Jonah ran the defrag program on his hard disk one more time, knowing Control wouldn't bother him while "important" computer stuff was going on. He'd have run the virus check again, it made impressive noises and actually did something useful, but Control had looked suspicious the third time he did it.
Control shifted in his chair, making Jonah flinch. Control was a past master at being ominously motionless for hours, so every movement was significant.
"Any time, Jonah," Control said quietly. "I'm not leaving till I hear an explanation."
"A an explanation, sir?"
"You threw Ann Marshall to the wolves. McCall will not be pleased."
Jonah shot a quick glance at his boss. Control sat easily, his hands steepled in front of him, but the hooded eyes were cold and uninformative above the tight-lipped mouth.
"I couldn't let the Riders into our system," he started.
"True enough. But by my count there were nine systems between us and them when you bailed. You rabbitted and left your partner hanging out to dry."
The phone rang; Control picked it up, his eyes never leaving Jonah. "Yes?" Something twitched in the line of that hard mouth. "That's all right. No interference necessary." He hung up and smiled faintly at Jonah, who swallowed uneasily. "I hope your explanation to them is better than the one you gave me."
The double doors slammed open, Robert straight-arming the right one and Ann kicking open the left.
"Eep," Jonah squeaked, and he started looking for a place to hide.
"Hello, Robert, Ann," Control said easily, not moving a hair. "I imagine you're here to talk to him."
"Actually, no," Robert snarled. "Ann just wants his computer. I just want my hands on him."
"Sir!" Jonah protested thinly, jumping from his chair.
"There he is," Control said. "Ann, he was using that computer. Will you want the pieces of him when Robert's done?"
Ann glared at Jonah. "I'll wait and see." She sat down and brought the computer to heel.
Robert walked slowly towards Jonah. "I never expected you to be up to the kind of field work I've done," he said evenly. "That's not your job. But I had no idea just what kind of arrant coward you are."
He was still wearing his gloves, Jonah noted anxiously. McCall always wore gloves for dirty work. "What if the Riders had gotten into these computers?" he protested. "I couldn't risk that, you know that!"
"You have enough shielding around these computers to keep them out. Ann got through because she was linked to you." Robert reached out and wrapped his hand around the front of Jonah's shirt. "Your partner was being hunted and you ran."
"What was I supposed to do!"
"Help her, damn you! You know the ways in there, I've seen you misdirect hunters before. You can do anything with a computer." Robert pulled him close. "Or was this the revenge for her dumping that virus on you?"
"No, no, it I I panicked, OK? I panicked. I saw a way out and I took it. Let me go, McCall!"
Robert stared at him for a few more contemptuous seconds, then jerked his hand free. "Worm," he muttered. "Ann, he's yours if you want him."
Ann looked away briefly from the computer screen to study Jonah. Something very cold and violent flickered through her eyes, then she sighed and turned away. "Just remember, Jonah, I can chop through your defenses any time I want." She glanced back. "Sultry mill," she said softly.
"Shit! How did you get to that!"
She just smiled.
Control leaned forward. "Sultry what?"
"Ask him. Excuse me, I have work to do here."
As Control went to drag Jonah to a private corner, Robert pulled up a chair next to Ann. "What is sultry mill?"
"Nothing work related, just a porno web page he and some buddies in another section have set up. Nothing illegal but damned kinky."
"Unauthorized access into a secure Company system? Dear lord." Robert shook his head. "So what did he get? Anything useful?"
"He got their current projects list, that'll be useful. I think we can get a better lock on their location, too."
"Did he get the Sonja file?"
"I think so. Let me look."
Robert heard something in his fiancée's voice that made him study her more closely. There was a disturbing brittle tone, and her mouth and the corners of her eyes were pinched. She was terrified and trying very hard not to show it. He silently stroked her hair; she glanced at him out of the corner of her eyes and hunched her shoulders uncomfortably.
"Take it out, Jonah, now!" Control snapped, and he turned and walked away from his computer expert. Jonah was too cowed to do any more than obey. Control glowered after him, then joined the pair at the computer. "Idiot," he muttered. "He keeps thinking that he can get away with whatever he wants."
"I wonder where he gets that idea," Robert muttered.
Control snickered. "I have no idea, old son. Ann, did we get anything worth the fallout?"
Ann blinked at the "we" and wondered when she'd gotten on casual first name basis with this man. A plaque on the far wall caught her eye. For a moment she actually wondered why they had the CIA coat of arms on the wall. She shivered at the unreality that had permeated her life.
"Darling?" Robert said, a little worried at her silence.
She rested her forehead on her clasped hands. "I always thought life would settle down into something pretty normal and mundane when you hit thirty."
Robert snorted. "Is that when it's supposed to happen? I must have missed it."
Control patted Ann's shoulder. "Don't worry, you get used to it."
She gave him a look of horror before turning back to the computer.
The current projects list was chronological and color coded by priority. Control made interested noises at the list of companies scheduled for assault, and he made notes of people to call.
Down at the bottom was the listing of Red Sonja. Ann searched around in the files Jonah had copied and found he had grabbed the one on her.
"We need to know," Robert said when she hesitated.
"I know." But it was a shaking hand that pulled up the file.
The Riders gave a high likelihood that Red Sonja really was female, based on a pronoun wrung from Conan. Intensive analysis of Sonja's escapades indicated access to sophisticated technology, likely at an advanced university. Women were not common in the higher computer science courses, so the Riders had downloaded the enrollment records of the major computer schools and started looking at the women students.
"Did you work out of MIT?" Control asked.
"No, I always routed through Harvard, even when I borrowed the MIT lab, which wasn't often." Ann flinched. "And I shouldn't be telling you this."
"No, you shouldn't," Robert said very evenly. Control glanced at him over Ann's head with that annoying faint smile.
"They downloaded MIT anyway," Ann said quickly, "so somewhere in their database is my name." She licked her lips. "I was one of eight women in an advanced class of forty-three. Great for dates, but rather obvious. They've got my name," she repeated in a whisper.
"If they knew you were Sonja they'd have come after you long ago," Control said, trying to be comforting.
Robert was feeling a tremendous desire to bar the doors and arrange Ann's passage to somewhere remote and well protected. "And now that they have Sonja's reappearance, all they have to do is cross-reference their list with who's still around. They have her alias, they'll know her name in short order."
"Oh, God," Ann whispered, feeling her nerves starting to shred.
Robert put his arm around her and held her very tight. But even as he whispered comfort to her, he glared eloquently at Control, making sure he knew where the blame lay.
Other people were up at that hour, obsessing over the identity of Red Sonja.
The man who called himself Angmar shoved away from the large computer that steadfastly refused to show anything but the heroic Red Sonja decapitating her enemies. He stared at the machine for half a minute, then reached under his coat and drew out a Dirty Harry special .44 magnum. He drew bead on the blinking lights on the front of the main box and put a single round into the hard drive.
On the other side of the room, William Gold, standing between two of the Inner Council's enforcers, cringed.
Angmar stared at the smoking, sparking wreckage, then sighed and blew the smoke from the muzzle of his weapon. He turned and walked to William.
"My security people said the servers had firewalls so tough Superman couldn't get through them," he said calmly. "I intend to speak with them about their concept of tough." He looked at the boy mournfully. "But, William, we have a more serious problem. She wasn't alone. While we were getting orgasmic with delight that Sonja had reappeared, someone else was copying files." He raised the muzzle of the weapon to rest just under William's left cheekbone. "And he didn't get in by himself. He hitched a ride."
"Angmar, I swear, I had nothing "
"Sh-h, William." He tapped the gun against William's cheek. "Of course I believe you."
William all but wept in relief. "You do?"
Angmar removed the gun and put his arm around William's shoulders, drawing him away from the enforcers. "Of course I do. I know you'd never betray me. Just like I know how you infiltrated the National Traffic Safety Board's testing system and changed the passing grades to failed on all those minivans. That leak to all the tabloid news shows was brilliant. Marvelous chaos."
"Yeah," William grinned, "that was good."
Angmar stopped by the ruined computer. "Just like I know your mother leaves for work at six a.m. and goes to her second job at three." He smiled down at the boy.
William stared back, disbelieving. Angmar had always struck him as a genial shark. Always well-dressed, always soft-spoken, but never a push over. William had subconsciously begun patterning his behavior after Angmar.
The older man let William stew for a moment, then made a show of reholstering the gun. "I know you know better than to betray me. You know the cost of betrayal. Now, is there any little thing you want to confide to me about tonight?"
"N no, Angmar. I haven't really looked at the Sonja stuff." He cringed at Angmar's frown.
"The 'Sonja stuff' is important, William. This woman has twice invaded us with impunity. She had official help this time, from what we found at the Conan number. And she let someone get copies. We have to find her and convince her to share her knowledge. The Riders must pool our knowledge, and I need to get every bit of information, no matter how odd." He put his arm around William's shoulders again, but his smile was cruel. "Tell me anything you can think of, William. Anything."
"But I don't know " William suddenly remembered several days ago and the people in his room, the man who reminded him oddly of Angmar and the quiet, unobtrusive woman. "There were two people poking at my stuff. Mom called them, a man and a woman."
"Do you know their names?" Angmar asked quickly.
"Uh Robert McCall and and "
"The woman's name, William."
William swallowed as he thought furiously. "Marshall. Yeah, Marshall. Ann Marshall."
"Ann Marshall," Angmar repeated thoughtfully. Then he slowly smiled, and William shivered.
Ann barely slept that night, though she tried to hide it from Robert. But he knew her stillness was a sham, and he held her tightly when the whimpers of fear got away from her.
When she finally did fall asleep too close to dawn, Robert held her cradled against his shoulder. He stared up at the ceiling and tried to decide what to do.
The Riders had to be broken. They wouldn't stop, not now, and they'd gotten too close to Ann to give up the scent. The completely paranoid option was to convince her to change her name and leave the city with him. It wouldn't be the first time he'd abandoned everything to avoid enemies.
But she wouldn't go, he knew that. This was her home, her world. So he'd have to remove her enemies.
The insane choice was to openly challenge the Riders and have the muscle to win. The clock was ticking, and Robert didn't know if there was time to find the Riders before they found Ann. And if they found her
Robert tightened his hold on his fiancée, hoping he wouldn't wake her. He'd been hunted by implacable foes before, he knew the obsession, the violence, the utter ruthlessness. And he couldn't get the picture of Albert Mayer, floating in the river, out of his head.
He made a conscious decision to avoid real sleep because he knew the nightmares he'd have. He concentrated on the feel of the body in his arms and the head on his shoulder and the deal he was willing to cut with God to keep her safe.
After a quiet breakfast too few hours later, Ann sat on the bed and watched Robert dress.
"I'd tell you get more sleep," Robert said, "but Lettie is due in, and that vacuum cleaner is horrible."
Ann pulled her knees to her. "I doubt I could sleep alone anyway."
He paused to kiss her, then pulled on his jacket. "Come with me to the kitchen." Tugging Robert's robe close around her for warmth and comfort, she obeyed.
He'd debated this during the night. "All right," he said, going to the end drawer, "you shouldn't need this, but if you do, here it is." He opened the drawer and flipped back a towel covering some cooking tools lying inside. A pistol in a holster lay among the scraps of twine and household stuff.
"No," Ann said firmly, stepping away.
"Oh, Ann "
"Robert, what do I know about guns?"
He looked at her in disbelief that she could say that after having been shot with, threatened by, and unintimidated in the face of a horrible number of guns.
"About using them," she qualified.
"True," he nodded thoughtfully. "We'll have to fix that. But if you need it, here it is."
"Where are you going?" she asked, changing the subject.
"There are real world leads worth following up on. Angmar hasn't gone through the world completely incognito." He stared at her a moment, wondering if he should stay.
Ann was starting to achieve a proper level of wifely clairvoyance. "If you stay, you'll just fret. Go do something practical." She even managed a mostly natural smile.
Robert chuckled and hugged her. "Yes, dear." He gazed down at her fondly and with admiration. "You are one of the bravest women I've ever met."
"I doubt that."
"To stay here quietly and let someone else fight your battles you do intend to stay here, don't you?"
It was her turn to chuckle. "Yes, sir. But it's not from courage." She avoided thinking about how frightened she was.
"It doesn't take courage to do what you're not afraid of." He pulled her tightly to him. "You are too precious to me to allow them to hurt you. I'll keep you safe if it kills me."
Ann shook her head in automatic negation. There were too many dangers in his life for her to feel easy about any kind of offhand remark about his death. Because part of her knew he was serious, and she didn't want to contemplate a life gained through the loss of her love.
Mickey called a few minutes after Robert left, to report on the cats "stubborn beasts won't eat" and to assure Ann that all was well at her house. There had been no messages, though the monitoring device attached to her alias' line had beeped twice.
"I should come over there and disconnect that," she fretted.
"No," Mickey said firmly, "you should stay where McCall put you."
"You're there "
"I may have to leave."
"The more ears listening for the Riders, the faster we'll find them. I'll go that extra mile that someone drug in new might not."
"But who will watch my cats?" Ann asked in a small voice.
Mickey tried not to laugh too loudly. "Annie, those two are a match for any nine trained commandos. And overt daylight moves aren't the Riders' style."
"They could change. Don't sigh at me! I am not just being an hysterical, paranoid "
She subsided, knowing she was behaving badly and hoping it wasn't hysteria. "I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize," he said soothingly.
"You think I'm being a git."
"No, I don't. It's not stupid to be worried about psychos. But McCall's thought about all this. He's Fort Knoxed this place and there ain't no security system that he's designed that's been broken."
"So why won't he let me stay there? I can ask you, I get soothing from him instead of answers."
"Annie," he said tartly, "if he had his way, you'd be stashed in a safehouse in Jersey or something, but he wants you where he can keep a personal eye on you. Do you honestly think he'd leave any bit of your safety to chance?"
She was being scolded again. She hated that, especially when it was deserved. "No," she said grudgingly. "But he could watch me there, and I could be home."
"Which is safer, the item in the impregnable vault everyone knows about or the item in the vault no one can find?"
"All right," she sighed. "But I don't like it," she added childishly.
"Tough," he said kindly. "Deal with it. Catch up on your letters. Snoop through your fiancé's stuff."
"Hey, decide if you want to keep his furniture or what. Look, I better go, he wanted to keep the lines open."
Ann refrained from pointing out that she had call waiting and said good-bye.
Lettie arrived with her cheery mix of bustle and chatter. Ann always wondered what the cleaning lady thought of the odd people she found stashed in Robert's apartment. But Lettie had already met Ann and was eager to talk about wedding plans and how wonderful it was that Mr. McCall had found a lovely young lady to keep him company. Ann focused on the small talk and the future, ignoring the fear in the present.
It was ten o'clock when the phone rang. Lettie was in the back hallway with the noisy vacuum cleaner, so Ann stood next to the answering machine to listen.
Mrs. Gold's tremulous voice followed Robert's message. "Mr. McCall? This is Elizabeth Gold. There's a problem. I need to see you and and Miss Marshall."
Her son was a Black Rider. The Riders were tearing up the town, by all odds, looking for Ann, and Billy Gold was a connection. But Ann knew terror when she heard it. She picked up the phone.
"Mrs. Gold, this is Ann Marshall."
"Miss Marshall!" There was a brief pause. "Is Mr. McCall there?" she asked nervously.
"No, he's not. Can I help you?"
In Queens, Elizabeth Gold stared across her living room at the man who had introduced himself as Angmar when he'd stopped by her work and who now held a gun to her son's head. She knew whatever this man wanted Ann Marshall for must be bad, but it was a question of her son versus a near stranger.
"Miss Marshall, could you come out here? Billy's in trouble, and I need to talk to you."
Ann's stomach tightened with dread. "What kind of trouble?"
"It's that club he's in."
Angmar gave Mrs. Gold a warning look and tightened his grip on William. The boy was pale with shock and didn't fight against the arm around his throat or the gun pressed against his temple. He hoped his mother could see the abject apology in his eyes.
Mrs. Gold turned away from her only child's peril and looked out the front window at her mundane neighborhood as she tried to lure another human being to her doom.
"I'm not sure what the trouble is," she said, trying to stay calm. "All I know is there's something terrible going on, and my son's involved." That hit too close to home, and her voice broke.
"Yes, well, so am I," Ann muttered to herself. "Mrs. Gold, I don't know "
"Miss Marshall, he's only a boy."
Angmar smirked at Mrs. Gold's anguish. "Pathetic, isn't it?" he whispered to William. "It's the slave to emotion that goes down first. ten to one Red Sonja turns her down."
William, knowing what had been threatened if his mother couldn't get Sonja into the trap, closed his eyes and contemplated mortality for the first time.
Mrs. Gold's plea touched chords in Ann that she'd thought long atrophied. Ann at least knew the danger, but the Gods were ignorant of the possible repercussions, even William, who, for all his chicanery, gave no sign of knowing the violence that lurked in the Riders' path.
She'd learned it from Robert: you didn't leave innocents in harm's way if you could do anything to help them.
"I'll do my best, Mrs. Gold." Ann conscience applauded, but her self-preservation shrieked and pulled out the big gun: what would Robert say? "I might be a little bit, though."
Mrs. Gold didn't fight the tears of relief and stress. "Thank you, Miss Marshall." She glanced triumphantly at Angmar.
"Should've bet, William," Angmar said. He gestured for Mrs. Gold to wrap it up.
"Please hurry," she finished, then she hung up.
"Very nice," Angmar grinned, pulling the gun from William's head. "Now we wait. I bet you make a mean cup of coffee, Mrs. Gold. Let's see what you've got in the kitchen."
"All right," Mrs. Gold said thinly, wondering if it was sinful to pray for the arrival of someone who was walking into a trap.
Ann tried Robert's car phone first, but there was no answer. She told herself not to panic, then called her house. When she got the answering machine, she hoped Mickey was listening and told him to pick up the phone. After a silent moment, she summarized the situation and hung up.
She made herself stop and think. She needed transport, dependable transport, which ruled out taking a cab to Queens. Ideally, she wanted Robert or Mickey to drive, but if she couldn't find them
Her van was at the house, and it had a cellular in it, as of January, at Robert's insistence. His mania for communications had overruled her dislike of the trappings of yuppiedom.
"Doesn't freakin' help if you're not there to pick up the phone," she muttered as she looked for a cab company's number.
Mickey's van was gone from in front of the house, but she searched the house for him just in case the neighbors had had the derelict towed as an eyesore.
Followed by cats who wanted to tell her every trial and tribulation they'd suffered in her absence, Ann tried to call Robert again. Still no answer. And she didn't know where she'd put the number for Mickey's car phone.
Which left Frieda the van. And going alone. Hell.
She put doubt away and hugged the cats. But she refused to think of why she wanted to cry.
As she pulled out, she tried Robert's number. No answer. She pulled the nunchuks out from under the seat and put them in reach.
Mickey met Robert in Brooklyn to compare notes. A very cooperative Jonah had spent the night analyzing data and had come up with some common numbers in the Riders routings and what William Gold used. Those numbers came with billing addresses, who were probably ignorant of what was going on but who deserved checking out all the same.
The numbers turned out to be a phone sex switchboard, a cellular phone company, and a pyramid marketeer, all with too much traffic to notice some extra switching in the middle of the night. In a fit of pique, Robert called the police on the pyramid scheme, just on principle.
"They can't hide forever," Mickey said encouragingly.
"Neither can Ann," Robert snapped.
Mickey grimaced but held his tongue. "So now what?"
Robert leaned on the roof of his car and stared out over the empty snowy lot. "I don't know, Mickey. I really don't know."
Mickey leaned on the other side. "But you always know what to do next."
"That license number I got off Angmar's car keeps leading into aliases and dead ends. Control has the analysis people working on the information, but it could be days before we get anything solid. And I don't think we have days."
"Maybe we can smoke 'em out."
"They know we're looking for them. They'd only come out after Ann, and I won't risk that." He grimaced. "It may be time to point out to William Gold that the evidence against him suggests a deal might be in order."
Mickey winced in sympathy. "Turn in a client."
"I'm running out of ideas."
Robert's car phone rang.
He muttered and reached in to pick up the phone. "McCall."
"Where the hell have you been!"
"Ann?" Robert blinked. "What's wrong?"
Ann stared at the Gold house, fear driving her close to tears. "Where are you? How fast can you get to the Gold house?"
'You're in Queens? I told you "
"Not now! Mrs. Gold called me, said there was trouble. I had to come, I couldn't find you Please come." She checked her mirrors again. "There's a lot of motorcycles down the block."
"Dear God, Ann, it's a trap, get out of there."
"Where!" Mickey demanded, headed for his van.
"Queens, stay with me, I know a shortcut." He slid into the driver's seat. "Ann, we're on our way, get out of there."
"Not till I see Mrs. Gold. She was so scared."
"Damn it, woman, I'll see to Mrs. Gold, she's just bait to get you there! Get out!" He led the way to the streets
"All right," she gasped. The expert was coming, she'd done her part. She reached for the ignition key, then looked at the house. "Oh, shit."
"What!" Robert shoved the pedal down further. Mickey was momentarily left behind as Robert slid around a corner, but the van made up the difference quickly.
"It's Mrs. Gold," Ann whispered. "He's got a gun to her head."
On the front porch, Angmar stood barely outside the door, staring at the woman in the van across the street. He held Mrs. Gold tight against his chest, his gun held obviously to the side of her head. She stood very still, her arms around William, who held onto his mother tighter than he had in years.
Robert saw a cop in his rear view mirror hit the lights behind Mickey. Just as well, police would be needed. "Ten minutes tops, Ann, the traffic is with us." He laid on his horn as he ran a red light.
Ann could see the cold eyes of the man with the gun from across the street. "Sweetheart, I don't think Mrs. Gold has time. I can't leave her to that, she's none of this."
"Do you have the gun?"
"No," she said softly. She knew the likely outcome of leaving the van as clearly as if the old woman Herself was sitting in the back seat cutting the threads of life. But it wouldn't be Mrs. Gold's thread cut today.
"Darling, please, don't. You don't know she'll be hurt, but you "
"No, he'll kill her. He's got the kid, too." She unsnapped her seatbelt. "I love you, Robert."
"Damn it, Ann "
She gently hung up the phone. She tucked the nunchuks into the inside pocket of her jacket and opened the door of the van.
She stood in the street by the van and scanned the area. School hadn't let out yet, so the street was relatively deserted. A car pulled out a block down, and the woman driving peered suspiciously at Ann as she drove past. In the other direction, five people and their motorcycles waited in a small knot. Ann didn't believe that was the only back-up; her personal bet was on more lurkers in the house.
Behind her, in the van, her phone rang. Robert, undoubtedly. She hoped she'd see his big car tearing around a corner, but she didn't waste a lot of faith on that hope.
Thinking about him only threatened her resolve. And the man on the porch was waiting. She took a deep breath, found her center, and walked forward.
Angmar studied the woman carefully as she crossed the street. This was a different kind of warrior from Conan. Angmar wondered if she'd possessed this still menace ten years ago. Her steps were carefully measured and balanced, and her eyes scanned the streets discreetly. She was dressed expensively, despite the ancient VW van, and her body wasn't the soft lump of someone whose excitement lived solely in the electron stream.
She stopped on the sidewalk in front of the house. "Let her go," she said levelly. "She's none of us."
"And what are we Sonja?" Angmar grinned.
Ann cringed inside. She'd hoped that it was only a suspicion, but no, the Riders were finally sure they'd found Red Sonja.
She dropped her eyes to William. "Do I have you to thank for this?"
William cringed under the ice and hatred in the woman's face.
"Yes, he was a great deal of help," Angmar said fondly. "But we were on to you anyway. Geek Squad, I suppose?" He looked at her eagerly. "There's so much you're going to tell me."
"Angmar," Ann said. He nodded and grinned. "Let Mrs. Gold go. I'm here."
"Oh, I don't think so, I'm going to need a hostage for your good behavior, and I don't think you'll accept the boy."
"True enough." She glared at William again, then looked at Mrs. Gold. "Go ahead and let him go, he's no good to us now."
Mrs. Gold barely recognized Mr. McCall's quiet fiancée in this hard, dangerous woman. But the advice was what she'd been waiting to hear. When the man with the gun didn't object, she let go of her son and pushed him away.
"No, Ma," William gasped, holding onto her.
Ann started slowly up the walk. "William Gold, if you are within reach when I get up there, I swear to you that you'll find out how I feel about squealers."
"In the house, Billy," his mother said firmly.
"Yeah, Billy," Angmar sneered, "run inside where it's safe."
William backed reluctantly away from his mother, but his eyes were on Angmar with a mix of shocked betrayal and the remnants of loyal hope. But Angmar had no time for his erstwhile acolyte. William opened the screen door but hung on the door jamb, watching.
Ann hoped some nosy neighbor would see the goings-on and call the police, and Robert was on his way. But she could only delay so long.
Angmar whistled, and a car engine started around the side of the house. Angmar pushed Mrs. Gold forward.
"We're going to get in my car, now," he said to Ann. "And we'll begin the conversation."
Ann backed up slightly. "Let her go." She changed her stance to keep an eye on the Mercedes that coasted down the driveway at the side of the house. A large young man in leather walked beside the car and watched the activity in front of the house.
"Just get in the car," Angmar ordered.
No screaming tires heralded Robert and the cavalry. It was up to her, and she knew that if she got into that car she was dead.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Gold," she said softly.
"It's not your fault."
"Yes, it is."
Ann backhanded Mrs. Gold as hard as she could, knocking her out of Angmar's hold and away from the Mercedes. She followed the blow with a swift high kick to Angmar's gun hand. The pistol went flying.
William screamed and ran for his mother. Angmar charged Ann. She swept his legs out from under him and ran. The guard by the Mercedes followed, and he had longer legs. He grabbed the back of Ann's jacket. She spun, trying to break the hold, but the guard knew the tricks. Angmar started to grin as he levered himself up from the ground.
The smooth handles of the nunchuks slid into Ann's hand. She remembered briefly Sensei Rayburn's demonstration of the effects of chuks on melons, then she swung. The noise of the man's skull giving under the impact was the same as the melon's. His body spasmed and Ann pulled free. Just to be sure, she swung the chuks around, and slammed the free end down into the man's left collarbone. It crunched and folded.
Ann's turn brought her around to face Angmar. Blood flicked off the end of the nunchuks as she flipped them around her shoulder. Angmar looked for his gun. William saw it at the same time, near him, and went scrambling after it.
"Hold it!" yelled the Mercedes driver, coming out of his door and pointing a second gun at Ann.
She snarled at Angmar and spun towards Frieda the van.
"Take her!" Angmar shrieked. The driver opened fire, and motorcycle engines roared into life a block away.
The van's side windows exploded as bullets ripped into it. Just as Ann dragged open the door, white heat galvanized her left leg. She refused to acknowledge the pain, flung herself into her seat, and slammed the ignition key in. For once the engine caught the first time. She clipped a parked car's rear quarter panel as the tires screamed into motion. Five motorcycles roared after her.
Angmar whirled on William, his teeth bared. But he hesitated when he saw the boy swing around with Angmar's gun dwarfing his hands.
"Come on, boss!" his driver yelled.
"Later for you," Angmar growled, and he dove into the car. They roared off to follow the chase.
William crouched there, a huge gun in his hands, his mother unconscious next to him, a motionless body in the street, and the neighbors starting to peek out.
Ann kept one hand pressed to the bleeding wound in her leg, trying to steer and shift with one hand. Where were the fucking cops when you needed them? Two motorcycles roared up along her left side; the first one had a passenger packing a shotgun. Ann waited till they were up close and swerved the van into the bike. They connected, and the bike went flying. Ann grinned cruelly.
The chase went sliding around a corner. Frieda the van wobbled on her tires, threatening either a blow-out or a roll-over or both. Ann swore when she saw the industrial zone: she'd been hoping to find her way to a major highway or business district. Instead the road widened, allowing the four bikes to flank her and stay out of reach.
One other bike had an armed passenger. This one had a better understanding of automotives and began firing his shotgun at the rear of the van, where the engine was. On the third shot something vital was hit. Frieda began coughing and howling in agony.
Ann saw what looked like an occupied factory about half a mile away. Crying and apologizing to her old friend, she shoved the accelerator to the floor, sending the howling to a higher pitch and introducing a grinding.
The road ended at a vacant lot covered in broken concrete. Frieda on her best day had never been an off-road vehicle. Now, at speed and in her death throes, she bucked and fought the poor terrain. Ann tried to hold onto the wheel, begging God to bring either Robert or the police before it was too late.
The man with the shotgun aimed for his final target: the van's tires. The right front tire exploded just as the van hit another pile of rubble. The axle snapped, Frieda tried to recover, but the rubble gave and the van flipped and rolled. Ann had time to regret not taking the time to fumble on the seatbelt.
Robert continued to ignore his police escort, now grown to two squad cars as he roared into the Gold's neighborhood. He saw a small crowd clustered in front of the Gold house, but he didn't see Ann's van. Cursing the necessity, he slammed on the brake and slid to a stop in front of the Gold house. Mickey fishtailed as he brought his van to a halt, and the cops actually overshot before they could stop.
William was still holding onto the gun as well as his mother, who was beginning to come groggily to consciousness. He barely blinked when Robert dropped to his knees next to him.
"Dear God," Robert gasped when he saw Mrs. Gold. "William, where's Ann?"
William was in shock but able to answer. "She hit Ma."
"What? William, where is she, damn it?"
Mickey arrived and put a hand on Robert's shoulder. "Don't yell or he'll freeze. William, what happened?"
William found the stranger more reassuring than the old man with fury and fear in his eyes. "Angmar grabbed Ma, made her call Red Sonja. She came, and she made Ma tell me to go in the house." He looked at the gun in his hand. "He was going to shoot Ma."
The cops came running up. "Freeze!" they yelled, pointing their guns at Robert and Mickey.
"Not now!" Robert snapped. "Go on, William."
The cops looked at each other, then around. One spotted the body in the street and nudged the other.
"You were going in the house, William," Mickey urged.
"Angmar was making Sonja and Ma get in his car. Sonja smacked Ma and knocked her away from Angmar, then she started kicking and hitting."
The ranking police officer came and stood over the tableau. "We've got a corpse over there. What happened?"
Robert and Mickey swiveled around to stare into the street.
"Sonja did that," William said bleakly. "She was trying to get away. He grabbed her, and she pulled these sticks like ninja use. Then they started shooting at her and she ran. I think they hit her, but she got in her van and drove away. They followed her."
"Which way?" Robert demanded, scrambling to his feet. William glanced up the street.
The cop grabbed Robert's arm. "You're not going anywhere, mister, you and your buddy are under "
"Sergeant, please! A woman's life is at stake. The men chasing her mean to kill her!"
The sergeant would have scoffed, except for the body and the boy with the gun and all the signs that the police had arrived half way through the movie.
"All units in the Parkcrest area," crackled the police radio. "Be advised of a high-speed chase between an orange Volkswagen minibus and several motorcycles heading east on Third. Shots have been fired."
Robert broke free and ran for the Jaguar. The sergeant caught up with him and slammed the door closed. Robert barely remembered he was dealing with the police and refrained from going for his gun.
"Sergeant, the woman in the van is my fiancée, and you can see what kind of situation we're dealing with!"
The sergeant looked around, and Robert nodded at Mickey, who edged for his van.
"I am not letting you out of my sight," the cop said decisively. "We've got more units coming to sort out what happened her."
"It's not over!"
"Hey!" yelled another cop. Mickey's van peeled rubber and headed down the street.
"Get after him!" yelled the sergeant.
"Yes, please!" added Robert. "You've got to help me if you won't let me go."
The sergeant looked at him in surprise.
"Come with me," Robert said desperately. "Let me go and come with me."
"All units," announced the radio. "Be advised of a black Mercedes involved in the chase. Injuries have been reported."
"Please, Sergeant. I beg you, let me go." Robert wondered just how much bad karma he'd get for slugging a cop doing his job.
"Go," the copy said abruptly. "But I'm going first!" He ran for his squad car.
"Thank you, Lord," Robert breathed as he dove into his car.
The Jag kept up easily with the police cruiser. They passed the scene of yet another police car with its lights flashing, parked next to a wrecked motorcycle and the officers talking to witnesses, who all were pointing in the direction Robert was going. He began to hope he might be in time.
A fire truck slid around a corner ahead, and the squad car Robert was following tapped the brakes to let it go first. Robert swore and hoped the fire truck would get out of the way soon. But they continued to follow in its wake, and Robert began to have dreadful premonitions.
They left the street in an industrial area. A column of black smoke rose from the other side of a barrier of police cars with flashing lights. Robert started praying as he never had before.
Then, through a gap between official vehicles, he saw the boxy shape covered in flames. He watched a Grateful Dead sticker melt away and fall off with the flaking orange paint.
He didn't remember stopping the car. He flung open the door and ran towards the fire.
Mickey barreled into him out of nowhere, shoving him against a police car. "Robert, don't! It's too hot, we can't get close."
"No," Robert whispered, half-heartedly pushing against Mickey. He saw the bullet holes and body damage, then his view was mercifully obscured by the fire-retardant foam the firemen began spraying on the wreck.
The sergeant who had led Robert walked over slowly. He started to speak, then he saw Robert was conscious of nothing but the burning van. He turned and walked away.
Control, summoned by Mickey, arrived ten minutes later. He absently flashed an ID at the cordon guard and walked in disbelief towards the now smoldering wreck. He spotted Robert, with Mickey still holding onto him, leaning against a police car, and he walked over cautiously.
Mickey saw him first and suddenly debated the wisdom of calling his boss, old friend of Robert's or not. Except for Control's instigation, this would never have happened.
Control stopped a few feet away. "Robert?"
Robert slowly took his eyes from the smoking metal. "You." Mickey held onto him as he tried to move toward Control. "God damn you to hell, you brought her to this!"
"I never intended this "
"No, you never intend it! But it always happens anyway!" He made a stronger effort to break free.
Control moved in and grabbed his shoulders. "Robert, are you sure she's well " He hated himself for the desperate hope that warred with the too-bitter experience in Robert's eyes. "Until we know, don't "
"Hell," a fireman said clearly as he crouched at the windshield end of the wreck. "Send the ambulance home, we're going to need a Baker wagon for this." He straightened, grimacing.
"Oh, Jesus," Mickey whispered. Robert closed his eyes, then raised a shaking hand to cover his face. Control squeezed his shoulder.
"What am I going to tell her mother?" Robert whispered brokenly. He clamped his jaw closed hard, fighting the grief.
Mickey mutely shook his head as he watched the firemen start to cut open the front of the van so they could get to the body.
The morgue vehicle finally arrived, slowly threading its way through the gathering crowd. Such vehicles were never in a hurry. The police photographers finished their grisly record taking and made way for the removal team.
"Come on, Robert," Control said, wanting to keep him from seeing anything more.
"No," Robert said flatly.
One of the coroner's people made her way over to the group. "We'd like to get an ID if possible," she said with as much sympathy as a woman whose business was corpses could muster.
Robert started forward, but Mickey shoved him unceremoniously back. "The hell you are," Mickey said firmly. "Not if I have any say." He went with the woman to the van.
Robert turned and leaned on the roof of the police car, burying his face in his arms. If he'd slugged the cop, if he'd made William talk faster maybe he could have gotten here in time to save the one person in the world he'd been willing to change his life for.
All he could think of was the funeral and how the family would look at him. And the damned cats, waiting for their person to come home. And the house, the microcosm of her soul, where she'd been making room for him so it would truly be home for both of them.
He knew he wouldn't be able to set foot in there by himself again, not without Ann dashing up and down the stairs. Dear God, she'd permeated so many corners of his life. She'd even made his work more worthwhile, as he understood more and more how important peace and happiness were and how essential it was to preserve them.
He'd thought finding her had been his reward for his years of grim loneliness. Had it all been a cruel hoax, that just when he though he could enjoy the happiness every person had the right to expect, it should be taken from him?
Control craned his head to look around the van. Mickey was crouched next to the front end, peering in with a sickened look on his face. Control turned away, not wanting to see the blackened char that was the mortal remains of a woman he'd found admirable. He hoped Robert would stay in his state of shock until the coroner's wagon had left. Let him keep his memories of a lovely face, not ash and carbonized bone.
Mickey stared at the horrifying figure twisted in the driver's side of the wrecked van. There was very little left.
"Who are we looking for?" the coroner's assistant asked after she let Mickey get his wits about him.
"A woman, just turned thirty, short, about five three. God." He had to look, away from the body. He kept seeing blue eyes in the gaping sockets of the skull.
The assistant frowned uncertainly. "It looks taller, but it's hard to tell like this. We'll confirm in the lab. It looks like the jewelry survived. What was she wearing?"
Mickey blamed his tearing eyes on the smoke and smell. "Her engagement ring, at the very least."
"Damn," the assistant murmured sympathetically, glancing at her own left hand, where a single ring awaited its counterpart. She shuffled forward on her heels and craned her neck to locate the body's left hand.
Mickey told himself to save the emotion for later. Anger was what he needed now, to fuel the vengeance. Later, then would be the time for tears. Now there were murderers to make pay.
"What the hell?" the assistant muttered, pulling out a small flashlight.
"The pendant's fused to the body, so the ring should be in place. This wasn't hot enough to melt gold was it gold?"
"Uh, yeah." Mickey peered where she was looking. "Why?"
"There's no ring. She may have lost it before, but "
He refused to acknowledge what he was thinking, just grabbed the flashlight away to make his own examination. He focused the light on the pendant hanging from the chain around the neck and felt his heart race. The design was still clear: a black enamel background with a red eye in flames.
"McCall! Get over here!"
Robert raised his head and stared over, befuddled.
"Don't do it," Control advised, vowing to rake Kostmayer over the coals for this.
"No, he's found something," Robert said vaguely. "I know that tone of voice." He headed towards the other end of the van, Control following closely.
"Are you sure that's a woman?" Mickey asked excitedly. The coroner's assistant stared at him, then reclaimed her flashlight and scooted closer. Mickey looked up and saw Robert. "Look at that necklace."
"Kostmayer," Control warned quietly. Mickey waved him silent.
It was only a prop, the coping mechanism said in Robert's head. It's not a real body. It's not all that's left of a living, laughing human being. Most especially, it's not all that's left of the body you held in your arms a scant six hours ago. Look at the necklace, not the rest of it.
New shock galvanized his brain out of the old shock. "The Burning Eye. The symbol of Sauron. She would never have worn that. She doesn't own anything like that. Oh, my god."
"Sit down," Control ordered, seeing the disorientation hit Robert and pushing him towards the ground. Robert went.
The assistant sat back. "I'll need the lab to confirm it, but I'd bet serious money that this is a man. And it is too tall, five ten at the very least."
Mickey spun to Robert and dared say it flat out. "It's not her. She's alive."
Robert shut his eyes, wanting-to-believe warring with I've-seen-too-much-to-believe.
"Well, then, who the hell is this?" Control demanded, gesturing at the remains.
"And why is he here?" Mickey agreed. He and Control both paused and stared at each other in horror.
Call it shock, but all of Robert's mind came back on line at once. "They've got her," he breathed, horrified. "This one must have been wounded or killed in the chase. He was supposed to slow us down while they got away with her. My God, Mickey, they've got her. And Angmar said it took two days for Conan to die."
"Right," Mickey nodded, scrambling to his feet.
"Hang on," said the policeman in charge, who'd been hanging back in deference to grief. "I need statements."
Control put a quelling hand on Robert's arm as he bristled. "I'll settle the police, you go to work." He smiled at Robert's look of surprise. "I told you, you have full support on this. What are you going to do?"
"Find her, of course. And William Gold must know where the club house is."
"All right. Stay in touch, and be careful." He smiled at the policeman as Robert and Mickey ran for their vehicles. "Officer, I know you'll be as cooperative as all your fellow officers have been that I've dealt with." He pulled out his ID and tsked at himself for enjoying the shock on the cop's face.