* * *
Outside the farmhouse, the sun was just rising over the crest of the hills in the distance, its weak amber rays filtering through the trees.
Giorgio Cattoretti was sitting in the back seat of a black government-issued Ford sedan. The car belonged to the Secret Service agent who went by the code name of DUSTY. The vehicle was parked in the grass well off the side of the road, about a hundred yards from the farmhouse front gate, hidden by trees and shrubbery so that it could not be seen by approaching traffic.
DUSTY was slumped in the driver's seat, dazed from the blow he'd taken to the back of the head. His wrists were bound to the steering wheel with a thick white plastic tie-wrap.
The face gazing at him through the rearview mirror was truly terrifying. The man had a black patch over one eye, and the other eye--dark brown and staring steadily back at him--radiated a keen, scintillating intelligence.
"Is Elaine Brogan inside the house?" the man asked, speaking in an eerily calm tone.
DUSTY did not answer.
He felt the barrel of his own gun press harder into the back of his neck.
"Is it really worth it?" the man said. "To die for the sake of protecting a fellow agent's family? I know you're prepared to take a bullet for the President of the United States, but to give your life to protect some random coworker at your own pay grade--does that make sense to you?"
DUSTY did not respond. He wished there was something he could do, but he could not think of anything except trying to slam his head into the steering wheel to honk the horn, but the man had already warned against that. Everything had happened so fast. He had heard a noise and had gotten out of the car to investigate...he'd been tired, his shift was almost over...
"DUSTY?" Luna's voice broke in, tinny and distant. "The phone line inside the house is dead."
The tiny speaker had been yanked from his ear and lay on the back of the seat so that the criminal holding him hostage could hear. The man had also yanked the microphone and talk button out of DUSTY's collar and sleeve and he was now in control of it.
The man said into his ear, "Tell her you just found out that some phone company repairmen are working down the road, that the line will be reconnected in a few minutes."
"DUSTY?" Luna repeated, sounding concerned. "Are you there?" Then, in an even more stressed tone: "DAMIEN, do you copy? DUSTY, DAMIEN--please respond immediately."
DAMIEN would find it difficult to respond. He was bound and gagged, locked in the trunk of his own Ford sedan behind the farmhouse.
"Tell her!" the man ordered, jabbing the gun barrel into the back of DUSTY's neck. "And if you utter even one more syllable, one of your secret code words to signal an emergency, you're dead. Is that clear?"" He keyed the microphone button to open the connection.
DUSTY cleared his throat. "The phone company is working on some lines down the street, I just talked to them. They say all the lines will be reconnected in a few minutes."
"Very good," the man said, and seemed to relax again. "Now I want to know--who arrived in the taxi a few minutes ago? Was it Elaine Brogan, or someone else?"
All hell had broken loose inside the farmhouse.
"Move, move, move!" Luna shouted, waving her gun at the door in the kitchen that led down into the safe room.
Tony stared at her, wide-eyed, a crying Amelia in his arms. Luna had just thrown Lexy face down on the floor and was roughly binding the girl's wrists together with a tie wrap.
"I didn't do anything!" Lexy screamed.
"Get down into the safe room!" Luna told Tony again, as she yanked Lexy to her feet.
"You can't treat me like this. I--"
"Come on, let's go," Tony said to Ryan, who was standing there with his mouth agape, looking shell shocked, the toy fire truck clutched in his hand. Luna opened the cellar door and they went down the stairs single file, Luna keeping a firm grip on Lexy's arm.
"Why are we going down here?" Ryan said in a small, frightened voice.
Nobody answered him. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Luna stepped forward and flicked on the light switch, still holding Lexy's arm tight. She glanced around nervously, her gun in her left hand, and quickly keyed the code into the lock on the safe room door. There was a beep and the heavy steel panel slid open. They all filed inside. Luna quickly pressed the big red button and the door closed again with a resounding thump, the deadbolts snapping into place. Partially relieved, she glanced up at the video monitors.
All was still--she saw no movement from the cameras anywhere in the house.
"You and the kids sit over there," she told Tony, pointing to the farthest spot from the door. The room was long and narrow, with a cushioned bench almost as wide as a single bed that ran along the wall opposite all the flat screen monitors. Amelia was wailing and Luna almost had to shout to be heard.
She turned to Lexy, pulling another tie wrap from the pocket of her jogging suit. "Put your feet together."
"I can do whatever the hell I want!" Luna barked, and in a flash, she put all her weight down on the girl's torso and bound her ankles together.
"But I did not do anything!"
Luna pointed at her. "You showed up here and a half hour later the phone line went dead!"
Luna glanced up at the monitors again, telling herself she had to keep calm and keep her wits about her. There was still no movement visible on any of the screens.
"I have nothing to do with the phone line being dead," Lexy said. "It must be a coincidence."
"I don't believe in coincidences," Luna said darkly. She glanced over at the baby--Amelia was wailing even louder now. "Tony...?"
He was still carrying the bottle and touched it to the infant's lips. The child calmed down and began feeding.
"Is a bad man trying to get us?" Ryan said, staring up at the monitors, his face pasty with fear.
"You don't-a worry," Tony said reassuringly, putting his arm around the small boy. "Nobody can get in-a here."
Luna only now realized she had not heard a peep this morning out of Romeo and Juliet, the guard dogs. They were kept inside the back yard. Tony always fed them right after he finished making breakfast for everyone else, and usually there was a little barking from them by the time everyone had gotten up.
Luna pressed the button on the console to switch between several of the cameras attached to the rock wall in the back yard.
She hesitated when she saw what looked like an oval pool of black in the grass near the farthest wall. One of the dogs, dead or unconscious. She quickly pushed the button again before Ryan could glimpse the image, but what the next camera showed was far more frightening.
A dark figure had just entered the kitchen.
And it was not DUSTY or DAMIEN.
Staying low, holding a pistol in front of him, he crept forward, glancing around the kitchen, and then he looked up, straight into the camera.
Lexy let out a little shriek.
The man's swarthy face was cold and expressionless. Luna saw the black patch over one eye as he moved even closer to the camera. He raised the gun and pointed it at the lens.
There was a flash of light on the screen, and a faint pop echoed through the thick steel walls of the safe room.
The image on the monitor went blank.
* * *
Luna stood at the safe room console with her eyes fixed to the displays, switching between cameras as the man--who she now knew was Giorgio Cattoretti, the man who Elaine had been after in Russia, and the one Elaine feared would show up here and try to harm her family--methodically went through the house, room by room, searching them and shooting out the cameras.
He doesn't know about the safe room, Luna thought, trying to reassure herself. But it would not be long before he came down into the cellar.
Luna's mind raced as she tried to decide what to do. At this point she had no outside help whatsoever. She had to assume that, like the guard dogs, both DUSTY and DAMIEN had been incapacitated, or worse. She had known something was wrong when DUSTY told her that the phone company had temporarily cut the line--he would never have talked to strange men in a utility truck without informing her of it first.
And the local security service, the one that monitored the alarm systems, had also been diverted. Her orders from Raj were that if the security service were to call due to an alarm activation, she was to make up an excuse and give the password to satisfy them that nothing was wrong. Raj had told her that having a bumbling, amateur French rent-a-cop show up in the event of an attempted break in would only complicate matters. In such case, she and DUSTY and DAMIEN were to handle the perp on their own. If she needed backup, she was to call the emergency American consulate number in Marseilles and request additional agents.
Luna had considered calling the consulate for backup when she'd heard DUSTY's strange response, but at that moment she'd had no concrete evidence that anything was wrong. Only when she'd gathered everyone down inside the safe room and saw the dogs and Cattoretti himself on the monitors did she know for certain.
Now, with the landline dead and no signal for any of the mobile phones to pick up while inside this impenetrable steel box in the basement, she and Tony and Lexy and the kids were completely cut off from the world.
Luna withdrew Elaine's phone from her pocket, and then her own satellite phone, making absolutely sure neither one would pick up a signal, then squatted in front of a cabinet under the console and pulled out a Kevlar vest.
"What are you doing?" Tony said, watching her uneasily. Then his eyes focused back on the monitors.
Giorgio Cattoretti was walking back down the hallway on the second floor. Having checked every room on that level, he was heading back downstairs.
"I've got to go call for help."
"I've got to go call for help."
(To be continued tomorrow!)
Special thanks to Author Devika Fernando for pre-proofreading this post.