©2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 Martha S. Robinson


Minutes later, Merrilee found herself confined in a small room in the basement of the mansion with an unconscious Bran for company. Her hands were tied behind her back, and her feet had been bound as well. All in all, she thought with a surprisingly positive outlook, things could be worse. She tried not to think about how much worse, or how likely they were to get worse. Instead, she focused on the positive. After all, both she and Bran were still alive, and while the prospects of remaining that way weren’t particularly good, it was a matter of making the best of a thoroughly rotten situation. She’d done that before, though with Jake whom she trusted. Until today, she thought, realizing that Jake had neglected to tell her what she considered a few essential details. He’d kept her in the dark about Bran’s identity. Had he told Bran about her past?

Merrilee cast a baleful eye at her companion. "If I had any sense," she mused aloud, "I’d have never gotten involved. Right now, I could be sitting home, programming, or doing something equally exciting." The maddening thing was that aside from the possibility of being murdered, she preferred being with Bran. "I must be insane."

Bran groaned, and began to attempt to move. When he tried to sit, he was unable to do so, his head pounding and his stomach began to churn. "Damn," he muttered to nobody in particular. He opened his eyes and found Merrilee studying his prone form. "Oh, hi."

"Hello, Mr. Chandler."

"I can explain," he said, trying to sit. His head was throbbing unmercifully, and every movement was torture. He didn’t bother to wonder what he’d done to deserve this. He knew.

"Save your explanations for someone who’d be interested," Merrilee said with a tight smile that didn’t make it to her eyes. "I could not care less. All I want is to get the hell out of here, preferably in one piece."

"That’s fine with me." Bran was struggling to keep from moaning aloud. He gritted his teeth, certain that every hair follicle on his head was throbbing individually, a counter beat to the hammers inside his skull. "Got any ideas?"

"No. I thought that this was your cue to do something heroic and save us."

"I’m working on it." He closed his eyes and lay still, wondering how she could be so cool under the circumstances. He supposed that Mike had been telling him the truth, but now wasn’t the time to bring it up with her. Sooner or later, they’d have it out, and she’d understand what had gone on, but now, just thinking about it was an effort.

Merrilee sat and squirmed, trying to loosen the bonds that held her. Her fingers could barely reach the ropes, and she vainly wished that she’d been born double-jointed. Bran finally managed to pull himself into a sitting position, but the effort cost him dearly. He leaned against the wall, fighting the nausea that threatened to overcome him, his eyes closed. He could feel himself breaking out in a cold sweat, as droplets of what felt like icy water formed a sheen on his face.

Merrilee watched as Bran fought his injury, fighting with her own urge to help and comfort him. She ached for him, but could do very little to help. Her better sense was telling her that it was his own tough luck that he’d gotten hit on the head, that he undoubtedly deserved it, and that she ought to kick him for lying to her. Instead, she sat still, glaring at him, angry with herself for feeling his pain. His face was white with effort, and when the nausea had subsided, he opened his eyes.

"Can you scoot over here beside me?" He suggested in what he hoped was a steady voice. "Maybe we can work these ropes loose."

She did, encountering a few pebbles along the way. The satin of her low-riding very short shorts did little to protect the tender skin of her buttocks, but she grimaced, and continued to slide towards him. Noting her discomfort, Bran offered, "You can hit me when we get out of here."

"Just shut up and turn around."

With no small amount of effort, he managed to turn his back to her, and leaned against hers for a moment. His head was pounding again, but that was minor in comparison to what lay ahead if they didn’t escape. He felt her hands on him, and gave them a little squeeze. It was a small gesture, and he had so much to make up for. Bran silently vowed that one way or another, they’d get out of this mess and he’d make things right with her. Then, he began to work on the knots.

"Let me try," Merrilee said, after a few minutes of frustratingly slow work. Bran relaxed his fingers and allowed her to try. Within minutes, she’d worked the ropes loose enough for him to slip out of them, and then turned to untie her. Once she was free, he leaned back, clutching his aching head which felt as if it was about to come off. Merrilee quickly untied her feet, and then knelt beside him and undid his, chaffing his ankles to return the circulation to them. "Bran, can you stand up?"

"I don’t know," he muttered, honestly. "I’ll try."

Leaning heavily against the wall, he made it to his feet. "Jeez," he groaned, his knees weakening.

Giving into her feelings, Merrilee slipped forward and caught him as he staggered. "Take it easy for a few minutes." She looked into his eyes to check for irregular pupils. The light in the basement was too dim to tell much, and she was concerned that the blow he’d received to his head had done serious injury. "Do you have double vision?" Bran shook his head and instantly regretted it. "You’re nauseous, pale and dizzy."

"I got hit over the head. What do you expect?"

"Don’t be difficult. You may well have a concussion."

"We’ll have worse than that if we don’t get out of here."

"Just stay there and let me find an exit." Merrilee began to look around the small basement room, checking for a way out other than the way they’d come in. That door was locked, and surely guarded. Finally, behind some boxes, she found a window. It was several feet from the basement floor, and fairly small, but with some effort, they could use it to escape. Of course, she didn’t know where it led, but anywhere was probably better than where they were. "Bran, there’s a window over here."

"I’m coming," he said, staggering over to where she called. She looked at him, and noted again how pale he was. He looked at the window, and then at Merrilee. She started moving boxes, and anything else that looked substantial enough to support their weight in an effort to make the window easier to reach. Then, as Bran stood still, she climbed up and examined the window.

"It’s small, but I think we can get through it. Give me your hand and come on up."

Bran reached out and Merrilee caught his hand, hoping that the boxes would hold their combined weight. Their eyes met and Bran knew that he loved Merrilee more than his own life. "Maybe you should go on without me. I’m not sure I can run."

"I’m not leaving without you," she told him quietly. "We got into this together, we’ll get out together." There was nothing more to be said, as far as she was concerned. She could no more leave him behind than she could fly. She loved him, regardless of what he’d done, or who he was. She was angry with him, but they could deal with that later. She worked the window lock, gratefully noting that there were no alarms on this window. It was a security breach she’d not have tolerated had she offered suggestions on the matter. Looking out, she peered through the huge azaleas that bordered the house, finding that they were on the side that faced the tropical garden and snake house.

"Have you tried the transmitter lately?" asked Bran. He no longer had his watch, and was relieved that Merrilee still had her pendant.

"I’ve gotten no answers with it, if that’s what you mean."

"It could be that they’ve decided not to respond, that they’re on their way here." Bran was hopeful, but there was no way they could be sure. "Aaron has my watch, and it’s possible that he’s inadvertently sent a message that would make back-up reluctant to respond. A radio blackout would insure that Drake and his henchmen didn’t find out about any rescue plans."

"And it could be that they don’t know about any of this," Merrilee told him. "Frankly, I’m not in the mood to hang around and hope for the best. I’d rather not meet your friends, Ericka and Enrique."

"I can live without seeing them again," Bran commented. It went unsaid that he probably wouldn’t live if he did. "Shall we go?"

Merrilee paused and considered their options. Then, she scrambled out the window, reaching back in to assist Bran who gave it his best. He got out, but leaned back up against the outside wall, cursing under his breath, using terms that Merrilee had never thought of in connection with each other. She mentally applauded his fluency.

"I’ve got an idea," she told him when he’d stopped swearing. "There’s precious little use for us to try to run across the marsh, but we might make it to that place over there."

"What is it?"

"Don’t ask. Just come on." She took his hand and helped him to stand, allowing him to lean against her. "How’s your head?"

"Getting better," he lied. Praying that the others were on the far side of the house, and that there were no outside guards, they made it across the yard. Within seconds, Merrilee had opened the door to the tropical garden, and after they’d entered, she relocked the door from the inside and then helped Bran on down the gravel path. As they walked down the pebble path, they went past the waterfall, and the pool of water.

"To your right, you will notice a lovely jungle pool," she droned in proper tour guide tones. "But, lovely is as lovely does, and the piranha in there would love to eat you."

"Jeez!" Bran muttered as they walked past. "Any other little treats? Maybe man-eating plants?"

"Drake didn’t mention any," Merrilee told him. She had the feeling that if any existed, they’d be found in Drake’s greenhouse.

"But there are other attractions?" Bran used the term loosely, his strength beginning to return along with his sense of humor.

"One or two. Drake has a few pets in the next room, but because of them, it’s probably the safest place in the area." She turned the doorknob and entered first. Bran followed, walking more steadily now. He started at the buzz of the rattles, and Merrilee shook her head. "Don’t worry. They’re caged. But, I’d be willing to believe that this is where your friend got bitten." Merrilee closed the door behind them and locked it, throwing the bolt. It might not guarantee their security, but it would slow down anyone after them. "Lucky for us Drake likes his privacy when communing with nature."

"Any way out of this place?" asked Bran. He was impressed with Merrilee’s professional behavior, realizing that her objective cool outlook would do much to save their skins. He knew that he’d have had a hard time getting out of the basement alone, if at all.

"Only the way we came in, as far as I know," she answered. "But, this gives us time to call for outside help."

"Weren’t you signaling when we were inside?" Bran asked, gingerly touching the lump on his head. He winced, and Merrilee moved her hand to feel the injured place. Her fingers came away sticky with his blood, which she calmly wiped on her shorts. She gritted her teeth, forcing herself to remain detached, a losing battle, she knew. One way or another, she’d see that Drake got his.

"Yeah, but my ring never turned colors. I don’t know if that meant that back-up was being discreet or that they didn’t get my message."

"If they did, they should be here by now. If not, it’s been less than three hours since we called in, so they won’t be concerned."

"Yeah, and we’ll be on our own."

"Merrilee," Bran began, wanting to say something to her.

"Bran," she told him, raising one hand, palm out. "Not now. I don’t want to hear any explanations, or excuses. I’ve had quite enough lies for one day." She sighed deeply and handed him the pendant. "Make your call."

Bran pressed the large stone in the center of the locket and spoke into it. Trying again, he swore in frustration. "Damnit!"

Suddenly, Merrilee took it back. "No, Bran. Maybe it’s not broken. Maybe there’s something about this building that would prohibit radio signals from penetrating. Of course, we know that the entire house is not radio proof, so there is the possibility that something got through. Still, I’d bet that something in here is inhibiting the signal."

"You’re right. I’m not thinking too clearly." That he was thinking at all was a miracle, but he dared not tell Merrilee. He’d make sure that she got out if he had to crawl the rest of the way. Trying to ignore his aching head, he listened to her reasoning, lending assistance whenever possible.

"And if there is, then there is a reason for it."

"Yeah," Bran nodded. "Maybe there is something very important concealed here. Something or someone."

"Or, maybe the guy wanted a safe place to hide if the going got rough, a place where people would be reluctant to chase him."

"And, if he did, he’d want more than a few snakes to live with. Even so, they’re an effective deterrent to your average person." He grimaced in disgust.

"Really. Fortunately for us, I’m on speaking terms with snakes. Look, Bran. Drake didn’t plan to stay in here. There are no supplies. That means that this isn’t a permanent hiding place."

"So maybe this is an exit of some sort. Any secret doors?"

"Let me look around." Under Bran’s watchful eye, Merrilee began checking the room, feeling the wall, and finally looked at the floors. At last, she found what she was looking for, half hidden beneath a cage. "Aha! A rather large crack in the floor. A hinged crack, at that."

"Translated, trapdoor. Excellent. You’re going to outclass me in the spy business in no time." Merrilee ignored his compliment, choosing to concentrate on the situation at hand.

"Of course," she noted, "Drake has set up something of an obstacle course." She smiled as she realized what her erstwhile host had done.

"Such as?" Bran asked, finding her enjoyment of this affair almost unnerving as the rattlesnakes buzzed loudly all around.

"In order to get to the trapdoor, we have to get past a rather healthy sized Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake." She turned to Bran who was looking sick at the thought. Snakes, she smiled, ranked up there with Erika and Enrique, as far as Bran was concerned.

"Any other exits?"

"Not that I can see." She looked at the large, coiled serpent sitting in the cage, its rattles buzzing angrily. "On the other hand, it might just work out for the best."

"How’s that?"

"See that metal box over there?" She gestured at what appeared to be a metal file box with holes punched in it. Bran retrieved it, and handed it to her. She opened it, handing him a metal prod and taking another instrument with which she appeared to be familiar. "Stand away from me," she ordered, holding a long, wooden pole with a hook on the end. "Bran, don’t worry. I’ ve done this before, and with bigger, nastier snakes. Besides, he’s been fed recently." She unlatched the cage, gently opening the lid until it was completely raised. The snake eyed her, and she took the metal box by the handle with the hook of the pole and eased it into the cage. Resting it on the floor, she very carefully scooted it over to the side until the lid was propped open by the cage wall.

Bran watched Merrilee as she expertly worked the snake. The large reptile seemed fascinated by her, watching with its beady black eyes, the vertical pupils giving it a catlike intensity. It had ceased to rattle, apparently feeling less threatened and was simply concerned with the hook she was bringing near it. Cautiously, she looped the hook under then snake’s body, lifting it, and the shake slithered to retreat. Instead, however, Merrilee looped another one of its coils on the hook and swiftly guided it to the large box. She pressed its head down with the metal hook, and then, with her left hand, lifted the rest of the snake into the box.. Finally, she withdrew the hook, and quickly closed the lid. "Whew!" she grinned at Bran who suddenly exhaled. "Glad I haven’t lost my touch."

"You’re your father’s daughter," he complimented, the color beginning to return to his face, though the throbbing in his head was on the increase. "Let’s see where this trapdoor leads."

Minutes later, they were climbing down a staircase into the darkness of the earth. Merrilee, a child of sunlight and fresh air, shuddered. "Don’t tell me that you’re scared of the dark," teased Bran though he took her hand for a moment. "Let’s see. Ah, yes, a flashlight."

Someone had clearly used this tunnel regularly, and obviously kept supplies there. Bran switched on the light, illuminating the cavern. "It leads that way," he said. "To the river." He started in that direction, taking the metal box from Merrilee, hoping that its weight would help him mask his returning shakiness. He was determined not to slow her down.

The two of them, accompanied by the snake in the metal box which Merrilee had refused to leave behind, walked down the tunnel. The other snakes had remained behind, though Merrilee had opened their cages and allowed them an exit. Added security, she’d told Bran. Very few people would want to enter a room slithering with snakes.

The closer they got to the river, the more moisture they encountered. "Ugh," Merrilee griped, stepping into a puddle. "This place is nasty." Her high-heeled sandals, perfect for the role of Marilyn MacKenzie, weren’t designed for mucky subterranean tunnels. "This stuff is gooey."

"Would you rather be back with Drake and his friends?"

"No thanks. I’ll take you and Ralph, here, any day."


"Ralph the rattlesnake."

Bran chuckled in the dim light as he hefted the metal case. "Speaking of whom, what are we going to do with him?"

"I’m working on that," she answered. Ralph wasn’t particularly enjoying the trip, for he was buzzing again, and Merrilee took the box from Bran. "Shhhh," she told the snake, which, oddly enough, quieted down. She turned to Bran, who seemed amazed. "I told you I got on well with snakes."

"Except for the one on your Stetson."

"He drew first," she drawled, then grew serious again. "Bran, if this tunnel exits near the river, maybe we can get out of here." She mentally crossed her fingers. "Providing they haven’t missed us by now, and providing that there isn’t a guard on duty there."

"It is a possibility, though I’m betting that there won’t be. Drake will cover his own tail, but he’ll probably let the others serve as stumbling blocks to the authorities. The odds are that we’ve uncovered Drake’s personal emergency exit. After all, he’s probably the only one with enough nerve to play with the snakes. Otherwise, he’d have made the exit more accessible."

"Let’s hope so."

"Does it seem lighter in here?" whispered Bran, stopping for a moment. He switched off the light and both paused as they realized that there was indeed a source of light ahead. "Shhh. Let’s be quiet in case there’s somebody waiting."

Merrilee nodded, following Bran as he quietly headed into the light. They emerged from the tunnel in the hollow of a clump of rhododendrons, squinting from the brightness of the sun. Still silent, Bran motioned to a boat which floated, secured to a cypress stump nearby. "Madam," he smiled. "Your chariot awaits."

"In a minute," she told him as he headed into the water. Merrilee turned back to the tunnel, going just inside it where she unlocked the box, facing it back into the darkness. With the long stick, she lifted up the lid, and then quickly emerged into the light. "Ralph has agreed to hold off the enemy in exchange for his freedom."

Bran shook his head, and grinned. "Talk about poetic justice. I’ll bet he’s always wanted to meet up with Drake in a dark alley. Now, he’s got his chance. So long, Ralph!"