“Get the woman up. We’re leaving,” Breem growled.
Nicolas heard the connection go dead, held the phone out for inspection, and shook his head. “Yeah, Boss, no problem.”
With this sudden order from Breem, he rolled over on his bed, kicked at his partner on the other double-sized bed, and looked across the room to Elisabeth.
She was staring back at him, as awake as Nicolas had seen her last, a few short hours before. “Got some good sleep there, did ya, girl?” he said. She was wide awake, glowering at him and saying nothing.
Billy grumbled and sat up. He took in the scene and remembered how Nicolas and Elisabeth had quietly battled a war of words and attitudes the previous evening. It started when Nicolas had retied her hands to the chair. Billy began to laugh hysterically at the scene—until Nicolas kicked at him again.
“Get up, asshole. Breem is coming. We’re finally leaving this godforsaken country,” Nicolas said to his partner as he straightened his trousers and pulled on his jacket. Despite his boss’s obsession and Billy’s truculence of late, Nicolas held two priorities: one, having Elisabeth for himself, and two, getting back home. California’s eastern Bay Area was the only place he had ever lived. Despite the reputation of large portions of the region’s cities, or because of it, Nicolas felt the East Bay would continue to be his home. It certainly was not, nor would it ever be, England, he considered as he made the few steps around the room and toward Elisabeth, a tight grin returning to his round face.
“Well, girly, let’s get you untied. Your best buddy, Walter, and his new Brit friend are waiting for us downstairs,” he sneered at her.
Elisabeth continued to stare at the man and asked, “Who is this new friend Breem was talking about last night?” She knew it was not a good idea to antagonize Nicolas, but she believed the more information she had, the better. It couldn’t hurt—well, not hurt any worse than it already had—to probe him further, she thought.
Untying her hands, Nicolas said to Elisabeth, “You still think you’re gonna get out of this, don’t ya? Well, Breem has other plans. With his new Brit friend’s help, we’re gonna get on the road, and no one will even know we were here.”
Nicolas then directed his attention toward his partner. “Get your ass up, Billy. Breem wants you to drive that piece-of-crap car out of here. We’ll dump it somewhere along the way. Get down there and clean it up. We don’t want to leave any signs that we were ever here in this country-bumpkin hell hole,” Nicolas said, demanding Billy’s compliance.
Elisabeth could still sense the animosity Nicolas had toward Billy, a bitterness between the two men she had observed the previous day. Billy seldom ever had much to say, and his conduct was a far cry from Nicolas’s macho demeanor. And Nicolas was often riding his partner hard, badgering him and ridiculing him. Elisabeth was not quite clear why, but she was sure that Nicolas’s odd behavior had something to do with her. The two men had always been tight back in the days so many years ago on the Meekses’ estate with Breem, she recalled.
Nicolas turned back to Elisabeth and said, “Not that you need to know, but his name is Hamish. I’ll just call him Ham-boy. A friend of mine back in Nor Cal hooked Breem up with him, though the old man has never thanked me for put’n’ them together.”
Elisabeth again noticed a widening rift forming in Breem’s weary gang. She wondered if that division was something she could leverage to her advantage. Time would tell.
* * *
At the inspector’s command, her gray Vauxhall sedan sped down the narrow A591 road. Placed there by the inspector as she and Michael left the B and B, a tiny blue light flashed from the car’s rooftop. The other cars they came across slowed down and pulled over to let them pass. At this rate, they would cover the dozen or so miles in even fewer minutes, Michael believed.
His emotions were high, but he remained silent, hoping Elisabeth would be found safe. Moments earlier, before they made their way to the inspector’s car, the inspector had simply said to Michael, “Don’t let your expectations run wild, but we’ve had a report that the red sedan in question is at the Days Inn hotel out on Killington Lake, just off the M6 motorway.”
“Did… um… did your officer say if they had seen Elisabeth or that pale man who had her?” he asked with an uncontrollable crackle and tightness in his voice. His expectations were running wild, he noted.
“No, Michael. My request that our officers look out for the car did not come with further instructions. To be honest with you, at the time, I just didn’t put much credibility to your story. That was two days ago. My appraisal of the situation is different now, as you can tell by my driving.”
“Thank you, Inspector. I do understand,” replied Michael, unable to summon any other words.
“Don’t worry. We’ll soon enough have this all sorted out,” the inspector said back to him as she glanced his way. She was not sure the man would make it to Kendal; he appeared about to burst, in her estimation.
* * *
Elisabeth had not warmed to the idea of going back to California with Breem and his henchmen, but Breem was threatening Monica’s well-being back in California. Hope was fading in her mind, and she had no new ideas brewing in her head for an escape or for her rescue. Even worse, she had no other way to save Monica and no clue how to keep the men from the collection she had promised to protect.
The only tiny fragment of optimism that remained in her heart was the possibility that Michael had recognized her desperate circumstances and was looking for her, maybe even with the police. She had been holding on to that hope for a long time now and would continue to hold on to it for dear life. She had nothing more to believe in. She walked out of the room behind the pale man, Billy, and ahead of the ugly one, Nicolas. Breem had gone downstairs earlier to meet Hamish in the hotel’s parking lot.
“Just keep walking, and don’t say a word, or that lovely Moni will be mine, too,” Nicolas said in a threatening manner.
His unique way of putting fear in the hearts of women was his special brand of cruelty, and the older he became, the more he seemed to enjoy doing so, Elisabeth realized.
The three made their way down the stairs, through a sparsely decorated and rather tacky lobby, and then out through the large glass entranceway.
Billy veered off to the left and toward his car, a stolen piece of junk that they would dump before arriving at the airport in Manchester. Making plans for their exit the evening before, Breem had wanted to ensure they left no evidence of their time in Kendal or Staveley. The men had paid cash for everything, and the car had been stolen by someone in their new British network specifically for their use.
Nicolas prodded Elisabeth in the direction of a black Mercedes G-Wagon parked twenty yards off to their right. Breem was standing there talking with a tall, youngish man of large build. This new man wore a suit, too, one made of a dark-blue material. And he had no sun glasses, Elisabeth noticed. Still, she knew the type.
She had no baggage, and Nicolas had only a small black leather duffel bag. With a slight sweep of her vision, she found no fresh options, no new hope. She would have to go back to California with these terrible men. No hope, she thought again.
Elisabeth quickly admonished herself for the thought and said quietly, “There is always hope.”
Nicolas looked over at her and laughed, saying, “Not today, girly. Not today.”
As they neared the shiny, chrome-accented Mercedes-Benz, Breem started making commands of her and Nicolas. He grabbed Elisabeth’s elbow as Nicolas tossed his bag in the back seat of the sport-utility vehicle. While Breem physically guided her, and as she made a turn and stepped around an open rear door, she saw a fast-moving car in her peripheral vision pulling into the carpark. Taking notice of the car and seeing its occupants, Elisabeth was overcome by a rush of frantic emotions. Involuntarily, she shouted out, “Michael!”
* * *
Michael saw Elisabeth at the very same moment and pointed in her direction, shouting at the inspector, “There she is! The black Mercedes, over there!”
The inspector could see an older man anxiously shoving a woman with blonde hair into the back seat of a large black SUV. She also noticed other men rushing to get into the vehicle. Seeking a blocking point, the inspector directed her Vauxhall sedan to a position between the Mercedes and the exit of the large parking lot.
The SUV’s supercharged V8 engine roared to life, and the vehicle sped in a direction toward the exit of the carpark, doors slamming shut on the sudden launching. The massive vehicle’s tires screeched as the driver handily navigated around parked cars, meridians, and landscaping.
The inspector smiled because she sensed she could use her car to create an excellent pinch point before the larger vehicle could pass her and Michael and speed away.
From nowhere in her sight, a red car moving at a perpendicular angle to her position suddenly barreled toward her own car. The inspector slammed on the brakes just as a red flash careened past the front of her vehicle, slammed into a parked car, and consequently blocked her pursuit of Elisabeth’s captors.
The inspector yelled out, “Damn it! Where did he come from?”
Michael, again riding on a sudden rush of adrenaline, opened his car door and vainly ran toward the Mercedes SUV. The huge vehicle was immediately out of the lot, making a quick left onto the byway that led to the M6, south. Turning away with frustration, he placed his attention on the now-smashed sedan.
Billy shook off the effects of his self-directed wrecking. He used his leg as leverage and pushed hard to open the driver’s-side door, which was mashed against the front fender currently shoved back by the impact. He jumped out of the sedan and made a run for the nearby woods paralleling the lake.
Michael mercilessly ran after Billy. In a few powerful strides, he overtook the pale man and tackled him from behind, quickly pressing the man to the ground before actually sitting on the man’s chest.
Billy flailed his legs at his captor. With a free hand, he reached for a switchblade knife in one pocket of his jacket.
Michael spun about, his bones digging deeply into the pale man’s chest. He stomped down hard with one foot on Billy’s skinny wrist, right after Billy drew the knife out and extended the blade. Michael added a bit more pressure to his foot on the man’s wrist, and the shiny, nickel-plated knife fell harmlessly to the grass.
“Well done, Mr. Seltzer!” the inspector yelled across from her car as she stood behind the open car door. “Well done, indeed.”
Michael’s heart was racing. He continued to subdue Billy and was quite proud of his efforts. But he thought of two immediate concerns: the inspector was using his surname again, and as right as he had been about the situation, Elisabeth was gone, taken from him once again.
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