Authors: Gabriel Hunt,Christa Faust
Tags: #Fiction, #Thriller
AS TOLD TO
NEW YORK CITY
Fiona stood in the center of the room, bound to one of several thick wooden pillars with her hands above her head. Her dress was torn nearly to her waist and her shapely legs were scratched and bruised, but she held her chin high, eyes blazing. The pillar to which she had been tied was bristling with throwing knives, their wicked points buried in the ancient wood all around her. The rider in the fur hat stood before her, now revealed as a tall, brutish man with long gray hair, a sharp forked beard and an expression of avid hunger. The man held several knives in one large hand like a deadly bouquet. He transferred one to his empty hand, then smiled and licked his lips.
“I told you…” Fiona began to say.
The man raised his elbow to the ceiling and then brought his arm swiftly downward, letting the knife fly. It sank deep into the wood a bare millimeter from Fiona’s temple. She yelped as she tried to twist away and found her head trapped, a thick lock of her hair pinned to the wood by the blade.
Gabriel’s hand reflexively drew his Colt. The man in the fur hat switched another knife to his empty hand.
Gabriel raised the Colt so its barrel was aimed directly at the knife thrower’s forehead. He called out: “Put the knives down and let her go.”
With stunning speed, the man spun and let the blade fly in Gabriel’s direction…
“I’d ask what a nice girl like you is doing in a place like this,” Gabriel told the brunette sitting at the bar with her back to him. “But I already know exactly what you’re doing.”
The brunette spun, reaching for the revolver beside her glass, but Gabriel grabbed her wrist before she could raise it to draw a bead between his eyes.
“I also know you’re not a very nice girl,” Gabriel said, tightening his grip and meeting her furious gaze without flinching.
The bar was a murky, nameless Moldovan hole-in-the-wall, spitting distance from the Transdniestrian border. The angry brunette was Dr. Fiona Rush, professor in Cambridge University’s prestigious archeology department and partner in Gabriel Hunt’s latest Eastern European expedition. She had also been Gabriel’s lover, which made it all the worse when she’d doublecrossed him and run off with the legendary jewel-encrusted Cossack dagger they’d come here to find. There were some who claimed that the
was cursed, that it would bring sorrow and strife to anyone who possessed it. After everything he’d been through in the past few days, Gabriel was inclined to agree.
When Gabriel grabbed Fiona’s wrist, all conversation around them abruptly ceased. Several men nearby, taller even than Gabriel and twice as wide, raised weapons and cold, hostile glares and aimed both in Gabriel’s direction. For a tense stretch of seconds, nothing happened. A Romanian melody fought its way through the static on a cheap transistor radio behind the bar. The ancient, toothless bartender suddenly remembered something critical that needed to be done right away in the storeroom in the back. Gabriel silently tried to decide which of the armed men posed the most serious threat and to measure where they were located in relation to both the front and back doors. He did not let go of Fiona’s wrist.
Fiona shook her head, offering a few curt words in Romanian. The thugs pocketed their various weapons, some more reluctantly than others. They all continued to stare at Gabriel with undisguised hostility. It was clear it wouldn’t take much for the weapons to reappear. Gabriel let Fiona go, but stayed alert and wary.
“Have a drink,” Fiona said, casually, as if she’d just happened to run into an old friend. She took an extra glass from the rack above the bar and poured a generous knock of the rich Moldovan brandy known as
. “You must be thirsty.”
“I don’t want a drink,” Gabriel said, pushing the glass away. “I want the
“You’re not still cross about that, are you?” Fiona smiled and topped off her own glass from the dusty bottle. “Honestly, it was nothing personal.”
“Did you think you could just cut me out and sell to the highest bidder?” Gabriel asked. “That dagger is a significant historical artifact. It should be on display
in a museum, not locked up by some rich collector. You of all people ought to know that.”
“You know what your problem is, Gabriel?” Fiona arched a dark eyebrow. “You’re still laboring under this charmingly anachronistic sense of right and wrong. This is the twenty-first century. You need to be more…” She took a sip of her
and looked up at Gabriel with the sultry gaze that had gotten him into this trouble in the first place. “More flexible.”
“No more games, Fiona,” Gabriel said. “I know you’re planning on meeting your buyer in this bar, but I also know you’re too smart to have the
on hand for the negotiation. So where is it?”
“We could split the money,” Fiona said, dropping a hand to Gabriel’s thigh. “We can just claim the
was stolen. That sort of thing happens all the time in this part of the world. No one will ever be the wiser.”
“Where is it?” Gabriel asked again, pushing her hand away. “I’m asking nicely. Next time I ask, it won’t be so nice.”
“You really are going to be tedious about this, aren’t you?” Fiona sighed and emptied her glass, but when she tried for another refill, she found the bottle empty. “Fine, I’ll take you to it. But first let’s have one more drink, shall we? For old time’s sake.”
She gestured to the bartender, who had tentatively crept back to his post when it appeared there would be no violence after all. Holding her glass up high, she called out something in Romanian that caused the entire bar to turn her way. Amazingly, the chilly scowls all melted into broad, gap-toothed smiles. Glasses were raised all around and suddenly Gabriel was surrounded by thick, strapping men slapping him on the back and shaking his hand.
“What the hell did you say to them?” Gabriel asked, searching for Fiona between the moving mountain range of giant shoulders and flushed, grinning faces. Romanian was one of the few Eastern European languages he didn’t speak even a cursory amount of.
“I told them drinks were on you,” Fiona said with a smirk as the bartender obligingly opened a bottle of vodka and began filling upraised glasses. “I also said that you were a big American movie director from Hollywood looking for Moldovans to cast in your new picture.”
An enormous ox with a blond beard suddenly pulled Gabriel into an aromatic bear hug as if he were a long lost brother. Someone began singing a patriotic song loud and off key and the ox enthusiastically joined in, slapping Gabriel’s back so hard it nearly knocked him off his feet. Another equally large but beardless man tapped Gabriel on the shoulder and began demonstrating a terrifyingly drunken knife trick on the bar, weaving the blade back and forth between fat sausage fingers.
Gabriel tried to keep Fiona in view, but she vanished between two of the bar’s larger patrons.
Gabriel pressed far too many Moldovan
into the astonished bartender’s hand and bullied his way through the crowd toward the open back door. He was almost waylaid by a pair of eager Moldovans clamoring for their free drink, but he managed to break free and make it to the door. When he burst through, he found himself in a narrow alley barely wide enough to accommodate his shoulders. He heard the clatter of horses’ hooves approaching. There was only one streetlight in this remote village and, in typical Moldovan fashion, it had been turned off to save money. The only illumination came
from the large, nearly full moon behind swift-moving clouds.
As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he spotted Fiona’s distinctive silhouette at the mouth of the alley and called out her name. She turned toward him just as the moon slipped out from behind the clouds, pale silvery light glinting off the steel barrel of her pistol.
Gabriel dove for cover, tasting brick dust as a bullet smashed into the wall inches from where his head had been. He unholstered his Colt Peacemaker and risked a glance at the mouth of the alley just in time to see a massive white horse thunder into view. The rider reached effortlessly down and grabbed Fiona’s narrow waist, hauling her up and across the saddle. She let out a breathless shriek and before Gabriel could blink, the horse, its rider and Fiona were gone.
Gabriel swore under his breath and ran out to the mouth of the alley. He could barely make out the ghostly white shape of the horse swiftly galloping down the muddy road. But he could hear Fiona continuing to scream, her voice dwindling with distance.
Not quite the escape she’d intended, Gabriel thought, and for a moment he was tempted to simply let Fiona go to what ever awful fate awaited. She had, after all, betrayed him. More than that—she’d just tried to kill him. But damn it, she was the only one who knew where the
was hidden…and even after everything she’d put him through, his conscience wouldn’t let him just stand by and let her be abducted, maybe tortured to reveal the
’s location. Maybe worse.
His Gypsy driver, Djordji, already had the cranky, Cold War–era Russian jeep running when Gabriel vaulted into the passenger seat without opening the door. “Follow that horse,” Gabriel muttered. Djordji reacted without comment, as poker-faced and nonchalant as if he had been asked to drive to another pub.
As the jeep accelerated along the deeply rutted, unpaved road, the fleeing horse vanished around a corner.
When the jeep reached and rounded the same corner, Gabriel was surprised to see not one but several horses on the road ahead. The white stallion had the lead, its rider wearing a tall, distinctive fur hat. Gabriel could see Fiona’s long pale legs kicking frantically off to one side of the saddle. The other horses looked brown or black—hard to tell in the darkness—and were being ridden by smaller men, hunched close to their horses’ necks. They raced past a large, decrepit building that may once have been a stable but was now surrounded by rusted wrecks of farm equipment and the carcass of a Volkswagen bus. Another turn in the road loomed and the horses swung around it in a pack. Djordji floored the gas and moments later roared into the turn, engine screaming. But when they came out on the other side, the only things visible down the road were the distant yellow lights of the Transdniestrian border crossing. The horses were gone.
“Stop,” Gabriel said. Djordji laid on the brakes and they squealed to a halt in the middle of the road. Gabriel held up a finger for silence. The clattering of hooves came to them quietly from the left. Gabriel squinted and scanned the dark terrain off to the side of the road. It was an empty field—but near the horizon he could just make out several figures pounding desperately away.
“There,” he said, pointing.
Djordji stepped on the gas and wrenched the wheel hard to the left, taking the jeep off the road and into the field. It was rocky and lined with the dry stalks of some crop that clearly hadn’t fared well during the past season. The bone-jarring jolts of the jeep’s balding tires traveling over the furrowed field threatened to throw both of them out of the car.
As they drew closer to the fleeing riders, a volley of bullets ricocheted off the jeep’s dented olive flank. Gabriel unholstered his Colt and returned fire without hesitation, but the uneven ground, the dark and the distance made accurate shooting next to impossible. Luckily this handicap went both ways.
“Try and hold her steady,” he told Djordji, and he stood up in the open-topped jeep, bracing himself against the windshield and aiming at the rearmost rider, who was still twenty yards ahead of them and off to one side. Gabriel fired off a single shot but the jeep hit a rock and the shot went hopelessly wide. He swore and urged Djordji to close the distance. The taciturn Gypsy made a sour face under his thick white mustache.
“Is jeep,” he said. “Not race car.”
Gabriel ignored the comment and tried to steady his aim, fighting the uneven rhythm of bumps and dips. He slowly blew all the air out of his lungs and when the jeep hit a miraculously smooth patch of ground, he squeezed the trigger. This time the last rider in the pack went down. His now riderless horse slowed from a gallop to a trot as Djordji pulled the jeep up alongside.
Most of the horses Gabriel had seen around the local villages were pretty sorry specimens. Bony, spavined and morose, seemingly as resigned to their disappointing lot in life as their gloomy Moldovan masters. But this muscular chestnut mare was absolutely stunning. Proud, sleek and obviously quite expensive. A Ferrari of a horse. It made Gabriel wonder about her owner, but he didn’t have time to wonder for long. Because it turned out that the beautiful horse was not riderless after all.
Apparently the rider hadn’t been shot—he’d simply dropped down on the far side of the horse to avoid
Gabriel’s bullet, clinging to the tack and keeping the horse’s body between him and the jeep. Now he swung back up, leaping effortlessly to his feet in the saddle. In the moonlight Gabriel could see the rider’s pale, angry face and shaved head with its long traditional Cossack forelock. He stood on the horse’s back with a comfortable, loose-limbed stance like a surfer riding a wave.
The next thing Gabriel knew, the rider had leapt from the horse and knocked him into the backseat, a gleaming blade slashing the air inches from his face. Gabriel’s Colt tumbled from his grip and onto the floor of the jeep.
Gabriel swiftly grabbed the Cossack’s knife hand and smashed it as hard as he could against the frame of the front seat. The Cossack bared his teeth and refused to drop the knife, so Gabriel dug the tip of his thumb into the soft underside of the Cossack’s wrist and gave his hand a few more knocks against the metal frame.
The jeep hit a rocky bump that sent it airborne for several seconds. The Cossack grunted and let go of the knife, clinging to Gabriel as they were bounced together into the air like ingredients in a chef’s sauté pan. When the jeep hit the ground, the grappling men slammed back down to the floor. The Cossack’s forehead smashed against Gabriel’s and the passenger-side back door flipped open. It snapped off as Djordji sideswiped a sturdy tree. The Cossack’s knife skittered across the floor and out of the jeep. He lunged for it, too late. Then he saw Gabriel’s fallen pistol sliding along the floor and went for it instead. Gabriel swung a stiff elbow, cracking the Cossack in the jaw. The man’s head snapped back and Gabriel reached for the Colt himself, but the jeep made a sharp right and the gun slid away, under the driver’s seat.
Wiping a trail of blood from his split lip, the rider got up into a crouch and threw a short kick at Gabriel, his dusty boot narrowly missing Gabriel’s face. Gabriel scrambled to his feet and threw a hard right, but the jeep hit another nasty bump and he found himself overbalanced, falling halfway out the broken back door, facedown, hands scrambling for purchase. The rider was on top of him in an instant, belly to back, gripping a fistful of Gabriel’s hair. A flood of hot, suffocating exhaust from the tailpipe blew into Gabriel’s face as the rider pushed Gabriel’s head toward the spinning rear wheel.
Spangles danced in the borders of Gabriel’s vision and he felt his head go fuzzy from the fumes. He knew he had to act fast. His right cheek was less than an inch from the muddy wheel. Gripping one of the bars of the jeep’s frame in one hand, he reached back and seized the rider’s dangling forelock with the other. As the jeep swerved, Gabriel yanked downward on the braided hair while pushing up against the man’s chest with his shoulders and hips. The rider went over, flipping out of the jeep—but as he went, he managed to wrap his arms tightly around Gabriel’s chest. Gabriel felt himself dragged out of the speeding car. He clung desperately onto the bar he’d grabbed hold of, his arm nearly wrenching from its socket. The rider, meanwhile, clung desperately to Gabriel, sliding down along his body until he was holding tightly to Gabriel’s waist. Gabriel looked back at the furious Cossack. He was being dragged along the ground but holding on.
Djordji, meanwhile, kept speeding along, either oblivious to what was going on behind him or convinced that following Gabriel’s last instruction, to catch up
with the other horses, was the best way he could be helpful.
Gabriel slammed his heel into the Cossack’s kneecap. The Cossack grunted but would not let go. Glancing to the side, Gabriel saw they were approaching a wide, rocky stream. He called out to Djordji.
“Drive into the water!”
Djordji swung the steering wheel and seconds later they plunged headlong into the icy stream. Gabriel’s face stayed barely above the surface, but the rider beneath him was completely submerged. Tough bastard that he was, he still managed to hang on, but Gabriel felt the grip around his waist loosen. Gabriel pulled his legs up and gave the man a savage kick. This finally dislodged him, and, freed of the excess weight, Gabriel was able to haul himself back up into the jeep. Behind him, he saw the rider rise to his knees, cursing, in the middle of the stream. The jeep squelched through the mud and climbed the opposite bank, leaving the Cossack in the distance.
“Is not good,” Djordji said when Gabriel climbed, dripping, into the front seat.
Gabriel figured his driver could have been talking about any number of things. “What’s not good?”
“They cross to Transdniestria,” Djordji said, pointing to the remaining riders galloping ahead of them. As Gabriel watched, the white stallion and one of the other horses jumped across what appeared to be a deep, rocky ravine. “Jeep cannot go that way. We have to go around.”
But Gabriel knew they couldn’t go around—by the time they made it, all signs of the horses and riders would be gone.
“We’re not going around,” Gabriel said. “Speed up.”
Djordji looked at him as if he had lost his mind, but kept his foot on the gas. They were just yards from the edge of the ravine.
Gabriel reached down into the footwell, groped around till he found his Colt, and reholstered it. “Get me next to one of those horses,” he said, standing up again. He climbed onto the seat.
A third rider reached the ravine and leapt across. There were only two left. As Djordji poured on what additional speed remained in the jeep’s overtaxed engine, they overtook the last horse. The rider looked to his side. He seemed surprised to see Gabriel there, standing beside him. Gabriel cocked a smile at him, and the man smiled back.
“Dobry vecher, gospodin,”
Gabriel said, and swung a wide right into the rider’s face, knocking him backward off his horse. Gabriel looked ahead. There were only seconds left before they hit the ravine. Gabriel leapt astride the now empty saddle and swept the reins up in his hands.
Djordji slammed on the brakes, bringing the jeep to a halt in a massive cloud of dust, just inches from the lip of the ravine. Gabriel gripped the black mare’s steaming flanks with his legs and pulled back on the reins, urging the animal to make the jump.
The horse let out a snort of protest against her new, unfamiliar rider but launched herself across the ravine after her fellows. There was a tense moment of shifting pebbles and slipping hooves as they landed on the far side and the horse fought to maintain her balance. Gabriel leaned forward and spurred his anxious mount ahead. She regained her footing and took off after the other riders.
As the horse galloped across the moonlit steppe, their destination came into view. An ancient ruin of a large
circular fortress, grim, brooding half-hidden by the low broken hills around it. This was no tourist attraction, no spectacular gothic castle out of a travel brochure. It was an ugly, forgotten place, nothing left but cold, unfriendly walls designed not for aesthetics but function, the function being to keep enemies out. But the defenses had been breached centuries ago, and enemies or not, the Cossacks were riding in.
As they approached the fortress, a heavy, rusted portcullis slowly cranked open, allowing the riders to pass beneath and into the dull yellow glow emanating from the interior. As the portcullis began to close, Gabriel urged his mount to top speed.
He wasn’t going to be able to make it on horse back, he saw—the metal gate was dropping too quickly, and already there was no room. Yanking the reins sharply to the right, Gabriel dropped off the horse to his left, diving to the ground and rolling beneath the portcullis’ descending spikes. As the ancient gate slammed closed, Gabriel could feel one leg of his pants catch and tear. He struggled to stand and pull his pant leg free from the spike that had pinned it to the ground. There was a loud rip as he freed himself, but the sound was drowned out by a louder ratcheting sound, a sound of metal sliding against metal that made his heart sink when he heard it. He spun to face the interior of the fortress and found himself staring into the business ends of over a dozen AK-47s.