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18

The automobile bearing Fran Traynor, blindfolded, to her unknown destination slid smoothly to a stop. Throughout the ride, of which she remembered very little, she had been primarily conscious of the throbbing pain in her skull where Smalley had struck her, and of the moist, threatening palm that rested heavily on her right thigh.

But now the car had stopped, and the hot hand was withdrawn. She felt cool air upon her face as the doors opened on both sides, and the seat lurched as her unseen companions exited. Immediately, a hand was groping for her, fingertips trailing deliberately across the curve of one breast before locking onto her arm in a painful grip. Fran tried to pull away from that imprisoning hand, but there was nowhere to go, no place to hide.

She let herself be pulled from the car and led along a concrete drive, then over grass to another walkway.

"This way, babe," a male voice prodded from her left. "Watch your step."

She felt gingerly ahead of her with one foot, locating steps and taking them carefully, one at a time. She both heard and felt a door open in front of her, and then she was propelled through it, into the cool interior of a building. From the sounds and smells of the place, and the carpeting beneath her feet, she knew she was inside a house.

There were hands on both her arms now, guiding her left and right through what felt like a maze of corridors. Fran was becoming disoriented, cursing silently to herself as she realized that in her present condition, a simple living room filled with furniture could be made to feel like a winding labyrinth.

She recognized the feeling of a corridor, and had begun to count her paces when the guiding hands suddenly brought her up short, turning her sharply to the left. Keys rattled in a lock, and another door was opened for her, another hand shoving her inside.

Behind her head, blunt fingers tugged at the knot of her blindfold, and suddenly it came free, whisking across her face and disappearing behind her.

"Sit tight, doll," the leering voice said. "Maybe we can have some laughs later."

Fran half turned toward that voice, but the plain wooden door was already snapping closed, keys grating in the lock outside.

She stood there for a long moment, blinking her eyes to regain her full sense of sight. The room was dimly lit by a bare bulb overhead and was apparently without windows or other access to the world outside.

"Fran? Is that you?"

The lady cop whirled around, shocked by the sound of a familiar female voice close behind her. She was surprised to see the face of Toni Blancanales regarding her from a corner of the room.

The girl crossed quickly to her, taking one of Fran's cold hands in both of hers.

"Toni!" the lady cop blurted. "What are you doing here?"

Toni was red-eyed from crying, her face pale, hair disheveled.

"Some men came to my apartment," she began haltingly. "They had guns, and... and..."

The girl broke off, trembling slightly, and Fran slid a comforting arm around her slender shoulders, leading her back to the small couch that was the room's only furniture.

"Did they hurt you?" Fran asked, dreading the answer.

Toni looked up at her through tear-filled eyes, reading the implicit meaning of the officer's words.

"No, not the way you mean," she said, watching the relief flood into Fran's face. "They roughed me up a little. I fought them."

Fran looked closer now, and yes, she could make out a purple bruise along the curve of Toni's left cheek.

"Good," she said through gritted teeth.

"What's this all about, Fran?"

Fran Traynor hardly knew where to begin.

"It's a long story," she said at last, "and I don't have all of it yet. It's hard to believe."

"We're in danger, Fran," Toni said somberly. "I can feel it."

The lady cop nodded grimly. "I think we can expect the worst. If we get a chance to run, I say we take it."

Toni Blancanales seemed less frightened and shaky now that she was no longer alone.

"I have an idea why I'm here, Fran," she said softly. "But how did they get you? Why?"

Fran took a deep breath, and began relating the story of the morning's events, up through the disastrous meeting with Assistant Commissioner Smalley outside Calvary Cemetery. She left nothing out. For an instant she thought Toni brightened at the mention of the big fed, La Mancha, but the moment passed instantly, and Fran wrote it off as imagination resulting from stress.

"It was Smalley running interference all along," she said, summing up. "Probably with Jack Fawcett. I owe you one hell of an apology for being so blind, Toni."

Toni took her hand, no longer cold, and squeezed it tightly.

"Don't be silly," she said. "It isn't your fault at all. We're in this together."

And so they were.

The two women sat quietly together for several moments, discussing tentative escape plans in hushed tones, rejecting each in turn as too risky or too impractical. The interior of the room, as Fran had first thought, was windowless, with only the single door for entrance and exit. Aside from the moth-eaten sofa, the bare bulb overhead, and a few dated magazines scattered in one corner, the room and its adjoining bathroom had been expertly stripped of anything that might be converted for use as a weapon.

They were alone and unarmed, yes, and apparently defenseless.

While they were talking, a telephone jangled somewhere, several rooms away by the sound, and was quickly answered. Moments later, the women fell silent as heavy footsteps approached along the corridor outside.

The door swung inward to admit a hulking man in dark suit and sunglasses, a black .45 automatic held casually in his massive right hand. Behind him, other bodies blocked out the light from the corridor.

When the gunman spoke, Fran instantly recognized the voice of the gorilla who had fondled her thigh in the car.

"Time to go for a ride, ladies," he said, leering, and pausing for a wink at Fran. "Looks like we won't have time for laughs after all."

Fran took a look at the barrel of the .45, then glanced at Toni and back again at the gunman's eyes, invisible behind his shades.

And suddenly she wondered if there was any time left at all.


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