Slipping silently through the small copse of trees on the southern edge of the compound, Erik climbed the tallest and watched as the guards drank away the cold. Though their patrols covered the entire perimeter of the villa, they’d had no opposition in so long that they were careless and complacent. Often they stopped to chat, warm their hands by fires burning in barrels, or to replenish whatever was in the hip flasks they drank from; several of them had fashioned mancala boards from egg cartons and bottle caps ignoring their duties for a game near the fire. As a result, there were many times that they left areas unattended for relatively long periods of time. It was during one of these times that Erik eased from the tree onto the perimeter wall, being very careful of the dangerous coil of the concertina wire. Pausing to ensure he hadn’t been seen, he then leapt onto the ground near the rear of the villa. The lock on the back door proved to be little challenge and he quickly entered the house and closed the door behind him. Stripping off the parka and white gloves, he placed them behind an antique secretary before blending into the shadows like a ghost.
The rooms he passed on the ground floor seemed mostly utilitarian in design. The kitchen, foyer, library, and dining room were all empty and undisturbed; the only activity being in the guard barracks towards the northern side of the villa. Erik listened at the door for confirmation of their shift schedule as well as any news that may be important. The men talked of nothing that had any bearing on his mission so he returned to the kitchen to look for the servant’s staircase to the upper floor. He was halfway up the stairs when he heard the sound of drawers being carefully opened and closed behind him. Whoever was searching through them was attempting to do so without drawing attention. Unhooking his Punjab lasso, he crept to the bottom of the stairs to look around the corner only to find the room empty. Uneasy at the thought of someone behind him, Erik gave the kitchen a quick but thorough search. He found nothing out of place nor any sign that someone had recently been in the room. He waited for several more moments, trying to see if there was anything or anyone hiding in the gloom, before resuming his ascent.
The hall on the upper floor was dimly lit with doors lining both sides but no visible guards. He sneered at Zakharov’s confidence in his outside security; a confidence that was quite obviously misplaced. Silently, Erik began a room by room search for the Russian criminal and his Alexandra. The first two rooms yielded nothing but dust and cloth-covered furniture, sure signs that they’d not been used recently. Not leaving anything to chance, he searched the armoires and bathrooms in both but their unused states only confirmed his belief that they’d been empty for some time. The third contained a single guard who, instead of attending to his job, was ogling the centerfold of a popular adult magazine. With a smirk, Erik slipped the thin lasso around the man’s neck and neutralized the potential threat to his mission. Catching the body before it hit the floor, he returned the dead man to the chair and arranged him so that he appeared to have simply fallen asleep on the job, girlie mag opened to the man’s last sight in this lifetime.
Across the hall, Erik encountered his first locked door. He picked the lock easily only to find that the door still wouldn’t budge. Not wishing to make noise and alert any remaining guards, he abandoned the room with the intention of returning once he’d secured this floor. Of the next four rooms, only one had another guard who proved to be a bit more dedicated to his job than the first. After a moment of hesitation at the unexpected intrusion, the guard pulled a knife and advanced on the masked man. With a skillful flick of the wrist, the lasso flew across the small distance and tightened around the wrist until the knife fell from numb fingers. Using the distraction to close the distance, Erik wrapped his fingers around the man’s neck and held him steady while his blade slid easily between his opponent’s ribs to pierce his heart. The guard made a brief gurgling sound, bloody foam gathering at the corners of his mouth, before he joined his comrade in the afterlife. Erik placed him on the bed to hide the blood that was quickly soaking into his clothing and continued his search. None of the rooms housed Alexandra or Zakharov nor did they show any signs of ever having done so.
Returning to the one room he’d been unable to search, Erik pulled a Gerber multi-tool from its pouch and pried the pins from the hinges. Once that was finished and the door set aside, he discovered the resistance had been a chair wedged firmly beneath the doorknob. The rest of the room, however, was empty though it showed signs of recent occupancy. Was this Alexandra’s prison and, if so, where had she gone? A quick search of the room revealed no clues and the bathroom was just as unforthcoming. Frustrated, he was about to return to the hall when a flash of movement out the window caught his attention. Careful to avoid being seen, Erik peered into the courtyard below to see a lone figure darting from below to crouch between two vehicles. Alexandra! Racing from the room, he paused only to replace the door and then took the stairs quickly but quietly. If it wasn’t his fiancée perhaps he or she could be persuaded to tell him where she was.
With the guards moving around in preparation for the shift change, it took Erik longer to exit the villa than it had to enter it. By the time he’d stepped back into the bitter cold and snow, there was no sign of the figure he’d spotted from the window. Stifling a few choice curses in several languages, he ran to the last place he’d spotted her in hopes of discovering where she’d gone from there. The steady snowfall had mostly filled in a set of small, fresh footprints that led to a utility shed. Once he’d darted behind the small structure, Erik was greeted with the unpleasant scents of blood and bile. A quick glance took in the open door, the bin, and the gap in the concertina wire and he was up and over the wall as quietly as possible.
Fresh footprints were quickly filling with snow as they led into the trees and, eager as he was, Erik still remained cautious as he followed them. After all, there was no guarantee that the figure he’d spotted earlier or the one who’d made these prints belonged to his fiancée. Palming a knife in one hand and the lasso in his other, he slipped behind a tree and came face to face with Agent Wallace. In his grasp, with a hand over her mouth, was his Alexandra.
“Well, well, well…you were quicker than I expected. Leave it to Le Fantôme to screw up a schedule.”
“What did he offer you to betray your country, Wallace? Money, power, your choice of women?” Erik shifted the knife hidden in his hand to a more comfortable position. If the traitorous agent would keep still, he’d be able to end this quickly. Unfortunately, Wallace was quite familiar with Le Fantôme’s skills and kept shifting behind Alexandra’s body to keep from presenting a clear target.
“Can I have ‘All of the Above’ for $500?” The agent chuckled at the Jeopardy reference and caressed Alex’s cheek with his thumb, delighting in Erik’s rising fury. “You see, there has to be a buffer between Stanislav and a man of sophisticated tastes like Vlascenko. In exchange for omitting certain facts from my reports, I am that buffer. I take the girls, break them in, and train them properly for the life they will have under his tender care. I was greatly looking forward to training this one. It’s not every day I can bed the Phantom’s whore.” Wallace grinned and whispered to Alex just loud enough for Erik to hear. “Don’t worry, honey, I’ll erase those horrible memories of having to fuck the monster. You’ll see what a real man is like.”
Erik watched the fury and disgust rise in Alexandra’s pale green eyes along with something else. Her gaze darted between his hand and his face and arched a brow in inquiry. At his nearly imperceptible nod, she closed her eyes and then put all her weight, fear, anger, and training into the elbow she threw into the agent’s stomach. When he doubled slightly and loosened his hold on her, she grabbed the hand that had stifled her cries and twisted. Once behind him, with his arm angled awkwardly at his back, Alex planted a solid kick to the back of his knee. Wallace stumbled forward in an effort to regain his balance but, instead, practically fell into the waiting arms – and lasso – of a very irate Phantom. Alex quickly searched the rogue agent for weapons and removed all she found before stepping out of arms’ reach.
“Are you alright, ma petite chère?” Though his hold on the thin rope around the agent’s neck never wavered, the care and concern in his voice caressed Alex as tenderly as a lover’s touch.
“I am now, my love.” Placing the extra ammunition in her pocket, she motioned towards Wallace with the silenced Beretta she’d just confiscated from him. “Who’s this disgusting piece of filth?”
“A CIA agent who Zakharov managed to subvert; this would explain the ease of my entry and both of our escapes. We will need to be doubly careful now that I know we’ve been compromised. The rest of the agents may be clean but we can’t take that risk.”
Tugging on the lasso until Wallace tilted his head up, Erik asked for Zakharov’s location. The agent merely smiled and shrugged. Alex pulled the man’s scarf from his neck and stuffed it in his mouth. Not willing to allow the traitor to cause further delays while the guards caught up with them, she drew the silenced weapon she’d taken off him and shot him in the knee. Closing the distance, she placed the hot barrel against the side of the agent’s neck and whispered softly in his ear. Though the man blanched, he shook his head and Alex let the gun drop until it was just below waist height. A single arch of her brow along with a cruel smile teasing the corners of her lips and suddenly the acidic, ammonia-like smell of urine wafted through the frigid air. Plucking the scarf from Wallace’s mouth, Alex repeated Erik’s question. This time, the agent answered.
Having obtained the necessary information, the masked man sent Alex to the copse’s edge to ‘stand guard’ while he ensured Wallace wouldn’t follow them or alert anyone. Once the body had dropped to the snow, Erik hurried to her side and pulled her into a tight embrace. He shushed her stammered apologies with a deep yet tender kiss.
“Once more, ma petite, you are missing part of the set of jewelry I gave you on New Year’s Eve.” He slid her ring back onto her finger before brushing her tears away. There was more that needed to be said from both of them but it would have to wait. Now, survival and safety was of the utmost importance. “Come. I do not trust the vehicle Wallace and I arrived in so we’ll have to walk for a while. There should be someone who can help us in the next village but it’s about forty kilometers from here.”
Alexandra’s trusting smile tugged at his heart and he pulled her back into his arms for another quick embrace. Brushing a gentle kiss across her lips, Erik stepped back and motioned her to follow him as quietly as possible. They would take care of Zakharov later.
Carla adjusted her barely-decent minidress and knocked on the penthouse apartment’s door. The sultry smile she bestowed upon the man who answered promised a night filled with the most decadent of delights. As the door closed behind them, she left a trail of clothing – his and hers – all the way to the bedroom where she fulfilled this promise in various and sundry ways. In between their energetic and adventuresome trysts, they sank further into hedonistic debauchery with fine brandy and rows of white powder. Sipping her drink while floating along the drug-induced high, she asked about their mutual business acquaintance, Robert Chaney, and their triumph over Alexandra Roberts and the intimidating Erik Devereaux.
Blankenship finished rolling his fifty dollar bill into a tube and inhaled one row of powder before going into a long, drunken ramble about how his father never respected or was proud of him. Chaney, he said, promised a way to prove himself as not only equal to his father but better than him. Some colorless, flavorless liquid in his after-dinner cognac and suddenly he, Michael Blankenship, and not his arrogant prick of a father was head of Omni. Snorting the second row quickly and skillfully, he showed her the original video he’d made all those years ago of the young Alex and himself. As she praised his forethought, Blankenship showed her a cabinet filled with all the other films he’d made over the years of various girlfriends and partners…not all of whom were willing. Or of legal age. Wallowing in her wide-eyed approval, he told her how he’d blackmailed an employee with a gambling addiction into altering a popular porn video by replacing the actress’ face with Alex’s. He also told her he’d used the employee to bring back an old classic: cement shoes. The man was a liability after all, he reasoned. Carla nodded and attempted to reward the CEO for his resourcefulness but the alcohol and drugs in her system conspired against her and, unconscious, she slumped over his naked chest.
Two floors down from the penthouse suite, Da’ud al-Zahir and three agents listened to and recorded the information that was being transmitted from above. Once they were satisfied they had enough for a conviction, the agents left the former policeman with the tapes to issue an arrest warrant for the two lovers. Alone, Da’ud shook his head over Erik’s nontraditional methods and hoped they wouldn’t get the case thrown out of court.