It was such a harmless thing really. A small handle of hard plastic grooved with finger holds, a tiny red LED light, a red button underneath a metal cap that could be flipped back with one's thumb and a slender antenna.
When the button was depressed a radio wave of a specific frequency would emit from the antenna and would carry through the air until it collided with a coded receptor. The receptor would then initiate a chain reaction of increasing energy along a three-inch length of copper wire. This firing train would end within a matter of milliseconds. In the blink of an eye the block of Semtex high explosive would receive the increasingly energetic chain and then detonate. The blast would deplete the surrounding oxygen instants before the supersonic shockwave tore out in a blinding release of energy and heat.
Really it was such a harmless thing.
The target was a mere twenty meters away from the car Ryan sat. Some might find it uncomfortably close but Ryan was well trained in the use of explosives; he knew exactly how large the blast would be. He would be outside its radius, but he would be close enough to see the man enter his car. He would see his face just before he depressed the button.
And the war will be over. Truth and right prevails.
All the risks Ryan had taken, all the work he put in, paled in comparison to the privilege that was his to deal the kill stroke. The doors of the office building in front of him opened. Two men strode out. One, the driver not the target, took his place behind the steering wheel of the black Mercedes-Benz sedan and waited for his employer, the target, to take his place in the car.
Ryan flipped off the detonator cap and poised his thumb over the red button. But he did not depress it, he wanted to be certain the target was crushed within the metal confines of the sedan. No escape this time.
But he didn't get in the car. He looked back at the building as a woman and a child emerged from the doors and quickly piled into the back seat. Ryan's thumb wavered over the button. Why did they have to be here now? He took a deep breath and steadied himself. His faith would not allow him to back down now. The target moved to the passenger side.
Before opening the door, however, a secretary rushed out from the office building. She motioned for the target to sign some urgent paperwork before he left. The target left the side of the car and moved to back to the front of the office building, just to the edge of the blast radius.
Patience. Patience. Patience.
The driver of the target vehicle rolled down the window and began to question the target. Ryan could see where this was going. His finger trembled, poised over the detonator button. The target waved off the driver, he would take a taxi home. The black Mercedes began to pull away from the curb taking the Semtex and the kill stroke, the end of the war, with it.
Ryan depressed the button.
A cacophony of car alarms mingled, harmonized and then split off into chaos. Each one blaring its own tune; trying to drown out the others. Around the disjointed chorus solemn sentinels of glass and steel witnessed the fireball climb heavenward and then dissipate into the night sky. Their passive faces were illumined by the flames that remained.
They felt no pain. Ryan reminded himself. It didn't even take a second.
He climbed from his car and approached the burning wreck cautiously. The wreck itself was not important. His target lay on the far side. Dead. Behind the target his secretary was slumped against the wall. She had been thrown against the building and simultaneously impaled with a piece of shrapnel.
She felt no pain. Ryan assured himself. If she had...
The man heard a groan at his feet. The target! No! I killed you! Damn you! How were you spared? They all died and you were spared!
Ryan reached for his Glock 18. I'll send you straight to hell! From within the lobby he heard shouts. The guards! Flashes of light. He felt something white hot at his neck. The rest of his body went cold. One thought blanketed his mind: escape. Trying to stay low he rushed for his car. Blood spilled down into the collar of his shirt. He applied pressure to the wound. It was serious but not spurting. The bullet had not clipped a vein. It made a clean exit.
More shouts, more flashes. Pain. Heat shot up from his side. An adrenaline-induced surge propelled him forward. He yanked open the door of his car and before he even touched the seat had switched on the engine and gunned the motor.
Bullets rammed the rear of the car and blasted out windows and mirrors. Ryan rammed his foot to the ground and screeched out of the narrow street. Blood had soaked his shirt and his trousers. He fought to stay calm, stay focused.
Damn you. Damn you.
On the rim of his consciousness he heard something. Above the alarms, the gunfire, the sound of his own heaving breath. Sirens? No. It was a wail. The wail became a scream. Many screams. They multiplied and assailed the man behind the wheel. They vastly outweighed the alarms. Ryan took his hands from the wheel and clutched at his ears.
His car veered and charged straight into a street lamp.
“Stop!” Ryan Caruso screamed. Slowly, consciousness resumed its dreary procession. His body was cold pocked with patches of heat. Reflexively he touched his neck and side half-expecting to find blood but only finding scars. The fingers of his left hand were wrapped around the handgrip of his Glock 18.
He rose wearily from his cot and limped over to the far end of the vast chamber. His leg was still sore but had improved a bit. He had more mobility now, not all of it, but enough. Enough to end it.
Ryan sunk to his knees before the altar and set his pistol on the cold stone surface. He reached into his shirt and pulled out the small gold crucifix. Taking it in his right hand he bowed his head.
“Father, forgive me. I have sinned.”
“We've started our initial descent into Gatwick international airport. We'll be landing at runway 58 and then we'll taxi to...” The pilot of the British Airways jet droned on with useless paraphernalia.
Despite the fifth of scotch she'd consumed, with Winston's disapproval, Lara's hands remained fastened to the armrests. She stared straight forward without so much as blinking. Winston had to remind himself that he was not seated next to a corpse.
My Lara, where are you? Who is this sitting next to me? Who is this empty shell of a woman? Surely it is not you. How can it be? Where were you? Why can't you tell me? Oh what has happened to you my little Lara?
Lara turned abruptly in her seat. “What did you say?”
“I didn't say anything.” Winston replied, mildly alarmed.
Lara stared at him for a moment, searching, then returned to her previous posture.
“...Flight attendants prepare the cabin for landing.”
Winston sighed quietly. His muscles began to relax. Home at last.
“Winston, please. Now is no time for this.” Lara was facing him again. This time her tone was more accusatory.
“No time for what?” Winston's brow creased.
Lara turned back to the seat in front of her. “You know I don't like to talk about that.”
“Lara, what are you talking about? Dear God, what do you mean by this?”
Lara faced Winston again. Something had lit in her eyes, something he hadn't seen in many years. “I was no more responsible for what happened to them than you were. I couldn't stop it. I couldn't help that I survived. God knows I wish I could fix that some days.” Her face twisted into a grimace and her eyes screwed shut but tears still escaped.
“Lara, what's wrong?” Winston whispered. He wanted to touch her but at the same time feared her.
“You know damn well what's wrong!” Lara hissed. Passengers in the nearby seats were now staring at this odd couple. A flight attendant peered at them from her jump-seat trying to gauge what was happening.
“Lara...please tell me what's wrong.”
With a growl she turned back to the window and folded her arms across her chest. Outside, the gray, rainy expanse of Gatwick airport rushed up to meet them. The roar of turbofoils reversing accompanied the thud and shake of landing. Within moments they were at the concourse.
Before the captain had extinguished the seatbelt light Lara had unbuckled herself “Excuse me,” Lara said curtly as she stepped over Winston and strode down the aisle. Passengers' expressions ranged from mildly bewildered to perturbed. As Winston was grabbing his bag from the overhead bin he heard a slight commotion at the front of the plane.
“Miss, please wait until the jetway has extended. I'll have to ask you to return to your seat. Miss...miss...you can't do that! Call security!”
Winston bolted as fast as old legs would carry him. He arrived at the front in time to see the door wide open and the jetway collar not yet fully extended to the plane's fuselage.
“She just forced the door and jumped,” the flight attendant explained. “She's daft I tell you. Someone please call security.”
As soon as it was manageable Winston jumped onto the jetway and scurried up it to the terminal. He could see a crowd gathering just outside the door. He heard raised voices. What now?
He pushed through the crowd to find out what was the matter. At the center of a sizable circle was Lara straddling a middle-aged man, pounding on him with both fists.
“Give me my friends back! Give them back!”
“Make way, move! Security!” Two officers cut through the crowd and grabbed the frantic Lara.
“No! Let me go! He's a liar, he's not from American intelligence! Don't let him go!” Lara bucked like a bull. The officers fought to keep her under control but she thrashed as one possessed. One attempted to put her in a headlock and she bit his arm.
“Aaa!” the man screamed. His compatriot lifted his nightstick and clubbed Lara over the head. Winston could barely breathe. What is happening? He pushed forward to get to Lara but more security had arrived and was barring the whole crowd. Two officers placed the unconscious Lara in a wheelchair and rushed her off down the wide steel-gray concourse.
But oddly enough there was no pain. Just white.
“Miss Croft?” a calm voice queried.
Should I respond?
There were some whisperings between beings she could not make out. Too much white. Why is there so much white?
Anxiety spread ever so slightly over her body, an uncomfortable tingling sensation.
“How do you feel?”
“Anxious.” More whispers. Shuffling feet. A door closing. A figure came out from the white. A familiar figure...who...?
“The sedatives we gave you are starting to wear off. Just remain calm.”
“Dr. Montgomery,” Lara whispered as she closed her eyes. If she didn't see it maybe it would go away. “Where am I?”
“The St. John's and Elizabeth's Hospital for the mentally ill.”
“I regret that I didn't complete the original diagnosis when she first came in,” Dr. Conrad Montgomery began solemnly. “Her symptoms definitely called for follow-up.”
“What symptoms? What are you talking about?” Winston clasped his hands and wrung them methodically. It had been twenty four hours since Lara was admitted to St. John's and Elizabeth's Hospital for the mentally ill and he was suffering for lack of solid information.
“Withdrawal, insomnia, bouts of anger and depression, and now this,” the doctor gestured to the white room where Lara lay, stirring listlessly with the after-effects of sedatives. “She's suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and sleep apnea. She hasn't been getting enough oxygen when she's asleep. As a result her cerebral cortex is being overrun by the vascular region that surrounds it. There's only been a two percent decrease that we've been able to see with an MRI but the trend is what worries me.”
Winston looked hard at the doctor then at his hands then back at the doctor. He tried to keep up with what health news he could in The Daily Telegraph but this business of disorders and abnormalities was beyond him. Sensing his distress Dr. Montgomery continued.
“The area that has been hardest hit is her frontal lobe, the area that controls learning and complex rationale. Her IQ hasn't lessened one bit, she still possesses all of her general knowledge which is considerable, but if this vascular swelling continues unchecked she could lose her ability to learn new tasks and assimilate new knowledge.”
“What can be done?” Winston whispered.
“We'll need to keep her here. The delusional episodes she displayed on the plane were borderline schizophrenic. Further stress could push her over the edge. With rest and medication I'm confident we can pull her back.”
Winston nodded. His face was ashen but within the tortured chambers of his own mind some degree of solace had been found. “I'd like to see her.”
“Of course. She's been restrained so there's no danger.”
No danger? Winston thought. My most cherished friend is losing her mind. He stifled the rebuttal and shuffled silently into the white room. He sat reverently at Lara's side and stroked her face with his weathered hand. She turned. Her face was a tense, tortured mask lined with pain and unrest.
“Lara? Can you hear me?”
“Of course I can,” she replied weakly. “What did they say?”
“You'll be alright. You'll have to stay...” Winston's voice cracked and he bit his lip. “You'll have to stay here for a while. But, you'll get better.”
Lara fixed his gaze with the most stern look she could manage. “Winston, I'm not crazy.”
Winston turned away and covered his eyes with his hand. “Lara, you attacked a complete stranger. You nearly killed him with your bare hands. You almost attacked me. I'm not so sure what to believe.”
It was Lara's turn to bite her lip. In the deep, drug-laden recesses of memory she seemed to remember her attacks and her berating of her trusted friend, the man who was almost a father to her. She had hoped it was all just another nightmare. No such luck. “Winston, please believe me. I have to get out of here. If I don't Paul and James are...Winston, they'll be killed.” Her voice caught and her eyes began to tear up. “I'm sure of it. The men who kidnapped us set me loose to find something for them. If I don't find it in the next four days James and Paul will be tortured and killed. Please, Winston. You've got to trust me.”
Winston screwed his eyes shut, his lined face contorting into a pattern of stress and helplessness. He opened his eyes with a sigh and gazed past her to the door.
“Winston?” Silently he arose and began to leave. Lara began to whimper. “Please Winston. I...I'm not crazy. I have to get out.”
Without looking back Winston opened the door and stepped into the hall. He surveyed the sterile corridor and turned left towards a phone booth mounted on the wall. He picked up the receiver and dialed a number from memory.
“This is Lott.” The voice on the other end was gruff, tired but very aware.“Terrence, it's Winston. I need your help with something.”