Mac's Angels, page 13
Ernst waited a second before answering. “Why would you lie? I can think of about eight million dollars or so. But you’re going to tell me now, aren’t you? Otherwise I’m going to start shooting people, beginning with Shadow.”
“Erica, that’s enough!” Shadow growled. “Nobody believes any of this. It’s too late for any more lies. You’re wrong, Kilgore. I never sold you the Virgin. As for you, Ernst, if Shadow didn’t find the treasure, neither did Preston. Here, Ambassador, you hold the light.”
Caught by surprise, Ernst allowed the official to take the light and shine it on the masked intruder.
With every eye riveted on him, Conner peeled the mask away. “You see, Ernst was right about one thing. Shadow and Conner Preston are one and the same. Somebody is counting on you to do the dirty work and you’re going to take the blame.”
“Don’t believe him,” Erica cried out. “He’s only trying to protect me.”
Kilgore turned to Ernst. “I told you kidnapping her wouldn’t work. I’m not going to jail for you or anybody else. Just give me my money back and you can have the statue. I don’t want any part of any of this now.”
“Shut up, you fool!” Ernst snapped. His temper was beginning to fray. At that moment the lights came on, blinding them all. Conner saw his chance and jabbed his elbow into Ernst’s arm.
The gun went off and Conner felt a slice of fire as a bullet ricocheted off the stone wall and creased his skull. For a minute he saw stars.
“No!” Erica screamed. “I’ll get the book. Just don’t hurt Conner.”
Ernst gestured with his gun. “I thought you would. Untie her, Kilgore.”
Once Erica was cut loose, she ran to Conner. “Is it bad?” she asked.
“No. It’s just a flesh wound. Now, let me handle this before somebody is really hurt.”
Erica gave him a disbelieving smile. “Somebody already is. Get me a phone, Mr. Kilgore.”
“Why do you need a phone?” Kilgore asked, sending a nervous look at Karl Ernst.
“Shadow has to call his assistant and make sure the book is where it’s supposed to be.”
“Erica—” Conner began, “I’m not—”
Ernst swung at the back of Conner’s head with the butt of his pistol and Conner collapsed.
Erica stood. “Give me the phone.”
From somewhere in the shadows Kilgore produced a cell phone and handed it to Erica. She punched in Mac’s number, saying a silent prayer that he would understand what she was telling him and go along with her ploy.
“Sterling,” Erica said, calmly speaking over Mac’s voice, “this is Erica. I’m calling for Shadow. He wants you to know that the wedding will take place at my home tomorrow, as we planned. Did you send the book to Tennessee?”
Erica nodded at Karl Ernst.
“Good. Charter a private plane for us. We’ll need to seat six passengers: the committee, Conner Preston, a doctor, and me. Conner’s been—”
“Enough!” Ernst roared, jerking the phone from Erica’s hand. “Sterling, you’d better not try anything funny. I’ve shot two men and I still have a full clip of bullets I won’t mind using.”
Karl listened for a moment, smiled, then with a flick of his thumb broke the connection and handed the phone back to Kilgore. “Let’s go. He says he’ll take care of everything. Apparently we’re going to a Christmas wedding. We’re already ten years late.”
On the way to the airport, Erica sat between Conner and Karl Ernst. Though he sat totally erect, dried blood etched Conner’s hairline, reminding Erica that he’d been shot. She had the feeling that he was remaining upright through sheer willpower. She remembered a time when only willpower kept her going.
Ten years ago she’d lost the man she loved and the child they’d created. The pain had been overwhelming and it had never completely disappeared. She hadn’t allowed herself to hope that Mac would send Conner to help her. But he had, and once she’d seen him he’d slid right back into her life and rekindled both the love and the anguish.
Since then she’d been on an emotional roller coaster. She’d covered her pain with anger over his abandonment. Then without her being able to stop it, the anger had changed, dissolving into a stronger emotion. She couldn’t say they’d fallen in love again because she couldn’t be certain how Conner felt But for her the love was still there where it always had been.
The only anger that remained came from a deep regret for all the time they’d lost. She couldn’t help but fear that new loss loomed over them once more. Something bad would happen unless she came up with a way to stop it. People were being shot again. First Bart, then the ambassador, now Conner.
Erica had hoped by promising Professor Ernst the return of the book, Mac could find a way to rescue them. But her wonderful, foolish Conner had tried to protect her by giving up the most important thing in his life—his identity. What would happen when they arrived on Lookout Mountain and there was no book?
The limo entered the airport’s General Aviation area, where all charter flights originated. Because it was Christmas Eve, the private center was practically deserted. There were no happy people awaiting the arrival of loved ones, no passengers dashing to board planes, their arms filled with Christmas packages. Instead, the offices were dark and the counters vacant.
Longingly Erica remembered her lovely Christmas tree and the night she and Conner had spent in each other’s arms. They’d shared that wonderful moment, but now it was gone. Unless a miracle happened, she was about to lose Conner a second time and she didn’t know if she could bear it.
Brighton Kilgore, who’d apparently received final instructions by phone somewhere en route, directed them to the waiting area, then moved into the office, where he was conferring with the pilot. Erica hadn’t missed the light nod the pilot had given Conner when they arrived. She let out a sigh of relief. Mac had sent him.
She glanced around the area, wishing they weren’t so isolated. Any thought of escape was negated by the increasingly nervous Karl Ernst. Karl kept his gun inside his coat, but there was never any question that it was there and ready for use.
Finally, the pilot led them to his plane and opened the door, letting down the steps. Inside, a second man waited. “Sterling sent me,” he said to Conner as they boarded, then turned toward Karl. “I’m the doctor. Who’s the wounded man?”
“No doctor!” Ernst pulled his gun from beneath his topcoat.
But the doctor ignored him, turning his piercing black eyes on Conner, whose wound was more obvious now in the light. “I’ll just have a look while the pilot is getting takeoff instructions. Please sit down, sir.”
Conner dropped into the seat nearest the door, hoping that Erica would remain nearby. Maybe, with a diversion … But Karl squelched that idea by shoving Erica farther into the plane.
“All right,” Ernst snapped. “Hurry up.”
The doctor opened his bag and pulled out a packet of alcohol-soaked pads. “Quite a hen egg you have there.”
“Yeah, the hen used the butt of a gun,” Conner joked.
The doctor ripped open a pad. “This is going to sting.” He moved around so that his back was to Ernst as he proceeded to clean Conner’s wound. As he worked, he let his jacket fall open, revealing a gun in a holster beneath his shoulder. “You’re a lucky man. An inch to the left and you might not be here.”
Conner’s confidence took a boost. With the pilot and the doctor, it stood three to three.
“I’ll give you an antibiotic injection and treat your wound. That’ll hold you until we reach Chattanooga, but I’d like to get you to a hospital once we’re there. You may have suffered a concussion.”
“No hospital!” Karl’s voice bordered on hysteria. “You’ll do whatever he needs. Let’s go.” He withdrew his gun and brandished it at the pilot.
With no evidence of fear, the pilot moved forward and buckled himself into the captain’s chair.
“Now,” Ernst directed, “you two, Pres
Conner rose, a bit unsteady, and followed Erica. They slid into two seats backed against the cockpit. The doctor took one of the chairs opposite them and the ambassador the other. Kilgore sat in the rear, leaving Karl to roam about.
“Don’t do anything funny,” Karl advised the pilot. “Just fly us to Chattanooga.”
After an exchange with the tower, the plane moved toward the runway, where it was forced to sit for nearly half an hour before getting clearance to take off.
“What’s holding us up?” Karl demanded, becoming more agitated with every second of the delay.
“Sorry. The charter services aren’t busy, but this is one of the heaviest travel days of the year for the commercial airlines. We just have to wait our turn. I know your situation and I’m doing the best I can.”
Conner leaned his head against the seat and closed his eyes, trying to shut out the pain. How had he let this happen? And he was responsible. He’d been sent to protect Erica, but he’d allowed his love for her to interfere with his mission.
Now Shadow’s identity had been revealed as a result of his failure. No matter. He’d stand in the middle of Times Square and shout his secret to the world to protect Erica. But he was no nearer solving the mysterious appearance of the statue than he had been to begin with. The only tiling he was certain of was that Erica hadn’t been involved. Not this time. Not ten years ago.
He squeezed her hand.
Even the headache that was pounding against the back of his skull wasn’t punishment enough for his lapse in judgment. Shadow would have considered the risks and countered them before they happened. Of all the close calls he’d experienced since Bart’s death, this was the first time it was personal.
Though he admired Erica’s quick thinking in calling Mac and pretending she was talking to Sterling, he felt damned helpless not being able to do it himself. He glanced at the ambassador, who seemed to be handling their plight better than might be expected. Kilgore looked worried. Perhaps he was reconsidering his loyalties.
Conner held Erica’s hand and considered all that had happened. He kept going back to Erica’s doodles, to the heart around their names. “I saw your note by the phone,” he whispered under his breath.
“No talking to each other,” Karl said.
“What about talking to you, Karl?” Conner asked.
Karl moved from the rear of the plane to the remaining vacant seat across the table from Conner and Erica. “Only if you have something to say that I want to hear.”
Were he alone, Cornier would have rushed Karl. He’d faced greater odds without a thought. But they were in an airplane and Erica was there. And that changed everything.
There was another factor that held Conner back. There was the possibility that he might at last learn the truth about his brother’s death. For now he’d bide his time. Sometimes a man about to crack under pressure could be lulled into revealing more than he intended. “Did you ever see Bart’s book, Karl?”
“No. He never showed it to me. I was his adviser and he kept it from me. But I know he had it. Bart always wore a backpack. That night before he was killed it was stuffed full, but he wouldn’t take it off.”
Conner pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his eyes. “That was when you knew he’d found the treasure?”
Karl smiled. “Yes, he told me he thought he was close to finding it. I tried to get him to take me there, but he was very nervous, worried about his responsibility and the law. He left my office for the embassy. He didn’t want to do anything to spoil his brother’s wedding. He promised that he’d show me what he’d found—after the wedding.”
Conner held on to his anger with every ounce of his control. “But you couldn’t wait. You killed him.”
“No!” Karl snapped, almost as if he were trying to convince himself. “I had nothing to do with his death. The assassins were militants, political misfits. I wouldn’t have hurt Bart. I’d be killing the goose before he laid the golden egg. He would have made me famous. Bart wouldn’t have wanted his discovery to be lost. I knew that. He promised.”
Conner turned his gaze on Erica’s employer. “Did you see the book, Ambassador?”
“No, I didn’t,” he answered.
“And Erica never saw it,” Conner went on.
“Wouldn’t it be ironic if he hadn’t made a record at all? If all this were some kind of hoax?”
Ernst’s face drew into a grim smile. “No. I thought that for a long time. When I saw the statue I knew that it was part of the missing artwork.”
Kilgore, who’d remained quiet up to now, finally joined in the conversation. “So who did find the treasure?”
Karl Ernst waved his gun at Conner and leaned forward. “Yes. Who? Was it our lovely Erica who claims to have used it to bring Conner back into her life? Or was it Mr. Preston? You know what I think? I think it doesn’t matter. I will have my answer soon, won’t I?”
Erica shook her head sadly. “You’re sick, Mr. Ernst. There’s no way you can get away with this. There are too many of us who know the truth.”
“But that’s the beauty of it all,” Karl said. “Bart’s death was ten years ago and it’s already been covered up by the military. Now we have an ambassador, an international businessman, a millionaire, and a German official involved in a plot to steal treasures? Nobody’s going to believe that. We won’t be greedy. Nobody knows exactly how much there is. We’ll turn over enough of the artifacts to make the international art community happy.”
“Yes,” Kilgore said eagerly. “In the end, we’ll all get what we want.”
“Except Bart,” Conner said. “You know I’m not going to let you sweep this under the rug.”
“Then you can think about this,” Karl snapped. “I have Erica and I have you. One of you will produce the book or”—his voice grew deadly quiet—“one of you will die.”
Erica shivered. Conner felt it and knew that Ernst had been pushed as far as it was safe to push him. For now Conner needed to think, plan, and hope that Mac had time to work out something on the mountain.
“You’re holding all the cards now, Ernst. But we’re not there yet. How long is the flight?” Conner asked the pilot, reaching out to take Erica’s hand.
“About another hour and a half.”
Conner yawned. “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m feeling a little rocky. If I’m going treasure hunting, I could use some sleep.”
“Good idea,” Erica said. “I’ll turn out the light.”
Conner adjusted their seat so that it tilted back and drew Erica against him, shutting his eyes.
Beside him, Erica laid her cheek against his shoulder and followed suit. She wished they could talk. She wished she knew what he was planning. She wished they were back in New Orleans eating chocolate muffins. She wished it was ten years ago and they were planning their wedding.
But it was now and, in spite of the precarious position in which they’d found themselves, Erica felt warm and safe, as if she’d finally come home. Her last waking thought was of Conner. She wondered where he had been that morning when the ambassador called.
Erica roused when the plane touched down in Chattanooga. With Conner wounded and weak, she couldn’t believe that she’d actually slept.
“Is it true?” he whispered in her ear.
She turned a questioning look toward him.
“On your notepad. Is it still Erica and Conner?”
“Be quiet!” Karl Ernst backed away from the pilot and turned his gun on Conner. “No whispering.”
“Sorry,” Conner said in a tight voice. “I was just reassuring Erica.”
“But I’m the one who should be reassuring you,” Erica said, ignoring Ernst. “The answer is yes. Maybe it’s just the Christmas spirit.”
She couldn’t say it any plainer than that without baring her heart to the world.
“I love the Christmas spirit,” h
Runway instructions crackled over the radio. The pilot complied. The plane slowed its speed and coasted to a stop.
“Check out the windows, Kilgore,” Ernst said, backing toward the door.
Kilgore complied. “Don’t see anybody or anything. The place looks deserted.”
“Good, open the door.”
“Wait,” the pilot instructed. “This isn’t our dock. We’re on the other side.”
“Here!” Ernst insisted. “We’re getting out here.”
The pilot turned off the engine and Kilgore opened the door, letting the steps down.
Karl stood beside the portal, just out of view, his finger on the trigger. “You first, Kilgore.”
Nervously, Kilgore peered out, then moved down the steps. “All clear!” he called out.
Moments later they were walking across the dark runway toward the terminal, passing several offices before they found the door to the central area. But all Karl’s precautions seemed unnecessary. They seemed to be the only ones around. Outside the front door a van waited. The key was in the switch.
“You drive, Kilgore,” Ernst directed.
“Now, just a minute, Ernst. I’m getting a little tired of you running the show. You drive.”
Conner didn’t like the way things were going. Ernst had grabbed Erica once again. They’d left the pilot behind and there was no sign of Mac. Conner was weaker than he thought and he didn’t have to be told his reflexes were off. Fortunately, nobody had frisked him so they were unaware of the second gun he’d jabbed into his boot. Still, even with the doctor’s help, he could see no way of using it without endangering Erica.
“Get in!” Ernst screamed.
“I’ll drive,” Conner volunteered. “If Erica will direct me.”
“Do it.” Ernst waved his gun toward the van. “You two sit in the front. I’ll sit behind Erica. If anything, anything goes wrong, she’s dead.”
Conner crawled into the van. With an ironic grin he fastened his seat belt and watched as Erica did the same. What did it matter if they were buckled in? A bullet would be just as fatal as a car crash.
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