Part 5

Angmar stared down at the unconscious woman on the concrete floor of the small, windowless room, his satisfaction marred by anger. She hadn't stopped fighting till they'd drug her out of her overturned van, dislocated shoulder and all, and Angmar had finally got the butt of his driver's pistol smacked against the base of her skull. Sirens had started in the distance, and Angmar had made the rapid decision to pitch one of the motorcyclists, who had strangled anyway on the crushed larynx Sonja had given him, into the van before torching it.

Two men dead, his favorite gun gone, the police aware of something very big going down. When he'd sent his men to silence William Gold and his mother, they'd reported the police in firm control of the house and the Golds missing. They only question remaining was if William would be stupid enough to spill his guts – not that silence would save him. Once he was found, he was dead.

But all the Riders' security was at maximum, and for now there was Red Sonja to finally deal with appropriately.

"You ready for some interrogation, Gorbag?" he asked the big man who'd been bounced from the Marines for brutality.

Gorbag cracked his knuckle as he studied his subject. "Seems a pity, though."

"Excuse me?" Angmar said in disbelief.

"A good-looking woman, it's a shame to waste her. Whadda ya say, boss, give me an hour at her by myself, then we can start the other stuff."

Angmar was pleased to discover himself repelled by his torturer's lewd anticipation, but he had to admit it might be effective. Then he shook his head. "I'm sorry, Gorbag. If it was just me, I'd say yes, but imagine Shelob's reaction if she found out?"

Gorbag paled and glanced over his shoulder. "Right. I'll leave her be. So where do we start?"

"Well, first we need to wake her up." He pulled out a remote control and pointed it at the ceiling.

A heavy-duty retractable dog chain on a reel was bolted to the ceiling. The chain ran down and was attached to the handcuffs locking Ann's arms behind her back. When Angmar pressed the remote, the slack of the chain was taken up and pull exerted on her arms.

Ann woke to pressure on her ripped up right shoulder. Combined with the throb and twisting of her head and the flame in her leg, she knew hell wasn't a dream. The strain on her arm threatened to pull her shoulder out of its socket again, but she tried to move her left leg first, reopening the bullet wound. She flinched and cried out, and shifting her concussed head made her stomach rebel. As she retched, she heard chuckles behind her.

"And all you did was push the button," said an admiring, brutal voice.

"Just maximizing the potential of the pre-existing condition," answered Angmar. "Good morning, Sonja."

Ann couldn't help whimpering Robert's name. That was her only hope, that he was on her trail. But for now she had enemies to deal with.

She'd done this before, focused past endless pain to function. Think. The left leg was all but useless, the right shoulder moved but slid with a horrid looseness in the socket – what she could feel past the torn muscles. So, get up off the floor, ease the pull on the arm, roll to get the good leg under and pretend none of the pain exists.

Standing was impossible. She rolled up and curled her right leg under her, braced so she could rise if she needed. Her stomach threatened to go again, but she closed her eyes on the disorientation and refused to give in. The voices laughed again cruelly, and she ignored that, too.

Finally, the rough floor strayed level. She dared to crack open her eyes. "You are in so much trouble," she snarled.

Angmar crouched down in front of her, chuckling. "I'm not the one chained to the ceiling, love. It's going to keep pulling on you, you know, it's designed to restrain mastiffs and rottweilers. Must be hell on that shoulder."

Ann didn't answer. She studied Angmar, wondering if she'd ever met him. "Who the hell are you?" she asked reluctantly.

"Angmar, dear girl, I thought you guessed." He nodded at the big man studying Ann clinically. "This is Gorbag, he'll be our activities director tonight." He stopped smiling and met Ann's eyes. "He was Conan's next-to-last sight. I was his last. And I'll be your last sight, too."

Ann shivered, and it wasn't all from the shock setting in. Some of it was frustrated rage at being so close to Conan's killers and not being able to do anything. "Let me go, and we'll see who is whose last sight."

Gorbag laughed. "A fair fight?" He flexed his big hands slowly.

But Angmar didn't laugh. "It's going to happen, Sonja. How hard it is, is up to you. Who were you working for?"

Ann firmed her jaw stubbornly, but then she shrugged. "Would you believe the CIA?"

Angmar reached up to the taut dog chain and gave it a yank. Ann's right shoulder slid half out before she could twist around to take the pull. Angmar neatly dodged her renewed retching.

"In a word, no," he said. "You were hooked in with the Brooklyn cops, which is odd since you live in Manhattan. I even know the address." He grabbed Ann's hair and yanked her head up. "That's a very nice neighborhood. What do you do with yourself, Ann Marshall? And who is Robert McCall?"

Ann locked on the name. "As far as you're concerned, the Angel of Death."

This time he punched the bullet wound in her leg. "You will talk, you know. Everybody talks."

It's only pain, she told herself desperately. And more blood from the newly opened wound. To hell with it.

"Conan didn't," she gasped.

He slapped her while Gorbag growled in frustrated pride. This one put her back into unconsciousness. Angmar stood slowly, made sure the dog chain was tight, then stared down at the unconscious woman on the floor.

"Everyone talks," he repeated. He jerked his head at Gorbag and led the way out.

Elizabeth Gold had been whisked away to a safe house after her release from the emergency room, and somewhere on the way to a rendezvous with the police, William Gold had likewise been put into protective hiding.

Robert stopped by his apartment on the way to his own interrogation of William. Mickey went with him, but stayed in the living room while Robert changed into what Mickey privately considered his "work" clothes: unrelieved black, heavy cloth that would stand up to almost anything, and, more likely than not, body armor.

But Robert's main reason for going home was to have someplace private in which to weep in fear for Ann's safety.

They had her. The animals who had tortured Conan to death had the woman who had defied them for ten years. Robert could picture in clear, awful detail what could have been done to her in the brief two hours since her capture.

He was going to find her. The alternative was not an option. But what condition would he find her in?

When he was finished dressing in the black that best suited his mood and intentions, he stood motionless and let the fear rise, acknowledging it, accepting it, then putting it away neatly. It was time for work. He would either bring her home safely or blood would run. There were a few faces in his nightmare gallery of victims that he stared at unrepentantly.

Mickey looked up from his distracted survey of the refrigerator's contents and closed the door. He followed Robert into the workroom. Robert went to the wall shelves and pulled them out on their hidden hinges, revealing the racks of weapons behind.

"I've got stuff in the van," Mickey offered diffidently.

"Good." Robert pulled down an Uzi, checked the load, pulled several long clips and put them in his pocket. A commando knife went into a pocket on the side of his leg, along with spare clips for his pistol. He reached for a coiled chain with heavy knobs on the ends, an exotic ninja toy, but hesitated.

"What?" Mickey asked.

"Did they find her nunchuks in the van? I – didn't look."

"Don't know. I didn't look either. Why?"

Robert licked his lips. "It occurs to me that it would be best if they were never found. That body at the Golds…"

Mickey shifted uncomfortably. "Self-defense, McCall, any judge in the land would see that."

"I know, but…"

"You didn't think she could do it?"

Robert toyed with the chain. "People think they can. But when the moment comes, something pulls them back. Cowardice, decency, whatever. But Ann had the will and she found herself the way."

"It's better than going down."

"True. But it changes you, even if done for the best of reasons. I don't know what all this will do to her."

Mickey reached over and swung the hidden doors closed. "Let's get her home first, then we can worry about that. Come on."

William was in shock. He couldn't bear to look at his mother, where she sat on the other side of the room of this strange apartment. She held an ice pack to her black eye and nursed the bruised arm from her collision with the ground. But she had a serene look about her that only occasionally flickered into fear.

One of the guards brought her a glass of water. She smiled at him faintly, then she got a good look at her son. She'd been so grateful for having him safe and sound that she hadn't been worried about whys, wherefores, and explanations.

She went to sit next to him. "Billy, please look at me."

He finally glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. "Oh, Ma," he whispered, seeing the bruises close up.

"I'm all right, Billy." Mrs. Gold stroked his hair, trying to remember his stated preference not to be hugged in front of strangers. "It's not your fault."

"Ma, it is! Oh, god, Ma, no one was supposed to get hurt. I didn't want you hurt…"

Mrs. Gold decided that, for once, he could just put up with being hugged. William burrowed against her and cried.

Robert wasn't surprised to be find Control at the door. "Where's the boy?" he demanded. "Has he talked?"

Control put a hand up to slow him down. "Robert, he's just a scared boy."

"He's an accessory to kidnapping, and if he doesn't tell us where they're holding her, he's going to be an accessory to murder!"

"I know – "

"Well, then – "

"But," Control went on, overriding with volume, "screaming at him won't help. Neither will strong-arming him.":

Robert blinked, taken aback that anyone would think he was the sort to muscle children. But he couldn't forget time passing. "We don't have time for gentle persuasion."

"I know, Robert, I know. Just…" He nodded. "In here."

Mrs. Gold looked up from her son. She blinked at the grim look of the man in black, the man who'd been so reassuring and genial these past few days. "Mr. McCall, what happened to Miss Marshall?"

Robert tried not to look at the boy, the member of the group of sociopathic killers. "We're all but certain she's been captured by the Black Riders."

William looked up slowly. He knew what was coming.

"I'm sorry about what she did to you, Mrs. Gold," Robert went on, eyeing her bruises uncomfortably.

Mrs. Gold smiled shakily. "Mr. McCall, I think I owe my life to Miss Marshall hitting me. That horrible man…"

'Yes," Robert said flatly, and his eyes went to William. "How did they find her, William?" he asked quietly.

"Robert," Control said quickly, "that's not the point right now."

William had seen the tigers in the zoo at feeding time once. They'd looked at the keepers with the meat the way he was being looked at now: as the means to an end, but one that could very quickly become annoying if they didn't produce.

Robert nodded wearily. "Where did they take her, William? We have to find her."

"I can't tell you," William whispered.

"Can't? Or won't?"

"It's all right, Billy," Mrs. Gold said, hugging him. "We need to help them."

William shook his head desperately. "I can't! Angmar does horrible things to the people who betray him!"

Robert crouched down in front of him. "He's doing that to my fiancée right now! I can't help her if I don't know where she is!"

"No! He had a gun to my mother's head! He was going to shoot her…"

Robert wondered if he looked as terrified as the boy did, the both of them trying to protect the people they loved. "William, if you help us stop him, you won't have to be afraid of him anymore." The boy just shook his head. "William, do you know what happened to Conan?" He reached back, and Mickey handed him a folder.

"Robert," Control started, horrified, but he rethought things and stayed quiet.

"He was… he was… all Angmar ever said was that he'd been taken care of." William watched the folder anxiously.

Robert flipped through the pages until he came to a set of photographs. He hesitated, then firmed his jaw. "How was he taken care of? What do you think Angmar did to him?"

William hunched in on himself, unwilling to answer.

"Angmar killed him," Robert said softly. "You know he did."

"And so you want me to make him want to kill me? I don't think so."

"William, not telling us isn't going to protect you." Robert reached over and took hold of the boy's arm, making him look up. "You know too much. You either talk to us and help us put him down like the mad dog he is, or you and your mother stay in hiding the rest of your life, afraid of the contract he'll put out on you. Like the contract he put on my woman, which he's finally collecting on." He laid the photos on the table, face down. "He tortured Conan to death," he said levelly, fighting the fear and rage. "It took two days. He bragged about it. Those pictures are of what was left of Conan when they hauled his body out of the river. That's what he's doing to Ann right now."

William flinched at the fury that licked free in Robert's voice. Mrs. Gold reached for the pictures. Robert caught her hand and warned her off with a shake of his head.

"No, Mr. McCall," she said calmly. "I want to know." But she gasped in horror when she saw the full color awfulness. "Dear God. Did Miss Marshall know about this?" she asked after a moment.

Robert nodded, tight-lipped.

"And she came to help me anyway, and fought them to let me go?" Mrs. Gold blinked back tears. "She knew what they would do to her if they caught her, but she came to meet them anyway."

"She knew I'd be there to help her," Robert said grimly. "She's waiting for me to find her, but I can't do anything until I know where she is!"

William put his hands over his ears, weeping in fear. Mrs. Gold gently pulled on his wrists. "Billy, we have to help. Tell them what you know."

"Ma, he'll kill us," William whimpered.

"He wants to kill Miss Marshall. She knew that, but she came to help us anyway. Billy, we owe her."

Robert watched the boy struggle with his fears, cynically wondering if an appeal to honor would make much difference to a felonious hacker. He was surprised, then, when the boy firmed his shoulders and looked up.

"You're really going to stop him?" he asked.

"I swear it," Robert answered firmly. "Angmar is going to pay."

William thought a moment more, then nodded gravely. "The headquarters is Angmar's house on Long Island. It's a fortress, but I've been there lots of times. I'll tell you everything I know."

Ann knew she was conscious when the hallucinations started.

The strain on her arms was still constant. The chain was too short to let her weight put any slack in it, and anyway, she couldn't lay on her left side for the burning bullet wound in her leg or on her right for her swelling shoulder. When she tried to get to her knees, the ratchet on the ceiling took up the slack greedily, forcing her to kneel in agony and maintain a steady pull against the retraction of the chain.

She tried to take her mind past the pain and hallucinations, but there was too much. Pain forced her to live each second, experience each moment of agony. One didn't get used to it, it was constantly there, demanding attention. The universe constricted around her and her suffering.

She looked up at footsteps. Her mother walked up to her and stared down at her, disappointed. Her father came up to join his wife, shaking his head.

"If you'd only stayed home and behaved yourself like you were supposed to," he said. "Girls who behave themselves don't end up like this."

"Daddy, no," she whimpered, even though her mind knew perfectly well that her father had been dead for years. This wasn't real.

"Oh, it's very real," said Robert's voice.

She jerked around, relief outrunning sense. Not even seeing her parents fade away and her fiancé walk in through the wall could dim her happiness at seeing him. But he stopped next to her and looked down, his mouth pursed disapprovingly and the eyes behind the glasses very grim.

"I told you to stay put," he scolded. "You never listen to me. You wouldn't be in this mess if you'd just done what I told you."

"I had to help Mrs. Gold," she whispered. "I had to."

"And see where it brought you," he tsked, shaking his head. He started to fade away.

"Don't go," she whimpered. "Please, come back."

He was still shaking his head as he disappeared. She bent her head and cried, the tears falling on the dried smear of blood on the floor.

Skirts swished behind her. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the hem of a long gray skirt come into view and stop next to her.

Ann didn't want to look up, but she couldn't help it. The old woman gazed down past the long gray hair that hung around her face. Her eyes were pale and calm, and her voice was quiet. "Tell them what they want, and this will be over."

Ann shook her head. "Robert is coming."

"He may not be in time."

"Do you want me dead?"

The old woman smiled faintly. "No one avoids me forever. But suffering does not please me. Know this, you have an escape when you need it, your destiny is yours to shape. In any case, there will be work enough for me here tonight."

"I know you, you don't care," Ann said bitterly.

"I do care. All things come to me in the fullness of time. Don't think to impress me by how long you can resist." She started to fade, as noises outside the door came closer. "On the other hand, that doesn't mean you should go quietly," were the apparition's last, fading words.

A spyhole in the door slid open, then slammed closed. The latch scraped open. Fear twisted Ann's stomach as Gorbag strolled in, swinging a long metal staff and followed by two big, young men in black.

Gorbag grinned. "So you're awake. Just in time. The Nazgul are gathered, and they're very anxious to see you." He came to her and yanked her upright by a belt loop on the back of her jeans. The relief of the cessation of the pull on her arms was more than drowned by the agony in her head, which was swamped by the screams in her leg muscles. Ignoring the pain, Ann forced her cramping right leg to support her.

Gorbag unhooked the chain from the handcuffs, then stepped back to study his victim.

"You're tougher than Conan," he admitted, but it was followed by a grin. "This'll be fun. Come on."

"Walk?" she gasped, balancing on one leg. "Willingly? Fuck you."

Gorbag tilted his head. "That's a thought. Be nice, and we don't have to go just yet."

"What?"

He sauntered closer. "You and me and the horizontal tango." He leered at her.

Self-preservation made her think about it, though the slimy lust in the torturer's eyes sickened her. "What about them?" she asked, nodding at the two sidekicks, who were following the conversation with lewd interest.

Gorbag grinned. "It seems only fair to count them in." The pair elbowed each other eagerly.

Ann focused past the pain and made sure of her balance. Only two weeks ago, Sensei Rayburn had called his black belt students together for a very serious talk on the mayhem they had learned to commit. Two young women had giggled and immediately been ejected from the dojo, their unused tuition refunded. Sensei had then asked each student if they thought they could kill. The ones who had answered no had been told to think about what they intended to use their skills for. The "I don't knows" had received sympathetic nods and instructions to keep asking themselves the question from time to time.

Only two people had answered with a calm Yes: Ann and a middle-aged man who never spoke in class and who arrived just on time and left right after class ended. Sensei had studied them for several moments, then asked them if they would find killing easy. Ann had been about to snap an indignant No, but Sensei had a way of wringing truth out of his students. She'd muttered an indecisive "I don't know." The quiet man had levelly answered that if a situation had deteriorated to the point of killing, he would be very pleased to be the killer and not the killee. Sensei Rayburn, who knew why Ann had gone searching for ways to defend herself, gave her another sympathetic look, dismissed the class, and took the quiet man to his office. Ann had peeked in as she left and seen the two men with whisky glasses in their hands and the quiet man in tears as he talked.

She looked at Gorbag and thought she could kill him easily. "What do I get out of – being nice to you?" she forced herself to ask. Maybe they'd free her hands…

"Your last good time," leered one of the goons by the door.

"That's it?" Ann reminded herself that pain was transitory.

Gorbag made a show of unbuckling his belt as he strolled closer. "It'll be worth it, sweetcheeks."

She wondered briefly if she could have gone through with it, then she swung her left foot up hard into Gorbag's crotch. Her shriek of pain was almost as loud as his.

The goons rushed forward as Gorbag fell. Ann locked her left leg and kicked the first goon's knee backwards. The second grabbed her bad arm, but she turned and sunk her teeth into his arm. He yelled and let go.

The door was open. Ann fell against the wall in keeping her balance and stumbled out of the cell.

The corridor outside was rough brick and plaster and smelled of wet earth and mold. The

left-hand way led to a dank dead end. Ann hobbled towards the corner down the other way. She slammed into someone coming around the corner, lost her precarious balance, and fell, sobbing in frustration.

"Now, what do we have her?" said a cool female voice.

Ann looked up. The woman was thin and tall and dressed in a very fashionable black and silver suit. Her hair was black and short, her eyes were calculating dark pits.

The goon Ann had bit charged out of the cell, swearing horribly. But he pulled up short at sight of the woman. "Oh, shit," he gasped.

Gorbag stumbled out, hunched over, his metal rod clutched in his hand. "You could've had it easy, bitch. Now you're going to get – fuck! Lady Shelob!"

The woman raised a thin eyebrow. "I'm sure that's one of your fantasies. And it seems to me that fantasizing is all you're going to manage for a while. Could it be that Red Sonja objected to her treatment?"

"I objected to rape," Ann gasped, trying not to throw up in pain and despair.

The goon fell back at Lady Shelob's icy glare, leaving Gorbag to face her wrath alone.

"How convenient that I decided you couldn't be trusted to bring a female prisoner without supervision," Lady Shelob purred. "Angmar tried to prevent me. I find that interesting." She glanced down at Ann. "Do get up, Sonja. Kneeling is such a degrading posture."

Ann struggled up. The woman didn't help. Ann wondered if she had an ally, but the indifferently calculating gaze dashed those hope.

"She tried to escape," Gorbag said sullenly.

"Of course she did. But the only prodding you're supposed to give her is with that." Shelob nodded at the rod in Gorbag's hand.

He started, then grinned cruelly. He pushed a button, and sparks jumped from the end of the cattle prod.

"Oh, god," Ann whimpered. She threw an entreating look at Lady Shelob, but the woman stared back unmoved. Then Gorbag struck. Ann shrieked and dropped. Gorbag laughed while Lady Shelob glanced at her watch and studied her nails casually.

Two dark vans drove quietly down the dark Long Island road. Angmar lived in an isolated area halfway up the island. But the solitude that obscured his activities from view also benefitted those who'd come in search of retribution.

Mickey drove the first van, Robert at his side. No one had said a word about a man who claimed to be a civilian being second in command of a major operation. Most of the Young Turks heard the name Robert McCall and were just glad to be on his side.

Control, in the second van, was in nominal command, but more to keep an eye on Robert than from superior field expertise. Everyone on the team knew what was at stake in this search and rescue mission, and they'd all seen, in the brief strategy session, that McCall's temper was only being restrained by pragmatism.

The sixteen-man team had all received copies of William Gold's hastily drawn map to the Black Rider's headquarters. Angmar's house was separate from the headquarters proper, which was a veritable fortress. The building looked like a very large horse barn, but the walls were reinforced concrete, and there was a level under ground.

The target was the Nazgul chamber, where the Inner Council met to deal with secret business – like the interrogation of prisoners. William had never been there, but he knew where it was and how it was guarded.

It was going to be a straight assault, with as much stealth as they could manage for as long as possible. Robert had declared he was going in with the primary strike team. Mickey had wisely bitten back his protest, and Control had given him a very pointed look that Mickey interpreted to mean "Stay with him, damn it."

The vans stopped at the foot of Angmar's drive, which looked like any other country lane leading off the highway. Robert picked up the radio to the rear van. "We're here, are you ready to move?"

"We're ready here," Control answered.

Mickey tugged on a black watch cap, then pounded on the wall behind him. The leader of the squad in back pounded back.

The black-clad men tumbled out of the vehicles and faded into the shadows under the trees, where the snow was churned up and dirty.

Robert and Mickey crept towards the drive, dropping into stillness as cars rushed by on the road. They scanned the turnoff for cameras and any other changes to the security William had described. According to him, there was an automatic gate just around the curve up ahead, with a camera and intercom. He hadn't been sure if the fence was wired or not. Beyond the gate were a few dozen yards of drive, ending in the restored farmhouse and antique horse barn that were Angmar's outer facade.

The stealthy pair gained sight of the gate without incident, and Robert clicked his small transmitter twice. Within a very few minutes, Control and the assault team joined Robert in the bushes out of sight of both the road and the slowly scanning camera mounted above the gate.

Mickey dropped back down by Robert. "Fence isn't wired. We'll need to torch through it, though, the wire's too heavy for cutters."

Control ordered two men forward with a jerk of his head. They crept across the road when the camera was pointed away and trotted forward to start work with a portable gas cutter.

Control quickly gauged Robert's condition, but didn't comment on the tension he saw. The man was wasted on his crusade of expiation. The Company needed this consummate professional back. Control spent the time waiting in wondering if Ann could be used as a lever.

The cutting team's signal cut off certain darker thoughts Control was mulling. Robert watched the camera, then led the first team across the road and to the new gate in Angmar's fence.

The trip to the edge of the lawn was uneventful. Robert singled out a predetermined pair to keep watch on the outside. Control touched his elbow. "What about the front door?"

"William gave me the password," Robert said briefly, his eyes scanning the lawn between their hiding place in the trees and the big doors at the end of the barn. Several cars were parked near the barn, and the area was well lighted.

"They may have changed the password, with Gold taken."

"Perhaps. I imagine they'll open the door anyway, either from habit or sneakiness."

"Could get messy," Control observed for form's sake.

"I have spare clips," Robert replied calmly before signaling the squad to move forward. Mickey sent a worried glance at Control as he followed Robert.

The commandos hugged the wall out of range of the spy hole in the small door inset in the big barn doors. Robert pressed the buzzer and smiled pleasantly at the spyhole as he drew a silenced pistol out of his pocket.

The spyhole slid open, and an eye peered out. "Yeah?"

"Mordor," Robert replied.

The eye blinked a second longer, then it disappeared, and a bolt slid back. Mickey readied his Uzi, and the rest of the team prepared to move.

The door cracked open. Mickey kicked it wide and charged in. The doorkeeper hit the floor, and on the other side of the room a second guard reached for a button. Robert put a bullet through the outstretched elbow.

Commandos took up positions at the two doors leading off from the guard room. Another duct taped the doorman into immobility while the injured guard had his elbow bandaged then was secured.

Robert went to that one before his mouth was taped closed. "Where's Red Sonja?"

"You shot my fucking arm, man…"

Robert yanked his head up by a handful of hair and put the barrel of his pistol against the man's forehead. "They say you can feel the bullet breaking through the skull and into the brain before it gets splattered against the wall. Where is Red Sonja?"

The guard, maybe twenty and not at all used to professional soldiers, wilted. "They took her to the Council chamber. The Nazgul want to talk to her."

"God, it's started." Robert stood and consulted his map.

"Watkins," Control said to one of the men, "take your team and secure the building. We're headed in."

Gorbag and his two somewhat battered assistants drug Ann into the Inner Council chamber following in Lady Shelob's wake. Angmar, at the center position of the horseshoe table, blinked in dismay but recovered quickly.

"I see you found them, milady," he smiled.

"That's one way of putting it." Shelob went to her chair, two to the left of Angmar's. "She found me as she was running down the hall."

"What?"

"That's what comes from hiring cretins, Angmar." She sipped at the glass of champagne that had been sitting at her place. "Your pet mutt there was in the process of arranging a bit of rape when I arrived."

Gorbag snarled and personally flung his still convulsing prisoner into the modified antique dentist's chair in the center of the room. He unlocked the handcuffs and yanked her arms around to the chair arms, where his flunkies strapped her wrists down with heavy leather straps.

The wrenching at her torn muscles drug Ann to what passed for consciousness. Cramps crawled up and down her arms and legs and twisted her back. Every time she thought, "That's it, nothing could hurt more," that bastard came up with something new.

Her eyes cleared enough to see her surroundings. The room was circular and dark. The horseshoe table had nine plush chairs at it, four to either side of Angmar's unapologetic throne.

All but one of the chairs was occupied. Shelob was the only woman; the men ranged from a teenaged punk with blue hair to a stereotypical Wall Street broker. But they were all identical in the calculating, unsympathetic looks they turned on Red Sonja.

Behind the chairs were the supporters of the people seated. The ones behind Shelob, guarding her bottle of champagne, were tall, dark-haired, well-muscled, and continuously watching the others distrustfully.

Ann tried to be surreptitious as she tested the straps on her wrists. They didn't give, but she was moderately pleased that her right arm had a bit more responsiveness. Not that she could do anything with it…

Angmar tapped a silver letter opener against a crystal goblet. "Ladies and gentlemen, I call this meeting to order. I propose we dispense with any other business we might have had and proceed to the matter at hand." He stared at Ann, pure dislike all over his face. "Some new business, which is also some very old business. The matter of Red Sonja."

The Inner Council shifted and muttered. The Wall Streeter cleared his throat. "Are we sure this is the real Red Sonja? Or is it someone claiming that identity."

"You saw the evidence, Jackson," Angmar started.

"I didn't get to where I am today by taking evidence at face value. Have you confirmed?"

"As close as we could without anyone to confirm from the first time – "

"The password to the server was Celeborn," Ann broke in. "The big project was rounding up fractional transactions from banks and diverting them." She smiled at Angmar. The Old Woman had advised her not to go quietly. "Angmar had a separate syphon – "

Angmar gestured at Gorbag, who wielded his cattle prod to good effect. Ann bit her tongue to keep from screaming, but it didn't work.

"I wanted to hear that," Shelob said mildly. "Didn't you, Jackson?"

"Hm? Oh, yes." Jackson had been distracted by the struggling woman. "I suppose that's sufficient ID."

Shelob studied Jackson distastefully. "I thought the point of her presence was to get information, not to indulge in sadomasochistic fantasies. She can't talk if she's screaming in agony."

"I second that," said the punk with blue hair. "Who was she working with and why come after us now?"

"Sonja, can you hear us?" Shelob asked.

Ann whimpered and hated herself. She tasted blood, and she kept hearing crystal chimes. Too many faces to focus on. The voices kept moving.

Angmar had made a small study of the reactions of people under this kind of stress. After all, he'd known Gorbag for a long time. To give his victim time to recover, he picked up a sheet of paper. "Sylvia Anastasia Marshall, thirty years old, lives in Chelsea, drives a '72 VW van." He smiled slightly and made a note on the paper. "Cum Laude from MIT, owner of Cyber Solutions, member of the Schaeffer & Marshall finance clan, member of the boards of several foundations, listed in the Social Register."

"She'll be missed," the punk observed.

"Especially by her fiancé," Shelob added.

Angmar glanced at her in surprise. "You know her?"

"Idiot. The ring on her left hand."

Gorbag reached over to turn Ann's hand to the light. "Nice," he commented, and he tugged on it.

Rage cleared Ann's mind. Her feet weren't confined, and there wasn't anything wrong with her right leg. Gorbag barely dodged the swift kick that almost broke his knee. "Try it again," she growled, "and I'll finish busting your balls."

Gorbag growled and reached for his cattle prod.

"Gorbag, don't," Angmar called. He smiled. "Patience."

"Ms. Marshall," Shelob said, glaring at Angmar, "is your fiancé anyone we should care about?"

Ann thought she saw a corner of the Old Woman's skirts in the alcove behind Angmar. There'll be work enough before the night was through. For some reason that made her laugh. "As far as you're concerned, he is the Angel of Death, and he's looking for me right now."

The Nazgul muttered amongst themselves, but Angmar glared at her. "You realize you won't be around to see it, don't you?"

Ann blamed her chuckle on shock. "I'll hold the door for you in Hell."

Shelob smirked, but Angmar nodded at Gorbag.

The map put the Council Chamber on the underground level. William hadn't been sure how many guards would be on premises, but Robert and his team were taking no chances.

Mickey was on point, watching for electronic trip points and scanners. He peeked around the last corner and pulled back quickly.

"Cameras. And suspicious gizmos in the walls right at the end. Why didn't we kill the power to this place?"

"Heavy duty underground cable," Control supplied. "Angmar's ready for that kind of trouble. Guards?"

"None visible."

Robert checked his watch yet again. Twenty minutes to get this far. What had Ann suffered in that time? "Where are the cameras?"

"Down by the door, aimed this way."

"If Watkins has done his job, no one should be monitoring the cameras. I say we go."

"There may be guards inside," Control pointed out. He nodded at Robert's blunt look.

Faint popping sounds came from upstairs. Watkins had apparently run into resistance. Word would quickly go out that an invasion was under way. Control signaled the others to get ready.

Shelob had vehemently protested further use of the cattle prod, reiterating the point that they needed information, not an incoherent victim. Gorbag had acquiesced, contenting himself with yanking Ann's shoulder out of place, then snapping it back in.

When she finally got her breath back, the questions began in earnest. Who was she working for, how had she gotten in, what information had she gotten?

She didn't want to tell them, but her courage was almost depleted. Besides, Jonah could take care of himself.

The punk, who ironically called himself Legolas, one of the heroes of Tolkien's saga, stared at the weeping woman. "Who thinks she's telling the truth? Who actually believes the CIA would use a civilian to come after us?"

Jackson and two of the silent council members raised their hands. "Why shouldn't they?" Jackson offered. "They'd use any means that came to hand. And we did hit them once."

Shelob nodded slowly. "How did they find you, Sonja? What connection do you have with them?"

Ann clenched her jaw. She'd given up on surviving this, but she'd be damned if she'd give these ghouls Robert's secret.

"Oh, dear," Angmar sighed. "Sonja, silence won't get you anything but more pain, you know that. Do you think we're enjoying this – all right, trick question. Tell us what we want, and we can end this."

Pain, even more than she'd endured so far, or endangering Robert. The pain would end eventually, all things ended sometime. Any more jolts of that prod, and she didn't know if she'd survive. Her heart had faltered the last time, and it was hard to breathe.

No danger to Robert through her. The Old Woman would accept that.

"Gorbag," Angmar said coldly, "start with the right hand."

Ann whimpered, despite her resolve. Gorbag was turning around from his tool table with a hammer and a nail, a pleased smile on his face.

The popping sound came from outside, and Angmar gestured Gorbag's two assistants outside to investigate. They looked pleased to be getting away.

In the hall, Mickey waved everybody back as the door opened, and two guards came out. Robert swore and resigned himself to more faces in his nightmares.

"I didn't sign on for this," one guard said in a sickened voice.

"She betrayed us," the other said in an uncertain voice.

"Yeah, but still…"

A high, throat-ripping scream came from the Council room, despite the sound proofing.

Control met Robert's eyes for an instant, then he shoved Robert forward. "We go," he snapped to the rest.

The Riders' guards had always thought they were tough, but, unnerved already by the interrogation, they froze at seeing several black-clad commandos charging their way.

Mickey and Robert aimed Uzis at the guards' heads. "Drop 'em," Mickey snapped.

First one, then the other dropped his gun.

"On the floor," Mickey ordered, and they went, the one who had been protesting events looking faintly relieved. Mickey waved one of the team over to keep watch, then ran to join Robert at the door.

The Nazgul had gone silent at the sounds from outside. Gorbag flung a look at Angmar, then grabbed his gun and aimed at Ann. She saw it faintly and could only be grateful.

Mickey slammed through the door. Robert jumped through with gun leveled. He saw the chair and the table of horrific tools. His vision focused on the man with the gun, and a small voice regretted not having set the Uzi on full auto as he pumped several rounds into the torturer.

"Nobody move!" Mickey yelled.

"What the hell – " Angmar started to bluster.

"Don't give me that, shithead. Secure the room," he ordered his team, then, steeling his stomach, he followed Robert to look at the person in the chair. "Oh, dear Christ."

Robert, aghast, sank to his knees at Ann's side. The right side, where her hand had been nailed to the arm.

Control, scanning the room carefully, came up. "How is she – God. Medic!"

One of the commandos rushed up, slinging his pack off his back.

Robert came out of his shock and debated throwing up. "Ann?" he called softly. "Can you hear me?" He reached with shaking hands to the straps holding her wrists.

The medic stopped him. "Better she's confined when I get her hand free." He looked apologetic. "I need room to work. I'll take good care of her."

Robert nodded and slowly stood. He stared down at his fiancée, saw the blood, the bruises, the electrical burns, the bullet wound in her leg, and he switched the Uzi he held to full automatic. He scanned the room slowly for the man he'd seen in Nibble & Byte.

"You're Angmar, am I correct?" he asked quietly.

"Who, me?" protested Angmar, trying to lose himself in the crowd.

Robert raised the Uzi and centered his sights on Angmar's face.

"No!" Control yelled, grabbing Robert arm and shoving it up. A burst of shots fired into the ceiling. Control held on tight. "No," he repeated firmly, meeting Robert's eyes.

"Let me go," Robert said softly.

"Robert, it's cold-blooded murder."

"I'm perfectly aware of that. Let me go."

"No. She's alive. We got here in time. Put it up."

There was a wet ripping sound behind them. Ann's unconscious whimper almost drowned out the chime of a small piece of metal hitting the floor. Robert closed his eyes in agony.

"For the last time," he said, "let me go."

Control clamped down harder on Robert's gun arm. "Mickey, help me talk him out of this."

Mickey, leaning against the Council table as he watched the room, eased his own Uzi around in Angmar's direction. "He does it, or I do."

"Hey," Angmar protested.

Mickey straightened and raised his gun. "Shut up, asshole. He'd have done you quick." He lowered his sights for a gut shot.

"Shit!" snapped the medic. "Get her on the floor!"

Robert whirled. The medic and his assistant were manhandling Ann's convulsing body out of the chair and onto the floor. The assistant grabbed a field oxygen bottle out of his pack and shoved the mask onto her face.

"McCall, she's fighting us!" the medic yelled. "Get over here!"

Robert broke away from Control. Mickey lowered the Uzi, but not before a pointed look at Angmar and Control.

Robert grabbed Ann's good hand. "What is it?"

"Silly bitch keeps trying to stop breathing," the medic said tersely. "The convulsions aren't that bad. Talk to her."

Robert leaned closer. Her eyes were half open; the pupils were not the same size. "Darling, it's me, Robert. You're going to be all right. Stop fighting them."

At the sound of his voice, her thrashing eased. Her eyes, tracking separately, slid toward him. "Robert…?" came very faintly.

"Shh, love." His voice broke, and he contented himself with stroking her hair. But she whimpered when he touched the back of her head.

"Probable skull fracture," the medic explained briefly. "Go easy."

"What's wrong with her?" he asked.

"Can you demonstrate a need to know?"

"Tyson – "

The medic glanced over his assistant's shoulder to check the injection that was about to go into Ann's arm. "I'm serious. What do you need to know other than she's going to be all right?"

One of the shots had been a very powerful painkiller. Ann couldn't feel anything, and perception was extremely iffy. "Robert?" she said again, this time in a stronger voice.

"Right here, love. Don't talk."

"I'm sorry…"

"For what, for God's sake?"

"You told me to stay put. If I'd done what you told me…"

"Oh, darling, no, it's not your fault." He kissed her hand and was grateful to feel her squeeze his fingers. "We'll be home soon and this will be over."

"Mrs. Gold?"

"Is perfectly all right, she and William both." He risked brushing her hair away from her bruised eyes. "You did well. You probably saved their lives. Now rest, silly girl."

"Don't go…"

"Shh, I won't." He glanced up as Control came to his side.

"How is she, Tyson? We can chopper her out if we need to."

The medic shook his head. "She's stable. She's a mess, but she's in no danger." He glanced at the blood pressure cuff he'd attached. "Well, not much. She's a couple of pints low, and I wish I'd brought those drips for electrical shock." He glanced at the body of Gorbag, dragged to a corner out of the way. "Bloody fucking bastard. And that's my professional opinion."

Control nodded. "She'll be okay till we leave then." He turned to face the Nazgul, who were gathered in a knot under armed guard. "So you're the Black Riders."

"Who are you guys?" Legolas demanded.

"Does it matter? We're Feds, and you're busted."

"She said CIA." Legolas nodded at Ann.

Control chuckled. "What's in a name? So, you all may assume that you'll be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and what a lot of laws there are to prosecute you under. Computer crimes, financial fraud, murder, attempted murder – "

"That was his doing," Shelob said firmly, nodding at Angmar.

"Bitch, you'll get yours!" Angmar shut up as weapons were turned on him. "I never laid a hand on her! It was his doing!" He gestured to the remains of Gorbag.

"I'm sure everyone will cooperate in straightening out who did what to whom and who has capital crime written all over him." Control smiled pointedly at Angmar.

"If you're CIA, you're not supposed to be involved in domestic operations."

Control looked surprised. "Did anyone identify themselves as CIA? Did you?" he asked Mickey.

"Not me," Mickey grinned. He tapped the radio at his hip. "Second team's here, we can move 'em out."

"We haven't been read our rights!" Angmar protested. He looked around at his Inner Council, searching for support, but all he saw was calculating self-preservation and, at least on Shelob's face, malicious pleasure at Angmar's predicament.

Control waved his concern away. "Someone will get around to it. Let's see, the building's secure, everyone's accounted for. Mickey, tell Jonah to come on down and do his thing on their computer."

"Right." He straightened and sauntered towards Angmar. "I'll take the Ass is Grass Poster Boy with me." He showed his teeth as he grabbed Angmar's arm. "Resist, please. I'm asking nicely."

But Angmar was cruel and vicious, not stupid. He put his hands up and went meekly.

"Mickey," Control called, "just remember, we need him able to communicate intelligibly."

"Right." He poked Angmar in the back with the barrel of his Uzi. "You left or right handed?"

Angmar didn't answer. "He's right-handed," Shelob volunteered. Angmar snarled silently as Mickey chuckled.

Control looked at Shelob curiously. "What did he do to you?"

She smiled. "I'll be delighted to tell you – for a consideration."

"Of course."

"Bitch, I'll get you yet," Angmar muttered as he picked his way past his dead torturer and his semiconscious victim.

His voice got through the haze around Ann's battered mind, and remembered fear and agony made her flinch. Her right shoulder bounced wrong and started to slide. That kind of pain got through drugs. Her wince triggered a wave of muscle spasms, and she cried out.

"Bloody hell," Robert muttered, and he tried to brace her head to keep the damage from getting worse.

The medic glanced at her bandaged leg. "Stop bleeding, dammit!" He reached for his bag.

Mickey paused, worried, and Angmar ran.

"Damn you!" Mickey yelled, and he fired off a burst, aiming for legs. Angmar dodged and slapped a plate in the wall just outside the room. A door slid open; Angmar dived through.

"Where's that go!" Mickey yelled. "It's not on the map!"

"There's a tunnel downstairs," Shelob said. "It goes off the property."

"Damn," Robert said, starting to his feet.

"No, stay with her," Mickey ordered. "I'll get him."

Robert hesitated, watching his partner head off on a crucial interception. But Ann was still clutching his hand.

He chose life, for once. He settled back down beside the woman who needed him and let someone else be the bearer of destruction.

"Robert…" she whimpered.

"I'm here, beloved," he told her softly. "I'm here." Too many times he had had to say just the opposite. No more – at least for now.

Mickey fell down the hidden stairs mostly under control. He wasn't expecting Angmar to make a stand, so he went for speed instead of stealth.

He knew he was grinning cruelly. He'd passed the point of caring. Bolting had put Angmar in the contain-with-prejudice category. And Mickey was alone. Who would know what damage was the result of containment and what was the result of pay back?

He reached a closed door at the bottom of the stairs but didn't crash through. He kicked it open and ducked back. A burst of automatic fire ripped up the door.

"Give it up," Mickey yelled through the wrecked door. "You know we're taking you down."

"You would be the fiancé, then," Angmar called.

"Huh? Nah, I'm just the best man. The fiancé is the guy who was going to blow your head off."

"Shit. Well, then, I might be able to make a deal with you. Let me go and I'll make it worth it."

Mickey poked his head around the door to check the ground, pulled back just ahead of another hail of bullets, then dove out and into the cover of a table he'd spotted.

Angmar swore and held his fire. The room was the main server room of the Black Riders. Every piece of electronics was valuable and sensitive. If he crashed it all, the evidence would be gone, but so would all his records. He crouched back behind a rack of computer servers.

"I meant it," he yelled. "I've got money down here. Stay there, let me go, and I'll leave half of it."

"Yeah, right. Like you're a man of your word. How about you give up now and I don't break your knees and gut you and let you watch your feet get tangled up in your intestines."

Mickey scolded himself for his bloodthirstiness. But he was too fond of Annie to let the mastermind of her pain get away. Fond, yeah, that was the word.

Angmar reached a cautious hand around to a keyboard. "OK, we've established our positions. Now we negotiate." He tapped some commands. He winced when the computer beeped loudly as the message came up on one of the screens: "Warning: Formatting hard disk will result in loss of data. Are you sure? (Y/N)."

"Whatever you're doing, stop it!" Mickey yelled.

"I've got my finger on the heart of the system. Let me go and I won't crash it. Everything will be gone," he fibbed. But what did a trigger-happy grunt know about computers?

Mickey hesitated, then slid towards the end of the table. "You're bluffing."

"A computer or me, an easy choice – for me." He hit Yes, and one of the big servers started grinding away on itself.

Mickey leaned around and sprayed bullets across the bank of monitors. They blew up beautifully, throwing shards of glass around the room.

"Knock it off!" Angmar yelled, ducking.

"Oh, yeah," Mickey muttered. "I'll knock it off. OK," he yelled. "Let's talk." He came out into the open, his Uzi leveled but not aimed.

Angmar grinned. "Good! A civilized man." He came out of hiding, his machine pistol hidden behind his back with his finger on the trigger. "OK, here's the deal," he started, looking at the commando and seeing a state of ready relaxation, obviously underestimating the computer geek. "Chump," he grinned, pulling the pistol around.

Mickey never blinked as he tilted his wrist and put a quarter clip into Angmar's chest. "Asshole." Angmar fell back against the blown out bank of monitors and hung on the racks. He slumped and went limp.

Mickey went over to confirm the kill and nodded. "For the lady," he told the corpse.

He headed back up the stairs. The crowd in the Council chamber went quiet. Control saw he was alone and sighed.

"He's a little communications impaired," Mickey said easily. He glanced at Robert. "He's been equalized."

Robert nodded slowly.

Control sighed again and shrugged. "That's over then. It's clean-up time. Casualties out first. Robert, the agency medical facilities seem like the best place, all right?"

"It would be simpler. Tyson, is there a stretcher?"

"I'm sorry, there were only two, and we took casualties upstairs. I can carry her – " He backed off quickly at the look he got. "Right, I'll help you steady her."

Robert knew Ann's weight, but she felt lighter, frailer. She whimpered at the movement, but subsided as he whispered to her.

Mickey touched Robert's shoulder. "I've got to watch the prisoners. I'll see you later."

Robert nodded, but before Mickey left, he said softly, "Thank you."

"My pleasure, man."

Jonah's voice came from the hall outside. "So has anybody found the server room to this place yet?"

"I have," Mickey answered. "It's this way." But he made way for Robert and the medics first.

Jonah froze at the sight. He was a highly paid operative, but his battlefield was the web of electronics that underlay the real world. The casualties he suffered were to machines and programs and to his pride. He knew the implications of his work, but he never saw it first hand.

But now he saw the bloody, unconscious body of a woman who had suffered the implications of his work. Her right arm was strapped to the front of her body; the left leg of her jeans was ripped and stiff with blood from a bandaged wound.

"Dear Lord," he whispered. He looked at McCall fearfully, remembering what he'd been told about the dangers he'd opened her up to by abandoning her to the Riders' chase. "I'm sorry…"

Robert wanted to let him stew in terror as a lesson, but fairness ruled otherwise. "They didn't get her identity from you abandoning her." He started forward, then paused next to Jonah. "But they would have," he added quietly, then left.

Jonah watched him go, looked around at the shot-up room and longed for the peace of computers. "Where's the server room?" he asked Mickey. "Computers are clean and nonviolent."

"Down here," Mickey said evenly, not mentioning what Jonah would find all over the server room.

 

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