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Prelude to the Hunt
3.
Kelly awoke to a nightmare . He was being pulled down Leighton 's secret staircase, with little regard to the bumps and bruises he might sustain going down . He couldn't even help himself nor regain his footing, not with his hands tied behind him . And it was all being done in silence, neither of his two captors saying a word, so that all he could hear were his own grunts and groans as his body collided with the stairs. It was like he was simply a thing, not a person, and a thing which needed only a modicum of care .

Thus it was with almost a sense of relief that Kelly looked down into the eyes of hate staring up at him . Tompkins was at the foot of the stairwell, anger oozing from every pore . At least he sees me, thought Kelly . His two captors dragged him roughly down the final stair and then deposited him in a heap . Right in front of Tompkins .

Kelly made a valiant attempt to get up, renewed pain flaring in his gut .  The knife wound couldn't be that severe, mused Kelly , or he'd probably already be dead . Still, it didn't help him to deal with worry over his injury. It felt as if someone had shoved a red-hot poker into him . He decided he better put that pain aside for now though . He had nastier worries to deal with anyway. Tompkins was looking decidedly unfriendly . He propped his faltering body up against the wall, trying to stay upright.  Shoving aside his pain, Kelly smiled up at Tompkins with well faked aplomb .

" Hey, pal, seems like your boss is a bit ticked with you . I'd make a real effort to stay out of his way if I were you," he drawled, affecting an easy insouciance he was far from feeling .

"You bastard !"  shrieked Tompkins, eyes glittering with near insane fervor . " It's all your fault . You're the reason Mr. Leighton is upset with me . You're the one .  It was all going to be ok again until you messed it up ."

Tompkins jerked Kelly away from the wall, his manic outburst adding enormous strength to his hands as he swung Kelly to the floor, while the two other men looked on with blank faces . Kelly felt himself land with a hard thud, every ache and pain in his body protesting the fall . He looked up into the face of a killer . Tompkins stood above him, screaming every obscenity he could think of, spittle flying .

It was as if Kelly had become the embodiment of every failure in this man's life . His anger was too strong for words alone, which was pretty much what Kelly had expected . Soon Tompkins' feet were once again kicking out as Kelly began to roll to minimize their force, trying to protect his abdomen .  He kept trying to back up , giving the big man time to cool down, but nothing was stopping Tompkins' rage . This all felt way too familiar .

Kelly looked up with helpless anger as Tompkins went for a leather belt that lay discarded in a corner . The stains on it attested to earlier use and Kelly had no wish to feel it's bite . He used the wall to regain his feet, wishing that he could find a way to get his hands free . Since there was no hope in that regard, he charged head first into Tompkins, butting the man as hard as he could in the gut . Tompkins' doubled up , even as Kelly felt his own legs fail him . He sank down onto the floor , spying the other two men looking
on . The two saboteurs were finally showing a little emotion, grinning slightly in anticipation of the show .

Kelly tried again to regain his feet, coming up on his knees in a vain attempt, only to feel the first blow from the leather strap . Tompkins' was in a frenzy then , landing blow after blow on Kelly's back . Kelly could do nothing except take it, every attempt to rise being stopped with a blow . He was thankful for his jacket . It took the brunt of some of Tompkins' rage , but soon began to shred.  There would be nothing left but bare back if Tompkins continued much longer . Kelly was hurting enough already . He didn't want to think about the minutes ahead . He knew exactly how bad it was going to get. The others wanted him alive for now though, so maybe there was  hope . If only they would stop him .

He was stopped, but not by the other two . Just as Kelly gathered himself up for another futile lunge at the man wielding the belt, a shot rang out . Tompkins, all rage suddenly spent, turned in utter shock towards the stairwell . Leighton stood there, gun in hand .

" But boss,"  he began to say, querulously, then fell to the floor with a dreadful thud . His final look was one of pure astonishment .

Leighton glanced down at his prisoner, lips twitching just a little . " I did warn him, I don't tolerate mistakes,"   he said, with cold emptiness . " Not only did he have to pay for his other goof-ups, he was right in the middle of making another one . You see, I'd like you to stay healthy for just a bit longer Mr. Robinson . Oh, yes, Tompkins should have known better ."

Kelly wanted nothing more than to lie there for a while longer, giving way to his hurting body . But he could not do that . Not in front of this man . He staggered to his feet, aching everywhere but determined not to show it .

Leighton was still one of the faceless ones, his personality only peeking through in minute traces, but at least he had a name . That helped Kelly to get a handle on him , in a strange sort of way . It gave him a label, something that wouldn't just slip through his fingers . Kelly needed that right now . He needed to feel some degree of connection to his enemies . It was too hard to fight them, otherwise .

Kelly was fully cognizant of the mind games that these shadow men played . He was a very bright man underneath all his easy ways . He was well aware of what the saboteurs were attempting to do to him with their sunglasses and hidden faces . He wasn't buying it . Time to turn the tables a little. Time to stop allowing the non-entities to strip him of his own value.

" Hey, Leighton, how come you put down Tompkins like a rabid dog when you've made just as many goofs as he did, if not more ?"  he challenged .
" You're the one that lost my partner . Oh, and the list too . I'd say that was a whopper of a mistake . In fact, your little rat trap enabled that list to  be taken in the first place, didn't it ?  Seems like maybe you shouldn't be so hard on your employees when you can't get the job done any better ."

Leighton 's expression changed from one of subtle triumph to anger . A hit !  Kelly had scored . The other two men in the room acknowledged it, with quick scans of Leighton `s  face . Kelly  directed his own look of aggressive challenge towards Leighton . He might not like the time to come but he wasn't going into it sniveling .

Leighton glared at Kelly . " Keep it up, Mr. Robinson. I think I told you once that I don't like to be crossed . And that I always exact pay back . Your pay back will be coming soon ."

" Leighton,"   said Kelly, stressing the use of his name , " I suggest you and your little band get started running .  My partner is bound to have got that list out by now . You're going to be up to your kneecaps in federal men any time now . I don't personally  give a fig but you might want to feel some concern over that ."

Kelly was doing his very best to bring off his usual insouciant style but he was beginning to have a little trouble pulling it off . Maybe it had something to do with the fact that he was wavering on his feet, ears ringing, sight dimming and clearing . His back and abdomen were both screaming in pain and he was pretty sure that he was going down any minute now .

" Our subject appears to be in some distress, gentlemen,"  said Leighton, abruptly terminating the more personal address of Robinson . It was obvious that he intended to once again minimize his captive's humanity . " I think we'd all concur that we'd like him awake and alert for what is to come . I suggest that we apply a field dressing to that knife wound and see that he's given adequate opportunity to rest ."

" Fortunately, you see,"  he addressed his prisoner, who was becoming less and less cognizant of his surroundings,  " we have plenty of time to let you gain some strength back.  Your partner may have information we'd like to get back but he has no way of getting that information out . He's very well contained within the confines of this town . All phone lines are down and will stay so for the duration of this little problem . All roads out of town are being watched . I will admit that it's rather putting a drain on our resources for the moment, resources that are needed elsewhere, but we'll cope . We may be a bit short of men at the present but we've always had more than adequate financial backing . The manpower situation is easily remedied ."

Leighton strode over to Kelly and pushed him against the nearby wall, using his elbow to roughly pin his prisoner's face up so that he was sure he was paying attention .

"Your partner will be taken . It's only a matter of time . Funny thing actually. We don't really need your help to locate him . We'll box him in sooner or later . It's inevitable .  You , we could kill right now . In fact, my partners wanted to do just that. They felt it was a bit redundant to bother with interrogation.   I actually had to insist on my veto rights to get them to change their minds . You see, I couldn't care less whether or not you know where your partner is . I simply require payback . I did warn you , after all . No one crosses me ."

Kelly looked up at Leighton with foggy comprehension . The saboteur was going to keep him alive just for the pleasure of making him sweat . He'd keep it up for as long as it suited his purposes and then that would be the end of it . Kelly had a real good feeling that he wasn't going to care for what was to come . He also had a feeling that Leighton was going to go for the mind games again and that kind of torture was almost the worst .

Leighton eased up on Kelly, moving off with a very slight smile .

" Now, we can't offer you a bed to recuperate in but perhaps you won't mind alternate arrangements . This gentleman at my side will bandage up that wound for you . I'm sure you'll appreciate that . Can't have you losing interest in your surroundings, after all, and blood loss can sometimes do that . Then I'll ask you to re-locate over to that far wall . I'm thinking that you might like to have a couple of days to rest, relax, and think about the rest of your life ."

Leighton motioned over to the wall containing the chains and manacles . He turned once again to Kelly, giving him one of his cold dead smiles .

" Doesn't really look that bad, does it ? I'm told that it becomes increasingly painful though as your weight pulls on the manacles and your muscles become locked tight . No one need even lay a hand on you . Your own body will accomplish all we could desire, all on it's own . We've also found that we can add an interesting little facet to this experience . You see, with the lights off in here and the circulation cut, reality begins to shift and perceptions alter . We've had some gentlemen who lose all track of time and begin screaming in only a few hours, thinking they've been here for days . Most unpleasant, I understand ."

Kelly stared back at the saboteur with absolutely no expression at all . Adrenaline had kicked in and was giving him a little surge of strength . Kelly walked over to the wall with great care, determined not to pass out, flinch, or make any sort of sound . The sight of those manacles was like a direct hit to the stomach . His time in Spain with the rack, the whip, and all its attendant memories was just a little too fresh in his mind . But he knew he could do this . Spain had taught him that . He just had to stay in control .
Which was why, many hours later, Kelly found himself dangling from a wall as his eyes searched  futilely for a hint of light in the pitch dark room . The room was already too warm, with a sticky heat that quickly sapped energy .

 The manacles rubbing his skin raw were designed for both maximum discomfort and humiliation . He hung in a spread-eagled position, which left him feeling terribly vulnerable, and open to attack . In addition, this position kept constant tension on his wrists and ankles.  The chains had been fashioned so that there was no leeway, no way for him to inch up on the upper chains to alleviate some of the pull . Leighton had been right . This wasn't going to be fun .

Kelly could not and would not allow himself to yield to his feelings of terror and humiliation . He had already faced those demons and he was damned if he was going to let them gather again . No, this was simply an exercise in pain control, nothing more . He was good at that . He refused to acknowledge what the manacles were doing to his wrists and ankles . He refused to acknowledge what they were doing to his shoulders, back, and knees . In fact, he refused to acknowledge their effect at all . He'd done it before, he could do it again . That refrain played over and over in his mind, a mantra he used to stay in control .

Kelly was well aware of the newest mind game that the saboteurs were playing . He knew that he'd been left alone so that his fears could build and magnify . His captors knew all too well how effective the mind can be in destroying the will . He might be here for quite a while before he was visited again .

 No more than a day or two though, thought Kelly, as he began to reason coldly and logically . No matter what his mind might tell him , it would only be days at most . The humidity in this wretched dark cellar would quickly dehydrate him, and he had seen no sign that food or drink would be in the offing . Therefore, if Leighton wanted to keep him alive for whatever nasty pleasures he had in mind, he'd have to return in a limited amount of time .

 That gave him a time frame to hold on to . The fact that Leighton 's return would bode him no good didn't even matter right now.   He was just searching for things of substance to hold on to .

Kelly had one more certainty to help sustain him . His partner . He didn't know how he was going to do it or when but he knew Scotty would be attempting a rescue as soon as he could . He might not be successful but that didn't factor in as yet. Just knowing he was out there was enough . The certainty that his partner would be looking for him was complete . Kelly knew Scotty and that was all there was to that .

Kelly decided to concentrate on what his partner might be up to now . He knew that the saboteurs hadn't been lying when they said Scotty was still in the area. They would have killed him and pulled out fast if Scotty had got out . That was bad . He thought he'd bought him enough time to get clear but something must have gone sour . So, alright . Scotty was still around .

 His partner was going to have to somehow avoid capture and get that list
 out  . That would be a tall order . Kelly didn't have a clue how Scotty was going to manage that but he was betting on his partner . If anyone could do it, he could . Then Scotty' d have to figure out where they were holding him . That wasn't going to be easy either .

Kelly tried once again to shift his body in a vain attempt to ease the strain . His muscles were already objecting to the pull but there was no point in thinking about that . All the movement got him was more skin ripped off at the contact points  .

So, ok, maybe Scotty could out guess these creeps . He had to realize that they were too over-confident . It was the height of stupidity to return to a known location . But these guys were so used to underestimating the opposition that maybe Scotty might guess that they would be arrogant enough to return here . Maybe .

So, say that Scotty could somehow avoid capture, figure out where he was, and get to the Leighton farmhouse . He'd still have to find a way to rescue him . The saboteurs were so busy underestimating them that it would be sheer stupidity to do the same thing back . If Scotty got caught they were both dead, no two ways around that . So his partner would have to go extra slow . Leighton would have guards posted  around the house . Scotty would have to be darned careful .

Kelly cried out in the black darkness of the room . One shoulder was twitching with muscle spasms. It had started . His tired little mantra began to resound in his mind once again .

Suddenly Kelly had a bad thought . Would Scotty be able to figure out the secret wall ?  He'd never got a chance to tell his partner about that . Just for a second panic threatened to overcome him as he desperately fought to keep it from gaining a foothold . Then Kelly began to laugh, forcing his fears into the deep hidden places of his mind . Why the heck was he worrying about the secret wall?  Scotty was far more likely to get killed ten times over before he ever got that close . If he somehow pulled off a Superman stunt and got here then surely he'd use his x-ray eyes to find those damn stairs . His laughter continued and if it was a little wildly uncontrolled, no one but he would ever know it .

No, Scotty was a smart fellow . He'd figure it out . All Kelly had to do was hang on . The tall spy snorted once again at that thought, feeling a bubbling well of mirth spring up . Hang on . That was a good one . He'd have to remember that one when Scotty showed . When Scotty showed .

Time went on . The darkness had at  first been a welcome thing, helping Kelly to hide his fears deep down in their own dark little cellar . Now it began to be one more thing to contend with . The blackness was so complete, so utter, that it began to disorient . Kelly fought the feeling, knowing that it was ridiculous to give in to it .

 The quiet only added to the feeling of unreality . There was nothing substantial here, nothing to hold on to . The walls must be very heavily reinforced to create that kind of quiet . It was like he was the only being in existence, floating in a black void where sound did not exist . Kelly found himself humming a bit, just to hear sound . It also helped him to gain back a little bit of surety .

 He'd already lost any feeling for the amount of time he'd been there . At first , he tried to estimate it by how hungry he was but that hadn't proved very reliable. Now he simply accepted that time had become meaningless . It didn't much matter so he intended to ignore it .

As Kelly hung there he began to go over and over the mission, the what-ifs flooding his mind . He felt nothing but bitter recrimination for his side of the mission . Obviously, he'd messed it up royally . He'd been so stupid, so easily caught . He'd been the proverbial pigeon , walking right in to the trap . Or a rat, a big fat rat . He was getting almighty tired of being that rat , too .

Only the pain kept things real . Kelly hurt . The knife wound had settled down to a dull throb but  was constantly there . Everything else was screaming at him .  His wrists and ankles were now the worst of it . His skin had long since been flayed raw where the manacles met. His own blood had initially flowed while his wrists and ankles were being stripped . That had actually helped for a while, adding a little lubrication to the raw areas . Now, though, everything was dry and intense, with no way to alleviate the pain .

And now Kelly was faced with a new problem . He could feel the heat of fever building in him, radiating out in an ever widening pattern from the neglected knife wound.   He was going to be in deep trouble all too soon, if something didn't change . That got another snort out of him . In trouble  . How much more ` in trouble'  could he already be ?  This was definitely not going down in his books as best mission ever .

Another man who'd been having a couple of really bad days was Alexander Scott . Scotty was even now on the run, constantly shifting his location, trying to stay one step ahead of the saboteurs . There had to be at least eight or nine now, Scotty guessed . There was no way they could have covered as much ground, kept him hopping as long, without that many .  Scotty had needed to be constantly on the move, hiding in hay piles, under rotting tree logs, on rooftops, any and every place that might buy him some more time.

He was tired, mind numbingly tired . Hunger gnawed at him too but he had little time to give in to that necessity. There was no way he could go into town to find food, nor would he have any money to pay for it even if he was stupid enough to risk it. He'd found a couple of too ripe apples at his last hiding place and torn into them with gusto, half suspecting that they were pig fodder . It didn't matter . He needed them more than the pigs .

Scotty crouched down, leaning for a moment's rest on a nearby tree . His once white clothes were incredibly dirty, his normal immaculate grooming in complete abeyance . He looked exactly like the man he now was, a hunted thing, desperately staying one step ahead of the hunters .

Scotty was slowly making his way back to the place where the barn dance had ended so badly . He needed to get himself oriented so that he could find the spot where the list was hidden . He'd spent so much time dodging here and there that he felt he should have this dratted place down cold by now but his path had been a truly aimless one .

 Only now was he feeling a little more confident . The saboteurs were spending more and more time concentrating on the roads out of town, and in covering places they thought he'd hit for help, like the sheriff's office . That left him more room to move about . It was time to go get his partner .

Scotty wished that he could call his superiors with the contents of the list, once he fetched it out again, but he knew the phones were all down . He'd heard all about it whilst laying in a horse trough, wishing the blasted horse would stop nuzzling him . He'd heard the farmer discussing " the funny business with the phones"  with his wife , as the man went in to dinner . Scotty had listened intently, stuck tight until the two men searching the field nearby had moved on . The farmer indicated that the lines had been cut again as fast as they'd first been repaired . The sheriff thought it might be some local high school kids playing an end-of-summer kind of gag, but it was darn annoying . It was the talk of the town, apparently . Other theories ranged all the way from commie take-over to space aliens on the loose . The farmer was tired of the whole darn subject and just wished they'd get the lines back up so everyone would quit complaining . Scotty wished the same thing but for vastly different reasons .

He crouched down now, eyeing a partially open bit of ground that he would have to traverse to get to the river bank . No one in sight . Good.  They were all still congregating by the roads .

 Scotty figured his best option would be to try to barrel his way through the road block at the north end of town, once he got a car and his partner . The roadblocks were not that intrusive. The saboteurs still  seemed not to want to alert the town's folk  to their shenanigans so there were only a couple of men hanging out at the various points, parked cars near to  hand .

  Scotty's opinion was that the sheriff had to be a complete dullard not to be getting mighty suspicious of the men posted here and there but maybe he was too busy tracking downed phone lines . Scotty didn't care anyway . The sheriff couldn't help him . In fact, he'd be a hindrance . Just one more person to avoid, as far as he was concerned .

Yes, he'd definitely go for the north end of town . There was only one guard there and he seemed to be one of the more bored watchers, his attention often wandering . The only time Scotty had ever seen him looking even a bit alert was when he'd seen another car load of saboteurs pull up to question the man . Otherwise, he was fairly inattentive . There was also a bend in the road right there so that someone could be almost at the position before anyone would see him coming . Definitely the place to shoot for .

Scotty shot across the partially open ground, then deep into the woods surrounding the trickling river . It seemed as if it had been ages and ages since he'd last been here with Kelly, discussing the mission.  Too long ago for his taste . He quickly made his way along the water's stream, eyes searching out rock formations .

There was the rock ! Scotty tossed it aside, his hands sinking deep into the overturned earth , frustrated need adding extra energy to his labor . He felt an almost frantic desire for the list now and wished he'd never taken the time to bury it in the first place . He hadn't even had any time to look at the thing but Kelly had said that there were code designations . He'd know where his partner had been taken and Kelly's rescue could finally be attempted .

Scotty could only dare to hope that he still had a living partner waiting to accept that rescue . He'd never seen Kelly move as he was drug over to that car but, surely, they wouldn't have bothered with a corpse ?  Worry gnawed at him . His partner was tough, one of the toughest people Scotty had ever known . So long as he was still alive, he'd be hanging in there . He might be in pieces but Scotty could and would help glue him back together if necessary . He'd done it before . No, his partner was a survivor . He had to be alive .

Scotty's fingers stilled, then grabbed for the exposed plastic bag, ripping it open quickly to get at the list . His tired, red eyes scanned the contents, then widened in disbelief . Kelly had been taken to the Leighton farmhouse ?  He would have already tried to get him out if he'd had a clue.

Scotty could have kicked himself . All he could think was that he should have known, should have guessed . He'd never supposed these clowns would go back to that same farmhouse, not when it was already blown . But he was supposed to know his quarry and he should have been able to figure it out, based on their previous actions . He wasn't even willing to grant himself any leeway for the fact that he'd been a tad busy, of late . No, he'd blown it .

Muttering angrily to himself, Scotty stuffed the list back into his pocket . He'd prefer to leave the list here until he freed Kelly but they might have to leave in  a red hot hurry . Better to carry it . If he got caught the list would be a goner anyway, one way or the other .

Scotty hoofed it back up the creek area, staying constantly alert . He had to find a car to steal but it also needed to be one that might not immediately be missed . Maybe if he could get to the local tavern without being taken, he could latch onto something there.

The saboteurs were so busy guarding all the other likely escape areas that they'd spread themselves too thin . It would be easy to get to the old farmhouse without detection .