“Stop wasting time. Remove the gauntlet,” Manzur demanded.
Forgive me for being scared,” Nava said through clenched teeth. “I still smell burned skin.”
Manzur nodded, and a thug put the barrel of his automatic rifle against the back of Nava’s skull.
“All they want is the Ring, Nava. Please don’t be stubborn and get yourself killed,” Jake said.
With a determined look, Nava pulled, and the heavy steel glove slipped off Jake’s hand.
“It’s about time. What was that thing?”
“It was some kind of metal glove engraved with a Star of David covered by a Cross,” Jake responded. “Are you okay?”
“Nava pulled it off.”
“I’ll thank her later. Right now I have things to do.”
Jake started to pull his arm out of the Mouth of Truth, but Manzur warned, “Not yet. First the Ring. Take it off.”
Nava took hold of Jake’s hand, but the box windows began to fog.
“Something’s happening. I can’t see anything,” she said.
“Work by feel. Quickly now,” Manzur urged. “Nothing is going to get out of that box.”
“It’s getting hot. My arms are burning,” Nava cried.
She tried to pull her arms out, but it was like they were glued into the sleeves. In panic, she screamed and struggled to pull free.
The thick lead box plumped from some internal pressure.
“Impossible!” Manzur yelled. “The walls are four inches thick.”
The words had just left his lips when one of the round windows built into the box popped out. It flew into the chest of the man holding the rifle barrel against the back of Nava’s head. He died instantly as the thick glass exploded from his back and embedded itself into the cinder block wall.
Smoke billowed from the open hole in the box, but it didn’t act like smoke. It flew through the air like a flexible spear. Plunging into the ear of the nearest thug, it promptly drilled through his brain and emerged out his other ear. Arrowing at the remaining man, it speared him the same way.
The black smoke held its form like a closet rod. The dead bodies stood where they’d died, held erect by the stiffness of the smoky spear.
The metal box squealed as it turned molten and pulled apart like warm taffy. Nava’s arms were still inside the sleeves, but they weren’t attached to the box any longer. Jake pulled his arm out of the Mouth of Truth and faced Manzur.
Manzur panicked and bolted for the door. Nava pulled her arms free from the silvery sleeves and slung them aside. The sleeves took on a life of their own. As if invisible arms and hands filled them, they grabbed Manzur’s legs and pulled. Manzur’s head banged the floor as he was upended and suspended in mid-air.
His legs slowly pulled apart. He looked like an upside down cheerleader performing a split. His agonized groans got louder, and Jake was sure he heard something tearing as the split widened.
Jake inspected Nava’s arms and saw no injury. He found some shop towels and wiped most of the goo off her. She remained silent as he worked. She had an odd look, but Jake attributed it to the harrowing escape.
Manzur’s whimpers became louder. His face was red, and his breathing labored. Nava grabbed one of the rifles and jammed its barrel into his tender place between his out-stretched legs. She smiled as he grunted.
“Why do you want the Ring?”
“Stop torturing me,” the squirming man begged. “Have Jake release me, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
“Information first. Since you’re the one behind all this, details are what we need.”
A wheezing chuckle bubbled from Mansur’s throat. “I’m not the one behind the efforts to take the Ring. By the time you put the pieces together, it will be too late to save your lives. Unless you let me help you.”
“I swear I heard a ripping sound. Am I wrong, Nava, or did you hear it too?” Jake asked.
Nava cocked her head. “I’m not sure. Was it from around here?” she asked as she jabbed the rifle barrel again.
Mansur mewled. “All right. All right. I’ll tell you what I know.”
Jake made a mental note to remember Nava’s disappointed look.
“I got a call. Was offered big money to use my knowledge about the Ring to snatch it. All expenses paid. I figured the job would be easy.”
“Who hired you?” Jake demanded.
“I never got a name. A few days later these guys showed up and started calling me Boss Man. Half the money was deposited in cash in my account. A private jet brought us to New York. AHHHH!” Manzur moaned as his split grew wider.
“I’d talk faster,” Jake warned. “What jet? What airport?”
“I don’t know. It was a private jet. Little airport north of the city.”
“What were you to do with the Ring?”
“AHHHH!” Manzur wailed. “Stop the pain!”
“Tell me!” Jake yelled.
“Return with it to Israel. That is all I know.”
Mansur’s body ripped apart, and his entrails slithered to the floor. Nava retched.
“Smith. Why did you kill him?” Jake demanded.
“It is my job to eliminate any threats to your well-being.”
As if to accentuate his statement, the smoke trail holding the other bodies off the floor dissipated, and they tumbled into heaps.
“He was cooperating, and your enthusiasm just cost us a valuable information source.”
“Nonsense. The only other piece of information he could have provided is the airport location, and the GPS in his vehicle has it in its history. I checked.”
Nava’s complexion was returning to its normal color. “Jake, quit jawing with Smith, and let’s get out of here.”
Nava took the driver’s side of the van and checked the GPS.
Sure enough, the device’s history showed a private airfield north of the city. Throwing the van into gear, she sped away from the warehouse.
“Shouldn’t we get reinforcements?” Jake asked.
“I don’t trust anyone right now. Everywhere we go, someone shows up and tries to grab you. Until I know more, the answer is no.”
“Smart woman. Thinks like a warrior.”
“Besides, with Smith guarding your back, the chances of anything harmful coming near you is remote.”
“I calculate your chance of mating with her is improving.”
“Shut up,” Jake muttered.
“Don’t tell me to shut up,” Nava glared. “Ever since the Minister brought you on board, I’ve had nothing but trouble.”
“I was talking to Smith, not you. He won’t leave me alone.”
“What does Smith want? What makes you so special?”
“He says I am the next Ruler of the World.”
Nava laughed. “There is no way people will accept you for such nonsense. You’re just an immature, inexperienced boy with visions of grandeur. The only thing unique about you is the Ring.”
“Don’t listen to her. With my counsel and guidance, you are a sure winner.”
“The only power you have is the Ring. You are just an acne-faced boy without it.”
Jake stared at the passing landscape. Her words hurt. He wasn’t special. It was all Smith.
“I don’t have acne,” was his only response.
“She doesn’t realize we’re a team. Without you, I am nothing.”
Jake pondered what Smith had just said. “I never thought Smith needed me, but he’s right. He has to have contact with a living person before he can manifest any powers. Otherwise, he could have easily escaped from the pouch inside the alcove. What is so special, though, about me?”
“I’m concerned about Nava. She’s acting odd.”
“She’s almost been killed multiple times in the last few days. She’s holding up better than me. It’s a wonder I’m maintaining my sanity.”
“She’s more reserved. What happened after I was trapped in the gauntlet?”
“Nothing except Manzur’s threats to kill her if she didn’t cooperate.”
“Something has changed. Her attitude toward me is unsociable.”
“I didn’t know you were paranoid. Why does an interface have emotions? I figured you were more like a computer.”
“Don’t belittle me. I command powers far greater than any computer ever conceived. There is no reason to continue this conversation.”
Smith sounded angry. Jake was going to demand an explanation when blue lights began twirling behind them.
“Oh, no,” Nava said.
Nava stopped the van and rummaged for her driver’s license.
Two cops approached, one on each side. Jake noticed their hands stayed close to their sidearms.
“Please step out of the vehicle,” the one on the driver’s side commanded.
“What’s the problem, officer?” Nava asked. “I don’t think I was speeding.”
The cop pulled his pistol and said, “It’s them. Step out of the vehicle. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
As soon as Nava got out, the cop whirled her around and kicked her legs apart. His pat down wasn’t gentle.
Jake turned toward the cop on the passenger side and came face-to-face with a pistol barrel.
“Step out of the vehicle, now.”
Jake heard cuffs snick. A quick look confirmed Nava’s hands were behind her back. Opening his door, he was stepping out when the cop grabbed his collar and flung him against the side of the van. Handcuffs snicked.
“Smith, I could use your help.”
Jake and Nava were pushed to the back of the van where the headlights from the cop car glared. A figure approached. The bright lights hid his identity until he got close. It was Daniel Kohn.
“Take them to the embassy,” he ordered.
“They’re going to the precinct station,” one of the cops responded. “You may be something special where you come from, but here in New York you’re just another stiff-necked black suit.”
Kohn pulled a silenced pistol and shot both officers.
“What the hell?” Jake yelled.
“You had to be in on our kidnapping. There’s no other way Manzur’s goons could have bypassed security,” Nava said.
Instead of answering, Kohn searched the bodies for keys and uncuffed them.
“What’s going on?” Jake asked, rubbing his wrists where the cuffs had bitten into them.
Handing the cop’s pistols to them, Kohn said, “I am a member of the Goetia Legion. Our society has waited through the centuries in anticipation of the arrival of the One chosen to wear the Solomon Ring. It is our sworn duty to protect him.”
“Are you telling me there are more of you?” Nava asked.
“Yes and our numbers are growing ever since Jake’s arrival wearing the Ring.”
“Smith will get a kick out of this,” Jake said.
“Who is Smith?” Kohn asked.
Nava shot him in the shoulder.
“What the hell?” Jake yelled.
Ignoring him, Nava wrenched the silenced pistol from Kohn’s holster. Tossing the cop’s gun into the bushes, she said, “We need to leave. The cop car will have active GPS so we can’t take it.”
“Why did you shoot Kohn? He’s a member of the Goetia Legion.”
“Really?” Nava scoffed. “He knows nothing about Smith. Does that sound like a Society dedicated to protecting the One who wears the Ring?”
Kohn was glaring at them but remained silent.
“It sounded good.”
“Get back in the van.”
“What about him?”
“He can wait here until more cops arrive, or he can hide. Either way, he’s not coming with us.”
The airport was quiet.
The only lights they could see were coming from a hangar on the eastern end. A Citation Latitude sat on the tarmac with its hatch open.
“Put the cuffs back on,” Nava said. “Whoever’s on that jet is expecting you to show up as a prisoner.”
“I know the plan,” Jake grumbled.
Nava stopped at the bottom of the Entry Door stairs. The van sliding door opened, Jake fell out and the van screeched away. In moments, men grabbed him and marched toward the aircraft.
Circling back, Nava hid the van and skulked to a point where she could observe what was happening. To her surprise, the jet was already taxiing for takeoff.
Bewildered and helpless, Nava watched the jet streak into the night sky. Its engines labored as it gained altitude.
The plan had assumed Jake would delay takeoff as long as possible with explanations about Manzur. Every plan works in theory.
Jake stumbled on the first steps up to the entry.
The plan depended on him delaying as long as possible to give Nava a chance to get on board. Annoyed by his clumsiness, the men grabbed handfuls of his clothes and carried him. As soon as they shoved him into the passenger cabin, they sealed the door and the engines started.
The cabin was empty. Jake was pushed into a seat as the odor of sulfur bit into his nostrils.
“I’m getting tired of being detained everywhere we go. This metal tube feels like a tomb.”
“At last. Where have you been?” Jake asked.
“Shut up,” one of the men warned. “My only orders are to deliver you and the Ring. Your condition doesn’t matter.”
The jet lurched into motion, and the engines whined. Things were happening too fast.
“Don’t you want to hear about Mansur?” Jake asked as a dark cloud formed behind the men.
At that moment, the jet gained momentum. Jake looked in dismay as the runway landing lights disappeared below the clouds.
“Pour me a drink,” one guy asked the other. “It’s going to be a long flight.”
“Flaying does not require a knife. Observe.”
With no pause, the man reaching for the liquor bottles grunted. His piercing scream began a few seconds later as his clothes stuck to his body. His skin hung from his fingertips and puddled around his ankles like wet socks.
Jake couldn’t believe his eyes. The other man jumped up and began trying to calm the screaming man as he ripped at his clothes. With no warning, the second man’s skin shot off his arms and sloughed around his ankles. Instead of helping the first man, he began screaming and struggling to take off his own clothes.
One of the pilots threw open the cockpit door, took one look and reached for his pistol. His body and that of the other pilot burst like watermelons shot with a 12 gauge shotgun. Their exploding bodies splattered all the controls with a blood-red paste.
“That was easy.”
Jake felt his handcuffs jerk, and he was free. At the same time, the jet began losing altitude.
“Put the plane on autopilot,” Jake shouted.
“What is autopilot?”
“Oh no!” Jake swore.
The angle of the descent steepened. If Jake hadn’t been buckled in his seat, he would have fallen toward the cockpit along with the screaming, skinless men.
“Smith, I have seconds to live if you don’t get me out of here.”
“You mean to tell me this thing doesn’t fly itself?”
“It’s not a flying horse!”
“Very well. Trust me.”
The tail section split and tumbled away. The screaming men were sucked out into the night. Jake’s ears popped with pressure release. Even at 15,000 feet, the air was thin and breathing difficult. Jake felt oxygen deprived, but he couldn’t seem to pull air into his lungs.
The only thing keeping him in his seat was the seatbelt. With no warning, it ripped apart and Jake was sucked into the night sky. Whipping about, out of control, and unable to see because of violent wind, Jake panicked.
His fear of heights kicked into high gear. He imagined plunging into the ground at any second.
“Fear not, for I am with you.”
Those words were familiar. Jake was sure he had heard them somewhere, but his brain refused rational thinking.
His body turned, and something covered his eyes, shielding them from the rushing air. Blinking away tears, Jake was sure he saw two rows of lights far below. Involuntarily, his body angled toward them. Jake felt a calm sweep over his chaotic thoughts, and he began enjoying flying.
Stretching his arms like airplane wings and spreading his legs, Jake got the distinct impression he was controlling his descent. He didn’t wonder why or how, he simply knew he was in control. Breathing was getting easier and the air warmer. There was no doubt he could land softly.
Like a glider, Jake angled and swooped to a landing in almost the same spot the jet had occupied just minutes earlier. As his feet touched the concrete, Jake thought he saw Nava running toward him. Slumping to his knees, he fell over.
A warm hand grabbed his, and he thought he heard Nava saying, “Jake.”
Then another voice said.
“Nava, I had to spike his brain with dopamine and serotonin. He’ll be out for hours . . .”
Jake lost consciousness.