I roused around 8:45AM with a stretch and a sustained yawn. I rubbed the haze out of my eyes before glimpsing at Steve who was sleeping soundly. The absence of blood stains on the sheets made me heaved a breath of relief. I stood and went to my bedroom to get ready for my task. After showering and sprucing myself up, I cast an eye over the counterfeit money in the leatherette valise before I sealed it closed. I walked back to Steve’s room and padded up to the bed to pull the blanket up to his shoulders. I left the curtains drawn to keep the room dimlit, then left, taking care of hanging the “not disturb” sign on the knob for the chambermaid.
I met with Vince in the hotel lobby and off we went to McKellen’s mansion where I was greeted at the door by the stately host himself.
“Miss Van de Mille. Welcome to my humble abode.” His eyes searched the inside of the limo. “Mister Perrine not accompanying you?”
“He’s had a rough night. French food didn’t agree with him.”
“How unfortunate,” he deplored with a hint of sarcasm that pricked me. I hawked silently before taking his arm.
He ushered me inside where I stood in an ostentaciously-furnished foyer that left me in awe. I tried to remain in character as the well-mannered butler led us to an impressive parlor, where McKellen’s adviser, typical businessman Bertrand Steel was lounged in an armchair, sipping on a brandy. He stood upright out of deference to a lady present in the room.
“Miss Van de Mille, may I introduce you to my adviser, Mister Bertrand Steel.”
“Charmed, Miss,” the man drooled as he kissed the back of my hand.
“May I offer you a drink?” McKellen offered with a hand motioning to the glass hutch.
“No thank you. I never drink before an important transaction. It clouds the mind.”
“I have your money.”
“Splendid. And I have your beautiful painting.” McKellen beckoned Steel to bring the thin wooden crate. He opened the lid and pulled out the tableau of an old lady admiring her pearls that I simply loathed. I strained a smile as I affected going into raptures over the masterful brush strokes.
“Wonderful. I have just the place for it. It will go above the fireplace mantle in the main living room of my manor,” I hinted to both men whom I caught exchanging collusive smiles. I placed the valise on the desk and unlatched it.
McKellen stepped over, maitaining a composed poise as he cast a cursory glance over the neatly folded bills before snapping the briefcase close and handing it over to Steel. “You put this in a safe place.”
“Aren’t you going to count it?”
“I’m sure it’s all there. Besides you were more than generous with the price. Counting the money would be an insult.”
I flashed an amused smile.
“Would you like some champagne?”
“No, thank you.
“In that case, shall we take that grand tour?”
“I would appreciate your offering me a rain check. Seeing how my partner is ill, I prefer to return to the hotel.”
“Of course. Let me walk you out.”
As McKellen escorted me to the car, little did I know that Steve was jumping onto the second-storey balcony of the safe room. He stood with his back flattened against the wall, watching Steel passing the fake bills under a scanner. That obscure contraption was undubitably going to play havoc with our plans and eventually uncloak our identities.
Steve continued to follow Steel’s every move. He saw him activate the security system on a wall panel by the door before he left to undoubtedly report the fake money to McKellen. Steve’s infrared in his bionic eye spotted the dozen laser beams crossing the room from one wall to another. He slipped on his black gloves, then nudged the French doors open to sneak inside. He circumspectly navigated around the beams to reach the panel, where he switched off the security system. With the beams now deactivated, he edged over to the safe to open it. He rummaged through his shirt pocket for the bogus microfilm that he substituted with the real. He carefully closed the safe and tucked the film underneath his wig, mindful to straighten the hair line.
He repeated the procedure backwards. As he reactivated the beams, he felt a searing abdominal twinge. He clutched his stomach, inhaling deeply to quell the pain. Once the discomfort subsided, he proceeded to straddle another beam only to have another pang stab him. He bent over, breaking the beam that triggered the alarm.
Downstairs in the study, Steel had just finished genning McKellen up on the hoax when they heard the alarm. McKellen’s bouncers strode up the stairs ahead of their boss to reach the room where they bashed down the door to collar Steve as he was about to jump off the balcony. They yanked him back inside to face McKellen’s wrath.
With eyes smouldering and a scornful curl of his lips, McKellen fired a single question at Steve. “Who are you?”
Steve’s eyes narrowed as his mind swiftly assessed the situation. His mental computer reviewed all possible means of escape before coming up with the only best alternative offered to him: his bionic powers. Before Steve could thrust the two bouncers holding him against the wall, McKellen ordered Hugh to slam his fist into Steve’s stomach, knocking the wind out of him and exacerbating his ulcer. He collapsed onto the floor, unconscious.
“Steel, check the safe,” ordered McKellen.
“What do we do with him, boss?” asked the brawny Adrian.
“Let’s put him in the basement for now while I call Miss Van de Mille. She too has a lot of explaining to do.”
“Everything’s in order, Lucian. Nothing’s been touched,” Steel assured while closing back the safe.
“I doubt Mister Perrine could have cracked my foolproof security system.”
Hugh yanked Steve to his feet and slung his limp body over his shoulder with one single sweep. As Steve was being hauled down to the basement, tiny drops of blood trickled out of his half-opened mouth, making a trail on the floor and on the stairs. Hugh dropped his load onto a cot inside a small dampy room that exuded all the charm and held all the comfort of a prison cell, complete with bars on the windows. Hugh banged the solid steel door close and bolted it.
As I walked to my hotel room, I was slightly disturbed to notice the absence of the “do not disturb” sign on the doorknob of Steve’s room. The prickling sensation radiating down my spine was telling me that something was amiss. I entered the room and leaned the painting against the wall before I crossed the adjoining door to Steve’s room where, to my surprise, I found the bed all made up and no sign of my partner.
“Steve?” I called out as I removed the comb to let my hair down. Barely had I time to check the bathroom that the phone rang. I went over to the nightstand to pick it up.
“Miss Van de Mille? This is Lucian McKellen. Would you by any chance be missing a partner?” he asked with a crude cynicism.
I closed my eyes in dismay and heaved a muffled sigh. The voice infliction dripping with spite needen’t no explanation: somehow Steve had fallen into McKellen’s clutches. “I am as a matter of fact. He’s not in his bed. He must have gone for a cleansing walk,” I sad detachedly.
“He must have some congestive lungs to have taken seven-mile walk to my mansion.”
“What’s he doing there?”
“He wouldn’t tell us? So I thought you’d have better luck in extracting the information.” I wilted under his commanding tone, which left me little choice but to yield.
“I’ll be right over.”
“You do that.” He hung up forcefully and looked at Steel. “She’s coming.”
“You know Lucian, for all we know she may be innocent. He partner might have seen an opportunity at easy money,” Steel opined.
“I wondered about that.”
“She has the painting. We need her to get the diamonds into the States. Our client’s getting impatient. Any more delays and…”
“I know! I know! Call it a hunch but I suspect they’re in this together.”
“What do you want to do then?”
“We can’t take the chance that they might be undercover agents. They’ll blow our smuggling operations. It’ll be safer to have them both killed, stash the diamonds in another canvas and hook another American buyer.”
“Do you know how long that will take?”
“I’m certain our client will agree that a week’s delay at the most is better than twenty years in the state pen.”
“How do we get the painting back?”
“While Miss Van de Mille or whatever he real name is will be locked in with her partner, you and Adrian go to her hotel to retrieve the painting. Then we’ll kill them.
“Why not kill them right away?”
“I might need them untilt the matter is fully settled. Go give Adrian his instructions while I await the arrival of our delectable Miss Van de Mille,” he crowed with a level stare, his eyes slowly narrowing in contempt as he quaffed down his drink.
As a precautionary measure, I called OSI agent Karen Prince to have her stash the painting somewhere safe. I then contacted Oscar to inform him of the condition red. I asked for enough time to get Steve out before he decides to send in the brigade.
The second I hung up, an ill wind breezed through the room, chilling me to the bone. I closed my eyes as the prickling sensation grew in the pit of my stomach. Why had Steve not been able to abscond his captors? He has the capabilities to break free, unless he was grieviously hurt or unconscious, two possibilities that made my flesh creep.
I shelved those fears and inhaled deeply to recompose myself. I went to the mirror to fix my hair, retouch my make up, and off I went.
In the limo, I gave strict instructions to Vincent to park the car a few yards down the street and wait for us. Should we not give any sign of life within the hour, to contact Oscar.
As we drove up the driveway of the mansion, I was ill-at-ease by Steel’s presence on the doorsteps for it was customary of McKellen to welcome his guests. The possibility of his having uncloaked our identities caused my heartrate to increase a notch.
Steel opened the car door and took my hand. “Miss Van de Mille. Mister McKellen is waiting for you in the parlor.”
As he escorted me up the stairs, I accessed my mental computer to provide me with a few different scenarios to allow for all contingencies. The wheels were turning full spin.
Steel ushered me into the parlor with a cold, hard hand that felt more like a shove. He slid the doors close behind us.
“Come in, Miss Van de Mille,” McKellen invited from the bar. He raised the glass carafe in front to me. “ Can I fix you a drink?”
“No thank you. I want to talk to Steve.”
“Ahhhhh, so you’re on a first name basis now?”
“Only in private, never in public,” I said off the cuff. I eyed McKellen warily. “Where is he?”
He calmly put his glass down on the counter and offered me his arm with a sordid grin. “I will take you to him, my dear.”
I looked at him indignantly, regarding the gesture as an insult.
“My dear lady, why the scorching look? You should direct that embitterment towards your partner, not me. After all, he’s the one that tried to break into my safe?”
“Your safe? What for?”
“With your assistance, that’s what we intend to find out.” He presented his arm once more. “Shall we?”
I reluctantly draped my arm over his. With Steel leading the way, we headed down the stairs to a dampish basement, searing every window, door and hatch on my photographic memory for potential means of escape.
One of his menacing beasts was standing stoically at the door behind which Steve was lying unconscious. He unlocked the door.
“Steve!” I dashed over to him and sat on the cot. “My God! What have you done to him?” I asked angrily as I ran a hand through his hair and gave his body a superficial examination.
“Hugh may have packed too much punch in that fist when he hit your partner in the guts,” McKellen gloated.
The mere touch of my hand against his stomach elicited a painful moan out of Steve. “He needs a doctor.”
“First he tells us why he was caught breaking into my house, THEN we’ll send for a doctor.” McKellen glanced down at his wristwatch. “I will give you thirty minutes to loosen his tongue. Then I’ll be back, expecting an answer.”
Hugh pushed the steel door close and locked it.
“Bertrand, you and Adrian get going right now. I want you back with the painting within 30 minutes.”
“You got it Lucian.”
Inside the damp room, I sat next to Steve, my hand gently caressing his cheeks. “Steve, can you hear me?” I gave his shoulders a few light tugs that induced a stronger reaction than anticipated. He started coughing uncontrollably, retching and choking until I rolled him onto his side where he vomited phlegmy blood onto the concrete floor. I rubbed a soothing hand up and down his arm, hoping it would have a palliative effect on his pain. Just when I thought the crisis had passed, a second coughing fit triggered another gush of blood.
I agonized for him. The alarming amount of blood he spewed forth was evidence that the ulcer had burst. “Steve, can you hear me?” I coaxed, brushing the locks of hair back from his forehead.
He wedged open his eyes a slit. “Cassie?” he whispered interrogatively.
“Yes, I’m here.” I gently rolled him onto his back.
“I guess I blew it.”
“Yes you did. Why did you leave your bed?”
“I was feeling much better. So I thought….”
I pressed my fingers against his lips to shush him “Shuuuuuu, I know. I know.” My hand moved down to his shoulder. “What happened? How did you get caught?”
“Broke one of the beams when I felt a twinge. But I got the microfilm.” His eyes motioned upwards to his wig before they darted the room. “Where are we?”
“In the basement of McKellen’s house.”
“We have to get out of here.” He was hit by a stabbing pang as he tried to elbow himself up into a sitting position. He clamped his eyes shut and sucked in a lungful of air between gritted teeth. “Help me up.”
“Steve you’re in bad shape. Lie back.”
“No, I need to get to that window.”
“Look! We can argue later when we’re out of this place,” he lashed out at me between gasps. “Now, will you help me?”
“Just wait a second.” I surveyed the room to spot any cameras that could give us away. “All right.” I stood from the cot to let him slide his legs onto the floor and bent over to wrap my arm around his waist.“Get your arm around me.” He flung his arm around my neck and used me as a lever to hoist himself up.
We shambled over to the barred window and held him upright as he summoned his bionic powers to break the bars. The effort was noticeably giving him a great deal of pain, but he managed to fashion a hole big enough for us to sneak out. I slid the cot against the wall, underneath the window, to provide a leg up in order for us to squeeze ourselves through the narrow opening. I insisted upon Steve going ahead of me in case he needed assistance.
We managed to make a clean getaway across the garden, taking heed to avoid the surveillance cameras. We stopped at an electrified fence that Steve was quick to tear open. That last bionic feat caused excruciating pain. He clutched his stomach and slumped to his knees. I took a firm hold of his body and helped him teeter back to his feet.
“Come on, Steve! Just a couple of more steps. Vincent’s waiting for us down the road.”
He managed to slouch a few feet before he crumbled into my arms. “I…I can’t,” he gasped, his eyes rolling back into his head.
“Steve!” I slapped him on the cheek. “Stay with me now. Come on! You have to help me. I can’t carry you.”
He nodded feebly and we pressed on to the car. Vincent gave me a hand in getting the ailing man into the back seat. I sat next to Steve and removed his wig to retrieve the microfilm that I tucked inside my bracelet. I then gently leaned his head on my shoulder. “Vincent, drive to the nearest hospital.”
“No!” Steve whispered feverishly.
I wrapped my arm around his shoulder and stroked his flushed cheek. “We don’t have a choice, Steve. If you don’t get medical attention now, you’re liable to die.” I ran my hand across his forehead glistening with sweat. “Step on it, Vince!”
At the hospital, Steve experienced a paroxysm of pain, causing him to lose consciousness. The attending doctor concluded to a likely perforation and ordered the patient to be prep for emergency surgery.
While Vincent was on the phone with Oscar, I brought Dr. Evans aside to swear her to secrecy prior to divulging Steve’s special nature.
After giving Vincent the microfilm, I settled in the waiting room for what I was told could be a long a delicate surgery,
In the meantime at McKellen’s mansion, Steel and Adrian returned empty-handed. McKellen was fuming. He ordered Hugh and Adrian to go down to the basement to shoot us. Much to their surprise, we had long fled the coop.
They combed every inch or the house, raked every yard of the property until they discovered the tear in the fence through which we escaped.
“They’d have to be dead! No one can survive a half of million volts!” Steel exclaimed.
“What I can’t understand is why the security system didn’t sound the alarm?” McKellen railed.
“You’ll have to speak to John about that.”
“I’m not even going to bother. You get rid of him. I suspect he’s one of them.”
“All right. What do we do about the painting? The heiress still has it in her possession.”
“The heiress, my foot! Perhaps she doesn’t know about the concealed diamonds.” He took a deep breath. “Have her hotel staked out. Follow her every move. Let’s hope she does bring the painting back to the States and then we’ll proceed according to plans,” he said, an evil grin crossing his face.
“Are you sure it’s wise? If she and her partner are indeed undercover agents, it’s likely they know what’s in it.”
“Time is running out, you’ve said it yourself. I’m open to alternate suggestions”
“Let me think of something.”
“Go do your job.”
Nearly five hours had worn on and I remained without news. I stood up to gave my legs a stretch. I walked to the coffee dispenser where I met with Rudy.
“Rudy!” We hugged.
“How did you know where to find me?”
“Oscar told me after he received Vincent’s call. How’s Steve?”
“He’s still in surgery.” I sighed heavily, putting my hand over my eyes. “The doctor fears it could be a peritonitis.”
Rudy’s eyes widened in horror. “It’s that bad?”
I nodded ruefully.
“I knew I should have given him a complete physical assessment before he left on this mission.”
“He told the hotel doctor he’s had those pains for a week.”
“He was scheduled for a check-up a day before he was to leave on this mission but he never showed up. I should have been more insistant,” he chided himself, angrily stamping his foot.
“It’s not your fault, Rudy,” I said soothingly, running my hand up and down his back. “If anyone’s to blame it’s me. The doctor urged me to have him admitted for an endoscopy but on account of Steve’s nature, I told him we’d wait for you. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the fool hadn’t gotten of bed and followed me.”
Rudy chuckled. “I thought you knew him well by now?”
When I spotted Dr. Evans walking up to us, I clasped Rudy’s arm and we both met her halfway. He rdrained expression inclined us to believe the worse. She took a lungful and slowly heaved out her answer. “He’s going to make it.”
A ripple of relief ran through the emotionally-charged room
“There was a slight perforation in the stomach wall but we closed it just in time before gastric acid spilled into the abdominal cavity. There was some but not nearly enough to cause irreversible damage. Aside from having a sore belly for a few days, he’ll be just fine.”
“Thank you Doctor Evans.” I gave her a heartfelt handclasp before turning to Rudy. “Doctor Evans, this is Doctor Rudy Wells, Mister Austin’s personal physician.”
The two exchanged a handshake. “Doctor Wells, I’ve heard a lot about your work,” she said, looking at me.
“Yes I expect you did. I’d like to discuss the matter with you in private.”
“Of course. We can go into my office.”
“Excuse me Doctor, can I see Steve?”
“Sure. He’s in room 278, down the hall to your left. Please try not to wake him. He needs plenty of rest.”
“You go. I’ll join you in a minute,” Rudy said.
I went down to Steve’s dimlit room where two young nurses, Stefanie Marleau and Susanna Lavin were buzzing around Steve’s bed, checking the IV drip, the oxygen intake and making sure the patient was resting in a comfortable position.
“Bonjour!” Susanna said in a subdued voice upon seeing me padding up to the bed.
“Bonjour,” I whispered back.
“Vous êtes sa femme?” (Are you his wife?)
“Non. Je ne suis qu’une bonne amie, sa compagne de travail.” (No. I’m only his partner and a good friend.)
“Si quelqu’un m’avait dit qu’un jour je soignerais Steve Austin, le fameux astronaute américain, je lui aurais rit au nez. Les chances qu’il soit à Monaco et admis dans cet hôpital sont de une sur un million,” (If someone had said to me that I’d be nursing the famous American astronaut Steve Austin, I would have laughed in his face. What are the chances that he should he in Monaco and admitted to this very hospital? I say they are one in a million.) Stefanie mused, gazing at him sleep.
“Comment est-il? Je parle de sa personnalité?” (What’s he like? His personality, I mean?) Susanna asked with eyes shining with eager expectation.
When I glanced down at Steve, I detected a tiny flinch. I flashed an amused smile, knowing the sly devil was conscious and listening in on our conversation. In the last two years that we’ve known each other I had taught him a few words in French, and I suspected he had learned enough to understand what we were saying. Therefore I decided to have a bit of fun at his expense.
“Ah, il est très têtu. Une vraie mule.” I affected. “A un tel point qu’il en est même arrogant. Vous dites blanc, il dit noir. Il faut que les choses soient faites selon ses desirs.” (He’s stubborn. A real mule. He can be rightdown arrogant. You say white, he says black. Things have to be done the way he wants them to be.) I glanced at the patient to gauge his reaction.
“Vraiment?” (Really?) Stefanie exclaimed, stunned by the bold answer she never anticipated.
“Oh oui! Il est plutôt difficile de travailler avec lui, mais que faut-il y faire? Il est comme ça. Nous le prenons tel qu’il est. (It’s rather difficult to work with him. But what can you do? That’s the way he is. So we bear and grin it.)
Stefanie and Susanna looked at each other in astonishment. They hid their deception behind a crooked smile.
“Je ne l’aurais jamais imaginé ainsi,” (I never would have imagined this of him.) Susanna admitted, her cherished hope of a knight in shining armour dashed by my bluntness.
“Croyez moi, ce n’est pas un enfant de choeur.” (Believe me, he’s no angel.)
“C’est dommage. Cela n’empêche pas qu’il est très séduisant.” (It’s a shame. Nevertheless, he’s gorgeous.)
“Oh oui, il a au moins ça pour lui.” (Oh yes, he’s got at least that going for him) I stifled a laugh at Steve’s reaction. No matter how he sinewed to contain it, a weak smug tugged at his lips. There was no doubt he understood every word we said.
“Nous allons vous laisser et revenir dans environ quinze minutes,” (We’ll leave you now and return in about fifteen minutes) Susanna said.
“Merci.” (Thank you.)
As both nurses quietly slipped out of the room, I pulled a chair over next to the bed and sat, staring at Steve with a Cheshire-cat grin hanging on my ears. I patiently waited for the first words to drawl out of his mouth.
“That was cruel,” he mumbled.
“Well! Look who’s been eavesdropping,” I teased.
His eyelids fluttered as he tried to pry them open. “Admit it, you’re eliminating the competition so you can have me for yourself,” he ribbed with a strangled voice barely above a whisper.
“Dream on!” I guffawed.
“You’re giving me a bad name.” He winked feebly.
I tapped him on the hand and leaned in closer. “Speaking of bad, how you feeling?”
He swallowed hard, bobbing his head slightly to get the saliva down. His eyes roved around the room as his mind searched for his last vivid recollection of the events. “I’m in a hospital?”
“I went under the knife, didn’t I?
“Yeah and just in the nick of time.”
He heaved a shuddering breath and shut his eyes in despair. “It’s safe to assume that because of me, the mission is a failure?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Isn’t it obvious? McKellen is on to us.”
“Maybe, but we still have his precious diamonds in our possession.”
“What can we do about it now?”
“Not us. You remember QT and M? Our look-alikes?”
“Oscar has asked them to assume our identities and carry out the rest of the plan. They’re flying in from Washington where they’ll meet with Karen Prince who has the painting well hidden.
“They’re taking an awful big risk.”
“Hey, that’s the business. But Oscar’s arranged for undercover agents to watch their backs at all time. They won’t be alone, unlike us.”
“McKellen won’t go for it. He knows he’s being watched.”
“Well, that’s no longer our concern. I gave Vincent the microfilm. He’s on his way to Washington to hand-deliver it to Oscar. Whether or not his men follow our doubles to the States, the gouvernment will dismantle the network. So you see, despite your foolishness, we might catch this guy after all.”
Steve took my hand and flashed an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry.”
I leaned back in my chair, my gaze turning to his hand holding mine. “Steve, can you answer me a question?”
“That all depends.”
I locked stares with him. “What was it that you saw at the gallery that troubled you so?”
He lowered his stare. “You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
“I already know you are, so what else is new?” I teased.
His smile was washed over by a frightful expression. He gulped, licked his parched lips and took a deep breath. “I thought I saw my mother.”
I leaned forward with a frown, placing a concerned hand on his shoulder. “What?”
“I swear she looked just like her,” he said in a voice broken with tiny sobs.
“I believe you.” My heart went out to him. He appeared like a lost child, the same terrorized expression he wore months after his mother’s death. He was driving the car when he felt a sudden spasm in his bionic arm that caused him to veer off the road and crash head on into a tree. I feared my question might have aroused the guilt he’s worked so hard at repressing.
“I don’t want to go down that road again, Cassie.”
“You won’t,” I assured, rubbing my hand up and down his arm for emphasis. “Remember, you’re not alone.”
He nodded and strained a smile. “Are you going back to Washington with the others?”
“Absolutely not! You promised to take me sightseeing. I’ve never been to Monaco before but you have.”
“Ah yes. I came here with a special lady,” he mused. “She was enchantingly beautiful: kind, sweet, loving…she showered me with attention,” he went on to rave, occasionally glancing my way to gauge my reaction.
“Why Steve Austin! You wouldn’t be trying to make me jealous?”
“Is it working?”
“Not one bit!” I chortled. “I know for a fact that the only woman you brought here was your mother.”
“Oh, right,” he said with a crooked smile and eyes rolling in embarrassment.
“Besides, we women know we can’t possibly compete with Helen.”
“Some of you can hold your own,” he remarked with an elfish wink.
“Flattery won’t get you anywhere, mister,” I chaffed.
He sighed and closed his eyes. “You’re a hard one to crack.”
“You’d better not forget it.”
He answered with a moan. I leaned in closer and kissed him on the forehead. “Get some rest. I’ll be back later.” I noted the smug flickering on his lips. “Wipe that smirk off your face! That’s all you’re getting!”