Misguided Angel Page 11

More, she thought. More.

In answer, Jack released her for a moment, then bit her a second time. This time, when he kissed her with his fangs, the piercing sweetness filled her with that same painful but wonderful ache.

She was his love and his familiar. They were attached in a thousand ways--tiny invisible hooks that bound them to each other no matter what Heaven or its former residents declared.

NINE

Ambush

By the time Schuyler heard the sound of footsteps it was almost midday. The group coming upon her and Jack thought they could take them by surprise, but in that they were wrong.

She kept her eyes closed and her head on Jack's chest. She had heard them from several hundred feet away, the crunching of twigs underfoot, their stealthy step across the forest floor, their hushed conversations.

Don't move, Jack sent. Let's see what they want.

Schuyler was not afraid, yet she was worried. The group coming upon them were not Venators, but she could smell their desperation and fear, and knew that they did not mean them well. What were she and Jack thinking, anyway, taking a languid morning for themselves?

Thank goodness they had put their clothes back on.

She could feel Jack breathing underneath her, could hear his steady heartbeat.

"Get up," a gruff voice ordered.

Schuyler yawned and stretched and pretended to blink her eyes. She rose and looked around. Jack followed her lead. With their tousled hair and red cheeks, they looked like two young people who had been roused from a nap.

They were surrounded by a group of men carrying rifles and handguns. From their bearing and their speech, Schuyler guessed they were peasants from a neighboring town, probably from Santo Stefano, which was the nearest. The countryside was filled with folk who had never left the villages, who carried on the traditions and trades taught and handed down for generations. The modern world had brought them cell phones and Internet cafes, yet they lived in several-hundred-year-old farmhouses with no heating, and continued to make their bread and sausages by hand.

The men pointed their guns and stared. These were not evil men, Schuyler realized. They were frightened and spooked, but they were not evil. She exhaled a little.

Jack raised his arms. "We do not mean you any harm," he said in perfect Italian.

"It is illegal to camp in the mountains. Who are you and where do you come from?"

demanded a lean man with narrowed eyes.

"We are Americans. We are from New York . . . on a backpacking trip," Schuyler answered, appealing to their sense of hospitality. The Italians loved American tourists. More dollars to buy their overpriced gelato.

Another man wearing a Fiat T-shirt and cocking an old-fashioned Beretta pistol nodded.

"We do not like strangers here."

"We are just passing through; we did not realize it was wrong to camp here," Schuyler explained. "Please . . . just let us go and we will be on our way."

Jack made to stand, but found a gun pointed at his head.

"Stay where you are."

"Please be reasonable," Jack said mildly, but there was an edge to his tone.

"Shut up."

Schuyler glanced at Jack. If he wanted to, in an instant he could obliterate all of them from the landscape.

Don't, she told him.

She closed her eyes and concentrated. She could hear their thoughts in the glom.

They're just kids, we should let them go, what is Gino thinking. They can't have gone too far with MariElena, we are wasting time. They might know something. What will we do with them now? This is stupid. We should go. Leave them alone. Hold them until they talk. Strange times. Strangers. Strange. No we cannot trust.

They need our help, Schuyler realized. They were frightened and confused, and in the middle of their fear was a girl. No. They feared for the girl. She could see the girl clearly in their subconscious--a young girl, just a year or two younger than she was. Schuyler made a decision.

"Please. Tell us what has happened," she said. "We might be able to help you. You are looking for someone, yes? Someone who is dear to all of you. We are friends of Father Baldessarre."

At the mention of the priest's name, the group relaxed. Schuyler had guessed as much.

The Petruvian Order meant something around these parts. Father Baldessarre was a holy man, a respected man, a man whose name carried a lot of weight. A lot of credibility. She was reminded, achingly, of her grandfather.

"Let us help you," Schuyler said. "We are . . . trained to do so. Please, tell us what's happened."

The men glanced at each other, then finally the oldest one spoke. "They took my daughter, MariElena," the big man said, then could not go on any longer, for he had put his hands to his face and begun to sob.

Luca, the youngest of the group, explained. His father and brothers and uncles were looking for MariElena, his sister, who had been abducted last night by smugglers from the flesh trade--a danger not unknown in this part of the world. He handed Schuyler a photograph of a pretty, dark-haired girl, with thick eyebrows and a shy smile. Fifteen years old. "Mostly they take girls from the small villages in Eastern Europe, but now they are more daring. They have come to our part of the world. Life is not difficult here, as you can see," he said, motioning to the verdant Italian countryside. "But it is boring, it is the same, it lacks excitement.

"Mari met him at the Internet cafe. He was Russian, but he told her he was going to school in America. She called him her boyfriend. They 'eloped' last night, but we don't think they are getting married." He showed them his cell phone. "I got this a few hours ago." There was a text message from MariElena. It read Aiuto--Italian for help.

"We are very sorry to hear about your sister. But why not go to the police?" Jack wanted to know.

"Because they are paid off by the smugglers--as usual," Luca explained. "But we think they are not far, for they would not have taken the roads--so they must still be here in the mountains. Most likely they are headed to Levanto, where the freighters dock."

"What will happen to her if you don't find her?" Schuyler asked, although she knew the answer.

Luca frowned. "The same thing that happens to all these girls. She'll be sold and taken away. Then we'll never see her again."

TEN

Hidden

Schuyler led the group back to their campsite, where they found Ghedi waiting for them with their bags packed. When he heard about the girl's abduction he grew agitated. He took Schuyler aside while Jack organized the men into search parties.

Prev Next