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The Hammerhead's mouth was jagged as a knife-wound.
The ghostly form of the shark pressed itself against the wall of the glass tank, oblivious to the thrum of the generators and the pellucid light that dappled its pale flesh. Shadows moved like living things, leaping and sloping over the oppressively low ceiling and concrete walls of the Aquarium.
Lucifer Box was dead tired. He thrust two more Benzedrine tablets into his mouth, stepped closer to the creature's enclosure and watched his reflection balloon as though glimpsed in a fairground mirror. A step back and the reality snapped into focus: a tall, slim, saturnine figure in the clinging form of the Siebe Gorman wet-suit, the damp black hair scraped off the forehead, the cruel blue eyes dilated by the queasy gloom.
Stealthy as a cat, Box moved on, leaving wet footprints on the concrete. The heat was suffocating and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead like dew on a rose. He wiped them away with the back of one hand and swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry.
Damn her! Damn the blasted girl!
If it hadn't been for Stiletto he'd be out of Hong Kong now, settling down on the Cathay Pacific out of Kai Tak: catching the eye of a tulip-slim stewardess as he downed his third single malt. Looking forward to dear old rain-swept England and getting away, far away, from the sweaty horror that had been the search for Gottfried Clawhammer.
What a punishing three months it had been! From the freezing saltmines of Petrograd to the nightclubs of Macao and finally to a confrontation with Clawhammer himself: twenty stones of pallid flesh, the shaved head like a bullet, the eyes obscenely liquid just like those of the deep-sea creatures that twisted and writhed in this very Aquarium.
And then there was Stiletto, Clawhammer's mistress. Box recalled the moment he'd first seen her: blindingly beautiful, clad only in an ivory-coloured bathing costume, lying prone on the deck of the Beguine. As the yacht bobbed at anchor his eyes had devoured her. The long, lissom legs, the proud mound of the bikini, the perfect breasts in their pearly cups...
There was a movement to his right. Box tensed and took a swift step into the shadows, his hand closing on the comforting chill of the Beretta strapped to his waist. His eyes, mere slits beneath dark brows, narrowed further.
The sound had come from another tank, this one blooming with the pulsing plumpness of a dozen blue-ringed octopus. One, its suckers big as two-shilling pieces, was clamped to the glass. The creature seemed to consider Box with detachment, then, tentacles spreading like petals, it darted away into the cloudy water.
He moved silently on, the thrumming metronome of the generators keeping time with his own thumping heart. Shaking his head, he tried to clear the image of Stiletto from his mind. He needed to be alert now as never before. But the girl's shimmering beauty, the memory of her body - warm and urgent beneath his - jutted to the forefront of his mind like the Hammerhead against the glass wall of its prison.
Damn the silly bitch! She'd get such a spanking when all this was over.
Box shook his head and bit his lip. First they had to get out of there alive. And his plan? He had none.
Box's left hand, slippery with perspiration, clutched the solid plastic handle of the Leibach translator machine. The instrument was compact - about the size of a portable typewriter - and it was heavy. But it was the price of Stiletto's freedom.
He turned a corner and what he saw made his heart stop.
Yet another huge glass tank stood before him. Within, submerged and bound hand and foot, stood Stiletto. Big lead weights were roped about her waist, her feet firmly anchored to the white sand that lined the bottom of the tank. Where the ropes had chafed too tightly against her wrists, droplets of rusty blood rose lazily towards the surface like a rosary.
The girl's turquoise eyes bulged with fright behind a diving mask, the ugly rubber mouthpiece of an aqualung clamped between the perfect 'O' of her lips. She saw Box and tried to move, sending a stream of air bubbles rocketing to the surface.
'She is unharmed,' whispered a sibilant voice. 'Whether or not she remains so, Mr Box, is entirely dependent on you.'
Box whirled round but he could make out nothing in the stygian shadows.
The voice came again: 'Please put down your weapon.'
Box unholstered the Beretta and let it drop to the concrete.
'Kick it over to me.'
'I can't see where you are, damn it,' spat Box.
The softest of treads and suddenly the bloated shape of Gottfried Clawhammer glided from the gloom - like a conga eel from behind a nigger-head.
A ghastly smile, the blubbery lips peeling back to reveal tiny teeth. 'Now you see me.' Suddenly, from the sleeve of his wellcut kimono, the muzzle of an automatic protruded. 'Your gun, if you please.'
Box put one bare foot onto the Beretta and kicked it across to him. Clawhammer stooped to pick it up, opened the chamber and let the ammunition clatter to the floor. He tossed the useless weapon aside and, cocking his head to one side, looked Box up and down.
'I have enjoyed this game, Mr Box, and, though it grieves me to say it, you have beaten me. My little scheme to replace all the world's Swan Vestas with tiny sticks of nerve gas has, alas, failed.'
'You met your match,' said Box, with a small smile. 'Your pals in "Redland" aren't going to be very pleased, Clawham -- '
'But there is still one ace up my sleeve,' cut in the whispering menace. His large round eyes swivelled in the direction of the tank. 'Miss Stiletto. Her body was pleasing to me in its way...'
Box's fists clenched.
'...but now she has a use beyond the merely physical. I calculate she has two more minutes of air, Mr Box. If you are quick, you may be able to prevent her from drowning. And whilst you are occupied, myself and the Leibach - such an ingenious device, don't you think? - will be racing towards the Chinese border. The Riva speedboat is outside, as instructed?'
Box gave a grudging nod.
'Good.' Clawhammer held out his free hand and the sleeve of the kimono gaped like the sickle-mouth of the Hammerhead. 'The translator, if you please.'
Box stiffened with fury. There had to be a way out of this. Had to be!
He threw a frantic glance at the girl in the tank, whose eyes had taken on a desperate appeal. Her hands restrained and thus unable to gesture, Stiletto was urgently dipping her head towards the dials on the aqualung. The air was fast running out. Box nodded.
'If you're going to go, you bastard, then go,' he barked, sliding the Leibach along the floor, in the same direction he had sent his pistol.
The big man carefully crouched down and grunted as he picked up the device. 'I've never cared for goodbyes,' he sighed, lips smacking wetly over his grey teeth. 'But I do have a little parting gift for you.'
His hand moved swiftly, and wrenched a nearby lever. Something whooshed down a concealed chute, hitting the water like a bullet, and there was a sudden flurry of movement in the tank. A flash in the water, bright as silver, then a wall of glittering shapes soon resolved into the ugly gun-metal grey of a shoal of fish.
Stiletto's eyes widened in stark terror.
Box froze. He was dimly aware of a soft, clapping tattoo that he realised must be the sound of Clawhammer's sandals on the concrete as the thug made his escape. But Box made no move to follow. All that mattered now was the girl.
The piranha swirled about Stiletto as though in a vortex. Disorientated for now by their journey down the chute and into the tank, they would soon begin to explore their new environment. To nudge and nip at Stiletto's soft flesh and then -
Oh God. The blood!
The girl was already bleeding from the ropes at her wrists. Once the deadly fish tasted that...
Box knew he had very little time. His eyes searched desperately for some kind of weapon to shatter the tank. If he could manage that, then all their problems would be solved at one stroke: the piranha rendered impotent, the girl able to breathe fresh air. But there was nothing heavy to be seen, nothing but the endless glass rectangles of the Aquarium. If only he still had the Beretta...
In the tank, Stiletto squirmed. The more she panicked, the quicker she would use up her precious air. She struggled at the thick ropes that bound her, hair streaming upwards like golden seaweed.
If only he still had the Beretta...
And then realisation came like a punch on the jaw. Clawhammer had emptied the pistol but had discarded it on the Aquarium floor. Even as Box darted into the shadows in search of the gun, he saw, with a throb of nausea, the first piranha taking an exploratory nibble at the girl's wrist.
Dropping to his knees, he fanned out his hands, groping in the darkness. Nothing. Nothing but the cracked concrete, sticky with stagnant water and gently humming with the noise of the generators. Then his racing heart seemed to stop as he suddenly grasped the reassuring bulk of the Beretta's butt, its chamber still open, whirring round as his hand clutched the weapon.
He cracked shut the chamber, leaped to his feet, dashed to the tank and slammed the pistol against the glass.
A dull thunk. He tried again, harder, harder. Then with desperation, smashing the weapon harmlessly against the unyielding surface.
Box clenched his teeth in frustration. He was a fool! The glass would be toughened to withstand the incredible pressure of the water. This wasn't like breaking through a blasted pantry window!
The sight of Stiletto's lithe form amidst the swirling horror of the piranha shoal made him redouble his efforts, belting at the impervious tank, hoping against hope for penetration.
And now two or three of the hideous creatures were clustering around Stiletto's arm, gnawing at the white flesh. The stream of blood steadily grew. Box felt his stomach flip.
Stiff with fear, air bubbles frothing from her mouthpiece, Stiletto thrashed her lovely head from side to side. 'No hope,' she seemed to be saying. 'No hope, no hope...'
But Box was already on the flat of his Neoprene-clad stomach, hands turned into scrabbling claws as he sought out the missing bullets. Even as he searched, his gaze kept flicking upwards at the tank. At the oxygen dial and the needle that hovered over zero. At the hideous dazzle of the lethal fish, deadly teeth working even as their cold, doll's eyes flashed in the half-light...
And then - thank Christ! - his fingers found a bullet, chill on the concrete.
In one practised move, Box flicked open the chamber of the Beretta, thrust the bullet home, shut the chamber, jumped up, aimed and fired.
The plate glass shattered with a massive percussion. At once, water vomited through the gaping hole, sending the piranha flapping and gasping into the foetid air.
Stiletto collapsed at once, and Box rocketed forward, using the gun to smash at the remaining glass. He climbed into the tank. Holding on to her tightly, he ripped the rubber mask from her deathly pale face. The remaining water sloshed about their ankles.
Box ignored the bloodied ropes and the leaden weights that held the girl down. He cradled her face in his hands and smoothed the soaking blonde hair from her eyes. Her lips were blue, her skin snow-cold.
'Come on!' he yelled at her. 'Come on! Breathe! Breathe!'
He shook her like a limp doll. Then, suddenly, she gasped and retched, doubling up in his arms. Her eyes rolled down. Bloodshot and brimming with tears, but still beautiful to behold.
For a moment, she looked unseeingly at him. Then shesmiled. 'Oh, Lucifer. I knew you would come. I knew you would save me.'
Box found his hand straying to the insistent curve of her breast - then, cursing himself, he pulled away. But Stiletto had other ideas. She feebly took hold of his hand and returned it to her chest. Box felt the nipple rise and harden.
'No,' he said shortly. 'You need to rest. And I have to get after Clawhammer and that damned Leibach.'
She shook her head, strands of damp hair clinging to her porcelain features. 'Later. Later. Please. For now there is only us. I want you to love me, Lucifer Box. I want you to spank me. Love me and spank me. To make love to me as if I was a beast. The lowest beast in -- '
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gatiss