkest Africa like Allan Quatermain, or travelling in India like Mr. Kipling.

And so two years passed away at Sangral House. Perseus’s lungs recovered and his body grew strong under the stern direction of his uncle. He learned to ride, to fish, to shoot, and to climb trees. He learned more about history, about art, about music. Two years of almost unmitigated happiness and wonder, broken only by occasional visits home, where the dust and grime and squalor of the London neighborhood – so different from the romantic images of the city that he found in his books – seemed almost like a bad dream. Or, what is worse, like the coming from a good dream into a sad awakening.

The only other check to his happiness was Lady Darrow, Elizabeth’s mother. At first she paid little heed to the friendship between her daughter and the gardener’s nephew. They were children, and children would have their escapades. She didn’t much care for her daughter’s climbing trees or catching snakes, but Elizabeth had been doing those sorts of things long before Perseus showed up, and at least now she was reading more. But as time went on, Lady Darrow began to disrupt their escapades more and more. They would be having a great game in the conservatory and she would look in to say, “It is time for your music lessons, Elizabeth,” or they would be sitting reading together on the hillside and she would send to say he was wanted in the garden. More and more it seemed their time together was being curtailed, and there was nothing they could do but make the best of it.

Then came the end of it, the final awakening. A letter arrived from home to inform him that, as his health had so clearly improved, his mother wanted him to come home to stay. It was, she said, unthinkable that a son should remain so far from his family without due cause. Moreover, his father had found him a job, and a good one too, at a shop in London, which would bring in twice what he was making as an apprentice undergardener, money the family sorely needed.

Perseus was prepared to argue the matter out, that though the money was not very good, he was on his way to having a perfectly suitable job right here. He would be a full undergardener before long, and had a chance of being head gardener in the end. But then Uncle Roger put the final stop to his wishes.

“Fact is,” he said. “I think Lady Darrow had a hand in asking your mother to have you home. She’s not too keen on the way you and Lady Elizabeth are so familiar, as I’ve warned you time and time again.”

So it was settled. He would be going home to London for good. Home, where there would be no armor, no paintings, no old books, no secret passages, no ponies, no lake, and no woods.

Worst of all, there would be no Elizabeth.

Shortly after the summons home had arrived, Elizabeth learned that her parents were making plans to go on holiday to America, an extended stay of some months’ duration at least. That meant that on top of everything else, they would now be separated by a whole ocean.

The decision was made, the bags were packed, and the tickets purchased. All that now remained were the last few precious hours at Sangral Manor. Lady Darrow, though she did not approve of their friendship, was at least softhearted enough to allow them to spend those last hours in uninterrupted company.

Perseus and Elizabeth sat side by side on the hill, overlooking the house and grounds. They had spent many a happy hour there over the years, reading or dreaming or playing. But now there didn’t seem anything to be done except to be together while they could.

Elizabeth sat with her knees drawn up, resting her chin upon them, idly watching a rabbit grazing by its burrow.

“It’s not fair,” she grumbled. “Why couldn’t you have come with us to America?”

“Just be sure to watch out for sea monsters,” he said, making an effort to be cheerful. “I’d hate for you to be gobbled up while I’m not around.”

“That’s sweet of you,” she answered, smiling at what had become a long-running joke between them. “But I keep telling you I’m not going to need it; no one’s chaining me to a rock!”

They laughed, but not as wholeheartedly as they were used to. It was a faint flicker of something that was dying.

“You’re not going to forget about me, are you?” she asked after a pause.

“Of course not!” he said. “I’m going to be working in a bloody shop; thinking about you and Sangral is probably going to be the only thing that’ll make it tolerable. You’re the one who’s going to be having parties and meeting interesting people and having adventures and all that.”

“Well, just to make sure you don’t, I got you a present,” she said, reaching into the pocket of her frock and handing him a small box.

He opened it, and to his astonishment found the Charles the First medal that he had retrieved for her when they first met.

“You can’t give me this!” he said. “It was your grandfather’s! It’s a historical treasure.”

“Yes, and now it’s mine and I can do what I like with it,” she said. “Since I know you like it so much, I thought I should give it to you. Besides, you earned it; heroically risking the wrath of Tredwell to bring it to me, when any sensible boy would have just given it to him. I thought if I gave it to you, then you’d stay gallant and delightfully silly even working in some dreary old shop.”

Hesitantly, he put the medal about his neck.

“Thanks so much,” he said, fingering the ancient silver with affection and awe. “I’ll never, never take it off.”

“Don’t never take it off; you’ll spoil the silver. Just take good care of it; I don’t want to have to explain to either grandfather or Lord John that I gave their medal to someone who went and lost it.”

Perseus laughed, but again it soon faded, like a small fire in a cold stove. Their time was almost up.

“I didn’t even think to get you anything,” he said. “And you’re by far the more likely to forget about me.”

He didn’t add that he wouldn’t have known what to get her, even if he had.

“Oh, I don’t think that’s likely,” she said.

“Still, I should give you something. Something important. But I don’t have anything like that.”

Elizabeth thought a moment.

“Well,” she said slowly, looking away as though embarrassed. “There is something you could give me.”

“What?” he asked eagerly.

“It’s not really much, of course,” she said. “Though I think it is important. And I don’t know if I really ought to ask, but since you’re so eager…”

“Well? What is it?”

She swallowed and fixed her eyes on a bit of grass by his feet. Her face was as red as her hair.

“A kiss.”

Perseus felt as though the bottom had dropped out of his stomach.

“A what?”

“My first kiss,” she said, playing with the grass. “It’s a special thing. Ought to be, at least, I think. Something I can always take with me. That way I’d be sure never to forget you.”

Perseus felt himself going red as well. He had never yet seriously thought of kissing anyone; it was the sort of thing one read about in books and imagined doing, but which existed totally apart from the real world. It was as if she had told him that there was a dragon that needed slaying or pirate treasure to be dug up.

Yet, he certainly didn’t dislike the idea.

“I suppose so,” he said.

Judging by the way they focused on it, one would have thought that there was something infinitely fascinating about the grass about their feet.

“So…will you?” she asked after a moment.

He forced himself to look at her, and she forced herself to look at him, and he nodded. He had no real idea what he was doing, and it seemed far more complicated in real life that it had sounded in books. But there wasn’t anything for it but to simply try their best. Elizabeth shut her eyes tight and learned forward a little. Perseus thrust his face forward and their lips met.

It was wetter than he had expected. But really, quite nice.

They broke apart, both breathing rather fast. Then they both began to giggle uncontrollably.

A moment later, Uncle Roger came stumping up the hill to tell them it was time, and they walked back down together. At the gate, the moment of parting came. They shook hands and said their goodbyes.

“Have a good time in America,” he said.

“Have a good time in London,” she answered. “Or at least, not too frightful of one.”

He smiled, and just like that, they parted, him walking away beside his uncle to the train station for the last time.

“I’ll send for you if that sea monster shows up!” she called after him as a parting shot.

“See that you do!” he called back.

As the train rode away back to London, Perseus found his mind kept going back to that kiss. That first and only kiss. He felt different for it; stronger, bolder, more sure of himself. And all at once, he seemed to see his path clear before him.

In that moment, Perseus Corbett made a vow. He had no idea how he would do it, but he swore he would or die trying. He swore to himself that, some day, he would become a gentleman. He would have a house like that, beautiful grounds, horses, servants, fine old objects, all of it.

Most of all, he would marry Elizabeth Darrow.

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

 

 

            “Phone call for Mister Fireson.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I get assurance of that?”

There was a pause.

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

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

“Both of you?”

“Both of us.”

“Is that all he has to offer?”

“I…what?”

“Let me talk to him again.”

“Andre, what are you…”

Her voice faded as Cummings took the phone back.

“Are you satisfied, Mister Fireson?”

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

There was a pause.

“Could you repeat that?” said Cummings.

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

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

“Would you care to reconsider?” Cummings asked.

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

A pause.

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

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

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

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

Crane looked at him in surprise.

“Something come up?”

He nodded.

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s not,” Sarah put in.

They looked at her. So did Karen.

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

“Even you?” said Cummings.

Sarah swallowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all bent over the plans, studying them carefully.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

Andre nodded, seeing his point.

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

###

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

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

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

He sighed and turned back to the room.

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

Karen saw Deaney looking in their direction and grinning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was nothing to do now but wait.

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry, boss,” Benton shrugged.

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

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

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

###

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

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

“What?” he demanded shortly.

“Not a blessed thing,” Nick answered.

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

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

“Terrific.”

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

Now came the tricky part.

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

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

“What?” Tyzack shouted.

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

“No, idiot, what’s the problem?”

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

Please let him have missed, she thought.

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

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

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

Speaking of which

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good boy,” Andre gasped.

###

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

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

“Where’re we going this time?”

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

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

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

He gave a weak smile.

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

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

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

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

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

“She’s not,” said Crane. “But I am.”

 ###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen frowned at him.

“Hanoi fell in 1970,” she said.

He looked steadily at her, smiling slightly.

“I know. What’s your point?”

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

“You were special forces!” she exclaimed.

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

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

“And now?” she asked.

He thought a moment, then shrugged.

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

Andre laughed.

“Amen to that,” he said.

A few minutes later, Detective Crane appeared.

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

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

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

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

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

Andre sat up, suddenly alert.

“Centron Farms,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But who…” Sarah asked.

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

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

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

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

Andre grinned.

“You’re something, you know that?”

She flashed him a radiant smile.

“You have no idea.”

Crane chuckled good humoredly.

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

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

 

Nanowrimo Sample

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

The Sun Spark

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I honor thy law and as reverence I thee,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The only question was whether Uan would come first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He froze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Ergen, however, was frowning.

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

Theoan remembered the ‘meteor’ he had seen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They did so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why do you stay?” Nata asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They looked at him in surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you saying?” asked Theoan.

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

He frowned, looking back down at the trapdoor.

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

Book Release: Spring and Fall in the Old Dark House

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

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Walter Deaney, perhaps?”

Gallano scowled at him.

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

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

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

Andre’s eyes rose with interest.

“Oh? What event is that?”

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

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

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

“I…will listen,” he said.

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

The drug lord stared at him and then laughed.

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

“Beats prison,” said Andre.

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

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

Gallano’s face twitched.

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

###

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

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

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

“Your lunch, sir.”

“Didn’t order any,” he answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello,” he said. “Change of plans.”

“What?” said Andre.

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

“You?”

“Obviously.”

“Anyone else?”

“Nope.”

“What’s changed?”

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

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

“What’d you do to him?”

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

“Rather,” said Andre dryly.

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

“Wait, who are you anyway?”

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

“Andre Fireson,” he answered, taking it.

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

“What’s happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick gave him an appraising kind of look.

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

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

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

That was not encouraging.

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

They didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now take a swim,” he ordered.

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know Crane?” said Andre.

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

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

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

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

Andre swore aloud.

“Know her?”

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

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

“He’s what?”

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

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

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

“You know where they’re taking them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

Oh, well, Nick thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, don’t!” Karen called. “Stay…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can use my place,” said Andre.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing to do with it,” said Nick.

“Liar,” she replied.

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

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

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

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

Nick whistled.

“That’s a neat trick,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She grimaced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice couple of girls,” he muttered.

“They certainly are,” Andre answered.

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

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

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

Nick considered this.

“Makes it official, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He hung up. Karen looked at him expectantly.

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

Karen could sense there was more to it than that.

“That’s not so unusual, is it?”

Crane tapped his fingers, still frowning at her.

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

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

“So what do we do?” she asked.

He thought for a moment.

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

She nodded.

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

“Why?” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean my case, sir?”

“Different side of it,” said Aldrige.

“I’ll bet,” said Crane.

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

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

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

He paused a moment, glancing up at Karen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I don’t,” said McLaglen.

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

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

The three men exchanged glances.

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

Tyzack nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“But…” she began.

“That’s an order, detective.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Fireson?”

“Who is this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Liu Sho?” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

The human refrigerator sighed.

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

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

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

“Miss Rockford?”

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

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

“Why?” Sarah asked suspiciously.

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

“He’s what?!” Sarah exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m telling you…” said Stillwater.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a cop, right?” said Sarah.

“Yes, a detective,” said Stillwater.

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

“Yes, but I switched it off…”

“Let me see it.”

“Of course not!”

“I’ve got an idea; come on!”

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

“I can’t just give a civilian…”

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

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

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

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

“This is dispatch; who is this?”

Sarah stared blankly.

“Say Adam 10,” said Stillwater.

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

“Roger, that Adam 10.”

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

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

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

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

“But what’s gonna happen to him?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?!”

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

Stillwater gave a low whistle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stillwater breathed what sounded like a prayer under her breath.

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

Sarah nodded vaguely, wishing she could believe that.

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

“Now where do we go?” Sarah asked.

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

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

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

“Springwood,” said Stillwater.

“Where’s that?”

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

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

“English father, Mexican mother,” she answered.

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

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

“Sorry,” said Sarah. “I’ll be quiet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?!” said Stillwater.

“No!” said Sarah.

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

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

“Now!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something I don’t get, Detective…”

“You can just call me Karen.”

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

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

“Okay, then what do you think happened?”

Karen considered.

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

“Like a game of chess.”

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

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

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

“Possibly Deaney himself?”

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

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

“You think we can go?” asked Sarah.

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

“Yes,” said Karen. “But quietly.”

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

“And try not to attract attention.”

Sarah laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they never got there.

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

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

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

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

“Check mate?” Sarah whispered.

Karen nodded and lowered her gun.

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

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

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

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

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

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Andre Fireson 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.”