George Chesbro: The Cold Smell Of Sacred Stone

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George Chesbro The Cold Smell Of Sacred Stone
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    The Cold Smell Of Sacred Stone
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I transferred my gun to my left hand, arched my back, and stretched my right arm around into the entrance. I groped around on the floor until I felt the paint-stiffened edge of a tarpaulin. I wrapped my fingers around the canvas, began pulling the tarp into the elevator. I heard something tip over, and then there was the sharp, eye-watering smell of turpentine. Perfect.

"We're going to play a little game of chicken, Kitten," I said as I continued to haul the tarpaulin into the elevator. Finally my fingers touched what I had been hoping to find-a turpentine-soaked paint rag. "I presume to speak for my friend when I say I believe he'd rather lose his loft than his life. If you're not silhouetted in front of those windows in ten seconds, I'm going to set this place on fire. With all the wood, canvas, turpentine, and oil paint in there, it'll go up fast. But you're the only one who's not going to get out of here. The first glimpse I get of you, I'm going to put a bullet thr-"

I ducked away just as something whistled through the air, sliced through the front of my shirt, and planted itself in the wood siding of the elevator with a solid thunk. Shuriken. So much for the pleasant fantasy that I might be talking only to myself. Wherever Kitten was, he now had an angle on me. I crabbed sideways back into the corner of the elevator, groping in my pocket for the book of matches I always carried, since a cold day in Wisconsin years before when Garth's life and mine had depended on a single match I'd found in a grimy book at the back of the glove department of a car. Lying on my side in an attempt to make myself as small as possible, hoping I wasn't going to catch the next star-shaped blade in the throat, I put a match to the corner of the paint rag. Instantly, it burst into flames. I sucked in a deep breath, got to my feet, and dove for the opposite side of the elevator, hurling the flaming paint rag into the interior of the loft as I sailed past the opening. I landed on my shoulder and rolled over on my belly, crawled back to the entrance and cautiously peered around the corner.

The rag was burning brightly a few feet away from a support column, and from its epicenter tongues of flickering, blue-white flame were licking along in all directions on the surface of the tarpaulin, sending up plumes of black, foul-smelling smoke and stabbing fingers of light into the surrounding darkness. I estimated that in less than two minutes the interior of the loft would be a raging holocaust.

Chicken, indeed.

Assuming that the flickering light from the flames would be playing havoc with Kitten's night-vision goggles, I heaved the upper half of my body into the loft and used both hands to sweep my Beretta back and forth in front of me, ready to fire a fusillade of bullets into anything that moved that didn't have shoulder-length, gray-streaked yellow hair.

"All right, Frederickson!" It was the familiar, rich baritone of Henry Kitten, somewhere off to my left. I immediately swung my gun in that direction. He coughed, and then there was a thud as something heavy hit the floor. "That was my gun! Now I'm going over by the window!"

"No! Step out into the firelight where I can see you! I want to see your hands flat on top of your head, fingers laced together!"

A few moments later the looming figure of Henry Kitten, thick smoke swirling around his waist, appeared at the edge of the spreading circle of light from the flames. A pair of bulky night-vision goggles hung from a strap around his neck, and his hands were dutifully clasped on top of his head. Coughing, squinting against the acrid smoke, he slowly turned toward me.

"May I suggest you put out the fire, Frederickson?" the big man with the pale eyes said laconically. "It's getting a little close in here."

"I've got it, Mongo," Veil said easily as he suddenly appeared behind and to the right of Kitten, walking quickly through the firelight and smoke.

Whatever had happened before I'd arrived on the scene, Veil had obviously managed to get to his equipment box; nunchaku were draped around his neck, and he had two throwing knives stuck in the waistband of his jeans. His clothes, his face, and his hair were speckled with paint, which meant he'd done some rolling around on the floor, probably an instant or two after the lights had gone out. He disappeared behind the partition, emerged a few seconds later with a fire extinguisher braced under his right arm in its paint-stained sling. He pushed a lever on the extinguisher, aimed the nozzle with his free hand, and began pumping foam over the spreading flames. In less than a minute the flames were out, the swirling smoke caught in drafts and mercifully being sucked out of the loft through three open panels in the bank of windows. Throughout, I remained flat on my belly, gun aimed at the center of Kitten's barrel chest.

"Now back up to the window," I said as I got to my feet. "Take slow, easy steps. If I see anything but your feet moving, I'll put a bullet in your heart."

"Like I said up in Fort Lee, you can be a real pain in the ass, Frederickson." There was just the slightest trace of a smile on Henry Kitten's face as he slowly backed toward the ceiling-high bank of windows. "How the hell could you know I'd be here tonight?"

"I didn't; I just knew you'd show up eventually, despite what happened to your employer. You made that clear to me, remember?"

"Obviously I talked too much."

"I was coming down to talk to Veil about you. We seem to have arrived at about the same time."

"You showed up at a most inopportune time."

"I couldn't disagree more," Veil said dryly from somewhere behind me and off to my left. There was a faint click, and the beam of a powerful flashlight cut through the smoky air and moonlight, spotlighting the assassin's broad torso and head. Eddies of smoke still whirled around Kitten as he stood in front of the window, feet braced slightly apart. I might have been in hell, talking to the devil himself, and when I had to cough I made certain my right hand remained steady and I didn't blink. Kitten's moves, like Veil's, could be measured in milliseconds.

Veil propped the flashlight on a stiff fold of tarpaulin, then came over to stand beside me. "Thanks, Mongo," Veil continued as he studied the man caught in the beam of the flashlight. "I was in a bit of a spot there."

"You're welcome."

"Obviously, this is the guy you kept trying to warn me about."

"That's him," I replied tersely, backing away slowly while I kept my eyes on Kitten's face, which seemed remarkably impassive in the bright light. When I bumped up against a wall, I slid down it until I was sitting on the floor. I brought my knees up and rested my forearms on them so as to be able to keep a steady aim on Kitten's chest while making myself as small a target as possible. Even with my gun trained on him while he stood with his hands clasped on his head, I didn't intend to lose my concentration for a second.

Veil moved a few steps to his left, then leaned casually against a support column as he continued to study Henry Kitten. "Why did you come up here?" he asked easily as he hooked his left thumb into a pocket of his jeans. "You certainly don't look stupid, and Mongo tells me you're actually quite clever. It must have occurred to you that there were easier ways to try to kill me. Why didn't you just blow up the place, or pick me off out in the street?"

Henry Kitten's response was a shrug of his broad shoulders-a slight movement that almost cost him his life, since I was ready to pull the trigger at the least provocation. I'd seen the ninja assassin in action, and wasn't taking any chances; in my opinion, Veil still wasn't treating the other man with sufficient respect and seriousness.

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