It was very early Monday morning when they got back from their holiday in the Swiss Alps. For all the expense and the fancy ski chalet, they hadn’t taken much advantage of the location, only taking two ski outings and attending two dinners. Besides that, they spent every other moment together in the chalet; taking romantic dinners, making use of the hot tub, and being as close as possible in general.
They made their way into the foyer, Vincent with his arm around Isabelle, and both failed to notice that the door was unlocked before Vincent used his key.
“We need to do that more often.” said Belle, leaning slightly on her beau. They weren’t properly drunk, but some champagne on the limo ride from the airport made sure that their post-trip euphoria was a bit deeper than a natural high.
Vincent kicked the door closed behind them. The open drawers on the end table in the foyer and their excessive state of disarray eluded his notice. “I try to get ya out of that lab whenever I can, Izzy. But I can’t say I’d hold it against ya for lovin’ your work.” He had to amend that part quickly to avoid another lecture on how important her research was. From experience, he knew it could kill the mood quicker than a bucket of ice water.
“But anytime you want to get outta here for a while, you just let me know and we’ve gone. Just you an’ me, my lil’ Magnolia Blossom.”
A rare pet name to be sure. His father used it for his mother and stepmother and this was the first time it felt… right…
That realization made him miss a step and would have sent him sprawling to the floor if not for Belle’s steadying grip.
He knew he cared for her, more than most women he’d dated. But somehow his unconscious phraseology cemented for him just how much more. Yes, there had been reservations; she was a slightly older, they had met when she was a teacher’s aide in a class he hated, and six months ago, he would have said she wasn’t his type, but things had changed. What was important had changed. And what was important now was her. Them.
Unaware of the breakthrough he was making, Belle laughed, which came out as more of a giggle and snort thanks to the champagne. “You never called me that before.”
“I think I may be calling you that more now.” He said with his most charming smile. They disengaged long enough for him to take her coat and his own and put them on the rack. Then he took both her hands, turning her around so he could plant a kiss on her lips.
That kiss was followed by another and another, each longer and more involved until they were out of breath, standing with their foreheads touching and staring into one another’s eyes. Sounds from down the adjacent hall went unheard.
“What time are they expecting you back at the lab?” He asked, voice barely louder than their shared breathing.
She smiled a soft, languid smile at him. “No labs tomorrow. I have classes. Eleven to five, then one at nine.”
“Then how ’bout we extend out vacation, hmm?” He leaned over and spoke into her ear. “I’ll fix us a hot chocolate with a drop of the Irish, turn up the AC, then we can share a movie and a blanket.”
Belle molded herself against him. “I’d like that, Vinnie.”
He kissed her neck, then her forehead. “Go on an’ make yourself comfortable in the sittin’ room. I’ll be right out. Just gotta check my messages.”
With another euphoric smile, Belle nodded and slipped away from him, moving down the main hall toward the sitting room. Vincent watched her go with appreciation before pushing open the double doors leading down the hall that contained his father’s study.
To ensure perfect privacy, he didn’t take his usual palmtop, just a printed, disposable phone whose number only his sister knew. That meant that any non-catastrophic messages would now be waiting on the palmtop locked in his father’s desk.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now checking all of them was going to delay his ‘extended vacation’, so he was kicking himself.
Just as he stepped into the hell, he spotted something strange: the lights were on.
John Liedecker didn’t become wealthy by wasting money, so his home was highly energy conscious. One example of that was a sensor array that detected human movement and turned the lights on, off, or to varying degrees of brightness depending on if the computer determined they were just passing through, or spending an extended period of time in a given room or hall.
The lights on in the hall were at full brightness, and through the open door of the study, he could tell the lights there were at the same level. Someone was in his house. Again.
Now his mind started to connect pieces he’d seen and discarded: the lock had offered no resistance when he put the key in; the little table where Rupert used to put the mail have been ransacked. His thoughts turned to Wosniak and more of the man’s gamesmanship just before he heard the creak of the door behind him moving. Someone had been hiding behind it as he entered the hall.
He started to turn, which turned the intended knockout blow into a stinging wallop across his shoulder. The force behind it caused him to stumble into a table holding a vase, knocking both over as he fell.
Adrenaline started pumping. Vincent heard the vase shatter and felt himself hit the floor on his side. He quickly turned over to get a look at his attacker.
The knives were a dead giveaway: no nonsense hunting knives with heavy blades and handles wrapped in duct tape. Somehow, the knife nut from the Wild Men’s bar had survived both his trap and the purge carried out by the other gangs. Not only that, but she’d figured out exactly the right person to blame.
She held a combat stance, one knife held in a reverse grip, all the better to bring the hilt down on someone’s head to knock him out. The days following the end of her group hadn’t been kind to her: she was wearing the same wife-beater and cargo pants, her face and arms were caked with gray dust, and her hair hung in heavy, unwashed mats. Malevolence glittered in her eyes.
“I could’ve put a double tap in your spine just now. Or cut your throat. Maybe snapped your neck.” She spoke in a low, almost emotionless tone. “But that was too easy. When you go, I want you to go after a nice, long time. After you had time to think about what you did?”
Vincent tried to think. He needed time. Time to plan, time to figure out a way out of this. But his typical slippery ideas had abandoned him in a white hot moment of panic. He’d never been in danger before, not true and mortal peril like the kind those steely knives promised.
“W-what’d I do?” Was all he could manage.
The knife nut only glared. “Being scare made you more stupid? Doesn’t take a genius to know you sent that guy to us the other night. This whole thing was a trap: your man, your building. You have any idea how many of mine died?”
One too few in Vincent’s opinion. But at least his mind had caught on to something there: the remnants of the Wild Men hadn’t figured out that it was him that came to their bar. They were working on the same hunches as the tabloids and the conspiracy theorists. Unfortunately, these were the exact kind of people that believed insane conspiracies, from faked moon landings to forged birth certificates.
And there was still no plan in sight.
“I-I got no idea what you’re talkin’ ’bout.” He shook his head and tried to look scared and confused. Good thing he was very close to one of those.
“Oh, I see.” the knife nut’s voice indicated very clearly that she didn’t, “Maybe it just slipped your mind. Maybe it’ll come back when I’m cutting on you!”
She started forward, but at the moment, Belle appeared at the entrance to the hall. “Vinnie? Is something wrong, I heard a—oh!”
For one dangerous moment, Vincent’s attacker paused and he could see the arithmetic going on behind her eyes: a female voice and a term of endearment added up to a bargaining chip at the ends of those brutal knives. An evil little smile came to her face as she pivoted fluidly to face Belle.
No time for thought. Time for action. Vincent sat up and quickly found the broken vase. The largest piece wasn’t the most effective weapon ever deployed, but he wasn’t spoiled for choice at the moment. He slung it as hard as he could, landing a blow squarely in the knife nut’s back.
Not only formerly valuable porcelain, but the flowers and cool water formerly housed in said vase exploded into an uncomfortable mess that soaked through the wife-beater and ran down into the cargo pants almost instantly.
The assailant shrieked at the sensation and rounded on Vincent, already swinging.
By then, he’d grabbed the little fallen table and easily parried the blow from his knees. Turning aside a swing from the second knife, he rammed it hard into his assailant’s stomach, causing her to stumble back and recenter herself just long enough for him to get to his feet.
Running on pure adrenaline, he swung the table overhand at her, only to have her jump aside and punish hm for it with a slash across the back of one of his arms. The shock and pain made him lose his grip and the table clattered out of his reach.
“Ha.” The knife nut held up the crimson stained blade between them as if she could see him through the blood there. “First of many, rich man.”
Dangerous though she was, Vincent’s primary concern was for Belle. To her credit, she had disappeared from the hallway in the ensuing ruckus. Hopefully, she was calling the police. That just left it up to him to survive until they arrived.
He held his wounded arm close, trying to staunch the blood and edged along the hallway. “I still got no idea what you’re talkin’ about.” he pleaded. There was still no plan. Where, he wondered, was the brilliance that hijacked his own father’s weapons shipment? Or the wit that arranged the destruction of the Wild Men? Surely those were more difficult than making sure the sharp ends of a couple of knives stayed out of his body.
“Stop lying!” She screamed and lunged. The first cut was far too wide and was buried in the wainscoting. The second, Vincent had to dive to avoid, saving himself from falling by ending up against the door frame to the study.
By the time she’d worked her knife free of the wall, he’d righted himself. Her next attack found the door being slammed on the blade. The end of the knife snapped off in the impact and went spinning across the carpeted floor.
Vincent tried to catch his breath, but before he could, the former Wild Man hit the door with her foll weight. He wasn’t in position to stop her, so the door slammed hard into his chest, bowling him over onto the thick carpeting of the study.
If anything, the murderous look on the woman’s face was deeper than ever. She regarded the broken blade, the same one that had opened a cut on Vincent’s arm, with the same look of disbelief and simmering unhappiness a child would direct at a favorite toy recently stepped on by a careless adult.
“Something else you’re going to pay for.” She tossed the ruined weapon aside and pulled another out of a cargo pocket.
Caught between favoring his injured arm and trying to get back to his feet, Vincent kicked out and hooked his foot on the leg of a small table next to the wall. It was the twin of the one in the foyer; originally an end table before Liedecker the elder broke up the pair to provide a place for the mail to go.
The table toppled over into the berserk woman’s path, blocking her for a second longer. The drawer popped open, but Vincent was already reaching above his head to grab the chair normally reserved for guest to throw at the unwelcome one.
In her rage, she plunged both blades deep into the innocent piece of furniture, slashing an ‘X’ into the back and dragging out handfuls of stuffing. Then she kicked it aside.
“Tell me the truth, you bastard.” She screamed, looming over him. There was nothing left to put between him and her. “Tell me exactly what you did. And then I’m gonna carve a chunk out of you for everyone I knew that’s dead now.”
Nothing left. No weapons, no tricks, no plans. Now there was just Vincent Liedecker and he wasn’t about to go out without getting the last word.
“You want to know what I’ve got to say?” He asked, defiant though his brain wasn’t even sure what his mouth was doing anymore. “You really want to know what’s on my mind about all your shit heel friends gettin’ crushed and blowed up?”
“Tell me the truth.” She demanded.
“Alright: hearin’ that on the news made me happier than I’d been in months. Good. Damn. Riddance.”
With nothing but a wordless scream, she leapt upon him. Except he was already moving; rolling toward her. His shoulder caught her at the shin and the lunge caused her to overbalance and fall over him.
In the dizzying chaos that followed, he heard both knifes go chunk as they bit right through the carpet and into the floor. One broke under her weight. She was going to go for another weapon; he knew it. And he remembered clearly that in the bar, she didn’t just carry knives.
That’s when he looked over and saw it: Salvation.
The pistol Wosniak gave him before he left on the trip. He’d put it in a drawer and hoped to forget about it. The same drawer that had come open when the end table was toppled. There it sat in the open; against all concept of safety, put away loaded.
Being the son of a man whose empire included a weapons developer and who was also a hunter, Vincent knew a lot about guns. Wosniak’s pistol was a basic handgun; too weak take down large game, too mass produced to be a collector’s item, and not accurate enough to be a sport weapon.
No, that kind of handgun had two purposes: threatening to kill people and making good on that threat. Any concept of ‘protection’ was a side effect, not the reality. The honesty was right there in the golden rule of firearms: never point it at something you don’t want to die.
Well there was something that needed to die right now.
He grabbed the weapon and rolled to a knee while turning.
The Wild Men remnant was still trying to dislodge her unbroken knife. He took the opportunity to rise. Somewhere, seemingly far away, he heard a gasp, but he didn’t care at the moment.
By the time she did turn over, she did so to find herself looking down the barrel of a gun. She opened her mouth. Vincent neither knew, nor cared what she was about to say or do.
After that, it was all academic. He squeezed the trigger and the magnetic collar around the firing pin went live, sliding the pin forward into the shell with incredible speed. The pin set off a spark which ignited the powder in the shell. Tremendous forces expanded outward, but the confines of the barrel left only one direction, and to get there, it had to force the bullet out ahead of it.
One shot and she stopped moving, though her eyes were alive and widened with shock and panic.
He was about to finish her off when his ears registered another gasp that went along with the first shot.
“Belle?” He turned his head to find the woman he loved in the doorway, eyes wide with disbelief after seeing him shoot someone as they lay at his mercy.
The gun dropped from his suddenly leaden hands and he ignored the paralyzed former would-be murderer to go to her, to wrap one of his arms around her. “Belle. Belle I’m sorry.”
To his relief, she hugged him back, but her eyes refused to meet his. Instead, she was looking at his bloodstained shirt and the arm beneath it. “Vinnie, we need to get you a doctor. You’re bleeding.”
He nodded and held her closer. “I know.”
And in the back of his head, he realized that now, he had to call Wosniak. He definitely wasn’t ‘okay’ anymore.
To Be Continued…