The Calhoun family crypt was located in the middle of Riverview Cemetery, a tree-specked plot of land that at night was so cloaked in darkness it might as well have been at the bottom of a cavern. Trees draped with Spanish moss grew so thickly in and around the cemetery that even the light of a full moon had difficulty penetrating the green canopy.
A shadow detached itself from the trees that surrounded the clearing where the Calhoun crypt had stood for so long. It paused at the entrance to the crypt, where a shaft of silver moonlight revealed a tall, graceful woman clad in a catsuit of black spandex. Her dark hair was tied back in a ponytail, revealing a beautiful, oval face with high cheekbones and full, sensuous lips. The spandex suit showed off her generous curves as well as the smooth musculature of her arms and legs. Dipping a hand into the leather pouch that hung from one shoulder, she produced a slender penlight. A thin shaft of yellow light sprang to life, focusing on the metal door of the crypt. The spandex-clad woman produced a large key, unlocked the door, and pulled it open with a protesting squeak of long-unused hinges. Holding the penlight out in front of her, the tall woman began to follow it down a corridor into the old crypt.
Katarina Lance, or Kat as she preferred to be called, prided herself on being a professional “finder” of lost objects. Neither an archeologist nor a detective, she specialized in locating odd or unusual items that had been stolen, hidden away, or just plain lost in the mists of time. It was an unusual profession for a twenty-five-year-old woman to pursue, but with her quick mind, her daring, and her various arts and skills Kat had made it a lucrative one. It was not unusual for her to command a five-figure fee for her services.
The interior of old family crypt was dank and dark, and Kat’s small penlight did little to dispel the gloom. “I should have brought a regular lantern,” she muttered, then chided herself. It’s only the dark, girl. Stiffen that backbone a little and let’s get this done. The walls of the corridor were lined with bricks, every brick inscribed with the figure of an animal, a plant, or some other symbol. From her research, Kat knew that no two symbols or figures were exactly alike. She would have to find just the right one, or her efforts could end in disaster. Old man Calhoun had been a real fanatic about security, and he’d also been fiendishly inventive.
Running her light up and down the wall on her right, she finally found what she was looking for: a single brick inscribed with the symbol of a rose. Counting six bricks down and seven bricks to the left of the marked brick, she pressed inwards and was rewarded with a soft click. A moment later the wall next to her began to rotate inwards with a grinding sound. Kat swept her penlight back and forth, revealing a narrow passage choked with dust and draped with cobwebs. The passage was only a few yards deep, and at the end of it she found a small wooden chest.
“Paydirt,” she breathed. Gripping the penlight in her teeth, she crouched down in front of the chest and slipped a short length of stiff wire from the sleeve of her catsuit. Inserting the end of the wire into the padlock on the chest, she worked it back and forth for several minutes until the lock finally sprang open. Taking a deep breath, she lifted the lid of the old chest.
There it was: the Star of Zanubia. A magnificent blood-red ruby the size of a pigeon’s egg, the beautiful gem glittered and gleamed as she lifted it from the chest. Kat held it up reverently for a few moments, then wrapped it carefully in silk and slipped it into the leather satchel slung from her shoulder.
“Kat m’girl, you’ve done it again,” she exulted, striding confidently back down the hidden corridor and out into the main passageway. “I’ll bet that stuck-up attorney for the Calhoun heirs will be very surprised when she sees this beauty.”
“I’m sure she’ll be very surprised,” a voice said suddenly out of the darkness, “especially when she sees it on display in the Museum de Madrid!”
Kat froze as a pair of high-powered flashlights clicked on, pinning the young adventuress in their harsh glare. Involuntarily raising one arm to shield her eyes from the blinding light, she started to turn away, only to stop short at the sharp crack of a gunshot. The bullet whizzed past her ear, so close she could feel the breeze of its passage.
“Very wise, Katarina dear,” the voice said primly. “You are aware that my partner Titania is an expert shot with pistol or rifle.”
“Dominique Chandeaux,” Kat grated. “Damn it, I thought I’d left you and your flunky behind in Panama.”
“You tried, cheri, but you weren’t quite good enough. Now you will please put your hands together behind your head and interlace your fingers . . . that’s right . . . and walk slowly in front of us back into the crypt.”
Seething with helpless anger, Kat did as she was told, sensing the other two women falling into step behind her. They walked down the corridor, now brilliantly lit by the oversized flashlights, moving past the entrance to the alcove where the chest with the crown had been secreted. Another fifty feet or so down the corridor, Dominique called a halt. “All right, Katarina, that’s far enough. Please examine the wall to your left, I believe you will find a brick inscribed with the figure of a panther. Please press it.”
Kat found the brick easily enough, but she hesitated, not knowing what would happen when she pushed it. Her research hadn’t extended to this part of the crypt. The sound a pistol being cocked convinced her to follow Dominique’s instructions, however. The brick moved under her fingers with a clicking sound, and then the wall in front of her receded and slid haltingly to one side to reveal a yawning black space beyond.
“In you go, Kat dear,” Dominique ordered.
The flashlights showed the room beyond the corridor to be a brick-walled chamber about fifteen feet square. The chamber was empty except for two iron rings in the center of the stone floor, set about eight feet apart. Two of the walls of the chamber had small alcoves set in them with holes prepared told hold torches. While Titania kept the gun on Kat, Dominique set two tall torches in the alcove and lit them. The torches flared into life, so that Kat could get her first good look at the other two women. Dominique Chandeaux was as tall and attractive as Kat herself, with thick auburn hair that fell nearly to her waist. Titania Borinski was a tall, muscular blonde whose Herculean physique was matched by her equally prodigious bustline.
This was not the first time Kat had encountered the crafty Dominique and her powerful henchwoman. Dominique was basically a well-paid thief, though she liked to say that she and Kat were in the same profession. While Kat was paid to retrieve items and return them to their rightful owners, Dominique on the other hand would steal items or objects, and either ransom them back or sell them on the black market.
“Now then,” Dominique said briskly, “let’s get started. Put your bag on the floor, and then remove that lovely catsuit and your boots.”
Glaring defiantly at her two captors, Kat unzipped the sides of her soft black boots and pulled them off, tossing them to one side. Unzipping the front of her catsuit, she peeled the spandex down from her arms and torso, then drew it down her long legs and stepped out of it. Kicking the outfit away from her disdainfully, she stood before the other two women clad only in her lacy black bra and panties. “Is this better?” she asked. “You like what you see, Dominique?”
The auburn-haired thief waggled her finger admonishingly. “Temper, temper, cheri. You know I always have a purpose for what I do. After all our other encounters, you think I am not aware that you like to secret little tools in and around your lovely person?” Her voice hardened. “Search her well, Titania.”
“Raise your hands over your head,” the former women’s wrestler ordered gruffly. When Kat obeyed, the blond woman subjected her to an effective and rather humiliating search. The shapely brunette couldn’t help flinching as Titania’s powerful fingers probed and poked, tugging her undergarments aside as needed. A pair of tiny folding scissors, a lockpick, and two small folding knives fell one-by-one to the stone floor. Titania scooped them all up, along with the leather bag and Kat’s discarded boots and catsuit.
“I don’t suppose I could have my clothes back,” Kat said, tugging her bra and panties back into place.
Dominique grinned and shook her head. “I like you much better this way, darling. No surprises, oui? You will please now lie down on your back and stretch out between the two rings.”
Though she had been rather expecting this, Kat still couldn’t suppress a shudder of apprehension as she lowered herself to the cold stone floor and stretched her arms over her head. Sure enough, Titania immediately produced a coil of white nylon rope and began winding it around the dark-haired woman’s slender wrists, binding them tightly together over her head. She cinched the coils tight and knotted them, then tethered Kat’s hands to one of the rings set in the floor. Moving to the supine woman’s feet, she lashed her ankles tightly together, then pulled her body taut and tied her feet to the other ring. Kat winced as her blond captoress drew the ropes even tighter, stretching her near-naked body out so tautly on the cold stone floor that she felt like she was on a rack. “Having fun yet?” she taunted through gritted teeth.
“Oh, the fun is just beginning, ma cheri,” Dominique assured her. “I think I have heard enough of that sharp tongue, however. Titania, gag her.”
Kat grunted as the red ballgag was forced into her mouth and the leather straps buckled snugly around her head. She absolutely hated gags. When you were tied up and unable to use your arms, legs, hands, or feet, the only thing you had left was your mouth. With a gag like this, she didn’t even have that. This is not looking good at all, she thought ruefully.
“You certainly did your research to find this lovely jewel,” Dominique remarked, lifting the glittering ruby from the leather bag and turning it from side to side. “However, I did my own research, and it led me in quite a different direction. Avery Calhoun might have been a strange old bird, but he was no fool when it came to machinery and such. Take a look at the ceiling of this chamber, dear, and you’ll see what I mean.”
Looking upwards, Kat saw immediately what her gloating captoress was talking about, and an icy trickle traced its way down her spine. Instead of the ceiling being brick or stone, it consisted of a grating of thick wooden beams. Sprouting from the underside of the grating were sharp iron spikes, each one a good eighteen inches long and wickedly sharp.
“Let me see,” Dominique purred, moving slowly along the walls of the chamber. “I need to find just the right brick . . . ah, here it is.” She pushed firmly on a brick, which sank deep into the wall. Kat heard a low groaning, grinding sound come from somewhere outside the chamber. Next came a scraping, rasping noise, and she blinked as dust suddenly fell from the ceiling. The grating overhead shuddered, jerked, and then began to drop downward, one slow inch at a time.
“It works very well for being a hundred years old, don’t you think?” Dominique enthused. “I tested this before you arrived, of course. It will take about twenty minutes for the grate to drop far enough for the spikes to hit the floor. Of course, they will be penetrating your body long before that occurs. Depending on how you twist and turn, it might take several minutes before the spikes penetrate far enough to be fatal.”
“Uurrggh!” Kat grunted through the gag, shaking her head fiercely.
“The game has been fun, cheri, but now it is at an end,” Dominique told her. She bent down and patted the bound woman gently on the cheek. “It is so sad, but this will be the last time we meet. Au revoir, my dear Katarina!”
“Mmmmph!” Watching helplessly as the other two women left the chamber, Kat saw that they were careful to take her clothes and boots with them. A moment later the brick-lined door to the chamber ground slowly shut, leaving her sealed inside the deadly trap. Immediately she began to twist and squirm, straining with all her considerable strength at the ropes that bound her to the thick metal rings. Come on, girl, you can get out of this! It’s just ropes and knots, right? No chains, no locks . . .
It sounded fine, but as the minutes ticked slowly by the struggling woman found that no matter how much she tugged and strained, the ropes held her fast. Stretched out as she was, she couldn’t reach any of the knots, and there was no way she would be able to wiggle out of the tightly-cinched cords. Nor was there any hope of her breaking the sturdy nylon rope, which was probably strong enough to hold an elephant. The iron rings might be a hundred years old, but they were still as strong as the day they’d been forged.
The flickering torchlight gleamed on the body of the bound and gagged captive, as her exertions caused her skin to glow with perspiration. The spiked grating continued to move down lower and lower, each passing second bringing the deadly points closer and closer to the helpless woman. Tied on her back the way she was, it was clear that at least half a dozen of the gleaming spikes would transfix her lovely body.
There’s got to be a way out of this! Kat thought frantically, blinking hard as the grating dropped several more inches. The spikes were now less than three feet away. Seeing them up close, the bound woman saw that while the spikes were separated by only nine or ten inches at their base, they tapered all along their length so that the tips were about twelve inches apart. A desperate plan began to take shape in her mind.
I need to roll onto my side. It was harder than she expected. Titania had tied her very tightly, so she could get no leverage from her arms and legs. Still, Kat was also in excellent physical condition, and the one advantage nylon had over cotton, hemp, or other kinds of rope is that it could stretch—very, very slightly, but it could stretch if she strained hard enough. Not enough for the dark-haired beauty to free herself, but enough to allow her, finally, to squirm onto her right-hand side. Now she presented a much slimmer target for the spikes, if only she could position her body properly!
It took every bit of nerve she possessed to hold still as the spikes drew closer and closer. If she’d been tied spread-eagle, it would have been impossible to pull this off, but tied this way she at least had a chance. Kat shivered at the first light prick of the points on her hips and shoulders, the parts of her body that were highest. She wriggled around as much as she could, sighing with relief as she felt the points slide slowly along the back of her shoulders and the small of her back. More points made their presence known, sliding past her generous breasts and along the front of her thighs, and she tilted her head back as one spike slid along the underside of her chin.
Her luck was still holding, Kat realized. There was one spike positioned right at the back of her wrists. As the spike moved lower and lower, she began to rub the nylon ropes binding her wrists back and forth against the sharp point, fraying the rope strand by strand. Finally the spike was down so far she couldn’t work the ropes against it any longer. The other spikes were surrounding her body, pressing painfully into her ribs, stomach, hips, and legs. It was getting hard to breathe, and Kat wondered how she was going to get free if she ended up pinned down by the grating.
The points finally struck the stone floor beneath her, and Kat heard the machinery stop. There was a long scraping sound, a loud clank, and then to her relief the grating began to move slowly upwards again. Once again Kat began rubbing the ropes binding her wrists as hard as she could against the point on the nearest spike, until finally the strands parted. The grating continued to retract, and soon the intrepid adventuress was able to sit up and work on the ropes binding her ankles.
Her over-stretched knees popped and cracked as she got to her feet, rubbing her wrists where the ropes had dug into her skin. Reaching around to the back of her head, she fiddled with the buckle on the gag-strap until she was finally able to pull the foul-tasting ball from her mouth. Tossing the ballgag aside, she waggled her jaw back and forth to ease the ache. Stepping up to the wall where the chamber entrance had been, she looked around until she found a brick with the symbol of a panther. Hoping that it worked the same way as the brick on the outside, she pressed it. Sure enough, the brick sank in with a soft click, and the wall began to slide sideways.
Kat exited the old crypt just in time to hear the sound of a helicopter starting up. Heedless of the fact that she was still dressed in naught but her lingerie, she hurried through the old cemetery in the direction of the sound, arriving just as the dark-colored helicopter lifted into the air. “Damn!” she swore, watching helplessly as the craft, no doubt carrying her two adversaries, vanished into the night. The downdraft of the whirling rotors lashed the trees around her, and she felt something blow against her legs. Looking down, she was gratified to see it was her catsuit. At least she wouldn’t have to walk around in her underwear the rest of the night.
“Round one goes to you, Dominique,” Kat said grudgingly, “but this isn’t over by a longshot. It’s a long way from Louisiana to the Museum de Madrid, and I’ll have plenty of chances to get the Star back—and maybe a little bit of payback, too. Now where the hell are my boots!”