“I hate this. This is a bad idea.”
Captain Scarlet sat at the bar of the First Base Casino, running a finger around the collar of his shirt. He felt uncomfortable, even in the casual clothes he was wearing. He looked down into the untouched glass of whisky he had in front of him; it was only there to help maintain his cover in this casino setting. Trying to look inconspicuous, he took a quick glance over the rim of his glasses at the blackjack table not far behind him.
“You’re only saying that because you feel awkward in a casino,” he heard a French-accented female voice say in his ear, from the speaker inserted in the frame of his glasses. “You’ve been like that since your last mission in one, you remember?”
“It’s different this time,” Scarlet mumbled, taking a sip from his glass. He took another glance over his shoulder, at the same table as before, where he could see the back of a white head. “He shouldn’t be here. He should’ve let us handle the operation.”
“Try saying that to him.”
“I did. Without any success. How’s he doing, anyway?”
“Still winning. Now keep quiet, I’ve got to concentrate. And if you continue like this, people around you are liable to think you’re talking to yourself! What, are you nervous?”
Scarlet shook his head, disgruntled. No, not nervous. He was a professional. Undercover missions were part of his job, he was used to them. But he didn’t like the fact that Colonel White was getting involved in this one. He didn’t need to do that, as he usually stayed on Cloudbase, safely away from any danger, and co-ordinating his agents’ moves. Now he was in the thick of the action. Not that it was a first for him, Scarlet mused, glancing round at his commander, sitting only a few metres away from him. Surely, with all the experience he had acquired in the Secret Service all those years ago, he must be used to undercover missions. He seemed pretty cool at the moment, playing away at the blackjack table as if he was a long-time gambler. And winning.
But he was winning through cheating, and that was potentially dangerous. Even more so in a place that was run by a guy known to have contacts with the local mob. Scarlet was wondering if his commander was really aware of the danger he could be putting himself in. He rather doubted it, judging by the way White was enjoying himself. But was he enjoying himself because he was playing in this casino, or because he was getting involved in the mission? Maybe Colonel White had been stuck too long at his Cloudbase desk and was yearning for some action. Maybe that incident a couple of months ago with the Mysterons and the Network that had kidnapped him – even considering how close that had come to disaster – had stirred in the Spectrum commander some long-repressed need to be active again.
Scarlet would have preferred him not to get so involved. Scarlet himself would have been able to do the job, just as White was doing it now. But the colonel wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, I’m sitting here, playing bodyguard, in case he hits trouble, Scarlet thought gloomily. He took another sip from his glass. The thought that he could have drained half the BOTTLE, without feeling any effect from the alcohol, crossed his mind. That wouldn’t bring him any solace, though. And after all, he was on duty.
A white van, marked Honeybell’s Florists, was parked at a strategic point of the First Base Casino’s private parking lot with a clear view of the service door. Inside the van, Destiny Angel sat in front of a large computer board with a mic suspended in front of her mouth, checking over two monitors. They showed two different scenes taken inside the casino, as recorded by the micro-camera set into the frame of Captain Scarlet’s glasses for one, and Colonel White’s for the other. On one of the monitors, Destiny had a perfect view of the cards displayed on the blackjack table.
“Don’t look too often in his direction,” she recommended into her mic, addressing Scarlet. “You might start looking suspicious.”
“I’m supposed to keep my eye on him, remember? Let me do my job, and you do yours, chérie.”
Destiny rolled her eyes. Sometimes, that man can be so infuriating, she thought to herself. She knew he was indeed doing his job, making sure Colonel White was safe, and she also knew he was probably feeling somewhat frustrated. Maybe he should realize she was feeling that way too. Granted, she wasn’t inside the casino. She wasn’t in the thick of the action. But she was also working.
And whether Paul would admit it or not – it was SHE who was doing the more difficult job, studying the cards, counting them as they were displayed on the felt-covered table, keeping tabs on every card that appeared, and giving instructions to Colonel White. Making sure he would win.
Her next instruction to White resulted in yet another winning move, and was followed by applause she could hear through her headphones.
“He’s won another hand,” she heard Scarlet’s voice murmur in her ears. “How do you DO that?”
“Professional secret, my dear capitaine,” Destiny chuckled. THAT, and the fact that she felt no guilt or remorse whatsoever, in using the computer she was working on. But she wouldn’t tell Paul that. She was ready to use every trick in the book, for, according to Colonel White, it was imperative that he should win enough to attract attention to himself, making believe he was a big-time player.
“We’re wasting time, if you want my opinion.”
The voice behind Destiny nearly made her cringe. Since the minute he had set foot in the van, John Svenson had done nothing but complain. From the beginning, he had shown his disapproval of Colonel White’s plan of action, criticizing it all the way, making it very clear that he found it far too dangerous for his son’s safety. Not that it surprised the young woman very much. The problem was that SHE was the one who had to stay with him, inside this van, while the men were doing the undercover work inside the casino. That was definitely the WORST part of her job. Colonel White didn’t want to risk leaving Svenson on his own, fearing that he might do something rash that would put Captain Blue’s life in jeopardy. So, when he called the Spectrum offices in Las Vegas – asking for that specially equipped van, the improved communicator-glasses, and a couple of Spectrum agents as driver and back-up – he had ordered one of the men to stay and assist Destiny in her tasks, especially in regard of keeping an eye on Svenson. Even with the presence of this agent, the assignment didn’t please Destiny in the least. John Svenson had been getting on her nerves since the moment they met.
“Be patient, Mister Svenson,” she told him, trying herself to follow her own advice. “We will have results soon.”
“It’s been hours,” Svenson declared.
“In fact, a little more than one,” Destiny defended quietly.
“And so far, NOTHING’s happened,” Svenson added, without listening to her. He leaned over her shoulder and gestured toward the screen. “What’s your commander doing, anyway? He’s doing nothing but play cards. And you’re helping him to win by cheating.”
“You’re blocking my view, sir,” she replied politely. Fortunately, after a quick glance at the screen, she noted that nothing had changed. White was still on his winning streak. She took note of the new cards that had appeared on the table.
“Doesn’t he realize he runs the risk of being recognized by one of those hoods he met in that town, if one of them shows up?”
That thought was what worried Destiny the most. And she knew it was foremost in Captain Scarlet’s mind, too. But they both knew it was part of the colonel’s plan. So they couldn’t argue much with it.
“Actually, Mister Svenson, he’s already got a back-up plan, if that was to happen.”
“A back-up plan?”
“Yes, so he could use that event to his advantage.”
“Whatever it is,” grumbled Svenson, “I’m sure it’s highly risky.”
Destiny shook her head, returning her attention to the screen. “One way or the other, it will not be long before he draws attention to himself,” she declared thoughtfully.
“And then what?” Svenson grumbled.
“Then, Mister Svenson, is when things will really get interesting.”
Svenson’s brow furrowed. None of the Angel’s answers satisfied him. He glanced round at the man seated beside her, watching him and at the same time keeping an eye on the brightly-lit front of the casino. He knew there was another man checking the back entrance too, just to make sure no-one suspicious slipped through there, without them knowing it.
In all probability, according to these Spectrum agents, Adam was in there. Only a few metres away from him. Probably getting himself killed by Grover. John Svenson wanted to DO something. He would have given anything to run there and try to save his son, but he couldn’t. Spectrum wouldn’t let him. The guy in the van with them, Palladino, Destiny had called him, would stop him before he could make a move.
“I don’t like it,” Svenson stated again. “My son is in there, why don’t you just… force the door?”
“We have no proof that he is indeed in there. Or that Mister Gardenia is, indeed, involved with his kidnapping. We can’t enter like that. And it could put your son in danger, if we barge in there without caution.”
“He’s already in danger, young lady,” Svenson declared gloomily. There was a crack in his voice, that Destiny noticed instantly. Despite the dislike she felt for Svenson, she couldn’t help but feel sorry for the man. And also for his son. Adam didn’t deserve what was happening to him.
“Heads up,” the voice of Captain Scarlet suddenly said in her speakers. “Somebody’s moving towards the old man.”
Destiny’s attention was drawn to Scarlet’s camera. She saw a tall, overweight, Italian-looking man walking quietly in Colonel White’s direction. She narrowed her eyes.
“Sir, someone approaching you,” she announced into her mic. “The man with black hair, who welcomed you at the door at the beginning of the evening. He’s coming to talk to you, by all appearances.” She flicked back to Scarlet’s concealed speakers. “Approach position, Captain. I think we’ll have contact soon.”
Scarlet took another sip from his glass and, leaving it on the bar, left his place to casually walk toward the blackjack table. As he rose from the barstool, he hooked his thumbs into his belt and adjusted his trousers slightly. It was something most men did after sitting for any length of time, but it had an added purpose for the Spectrum agent – it gave him a comforting reminder of the pistol holster tucked into the small of his back, hidden by his light sport jacket.
Since the colonel had started playing blackjack, less than two hours ago, people had been surrounding his table, watching with interest, curious to see this English gentleman who was apparently going to win big. Already, a few young women had gotten themselves really close to the player, forming a cosy circle around him, most obviously lured in by all his gains at the table. By the way they looked and acted, fighting for the older man’s attention, there was little doubt of these girls’ profession, or exactly what they had in mind. They had set their sights on a potentially wealthy client. It was all Scarlet could do not to chuckle at the thought. He wondered what the colonel’s impression of the situation was. Maybe he was a little embarrassed by it.
If that was the case, he was doing a marvellous job of not showing it. In the middle of it all, Colonel White was seemingly concentrating on the cards, untouched by all the sounds surrounding him. Scarlet saw him adjust his glasses. Probably to better hear the speakers built inside the frame. Scarlet watched intently, and drew closer still, close enough to actually hear the big man’s words, as he leaned toward the colonel to speak to him in a polite and affected way.
“Are you enjoying yourself, sir?”
Informed of the man’s approach by Destiny Angel, Colonel White knew exactly how to react to his presence. He had just to keep in character, to play the role he had set himself, that of a big-time gambler in search of an exciting and rewarding time. It wasn’t so difficult after all, although admittedly, it had been a long time since he had been in this kind of game – he didn’t count the regrettable incident of a couple of months before, as he wasn’t really himself then. He waved his hand at the man, as if asking him not to bother him, and did not even look up, seemingly keeping his attention focused on the blackjack table. He lost the current hand, and sighed in annoyance.
“Not as much as I thought I would,” he grumbled in a irate tone. “Too many people around…”
“Yes, I see. However, you’re winning big,” the man remarked.
White shrugged, indifferently. “This is only pocket money. I would probably enjoy myself more if blackjack wasn’t such a boring game…”
“Ah! You did mention something about preferring a more exciting game when you came in earlier tonight,” the man replied. “Something more… challenging?”
“And I received nothing but a blank face from you, Mister.”
“Are you still up for it now?”
White raised his head to the man, a spark of curiosity in his blue eyes. “What are you suggesting?”
“If you’re interested, sir, you only have to follow me. You’ve been invited to the Guests’ Lounge.”
“The Guests’ Lounge?” White asked with a puzzled and interested tone. “What is that?”
The man grinned. “Come with me, sir,” he invited the colonel. His smile broadened. “And there won’t be spectators there to bother you.”
“That sounds intriguing.” White stood up; to each one of the young ladies gathered around him, he gave a couple of chips, thanking them for the good luck they had brought and offering them his most courteous smile. That made Scarlet, witnessing the scene, frown in perplexity. He DEFINITELY didn’t look embarrassed by the situation at all. This was yet another side of his commander he thought he would never see.
No, he decided. He’s just staying in character.
“Leave your winnings, sir,” the big man suggested. “The pit boss will see that they’ll be transferred to the lounge.”
“This is getting more and more interesting,” White declared. He turned to address the dealer. “Make sure you take a generous tip for yourself. You certainly deserve it.”
“You’re much too generous, sir,” the dealer answered with a bow and a very large grin.
White then addressed the big man. “All right, where’s this lounge of yours?”
The big man only grinned again and gestured toward a section of the casino where a thick green curtain was drawn in front of a door. White followed him, walking in front of Scarlet, who let them get a little way ahead before following in turn. White disappeared behind the curtain with the man, and Scarlet was about to follow, when somebody stepped out from behind the curtain and stood tall in front of him, making him stop in his tracks.
“Where do you think you’re going, buddy?” he asked roughly, in a thick Italian-accented voice.
Scarlet offered a shy grin, and pointed past the curtain, where voices and music could be heard. “Isn’t this the bathroom?”
The man’s answer was a very deep, threateningly-furrowed brow. Scarlet backed away a couple of steps. “Sorry. My mistake.”
“Only special guests are invited in,” the man replied harshly. “On your way, wise guy.”
Scarlet shrugged, as if indifferent to the interdiction, and retreated, seemingly giving up. He kept an eye on the man, though, and it wasn’t too long before an opportunity presented itself. Almost right away, in fact. His attention drawn to two other customers who seemed ready to start a fight, the man momentarily left his post in front of the door, turning his back on it to go over to them. Scarlet swiftly slipped through the curtain to find himself into a small, dark alcove. A couple more steps and he was in the Guests’ Lounge.
“Sneaky one, Captain.” That was Destiny’s voice in his ears. There was an amused tone to it.
“I couldn’t leave the old man all on his own,” Scarlet whispered in answer. “Where is he?”
“Look over the far side of the lounge.”
Captain Scarlet scrutinized his new surroundings. There was less light in the lounge than in the room he had just left. Far less. The lounge had all the feel of a small saloon bar, with about a dozen round tables, a bar along one side-wall – the brighter spot in the room – and a small stage, with five musicians playing some dull music. The ambience was quiet enough, with only the music and the murmurs of the clients – the lounge’s guests. There were about twenty people at the most, as far as Scarlet could evaluate, half of them smoking big cigars, which explained the smell and the spirals of smoke spreading through almost all of the room. The majority were occupying tables and playing poker in an almost religious fashion, hardly paying any attention to what was going on around them. Scarlet was about sure his presence had gone unnoticed, or at least that nobody would bother about it, so he was free to wander around as he liked. Narrowing his eyes, he glanced to the far side of the lounge to see Colonel White standing there, in front of a group of three men seated at a table.
“Can you open a channel so I can hear what they’re saying?” Scarlet muttered for Destiny’s benefit.
“Of course I can! I’m not Lieutenant Green, but I do know a thing or two about communications!”
Scarlet smiled faintly at that, knowing full well that the extent of Destiny’s knowledge of communication devices would put to shame most so-called ‘experts’. He quietly walked toward the bar, where he sat down, ordering another glass of whisky that would serve as his cover as the preceding one had done. Then, making believe he was savouring his drink, while distractedly listening to the nostalgic instrumental music played by the band, he concentrated all his attention on the conversation relayed to him by his glasses’ hidden speakers.
“Sir, may I introduce the owner of the First Base Casino, Mister Pietro Gardenia.”
Colonel White looked down at the man seated on the other side of the table, obviously studying the cards in his hands. Having already seen a picture of Gardenia, White already knew who he was. Gardenia wasn’t an impressive man. Not a big guy, rather a slender one, of about his own age, with a small moustache, and black, greying hair, almost non-existent on the top of his head. Hardly what White would have expected a former baseball champion to look like. He barely raised his eyes to acknowledge the newcomer, while he continued checking his hand. In front of him, there was already a high pile of chips of various colours. An imposing amount of winnings, as far as the colonel could judge.
“Welcome to the First Base Casino, sir,” Gardenia finally said, languidly. He was chewing a cigar, that he didn’t even bother to remove as he spoke. Quietly, he threw a small pile of chips in the middle of the table, into an already growing mound. White saw the two other men folding their hands, grumbling. Gardenia brought the winnings to his side. “I heard tell you won big at the blackjack table.”
“Big is a relative term, Mister Gardenia,” White replied with an affected shrug.
Gardenia nodded. Piling up his gains, he waved a finger at the man beside White. “Guido here told me you expressed the desire to be part of a more satisfying game,” Gardenia continued. “Is poker to your liking?”
“It all depends on the stakes, Mister Gardenia,” White replied rather coldly. “I’m not interested in kiddies’ games.”
Gardenia grinned broadly, expertly fanning the cards in his hands. “Five card stud. A hundred to open. No limits.”
"How much to buy in?" White asked, using the phrase Destiny had given him. She said it was the term the experienced gamblers used when they wanted to enter a high-stakes poker game.
“Minimum five thousand.”
“Dollars… or pounds?”
Gardenia lifted his eyes to stare into White’s face. He couldn’t read anything on it. So he didn’t know if he was serious or not. What he knew, however, was that the man had won big at the blackjack table. He certainly had the five grand. The casino owner puffed out a cloud of smoke.
“Just put down what you won earlier, sir. Then if you wish to continue, it’ll be up to you. No limits there, either. Is that okay by you?”
“It suits me fine, yes. This should be an interesting game.”
Gardenia cocked an eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware that Englishmen could be such high rollers.”
For the first time since he had entered the casino, White allowed himself a faint smile. “So maybe you’ve never heard of Lord Sandwich, Mister Gardenia.”
In answer, Gardenia extended his right hand. “Pleased to meet you, your lordship.”
At the bar, Scarlet nearly choked on his drink, hearing Gardenia’s reply in his ear. He dared a glance towards the table. He wasn’t able to get a good enough fix on Gardenia, if only to see if the man was kidding, or if he was as ignorant as he sounded right now. He couldn’t tell. But none of the other men at the table had reacted to his mistake. White had stoically shaken his hand, without giving any sign of surprise. “Please, I’d prefer you to address me as… Montagu. John Montagu.”
Scarlet couldn’t believe his ears. He rolled his eyes. I knew the old man had a strange sense of humour, but he’s pushing it a bit here! And what if those guys are really tricking him?
It didn’t appear that way, by the looks of it, but then again, these were poker players. Who could tell what was going on in their minds?
Gardenia nodded negligently toward the two men seated with him. “May I introduce Mister Morelli, and Mister Craig? They’ll be playing with us.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mister Montagu,” the man presented as Morelli said, as the other simply nodded his acknowledgement.
From his place at the bar, Scarlet took a sip from his glass. “Destiny?” he muttered.
“On it, Captain.” Destiny was already questioning the Spectrum databank to which the van’s computer was hooked. She typed both names and entered in a pic of their faces, taken by the camera in the colonel’s glasses. It wasn’t long before the machine spat out an answer. She nearly whistled, and passed on the information to both White and Scarlet. “Mario Morelli, one of the top representatives of the Sicilian Mafia in Las Vegas. Closely watched by the police but up until now, it hasn’t really been possible to pin anything on him. The other man, Orson Craig, is affiliated with the Los Angeles mob, but has been settled in Vegas since 2065. Once tried for murder, but was discharged through lack of evidence.”
“Figures,” Scarlet mumbled.
“Be careful, Colonel White,” Destiny informed her commander. “Both are considered very dangerous.”
There was little White could do to acknowledge Destiny’s recommendation, but he was sure she knew he had received the message perfectly well.
But he didn’t think there was cause to worry just now. After all, they were in a public place, even if this was Gardenia’s establishment. Surely, all those people around weren’t part of the mob, or any related organization. He wouldn’t risk anything in a room full of people.
Gardenia was waving his hand towards an empty chair, inviting him to sit down. With which White complied. The blackjack pit boss had arrived at that exact moment, to put down in front of the Englishman a pile of chips that he recognized as his previous winnings.
“Now, if you don’t mind, Mister Montagu,” Gardenia continued with a thin smile, “we will get down to serious business.”
“Yes,” White acknowledged with a nod. “I agree. Let’s start getting serious.”
Scarlet settled himself comfortably. Okay, contact achieved. End of phase one. Phase two begins now…
It was still up to Destiny. Hopefully, before the end of this new phase, they would be able to locate Captain Blue.
And have him back safe and sound.
* * *
Where was that damned kid?
A furious Wilson Grover was running through the lashing rain, tensely looking all around him. It was so dark, with heavy clouds covering the sky and blocking the light from the moon and the stars. He had left the door of the house open, hoping that the light from the hall would help him see a little. But it was hardly enough. The kid was nowhere to be found.
He couldn’t have gone that far. There were not many places around to hide. The woods nearby, perhaps, but he would never have found his way through there, barefoot, and not knowing his surroundings. And he would not have had the time to reach them, without being seen. There was absolutely nobody around to help him, either. Grover had chosen this house well, when he was planning to keep the boy there, some weeks ago. The perfect place to hide a prisoner. No neighbours, no roads with busy traffic. The only access to the house was by a beaten path through the woods. The kid could not possibly escape. No, he was close. Very close, cleverly hidden from his pursuer. And probably keeping his eyes on him.
Grover looked down at the muddy ground, searching for clues. He could barely see the traces of small bare feet imprinted deep into the mud. He leaned down, narrowing his eyes, looking at the direction taken by those prints. A crack of lightning briefly lit the scene, and Grover saw that the prints lead directly to the car, parked in front of the house. An evil grin of satisfaction crossed Grover’s face, and he stood up, looking towards the vehicle.
“I know you’re around there, kid,” he said in a syrupy tone. “What do you plan to do? Take the car to escape? You can’t possibly drive it!”
He slowly moved towards the car. He couldn’t see any movement in it, but it was dark inside. He figured the boy was using the obscurity, hoping it would hide him.
“Now, boy, you should know you can’t get away from me,” he growled ominously. “You’re just delaying the inevitable.”
Within the darkness of his hiding place, Adam was looking in fear at the man who was approaching him. Adam’s heart was beating wildly. He couldn’t still it, and he was so very afraid that Grover would hear him, and find out where he was. Lying in the mud and water, just under the car, the boy could see the man’s feet coming closer. They stopped just in front of his eyes, a mere foot away from him, and silently, Adam tried to slide further away from him, flattening himself closer to the ground. He was soaked to the bone and shivering from the cold, but he had no intention of giving his presence away. He just knew that the minute Grover found him, he'd be dead.
He saw the man's feet moving alongside the car, as he looked into it, searching for the quarry he thought was hiding in the darkness inside.
Grover suddenly opened the door nearest to him. Adam heard him searching in the car, noisily. Then he slammed the door, cursing furiously.
"You can't hide from me forever, kid!” he bellowed into thin air. "Sooner or later, I'll get my hands on you!"
He moved away from the car, mumbling imprecations and maledictions that made Adam's skin crawl. Grover directed his steps towards the woods, looking around, growing impatient and even more nervous with each passing second. Adam tried desperately not to breathe too loudly; he was shivering violently, the cold and the fear mounting in him.
Keeping his eyes on Grover, he crawled to the other side of the car, and wriggled out from underneath it, hoping that the big man would not come back. Keeping low, he dared to peer over the car hood, in Grover's direction. He saw the man, back turned to him, scratching the back of his head, obviously wondering where his intended victim could have gone in such a short time.
Then it seemed to occur to Grover that there was a place he hadn’t checked at the car and he turned on his heel. Adam just had the time to shrink back, to keep out of sight; his heart was now racing. His enemy was coming back; he could hear his steps, as he slowly padded across the muddy ground.
“You think you’re so clever, kid?” He heard the ominous tone growing closer with each step. “You think you can take me for a fool like that? Turning my girl against me… I’m gonna make you pay. There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell you’re gonna escape me now!”
Grover had reached the other side of the car; holding his breath, Adam was still keeping low, leaning against the vehicle’s side, trembling. “I know you’re under there, brat! So you’d better come out on your own…” The boy heard the man’s wicked cackle. “I’m gonna slit your obnoxious little throat anyway… And I just know I’m gonna take real pleasure in it!”
If Adam hadn’t reached the limits of his terror before, he felt that he had now. His heart was pounding so wildly and loudly that he feared Grover would hear it. He felt completely paralysed. How could he escape, without that horrible man seeing him? He glanced toward the house. Marsha... She wanted so much to help him, he was hoping she would come out now. But the last he had seen of her, she was struggling to keep Grover busy while he was trying to get away, and since then... What could Grover have done to her? And what could she do to help him now?
The sound of Grover’s footsteps approached. Realising that he would soon be found, Adam thought he had nothing left to lose. He darted out from behind the car and ran as fast as he could toward the far side of the house.
Grover saw him, of course. Letting out a loud curse, he gave pursuit. He wasn't about to let that little creep get away from him. He knew he had the advantage. The boy was exhausted, weak, and bare-footed. He would not be able to get far.
Adam turned around the side of the house. In the raging rain, he could hardly see where he was going, and the footing wasn’t that good. His bare feet were slipping on both mud and rocks. He nearly lost his balance once or twice, all the while very much aware that Grover was gaining on him. He could hear him panting loudly.
The effort and the will were there, but it was plainly impossible for Adam to make good his escape. He had ended up in the back of the house, in a garden that left to run wild. So much so, that it had almost become part of the nearby woods. A flash of lightning showed Adam the line of trees, not that far away. His heart renewed with hope, seeing a genuine chance to get away. His only chance, he was aware. He ran towards it.
There was another flash of lightning, illuminating the scrubby path in front of Adam, enough for him to see a deep, dark hole opening only two feet in front of him. He stopped dead, slipping and almost falling to the ground, his heart jumping with fear. Eyes wide open with horror, he peered down in the hole. Pebbles disturbed by his feet rolled down into it and disappeared, without making a single sound. By the look of it, if Adam were to judge from all those carved stones surrounding it, most of them fallen to the ground, but other still in place around the hole, it was an ancient well, no longer in use. He had almost stepped into it.
"Now I got you!"
The cackling sound behind him made Adam shiver. He turned around at the exact same moment Wilson Grover laid his big hand on him; the boy let out a cry of both fear and surprise. It died on his lips almost instantly when a violent wallop caught his head and sent him rolling on the muddy ground.
His body already hurting all over and his head reeling, Adam could only watch in total terror as Grover marched on him and suddenly took him by his collar, heaving him up with ease. The big man kept the boy upright, holding him in a near-choking grip. Adam could barely feel the ground underneath his feet. One look back informed the child that Grover was holding him just over the edge of the dark hole he had nearly fallen into seconds earlier. His heart went cold and he stopped his struggles; he turned a disbelieving look toward Grover, who was staring at him with a mix of contempt and satisfaction upon his features. The big man was trying to catch his breath, after all the effort he had expended to capture the fugitive.
"End of the road, kid," the man growled, with an evil laugh. "You really thought you would escape me, didn't you? Well, all you did is make me run like hell, and I didn’t appreciate that at all! That makes me angry..." Grover's knife appeared in his free hand; he flashed it in the boy's face. The latter let out a frightened whimper. “There's something you gonna learn the hard way.” Grover smiled evilly, looking at the terror so obvious in the boy’s face. He was taking his sweet time.
"...You can’t have everything you wish for, kid," he continued ominously. "No matter how hard you try."
The knife was approaching its victim, and Adam just knew Grover was only seconds away from slitting his throat. He didn't have any time to spare, nor any chance to lose. Once more, oblivious to the hole opening behind him, he struggled to get free. Then, as a last-ditch, desperate resort, he used his teeth, and savagely bit into the hand that was holding him tight.
Grover let out a yelp of pain. Instinctively, he released his hold. Adam felt his feet sliding on the ground behind him, and instantly understood, with growing horror, what was happening.
A cry of terror escaped his lips as he fell head first into the pit opening below him, and darkness surrounded him, body and mind.
Still breathing hard, Grover stood over the edge of the well, watching as the boy disappeared from his view. Narrowing his eyes, he looked down as far as he could, without seeing anything. Nor could he hear any sound. He knew it was deep, for he had himself nearly fallen into it when he had bought the house some weeks before; the hole was half-hidden by bushes, high grass and fallen stones. Surely, the kid was done for. Best thing would be to go down there and make sure, but Grover was in no hurry to do that. It would be nearly impossible and he would risk breaking his neck in the process.
No, the kid had to be dead. There was no way he would have survived such a fall. Grover grunted, somehow frustrated at not having had the chance to kill him with his own hands. But anyway, the result was the same. That little brat was out of his hair. He would never be able to tell who had kidnapped him.
Grover checked his watch. He still had some time before the delivery of the ransom money, he reflected. Plenty of time, in fact, to settle one last detail. He turned on his heel, away from the silent well, and went back to the house, walking around to the main entrance.
When he entered the house, wet and dirty, and still trying to get his breath, he found that Marsha had regained her senses, and, sitting on a chair in the kitchen, was nursing a bruised cheek. She rose and came to him, without any fear at all, her eyes even blazing with anger, and trembling with concern. Grover gave her a deep frown and brushed past her to go to the bedroom. First things first. He needed a change of clothes. She ran after him, eyes wide, apparently in complete panic.
“Where is he? What have you done to him?”
Grover shrugged. He removed his wet shirt, tossed it away on the floor and took a new dry one lying on the bed. “Crazy kid tried to run away,” he mumbled, while putting it on. “He fell into the well.”
“The well?” Marsha blanched. “He must be hurt badly!”
“Dead, more likely,” Grover replied with a cold tone.
Marsha stared at him in complete disbelief. The horrified expression on her face was without description. “You killed him,” she stated with a croak in her voice.
“Of course I did!” Grover answered brutally. “What did you think I would do? Let him go so he could tell everybody it was us who kidnapped him?”
“You never had any intention of giving him back to his parents,” Marsha accused him.
“Did you honestly believe I would’ve handed the police a witness who would finger us with no hesitation?”
Marsha swallowed hard. “You didn’t have to kill him,” she replied, her voice coarse. “We could simply have gone away… left the country, changed our names…”
“What do you think I intend to do anyway?” Grover had changed his pants and was now putting on his coat, zipping it up. “I already made arrangements. As soon as we get the money, we’ll be on our way out of this dump, out of this country and onto a Caribbean island. We’ll live the good life, Marsha.”
“No,” the young woman murmured.
“Listen, honey… I’m sorry I hit you.” Grover stroked Marsha’s face, ever so gently, caressing her bruised cheek, and gazing deep into her eyes. “But you gotta admit, you lost your head for a moment. I couldn’t let you free the boy like that. You don’t realize the danger you nearly put us in!”
“I do realize,” she replied. “Will, don’t tell me you intend to go on with your plan?”
He scoffed loudly. “Of course I will! What do you think I am, crazy?”
He left the room, pursued by Marsha, who obviously couldn’t believe her ears. “You’re going to take the ransom, even though you can’t keep your end of the bargain and give the boy back to his parents?”
“What do you think, Marsha?” he snapped suddenly. “Of course, I’ll take the money! I didn’t go to all that trouble for nothing! I didn’t put up with that brat to come up empty-handed!”
“You’re a monster.”
Grover turned around to stare into Marsha’s horrified features. She shook her head in disgust. “The way you treated the boy, I should have realized sooner… I should never have been involved in this whole deal in the first place!”
“Marsha, what are you saying? It’s nearly done. Svenson’s gonna pay us. In a couple of hours, we’ll be as rich as we always dreamed we’d be. Five million dollars for that brat. Can you imagine what five million looks like? I never came close to that! Of course, I could have asked for more, but…”
“Even fifty million would not have been worth the life of a nine year old kid!” Marsha suddenly interrupted him.
Grover nodded. “I see what it is. I warned you, Marsha. I told you not to get attached to that boy.”
“With good reason you did,” Marsha replied bitterly. “You knew you were going to kill him anyway. But you never told me. You never said that this deal would end up with the murder of a child.”
Grover took a step toward the young woman, and reached to take her by the shoulders. She drew back, a glitter of disgust in her eyes. “Don’t touch me!” she snapped. “Don’t EVER come near me again! I don’t want your dirty hands on me. And I don’t want to be part of the awful deal you got me involved with!”
“Marsha, we’re gonna be rich. The money…”
“I don’t want the stinking money! It’s stained with blood!”
Marsha turned around quickly, looking away from Grover. He stared at her, first with disbelief in his eyes. Then his features became harder. And colder. “You can’t POSSIBLY mean that!”
“Yes, I do.” Marsha didn’t even turn back to face him. She couldn’t see the dangerous glow in his eyes, growing in intensity as she went on. “I can’t go on with this. I can’t stop you, so if you so want to continue, do it. But it will be without me.”
“Don’t you think it’s a little LATE to have second thoughts?” Grover snarled.
He approached her and she finally turned around to face him. The glitter she saw in his eyes, the coldness of his features, was unsettling. There was something evil in his impassively set face, as she never had seen before. As evil as the smile that slowly crossed his lips, pulling them into a very thin line.
“You’re kidding yourself, honey,” he said quietly, approaching closer still to her. She made a step back to escape, but she couldn’t avoid him reaching for her shoulder to stop her. His touch was ever so casual, and gentle, and yet she felt threatened.
“You can’t leave me,” Grover said, very quietly. “Not like this.” He smiled faintly. “I need someone I can spend all that money with.”
“I told you I don’t want it.” She shook her head, in complete disarray, looking him in the eyes. “Is that all you can think about?” she murmured. “The money?”
“No… I also think about safety, sweetheart. MY safety.” His grip on Marsha’s shoulder tightened suddenly. She could feel his fingers dig into her flesh. She suddenly realized she couldn’t see Grover’s other hand, as he was holding it behind his back. Fear mounted in her heart.
“Let go of me, Will,” she said with urgency in her tone. “You’re hurting me…”
“Sorry, hon…” Grover replied ever so quietly. “I can’t afford to let you go… That would be too risky for me.”
Panic spread through Marsha. She struggled to free herself, but to no avail; Grover’s hand was holding her in a vice-like grip. Her body twisted around in an last attempt to get away and she found herself with her back turned to him. She heard the ominous click of his switchblade, a fraction of a second before she felt the stinging pain in her side. She could feel the blade going deep inside her, and stiffened. She gave a faint gasp, as her legs gave way under her, and she fell heavily onto the floor, at Grover’s feet.
Overpowered by the growing pain, she raised frightened eyes toward the man standing over her, looking down at her with a totally unemotional stare. The long blade in his hand was covered with a dark red substance that was slowly dripping to the floor. Her own blood.
“I hope you understand, Marsha,” Grover said quietly. “I can’t afford myself the luxury of letting you get out of this. Considering your present state of mind, how am I to know that you won’t go to the police and tell them everything about me?”
“Will…” Marsha choked on the name. She swallowed hard, that simple act sending a wave of pain throughout her body. “Please, don’t…”
“I’m sorry, honey,” was the cold answer of Wilson Grover as he bent down next to her. “I wish there was another solution. I really wish. But you simply know too much.”
The bloody knife came really close to Marsha’s neck and for a fleeting second, it looked as if Grover would slit her throat in one swift movement… The young woman closed her eyes, awaiting death.
The window suddenly exploded behind Grover and the door in front of him violently burst open. Grover jumped to his feet, startled, as a man wearing a wet trench coat, flanked by two policemen, appeared in the doorway, aiming a gun at him.
“Drop it, Grover!”
Grover obeyed, almost without thinking about it, and the knife clattered to the floor. He took a step back, giving a dumbfounded look toward the broken window, where two other policemen were training their weapons on him. The man in the trench coat entered, followed by the two cops, and another man in civvies. Grover frowned, watching as the first man walked toward him. He knew him, he reflected, as the second man crouched by Marsha’s side.
“She’s in a bad way, lieutenant,” the second man announced, after a quick check on the young woman.
“Call an ambulance, quick!” the man in the trench coat ordered, re-holstering his gun. He stopped in front of Grover, who was being handcuffed by one policeman, another one reading him his rights in a monotone. Grover wasn’t trying to resist in any way. He knew it would be useless; and he was too busy staring at the man standing in front of him, the one who just had been called ‘lieutenant’. The latter’s eyes glittered with inner fury, when he took one step to get very close to Grover, and spoke right into his face.
“Where IS he?”
“Who are you talking about?” Grover asked with a half-indignant, half-insolent expression. He gritted his teeth when he felt the handcuff bite into the flesh of his wrists.
“You KNOW who I’m talking about!” the lieutenant spat in disgust. “The Svenson kid! Where have you hidden him?”
“I’ve no idea what you mean.”
“Right.” Not letting Grover out of his sight, the lieutenant barked quick orders to the policemen surrounding him: “Search the house! From top to bottom! Look all over the area. Find me that kid! He must be around.”
The policemen spread around, leaving one uniformed one to guard Grover, and the other man in civvies crouched near Marsha, talking into his radio to call an ambulance and back-up for the search. Grover looked around, as he heard the cops turning the house upside down and inside out.
“You’re wasting your time, lieutenant,” he muttered. “The kid’s not here. You’ve got the wrong man.”
The lieutenant took him by the collar; nobody made a move to stop him when he pushed Grover against the wall. “Look at me, Grover!” he barked into his face. “You know me, right? You know who I am? You’ve seen me before.”
Grover hesitated. He did remember having seen the man but he couldn’t put a name to his face. The policeman showed him his I.D., along with his badge. “My name is Ellis. Michael Ellis. I’m a detective with the Boston police department. But more importantly, and unfortunately for you, I’m also Sarah Svenson’s brother.” He saw Grover’s eyes open up with understanding and recognition, and pocketed his badge. “It’s true I don’t come visit my sister often, so maybe it’s understandable that you wouldn’t recognize me at first.” He shook his head in disgust. “You made one BIG mistake, by not checking out more thoroughly the background of your victim, scum! And another, even bigger one, when you sent that ransom note to the Svensons earlier today… While I was there.”
Grover blinked. For a second, he felt like a trapped man. But it only lasted one second; then he came back, as aggressively as before, not willing to admit anything. “I didn’t send any ransom note!” he spat back. “You have nothing on me!”
“What about the girl? What were you up to with her?” Ellis crouched down and carefully took the bloodied knife between his thumb and index, and raised it before Grover’s eyes. “Didn’t want to leave a witness?”
“Lovers’ quarrel. Lost my head, that’s all!”
“I don’t believe you. Where’s the kid, Grover? I KNOW you have him!”
Grover scoffed loudly. “And HOW would you know that?”
“You really want to know, scum?” Ellis fished out from one of his coat’s large pockets a cloth object, wrapped in a transparent plastic bag, that he showed to Grover. “You recognize this?”
Grover stared at the object intently. Stained with blood, it was Adam’s Red Sox cap he had sent to the boy’s father as proof that he had him. He did his best not to show any reaction. Ellis waved the cap in front of Grover’s eyes and showed him the interior of it.
“There’s no recognizable fingerprints on it,” the policeman said, “but it doesn’t matter. Because of it, you’re toast. Look closely. See anything of significance?”
Grover narrowed his eyes. He could see something that seemed to be written on the cloth surface. Big, capital letters, roughly drawn in some dark substance. There were only six letters, but they were enough to send a shiver down Grover’s spine. All the colour drained from his face.
It was his name.
“Obviously, the kid has more brains in his little finger than you’ll ever have in your whole body, no matter how long your miserable life will be,” Ellis said darkly. He put the cap back in his pocket. Grover looked apparently shaken. “Again: where’s Adam, Grover?” As the man kept silent, Ellis could feel the anger boiling higher inside him. “I swear, you scum, if you’ve hurt him, I…”
Ellis turned on his heel. The policeman who had stayed near Marsha, crouched beside her, was raising his head to him.
“She just tried to say something,” he told his superior. “About a well…”
Ellis’ brow furrowed. “A well?”
His subordinate leaned closer to Marsha, pricking his ears to listen carefully. Ellis could see her bloodless lips moving, but she was speaking so faintly that he couldn’t make out anything she said. The policeman stared at him. “An abandoned well behind the house,” he repeated urgently. “Do you think…?”
Ellis turned toward Grover; he could see the man was dismayed that the young woman had mentioned this. Ellis didn’t lose any more time. “Take some men and find that well, quickly,” he ordered, still looking at Grover.
One of the men standing next to Grover nodded briefly and, leaving the prisoner in the care of his colleague, quickly strode outside. Ellis approached Grover; he could read the glow of pure hatred and frustration in the man’s eyes. He lowered his head under the detective’s intent gaze.
“You’ve lost, you despicable, miserable coward,” Ellis hissed between his teeth. “You’re under arrest for the kidnapping of Adam Svenson… and it will be my pleasure to take you in.” Grover looked up in defiance for a brief second, before bowing his head again, keeping obstinately silent. “I hope for your sake that boy’s still alive,” Ellis continued with barely contained anger in his tone, “or, God help me, I don’t know what I might do…”
* * *
Freed from his bonds, but with his hands still secured together, Captain Blue fell heavily to the concrete floor, where he lay, unable to make a single movement. After long hours of hanging, his arms and hands were now so numb that he could hardly feel them anymore; they wouldn’t respond to him; the rest of his body was killing him. Mistreatment and deprivation had put him in such a weakened state that his head was reeling; his mouth was so thick and tasted salty, and his throat was aching for water. He had not had a single drop to drink for so long, while he was slowly melting away in this uncomfortable position. He was still unable to see a thing. Not that it would have helped him much if he had been able to.
He heard the sound of Grover’s incessant cackling very near him. So near that he would be able to touch the man, if only he could move. That last beating he had just received had taken more out of him that he would have cared to admit. Through a haze, he heard Grover’s limping steps slowly walking around him.
He was wondering why he had released him from his position. Perhaps Grover didn’t think he would pose any threat.
He was almost right. It was as if his whole body weighed a ton. And it was all he could do not to lose consciousness.
“Not so cocky anymore, eh, kid?” the voice of Grover told him quietly enough. “Told you I was gonna teach you who’s boss now. I’m calling the shots, and there ain’t nothing you can do. No, you can just lie there, hurting all over, and wonder what I’ll do to you next. Or when I’ll be finished with you. Well, I ain’t finished yet, kid. I still have plenty of grudge to go.”
Blue thought of saying something in reply, swallowing with difficulty to clear his throat. He changed his mind, thinking Grover wasn’t worth the effort. The man, on the other hand, took this as a sign of resignation. That brought a smile of satisfaction to his lips.
“Have you ever gone fishing, kid?” he asked matter-of-factly. He pondered the question himself and shook his head. “Of course you did. I remember you went with your father a couple of times, way back when… D’you remember when you caught those fish, and left them to suffocate slowly in that basket? They were unable to move, dying slowly, they couldn’t breathe through those gills of theirs… And the river was SO close to them… They just couldn’t get away. You give any thought to those fish, kid?” He stopped in front of Blue and chuckled evilly. “You’re just like them, you see… Staying here to die slowly, unable to escape, nearly suffocating… until you die.”
He kicked the prone body, as if he wanted to make sure he was still with him. There was no reaction, not even a grunt, and so Grover crouched over him, checking his pulse. He grinned evilly. “Out of it again, eh? Well that doesn’t surprise me, Svenson.” He took a cigarette from his pack and lit it, blowing smoke into his prisoner’s face. Still, Blue didn’t move. “Doesn’t surprise me at all,” Grover added with a satisfied smirk.
He turned away for a moment, to puff on his cigarette, and didn’t expect, for one second, what happened next.
With unbelievable speed, the still body beside him suddenly came back to life; bound hands grabbed him by the throat, stifling the cry of surprise that burst from it. Blue sent him to the floor, with a strength born out of fury, and pinned him there, with his body, his fingers closing on the hated throat, savagely beating the man’s head against the concrete floor. It was a supreme effort for him to move, a torture to command his wounded hands, but he wasn’t about to stop. Now might be the only chance he would have.
“You thought you had me dead there, didn’t you?” Blue’s voice was but a croak. He almost didn’t recognize it himself. God, what he would give for a drop of water… “Did you think I wouldn’t be able to fight back anymore, Grover? You thought wrong, scum!”
Grover’s head hit the hard concrete one last time, eliciting a loud moan. Hurried footsteps made themselves heard behind Blue. No, not this time, he thought. In pain though he was, he managed to dodge the first blow when he felt the presence near him. His elbow went backward, and he put all his weight behind it. He hit something. So very hard that his assailant fell to his knees, letting out a huff. Blue could feel his breath; estimating the exact position of his face, he hit hard again, with both hands. He felt an intense satisfaction when something cracked on impact; a nose, or a jaw maybe. He heard the man crying out in pain, and then falling to the floor.
Blue didn’t have the chance to claim victory. There was someone else in the room. Someone who violently hit him on the side of the head with something heavy and hard, before he could make another move. He was sent sprawling on the floor, clear of Grover who had begun to stir again. Blue desperately tried to stay focused and to hang on to what was left of his consciousness. He couldn’t; that last attack, on top of all the mistreatments he had suffered those last hours, had claimed too much of his strength.
“Get him to his feet!” That was Grover’s voice, strained, barely recognizable under the pain and rage the man was obviously feeling. Two strong pairs of arms roughly picked a dazed Blue up from the floor and held him upright. He didn’t resist them; he couldn’t anymore.
Wilson Grover staggered to his feet, finding he needed to lean on a nearby wall to keep himself up, while trying to regain his composure. He ran his fingers over the back of his throbbing head, before rubbing his throat. Then he looked into his prisoner’s direction, his eyes burning with untold anger and hatred. And fear as well. He realized that if Wesley and Sam had not stepped in to stop Svenson, the man might have killed him. He had under-estimated him, never thought that he would have had enough strength left in him to fight back with such viciousness. Grover narrowed his eyes to his captive, the hatred burning stronger still, and approached, limping more heavily than before.
Blue nearly didn’t react when he became aware of Grover’s presence, standing in front of him. He could barely lift his head, so terribly heavy. He could feel a hot trickle of blood running down his face, from a wound caused by the brutal knock he had just received. Grover grabbed a handful of blond hair and pulled his head up, forcing a grunt from Blue’s tightened jaws.
“You should have killed me!” Grover growled between his teeth. “Cracked my head open and been done with it!”
Blue tried to focus, overcoming the pain and the haze in his brain, to force an answer through his lips. “Next time, maybe,” he gasped with as much assurance as he could muster.
Grover pulled harder on the hair.
Blue let out a muffled moan, but kept silent as best he could. It was only by a supreme effort that he didn’t cry out. “You haven’t won… yet.”
“You’re kidding yourself, kid,” Grover replied coldly enough. “You can’t save yourself, you know that. You’re in my power, I can do what I want with you. Nobody’s gonna come to your rescue, like the last time.”
“Wanna bet?” Blue hissed with a challenging tone.
That seemed to enrage Grover even more. His free hand closed into a ball and he violently rammed it into his captive’s stomach; Blue doubled over with a loud grunt, but didn’t fall to the floor, as the men holding him prevented this. He stayed hanging between their hands, gasping for air, and coughing.
“You’re still trying to play smart with me, ain’t you, you son of a gun?” Grover spat out. “You’re gonna pay dearly for this!”
“Yeah,” Blue whispered. “You said that already...”
He didn’t need to see to know that Grover’s massive fist was coming fast, to hit him right in the jaw. He felt something crack in his mouth. He had just lost a tooth. Maybe two. He coughed out some blood, the salty taste in his mouth becoming more intense. The following second, he was hit again in the stomach. The pain became nearly intolerable.
“Nothing more to say, smart guy?” Grover growled furiously, taking another handful of the blond hair. Too out of breath, Blue didn’t produce any kind of response. Grover gave a somehow dissatisfied grunt. He raised his eyes to look at the two men holding his prisoner. “Let him go.”
Released, Blue felt heavily on the floor, without a sound; he stayed there, still fighting so desperately to stay conscious. Grover snorted derisively, looking down at him, before addressing his accomplices again.
“You’d better tell your brothers that there’s a change of plan,” he announced. “We’ll be taking him out of this place tonight.”
“What?” Sam replied with a furrowed brow. “Why?”
“Just say I don’t trust Gardenia. I don’t know, I’m sure he’s up to something…”
“Be honest, Will,” Wesley retorted dryly. “You just want to take your sweet time with Svenson. You know that if Gardenia knew what you’ve been doing here…”
“It’s none of your business!” Grover cut in savagely. “You’ll be richer than you previously thought, not having to share the big money with Gardenia. So what do you care?”
“I care about living and I’m not sure Gardenia will take lightly to being double-crossed.”
“You’ll have enough money to change country and name, Wesley, so don’t worry about Gardenia. He won’t be able to touch you.”
There was a short pause, before Wesley continued, in an undertone, “I don’t know, Will. I’m all for it, but I don’t see how we’ll be able to get him out of here.”
Grover gave an evil grin in answer. “I don’t think we’ll have much trouble, Wes. We just have to wait for the right moment. When everybody will be looking the other way.” He then looked down with blazing eyes at his apparently unconscious captive. “Then we’ll be able to cash in on this bastard, and his father. All that money, just for us.” He cackled evilly. “And then… vengeance will be mine.”