All the Queen's Men by Linda Howard


  Somehow she controlled her voice, and found the words. Somehow she sounded as casual as he did. “What about the lock? Are you going to fix it?”

  “No, he’ll just think it malfunctioned. This type does occasionally.”

  He opened the door and swiftly looked out, then ushered her into the empty hallway. He was pulling the office door shut, his hand still on the handle, when the hallway door abruptly swung open and a guard stepped through. He checked when he saw them, shouting something as he automatically reached for his weapon.

  John was moving almost before the guard saw them. He pushed Niema against the wall as he went down on one knee, going for the weapon in his ankle rig. The guard panicked and fired too soon, the bullet plowing into the floor ten feet in front of him. John didn’t panic. Niema saw his face, calm and expressionless, as his hand swept up. He fired twice, the first shot in the chest and the second, an insurance shot, in the head. The guard jerked like a puppet with broken strings as he crashed backward through the open door.

  John gripped Niema’s hand and with one motion pulled her to her feet. Screams rose beyond the open hallway door and running footsteps pounded toward them. “Come on,” he said and shoved her toward the left exit, and people poured through the door behind them.

  Upstairs, the three shots froze Hossam. He leaped off the bed and grabbed his pants from the floor, jerking them on as he ran for the door. He grabbed his shoulder holster as well, sliding the weapon free.

  “Hossam! Don’t leave me like this!” Cara’s voice was sharp with panic—he had long since taken off the gag—but he ignored her and ran out the door. He did have presence of mind to slam the door closed as he went out, but that was all he took the time to do.

  Barefoot, he raced down the hall to the stairway at the end and instead of using the steps he put his hand on the rail and vaulted down to the next tier, again and again until he reached the ground floor. The shots seemed to have come from directly below and to the right, which meant they were near Ronsard’s office.

  The long hallway was jammed with people, some of them Ronsard’s guests who were exclaiming in horror. The security personnel were trying to clear them out of the hall, but the arrival of a huge, half-naked, armed man had the guests shrinking back.

  “Where?” Hossam shouted.

  “Out this entrance,” a guard replied, pointing to the door. “It was Temple and one of the women.” Hossam wheeled and plunged into the night.

  Where would Temple go? Hossam briefly paused, thinking. He would try to get transportation, rather than get away on foot, but the guests vehicles were secured in a fenced area. The estate vehicles, however, were not. Hossam ran barefoot across the damp lawn, heading for the garage area.

  Bright emergency lights flashed on all over the estate, lighting up the area like a football field. Armed men swarmed the lawn. Hossam yelled, “The guest vehicles! Check them!”

  A large group formed, racing for the secure area. Hossam ran on toward the garage, his weapon held ready. Damn, this guy Temple had piss-poor timing! He’d had Cara ready to come for about the tenth time when he heard the shots, but he’d had to jerk out of her and leave her on the brink, still helplessly tied to the bed.

  The long, shadowed garage was silent as he moved down the row of cars and Land Rovers and Jeeps. “Are you here?” he whispered.

  “Here.”

  Hossam whirled as Temple stepped out of the shadows, towing a woman behind him. “Go, man,” he hissed, pulling a set of keys out of his pocket and tossing them to Temple, who released the woman to catch them with his left hand. “The green Mercedes there.”

  “Thanks. Turn around.”

  Sighing, Eric Govert turned around. He just hoped he wouldn’t be out too long, or Cara would be hysterical with rage. He never heard Temple move or felt the blow that left him stretched out on the cold concrete floor.

  CHAPTER

  TWENTY-THREE

  John bent down and scooped up the big man’s weapon and tossed it to Niema. “Here, hold this.”

  She pushed that pistol, too, into the bundle of her evening wrap. It would look suspicious if they didn’t take the weapon. He unlocked the car with the automatic lock release on the key ring and they got in. “Get down on the floor,” he said, putting his hand on the back of her head and pushing to make sure she obeyed.

  She crouched in the well of the floor as he started the car and hit the garage door opener. The door began to slide upward and the automatic light came on overhead. He glanced at her and smiled, and shifted into gear. The powerful car shot forward, tires grabbing traction so smoothly there was no squeal or burning rubber.

  The first shot shattered the window above her head, spraying glass over the interior of the car. She bit back a startled cry, covering her head with her arms as a second shot went through the passenger door and the back of the seat not three inches from John’s arm, the bullet making a funny whfftt sound as it passed through the leather and fabric.

  He floored the gas pedal, smoothly shifting through the gears. With each new gear the increased G-force pushed her hard against the seat. “Stay down,” he said, and ducked a split second before the drivers’ side window shattered.

  The gates. He was heading for those massive, steel-barred gates. She barely had time to brace her hands before the impact. Metal screamed and glass shattered, and she heard more shots, the rapid coughing of automatic fire. She was thrown sideways, her head banging the gear shift. One of the heavy gates, torn off its hinges, landed half on the hood.

  “Are you all right?” John shouted as he shifted into reverse. The gate spun and slid to the ground. He shifted gears again and the car shot forward, bumping over the gate, metal bars clanging.

  “Yeah,” she yelled, but she didn’t know if he heard her over the gunfire. He wasn’t returning the fire, using all his concentration to drive. She fumbled for the two weapons in the folds of her wrap; the first one she touched was the big one the Company man had been carrying. She got to her knees as she thumbed off the safety.

  “God damn it, stay down!” John roared, reaching for her as if he would shove her back into the floor.

  “Just drive!” She jerked away, wrapped both hands around the heavy weapon, and began firing out the window. Even if she didn’t hit anyone, return fire would at least make them duck for cover. If she didn’t do something, the car, with them in it, would be shot to pieces.

  The heavy weapon bucked in her hand, the deep cough deafening her as hot casings ejected into the car. One bounced off her bare arm, leaving behind a sting.

  The car wasn’t running as smoothly as before; it jerked and hesitated, the engine cutting out. Some of the bullets had hit something critical but at least they were off the estate grounds. More shots zinged after them, but they sounded like handguns, which meant the shots didn’t have their range. “We have to ditch the car,” John said, turning his head to check behind them. The rearview mirror was nothing but a shattered metal frame, the mirror blasted into tiny pieces all over them.

  “Where?”

  “As soon as we’re out of sight. With luck, they won’t find the car until morning.”

  Niema peered over the shredded remains of the seat back. The estate was lit with so many lights it looked like a miniature city. Dozens of lights bloomed as she watched, neatly spaced apart in pairs—headlights. “They’re coming,” she said.

  They went around a curve, and a thick stand of trees hid the estate from sight. He drove off the road, slowing so the tires wouldn’t churn up the ground, easing the heavy vehicle into the trees. They bumped over limbs and rocks, and bushes scraped at the once-pristine paint job.

  He didn’t touch the brake pedal, just in case one of the taillights was still working. When they were far enough off the road that passing headlights wouldn’t glint on metal, he stopped and killed the engine. They sat in silence broken only by the engine pinging and hissing, listening to the pursuing vehicles roar past their hiding spot.

 
They were less than a mile from the estate. “Now what?” she asked, her voice sounding funny, but then her ears were still ringing from the gunfire. The car interior stank of burnt gunpowder and hot metal.

  “Do you feel like a nice run?”

  “It’s my favorite thing to do in the middle of the night, wearing sandals and a two-thousand dollar dress, with a hundred guys chasing and shooting at us.”

  “Just be glad the sandals aren’t high-heeled.” He rapped his pistol barrel on the inside lights, shattering covers and bulbs so there wouldn’t be any betraying light when they opened the doors.

  Gingerly she climbed up from the floor. Shards of glass dusted the seats, her shoulders, her hair. It was very dark under the trees. The door on her side wouldn’t open; a bullet had probably hit the lock mechanism. She crawled over the gear shift, glass tinkling and gritting with every movement she made.

  John got out and reached in, bodily lifting her out of the car and standing her on her feet. “Shake,” he directed.

  They both bent over, shaking their heads and flopping their arms and clothes to dislodge any clinging bits of glass. Her arms and shoulders were stinging a little, but when she cautiously felt them her fingers came away dry, so at least she wasn’t bleeding. It was a wonder they were even alive; not being cut by that hail of glass went beyond wonder into miraculous.

  But when they straightened, her eyes had adjusted more to the darkness and she saw that half of John’s face was darker than the other half. Her stomach plummeted. “You’re hit,” she said, fighting to keep her voice even. He couldn’t be shot. He couldn’t. Something vital in her depended on his being okay.

  “By glass, not a bullet.” He sounded more irritated than anything else. He took the silk handkerchief from his breast pocket and held it to his forehead. “Do you have both pistols?”

  “They’re in the car.” She leaned forward into the car and retrieved both weapons. “What about my tools? Leave them?” She definitely didn’t want to lug them around.

  “Hand them here.”

  She gave him the velvet pouch, heavy with tools. He took the tools out and threw them, one by one, as far as he could into the trees and underbrush. If the bag of tools was found, Ronsard would wonder what they had been used for, and since they had been spotted coming out of his office he would then no doubt have a complete physical search done of all the wiring, and he would find the bug. A physical search was the only way to find it, but then no bug could be hidden when the wires themselves were examined.

  “Got your wrap?”

  “Why do I need it?”

  “Because it’s black and will hide some of that skin you’re showing.” She got the wrap and her evening bag out of the car, though she had to gingerly feel around until she found them. The evening bag was useless; there wasn’t anything in there they could use, not even money. All her money, passport, everything, were back in her room. She wasn’t worried about the passport; the name on it was false, and John would get them back into the country even without one, but money would have come in handy.

  John took the bag from her, but instead of throwing it away he tucked it in his pocket. “Come on.”

  Running in the woods in the dark was too dangerous; they risked turned ankles at least, and possibly broken bones, so they picked their way through the trees and underbrush, pausing every so often to listen for pursuit. They could hear traffic on the road, growing more and more distant as they angled away from it. They couldn’t hope that Ronsard’s men would be stymied for much longer, though.

  They came out of the woods onto a secondary road. “We’ll follow this for a while,” he said. “It’s easier traveling, and while it’s dark we can see them a lot sooner than they can see us.”

  “Are we going anywhere in particular, or just running?”

  “Nice.”

  “Why Nice? Why not Lyon? It’s closer.”

  “Ronsard will be watching the airport in Lyon, and all the car rentals. He’ll expect us to go there.”

  “Then how about Marseilles?”

  “Our yacht is in Nice.”

  “Really. I didn’t know we had a yacht.”

  “The Company has a yacht, and the yacht has a computer with a satellite up-link. I’ll be able to get this information to Langley and let them start work on it immediately.”

  “Nice it is, then.”

  He took a knife from his pocket and knelt at her feet. Grasping a fistful of fabric in his hand, he inserted the knife about level with her knee and slit her gown sideways, cutting off the bottom half of the skirt. “You have more things in the pockets of that tuxedo than Snoopy has in his dog house,” she commented. “I don’t see how it fits as well as it does.”

  “I have a very good tailor.”

  Now that they were out from under the trees, she could see that his head was still bleeding. He cut a narrow strip off the swath he had just removed from her gown and tied it over the cut. His tuxedo was torn and dirty, and when she looked down she saw that what remained of her gorgeous Dior gown was in the same condition. The remnant of the fabric he draped around his neck.

  They began running in an easy jog, because they weren’t wearing running shoes and the impact of the hard asphalt through the thin soles of their evening shoes jarred every bone and muscle as it was.

  “Are we going to run all the way to Nice?” she asked after about a mile.

  “No, we’re going to steal a car.”

  “When?”

  “As soon as we find one.”

  She tried to find a stride that was easier on her feet and legs, and tried to keep her mind focused on the present. While they were being shot at she hadn’t had any trouble focusing, but now there was nothing but the rhythmic slap of their shoes on the asphalt, the easy sound of their breathing, and the night sounds surrounding them. With nothing posing an immediate threat, her thoughts zeroed in on what had happened in Ronsard’s office.

  She didn’t want to think about it, but couldn’t stop. Maybe it had been inevitable, given the tug of sexual attraction she felt for him, had felt from the moment she set eyes on him in Frank Vinay’s office. He struck sparks off her, made her feel so alive she sometimes thought her skin couldn’t contain her. Those kisses they had shared—maybe the setup had been pretense, but her response hadn’t. With every touch, every dance, every kiss her anticipation had built until it was a wonder she hadn’t climaxed as soon as he licked her.

  If only it hadn’t happened that way. If only he had been making love to her, instead of setting a scene for their cover story. For her, their coming together had been a cataclysmic event. For him, it had been a job.

  Maybe that was what hurt so much. She wanted to mean something to him other than just another job, another means to an end. She was afraid . . . dear God, she was afraid she loved him.

  She would have to be a Grade A fool to love John Medina.

  Loving a man who traveled was one thing; thousands of women did. Loving a man who drew in danger with every breath was something else thousands of women did. Cops, firemen, high-iron men, oil-well riggers—they all had dangerous jobs and they were gone for long stretches of time. But at least they lived in the sunlight. At least their lives were real. John was always setting a scene, doing a job, working an angle. He was almost always someone else. She would never know if he was dead or alive, or if he was coming back even if he was alive.

  She couldn’t love like that. She couldn’t live like that.

  “Car,” he said, breaking the agonized chain of her thoughts, gripping her arm and urging her off the road. “Get down.” Headlights speared toward them through the darkness, the car moving fast.

  She lay flat on her face in the weeds, with the evening wrap draped over her arms and shoulders and the remnants of her skirt covering her bare legs. John lay beside her, between her and the road. The car zoomed past.

  Slowly they sat up. Until they stopped running, she hadn’t been aware of how her feet and legs were aching. She ru
bbed her hands up and down her shins. “Maybe barefoot would be better than these shoes.”

  “On the ground, yes, but not on asphalt.”

  The thin straps were rubbing blisters on her feet. She eased the straps to a different position. “I’m developing a problem here.”

  He squatted beside her. “Blisters?”

  “Not yet, but getting there.”

  “Okay, running is out. We need to get transportation tonight, though, because we’ll be a lot easier to spot on foot during the day. I wanted to get farther away before I liberated a car, but that can’t be helped.”

  “What difference does it make?”

  “If a car is stolen practically in Ronsard’s backyard, do you think he won’t hear about it and figure we’re the ones who stole it? Then he’ll know what kind of car we’re in and can have people watching for us.”

  She sighed. “Then we walk.”

  His hand closed gently over her foot. “I don’t think that’s an option, either. We’ll come across a farm soon, or a village, and I’ll get whatever’s there, even if it’s a tow truck.”

  “Until then,” she said as she got to her feet, “we walk.”

  CHAPTER

  TWENTY-FOUR

  Ronsard was more coldly furious than he’d ever been in his life, but more at himself than anyone else. After all, in his business one could expect treachery. What he hadn’t expected was that he would have been so completely fooled. Nor had he expected that as many security personnel as were on the estate wouldn’t be able to stop one car from leaving. They were supposedly professionals, but they hadn’t performed as such.

  He had one man dead, and another, Hossam, suffering from a concussion. Hossam had been found lying on the garage floor, only half-dressed and unconscious. Having correctly guessed that Temple would try for one of the estate vehicles, he had evidently been taken from behind. Why Hossam had been wearing only his pants when he was supposed to have been working was a puzzle, until he noticed that Cara was nowhere to be found and sent someone to investigate. She was found tied to her bed, naked and furious. He had been wondering if he would have to kill Hossam for assaulting her until her concern, when she found he had been injured, reassured him that whatever had been going on in her bedroom had been consensual.

 
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