With a Bullet by Femfan1 from story concepts by P. O’Donnel
A gloved hand reached up to knock on the massive oaken door. A courtesy. She had been under constant video surveillance since her vehicle had entered the front drive. Upon her arrival, the steel security gate had swung open allowing her access to the walled compound of the estate. She was expected. Indeed, her presence had been requested.
Before she could rap her knuckles against the wood, the door clicked open and she was confronted by a large man in an ill-fitting suit. His unbuttoned jacket did little to conceal the bulge of the automatic weapon beneath.
Disappointment registered on his face as his eyes gave her the once over. With a gesture, he ushered her inside, closing the door behind her.
“Please, follow me.”
The Weapons Mistress took in the floorplan of the rooms as she casually obeyed the instruction. To the side, rooms led to more rooms, interconnected, while the entrance foyer shifted into a narrower hallway at the center of the dual staircase between which they now travelled. At the back of the hallway, a left turn brought them into a study where two more men talked. The larger of the two gentlemen was dressed much like her guide and was roughly the same height, although a little puffier. The seated man, dressed in jeans and a golf shirt, was almost certainly her host. Their conversation broke off as she entered the room.
“Ahhh, Colt! Thank you, for coming!” The man rising to his feet extended his hand in welcome. “I’m Jim Courtwright.”
“Hello, Mr. Courtwright.” Colt nodded to her host and acknowledged his companion, as well.
“Forgive me, this is my head of security, Bill Mueller.”
“It’s nice to meet you both. What can I do for you, Mr. Courtwright? You seemed to be in quite a hurry to see me.”
“Mmm… right to it. Yes, that’s for the best. Wilson, would you mind leaving us alone for a moment. Close the door behind you, please.”
Her guide exited the room and the door shut.
“Would you like to have a seat?”
“Thank you.” Colt moved toward the offered chair but, feigning distraction, detoured to the antique flintlock pistol displayed on the wall. “I take it you’re an afficionado of firearms, Mr. Courtwright?”
“Uhm, yes, yes, I am. Well, antiques, actually. Not just firearms, either. Furnishings, sculptures…” Breaking off his thought, he lifted a piece of paper from his desk and extended it towards her. “This is why I’ve asked to meet with you.”
Colt took the piece of paper, blank except for a short note printed in standard type.
“Enjoy tomorrow because the next sunset will be the last time you live to see daylight.”
An agitated Courtwright held up a handful of similar papers. “These came before. I hadn’t taken them very seriously. Because of my wealth, the threat of kidnaping for ransom is always present. I’ve even had threats on my life before as a result of ill feelings after business deals. Mueller here has been handling my security for many years and I have the utmost confidence in his abilities. No threat has ever come close to being carried out.”
The big man’s eyes seemed to be staring a hole in the floor. Colt handed the threatening note back to Courtwright.
“I initially hired Bill because he had the reputation as one of the best security men in the business. He’s proven his abilities and I’ve trusted him with my life. However, while one of the best, he’s not ‘the best’ in the business. From all I understand, that title belongs to you, and present circumstances require that I be protected by the best.”
“What makes the most recent threat of any more concern than the others, Mr. Courtwright?” Colt studied Mueller’s attempts to hide his discomfort at the perceived injury to his reputation by his employer.
“The fact that it was waiting on my pillow when I went to bed last night. That’s a breach of security that’s unprecedented. What’s worse, nobody can tell me how it happened so I can’t be certain it won’t happen again.”
“So, you want to hire me to find out how security was breached.”
“Yes, for a start. I also want to live to see tomorrow morning and I want whoever’s making these threats caught. If you’re as good as I hear you are, and given the rather specific nature of the most recent threat, I believe we’re talking about one night’s work. Needless to say, I’ll pay handsomely for your services.”
Colt considered the offer. She wished she had more background on her potential client. The quick background check she had completed this morning before agreeing to meet with him had revealed only that he had no criminal record or known criminal associates. Her more detailed check conducted on the plane ride here had disclosed that much of his wealth had been inherited, although he had invested wisely and had added to the family fortune. A rare mention in the society pages. An even rarer mention in the financial section. He seemed nervous, eager to have her accept his offer. Natural under the circumstances.
“My normal rate for investigation is $1000 a day, plus expenses. I don’t generally act as a bodyguard, although under the circumstances keeping you alive is part of the deal. In that regard, I wouldn’t want there to be any friction with Mr. Mueller and his associates. I’d appreciate his assistance, but I’d be working for you.”
“$1000?” Courtwright reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a stack of bills. Peeling two from the top, he handed them to Colt. “This being Friday, I went to the bank and withdrew some money so that I’d have cash for a down payment in the event you agreed to help me. It appears my idea of the value of my life is quite a bit higher than your ‘normal’ rate. Strange, I find myself wishing you’d asked for more, although I suppose I’ll get your best effort no matter what I pay.”
Colt took the bills and slipped them into her jacket pocket. “I’ll need a rundown of everything that’s happened so far. A layout of the estate and the buildings on it, and the security measures in place.”
“Of course! Bill, take care of it.”
Mueller nodded his head in assent. “Yes, sir! Colt if you’ll come with me we can head over to the main security room and I’ll answer any questions you have.”
Colt followed Mueller out of the study and down a staircase. The security chief seemed to be handling the incursion into his area of responsibility well. He swiped a passcard through a reader and a metal door opened into a room full of video monitors. Sitting down at a table, he pushed a folder in her direction. “Here’s a copy of the file. Everything we’ve got on this case.”
The Weapons Mistress surveyed the contents. “Mm-hmm. Tell me about the estate.”
“About 25 acres. Roughly rectangular. It’s walled on 3 sides. Stone. You saw. About 8 feet high. The top has broken glass cemented onto it and a 3 foot barbed-wire extension tilted out. There are motion sensors on the inside perimeter set about 4 feet high and 10 feet wide. The fourth side is a cliff face that looks out on the ocean. There’s a 12 foot high electrified fence that’s turned on at night. There’s also a security gate that leads to steps down to the beach. Three of my people patrol the grounds randomly every night, coding in their arrival at checkpoints they’re required to reach at least once every hour. We also have electronic video surveillance of the grounds. The cameras pan automatically but can also be manually operated from this room. There are no blindspots within 100 yards of the main house.”
“What about the other buildings?”
“A guest house, a 6-car garage, an outdoor kitchen, a shower when you come up from the beach. We’ve swept the structures and all are empty. Video surveillance around each.”
“How about surveillance inside the main house?”
“None. Mr. Courtwright doesn’t want it. Instead, he’s got live-in security. Myself, Wilson, Jones, de Souza, and Ames. Those are my people. We’ve all worked together at least 10 years. They’re professionals. I just don’t know how this guy got into the house!”
“Man, woman, who knows. My gut says it’s a guy!”
“Mmm…Okay, theories on how the threat got into his room?”
“He was at a charity function last night. People knew that he’d be attending and that it would run late. Three of us were with him, so only two people were left to watch the grounds. One outside and one in this room. Neither saw or heard anything suspicious.”
“What about other staff?”
“A cook, a butler, and a maid. They had left for the day before we headed out to the charity event on Thursday evening. This morning he called them all and gave them today and the rest of the weekend off. Fewer people for us to keep track of inside the house.”
“Okay, I’d like to meet the rest of your people.”
“Let’s take a walk.”
With efficiency, Colt was introduced to Candace Jones, Patricia de Souza and Ronald Ames, and re-introduced to Phil Wilson. All four seemed fiercely loyal to Mueller but she didn’t sense great irritation that she had been employed. The Weapons Mistress found it odd that they weren’t more ticked off that she was there. It would only be natural for them to be annoyed by the thought that their employer had found their services deficient.
By the time she had inspected the length of the grounds and all of the structures, it was dusk. Colt returned with Mueller to the main house where both once again met with Mr. Courtwright.
The Weapons Mistress wasted no time, “Let Mr. Mueller and his people handle things on their end, business as usual. I’d like to put a wire on you so that we can communicate directly at any time. I’m aware of your feelings about your privacy b…”
“Nonsense! These are extraordinary circumstances. You want me to wear a wire, I’ll wear a wire!”
“Good. That’s sensible.” Colt pulled a small transmitter/receiver from a pouch on her belt and inserted it inside Courtwright’s ear. One of her own earrings received transmissions on the same frequency. “Okay, everyone can carry on as usual. I’ll be around.”
With that pronouncement, the Weapons Mistress turned on her heels and walked toward the steps leading to the main security room, leaving Courtwright to ponder what exactly she would be doing to protect him. After a moment’s hesitation, Mueller followed.
“You’ll be around?” A grin flashed across Mueller’s face.
“Yeah. I want to see those floorplans again and I’m going to want access to every room in the house.”
Mueller slid his access card through the door lock and they entered the security room. “Sure, I’ll tell my people not to get in your way.”
The bank of video monitors panned the grounds. “Well, the sun’s set. 9 hours ‘till dawn. Time to get to work.” Colt strode out of the security room with plans in hand, leaving Mueller to oversee his own people. Something about the “security” didn’t seem right to her, but she didn’t sense that any of them were behind Courtwright’s troubles. The first question to answer was how somebody got into the house to leave the note. Even with only two security people present last night, the other measures should ordinarily have been sufficient to keep unwanted intruders from accessing the grounds. Perhaps a highly skilled thief? Not usually the type to commit murder. Although not out of the question. Dollface leapt to mind! Still, what dealings would Courtwright have had with her?
Another possibility was an inside job. Her earlier walk-through of the house hadn’t measured up. Now, as she paced the formal living room, it was clear that the dimensions did not correspond with the floorplan. Secret passageways wouldn’t be uncommon in a house of this vintage. If the occupants knew of them, why wasn’t she told, and, if they didn’t, who might?
In her ear, she listened to Courtwright as he prepared for bed. The sound of the TV turning on caught her attention. Reaching into her belt, she activated her transmitter, “Mr. Courtwright, please turn off the TV, the noise might mask something I need to hear.”
“But, how’m I going to fall asleep?”
“Read a book, count sheep, no TV, no radio.”
The TV turned off and she could hear him rummaging around. The sound of his body climbing back into bed was followed by the flipping of pages and muttering. It would seem he’d chosen reading a book. Colt returned the transmitter to her belt and continued examining the living room. If there was a secret passageway, she placed it between this room and the study. She surveyed the fixtures. None appeared to be original to the room. At the rear of the room, two thin lines of dust at the baseboard of the inset bookcase. Typical, but where’s the release catch? Extracting a small aerosol bottle from a pouch on her boot, she sprayed the woodwork of the cabinet. The oily residue of fingerprints concentrated in one area led her to closer inspection and, when she pushed with her own thumb in the same spot, the bookcase slid forward noiselessly to reveal the passageway between the walls that she had suspected.
Extracting a small flashlight, she entered the darkness, following a collection of footprints left in the dust. Her path took her to the edge of a staircase leading both down into the darkness and up toward the second floor. She had an idea where the passage up came out, Courtwright’s bedroom, but what of the one going down?
Suddenly, in her ear, she heard the sound of Courtwright stirring. “Wha..? You! How’d you get in here? Wait! Colt! Colt, where are you!?! No! Nmph!” The sound of Courtwright’s muffled voice echoed in the Weapons Mistress’s ear as she bounded up the steps of the interior staircase. Then, two muffled shots and silence!
Colt had reached the top of the stairs and turned a corner in the passageway when she saw that the secret entrance to Courtwright’s room was ajar. Her Clippers already in her hands, she proceeded cautiously. Whoever had been in Courtwright’s room hadn’t exited this way and she had to assume was still in there. Sliding out of the passage into the moonlit room, she found no one. Moving quietly and ever alert, she checked the bedroom door and found it locked. A quick glance under the bed and up at the ceiling revealed nothing. The closet was empty, as was the bathroom, and the window latched shut. Could there be another exit to a different passageway?
She approached Courtwright’s bed. His body, sprawled out beneath the covers, was motionless. A bullet-riddled pillow covered his face. “Damn!” A note pinned to the other side of the pillow caught her attention. Leaning over, so as not to disturb the scene, she grasped the corner of the message and peered at it in the low light.
“Good night, Colt?” A flash of light from below blinded her as smoke billowed up into her mouth and nostrils! Coughing from the noxious fumes, she stepped back, her mind reeling! In a daze she stumbled back toward the bed, grabbing the now destroyed pillow and tossing it aside to reveal the shattered head of a mannequin.
She was vaguely aware that the lights had come on in the room as she fell forward, queasy, her head swimming in an ocean of swirling colors. Her body slumped upon the bed, but rubbery legs were unable to support her and she slid down until her momentum left her toppling backwards onto the floor. Lashes fluttered over glazed eyes before heavy lids shut and she sank into unconsciousness.
Conscious thoughts drifted into her dream and the Weapons Mistress realized she was awakening. Her body ached. The sensation of liquid on her lips suggested blood. Odd, she didn’t remember taking a beating.
She forced her eyes open for the briefest of moments before the first glare of light slammed them shut again. Trying again, she managed a view through fluttering eyelashes but the gauzy haze revealed nothing. Blinking her eyelids open, she gave her pupils some time to adjust. Through still cloudy vision she realized somebody was right in her face, peering at her.
Shutting her eyes briefly, she tried to clear her head. It seemed even her teeth hurt. Determined, she opened her eyes again to return the stare of…
Her own reflection. As her vision, and her wits, returned, it occurred to her that she was laying face down. The bloody lip she had imagined, only drool escaping from the side of her mouth. She rolled herself over on to her back and wiped her mouth dry with her forearm. The stiffness in her arms and legs, and the crick in the back of her neck, signaled she had been motionless in her previous position for some time. Colt felt bruising on her chin and cheek. Whoever had left her in here hadn’t been worried about her hurting herself as she hit the floor. She shivered. The room was inordinately cold. She looked up at the ceiling a good 30 feet away. Most likely plexiglass, the light bathing the room originating on the other side. The walls, stainless steel.
Colt sits and contemplates her situation!Her bearings established, she moved herself into a sitting position. Her costume had been removed. That would at least partially explain why she felt she was freezing. She had been left in a bra and panties. She didn’t need to check to know that her earrings had been removed, as well. Colt noted ruefully that even her fingernails had been trimmed.
She contemplated the undergarments that clearly were not the ones she had previously been wearing. The black lace bra was at least two sizes to small and so constricting that she wondered if it might be affecting her circulation. The matching thong panties fit only slightly better. Her captor had been thorough. He had taken no chance that she had secreted a weapon in any article of her clothing. Indeed, it was a smart move on his part, she had used the underwire in her bra to escape predicaments before. Still, why not leave her naked?
Most likely, there was some kind of tracking device attached to the clothing. She made a mental note to ditch the provided outfit when she came up with a plan for escape. In the meantime, what little coverage it provided was welcome.
Standing, she looked around the room. It was approximately 8 feet by 8 feet, with no windows. The floor and walls were stainless steel as she had initially surmised. The door was recessed perfectly and, from a distance, its’ location was barely noticeable.
Knitting her brow, she considered the events that had brought her to this room. Clearly, the plot against Courtwright had been a ruse to lure her into a trap. Why her? Perhaps more importantly, why him? Was he the mastermind or acting as a pawn for someone else? Her last memory before awaking was looking up through glazed eyes at his face. If he was behind this, he obviously had some plan for her or he wouldn’t have kept her alive when he had her completely at his mercy. She’d find out soon enough what he had in mind. Meanwhile, she moved about the room trying to generate some body heat to ward off the cold.
“Ahh, our Weapons Mistress is awake, is she?”
Courtwright strode into the observation room where Mueller observed the closed-circuit feed from the camera hidden in the lights above Colt’s cell.
“Yes, sir. She’s up and about.”
“Taking her capture well?”
“Good. You’ve got the air conditioning cranked up, right?”
“Now, Bill, why would you need to zoom in?” Courtwright laughed and slapped his security chief on the shoulder. “I think it’s time to make it a little colder in there. Crank up the air conditioning. Maybe you won’t need to zoom in to see the goosebumps.”
“Yes, sir. Tell me something…”
“You want to know why she’s not nekkid, Bill?”
“So does she. One more thing for her to think about. Don’t forget to lower the temperature in there. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
A shivering Valencia Kirk stopped to assess her condition. By her count, based upon the steady walking pace she had maintained and the number of steps she had taken, approximately 2 hours had passed. Despite her efforts, she knew her body temperature had fallen. The blue lips and pallid skin of the reflection on the wall told her she was slowly freezing. If she didn’t produce more body heat, it wouldn’t be long before she sank into unconsciousness. The drawback was that to produce more kinetic energy she had to exert more effort. She could only keep up a high enough level for so long and then, tired and sweaty, the cold would do her in twice as fast. Still, better to try something than to slide slowly into oblivion.
Continuing to keep track of her steps, she picked up the pace. Jogging in a circle around the room, she felt some warmth return to her limbs. To take her mind off the cold, she let her mind wander to her encounters with James Courtwright as she tried to deduce the motivation for imprisoning her.
Mueller glanced up at the clock. 6 hours since she had first awakened. He’d passed up every opportunity to go on break. The sight of the diminutive hardbody bouncing around the room as her ill-fitting ensemble struggled to contain her flesh had been exhilarating! Oddly, that sensation paled in comparison to the more fascinating recent hours as he had watched her pace slow.
A weary and cold Colt struggles for survival!The bounce in her step had gone and more leaden legs trudged forward. Occasional bursts of energy quickly subsided and the glistening sweat on her skin had gradually taken on the look of frost. Every step seemed more difficult than the last as her strength inexorably diminished, and now, her legs failing her, she stumbled against the wall, leaning heavily against the steel, unable to stand on wobbly legs without assistance. Her fingers struggled to unsecure the bra constricting her heaving chest but, to no avail, as weariness and extreme cold hampered her dexterity. Finally, she slid down the wall to the floor, balling up to try and contain some warmth.
Mueller pressed the intercom button. “Mr. Courtwright, the cold’s got her.”
After a long pause, the panel squawked back, “About time. Turn off the air conditioning and bring the heating coils online.”
Mueller did as instructed and signaled his man at the door to take over for him while he took a break. He wondered if James Courtwright had considered the prospect that the heroine might strip for them of her own volition when the decision was made to dress her in clothing that allowed her to retain the barest measure of her dignity. If so, the deviousness was impressive.
The cold chills that wracked Valencia Kirk’s body had imperceptibly been diminishing for the better part of an hour when she sensed warmth replacing the chill in her bones. So, the plan wasn’t for her to freeze to death, at least not yet. As her body temperature slowly returned to normal, she took advantage of the opportunity to relax. Stretching out on the floor, she closed her eyes and reflected on the purpose behind her torture. She had been taken to the brink of death and then spared. Why? Was it as simple as a sadistic impulse to keep her alive so that she could act as a further victim, or was there more to it? Perhaps, a test? Of stamina? Or will?
One thing was for certain, she wasn’t done. Heat would be the next hurdle. She could feel the steel below her back getting hotter. Then, the room went completely dark and she heard a sound from somewhere overhead before the metallic ringing of an object hitting the floor reverberated around the room. When the lights returned seconds later, she raised herself up onto her haunches and looked to see what had joined her in her cell. A bar of chocolate? She walked over and picked it up.
An energy bar. Unwrapped. Drugged? She tossed it in the corner. No need to find out. Any benefit it could give would be temporary and was outweighed by the risk. Besides, it had already provided her with confirmation of what had previously only been speculation. There was access to the room through the ceiling and, most likely, cameras up above recording her every move. Of course, that knowledge and a nickel wouldn’t buy her a dime candy.
The room had become uncomfortably warm as she wiped the sweat from her brow. Temperature extremes. She’d been right. It seemed part of the agenda was to wear her down physically and mentally. She decided the plan wasn’t for her to die in this room and that whatever happened here was leading up to something else. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other and watched the chocolate covering of the energy bar melt onto the floor.
Colt gets the hotfoot!Ames watched as beads of perspiration falling from the Weapons Mistress’s body turned to steam upon hitting the steel floor of her cell. That was more like it! The hotfoot provided by raising the temperature had lifted her from the doldrums of heat exhaustion and sent her knees thrusting into the air as she tried to avoid burning the soles of her feet. As expected, Ames was enjoying the show, salivating over the jiggling flesh on the monitor, when Mueller returned.
“Ron, what the hell?”
“She needed a little wake-up, boss!”
“Dammit! Courtwright wants her softened up, not cooked! Knock it off!”
“Okay. Okay. Here, I’m turning the setting back to where it was before. Are you happy now? Jeez, I just wanted to have a little fun!”
“You better hope that this little stunt of yours doesn’t get back to Courtwright. He’ll have your head. Get outta here, you’re back on perimeter duty.”
“Aww, come on, Bill! She’s not hurt. Look! She’s fine!”
“Yeah, no thanks to you. I hope the show was worth it, Ron, because I’m not letting you behind these controls again.”
“Damn, Bill,” Ames got up to leave the control room. “Well,” he turned and winked at his boss, “It was worth it.”
Mueller watched him go and, as the door shut, he chuckled to himself. “I’ll bet it was.”
An exhausted Valencia Kirk, breathing heavily, staggered across the floor. Every breath caused her to wince from the pain in her lungs. The metal had cooled enough that she was in no danger of burning her feet but the temperature in the room still had the feel of a sauna. Weary, she dropped to her knees and tried to compose herself. When the floor had heated to burning temperatures, she’d wondered if she’d been wrong about the plan not being for her to die in this room. Now, as the heat had again become more bearable before she suffered any serious injury, she was more convinced than ever that she had been right.
Lifting her head, she looked up at the lights and smiled.
“I’m still here.”
The lights had gone out but the stifling heat remained and there was a heavy dampness in the air that could not be accounted for solely by the steam rising from her own sweat. The humidity in the room filled her lungs and made it difficult for her to breathe. An additional torment? The scent, not eucalyptus, but familiar. Of course! Val dropped to the floor and kept her breathing shallow. Gas!
Despite her quick reaction, she was already feeling light-headed. Indeed, she realized that there was little she could do to prevent herself from feeling whatever effect was intended. Once the room was saturated, staying low would be little help as the fumes would gradually sink all the way to the floor. She felt her mind tiring and her breathing grew heavy. With a start she realized the lights had come back on but the room was engulfed in fog. Had she heard a door opening? Two sets of hands grabbed her arms and forced them behind her back as a knee pressed between her shoulder blades kept her stationary on the floor. Once her wrists had been safely shackled together, she was roughly hoisted to her feet to be escorted from the room. In truth, despite her efforts to walk on her own might, her rubbery legs left her handlers to do most of the work as she was unceremoniously dragged into a hallway.
Free from the noxious air, her mind began to clear and she recognized Jones and Wilson as they took off their gas masks. She tried to rise to her feet but stumbling legs still refused to follow her mental command and she again found herself half-dragged, half-carried by the pair through a haze of corridors until, with a suddenness, she was on the grounds of the estate squinting against the late afternoon sunshine.
The fresh air and natural light aided her in shaking off the effects of the sleeping gas and, by the time the trio reached their evident destination, Val was again alert and fit. Courtwright stood with the rest of his bodyguards before her.
“Hey, there, Colt, I hope you’ve been enjoying the accommodations!” Courtwright had a wide grin on his face from the knowing sarcasm, cocksure that he was in control.
Val took a long look at her “host.” He was decked out like some gunfighter in a spaghetti western with a longcoat, double-gunbelts, and two six-shooters. She pursed her lips as if giving the question consideration. “Not particularly.”
“Well, we’ll have to do something about that.” Courtwright retained the grin, but his annoyance at the nature of her reaction was visible in his eyes. He had expected false bravado from a proud heroine. “I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve brought you here?”
“Actually, I’m more interested in determining how I’m going to leave.”
There was a little bit more of the attitude he expected, although still not what he had imagined. Courtwright had to admit she was a cool one. “Oh, it all ties in. You may recall, when you first arrived, noticing my interest in firearms. At the time, modesty precluded me from admitting that my interest runs quite deep. In fact, more than an interest, it’s a passion!”
With lightning speed, Courtwright drew a sidearm and a bullet crashed through a wooden stake planted in the ground 25 feet away as the gun’s report and the pistol sliding back into its holster happened almost simultaneously. “A passion that led to my taking up shooting at a tender age.” He whirled and fired his other weapon, obliterating a different stake 30 feet away. As he casually slid the .45 back into its holster, it was difficult to recall the gun having been drawn.
“As a young buck, I showed some promise.” Both guns blazed as stakes in two separate directions 35 feet away shattered and with a twirling flourish each pistol was re-holstered. “Since then, it’s been practice, practice, practice!” Before she could blink, Val was staring down the barrel of an old Smith and Wesson.
Courtwright winked, and put the gun away. “To make a long story short, I’ve developed a reputation in some circles as the fastest gun alive. I’ve met some others who’ve made the same claim. We meet at privately sponsored contests, here and there, around the world. So far, I’m the only one who can still claim to be the fastest. Or alive, for that matter.”
“Yeah, you sure killed those wooden stakes dead.” Val nodded appreciatively as if she was serious.
Courtwright’s eyes darkened. “Make no mistake, the mortality of the target is of no concern to me. Indeed, that’s why I was approached about you. You’ve made some enemies and it seems that at least some of your enemies are the kind of people who have knowledge of my extracurricular activity.”
Placid blue eyes returned his gaze. As Courtwright’s pause failed to elicit a response, he continued, “Not interested in who? Well, probably best, as I’m not at liberty to divulge that information just yet. Anyway, I was approached by these as yet unnamed individuals and asked if I’d have any interest in engaging you in a gunfight. Colt? The Weapons Mistress? says I! She’s got a reputation as a crack shot. Some might even say she’s the fastest gun alive! Of course, I’d be interested in a duel. If the price is right. But, how? She’d never agree to such a thing!”
Val let him talk. Not only was information valuable, but the insights into his character might be exploited. It was evident that he enjoyed being in control of the situation. He wanted her to know how good he was and to remind her that he had power. Partly, she surmised, out of ego, but buried deep she sensed that, like many arrogant people, he had self-doubt.
“Funny thing is, Colt, the price was right. So right that it had to happen whether you would agree or not. I suppose your enemies knew that would be the case when they approached me. You see, any price would have been right if it was enough to make it happen. Once they put the thought in my head, I had to know how it would turn out. They paid me handsomely and left the arrangements to me and you walked into my trap like a doe to a brook.
“Still, despite my disappointment at how little opposition you’ve been so far, I’d like to be as fair as possible. That’s why I’ve arranged for this little demonstration. So, you can see exactly what you’re going to be facing.”
Courtwright shed his long coat and turned. A set of sequenced lights, like those found at the start of a drag race, was set up 50 feet away. The two vertical columns of lights, going from red at the top, through 4 rows of amber, to green at the bottom, were unlit. “Ames, show Colt here how fast the sequence goes from red to green.”
Ames pressed a button on a remote and the lights cycled in less than a second. Giving her a toothy smile, Ames pressed the button again and again green appeared a split second after red.
“Thanks, Ron. Whenever you’re ready.” Courtwright stood feet shoulder width apart, hands at the ready near the butt of his guns.
Val saw the red light and then the green, without a hint of amber crossing her vision, as blazing pistols and shattering glass echoed in her ears.
Courtwright slipped the empty cartridge out of both revolvers and re-loaded. “Of course, you could do that, right?”
“Don’t know. I’d be happy to try.” Val smiled.
“Yeah, not going to happen today.” Firing behind his back, Courtwright blasted the head off a mannequin set up 40 feet away. “Not going to happen tomorrow, either.” Another report from his weapon and a bullet burned through twine holding up a wooden target. A third found the bullseye before the target hit the ground.
“Fast and accurate. That’s some of the best shooting I’ve ever seen.” Val’s comment elicited the reaction she expected. He wanted her to show fear, through word or gesture, to assure himself that he was in control. Her matter of fact attitude worried him. She could sense that Courtwright was becoming more and more irritated that she wasn’t seemingly impressed enough with his ability or the precariousness of her situation. He had already spent so much time trying to make sure that she wasn’t physically or mentally at the top of her game when he faced her that he had already revealed his own doubts as to whether he was able to best her if she was at full strength. Sowing new seeds of doubt in his mind could only work to her advantage.
“You stupid fool! I’m not looking for your unbiased opinion. I’m going to kill you tomorrow! Gun you down like a dog! Don’t you realize that?!?” Courtwright’s face began to turn red. “Come on, let’s show her where she’s going to die.”
The group marched toward the side of the estate overlooking the ocean. Val strolled confidently as she was led first down one side of a divided stone staircase and then down the main staircase to a field bordered on the other end by the cliff overlooking the beach below. She kept her posture straight and a look of bemusement on her face as she knew that everyone was watching her. Some, like Courtwright, were looking for signs of weakness or fear. Others were hoping to gain some insight into whether she would survive their employer’s murderous intentions, at least long enough to be done in by someone else among the group. Still others simply took pleasure in watching her body move in the sheer fabric of the tight bra and panties in which she remained clad.
With the setting sun behind them, Courtwright said, “Tomorrow, at noon, you’ll be brought here to face me in mortal combat.” Waving a hand toward the ocean, he continued, “You’ll stand over there and I’ll descend down this staircase to meet you on the field of battle. I’ve made a pact with your acquaintances to record the event for posterity so that they may view your demise despite being unable to attend out of what I believe to be an overabundance of caution. I’m sure the video will prove to be an international sensation in underworld circles.”
Val rolled her eyes. “Oh, please!”
Courtwright shot her a glance with piercing eyes before allowing a quirky smile to play across his lips. “Come on, I’m the villain of the piece. A little melodrama is to be expected isn’t it?”
His bodyguards chuckled at the change of pace. Wilson chided her, “Come on sweet cheeks, where’s your sense of humor?” The follow-up pinch of her butt prompted such a startled reaction in Val that the chuckles turned to guffaws.
Val eyed Wilson up and down. “I’ll remember that.”
De Souza shook her head sadly. “Not for long, honey.”
“Okay, okay, we’re done here.” Mueller motioned for Wilson and Jones to escort Colt back to the mansion.
As the big man stepped toward her side, Val waited until his lead foot was about to plant and then set herself up for a kick that drove her heel down into the side of his knee just as he shifted his weight forward onto that leg. The effect was instantaneous as Wilson crumpled to the ground, howling, and clutching his knee.
“You %!#%*! Oh, spit! This freakin’ hurts! Ohhh! I’ll kill you!” Wilson reached for the gun in his shoulder holster only to come up short as he saw the barrel of Courtwright’s revolver inches away from his forehead.
“Now, Phil, that’s my job. I’d hate to lose you.” Courtwright stared the big man down. With little other choice, Wilson gritted his teeth and decided to examine his injury rather than follow through with his impulse.
Val looked at De Souza. “I guess I had long enough.”
Standing at Colt’s shoulder, Jones said, “Just barely,” even as she jammed a hypodermic needle into Colt’s glute.
Colt winced. She hadn’t seen that coming. She felt her body tense up. Soon she was unable to move her limbs as the toxin affected her nervous system. In seconds, she was stiff as a board and about to fall over when Jones caught her under her arms.
Courtwright walked over to the helpless heroine. “You’re supposed to be good. Look at you. Pathetic! I was going to make it fairly quick tomorrow, give you an honorable death, but you don’t deserve it! Maybe I should gut-shoot you and let you bleed out. That would be appropriate ‘cause you’re gutless! You were easy to capture, you’re ineffectual at escape. Look at you, you can’t even stand up to me. Get her out of here!”
Mueller ordered Ames to help Jones carry Colt’s rigid body back to her cell. The involuntary convulsions wracking the body of the Weapons Mistress made the task more difficult but soon she was again face down on the stainless steel floor of her home for the last day. Ames removed the shackles binding her wrists together. “Don’t worry, Sugar, the poison wears off in about an hour. You’ll be up jogging around again in no time. Let me just say, it’s been a pleasure getting to see you in person. I’m a big fan. It’s a shame Courtwright’s gonna kill you tomorrow.”
Val lay motionless on the floor. She knew that the toxin wasn’t responsible for the tightness she was feeling in her chest. Despite Courtwright’s own self-doubt, no amount of mind games would change the fact that he was faster than her. Much faster, even before his ploys to wear her down. After sleep deprivation, temperature extremes, poison, and sleeping gas, there was no chance that she could beat him on the draw. When noon rolled around, she was going to die. The tightness she was feeling in her chest was fear!
The cycle had again turned cold, but Valencia Kirk paid no attention. With knowledge of her abductor’s plan, came the understanding that Courtwright would make certain that she survived any of his attempts to wear her down. He wanted her uncomfortable, depleted, ill, but not dead. At least, not yet. Even as he added a mist of water to increase the chill, she sat relaxed in a meditative state, re-playing his shooting exhibition in her mind. Many times in the past hours, she’d realized her heart was racing and she’d had to force herself to calm down. She understood and accepted that she was afraid, but she couldn’t allow her anxiety and desperation to overcome her instinct for survival. Val was certain that the events of the last 2 days had revealed a way to escape her predicament. All she had to do was visualize it.
Of course, even if she figured out how to best Courtwright, there would still be Mueller and his associates to tackle. They were all armed professionals who were unlikely to embrace the idea of going to jail. Luckily, Wilson had provided her with an opportunity to reduce the odds against her without his injury appearing to have been done for that purpose. Finally, she allowed herself to drift off to sleep. She needed to be as rested as possible come morning.
Val awoke to find herself being carried down a hallway by De Souza and Jones. Her wrists were again cuffed behind her back. They entered a locker room and Val spied her costume, neatly folded, on a long table. De Souza saw that their burden was alert.
“Candy, she’s awake.”
Jones nodded in understanding and allowed Colt’s legs to drop to the floor. The Weapons Mistress unsteadily wavered on still rubbery limbs. De Souza unhooked Colt’s bra in the back and easily tore the sheer fabric straps around her shoulders, allowing the garment to drop to the floor. Then, she grabbed the lace at each of Colt’s hips and ripped the panties away from the heroine’s body. The Weapons Mistress raised an eyebrow and De Souza smirked before pushing Colt toward another door.
“Time to get you cleaned up for your funeral!”
The feel of warm water splashing against Val’s skin soothed bones and muscles sore from over 30 hours of combined confinement. De Souza enthusiastically applied fragrant soap to Colt’s body while Jones kneaded shampoo through the trademark long red hair of the Weapons Mistress. Val enjoyed the massaging effect of their fingers pressing into her flesh. By the time the last of the sweat and grime had been washed from her body, she felt relaxed and invigorated.
As Jones turned off the shower, De Souza squeezed the excess water from Colt’s hair. With stunning quickness, Val slammed the back of her skull into De Souza’s forehead, sending the wiry blonde reeling. Before Jones could react, Colt leaped into the air and caught her with a straight kick to the chest that slammed her into the wall.
Val made a break for the door and her gear, but as she crashed into the adjoining room she tripped over an extended leg and skidded futilely across the floor. A knee between her shoulder blades stopped her floundering attempts to regain her footing.
“Grab her legs.”
Mueller and Ames hoisted the Weapons Mistress into the air and dropped her down hard on the table as she squirmed unsuccessfully in an attempt to break free of their grips.
“Now that wasn’t very nice of you! The ladies were just following Mr. Courtwright’s orders to have you looking fit and healthy for the showdown.”
Jones burst through the door from the shower room. “Aaargh! I swear, I’m going to lay a whippin’ on that…”
“Forget it, Candice! Everything’s under control. How’s De Souza?”
“She’s out cold, Bill! Probably got a concussion! As far as I’m concerned, we should just do her now. She’s dangerous! We’re takin’ a big chance here!”
“Yeah, maybe, but you know as well as I do that Courtwright’s a helluva lot more dangerous. Look, Patty’ll be fine. She’s tough. Go get some smellin’ salts and wake her ass up, that’s all.”
Mueller pressed down hard on the back of Colt’s neck and grabbed a towel from the table with his free hand while Ames maintained an iron grip on her ankles. He chuckled as he began to dry off her back.
“I’ll tell you what, Colt. It’s a good thing you only have another hour to live or that girl would kill you!”
Once he had finished toweling off her rear, Mueller and Ames flipped the Weapons Mistress over. Pressing his forearm against her throat, Mueller smiled as Colt tried in vain to draw air into her lungs while he worked the cotton fabric against her chest and abdomen. Her body jerked violently as she slowly asphyxiated, but Mueller abruptly removed the pressure against her throat and shifted it to her chest as he went to work drying off her legs. Finally, he dried her hair as best as he could and wiped off her face while Jones returned and went into the shower room to revive De Souza.
“There you go, almost done.” Mueller tossed her costume pants down towards her legs. “Now, Ron here is going to help you put your clothes on.” He had gone over her garments with a fine-tooth comb and was fairly certain that he’d removed all her hidden gadgets. Still, just in case, he had taken the precaution of putting all of her clothes in the microwave for 30 seconds, long enough to disable any electronic signal device he may have missed. “The boss wants you in costume when he guns you down and then we’ll do the big reveal at the end so that his employers can confirm your identity.”
Colt noticed that the pile of clothes didn’t include her underwear. Probably not integral to Courtwright’s plan and, therefore, subject to scavenging by his vultures as souvenirs. She suspected her earrings had likely been taken as trophies by Courtwright himself.
Mueller covered Colt’s face with the towel and pulled it down tight around her head, once again limiting her ability to breathe. “The longer it takes Ron here to get your pants on, the worse off you’re going to be when you face Courtwright, so I suggest you don’t struggle.”
Ames released one of her ankles and slid a legging over her foot as the Weapons Mistress began to kick violently. “Oh, good, it looks like this is going to take awhile. I was going to go slow and enjoy myself, anyway.”
As Colt wriggled in her attempts to get free of Mueller’s restraint, Ames carefully worked her pants up onto her legs, avoiding her kicks as she blindly lashed out at him. Once he had reached the top of her thighs, he paused and drank in the scene before yanking the elastic fabric up over her hips. Then, the two men rolled the helpless heroine onto her stomach and Mueller extracted a key from his shirt pocket and unlocked her handcuffs. The weight of the two men forcing her body against the table kept her from being able to wiggle free and they slid her arms through the sleeves of her jacket before her wrists were re-handcuffed. Finally, Ames grabbed each foot in turn and put on her socks and boots before she was pulled off of the table and onto her feet.
Mueller moved in front of the Weapons Mistress, stepping squarely on her toes, while Ames held her from behind. Colt stared at him defiantly, her chest heaving from the exertion of the last few minutes. Mueller pulled the jacket up over her shoulders and buttoned it closed in the front, his eyes never leaving her chest. Ames yanked her hair back into a ponytail and placed her mask onto her head, tying it tight in the back. Then, with a patronizing tap, her hat was placed on her head.
The pair was finished dressing her when Jones and De Souza finally emerged from the shower room. De Souza had a glazed look in her eyes but was walking and seemed to know where she was and what had happened to her. The two women exchanged their wet clothes for dry garments and assisted Ames in holding Colt while Mueller walked over to a cabinet at the far end of the room and removed Colt’s gunbelt from within. He grinned in triumph as he saw the covetous look in the eyes of the Weapons Mistress and wrapped the belt around his own waist.
“Barely fits! I guess I’ll have to have it lengthened.” Mueller thrilled at the look of dejection on Colt’s face. “Things not exactly working out the way you want, huh? I guess maybe you’re not the smartest person in the room, after all.”
Colt’s eyes narrowed. “Who is? Ames?”
“Hunh!” Mueller checked his watch. “Okay, folks, time to head out.”
With De Souza leading, Jones and Ames holding Colt’s arms, and Mueller bringing up the rear, the group moved through the maze of passageways and staircases until they exited the mansion. The ocean water glistened as they walked across the grounds until Colt stood with her back at the fence guarding the cliff. Before her, in the distance, were the steps that she had walked down yesterday. Wilson sat at a table off to the left, elevating his injured leg on a folding chair and talking on a cellphone. On the right, at the middle of the field, was a bank of electronic equipment. Colt noticed several stationary video cameras mounted around the field. Apparently, Courtwright wanted every angle covered. Ames and Jones walked toward the video console and Jones began testing to make sure everything was ready to record while Ames retrieved a hand-held video camera and took up a position just off toward Colt’s right. De Souza moved off to her left and toward Wilson, while Mueller remained by her side.
“There’s no place to run, Colt. So don’t even think about it.” Mueller pulled a vintage Colt .45 out of his shoulder holster and popped out the empty cylinder. “I know it doesn’t look like much, but I promise it shoots straight. If you beat him on the draw, the gun won’t fail you. You deserve that much of a chance.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
Mueller placed a single bullet into the cylinder and slid the apparatus back into the revolver making sure that the firing pin would strike the loaded chamber on the next pull. “If you miss, it’ll already be too late.”
Drawing her waistband away from her skin, Mueller nestled the gun against her belly. “You’re not used to pulling from an open holster anyway.”
“This way’s just as fast.”
Mueller glanced at the Weapons Mistress, her breasts moving up and down with each heavy breath. Removing the handcuff key from his pocket, he moved behind her and put his Glock to her head. “I’m going to unshackle one of your wrists. Put your hands in front of you and cuff your wrists together again or I’ve been authorized by Mr. Courtwright to blow your head off.”
Colt paused and then slowly did as she was told. When the handcuffs clicked back into place, Mueller exhaled, put his gun away, and moved off to her side. “It’s almost over, just a little longer.”
As noon approached, all eyes turned towards the top of the stairs as Courtwright appeared. Dressed in his finest gunslinging garb, he looked like an outlaw in an old western movie. However, the quick-draw guns and gun-belt he sported were decidedly modern. Courtwright began to descend the stairs with a deliberate pace and Mueller knew from his employer’s walk that the tiny heroine would bleed out in the most slow and painful way that Courtwright could engineer. He almost felt sorry for her. She didn’t really deserve to die that way.
“Mueller, I’m sorry but I don’t think I want to die today.”
Mueller felt the bullet rip through the right side of his abdomen before the sound of the shot echoed in his ears. Dropping the gun in her hand, Colt reached out and unlatched her belt from his waist, pulling it off of him as he fell backward. She flung the gunbelt to the ground before her and knelt down as a bullet whizzed by her head.
Courtwright had watched as the Weapons Mistress twisted her body in Mueller’s direction and, while he hadn’t heard the shot, he knew immediately that she was trying to rob him of his moment of glory. Leaping down the steps in twos and threes, he had drawn his guns and was firing shots on the run even as he tried to decrease the distance to his target.
Colt efficiently and methodically pulled her Clipper from it’s holster, ignoring the bullets pounding into the dirt around her. Grabbing a special bullet from a pouch, she inserted it into the gun’s chamber and sighted Courtwright from a kneeling position. He was still about 75 feet away but he was bringing himself under control to take more careful aim as he continued to volley shots with both guns. She felt the sting of a bullet grazing her shoulder just before she fired. Another bullet whizzed past her ear and a final one sliced through her shirt sleeve before she saw his body contort and he fell forward like a marionette whose strings had been cut.
Quickly popping a cartridge into the Clipper, Colt fired a knockout bomb toward Candice Jones and the video console. In succession, she emptied the cartridge at Wilson, De Souza, and Ames. The group of bodyguards had been so sure of the outcome that only Jones had reacted quickly enough to get off a shot when things went screwy. Colt’s hat fluttered to the ground pierced by Jones’ bullet.
As the smoke cleared, all was quiet. Colt thanked the decision of her overconfident captors to give the able-bodied Jones and Ames video duties instead of having the already hampered Wilson and De Souza handling the chores. The extra distraction, coupled with the disbelieving surprise of all, probably accounted for the bare margin by which she had escaped mortal injury.
“I can’t believe you shot me! You don’t believe in using deadly force!”
Colt looked over at the fallen Mueller. “I believe in it as a last resort. You should have left me a choice.”
Mueller struggled to sit up, holding his wound as blood poured over his fingers. Disbelieving, he looked at Colt wordlessly.
Colt surveyed the motionless bodies littering the field. “Just apply direct pressure and I’ll get you an ambulance.” Turning back toward Mueller, she saw him reaching for his Glock. Swinging her gunbelt around, she knocked the weapon out of his hands before he could pull the trigger. “That was stupid! Take a look around; you kill me, who’s going to keep you from bleeding to death?”
“I ain’t going to jail. Rather die.”
Colt stood before him. “Too bad.”
A vicious kick to the jaw sent Mueller into dreamland like his comrades. A conscious enemy to keep an eye on was a problem she didn’t need right now. Colt reached into his pocket and pulled out the handcuff key. Once her hands were free, she put on her gunbelt and retrieved her hat. Mueller was searched for more weapons and those that were found were confiscated. She then cautiously proceeded to Ames, Jones, De Souza, and Wilson, collecting a cache of firearms and knives.
Finally, she approached Courtwright with care. She was definitely in his range now and, while both his guns had slipped from his grasp when he fell, she didn’t want to learn that he had been playing ‘possum. Reaching him, she kicked both guns away and rolled him over onto his back. His eyes were wide open in shock and drool was coming from his mouth. She pulled the dart out of his chest. “The same nerve toxin you used on me yesterday after that demonstration you gave. I notice you didn’t give me any exhibition of your ability to shoot targets from a great distance. I wonder why you left that out?”
Colt stripped off his clothes, leaving him in his underwear. “Just checking you for other weapons. You can’t be too careful, y’know.” She looked around the field and chuckled at the video cameras. “Not exactly the scene you were hoping to record, is it? I imagine that you’re going to have some people very upset with you. Prison walls probably won’t be able to keep you safe. Of course, that’s not my problem.”
Walking away from the immobilized Courtwright, the Weapons Mistress slipped the cell phone out of the unconscious Wilson’s jacket and pressed 3 digits. Her six tormenters were all out of commission. Each, in their own way, had tried to humiliate her and gratify themselves, but she had the last word. “Hello, there’s been a kidnaping and attempted murder at the Courtwright estate. One of the perpetrators has been shot and is seriously wounded. Send the police and an ambulance!”