For Trish Collins
Just to be safe, I’ll put on my tether first.
It was the first thought that came to mind as I looked over the edge of the cliff, but a quick assessment of my gear revealed that wasn’t a possibility. The height was almost dizzying, so I closed my eyes, willing myself to ignore the very real eight-hundred-foot drop to certain death.
Why here? I hated heights. It was as if Vallin knew my every weakness.
I couldn’t allow my fear to overwhelm me – not when Nikolai was depending on me to rescue him. Egypt was going to be our last mission. Then we were going to leave the organization and start our life together, but it went south all so quickly.
How did Vallin’s men know we were coming? They were waiting to ambush us as soon as we entered his private art museum. Its walls were lined with famous paintings that had gone missing and hadn’t seen the light of day in decades. Each one hung in a gilded frame, but it wasn’t a painting we were after. It was a deadly device that our intelligence tracked here. Vallin’s men seemed as numerous as the paintings that lined the walls and they wasted no time in attacking.
In the chaos, I lost track of Nikolai and when I saw him next, his unconscious body was being dragged behind three of Vallin’s very large and muscular cronies. There was no way I could take them down. I was outgunned, outnumbered, and outmatched.
My pulse was beginning to quicken at the memory, so I took a deep breath in the hopes that it would center me, but the stagnant searing heat in the air did nothing more than cause my lungs to constrict on contact. So much for that, I thought to myself. There was no comfort to be found in this Godforsaken place. No comfort ever, if Nikolai was lost. Backup was a day away and he couldn’t afford to wait that long.
I was going to have to free climb, so I made sure my long dark hair was tied back securely, then swung my black canvas backpack on and lowered myself over the edge–my breasts and abdomen scraping the rock as I struggled to find my first foot holds. Each move I made was slow and calculating as I didn’t move on until I was sure of my footing. Every nerve was on fire as I made the grueling journey to Vallin’s complex neatly etched into the side of the mountain. If it wasn’t the home of a madman, I could appreciate its beauty, but…
By the time I managed to lower myself on the top floor balcony, I was dripping with sweat. The combination of nerves, heat. and physical strain taking their toll. I knew I couldn’t possibly smell good at this point. On the bright side, maybe Vallin would just hand over Nikolai so he wouldn’t have to smell me anymore than he had to.
Looking around at the golden hued rock that this place was made out of, I had to admit it was beautiful even if a bit devoid of anything resembling a plant. Its starkness, as intimidating as it was, was also awe inspiring, but this wasn’t the time for appreciating the merits of architecture. Quietly, I withdrew the tranquilizer guns from the pack, tucking two into the waistband of my brown leather pants and the third, I held firmly in my right hand. Why tranquilizer guns, you might ask? They’re all I could get my hands on. At least they’d be quiet and the element of surprise was all I had going for me.
Carefully, I walked across the stone floor making sure that my boots didn’t make a sound. Fortunately, the cylindrical pillars that appeared every several feet provided me with some much needed cover. Unfortunately, I hadn’t given much thought beyond getting here and I didn’t have any idea where Nikolai would be held. One of Vallin’s henchmen appeared just as the thought finished forming. It was if the Gods were giving me a gift. Standing still, hidden by the pillar, I waited until the burly man dressed in black pants and black tee-shirt was near enough, then checked him in his throat. Without wasting a second, I kicked him in his stomach while knocking the gun out of his hand. Now defenseless, he was on his knees gasping for air. “Where’s Nikolai?” I asked in a stern whisper, while I steadily pointed the gun between his eyes.
He tried to laugh when he saw the tranquilizer gun aimed at him, but his newly bruised larynx allowed nothing but a rush of air to escape his lips. The realization of his predicament, quickly turned his look of amusement into a grimace. “Tell me,” I ordered, “or I’ll make sure you never hear the sound of your own voice again.”
“Two floors down,” he said hoarsely, “in a cell.” Somehow this man still looked smug, so I shot him in the neck and took an inordinate amount of pleasure seeing the look of surprise on his face as he passed out. For the remainder of my descent, I met no resistance. In fact, there was no one around at all. A bad feeling crawled up my spine, but when I spotted Nikolai in a cell behind two guards, thoughts of caution were thrown to the wind. Without hesitation, I tranq’d the guards who promptly slumped to the ground and ran over to Nikolai. His large form was crumpled on the floor barely conscious—his face covered in bruises, and his dirty blond hair looked black due to the dried blood caked onto the thick strands. I longed to pull him into my arms, but the cage he was in prevented our contact, which brought my attention back to the guards.
The keys were on the second guard I searched. Alarm bells began to sound once more regarding how easy this had been, but I couldn’t be bothered now, not when I was so close. Without another thought, I opened the cell door and went to Nikolai’s side. His green eyes struggled to open at my touch, “Riza,” he whispered and a small smile pulled at the corners of his full lips when he recognized me. Then his roman nose wrinkled as he said with his charming Russian accent, “you need a shower.”
“You don’t smell so sweet yourself,” I chided as I pulled him up and placed his heavy left arm over my shoulders to help support him. “Can you shoot?” I asked and he looked at me through his swollen eyes as if I had three heads. I gestured toward his battered body in my defense then handed him one of the guns that was tucked into the back of my waistband. He looked at the tranquilizer gun now in his hand, a look of surprise flashing across his features then looked at me questioningly. I shrugged in response, while mouthing the question, “What?” But what the glare in my eyes said was, “Don’t start.” He tried to smile, but the bruises prevented it from fully forming, sobering us from the lighthearted moment.
Silently, we made our way through the complex, looking for a way out. After what seemed like a long time, we still encountered no resistance and just as I was beginning to think that this wasn’t a trick, that we truly had taken Vallin and his men by surprise, we rounded the corner, stumbling right into the trap I had been waiting for.
There in front of us stood Vallin dressed in his usual suit of white. In the bright sun, his blond hair seemed to glow, but the unforgiving rays of the sun caused his boyish looking tanned face to age instantly as his wrinkles became evident. Standing in a line behind him were more of his men all wearing the same outfit as the others, black pants and black t-shirts fashionably accessorized with firearms.
“Did you really think I was going to let the two of you walk out of here?” he asked with a nondescript European accent. Clearly, the question was intended to be rhetorical, but I thought it deserved an answer so I responded, “I was hoping.” He looked at me with a grimace, annoyed that I’d spoken.
“No matter,” he replied. “Both you and the love of your life, Nikolai, will be allowed to walk out of here, if you give me one thing.” He paused, waiting for me to ask the obvious follow-up question. My pulse pounded in my ears and the weight of Nikola’s stocky six-foot-tall body was getting harder for my petite five foot six frame to bear with every passing minute. I looked over at him. His condition made it impossible for us to fight or way out of this, so I asked the question Vallin was waiting for, “And what is that?”
“The access code to the vault,” he said smugly. I felt the color drain from my face. The vault held all the secrets to our society. He could bring every member down; everyone on the planet would be in danger.
“No,” I said firmly.
Vallin sighed, “I was afraid you would say that. Shoot Nikolai,” he ordered coldly.
Nikolai pulled himself up as straight as he could, determined to face the end with dignity, but when I heard the cacophony of hammers being pulled back, I yelled out “Wait!” Fear dripped off of the word.
Vallin raised his hand, a smug look forming on his face, and his men instantly stood down. “Is there something you’d like to say?” he asked.
I thought maybe if I could keep him talking I could prevent him from killing us. Maybe, we could get out of this. “Why kill Nikolai and not me?”
“Simple, we’ve beaten and tortured him and he hasn’t broken. I think this is a much better incentive for you to tell me what I want to know.”
I looked at Nikolai; the thought of losing him was unbearable. He saw the sadness reflected in my eyes, “No, my Angel, you can’t.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered as I reach for the last gun behind my back, my right hand obscured from Vallin’s view due to the position of Nikolai’s body.
In one quick movement, I drew the gun and Nikolai dropped to the ground hitting the floor hard. We tranq’d as many of Vallin’s men as we could, but somehow he stood in the middle of the confrontation completely fearless. In fact, he was laughing, showing no concern for his safety even though all of his men now lay on the ground soundly sleeping. I turned around to find Nikolai. He was still on the ground, but his clothes were stained with fresh blood.
I ran over to him and moved his head into my lap. He was gone and all I could hear was Vallin’s shrill laughter that made my blood curdle. While I was leaning over Nikolai, tears were streaming down my face and I suddenly felt a blow to the back of my head. The last thought I had as the world faded from view was: at least we died together.
To my surprise, my eyes slowly opened and I had to blink several times to bring the room into focus. When the fog cleared, tears began to well up. Nikolai, the man I had lost moments ago, was bent over me. His green eyes, sparkling with the tears he held back, were even more beautiful than I had remembered. “My Angel,” he said while he caressed my cheek. My first instinct was to throw myself at him, so that he could fold me into his embrace, but the pain I felt all over as I attempted to do just that, kept me right where I was. Which, when looking around, was completely unfamiliar. “Where am I?” I asked, but I was surprised at the sound of my own voice which sounded hoarse from lack of use.
“You’re in Vallin’s laboratory,” Nikolai replied.
“His laboratory,” I repeated confused.
“What’s the last thing you remember from the museum?” he asked.
“That we were ambushed and that you were taken.” With each word spoken, my voice was becoming stronger.
“We were ambushed,” he corroborated, “but,” he continued, “it was you who was taken six months ago.” The news made me feel as if I had been struck over the head. Somehow, I felt more disoriented now than when I had first woken up. “You’ve been hooked up to this machine,” he pointed to a grey monstrosity that pulsed with blue lights next to the gurney I was laying on. “As far as we can tell, it’s some type of advanced form of virtual reality. Vallin was using it to extract information from you.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
Nikolai helped me sit up so I could see a worse for wear Vallin passed out in the corner of the room. The walls of the room were the color of steel with no decoration. It looked like a cross between a cell, a laboratory, and a computer geek’s dream come true. The fact that I’d mostly likely been kept here for the past six months made me feel uneasy, but a twinge of pleasure came out in the form of a small laugh when my eyes alighted once again on an unconscious Vallin. Even in the real world he wore his ridiculous white suit and I wondered if the color made him feel as if he were in the right.
I tried to stand up, but my legs were weak from having laid here for six months. Nikolai’s strong arms were there to steady me and I took a moment to revel in his touch. With his help, I was able to walk over to Vallin, “He was trying to get information out of me,” I confirmed.
“What information?” Nikolai asked.
“The access code to the vault,” I replied and I could see the alarm on Nikolai’s face. “Don’t worry, I didn’t tell him,” I said quickly to assuage his fears.
“Good. I didn’t think you even knew the access code,” he said. I was confused by his statement. I could have sworn we were told together, but my memory seemed so fuzzy. I leaned in to whisper it in Nikolai’s ear just to be certain, when the steel grey wall behind him seemed to flicker like a monitor does when a cable is loose. I blinked my eyes a few times and the wall, once again, looked normal. A bad feeling started to take root in the pit of my stomach, and I realized that the nightmare wasn’t over yet.