Harrowing of Hell – Part Four

Time passed. Denied vision, he had no way of measuring how much. The room was lightproof, just a windowless cell. There was fresh air, the ghost of a breeze from an unseen grille. The lumpy concrete floor was cold and damp. At first there was silence, then he became aware of tiny, infrequent sounds at the limit of his hearing, as if something scratched and scuttled in the darkness. Mice, perhaps, or rats, or even cockroaches. Derek shuddered and reined in his imagination. The real danger wasn’t in this room, it was upstairs, in the penthouse – Arkadi. As if there weren’t enough complications in his life, without that avaricious idiot turning up like a bad penny at the worst possible time! Imprisoning him in this cell was typical of the man; feudal lords in mediaeval times had hurled their serfs and vassals into deep dark holes like this, counting on the isolation and sensory depravation to send their poor captives mad. Arkadi was certainly vain and arrogant enough to cast himself in the role of a feudal lord. Derek wondered if Elise was all right, then shook his head and scolded himself for worrying about her. A woman who could face down the Devil wouldn’t have any trouble standing up to an amateur in the villain stakes like Victor Arkadi.

Sometime later – a few minutes, an hour – there was a commotion in the corridor far too loud to have been made by lurking rodents. The door swung open and the blaze of light blinded him. Another body was hurled into the room; he heard the thump as it met the floor and the gasp as all the air was driven out of its lungs. The door slammed shut, locking the two of them back into darkness.

“Shit!” The body said, in a familiar voice.

“Elise?” He sat up. “I’m over here.”

He heard her moving, then she touched his shoulder. “Are you okay? It’s as black as the pit in here. Trust Arkadi to have an oubliette!”

“Am I okay? What about you?” Derek hugged her close, breathing in the soft, salty fragrance of her hair. “Did he hurt you?”

“Oui, un peu. He questioned me and I eventually told him about my status at the Phoenix Project. I imagine he’ll try to extort some ransom out of them. It won’t do him any good, since the policy is not to pay any. They’ll probably just give him instructions on where to send my body.”

“Don’t joke about this! Arkadi’s perfectly capable of killing to get what he wants.”

“He’s a nasty piece of work, I realise that – le sadique. Just to make him appreciate the value of the information he was getting, I had to let him slap me about a bit.”

“You did what? Are you injured?”

“It’s nothing. A few bruises and a split lip.” He felt her shrug, a fluid, dismissive gesture. “A small price to pay to feed his sadistic streak and improve his mood. He’s a cruel man, our kidnapper, but he’s a good deal safer when he believes that he has all the power.”

“He has.”

“That isn’t true.” She ran her fingers lightly over his cheek, through his hair and along his neck. “You’re very tense, mon cher. This darkness disturbs you much more than you care to admit, doesn’t it?”

“It’s just an absence of light.” Her touch made him shiver, the only sensation in this inky void. “Yes, it bothers me. I thought I heard something moving before you came in, some small vermin creeping down by the wall.”

“There’s nothing living in here, nothing except us.”

Derek frowned. “Can you see? In absolute inky blackness?“

She paused and he heard her sigh. “It isn’t true vision, but I have a kind of spatial awareness of the size and shape of the room, and what’s in it. Life energy is visible if you’re attuned to it; all living things cast their own light, even the lowliest animals – that’s how I’m sure we’re alone. I can see you by that, the glow of your aura. Close your eyes for a moment.” When he did, she kissed him twice on each eyelid. “Now, open them.”

The room was still dark, but Elise was visible, outlined in a warm golden glow, as if lit by candlelight. It haloed her hair and her bare skin, yet cast no light on the heavy velvet of her dress, which was still matt-black and formless in the darkness. When he stretched out one hand, he found he could see his own body as well, sketched in lines of moon-silver. The watch around his wrist was an inky band and he couldn’t read its face, but his precept’s ring shone in its true colours, gold and blue, picking up the ghostly light. “How… how is this possible?”

“Tania doesn’t have the whole franchise on magic.” She smiled crookedly and he noticed that the right side of her face was mottled with bruising. A small trickle of blood at one corner of her mouth glittered like liquid gold. “Seeing auras is a simple psychic trick. I’m surprised you couldn’t already do it.”

“Elise..!“ He was surprised at how upset he was to see her hurt, how it kindled his anger. He had nothing to wipe away the blood, so he used his fingertips. “How hard did the bastard hit you?”

“Arkadi didn’t soil his own hands – he had the help do it. It’s nothing. I’ll mend by morning.”

Derek recalled Flashlight-boy’s threat. “What else did they do to you? I mean, they didn’t…?”

“Rape me? Mais non!” She laughed softly. “They’re all still alive and the building’s still standing, isn’t it?”

He put his arms around her again, intrigued by the way their auras meshed together while still remaining distinct and individual, a complex pattern of sun and starlight. “Elise, do you have any idea what we’re going to do? This throws all our plans out…”

“We do nothing,” she said. “Arkadi will lay on transport back to the island. To get the sepulchres, he has to take us back there, and at some point on the journey, we can escape from him.”

“And it’ll be that easy?”

“Bien sûr. Leave it to me. I’ll find a way to free us.”

Derek let the subject slide. “How long do you think Arkadi will leave us in here?”

“An hour or so would shake most people’s sanity. I guess he’ll abandon us for the night. He wouldn’t want to limit our suffering.”

“That’s wasted if he can’t see us.”

“But he can. There’s a camera above the door – infrared. No audio, just pictures.”

“How do you know that?”

“Saw the wiring in the corridor,” she admitted. “I knew to look for it, as our perverted friend upstairs had been anticipating his evening’s entertainment. He’s probably disappointed that we haven’t thrown a panic attack yet.”

“You read his mind? You really are telepathic, aren’t you?”

Yes, I am. Didn’t you believe it?
The words formed inside his head, her voice in his thoughtstream. Derek winced. “I’ve always accepted in the concept of telepathy, even though all of the proof I’ve seen is sketchy at best. I’ve even experienced something like it, as psychic hints and impressions, but never anything so precise and clear.”
“But it makes you uncomfortable?” She spoke aloud again, with a sad smile. “That’s the usual reaction. Few can tolerate the closeness, the intrusion into their solitude. It’s particularly difficult for you; you’re a very private person and your duties as a precept only add to that isolation. I’ll stay out of your mind, I promise…”

“No, don’t swear me any more oaths!” he said quickly. “If your talents give us an edge over Arkadi, then you must use them. I can stand a little discomfort, if that’s what it takes to save our lives.”

“Arkadi won’t kill us.” That was a statement, not a hope. “Why does he worry you so much? You’ve defeated much worse enemies, and he’s only one man, fallible and mortal.”

As I am, but you – what are you? Even as the thought slid through his mind he tried to hide it, to suppress the memory that trailed in its wake, the vivid blue lightning-flash of her demonic fury.

Elise read it easily. “You saw that? But I only lost control for a fraction of a second…”

“As you did in Boston? Elise, it’s time you were honest with me. Don’t I deserve the truth? You aren’t human. What are you?”

She drew away from him, bowing her head. The pale fire of her aura crowned her in flame, leaving her face in shadow. “There’s no easy answer to that question. Each individual is a world within itself, the sum of its experiences and memories – and I have so many memories!”

“No, I won’t be fobbed off with riddles, all your obscure hints and allusions!” he said, sternly. “Why do you find it so difficult to tell the truth?”

“Secrets become a habit, a way of life, you know that.” She put a little more distance between them, absently shaking out the folds in her velvet skirt as she composed herself. “So, you want the facts, do you, the cold, bare bones of my closet skeleton? I wonder if you’re far enough along the path to accept them? D’accord, let’s see. This body is human, certainly close enough that it would take a very high-tech medical unit to prove otherwise, but it isn’t my natural form. I wear it, much as you wear clothes. I’m a – what is the politically-correct term these days? – ah, yes, an extra-terrestrial biological entity, an EBE. I rather like that. So much nicer than ‘bug-eyed monster’ or ‘little green man’, don’t you think?”

“You’re an alien?” This sounded too much like another of her flights of fancy. “Really?”

“I’m one of the few survivors of a very ancient race. Once I was… but you have no names, no words for what I was! A creature of fire, a deathless thing… Time had no claim on me then, nor the bounds of this physical world. Long ago, so long ago, when all the stars were new…”

She broke off, caught up in that fragment of memory, her eyes bright with glory, sorrow and starlight. Her aura flared out behind her, spreading wide like a shadowy pair of wings, and in that moment, as her control wavered, he was aware of her fundamental inhumanity as a vast, terrible presence that filled the tiny room. All his instincts shrieked that he was in mortal danger, that he should run from this monstrous force; he quieted them. Common sense told him that Elise would never harm him, and his heart shared that belief. Derek held his breath, afraid that she might not go on, yet equally afraid that she would.

“Afraid?” She echoed his thought. “I have been feared. We are the kind of beings that inspire either terror or love, but never indifference. As for us, we had no reason to fear anything, and armed with that pride, that arrogance, we played games of life and death with the other creatures we found in the universe. Language was unknown to us – we learnt that later from mortal kind – as we learnt about love and the urges of the flesh, and pain and death. We spent centuries in forms not our own, fragile bodies that could feel alien ecstasy and suffer hurt; that was a game too and, while we played, Time worked its hooks into us. We grew weary, our hearts turned cold – some of us even walked the dark road into true oblivion. Even immortals can die, if they choose to, and most of my cousin-kin are gone, lost forever in the void beyond this universe.”

She fell silent and he didn’t dare to speak, bewitched by the sadness in her voice.

“Look at me now,” Elise said, at last. “I am as fallen from grace as any unwinged angel shut up in a box! I bruise and bleed – I can even die. To cap it all, I let a stupid, egocentric pig of a man lock me up in his cellar. Perhaps I’ve been human too long?”

“Why be human at all?” Derek shivered. “Why not be something less troubled, like a great cat or one of your precious dolphins?”

“I did that too. It’s fun for a while, but the novelty does wear off.” Her smile came back. “I suppose it comes down to the fact that I like you people! You laugh, you cry – sometimes you do both at the same time – you fling hope into the face of adversity and you dream impossible dreams. However long I spend in this shape, I still don’t understand you.”

“We’re a mystery for you to solve?”

“That’s the essence of it, exactly!” she agreed. “And you know just how tantalising a mystery can be, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do.” He realised that he was no nearer pinning a label on her, and perhaps that was as it should be. Better an elusive enigma than a known thing, confined and belittled by the icy prison of a name. “And yet you aren’t as powerless as you pretend. Can’t you get us out of here?”

“What, walk through the walls? Or should we simply vanish into thin air?” She tilted her head back, closed her eyes, and for a moment, her aura blazed with copper fire. “Sorry, Derek, I can’t. At this point, the odds of success are balanced on a knife edge. We have to play this game out to the end. There’s no other way.”

“So we wait?”

She snuggled close to him and he shifted until they were as comfortable as it was possible to get on the cold, damp floor. “Mais, oui – until Arkadi gets bored with the show and lets us out of this dungeon.”

***

The scrape of the door opening woke Derek from an uneasy doze, then rough hands hauled him to his feet. The light streaming in from the doorway blinded him, making his eyes water.

“Watch what you’re grabbing!” Elise snapped, stamping down hard on Flashlight-boy’s instep and making him grunt in pain.

“Take it easy, lady!” The man pinned her arms behind her back and shook her to get her moving. “You get violent with me and it’ll be your skin that suffers!”

“It’s in your own interest to cooperate,” said the man holding Derek. “We’re moving you to better quarters.”

It wasn’t far, just a short march along the subterranean passages to a small room that once might have been home to the building’s janitor. Derek’s eyes had adjusted to the comparative brightness and he studied their new prison. There was a single bed with a bare mattress, a table and an electric light, but still no window. They were dumped on the bed. All Derek’s confiscated possessions were on the table, except for the cell-phone. Just then, the third thug put in an appearance, bearing gifts – one blanket, a towel and a paper sack of fast-food.

“Never let it be said that your host is less than generous!” The Hit-man grinned. “Enjoy your meal, if you can. Good night!”

The help left, locking and bolting them in. Derek glanced around the room and noticed the other door. “Wonder where that leads?”

“Bathroom,” Elise said, turning her attention to the food.

She was right – it was a small cubicle with a dirty toilet and a cracked sink. Cold water only and the flush refused to work. When Derek emerged, Elise had spread their meal out on the table and was surveying it unhappily.

“Double cheese-burger or a vegetarian copy. How thoughtful to give us a choice! Which do you want?”

“I’d rather have the meat, if that’s okay. What have we got to drink – coke or coffee?”

She opened one of the cups. “Brown liquid. As there’s no ice, I’d take a wild guess it’s the latter.”

Derek sniffed at the coffee. “Is it safe to drink?”

“Maybe, but don’t quote me!” Elise wrinkled her nose. “It is decaff.”

“I meant, is it poisoned or drugged?”

“How would you tell?” she asked mournfully, then took a mouthful and swilled it over her tongue. “Well, it’s lukewarm and revolting, but nothing harmful’s been added to it.”

That made him smile. “Do you always taste-test for poison?”

“I left the unicorn-horn at home.” She claimed a bag of fries and began to dissect the vegi-burger, eating the salad garnish first. “Dégueulasse! Cordon-bleu this isn’t!”

Derek found he was hungry enough not to care about the quality of the food. When they were done, Elise took the towel into the bathroom and cleaned the blood and ketchup from her face.

“You take the bed.” She offered. “I’ll sit up and keep watch. I don’t need the sleep.”

“We’ll share,” he insisted.

The bed was too narrow for two people and the mattress smelt musty and sour, feeling tacky and damp beneath them. The blanket was too small. Derek rested his head on a pillow of Elise’s hair, relaxing gradually as the pooled warmth of their bodies chased the aches out of his limbs. It struck him that, even knowing how powerful she was and how alien, he felt safe in her arms.

“Couldn’t be safer,” she said, softly. “From storm and tempest, fire and foe…”

“Are you still sneaking about in my mind?”

“I don’t mean to, mon cher. This close to you, with skin contact and the rapport between us, it’s hard not to follow your subvocal thoughts. You can block me if you want to – just focus and close your mind, as you would against an unwelcome psychic impression…”

He laid his finger across her lips to silence her, then kissed her, careful to avoid the sore corner of her mouth. “I don’t want to shut you out, chérie. Just stay out of my memories. They’ll give you nightmares.”

“Keep yours. I’ve enough of my own!”

“You have nightmares? What about?”

“Pain, loss, loneliness… all the usual stuff.”

“Just part of the rich tapestry of being human,” he teased. “Go to sleep.”

***

They weren’t allowed to rest for long; the door was slammed back against the wall and the three thugs clattered into the room. Derek squinted at his watch – three thirteen.

“Look at them, just like two sleeping cherubs!” the Hit-man laughed. “Get up! Put your shoes on and grab your stuff, Rayne! Come on, get moving!”

Flashlight-boy and his friend had their guns drawn, leaving no room for argument. Derek reclaimed his possessions and let the Hit-man shove him out into the corridor. Elise followed, as quiet as a lamb.

The mood of their captors had altered; the three men were business-like and serious. They were taken up to the roof, where Arkadi waited for them beside a helicopter. The pilot was already strapped in.

“Put them in back.” Arkadi directed. “Holt, you can stay here. Dermott, you and the boy can ride with them. Don’t let your guard down. Dr Rayne is able to fly one of these contraptions, and apparently so is the young lady.”

“Been snooping about in my records, eh, Victor?” Elise sneered.

“I like a little light reading before retiring, although I prefer non-fiction. I note that you visited Cairo a few years back. How did you find it?”

“The death-rate was rather high, as I recall.”

Arkadi’s expression became grim. “Let’s get moving. I want to reach the island before dawn.”

The Hit-man, Dermott, put Derek in one of the rear seats, against the far door, which was locked. Elise was deposited next to him, then the two thugs climbed in. Arkadi took the co-pilot seat and gave a thumbs-up signal for the ‘copter to lift. As far as Derek could tell, they turned eastwards across the city.

“We’re not expected,” Arkadi said, with a brief grin. “We’ll land close to the house, so we’ll be inside before your pathetic security guards know what’s happened. One point, Dermott – there’s a man on Dr Rayne’s staff, short, stocky and ex-military – if he makes a move on us, take him out of the picture. I don’t mean dead – shoot to maim rather than kill. A bullet in the thigh should slow him down enough for our purposes.”

The Hit-man smirked. “My pleasure, boss. Any other threats?”

“There’s only the butler, two or three women and possibly a child. It should be a pushover!” Arkadi paused. “Don’t hurt the kid, if you can avoid it. Nothing turns the press into rabid dogs quicker than the spectre of injured or murdered children.”

Derek clenched his teeth and said nothing. Kat wasn’t on the island, thank God, but the prospect of these killers threatening the rest of his House was chilling. Elise had lapsed into silence, watching their captors, and he hoped, working on a way to thwart Victor’s plans. The pilot turned north-east and they flew out over the Bay.

“As for you, Rayne, just remember that your friends are in the firing line. At the first sign of trouble… well, I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out for you.”

“Shall I shoot the little mam’selle first?” Dermott chuckled. “A slug in the back would make her much less fun in bed, wouldn’t it?”

Flashlight-boy giggled in sadistic appreciation of the joke. Derek kept his anger under wraps. Elise leaned close to him. We’re getting out. Be ready to jump.

What?

It was too late for questions – she was moving. She thumped Dermott hard in the ribs; as he folded over, coughing, she brushed the back of his neck with her fingertips and he convulsed and hit the floor. Flashlight-boy swing his gun around wildly, which earned him a knee to the groin and a fist to the chin. The ‘copter slewed violently over to port, throwing Derek out of his seat. Elise grabbed his hand, they both hit the door and then they were falling. It was so sudden he had no time to cry out and if he had, the downdraft from the rotor would have swept the sound away. He hit the water feet first, plunging down into icy darkness. Down and down, until he thought he’d never stop sinking, until his chest hurt from holding his breath, then Elise hauled him back to the surface. He gasped in a lungful of air along with a mouthful of water, gagging at the bitter, salty taste in his throat.

“Merde!” Elise said, beside him. “De mal en pis!”

From bad to worse! Derek saw that the helicopter had turned and was bearing down on them, its searchlight cutting vivid swathes across the dark swell of the Bay.

“Breathe!” the woman said, squeezing his shoulder. “We’re going under again!”

She dragged him down, pulling him deep. The searchlight zigzagged over them, cutting the water into grey-blue slices of illumination. Something bit into the surface, making it froth and boil in a neat linear pattern. Gunfire – an automatic weapon, Derek guessed. How the hail of bullets managed to miss them was a minor miracle. The ‘copter went over them and they surfaced again, lost in the friendly darkness.

“Bastards!” Elise muttered. “They’ll swing it around in a moment and take another shot at us!”

Derek wondered how she had enough breath to spare for speech, when all he could do was gasp for precious air.

“Let’s give that pilot something else to worry about, shall we?” She raised her left hand out of the water in a short, sharp gesture, as if throwing a ball. The helicopter, caught in mid-turn, pitched over and dropped alarmingly. For one terrible, frozen moment Derek thought it would crash, then the pilot regained control.

“Got you!” Elise laughed in triumph. “Now, limp that poor, sick whirly-bird back home and leave us in peace!”

The helicopter swung back towards the city in a clumsy, awkward circle. Derek trod water and watched its lights retreat, noting that they didn’t seem level. “What did you do to them?”

“Took out a few of their systems – nothing vital, but enough to convince the pilot he’d be better off on the ground.”

“You might have killed them…”

“And they weren’t trying to kill us?” She shook her head, shedding water like a wet dog. “Which side of the island has the easiest landing?”

“North-west. The cove where the boats come in – it’s too rocky everywhere else. Are we going to swim there?”

“Unless you want to walk!” She found a direction in the darkness, moving off at a slow, easy stroke.

Derek had lost one shoe, so he kicked off the other, shed his sodden overcoat and followed, trusting to her instincts. There were no stars to steer by and no moon to help, both lost in cloud-cover. As he swam, he tried to work out where the currents would aid or hinder them and how far it was to Angel Island, basing his calculations on what he could see of the coast, the bridge and its sprinkling of lights. The best guess he could come up with was too far. The water was cold and the weight of his clothes hung on his weary limbs like lead. He thought that he’d lost the gift of seeing auras, but out here, in the darkness, Elise’s shone about her like a cloak of golden phosphorescence, a beacon for him to aim for.

They made good progress for a while, then they struck the outward tidal flow. In spite of all Derek’s efforts, he found himself pulled away from the woman. He switched to crawl to make up the distance between them, then yelped in pain as the muscles in his left leg contracted in protest. The current had him then, sweeping him inexorably towards the vast blackness of the ocean. He felt dizzy for a moment, swamped by its immensity and the possibility of being lost in the cold, empty darkness, then Elise was at his side, drawing him back from the tide.

“Cramp?” She ducked down under the surface and began to massage his offending calf muscle gently. The warmth of her hands eased the pain. She stayed submerged for an age, then bobbed up behind him. “Let me tow you in. It isn’t far now.”

“Okay.” He relaxed as she slipped her hands under his arms and steadied his head against her shoulder. She propelled them along with frog-like kicks, moving at a fair speed even though she was burdened by his dead weight. Warmth spread from her, flowing through each point where their bodies were in contact. “How is it you cope so well? With the cold, I mean, and the current, and everything that life throws at you?”

“I cheat.” He couldn’t see her face, yet he heard the smile in her voice. “Everything that your body runs on automatic, I can control in mine. I have a kind of conscious override on my metabolism that allows me to run it much closer to the edge. I can turn up the thermostat and use my energy sources more efficiently than you can. I also have a couple of novel enzyme systems that humans don’t, sneaky little things that mop up free-radicals and fix oxygen. If I’m in an environment where it’s difficult to breathe, I just stop for a while.”

“You must pay for such abuse.”

“Oh, it certainly reminds me if I run it too ragged, this pretty flesh of mine!” She laughed. “Many’s the day I’ve spent almost comatose. It’s funny, but you’re usually the one who wakes me up!”

Through a break in the cloud, Derek saw stars above them and the dark bulk of the island looming up to one side. Elise stayed well clear of the rocks, towing him around the point and into the cove. At the jetty, she hauled herself out of the water, then leaned down to pull him onto dry land. Derek sat up slowly, watching her wring the excess water out of her dress. “What will you do now? Spirit me up a horse to ride up to the house?”

She closed her eyes briefly. “There aren’t any horses on the island.”

“Perhaps you could change into one?”

“Are you serious?” She looked into his face for a clue. “I never shape-shift before marriage. Have you any idea what havoc it can wreak on any normal sexual relationship? I mean, would you sleep with a horse..?”

The utter absurdity of his situation suddenly struck Derek – he’d jumped out of the sky, been shot at and almost drowned, and now here he was holding a nonsensical conversation with an alien metamorph who just happened to look like a beautiful woman.

“I bet you’d be a delicious piece of horseflesh, expensive, half-wild and impossible to ride, a dapple-grey Arab mare or a glossy chestnut Thoroughbred…” he began, and then the laughter spilled out of him. He couldn’t hold it back, great peals of it, and with it poured out all the frustration, tension and fear of the last few hours. Elise joined in, letting him lean against her when he grew breathless. A fresh breeze began to dry his clothes, but felt cold on his damp skin.

“Come on.” Elise shook herself and struggled to her feet. “We need to get moving. I could carry you, if you want?”

“No.” He tried to stand without her help, but his legs were too weak.

“Pride, huh?” She smiled gently. “Then we’ll have to walk, but slowly.”

***

When Mr Boyle had issued orders to tighten up security, the men on the gate had expected something, but hardly this – the sight of Dr Rayne limping along the road, soaked to the skin and without shoes, leaning on the arm of a strange young woman. Jonathan rushed to help, while his colleague had the presence of mind to ring up to the house. When Nick arrived in the Land Rover, Derek and Elise were recovering in the gatehouse, sitting in front of the heater with borrowed jackets hung over their shoulders, sipping coffee from Jonathan’s flask.

“Are you all right?” Nick demanded. “What happened to you?”

“We were unavoidably detained,” Derek said, wary of revealing too much in front of the staff.

Nick frowned, but said nothing more until they were safely in the Land Rover and en route to the house. “Detained, eh? The cops said you’d been kidnapped.”

“You brought the police into this? But I’ve only been missing for a matter of hours…”

“We didn’t call them in,” Nick said, grimly. “One of her artist neighbours did – he witnessed you and Elise being thrown into a van. The cops ran the plate on the Explorer and called us to check on your whereabouts. Kristen took the call and was dumb enough to admit that we didn’t know where you’d gone. Shortly after that, we got what I can only assume was a ransom demand; some idiot wanting to know if it was true that only you could open the vault where some of our valuables are stored.”

“That was probably Arkadi. What did you tell him?”

“Arkadi? I hung up on the guy…” Nick pulled up at the door, then came around to help them out. “Look, I gotta ask, Derek. Did you fall out of a boat?”

“It was a helicopter,” Elise said. “And we jumped.”

“A ‘copter? Jesus, Derek…!”

“Don’t look at me – it was her idea!” He was grinning again.

“As I recall, you didn’t argue at the time…”

Dominick was at the door, offering blankets. Alex and Kristen were behind him, neither seeming overcome with delight to see Elise welcomed into the house.

“Derek, what happened?” Alex asked, as he entered the hall.

“Are you okay?” Kristen echoed the anxiety.

Derek glanced at his watch, which had stopped. Full of sea-water – he wondered if it would ever go again. “What time is it?”

“Three fifty-five, sir,” Dominick said, promptly. “That’s a.m., of course. I’d guess that both you and Mam’selle DuBois require a hot bath and some soup after your immersion. Shall I organise it?”

“Please.” Derek focused his thoughts. “Nick, make sure that the House is secure. Arkadi wants the sepulchres, and while I’m fairly sure he won’t make another move tonight, I’d like us to be ready if he does. As for the outside world, I think it would be wise if we stayed kidnapped.”

“It won’t hurt to keep the cops on edge.” Nick agreed. “Any block we can put in Arkadi’s way will help.”

“Fine.” Derek pulled the blanket tighter about his shoulders. He felt wasted, with every muscle chilled and aching, and the beginning of the grandmother of all headaches hatching inside his skull. “All the whys and wherefores can wait until tomorrow – I mean, later today, preferably after noon.”

“That’s it, folks. The show’s over!” Nick said, making shooing gestures at Alex and Kristen. “Make yourselves useful – find our guest a room, show her how our antiquated plumbing works and lend her something warm to wear while her clothes are drying.”

“That would be kind.” Elise smiled her thanks.

Kristen took a step back and Alex sighed. “Okay, I volunteer. Follow me, Mam’selle DuBois.”

***

Derek soaked for a while, chin-deep in hot water, then washed the salt from his skin and rinsed it out of his hair. Dominick spirited away his wet clothing and provided warm towels and chicken soup, some of which Derek had to drink just to placate him. It was a wrench to climb out of the bath, yet he did, not relishing the prospect of sleeping in the cooling water. He dried himself down, took some painkillers to ward off the hovering headache and resigned himself to his lonely bed. Drowsy with the warmth, he was almost asleep when someone tapped at his door, very softly.

“Who is it?”

The door opened and closed again, and Elise was there, smiling down at him. “Who do you want it to be? Name your fantasy – I can be anyone you want.”

“Just you.” He drew the covers aside and made room for her. She let her borrowed robe fall on the floor; like a line-drawing of a life-study her body was outlined in the faint golden light of its aura. “Was your own room not to your liking?”

“It was fine.” She settled down close to him, not quite touching. “But I missed you.”

The bruising on her cheek was already fading but he saw that her eyes were heavy with weariness. “You look exhausted, chérie. Are you going to go comatose on me?”

“I’m afraid so. I need four to six hours of close to grade four on the Glasgow scale to recharge my batteries.”

“You’re no fun!” He kissed her on the good cheek. “Grade four, eh – insensible to pain? I suppose I could stick pins in you..?”

“Is that all the gratitude I get for everything I’ve saved you from today – greedy kidnappers, sadistic thugs, gunfire and drowning?”

“Not to mention eating that dreadful vegi-burger, which has to be one of the most noble gestures of self-sacrifice I’ve ever witnessed!”

“It wasn’t that bad!” She hit him lightly in the stomach, then ran her fingers across his skin and tickled him in the small of the back. “I’m too tired to joke with you, mon cher. I’m too tired to do anything! Let me go to sleep, please!”
Derek turned onto his back and offered her his shoulder to rest her head on. She cuddled up to him, wriggled into a comfortable position against the curves of his body and was almost instantly asleep.

Go to Part Five

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