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Hidden beneath his body, his fingers curled around the smooth metal of the broken bedpost he'd wrested from the corner of the twin-size utility cot.
Ben Parrish knew what they had planned for him, and he had a good idea what they'd do to Ava if he didn't get to her first. For weeks they'd drugged him through the food he ate. For the past two days he'd eaten very little, flushing what he didn't eat down the toilet in the corner of his cell.
He'd planned his escape carefully. Now with his head clearer than it had been in the weeks of his captivity, he'd learned of Nicky Wayne's plan to dispose of him and go after Ava.
Ben's chest tightened. She'd be in her eighth month of pregnancy, in no condition to run from Nick's goons. Bad guys who wouldn't hesitate to kill a pregnant woman over something as seemingly inconsequential as a necklace.
The necklace was the key. His friend Julie Grainger had given him a medal postmortem, sent in the mail before she died. He'd hung it on a chain and given it to his wife, Ava. Embossed on the medal was the image of St. Joan of Arc, the patron saint of imprisonment. For the past weeks, Ben had laughed at the irony. Perhaps Julie's gift had jinxed him, landing him in this hellhole of Nicky's making. That very medal endangered Ava and their unborn child. He wished he'd never seen the damned thing. All it had brought him was grief.
Nicky Wayne had beaten, tortured and drugged him in his effort to locate the millions Vincent Del Gardo had squirreled away in a secret bankaccount.
In his assignment as an undercover FBI agent, Ben had worked closely with Del Gardo, getting to know him, infiltrating the Del Gardo crime family. Still, he hadn't even known about the money. No amount of beatings by Wayne or his thugs could coerce the location out of him. All this time the account numbers had been inscribed on the backs of three medallions Julie had sent to her friends from her FBI academy days, Ben, Tom Ryan and Dylan Acevedo.
Now that Nicky knew they were the keys to the millions Del Gardo had stashed, he wanted those medals and to get them, he'd do anything, including kill Ava.
Sounds outside his cell alerted him to the approach of his executioners.
Under no circumstances could he fail. If he did, Ava and their unborn child might be the Wayne organization's next victims.
A key scraped in the lock and the door swung open.
"What the—" The man all the other guards called Hammer stepped through the door first, tapping a hand-carved club in his palm.
Another man, Hispanic, as equally bulky as Hammer and intimidating like a nightclub bouncer followed Hammer inside. Always wearing a suit and tie, he could have fit into any Mexican Mafia crowd, especially with the scar extending from the right side of his top lip, across his cheekbone to his right ear, which was missing a significant portion of the lobe. "Think he did us a favor and croaked?"
"I don't know, Manny, why don't you ask him." Hammer didn't wait for Manny, but nudged Ben's thigh with his foot.
Careful not to show any signs of life, Ben lay still, allowing his eyelids to open only enough to ascertain the positions of the two men.
"Looks like he passed out," Hammer brilliantly deduced.
"I hope he's not dead." Manny pulled a shiny Sig Sauer nine millimeter pistol from his shoulder holster. "Takes all the fun out of killing him."
"Guess the boss wouldn't care how he expires, so long as he's dead. Nicky said he was done with him."
"I'm gonna miss the guy. Torture ain't never been so much fun." Manny snickered.
"Come on, Mr. Wayne wanted this room cleaned out by the end of the day." Hammer tapped the club in his hand. "You want to do the job or me?"
"I'll do it." Manny squatted next to Ben and pressed the gun to Ben's temple. "Bye, bye Benny Boy."
Ben flipped over, grabbed Manny's hand and jerked it up to Hammer.
The gun went off, the sound deafening in the closet-sized room.
At such close range, the bullet slammed into Hammer with the force of a semitruck, knocking him against the wall. His eyes widened in surprise as he dropped the club and slid down the white walls, leaving a smear of bright red blood.
Before Manny could react, Ben leaped to his feet, still gripping the hand holding the gun. Though weak from hunger, he channeled all his hatred and desperation into swinging the broken metal post down on Manny's arm.
The arm snapped, Manny screamed and the Sig Sauer dropped to the floor. Before Manny could react, Ben jerked his arm, sending the bouncer crashing into the concrete brick walls of his prison.
Instead of dropping unconscious to the floor, Manny swung around and roared like a raging bull. He dropped his undamaged shoulder into a football lineman stance and charged at Ben.
Ben waited until the last possible moment, then smashed Manny across the nose with the post.
Blood spurted, blinding Manny. He stumbled and fell, hitting his head for the second time against the wall and finally slid to the floor.
Ben spun for the door. Hammer would most likely be dead, but Manny might recover enough to sound the alarm. Ben could stay and finish the guy off, but he didn't know how long it would take for others to come looking for the two. He leaped over Manny, grabbed the Sig Sauer and dove for the open doorway. With only seconds to spare, he had to find his way out of his prison before Nicky Wayne called down his entire arsenal of thugs to finish the job Hammer and Manny failed to complete.
Trouble was, Ben had no idea where he was. From eavesdropping on the guards he'd figured he was in one of Wayne's Las Vegas casinos. But the way casinos were built, he could be lost in the maze longer than he had to get clear.
Ben spotted a security camera in the corner of the hallway. If Wayne's security was worth anything, a contingent of armed goons would be on their way by now.
He had to make it out of the basement. Once he reached the casino level, he could lose himself in the crowd. Ben snorted and almost smiled at the thought. The torn jeans he'd been captured in weeks ago hung on him, a testament to the amount of weight he'd lost in captivity. After his shoulder wound healed, he'd exercised several times a day to keep up his strength. Mixing in with the crowd in the jeans and a faded, ripped black T-shirt, barefoot, he'd draw attention like a homeless man trying to panhandle in a public place. Yeah, he wouldn't last long.
First things first.
Get the hell out of the fortress-like basement.
A red-lettered exit sign shone like a beacon at the end of the hallway. Ben passed the service elevator and ran for the door. Written in bold letters across the door were the words Opening This Door Will Set Off Alarms. Use Only in Case of Fire.
Ben paused. If he used the elevator, security would surely see him and radio the armed guards hovering near the elevators. They'd wait for him to step out, and either kill him on the spot or return him to his cell and dispose of him there. If he took the stairs, he might make it to the next floor before they came after him.
With a deep breath, he shoved the door open.
Alarms blared, ringing in his ears as he took the stairs two at a time to the next level. A window in the door displayed a parking garage. When he pushed the door, it opened three inches and stopped. A chain had been strung across the exit from the outside.
Abandoning the chained door, he raced up the stairs to the next level. Another garage level, another chain across the door. Desperation spurred him up yet another level.
A door slammed open two floors below and footsteps echoed in the stairwell.
After a quick glance through the small square window into an empty hallway, Ben pushed hard on the door, half expecting it to be locked as well. Instead of meeting resistance, he fell through.
He ran down the deserted hallway, passing another corridor to the right and skidding to a halt at a T-junction.
Male voices carried around to him. "He just came out of the south stairwell to this floor. Come on." Running footsteps pounded toward Ben.
Backtracking, he turned and raced back to another hallway and turned left. As he passed the corner, he reached up and slammed the metal post he still carried into the camera perched near the ceiling. Plastic shattered and the little red light on top blinked out.
Sounds of music, voices and laughter filled his ears. The marking on one of the doors read Backstage.
Ben tested the door handle. Locked.
The next door was marked Stage Closet and it opened. Great. He'd be cornered in a tiny closet, destined to be captured amid brooms, mops and disinfectant cleaners.
The pounding footsteps drove him through the door into a larger closet than he'd imagined, filled with the usual supplies. As he worked his way through the obstacle course of supplies, the closet opened into a larger room filled with stage props, curtains, stepladders, cans of paint and tools. At the opposite end, light filtered around the edges of yet another door.
Ben raced for the door and had his hand on the knob when the original door he'd entered through jerked open.
With no idea what was on the other side of the door, Ben opened it and slipped through, hoping it took the security guards a few minutes to find their way across.
The door led to another hallway, this one filled with women in tight, skimpy costumes, hurrying away from him.
"Do you mind? We're on in two." A heavily made-up woman in a bright blue bustier, sporting a feathery blue hat and equally feathery tail, squeezed by him and ran after others dressed in a similar fashion.
The muffled sound of applause and music made Ben follow. A door stood open halfway down the hallway. Inside were racks and racks of costumes. From more of the skimpy corsets to evening gowns and men's suits.
Ben hid the bloody bedpost behind a box of wigs and rifled through the costumes until he found a conservative black tuxedo in roughly his size. Not until he slipped it on did he realize it was a stripper tux, complete with Velcro seams. Too late to change his mind now.
The security guards had made their way through the prop closet into the hallway and were asking performers if they'd seen a man running through.
Ben jerked his clothes off and slipped into a snowy white shirt and the tuxedo jacket, hoping the women who'd seen him remained occupied on stage until he could figure a way out.
The guards opened doors and slammed them shut in their search down the hallway.
They'd be at the costumes room next.
After grabbing shoes off a shelf and a top hat, Ben ran for the door.
"Move, jerk!" Another wave of performers filled the hall, this time a mix of women in flowing ballroom dresses, interspersed with men in, wouldn't you know it, black tuxedoes.
Guards bumped their way through the throng of performers hurrying toward the stage.
Ben whipped through buttoning his shirt and jacket and slapped the top hat on his head. When the rush of tuxedoed men crowded past the costume room, he slipped through the door and let the wave of dancers pull him along. As long as the guards didn't see his overgrown, shaggy beard, he might get by.
Once the performers arrived at the stage, they adjusted neckties and hems, awaiting their cue and the exit of the feathered dancing girls.
The guards wove through the performers, scanning the crowd for any sign of the boss's escaped prisoner.
With his face averted and his senses on alert, Ben bunched his muscles, ready to take on anyone who stood in the way of him and freedom.
"Are they looking for you?" A woman carrying a powder puff stepped in front of him just as a guard neared.
"Don't know what you're talking about," he grunted, his voice hoarse from lack of use.
She lifted the puff filled with powder and dabbed it on his face at the exact time the guard pushed past him.
"You can get out the side door behind the lighting catwalk, backstage. It leads to another hallway. Take a left and you'll find the loading docks and to the right of that a small employee parking lot." She raised the puff again, ready to douse him with another layer of powder.
Ben grabbed her hand and stared into tired blue eyes. "Who are you?"
Applause signaled the end of the feathered dancers' performance. Barely-clad women raced off the stage and the music changed tempo. The emcee, dressed in a navy blue tuxedo, announced the next act with a flourishing wave of his hand.
Ben released the woman's wrist and smiled down at her. "Thanks, Kitty."
Her blue eyes sparkled, a blush filling her wan cheeks. "You better go now."
While the ballroom dancers whirled out onto the stage, Ben ducked behind the catwalk and out the backstage door.
Just as the makeup artist said, he turned left and emerged into a large loading dock area, the huge overhead doors closed for the night. He found an exit door that lead to a set of metal stairs descending into a small parking lot.
Another door farther along the back of the building opened as Ben's feet hit the pavement. Two men in black suits, carrying handguns, stepped out. Ben ducked behind a car and, hunching low, ran the length of the row of cars to the end.
One of the men shouted. A popping sound was immediately followed by the glass in the passenger window next to him exploding, showering him with tiny shards.
His heart hammering in his chest, Ben evaluated his options in two seconds. Stay where he was and face the two guards who could multiply into many more, or take his chances and run across a thirty foot expanse of open pavement to a low brick wall separating the casino he'd just escaped from the one next door.
Ben launched himself out into the parking lot, zigzagging left, then right across the open space, then threw himself over the top of the brick wall. The distance to the ground was much farther on the other side. He landed on his side, bumping his sore shoulder. Pain shot through his arm and back, but he picked himself up and ran for the back of the neighboring casino.
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