by Brian K. Asbury
Edward Stacker surveyed the wreckage of his interrogation room. “What a mess! What a bloody confounded mess!” He looked around at the suited men standing behind him. “Call yourselves security? I’ve a good mind to have you posted to our Antarctic listening post! It’s about all you’re fit for!”
One of the suits, a big black man whose arm was being set in a sling by a paramedic, said, “Sorry, guv, but he took us completely by surprise. The early warning systems didn’t kick in for some reason, and–”
“Shut up. I don’t want to hear your pathetic excuses. And where was our number one line of defense? Well? Where is he?”
“I don’t know, guv’nor. Nobody’s seen him for a couple of hours.”
“Well, when I get hold of him…” growled Stacker. “Damn it, he was supposed to be here, watching our backs. Where could he…?”
The words trailed off as a strange figure suddenly appeared in the doorway. Richard Plante, in his Lionheart uniform but with the helmet tucked under his arm, strode through into the room, dripping dirty water.
He glared at Stacker. “Whatever it is you’re thinking of saying, forget it. I’m not in the mood!”
“What? Where?” Stacker was at a loss for words.
“I was chasing up a lead on Firebrand,” said Lionheart, “when the stupid naffing jets in this outfit failed on me — right smack over the middle of the river. And if anybody complains about the mess I’m making, they’re likely to get a smack in the mouth! OK?” He paused, taking in the carnage around him. “What the chuffing hell happened here?”
Stacker strode right up to him. “What happened? The Knight happened, that’s what happened! While you were joyriding around the skies, he rode in on that converted motorcycle of his, blew down the doors, waded through our security men as if they weren’t there, picked up Sheldrake, and carried him off!”
“The Knight?” said Lionheart. “On his own? Not with the rest of his team?” Stacker nodded. “One man made this mess?”
“That’s right. And the one man who could have stopped him wasn’t here!”
“I told you — I was chasing up a lead. How did he know where to find Sheldrake?”
“I don’t know. Any ideas?” said Stacker, fuming.
“Search me. But I told you this place wasn’t secure. Using a derelict supermarket as a base of operations! Ha!”
“Listen…” began Stacker.
“No. I told you — I’m not in the mood,” said Lionheart, wagging his finger under his chief’s nose. “I’m off for a bath and some dry clothes. Then I’m running this suit back to the labs. I think half the circuits blew out when it got soaked. What bloody good is that?”
“Well, as soon as it’s fixed, you can get back to Wordenshire Castle and do the job properly this time. I want no more screw-ups,” said Stacker.
“What did you say?” Stacker was close to apoplectic now.
“I said no. I got in there once, but we’ve tipped our hand. They’ll be ready for me if I try it again — and what’s more, they know it’s you who’s behind it now. Snatch Sheldrake, or Firebrand, or anyone else, and they’ll just come after you. You, mind, not me. Do you want that?”
“Er…” Stacker said, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable.
“And anyway, Firebrand isn’t there. My contact said she didn’t join the Paladins. She’s gone off on her own somewhere.” He leaned very close to Stacker. “Which means, guv’nor, that this has been a complete waste of time. So if you don’t mind, I have that appointment to keep with a bathtub!”
And he stalked off.
Stacker watched him go, his head reeling. Something wasn’t right here — something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. But whatever it was would have to wait. First he had to devise a new plan to get Firebrand back. And he also had to make sure none of this got back to the Minister. If it did, he was going to have a lot of explaining to do.