A Cloak of Lies Ch. 04bySweetWitch©
"Laclede's Landing?" It was more of a statement than a question. "Remember when we used to come here..." Camille stopped, not wanting to dredge up those memories of happier times.
"Yeah, I remember," he smiled, a wistful light dancing in his eyes. "I loved to dance with you."
She felt the heated blush that suffused her skin at the way his arms used to hold her close, their bodies swaying to the soft bluesy sounds of the bands that played in that other life. When they'd danced together the entire world around them would disappear, leaving only their two bodies touching and their two hearts beating together.
Clearing her throat, she turned her attention to the scene outside her window. It was late and the streets were alive with people. It was closing time for the myriad of pubs in St. Louis' "party" district. Crowds flowed from open doors to spill into the streets, laughing faces and listing bodies staggering about, blissfully unaware of the evil that Niko had been fighting.
"Camille," Niko said slowly, his voice holding a note of warning. "Try to keep your head down. You're a striking woman and easy to recognize. I should've taken Eades Bridge. It's a mess down here this time of night."
The car rolled slowly along the ancient, brick-paved streets, stopping often for the people that wandered off the sidewalks, and for the cars in the opposite lanes of the narrow roadways. Camille could see that Niko was anxious, glancing about with a forbidding expression on his face.
"Why are we here?"
"I need to see if Olan left me a message. There's a place we use over on Broadway," he answered as he gratefully turned right onto Washington. He followed the street to Broadway, turning right again.
Camille watched the skyline as the towering Gateway Arch grew larger, looming over the city, the silvery structure a graceful, curving brilliance in the night. She had always loved this city. They'd spent many happy weekends here, shopping, dining, seeking entertainment. She'd been back only once since Niko had disappeared, the memories of his smiling face and glittering black eyes sending her home in abject loneliness, never to return.
She looked at the man who was once her Niko, seeing the set of his jaw and the darkness of his expression. He'd never been like that in those days, always smiled when she'd looked at him, always ready to wrap his arms around her, kiss her...
Shaking her head, Camille tried to get her mind off the subject of his arms and lips. I'm getting married soon, to... she thought, her mind searching but failing to come up with the man's name. What's the matter with me?
"What's wrong?" Niko could see the agitation she was feeling etched on her face.
"Nothing," she snapped, wanting to kick herself. "How much farther?"
"Just a couple blocks. When we stop I want you to stay close to me, understand?"
She nodded, not wanting to look at him. The car pulled to a stop in a small lot next to a brown building. The sign on the front said "The UPS Store," their visit giving Camille pause to wonder. When they got out of the car into the mid-summer night air, she stayed by Niko's side, as he'd told her, glancing back over her shoulder from time to time.
"You got me doing it now," she muttered when they reached the front of the building.
"What's that?" he said.
Camille was about to tell him how she'd been reduced to his paranoid delusions when she saw the look on his face. His eyes had hardened, his hand hanging in the air where he'd been about to take hold of the door handle. A curse hissed from his lips at a small smear of blood on the door's glass.
"What is it?" she asked, sudden alarm freezing her heart.
"Nothing, I hope."
Pulling the door open cautiously, Niko wrapped his fingers around her upper arm while he inspected brown spots that looked like drops of liquid rust on the sidewalk and the floor inside. He pulled her along, glancing around, finding the place deserted.
The walls of the interior were lined with rows upon rows of small, locked metal mailboxes. It was one of those places where you could have your mail delivered and then pick it up at whatever time of day suited best. The silence inside was eerie, too quiet for Camille's comfort.
Glancing over his shoulder again, he guided her along one of the walls. There was a large, bloody handprint on the door of one of the boxes, another smear angling along the wall. Niko wasted little time in pulling out his leather lock case and extracting a small key ring. It held several small keys, all looking to fit locks such as those found on these boxes. Selecting one of the gleaming keys, he slipped it into the lock of the bloody door, opening it to pull out a stained wad of paper and a cell phone.
"Where'd all this blood come from?" Camille whispered as she saw her husband smoothing the paper open.
"Fuck. We gotta go, now!"
He slammed the small door shut, locking it and pulling the key out. Seizing her arm in his rough grasp and stuffing the bloody scrap of paper and the cell phone into his pocket, he dragged her to the exit, peering through the glass before shoving the door open. Camille had to run to keep up as his long legs stretched out, eating the ground under them. He all but threw her into the car when they reached it, slamming the door hard before jogging around the vehicle to take his place behind the wheel.
"What the hell is going on?" she demanded.
Niko fired the engine and jammed the shifter into gear, gunning the engine hard. "Change of plans."
"Where are we going now?"
"We have to get out of the city. Sorry, babe. Doesn't look like you'll be getting that shower after all."
"I don't care about that. What's happening?"
Niko didn't answer, a small muscle twitching in his clenched jaw. His knuckles had turned white on the wheel again, and for a minute, Camille thought he would tear it from the steering column. Without thinking, she reached out, placed her hand over his in a gesture of concern.
"What happened, Niko?" she asked, her voice soft.
He turned his hand, capturing her fingers in his, bringing them to his lips before looking at her. The concern in her blue eyes reminded him of the love she once bore for him. He remembered all the times that he thought he could happily drown in the liquid depths of her gaze, just as he was thinking now. It took all his will power not to pull over, take her into his arms and lose himself in her body.
"Some goons waiting for us at the safe house," he said, focusing his attention back on the road, releasing her hand. "Olan said they must have followed him."
"Where'd all the blood come from?"
"Olan," he ground out. "He's been shot."
"Shot? Dear God. Where is he? Is he in a hospital?"
"No. No hospitals. He'll be holed up somewhere."
Niko pulled the cell phone from the pocket of his jeans as soon as they reached the freeway that would speed them to the edge of the city. Narrowly missing a merging vehicle that swerved in front of him, he dialed the only number in the phone's contact list. It rang several times before he heard a weak voice answer.
"How bad is it?" Niko barked into the receiver.
He was silent for a few moments while he listened to the voice on the other end. Without another word he disconnected, taking the next exit off the highway.
"We need to find a pharmacy," he told Camille.
"How bad?" she whispered, fear showing in the eyes that she turned to him.
"Bad enough. He took a bullet in the shoulder, lost a lot of blood."
"Where is he?"
"He found a barn where he could lay low. Says that it looks abandoned."
"Oh, that's sanitary," she smirked, rolling her eyes.
"Sometimes we have to make do, Camille."
"There," she blurted after a few minutes, pointing in the direction of a brightly lit building at the corner of Jefferson Barracks Drive and Telegraph Road.
Once in the parking lot, Niko pulled her up close, bending close to her ear. "When we go in here just keep your head down. Smile and don't look too directly at anyone. Steer clear of the security cameras, if you can."
She nodded, forcing a smile to her lips when she walked through the automatic doors. Feeling suddenly vulnerable under the bright lights, she stayed close to him as they picked their way through the aisles, tossing the items they needed into a shopping cart.
"Where're you going?" he hissed as she pushed the cart away from the first aid isles.
"We'll need sterile water," she whispered back.
Leading the way, Camille selected several gallons of distilled water, towels, soap, and other toiletries. Just for good measure, she also grabbed a package of men's t-shirts and a couple of blankets as well as some underwear for herself. At least she would be able to change into clean undies if she couldn't have a bath. At the last minute, she grabbed a bottle of vinegar, ignoring his quizzical expression.
"What's that for?" he asked.
"It's an ancient remedy for treating wounds. My grandmother used to use it." Then she turned to Niko, a thought striking her. "Do you have enough money to pay for all this?" she asked, not wanting to cause him any difficulty.
He grinned, thinking, It's just like her to worry about money at a time like this. "Yes, agapi mou," he whispered, sliding one large hand down her arm. "I have enough."
A shiver coursed through her at the touch of his hand on her skin. Closing her eyes, she pulled away, wondering why he had that effect on her. "Okay," she said, her voice breathy. "I think we have everything we'll need. Let's get out of here."
In the next moment, she was caught up in the fire of his black opal eyes. It was odd that she had forgotten how beautiful they were, the way the light caught all the colors of the rainbow in their depths when he looked at her like that. Giving herself a mental shake, she accepted the cash that he handed her, taking it and their purchases to the cashier.
"Wait for me by the door after you pay," he told her. "I'm going to go talk to the pharmacist."
She approached the cashier, smiling, but keeping her eyes down as much as possible. When the woman ringing up the purchases gave her a quizzical look at the amount of medical supplies on the counter, Camille flashed her a friendly smile.
"My grandfather's getting out of the hospital in the morning. He had surgery. I'm told I have to change his dressings every few hours. I hope I got enough."
"This ought to do it," the woman quipped.
Camille waited by the door with a shopping cart full of their purchases, growing impatient and more nervous by the minute. By the time Niko finally joined her she was ready to climb out of her skin. He walked up to her, shoving something in his pocket and reaching for her arm.
"Let's go," he whispered, guiding her out the door as she pushed the cart.
Niko had her get into the car before he put their packages in the backseat, watching the area around them the entire time. While he was loading the car, Camille reached across the seat to slip the key in the ignition and fire the engine. He had barely gotten behind the wheel when he slammed the car in gear and backed out of their parking slot, leaving the cart in the middle of the lot. Without bothering to stop for the sake of safety, he drove the car onto the street, forcing himself to maintain a normal speed.
"My God, I'm a nervous wreck," Camille stated, clutching the edge of the seat.
Niko reached over, covered her hand with his, entwining their fingers gently. "I'm really sorry, baby."
There was a sudden lump in her throat, clogging her airway and making it difficult to speak. The gentleness in his touch, the tenderness in his voice reached her heart, reminded her of times past, when she had depended on him for the love and comfort he had given her. She gave his hand a squeeze, the only response she could give at the moment.
They'd only gone a few blocks when Niko jerked his hand away from hers, barking at her to buckle her seatbelt. He veered around a corner so fast Camille feared the vehicle would flip over as her body was slammed against the door. His jaw was ominously tight, his dark eyes glittering with steely determination as he glanced in the mirror at the traffic behind them.
"What is it?" she demanded as she pulled the belt around, snapping it into the metal clasp.
"We picked up a tail," he said, still watching the mirror.
"Are you sure?"
He took the next intersection, gunning the engine and speeding through a red light, narrowly missing the cross traffic. Camille glanced over her shoulder in time to see a black sedan with screeching tires slide sideways into another vehicle. The sedan was on the move again, veering around the pile of twisted metal and plastic it left in its wake and gaining on them fast.
"What do we do now?" Camille's voice squeaked.
"Just hang on, babe. I'll get us out of this."
The Taurus slid sideways, Niko cranking the wheel over hard with the brake pedal hitting the floor. In the next instant the tires were squealing under sudden acceleration as they drove into a narrow alleyway between two brick buildings. The car was moving so fast that the tires left the rough pavement several times. Camille had the impression of flying out of control as she shut her eyes against the fear of careening into the walls that flanked both sides.
She opened her eyes as the car traveled into oncoming traffic when it left the alley at racing speed. Other vehicles came to a screeching halt, barely missing the Taurus. Niko gave the wheel a spin, sending them swerving, dodging the other cars and trucks before fishtailing around the next corner.
Camille was hard-pressed to keep her body from sliding from under the belt. She had one foot braced against the dash and one arm against the door. Gritting her teeth was the only way of stifling the screams that wanted to be set free. The car skidded around another corner before pulling into a car sales lot.
Niko cut the engine and killed the lights, grabbing Camille's head to pull her down against the seat, his body covering hers. Camille gasped for breath around the seatbelt that pressed against her throat, could feel the fast, steady pace of Niko's heart against the back of her head. He raised above her for a moment, peering out the windshield before settling back over her.
She felt his hand move, felt the seat belt come loose when he unlatched it, releasing her constricted throat. "Is the coast clear?" she whispered, afraid to move.
"Then why the hell are you still on top of me?"
She could feel the chuckle that rumbled in his chest before hearing the sound of it. Bringing her head up hard, she connected with his breastbone, feeling gratified at the sound of his painful grunt.
"Get off me," she muttered as she pulled herself free. "Idiot."
"Hey, can I help it if I like the way you feel against me? It's not like you're offering me hugs or anything. I have to take what I can get."
"Taking advantage of me when I'm terrified hardly endears you to me, Niko."
His grin made him look like his former self, that man that she had loved so long ago. Then his face sobered, a serious light in his eyes. "I'll never let anything happen to you, I swear. I'll keep you safe, agapi."
He gazed at her, his eyes so intense she could almost feel the heat behind them. She opened her mouth to speak only to be swept up as his arms closed around her, dragging her against his body. His face buried against her neck, his breath tickling the fine hairs on her skin, he murmured his promise again.
"I'll do whatever I have to, Camille, to protect you. Please believe that."
"I believe you, Niko."
He raised his head, looking at her face, studying her as if she were a fine piece of art. She thought at that moment that he would kiss her, would let that fire that burned behind his eyes get the better of him, but he didn't. He released her suddenly, pushing her back to her side of the car before starting the engine once again.
Camille was unsure if she was glad he'd controlled himself or disappointed. As they drove through the city streets, she found herself watching everything intently, searching for evildoers in every dark-colored vehicle she saw. Feeling as if her body was betraying her, she could still feel his arms around her, his breath against her skin.
"Is this what it's been like for you all these years?" she whispered, not daring to look at him.
"You mean dodging mercenaries and criminals? Yeah, mostly. Sometimes they were dodging me."
Thinking of his life, constantly on the run and looking over his shoulder, gave her a shudder. Looking at him now, seeing the tension in his face and frame, she experienced a wave of sorrow and concern. "It must've been so hard, Niko. I'm sorry for what you've been through."
The backs of his knuckles grazed the side of her face in a touch so tender she almost melted under it. "I'd go through it all over again if it'd win you back."
She took hold of his hand, pulling it from her face. "I... Niko..." she whispered. "I wish..."
"I know, baby. I'm sorry. I shouldn't've said it."
"I cried for you. I cried every night. I went for days without sleep and then I'd dream about you walking through the door, just like you did last night. I went a little crazy for a while. No one could talk to me. I think Dad was ready to have me committed at one point. I just wanted you to come back."
"I tried, agapi mou, by the Virgin, I swear it. Every time I thought I was getting close, all hell would break loose again. I went a little crazy myself, I think." He turned to gaze at her, his eyes telling her what the years had cost him. Focusing his attention back to the dark city streets he added, "I was sorry when I heard about your dad. He was a good man. It must have been terrible, losing him and being alone like you were."
"It was hard. His heart just gave out. He was the only one who supported me, believed in me when I was trying to get answers about what happened to you. It was just too much for him."
"I wish I could've been there for you, Camille."
"It's okay. It's over now," she returned, rotating her head to look out the side window. "It was a long time ago."
The car entered the highway, its occupants falling silent as Niko watched the surrounding vehicles for any suspicious signs. They followed 255 to 55 and took the south lane, heading out of town. Camille could see that Niko's thoughts had turned to his friend, worried if the man would still be alive when they finally reached him.
"Where is this barn?" she asked, keeping her voice low.
"South of St. Louis. It'll take us a while to get there, an hour or so. Why don't you try to get some rest?"
"Fat chance. I couldn't sleep now if you smacked my skull with a ball-peen hammer," she retorted, folding her arms across her chest.
"Don't tempt me," he chuckled.
"I knew it. You really do want to do me in."
Her statement startled him, causing his head to snap around. Then he caught the mischievous smile on her face, the merry twinkle in the brilliant blue of her eyes. The grin he returned was just as playful, a welcome departure from the tension of their current circumstances.
"Hey, just who was beating the hell out of who last night? I'm the one with the battle wounds. Look what you did to my hand." He held up the offended appendage, the back of which was riddled with deep, angry furrows.
"Serves you right," she snorted, swatting his arm back. "You almost smothered me."
The smile disappeared from his face, replaced by the horror he'd felt when she'd fallen limp in his arms, her hands dropping flaccidly to her sides, her body convulsing softly against his. He'd feared that he'd killed her, as he'd lowered her to the floor, willing her to breathe.