Chapter 14a


Manhattan, October 31, Noon


The car sped across the George Washington Bridge into New York City.  The great steel piers of the bridge formed an enormous double gateway.  They seemed to announce, “You are here.  You have arrived at last.  Rejoice.”  Even in heavy traffic, there was electricity in the air and excitement that could not be denied.


The great city had seen hard times.  Even now there were fewer taxicabs than there had been eighty years before.  The city no longer boasted the largest population nor the highest building in the world.  No longer was there more manufacturing than in Detroit.  No longer was its dominance of finance, fashion, insurance, publishing, banking, and show business without challenge.  There had been enormous losses due to the dispersal of enterprises with the aid of modern communication.  AIDS had taken a toll.  The World Trade Center tragedy had marred the city years ago, recovery not yet complete.


And yet it survived.  Like some huge dinosaur able to take unthinkable amounts of damage, to survive wounds so large that the lost flesh was more than the flesh of any American animal and yet continue to function and function efficiently.  The great canyons of the skyscrapers still dizzied the mind, and the miracle was not only the spirit it had taken to hurl them at the sky, the greater miracle was the spirit that had kept them able to function.  Elsewhere business is not done in skyscrapers.  It is too costly.  Skyscrapers are added for effect, for show.  Here it was all show.  There was no intermission.


The richest ethnic brew in the world flourished and worked together to bring forth the wonder of the great city.  And the world stood in awe.


Wall Street, named after the city’s wall in bygone centuries, now meant not only a street, not only a district, but the entire concept of modern business enterprise.  Broadway meant not a wider than average city street but a concept of show business so glamorous that hardly a live performance occurred in the nation but members of the cast and audience would think, would that it were Broadway.  Even in a reduced state the intensity and professionalism, the sheer dedication going into a Broadway show set a standard for anyone anywhere who had the audacity to attempt something significant.  The same held for publishing, finance and the rest.


As the car topped the bridge the radio announced that Giga Corp was being investigated for irregular business practices.  “Maybe that will take them off our heels,” said Jon.  The others doubted it.  Like New York, Giga Corp could deal with a challenge and still go about its business. 


The GPS pointed with the finger of fate into the heart of the city.  James got off the limited access system and onto city streets.  Throughout Manhattan, all traffic lights are north and south at once and then east and west at once.  The whole island throbs to a single beat.  In bygone years there would have been the music of a million horns signaling each other.  Now it was only the hum of motors and the rush of tires.


Ivan looked at the GPS.  “We’ve passed it.” 


James said, “I’ll park here.”




“Because there’s a parking space.”


They got out and walked.  Fit as they were, their South-accustomed legs did not keep pace with the busy clip of other pedestrians.  They took a turn, saw the arrow change direction and walked down an alley.  They came out onto a sidewalk.


It was ground zero.  Barricades were up.  Men in yellow construction hats and heavy machinery were working in a hole in the ground where the skyscraper collapse had ended up.  Down below they were bringing out something under an American flag.  A victim.  For all they knew it might have been Terra Lane. 


Ivan looked at the GPS.  “One hundred thirty five feet forward and,” he looked up at the steel skeleton of that section of the building with all that was human ripped away, “Six hundred feet up.  It was the room where he worked.  He was bringing us to see him.”  They stood gazing upward in grief. 


Suddenly they were surrounded by men in black cloaks.  A curved sword flashed.  Ivan pushed the others behind him against the wall and reached over his shoulder to grasp the handle of a Cossack saber where it nestled above his shoulder blades.  It was one of the purchases they had made in Richmond.  With a sweeping gesture he struck aside an advancing scimitar.


It was a standoff between two fighting styles evolved over long centuries where Europe clashed with Asia in the area of south Russia in battles between the sons of the Prophet and the ranks of the Czar.  Ivan’s Cossack shashka was an attack machine, pure and simple.  It had almost no guard at the hilt – just enough to keep the blade from driving through the end of a scabbard.  It had only enough curve for comfort ahorse so that it would wrap around the thigh.  Good at the slash, better at the thrust, it was meant to strike first and strike hard.  A larger guard would only have slowed it down in action, thrown its weight closer to the hand and complicated drawing if, as now, it was needed in a hurry.


The swords of their assailants were in complete contrast.  They were aggressively curved, almost a complete semicircle.  The result was that when the sword was raised to strike it leant a halo of steel around the head of the user.  And the curve meant that for its reach it was less hazardous to fellows on either side.  The scimitar was a slashing weapon purely.  The greedy curve meant that it struck not like a hatchet but like a carving knife, a sliding blow that would cut deeply through flesh and bone.  And the arc gave a wild look to the blade in action.  When several were spun on high it looked like a giant eggbeater, giving the wielders a strange and troubling appearance so that between the appearance of the swords and the spectacular wounds those sword made more than one Asiatic nation over the years had been called, “Tartars,” the Warriors from Hell.


Now the roles were reversed.  The Cossack sword fought only to delay until outside help might arrive.  The attack was all on the part of the scimitars.  But Ivan attacked even as he defended, striking the long scythe-like blades back upon the attackers.  Lunging here, an uppercut there.


Unarmed Jon tried to hold his ground, feinting with spread palms, yielding only to frank attack and then returning as far as he could.  James grabbed his car keys and buried them in his palm with the brass tips sticking out between his knuckles.  He pranced back and forth looking for an opening.  Hapgood took off a shoe and threw it at them. 


Sensing hesitation on the part of the attackers, Ivan advanced a half step.  Then as suddenly as it had begun the attack was over.  The others dashed away, each man pealing off his black cloak to hide it and secreting his sword about him as he ran. 


Ivan turned back with a grin that instantly turned to a look of horror.  “Where’s Tracy?”


“Must have gone that way,” said Hapgood and lead the sprint down to the alley.  They were just in time to see a white van pulling away and a couple cloaks disappearing.


“This is Turelli’s work,” said Jon.


James said, “I hope the car is still there.  I’ll meet you at Hapgood’s shoe.”  And he was off down the alley like a greyhound, oblivious to the fact that it was the way their enemies had just gone.


But James almost beat them back to where a crowd was standing around looking at the shoe.  Hapgood snatched it up, and as police sirens wailed they lurched into traffic.


Gotta go to Harlem,” said James.  Gotta find if Turelli’s in town.”


It was dangerous, but the car seemed in its element, weaving through traffic, bouncing onto sidewalks, darting through red lights as if survival meant nothing.  Soon they were in Harlem and slowed to join traffic.  James surveyed the faces they passed.


In the thick of the fight Tracy had tried a kick at one of the robed and hooded men but so narrowly missed losing the leg she hesitated to try again.  Then suddenly strong hands had grabbed her and muffled her screams while she was carried away toward the alley.  She saw there were two carrying her and had started to try to estimate chances.  Then as they had entered the alley, they met five men dressed in black with automatic weapons.  The men with guns faced down her captors and made them drop their weapons.  She had flounced her hair and was starting to smile at her rescuers when she had seen that there was a white van behind them. 


Abruptly they seized her, muffled her again and threw her into the back of the van.  The van backed down the alley, turned and entered traffic.  Tracy was in back, one man pinioning her arms and the other holding a hand over her mouth.


“Abducted twice in two minutes,” she thought.  “That’s a lot even for me.”


Soon afterward she felt the van slow, turn and go down a ramp.  An iron gate crashed to their rear.  For a while they twisted through the bowels of some understructure and then a second gate roared down behind them.  Her captors uncovered her mouth and forced her out of the van into an elevator.  After a few floors the door opened, and they propelled her down a long dark hallway and into a plush office.  They brought her up to a desk.


“Ah, my favorite cardboard carton,” said Hans Turelli mildly.  “Or should I call you ‘Your Highness’?”


“Nice trick with the microphone in the hair,” she said defiantly.  “I suppose you know everything by now.”


“Some things, yes.  But not enough.  Not nearly enough.  You see, it’s all about gathering information.  That’s all I do.  Gather information.  When you have enough information the next step becomes obvious.”


“There’s nothing more to tell you.”


“Now be reasonable.  What have those losers you are with offered you?  What loyalty could you possibly have to them?  Come over to my side. I can reward you well.  You know that.”


Tracy snapped a salute.  “Agent Madeline McGillicuddy reporting SIR.  They don’t know crap SIR.  It isn’t worth pea turkey to a starving wolverine SIR.”


“Now you see I have trouble with that.  Among the other bits of information that have drifted my way, it seems that in Washington you went to the National Museum of Natural History and … ah, ah, ah … the Census Bureau.  Now a hasty man might think he saw a pattern in that.  But I would be inclined to think you were just tourists.  But then, lo and behold, in Baltimore some of you went to see a brilliant population geneticist. 

“IT’S GENETIC, ISN’T IT?” he jumped up and screamed.  “You know some sort of genetic mischief, and you’re keeping it back!”


“They told us it was all a crock of SHIT,” she matched his mood.  “They told us it was dodo, kaka, running stool.  You’ve wasted your time as much as we have wasted ours.”


“You know more.”


“It all ends with an empty place against the sky where a lot of normal people worked with normal lives and hopes.  One of them happened to be a harmless little man who was a friend to a couple of us.”


“Is that your last word?”


“He thought he could save the world.  But it was only a dream.  He was wrong.  He was just wrong.  What’s wrong with being wrong?”


“I can afford a lot.  But being wrong can be too expensive.  We shall see.”  He spoke to one of the men, “Take her to the toy room.  I shall be there with the Iron Maiden presently.”


The man wrenched her arm behind her and propelled her down the hall and into another room.


The room was double height.  The walls were soundproofed.  The floor carpeted.  Along the walls were various instruments of torture and punishment.  In a different time and place she would have been interested.  The dungeon was vast and exquisitely equipped.  So much for Tampa being the center of the action.  There would come a time when she wished she had taken better notice of the morbid contents.  But right now she needed a plan.  Whatever or whoever the Iron Maiden was, it did no bode well.  She wanted out.


The man dragged her over to a wall and took down a pair of handcuffs.  With practiced skill he snapped them onto her wrists.  She stood a moment glaring at him as she thought. 


There might be a way.  It would be dangerous.  There was the risk of biting off a tongue.  There was the risk of broken bones, of putrefying pneumonia, of brain damage and even of death.  But it was risk the guard was just going to have to take.  He had accepted risks when he signed on.


The first part of the escape plan would be to sell the idea that escape was farthest from her mind.  Look frightened.  Then look eager.  The second part of the plan was to put the guard at center stage.  She must not be interested in, involved with, the devices on display.  She must be involved with the guard.  So she needed to be afraid of him and of him only.


She looked down and then looked up at him again with wide, moist eyes.  She took a tentative step backward.  He did not move.  “Follow me, you big lug,” she thought.  “Give me something to work with.”


As soon as it was clear that they were not going to be playing monkey and weasel, she changed tactic.  She leaned forward as if she had only stepped back to have room to maneuver and then stooped and stepped over the handcuffs.  She straightened up again, hands cuffed behind her back.


Still the guard did not react.  His job was to keep here there until he was relieved, and he was doing nothing to compromise that.


She decided she needed to be a little more brazen.  Without changing the flow of her action, she stepped within reach of him.  She looked down her bosom and then up into his eyes.  No reaction.  He was not threatened, not interested, not angry, not critical.  He was just busy.  That was all. 


She whispered to the guard, “I can’t unbutton my shirt like this.  But if you did it I couldn’t stop you.”


At last he lowered his eyes to the tidy bosom on offer and then looked back into her own eyes.  His expression was unchanged.


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