In With a Bang

Vincenzo Santorini was woken suddenly by the call to prayer from the minaret directly next door to the ramshackle building he was currently inhabiting. He closed his eyes and stretched languidly. One never fully appreciated the luxuries of sleep until they were gone, banished by the light of the sun, which was so infernally huge and bright in the desert. That or an obnoxious man screaming praises to Allah fifty feet away. Opening one eye slowly, he muttered, "Oh, great. Up for sunrise. Must be divine intervention," and reluctantly got out of bed.

"Where are you going, Vinny?" a young woman asked drowsily from the pile of rugs and blankets that he fondly referred to as his bed.

He pulled on his pants and answered, "Work--you know, Nida, where I go every day?"

"Oh, that's right." The woman, Nida, yawned and sat up to watch Vinny struggle with the rest of his clothing. "Your illegal work that someday will get you into trouble and jail."

Plopping down next to her, he prodded, "And?"

"And..." She closed her eyes as his arm snaked around her. "And is going to get you killed!" She glared fiercely at him. "Vinny, why do you not just get a normal job? You know I don't mind all the running around, but...it's not good. For you."

Vinny laughed and kissed her soundly. "Hm, if I didn't know better I'd say you didn't like the lifestyle. You know I'm keeping it all up for you, don't you?"

"Oh, be quiet."

"Hey." He tilted her chin up. "Look at me. Would I ever get into any trouble?"

~

As Vinny hung beneath the bridge, happily connecting tons of dynamite together, that comment came back to him. Well, he would never intentionally get into trouble. Granted he was already in it, what with this uprising he'd gotten himself involved in and all. At thirty-two years old, Vinny considered himself, putting it bluntly, to be amazing. His family had left his native Italy when he was but ten years old and had settled across the wide blue sea in New York City. There they had continued with the family floral business.

To make a long story short, something besides flowers had come along and caught his attention. Namely, explosives. Sure, getting blasted through a glass window by a volatile gas leak wasn't most people's idea of fun, but to Vinny it had been...well, like a sign from God (as he told anyone who cared). From then on no one could keep him away from anything that just might blow up. By eighteen he was inventing his own explosives, and by twenty-three the neighborhood was suggesting that maybe he move somewhere else. Away from them. Far away from them. Good-natured guy that he was, Vinny did so, heading back across the Atlantic to Italy, where he figured he might as well set up some kind of explosives business. With all the ruins and such he was bound to get treasure hunters asking him to blow open tombs...or something (he wasn't really all that sure what those ruins had to offer--he never did pay attention in history). Unfortunately, after a couple years of business he managed to get himself into a spot of trouble with a rival entrepreneur. Someone accused him of blowing the guy up. Now, admittedly, it did look suspicious. Vinny had been the only one on the scene the morning it happened, and he'd been apprehended at a time when he just happened to have a good fifty pounds of dynamite with him. He did an eight-month stint in jail for that one. The only reason he was released was because of a belated investigation that showed a gas leak, in fact, had been the cause of the poor man's death (Vinny thought that was funny--no wussy gas leak had killed him). Despite the fact that he was now proven innocent, young Santorini (age twenty-seven) had found it highly auspicious to his future survival that he leave the area immediately.

He ended up in Norway with a mining company, getting paid to blow up people's homes to make room for new mines. From there it was on to Russia, where he spent very little time due to the fact that some official person had a warrant for his arrest. Yeah, maybe it hadn't been such a good idea, in hindsight, to be dealing in illegal explosives. So, just because he hadn't been there (and because he heard the food was pretty good), Vinny went to Turkey. He was unsure of exactly what he was going to do with himself there, but one day, after managing to blow up his small house (he swore to the police he hadn't lit a match within ten feet of those pipes. No, no, why would he do that?) he was approached by an extremely shady looking character who told him there was work to be found in Erzurum after all. It mainly consisted of blowing up buildings, bridges, monuments...anything, basically, that the government might find useful. He was working with rebels, after all.

Vinny didn't pretend to understand or care (well, not very much, at least) what exactly these Turks were rising up against. All he cared about was the fact that he was getting paid (not a huge sum, but money nonetheless) to set fire to things, blow them up, and just generally be destructive with a fuse, match, and some gunpowder. He tried not to think about the fact that if he was ever jailed, Nida would be in trouble. That thought bothered him more than he really cared to admit. She actually meant something to him.

Nida was twenty-nine. The Turkish beauty, as far as Vinny knew, had no relatives to impose any rules on her. He'd run across her in a market running a stall selling jewelry. Vinny hadn't ever seen that stall since and he still didn't know what she'd been doing there. She enjoyed wandering and didn't object (too often) to the fact that they moved to a different locale every two months or so. Of course she did object to what he was doing to facilitate the moving. Not that she should really talk, Vinny thought as he fused two wires together. He was quite sure that she'd participated in her fair share of illegal activities. Anyway, he was far too gifted in the area of explosives to not be working with them.

There. Vinny scrutinized his work sharply and decided he was finished. This little beauty would blow sky high when he pressed the button.

"Are you still there, Cahil?" he called.

"Of course I am," a man's voice answered. Vinny pulled himself to the end of the bridge and a dark, dusty hand was offered to him. Once he was on his feet, the man that had helped him up dropped to his knees and studied the underside of the bridge, surveying Vinny's handiwork, then shrugged, stood up, and asked, "What would we do without you?"

Vinny dusted his hands off and replied, "Wallow in poverty and oppression your whole lives, probably." He looked at Cahil seriously. "Good thing I'm here, huh?"

Cahil did not smile. That was okay, because Vinny had found from experience that not a whole lot could make the guy laugh.

"Yes, good thing you're here. This is going to work, then."

"You skeptic. This is the work of a true artist." Vinny uncoiled the wires from the plunger and strung it out along the ground, backing up to what he deemed a suitable distance. Motioning to Cahil, he said, "Get behind a rock or something. This flying debris'll put a hole in your skull, no problem."

"What about you?"

"Me? I'm going to watch. Gotta get a good view." He waited a moment for Cahil to take cover, then pushed down the handle on the plunger. The bridge was immediately obscured in a black cloud of smoke and fire, but bits of it could be seen raining down around Vinny. A huge grin lit his face suddenly. "Boom."

Cahil hesitantly emerged from his rocky sanctuary. "Vinny? Vinny, are you coming? We have to get out of here... Hey! Santorini! Let's go!"

The rebel practically dragged Vinny away from the site as the Italian said dreamily, "It was beautiful. Did you see it? Beautiful."

"You're crazy."

The two of them trekked back to what the rebels considered their headquarters--an abandoned iron ore mine. Only one person was sitting inside--a teenage girl in ragged, patched clothing, who was intently studying a rifle. "Hey, Zarifa," Vinny said, ruffling her hair.

"Cut it out, Vincenzo," she responded without looking up.

"You can call me Vinny, you know." In a forgiving tone, he added, "It's okay, though. I can see how it'd be easy for you to forget with me reminding you...oh, I don't know, fifteen times a day."

"Yeah, yeah. Leave me alone, I'm busy. Vincenzo."

He sat down next to her and calmly put the girl into a headlock.

"Ack! Let me go! Lemme go!"

"I don't know," Vinny said doubtfully. "You're so serious...maybe lighten up a little..."

She dropped the gun and started pummeling him with her fists. "I'll lighten up the day you're dumb enough to drink nitro! Let go!" When he released her, she glared and elbowed him in the chest. "You're a stupid man, Vincenzo. This is not a joke, you know. These are our lives. But why should you care. You can just go back to America."

Vinny stared at her blandly and she returned the look defiantly, lifting her chin slightly. Finally, Vinny just said, "Too serious."

Cahil, meanwhile, was stalking around the room. "Our people are dying," he said darkly. "The Sultanate's army is ruthless."

"There must be something we can do," Zarifa said, though she sounded as if she very much doubted that this was so.

"Well..."

Both Zarifa and Vinny looked at the older man. ""Well"? What's that supposed to mean?" Zarifa demanded.

Turning away from them, Cahil said slowly, "There might be a way. I...hear...talk."

"As glad as I am that nothing's wrong with your hearing," Vinny remarked dryly, "I gotta admit that I'm just dying to know what you've got to say."

"Shut up, Vincenzo."

Cahil didn't pay attention to either one of them. "They say that...if we turn in the men responsible for the damage then they'll give us what we want..."

Vinny and Zarifa shared a Look. An infamous "ohhh boy" look. "Look, Cahil," Vinny began, "I know you're all about freeing the people and everything, but you've been around long enough to know that whoever's saying that is...hmm, how do I best describe this... Oh, yeah. Setting up a trap."

"He's right," the girl agreed a bit timidly.

"I wasn't done," Cahil informed them in what could have been an annoyed tone...but wasn't. "They are also saying that the army is looking for one man in particular..."

"We're on the edge of our seat here."

"...they say that if we turn in the man responsible for the explosions, then the Sultanate will agree to our demands."

Vinny put a hand to his heart. "I'm famous. Finally, I'm so wanted that the country's whole army is out looking for me. I'm so happy."

Zarifa chose to take this bit of information more seriously. "Cahil, you don't believe that, do you? All that would get done is killing yourself and him."

"No, no..." Cahil's eyes darkened. "Of course I don't believe it. I'm just...letting you two know that this is the kind of talk that begins when people are crushed under unfair treatment their whole lives. And when they see no end to it." With those words, he disappeared deeper into the passages of the mine.

Looking at Zarifa, Vinny commented, "Sometimes I don't know about him. A little crazy, I think."

She had a troubled look on her face. "In a way, he's right, but...I...I don't know. I'm worried about him. He has endured so much in his life and I think someday he will do anything to try to bring an end to it."

"What he's endured, I assume you mean. I didn't think your religion thought much of suicide."

"No religion thinks much of suicide, Vincenzo."

"True." He glanced around the empty room, then asked, "Zarifa, where is everybody?"

Picking her gun back up, she answered, "Istanbul. Raid. They wanted to take you but decided they couldn't wait any longer."

Vinny raised his eyebrows. "There's no better way to say this. That was stupid."

"I know that. I told them that." She scowled. "Lot of good it did me--I got a smack on the face and an order to keep my mouth shut."

"Did you?"

"No." She sighed. "This is it, though. Either they're successful or we'll all be killed."

"Any last words?" Vinny intoned.

Zarifa gave him a disturbed look. "Laugh while you can, Vincenzo. I don't know what you're going to do when something bad happens to you."

"Nothing bad happens to me."

"You are arrogant."

"You are perceptive."

Shaking her head, she said, "Then what if someone you care about is killed?"

His facial expression didn't change. "Then," he began solemnly, "I will kill myself, for I will no longer be able to live knowing that it will be a life without whoever it is that died, which you failed to specify."

The girl made a frustrated noise. "Think you're always on top. Someday you won't be."

"The great always fall?" Vinny watched her roll her eyes, and then he said, "Look, there's not a whole lot for me to do around here with everyone gone. I'll see you tomorrow."

"See you, Vincenzo."

Hearing those words, the Italian exited the mine and headed for home.

~

The city was dark that night and unusually quiet, as if waiting for something that had to come eventually. Vinny lay awake, staring at the sky through the holes in the ceiling. He didn't like the fact that everyone had gone off to Istanbul without him. It was keeping him up. They didn't know what they were doing with dynamite--they'd probably blow themselves up. And take a couple hundred innocent bystanders with them. Not to mention a couple buildings. And probably some good restaurants, too.

But it wasn't just that that was causing his insomnia. Zarifa's comment had started him thinking about what he would do if "someone he cared about" was butchered by the army. It was far too nasty of a thought to tolerate for long, though. So he just lay there, unmoving. Sleep would come sometime. Of course, until then...

"Nida?" he said quietly, not really expecting an answer.

"Yes?"

He furrowed his brow, then asked, "Do you ever worry about yourself?"

"Of course I do. But I worry about you more."

"Wow, you're selfless." He was silent for a moment, then went on, "You'll be in trouble if I get caught."

"I know," she replied quietly.

"Doesn't that bother you?"

He felt her shrug as she said, "You do what you have to do. It's my choice to be here, remember. I only risk my life for good reason."

Vinny grinned into the darkness and shifted to put his arm around her shoulders. "Hey, as long as you know what you got yourself into."

She wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug. "Thanks for the concern, Vinny." With a sigh, she settled herself against him and was soon asleep.

It was a long time before Vinny reached the same state.

~

"They messed up." Zarifa's face was pale in the red light of dawn. "They got caught. This is it, we're gonna--"

Vinny put a hand over her mouth and looked into her wild eyes. "Stop. Calm down. How do you know?"

The girl took a couple deep breaths. Her voice trembling, she said, "They sent someone back when they realized what was happening. It was two days ago."

"Okay. Don't bother freaking out. You're easier to spot the more noise you make, you know."

Vinny grew silent then and stood there assessing the situation. The fact that he wasn't panicking seemed to calm Zarifa down, and after a moment, she said in a resigned tone, "There is something else." Vinny looked at her and she stated, "Cahil is gone."

"Gone?" Vinny said slowly.

She nodded. "I would not be surprised if he has done something stupid. I would get out of here, Vincenzo, if I were you."

"Yeah...I was about to tell you what I came up with for a solution."

"What?"

"Run."

"That's your plan?"

"Uh huh. Amazing, eh?"

"Brilliant." She bit her lip. "I mean it for you. You should get away from here right away. You heard what he said the other day. I wasn't fooled when he said he didn't believe it. I'm telling you. He'll do anything he thinks will end this revolt."

Vinny pulled a match out of his pocket, stared at it, then stuck it in his mouth. Chewing on the end of it, he said, "Okay, I'll split then. But hey, listen, if we both get out of Turkey then we're safe, right? Here--" He picked up a book sitting on a table and ripped a page out, then scribbled a name on it and handed it to Zarifa. "That's my aunt and uncle in Italy. Tell them you know me. They'll treat you like their own."

"Thanks..." she breathed, staring at the paper. Then she looked up at him. "And you? Promise me you'll leave here."

He grinned lazily and offered her a hand, which she shook dubiously. "I swear. I'll probably go back to the States eventually, if you must know."

She grabbed his other hand and held them both tightly for a minute. "Thank you, Vincenzo. I'm going to find you again someday. And then I'll make you regret bugging me while I was working."

"Gee, those are some touching last words. Quite a good-bye. I think I'm starting to get choked up here." He grinned at her. "For your sake, I hope you get the chance to take your revenge on me, and I'm not going to bother asking why my promise is worth so much to you."

A smile flickered on her face before she turned and ran up the stairs. Vinny heaved a sigh. Yeah, he'd probably never see her again.

After a moment, he walked up the stairs and rushed back to his home.

He figured something was wrong the minute he set foot inside--probably because there was a substantial amount of blood on the floor. "Oh, shit," he murmured. Swallowing, he took a couple more steps in and then quickly shut his eyes against the sight of Nida lying on the ground, her clothes sodden with her own blood. He turned around, eyes still closed, and when he heard the cartridge of a gun sliding into place, he said more definitely, "Shit," and opened his eyes.

Ten men with rifles (all pointed at him) were standing there, looking at him menacingly. "Buon giorno," he said nonchalantly. "Nice day out, huh?"

The apparent head honcho of the group growled. "Shut up. We've got some questions to ask you."

"Oh?"

Several of the men moved forward and forced his hands into manacles, and their leader demanded, "Are you involved with the...rebels?" He spat the last word.

"Um." Vinny thought for a second. "There's a right or wrong answer to this, isn't there?"

The man took a step forward and knocked him to the ground with the butt of his gun. "Listen to me, you piece of filth. I don't have any patience for your kind of people, and I won't be happy until you give me every single name you know. And I don't care what I have to do to get them."

Vinny glared up at him, but he kept his tone (relatively) civil as he questioned, "Do I sense horrible torture? Typical. I gotta warn you, I'm a hard man to break."

With a twisted smile, the man kicked Vinny hard in the face. "More fun for me. Put up all the fight you want. It won't matter in the end."

The Italian was hauled to his feet and led outside, then thrown into a rickety wagon. Fifteen minutes ride on that and Vinny found himself roughly put into a small, foul-smelling prison cell. "Hey, don't I get a phone call or something?" he yelled at the receding backs of his jailers. They didn't answer, so Vinny settled down against the wall to wait.

He could say, in all honesty, that this was the worst position he'd ever been in. Foreign prison, treason against the government...not good. At all. Vinny felt blood dripping down his face from the blows he'd received, and that called back to his mind what he'd seen in his former home...he shuddered. Now, of course he wasn't one to go blaming things on people, but if he ever found Cahil, he was going to pour nitroglycerin down the scum's throat and light a match in his mouth. He had known where Vinny lived and knew about Nida. Vinny's eyes burned, with rage or something else, he wasn't sure, but he decided at that moment that he was not going to think about Nida, or Zarifa, or even Cahil anymore. Some things were just better to forget.

He closed his eyes and felt his blood dribbling down his neck, and he wondered what exactly he was in for.

~

He supposed, in hindsight, that he was very lucky not to have died. After a couple days he'd been brought to see a scary, psychotic looking man who deemed that if he couldn't rip Vinny's heart out himself, then the Italian would be sent to a larger, more brutal prison.

And that was where Vinny had spent the last two years of his life. Not an entirely pleasant experience, if truth be told, but he was surviving. He knew that he looked about ten years older and that he was even gaunter than he'd been to begin with, and that he had wounds that should have healed long ago, but...well, he'd get out of the place eventually. He just couldn't imagine when.

When the prison guards came around that night with dinner, Vinny accepted his with distaste. It was a thin, old-shoe-tasting gruel that he still wasn't used to after eating it three times a day for two years. Sitting down, he brushed his filthy, lice infested hair out of his face. Before he had the chance to really taste his dinner, he gulped it down, and since it was getting dark, he laid down on his insect-ridden cot. And then he drifted into blissful, unaware sleep. Vinny had no idea what time it was when he woke up. It was pitch black and silent, therefore there was no reason why he should have been jolted out of unconsciousness. However, a faint buzzing suddenly reached his ears, almost as if someone was...drilling? But who...?

And then, abruptly, it stopped.

Vinny stared hard at the wall for several long moments, then jumped back as it began crumbling. Where one minute a very solid rock barrier had stood between him and freedom, there was now a small, bulging man holding a drill and a tall, slim woman.

Vinny and the woman stared at each other for a moment, and then she questioned, "Well? Are you coming?"

He needed no second urging. Right outside was a bizarre vehicle that seemed to have a giant drill attached to the front of it. The little man jumped behind the wheel and the woman pulled Vinny in next to her, and then they were speeding away from the prison. Neither of his rescuers spoke to him as they bumped across the dry landscape, and eventually, odd as Vinny found all this, he drifted off to sleep again.

~

"Good god," a voice said from directly above him. "You're a mess, aren't you?"

Vinny opened his eyes. Standing over him (he was on his back, mysteriously...on something soft) was a woman with blond hair and chilly blue eyes. He assumed it was the same woman from the night before. "Yeah," he replied to her question, "I guess I am. Two years in jail, y'know. It can rough you up a little."

"Hm." She scrutinized him. "Get up."

He did so, then for the first time took note of his surroundings. They didn't look much different from the prison--just cleaner and shinier. Well, there was also a distinct non-prison feel to it. Maybe it was the lack of iron bars across the door. "Can I ask a question?" he said.

"I suppose."

"Where are we?"

Motioning for him to follow her, she told him, "On a steamer in the Mediterranean. We'll be taking it to Washington D.C., where you'll meet the man responsible for your newly acquired freedom."

"Oh. That's good. I'd like to meet him. Thank him. Et cetera."

"I'm glad you feel that way. Because he has several matters to discuss with you." She brought him into what was unmistakably an infirmary and pointed to a small metal tub filled with water. "Please bathe."

He eyed her. "Uh...no offense, but aren't you going to leave?"

She gave him a half smile and said a little sarcastically, "I should have known you'd want some privacy. I'll go over there."

Staring at her back doubtfully, Vinny said, "Okay...this won't take long...I guess...since obviously you're waiting for me to do something."

"I'm not waiting for you to do anything. I just insist that you bathe before we continue our conversation."

"Oh." Needless to say, he was in and out of the bathtub pretty quickly. There was something about the woman that made him think she wouldn't appreciate waiting for him while he took a luxurious bath.

When he was dressed again in some clean clothes that someone had thoughtfully hidden from him in a drawer practically on the other side of the room (the woman--he really needed to find out her name--had told him where to find the apparel), he announced, "Done."

"Finally." Pointing to a chair, she ordered, "Sit, Mr. Santorini." She walked over to a sink and picked up a razor. "I hope you don't mind parting with your hair. It's just a bit difficult to exterminate all those little insects crawling around on your head. Especially if they have so many places to hide. You understand, I'm sure."

He waved his hand vaguely. "Chop it off."

For the first time, the woman gave him what could honestly be called a smile. "I like you, Mr. Santorini. You have an idea of hygiene. By the way, my name is Helga Sinclair. That dumpy fellow that was with me last night is Gaetan Molier. Mole. He would never allow me to get rid of all the filth coating him." Vinny raised his eyebrows, mostly at the name, but before he could open his mouth, Helga informed him, "Mole is a geologist. Perhaps the best in the world. Am I correct in saying that your area of expertise is demolitions?"

"Yeah," Vinny answered. "I mean, I haven't touched any dynamite for awhile, but it's not something I could forget..."

"Excellent." She withdrew her hands and Vinny gingerly touched his now clean shaven head. "I am very pleased to hear that," Helga continued. "Because if I had just found out that I broke the wrong guy out of that jail, I probably would have thrown you overboard."

Vinny gave her a stunned look as she left the room, but then he grinned. He had no idea what was going on, but he couldn't wait until they got to Washington D.C. to find out.

~

It didn't take Vinny long to memorize the layout of the ship, and he began to spend most of his time in the engine room with the ship's chief mechanic--a man named Manuel Ramirez. He seemed to be as much in the dark as Vinny was--he had been approached by Helga in his garage in Michigan and taken the job she offered. He had left his fourteen year old daughter in charge of his repair shop, and when Vinny commented on this, Manuel merely said (with more than a hint of pride), "Believe me. My girl can handle it."

The two of them were conversing in the mess hall one day about three weeks after their departure from Turkey when a voice said over the PA system, "Ramirez and Santorini, report to the bridge immediately." The two men looked at each other and rose. "So what's with Helga?" Vinny asked, as it was obviously her voice on the PA. "Think she knows any more than we do?"

Manuel shrugged and answered, "Hard to say. Personally, I think she's pretty clueless too. Oh, don't get me wrong, she's got to know a little more than us. But she steers clear of any conversations that have to do with why she needs us."

"Hey," Vinny remarked, "if you wanna know the truth, I don't care if she wants me to wash dishes on this boat for the rest of my life. I'm that happy to be outta that jail."

Giving the Italian a curious look, Manuel asked, "What did you do to land yourself in prison, anyway?"

Vinny flinched--he had been hoping (foolishly) that this would not come up. It was amazing how little two years could do for emotional scars and whatnot. Of course, it was also amazing how much one could block out certain thoughts. "Ah...well, it was...I was...stupid," he finished lamely. "I guess."

Whether Manuel realized he'd hit a touchy subject or just gotten tired of it, Vinny did not know (he suspected the former), but the mechanic changed the subject and the Italian happily discussed methods of fly-fishing the rest of the way to the bridge.

When they got there, Helga was staring at them, and she said, "We'll be arriving in Washington tomorrow. You're both going to meet a certain Mr. Whitmore. I advise you to be polite and not, under any circumstance, to laugh at what he's saying to you."

"How come? Thin-skinned?" Vinny questioned idly.

"No." She raised a thin eyebrow at them. "I'm just positive that you won't find his proposition nearly so amusing once you find out about the perks."

"Which are?" Manuel prompted.

"Money."

"How much?" Vinny was paying attention now. It was strange enough that someone had set up a jailbreak for him, now he was going to get paid for...for what? "And," he said thoughtfully, "what is the catch?"

"Catch, Mr. Santorini?" Helga actually looked faintly amused. "The only catch is that you follow orders when your superior actually knows what he or she is doing. Otherwise you'll have free rein with several tons of explosives which will all be paid for by Mr. Whitmore. As for the money, is it a substantial sum that I'm sure you'll be satisfied with." She paused and pondered something for a moment. "If you accept, that is. Please do," she said with a pained look in her eyes, "because I just spent two months in the company of Mole. I do not want to find out that it was all for nothing."

~

Two days later, Helga brought Vinny to a large room filled with artifacts from around the world. A fire was blazing in the fireplace, but no one was in the room. While he waited, Vinny amused himself by looking at the collection of antiquities. He picked up a bust that looked to be of Roman origin and stared at it, resisting the urge to swipe a match across the arrogant face.

When he heard the door open and click shut, he put the bust down and turned to face an older man dressed in a white suit.

"Vincenzo Santorini?" the man asked him.

"That's me."

Extending his hand, the man introduced himself, "Preston Whitmore."

Vinny shook his hand and stated, "I got a question, Mr. Whitmore."

"Shoot."

The Italian watched as Whitmore poured two glasses of wine and took the one offered to him. "Well, I'm like grateful or whatever, but I'm also kinda curious why you took all the trouble to bust me outta jail."

Whitmore sipped at his wine and motioned for Vinny to sit down. He did the same, then said, "Good question. Understandable question. You're probably going to wonder why I have this, too." He held up a dossier that, from what Vinny could see, had the Italian's life story on it.

"Yeah, now I'm wondering about that, too."

Chuckling, Whitmore assured him, "I'll explain. Where to begin...? I'm a collector of old artifacts, as you can see. I first ran across your proficiency with explosives in Italy."

"Oh yeah? Makes sense. I was there. I don't remember you."

"Oh, you wouldn't. I don't travel much anymore. Always send someone else. But a friend told me about you when he was off picking up some old Roman stuff for me, and I've been keeping my file on you up-to-date ever since."

"Can I see?" Vinny read over the dossier quickly. "Wow, you're thorough. You've even got all my old girlfriends in here."

"Didn't want to leave anything out," Whitmore said by way of explanation. "Anyway, I knew a time would come when I'd need someone like you."

Vinny gave him an even stare. "Someone like me. What, a pyromaniac?"

Whitmore shook his head, though he was smiling. "Nope. The best of the best, sonny. Y'see, I'm putting together a crew. You've met Helga, Mole, and Ramirez. Well, if you accept my offer, you're going to be part of an expert team that I need for an expedition."

Vinny swirled the wine around in his glass. From the sound of things so far, Whitmore was crazy. The expedition was probably crazy. Not to mention dangerous and in some far away, obscure place that was going to take months to get to. He looked up. Oh well. "What's the expedition?"

Whitmore smiled in a satisfied way, then began, "Have you ever heard the legend of Atlantis...?"