An abysmal sight greeted Lara as she emerged from the stairs. There were at least a dozen armed men swarming all over the deck. Two of them grabbed her. One wrenched the black case from her hands while the other performed a rather vigorous pat-down. Her semi-automatic was removed quickly and with expert hands the gunman ejected the clip, stripped the action and tossed all three parts overboard. Lara's jaw clenched as he did so.
“I thought a mercenary like yourself would appreciate how hard it is to get a good customized pistol like that where I come from,” Lara said with feigned casualness.
“I'm no mercenary,” the gunman growled.
“Could've fooled me,” she said lightly, again it was a feint. They did not reply but pulled her to the bow of the ship. Under different circumstances she would have put up a hell of a fight, but she was at the disadvantage and she knew it. James was kneeling by the anchor. His face was understandably grim. A small splotch of black and blue was beginning to form on his cheek. Standing to his right was the man Lara assumed to be in charge. He was holding a large pistol to James' head.
“Miss Croft. I hope that is the Idol,” he gestured to the case in the hands of his henchmen. “For his sake.” This man was the owner of that icy resonant voice Lara heard almost three weeks ago. She felt a slight twinge of pain as he spoke; a resurgence of the nightmare that had gripped her earlier. Lara sized up this new opponent, for he was doubtless an opponent, with careful eyes. He was about her height, slightly taller. His skin was dark, dead gray yet living. His hair was dark and longish and curled around his ears and neck. He seemed young, perhaps mid-thirties, but he also seemed old, the way his saturnine flesh seemed to hang over his gaunt frame. His eyes were like spheres of obsidian that sat on shelf-like cheekbones.
“It is.” You bastard. One of the gunmen handed over the black case. The leader opened it and smiled; it was a glistening, shark smile.
“Just one more thing before we conclude our transaction. Where is the American?”
“He's down below...how did you—?” She was cut short by the sound of an explosion. On impulse, Lara turned towards the sound in time to see two of the armed men crumple to the ground. Ryan emerged from the stairwell, an H&K G36 rifle in hand. With devastating efficiency he began to cut down the opposing force. Two men appeared around the wheelhouse and Ryan placed a bullet between each of their eyes. The men on either side of Lara trained their weapons on him only to have their heads kicked back in a most ghastly fashion.
Like it was some kind of violent ballet Ryan rolled back into the relative safety of the stairwell as the remainder of the gunmen rounded the aft quarter of the wheelhouse. Another grenade was lobbed. Two more men went down. This time when Ryan emerged it was with a pistol in hand. He took one step, pivoted and dove straight for his enemies. They were dead before he hit the floor.
The leader swung his pistol in Ryan's direction. Reflexively, Lara hacked his hand as he fired and the shot went wide. Alerted to this new threat Ryan turned and aimed at the leader. He casually stepped back behind Lara placing the barrel of his pistol against her throat. Ryan paused for a moment, steel blue eyes connecting with Lara. Even from that distance they seemed sad, apologetic. He shook his head and ran for the stern with a small black case wedged under his arm. He made a running dive into the water, his finale in the violent ballet. Leader took his gun from Lara's throat and fired repeatedly at the surface. Seizing the opportunity Lara crashed her boot onto Leader's foot and hammered her elbow into his ribcage. As he staggered back she turned to face him. Lashing out with her left leg she caught him full in the stomach and then came at him with a right jab. Leader caught her fist in mid-extension. He twisted down and outward; her tendons screamed. Lara was amazed at the power in Leader's grip, by all counts her attack should have left him handicapped but he showed no signs of letting up. Lara buckled to her knees in an attempt to ease the tension in her arm. With a final wrench Leader let go. It was a warning.
“Don't try that again.” He sounded more bored than upset.
He should be furious. Lara thought as she rose reluctantly to her feet. Out of the corner of her eye she could see one of the speedboats roaring away. Without doubt Ryan Caruso was at the helm.
Leader tossed the pistol, now empty, on the deck and sighed. Apparently he was not fazed in the slightest at having lost more than a dozen men in less than a minute's time. He turned to Lara and smiled that same shark smile.
“Despite this little double cross I am going to keep you alive. In return, you will bring me the Idol.”
“You have it,” Lara replied stubbornly as she massaged her elbow and forearm.
“No. This,” he gestured to the case. “Is not the Idol. It doesn't have what I'm looking for.” He placed a hand on her arm and before she could respond she felt a coldness spread through her body. She lost consciousness and fell, motionless, to the deck.
Ryan kept to the shadows of the wet cobblestone street above the Santa Apolonia train station. He knew that in his current condition he would draw much unwanted attention. His left temple was a swollen collage of black and blue. There was also a cut extending along his jaw almost to his ear courtesy of a stray piece of shrapnel. Another scar for the collection. Ryan limped slightly; the man with the shark smile probably thought he had missed when he fired blindly into the water but he had in fact hit. Ryan had had to dig the bullet out of his thigh without so much as a painkiller. Ryan had learned to accept pain early on but his limp was not so much a pain as a hindrance, it slowed him on his path to absolution. Retribution and absolution.
He turned into a café wedged under a four story apartment building and took a seat in the back, waving off the waitress before she could offer to get him something. A quick assessment was made of his surroundings. It was a narrow establishment with a heavily stocked bar and a case of day old pastries and sandwiches at the far end of the counter. The walls were half tile, half bare, whitewashed concrete and housed pictures of Lisbon, a sign advertising Sagres beer and another with two Jack Russell Terriers advertising single-malt scotch. Thick cigarette smoke mingled with the fumes of hot cooking oil. Six men, not one of them younger than fifty, were seated around the room speaking loudly in Portuguese.
A long fifteen minutes passed before Ian arrived. He was dressed in a very out-of-place tailored three piece suit, as if he'd just come from Sotheby's. He walked with typical imposing posture. Ryan wished Fisher wouldn't draw attention to himself. He sat across from Ryan, careful to position himself so as to block any curious stares. He flagged down the waitress, who was now a little put out at the hot-cold treatment, and ordered some grilled sardines.
“Tell me you took every precaution,” Fisher began quietly. Ryan could sense tension in his voice. Ryan knew that, unfortunately, this conversation would not ease that tension.
“Then how do you explain what happened?” Fisher broke a piece of dry bread as if to add emphasis to the question.
“I have no explanation,” he replied. Better to be honest. Despite the hours of contemplation and self-assessment he had had while driving the boat to the Azores and flying to Lisbon he could come to no conclusions.
Fisher munched quietly on the bread as if in tranquil rumination. Ryan, however, could see the fire burning his mind. He was asking himself dozens of questions. “Ryan, I don't worry about you. I know how capable you are. I worry that this represents a huge breach in security. How did he find us? Has his power grown that much?”
Ryan couldn't tell if the last questions were rhetorical or not. The waitress returned with Fisher's order and Ryan looked away, hiding the bruise on his forehead where Lara had pistol-whipped him. Once she was out of earshot he said: “Maybe someone spotted us at the docks. Maybe someone at the National Reconnaissance Office has been turned and they watched us by satellite. Maybe a thousand things. But the bottom line is we have the Idol.”
Ian smirked a little. The Americans. Always dealing in the bottom line. Always concerned about the results. Always forgetting the minutiae that was so terribly important in this business. It was so awfully Machiavellian of them. The ends justify the means, eh Ryan? “Yes, we do. And Carlos knows that we have it and not the Croft woman. Any attempt at a trade now will alert Carlos to our real intent.”
Ryan pursued the point undeterred. I'm not waiting anymore. “We wanted bait for a chance to trap Carlos. We have the bait. What does it matter if we have to change the trap?”
A burst of laughter from the old bar patrons caused Ryan to jump slightly in his seat. Ian noted it with seeming indifference. “You've had quite the day Ryan. Why don't you take the Idol up North. It will be safe there until we can formulate a new strategy.”
“We've been formulating for years, dammit,” Ryan swore quietly. “I want Carlos dead. Don't tell me to wait when we're this close!” Ryan raised his voice slightly, careful to keep it under the din of the café. He could see Ian was silently seething. Ryan had known this conversation would be tense, why avoid it?
“Caruso, you are a good soldier.” Fisher's voice was surprisingly even. His normally severe face was a mask. “You have one problem, however. You think you are the General, but you're not. You take orders.”
Ryan clenched his jaw. “And you wonder why this operation is going so poorly.” He stood and walked out of the café, this time making no effort to hide.
In her semi-conscious state Lara was vaguely aware of a needle sliding into the vein of her left arm. She could hear muffled voices speaking in low tones above her. They seemed very far away. An awful headache pushed its way into her conscious mind making the transition from dreams to reality complete, and painful.
She propped herself up on her elbow and took in the surroundings with sore eyes. The room was a windowless, bare concrete cube twelve feet to a side. Lighting was supplied by two bulbs recessed in the ceiling behind a steel mesh embedded in the concrete. The mesh blocked more than it admitted leaving the room in dreary half-light. In one corner was a bucket she assumed was for the necessities. The door was steel; smooth, without hinges. Lara judged that it would take quite a bit of plastic explosive to breach it. And what was on the other side? How many guards were there? What kinds of weapons did they have?
Lara began to speculate on the use of excessive force to secure her exit. It was for her a last resort, but her captors, whoever they were, had broken the rules. And that breach, whether they knew it or not, denied them the courtesy of compassion on her part.
The door slid open. Hence the lack of hinges. A man was shoved into the room and the door closed. Instinctively Lara watched her exit slide shut. The far side of the door frame was recessed into the concrete wall a good six inches. Prying the door open is out. Lara turned her attention to the figure prostrate across from her. He turned over and her breath caught in her throat.
“Lara,” he smiled with difficulty. His jaw was swollen and puffy. “I knew you'd come.”
Lara crawled over and wrapped her arms around his neck. She began to cry, tears of relief and tears of anger. “But, to be honest I had figured it would be with a lot of Scotland Yard for backup,” he added. His smile widened causing a cut on his lip to reopen. “Ow.”
A slight laugh escaped through the tears. She dabbed the sleeve of her neoprene jacket against his lip. “Where are we?”
“Hell if I know. Some place very well-protected.”
“We need to find a way out.”
“Did you not hear me lass? Very...well...protected. I've been here for almost three weeks and I've never seen sunlight.”
“Then how do you know it's been three weeks?” Lara cracked a wry smile as she stood shakily. The levity was much needed. Paul pulled himself to a sitting position, groaning as he did so from a few broken ribs. He watched with a kind of juvenile fascination as Lara passed her hands along the concrete.
“Have you found anything yet lass?”
“Maybe if I had some support from my cell mate...” Lara returned.
“And when we bust out of here, what do we use against the armed guards? Since we are unarmed at the present.”
“You always have weapons,” she said softly, recalling her first lessons in combat training. Her forays into the tomb raiding world following graduation from Oxford had been almost lethal. She faced a host of dangers that seemed so different from the world she had imagined in the gleaming halls of the Smithsonian. As a result she had called upon the expertise of a retired army Major, Terrence Lott.
“Even the unarmed carry weapons,” Lott had said. “Fear, deception, information, money and sex are all powerful weapons when applied properly. The greatest mistake you can make is to assume that you are helpless when you are 'unarmed.'” Lara laughed inside when she remembered that the very next day Lott had begun to train her quite extensively on marksmanship.
Lara's mind began to churn, methodically assembling the facts. She didn't know where she was. The location was obviously very secure. Since she was still alive her captors needed something from her still. Then a very large piece revealed itself missing from the puzzle. Do they need anything from James or is he...expendable? Lara could not face that word. She turned from the wall back to Paul.
“Have you seen James?” her tone was anxious, imploring.
“Was he out there with you?” Paul was taken aback at the uncharacteristic lack of cool displayed by Lara. For the several years he had worked with her he had never known her to falter like this. Or at least not to show it.
“He volunteered to come...oh God,” Lara whispered. “I said I didn't want to lose him. He said I wouldn't.” Her voice was angry, bitter.
“What happened?” Paul saw the need to divert her attention.
“I was afraid Paul.” Admitting that seemed to give Lara her composure again. “Whatever was down in that wreck...it was powerful. It hurts just to think about it. I almost didn't want to go after it again. But an opportunity to lure out your captors using the Idol as bait presented itself. A man claiming to be part of a secret division of the American intelligence community contacted me with the plan. I later discovered him to be a tremendous liar. Surprise, surprise.”
“Ah, taking it out on the opposite sex. I see where this is going,” Paul said in traditional jest. If he were not in such a sorry state Lara would have jabbed him.
“Well, you know most of my problems come as a result of men.” She paused and regained the thread of her story. “We went to recover the Idol and were ambushed. The American escaped with the Idol and James and I were captured.”
The levity of the moment faded and Lara found herself again with too many missing pieces and a monstrous headache. That cold unconsciousness which had taken her supplied none of the rest that actual sleep did.
“He's alive.” Paul's words startled Lara.
“How do you know?”
“Scottish intuition.” Again the smile. Again the bloody lip.
Thank heavens for his sense of humor, Lara thought as she wiped away the blood.