A Cloak of Lies Ch. 14bySweetWitch©
"What the hell goes on?"
Brick ran from the cabin yelling the words with gun in hand. Niko didn't take time to explain. He could hear the big man's footfalls behind him, keeping pace on the narrow path.
"Stop, God damn it," Brick yelled, grabbing Niko's arm from behind. "What's going on?"
"It's Camille," Niko said, panting. "She got upset and ran off."
"Fucking women," Brick muttered. "Ain't she got a brain? I told you idiots not to wander off. The whole place is wired to blow."
"I know, God damn it! Why do you think I'm going after her?"
"Christ, let's go--"
An explosion rocked the mountain, sending a plume of debris and smoke over the trees. Niko flinched, staggering back a step as he looked in the direction of the detonation. With a roar of feral emotion, his feet took flight only to be stopped by Brick's big arms surrounding him and holding him fast.
"Get hold of yourself," Brick ordered. "Did Camille take the path?"
Niko fought him, even trying to use the back of his head to smash Brick's face. The giant was impossible to overpower.
"Which way did she go?" Brick demanded again.
Finally calming enough for the words to register, Niko stopped struggling. "The path."
"Your woman may be fleet-footed, but no one's that fast," Brick said. "That explosion was about a half mile down stream from where the path ends. Either she sprouted wings, or..."
"Or we got company," Niko finished as Brick turned him loose. "Jesus. I have to find her."
"I ain't leavin' Lorette."
"You see to her," Niko said. He pulled his gun from its holster at the small of his back. "I'll find my wife. Get Lorette out of here."
Brick headed back to the cabin with a speed that belied his big frame. Niko didn't take time to think about it. His mind centered on finding his wife and protecting her from whatever was out there. Years of experience and training in stealth tactics came to the surface. He made his way at a fast clip, his feet making almost no sound on the narrow pathway.
There was a second explosion, this one from somewhere on the other side of the cabin. With a quick glance over his shoulder, he picked up the pace. He had little doubt they were surrounded. Fearing discovery, he left the path.
A twig snapped to his left. He took cover in the undergrowth, careful to avoid what appeared to be one of Brick's traps. The small mound of dirt looked as if it might be a landmine. Crouched near it, he could see the shadow of a man as it wound its way through the forest.
Holstering his gun, he drew a knife from his boot. He let the man pass by his position before standing. Quick as lightning, he grabbed the guy from behind, clamping a hand over his mouth and dragging the blade from beneath his left ear, across the jugular vein. Blood sprayed the side of a tree as the man dropped the gun he carried.
Niko let the man fall to the ground. He paid no mind to the twitching, gagging body as he bent to take the M-16 the bad guy had dropped. Examining the assault rifle, he discovered that it was a military weapon, made in the good old USA. He took a moment to look at the dying body at his feet. The guy definitely didn't look like military. His hair was too long and his style of dress was anything but government issue.
After searching the body to find two extra clips in the man's pockets, he once again set out to find his wife. A picture of Oleander formed in his mind, of the man taking Camille again, of her being hurt. There was no question to whom these men belonged—and they made enough noise to wake the dead. He could hear another one crashing through the brush at some distance to his right. A rabbit darted in front of him, heading away from the sound.
He was near enough now to hear the babbling of the stream. Another fifty yards, he knew, and he'd find her—if he could just get there before they did.
"Let me go!"
Her scream was full of terror, eating into his brain like acid.
Brick made it back to the cabin just in time to hear the detonation of one of his many traps out front. The scream of its victim was cut short, much like a flame being snuffed out. He heard Lorette's cry a second later and kicked through the door to the cabin. She was alone, her arms protecting her head as she ducked in the far corner.
He ran to her only to stop short of touching her quivering form. "We gotta go, Angel."
She launched herself at him, reaching up to throw her arms about his neck. Her frame shivered against his, seeking something he didn't understand. What he did understand was the soft feel of her body and the scent of her that filled his mind. She smelled of wild flowers and mountain rains. It was enough to make a man forget his life was in danger.
A distant gunshot snapped him out of his reverie. He forced himself to set her away, to take her hand and head for the door. That was when he saw Rafe at the edge of the trees, his hackles raised, his posture defensive. Brick's senses—honed from years of surviving the hell of the path his life had taken—told him exiting the cabin now would be suicide. They were trapped.
Emitting a shrill whistle, he called the wolf inside before forcing the broken door shut and pushing the table in front of it. Lorette shivered near the fireplace, her eyes wide and unseeing with terror. After shuttering the two windows, he moved the narrow cabinet at the back of the cabin, dragging it off a trapdoor in the floor.
"Angel," he said as he pulled the door open. "Angel, listen to me."
She didn't respond, only continued to stare into space, seeing nothing. He could only guess she was reliving the nightmare of her life in captivity. Thinking of his own experiences, he knew she had been through hell. If she had been anyone else, he'd let her rot, but the need to protect her out-weighed his need to save his own skin. In three short steps, he was in front of her, taking each of her fine-boned arms in his hands.
"Lorette," he said. He gave her a gentle shake and watched her eyes slowly clear. "Angel, you gotta get in the cellar. Do you understand me?"
She nodded slowly, looking at him with such torment that rage flared in his chest. He wanted to tear apart any man who had ever hurt this woman, every man who would even think of causing her harm. She was as gentle as a newborn fawn and deserved only the good things in life—the things he would never be able to give her. But he could give her life by stopping whoever was out there from getting her. If he had to die in the process, so be it.
He lowered Rafe into the hole first, dropping the three-legged wolf as gently as he could. Then he grabbed Lorette under her arms, letting her go only when her feet touched the bottom. The cellar was shallow enough that she could still see over the top while standing. She would have to bend down for him to shut the door.
When he tried to close it, she put out her hand to stop him. Her eyes were pleading, her chin quivering.
"Aren't you coming?" she asked softly.
"No, Angel. I'm going to stay up here and stand guard. You'll be safe down there."
"No," she said with more determination than her expressive face allowed. She tried to haul herself back out, but he pushed her down again. "I won't stay here without you."
"You gotta stay there, Angel." He grabbed a bucket of water from the hearth and handed it down to her. "Rafe will protect you. Just stay down there and don't make a sound. I'll come get you when they're gone."
"Please, Marion. I want to stay with you. Please, I can't stand the dark."
That name he'd hated all his life, the cause of childhood torment and misery, sounded like honey on her lips. He'd never heard it spoken like that, never felt so affected by its sound.
Grabbing a lantern and a box of matches from the mantle, he shoved them into her hands. "I'm sorry, Angel. I can't protect you if I have to worry about stray bullets. Keep your head down and use this if you have to."
He held out a handgun, waiting for her to put down the lantern to take it. When she only stared at him, he shoved it at her again.
"I never shot a gun before."
"Take it, Angel. If they get to you, it's because I failed. Don't let them take you alive."
She nodded, understanding his grave meaning. As she took the gun, there was a noise near the front of the cabin. He pushed her head down, dropping the trap door in place. He could hear the footsteps of someone on the boards outside the door. Snatching the AA-12 from its resting place in his munitions trunk, he slapped a twenty-round drum magazine into place and grabbed the other two loaded magazines from the trunk. He dropped his big frame into a chair in the corner of the room and waited with the shotgun leveled at the door.
When she ran, Camille had no idea where she was going, nor did she care. No matter how hard she ran, she couldn't escape the image of a man dying by her hand. What had she become? All she believed, all her life had stood for was gone in the rage of hatred and terror.
Doug's face flashed in front of her eyes, his mouth dropping open as blood squirted from his chest. It was ghastly. Stream after stream of crimson poured forth like so many spouts on a fountain as each bullet slammed home. He was dead and she had killed him.
That he would have killed Niko didn't enter into what she was feeling now. He'd intended to shoot the only man she had ever loved—her very reason for living—but that wasn't her only motive for shooting him. It wasn't even the main reason.
The man known as Gerhardt had lied to her. He had created a false foundation upon which she had so carefully constructed her future. He had come to her with promises to fix everything, to put her back together and plan a life with her.
Niko had also lied. He was supposed to have been dead all those years—all those long, empty years. Without even thinking of the commitment they had made to each other, he had disappeared and left her without a word.
The police and the government had lied. They blocked her every effort to discover what had happened to her husband. The FBI, Senator Hyde's office—even the Social Security office—had forced her to accept Niko's supposed death.
All the lies weighed upon her like a heavy cloak—suffocating and debilitating. She stumbled under the burden, falling to her knees beside a babbling water fall. She wanted to shriek, to drown out the sound of the happy stream and to silence the screams of death in her head.
Rage, impotent and devastating, filled her to the point of choking. With that rage came hatred. She hated them all, those men who thought they could rule the world, and her husband wasn't immune. Niko was worst of all. He was supposed to have been her partner in life, but he'd taken off for parts unknown and had left her to her fate. If she ever got out of this mess, she was going to send him packing. She had lived the last eight years without him; she could certainly manage the rest of her life alone.
So lost she was in her inner turmoil, an explosion some distance downstream barely registered on her consciousness. She was still mentally processing the sound when something in the underbrush caught her attention. Maybe it was a rabbit or some other small animal. She was just about to brush it off when the feeling of danger came over her.
There seemed to be a heightened sense of awareness after all she'd been through. Her instincts were sharpened after coming so close to dying, or rather, being murdered. Was she any better than those who had sought to take her life though? She had become like them, willing to kill without thought.
Whatever was in the brush was moving closer. Glancing at the smoke still filling the sky from the explosion, she came to the realization that it wasn't the animals of the forest that lurked about. No birds were singing, nothing stirring but the creature that watched her from cover of trees. She wasn't alone.
Shaking her head, she almost laughed out loud at herself. Of course it was Niko. He was skulking around, watching to see what she'd do next. Remembering how he had been lurking in the grass that day after they had found Olan so badly wounded, she suspected he was doing the same thing now.
Well, he could sit and rot if he thought she was going to put on another show in the water for him. How could he be so callous? Didn't he care about what she was going through?
Rising to her feet, she turned her back on him and folded her arms across her chest. Still, that nagging feeling of danger wouldn't go away. What had caused the explosion? Was it some hapless woodland creature tripping a wire, or was something sinister going on?
The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. She was certain she was being watched. If it was Niko, why didn't he make his presence known?
Since coming to her rescue on that hated island, Niko had shown her nothing but kindness and concern. After making love that first night on board the ship, he hadn't pressed her when she'd needed her space. Although he was never far away, he didn't go out of his way to touch her or make her feel like she had to bed him. Why would he be acting like a lascivious peeping tom now?
The answer was he wouldn't. The way she had run away, he would have come after her immediately, yelled at her for not stopping when he ordered it and dragged her back to camp. Suddenly, the presence in the trees became far more menacing.
She'd done it again. By not thinking, she had put herself and everyone else in danger. Where was Niko? Had he already been killed while he was trying to go after her? Dear God, she thought. Please, no.
Another explosion split the air in the distance. It seemed to come from somewhere near the cabin. She thought of Lorette and Brick, of Niko—they all had so much to live for.
The presence in the woods was drawing closer. She could feel it more than hear it—although whoever it was as noisy as a herd of buffalo. That could only mean the person wasn't afraid of being discovered, maybe even wanted to be found and confronted.
A shudder passed down her spine. How could she have been so stupid? Had she not learned anything after what happened in Missouri? Well, this time would be different. She was going to be ready.
As quickly and casually as possible, she bent low to pick up a fist-sized rock at the edge of the pool. She gripped it tightly, gauging its weight in her hand. Strolling slowly and keeping her back to the presence in the forest, she worked her way downstream to where the underbrush came to the edge of the water. Her intent was to dive for cover until she once again remembered the warning about explosive traps. With a sigh, she turned to survey the possible hiding place even though she was unsure of what to look for.
That's when she heard the footsteps running across the dried leaves and loose gravel. She watched from the corner of her eye, keeping her sad little weapon hidden at her side. The man coming at her was armed, dressed in black and moving fast. With nowhere to run, all she could do was wait and pretend not to notice him.
He was on her in an instant, grabbing her from the side, tangling his hand in her hair. Slamming her booted foot down on his instep, she swung her arm around, aiming her rock at his face.
"Let me go!" she shrieked, the rock opening a gash on his left cheek.
He let out a grunt of shock, tearing out some of her hair when he flung her to the side. She didn't take time to think about the pain, only blinked back the tears and ran into the bubbling brook. She tore headlong down the stream, stumbling and feeling the slap of cold water when it hit her face.
The next thing she heard was a single gunshot echoing through the trees. She froze, waiting for the pain and the eternal blackness of death.
It didn't come. Everything was silent except for her own panting breath. Taking a quick mental inventory, she discovered she was unhurt. On her feet once more, she started to run only to feel a large fist wrap about her arm. She whirled on her captor, lashing out with the claws of her free hand. An arm came up to block her assault; in its hand was a huge gun. She stared at it, terror coursing with the adrenalin in her veins.
"Niko," she whispered as she tore her eyes from the gun to see his face. Collapsing against him, she fisted her hands in his shirt and held tight.
"You're safe now, love," he crooned, hugging her fiercely. "But you won't be for long. We have to go."
Nodding, she uncurled her fingers from the fabric of his shirt and slipped her hand in his. He led her through the trees, side-stepping areas and pointing out things to be avoided. Remembering the explosions, she pulled up short.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I heard...Did the cabin blow up?"
A smile, cynical and yet endearing, lifted his features, somehow putting her at ease. She had a sudden urge to wrap her arms about him, to feel his flesh against hers.
"No, love. What you heard was Brick's own brand of burglar alarm."
"Was anyone hur—Never mind. What do we do now?"
"First, we're going to get Brick and Lorette and get the hell out of here. Then we'll figure out the next step." He released her hand to strum his fingers down her face. "I need to know that you'll do exactly what I say, Camille."
She nodded, brushing her hair back with a shaky hand. Suddenly, the past didn't matter. The cloak of lies could be forgotten if only he would always look at her that way.
"Yes, Niko. I'll do whatever you say."
"I mean it, Camille. I have to be able to trust you in this."
She pressed his hand to her face. Tilting her head, she nuzzled against his palm as tears filled her eyes.
"I'm sorry, Niko. I haven't made things easy.
"No, but I had it coming. You were right, you know. I should never have left you behind, no matter what the risks were. I did this to us and I promise—when this is all over—I'm going to make it right again."
She smiled through her tears, pulling his hand from her face. "I thought you said we were in a hurry. Let's get out of here."
"There's the smile I missed all those years, baby." With a light chuckle, he pulled a gleaming revolver from the small of his back. "Take this. You got six shots."
She didn't argue as she took the weapon. Curling her fingers about the grip, she tested the weight before nodding her readiness. It was cold and heavy and gave her a sinister rush of power she wasn't sure she liked. A vision of Gerhardt's dead body flashed before her eyes once more. Shaking her head in an effort to banish it, she fell into step behind her husband.
There was a sound somewhere to the left. Niko shoved her down into the bushes before disappearing from sight. It was against her nature to lie waiting, but she did just that, counting the moments in her head. Time ticked slowly by, the forest around her as still as death.
Images of things too horrible to comprehend filled her mind. She found herself clutching the revolver to her chest, feeling the bite of the steel against her breast. Forcing herself to take a deep breath, she let it out slowly and waited.
She waited for what seemed an interminable time. Sweat began to form on her upper lip while she schooled herself to remain motionless. Her shirt, still damp from her fall in the creek, clung to her skin, making her feel all the more confined in the clawing bushes. Still, she waited.
A small flock of birds broke from the trees, taking to the air in a flurry of screeches and flapping wings. Camille let out a gasp, clamping her teeth down on her lower lip to keep from screaming. The birds disappeared, plunging the area into silence one more. She scarcely dared to breathe when she heard the sound of a struggle nearby.
It took both her thumbs, but she managed to pull the hammer back on the large handgun. Taking a deep breath, she eased herself up just enough to see Niko over-power another man. He clubbed the guy on the head with his rifle, and when he was down, hit him a second time. There was a sickening cracking noise, like a melon being squashed.