Read Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear Online

Authors: Gabriel Hunt,Charles Ardai

Tags: #Fiction, #Thriller

Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear

BOOK: Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear
8.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Through the Cradle
of Fear


Gabriel put his shoulder to the rectangular block outlined by the recessed groove, braced himself and shoved.

The block rotated a few inches, as if on a central axis, then a few more when he shoved again. One more shove should do it—but Gabriel stepped back instead.

If he pushed it the rest of the way open, he might well find himself walking into an ambush. Whereas if he made them do it…

He pressed the end of his torch to the ground, stepping on it to extinguish the flame, then dropped it and took his Colt from its holster.

The room was perfectly, completely dark. And for a moment it was silent.

Then a crack of light appeared as he heard the sound of a shoulder ramming against the stone door from the other side. The crack widened into a wedge, and a moment later he saw Zuka charge through the opening holding a torch in one hand and brandishing a deadly looking curved sword in the other. Hanif came through the doorway behind him, his red fez tipped slightly forward, tassel soaring, mouth open in a bellow—and in his fist he held a short dagger with a silver blade, ready to plunge it down between Gabriel’s shoulder blades if only he could find them.

Gabriel raised his Colt. He aimed carefully at Zuka and squeezed the trigger…

Chapter 1

“Go,” Gabriel shouted, and he fired once more into the pack of men racing toward them. It was his last bullet and it found its mark, dropping a burly Magyar in a fringed vest before the man could take Gabriel’s head off with a two-handed swing of his sword. The curved blade fell from the man’s hand as he spun and collapsed; it slid along the stone floor until Gabriel stopped it with his foot. A scimitar, three feet from hilt to point if it was an inch, the steel tarnished but still deadly enough. Gabriel transferred his Colt to his left hand and scooped the sword up with his right. Unless they’d kept count, they didn’t know the gun was out of bullets, so keeping it in view might still do some good.

“Go,” he said again, shooting a glance over his shoulder toward the stone wall where Sheba crouched, clutching the shreds of her dress to her chest. “Now!”

“I can’t just leave you—”

“I’ll be right behind you.”

“There are too many for you to fight alone!”

There were. But having to keep an eye on Sheba didn’t make things any easier. Gabriel feinted with the sword, then smashed it broadside against the face of a squat, muscular man who’d stepped forward in an aikido stance. He planted a boot in the man’s midsection and shoved, toppling him backwards into one of his cohorts.

Gabriel took two rapid steps back, felt the stone of
the low wall against his legs. Sheba was beside him. She’d made the mistake of glancing down and now looked terrified.

“Just grab hold and keep your eyes closed,” Gabriel said.

With trembling hands she reached up for the shuttle locked onto the metal cable overhead. The inch-wide metal strand descended at a steep angle from the turret above them to the treeline far below. She slid one wrist through each of the padded loops and took hold of the handgrips, releasing the lock. “Please,” she whispered, “be care—”

Gabriel shoved her off the wall. Her screams echoed as gravity pulled her down along the cable, loud at first, then quieter and quieter still. In the distance they heard branches crack and foliage cushion a fall.

He smiled at the two men in front of him and the three more behind them. “All right now, boys, no one else needs to die. She’s gone. You can’t bring her back.”

“On the contrary,” came a voice from behind the pack of men, and then Gabriel heard the uneven triplets of Lajos DeGroet’s step: slap, slap, click; slap, slap, click. The men parted to either side as the point of DeGroet’s iron walking stick appeared between them. “We can and we will. This is no more than a temporary setback.”

Gabriel leveled the Colt at DeGroet as the man limped forward. “You might as well put that away, Hunt, unless you plan to throw it at me. I know it’s empty.”

“How do you know that?” Gabriel said.

“Because you haven’t shot me with it yet.”

Gabriel considered that for a moment, then returned the gun to his holster, snapped it shut. He kept the scimitar raised and ready to strike—but he didn’t swing it. He had some skill with a blade, could even wield an unfamiliar one like this one with some hope of success,
but only a fool would try to attack Lajos DeGroet with a sword. A suicidal fool.

“And how, Mr. Hunt, were you proposing to follow your young friend? I do not see a second shuttle on the line anywhere, and if you tried it bare-handed, your palms would be shredded within ten yards.”

Without looking behind him, Gabriel climbed up onto the wall, edged over to where the cable ran. His feet were steady, but he was conscious of being only one accidental step away from a three-hundred-foot plunge. The wind whipped teasingly at his clothes, as though eager to sweep him over the edge.

With his free hand, he unlatched his belt buckle and yanked the belt free. He slung it over the cable, caught the free end as it dropped toward his hand.

“I see,” DeGroet said. “Yes. Well. That might work, Mr. Hunt, I suppose, depending on what that belt of yours is made out of. But before you attempt it, you might want to look up.”

“Why?” Gabriel said, looking up. He saw a man run up to the edge of the turret, holding in each hand one arm of a gigantic pair of diagonal cutters. He positioned its open blades on either side of the cable.

“Akarja hogy most csináljam uram?”
the man called, and DeGroet nodded. The blades came together with a snap like the closing of an alligator’s jaws. Gabriel let go of his belt just before the end of the cable came snaking past and whipped out into the distance. They could all hear it whistling as it fell and ringing each time it struck the rock face on the way down.

“Now,” DeGroet said, “you will put down that weapon and get off the wall and turn yourself over to Mr. Molnar’s custody.” A bald, round-faced man stared viciously at him and cracked the knuckles on one hand with his other. “I don’t promise that he’ll treat you gently; you
did just kill his brother, after all. But I promise you’ll live. You’re no use to me dead.”

“What makes you think I’ll be useful to you alive?” Gabriel said.

“You really don’t have a choice, do you?” DeGroet said. He pointed to either side of him with his stick. The five men around him came in closer. Gabriel looked from man to man, from face to face. Molnar’s showed the fiercest emotion, but all of them looked as though they’d be glad to tear him limb from limb.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Lajos,” Gabriel said. “There’s always another choice.” He let the scimitar drop, turned, and hurled himself into space.

Chapter 2

“Wait a second,” Michael Hunt said, holding up a hand to halt the story of Gabriel’s escape from the castle in Hungary. “You jumped off the wall?”

Gabriel shrugged. He was leaning against one of the floor-to-ceiling bookcases in the second-story library of the Hunt Foundation building on Sutton Place. His younger brother’s desk was in one corner of the room with an elaborate computer setup on it and a fancy speakerphone the size of a dinner plate, and both pieces of equipment had lights blinking urgently, no doubt announcing the arrival of messages from all over the world, but Michael was ignoring them. “Explain that to me,” he said.

“I jumped,” Gabriel said. “Off the wall. What’s there to explain?”

“How you survived,” Michael said. “You didn’t have a parachute on under your jacket, did you?”

Gabriel shook his head. “Come on, Michael. A parachute? You’ve watched too many James Bond movies.”

“So then how…?”

“Please,” Gabriel said. “Do I ask you how you make your arrangements with museums and universities and what-have-you? To transfer objects from one to another, or whatever it is you do all day?”

“You could ask,” Michael said. “I’d be glad to tell you.”

“Well, I don’t. Professional courtesy. A man needs to have a trade secret or two.”

“But, Gabriel, a three-hundred-foot drop—”

“Yes, that is quite a lot, isn’t it?” Gabriel grinned. He knew it was driving Michael crazy and wasn’t about to let him off the hook a moment sooner than he had to.

“You said the castle overlooked Lake Balaton,” Michael said. “Is that it? You dropped three hundred feet into the lake, then swam away?”

“That would have been handy,” Gabriel said. “But no. The castle overlooks Lake Balaton from half a mile away. And before you ask, there was no donkey cart passing by at the foot of the mountain either, piled high with mattresses to cushion my fall.”

“Gabriel, please, you’re making a joke of it, and I’m quite serious. You know I don’t like your risking your life on these missions of yours—”

“I do, Michael. I do know that. I’m sorry.”

“Bad enough we lost Lucy,” he said. “I don’t want to lose you, too.”

Lucy was their younger sister; she wasn’t dead, as far as either of them knew, but neither of them had seen her since she’d struck off for parts unknown at the age of seventeen amid the chaos surrounding what had happened to their parents. Today she’d be twenty-six.

“You won’t lose me,” Gabriel said.

“So, then, tell me,” Michael said, “how did you do it?”

“I’ll make you a deal,” Gabriel said. “You can keep guessing, and if you guess right, I’ll tell you that you did. In the meantime,” he said, glancing at his dented Bulova A-11 wristwatch (and fingering the dent gently—it had stopped a bullet once), “I have an appointment with a young lady.”


“Who else?” Gabriel reached into his pocket and
dropped a crumpled wad of receipts on Michael’s desk. “You can reach me on the cell phone—but I’d really prefer you didn’t. At least for an hour or two.”

Michael followed him out into the hall and down the curving grand staircase to the first floor. “Did someone fly underneath you, with a plane or a glider or something of that sort, and catch you as you fell?”

“That’s very creative,” Gabriel said. “Extremely creative. I’ll have to try that next time.”

Michael thought for a bit. Finally he said, “You had a second cable, attached to the side of the mountain lower down. One you could grab hold of as you fell past it. A backup in case the first one got cut. That’s it, isn’t it?”

Gabriel stretched out one hand, took hold of the back of Michael’s neck and pulled him forward, planted a kiss on the top of the younger man’s head, where his sandy blond hair was starting to thin. “You see, Michael? I’m always careful.”

“If you call betting on being able to catch a narrow filament of wire as you fall past it at thirty-two feet per second squared being careful!”

“I do,” Gabriel said, and shut the door behind him.

Walking west on 55th Street and then uptown on Park Avenue, Gabriel thought about his escape from Hungary—his and Sheba’s, since they’d ridden out together, first hidden briefly under blankets in the bed of a truck, then stashed in the crew quarters on the lower deck of a Romanian trawler on the Danube, and then finally darting onto a commercial flight back to the States just as the jetway was detaching from the plane’s fuselage.

As they’d taken their seats, Gabriel had seen, through the closing door, two pursuers come skidding to a halt at the ticket counter. They were pointing furiously toward the jetway and for a moment he’d worried they might succeed in holding the flight back. But the door
had slammed shut and the plane had pulled away from the terminal on schedule, taxied down the runway, and lifted off without incident. They’d landed without incident, too, though Gabriel had kept his eyes out for trouble all the way back to Manhattan. After all, it wasn’t as though DeGroet’s men couldn’t find out exactly when and where they’d be landing.

Rather than bring Sheba back to the Hunt Foundation building, he’d stashed her in his rooms on the top floor of the Discoverers League, a century-old gentlemen’s club devoted to exploration, cartography, mountaineering, and similar pursuits. It was widely known that Gabriel was a member—Michael was, too, and the Foundation had supplied part of the League’s funding for years—but only a handful of people knew he kept an apartment there. It would hardly be fair to call it his home since Gabriel spent so little time there, but he didn’t have any
home in New York, try as Michael might to convince him to leave at least a toothbrush and some pajamas at the ancestral manse, and it seemed the safest place to keep Sheba hidden from prying eyes.

And whose eyes, exactly, might be prying? Well, DeGroet hadn’t given up—that much was clear. The real question was what he’d wanted with her in the first place. Gabriel had questioned Sheba in an attempt to figure this out, but she claimed to have no clue. They’d grabbed her out of the lobby of Goldsmith Hall in Dublin, chloroformed her when she’d fought them, and when she’d woken up she’d been in the cell in Hungary where Gabriel had found her. It was just good luck that Jim Kellen had seen it happen from his office window and had thought first to write down the license number of the van they’d bundled her into and then to phone Gabriel.

But what had DeGroet wanted? Sheba shrugged. He hadn’t said.

Had he asked her to
anything? No—nothing. He’d asked her a few questions about her thesis—but for heaven’s sake, Gabriel (Sheba had demanded, fists on her hips and outrage in her expression), did it really make sense to kidnap a girl if you wanted to ask her about her thesis? Christ’s sake, buy her a drink, you won’t be able to shut her up.

Gabriel turned onto East 70th Street and returned the wave he got from Hank, the elderly doorman who’d been manning the League’s front entrance since well before Gabriel had been born. Hank handed him a cardboard shipping box as he entered and Gabriel recognized his own handwriting on the label. It was the cost of flying commercial. They made you take off your shoes, stow your liquids, pass through metal detectors—no way they’d have let him on board with this baby. He worked a thumbnail through the packing tape as he waited for the League’s creaky two-person elevator to descend. An elevator hadn’t been part of the building’s original design and when the time came to add it later, in the 1920s, the only space they could use for it was a dumbwaiter shaft—which meant riding in a space originally meant for stacks of dishes.

He finally got through the tape as the indicator above the elevator door rotated from “3” to “2” and he removed a crumpled ball of packing paper from the box as it went from “2” to “1.” A bell pinged then and the door slid open.

Inside the narrow elevator, a man with a gun was holding Sheba with one arm around her throat and the other around her waist. She was struggling, wrenching against him. They both noticed Gabriel at the same time.

“Step back or she gets it,” the man said, angling his gun to point at the underside of Sheba’s chin.

Gabriel reached into the box, pulled out his Colt,
thumbed back the hammer, and shot the man in the forehead.

Sheba screamed as the man’s grip first tightened, then slackened. He slumped backwards, though in the confined space there was no room for him to fall.

“Mr. Hunt,” Hank said, coming up from behind as fast as his ancient legs would carry him, “Mr. Hunt, is there trouble?”

“No, Hank. No trouble. Just need a mop.” The man’s blood had gone everywhere.

Hank looked inside the elevator. “Here, young lady, let’s get you out of there.” He directed an angry look Gabriel’s way. “Shootin’ up my elevator again. I thought I told you…”

“You did, Hank. You told me.” Gabriel took Sheba’s hand, led her out of the elevator. She was trembling. He could hardly blame her. “We’ll take the stairs, Hank.”

“You do that, Mr. Hunt. You take those stairs.” He headed off to the back, muttering something about what was he going to tell the police.

Gabriel led Sheba to the staircase.

“We should get out of here, Gabriel. They’ll come back. He’ll send more men.”

“You’re right,” he said, “but we need to clean you up first.”

“Clean…?” She reached a hand up to touch the back of her head and it came away sticky. Sticky and red.

“Come on,” he said. “Quick shower, it’ll come right out.”

“What do they want from me, Gabriel? Why are they after me?”

“We’re going to find that out.” He led her up the steps two at a time till they got to the fifth floor. The door to his suite was standing open and the entry foyer showed the signs of the fight Sheba had put up: a wooden stairstep
cabinet knocked over onto the floor, dozens of its tiny drawers lying beside it, their contents spilled; a full-height wall mirror hanging at a crooked angle; the throw rug kicked into a tangle in the corner. Inside, Gabriel saw more destruction. His coffee table was listing, one of its legs having been neatly snapped off. Books were scattered across the floor.

“Well, at least you didn’t go quietly,” Gabriel said.

But Sheba wasn’t listening. She was already halfway to the bathroom, her coral blouse pulled open. She let it fall to the floor behind her and Gabriel left it lying there. The bloodstains wouldn’t come out, not from silk. She could find something else to wear in the closet.

“Did this guy say anything when he broke in?”

“Yeah,” Sheba said, unhooking her bra, stripping it off her shoulders and flinging it at Gabriel’s chest. “He said come quietly or I’ll blow your brains out.” Furiously, she stepped out of her slacks and turned to get the water running in the shower.

“Anything about where he was taking you?”

“He didn’t seem to feel the need to share that much information with me.” She stood facing him, thumbs hooked under the waistband of her panties, naked otherwise, blood smeared in the long cascade of her auburn hair, and Gabriel thought back to his conversation with Michael. He’d had hopes of getting Sheba out of her clothing, but this wasn’t the way he’d had in mind.

“Why don’t you take your shower, I’ll wait for you outside—”

“Like hell you will,” she said. “You and that gun of yours will stay right here with me.” She stripped off the last bit of clothing she had on and stepped under the steaming spray.

Minutes later, Sheba emerged dripping but no longer trembling, angry but no longer scared. She wrapped a
towel turban-style around her head and made a beeline for the closet. Gabriel kept very little clothing for himself there, just a few linen shirts in various shades of cream and tan, a few pairs of khaki pants—items pretty much indistinguishable from the outfit he had on. But there was a good-sized selection of women’s clothes, things various guests had left behind optimistically after stays of a night or two. Sheba flipped through the hangers like a shopper at a sale, discarding one option after another. “Jesus, Gabriel, why are all your women so goddamn flatchested?”

“Only by your standards,” Gabriel said. He’d met Sheba’s family, and nature had been generous to all the McCoy women.

She found a dress, finally, a red satin number with a long slit up the side and no sleeves, but at least it fit when she pulled it down over her head. It had once held the ample charms of a woman named Cierra Almanzar; she’d left it here when she’d returned to her post as director of the Museum of the Americas in Mexico City. She wouldn’t mind sharing it with a fellow academic, Gabriel decided.

Gabriel strapped on a hip holster for his Colt, put a leather jacket on over it. He checked the gun’s cylinder—just two shots left. And naturally he didn’t have any more ammunition here in the apartment. Who would have thought he’d need any?

Sheba stepped back into the shoes she’d kicked off earlier, gaining three inches in the process, and Gabriel led her to the front door. They’d been in here barely ten minutes, but he knew she was right: for safety’s sake, they couldn’t leave soon enough.

He swung the door open.

Then he swung it shut again, spun, and, grabbing Sheba around the waist, took her down like a lineman
making a tackle. They hit the floor an instant before the wood of the door splintered inwards and a cloud of shotgun pellets sped through the air inches above their heads.

BOOK: Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear
8.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Keeping Never by C. M. Stunich
Tarzán el terrible by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Trip to Raptor Bluff by Annie O'Haegan
Child of a Dead God by Barb Hendee, J. C. Hendee
A Perfect Spy by John le Carre
In Too Deep by Sharon Mignerey