Escape out of darkness, p.1
Escape Out of Darkness, p.1Part #1 of Maggie Bennett series by Anne Stuart
Copyright © Anne Kristine Stuart Ohlrogge, 1987
Peter Wallace was irritatingly vague when he met her at JFK Airport as she stumbled, still sleepy, off the plane from London. There was the obligatory touching of cheeks, the awkward concern of two people who were no longer lovers and didn’t really know why. “You look wonderful, Maggie,” he said, hustling her through the crowds of people with his usual aplomb. “I don’t know how you do it.”
Maggie Bennett took the compliment for its worth, which was well-meant but essentially empty. She knew what she looked like. She had inherited her height, which was just an inch short of six feet, and her rippling wheat-blond hair from her Danish father, her aquamarine eyes and delicate bones from her English mother, her generous mouth and small nose from no one in particular. The dexterity and power in her lithe, strong body she had put there by sheer determination and a self-discipline that made her work out when she would much rather lie in bed and eat nachos. There was strength and warmth in her eyes, the slight shadow behind that warmth an inheritance from thirty years of living a none-too-easy life. All in all it was a package that added up to Margrethe Elisa Bennett, divorcée, older sister extraordinaire, reluctantly dutiful daughter, and one of the best damned lawyers Peter Wallace had ever been fortunate enough to hire.
“Thank you, Peter,” she murmured, shoving a neat folder into his reluctant hands. Well-shaped hands, she noticed with an absent sigh. Clever, experienced hands that knew just how to please a lady. But not for her. Not any longer. “Everything’s taken care of in the Kenya case. The political prisoners will be released next week, the families will be compensated at twenty-eight cents on the dollar—”
“How the hell did you manage that? I wouldn’t have thought N’Bombo would have gone any higher than twenty cents.”
Maggie shook her head. “I tried to get them to go even higher, but it was hopeless. At least it’s better than nothing. So tell me, Peter, why am I blessed with having you meet me? Surely the president of Third World Causes, Ltd. has better things to do than meet one of his lowly employees at the airport.”
“Not lowly. Most trusted.” He was guiding her down the crowded corridors of the Pan-Am terminal with his usual adroitness, but Maggie knew him too well not to be suspicious. Besides, it didn’t take her long to realize he wasn’t heading in the direction of the parking lot. “I don’t know how we’d manage without you, Maggie. These last three years have been wonderful.”
“Why do I get the unpleasant feeling you’re about to fire me, Peter?” she questioned coolly, halting in the middle of the corridor. Busy travelers threaded around them, muttering their disapproval, but Maggie stood her ground, impervious to Peter’s gentle tug. “And where exactly are you taking me?”
“I’m not firing you, Maggie. I’d sooner cut off my right arm,” he said. “I’ve got a new job for you, and we don’t really have any time to spare. I’m putting you on a flight for Washington to meet with Mike Jackson, and then we have you booked on a flight to Salt Lake City leaving Washington at two-thirty tomorrow morning.”
“Peter!” she wailed. “I’ve been on the go since three this afternoon. It’s already after nine at night, and I’ve got a case of jet lag you wouldn’t believe. Surely you don’t …” She looked at his determined face, and the last complaint vanished. “Okay,” she said with a sigh. “Clearly you do. Lead on, Macduff. I am yours to command.”
Once more they were hurrying through the maze of terminals. “I need you to go to Utah and pick up a client of ours named Mack Pulaski. You’re to pose as a couple—I’ll leave it up to you whether you want to be married or not. I need you to bring him down to Houston within the next three days without anyone following you. Got it?”
“Got it. Who’s Mack Pulaski?”
“He’s a producer over at Horizon Records. He saw something he wasn’t supposed to see, and certain people are trying to shut him up. I’ve had him holed up at an abandoned ranch outside of Moab for the last two weeks, until you finished up the Kenya job.”
“Couldn’t someone else have taken care of it?”
“You’re the best, Maggie. Besides, it didn’t hurt Mack to stay on ice for a while, just until we find out who’s after him.”
“And who do you think is after him?” She switched her carry-on luggage to her other hand and hurried along, her long legs keeping pace with his hurried strides. “What did he see that he wasn’t supposed to? Should I presume it has something to do with drugs?”
“No one ever said you couldn’t add two and two and get four,” Peter said. “As for who’s after him, we’re still not sure. Mafia, probably. He already had one run-in with them years ago. The CIA may or may not be involved. It was Jeff Van Zandt who first sent him to me, but he took off before he could fill me in.”
“So why Houston in three days?” She shifted the bag back again. Peter reached out his hand, then pulled it back before she could notice. He’d learned a long time ago that she was measurably stronger than his over-forty, desk-bound body was.
“Van Zandt is supposed to meet us down there if he can with some answers. If not, at least I’ll have a couple of possibilities. I’ve got a folder on Pulaski that you can read on the plane, and Mike Jackson in our Washington office is supposed to provide you with some help. New IDs, credit cards, etc.” He stopped in front of a boarding gate for National Airport. “Will you do it, Maggie?”
She laughed then, a deep, throaty chuckle that had once enchanted him. “I hadn’t realized you were giving me a choice, Peter. Of course I’ll do it. But after Houston I’m taking a vacation. Two weeks in the L.A. sunshine with nothing to do but tan. Okay?”
“Okay. But if I know your family, I’d think Alaska would be more restful.”
“You’re probably right.” She took the folder, the flight pass, and once more they brushed cheeks. “I presume I’ll find out anything I need to know in here?” She flipped the folder at him.
“It’s still pretty sketchy, but Mack will fill you in on the details.” She turned to go, and he caught her arm, the professional mask dropping. “Take care of yourself, Maggie. I don’t know how dangerous this is. Probably a piece of cake, but there are no guarantees. I don’t want to have to tell your mother and those sisters of yours that anything happened to you.”
“Coward,” she laughed, giving him a politely affectionate hug. “Just for your sake, I’ll stay in one piece.” And she headed on to the next lap of her journey.
She slept the short hour to Washington, picked up the paraphernalia from the faithful Jackson, and didn’t get a chance to crack the material till she was flying over Middle America in the dead of night. The contents in the folder didn’t tell her much—only that Mack Pulaski, a record producer and vice president at Horizon Records, had stumbled into a drug deal and someone was after him.
She still couldn’t quite figure out why Peter had taken the case. They s
Maybe it was just because Van Zandt had asked Peter for a favor. Maggie had met Jeffrey Van Zandt only twice, and she hadn’t liked him. He had Kennedyesque charm overlaying the instincts of a great white shark, and he made her own instincts cry out in protest. But Peter genuinely liked him and trusted him, and Maggie had no choice but to go along with Peter’s judgment.
Still, it was surprising that she was being pulled into this affair. Her experience in drug-related cases was almost nil, her interest and sympathy equally minimal. It made traveling an extra three thousand miles less than appealing, and her bad temper stifled her curiosity as she drove the wide, deserted highways down from Salt Lake City. Even the magnificent geography failed to penetrate her determined brain. She needed every ounce of her concentration to stay awake and alert, and she couldn’t afford to waste any of her attention on the magnificent archlike formations she passed.
So here she was, standing outside a seemingly deserted cabin that had taken her far too long to find, with her feet sweating, her head aching, and her usually even temper shredded. It was a hot, dry day just outside of Moab, Utah, and the red-hued sandstone radiated waves of heat like a furnace blast. There were no trees, and no shade from the midday sun, just baking, blinding heat ripping the moisture out of her skin without even pausing long enough to turn it to sweat. It was the kind of day that made you long for February blizzards, she thought, pushing her hair back from her forehead. And what the hell was she doing standing out in it, like a mad dog or an Englishman, and not knocking on the weather-beaten door of the deserted-looking cabin in front of her?
Maybe a last remnant of ESP or her long-dormant instincts were warning her? She couldn’t rid herself of the feeling that once that door opened, nothing would ever be the same again. She found it seldom paid to listen to that little voice of hers, and it was the last thing she needed right now, when those edgy feelings were probably founded on nothing more than too much junk food and a bad night’s sleep.
Well, the longer she put it off, the longer it would take to get to her mother’s swimming pool in Laurel Canyon. She would drag Mack Pulaski down to Houston, dump him, and then she was free. Without another moment’s hesitation she reached up and rapped sharply on the door.
There was no answer. Damn the man, she thought bitterly. He was told to stay put and wait to be rescued. So of course he’s gone for a walk. She banged on the door, more loudly this time, and then pushed it open. “Pulaski?” she called out, her voice low and even. “Are you in there?”
It was pitch black inside the little cabin, the bright glare of the sun penetrating only a few feet into the dim interior. Of course Mack Pulaski might not have gone for a walk at all. His enemies might have caught up with him and left him here in this arid climate to rot away. She took a reluctant, tentative sniff of the air. Dryness, dust, and the lingering odor of … coffee, she recognized with a start. If Mack Pulaski had gone, he hadn’t been gone long.
“Pulaski?” she called again. “Are you in there?” Steeling herself, she stepped inside, keeping her back straight and her eyes on the tiny pool of light from outside.
“Stop right there.” A voice issued from the back of the cavernous room. Raspy, raw, hoarse, it held a curious depth and power. She stopped where she was, grateful not to have to immerse herself farther into the darkness.
She couldn’t see a thing. She peered into the inky confines of the cabin, and as her eyes adjusted to the darkness she could see a faint chink of light from a shuttered window outlining a shadowy figure standing in one corner. The shape of the body radiated wariness, and Maggie found herself speaking in a low, soothing voice, as if to a cornered animal, ignoring her own irrational fears.
“Mr. Pulaski?” she said again. “I’m Maggie Bennett. I work for Peter Wallace. He sent me here to pick you up and take you to Houston.”
“Did he?” The rusty voice was skeptical, and the figure made no move. “Close the door and come over here.”
“No.” She was grateful her voice sounded so calm and self-assured. “I don’t like being in the dark. Why don’t you come over here so I can see you?”
Maggie considered controlling her temper, then gave up the effort. “Because I’m hot, tired, and hungry, and I don’t want to play games.”
“Okay, no games, but why the hell would I go to Houston?” Some of the wariness faded, and he moved closer. Not into the light, but close enough so that she could vaguely make out some of his features.
“Peter wants us to meet him there and I’m not exactly sure why. I’m just following orders, and my orders are to bring you to Houston.” She allowed the full irritation she was feeling to show in her voice. “Do you want identification? I’ve got plenty—”
“Hand it over. And move into the light,” that raw voice ordered, and she complied, tossing her open wallet at his feet. He bent down to scoop it up, and all she could see was his rumpled hair, his face still hidden in the shadows. “All right, I trust you,” he said finally, moving closer. “I can see you aren’t carrying a gun.”
“You can’t see any such thing,” Maggie said. “I’m wearing a loose shirt. I could easily have a gun tucked in the back of my pants. The pants legs are loose too. I could be wearing an ankle holster, pretend I needed to tie my shoe, and a moment later you’d be history. I own guns small enough to fit in the palm of my hand that you wouldn’t even notice until you had a bullet between the eyes. Don’t be so damned sure of yourself, Mr. Pulaski.”
He laughed then, a carefree sound in that ruined voice of his, and moved out of the shadows so that she could get her first good look at him. “What do you want, a strip search?”
“I want you to be careful. Your life and mine might depend on it.” He didn’t look much like the grainy photograph Peter had provided her with. The shaggy blond hair was shorter now and mixed with gray. He had several weeks’ growth of beard, a nose that had been broken at least once, and the warmest eyes she’d ever seen in her entire life. They were at complete variance with the rest of him—the rough-and-tumble clothing that had clearly been slept in, the tough-looking body that was maybe an inch taller than hers, the world-weary face and cynical mouth. His eyes were hazel and warm and lit with a sense of humor, and the effect was startling.
He was looking her up and down with those eyes, a curious, guarded expression on his face. “So you’re my bodyguard—Maggie, is it? You don’t look like you’ll be much protection against the kind of people who are after me. Those wrists of yours look so delicate they might snap in a strong wind.”
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“I sure as hell hope so.”
“I’ll get you to Houston,” she said, “if you follow me and do as I say.”
“If I follow you and do as you say,” he echoed thoughtfully. “Why did Wallace choose you for this?”
“Because a man and a woman traveling together are less conspicuous. And because I’m very good at what I do. Don’t be sexist, Pulaski. I’m a lot stronger than I look.” She turned back toward the welcoming light streaming from the doorway. “Let’s go.”
“Are you?” he said softly, almost to himself. A moment later she felt an arm swoop around her throat, cutting off her breath as she was yanked against a hard, implacable body.
She didn’t waste a moment on useless struggling. She knew exactly how long it would take for her to pass out from lack of oxygen, and she also recognized that he wasn’t using his full strength on her. She fought back, quickly, cleanly, efficiently, jabbing her elbow directly into his ribs, bringing her booted heel down on his instep, turning and raising her knee toward his groin and her freed hand toward his vulnerable throat.<
But he was swiftly out of reach, far enough so that she had the time to recognize the attack for what it was, a test of her skills. “Satisfied?”
He nodded. “You’re fast and good.”
“And you pulled your punches. I could have taken you out even if you’d used all your strength.”
His smile was no longer cynical; it matched the warmth in his eyes. “I’m sure you could. Maggie, my fate is in your hands. Let’s go to Houston.”
“You want me to drive?” Mack paused by the big white American car parked down below the cabin.
“Later. Driving will keep me awake long enough to get out of here. Once we’ve been on the road for a few hundred miles and I’m sure we’re not being followed, I’ll let you take over.” She gave him a disparaging glance. “Maybe.”
“Do I get the impression your heart isn’t in this particular job?” He climbed in beside her, tossing his battered leather suitcase behind them and leaning back with a weary sigh. He’d grabbed a pair of mirrored sunglasses on the way out and a battered old hat, and he looked tired, grubby, and dangerous. “Or is my paranoia acting up?”
“You’re right. I don’t like drug cases, and I don’t really know what I’m doing here. I can’t imagine you’re in any danger—Peter doesn’t do anything halfway. He wouldn’t have left you out there if it wasn’t safe. If anyone has the faintest idea where you are, it would surprise me greatly. I think I’m doing make-work when I’ve more than earned a vacation, and I …” She let her voice trail off, flushing slightly. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice more composed. “I don’t usually whine. I’m just damned tired.”
Mack pushed his shades down on his imposing broken nose, peering at her over them. There was no disapproval, no judgment in his hazel eyes. “No offense taken,” he said in his sexy rough voice.
Silence reigned in the air-conditioned confines of the rental car as Maggie piloted it down out of the hills and into the scraggly town of Moab. But it was a comfortable silence. Maybe the trip to Houston wouldn’t be as awful as she’d imagined.
Escape Out of Darkness by Anne Stuart / Romance & Love / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes