When Rudi swung open the garage's side door, a long spear of sunlight sliced through the dark room that caused its occupants to wince from sudden brightness.
He shoved Mack Bolan through the doorway.
A naked light bulb dangled in the middle of the dark room, casting a dim shadowy light, maybe 40 watts at most. But the small group of prisoners huddled around that pale light as if it were a blazing fire.
"Be good," Rudi said in a thick German accent, punctuating the threat by whomping his log into the wall of the garage. The room echoed with a loud thump. He laughed again and left the room. Bolan could hear the heavy iron bolt sliding into place on the other side of the door. Within a few seconds Bolan had identified all four of his fellow occupants.
"Are you all right?" asked Babette Pavlovski, the Czech gymnast. She took a few hesitant steps closer, but stopped at the edge of the bulb's curtain of light like someone at the edge of a dark and forbidden forest.
"Yeah. Thanks. How about you folks?" Bolan studied her. She was tall for a gymnast, nearly six feet, but all of it looked solid sinew. Her thin blond hair was pulled back into a tight bun, making her look older than the thirty years he guessed her to be. She wore a maroon running suit with white piping up the legs and sleeves; the suit was smudged with dirt and grime.
He noted how she moved with an animal's ease, as if she were in complete control of every muscle in her body.
"You must forgive the accommodations," she said ironically, "but our hosts are less than considerate." She pointed to a dark corner of the room where Bolan could barely make out the form of a small squat object. "That's the toilet. A plastic bucket with no lid. We share it. But don't worry, they empty it once a day."
A tall muscular young man with curly brown hair and a bushy mustache took a step toward Bolan. His voice was angry and mixed with fear.
Bolan recognized him as Udo Ganz, the German skier who had captured two golds in the Olympics six years before. "What are you?" Udo asked with a halting German accent.
"A sergeant in the United States Army."
"No, no," he shook his head impatiently.
"Your sport. What is your sport?"
A short, thin oriental man stepped directly beneath the hanging light bulb. He wore jeans and a black turtleneck sweater. Above his lip was a pencil thin slash of a mustache. Bolan could have recognized him without having been warned of his kidnapping: Mako Samata's martial arts studios were advertised all over Europe. "There is no practical use for football skills here," he said in a French accent, making the immediate assumption of Bolan's elective recreation.
"What do you mean, practical use?" Bolan asked. "What use do they have for you?"
The martial arts master released a sardonic laugh. "You will see soon enough, my friend."
"Don't mind him," Babette sighed. "He likes to play the inscrutable oriental. Too many Charlie Chan movies."
Bolan looked past the three of them at the burly man hunkered down on his heels, hugging his knees. He was just beyond the light, his face partially obscured. "What about him?" Bolan pointed.
"That's Clifford Barnes-Fenwick, the Welsh archer. A silver and a bronze." She lowered her voice. "Used to do trick shooting for a while." At that the silent man looked up and Bolan could see his haggard face. And the softball-size knob over his right eye. The bruise surrounding it was a nasty purple-yellow-black. But even worse was the nose, which looked as if it had been slammed by a locomotive. Most of it was pushed to one side at an impossible angle. Crusted blood clung to the edges. The injuries made it difficult to judge, but Bolan figured him to be near fifty, easily the oldest of the group.
"What happened to you?" Bolan asked him.
The big Welshman stared at Bolan a few seconds, then lowered his head back to his knees.
"That fat gorilla did it," Babette explained. "Cliff wouldn't do what they asked, so Rudi clubbed him with the log. You've seen the log?"
"What is it that they want you to do?" Bolan persisted.
"Hold it!" Udo Ganz interrupted. "We don't know anything about this man. He could be bad news."
The leggy blonde raised her eyebrows.
"What, a spy, Udo? For what purpose?"
Bolan cut in. "Maybe some introductions are in order. Then we can fill each other in on what the hell is going on around here. I'm Sergeant Edsel Grendal."
The others formally introduced themselves in turn, all except the Welsh archer who remained huddled at the edge of the light. Each recounted the details of their kidnapping experience.
He asked one more time. "What exactly do they want from you?"
"Knowledge," Mako said, his hands erupting in a series of expert lightning slashes.
"That's what we think, anyway," Babette qualified.
"All they make us do every day is to practice routines while they all stand around and watch. Mako, here has to do a sneaking through the woods routine, surprising two guards and disabling them for real with a couple of his fancy chops."
In the few moments he had been in the tiny garage, Bolan had noticed the icy teeth of the cold nipping at his skin. The temperature could be no more than a few degrees above freezing in this dark hovel. "How do they expect you to survive here?" he asked.
"They don't!" Udo barked, desperation in his voice. Bolan noted the man's creeping hysteria and filed away the information.
"They don't keep us in here all the time," the lady gymnast said. "We're only locked up when we aren't practicing. At night they allow us to sleep in a preheated cabin. By then the exercise and cold have worn us down even if we could escape, we wouldn't have the energy to go anywhere."
"Some of us, anyway," Mako said quietly.
The accusation hung tensely in the air. Udo's eyes widened with sudden anger. Then he pivoted away, turning his back to the three of them. Bolan realized that unless they were rescued qdickly, the abducted athletes might destroy each other and, forever, their chances for survival.
"What do they make you practice, Babette?" he asked.
"The balance beam. Nothing tricky, just running as fast as I can along a four-inch by twentyfoot wall that they have constructed. All I do is run back and forth along the edge, carrying a knapsack containing two bricks. Not terribly difficult."
"Maybe not for you," Bolan commented. "What do the others do?"
"Udo here skis a rather steep slope, carrying the same kind of knapsack with two bricks that I carry."
"It's a little more complicated than that," Udo interrupted, turning back to face them. "Not only must I navigate the steep slope, but I must also make a twenty-foot jump off a hidden ramp. Then, while I'm in mid air, I must drop the sack into the back of a truck that drives under me."
"Sounds difficult," Bolan said.
Babette smiled. "Not for one of the best skiers in the world." Udo Ganz shrugged modestly, obviously pleased. "At one time, maybe. But now... That..." He shrugged again.
"What about your silent friend?" Bolan nodded at Clifford Barnes-Fenwick, squatting several feet away from the others, still hugging his knees.
"They want him to practice a series of unusual archery shots. One from two hundred yards, and another in which he must fire off five bull's-eyes from thirty yards, but all within fifteen seconds."
"Sounds impossible. Is that why he refuses?"
Babette lowered her voice again, more out of respect than any possibility that he could not hear her. "No, Cliff can do the shots all right. But be retired last year from his trick-shooting career following, well, an accident. His fourteen-year-old son was killed. It wasn't Cliff's fault, he'd been away on tour. But his son and some friends were practicing tricks they had seen him do, and one of them accidentally shot an arrow into Cliff's son. After that, he quit his job and refused to pick up a bow again. These people have beaten him, but they don't want to hurt him to the point where he won't be able to shoot."
"I've got a feeling they may not be so careful next time." Bolan moved directly under the hanging bulb. He motioned the others to come closer. All except Clifford obliged.
"I can't go into details yet," he told them. "But I can guarantee that you'll soon have a chance to escape. What you make of that chance will be up to you."
"When does this "chance" take place," Mako asked, the skepticism thick in, his voice.
"Sometime over the next two days. That's the best I can do."
"Who are you?" Udo asked. "Army Intelligence?"
"Just a guy in the same tight spot that you're in. Now, you're going to hear me saying some things and see me doing some things that won't make you think I'm on your side. But I am. You have to believe that, no matter what happens. Everything depends on that. Do you understand?"
Before they could respond, the door was wrenched open and Rudi's mountainous frame stood in the doorway. Bright sunlight streaked around his body like white flames.
He stepped into the room, tapping his log into his open palm.
Tanya Morganslicht appeared behind him, her expression calm, her voice crisp and businesslike.
"We have decided to exploit you, Sergeant," she said to Bolan. "Welcome to the Zwiaing Horde."
"What exactly is my percentage of this deal?" Bolan asked immediately. "In dollars and cents."
Tanya allowed herself a small smile. "You have just come within an inch of horrible death, and all you can think about is your percentage. You amaze even me."
Bolan started toward the open door, but before he had taken a full step, Babette grabbed his arm and whirled him around. She slapped his face with stinging authority.
"You lying traitor!" she spat.
Tanya laughed. "Well, Sergeant Grendal, apparently your charms have their limitations after all."
"Yeah," Bolan said, rubbing his check. "Apparently."