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The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Thriller

Chapter 17

Once the Tahitian got Knox out of the truck, he stood him on the ground and nudged him forward. Uncertainly, Knox took several unsteady steps. Then the Tahitian laid a huge hand on Knox’s shoulder and guided him with surprising gentleness.

Behind him, Knox heard Levinthia ask, “Are you taking the truck around back?”

The man pulled back on Knox’s shoulder. “As soon as we get your ex-husband situated, I plan to move it back there.”

“Then take Knox on inside.” Levinthia’s voice turned away from Knox. “I need to get something out of the truck.”

The hand on Knox’s shoulder pushed him forward again. He could tell when they crossed the gravel of the driveway then climbed up the concrete steps to the porch. It felt higher than he remembered it. But the last time he had stood on this porch had been thirty-two years ago. It had been a late evening in December. Back then, he hadn’t been wearing a hood over his head. He remembered smelling the smoke from the Loomises’ fireplace. But then when the carolers were invited inside, what the young Knox had smelled was cinnamon, eucalyptus, and what he had assumed was fruit punch. He remembered that several of the other kids in the group had shared looks of surprise. They’d all assumed that the Loomis house would smell like a hospital, or a hospital pharmacy.

Knox felt the Tahitian man lean from behind him and open the door. Another push propelled Knox inside. As far as his nose could tell, he had stepped back in time thirty-two years. For some reason, he wanted to believe that back on that first visit, the rooms were lit by oil lamps, but that couldn’t have been right. Yet, he did detect a faintly sweet odor that could have been kerosene. Or lamp oil. Whatever it was, the scent helped keep him calm despite how urgently logic insisted that he needed to be afraid. His predicament was also soothed by the pressure of the trumpet’s mouthpiece that he could still feel on his lips. He had never been able to play with such fluency and assurance. If he survived, as Levinthia had promised he would, he would definitely get himself a trumpet—even if he had to practice it while he drove his rental art from bank to insurance office.

But wait, Knox cautioned himself. The Tahitian had sounded . . . what was the word . . . elegiac . . . when he told Levinthia that he was going to move the truck around back. A banker’s secretary had used elegiac to describe one of the John Williams Waterhouse paintings that he’d lugged into her office nearly a year ago. Distinctly, he remembered that he had three Waterhouse’s: “The Crystal Ball,” “Pandora,” and “Ophelia.” But he couldn’t recall which one the secretary had described as elegiac. Of the three, he liked “Pandora” the best. The woman in the painting reminded him of Levinthia. Come to think of it, all of the Waterhouse women one way or another reminded him of Levinthia. Knox wondered if that was why he’d picked up those rather expensive reproductions even though he knew office managers weren’t comfortable with the dark backgrounds and exposed breasts of Waterhouse’s female figures.

“Last chance for the bathroom.” The Tahitian gave Knox’s shoulder a fairly hard squeeze. “I got to restrain you. For your own good.”

Knox didn’t doubt that the man was telling him the truth. For his own good. Yes, he could believe that the blindfold and the handcuffs were for his own good—connected somehow to the trumpet and his night with Levinthia. But as compliant as his heart wanted him to be, that part of his brain connected to his bladder didn’t plan to put itself into any compromising positions. After a few seconds of evaluating various pressures in his abdomen, Knox said, “I couldn’t get anything to flow right now if you paid me by the ounce.”

The Tahitian laughed then positioned Knox in a straightback wooden chair. As he secured Knox’s hands and ankles to the chair, he spoke almost philosophically, “Overall, it might be better if you do relieve yourself while you’re being held captive. That’d make everything more authentic.”

“Feels pretty authentic to me already.” Discreetly, Knox tried pulling his wrists apart. It was clear that the Tahitian planned on being one hundred percent authentic in how he secured his captive.

“Has Iakopo treated you right, Knox?”

He recognized Levinthia’s voice. But now it vibrated with a strain that she seemed having trouble to control. “I was more comfortable when you let me play that trumpet.” He heard what sounded like a piece of furniture being dragged up next to him.

“You play beautifully, Knox. You know that, don’t you?”

He heard the ratcheting of handcuffs and then Iakopo whispering. Then he caught a whiff of Levinthia’s perfume and felt a brushing against his shoulder.

“Shouldn’t be that close,” Iakopo said.

After another sound of furniture being moved, all Knox could hear for several minutes was Iakopo creaking the floorboards. Levinthia occasionally spoke to Iakopo in such a low voice that Knox couldn’t understand what she was saying. The longer this exclusion lasted, the more uneasy Knox grew. Even with the good that had happened over the last two days, Knox wondered how he could return to his life as a mobile merchant of art reproductions. Right now, he was about as immobile as he’d ever been. The failed husband inside of Knox asked him if Levinthia betrayed him when they were still married, what made him think she wouldn’t betray him again after three years as strangers.

Leaning in the direction of the guarded conversation going on between Levinthia and Iakopo, Knox tried to decipher any sounds that might confirm his ex-husband suspicions. Certainly, their marriage hadn’t been perfect, but it hadn’t been so bad that Levinthia would want to torture or terrorize him. He considered speaking to Levinthia, but his fear that she might laugh at him cruelly or announce to him that she did, indeed, plan to execute him for crimes he’d committed against her soul silenced him. Surprisingly, he was relieved that he couldn’t see what was going on. The darkness provided him with a haven, a visual resignation. If Levinthia was preparing to torture him, he didn’t want to see her. All of his life, he’d wondered why executioners’ always wanted to blindfold or hood the men they were about to kill. But if he really was about to face some sort of inevitable punishment, he preferred it come unexpectedly. In a way, by coming as a surprise, the inevitable didn’t seem so oppressive.

Calmer once again now that he had found comfort in his helplessness, Knox discovered that his hearing was growing sharper or at least more discriminating. Through the hushed noises coming from Iakopo and Levinthia, Knox became aware of a mechanical sound, also faint, but very distinct now that his heart wasn’t pounding so badly. He realized that his blood pressure had probably been buzzing in his ears since he first saw Levinthia coming down the mountain in her fancy van. Although he was absolutely sure that distant sound was from a machine, he also noticed that it seemed to be keeping time with his own respiration. No, more accurately, Knox’s respiration was keeping time with the machine. Then the thought struck him that he was probably listening to Lucy’s iron lung.

He’d heard exactly the same sound when he stood next to the machine on that first visit. Deeper inside this house, Lucy Loomis might be witnessing or suspecting that he now shared her captivity. Would Iakopo have tied up Lucy’s parents? They’d have to be ancient by now—if still alive. While Knox considered asking about Lucy’s welfare, he heard the front door open and close hurriedly.

“Were you followed?” Iakopo asked.

“Wasn’t that the idea?”

Knox immediately recognized the voice as belonging to the Tahitian woman he’d encountered in Levinthia’s shop.

“How much time do we have?”

“Depends on what kind of plan they want to follow,” the woman replied. “I’m betting on the ATF agents asking for help but not wanting to expose the hostages to a coordinated assault. So they’ll try something quick and surgical.”

“Yeah, what I saw of them, I think they will try some kind of rush.” Iakopo came up close to Knox, and he felt the large man checking his bonds. Unexpectedly, Iakopo then patted Knox’s arm. “That was some good cantaloupe, wasn’t it brother?”

“Seems like a long time ago.” Knox hadn’t noticed that his mouth had gone so dry.

Another hand patted his other shoulder; then he heard the Tahitian woman speaking right beside him. “We should go check on Lucy and the Loomises one more time.”

“You go ahead. I need to move the truck then I want to see when the ATF gets here. I don’t want to crouch in that little room any longer than I need to.” Iakopo walked heavily toward the front door.

Over her departing footsteps, the Tahitian woman said, “Let me know when you see them.”

“As soon as I yell, you get to the room,” Iakopo replied.

After the two sets of footsteps had faded away, Knox tried to make sense out of the silence in the same way that he’d found comfort in the darkness. All he could hear was the sound of Lucy’s iron lung. Now might be the time to see if he could talk to Levinthia, but that ex-husband part of him wanted to brood. After all, it was really Levinthia’s place to break the silence. Some way or another, this situation was her responsibility. Without a doubt, Knox wanted an explanation, but he shouldn’t have to ask for it. Besides, for all he knew, she might have sneaked out of the room when he was being attended to by the Tahitian couple.

Without any activity going on around him, Knox felt like he was a submarine at the bottom of the ocean. He was okay with that feeling as long as he could keep himself on the outside of the submarine. Being inside the vessel would make him start thinking about being inside one of those submerged caves in Mexico. Although Knox liked to think of himself as free from any vain phobias, he had discovered while watching a National Geographic documentary on those Mexican caves that he could not watch people wearing scuba gear while exploring caves.

He tried to distract himself from the image of the submerged submarine by concentrating on the sound of Lucy’s iron lung. Soon he realized that the thump and hiss of the machine sounded terribly suboceanic then subterranean. Trying to dislodge the sound from inside his head, Knox rocked his chair. He wondered how that looked to anyone who might be silently watching him. What if Levinthia had set up this whole kidnapping drama just so she could get him tied up then brought in some of her perverse friends from Blowing Rock to quietly watch him wiggle and jerk around.

“Levinthia, are you here?” Knox stopped struggling and tried to relax.

From a few feet away came the sound of a chair bumping on the floor. It reminded Knox of two women wearing highheels while trying to step on a mouse. Then came a muffled gurgle and several guttural noises alternating with nasal grunts. The Tahitians had gagged Levinthia!

“Have they gagged you?”

Levinthia’s answer was a grunt that seemed to come from the back of her throat. In the darkness of his blindfold, the sound flashed against Knox’s mind like a green chalk mark arching across a wet sidewalk. Since this morning when he’d seen, or thought he’d seen Levinthia maybe in collusion with the Tahitian man, Knox assumed she was part of their crime. But if they’d put a gag on her and not on him, they must have disliked her more than they disliked him. If they’d have gagged him, he really would feel half suffocated. He’d definitely be having more trouble breathing. Impossible with a gag not to think of those submerged caves, floating on his back, trying to locate those tiny pockets of air between the rising water and the roof of the cave. A spark of panic pulsed in the pit of his stomach.

Then loudly and elegiacally, Iakopo’s voice echoed through the house. “They’re here, Alofa.”

The sound of Iakopo running from the front of the house to somewhere deeper inside gave Knox profound relief because it sounded nothing like what he’d hear in a submerged cave. Faintly, a door closed. Knox wondered if the Tahitians might be sneaking down to the basement. He suspected that the Tahitian had brought the truck around there, but why wouldn’t they use a more sensible vehicle for their escape?

From the direction of the front door a deep voice commanded, “Open up. This is the ATF. We’ve got police surrounding the house.”

Since he was already dressed for his execution, Knox thought he might as well do all that he could to give his rescuers a sense of purpose. “Help!” he yelled. “We’re hostages. They’ve got us tied up . . .”

Before Knox could provide more information, the door splintered open and the sound of many feet hurried into the house with cautious urgency. As soon as Knox heard them entering the room where he sat, he yelled, “Help my wife first. She’s gagged.”

Part of the noise stopped several feet away, but Knox could tell that two or three men had hustled to him. As the police loosened the ropes around his arms and chest, someone said to him, “I’m Agent Rourke with the ATF.”

The hood was lifted from Knox’s head. He glanced over to where two other officers were freeing Levinthia.

Then Agent Rourke forced himself into Knox’s field of vision. “Tell me how many terrorists you’ve seen in this house. How many other hostages?”

All over the house, Knox could hear scuffling feet, orders being shouted, doors opening and closing. “I’ve been blindfolded most of the time. I’ve heard two people, a man and a woman, Tahitian I think.” He leaned to the left so he could get another look at Levinthia. Her two policemen were making faster progress than Knox’s liberators. “I think you should check in the next room for a woman in an iron lung. And her parents might be in the house somewhere. They’re very old.”

Agent Rourke gave one of the officers working on the ropes around Knox’s legs an order that Knox couldn’t make out, but when the officer stood up and tapped his partner, they disappeared into the room that Knox had jerked his head toward.

Watching the two officers disappear into the next room, Agent Rourke stooped down and began working on Knox’s bindings. “Any idea where the Samoans disappeared to?”

“I’ve not been able to make much sense out of what they’ve been saying . . .”

“They’re speaking a foreign language?” Agent Rourke looked up from the ropes.

“No, their English is fine. I just can’t put together what they’re talking about.” Knox was surprised to see Levinthia stand up. She turned her back to the officer who’d untied her legs. It looked as if he was trying to unlock her handcuffs.

About the same time that Agent Rourke unwrapped the final rope from his legs, Knox saw a crack appear in the wall on the other side of the room. Even as the crack widened, Knox corrected his first observation. A crack wouldn’t follow such a straight vertical line then about eight feet up take such a precise horizontal turn to the left. A door was opening in that wall. Too quick for Knox to register his alarm, much less give Agent Rourke and the other officers a warning, Iakopo, followed closely by Alofa, stormed out of their hiding place. Both of them carried pistols in both their hands.

Barely had the two officers with Levinthia time to turn around and face the Tahitians before they were knocked down by very precise and effective blows to their heads. As soon as she saw them rushing from their hiding place, Levinthia had started backing away, angling toward Knox and Agent Rourke, out of the Tahitians’ path of attack. Without pausing, Iakopo and Alofa hopped over the unconscious bodies of the two officers they’d just knocked down and rushed toward Agent Rourke, who was trying to draw his gun.

Alofa reached the agent a second or two before her partner. She let her momentum carry her straight into Rourke, grabbing his arm as the impact knocked him down. As he fell, Alofa twisted the arm she held and in one graceful motion kicked the gun that dropped from his hand over to the far side of the room. Agent Rourke himself slid about ten feet across the floor and bobbled to a dazed stop.

Hands still cuffed behind his back, Knox stumbled backwards, trying to put as much distance as he could between him and Alofa, Iakopo pointed one of his pistols at Knox and yelled, “I told you I’d blow your head off you son of a bitch.”

Off from his left, Knox heard Levinthia shout. Then at the same time he felt a body collide with his, he heard the pistol explode. He hit the floor with Levinthia lying across him. For the few seconds he took to squirm out from under her, he was aware of the Tahitians knocking down two other men then storming out of the room. Most of his attention was focused on Levinthia. Although she had both hands free, she didn’t offer any help to Knox as he struggled against his handcuffs and her weight across his abdomen and thighs.

“Come on, Levinthia. I need a little help here. I don’t have any hands to work with.” When Knox paused to hear what Levinthia had to say, he saw that she wasn’t conscious. Pulling himself up enough to get a closer look, Knox saw a dark stain below her right shoulder.

“Help! Somebody help!” Knox’s yell almost rose to a howl.

A man with freckles and sandy hair, wearing an ATF vest ran over to where Knox and Levinthia lay. “I’m Agent Ginn,” he said as he opened Levinthia’s blouse enough to inspect her wound.

Agent Rourke had pulled himself off the floor and limped over to Agent Ginn. Somewhere below, more shots were fired, and voices shouted.

“How is she?” Agent Rourke asked.

“I think she’ll be okay.” Agent Ginn gently lifted Levinthia high enough for Rourke to pull Knox out from under her.

Rubbing the side of his head, one of the policemen who’d been knocked down joined the two ATF agents.

“You got a key for these cuffs?” Agent Rourke stood up.

The policeman stooped down behind Knox and unlocked the handcuffs. “You want me to help you up?” he asked Knox.

“No. I want to keep an eye on my wife.”

Agent Ginn motioned for Knox to slide back under Levinthia so her head could rest on his lap.

“Why’s she unconscious if she’s not in danger?” Knox lifted her wrist and tried to find her pulse.

Guiding Knox’s hand up to Levinthia’s neck, Agent Ginn rested his fingers next to a vein that pulsed strongly under her pale skin. “Shock. Getting shot at such close range is like getting punched. Can knock your lights right out.” Agent Ginn turned to the policeman. “Get a blanket or a jacket to put over her. We don’t want her core temperature to drop.” When the policeman returned a few seconds later with a quilt, Agent Ginn covered Levinthia and tucked the edges under her. Turning back to the policeman, he asked, “Did you call the EMTs?”

“Already did. I was coming to when I saw her get shot.” The policeman stooped down beside Knox. “She took that bullet for you.”

While Knox tried to pull together a response, a tremendous explosion outside the house rattled his teeth. The two agents and the policeman ran to the door. Knox heard several sets of footsteps thumping up from below. Then two more policemen followed by another ATF agent rushed through the room, only the ATF agent slowing down long enough to cast an inquiring glance in Knox’s direction.

“She’s in shock. EMTs are on the way.” Knox rested his hand on Levinthia’s forehead. Her skin felt dry, but she didn’t seem to be getting colder. “What was that explosion?”

“Those two Polynesians shot up the basement then jumped into a truck. We took a few shots at them. They must have been carrying a load of explosives because the truck flared up then bounced up in the air high enough to flip completely over. In the middle of its gymnastics, flames started shooting out like that truck was some kind of firework. It had started melting before it landed .” The agent took a step in the direction where the other two policemen had disappeared.

“Was it a white two-ton truck? Georgia plates?” Knox touched his two fingers to Levinthia’s neck again.

“It was.”

“That was my truck. The Tahitian guy stole it last night then brought me and Levinthia here in it. It was loaded with a bunch of blue plastic barrels.”

“I need to go tell my partners.” The agent took another step then halted. “You got it under control over there?”

“Yeah.” Knox touched his forehead and realized he was more clammy than Levinthia.

“As soon as the EMTs get here, I’ll send them to you.” The agent glided from view.

Worried that Levinthia might stop breathing, Knox slid his hand down her side and rested his palm on her ribs. She seemed to be breathing fairly regularly. Narrowly assured that she wasn’t seriously injured, Knox relaxed enough to wonder what had just happened. The Tahitian man had seemed furious with him, completely unlike how he’d been behaving up until the police burst through the door. He was getting ready to shoot him. Kill him, no doubt, if Levinthia hadn’t jumped in the way. At the moment when the Tahitian charged toward him, Knox hadn’t thought about protecting anybody but himself. And he hadn’t done much of a job, just backpedaling, trying to get out of the big man’s way. He had found it easy not to make eye contact with the man because he couldn’t take his eyes off the two guns leveled in his direction. Prior to the numbing fear squeezing shut his major muscle groups, Knox had experienced a flash of disappointment when he heard the man calling him a son of a bitch. Briefly, the irrationality of the insult disturbed Knox more than the violence unfolding in front of him. Something radical had changed in the few short minutes between the Tahitian hiding in the wall with his wife and his thundering through the two groups of agents and policemen.

Interrupting Knox’s confusion, two men in dark blue jumpsuits hustled up and immediately started pulling medical devices and supplies from the two blocky cases they carried. All the while they unpacked, they inspected Levinthia, all the while talking in acronyms that sounded to Knox like they were two men who didn’t have the time to use whole words. As soon as they finished taking her vital signs, they produced a long narrow board and positioned it beside Levinthia.

With extreme care and muscular precision, one man fitted a foam collar around Levinthia’s neck. Once it was velcroed in place, the EMT raised Levinthia’s shoulders and said to Knox, “Let us take care of her now. We need to get this board under her then take her out to the ambulance.”

Knox pulled himself out of their way. “Which hospital?”

Without looking up, the EMT who was examining Levinthia’s wound replied, “Hibriten Memorial.”

“Should I go with you?” Knox wasn’t sure what he’d do if he got separated from Levinthia.

“We’d prefer you not ride with us if you’re not injured.” The EMT glanced up to evaluate Knox’s condition.

“I’m okay.” Knox didn’t think he could explain his anxiety to the two busy men.

When the EMTs secured Levinthia on the board then strapped her on the stretcher, Knox moved to her side and walked out to the ambulance with her. Vaguely, he wondered how he would get to the hospital now that his truck had exploded. Then he noticed as he stood by the ambulance watching them secure the stretcher and set up an IV that Levinthia’s van was parked in the front driveway beside a black Chrysler 300. Probably belonged to the Loomises. But if they hadn’t been too traumatized by being held captive, they might have an idea where he could find the keys to Levinthia’s van. As soon as the ambulance was out of sight, Knox realized that he hadn’t heard anybody report on any of the Loomises.

Turning around to go back in the house, Knox felt a pulse of heat that was not part of the regular weather. At the bottom of the hill, maybe fifty yards down the road, almost at the exact spot where he’d first spoken to Levinthia yesterday evening, a giant flame crackled in a puddle of melting asphalt. On the porch, staring at the flame stood the three ATF agents and four policemen.

Joining them on the porch, Knox fell under the hypnotic shimmying of the flame. “Is that my truck?”

One of the policemen replied, “What’s left of it.”

“I don’t see that anything’s left of it,” said another policeman, resting his foot on the porch railing.

“They must have been carrying a combustible that can convert a truck chassis into fuel.” Agent Ginn stroked his jaw.

“I doubt if we’ll even find the engine—not even a lump.” Agent Rourke addressed this remark to Knox. “How many plastic barrels did you say you saw in the back of your truck?”

“Maybe seven?” Knox squinted at Agent Rourke. The heat made his eyes feel terribly dry. “Not a lot. There was a bean bag chair too. They used it to restrain me, but it might have been stuffed with something besides foam pellets.”

“Anything else?”

“A pretty large collection of art reproductions.” Knox discovered that he really didn’t want to talk anymore about the contents of his truck.

“Did that strike you as unusual?”

“The art reproductions?”

Agent Rourke moved back from the front of the group and stood next to Knox. For a few seconds, he gazed at the tall flame in the middle of the road below them. “What would terrorists be doing with art reproductions?”

“The reproductions belonged to me.” Knox rubbed his eyes. “I run this business out of Atlanta, leasing art reproductions to banks and insurance companies, financial advising companies. My ex-wife, Levinthia, was closing up her art supply business over on the other side of town, and I drove up to buy her stock of reproductions.” Knox hoped if he kept talking about the reproductions he wouldn’t feel obligated to mention the trumpet.

“Had you met the Polynesians before?”

“Before when?” Knox knew his fatigue was making him sound obnoxious.

“Before one of them got it into his head that he needed to shoot you.” Agent Rourke moved from Knox’s side and stood directly in front of him.

“Last night or early this morning, I’m pretty sure the man stole my truck. After Levinthia and I tried to catch him, we went back to her condo to get ready to go talk to the police. But before we could leave, the Tahitian showed up at her apartment and kidnapped us, but I got the impression that Levinthia . . .” Knox caught himself, but he knew he’d said too much.

“What impression did you get?”

Knox hesitated, pretending to massage the shoulder he’d landed on when Levinthia knocked him down. “That she might have been some kind of hostage before we got brought to the Loomises’. I actually met the Tahitian woman while I was inventorying Levinthia’s reproductions. Then about an hour later when I thought I was on my way back to Atlanta, I stopped at a produce stand and talked to the man for twenty minutes or so.”

Agent Rourke put his hands in his pockets and stared at the flame a few seconds longer. “I need to talk to you at length.”

“If you get me a ride to the hospital so I can check on my wife . . . ex-wife . . . I’ll be glad to answer all your questions.” Knox wondered if he could avoid saying anything about Levinthia giving him that trumpet. Agent Rourke struck him as a man who didn’t have a lot of patience with musical interludes.

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