Authors: Steve Perry
Zac shrugged. “Thank you, though.”
Preston couldn't make heads or tails of Robillard's reactions. He wondered if that wasn't precisely the point of Robillard's behavior: The old Deadhead was trying to confuse him.
That had to be it.
Preston checked the time. “Six minutes, thirty, Zac. You're not even sweating.”
“Should I be?”
“You tell me.”
“Maybe in six minutes, thirty.
Preston groaned softly, feeling as if he were losing the upper hand, then reached under the desk and pulled out a large object that resembled a salesman's sample case.
He set it on the desk.
Opened the latches.
And stared at Robillard, readying to regain his momentum in their little tug of war. “Okay, my old amigo, what say we add a last dash of excitement to the recipe?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“This,” said Preston, spinning the open case around and tilting it toward Zac.
It was crammed nearly to bursting with neatly arranged stacks of bills.
Zac's eyebrows rose slightly. “How much is there?”
“One hundred and forty thousand dollars.”
Zac gave a low, long, impressed whistle.
“This is pocket money for me, Zac, chump change, and you know it. I want to up the ante.”
“Including the ten-thousand dollars?”
Zac shook his head. “I can't match one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, Sam. The ten grand in the case is almost everything I've got.”
“I know you haven't the resources to match a wager this cash-substantialÂ .Â .Â . but that doesn't mean you don't have something even more valuable.”
One breath. For one breath Preston saw a spark of panic flash across Zac's faceâas if he were thinking something like,
Jesus, does he know aboutÂ .Â .Â .?
âbut then it was gone.
Preston suddenly felt robbed. He deserved to watch Robillard's demeanor crumple, if only a little.
“What would that be?” asked Zac. “What do I have that's worth that much money?”
Radiant and Psyâ4 were moving quickly through a dimly lit corridor, thirteen seconds ahead of schedule.
“Here,” said Psyâ4, turning left into a shorter corridor that dead-ended at a large steel door. On the wall next to the door was a hand-scan panel. He removed his gloves and placed his hand against the screen.
There was a languid flow of green light at the point where his hand made contact.
Radiant killed all cameras and sensor devices with a snap of energy.
Something moaned mechanically.
Then Psyâ4 nearly dropped to his knees in pain.
“Are you all right?” asked Radiant, placing a hand on his arm.
“.Â .Â . uhÂ .Â .Â . yes, yesÂ .Â .Â . I'mÂ .Â .Â . I'm fine.”
Psyâ4's voice was granite. “Just give me a second and I'll be all right. Okay?”
Radiant took a step back. “I've never seen you like this. It's genuinely frightening.”
Psyâ4 didn't hear her; he was staring at the steel door. “Down there,” he whispered. “Something's not right.Â .Â .Â .”
“Psyâ4? Come on, we don't have long left.”
“.Â .Â . so darkÂ .Â .Â . and lonelyÂ .Â .Â . lonelyÂ .Â .Â .”
Radiant reached up and touched the side of Psyâ4's face, startling him from his reverie.
“Huhâwhaâ? Oh. IÂ .Â .Â . I apologize. Come on.”
“Are you sure that you'reâ? Okay, okay, don't glare at me again. Is everything running as it should be?”
“Yes. Three hundred sixty-two seconds from now.”
Radiant smiled. “Plenty of time.”
“No,” said Psyâ4. “Weâ
been distracted. It shouldn't have happened.”
“Not a word, Radiant. Not one more word from you.”
NO! screamed the child. NO! Don't leave me, don't leave me here, you're so close, I'm right down here, not far, I promise, really, reallyÂ .Â .Â . please come, pleaseÂ .Â .Â . I hurtÂ .Â .Â . pleaseÂ .Â .Â .
Please don't kill me, Father. I don't know what I did wrong but I won't ever do it again, I promise, I promise, I promise, I'll be good, I'll make you proud of me, you'll see, just, just
Â .Â .Â .
pleaseÂ .Â .Â . pleaseÂ .Â .Â . please don'tÂ .Â .Â .
.Â .Â . ohpleaseÂ .Â .Â .
.Â .Â . someoneÂ .Â .Â .
.Â .Â . come get meÂ .Â .Â .
.Â .Â . ohplease, someoneÂ .Â .Â .
.Â .Â . someone comeÂ .Â .Â .
.Â .Â . come get
“Yes, you,” replied Preston. “And don't go pulling that modesty routine with me, okay? It impressed some of the folks at WorldTech but I never bought it for a second. You've got the sharpest mind I've ever knownâaside from my own, of courseâand I'm bored to death with not having anyone in my employ of equal intelligence. There's noÂ .Â .Â .
here anymore. Do you understand, Zac? Hannibal has crossed the Alps and this time has
, Zac, I'm dying here for lack of genuine wit, lack of a good argument or a chess partner who'll beat me nearly as often as I beat him. My mind is shriveling from boredom.”
“As evidenced by that ham-fisted Hannibal metaphor.”
“I'm not sure I like your tone of voice.”
“With all due respect, Sam, I don't give a rat's ass if you like my tone of voice or not. You should have heard yourself, all that âPoor, poor, pitiful me' crap. How tragic, to have achieved all your goals before hitting forty. My God, the money, the fame, the power and womenÂ .Â .Â . it's a wonder you can stand at all from the constant anguish.”
Preston was astonished. “You're making fun of me.”
“Maybe a little, but there's no rancor in it. Besides, you deserved it. For a minute there, you sounded like some five-year-old who didn't get the bike he wanted for Christmas.”
“This seems on the verge of getting unpleasant, Zac.”
“Why, because I'm not agreeing with you? Because I'm not begging to kiss your royal ring finger like any number of flunkies around here?”
“You're getting nasty.”
“No, I'm not, Sam. I'm telling you the truth and you don't want to hear it. You never were very good at listening to criticism.”
“Criticism is only for those who can't cut it, Zac, who need guidance because they haven't the imagination or fortitude toâ”
“âdon't talk down to me, all right? I didn't mean to offend you, but unless I completely misunderstood what you were saying, you
someone by your side who isn't a brown nosed yes-man. Is that right or did I have an hallucination?”
“You didn't hallucinate.” Preston hated the sound of his voiceâpetulant, pouting, like that of a child who'd just been scolded and knew in his heart that he deserved it. He also knew exactly why he was sounding that way. If Zac only knewÂ .Â .Â . but there were some things a man could never share with anyone. Preston had to do this right. He felt that all too familiar pain in his gut. A tense silence fell on the room for a moment. Preston surreptitiously wiped the first faint traces of sweat from his palms.
“Let's drop it and start over,” said Zac. “Okay?”
“Yes. I was just thinking.”
About how much I'd like to wipe that confident look off your face with the heel of my shoe
, thought Preston.
What he said was: “Here's my offer, my wager, whatever you want to call it: My one hundred and fifty thousand dollars against your ten. If you win, if your people manage to break through my security and take this office in the next three minutes, then you walk out of here with one hundred and sixty thousand dollars and leave me with egg on my face.”
“And if I lose?”
“Maybe, maybe not. Enlighten me.”
didn't like the way this was going; it was starting to smack of his losing control of the situation. “If you lose,
then you and your team will come and work for me. One year. After that, you can truck on down the old Happy Trail if you want.” He looked at his watch. “Two minutes, Zac. Are we on? Do you agree to the terms?”
Zac grinned. “You've come a long way since our days in Vampirella's employ, haven't you?”
“Don't speak ill of Annabelle,” replied Sam, returning the grin. “I'm sure her disposition's improved considerably since she bought the new coffin. You're begging the question.”
“Tell me when we're down to forty-five seconds.”
A long silence.
A thin bead of perspiration ran down the center of Preston's forehead; the fire in his gut was, thankfully, starting to be extinguished.
“Forty-five seconds, Zac.”
Robillard put out his hand. “We have a bet.”
Preston shook Zac's hand. “Sucker.”
“A man is involved in a terrible auto accident,” said Zac's voice from the overhead speakers.
Preston whirled around to face the screens. “What theâ?”
And there was the face of Zac Robillard staring back at him from every monitor.
“He comes to in the emergency room and sees a doctor staring down at him. âI've got good news and bad news,' says the doctor. âThe bad news is that one of your legs was damaged severely, and we had to remove itâonly we cut off the wrong leg.' âWhat's the good news?' says the guy. âThe good news,' says the doctor, âis that your bad leg's getting better.'
“You've got a bad leg, Sam, and you've just been shown how easy it is to cut off both the bad one and the good one. I hope this doesn't bruise your ego too much,” said all of Zac's faces, “but your state-of-the-art security has just been breached
by Invasion Prevention Systemsâwhich would be me. All communications from this office will be suspended for the next five minutes.”
“Why?” shouted Preston at the screen.
“Just to be a pain,” replied the many faces of Zac.
Preston picked up his phone to find the line was busy playing Glenn Miller's “In the Mood.” He tried his computer keyboard, even resorted to voxax mode, then shook his head. “What did you do, plant a virus in my system when you came in?”
“Not me,” said Zac, checking his watch, then pointing at the office door.
Before Preston could say anything, the door swung open.
A woman dressed in black and wearing night goggles walked in, accompanied by a muscular man who looked as if he ate car parts for breakfast.
“Two of my operatives,” said Zac. “With ten seconds to spare.”
, thought Preston, reaching for his checkbook. “Okay, Zac, you win.” He flipped open the checkbook and began to write in it. He wanted these people on his teamâneeded them desperately, in factâand he didn't care how much it cost. “How much,” he asked Zac, “is it going to take for you and your peopleâ”
If he'd been on the verge of losing control before, then everything came crashing down around him a few seconds later.
The bank of monitors began to move, swinging out into the office proper, and from behind it emerged two more of Zac Robillard's operativesâone male, one femaleâeach holding an armed guard bound with his own handcuffs.
Preston, shocked into open mouthed silence, looked over at the two security guards already in the office.
Even behind their dark glasses, their surprise was evident.
Dammit to hell! He'd gone through a great deal of troubleâ
not to mention bribe money paid to the architectâto make sure that the hidden stairway and chambers below couldn't be found or even sensed with the most sophisticated surveillance equipment, but somehow two of Robillard's operatives had managed to find it, and these four security guards now knew where it was, and that it was a secret, and what was he going to do about themÂ .Â .Â .?
“Midnight straight up,” said Zac. Then, to the second set of operatives: “Cutting it a little close, weren't you?”
“You know how I like dramatic entrances,” said one of them, a young, well-built, fair-skinned Asian man. “I mean, it's one thing to watch someone else make themânot that I don't
a good, vicarious thrill, mind youâbut, honestly; how many times are you given the chance to pull an Olivier, a Guinness, a Gielgud, I ask you!” The young man's eyes were narrow and piercing, his hair black and shiny as melted tar and tied back in a long ponytail that draped halfway down his back.
“Ten minutes I've been listening to this blathering,” said his partner, a stunning redhead, her deep, throaty voice made musical by its Irish brogue. “Going on and on, he was, even when I threatened to feed him his boots. I thought about trying to talk some sense into him, but then I realized there's not that much oxygen in the world.”
“I understand,” said Zac.
to take the bloody secret staircase.”
Both Preston and his personal security guardsâevidently having forgotten about their weaponsâstared at her.
She was well worth staring at.
Even in the black slacks and sweatshirt, the curves of her rock-hard body undulated without mercy.
Preston knew he should be feeling more appreciative of the redhead's anatomy, but he was too worried right now.
He chewed on his lower lip.
God Almightyânot only did his personal security guards know there was something behind the monitors (that was bad enough), but, worse, Zac's operatives had managed to find a way in.
Preston had no way of knowing how they'd managed to bypass all the security devices.