The old grandfather clock in the entry of the mansion tolled nine times. The grounds outside lay damp under the coat of rain that had dispelled only a few hours before. Shards of cloud obscured the pale moonlight every now and again. Lara sat in the living room just off the dining room. She had traded in her dress suit for a red turtleneck sweater and a pair of jeans. Winston had kindled a fire in the fireplace before retiring to his room. Lara didn’t like the flames, but the autumn rain had left the nineteenth century-era mansion unsuitably cold.
The doorbell chimed. “I’ll answer it.” Lara called as she entered the entry. She knew Winston would be anxious to open the door otherwise. An unwelcome gust of cold, damp air greeted Lara as she opened the large wooden door. Standing on the steps was a man. He was wearing a black raincoat underneath which Lara could see a dark gray suit.
“My name is Ryan Caruso. You are Lara Croft?”
“Come in please.” Lara motioned for him to enter and hastily closed the door behind him. She took his raincoat and hung it on a nearby stand. Caruso followed her into the living room and sat on the couch opposite her. In the firelight Lara sized up her new acquaintance. His six-foot frame was lean and athletic. His clean-shaven face was lightly tanned and sat under a straight brown crew cut. It was not a gorgeous face but a handsome one. He had an air of order and discipline mixed with something else Lara could not place. What most caught her attention were his steel blue eyes. They were cold and calm. Unnaturally so. Submerged there was a touch of...sadness. She felt oddly drawn in by them. Under different circumstances she would like to find out what was behind those eyes. But now was not the time for making friends, now was the time for answers.
“Thank you for responding so promptly to my letter,” Caruso began. His voice was calm and pleasant. Yet pleasantries were unbecoming of him, Lara decided.
“You mentioned something about Paul Murdock,” she cut to the chase.
“Yes. We’ve been following the group that abducted him for some time now. We believe we now have what we need to take them down.”
“And who is ‘we’?”
“I represent a branch of the American intelligence community that investigates abnormal behavior in terrorists.”
“’Abnormal’ being what?”
“Fascination with the Occult.”
“So what is it that you need to take them down?” Lara’s tone was all business.
“Bait. Thanks to you we now know what they’re after. We can use that to lure them out.”
“I’m assuming the ‘bait’ is that little statuette stuck at the bottom of the ocean.” Lara felt a little knot tighten at the pit of her stomach.
“I hate to disappoint you Mr. Caruso,” Lara said as she stood. “But I cannot get that ‘bait’ for you.”
Caruso remained seated. “You don’t have to. I’ve made some preparations. I just need you to show me where to look.”
Lara stood silent for a moment and then sat down again. “What preparations have you made?”
“A boat and a mini-sub. I just need you to act as navigator.”
“And you think those men will take the bait?” A flash of hope cut through Lara’s otherwise businesslike manner. She wanted this man to confirm that hope. To tell her it was not in vain. It was a sensation she was not familiar with.
“I’m counting on it.” The use of the personal pronoun seemed out of place to Lara. She eyed Caruso for a moment. He stared back unflinchingly. He seemed forthright but Lara had learned the hard way that trusting people blindly had the bad habit of getting one’s self killed. The phone in the kitchen rang. Lara was actually grateful for the distraction. Her guest was turning out to be harder to read than she had expected. She needed time to think, to assemble the facts.
“Excuse me.” Lara was halfway across the dining hall when Winston’s voice called from upstairs.
“It’s young Dr. Woodson.”
“Thank you,” Lara called back. She picked up the receiver. “Hello James.”
“Lara, I called to apologize. I shouldn’t have been so hard on you. What you went through with Paul—.”
“James…it’s alright. I’m not angry. I was afraid…”
Lara felt the darkness of the night increase slightly. “I’m sorry James but I have a visitor and I must attend to him.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“What did he say?”
“He thinks we can get to Paul by baiting his captors with the Idol.”
“So you’re going after it then?” James’ voice sounded expectant, like that of a five-year-old who hears about summer vacation plans.
Lara paused and looked back through the main hall to the living room where she had left Caruso. He was there waiting patiently.
“Yes. I’m going back for the Idol.”
“Lara let me go with you—.”
“No.” Lara cut him off forcefully.
“—To make up for earlier.”
“James you can’t make up for earlier.”
“Earlier today I mean.”
“I know. I just…” The stress and the darkness finally forced her to surrender. “I don’t want to lose you.”
“Mr. Fisher will be out momentarily,” the secretary said in her professional tone. Ryan Caruso nodded and took a seat in a high-backed chair. It’s probably one of the antiques. I wonder how much it’s worth, Ryan mused. He glanced around the lobby, assessing its weaknesses and strengths reflexively. The weight of his Glock 18 semi-automatic against his left side was reassuring. Minutes passed before Ryan heard the clack-clack of Fisher’s wingtip shoes on the white marble. Fisher was slightly less than six feet tall. All of that height was held in the most rigid, dignified stance, which made him imposing in bearing if not in stature. His face was stern and creased with lines of perpetual stress. His hair was gray and wavy and not a strand was out of place. He wore a black pinstripe suit from Savile Row and a silver silk tie.
“So good to see you Mr. Smith,” Fisher shook Ryan’s hand avidly and ushered him back to the offices of Sotheby’s of London. “Have you decided on the piece you wish to auction?”
Ryan waited until they were in Fisher’s office before he replied. “She’s on board Ian.”
While there was no obvious reaction to the news Ryan had known Ian Fisher long enough to tell when he was greatly relieved. “Well done Ryan. When will the recovery take place?”
“It’ll take three days to get to the site. From there it should be relatively simple…except she’s insisted on bringing a third party.”
Fisher’s brow creased slightly. “Who?”
“A colleague. Dr. James Woodson.”
“Will he be a problem?” Ryan sensed Ian tensing up just the same way he had sensed him being relieved. Ryan knew that now was the time for reassurance. He couldn’t afford to have Ian feeling anxious, not now.
“No. If he gets in the way I’ll take him out myself.”
“Good. I will be in Lisbon by next week. Bring the Idol as soon as you have it. I can make all the other arrangements.”
Ryan walked to the small office window and rested his forearm on the cool glass. The autumn sun darted in and out of the receding clouds. He let out a long breath and with it a bit of the stress that had been building in him for the past two weeks. “The war ends next week.”
Fisher looked at him quizzically. The words that came next forced Ryan's heart into his stomach. “No, Ryan. The war begins next week.”