CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Hurled off the hard bench, Philip violently hit the floor. Instinctively, he slid under the sturdy oak table, clutching its leg. The tiny cupola violently shook, rafters collapsed around him and from below he heard faint obscene shouts drifting upward. Then silence. Numbing, deafening, frightening silence.

       I've got to get out of here, Philip thought. Frantically he attempted to slip out from the table, but he seemed anchored to the floor. Looking down, he became faint with nausea and pain. A heavy wooden beam was jamming his left leg plunging a severe spike of pain through his groin. Clamping his jaw to halt a sudden urge to retch, he considered his options, He could yell for help and hope the men downstairs could hear him. His thoughts halted, the men downstairs were his enemies, intent on killing him.

       Jenny. Where was she? Had she been caught in this horror? The man with the briefcase, had he arrived? Where was the sealed envelope? Please God, not in the briefcase!

       He reproached himself for thinking of the envelope. It seemed of little value now, wedged as he was under the table, helplessly waiting for a gang of mobsters to do him in. Even if he did manage to escape, he'd be a dead man for sure when Sammy Gavota opened the envelope. That is, if he didn't die first from the pain shooting up his arm and through his chest.

       He listened for voices. Silence! He'd often witnessed the devastation of earthquakes on television from an easy chair, casually watching people wandering about in a confused daze. But he'd never imagined the

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tremendous shaking, nor the incredibly helpless sensation of the earth moving under his feet. He laid his head on his arm and fought a wave of anger. He'd asked God for help and He'd sent an earthquake. Some help.

       But no matter the consequences, he'd have to shout to be heard to escape from this nightmarish room. Before he could open his mouth, an aftershock shook the room so violently, volleys of sharp arrows rattled against small sunburst window. He clung to the table, fearful of plunging through the ceiling of the floor below. When the shaking stopped, an odor of gas floated into the room. The full horror of his predicament filled him with a whirling panic. Another sharp pain spread across his chest. He clutched his arm in agony.

       He struggled to keep from slipping into unconsciousness, fearful that he might never awaken. He heard his breath coming in quick, whining gasps. His horror intensified. A terrible foreboding that he would die alone in this dark, silent attic tightened his belly with cold, sick fear.

       From a hazy distance, he heard voices floating downward toward him. "It's Lansing. We've got to get the rafter off him."

       Philip moaned as two men lifted the rafter and carried him down the circular staircase. They placed him on a half-shattered sofa. He opened his eyes. The bricks on the once beautiful stone fireplace had fallen haphazardly on the grand piano turning it into blocks of white wood.

       He tried to speak. No words came. He closed his eyes against a monstrous bolt of pain.

       "Lansing," a voice said. "Don't move. We'll be back. We're going to look for others who may be wounded."

       Who were these men? Friends or enemies? Surely they weren't the men who abducted him at the airport. But where were those men? Philip groped for words but before he could speak, he slipped into the blackness of oblivion.

*    *    *    *    *

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       Unaware of the drama taking place in the Chatsworth estate, Alex drove carefully on San Fernando Valley's debris-laden streets. He could sense Jenny's anxiety, and knew she was harboring unasked questions, questions she was afraid to ask and questions he couldn't answer. Actually, he had questions of his own.

       "Where are we going, Alex?" Jenny clenched her hands in her lap. "How can we find my father? Everything's so...so..."

       He reached over and touched her hand. "Right now, we'll find a functioning coffee shop. We need food. It's going to be a long day."

       Jenny whispered. "I have a question."

       Alex chuckled. "So do I. A million of them."

       "Seriously, Alex, why did the FBI send you to protect me? Usually they send U.S. Marshalls for this sort of protection, don't they?"

       "Mmm." Alex maneuvered slowly through a crowded intersection operating without signals.

       "Alex?" Jenny asked again. "Please answer me."

       "That's not always how it works, Jenny. Ah... there's a coffee shop. A busy one, too, but if we're lucky, they'll have a working telephone."

       Alex parked the Taurus, and before he could help Jenny from the car, she was walking ahead of him to a coffee shop with a large open sign on the door.

       "Jenny," he caught up with her, "this is a day to remember, to tell your grandchildren, but right now you're tired and nervous. We'll think better on a full stomach."

       After they were seated, Jenny glanced around at the scene around them. Nervous diners were relating their personal horror of the morning quake. One woman was demonstrating how their bathtub had propelled through the wall and into the attached garage. Agitation and confusion sparked the crowded room.

       Jenny rested her throbbing forehead of her hand. Watching her, a flame ignited Alex's thoughts. This girl had tiptoed, no, ran into his

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heart. If she knew his suspicions about her father's connection with the mob, she'd run right out. For now he would try and soothe her turmoil.

       Their waiter arrived and set glasses of water before them. "It's been quite a morning." He said it as if he'd recited the same line since dawn had shaken the city.

       "We're not accustomed to being shaken out of our beds." Jenny said.

       "You never get used to it." They boy shrugged.

       "We didn't know if we'd find a restaurant open." Alex said after ordering the pancake special. "Seems like this place escaped the worst of it."

       "Yeah," the boy grimaced, "the manager got through to me an hour ago and told me to get down here pronto."

       "Then the phones are working?"

       "Yeah, we were lucky, but good luck on using the phones. Everybody's calling everybody." The waiter turned to Jenny. "What'll you have, Miss?"

       "Just toast and coffee, please." Jenny said.

       When he left, she thoughtfully bit her lip. "How could I have been so stupid to leave the briefcase under the table?"

       "Because we were evading a crazy man, remember? And that is the least of your trouble now."

       "Dad depended on me to safeguard the envelope for him."

       Alex leaned forward. "And you don't know what was in that envelope?"

       "It must have been very important for him to risk calling me."

       "O'Reilly's furious with him for contacting you."

       Jenny lifted her head. "Then don't you see how important the envelope must be?"

       "I wonder why..." Alex's voice trailed. "Excuse me a minute Jenny. A phone just became available. I must call O'Reilly."

       Alex raced to the open telephone and dialed O'Reilly's number. As he waited for him to answer, he half-turned to watch Jenny. He could sense her agitation as she sipped her water and glanced nervously around the room.

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       Agent O'Reilly answered on the third ring.

       "Tim, I've got a frantic girl on my hands. Do you have any news of her father?"

       "What's happening?" O'Reilly was evading the question, and Alex knew it. He took the plunge and told him what his profession demanded, the truth.

      "One of Gavota's men had been stalking Jenny in Chicago. He followed her here. Name of Lucas Darke."

       "Darke," O'Reilly groaned. "I remember that creep. We sent him away for theft. He's one of Sammy's men. Grew up in their house. Why didn't he take Jenny right then?"

       "I'd have to say it was because I was with her. He'll probably be back after her. But listen, Tim,... I need to report this to you. Jenny left her briefcase at the restaurant, and he's got it."

       "What briefcase?" O'Reilly almost shouted. "What was in it?"

       "Apparently her father gave her a sealed envelope with orders not to open it. It was in her briefcase. She's terribly frightened."

       "I bet," O'Reilly bit off his words.

       "It may have information that will indict Lansing. I dread telling Jenny."

       "She won't leave without finding her father, Tim. She's terribly anxious."

       "So are we. And for a different reason. I've had reason to suspect Lansing, but I had no proof. Maybe the sealed envelope will be the clue we need. I'm willing to bet Lansing helped himself to the mob's money and they're out to find it. He'll never come out of this alive. And," O'Reilly lowered his voice, "how do we know Jenny isn't part of this?"

       "Tim, she's innocent. I'm sure of it. Just give me two or more days. Jenny can't be alone in the city now. It's a nightmare here. Everything is chaotic."

       O'Reilly remained silent for a long moment, then spoke softly. "Are you becoming emotionally involved, Kendall?"

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       "Tim, Jenny needs protection now."

       "Kendall," O'Reilly raised his voice, "you didn't answer my question. Are you becoming emotionally involved?" He paused. "I want you to come home and bring Jenny Lansing with you."

       "Why is that?" When O'Reilly barked an order, he didn't easily recant.

       "We've got things under control. We know where Lansing was taken. We'll keep our man watching him until he's recovered."

       "You know where he is? Was he injured?"

       "We've known about Gavota's Chatsworth estate for some time. We sent our men to watch it when they didn't meet Lansing at the airport. They went in after the earthquake and found him injured. He was in the attic. A rafter fell on his leg. Worse, he had a heart attack. Two of the men in the house were killed. One apparently got away. Our men took Lansing to the hospital."

       "What hospital?"

       "Come home, Alex! Next flight out, if there is one." O'Reilly slammed the receiver.

       Alex took a deep breath. How would he tell Jenny they must leave the city? He knew her answer. She wouldn't leave without her father. Jenny was an independent woman. A trait he ordinarily admired, but not under these circumstances.

       When he returned to the table, the waiter was setting mugs of steaming coffee before them. He took a sip and eyed Jenny over the rim. He was mentally forming the right words to tell her the bad news about her father and O'Reilly's order to return home.

       Their breakfast arrived and he played for time as he meticulously cut his pancake, artistically poured maple syrup over each piece, watched the dark liquid seep into the pancake and dribble onto his plate. But when he brought the sweet cake to his lips, he found he had no appetite after all.

       Jenny pushed her toast aside.

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       Now, he thought, now was the time. He set his fork down. "There's something I must tell you, Jenny. O'Reilly has released me from the case. He wants me to return home and to bring you with me."

       Her eyebrows shot up. "Why?"

       "He thinks it would go better for you."

       Jenny frowned. "Has he had news about my father?"

       Alex nodded. "Yes. He was injured when the quake struck. A broken leg." He wouldn't tell her about the suspected heart attack until he was sure.

       "Where is he?"

       "He wouldn't tell me. Jenny, come home with me. You're not safe here."

       "I'm not safe anywhere." Her voice broke. "So much for protection."

       "Jenny," Alex reached for her hand again. "You won't like this question, and I probably shouldn't ask, but do you know if your father was more involved with Berkowitz that he let on?"

       Jenny straightened, a gesture Alex recognized as a forerunner of icy green eyes. "How dare you accuse my father? You don't know him. He's honest, he's a man of integrity, he wouldn't..."

       Alex leaned back with a deep sigh.

       "Excuse me." Jenny stood. "I'm going to the restroom to freshen up."

       As she walked briskly toward the back of the restaurant, Alex signaled the waiter for more coffee. He had no choice. His orders were to return home. He whispered a desperate prayer that Jenny would come with him. The thought of leaving her in this city of aftershocks and mob members turned him cold. He'd call O'Reilly again and convince him that he must stay with Jenny until they found her father.

       He glanced at his watch. Fifteen minutes had passed. He turned to look toward the ladies room and just as suddenly, a light trembled in his mind.

       She wasn't returning. He'd lost her.

       Jenny was gone.

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