I was startled by the hoot-hoot of an owl, hesitated, spun around, and jogged back to the SUV. I unlocked the passenger door, reached under the seat and retrieved the hand grenade I had hidden there after my adventure with the Family Boyz. I should have locked it in my safe, but I never got around to it. Now I slipped it into my pocket. It made me feel safer.
I followed the spur for a tenth of a mile. It reminded me of the little-used logging roads that crisscross the woods near my property up north, but I was unaware of any logging operations this close to the Cities. I marched on. Were those my footsteps? I paused to listen, but then pushed on. This was taking way too much time. Merci was in danger and I had put her there. Yet at the same time I didn’t want to be careless. Careless would get us both killed.
I finally came to a tight bend in the road. Beyond the bend was the glimmer of a distant light. I left the spur and walked into the woods, trying to sneak up on it. I went about ten feet and tripped over a pile of garbage some environmentally-conscious individual had dumped there. It was a big pile, filled with cans, bottles, disposable diapers. I brushed the debris from my tuxedo. Some people just refuse to recycle.
I circled the garbage and discovered still another road, this one even less traveled than the spur. It led me closer to the light, but I froze when the moon flickered off something metallic fifty yards ahead of me. I waited, listened. I heard no sound so I crept forward. There it was again. Another flash of light on metal. A gun? I had no way of knowing. To be safe, I drifted to my left. So did the reflection.
I slipped the Beretta out of its holster and moved in a crouch toward it. I relaxed only slightly when I realized I was stalking a car, the moon playing off its trim and windshield. The car was much too small to be the limousine. It wasn’t until I ran my fingers over the vehicle’s front grille that I recognized it. Stalin’s Jag, backed in and facing the spur, ready for a quick getaway. The doors were unlocked.
My first impulse was to foul the ignition so the Jag couldn’t be started. Then I had a better idea. I crept back to the pile of garbage, almost missing it in the dark, and rummaged through it until I found an empty Campbell’s soup can, bean with bacon, mm-mm good. I kept sifting until I found a suitable length of thick string that someone might have used to tie a package. I returned to the Jag and opened the door. The car’s interior light gave me enough to work by.
I jammed the can into the opening between the front seat and the floor, working as quickly as I could. Next, I tied one end of the string to the neck of the grenade. I slid the grenade into the soup can. It fit snugly. Sitting inside the car, just above the grenade, I secured the other end of the string to the car door. Next came the tricky part. Lying across the seat, I eased the grenade just far enough out of the can to grasp the pin. I removed it gently. Held by the wall of the soup can, the lever did not detach, the fuse did not ignite.
I hurried out of the passenger door of the Jag, closing it quickly and quietly behind me, and jogged into the woods. I stopped and waited until my breath returned to normal. When I assured myself that an explosion was not imminent, I again moved toward the beacon I had first seen from the road. A few minutes later I reached the edge of a large clearing.
I could see the light clearly now. It hung from a high post about twenty yards in front of a metal shed that could have been a small airplane hangar. Several vehicles were parked around the structure, including two flatbed trucks and two black Chevy vans. The large door to the shed was open. Bright lights shined inside. I could clearly see a limousine. I crawled along the tree line to position myself for a better look, my aching back protesting every inch of the way. There were several figures loitering in front of the vehicle, but I didn’t recognize any of them until a tall thin black man roughly pulled a woman from the back seat of the limo. She was dressed in raspberry lace, her golden hair piled high on her head. Merci protested, but Stalin didn’t care. He said something to her and then shoved her back inside the car.
At least she’s all right, I told myself. Aloud I whispered, “This is not good.”
“No, it’s not,” a shadow whispered back.
The chill that ran up my spine could have frozen ice cream. Someone put a heavy knee in the small of my back—just what I needed—and brushed my cheek with the cold muzzle of snub-nosed .38.
“Not a sound,” the shadow whispered. He took the Beretta from my hand and passed it to another shadow behind him. Both of them pulled me to my feet, each taking one arm.
“Come with us and keep your mouth shut,” the first shadow told me. I did what he said. I didn’t know who they were, but I knew they couldn’t be Stalin’s people. If they were Stalin’s people, I would have been dead by now and no one would have cared how much noise it took to kill me.