Trouble and Treasure Book One
There was a noise coming from downstairs; from somewhere around the vicinity of the front door I heard a scratching.
It was subtle at first – the light touch of an object brushing against the grain of the wood.
I rolled over, sending a dusty, dog-eared velvet pillow tumbling off the bed and onto the equally dog-eared carpet below.
I closed my eyes, intent on going back to sleep. The noise, however, didn’t stop, and this damn house was so large that even the tiniest sound was magnified like a trumpet as it echoed through these empty dusty halls.
It was probably some unusually persistent woodland creature, I decided, and rolled over again.
A badger maybe, a squirrel? Some lonely puppy dog that’d bolted from one of the near-by country estates only to find life in the rolling woods not nearly as fine as life in the manor?
“Oh, fine then.” I grumbled, pushing the covers off with a great harrumph. If whatever was scratching at my door was so damn intent on ruining the woodwork, I'd give it a piece of my mind.
I thundered down the stairs, tying the cords of my thick dressing gown around my middle.
“I hear you. I hear you,” I mumbled under my breath, “Keep your damn tail on.”
I reached for the handle.
I opened the door.
I didn't see the enterprising woodland creature I expected.
I froze. My stomach sucked in with a tension-filled, electric charge as my eyes widened at the sight before me.
A gun. It was a gun. There was a man with a gun on my doorstep, and the gun was pointed right at me.
The sudden shock spread across my body, sinking hard into my legs and hands.
Every part of me screamed out to run, but the surprise nailed me to the spot.
The man was large and wearing a dark black leather jacket, leather gloves, and a black woolen balaclava.
“Get in,” he rumbled, sounding like a rasp grating over wood. “Scream or try to run, and you're fucking dead.”
I shook, the ties of my bathrobe banging into my knees.
I couldn't think. I couldn't move. All I could feel was nervous tension pressing against my body like a balloon ready to pop.
“Get in,” he repeated, tone so deadly it sounded like the gun was for show. From his sheer size and intense menace, this guy looked like more of a threat than anything old me, Amanda Stanton, in her lumpy old bathrobe could muster.
“D... d... don't kill me,” I whimpered.
The guy replied by using his free hand to shove me back from the door. He pulled the door to behind him with a poignant, careful silence.
My breath filled my awareness as I battled for air. Oh god, oh god, oh god.
He looked around the place, then fixed his gaze on me. “Take me to the goods.”
I stared at him in horror.
Did he think I was a drug dealer or some country-living weapons stockist?
“I... I don't know—”
“The fucking antiques, lady – where are they?” He shoved me, pushing me further down the hallway.
He apparently didn't think the antiques, or ‘goods,’ could be in the hallway – perhaps where he came from all 'goods' were kept in basements or attics or in the back of your sedan right next to the bodies....
That thought chilled me through. It seemed my body had turned to the fragile snow that settles above drifts – the kind that can be blown away only to melt in the warmth of a breath.
The antiques, I tried to repeat to myself. The antiques. He's after the antiques.... Which ones? I couldn't stop, turn, and politely enquire whether he was after some ‘30s-era tins or a complete collection of hippie magazines from the ‘60s, could I? This old house was chock full of antiques.
This guy could be after anything, and he wasn't about to play nice and rational to get it.
I sucked in a breath, trying hard to stop myself from hyperventilating. I had to calm down. There was a man in my house with a gun and he was after antiques.
Give him the correct antiques and he goes away, right? In which case, he could have all the freaking antiques, because we were having a special sale for violent armed burglars today. “Take it all,” I pushed the words out, proud I'd managed it in one go.
Slowly, painfully, I was pulling myself together. My legs were wobbling less as he pushed me down the hallway, and the ringing heartbeat in my ears pulsed into a steady white noise.
He shoved me in the back with his gun. “No games.”
Well at least that ruled out the collector's-edition board games I'd unearthed the other day, a trite (but situation-inappropriate) part of my mind concluded.
As the man pushed me towards the darkened library at the end of the hall, another wave of fear broke against me, and my feet tingled with the undeniable urge to run.
My eyes darted to the side as we passed the ornate dresser I'd polished only that morning; it still had the spanner I'd picked up out of the garden shed sitting there. It was well within reach.
I briefly flirted with the idea of grabbing it up and clocking the guy with it – but rationality caught up with me and pointed out that would be a great way of getting shot/and or punched so hard my teeth ended up in China.
I heard something off to my left: a soft thud and a short scrabble. Perhaps it was those woodland creatures I'd dreamed up earlier deciding to try their own paws at breaking and entering.
Join the party.
The scrabbling turned into a tinkling as a window broke in the library before us.
The burglar froze; he obviously didn't think it was a vandalizing bunny rabbit in there.
“Shit,” he said, as quiet as a single drop of water on glass. He grabbed a hand around the top of my chest and thrust me to the side, out of the view of the open library door.
The sudden contact and press of his large bulky arm squeezing into my throat sent such a race of adrenaline barreling through me that I jolted hard.
The abstract concept of the gun at my back had turned into the undeniable reality of an arm closed tightly around my neck.
Desperation kicked through my immobility.
I screamed. I drove my foot into the guy's knee and twisted to the side.
That's when three guys with guns burst from the darkened library. These guys weren't of the leather-jacket, home-burglar variety either. They looked like those SWAT teams I'd seen on TV: machine guns, goggles, helmets, a variety of straps and pockets, and stances that had the undeniable menace of training.
I noticed the men, noticed their guns, noticed that they’d sprung from my library... and I cracked. It tipped me over the edge.
I grabbed the spanner – the one on the dresser, the one still within reach – and I swung it behind me.
It connected with the guy's nose in a haphazard fashion, but there was a definite and welcome cracking sound.
He dropped his gun, his arm slackening around my throat. I ducked down, dropping to my hands and scrabbling to the side like some crazed crab in a scruffy dressing gown.
About a second later, there was a thump as the SWAT guys tasered the burglar with all the speed and efficiency of, well, SWAT guys.
The burglar's body jolted from the sudden violent rush of electricity, and he fell to the floor with a thud that shook the lamp shades above.
He was down. His gun was gone. He was unconscious.
I sat on the ground, back pressed against the wall several meters from the prone man, staring at the scene. The shock and surprise of the situation – and the harrowing, unpredictable, relentless pace with which it had unfolded – had reduced me to a simple pair of eyes backed up by a spluttering, panting breath.
But it was okay now; it was over. The cavalry had come.
I stared up at the three men in my hallway. One leaned down and grabbed the blaggard's gun, another peeling off to check the burglar, and the other... he stood there and stared down at me.
This was the point – TV had taught me – where gallant police officers should be saying “It's alright ma'am; everything is okay.”
The guy took several steps towards me, leaned down onto his knees, and rubbed the back of his hand across his chin.
The hair on my arms spiked.
Something wasn't right.
“Where are the artifacts?” the guy asked – voice toneless.
Oh – my – god.
I didn't answer; I stared at the guy in shock.
He looked back. “Take us to the artifacts,” his voice didn't change in pitch; there was no emotion there, only a mechanical ease.
He didn't stand up. He waited.
I blinked, shook my head, and felt the press of tears welling in my eyes. This was all too much. Getting free from a burglar intent on stealing my goods, only to run into a trained team of mercenaries (because they sure as hell weren't the police) after my more sophisticatedly-named 'artifacts.’
What on earth were these people after?
He motioned me up with a flick of his hand. “Up.”
I didn't want to get up. I wanted to curl into a ball and wake up. This was all so sudden and so unpleasantly, pressingly real.
“Artifacts,” he repeated the single word. He spoke with the right amount of force behind his tone to let me know he didn't need to threaten me. He was a mercenary with two mercenary buddies and a couple of machine guns; I was a puddle of adrenaline fatigue and bathrobe. He would win.
I silently pushed to my feet. “Take everything you want,” I said through a clenched jaw. “I don't know what you're after. Just take everything.”
One of the other mercenaries held up a hand to his ear. His face stretched with a controlled but recognizable tension. He made a fancy gesture to the leader.
“Move,” he said to me. For the first time emotion curled through his voice. It was bitter and sharp like vinegar to a wound.
A mix of fear, tears, bravado and gut-wrenching frustration came upon me all at once, as if every possible emotional reaction to this situation coalesced into a tight lump in my gut.
The emotion swelled, and with it a determination settled over me. It was sharp, it was sudden, and I went with it.
“Go to hell,” I spat, “Get your own damn artifacts.”
Before the lead guy could shoot me for being a bolshie hostage, I realized where I was standing.
Quick as I could I rammed myself backwards into the wall, and right into the light switch.
The hallway lights went out with a click.
I was still holding my spanner. I swung it before me in an arc as I pushed off the wall and ran to the side, heading straight for the darkened room before me.
It was one of the large drawing rooms, and from memory there was a giant mound of dog-eared magazines by the door. I ducked to the side, legs scraping along the edge of the papers, but not enough to trip me up.
I knew the men were right behind me; I could hear their quiet racing steps.
I twisted left and headed for the far end of the room, narrowly edging by the giant oak table scattered with old photos and torn newspaper clippings.
I heard a thud from the door as one of the mercenaries collected the pile of magazines. There was another thud as one of them ran right into the table.
Perhaps they weren't used to navigating cluttered terrain; your average bad-guy-for-hire probably only had to put up with alleyways and abandoned warehouses.
Or perhaps it had only been luck, because seconds later I felt a hand snake out from the darkness and collect around my arm, pulling me backward with a snapped force.
I gave a strangled, puffed scream before the same hand managed to clamp around my mouth.
Terror engulfed me. It started in the back of my head, and like a powerful blizzard, burst forth and froze every inch of me.
This was it, I realized. This was it.
The light flickered on.
The three mercenaries were on the other side of the room; one picking himself up from the toppled mound of papers, another nursing his leg near the edge of the massive table, and the last one – the leader – by the light switch.
If all three were before me... that meant....
The mercenaries raised their guns, and my captor raised his.
“This is our find,” the mercenary leader said, voice toneless.
This was my house, I wanted to shout back. Well, technically my dead great-uncle's house, but whatever.
The guy with his hand over my mouth didn't reply. He kept the heavy-looking gun in his other hand steady and pointed it at the mercenaries.
“Who sent you?” the mercenary leader asked. “Shaw? Romeo? The Americans? The Brits?”
I didn't follow a word. Why would the Americans and British – or this Shaw and Romeo, for that matter – send bad guys to my house? For these mysterious artifacts? Or did this select group (including entire freaking countries, apparently) have it in for me?
The guy who held me didn't respond – just kept his grip and his gun steady.
The mercenary leader shook his head. “Kill them; we can find it ourselves.”
My captor shot first.
With movements quicker than I could follow, he shot both pile-o-magazine-tripping mercenary and table-knocking mercenary right in their firing shoulders. He hauled me to the side, shot out the light above us, and narrowly missed a volley from the mercenary leader.
Just like that. It all happened in the blink of an eye, I swear.
I had a second to process it all before I tumbled head-first into a pile of soft magazines.
I heard another shot ring out.
There was a thud.
Then there was another thud as I slipped off the magazines and ended up as a puddle of worn-out fear and dusty bathrobe on the floor.
I waited there, lying face-first on the musty carpet. I was spent.
There was quick footfall beside me. I flinched, not knowing what to expect.
I wasn't wrenched to my feet, choked, and told to “Go and get the collector's items.”
Instead the man offered two short words: “Stay here.”
He moved off into the dark room to check the rival bad guys were down.
Stay here. The words echoed in my mind with an eerie hollowness.
It took me a moment – in which I heard my captor shove the prone bodies of the mercenaries – then I decided 'staying here' wasn’t something I wanted to do. Here was too full of bad guys, guns, and dust to be healthy.
I scrambled to my feet. Though I still felt the fear, the realization I had to get out of this place pumped through my body along with every last drop of adrenaline I had left.
Despite the shock, my eyes were adjusting to the darkness. Plus, over the weeks I'd memorized all the box-filled death traps in this house.
Still on my hands and knees, I crawled under the table. From there I could crawl to the opposite side of the room and through a different door that led back to the hallway. Once there I'd run like crazy and get the hell out of here.
Now for action. I scampered with a fiendish frenzy. Though the room was still dark, my eyes were adjusting and there was a silvery light filtering through the moth holes in the curtains. It had a dappling effect on the darkened room, offering the barest illumination to guess where I was headed and nothing more.
I crawled, the pound of my heart beating violently in my throat. Though my nerves were still fraught, I was glad of the action.
I made it under the table as I heard a soft grunt from the other side of the room. Through a streak of light I made out the rough, scuffed surface of a boot. It belonged to my most recent captor; the man whose hands smelt of fine coffee and expensive French cologne. That, or it belonged to yet another new-comer intent on illegally and violently extracting the location of the 'historical products' or 'items of interest' out of me.
I continued to crawl underneath the table. I headed to the far right corner.
When I'd first come into this room, this giant oak table had sat roughly in the middle with a most excellent view of the windows beyond. This also made it a most excellent tripping hazard considering the boxes that lined every wall and the magazines strewn across every centimeter of the floor.
I'd pushed the table to the side, right against the wall. Right on that wall was a second door to the room. At the time I’d figured it hadn't mattered whether I partially blocked off one door; now it could save me. If I’d left enough room to open the door and squeeze through the gap, I'd be out of this room (hopefully) before Mr Coffee-and-Cologne-Hands noticed. I would run like the wind in any direction (probably the nearby road, on the off chance that some passing car wasn't filled with hoons and goons on their way to threaten and rob me).
I made it to the space between the door and the table, and managed to stand up in the gap. I lightly turned the door handle.
There was the softest of squeaks as the aged mechanism rolled in my hand. I agonized over the sound with a throbbing, chest-aching fear. It didn't stop me from squeezing through the gap and out into the cold corridor beyond.
The moment my bare feet hit the once-plush Persian runner, a shot of sharp, bitter fear rushed over me. It pushed me forward.
I reached the front door and wrenched it open.
“Don't,” a deep, resounding voice rumbled from behind.
It lit the final powder leading to my keg of panic, and I bolted. My feet hit the uneven cobblestones outside the door with a frantic slap, slap, slap.
My naked feet reached the rough stones of the turning circle. I didn’t care about the sharp, jagged edges lacerating my tender flesh. I ran. I ran; I was being chased.
I could hear him behind me, hear the measured pant of his breath, hear the measured beat of his footfall.
The panic rose to a level I’d never ever experienced. Opening the door to a leather-clad burglar was one thing; having an evil SWAT team burst out of my library was another; and having a hand scented with coffee and cologne clamp around my mouth in a darkened drawing room was something again. Yet being chased so silently and efficiently from behind was so much more.
I screamed as he caught up to me. That old mammalian part of me that didn't want to die gave one last, gut-wrenching, lung-punching cry before it was all over.
“Jesus Christ, calm down,” came the barely-puffed voice of the man. He was right behind me.
Calm down? Why? It was easier to steal antiques from people who were stoic and silent?
I put on another burst of speed and managed to peel away from the guy.
I promptly fell into a hole.
I fell heavily. Maybe I sprained something, maybe I even broke something.
It didn’t matter.
The scent of damp grass filled my nostrils and the sound of someone leaning right next to me rang through my ears.
“Listen to me,” he said, voice quick but clear, “I'm not here to hurt you. I saved you.”
Like hell he did; he broke into my drawing room and shot out my light.
“If you don't believe me, then here, take this.”
Something metal was pressed into my upturned left palm.
It felt like the butt of a gun. It was heavy and had a weight that offered unbelievable reassurance.
Had the guy handed me a gun?
I let my grip stiffen around it, and I pushed off the ground. There was a dull pain in my right ankle, but I managed to look past it. Instead I looked right at the guy standing a respectable almost non-threatening distance from me.
He had his hands up and his fingers spread in classic I'm-not-armed fashion.
Through the pale moonlight I could see his expression. It wasn’t leering; I couldn't see the glint of his teeth as his lips puckered to reveal a criminal sneer. It looked calm and aware.
I sat on the grass, gun held awkwardly but nevertheless tensely in one hand. I stared at him. I stared at the dark shadows that obscured most of his face and the even darker shadow his tall, broad form cast against the grass.
The guy had handed me his gun. Mr Coffee-and-Cologne-Hands had armed me.
Was it a gesture of trust or some bad-guy game? Would he wait for me to say something brave, then giggle, pull out his own bigger gun, shoot me, and shout “Puuuuuuunked” in a drawn out, nasal tone?
He didn't move his hands. He kept them up, still, and where I could see them.
“Are we going to do this all night?” he asked. “It's just I can't guarantee no one else is coming.”
“What do you mean? There are more? Who were they? Who are you? What's going on here? Why did you give me your gun?”
As I asked my questions, the man brought one finger down for each. Though in an ordinary, non-bad-guy-filled scenario such a move would have seemed innocent, the moving fingers reminded me of a countdown.
“Don't do that. What are you doing?” I asked, tension pulsing through my voice as my hands trembled around the gun.
“Keeping track of your questions,” he answered easily. “Now what do I mean? I mean that you aren't safe here. I can't guarantee there aren't more guys out there. Indeed, it’s a safe bet there are. What was the next question? Who are they? That depends: some of them are petty criminals hired on a whim by people who either can't afford or are too stingy and stupid to hire real mercenaries. The rest range from ex-servicemen with debts to pay to bankrolled killers.”
The term bankrolled killers sent such a shiver down my spine I almost dropped the gun.
It didn't help that a wind was picking up, shaking the branches of the nearby oak trees and pressing through my sodden pant legs making the flesh underneath prickle and quiver.
“What was next?” the guy continued in a quick tone, keen to finish all the questions as soon as he could. “Oh yeah – who am I? We've met before. Sebastian Shaw.”
A tremble of recognition passed through me. I recognized the voice and that subtle mix of coffee and cologne. It was the man from the auction house; that persistent, dogged, hunkasaurus who seemed unusually interested in my spotting globe.
Now he was here, standing on my lawn, handing me guns, and shoving me to the side as he shot so-called bankrolled killers.
“You remember me?” he asked carefully, possibly realizing that a single name to a frazzled woman might not get him far. “We met at the—”
“Auction house,” I supplied in a quiet monotone.
“Yeah,” he said, and forgive me if it sounded almost caring. “Two more questions, right?” he continued. “I'll start with the last one first.” He still had his hands in the air, and he still wasn't moving a muscle in my direction. “I gave you my gun so you could trust me; it's one thing asking a panicked woman to trust you when you're holding the gun, but it's something else if you give the gun to her, right?”
He seemed to want my confirmation, but I was stuck on the term panicked woman. Despite the fact I clearly fit that category it rallied my pride. “Hurry up and get to the bit where you tell me what's going on.”
“I'm afraid we don't have time for a full version,” he said, cautiously looking over his shoulder at the long driveway that circled down to the road below.
There was a low thumping of an engine running somewhere down the hill. It could be a farmer doing some late-night mowing or another car-full of bad guys ready to do some people mowing instead.
As he moved his face towards the noise, I could see his sharp brow crinkle and press over his eyes. It was Shaw, I realized. The build, the stature, the face, the voice. Apparently Shaw was more than a lawyer/antiques dealer. That, or he had a natural talent for putting down bad guys.
I saw the dips and ridges of his tensed neck muscles as he arched his head further towards the sound. He didn't turn his body fully, and he kept his hands where I could see them. “We might want to get out of here,” he said in a low tone.
“I don't trust you yet,” I said, “So don't you move.”
He turned his head back to me, but apart from that, stayed as still as a tree trunk.
“You tell me what’s going on, then I'm going back into the house to call the police. No,” I corrected, “We are going back into the house.” I kept the gun pointed at him.
I realized I wasn't offering much incentive to play along – tell me your story and I'll arrange for the boys in blue to put you behind bars.
But I had a gun, and guns offer real currency in otherwise-shitty deals.
He sighed. I could tell with every second he was paying less and less attention to me and my inexpertly-held gun, and far more attention to the ever-growing putt-putt of the engine echoing through the valley.
“Short version,” his tone was clipped, “That globe you put up for auction isn't an ordinary antique. It has a treasure map on it. It's also part of a set – a set you said you own. Combined, that set is a map to the greatest treasure humankind has ever imagined.”
My jaw could have dropped off at that. “Treasure map?”
“Treasure map,” he repeated easily. “You don't have to believe me. But do believe this: the men in there,” he shrugged towards the house, “Aren't here for tea and biscuits.”
I sniffed, feeling the weight of the gun in my hand as if it were the only solid thing left in the world.
“I'm going to call the police,” I rasped.
“They won't get here in time,” he said, tone dropping a notch or two.
The fine hair along the back of my neck stood on end. The sound of the engine came closer and closer.
Down by the edge of the property I heard the crunch of tires against gravel.
“Find somewhere to hide.” Shaw stared straight at me, relaxing his arms and dropping them to his side. He didn't take one look at my gun as he moved back and turned towards the driveway below us.
“D-don't move,” I tried.
He responded by reaching into his pocket then throwing a set of keys right at me.
The keys bounced off my chest, falling to the soft grass below.
“My car is parked in the laneway.” He pointed across the field in the direction of town. “It's by a grove of oaks, right next to a bridge.”
Though I knew the place, I didn’t make a move for the keys.
“Lock yourself in or drive away – your choice.” He reached behind him and pulled something from the back of his pants.
It was a gun. Another gun, apparently.
I had a gun and he had a gun – the odds were back to being utterly against me; he was trained, and I was a whimpering mess.
“Go, Amanda, get out of here,” he encouraged with a sharp flap of his free hand.
I remained where I was, gun still held before me, eyes wide.
Too fast, everything was happening too fast.
The car came into view at the top of the incline, though it wasn't a car – it was a big black van.
“Run,” Shaw snapped, flattening himself as he raised his gun at the approaching vehicle.
At night, with bare feet, in a pink dressing gown, while every mercenary and burglar in the district wanted to steal my antiques?
“Or stand right there and advertise our position; that's a great way to get yourself shot.” Shaw half turned to me, though his eyes were still focused on the van, and he waved me down with an emphatic pat of his free hand.
I watched the hand flap in the darkness, the light rays of the moon glinting off some ring on his middle finger.
“G-e-t d-o-w-n,” Shaw spat again. Obviously fed up at me standing there all dithery and overcome, he snapped up and pushed me over with all the finesse and kindness of a play-ground bully.
I yelped, tumbled over, and came to rest face-first in the damp grass.
A scream of protest came to my lips, but the crunch of the van's tires became all the sharper. Judging by the clarity of the sound, it wasn't far away. Fifteen meters maybe, possibly ten.
Lying on the ground, immobile, and face-first – again – gave me time to process what was going on here. Very soon this Shaw character was either going to shoot the occupants of that van, be shot by the occupants of the van, or throw up his hands and join their evil order – turning around to capture and torture me.
I was exquisitely aware, as the crunch of dirt and stone under wheels filled the night air, of how slippery and sweaty my palms had become.
I blinked my eyes once, then screwed them shut against the outside world and all the apparent gun-toting misery it had to offer this night.
There was a single gunshot. Though I’d been expecting it, my stomach gave such a jolt it felt as if it would jump right out of my middle.
As my skin flamed and prickled with the expectation of a full-on gun fight, a massive beam of light cut over the lawn.
No, my first thought wasn't aliens (well, maybe for a nanosecond).
The sound of a chopper's rotors slicing through the night's breeze sounded from above.
“We have you surrounded,” a determined, guttural voice crackled over a loud speaker, “Stay in your vehicle. Any attempt at violence will be met with swift retaliation.”
Over the ear splitting sound of the chopper, I couldn't hear whether the van was doing what it was told. So, with an almighty sniff, I raised myself up and took a peek.
The chopper above was hovering low – so low that the downward stream of the rotors not only flattened my hair but threatened to flatten my body as well.
The black van had indeed stopped. Despite the phenomenal force of the downward draft, I stared up at the chopper above. Not only was it large and sleek, but it had two prominent gun turrets either side of its nose.
A helicopter with actual gun turrets.
That point ricocheted around my head with all the force and speed of a bullet. The mercenaries and burglars had been one thing – but this was something else entirely. The great hulk of metal that hovered above my turning circle was something that belonged in a war – not on a country estate.
Somehow this situation had taken a turn towards even greater danger and peril; and yes, I was still in my dressing gown.
“About bloody time,” Shaw managed to shout over the roar of the helicopter.
As the words left his mouth, several black-clad figures leapt from the open doors of the chopper and rappelled down, landing either side of the van.
They had very large guns.
With my hair still flattened against my face and my eyes blinking hard to stay open, I watched, bottom lip quivering.
Then... then I pushed up, feet sinking into the damp soft grass.
The spotlight from the helicopter was centered directly over the van.
I stepped backwards, receding further into the darkness beyond this fraught scene.
The men from the helicopter shouted various threatening orders at the occupants of the van. Though I couldn’t make out the exact words over the sound of the rotors above, I could bet they weren't asking for directions.
I took several steps backwards, feet gently pressing into the firm ground behind.
I ran because there was a helicopter on my lawn, there were mercenaries in my drawing room, and there was a burglar in my hall.
Keys jingling in my hand, gun immobile in the other, I made it to the house before anyone knew I was gone.
I shouted over the sound of the rotors, voice straining with the effort. Though the chopper had already landed, it was taking too long for the damn thing to wind down, and I needed to get their attention. So rather than shout till my lungs were empty and my throat cracked and dry, I pulled open the pilot's door.
“Hello to you too,” said Garry, a giant with a baritone voice and a distinctive South African accent so resonant it could have been heard over a jet engine.
“No time,” I shouted, “She's done a runner. I've got a heavily armed team in the drawing room – left of the front door when you come in.” I sliced a hand towards the large and imposing front door to the manor ahead of us. The place was huge, old, and judging by all the junk that had been in that drawing room, a bloody death trap. But hey, it had treasure too, otherwise I wouldn't damn well be here.
Maratova, his M-15 slung over his shoulder, jumped out of the back of the bird, scuffed army boots landing roughly on the loose stones of the turning circle. Hair whipping back across his face from the still-dying rotors, he reached down, pulled up his balaclava, and fixed it in place. “We've got this, Shaw, you can go back to your books.”
I ignored him. Maratova liked to think a real man was judged by the length of his rifle. I didn't give a shit how long his gun was. All I wanted was to find those antiques before one of the other teams got their hands on them. Oh, and there was the fact I'd turned my back on her for one second and the girl had done a runner with my gun and keys.
Shit, tonight couldn't get any worse.
Maratova cracked his neck, adjusted the sight on his rifle, then slapped me on the back as he walked past. He tapped his ear piece with one hand, cleared his nose, spat on the ground, and grumbled a “Got it.”
The only thing he had was an ego the size of Mars. To hell with it if I was going to let this idiot ruin my find.
Shit, if I'd known they were going to bring Maratova along, I would have called the boys in blue instead.
Rather than fight him on it, I shrugged, shot Garry a look, and walked off around the side of the chopper.
I had real intel on the targets inside, but Maratova wasn't the kind of gunslinger to stop and get his bearings. Shoot first and let someone else clean up was more his style.
Garry shrugged, and the rest of the unit jumped out of the chopper to follow their leader.
It wasn't as if they were going to face any resistance: I'd taken down Romeo's boys in the drawing room.
“Fuck,” I hissed as I remembered one tiny fact: I'd given the girl my gun. The same girl was now holed up in her house somewhere. Granted, I hadn't been dumb enough to leave it loaded, but Maratova wouldn't know that. I could see the woman, frightened out of her wits, doing the first thing she could think of with the gun and point it at the heavily-armed men smashing through her house.
She'd been attacked by a unit of mercenaries. In her current state I doubted she could tell the difference between the good balaclava-wearing, gun-toting guys and the bad ones.
So I turned on my foot, scattering stones as I went, and bolted towards the front door.
If she was smart (and I doubted that, considering how she'd announced to a room full of mercenaries, antiques dealers, shady Government agents, and plain old crooks that she had a set of the rarest treasure maps out there) she would have taken my keys and headed for my car.
Amanda didn't strike me as smart. Amanda seemed ditsy, unkempt, and unlikely to be able to deal with a full-scale incursion into her country manor.
She'd be hiding under her bed – I'd bet a tenner on it.
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried the back door again. I offered a silent swearword as I realized it was locked. The click it gave as it resisted my desperate attempt to open it sounded like a gunshot.
I heard the front door open.
My heart in my throat, my hand shaking as I clutched the door handle, I stared around wildly.
I’d made it to the kitchen. It was right at the back of the first floor, and it had a door that led out onto the back of the property. There was a garden path outside that led into the woods, with a shortcut down to the laneway beyond. There was an old bicycle tied up to a tree on that laneway; a quaint vestige of my great-uncle's estate.
The guy – Sebastian Shaw, the extremely good-looking lawyer who’d turned out to be an extremely-good looking mercenary/spy/criminal – had offered me the keys to his car. I wasn't stupid. There was no way I was going to get in his car. It was probably stuffed full of weapons, dead guys, and stolen goods. I was going to take the bike, stick to the old country road, and cycle like a woman possessed, still in my pajamas, until I reached the local town.
But the door meant to lead me to my brilliant escape was the door that wouldn’t open for me. It was locked, the key all the way back near my front door in one of the drawers of a side dresser.
I mouthed another silent swearword as I heard the sound of heavy footfall coming from up the hall.
Instinctively I ducked to my knees, crouching and sidling awkwardly until I was hiding behind the island bench, back pressed up against a jar full of dried pasta and a knife board.
The gun was still in my hand, and I held it at an awkward angle – afraid of the damn thing, but not willing to let it go when there were more unwanted guests traipsing through my great-uncle's manor.
I had no idea if they were good or not. Just as I had no idea if Shaw had been honest. Somehow I doubted it. When it came to rescuing people from break-and-enters, the police had that covered – shifty men in suits, no matter how dashing, didn’t. Whatever Shaw was doing here, and whatever that helicopter and that van had to do with it, I doubted any of it was legal.
As I sat there, heart thumping so violently I could feel it through my clenched teeth, the footfall got closer and closer. I guessed there were several men, but not once did they speak to give away their exact number.
It was all so professional and all so frightening. The burglar at the door and the mercenaries in the drawing room had been one thing – hell, even Shaw had been manageable somehow (if you count manageable to mean I’d spent most of the time crawling away from him in the mud). But there was something about the silent way these men walked up my hall, the way each step was so damn precise and light that I had to strain my hearing to even pick it up.
Christ, Christ, Christ. I slammed a hand over my mouth, squeezed my eyes shut, and tried to make it all go away. I wiped my eyes, tears forming and streaking down my cheeks. That was when I realized I still held the gun.
I gave an involuntary and audible squeak.
The steps stopped. They’d been heading up my stairs before, but after a pause, they headed my way.
My heart could have popped; never before had I felt such intense, pressured stress. I could hardly breathe and my eyes were so tear-streaked I could barely see.
I’d closed the kitchen door behind me, but I hadn't had the presence of mind to shift a table or something heavy in front of it.
So there wasn’t anything but an unlocked door separating me from whoever the hell was beyond it.
If it was the police, if it was somehow the army – if it was some legitimate Government security force – they would announce themselves. They'd shout out a quick “This is the police, we're here to help you, ma'am, and we're here to catch the bad guys.” Sure as hell the guys outside my kitchen door hadn’t paused to reassure me they were here to help.
I clutched the first thing I could find – which happened to be a jar of dried pasta and not one of the knives on the magnetic rack across from me. With the jar of pasta in hand, I lurched towards the back door.
It was at that point it opened towards me.
I skidded to a stop, a dark, tall, large figure before me framed by the moonlight. The man took a step forwards as the kitchen door behind opened with a soft clunk.
I’d never been so desperate in my life, and my body, pumped with fright, did the first thing it could think of, and struck out at the figure before me with the jar. The pasta rattled around as the jar struck home on the guy's upper arm.
“Ow,” the man protested as a red dot of light crossed his face and drifted to my upper arm.
I screamed. I'd seen the movies; I knew what was coming next.
“Hey, hey, hey – it's fine. Maratova, she's fine – she's fine. Occupant of the house,” the man, who I realized was Shaw, spat his words out in quick file, his hands up.
Despite his words, several more of those red-pointed lights flew over the room and settled on or around me.
That's when I chucked the pasta jar right at Shaw's head, ducked around him, and bolted out of the back door.
I heard the jar shatter against the floor, heard someone swear, but didn’t stop to clean up the mess and make sure everyone was wearing shoes lest they slash their feet on the glass.
I flew across the path, arms pumping, feet stumbling in the dark, but never stopping, gun still held awkwardly in my vice-like grip.
“Did that woman attack you with a jar of pasta?” Maratova snorted like a bull.
I didn't answer. I turned to follow her.
“We've got this, Shaw,” Maratova blurted gruffly.
Was that the click of a safety going off? Maratova was no idiot – his safety would have been off the second they saw that van. Nope, he would have clicked it on again so he could click it off to give me a pointed message.
While I often worked with the Special Operations Unit, we couldn't be classed as friends. Not me and Maratova anyway. I had a certain history with that raving idiot.
It was a violent history.
That wasn't the point. Amanda was now running down a dark garden path, seconds from falling in a ditch and breaking her neck. Or worse. As far as I knew, there could still be more bad guys – amateurs or professionals – roving those woods. It wouldn't take Amanda long to realize her gun didn't work. Nor would it take long for her to be taken down.
“She's the owner,” I said, “She's scared, she has no idea what's going on—”
“And she's got a gun.” Maratova signaled two of his men to stay behind while he and another one headed for the back door.
“It's not loaded,” I spat back, trying to get it through his thick skull that Amanda was as much of a threat as his own grandmother (though, knowing Maratova's particular upbringing, maybe that wasn't true).
“How the hell do you know that?” Maratova shoved past me roughly, pausing to listen to my answer. It was obvious he didn't think Amanda could give much opposition. He probably thought he'd pop out and she'd be hiding stupidly behind a painted flower pot.
But that girl could run.
“My gun,” I snapped back. “I gave it to her.”
The guy next to Maratova snorted and Maratova gave a growl. “I don't even want to know why.” With that he turned stiffly and stalked out the door, gun raised.
“It's not loaded,” I screamed back.
“Way to go to break our cover,” one of the guys said – Jefferson, I think. He raised his gun and took position near the kitchen door. “Everyone in this house knows where we are now.”
As if Maratova's loud, guttural, annoying tone hadn't already done that.
Rather than point that out, I sidled closer to the door. I was playing a dangerous game here: I was on their team, technically, but that technically could see me with cable-tie handcuffs tied around my wrists and a black eye if I didn't respect their rules.
Yet something was niggling deep in my gut. It was the way she'd looked at me out near the turning circle – the whites of her eyes glinting in the moon light, her lips slack and her mouth open.
It was miles away from the light, breezy, frankly ditzy way she'd been when we'd first met. When she'd walked into that auction room, smiling nervously, the auction house owner tittering excitedly at her shoulder, I'd been ready to write her off as a new secretary or PA – a vague and flakey one. When she'd sat through the auction, shock plastered over her face as the innocent spotting globe she'd put up for sale started to go for millions, I'd realized something was up. It wasn't until Narcina – a shady Egyptian antiques dealer – walked right up to her and asked her to withdraw the item from sale and sell it to him for an even higher price, that I knew something was wrong.
That's when she'd done it. Shock still plastered over her cute face, her button nose crinkled and her blue eyes popping, she'd stood up, blinked at the man, and stuttered, “I have more of them. I have a set of... five I think.”
God, you could have dropped a fucking grenade in that building and not one single person would have moved. They were all of them in there for one reason: the spotting globe at auction was worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars in lost treasure. We're talking Spanish galleons stuffed with doubloons, Roman hoards, Egyptian tombs, treasures the Nazi's stole and squirreled away through the war. While each globe was valuable, they didn’t work as a map until they were combined. There were five globes in total – and when Amanda had innocently admitted to the room that she owned the whole set... well.
My heart could have stopped at that point. I'd been searching for a hint of those globes my entire career, only to have one pop up for freaking auction down the street from my office. I hadn't had to battle bandits in South America for it, hadn't had to fight through the war-filled valleys and mountains of Afghanistan, hadn't even had to pull out my gun.
They were called the Stargazer Set. And among those in the know, they were the most famous, previously elusive, and most highly desired treasure maps in the world.
Ditsy Amanda had them. All of them, apparently.
I was sure she didn't have a clue what they were, nor, it was obvious, did she understand what was happening to her.
What was happening was what happened when you blurted out you had the Stargazer Set in your basement.
“Come on, Jefferson,” I tried, voice at normal volume, as I was sure there was no one left conscious in the house, “You know Maratova: he's going to scare the shit out of her, or worse. You want that?”
Jefferson wiped his nose with the thumb of one of his combat-glove-covered hands. “She threw a pasta jar at you – I don't think she's a fan.”
“She has no idea what's going on. She isn't the criminal here. Let me...” I trailed off, not sure what I wanted. Did I want to be the one to go out and pull her out of the ditch while she flailed at me with the butt of my own gun?
Nope. But I owed it to the girl. She'd been dumb telling everyone in that auction room she had the Stargazers, but I'd been worse for not warning her when I'd had the chance.
The trouble was I wanted those globes. The only person who knew where the rest of them were, and the legitimate owner (not that anyone in this building – good or bad – cared who officially owned the things) was pelting through the forest trying to get away from me. Maratova, despite my insistence that her gun wasn't loaded, would still treat her as armed, and he'd use protocol on that. That same protocol wouldn’t be kind to Amanda. The poor girl would explode if she was tackled by a trained soldier or had several M-15s pointed in her face while Maratova screamed at her to drop the weapon and drop to her knees. In other words, she was in trouble.
There was a lot of trouble going on here tonight, and I doubted it was over yet.
I kept running for my life. My heart beat so fast and violently a cold pressure spread through the top of my chest.
I’d managed to make it down the dark garden path, my bare feet grating against the rough stones and soil as I headed towards the forest below. When I hit it, despite the leaves and sticks and god knows what else on the forest floor, I kept running.
I hadn't had any time to think since the moment I’d rolled out of bed and walked down stairs to meet the first of my attackers.
They were after my globes, like the one I’d been so foolish to sell at the auction house earlier that week.
When I’d come to my great-uncle's estate, entrusted by my great aunt to sort through his junk, I’d never expected to find anything valuable. Great-Uncle Stanton had only ever collected junk. From the mountains of yellowed paper in the drawing room, to the boxes of old tattered photos in the lounge room, to the cupboard full of used baked-bean cans, old Great-Uncle Stanton, though a collector, was a collector of rubbish not treasure.
That had all changed the Tuesday before last when I'd made my way up to the attic. I could still remember heaving the door open and recoiling from the loud bang as the old wood swung back on its hinges and impacted the floor. A massive cloud of dust spilled towards me, and I almost fell off the ladder from the coughing fit that ensued. When I pulled myself up and onto the floor of the attic, everything had been worth it. All those weeks of going through all that junk, of trawling through the millions of old newspaper clippings, cigarette tins, postcards, stamps, and badges, so yellowed, bent, and rusted with age I had to wash my hands every half hour – all of it had been worth it.
For there was treasure above. While the majority of the manor, from the bottom floor to the top, was filled with glorified rubbish, the attic was a sight I’d never seen outside of a fancy museum. Statues were pressed up against the side walls. Old urns had toppled on their sides, coins spilling in a sea of gold. There were fancy desks and seats, covered with leather-bound books and parchment manuscripts.
On a side wall amongst all this treasure sat a simple desk. On top of the desk were two things: one worn leather notebook and one old hideous spotting globe. Amongst all the wonder that surrounded me, that simple sight caught my attention.
My old Great-Uncle Stanton had been the black sheep of the family, having left medical school halfway through his degree to take up treasure hunting instead. The rest of the family thought he was mad. They’d also thought, incorrectly, that all his years of traveling and toiling had brought him naught but further insanity.
The family had been wrong.
Old Great-Uncle Stanton had an attic full of treasure.
My great-aunt, Imelda Stanton, the executrix of Great-Uncle Stanton's will, dealt with the treasure, leaving me to deal with the dregs. Great-Uncle's Stanton's will had already gone to probate, all gifts given, and the residue of his belongings were to be sold and split up between the principle beneficiaries named in his will. So old Imelda had been quick in getting the goods removed and sold off. But the dregs? Oh, the dregs had been mine to deal with.
And that was why I was in this current predicament.
But I had a plan, and that plan was to continue running.
It was over for tonight, and maybe it was over in general. Despite the fact I would do anything for those globes, my hands were tied, literally. I hadn’t ingratiated myself with my comrades in arms. At the second suggestion I run after Maratova, the boys he’d left behind had got mad, complaining I was drawing attention to them before they’d checked the house for contacts. So they’d done the first thing they could think of: pistol whipped me, tied my hands behind my back with cable, and gaffer taped my mouth. It was genuine military hospitality.
Though we were meant to be on the same team, technically, I didn't begrudge them; they wanted those globes as much as I did, maybe more. Heck, you could bet that every single well-informed, well-armed guy out there wanted the same thing.
You couldn't calculate how much they would be worth, and it would be a world full of fun finding out. Treasure hunting, was the grand pappy of fun.
I hadn't grown-up wanting to be a treasure hunter. I hadn't seen Indiana Jones as a kid and thought “that right there, that's the job for me.” Nope, I fell into it.
Despite the thrills, spills, maps, and gold – treasure hunting also had its down side, and Maratova, boy was he a down side.
By the time Maratova came back to the manor, I was sure Amanda would be dragged in by his side, a shaking puddle, tears streaking down her face, feet bloody from running through the forest, and body a bundle of bruises from tripping in every ditch from here to town.
My expectations were wrong.
As I ran, careful to avoid the trees and scrubby undergrowth, I realized I needed something to run towards. The more I heard the frenzied sound of pursuit, the more I realized I couldn’t carry through with my original plan and run for the old country road and into town; they would catch me the moment I hit open ground.
I couldn’t hope to outrun them – I needed a place to hide.
So I veered off, remembering that down an old glade was a storm pipe. It wasn't massive, not like in Jurassic Park; it couldn't fit a van in there or anything, but it was big enough for me to crawl through on my hands and knees.
I reached it, managed to fit inside, hands shaking, body convulsing, heart a roar in my ears. And there I waited.
For those short moments, or minutes, or hours – for I’d lost track of time – I’d never felt so much fear in my life. It was like some horror film where I waited alone, my attackers descending upon me from all sides, my escape routes blocked, my advantage lost, and my life probably to follow.
As I rode out the fear, hands so sweaty as they pressed against the dirt and leaves underneath me that I would have to bathe for a week to get the marks out, the sound of pursuit passed.
Somehow I’d managed to get away. That or my attackers were of the particular cruel variety and were standing outside of the pipe ready to catch me in a sack, or however it is you kidnap maidens in distress these days.
Eventually, I realized I was indeed alone.
I stood there, back pressed against the storm drain, mouth open without the ability to close it, for god knows how long. I was still waiting for every criminal in the country to round the corner or jump out of the trees, all shouting that they wanted to see my goods, antiques, or old and valuable items.
When the attackers didn’t come and I realized how cold I was, I urged myself to move. One step after the next, I gathered speed until my bloodied feet sprinted along the forest floor once more.
I had to be careful. I didn’t want to flee from the forest only to find a major road; in my mind every satellite in the country, every machine that could fly, and every guy who’d never listened to his mother and had become a murderous thug, were all trained or milling about on those open roads, ready to catch me the moment I nipped out from the forest. So I decided I had to keep to the forest as long as I could, or at least keep out of sight.
The section of woods I was in led behind several of the old country manors in the district, and I realized, teeth chattering with the cold, that if I kept to the path and tried to navigate from the lay of the land, I could head to old Elizabeth Brown's house. Elizabeth had been a good friend of my great-uncle, a woman of considerable eccentricity herself, but with better taste and less used tins of baked beans in the pantry. When I’d been a child I’d visited my great-uncle on many occasions, and had grown to know Elizabeth and remembered her fondly. Since I’d been at my great-uncle's manor dealing with the estate, I’d been to Elizabeth's several times for tea, and she’d always said to pop in whenever I was around.
I was about to take her up on her invitation. I hoped I wouldn't be bringing along a truckload of mercenaries and bad guys to the tea table though.
Somehow I kept my footing as I navigated in the dark. Though it was a full moon, it was hard for the silvery light to penetrate the thick canopy above. I managed to make my way, as quietly as I could, as carefully as I dared. I soon realized I was at the back of Elizabeth's property.
As I climbed the hill that led to the back of Elizabeth's well-appointed manor, hot tears began to streak down my face. Though I’d been through everything a woman shouldn’t have to go through in her pajamas in one night, I hadn't cried before, or at least not like this. Now the tears came, flowing, collecting along my chin and streaking down my throat, making the top of my pajamas wet. I couldn't stop them, not that I wanted to try.
Just like that – in a bedraggled, damp, shaking, tear-and-mud streaked fashion – I knocked wildly on the back door of Elizabeth's house.
It was some time before she came to the door, and during all of it wild flights of paranoia wheeled around my mind. I wondered whether every bad guy from my manor had somehow gotten here first and was about to play a wicked game of Red Riding Hood with me: dressing up in Elizabeth's hideous floral pajamas and slippers with curlers in their hair and a gun tucked behind their hot-water bottle. Or, you know, dashing out with a gun in hand and a balaclava on their head.
When Elizabeth opened the door, I lost it. I crumpled to my knees, tears so fast it must have looked as if I'd stood under a waterfall.
Elizabeth didn’t shrink from me; despite her eccentricities, she was a level-headed woman. The first thing she did was pick me up, looking me up and down for signs of injury as she ushered me inside, closing the door and locking it firmly behind her.
She pulled out a seat from the kitchen bench, manhandled me into it, stood at the other side of the bench and looked at me directly, a kindly but serious look on her face.
“Well then, girl, you better tell me what's going on.”
It was some time before I could speak, and I wiped wildly at my wet and dirty cheeks with the sleeves of my pajamas, doing nothing but mixing the muck around. I gave a heavy sigh. “You aren’t going to believe any of this, but my house... I, there were mercenaries in my house. There was a robber at my door. There was a helicopter on my lawn... there was a lawyer in my kitchen,” for some reason I chose to end on the most benign point.
Elizabeth didn’t burst into laughter, and nor did she call the local hospital to get them to send down a psychiatric assessment squad. She walked over to the kitchen door and pulled down the blind that looked out at her backyard.
“I see,” she said, voice even. “Sounds as if you've had an adventure.” She offered a wan smile and headed directly to the kettle opposite and turned it on. She pulled two brightly colored mugs from one of her cupboards and set them down.
I sat perched on the edge of the kitchen stool, clutching the fine silk cushion as I tried not to fall off, the sheer fright of the night catching up with me.
Had I been robbed, or nearly robbed, by criminals, burglars, and soldiers? Or was this all a dream?
“I think you'll need two sugars in your tea,” Elizabeth said as she tipped the sugar jar into my mug, “Perhaps three.”
“I...” I had no idea how to make any sense of it all.
“The first thing you need to do,” Elizabeth sat the tea down in front of me, turned the handle towards me, and waited with a stern look until I reached for it and clutched it to my chest, “Is to drink tea. The next thing to do is to take several deep and long breaths, have a sugary cookie, and tell me what happened – from the beginning.”
“Shouldn't...” I hesitated, “I don't know, call the police?”
Elizabeth waved a hand at me. “Darling, you never call the police until you have called a lawyer first. Trust me, you'll be safe here tonight, and I'll call my lawyer in the morning. No, you must get all this off your chest,” Elizabeth gesticulated and took a deep breath like an enthusiastic drama teacher, “Then you need to have a shower, and then you are going to go straight to bed.”
I narrowed my eyes, tasting a welcoming sip of tea. I thought calling the police was a better idea… but what if it wasn’t? Those men from the helicopter had looked official. I’d seen enough movies to know the police weren't always the good guys. I knew it sounded paranoid; I didn't care in my current state. I was so full of adrenaline and suppressed fear that the only thing I wanted to do was crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head. No matter how old you are, there's always safety in a blanket.
Maybe Elizabeth was right; maybe a lawyer would know what to do. At least then there would be more people involved in this, whatever this was. Having a lawyer onside surely couldn't hurt.
At the thought of how much trouble I was in, I shuddered, sucked in a hearty draft of my tea, and tried not to cry.
Elizabeth waited until I could speak, handing me a tissue.
I didn’t question whether sitting in her kitchen was safe. My pursuers could still be after me. Yet I felt safe. Or, more likely, so strung out I couldn't think straight.
I spilled the beans. I told Elizabeth all about finding those globes in my great-uncle's attic. I even told her all about the treasure up there with them. Elizabeth, bless her eccentric soul, barely shrugged at the mention of treasure two houses down. The only comment she could muster was it must have been colorful. As if color was the most interesting fact about a hoard of gold, diamonds, and pearls.
I continued to tell Elizabeth that Imelda had left me the task of selling off the dregs of Alfred’s collection. In a stroke of what I now labeled idiocy, I’d googled the spotting globe. It hadn’t taken long to realize they could go for a tidy sum. I’d played with the idea of snapping some photos and putting it up for auction on eBay, but that’s when I realized I still had the contact for the auction house my great-aunt often used.
I’d enthusiastically arranged to see the head of the auction house. The poor man, realizing who my great-aunt was, had thought that I was going to sell something fantastically expensive. When I brought the globe to him with a stupid grin on my face, he’d been disappointed. He agreed to the auction anyway, possibly out of allegiance to my great-aunt.
And that there had been the worst mistake of my life. I should have stayed at my old great-uncle's manor, clearing out his estate, spending my nights tucked in the library, a small fire in the hearth as I read through my great-uncle's exciting journals. But oh no, I’d put that globe up for sale. I even went to the auction in person, where I made my greatest mistake of all.
I didn’t bat an eyelid when the auctioneer called me, a spike of excitement in his voice. There was considerable interest in my item; a record number of people ringing ahead to ensure there would be space at the auction and that the item hadn’t already been sold.
I did bat an eyelid when the bidding shot through the roof. The asking price was a touch over £100. In the space of precisely one minute that sum rose to £200,000. People were clamoring so much they were standing, some on top of their seats as they shouted to be heard, their hands waving up in wide arcs as they drew the price higher and higher.
I stood off to the side of the room. When the price reached £15 million, I staggered. Others in the audience were still willing to bid, some rising to their feet in anger as the auction hammer went down.
It seemed there’d be a riot.
Before I could run from the room in shock, I was approached by a man in a fine cream linen suit. He must have known I was the owner, because he bypassed the auctioneer, large brown eyes locking on mine, a large smile spreading his lips. “I will offer you £50 million for the item.”
£50 million? Though I came from a well-off family and I had a trust fund, this was insane.
Rather than squeak at the man that I would talk to the auctioneer to see whether the auction could continue, I blurted out the dumbest thing I ever had in my entire life. Shaking, I tilted my head to the side, pulled my lips back in a supremely awkward grin and blurted, “But there are four more.”
There were four more, four more spotting globes from my great-uncle's collection. Well, technically.
The auction house that seconds before had been ready to explode became still and cold like the depths of space. You could have dropped a snowflake and heard it hit the ground.
“I see,” was all the man had said.
And that right there had started this all. All that business with burglars in my hallway, mercenaries in my drawing-room, lawyers on my lawn, and soldiers in my kitchen; it was then and there it had begun.
Elizabeth sent me to bed in short fashion, insisting I brush my teeth on account of how much sugar I’d consumed. It was a surreal experience to be ordered to clean my teeth before bed, barely an hour after being chased through a forest by soldiers with guns.
Yet as soon as my head hit the pillow I fell asleep, and I didn’t wake until morning.
The second I awoke, I had a feeling I couldn't remember something, something important. For a few blissful moments I lay there, warm in bed as I tried to remember what it was I’d forgotten. Was I meant to call my great-aunt today? Was there a fair in the local village? Had I organized to meet a friend in town?
Then in a snap, I remembered everything. I had no idea how I could have forgotten; it was the only night of my life that had involved so much action, so many guns, and so many people out to capture me.
I lay in bed, flashes of last night chasing through my mind as I curled up, clutched the cushions beside me, and I tried not to fall apart.
It wasn't too long until Elizabeth called me down to breakfast. The smell of freshly-cooked pancakes with apple and blueberry sauce wafted up the stairs, and it was enough to see me lift my face from the warm press of my pillow. If there was one thing that could distract me from my paranoid thoughts, it was food.
Elizabeth called me down stairs again, her sophisticated accent tinkling like a bell, worlds apart from the guttural screams and shouts of last night. From her tone to the pleasant aroma in the air, I was starting to believe that last night had been nothing more than a nightmare.
As I padded out of bed, hair a mess at the top of my head, I caught a glance of my wrists and my feet: they were covered in scratches, bruises, and gouge marks. Nightmares, no matter how harsh and frightening, stayed in your mind.
I winced as I walked down the long stairs that led to the bottom floor and the kitchen below. Only the smell of freshly-cooked pancakes kept me going.
If you'd asked me several weeks ago, before heavily-armed men had kicked down my door and chased me through the woods, I would have told you I was an independent, emotionally stable, tough woman. I was used to mucking out the horse stables, I was used to changing the tires on my car when I got a flat, I was even used to fixing appliances when they broke. My great-uncle, for all his mad eccentricities, had taught me a lot. Still, no matter how much he’d taught me, last night had taught me something new: all it took was a couple of pairs of scuffed army boots, a couple of uncocked machine guns, and a smattering of balaclava-wearing bad guys, and I could and would be reduced to tears.
The thought of my old great-uncle, and the stories he'd told me as I sat by his knee in his library, bolstered me, and I didn’t fall down the stairs in a sobbing mess. Instead I heaved my way to the kitchen, nose still sniffing the air appreciatively, stomach gently rumbling, heart calming for the first time since I’d woken.
Elizabeth nodded at me as I walked into the kitchen, a weird apron tied loosely over her even weirder pajamas. “I have made pancakes,” she announced as she shepherded me to the kitchen bench and placed a titanic stack of pancakes before me, a dark purple sauce oozing over them. One whiff of it was enough to give me cavities, but I helped myself to a stack of four nonetheless.
“I called my lawyer, dear,” she nodded earnestly, “He’s going to be here any moment. We’re going to get this sorted; we’re going to get this sorted today,” she said with an almost military nod. Despite Elizabeth's colorful, erratic personality, when she wanted something done she would jolly well do it.
Now I had something to smile about: I had someone by my side, somebody formidable, and somebody endearingly floral.
“I'm in my pajamas,” I said through a massive bite, sauce dripping down my chin, “Shouldn't I change?”
Elizabeth shook her head vehemently. “You have been attacked in your house by bad men carrying guns; you can jolly well stay in your pajamas as long as you like. Plus, my lawyer is a good chap.”
I nodded. I couldn't be bothered changing, plus, I didn't have anything to change into; all my clothes, though ostensibly not that far away, were still in a house full of criminals. In a situation like this, god dammit, anyone could understand that a girl had to stay in her pajamas.
Shortly after, as I sucked down a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice, Elizabeth disappeared from the room as the doorbell rang.
A kick of fear and uncertainty muddled around my stomach as I sat waiting for the lawyer to arrive. This was getting real again. As I’d downed my mountain of pancakes, I’d managed to gain distance from the situation. That distance rapidly reduced as I heard even but strong footfall coming down the corridor.
I turned to the kitchen door.
I’d sure had one hell of a night, and I sure had the bruises to prove it. God, I had a bruised ego as well.
When it had come to shrugging into my suit that morning and getting back to my real job, it had been murder. There were tracks of mangled skin around my wrists where the cable ties had dug into them and a stupendous bruise between my shoulders from where I’d been pistol whipped. But with a great suit, cuff links, and an expensive watch, I’d managed to hide it all.
That I’d been set free last night wasn't a surprise. The Special Forces needed me. In their eyes it was all a painful lesson. Maratova, the titanic and idiotic bastard that he was, was trying to show me who wore the man pants in this partnership. As soon as Maratova and his team had gotten back to the manor, empty-handed, with no babbling Amanda, they’d let me go. Maratova had leaned down, fetid breath breaking against my face, that scar on his top lip stretching as he sneered at me, then he’d told me that from now on I played by his rules and I didn't break them. Break them, and I’d be tied up like a pig on a spit.
I hadn't cared at that moment; Maratova could have pulled a knife and carved his name into my arm along with the line “don't fuck with me,” and I wouldn't have cared. I was far more interested in where Amanda Stanton had run off to. She still had my gun and keys.
Maratova made it clear that I was to have nothing more to do with this. Amanda would be tracked down without me. Lawyer boy, as they often called me, was to get back to his day job and leave the real work to the real men.
So here I was back at my day job, but I sure as hell wasn't going to stop there. I was going to find Amanda Stanton myself, not because she had my keys, but because I had spent my whole life looking for those globes, and I didn't give a fuck that I’d been called off this one.
I shrugged, trying to ease my posture into a more comfortable stance and away from the stabbing pain in the middle of my back. I composed myself as I knocked on the door. I usually didn't make house calls to my clients, but this wasn’t an ordinary client. Plus, I was already in the area, and I couldn't pass up the chance of trying to find Amanda again.
“Sebastian.” Elizabeth whipped the door open, leaning on the frame and cocking her eyebrow, a sideways smile on her lips. “You know, you are my favorite lawyer.”
“That means nothing, Elizabeth, as you hate lawyers,” I said with a smile, ignoring the wincing pain between my shoulders and the grating sensation as my watch snagged against the raw skin of my wrist.
“I don't hate you, and it is lovely of you to come at such short notice.”
I nodded at her. To be honest, I had no idea what the old dear wanted; Elizabeth Brown was about as mad as they came. She was the kind of mad that saw her painting smiley faces and happy flowers on the side of her Rolls-Royce in liquid chalk to brighten the days of others. She also had a hell of a lot of money, as did most of my clients. But at least Elizabeth didn't act like she did. She was kind, and once you got past the chalky smiles, decent. So when she called late last night, not long after I returned home from my ridiculously unsuccessful venture, I’d told her I’d see her in the morning.
“I didn't think we should call the police until we knew what we were dealing with,” Elizabeth waved me in through the front door, the two antique ruby rings on her fingers glinting under the morning sun.
I narrowed my eyes. I was aware of Elizabeth's eccentricities, as I was aware that my well-off clients tended to be more suspicious of the police than those from the lower echelons of the socioeconomic strata. They always thought the police would take their money off them, Robin Hood style, just for being rich. While I wouldn't necessarily disagree with the police if they did, the economic stability of the modern age was built on the riches of the few being drawn from the livelihoods of the rest. Still, when you need to call the police, you need to call the police, and even the most stuffy rich boy judge would uphold that law.
I played with the corner of my watch trying to push it up and off the raw skin of my wrist.
“Elizabeth, what’s this about?”
“She is in the kitchen.” Elizabeth nodded down the hall, her wild, never-kempt white hair bunching over her shoulders.
My stomach gave a kick, a full on kick. I narrowed my eyes. “Who’s in the kitchen?” I tried to keep my voice even.
“She is,” Elizabeth said, explaining nothing.
My heart beat faster as I followed Elizabeth, and I kept playing with my watch. It couldn't be her, could it? She would have gone straight to the police, right? Wouldn't Maratova have found her hiding underneath a rose bush? Or perhaps speeding around in my car? She wouldn't have run over to the neighbors, would she? I had my misgivings about Maratova, but as far as I knew he was a capable soldier. How in the hell would he have let jelly-legs Amanda get away from him?
The thought swilled around my mind as I followed Elizabeth down the long hall. The scent of tantalizing freshly-made pancakes seduced the air, with a hint of sweet apples and blueberries.
I entered the kitchen.
She looked up at me, Amanda Stanton, still in pajamas, even if they appeared to be new ones.
I looked up. I had loaded up another forkful of pancake ready to finish off the delicious remnants of my breakfast. I dropped it, the fork clattering against the Wedgwood plate, the forkful of pancake tumbling onto the floor.
I lurched up, the high stool behind me clattering to the floor. I turned, on adrenal autopilot as I ran to the kitchen door.
I tried to yank it open, but it was locked.
“Don't worry, Amanda,” Elizabeth said, voice peaking with amusement, “He’s just a lawyer.”
I turned from the door, pressed my back into it, and stared at him wildly. He had the strangest expression on his face. The moment he'd walked into the room, a half smile had been playing on his lips, a distant look in his eye. Now that smile had stiffened, those handsome eyes widening and fixing right on me, his hands dead straight by his sides. “You don't have to do that,” he put his hands up. “I'm here to help you.”
“You're her lawyer?” I asked, my voice cracking as it leveled at a pitch that could crack glass.
Elizabeth looked interested and kept turning from me to Sebastian Shaw. “Oh no, don't tell me that this is the lawyer on your lawn last night? While the mercenaries were in your drawing room, the burglars were in your hall, and the soldiers were in your kitchen?”
I nodded, head stiff, hands flat against the cool wood of the door behind me.
“But Sebastian is such a good boy,” Elizabeth pointed out with a flat nod, “He's always been there for me when I've needed him.”
For Sebastian's part, he hadn’t once taken his eyes off me. While his hands were still raised, his fingers still and straight, there was such a stiffness and tension to his shoulders that it didn’t look like a move of submission.
“He had a gun.” I stabbed a finger at him.
“Is that right, Sebastian?” Elizabeth crossed her arms. “Did you go to Amanda's house last night with a gun?”
Sebastian, still with his eyes locked on mine, put his hands down. He offered a simple bare nod. “That's right, Elizabeth.”
He said it with such ease, with such a truthful look in his eye, that you couldn't help but believe him.
I shook my head, messy hair bunching around my face. “They broke into my house, Elizabeth, they tried to steal my globes.”
At the mention of the globes, Sebastian's expression changed. Where he’d once had a keen but even look on his face, he now looked dangerously interested. His lips spread back, a glint of his straight and perfect teeth peeking from underneath. He sliced his hard gaze towards Elizabeth, and for the first time looked concerned. Then he shot that gaze right back at me, those eyes hardening again. “You told her about the globes?”
I receded back, clutching my arms around my middle. This wasn’t how it was meant to go. Elizabeth was meant to call a lawyer, a kindly old gentleman who would have sat there and listened to my story and gone out and made it all okay. She wasn’t meant to call Sebastian Shaw, and Sebastian Shaw sure as hell wasn’t meant to show up and get angry at me for sharing my story.
“Do you have any idea what you did?” His arms were no longer raised in fake submission. He held them stiffly at his sides, hands rounded into soft fists.
For the first time I noticed the numerous cuts and bruises across the back of his hands and fingers.
“Excuse me?” My voice was about as high as it was possible to be. This couldn’t be happening. Criminals didn’t act with such sincere indignation, as if you had somehow broken their trust by telling the kind old lady down the road about their misadventures. “You broke into my house last night,” I began.
“Oh grow up,” he snapped, “I saved you from those men in your drawing room. I saved you from those men in the van,” he gave me a stiff, unfriendly nod, “If it wasn't for me, god knows where you'd be but probably tied to a seat answering questions from real criminals.”
“Excuse me?” My voice was even higher this time; I couldn't understand what was going on here. Who the hell was this guy to get so angry at me?
Sebastian grabbed one of the kitchen stools on the other side of the bench and sat roughly, pulling out the tails of his expensive suit jacket as he did.
Elizabeth, who was still watching us with great interest, sniffed and turned towards the kettle. “How about I make us all a cup of tea? Sebastian, would you like some pancakes?”
Sebastian turned to Elizabeth and offered her a friendly smile. He appeared to look at her with real affection, and the smile that played across his lips was most charming. But my oh my was it at odds with the steely look he offered me next.
“What's going on here?” I tried again. But no matter how much I questioned this ridiculous situation, nobody else seemed to have a problem with it. For the love of god, I was about to sit down and have pancakes with a man who broke into my house only last night. This is not how things are meant to go. Then again, perhaps this was how things went when you had forgone calling the police and had gone to bed after your home invasion instead.
I still stood with my back to the door, my arms clutched around my middle as tight as they could go. With Sebastian seated, my gaze darted to the door behind him. If I somehow managed to get around the less-than-legal lawyer, I might be able to make it down the corridor and out the front door. Then it would be the old game of avoiding the criminals until they got bored and went home.
Sebastian saw where I was looking and shook his head. He didn't even bother telling me I had no chance, he just got comfortable in his seat and shook his head like he was a master telling his dog not to jump on the bench.
I hardened my jaw, clenching my teeth.
“There are a lot of people out there looking for you, Amanda.” Sebastian drummed his fingers on the table, his large golden watch on his left wrist slipping and showing deep cuts along the flesh. “Trust me when I say they will not be as nice as I am.”
“Stop threatening me,” I said bravely, letting go of my middle in order to clamp my hands on my hips. “I’m going to call the police.”
He chuckled. “Well, if you were going to do that, you should have done that last night. That was what I expected you to do. But you do look a bit stupid.”
“Then again,” he leaned forward, still tapping his hands on the table, “You didn't call the police, and that would be the only reason that you are not in the hands of Maratova and his men.”
I gasped. “Was he.... Was he the man who was after me last night?”
“One of the men, Amanda.”
“They’re working with the police?” I clutched a hand over my mouth.
“I wouldn't say they are working with the police.” Sebastian leaned back easily. “But you're still in a lot of trouble.”
“I haven't done anything.” I shook. “I haven't done anything wrong at all.”
Sebastian shrugged. The prick looked as if he was enjoying this. Then again, he didn't seem like an upstanding character; it would take someone with a particularly flexible view of the law and morality to break into someone's house in the middle of the night.
“Sebastian,” Elizabeth called from over by the stove, “You stop baiting that girl. I called you here to get this sorted, and if you want to be fed you should jolly well get professional.”
Surprisingly Elizabeth's reprimand had an effect on Sebastian, and he cleared his throat, leaning forward and straightening up.
“I have no idea what’s going on here,” I said weakly.
“You put a spotting globe up for sale at an auction house, and that spotting globe...” Sebastian shook his head, swallowed, and briefly looked as lost as I did. Then he hardened up and cracked his neck from side-to-side. “Well let's say that you've got the whole world's attention. More important than that,” he leaned forward and he looked interested. His eyes widened, showcasing his dreamy blue irises, “Where are the other globes, Amanda?”
I still had my hand clutched over my mouth.
“It is important, Amanda; those globes are worth more than you can imagine. The one you sold at the auction house may have only fetched you £15 million. But altogether those globes....” He shook his head. He locked those blue eyes on me again. “Where are the rest?” He leaned even further forward, and it almost seemed as if he wanted to stand up from his seat, walk over to me, grab my shoulders and squeeze the information out of me. “You have no idea how important this is.”
“What are those globes?” Elizabeth asked, sounding interested but not awed or scared by what was going on. “They must be something to have so many strapping men interested in them.”
Strapping men? Was that the most appropriate way of describing them? Surely horrible, evil criminals was better. I held my tongue, bit my bottom lip, and watched as Sebastian started to carve up his pancake pile.
“Well, Elizabeth, I have to tell you that these globes are dangerous; you probably shouldn't know more than you already do.” He shot me a particularly mean look at that.
Elizabeth waved a hand that him. “Oh pish, it doesn't matter at all. Tell me, or I will not be paying your fee. So why don't you go ahead and tell me what those globes are, and why my dear Amanda is in so much trouble here.”
“They are treasure maps. Perhaps the greatest treasure maps in the world. At first glance, and to those who know nothing of their true origin and purpose, they would look like ordinary spotting globes. Once each of the globes are put together, across their surface are the locations of innumerable treasure hoards.”
Elizabeth clapped her hands together, a true smirk crossing her lips as her ruby rings banged together lightly. “Oh, how exciting.”
Sebastian snorted. “I think the word you are looking for, Elizabeth, is dangerous.” Sebastian put his fork down and gave me a pointed look. “I wasn't kidding when I said that I have no idea how much those globes are worth. I'm not kidding when I tell you that every Government, every henchman, every crook, and every Mafioso will kill,” he stressed the word kill, “To find out what that sum is.”
I put a hand up to my chest, my heart beating so strongly I could feel it vibrating.
“Amanda sold one of these at auction?” Elizabeth put her head to the side, looking genuinely curious. “How unlucky. I imagine it would be an adventure to traipse around the globe finding hidden treasure.” She leaned back on her stool.
Sebastian snorted again. “An adventure indeed, but not nearly as fun as dodging all the hit men, thugs, and mercenaries who will be after Amanda so they can get their hands on the other four.”
I wasn't sure whether he was making things out to be more dangerous than they were just to get a reaction out of me. As he sat there, leaning back in his seat and taking deliberate mouthfuls of the pancakes without spilling any sauce down his middle, he seemed far too collected and calm to be trustworthy. Plus, he had that annoying boyish look about him. The one that told me this lawyer had never gotten over teasing girls in the playground.
I sniffed, straightened up, held my head high and tried not to be as frightened as the uneasy gurgle in my stomach suggested I was.
“So, Amanda, you want to tell me where those globes are? Or would you like to call the police and end up in Maratova's hands by the end of the day?” He leaned forward, smile unpleasant.
“Look here, Sebastian,” Elizabeth leaned in, slapping her hand flat against the table to get his attention, “I imagine she would be a lot more willing to help if you would at least offer to help her first.”
Sebastian looked mildly chastened, played with his jaw as if it were bothering him for some reason, and opened his hands. “We will cut a deal: you tell me where those globes are, and I promise I will do everything within my power to keep you safe.” Though he had a truculent look on his face, his tone sounded sincere. “And don't tell me they're back at the manor; I don't want to have to deal with Maratova again today.”
“Who is he anyway?”
“Not much to say: works with the army, Special Forces, heads up their unit that looks for... shall we say the valuable antiquities that governments, let alone museums, would kill for.”
I snorted. Governments and museums killing to get their hands on antiquities? Was this supposed be some stupid movie? Governments didn't send out Special Forces to go find artifacts that “belonged in a museum,” to borrow a phrase from Indiana Jones. They were far too busy doing real, proper, democratic things with their time.
Sebastian looked unmoved by my incredulity. “I suggest you get all your laughing done, Amanda, because this is a serious situation. You think Maratova is a friendly guy? You think he'll keep it all above board to get those globes? Let alone all of the other teams that are out there after you. You need to take this seriously, very seriously. While these pancakes have been delicious,” he pushed the plate away, offering Elizabeth another charming nod, “It's probably time we get you somewhere safe, and you get me those globes.”
I stood there and tried to think. It was hard. Excuse me if I’d never been thrust into a situation like this before; I led a quiet life. I always had my trust fund to fall back on, I never got in any trouble, and I despised drama. I had zero experience with whatever the hell this was.
Was I meant to trust this guy? While he’d apparently saved me from the men in my drawing room, and he’d given me his gun, I could tell he was only telling me what he wanted. Plus, he knew that Maratova chap, the brute who’d chased me through the forest last night.
There was too much to think about, and I simply didn’t know enough to decide whether to trust this guy. Plus, despite the fact he was world-class attractive, he was a world-class irritating schoolboy too.
I couldn't believe it. How could I get this lucky? After failing last night and being pistol whipped for my troubles, I’d found Amanda anyway. Or, better than that, I’d shown up for work, found her in Elizabeth's kitchen, and been fed excellent pancakes as a bonus.
Getting her to trust me was going to take some effort.
The longer she stood there, back pressed against the locked kitchen door, eyes occasionally slicing towards the corridor behind me, the more I lost my advantage. As far as I knew nobody else, apart from Elizabeth, had any clue where Amanda Stanton was. But it wouldn't be long before Maratova popped up; the man had more resources at his fingertips than God.
“Look, Amanda, we can't stay here any longer. You're going to have to trust me, let me know where those globes are, and we'll take it from there. Or you can be just as stupid as you look, and stand in your pajamas and do nothing.”
“Sebastian,” Elizabeth crossed her arms, “Have you forgotten what I told you? Stop berating the girl, and jolly well start helping her. If it is as dire as you're suggesting, stop being a brute, and start being nice.”
Nice? If Elizabeth weren't one of my favorite clients, I'd laugh at that. If Elizabeth or Amanda were under any impression that whatever the hell would follow would be nice, they were in for a big surprise.
It would be stupendously violent. I was sure that pajama-wearing Amanda wasn't going to be up to the task.
“Elizabeth.” For the first time Amanda took a step away from the door.
I fought the urge to rise, sure that she was about to make a run for the corridor. The last thing I needed was for her to run onto a public road and right into the arms of Maratova.
“Can I trust him?” Amanda finished. She didn’t look at me once.
Elizabeth nodded. “He is a damn fine lawyer.”
Amanda gave a laugh, and damn it if it was cute as it rumpled her small bump of a nose. “I think this is going to take more than a lawyer—”
“For once, you’re right.” I looked up at her, toning down my anger. I knew full well I was misdirecting my ill will; while Amanda wasn’t taking this as easily as I wanted, what was pissing me off was how much I’d stuffed up last night and how damn hard I’d have to try to stay out of Maratova's way. Amanda wasn't the problem; I was.
“Okay,” Amanda let out an enormous breath that puffed out her appreciable chest, and she covered her face with her hands. “Okay. I can't believe I'm doing this, but okay, I'll trust you.” She dropped her hands. “For now,” she clarified.
I rose from my stool. I reached out a hand to her.
She looked at it, confused.
“You shake it,” I chuckled.
“Okay.” With an uncomfortable look on her face she reached out her hand and tentatively took my own.
I did all the shaking, but hopefully the point was clear that she’d agreed to a deal. As a lawyer, and more so as a treasure hunter, I had no intention of letting her break this one.
“Am I going to go to prison?” she asked quietly.
I wanted to laugh at her, not just because the question was stupid, but because of the frightened, doe-eyed look she shot me.
“No one’s heading to prison yet.” I nodded low.
“I suppose you’re going to need your gun back.” Elizabeth rose from her stool and pulled up her sleeves.
“And my bloody keys; I had to walk into town and get a taxi last night,” I pointed out as I gritted my teeth softly and glared at Amanda.
She stared back, lips parted and pouty. “Are you serious? I had to run through the forest in the dark with no shoes on to get away from some Special Forces team, while my house was being trashed by bad guys.”
I shrugged; she had me on that one.
Elizabeth led us from the kitchen. I was sure to stand behind Amanda, lest she take the opportunity to peel off into one of the side rooms, crank open a window, dive out, and run away from me for the millionth time. Despite the fact I found her pathetic, I had to admit she was resourceful when it came to running away.
Elizabeth led us into a large laundry next to the kitchen. There were old tiles on the floor and they must have been cold, as the second Amanda walked onto them she began curling her toes and dancing around. That drew my attention to her feet. They had patchy blue and purple bruises over them and deep cuts scattered from her toes to her ankles.
I clenched my jaw. Fucking Maratova; this was all his fault.
Elizabeth led us over to her old washing machine. On top stacked in a neat pile were Amanda's torn and muddy pajamas, with my gun and keys placed on top. I hoped like hell Elizabeth hadn't washed them.
I grabbed them, pocketing the keys and holding the gun, as I didn’t have a holster on under my suit. I nodded at Elizabeth. “Thanks.”
She crossed her arms and stared at the both of us for a while. “Well, I suppose the two of you are about to go off and have some fun then.”
I nodded and shrugged. “It's vitally important that you don't tell anybody what happened here. Don't let anyone know that Amanda came here, and sure as hell do not mention anything about those globes.” I looked as serious as I could. I didn’t want the old dame to be drawn into this. Despite her eccentricities, I doubted she had what it took to deal with some of the world's worst criminals.
She shrugged and inclined a hand at me. “Oh, don't worry about me. I believe you are going to have your hands full dealing with Amanda.”
Amanda went pink at the suggestion, and I couldn't help but give a half smile in reply. “Something like that,” I muttered.
While I wanted to know where those other four globes were, we'd already discussed enough in front of Elizabeth.
“We need to get going.” I swung my keys around my fingers as I motioned with my head towards the front door. “You let me know where those globes are in the car, then we’ll get them,” I flexed my shoulders again, “and we’ll see what happens next.”
“Um, I need to change out of my pajamas first,” Amanda pointed out as she gestured at her overly large and overly floral PJs.
“Oh, I thought that’s what you always wore.” I smiled as she snarled at me.
“Don't you worry, dear,” Elizabeth walked over to one of the tall cupboards on the other side of the room, “I have clothes that will fit you.” She rummaged around for a while, several odd garments falling on the floor by her feet. They were all colorful and all equally as hideous. Elizabeth was the kind of woman who liked her clothes to match her personality, right down to the rhinestones and electric blue thunderbolts.
Today, however, she pulled out an ordinary cream skirt and a white linen blouse. With more digging she added a pair of gray stockings to the pile and a dark cream jacket. It looked like the female equivalent of a safari suit. All Amanda would need now was a neat bun, a dainty hat, and a small pair of spectacles at the end of her nose. She’d be the perfect picture of a ye-olde female adventurer. Were it not for the fact she had jelly for legs and a tested ability to run away from the adventure, not towards it.
Elizabeth picked the clothes up off the floor and handed them to Amanda. “These are good clothes, dear, and they will keep you in good stead.” Elizabeth got a faraway look in her eyes. “I can just imagine the adventures you're going to get up to.”
I tried not to snort. Seriously, lady, I wanted to point out, we weren't going to have adventures. All we were going to do was run for our lives as we tried, or at least I tried, to find some of the greatest treasure out there. Sure as hell Amanda wouldn’t be coming along for that bit. I would keep her safe, because I’d shaken hands on that. But as soon as I deposited her in a place I knew Maratova couldn't find, I would begin the real adventure, alone.
I stood there, wondering how long this was all going to take and how much gold waited for me at the end of it all.
Elizabeth cleared her throat. “Sebastian, this is the point when you walk out of the room and allow the lady to change.”
“Lady?” I questioned.
“Shut up and get out of the room.” Amanda brushed past me, grabbed the clothes in Elizabeth's arms, and pointed at the door.
I got the picture, and I didn't need to be pushed from the room; Amanda Stanton was a galaxy away from my type. I liked my women like I liked my cars: fast and with a hell of a lot more grunt.
Elizabeth followed Sebastian out of the room, allowing me to change in peace.
I looked at the clothes as I bit my lip. This was all so surreal.
I dressed in a hurry, flinging my pajamas in a pile by the washing machine. Sebastian might have been a lot of things, but I doubted he was lying about how much trouble I was in. Just as I doubted he was lying about how dangerous this was for Elizabeth.
Once I pulled on the tights and shrugged into the jacket, I sashayed over to the mirror at the other side of the room and had a good look at my reflection. Despite the fact my hair was an amazing mess, I looked pretty good.
I leaned down and picked up the sweet shoes Elizabeth had left for me. They were pale brown with large brass buckles and a small heel. They matched the outfit perfectly. All I would need was a nice flowing white silk scarf and some ladylike leather gloves and I would belong in an adventure novel from the turn of last century.
For the first time since I’d trundled down my stairs last night to find criminals in my house, I gave a genuine smile and a small laugh. I would have to enjoy it while it lasted, as I would soon be thrust into the company of one monumentally irritating Sebastian Shaw.
When I was satisfied with my reflection, brushing a hand down the nicely fitted jacket, I walked out of the laundry.
When Sebastian saw me, it was clear he found my outfit amusing as he half turned away trying to hide the smile that spread across his lips.
What an insufferable git. I ignored him as I walked past, both hands tugging down firmly on my jacket.
When Elizabeth saw me she clapped her hands together, a warm smile pressing up her cheeks. “Oh, Amanda, you look fabulous.”
“Something like that,” Sebastian mumbled, “But we need to go.”
“Oh,” Elizabeth was visibly disappointed, “Isn't there time for me to make you some snacks for the road?”
“No time.” Sebastian put his hand flat on my shoulder and pushed me forward.
If the man weren’t carrying a gun and weren’t such a large brute, I would have pushed him off and kicked him in the shins.
We walked to the door, and the closer we came the more the situation began to feel real again. A cold tight pressure spread across my chest, and that familiar taste of raw fear infected my mouth.
Elizabeth gave me a hug before she opened the door. “You will be alright, dear,” she assured me, “Sebastian is an excellent lawyer.”
I didn't have the heart to tell her that Sebastian's legal skills aside, it sounded as if I would need an entire army on my side if I wanted to win this.
“Do you have a hat, Elizabeth?” Sebastian couldn't keep his eyes off my unkempt hair. Perhaps he was a neat freak, or perhaps he liked his women to be of the excessively clean and primped variety. “Something with a big brim?”
Elizabeth clicked her fingers together. “I have just the thing.” She darted off down the corridor, disappearing for a while. In those few moments Sebastian took the time to look at me, his eyes traveling down and up my figure. I wanted to slap him.
Perhaps I would be better off with Maratova.
Elizabeth rushed back, a hat clutched in her old hands. It was white with a large wide brim and had a wide silk ribbon tied around the middle. It was exceptionally pretty.
“That will do.” Sebastian hardly gave the hat a glance as Elizabeth handed it to me.
Once I secured all of my hair under the hat, I waved goodbye to Elizabeth.
I turned to follow Sebastian.
She looked the part, I had to admit. The hat Elizabeth had dredged up suited Amanda.
Now all I had to do was get her to my car, drive into town, and keep her out of sight. The hat would be a start, but the rest would be up to me.
I didn't bother to open the door for Amanda, and I found it highly amusing when she paused, waiting for me to do it. I could tell she was a well-heeled girl, and I’d also done some checking on her last night, which helped. She had a trust fund and was related to Imelda Stanton, one of the richest women in England. Amanda had gone to uni and walked away with the most useless degree: an arts degree specializing in history and fine art. She had gone on from there to do various stints in volunteer organizations, especially ones that had anything to do with animals or the environment, and had pretty much vacillated for the rest of her life, as children born into rich families often do when they do not have to work for their crust. She didn’t have a police record, she'd only ever had a handful of parking fines, and she wasn't on any lists. Well she would be now, but before the auction, Amanda had led an outstandingly boring life.
Amanda Stanton looked like the most ordinary of girls. I was gobsmacked it was her of all people who’d found my globes. Though technically, it wasn’t her at all, it was her Great-Uncle Arthur Stanton, adventurer extraordinaire. He'd done all the hard work and found the globes, she’d just put them up for auction in the most stupid manner possible.
She got in the car, the giant brim of her hat tilting and covering most of her face save for a thin line of her bottom lip and chin. Move over Serena, in that moment Amanda looked more than attractive. But that moment passed when she opened her mouth.
“Where are you going to take me?” she asked in that highly irritating pitch of hers. “Should I call my great-aunt? I mean, what if people start to realize I'm missing? What if people go to my house and... well, notice all the guns on the ground?”
I shook my head as I walked around the front of the car to sit with a thump behind the wheel. I ignored her as I started up the engine, scratched my neck, waved at Elizabeth, and moved into reverse.
“Won’t the police be looking for me? What about this Maratova man? Last night while you were in my drawing room, you mentioned something about a man named Romeo, won't he be after me too?” Her voice was picking up speed, the words blurring together.
If this woman didn't irritate me so much, I could sympathize with her situation; she'd had one hell of a night. Yet for some reason this chick irritated me, so I pulled my lips back, my teeth stuck together in the worst smile I could muster.
It wasn't until I gunned the accelerator down the immaculately graded stones, tires slipping as they tried to get traction on the uneven surface, that I answered her. “You do not want the list of people that are after you, honey,” I took great pleasure in using that pet name because of the distinctly irritated look she shot me. “First things first: you need to tell me where the rest of the globes are.” I turned to her as I made it to the end of the driveway and onto a large country road.
She didn’t answer right away, she hesitated. I sure as hell hoped it wasn't because she was caught with a desire to open the door and roll out of the car, in her never-ending attempts to flee me.
“Amanda, I need as much information as you can give me. Please don't tell me that those globes are back at that house.” I doubted they were. If Maratova had found the globes lined up neatly under her pillow, I would have heard about it by now.
She bit her lip, and I only noticed because I took the time to take my eyes off the road to glance her way. “Amanda?”
“Well,” she began in a small voice, “Technically I... don't have them yet.”
My lips curled into a frown. “Sorry?” my voice bottomed out low. This wasn't all some game, was it? Had Amanda Stanton been lying when she'd told that auction room she had the full set of the Stargazer Globes?
My throat became dry at the prospect of how fucked up this could be.
“I know where they are, I just don't have them yet,” Amanda started to play with her fingernails, rubbing at her hands nervously.
Before I could blow a gasket at the prospect Amanda had been lying all along, and that the only Stargazer Globe had already been sold off at auction, I took a calming breath. “Where are they, Amanda?”
“Oh,” she clamped her hands tightly on her lap, “They are in his book. Well,” she moved her hands about as if she was trying to extinguish a fire, “I don't mean to say that they're in his book, like they are somehow squeezed between the pages, because that would be silly.”
I didn't even bother to point out that yes, obviously that would be silly, as silly as the current conversation. All I cared about were those globes, not how ridiculously cute Amanda's lips were as she caught them between her teeth.
“What book?” I asked after it became clear Amanda was going to leave out the most important detail.
“My great-uncle's book. The one on his desk where I found the original globe, the one that had been in the attic full of treasure.”
“Sorry? The roomful of treasure? What are you talking about?” my tone was terse; this was like getting information out of a two-year-old.
“I found the original globe, the one sold at auction, in my great-uncle’s attic. While the rest of his house was full of junk, well, the attic was full of treasure,” she said matter-of-factly, “There were even gold statues. My great-aunt, owing to the fact she is the executrix of the estate, dealt with those. She left me that inane-looking globe and all of Great-Uncle Stanton's papers. I suppose she thought they weren’t worth anything.”
I snorted. It didn't surprise me that Imelda Stanton wouldn’t have thought much of the dusty old Stargazer Globe. She wasn't the kind of old dame to look beyond appearances.
That Amanda had obviously thought there was something to the Stargazers, or at least enough to put them up for auction and find herself in the biggest trouble of her life, was interesting.
That the globe sold at auction had been in a room full of treasure, well that very was interesting indeed. Could it be that old crazy Arthur Stanton had already brought all the Stargazers together and found some of the treasure from them (it wouldn’t be all, not unless he’d hollowed out a whole city underneath his manor and had stacked it to the brim with the world’s greatest antiquities)? I had no idea, but it was something to think about. I realized as I let a genuine smile spread my lips that any clues I was looking for might be in the book Amanda was talking about.
I took a corner too hard, Amanda grabbing hold of the armrest, her legs stiffening as she tried to keep balance, her skirt riding up. I flicked my gaze down to her knee, then up to her face. “Where is the book, Amanda?”
She caught me looking at her legs, and sucked in her lips and narrowed her eyes. As if I was interested anyway.
“It's at the local library,” Amanda said with a shrug.
Before I could worry that yet again the next piece of the puzzle was back at old Stanton's house, it was as if she had come at me with a right hook, right out of the blue. “What?”
She offered an awkward smile around gritted teeth. “Well, you see, I accidentally took it to the library when I was returning a whole bunch of other books. They called the other day to let me know, but I haven't had a chance to go pick it up yet.”
I burst into laughter. Seriously? She had taken what could be one of the most valuable books in human history to the library by accident? I got the distinct impression that if you were to loan the Mona Lisa to Amanda, with explicit instructions to keep it safe, you would walk in the room five minutes later and find it ripped on the floor, Amanda playing with her fingers awkwardly by its side.
I grinned. Stupidity aside, this was pretty good news. It was at the library; it wasn't back at the house. Maratova wouldn't have had a chance to get his hands on it yet. He probably didn't even know it existed. And unless Amanda had written up on a message board with giant marker that she had to go back to the library to pick up the book that had the locations of the four Stargazer Globes in it, Maratova wasn’t going to find out any time soon.
At that point I did something brash, because fuck it if I wasn’t in a brash mood. I did a bootlegger turn on a tiny narrow country road. The library was in the other direction.
Amanda shrieked, sounding like some stereotypical soapy heroine who’d stepped on a mouse. “What are you doing?” She tried to keep herself steady as the car screeched around in an arc, smoke curling up from the tires. Her legs splayed out all over the place, her skirt rising up until it was several inches above her knees, her hat tumbling right off her head as her hair bunched up over her face.
“I'm going to the library,” I said in the coolest voice I could manage as I let go of the park brake and gunned the accelerator to speed out of the dangerous turn. My car scraped past a hedge, several leaves and twigs falling on Amanda through the partially opened window.
The look on her face was worth it. I could bet my own expression wasn’t anything but cool and calm as I straightened up the vehicle and continued down the road at a cracking pace.
She sat there with her mouth open, trying to rearrange her skirt as she picked the twigs and leaves from her hair and threw them out the window. “You mad bastard.” She grabbed the hat and shoved it on her head.
I offered a sweet smile in return. One hand on the steering wheel, one hand still resting on the gearstick, and with no other vehicles in sight, I turned to her. With a serious expression I tilted my head to the side. “Amanda Stanton, I need you to tell me what is in that book.”
She looked at me, mouth wide open, brow pressed with amazement at my antics. “Are you out of your mind?”
I shrugged. If doing a bootlegger turn on a narrow country lane in an effort to get to the library as quickly as I could in order to get a book that told me the location to some of the greatest treasure maps on earth was mad, then yes, I was mad.
She continued to stare at me, her mouth still wide, wide open. “I don't have my library card on me,” she pointed out primly.
I snapped my head to the side and gave a short, sharp laugh. “I hate to point this out, sweetie, but you own the book.”
“They don't know me, they're going to need some ID to ensure that I am who I say I am.”
I didn't bother answering, because I couldn't think of a statement that could show her how damn stupid she was. So I shook my head, ran a hand over the sharp stubble collecting on my chin, and hoped like hell I wouldn't have much more to do with this woman.
After a while a thick silence descended over us. Amanda sat tensely, her hands pressed over the hem of her skirt, her ankles locked neatly, her head turned towards the window, the massive brim of her hat hiding her face. For my part, I drove and thought about how much shit I was in.
We made it to the library in good time, perhaps too good, as when Amanda pulled herself out of the passenger seat, she had to steady herself, one hand clutching the roof. She also gave me a mutinous stare. I cracked a grin. Though I thought there was little chance of finding Maratova tucked up in the library, possibly in the kiddies’ section with his men around him as he taught them to read from a picture book, I was still careful. I walked in first and told Amanda in no uncertain terms to keep her face hidden. Even cramming her hat further onto her head when I didn't think it was down far enough. Ha, you should have seen the look she gave me at that.
The library was small, unsurprisingly, considering the tiny size of the town. Along the main road I counted all of one coffee shop and several ridiculously expensive boutique stores that sold everything from thousand-pound scarves to those trinkets women seem to have everywhere once they pass the age of 40. There was also a police station. Though I thought the size of the town could hardly justify one, I had to remind myself it wasn’t population pressure that kept the boys in blue close at hand, it was relative wealth. A single well-equipped and well-trained team could easily blast their way through the country estates around these parts and retire after one night. While I'd taken perverse pleasure in teasing Amanda, and while I may have overstated a few things, I hadn’t been lying about Maratova. If the girl was dumb enough to go to the police, she would end up in his hands by the afternoon.
The library was a small old building, with a stand of birch trees lined up behind it, their leaves brushing against the sandstone white-washed walls.
I strode ahead, opening the door briskly, the handle giving a pleasant crunch as I yanked on it. I heard Amanda mumble behind me; it seemed that woman mumbled at everything.
I strode up to the counter, sure to let my most charming of smiles widen the corners of my lips as I nodded at the middle-aged woman behind the desk. The effect was always the same: the lady’s cheeks flushed, she blinked, then she looked to the side, possibly to check it was indeed her I was smiling at. By the time I made it to the counter, placing a hand neatly on the clean bench top, she obviously had no illusion as to who had caught my attention, and dammit if she didn’t blush that bit harder.
“Hello, ma'am.” I kept that smile on my face and kept my hand flat on the bench top, the hint of my expensive gold watch peeking out from my expensive suit jacket.
The lady pushed her glasses up her nose with her thumb, one corner of her mouth curling, one cheek dimpling. “How can I help you, sir?”
“Well, I'm here to pick up a book.” I nodded gently.
Instead of the woman saying that this was a public library and everyone was here to pick up a book, so there was no need to state the bloody obvious, she smiled again, a second dimple pushing in at the other cheek.
“Sir, what book would that be?”
Amanda gave a strangled cough, pushed past me, whipped off her hat, and shook her head. “Hi, I'm not sure if you remember me, but you called me the other day to say that I had accidentally brought in one of my own books when I was returning my library books. My name is—”
I coughed loudly, slapping Amanda on her shoulder. She bounced forward, mumbling a terse swear word.
“It's a brown leather-bound book,” I smiled again, and I tried to make it as dazzling as I could, “You can't miss it.”
The woman nodded, smiling at me. She wasn't paying any attention to Amanda at all. She then disappeared to a side room, telling us she would return with it in a moment.
As soon as she was gone, I turned to Amanda, my teeth set hard. “Put your fucking hat back on and leave this to me like we agreed.”
If I’d thought she'd been mutinous before, I was wrong. Her eyebrows descended all the way down to her eyes, her lips drawing in so much I could only see a hint of pink flesh as she sucked them into her mouth. Her chin dimpled and hardened as if she’d turned to bloody stone.
An old woman in pearls and silk walked past, a book in her hand, which she clearly hadn’t checked through. I turned to her, offered her one of my smiles, and patted Amanda hard on the back to ensure my flighty charge's horrible expression didn't kill the old dame.
The lady behind the counter returned. She didn’t hand the book to Amanda; she handed it straight to me.
I dipped my head in a gentlemanly way. I even tried to keep my attention on the lady as I thanked her, though every part of me wanted to run to the car, ditch Amanda, and find out what was in the book. I controlled myself until we were out of the library and heading back towards the car. Then the temptation of what lay between the worn and aged leather-bound pages got too much for me. I untied the two leather strings holding the book in place reverently, and I opened it in my hands.
Jesus Christ, I thought to myself, sweat prickling over my brow and collecting between my fingers. This was... it was.... I flicked through the pages, my attention consumed by the possibilities that lay within. In meticulous cursive handwriting, with even more meticulous and detailed drawings interspersed from page to page, Arthur Stanton talked about the remaining four Stargazer Globes with all the authority and detail of a man who'd held them.
I shook my head, overcome by the realization of what I had in my hands. That would be when Amanda made a noise. It was halfway between a hiccup and the quietest of screams. I was ready to dismiss it as one of the numerous and annoying squeaks she made all the time, as if she was one of those children’s toys you squeeze to get them to make humorous high-pitched squeals.
“Um, do you think that guy wants something from us?” she asked, voice quiet and light.
I glanced up, and the first thing I saw was a middle-aged man in tweed with a fine woolen scarf. I snorted and didn’t bother to answer Amanda.
“Ah, Sebastian,” she tried again, this time her voice far higher and far tighter, “Are you going to do something?”
I snapped the book closed, ready to tell Amanda to grow up and stop being so pathetically paranoid. The only thing the man in tweed looked like he wanted to do was rationalize our finances and sell us stock in his company.
That would be when I saw the other man, the one walking across the road to us, the one who was about 6’5, with a stocky build, a thickset neck, and a face that looked like it had been bashed in more times than a piñata.
“Get in the car.” I pressed the keys into her hand, and after the barest moment of hesitation, gave her the book also. “Lock the doors.”
I didn’t bother to turn to check to see whether she was doing as I told her to; if there was one thing I knew about Amanda Stanton, it was she was pretty good at running away from trouble. There was no doubt that trouble with a capital T was walking across the road to me. I shook my head, realizing my only weapon was tucked under the driver seat of my car, not that I could whip out some guns and start shooting at this guy on a sleepy British village high street. But this guy wouldn’t have the same compunction.
I saw him reach for something behind him, saw the glint of metal as he pulled it out from the back of his pants. Fuck, this was it.
I ducked behind a lamppost, for all the protection it would give me, before the guy could start shooting. As he did, the first bullet ricocheting off the pavement by my feet, I heard screeching tires. The part of my brain that wasn’t currently over-invested in trying not to get shot, realized they sounded like my tires; and yes, I was enough of a car-man to know what my own tires and the rumble of my own engine sounded like.
My Lexus screeched to a halt in front of me, whatever bullets my attacker had fired moments before slamming into the doors and body of the vehicle. Amanda was in the driver’s seat and she was screaming like a banshee, hat still on her head, wide red lips all I could see as she navigated around some of the most powerful and high-pitched screams I’d ever heard. Somehow she kept it together enough to lean back and open the door for me. I didn't need any more incentive. Keeping low, I rolled into the back of the car, slamming the door behind me and smacking the back of Amanda’s seat as I shouted at her to “go, go, go.”
Still screaming, she hit the accelerator, tires screeching on the uneven cobble of the village street as a new set of bullets slammed into the side of my car. I was no fool, and all of my cars had reinforced metal plating; considering my job, well, my other job, it was a given.
Amanda had her foot anchored down all the way down on the accelerator, and my car's engine revved with a great roar as I caught sight of the thick-necked goon running towards us. His gun was aimed right through the glass at Amanda. I jumped up, moving between the front seats, and tackled Amanda as I tried to cover her body with mine. The car swerved as her hands slipped off the steering wheel, but I managed to grab it and yank it hard to the right before we could careen into several parked vehicles. More importantly, the bullet meant for Amanda's head missed its mark and lodged itself into the driver’s head rest. I didn’t let Amanda up, one arm still pressing down roughly on her back, my other hand latched on the steering wheel, but I was sure to yell at her to keep her foot flat on the fucking accelerator.
Several more bullets whizzed past, one smashing into the side of my driver’s-side mirror, but in a moment I managed to turn a corner, leaving the thick-necked goon behind.
I still didn't let Amanda up, keeping my own head low, about level with the dash-board as I checked wildly from side-to-side in case more bastards with guns popped out of the woodwork. Then, driving so fast that the car got some air time as we went over a speed hump designed to slow people down before they got into town, I removed my hand from Amanda's back.
I grabbed her hat, throwing it into the passenger seat. She straightened up, body convulsing as she shook wildly with fright.
I thought I’d seen the gamut of her possible expressions, but this was a new one. Her eyes were as wide as they could be, a couple of tears even streaking down the sides of her cheeks, her lips open and still with fear.
While I was intending to make some tough wisecrack or point to the passenger seat and tell her to move over, I paused. “It's all right, Amanda, it's all right,” I managed.
She looked back at me, wide eyes closing a touch as she wiped at her tears with her wrist. She kept her foot on the accelerator through it all.
I indicated the passenger seat with a flick of my head. “Try to keep your foot on the accelerator, and move over.”
“I can drive.” She turned her head back to the road, grabbing the steering wheel with both hands while my hand still held on tightly at the top.
“Trust me, honey, we don't need your type of driving.” I didn’t let go of the steering wheel, but neither did she.
“I don't know....” She took a rattling breath that pushed her chest out and up against the tight linen of her shirt.
Distracting though it was, I only looked down briefly.
“I think we just need you shooting more,” she finished her sentence.
“I can shoot and drive,” I snapped back, wondering what kind of treasure hunter couldn't.
Before I was ready to push the issue, she swerved, grabbing the steering wheel with both hands and using her wrist to pivot my hand off. Before I could complain, I heard a gunshot, and my remaining passenger-side mirror was shot off.
“Fuck,” I managed tersely, peering through the window and seeing another massive goon with a gun, twisting on his feet as he stood in the middle of the road, tracking us as Amanda zoomed past him and firing off several more bullets that slammed into the trunk of the car.
I didn't bother wasting my ammo on him, as Amanda sped up and shot around the corner, blocking us from view.
Without another word of protest, I climbed into the passenger seat. “Put your seat belt on,” I commanded her, though I didn’t even bother to touch my own; if we faced any more brazen, gun-toting criminals smack bang in the middle of the road, I would need to have the freedom of movement to twist around in my seat and shoot from any angle. I didn’t bother grabbing Amanda’s hat and handing it to her either, reasoning it was fairly obvious people were on to us.
Soon, with Amanda’s impressively quick and competent driving, we hit one of the far narrower but less exposed roads. There was a long ditch on one side that led down to farmland, and on the other side the woods and hedgerow pressed up to the verge.
I didn't speak, and surprisingly Amanda didn't attack me with a volley of questions. Instead, keeping one hand on the steering wheel at all times, she picked glass out of her hair and threw it out the gaping hole in her window. There were several superficial cuts over the back of her hands, and a light one across the top of her head along her hairline. Through it all, she kept driving, and though I didn't want to admit it, Amanda was pretty good.
With the woods growing even thicker on both sides of us and the road growing ever more circuitous, Amanda let out a big sigh that jumped around a bit, as if it was turning into a hiccup at the end.
Before I could say something suitably macho and maybe comforting, she took a surprise turn. Rather than continuing along the road, as I thought she would, she took a sudden turn onto a gravel road that led up through the woods. She slowed down enough to give the tires traction on the new surface, but then sped up halfway through the turn, hardly losing any speed at all. As I didn’t have my seat belt on, I had to fight hard to keep myself steady, legs sprawling out everywhere, shirt even riding up and over my belt.
“What the hell are you doing? Where are we going?” I snapped out my words as soon as I had steadied myself.
Face still pressed with concentration, cheeks dry from where they’d once been splattered with tears, Amanda didn’t take her eyes off the road. “We are going to the first location,” she said through a sniff, “Before anyone else can get to it.”
“Sorry?” I asked, grabbing a hand at my tie, loosening it, and chucking it into the back seat along with Amanda's hat.
“Keep up, Sebastian, we are going to get the first globe, before anyone else can.” She still didn’t take her eyes off the road. Which was probably a good thing, because my expression was some ridiculous mix between impressed and incredulous. Was she joking, was she about to take us to the police? Or was this irascible, overemotional chick taking the driving seat and getting us to where we needed to be well before I’d even thought of it?
Rather than question her, I leaned back between the seats and tried to find the leather-bound journal I’d seen on the back seat as I’d rolled into the car earlier. I twisted around as I searched for it, my leg pressed up against Amanda's arm. When I got it, and twisted back into my seat, I fancied I caught her staring at my butt. “Enjoy the view?” I asked as I grabbed both hands to either side of my suit jacket and tugged it until it was neat.
“Fuck off,” she exploded.
I grinned as I began to search through the old, yellowed pages of the journal.
Before I could waste my time searching through every page for the clue that would tell me that Amanda was on track here, she reached over, eyes still on the road, snatched the book out of my hands and pressed it up against the top of the steering wheel as she flicked through it. She found the page and handed it back to me without a single word.
I let my eyebrows press up and tipped my head to the side as for the second time that day I forced myself to reassess Miss Amanda Stanton.
As Amanda continued along the road, as fast as she could considering the massive potholes and the uneven terrain, I read the page she’d handed to me. There was a scant, quick picture of a church drawn on one side with the caption “Holy Church of St Carlotta.” I narrowed my eyes. Not only had I never heard of a church by that name, as far as I knew there wasn't a saint by that name either. I kept reading, and on the other side of the page there were several numbers jotted down; they looked like a set of directions, six points in space that were obviously meant to be the three-dimensional equivalent of an X marks the spot. I ran my tongue over my teeth and swore quietly.
Before I could ask Amanda whether she was sure she was on the right road and whether she was sure this church existed at all, we crested a hill, the thick, dense woods falling back beside us to reveal a naked hilltop. Right on top of that hilltop, with the woods encroaching on all sides, sat a rundown church. There was a small graveyard off to one side, covered in old leaves and fallen-down branches that had cracked most of the remaining headstones. In front of the church was an old turning circle, the gravel dirty and mostly washed away, deep cracks and grooves channeling through it as god knows how many years of water had run its course. In the center of the turning circle was an old stone statue. What it had once been, I had no idea; it was almost completely crumbled. Next to the base stood a round chunk of stone that might have once been a head, and as Amanda brought the car to a stop next to it, I realized that what remained of the base of the statue was a torso and a single hand raised in prayer, the rest of it being eaten away by age and weather.
Amanda turned the engine off, pulling the handbrake up, but I put my hand over hers as she did. Not even bothering to turn to her, my gaze still locked on the crumbled statue outside, I shook my head. “Don't. Leave it down; it will be a quicker getaway.”
“It will roll down the hill,” she said, voice shaking with incredulity.
I didn’t remove my hand and turned to her, hoping my expression told her how stupid I thought that was. “Park it on the flat, dear.”
Amanda swore at me as she turned the car back on and moved it until it was right outside of the church and on the flattest ground.
I got out of the car, and though my heart was racing with excitement at what I might find within, the leather-bound book clutched tightly in one hand, I still made an effort to check that this place was as abandoned as it looked. I told Amanda to stay in the car while I walked around it, checking this way and that for signs of life or even old footprints pressed into the gravel and the years of dirt and detritus that had built up over the church steps. When I was satisfied, I walked up to the front of the church, running a hand over the old, weathered door before I pushed it open. While there’d probably once been a lock on the chain wound around the two large tarnished brass handles on each of the two doors, it looked as though it had been stolen or lost over the years.
It wasn't until I walked all the way into the church and disappeared from sight that I heard Amanda's door open and close.
I heard her hurried footsteps as she tried to catch up to me, but I hardly paid any attention as she called out for me to wait; the sight that met me once I walked through those two great doors was enough to rivet my attention.
It was a shambles, all right, with all of the pews pushed over, and so much broken, shattered wood scattered everywhere. At the end of the church what looked like a once great stained-glass window was broken, with a hint of colored shards remaining around the corners of the window frame. The ceiling above had great big stones missing, rays of sunlight streaking through from outside. I still held my gun in one hand, the journal in the other as I carefully picked my way over the rubble around the door. Amanda caught up, pelting through the door, as if she was some lost puppy far too keen to get back to its master. I had to admit, as a smile grabbed my mouth, that that was a damn good way to describe it.
“You know,” Amanda pulled her jacket tighter around herself, and even gave a shiver at the cold, dark, damp church, “That smile on your lips, it makes you look halfway between constipated and deliriously happy.”
She walked ahead, surprisingly quick on her feet as she dodged between the broken pews and chunks of rock, her heels tapping lightly as she went.
She bit her lip lightly as she surveyed the church, her eyes wide with interest as they settled on the broken stained-glass window at the far end. She picked her way towards it.
“You are going to break your neck if you don't look where you're going,” I snapped at her, and as I did, I lost my own footing and fell harshly to the ground, the book slipping out of my grip and sliding across the floor.
Amanda didn’t bother to laugh, and turned around, picked up the book, flicked through the pages, top teeth still touching her bottom lip, and walked back to the stained-glass window.
I picked myself up, dusted off my suit, shrugged, cracked my neck, and followed her with a stony look on my face. I reached her as she stood on what remained of the raised platform where sermons would once have been given. She didn’t look around, her eyes blinking as she read from the book, her finger marking her place as she kept looking up at the stained-glass window and back at the words before her.
I watched, irritated by how damn cute she looked when she was biting her lip like that. I got over it, cleared my throat, put my arm out and leaned against the wall by her side, leaning into view. “I think you'll find that I have a bit more experience of this stuff than you do.”
She glanced over at me, then ignored me and looked back at the book, flicking a couple of pages forward and back as she looked for something.
I cleared my throat again, leaning further in front of her. “You can give me the book, Amanda.”
She looked up at me, blinked several times, put her head to the side gently, and closed the book with a snap. “You know,” she put a finger up to her mouth and tapped it several times, “I think it might be over there.” She turned from me, tucking the book under one arm, and jumping lightly off the platform.
You could have driven a van through my mouth considering how wide open it hung. “Amanda.” I jumped off the platform to follow her, my move a hell of a lot less dainty and a hell of a lot angrier.
“I think there might be a gravestone outside with an inscription on it that can help us,” Amanda made her way to the front of the church, infuriatingly quick as she navigated around the obstacles, her messy hair tipping over her shoulders as she ran along.
She made it outside quicker than I could follow, and I caught up to her as she was rounding the side of the church, heading to the sparse, sad cemetery at the back.
“Give me the fucking book, Amanda.” I was stalking along beside her; this wasn’t how it was meant to go down. She was meant to be huddled up in the car, crying her heart out. She wasn’t meant to be rebounding, showing off her driving skills, snatching the journal, and doing all the treasure hunting. And she was sure as hell not meant to be doing all that while looking suspiciously cute in that old-style outfit of hers.
“There it is.” She pointed to one of the gravestones right at the back of the graveyard. It was directly under an old gnarled oak tree. Despite being spring, the oak hadn't yet grown back many leaves, so it was left unprotected from the wind and harsh cold of this hilltop. It was a somber creepy looking sight. That didn’t stop Amanda from marching towards it, her heels clattering softly against the cracked and over-grown path that ran alongside the church and led to the graveyard beyond.
“What does that gravestone have to do with anything?” I strode up beside her, twisting in front of her path, crossing my arms, gun still held in one hand.
“Well, according to my great-uncle, the inscription on the gravestone is a clue.” Amanda's nose crumpled up and she offered an enthusiastic smile.
For fuck's sake, I felt like pointing out, she wasn’t meant to be enthusiastic about treasure hunting here; she was meant to be an emotional wreck, as she’d been last night. This girl was rebounding far too quickly, and I didn’t like it one bit.
I cleared my throat. “Do you think this is some movie?” I said through a twisted smile. “Let me tell you, in the real world, you do not find clues to hidden treasure written in plain sight on a gravestone inscription. I don't know what crappy ‘50s adventure flicks you've seen, but the only shit you find in a graveyard are dead folks.”
She narrowed her eyes at me, drawing her lips together. “You know, Sebastian, you are remarkably rude. Is this how you are meant to treat your clients?”
I snorted harshly. “You are not a client; you are a liability. Give me that book so we can get this over and done with before every army in the world comes screaming down our throats.”
She took the book, held it before her, and before I could reach for it, she tucked it behind her back.
I had no problem in wrestling her for it, but before I could start, she darted around me and headed for the small gap between the broken wall that ran all the way round the graveyard.
“You know, the funny thing is, I think I remember my great-uncle talking about this place,” she began saying in a normal tone as if what had transpired hadn’t occurred, “And,” she said with that same enthusiastic grin spreading across her face, “I think he even took me here once.”
I shook my head, followed after her, and offered a long, slow, clearly sarcastic clap, clap, clap. “That's great, I'm so glad you had such an interesting childhood, and thank you so much for sharing. Now give me the fucking book, Amanda.”
She kept ignoring me until she picked her way through the graveyard and right to a gravestone at the back. Then she leaned down, journal still tucked under one arm, and leaned in to read the inscription on the crumbling old stone.
If it wasn't the attractive shape the skirt gave her butt at that point I would have tackled her and stolen my book back. Instead I walked up to her, ignoring the sound of the wind as it picked up, gathering speed as it moaned and whistled through the few trees on this exposed hilltop.
Dear god this guy was annoying, he really fricking was.
For some reason, despite the frantic last several hours I’d had with him, I was starting to get a handle on this. I was still frightened and overcome by the reality of it all, but at least I wasn't a sobbing mess in the back of his car.
Blame it on all of those stories my great-uncle had once told me, the ones about adventure and treasure, the ones the rest of the family had told me were nothing but lies. Despite the crazy awfulness happening to me, I was starting to realize that those stories had likely been true. Dammit if there wasn't something romantic about that, something to distract me from the fact I was being hunted by god knows who with god knows how many guns.
The possibility of realizing how true my great-uncle's tales had been was pretty much the only thing stopping me from truly freaking out. If I threw myself headfirst into this adventure, and I didn't give myself time to appreciate how much trouble I was in, then I could hold myself together.
My great-uncle had been able to do it all those years back. Why couldn't I do it? Hell, Sebastian, who was turning out to be an annoying lecherous idiot, could obviously do it too. If he could do it, god dammit if I wasn't going to do it better.
With a sniff I reached out my hand and gently ran my fingers across the inscription carved into the plain gravestone. I didn’t know what I was looking for. There’d been a passage in my great-uncle's journal that had suggested that 'the stone which lay under the sky god's tree holds the key.' I knew from my studies that oak trees were the tree most often struck by lightning, and therefore had been associated in ancient times with gods of the sky. I assumed this gravestone was the stone the passage referred to, being, as it was, under an oak tree.
“Hey, do you possibly want to give me the journal, so we can, I don't know, get this over with before Maratova and his men find us?” Sebastian looked up at the sky, possibly checking that helicopters or nasty soldiers weren’t jumping down from the clouds above.
While I had no doubt Sebastian was right, and that Maratova and more were after us, for some reason I didn’t feel as if we were about to be disturbed any time soon. Plus, although I didn’t know how these things went down, I assumed getting my hands on the next Stargazer Globe would at least give us some leverage. Plus, it was something to keep busy with, and I needed to keep busy.
Sebastian leaned down, setting his gun into the back of his pants and grabbing my elbow. He yanked the book out from underneath it, despite my protestations.
“You jerk,” I complained as I fell against the gravestone.
He grinned, picked up his gun, and started to leaf through the book. I resisted the urge to lash out and kick him in the shins. I stood up, dusted off my skirt, and swore at him. “You keep on going on about how quick we need to be, but you don't appreciate that not only am I the great-niece of the guy that wrote that book, but I've read it, as well as most of his other notes.” I crossed my arms tightly in front of my chest.
It was Sebastian’s turn to ignore me, and he did a sterling job, one eyebrow raised as he flicked through the journal.
“You know, you are an insufferable jerk,” I continued with another sniff.
“I didn't see you complaining about me when I saved you from the guy outside the library,” he said without looking up as he gently turned the pages of the journal.
I snorted. “I didn't see you complaining when I saved you from that guy outside the library, or have you forgotten it was me who pulled up in front of him, opened the door, and got you out of there before he could shoot you to pieces?”
He smiled, but it wasn't a nice smile, and it wasn't a smile that suggested he was giving in to me. He did, however, look up. “I imagine what we'll be looking for is in the dead center of the church,” he gave a yawn as he closed the journal with a snap. “I think you will find all that junk about clues is to confuse us. I'll bet you that the only place structurally secure enough is the center of the church.”
Jesus Christ, he had such a sanctimonious look on his face. Seriously, not even his mother could like this guy. There was something so exquisitely arrogant about him, something so.... Well, let's put it this way: all I wanted to do was slap him.
Without saying where he was going, or suggesting I follow, he turned and walked back to the front of the church. He could get stuffed if he thought I was going to follow him. He might have thought he was the world's greatest treasure hunter, but that didn’t mean that he knew my great-uncle. Arthur Stanton had loved clues, he had loved games too. Every Saturday when I’d gone to visit him as a child, he would always hide things around the house for me and would leave me clues written on scraps of paper hidden beside the fridge or behind the couch. Sebastian could think what he wanted, but honest to god it was wrong and fueled more by his testosterone than his reason.
I turned back to the gravestone, sticking my tongue firmly behind my teeth as I tried to think. The inscription on the gravestone was simple, and it didn’t seem like a clue.
“The stone under the tree,” I mumbled under my breath. I repeated it several times as I walked around the gravestone, careful not to walk over the grave itself. Unlike Sebastian, I had respect for the dead.
I checked the back of the gravestone, running my hand all the way across its length in case there was a mark to indicate a message had worn off over the years. There wasn’t anything. I then decided that perhaps the stone under the tree indicated something else, and I turned to survey the old oak behind me.
I stared up into its gnarled, many-branched trunk. There wasn't a stone lodged anywhere, not that I could see. If the stone was buried at the roots of the enormous tree, then I was stiff out of luck, because I didn't have a spade and I didn't fancy asking Sebastian for one. It was at that moment I started to hear loud banging noises emanating from the church behind me, interspersed with even louder and irritatingly manly grunts.
Muttering to myself about how annoying that man was, I tried to think of what else a stone could be. Whenever my great-uncle had posed me a riddle, or begun a game which I couldn’t end, he had always told me to think of at least 10 possibilities of what I could do next. He called it fluid thinking, and had muttered something about how he had learned it from a great priest in Peru. Basically, when you are stuck, try to think of 10 possible solutions, and force your mind to finish the task, no matter how hard it gets, and no matter how much your mind wants to wander away.
So I held out my fingers in front of me and waggled them for a bit. “The stone could mean the gravestone.” I held up a thumb. “The stone could mean a stone buried under the roots of the tree.” I held up another finger. “It could mean a name, like John Stone or something.” I held up another finger, smiling as my answers were starting to become more creative. “It could mean a gem or some other precious stone, perhaps in a ring, and perhaps the inscription is on the inside of the ring.” I held up another finger, my answers coming quicker. “It could mean a characteristic, perhaps something that is stone-like, concrete, solid, but not technically made of stone.” I began to bite at my lip harder, turning around as I stood there, staring up at the church, the rest of the graveyard, the oak, even the woods beyond, as I tried to think of yet more possibilities. “What else does stone mean?”
I blinked, smiling with surprise as a fantastic thought popped to mind. “Stone as in the unit of measurement.” I couldn't keep the smile off my face. I turned back to the tree and wondered how a clue could be found in a unit of measurement that was somehow meant to be under a tree.
I remembered another snippet of my great-uncle's advice: if you are having trouble seeing a solution, take 10 steps back. Arthur Stanton, bless his soul, always did things in groups of 10. It was another reason that the rest of my family, especially my Great-Aunt Imelda, had thought him batty.
Considering how crazy my current situation was, adding some more crazy to it didn't seem like it would make a difference. So I took 10 steps back from my situation, my hands clasped behind me as I inched my way through the graveyard, keeping my eyes on the oak tree.
The solution didn't pop out at me, and I stared at the oak tree, head on the side, waiting for inspiration to strike.
That would be when I heard the guffaws of laughter behind me.
“You are fucking mad,” Sebastian said between even harsher laughs.
I turned, cheeks irritatingly flushed at being disturbed so rudely. “Shut up,” was all I could manage.
He had a spade slung across his shoulder, one arm resting on it easily. He had taken that ridiculously expensive-looking jacket off, and had rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt, the first several buttons undone. I noticed the deep marks on his wrists – no wonder he’d been so well dressed this morning. I wondered to myself what had happened to him last night – perhaps he was into S&M? I noticed also that somehow, despite the fact that the end of his spade was covered with dust and clogged with dirt, his shirt was still as pristine as it had been first thing that morning – so he was a neat freak too.
He must have caught my gaze as it lingered over his arms. “Staring again?” he questioned.
I shot him an irritated look. I tapped my hands on my legs and tried to raise my head up until I was staring down my nose at him, despite the fact that he was a fair bit taller than me. “Well, so have you found it then?”
I could tell by the less-than-triumphant look on his face that the answer was no. That didn't stop him from offering me one of those awful, excessively-arrogant smiles. “No, have you fallen over and broken your neck from walking backwards in a graveyard yet?” He brought the spade down in an easy arc and let it sink into the soft ground below him.
I sucked in my lips, trying hard to think of something more dignified and witty than shut up.
“Excellent comeback,” he said after a while. His expression hardened. “How can you be so sure,” he grabbed the journal that had been tucked into the pocket of his pants and gestured with it, “That your great-uncle wasn’t lying?”
“Are you suggesting that because you haven't been able to find the globe after two minutes of digging, in a place that you arbitrarily decided was the right one, that the globe isn't here?”
His lips pulled back over his teeth and he snorted out a laugh. “Listen to me, lady, I have been in this business a lot longer than you have. This,” he gestured to the church and the graveyard with the journal, “Doesn't feel like a treasure trove to me.”
I crossed my arms and stared back at him. “Well, it isn't meant to be a treasure trove, is it? It's meant to be the location of a treasure map. The map is meant to lead us to treasure,” I said each word clearly, as if I was talking to the densest of children.
He shook his head, lips pulling up even further over his perfect teeth.
“Did you find anything in there?” I didn’t uncross my arms, and nor did I tone down the harsh edge to my voice; this guy deserved it. “Or did you just find dirt?”
He raised his eyebrows and dipped them again. “You are showing far too much attitude, and not nearly enough gratitude. Or have you forgotten that I saved you last night? Would you have preferred I left you to the less-than-kind activities those mercenaries and criminals could have dished out to you?”
I hated the fact I shook at that. I might have been holding it together, even going toe-to-toe with this irascible and pompous idiot, but that didn’t mean that I had forgotten what happened last night. Nor did it mean that I had gotten over it. I was going full steam ahead here, in the hope that I didn’t have the chance to truly appreciate how much trouble I was in.
Sebastian kept his gaze stony, his stance tense and macho. I fancied, as my own shoulders twitched at his words, and my eyes blinked and half closed, that he softened. Shifting his jaw from side-to-side, he glanced at the oak behind me. “Did you find anything?”
I shook my head. “I'm still in the looking-for-clues stage,” I admitted honestly and with an annoyingly innocent voice which I tried to cough into submission.
“Well, all I found was a set of scales. But I was right. There was treasure at the center of the church; it just isn't what we're looking for.”
I looked up sharply, letting my lips open in surprise.
He must have thought I was shocked and awed by his ability to find treasure so quickly, and one corner of his mouth clinked up in a self-satisfied grin. “It is gold too, or at least gold-plated.”
Blinking, I rushed past him, heading to the church. It was a long shot, but he had found scales, so did that mean that the stone in the clue was the unit of measurement? Before I could race off and see the scales for myself, I realized I still hadn’t solved the clue properly. It had spoken of the stone found beneath a tree.
Sebastian chuckled lightly as he drew to a stop beside me, spade slung over his shoulder again. “Keep your skirt on, rookie; the treasure isn't going anywhere.”
“Is there a tree in the church?” I asked, playing with the end of my fingers as I always did when I was thinking hard.
“Not yet, but I imagine when these woods have their way, they will encroach right into that church,” Sebastian answered, and for the first time he didn’t add a sarcastic grin or mean wink to it.
I plunged my top teeth into my bottom lip, noted the way Sebastian smiled curiously at that, and turned to run towards the church.
Perhaps I’d been wrong, and the tree referred to in the passage wasn’t the one in the graveyard. Perhaps, somehow, there was a tree in the church, or at least something that technically fitted the description of the sky god’s tree.
Showing too much excitement, and even grinning wildly at the possibility I might solve this clue, I ran into the church. Sebastian had pulled aside the broken pews and had even rolled several of the massive stones that had fallen down from the ceiling above to the side, clearing a neat semicircle right in the dead center of the church.
There was a rough hole dug right into the middle of the clearing, several of the flag stones shifted off to the side, and a neat package sitting reverently on top of one, chunks of dirt covering the stained cloth with leather tied around it like a parcel.
I rushed over to it, Sebastian warning yet again that unless I slowed down, I would break my neck.
I sat down next to the package once I reached it, pulling down my skirt as I did, lest it rode up from behind.
I picked up the package gently, placing it on my lap as I unwrapped it. It was a set of scales; Sebastian hadn’t lied about that. It did look like it was gold. An infectious smile spread across my face as I tried not to get too excited at the possibility I could figure this clue out.
“I found that; it's mine,” Sebastian clarified, letting the spade clang down beside him as he walked right up to me and loomed there.
As I held the scales, playing lightly with the mechanism, and gently moving it around as I surveyed it, I strove to ignore him.
“As great as it is – and you should remember it's mine,” he clarified again, “We need to find the globe that is meant to be here. If it is here,” he sighed deeply. “Every second we stay here, is a second they,” he stabbed a finger at the door, “Get closer to finding us.”
I put a finger to my lips and hissed out a shhh. Then, still biting my lips, I looked around the church. There weren't any trees that I could see, unless they were tiny. I let my eyes settle above me, and noticed a sturdy wooden beam that ran across the length of the church, supporting the heavy ceiling above.
I stood up, careful not to drop the heavy scales, head still turned towards the ceiling.
“What wood do you think that beam is up there?”
“Probably oak, probably from the woods outside, why? Do you think we can knock it down and use it to smash our enemies?” He took the chance to gesture with his gun. “I think I'll stick with my gun.”
I did a dance as the word ‘oak’ issued from his mouth. The tree of the sky god. I had a set of scales in my hand, scales that had been found under an oak tree, or at least a section of such a tree.
“Do you have a stone on you?” I asked Sebastian.
Sebastian's eyebrows smoothly peaked together. He leaned down, picked up a small stone from next to my foot, brushing too close to my leg as he rose, and handed it to me. “You are mad.”
I took the stone and threw it away. “Not a stone, a stone.”
He laughed loudly. “Fuck,” he let the word draw out. “Sorry, a stone,” he said, voice dripping with sarcasm.
I put one hand on my hip, despite how heavy it was to hold up the scales with the other. “I need a unit of measurement. You know, a stone of weight.”
If he looked incredulous and sarcastic before, he looked dismissive now.
“Look, there is a passage in my great-uncle's journal that says there is a clue to the globe's whereabouts on a stone under the sky god’s tree. The sky god’s tree, I think, means an oak tree, because that’s what was often associated with sky deities in ancient times,” I kept my words clear and slow, as if I was leading a class of five-year-olds, “And now that you've found a set of scales, I think the word stone refers to the unit of measurement. So maybe if we could—”
Sebastian leaned in, grabbed the scales off me, brushing past my arms as he did, and stared down at them.
“Excuse me,” I blurted out.
He placed the scales on the ground, picked up his spade, and before I could stop him swung it around in a great arc and struck it.
I gave a stifled scream. “What are you doing?”
While his first blow had dented the scales, it hadn’t broken them. He pulled up his spade to strike again, and before I could stop him, he settled yet another blow.
“It's gold.” I tried to reason with him, as he struck again with a seriously excessive manly grunt pushing his chest out.
“Soft metal,” was all he said as he tried to strike it again. After several more blows the weighing mechanism snapped off. Letting the spade clatter to the ground, Sebastian dropped to his knees, grabbed the base of the scales in one hand and tipped it up. He shook it, and a small parchment of rolled-up paper tumbled out and onto the ground by my feet.
The look on his face was a mix of schoolboy enthusiasm and irritatingly attractive charm. He raised an eyebrow, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand and dipping his head. “There is your clue, Amanda.”
I leaned down to pick it up, but before I could get there, he snatched it off the ground, looking right into my eyes as he passed me and stood. He pulled off a string tightly wound around the parchment and threw it to the ground. Then he unwound the old paper, eyes darting over whatever he saw written there.
I stupidly stood there and waited for him to offer me the parchment once he had finished with it, or at least tell me what was written there. He didn't; he shifted his jaw from side-to-side – something he did a lot – and wound the paper back up and popped it into the pocket of his shirt. He shrugged at me. “Looks like old Stanton was fond of clues then.” He turned from me, leaned down and grabbed the spade, and headed for the door.
Teeth bared with frustration at how arrogant this man was, I balled my hands into fists and followed him. “I could have told you that, if only you could listen.”
I marched behind him, dodging my way around the obstacles that littered the floor and drawing up beside him as he made it to the front door.
That would be when he flung out his arm, stopping me in place.
The sound of a car drawing to a halt outside filtered through the crack of the half-open door.
“Fuck,” he said quietly, repeating it several times with a bitter twist to his voice.
Heart in my throat, I tried to move past to see who it was. Though the fear twisting through my gut and rushing down my back told me to turn and find somewhere to hide, it was better to ensure there was something to run from first.
When the sound of gunfire or the guttural, horrible laughs of criminals didn’t meet my ears, I sucked my lips in with a pop. “Maybe it's someone else, someone who isn't after us,” I suggested innocently.
Rather than tell me to shut up, Sebastian turned to me and cut a finger across his throat.
I got the message. I took several steps back.
That would be when I heard whistling. A pleasant, competent tune that seemed to drift peacefully through the door. I was no expert on bad guys, but I didn't know whether they whistled while they worked.
“Visitors? Been a long time since we've had visitors,” a man with a thick Yorkshire accent said as he walked towards the door of the church.
Sebastian took a step to the left, raising the spade up above his shoulder, getting ready to strike.
I freaked out. I dashed in front of Sebastian, opened the door, and thrust myself through it.
I had no idea what would meet me outside, and whether the whistling Yorkshireman was a whistling Yorkshire hit man, but I couldn't take the risk. I wasn't anything like Sebastian, and I had no experience with this thing; so excuse me if I thought twice about clocking potentially innocent people over the head with a spade.
My cheeks red from fright, my breath shallow and quick, I stumbled through the door and right into the arms of a stunned-looking farmer.
He didn't have a gun, or not that I could see. He wore a simple tweed jacket and a small cap on his bald, round head.
He blinked as I appeared panting on the doorstep.
“Hello there,” he said politely, “You are a bit flushed, Miss, everything all right?”
I tried to get a hold of my breath, and nodded. “Ah.... Hello,” I managed, “I'm fine.”
He nodded. At no point did it look as though he was about to grab two pistols from the back of his pants and gun me down. If I was any judge of character, I would say that this man was about as nice as the friendly smile on his face suggested.
He nodded at me again. “Nice church, isn't she? Doing a bit of sightseeing, ma'am?”
“I see. I often come up here myself, have a look at the old place, check that no more vandals have desecrated her.” He looked sincere.
I winced. Did vandalism include digging a dirty great hole in the middle of the church, finding treasure, and bashing it to pieces with a spade?
“Did you have a fright, miss?” The man asked kindly. “Only you are still all flushed?”
The door opened from behind me and Sebastian walked out, thankfully not wielding his spade or gun. I could see the gun neatly and discreetly tucked into the back of his pants, and he had obviously left the spade inside. He had an even smile on his face and nodded at the old man.
The man looked surprised, and he slid his eyes from Sebastian to me, one eyebrow arching up. “I reckon I can figure out why you are all flushed, miss,” the man laughed, “You know, it used to be the same in my day; this old place was where all the lovers went to get away from prying eyes.”
I blinked, confused. That would be when Sebastian leaned in, looped an arm around my middle and yanked me over to him. He didn't bother answering the man, he just offered him a half grin.
The man laughed heartily. “Well, sorry to have disturbed you two.”
Before I could clarify the situation, and point out that I hadn’t, and never would be, caught in a compromising situation with Sebastian Shaw, Sebastian began to pull me down the steps.
“Well, you two enjoy the rest of your day, but not too much.” The man chuckled as he waved us goodbye.
Sebastian had a firm hold of my waist as he tugged me towards the car.
“Get off me,” I said as I wriggled free, huffing heavily, hair messy against his shoulder.
“Suit yourself,” he let go of me, walking easily towards the driver-side door, “Hurry up and get in the car.”
As I did, I heard a shout from the church. Obviously the kind old gentleman had realized how much vandalism we’d gotten up to. I patted my hands wildly in front of my face. “Drive, drive.” I snapped at Sebastian as I saw the form of the previously kind old gentleman running out of the door and towards us.
Sebastian hardly had to be encouraged, and brought the car around in a screeching turn and bombed down the drive.
After we made it onto the main road, Sebastian driving too fast, I turned in my seat to face him. “You know, if we’d found something that weighed as much a stone, you wouldn't have had to destroy those scales.”
“Well excuse me if we didn't have time to sit around and try and find a fucking stone of weight. Have you forgotten, Amanda, that you have half of the world breathing down your neck, trying to kill you?”
“You keep on saying that, but I think you mean we,” I pointed out, swallowing the tide of fright that lapped up at my belly.
“True, but I can look after myself. If I stopped looking after you, however, that would be your part in this game done,” he leaned in but kept driving, only one hand on the steering wheel, and took his eyes off the road to look over at me, “Do you need me to paint you a picture of what that would look like?”
Despite the fact he was driving I balled up a fist and hit him on the shoulder. It wasn’t hard, but it wasn’t that girlie either, and he leaned back and rubbed a hand on it.
“What did the parchment say anyway?” I asked, keen to get the conversation onto something that was important and didn't involve Sebastian's inflated sense of self-importance and competence.
“It was another clue.” He stopped rubbing his shoulder and let his hand rest on his lap. There was something infuriatingly maddening about men who didn’t drive with both hands on the steering wheel.
“What did my great-uncle's clue say?” I straightened in my seat, nervous about what it could be, and a great deal more nervous at the horrible situation I’d found myself in. “Where are we going? Are we going to find a clue? Are we going somewhere safe?” my voice was quick as I fired off each question in turn.
“Why don’t you shut up, sit down straight, and leave the rest of it up to me,” he said, tone as arrogant as his suggestion.
I snorted with derision. “Where did you learn to talk to women like that?”
It was his turn to snort. “Oh, Amanda, don't you worry, I know how to talk to women,” he assured me, playing with the collar of his shirt.
“Are many women won over by your macho man display? Or do you find yourself leaving bars with drinks dripping off your face? Do older women hit you in supermarkets with their bags? Do young girls scream in your face, kick you in the shins, and run off down the street?”
With eyes narrowed, he gave me a sarcastic look. “Believe me, honey, if I wanted to talk nicely to you, I would.”
I ignored the kick of adrenaline that zipped up my stomach at that thought, and more importantly at the charming and yet sarcastic smile that preceded it. I swallowed determinedly. “I doubt that, Sebastian,” I continued, on a roll here, “I think you are the kind of man who thinks you're good with women, because you happen to be attractive, but not because you have any charm or an engaging personality.” My words came out, but they didn't come out right. I’d intended to insult him, and I had meant to point out how irritating and undesirable he was.
Keeping one hand on the steering wheel, he leaned across to me as much as he could, not facing me, but keeping his eyes on the road the entire time. “Amanda, I'll tell you a secret: all it takes is being attractive.” He straightened up, that stupid smile still on his face.
Oh yes, he was arrogant, but oh yes, I happened to be blushing like a burning hot ember.
It wasn't until he joined one of the major roads that I plucked up the courage to speak again. “I'm not sure if you have forgotten this, but the side of this car is riddled with bullet holes,” I pointed to the passenger-side window and the driver's side window, “And both of these windows are smashed. What do you think is going to happen if we pass a police car?”
“I will give them the chase of their life.” He grinned.
“Grow up. Seriously, you're a lawyer, right? Did you get your degree on the Internet? Or is this some game, do you pretend you're a lawyer so you can ingratiate yourself with old ladies and have them make you pancakes and call you dear?”
“I'm a lawyer, and I also know a lot more about what’s going on than you do. So why don’t you shut up?”
I punched him on the shoulder again, this time harder. “Tell me what was on that clue, and you tell me where we are going next, or...” I faltered as I tried to think of a damn good threat.
“Or what, Amanda? Are you going to wrestle it from me?” he said, stupid grin pushing high into his cheeks.
I darted a hand out and snatched the parchment right out of the pocket of his shirt before he could grab my hand. I turned to the window with it, hiding it close by my chest so I could read it before he could snatch it back.
Although he swore at me, he didn’t try to wrest it from my grip.
I managed to read the clue. It was in my great-uncle's familiar cursive handwriting, and it spoke of shadows and light, more specifically entailing that the whereabouts of the next clue was in a place where the shadow crossed the light.
I sat straight, carefully rolling up the parchment and placing it neatly on my lap. A place where the shadow met the light? Well, that wasn't the most explicit of clues. Not only could it mean anything, I didn't think I had any idea to narrow it down.
“You have no idea, do you?” he sounded amused.
I turned to him and narrowed my eyes. “I'm not sure if you've forgotten, but the only reason we have this clue,” I gestured with it lightly, “Is because I figured out the last one.”
“Right, I knew where it was, without any of your help, Amanda. Or did you forget it was me who found those scales?”
“Yes,” I insisted, “But it was me who figured out the clue. You obviously didn't have any idea there was something in the scales until I figured it out. Plus, seriously, you didn't have to go and hit it with a spade.”
He laughed out loud at that and for far too long. “You have seen way too many movies. Trust me, if you can hit it with a hammer, hit it with a hammer; it's quicker than all that clue bullshit.”
Indiana Jones would have jolly well taken it to a museum, I wanted to point out. But there was no point in comparing Sebastian to Indiana – Sebastian not only didn’t wear leather, foregoing the manly look for a suit, but he didn't have a good bone anywhere in his body, and he sure as hell didn't care about the history behind the items he coveted or destroyed. Excuse me for thinking that possibly it might have been better to follow through with the clue rather than the spade.
“So where are you taking me?” I asked.
“Petrol,” he said.
I glanced over and noticed we were almost at empty. Then I gave him the look he deserved. “You came with an empty tank?”
He sneered at me. “Excuse me if I didn't prepare to cart you around the country, looking for clues and running from goons. Today,” he adjusted his collar, “Was meant to be an ordinary day, not like last night.”
I pressed my lips together stiffly and gave him a stern look. “How are we meant to get petrol? People are going to see our car and they’ll call the police.”
Sebastian didn't answer, and neither did he look pleased. It was clear he was having trouble with that idea too.
I gave a deep sigh, wondering where I would be this time tomorrow. Would I be in prison? Would I be with that man Maratova? Or Romeo? Or would I be... dead? As that horrible thought found its way into my mind, I drew my hands together and began to rub them.
He glanced my way and leaned down to turn on the heater, despite the fact two of the windows were smashed.
I didn't have time to think his gesture was sweet, because it gave me an idea. I recognized the section of road we were driving down, and realized it wasn’t too far from a barely-used side road that connected onto the lane-way near my great-uncle’s manor.
“Your car, why don’t we take that?” I asked excitedly.
Sebastian made a show of looking conspiratorial, darting his eyes from side-to-side and leaning down into his collar. “We are in my car,” he whispered.
I rolled my eyes. “Your other car, the one that you said you'd parked in the lane-way last night, the one I gave you the keys for this morning. If we could get to that, and if that isn't riddled with bullet holes, then we can drive that instead.”
While the beginnings of a sarcastic smile spread his lips, it dwindled. Perhaps he thought it was a good idea, because it was a good idea. We could hardly continue driving around the countryside in a car that looked as if it had driven through a war zone.
“If you continue down this road, there's this side road, it's not obvious, but I can point it out,” I kept gesturing towards the road, “We should be able to take it, though it is rough, and it might damage the suspension.”
“Well, you know what? I already have to book this car in for some bodywork anyway,” he said dryly. “But I don't know if this is a good idea; if I know Maratova, he would still have guys out looking for you near your house. He is the kind of guy who does things thoroughly.”
I felt sick at that thought. Though I was taking great pleasure in finding Sebastian irritating and arrogant, I had to admit he sounded infinitely better than this Maratova chap. That, I guess, meant I had to be thankful Sebastian had technically saved me from the man. Technically, because I’d done most of the saving when I’d managed to run through the woods in the middle of the night with no shoes.
“Honestly, this side road is hardly used; only locals know about it,” I continued. “Plus, I mean, you got away from them last night...” I trailed off, not sure what I wanted to say.
Sebastian ticked his head to the side. “I guess it wouldn't be too suspicious if I went and picked up my car, but you sure as hell have to stay out of sight.” He turned to me and locked me in a stern look. “I will try and park somewhere safe, out of the way, you stay in this car, and I will go and get the other one.”
I nodded. I found his tone irritating and overbearing, but I couldn't find fault with his words.
He shook his head and gave a low whistle. “I sure hope I don't have to run into Maratova again.”
I started to wonder what Sebastian's relationship with this mysterious Maratova was. All I knew was that Sebastian happened to be a lawyer who was somehow a treasure hunter too. I could remember that he’d been there at the auction when I had sold off the other globe. And, of course, he’d been at my house last night when he had saved me from the mercenaries in my drawing-room.
That didn’t mean that I knew what relationship he had with the other players in this game. He was clearly willing to do whatever it took – legal or illegal – to get his hands on those other globes.
I began to play with my hands again, wondering if I could honestly trust this guy.
“Look, you'll be okay, I won't be that long,” he said, for the first time his voice almost sounding concerned.
Was he looking at my body language, noting the fact that I had pulled away from him, that I was staring at the window, playing nervously with my hands in my lap, and thinking it meant I was scared? Well he was right but I wasn't particularly scared of being left alone in the car. I was, however, scared that if I trusted this man and he turned out to be bad, then it would probably be the biggest mistake of my life. The amount of trouble I was already in was huge; the amount of trouble I could add to that if my only apparent champion was a crook, was something that sent the coldest of chills through me.
As I gave a shiver from that horrible thought, Sebastian seemed to misinterpret it again. He lent down, twisted the knob on the heater to full, and gestured that I put my hands in front of one of the vents. “There's not much I can do about the windows, owing to the fact they have great sodding bullet holes in them, but you can have my jacket if you like.” He twisted his head and nodded at the back seat, where his jacket was folded neatly.
I was a tiny bit flabbergasted at that. Sebastian, in my mind, wasn’t a real gentleman. He was the guy who liked to pretend he was a gentleman so he could gain the attention and affection of ladies. I pictured Sebastian Shaw as an arrogant, self-interested nong. Yet here he was, apparently genuinely concerned that I found his shot-up car chilly.
That was enough to chase the doubt from my mind for now. “I'll be fine.”
“Suit yourself,” he shrugged.
I pointed out the hidden lane-way off to the side of the road that would be a shortcut to the lane-way that was near my great-uncle's manor.
It was a horrible road; there were potholes the size of tires, and some of them connected up into great ruts that ran across the entire road. Sebastian swore colorfully as he unsuccessfully tried to avoid them all, car bouncing around as the tires dug into the treacherous dips. Thankfully there wasn't too much mud, as fun as it would be to be stuck in a bogged car, tires churning up the mud as it spat through the holes in the windows and covered both of us.
He parked under a tree, though technically along this road everywhere was under a tree; the great big oaks, birches, elms, and pines all pulled up right against the ditch, forming a thick canopy above. It was no wonder that this road was hardly ever used; this close to the forest it was always plagued by fallen trees and branches, let alone the damage from encroaching roots and run-off when it rained heavily.
“Stay in the car and stay down,” Sebastian said for what felt like the trillionth time.
I nodded, trying not to be truculent about it; the advice wasn't there to irritate me, presumably it was there to keep me out of the hands of international criminals and wayward super soldiers.
Sebastian kept cracking the knuckles of his left hand as he walked around the car, muttering to himself that perhaps he should find a way to park it further off the road and down an incline. I pointed out that as fun as it would be to drive his luxury vehicle off the side of the road and into a tree, there was no point; this road was hardly ever used. I faced little to no chance of meeting anyone on it.
Sebastian didn't look too moved by my words, if anything, he looked like he was about to get back in the car and drive off again.
“Maybe this isn't such a good idea,” he said, voice extra gruff.
“Look, it’s not as if we have a lot of choice. There is going to be a limit on the amount of time we can drive around in a car that looks as if it has been target practice for an entire army.”
He didn't bother arguing at that, cracked the knuckles on his right hand this time, shook his head, warned me one more time to stay down and to stay quiet, and began walking away from the car and towards the lane-way a good kilometer away.
Watching him leave made all the feelings I'd managed to keep control of since last night bubble back up to the surface. Perhaps it was being alone, or perhaps it was the fact that for the first time I was sitting still and not running from anything or having to point out to Sebastian how idiotic and arrogant he was. I honestly had time to think, and time to feel, and what I was thinking and what I was feeling weren't pleasant.
There’d been a surreal feeling to everything last night, and with the excitement of finding the scales and cracking my great-uncle's clue, it seemed this was adventurous. Now reality was sinking in, and I realized I was sitting in a car that had no windows because they had been shot out by men I didn’t know, and who only knew me as a person to kidnap and torture. I was also currently fleeing for my life with a man who I hardly knew, and who I honestly didn’t believe capable of truly caring about my situation; Sebastian was after the other globes, that much was clear.
This wasn’t an adventure; this was a nightmare.
I ran my lips through my teeth, closed my eyes tightly as tears threatened to well within, and rested my head back roughly against the head rest behind. I began banging my head against it lightly several times, as several errant tears trickled down from my eyes and spilled over my cheeks.
I couldn't see this ending well. Sebastian was right, and this wasn’t a movie and nor was it a trashy airport novel. In the real world when criminals were after you, that didn’t give you license to walk right into the bad guy’s den and shoot everything up, steal the treasure, and retire on a nice tropical island. You had to go to the police, and if you didn't go to the police, you’d pay for it with some prison time.
I shook my head several times, more tears sliding down my cheeks, their coolness distinguishable from the burning, puffy, unpleasant feeling of my skin as I twisted my face with tension, trying so hard not to cry.
By this time next week I would either be dead or locked up in a prison cell somewhere.
That burst the banks, and I let myself cry jolly hard. I had a lot to cry about. This time last week I was over the moon at having found treasure in my great-uncle's attic. This time the week before last I was holding down a part-time job in a cafe, wondering whether I should go back to uni and study something worthwhile that would give me real job prospects.
Now look at me? Sobbing my heart out in a shot-up car on a lonely country lane-way while I waited for a lawyer who dabbled in treasure hunting to bring around a new vehicle that wouldn't get us pulled over by the police.
I kicked my shoes off, bringing my legs up onto the seat and hugging them tightly. It was about then that I heard the noise of a car coming up the lane-way towards me.
Unless Sebastian was a world-class runner, or had fashioned a helicopter out of some twigs and leaves, then it sure as hell wasn't him; not enough time had passed to allow him to get to the car and travel all the way back here. Plus, the car was coming down the lane-way from behind.
Despite the hot tears streaking down my face, my mouth went dry.
A horrible energy prickling over my back, I let go of my knees and tried to catch sight of the vehicle through the driver's side mirror. The only problem was we’d left that behind in the village when it had been shot off by a man whose neck reminded me of a tree stump.
So I did the only thing I could think of, and opened the door carefully, dropping to my knees.
The car wasn't yet upon me, but I could hear it churning up along the treacherous road.
Without hesitation I turned and ran, staying low, away from the car, until I was well behind the old and large trunk of an elm.
My breath was far too short, and far too quick, and seemed to choke through my throat as if it no longer had the room to make it all the way to my lungs. I swallowed wildly as I waited to catch a glimpse of the vehicle coming my way.
Though a part of me tried to entertain the prospect it could be Sebastian, I knew that was a faint and dim hope. Sure enough, in a moment, I was proved right: a large, black, four-wheel-drive hurtled down the road, drawing to a sudden stop as it rounded the corner and presumably saw Sebastian's car.
Though four-wheel-drives, particularly large and overly petrol-guzzling ones, were common in this part of the country, tinted windows were not. The car that now parked right next to Sebastian's had the darkest tinted windows I had ever seen. I imagined that even if I walked right up to them, I wouldn't be able to catch a glimpse of who was inside.
My hands drew away from the tree and they shook as I let them drop by my side. Though it would have been rational to stay and see who got out of the vehicle, I had far too much fear kicking around in me to consider reason. Taking the most enormous swallow I could, I turned carefully, ensuring that the bulk of my body couldn’t be seen past the trunk. I dropped low and tried to scamper as quickly as I could to the protection of an even larger tree further back. The plan was to continue doing that, ducking from tree to tree, until I was well and truly gone, no matter how long or how far that would take me.
“What the fuck happened to this car?” A gruff and deep baritone rang out from behind, giving me a fair indication from the language and tone that this wasn’t a country farmer with a particular love of military-grade cars and tinted windows.
“It's had the shit shot out of it,” replied a man with a wiry tone, offering laugh at the end, as if a bullet-riddled Lexus was the funniest sight on this green earth.
I bit my lip so hard that the pain radiated down into my chin. I ground to a halt, pressing my back up as far as I could against the rigid bark of the large oak tree behind me.
“Hey, I know this car,” a far more unpleasant tone replied, “It belongs to that lawyer shit.”
My eyes widened, and I clamped my teeth down, lips sucking in. This was Maratova, wasn't it? The same Maratova Sebastian kept warning me about, the same Maratova who'd chased me through the woods last night.
That thought was enough to see me shaking, arm jittering so hard that the tips of my fingers danced over the wood of the trunk behind me as I tried to hold myself steady.
“Well, looks like someone got to him,” the baritone replied, voice not peaking with concern.
“Should we call it in?” someone else asked.
“Don't have the time, plus, not our problem,” the baritone replied.
The man's tone was starting to get to me; it didn't feel right somehow. It seemed as if he was artificially holding his voice even, as if he was trying not to frighten someone. I hardly doubted he was doing it for the benefit of his men; I didn't think the army was a place where the softly, softly approach to interpersonal conversation was cherished.
My lips dropped open, my throat dry. Very carefully I tried to step back from the tree, and it was at that moment I heard the crack of a twig not too far from my left.
My heart gave a kick, and I’d never felt anything like it. An intensely cold sensation rushed across the top of my chest, a horrible tingling feeling cascading down my arms and legs.
They were hunting me. The apparently normal conversation by the car was meant to draw my interest and distract me while they sent several other men off into the forest to corral me.
“Still, it's a pity, looked like it was a nice car,” someone said as the sound of a door being opened filtered through from the lane-way.
With a fresh, undeniable, inescapable tingling pulsing through my body, I did the only thing I could think of, and I ran. It might have been smarter to peel off, assess the lay of the land, and try to pick the best route possible. I wasn’t in a sensible mood here; I was about to be the antelope captured by the pride of lions.
As I launched myself from the protection of the tree, heart beating so fast, chest trying so hard to suck in deeper and longer breaths, the conversation behind stopped.
I had stupidly, stupidly kicked my shoes off in the car, and I found myself running from the army in the woods, barefoot and desperate.
As I belted forward, in my peripheral vision I saw one of them, crouched low by the side of a tree barely five meters from where I’d been. The second he saw me, was the second he snapped up with the speed of a jumping spider.
I screamed, constricted throat making it sound as if I was choking.
Arms flailing about madly, feet striking the ground with hard, shuddering, quick footfall, I ran in the only direction I could see that didn't have a crouching soldier in it.
Sure enough, as I pelted forward, I heard another one move from my other side, snapping up just as quickly as the other one had.
This section of wood was infamous for its dips and rises, seemingly level hills dropping off dramatically into tree-lined ditches – and as I could hear the breath of the closest soldier behind me so loud it sounded as though it was issuing from my own skull, I came across such a treacherous rise.
Foot striking a raised root, and knee buckling at the sudden pressure it sent zipping through my leg and up my hip, I fell forward, realizing that the ground gave away sharply. With no time to scream, I sucked in a breath, closed my eyes, and somehow managed to tuck my body in. I hit the ground and began to slide down the sharp incline, leaves and twigs grating and brushing over my scooting form.
I had no idea how long it took, but I rolled onto a thankfully-soft pile of leaf matter at the bottom of the incline. Were it not for the fact my body was already primed with adrenaline from the pressing issue of having several heavily-armed soldiers chasing me, I would probably have lain there for some time, shocked as I tried to process what had occurred. I didn't have that luxury.
Shaking violently, my teeth clattering as I tried to clamp down hard on my jaw and get a hold of myself, I pushed to my feet. It didn't feel as though I had broken bones, and I didn't have time to check for the bruises and scratches and cuts that I knew for sure would be there.
“Come on, Amanda, you don't have to run from us,” one of the soldiers said from the top of the incline.
I chose to ignore his words as I saw two others expertly making their way down the horrendously steep incline towards me.
“We are here to help you,” the soldier tried again. He wasn’t the baritone, that much I did know, and his voice, dare I say it, had a kinder edge.
That didn’t stop me from turning from him and resuming my escape. “Like hell you are,” I muttered under my breath.
I heard him swear, just as the other two soldiers, boots skidding, made their way towards me.
Though I hadn’t been to these woods for many years, I still remembered them from the fond times I had spent with my great-uncle as a child. He had often taken me out here, sat me under the different trees and told me of his various adventures. I remembered the time he'd pointed out this hidden old lane-way to me, leading me along it, my small hand in his, as he pointed out all the different trees and plants and birds.
As I ran, feet so painful it made me want to close my eyes to get away from it, I remembered something more. My great-uncle had told me this lane-way and the woods around it were surrounded by one of the country roads. If you kept walking down with the dip in the land, you would get to the road below. The other thing he'd mentioned was the thing I had proved to myself as I had thrown myself face-first down that steep hill: the land around here was full of ditches, valleys, and bloody horrendously steep hills.
That would be when I saw another incline pop right up in front of me. This time I managed to skid to a halt, grabbing a tree trunk before I fell off the hill and rolled down to the flat almost 20 meters below.
They were right behind me, and I do mean right behind me. For some reason my hearing was more acute: I could pick up the tread of their boots as they ran through the soft forest floor. I could even pick up the metal clinks and clangs as whatever horrible weaponry they carried impacted with their belts and buckles as they threw themselves forward.
Below me, beyond the massive dip, was the road. I could see it, see the slice of gray bitumen through a gap in several trees.
So I did it again, this time intentionally. Taking the most massive of swallows, and wincing like I’d never winced before, I plunged over the dip in the hill, trying to keep myself low for as long as I could. I had intended to control my descent, but I started to slide out of control, and I had to curl myself in tight as I began to roll violently down the incline.
I thought I heard someone swear from behind me; it was hard to tell as air rushed past my ears, the sounds of twigs and small branches cracking as I skidded and rolled past.
I bottomed out and reached the flat below.
This time my body felt so bruised and battered that I gave out a terrible moan as I pushed myself to my feet.
“For fuck's sake, love,” the soldier from before shouted from atop the incline above, “We're not here to hurt you. We're here to get you to safety.”
I think I was crying, it was hard to tell; the skin along my cheeks, nose, and forehead was so tingly and over sensitized from the fall and rush of adrenaline, it was hard to differentiate between a stinging sensation in my eyes and the possibility of tears rushing down my cheeks and over my chin. Plus, my face felt so dirty from the beating I had given it by rolling down two inclines in the space of less than two minutes that you would probably have to press right up close to it in order to see the tears, if they were there, between the mud, muck, and scratches.
In front of me, near the road, I saw someone move. Before my heart could leap at the possibility it was Sebastian, I recognized the large, heavy, black-leather coat and thick neck. It was the man who had shot at us outside of the library. He was barely five meters before me, picking his way towards me from the road beyond. He had a gun in hand, and sliced his eyes upwards to the soldier on the rise. Before he could do anything, he sliced his eyes back to me and pelted for me.
I didn't have time to think; I had fallen down yet another incline, body so full of painful protestations at my punishment that all I could do was stand there and shake.
The soldier above yelled, “Contact.” As he did several bullets zipped around me, but not close enough to indicate that I was the intended target. One of them ripped through the shoulder of the thick-necked man's leather jacket, one plunging into the ground right next to his boot. It was enough to make him falter, and he jerked back, before his outstretched hands got a hold of me.
I threw myself to the ground, or fell, more like it. My legs buckled out from underneath me, mouth so open and wide and limp that I didn't think I could ever get it closed again. I tucked my arms over my head, nestling my chin down until it was as close to my chest as I could make it.
I could hear the noise of the soldiers above, as they kept shooting, kept shouting. Then I heard far closer shots as the thick-necked man obviously drew his own gun.
With the smell of dirt clogging my nose and the mud on my face mixing with my tears, I sobbed.
I had to get up and move. I couldn't assume the fetal position and wait to be kidnapped by the victor; I had to act, I had to get away.
Pushing to my feet, arms and neck so stiff it felt as if I was trying to unwind a coat-hanger, I plunged into the woods by my side, as far away from the shouting and gunfire as I could get.
I ran, ran, and ran. Whereas before I hadn’t noticed the pain in my feet and the tears streaking down my cheeks, I noticed nothing; my attention was inexorably focused on getting the hell away.
As the sounds of the gunfight were swallowed up by the woods, I found myself facing yet another incline.
For the freaking third time, I slipped right down it. The only difference was, this one led straight to the road. In an uncontrollable, desperate descent, I rolled right off the hill and straight onto the bitumen below.
There was a sudden and violent screech of tires, and a massive wave of air broke against me as something large and fast dodged closely by my side.
Before I could process what had happened, or more likely, what hadn't, I heard a car door slam.
“Amanda? Amanda?” It was Sebastian, and in another second he was right by my side, lifting me up off the road.
His face was still with shock, a tender and overwhelmed expression muddling his features, one at odds with the character I was so sure he had.
He shook his head several times and led me to the car. “Get in the car, get in the car,” he needlessly repeated as he opened the passenger door for me and gently but surely led me towards it.
Behind us the sound of gunfire stopped. Sebastian twisted his head in a snap towards it and let out an even quicker swearword as he slammed my door closed and pelted to his open driver’s-side door. He jumped in, slammed his own door and didn’t bother to put his seat belt on as he slammed his foot on the accelerator and the car sped off down the road.
I was shaking in my seat, clutching my hands tightly as I rocked back and forth.
I was aware that Sebastian was looking at me, slicing his head back to the road as he took another corner at full speed, then looking back at me. Not caring how I looked, I sat there, knuckles perfectly white against my pink flesh as I continued to rock back and forth, back and forth.
He reached out a hand to me, hesitated and patted me on the shoulder. “You're okay, you're okay, because you’re here now, you're safe,” his voice was quiet, at odds with his usual arrogant gusto.
“What happened? Was it Maratova? Did he find you?” Sebastian didn’t slow the car down, and it sounded as if he gunned it even harder at the mention of Maratova's name, the engine revving wildly.
I was able to nod my head, and kept nodding for some reason, as if I was one of those dolls with a bouncing head that sat on the car's dashboard.
“Fuck,” he said, the word bitter and drawn out, “That fucking bastard.”
I felt cold, frigid, my limbs seizing up. I wanted to huddle into a ball and try and keep what warmth I still had left in me inside.
Sebastian wound up his window, which had been down when he had rescued me, and turned the heat on to full bore, directing each of the vents towards me. “I wish I had some water in this car,” he mumbled.
I didn't respond.
“Oh, shit, you're covered in scratches and cuts,” Sebastian said, voice quick, “Jesus Christ, I should not have left you alone. I'm so sorry. I'll take you somewhere safe, I will take you somewhere safe,” Sebastian kept repeating, as if he thought that saying something comforting twice would somehow make it twice as comforting.
“I'm okay,” I managed to speak, but my words were so quiet and so gentle that they couldn't have convinced anyone.
Sebastian gently shushed me, repeating that I was okay.
“I am okay,” I said, voice getting a touch firmer. I was even able to let my hands go, the knuckles stiff but relaxing somewhat.
“What happened? How did they find you?” Sebastian asked, facing me as much as he could as he kept driving way too fast along such a narrow road.
“They came not too long after you left,” I said, voice quiet, but thankfully even, “And, well...” I trailed off.
He raised a hand. “It's okay, I get it. Those bastards.”
Yes, but were they? As I sat there, warming up from the heaters that blasted warm air my way, I was starting to do some serious questioning. Yes, I’d been chased, and yes, by soldiers of all people. Yet they'd protected me from that thick-necked goon and promised they were only here to help.
I was confused.
I leaned forward, sucking my lips in tightly, and putting a hand on my stomach; I felt sick. A powerful wave of nausea was ricocheting through my stomach, just as those bullets had ricocheted through the woods.
“Oh shit, are you okay? Did they hurt you? You didn't get shot, did you?” Sebastian fired off his questions just as quickly as the soldiers had fired off their guns at the thick-necked man.
I wasn’t sick; I was overcome, drowned by the situation. I didn’t know what to believe, and I didn’t know what to do next. Despite my fear of Maratova, and the fresh memory of being chased last night, I was starting to question why I was running from the army at all. They were meant to be the good guys. Yet I had convinced myself, mostly through the words of Sebastian, that I had to get away from them.
Was it the right thing to do?
“We need to keep moving, get out of the country as quick as we can,” Sebastian said.
Well, that made me freak right out. I gave a startled, choked bluster. “Get out of the country? What? We can't come back ever again? What do you mean? What have we done?” my words all came out at once, as if my silence had been a great dam that had been broken by Sebastian's suggestion.
“I don't mean out of the country, I mean out of the countryside,” he clarified. “You haven't done anything wrong, Amanda.”
I wished I could believe that, but the thing about having so many people, including the army, chasing after me, was it made me feel as if I was a criminal. Innocent people hadn’t anything to run from.
Silence stretched between us for several minutes, and while I was aware that Sebastian kept turning to me to check how I was, I couldn't think of anything more to say to him. I was thankful that he hadn’t run me over, and forever thankful that he had gotten me away from the bullets and shouting. But I didn't know what to do from here. Something was telling me that if I chose not to go to the authorities, then it would be too late.
The thrill of having solved my great-uncle’s clue and having found the scales had been wiped from my mind. The reality of this desperate adventure, and more specifically running from criminals and soldiers, had overshadowed any illusion I may have had that I was somehow a budding treasure hunter. I wasn’t built for this, because I was pretty sure that this should not exist; the rules of law didn’t make room for people to dash around the countryside shooting at each other on the hunt for treasure.
As the day wound on, and the sky became overcast, I began to realize that despite the fact I didn’t know what to do next, we were still heading somewhere new. Sebastian obviously knew where to go from here, even if I was too frightened and overcome to give it a single thought. We had left the countryside some time ago, and while we’d not joined onto a highway heading into the city, we were still heading out along a far larger, far wider main road.
With clouds overhead pressing in, threatening rain in an hour or two, I realized that I could hardly sit there and stay quiet forever. “Where are we going?” I asked, voice croaking.
Sebastian played with his collar, as if it were bothering him. “We have to keep moving, our advantage is the only thing that is keeping us ahead.”
I didn’t understand his words, and he didn’t pause to elucidate them. Despite the fact I was still getting over the shock of my tumbles in the woods, I began to realize what he meant. “You're going after the other clue, aren't you?”
He was going after the other clue. I had almost been kidnapped by two different sets of people, and I had given myself a harsh beating trying to get away from them, and Sebastian was going after the next clue.
I'd thought he was going to get us somewhere safe, somewhere where I could have a shower, somewhere where I could change out of my torn tights. Oh no, we were headed to the next clue.
I was distinctly aware of the irony of it all. I’d seen my fair share of ridiculous adventure movies, and read perhaps more than my fair share of even more ridiculous airport novels, and I knew that the golden rule in both genres was to never stop. Once the action started, the character would never be allowed to pause until it was all over. They would be chased to the point of exhaustion, but somehow they would push through. It was all in the name of adventure. Audiences didn’t want to see the protagonist go back home and have a kip after a lengthy and powerful car chase. They didn’t want to see their hero stretch out and have a siesta and a snack after having escaped from the pirates or mercenaries. The entire point was that from the moment the action began, it didn’t end until the story ended.
This wasn’t a book and this wasn’t a movie. Normal people, real people, needed time to process events, especially stressful, traumatic ones. I was being given no time. I was being pushed from one frantic experience to another. While from the outside, it might have made this damn entertaining, from the inside it felt like it would turn me insane.
“Look, there will be an end to this,” Sebastian assured me.
An end? When? What would it look like? Would the end be when I handed myself over to Maratova and his men and they gently pulled me aside and informed me that they were the good guys, whereupon they would take out all the bad guys and I would be able to resume my normal life? Or would the end look more like me being shot to pieces by some heavy-leather-jacket-wearing goon? Or would I end up in prison?
“I don't want to do this anymore,” I surprised myself with my own words, but they were genuine and they were honest. I just didn’t want to do this anymore. It might have been wild to begin with, and I may have been briefly excited at the prospect of finding treasure in the church, but I was over it. This had to stop.
Sebastian gave an awkward and light chuckle. Perhaps he thought I was joking. His eyelids descended, stare dead. “I wish I could make it stop. The reality is, as long as everyone else out there thinks you know where the globes are, there isn’t going to be an end. Not until we find those globes.”
“We have to find a way to tell them. There must be some way,” I said, voice desperate as it peaked and pitched loudly. “I made a mistake in selling that globe at auction,” I kept swallowing between my words, throat horrendously dry and sore, “But surely there is some way to get away from this.”
Sebastian winced. If it was because of my desperate and pathetic plea, I wasn’t sure; it was hard to get a read on Sebastian Shaw, and even harder to tell whether he was showing genuine compassion or putting on an act to ensure I played along.
“Look, Amanda, I promised that I would get you out of this, and I will,” his voice was far more quiet now, and slower, as if he was choosing his words carefully, “But you are going to have to trust me. I know these people, you don't. I know this industry, you don't. I know how these things go down, you don't. Trust me when I say that the only thing to do is to get our hands on those other globes.”
I honestly had no idea whether to believe him. I was too tired, too injured, and too desperate to bother doing anything else. So I gave a single bitter nod and let him drive to god knows where and to god knows what next.
Shit, I was being a bastard, I really was. I mean, look at the girl, she was covered in scratches and mud, with torn clothes, and her shoulders huddled as she could hardly look at me. I shouldn't have left her alone in the car; I should have gone with my gut instinct and we should have continued along in my shot-up Lexus, ditching it at the first chance, but not going anywhere near old Arthur Stanton's manor again. I knew Maratova, and I knew he would have left some look out around the manor. Sure as hell they had found her, chased her through the woods, and given her what looked like the fright of her life.
That wasn't the only reason I was a bastard. Number one on the list of reasons to hate myself was that I was fucking lying to her. In all honesty, the best thing she could do was to go straight to the police, hell, maybe even straight to Maratova. While the guy was a monster, he wasn't nearly as bad as the others after her. Obviously the army could offer her more protection than I could. But there was this great fucking big problem for me, the singular reason that I was truly a bastard: if I lost Amanda, I might lose my chance at getting the Stargazers.
Though I honestly wanted to check on her to see that she was still okay, and wasn't about to black out or anything, I was finding it harder and harder to turn to her. I usually compartmentalized my work, rationalizing away the shitty things I did in order to get to whatever treasure waited for me, but this was a new low for me. I hardly ever had to deal with people outside of my profession. I wasn't talking about lawyers here: I was talking about treasure hunting. It was a closed off, specialized world, where everyone was cutthroat, and it didn’t matter if you had to tread on someone else's toes to get to what you wanted, because the toes belonged to a hairy, mean, son of a bitch who would as soon as kill you is look at you.
Amanda was normal, or at least innocent. She wasn't from this world, and it was clear that she didn't belong here.
I shook my head several more times, and sliced my gaze to the side to check on her, without turning to her fully. I was worried that if I faced her she would be able to see the lie dancing through my eyes. Pick up that I was leading her astray, that honestly the best thing she could do was ditch me and flag down the next police car she saw.
I’d been honest about one thing: I was going to do everything I could to keep her safe. But I was going to do that while getting my hands on those globes. I’d been tracking them my whole life, and I couldn't let go of them. Even if it meant that I had to do what I was doing: lying to a woman who looked as if she couldn't take any more.
Rather than taking her to the hospital or at least a pharmacy to get some bandages to clean her up, I was heading straight to the next clue. Because I didn't want to lose any time, because I didn't want to give anyone else any time to catch up. I didn't even want us pulling into a service station to grab her a drink and a bite to eat.
Dear God, I was a bastard.
“Where are we going?” she asked again, voice gentle, but not kind, I fancied, because she wasn't trying to be nice – she probably lacked the strength to make her words any more forceful. She was likely using all she had left to sit there.
“The coast,” I answered, honestly. Although I hadn’t planned on telling her everything, the words came out. I did owe it to her.
She nodded, hands still clutched in her lap. They were dirty and covered in scratches, like the rest of her. Those fitting cute clothes that Elizabeth had given her were ruined and muddy. There were several leaves and small sticks hanging out of her hair, but I didn't bother telling her, considering her general state.
For the millionth time I thought about how much of a bastard I was. Did I need her? Could I get through this on my own? Could I deposit her at the nearest police station? Maybe even call Maratova myself? I still had that worn leather journal of her great uncle’s. I knew the locations of the four Stargazers were in there, so surely I didn't need her anymore, right?
That would be the case if she hadn't proved to be so useful at that church. Though I hadn't admitted it to her, I wouldn't have solved that clue without her. I took the direct approach when finding treasure and solving clues: the one that involved the most explosives and the least thinking. It didn't matter how many permutations there were to a particular puzzle that kept you from the treasure within; if you packed enough c4, you could blast right through it.
In the few glances that I had managed to snatch at Arthur Stanton's journal, I was starting to appreciate that he was the other treasure hunter: the kind that solved puzzles, that looked for clues, that tried to respect the old and dated logic of whatever dead culture they were trying to uncover treasure from.
Amanda was like her great-uncle; annoying though she could be, she seemed to at least think things through, and at least slowed down long enough to look for clues.
There was also the fact she'd known him: Amanda had grown up with Arthur Stanton. That gave her a distinct advantage in understanding how the old codger had thought. It hadn’t taken her long to realize that the scales held a clue. I’d been frankly impressed that she had realized what the clue had meant, even if I had ignored it and destroyed the scales with a spade.
I wanted those globes, I really did. If keeping Amanda Stanton along for the ride was the key to getting them, then so be it. If it made me a monumental bastard to do this to her, then so be it – I would make it up to her later. I’d share the treasure with her, maybe even represent her for free if this adventure ever ended up in the courts.
Even I had to shake my head at my own thoughts: seriously, there was no way I could rationalize this to make it sound as if I was justified in stringing her along. Nope, I was going to have to come to terms with the fact that I was a universal-level dick.
“Why are we going to the coast?” Amanda asked. There were great long pauses between her questions, and I didn't know whether she was so tired it was taking her that long to think of a new one, or whether she was processing my answers that hard it was taking her virtually minutes to complete her analysis. Was she on to me? Did she appreciate how dodgy my story sounded? Was she thinking about ditching from the car at any moment and heading to the authorities?
“We are heading to a coastal town,” I said, trying to keep my voice even, trying to keep all emotion out of it lest I accidentally reveal to her what was going on.
“The scales, I know where they were made,” I answered, with 100% honesty.
“So you're going to the location where they were made?”
“How is that going to help? The clue didn’t say anything about going to the place where the scales were made,” she said, and though her voice was still quiet, her words were gradually growing in strength.
“Amanda, trust me, I know how these clues work.”
“I know how my great-uncle thought, and he would never have done something so straightforward,” she replied at once.
Taking an enormous swallow, not necessarily because my throat was constricted, but more because I was trying to swallow my ego here, I tried to loosen up my shoulders. “What do you think the clue means, Amanda?”
She sat there for a long while. When I glanced over to see if she had withdrawn again, she was sitting there looking thoughtful. She scratched at her hair, her teeth biting into her bottom lip as they always did when she appeared to be thinking. When I felt that familiar flick in my gut at how cute the move looked on her, it was followed by a wave of even harsher guilt.
I am such a bloody bastard.
“The clue said something about the next clue being at the point where the shadow crosses the light,” she repeated. You said that the scales are from a town on the coast...” she trailed off. “I guess that might be important, but I doubt that the next clue is where the scales were made.”
Amanda began to count on her fingers quietly. I had no idea what she was doing, and for a fleeting moment I wondered whether she was counting the reasons not to believe me and to get the hell away while she still could. But that familiar look of thoughtfulness was back on her face, as was the rumple to her nose and the bite to her lip. Rather than smile at it, though that was my first inclination, I glanced back at the road, shook my head heavily, and tried to keep it together.
“My great-uncle used to say there is an infinity of answers to any question, but that if he could think of at least 10, that was usually enough.” She kept trying to count on her fingers, teeth drawing over her lip lightly. She had a faraway look on her face, a curled smile on her lips. In that moment, at least, she didn’t look as though she’d been fleeing from a gun battle hours before.
“10 different things?” I joined in the conversation. “You only need one, the right one.”
“There is no such thing as right, or at least that's what my great-uncle used to say. He said there were 1 million different ways to find lost treasure, and there were 1 million different things you could find other than lost treasure. You had to pick where, when, and how. If you fool yourself into thinking there is only one right way, and only one right answer to a clue, then you restrict your possibilities.”
That was total bullshit; I’d been in this business long enough to know that. Maybe that was the reason I was bringing Amanda along. It was obvious I didn't think like Arthur Stanton, and that she did. Yeah, that made me horrible, and yeah, I was still having trouble coming to terms with what I was doing, but it didn't mean I was about to stop. “So, what do you think the clue means?”
She leaned back in her seat, eyes blinking. It drew my attention to them, made me realize that they were a pretty almond shape, one you don't see too often.
“Okay, what are 10 things on the coast that make light and shadow?” She put her hand up, getting ready to count. “Lights,” she held up a thumb, “Um, I guess there could be some luminescent fish,” she said, voice awkward as it was obvious she realized how stupid the suggestion was.
I couldn't help but snort with laughter. “Luminescent fish? Are you serious?” I knew I should be nice to her yet I couldn't imagine Arthur Stanton leaving one of the Stargazer Globes to the watchful protection of a school of luminescent fish.
“It's just a suggestion. The entire point of this exercise is that you try to think laterally and creatively. If you knew the right answer to begin with, then you wouldn't be doing it, would you? Do you know the answer, Sebastian?” She crossed her arms and looked across at me challengingly.
I took my hands off the steering wheel and held them in the air in surrender, careful to ensure the car was going straight before I did.
“Put your hands back on the wheel,” she said tersely.
“Okay, okay,” I said through a light chuckle, “And ignore me. Keep on thinking.”
She looked across at me, eyes narrowed. She was sitting straight in her seat, her hands no longer tensed in her lap, and that sick, pale white color was gone from her face. Apparently all it was taking was an argument with me. Well there you go, I didn't know that I could have that effect on women, but life is full of surprises.
She held up a third finger. “Well, it could mean,” she pressed the finger into her palm and looked around, “Perhaps there's a specific streetlamp somewhere, or for all we know there might be a famous lamp store in that town.”
I nodded, not wanting to discourage her, but realizing her suggestions weren't amazing. I was starting to question whether she could solve the clue, and obviously, whether I should keep her along.
“What's the name of this town anyway? Can you tell me anything about it? Are there any famous landmarks? Anything particularly notorious that happened there?” She asked one question straight after the other, hardly with a breath between them.
“There's not much there, a beach made of rocks, a pretty boring promenade, a couple of pubs, and a lighthouse,” I listed off all I could remember. Though I hadn't been to that town for some time, I could remember it wasn't the pinnacle of culture, history, or infrastructure. We would be lucky to find a seat at the local pub that didn’t smell powerfully of fish; most of the town being populated by fishermen, and fishermen being what they were, never giving a fuck what they smelt like.
You should have seen her eyes – they widened so quickly and she blinked with such a stiff, wild look on her face I couldn’t help but be drawn in, my own jaw slackening, lips parting.
“Did you say a lighthouse?” She waved a hand in front of her face as if she was hot or flustered.
My eyes narrowed; I didn't get where she was going. I nodded nonetheless. “A big one, out on the headlands.”
The look on her face was damn near infectious. “My great-uncle loved lighthouses. He had a picture of this big one up on his wall when I was young.”
I didn’t laugh at her, though the inclination was there. After her reaction, I'd expected her to come up with a brilliant insight, not a fairly innocuous fact that her great-uncle had been partial to lighthouses.
She must have seen the less-than-impressed look I gave her, and her cheeks dropped. “You don't get it, do you?”
Though I didn't think there was anything to get, I shrugged.
“The point where the light crosses the shadow.” She put one hand down as she said light and one hand down as she said shadow. “My great-uncle wouldn’t have given that clue unless it was important, unless we could locate something that had a light source, but also a shadow, and that the both of them crossed at the same time.” She played with her hands as she spoke, crossing them and uncrossing them. “If you think about it, a lighthouse can do that. If it is during the day, or if it is at night and there is a bright enough external light, then the lighthouse will have a long shadow. Because you can—”
“Turn on the lights,” I jumped in, “You could shine the flood lamps over the light house’s shadow.”
She leaned back and nodded.
I didn't want to tell her it sounded crazy. Firstly, why would you turn on the lighthouse during the day? If you had enough sunshine to cast a shadow from the building, then presumably the atmospheric conditions were such that you didn’t need the lighthouse to be on to shepherd ships.
“Look, I know how my great-uncle used to think, and trust me, this is the riddle he would have thought up, and the solution he would have made to it.”
I mumbled, not saying yes and not saying no.
It wouldn't be long until we reached the coastal town, just as it wouldn’t be long until the growing ominous gray clouds above roared into a thunderstorm. If, on the slimmest of chances, Amanda was somehow right, and somehow the next clue would be found at the lighthouse, then we were running out of daylight.
I put my finger in my collar again and pulled my shirt away from my neck. I was sweating something chronic here; the heat had been on full bore for the last half hour. Though I wanted to turn it off and open a window, I noted Amanda was still huddled, her arms wrapped around her middle. She looked cold, so I kept them on, because maybe I wasn't that much of a bastard after all.
We spent the next 20 minutes in complete silence. Soon the road before us opened up and a clear view of the coastal town opened out below, the headland visible beyond, a small white and red line indicating the lighthouse.
Though my first choice would have been to drive to the site where the scales had been manufactured, I decided to go to the lighthouse. We had half an hour before the heavens opened up and things got wet and rumbly. While it wouldn’t bother me to work in the rain, I wasn't entirely sure I could do that to Amanda, not after what she been through today.
It took us less than 10 minutes to negotiate the narrow road up past the town to the headland, and we hardly passed any vehicles on the way. As we drew closer and closer to the coast, the road on my right dropping off to the sea below, I couldn't help but notice how choppy the waves were getting. With the promise of a storm brewing, and the wind whipping up, pushing the car as I drove, the sea below was getting ever more violent. That was another fact against us: not only were we running out of light here, but lighthouses were built to resist storms, people weren't so much. If the next clue was buried at the point where the shadow crossed the light (notwithstanding that that could be any point along the circumference surrounding the lighthouse) then I didn’t want to be digging during a freaking storm.
Amanda had her face turned towards the sky above, her lips opened slightly, her eyes blinking occasionally as they fixed up at the racing clouds. She looked cold, she looked thirsty, she looked tired, and she didn’t look as if she was prepared to go digging for a clue at a lighthouse in a storm.
Not for the first time I checked my rear-vision mirror, twisting around in my seat to ensure I got a full view of the road both in front and behind. So far I’d seen precious few vehicles, and none that piqued my interest or elicited any concern. This was a good thing, because I didn’t need more company. I could imagine battling a crew of criminals in a lighthouse as a vicious storm whipped up waves on either side. I could imagine what would happen to Amanda in such a situation, too. She would either drown, be captured, be shot, or worse. Dammit if I hadn't promised to keep her safe.
As we neared the lighthouse, I wanted to turn back towards town. As far as I could tell, no one had followed us and no one should know where we were. It meant that I could book us into a hotel for the night and we should be fine. Amanda could get her shower, get her meal, and get a soft bed for the night. And I could jolly well get a beer.
She picked up the closer we got to the lighthouse, her shoulders angling towards the window, her cheeks pressed against it as she tried to get the best view of the building.
I’d seen my fair share of lighthouses over the years, not because I was an aficionado or anything, but because I’d been to many places and plenty of coasts. It was always popular to bury your treasure on the coast. Probably because it was the first point of contact with land after lengthy sea voyages, and also the point at which sunken treasure might wash ashore after a storm.
The lighthouse before us was built into the rock behind it. The first two thirds of the tower looking as if it almost grew organically from the cliff face itself; being made from the same light-colored stone. In familiar style, reinforced windows appeared along the length of the tower, spiraling around so they could match the internal staircase that spiraled around inside, leading to the powerful lamps above.
Though the clouds were gathering faster and faster, there was still enough light that the lighthouse cast a shadow, and I had to admit my eyes were drawn to it with keen interest. Though I honestly didn’t think that any of this would work, and that this wasn’t the real solution to the clue, I couldn't deny the tingle of exhilaration that jumped across the back of my arms and down my back. Dammit if I wasn't a treasure hunter, and dammit if I didn't love my job.
These days most lighthouses were automated, and I was thankful not to see a car as I pulled up on the bare gravel parking area on the cliff above the lighthouse. There was a serious rail that ran around the edge of the cliff, splitting only at one point as it led onto stairs that descended down the side of the cliff and onto the wide stone ledge that led around the bottom of the lighthouse, a rusted green, copper colored door visible at the base of the building below. The stairs that led down the side of the cliff looked sturdy; massive metal bolts securing them to the rock.
I turned off the engine, this time pulling the handbrake on; while I had to admit that we might require a quick getaway, I didn’t want to see my car roll off the side of a cliff and into the sea.
I got out of the car, face turning to the sky above, those clouds racing ever quicker.
Amanda got out too, and I watched her wince, pain obvious as she put weight on her feet.
I turned, shook my head, and motioned with my hand back to the car. “You can stay in the car.”
“I know I can stay in the car,” she said as she straightened her back, “Just as I know I can get out of the car and join you in trying to solve this clue.”
I didn't bother repeating myself; it seemed as though she had made her mind up. Though she winced with every step she took on the hard and rough stone of the parking area, I turned away. I considered taking off my own shoes and offering them to her, but I could plainly see that I was a few sizes larger, and I didn’t want her to trip while she was walking down the stairs and fall into the raging sea below.
Then I remembered something. Damn, I had a pair of high heels in my boot, and no, they were not mine. Let's just say they were left over from a one night stand.
I rushed to the boot, searching around my junk until I found them. I had intended to drop them off at the owner's office – a fiery red head who had been ridiculously good-looking. With one thing and another, mostly running into Amanda Stanton and trying to secure the Stargazers before every criminal in the world managed to beat me to them, I hadn’t managed to drop the heels off. When I produced them triumphantly from my boot, you should have seen the look on Amanda's face. Her chin dimpled with amusement as she took a quick look at the heels then down at my feet.
“They aren't mine.” I said, voice too forceful. “They are from a one night stand,” I clarified.
The look on her face didn't improve. She crinkled her nose in disgust.
“Look, if you want to come along, you're going to need some shoes, and this is all I've got.” I dangled them in one hand.
She didn’t look pleased, and she still looked insulted from the one-night-stand comment, if insulted was the right word. But she limped over and took them from me, turning them over in her hands.
“Do they pass?” I said, voice sarcastic.
“They will do, not too high that I’ll break my neck going down the stairs.” She checked the thick and not-too-high heel with her hands, trying to pull it apart as if she was testing the strength. She shrugged, put one hand on the car to support herself, and wriggled into them.
I tried not to watch, though she was showing an appreciable amount of leg from the slit in her skirt; despite my nature, it didn't seem right. So I turned, played with my jaw, and took the opportunity to survey the road. It was a one-way road that terminated at the small area I'd parked in. The only way out was along the way I’d come in. It meant it was fantastic to see oncoming traffic, and bad if we’d to get away, because if someone was blocking the road further up and was waiting for us, there was no way past. Not for the first time, I got the distinct feeling that the best thing to do was to get the hell out of here and find a hotel to stay in for the night.
Something didn't feel right. Maybe it was the fact this clue of Amanda’s was shaky, or maybe it was more. I’d been in this business long enough to realize you had to trust your gut, even though your gut didn’t speak in easy-to-understand, full sentences. Speaking of guts, Amanda's stomach took the opportunity to rumble, and she clutched a hand to it, looking embarrassed.
She hadn't eaten anything since breakfast, and while Elizabeth's breakfasts were massive, that had been a long time ago. She wouldn’t have drunk anything either. She kept swallowing uncomfortably, even patting a hand to her throat.
“Let's get it over with as quick as we can,” I mumbled.
She walked away from the car, and though she was slow, and had an obvious limp, she managed to stay upright and stable. Rather than pay attention to her injuries, she took the opportunity to stare across at the lighthouse. Playing with her lips, she walked closer to the rails, latching her hands onto them as she leaned forward and tried to track the path of the shadow.
“Do you think the lighthouse is open?” she asked.
No, I didn't. You didn’t leave a lighthouse unlocked, unless you had a big butch lighthouse operator who lived there. The thing about tall abandoned buildings was that every kid in the local district would find some way to vandalize them.
Amanda, one hand on the railing, moved the other around, her fingers drawing a circle in the air. It was obvious she was trying to track where the probable shadow would move and where the light from the flood lamps could cross it.
I stared at a section of the cliff face below us, right near the railing. The railings, though sturdy, looked old. Even if they’d been replaced once or twice since the lighthouse itself had been built, the section of cliff they were dug into looked as if it hadn’t changed.
I walked over to the top of the steps, teeth grating as something distinct caught my eye. With a quick glance across to the lighthouse I realized that the thing catching my eye happened to be in direct line of the lighthouse, both in line with its shadow and with one of the windows its powerful lamps shone through.
Without a word, I took to the stairs, feet dancing out in front of me, metal grating ringing from the impact of my steps.
Amanda asked what I was doing, even came to follow me, but I was too focused to answer. I didn’t want to lose sight of what I’d seen: that glint of metal near the stairs.
I stopped, dropping to my knees and latching a hand onto the railing and pulling myself out from the steps, until I was leaning as far from them as my arms could manage. To my left, just in reach, was a metal trinket. It would have been innocuous were it not for the fact it was lodged into the stone, a crack having been formed in the rock by some fashion, and the metal trinket being shoved tightly down it.
I leaned out as far as I could until my fingers brushed against it.
Amanda stopped several steps above me, both hands on the railing, her body pressed into it, her face tense as she watched me. She didn't ask what I was doing; apparently it was obvious. When I managed to latch my fingers over the trinket and began to pull, I recognized it was an impossible task to yank it out of a stone. I gave it my best shot, grunting all the time, but it didn't work.
I drew myself back in, swearing forcefully.
Amanda stepped down, hovering close to me.
I straightened up, cracked my shoulders, and shook my head.
Amanda grabbed the railing and pressed against it as far as she could, obviously trying to get a better view of the trinket. “Do you think that's it?”
No, I honestly didn't. It had caught my eye, yes, and technically it was in a place where the shadow met the light. That didn’t mean it was our next clue. It was just a shiny trinket that had managed to catch my attention, but god dammit if I wasn't a treasure hunter; when I saw shiny, I tended to move heaven and earth to get to it.
“You know, I think I might be able to reach it.” She stood up onto the step above, grabbing the railing with both hands and leaning forward.
“Hey, what are you doing?” I said, stepping in.
She'd had a big day, and just like you weren’t meant to drive heavy machinery when you were drowsy, you sure as hell were not meant to lean over railings on a cliff when you were dead fatigued.
“Do something useful, and hold my arm,” she said as she brought one leg up and tried to haul herself over the railing.
“No you don't,” I snapped, “Get back over here.”
It was too late; she’d already managed to climb over the railing, still holding on with both hands, one foot on the edge of a step, one wedged onto a tiny rock ledge.
“Amanda,” I snapped, voice even angrier, “Get back here.” I moved in to grab her, to secure an arm around her and to latch my free hand onto the railing to ensure she couldn’t fall. As I did she let go of the railing with one hand, using the other to span the gap and grab hold of the trinket. It was the most precarious of positions, and I had to say my heart beat frantically seeing it.
“Amanda.” I latched one hand onto the railing. I put my other arm flat against her forearm as she held the railing, securing it in place with perhaps the most determined grip I’d ever mustered.
“It will be fine,” she said, voice shaky as she tried to yank at the trinket sunk into the rock.
“No, it won't be fine. Now get the fuck back here.” Keeping my arm were it was, I pressed into the railing further, letting go of it with my other hand and leaning out to grab hold of the back of her skirt.
She fidgeted but kept her stance, and kept trying to yank the object free.
There was a monumental clap of thunder from above, accompanied by a massive flash and, you guessed it, the powerful drive of rain.
Neither of us were expecting it, and though Amanda only tensed, flinching a fraction at the surprising sound, it was enough to see her footing slip.
I launched against the railing, grabbing her arm and skirt as I tried to yank her backwards.
Though she tumbled down the rocks, her shoes sliding and scampering wildly against the rough stone, I managed to secure her in place, somehow wrapping my arms around her waist, though I dangled half over the railing myself.
Her breath was sudden and shallow, her diaphragm pressing up against my arm in puffs and spurts. Dammit if I couldn't feel her heartbeat reverberate through my arm as it pressed so closely to her chest.
She hadn't even screamed, though now she started to whine, somewhat like one of those old klaxons from World War II that warned people of air raids.
I pulled her back in, until I had her back secured against the railing, but before I could try and pull her back over, she crossed one of her arms over, grabbed the railing, turned and faced me. She clambered over herself, despite the fact I hardly wanted to let go of her. She somehow wriggled free, and before I knew it, jumped back over the railing and stood beside me, pressing her back into the metal, taking several massive breaths.
I shook my head, it was literally the only thing I could do.
She offered me an awkward, toothy grin. “Thanks.”
I kept shaking my head. This girl was crazy.
The rain began to drive down harder now. I was already sopping wet, and I watched as rivulets ran fast down Amanda's face, pooling off her chin and dribbling down her neck.
She shivered, drawing her shoulders in and shuddering, because hell it had gotten cold.
Blinking hard and trying to hide under my eyebrows as I attempted to stare through the driving rain, I turned back towards the object still embedded in the rock. That would be when Amanda thrust a hand in front of my face, a small metal chain dangling there. Brow clicking down, lips pulling apart, I grabbed it from her, somewhat like an excited child grabbing a cookie from the cookie jar.
Even through the storm whipping around us, I managed to bring the chain right up to my face, brushing a finger over the surface of the pendant at the end. I couldn't make out any writing on it, not in this light.
I looked up to see Amanda walking down the stairs.
“Amanda?” I had no idea whether she could hear me over the driving force of the gale and the thunderous sound of the rain as it drove into the metal gangway we walked on.
She didn't stop; she kept walking down the stairs, head held at a curious angle.
“Amanda?” Pocketing the trinket, I went after her.
The clouds above were so damn gray it was getting almost pitch black out here. The crashing wild waves below as they roared up and broke against the side of the lighthouse and the cliff didn't help things at all. They gave this situation more of a dangerous feel, and I didn't need any more danger today. I was damn certain that Amanda didn't either. Several weeks ago she would have been an ordinary girl, and ordinary girls do not spend their days being shot at by criminals outside of libraries, being chased through forests by soldiers, and spending their evenings trying to get into lighthouses in raging storms.
So I picked up my pace, and I had to admit it wasn't the thought of how cold my neck had become from the river of water rushing down my back, over my head, down my arms, and soaking my body in a chill, frigid wash. Though I was pretty sure I was still a bastard, I couldn't help but want to get out of the rain for Amanda's sake. Ordinary girls like her couldn't hack situations like this; they weren't made for it. She was probably the kind of girl who spent all of her nights at home with a cat on her lap, some inane romance novel in hand, with a plate of home-baked cookies beside her. She was definitely not the kind of girl who was used to guns, treasure, wild weather, and wall-to-wall danger. So yeah, it was my prerogative and my duty to get her out of here. Even if it was to stave off the screaming and whining I knew would happen later.
As I rushed down to get to Amanda before the crazy girl could slip on the steps and tumble into the raging sea below, I bloody well saw something. Out in the surf, not too far from the lighthouse, was a light, and it obviously belonged to some ship. We weren’t talking an oil tanker here, or a fishing ship, or even a yacht too damn stupid not to berth before a storm. No, because where this thing was, it was moving fast, damn fast towards the lighthouse.
I swore, and I swore hard and loud, but not loud enough to make it over the cacophony of the waves and wind.
I ran towards her, keeping a hand hovering over the rail, not wanting to slip, collect into her back, and push the both of us into the sea below. I caught up to her, grabbed her arm unceremoniously, and pulled her back.
“Hey, what are you doing?” she screamed at me, but she didn't look that angry, she was obviously trying to be heard over the gale, the rain, and the waves.
“We need to get back to the car,” I shouted back, never letting go of her arm.
“There's a light out there.” She pointed towards the light narrowing in on the lighthouse.
When I glanced in the direction she was pointing, to confirm it was still there, it wasn't.
Amanda whipped her head around too, apparently searching this way and that for the light, and she sucked in a surprised breath that even I could make out over the gale as she clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh my god, I think there was a ship out there, god, has it sunk? We have to call the authorities.”
Oh no we didn't. I was 100% sure that while there’d been a ship out there it hadn’t sunk, and it hadn’t been an ordinary ship at that. I tugged on her arm and tried to pull her back. “We have to get back to the car, Amanda, we have to move.”
“Shouldn't we go and check—”
“Amanda. Trust me, there's no one out there who's in trouble,” I screamed back, “Except for us.”
She obviously didn't understand, and with the acute trouble I was having trying to be heard over the storm, I didn't have the ability to tell her. It was pretty simple: the light she'd seen hadn’t belonged to some simple fishing ship or some brave and stupid pleasure cruiser. It had been fast and it had been brave enough to head straight towards a rocky coast in a wild storm, apparently unaffected by the chop of the waves. Yeah, I’d been in this business long enough to know an experimental vessel when I saw one. I had damn well been in this business long enough to know that with the Stargazer Globes on the line, every army, every mercenary unit, every crime lord would try everything they could to get their hands on them. Yes, that meant cracking out the highly-sophisticated boats, helicopters, spy satellites, weapons; we weren't playing with boy scouts here.
“But,” Amanda began to protest.
I kept scanning the horizon as I latched my hand onto her wrist and started to pull her up the gangway. It wasn't as if there was any chance of me seeing anything considering how dark it was and how driving and complete the rain was around me, but I kept trying anyway. I knew they were out there, somewhere, probably crawling up the freaking cliff beside us. Who they were, well I didn't know. I did know one thing – they would be after Amanda, and through her, the Stargazers.
Not for the first time, and not for the last, I started to berate myself over how much of a bastard I was for not dropping her off at the authorities when I’d had the chance. While she’d been extremely useful, and I didn’t want to give up on her, the longer she was with me and the longer she wasn’t in the protective custody of Maratova, the more danger she was in.
Amanda pulled back on her arm. “Where are we going? What's going on?” she kept asking.
“Anywhere but here.” I answered as loudly as I could.
Though she resisted for another moment, she slackened her arm, but rather than let me pull her along, she began to run in her own right, despite the fact she was in heels and despite the fact the gangway was wet and slippery.
Perhaps I'd underestimated her. As that treacherous thought wound its way around my cerebellum, a fucking bullet ricocheted off the step above me, slamming to the side and lodging itself into the cliff on my left, flakes of rock exploding from the impact.
Amanda tensed, pulling back automatically, grabbing with both hands at the rails and crumpling down until she was on her haunches. I threw myself down on the steps, as another bullet zinged past me.
God dammit, we were obviously too late. I didn't have my gun on me, for some stupid reason I'd left it in the back of my car, erroneously assuming that nobody was following us. Well wasn't that about the stupidest idea I had ever had, because clearly someone was following us.
I felt the metal stairs shake as the weight strain on them changed. Somewhere, whether it was above or below, someone had stepped onto the gangway. Gritting my teeth, I raised my head. The one thing I could be thankful about was how damn hard it was to see through the driving rain and dark, and that was probably the only reason I hadn't been shot yet.
I had zero idea of who was out there and how many of them there were, but sure as hell I knew they were armed and they weren't frightened to start a fight.
We had two options: try to make it back to the car or head back towards the lighthouse. I didn’t need to turn around to be able to tell that the waves were so wild and violent that they were crashing up and over the railing that ran all the way round the bottom of the lighthouse and led to the single door below. Hell, and it would be locked. In other words, heading to the lighthouse was suicide.
As I decided to make a run for the car, I felt more shakes through the stairs, and they were coming from above me. There was no doubt there was somebody on the gangway and that they were walking down towards us. Well, I say walking, I mean stalking; that peculiar quick, tensed movement that you get when you're tracking a prey.
I didn't think. I stood up, whirled around, grabbed Amanda as she still sat huddled against the railing, and pulled her downstairs. This time she didn’t resist at all, and I felt my grip on her slacken as she matched pace beside me. If there was one thing Amanda could do, it was run away.
She wasn’t screaming either, which was another thing I had to admit about her; apart from the occasional lungful of air she'd given me last night at her great-uncle’s manor, Amanda couldn't be classed as the damsel in distress from a B-grade '50s flick. While she was obviously out of her depth here, and had never faced a situation as dangerous and perilous as this before, she was hardly hanging off my arm and waiting for me to protect her from all the bad guys.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but now wasn't the time to reflect upon it.
The wind took that opportunity to blow even harder, and I was forced off my feet as a gust slammed into me. As I swayed on my feet, Amanda turned her side to the brunt of the wind, ducked down, grabbed the railing, and kept running. Seriously, it didn't seem as if there was anything on this green earth that could stop Amanda from trying to get away when she wanted to.
The closer we neared the end of the stairs, the more the intense spray of the waves lashed us. While neither of us were dry, the seawater as it raged and broke against the cliff and rock below wasn’t like the rain; the salt water ran over my face, forcing my eyes to blink in pain, and collecting at my tersely closed lips with a horrible salty tang.
It was suicide. I could see the door below, but our chances of making it there were pretty damn slim. While we might be able to force our way there through the water, what we would do once we got there, I didn’t know. It wasn't as if I had a crowbar on me or some awesome explosives. And what did I think I would do once I was in the lighthouse? I doubted there was a fine selection of automatic weapons stashed in the kitchen, or a nice thick blast door we could hide behind until the mercenaries got bored and too cold and went home.
The only thing the lighthouse could offer us was the fact it wasn’t out here; there would be less rain, waves, and mercenaries in there. While the rain and waves could be kept at bay, the mercenaries would find a way to get in.
The funny thing about danger was it rarely offered you a safe alternative.
Oh god, it was happening again. I'd heard those two bullets, I’d seen the look of frigid surprise and fear on Sebastian’s face.
Dear god, could my life get any worse?
I took that exact moment to slip down, the ridiculous heels Sebastian had given me losing their grip along the slicked and treacherous metal. Thankfully I had a hand on the rail, but that didn’t stop me from slipping down several steps, knees grating against the rough metal. Before I could swear and check for blood, Sebastian pulled me to my feet, one hand clutched over my arm.
The wind and storm had whipped the waves into such a frenzy they were pounding against the heavy wall that ran around the path leading up to the lighthouse. They were so high and so violent that the tops of the waves managed to make it past the wall, inundating the path. All it would take was for one of those waves to make it far enough past that wall to wash us both off our feet, and we'd end up very much drowned at the bottom of the sea.
We reached the end of the stairs, and the storm and the waves were so violent that even standing on the last step we were still chased by the tips of the waves that managed to spike over the wall and rocks below. If I could have thought of anything useful to shout at Sebastian, other than a heartfelt expletive, there would be no way to make him hear me. I could grab the guy’s neck, pull his head right up to my mouth, and shout right in his ear, but the storm would still drown my voice out. It reduced our ability to communicate down to simple touch itself.
Sebastian hesitated on the last step, his head turned towards the raging waves below. He watched them, his shoulders and neck moving back rhythmically in time with each wave as if he was trying to get a feel for their pattern. Then he moved.
That would be when a bullet whizzed past me, smashing into the wall beyond. I might have screamed, I might not have; I couldn't hear myself above the waves and the gale. I jumped at Sebastian.
Another bullet whistled through the air, lodging into the wall opposite. I ducked instinctively, noting that Sebastian did the same. Despite the force of the water around us, I headed forward towards the protection of the other wall. When I reached it, I could have bloody done a song and dance; there was a sturdy rail running the full length of the wall, presumably leading right up to the door beyond. Obviously the people who'd designed this lighthouse realized that if anyone was stupid enough to be trying to walk towards it or away from it during a full-blown storm, they would appreciate a handhold.
I latched my hand onto it just in time as a huge wave broke over the wall, sending a mass of water along the path.
In the darkness and confusion Sebastian lost his footing. I grabbed him and I kept hold of that rail; I’d never been so desperate in all my life not to lose my grip, and yet I’d never faced such force either. Water came at me from every angle, covering my face, getting in my mouth, rushing over my back.
I held on. The brunt of the water rushed past us, allowing us to stand.
I shook, I shivered, but I still didn’t let go of the rail.
I was aware of the sound of another gunshot, this time closer.
Sebastian got to his feet. The water running rivulets over his nose and chin, he motioned me on with a wave.
The door to the lighthouse couldn’t be more than 10 meters from us, but it might as well have been a kilometer away considering how hard it was to reach. We would barely make a step forward when another wave rushed over the wall, and we’d to hunker against the rail.
We somehow managed it, inching our way forward despite the force of the water.
“We have to get this fucking door open,” Sebastian screamed behind me. “We are sitting ducks.”
No, we were half-drowned, panting, fatigued ducks.
Sebastian latched a hand on the door handle and tried to open it again, but it wouldn’t work. There was a dirty sodding chain running over the door handle and connecting up with both handrails, and it had a real big lock on it. No, it didn't look like the kind of lock that would fall off in a storm, nor could Sebastian yank it off; this lock, like the rest of the lighthouse, meant business.
Sebastian screamed and swore again, his voice grating and harsh. I could hear how tired he was, even how cold he was as his body shook. We needed a miracle.
That would be when another bullet shot past us, ricocheting off the door and lodging itself in the wall right by my head. I screamed and crumpled to the ground, but I still didn’t let go of the handrail.
“Amanda.” Sebastian screamed. As he did I heard another bullet ricochet off something else, and saw a puff of concrete and stone as it lodged itself into the wall right by my hip.
It was categorically the most horrible experience I had ever had. Even last night, even in the forest, I’d been able to run. Here, with my back pressed up against the lighthouse door, with my hand latched on to the railing for dear life, I was stuck. There was nowhere to move because the only door to go through was locked.
I’d never thought that I would be one of those girls to give up, but obviously I’d never been in the situation where giving up was my only option.
That would be when the door behind me opened. Sebastian was on his feet, pulling the chain that kept it closed out from the rails and holding it firmly in one hand, using the other to open the door, his shoulder pressed up against the wet, rusted hinges and pushing with all his might. I fell through behind him. Just in time as another bullet sunk into the path where I’d been crumpled.
Sebastian latched a hand to the back of my collar and pulled me through the door. Then he slammed it closed.
I wasn’t dead, I wasn’t drowned, and I hadn’t been shot. I was lying on the relatively dry floor inside the lighthouse.
The bullet that had barely missed my head moments before must have somehow slammed right into the lock instead.
It was dark but in another moment the lights turned on, and I saw Sebastian over near the door, hand on a light switch, staring over at me. If you’d asked me 24-hours ago what the expression on his face meant, I would’ve said it was a combination of arrogance and entitlement. Now I had a different perspective. The exact peak to his eyebrows didn't suggest he thought he was god's gift to women or the only man capable of getting the job done; it told me he’d been through the experience of his life and was happy to be alive. The exact dip to the corners of his lips didn’t tell me he thought I was pathetic for lying on the floor; it told me he was concerned. Yes, concerned about me.
I heard another bang as a bullet lodged into the door.
It was enough to get me to my feet. I took one step backwards, eyes blinking wildly as I stared at the door, waiting for it to burst open and for every criminal in the world to rush through. When that didn't happen I pointed at it. “You hold the door,” I shouted at Sebastian, “I’ll find something to shove in front of it.”
Sebastian didn't argue; he nodded, backing himself up against the door, planting his feet out before him and leaning into it. He was dripping with water. His white shirt hung off him, pants slack against his legs, hair dripping all over his face. If he looked like that, I shuddered to think what I looked like. Now wasn’t the time to find a mirror and fix my hair. Instead I latched onto the couch close by the door and pushed it towards Sebastian.
He moved out of the way and helped me shove the couch right against the door.
“That’s not going to be enough.” He wiped the back of his hand over his mouth, still holding onto that chain for some reason.
I looked around the rest of the room, searching for anything sturdy and heavy enough to block the door. Right about now I could use a tank, but then again, if I had a tank, I would jolly well use it against the criminals trying to shoot their way in.
The room was sparsely decorated, but still managed to look comfortable, especially considering how dry and warm it was compared to the inundated path beyond. Everything was old, and it looked as if the place had been furnished in the ‘70s. There was a thick blue carpet off to the side where I’d found the couch, and next to it was a heater and a simple bookcase. Across the other side was a coat rack with a fine array of heavy jackets and several pairs of thick sturdy wellington boots lined up underneath. Next to that was a set of heavy crates. What were in them, I had no idea, but I saw Sebastian's eyes light up as he glanced their way.
He threw the chain onto the couch, wiping at the back of his mouth again.
“You stay here, press against the couch. I’ll get a crate.”
I did as he said, leaning right into the couch with my knees, bracing my hands onto the back of it and pressing it against the door. I could feel the strength of my heartbeat reverberate through my body, and I watched Sebastian as he grabbed a crate and began pushing it my way with heavy grunts.
Before he managed to get it halfway towards me, the door gave a great shake. Surprised, I screamed, but I didn’t let go of the couch.
“Fuck,” Sebastian offered.
The door gave another violent shudder and I saw the handle turning. I pushed hard against the couch. But whoever was at the other side of the door was stronger. My heels were slipping and sliding against the simple stone floor of the lighthouse, but I kept scrabbling forward, kept using whatever purchase and weight I could to push myself back into that couch and to push it back against that door.
Sebastian gave a heavy and desperate grunt, the sound of the crate loud as it grated over the floor.
I babbled, making god knows what pathetic sounds as I tried to keep that couch against the door. With every second that ticked past, the door managed to open bit by bit.
When it opened an inch, a black object was shoved through. I didn't need too long to figure out it was a gun. It fired, and the bullet shot past, lodging itself into the wall above the bookcase.
The door gave an almighty shudder, pushing so hard into the couch that I lost my footing and tumbled over. Before it could open, before the gun could twist around in the person's grip and fire my way, Sebastian gave a great grunt and put on a final burst of speed, slamming the crate into the couch and pushing it back into the door. The gun clattered out of the guy's grip, falling onto the couch as the couch forced the door closed.
There was a perfect moment of silence where I lay there on my back staring across at the door, waiting.
Sebastian still leaned into the crate, arms tense, shoulders braced, feet planted far out as he pushed his whole weight into it.
Though the door did shake a couple of times, it didn't open again.
I don't know how long it took me to pull myself up, but I managed it. Sebastian however stayed where he was, body looking like it was under a tremendous amount of pressure as he kept pushing the crate towards the door. I walked over to him, hair dripping down my back, the sound of my high heels clicking against the bare stone floor. I stood right beside him and looked down at him for several moments before placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I think it's fine,” I said through a swallow.
He didn't seem ready to give up.
Though I was no expert on these things, I could tell that the combined weight of the couch and the heavy crate was enough to keep the door closed. Plus, the door itself was heavy and strong and made from thick metal. I had to take my hat off to whoever had designed this lighthouse, for they had done a sterling job.
It took ages for Sebastian to relax. I didn’t move my hand from his back until he did. It was flat against one of his tensed shoulder blades, and despite the fact my own body was chilled through, I still managed to pick up on the trace of warmth running through his skin.
He gave a swallow and straightened up. He turned, lips jutted open, eyes hooded and tired, and sat sharply on the crate.
After a while the banging on the door stopped, but it hardly meant the room was silent; the sound of the gale and storm outside still strong. The thickness of the walls and door did manage to protect us from the brunt of the noise, enough that I could hear my own breath punctuated by Sebastian's far deeper and throaty coughs.
“Well,” he offered, “This wasn’t how I wanted to spend my night.”
I blinked at that, my lips straightening and wobbling. “What did you have planned?”
He took a moment, gave a twitching half smile, and shrugged. “Not this.”
“You do realize the night isn't over, don't you?”
He shook his head in reply. “Oh yes, don't you worry about that.”
I gave a shiver, my back and arms seriously cold.
Sebastian looked up at me, body still hunched as he sat on the crate, hands either side of him as he supported himself. “We should look for some dry clothes.” He nodded upwards, indicating the rest of the lighthouse above.
I let my head tip and stared at the ceiling. This was a wide lighthouse, and it was obvious from the decorating down here that the original intention was that someone was to live here. Hopefully that did mean there were some dry clothes left. At that moment my stomach gave a rumble too, and I realized how much I hoped there was some food up there as well.
Whether I could relax enough to get changed and enjoy a meal while there were criminals swimming around outside, I didn’t know.
Pressing my lips together in thought while I wrapped my arms around myself and gave another shiver, I turned my head back to Sebastian. Although I already knew the answer, I asked it anyway: “are we safe?”
He took a long while to answer. He sat there still hunched over that box, head angled down, but eyes angled up towards me. Then he shook his head. “Sorry, Amanda,” he added quietly.
He genuinely sounded sorry. For a lawyer and a treasure hunter I wasn't sure if I had ever heard the truth from Sebastian, but now I was sure he wasn’t lying.
Shivering I nodded back at him. “What do we do?”
He shrugged. He looked uncharacteristically defeated. It was the angle to his back and how bowed and low his shoulders were, not to mention the glazed, sallow look to his face. “We’re in a lighthouse during a storm with a fuck load of criminals behind us,” he shook his head, “Or maybe it's the army, I don't know. Hell, it could be Romeo's men; I have zero clue who is after us. Point is, we can't get out of here....”
We were stuck. For all the apparent safety these thick walls offered, we were still stuck. It wasn't as if we could climb to the top of the lighthouse and both take epic standing jumps and manage to reach Sebastian's car in the car park above. We didn't have any way out. Though we might have momentarily beaten off whoever was outside, I was starting to realize that these people were resourceful and had a level of desperation I’d never met before. I had joked of wishing I had a tank, but I realized that these were the type of people dumb enough, equipped enough, and desperate enough to go and get one. We could be safe in here for the next 10 minutes or maybe the next 10 hours; but we damn well wouldn’t be safe forever. We were sitting ducks, and though we might be drier than we were outside, we weren't all that much safer.
Sebastian stared at his feet, and it seemed apparent he had no intention of stopping. I got the distinct impression that he wouldn't look at me for some reason..
I wanted to ask what we were meant to do next, but considering how defeated he looked I didn't think I would get a reply. Plus, I already knew the answer: nothing. Unless there was another miracle, we were stiff out of luck.
I took a heavy breath, for the first time filling my lungs. It steeled me.
“We should investigate the rest of the lighthouse,” I said, ignoring a great drip of water as it ran down my nose and off my chin, trickling down my throat in the coldest way possible.
Sebastian didn’t look up, instead he kept sitting there, banging one of his shoes against the side of the crate, staring at some nondescript section of the floor.
I didn’t turn from Sebastian, still hoping he would lift his chin and look at me. When he didn’t, I took several steps backwards.
I turned around and headed to the stairs in the center of the room. I took to them silently.
I was starting to realize Sebastian was more complicated than I’d originally given him credit for.
Shaking my head, I continued upstairs, hand on the railing, possibly holding it too tightly. I still couldn't shake the body-memory of having to hold on for dear life outside against the storm. There was a great deal of residual adrenaline and fear rushing through my body. At the sound of a squeak on the stairs above, I gave a sudden jump, a squeak of my own issuing from my lips. When I realized it was just the rickety old stairs, and not a light-footed mercenary stealing down them, I rolled my eyes and continued on.
I crested the stairs onto the next floor. It was narrower than the floor below, the lighthouse though thick, still tapered up to a point above. This floor was still sweet, and far better furnished than the one below. Possibly in the event it was far less likely this one would get flooded by water inching its way under the door.
The room was circular, with vibrant red carpet, several comfortable chairs, and a television on a desk to the side. As I walked around, the ludicrously colorful carpet gave way to a checkered black and white Linoleum and a small kitchen. It had an old-style cooker, with a kettle on the stove, bench space either side, and cupboards running along the wall. As I walked past one of the chairs, I grabbed one of the warm woolen throws over the back, and pulled it around my shoulders. I nestled into the fabric as I walked further into the kitchen, grabbing the first cupboard I saw and opening it.
There was a can of baked beans. I grabbed it and put it down on the bench, smiling. I kept walking around the kitchen and back around into the lounge. Though my stomach was rumbling, I still wanted to explore the rest of the lighthouse. I wanted to get into some clean clothes, and though it was highly unlikely I would find anything in my size, I needed to ditch these heels.
The heels made me think about Sebastian again. He told me they'd come from a one night stand. How charming. What kind of man admitted to that? Sebastian obviously.
Before I could get too angry at him, I realized he was still the same man who was sitting on a crate downstairs, shoulders hunched together, head directed towards the ground, eyes hooded with fatigue and surrender.
Complex bloody fool, I thought to myself.
Keeping the woolen blanket clutched tightly around my shoulders I decided to take the stairs up to the next floor. The stairs creaked and squeaked as I walked up, but I ignored it. I reached the next floor, and I turned the light on. This one had a small bedroom, a single bed pushed up against the wall, another bookcase, and a closet off to one side. It also had a window. Biting my lip hard, I inched my way towards it. I could see from a distance that the view outside was of nothing more than dark seething clouds and driving rain, but that didn’t stop me from creeping towards the window as if I would see a monster with its face pressed up against the glass.
My top teeth were sunk so hard into my bottom lip that unless I lessened my bite I would draw blood.
I made it up to the window. Rather than face it in full, I pressed my back to the side and inched my face around until I could see through it. It gave me a view of half of the ocean beyond and half of the cliff behind. Shaking, I let my eyes dart over the cliff, searching for anything that would let me know there was someone still out there.
I didn't see anything, and I shrunk back into the room.
“You should stay away from the windows,” Sebastian said from behind me.
I gave a loud yelp, jumping back in surprise.
“Sorry,” he replied. With a sigh, he walked over to the closet, opening it and rifling through it. He threw a pair of pants down by his feet, followed by a checkered shirt. Then, searching through more, he grabbed a pair of track pants and another checkered shirt, turned to me, and threw them my way.
Though I was ready for it, I didn't manage to grab them, and clutched fruitlessly at the air as they fell by my feet.
Despite the fact Sebastian’s expression was still cold and had a real measure of defeat to it, my pathetic attempt managed to bring the smallest of smiles to his lips.
“What?” I managed, leaning down to pick them up, “You threw them too low,” I added.
“I did not,” he replied easily, leaning down and grabbing the clothes by his own feet.
I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at what he’d given me: a pair of thick, warm blue track pants and a red and blue checkered shirt. Fashion, pure and simple.
“Sorry, but there's nothing else in here,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I made a show of looking at the track pants, “These are fine. Anything that’s dry is fine.” I smiled hard. I wanted him to know that everything was okay, that despite the fact we were in a desperate situation, I was okay.
He shrunk into his shoulders and headed back to the stairs. “You can change up here,” he said, not turning to me once, “But stay away from the window.” He walked back downstairs in silence.
He left me with an uneasy feeling pitching in my gut. It wasn't because I felt frightened or angry at him; it was because I couldn't understand how to make him more like Sebastian Shaw again. The Sebastian from this morning, the one who’d been angry at me for being upset and running away to Elizabeth's.
I changed into my new clothes. They were warm and dry, and while the shirt was scratchy, it would do.
With a sigh, I took to the stairs, intending to find Sebastian.
I reached the level below, walking into the room and stopping suddenly; Sebastian hadn’t finished changing. While he did have pants on, he was lacking a shirt. He looked over at me, impassively, grabbing the shirt he’d put over the back of a seat and shrugging into it.
I, being the fairly decent girl I was, turned my back. “Sorry,” I mumbled sharply.
He chuckled from behind me. “You’re all right, Amanda.”
I didn't turn back, and it was less to do with the fact I was worried I was being rude, and far more to do with the fact my cheeks were hot and flushed.
“You’re a pretty weird woman,” he noted.
I wasn't sure what that was meant to mean, and turned to face him again.
As I did, realizing he was fully dressed and ignoring how disappointed that made me feel, I noticed one half of his mouth kinked up in a grin.
“Don't we look the pair?” He began to roll up his sleeves.
We were in matching red and blue checkered shirts and dark blue track pants. While we matched, it wasn't a pleasant match. While the men hunting us were dressed in the latest military gear, Sebastian and I looked like we’d rolled out of bed this morning, left our pajama bottoms on, grabbed our fishermen shirts, and hadn't even bothered to put our mean faces on. Rather than point out to him that he could look harder and try to find some better clothes, I chuckle. I couldn't think of anything intelligent to say, so I ended up shrugging my shoulders and rolling my eyes.
Slowly the other side of his mouth kinked up. That was all he did. He didn't add anything, didn't emphasize how bad I looked; he stood there, one hand on the back of that chair, both sides of his lips curled up in a smile.
I was surprised at how much he could say without words.
That would be when there was a bang from upstairs. I flinched away from the stairs, taking several quick steps into the room and towards Sebastian.
His eyes flickered with concern, head turning towards the ceiling, still wet hair dripping down his face. He mimed a silent expletive and shook his head. “That better be them,” he said quietly.
Before I could ask who, the sound of heavy footsteps filtered into the room.
I took several more steps back, head shaking, shoulders tensing up.
“Get down, get behind this seat.” Sebastian motioned to the seat, voice quiet but firm.
I didn't protest, just did what he said and watched as he made his way into the kitchen, probably looking for a weapon.
As I crouched low behind the seat, limbs stiff and breath coming in short sharp bursts again, I listened with all my might to the sound of those footsteps. It sounded as if there was more than one person; the beat of the footsteps too close together for it to be one man.
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to block out the rush of fear.
The footsteps reached our floor.
I didn’t make a sound, and I didn’t move. I stayed there, face pressed against the old musty leather of the seat in front of me, one hand over my mouth to make sure I didn’t make even the smallest of sounds and give my position away.
The blood pumped violently through my arms, and they shook, my whole body shaking with them. I was too scared to turn around and see where Sebastian was, whether he’d managed to get a weapon, or whether he was opening the window, ready to take his chances with the storm and drop below.
I heard someone give a rough cough, and it sent a tremble of recognition through me. I knew that cough.
“You here?” a voice asked.
The voice was Maratova’s.
Sebastian walked right past me. He didn't rush, he didn't attack, he walked.
“Shaw,” Maratova said, voice a growl, “About fucking time.”
My heart beat so strongly I felt sure everyone in the room could hear it.
Sebastian didn't answer.
“Where’s the girl?” Maratova asked.
I could have screamed, and it was only the fact I had one hand clutched over my mouth that I didn't.
“You did the right thing,” a different soldier said.
“Mark,” Sebastian managed.
“Come on, Shaw, you called us. Stop wasting our time,” Maratova replied, still growling.
I was shaking, shaking far more violently than I had ever shaken before. While I’d once believed I was trapped, I now knew I was cornered in a way I could never have appreciated.
Sebastian had sold me out.
“She is...” Sebastian trailed off.
I did something brave, something that didn't seem possible considering how frightened I was. Shaking all over, I stood up from behind that seat. Despite the fact all I wanted to do was get the hell out of here, I stood and stared at the three soldiers before me, without looking at Sebastian once.
I could easily figure out who Maratova was. He was the one in the middle, the tall one with the broad shoulders and thick muscular neck. The one with depressed, drawn lips and eyes that stared out at me with a hollow, dead, but determined look.
One of the soldiers next to Maratova, who was shorter and had a wiry frame and a far kinder expression on his face, looked my way. “It's all right.”
I stared back at him, still not blinking, and not speaking.
He let go of the heavy gun on a strap over his shoulder and let it drop to his side, and lifted his hands slowly. “It's fine, we aren’t here to hurt you.”
He sounded so genuine, so honest.
“We're here to help,” he said again, “And it sounds as though you need a bit of help, Amanda.”
Yes, it did. I had no idea whether the three soldiers before me were going to offer any. One thing was clear, Sebastian wasn't. He’d called them here, told them where I was. Why? Why had he spent the last day telling me how evil they were and how much I had to get away from this Maratova guy? Had all this been some game from the beginning? Had Sebastian had some plan, and was this part of it?
I swallowed painfully.
I didn’t know what to think, and it wasn't as if thinking would help anyway; I had zero options here.
Sebastian kept a pointed and conspicuous silence by my side. He was even leaning away from me as if I was some fetid, rotting scrap of meat that he didn't want to be anywhere near.
I swallowed again, this time harder.
Mark began to put his hands down. “Amanda, we are going to take you somewhere safe. You can trust us,” he said, again sounding genuine.
I nodded. I had no option but to trust this guy, or at least follow him.
“I tell you, Sebastian,” Mark said with a shake of his head, “We had no idea what you two were doing.”
Sebastian didn't answer, just gave a slight grunt.
I stood there, getting colder by the moment. It wasn't that my still-wet hair was dripping down my back; it was that the man I’d thought I could trust barely moments before was turning out to have played me. It sounded as if he’d been in contact with the army the whole time. So why lie? Why make me believe they couldn't be trusted? I’d run from them last night out of sheer surprise and fright, but he could have told me the truth this morning. Why string me along? It was so unbelievably cruel.
“How did you get here?” I found myself asking, voice low but not shaking.
Mark looked over at me, surprise lifting up his cheeks. He had wide, bright, expressive eyes and they locked onto me. He looked pleased I’d spoken, probably more pleased that I hadn't turned tail and started to run. “Chopper.” He pointed one finger upwards.
I flicked my eyes to the ceiling and flicked them back again. “There's a storm outside,” I replied quietly.
He shrugged. “Good chopper, good pilot,” he dipped his head, “But if you don't want to go that way,” he pointed downstairs, “We can always go out the door.”
I blinked hard, remembering how exquisitely awful it had been getting in here in the first place. I didn't want to walk on that path in a storm again.
“Up to you,” he said, and he seemed to mean it.
This, him, this Mark guy, he was the soldier you saw in action films and books. Dedicated, genuine, loyal, and a tad bit dashing. He was the guy you wanted to trust when you were in danger. If he’d been there last night, if he’d been the one to save me from my drawing room full of mercenaries, I had the distinct feeling that everything would have turned out differently.
Maratova, on the other hand, lived up to his monstrous reputation. I was scared to even look at the guy.
“Do you know how many contacts are out there?” Mark asked Sebastian.
“No idea,” Sebastian replied, voice quiet, shoulders hunched, his body still leaning away from me.
“We didn't spot any on the way in, not that we could see much in the storm,” Mark said, one hand remaining on his gun, though not in a particularly threatening manner.
I was starting to feel foolish, exquisitely foolish. Why had I run from them today? Why had I put myself through all of that when, far from being the monsters I’d believed, they was the saviors I required?
The more I thought about it, an awful, sick, stodgy feeling took to my stomach. God, how much trouble was I in here? Surely they were going to question why I ran from them? Why I didn't turn myself into the authorities when I’d had the chance?
While I could easily say it was all Sebastian’s fault, it was clear Sebastian was working with them.
As I stood there, wallowing in my self-hate, I heard the wind pick up from outside. What had previously been a gale fired up into a full-blown storm. There was even a sudden and powerful clap of thunder above us, and a correspondingly bright flash of light that filtered in through the small window above the sink.
My shoulders jumped instinctively, but fortunately I didn’t yelp in surprise.
“Wow,” Mark said, drawn out and slow, as the rumble of thunder passed, “Storm is picking up.”
Even through the thick insulation of the concrete and stone, I could make out the churn of the surf, the beating of the waves as they roared up the rocks and smashed against the side of the lighthouse, not to mention the appalling scream of the gale outside.
“What a day to be stuck in a lighthouse,” Mark added, “You sure picked it, Sebastian.”
“We have to stay here?” I asked automatically, words pushing their way out of my mouth before I could think about it myself.
Mark glanced towards the small window in the kitchen and nodded. “Sure seems that way.” He turned and faced me in full. “We will be out of here once the storm dies down a bit, it won't be long.”
There was another horrendous clap of thunder from above, and a startlingly bright flash of light from outside the small window. The sound of the thunder shook through the building, the plates and cutlery shaking around in their cupboards, a picture on the wall behind Sebastian falling off.
“You picked it,” Mark added once the thunder had subsided.
Mark was friendly with Sebastian, and though Sebastian was still withdrawn, I got the distinct impression they were friends. So why had Sebastian never told me about Mark, but had spent all of his time painting Maratova as some evil monster? Mark was clearly the one in charge. That, or Maratova was a strong, silent, and overbearing leader who let others do all the talking and planning while he covered the evil-glaring side of things.
Had Mark been there last night? I wasn’t sure, but I doubted it; I got the impression that if he’d been there, things would’ve turned out differently. He was the kind of guy who thought about things before he did them, something Sebastian wasn’t capable of.
“We’ll be fine here. The storm will probably blow itself out in the next half-hour or so.” Mark shrugged. “Is this place secure?”
Sebastian shook his head. “You need someone down by the door. I can't guarantee no one will come through. We barricaded it, but you probably need someone to watch it.”
Maratova growled. “You should have told us that first, Shaw.”
Perhaps there was one thing Sebastian had been honest about: Maratova had true enmity for him, and as I watched Sebastian turn to gaze at the man, I realized the feeling was mutual.
“Anderson,” Mark spoke to the other soldier with a flick of his head, “Get downstairs to check the door.”
Anderson replied with a short nod, turned, and half jogged to the stairs and out of sight.
“What about the roof?” Sebastian asked. “Do you think anyone can come in the same way you did?”
“Rappel down from a helicopter in a violent storm? I wouldn't put it past them,” Mark nodded. “Maratova.” Mark flicked his head upwards.
Maratova grunted and headed off towards the stairs. Not before he shot me a look, and it wasn’t the kindest of looks. It made me swallow. What was this guy's problem?
“Are you okay?” Mark asked. “We didn't get a chance to....” He stopped speaking, obviously unsure of how to say what he wanted. “Um, in the woods,” he tried.
I knew what he meant, I also knew why he was dodging around his words. I’d been running like a mad woman from them, and it wasn’t a fond memory.
I shrugged, playing with my hands. “I'm fine.”
“Your feet?” he said, voice awkward.
I was starting to get the impression that although he had the genuine dignity and loyalty of a soldier, he wasn't all that good at speaking to women, or maybe not women he’d been chasing through the woods with a gun.
I shrugged again, a smile playing at my lips. “They hurt like hell,” I said honestly.
He winced and nodded. “Sorry about that.”
It wasn't his fault; it was my fault. My fault for being so damn stupid. My fault for being so damn paranoid. My fault for letting Sebastian make me think that letting the army capture me would be a one-way ticket to prison or death.
“I shouldn't have taken my shoes off,” I replied weakly.
It was enough to draw a bare smile. It was awkward as it inched its way across Mark's face; he clearly wasn't sure if that was the kind of thing you were meant to smile at.
Sebastian cleared his throat.
“You’ve had a hell of day,” Mark turned to him. “I have to say, I wasn't expecting your call.”
I shivered, it was involuntary, and they both looked my way. I rubbed my arms and pretended I was cold.
Mark leaned over to the seat near him, grabbed the throw that was over the back, and handed it to me.
“I didn't want...” Sebastian trailed off.
Mark frowned. “What happened? How did you two end up here? How did you find her?” Mark angled his head towards me. “Last we saw her she was in the woods by Stanton's estate. How did she end up here?”
I blinked and cleared my throat. What was going on here?
Mark turned my way, the beginnings of a guilty look crumpling his face. “I apologize, ma'am, I didn’t mean to talk about you in third person while you are still in the room. It was rude of me.”
“You're okay,” I replied with a stutter.
“Can you tell me how you got here, Amanda?” He turned to me.
I opened my mouth wide, confused. Wouldn’t he know? He was working with Sebastian, clearly, and it had been Sebastian who’d brought me here.
“His car,” I replied, dumbly.
“I found her,” Sebastian cut in.
Mark nodded, looking confused, but not suspicious. “That's lucky,” he said with a nod.
Sebastian stared down at the floor. “Lucky,” he repeated, voice dull.
Mark nodded. “I have to be honest with you, ma'am, there are some...” he trailed off, looking awkward again as he searched for the right words, “Not so nice guys after you at the moment.”
“Yeah, they ruined my drawing room.”
Mark nodded sagely. He took a large breath, chest puffing out. “Did they get the globes, Amanda?”
It was the first time he'd mentioned them, and god, it was the first time I’d thought about them in ages.
I shook my head.
“Where are they? You can tell me, I will keep you safe and I will keep them safe,” Mark said, and he sounded genuine. A promise from Mark was worth 1000 from Sebastian.
“I don't have them,” I croaked.
“Where are they?”
“I—” I began.
“They’re in a safe place,” Sebastian cut in.
What was Sebastian doing?
I turned to him, brow drawing down as my lips widened in a confused move.
Mark nodded. “Well that's a relief, you would have no idea how many mercenaries and criminals you have after you,” he added with a sharp chuckle, and he sliced his eyes towards me, “But you don’t have to worry, Amanda, everything is under control.”
No, I very much doubted that, but I could appreciate things were a lot safer now the cavalry was here and I was no longer at the whims of the mercurial Sebastian.
“I- I don't have the globes,” I repeated again.
Sebastian put a hand up, turning to me, his expression odd. “It's okay, Amanda,” he used a careful and condescending tone, “They will be safe for the time being.”
What was he playing at?
“One of the boys said that Maratova’s team pistol-whipped you last night,” Mark interrupted.
Sebastian swallowed uncomfortably. “Yes, they did, got me right between the shoulders.”
Mark blinked and let out a pressured sigh. He appeared ready to say something, but when he looked at me he pressed his lips closed.
Though I couldn't be sure, I had a suspicion Mark was Maratova’s superior, and Mark wasn't that fond of the man’s brutish nature.
“I take it the army is not about to suspend my contract?” Sebastian asked, turning from me and looking like he had zero intention of ever turning back.
Mark shook his head. “We appreciate your service, Sebastian,” he left it at that.
There was another enormous clap of thunder, but this time it was accompanied by a far greater shake, the kitchen erupting in a cacophony of clattering cutlery and crockery. Though the clap of thunder was loud, I fancied I heard something shatter upstairs; the faintest tinkle of glass and a snap of wood.
Both Mark and Sebastian obviously heard it too, because they raised their heads to the ceiling, both of their expressions pressed with confusion and concern.
Mark put a hand on his gun, face still turned up to the ceiling above, lips parted gently in obvious concentration.
I swallowed again, a simple and slow move, but the only thing I was capable of.
I watched both of them as they tensed, obviously waiting to see if they heard any more suspicious sounds from upstairs. Frankly, the sound of the storm outside was horrendous, and through the reverberations from the waves below and the roar of the sea and wind, I doubted they would be able to hear much at all.
I heard footsteps descending the stairs, heavy footsteps.
I watched Mark raise his gun. Before anything could happen, I heard a gruff call from up the stairs. “It’s just me,” I recognized Maratova's voice.
Despite the fact it was obviously not a new horde of criminals descending from above, I couldn't say I was comforted much. I couldn't shake the cold and dead feeling Maratova gave me.
He descended all the way onto our floor, walking around to us, his footsteps only somewhat muffled when his big heavy boots came in contact with the lush carpet of this small lounge room.
He looked wetter than he had before; his hair slick against his face and his collar saturated.
Mark looked confused. “What? Why are you—” he began.
Before Mark had a chance to finish, Maratova did something unexpected: he lifted his gun, pointing it right at Mark's chest.
“Put it down,” Maratova growled.
“What the hell?” Mark snapped.
Mark couldn’t do anything, and before he could press an answer from Maratova, I heard several more steps descending from above, and this time they were far louder and far more pressing. I gave an enormous shudder as I heard them descend onto our level, but it wasn't anything like the shake I gave when I saw several balaclava-clad, gun-toting men in black turn the corner to face us.
“Change of plan,” Maratova snapped, “Hands behind your head, turn around, on your knees.” Maratova wasn’t joking.
I stood there, lips limp and half open, cheeks slack, jaw drawn down – too shocked, surprised, and overcome to know what to do next. If indeed there was anything I could do next other than be shot.
The look on Mark’s face was horribly compelling; his skin was a sallow white, the muscles in his face slack from surprise.
“On your knees, turn around,” Maratova repeated.
Silently Mark put his hands behind his head and did as Maratova said.
A moment of exquisite fear caught me, my body seizing with the horrible realization that Mark was about to get shot. It was as if my heart stopped beating altogether, and I didn't draw a single breath.
Then Maratova lashed out at the back of Mark's head with the butt of his rifle, a sickening crack sounding out as the gun met his skull.
I jumped and gave a frightened yelp at the sound, shaking as I watched Mark fall unconscious to the ground, body limp, head turned to the side.
Maratova turned to me. I had no idea what the expression on his face meant. There was a tension to his brow, and it was pulled smooth, his eyebrows flat and low over his eyes.
“You asshole,” Sebastian growled.
Maratova turned to Sebastian and waggled a finger at him. “What makes you think it's a good idea to piss me off? You think there’s anything stopping me from shooting you?”
“Don't, please don’t hurt him.” I stuttered. Honest to god, I may hate Sebastian right now, but I didn’t want to see him killed. “Don't, I'll go with you, I will get you the globes, you don't have to hurt anyone.”
Maratova, ignoring Sebastian, turned to me. He nodded once, stiff and low. “Yes, you will.”
I wanted to close my eyes, see if I could try and wake up. I forced myself to rivet them open, and I stared back at Maratova. I might have been shaking, it might have been damn obvious to everyone that I was frightened and overcome, but I still stood there and I still met his gaze. I didn’t close my eyes and I didn’t turn away.
Pressing my teeth closed, my lips still open around them, I gave another swallow. “Let's go,” I said, something suspiciously close to bravado tingling in my stomach. “We need to go now… because you don't have much time.”
Maratova at least was no longer looking at Sebastian; he was looking at me, his eyes pressed together, his nose crumpled, his brow pressed down. “Oh? Why is that?”
I needed to keep Maratova's attention off Sebastian. “The… the other men will be here soon.”
Maratova narrowed his eyes further. “What other men?”
With one more enormous swallow, I said the first thing that came into my head: “Romeo's men.”
It was an enormous risk, because I had no idea who Romeo's men were; it was just something I’d heard Sebastian mention several times. For all I knew the men in balaclavas standing around behind Maratova were Romeo's men.
When Maratova didn't begin laughing, my heart gave a shake.
“I... we saw them in town,” I continued to spin the lie.
Maratova kept watching me, not indicating once whether he thought I was lying or not.
So I kept spinning and spinning: “we only narrowly got away from them, but I'm sure they followed us here.”
“How do you know that?” Maratova asked, sliding his jaw from side-to-side.
I didn't have much to lose anymore, so I pointed with a shaking hand downstairs. “There was one outside.”
Maratova gave a sharp short laugh, but it didn't sound happy. He stared across at me for one more horrible moment, then turned to the balaclava-clad men behind him. He mumbled something to them. He then turned back to Sebastian, that familiar glint of anger in his eyes.
“So we have to go if you want to get the globes before they do, because... they already know where they are,” I said through a shaky breath.
Once again, I managed to snap Maratova's attention back to me.
“What?” he asked, voice hollowing out dangerously.
“I told them,” I squeaked hard, “I mean, I didn't have a choice. They managed to capture me.”
Maratova flinched. “Where are the other globes?”
“They’re back at my great-uncle's manor,” I said the first thing I could think of, “And Romeo's men already have a head start on you.”
“They don't know where it is in the house,” I added, “I didn't tell them that. But we should hurry, because it might not take them long to find out.”
Maratova looked at me, his brow dropped so much it was flat against his beady, hooded eyes. He almost looked ready to turn back to Sebastian again.
So I pulled out the last card I could think of: “that is, if you can manage to get through the storm,” I said, glancing towards the window at the ferocious storm outside. I appealed to his manliness, or apparent lack thereof. Only a real criminal would try to make their way out of a lighthouse during a mad storm. A sensible, girly criminal, on the other hand, would stay put until the rain and wind subsided and they could be sure they wouldn’t get their balaclavas wet.
Maratova ground his teeth.
“I guess I don't know much about Romeo's men, but I think rain wouldn’t stop them,” I added.
“If you’re lying to me—” Maratova took a step towards me, bowing his head low.
I didn't need him to finish his threat; I was sure I knew what he had in mind. A man like Maratova had a limited and violent imagination. “Do you know how much those globes are worth?”
That appeared to do it; Maratova straightened up, turned to his men, and nodded upstairs.
I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into, but at least Sebastian was still standing.
Not for long. Before I could do anything, before I could even track his movement, Maratova walked over to Sebastian and pistol whipped him right on the side of the head.
I screamed as I watched Sebastian crumple to the ground, my shoulders shaking violently.
“Right, time to end this,” Maratova said as he fixed his eyes on me.
I awoke with a thundering headache, and I couldn't tell the difference between the roar in my brain and the roar of the wind outside. Cracking open my dry lips and grabbing a hand to my head, I pushed to a seated position. My head was swimming, and I groaned with pain and nausea.
“You think you have it bad,” I recognized Mark’s voice from somewhere beside me.
I managed to blink through the pain blanketing my attention to see Mark sitting in one of the god-awful old brown leather seats.
“Did you radio in help?” I croaked out.
Mark shook his head. “He took the guns, took our radios, even took my watch.”
“How's Anderson?” I asked, managing to pull myself to my feet, though I had to latch a hand to the side of the kitchen bench to keep steady.
“Fine, though he still has the same headache we do.” Mark massaged his brow.
“Fuck.” I shook my head several times.
“I can't believe he did this,” Mark said, voice low.
I could; Maratova had always been a loose cannon. When I’d come to my senses after almost getting Amanda killed on our way to the lighthouse, I’d called the army and let them know where we were on the express condition Mark was to lead the team. I wasn’t going to let Maratova call this one, but then again, Maratova obviously had different plans.
I couldn't believe this. I blinked hard at the pain still snaking its way through my brain. I’d thought I was doing the right thing by Amanda. I’d come to my senses, realized how much of a bastard I was being, and I’d called the army here because there was no other way I could see of getting her out of this safely. Look where it had gotten me? Amanda was probably....
“Fuck,” I spat.
“He even cut the phone lines, smashed up all the radio equipment,” Mark stretched his neck, “Thorough.”
Shit, shit, shit.
“We’ll get out of here soon,” Mark said, “The storm can't last too much longer.”
I turned my head, no matter how aching it was and how horrible the stabbing pain that shot down my back felt, and I stared out the kitchen window. The storm was still in full swing: the clouds outside were as dark and dangerous as before, and I could still feel the barely perceptible shakes of the lighthouse as wave after wave battered its side. While Mark was right on some level, and the storm would subside, it wouldn't be quick enough for me. The only thing I wanted to do was find Maratova, find Amanda, and fix it all.
Amanda had a finite amount of time left. She’d lied for me, god dammit, after everything I’d done to her, she’d lied for me and had put her life on the line. But when Maratova found out they were just that – lies – I didn't want to think about what he would do next. That was why I had to get to her. I knew where she was; back where this thing had begun 24 hours ago.
I allowed myself to be drawn in by the view of the storm outside, and I pursed my lips in thought as I stared at the driving rain, listened to the howling wind, and felt the pounding of the waves. I knew what I had to do; there was only one thing for it.
“What are you thinking?” Mark asked.
Was it that obvious? “That maybe the storm—” I began.
“You go out there, you drown,” Mark said quick and firm.
He didn't know that for sure. Amanda and I had managed to get in here in the first place, though it had almost killed us both. I owed it to her to try again.
“No,” Mark said again.
He'd always been a good judge of character. We’d always been friends; I couldn't count the number of crazy missions I’d been on with him. Back in the good old days, before Maratova had joined the team. Mark wasn’t even technically on the unit that dealt with my particular specialty of finding and retrieving 'treasure' anymore. He’d moved on, moved up the ladder, and the worst possible replacement – Maratova – had taken his command.
He’d always been dodgy, god dammit, I had always been able to see that. Seriously, if there was anyone I would be suspicious of going off the reservation, it would be Maratova.
“You aren't going, and that’s in order,” Mark said, voice firm.
“I think you’ll find I am a lawyer, not a soldier, and you can't order me around.” I offered a wan smile.
“Sebastian,” his voice was drawn out and low with warning.
I put my hands up. “Look, technically she's my client, and I have a duty.”
“A duty to drown in a storm?” Mark replied automatically, face stony.
“A duty to try not to drown in a storm while trying even harder to get her the fuck back from Maratova.” I straightened up.
“Don't do it,” Mark tried one more time.
“I think you’ll find that us lawyer types are accomplished at saving our butts.” I headed to the stairs.
Mark rose from his seat.
“You aren't coming,” I said automatically, “And you sure as hell aren’t going to order Anderson to come along, because this is suicide.”
“Then why the hell are you going?” Mark tried.
I didn't have a good answer for that. I didn't want Mark to risk himself over something that was possibly the stupidest plan in the entire world. “Look, I need you here, I need you to wait it out and go and call the cavalry.”
“We don't even know where they're going,” Mark said.
I hesitated. I knew exactly where they were going. Mark may have been whacked unconscious before Amanda had schemed up her ingenious plan, but I hadn’t been. They were going back to Arthur Stanton's manor.
That wasn't why I was hesitating. The reason I was hesitating was because I was a bastard. If, somehow, I managed to get there, save Amanda, and deal with Maratova, then I would be able to continue my treasure hunt in peace.
No. I had to do the right thing this time.
“They’re going back to Arthur Stanton's place; Amanda managed to convince him that the globes are back there.”
“Convince him?” Mark asked.
“They aren't there,” I said, voice tense.
“Shit, Maratova will—” Mark began.
A raised a hand to silence him. I didn't need anyone to paint the picture I was already painting in complete and horrible details for myself. That was why I was going to stop this. That was why I was going to brave the storm outside, drive like a maniac, and fix everything I had fucked up in the first place.
“I will call the army when I get out of here; my phone’s back in my car,” I said with a nod, “But if I don't—”
“I'll say something nice at your funeral, and I will call them myself,” Mark said with a low nod.
Right, well this was it then. I, the bastard, was growing up.
Somehow, somehow I made it across the path. If Amanda and I had thought the storm had been bad before, we were dead wrong. From the second I opened the door, I realized how stupid and suicidal my plan was. The sound of the waves alone as they broke against the stone wall was bad enough. The water swamped the path in a shifting wave of death.
I didn't hesitate, gritting my teeth and plunging ahead. It was so god dammed dark that the only light that made it through the complete shadow of the clouds above was the powerful beam of the lighthouse itself. Somewhere along the line the lamps had obviously turned themselves on, content to do their real job despite the shenanigans occurring down below.
I began my slow and treacherous walk to the metal path above. I had no idea if my car was still there, but had a feeling it would be. Hopefully untouched, hopefully my gun in the back seat, and ever so hopefully Arthur Stanton's journal there with it. I was half sure I still had a suit in the boot that I was meaning to take to the dry cleaners, too.
Maratova had come with the army, and they had come, like the crazy bastards they were, by rappelling from a helicopter. It appeared the criminals Maratova worked for had come in the same way. Hopefully that meant they’d never even seen my car, let alone had a chance to run it off the cliff. If they had, Amanda and I could kiss the hope of finding the rest of the Stargazers goodbye; the journal was the only real clue.
I held onto the hope my car was fine as I moved, hand over hand, inching along the rail, stopping every single time a wave battered over the wall, which was every half second.
Mark could have been shouting his encouragement from the kitchen window above, but there would be no way I could hear it over the waves. Mark could equally have been shouting at me to watch out for the multiple goons and criminals milling around out here, but, again, there would be no way I could hear it above the storm.
I had to keep a lookout myself while trying not to drown.
Though the salt water gushed over my face, I forced my eyes to keep open. Wave after wave crashed over the wall, slamming into me as I held onto the rail. Each time I was flung against the rail, and each time I somehow managed to keep my hold. Slowly, so painfully slowly, I made my way over to the metal staircase.
Rather than stop and shout hallelujah when I reached it, I threw myself at it. By now the ebb of the water along the path was so damn strong it created a roaring waterfall between me and the staircase. I didn't think, because I didn't have time to; I let go of the railing and hauled myself towards the staircase. No longer holding onto anything, the force of the waves hit my legs, pulling me down, my body crumpling against their strength. In the confusion and rush as I began to slip with the water towards the gap between the staircase and the path, I lashed out with one hand. I managed to grab the edge of the staircase. I held on harder than I had ever held on in my life. Showing strength they don't teach you in law school, I managed to pull myself up. My mouth and throat and nose were inundated with salt water, and I choked like an emphysema patient on his last legs.
I managed to pull myself up.
I made my way up the stairs, hand clutching tight to the rails until I pulled myself into a standing position. It didn't matter that I was possibly more tired than I had ever been in my life; I couldn't rest, I had to get to Amanda, I had to get to Maratova. I had to end this.
So, lungs burning from the effort, chest so cold I fancied my heart had stopped, I ran up the stairs. The rain was still wild, the wind even wilder as it whipped around me, chilling my frozen body even further. I steeled myself; I kept a hand on the rails and kept running up those stairs.
I managed to crest the top of the stairs, and before I could cheer at my achievement, I saw the van parked by my car. It was heavy, it was black, and it had two unfriendly looking guys in it.
I could make them out through the driving rain, and it was a good bet they could see me too.
As I heard two car doors slam, I gave it all I had and ran for my car. A shot blazed past me, lodging itself in the dirt further up, but I kept running, and I managed to make it to my car. I dodged down low, even rolled and brought myself up to the driver’s-side door. I grabbed it, opened it, and hauled myself in.
A bullet slammed into the back of my car somewhere, probably the boot, and hopefully not one of the fucking tires. Rather than reach around and grab the gun somewhere under the back seat, I keyed in the ignition code and the car revved into life. Yes, I had an ignition code, not because I was lawyer and I could afford a car without keys, but because I was a goddamn treasure hunter, and that was how we rolled.
I didn't bother to put my lights on, just flung the car into reverse, tires skidding hard against the rough gravel. I kicked at the accelerator, shooting onto the road. I could barely see it through the sheets of rain smashing against the windscreen and the turgid clouds blocking the moonlight.
I turned my lights on with a flick, using a free hand to wipe down my face, water pooling off my fingers and splattering on the dashboard.
My breathing was ragged, fast, and uneven, but I let out a short laugh. Somehow, somehow I’d made it. True, there was a van full of armed bad guys on my tail, but I hadn’t drowned and I hadn’t been shot, and I was in my car. These were all good things, well, apart from the bad guys on my tail. But I could deal with them.
They were in a van; I was in a fast car. It was my chance to show just how fast I could go. Flooring my foot on the accelerator, eyes wide and plastered on the road, I drove like a bat out of hell, trying to ensure I didn’t hit a turn too fast and freaking flip my car.
While I could still see the lights of the van behind me, there was no doubt I was putting distance between them. I had to keep it that way, and though I wanted to rifle through the back seat and ensure Arthur Stanton's journal was still there, I kept my eyes on the road.
So I kept focused, and I kept my foot on the accelerator, car growling like a tiger.
After a few tight turns, I could no longer see the lights.
I didn't relax until I joined the main road, entering the highway that would lead me back to Amanda's.
The first thing I did was call my contacts in the army. I didn’t hold anything back, because yes, I would like to think I’d learned my lesson.
I didn’t end the call until I’d confirmed the cavalry were making their way to Arthur Stanton's manor. But they sure as hell weren't going to have an easy time of it. Maratova and his men were not playing games, and they were not new hands at this. They would be equipped, and they would be ready to repel attackers. This wasn’t going to be a simple matter of the army flying in and everything working out; no, it was far more likely to end up as a siege, or a hostage situation, depending on what angle you wanted to view it from. The point was, it wouldn’t solve itself easily, and it wouldn’t be quick.
I was still wearing the sopping track pants and checkered top I’d found in the lighthouse, and I didn't bother pulling in at a service station to change. Hell, I still hadn’t looked in the back seat to ensure my gun and the journal were still there. I didn't have time because I doubted Amanda had time. The more I thought about her, it hit home how much of a bastard I’d been. This was all my fault, but at least I wasn’t the kind of guy to leave it at that. I had fucked things up, but I was in a fixin' mood.
Generally, at legal speeds, it would have taken around two hours to make it to Amanda's, more considering the road conditions tonight.
It took about an hour and 15 minutes until I hit the countryside. I came to the edge of Arthur Stanton's estate up on the hill to my left through a row of swaying poplar trees bending under the ferocious winds. It wasn't as if I could see from this distance whether the place was already overrun with helicopters, guns, soldiers, and bad guys. I could bet it was, or at least not far from it. That was why I didn't turn up the driveway. I took the turn to Elizabeth's instead.
If Amanda had ended up there, it meant she’d found her way through the woods, despite the fact there would have been serious surveillance on them last night. Maybe that gave me a chance to make my own way through those same woods.
I took the long driveway that led up to Elizabeth's. Due to the size of the properties around here, she was a fair distance from Arthur Stanton’s estate, far enough that the army wouldn’t bother her, and far enough that she would have no idea what was going on down the road.
I pulled up as close as I could to her house, and had the opportunity to check my back seat. I could have pumped the air with a fist when I latched a hand on both my gun and the journal. Something was finally going right for me.
I looked up at Elizabeth’s house: there were no lights on and her car wasn’t parked up front as it usually was. She didn't look as if she was at home, and that was a good thing. She didn’t need to be brought any further into this mess.
I took the opportunity to change into the crumpled but dry suit I had in the back of my car, stuffing the gun down the back of my pants. Before I slammed the door shut to head to the woods, I remembered something. I dropped to my feet and grabbed the pants I’d let fall there and I searched the deep pockets like a man possessed. Heart beating in my ears, teeth clenched, I found it. The small pendant from the lighthouse.
Fuck, with one thing and another, I’d forgotten about it. Ever since Amanda had been taken, I hadn’t thought about it once. Somehow I hadn’t lost it in my mad dash to and from the lighthouse.
The second thing that was going right today. I closed my eyes and closed a hand around the pendant. It bloody well better lead to one of those Stargazers.
I didn't have time to read the inscription on the back yet; I had to save Amanda. It was time to get my priorities straight. It was the last time I was going to bring somebody innocent into one of my games. First save Amanda, then retrieve the Stargazers.
I put the pendant into the inside pocket of my suit jacket.
Then I ran to the woods behind Elizabeth’s house.
The weather was still wild, and while it wasn’t raining here, the wind blew through the forest with a violent howl. The clouds above became as dark and brooding as they’d been at the lighthouse. I had no doubt that soon they’d dump the exact same storm on me again. At least it meant one thing: above the wind no one would be able to hear what was going on at the Stanton estate, and with the brooding dark clouds, no one would be able to see the lights of the helicopters. Hopefully it would offer enough confusion that I could slip into Stanton’s house unnoticed.
Third bit of luck today, but it bloody well better not be the last.
Hold on, Amanda, I thought as I ran through the woods in the dark, not wanting to draw attention to myself with a light.
I was stiff and cold, my clothes still saturated. We managed to make it off the top of the lighthouse and into a waiting helicopter somehow flying above us, despite the winds and the storm. I’d never been so frightened in my life. Climbing up a rope ladder in a storm off the top of a lighthouse was an experience I never, ever wanted to repeat.
We’d already reached my estate by helicopter, and for the third time since I’d led him into my manor, Maratova turned on me, eyes hooded, face compressed with anger.
“Where are the globes?” he asked, tone menacing.
I’d achieved what I’d set out to achieve; Maratova hadn’t shot Sebastian, and presumably Sebastian was still alive somewhere, though with one hell of a headache. As for me, I’d never been in so much danger in all my life.
I could tell Maratova was starting to suspect something was up.
“They are here,” I insisted again, staring at a patch of dirt on the kitchen floor. The house was in shambles, even more than it usually was. Glass had been traipsed all the way through the carpet in the halls, the kitchen backdoor had been kicked in, and the windows in the library were broken.
“Stop playing us along, Amanda,” Maratova growled at me, taking the opportunity to tap the side of his gun. He was still dressed up as a soldier, still had official army fatigues on, and still held a regulation gun. The other men with him didn’t: they were all dressed in varying shades of black, and though they’d taken off their balaclavas, they were still armed to the teeth. They hardly spoke unless spoken to by Maratova, and I got the picture he was definitely their leader and hadn’t chosen to join them on a whim tonight.
I put my hand up, still not moving my head to look at him, still staring fixedly at that patch of dirt on the kitchen floor. I had to think of some way to string this along. If I could somehow find a way to distract Maratova, I might be able to make a run for it. “They are in a safe place,” I began.
“You take us to them now.” Maratova took several steps towards me, bobbing his head down to my level, the whites of his eyes growing larger as his brow raised in anger.
“Okay,” I said weakly, “They are in the... attic.”
Maratova nodded. He kept his gaze on me, and it was apparent his threat was still there. If I was lying, Maratova would find creative ways to make me regret it.
It was just as I led them to the door, Maratova right behind me, hand always on his gun, that I heard something through the howling wind outside. That thing sounded like a helicopter. I paused in confusion, wondering whether Maratova was calling for reinforcements, but when I saw Maratova freeze by my side, hand at his earpiece, I realized the helicopter was uninvited.
Maratova snapped his head to the side and gave low, quick orders to the other men. Though I couldn't make out his exact words, I heard something that sounded like army. That one word managed to rekindle my hope. Could they be here? Had Sebastian lived, found a way to call them, found a way to tell them where I was?
Would it matter? I was no expert on these things, but I realized Maratova had a substantial number of men with him: almost 20 the last I counted. They were all armed. I couldn't say any of them looked to be incompetent; they all had that steely edge to their gazes, that frozen look to their expressions that told me the only emotion they were capable of was barely suppressed anger.
Maratova pointed several of his men towards the kitchen door. He half turned from me as he spoke into his earpiece, mumbling directions to the rest of his team.
I heard several shots ring out from the kitchen door, no doubt directed at the helicopter above. I felt Maratova push hard at my back.
“Keep moving,” he growled, “Take me to the fucking globes, Amanda.”
Oh great, there was about to be a full-scale war over my house and I still had to take him to the globes. This man was insane. What was he going to do once he had the globes? Well, not that he was going to get them, because they weren't here. But what did he think he was going to do? Tuck them under his arm, whistle blithely, and walk on by past the army? Or, I realized with a gulp, take a hostage and demand a helicopter?
“Up the stairs,” he snapped by my ear. “Quick.”
He obviously wanted to get into the attic before World War Three broke out in my library. Which was great news for me. The second we got up in the attic, and Maratova saw how empty it was, he would shoot me.
There were three levels to my great-uncle's manor, not including the attic above. As the stairwell ascended to each level, on either side were large plate-glass windows. They offered a view of the storm growing outside. Billowing dark clouds met my eyes, the tops of trees swaying madly in the wind. I saw a powerful light slice through them, either from the helicopter above as it hovered in the gale, or from vehicles on the ground. I had no idea how many people were out there. While I assumed it was the army, judging by my luck, it could well be every criminal on earth. If there was one thing the last 24 hours had taught me, it was how valuable the Stargazer globes were, and to what ends people would go to get them. And those ends usually involved chasing me.
“Stay away from the windows,” Maratova growled as he kept pushing me up the stairs.
If he wasn’t a psychopath armed with a sodding great gun, I would react. I didn’t appreciate being pushed upstairs. Then again, when it came to my list of things to complain about, I didn't appreciate being kidnapped either.
As we ascended onto the third level, I glanced out the windows and saw more lights slicing around outside. Maratova saw them too, swore, and snapped at me to move faster.
I reached the end of the corridor, pointing to the square indent in the ceiling. It was hard to make out. It was painted the same white as the rest of the ceiling, and the only indication it was different was a small indent that ran around it.
“We need a ladder,” I said.
Maratova swore. “Then get one.”
I nodded. I had hoped he would get a ladder himself, or at least offer to carry it, giving me a convenient opportunity to escape.
“There is one in here,” I said, indicating one of the rooms further down the hall.
“Move slow, get the ladder, I will be right behind you,” Maratova snapped.
I went into the room, and went to turn on the light, but he grabbed my hand. It sent such a shiver down my spine as I tried to pull away from him, but his grip was too firm.
“Leave the light off.” He tightened his grip on my wrist before letting go.
I sniffed in the dark. “I will break my neck looking for it in here,” I managed, massaging my arm.
“It will save me having to do it later,” Maratova replied.
How nice. I gave a shudder, but I didn’t make a sound. Instead, navigating only by the bare light filtering through the large windows, I tried to locate the ladder. It wasn't until a slice of light from outside shone into the room that I managed to see it propped against the opposite wall.
“Get the ladder now,” Maratova snapped again. In the entire time I’d known him, which was thankfully not long, I’d never heard him speak normally; every word was snapped and dripping with menace. How this guy had gotten into the army, I didn't know. Perhaps they’d lowered their psych standards that day.
I made my way over to the ladder, slipping on several loose magazines, but not falling over. I heaved it up in my arms and managed to maneuver through the door, though I smashed into everything in my path. Maratova growled at me to stay silent, and I grunted in reply, purposefully banging the ladder into the wall.
I manhandled it until it was underneath the attic.
Maratova, hand still on his gun, looked up at the attic above. “If you're lying, Amanda, I will break your neck,” he said, voice devoid of any emotion.
I felt a powerful wave of sickness rush through my stomach, and I touched a hand to my belly, but I didn’t respond to him.
“You go up first, slow, and you stop when I tell you too, otherwise I shoot,” Maratova pulled out a handgun as he spoke, training it right on me.
Though the light in the corridor was off, I could still see him sufficiently to note the move; I could even make out the triangles of white at the corners of his eyes. They were the scariest damn things I’d ever seen.
I turned and made my way carefully up the ladder. Despite the sound of the gale outside and the occasional shots coming from the levels down below, it seemed every creak of the ladder as I climbed it was like a scream. That wasn’t to mention Maratova's breath: it reverberated around my head, louder than the thunder had been at the lighthouse, louder than anything I’d ever heard. It made me feel sick.
I reached the top of the ladder and reached up to push on the attic trapdoor above.
“Slow,” Maratova warned, and I felt the cold muzzle of a gun press into my back.
I pushed the attic door. It creaked open, but once it reached a 90-degree angle, I lost my grip and it fell the rest of the way, slamming on the attic floor with a thunderous bang. It made me jump, and I shuddered on the top of the ladder, grabbing a hand to the open frame of the attic door to steady myself.
“Get up, slow,” Maratova warned again, voice growling even louder.
The attic was darker than the landing below, as there were only two small casement windows at either end. As I saw Maratova stand, I could only differentiate his form from the light filtering in from the open attic door below.
Every second another slicing light tracked over one of the windows on either side of the room, sending in sudden splashes of illumination. I saw Maratova standing, gun in hand, with the desks and cupboards neatly stacked on either wall, and a bare flash of the dusty floorboards beneath us.
“Where are they?” he demanded, a definite note of finality in his voice.
Below, despite the sound of the storm, I could still hear the occasional gunshot, the occasional shout, the occasional crunch of tires as a vehicle neared from outside. I had no idea what was going on down there, I had no idea who was winning, but I had a fair idea it didn’t matter. The only thing that held any meaning for me was the fact Maratova was barely a meter away from me with a gun pointed right at me, and a good reason to use it.
“They are in a... secret wall compartment,” I said, coming up with a lie.
“Where?” Maratova snapped at once.
“I,” I kept snapping my gaze around, trying to find my bearings in the bare flashes of light through either window, “It's hard to see in the dark.”
“Where?” Maratova snapped again.
My mind was slowing down, my ears filling with a distinct buzzing noise. I was like a deer stuck in the headlights; I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think of anything else, and I couldn’t answer him.
“Amanda.” He roared. “Give me the fucking globes.”
The exact note of rage in his voice was enough to jolt me into action. I gave a sudden shake that ran all the way down over my back and legs. I darted to the side, noting there was a large cupboard off to my left that was pulled away from the wall. I saw it in another flash from one of the roaming lights from below, and blood bellowing in my ears, I threw myself towards it.
He yelled, not firing at me, but I heard the weight of his body shift as he threw himself towards me, heard the groan of the floorboards as they absorbed the force of his chase.
Heart hammering in my throat, I made it behind the cupboard, but I didn’t collapse there as my brain told me to do, too overcome by fear to move on. Instead I pushed hard at the cupboard, flattening my shoulder into it and giving it all I had.
It moved, teetering forward, and smashing to the ground. In the dark I had no idea whether it had hit Maratova, or even where he was. I heard him trip against something, heard the floorboards groan as something heavy hit them. He swore harshly.
I turned, spying another tall bookcase pulled away from the wall further up the attic, as yet another slice of light darted through the windows at the other end. I ran towards it, leg collecting the side of a desk but not tripping me up.
I reached the bookcase and pressed my back into it just as I heard his breath, heard his growl.
So I pushed again, and the bookcase teetered then fell, slamming onto the attic floor with an enormous thud. Before I could pause to wonder whether it had collected Maratova, I felt a move beside me, felt him grab out a hand and latch it onto my elbow.
I screamed louder than I ever had before.
Before I could do anything, his arm was snapped away as I saw a dark shadow collect into his side. There was a massive grunt and I staggered back as I realized someone had grabbed Maratova off me, and that same someone was grappling with him on the ground.
I had no idea who was fighting Maratova, but my only hope was that they won.
Eyes wide, I watched the scene, trying to track what was going on. Then I realized I had to do something; I had to help whoever it was down there, because if I didn't and they lost, then I would lose next.
Maratova shoved his hand right into my face, his palm cupping my chin and forcing my head backwards. In reply I punched deep into his gut, regretting it as my knuckles bashed up against the hard weave of his body armor.
Maratova brought his other arm around, gun still in his hand, and smashed it against my left temple.
Though the blow was hard, this stabbing pain shooting across my brow, I didn't let go of him. I managed to grab a hand over his elbow, yanking it back, the gun falling from his grip and clattering across the ground.
Jesus Christ it was dark in here; the only thing I could know for sure was that Maratova was on the floor with me and he was murderously angry.
He brought up his leg, kicking it into my knee, the tread of his boot dragging across my flesh. It hurt like hell, but I rolled back, regrouping and throwing myself back at him.
I managed to land a punch to his jaw. Though it was hard and solid, it didn't knock him out, but it did make a crack.
Maratova redoubled his efforts, kicked at me again, and landed a blow right in my gut. It sent me slamming backwards, and he jumped on top of me, hands around my throat. Choking, spluttering, unable to suck in a breath, I brought my hands up and tried to push him off. I was losing energy, losing strength, and as I grabbed his hands, I began to black out.
I didn't even have time to think it was over; my brain was too starved of oxygen to bother.
There was a sudden loud crack, and Maratova fell backwards.
The instant his hands fell away from my throat I sucked in several choked breaths, staving off the unconsciousness that had almost claimed me.
Dizzy and only barely aware of my surroundings, I saw someone standing over Maratova, something heavy and dark in their hands. They had obviously hit him over the head, and in doing so had saved my life.
The person dropped to their knees right beside me. In a sudden and erratic slice of light that filtered in through one of the windows behind me, I saw Amanda.
I couldn't answer; I could hardly breathe. I was only holding onto consciousness, staving off the blackness looming at the edges of my vision. I was choking and coughing hard, throat wheezing as I tried to suck in breath after breath.
Amanda leaned over me, grabbed both my shoulders, and in another flash of light I saw the expression on her face. Her brow was pulled up, her eyebrows peaked in the middle, her lips open wide, her cheek slack. She was worried, she was worried about me.
“God, are you alright, are you okay?” she asked, words jumbled together.
After I managed to suck in enough breath, the darkness at the edges of my vision subsided, and I managed to push myself up.
Amanda put a hand on my shoulder to steady me. “Are you okay?”
It was obvious I wasn't okay; I had almost been choked to death by the world's greatest psychopath. But I managed to nod my head in a complete lie.
“Are you okay?” I asked her, my throat so growly and croaky I sounded as though I was recovering from a week-long cold.
She nodded vehemently. Obviously it was also another lie, as I doubted she could be that okay considering the day she’d had. But her enthusiasm counted for something.
I sat on my own, still panting, but not about to lose consciousness any time soon. I rubbed my throat, as if to convince myself it was still there and wasn't the crumpled mess it would have been if Amanda hadn’t clocked Maratova on the head in time.
I let out a heavy sigh and managed to push myself to my feet. Amanda was there every step of the way, hovering next to me like a protective mother hen. Though her movement was distracting and made me smile, I turned my head to that dark shadow of Maratova on the floor.
I didn't like to kill people; it was illegal for a very good reason. Murder was abhorrent. Killing could only ever be the last option after you'd exhausted every other means to solve a solution. That being said, in that instant I still felt the desire to reach around to the gun still tucked into the back of my pants and shoot Maratova.
He was a monster, fuck it, he was a monster.
The feeling passed. It was obvious he wasn't going to get up any time soon; Amanda had done a sterling job in knocking him out.
I still pulled my gun out though.
Gun in one hand, I dropped beside Maratova, pressing my fingers into the side of his throat, trying to get a pulse. He had one alright; the big brute wasn’t dead.
“Let's go,” I called over to Amanda.
“Where?” she asked. “Is everything fine? Are all the criminals gone? Is the army here?”
When she wanted to, Amanda could ask several million questions at once. She could bombard you like a machine gun. But in her position I would be asking questions too.
“No, they are still downstairs, and this is still a bad situation,” I said truthfully.
She gave nod. “How do we—”
“Get out of here. A miracle,” I shrugged, “And if that doesn't work, we find a nice place to hide and we wait it out.”
With the amount of firepower gunning it out downstairs and outside, I didn't think I could safely shepherd Amanda out of the house.
I nodded towards the open attic door.
It had been a stroke of luck finding Amanda in time.
Jesus Christ, I would never forget the rush of blood to my head as I saw the ladder leading to the attic, and heard the thumps and shouts from above.
“Where should we go?” Amanda asked by my side.
I had no idea; this was her house. Or, technically her great-uncle’s estate, as I had no doubt that Imelda Stanton would sell this place off as soon as all the junk was cleared from it.
As I motioned Amanda to the attic door, I heard footsteps on the floor below. Heavy footsteps, followed by fairly gruff shouts, the kind of gruff shouts that told me the shouters were not sodding army, because nobody that trained would give away their position so easily.
I silently mouthed a litany of swear words and shook my head in desperation as I grabbed Amanda’s hand.
I pulled her away from the trapdoor and down to the other end of the attic.
I heard a shout from downstairs, fancied I even picked up several words, among them 'attic' and 'Maratova.’
Right at the other end of the long attic sat an array of furniture lined up against the wall. We made our way to it just in time as I heard Maratova's men begin to climb the ladder.
I searched for a good hiding place, but before I could find one, Amanda began tugging my hand, pointing in the dark to a heavy chest of drawers off to my side. I couldn’t see anything, but I let her pull me along until we made it to the chest of drawers. It was in the corner, one of the only windows in the attic above it, one of the long walls of the house on its other side. When I reached it I realized there was a considerable gap behind it.
I let Amanda go in first, and she dropped to her knees, breaking my grip as she squeezed into the gap. With a final look at the rest of the attic, briefly spying several dark shadows as they popped their heads up from the floor below, I crouched and followed Amanda.
Though I tried to keep my hearing trained on the steps of Maratova's men, I couldn't filter out Amanda's breathing. It was heavy, stark, and with my arm pressed up against hers, I could feel her body shake every time she inhaled and exhaled. It wasn't even that loud, and she had a hand clasped over her mouth, but for some reason I couldn't help but give it my full attention.
Jesus Christ, what had I put this woman through?
As we huddled in the corner, our sides pressed together, sharing the pressured silence, waiting for whatever would happen next, I kept a firm grip on my gun. My guess was there were no more than three of Maratova's men in the attic with us, and I couldn’t hear any more on the level below. That being said, the sound of the storm outside had intensified, the roar of the wind punctuated with the sound of driving rain.
There was a flash and a resounding clap of thunder. The flash was powerful and lit up the attic. Something caught my attention. There was something written on the back of the chest of drawers. A large 12 was painted on the back in black ink. It was curious, the exact curve and shape of the number drawn with a careful artistic hand, and not the usual scribble you would expect if the 12 had been left over from a showroom or clearinghouse.
I didn't have time to wonder what it truly meant, because I heard the not-so-welcome sound of several footsteps nearing us. There was also the sound of low, hushed voices. I could swear they were talking about Maratova. Obviously they’d found him, and if they had found him, I didn't doubt they could find us too. These weren’t idiots we were dealing with; these were highly-trained freekin' criminals. They would realize a man like Maratova wouldn't trip over in an attic in the dark and knock himself on the head.
Though I still couldn't make out their exact words, I could appreciate the sudden tone and shift in their voices.
Oh fuckity fuck fuck fuck. Had Maratova woken up? There were grunts, followed by what I could recognize as swear words, and some low growling. Nobody growled like Maratova, not even a cornered lion.
Though Amanda was trying her hardest to hide her breathing, both her hands clutched over her mouth, I could still hear it. God dammit, it seemed to echo through the room, mine joining with hers, as if we were screaming to Maratova and his men where to find us.
There was another flash of light and an enormous clap of thunder, the storm now in full swing.
I redoubled my grip on the gun, convincing myself I could at least take out Maratova and maybe one other guy before I was shot myself.
I squeezed my eyes closed, and in a snap opened them again, ready for what I knew would come next.
It was horrible. I was huddled here waiting as footsteps neared us.
I began to shake, violent body-tingling convulsions that ripped from my head to my feet.
That would be when Sebastian reached out and softly touched my arm.
The soft, gentle move had a miraculous effect on me. It kindled my courage and reminded me this wasn’t done yet.
I could sense Sebastian tensing beside me, likely getting ready to jump from our hidey hole and shoot at Maratova and his men. Though Sebastian was capable at these things, I didn’t doubt it would end with him being shot.
I had to do something.
There was another clap of thunder and another enormous flash of light. The light lit up the room, but all I could see was the back of the chest of drawers and the curious perfect 12 that was painted on the back. After the illumination of the lightning subsided, I saw yet another slice of light cross through the room, belonging to a helicopter braving the storm.
That was my opportunity. I snapped up, planting both hands on the chest of drawers and shoving hard. It teetered and slammed into the floorboards with a reverberating thump.
Instantly they started shooting at us. Several bullets zipping past me, but I paid no attention as I picked up one of the large, sturdy legs that had come loose from the chest and I leaped forward.
Sebastian began to shoot, and at the same time tried to pull me back.
As the bullets rang right past me, clipping the flesh at the side of my arm, I made it to the window behind the chest of drawers. Before Sebastian could jump towards me and tackle me to the ground, I swung the wooden leg at the window.
The old glass smashed, scattering towards me as the wind caught it.
I ducked, crumpling into a ball as several bullets slammed into what remained of the window.
That would be when one of the roaming lights from outside belonging to that awfully timely helicopter zeroed in on the room. It shone right through the smashed window, illuminating the attic and lighting up the four men standing at the other end. The four men who happened to be armed and naughty, naughty criminals.
My stupid plan had worked.
Before Maratova and his men could do anything, a blast of machine-gun sliced into the attic.
I huddled against the wall, hands over my head.
“Stay where you are, hands up,” a loud voice echoed over the powerful megaphone from the helicopter outside.
From the other side of the attic another light sliced through the far window, yet another helicopter flying into place. The same threat was repeated, with another spattering of machine-gun fire to hammer the point home.
They were surrounded.
It was over.
Not too long after that I witnessed the compelling and welcome sight of several soldiers rappelling into my attic from a helicopter, several more climbing up the ladder from downstairs. They surrounded and disarmed Maratova and his men. Although they went to disarm Sebastian too, one of them recognized him and waved the other soldiers off.
For my part, I sat there, back pressed against the wall, legs splayed, a confused look on my face. Several soldiers asked me if I was okay, and I nodded. Sebastian, on the other hand, kept looking at me and shaking his head. It wasn't until Mark himself appeared to take Maratova and his men away, that Sebastian walked over and sat next to me, his back against the same wall as mine, and his legs splayed in the same fashion.
It was over. It was bloody well over.
“You,” Sebastian spoke to me, “Are nuts.”
“You,” I said with a light swallow, “Are a jerk.”
He took a deep breath. “I am sorry.”
It wasn't what I was expecting. Sebastian Shaw didn’t seem to be the kind of guy who ever apologized, let alone accepted responsibility for a mistake. Yet here he was, doing both.
“This is mostly my fault,” he added in a low but still clear tone, “And I'm sorry.”
I turned to him. I considered him for some time, lips pressed together. “You should be,” I said after a while. “But thank you for saving me.”
He nodded with a jerky movement. “Thank you for saving me too.”
Silence spread between us again, punctuated by the dying rain outside.
“Are we going to sit here all night?” Sebastian asked.
“Well, that all depends on if this is all over or not,” I said through a sigh, bringing my legs up and hugging them. “You said before that every man, his dog, and his team of mercenaries are after my globes – does that mean there’s more to come?”
He didn't answer right away, but then he shook his head. “I doubt it, what happened here tonight will soon spread.”
“That doesn't mean they won't stop trying, right? As long as those criminals and whatnot think I still have those globes, they’re still going to come after me, aren't they?” My head was still turned his way. I was keen to pick up his expression not just his words.
He shrugged. “You don't have the other globes, Amanda. And that news will spread.”
“Are you sure they’ll give up? You said they would do anything to get their hands on them. Look what it did to Maratova,” I said, voice scratchy.
“And look what it did to me,” Sebastian added in a dull voice.
“What?” I craned my neck as I stared at him in interest.
“I… I’m a fucking bastard. I got you into this mess. The army were never after you, Amanda. They only ever wanted to find the globes and protect you. I lied to you… I kept you away from them because I wanted those globes to myself.” He stared at his hands, never glancing at me once. “I’ve been looking for them my whole life. They’re everything to me. And I thought if I handed you over to the army, I’d never get a chance to find them. So, Amanda,” he finally turned to me, gaze blazing with honesty, “I’m a lying bastard, and I am so goddamn sorry for putting you through this.”
I didn’t react.
I might have been justified in slapping him or grabbing a weapon and clocking him over the head. But I couldn’t. Because despite his lies, he’d still saved me from Maratova. He’d still manned up and called the army.
Sebastian Shaw was no hero. Maybe he wasn’t a total jerk either. He was somewhere in the middle, which made him just an ordinary man.
“Sorry, Amanda,” he offered in a quiet tone.
I let out an enormous sigh, chest punching out.
Yes, he was sorry – anyone would be able to tell that.
As I let go of any residual hatred towards him, I remembered something. “Hey, the pendant from the lighthouse, do you still have it?”
He leaned forward and grabbed his jacket, pulling it open and patting the internal pocket. He drew it out. Rather than hold it up to the light and look at the inscription on the back, he handed it over to me. “This belongs to you, Amanda,” he said through a thin smile.
I accepted it with a soft “thank you,” and with a small kick of excitement rippling through my stomach.
I read the inscription on the back. “The beginning brings 12, the end brings 12.” That was it. I read it out to Sebastian in shaky voice.
Sebastian pushed up and stood beside me. He repeated the passage and shrugged. “You’re Arthur Stanton’s great-niece, the only reason I brought you along in the first place—”
“Is that you're a jerk,” I replied quickly.
“Is that I'm a jerk,” he agreed, “But it’s also that you think like him. You think crazy.”
I put my hands on my hips and shook my head at him. “And you think mean; I will stick with my way.”
Then I got drawn into the clue. The beginning brings 12, the end brings 12. What could it mean?
Both of us turned to each other, both saying the same word at once “12!”
The 12, the perfect 12 painted on the back of the chest of drawers. The chest of drawers I had destroyed earlier in my attempt to defeat Maratova and his men.
It hit me. The two windows in the attic: one of them would let in the morning sun, and one of them would let in the setting sun. This chest of drawers, if I wasn’t much mistaken, would have sat roughly in the middle of the attic before all the furniture had been moved around to collect all that lovely treasure. If that chest of drawers had sat in the middle of the room, then in the morning the 12 on the back would have been illuminated by the sunshine, and in the evening the 12 at the front would have been illuminated by the setting sun. In other words, the beginning of the day would bring 12 and the end of the day would bring 12.
Both of us turned to stare at the shambles of the broken chest of drawers to our side. Soon I realized that engraved on the front of one of the drawers, probably the one that had sat in the center, was a beautiful gold-leaf 12.
Sebastian dropped to his knees and began searching through the broken wood and drawers at our feet. I joined him, though I didn't know what I was looking for. I assumed we would find another clue, and I thought it would be cleverly written on the back of one of the drawers.
I heard Sebastian's breath stick in his throat, and I saw him lift up the back of the chest of drawers. On the inside of the wood, directly opposite the perfectly painted 12, was a small box. It wasn't that much bigger than two fists put together, and considering its size could have remained within the body of the chest of drawers forever without somebody noticing.
Though I still thought we were going to find another clue inside, I realized Sebastian was starting to shake. His shoulders were shivering, and I reasoned he might be cold from the drafty attic considering it had two gaping windows.
I moved over to his side.
Whatever it was, Sebastian didn’t thankfully smash it on the ground and start stamping on it to open it. Nor did he dash down to the garden shed and find a spade to whack it with. No, he opened it, finding a latch somewhere and lifting the small lid.
I leaned over his shoulder in time to see him pull out a small object. It took me a while to realize it was a small spotting globe.
“Jesus Christ, we found it,” Sebastian said, voice shaking.
“What—” I began.
“It's one of the Stargazers,” Sebastian said, voice reverent.
“But it’s so small.” I protested.
“They don't all look the same,” Sebastian said, voice shaking into a laugh.
“But…” I trailed off. Had we honestly found another Stargazer? Sebastian wasn't lying to me, was he? He wasn't joking, was he? Considering my day and night, I wasn't in a joking mood. Yet as I watched Sebastian cradle the small spotting globe, saw the slack-jawed look of wonder on his face, I realized he was serious.
He began to laugh harder, a gargantuan grin spreading across his face. “I thought it would take my whole life to find one of these,” he said, “And all it took was a day with you.”
I blushed, thankful the light was too dim to make out the exact hue of my cheeks. “What does this mean? It doesn't belong to me, or us even. The only reason I sold the other one was Imelda wasn’t interested in it, and told me to put it up for auction. But all that money goes back into the residuary of the estate. And Imelda’s the principal beneficiary.”
Well that put a dampener on Sebastian's mood. Though he still held the globe reverently, he let it drop to his side.
He took a moment, and I was aware of his breathing. “It's okay, Amanda.”
“It is?” I questioned automatically. Though I hadn’t known him long, I’d known him long enough to know these Stargazer things were important to him. And I was starting to appreciate that if something was important to Sebastian, he didn’t let it slip.
“It's okay,” he said again, “It's a treasure map. Plus,” I could see him smile in the dark, “I know about Imelda Stanton – and the old girl wouldn’t sell something like this. Plus, you know where she lives.”
I gave a stuttering cough. “Are you suggesting trying to steal it from my great-aunt?”
He put his hands up. “I’m a lawyer,” he said in a quick, sarcastic voice. “I’m suggesting that, if ever we feel the need, we can always borrow it from her. Plus,” his voice grew more serious, “The Stargazers only work once you’ve got the whole set. So we can let Imelda hold onto it for now.”
I gave a soft laugh, which ended in a sigh and somehow transformed into an enormous yawn.
“I think you've had enough for today. Time to go to bed, Amanda Stanton.” He reached a hand over and patted my head distractedly.
I flushed, heart giving a pleasant shudder. “But there are still criminals in my library.”
“They are all being taken away by the army,” he assured me.
“There are soldiers on my lawn,” I pointed out through another yawn.
“I'm sure they are packing up as we speak.”
I closed my eyes. I couldn't believe it was all over. Despite Sebastian's assurances that every crooked crook in the neighborhood would soon get the picture I didn’t have the Stargazer Globes and leave me alone, I still couldn't shake the feeling that all of this wasn’t over.
But Sebastian was right, it was over for tonight.
One week later, after the police and army had moved on, my safety apparently assured, I had a visit from my lawyer, which was a funny thing considering I’d never had a lawyer. But that’s what Sebastian was calling himself, and who was I to disagree.
With the morning sunshine filtering in through the shambles of my kitchen door, Sebastian and I sat on the stoop and watched the sunshine warm up the countryside. He’d brought a box full of pastries and cakes from the village, and I was enjoying a chocolaty one as I stared at a bird washing itself in the birdbath.
Sebastian, as he was my self-appointed lawyer, had demanded I show him all legal documents regarding my great-uncle's last will and testament, and he was pouring over them, a pastry in one hand that he kept going to bite, but pulling away from every time he flicked to a new page. Sebastian the lawyer was a different creature to Sebastian the treasure hunter, though they both wore the same suit and were both equally handsome.
Sebastian kept shaking his head, and I reached for another pastry.
“That's four of those you have had,” Sebastian noted as he licked his finger and turned another page, never looking up at me, apparently absorbed by the boring documents instead.
“I think you will find I have earned these,” I said after I took another enormous bite at a pastry, “I did a lot of running last week.”
“Good point, finish them all off,” he said with a nod of agreement, still staring at the documents on his lap.
He honestly did look absorbed by them. I couldn't guess at why he found them so damn interesting, but soon a wry smile curled his lips.
“Did your great-uncle leave you anything in the will?” He looked up at me, taking a small bite from his pastry.
“He left me some money. I haven't received it yet; he didn't have any cash flow when he died, but I think it's meant to be taken out of the estate once this place is sold,” I said and I couldn't stop my voice from dropping, as I was fond of this place. Yes, it held some pretty uncomfortable memories for me, but even the knowledge that every criminal in Christendom had traipsed through it still didn’t ruin the appeal. It was the kind of place that, if looked after properly, would be a beautiful home for the rest of your life.
“Nothing else?” Sebastian asked, voice professional.
I couldn't help but smile at the change in him. I still remembered the man who’d teased me and strung me along. “There was a gift, but it didn't go to probate, because no one could find it. It doesn’t exist anymore.” I shrugged.
“Do you know what the gift was called?” Sebastian still had that professional look to him.
“I can't remember, I think it was in Ancient Greek or something.”
Sebastian nodded. He looked like he had a secret, a secret that was tugging at the corner of his lips and making him smile in the most charming of ways. “Ancient Greek for stargazer perhaps?”
I frowned at him. “No, I think it was light map or something. Anyhow, there was obviously nothing like that in his estate, so the gift failed...”
“Amanda,” he winked at me, “I'm fairly proficient at Ancient Greek—”
“As well as arrogance,” I interrupted automatically.
He smiled easily at my jibe but continued. “Amanda, trust me, because I have a feeling my Ancient Greek is better than yours.” He pulled up one of the pieces of paper he’d been pouring over and handed it to me. “Is this a copy of your Great-Uncle Arthur Stanton's last will and testament?”
I laughed at the excessively professional move, and managed to nod.
“I am happy to inform you, Amanda Stanton, my client,” there was a distinct kink to his lips, “There has been a mistake, and the gift referred to here,” he pointed to a section of the will, “Has been mistranslated. It should not read light map, but stargazers, and I think you will find there are items within your great-uncle’s estate that match the terms of that gift.”
My lip wobbled down. “The will has already been finalized,” my voice was quiet.
“I think you'll find I am a good lawyer.”
“Sebastian... I’m not sure I want the Stargazers. Look at all the trouble they’ve already caused me.” I gestured to the door we were sitting next to, the one that had been broken by world-class criminals.
“Look,” he smiled again, “As your lawyer, I can suggest selling the globe, using the funds to, I don't know, maybe buy a nice house in the country.” He pointed to the kitchen, clearly indicating the house we were already in.
I stared across at him, lips parted. “I do not want to go through another one of those auctions,” I answered honestly.
He burst into a low laugh. “Neither do I. This time I suggest I find you a client and we sell it off quietly.”
I looked at him. “Why don't I give it to you?” I said quietly, saying the thought as soon as it leaped into my mind, even if it was the stupidest thing to do.
He looked at me steadily, and smiled. Though I’d seen Sebastian smile before, I hadn’t seen a smile like this. It was personal. It left a large question mark in my mind about my new lawyer Sebastian Shaw – a question mark that invited me to scratch the surface and find out who he truly was.
He shook his head. “Though as a treasure hunter I would be willing to take you up on your ridiculously generous offer, Amanda, as your lawyer, I advise against it. I can help you find a client to sell it to,” he put up a hand before I could look at him worriedly, “A perfectly legal and dignified client. Possibly the army.”
I shrugged. “Seems fair. What about you? Aren’t you still a treasure hunter?”
“Don't worry about me, Amanda, Mark wouldn't keep it all from me anyway. He’s an alright soldier, but he is a terrible treasure hunter. The army will call on me, and thankfully this time they won't send Maratova along for the fun.”
I grimaced as he mentioned that horrible man's name. “But you won't get to keep the treasure yourself.”
“It's never about keeping the treasure for yourself, it's about finding it,” he said, a curious tone to his voice. “Plus.” he drew something out from the deep pocket inside his jacket.
It was my great-uncle's journal. I’d forgotten about it. What with one thing and another, I hadn't bothered to remember that within those yellowed and dried pages were the potential locations of the remaining three globes.
He leaned back on the stoop, handed me the journal, and stared out at the beautiful morning beyond. “You know, Amanda, you are pretty good at treasure hunting. You're better at running away from trouble, but sometimes those two things go hand-in-hand.” He turned to me, a particularly inviting smile on his lips, “If you are ever interested in finding more treasure...” he shrugged and trailed off.
My instant reaction was to laugh at him. Considering the amount of 'trouble' I’d run away from last week, there was no way I was ever going to put myself in a situation like that again. Then I let my eyes drift down to the journal in my hands, and a small but familiar kick of exhilaration crept through my gut. Though it had been horrible, at times it had been exciting.
As a girl I had sat on my great-uncle's lap and listened with perfect attention as he’d told me stories of adventure, danger, and treasure. I had imagined, way back then, that I would grow up to have similar adventures of my own.
Sebastian kept looking at me, and the offer was clear, and with the distinct curl to his lips it almost seemed as if there was something else on offer too.
Could I, mild-mannered Amanda Stanton, become a treasure hunter?
“It would be dangerous,” Sebastian added with a shrug, “Very dangerous.”
“I've dealt with dangerous,” I said softly.
“There would be a lot of trouble; there’s always trouble,” he added with a sniff.
“I have dealt with trouble too.” I didn't take my eyes off him. “I am sure I would still need a good lawyer to help me through it, though.”
Sebastian cracked into a grin and I mirrored it all the way.
“I'm a great lawyer,” he said, “Among other things,” he added with a pretend formal nod.
“Apparently I'm a pretty good treasure hunter.” I sucked in my lips and gave a cheeky grin.
“I think we might make a damn good team, then, Amanda Stanton,” Sebastian said.
It was crazy, it was insane, it was, mad – but I agreed with him.
I picked up my great-uncle's journal and opened it on my lap.
Two Stargazers down, three to go.
Thank you for reading Trouble and Treasure. The next book in this series – The Cross of Constantine – is currently available. There are six books in this series, and all of them are currently available.