Heading into Monday evening’s cold darkness, Sam turned left to start the walk home. He liked the exercise as long as it wasn’t raining. Shifting his briefcase to the other hand, he looked up in surprise as he nearly bumped into Colin Riley, who looked just as surprised as Sam.
“Dr. Altair.” Riley blinked, but recovered before Sam. “I was just on my way to see you.”
“You were?” Sam was first astonished, then confused. “I thought you were at a conference.”
Riley shrugged. “Plans changed. Do you have some time to spare? My flat is nearby, I can offer you some tea.”
Sam didn’t bother to hide his bewilderment. “Why? What would you possibly want to discuss?”
The wind whipped Riley’s coat open and he pulled it closed, his lips tightening. “I have a proposition, sir. I won’t pretend that I’m not reluctant to pursue this, but its importance is greater than my pride.” He held out a gloved hand. “Please. I assure you, it’s quite important. An hour of your time, at most.”
Feeling like Alice–curiouser and curiouser–Sam reluctantly agreed and walked with Riley the five blocks to his flat. Riley offered no further conversation and Sam could think of nothing to say himself.
Unlike his office, Riley’s apartment was neat and clean. It was sparsely furnished with heavy Victorian pieces over a dark rug. The electric lights were dim, and the fire that Riley lit added welcome light and warmth to the room.
Riley was solicitous and anxious, hanging Sam’s coat and hat on a rack, and setting the water to boil after he got the fire going. He brought out some small sandwiches, “to cut your appetite, since you’re postponing your dinner.” Sam ate a couple, sipping tea as Riley brought out several sheets of paper and sat in the chair opposite Sam.
“So what’s up, Dr. Riley?” Sam asked. “Are we declaring a truce?”
Riley regarded him, fingers tapping his mustache before smoothing out the papers on his lap. He seemed disturbed and his nervousness had increased.
“I’ve decided I must ask for one,” he said at last, and an eyebrow rose. “I am not giving up, sir, but for the moment, I feel we must work together.” He held up the sheets. “I’d like to talk about your paper on sound waves. Your team just published it in Science.”
They talked for a while. Riley asked several observant questions. Sam began to enjoy the exchange, hoping that Riley might be coming around. He ate and drank more–they both did–and he decided he’d skip dinner, realizing at one point that Casey and Mrs. Pennyworth were expecting him and that he had not called. He would ask to use Riley’s phone before he left. In the meantime, he did ask to use Riley’s water closet, and he headed for the door Riley pointed out.
It was the last thing he remembered.
Sam woke, aware of raw pain across his cheek, and a sickening, disorienting dizziness. The ground was moving, he realized groggily, scraping his face as it went by. His head felt too heavy to lift. He tried to move his arms to help, but couldn’t seem to find them. He moaned, and the ground became blessedly still. He swallowed against the nausea that rose up, taking a deep breath, willing the dizziness to stop. Where was he? What was happening?
Something moved beside him and he knew it was Riley. A hand grabbed his hair and pulled his head back, then dropped it back to the ground. The rough movement caused stars to explode and abruptly he was sick, unable to move away. The figure was gone, and Sam heard noises but had no reference for them. There was a bang behind him, then he was moving again. This time he could feel Riley’s hands on his legs, pulling him along. He realized that his legs and arms were tied. What the hell was Riley doing? Had he gone completely crackers?
He was dragged over a threshold and left on the floor, watching Riley’s legs move past him. The door closed, plunging the room into darkness. He took a slow breath, trying to banish the panic filling him. Think, damn it, he told himself. Stay calm.
He heard footsteps. Light pierced his eyes as Riley lit a lantern. Pain shot through his head and he was almost sick again. Had Riley hit him over the head? Did he have a concussion?
“What’s happening?” he managed to ask. He could barely hear himself, but Riley, who was walking around out of his sight, answered readily enough.
“Oh, it’s easy enough to figure out, Altair. I tried to stop you, using civil means. But I haven’t had any success that way. I have to stop you. You know I have to.”
Sam waited for more information, but Riley had gone silent. He was still walking around though and Sam tried unsuccessfully to move, to somehow roll onto his side or raise his head. “Damn it, Riley! Untie me. We can talk about this. What are you going to do? Kill me?”
He thought the idea was farfetched, but the footsteps approached him and Riley knelt down at his head. Sam blinked and tried to focus up at Riley’s face.
“Yes, Sam. I’m going to kill you.” He might have been discussing the weather, or an unimportant physics problem. “More precisely, I’m going to arrange circumstances so that you have an accident.” He stood and Sam stared at the shoes in front of his eyes. When Riley spoke again, his voice was sad. “I like you, Sam. I wish you had been more reasonable, more willing to cooperate.” He sounded as if he wanted to say more, but instead, he sighed and moved away again.
“They’ll find you, Riley. You won’t get away with it. Don’t destroy your life because of this.”
Riley laughed. “Give me some credit for intelligence, Altair. I may not be capable of committing the perfect crime, but I can come awfully close. As far as everyone knows, I’m out of town. Even you thought so.”
A shudder passed through Sam as nausea and despair washed over him. He groaned and waited for it to pass. “Did you hit me? What’s wrong with me?”
“Chloral hydrate and antimony. You may feel so bad that death will be welcome.”
A sob escaped Sam as he moved his head against the floor. So damned helpless! “You accuse me of being insane! Jesus, Riley, don’t do this.”
There was no answer but after a long minute, Sam felt hands on his legs. “Hold still,” Riley instructed, “I’m cutting this rope.”
“Thank you,” Sam gasped at the relief flooding him, his face covered in tears.
“Oh, don’t thank me.” The rope fell away, but Sam felt too weak to move. He concentrated on his legs, trying to will them under him, then screamed in pain and terror as something large and heavy crashed over them. Smaller items showered around him, striking his head and upper body. He screamed again, as much in frustration and betrayal as in pain. He couldn’t see what had fallen on him, but he could see the outline of books lying near him.
Riley was moving faster now and Sam became peripherally aware of a dangerous smell. The rope holding his arms came away and Riley knelt again by his head. “I’m sorry, Altair,” he whispered. “I really am. Stay still. Breathe the smoke and you’ll die easier. I’d rather you didn’t suffer.”
Sam could hear the crackle of flames somewhere behind him, and already smoke was drifting through the room. The door opened and closed as Riley left, the added oxygen causing a whoosh of flames that Sam saw reflected on the floor in front of him. Shaking with effort, he got his arms under him and pushed against the floor. It felt as if he were fighting the weight of the universe. He nearly blacked out with the effort. He paused, sobbing again as he realized he hadn’t moved an inch. He could not move his legs at all.
Do it, Sam. Get up! He kept repeating it to himself, sick with the knowledge that no one knew where he was, that the only way out was through his own efforts. Nausea and pain battled his attempts, but he kept going. Push. Finally, he’d raised his head and upper body a few inches. Arms shaking with weakness, he turned his head.
The back of the room was in flames. A large bookcase covered his lower body, preventing his movement as efficiently as the rope had. He couldn’t even turn over. Facing forward again, he tried to drag himself free, pulling with his arms against the floor. He soon stopped in breathlessness and exhaustion. He was low enough to the ground that the smoke was not hindering him much, but he felt it with each breath. His eyes were streaming with tears as he looked up, desperately searching for something to help him.
A support beam rose from the floor a few feet from his head. He reached, arms shaking violently. He groaned as his fingers only grazed the wood. He stretched again, then collapsed as violent pain caused him to vomit, his stomach furious at the tortured movement. In the brief respite from pain, Sam reached again, stretching as far as he could, farther…
His fingers gripped the edge of the beam. He exhaled, breathing in and coughing as hot smoke burned his throat. Was it his imagination or could he really feel blisters breaking out on his skin? More of his fingers went around the beam and he began pulling himself, bit by bit, trying to get closer. It seemed to take forever, every inch filled with pain, his body bathed in sweat. Occasionally, he saw a spark flash onto the wooden floor near him. A few sparks settled into the wood, gaining brightness. The heat had become intense. He focused on his task, ignoring the flames and the smoke.
He thought his back would break with the effort, but suddenly, he felt his whole body move. Crying with relief, he got a solid grip on the beam and pulled again. Now he could wriggle his legs and he frantically moved from side to side, inching forward a little more with each wriggle, the movement filling him with swirling blackness that nearly knocked him out again.
When he could move a knee, he began going faster, swimming out from under the heavy case, coughing violently as he tried to breathe with his effort. He kept going forward, past the beam, keeping his head down, but where was the door? In front of him, somewhere.
The room was filled with smoke, but it was fractionally cooler farther from the fire. He was at the wall and raised himself enough to feel along it, looking for the doorjamb or a crack.
There. Almost directly in front of him. Pulling his coat up to cover his mouth, Sam went to his knees, reaching for the doorknob. It took his last strength to get the door open and fall through it. He took a breath of blessed fresh air, then was sick again, vomiting weakly into the grass, blacking out as pain knotted his stomach and dizziness swirled around him.
He could breathe. That was the first thing he noticed. The second thing was the absence of nausea, then the press of a hand holding his. Opening his eyes abruptly, he stared at the white ceiling over his head. He heard a gasp and turned his head slowly to see Gladys Pennyworth smiling down at him. Her round, practical face had never looked so precious before.
Casey appeared at Mrs. Pennyworth’s side, her face splotched from crying, but with a big smile beaming at him. He felt a twitch at the corners of his mouth.
“Finally waiting on me,” he tried to say, but his voice was thready and cracked. He stopped to cough.
Mrs. Pennyworth bent down and kissed his forehead gently. “Now then,” she said, and he had the feeling she was addressing Casey, “ye see what has to happen to get him to not talk so much.”
Casey laughed, reaching to squeeze his arm. “I’m going to tell Tom you’re awake. We’ll give you two a few minutes.”
Sam turned his eyes back to Mrs. Pennyworth to see that she was picking up a glass of water with a straw. That sounded like the best idea in the world, and he let her put the straw in his mouth. He pulled the water in with strong gulps and coughed again.
She put the glass back and he reached up to wipe the tears from her face. “Hey,” he said, his voice a little clearer this time, “it sure is good to see you.” He didn’t know what his injuries were, but he sat up, ignoring the pain, and took her into his arms while she cried.
“I’ve never been so scared in all my life, Sam Altair,” she told him, voice muffled in his chest. “We didn’t know where ye were and then the hospital called…” She raised her head to look at him, touching his face. “But ye’ll be all right. That’s what the doctor says and I believe him. We’ll bring ye home and I’ll take care of ye.”
He smiled at her. “I can’t think of anything I’d enjoy more,” he said, then kissed her tenderly.
“You were in a deserted farmhouse outside of town,” Tom told him later that day, after Mrs. Pennyworth had returned home to pick up a few personal items for Sam. Casey sat in a chair next to Tom, legs pulled up against her as she rested her chin on her knees and gazed at Sam. “A passing farmer on his way home from the pub saw the flames. He was sober enough to pull you out of harm’s way and get help to put out the fire. They brought you to the hospital here, but you were unconscious for an entire day. We looked everywhere for you, but didn’t check with this hospital.” He leaned forward and whispered, “You’ll have noticed it’s a Catholic one” his eyes indicating the crucifix on the wall. Sam grimaced. He’d noticed. The nurses were nuns.
Tom leaned back. “Anyway, you came to enough to give them your name and have them call us, but it’s been another day while you’ve been drifting in and out of consciousness. You’re red as a lobster and blistered along your back. Your legs are black and blue and you’ve been throwing up like there’s no tomorrow. You’re lucky to have missed most of it. And that, sir, is all we know.” His eyebrows went up. “We’re hoping you can fill us in.”
Sam did, to the best of his ability, enduring their shocked interruptions and increasing horror.
Tom finally broke in. “You’ll have to talk to the police.”
Sam nodded, but looked uncertain. “What about Riley’s alibi? He’s right, even I thought he was out of town.”
“Well he wasn’t, was he?” Casey asked rhetorically. “Even if he left, he came back and then left again. Someone had to see him. Or maybe find out when he checked into his hotel.” She bounced her chin on her knees as she thought. “Is it too early for fingerprints?”
“I’m afraid so,” Sam told her.
Tom shook his head. “Not our problem. Talk to the police and let them handle it. They’ll take it from there.”
Since Riley’s conference was in Paris, the Belfast police could not do much to question him. They could not find anyone in town who had seen him on the day Sam was attacked. The university said that Riley had planned on staying in Paris for a few months, so they bided their time. Sam went home and settled down to recover from his ordeal. This was not as easy as he would have thought.
“Guess I’m too old for this sort of thing,” he joked to Casey as she brought him lunch a couple of days after he got home. He had tried to eat with them in the dining room, but his legs weren’t working well enough and he was just too tired. She positioned his tray and sat on the edge of the bed, smiling at him.
“You probably are,” she teased him. “Too old for what, exactly?”
He sighed. “You just wait, dear. One day, you’ll look back and realize that you used to bounce right back after injuries or illnesses. And you’ll wonder why you don’t bounce like that anymore.”
He took a moment to look her over while she laughed. When they’d first met, she’d been practically a child, smart, but light-hearted and hopeful, despite the circumstances. They’d only been here five years, but she had matured far in excess of that time. She still looked like a child. She could pass for eighteen rather than the twenty-five years she was. Except, there was a seriousness that made one pause and re-evaluate her age. Was it due to motherhood? Responsibility? The strain of fear that she carried within her, for all of them?
He sipped his soup and tried to banish morbid thoughts. Casey was fine. The public support she’d received since Tom’s letter was published had heartened her considerably. She was working, unofficially, with the Horticultural Society again, and was a popular figure at ladies’ teas. Where, she often said, they usually managed to solve the world’s crises before the pudding. Quite satisfactorily, too.