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

DP 2

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

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

“I…I’m here to see Mr. Eickstein?”

“He’s busy. What do you want?”

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

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

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

The woman swallowed and squared her narrow shoulders.

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

“Oh?”

“My name Linda Hauge.”

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

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

“Yes,” she said.

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

“You have the money, I presume?”

Linda Hauge swallowed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Forget it,” he said.

“But…”

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

“I…what?”

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

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

“What condition?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was something Nick was all too familiar with.

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

“Can I help you?” he said.

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

“Where’s Eikstein?” he asked.

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

The man in grey frowned at him.

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

Nick raised his eyebrows and whistled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man considered a moment more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Andrews. 332. Five-thirty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

Angel snorted like an irritable bison.

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t she a little young for you?”

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

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

“You serious, Breezy?”

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

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

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

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

“Then you’ll do it?”

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

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

“That hurts, Angel; it really does.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled. As he thought, a nice kid.

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

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

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

###

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

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

“Welcome back, Breezy,” he said.

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

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

He nodded to the man in grey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nick drew a deep breath.

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

“Then you picked his pocket,” Mistretta added.

“I…”

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

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

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

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

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

Mistretta grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mistretta grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

As he had thought, Nick had hit a nerve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know how to fight, Breezy.”

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

“Beginner’s luck.”

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

He’d almost forgotten the cylinder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

###

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A lawyer, huh?”

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

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

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

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

“They’re in it together,” he groaned.

“What?”

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

Angel whistled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?” said a female voice.

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

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

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

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

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

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Karen Stillwater in Deadly Currents

KS 3-1

It was her first murder.

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

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

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

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

She frowned and sat back on her heels, thinking.

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

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

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

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

Well, she had wanted a challenge.

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

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

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

Pallin looked at her and laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you talking about?” Pallin asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean, tripped?” he said.

“Could have happened anywhere anytime,” said Pallin.

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

“Pushed?”

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

“That’s ridiculous!” said Pallin.

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

She sighed.

“About ten days.”

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

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

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

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

Crane examined the body, noting the scrapes.

“What do you think, Pallin?” he said.

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

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

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

###

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

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

This case was no different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So what?” the man snarled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

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

“What of it?”

He gestured at the house with his cigarette.

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

“You mean…”

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah?” he said. “What’d I say?”

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

He glanced at her, and they both laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He gave her an odd, frustrated look.

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

This was patently absurd.

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

He groaned, shaking his head in irritation.

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

With that, he reached for his gun.

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

“What,” she gasped. “Are you doing?”

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

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

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

“You’re under arrest,” she said.

“Don’t bet on it,” he grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What direction did he go?”

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

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

“In this storm?”

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

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

She gave her location.

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

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

He groaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gunshots.

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

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

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

“But…but you’re…”

“Drop it!”

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

“Good work, Stillwater,” he said.

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen looked at him in surprise and some alarm.

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I’m fine…”

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

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

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

 

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Andre Fireson in Fire From Behind

AL 2

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

Time to go win another day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any word on the African situation?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The older man held out his badge.

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

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

“Only to you,” said Archer.

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

“No, thanks; this won’t take long.”

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

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

“Sorry to hear that.”

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

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

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

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

“One of yours, then?”

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

“It shoots through walls then?”

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

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

Andre fixed the detective with a cold eye.

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir?”

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

She raised her well-formed eyebrows.

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

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

“And you aren’t?” she said.

He smiled.

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

“Right away, boss.”

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

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

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

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

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

“How many are there now?”

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

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

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

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

“Hello, Mr. Gallano.”

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

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

There was a pause on the other line.

“I…do not understand…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You wouldn’t dare…”

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

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

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

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

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

“Knew it,” he said.

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

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

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

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

Andre had already given this possibility some thought.

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

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

###

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I purchased it,” said the crime lord.

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

Andre leaned back in his chair, digesting this.

“And you paid that price?”

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

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

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

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

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

Gallano smiled. It lent no warmth to his face.

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

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

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

He drew out a sheet of paper and passed it across the table. Andre reached for it…and then hesitated. Something that Gallano had said suddenly stuck him as important.

“You said you purchased a rifle. One rifle?”

“Yes,” said Gallano, confused by the hesitation. “As you will see, that is what the agreement was for.”

“But I’m missing two.”

For a moment, time seemed to stand still. Andre’s eyes went from the contract on the table to the painted wall right next to them.

“GET DOWN!” he shouted, and even as he did so the green drywall blossomed white as the huge bullets tore through it.

Andre threw himself under the table. Marco was right beside him. He heard Gallano cry out, then a sickening wet impact sound and something heavy hit the floor.

He looked up, still hugging the carpet. Gallano was on the ground across from him, his face spattered with white plaster dust. Next to them, Gallano’s bodyguard lay sprawled on his back, face up, with quarter-sized red holes in his chest and stomach.

All this he saw in the blink of an eye, for almost no sooner had the dead palooka hit the ground than the whole restaurant was rock in an explosion. The bullets had not just been piercing the outer wall, but finding no other obstacle they had broken through into the kitchen, and the final two shots had struck the gas stove. The kitchen erupted in angry yellow flames, sending the swinging doors flapping like banners in a wind. Almost immediately, the fire caught, feeding on the oak rafters overhead and the wooden countertops as it spread greedily outward.

“Get him out of here!” Andre ordered Marco. “Call the police! I’ll take care of this.”

Marco was too loyal a servant to question him. He didn’t even pause to acknowledge the command, but seizing Gallano by the arm he dragged him to a crouch and hurried for the back exit before it was cut off by the flames.

Andre rose gingerly to his feet. He had helped design that weapon; he knew its capabilities and its weaknesses. With a raging fire at his back, the thermal sights would be overloaded and his own body heat would blend right into the background. At least, so he hoped. It would give him time to get out the front door, behind the cover of one of the parked cars, and hopefully get an idea of the would-be-assassin…

But there was no need. Even as he approached the door at a crouch, it was kicked open and a short, slim figure in black came in, cradling the missing XR-7 rifle.

Had Andre remained where he was by the table, he wouldn’t have had a chance. As it was, though, he was already almost on top of the man. Before the surprised assassin realized what was happening, Andre closed the remaining distance, seizing the barrel of the rifle with one hand and the stock with the other and twisted it free of the man’s grip before body-checking the assassin against the wall. Pinning him there, Andre took the chance to tear his mask off.

Only it wasn’t a man at all.

“Ida!” he exclaimed.

She fixed him with a glare of stinging hatred, and the next thing he knew she’d jabbed him in the stomach with a tazer. He stumbled back, she dove for the rifle, and he threw himself on top of her, preventing her from bringing it around to aim at him. Meanwhile, the fire that had started in the kitchen was spreading; the inner wall was crumbling, and the flames were already climbing the nearest booths.

The rifle went off once more, the powerful bullet slamming through the front of the shop. If this kept going, they were going to kill someone.

Andre hit Ida on the back of her head, hoping to knock her out, or at least take some of the fight out of her. It worked; she gave a gasp and went momentarily limp. He took the opportunity to haul her up and drag her to the door, away from both the rifle and the rapidly spreading flames.

As though some superhuman spirit was driving her, however (or perhaps because he hadn’t wanted to hit her too hard), Ida recovered her senses much too soon. With an animal-like snarl of rage, she twisted in his arms like a snake, slipping his grip before he could tighten it, turning and dropping an elbow direct onto his nose, which shattered with the impact. Momentarily blinded, Andre grabbed at her, catching her by the arm as she tried to make one more grab for the gun. This time he wasn’t as gentle, but threw her bodily in the direction of the door.

Eyes still watering from his shattered nose, charged after her, trying to regain his grip before she could recover her balance. But she seemed to have given up the idea of the rifle, which in any case now lay among growing flames. Instead, she fumbled for the door and staggered out into the street, away from the growing smoke. Andre, coughing, pursued her.

Ida crossed the empty street like a deer, and Andre raced after her, following her down an alleyway just in time to see her vanishing through the back door of one of the buildings. He charged in behind her.

As Andre cleared the door, his foot caught something in his path and he pitched forward, tried to recover, and was struck on the back of the head by something hard and blacked out.

When he came to, Andre found himself in an unfamiliar, bare room. His hands were cuffed behind his back, fixed to a radiator. There was no furniture in sight, only pale, dirty carpet. The lights were off, but a faint glow from a streetlamp shone through a barred window. There was the sound of soft footsteps and faint splashing coming from a door that seemed to lead to a short hallway. But what he chiefly noticed was the smell.

The room reeked of gasoline.

A moment later, Ida came in. As she stepped into the light, Andre was shocked to see how much of a change had been wrought in her lovely face. It was so suffused with hatred that it was almost grotesque.

She was dressed all in black, her brown hair hanging loose and unkempt about her shoulders, her eyes fixed intently on Andre. In her right hand, she held a pistol.

“Why,” she snarled, “did you have to make this so difficult?”

Andre shook his head, trying to clear it. Ida was obviously deranged and meant to kill him. He would need all his wits about him if he meant to come out of this alive. The first thing to do was to keep her talking: to buy himself time.

“So, it was you,” he said, trying to work out the sequence of events in light of this revelation. “Of course, you’d have the means to get yourself access to the prototypes in my name. And to make out the contract for Gallano so he thought I meant to deal. But what I don’t understand is why?”

She shook her head and laughed.

“Of course you don’t,” she said. “You didn’t even realize who I was, did you? The whole thing had completely out of your mind, I’m sure.”

“What whole thing?”

“You remember Norris Tanner?” she said. “Tanner Technologies?”

Andre didn’t, as a matter of fact. At least not…

“Oh, right,” he said. “That…that’s the company we acquired back in seventy-four.”

Acquired?!” she shrieked. “You destroyed it! You drove it into the ground!”

“They were competitors to us,” he said. “We made better product cheaper…”

“Because you had the money to do so,” she said. “Because you were already so damn rich that you could operate at a loss for three years just to ruin my father’s work!”

“No, that’s not how…”

“Shut up!” she shrieked, jabbing the air with her gun. “Did you know that after you ruined him, he completely fell apart?” she went on, clearly relishing the chance to spew her anger. “He started drinking. Staying out late. Gambling. Then, one night, he came home and ate a bullet.”

“I’m sorry,” said Andre. “Really, I am; I didn’t know that. But you can’t blame us; we paid your father handsomely for his company. Offered him a job if he wanted one. It isn’t our fault that he…”

“Yes, it is!” she shrieked, sounding totally deranged. “You ruined him!”

In the midst of his anger and his fear for himself, Andre felt pity for the girl aiming the gun at him. She so desperately needed this to be so that she was deaf to reason.

“So, just as your family destroyed my father’s work, so I’m going to destroy yours,” she said, sounding a little calmer now that she was explaining her purpose. “Of course, it would have been so much easier if you’d just picked up that damn contract!”

“You wanted my fingerprints on it,” said Andre. “To have me discovered killed by my own weapon, holding a sheet of paper linking me to Gallano.”

“That was the idea,” she said. “Although even without that, you’d still be dead now if your damn guns could shoot straight!”

“They’re prototypes,” he said. “Of course they don’t work perfectly.”

“There you go; you are so smart, aren’t you?” she snarled. “Just so right about everything, except you weren’t right about me, were you?!”

“No,” he said. “I thought you were a nice girl.”

She worked her jaw convulsively, as though her anger was too large to put into words. It seemed to Andre that his distraction strategy was rapidly running out of steam and he hadn’t come up with a way out.

After glaring at him for a few moments, her hand twitching as though she longed to just shoot him right now, Ida drew a deep breath and holstered her gun. Then she checked her watch.

“I’ve got to be going now,” she said. “I’ve set an ignition device in the other room, on a timer. It’ll go off in about ninety seconds.”

Andre felt a sick lurch of fear. Helplessness was something he wasn’t accustomed to, but now it seemed to stare him in the face. It couldn’t really be that there was nothing he could do to save himself, could it?

“You know,” said Ida, leaning in close for a final word. “In some ways, I like this better. This way, you get to die thinking about how everything you ever worked for is about to go up in smoke. Just like you are!”

He didn’t know where the idea came from. Maybe just from her getting so close, or just a flash of instinct. Andre swept his legs out, one foot hooking behind her knee, the other kicking her ankle. Ida fell forward with a shriek of surprise, and her head struck the radiator hard.

She slumped, unconscious, next to him.

Knowing he had bare seconds to act, Andre twisted his hands out as far as they would go, wedging the right-hand cuff into the slats of the radiator to get every inch of distance he could.

In this way, he could just reach his left hand into Ida’s left pocket. He felt around, turning it inside out, but no key. Painfully aware of the vanishing moments, Andre hooked one leg over her body and tried to turn it over. The first time failed. The second he managed to get her halfway, grabbed her belt with his hand and pulled her the rest of the way. Only now she was too far on top of him and he had to push her off a little in order to reach her pocket. But again there was no key.

Andre realized that, not intending to let him go, she must have thrown it away as soon as she’d cuffed him to the radiator, perhaps anticipating that he might seek to take it from her.

For a moment, just a moment, Andre teetered on the brink of despair. Then he noticed the gun riding her hip.

Hastily, using his feet, he pulled the unconscious girl into a position from which he could draw the weapon. At last he had it.

As the precious seconds ticked by, Andre carefully turned the gun around in his hand. Despite the danger, he didn’t dare move faster: he might drop the gun, or worse, accidentally put a bullet through his own back.

At last he brought barrel around enough that it was pointed direct against the chain that linked his cuffs. He fired, and the slide jerking back cut into his wrist, but he was free. Andre scrambled to his feet. No time to find the way out; the bared window had an emergency release handle, tucked up where no one could reach it from the outside. Andre pulled the handle, kicked out the bars, and climbed out the window, carrying the unconscious girl with him.

He had not even reached the street when the house exploded behind him.

###

            “So,” said Detective Crane in a weary voice. “It was your secretary.”

“We’d done a full background check on her, of course,” said Andre. “For a while I couldn’t figure out how we missed her connection to Tanner. Then I realized she must be using someone else’s name, and I found out the real Ida Turner had been working at the same secretarial firm as Ida Tanner, but had gotten married and moved to Alaska not long before we hired Tanner. She got ahold of her friend’s resume, made a few edits and presented it as her own. My people are working on ways to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

Crane sighed and looked at hospital room door behind which Ida was being treated for a concussion under heavy police guard. Detective Archer was in there reading her rights.

“So the plan was to link you with Gallano, then kill you both in what would look like a gangland shooting,” he said. “That’d pretty much destroy any chance your company’d have of getting that contract you’re after, or any others in the foreseeable future, not to mention basically destroy your reputation.”

Andre nodded.

“About that,” he said. “If possible, I’d like to arrange for her to go into protective custody.”

Crane gave him a surprised look.

“What do you mean?”

“She took a pot shot at Gallano; killed his bodyguard and burned down his restaurant,” Andre pointed out. “He’s not gonna accept the insanity plea and just let her sit out her time at the asylum. However long she goes away for, I’d like for her to live to see the end of it.”

The detective looked at the businessman with new respect.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said. “Though I’m rather surprised to find you taking this attitude.”

Andre smiled.

Nobless Oblige,” he said. “It’s a family tradition.”

Catch up on past issues of Thrilling Adventure Stories:

Construction of Crime featuring Sarah Rockford
-A series of deadly and suspiciously convenient disasters leads idealistic reporter Sarah Rockford to ask whether someone didn’t manufacture the incidents purposefully.

The Clown featuring Cosmo the Clown
-Frank Catelli is an expert kidnapper of rich children, but his latest crime brings him face-to-face with an enigmatic clown who doesn’t like what he’s been doing.

Road Work featuring the Lepus
-When terrorists hijack a shipment of deadly chemicals, it is up to the Lepus and his friends to stop them before it is too late.

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Sarah Rockford in Construction of Crime

VL 1

 

Tonight, the ebony sky above Los Angeles was bronzed with the light of destroying fire. The Loan and Financing building, only completed in June, was reduced to ashes…

Sarah Rockford looked up from her notepad to where the Loan and Financing building was still being transformed into ash. The fire department was pouring water on it, and already the blaze seemed lesser than it had been. Perhaps it wouldn’t quite make it to the ashes stage tonight after all. She put a parenthetical ‘ruins’ after the ‘ashes’ sentence.

Looking over her scribbled notes, the phrase “only completed in June” struck her eye. Hadn’t she written something similar not long ago?

Sarah tapped her pen against her small chin, thinking. She made a note to follow-up this fact then went to try to grab a statement from the nearest fireman.

“No, we don’t know what started it,” he said irritably. Then, taking a closer look at her, added, “And what’s a girl like you doing out this time of night anyway?”

“Working,” she said simply. “Sarah Rockford; Daily Spinner.”

The fireman frowned at her, looking as though he doubted it. Well he might, for Sarah, at twenty, looked even younger than she was, something that was not helped by the fact that she barely cleared five feet. She tried to compensate by wearing her yellow hair in what she thought of as a professional pulled-back style and dressing in the most sophisticated button-up blouses and skirts the thrift store provided, though it didn’t really help much.

Besides which, she had stretched the truth a fair bit. She didn’t technically work for anyone; she simply hunted down stories and sold them to whoever would pay. The Spinner was just her most regular buyer.

It wouldn’t be fair, of course, to say that Sarah was a habitual liar; her parents (both deceased) had taught her to be honest, but then they had also taught her not to starve, and the latter lesson had sunk in a little deeper than the former.

“Well, Miss Rockford,” the fireman said, still suspicious but accepting her story. “We can’t tell you anything more about the fire, except that it doesn’t appear to be arson and right now we’re trying to make sure it doesn’t spread, so if you wouldn’t mind stepping back while we do our job…”

Sarah complied, wondering as she did so whether she could translate ‘doesn’t appear to be arson’ in such a way to make it sound as though it very likely was arson without driving her conscience to open rebellion. She reluctantly decided she couldn’t.

She did, however, make sure to stay within earshot of the firemen while they battled the blaze. She scribbled city block threatened by raging inferno; saved by heroic firefighters. That was good; she’d be able to get a few more words from some of the men and a flattering portrayal of their labors might encourage them to be communicative in the future. A girl had to think of her future.

As Sarah took notes, one of the men who had been up close to the fire came and spoke to her friend in a low voice. She moved forward eagerly to hear.

“Someone was on the second floor. Never got out.”

“You sure?”

The man nodded.

Sarah’s excitement disappeared with a sickening jolt. A burning building was one thing: spectacular, visually splendid, dramatic. A person burned alive inside it was something else entirely. She didn’t like that kind of story.

She didn’t attempt to press the firemen for more information. They likely wouldn’t have any, and besides that could wait. She drifted back toward the watching crowd, thinking.

How did the fire start? She wrote.

By the time the last embers were extinguished from the smoking ruins, Sarah had been able to glean a few more grains of information. First that the fire was likely electrical; something about faulty wiring reacting with substandard materials. Second was that the company that owned the building had no comment about the fire or its victim. And finally that said victim was a janitor who had been working on the upper floor when the fire broke out and had been overwhelmed by smoke before he could escape. His name was Jose Montago, and he had a wife and three children.

Sarah worked all of this into a moving, dramatic article; praising the heroic efforts of the firemen who held the fire at bay to save the rest of the block (she decided she didn’t have space to add that one of the firemen had assured her it was highly unlikely the fire would have spread in any case, given the still night and the distance between buildings), lamenting the tragic death of Mr. Montago with his widowed wife and orphaned children, and engaging in some pointed, but carefully non-libelous speculation as the to negligence of Diamond Financial.

The article sold, and Sarah had the satisfaction of earning her keep for another day. But she was not finished yet. Something about this fire troubled her. Perhaps it was the dead man, or the apparent negligence that had led to the disaster, but she wasn’t ready to let it go.

Her first move was to look into Diamond Financial. This required a trip to the library to look through newspaper archives, then a journey to the County records building, a little covert flirting with the clerk, and a lot of bald-faced lying to his superior.

Sitting in her rented rooms in her pajamas and going over her notes with a bowl of ramen noodles, Sarah pieced together the following facts. First, Diamond Financial was in deep trouble; they had weathered two lawsuits that, while they probably sailed right by the average person had caught the eyes of the financial world. That is, anyone they were likely to do business with. The result was that, in addition to the large settlements they had been obliged to make, they had lost a good deal of their client base. They had even been the subject of a case study in the Wall Street Journal about the side-effects of lawsuits. In short, they were hanging on by a thread, if that.

The next thing she found was that, right in the midst of this crisis, indeed while they were still battling one of the lawsuits, they had purchased the lot on which the Loan and Financing building had stood and filed an order with a company called Huner Contractors to construct the building for the purposes, so they said in their press release, of opening a new revenue stream in the interests of re-establishing their reputation. The building had only been completed less than a month prior to its bursting into flames.

Most significantly, she found, was that it had been heavily insured. It had cost twenty-three thousand dollars to build, but had been insured for fifty. In other words, they had pulled a clear twenty-seven thousand dollar profit just when they desperately needed money. All because their expensive new building burned to the ground.

Sarah stuck the end of her pen into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Everything was shaping up to a grand little conspiracy, one that – she added angrily to herself – had cost an innocent man his life. Everything, that is, except the fact that the fire department had been very clear that there was no sign of arson.

If only she could get around that. Suspicious as the circumstances were, unless she could find some evidence that the fire had been anything but an accident – non-circumstantial evidence, that is – she couldn’t do anything but point out how suspiciously fortunate the company was. And there was no law against being suspiciously fortunate.

Sarah thought a moment, then grabbed her phone and dialed. She waited a moment, then a familiar voice answered.

“Detective Crane.”

“Hello, Detective,” she said. “This is Sarah Rockford.”

“Oh, no; not you again!”

Detective Marvin Crane had been with the LAPD for almost thirty years. He was tough, non-nonsense, and scrupulously honest, which was why Sarah usually went to him if she thought she had a crime on hand. She knew he found her annoying, but at least he treated her seriously, and for a twenty-year-old girl with her living to make, that counted a lot more than manners.

“Yes, me again,” Sarah said. “Listen, you know that fire that we had last night?”

“The one you were hanging around?”

“That’s it. I’ve found evidence that it might have been staged; can you check and see if there’s anything to suggest that?”

“We did,” he answered. “What do you think? We found a dead body and a brand new building burning to the ground. We went over it with a fine-tooth comb, but there wasn’t any sign of arson. There was, however, a lot of evidence showing that it was an electrical fire, because some moron used corroded wires.”

Sarah felt disappointed.

“What made you think it was staged?”

She gave him a summary of her findings. To her relief, he didn’t brush it off. She could almost hear him sitting up on the other end of the line.

“Hm,” he said. “That does look bad. I’ll tell you what, kid; I’ll put out some feelers and see if I can find anything odd about them. Meanwhile, don’t publish anything.”

“You know, I do have to eat.”

“So cover a dog show,” he said. “If there is something fishy going on we don’t want to tip them off that we’re onto it.”

That was too much sense to argue with.

“Fine,” she sighed. “I’ll sit on it for a few days. Let me know what you find, won’t you?”

“I suppose that’s only fair,” he muttered.

“You’re adorable! If I ever decide to adopt a grandfather, you’re first on my list.”

He hung up. Sarah laughed and put down the phone. Progress! At least, some progress, though at the cost of sitting on an especially spicy bit of speculation.

Oh, well. If she had to keep the Diamond Financial angle under wraps, there was another element to the story. It had popped into her head when Crane had mentioned the bad wiring, though she hadn’t been able to do anything with it while they were talking. Now, though, she began to wonder whether it wasn’t odd, possibly criminal even, that the building had been constructed so shoddily. Who were Huner Contractors, after all? Had it been their doing, or perhaps…

Sarah checked the clock; three PM. Still time to make it back to the county records building if she hurried. She stood up, staggered a little and yawned. It occurred to her she’d been doing that a lot recently, and this made her realize she hadn’t slept in almost thirty hours. Perhaps, on second thought, this could wait until tomorrow.

Sarah relaxed her mind for a few hours working on the novel she was writing, and which, hopefully, would one day spare her the necessity of such late hours. She then went to bed on the couch that was one of the three or four pieces of furniture she owned and slept the sleep of the just until the alarm woke her at five in the morning.

Her first move, she decided, would be to track down and interview someone from Huner Contractors. It was a slim hope, but if she could get convincing evidence that the wiring and materials had been sound when they were installed, that might be enough to make a case. At least it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Huner Contractors, as it transpired, were remodeling a suite of offices out in the suburbs of LA. According to a sign it was for a company called ‘Westlake Realty.’ Sarah parked her ancient Corvair (which had been a gift from a family friend who owned a car lot and who had been unable to find anyone else willing to buy the thing) and went in search of the man in charge.

This turned out to be a cinderblock in human form by the name of Lepton. His stubble-lined face when Sarah accosted him went from angry to interested faster than the changing of a traffic light, while his small eyes did a quick and appreciative sweep of her face and form. Several of the workers, Sarah noticed, had paused to look at her. She suspected that she was probably the most alluring thing not on a magazine cover that had appeared in that spot for quite some time. She mentally put the information down in case she needed it. Modesty, like honesty, was a virtue she could be flexible on.

Pretending to have not noticed the attention she was getting, Sarah smiled her best innocently friendly smile on Lepton. She had to tilt her head back to do so, as she barely came up to his chest.

“Good morning,” she said. “My name is Sarah Rockford; I’m with United World News. I know you must be a busy man, but I was wondering if you had a moment to answer a few questions?”

Lepton’s cinderblock face cracked into a cement-teeth smile.

“Well, if it won’t take long,” he said in a tone that suggested he hoped it would. “Why don’t you come into my office?”

“That’s very courteous of you, but this will only take a minute,” said Sarah. Rule one of being a five-foot beauty was not being in enclosed spaces with a human brick if you could help it. “I’m sure you read that the Loan and Financing Building on Miller was destroyed in a fire the other day?”

Lepton’s expression underwent another sudden transformation. His appreciative interest vanished and his annoyance returned.

“No,” he said. “Why would I?”

“It was in the newspapers,” she said. “But perhaps you’re too busy to read them. I only mention it because I know your company built it.”

“What about it?”

Sarah picked her words carefully.

“I’m writing a piece on the fire,” she said. “And, of course I have to say something about what caused it. According to the fire department, it was faulty wiring and shoddy materials. I thought it only common justice to see what you had to say about that.”

His face grew even uglier.

“You saying I did rotten work?”

“No,” she answered smoothly. “That’s what the fire department says. I want to know what you say.”

As she spoke, she became uncomfortably aware that the other workers had begun to gather around them.

“I say that I’ve been in this business for almost fifteen years. My people’ve worked on a hundred different buildings, every one of them as good as anyone else’s And I think that if anyone wants to say I did a bad job they ought to say it to my face.”

Sarah glanced around at the seven or eight burly men who now surrounded her. This wasn’t at all the reaction she had expected. It was much too severe. It was frightening. But she maintained a brave face.

“Mind if I quote you on that?” she asked.

“I think you’d better leave,” he answered.

She was only too happy to comply. Sarah thanked the man politely and, trying not to turn her back more than necessary, made her way out of the site. The men moved aside to let her go.

Driving away from the site, Sarah drew a deep breath to steady her nerves.

“Now what,” she said aloud. “Are they so touchy about?”

She had gone in with a vague idea that Huner Contractors might have had a hand in the fire. Now she was certain about it.

Today’s research trip required less finesse than yesterday’s: she only wanted to know a bit about which buildings a certain contracting company had built or worked on. Once she had this information, she was able to return to the library to compare it to the record of accidents, fires, and other such problems.

What she found was interesting, but inconclusive. The company had to one degree or another worked on over sixty buildings in the greater Los Angeles area, either building or renovating. Of these, thirteen, including the Loan and Financing building, had either burned down, collapsed, or somehow became unusable. It wasn’t much, but it was notable.

Her next step was to cross-check the thirteen failed buildings with the clients who had ordered the work. The first was a company called “Faylestate Insurance.” They had ordered a new office building, which had collapsed like a house of cards in a minor earthquake two months after being built. The company took in an insurance check for three times what they paid for the building, which, as it turned out, was just in time to pay a settlement in a harassment case.

Then there was the three-story research facility owned by Hyperdyne Systems, where Huner Contractors had done a basement renovation three weeks before it was destroyed in a fire. Two people were killed in that one, and again the company pocketed a large insurance check, covering their third year of net-loss revenue.

So it was again and again. Every single time one of the buildings that Huner Contractors’ had worked on had something go wrong, the company that had contracted it received an insurance check far greater than what they’d paid for the work, and usually just when they most needed an influx of cash. And, what struck her as especially strange, never once did any of them even talk about bringing Huner Contractors to court for negligence or shoddy workmanship.

“Gotcha!” she exclaimed aloud, so that several nearby people glared at her.

Sarah checked her enthusiasm: still it was only circumstantial. Very suspicious circumstance, to be sure, and probably enough for the police to move against Huner Contractors, but nothing definite. A clever lawyer, she was sure, could probably make mincemeat out of the theory, and the fact that Huner Contractors had never been sued could cut both ways: evidence of conspiracy or evidence that the company didn’t consider them negligent. And if once they got through court without a conviction, they’d be home free, meaning no justice for Jose Montago or any of the other people who had died in this scheme.

She nibbled her pen for a moment, trying to gauge how best to proceed. Then, in a sudden flash as though of divine (or demonic) inspiration, she had idea. The site she’d visited that morning was for Westlake Realty. She looked for their name in the business journals and had to stuff her fist into her mouth to keep from shouting in triumph, for they were being sued for malfeasance and their stock was a fraction of what it had been a year ago. If her theory was correct…

Sarah rushed to a payphone and dialed Detective Crane’s number. The phone range several times, then went to voicemail.

“Listen,” she said. “I think I’ve figured the whole thing out; I just need to confirm it. I’m going to do that now: the Westlake Realty building on Pico Boulevard that’s being redone. If it’s what I think it is, we’ll have them dead to rights. I’ll call you back when I get a chance. Oh, this is Sarah Rockford, by the way.”

For the second time that day, Sarah drove out to the construction site. It was about eight o’clock by this point, and the block was deserted; everyone had gone home. The windows looked in on a bare, empty building, and the door was firmly locked.

Sarah slung her bag over her shoulder, took up her camera, glanced about to make sure no one was watching, and approached the door. A few moments with a hairpin was enough to undo the bolt. She slipped inside, closed the door behind her, and ducked out of view of the street.

The main work on the interior seemed to consist of redoing the floors. There were several large holes in the foundation waiting to be filled with concrete. She hopped down into one of them. It was about three foot cubed. Shining her flashlight against the cement that had already been poured, she looked carefully for any sign of wear or weakness, but found none. Disappointed, she hoisted herself back out and went to look at the exposed walls. The beams seemed sturdy enough when she tapped them; no structural issues.

But then she took a look at the insulation they had begun to install. To her untrained eye it looked unpleasantly frayed and dirty. She sliced off a sample with a pocketknife and carefully stowed it in a plastic bag to show to an expert. Then she took her camera and snapped a photo of the whole set up.

It was as she was looking through the camera that she noticed the wiring. This had been completed already, it seemed, but the coverings didn’t look quite right. She felt them, and the black rubber coating fell away in her hands; it was better than half rotted. Underneath, the wires were badly corroded. She wasn’t an expert, but it looked to her as though if you used this system, it was likely to short out and catch the insulation on fire within a few short weeks.

Sarah eagerly snapped another photo, getting in close to the wirework. Once an expert took a look at this, she thought, it would mean ‘probable cause’ and a search warrant.

“Gotcha,” she muttered.

At that moment, a hand – a huge, callused hand – closed over mouth.

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” Lepton snarled into her ear.

Blazing, blind nightmare terror erupted in Sarah’s chest. Shock and danger both combined to elicit a scream that would have been heard across the city if it hadn’t been smothered by Lepton’s powerful grip about her mouth.

“Don’t struggle!” he snapped. “Or I’ll break your little neck.”

The energy that fear had given to her limbs died away, and Sarah froze, stiff and rigid, except for the rapid rise and fall of her chest and the darting motion of her eyes.

“You scream and you die,” he said. “You don’t give me any trouble, maybe you walk away. Understand?”

She nodded, and he took his hand away.

“What do you think you’re doing here?” he demanded. As he spoke, he pulled her arms behind her back and began tying her wrists together with rope.

Sarah swallowed. The first blaze of shock and terror had subsided, and she had gotten some of her courage back.

“Building inspection,” she said. “I wanted to have a closer look at your materials.”

“That your job, is it?”

“Sometimes,” she said. “You do know that people have died because of your work, right?”

“Despite what I said this morning, I do read the papers,” he said, pulling the ropes tight and making her wince. “Sit down.”

“That doesn’t bother you?” she said, obeying. He began to tie her ankles together. “Jose Montego; that’s the name of the man who died the other night. He had a wife and three kids.”

He finished her ankles and began on her knees.

“Do you ever shut up?”

“Really?” she said. “You don’t care at all?”

He pulled the knot tight, then spun her roughly around and started tying her elbows.

“I’m making about twice as much a year as the average guy in my profession, thanks to jobs like this,” he said. “You expect me to go all teary eyed because some chump has the bad luck to be there when it went down?”

Sarah was still terrified, but her fear was briefly eclipsed by anger.

“I suppose that’s expecting too much of something like you,” she said. She winced as he finished tying her up. The ropes were so tight that it hurt to even try to move.

Lepton sat back and looked at her. His granite face was a blend of satisfaction and hatred that was enough to make Sarah’s blood run cold. He was obviously enjoying her helplessness.

“So now what are you going to do with me?” she asked, trying to keep her voice as light as possible.

He picked up her camera, examining it idly.

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” he said. He opened the rear, pulled out the film, and crumpled it up in his hand. Sarah sighed irritably, but it was no more than she had expected.

“There are a lot of things I’d like to do with you,” he said with a leer. Sarah dropped her eyes, shuddering inwardly at the very thought.

“But,” he added, picking up a roll of duct tape. “I’d rather not waste time.”

Sarah eyed the tape uneasily, guessing what it meant.

“You don’t need that,” she said. “I’m not gonna scream.”

“Oh, I think you are,” he answered.

She looked at him, her breathing coming fast as she understood what was in store.

“You said,” she stammered. “That you would let me go.”

“I said maybe,” he answered, pulling off a strip of tape. “And I was lying about that.”

Before she could make another sound, he pressed the tape over her mouth, sealing it shut. She tried to yell, but only a muffled grunt came out.

“So,” he said, gripping her face and forcing her to look at him. “You think I use shoddy material in my work, huh? Well, what would you call a nosy brat who doesn’t know how to mind her own business? You think that’ll make good building material?”

Sarah’s eyes widened with terror. She tried to speak, to plead, but no words beyond muffled grunts came out.

Lepton picked her up, carried her to hole she had briefly explored, and dropped her unceremoniously in. The impact knocked the wind out of her. He tossed her bag down after her.

As Sarah struggled to regain her breath, she heard Lepton walking across the floor, then rolling something over. She looked up and saw the conical maw of a cement mixer looming over her.

Sarah screamed into the tape as the cement mixer began to turn.

“So long, sweetheart,” Lepton called, and tilted the opening forward.

A stream of wet, gray cement began to pour into the hole about her, splattering Sarah with the cold, gritty substance. The cement mixer wasn’t especially large, but Lepton kept filling more and more into it, so that the stream pouring in around her waxed and waned, but never ceased.

Sarah struggled around into a sitting position, but could do no more. Already the stuff had covered the entire bottom of the pit and was rising about her. Her wide, terrified eyes darted about, seeking some means of escape, but there was none to be found. Even if there were, she could barely move, tied up as she was. She thought of her pocketknife: tucked safely away in the front pocket of her blouse and completely useless to her.

Steadily, and with greater swiftness than she would have believed possible, the cement filled in around her. It covered her hips and ankles, buried her bound hands even as they clawed uselessly at the ropes that held them, and began rising up her body. Her knees were a rapidly disappearing island in gray slime. It seemed strange to think she’d never see them again.

For the idea that she had held out against as long as possible was breaking through the ramparts of her mind and filling her pounding heart with unbearable terror: there was really no way out. She was actually going to die like this, right here and right now.

Her knees vanished under the cement. Her chest was covered, making breathing so difficult that she wondered if she might suffocate before it even covered her head. The cold muck reached her neck; it was tugging at her long blond hair.

Sarah tilted her head back, trying to stay alive for as long as possible. Lepton was waving sarcastically at her. The cement filled her ears and crawled up her cheeks. It covered the tape that muffled her screams. She shut her eyes tight and began to inhale it through her nostrils. This would be her last breath…

But it wasn’t. Her nose and part of her face was all that was left above the cement, but it didn’t seem to be getting any higher. She waited, unbearably tense for the final moment, but it didn’t come. Instead, a rough hand brushed the cement away from her face and sets of strong hands pulled her out from under the heavy muck.

Sarah opened her eyes and saw, to her astonishment, Detective Crane and a small posse of policemen. Lepton was subdued, and Crane and another man were hauling her out of the pit.

“Damnit girl,” Crane snapped. “What were you thinking?”

Sarah groaned in relief, though the detective didn’t immediately take the gag off of her, so apparently his question was rhetorical.

Within a few minutes, Sarah’s bonds had been cut and she sat furiously rubbing her limbs to try to get the feeling back while she explained what she had learned.

“See, Lepton and his men had a bit of a side business,” she said. “Most of the time they just did their job, but if a client were in financial trouble, like Diamond Financial, then they offered a special service: they would make or renovate a building for the usual price, but use junk material that cost a fraction of what the real stuff would cost. Meanwhile the client heavily insures the building, justifying it by saying they can’t afford to take another loss right now. Then it inevitably fails or burns down, meaning they collect on it. Since they didn’t torch the building themselves, there’s nothing to link them to the fraud, except the fact that this is what they paid for.”

Detective Crane nodded.

“That about right, Lepton?” he asked.

The contractor snarled.

“I want a lawyer.”

“Oh, you’ll get one,” said Crane. “Not that it’ll do you any good. Attempted murder’s a pretty serious offense.”

Sarah beamed at him as he was led away.

“Okay,” she said. “So, thanks for saving my life, but how did you know…?”

“I got your message,” he said. “Saying you were coming out here to snoop around. As soon as I heard that I got some men together and rushed over. Figured you’d get yourself into a spot like this.”

She smiled and hugged him.

“You’re sweet,” she said.

“You’re taking this whole near death experience pretty well,” he said, with an air of reluctant admiration.

Sarah shrugged. “I’m still here. And besides, just think what a good story this will make: ‘Trapped in pit of death, she watched her tomb forming about her.’ People will eat it up.”

Then she looked down at her cement-covered body and ruined clothes and grimaced.

“I suppose, though,” she added. “I’d better go clean up before I try to write it.”

Catch up on past issues of Thrilling Adventure Stories:

The Clown featuring Cosmo the Clown
-Frank Catelli is an expert kidnapper of rich children, but his latest crime brings him face-to-face with an enigmatic clown who doesn’t like what he’s been doing.

Road Work featuring the Lepus
-When terrorists hijack a shipment of deadly chemicals, it is up to the Lepus and his friends to stop them before it is too late.

 

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Clown

Frank Catelli sat in his car, watching the children play. He had a newspaper on his lap, but wasn’t reading it. It was only for show, in case someone came up and asked what he was doing. Always best to provide yourself with an innocent excuse for anything you’re doing. In the same way, his final meeting with Nora Eckhart had taken place at the circus, in a crowd of people, almost right under the noses of her employers. In a crowd, no one looked at you twice. And there was no harm in going to the circus.

Frank watched little George Reiner as he played on the slide and smiled a cruel smile.

Enjoy it while you can, kid, he thought. Next few days aren’t gonna be as much fun.

That was the worst part of his job; having to hear the kids cry over the two or three days until their parents decided to pay up. He couldn’t stand the whining. That’s why he always tried to use a place that had a good, strong closet or something, where he could lock the kid up and leave him without worrying that he’d figure a way out and from where he couldn’t hear the screams. He’d gotten a good one this time; an old cottage off in the woods where no one would ever think to go and that had a root cellar with a heavy wooden door. Three or four days of peace and quiet, and a fat pay off at the end of it. He really did have the perfect job.

All that was remaining now was for him to signal Eckhart the nanny, who would then lead little Georgie over to the car, and before the kid knew what was happening, they’d be on their way. He just needed to wait for the right moment, when the other people in the park weren’t paying attention. Wouldn’t be long now; the only other kid was being gathered up by his mother and led away. As soon as they were out of sight…

Frank cursed aloud. A clown in full regalia, big floppy shoes, oversized pants, and an electric blue wig had come waddling into the park dragging a brightly-colored cart full of balloons, popcorn, and other treats. And he was heading right for little George.

Nora Eckhart glanced around. Frank shook his head slightly to indicate she should wait.

The clown, meanwhile, was waving at George, his colorful face seemingly one enormous grin.

“Hi, there!” he said.

George stopped his play, hovering by the monkey bars indecisively. The bright colors and friendly demeanor of the clown interested him, but he was cautious as well.

“Hello,” the boy answered.

“Would you like a nice balloon? Or some popcorn?”

George nodded, but didn’t move.

“My dad says I’m not allowed to talk to strangers.”

“And very right of your father!” said the clown in a serious tone. “You certainly should not! So, my name is Cosmo, and this…” he suddenly produced a large hand puppet of a chicken with a top hat and monocle. “Is Lord Cluckington.”

George Reiner laughed in delight at the sight of the puppet. Already, Frank could tell, the clown was getting past his defenses.

“And your name is Georgie Reiner,” the clown went on. “There! Now we’re not strangers anymore!”

“I guess not!” said the boy.

“That’s good, because Lord Cluckington doesn’t talk to strangers either. But maybe he’ll talk to you, if you’re polite to him. Go ahead! Say ‘hello.’”

“Hello, Lord Cluckington,” said Georgie.

“Good-day, to you, young man,” the clown answered in a faux-dignified voice. His ventriloquy, Frank had to admit, was very good. The puppet bowed, and the boy laughed with delight. “It is rare,” the clown went on in the puppet’s voice. “That I should meet such a distinguished and obviously noble child such as yourself. I must apologize for the uncouth manners of my associate.”

“Oh, now!” Cosmo said. “I think that’s going a bit far!”

“I will not lower myself to discuss the matter with you, beyond saying ‘bawk, bawk,’ sir.”

Georgie giggled. Cosmo cast him an apologetic look.

“It isn’t easy living with the rich and famous,” he sighed.

“My daddy’s rich too!” Georgie said.

“Oh?” said the puppet with interest. “Does he possess many grain silos?”

“No,” said Georgie. “He’s in business.”

“Oh, I see,” said the puppet in a politely disappointed ton. “Well, I suppose that is a very worthy calling as well. You don’t happen to have any grain on you, do you?”

Georgie shook his head.

“I have some popcorn, my lord,” said Cosmo. “Would you like to share some with Georgie?”

“Share? I am far above sharing, my good fellow. Bagawk. However, I may make an exception in this case.”

Cosmo produced a bag of popcorn and Georgie eagerly took some of the salty treat, then handed a few to the puppet.

“Much obliged, sir,” said the puppet as it feigned pecking at the corn. He made sounds as though satisfied. “Hm, that is quite enough for me. I am dining with the ambassador of Estonia later. Perhaps you would care to finish the rest?”

Georgie was, of course, only too happy to accept, and Cosmo the clown, with his absurd puppet, said their goodbyes and left the boy happily munching his popcorn on the park bench while he took his cart elsewhere. Nora looked back again, and Frank motioned for her to wait a moment.

“Give him a minute to leave,” Frank muttered. “Then we take him…”

“Hi, there!”

Frank swore as the clown’s painted face suddenly popped up at his window, chicken puppet and all.

“I know you!” said Cosmo the clown, pointing at him with an exaggerated look of excitement. “You were at the circus the other day!”

Frank did a double take. At the circus he had been preoccupied with his job and hadn’t paid much attention to the acts, but now he realized that this particular clown had been there and had performed. Or at least, someone wearing similar makeup.

“Yeah,” he said, feigning a smile. “Great show.”

“The greatest show on Earth!” said Cosmo much too loudly.

“Right. Look, pal, do you mind? I’m kind of busy right now.” He indicated the newspaper.

“Oh, I know!” said the clown with exaggerated concern. “You have been so very, very busy these past few days. Not only fixing up that cottage that no one knows about, but renting this car, paying off Miss Eckhart, and carefully mapping out little Georgie Reiner’s routine. You must be exhausted.”

Frank stared at him. His hand moved to his holster, but he didn’t draw. The smiling face of the clown – the clown that had just accurately described everything he’d been doing to prepare for this job – seemed to hypnotize him.

“But, of course, this is just what you do, isn’t it?” Cosmo went on cheerily. “You kidnap children and hold them for ransom! You don’t care that it scares them; you don’t care if they get hurt. You don’t care about them at all, except that they can get you money.”

“Look,” said Frank. “Just how the hell do you know all this?”

“I am Cosmo!” said the clown with a parody of a stage magician. “I know all!”

“Yeah? You know what this means?” Frank drew his pistol and pointed it at him. “It means beat it and keep your painted mouth shut, clown, or you’ll end up in a body bag.”

Cosmo clapped a hand to his mouth, laughing as though he’d never seen anything so hilarious in his life.

“You think that’s funny?” Frank asked. This clown was clearly off his rocker.

“Well, no, not too funny,” said Cosmo, chuckling. “But Lord Cluckington here, he just thinks it’s a riot!”

The chicken puppet said nothing. Frank stared. Nothing in all his years of experience had prepared him for this.

“Now, Mr. Frank Catelli,” Cosmo the clown said. “That is your name, right?”

“Yeah, so what?”

“Well, the reason I stopped by is that Lord Cluckington really, really wanted to meet you. So, without further adieu….Lord Cluckington, may I present Frank Catelli, sometimes known as Frank Carlyle, sometimes by a host of other names. He is a professional kidnapper of children and he’s planning to kidnap little Georgie Reiner.”

Lord Cluckington considered Frank, then leaned in to whisper in Cosmo’s ear. Frank wasn’t sure whether he should shoot or not; a murder might spoil the whole job, but this clown…

“Oh, you already knew that?” said Cosmo, speaking to his puppet. “Because you saw him? Because we both saw him making these preparations?”

“What are you talking about?” Frank snapped.

“Cosmo the magnificent excels in all the arts of the clown,” he said with a solemn air. “Tumbling, fumbling, bumbling, juggling, but my favorite is impersonations. Specialties include passing drunks, window washers, janitors at car rental establishments, and realtors who happen to have perfect kidnapping cabins!”

Frank stared, then squinted at his face. It was almost impossible to tell under the makeup, but now that he mentioned it, he could just see the slightest resemblance between this clown and the man who had rented him that cottage.

“So, Lord Cluckington,” Cosmo went on. “Since we’ve seen Mr. Cateli at all these tasks, and heard him make all those very incriminating statements, what do you suppose we should do about it?”

Again, the puppet was made to whisper in his ear, and the clown adopted a look of mock solemnity.

“Lord Cluckington says we should eat your soul,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “But I think we ought to just inform the police. What do you think?”

Frank looked from the clown to the puppet, then lowered his gun and laughed. The job was ruined now, of course, but damn if the clown didn’t know his business. The image of ‘Cosmo’ marching into the police station to swear out a statement against him, corroborated by Lord Cluckington, was hilarious.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll listen to the likes of you.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t tell them,” said Cosmo. “Lord Cluckington would! He is a very respected person, as you must know. The police will believe everything he says.”

“I just bet they will,” laughed Frank.

Lord Cluckington opened his beak, and a perfect recording of Frank repeated, “I just bet they will.”

For a moment, Frank Catelli froze. He slowly realized just what his position had become. He raised the gun, but Cosmo was too quick. Lord Cluckington shot forward and hit him full in the face. The puppet, as it turned out, didn’t only have a recording device, but also a metal frame.

When Frank Catelli came to, it was to the sight of flashing red and blue lights, his own hands tied to the wheel. Little Georgie was in the arms of his mother, who was talking to the police. Nora Eckhart was already in the back of a squad car, looking dazed. And right in front of him, two detectives were looking over a pile of documents and tapes that appeared to have been left on the hood of his car in a brightly wrapped package.

Catch up on past issues of Thrilling Adventure Stories:

Road Work featuring the Lepus
-When terrorists hijack a shipment of deadly chemicals, it is up to the Lepus and his friends to stop them before it is too late.

An Appeal

Hello everyone. For the first time I’m making an open appeal to readers for help. I have a book in the works, which is approaching the end of its editing process. I’m hoping to publish it soon, but there’s only one problem: I don’t have a cover. You can’t sell a book without a cover; that’s what people judge them by.

So I am putting out an appeal to any readers who are artists or who can put me into contact with artists who would be interested in a commission job.

I have an idea of what I want in terms of the actual image and lay out, but stylistically I’m looking for something rather after the fashion of the following:

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1990s-uk-the-body-in-the-library-by-agatha-christie-book-cover-EXPRMN

I.e. Stylistic, stark colors and shapes, and heavy shadows.

If you are interested, or know of anyone who might be, leave a comment below.

Thanks everyone!

UPDATE: That was fast. Found someone and we’re negotiating price / concepts. Thanks everyone!

The Wisdom of Walt Disney Relaunch!

Today we’re announcing the relaunch of my essay collection The Wisdom of Walt Disney: The Themes, Ethics, and Ideas of His Greatest Films. In it I take a closer look at twelve of Uncle Walt’s most important films to dig out the morals and ideas woven into the story: essentially, considering the films as examples of wisdom literature.

In it you’ll find things like why Pinocchio turns into a donkey, how Bambi relates to the experience of war, and why Song of the South is such an important film.

This relaunch features optimized formatting for a more streamlined reading experience, an interactive table of contents, and a new low price. If you’re a Disney fan, or want to develop a deeper appreciation of one of the twentieth century’s greatest storytellers, pick up your copy today!