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.”