“I’ll Be Home For Christmas”
Section 1 – Munich; December 19th; POV/Etienne Lanier
There was a problem with being in the chase car, I quickly realized, as I followed the white van through the dark streets. It was much too passive a place to be for one used to being an “action hero”, even if my hero status was limited to the pretend world of the movies. I found myself thinking of how I’d plot this if I were writing the scene. And while the scene would be much enlivened by a high speed chase along the Autobahn, I found myself hoping that the van did not make its way onto that roadway, where I would find it impossible to keep it in view without revealing that I was following it, and also, this being real life, I preferred to avoid risking a fiery crash or causing innocent persons in their cars to flip over, all stock in trade in movie chases. Of course, if this were a movie, we’d merely be pretending this were the Autobahn, and close off a section of some other highway for an exciting action sequence, filmed with fake citizen cars, fake crashes, and an exciting high speed finish with the bullets, cars and bodies flying. This, this reality, it was not exciting. It was tense and draining, but otherwise boring. And I was grateful for the lack of cars, although it was difficult on the roads the man was using, since the traffic was not very heavy, to stay far enough back that he wouldn’t know I was following, although I had no trouble keeping him in view. Indeed, I found it difficult to believe he was not aware of my pursuit except he took no evasive action to make me think that he saw me. Still, I dropped back as far as I dared, as a precaution.
That is how I became aware that there was another car following the van. Passing it and then letting it pass me, happy for the hat I’d chosen to wear that hid my features somewhat, an accessory the men in the other car could have benefitted from, I confirmed my initial suspicion – the other car contained Nigel Williams and his friend, that man from the first video, the one they said was Tahnoun. I never got a last name. Unless that was his last name, I never thought of that. Maybe he was Jacques Tahnoun. I shook my head, I was getting punchy, Danny would tell me, and make me an energy drink. Ugh, there was a sobering thought, horrid thing, those energy drinks, though a nice French coffee would be good about now. Grimacing, and thinking that next time, I bring coffee with me when I play spy and leave houses through a window, I looked more closely at the car. They’d somehow found time to change cars after leaving the safe house, and the Arab man was now driving, but it was definitely them. The car had to be Williams’– there were diplomatic plates and markings on it, I noted. Very useful things to have.
So, were they riding to the rescue...or not? I’d gotten word to them that Danny was in the van but also that Peter and Jennings were in urgent need of rescue, as what I’d overheard after Brian and Danny were shut up in the van revealed that Ali didn’t know that Jareed had taken Danny away – he thought Jareed was merely keeping him sequestered while the other two men were executed. Jareed had made his own plans, however, and had taken advantage of Ali’s preoccupation with his other hostages to make off with Danny.
I thought back to the way Danny had been dragged, his right leg not working properly, after Brian’s contact had been shot. Dieter, that was the man’s name, he’d looked to be beyond help, but I felt bad about leaving him. Still, having to choose between him and Danny and Brian, it was not a difficult choice. I called the police anonymously to go to his aid but I needed to keep that van in sight.
The big question now was whether or not Tahnoun was the double agent. I text-messaged Redraven – so foolish of me to leave with Luke’s phone still in my pocket. The text message back ordered me to keep following the van and they’d call as soon as they could, but to call them in an emergency. I decided this qualified. Watching traffic with one eye, using my knees to aid in steering, and trying to remember the necessary codes to get through to the others, I didn’t notice that the other vehicle had slowed to drop back level with my vehicle until it was almost too late for me to take evasive action. But, fortunately, evading bullets is one of those areas where the difference between missing and almost missing does count. The bullet no doubt intended for my head ricocheted off the metal frame of the door instead of coming through the driver’s side window. Glancing over, I could see Williams taking aim to shoot again and I floored the gas pedal.
I had to be thankful for all those hours spent learning stunt driving from professional stunt men – my good friend Aida couldn’t understand why I did it, pointing out, correctly, that I lacked the typical male ego about such things and did have a very well-developed sense for avoiding both unnecessary work and unnecessary danger. But, it was good for a male actor’s public image to be known to do his own stunts–why, I had no idea, since they were just that, stunts – and it was also good because knowing more about the stunts helped me direct the scenes better when I eventually achieved my goal of being in the director’s seat. It saved money also, when I was making my own movies, as producer, director and actor. Stunt men were not cheap. So, I learned to drive like an action hero – which included dodging blank bullets while driving a speeding car one handed so you could talk to your partners in espionage. The mechanics were the same when the bullets were real – or so I hoped.
“Red, Luke? Do I have someone on the line?”
“Yeah, Etienne, it’s me, what’s up?” Luke’s voice, thank God.
“Williams is shooting at me, while we are both following the van that belonged to Brian’s contact. Jareed is using it to take Danny and Brian somewhere. That other man, Tahnoun? He is still with him. They didn’t seem to be trying to catch up to the van, and now they’ve dropped back, even with me, I don’t know how long I can avoid...putain de bordel de merde saloperie de fils de pute !”
“Etienne, what’s happening, man? Can you answer? Are you okay? Guys, he’s being shot at...Fuck...Etienne!”
I had to drop the phone down while I struggled to control the car. The whoreson had shot out my front tire. At the speed I was traveling, this was not easy to do, but I’d practiced exactly this for the movie I did after “Tous les Deux sur la Route,” and it was the type of skill that once learned, never left you. At least, I was hoping it was so, as I fought to keep the car from spinning into the handful of other motorists. Thinking that it would be better if Williams and his companion felt that they’d vanquished me, I used what I knew of dramatic car spin-outs, and let the car go into a spectacular spin and roll – but one which I was able to control, into the nice open area that came before an overpass. Once the car righted, I pulled it around behind a cluster of brush – amazed that such things actually did exist where you’d want them to be in real life as well as in movies – and waited to see if my friend Williams was going to come back to ensure that I was out for the count.
There were faint noises coming from the phone but I didn’t dare look for it. I was lying slumped in the car, my head twisted down. My hand was in the folds of my coat, closed over the gun I had with me. If Williams or the other man came over to the car and looked ready to shoot, I would have to shoot first, I told myself. The man who’d held a knife to my Danny’s throat? Him I could shoot fairly easily, I realized, but then came to the conclusion that it would not be hard to shoot Williams either. He’d been shooting at me, after all. Decision made, all I needed now was the chance to act.
I’ve always been told I was a pragmatic man and perhaps it is true. Certainly I saw no sense in having a gun and not being willing to shoot people who would just as certainly shoot me or the people I loved. Danny, he is an excellent shot, far better than I am, but if he could ever bring himself to shoot another human being, I would be shocked. From the beginning, I could have predicted how that roulette was going to go – except for something or someone to intervene, Danny would have died, I believed. Being told that he did not, I was waiting for the miracle – that it was Brenda O’Keefe was only slightly less surprising than divine intervention would have been, to my way of thinking.
I heard the sound of another car pulling onto the dirt. I opened my eyes just enough to see that it was indeed my attackers, coming to see if they needed to finish the job. Which told me an important fact – they must know where Jareed was going, if they weren’t worried about keeping him in view. The cell phone was silent now. I closed my hand over it and shoved it out of sight.
The flip had broken some windows so I could hear their conversation as they came closer.
“He looks out of it. He would have run if he could have. Let’s go.” That was the big man, Tahnoun.
“Make certain. We don’t need him following us to the meeting. We still don’t know where the other one is. Kinney. Look in the back.”
“And you want me to do what? Kill him and run the risk of some law-abiding German citizen looking down here and identifying you as the man who...”
“Fine, fine. Just make sure he’s out. If someone seems to be coming we can say we’re helping him and you just break his neck quickly. We’ll say that happened in the accident. Hurry up!”
I decided I must shoot when Williams said that. Break my neck? What kind of men were these? But before I pulled my hand out, the other man objected.
“Are you crazy? Break his neck? With my bare hands? I suppose I am to simply reach in the car and do it? While you watch my back? I don’t think so, Director Williams...even if I trusted you that much, what makes you think I could just break a man’s neck in a way that would look like an accident?”
I wished I could see Williams’ expression; all I could see was part of his coat now as he sputtered back at the other man.
“What do you mean, not to trust me! I’m the one who has a lot at stake here, Rehmed. And it should be easy to deal with him...those other ones, the Director’s pets, they snap men’s necks all the time to read the reports. Nothing to it.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to kill one of their friends,” the bigger man suggested with a mocking tone to his voice. “Look, some cars are stopping up on the road. We’d better get out of here or look like we’re helping.”
“Wie geht’s? Darf ich Sie helfen?” a man’s voice could be heard calling, and there was the sound of other voices up by the road. Then, in English. “Do you need help? May we help you? What has happened?”
“Yes! There’s been an accident! There is an injured man here. Could you summon an ambulance? Another car ran him off the road. I’m with British security and happened by. We’ve not been able to rouse this man. My agent and I can try to chase the culprit down if you good men will assist this gentleman.”
There was the sound of men scrambling down the hill and Williams must have gone up to meet him. I risked opening my eyes and was startled to see a pair of brown eyes much closer to the window than I’d expected. My hand tightened on my gun.
“Don’t shoot,” the man Tahnoun said mildly. “I’ve no intention of breaking your neck but it would be smartest for you to stay ‘unconscious’ for another couple of minutes, till I get Williams away. Try to get your friends to this address.” He quickly rattled off an address then turned and walked away before the first of the German men reached the car.
I was busy memorizing the address he told me so I paid no attention to the efforts to “restore” me to consciousness. At least not at first. By the time I did and thought to open my eyes, my good Samaritans were almost ready to say Hail Mary’s over me and send for a Priest. Instead, finding the cell phone battery dead on Luke’s phone, and my own phone lost somewhere in the tumbled car, I asked to borrow one from my rescue team.
I had an urgent call to make. Then I needed to crawl through that car and find my phone, and then I needed to charge Luke’s phone in case any important calls came through on it, though Brian at least knew I had his phone. I sighed and rubbed my aching head. None of these things ever happened in the movies, I thought, as I tried to remember the number I needed.
Section 2 – Munich; POV/Luke O’Keefe
“Etienne isn’t answering...his yell and then the sound of breaking glass and a crash was the last I heard....” I paused, then went on, my voice level, “It sounded as though he lost control of the car. Before the phone disconnected there was the definite sound of the roof of the car striking pavement.”
Peter and Steve were quiet for a moment. We hadn’t spent all that much time with Etienne over the years, but what time we did share with the genial Frenchman had always been intense so we felt that we knew him well. Sudden death was an occupational hazard in our line of work, but it wasn’t supposed to touch the life of someone like Etienne, someone who’d just reached the point in his life when he could sit back and enjoy his dreams coming true.
Of course, the fact that his dream life lacked one important part necessary to make him happy was what put him in that damn car, and may well have caused his death a few minutes ago, I realized. A death that never should have happened. But, maybe there was hope.
“Red, ask the German team to get in touch with the Politzei. Check out all car accidents that have occurred within the past ten minutes on highways leading from this neighborhood, a half hour’s radius from here.” He nodded and walked over to the man who looked to be in charge. I turned my attention back to Ali.
“Okay, no more fucking around. Jareed isn’t in this house, and neither is Tahnoun. They seem to be with a whole other team, and it’s not yours, old buddy. We’ve got to get going after them if we’re to catch Jareed before he sells Danny to the highest bidder. Where would he go in this part of the world?”
Albashek’s head snapped around from where he was sitting tied up. I turned my attention to him as a better target, leaving Ali for the moment. The young man looked much too satisfied, and too unsurprised by the news.
“You know something,” I said, making it a statement. “You’re going to tell me, and tell me fast. I’m not fucking around.” I spoke in Arabic, no need to let the Germans know I was threatening the prisoners, even if it was implied. The dark eyes looked at me and I knew he got my message.
Ali laughed bitterly. “Good, let this traitor among my men see what the Hound does. They were all so concerned for the pretty Pup, didn’t want to hurt him, don’t be so hard on him, Ali, he has done you no wrong, it is his brother you want. They forget our cause for the sake of a pretty face and not even a female one! Now they will see the brother and what he will do to one of the men who helped his brother and I will enjoy watching it.”
Before I could answer that, a scornful Albashek did.
“You are full of shit, old man. We were not the ones to forget our cause, you were! Since when was ‘our’ cause personal vendettas against other soldiers? Since when did ‘our’ cause include kidnapping civilian family members and their friends and torturing them merely to taunt personal enemies of yours? That only harms the causes I fight for, but do you listen? Bah! At least with Jareed, I get money to help the causes I believe in, with you I get a kick in the teeth for my troubles.”
I grabbed him roughly by the collar and dragged him to his feet. His hands were tied behind his back by Red and his ankles were linked so he posed no threat.
“You think Danny is going to be sold for money? Not to the man who is after him with your buddy; either Jareed got tricked or he has more than one ball in the air and that’s going to lead to a mess where someone could get hurt. I don’t give a fuck about Jareed and your pal, but I do care about my brother.” I didn’t mention Kinney since there was no need to tip these guys off, you never know what can happen and who has ways of reaching who, I’ve learned. “But I can tell you, the best chance for everyone coming out alive is if I get there and fast. And it also happens to be your best chance for surviving the next couple of minutes without a lot of pain, so it’s a win/win situation, as I like to say.”
Albashek met my look squarely. “Threats of pain do not worry me. Tell me why you say Tahnoun is at risk with the man you think he is with, and I’ll judge whether you’re telling the truth.”
Ali laughed. “Once a traitor, always a traitor, is that it? You say it isn’t his threats as he dangles you before him? I hope you all burn! That money hungry Jareed most of all! He has no doubt sold out to the English dog who approached me. I told Brenda the man was a fool and not to be trusted, that it was probably a trap. Or maybe it was not a trap but a traitor of theirs. I know that I do not want to deal with such men but obviously you three felt right at home. Hound, I know where they would meet – my other house.”
I turned back to Ali. “Why should I trust you?”
“Because unlike the man you hold there, dirtying your hands, I am not a traitor. I took your brother, yes, but my reason was far different than Jareed’s. I believed it to be a valid one and you can be sure it was not money, and taking the singer was never part of my plan, that was Jareed all along. As far as my motive, even your brother acknowledged that it was just, if I was right, though he could not believe it was true. He argued with me, with me, can you believe it?” Ali shook his head, and I could almost swear I saw fondness on his crazy face. He grinned up at me from where he sat, hog-tied. “I can lead you to the other house, or give you the address. It is just outside Stuttgart but hard to find so I suggest you take me with you. Besides, I’d like to be there when you catch up with Jareed.”
Red had come up next to me by this point. Linton was watching Ali carefully as well. I looked at both of them. In Navaho, which Linton understood sufficiently, I asked, “What do you think?”
Red answered, “I don’t like either of them. I can’t say yes or no.”
Linton was slower to answer and I was getting antsy. Etienne had crashed over twenty minutes ago by this point. We had to get going. I cocked my head to the side and shook Albashek at him to emphasize that I’d appreciate knowing his thoughts sometime soon. Red started that barking laugh of his and even Linton smiled, while Ali looked like he was ready to forget he’d ever declared jihad on me and now loved me.
“What?” I asked Linton, perplexed.
“You’re shaking old Alb there like a pointer and not a particularly weighty one. I think it just struck everyone as amusing,” a rich voice from the bed chimed in...Jennings, the singer. I’d forgotten all about him!
“Terrell Jennings! You feeling better, buddy?” I looked over toward him. He still looked washed out but his eyes were open.
“I’m fine, stick to what you’re doing. You’ve got to get to the Chief. He’s rather looking forward to seeing you, you know. Thinks you’re dead. This guy put him through the ringer over it.” A wry smile touched his face as the big man lifted a hand and indicated Ali.
That timely reminder only made it more difficult to decide. I shouldn’t trust Ali. He’d hated for too long. “We’re getting you to a hospital,” I told Terry. “The ambulance should be here any minute.”
“I believe you have sepsis from that wound, which should have been an easy one to remove a bullet from,” Linton spoke reassuringly to Terry also, but shot a measuring look at Albashek. Now that we knew he was only Jareed’s man, we had to reevaluate all of his actions. Linton bent closer to Terry and checked his pulse. “However, your constitution is obviously strong for you to have fought it this long under these conditions. I think you’ll be fine once we get you to a proper facility. You’ve had one dose of IV antibiotics already, and I’ve written down what I gave you. This is just fluids. We’ll get to your Chief, don’t worry, and we thank you for your care of him. Your advice is much appreciated also.”
Linton turned back to me as Jennings closed his eyes again, obviously exhausted from his brief conversation.
“He’s right. We can’t be sure Ali isn’t leading us to a nest of vipers,” Linton said in Arabic, then switched to German, probably because his thoughts were too complex for him to express in either of the “code” languages Red and I used. “Ali put Danny through hell, but while Albashek appeared to be their ally, I have my doubts about that. I think he and Jareed did just enough to win some measure of confidence from Danny and Jennings. When I had a chance to see them interact, Danny tended to trust Jareed and Albashek, but that trust led Danny to be less careful around them. Jareed caught Danny twice unaware, which I don’t think would have happened had Danny not thought Jareed wouldn’t hurt him. I saw Jareed kneecap Danny, a completely unnecessary maneuver supposedly taken to please Ali, yet Ali wasn’t calling for Danny to be harmed, he was actually acting with kindness to Danny at the time. It was Jareed who wanted Danny crippled and unable to overpower him. I think he did that to signal to Albashek that he was making their move then.”
Albashek laughed; he’d been listening in and obviously understood, which seemed to surprise Linton, who frowned – he must have been led to believe that the man didn’t speak German, or at least not well enough to follow his rapid fire speech. Albashek answered him in English. “Very good, Doctor. But you may as well speak in English. Yes, I speak German fluently, so the only one you’re leaving out is poor Ali, and he’s been in the dark for so long, shouldn’t we let him in on everything now?”
I lifted the man back up and shook him again. I chose to continue talking to him in Arabic.
“I’m not amused, hot shot. You’re so fluent in so many languages that we share, I think you can start telling me what I want to know, and you can choose whichever language you want. So, torture won’t work on you? Fine, it’s been known to make me feel better while I wait. I watched some nice training videos recently, gave me some ideas. I could start with severing your achilles tendons, then move to slicing your face with a hot knife and end with slicing out your traitor’s tongue since you won’t use it for anything useful anyway, and the loss of your voice won’t be the loss to the world that my brother’s would be. Doc, hand me my knife and Red, you pull off his fucking boot, I’m tired of fucking around with this clown. Get the Germans out of here.” I dropped him roughly down into the chair he’d been in. Once they were gone, I would be freer to do as I wanted – and speak in English. Fuckers all probably spoke it better than me. I could be sure they spoke it better than Red, although he spoke like he did as a sort of protest against the establishment and the quality of education available on the reservations. He was as well-educated as anyone – now.
Albashek looked wildly around at Linton and Red for some clue that I was bluffing but he didn’t see it. He wouldn’t. I didn’t have time to bluff. When I thought how my brother risked a bullet through the head for this man and now he was sitting there, gleeful that Jareed had gotten away with him in order to offer him to the highest bidder, I could barely hold back my fury.
“Here, borrow mine but don’t make a mess – you do know where the Achilles tendon is, right?” was all that Linton said as he passed me a scalpel from his medical bag.
“Just hack away, you’ll find it eventually,” was Red’s laconic contribution as he bent to yank off the man’s boot. In their own ways, they have a similar feeling about cutting into human flesh. It was a cold, impersonal one. I envied them that as I picked up the man’s leg and tried not to think of what my little brother would think of me, duplicating the actions of his captor.
“Fine...I will tell you, you monster. But not because of what you will do to me, but for Daniel’s sake. Because he is a good man. We will get the money we need elsewhere.”
“Whatever helps you sleep at night,” Red told him. “Just get talking or it will be your other tendon you’ll be negotiating for, fucker.”
I wondered if I should cut one just to prove I was serious. But, the reality was, torture didn’t give good results. It was just as likely to cause him to hate me so much he’d give me false information about Danny’s whereabouts, so I paused, maintaining the cold expression I’d perfected years earlier. No need for anyone to know I honed it saying no to requests made by little brothers for extra snacks or delayed bedtimes. The memory of a certain little brother who was harder than the rest to say no to made me tighten my grip on the scalpel.
Albashek started talking, rattling off the address of a place in Nürnberg. Great. An hour closer, but once again, we had the problem of who do we trust? Except in this case, I knew I didn’t trust either of them.
Thank God, Red’s phone rang then. He looked at it then handed it to me, saying, “It’s Etienne’s phone.”
I took it and listened, putting in a few quick questions. He didn’t have a lot of time and had been through a hell of a lot, but he’d done as well as any of us could have. I told him so – and that I was damn glad he was alive.
I looked at Albashek and saw the fear in his eyes. Good, he should be afraid. I was fucking furious as I hung up the phone.
“I should kill you, or cripple you, but as a thank you offering to my God, I won’t. Also, my brother wouldn’t want it, but you are a fucking bastard, you know that?” I slammed my fist into his face, glad when I felt bones breaking. I looked at Red and Linton.
“Tell the Germans to hold Alb secure for further questioning.” I considered Ali, who was looking with satisfaction at his former ally, now slumped unconscious in the chair.
“You’re coming with us, friend,” I emphasized the word friend, choosing the most intimate version of the word that I knew in Gulf Arabic. Ali just laughed. I walked away thinking that in a different era, I’d be taking this man home to play soccer with Jamie and Joey, not trying to keep him from killing my brothers. What a fucked up time we lived in.
I drove, with Linton next to me to give directions and Red in the back to keep a close watch on Ali, who was rightly secured. I had Linton double-check Red’s work, not because Red wasn’t great at knots – he was, no one better – but because I sensed he was in the mood to do a little ass kicking and so far I’d had most of the fun. He’d been dying to get his hands on Ali, and Ali getting loose would give him a good excuse. I wasn’t sure how Ali had been spending the past ten years, but it sure wasn’t the same way we three had. He wasn’t anywhere near as fit as we were, as far as I could tell, what with those robes he’d taken to wearing. Back when we’d first met, he wore fatigues, like the rest of us did. He didn’t dress like the favorite son of a King, though he was one. Not the oldest, but the favorite. Then both the oldest and youngest died and his sister disappeared and Ali went crazy. If he hadn’t taken to blaming me for the whole fucking mess I would have felt sorry for him. As it was, I had no pity for him. He devoted too much of his life to ruining other lives.
Lanier sent a text message that was both reassuring and worrisome, giving us more information about what had gone on. I was glad Brian had managed to get himself to Danny before Jareed took off with him, but now I had two people to worry about. I knew that Jareed wouldn’t hesitate to kill Kinney if he interfered in his plans at all, and I suspected that Kinney would be nothing more than an inconvenience. Tahnoun was still a mystery, but the circumstances were such that I had to trust that he was Thyme’s inside man, working a deep game. He’d helped Etienne, offering the address when he shouldn’t have known we would need it – unless he knew that we’d be in the position we were? Fuck. Surely that would be too convenient.
“Stop second-guessing yourself.” A strong hand reached over and covered mine where I was gripping my leg tightly. “You had to make a choice and there were pros and cons for going with either one. For what it’s worth, Etienne says they’d traveled more than two hours before his accident and that conforms to my estimation of when Red says you first heard from Etienne that the van owner Dieter was shot. The van hadn’t been moving all that fast so we should be making up some time on them since we are traveling fast.”
I glanced over at my lover. Just his calm presence was soothing. “What about Danny? He doesn’t seem to be doing too well, does he?”
“I would hazard a guess that he’s suffering from hypothermia. I wouldn’t be surprised if Brian took off his own shoes and socks to put them on Danny’s bare feet and wrapped him inside his coat with him. That would do a good bit to ward off any serious problems, and we can trust Brian to do everything he can to help Danny. I’ve seen him take a bullet for your brother; he’d certainly share his clothes with him and his body heat. We’re lucky Brian didn’t listen to our orders, you know. I shudder to think of what kind of condition Danny would be in after three hours in the back of a van, tied up, unable to move in just the thin clothes Jareed took him away in, in this cold.”
This time it was Peter’s hand that was clenching. I smiled faintly at his expression. “You can have first crack at Jareed. You deserve it. That okay with you, Red?”
“Sure,” Red said. “You two know who I’m eager to see. The ones who forced Lanier off the road. I’ll take both if you’ll let me, but if that’s too greedy, you can have Tahnoun, Luke.”
“I’d rather focus on Danny, actually, so knock yourselves out.”
It was the middle of the night by the time we drew close to Ali’s alternative cell. He warned us that while he didn’t customarily keep the house manned when he was in residence in another location, Jareed might have some of his own people there since he obviously was working his own agenda.
“How many we talking?” Red asked. Not out of concern, of course. More like eagerness. As I’d thought, he was feeling a little restless.
“In addition to Tahnoun and Albashek, Jareed usually has another eight to ten men he can count on to come to him for a mission. I wouldn’t need to bring many of my own soldiers with me when I used Jareed, because he had his own....bah, I let myself play the fool!” Ali was disgusted as he realized how Jareed tricked him into coming into this under-staffed.
“I’d wondered about that, Ali, old buddy. You either lowered your opinion of me or you never really expected me, that you had so few men at that place. It was no wonder that Danny almost got away. My younger sisters could have rescued him and you wouldn’t have wanted to meet one of the older ones.” I tried to imagine Mary Kate or Mary Beth lecturing Ali and found it all too easy.
Ali was defensive as he answered, “I believed you were alive, Hound, and knowing that, always expected to see you again. I was...not happy...when I arrived to see so few guarding your brother. Then, I find out there is another hostage there. I believed Brenda to be the traitor, thinking that she schemed to get your attention for herself. She was talking in one ear against Jareed and he was talking in the other against her. I made the wrong decision.”
“Was the game of Roulette a set-up for the camera that went wrong?” Linton asked.
“No,” Ali said softly. “I was surprised by what she did. But then, I was taken aback by what was happening or I would have acted sooner. I got caught up in the drama. If you had been in the room, even you may have been, Major Linton. There was almost a...a feeling of electricity ... around young Daniel. I cannot explain it better than that. But he seemed to glow. There was a feeling of both power, and peace, about him. I felt sure that he would come to no harm. And then Brenda stepped in and I knew that whatever spell had fallen over us, it was broken.”
“How did Jareed and Brenda pull all of this together so quickly when Danny called Brenda? He had to have not only your plan ready to start, but his only double-dealing ready to trigger. Seems like a lot to hinge on a chance phone call.” That was Red’s question and it was a good one.
Ali laughed. “Should I tell you? Why not? It might seem like we were ready very quickly but in fact, we have been waiting for this opportunity for quite a while. For over two years, in fact. Since a certain wealthy entrepreneur in New York died in the waters off New York City from a broken neck. A man who was the enemy of my enemy. You know what they say about such people, yes? I was once approached by Edward Simon and asked if I would assist him in kidnapping a young man, Daniel O’Keefe, in exchange for a large sum of money. We had some talks, but then Mr. Simon changed his mind. Scared off, I believe. But he told me that if anything ever happened to him, an accidental death, I should know that it was the doing of one man, because only one man could defeat his own security measures. When he was killed, along with his inestimable bodyguard, in an incident for which the records were mysteriously ‘lost’, I knew it could mean that one thing Simon feared. Which had to mean that Luke O’Keefe was still alive.”
“So how were you sure it wasn’t me, Ali? I watched the kid,” Red interjected, probably to keep me from saying anything.
“Oh, I’m sure you were there, Raven, you’re always to be found where the Hound is,” Ali agreed affably. “Turn here, Hound. This street backs onto the road my house is on. It is a good place to park.” He went back to his tale as I circled the block once and then pulled to a spot protected by two large vehicles.
“We watched the young man and his friend. We watched the other brother as well, the one who also looks like you.”
Jackie, I thought. I wondered how Thyme was doing in getting him freed. This type of surveillance confirmed that I’d been correct in my concern that the family was at risk due to my activities with the Alliance.
“So, you stalked my family,” I said harshly.
“Yes,” was his simple reply. “You were my enemy. I believed you to be the man who bombed unsuspecting troops and civilians during a cease-fire – a cease-fire honored as part of a tradition, a concession to your Christian holy day. Some acts of hardness I can admire, we are warriors – some I deplore, and we must all know where to draw the line or we become animals. Had I cut the tongue out of a singer such as your brother, I would have been an animal. I heard his voice and I know, Christian or Muslim, a voice like that, or like that of his friend, such voices as those come directly as a gift from Allah. It is not for me to take it away. But, can I spy on your family? I judged yes. They came to me with the request to bug your youngest brother’s home when the lawyer’s office proved too difficult to get information from. Can you believe your lawyer brother has his office checked for bugs?”
I grinned. Yeah, I could believe it. Jackie always was paranoid. Good for him. I glanced in the rearview mirror at Red who looked back sheepishly. To think he’d blamed Jack’s being sloppy for this! Of course, we hadn’t expected this much effort being exerted, which was our failing.
Ali continued, “I finally consented to putting a bug in Daniel’s home when Jareed and Brenda suggested it. We’d had it in place only two months when we got the information we were looking for, and it enabled us to get ready, although we didn’t expect him to act so quickly! There was an evening of all static, and then the next thing the listeners heard, was his partner telling him about you.”
Odd. I wondered what had been going on but pushed it aside to worry about later. Parked, I turned to look at Ali.
“I’m going to go with my gut, here, Ali. I’ve told you, I never ordered that bombing. The way I see it, you owe us, because we saved your nephew. Now, I don’t know if this Tahnoun is him or not. From his looks, he could be, but I don’t even know whose side he’s on. I’m going forward on the assumption that he’s on my side, unless I see evidence otherwise, and even then, I’ll try to spare him, but no one else in there besides my brother and his partner get a pass. I can leave you trussed up like a Christmas goose, or, crazy fucker that I am, I can let you come with us, but I’m giving you only this one warning, one even ambiguous action, and I will kill you by shooting your balls off. Got that?”
Ali smiled. “It’s so nice to work with someone who speaks the same language again! I ‘got’ it and I wish to come along. You are making the right choice.”
“Luke....” Linton did not look happy. Red was expressionless but I was pretty sure he was furious as well. Yet, something was telling me this was the right thing to do. A voice in my head. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it was little Dusty, from high school. No one ever had a voice like hers. There was a feisty one, if ever I met one. I grinned, just thinking of her and some of her stunts, like taking Danny to protest marches when he was just a tyke. Wonder what made me think of her; it’d been years since I’d last seen her. She must be as gray as Mark by now, that’s what having kids did to you, and...back on task, I told myself.
“It’ll be okay guys, trust me. Red, you and Linton take the front of the house, I’ll take the back with Ali....”
“Is this open to discussion?” Red’s and Peter’s faces were not happy – to put it mildly. Ali, at least, was looking pleased.
Before I could answer, Peter said to Red, “I think you and I probably have the same...concern. But it might be better expressed separately. Do you want to take him outside or have me do it? You have quite a way with words when it comes to times like this, so perhaps....”
Red grinned. “You mean to say my speaking skills are better’n yours, English? That’ll make my granddad proud. Okay, I’ll talk some sense...I mean, I’ll confer with him. After all, last time I checked, I was the leader of this mission.”
I wanted to roll my eyes. Like Red gave a fuck who was the leader. But, since Ali was in the car, I played along. “Certainly, and I am only making a suggestion. Let us step out into my...your... office, shall we? But we will hurry, right? Just in case they’re wasting Kinney as we confer?”
“If he ain’t dead yet, he’ll keep another thirty seconds while we figure out a good plan for taking a house with an unknown number of people, who are likely expecting us,” Red answered, opening the back door once he saw that Linton had his gun aimed at Ali. Well, so much for making him a member of the team, I thought.
We walked about ten feet away from the car.
“Are you fucking out of your ever-loving Irish head?” Red asked mildly. He did a few stretches while he was out – a good idea. I followed his example and resolved to make sure Linton did the same. “What is making you do such a crazy thing, crazy even by your nutty standards?”
“A voice in my head told me to trust him,” I offered, a bit sheepishly. “An old friend.”
“Who?” he asked suspiciously.
“A friend from school, well, really a friend of my sisters, but we got along great. Dusty was her name. Haven’t talked to her in a long time, obviously....”
“Don’t know why not,” he interrupted. I looked at him, perplexed. He explained. “What with you being dead and her being dead....”
“Dusty’s dead?” I stared at him blankly. It didn’t seem possible. She was so alive. Hell, she had little kids. I was pretty sure she and Marie Logan had a couple of kids. Fuck.
“She died in that bombing that took place at Kinney’s bar. You were still...well, you were still not yourself, Luke, so I never told you all that happened in your hometown back then. But I did tell you about the bombing.” I nodded at him, thinking about the voice in my head, so much like Dusty’s deep, rich voice. It was bad enough, my dad and Mama dying, and me not being there, but somehow, hearing about one of the little girls I’d grown up with, dying in the kind of violence I spent my life trying to prevent from ever touching their lives – it made what I was doing seem pointless. Something of what I was thinking must have appeared on my face because he took my arm and shook me a little.
“No time to think about that stuff now, Luke. We have this mission to finish. Now, you know, I’m not one to disregard messages from the spirit world. If you got a ‘feeling’ that Ali can be trusted here, hell, even without the voice in your head, I’d go with it, but I don’t know that we leave common sense in the car. I don’t want him paired with you. Too much temptation for the man after all those years of harboring ill will, even if he has had some last minute conversion. You take English, I’ll take Ali.”
Red’s voice was perfectly normal – too normal for the circumstances. I looked at my blood brother and I knew what I should do. I shook my head.
“No. The three of you go in at the rear of house. I’ll take the front in case you need a diversion. They don’t know I’m alive, except for Kinney and I don’t think he’s told him. Let’s keep them off-balance. One wrong move from Ali, kill him and leave the body.”
Steve looked at me closely then nodded. We hugged then moved back to the car.
“Come on, change of plans,” Red announced. Peter looked relieved for a second, then concerned. I knew he’d never got over his worry that he’d been the cause of Red getting captured on our very first mission together. That was part of the reason for my decision, but only a small part. As soon as I made this choice, I knew it was the right one. Whatever happened now, I knew that this was the right way to proceed. Now we just needed God, and the spirits, to be with us.
Section 3 – Village outside Stuttgart; December 19th; POV/Peter Linton
“Linton, Ali, you’re with me. Back of the house. Cuchulaiin is going to take this side. Anything helpful that you can tell him before we separate gets you brownie points, Ali. And remember, one wrong move and you’re dead.”
Sometimes you hear something said, and it is so incongruous, you are sure that you must have heard it wrong. Consequently, you don’t react when you should or as you should, and before you know it, the opportunity is lost.
That is what happened that night, as I watched Luke stand at the trunk and arm himself, strapping on his large knife and tucking his guns in his coat pockets. He was going in alone while I got Red...and the dubious aid of Ali. I watched silently as, after Ali gave him a few quick pointers, he slipped away into the shadows with just a cocky grin and a wave of his hand.
“He’ll be fine,” Red murmured, too low for Ali to hear. “Let’s go get our boy and Kinney.”
I nodded dumbly. There really was nothing to say, and it wasn’t as though it was the first time I’d seen Luke go off on his own. This whole mission was just making me nervous, I decided.
We started creeping toward the back of the house. It was much larger than Ali’s place in Munich. In a low voice, he explained that he sometimes held meetings here with other groups so he needed a big place. Hotels left inconvenient paper trails. Conferences, he called them. That was information worth filing away. Who knew that terrorists had networking get-togethers?
Red had the eyesight of his totem animal, even in the dark. He called a halt to our progress before we’d quite reached the house and ducked into the bushes. I thought he was answering nature’s call and was ready to make a terse comment about leaving such matters to the last minute, when his urgent whisper summoned me.
“Don’t forget to bring our friend,” he had the audacity to remind me. If I wasn’t already tense with worry over Danny and Luke, aware that I was overly sensitive, he’d have gotten some type of retaliation for that comment. With interest.
As it was, I dragged Ali over to the shadowy bushes, and hissed, “What is it?” before I saw the body he was supporting in his arms. Tahnoun. Tahnoun whose last name I suspected was Sandeem. Ali was looking at him with hungry eyes. I recuffed him, and he looked at me dismayed, and I thought there was also embarrassment in his eyes. It was enough to make me explain.
“I want to help Tahnoun and I can’t do that worrying about watching you,” I said and pointed to a place for him to kneel a couple feet away. He paused only a moment, then nodded and did as he was told.
“What happened?” I asked as I gently probed for injuries. The man, barely more than a boy I realized as I looked at him closely, was covered in mud. He tried to smile but it turned into a grimace as Red shifted him higher to enable me to check his back. Seeing the sign of a bullet hole in his coat, just about chest level, I opened his coat with some trepidation, but was relieved to see that he had a top quality Kevlar vest on beneath his sweatshirt.
“Now I know how Strider felt, undressing Frodo and finding him dressed in Mithril,” I muttered to myself. Red looked at me blankly but Tahnoun laughed weakly.
“I’m a good bit bigger than a hobbit,” he protested. I rolled my eyes. Were all Arabs educated in New England or Britain these days? Not that he might not have read Lord of the Rings in the UAE, but somehow, I thought not. Like Jareed and Ali, Tahnoun was no doubt a product of Yale or Harvard.
“You’ve got some bruising. Any other problems?”
“I think I got kicked a bit when I was lying in the mud there, and I think I may also have hit my head going down, must have knocked myself out,” he said. “That was worse than the bullet. You know what they say, bigger they are, harder they fall? S’true. Though it helped me to play dead in the mud till they got out of sight. Have to tell you, a bullet proof vest isn’t all that bullet proof. My chest feels like an elephant kicked me.”
“Shit, you ain’t all that big yet, kid. And trust me, a real bullet would have hurt a shitload more’n one slammin’ into the vest. But mind telling us who shot you and why? And where Danny O’Keefe and his buddy are? Not to mention your new buddy, Williams?”
That was Red, of course. And to him, the boy wasn’t that big. Couple inches shorter than Red, and still lacking some of the thickness of muscle that Red had, which, at nineteen, or so, he couldn’t hope to have. Red’s physique was pretty damn near perfect – rock solid muscle on top of rock solid muscle on a six foot seven frame. I was partial to Luke’s less defined musculature, but as a gay man, I had to admire the sheer animal beauty of Steven Redraven.
And to Tahnoun’s credit, his questions didn’t faze him, though they made Ali protest.
“The boy is hurt. Surely you can question him later?”
“No, we need to get moving and we need answers,” I decided. “Quickly, we can’t lag behind,” I reminded Red, who nodded grimly, and hauled Tahnoun to his feet while I grabbed Ali and gave him similar treatment.
“Let’s go. Talk to us while we get closer. Quiet like. Who, what and why...and what’s the best way in...don’t all talk at once you two, and by the way, did you know you’re probably related?”
I rolled my eyes – it was a wonder I didn’t have some type of vision defect the number of times this man caused me to do that.
Tahnoun frowned. “Not a good time to discuss, but yes.”
Ali looked pained. “You knew and yet you betrayed me?”
The young man turned to me. “I knew this wouldn’t be a good time.” He looked back at his uncle. “I hoped to be able to show you that you were wrong. To find a way to reach you. I was an idealistic kid, what can I say?”
“I can say that we will discuss this later,” I said firmly, tugging on Ali. “Later,” I told him, when it looked like he wanted to get into it right then.
“Who? Why? Williams?” Red asked again, in what he fondly imagined was a patient voice.
“Williams is inside with Jareed, who has Danny and his friend. Kinney, I think is his name. Williams shot me because he figured out that I tipped off Lanier on where we were heading. Something I said gave me away I guess. I was trying to bluff for time and must have been a little too obvious in my efforts to help Danny and Kinney, but I was worried for Danny. It was a good thing Kinney had managed to stow away in the van somehow or I don’t know that Danny would have survived the ride. He half froze as it was, even with Kinney giving him his shoes and socks and wrapping his coat around him.”
“He didn’t have a coat or shoes?” Red was outraged.
Ali interjected. “Jareed took him from the bedroom you found me in, in just jeans and a thin sweater. He must have taken him away in those clothes, without stopping to grab warmer clothes or even outer clothes for him. He’d injured his knee to prevent him from being able to defend himself or attack anymore, he said. It had been his idea to keep shoes away from Danny so he couldn’t run away.”
“Okay. It’s clear that we need to get to him quickly, no more delaying to discuss it,” I urged again. “Tahnoun, do you know the best way into the house?”
“Each door is guarded and the windows are locked but there aren’t alarms. I don’t suppose you have glass cutters?” He looked to Red.
“I can get into a locked window. Are they large enough for your burliness? Not to mention Ali?”
“I don’t like the idea of entering into a closed room,” I balked. I still didn’t like relying on an unknown source. Which to me, Tahnoun was. For all we knew, Jareed was expecting him to bring in help.
“The better way to enter,” Ali said slowly, “is to use the passage that leads from the garden to the upstairs hallway. It has a second exit that lets you directly into the master bedroom.”
“The men tend to congregate in the back part of the house,” Tahnoun mentioned. “The kitchen and the bedrooms in the back, with only two men in the living room, and two patrolling the front. I would expect Jareed to put Danny in the large front room, what you call the master bedroom, Ali – that is the one most easily guarded and has the escape route. He can watch the most areas from there and keep a watch on the prisoners most easily – but also get them away from his co-conspirator if he needs to do so, which, with Williams, is a distinct possibility. They are not the most agreeable of partners.”
“I grieve for them,” Ali said dryly. I joined in his sentiment.
Meanwhile, Red had been communicating with Luke. He looked up at me. “I’ve got Luke on stand-by. He’s in position to create a diversion whenever we need one. Says it looks like Tahnoun says, just a two man watch at the front. Looks like most of the action is at the back of the house. He could gain entry easily enough but will wait for our signal.”
Red and I locked eyes. We had no choice but to trust Ali really and try the passageway. Anything else would undoubtedly lead to Danny and/or Brian being used as hostages. With two of them, they could afford to kill one just to make a point. We didn’t want to take that risk. Not with Kinney being Danny’s partner. We wouldn’t want to lose any civilian, but the truth was, Kinney “mattered” to Danny, and as such, the old rule Red taught me so long ago applied – Kinney “mattered” to each of us as well.
We reached the entrance Ali told us about and Red had it unlocked in seconds, despite the fact that someone, presumably Jareed, had changed the combination from that set by Ali – a circumstance that infuriated the man. If he followed the doctrine that the enemy of my enemy was his friend, we were likely to be his good friends by that point, as he was harboring great animosity toward his former ally, Jareed. Ali’s face was set in harsh, implacable lines as we crept through the passage toward the upper level of the house. As far as I was concerned, he’d have to wait his turn – Jareed was mine.
Section 4 – Village outside Stuttgart; December 19th; POV/Brian Kinney
I watched silently while our captors argued. Danny was literally shackled to a wall; it would be an arousing look if I weren’t so fucking afraid for him. He only roused slightly when we were dragged from the van. I kept my hold on him as long as I could, glad that I’d thought to put my socks and shoes on him. As it was, there was no chance to take off my coat and wrap him in it, so he was left in just his sweater and jeans as we were kept standing in freezing cold mud while Williams ranted at the other two men.
“What is Kinney doing here? How did he get in the back of the bloody van? For the love of....”
“The love of God, Nigel? Is that what motivates you? Never would have guessed,” the man I knew to be Jareed from the videos looked at Danny and me, an unfathomable expression on his face. “I did indeed look in the van, but my good friend Dieter must have had a few tricks up his sleeve...and I do mean tricks, Mr. Kinney.”
I met his smirk with an expressionless look. I held Danny close to my chest. He was barely conscious and I tried to bear most of his weight so he didn’t have to put any on his bad knee. All we needed was time, I told myself. Enough time for the A team to catch up and kick some serious ass. Then we’d see if that smirk stayed on that fucker’s face.
“It doesn’t matter how Kinney got there; it’s a good thing he was there,” the other man broke in, seeming surprised. “I can’t believe you, Jareed, you put Daniel in that van in that condition, wearing what? His jeans and top? Those must be Kinney’s shoes since he doesn’t look like the type to run around barefoot and there’s only one coat between them. If Kinney hadn’t been there, Danny would have frozen to death and then what good would he have been to you?”
Jareed actually looked embarrassed. He glared at the bigger man, Tahnoun it was, the man that Linton had left the bar with. I wondered what had happened to the doc but figured it would be impolitic to ask now.
“He’s invincible,” Jareed shrugged, trying to look callous but I sensed that he seemed worried at Danny’s condition. He seemed to be trying to convince himself more than the others. “A little cold won’t hurt him. Besides, we’re better off with him weakened. You know he got the drop on us a couple of times. We shouldn’t underestimate him, even now. Get him chained while Nigel and I wrap up our business. I can’t afford any problems now as we’ll have trouble on our doorstep before we know it. You know it will come. It’s only a matter of time unless we get out of here first. Either the Hound or Ali will be here and we don’t want to be here when they do. What did you do with the other car following?”
“He’s dead,” Tahnoun answered.
Williams seemed surprised. “I thought you said he wasn’t and that you....”
“He stopped breathing as I was leaving. I didn’t have to do anything to hurry it along,” the man shrugged.
“Good, less to worry about. Bring them into the house and secure them,” Jareed said, and stood aside, waiting to follow.
I was in shock, numb from hearing the news that Lanier, Danny’s Etienne, was dead. I was so busy trying to get my mind around that news that I didn’t quite grasp the second shocking event when it came. The big man had just taken a couple of steps toward Danny and me when Williams pulled out his gun and shot him.
“What the fuck! Are you insane?” Jareed had his gun out and leveled at Williams in a flash. I cradled Danny in my arms; he was completely out of it, I realized. Even the gunshot didn’t wake him. Just as well. The large man whom Danny had saved on the second video, the same man who’d threatened to decapitate him in the first, but who’d appeared like a genial college boy when talking to Linton in the gay bar, now lay sprawled on his stomach in the cold mud. I balanced Danny against my side and managed to slip my coat off and wrap it around him, glad that no one tried to stop me. They were too caught up in their dispute. I wished they would hurry as my feet were fucking freezing.
“Don’t be stupid, Jareed. You shoot me, then what? Tahnoun was obviously a double agent – or rather, a triple agent. We couldn’t afford to have him inside, giving aid to your hostages at the wrong time. Let us get them inside now and discuss strategy. It will take all of our resources to defeat your former allies and mine,” Williams told him, his gun still out and ready. “But first, we need to get O’Keefe and Kinney secured, we don’t have much time before those killers arrive and we’ll have to be ready.”
The stand-off between the two men continued for a few more moments, but finally Jareed moved over to stand behind Danny and me, providing him protection from that prick Williams. He wasn’t stupid.
We were shunted inside, the third man already forgotten, his body left in the mud. I guessed that was the penalty for being a traitor to these two – somewhat ironic considering both of them were traitors. You’d think they’d give a little more thought to karma. Now they were sitting in a room discussing their plans while they had Danny shackled to the wall, and me, well, I was tied with a single rope to a wooden chair. So much for the threat I posed, I guessed. I’d have been happier if they’d have left Danny in my coat, but they took it off him and tossed it on the floor. So neither of us had the benefit of it. I wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t all that warm either. Seeing that they were caught up in their discussion, I tried to shift my chair closer, at least so I was close enough to give him some body heat. So far I’d played the meek boyfriend so they’d ignore me. Neither one seemed sure what to do with me. I think Williams was nervous to kill me. He had enough bodies to his credit and he wasn’t sure where I fell in the grand scheme of thing. Meanwhile, Jareed was easy to figure out. He didn’t want to kill me until he was sure it would be to his advantage. He seemed to bear an inordinate fear of Danny and wanted me for leverage. I almost snorted at that thought. If he thought Danny was bad, wait till he met the Venti size version of O’Keefe.
I turned my attention back to the two erstwhile conspirators. Williams was still trying to justify his action in shooting Tahnoun.
“He was the traitor, I’m telling you. The Alliance bitch had an inside man and wouldn’t say who he was. I was pretty sure it was one of your two main men, but I thought it was the other one, Albashek. I didn’t narrow it down to Tahnoun until he said that bit about Lanier, deliberately giving us false information. Lanier wasn’t dead. My coded phone is tied to the Alliance Command here in Germany while I’m here and it revealed calls placed to German police for urgent medical aid to the location of the accident by the Alliance team. So Lanier was not only alive, he was able to reach O’Keefe and Redraven. That was why Tahnoun hung back. He may have given the man the address for this place, ruining my efforts to steer them away.”
Jareed looked thoughtful. “So, we have Luke O’Keefe on the way you think? How happy that would have made Ali. Although he may already have met up with his nemesis. I haven’t heard from Albashek, who is most certainly not a traitor. I believe I can guarantee that. Since I have not heard from my erstwhile commander, Ali, and by now he must have discovered that I have left with his prize, we must assume that either he was successfully taken down by O’Keefe and his partner or the opposite is true. The fact that Kinney was able to get into that van argues that I got away just in time – barely, I admit, but certainly I had no time to waste. Had I engaged in a fight at the scene with Kinney and Daniel, I most certainly would have been caught by Ali. There was no other way than as it happened. Your action in shooting Tahnoun without questioning him as to where the others are and what they know, I find most foolish. But, there is no time for more talk, we must prepare for an assault, I think.”
“I think not, Jareed. We have come to a parting of ways.” Williams had his gun out and was pointing it at Jareed. “My plan was to bring the young O’Keefe home safely from a secret safe house after Luke O’Keefe and his crazy friend massacred a group of uninvolved people, including his ex-wife. You’ve rather put an end to that plan with your dramatics and by involving Kinney and Stephan Lane, not to mention Terrell Jennings, for Christ’s sake.”
“I assure you, nothing was done for Christ’s sake,” Jareed again mocked the Englishman, who became red in the face. “Put the gun down, Nigel.”
I leaned back against Danny’s leg. The movement made the ropes on my arms noticeably looser. Danny had told me all the things I should do if ever tied up against my will, to give me a chance to escape – but the only other time I’d been in this position, I’d been unconscious when it was happening so I never got to use any of them. This time I was conscious and while I didn’t consciously use them, I must have automatically put the lessons into play. My chest had expanded and my arms and hands flexed. Now, relaxing, there was definite give. Working at it slowly, I was able to move the bonds that held my wrists off, but then looped them back on just for the sake of appearances. With my hands free, I worked on the knot that held me to the chair.
“You laugh now but you won’t be laughing soon!” the Englishman screeched at the Arab – at least, I thought he was Arab. In truth, he could be any number of nationalities. Jareed was one of those men who no doubt owed allegiance to no country and had the blood of a dozen in his veins. He was a mercenary and money was his master. “I can....”
“What can you do without me, Nigel?” Jareed asked coolly. “Fight Luke O’Keefe without my men? Get out of this mess without my help? You’re forgetting my contacts in the States. The action in Pittsburgh that could still go favorably for you if you play your cards right. You need to get rid of Danny, I think, and probably Kinney, too, but only if it is in a way that reflects badly on your colleagues, correct? You stupidly let yourself be seen. Now unless I save the day by drugging them, and getting them away from you, you have no way to save face, as I see it.”
Williams lowered his gun, looking defeated.
“Wise choice, Nigel, given that I have two men with guns trained on you.”
I’d been intent on my Houdini antics and missed seeing them enter.
“Let us leave our two guests for now and adjourn to the other room to prepare for more guests. Akif, Firas, when the Director is ready, show him to the salon, and give him refreshments. I will join him there shortly. I must speak to the guards downstairs. Join me in the salon in ten minutes, Nigel.” Williams looked like he wanted to protest but the two big silent men who entered to do Jareed’s bidding didn’t encourage disagreement. He went along quietly.
Jareed looked at me, his eyes moving slowly over my body. I held still, hoping that the looseness of the ropes didn’t show. I would have liked to ask him to let Danny down but I didn’t want to delay his leaving. He walked closer, to my dismay.
“It is quite a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Kinney. I’d wanted to see what the man looked like who could hold the attention of a man like Daniel. I must say, I’m not disappointed.” To my surprise, he grabbed my jaw, bent and kissed me, forcing his tongue into my mouth. I remained passive but didn’t fight him, even when his hand groped my crotch. I could have pulled my hands away from the ropes easily at this point, but I wasn’t confident of my ability to overcome him and he still had a gun. I needed to stay alert and awake to await a better chance to help Danny. His kiss became more bruising, his hand squeezing painfully but I suffered in silence.
“Ah, I thought this would rouse you. Playing possum, Daniel?” Jareed lifted his head, then raised his hand to rub his fingers over my bruised lips. He looked at Danny, as did I. His face, shadowed with his beard and dark circles of fatigue under his eyes, was still beautiful. The green of his eyes shone through his dark lashes.
“No...just...tired. Leave....” Danny heaved a large sigh that set him to coughing, his arms stretched out more as the spasms shook his chest. Jareed stepped over and supported him through it, holding his body as I longed to do. Danny flinched away from him at first but as the coughing continued, he found that he needed the support, so he let himself lean on the other man, reluctantly.
“Keep away... from Brian, Jar...I mean it,” he said as soon as the coughing stopped.
Jareed looked down at him. “You love to give orders, don’t you, Pup?” The man said pup like I might say Sonny. Danny raised his head. “Let me down, Jareed. I’m cold. Too cold.”
I butt in. “If you’ve gotten to know him, you know he wouldn’t ask unless he really needed to get down. You’re going to kill him from hypothermia. He never can take the cold well. The back of that truck was freezing. No need to discuss anything if you have a dead hostage. He’s not even complaining about his knee and that’s got to be killing him – would be if he weren’t too numb to feel it.”
That made Jareed think. He pulled keys from his pocket and tossed them over to me. “Here, you take care of it. Half-assed job that was done tying you, if you aren’t already loose, you soon will be, handsome. I did some reading on you too. I enjoyed the kiss. Keep him warm but don’t get too comfortable. As soon as I get Williams squared away to be the fall guy, we’re out of here. I don’t plan to be here when big brother comes calling. Or that doctor. He has every intention of killing me and I don’t intend to let him.”
As soon as the door closed behind him, I jumped up from my seat, causing Danny to laugh weakly.
“Hey,” I said, hurrying over to him with the keys Jareed had tossed at me. “I learned from the best at bondage. Now, careful, lean on me as I undo your wrists....” I put my shoulder under his for support and an arm around his waist as I reached up and undid the clasp one-handed.
Danny collapsed onto me. I held him up and half lifted, half helped him to the more comfortable chair over by the window. It overlooked the courtyard where we’d arrived. Someone had removed Tahnoun’s body, I noticed, looking out.
“Sit here,” I told Danny, and at his nod, I went over for my coat. I brought it back and was about to tuck it around him when he shook his head.
“Sit with me, and hold me, Bri,” he whispered.
“Don’t you think I should be doing something a little more...I don’t know, proactive?”
He smiled his slow, sweet smile at me. “You’ve been plenty proactive...” He paused for another coughing spell. “I think it’s going...to be over soon....Sit with me and keep me warm.”
I picked him up and resettled him on my lap with the coat over both of us. He curled up contentedly, only grimacing when he tried to bend his knee. It was so swollen you could see where it pressed against the fabric of his jeans, which were otherwise loose. I worried at how much weight he’d lost in just a couple of days. Had they fed him at all, I wondered, and then realized that it didn’t matter if they’d had five course meals prepared for him. When Danny was stressed, he didn’t eat.
“Emmett will freak when he sees how thin you are,” I murmured, rubbing my cheek against his. We both were far overdue for shaves.
“I have been dreaming about chocolate cake,” he admitted with a low laugh. “With ice cream. Just the way Emmett likes to stuff me.”
I brushed his hair away from his face. It was so tangled it would take at least two washings to get the knots out. Ah, the things to focus on, Kinney. Getting his weight back to perfect, the shiny bounce back to his curls – don’t think about whether he’ll survive hypothermia or the pneumonia that seems to be settling into his lungs, or whether either of you will get out of this alive – the important things in life are the little things. Wasn’t it Lanier who told you that? I thought about what Williams had told Jareed. The bit of good news in among all the crap had been that Lanier might have survived after all. I hoped it was true. I was just starting to tolerate the guy.
“So, your buddy Lane gave me relationship advice,” I told him, stroking his beard roughened cheek with my thumb, loving the feel of where his dimple was, the sharp line where his lip began, so sculptured, yet so full when he’d been kissing me. I bent my head and rubbed my lips along the same area just as he chuckled.
“He did, did he? You’ve had quite an adventure. I can only imagine what type of advice Eti would give you!” Laughing, even that slight bit, made him cough again, and I tried to help by sitting him up and rubbing his back. He sagged back down against me when it was over. “What did he mean when he said Etienne wasn’t dead, Brian? Why would anyone think he was?”
“This bunch is not the A level group of terrorists, Danny. I hate to say it but you got grabbed by, like, the C team. Maybe next time....” I bumped my forehead against his. He started to laugh at my nonsense but the coughing started up again, wracking his body forcefully. I supported him through it, my arms around his shoulders, keeping him as upright as I could. This spell lasted far longer than the others. Finally he stopped, sagging weakly against me.
He lifted his head and whispered hoarsely, “What did he say?”
“Etienne? What was his advice?” Danny seemed to have forgotten the rumors of Lanier’s death. Good. He didn’t need that worry now.
“Oh, he told me a lot; the man never shuts up,” I told him, kissing his head again. Of course, that wasn’t really true, I was the one who’d interrupted him when he was quietly working, but Danny didn’t need to know that. My purpose was to distract and entertain him. “The thing I mainly remember was that he said that it was the little things that mattered most. Not the grand gestures, but little things, like maybe brushing your hair, or being willing to go to Church sometimes without complaining, or...”
“I’d count that as a big thing.” he interjected teasingly, but I could tell he looked pleased. As pleased as a half unconscious man could look.
“Well, maybe it isn’t as big a deal as I make it out to be. Certainly not as big as dinner at Debbie’s, which you’ve done quite a few times. The music is good. Anyway, the point is, it’s those little moments that make up a life together. Not the times you dash in front of a truck or throw yourself in the back of a van driven by a terrorist, though we both know we’d do those things for each other in a heartbeat, so there’s no need to repeat ourselves on that score.”
“Well, you certainly didn’t need Eti to tell you all this, Bri, because that’s stuff you do a million times better than he ever did!” Danny looked at me with such love in his shadowed, bloodshot eyes that I felt like I could take on all the terrorists in the world for the man. Our lips came together in a slow, lingering kiss, one of my hands tangling in the hair behind his head and the other supporting his back, holding him close to me.
“Mo gra’,” I told him, “I love you and I want you in my life forever.”
Before he could answer, there was a commotion downstairs in the courtyard. Small explosions were occurring, setting off smoke bombs here and there.
“Bri...if you can, go wedge that chair under the door,” Danny said urgently. “I think we might want to have some warning before someone comes into this room.”
“Good idea,” I agreed, moving quickly to do it. But I wasn’t in time. While I was still a couple feet from the door, Nigel Williams opened it and came into the room, his gun already out and pointed right at me. I heard Danny curse behind me.
“Hands in the air...right now,” he ordered. “Both of you. Go back toward the window, Kinney – I see that my soft-hearted partner freed the two of you – figures. But I’m not that easy-going. One false move from you, O’Keefe, and your boyfriend will die. As far as I’m concerned, he’s in the way here so it will not take much to persuade me to waste him.”
“Little quick with that trigger, aren’t you?” I observed mildly, as I backed away from the door. I kept myself between Danny and the crazy fucker with the gun – and didn’t that feel like déjŕ vu?
Williams smiled nastily. “I beg to differ. I haven’t been quite quick enough. I should have shot Lanier myself...and killed Tahnoun in ‘self-defense’ and in retaliation for his killing the Frenchman. Don’t you hate when the right idea comes to you too late?”
What I hated was when someone started talking to me so freely in a manner that suggested I wasn’t ever going to have the chance to use that knowledge against him. Although there was some talk of drugging us. Great, my best hope in this situation was that they fried our brains rather than wasted us. I hoped Danny was still too out of it to raise a fuss. No sooner did I have the thought than of course he spoke up, his questions interspersed with coughs that he tried to suppress.
“Why are you doing this? You are someone with the Allies? Do you work with Redraven?...I still...don’t understand...any of this. Jareed...wants money...Ali...wants revenge...Brenda wanted...a story...what could ...you want?”
That was too much talking. Danny was bent over, his head between his knees, coughing like mad. Williams yelled at me to make him stop and looked nervously at the doorway. He’d locked the door but it wouldn’t hold long against any determined assault. I looked around the room for something to help. There was a cabinet against the wall and looking in it, I found glasses and a few bottles of scotch. My mother had always insisted that booze was good for a cough, and what was most cough syrup but ninety percent alcohol, I reasoned, as I poured a couple fingers worth into a glass and brought it to Danny.
“Drink up, kiddo,” I ordered. He glanced up at the glass and made a face.
“Do you...think getting...me plastered...is a good....” He couldn’t finish his sentence as another spasm took over. I held the glass to his lips and he swallowed the liquor as soon as he could. He choked a little but it did soothe his coughing. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as he leaned against me.
“Mother Kinney’s own recipe,” I assured him. “Good for what ails you.”
“How sweet, now sit down and keep still.” Williams was listening at the door to the hallway.
“Lose your friends?” I asked. There were sounds coming from the front still, almost like firecrackers. A couple of Jareed’s men could be seen standing in the courtyard now, not venturing far from the house, but peering into the dark, trying to see what was causing the noise. This house sat back from the road and was more isolated that the house in Munich, but there were still other houses within a couple hundred yards. It wouldn’t be a good idea for them to have a gunfight on the front lawn, I thought. Too bad I didn’t have a voice like Jennings. I could break the window and start yelling my head off, screaming for help until someone heard me. Although, like they always say, don’t yell for help – yell fire if you really want someone to pay attention. Jennings got more attention by singing with Danny than he would have if he’d yelled for help probably. I wondered if I should try yelling fire?
Williams didn’t bother answering my smart-ass remark. Which made it all the more curious. Where was Jareed and why was he leaving Williams alone in here so long?
“You know, your brother is a killer,” the man addressed his comment to Danny, who was curled up in the chair, at least, as much as he could be with the injured leg stuck out straight in front of him. Danny opened a bleary eye and considered the Englishman.
“My brother is a soldier. They’re trained to kill.” Danny’s voice was low but even. His green eyes looked like they would bore holes right through Williams, who looked away from that steady gaze. But, he returned to his point after going to the cabinet I’d uncovered and pouring himself some Dutch courage.
“It’s one thing to be a soldier and another thing to be an animal. I’ve read his file. Your brother is a berserker. That’s why Hunter and Summers keep him around...to do their dirty work. They just pretended he was dead to cover up a nasty affair – thirty civilians killed along with the soldiers who held him captive. Old men, women, children. A massacre. There’s self-defense and then there’s murder. Which do you think it was when children have their skulls smashed? Women have their stomachs sliced open and their....”
“Stop...you’re lying. Luke would never do those things.” Danny couldn’t get any paler. “What is your agenda” He took another swig of the Scotch and I could see that his hands were shaking. I took the glass from him before he dropped it – or cut himself by squeezing it too hard.
“My agenda is to see that men like your brother and his native buddy don’t take over the Alliance when Hunter retires and Summers is ousted, as she should have been long ago. It’s clear that they’re grooming him to be the new head, unstable as he is, with Linton as his keeper, and it is a travesty. I’ve worked too long and too hard for the position. O’Keefe was supposed to be dead. That massacre was supposed to be the nail in his coffin. Instead, he comes back from the dead and no one seems to care that he is an animal. This time, there will be no cover-up, no hiding the bodies. I’ll see to it!”
“Better than you did last time?” Danny had no sooner asked the question than I knew from Williams’ shocked expression that he’d hit the nail on the head. Before anything more could be said on the matter, however, there was a commotion downstairs, and the sound of shots. Swearing, Williams looked like he wanted to stay but he headed out of the room, warning he’d be back. He took the time to lock the door, despite his hurry, I noticed. I didn’t know which way to look, as the sounds of conflict grew louder inside, but then, as the smoke cleared a bit outside, Danny clutched my arm and pointed.
“Dear God... he really is alive...or am I seeing a ghost, Bri?”
“He’s for real all right, though bigger than life, that’s for certain also,” I assured him, wrapping my arms around him.
Luke O’Keefe was coming out of the mist created by the smoke bombs. He was a scary sight and if I were down there I would have turned and run the other way. I think a couple of the men sent to face him did just that, causing him to laugh, a loud, ungodly laugh that had nothing of mirth in it and everything of mockery. He was left facing a half circle of men, all big, but none as big as he was. It would have been like a scene out of a movie, but in a movie, they all might have had nunchakas or throwing stars, maybe a chain; a couple of his remaining opponents had what looked like ninja style weapons, but the difference here was, along with those nasty toys, they also had a couple of guns in their belts, and some even had swords. That was stacking the odds more than even Walker Texas Ranger would be expected to overcome. Yet, despite that definite advantage in weapons and numbers, to look at them, none of the men looked overly confident from this vantage point. Only to a certain younger brother did the situation look bad for the biggest man in the courtyard. I blamed it on him not feeling well.
“He can’t fight all of them. He’s...he’s going to die. He’s come to save me and now he’s going to die,” Danny whispered despairingly.
“I’m sure that’s not the plan, kiddo. Trust him,” I told him, holding him tight against me, my chin resting on his shoulder.
I should have bet money. It was over almost before it began. Luke was like a whirling dervish – I’d seen some of those male dancers in San Francisco the other year – that is what he was like. Dervishes perform the dance to symbolize man’s journey through truth and love to perfection. Yet, I found it ironic that the costume they wear is all about death. Tonight, whether deliberately or fortuitously, Luke’s clothing even mimicked the colors of a dervish’s costume, with black pants, a white shirt, and a brown jacket. He moved so rapidly your eye could barely keep up with him, much less your hand, and he was dancing among the other men so quickly that they couldn’t do anything, for fear of hitting each other. It was a remarkable performance of control and strength as he took out the gunmen first, then moved to the swordsmen, disarming one, and keeping his sword, using it against the remaining opponents, never pausing or even slowing. The other men seemed to be stumbling about blindly in comparison. Soon, all of them were on the ground, unconscious or worse. From here it was impossible to tell if any of them were dead. Oddly, I didn’t think any were. Luke seemed to have fought with an odd restraint despite what at first appeared to be a berserker power.
Danny collapsed against me in relief as Luke melted again into the mist. He’d been praying softly throughout his brother’s fight.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I’d watched him die just now,” he confessed quietly.
“Perhaps it would have been better than not knowing whether he lived or died?” A new voice was in the room with us. We’d missed the sound of someone entering by a second door that I’d thought was a closet. We’d been so caught up in watching the battle outside, neither of us had noticed it opening. But, seeing that it was Redraven and Linton, I didn’t feel so bad. They probably had some secret way of getting into doors that led nowhere. In fact, as it sunk in that this was Linton and Redraven...our rescue...I wasn’t minding that they’d sneaked up on us at all. Danny seemed to feel the same way as he greeted them both with a faint smile despite his worry over Luke.
Red stood in that doorway for a long moment, just looking at Danny, a question in his eyes, until Danny finally spoke.
“I’m too glad to see you to be mad at that asinine comment, you big jerk,” Danny told him, his voice raspy from all his coughing. “No, it wouldn’t be better for him to be dead – is that the point you want me to realize here? I realized that a couple days ago all on my own. So tell me, is Luke safe, are we all safe?” More coughing racked his body and Linton moved forward, pulling a stethoscope from his pocket.
“Danny, let me take a listen. Red, check the other door...when you can, go back and make sure our companions are secure as well. And yes, Danny, we’re all safe now.”
I was confused and more than a little thrown by their calm demeanor. “I assume you have an explanation for this?”
“We’ll explain as soon as we can; let us take care of first things first.” Linton was busy with his doctor type stuff with Danny. After coming in and squeezing Danny’s shoulder fondly and even clapping me on the back, Redraven walked over to the hallway doorway, easily jimmying the lock and opening it to check the hallway. I saw him talking on his cell phone to someone, glancing at Danny as he did so.
Danny’s appearance was not reassuring. Linton checked him over, then checked me out.
“We still haven’t found Jareed. Red wanted to take care of Williams but someone beat him to it. The man was downstairs with the hell kicked out of him and trussed up like the Christmas goose No sign of Jareed so he may have taken off before we got here. Luke did that stunt trying to give us a diversion so we could get in easier, which as you can see, we did. We left Ali in another room down the hallway, we didn’t want to upset you by having you see him but he’s with us for now. More or less. So is Tahnoun, who is not dead, although we understand that you saw him shot in front of you. We took out a team coming in the back. Ali actually helped bluff them when they came upon us, made it look like he was bringing us in, which fooled the men who had been his, so they were easily overcome. Then we tied him up again.”
Danny smiled at that but the effort was weak.
I didn’t know what to say – it was a lot to take in, which Linton seemed to understand as he gave us both time to absorb it while he fiddled with some stuff in his pockets. He carried more supplies in his pockets than anyone I ever knew. I hoped he had some magic pills to help Danny among his arsenal of tricks.
Linton was quiet for a couple seconds, then he placed the stethoscope back on Danny’s chest and asked him to cough. Not a difficult task, getting him to stop for more than three minutes, that would have been hard. I thought of telling him about my booze cough syrup substitute. Linton looked up after just a moment. He called to Red.
“Okay, we’ve dallied long enough. Danny needs to join Jennings in a hospital, pronto,” he announced briskly. “Red, get Luke in here.”
“I’d really like to see him,” Danny said quietly.
Danny’s eyes flew to the door. His hand tightened where it rested on my arm but that was his only visible reaction as his eyes stared at the sight of his long lost brother filling the door frame, Red close by his side – was that protectively? – neither Danny nor Luke making a sound for several long beats.
I looked from one to the other, surprised at how alike the two faces were when you saw them this close together. Before, I’d always been distracted by the differences. One was a man while the other was a child the first time I’d seen them together. Then there were the superficial differences as the years passed: one had essentially no hair while the other had long, flowing waves of hair, one had the stern-faced, unsmiling demeanor of a soldier, while the other was a laughing, dancing artist who lit up a room when he entered it. Now, with Danny looking gaunt and battered, and Luke carrying the marks of the battle he’d just left, but more than anything, with both of them trying so hard not to reveal how worried they were about messing up this moment, they couldn’t possibly look more alike. Give or take nine inches.
“Luke?” Danny’s usually resonant voice came out as a disbelieving croak, then he started coughing again. He leaned heavily on me as he tried to catch his breath. Luke came forward, the worry plain on his face as he reached out his arms.
“Danny...pup...let me help...” And that easily, Danny was in his brother’s arms, being crushed to his chest, neither one of them seeming to care right then about anything else but that they were together. I bit down on my bottom lip and looked down. I felt a pressure on my shoulder and looked over to see Linton by my side.
“It won’t be this easy,” he said in a quiet voice, “but it bodes well, I think, that their first thought is how much they love each other. Don’t you agree?”
I looked again at Danny and Luke – the big man had swung my lover up into his arms as though he were no bigger than Gus, and tears were running down his face freely as Danny clung to him like he would never let go. Linton gave them a couple minutes, but as soon as Danny’s coughing started up again he intervened.
“Luke, we really need to get out of here. Danny’s got to get to a hospital.”
Luke looked over Danny’s head. “What’s wrong with him? Peter, you have to do something! He’s burning up with fever.”
“As a preliminary diagnosis, I’d say he’s got pneumonia and he’s dehydrated...and that’s just to start. I don’t think he’s eaten more than a bite or two of bread in days.”
Red must have gone down the hallway because he was back with Ali and Tahnoun. I moved closer to Danny, standing in front of him. Luke looked down at me and smiled faintly.
“I’ve got him covered, Kinney,” he murmured, but he did step back, nudging me. Danny tried getting down but Luke told him to stay put.
“You look like you’d fall down if you tried standing, kiddo. I can’t believe you still don’t eat. Let me carry you. If we need to run, it’s easier for a quick get-away if I already have you.”
“What about Brian?” I couldn’t believe he asked that. I rolled my eyes but Luke answered him seriously.
“Brian does very well, almost as well as you’d do, but if he has trouble, Red would get him, same as he would Linton, okay?”
Danny locked eyes with his brother and whatever he saw must have satisfied him because he seemed to sag into his brother’s arms then, like he’d been holding himself together by will alone. He asked two final questions, “You’re really alive and you’ll be around when I wake up?”
“Yeah, pup, so rest now and we’ll talk when you’re feeling better and we’re out of here, okay?”
Danny nodded, then reached a hand out to me. “Thank you, Bri for... telling me.” He closed his eyes then and rested his head against his brother’s chest. I could tell that Luke was swallowing hard – I know I was.
Red’s voice could be heard from the doorway. “Christ, that kid always could play to an audience, couldn’t he?”
“Shut up, Red,” Danny whispered, startling Luke so much that it was a wonder he didn’t drop him.
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