The room that surrounded Carlos Vicente was a stark contrast to the room pictured on his monitor. Spacious and luxurious. Extravagant. High ceilings of dark wood framed a forty-foot expanse of stained glass. The crimson and violet shards displayed a most remarkable history and when the sun managed to penetrate the small slits in the roof above them, they danced on the deep, red carpet.
There was a balcony ten feet off the ground that wrapped around the perimeter of the room, allowing access to books available in no other collection in the world. It was not vanity that had caused him to amass all those volumes, it was necessity. The walls of the lower level were adorned with paintings that were, like the books, only of interest to him. On the square pillars supporting the balcony, dull-gold light fixtures were mounted. The lights were turned low. Carlos liked darkness.
Even more so since the Alignment had taken place.
A large, thick table sat in the exact middle of the room. On each of its legs was carved a shrieking monkey. On the table was a computer monitor, the only hint of newness in a room that stank of slow rot and decay.
The disparity between his location and that of the two urchins displayed on that monitor appealed to the sadist in him. A cruel, shark smile crossed his face as he watched the woman attend to the wounded man. Seeing the depth of her affection for that man almost made him want to hurt the man some more. Would her affection deepen? How could that affection be twisted?
He wished she would take off that jacket. Perhaps when she was brought before him he would have it removed by force. That would make her angry no doubt, maybe even a little excited. And that thought excited Carlos. If time were not an issue he could really have some fun with the woman. She was already being broken down. He could twist her into something vile, malicious.
But time was an issue. Curse the American! For her to track him down would require a certain finesse. She would need to use her contacts which, as his research had shown, were extensive. She would need to be careful and cunning. None of these things would be accomplished if she were what she was becoming. It was best to let her go now. But not before he extracted everything possible from her.
“Dimas,” he called. From the double doors in front of Carlos a youngish man in a black suit appeared. An Uzi sub-machine gun dangled from his shoulder by a narrow strap. “Their conversation has grown stale. Switch the men. Perhaps her conversation with the other man will yield more information.” Dimas turned to leave.
That will bring her happiness, a voice from within called. What will make her miserable, Carlos? The Voice was a teacher Carlos had learned. It had taught him many things when heeded. No longer did it make him cringe as it once had.
“Dimas,” Carlos called again.
“Make him bleed.” Now we will see new depths of the woman. Depths of affection and anger.
Lara was drifting into a fitful sleep as the door ground open. Two large men entered and pulled Paul to his feet.
“Leave him be,” she growled. The men paid no attention but guided Paul out of the room. With astonishing speed Lara was on her feet. She shot out with her left leg catching one of the men in the small of his back. His companion whirled around hoping to catch her with a quick jab but she was too quick. Like a blur she ducked down and to the left while ramming her foot into his knee. The man screamed and fell back. The first guard had recovered and lunged for her. Paul blocked him with a clumsy body check.
Seizing the opportunity, Lara sprang over the guard she had felled and broke for the door. Outside she was met by four more guards. Before she could react she felt the white heat of a club hitting the side of her face. As she staggered back the guards closed on her and threw her to the back of the cell. Lara ricocheted off the cold concrete and landed on her face.
Through darkening vision she saw the guards pull their comrades and Paul from the cell. She struggled to her feet, emitting a feral cry as she did so. But before she regained her footing she felt the prick of a dart in her neck. She knew what it was without removing it but something innate in the human experience caused her to anyway. Her vision closed to darkness and she fell to the floor.
Lara awoke to find herself in a chair. Around her blackness extended into infinitum. There were no restraints to keep her seated yet she could not stand. She was paralyzed yet she could feel all of her body.
“Lara.” A voice called from the darkness. It was a smooth, calm voice. But Lara could feel the undercurrent of malice in it.
“Yes?” Lara's fingers assumed a white-knuckled grip on the chair.
“Lara, why do you resist your teacher?”
“Who are you?”
“I've already answered that. Now answer me.”
Lara was becoming frustrated. “I resist you because I don't know who you are.”
“I am your teacher,” the voice replied in mock frustration. “I desire to educate you.”
“There is a place. A dark place. A dark place inside you that you don't look at. You fear it. It is in this place that you keep all of your secret murders, your dark fantasies, your lies, your hatred, your spite, your lust for power. You've locked them away, but they still remain.”
“You are mistaken to presume you know me,” Lara countered.
“Ah, the noblewoman surfaces. She always does when the threats are personal. No Lara. I know you very well. I know you better than anyone, even yourself. I've been acquainting myself with your dark place. That dark place you hardly know. And that is what gives me license to be your teacher. Don't fear the darkness Lara. Embrace it. For what you are least willing to have, that is what you are.”
“Enough!” Lara tried to stand but her limbs remained leaden.
“Do you hate your teacher?” the voice whimpered.
“You are not my teacher!”
“We shall see,” this time the voice was openly malicious now. “Wake up Lara.”
It was a dream. Lara found herself in a fey mood between dreams and consciousness. She wished she could stay hovering there. Dreams and consciousness had become nightmares. But in limbo, she didn't have to face either.
Again the needle in the vein.
Lara's first thought upon regaining consciousness was: I hope Winston doesn't think I've picked up a heroin addiction. She almost laughed at the dream-awakening thought. Winston thinking such a thing of her was as absurd as her actually picking up the habit.
She sat there, temporarily numb, while the two guards retreated from the cell. She felt cold. A quick assessment showed the reason. While unconscious someone had taken her jacket and boots, probably thinking those items posed a threat to the guards. She shivered slightly and rubbed her arms. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the door had been left open. Seconds later another man was carried in and dumped unceremoniously on the floor. Lara could barely contain herself when she glimpsed his face.
“James! Are you alright? Say something!” She stumbled to his side and began to take stock of his injuries.
“Stop ordering me around,” he coughed.
“Touche.” One of his eyes was blackened. There was swelling around his cheekbones. His forearms and hands were a zig-zag pattern of small cuts reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock painting. Lara checked his legs, nothing. Torso, nothing. His wounds were deliberate but there was no rhyme or reason to any of it. If her captors had wanted him beaten there were certainly more painful ways of doing it. Take Paul, for example.
“You look awful,” she whispered. Doctor Montgomery, she reflected, would definitely have something to say about the self-inflicted guilt she was experiencing.
“You aren't exactly Vogue material right now either,” he referenced the swollen cut to the side of her left eye. She touched it lightly. It stung. Strange that she hadn't felt anything until he brought it up. James rolled into a sitting position and leaned his head back against the concrete. Lara moved to sit beside him. There were many things she wanted to say. All of the walls she had built around her emotions the past year were being eroded like a sandbar under the surf.
“James...I'm so sorry.”
“No Lara, I'm the one who should be sorry. I-I wasn't man enough to—.” He struggled like he wanted to say more but couldn't find the words.
“They had us outnumbered and outgunned,” Lara cut in to spare him the embarrassing silence. “And you never were much of one to fight. We didn't stand a chance.”
James opened his mouth as if to correct her but then swallowed his response. Lara reached down and clasped his hand in hers. Now it was her turn to comfort, to tell James that everything would be okay. She sought to convey that sentiment, even though she did not feel it. Whether James felt comforted or not she could not tell, he simply stared at nothing, unable to meet her eyes. She felt mildly frustrated by this but it was tempered by an acceptance that they had both been through far too much in that past day. Or was it more? Lara had lost all concept of time after her run in with the man with the voice that caused her pain.
“Lara...” James began. “There's something that I need to tell you...”
Lara's heart began to race. He was going to say the words that she hoped for and dreaded. She fought to accept what was happening now without any of the barriers that she had built around herself. She dropped her defenses and found an odd sense of strength there, a strength so seldom used she hardly knew it existed.
“Lara,” James began again. “I—.”
“I know, James. I know.” Tears began to well up in her eyes. Tears of sorrow that she had left her walls up so long and tears of joy that they had now come down and let James back into her life.
“No, Lara, you need to hear this,” James' voice was stern as he finally mustered the courage to say what he needed to say. “I—.”
A rude scraping noise of metal on metal intruded on the moment. The door of the cell slid back revealing four guards. The first to enter clubbed James at the base of his skull knocking him out cold. Lara exploded at the indecency of this intrusion. She lashed out with her bare feet catching the first guard in the groin and then hammering his head into the concrete of the cell with another kick to his chest. The other guards were apparently well-aware of this scenario and advanced cautiously with clubs bared. One swung and Lara ducked below the blow and responded by ramming her lowered right shoulder into his abdomen. Placing both of her hands behind his right knee she lifted and toppled the guard. A kick to the fallen guard's head was followed by a roundhouse to the nearest remaining guard. He caught her leg at its fullest extension and lifted. As Lara struggled to regain balance the second guard hammer-locked her throat with his forearm and brought her close to keep her from squirming. She was so close she could smell his sweat through the black nylon of his jumpsuit. A well-placed elbow to his rib cage loosened the hammer-lock slightly but not before the other guard rammed the point of his club into her stomach. Lara gasped for air and could not find it. An acrid bilious taste rose in her throat as her body attempted to wretch, anything to clear the airway. Her body convulsed slightly and then went limp. The fight was over.
A long corridor. Rough hands. A dark room. A steel chair.
Lara awoke with a cough. A mixture of blood and bile stung her throat and filled her nostrils with a foul odor. Pain shot from her arms at the slightest movement; whoever had tied her up had not accounted for circulation. Above all this was a headache of epic proportions that felt like her skull was shrinking and her brain expanding.
She heard thick doors swing closed behind her. Opening her eyes was still unpalatable. Breathing was a chore. She felt as if she'd been running; her legs ached and her heart raced.
While sucking in heavy gasps Lara struggled to open her eyes. Fortunately the ambient light was dim. A few muted spots of yellow and from below violets and scarlets. Something moved to her right. A man. He turned and advanced. Lara's stomach involuntarily knotted.
“Have you ever seen anything like it?” The man gestured to the surrounding room. The spacious, extravagant room. Lara's spine tingled at the sound of the man's voice.
“No I haven't.” Frankly I'm not seeing much of anything.
“It is a rare privilege you have to be here. I hoped you would be impressed.”
“Get to the point,” Lara said wearily. She blinked slowly trying to focus. There was a large table about four feet in front of her. Another man, a statue of a man, stood in the far left corner of the room. Lara closed her eyes again. Even the momentary strain had taxed her. As if inflamed by shards of dull light her headache worsened. As the headache grew breathing became more difficult. The knot in her stomach tightened.
“At this point you and I have a common enemy. A common goal if you will. The American Ryan Caruso has something that belongs to me.”
“Call it what you will. You are going to find him and get it for me.”
“In your dreams.”
The man continued as if she hadn't spoken. “And I suggest you don't involve anyone else in this. I had to kill a couple good Interpol agents last week. It was more of a nuisance than anything.” He pulled some photos from the desk and put them in front of her. “Look at them,” he ordered.
“Go to hell.” Lara half snarled.
The man paused for a moment as if considering the option and then he replied. “That's the idea.”
Lara's eyes shot open. The man's face was directly in front of hers. He was smiling that shark smile but he was not amused in the slightest. Lara's stomach felt like it would collapse on itself. Of its own accord her breathing quickened. It was as if something had hijacked her body and had thrown every switch into the “on” position. Then “off” and “on” again. What's happening to me?
“The arithmetic is quite simple. I have two things that you obviously care for,” the man with the shark smile gestured to the monitor atop the large table. On the split screen Lara could make out two men in separate rooms. James and Paul. “And you are in a position to acquire two things that I care for.”
Lara gestured tiredly to her bonds. “I'm not in much of a position for anything.”
Shark man brought his face so close to Lara's she could feel his breath. “Don't be so certain.” He stood up and smiled again. Again totally devoid of joviality. “Bring me the Idol and Ryan Caruso and I will release to you your friends. You have one week. After that time is up I will send you a finger from one of your friends for each day you are late.”
Lara reared up in protest. The pain from her swollen wrists shot directly into her brain. Her stomach, her head, all of it felt as if on the verge of explosion. And then suddenly it dissipated. Lara felt coldness on her arm. It was shark man's hand. “You will do as I command.”
Her stomach filled with ice. Her mind released its tenuous hold on the present.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Lara reached out her hand to shut off the alarm clock. The darned thing wouldn't quit.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
She rolled over in bed and faced the awful machination. She pounded the weak plastic casing without success. Pretending to ignore the device she faced the hardwood ceiling of her spacious room in Surrey. No luck. She rolled away and pulled the thick covers over her head. Leave me be. I am so tired just let me alone.
She threw the covers back in a last attempt to free herself of the clock's rule. Instead of her room at Croft Manor was darkness. A shadow emerged with gleaming teeth and glowing red eyes. In an instant it was on her. She could feel actual icy fingers clamping onto her throat. The teeth came at her. The shadow would sate his hunger with her.
She screamed. She screamed as if for hours from the bottom of her being until it roiled out from her insides and charred her throat.
Where does it end? Where is the line between darkness and light? And where am I?
Her eyes opened distrusting. It had all been so real. What was fake and what was true? What was dream and what was awake? Her throat hurt as if she had actually been screaming. Her head hurt immensely and breathing came in shuddering gulps.
All at once sensory data flooded into her thoughts. Smells of diesel and urine stumbled on top of bitterness in her mouth which in turn blended into gnawing hunger and sounds of traffic. The eyes sought to make reason of it all.
She was lying on her side in an alley half-encased in a heap of refuse. Above her the early afternoon sky was overcast. Despite these circumstances she didn't feel like getting up. She didn't feel like anything. The sound of a train that seemed much too close battered her ears. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
Lara's heart started again. She screwed her eyes shut. Please God no. I can't handle this right now. I...just... But this was not like her nightmare. Something was different. A small vibration against her thigh. A cell phone? Lara dug into her pocket with numb hands and pulled out a small phone. It was real. She flipped it open.
“Hello?” Her voice was coarse and hollow.
“One week, starting now. You have some money in your pocket; enough to get you to the airport. I suggest you work quickly.” The line went dead.
Reflexively Lara checked the time. It was 12:05. She stumbled to leaden legs and slowly tried to work feeling back into her body. Everything was numb, raw. At her first step away from the alley wall she collapsed landing face first in the trash and rubble. Angrily, she rose to her feet once more and carefully plodded forward. Some of her strength returned and she was able to reach the street. Not many people were on the sidewalk. Lara thought that was probably a good thing, less attention the better.
To her right was a train station. She could hear something over the loudspeakers...Portuguese, continental Portuguese judging by the accent. So I'm in Portugal. Shark man is in Portugal. Here he'll pay for what he's done. Lara consulted a map in one of the red plastic enclosures by the tracks. She was in a place called Mem Martins, almost the end of the Sintra line that extended out from central Lisbon. Lara purchased a ticket for the train and slumped onto a bench to wait.
And when I get to the airport? I don't have enough to buy a ticket and I have no passport. I could go to the consulate. No, I can't afford to wait. I can't risk their involvement. Lara pulled out the phone again and dialed a number from memory.
“Winston, it's me.”
“Dear God! Lara, we thought...we thought...are you alright? Where are you?”
“I'm in Lisbon. Listen carefully. I need you to get the next flight here and bring enough money for you and I to fly back to London. I want to be there by tonight. Do you understand?”
“Yes, yes. You have no idea how relieved I am to hear you. But are you alright?”
“No,” Lara admitted. He would know anyway. “But the sooner you get here the better I'll be.”
“I will be right there.”
“And bring a change of clothes if you would,” Lara added.
“I will. Love you.” Lara smiled slightly as Winston did that smacking sound of a kiss over the phone.
“Love you too.” She hung up. It was the first bit of levity she'd had in...however long it had been since she last saw Paul. As if on cue the clouds parted a bit and the sun peeked through. Lara turned her face to it and soaked it in, feeling ever so slightly energized by it.
A series of clatters announced the arrival of her train. She boarded and collapsed into an empty seat. I'm coming Paul.
I'm coming, James. I'm not going to lose you again.