Gray also noted a deep ache in his thigh. He fingered a fist-size bruise on his flank. He felt some scabbed needle pricks. There was also a Band-Aid stuck to the back of his left hand. From an IV? Apparently someone had treated him, saving his life.
Distantly he heard another spat of howls and screamed calls.
It wasn't a caged sound.
More like the natural world awakening.
But what world? The air smelled drier, warmer, scented muskier. He was in a much more temperate climate. Maybe somewhere in Africa. How long had he been out? They had left him no wristwatch to check the time of day, let alone which day it was. But he sensed no more than a day had passed. The thickening of stubble on his chin belied any long nap.
He stepped to the doorway and reached for the piled clothes.
His motion drew someone's attention.
Directly across the hall, Monk stepped to the barred door on the far cell. Gray felt a surge of relief at finding his partner alive. "Thank God…" he whispered.
"Groggy…wearing off though."
Monk was already dressed, wearing the same white jumpsuit that had been left for him. Gray climbed into his.
Monk lifted up his left arm, baring his stumped wrist and the titanium bio-contact implants that normally linked Monk's prosthesis to his arm. "Bastards even took my goddamn hand."
Monk's missing prosthesis was the least of their worries. In fact, it might be to their advantage. But first things first…
"Fiona and Ryan?"
"No clue. They may be in another cell here…or somewhere else entirely."
Or dead, Gray added silently.
"What now, boss?" Monk asked.
"Not much choice. We wait for our captors to make the first move. They want the information we have. We'll see what we can buy with that knowledge."
Monk nodded. He knew Gray had been bluffing back at the castle, but the ruse had to be maintained. The cellblock was likely under surveillance.
Proving this, a door clanged open at the end of the hall.
Many footsteps approached. A group.
They came into view: a troop of guards dressed in green and black camouflage uniforms, led by the tall, pale blond man, the buyer from the auction. He was dapperly fashioned as usual: in black twill pants and pressed linen shirt, with white leather loafers and a white cashmere cardigan. He looked like he was dressed for a garden party.
Ten guards accompanied him. They split into two groups, crossing to each cell. Gray and Monk were marched out, barefoot, with their arms secured in plastic ties behind their backs.
The leader stepped in front of them.
His blue eyes were ice upon Gray.
"Good morning," he said stiffly and a bit staged, as if he were sensitive to the cameras in the halls, knew he was being watched. "My grandfather requests an audience with you."
Despite the civility, a black anger etched each word, an unspoken promise of pain. The man had been denied his kill before and now merely bided his time. Still, what was the real source of his fury? His brother's death…or the fact that Gray had outfoxed him at the castle? Either way, behind all the cultured dress and mannerisms lurked something feral.
"This way," he said and turned away.
He again led the group down the hall, Gray and Monk in tow. As they proceeded, Gray searched the cells to either side. Empty. No sign of Fiona or Ryan. Were they still alive?
The hall ended at three steps that led up to a massive steel exterior door.
It stood open, guarded.
Gray stepped out of the sterile cellblock and into a dark and verdant wonderland. A jungle canopy climbed high all around, trailing thorny vines and flowering orchids. The dense leafy foliage hid the sky. Still Gray knew it must be very early in the morning, well before sunrise. Ahead, black Victorian-era iron lampposts marked paths that trailed off into a wild jungle. Birds twittered and squawked. Insects droned. Farther up in the canopy, a single hidden monkey announced them with a staccato, coughing call. His outburst woke a flame-feathered bird and set it to wing through the lower branches.
"Africa," Monk mumbled under his breath. "Sub-Saharan at least. Maybe equatorial."
Gray agreed. He estimated that it must be the morning of the next day. He'd lost eighteen to twenty hours. That could put them anywhere in Africa.
The guards escorted them along a gravel pathway. Gray heard the soft measured step of something large pushing through the undergrowth a few yards off the trail. But even so close, its shape could not be discerned. The forest offered plenty of cover if they could make a run for it.
But the chance never arose. The path ended after only fifty yards. A few more steps and the jungle fell away around them.
The forest opened into a stretch of manicured and lamplit greensward, a garden of dancing waters and flowing springs. Ponds and creeks trickled. Waterfalls burbled. A long-horned antelope lifted its head at their appearance, froze for a heartbeat, then took flight, bounding away into the forest cover.
The sky, clear above, twinkled with stars, but to the east, a pale rosy glow hinted at the approach of morning, maybe an hour off.
Closer at hand, another sight drew Gray's eye and fully captured his attention.
Across the gardens rose a six-story mansion of stacked fieldstone and exposed exotic woods. It reminded him of The Ahwahnee lodge in Yosemite, but this was much more massive, Wagnerian in scope. A woodland Versailles. It had to cover ten acres, rising in gables and tiers, balconies and balustrades. To the left, a glass-enclosed conservatory protruded, lit from within, blazing in the predawn darkness like a rising sun.
The wealth here was staggering.
They headed toward the manor house, across a stone path that split the water garden and arched over a few of the ponds and creeks. A two-meter-long snake slithered across one of the stone bridges. It was not identifiable until it reared up and fanned open its hood.
The snake guarded the bridge until the white-blond man broke off a long reed from a creekbed and shooed it away like an unruly cat. The snake hissed, fangs bared, but it backed down and sashayed off the planks and slid into the dark waters.
They continued on, unfazed. Gray's neck slowly craned as they approached the manor house.
He spotted another eccentricity about the construction. Spreading outward from the upper stories were forest-top pathways—wood-slatted suspended bridges—allowing household guests to step out of the upper-story levels and into the very jungle canopy itself. These paths were also strung with lamps. They cast a constellation through the dark jungle. Gray turned in a circle as he walked. They glowed all around.