The slamming of a heavy metal door jerked Carla Goldman away from her troubled thoughts and back to awareness. She could hear the jingling of keys and stood just as the guard reached the door to her cell. He was a large man, more beer gut than muscle, and he smelled of stale tobacco and coffee. Opening the door, he stood to the side but his protruding stomach took up enough room that she was forced to brush up against him as she walked through the doorway. He chuckled at her glare, closed and locked the cell door, and led her back to freedom.
“You’re not done with this, bitch.” Blankenship’s hand darted through the bars to grab her arm painfully. “I hope you enjoy looking over your shoulder because they’ll be coming for you.” Wrenching her arm from his tight grasp, Carla hurried to catch up. His laughter echoed in her head long after the metal door closed to block out the sound.
There were several forms to fill out and she had to sign for her belongings which seemed to take forever but wasn’t nearly long enough. Once everything was finished, checked, signed, and her personal effects returned, the clerk informed her that she was free to go. Carla slowly walked out of the station and tried to think of where to go. She couldn’t go to her apartment; if Chaney did come after her, that’d be the first place he’d look. There was always the opera house…they told her that she’d quit but surely they were mistaken? She was their star, their prima donna! Even if she had resigned her position, she was certain the managers would allow her to return with no ramifications. Convinced all was as it should be, Carla flagged a taxi and directed him to the Metropolitan Opera and Ballet.
As the cab driver weaved his way through the dense traffic, his passenger was busy cleaning her face with a disposable wipe before reapplying her makeup. There wasn’t enough time to worry about her nails, so she simply removed the polish and hoped the false tips held until she’d reestablished herself at the opera house. Carla never had cause to look up from her primping so she didn’t notice the driver turning off the light and shutting down the meter. It wasn’t until the car was suddenly plunged into the darkness of a tunnel that she realized something was wrong.
“Hey! This ain’t the way to the opera house. I’m not paying you to go the scenic route, you know!” The driver never even glanced at her in the rear view mirror; he simply turned his radio up a bit louder and drove a bit faster. Blankenship’s words teased at her ears and she felt her body grow cold with her fear.
“Hey, you! Driver! I’m not kidding, man, I need to go to the opera house. Hell, just let me out here and I’ll get another cab. No need to do something you’ll only regret later, right?” Carla was putting on the best performance of her career as not once did her voice shake with the terror that was rising in her. When the cabbie continued to ignore her, she shook the back of his seat to get his attention.
Things being what they are, she learned quickly that not all attention is good. The car swerved sharply onto the shoulder and parked. The driver turned to glare at her but her eyes were glued on the large handgun that was pointed at her head. Like a mouse hypnotized by a cobra, Carla never looked away from single, menacing black eye. She desperately tried the door handle only to find it locked.
“The doors are locked ‘til I say otherwise so quit trying to break the handle. Now, little canary, let me lay down a few ground rules. I will drive until we get to our destination. You, however, have a choice to either ride in the backseat or in the trunk. It makes no difference to me, understand?” At her frightened nod, he let the pistol drop out of her sight with a grunt of satisfaction. “The boss don’t want you hurt but I’ll be damned if you’re going to bust out my eardrums with your squawking or rattle my teeth from my head. Now sit back, shut up, and be thankful you ain’t already dead.” With that, the man turned to face the front once more, put the cab in gear, and merged into the busy traffic.
Choosing the wiser path, Carla clamped her lips closed and stared at the buildings as they flew by. She tried to remember store fronts, street names, anything that might alert her as to where they were going but knew better than to ask. She didn’t want to risk being stuffed in the trunk. The buildings they passed began to look seedier and more run down; wherever they were, it wasn’t in the best part of the city. The cab drove through the open bay doors of an unmarked, nondescript warehouse and the driver cut the ignition. She jumped as the large metal doors slammed closed, echoing throughout the building. Two men, one slim and dressed in an expensive tailored suit and the other burly yet also impeccably dressed, joined the driver as he left the cab. They spoke for a while too low for her to hear and, what she did manage to catch, was in a language the singer couldn’t understand. What she did understand, however, was the exchange of a wad of cash for the keys to the cab. Were they merely paying the driver for his services or had she just been sold like a piece of beef? The smile the driver gave her as he walked away from the car was cruel and she was more than afraid she knew the answer to her question.
At a nod from his companion, the burly man unlocked the door and pulled her from the cab with a firm grip on her wrist. Tugging her along behind him, he followed the slimmer one into a small office attached to the warehouse, down some stairs, and into a dark, damp basement. Several times, Carla attempted to discover what they wanted with her, offering them money, sex, whatever she could think of if only they’d let her go. Neither man spoke to her but she could tell they understood by the smirks on their faces. The man holding her wrist waited for the other to unlock a metal door before tossing her carelessly inside. Her sharp cry of pain and surprise was drowned by the loud clang as the door was slammed shut behind her. The turning of a key in the lock was the most terrible sound she’d ever heard. Crawling towards a corner far from the door, Carla sat with her knees to her chest and hugged them with her arms. In the silence, she wondered if she’d ever leave the room alive.
Time had little meaning in the dark basement cell and it could have been minutes or hours since she’d been locked in when she heard the click of the key once more. A Styrofoam bowl filled with some sort of soup was placed on the floor right inside the door before it was locked securely once more. A plastic spoon, a stale dinner roll, and a bottle of what she hoped was water filled out her dinner. Carla didn’t fully trust them not to put something in the food but it had been too long since she’d eaten to leave it untouched. It was decent enough and she had soon emptied the bowl. She was still drinking the water when the door opened once more.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Goldman.”
Cringing from the intense heat, Erik searched for Alexandra through the burning wreckage of the barn. He heard a faint cough and was about to wade into the flames to retrieve his love when a bullet zipped past his head to lodge into the fiery wall. Crouching and pulling his weapon, he scanned the perimeter for the gunman. He glanced at where the bullet had struck the wood and followed its general trajectory to snowdrift about 50 feet away. With the fire behind him, Erik knew he might as well paint a glowing bull’s eye on his chest but he refused to leave until he’d pulled Alex to safety. All senses on alert, he fired the moment he saw movement from behind the snowdrift. A strangled cry and thud of a body rewarded his vigilance. Searching for other threats and finding none, he returned his attention to the burning barn.
“Alexandra!” He kept his voice as low as he could and hoped she could hear it over the roar of the flames. “Where are you, petite?”
An old board served as a makeshift shovel as he scooped up piles of snow and dumped it on the fire. So intent was he on clearing a path that he didn’t notice the stirring of the gunman behind the snowdrift. The man struggled to his knees, blood running down his face where the bullet had torn a deep furrow, and steadied his arm on the stained snow. Behind him, the sound of a bullet being chambered was Erik’s first indication that the gunman had survived. Cursing himself for not ensuring the man was dead, he knew he’d never get to his weapon in time. Taking a deep breath, he dove to the side just as he heard the soft pop of a silenced weapon. He crouched in place for a moment more in confusion; he was neither injured nor had he heard a bullet hit the wall.
“Erik,” a faint voice called his name, followed by coughing. “Get me out of here and I promise I’ll jump next time.”
Looking through the fire, he saw Alexandra shoving her pistol back into her jacket pocket as she crouched beneath a tent-like structure made of burning boards. The long central beam, still connected at the back of the barn, had fallen to the ground at the front and was now protecting her from the caved in roof. As she burrowed her way through the snow, Erik furiously dug towards her. When the path was clear, he grabbed her wrists and pulled her from the building. Scooping her into his arms, he darted for the protection of the trees. He bid her remain where she was and skirted along the trees to remove the other threats. The guards at the front of the barn were about as professional as the ones inside the compound. It was like shooting fish in a barrel to pick off each guard as he stomped his feet in the snow to maintain circulation or warmed his hands with the fire of the burning building. Satisfied that all had been eliminated, Erik returned to where he’d left Alexandra.
She was leaning against a tree trunk when he reached her side. Her parka was singed along her left side and she had buried her left hand in the snow. Kneeling, he inspected her hand and was happy to see that the burn wasn’t too bad. Erik helped her to her feet and guided her towards the front of the barn, remaining just inside the tree line. Leaving her briefly, he ensured the area was still clear. Alexandra joined him as they quickly made their way towards the truck Zakharov’s men had arrived in. Though she was keeping up, Erik noticed she was favoring one leg. He hoped it wasn’t broken from her fall. They both scrambled into the truck and within moments were roaring down the snow-covered road.
“Where does your leg hurt, ma petite? I noticed you were limping.”
“Oh…near my ankle. I cut it on the way out of the villa. It just needs some antibiotic and a bandage.” Alexandra smiled and shrugged off his concern though the throbbing around the wound made her worry it had gotten infected. The look Erik gave her before returning his attention to the road let her know he didn’t believe it was as minor as she implied. Settling into the seat, she was about to drift off to sleep when he spoke again.
“By the way…what did you tell Wallace to make him give up Zakharov’s position?”
“Well, when he was stubborn even after being shot in the knee, I told him the next shot would make him a tenor for life.” She shrugged and chuckled tiredly. “I don’t think he believed me until I lowered the barrel. Something in my face must have made him a believer.” Erik’s answering chuckle was music to her soul and she took advantage of his good humor. “Erik…I wanted to apologize for…”
“Shush, ma petite.” He smoothly interrupted and gave her a smile. “We were neither of us at our best that night. I let my jealousy cloud my better judgment even though I knew you weren’t capable of making such filth.” Erik reached over to clasp her hand and give it a gentle squeeze. “I regretted my outburst the moment the door closed behind you, mon amour.”
Alexandra’s smile and softly murmured words of love and gratitude eased the last of the pain from his heart. Returning her smile, Erik then focused on the snow covered road before them while the warmth from the heater lulled his fiancée to sleep. He kept a vigilant watch on the road before and behind him knowing the guards and the truck would soon be reported as missing. If they could reach the village before the APB was placed, they stood a better chance of resting safely before he went after Zakharov.
It took less than thirty minutes to reach the village, all of which passed uneventfully. As he pulled into the dead-end alley behind his contact’s home, Erik hoped his friend hadn’t moved or been compromised. If that was the case, things were going to get very difficult very quickly. Gently waking Alex, he told her to wait in the truck but keep watch on the entrance to the alleyway. As he approached the door, it suddenly swung open and a rifle was pointed steadily at his face. After a quick exchange in Russian, Erik motioned for Alex to join him. They’d finally reached a measure of safety.