In From the Cold – Ch. 3


In From the Cold (cont’d)

I abruptly found myself awake in darkness, watching shadows flutter on the walls.  I realized that the bedroom door had been quietly opened.  The largest shadow was leaning over the bed.

“Madiyan?” I whispered.

Her voice was low and urgent.  “We have company, Mr. Temple.”

It took a moment for the words to register.  Then I checked my watch.  “Too early,” I muttered, and reached for my clothes.

“Are they here to take me to the airport?” she whispered.

We hadn’t turned the cabin’s lights on.  I stood at the window facing the driveway and brushed the curtain aside, carefully.  “Not in that jeep, they aren’t.”  My neck stiffened as the vehicle’s interior lights flicked on.  “And not with those guns.”

Madiyan hissed something rapid and nasty.

“I don’t know what you said but I agree with you.  Come with me.”  I grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the kitchen.

After a moment she followed.  “Aren’t these your friends?” she accused.

“Professionals wouldn’t have driven up to the house and woken us up.  These are amateurs, and they’re here to shoot things.”  I pushed the hidden panic button as Madiyan flowed into the kitchen behind me.  It was a tight fit for both of us.  “But I don’t think they want to hunt for us in the dark.”  I grabbed my overcoat from the rack.  “I know a couple of hiding places in the woods.  HQ will send some backup eventually, and these guys want to be long gone before then.  We can come back when they leave, and…”

I placed my hand on the brass doorknob and stopped.  It was icy cold.

“…ah.”

I looked at Madiyan.  She was looking at me, not at the door.

“How long would you last out there?”

“At sub-freezing temperatures, five to ten minutes before muscular failure,” she recited briskly.  “Twenty to thirty minutes before my organs start shutting down.”

To her credit, the lamia girl wasn’t panicking.  But she was obviously looking to me for ideas.

I had a couple of those.

I could stay in the cabin and talk to the killers.  I didn’t delude myself that I could persuade them to spare Madiyan.  But maybe I could convince them that I was on their side and that it was perfectly fine to leave a witness behind after they committed a murder that would attract international condemnation.

Or I could take a walk in the woods.  I could let the Senator’s goons – I was sure he’d sent them – eliminate a known threat to national security.  Maybe claim credit for providing support to a counterintelligence operation.  If I found myself in the Senator’s good graces, I might even be re-hired by the Company.  Sure, they couldn’t send me back out to the field, but I could take an instructor’s position and ride it into an honorable retirement.

I could get my life back, and I wouldn’t have to get my hands dirty at all.

I reminded myself that Madiyan was, effectively, an enemy intelligence officer.

She looked very small and young, coiled tightly in the tiny kitchen.

L’habit ne fait pas le moine.

“Mark,” she said quietly.  “Don’t give me to them.”

I made a decision, and told her a lie.  “Never considered it.  But I need you to stay here and keep quiet.”

She watched as I shrugged out of my coat.  “What are you going to do?”

I flashed her a grin that wouldn’t have passed in the hotel industry, but at least it was real.

“I’m going to go and greet our guests, of course.  Isn’t that my job?”

The gears in my head were finally spinning as I walked through the cabin.  I felt cool and smooth.  I also knew that overconfidence could get me killed very easily in the next few minutes.  Footsteps on the porch halted as I turned on the cabin lights, and I gave my guests plenty of time to settle themselves.  I fumbled noisily with the latches on the door.  I didn’t want to startle anybody, after all.

Then I opened the door, carefully ignoring the blast of cold air and the guns pointed at my belly.

“It’s about time you guys showed up,” I said.

They didn’t shoot me immediately, which was a small victory.

“Who the fu…”

I shushed the man quickly.  “Not so loud,” I cautioned, glancing over my shoulder.  “It’ll be a lot messier if you wake her up.”

The man kept his Beretta trained on my stomach.  He’d obviously been working himself up to crash the door and shoot everyone in the cabin, but he wasn’t sure – for the moment – if I was a valid target or not.  I didn’t give him extra time to think about it.

“Get in here before you freeze,” I urged, and backed away from the door, keeping my empty palms obvious and giving them a clear view into the living room. “Did you bring a truck?”

He followed me carefully into the room.  He glanced quickly into the corners, even checking the rafters, but kept his pistol close to his body and his attention on me.

His partner wore a food-flecked beard and an Army jacket that had obviously been issued to a much healthier man.  He pointed a gimmicked AR-15 rifle at me, then at the furniture, at the closed doors, at the fireplace.  He was hunting for monsters.  I guessed this was his first murder.

“Alright,” said the man with the pistol, keeping his voice low.  “Who are you and what are you doing here?”

They were trying to be quiet now.  I liked that.  Guns are loud.

“Didn’t the Senator tell you?  I’m the caretaker up here.  I’m here to keep an eye on the target.”  I smiled conspiratorially.  “And to handle the cleanup.”

Of course he didn’t believe me, not yet.  I didn’t need him to.  I just needed to confuse them until the ugliness was over and done with.  I was hoping to be alive at the end of it.

He squinted at me, then past me, counting the doors.  “Where is it?”

I pointed to the last bedroom on the left.  “Go in quiet.  She’ll probably think it’s me.”

He nodded past me, to his partner.  “I don’t trust this guy.  You watch him while I check the rooms.”

I shrugged.  As he started toward the bedrooms, I whispered to the bearded man, who had stuck close to the two of us.  “Hey, you want to know the really perverted thing about these monster girls?”

He did, and leaned in to listen, letting his rifle hang from its sling.

I slammed my elbow into his jaw.

It was a good hit.  I felt the man’s muscles go slack.  I gave him a shove and started moving fast toward the other guy.

I needed a gun.  I knew I’d never get the rifle loose from its sling in time, which left the Beretta.  As the man with the pistol spun around, looking for something to shoot, I charged across the few yards that separated us.  I liked my odds in a wrestling match better than in a gunfight with no gun.  If the man was a half-second slow, I would be on him before he could shoot me.

But he wasn’t slow enough, and I wasn’t as fast as I used to be.

So he shot me.

Pain exploded under my arm and kept exploding.  A moment later I crashed into the shooter and we tumbled heavily to the rug, grappling and punching at each other.

I didn’t know how many heartbeats I had left.  I was too busy to worry about it, because my opponent had clambered on top of me and pinned me on my back.  He celebrated by slamming his right hand down into my face, and I grinned up at him.

Not because the punch didn’t hurt – it hurt like hell – but it didn’t crush my cheekbone like two pounds of metal in his fist would have.  He’d lost his gun.

He punched me again and the novelty wore off.  When I moved to stop him I couldn’t raise my left arm above my waist, showing that the bullet had damaged me on that side.  I knew that already.  I blocked the blows as well as I could with my right, but the math was two-arms-to-one against me.  I tried a desperate punch of my own, but that got me nothing but another blow to the head.

At that moment I felt his weight shift, and knew he’d made a mistake.  He was reaching past me for the gun.

With the last strength in my bad arm, I gripped his belt and bucked my hips, overbalancing him.  I kicked us both into a roll that should have ended with me on top, and my fist in his face.  For a moment, I thought it was going to work.

Until I landed hard on my wounded side, and blacked out.

When I gasped my way back to consciousness, I was on my back, straddled and pinned again.  Only this time I was looking into the barrel of a pistol.

“Dumb move, whoever you are,” the man grunted.  The fight had barely winded him.  “Hope it was worth it.”

I hoped that I had accomplished something.  I hoped that Maddie had been able to flee, somehow.  I fought the pain in my chest for one last good breath, for all the good it would do me.

Then something slammed into the man from behind, hard.  I shoved and he tumbled, and I recovered enough to see Madiyan recoiling from what must have been a wicked tail slap.  And then diving for the floor, a look of terror on her face.

Thunder crashed through the cabin.

I rolled myself over to see the bearded man standing, checking to see if he’d hit anything with his first shots.  He noticed me looking and started to raise his rifle again.

I noticed that my right hand had fallen on something hard and metallic.

I snatched up the pistol and fired a half-dozen rapid shots.  I must have hit something important, because the man with the rifle fell backwards, blasting a last bullet toward the kitchen as he went.

I twisted back around to find the other man on his knees, ready to jump on me again.  He stopped, looked at the gun, looked at me.

The Beretta jammed after I fired it once.  I probably limp-wristed it, I didn’t have much grip strength left.  But that shot was enough, and the man fell.

So did I.

After that I remember staring up at the cabin’s rafters.  The shadows up there seemed to be circling.  Madiyan was leaning over me, shouting something that I couldn’t hear.  There was blood in her hair.  That bothered me, a lot.  I may have said something about it.  Then I couldn’t see anything, and the shadows rushed down and took me with them.

“Well, ain’t this some shit,” declared Albright, counting the dead men in the room.  “And I’m the one who’s stuck having to clean it up.  Not to mention writing up the incident report.  Paperwork’s gonna’ be a nightmare.”

“Sorry,” I croaked from where I lay on the couch.

Albright turned to me, disgusted.  “You sure do like collecting stiffs, don’cha’?”

I didn’t respond to that.  Partly because talking hurt.  The bullet had torn a groove in my side and deflected off a rib, probably cracking it, but hadn’t punctured anything vital.  I couldn’t move very easily, and I couldn’t take a deep breath.

But I was breathing.

The wound was still big enough to matter.  Madiyan had grabbed towels and tape from the bathroom and improvised a pressure dressing that kept the bleeding to a trickle.  Medusae train first aid in their schools, apparently.  When Albright arrived later that morning with a field kit, he’d complimented her on a capable patch job, and given me a shot for the pain.  It helped, some.

“You need to take him to a hospital.”  Madiyan’s voice was angry, accusing.  She was coiled beside the fireplace, arms crossed, staring down at me.  I must have been an ugly sight.  My face felt swollen and hot from the blows I’d taken, I was sticky with drying blood, and my hands were still twitching, trying to grasp the deaths they’d caused.

I looked back at Madiyan.  Just above those fiery eyes, I saw the gauze bandages marking where a bullet had ripped at the “snakes” that made up her inky black hair.  And I saw the rest of her body that hadn’t been torn by bullets.  As foul and savage as I felt, I smiled at her.  The morphine probably helped with that.

“Nah, we’d kinda’ like to avoid hospitals,” said Albright.  “We can disappear the stiffs easy enough, but the emergency room tends to report gunshots to the police.”  He glared at me.  “Woulda’ been a lot simpler if you’d caught another bullet.”

“Send better killers next time,” Madiyan snarled.  The morphine allowed me to grin at that, too.

“Hey, lady, I had nothing to do with this.”  Albright nudged one of the bodies with his foot.  “Probably a couple of the Senator’s militia boys.”  He shot a glance at me.  “Forget you heard that, you’re not cleared for it.”

“So who told them I was in this cabin, Mr. Albright?” Madiyan demanded.  “Didn’t you drag me out here for my safety?”

“Hell, I don’t know!  I sure didn’t tell anybody, and I tossed your phone before we hit the highway.  I know nobody was tailing us.”

I felt strong enough to speak a little.  “Check the jacket.”

“What?  What jacket?”  Albright fixed on the only jacket in the room, and grimaced.  “Madiyan, where’d you get the jacket?”

Madiyan glanced down at herself.  “It was a gift, a parting gift, from…oh.”

She hurriedly shed her red jacket and handed it to Albright.  It didn’t take long to locate the GPS token in the lining.  It had probably cost less than the jacket.

“Sloppy,” I smirked at Albright.

He tossed the jacket aside and scowled down at me.  “Now I really wish you were dead.”

“Kill him, then,” said Madiyan.

Albright stopped loathing me for a moment.  “What did you just say?”

I was rather curious myself.

“The whole point of this place is to allow people to quietly vanish, isn’t it?”  Madiyan gestured to me, laying on the couch.  “Report that he died here, like the others.  Let him leave.”

“Not that anybody would miss him very much, but where’s he supposed to go?”

“You’ll send him with me,” she said.

Albright hastily waved the idea away.  “Absolutely not.  Not going to happen.”

“Why not?  Explain.”

“Look, miss, this man can’t leave the country.  He’s still got warrants against him…he’s a living international incident.”

Madiyan fixed him with her inhuman glare.  “In case you’ve forgotten, so am I.  And I believe that your carelessness created this situation, and almost got me killed?  You require my silence, and you’re going to put him on the plane.”

Albright looked from her, to me, and back.  “Madiyan, you don’t know who this man is.”

“I may know him better than you do,” she replied, and turned to me.  “Will you come?”

I looked at the young lamia who had been so hostile toward me for the past two days.

“Why me?” I asked.

“It ain’t your damned personality, that’s for sure,” Albright grumbled.

Madiyan took her time answering.  “Not many men would have endangered themselves for a…strange woman.”  She didn’t mention treason in front of Albright, which I thought was polite.

I shook my head.  “I’m not a hero.  We were attacked.”

She moved close enough to touch my hand.  “I’m aware that you could have walked out the back door into the woods.  Those men weren’t here to kill you.”

“What about ‘wealth and power’?”  It sounded apologetic.

Madiyan glared at me as if I was being deliberately dense.  “Wealth and power aren’t genetic traits, Mr. Temple.  They are indicators of intelligence and strength, which we do look for in mates.  You’ve demonstrated those traits sufficiently.”

Albright threw his hands in the air.  “Don’t make me vomit.  Anyway, you know this guy’s been shot, right?  He’s not really in great shape for a twelve-hour plane ride.”

“You said yourself that he didn’t need a hospital,” Madiyan pointed out.  “We have very good doctors in the Lamia islands.”

“Much good it’ll do you if he dies on the plane.”  He turned to me.  “You know you can’t come back, right?  You go with her, and you lose everything.  No pension, no passport, your ex-wife gets your life insurance and the flag from your casket.  You won’t exist anymore.”

I thought about that, about leaving behind an entire life.  Sacrifices I’d made, and all the small pleasures that I’d hoped to regain before I died.  I thought about things I had already left behind.

“What’s it like?” I asked, looking up at Madiyan.

She looked down at me with her strange, vertical pupils, her plekti squirming gently around her face.

“I can promise that you won’t be lonely,” she said.

I squeezed her hand and nodded.

Albright looked at both of us, shaking his head in disbelief.

“You’re a couple of nutjobs, you know that?”

So that’s the story of how ‘Mark Temple’ died.

If you say he died a fool, I’ll nod along with you.

If you say he died as a traitor to his country, I won’t argue the point.

But I’ll tell you that he died saving the life of a pregnant woman that he’d promised to protect.  And if I ever met the man, I’d shake his hand.

My next life turned out to have some rather dramatic moments, too.

But that, my friend, is an entirely different story.

 

END

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