Ben lay on his stomach in the long grass, safely concealed from prying eyes by a jagged arrangement of rocks. Through his binoculars he had a good view of the Melheart residence.
The sounds of the street battle had long since faded into the groans of the injured and the gurgling noises of the dying, and been replaced firstly by the wailing of ambulance sirens, and then by the more usual noises of Los Angeles suburbia. He half-imagined that it would turn out to have been a confrontation between different arms of the law, most likely the DEA and the FBI, due to some mix-up brought about by a living embodiment of the Peters Principle, in which some jock gets promoted and then isn't even capable of opening a can of spam, let alone planning an operation.
'Let them rot,' Ben murmured. 'You and me are a one-man team, Mr Ed.'
He patted his trusty Colt 45, now removed from the confinement of the golf bag, along with an array of tools that would do Batman proud. A blowpipe and darts, anointed with a poison that would either tranquilise or kill. A pair of pliers, for extracting teeth, at times when there was a necessity for self-surgery, or for the torture of others. The finest fingerprinting dust money could buy. A death's head mask, useful for going incognito, or for frightening small children. And so on, and so on...
He felt a bang of regret that he had had to pull out this multitude of devices. If he was discovered and pursued he would be hard put to bundle them all back into his golf bag in time to flee. If only he could remember to pack his equipment according to some sort of triage system, whereby the obviously necessary items went at the top, those commonly required in the middle, and the once-in-a-blue-moon items at the bottom.
He returned to studying the house. It was a stately residence, three stories tall, constructed in a mock-neo-Gothic fashion, by someone who had more money than sense. The entrance was certainly imposing enough; two doors of glass and brass, guarded by potted conifers and two footmen in stiff penguin suits. Ben thought hard. Were the Melhearts wealthy enough to afford that kind of ostentation every day, or was there something not quite right about this scene?
He pulled out his spyglass. A beautiful device made from wrought brass in the days of Samuel Johnson and Benjamin Pepys. Old but stylish. This was not the time to spend lost in regard of its beautiful workmanship, however; with one fluid motion he raised it to his eye and focused on his target.
There. The window diagonally above the doors. A woman's face, briefly glimpsed through the crosshairs before a tiny tremor in his grasp threw the picture away from her, over pretty but redundant masonry. He steadied his hands and moved the sight back to the window.
It was her. Amy Melheart. As icily beautiful as he remembered. Funny how a blonde broad could seem so, well, un-Californian. She looked like she had stepped out of a magazine about European royalty. He swept the spyglass up for a lingering pass over her blonde locks. Except - hell's bells - she was a brunette! His jaw dropped in disbelief. Her hair, auburn or chestnut or mahogany or whatever shade you named it, was defintely brown. And cut into a pageboy, not the curls she had shown off to such devastating advantage that morning. What was going on?
He ran through the options. Perhaps Amy had been to the hairdresser since their meeting, and had had her hair unpermed and unbleached, or whatever it was that women did. He dismissed that notion as impractical. He had once slept with a university research professor of chemistry, chiefly in order to gain access to her secret formulae for preparing LSD, and although she had been no great beauty - more one of those mannish-looking types who must have been snuck in shortly after WWII along with all the other Nazis in order to defeat the Red menace - she had imparted his mind with all kinds of delicious facts, one of them being that it was scientifically impossible to undo the effects of perming and bleaching, without the hair going grey and falling out. So that was clearly not the answer.
Another more likely scenario was that Amy was now wearing a wig, or had been when she visited him in his office. He tried to recall her natural skin colour from the photograph in the paper. He groaned in frustration; the paper was no use to him, as the pictures were all in black and white. A new thought struck him, more terrible than any others - horror of horrors, could it be that she was actually bald? A leukiemia victim, perhaps a survivor of horrific radiation experiments practiced in tunnels beneath Death Valley, by laughing moustachioed generals with her father's connivance?
All of a sudden the hipflask seemed like a good idea. He turned slightly to reach for it, and as he did so saw a sight that would remain with him for the rest of his life. Three figures, clad from head to toe in black, stood regarding him. Of their faces, only their eyes could be seen, and these glowed red with a dull fury. The hands grasped curved swords and shurikens, already being moved into an attack position.
He was being attacked by ninjas! And him lying flat on his stomach, in a position that ideally suited him for dismemberment by a squad of deranged soldiers of Nippon, just when he was discovering a vital fact about the luscious Amy!
A glance towards his golf bag verified that he had the weaponry to get rid of this gang - if he ever got the chance to use it. The little scuttlers were already tipping towards him, as if being pushed by invisible hands. In moments he would be chopped into so many pieces. 'Listen,' he croaked. 'You guys - you don't want to hurt me. It wouldn't be worth it.'
This checked their rush. The frontmost of them, whom Ben instantly named Tiny, on the strength of his standing only four feet tall, lowered his samurai blade to a guard position. Ben did not feel reassured; it would take only a twitch of the wrist and that blade would be plunging towards his nether regions. He seized the opportunity to twist around a foot or so. Now it would take them point eight seconds to kill him instead of point seven. But the ninjas did not take alarm. 'Why not, Slademore-san?' Tiny demanded. His voice had a nasty note to it, like a mongoose kept in a small cage and fed rotting lumps of snakemeat for so long that it had quite lost its powers of detachment and reason. 'Your head will bring us many many greenbacks.'
'Ahhh, whatever, um, greenbacks, whoever they are, is offering you, I can meet, and then some.'
'You lie!' the slightly bigger and fatter one, whom Ben instantly christened Fatt, burst out. 'You stinking American. We follow the way of Ninjitsu, that may not be trampled upon by dishonourable dogs who smell of butter. We would not take your money when we can take your brains instead!'
'Silence!' Tiny shouted at his henchman, who instantly wilted. To Ben he said, 'better talk fast, foreign devil detective, before we spill your brains out across this rock. What can you give us, now?'
Ben felt real fear. What did he have that could possibly be worth the unknown price that had been put on his head? He gestured towards the golf bag and the many artifacts scattered around it. 'You'll see I have devices that would be of great interest to a rapidly developing nation such as yours. For example,' he twirled the spyglass, 'this cunning machine here consists of a metal tube with two lenses in it, one at either end, that act to magnify the view that a naked eye would see. This would be of considerable use in wartime.'
The third samurai nudged the fat one. 'The Emperor would well reward the man who brought this to him,' he whispered.
Tiny jumped up and down in fury. 'What do you take me for! I want money, or at least items worth a whole lot more in money! Like jewels, or precious metals! Do you have any of them, or must I kill you to lay my hands on them?'
While his dwarven boss raged at the oddly well equipped man lying on the ground before the team, Akaira rolled his eyes silently, still keeping the end of his sword in a threatening position. He had never really wanted to become a samurai, but the Emperor had insisted that Akaira must come to this strange land, saying that he had "special abilities" that would be needed for the mission before him.
Like the rest of the team, Akaira was descended from a small group of Axis submariners who had run aground in Iceland during the early stages of the war. Eager to avoid capture, this small band of men and woman had hidden themselves away on the vast Vatna((kull glacier field and built a small hidden colony, where the ancient arts were still taught to the children that arrived after a year or so. Twenty years later, and with a population of only 200, the Scions of the Glacier (as they called themselves) discovered an artifact on the crevasse-ridden ice field, an artifiact beyond even Akaira's specialist sphere of knowledge. This accursed object had set in motion the change of events that eventually led the three of them to southern California.
The ninja glanced down at that telescope again. He imagined himself back in the cool environment of the Scion encampment, presenting the telescope to his emperor, who shared to a degree his passion for antiquities. The item lying tantalizingly before him looked to have be manufactured in Bristol, England around 1850 by the famous tool maker, Timothy Smyth. The emperor already had a number of items from the Smyth factory in his collection, all purchased by Akaria at giveaway prices from various Reykjavik second hand shops during the ninja teams' many missions to that city, and Akaria felt that the telescope would bring him great favor. As the little samurai in front of him fumed away at the detective's feeble pleas Akaria smiled silently to himself in anticipation.
"You want jewels? This is your lucky day, pal" Ben had already talked himself out of one sticky situation in the last half hour and was thinking himself on something of a roll. He had been in worse positions before, there were only three of them, armed only with swords and throwing knives, with no reinforcements in sight. However those swords look mighty sharp, and Ben was sure that the ninjas could cut various important bits off his person in an instant.
"How so, dog", screamed Tiny, "Where are these jewels of which you speak so freely."
"And how old are these jewels?" asked the one of the other ninjas somewhat strangely.
"They just in my bag here,", replied Ben, reaching for it "and they are in good nick, almost brand new!" For the second time today his fingers wrapped around his weapon of choice lying snuggly in this golf bag.
"You are a lying snake" yelled the small ninja, "Scions of the Glacier, attack!"
In unison, the three ninjas jumped forward, bringing their viciously shard swords down towards Ben's torso. With a speed that can only be borne from sheer desperation, Ben withdrew his hand from the bag and swung his weapon around in front of him.
There was a loud clang as three samurai swords, forged in volcanic furnaces, folded and hammered by a master craftsman before being tempered by the frigid Icelandic snow, met 8 pounds of well oiled American tool grade steel in the form of a four foot wrecking bar.
Ben loved his wrecking bar. Sure it did not have the range of a gun but for subtle work like extracting a confession or preventing an unjust parking fine it was perfect. One end was sharpened down to a rough point, while the other was flattened for jimmying doors and breaking bones. Ben had had the wrecking bar for a long time and it had saved his life more than once as testified by the dents and scratches of previous encounters with those who might get in Ben's way.
The ninjas seemed to be taken aback that their first stroke, which seemed so certain, had failed. Ben used the window of opportunity to leap to his feet. He doubted that he could take them all on in a fair fight, not even with his bar. Glancing around he spotted a small patch of scrub a few yards further up the hill side. If he could get to that then his adversaries would have to take him on one at a time. The ninjas were still composing themselves after the jarring shock of the swords hitting unyielding metal instead of soft flesh, Ben smacked the leader in the ribs with the sharpest end of his weapon, knocking the small ninja back against his allies as they shock their sore wrists.
Leaving his bag behind him, Ben raced towards the low bushes. The Scions of the Glacier were well trained, and followed mere footsteps behind having quickly regained their poise. A small, almost circular throwing knife flashed passed Ben's ear, he started to weave in order to make himself a harder target. He risked a quick look behind him - the three ninjas were gaining rapidly.
The scrub was further away than it looked and Ben was starting to think that perhaps he would not make it in time. He put in a last frantic bust of energy and burst headlong into the low bushes, ignoring the scratches of the thorny branches.
The ninjas stopped at the edge of the vegetation, wary of the thorns. With their thin cotton robes and bare feet they would be at a severe disadvantage fighting in the brier patch.
"What's the matter", sneered Ben from the safety of the scrub "Afraid of a few prickles?"
"Scions of the Glacier, attack!", yelled the little ninja again. Instantly three gleaming throwing knifes sliced through the air towards Ben. The trio watched as Ben jumped clumsily to the right, gave a quick yell, and ... disappeared.
Some minutes later, after picking their way carefully through the brambles, the ninjas discovered what looked to be a concealed mine shaft dug straight down into the hill side through the hard packed earth. Lacking torches, the ninjas could not how deep the shaft went down, and the small stones they dropped returned no sound. However no true ninja is ever without rope and so after another few minutes the trio silently lowered themselves into the pit after their prey.
Ben awoke with a start. He was lying on bare earth, his beloved wrecking bar by his side. Every part of his body felt bruised, he had no idea where he was and the light was too dim to see clearly although, as Ben reflected as he sat up, at least this place seemed mercifully ninja-free. He was sitting in a downward sloping tunnel cut from clay. Above him was the shaft through which he had recently fallen, like a chimney reaching up. Ben could not see to the top - evidently he had fallen a long distance and was lucky to be alive. The light, such as it was, was coming from somewhere around a slight bend further down the tunnel. Having no better option, Ben decided to investigate.
Some twenty yards away, Ben discovered as he walked painfully down the low tunnel, the light grew brighter and the tunnel stopped at a wooden wall with the words "Applied Defensive Arms Machinery" crudely stenciled on. The light was spilling in from the room beyond through a gap down the side of the wall when it did not quite meet the side of the tunnel. Ben realized that the wall was just a packing crate that had been shoved up against the mouth of the tunnel. Pushing the crate (which was empty), Ben slipped into the room.
The room was even larger than Ben had thought from the tunnel and packed with crates of all descriptions. Most were stenciled with the same name as the one against the wall. Out of instinct Ben pushed the crate he had move back into its old position and then quietly moved over to the single closed door in the opposite wall. There were indistinct voices coming from behind the door, voices that were getting louder by the second. Three people, two men and a woman, were moving closer. With only a second to spare, Ben quickly found a large empty crate close to the door and jumped into it, pulling the lid over the open end.
Ben heard the door open and the three people walk in. They were arguing loudly amongst themselves but the sound was muffled by crate and Ben could not make out the topic of conversation. In the darkness of the box he reach for the comforting feel of his steel wrecking bar. His fingers met only the wooden sides of the crate. Ben gave a start, he had left his bar in plain sight on the floor just inside the door.
Shit! What was he to do? This was the last thing he needed. The unknown adversaries - Ben used this label for everyone, including the old lady who owned the corner drugstore where he bought his sasparilla sodas - would be sure to find his wrecking bar. Then a brief but vigorous manhunt would be conducted and he would be caught, a helpless and humiliated victim.
In moments like these, Ben did his best thinking when aided by a little liquid refreshment. He pulled his hipflask out of his pocket and took a quick swig. The liquid - hundred proof distilled whiskey and cherry cola - burned like fire as it ran down his throat. Ahhh, that was better. He swallowed, wiped the corners of his mouth, and burped loudly.
The voices stopped. There was a brief silence, then one started up again, much louder: 'there's someone in here! I heard a belch!' it was a woman's voice, unpleasant and strident. Probably a lesbian, Ben thought mordantly. Just my luck, to be found out by a ball-breaker.
'Are you sure?' a man's deep rumbling voice answered. 'It sounded more like one of the chemical vat's letting off pressure. Happens all the time.'
'No, it was definitely a man,' the probable lesbian's voice came through appallingly clearly, like a knife, 'it had that bestial sound to it that only a man can manage!'
'I assure you, dear girl, there is no-one down here but us!' the rumbling voice sounded annoyed now.
'Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to check,' the third voice interposed smoothly. Hearing it, Ben's blood ran cold as ice. The voice was a man's, as he had thought, but it had a sinister genderless quality that spoke of things not alive, creeping things, things growing in test-tubes under harsh fluorescent lights. It seemed to whisper a warning to him, a warning of death, sudden and quick or agonizingly slowly, should he be discovered... hastily Ben felt about in the crate for something he could pull over himself, or a hidden floor, anything.
'Yes, let's!' the woman spoke. Then: a tripping noise, and the feel of a sudden impact as someone fell against a box nearby. 'Ow! I tripped over something! Ow!'
'Calm yourself, Lucida,' the silkily evil voice returned. 'we must be on our guard. Something is not right here, it seems...'
Deep voice spoke, sounding mystified. 'It's a wrecking bar. Well I'll be damned. There is someone here. Fan out!'
Ben heard the unmistakable sounds of handguns being cocked. Well this is it, Ben boy, he thought. That it should come to this. Sad end to a promising life. But I'll go out fighting.
There was a crash as somewhere, a lid was yanked off a box. Clearly they were taking no chances. He knew what to do. When the lid was pulled clear, he would leap up and try and biff the discoverer in the nose. In the confusion he might be able to grab the gun, shoot the three of them and make his escape.
'Is there anyone?' Lucida asked, a note of barely checked hysteria in her voice.
'No,' deep voice said, sounding almost as scared. 'On we go.'
Another lid tumbled to the ground. It sounded further away than the last. Perhaps they were moving away from him, and would give up on the search before they got back to his hiding hole.
'How about this one,' the silky voice spoke, and to his horror Ben heard footsteps padding in his direction. The footsteps halted before his box, and he readied himself to spring. The lid came free, and Ben had a moment's glimpse of a horrifying sight; a deathly-looking man, saggy-jowled but skin the grey of a corpse, peering down at him in a state of shock. But already the arm was rising, revolver in hand.
Ben surged up, fists ready. He hit the corpse guy smack in the nose with a right hook. Alas his restricted start had prevented a really good punch, or he might have killed the revolting sicko. As it was silky voice tumbled back across the room, blood spraying from his snout. And Ben was up and away.
The woman who must be Lucida was perhaps ten feet away. Even with her face contorted in shock, Ben realised that she was the woman he had seen through the window and mistaken for Amy Melheart. But he had no time to ponder the mysteries of twinnishness. She too carried a gun, a little peashooter. It was traversing in his direction. He had no hope of reaching her, and did not bother to try. Instead he leaped across the passageway into an aisle between rows of crates.
The gun spoke, and the report was deafening. Then he was through. He half-ran, half-shambled down the aisle. Halfway down and he was in darkness. Thank the lord for small mercies, he thought.
'Angus! Help me!' Lucida yelled. 'Kripovsky has been hurt!'
Ben turned around and looked back, all the while stealthily backing further and further into the dark abyss that made up the further regions of the storeroom. He saw Uncle Angus - for surely it was he - rush up and look towards him, gun at the ready. The light was favoring Ben and hindering his enemies; he could clearly see Angus' face, whereas the other would surely be able to see nothing at all.
Angus clearly came to the same conclusion, for he stepped back, so that for a moment there was no-one visible at all. Perhaps he thought that Ben had a gun. A moment later his hand poked around the side and fired his gun. Once. Twice. Three times. Ben threw himself flat, but even that would not have saved him if the shots had not gone hopelessly wide.
He looked up again, cautiously. A peculiar figure rushed up to the aisle entrance. It was Kripovsky, aka silky voice. He stuck his head forward enough that the light was behind him and Ben could only see his silhouetter, but his message was clear enough: 'you little fucker!' he screamed. 'I am going to find you, and rip you limb from limb! Little arsewipe! Gnnnnnngggghhh!'
These unwarranted insults made Ben mad. He had been called many things in his life, but little was entirely undeserved. Why, he stood five foot seven, which was at least two inches taller than Kripovsky. Although there was something about the madman's posture which suggested he was bent over and might easily be a good deal taller than he seemed.
Ben felt around on the floor and found a hard, heavy object. He hefted it, drew back his arm and let fly. Kripovsky, perhaps being alerted by the whistling noise it made as it flew, drew back, so that it missed its target, that being his head; instead it struck him in the belly. With a loud 'ooouufff', he sailed back and crashed against a crate.
As Ben was congratulating himself on his successful defence of his good name, a blinding glare of light struck him in the eyes. He staggered back, unable to see a thing. 'Now!' Lucida yelled, and a gun fired again. At that point Ben expected to die. He fell back and collided - hard - against a shelf. But the bullet had not struck him. As he was marvelling at his good luck, something struck a crushing blow against his back and he was knocked to the floor. An agonizing weight pinned him to the ground.
He could not move at all, and was compelled to stare at the end of the aisle from a decidedly ground-level perspective, but he could work out what had happened. He had knocked a packing crate on top of himself. Was he paralysed? Probably not. Could he get himself out? With perhaps ten minutes of effort. But now Albert and Lucida were peering down the aisle at him, clearly nerving themselves to walk down and administer the coup de grace.
'I can see him,' Albert said. 'We've got him good.'
'Well, go to,' Lucida said, obviously impatient.
'I think I can hit from here, and finish him off.'
'No!' this was Kripovsky. 'I want him alive! Bring him out!'
Albert hesitated, then seemed to come to a decision. 'OK, hold this,' he said, passing his revolver to Lucida. He started along the aisle to Ben.
Now,Albert was not a powerful man. Short, greying, and on the wrong side of fifty, he would not be Ben's first choice to send striding down the row towards a trapped intruder. Not that Ben could put up much of a fight, both his arms were painfully trapped under the heavy crate. Even if he could move he did not have a weapon and in any case Lucida was standing scant yards away with Albert's revolver aimed straight at his head.
"Its OK" Albert called back to his two companions when he was close enough to view Ben's predicament, "He's trapped. Kripovsky, have you still got those cuffs on you?"
The corpse-like man appeared out of the shadows behind Lucida, the bright blue bruise forming on the side of his nose was the only colour in his face. "I knew these would come in handy again." He growled, swinging a pair of steel handcuffs in his right hand. "You won't be so free with those fists from now on.".
With two men and a woman with a gun standing over him, Ben had no choice but to submit to having the handcuffs placed around his wrists behind his back, although it was a relief to have the heavy weight lifted from him. The crate had broken open in the fall and Ben quickly glanced at the contents - long rifles of a design he did not recognize - as he was being roughly helped to his feet by Albert.
"Well, Mr. Slademore, I certainly never expected to see you here." Lucida spoke, her thin voice a hollow mockery of her sister's sweet tone "What did you do to those three idiots I sent to dispatch you? Whatever it was, it was probably no more than they deserved."
"The same thing I'm going to do to you" Ben replied, defiantly, Kripovsky's fist promptly smashing across his face like a breaker against an exposed headland.
"I enjoyed giving you that" Kripovsky's voice was thick and oily.
"I'm looking forward to giving it back" spat Ben, figuring he had little to lose.
"Save it, big shot detective. It just so happens you appeared at a bad time. Luckily we have a place for storing annoying little problems we don't have time to deal with right away." Lucida waved the gun under Ben's nose, "Uncle, you grab the nitrogen and take it back to the machine room. Mr Slademore is coming with us."
Albert nodded and disappeared off into the shadows towards the other end of the storeroom. Kripovsky grabbed Ben's elbow and rudely pulled him down the aisle, Lucida following closely behind with the gun at Ben's back.
The corridor on the other side of the door was just as featureless as the storeroom - grey concrete walls, floor and ceiling, startly lit by white lights placed at intervals along the passage. The trio marched quickly along in silence, passing several plain doors, evidently this bunker was quite extensive. Judging from the distance they had traveled, Ben guessed that he might be under the Melheart mansion by now, although he could not be sure which direction he was being taken. Quite suddenly, Kripovsky came to an abrupt halt, forcefully tugging on Ben's arm.
"Hold still, you're going in here" Kripovsky motioned towards the door they were standing before, as unadorned and unlabelled as any. "No funny business. Lucida, would you?"
Lucida slid around the two men, always keeping her gun pointing directly at Ben's chest, and opened the door with her left hand. Walking backwards through the door, still with the gun professionally aimed at her captive, she led Ben and Kripovsky into the room beyond.
This room was much smaller than the storeroom Ben had first entered, although still made from the same exposed concrete. One end of the room was partitioned by thick metal bars which joined both the floor and the ceiling, forming three cells each big enough for a single person. Two of the cells were already occupied.
"We should have put in more cells, this jail is now all full" Lucida said to the big Russian with a smirk.
"Don't worry, these will all be gone by tomorrow." Kripovsky replied.
The two incarcerated figures stood up at the sound of the voices. Ben was startled to see that one of the prisoners was Amy - the other was a young man that Ben did not recognise. Amy looked at Ben with horror and then shot a look of pure hatred towards Lucida.
"Don't look at me like that, sister of mine." Lucida said lightly, "We wouldn't want you to miss your appointment with you're private dick." Kripovsky quickly bundled Ben into the remaining cell without bothering to remove his handcuffs. The door (also made from iron bars) was quickly locked.
"Let us go you witch!" although he was dressed in the ragged clothing of a tradesman, the young male prisoner spoke with an upper class English accent. "Sooner or later people will come looking for us."
Kriposvsky and Lucida smiled sarcastically at the foreigner. The short haired woman lowered her pistol for the first time.
"You will all be dead, possibly sooner, most definitely later." She cackled.
"Lucky for you we are kind of pressed for time at the moment." Kriposvky actually looked disappointed, but then brightened "But when we are finished, you'll be the first to know." He mashed his fist into the palm of his left hand while looking pointedly in Ben's direction.
"Come on, Albert will be waiting" Lucida said to her companion. They both walked quickly out the room, shutting the door behind them.