New to Quest Five?
The stories are best enjoyed when read in order beginning with May 1, 2009.

Welcome To Quest Five
Allison Beaumont is having trouble finding a job after college until one day the wealthy and powerful Joseph Candle offers her a job at his rather unusual corporation, where mistakes can lead to bare bottomed spankings. Adopting the alias of Virginia West, she joins four highly skilled colleagues, racing around the globe in search of mysterious treasures, but wherever she goes, trouble is sure to follow.
Note: Some stories contain scenes of a sexual nature, corporal punishment, non-consensual corporal punishment, and strong language which some reader's may find offensive. If you feel this material might be inappropriate for you please move on to another blog by clicking the next blog link at the top of the page.

March 28, 2010

Taking Control: Sea Fever

I had us in Quito, Ecuador, only a few hundred miles from Mount Chimborazo, before sundown. Tom made arrangements for a small private plane in the morning while Kyra set us up with the rooms for the night. I would not have minded a return visit from Tom, like the previous evening, but he was still stewing over not going after Jack and Gene. He could not know and I certainly could not afford to mention it, I also wished it was the course of action we were pursuing. Jack had told me to go after the library, observatory, mountain, whatever it is and for a change, I was listening. Deep down I knew it was the right choice. Still, it was difficult to keep my concern for Jack and Gene buried within myself. I retired to my room early and alone, not because I did not want company, but because I feared in staying with the others I might well change my mind for the worse.

In dreams, I was at sea. It should have been peaceful and quiet, but storms raged over gray waters and swells swirled like all the oceans were draining away. A lone schooner fought the current with torn and ragged sails flapping like white flags of surrender in the wind. From above, I examined the deck made of splintered and polished wood, nailed side by side. Alexander Kemp held tight to the rail and pointed out beyond the forward horizon, warning of something I could not see, could not imagine. He looked up and nodded for me to look behind. The helm spun free, unmanned, while Mr. Candle wrestled with Mr. Candle.

Together they smiled at me and one yelled, "To port!" while the other said, "To starboard."

The old woman from the caves pushed the two Mr. Candle's aside, each to their own and said, "Only you can decide."

Torn between the choice, I asked, "But what's the difference between Joe and Joey?"

She said, "The Y."

"That's not an answer," I replied, shouting over the wind and rain.

"No, but it's a reason," She said.

Waves crashed over the bow and the planks began to crack and snap. The rails ripped themselves from the deck to whip through the wind and ultimately crash into the sea. White sails tore away from their lines, floating away on the currents of the storm. Alex and the old woman were swept away by crashing waves, disappearing to the depths of the raging waters. The Mr. Candle's were all that remained and even as the schooner ripped apart beneath them, they turned on each other, fighting for victory until the bitter end of us all. Sinking through green-gray water, I struggled for breath against drowning. My eyes snapped open and I sat up in bed, gasping for air.

"You're leading them to their end," My grandmother said sitting on the bed beside me in her child-like form.

"Who?" I asked, wishing I was still dreaming and yet knowing I was not.

"Your friends," She said, sounding sad, "everyone really. You will only find death and destruction on the mountain."

"Are you certain?" I asked.

She said, "I would not be here otherwise."

"Unless of course there is something up there you would rather I not know," I said.

She shook her head at me and said, "I would be disappointed, but part of me always knew you would fail."

I said, "Perhaps, but at what am I failing? You've offered me nothing beyond half truths and riddles."

"I offered you everything I had to give," She said, her voice full of spite, "but you have turned your back on me. You are your mother's daughter."

"Is that such a bad thing?" I asked and she disappeared, leaving me alone to ponder the question.

With the morning sun I rose and prepared myself for the day ahead as best I could. Tom was all business, minimally cordial while his eyes continued to scold me for turning my back on our friends. We boarded the small plane just after breakfast and were in the air by a quarter after eight. Against my better judgment, I allowed Tom to file a false flight plan with the tower, hoping he would see it as a sign I still respected his opinion. If he did, he gave no outward sign, focusing on piloting and remaining uncomfortably silent. Unsure what more I could say or do, I left him alone with the controls.

I eavesdropped on Gina and Brian for a few moments as they continued a light-hearted debate centered around the legend of Atlantis. Beside me, Kyra played quietly with her computer, ignoring me almost as completely as Tom. For a brief moment I wondered if Jack ever felt as completely isolated as I did. It is nice to be the leader when everyone happily agrees with your decisions, and very lonely when they do not. I could have ignored it all, was in fact tempted to do so, but these people were as much friends as colleagues. I knew I needed their help if we were going to be successful and the more willingly it was given the better chance we had.

Turning to Kyra, I asked, "Is everything alright?"

"Fine," She said, glancing at me for a mere second before turning back to her computer. I knew better.

"It's just you've seemed a little distant," I said, knowing I did not have the luxury of waiting for things to work themselves out.

Kyra paused in whatever she had been doing, giving me her full attention for a change. She said, "I don't like it when things don't add up and lately they've been doing that a lot."

"Maybe I could help?" I said.

"You could, but will you?" Kyra said.

I said, "What is that supposed to mean?"

"It's like Tom said," Kyra said twisting herself to look me directly in the eyes, "You know more that you are sharing."

"I have unfounded suspicions and theories which don't make much sense," I said, forcing myself to meet her gaze. "Sharing them would be reckless and irresponsible at this stage."

"I think I know what you mean, but with all this strangeness around us, don't you think it would be best if we all shared our thoughts?" Kyra said.

"I don't trust Mr. Candle," I said, deciding to be blunt.

"Why?" Kyra asked.

"Both the question and the answer," I said, struck by a flash of remembering the old woman's words in my dream.

"Huh?" She said.

"Exactly," I said.

"Are you going to explain that?" Kyra asked.

"I'm not sure I can, but it comes down to what you said, things don't add up," I said.

Kyra's lips twisted while she considered whether or not to tell me something. She said, "Do you remember you asked me to look for patterns taking time out of the equation?"

I nodded.

She said, "I didn't find anything, but Gene found the idea interesting and he asked me to run a similar analysis on the writings he was studying from Q5's various finds. You see, he was convinced there was something linking them all together."

"I remember," I said, thinking of the pattern he had shown me, "Did you find something?"

She nodded and said, "Yeah, only it doesn't make any sense."

"What did you find?"I asked, wondering if maybe I really did not want to know.

She said, "The computer is 88% certain the exact same person wrote all of them."

I blinked trying to come to terms with the implications of such a finding. It was without any doubt impossible, but I was beginning to wonder if anything truly was impossible. Ghosts that aren't ghosts, strangers that seem to be old friends, two Mr. Candle's when there is only one, and now, one person writing a dozen different messages with hundreds of years separating them, all of these things should be impossible and yet I was beginning to believe they were all true.

Kyra said, "It's impossible of course. One person could not possibly have been in all those places nor lived long enough to have spanned the years separating their creation. But, you said take time out of the equation and so I did. Now I want to know why? Are these things all faked?"

"It's one possibility," I said.

"On a hunch, I ran another analysis," She said, watching me, "It varies slightly from find to find, but there is anywhere from an 82% to 93% certainty that you are the author. Would you care to explain that?"

Possibilities rambled through my head, none of them possible. It was a hoax, it had to be. Only I was the perpetrator, but I was not. The look on Kyra's face told me there was still more. I said, "I can't."

Kyra said, "At first I thought you were involved in some elaborate hoax, most likely cooked up by Mr. Candle himself. I was all set to confront him and demand the truth, but I decided to do one more analysis first. I put time back into the equation. Not the supposed time these writings were created, but the time they were found. That's when I figured out things are even more impossible than they at first seemed."

"I'm not sure I'm following you," I said.

"Well there are plenty of these finds you could have been involved in faking, but there are three in particular which stand out as quite impossible," Kyra said. "You see, three of these were found and documented before you were even born. Now, either you look really good for a fifty year old woman or there is something else going on here."

"Could this be the result of someone tampering with your analysis programs?" I asked, recalling our trip to Italy and a similar feeling I had at the time.

"I thought of that," Kyra said, "but I can't find any evidence of it."

"But you have a theory?" I asked.

"Just that something very odd is going on and you seem to be smack in the middle of it," Kyra said.

I asked, "Could someone have tampered with the raw data?"

"You mean replaced the original writings with ones done by you?" She said.

"Not exactly, but something like that," I said.

"I suppose it is possible, although very unlikely," Kyra said. "Assuming someone did though, why would they?"

"One reason stands out to me," I said.

"And that is?" Kyra asked.

"To drive a wedge of mistrust between myself and the rest of this team," I said.

"I hate to interrupt," Tom said, "but you might want to take a look at this V."

"What have you got?" I asked, making my way up to the cockpit with Kyra right behind me.

He glanced over at us and said, "Looks like someone else is already on their way up the mountain."

It was not all that hard to make out the people dressed in bright red and blue, making their way over the mountain pass. They still had a long way to climb before reaching the observatory, but by the looks of it they had a good day's head start on us. Kyra pushed by me to get a better look for a moment.

"It's Kemp," She said.

"There is no way we're going to beat them now," Tom said.

"They're still at least a day from the observatory by my estimates," Kyra said.

"Yeah, but we haven't even started the ascent," Tom said.

"Maybe we can start higher up," I said.

"If it was possible, you can bet Kemp and his crew would have started there," Tom said.

"Maybe they didn't have all the information," Kyra said. "Maybe they don't even know what they're looking for yet."

"It would be the first time, but that's a glacier encasing the mountain's summit," Tom said, glancing between me and the view outside. "The best I could manage is a controlled crash landing and there's good odds we'd be stuck with no way out except straight through Kemp."

"There has to be another way," Kyra said, looking at me as if I was supposed to pull a rabbit out of the plane's controls.

"What about a helicopter?" I asked. "Couldn't we set one of those down on the ice?"

"Yeah," Tom said, "but I couldn't get it a lot higher up than where Kemp's people are now. We'd still be behind."

"Kyra," I said, as an idea formed in my mind, "am I right in recalling there was a way into the observatory from above?"

"It's difficult to be certain from the images we have, but there was a vent shaft which seemed to intersect the observatory,"Kyra said.

I glanced back into the plane at the far wall and nodded. It was not exactly my first choice of things to do, but there really was no other option left open to us. Returning my attention to the cockpit, I found Tom and Kyra both staring at me. They were waiting for an explanation, but I think they both already knew what I had in mind.

"Get Tom the coordinates for that shaft," I said to Kyra and turning to Tom, "We'll parachute out in the target zone for that shaft and then you'll have to go back and get a helicopter to pick us up at that pass. We'll rendezvous in twenty-four hours."

"No way are you going down there without me," Tom said. "If nothing else you'll need me to get you through Kemp's people to even get close to the pass."

"We'll manage, Tom. I'd rather have you with us, believe me, but there is no one else who can fly this plane and bring the helicopter to get us out of there," I said.

"I don't like it," Tom said.

"Do you have any idea how dangerous a jump you are proposing?" Kyra asked.

I said, "Yeah, and unless we want Kemp to get into that observatory first we don't really have a choice. I'll go alone if I have to, but honestly I'm going to need some help down there."

"You can count me in V," Gina said, joining the conversation from the rear of the plane.

"Jumping out of a plane was definitely on my bucket list," Brian said. "Although, I must say I planned to knock a few other things off first, just in case you know, but I'm with you."

"Fine," Kyra said, "I'm in, but if you get me killed, I swear I'll haunt you for all eternity."

I nodded at all of them, proud of them, proud of myself and said, "It's settled then. Everybody pick a chute and get ready. Tom, we'll be counting on you."

"You're insane, but I'll be there," Tom said.

Kyra gave Tom the coordinates for our jump and as maneuvered us around for the best approach, the rest of us got ready. Brian helped me secure my chute and afterward we put together what few supplies we had to take with us. None of us were totally prepared for an extended stay in high altitudes on a glacier, but hopefully the observatory would be a shelter for us. As long as we had enough food and water we would be fine, unless we could not get into the observatory. If that was the case, then my ghostly grandmother was right.

"Two minutes," Tom said, and I slid open the plane's door.

"We're going to have to do this fast," Brian said, icy wind rushing at us.

"We'll go in order," I said, "Brian first, Kyra second, Gina next, and I'll go last. Wait a count of three and jump."

"You need to pull your cords as soon as we're clear of the plane," Brian said. "It's not going to be that far of a drop and you need to give your chute as much time as possible to slow your descent."

We all nodded. Tom said, "Entering the zone in three, two, one, now."

No time for second thoughts, I watched the others go and then stepped to the edge and jumped. Exhilaration washed over me as the ice and rock below rushed ever closer toward me. I pulled my cord a few seconds after the others, enjoying the thrill and feeling oddly safe at the upward jerk of my opening chute. Landing on the uneven surface of rocks and ice was difficult and had us all laying flat, but we all made it one piece.

"I was beginning to think you weren't coming," A raspy voice said.

Looking to the source, I could hardly believe my eyes. The old woman from the caves stood atop the rocks, staring down at me. Her wooden staff was planted into the ice like a walking stick, supporting her weight. A heavy cloak sat on her shoulders with the hood flapping in the wind behind her. Her face was stern and serious, skin and lips cracked from exposure to the cold and yet her eyes seemed to be laughing at us, at me.

March 25, 2010

Taking Control: Stories Written And Told

It was late morning when we gathered in Kyra's room. She and Brian had been working for a few hours already and had called Tom during breakfast to let us know they had made some significant progress. Tom and I arrived together, eliciting some curious glances or maybe it was just my guilty conscious from spending the night with him. Gina was kicked back on the bed with a notebook in her lap and a pen in her hand. Brian and Kyra were parked at the small table by the door. She was hunched over her notebook computer and Brian was thumbing through the codex.

Brian said, "I think we've figured it out."

"The location of the library?" I asked.

"Observatory," Brian said, "but yeah, I think we've found it."

"I thought we were looking for a library," I said.

Gina said, "I could point out a few if you are interested."

I rolled my eyes at her, trying not to encourage her with a smile or laughter. The others ignored her remark as if she were not there. Gina shrugged us off and kept writing.

"I was wrong. I didn't understand the syntax properly at first," Brian said. "The location got me to thinking and so I reviewed the codex. That's when I realized my initial translation was inaccurate."

"But you're sure it's right now?" I asked and Brian quickly nodded saying,"Yeah, I've got the majority of it at least. There are a few parts I'm not clear about still, but you have to understand, the written Mayan language is rather complex and includes multiple ways of saying the same thing."

"And how is the English language any different?" Gina asked.

"The Conquistadors haven't showed up to burn all the books and ban it from reading and writing in the name of God," Brian said.

"My point is the different ways we say things in English can have different connotations , implying additional meaning," Gina said.

"Right," Brian said.

"So it might be the same thing in Mayan," Gina said.

"An interesting theory but difficult to prove," Brian said.

"Not to interrupt this fascinating discussion on the written word, but where exactly is this observatory?" Tom asked and I nodded, wanting to know the exact same thing.

"Mount Chimborazo," Kyra said, pointing at the satellite image displayed on her screen.

"Ecuador?" I said, looking between Kyra and Brian. "Isn't that a little far south for the Mayans?"

"The observatory is not Mayan," Brian said, "They knew of its existence and location, but it's origins are unclear from the codex."

"Maybe it's the lost city of Atlantis," Gina said and Brian rolled his eyes.

"Atlantis is a fairytale," He said.

"Says you," Gina said, "But the legend has been around for hundreds of years and if this place is some sort of gathering place for ancient technology and knowledge then it fits the bill fairly nicely."

"Except it's not surrounded by water," Brian said.

"Wasn't there supposedly a great flood that covered most of the planet in water? If it's on top of a mountain, couldn't it be it once was an island?" Gina said.

Brian shook his head. I smiled, he was not going to win the discussion with Gina, but at least he realized it. It was definitely far fetched, but her arguments were reasonable enough and there was something else too. Dr. Michaels had shown me the symbols in his office and there was the fact that the one symbol kept showing up and while he thought it might have something to do with me, it could just as easily have been the symbol for this observatory. Dr. Michaels had even admitted the "V" symbol had a relationship with the modern English letter "A" which at the time had seemed a bit scary, but what if Gina is right? If so, the symbol could easily be the origins of the Atlantis myth. Right or wrong, I decided it was best to keep those thoughts to myself for the time being.

"And you've verified the location?" I asked, looking at Kyra.

"I've found something," Kyra said. "Using advanced imaging from NASA, I was able to detect a structure, a rather large structure, encased in the glacier and partially inside the volcano."

"Volcano? How old is this observatory supposed to be?" I asked.

"The volcano has been dormant for about two thousand years. Its most active period was another ten thousand years back," Kyra said.

Gina said, "Now the legend really fits. I mean Atlantis was supposedly victim of a volcanic eruption and an earthquake which resulted in its sinking. This place is slipped down the side of a volcano and encased in a glacier that is more or less proof the volcano was once mostly covered by water. How could you not think it's at least a possibility?"

Brian allowed her to finish and then continued the conversation as if she had never interrupted, saying, "If the codex is accurate, the observatory has been there through most of that time."

"That doesn't sound very likely," Tom said.

"The placement is interesting," Brian said and Kyra nodded.

"You think it is protected from the eruptions?" I asked.

Brian said, "It does seem to be nestled in such a way that lava flows would probably avoid it, but that's not what I meant."

"What did you mean?" I asked.

"The summit of Chimborazo is the farthest location on the planet from the center of the Earth," Kyra said.

"I'm not sure I understand the significance," I said.

Brian said, "Me either, but I have a feeling we'll figure it out once we get there."

"So then the question is, how do we get to it?" I said.

"Not very easily," Kyra said and I raised an eyebrow at her. "The structure is completely encased in glacier and rock."

"That would explain why no one has found it," I said.

"Right, but it also means we're going to have a hell of time getting to it," Kyra said.

"Suggestion?" I asked.

"There is a network of caves which might get us directly beneath the observatory. From there we could possibly dig our way in," Brian said.

"There may be a way in from above as well," Kyra said zooming in on a location and nodding to the image on her screen. "It appears to be a steam vent, but it appears to intersect the observatory's roof."

"Satellite images are all well and good, but the only way we'll know what we are dealing with is to scout it directly," Tom said. "I'd suggest we do an aerial recon before breaking out the climbing gear."

"You and V could sneak off and do that while we make our feint at the local sites look good," Kyra said.

"We're not splitting up," I said.

Kyra said, "I thought we wanted to keep some people guessing as to what we are up to."

"There is no point anymore," I said and they all looked at me with confusion. "The pretenses are pointless. They already know we have the codex and we have to assume they have a pretty good idea what it is telling us. They've got the same information we do or close enough that's it's only a matter of time before they figure out the very same things we have."

Kyra said, "But Jack said we—

"Jack's not here," I said.

"That doesn't mean he was wrong," Kyra said.

"At the time he wasn't, but the situation has changed," I said.

"If we all go, it will eliminate any doubts they might have about what we know," Kyra said.

"Whether it's two of us or all of us, they'll figure it out and we have much better chances of success if we're all together," I said.

"It's reckless," Kyra said.

"V is right," Tom said stepping forward. "If we split up we just make it easier for them to pick more of us off like they did with Gene."

Kyra glared at Tom clearly holding back from saying what she wanted say. I had the sudden feeling she was angry at Tom and me. There was only one explanation if that was the case and it almost made me blush, embarrassed. If she knew where Tom had spent the night, she probably assumed more than what happened, but explaining the truth would do nothing to ease the tension in the room.

"It's not a debate in any regard," I said, interrupting the staring contest. "We're all going. Tom, make the arrangements for a private plane we can use for that aerial reconnaissance."

Tom said, "You know this observatory has been right where it for a few thousand years and it will still be there a week from now."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked, turning to him.

"We should go after Jack and Gene," Tom said.

"And risk losing the race to the observatory and possibly losing the trail again?" I said.

Tom said, "There is nothing in that mountain worth their lives."

"Are you so sure about that?" I asked.

"What is you think you're going to find?" Tom asked.

"Answers," I said.

"So you'd sacrifice the lives of two people, who happen to have each save your own, to find another cryptic message on some ancient artifact that may or may not lead us to another one?" Tom said.

"Jack knew what he was doing and he doesn't need our help," I said. "In case you haven't figured it out, we're in the middle of something here that is a lot more than just collecting a few trinkets. I could be wrong, but I'm beginning to think there a few more lives at stake in all of this beyond our own."

"Sounds like you know something you aren't sharing with the rest of us," Tom said.

"As the head of this team, that's my prerogative," I said.

"Whatever you say," Tom said.

"Just make the necessary arrangements," I said. "We're going after the observatory."

March 22, 2010

Taking Control: Spanking In The Night

Tom stood as a shadow against the wall. Late night was giving way to early morning and all I wanted was to fall on my motel room bed and sleep. He did not move when I entered the room. The door slammed shut, I stared at him and he stared at me. I felt the sympathy in his grimness and knew he knew. It had only been a matter of time before they all knew, but I was still far from ready.

"Where you been?" Tom asked.

"Out," I said, stepping further into the room and tossing my purse aside on the small table by the window.

"That's not an answer," He said and I walked toward the bathroom.

Glancing over my shoulder, I said, "I wasn't aware I answered to you."

"I'm not a fool," He said, making me wonder if he knew more than I thought he did.


Shaking his head, his mouth opened a touch and he said, "I know about Olivia."

I turned the water on at the sink and splashed cold droplets in my face. Tom crossed the room to lean against the door frame behind me. I watched him in the mirror. He was worried. It was written on his face. I dabbed a towel against my face and blinked to clear away the fogginess.

"Gina?" I asked and he nodded.

"So," I said, tossing the towel on the counter and turning to face him, "now what?"

He said, "She says you aren't sleeping—

"And you're keeping me up," I said.

"And when you do, you have nightmares," He said.

I looked away from his piercing gaze, pushing my way passed to sit on the bed and said, "Is there a point?"

"We could talk," He said.

I slipped my shoes off and said, "Sure, you go ahead. I'm going to try to get some sleep."

"I kind of figured you'd say something like that," He said and I unzipped the back of my dress.

I paused for a moment, meeting his concerned gaze and said, "Tom, I appreciate the concern, but seriously, I'm exhausted and I just need a good night's sleep."

"I couldn't agree more," Tom said. "If Jack was here, I'm sure you'd be getting one too."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked.

"The way Gina tells it, I'm sure Jack would be giving you exactly what you need," Tom said.

I sighed, shaking my head and said, "What is it with you two?"

Tom said, "Gina is worried about you and so am I."

"That's not what I meant," I said and Tom replied, "Oh?"

I said, "You and Jack. First, he thinks there is something going on between you and me and now you're acting like I've got something going on with Jack. I'm not that into either of you, so get over yourselves."

"Whoa!" Tom said and I said, "I'm not a horse."

Tom crooked his head to the side trying to pretend he was not holding back laughter. I slipped up off the bed and pushed the straps of my dress off my shoulders, allowing it to slide to the floor. Reaching underneath the pillows I pulled the bedsheets back and slipped into bed. Tom watched me, obviously trying to decide his next words a little more carefully. I laughed and his faced cracked into a smile.

"You," Tom said, wagging his finger at me, "are a brat."

Continuing to laugh, I said, "You're just now figuring that out?"

"I'm a little slow sometimes," He said and I said, "I've noticed."

"But I know exactly what to do with a brat," He said.

"Do you?" I asked, fluttering my eyelashes.

"Yes," He said, closing the distances between us with slow steps.

"And what is that?" I asked.

Tom said, "A long trip over my knee."

"I hate to bring it up," I said, glancing at his crotch, "but I'm the boss and if there are going to be any trips over a knee, it will be my knee."

"You can resist," He said, grabbing my arm and pulling me out of bed.

My eyes flashed wide and he said, "But I know what you need."

He sat down on the edge of the bed, keeping his hold on my arm. I gasped as he pulled me into him and flipped me over his knee. My face and chest bounced against the mattress and my legs flailed helplessly in the air. Tom's hand crashed against my upturned buttocks with a light sting that felt more like an electric shock than a spank.

Turning my head back to look up at him, I said, "You wouldn't dare."

"And I thought I was slow," Tom said, slapping his hand against my bottom like punctuation on the end of his sentence.

"You're way out of line," I said, reaching back trying to protect my bottom from his spanks.

"Uh uh," Tom scolded, adjusting his hold on me to pin my arm behind my back while he continued to rain spanks down on my bottom.

"Let me go," I said, kicking and squirming.

"I'm not going to hurt you," He whispered in my ear.

The rhythm of his spanks pulsed in my head as I struggled against his hold. I huffed into the sheets becoming frustrated by my inability to escape him or his swinging his hand. He chuckled at the sound of my breath and his hand came to rest against the warmth of my bottom. I glared back at him, twisting until the pain in my arm forced me to stop. He rubbed his hand over my panties as if he was polishing my bottom to a brilliant shine.

"You're going to regret this," I said, seething.

He said, "Not as much as I regret not doing this a long time ago."

His finger slipped inside the waistband of my panties, snapping the elastic against my skin. We both knew what he wanted to do, but I was not going to make it easy for him. I hooked my feet around his other leg and pushed my hips hard against his knee. He merely laughed at my silly attempt to maintain some modesty and resumed his spanking attentions to my bottom.

"You've needed a good spanking since the moment we met," He said, his hand slapping away.

"And you think you're the only one man enough to give it to me, right?" I said.

"Something like that," Tom said.

I replied, "Don't flatter yourself. You aren't half as good as you think you are."

"This is meant to help you, not hurt you," Tom said.

"It's not working," I said, "You might as well stop."

Tom laughed. His hand never missing a beat nor slowing in its rapid rise and descent upon my bottom. I gave up trying to break free of his hold. He was too much stronger than I and clearly experienced in restraining a woman over his knee. Although the spanking had elicited a bit of a sting in my bottom, it was in truth, not all that painful. The building warmth was bring about an entirely different response and if I am honest, it was not all bad. Not even a little bad, but I was not about to tell him that.

"Do you know why you are always getting into trouble?" Tom asked.

"I'm sure you're about to enlighten me," I said, rolling my eyes.

"In more ways than one," He said, his hand increasing its rate of fall against my bottom.

My eyes sprang wide open at the increased intensity. I ground my hips against his leg. The sharp slaps of his hand kept my nerves tingling and my head swimming. I twisted and squirmed in his hold floating between attempts to avoid his onslaught and desires to surrender to its rhythm. My breathing turned ragged and raw.

Tom whispered, "I know the truth about you," and I blushed, embarrassed by the mere possibility he suspected something of the thoughts and emotions coursing through me.

"You're afraid," Tom said, his hand slowing its pace, "Afraid to be yourself. You're afraid if anyone ever sees the real you, they'll know you're just a girl, but that's all you really are. You're afraid no one will hold you, care for you, love you, if they knew the truth."

I wanted to scream at him, tell him he was wrong, that I was not afraid, but visions danced in my head. He was at least partially right. I was afraid, scared of the images in my dreams, my nightmares. The reflection of myself in the dark, still waters of a cave, the haunting words of Olivia, the shadowy man who seemed so familiar and yet so imposing. I felt myself slipping away from the moment, the connection between myself and Tom became a ghostly touch. Fear of the answers to the questions I dared not ask, engulfed me and threatened to sweep me away from Tom, from sanity.

"But you're wrong," Tom said, his voice pulling me out of the spiral of fear washing over me, "I know you. I know everything about you and I'm here to hold you, to care for you, to love you."

I latched onto the sting of his hand's slapping against my bottom. Tears stung at my eyes and I let them fall without restraint. I relaxed in his hold, surrendered to his strength, allowing it to engulf me. For the first time in weeks, if not ever, I felt safe, protected. Tom released his hold of my arm, somehow sensing the cessation of resistance in my body. I folded my then free arm beneath me, resting my head and basking in the warm glow Tom's hand was creating within me.

His hand came to rest against my bottom once more and I said, "Don't stop."

I could feel the smile on his lips from the touch of his hands on my body. "Don't worry," He said, his hands slipping into the waistband of my panties once more. "I won't."

I pushed my hips up, allowing him easy access to slide my panties down my legs. His fingers brushed over my skin with a gentleness I had never felt before. The slightness of his touch ignited a tingling in my nerves. My body ached for a firmer touch while enraptured by sensual stroke of his fingertips. Tears continued to drip from my cheeks, but every part of me was smiling.

His open palm smacked against my bare bottom. I gasped with the sharp spark shooting through my nerves. His calloused hand rubbed my reddened bottom before rising and striking it once more. I pushed myself against him with every slap of his hand and raised my bottom in the air each time his touch receded. The seconds between spanks left me aching for another touch. I closed my eyes and allowed instinct and emotion to control my every muscle.

"I told you, you needed this," Tom said and I replied, "Yes."

The spanks turned more leisurely. His hand felt relaxed and loose as it connected with my bottom. Tears flowed freely from my eyes, cleansing away tension and fears I had kept buried for far too long. Never in my life could I have imagined a spanking would leave me feeling so pure and clean. My tears stopped of their own accord and my thoughts became clear. The spanking came to an end and incredibly, I wished it would go on.

His strong arms lifted me off his knee and gently laid me to rest on top of the bed. He turned to leave and I caught his hand with my own. Turning to me, a friendly smile rested on his lips. Feeling shy, I looked away from him for a moment, needing to gather strength. He turned and started to pull away.

"Stay," I said and he turned back to me saying, "I shouldn't."

"We're far passed that," I said, pulling him until he laid on the bed beside me.

I rolled myself into his arm, resting my head on his chest. He held me tight to him. His fingers brushed aside stray hairs from my forehead and he leaned down to kiss me there. I snuggled against him. My eyes fluttered closed. Feeling warm and safe and loved, I drifted off into sleep. There were no nightmares this night.

March 19, 2010

Taking Control: Strangers In A Bar

The message light was flashing on the phone beside the bed. I frowned at it from the doorway, my replacement luggage, courtesy of Tom, dropping from my hand to the floor beside. The place was low-rent, curtains straight out of the sixties, comforter out of the eighties and carpet older than both combined. Okay, maybe not, but it looked like it. Kyra had apologized profusely from the moment we arrived. I guess my disappointment was written all over my face. It might have had something to do with the neon sign pointing to the nearby watering hole, screaming, "Live NUDE Girls, Girls,GIRLS" or maybe it was just the way the place reminded me I had not slept in a bed since I left home over a week ago.

What I needed more than anything was a nice, long, hot shower and at least eight hours of sound sleep. With Jack and Gene gone, I was unlikely to enjoy any of it, if I even got it. The blinking light was probably some urgent message from Mr. Candle and that meant we all might well be packing ourselves back into the rental car for a drive back to the airport and a flight home. Home, it sounds real nice, but if we do not beat the man in shadows to the mountain library described in the codex, then Jack and Gene were risking their lives for nothing.

I settled myself for the argument and punched the button to listen to the message. I recognized the voice immediately, but it was not Joseph Candle calling us home. It was Alexander Kemp with a request; "We need to meet, face to face. I'll wait for you at the bar next door. Come alone and you'll find some answers to all those questions spinning around in your head. Come with friends and you'll find nothing at all."

I sat on the edge of the bed. The pillows called to me, but the allure of answers was more enticing. Kemp would know that, he would use my curiosity against me and quite possibly kill the cat. Me being the cat of course, but does the cat not have nine lives? Jack would have raided the place with Tom and done his best to capture Kemp, perhaps use him as leverage when the time came. It was a tempting course of action. I might have tried it even, but answers were worth more to me.

I pushed myself up off the bed and headed toward the door. Walking out the door, I could almost hear Olivia laughing at me, taunting me. "Shut up," I said and slammed the door closed. It was time to start trusting myself and something was telling me to trust Alexander Kemp.

I watched him approach in the mirror behind the bar. He was dangerous of course, but I was far from being afraid. The shot glass in front of me was still full of tequila and I had yet to make up my mind if I was going to drink it. If I had been alone I might have downed it in a single gulp and part of me wanted to do just that regardless of the man approaching and his intentions, whatever they were. Unfortunately, it is easier to be lonely than to actually be alone. I spun around the stool to face him, shoving the shot glass sideways on the bar and splashing its golden liquid on the black surface of the bar.

"You know you look just like her," Alexander Kemp said, swaggering up to me.

I leaned back, resting my elbows on top of the bar and asked, "Who's that?"

He chuckled, nodding his head as if to say we both knew to whom he was referring. I shook my head hopefully making it clear I did not care whether I looked like her or not. Alex sighed and sat on the stool next to me. He looked tired as he dabbed a white handkerchief on his forehead, removing a sheen of sweat.

Alex said, "The first time I met her was in a place not too different from this. The place was packed though and she was the only woman in the place. You see back then, women could work in a place like this, but they didn't drink in them. Your grandmother didn't care much for the rules and so she ignored them. Sound familiar?"

I shook my head and waited for him to get to his point. He said, "One look at her and I just knew she was trouble. First time I saw you, it was the same thing all over again. The only thing I wasn't sure about was for whom you were going to be more trouble; Joey or us."

"What do you want?" I asked, allowing my exhaustion to carry itself in my tone and hoping he took it for an utter lack of interest.

He said, "A second chance."

"To kill me?" I asked.

"No, and I would not have killed you anyway," Alex said.

"Don't waste your lies on me," I said, shaking my head. "I was there."

"You don't have to believe me," He said, turning to face the back and leaning on it, "but consider this; How much do you really know about the people you are working with?"

"They aren't trying to kill me," I said.

"Are you sure about that?" He asked.

"If you have a point, make it," I said.

He said, "Olivia underestimated you. She didn't think you had the killer instinct, but having worked with your grandmother, I knew better."

The mere mention of Olivia's name sent a cold shiver through my veins. Her face was forever imprinted on my memory. The shock, the pure astonishment as she stumbled backward, dying from my actions, haunted me. Alex was wrong, she had not underestimated me. I had acted against everything that I was because being me was not good enough to survive. She pushed me to the edge of survival and forced me to choose between her life and mine. In the end she gambled wrong, but for the right reasons; Had it only been my life in the balance I might have rolled the dice and trusted fate.

"I'm not my grandmother," I said, hoping it was more truth than argument, "You don't know anything about me."

"I know this," He said, his hand twitching as if he wanted to grab hold of me, "If you keep allowing Joey to manipulate and use you, you'll be betraying a lot more than everything your family has ever stood for. You'll be betraying everyone who has ever lived and anyone who might have."

"Exaggerate much?" I said, glaring into his somber eyes. "You want to convince me of something? Why don't you try facts without the grandiose insinuations? You want me to believe Joseph Candle is a threat? Then tell me why? Tell me anything that isn't more deception than truth and then we'll have something to talk about."

"Joseph Candle has never been a threat," He said. "Joey on the other hand is quite possibly the most dangerous man on the planet and as long as he controls you, he'll stay that way."

"You do realize you're contradicting yourself?" I asked.

He said, "I'm too old to play games, Allison. You are working for a man whose goals are synonymous with death and destruction. Maybe you didn't know what you were getting into when this all started, but if you still can't see the difference between right and wrong at this point, then we're all doomed."

My thoughts stalled on his use of my real names. The pretenses were being set aside and yet the world still felt askew. I had doubts about Mr. Candle from before I ever met him. Alarm bells had rung in my head even as I signed the papers, agreeing to work for him. I filled those doubts with the connections between him and my family and I empathized with him, creating explanations for his actions which suited my ethics and morals. What if I was wrong? What if Joseph Candle was as devoid of ethics and morals as I had first thought?

"If we're dropping all the pretenses," I said, "I have no more reason to trust you than Mr. Candle."

He said, "If you want to blaze your own trail, never trusting anyone, that's a lot better than allowing yourself to be blindly led into a dark alley and I can certainly live with that. The trouble is, Joey won't just let you slip away from him."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

He said, "You're too important to him. If he thinks you're starting to waiver from his plans, he'll find a way to squeeze you."

"He hasn't so far," I said.

"So far, you've done everything he wants," Alex said.

"Not everything," I said.

"Everything that matters," He said.

"Just so we're clear, what exactly are you asking me to do?" I asked.

"Leave with me," He said.

I laughed.

"It wasn't a romantic suggestion," Alex said.

I said, "I know that, but why would you think I'd just hand myself over to you?"

"I didn't," He said. "I'm asking you to trust me. Keep your weapon, keep your independence, but there is someone you need to meet in the light."

"The man in the shadows?" I asked and Alex nodded.

I said, "I've already met him and I can't say I'm in a hurry to meet him again."

"Things would have been different if he had known who you were," He said.

"Nobody deserved the greeting I got," I said, "no matter who they are."

"It's not a pleasant business we are in and sometimes people get hurt," Alex said. "You should know this, after all, are you not the one who killed Olivia Stratford?"

"That was different," I said, anger boiling my blood, "She would have killed Jack or me or both of us. It was her choice and she chose."

"Did she or did you?" He said. "I think it was you who decided her intentions and now no one will ever know for certain. People get hurt and sometimes we're the ones hurting, other times we do the hurting. Don't pretend you're so different because we both know you're not."

Alex reached inside his jacket and pulled out his gun. Our eyes locked together. My heart pounded against my chest waiting for him to act. His lips turned upward, enjoying my momentary misinterpretation of his intentions. Pointing the gun down at the floor between us, he ejected the clip and slapped it down on the bar. I stared at the clip full of bullets, recognizing them as the non-lethal variety Mr. Candle had shown me as being under development.

Alex pushed off his stool, glancing at me and the ejected clip sitting on the bar. He slipped his gun back inside his jacket. I recalled the first time I met him. We danced and even though I had not known a thing about him at the time, I had felt safe. My instincts had told me to trust him and yet I had allowed myself to be convinced otherwise. Maybe it was time to start re-evaluating.

"What's the difference?" I asked.

He turned back to me. His head cocked to the side and eyebrow raised quizzically at my question. I knew he understood of course, but he wanted to hear the whole thing. My saying it aloud would give him hope and it occurred to me, it might also give me hope. If I was lost in darkness, it could be the way out.

"Between Joseph Candle and Joey," I said.

Like a proud professor, Alex smiled and said, "Night and day."

I said, "That's not an answer."

"Some things you have to see with your own eyes to believe," He said, turning his back to me and walking toward the exit. "I'm afraid time is running out though and if you don't open your eyes soon, you never will."

"What is it I'm supposed to see?" I asked, frustrated with to cloud of mystery still hanging over my head.

Hand on the door, he glanced back over his shoulder and said, "We all see what we want to see. If you want the truth all you need to do is open your eyes and look."

I watched the door slam closed, leaving me alone once more. Turning back to the bar, my gaze fell to the clip he had left behind and then drifted to the shot glass. I tossed the golden liquid down in a single gulp, stuffed the clip in my pocket and headed out the door. Nothing made sense anymore, if it ever had. The lines were drawn and I was on the opposite side of Alex Kemp. For better or for worse, I have only one direction to go; Forward.

March 16, 2010

Taking Control: Soaring Into The Night

Jack picked up Cupcake by the scruff of his neck and started dragging him toward the front hall and the way out. I was right on his heels with Brian and Gina right behind me. There were no guards in sight, but I do not think any of us were betting on an unchallenged exit. Jack threw open the door and marched out, dragging Cupcake like a rag doll.

"Drop your guns and come out with your hands up," Jack said in a loud commanding voice, "or el jefe is going to have lead for brains."

"Instead of just in his ass," I said.

"Would you look at that," Gina said. A dozen, maybe more, men came out of hiding with their hands benignly raised into the air.

"I have to say I didn't really expect that to work," Brian said and Jack replied, "Neither did I."

Cupcake said, "Look, nobody here wants any trouble. Take my Hummer, just leave us alone and you have my word we will be gone and no more trouble to you or anyone else."

"You really are a cupcake," Gina said.

"We're probably lucky he didn't wet himself," Jack said.

"What makes you say he didn't?" Brian asked.

Jack said, "Don't tell me that."

"I supposed it could just be blood soaking his pant leg," Brian said.

"Keys?" Jack asked, twisting cupcake to look at him.

"There in the car," Cupcake said.

I opened the door and peeked inside. Sure enough, there were keys dangling from the ignition. He might as well have left a sign on the vehicle saying, "Take me!" I shook my head and climbed up into the seat. The engine roared to life and the gauges actually showed a full tank of gas. It was a good thing too, because the way it would burn fuel we would probably be lucky to have a half tank left by the time we made it to San Cristobal.

"Scoot over," Jack said climbing up next to me.

"I think I can drive," I said.

"And yet you felt the need to declare me your driver," Jack said.

"You won't win this one," Brian said, climbing into the backseat.

I rolled my eyes, shook my head, and moved over into the passenger seat. The way things are going, it will be years before I hear the end of calling him my driver. Personally, I thought the bit about him being a part-time bodyguard was more amusing. Gina climbed into the back next to Brian. Jack tossed Cupcake onto the dirt driveway before securing himself behind the wheel. Cupcake's men stayed put, either afraid to help their boss or possibly just as amused as we were, by his lowered status.

Jack sped off onto the road and I asked, "Do you know which way?"

"Yeah, I've been through these parts before," Jack said.

"How long until we reached the airport?" Gina asked.

"Twenty minutes, if this thing can do 90," Jack said accelerating.

I pulled out the phone and tried dialing Tom again. The phone rang and rang and just when I thought it was going to land in voicemail again, Tom picked up. We exchanged terse greetings punctuated by the sounds of bullets flying. The noise was enough to get my heart racing, but somehow Tom was able to keep his voice calm and almost relaxed. Not for the first time, I wished I was with him instead of Jack.

Tom said, "Seems like we had some of your friends waiting for us to land. They grabbed Gene straight away, but I managed to get Kyra and myself out."

"We're on our way. Should be there in twenty," I said.

"They've got us penned down and I'm not sure I can hold them off that long," Tom said.

"Just do the best you can," I said.

"You know I always do," Tom said. "They're making another push for us. I'll call you back when I can."

"Okay," I said, but the call was already dead by the time the word left my lips.

"What's going on?" Jack asked and I filled him in.

"Why would they want Dr. Michaels?" I asked the world at large.

"Sounds like they want all of you," Brian said.

"Maybe they just want it to look that way," Gina said. "I agree with V, it seems like they wanted him specifically."

"What makes you say that?" Jack asked.

"Because if they had them upon landing, they could have taken them all and the plane, if that was their goal, and at best Tom might have escaped," I said.

"Alright say your right," Jack said, "Why Gene?"

"V shot and killed his daughter," Gina said. "Maybe they think they can use that to get his help against you."

"Gene's not like that," Jack said. "Olivia was his daughter, but he knew she was on the wrong side and her actions might well get her killed."

"You know that, but does this man in the shadows know that?" Gina said.

"You have to admit it's logical," I said.

"Yeah, but Gene won't turn on us. He'll blame them for what happened to Olivia," Jack said.

Up ahead the lights of the airport flickered underneath the night sky. A few more minutes was all we needed to get there, but that was the easy part. The only advantage we had is they were expecting us to be arriving in a sedated condition and it was unlikely Cupcake bothered to call ahead and warn them we were going to be a little more lively. If we could get in close enough before they realized, we might stand a chance. No matter what, the odds were not in our favor though and I doubted the numbers would look any better.

The cell rang and I answered. "They've pulled back," Tom said "The're loading Gene on a plane and it looks like they're leaving."

"Cupcake must have called ahead," I said.

Jack raised and eyebrow to me. I held my hand up, telling him to hold on. He shook his head and rolled his eyes at me.

Tom said, "Cupcake?"

"I'll explain later," I said. "Any chance you can slow them down?"

"I could try to mount a rescue, but I don't have much to work with," Tom said.

I relayed the information to Jack, allowing him the luxury of deciding the next move. If he appreciated the gesture or the effort behind, I cannot say. His eyes glazed over a bit and it was almost like he was someplace else rather than driving right next to me. If there had been any traffic on the road, it would have been a frightening moment.

"Tell him to hold his position," Jack said.

"Jack wants you to stay put," I said. "We're almost there."

"No problem here, but that plane isn't going to wait for you," Tom said.

We were running alongside the airport and out Jack's window I could see the plane maneuvering onto the runway. There was no other traffic in sight so it had to be the plane Dr. Michaels was on. I pointed out the window at it and Jack nodded. Time was up and I was lacking a plan of action that stood any chance of success. Jack seemed to have his own though.

"We'll do what we can," I said and disconnected the call.

Jack turned off the main road, aiming us at the chain link fence. We plowed through it, ripping a section free and sending it flying through the air. I held tight to the roof handle riding out the uneven terrain. We hit the runway a few feet ahead of the plane and Jack married the accelerator to the floor. I still had no idea what he was doing, but it did not take a degree in psychiatry to figure out it was crazy.

I stared at Jack, grim determination painted on his face and just beyond him, one of the plane's wheel struts. He ignored me and steered us closer to the wheel, pushing the Hummer's engine to its breaking point. Jack punched the cruise control and rolled down his window.

"Take the wheel and hold it steady," Jack shouted.

"What the hell are you doing?" I asked, shouting right back and grabbing hold of the steering wheel.

"You have to find that mountain before they do," Jack said, looking into my panicked eyes.

He unfastened his seatbelt, started to climb out the window and I said, "Jack!"

"Q5 is your team now," He said and disappeared out the window.

I stared at the empty seat next to me, unable to believe what Jack had done. The jet began to lift into the air, rattling the Hummer and shaking me from my state of shock. I climbed into the driver's seat and fought the wind turbulence for control, applying the brakes and bringing us to a stop. Behind me, Brian and Gina shared a look of relief and together, we watched the plane disappear into the night sky.

Tom and Kyra were sitting on a stationary luggage cart when we found them. The nearby boxes and luggage sported bullet holes and Tom's gun, still gripped in his hand, was locked open revealing it was empty. I jumped out of the Hummer followed by Brian and Gina. Kyra waved to us.

"Are you guys alright?" I asked.

Tom nodded, looking exhausted and Kyra said, "Fine. Where's Jack?"

I glanced to the south, the direction the plane had taken off and said, "With Dr. Michaels."

"Then you made it in time?" Tom said.

I shook my head and said, "No, Jack got himself on the plane though."

"Don't worry," Tom said, "I'm sure he has a plan."

I nodded. "I hope so."

March 13, 2010

Taking Control: Shadows Everywhere

"Welcome," He said standing on the white steps leading into the estate.

It seemed a strange greeting while we were surrounded by men wearing army fatigues and carrying loaded rifles. Even stranger when one considered our haggard appearance and wretched smell. Still, he seemed genuine enough with his wide smile and polite nod of his head. Who he was and why we were there was the top two questions on my mind, but I adopted a wait and see approach.

"You must be exhausted from your journey," He said.

"We were planning on reaching a hotel by tonight," I said.

"You are welcome to stay here for the night. I have made accommodations for you in any case," He said.

"Thanks, but we'd rather find our own place," Jack said.

"Do you always allow your driver to speak for you?" He asked.

Jack raised an eyebrow at me, but wisely kept quiet. I said, "He forgets his place at times. I'll whip him later."

I think Gina almost swallowed her tongue by the look on her face. Fortunately, no one said a word to contradict me. I had the feeling they thought we were some sort of smugglers, and playing into that misconception was our best way out without undue difficulties. It would have been nice if I could have filled everyone in on the plan, but I had to rely on them being smart enough to figure it out on their own.

"Regardless," I said, "My driver is correct, we cannot stay the night."

"I understand, of course," He said leading us inside. "You are free to go after dinner, but perhaps you'd like to freshen up a bit before hand?"

The thought of a shower, even if I had to put the same old clothes back on, was very tempting. On the downside, we did not know what or who we were dealing with and getting naked, wet and soapy under those conditions was a little scary. Refusing the suggestion though, was not only impolite, but consider, if you were having dinner guests, could you eat in the company of four people that had not bathed in several days? All things considered, I figured we had little choice. We would just have to be careful.

"That would be nice," I said.

We were led upstairs by two of his guards. The boys were directed into a room and Gina and I were directed into another. Inside, we found fresh clothing, nice clothing, had been set aside for us and it was unsettlingly in our respective sizes. These people knew way too much about us and we knew far too little about them. Gina and I showered in turn and dressed quickly, leaving us feeling a little dirty still, but infinitely better than when we arrived.

I opened the door to the hallway and discovered a guard standing there, waiting for us. He led us downstairs into the dining hall where Jack and Brian were already waiting with the gentleman who had greeted us. They were smartly dressed in freshly pressed suits and they were clearly pleased at the appearance of our evening gowns. It felt a little like Prom night only I was not sure which one of the boys was supposed to be my date. Brian sat next to me at the table and Jack sat across from me. It was very confusing.

Dinner arrived in the hands of a waiter. He meticulously laid out the platters, and dropped our napkins in our laps. While he worked I watched the man at the head of the table, he seemed slightly nervous. I had reason to be nervous, my companions had reason to be nervous, but what would make this man, who had forced our presence upon himself have to be nervous about? It was a curiosity I had to scratch.

"Forgive my bluntness," I said, while dinner courses were being served to every plate, "but why am I here?"

"Why for dinner of course," He said.

I smiled and shook my head. "Who are you?"

"Your host," He said.

"What do you want?" I asked.

"To enjoy a nice quiet meal with you," He said. "I get so few visitors here. Is it really so much to ask?"

"We are rather pressed for time," I said. "Perhaps another time would work better for all of us."

"Seeing as I allowed you to cross the border, I thought perhaps we might be able to do some other business as well," He said.

"I see," I said, not seeing at all. "What kind of business?"

"Eat first, we'll discuss business after," He said.

He gestured toward the plates and glasses. The food smelled incredibly good, especially so after not having had a decent meal in so long. What stopped me was the way he kept trying to push us toward eating. His own plate was essentially barren and while he had served wine to us, he had only a clear glass of water by his plate. Something was definitely wrong and my instincts were telling me this was one meal I would be happier skipping.

"I think it's time we were leaving," I said, dropping my napkin on the untouched plate of food before me. I pushed my chair back from the table and started to stand. The cold metal of a gun pressed against the back of my head, forcing me back down into my chair.

Our host said, "I'm afraid I can't allow that."

"I suggest you have your man put his gun away and reconsider your position before somebody gets hurt," I said, glaring at our host.

"It is you who should reconsider, Miss West," He said. "I hold all the high cards and if you choose to resist it will only be you and your friends who will get hurt."

His eyes dared me to try something, anything. I turned away from him and exchanged a knowing look with Jack. He was right with me, although I could see a lack of confidence in his eyes. Brian and Gina would catch on quick enough, but if I handled things right, it would be over before it started.

I rocked my chair backward into the man standing behind me. The movement knocked him off balance and shook the gun from head long enough for me to move. I grabbed blindly behind me and caught hold of his tie. Using the momentum of my rocking I yanked hard on the tie until his chest met my shoulder and with a simple shift of weight, I threw him face first onto the table. Jack grabbed for the gun, but it slid off the table and through his fingers, crashing on the floor behind him.

The guards behind Jack went for their guns. A reflection off the newly askew serving tray told me the guards behind me were doing the same. Jack and I moved at the same time. My heel caught on the seat of my chair and I kicked, sending it sliding across the floor into the closest guard behind me. Stumbling on it, he stopped reaching for his gun long enough to throw the chair aside. By the time he was going for his gun again, I was on him. I rammed my knee into his groin and used my momentum to force his fall backward. Slipping my hand beneath his chin I pushed his head back for a solid crunch against the wall.

I ripped the gun from his shoulder holster as he slipped unconscious to the ground. Turning to find the other guard behind me, I was just in time to watch Brian finish him off by smashing his dining chair over the man's head. On the other side of the table Gina was lifted up off the ground and thrown a good three feet to land on top of the table, but she had managed to knock the man's gun away, sending it sliding under the table. Jack was holding his own against the only other guard standing and our host was doing his best to scramble to the exit. I aimed for his butt and pulled the trigger, taking him down and getting everyone's attention.

"Enough!" I said, keeping the gun trained on our host, squirming on the floor while holding his butt. "Get your hands up."

Would you believe it worked? Jack even got a good punch in and the poor guard just stood there and took it. Our host apparently believed the hands up order did not apply to him. I walked over to him and kicked him in the butt, not hard mind you, but just to get his attention. It worked too. He howled.

"Hands up," I said as he glowered up at me.

Reluctantly he moved his hands from their protective, coddling position to above his head. Jack joined me while Gina and Brian went about securing the weapons and guards. It would only be a matter of time before more showed up and although holding their boss was a big advantage, if they thought there was a chance to recapture us without undue risk to him, they might well try it. The less free roaming bodies in the room, the better.

"Now what?" Jack asked.

I asked, "What are you asking me for?"

"Well I just be your lowly driver Miss West," Jack said with a horribly fake southern accent.

"Cute," I said and he replied, "I thought so."

"You want to question him or should I?" I asked.

Jack shrugged and said, "I thought you didn't like my interrogation techniques."

"It's not like we have time for you to yank his fingernails out," I said.

Jack nodded with obvious disappointment, "True," He said.

"What should we call him?" I said.

"He did introduce himself as our host or was that hostess?" Jack said.

"So, Cupcake? Or maybe Ding Dong?" I said.

"I vote for Cupcake," Brian said and Gina added, "Me too."

"Cupcake," I said and nudged him with the toe of my shoe against his wounded backside.

He groaned and said, "Bitch."

Jack said, "I think he knows you."

Ignoring Jack, I said, "I'm going to count to three and if you aren't telling me everything that's going on here and who is behind it, I'm going to give you a third asshole. One."

Cupcake's face blanched and he said, "He'll kill me."

"Not if she kills you first," Jack said and I nodded.

"Two," I said.

Cupcake said, "I was only supposed to keep you hear."

"Why?" Jack asked and I said, "Very good question."

Jack said, "Thank you."

"Really, I would never have thought to ask. It's fortunate you were here," I said.

"I do what I can," Jack said with a shrug.

Cupcake asked, "Are you two insane?"

Jack and I looked at each other and then back down at Cupcake. I said, "Now, that's an odd question from a man about to get shot in the butt because he won't answer a few simple questions."

"Very odd," Jack said nodding.

"Maybe he likes pain," Gina said. "I hear some guys are into that sort of thing."

"Well how does that work?" I asked.

Brian said, "I think that means you shoot him in the ass and then he'll tell you everything."

"Makes sense," Jack said.

I said, "Works for me," And adjusted the gun for a nice shot of his still whole buttock. "Three."

Cupcake said, "Wait!"

"Are you saying you aren't into pain?" I asked.

"Yes," He said and I pointed the gun at the floor, away from his buttock.

"Then you want to tell me everything, right?" I said.

"No," He said.

I pointed the gun back at his buttock and said, "Make up your mind."

Jack said, "He's stalling."

I nodded in agreement, steeling myself to follow through on what was supposed to have been an empty threat. The fact we were not dead said a few things about the intentions of those pulling the strings. If they had just wanted to capture us, they could have done so easily enough right at the border. They moved us to where we were for a reason and Cupcake knew that reason. He might not know he knew, but the devil is always in the details. It was time for him to talk, one way or another.

"Last chance," I said, my finger tightening around the trigger.

"I was supposed to drug all of you and then deliver you to him at the airport," He said. "That's all I know, I swear."

"Who?" I asked.

"I don't know his name," He said.

"What does he look like?" I asked.

"I don't know," He said.

"You aren't being very helpful," I said.

"He always kept to the shadows. I couldn't see his face. His people just called him Sir," Cupcake said.

Jack said, "Sounds like your man in the shadows."

I nodded and Gina said, "Sounds like there is a story here. Care to share?"

"Later," Jack and I said.

"What airport and when?" Jack asked.

"San Cristobal, a half hour from now," He said.

"Isn't that where our team is flying in?" Jack asked, looking at me.

"You can bet that's not a coincidence," I said.

I reached down into Cupcake's jacket and found his cellphone. My fingers dialed Tom's number from memory. Jack raised an eyebrow watching as if to question why I knew the number so well. I ignored him and listened to the ringing, a silent mantra begging Tom to answer echoing in my head. The call switched to his voicemail and I disconnected.

"No answer," I said.

March 10, 2010

Taking Control: Suspicious Motives

Jack slowed the jeep to a stop. The lowered yellow and black striped arm was more symbolic than an actual obstacle to crossing the border. Jack's eyes darted around the nearby landscape while we waited for the guard in the adjacent booth to come out and greet us. There were no fences, no barriers of any kind, except the one before us and had we chosen to cross the border in the dead of night, it is doubtful anyone would have ever known. I did not need to ask to know Jack would have preferred it that way.

With his head turned away from me and the booth, Jack said, "Let me do the talking."

"Try not to start World War III," I said.

"If you'll do as your told for a change," Jack said, turning to look at me, "I shouldn't have to."

The guard open the booth's door and stepped up to the jeep on my side. He rested one hand on the top of the door and his other on the hilt of the gun holstered on his hip. I think he intended the stance to be casually intimidating, but it came off as cartoon-ish. Smiling up at him, I tried not to laugh when my eyes discovered the stereotypical bushy mustache hiding his upper lip and half his nose. If he had been wearing a sombrero I would have been sorely tempted to call him Sam.

"Gringos eh?" He said, his cultural accent dousing the English vowels with an unnatural sound.

Jack said, "We're on our way home."

"I didn't ask," The guard said.

He looked us over one by one. His eyes lingered longer on Gina and me than the guys. It had been so long since I had a shower and clean clothes, I had almost forgotten how filthy and ragged we looked. The guard's gaze reminded me. His out of the way posting on a barely used road had probably desensitized him to such things, but it also likely meant he was not used to seeing Americans. Our appearance would have to be suspicious under such circumstances, but if Mr. Candle had succeeded in bartering are border crossing, the guard's suspicions would be irrelevant. The real problem was we had no way of knowing if Mr. Candle had succeeded or not and if the guard suspected it, he would undoubtedly enjoy a little fun at our expense.

"Turn off the ignition," The guard said, "and hand me the keys."

"I don't think so," Jack said.

"Are we going to have a problem?" The guard asked.

"We're about to," Jack said. "Let us cross and nobody has to get hurt."

The guard stepped back from the jeep, drawing his gun and aiming at my head. Jack pointed his gun at the guard in turn and kicked his door open, knocking another guard, I had not seen come out of the foliage, to the ground. A third guard came up from behind us, pushing a handgun into the side of Gina's head and resting his rifle's barrel on the back of Jack's head. Realizing he had lost, Jack let the gun fall limp in his hand, raising his arms in defeat. The guard next to me, moved in and took the gun from Jack's hand and then back away again.

He nodded at me, keeping his gun aimed at Jack and said, "Turn off the ignition and throw the keys on the ground over here."

I followed the guard's instructions and threw the keys as close to his feet as I could manage without risking hitting him. The guard glanced at the keys between his boots and nodded approval at me, relaxing his grip on the gun enough to allow me to start breathing again. A quick glance at Jack revealed his utter disapproval of the situation and his eyes seemed to be screaming something along the lines of, "This is all your damn fault!"

"You," The guard said, waving his gun at me, "out of the car, put your hands on the hood."

Slowly, I opened my door and stepped out onto the dirt road. Keeping my hands slightly raised and completely open, I stepped up to front of the jeep next to the tire and rested my hands on the hood. Things were not going exactly as I had hoped and unless something changed soon, the situation was likely to get a lot worse. A thousand possibilities ran through my mind, but I held onto the hope these guards were just having a little fun with us before following orders and letting us pass. That was of course dependent upon Joseph Candle having successfully bribed our way through, but given the stakes, I suspected he would not have allowed for any possibility of failure.

The cold metal of the guard's gun pressed against the back of my neck. With his free hand, he quickly patted down the left side of my body and then switched hands to do the same on my right. Finding nothing, he produced a pair of steel handcuffs and slapped one side on my right and then pulled my arms behind me, securing my left wrist as well. He roughly pulled me away from the jeep, turning me around away from the jeep and shoving me down onto my knees before planting my face in the dirt.

"Stay down," He said.

One at a time the guard repeated the process with the others until we were all lying face down on the ground, side by side. Unfortunately, they planted Jack right next to me with his head turned toward me. If I had felt a little bit safer, I might have closed my eyes just to avoid the negativity beaming out of his. I kept telling myself things could be worse and Jack's eyes kept tell me they were going to get worse just as soon as we got out of the mess we were in.

Behind us, I could hear the guards tearing apart the jeep looking for something. The rational part of my brain knew they were searching for drugs or weapons. They would find none of the former and way to many of the latter. The irrational portion of my brain assumed Stratford's people had outbid Joseph Candle and the guards were looking for the codex to hand over when they arrived to collect us. There was no way to determine which part of me was right and every minute that ticked by was a minute closer to the point where it would not matter either way.

"We're not smugglers," I said.

"I thought I told you to let me do the talking," Jack said.

I said, "I don't think I can make our situation any worse."

"That's the problem," Jack said. "Every time you start thinking, my life insurance premiums go up."

"That's just because every time I have to start thinking for you it's because you started talking with your gun instead of your head," I said.

"Quiet," The guard said kicking a cloud of dirt at Jack and me.

"Really, I just want to help," I said, looking back at the guard. "Ask me anything."

"You really don't know when to shut up, do you?" Jack said.

The guard kicked more dirt into Jack's face and said, "Neither do you."

Jack coughed. I continued to look up at the guard hopeful we could work something out. My instincts told me there was something else going on beyond Stratford's people and if that was right there was still a chance for us to get across the border before things escalated. It is hard to say what was going on in the guard's mind, but after a long hesitation he grabbed my arm and pulled me up.

"What are you transporting?" The guard asked.

"Nothing," I said.

"Lies," He said shaking his gun in my face. "Your boss is willing to pay five million a head to get you across the border and someone else is willing to pay fifteen million if I hand the four of you over to them. You must be carrying something very valuable."

"It's not what you think," I said.

He said, "You don't know what I think."

"They want me," I said.

"Why? You are very beautiful," He said, tracing the tip of his gun down the front of my chest, poking it gently into my breast, "but no woman is worth that much money."

I said, "I know things."

He nodded, his mustache curling upward and said, "Perhaps you like to show me?"

"Free my hands and I'll show you what happens to men who don't keep their hands, or their guns, to themselves," I said.

He laughed and said, "You think I'm afraid of a little girl like you?"

Jack said, "You aren't, but trust me, you should be."

"Go ahead," I said, "take the cuffs off. I promise I won't run away."

The guard leaned in close to my ear and whispered, "I am very tempted, but if I let you get away, my boss will pay ten million to have my head."

"Maybe it would be best for everyone if I could speak with your boss," I said.

"Perhaps," He said, "but first I have to know what you are running."

Behind him another guard stood up in the back of the jeep and raised his hands up with the box containing the codex occupying them. He said, "I found it."

The one in front of me pressed his gun a little further into my breast making me pull away slightly and turned toward the jeep to see what his subordinate had found. He nodded his head and turned his attention back on me. I took a deep breath and invented a story he would almost certainly have to believe because it was almost the truth.

"Just like an American," He said, poking me with his gun. "You steal our history so you can rewrite it to suit your need for superiority. No doubt the contents of that little box are worth more than twice what your boss offered."

"In our hands maybe," I said, puffing myself up for the role I had to play, "but what's it worth in yours? We can authenticate it, for you it's a box you found in the back of a jeep. Without us it isn't worth more than a handful of bullets for your gun."

He smiled and said, "So, you admit your crime."

"It's not a crime from my perspective," I said. "The real crime is allowing it to rot away in the hands of people too primitive to care for it and too stupid to realize its value."

"Now we have something to talk about," The guard said.

He holstered his gun and turned me around to release me from the cuffs. I massaged my wrists in front of me enjoying the freedom of movement and the return of blood to my hands. The guard grasped my arm with less force than before and guided me toward the booth. On the ground Jack started to rise up from the ground, sensing our situation was improving. The guard pushed his boot into the middle of Jack's back shoving him back into the dirt.

"Not you," He said and signaled to his subordinates. "Make certain they stay put."

I shrugged to Jack as the guard and I walked passed. The guard opened the door and gestured for me to enter the booth. I was surprised by the size and relative cleanness inside. Immediately inside the door a standard office desk was position as if for a reception. Another half dozen identical desks were positioned along the perimeter walls and in the middle of the room sat a circular table with four chairs around it. On top of the table a deck of cards sat face down in the middle. I walked toward the table with the guard following me inside and closing the door.

"The man out there," The guard said, "is he your boss?"

"No," I said, hoping I was not making a mistake, "he's my driver and part-time bodyguard."

"You could do better," He said.

I asked, "Are you applying for the job?"

"I don't work for women," He said.

"If you aren't looking for a job then what are we here to discuss?" I said.

"Nothing," He said and turned his back to me.

He picked up the phone from the desk near the door and dialed a number. While it rang he carried the phone to the table and sat it down next to the cards. I studied his face for any clue as to his purpose and found nothing. All I could imagine was the call might well determine whether I lived or died. That I was calm in the face of such uncertainty surprised me.

"You were right," The guard said into the phone before handing it to me. "I'll be outside," He said and left.

I looked at the phone with suspicion before deciding there was no harm to be found in talking. "Hello," I said.

"Good afternoon," The man on the other end said. "I trust you are well?"

"I've had better days," I said.

"Then I shall endeavor to make your evening enjoyable enough to make up for it," He said.

"Forgive my bluntness, but what do you want?" I said.

"To do business if you are amiable," He said.

Watching the guards pace outside, I said, "I'm listening."

"Not over the phone, my dear," He said with a slight chuckle. "Join me for dinner."

"What about my companions?" I asked.

"They are invited as well, of course," He said.

"And if I say no?" I said.

"I believe there are people willing to pay quite well for you to be placed in their hands," He said. "It would be unfortunate if I had to do so, I had so looked forward to meeting all of you."

I said, "In that event, it would seem foolish for me not to accept."

"I knew you could be reasonable," He said. "I'll have my men escort you here."

I said, "What about—

He said, "The others I spoke of? Don't worry, my men will take care of them as well."