A Cloak of Lies Ch. 09bySweetWitch©
If a breaking heart had a distinct sound, Olan knew he was hearing it now. The cry coming from Niko's throat could only be described as a bellow of rage and horror, much as a wounded lion crying its death knell.
Olan was at a loss in the face of a pain so raw. He could only stand and watch as Niko shattered right in front of him. Walking around the front of the vehicle, Olan went to his friend to lend whatever support or strength he could. He no more than put a hand on his shoulder when Niko took off at a dead run, heading for the forest and presumably the spot where Camille had landed.
Muttering a stream of oaths, Olan ran a hand through his shaggy red hair, turning to see several curious on-lookers approaching. Years of training and his need for self-preservation kicked in, galvanizing him to action.
As quick as his injured body would allow, he slid behind the wheel of the car. He hoped that the narrow road he was on would take him through the woods and close to the spot where Camille had landed.
He feared what Niko might do in his current state. A man with that kind of love and passion for a woman could very well lose his mind, go on a rampage or even kill himself. He only hoped he got there in time to stop Niko before he did anything crazy.
Given the trajectory of the fall and the distance of the helicopter, it was difficult to say where Camille's body had landed. Olan did his best to estimate the distance and tried to get the car as close as possible, but eventually was forced to abandon it. He'd long since lost sight of Niko in the crowding trees.
Calling out, Olan made his way through the thick undergrowth, stumbling from time to time in his weakened state. Just when he was afraid that he'd never find his partner, he heard a voice call out to him. He had to wait for a second call before he figured out the right direction.
When he finally found him, Niko was sitting on a fallen tree, his head in his hands. Not far from his feet lay a shattered body, the blond hair the only distinguishable feature by which to identify her. The remains were so badly broken the only word that came to Olan's mind was "pulverized."
"Niko...," he said, reaching a shaking hand to his friend.
"Nothos," Niko cursed, raising bleary red eyes to Olan. "The bastard wanted me to think he'd killed her."
"Huh?" Olan grunted, confused.
"That's not Camille," Niko replied. "I don't know who she is, but she's not my Camille."
Olan was convinced that his friend had lost his mind. Her body lay at their feet. What more evidence did he need?
"Niko, just hang in there, buddy. We'll get through this."
Shaking his head, Niko reached down to lift the shattered leg of the body, pulling the tattered, bloodied cloth of her slacks away to reveal a small tattoo of three small white flowers clustered together.
"White Oleander? She's one of them."
"Yeah," Niko said, his voice shaking. "She's a decoy to make me believe my wife is dead."
"They're trying to draw you out."
"Makes no sense. He could've just set that copter down and killed me."
"They want you alive, I'd say. Question is, why?"
"I don't give a shit. All I want is Camille. We have to get to her before they..." Niko said, letting his voice trail off.
"I know, pal. We're going to have to come up with a plan. That woman of yours kept me alive. She saved my life, Niko. I want to save her as badly as you, but we have work carefully."
"I know," answered Niko, "and we're going to need a little help."
Pain was Camille's first conscious thought upon waking. It throbbed in her skull, radiating downward through her torso and limbs. Some piercing source of light was shining in her eyes, each in turn, while the sounds of voices echoed around her.
She moaned, trying to move her head away from the light. Too late she realized her mistake. The sudden movement shot a wicked spasm of white hot pain through her head. Someone slapped her face lightly, telling her to wake up and be done with it.
Another voice, angrier than the first, came to her defense, while still another spoke to her with a slight accent. None of them made any sense and only one of them sounded familiar; the one that had belonged to the man who had slapped her.
The fog began to lift from her brain, allowing some of the chaos to form coherent thoughts. It was Doug's voice that spoke to her now, cold and cruel, telling her to pull herself together.
She opened her eyes, blinking against the harsh light overhead. As her vision cleared, she could make out the faces of the people around her. None of them was friendly, eyeing her with frosty scrutiny, seeming to size her up for some reason.
"Wake up, Camille," Doug said. "You've had long enough to recover. Snap out of it."
"Fuck you," she whispered, the sound of her own voice making her wince.
She heard his hand connecting with her face before she felt it. He had backhanded her hard, setting her mind to reeling again while the other man yelled at him.
"Christ, Gerhardt," the man said, "she has a concussion. You'll put her in a coma. Get out of here. At least let her heal up before you beat her to death."
"You stick to medicine, Doctor. I'll take care of interrogations," Doug shot back.
"Get out," the doctor ordered again, "or there won't be anything left to interrogate. I'll call you when she's fit."
The third person, a woman, waved Doug toward the door, saying, "Let Dr. Mark do his work, Señor Gerhardt. The woman goes nowhere. She talks soon enough."
"I'll handle this, Alma," the doctor said before turning back to Doug. "Leave here at once or I'll report you to Oleander."
Camille tried to sit up on the bed, discovering that her left wrist was manacled to the bed frame. To make matters worse, she was naked with no more than a sheet between her and the other people in the room.
"Where are my clothes?" she demanded, clutching the sheet to herself. "Get this damned thing off my arm."
"I disposed of those rags, Princess," Doug answered. "You never did have any taste in clothing."
"How dare you," she screamed, ignoring the pain in her head. "Get me something to wear."
"I prefer you this way. It will be so much more convenient for what I have in mind."
Camille screamed again, pulling so hard on the shackle that the steel cut into her flesh. He drew back, laughing at her attempt to kick him.
"I told you to get out," the doctor yelled. "You'll kill her."
Doug finally relented, flashing a chilly smile at Camille. He left the room without another word.
Shuddering uncontrollably, she held the sheet up tighter under her chin. She watched the doctor closely as he handed a bottle of pills to the nurse.
"Give her two of these every four hours," he said, picking up his stethoscope.
"Wait," Camille said as he headed for the door. "Why am I here?"
"That, young lady," the doctor replied coldly, "is none of my business. I'm sure the man has his reasons."
"What's wrong with you people? You have me chained like a dog. This thing hurts."
Camille fussed at the steel cuff that chaffed her wrist, smearing blood on the sheets. She flinched as the man stepped forward suddenly, seizing her arm in his harsh grasp. He slipped a key into the lock, releasing the shackle and giving her wrist a cursory examination.
"Bandage this wound, Alma," he barked, dropping her arm. "Where'd you get that scar?"
"What's it to you?" she snapped, gingerly rubbing at her swollen flesh.
"I don't really care, young lady. Looks as if it's self-inflicted though. We'll have to make sure that Alma removes any dangerous objects before she leaves you alone."
The doctor left the room without a backward glance. Eyeing the other woman, Camille wondered what was happening to her. Worse yet, she wondered what was happening to Niko.
Was he all right? She had a vague memory of gunshots and fear for his safety. Beyond that, she couldn't remember a thing.
"Chu give me arm," the woman, Alma, said.
Hesitating, Camille complied only after seeing the roll of gauze in the nurse's hand. As Alma started wrapping the injured wrist, Camille sized her up. The woman was tall with a pale olive complexion. Her dark hair was pulled up in a tidy bun under an old-fashioned nurse's cap. With her chocolate eyes, it would be easy to believe the woman was of Hispanic origin.
"What is this place, Alma?" Camille asked, glancing about the room.
It was a huge room, not at all like any hospital room she'd ever before seen. The walls were expensively paneled with a door made of the same dark wood and seemed almost invisible when it was closed. The furniture looked as if it belonged in a palace or a museum.
"Señor Oleander's mansion. Chu lucky girl. Thees ees luxury."
"You can drop the fake accent now," Camille said, fixing the nurse with a blatant stare. "It's really awful, you know."
"Que? Wha'chu mean?"
"Give me some credit for having a brain," Camille snorted. "I'd say you came from some place in the southern states. I doubt your heritage is even Hispanic."
"Yeah. You're so smart, huh?" Alma said, dropping all pretense of an accent. "Gerhardt thought it would be cute if I acted like a sweet little Mex. At least I can take off this crappy uniform now. I hate to wear white."
"Why do you call Doug 'Gerhardt'?"
"That's his name, stupid. Emil Gerhardt," Alma sneered, finishing the bandage. "He's one hot tamale, huh?"
Leaning against the mahogany headboard, Camille ran a hand through her hair, finding the tender lump on the back of her head.
"How long have I been here? What happened to me?" she asked.
"You were out about two and a half days. Gerhardt's girlfriend did that. Don't worry. You got her for it. He was pretty pissed off at you."
"What do you mean? I didn't do anything." Camille asked, afraid of what the response would be.
"You don't remember? You pushed her off the helicopter. Of course, I should be thanking you. With her out of the way, he's fair game," Alma answered, smiling knowingly. "Oh, yeah. That's right. You thought you were going to marry him. Tell me, is he as good as he looks?"
"How the hell would I know? You're welcome to him. He's a lying sack of shit."
"You're not exactly his type," Alma laughed. "He likes women who know how to please a man. Marissa once told me that sex with him was a battle. I'd like to fight a battle like that. The only reason he paid attention to you was the job."
"So I gather," Camille scoffed. "Believe me when I tell you he's not my type either. I prefer a real man."
"Hardly. Why am I here, Alma?"
"You'll find that out soon enough, girlie. Doc says you're to take two of these," Alma said, thrusting out her hand. "Swallow 'em down, or I jam them down your throat."
Camille obediently put the unknown pills on her tongue and took a sip from the glass that the other woman held. With a smirk, Alma left, the resounding click of a lock echoing throughout the room. As soon as she was gone, Camille spat the pills onto the floor.
She was mystified. Had she really killed someone? She was turning into one of them, the killers that had helped to ruin her life.
It took her a minute to work up the courage to try her legs, and when she did, she had cause to regret it. The room whirled around her ominously as the rush of blood drummed a cadence in her skull. She grabbed the bedpost, gulping air while she waited for the pain and dizziness to subside.
Once her body had settled down and her mind cleared she pulled the sheet off the bed, wrapping it about her naked flesh like a toga. With her modesty somewhat restored, she began to explore her surroundings. The first thing she did was try the door, which only confirmed what she already knew. It was locked.
Next she staggered to the windows only to discover them covered on the outside with steel bars reminiscent of a jail and more than three stories off the ground. She managed to get one of them open, allowing the surprisingly cool fresh air to cleanse her lungs and brain.
There was another door that she discovered led to a marble-lined bathroom. Splashing water in her face seemed to help wash away some of the fatigue and nausea she felt, but the image in the enormous mirror only served to disgust her. Her face was bruised and swollen, little resembling the woman she used to be.
Back in the cavernous bedroom, she took time to inspect things more thoroughly. The mahogany bookcase that spanned one wall contained an expensive array of first edition classic literature and assorted art work.
The carpeting underfoot was thick and plush and the furnishings were the best that tasteful money could buy. Everything around her bespoke luxury and refinement and reminded her of the proverbial gilded cage. No matter how much they dressed it up, it was still her prison.
Her curiosity was piqued when she discovered something that just didn't fit in the room. It was a ceramic piece that would have looked more comfortable in a souvenir shop than the sumptuous confines of this room. Picking up the little statue of a geisha girl, she noticed something tiny shining from the center of its chest. To her dismay, she realized it was the miniature lens of a camera.
Glancing about the room, she wondered how many more such cameras existed. She sprinted to the large wardrobe on the far side of the bed. Throwing the doors wide, she found it empty, dashing her hopes of finding suitable clothing.
Her pride came to her rescue. She'd be damned before she allowed them the satisfaction of seeing her crack. Taking a seat in an over-stuffed chair, she sat quietly, unmoving, her eyes staring straight ahead. Although her face was void of all emotion, inwardly she was a tempest of chaos.
"What do you think Brick will do when he sees us?" Olan asked, rubbing his aching shoulder.
Niko shot him a withering expression before turning back to squint through the windshield at the setting sun. It was a question he'd asked himself often enough during the long miles they'd crossed.
"I imagine the bastard will shoot first and not bother asking questions."
"That's what I was thinking," Olan agreed. "You think you'll be able to talk your way in?"
"Either that or I'll have to shoot my way in."
"That'll be a neat trick considering he's got more firepower than the US military. What if he's not there?"
"He'll be there," Niko said, slowing to turn off the steep mountain highway onto a narrow dirt road.
"Maybe we should wait till morning before we go wandering in. I'd hate to trip one of those damned booby traps of his in the dark."
"Loosing your nerve, pal?" Niko asked, watching the landmarks that he passed. "Damn. Everything looks different."
"You sure you can find the place?"
"Not a problem," Niko smirked. "All you have to do is get downwind of him. You can smell his stink from a mile away."
Twenty minutes later Niko pulled the vehicle to a stop, having finally found the single crooked tree that marked the path he needed.
"Stay here," he said, pulling out his gun and checking it. "I'll come get you after I talk to him."
"Nothin' doin', partner," Olan growled, pulling out his own handgun. "We're in this together."
"Christ. You sound like my wife."
"I knew I liked her for a reason," Olan laughed, hauling himself from the car. "You lead."
"Just stay low," Niko said, exiting the car. "He starts shooting, hit the dirt."
"You think he still has that mangy wolf?"
"Yeah. It's the only thing that can stand the smell of him."
Niko stepped carefully into the thicket, peering through the lengthening shadows, looking for anything that didn't belong. Brick was a careful man, if "man" was what he could be called. He lived like an animal and was more dangerous and unpredictable than a rabid coyote.
"Easy," Niko whispered, putting out a hand to stop Olan. "Trip wire."
"What is it with this son-of-a-bitch?"
"He's got good reason to be paranoid," Niko said, stepping carefully over the wire. "Half the world is trying to kill him and the other half wants to hire him. Let's get moving."
The Rocky Mountains were not high up on Niko's list of places he wanted to be, and certainly not this particular mountain after dark. They'd driven for two days to get to this place. He damn sure didn't want to get blown up before he even reached his destination.
They wound their way through the thick underbrush, avoiding a number of wicked-looking traps until the ramshackle cabin came into view. The brush and trees had been cut back, forming a clearing around the cabin fifty yards wide. It was those last fifty yards that worried Niko.
Both men hunkered down in the thicket, surveying the area around them. Deciding the coast was clear enough, Niko straightened to his full height, preparing to take his first step into the open.
"He's there all right," Olan whispered. "Stinks to high heaven."
"You'd think the asshole could take a bath once in a while," Niko returned.
There was an explosion of sound that sent both men diving into the dirt as bullets whizzed and ricocheted around them. The shots came in rapid succession, bringing tree branches raining down on them.
"Jesus Christ!" Olan hissed, trying to protect his head with his one good arm. "That crazy bastard's gonna kill us."
As suddenly as the volley had begun, the shooting ceased, leaving an eerie silence and the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder. Neither man was in a hurry to stick his head up, lest the shooting start again.
"You, out there," a voice yelled from the cabin. "Show yourselves."
"Not if you're gonna shoot at us again," Niko yelled back.
"You're trespassing," came the reply.
"How the hell else we gonna see you? God damn, Brick. Put down the gun."
"Portello, that you? Come out where I can see you."
It had been a while since anyone had called Niko by his agency name. It sounded strange after the time spent with his wife and his real identity.
"You gonna put down that gun?" he asked.
"Then I ain't coming out. I came here to talk, not get my head blown off."
"Get your ass off my mountain then," Brick growled.
"I need to talk to you, you dumb son-of-a-bitch."
"Good luck," Brick laughed, firing a short burst into the trees.
"Cease fire, God damn it!" Niko yelled once the shooting stopped. "Don't make me regret saving your sorry ass back in the desert. I should've known I was making a mistake. Shoulda let those Arabs cut you up for bait."
There was a stream of curses that would make a sailor blush, followed by a lengthy silence.
"Well, come on ahead," Brick finally yelled. "I'll put the gun down and leave the door open."
Olan raised an eyebrow when Niko looked at him. The smirk Niko returned was more like a gnashing of the teeth than a smile. Both men stood cautiously, glancing at the house and approaching slowly with weapons drawn. Just because the man told them he would put the gun away didn't mean he actually would.
"I don't like being in the open like this," Olan whispered, stepping over the rotting hide of some long-dead animal.
"Me neither, but it's the only way in," Niko replied, his nose already starting to burn from the foul stench that wafted from the cabin.
"God, he stinks."
"I heard that," Brick yelled from the darkened interior. "You don't like my perfume you can leave."
"Perfume?" Niko said, peering cautiously through the open door. "Smells more like a dead skunk. When's the last time you washed? You reek."
"Got caught in the rain just last month," Brick grinned as the men entered. "What the hell brings you two up to my cozy little nest?"
"Got a problem," Niko blurted, watching Brick through watery eyes.
"Figured as much. Pour yourself some coffee and have a seat."