Lanie stewed indignantly as she was tied to a chair. The small shack was dim and stuffy inside with the windows boarded over. A second chair was currently the prison of an unconscious handsome young bartender from the catering staff. Or perhaps not. From the conversation she had overheard, it seemed the bound and gagged man was another undercover officer. She would have to have words with Magnus about his keeping secrets from her. Assuming, of course, she ever saw him again.
Swallowing the panic rising within her, Lanie looked pleadingly at the matronly woman with the motherly smile holding the gun at her head.
"Gita, Please," she begged Hass’ housekeeper, "you don't have to do this!"
"Oh, I'm afraid I do, deary," the plump woman sighed. "Agnes was right, we can't have any loose ends tripping us up. I am sorry though. I've always liked you, Lanie love. Hopefully we can avoid the worst case scenario, hm? Just behave yourself so that the Dragon Lady doesn't have cause to breath her fire. I'll be honest, the woman scares the life out of me!"
"Then why did you let her talk you into this?" Lanie seized on the opening.
"Oh, no sweetie," the housekeeper said laughing. "This whole thing was my idea. I had to talk pretty quickly to get Agnes to help me."
"But why?" Lanie asked, perplexed. The domestic and the receptionist were the least likely co-conspirators she could imagine.
"Because we are tired of always being over looked!" her voice hardened. "Tired of scraping together enough to just get by, while little Lord New Money promotes pretty young things like yourself to positions of wealth and power. It's a rule of nature you best prepare yourself for my dear. Never mind that I almost singlehandedly run this estate, or that Agnes keeps his business secure, once a woman has the bad luck to fall onto the wrong side of forty, she may as well become invisible.”
Lanie could empathize with her captive. She was sure that it could not be easy, doing all the work and getting none of the reward. Still, while she wished things had been fairer to the ladies, their reaction was far too extreme.
”So you decided to steal from him to get back at him?” She asked, piecing it together.
“From him, from his clients, from the horrible guests he invites every year into the home I run... Can you honestly tell me you would weep to see some of those rich louses impoverished?”
”No...” she replied, thinking of the group of men surrounding her and Magnus last night, of Sonja and her horrible father. “But Gita, you killed someone!”
”That was unfortunate,” the housekeeper sighed. “Just as it will be unfortunate if we have to kill you or either of the policemen. But it couldn’t be helped. He caught me in the server room when I was bugging the mainframe. Agnes is sharp when it comes to cell phones - she’s gotten a wealth of information for us from the devices she confiscates - but she didn’t know about more complex computer systems. I had to come in to the city and do that part. I should have waited until everyone had cleared out, but I got impatient. I didn’t shoot you though, deary! And I could have. Should have, Agnes would say. I could have sworn you saw me where I was crouching behind the server tower. I had you in my sight, gun cocked and ready, but then you just turned away and ran.”
Lanie could not believe how casually this sweet old lady was talking about killing her! Really, she was beginning to think Gita was insane. Her suspicion was confirmed when the older woman began giggling like a school girl.
”You should be thanking me, really,” she told her. “If it wasn’t for me, you never would have met you strapping you long man! Oh, I know, we’re supposed to believe you just happened to meet him out at a bar the night after reporting the incident. But honestly, only a simpleton would accept that level of coincidence. You may have fooled Haas, but I never bought it for a moment. Tell me, deary, one girl to another, is he as good as he looks?”
Lanie gaped at her. She certainly wasn’t going to discuss her sex life while tied to a chair with a gun to her head!
”What happens to me now?” She asked instead, dreading the answer.
”Well, that depends on a few different things,” Gita said. “By the time the party breaks up tomorrow, Agnes and I should have all the personal and financial account information for everyone here. The security system that Eric has set up for the estate was quite difficult to hack into, but I managed it. So, once the funds are transferred from their accounts into ours, Agnes will be on a fast flight to a tropical island with no extradition treaty. If you stay where you are and don’t make any trouble, we will leave you be. Someone should find you eventually and untie you. If, however, you prove a nuisance, we will have no choice but to eliminate you. So be a good girl and behave!”
”Magnus will be looking for me,” Lanie said desperately, as the other woman began wrapping a scarf around her head, covering her mouth.
“Are you certain about that?” She asked, raising an eyebrow. “Last I heard he was about to fight a monster. I would doubt he will be up and about for a while, if he hasn’t already been taken to the hospital. Now, I have to go check on the guests. You just stay here and get some rest.”
With a parting smile, Agnes swept out of the room. To her horror, Lanie heard the noise of a padlock being snapped into place on the outside of the door. She was trapped.
Magnus woke to various levels of pain throughout his entire body. His head was the worst, of course, particularly around his jaw, but his ribs and his side were throbbing as well.
He lying down on a bed, and it seemed someone had tended to him. There was tight tape wrapped around his torso, and an ice pack was currently sitting on top of his eye. With a wince of pain, he made himself open his one good eye and slowly came to the realization that he was in the room that had originally been assigned to Lanie. Trying to remain as still as possible, he gingerly looked around the room, hoping for a sight of his girl. Surely her worried but bravely smiling face was the best medicine he could hope for. But instead of Lanie, he was greeted to an anxious looking Holly and a shifting Haas staring at him.
”You’re awake!” Holly gasped in relief, running over and just barely remembering his condition in time to awkwardly stop herself from hugging him.
”So it appears,” he mumbled, fighting against the pain. “Lanie? Where?”
”We were so worried when you passed out,” the girl said with false energy. “We didn’t know if you were seriously injured. Luckily, Erik had invited a boat load of doctors to this thing - well, they do make money after all! A couple of them, all female might I add, rushed over to examine you, and they agreed that most of your wounds appeared superficial. A couple bruised ribs and a mild concussion should be the worst of it.”
Magnus stared with his one eye at the babbling girl, trying to force his mind to work properly. Lanie was not here, and her friend was acting extremely unnatural. Something was wrong. An alarming spark of panic lit up in his chest.
“Lanie. Where?” He asked again, looking at Haas this time.”
”That’s just the problem, I’m afraid,” the other man looked truly upset. “We haven’t been able to find her since the fight ended.”
With a gasp that was half terror and half pain, Magnus pulled himself into a sitting position, tossing aside the ice pack that slid down his face.
“How long?” He growled, swinging his legs around to sit, clad in only his boxers which he was errantly thankful he had put on that day, on the side of the bed.
“A little over five hours,” Haas told him as Holly muffled a sob and turned away. “We looked for her when you collapsed, but she wasn’t there. Holly said she noticed her walking off during the bout.”
”I’m so sorry,” Holly choked out. “I should have stopped her. I figured she just didn’t want to see you get hurt and, well, who could blame her? It never occurred to me she would wander far or... or...”
The girl trailed off as Haas took her into his arms and tried to calm her down. As furious and horrified as Magnus felt he could hardly blame Holly. He himself had been attempting for over a week now to get Lanie to stay safe and she steadfastly refused to think of her own welfare. It was his job to protect her, not Holly’s. Anne-Britt would be well within her rights to kill him if anything had happened to the previous girl.
“Not your fault,” he told her awkwardly. “Haas, did you plan this? The challenge was your idea. Did you arrange it to distract me so you could get your hands on her?”
Glaring at him over Holly’s head, Haas curled his lip and all but snarled.
“Do you really think me capable of that?0 he hissed at Magnus.
“No,” Magnus sighed, hating that it was true. “I doubt I’ll ever like you, and I loath your interest in Lanie, but I don’t think you kidnapped her. I almost wish you had. If it was you, I at least could believe you wouldn’t hurt her.”
”We have the entire staff searching the grounds,” Erik told him, nodding. “I thought it best to confine the guests to the main house, as one of them could very well be involved.”
”Who is leading the search?” It made it barely more tolerable, slipping into work mode. He could almost convince himself it was not the woman he loved out there at the mercy of a killer. Almost.
“My housekeeper, Gita,” Haas replied. “She is highly efficient and knows every speck of the property, even better than I do. She also had always had a fondness for Lanie, so she insisted on organizing the hunt.”
”My phone,” Magnus said curtly.
Holly jumped and ran over to the chair where his clothes lay folded neatly. Digging into his pocket she retrieved his cell and handed it over to him with trembling hands. The fact that she did not take the opportunity to ogle his mostly naked form spoke volumes of her distress.
Opening his phone, Magnus scrolled through looking for a text from Sian. He had been so distracted with the challenge he had forgotten the other cop was expected to get in touch with him about the suspicious shack he had stumbled upon. Not a single text showed on his log.
“There was a bartender,” he said, looking at a Haas. “Brown hair, shortish, broad shoulders. Have you seen him today?”
”I honestly have no idea,” Haas looked blank.
“He hasn’t been around since last night,” Holly said unexpected as both men turned to look at her. “What? He’s cute. I mean, not you cute, but then who is? Why he’s not a suspect is he?”
”He’s a cop,” Magnus told her tersely. Under other circumstances he would be amused, but nothing about this was amusing. “He was supposed to report to me last night or this morning, but never did. He said something about a small shack on the outskirts of the property. Boarded up. Haas, do you know what he meant?”
”I do,” Haas said with a nod. “You think she might be there?”
”It’s a shot,” Magnus shrugged. “Be a pal and toss me my clothes, Holly.”
”You’re not going in your condition, are you?” Holly fretted, nonetheless handing him his shorts and tee.
“Damn right I am,” he grunted as he pulled on his clothes. “And whoever has her better pray to all the gods in history she is safe and unharmed.”
”I’m coming with you,” Haas insisted. Magnus hesitated only briefly before nodding in agreement.
“I am too,” Holly insisted.
“Absolutely not,” Magnus said at the same time Haas spoke his refusal.
“Hello, sexist much?” Holly snapped at them. “I know people think I’m flighty, but Lanie is my best friend and I am going to help. Also, I just happen to be a crack shot and a registered black belt.”
As the two men gaped at her Holly smiled in satisfaction.
”I grew up on a farm,” she explained with a shrug. “We needed to learn how to shoot to keep the wild animals at bay. And any girl with half a brain is going to learn self defense when she moves to a city. I have been trying to convince Lanie to learn for years.”
”When we find her,” Magnus said, giving the girl a quick hug, “we are not going to give her a choice in the matter. Haas, do you keep any guns?”
”Hunting rifles,” he nodded reluctantly.
”Good. Holly, go change your shoes to something at least slightly less ridiculous. Haas, grab the rifles. We meet in the foyer in five minutes.”
As his comrades nodded and scurried off on their assigned tasks Magnus drew a deep, painful breath. She would be alright. She had to be. And when he was sure that not a single hair on her head had been harmed, he was going to take great pleasure in making her beg for mercy.