In the space between dreams and reality Lara felt herself running. She was running away from Ryan Caruso. And yet part of her knew she most definitely could not be running because she was in the back of an ambulance cable-tied to a stretcher. But still another part of Lara knew she most definitely was running. Her heart was pounding. Pounding like it was going to break. And then it was breaking, breaking because she’d left a man to die. She’d left Ryan to die in her place. Was that any different than leaving Paul or James?
And in that space between dreams and reality, Lara had to admit she cared for Ryan. She cared for him deeply. And like most realizations that happen in this no-world, even as it vanishes like a puff of smoke, it becomes all the more potent upon waking.
A loud boom and then the screech and squeal of tires assaulted her ears and suddenly her stretcher plunged forward, the plastic cables cutting into the soft flesh of her wrists. The paramedic worked quickly to readjust the IV line in Lara’s forearm. The policemen on either side of her swore—at least it sounded like swearing—and tried to get a view of what was happening outside. As they peered through the small window that connected the rear cabin to the driver’s compartment, the rear doors flew open. The officers realized their mistake at once but they were not quick enough. A man jumped right in through the open doors and pinned the officer on Lara’s left against the wall before he could get his weapon free. Lara craned her head back to see what who was orchestrating this attack but his face was covered with a ski mask. The officer on Lara’s right reached for his gun but not before the mystery attacker removed the pepper spray from the belt of the officer he had pinned and let loose a jet of irritant in the man’s face. The attacker then deftly removed the half-extended pistol from the officer he had just sprayed and whipped the butt of it into the temple of the officer next to him.
In what he probably thought was a chivalrous gesture, the paramedic threw himself over Lara. This only earned him a pistol-whipping and a rough toss into the officer whose face was now in excruciating pain. All three men had been rendered unconscious in less than twenty seconds. The perpetrator of this hyper-efficient brutality turned to the back of the ambulance and closed the doors, sealing himself and Lara inside. Lara’s stomach tightened itself into a huge knot. Then the attacker took off his mask.
“I’ll catch you up later. We need to move.” Ryan said quietly as he whipped out a small switchblade and cut Lara’s bonds. “Grab some supplies—whatever we’ll need to patch up your leg.”
While Lara fumbled around for some medical equipment, Ryan peeled off his sodden shirt, and removed the shirt and cap from the officer next to him. After a minute he looked more or less like a police officer from the waist up. He added to his ensemble the officer’s belt, complete with pistol and pepper spray. “Ready to go?”
“Ready.” Lara nodded as she stuffed the last item into the small medic’s bag. Ryan opened the rear doors and helped Lara down. A pretty decent crowd had gathered around what Lara now observed to be a pretty major traffic accident. And yet the large overturned truck which had stopped the ambulance cold did not seem accidental at all. Ryan led the way to the small police car that had been trailing the ambulance. He helped Lara into the back seat and then took his place behind the wheel. In the passenger seat was another officer who appeared to be asleep.
“He’s unconscious. Don’t worry. We’ll ditch the car in a little bit.” With that Ryan hit the sirens and then maneuvered the car away from the site of the “accident”. Once they were clear of the scene Ryan cut the sirens and accelerated. They drove in silence for about ten minutes, Ryan checking the mirrors almost constantly. Lara tried to reapply her bandages but her wrists were so sore she just made more of a mess of it.
Ryan pulled the car into a multi-level parking garage and circled up to the highest level. He stopped the car and waited for a few minutes to make sure no one was following them. “We’ll go the rest of the way on foot,” he said as he stepped out of the car. Lara tried to follow suit but her wounded leg would not cooperate. Ryan’s face darkened. “Let me see that.” Lara returned to the back seat and Ryan crouched down next to her.
“I’ll be okay. I think it went clean through.”
Ryan fixed her with his eyes in a way that made her squirm inside. It was the kind of look her father used to give her when he knew she was lying. “You need to get cleaned up before we go anywhere.” With his knife he cut away the pant leg around the wound and then began to remove the blood-soaked bandages. When he touched her she was surprised at how gentle his hands were. She had seen those hands engaged in such brutality. And yet when she felt them against her skin they didn’t feel brutal at all.
“That’s better,” Ryan said as he finished. “You think you can walk now?”
Lara stood and tested her leg. It was awfully sore but she didn’t want Ryan’s work to go unrecognized. “I think I can walk, thanks.” She gestured to the sodden, torn shirt and one-legged pants she was now wearing. “But I’m definitely not going anywhere like this.”
“I’m on it.” Ryan threw the officer’s cap and belt into the car, turned the shirt inside out, and stuffed the pistol into his waistband. “Stay in the car. I’ll be right back.”
Ryan nodded and jogged toward the exit stairs. Lara had to fight the urge to act. She never had been good at sitting through trauma. Through a tremendous exercise of will, Lara relaxed her body. Her mind, however, was unavoidably in the mindset of a tomb raider. Lara quickly took stock of the situation. James and Paul were safe. At least she thought they were. They had left the Praça do Comércio just as the gunfight started. Hopefully they had gone straight to the British embassy. But perhaps James wouldn’t leave her. What if he was looking for her right now? Lara suppressed the thought. It couldn’t be acted on right now so there was no sense worrying about it. Worrying would come later when she had sorted out the present problem.
The present problem.
Lara’s heart dropped. She was still on the run from the police, and now would be wanted for questioning in at least two countries. Who could corroborate her story? James? Paul? They would have a lot to explain. And so much of what had happened to them was inexplicable: the darkness, the possession, Shark Man’s icy touch.
Shark Man. Carlos Vicente. Leader of the Shadow Kingdom.
The man who had kidnapped her friends—and killed Ryan’s wife, she reminded herself—had been brought to justice. But not by the law. And that would make things all the harder to explain. She didn’t know if the authorities wanted Carlos Vicente or not. Either way she was sure they frowned on the kind of vigilantism she’d engaged in.
The Shadow Kingdom still had the Idol, but could they use it without Carlos? She didn’t know. Too many unknowns and chief among them: what were she and Ryan going to do? Was there even a she and Ryan? It was only a happenstance that had brought them together. His task had been to avenge the death of his wife. Her task had been to free her friends. Their missions were complete. Shouldn’t they part ways now? After all she barely knew him.
And yet, Lara couldn’t deny that she knew him as intimately as she had known anyone. He had shared her mind. In a way, they were one. His family had been taken from him and so had hers. Those losses had led them to their personal crusades: Ryan fighting a war for the Templars, Lara fighting for herself. She had gone back to save him and he had come back to save her. In her heart of hearts, Lara realized that she had gone back for him not out of a sense of duty, but for something more.
The opening of the car door jolted Lara from her thoughts. Ryan took a seat in the front and thrust a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and a jacket into her hands. “We need to move quickly. Get changed.”
Lara began to undress, caught herself in the act, and looked up at Ryan. He met her eyes for the smallest of seconds and then turned away to watch the exits. Lara could feel her cheeks flush. She tried to hurry but her bum leg and the small space made dressing difficult. After an awkward minute she was done. The new clothing fit surprisingly well. Ryan, it would seem, had sized her up early on. “Now what?” Lara asked.
Now what? It was a deceptively complex question.
“We need to find some place to hide out,” Ryan replied. “Fortunately, the kind of place we need is the only kind that’s open this time of night.”
Lara and Ryan left the parking garage and found a flophouse in the neighborhood of Anjos where they could spend the night. Ryan paid in cash. The old hotelier behind the dingy front desk seemed to have developed the much-desired habit of not asking questions. Their room was a small, dimly-lit affair with peeling paint and a sagging queen-sized bed.
“Get some sleep. I’ll take the first watch,” Ryan said as he propped a beaten chest of drawers against the door. Lara lied down on the bed and fell asleep fully clothed.
When she awoke, pale sunlight was streaming in through holes in the red velvet curtains. Apparently, Ryan’s “first watch” had lasted the whole night. He sat, pistol in hand, staring blankly at the door. His eyes were a little bloodshot. He looked worn down. For her part, Lara felt better after some sleep, except for her leg which had stiffened considerably. No stranger to pain, she began to stretch it out as best she could.
“You’re awake,” Ryan said quietly.
“You didn’t wake me up,” Lara replied.
“I figured since I wasn’t the one who got shot, I could stand to donate some shut eye to your cause.” Ryan gave a slight smile.
Lara paused. “How did you get away? You don’t even have a scratch on you.”
“I had planned on there being a shootout. The snipers cleared a path for me, so I could go after Carlos.”
“Your snipers must not be great shots because I was the one who ended up killing him.”
“Carlos?” Ryan asked shocked.
“Yes, he’s dead Ryan.” Lara felt a little pang of bitter pride at that statement. She didn’t enjoy killing, but at the same time she almost wanted Ryan to be pleased with her—as if Carlos’ death were a gift she had given him.
“When did this happen?”
“I shot him as he was taking off in the chopper,” Lara replied.
“Oh,” Ryan nodded as comprehension dawned. “I get it.” This was not exactly the response Lara had been hoping for. She had killed the man who had murdered Ryan’s wife and unborn child right before his eyes. What kind of response had I been hoping for? Lara wondered.
“I would think having your vendetta fulfilled would earn me a little more than an ‘oh, I get it,’” Lara half-joked.
Ryan’s face hardened slightly. “That wasn’t Carlos that you killed.”
“We’ve long suspected that Carlos uses a double for most of his face-to-face work. The demon he’s aligned himself with is too smart to let his host wander into danger like that, even if he can’t be killed by bullets.”
Lara felt a little angry. Why do I care whether or not I killed the real Carlos? “So where is the real Carlos?”
“I suspected he was in the car that had your friends in it. In the off chance that his men were victorious, he would want to be there to finish me off. As soon as I had a path I ran after the car. I came close but it got away.” Ryan’s face hardened a little more. “I went back to the Praça to see if I could gather any intel from Carlos’ men. I assumed you had left with your friends, but then I saw you get picked up by the police. So I intervened. I still need you.”
Lara was caught off-guard by this statement. She swallowed hard and said: “You need me?”
“Carlos has the Idol now. It’s only a matter of time before he uses it. I need you to help me find it.”
Lara sat for a minute and churned through this new information. Her tomb raider mind assembled what it could, but there was still too much she didn’t know. First and foremost, had James and Paul made it out okay? Lara wanted to go after them, but she couldn’t escape a gnawing feeling that she still owed something to Ryan Caruso. A decision had to be made. Lara just hoped it was the right one.
“Ryan, I’m afraid there’s nothing more I can do to help you. The kind of manhunt you’re talking about is not my area of expertise. I know it’s important—I know what those demons can do—but I need to look after my friends.”
Ryan frowned but nodded acceptingly. “This isn’t your war. You’ve done more than your share already.”
They sat in an awkward silence for a few minutes. Both of them thought of several ways to break it but then dismissed them as insufficient. There were many things Lara wanted to say to Ryan—all of them sincere and meaningful—but instead what escaped her lips was: “If you happen to find Carlos in a tomb, call me.”
It was a bad joke but Ryan still smiled. “I’d start looking for your friends at the embassy.”
“I thought of that but I’m a wanted woman. I couldn’t get near it.”
“Well then, consider this my parting gift,” Ryan said as he produced a small nylon bag from his pocket. From the bag he pulled a British passport and a wad of Euros. He handed both items to Lara. She opened the passport. It had a name—Alex Smith—but no picture. “I’d say cut your hair to a little less than shoulder length and dye it blonde but not too flashy. Get a some pictures of yourself and then call this number.” Ryan wrote a phone number on one of the fifty euro notes. “He goes by Joaquim. I’ve used him before. He’s good.”
“And…if you reconsider my offer,” Ryan scrawled another number on the euro. “You can reach me at this number.”
“I guess this is goodbye then,” Lara said.
“I guess so,” Ryan replied softly. He stuck the pistol in his waistband and then crossed the room to the door. Before he left, Ryan looked back at Lara, opened his mouth as if to say something, and then—as if thinking better of it—closed his mouth and walked out.
Lara let out a deep breath she hadn’t known she was holding and sat down on the bed. “Good luck Ryan,” she whispered.