The first book in the Assassin Chronicles starts with a preface set during the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 in order to allow the reader to know up front where the main character, Mark Andrew Ramsay, comes from.
Chapter One of Twelve
Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul.
Mark Andrew Ramsay carefully placed the flat black case in the rear seat of the Mercedes and closed the door. The sun glinted off the rear windshield, almost blinding him when he walked around the rear of the car, checking the tires. Old habits died hard. He hated this hot weather. He was used to friendlier climes and whenever the temperature soared into the nineties, the heat and dust reminded him of another, much less pleasant place than the restored Roman villa surrounded by ancient olive trees and carefully sculpted lawns. Scotland was always first in his mind. Long summer days, misty mornings and green meadows stretching to infinity. The less time he spent in Italy, the better and this trip… the purpose of this visit… made the weather even harder to bear though the temperature only registered a sunny eighty-eight degrees. It was all in his head. People paid good money to visit the place and he would have paid anything to skip this part of his duties. Surely there must have been some way to conduct business in this day and age without traveling thousands of miles for face-to-face meetings.
The Knight of Death had grown complacent since the end of the last Great War. It had been years since the Grand Master had summoned him from Scotland for such a mission. He had almost forgotten his primary duty and responsibility as the Chevalier du Morte. First and foremost, he was the Assassin. His secondary job as Alchemist for the Order took up most of his time and he had begun to think of himself as a simple chemist. Simple! That was how he liked things. The simpler, the better. But reality rarely allowed him to lead the life that he preferred, rather it made many demands on him that probably would have driven anyone else completely insane. All the same, he was thankful for the respite that God had given them, however short it had been. Fifty-five years had been an unprecedented time of peace for the world. All of them had grown complacent and that was probably the precise reason that this mission was necessary at all. They had failed to impress the serious nature of the Rule of Order, the Oath of Loyalty and the vows associated with an apprenticeship to one of the Knights of the Council. The inevitable consequences of breaking those vows were about to be impressed upon the young man after whom he was being sent.
He would bring the renegade apprentice home alive or, if need be, dead. If the apprentice wanted to resign, there was a wrong way and a right way. Right. Wrong. Light. Dark. Simple.
He patted the deep pocket on the leg of his black cargo pants to make sure that his plane ticket and credentials were there and then squinted at the figure of a young man dressed in a white shirt and brown trousers, running toward him across the grass beside the main building of the old villa. Mark Andrew smiled slightly and pushed his long, black hair over his shoulder as he recognized his own apprentice, Christopher Stewart, hurrying toward him.
“Master!” The boy shouted to him and waved frantically.
Mark stood waiting as his apprentice, a rather irreverent American boy of about eighteen, slid to a stop in the pebbled drive in front of him.
“Master!” The boy gasped and leaned on the trunk of the car. “I thought I had missed you. Sir Barry would not let me out of class early. He’s such an ass at times.”
“Watch your tongue or Sir Barry will having it roasting on a spit,” Mark Andrew suppressed another smile along with his normally pronounced Scottish brogue.
“I’m sorry, sir, but he knows I wanted to at least see you off,” Christopher smiled apologetically at him. “Are you sure you can’t take me with you? It would only be a few days. I could take my books and study while we travel. And I promise I would stay at the hotel or whatever while you do your… business.”
“I’m afraid it’s not possible, Christopher.” Mark Andrew licked lips and looked up at the cloudless sky again. Rain would help. Or a nice gale force wind. They had already been through this same conversation the night before. “You belong here in school,” he said more sternly. “Brother Barry would have my head if I took you away again.”
“But you’re going to America. Please? You could talk to Sir d’Brouchart. It would only be…” Christopher pleaded.
“I said no and that’s final,” Mark brushed him aside and opened the driver’s door. “Now you’d best get yourself back to the classroom before he misses you and you end up in detention… again. And don’t worry, I’ll be back before you know it. We’ll take a little trip together before I go back to Scotland. The Alps or someplace cool,” Mark looked up at the sun again.
Christopher nodded, but his disappointment was evident. He knew the place would not be cool as in ‘cool’, but cool as in cold.
“You have a break coming for St. John’s Feast. We’ll go up to the monastery on the Aegean. You’ll like it there. Cool breezes, salt air, mists and sea cliffs. Very peaceful. A good place for contemplative thinking,” Mark continued as he checked his pockets once more, searching for his credit cards.
“I’m sure it sounds very nice, Master, but this is the first real mission that you’ve gone on since I’ve been your apprentice. How can I learn to be an Assassin, if you don’t show me the trade?” the young man looked him square in the eyes and made one last plea, risking much. His dark blue eyes sparkled with a daring expression that had gotten him in trouble before.
Mark Andrew’s own blue eyes narrowed sharply and Christopher’s expression changed to one of instant regret. He had gone too far.
“Ye’ll nae be speakin’ loightly o’ such things, Christopher Stewart!” Mark’s face darkened and his brogue asserted itself. “Ye’ll larn t’ crawl before ye can walk and if ye think thot me wark is something t’ be amused aboot, ye’d bettar think again. If ye evar larn t’ be a gud alchemist, which I doubt, then we’ll talk aboot th’ oother.”
“I’m sorry, Master.” Christopher lowered his eyes and his face turned red under the admonishment. It was actually the worst he had ever received from the Scot, but then he had never mentioned ‘th’ oother’ before. Not directly. The Chevalier du Morte suddenly grasped him by the shoulders and he instinctively closed his eyes, expecting the worst, but when he looked up, Mark Andrew kissed him lightly on the lips in the Templar fashion and then ruffled his dark hair playfully.
“Stop being so impatient, lad. It’ll be the death of you yet and me, as well. Now go on back to class and Christopher…” Mark’s tone changed as he shoved him toward the buildings. “Go with God.”
Christopher nodded solemnly, turned on his heel and ran back toward the Academy building where he would no doubt catch hell for being late to his next class. Mark watched him go with trepidation. Christopher did not belong here. He belonged in Scotland, but there was no getting around the required years at the Order’s Academy. He loved the boy… too much and hated to tell him no, but Christopher was hot-headed and stubborn to boot. The apprentice would have to learn patience and discipline or he would never make an adept apprentice or even a good soldier and there were few other alternatives for the boy if he didn’t shape up soon. When the last sounds of Christopher’s footsteps faded in the still, hot air, he opened the car door reluctantly. With one last sigh of regret, he slid into the driver’s seat and picked up the folder lying in the seat next to him. Inside the folder, the bright-eyed young man known as Anthony Scalia smiled back at him from the 8 X 10 color photo. The tiny marks around the edge of the picture spoke a thousand words. The Grand Master had actually framed the photograph and hung it on the wall behind his desk, between a gilt-framed print of da Vinci’s Saint John and his own portrait painted by Sir Louis Champlain when the multi-talented Chevalier l’Clef d'Or had been going through an artistic phase just after the First World War. Anthony was not much older than Christopher. Twenty-two next month, in fact. It would be a real shame if he could not convince him to return to the fold peacefully and take his punishment like a true Soldier of Christ.
Merry’s voice cut through the woman’s concentration and she looked up over the newspaper at the blonde who sat across from her at the patio table. “Cecile! You are not listening to me.”
“Yes, I am, little girl.” Cecile reached around the paper, picked up her glass of milk and took a small sip after sniffing the stuff suspiciously. She laid the paper on the table beside her breakfast and picked up a half-eaten piece of toast, nibbling at it absently. Her dark eyes scanned the blonde woman’s face as she tried to remember what the younger woman had been saying. “Why are you so upset?”
“Where is Anthony?” Merry asked again.
“He’s gone,” Cecile sighed and her shoulders slumped. They had been through this a dozen times. “There is another one coming. You’ll see. This one will be much better.”
“I liked Anthony!” Merry whined plaintively. “He was very… nice. And I think he like me, too. Or at least, he was beginning to. You never gave me the opportunity to see him alone. How could anything happen? I’ll be a withered a woman in a few years and…”
“Well, he’s gone,” Cecile retorted, cutting her off and allowing irritation to creep into her voice. “Merry, look, Anthony was just a gopher. He was nothing. He was too young to be of much use anyway. This one will be better. I promise. I have been told that he is on his way here even as we speak. Trust me, little girl. You will have what you want and I will have what I want and then we’ll live happily forever after. I won’t have you wasting your virginity on the first creep that comes along. It’s just too damned rare in this day and age.”
“What if he’s ugly?” Merry pouted. “You know I have a totally different taste in men than you do. I want someone at least as cute as Anthony. I want to look him over first, do you hear me?”
“You have totally different everything, Merry. So what’s new? Look... I’ve been told that he is quite nice to look at besides, you’re not marrying him, for Christ’s sake!” Cecile eyed her companion in disgust. “I don’t know why you like them at all, Merry. I told you we can get around it. We can go to one of those sperm banks. I’ve been checking them out on the Internet. It’s not...”
“I know, but…” Merry cut her off and picked up her orange juice. “Well, it just wouldn’t be the same.”
“Well, I don’t see the problem,” Cecile grumbled and took up her paper again. “I told you I would make this one exception and then we’ll get on with our lives, right?”
“What if he’s mean?” Merry continued to irritate her with more questions.
“Who cares?” Cecile asked coldly. “Mean or not, he will be the better choice. I’ll arrange the whole thing and do whatever is necessary to make it work. I’ll not be taking any chances with this one and you should remember what I’ve told you. He is not to be toyed with. He won’t be happy to be here and he’ll be dangerous.”
Merry sniffed and allowed one perfect tear to escape the corner of her eye.
Cecile put down her paper again, this time slapping it on the table hard enough to cause the dishes to jump.
“Look!” She said angrily. “I am doing the best I can. We don’t have that much to choose from. Sometimes you have to compromise, baby.”
Merry sobbed in earnest and pressed her hands against her eyes.
Cecile got up and went around the table in defeat. She patted Merry’s shoulder in an awkward attempt to comfort her, as she continued to cry into her napkin. The younger woman blew her nose loudly and Cecile cringed.
“All right,” she relented. “I’ll tell you what. If he’s mean and ugly, we’ll just wait for the next one. Surely one of them will meet your requirements at least half way. Stop crying. You know I hate it when you cry. It’s so… messy.”
When her words brought more tears and more nose-blowing, she rolled her eyes and bent over the blonde curls, planting a kiss in the midst of the fluff. She suppressed the urge to say something she would regret and forced a softer tone.
“Won’t you go on upstairs and take a bubble bath? Light some of those good-smelling candles you like. Read one of your books. Get your mind off this. I’m sending you and Maxie out later on today to try and spot him. That will take your mind off of things. He will probably be here by tonight and we have to be ready for him.” Cecile tried again to comfort her.
“What do you think he’ll look like?” Merry looked up at her, wiping at her eyes. “How will we know it’s him?”
“OK,” Cecile’s features changed to one of relief and she sat down next to the blonde, taking her hands in her own. “Here’s what I’ve been told. He’s six foot two, dark blue eyes, black hair. Supposed to be long according to Anthony and he’s an outdoorsy type, you know? Sound good?” The blonde nodded in response and smiled tearfully. “He’s supposed to be Scottish, but I doubt he’ll be wearing a kilt.” Cecile attempted to make a joke, but Merry nodded again, missing it. “He rented a black El Dorado at the airport in Dallas. Anthony says he likes black. Wears it all the time, apparently. You can’t miss him. Oh, and he’ll be wearing the rings I told you about, but I doubt you’ll get close enough to see them.”
“But you said he would be dangerous.” Merry was still not satisfied. She was never satisfied.
“He is,” Cecile told her matter-of-factly. Her ever-changing face quickly showed signs of reverting to anger. “Maxie can handle it. We have a surprise for him. This is just sort of a reconnoitering mission. If you see him, you’re just going to follow him and let me know where he goes. Now go on upstairs and I’ll be up shortly.”
Merry allowed the woman to pull her from the chair and push her toward the patio doors.
Merry had a surprise for him, too. She thought about the description Cecile had given her and tried not to get her hopes up too much. Blue eyes and black hair did not necessarily mean that he would be handsome, but it was a good start. She left the patio on her way upstairs to the bath Cecile had suggested. Her tears had worked their usual magic, but if he was ugly, she would have nothing to do with him. She didn’t care what Cecile said. She would not risk having an ugly baby.
Blood trickled down the side of Mark Andrew Ramsay’s face, mingling with the perspiration staining the collar of his once neatly pressed white shirt. He could feel the sweat running from beneath his hair onto his forehead and into the cut above his eye, adding a stinging sensation to the pain that was already there, but that was minor in comparison to the multitude of other pains he felt in various parts of his body. He raised his head slowly and blinked rapidly, trying again to clear his blurred vision as the leering face of his tormentor came into view again. The heavy features of the man would have been unpleasant under any circumstances, but the scowl there now and the decidedly twisted gleam in his murky blue eyes portended a very bad afternoon to come.
He closed his eyes against the sight of the smile that crinkled the ugly scar on the man’s left cheek and prepared himself to receive another round of kicks, blows or punches.
“Yeah, better close them baby blues, dipshit!” The man laughed in his face, close enough for him to smell his breath. “You don’t want to see what’s comin’ next.”
Mark waited. He could hear the man crunching about in the dried leaves, broken hulls and crisp grass of the pecan orchard. Once again, he tried to remember how he had gotten there, but he could remember nothing at all. He couldn’t even remember his name. He only assumed that Mark Andrew Ramsay was his name because the man told him it was and, surely, he thought with irony, that this man was a true and trusted friend who would never lie to him.
When nothing else was immediately forthcoming, he opened his eyes again to see the hulking figure walking away from him under the trees. Perhaps he was going to get something more interesting to beat him with like a mace or a morning star. He hung his head and tried to concentrate on what might be holding him in place. Long, dark hair cascaded from his shoulders, hanging loosely on either side of his face, startling him into the realization that he had no idea what he looked like. For all he knew, he could be as ugly as his captor or worse. His hands were behind him; he could feel the bite of rope or cords cutting into his wrists when he tried to move them and the pain in his shoulders indicated that his arms were stretched back and around the sides of the tree behind him. He sat on the ground at the base of the tree with his feet in front of him. Black socks covered his feet, no boots or shoes.
Mark looked up again and found that the man had completely disappeared from his line of sight. Perhaps, if he could get his feet under him, he could at least raise himself from the sitting position to where the tree trunk might be small enough to give some relief to his wrists and shoulders. Drawing up his knees slowly, he tried to find enough leverage to lift himself and felt the rough bark of the tree grinding into his back through his shirt. With desperate resolve, he pushed upwards and felt his arms slip up the trunk just a bit. Gritting his teeth against this new wave of different pain, he pushed again and slid a few more inches up the tree before the rope snagged on something, stopping his progress. It would not work. He let out the breath he was holding and tried to ease himself back down without doing more damage, but the big man was back suddenly, kicking his feet from under him. It seemed impossible that he could have raised himself to the height indicated by the bone-jarring crash precipitated by the vicious kick. He was sure his spine was broken by the slight fall and surely there would be no skin left on his back. He heard himself groan as he settled back into this former position at the base of the tree.
The man took a handful of his hair and slammed his head against the tree. Stars danced in front of his eyes and blackness threatened to take him away, but unmercifully did not, leaving him looking up into the ugly man’s face again.
“Where’re you goin’, dipshit?” the man asked casually, almost affectionately, as if addressing a friend or a small child. “Somebody else wants to talk to you. You be a pretty boy now and don’t try that again.”
He let go of the hair and Mark’s chin dropped to his chest. He was beyond thirsty and wondered how long he had been there in the orchard. It seemed like a very long time and, in fact, may have been. The tree was all he could remember. As far as he was concerned, he had been there all his life. At least it occupied the entire extent of his memories. He heard the leaves and old pecan shells crunching again as more footsteps approached, but he refrained from looking up to see who was coming to visit him now. Strangely, he heard his stomach growl and a new sensation made its way into this brain. He was starving… literally. He must have been here for days.
“Mark Andrew Ramsay?” A pleasing female voice surprised him. He raised his head too quickly and the stars came back to entertain him. Dizziness joined the repertoire of unpleasant sensations and sweat ran into one eye, cutting his restricted vision in half. Death surely could have finished the sideshow at any moment and he thought that it might have been a good thing. He decided against looking for the woman that belonged to the voice. The effort was too great and she was probably as ugly as her companion in spite of her pleasant voice. “Knight Templar. Master of the Key of Death.”
This caused him to frown which caused the cut to bleed more which brought new pain which caused him to groan involuntarily. His vision cleared a bit and the image of a woman dressed in a light colored, sleeveless dress seemed to dance in front of him while the trees behind her moved in a great circle.
She smiled. She certainly did not match her companion at all. Perhaps she was an Angel, come to welcome him to Paradise, but the pain in his shoulders and the pain in his wrists and all the other pains he felt indicated quite plainly that he had not crossed over just yet.
“Won’t you talk to me?”
She knelt in front of him and reached out one slender hand to brush his hair from his face. She leaned close to him and looked into his eyes and he could smell her perfume. She held a clear plastic bottle of water to his lips and he drank it down, spilling it over his chest without taking his eyes off her face. Her eyes were clearest blue and her hair very blonde, short, framing her cherubic face with tiny curls.
Without knowing why, he opened his mouth and words tumbled out, seemingly without basis and without reason. His own voice was strange to his ears when he heard himself speak for the first time. “The company of women is a dangerous thing, and the devil has turned many men from the path to Paradise by providing female company.”
He blinked at her and wondered why he would say such a rude thing to the best thing he had seen in his extremely brief life. His eyes crinkled slightly at the corners as he frowned and blinked at her in confusion.
“Spoken like a true knight, but you don’t have to worry about all that now.” She smiled at him and traced one cool finger down the trail of blood on his face. “Such precious blood should not be wasted.” As she leaned closer, he realized that the thin, summer dress was the only thing she wore and the tan on her face apparently extended all the way down past her fully exposed breasts to her toes. His mouth fell open slightly and his eyes almost crossed at the sight of so much cool, smooth flesh. She presented a pleasant view, or at least it would have been pleasant under other circumstances… perhaps. She followed his gaze with her own eyes and then smiled again before sitting on the ground in front of him. “Do you like what you see?” she asked and rocked forward just enough to brush his face with her own and then spoke directly in his ear. “There is such a fine line between pleasure and pain, Mark Andrew. Don’t you agree?”
“Who are you?” He asked and turned his face away from her. Her perfume smelled like she looked, soft and expensive. Whatever her game was, it was far worse than being beaten by her brute of a companion. He knew how to safely react to a good beating. This was much more diabolical and cruel.
“You should have been more cooperative with Maxie,” she frowned sympathetically and turned his head back to face her. “He can be such a brute at times. But you didn’t answer my question.”
“What was the question?” Mark felt the dizziness return. What did she want? What did the big, ugly man want?
“Do you like what you see?” She asked again and looked at him quizzically as if expecting him to not only answer the question, but perhaps waiting for him to make an oration on her beauty.
He nodded. This was not right at all, but perhaps a little cooperation might be in order.
“Maxie has asked you a lot of questions and this is the first one you have answered so far. Maybe his methods of interrogation are too crude. Perhaps you would respond better to a softer approach.” She leaned forward again, pressed her lips to his and he closed his eyes tightly. Not right. Not right. She took his head in both her hands and ran her tongue over his lips and between his teeth. He could not believe what was happening and winced as yet another sensation coursed through him causing him a variety of new pains as his entire lower body convulsed involuntarily in response to her attentions. She drew back and looked at him in surprise and smiled. “You see? A very fine line. We can make all this other stuff just disappear.”
He could do nothing but sit staring at her as she worked one hand under his belt and down to where the latest in a long list of unexpected sensations was developing in direct contrast to what his mind was saying about this bizarre situation. She moved into a very compromising position, settling down on his lap, causing more pain in his legs. He yanked on the ropes that held him involuntarily and realized this was not an attempt to escape, but rather an attempt to embrace her. He protested her actions feebly and then wanted to rip her apart for reducing him to such a sorry state.
“How long has it been for you, Sir Ramsay?” She whispered in his ear and ran her fingers through his damp hair.
“How long for what?” he heard himself ask stupidly, afraid of what she was referring to.
“You won’t regret breaking your vows with me. I will make your sin very worthwhile,” she told him and leaned back to work on his belt buckle. Within seconds at least one part of him was blessedly free and he cursed it for betraying him so blatantly.
“What language was that?” She asked as she maneuvered into place, but he was in no mood to answer. He didn’t know or care what language it had been.
None of this made sense to him, but she was right about one thing. Everything was slowly taking a back seat to what she was doing now. He wondered vaguely where her companion had gone and if he was watching them. No matter what he could not remember, he felt this was something he most likely had never experienced before. He very soon forgot about the ugly man as she unzipped his jeans and shifted her position once more, causing him to make a choking noise of disbelief. She lowered herself onto his lap and adjusted her skirt to cover what was occurring between them. Mark leaned his head against the tree and closed his eyes. This had to be a dream, a nightmare. There was nothing he could do to help himself or her in her efforts and soon he found that she needed no help whatsoever.
The pleasure was very short-lived and before she could get his buckle fastened again, everything had returned to its former state of intolerable pain. She kissed him again and he dropped his head on his chest breathing very hard while she made him a bit more presentable for a day in the park. When she stood up, he realized that he could no longer feel his feet at all.
“These ropes are much too tight,” she said as if noticing for the first time that he was in a bit of trouble. She turned slightly and whistled as if summoning a horse. The mount in question turned out to be the scar-faced man, who showed up shortly, wearing the same ugly scowl as before. If he had witnessed the strange event that had just occurred, it had not helped his temperament.
“Let him go,” she told the man brusquely.
“That wouldn’t be very smart,” the man growled and frowned at her as if she were crazy.
“He’s not going anywhere,” she said. “I said let him go. Now! He can barely breathe.”
Mark waited for what he knew would be another unpleasant event. The man stomped angrily behind the tree and cut the rope that held him against the trunk with a wicked hunting knife. The man did this work none too gently and gave one last jerk before letting the rope go. This second release was even more gratifying than the first had been, and more than welcome. Mark pulled his numb hands around in front of him very slowly and laid them in his lap limply. Surprisingly, no fingers appeared to be missing, though there was no sensation at all in them and they were a distinctively unhealthy, purple color. The tingling sensation of returning circulation was another wonderful thing to devote his attention to.
“There now,” she smiled at him when he looked up. “Isn’t that better?” She was beautiful. A female rapist. He’d never thought it possible. Never paid much attention to those scandalous little reports that sometimes made the papers. Never. In fact, he’d laughed at the idea altogether. But she was beautiful and she seemed to have no malicious intent. In fact, she reminded him of a child.
He nodded again. There had to be a catch. She probably had some dreaded disease and had just passed it on to him. Something insidious she would now reveal with an evil laugh. He drew his sock feet up and sat cross-legged, arching his back to ease the pain there. It felt wonderful! His arms and hands were still quite useless. He cringed as she took his hands in hers and began to massage them back to life.
“Tell me, Chevalier Ramsay,” she knelt beside him and reached to flick a piece of bark from his hair. “Where are your brothers?”
“I have no brothers,” he told her. He didn’t know if it was a lie or the truth. He certainly had no memory of brothers, but he had no memory of anything, except what had occurred in the past hour or so. The woman and her companion completed the entire extent of his memory. This was one of the same questions the brute had asked him.
“You have eleven brothers, Sir Ramsay,” she laughed. “No other family. They are well known to us. You are the Master of the Key of Death. The Assassin. The Chevalier du Morte.”
“You have lost me entirely,” he said tiredly. A cool breeze kicked up beneath the trees and helped to revive him immensely. Even though the titles sounded familiar in a vague sort of way, he refused to admit it.
“No, I’ve just found you,” she said with a twinkle in her blue eyes. “I intend to keep you for a while. Would you like to stay with me for a while, Sir Ramsay?”
This was not something he wanted to hear. He wondered ironically where she had found him and what he had been doing and what he was supposed to do now. She was obviously insane. Beautiful, but insane.
“You will tell me everything eventually,” she told him. “I think you would rather tell me than the others. It is only a matter of time. There is no use in going on with your old ways. This is a new century and things have changed. After we have found your brothers, we can get on with a new order that will be much better than the old one. Less restrictive, I think.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he persisted.
He began to notice that his words and her words were somehow different even though both spoke English. She had a different accent. Or he did. He didn’t know which of them were in the wrong place. With a sinking feeling, he had to assume that it was himself who was far, far from home. This place was strange in every aspect. Not home. Too hot. Too dry. Even the trees were wrong. He recognized them. Pecan trees. But where was home? Where were pecan trees grown in such profusion?
The ugly man sounded like her. Another clue that wherever they were, this was their home, not his.
“Your order is dying, Sir Ramsay,” she told him almost sadly. “There is no place left for your kind in the world. You have the key that. It is time to give it up.”
“You and your friend have me confused with someone else,” he tried to tell her. “I don’t have any keys other than my car keys and you can have those if you like.”
The idea of a car struck him as odd. He had a car? Of course, he had a car. Everyone had a car. He could see a long, white luxury sedan sitting at the far end of the two rows of pecan trees. The sun glinted off the windshield and chrome. Was it his car?
She laughed and it reminded him of a Pixie or some other faery from his homeland. Homeland? Pixies were legends… of what land? Home. Home! He looked at her in wonder and almost laughed himself in spite of his predicament. Faeries and Pixies? She was not the only one here who was quite right in the head. He was insane as well. He was quite sure of it.
“What a fine sense of humor you have, Mark Andrew. So unafraid, just as Cecile said you would be.” She tossed her head and fluffed up her hair. Sweat trickled from under her blonde curls and made them stick to her face adding to her innocent beauty. The heat was oppressive except for the breeze. He could hear the big man stomping around behind them somewhere. She had mistaken his laughter for bravery? She leaned quickly and kissed his forehead before examining the cut above his eye. “I should think that after all these years and all the horrors you have seen, you would be more… solemn or bitter. But you are nothing like I expected.”
What horrors? His only horror was still clomping about under the trees. He wondered what horrors she was referring to. Why had she called him an assassin? Was that why he was in this situation? Was he a murderer? He didn’t feel like a murderer. He didn’t feel like anything, but a very confused and abused man in a great deal of trouble.
The big man popped into view again and stood with his hands on his hips looking down at them, the big hunting knife still held in one hand. Its serrated blade glinted in the sun.
“I say we dump him here and be done with it,” he grumbled. “He ain’t the right one.”
“No!” The woman glared up at him, anger danced in her eyes. “You don’t know that. We haven’t learned anything from him.”
“We know he ain’t the right one,” the man argued. “He’s too stupid. Assassin…. bullshit! He’s probably a Mormon or a Gee Hovah’s Witness or something.”
Mark wiggled his fingers as the feeling returned to his extremities. Already, he was feeling much better overall and the greater part of his aches and pains had subsided. He had no intention of sitting there while the man carved him up for the vultures. A very short, but vivid memory of another place and another time flashed in his mind, leaving him with the distinct impression that he could easily dispatch this disgusting brute with his pocket knife, if he could get his hands to cooperate. He could take off his head with one blow and hang it from one of the tree limbs for the birds to eat. He could cut out his heart and leave his carcass for the vultures. He could disembowel him and …. Mark shook his head and the hideous thoughts vanished, along with his hope, as the man pulled a pistol from his pocket.
“Don’t get antsy, dipshit.” The man must have read the look on his face. “I don’t have no problem with offin’ you right now.” He turned to the woman again. “You ain’t gonna get nothin’ out of him.”
“I got him to talk to me. That’s more than you can say.”
The Pixie squared off with him in Mark’s defense. The man was ready to murder him and dump his body in the ditch.
“Oh, yeah?” The man’s voice grated on Mark’s ears. “I guess I shoulda fucked him then? What did you get out of him besides a poke and a moan? I bet you didn’t even get yours.”
The Pixie’s face reddened with anger and she slapped the man’s face to Mark’s surprise. “Watch your mouth, sir! How dare you speak to me in such a manner? You will remember who pays your salary.”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, right.” The man backed off a bit in spite of his words and rubbed his cheek. “Excuse me, your preciousness. I thought we brought him here to interrogate him, not fu… sit in his lap.”
“There is nothing wrong with a little kindness, Maxie.”
She seemed to calm down a bit and then looked down at Mark. He put his head down and felt he should not look at her. He felt extremely guilty about what had happened in spite of having been helpless to do anything about it. He suddenly wanted to kill the man and take the girl to a convent. A convent? What was wrong with him? He rubbed the back of his head. Murder the man and take the woman to church. The blow to his head must have caused extensive brain damage. He needed to eat. He needed something to drink. He needed to get away from these two insane people.
An alarm went off in his head and he remembered stopping at a small store. He had been hungry. Was he always hungry? He saw a huge rat run across his feet and he jerked his knees up involuntarily, wrapping his arms over his head. That was when he had seen the one called Maxie for the first time. The man was waiting for him in the parking lot. The man had thrown something in his eyes. The pain had been excruciating and he’d been blinded by whatever it had been. Where was his car? Where had the rat come from? He looked up again. They were still arguing. Mark Andrew Ramsay. That was his name. He grabbed at the rat, but it was gone. He crawled after it in the debris under the stone stairs. He was so hungry; he had to catch the rat. The stone was cool on his palms. His boots made loud noises in the dark, dank chamber. He stabbed at the rat with his dagger and pain exploded in his side as he fell over on his back, staring up at the leaves above his head. The big man’s nostrils flared with anger and he drew back his foot in preparation of kicking him again. Mark rolled on his side and curled into a ball, expecting the blow that never came.
“Leave him alone, Maxie. Can’t you see he’s hurt?” The Pixie’s voice cut through his panic and he felt gentle hands on his shoulders. It had been a bizarre hallucination!
“Get up, dipshit!” Maxie growled at him and waved the pistol menacingly.
The woman knelt beside him and took his hands helping him to his feet.
“Don’t touch him again, Maxie. Come on, Mark Andrew. We’ll see what Cecile has to say about this.”
She helped him up and he limped across the broken pecan shells, twigs and leaves, allowing her to lead him along toward the white car. He rubbed his ribs and ran his hand through his hair. He could feel the blood drying on his face in the hot breeze. He wiped at the blood and looked into his hand and noticed for the first time that he wore a ring on his left ring finger. Shining gold, smooth. Was he married then? He turned his hand over and found a triangular white shield on top of the ring with a blood red cross inlaid in the white stone. Something tugged at his memory and another disorienting scene flashed in his head. He saw a line of horses with riders mounted on each one. In front of each rider was the white triangle with the red cross like a scene from a movie. The horses snorted and pranced uneasily, dust clouds rose behind the closely packed line as they advanced. His head swam and the image disappeared. He swayed in the heat and the Pixie wrapped one arm around his shoulders. He looked down at his right hand where the woman held it clutched tightly against her stomach as they stumbled along. Another ring adorned his little finger. It was dull silver with four initials engraved on top accented with black, IAAT. Those were not his initials. The rings meant nothing to him, but they were clues to his identity.
The car loomed in front of them and he stopped to pick the pecan shells from his socks as he leaned one hand on the roof of the car. Why had his life come to this sorry pass? Where were his boots? The woman bent down and helped him dislodge the irritating pieces of debris. She was still talking to him and he had not been listening. He tried to focus his attention on her words. He needed all the information he could get, no matter what the source.
“She’ll be so pleased to meet you at last,” the Pixie was saying. “We’ve been waiting for you for such a long time. I had completely given up, but she kept telling me you would come and then… there you were. Just like she said. And I was looking for some really awful person, you know? You don’t seem so very dangerous to me. And you bleed just like the rest of us. I guess I was expecting a vampire or something. You have no idea how I’ve worried, but now I feel a lot better.”
Mark looked at her in disbelief. Of course, he bled like they did. What was she talking about now? Vampires? And why would he be dangerous? It seemed she and her companion had cornered the market on that attribute. But, he was the assassin; he mocked her words in his head. Of course, he was dangerous if he was an assassin. What had he been thinking? He would have certainly assassinated the big man if given the chance. He had so many questions he wanted to ask her, but not with the extra set of ears paying attention. He had to remain on good terms with her. She was certainly friendly enough, but where had that stuff about the company of women come from? That had come from his lips, not hers. He didn’t mind her company. It was the presence of the goon with the big knife that bothered him. They would simply have to get rid of him and things would be much improved. Then he might get on with learning something useful.
She opened the Lincoln’s back door and allowed him to get in first. He slid into the cool leather comfort of the back seat and she climbed in beside him. The air conditioned interior felt wonderful and the seats were like a comfortable bed. He leaned back, sighing in relief as her guard dog climbed into the driver’s seat. The man was very handy. He could curse, snort, kick, slap, punch and drive. What a guy! So talented and beautiful, too. No doubt a good Christian in the bargain. The window between the rear of the limousine and the front was down. He heard the door locks click and automatically tried the door handle while she made herself comfortable beside him. He laid his head back on the seat and closed his eyes. She was talking to the driver now, telling the man strange things that meant nothing to him. She could have been speaking a foreign language for all he knew, but he tried to remember every word for future reference. The driver conversed with her sporadically and each time the man spoke, Mark Andrew’s hatred for him grew. He was foul-mouthed, rude and ungodly. It would have been so easy to climb over the partition and break his neck, but it wouldn’t have been a good idea at the time. They were traveling down a narrow, two-lane highway in the middle of God-knew-where and it would have been very difficult for the man to drive with a broken neck. Surely the brute could not be that talented. At least he would stay dead, if he could kill him; he was sure of it. Mark snapped his eyes open at the absurdity of the thought. Of course, the man would stay dead if he was killed. But Maxie’s death would have to wait for a more opportune moment.
The Pixie rummaged around next to him and came up with a cell phone on which she punched a series of buttons. He could hear the phone ringing and then a voice answered abruptly. A female voice.
“It’s me,” the Pixie answered. “Great news!” “Uh, huh.” “We have him. He’s asleep.”
Mark opened one eye and looked at her as she talked on the phone excitedly. She winked at him when she saw him looking at her. She seemed clearly ecstatic. He couldn’t understand it at all. It made no sense. “Yeah. He’s great. You were right. Yes. About everything.”
Mark frowned at her and she winked at him again, squeezed his thigh and patted him like a small boy or a new puppy.
“On our way. Yeah. Uh, huh. OK. Bye, now.”
She closed the phone and turned about, sitting sideways in the seat looking at him. He closed his eyes again and she snuggled into the seat beside him. She talked to him again, calling him Chevalier and Sir Ramsay, telling him all about how much he was going to like the place they were going as if he were going on pleasure cruise with her or more like he was a child and she was taking him to a fair or some such place. She climbed out of the seat and found him another bottle of water, crisp and cold. He sat up straighter, took the little bottle from her and drank the entire thing down at once. His stomach growled again as the hunger he’d felt earlier returned with a vengeance. Almost everything else that he had experienced at the hands of the ugly man had faded away except for the cut on his forehead. He was tired, but not so much so that he couldn’t have slit the man’s throat from ear to ear before taking a nice nap. She began stroking his arm, telling him what they would eat when they got ‘home’. Even though her hand was silky smooth and cool, he cringed under her touch, but she did not notice. She continued to talk, while moving her attentions to his leg. He jumped as her pats became much more intimate in nature, but she continued her one-sided conversation unabated. Mark looked at her intently before glancing up at the rear-view mirror. The driver was watching them more than the road. She leaned against his shoulder and kissed his ear. She licked his neck under his earlobe and moved her hand once more. He grabbed her hand with the intention of stopping her, but to his own consternation, he pressed her hand against him and closed his eyes. She began to repeat the same process she had executed in the pecan orchard. Incredibly enough, his stomach was soon forgotten when she climbed into his lap and sat facing him with her hands on his shoulders. It was happening again. And he seemed utterly powerless to stop what he felt was very, very wrong and this time, he had full control of his arms and hands.
He rose up slightly and looked over her shoulder, directly into the eyes of the scar-faced man in the mirror. If he couldn’t kill him, he could at least make him miserable some other way. It was unclear whether the man was enjoying the show or eat up with envy. If she was a prostitute and this man was her pimp, he was going to have an immense bill. The thought occurred to him that he had perhaps hired her to take him on some kinky fantasy ride which had gotten out of hand, but the thought seemed totally abhorrent to him. He didn’t think that such a thing would have been something he might normally do, though he had no idea what he might do, normally or abnormally. Mark’s reticence evaporated and he responded more animatedly to her attentions than previously, by taking a much more active part. He caught her hair in his hands and pulled her close, kissing her long and hard, while keeping one eye on the mirror. The guy looked really pissed. When the man looked again, he winked at him and then turned his attention fully to the very energetic Pixie in his lap. It was the least he could do for the bastard in the front seat. Mark was quite sure that the situation would change very soon and had no idea what might be waiting for him at ‘home’. The second episode was over almost as quickly as the first, but they took up the same subject on the deep black carpet of the floor in front of the seat. Between the second and the third, he had a slight bout of guilt when he wondered if he had a wife and perhaps even children somewhere waiting for him, wondering what had happened to him. Then the Pixie had closed the divider between the driver and the rear passenger seat and the driver could no longer see them. Despite the danger of his predicament and the uncertainty of his immediate future, he temporarily forgot the ugly brute and everything else he couldn’t remember.
“Sir Ramsay?” a whisper very close to his ear woke him up with a start. “We’re home.”
Mark Andrew snapped his eyes open and found the Pixie on her hands and knees above him. To his astonishment, he was lying on the thick carpet in the rear of the limousine. He looked up at her in the dim light while a terrible sense of guilt flooded over him. She was truly beautiful, but he felt very bad about having taken advantage of her obvious insanity again. Well, he really couldn’t hold himself responsible for the first time, could he? And the second time had been motivated more by revenge than by desire. But the third time, which had lasted a good bit longer than the first two? Sheer lust. Another feeling asserted itself immediately following the guilt. Hunger. It must have been days since he’d eaten solid food and again he wondered how long he’d been their ‘guest’. Following on that unpleasant sensation was fear, disgust and regret. He had missed his opportunity to throttle the ugly man. The car was no longer moving and he realized it was too late when the Pixie crawled out of the car leaving their driver pointing the muzzle of a double-barrel shotgun at a spot between his eyes. Muggy night air quickly replaced the air-conditioned comfort in the car with an oppressive heat that matched his mood.
The Pixie climbed out the car and stood waiting for him while he pulled himself up on the seat. He leaned over and tried to look up at the house before stepping out onto the very uncomfortable white rocks filling the drive in front of her ‘home’.
“Ow, ouch.” He held onto her shoulder and then hopped over to the cool, green grass growing along the side of the drive. Whatever his situation, he was making a fine impression on everyone who might be looking out the windows of the house. A very impressive red brick, colonial mansion with three floors and a wide portico across the front nestled in a jungle of green plants, trees and flowering shrubbery. The house matched the car. Money. Money and insanity. A dangerous combination.
The blonde giggled and offered her arm again, as he stood first on one foot and then the other picking the rocks from his socks, repeating the same performance as he had with the pecan shells earlier. Maxie stood watching disgustedly from a few feet away with his pistol trained on his midsection. The windows of the house glowed with light, but it was disturbing to see all the windows covered with wrought-iron bars painted white. He pushed that thought aside as his stomach made another feeble attempt to kill him.
“Come on.” She tugged on his arm and he followed her around the edge of the drive, keeping to the grass until they reached the brick walk in front of the house. She led him up the steps and inside the foyer with the watchdog following closely behind him.
Inside the foyer, the Pixie turned on the man.
“You can go,” she told him. “Sir Ramsay will be fine with me. He’s not going anywhere. Are you?” She looked at him and he shook his head. What else could he do?
She started off toward a corridor that led under the wide curving staircase and he hurried after her, catching her arm.
“I don’t even know your name,” he told her when she stopped.
“You can call me Discretion,” she laughed at the apparent irony of the name and then dragged him down the corridor. Maxie followed at a distance, but had put away the weapon. He wondered if he should try to make his move on the man, but he really needed to eat first before his stomach came to the aid of the dogged man on their heels and killed him before the idiot had a chance to do it.
Mark tried to watch Maxie when he stopped near the main staircase. The man unlocked a nondescript door underneath the stairs and disappeared inside, slamming it loudly behind him.
“This way to the kitchen,” she told him as they continued on down the hall.
This last announcement made up his mind. He’d deal with the goon later. The house appeared deserted and he wondered where the woman was that she had spoken to on the cell phone from the car. Everywhere were flower vases full of fresh flowers of every description color and scent. Silk and satin banners covered the walls of the corridor, each one brilliantly colored and decorated with strange symbols and emblems. They entered a huge pantry full of shelves packed with food. Mark didn’t know if he had ever seen so much food in all his life. He resisted the urge to grab a bag of potato chips and tear into them, and followed her through another swinging door into an expansive kitchen fit for a king. She led him to a small hand sink on one wall and handed him a bottle of soap.
“Here. Better wash up a bit,” she smiled at him and brushed another bit of grass from his shoulder. “We’re a mess.” Her exuberant attitude was baffling. He longed to ask her why she was so damned happy.
He looked at his bloody hands and wondered again what his face looked like. There was no mirror here and the shiny surfaces gave him only a vague idea of what he might look like. He took the soap and washed his hands while listening to her talk about germs and bacteria, trying in vain to see himself in the reflective surface of the sink fixtures, but his image was too distorted to make out clearly. When he had washed and dried his hands, she took him to a counter covered with gleaming white tiles embossed with a blue floral design. He sat on a barstool and watched while she opened a set of double doors set in the dark, wood-grained cabinets. The doors revealed a huge refrigerator, stuffed with more food. He felt his mouth water and his stomach growled persistently. She came back with an armload of items. Sliced roast beef, cheese, mustard, lettuce, pickles and olives, piling them haphazardly in front of him. He picked up the olives and opened the jar, eating them immediately without waiting for her to serve him, while she went for bread and a knife from another cabinet. She talked incessantly about someone named Valentino. The roast beef was Valentino’s favorite sandwich and the Swiss cheese was her favorite. Valentino liked mayonnaise. She preferred mustard. Valentino liked white bread. She liked wheat. The olives were gone by the time she had cut two slices from a loaf of brown bread. He picked up the pickle jar and watched while she spread the mustard on the bread and then layered it with roast beef, cheese and lettuce. She picked up the knife to cut it in half and he reached for it, shaking his head. No need for that. She began to work on her own sandwich without the meat. He felt very strange, once again, as he began to eat the sandwich while she talked. She should not be talking. She should be quiet!
He wondered vaguely what day of the week it was and whether he should refrain from eating the meat, but considered these circumstances more than mitigating as he tore into the sandwich. Her talking seemed more and more out of order. He tried to eat and listen to her, but couldn’t manage both at once. His sandwich was gone before she took the first bite of her skimpy cheese concoction. He picked up the knife and cut two more pieces of bread. He looked down at the bread knife in his hand and up at her as she sat on another of the stools watching him with open curiosity. It would have been so easy to kill her and leave the way he had come, but where was he? Where was his car? And how could he leave this place in the middle of nowhere in his socks? The big, ugly man was somewhere in the house, probably watching them right now. He glanced around and decided to wait a bit before making a move. Besides, he didn’t really want to kill her. He wondered why the thought had crossed his mind at all. Had he ever really wanted to kill someone? Seriously kill someone, other than Maxie? She giggled as he put twice as much beef on the second sandwich, three times as much cheese and passed on the lettuce and mustard.
“Wait,” she protested and slid off the stool, making another trip to the refrigerator. “You’ll choke to death on that.”
She brought an open bottle of red wine and set it on the counter. This was totally out of order. No drinking at the table. No talking at the table. He caught her arm and shook his head while biting into the second sandwich. She frowned at him and fetched two crystal goblets from a glass-fronted cabinet set above the sink. She came back and poured a glass full of the wine. When she started to fill the second one, he took hold of her arm again, shaking his head adamantly. It was imperative.
“Oh, I forgot.” She put one hand over her mouth. “No drinking with the food.”
He nodded and then shook his head.
“Oh, right,” she giggled. “No talking.”
It was not a laughing matter. Of all the things he could not remember, why was this so important?
She waited patiently with a look of amusement in her eyes as he ate yet another sandwich just as big as the first two. Maybe he was into threes? She laughed and put her hand over her mouth when he frowned at her. When the last bite was gone, she slid off the stool and took his hand. He was beautiful even with the blood all over his face. His eyes were gorgeous blue with long black lashes and though his hair was tangled and full of debris from the pecan grove, it was silky and shiny black. Certainly Cecile had been right. He was much better looking than Anthony and he didn’t seem to be overly aggressive, but almost shy. It was incredible to think that he’d actually seemed more afraid of her than Maxie.
He grabbed the bottle of wine and followed her again to a smaller set of stairs leading up from the kitchen. When they were on the staircase, she started talking again. He turned up the bottle and drank half of it. It was not very good. Too dry for his tastes, but it was wet. Dry. Wet. Hot. Cold. And so, hot as well as cold, dry as well as moist, before all other medicines of Physicians. Fire. Air. Water. Earth. Ignus. Ayer. Aqua. Terra. He shook his head as these strange words drifted into his mind from somewhere in his past.
“Valentino has taught me all about the Templars,” she told him. “I just forgot about the eating thing. You’ll have to forgive me, but it doesn’t matter anyway. All that will change. It just doesn’t make sense to me. I get some of my best thoughts during meals. How can I let them slip away?”
He certainly didn’t know and made no comment. Templars again. She was insane. She was hallucinating or delusional. The thought occurred to him again that they must have had him confused with someone else, surely. It was the only logical explanation. Perhaps he had wrecked his car and these two nuts had found him in the ditch? He had seen a few movies! Christopher had insisted. Christopher. Christopher?
“Valentino told me all about the battles,” she said as she led him along the upstairs hall. “It must have been awful. Were you at the battle of the Horns of Hattin? That was awful.”
He caught her arm and spun her around. “What do you know of Hattin?”
She looked up at him in surprise. The mention of the ancient battle confused and confounded him. He could smell the burning brushfires and hear the screams of the soldiers as the enemy charged up the hillside, killing and hacking everything and everyone to bits, even the horses. Then the vision and the sounds were gone as suddenly as they had come. “She just told me that it was horrible. No survivors. The infidels killed everyone.”
“Not true,” he objected and shook his head. “There were survivors.” How did he know?
“Then you were there.” Her face lit up.
“Perhaps. When did it occur?” He asked hoping to gain another to clue to his identity.
She stopped and frowned fiercely. “Let me see…. I know. 1187! There. You see. I have been studying you.”
“Did you say eleven eighty-seven?” He asked as she continued up the stairs.
“I believe so. I’m close, aren’t I?” She glanced back at him and he nodded. She was insane. That would make him…. How old? “Twelfth century, yes, I’m sure of it.”
“What is today’s date?” He asked her suddenly and she laughed.
“You must be kidding,” she answered.
“Of course. I’m a regular comedian,” he said sourly and followed her down the hall.
He turned up the bottle and finished off the wine. They stopped in front of a carved oaken door and she unpinned a key from inside her dress that fit the lock. The room was opulent, like a faery tale room made for a princess and it certainly made a lovely backdrop for the Pixie. The furnishings were all white and gold and light colored woods with flowers and ribbons and cherubs painted on the drawers and tables. The central attraction was a huge canopy bed, hung with gossamer cloth draperies and covered with golden, tasseled pillows and cushions.
She led him past the bed to the far side of the room where three steps led up to an equally well-appointed bath done in gold and white. She turned on the water and the Jacuzzi jets in the marble tub and poured liquids from several different bottles and jars into the swirling water. The scent of vanilla and cinnamon filled the room. She went around the room lighting candles while he stood silently watching her. He had to get out of here. She was a witch and he would soon be under her spell without hope of escape. He had to get to the man downstairs and dispatch him, steal the keys to the car and leave. But all thoughts of Maxie and what he wanted to do to the man left him, when she pulled the dress over her head and stepped into the tub. He blinked at her in dazed silence. She was Botticelli’s Venus come to life. This was not right. He should not be here.
The scene before him wavered and was replaced by another image. A sunken bath or pool in the middle of a magnificent room, no, a courtyard, surrounded by billowing draperies of soft lavender, white and gold. The tiled floors were covered with blood and the water in the pool was tinted pink with it. The body of a man floated face down in the water at the bottom of the shallow pool. The woman had killed him. She turned to look at him with knife still in her hand. Blood, dark, crimson, dripped from the blade to the tiles. Her dark eyes grew wide with fear when they locked with his. A red haze covered his vision when she threw off the veil covering the lower half of her face. She began to scream. He drew his dagger from his belt, took a step toward her and then fell up the steps of the Pixie’s bath. She climbed out of the tub with bubbles stuck to her body and knelt beside him.
“I didn’t realize that you were exhausted. Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked him and began to undress him where he lay as he fought feebly to regain his feet. “What you need is a hot bath and a good night’s rest… a good Knight’s rest. You are a good Knight, aren’t you?”
He pushed himself up and sat on the steps and tried to help her as she removed his dirty shirt, which was stained with sweat and blood. The visions, or whatever they were, were ridiculous. He shook his head. She was right about the sleep and felt gritty all over. The vision of the woman and the dead man had been some sort of hallucination, perhaps brought on by her ramblings about knights and crusades and such nonsense. She was talking again about the very same subjects. Fantasy. She was obsessed. This time she spoke of nymphs and faeries and flowers and crowns and love. It was useless to try to follow the disjointed, one-sided conversation. The warm water in the tub felt wonderful on his back where the tree had scourged him, though it stung a bit. She washed his face while she talked and this was not pleasant at all as the soap entered the cut. She blew on it as if he were a child when he winced and then set about washing his hair with her fragrant shampoo. Certainly he would be most beautiful when she finished. He closed his eyes and tried to remember something, anything. Ohhhhh, ahhhh, my lovely angel, you are most beautiful! A different voice spoke to him. A soft, sing-song voice with a decidedly eastern accent.
Suddenly, he remembered where he was. The flight had been long and nerve-wracking.
“America!” He said, interrupting her chatter.
“Yes, of course,” she nodded. “The best part. Texas. Like a whole other country,” she used a quote from a popular advertisement of the day. He had never heard it. The idea only served to confuse him more. “And you have such a cute accent. I love that Scottish brogue. How do you do that with your R’s? Let me see.”
She took his face in her hands and opened his mouth, peering inside comically. While he was digesting this newest bit of useful information about where he was and the affirmation of his nationality, she clamped her mouth over his and kissed him while simultaneously sliding into him. Their bodies slapped together and he remembered where they were and what was happening, or about to happen, again. He put his arms around her and they almost went under the water.
“Are you stuck on threes or do you count higher?” She asked when they had righted themselves.
“I can count. I hold a Master’s degree from… from…” he told her, somewhat confused by her question and she cut off his thoughts with another kiss. “Why?” He finished lamely when she let him breathe again.
“Can you count to four?” she asked, speaking directly into his mouth.
He had to push her back to answer. “One, two, three, four. Why?”
“Good. Let me show you.” She lowered her head and looked at him from under her brows as she ran one hand down his chest and his stomach, under the water. She wrapped one arm around his neck and slipped her silken legs about his waist. “Four is a significant number.”
“I see,” he had to agree with her though he felt hopelessly entangled in something he did not understand. He would think more on it later. She was too busy showing him the significance of the number four at the moment for him to be concerned with such things as memory loss and murder. It seemed that he had not had a woman in years and years and more years than he cared to count, but with his almost instant response to her, he could not imagine why not. Had he been in prison, perhaps? Was he an escaped convict? Could that explain his seemingly insatiable sexual appetite? Not to mention his gastronomic appetite. Surely, it would not explain hers… unless she, too, was an escaped convict. Perhaps they had escaped from the same prison… or mental hospital. He almost laughed aloud. Insane asylum, he corrected himself mentally.
Mark Andrew stood in front of the mirrors above the marble counter, wrapped in a sinfully elegant, oversized seafoam green towel, looking at his reflection in the glass. He was shocked to see the stranger looking back at him. Somehow, though he could not begin to imagine how, he knew that this was not how he was supposed to look. He couldn’t say how he should have looked, but this man was a complete and total stranger to him. Surely even amnesiacs recognized their own reflections. He had begun to think he looked like the Pixie or maybe even Maxie, since they were his only real reference points, but he gratefully looked like neither of them. His wet, dark, almost black, hair hung down his back straight and lustrous. He had no beard, but needed to shave the shadow that darkened his tanned face. Either his sojourn with these two crazies had been very brief or they had been shaving him. His eyes were so blue they shocked him as they stared back from under dark eyebrows on either side of his long, straight nose. Blue eyes. Blue eyes. They did not seem right. His mouth was broad and his lips were full, but not overly feminine. He smiled at himself and saw a nice set of white teeth. Thank God! He hated rotten teeth. And then wondered where that thought had come from. He had a fair amount of black hair on his chest that trailed down his stomach, but he was no bear and was overall, pleased with his appearance though somewhat surprised and highly disconcerted. He felt much, much older than he looked. With a start he realized he had no idea just what his age might have been though he had expected wrinkles or visible crow’s feet at the very least. He leaned toward the mirror looking for lines and creases in his face. There were a couple of very light lines across his forehead and not more than two or three crinkles near the outer corners of his eyes. Thirty-five? Forty? Twenty-nine? Who could tell? The wound above his eye was not deep and looked healthy enough after the bath. No sign of infection… yet. It would heal without being sewn. He shuddered at the thought. Wounds in the area near the brow bone, no matter how small, usually produce copious amounts of blood and may or may not leave a scar depending upon the complexion of the man. This thought came in the form of a sonorous voice that echoed hollowly in his head, accompanied by the merest flash of a scene wherein he said in a small, stuffy indoor amphitheater, watching an old man in a blood-stained apron examine a grotesque corpse lying on a porcelain table. A doctor? Was he a doctor?
He checked his hands for calluses or other telltale signs of his occupation and looked closely at the rings again, but no further memories assaulted him. His hands were smooth, without blemish, nails trimmed and clean. He could find no significant scars on his arms or shoulders, no tattoos, but there was one very pronounced scar on the right side of his stomach just under his ribcage. About two inches long and a quarter inch wide. The skin there was darker and slightly elevated by old scar tissue. It had the appearance of a knife wound or primitive surgery, perhaps? But there were no signs of the scars created by the horrid stitching that usually accompanied such surgical wounds. Why primitive? Whatever had caused it must have been painful. ‘Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul.’ The scriptural passage just seemed to pop into his head from nowhere along with a vision of black water and a yellow-eyed rat. He stepped back from the mirror instinctively and the vision disappeared.
When his head cleared, he tried to look at his back and Merry came at once to his aid, checking him over.
“It’s going to be all right, Mark Andrew,” she told him as she ran her hands over his back. “There are only a few scratches. That was very mean of Maxie to do that, but we didn’t know how you would react when you woke up. I didn’t know he was going to tie the ropes so tight.”
He turned suddenly, grabbed her by her upper arms and looked into her bright blue eyes. He felt as if he should be able to read her mind somehow, but he saw only surprise in her eyes at the rough treatment.
“Why am I here? What do you want from me?” He asked her angrily. “You have to tell me. You didn’t bring me here to ornament on the decor your boudoir.”
“I didn’t bring you here, Mark Andrew,” she told him. “You brought yourself here.”
“I don’t understand you. That’s not how I remember it.” He let go of her and shook his head. “I didn’t tie myself up and then drive myself here at gun point. Your ugly friend did that.”
“Valentino wants you here,” she told him. “Valentino wants to ask you some questions, that’s all.”
“What kind of questions? Who is Valentino?” he asked and went in search of his clothes. She hurried after him.
“About the key and about your brothers,” she told him. “Remember? Your eleven brothers?”
“I dunna ’ave a key and I dunna ’ave eleven brothers, Madame,” he grumbled as he pulled on his pants and grabbed his shirt. “I need t’ be goin’.” His own brogue shocked his ears as his eye color had shocked his senses earlier. None of this was right.
“Where are you going?” She asked him. “Maxie won’t let you leave.”
“Let ’im do ’is warst, lady,” he told her and went to the door bare-footed. “I canna stay ’ere. Ye’re wastin’ my toime and toime is precious.”
“You don’t have a choice.”
She began to cry and he stopped to look at her in surprise.
“You can’t leave! You have to stay. Maxie will shoot you and Valentino will be mad at me for it. She’ll blame it all on me.”
“I don’t know any Valentino other than Rudy and he’s dead,” he told her, trying to resume a more civilized tone. “For that matter, I don’t know you either.”
“But…” he sobbed in her hands and fell sitting on the bed. He went back and pulled her hands from her face.
“Please don’t cry, lady…” He bent to look in her eyes. They were beautiful even full of tears. He would have to pray mightily for forgiveness if he ever got back to… back to… “For God’s sake, tell me your name, lass. I can never ask God to forgive us if I can’t even tell Him your name.”
“Merry. Meredith,” she said tearfully.
“All right then, Meredith. I’m going to pray for you when I get home and I’ll never forget you, but you have to understand the concept of kidnapping? You and your big, ugly friend have kidnapped me and brought me here against my will. That is a crime in every country in the world. If you will let me go now, I promise not to say a word about it to anyone other than my priest. Thank you for the beef and the wine and the… bath. Now let me go peacefully.”
“And what about you? Kidnapping is a crime, sure, but what about intent to commit murder? You came here to kill Anthony. What about that little detail?” she asked. Her tone had gone from bewilderment to indignation.
“I don’t know what you are talking about. You have me confused with someone else. I don’t know this Valentino and I have no idea who Anthony is.”
“And where are you going to go without shoes?” She asked and looked down at his feet. “You don’t even have shoes. You’ll cut your feet.”
He looked down at his feet, remembering the pecan shells and rocks in the drive. Now she sounded like a concerned nursemaid. He sighed in defeat and headed for the door only to have her drag him back, covering his face with desperate kisses and more tears.
Maxie had watched the entire scene play out on the monitors in the security office under the stairs. Merry was a fool. A lovely fool, but a fool, none-the-less, but he was not complaining. It had almost been as good for him as it had been for the dipshit. Better than renting a video and just one of many perks he enjoyed as part of his job, though he doubted that Miss Valentino would approve of the monitor he had installed in Merry’s bedroom and the fact that he’d had to borrow it from the verandah. Nothing ever happened on the verandah and he’d saved money as well. This was the part he had been waiting for, not that the other parts hadn’t been nice, but it was time to go to work. The dipshit thought he was just going to waltz out the door and leave Merry crying. Not to mention, leave him in deep trouble with Valentino, if she came home and found the over-sexed Scot gone. His hatred for the man grew with every kiss the blonde lavished on him. How grand it must feel to have a woman as beautiful and rich as Miss Sinclair begging for more! The bloody bastard was nuts to think of leaving. He picked up the shotgun and checked to make sure it was loaded before locking the door of the monitor room behind him. On the way upstairs, he wondered briefly what Merry would say if she knew he had installed cameras in her bedroom. He also wondered what Valentino would say if she knew her ‘little girl’ had banged the guy four times in the past three hours. What was up? He knew who this guy was supposed to be, but sometimes Valentino’s bullshit was just too crazy for him. There was no way this idiot was going to get past the shotgun. No matter what Valentino had told him. Immortal Knight. Bullshit. He rounded the stairs and headed up toward Merry’s room. He got paid very well to do his job and he had no intention of blowing this assignment. He liked it here. Where else could he have gotten such first rate live show and be paid to watch it? And the guy wasn’t bad looking either. A hell of lot better than that little wimp, Anthony, had been. Merry hadn’t even gotten to first base with that little faggot. It didn’t matter that Valentino’s ditzy blonde bitch teased him mercilessly; at least she paid attention to him. That was all he needed to make him happy. When they were tired of playing with this one, he might have a chance at him as well, but that would remain to be seen.
He waited outside the door in the hallway for Ramsay to come out. He didn’t have long to wait. Ramsay opened the door and stepped into the hall as if he owned the place. He didn’t pause until Maxie pushed himself away from the wall and stepped in front of him. Ramsay looked him dead in the eyes, causing him to shudder in spite of the shotgun between them. He could hear Merry sobbing inside the bedroom.
“Now why’d you want to go and hurt her feelings like that, dipshit?” He grinned and prodded him in the stomach with the barrel of the gun. “That ain’t very nice.”
“Step aside, sir, or I will be forced to kill you. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy it, I am simply in a hurry. I believe God would understand if you press the point,” Ramsay smiled at him from under his dark brows.
Maxie’s laugh died in his throat as the Scot made his play for the weapon, disarming him before he had time to register what had happened. The shotgun was suddenly in Ramsay’s hands and the Scot stood facing him with both barrels pointed directly at his face. Maxie swallowed hard and took a step backwards, looking at him in dismay. Mark smiled wickedly at him from under his dark brows and pulled back one of the hammers. The blood drained from Maxie’s face as the trigger clicked into place.
“Back!” Marked ordered him with a slight jerk of the barrel.
“Please be careful with that, sir.” Maxie took a step backwards. “That’s a hair trigger. I filed it myself.”
“Back!” Mark repeated the gesture and Maxie complied. He bumped into the railing and stopped.
“Turn around,” Mark told him and moved carefully toward the stairs, trying to keep his eyes on the man, the doors along the balcony overlooking the foyer and the stairs leading from the third floor at the same time.
Maxie turned around slowly and grasped the railing for support as his knees turned to water.
“Now jump,” Mark told him.
“You can’t be serious!” Maxie moaned and Mark jabbed him in the back with the shotgun. “It’ll kill me!”
“Jump or your brains will precede you down,” Mark repeated the order and Maxie heard the other trigger click into place.
Maxie was crying as he lifted one foot and placed it atop the railing.
Merry’s bedroom door burst open and the Pixie rushed blindly onto the balcony, shouting at Maxie not to shoot Mark Andrew. She ran directly into Mark’s back, causing him to stumble forward, knocking the gun from his grasp, before he went down on one knee. The shotgun’s butt struck the floor and both barrels discharged into the ceiling, barely missing Maxie’s head, before it clattered away across the marble floor. The big man saw his chance and tackled him before he could get up again, grabbing two handfuls of the long, black hair. He put his weight into the desperate move and cracked Mark Andrew’s head against the base of a marble pedestal. Mark tried once to get up, but darkness overwhelmed him and he was out cold. Maxie climbed to his feet, picked up the shotgun and smirked down at Merry, who sat crying beside her fallen Knight as flakes of plaster floated down from the ceiling like falling snowflakes.
“Thanks for the help,” he told her and laughed.