Black Cat Missing – Chapter Eight–Finale
Author's note: Gorgeous Carat is the creation of You Higuri; I am borrowing her characters out of deepest admiration; I make nothing from this endeavor and seek only to provide more enjoyment to the fans of Ms. Higuri's work; I dedicate this story to Astra Plain, with my deepest gratitude for her help, encouragement, and invaluable editing!
(Italics are used to distinguish when characters are speaking in French in scenes when both French and English are spoken; Bold is used to denote the Berber language.
"Well, we've found the right place," Noir said grimly. His voice was pitched low but Florian heard him. They exchanged troubled looks. How were they going to get into the room without losing any advantage of surprise? They needed a way to sneak up on Azura. Feeling slightly foolish, Florian looked to his ally, the small black cat.
"One more favor, friend cat, would be much appreciated," he told it. Noir looked at him, raising a skeptical eyebrow. The black tom took off down the hall and pawed lightly at a grate located at the end of the corridor. Neither of them had noticed it before. The two men looked at each other for just a moment in surprise, but another cry of pain from the room sent them running lightly down the hallway. There was no time to waste in questioning how the cat knew to help them–they just knew that it did.
They kneeled; Ray examined the grate while Florian kept watch, his gun out, to make sure no one was coming.
"I think this is one of the heating vents and it leads to similar vents in each of the rooms. It's small but I should be able to get inside. If it runs above the room where they are holding Solomon, I can shoot while still hidden within the air vent..."
"We can shoot from there." Florian looked at him, determined. Noir looked amused.
"I appreciate the sentiment but how do you propose we both fit inside such a small passageway?"
Florian's dismayed expression was so comical that despite the seriousness of the situation, Noir couldn't resist reaching up to kiss him again.
"I think I must be quite taken with you in my normal life," he mused, a faint smile touching his face before he was all business again. "Wait outside that door. Once you hear my shot taking out the person who is harming Solomon, trust that I'll manage to have Azura covered, one way or another. That will be your time to burst in. Hopefully your entry will be enough to let us take full control of the room. I don't think he has many men in there with him.."
"He doesn't. From what they were saying earlier, there should only be the doctor and two others in there with Azura. If you take care of the one harming Solomon, and from the sounds, it seems to be just the one, and then turn your attention to Azura, I can direct my attention to the other guard as soon as I enter the room and attempt to free Laila. If I am able to take him out, that leaves only the doctor to concern us, and I should be able to handle him while you concentrate on Azura."
"Good. I may even be able to take out that bastard doctor before turning my attention to Azura if there's time," Noir said grimly. By then, he had the grate removed and was ready to crawl into the narrow air duct. He looked back at Florian's anxious face. "It's a good thing I lost so much weight, after all," he quipped, trying to lighten the mood. He then disappeared from view, leaving Florian to close the grate behind him.
Florian didn't like this plan but had nothing better to offer. The sounds of Solomon's torture continued in the room down the hall so there was no time for the rescue to be delayed while they came up with another plan. He returned to his post outside the door and waited anxiously for the sound that would signal Ray's arrival. He kept his own pilfered revolver out and poised, ready to fire. He tried the door cautiously to determine if he would have to shoot the lock before entering when the time came for him to do so, but the doorknob turned freely. Once he discovered this, he kept the knob twisted so he could push the door open as soon as he heard a shot fired. He tried not to focus too much on the stifled cries from his friend Solomon as the torture continued but it was impossible to ignore what was going on and yet remain alert for Noir's entrance.
Azura's voice had lost its amused tone.
"I will give you one more chance, Sugar, and then your stubbornness will make me direct my man to return his attentions to the girl. Where is Noir?"
"Oh, come... now...your man isn't... anywhere... near... done... with me," Solomon gasped his defiance. Florian couldn't help admiring the detective's courage even as he wished Sugar didn't feel the need to taunt Azura into even greater cruelties. The man was vicious enough. Although, Florian appreciated the chivalrous instinct that demanded that Solomon protect Laila, there were times when discretion was the better part of valour. Besides, he privately suspected Laila was tougher than all of them. The next sound he heard through the door confirmed his suspicions.
"Let him go, Azura! He doesn't know where Noir is! Florian and I hired him to find Noir, but it was a foolish hope. When Noir doesn't want to be found, we should have known it would be beyond Solomon Sugar, a failed Paris detective, to find him."
Laila's voice was rough, scornful. Florian was shocked at her attitude. He knew she could be harsh, but the poor man had been trying to protect her from the villains, one would think she'd have sounded a little appreciative!
In fact, Laila was most appreciative of Solomon Sugar's courageous efforts. She was very afraid they might well be the death of him. She'd regained consciousness shortly after he'd joined her and they'd briefly caught each other up on the other's activities since they'd last seen each other. Laila refused to believe that Noir had just abandoned them to their fate, despite what Sugar had told her of her boss disappearing with his gun. Similarly, the detective suspected that Florian had not been quite as useless as Laila claimed. Being a gentleman, he'd politely refrained from pointing out that it was Laila who'd been captured and not Florian.
Azura had separated them all too soon. He'd ordered Solomon stripped to the waist and chained by his arms to two poles in the center of the room. Solomon didn't go easily, and his struggles, while taking a toll on the guards since he was a good fighter, cost him also, leaving him battered and bruised. One large, beefy guard stood behind him and applied a whip with zeal while Azura watched from his throne-like chair, Dr. Schlechtkopf standing at his right. The other guard watched from Laila's side.
Finally, it came...the shot. The whip-wielding guard went down heavily. Before the second guard could react, he too took a bullet, this one from Florian who burst into the room as Noir flew out from the vent gracefully, and agilely made for Azura's side as his former brother in arms stood up and ordered his remaining aide, the doctor, to secure his prisoners.
"I think not, Herr Doktor. Stand still or I shall put a bullet through my friend Azura," Noir said quietly, speaking English as he was not sure which language to use to the man. He'd noticed while he viewed the scene from the vent that Azura had been speaking to Solomon in English rather than French.
"My dear Noir, how charming that you saved me the trouble of going to find you!" Azura practically purred his pleasure, putting Noir off-guard. There was no sign of displeasure on his face at the injury and probable deaths of his two henchmen. Azura looked and sounded positively gleeful, Laila noticed, sharing a concerned look with Solomon. Florian looked at Azura from where he was searching the body one of the shot henchman for the keys to Solomon's chains, and frowned. Something was not right.
"Hurry!" Solomon urged Florian and he returned to his task, keeping one eye on what he was doing and the other on Ray.
"Doctor? I believe you need to give my black cat a refresher." Azura said lightly, just as Florian found the keys and turned to release Solomon. The German hypnotist twisted his thin lips into a travesty of a smile and nodded, but waited until he saw that Florian's arms were fully engaged in holding Solomon up, his gun tucked into his waistband. It was then that Schlechtkopf sharply said to Ray, in English, "Azura is your blood brother, Noir. Your enemy is the man with the amethyst eyes. Look for the man who has amethyst eyes."
Noir lowered his gun, and stared at Azura. He tilted his head questioningly.
Azura's blue eye was shadowed and he lowered his head for a moment so that his hair covered it from the view of the others in the room, three of whom were looking over in horror.
"No," Laila whispered.
"Non," Florian shook his head unbelievingly. He shifted Solomon so that he could try to grab his gun again but Noir whipped around quickly.
"No...toss that gun over, onto the floor," Noir ordered. "Place that man with...place him carefully on the floor by the woman. She can tend to him. You, Herr Doktor, get them both some water and unchain the woman. Get the key from the woman. Then you, man with amethyst eyes, move away, get near the pillars."
Azura frowned and looked at the doctor warningly.
"Do as he says, Herr Doktor. But Noir...why do you bother with those two? They are not important to us. We can leave them here. As soon as you finish with your enemy. End it now and we can go. Shoot the enemy, Noir. Do it now before they trick you somehow. Kill the enemy."
Noir stared at the fair haired man with the odd coloured eyes. His mind screamed at him that something was wrong, that the man was not his enemy...yet, he also believed that he was. It was so confusing, He felt the sweat pouring down his back and the gun felt slippery in his hand. Azura moved towards him and he whipped back to face him.
"No!" He ordered. "I need to think! Don't rush me."
Noir stood with his back to the wall. Azura and the skinny doctor were on one side, the injured man whom Noir remembered had helped him when he was hurt and hungry, and the strange girl were on the floor on the other side. And opposite him, in the center, looking calm but pale, was the beautiful man with the amethyst eyes, the man whom part of his mind labeled an enemy, and whom another part of his mind screamed... no! Not an enemy... His head hurt so badly as it tried to figure out the answer.
Solomon forced himself to remain conscious, swallowing the water that Laila held to his lips. He stared at the stand-off before him and tried to think of a way out of this trap that Azura had set for his black cat. There had to be a key to the puzzle. Noir was exhausted from fighting the post-hypnotic suggestion and Azura was ready to jump him and overpower him the second Noir's attention wavered.
"Laila, what set this off, what did they say... and who said it?" Solomonwhispered.
"It was the creepy doctor... he told Noir that Azura was good and Florian was bad," she related, thinking it was no wonder Sugar missed it, considering his condition at the time. She watched the men in front of her as avidly as he did, even as her mind worked as furiously to solve this puzzle as it ever did on one of Noir's research projects. "No, wait...he said it in English!"
"You think that was significant?"
"I think it has to be, Azura rarely speaks English to Noir and that doctor had been using either German or French. So, it means something I think. We have to assume that the trigger phrase for the post hypnotic suggestion was in English, which we wouldn't be likely to use, but which the henchmen would and they all would. We heard it, it was very deliberate and not something we'd likely say. What do you want to bet Azura has a phrase built in to cancel it, though, so he can be sure he gets his Noir back when this is over, and not the doctor's zombie? Azura wouldn't want to risk having Noir under someone else's power."
Solomon nodded. From all that he knew of Azura, it would be enough for him that he'd made Ray kill his own lover. He wouldn't want any other artificial hold over him, at least not one that he couldn't cancel himself. The trick would be in guessing what it would be.
Laila continued. "What would you want to bet the phrase is something only he and Noir would use to each other?"
Solomon stared at her. "No wonder you and Ray are so good at solving codes...you think alike."
Laila smiled weakly. "We don't know what it is yet. Create a diversion."
They didn't need to. At that moment, the small black cat came dashing out of the heating vent that Noir had used to enter the room, chasing a rat which headed straight for Azura and the doctor. As the rat ran up the doctor's pant leg, the black cat clawed its way across Azura's back and shoulders.
Noir turned to look. Florian took the opportunity to tackle him and knocked his gun arm up, shoving him towards Solomon and Laila. Ray's gun went off, missing Florian by a hairbreadth as he dove for his own gun, which was still abandoned where it had been dropped, Ray having kept everyone frozen in place.
Finding that to be his last bullet, Noir scrambled free of Laila who tried to restrain him, and went after Florian, who had retrieved his gun. Florian aimed at Azura, but didn't want to risk injuring the cat. Finding that impossible, he shot the hypnotist instead, a non-fatal shoulder shot but enough to put him out of action.
At that point, unfortunately, the wrist of Florian's gun arm was grabbed from behind and twisted, making him drop the gun, while a second strong arm wrapped around his throat, cutting off his breath. He tried ineffectually to pull at the wiry arm that was choking him to death but soon lost his strength as his vision clouded.
Throughout all of this action, Laila and Solomon were shouting phrases at Noir, in French, German, and English. Once Azura won clear of the cat and realized what they were doing, he sat back in his throne chair and started laughing, ignoring not only the injury to his last henchman, the hypnotist, but the threat to himself when Florian turned the gun on him. Azura seemed delighted by each turn of events, until finally, with the final one, he appeared to have won..
As Noir throttled his lover, there was no sign of indecision on his face, the external battle seemed to have drowned out the internal one.
"You are the enemy, I can see that clearly now. I will not permit you to harm my brother."
"Berber! He's speaking Berber!" Laila cried. "Shades of the 'Holy Grail' adventure!"
No sooner did he hear the words "Holy Grail" spoken in his childhood tongue, than Ray looked up, startled. Immediately, his eyes cleared and he loosened his hold, causing Florian to fall to the ground. Noir retained his wits enough to swoop down and grab the gun, and he held it firmly, pointing it at Azura.
The tall blond stood up and locked eyes with Noir.
"Have you regained yourself... my brother?" Azura asked quietly.
Noir was shaking where he stood. He reached a hand up to his head for a moment, then swept his emerald gaze around the blood splattered room, from the bodies strewn all around it, to Florian crouching at his feet, to his two loyal friends holding onto each other's battered bodies a few feet away.
"Leave here, Azura...within sixty seconds...or I shall ask Florian to kill you. And there will be no taking the order away...my brother."
Azura nodded and strolled from the room without a backward glance. He knew he would be seeking his blood brother, his black cat, again.
Noir stood by the railing at the bow of the ship, looking out over the waves, smoking one of his expensive thin cigars. If you didn't look too closely, Solomon thought, you might think him unchanged from the man who'd left France's shores a few months ago for a business trip.
"A pleasant evening," Solomon offered as an opening comment as he walked up to stand by the other man's side. Ray could either respond in kind or he could be his former snide self if he wished to be alone. Solomon was content to let the younger man set the tone of how they would proceed.
"Indeed. Would you care for a cheroot?" Ray held out a cigar. Their hands brushed.
Solomon smiled, but it was an inward smile. His outer expression was neutral. Cats could be fussy creatures and they preferred to do the chasing, he knew. This one, it seemed, would deign to accept his company finally. He looked down at the offered cigar.
"No thanks. Not a good idea to develop expensive tastes that I cannot afford to indulge," Solomon remarked with a grin.
Ray's eyes flickered over toward the older man. "Oh, I don't know about that. I imagine Florian and Laila owe you quite a bit for that last assignment. Have they paid you yet?"
"I don't think I can collect when I ended up needing rescue before the end. I consider myself in Florian's debt," Solomon said lightly. "And your's, for that matter. Thank you for returning."
Ray frowned. "Sugar..."
"No, Ray...we're even. I'd like to think that I didn't do anything that you wouldn't do for me if our situations were reversed."
Green eyes met blue for a long moment and then dropped. "Yes...you're right...damn you." Then he grinned his own roguish grin. Solomon was charmed. "I was rather hoping you'd give me something else I could add to Florian's debt, you know."
Solomon laughed, a rich, deep laugh.
"I heard that," a mellow tenor voice joined the conversation.
"I should hope so, we're talking loudly enough," Ray retorted. "Come on out here, intrepid Florian, supersleuth."
Florian walked up and leaned over the railing, shuddering delicately. "Promise me something. Promise me that you'll never make me travel with Laila again. Or, if you must get kidnapped again, Ray, please do it in a country that serves decent food, or better yet, just let Laila rescue you. She frightens me, she really does."
Florian allowed Ray to pull him close and kiss him quickly, protected as they were by the shadows of the evening.
"Where is Laila now, by the way?" Solomon asked, sharing a grin of commiseration with Noir when Florian's ideas of propriety made him pull away quickly and straighten his tie. If Noir's wink in response gave Solomon a sudden flash of memory of a young man who dropped his pants in invitation in a shadowy street corner, he quickly shoved it to a deep recess of his mind.
Florian was rolling his eyes in exasperation over Laila's antics.
"She's down in the Captain's quarters as we speak, arguing with the poor man over trying to put Shadow, her new pet feline, in the hold. I don't know why she's bothering. Nothing keeps that cat where it doesn't want to be. Every time one of the crew takes him down there, he ends up back in one of our rooms anyway so she may as well be gracious about it," Florian told them.
Ray pulled him close as Florian rolled his amethyst eyes in exasperation.
Noir and Solomon shared another moment of camaraderie as they encouraged Florian to tell them more about his travels with Laila. If they perhaps recalled their own very different experiences traveling together, they tacitly agreed it was a tale better kept to themselves.
Noir had recovered the love of his life in his amethyst-eyed man and was more grateful than he knew how to express. But he'd learned to his surprise that he had a gem of a different type and perhaps a friend beyond value where he'd never thought to look. Perhaps they'd all found more than a black cat in this trip, he mused.