Lara teams up with Ben Polecat in a tale of bikes, fights, revenge, and justice, with a little bit of romance thrown in Author's note: Lara can exist in any time and/or campaign setting. The events of the game could have taken place in the present, the near future, or even further beyond. By my placing Lara '20 minutes into the future', I think that I am remaining loyal to both her character and vision. Ben Polecat and all events he refers too are from the game Full Throttle, by Lucasarts. There is a great deal of info that I either extrapolated or just plain made up. I hope that the various powers that be understand that and do not send me to hell. Oh, Corley Motors is an obvious clone of Harley Davidson. My Ben expert thinks that the name 'Ultra Glide Classic' is too wussy for a Corley bike, but is an actual model of Harley, honest. This story can be considered either a stand alone, or maybe a preface to something bigger, if it is well received. As a writer, I have always found it easier to put real faces to the character's in my stories. I wrote this with the following faces in mind for my characters Lara: Every one has their favorite face for Ms. Croft, either Liz Hurley, Rhona Mitra or who ever. My personal favorite is Yancy Butler. She played opposite Van Damme in 'Hard Target' and Wesley Snipes in 'Drop Zone', and is currently on the CBS show 'Brooklyn South'. She doesn't have an accent, but her features are perfect. Ben: As far as looks, I think that Arnold from T2 is the best Ben. He has the look, the jaw, the jacket, and the bike. Of course, its harder to picture Arnie with out that accent, but he looks perfect. Gunny: Hulk Hogan without the mustache and with a crew cut. Jackson: Curtis Vondie Hall. He plays Dr. Hancock on 'Chicago Hope', but is probably bets known as 'Captian Prince' in Romeo and Juliet. Big Willie: Jerry from ER. Father Torque: This one kinda stumps me. Jerry Garcia? Ernest Hemmingway? Flo: Susan Sarandon, all frumpy like she is in 'Lorenzo's Oil' or 'White Palace' Williams: Thomas Gibson, the guy who plays Greg on 'Dharma and Greg'. He also starred in 'Far and Away' and until this season was Dr. Danny Nyland on Chicago Hope. Mo: Holly Hunter Ben & Lara Chapter One by Ross Jenkins, c 1997 Prologue, Voice Over Sometimes I can't help but think about Lara. She had this scent: herbal shampoo mixed with gun oil and leather, and she walked like queen. When she walked in the door in that two bit desert bar, I knew then that she was trouble. She said that she was just passing through, taking in the sights. I know its not her fault, but my life went to hell the day after I met her. Even now, I still don't know if my meeting Lara Croft was a blessing or a curse, but one thing is for sure, I'll never forget her. Chapter I-The Kickstand The scene was timeless. The sun had always been hot here, the sky always cloudless. The rocks had always looked old and weathered, even when they were young and new. There had always been lizards and snakes, sunning on the heat blasted rocks. Lichen and cacti had always been the only vegetable matter hardy enough to eke out a meager existence amidst the rocks and dust. The road though, that was new. Nothing in this desert stayed new long, and this road was no exception. It was faded and cracked, the yellow lines bleached almost white under the sun. It had seen many tires of all types over its hundred years of life, but no repair crew in almost twenty. It stretched in both directions like a tired gray ribbon, a tired line that went from horizon to horizon. The signs had all been shot, smashed down or rusted out decades ago, and the impotent government that ran what was left of the USA had more important things to do - like clothing and feeding its tired and weary population - than fixing up a road that nobody drove in the middle of nowhere. Inhabitants were few and far between in this endless desert, but despite that a single rider on a single motorcycle defied the heat and the aging road. She wore no helmet, and her waist long auburn hair trailed behind her in a single long braid. She wore a faded black T-shirt and ripped jeans under a cotton poncho to ward off the heat and sun. Her skin was deeply tanned, earned from hours under the sun, and her body was firm and hard, yet undeniably feminine. The worn leather gun belt was far from dainty, though, nor were the dull black 9mm auto loaders that it held. If she was tired, hot, sore or thirsty she didn't show it. Her eyes were hidden behind oval reflective sunglasses, and her expressionless face could have been made of stone. As Lara cruised the faded and cracked highway she pondered briefly whether or not she had made a good decision. She was an adventurer by nature, a professional thrill seeker, and crossing the lawless Arizona desert on motorcycle certainly qualified as dangerous. The tabloid reading masses had a morbid fascination with the 'new old west', and a prominent magazine had hired - no, dared - Lara to cross them. With the same questionable wisdom that had taken her on a one woman war with Natla Industries and the secrets of Atlantis, she had accepted. Lara very seldomly regretted her actions. Regret didn't move you in a forward direction and was a waste of energy. Ever since Lara had been 'awakened' in that plane crash 10 years ago she had moved nowhere but forward. Her father had accused her of having a death wish, and perhaps he was right. She had broken a number of bones over her career on top of being shot, stabbed, scraped and bit by various nasties of the world. Each scar - and there were more than a few - was a medal, though; a testimony that said 'I survived whatever you have thrown at me. I have cheated death at your hands and I am that much more alive.' She had perhaps bitten off more than she could chew on this latest expedition. The situation in the various towns and shanties was truly appalling, worse than the third world. It was worse because they existed right outside the shiny mirrored towers of modern American 'civilization'. There was enough money in the private sector, and indeed the government coffers, to repair these homes but those who had the money were unwilling to spend it on 'a bunch of outlaws and bandits'. Lara, in her previous installments to her patron, had written a great deal on the condition of the slums and the poor quality of life in the desert, but she knew that it would be 'sweetened' by her editor. She knew what he wanted: sex, violence and damsels in distress, with a few car chases thrown in. She'd had all that so far, with an emphasis on the second and the latter. There was next to no law in the badlands, and the roads and towns were ruled by gangs. Lara had fought some gangs, run from others. She had helped a pair of star-crossed lovebirds from rival gangs start a new life, been in a wall shattering bar brawl, and spent a long time on the road, doing 'rolling meditation.' It was starting to wear her down: the heat, the fighting, the ever present smell of petrol fumes. The man next to her had been killed for no reason yesterday. He had sat beside her in the bar, was about to order a drink when his head had suddenly exploded, covering Lara in bits of blood, brain and gore. The shooter had been high on some sort of drug; he had shot the man because he had reminded the kid of his father. It was completely random and meaningless. She had taken a thorough shower but still had bits of skull in her hair. The feelings and memories of the incident would remain with her longer still. She was just tired, and wanted this whole damned expedition to end. She was over 30 now, although not much over. Maybe she was getting to old for this. Her ruminations were cut short as she spied a gas station/restaurant silhouetted against the giant bloody red setting sun. The Kickstand. Her growling stomach reminded her that she hadn't eaten a meal since that morning. She pulled her bike, a Corley Ultra Glide Classic, into the dusty parking lot. A rusted out pickup truck and rusty garbage bin shared the lot with her, along with a dozen or so low slung forms of motorcycles. Lara grimaced as she killed her engine and pushed down the kickstand. A bike gang. Just what she needed to make her day complete. According to the decal painted on their gas tanks, they were called the 'Polecats'. Their crest was a boot, fist and chains surrounding a skull. How charming. As she walked up to the door, Lara wondered what temperament the gang was in. She wasn't in the mood for a fight. With a resigned sigh, she opened the door and stepped inside. * * * Life was good. Just Ben, his bike, his gang, and the road. The Polecats finally were out of jail after that whole Malcomn Corley thing. His bike was all fixed up now; it even still had that booster jet on, which was great. And the road, well the road was always there. Always would be. If Ben had these three things, he could be happy. Ya, life was good. The Polecats and the Vultures had a kind of truce now. The Cave Fish didn't seem to exist anymore, heh heh. Rumour had it that those psycho religious albinos were all in the bottom of a hole in their cave. Hmm. Wonder how that happened. All of this suited Ben just fine. The Polecats liked to live hard, fight hard and play hard. Drunken brawls, races with other bikers, harassing newbies as they entered the desert; all that was good fun. It was the ultimate expression of living life on your own terms. It was freedom. Ben's gang had never been into the bad stuff; enforcement, drugs, prostitution, raping and pillaging, all the things that the bigger badder gangs did in this lawless land. Ben would have loved to go rumble with them, kick their asses, but those gangs didn't fight fair. They had guns and rockets and they liked to use them. They gave biker gangs a bad name. Oh well. They had their turf, and the Polecats had theirs. As long as no one strayed over the invisible border into Polecat turf, then every body stayed happy. Ben and his men had stopped off at their old haunt, the Kickstand at the end of a long hot ride. Quohog was a biker's barkeep. He knew when to talk, what to talk about and when to shut up. Too many people tried to fill the silence with stupid chatter, Quohog didn't. He also had the best home made beer in the desert. His place was made for bikers as well. It was run down, the tables were scratched and the place stunk of old fried onions. The handlebars of Corley bikes old and present adorned the walls, and the jukebox, an old CD one dating back to the 90's, had none of that country or techno crap. It was always on the fritz and played what in wanted to when it wanted to, but that was ok. No one ever put any money in the damned thing anyway. Right now it was playing George Thorogood, 'Bad to the Bone'. Ya, that was good. Ben was on his second brew, meditating on the finer points of life, when they all heard the single motorcycle approaching from the west. Jackson, his second in command and best friend, went to the window. "Some chick on a Corley Ultra Glide, looks like a `32 or a `33. Man that's hot." Every single member of the Polecats worshipped at the shrine of Corley, and could name every make and model they had ever made. "What's hot, Jack, the chick or the bike?" Ben asked in his low growl of a voice. The other guys chuckled. "Both, man. That bike looks cherry and the girl is stacked." A pause, then he continued in a more serious tone of voice. "She's packing, Ben. An automatic on each hip. Looks like old Browning Hi Powers." Jackson had been a cop and a gun collector before he joined up with the Polecats, and he knew his stuff. At the mention of the guns, the gang grew a bit more serious, and no one said a word as they heard the door handle turn and that stupid electronic chime that Quohog had on his door. The fading evening light back lit the woman in the door, and Jackson had been right, she was stacked. Thin waist, big knockers, and long legs. The first thing you noticed about her, though, was that she was hard. Her tanned arms had muscles and she wore those guns like she knew how to use them. Her face was like stone. Ben saw all this through the reflection in the mirror behind the bar. The chick stopped in the open doorway to survey the room. She still had her mirror shades on, so no one could see exactly what she was looking at. The ancient juke box chose that moment to quit, and to Ben this felt like a moment out of an old clich‚ western. There was total silence as every eye in the room followed the chick. She walked slowly to the bar and stopped two stools from Ben. Looking at the silent Quohog for a moment, she sat down. Ben could see her cool face in the reflection of the mirror. "Could I have a menu please, and a bottle of mineral water." The voice surprised Ben. It was upper class British, low and cool just like the rest of the lady. It suited her, Ben thought. Hearing her talk like a truck driver in a Midwest accent just would have been wrong. The guys snickered at her mention of mineral water. Even Quohog let a chuckle go. "Mineral water? What do think I am lady, a spa? Would you like the cold cucumber soup or the escar-the fried snails?" The guys snickered. The lady - even in jest Ben couldn't bring himself to label her as a 'chick', she just wasn't the type - didn't even crease a brow. "I will take anything bottled, if you please, and something to eat that isn't fried." She took off her shades. Her eyes were a rich brown, and Ben was startled by their intensity. "I am not in a mood for cucumbers and detest fried snails, thank you very much." The corner of her mouth went up just a bit, or maybe Ben just imagined it. Quohog grunted and reached below the bar for something. "I got some chicken pot pies in the freezer, or lasagna if that's what turns your crank." He placed an old dusty bottle of Bud in front of her. The woman stopped and thought a moment. "Chicken pot pie, please." She took the bottle in dainty hands and twisted off the top. She looked at the dusty bottle disdainfully, then glanced at Quohog. He produced an equally dusty mug and placed it in front of her with a smirk. "It's frozen. It'll take about 20 minutes." "20 minutes is fine, thank you." Her eyes were surveying the bar through the mirror as she poured the beer carefully into the mug. Every eye was glued to her as she sipped at the golden brew. Ben watched her in the mirror, still quietly drinking his brew. Her dark eyes met his in the mirror and locked on. I'm just as strong as you are her eyes said to him. Try anything with me and you'll regret it. Ben wasn't cowed. You don't scare me, Lady his eyes replied. I've got my gang with me. You're on my turf and a long way from home. She met his gaze coolly and without flinching. Ben noticed that her hands never strayed too far from the guns on her hips. "Please? Thank You?" A loud sarcastic voice rang out from behind her. Ben could see her body tense as she locked onto the person talking in the bar mirror. It was Bill, who the guys called 'Big Willie'. It was more for the size of his ego than any outsized body parts. "Where you think you are lady? Buckingham manor?" Big Willie walked up to the bar and sat next to her. Several other of the guys chortled as they watched the show. "Buckingham is a palace, not a manor," the lady corrected in her singsong British accent. Ben saw her hand opposite big Willie rest on her thigh next to her one pistol. "and it never hurts to practice good manners." She continued in her calm tone. "You should try it sometime." Big Willie's brow for a moment as he thought about what she had said. Eventually he came to the conclusion that she hadn't insulted him. He leaned into her and grinned, showing off his missing front teeth. "Why don't you teach me." The woman moved and suddenly Willie was standing, yelling in pain as his arm was held at an unnatural angle. "Very well," the woman continued in her prim tones. "Will you please remove your hand from my leg before you lose it." Willie said nothing and gasped in pain as she increased the pressure on her wrist lock, then without warning let him go. Willie deflated like a balloon and backed off, holding his wrist. "Thank you. You see, its simple enough that even you can get it." Willie bristled at her mocking tone and came back to her angrily. "You bitch!" he yelled and grabbed for her arm. The lady slapped his hand aside and slid back off the stool, her other hand moving to her pistol. It was only half drawn when Ben grabbed her wrist. "Don't start with the guns, lady." He growled, the first words he had said to her. "It's a fight you won't win." As he said it, there was the unmistakable sound of multiple guns cocking. The lady pulled her hand free of Ben's, not without difficulty, and looked about the room. Every man except Willie and Ben had their hands on or had drawn some sort of gun. Even Quohog had his hand below the bar, where Ben knew that he kept an old Winchester Defender. "Don't worry about Willie. He'll keep his paws off you." As Ben said this, he met Willie's eyes and added a non verbal or you'll answer to me. Willie backed off and sat down with a grumble. "I came hear to eat dinner," she lady said stiffly as she deliberately moved her hands away from her two guns, "not start a fight. I'm more than willing to eat in peace if you are." She turned to him and locked her gaze with his. No mirror this time. Her eyes continued the conversation. But if you aren't, I'll take as many as I can with me before I fall. It wasn't a hollow bravado in her eyes like Willie's. Ben saw strength and cold determination there. If it came to a fight, he was pretty sure that he could take her, but decided that right now it wasn't worth the effort. Ben looked away first, submitting in their visual duel. For now, he thought. He moved back to his bar stool and signaled Quohog to give him another brew. "Ben Polecat," he said, by way of introduction. "This is my gang." He took a sip. "Polecat? Is that your real name?" "Real enough." But it wasn't, of course. It sounded a hell of a lot better that Benjamin Butterwell from Springfield, Indiana. "I'm Lara Croft." She waited and looked at him. What? Was her name supposed to mean something? If it did, he wasn't aware of it. He steered the conversation towards a much better subject. "Nice bike you got there," he commented in a neutral tone of voice. "It's a Corley. '32?" The lady eased back on her stool, but her eyes never stopped surveying the room through the mirror.. "Thirty three, I think. Whatever year it was before they switched away from the Intel engine processor." Her tone was as neutral as Ben's was, though perhaps a bit more guarded. "That's the '32. They switched to some damn Jap computer." His voice dripped with disdain. "It totally screwed the bikes up. They bought out Apple in '37 and switched processors again." "You know your bikes." She commented, sipping at the ancient beer in her mug and grimacing. "American beer tastes like piss." Ben grunted. "I gotta know bikes. They're my life, and you get used to the beer." He added. Behind them, seeing that there was no fight, the guys resumed talking and horsing around. Big Willie kicked the juke box until it begun playing again. "Not bloody likely" he heard her mutter. The two continued to drink in companionable silence for a while, until Willie brought her obviously freezer burnt pot pie to her. She looked at it doubtfully, gave a mental shrug and began to eat it. How she thought of it was obvious on her face after the first bite. "Anything in his freezer's been there at least 10 years," Ben mentioned. "The only thing that Quohog can make that isn't gonna kill you is a burrito. And that's because his wife makes them in the morning." "Go to hell, Polecat." Growled Quohog. "If you don't wanna eat my food, you can get your ass out that door any time you feel like it." Ben ignored him and continued to drink. Quohog grumbled about respect and retreated to the kitchen. The juke box decided that it didn't like what it was playing and switched to the Eagle's Greatest Hits. Hotel California. "I apologize if I offend you, but is there something horribly significant about a Corley motorcycle? You seem very knowledgeable on the subject." She pushed the empty plate away from her and took another grimacing sip of her beer. Ben looked at her in astonishment. What was she, drunk? What was Corley motors? "Corley's are the only real bikes left on the market." He said with pride. "Only a Corley has soul. Any other bike's just a piece of metal." No truer words could come from a bikers mouth. Behind him, the other Polecats murmured agreement and clinked their glasses together. He even heard a sniff. "I wasn't aware that is was such a .personal experience." Lara said. "I went to Corley Motors once." Ben's voice was thick. "It was like a kind of religious pilgrimage for me." Yah, one with lots of butt kicking he added to himself. "The old man passed on last year," he continued. "It was pretty hard. Old Man Corley was pretty important to all of us." He didn't add that he had been framed for the old man's murder, and that his gang had been arrested by the usually non existent cops as assessories. "Who runs the company now?" Lara asked. "His daughter, Maureen." Emotion crept into his voice, he couldn't help it. Mo had a special place in his heart. If only. ah, hell. "She almost lost control of the company, though, to some fat slimy slob named Rip Burger. He wanted to make mini-vans." There was hatred and disgust in his voice, and it was echoed by the angry murmurs of his gang behind him. Lara looked at him blankly for a moment. "Is there some horrible sin in making mini-vans that I don't know about?" "Corley's about bikes!" Ben snarled. "It's what the old man wanted. It's how he ran the company. If they started making yuppie trash, then the old man and everything he stood for would have been nothing but dust. Luckily, Mo-I mean Maureen found out about it and put a stop to it." With a lot of help from me. "What happened to this Rip person?" Lara asked. His voice was flat. "He took a long drive off a short cliff." "I see." She finished off her beer and for a while they both drank silently. The jukebox changed its tune again, playing some Van Halen. Panama. "What's a fancy lady like you doing riding all alone across this desert on a vintage hog?" Ben asked after a while. For a while the gorgeous enigma named Lara said nothing, drinking down a second bottle of 'well aged' beer that had appeared in front of her. "Taking in the sights." Ben snorted. "What sights? There's nothing out here except desert and gangs." "Maybe those are the sights I wanted to see." Ben looked at her. "Lady, you must have some death wish." The comment seemed to shake her a bit, but Ben had no idea why. "You ride around by your self looking like that looking for gangs?" She said nothing. "You almost got taken out by us, and we're small potatoes next to the Rott- wheelers, or the dragons." She smiled enigmatically. "Did I?" Her eyes were steel boring into his. I would have taken most you with me they said to him. Whatever. Granted she thought she was tough, but one woman against twelve? No one was that tough, not even Ben. He was close, though. Against his own will, a charitable thought popped into his head. "We could escort you to wherever you're going." Why the hell had he said that? The Polecats weren't an escort service. Granted she was hot, but it took more than a pretty face and breasts and ass and legs to stop him from thinking straight. "That's awfully big of you." "For a fee, of course." Ben added. At least she hadn't addled his brain too much for him to forget the bottom line. "Of course." Her face was unreadable. It was like a slap in the face. He offered his help and she-what had she done? Not agreed, not thanked him, not turned him down. Why did that piss him off so much? "Look, lady, if you don't have some one watching your-"ass he wanted to say, but didn't. "-behind, its either gonna get shot off or gang banged. You need us." Lara slowly, elegantly, stood up and threw a bill onto the table. "Thank you for the offer Mr. Polecat, but I'm a big girl. I have been taking care of myself for a very long time." Again the juke box decided to quit, and again every eye in the bar, including Ben's, followed her and her swaying behind as she left the bar. No one said a word as they heard the motor start up with that special Corley purr. Her headlight headed off west. Jackson whistled after an appropriate moment of silence. "That is both the hottest and coldest bitch I have seen in my whole life." Ben just grunted. The juke box decided to turn on again, playing Nirvana this time. Ben stood up and slapped the counter. "Lets ride, Polecats. People to do and places to see." Without another word he went outside to his bike. Even in this screwed up country, nothing smelled better than desert air at night, unless it was desert air at night while cruising on a Corley. The other members of the Polecats straggled out of the bar, getting on jackets and starting their hogs. "I'll pay you later, Quohog." Ben yelled over the revving motors. "Once I've got some cash." Quohog yelled back some reply, but all Ben heard was 'Deadbeat'. Hmph. Jerk. Without another word or thought, Ben led Jackson, Big Willie and the rest of the gang onto the cracked faded highway. They headed west. Ben & Lara Chapter Two by Ross Jenkins, c 1997 Chapter II-Calm Before the Storm Date line: Baron's Head As jaded as this land has forced me to be, from time to time some things still genuinely surprise me. Last evening as I entered a hole-in-the-desert bar with a parking lot full of motorcycles, the last thing I expected to be a part of was a religious experience. Religious is questionable, but the people I met were definitely an experience. I entered expecting a fight. Bikers are notoriously territorial, especially of their watering holes. After the come-on/grope session that has become sort of a tradition in these parts, I came up against something truly surprising. It wasn't the beer; I still haven't found an American beer that does not taste like watered down urine. It wasn't the food; it tasted like sawdust. It was a sermon about biking, complete with a congregation and the occasional 'amen'. The local gang leader, with the questionable name of 'Ben Polecat', which he surely wasn't born with, read me the holy writ of motor cycling. That writ is motor cycles, or more precisely, Corley Motors motorcycles. If I can remember his wording correctly 'A Corley has soul, any other bike is just a piece of metal.' I find it fascinating that these people, who probably don't know what the Magna Carta is or when it was signed, or know the birth date of George Washington, were able to identify the year of my bike at a glance as well as give me a run down of the nationality of its parts, and a brief company history. It would not surprise me if they all had lap top computers with stock portfolios-with only one stock. After saying all this I must congratulate Corley Motors, not only for instilling such fierce customer loyalty, but for seemingly also creating a way of life. Lara scanned over what she had just written before smiling briefly and uploading it to her editor in London. It wasn't a bad first draft. Her editor would probably axe half of it and send a mangled, unrecognizable version of it back to her tonight to 'correct'. She had learned not to take it personally. It was just that no one in the blasted newspaper community knew good writing if it bit them in the arse, that was all. She pushed her lap top computer away from her and lay back on the bed that she had been sitting cross legged on. For a moment last evening she was sure that everything was going to break into violence. It wouldn't have been the first time. Perhaps she had been a bit flip with that biker and his hands, but she had always been a creature of the moment. Some things just felt right when they happened, like that did, consequences be damned. Despite what Mr. Polecat (surely he hadn't been born with that name) had said, she knew that she could have come out of the situation intact. She wasn't silly enough to start gunning down bikers in their own bar, but a show of force, of balls to coin the American term, was essential. If they didn't think that she was capable of drawing and using her guns then they would have walked all over her. Still, all in all, the evening had passed peaceably enough. The leader, Polecat, had been tougher than she had expected. There was iron in that man's gaze. He had been through a great deal in his life, but still was calm enough to extend the peace. He had even offered to protect her, for a fee of course. It was sort of charming in a chauvinistic way. Still, there was something about the man.she was sure that they would meet again. With a sigh she rolled out of the bed and into the shower, taking her gun belt in the washroom with her. She had learned that it was wise to be forearmed in this land- in fact in any land. Or to coin another American phrase 'your not paranoid when you know they're out to get you'. Both guns, Browning HP-35 Mk3's, were loaded with a round in the chamber. It was an act of questionable safety, but Lara cared for them well and did not often have the time to charge the weapons before using them. She had ridden into the small town of Baron's Head late last evening, two hours after leaving the charming company of the Polecats. Currently she was the sole occupant of the 'Baron's Head Hotel'. The owner of the place, and apparently its only employee, was a feisty woman in her mid 40's named Flo whom Lara had taken a liking to immediately. The paint in her room was faded and cracked, the sheets were old, the sink and tub were rusty, and the hot water was temperamental at best. Still, it was luxurious compared to some of the hostels and dives that she had stayed in during the last few weeks. After a short shower using the last of her herbal shampoo - the dry desert air was hell on her hair - Lara dressed in the same shorts and tank top that had gone with her to hell - or was that the depths of Atlantis? - and back. The were worn in a few places and had a few holes in them, but were comforting in their familiarity. She didn't plan to do any riding today, so the brief attire would do just fine. Lara had always been a sun worshipper and used strong sun block as a grudging concession to the severely depleted ozone layer. As she began the lengthy process of braiding her hair, she switched on the radio. It was playing a truly awful country song that had apparently been on the charts for a while. It was about a man who was happy about being the last man on Earth, because he could finally kiss his lady love. She shook her head in disgust. Only in America. The sun was about ¬ of the way up as she walked down stairs. Flo was sitting behind the counter reading an E- zine. "Hey, honey," she called out in her thick Texas twang as she continued to recline against the counter. "I owe you a breakfast. I can make you some bacon and eggs." Ugh. Americans ate to much grease. "Could I just have coffee and toast, please?" Lara asked politely as she surveyed the area. No other vehicles in the parking lot or the road, and no one else in the lobby. "Sure, honey, if you like." Said Flo as she tossed the E-zine to the counter and moved to the door labeled 'Employee's only.' Flo had obviously been a beautiful lady once, but time and gravity had taken their toll. Her hair was an obviously artificial shade of red and Lara was sure that her cleavage was somewhat enhanced. She reeked of cheap perfume and wore far too much makeup. Still, she was a sweet lady behind those old tired eyes. Lara liked her. "I make great bacon and eggs, though." She called out. Lara was still surveying the area through the main window. "No, thank you." She said absently as she watched a building that looked to be an auto garage. There were a number of bikes parked in front of the place. Flo clucked as she went back into the kitchen. "Your loss, honey." The town of Baron's Head looked even more tired and shabby by day light, and that was hard to do. It had looked pretty sad when she had first ridden in. Two out of three buildings were obviously abandoned. Any glass visible was cracked and covered in a steel cage. There were various forms of graffiti, some gang signatures (she recognized the Polecat's crest at one point) and others were just the results of restless youth. Street lights were bent and dented, or just removed entirely. There seemed to be no active trash removal system. Abandoned and stripped cars sat about, awaiting decent burial, vying for space with old boxes and newspapers. She reflected again on the sadness of it all as Flo came back into the room. "Breakfast's ready, honey. You'll have to come back here to get it though." She popped her head back into the kitchen. For a moment Lara contrasted this to her pampered life with her father and smiled. In every way, except perhaps for the freshness of the bread, Lara far preferred this. It was more honest. She walked into the kitchen where Flo had turned what looked to have been the employee lounge into a small dining nook. Steaming coffee in a chipped mug sat next to some fresh toast and margarine. Flo sat on the other side of the table, drinking coffee and leaving lipstick smudges on the cup. She chatted about men, the desert, and men as Lara ate. Lara spread what turned out to be soy-spread on her toast in silence, pleased that in this culinarily challenged corner of the world that they still couldn't screw up toasted bread. Butter, or even margarine would have been nice, though. "I thought all you English types drank tea." Flo said around her coffee. "I used to," said Lara as she sipped her coffee, "but I've been travelling for quite a number of years and have gotten quite hooked, I'm afraid. I find I need that jolt that coffee brings to get up in the morning." She a bite of toast. It tasted a bit old, but beggars can't be choosers. "I still drink tea in the afternoons, though." "I ain't got none, honey. I hope you know that." Lara smiled. "No worry, Flo. I brought my own supply." The lady laughed. "You're real prepared." She paused and looked at Lara. "What's a broad like you doing here in Baron's Head anyway?" Lara lifted her eye brows. "A broad like me?" The word didn't seem right coming from her mouth. Flo didn't seem to notice. "Yah, like you. Gorgeous like a Holowood star, muscles like Miss Universe and armed like Rambo." Lara chuckled at the imagery. "You ride a Corley, but you don't look or act like a biker chick." "And what do I act like?" Lara asked, amused. She sipped her coffee. "Well, shoot, you know." She gestured with her hands. Unfortunately, she still held the coffee cup, which sloshed. Lara quickly moved her toast out of harms way. "That accent, those manners. Like the queen or something." "Well I'm not the queen. I used to be a Lord's daughter, but he disowned me." Flo was shocked. "Disowned you? What the hell for?" "Being armed like Rambo, muscled like Miss Universe and acting like Indiana Jones." Lara said with a straight face. "He felt it wasn't a proper way for a lady to act." "No shit! What the hell are you doing here, anyway?" "I'm writing a series of articles about the New West. I look for what's interesting and dangerous." "No shit!" Flo repeated. "No shit." Lara agreed. "Is that what your looking for in Baron's Head? Trouble?" She gave Lara a worried look. "Yes, but I prefer to observe it from a distance when possible." "About the only place in town that's anything is the local watering hole, The Horny Bull." "Charming name." Lara commented. "Ya, well, anything interesting in this town's gonna happen there. If you want dangerous, that's the place, too. All the bikers hang out there, too. You might want to steer clear of them." Flo warned. "I've met some." Lara informed her. "I think that I can handle them." "You did, honey? Who?" "The Polecats." Flo cackled. "Ben?" Her voice was almost a shriek. "Now there is a hunk of man. Those shoulders, that jaw." Her eyes were bright. "I'll ride on his handlebars any time." She paused. "Shoot, honey, him and his gang are a bunch of pussy cats. They like to drive hard, get in a fight every now and then and growl a lot, but they are tame compared to some of the bad asses that ride in this desert. Why, shoot, there are some that would just as soon shoot you as look at you." "I've met some of those types, too." Lara said quietly, thinking of the man she had sat beside two days ago. "Thank you for your concern, Flo, but I can take care of myself." Lara wiped her hands on a napkin and stood. "Thank you for breakfast, Flo. it was wonderful." Flo snorted and shook her head. "It wasn't very much, honey. If you want to mess it up with the bad boys, go right ahead." She stood also and gathered up breakfast dishes. "Don't say old Flo didn't warn you." She began to turn away, but stopped. "But, honey?" Lara paused and looked back. "Yes?" "There is some new bruiser in town who is down right evil. Goes by the name of Gunny. They say he's truly bad ass and is recruiting for some new gang. Stay clear of him, whatever you do." She turned away and placed the dishes in the sink. "Thank you. I'll be careful." Flo gave some sort of 'mmhm' as Lara left the kitchen. The garage across the street peaked her interest. A name, 'Mike's', was spray painted over the door. "Excuse me?" Lara poked her head in the garage. An echoing conversation from the back stopped. "Excuse me, is there a mechanic here?" * * * The Polecats drove into Baron's Head 15 strong. Their crest was displayed on both their bikes and jackets. Ben drove in his customary position at the head of the bikes, with the rest formed two lines behind him. All you could hear was the sound of well tuned bike engines. It was like a symphony from God. The column rolled to a stop across from the Baron's Head Inn. "Ben, what the hell do you want to see Flo for?" Jackson asked from his bike. "Last time you got within five miles of her it took all of us to stop her from dragging you to the alter. You changed your mind?" "Hell, no." growled Ben as he shut off his engine. "That broad has so much make up and perfume she's a fire hazard. Every time she light's up I think she's gonna explode." He had bad memories about the last time that old floozy tried to get her hooks into him. It still made him shudder. "Hey, Ben, I think you two make a cute couple," called out Duke, one of the younger members. "It's one of those May/December things." The guys laughed. "Or is more like a September/December thing?" Everybody was a comedian. "You're a riot, Duke. Stow it." Jackson spoke again. "What are we doing here, Ben?" "I hear Father Torque's in town. Gonna pay my respects." It was at least partly the truth. "Ya, it ain't got nothing to do with that gloss gray 32' Ultra Glide parked out front of Flo's place?" Jackson asked as he got off his machine. "We all know who rides that thing." The other guys chuckled, whistled or howled, except Big Willie, who just scowled. "What was her name? Kraft?" "Croft," Ben answered. "Lara Croft." Jackson slapped his gang leader and friend on the shoulder. "There ain't nothing wrong with going pussy hunting, man, but at least admit it to your self that's what your doing." He chuckled. "And that's one pussy that's worth hunting, too." That much was the truth. Ben shrugged off the man's hand. "I'm just gonna see Father Torque," he growled. Jackson just laughed quietly and shook his head. "Put a sock in it, cupid. Take guys out and go get a drink. I gotta go see the old man." Ben trudged across Mike's Bikes as the others drove off in a cloud of oh-so-sweet exhaust. It was like cologne. Couldn't Jackson just stick to bikes? Ben didn't need anyone to tell him what he was thinking, and that lady Croft had nothing to do with why he brought the Polecats to Baron's Head. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. The garage was pretty empty, but still smelled of acetylene and old oil. Mike was probably sacked out; he liked to party pretty late, but the garage was open and he could hear the Father's gravelly voice echoing from inside. There was another voice, higher and feminine. Ben walked inside and went to the back where he knew Father Torque liked to work on his bike. He heard light gentle laughter that seemed too cultured to be here, and he knew who the Father was talking to. Croft. It sounds pretty, like a trickle of gas pouring out of a barrel. Ben scowled. Where the hell had that thought come from? He made plenty of noise as he walked back. Sneaking up behind a biker, even an gnarled old leathery one like the Father, was a quick way to get hurt. He had a feeling that sneaking up on Lara was bad for your health, too. They were both there, sitting on crates and sharing a thermos of coffee. Torque was saying something and Lara's beautiful laughter filled the air once more. Man, he thought, just shoot me now. He refused to notice how good looking she was in that tight tank top and short shorts. Her laughter cut off abruptly as she swung around and spotted him. Her eyes met his, sizing him up. Ben locked gazes to hers and smirked when she looked away first. "Ben," Father Torque raised his hand in greeting. His voice was as old and scratchy as the desert. "Good to see you." He could have been carved out of stone, that man. His skin was like old leather and his long hair and beard were solid white. "This is the guy who runs my gang now." He said to Lara. "He's done the Polecats proud, except for that whole jail thing last year." Ben returned the gesture and grimaced. Get your entire gang framed for murder once and you never live it down. "You used to lead the Polecats?" Lara asked the old biker. "Yup." He took a sip of coffee. "I threw in the towel a few years ago, gave the gang to Ben." He looked at Ben fondly. "For a guy who's supposed to be retired, you hang around an awful lot." Ben told the old man. "What's the matter? Run out of guys to beat up on the Old Mine Road?" He did his best to ignore Lara and her legs which seemed to on forever in those shorts. Torque chuckled and didn't answer. He extended his hand and Ben took it. The man still had a grip like a vice and Ben tried not to wince. The old biker motioned Ben to an empty crate between him and Lara. Ben sat with the sound of creaking leather. "Hello again Mr. Polecat." Lara said politely. Mr. Polecat? Ben couldn't remember any one ever calling him that. It seemed weird. Ben ignored her. Torque barked out a loud laugh. "Ha! Mr. Polecat, that's a fresh one." He slapped Ben on the shoulder, a blow which almost knocked him off the crate. The old man still packed a hell of a punch, and Ben wasn't a small man. "Call him Ben, darlin," Torque said. "Polecat may be what he calls himself, but he sure as hell ain't no mister." That was the truth. Ben nodded to her, wishing she would go away so that he could pay his respects to the old biker. "Croft." "Charmed." She nodded back coolly and made no signs of leaving. Figured. Father Torque looked at the two of them. "You two know each other?" Ben sighed. Looked like there was no way out of this. "She blew into the Kickstand last night. We said hi." And then she left his look told her. She was either too dense to figure out what he meant or was just ignoring him. Torque nodded and smiled. "Good, then I don't gotta introduce you two." Ben just shook his head and did his level best to ignore Croft and her long legs. It wasn't enough. "How you doin', Father?" Torque shrugged. "I need a lube job and new fuel pump. New set of shock of shock absorbers wouldn't hurt either. Other than that, just fine I guess." Ya, right. The only way that Torque would leave was if some one punched his ticket. He was too tough and stubborn to die. "How's the bike doin'?" Ben asked. Torque's bike was older than he was, which was saying a lot. It was a classic Corley that dated back to before the turn of the century. How he got parts for the damned thing was a mystery to everyone in the desert. Torque beamed and looked at his antique hog like a favorite child, which it was, really. "Better than me, that's for damn sure." He took a slug off coffee. "I just came into Mike's to change the oil and give the damn thing a check up." Ben took a moment to admire the low rider's classic lines. "Treasure like that needs a lot of love." He commented. Torque chuckled. "Ya, love and a new set of plugs." Ben turned back to the older man, getting Lara out of his field of vision. "How long you been in town? Any one else been into see you?" "I came in coupla' days ago. Only people who came into see me were a coupla Vultures." The Father shook his head sadly. "Ain't like the old days, I tell you." Lara spoke from behind him. "What do you mean?" Torque sagged and suddenly looked 10 years older. He almost looked.frail. "That's what I was telling you before Bennie came in." His scratchy voice was full of sadness. "Back in my day, when the Earth was cooling," he added with a twinkle in his eye. Maybe the man wasn't so old after all. "Things were different. People had more respect." No. "Thing's aren't different." Ben's voice was hard. "You've got plenty of respect, where it counts." Torque chuckled sadly. "Ha. You come see me, so do the Vultures, but there are lots of bikers out there that don't give me the time of day anymore. Times are changing, Ben." Ben struck his fist on his leg hard. "Ya, well, I ain't." It was a declaration. "When I'm on the road, I'm indestructible, and that ain't gonna change." The older man smiled and looked at Ben affectionately. "See what I mean, darlin'?" He asked Lara. Ben could hear her smile, even though he was doing his damnedest not to look at her. "Yes, I do." She said. "Huh?" Morbid curiosity got the best of him and Ben turned to look at her. The Father seemed to have regained his good spirits. "We were talking about you before you came in." the old man told Ben. Oh great. Just he needed. "Hope it was the censored version." Torque laughed and slapped Ben's shoulder again. Pain flared. Man, that guy's hands were like bricks. "You don't have a censored version, Ben. Ain't been around long enough." He shook his head and chuckled. "We've been talking about the gangs and the Code of the Road. Your name came up." "I've learning all about you, Ben," she said with a smile. It softened up her normally hard features. Made her almost...human. "From a number of sources." Ben groaned. "Great. Just what I need." Lara's smile took a nasty edge. "Yes, I had a lovely conversation about you with a woman named Flo." Now everything was perfect. "Don't listen to a damn thing she says." Ben growled. "That lady ain't playing with a full deck." Lara raised her eye brows. "She seems quite taken with you." "Ya, well, it ain't mutual." Lara looked at him a moment. "She seems to think that it is." Couldn't she just drop the subject? "Like I said, she ain't firing on all cylinders." Lara shrugged. "Yes, well she had some information that you may find interesting." Ben shook his head. "What cock and bull story has Flo come up with now?" "It was about a new gang forming." That got his attention. "Hmm? I haven't heard anything about that." Father Torque spoke up. "I have. Some guy's in the area sending out feelers, trying to round up some independents." Not on my turf they aren't. "Either of you got a name or place where this guy can be found?" He bit out the words. Torque shook his head sadly. "Not me. Like I said, no one talks to old Torque any more." Lara broke in before Ben could respond. "Flo said that his name was Gunny, and that he might be in the Horny Bull tonight." Ben rubbed the stubble on his jaw thoughtfully. "Hmm." "Gonna pay the guy a visit?" Torque asked. Ben got to his feet. "Ya, I think I will." He slammed one fist into the ball of his hand, planning violence. Father Torque stood and extended his hand in farewell. Ben took it and felt the bones in his hand creak. Lara stood as well. "Give 'em hell, Polecat." Torque said. Ben tried to ignore the fact that his hand had been turned into hamburger. Again. "Always." Without saying anything to Croft he turned and started to walk out. "And watch your back!" Torque called out. "Worry about his back, not mine." Ben called back. As he walked out of the garage, he could still hear the two of them talking. "Heh. That really got a bug up his shorts. Reminds me of me." the Father said. There was pride in his voice. Lara's voice came through faint but clear. "I'll try not to hold that against you." Ben frowned. Women. Torque's laugh came through loud and clear. "Hah! What were we talking about before Ben came in?" He asked. Ben shook his head and got onto his bike. "We were talking about the petrol uprisings." "Right. Well, I was pretty young then, but I remember. pass me that wrench, would you." Anything else was drowned out in the rumble of Ben's bike. He drove off to meet up with his guys. The Polecats were going to spend the evening in Baron's Head, looking for a man named Gunny. Ben & Lara Chapter Three by Ross Jenkins, c 1997 Chapter III-The Brawl "You heard of a guy named Gunny?" Ben yelled to the bartender in the Horny Bull over the cacophony of the live music. God knows how, but they had hauled in a live band to play tonight. They weren't bad either. The leader singer was a dark haired chick in a black leather mini skirt and she and her band were dishing out a kind of retro bluesy- rock. [Author's Note: The band both looks and sounds like Alannah Myles]They were inside a plexi cage that showed signs of extreme wear with explosions from hurled bottles and mugs and various stains caused by beer, vomit and blood. It was part of the ambience that made the Horny Bull the classy establishment that it was. The bartender thought about Ben's words for a second and eventually came to the conclusion that they did not include the words 'beer' or 'drink'. He ignored Ben and turned to serve someone else. That jerk. Ben reached out and grabbed the man's collar, then pulled him bodily onto the bar. "You know," he growled into the bent over bartender's ear. "If I thought that you were pissing me off on purpose, I'd probably rip your head off and put it on my bike." The bartender froze like a deer in headlights. "I asked you if you heard of a man named Gunny. You might want to think about whether you got an answer for me or not." Ben pushed the bartender away from him. The guy almost fell, but caught himself and came shakily to his feet. "Well?" Ben growled. He was suddenly alone at the bar. Just the pasty faced bartender was left. The guy paused, licking his lips, thinking rapidly. "He-he never comes in before 10." "What does the jerk-wad look like?" "Big. Bigger than you. Older too. Has a brush cut and bad sunburn on his face. Guy's built like a tank." Hmm. Gunny may have been bigger, but Ben was tougher. And with a name like Gunny, Ben was smarter, too. Ben's face was stone. "You see the guy, you tell him the Polecat's want to see him." He cracked his knuckles. "And gimme a beer." The beer here was homebrewed, but wasn't as good as Quohog's stuff. The bartender, rubbing his neck, drew Ben a mug of dark beer. Ben took it and sipped slowly, scoping the scene. All the Polecats were here in varying states of drunkenness. He'd told them to try and take it easy tonight, but a gang leader's influence only went so far. He didn't want to push his men farther then they would go. He saw some Vultures around, which made him think of two things: Mo, and trouble. Before running off to head up Corley, Mo had run with the gang for who knows how long, and it was because of her that the Polecats had the uneasy peace with the Vultures that they had. It didn't help much that Ben had crashed their rolling headquarters, the fuselage of an old C-330 transport plane, into the Poyahoka gorge. The Vultures were mostly all chicks and they ran under the charge of this big fat cow named Suzie. Depending on which end of the PMS teeter totter she was on, the Vultures would either side for or against the Polecats if, hell when, a fight broke out tonight. The rest of the bar was full of various independents, groupies and wannabes. Father Torque was at a back table, sharing brews and stories with some other old war horses. He saw Flo off at the other bar in full war regalia, her ample charms oozing out of her too tight clothing. Oh, great. Like this can't get any worse tonight. As soon as he thought it, he knew he was wrong, because then he saw her. Croft. She was playing pool with five guys drooling all around her. Her hair was undone, cascading down across her back and onto the pool table. It made her look a lot softer, like a real lady. She wasn't wearing her guns and still had that worn, almost transparent, tank top on, though she had changed from those shorts, too bad, to a pair of tight black jeans that fit her just as well. She was bending over the pool table to take a shot and was gathering a large group of admirers. He knew the guys that she was playing with, knew that it was only so long before they tried to grab what they were ogling. Not knowing exactly why he was doing it, Ben finished his beer and starting walking towards the group. He was protecting her, he told himself. She was up against five bozos with no guns to back her up. If she pulled the same crap on them that she had on Big Willie last night, those guys were going to eat her alive. She thought that she was tough, but no one survived five on one. Well, maybe me. The band broke into a slow bump and grind song, Black Velvet, that had all the local love birds flocking to the faded dance floor. The low heavy bass followed Ben's footsteps as he stalked towards the pool table. He couldn't really tell which of her fan club Lara was playing against, but whoever it was, she was kicking his butt. Somehow that didn't surprise him. He glared at the guys as he stepped up to the table. Lara was leaning over the table lining up her shot at the eight ball, giving all assembled a nice view. Ben shoved the nearest guy away, and stood next to Lara. "Get lost." He growled to the group as a whole. Some looked like they wanted to protest, but then saw look of impending violence in Ben's dark eyes. For a moment they wondered whether Lara's obvious assets were worth the beating that Ben would give them and decided that there was easier prey elsewhere. They left slowly, not wanting it to look like they were running with their tails between their legs, but they left. Only Ben was standing there as Lara brought her cue forward and sent the eight ball rolling towards the corner pocket. As it fell with a faint click she slowly straightened up. Like a cat. She surveyed the now empty table then looked over at Ben. "That was rather rude." She commented. Ben shrugged and crossed his arms with the sound of creaking leather. "I flunked out of charm school." She might have had a hint of smile, but it might have been the shadows. "Hello, Ben. Having a good evening?" I haven't found Gunny yet, Flo wants to jump my bones and for some reason I'm here with you. Everything is perfect. "No one's died yet." He said dryly. "Can't be that bad." "Is that how you normally measure good nights around here?" Lara asked wryly. She moved to a counter set against the wall and picked up a half full mug of beer. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your charming company?" She asked, then took a sip of the homebrew and grimaced. Ben smirked. "Still haven't found a beer good enough for you?" She shook her head and put down the mug. "Not on this continent." A would be Romeo came to the table, smiling at Lara. Ben glared at him and the guy took off. "You picked the wrong place to come into unarmed." He grunted. Why do I give a damn? He asked himself. Lara moved around the pool table, pulling up pool balls. "I'll manage," she said lightly. With her hair down and in those clothes, it didn't look like she could manage much. She sure looked hot, though. "You look like a slut." Ben snapped. "You keep up what your doing and your gonna end up pulling the biggest train that's ever gone through this desert." Pulling a train was slang for group sex. She raised an elegant eyebrow skeptically. "Thank you for your concern, Ben, but I can handle myself." Ben snorted. "Ya, right." Who the hell did this lady think she was? "Like you handled my boys in the Kickstand last night?" She smiled menacingly. Without her guns and dressed like she was, it didn't make much of an impression. "No one got hurt, did they?" She asked. Not because of anything she had done. "You got out safe last night because I let you." Ben growled. She moved around the table like a dancer. If nothing else, she certainly moved like Lady Grace. Lady Grace. It suited her. Lara stopped what she was doing, leaned against the table and crossed her arms. "You think so?" Her actions pushed up her cleavage and Ben couldn't help staring at her chest. "This desert's going to eat you alive, Lady Grace." He snapped, still not meeting her eyes. "You'd better get on that bike and keep running until you hit ocean." She didn't seem impressed. Why am I not surprised? "I'm quite capable of taking care of myself." She told him pointedly. I've had enough garbage for one night. "Have fun getting raped," Ben muttered and turned to walk away. Behind him, Lara was racking the balls. "You seem to have chased off the competition," she called out to his back. "Would you like a game?" Ben turned. She held out a cue to him, but he shook his head. "I've got better things to do." Anything else would be better than this. She put the cue back into the wall rack and leaned over to take her breaking shot. "Like finding this Gunny person." She said. The tank top she wore revealed every line and curve of her back as she leaned over. Ben just stared at her. "Ya." He said absently. "Like that." She had a good break, sinking three balls. She was good. "Any luck so far?" she asked as she inspected the table. Ben said nothing, just watched her as she leaned over the table to sink the thirteen. They said nothing for a while as Lara cleared the table. She was really good. After the eight ball went down and Lara had another grimacing gulp of beer, she spoke up again. "What is a Gunny, anyway? It seems sort of an odd name." Ben snapped his attention back to the present. "Marine corps term." he said without thinking. "Gunnery sergeant. Usually tough as nails." She turned towards him, her dark eyes large and luminous. "And how do you know that?" She asked. Ben grimaced. He'd gone a mighty long time without even thinking about marines. "I called the psychic friends network." He growled. I've spent too much time here, popping eye candy. He turned to leave. Again she called out and he stopped. "Ben?" There was concern in her voice. "Be careful." He crossed his arms. "Worry about your self, Lady Grace, not me." Her smile had an edge to it. "Say hi to Flo for me." Great. Now they're teaming up against me. "Not in this lifetime." He stalked away, looking for some kind, any kind of trouble. Its gonna be a long night. * * * Well, he certainly seemed sensitive about that marine thing, Lara thought as she played billiards. Despite what she had said to Ben, she was thankful for the solitude, however short lived it was going to be. The Horny Bull had so far proved dull and bothersome. She had spent the afternoon and evening here, after a wonderful morning with Father Torque. The man had truly seen it all and had given Lara enough fodder for a dozen, maybe a whole series worth of articles. It was interesting to see the area's various bikers defer to the old, but by no means weak, man. It was also a novelty to see Ben respectful; she had a hunch that he was the one man on earth who Ben respected. Afterwards she had gone back to her room and changed into more appropriate evening wear. Flo had been cackling about seeing Ben tonight and 'not letting him get away this time'. She wished Ben luck. Against Flo, he was going to need it. Lara wasn't sure why she had left her guns behind or undone her hair. She was here on work, and this was most certainly not the place to let one's guard down. She had told herself at the time that she wanted to blend in, appear non confrontational among these bikers. She wanted to hear more about this Gunny character, and felt that they would tell her more if they thought she was a 'biker chick'. It may have seemed a good idea at the time, but she was definitely regretting it now. These gorillas had been panting and drooling over her since she had gotten here; it was impossible to get a moments peace from them and even more impossible to get a shred of respect. Dressed and acting as she was, she was purely a piece of meat to them; something to jockey over and compete for. It got very old, very quickly. She had been keeping half an eye out for Ben the entire time she'd been here. The moment she had mentioned this Gunny person to him, he had become more alive. If he had been a dog, his ears would have perked. That was why she knew that he would be here at the Horny Bull. Even the possibility of finding and confronting this potential threat to his turf had to be explored. It was good stuff, and would make a great article. Between Ben, his gang dominance and all the tales of Father Torque, this place was a gold mine. It might be worth sticking around for a while. She also couldn't wait to see whether Flo netted Ben or not. "Hey babe, wanna use my stick?" came a crude voice from her side. Lara looked over at the biker with the incredible sense of humour and tried not to laugh. Instead she gave an inviting smile. "I'll use my own, thanks." She began to pull up billiard balls. "Five dollars a ball if your up to it, sport." The guy smiled. "When I win, how 'bout I take it out in trade?" Lara just sighed. If something happens tonight, she thought, it had better happen soon, before she was forced to injure someone. * * * What a night. That damned Gunny hadn't showed, and it was after 11:30. Ben was beginning to wonder whether the guy existed. When he wasn't looking out for him, he was dodging Flo. Ben had no idea what he had done to deserve that broad. He hadn't given her any come on's; in fact he'd done everything short of punching her out to get her to go away. The damn woman just wouldn't give up. She just kept on coming onto Ben and shoving her cleavage into his face. If the dame had just wanted a roll in the hay he'd probably have obliged her. She wasn't bad looking even though she had about 12 years on him. He could just tell, though, that if he ever fell for that she would have him chained up so fast his head would spin. Ben had been chained up once already, in the Vulture's hide out, and that was once too many. If it wasn't for trying to find this Gunny guy he'd have just ducked out, but the prick hadn't showed so he'd ended up dodging Flo all night. At least the music was good. The crowd was kind of tense. Normally, at least one brawl would have started by now, but so far nothing. Everybody knew that Ben was waiting for Gunny, and they all wanted to be around for the main event. Croft was still here too, shaking her booty by the pool tables. Whatever. He'd tried to warn her off, and if she ended up getting banged by every biker in the bar it was her problem. So far it seemed that all she had done was separate a bunch of fools from their money. Not a very good way to make friends, either. He'd run into Suzie the Vulture a couple of times. She and her gang were still here in force, though he had no idea which way they were leaning tonight. As much as she tried to act relaxed, he could tell that she was on the look out too. The Vulture's turf bordered the Polecats, and any new gang in the area would be a threat to them too. He watched as Big Willie got into an arm wrestle with one of the Vultures and lost. Poor guy was getting nailed on all corners these days. He had been taken down a peg by Croft yesterday in front of the whole gang, and knocked down again right now by another woman. It wouldn't have been a big deal if Willie's head wasn't so big, but that guy had a lot of pride. Ya, well, life was tough some times and Willie would have to deal with it just like everyone else. Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw a hand at the bar point towards him. That idiot bartender that Ben had bullied earlier. He was pointing some tall bear of a guy towards Ben's table. The guy was wearing faded desert fatigues, combat boots, and a tank top shirt. A blue, faded tattoo of the globe and anchor was on his left arm. This must be Gunny. Good. It was time for some butt kicking. Ben stood and began to walk towards the guy, the crowd parting before him like the Red Sea. Gunny saw Ben coming towards him and just smiled. Tension filled the air like electricity. As Ben neared the bar he realized just how big this son of a bitch was. Ben was 6'2" and 220 lb. but this guy had at least 6 inches and 100 pounds on him. He didn't have rippling muscles on him but there sure wasn't any fat. It didn't matter. He was still in Ben's way and that meant that he was going to go down. Ben stopped about two feet away from the guy and just stared at him. Ben had stared down bigger guys before, it was just a case of knowing that you were a bigger badder mother who took no guff from anyone. You had to make him know that you were more than willing to take the guy apart with your bare hands. It was the same glare he had used to stare down Lady Grace. Ya, but it didn't work so well on her, did it? Well, it would work on Gunny. Gunny's eyes were pale blue, a colour that was intensified by the redness of his face. They were intense, too intense. The guy looked like he was going to flip out, that he wanted to flip out. It was meant to intimidate Ben, and it almost worked. "You Gunny?" Ben's voice was low and controlled. Despite the sounds of the band, he knew that his voice carried. Gunny's grin was one step away from being maniacal. His voice was like chewed metal. "Ya. You Polecat?" Ben said nothing, just clenched his fists. It was going to be a fight and they both knew it. It was just a case of when. "I hear you want to start a gang." He said after a moment. Gunny flexed his whole body. It started in his fists, moved up his arms to his shoulders and ended in his chest. Jesus, this guy was one big muscle. The guy was wearing a tight muscle shirt, which made it even more impressive, which Ben realized was just the point. Its just a scare tactic, to put me on edge. It wasn't going to work. "This is Polecat turf. You wanna start a gang, you gotta go through us." Ben paused and smirked. "Jerk." Gunny eyes popped out even more, which Ben didn't think was possible. "That's the idea." Gunny yelled. He reared back his left arm and swung a fist the size of an oil can. The collective crowd let out a cheer. They had been waiting for this all night. The evening's entertainment had just begun. * * * Lara had felt the tension for the last hour or so. She had made over $200 on hormone ridden morons who had thought her an easy mark, and had been on the look out for Gunny. She saw the crowd form around the two next to the bar and heard the cheer that signified that the inevitable fight had begun. Its about time. Gunny was huge. He towered over Ben and Lara was worried for Ben's safety. If Ben's analysis of the name was correct, this man had spent a great deal of time in the military, and was most likely an experienced combatant. Still, Ben had fought his way to the leadership of his gang and was acknowledged by Father Torque as the toughest biker in the area, which was no faint praise. Still, if she was a betting woman she would give Ben one chance in three. In no time at all, the central fight had grown to an all encompassing brawl. Any one with a hint of a grudge against another person started a fight, and often just punched the guy next to him. Lara would have liked to stay out of it but was sure that violence on her part was a foregone conclusion. The man she had been trouncing at billiards made her point for her. As she scanned the bar area for a glimpse of Ben, her companion grabbed her arms. "I've been losing enough money to you. You owe me big." He pulled her close for a lustful kiss. I don't think so, sport. Lara broke his grip on her arms easily and drove her palm into his chin. His mouth was forced closed with an audible 'clack' "No, thank you. I haven't had my shots." She would have backed away, but he had her backed against the pool table. The mans eyes flashed in anger. "You bitch!" he yelled and swung at her. How charming. Why was it that every man in this half of the world seemed to have the same unoriginal battle cry? Lara caught his arm with an Aikido move, pulled him in an arm lock, and used its leverage to smash his face into the corner of the table. When he still showed signs of struggle, she repeated the move. His face met the table three times in total before he stopped moving. Looking about, the brawl was in full swing. The band was still playing, although they missed a beat when a person was thrown bodily against the plexi cage, causing it to shake. The show must go on. Curious as to how Ben was doing, she started to make her way to his last known position. Its for my story, she told herself, nothing more. A big, beefy person came flying at her and she deftly hip tossed him into a table. The tables at the Horny Bull were made with bar brawls in mind, and the man just bounced off of it. When he finally hit the ground, he just stayed there. Lara continued to make her way towards the bar. * * * Ben had been in a lot of one on one fights, and they could be broken down basically into two guys the same size or big guy/small guy. If they were the same size, the two guys pounded each other until one guy stayed down, but when they were different sizes it was different. The big guy crowded and tried to get his hands on the small guy, and the small guy dodged out of the big guy's way and used speed to get past his guard. Usually Ben was the big guy, but this time the tables were turned. He wasn't used to using his speed and trying to dodge, but with Gunny he had no choice. Gunny had connected with Ben twice. He'd been hit once in the arm and once in the ribs, and he couldn't take much more of that kind of punishment. His arm was killing him and it hurt to breathe. Ben had given as good as he had got, though. One of Gunny's eyes was swollen shut and he was limping from where Ben had stomped his foot with his steel boots. Take that. The huge bruiser still had that wild, out of control gleam in his eyes and Ben was starting to wonder if the guy could feel the pain. Maybe he likes it. They had moved around through the course of the fight, and now Ben was backed against the stage. Gunny drove a powerful fist from his hips which Ben dodged. It smashed into the plexi with a resounding clang and starred around the point of impact. Ben tried to circle around to his side but Gunny was too canny for that. It was time to try something else. Ben grabbed a bar stool and swung. Gunny grabbed it in mid swing and ripped it from Ben's grip. Gunny smiled maniacally for a moment, then threw it over his shoulder. It was the opening Ben needed. While both of Gunny's hands were occupied, Ben put his fists together and caught the larger man in the side of the head. Gunny reeled back from the blow and fell to the floor. Chivalry had no place in a bar brawl, and Ben had no compunctions about hitting a man while he was down. Sucker punches were part of the thrill and charm of bar brawling. It was part of the unwritten code, like the fact that the only weapons you were allowed to use were chairs, tables, beer mugs and pool cues. Once one guy pulled a knife, or a gun, it stopped being fun and all rules went out the window. He was about to drive his boot into Gunny's ribs when he heard glass break and everything went white. Some jerk cold cocked me with a beer mug Ben thought as he lost control of his body and fell to the floor. He tried to move but was unable as he saw Gunny loom over top of him with a manic grin. That's it, the game's over. Ben thought. I'm sure gonna miss my bike. He waited for the final blow to come when he saw a chair catch Gunny across the head. On any one else it would have been a felling blow, but it just pissed Gunny off. Whoever swung that should have gone for a more vital organ, Ben thought, like his balls. Slowly, body control came back and Ben staggered to his feet. He looked over and saw who it was that had taken on Gunny and saved his bacon. It was Croft. Well, it was one thing to hit a target from behind, but another to face Gunny head on. Ben's punches barely phased the guy, and Lara's little love taps weren't going to do crap. She was dodging pretty good, jumping and flipping around, but Gunny was a juggernaut, and she couldn't dodge him forever. I gotta stop him, Ben thought and grabbed a beer mug. As he did so, he saw Lara slip on something and go down. Gunny smile was chilling as he raised his huge boot and prepared to stamp her out of existence. Ben reared back and threw. The glass exploded on the back of Gunny's head just before his blow could land and he staggered. Eyes blazing, Gunny turned to face Ben with a roar, blood streaming down his face. Behind him, Lara got to her feet, unnoticed. "Pick on someone your own size!" Ben snarled. There is no one his size he thought just after he said it, but was pretty sure that Gunny got the idea. They just stared at each other, eyes locked, and then Gunny backed off. "See you later, Polecat. Gotta go." He disappeared into the crowd. I showed him Ben thought, and turned around to see Jackson, five other Polecats, as well as Suzi and few Vultures. Oh. Ben cast a glance over his Polecats, then looked at Suzi. "Thanks." The head Vulture just smirked and walked off, her gang following. Bitch. He turned to his gang. "Jackson." They clasped hands and gripped shoulders in the kind of camaraderie that only fellow warriors shared. "Good timing, man." "Man, are you alright?" Jackson asked, concerned. "I saw you go down, but didn't see who got you." Ben rubbed his head. Whoever hit me with that beer mug is gonna pay for what he's done. "Either did I, but I'll live. I gotta find Gunny and finish him off." "He went behind the stage." Jackson informed him. "He probably ducked out the back door." Ben cracked his knuckles. "Let's go." * * * Lara counted herself quite lucky to have survived unhurt from her scrap with Gunny. She had faced more dangerous opponents, but she'd had her guns with her then, and most of them weren't human, either. Admittedly Gunny didn't hold a candle to Natla's final monster, or even Natla herself, but he certainly gave everyone else she had encountered a run for their money. She had stopped Ben from being stomped by Gunny, and he had in return stopped Gunny from squishing her like a bug. It made things even, which was all right, but it would have been nice to have something to hold over him. Maybe it would put a stopper on that insufferable attitude of his. She saw Gunny take off out back, and pursued him outside. He was making his way to a motor cycle. "Get this chick off my back!" He yelled in his chewed steel voice. Easily a dozen men in leathers materialized out of the shadows between them. He called as he started the bike and drove off. Lara preferred to face her problems head on rather than run away from them, but she knew impossible odds when she saw them and tried to withdraw. Unfortunately, retreat was not in the cards and soon she was fighting for her life. Again. Well, its more exciting than marrying some aristocrat and going to tea parties, she thought as she roundhouse kicked her nearest opponent in the head. * * * Ben slammed open the bar's fire door with his Polecats behind him. In the dim light he saw Lara fighting off a crowd of brawlers and took a moment to admire her before coming in to the rescue. The lady was grace in motion. She moved like water, flowing around people and behind their defenses, catching some in a ninja lock and judo throwing others that came near her. Still, the odds were stacked against her and sooner or later she was going to go down. As he watched, one managed to get behind her and get her in a bear hug. "Get 'em Polecats." Ben called out, and his gang fell upon them. Ben took out one guy with a fist to the face, and got hit in the ribs by another. It was right on the same place that Gunny nailed him and for a moment all Ben could do was gasp in pain. Then he tromped on the guy. Lara was still struggling with the one who had her grabbed from behind. She kicked out and hit the guy in front of her who had been about to nail her, but it was a light hit and only pissed him off, As Ben tried to get closer, the guy reared back and hit Lara in the face. She sagged, but didn't go down, and then Ben was there. The guy's arm was reared back for another hit when Ben grabbed his wrist. The guy managed one startled look at Ben's frowning face and cold eyes before Ben smashed the guy. The one holding Lara backed away and stumbled on a crate. When he looked back to check his footing, he loosened his grip on Lara and she did some ninja trick to break out. When the guy looked forward again, Ben hit him. The guy went down and stayed there. Ben looked around. Jackson, Willie and Kramer were still standing, but that was it. All the bad guys were either on the floor or were wrapped around furniture. Lara came to her feet. "Where's Gunny?" Ben growled to her. Lara waved her hand towards the desert night. "Gone, I think." She rubbed the cheek where she had been hit. "These gentlemen did an excellent job of delaying us." Ben swore. "I'll meet up with him later." He looked behind him. The scrap was pretty much over. The only ones left standing either had no one left to fight, or were too sore to continue. Ben looked around and cursed. Ben grabbed the nearest guy who looked even remotely conscious and slammed him against the concrete wall. "Who are you, jerk?" Ben yelled menacingly. "What gang do you ride with?" The guy smiled with bloody teeth. "We're the Leathernecks," he said proudly. "We're gonna run this desert." Ben drove his fist into the guys face, feeling teeth break. The guy slid to the ground, dead to the world. "Not in this lifetime." Ben muttered. Lara looked at the unconscious man coolly. "Leathernecks?" she asked. Ben knelt over the guy he'd just knocked out and turned him over. There was a patch, his 'colours' on his coat: a bald man with a thick leather collar and huge arm flexing his bicep. "Another marine term." He stood up, wincing at the pain in his side. At least I'm still standing. It's more than I can say for these jerks. He looked over at Lara. Her flowing hair hid her face in shadows. "You were, ah, pretty good." Ben admitted grudgingly. He barely saw her eye brows lift. "Thank you." Her voice was slightly surprised. Ben smirked. "You wanna get on my bike, thank me in private?" He didn't figure that he stood a chance in hell, but if he didn't at least try then he would never live with himself. She arched her eye brows. "Is that really your best pickup line?" He knew that she was going to turn him down, but it still hurt. "I don't let just anyone on my bike." The last woman on his bike had been Mo. She smiled. Even with the ugly bruise forming on her cheek, it still made her look gorgeous. "Thank you for the offer, Ben, but the only bike I'm gonna ride tonight is my own." Ben shrugged. "Too bad, Lady Grace. Your loss." He smirked and crossed his arms, ignoring the pain in his ribs. She frowned. "Everyone in this desert seems to have some wretched nickname for me." She said crossly. "Could you please call me Lara?" Ben slowly appraised her from head to foot. "You wanna ride on my bike?" Ben asked after a moment. Still frowning, she looked him in the eye. "I already said, no." Her voice was cool, but her eyes were less polite. "Then it's Lady Grace." Ben's voice was smug. She walked up to him slowly, hips swaying. Leaning in close to him, she whispered. "I'll get over it." She turned away abruptly, her voice going back to its normal levels. "If you really want a riding partner, though, however, I know Flo is available." Ben's mood shattered. "I'm not that drunk." She smiled over her shoulder. "Then I'm afraid your out of luck." She walked off, hips swaying, into the desert night. I've spent long enough bullshitting. Ben slammed his fist into his palm. "Jackson," he snapped out. "See how many guys you can peel off the floor. Gunny's out there somewhere, and we're gonna find him." He stomped off towards his bike. Ben & Lara Chapter Four by Ross Jenkins, c 1997 Chapter IV-The Betrayal It was the morning after the fight in the Horny Bull and Lara ached. She had taken a few good hits in that brawl, especially near the end. She had an impressive black eye and there were a few other bruises and marks about her body. It was nothing new; Lara had spent more than a few mornings like this, nursing her wounds and exulting that she was still in one piece. She still had memories of her Natla adventure, injecting antibiotics with shaky fingers while dizzy with pain, or stitching up wounds with a sewing needle while miles underground and alone. It was hard to keep the terror away in times like that, but Lara had managed then -somehow- and next to that last night was nothing. Lara was normally a solitary person and enjoyed it that way. It drove her matchmaking parents crazy. Sometimes, though, it would have been nice to have some one to share things with. After a brush with death, to have some one to celebrate life with. Maybe it was more base than that, more physical. It had been a very long time, and she was a healthy woman. Rubbish. Lara overcame problems, and that included any itches she may need scratched. She knew what brought those thought on: Ben Polecat. He was an arrogant, rude, insufferable chauvinist but also strong, tough and determined. This is pathetic. She was mooning about like a school girl, but still those broad shoulders, dark brooding eyes, that firm jaw. Ben may of caught her interest but if there was ever a relationship more doomed to failure. They were too different, no that wasn't it. They were too alike, each used to being the toughest in the room and trying to dominate the other. He couldn't handle a tough woman, she thought, he needed them meek and submissive and that wasn't going to happen with her. Lara shook her head in disgust and finished braiding her hair. She wasn't wearing her shorts and top today. They showed off her bruises too well and were dirty besides. Not that she hadn't worn them for days, weeks, straight before but this morning she felt like wearing something fresh. A faded black Nike T-shirt and equally faded blue jeans, with her boots and gun belt. She'd gone out unarmed one evening to many and didn't care to repeat her mistake. She looked in the mirror and examined the deep purple bruise there. Nothing could hide it, so she didn't bother. It was a war scar, and she'd bear it proudly. Checking the safety's on her guns, she left her dingy hotel room and went down for breakfast with Flo. She hadn't survived last night unscathed, either, Lara saw, with a bruise on her cheek, but most of her bruises were on her knuckles. I bet who ever picked on her regretted it. "Morning, honey!" Flo called out in her western twang. "How'd you like our fine town's entertainment last night?" She handed Lara a cup of coffee which had been waiting on the counter. Lara took it happily and took a big sip. Ahh, caffeine. "Charming." Lara placed the coffee on the counter. "I see you didn't get out of that place without some sort of scrap, I see." Flo said, indicating Lara's black eye. "You all in one piece?" Lara smiled and drank some more coffee. "I'm in somewhat better shape then the man who did this to me." She didn't add that Ben had been the one who had taken him out, not her. "So I heard. You left a bunch of guys on the floor." Flo chuckled. "Where'd you learn how to do that anyway? You looked like you were doing some Bruce Lee thing to them." Lara shrugged. "Aikido and a bit of karate. I started studying when I was in college." As a way to deal with stress and grief, after I watched my fianc‚ die in front of me. Flo smiled. "Well, you sure cleaned up. You want breakfast? Toast?" "Yes, please." Lara looked out the window. It was a lovely morning. "Could you bring it to me outside, please? I think I'd like to be in the sun." "Sure thing," Flo said as she bustled back the kitchen. "You take my electro-mag out with you, and I'll bring out toast and fresh coffee." She disappeared into the back. Lara took the E-zine outside with her and downloaded the London Times. She made her way to a faded and dusty picnic table and sat in an equally faded chair. Lara idly flipped through stories while sipping her luke-warm coffee. The weather was nice. It was still early, so the oppressive desert heat hadn't swept in yet, and there was a mild breeze. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked. She tried to find something of interest in the paper but found herself unable to do so. Current events: the latest Royals scandal, what bill was passing in parliament, the latest round of aggression in the middle east, all seemed trivial. She spent her time solving 2000 year old mysteries or fighting off toughs that had no idea where the middle east was. It was like she was in a different world sometimes. Flo came outside then, interrupting Lara's musings. She had a carafe of coffee, toast and that wretched soy- spread. . "Thank you, Flo." "Ah, shoot, its just toast. You should have let me make you something." Flo sat down and refilled both of their coffees. "No thank you, toast is fine." "Hey, did you see Ben take on that Gunny character?" Flo asked, her eyes dancing. She went on with out waiting for an answer. "Man those two went into each other. I swear that man is never as handsome as when he's pummeling someone." Flo regaled Lara with a somewhat slanted version by blow of Ben's fight. In Flo's version, Ben was just as tall as Gunny, Lara fit no where into the equation, and Gunny was sent off with his tail between his legs. Lara ate in silence, letting Flo go on with her story. The woman was allowed her fantasies, and this tale certainly had little anchorage in the real world. Lara tuned out the words, listening to the flow of the older woman's voice as she studied the landscape. She was finishing off her last slice of toast when something Flo said brought her back to reality. Lara sat up straighter in her chair. "I'm sorry, Flo what was that last bit you said?" "I said, I'm pretty sure Willie didn't mean to nail Ben with that mug, but it sure knocked him for a loop." "I'm sorry, do mean Big Willie, one of the Polecats?" Flo nodded. "Yup. Ben's probably tanning the guy's hide right now, but anyway, when Ben got up he was more pissed off then ever." she continued to talk as Lara's mind raced. How can you hit some one in the head with a beer mug by mistake? Lara hadn't liked Willie from the moment she had first met him, two days ago in the Kickstand. It was more than his being rude and fast with his hands, the man seemed untrustworthy, and this proved it. Things like this happen in gangs all the time, Lara reminded herself, and this one had nothing to do with her. Ben seemed like he was more than capable to handle discipline in his ranks. Lara was sipping her coffee, half listening to Flo, when someone caught her eye. Speak of the devil, and he show's up. Big Willie, looking cautious, walked down the street. "I'm sorry, Flo, excuse me please." Without waiting for an answer she got up from the table and walked down the street. The way Willie was moving, quickly and looking over his shoulder often, as well as the way he jumped at any sound, set off Lara's suspicion alarms. The man was sneaking around for some reason, although he wasn't doing it well. Lara managed to stalk him easily as he walked down the street without being seen. The question was what was he doing in Baron's Head that he didn't want anyone to know about? Willie walked up to an abandoned boarded up store front and looked around him. Lara ducked behind an old stripped Toyota, and when she popped her head up, he was gone. She crept across the street to the building where she had last seen him. Peeking between the cracks of the boarded up windows, she peeked inside. Her field of vision was pretty limited, but after scanning about for a bit she saw him. Willie was shaking a man's hand whom she couldn't see, then the unknown man put a large wad of cash in Willie's hand. This does not bode well. She went to another window, trying to catch a glimpse of who Willie was talking to. When she saw who it was, for some reason she was not surprised. It seemed appropriate, somehow. The man was Gunny. After a concluding handshake, Gunny and Willie parted ways, and Lara made her self scarce. If Willie and Gunny were dealing together, then this had to be bad for the Polecats, and for Ben. It's none of my business Lara chided herself. Ben can take care of himself. For a moment she almost convinced herself, but then she was running back to Flo's, to get her bike and warn Ben. * * * The Polecat's home roost was secret. Ben didn't like other gangs and independents knowing where he parked his bike when he slept. All of the Polecats were sworn to secrecy, and when one left they changed the location. Currently, it was in a small steep sided canyon about 65 miles out of Baron's Head. The guys lived in tents, prefab houses or motor homes. There was an old circus tent that they used as a communal garage and storage depot. The gas tank, a portable 200 gallon fuel trailer with electric pump, was kept a ways away from everything else, just in case. Power for the place ran off a gasoline generator. Most of the set up and tear down stuff was handled by Jackson, but it was Ben's camp, and he was proud of it. Ben's pad was a prefab wood framed tent. His bike and an old worn ramp with day glow flames sat outside his door. Inside, it had a marine issue cot & foot locker. A hardwood dresser, booty from a raid, sat in the corner with only one piece of ornamentation, a worn and bedraggled battery powered yellow rabbit. Dirty clothes littered the ground as well as several used paper plates and empty beer cans. It wasn't the Hilton, but it was home and Ben liked it a hell of a lot better than one of the other places he had stayed, Portsmouth. It was after noon but Ben was still in bed. He was dressed in what had once been a white T-shirt and a pair of tan air of surplus fatigue pants. He and the guys had been out late, scouring the desert for any sign of Gunny or his wannabe gang, the Leathernecks. All it had gotten them were headaches and a bunch of empty gas tanks. That Gunny had vanished off the face of the damn Earth, but he couldn't stay hidden forever. When he raised his ugly crew cutted head, Ben would stomp on it once and for all. In the mean time, though, Ben was hurt, although he would never admit it to anyone. That Gunny packed a hell of a wallop. Next time Ben had a few tools that might put things in his favour, like his tire iron, chain, chain saw, or best, his lever action Winchester 12 gauge, which Ben liked to call Betsy. He still wished that he'd had Betsy on him when he got into that whole Corley thing last year. It would have gone a lot differently. "Riders!" The call came from the look out that Ben had posted at the top of the canyon. Ben had two lookouts posted at any one time, unless the gang was out riding. Ben had learned a big lesson last year to watch against ambushes. He got out of bed with a curse, holding his side. Gunny had nailed him there, and one of his Leathernecks had too. Well, Ben was tough. He could take it. He got to his feet and grabbed his jacket, which hung from a peg on the wall. Ben had gotten this jacket from Father Torque himself when he first joined the Polecats twelve years ago. It fit him like a second skin and was his second most proud possession next to his bike. He put on his shades and stepped outside. Most of the guys were still sacked out, but Jackson was up and so were a few others. Heads poked out of doors at the call, though no one was really alert yet. The sentry hadn't called 'attackers' or 'code red', which was short for 'every body arm your self with something'. Still, the guy hadn't sounded an ID or all clear yet, so Ben strode over to his bike and grabbed Betsy from its holster. Better safe than sorry. He levered a round into the chamber. "Its father Torque!" the sentry called out. "And Ben's chick!" Huh? Ben didn't have a chick. The only person he could think of was either Flo-if it was her he was going to shoot on sight-or else. "Croft." Great. Just what he needed. He was pissed that she knew where the Polecats called home, but if the Father brought her here, then it must be on the up and up. He'd strangle her later. Ben could hear the bike coming now, the loud cutting roar of Corley engines. He but Betsy back with a swear. He thought that he'd seen the last of Lady Grace, but it seemed that at least one more meeting was in the cards. Walking towards the camp entrance, Ben waited for the two riders. They were both on one bike, Croft's, which was weird. Torque never took anyone else's bike unless something serious was up. The hairs on the back of Ben's neck began to rise. Something bad was going to happen, he could feel it. Both of their face's were grim. Torque stopped the bike in front of Ben and handed the keys to Lara. He got off and extended his hand to Ben's. "Sorry to stick my nose in, Ben." Ben's hand was crushed in the Father's grip like always. "No trouble's, Father. You're always welcome in my camp." The reply was custom, but Ben's tone was pissed off. "The little lady said she had something really important to tell you." He indicated Lara. Ben frowned and narrowed his eyes, glaring at Lara. She leaned against her bike like she didn't have a care in the world. "So. Tell me." He crossed his arms across his chest and the only sound was that of creaking leather. This had better be good. * * * Well, Ben certainly looked angry. If his sunglasses were off, she was sure that his dark eyes would be spitting fire right at her. He was angry now, but after what she had to tell him he was going to be furious. "Hello, Ben." She said, leaning against her bike, trying to set a light tone. Everyone near Ben and Lara made themselves scarce, leaving the two of them alone. I wish I could join them. "Don't 'hello Ben' me, Croft." His jaw could have snapped chain. "What the hell are you doing here, and why did you drag Father Torque into it?" Well, he certainly was angry "Father Torque is the only person who knew how to find you." She answered calmly. "I thought that it was important enough, so I asked him." His frown grew bigger, if that was possible. "What was important enough? What are you talking about?" Lara took a breath before continuing. He really wasn't going to like this. "You have a spy." She saw his knuckles turn white, and could almost hear his tendons creak. "Spy? for what?" She didn't answer immediately and began walking towards the communal garage. She could hear Ben stomping along behind her, impatient. "I would guess the location of this camp." "That's sure as hell easy enough." He snapped off. "They just have to follow you here. This place is supposed to be a secret." She was handling this wrong. She wasn't here to bait Ben, as much fun as it may have been. "This isn't about me, Ben. I saw Big Willie take money from Gunny." He looked as if some one had hit him with a plank. "Huh?" She tried to explain. "They made a deal for something." She brought her hands up in frustration. "It makes sense that Gunny would want the location of this camp so that he can launch a pre-emptive strike against you." I didn't betray you her eyes told him. He either didn't notice, or care. "Willie would never betray me." Ben said flatly. Lara sighed. "He already did. I saw it." Ben leaned over and glared at her. "I'm his gang leader." He poked his finger into the air in front of her face to emphasize his point. "No polecat would move against me like that." He poked his finger at her again. "It's against the Code of the Road." Lara brushed it away in irritation. Was this man that blind? "Well, I suggest that you ask him, then double your guard, and move this camp to somewhere else." Her irritation began to get into her voice. This man has concrete for brains. He pointed at her again. "The Polecats are my gang, Croft. Don't tell me how to run them." Or else he added non verbally. Lara had enough. "Look, get pissed off at me all you like, but if you don't double your guard then you are just being stupid." This conversation was getting no where. What did she care if his entire gang was wiped out? If looks could kill, Lara knew that she would have been beyond resuscitation. "Not one more word, Lady Grace." His voice was dangerous. Unfortunately, the argument was interrupted before either of them could speak further. From the side of her vision, Lara saw something large and flaming fly from the top of the steep canyon walls and land in the middle of the camp. It was a truck, she saw, and it burned from every window. It smashed into the middle of the camp where it did a grotesque rolling flip. Every eye in the camp watched the twisted vehicle as it eventually came to rest on its side in a groan of abused metal. "Every body get down!" Ben yelled incredibly loudly, breaking Lara's reverie. Before she could think, or even react, he had grabbed her and pulled her to the ground. Not even two seconds later, the vehicle exploded with a tremendous roar. A wave of petrol smelling hot air assaulted her as Lara tried to become one with the ground. She felt Ben get up as soon as the explosion stopped. She saw his broad shouldered run towards a wood frame tent. "Polecats!" He bellowed. "Ride for your lives! Ambush!" Lara got to her feet and ran towards her bike. Her ears were ringing but still she could hear the approach of many motor cycle engines. She drew her guns as she ran towards her bike. Even before she got there, the first riders broke into the camp. The first made to run her down and Lara jumped to the side. She could smell the bike's exhaust as it missed her by less than she would have wanted. She hit the ground and shoulder rolled, coming up in a crouch with her guns tracking the bike. The rider had a gun in his hand and was targeting someone but never got the chance. Her first two bullets were off, but the next four caught the guy in the back and head. He jerked and lost controlled of his bike, which skidded to the ground. Only the sound of gunning engines behind her alerted her to more bikes, and Lara turned just in time to see another bike coming. She dived to the left, missing the tires by inches and rolled to her feet. Yet another bike was there, and it was too close to turn and shoot. She managed to jump and plant one foot on the front fender, then use that foot to force herself over the body of the bike before it struck her. Unfortunately, that put her right in the path of the rider. He swerved to avoid her but they struck and tumbled as one from the bike. Lara's shoulder screamed at her but she ignored the pain, knowing that if she gave into it now that she would die. She disentangled herself from the biker and drove her knee into his chin. That should keep him out of it for a while. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she got to her feet and looked about for a means of escape. * * * The moment he saw the truck fall Ben knew that it was only a distraction; the grenade thrown to soften up the room before you rush it. Damn it, this was the worse possible time. Bikers were always vulnerable while roosting, but the sentries were supposed to take care of that. If Croft was right, Willie must have traded shifts with one or killed them before the attack. He was gonna die for what he'd done. There was time for that later. Right now Ben and his bikers had to survive. Even as he was running for his bike and Betsy he heard the riders. He heard some pistol shots ring out and heard a bike crash. Sure hope that was a bad guy. The sound of multiple bike engines was deafening as Ben finally reached his bike. He mounted and started it up, then reached down and pulled out Betsy. He held it in one hand and turned, looking for a target. There was one coming right at him, and Ben shot him in the face. The guy was killed instantly and the bike flipped. One down. Ben gunned his throttle and used his other hand to lever the gun. It swung back up, and Ben looked for someone else to kill. A leatherneck was chasing down Kelly's girlfriend with his bike. Ben gunned his bike towards the guy and fired off a round from Betsy which missed, but was too late for the girl. The Leatherneck rammed into her from behind and slammed her into the canyon wall. From the weird angle of her neck, Ben knew that she was dead. So was this guy. The Leatherneck barely had time to look up as Ben's raised front wheel caught him in the chest. The biker flew from his ride right into Ben's path. He managed to get his head up just in time for Ben's boot to catch him under the chin. Gritting his teeth, Ben pulled to a stop, Betsy extended, looking for more targets. He shot two more bikers, killing one and wounding another. As far as he could tell he was the only one on his side inflicting any damage. The Polecats were getting tromped and there wasn't a damned thing he could do about it. Killing off the guys who waxed his gang may have given them revenge but it didn't bring the Polecat's back. He saw a Leatherneck throwing a molotov cocktail into Jackson's RV and sped towards him. He brought Betsy to bear over the handlebar and fired. The guy fell, the cocktail breaking at his feet. The flames went up around the bike but some caught on Jackson's RV. Ben stopped next to the RV and ran inside. "Jackson!!" Looking around frantically, he saw his friend and right hand man dead on the bed next to his girlfriend, who had also been killed. They'd both crawled there and died in each other's arms. A cold rage crept into Ben and he stomped out of the RV, counting his shotgun rounds and comparing it to the number of Leathernecks. If he ran out of shells, well there was always his fists. He was so intent on the thought of killing everyone he never saw the Leatherneck riding at him until it was too late. Ben tried to bring Betsy to bear, but the rider smashed his pipe into Ben's ribs first. Ben flew back, gun flying. Laying on the ground, gasping for air and trying to move, he saw the rider turn around to make another pass. * * * Lara put her back to some rocks and reloaded both guns, panting. She only carried two extra magazines, and at the rate this fight was going, it wasn't going to be enough. She had taken out one and wounded two others. The Polecats were being slaughtered. The element of surprise was effective, despite her efforts, and had worked to the Polecat's detriment. She heard a person to her left and brought both guns to bear. It was Father Torque. She relaxed. "Glad to see you're OK, darlin'." He looked dirty, and winded, but unharmed. "Likewise. Can you see any way out of here?" "Best I can figure, your bike is still out there in the open, untouched. If we can make it out to that, we're probably home free." Lara charged her guns. "Right then, let's do it." She ran into the main clearing where the trashed truck still lay in flames. Her guns were held out in front of her, ready to fire at any target. She ran towards her bike with Torque behind her. She saw Leathernecks all over the place and opened fire. She may have taken out one but mostly she was keeping their heads down. It used up her bullets quickly, but if it kept her alive she wasn't about to complain about it. She and Torque made it to the bike just as her guns ran dry. Torque jumped on and started the bike up as Lara jumped on behind him. She was reluctant to leave without knowing if Ben made it out and glanced around for either him or his bike. Torque was just pulling out when she spotted his bike next to a burning trailer. Ben was getting to his feet woozily and a biker was bearing down on him with a pipe. "We have to get Ben!" she yelled into Torque's ear and pointed out the scene. The two bore down upon Ben and his assailant and were unable to do anything as the biker struck Ben again, sending him crashing to the ground. The biker was pulling around for a third pass as they pulled up to Ben. He truly looked like crap. There was blood running down his shirt and his left arm hung at his side. "That biker's gonna pay for what he's done." Ben growled under his breath as he struggled once again to his feet. Lara leapt off the bike. "Ben, we have to leave!" she yelled at him. He didn't seem to hear her, he just kept muttering. "That biker's gonna pay for what he's done. That biker's gonna pay for what he's done." She looked at Torque desperately. "We have to get him out of here!" Ben seemed to notice them for the first time. "Not without my bike." He growled. Lara just rolled her eyes. Why could men never pick convenient times to be stubborn? Torque got off Lara's bike and went to Ben's low rider. "I'll get him out on his bike. You follow on yours." Lara heard a revving motor cycle nearby and looked up to check on Ben's assailant. "Torque, that rider's coming back!" she called out. If only she had one bullet. Torque was already on Ben's bike, which had been idling the entire time. The weathered old biker grinned. "Don't you worry about that." He reached down to the side of the bike and brought up a tire iron. "I was fighting road duels before this kid was born!" He drove off towards the cyclist. Lara watched as the two rider's closed. Torque seemed to belong on the bike. With a speed that defied his age, the old biker swerved his bike out to avoid the other man's swing, then swerved back in and thrust the tire iron into the rider's back wheel. The bike locked out and skidded, with its rider caught beneath. A bullet impacted next to Lara's head, and she saw three other bikes closing on her and Ben. She cursed her lack of ammo and could do nothing other than duck. Torque drove back and Lara pushed Ben towards him. "Get on the damned bike, Ben!" she commanded, "and for once in your life do what your told!" "In your dreams, Lady Grace" she heard him mutter under his breath. She had to help him, but he got on the bike reasonably quickly. "Betsy," he groaned. She looked at Torque. "An old girlfriend?" The old biker shook his head, "His gun. There!" He pointed to it. "Better give it to me or he'll never shut up!" Lara grabbed the fallen weapon and handed it to Torque, who slipped it into a scabbard on the side of the bike. "Now ride!" She yelled, then Torque was spitting gravel and Lara was alone facing three charging bikers. She leapt onto her bike and spit gravel herself, the three Leathernecks right on her tail. Ben's bike was carrying two and couldn't maneuver quickly or else Ben might fall. He wasn't going to get away unless Lara did something. She saw the stubby form of a rocket launcher laying next to the form of a fallen Leatherneck and formed a plan. Leaning out the one side of her bike, she grabbed it as she rode by. A bullet flew by her shoulder. This had to end now. She roared past Torque and Ben and came to a screeching stop facing an overhanging section of valley wall. She looked at the rocket she had nicked. It had convenient diagramed instructions indicating how to assemble and fire. Just extend, point, and shoot. Good. Very simple was about all she had time for right now. As Torque and Ben passed her, she shouldered the rocket and fired at the overhang. There was a loud explosion, and the overhang collapsed just as the first of the three riders came under it. He managed to gun his engine and shoot out from underneath the collapsing rock, but his two mates weren't so lucky. The one who made it out was bearing right down on Lara and barely had control of his bike. She was dead stopped and barely managed to jump clear as the two bikes and one rider became a tangled, bloody mass. At least Ben got away, she thought, although she could guarantee that he wasn't going to be very happy when he came to his senses. Right now she had other concerns, such as getting out of here in one piece. No transport, no weapons and a number of people who wanted her dead not very far behind. It was just like old times. She heard bikes heading down the canyon towards her. She climbed up to an escarpment and hid as they passed. To her surprise, though, they stopped below her, at the base of the rockslide. She poked her head out and looked down. Gunny and two other bikers sat idling, looking at Lara's rockslide and the mess of her bike. A fourth person walked over the rockslide. It was big Willie, still in his Polecat jacket. "Who got away?" Gunny asked, his voice like chewed steel. Big Willie looked nervous. "Polecat." Gunny shut off and dismounted his bike. "I said that getting Polecat was the first priority." He growled. Willie shrugged uncomfortably as the bigger man came towards him. "I'm sorry. He got away" Gunny loomed over him. "Incompetent fuckwad." Willie shrunk six inches. "I can find him." He said in a small voice that Lara barely heard. "He was with that chick of his-" Gunny cut him off. "The one from the bar?" He nodded eagerly. "Umm, ya." Gunny turned away from Willie and looked at the canyon wall opposite of Lara's hiding place. "Good. I got business to finish with her." That didn't sound good. "He was with Father Torque, too. He helped Ben get away." "We can grease two bikers just as easy as one." Gunny said, and turned to look at the other canyon wall. Lara ducked behind the escarpment. "You know I can't trust you, don't you, Willie?" she heard Gunny rasp. "Wh-what do you mean?" Willie's voice squeaked. "You betrayed Polecat, you might betray me." Gunny's voice was quiet. "No way Gunny I-" Willie's protests were cut short and he started making gagging noises. She heard Gunny get back on his bike. "Make sure you hunt down every last one of these pricks." Gunny growled as he started up his bike. "I've got orders to make sure no one survives." What in blazes did that mean? Three motor cycles pulled away and drove out of the canyon. Lara waited five minutes before poking her head over the escarpment. Big Willie lay face down on the ground, a pool of blood under him. Lara slid down the rocky face and made her way back into the destroyed Polecat camp. There had to be one working bike in there and she had to find Ben and Torque. Ben & Lara Chapter Five by Ross Jenkins, c 1997 Ben & Lara V-The Code of the Road Ben hurt. His side was on fire from Gunny's hit and. something else. That was a bruised rib if nothing else He groaned and tried to open his eyes. Bright light flared and he tried to raise his arm to block it out. More pain flared. He squinted and the light became bearable. A blurry form blocked out the light. a face? This all seemed too familiar. "Mo?" he asked in a voice that didn't sound like his own. Where was he? What had happened? "No, not Mo. Lara." A cool feminine voice with a British accent told him. He felt a hand brush his cheek. Lara. Lady Grace. Everything came back. Gunny. The Polecats, slaughtered. "Jackson!" He tried to sit up but pain flared in his side. Strong hands pushed him back down. "He's gone Ben, I'm sorry." Lara's voice said soothingly. "Just lay down. There's nothing you can do now." "Like hell." Ben sat up anyway, minding his side and ignoring the pain. "Gunny did this." It was a statement. He looked around. He and Lara were in a wooden shack with one wall missing. Lara sat next to him on the dirt floor, legs curled beneath her. Her hand, which had been near his face, started tracing patterns in the dirt. "Yes." She agreed quietly. "He paid off Big Willie to take out the sentries then attacked with his Leathernecks. We're the only ones that made it out." "Willie." Ben clenched his fist and felt fire move up his side. "That turncoat's gonna die for what he's done." Lara smiled sadly. "I'm afraid Gunny beat you to it. He slit Willie's throat." "Well, that's one thing I owe him." Ben grunted. As well as his balls on a plate. Lara said nothing and Ben looked around. He couldn't tell where he was; the desert outside could have been from anywhere. "Where are we?" he asked. Once I find out where I am and where my bike is, I'm that much closer to hunting down every leatherneck that ever lived. "Father Torque's storage shed." Lara answered him. "He took us here to hide out until he could find out what's what.". "Hmm." Ben rubbed his chin stubble thoughtfully. "I've never been here before. No one has. Everyone knows to stay clear of Father Torque's place." "Why?" Lara asked. "Is it booby trapped or something. Ben shook his head. "No. You just don't. Its part of the Code of the Road." "We should be safe here, then." "Maybe. I don't think these guys follow the Code, though." "Why not?" "The way they do things. Its one thing to try and muscle in on another guy's turf, but you do it straight up, in a rumble. You don't ambush his camp and shoot everything that moves." Ben's voice was bitter. "Ben, I'm sorry. I wish there was more I could have done." "You did enough. They're all gonna die. Gunny, the leathernecks, all of them. Dead!" He struck the dirt to emphasize his point, and pain flared up his arm. "Ben, there's more you should know." Lara said. "Ya," he turned to look at her. She had trouble meeting his eyes. "What?" "I overheard Gunny talking." She said slowly. "He said that he had orders to make sure that no one survived." Huh? "Orders?" Ben asked roughly. "from who?" "I have no idea." She paused. "But whoever that person is, he wants you dead, and he ordered your gang killed." Ben's eyes narrowed. "I'm gonna find out who, and then there's gonna be a reckoning." Ben got to his feet with a grunt. He put his hand to his side and felt wetness there. I don't have time to bleed. "Ben, where are you going?" Lara asked with concern, coming to her feet smoothly. "To find Gunny and rip out his heart." Ben swore. "Ben, you can't." She put her hands on his shoulders and tried to hold him back. To his surprise, she almost succeeded. "Not like this." He grabbed her wrists and shoved her aside. She moved around his push like water. "I'm good enough to kill that bastard." You barely broke even with him when you weren't hurt her eyes said to him. He'll kill you like this. He frowned down at her They both heard the sound of an approaching bike. Looking out, they saw Torque pulling up on his classic Corley. "You two had better make yourselves scarce." The old man called out as he got off his bike. "There's a posse coming after you." "Leathernecks." Ben grunted. "Yup," Torque nodded. "And that Gunny guy, too." Ben opened his mouth, but Torque stared at him. The old biker knew exactly what Ben was about to say and do, and under Torque's gaze, Ben subsided with a grumble. "What about you?" Lara asked. "Don't you worry about me, darlin'" Torque said gravely. "They want Ben's hide, and yours too because you helped him." "You helped us too, and they saw you." Lara pointed out. "You're in as much danger as the rest of us." The old man shook his head, white hair and beard swaying. "I'm neutral and everyone knows it." He paused, and his eyes darkened. "Besides, if we all high tailed it they'd get all of us." He looked at Ben. "I can stall 'em while you two make tracks." "Father, no!" Ben growled. The old man was firm. "Don't worry about me, Ben. I'm an old biker and old bikers never die." He smiled wryly. "I'll get out of this, don't you worry." He slapped Ben on the shoulder with less than customary force. "Get out of here!" Ben stood there stubbornly. Torque stepped over and gripped his shoulder. "Go, Polecat." His voice was soft, but booked no argument. "I used to be your leader, and I'm giving you one last order." His face softened. "Let me do this for you." The biker backed slowly towards his bike. He was going to die and all of them knew it. For once Ben had nothing to say. Lara tugged on his good arm with both hands, and reluctantly he turned to leave. "Ride low, ride hard, Father." Ben's voice was thick. "Always." Answered the Father of All Bikers. "Get your butt out of here! Head up that path and don't stop!" There was something missing. "Where's my bike?" Torque smiled and shook his head "You make me proud Ben. I stashed it about five miles off behind the old interstate sign. Just follow the path and you'll get there. Now go!" His face grim, Ben turned his back on Father Torque and stomped up the path. Lara was in front of him, but this time the sight of her swaying butt didn't move him one bit. "I'll come back, Father, whether you like it or not." * * * "I'm going back there." Ben declared as his hidden bike came into sight. It didn't surprise Lara one bit; she was surprised that it had taken him this long to say it. It made sense for them not to turn back. The best thing was to take the opportunity that Torque had bought them with his life and not look back. In her gut, though, Lara wanted to see with her own eyes if the valiant old man had made it through. Lara didn't make friends easily. Most women were too flimsy for her to get along with, and the men that weren't intimidated by her were usually so full of themselves as to be completely insufferable. Torque and his gruff ways had been different. He was totally accepting of who she was and charming in a gruff sort of way. He had also volunteered to give his life for her, which added a lot. He had only done that, she knew, because of Ben, but she still wanted to know how the Father of All Bikers had faired. Ben's bike was hidden behind some tumbleweeds and it took him a moment to clear them. After that, though, he mounted his bike and started it with a sound like thunder. "You coming, Lady Grace?" He yelled over the engine. Lara hesitated a moment, then climbed up behind him. "Watch your hands," he called back. "In your dreams, sport!" Lara yelled to him and put her hands around his waist. The bike spun onto the faded hardtop with a spray of gravel. Ben rode his bike like a madman, skidding around corners and pushing the machine to its limits. The trip that had taken an over an hour on foot took less than two minutes on the road, and soon they were pulling up to Father Torque's shack. A white haired body lay on the ground in a pool of blood. "No!" Ben cried painfully. As soon as his bike came to a stop, he was running. "Father Torque! Are you all right?" he knelt by the bikers side. Lara approached quietly behind Ben. She stayed respectfully silent. Torque was obviously not all right. For the first time since she had met him, he looked old. His leathery face was ashen and filled with pain. Blood flecked on his beard. A moment after Ben spoke Torque opened his eyes and slowly turned his head towards him. "Of course I'm not all right, you idiot." His voice was faint and filled with pain "I've been stabbed. I'm dyin'." Ben shook his head furiously. His voice was panicked "No, your not. I'll get you to a hospital. I'll-" Torque cut him off. "Ben, Don't." He lifted his hand up, shaking with the effort, and Ben took it. "I lived a long life. It's ok. I'm a gonner and we both know it." "I'm gonna get Gunny." Ben swore. "He's a dead man walking." Torque just smiled. "I know." It was barely a whisper. He squeezed Ben's hand. "I-" he stopped and gasped. Ben leaned closer. "I want you to have my bike." Ben swallowed hard and nodded. "I will." They were silent for a moment. The old man smiled, his eyes sad. "I told you old biker's don't get no respect any more." "You got respect where it counts." Ben was fervent. "I know." Torque closed his eyes. He was like that for a minute, and Lara was sure he was gone, but then the old man spasmed and began coughing blood. "Ben!" the old man managed to get out. "Ben! Gunny he-" he coughed, deep racking coughs that were painful to listen to. "Gunny said something." "What, Father Torque, what?" Pink froth covered his lips. "He said he had to meet a man-" coughed,. "in Fulsome, day after tomorrow." Torque's eyes bulged and he arched his back, gasping. "He- he-said he going to-to-" He drew a huge breath, his last. "The Rebar." he gasped the last word, and Lara watched the life drain from his eyes. Ben just knelt there, holding the dead man's hand. A minute passed, then five. Lara and Ben were unmoving, staring at the corpse of a man who had given his life for them. Lara was a hard woman, she had made herself so, but there were still tears in her eyes. She began to get uneasy. "Ben." Her voice caught. He didn't move or even seem to hear her. She put a cautious hand on his shoulder and gently shook him. "Ben." Lara said again, her voice firm but hoarse. "Ben we have to go. The Leathernecks may be coming back." "Let 'em come." Ben slowly got to his feet, moving like a man 10 years older. He turned to face her and she gasped. He looked.frightening. His face was harder than stone and his jaw was clenched. It was his eyes, though, that truly chilled her. They were as dark and as cold as death. He walked past her stiffly towards Torque's shed. "I'm going to bury him. He deserves that much." His words were quiet, but hard. They said nothing as they dug a grave for the Father of All Bikers. When they rode away one hour later, there was a fresh pile of dirt in the desert with a simple wooden grave marker. On it were words carved with a belt knife. Here Lies Father Torque He died as he lived A Biker * * * A few miles out of Torque's place, Ben pulled his bike to the side of the road and stopped. Neither spoke and the only sound was the ticking of the engine. "Baron's Head's about 10 miles up road." Ben said dully. "You should make it there by nightfall." She didn't move from behind him. Figured. Women. "Get off my bike, Croft." He wasn't in a mood to argue. Her voice was soft, but firm. "What are you doing, Ben?" His jaw set. What was she, dense? "What does it look like I'm doing? I'm kicking you off. "No. I don't want to leave." Well, one of them had to get off the bike. He dismounted and stared down at the highway with dead eyes. "This isn't your problem, Croft." He said softly. "You warned me, we're even, now get out of here." "This isn't about keeping score, Ben." He turned back to her. She was still on his bike, arms crossed. "Then what is it about?" "Gunny wants me too, you know." She told him, head cocked. "He said so." Ben snorted. "You're just a trophy. He won't chase you if you leave the desert. Lara shook her head. "I didn't know Torque long, but I liked him. He didn't deserve dying like that." Amen. "That's not enough." Ben glared at her. "You have no stake in this, Croft. I don't trust you." She raised hr eye brows. "And if I told you why it might make you trust me?" He was regretting this conversation already. "It might." "All right then," she dismounted and leaned against the gas tank. "I think it might make a good story." Huh? Ben blinked. "Story?" "That's why I came to the desert. She looked over his shoulder down the endless road. "I'm writing a series of articles on the New West for a newspaper." "You're doing all this for a damned newspaper?" his voice rose. Why am I arguing with her? I just don't care right now. "You're crazier than I thought." She raised her chin. "My reasons are my own, and I don't need your permission to do anything." "You're right, you don't." He walked past her and mounted his bike. "Good bye, Lady Grace." He started his engine and revved it loudly, shouting over its noise at her. "Thanks for the tip. I hope you get a Pulitzer." She reached over to the handle bars and killed the engine before he could put in into gear. Ben glared at her. "I'm going to be sticking around, Ben, whether you want me to or not." She looked at him hopefully. "I thought you might like the help. "I work alone." He growled, but it sounded unconvincing even to him. "Ah, like you worked alone this morning in your camp. I saved your life." This morning seemed like an eternity ago. "I said we were even, Croft." Ben growled. "I don't owe you nothing." She looked behind him with alarm "Actually, I think that the decision has been taken from us. Riders!" Ben looked behind him and cursed. Five shimmering forms are on the road, a mile or so distant. "Get on if you're coming." He growled and started the bike. Lara leapt on, and they burned rubber. "Can you shake them?" He heard Lara ask over the engine. He looked back and the bikes were closing. They're not carrying two people. They'll gain on us. "No one living knows this desert better than me!" Ben called back. Anymore, he added to himself. He took his bike off road abruptly, onto a faintly visible side road. Try to catch me now, you jerks. Lara gripped his waist tighter. Ben's low rider hadn't been made with off road in mind. The low suspension made riding these rabbit run desert trails a pain in the ass, but Ben knew these trails like the back of his hand, and he was one hell of a rider. He felt Lara trying to keep on the bike and smirked. Hope you're enjoying the ride, Lady Grace. "Are they still after us?" He asked. He felt Lara weight shift as she turned around to look. "Yes. They're falling behind but their still coming." Ben's bike bottomed out on a rock as he negotiated the rough twisted trail. Don't worry girl, I'll fix you up after. "Don't worry, I'll get 'em off our backs." The trail turned ahead, but Ben ignored it, gunning instead for a cleft between two rocks. "Where the hell are you taking us?" He heard Lara yell into his ear. There was maybe a touch of uncertainty in her voice. Hmm. She wasn't so tough after all. Ben said nothing, just steered his bike up the steep slope. The narrow trail was not made for bikes and circled around some boulders and ended up on top of a hillock. Lara and Ben bounced and spit gravel, but made their way up to the top of the slope. You could see pretty far from here, from the high way below all the way to Baron's head in the distance. Looking closer, though, the trail that Ben and Lara had ridden along, as well as their pursuers, was plainly visible below them. Ben came to a halt and grabbed Betsy from her sheath. "Like fish in a barrel." Ben said quietly and put the shotgun to his shoulder. There was a straight narrow stretch coming up that his pursuers wouldn't be able to evade in, and the steep angle to Ben's vantage point was going to be invisible until it was too late. Nailing these guys is just a start. His hand tightened on the hardwood stock. "You might want to haul out those pistols of yours." Ben said to Lara while he sighted down his gun. "Unless they're just for show." "Empty. I used them up escaping from the camp and saving an ungrateful biker." He heard the smile in her voice. Hmph. "Guess you gotta let me do all the work, then, huh?" If she replied, he didn't hear it because the first Leatherneck came into the kill zone. One of them was talking on a radio. Well, he was the first to go. Betsy barked once and the rider fell. Before the Leathernecks had time to react, Ben had levered in another round and was targeting a new bike, the lead this time. Betsy barked again, and the cyclist in front went down. The Leathernecks tried to evade, but with a fallen bike blocking the narrow trail there was no where to go. Ben fired off five more shells, but couldn't tell if he hit any one or not. There were three bikes and bodies down on the trail, though, and that counted for something. Three down, who knows how many to go. Then its just you and me, Gunny. "Nice shooting," Lara complemented. Ben just grunted and started reloading shells into Betsy. "Do we finish them off or run?" It was nice that she was letting him take the lead, but he was pretty sure that it wouldn't last forever. Next time she was going to be as bull headed as ever. That's when Ben realized that he didn't want to show her the road just yet. It would be nice having someone to watch his back for what was coming up. Still, she was a reporter, and Ben had a bad history with reporters. Ya, well, she could stick around as long as she wanted, but Ben was sure she'd crap out somewhere along the way. In the end, it was just going to be him and Gunny. It just felt right. Ben finished reloading and put Betsy back in her sheath. "We ride. I saw one of those boneheads down there talking on the radio. He may have been calling up reinforcements, so we'd better make tracks." He revved up his bike and began the harrowing ride back to the trail. About twenty minutes of hard riding got them to a secondary road. Ben turned west. "We've gotta get into Fulsome and find out who Gunny's meeting with." he said to Lara. "Where's Fulsome?" She asked. "About 200 miles east of here. It's a corporate town. They're hard as hell to get into." "What's a corporate town?" "The city got bought out by a bunch of companies about 30 years ago when their economy bottomed out." The road flashed by them, and the sunset they were riding into was bloody red. "They have their own private police, and they have the place locked up like a drum." "How are we going to get in then? And why are we heading west? It's the wrong direction." "I got a friend who can help up out. So we're going there." Ben paused and clenched his jaw. "Besides, we're not going any farther until I have drink. A big one." They said nothing else as Ben drove, heading to a certain bar for one last drink. To say good bye. * * * They ended up in the Kickstand. It was dark and Quohog had been about to close shop when they had pulled up. Ben didn't say a word, just walked to a table in the back in a storm of creaking leather. Ben had hung out here a lot, Lara knew, and it must be filled with painful memories. "A bottle of anything strong, and two glasses." She said to Quohog and went to join Ben at his table. Quohog, to his credit, knew when not to talk. He brought a bottle of whisky to Ben and Lara and left without a word. The jukebox, apparently sensing the mood, started played Springsteen, Nebraska. "Go away, Croft." Ben said darkly once Quohog had left. His shoulders were hunched and he stared intently into the table. His face was unreadable but Lara could see the pain in his eyes. "No." she said. "I'm not going." Ben brought his eyes up to hers, and she could see anger warring with the pain.. "I want to be alone for a while." His voice was quiet and sad. Again Lara shook her head. She met his level gaze with her own "I'm not leaving you alone right now, Ben." His voice was touched with anger this time. "Leave me alone, Croft.." Lara wouldn't budge. She took the bottle of whiskey and poured two shots. "Being alone doesn't make it any easier, Ben," she said quietly. Memories of Nepal came back to her, frightened, paralyzed with grief, and alone. "It just makes you lonely." He looked at her expressionlessly and said nothing. But he didn't send her away. She pushed one shot glass towards him and raised the other. "To Father Torque." she toasted loudly. She stared at Ben for a short eternity until he finally raised his glass. "Ride low, hide hard," Ben said, and they both drank. She refilled their glasses. "To the Polecats." She toasted. Ben just stared at her, and after a moment she wondered whether or not he was going to meet her toast. After a long pause he raised his glass. His voice was thick. "To the Polecats." They both drank, slammed their glasses to the table and sat in silence. After a moment, Lara spoke. "Tell me about them, Ben." She urged. "The Polecats, who they were." She refilled their glasses again. He just stared at the table, then he reached for his glass and spoke. His voice low and fond in remembrance. "Jackson was a cop. No one knew why he came out into the desert, but the first day he was there, I knew that if I didn't get him in my gang that I'd end up facing him..." Ben & Lara Chapter Six by Ross Jenkins, c 1997 Ben & Lara VI-Old Wounds Lara groaned. Her head was pounding and her eyes felt like sandpaper. She and Ben had been up until.when? drinking and toasting. Oh god, how much had she drank? They'd finished off one bottle of that shoe varnish that Jules claimed was whiskey but after that.They'd spent the last part of the night telling wild tales and comparing scars. Everything else was a blur. Oh God, had she? had he? Eyes still clenched against the world, Lara felt down with her hands to tell if she was wearing any clothing. She still had her shirt and jeans on, thank God, and she was sleeping alone. Thank goodness for small miracles. With a groan she sat up, cursing and holding her head. That wretched liquor left a horrible hangover. Uncertain she wanted to know where she was, Lara opened her eyes. She was in her hotel room at Flo's, laying down fully dressed on the bed. Alone. She cast her shaky memory over the night before, but could find nothing that involved going to Baron's Head or meeting Flo. Where was Ben, had he abandoned her after all? That would be bloody typical of the man. She had spent the night commiserating over his fallen friends, had helped to bury his mentor, had shed blood with the man, and now he abandoned her like on old shirt. Cursing his name, his bike, his gender and the pounding in her head, Lara stripped and managed to stumble her way into the shower. Never in her life had she prayed for hot water as much as she did now. Thankfully, her prayers were answered. Sluicing away the dirt and grime of the day before did a great deal to wake her and restore her spirits. It even seemed to reduce her hangover. She spent more time in the shower then was purely necessary and eventually came out feeling clean and at least half way human. She was wrapped in a towel that was a bit too small to be used for that job and was in the lengthy process of drying her hair when her door was shaken with a rapid series of strong knocks. Lara winced. Did whoever that was have to knock so loud? "Lady Grace?" She heard Ben call through the door. Mentally, she took back some, but not all, of what she had thought about Ben this morning. She rose and opened the door. Ben's face was bleary and his eyes were bloodshot. At least my misery has some company. His eyes popped when they saw her state of undress and he openly checked her out. Lara tried to ignore him, but his eyes were like irons burning into her She was acutely aware of just how little of her the towel covered. "I asked you not to call me that." She said, turning back to the bed and rubbing her head. Ben came into the room and she could feel him ogle her behind. "So, Lady Grace," she took back the taking back of some the things she had thought about him. "When are you going to be ready to go?" He closed the door and leaned back against it, his eyes fixed on the bottom hem of her towel. She thought black thoughts towards him and made sure the hem was still where is was supposed to be. She took a look at Ben. His hair was more unkempt than usual and he looked soiled. It was a small consolation to know that he hadn't spent his night any better than she had. Lara resumed drying her hair. "About 20 minutes, I think. Time enough for you to take a shower, at least." "I don't need a damned shower." He scowled. It was far too early to deal with his stubbornness. "Ben, you look terrible and you smell like a trash heap." Lara scolded him as she began to comb out her hair. He watched her hands like he was hypnotized. "You need a great deal more than a shower, but I am afraid that it is all I have on hand. Where did you spend the night, anyway?" "The dumpster outside the Kickstand." He grunted. She thought she heard him mutter "again," but wasn't sure. "Do you know how I got here?" she asked. She wanted to change but there was no way she was doing it with him standing there. "Quohog called Flo, and she came and got you. She wanted to get me too, but I figured I was better off sleeping in a pile of garbage." He knew she wanted to change as well, and made no sign of moving. "We should clear out before some one from the Leathernecks find out we're here. You should hurry up." He smirked. In your dreams, sport. "I'm not going anywhere until you bathe," she said stubbornly and pushed him into the bathroom. When he opened his mouth to protest, she covered it with her hand. "No arguments, sport, get in there," she insisted and didn't stop pushing until the bathroom door shut and she heard the water running. Lara congratulated herself for her decision to bring her travel bags inside when she had first arrived here. If she had kept her gear in her bike, then she would have nothing on her back, and it would be in a flaming heap outside the Polecat's camp. I have to get a new means of transport soon she thought. Riding behind Ben on his bike had its up side, but was far from a permanent solution to her problem. Well, he was a biker, he must know some place she could buy a new bike. Perhaps in Fulsome. Once she was sure Ben wasn't going to ambush her, she dressed quickly in her last pair of jeans and her least dirty shirt, which happened to be her tank top. She put on an unbuttoned white collared shirt over top and rolled the sleeves up. Her gun belt went on after her boots, with all magazine pouches happily filled, although it cleaned out her supply of ammunition. Again, she'd have to get some more in Fulsome. Maybe something bigger, too, like an Uzi or one of those rockets she'd handled the other day. She was packed up by the time she heard the shower shut off. Lara always traveled lightly for situations just like this one, and all of her belongings fit easily into one medium sized back pack. She was braiding her hair when Ben came out of the bathroom, wearing his T-shirt and jeans and drying his hair. He doesn't look bad cleaned up she said to herself, then banished the thought. There was no time for anything like that, and that avenue was best left alone. Ben's stubble was still there, but it was shorter somehow. How does he do that? "You should leave you hair down." He said in his low gravelly voice as he shrugged on his leather jacket. "It looks better." Lara raised her eye brows. Where had that come from? It was almost.a compliment. From Ben Polecat. This was a pleasant surprise indeed. She smiled. "Perhaps, but it gets in my face when we ride." He shrugged and went to the door. "You ready to go?" "Yes, but I should pay Flo before I leave. I promised her I'd be here a week." She could have sworn that Ben had shuddered. "I'll be out back. I hid the bike there so one could see it." Lara had to know. "What is it with you and Flo, anyway?" she asked while she shouldered her bag. Ben shook his head. "I dance with the lady once, and she starts picking out a china pattern." He ducked out the door and went to the back entrance. Lara smiled and shook her head. For the third and last time, Lara walked down the dingy hallway to the front desk where Flo was reading her customary E-zine. "Well I'll be," Flo crowed, putting her hand to her ample chest in mock amazement. "I do believe that the dead are walking." She smiled and crossed to the front of the counter. "Honey, you were so drunk last night I didn't think you'd be up 'till afternoon." Lara grinned sheepishly. "Not so loud, please." Flo just laughed. "So, you spent the night partying with Ben Polecat. What's your secret?" "Well, I didn't try to get in his knickers at the earliest opportunity. I think that helped." "Shoot, girl, why the hell not? Don't you know a prime hunk of man when you see one?" She went to the kitchen entrance. "You figger you're up for some breakfast, or do you want to take a rain check?" Lara shook her head. Even if she hadn't been in a hurry, she could have done without bland coffee, stale toast and that wretched soy spread. "I'm afraid I'm in a bit of a rush, this morning, Flo. I need to check out." Flo lost a bit of her smile. "Oh, well sure." She moved back to the counter. "I know we agreed on a week, but I won't charge you for food you ain't here to eat." "We agreed on a week, and I'll pay a week." Lara said. She reached into her pack and took out a bill fold. "Also, its to thank you for coming to get me last night. I'm afraid I wasn't very lucid." She handed over several bills. Flo laughed. The bills Lara placed on the counter quickly disappeared from view. "Ain't that the truth. Hell, I couldn't let my only paying customer pass out in the middle of the desert." Her eyes twinkled, "besides, I almost got Ben Polecat to spend the night in my bed." Lara chuckled. "I don't think he was that drunk." "You know, that's exactly what he said." Lara took out several other bills and put them on the desk. "Flo?" The woman looked up. "You never saw me leave." Flo scooped up the bills without blinking. "Shoot, honey, I'm getting senile. I don't even remember what day it is." "Flo, something very dangerous is happening around here." She laid some more bills on the table. "You might want to take a vacation." Flo just stared at the money. "Where the hell would I go?" "Well, you have enough for a weekend in Vegas, or a very long road trip. It's up to you." Lara walked out the door. "Is it that bad?" Flo asked softly. She was counting the money Lara had given her. Lara looked back over her shoulder. "They killed Father Torque and wiped out the Polecats. Any one who gets in their way dies." Flo turned ashen under her make up. "Lordy. I-I had no idea." "I hear Mexico is lovely this time of year." Lara walked around the faded building to the alley, where Ben was waiting impatiently. "Let's go, Lady Grace," Lara rolled her eyes. Now that he knew that his calling her that annoyed her, he was never going to stop. She stowed her pack in one of the bike's storage compartments and slid onto the bike behind Ben. He smelled like old leather and soap, and a masculine musk. It was decidedly alluring. Stop it, Lara told herself. We don't have time for this. "Flo sends her regards." Lara told his back and heard him curse silently. Hah. Turn about is fair play, sport. They had to creep from alley to alley to keep out of sight of prying eyes, but they eventually made it out of town and onto the open road. Both were alert to any traffic, but they were the only ones on the highway. After about 10 minutes on the road, Lara spoke. "So who is this friend of yours and where are we going?" "I can't get into Fulsome." Ben replied. "The Polecats got into a scrap there a few years ago. They ID check you at the city gates, and I've got an arrest on sight order against me." "So if you can't get into Fulsome, then where are we going?" "I've got a friend who owes me a favour. That favour's gonna get me into Fulsome." He wouldn't say anything else on the subject. When Lara asked about getting a new bike, he just chuckled. "It won't be a problem." he said. It seemed that for the moment, there was nothing else she could do. Lara sighed, sat back and enjoyed the view. * * * Ben pulled up in front of Corley Motors a few hours later. As he passed their old hide out, he wondered whether or not he should warn the Vultures about the Leathernecks. There did have a truce. Na. The Vultures were tough, and they could always rocket boost out of a problem. Ben's mind was whirling. What happened next? His whole life had been turned upside down. Again. His gang was gone and he'd been chased off his turf. Father Torque was dead. That really hurt. Torque had been more of a father to Ben then his son of a bitch old man had ever been. He's taken a pissed off out of control brawler and made him one of his own. The day Ben got his colours from Torque had been the second proudest day of his life, right behind the day Torque handed control of the gang over to Ben. Now he was here again, at the Corley Motors Factory, re-opening old wounds. When he'd left Mo last year he'd thought she was out of the picture forever. He had no idea what seeing her again would be like. She'd asked once if they could see a lot of each other. The answer had seemed obvious then, but now? Mo was about his last friend on Earth, maybe. I've gone soft in the head. He was still warped over his gang being wiped out, and it was messing with his mind. I've gotta stay hard, for them. He couldn't even the score for the Polecats if he was all weepy, and he still had a job to do. I gotta find out who ordered the Polecats killed, then I can start butt kicking. It was a statement he'd repeated to himself several times that morning and he knew that he'd be saying it a lot more before all this was done. He extended the kickstand with more force than was really necessary and dismounted. After a night in a dumpster and a few hours on the road, he was stiff as a board and sore as hell. You're not a kid anymore, Polecat. Lara, in contrast, uncoiled off his machine like a cat. She moved like a dancer, and you'd never know that she had spent the last two hours stuck on the back of a bike. Bitch. "Corley Motors?" Lara asked, looking at the company crest on its revolving sign. "Well it seems appropriate," What was she talking about? "Being a biker and all. Who do you know here?" She paused and answered her own question. "Oh, yes. Maureen works here." Ben shot her a look. How did she know about Mo? He thought back and had a dim memory of telling Lara the whole story last night during their second bottle. Right before she had sold him that whole cock and bull Atlantis story. "You just find a bike," he growled, walking towards the main door. "There's a showroom out front. I'll meet you later." He didn't wait for an answer. Let Lady Grace do whatever the hell she wanted. Right now, he had to go open a book that he'd thought was closed for good.. * * * Lara wandered about the showroom, examining motorcycles. Ben was certainly right about one thing: Corley made excellent motorcycles. She recognized Ben's model, though his was somewhat.modified from the version she saw in front of her. Lara sighed. She missed her latest bike. She had almost broken it in, but now it was part of a chrome pretzel outside of the Polecat's camp. Her bike before that, a Yamaha that she had owned for years, was somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea . She was hard on bikes. Actually, she was hard on a great number of things: motorcycles, clothes, furniture, men. It was regrettable and expensive, but it came part and parcel with her rather unconventional lifestyle. She was examining the bikes on her own, after having sent the annoying salesman away. The man was so artificial that he was clich‚. His looks were obviously surgically enhanced, and his smile was too big, to gleaming and to white. She wondered idly if he was a refugee or burn out from Holowood. It wasn't as much his appearance as much as it was the way he so obviously looked down at her. He has asked her if her 'husband' was coming to help her out, and had taken care to show her the vanity mirror and other cosmetic features. She had waved her gold card in his face and threatened bodily harm before he had gotten her 'subtle' hint. Men. She couldn't help but compare 'Brett' with Ben. Next to the ornery biker, the oily salesman seemed very small and artificial. With Ben, everything was honest, everything was real. He was 100% man and didn't have to hide behind tooth brighteners or cosmetic surgery to prove it. He radiated a presence that she couldn't help but be drawn towards. He didn't just feel emotions, he exuded them. She had been chilled when Torque had been killed. Ben had been so cold. When he had declared Gunny and his Leathernecks dead, it hadn't been a sorrowful cry for vengeance, it was a statement of finality. She was mildly annoyed at Ben's snappish behavior, but not surprised. The poor man was hurting right now. He may have thought that he was hiding it, but he was a walking wound. Hopefully the conversation he was going to have with Maureen Corley, whatever relationship those two had, would help him. If he was serious about hunting down Gunny and his Leathernecks, then he was going to have to be focused, otherwise he would get both himself and her killed. Hopefully he wasn't so far gone that he didn't care about that. He seemed to have his head firmly on his shoulders, but grief was a funny thing. As well I should know. She still wasn't sure what Ben thought about her being here. He hadn't run off on her, which was a good thing, but she was sure that she didn't rate very high in his priorities. Right now she was just some one to help him achieve his vengeance, a means to an end. It hurt a bit, she was startled to find, but wasn't surprising. She was going to have to watch her behind, and probably his as well, but was all right. All he was to her was a means to a good story, wasn't he? She wasn't being honest with herself. She was here for the thrill of it plain and simple. She had no need for money, any story she got out of this whole thing was just that, a story. She was here for the same reason she had taken that job for Natla: the challenge, the mystery, a new notch on her belt. Yes, Torque had been a friend and it would be satisfying to see his killers brought to justice or just killed, but really Lara wanted to say that she had tussled with a biker gang and come out on top. It wasn't a healthy reason for doing things. Her father had disowned her for her daredevil attitude. It had cost her a few friendships but gained her some notoriety. So far it had been worth it, but would it be later? She knew her fame was fleeting. If she stopped making headlines she would be soon forgotten and after that, all she would have was an empty house and no one to share it with. Maybe she was getting to old for this, maybe it was time to settle down. Ugh. Depressing thoughts were not in order right now. She smiled at the salesman who paced impatiently in the corner and beckoned him over. He scurried over to her obsequiously. "Do you have any questions regarding our motorcycles?" he asked with an artificial smile. "Yes." Lara looked at the machine in front of her. "Do you have any in blue?" * * * The office was different than he remembered it. Of course, it was daylight this time and he wasn't sneaking around trying to expose a man for murder. It was also a year later and a different person sat behind the desk. Maureen's taste showed in her decorations. She had thankfully gotten rid off that god-awful neo-gothic art- deco stuff. There was native American art on pedestals, and the walls were a light shade of brown. There was a portrait of the old man next to the window. Pictures of Corley's old and new adorned the walls, and the classic hard tail that she had built with her father stood shiny and proud under his picture. Maureen was different, too, and yet the same as well. Her hair was shorter, more professional looking. She wore pearls and ear rings and a mauve business suit. She looked softer. When's the last time you cruised the road, Mo? Her jaw still had that stubborn set, though, and her dark eyes still had that rebellious light to them. For a moment all he could do was stand in the shadows and watch her. She was on the phone, arguing about something with someone. Her voice sounded like he remembered it, soaked in bourbon. Ben had tried to come through the back way, the secret passage he had used before, but Maureen had blocked it. Obviously she didn't like surprises any more than Ben did. Rather than have her secretary warn her about him, Ben had ducked in when her back was turned. It seemed better this way. Seeing Maureen was reliving a bunch of memories and regrets, something Ben didn't do often. He wasn't sure what he had expected to feel when he saw Mo, but what he felt was.nothing. Fond remembrances, yes, but nothing more. He stepped out of the shadows and her eyes caught the movement. For a moment she just stared at him, the phone hanging forgotten from her hand, then she gave an absent "I'll call you back." and came to her feet to meet him. For a moment Ben wondered if he should have done this differently, but then she smiled. "Ben," she seemed to taste the word for a moment before continuing. "You crusty old biker. Its about time you came to see me." She extended her hand to shake, then opened her arms for a hug, then stopped, unsure. Finally she did nothing, holding one arm while the other fell to her side. Ben brought his hand out to shake hers, then stopped and hitched it in his belt. There was an awkward moment of silence. Finally, Ben opened his mouth. "Hey, Mo. Fix any toasters lately?" He tried to keep his tone light. She laughed and leaned back against her desk. "Ya, it's a side line." She gestured broadly with her arm, taking in the entire office. "Even though I'm running this whole company, I still keep in touch with my roots." Her eyes were sparkling. Ben didn't ask for favours much; didn't know how to do it. How do ask someone to help you get vengeance for your entire life? "Umm, ya." He mumbled, unable to meet her eye. "So, how are you doing?" Mo shrugged. "All right, I guess." She paused, then continued eagerly. "So how's everyone? Jackson, Suzi? I-" she broke off and looked away. "-well I haven't, I mean" she trailed off, embarrassed. ".. I've been busy." She noticed that wasn't into the conversation very much. "Ben?" she asked with concern. He didn't know what to say. "Umm, aah" "Ben what's wrong?" She asked. "why are you here?" He turned and walked to the picture window, idly stroking the contours of Mo's classic hard tail. He looked out at the barren landscape, unable to let her see his pain he bit out the words. "They're all gone, Mo." There was no way to say it gently. "Torque, the Polecats, they've all been killed." Saying it out loud made it seem more real, and a lot more painful. He heard Maureen gasp. He watched her in the reflection of the glass and saw her looking at him in shock. "Ben , I -" she broke off, searching for words. "That's terrible." Terrible doesn't begin to cover it. "They're gonna pay, Mo." Ben growled. His voice was flat. It was a promise made to more than the two of them. "They're gonna pay." He clenched his fist. Maureen came slowly up behind him and put her hand on his shoulder. "Do you-do you know about Suzie, or the Vultures?" He shook his head. "No, but the Leathernecks don't take any prisoners and they're tough as hell. If the Vultures haven't been hit yet, they will be soon." He turned and faced her. She was standing right in front of him, her gray eyes filled with concern. He meant to turn away but just stood there, locked in place by those eyes. "Why are you here, Ben?" Her words were barely a whisper. Ben turned away and walked over to her desk. What he had to say was hard. "I need a favour." She just stood by the window and watched him. "What do you need?" Ben's voice grew angry. "The leader of the leathernecks is meeting with some guy in Fulsome." He slammed his fist into his palm. "I need to get into there to find out why he ordered my gang killed." He looked at Mo and tried to say the words, but they wouldn't come out. Will you help me, Mo? She looked thoughtful for a moment. "Fulsome?" She asked. "Ben, that place is a fortress.". He cracked his knuckles. "You're a big hot shot CEO, you've got connections." She shrugged. "Yes, I guess I do, but." "I need to get inside, Mo." His voice was urgent. "I need to know why." She looked at him earnestly. "I-" she looked like she wanted to say more, but was unable. Ben interrupted her. "Can you do it?" She sighed and turned away. "Sure, I guess I can." "Good." He walked towards the office door. Everything about seeing Mo again was too painful. He had to get away. Her voice stopped him. "Ben?" He didn't turn around. "Ya?" "Is that the only reason you came?" Her voice was quiet. No. There was more, but he didn't really know how to say it. "Umm, ah." You're the only part of my life that I have left. I needed to see you, to know that part of me still exists. "Ben, are you OK?" Mo asked softly. He snorted. There was no way he could be less OK. "Once they're all dead I'll be fine." Maybe. He turned to Mo again. She was standing near her desk, looking at him with worried eyes. I'm fine, Mo. Her voice was quiet. "I've missed you, Ben." Ben opened his mouth then shut it again, unsure of what to say. For a moment, they just stood there, looking at one another. "Maureen, I-" Her desk intercom beeped, interrupting him. Ben was glad of the delay. He didn't know what to say, what to feel right now. All he felt was pain, loss and rage. Mo's comment had blindsided him in more way than one. Mo cursed and turned to her desk to touch some hidden button. "Yes, what is it, Sheila?" Her voice was irritated. A tinny voice came from the desk. "Ms. Corley, there is a Lara Croft here, says that she's here to see a Ben Polecat. Do you know what she's talking about?" Ben groaned. The last thing his muddled up mind needed now was Lady Grace sticking her nose into things. Mo shot Ben an unreadable look. "Yes, Sheila, send her in." Behind Ben, the door opened and Lara walked in. He caught a brief whiff of her smell-herbal shampoo, bike exhaust and gun oil-as she passed. She walked past Ben, relaxed and looking at home in Mo's plush office. It didn't matter that she was wearing black jeans and a T-shirt, it was the way she carried herself, with a confidence and self assurance that Ben couldn't hope to match. She walked up to Maureen and smiled, extending her hand. "Hello, Ms. Corley," Lara said in her accent. "I'm Lara Croft." Mo looked at Lara with another unreadable look as she shook her hand. "Hello, Lara." Even to Ben, not an incredibly sensitive guy, it sounded forced. "Nice to meet you." If Lara noticed, she didn't show it. Both women lowered them selves to chairs on either side of the desk. Ben stood behind them, uncomfortable and seemingly forgotten. "I understand that you're old friends with Ben." Lara said in a congenial tone of voice. Mo looked up at Ben, her gray eyes locked with his. After a moment she spoke, her voice quiet, resigned. "Yes, an old friend. I suppose I am." Huh? She looked back at Lara "So, how do you know Ben?" Lara shrugged her smooth shoulders gracefully. "Thrown together by fate, I'm afraid. I'm going to Fulsome with him." "Oh." She gave Ben another look. "You are." Lara cocked her head, gave Mo a puzzled glance. "Yes." She looked back at Ben. "Have you settled whatever business you came here for, Ben?" Ben startled. "Ya." He said quickly. Mo spoke at the same time, contradicting him. "No -" Ben looked at her Yes we are. She paused, choosing her words "I mean-" she broke off. "I'm sorry, am I interrupting something?" Lara asked concernedly, rising from her chair. Mo opened her mouth but Ben broke in, overriding her. "No." Both women looked at him with the same cool expression, in some weird feminine accord. Ben shifted his feet, uncomfortably, suddenly out numbered. Lara walked towards the door, shooting another mysterious look at him. "I'm sorry." She said to Mo, "I'll wait outside." After the door shut there was a moment of awkward silence. After a moment, Mo spoke. "Where'd you pick her up?" Ben shook his head, "Croft." saying her name almost like a curse. He shrugged. "She blew in out of the desert." Maureen just looked at Ben with another weird look. After a pregnant pause she spoke. "Does she have a stake in this?" She continued hurriedly. "I mean-" Ben cut her off. "She saved my butt when the Leathernecks attacked. I'm not sure why she's here." But I will. The reasons Lara gave weren't enough. She wasn't telling him something, and before they went to much farther Ben was going to find out what they were. "Can you trust her?" Mo asked. Ben had asked himself the same question more than once. "I don't know." He thought for a moment. "I think so." "You should be careful." Something in Ben snapped. "Every one is telling me to be careful." He growled angrily. Lara had, at the bar, Torque had-. Ben clamped down on that thought before it went any further. As he continued to speak, his voice continued to rise. "I'm not the one you should be worried about." He had no idea why he was suddenly so angry, but suddenly he was yelling. "Worry about Gunny, or his Leathernecks! They're the one's in trouble!" His fists were clenched so hard his knuckles were white. "They're all gonna die. I gonna kill---" Maureen rushed up to Ben, gripping his shoulders. "Ben!" she shook him yelled hi name. "Ben!" he blinked, suddenly empty, the emotion gone as quickly as it had come. "I'm sorry." Ben shook her off, ignoring her concerned look. He walked over to the portrait of Malcomn Corley. "Sorry. I'm having a bad day." That was an understatement. Maureen came up beside Ben and leaned against his leather clad shoulder. "Is there anything I can do?" She asked quietly. Thank god that was all she said. Ben shook his head, snapping out of his funk. He had a job to do and a long ride ahead of him. Talking to Mo hurt too much. "You're already doing it." He said to her gruffly. "Get me into Fulsome. I'll take care of everything else." He cracked his knuckles and started towards the door. "Ok." Mo nodded and watched him go. As he approached the door she spoke. "Ben?" He turned. "Ya?" "If you need me, you know where to call." He could tell it wasn't what she had intended to say. Ben just nodded. "Ya." He opened the office door then stopped. "And, Mo?" She answered almost too quickly. "Yes, Ben?" "Um, ah- I mean." It was hard to say. He looked out the window, at the floor, anywhere but in her eyes. "Err. Thanks Mo." He said it quickly and shut the door before she could respond. * * * Lara leaned against her newly purchased bike, waiting for Ben It was a small, agile bike, the kind Lara far preferred over Ben's larger road monster. It was right off the assembly line, so its chrome was still gleaming and it still had that new bike smell. It had the latest, most powerful Corley engine and on an open stretch was probably almost as quick as Ben's low rider. She had a feeling that it was going to be put through it s paces in the days coming up. Ben came stomping out of the building about 10 minutes later, visibly in a fowl mood. His talk with Mo didn't seem to have gone to well. She'd interrupted something in that office. Hopefully, it wasn't anything to serious. Ben had better snap out of his funk soon, for everyone's sakes. She was cutting him some slack now, but his growly bear act was wearing a bit thin. It was obvious that there had been something between Maureen, sorry Mo, and Ben last year. It was in her eyes when she looked at Ben, even if he was a bit too numb too show anything back. Of course, Ben had shown all signs of being about as sensitive as a brick, so maybe that's how he acted all the time. Was it serious? Its none of my business, she said, but she was still curious. Ben got onto his bike and scowled at her. "Nice bike." He squinted at the long empty road. "its about a five hour ride. Lets go." He left her behind in a spray of gravel. Well, it's better than marrying a debutante and going to tea parties Lara thought with a sigh as she pulled her bike onto the highway and drove off after Ben. Ben & Lara Chapter Seven by Ross Jenkins, c 1997 Ben & Lara VII-Fulsome Nights Fulsome was an ugly city, Lara thought to herself as she waited in a long, exhaust filled line to enter it. It was essentially owned by a corporate conglomerate, and they dictated its civic budget as they saw fit. Evidently, their view of public spending did not include beautification or anything beyond basic sanitation. It was surrounded by thirty foot concrete walls that were stained by rust and soot, and the occasional spire of a high rise or smoke stack that poked into view looked equally tired and drab. It had a very effective and paranoid police force, so Ben told her. They only enforced the laws they wanted, and one of those laws was privacy. 'Getting into Fulsome is harder than screwing a nun' were his charming and descriptive words. There were only four city gates, one at each end of the crossed highways that went through the city. They were paranoid about who got in or out. If you were on their 'shit list', another of Ben's colourful descriptions, then there was simply no way in. He had supposedly taken care of his clearance with Mo, during their visit to Corley Motors, but the moment of truth was coming up soon. The line they were in was inching its way towards the gate, as city officials did complete and exhaustive searches of every vehicle. Ben had said that no guns were allowed in the city, so they had buried Betsy and Lara's pistols under a rock in the desert. Lara was not thrilled about going into the city unarmed, but Ben had just laughed when she suggested smuggling them in or bribing a guard to ignore them. That worried her. Still, if they had to go in unarmed, then it seemed logical that their enemies would be equally disadvantaged. It was a small comfort, but a comfort none- the-less. It was early evening and Ben and Lara had been on the road for most of the day. According to Torque's last words, Gunny was meeting who ever he was meeting tomorrow some time at a place called the Rebar. Ben had been a rock for the entire trip. He had only spoken when she had asked a question, and most of his answers were rude or abrupt. She understood his mood, though. He had taken a huge loss and it was not like she had expected him to be Mr. Congeniality. Still, a word that she didn't have to pull out of him like a stubborn tooth would have been nice. In front of them a car entered the first set of gates, then passed out of sight when the gates closed with a clang. Ben hadn't been kidding about the paranoid security. If there was a problem with your admission, then there was no way out of the steel cage. From a impersonal point of view, Lara had to admire their thoroughness, but as a person about to be devoured by those same jaws she found it very imposing. Ten silent minutes later, the steel gates opened and a plain faced man motioned for Lara and Ben to enter. The two of them drove their bikes in and parked them in the indicated areas. "Shut off your engines and get off of your vehicles," He told them in a bored, monotonous voice. "Present your identification and place all items on your person into the trays provided." As soon as Lara and Ben had dismounted their machines, another group of inspectors in oily coveralls swarmed over the vehicles. Lara could see Ben's jaw tense at the sight of people on his bike, but thankfully he said nothing. Their same flat voiced inspector fed their ID's into a computer while another passed their belongings through a series of metal and explosive detectors. Ben wasn't exaggerating, Lara thought. The security in this place is impossibly thorough. "Lara Estelle Croft, age 31, born in Sussex England," The man read off the computer screen impassively. "Hair: brown, Eyes: Brown, Height Five foot eight, Weight one hundred twenty five pounds." As he read off Lara's statistics he glanced at her, making sure that they matched. When he had assured himself that she was who she claimed to be, he continued. "British citizen, in the US on a three month visa. What's your business in Fulsome?" He asked, voice flat. "Sightseeing." He just nodded and typed it into the computer. "Duration of stay?" "Just a day or two." He looked at her, annoyed. "Which is it, one day or two?" "Two, I guess." He nodded. "Pass through the turnstile. You may collect your vehicle and belongings on the other side." He continued speaking what was obviously a oft repeated statement. "You must sign a waiver stating you know all of this cities regulations before entry, and may exchange your money for currency chits at the Currency Exchange only. Next." Lara stepped through the turnstile and waited for Ben. There was no way inside to see how Ben was going. Here's where we find out just how helpful Mo was. * * * This guy was getting on Ben's nerves. "Benjamin Richard Butterwell, AKA Ben Polecat, age 35, born in Springfield, Indiana. Hair black, eyes blue, Height six two, weight two hundred twenty pounds." Ben scowled. He hated that name and every memory that came with it. Ben Butterwell had died in a military prison 14 years ago, and the less said about that the better. He glared at the bored inspector and wished violence upon him. "Get on with it." Man, Mo had better have come through. If she didn't I am one screwed biker. The man gave Ben a short, empty look before continuing. "US Marine Corps, dishonorable discharge, no reason stated." He glared at Ben a moment, as if the blank record was his fault or something. "No current wants or warrants. Last entered the Fulsome Urban Commercial Zone on 6 March two years ago." Here's where I find out how much sway the CEO of Corley has in this city. The man paused for a moment, and Ben wished there was somewhere he could run to. There was no jail in Fulsome, just a coal mine that no one ever came out of. They called it 'working off your debt', but the street term was much more colourful: The Black Hole. I ain't gonna rot in no mine. "What's your business in Fulsome?" The man asked, his voice blessedly bland. Ben let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding. "Tiddlywink convention." The inspector gave Ben another bland look. "Personal." He concluded. "Duration of stay?" "Two days." "Pass through the turnstile." He continued to read off his mental cue card. "You may collect your vehicle and belongings on the other side. You must sign a waiver stating you know all of this cities regulations before entry, and may exchange your money for currency chits at the Currency Exchange only. Next." Ben stepped through the turnstile and stepped up the desk where Lara was waiting and signed away his soul. The waiver stated that you understood the laws of Fulsome and that they superseded normal US law in such areas as privacy, right to bear arms, and freedom of speech. He walked over to his bike and gave it a quick once over. He didn't like other people messing with his bike; you never knew just what they were going to do with it. "You somewhat understated the security of this city," Lara commented as they walked across the street to the currency exchange. "I had less of a going over when I met King Alistair." She'd met the king of England? "They're paranoid as hell here. Corporate espionage is pretty fierce." Ben told her as they got in yet another line. "Terrorism, too." "Why would any biker go into this city?" Lara asked. "It seems far too. stifling." Ben shrugged. "Fulsome's neutral turf for every body. You can deal in anything here: Guns, drugs, fenced goods. The brokers stay here because no one can muscle them. The cops'll protect anyone who pays em enough." "So did you get into trouble, the last time you were here?" She asked. Ben grunted. "Some guy insulted my bike." She looked perplexed. "That doesn't sound that terrible. I would think that even a brawl would only get you deported." "The guy was a cop." She nodded in understanding. "I see." Ben was spared further conversation by their arrival at the head of the line, and yet another bored looking bureaucrat. Ben shoved a wad of cash into the slit and the man handed Ben back a number of oblong plastic blocks, each with different colours and numbers. What the hell was wrong with paper cash? Behind him, Lara handed through her debit card. "Five hundred, please." There she was, throwing cash all over the place again. She took the plastic chips skeptically. "These are quaint." A number of people watched them leave. "Everyone calls them fuck-bucks." At her raised eyebrows, he explained. "F C U, Fulsome Currency Units." Lady Grace had acquired a fan cub, one that had everything to do with the large stack of fuck-bucks in her pocket. There were three members, and as Ben and Lara left the building, they followed. Ben gave them his best glare, and they went back inside. For now. Pretty soon, though, every mugger and cut purse in the concrete jungle was going to know by the grapevine that Lara was little miss money bags. Just what I need to make this night complete. "So what do we do next, find this Rebar place or find some place to spend the night?" Lara asked as they went back to their motorcycles. Ben kept watch in his side mirror, checking to see if any one was following them. No one was, but several pairs of eyes were following their progress. "I already know where the Rebar is." Ben growled. "All we do tonight is find some place to lay low." Hopefully someplace where these turkeys can't find us. He knew just the place, if nobody had condemned it or burned it down in the two years since Ben had last been here. It was called the Four Star Hotel. It was in the fraying edge of the commercial sector, near the industrial zone. The cops in the city didn't give a damn about law and order unless it dealt with either the industrial zone, or the executive residential area. Those area were patrolled so tight not even a yellow bunny could get through, but any other place in the city had to take care of itself. No one gave a damn about the neighborhood where the sagging hotel sat, which made it perfect. Ben started his bike and took off. He knew that Lara was right behind him. * * * The Four Star Hotel didn't live up to even one eighth of its name. Perhaps, back in the 1970's when it was built it had been passable, but it hadn't been maintained since then and was most definitely a dive. Ben and Lara had a pair of narrow adjoining rooms on the fifth floor, with a lovely view of the bright, noisy neon sign and beyond it, a drab gray factory wall. It seemed appropriate that the only working letter on the sign, the 'T', was on their floor. It was hardly her first choice for accommodations, but it had a bed and a shower so she couldn't complain to much. After all, this was Ben's show and she was just along for the ride. He knew the city, and if he felt the best place to hide out was in this rather disreputable place, then she would have to trust his judgement. For now. At least the laundry worked, and for the first time in days she had clean clothes. She had even nagged Ben into surrendering his garbage stained apparel. She was tolerant and understanding of his moodiness but a lady had her limits, and the man positively stank. At the moment Ben was down in the lounge. He said that he was going to get some food, over which they would discuss their plans for the next day, to surveil the Rebar and find out who Gunny was meeting and why. Lara had been on line with her editor while waiting for Ben to return, discussing her story and editing her last submission. He had been enthusiastic about her recent involvements, and was eager for more. She was of mixed feelings about that. Up until yesterday, the events that she had been writing about had been to faceless abstract people: a biker and his gang, a new tough muscling into his territory. It was different now. The events that she would be chronicling were about real people: Willie and his duplicity, Torque and his valiant sacrifice, Ben and his loss. It seemed wrong to be making money off of their loss and pain. Her editor hadn't agreed with her moral dilemma, but that was hardly shocking news. She'd agreed to discuss things later, but that was only delaying the problem, not solving it. There was a pounding at the door and Lara's stomach growled. It's Ben, his arms full of food. She got to her feet from the double bed on which she had been sitting and went to the door to open it for him, a smart remark on her lips. She had just turned the handle on the door when it flew open. Lara had very good reflexes and almost managed to avoid the door, but it still caught her hip and sent her flying. Lara rolled with the blow and used its momentum to bring her to her feet. She automatically reached for her pistols and remembered a moment later that they were buried out the desert somewhere. Weaponless but by no means helpless, she faced her intruders. There were three of them. The first was a wiry Hispanic in jeans and an under shirt wielding a nunchaku. Another had long greasy hair and had a pair of wicked looking double edged knives. The third was very tall with shoulders that could have spanned the English Channel. He had a baseball bat. This is not good. Lara had no idea why they were here and they said nothing that enlightened her. "Can I help you?" Lara asked, trying to keep her voice light. In the past, some of Lara's opponents had been enraged or had misjudged her on the basis of her light, polite words. Considering that she was bare handed against three unpleasant looking men, Lara needed every advantage she could. "Chicka," the Hispanic said to her in a thick accent. "You're going to give us everything you got." He grinned ferally and advanced into the room. "Why do I get the impression that you want more than my money?" Lara asked, backing up a step and looking for either a weapon or an exit. Unfortunately, neither presented itself. The Hispanic smiled again, revealing gaps in his teeth. "You're a smart lady." He swirled his nunchaku before him in a vicious figure eight. "You give us your money and let us have fun, we might tell our boss we never found you." Threats not withstanding, Lara's interest was peaked. Boss? "And who would your employer be, then?" she asked, keeping her eyes on the swirling block of wood. "Mr. Williams wants to meet you and your boyfriend." The knife wielder said, stepping towards Lara with a leer. He flicked a glance down to her bosum, and Lara took full advantage of his momentary distraction. Lara lashed out with her foot, smashing it into the knife wielders knee cap. "And who-" He cried out in pain and stumbled forward. Lara drove her palm into his chin. He fell and she turned to face the remaining two men. "-is Mr. Williams?" The nunchaku wielder said nothing, just charged her and lashed out with his flail. Lara jumped back, avoiding his blows. It would only take one strike to take her out of this fight, and then he would be free to have his 'fun'. She could see the bruiser with the bat coming at her from the side, trying to blind side her. Lara kept moving back, trying to keep both men in her field of vision. This room is too damned small. It had taken her no time at all to get backed into a corner. Lara needed a great deal of room to fight effectively, and these gentleman had so far been very unobliging. The 'chuck wielder smashed the lamp as she ducked his blow and the bat man, no pun intended, put a hole in the wall. As he paused to rip his weapon out of the wall, Lara managed to get one kick into his side, but it didn't seem to phase him. I certainly hope that something I throw can take him down. The Hispanic lashed out with his two piece rod, and Lara dove onto the bed to avoid him. She was getting nowhere fast. She rolled of the bed to her feet just in time to face the bat man. He swung at her but she stepped into his attack, kneeing his crotch and driving a fist into his short ribs. He grunted and sagged, but didn't fall. So much for that idea. Before Lara could jump back or press the attack, he smashed down with the pommel of the bat onto her head, just above her hair line. Lara's vision flared white and she fell. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she tried to stay focused as the 'chuck driver leaned over her. Pushing up from the ground, she slammed her foot into his face. He staggered back, blood streaming from his nose, cursing. The bat man swung at her, but Lara dodged and rolled behind him. He turned to face her just as she came to her feet. He swung his bat in a powerful strike that Lara knew would break something if it hit, but she retreated out of the way. The power of his strike turned his side to her, and she brought her foot up in a round house kick to his head. The brute still didn't go down. Does he have any vulnerable spots? Where was the nunchaku man? She cast her eyes about, trying to find him. A blur from the corner of her eye was the only warning she had. Ducking under his swing, she stepped towards him and drove her fist into his solar plexus. The blow stunned him, and Lara took full advantage of it. She rose, using the motion of her ascent to drive her elbow into his jaw. His head snapped back and he staggered. Lara heard the unstoppable man the bat coming up behind her. She grabbed the Hispanic by his arm and turning, hip threw him into the oncoming attack. The bat man was unable to stop his swing, and the Hispanic smashed into the bat with the sound of breaking bones. Lara tried to move to the man's side to get an attack in without having to face that wicked bat, but he was too fast. He swung his weapon in fast, brutal arcs, to fast for Lara to get past his guard. Gritting her teeth, she backed away, dodging. It was the only thing she could do, and it was only delaying the inevitable. He swung at her several times, backing Lara farther into a corner with each attack. Lara was running out of options when the man suddenly fell. Ben stood behind him. "Tire iron." He said dryly. "Don't leave home without it." "I'll keep that in mind." Lara replied, looking around the wrecked room, surveying the three sprawled bodies. She turned to Ben. "Did you get dinner? I'm starved" * * * Ben peeked into the hotel lobby and cursed. There were five more guys blocking the front entrance. They'd already tried to duck out the back, but that way had been guarded. Now the front was blocked too. Whoever this 'Williams' guy was, he sure wanted Ben and Lara bad. He'd spotted the bartender slip something into his beer and had 'persuaded' the guy to tell him that somebody was after him and Lara. He had gotten back up stairs just in time to help Lara trash the third of three bozos that had gone after her. They had tied the guys up, packed up their stuff, and made their way downstairs. It didn't make sense. The only people who might be interested in Lara would have been anyone who had seen her flashing all that cash around. That meant maybe a few stiffs, or maybe a small gang. She hadn't shown off that much money. Who ever these guys were, they were too tough and too organized to be local thugs. Lara had said that 'Mr. Williams' wanted to see them, but the name meant nothing to him. Ben knew who most of the major players in the desert were, and this Williams guy wasn't one of them either. Of course, Gunny had come out of the blue as well, and toasted the Polecats. Ben wasn't as in the loop as he had used to be. Maybe I'm getting old. About ten more guys came into the hotel. A bald guy with shades, the leader from the looks of it, spoke to one of the stiffs who waited by the door. Whoever he was talking to shook his head, then Baldy and his guys walked towards the stairs. It didn't take a motorcycle engineer to figure out where they were going or who they wanted. "The front door is blocked and there's a bunch of guys coming this way." Ben whispered to Lara, who crouched in the stairwell behind him. There was blood trickling down her forehead, but she was still standing and hadn't bitched about it, so it couldn't be too bad. "Where can we go then?" she whispered. Her voice was totally calm. She could have been asking what price the gas was. Ben cracked his knuckles in frustration. "Back up stairs, I guess." They were only one floor up when they heard the stairway door open below them. Ben tried to stop moving before they heard him, but it was too late. "Hey, some one's on the stairs!" he heard a guy call out, then they began to run. Ben cursed. He hated running and hiding, but he hated unfair fights more. He could probably handle three on one, maybe four on one, but there was no way he and Lara could take on ten guys. He began to run up the stairs, Lara just ahead of him. He had no idea how far he ran, but suddenly there were no more stairs. We're at the roof. Lara slammed the door open and Ben ran through at her heels. Ben panted with the exertion, but Lara barely seemed winded. Bitch. Ben put his hands on his knees, gasping for air. "Hold the door!" Lara barked. Ben heard footsteps and looked over. The handle was turning. He slammed his body into the door and gripped the door handle. He heard a body on the other side stumble back at the force of Ben's hit and fall. Take that. A person slammed into the door, but Ben was braced and kept it closed. "Are you going to find something to block it or were you thinking of having a tea party first?" Ben growled at Lara. She didn't answer but came back a moment later with a broom handle. There were two guys pushing now, and it was getting harder for Ben to keep them back. "Sorry, I stopped for biscuits," Lara quipped as she braced the broom stick at an angle between the door handle and the floor. "It will hold them for a moment, but not much more." Ben said nothing, just walked out and tried to find another way off the roof. After a moment he cursed. There was nothing that didn't involve becoming street pizza. "Any bright ideas, Lady Grace?" Lara looked thoughtful for a moment. "There's an extendable ladder on that next building we can use as a bridge." She told him, pointing it out. Ben looked. Yes, there was a ladder, but there were a few problems with that idea. He glared at Lara. "Its on the other building." He told her. Is this lady nuts? "If we could get to it, we wouldn't need the ladder." She just smiled at him and patted him patronizingly on the shoulder. Ben bristled. What the hell was she up to? "Don't worry, Ben. I've got it covered." Huh? "What do you mean?" he asked, knowing full well that he didn't really want to know the answer. He saw her visually measuring the distance between the two buildings and gaped. No way. She couldn't-she wouldn't. It was over twenty feet away!! She really was nuts. No way Lady Grace, or any one who wasn't on the Olympic track team, could make a jump like that. It wasn't worth it, she couldn't do it, it wasn't the right way for a woman like her to go. "Lara!" he yelled and tried to grab her arm, but it was too late. With a running start eight stories above the cold hard concrete, Lara Croft soared between the hotel and whatever building was next to it. It was breath taking. She looked natural in flight, like the rest of her life was just those annoying moments between leaps. For a moment, a beautiful, wonderful moment, it was as if she could ignore gravity. Then the moment ended. Oh, man, she's gonna fall. Ben watched in horror as she fell short of the mark. It was like the last part of his life fell with her. No. She can't go like this. As if there was anything he could do could stop her. But she made it. Ben watched, thunderstruck, as she managed to grab onto the edge of the building with her finger tips. His heart stopped beating for a moment. She's gonna fall. She stayed there a moment, hanging off the side of the building. What the hell is she doing? Singing 'God Save the King?' After a timeless moment she began to pull herself up. She was so fluid, she made it look easy. Ben remembered to breathe. Across the alley, Lara unfolded the ladder and extended it across the gap to Ben. Behind him, the pounding against the door was getting heavier. That broom stick wasn't going to last much longer. As soon as the ladder touched the hotel roof, Ben was on it, focusing on Lara, ignoring the thin metal frame that was the only thing between him and street pizza almost ninety feet below. He glared at Lara, focusing on her and her cat-ate-the-canary grin. Behind him, he heard the broomstick break and the door smash open. He'd deal with Lady Grace in a minute. He had other things to do with first. Ben stepped thankfully back onto firm ground and reached behind him to pull the ladder off the hotel roof. One of the guys made a dive for it but missed. By the time Ben had pulled the ladder back up, all ten guys were at the roofs edge, glaring. "This isn't over, biker!" yelled the bald one. Ben smirked. "Ya, come over here and say that." Baldy just glared and cursed, then motioned his guys back downstairs. Two guys stayed up on the roof, keeping watch on Ben and Lara. They were safe, for now. He turned to Lara, suddenly furious. * * * Lara and Ben traversed roof tops for the better part of an hour, taking care to avoid intrusion alarms and maintaining a low profile. Luckily, they were in a rather decrepit part of the city and security was somewhat lax. She was fairly sure that they had evaded the minions of the mysterious 'Mr. Williams'. They were, however, still on the lamb. They had taken a look down at the hotel and found it still under watch both front and back. There were still two thugs on the roof of the hotel, so that route was out, too. The bald man and his thugs patrolled every street and alley in a ten block radius. Ben and Lara couldn't go beyond that range with just their ladder, the buildings beyond that were either too short or far too tall. They had been forced to spend the night in a roof top green house, laying down among pots of tomatoes and roses. In the morning when the streets became congested with traffic, they would filter down and see how much of their belongings were left. In the mean time, though, there was nothing left to do but cat nap and brood. Ben was furious enough to pull off body parts, and Lara hadn't been in a mood to argue with him. She'd been able to delay his tirade while they checked out what their situation was, but now that they were holed up for the night she had nothing left to distract him with. She reclined against a bag of peat moss with a sigh and a wince at the bump on her noggin. "You might as well spit out whatever it is you want to say, Ben" She closed her eyes and tried to ignore the throbbing pain. The floor was hard concrete and she was going to wake up stiff, assuming she got any sleep at all. It was going to be a long night. For a moment there was silence, and Lara wondered if he was going to speak, but then she heard his low growling voice "You're completely off your rocker, lady." he sounded angry. Even with her eyes still closed, she could almost see his jaw knotting. "Oh really?" Lara tried to keep the conversation light. She was too tired to get into a knock down drag out argument with Ben, especially on this subject. It seemed that Ben wasn't. "You were this close to missing that jump." Lara sighed. "That jump saved your life, Ben. You never thanked me for that, by the way." It wasn't a good idea to bait him, but she was getting annoyed. "Are you that stupid?" He growled. Even if the man was a rude boor, she would remain polite. "You say the nicest things, Ben." Her flip remark only seemed to make him angrier. "All you've done since I've seen you in this desert is pull one hair brained stunt after another." Lara gave up trying to sleep and sat up. There was almost no light coming in the greenhouse windows, but she could see Ben's silhouette sitting with his back to the green house wall. She tried to keep her tone even, but some of her crossness came across in her voice. "My 'hair brained stunts' have saved your life at least three times, Ben." He shook his head. "This isn't about keeping score, Lady Grace." She pulled her knees up and rested her head wearily on them. "Then what is it about?" she asked. "I've had a long day and tomorrow will undoubtedly prove longer. I would like to get some sleep tonight." His head shook in the darkness. "What are you doing here, Lara?" he asked. His voice sounded tired. She realized that it was the first time he had called her by her name. "At the moment," she told him, "sitting against a bag of fertilizer." It wasn't the answer he wanted. He snorted angrily. "You know what I mean." He gestured with his hand, and it was momentarily caught in a weak stream of light. "No reporter I know takes on three guys in a hotel room then jump off a roof for a damn story." She raised her head and looked at his shadowed form. "Well, I'm a reporter" among other things "and I did." "You shoot, ride and fight too good." Ben said. It was a compliment, of sorts, although I don't think he meant it that way. "You don't need the cash," he continued. "You bought a top of the line Corley with pocket change." Lara chuckled. "Hardly." Lara has used up her entire home reno budget buying that bike. She was going to have to sell her soul to the bank to keep herself in the black. Hopefully the returns from her story would help, though. Ben wasn't listening. "And you've been flashing cash around ever since I've met you." "It's an expense account." She told him. "It's not my money." That wasn't totally true. Food and shelter were covered by her magazine, but other things like the $1000 she had given to Flo had come from her own pocket. "No." His tone was flat. "I don't trust you. You've got some sort of death wish, and sooner or later it's gonna catch up with you." That hit a little close to home. Ben was more intuitive than she had given him credit for. "What does it matter, Ben?" It wasn't a denial. She didn't want to lie to him. "I want to help you, and we work well together." "You jumped into this whole damned thing on a whim," he said accusingly. "And you could leave me in the lurch just as easy." Ah, so that was what this was about. "What do you want me to say, Ben?" He was silent for a moment. "I don't know." "Do you want my word?" She took his silence for assent. "Very well, I promise that I will stay and help you find Gunny and who ever hire him to kill Father Torque and your gang." She paused. Her voice was quiet. "I'll stay until you send me away." She looked into his eyes, or where she thought they were. Something passed between them. Agreement? Camaraderie? Again, he was silent. "Don't tempt me." His voice was light, accepting. They said nothing for a few minutes, just sharing the same space, comfortable for the moment with each others presence. After a while Lara spoke. "If there's nothing else, I'd like to get some sleep." She tried once again to find a comfortable spot to lay down. She heard Ben lay as well. "Good night, Lady Grace." "Please call me Lara," she said softly. She wanted to hear him say her name. He squirmed on the floor a few feet away from her. "Lady Grace is a biker's name." She heard him say. "It suits you." The man certainly knew how to ruin the moment. "I'm not a biker chick." She said crossly. "I said biker," Ben corrected, "not biker chick. No way you could be anyone's kept woman." Was that a compliment? Was he acknowledging her as a member of his elite fraternity? She smiled. "Thank you, I think." They shared comfortable silence for a while, until Lara finally fell asleep. Ben & Lara Chapter Eight by Ross Jenkins, c 1997 Ben & Lara VIII-Killing Time It seemed very odd to Lara that the quintessential biker bar, The Rebar, was in Fulsome, the most paranoid, controlled city in the country. The Rebar was dimly lit and spacious. A long battered bar went along the length of one wall, and an annex held billiard tables and video games. There were various chipped tables and chairs around one end, and a hard wood dance floor. Gang crests, dating back to the legendary Hell's Angels, filled the walls, along with the occasional wanted poster, license plates, and motorcycle posters. The staff all looked rough and ready, serving food and beer to the varied clientele that occupied the place. Ben and Lara had been here since noon, in disguise and keeping their eye out for Gunny. They had snuck down off their building around 8:30, after a brief and uncomfortable sleep in the green house. They had paid a street rat to go into the Four Star Hotel and get what was left of their things. Most of their stuff had little value, such as toiletries and clothes, and had been left alone, but Lara's computer had been stolen. Luckily, she had had the forethought to upload her files to her FTP sight and had wiped the drive clean. She did not want the mysterious 'Mr. Williams' getting her files and thus access to who she was. Their bikes were in a private garage and thankfully hadn't been touched. She and Ben were in disguise, and Lara hated it. Ben had argued that she had to look different then she had when Gunny had last seen her, and that she had to blend into the crowd at the bar. Personally, she thought Ben had an ulterior motive in dressing her like this, either just as an excuse to ogle her or as a way to test her resolve. He still didn't totally trust her motives and a 'test' like this was not beneath him. Whatever his motives, she was dressed to 'blend in', and had to admit that she certainly looked different. She wore a cleavage enhancing halter and a black leather mini skirt that she had reluctantly bought this morning. Her hair was down and she was wearing far too much makeup. She felt like a piece of meat, and only Ben's presence was keeping her from being ravished by the entire establishment. The former leader of the Polecats certainly was changed. He had reluctantly removed his precious jacket and wore instead a plain studded denim vest over a ripped, sleeveless Corley T- shirt. His hair had been died blonde and slicked back with gel. The most amazing thing though was that he had actually shaved. Lara's jaw had almost dropped when she had seen that. He must really take his vengeance seriously to make a sacrifice like that. He looked good, Lara had to admit. He had an excellent physique that his tight shirt revealed, and his bare arms were corded with muscle. His bare face emphasized his jaw, and his hair brought the blue of his eyes. Hopefully it was enough of a difference that Gunny would not recognize the couple if, when, he came to the place to meet whoever it was he was here to meet. It seemed a bit of a long shot, coming to Fulsome to see who Gunny was meeting on the word of a dead man. What if Torque heard wrong? What if Gunny said it as misinformation and this entire thing was a trap? Lara had asked herself these question and several others several times as she and Ben sat here. In the end, though, it came down to the fact that it was their only lead. They were seated near the back with a good view of the door, slowly nursing god-awful beer and eating their way through the bar's limited menu. Lara's back was to the wall, which meant that watching the entrance fell to her. So far, nothing. Glancing over at Ben, she saw that he was smiling. It was small, and a little bittersweet, not his customary smirk but an actual smile. Only a biker could enjoy himself while unarmed in a city filled with people who want to kill you. "You look like your enjoying yourself far too much." She accused him. Ben chuckled and grinned ruefully. "This place takes me back." He said to Lara. He scratched at his scalp in irritation. "Its like I just got out of Diego, and came into the desert for the first time." He stuffed a whole potato skin into his mouth. Too much grease. Lara shuddered silently. "Diego?" She asked. Ben stared off into the distance, eyes full of fond memory. "San Diego." He told her. "Its on the southern end of the LA sprawl." Ah. I knew that you weren't born in this desert. "Your home town?" she asked. "No." Ben shook his head. "It was just where I was before I came here." He reached for the last potato skin but stopped and looked at Lara. She shook her head and Ben devoured it. The man has no manners "I see." She glanced at Ben but mainly kept her eyes on the door. "And why does this remind you of that?" Ben trailed his finger idly around the empty plate on the table. "I was young, full of attitude." He was full of attitude then? "I had no colours. First thing I did was walk into a bar just like this and piss off the biggest Rott-wheeler you've ever seen." Lara leaned forward, intrigued. It was easy for her to picture the scene. Ben would have been younger, less weathered. His eyes would have all the fire that they did now but none of the wisdom. She could picture his macho swagger, his pores oozing attitude. "What happened?" Ben chuckled and grinned ruefully. "I got my ass kicked pretty bad." He scratched his scalp again. "I was way outa my league." Lara was surprised that Ben would admit to such a thing. She raised her eye brows. "Surely there's a happy ending to this story?" "Sure." Ben gulped down some beer. "I was too stupid to stay down, so every time the big son of a bitch knocked me over I got right back up again." Lara had seen that same trait during the Leatherneck attack. She wasn't sure if 'stupid' was the right phrase. "I would have killed my self if Father Torque hadn't stepped in." Ben continued. When he mentioned his mentor's name, pride and sadness crept into his voice. "Even back then he was still called Father Torque, the man was born old." Ben spent a moment lost in nostalgia, then continued. "Anyway, he was so impressed with my stubbornness he bought me a drink. He gave me a shot to join the Polecats, which I took. I failed the initiation test the first three times, but I was so damn stubborn," You still are "I kept at it until they let me in." Lara studied Ben's face. It was good to see him relaxed. His jaw wasn't clenched and his eyes weren't squinting. It made him look younger, better. "What sort of test?" she asked. Ben looked up at her, met her gaze with his own. Even relaxed, his eyes were intense, so full of purpose. She couldn't help but be lost in those eyes. "The Old Mine Road." His voice was absent, distracted. For an eternal moment they just looked at each other, then Ben looked away and the moment was gone. It took Lara a moment to remember to breathe. "It's where all the bikers go to break in newbies." Ben continued gruffly. "You just drive around picking fights with whoever else is there." Lara very firmly locked her eyes on the door. She could look at anything but Ben. "Sounds charming," she forced herself to say. Ben chuckled. "Ya, well, it ain't Wheel of Fortune." He scratched furiously at his scalp. "You've gotta get trophies from your wins, and the one I had to get to pass the test was this one Rott Wheeler's jacket." She smiled. "And this person took you three tries?" "Ya. His bike had more power than mine back then, so every time he saw me he'd just take off." Ben extended one hand away from his body in a 'flying off' gesture. "I was getting pretty pissed at eating his dust," I can imagine, "So the third time around as I got up to him I managed to stick a piece of wood into his spikes." Ben shrugged. "He flipped up and I grabbed his coat. That's when I got Betsy. " The name sounded familiar. "Betsy, your gun?" Ben nodded. "If he had a gun the entire time," Lara asked, " why didn't he just shoot you?" Ben looked at her like he would a none-so-smart child. "It's part of the Code." He put an emphasis on the last word. "The Mine Road is about bike fights, not gun fights." He spoke with finality. Lara admired his faith in his code, but still. "Well, I admire your self control. The people I tend to run into tend not to have any rules of engagement." And I've got the scars to prove it. Ben's eyes and face went hard. "Ya, I run into them sometimes too." Gunny. The name passed unspoken between them, and suddenly the mood was shattered. She could see the change in Ben as he remembered why he was here and the pain that the man had given him. His shoulders clenched, his jaw tightened and his eyes turned cold. They sat in awkward silence for a moment, then Ben began scratching at his dyed scalp. "I hate this damn hair dye. It itches." Lara tried to lighten the mood. "It will wash out in the morning, or" she added with a smile, "next week, when ever you decide to bathe again." It seemed to work. Ben relaxed, if only a bit. "Funny." He grunted. He just sat there, looking at her. Lara tried not to squirm under his scrutiny and kept her gaze on the bar. So far, no Gunny. After a while he spoke, his voice quiet. "I don't get you, Lady Grace." Believe me, its quite mutual. "What is there not to get?" She asked coolly, still not meeting his eyes. He scowled a bit at her obscure answer. "You're to good for this desert." She smiled at the compliment. From Ben, they were few and far between. "That's not saying very much." She said lightly. He narrowed his eyes. "You know what I mean." He wasn't in a mood for banter. "You should be hosting tea parties. Marrying some stuck up guy and having rugrats." Ugh. By far her worst nightmare. "Believe me," Lara told him, giving him a cool glance. "I far prefer it here." He frowned. "Why?" His eyes pierced into hers. "People only come to the desert when they've got no where else to go." Lara was lost in his stare. "I'm only visiting." She could feel herself flushing. Ben just kept on staring at her. Did he know what his gaze was doing to her? "Slumming?" His voice was a low, sexy growl. She swallowed. "I'm not slumming now." It was a whisper, full of passion and desire. Ben eyes were smoldering. "Who are you?" he asked. It was too much, too intense. She couldn't do this right now. He was to.much Suddenly looking away, she laughed lightly. "I'm Lara." It was a cop out and they both knew it. Ben's scowl returned with a vengeance. "Yeah," his voice was disgusted, resigned. "I guess you are." * * * Ben was fuming. Damn Croft. Damn her and her deep brown eyes and her sexy British laugh. Damn her sexy figure, especially in the skimpy clothes she was wearing. Damn her and her 'I'm tougher than the rest of the world and I'm going to prove it' attitude. Most of all, damn him for getting sucked in by her. Shortly after their conversation, Lara had ducked out to go to the can, leaving Ben fuming at the table. He'd spent too much time drooling over Lara and tripping down memory lane. He was here in this bar for a reason, actually for 15 reasons: Torque, Jackson, and the rest of the Polecats. He had a job to do. It was more than just revenge, although that was part of it too. The Polecats were known in the desert for being bad asses. It was who they were. As it was, the gang he had fought and bled for was going to go down as 'the guys wiped out by the Leathernecks'. That wasn't how Ben wanted his boys remembered. As their gang leader, he was responsible for them, and as the only survivor he was responsible for their memory. Even after almost all of them were wiped out, the Polecats still managed to kick the asses of their enemies. Ya, that was a good way to go down. It was a good legacy to pass on. It was all Ben had left to give to his boys, and it was the only way he could be loyal to the memory of Father Torque. Still, with all these dark thoughts and purposes, Ben had to admit that hanging out with Lara Croft was nice. She was beautiful, smart, funny when she wanted to be, and tough, though not as tough as she thought she was. Just sitting back in a bar with a woman, tossing back a few brews, chewing the shit and telling tall tales, it felt good. Ben hadn't done anything like that, or found any one he wanted to do it with, for a long time. Flo didn't count. By enjoying himself with Lara while he was planning vengeance for his gang, was he being disloyal to their memory? He still didn't know. She still wasn't being straight with him. She was more than a reporter, that was pretty obvious. She had told him at the Kickstand about running around in ancient tombs, hunting for Big Foot, and breaking into buildings. If he had never met her, just heard the stories, he would blown them off as pure bull shit. After seeing her in action.well, maybe some of it was true. It still didn't answer any of Ben's questions, though. She didn't need the cash, that was for sure. Considering the rag she was writing for, she wasn't doing it to get her name in lights. He'd seen her face while fighting in the Horny Bull, as well as after she had made that impossible leap yesterday: she enjoyed it. She got off on the thrill and excitement of it all. He was sure that was why she was here, not because of him. She had blown into his life for the thrill of it, and odds were that she would blow out of it again when the novelty of hanging out with a biker wore off. As stupid as it was, it hurt, knowing that she was just hanging around him for the kicks. You can tell her off, make her hit the road. As he thought that, he saw her walking back towards him, with her long legs in that mini skirt, and her ample charms in that leather top. She may be crazy, but she sure is gorgeous. Maybe he'd let her stick around for a bit longer. Even as he thought it, he knew he was acting like a jerk. I've never gone over the deep end for a chick, why should I start now? Lady Grace wasn't a chick, though. As crazy as she was, there was something about her. You're pathetic, Polecat. Lady Grace walked up to him, hips swaying sensuously. Ben didn't think she even did it on purpose, it was just part of her natural style and grace. Her walk, combined with her sexy clothes, made Lara a very noticed and admired woman. Even though it was stupid, Ben still felt a flash of macho pride when she ignored the other men and came over to him. Looking is as close as you guys are ever going to get Ben thought with a smirk as other bikers and wannabes sent him envious looks. "Any luck?" Lara asked by way of greeting. Ben just grunted and shook his head. It was the waiting that was a killer. When the enemy was in sight, it was easy to keep his mind on vengeance, but while he was just sitting here boiling in his own juices and Lara was so close. He cursed. It was going to be a long day. They said nothing for a while, just sat at the table in silence. She still had that aura of sexiness that had nailed Ben's tongue to the table earlier. He did his best to ignore it, and her, but was only half successful. She was to.much. Ben kept his eyes on the door, the bar, the roof, the stage, anywhere but at Lara. She seemed to have similar intentions, for she seemed focused on a picture behind Ben's elbow. It was just as well, He knew that if he looked in her eyes again, it would be to late. After twenty quiet, tense minutes, Lara spoke. "There's a table free. Would you like to play?" She indicated the near by pool tables. Ben just shrugged. Anything beat just sitting around. They got up and made their way to the bar, where they paid for the table and got fresh mugs of beer. empty table. Ben let Lara do all the talking as he just stood back, brooding. They weaved around the various bikers and toughs as they went to their table, making sure it had a good view of the entrance. They sipped beer, Lara grimacing the entire time, as they played pool. Other then calling shots, they didn't talk much. It took Ben a while to relax, but after a while he did. With the pool table to distract them, there was no awkwardness, no tension. It was easy to just.be.around Lara. There was one thing had to admire about Lara: she was a very good pool player, and she was focused. When she was leaned over to study the table or take a shot, her entire being was intent on the layout, or on just that one ball. Lucky ball. It was not a claim that Ben could make himself. When she leaned over, that black leather mini skirt became so tight.and her halter barely restrained her breasts. It was hard to keep his mind on the game, and she was whupping his butt. Both as something to focus his mind on that wasn't wrapped in leather, and maybe to distract her, Ben started talking. "Where'd you learn to play pool?" She was lining up her shot, and shrugged. "Boyfriend in college." Her stick connected with the cue ball and it rolled gently down the table. "He was quite a shark." So are you. The ball gently nudged the seven and sent it into the corner. "It was putting his lessons to use that gave me most of my spending money at school." Ben's brow furrowed. "I thought you were born into money." She moved around the table, studying the layout. "Why'd you have to shark your way through school?" "Thirteen in the corner." She lined up the ball and shot. "My father has the money, not me." She told Ben as they both watched the cue ball roll towards her target. They hit with a 'clack', but her shot missed. "He used it to control me, where I went to school, things like that." She backed away from the table as Ben stepped up to it and continued to speak. "He wanted me to go to a women's college and marry some young lord, then give him an heir or two." Ben sank his ball and shot at the five, but missed. "That fate rested just above being eaten alive by rats, so we had a fight, I got a scholarship all on my own, scrimped and saved and went to Oxford." Lara leaned over the table and tried again for the thirteen. She missed. Hah. Maybe this is working. "Hmm." He ran his hand across his jaw. It felt different with no stubble. He shouldn't have shaved. "Five in the side." Ben shot and smirked when the ball went down. "That must have driven him nuts." He said, referring to her. Her old man was a fool if he thought he could control Lara. Ben had learned that it couldn't be done the moment he had met her. "Quite." Ben's next shot missed. Lara lined up and sank three balls in rapid succession. "He cut me off and disowned me." Right now I don't blame him. Ben glared at the suddenly bare table. Lara only had the eight ball to sink and he was behind by three. "That seems pretty harsh." He said out loud. With no ceremony she sunk the eight ball, winning the game. Great. She was ahead three games to one. "Yes, well, my father is a very" she paused, choosing her words carefully. ".authoritative man." She began pulling up billiard balls. "Appearance is important to him," she continued, "and he's used to getting his own way. His position and inheritance were very important to him and he thought that they would be to me as well." She shrugged and caught all the balls in the triangle. "I don't think he really expected me to turn down his ultimatum, but I did, and he had to follow through or look impotent." It didn't surprise Ben at all. She'd laugh at the devil to his face. "So how'd you get so loaded, then?" Ben asked as he lined up to break. I'm gonna win this one. He said to himself, but the pool balls weren't listening. Nothing went down. Lara raised one of her high class eye brows. "I'm not as rich as you think I am, Ben." She took a shot at the two and sank it. "I have an empty old mansion, some property in the Virgin Islands, and a brand new motorbike. That's about it." Ben snorted. Oh. Just a huge house and some property in a Caribbean paradise. That's nothing at all. Lara took a shot at the seven, but missed. "Hmm." Ben said as he came to table. "Do you still talk to your old man?" At least you know where yours is. He took down the fourteen but missed the eleven. "Yes." Lara nodded. "Every now and then." She sunk the three and lined up on the five. "We're both rather head strong," that's for sure "and deep in his heart I think he's proud of me." She missed her next shot and shrugged. "We exchange Christmas cards and about once a year I go over for a very starched, formal dinner that always ends up in a bloody row." "Hmm." Ben sunk the fifteen but missed the eleven again. Lara drank some beer and they played in companionable silence for the rest of the game. It ended in a duel for the eight ball and Ben won. Take that. "What about your father?" Lara asked as she cued up the next game. Ben said nothing as he watched Lara break and sink the twelve. He hadn't thought about his father in years. "He ran out when I was seven." Ben said flatly as Lara took down two more balls. He only had a couple of memories of his dad, and none of them were very nice. "My step dad was a son of a bitch," Ben told her as she missed the fifteen and Ben finally got to the table. "He and my mom died in a car crash." He shot at the five and missed. He frowned. His mind wasn't on the game. "How old were you?" Lara asked, leaning against the table and drinking some beer. Ben scowled. "Fifteen." She made no move to take her shot. She just looked at him. "What did you do?" She asked quietly. Ben didn't answer right away, drinking his beer and not meeting her eyes. How did this conversation get to be about me? He shrugged. "I went through about six foster homes, ran with some teen gangs, acted like a punk." I barely got out of that city alive. Lara finished off her mug. "That was in San Diego?" She picked up her cue and sank the nine. Ben shook his head and answered absently. "No, Springfield." A place I'm never going to go to again. She sank the eleven. "So how did you get from there to here?" She asked. Ben opened his mouth to answer, but closed it again when a face he recognized came into the bar. He'd been keeping half an eye on the doorway the entire time they'd been playing, and for the first time in this whole forsaken day something right was happening. "Enough of the biography." He snapped. "I recognize that biker. He's a Leatherneck." Lara looked towards the door. "The one in the red bandanna?" Ben nodded. "He was at the Horny Bull." He's the one who slugged you in the face. Two days later, the bruise was still visible on her face, although it was fading. Ben wished he could hit the guy again, harder this time. "He has to be here with Gunny," Lara said beside him. Ben just grunted. They both watched as the guy went over to the bar and flirted with the waitress. "He's not wearing colours." Ben said. The guy was checking the place out, looking steadily over most of the patrons. He knows what we both look like. Ben hurriedly turned his back to the guy, making sure that Lara was in front of him. They were both in disguise, but there was no point in taking chances. "He's on point." Ben growled. "He's here to make sure there are no traps when Gunny comes in." Lara's brow furrowed. "That seems like too much forethought for a biker." She sounded doubtful. "Biker's aren't stupid." Ben snapped. He thought Lara was smarter than that. Does she think we're all morons? "The only reason Gunny got my gang was that he paid Willie to take out my sentries. Otherwise, he would never have gotten close. He glared down at her. Her brown eyes were wide. "Ben" she tried to calm him down. "Be quiet. I didn't mean- " He cut her off with a sharp gesture. He didn't want to hear it. "Gunny's a marine." His voice was rising. "Marine's always recon." Lara hissed something, and motioned for him to be quiet, but he was too angry. "If we go after Gunny thinking he's a moron he's -" She grabbed him. Ben growled and tried to brush her hands away. He was angry beyond words now. He didn't even remember why he was so angry, he was just suddenly over come with rage. The same thing had happened at Mo's office. Lara's hands weren't budging and on his own, almost against his own will, his fist balled up to hit her. He knew he was wrong, but he couldn't help himself. He was about to swing and hit her-with both of her hands gripping his vest she could offer no defense-when she jerked his head down towards hers and kissed him. It caught him totally off guard. His anger vanished as quickly as it came, and all that existed for Ben were Lara's urgent lips against his and her body pressed against him. It was.incredible. She was very aggressive, pushing her body against his and plunging her tongue into his mouth. Her arms snaked behind his head and pulled it even closer. Ben was rigid with shock for a moment, then he began to kiss her back in earnest. He wrapped his arms around her, feeling the smooth skin of her back against his hands. Kissing Lara was amazing. The bar, the bikers, his vendetta all ceased to exist. He ran his hands up and down her back, feeling her responsive body as they embraced. She was wild and passionate, just like he thought she would be. A small part of his mind asked why she was doing this here and now, but it was a small voice and he ignored it. Their lips parted and he heard her gasp. She kissed and nibbled along his jaw line, then moved to his ear. "He's right behind us." She hissed into his ear before moving her lips back to his mouth. Ben stiffened. The Leatherneck was right behind them. That was why Lady Grace had kissed him. Set my world on fire. It was an act, the passion, the fire, Croft had done it purely as a distraction so they wouldn't get caught. "Kiss my neck so I can see if he's gone." She hissed when their lips parted again. Ben was almost to addled to register what she said, but a moment later moved his lips down along her jaw to the skin just underneath her ear. Her skin was soft, and she smelled of apples. Its her shampoo. There was a scent beneath it, though, a musky feminine odour that was infinitely more alluring. Take it easy, tomcat, its just for show. Even as he thought it he knew it wasn't true. He kissed and nibbled along her smooth neck for perhaps thirty seconds, enough to trail his lips down to the cleft of her bare collarbone, to the depression at the base of her throat where her scent was strongest, and up to the soft line of her jaw. He was about to bring his lips back to hers, gotta make it look good, when with shaky hands she pushed him away. Ben's breathing was ragged. That was...amazing. Whether she had meant to or not, Lara Croft had shaken Ben from the tips of his fake blonde hair to the bottom of his boots. This ain't over, Lady Grace, not even close. Lara looked at him, her lips a bit red and her hair disheveled, but her face was as cool and in control as always. No way all of that could be an act. She had been too hot, too into it. They stood a foot or so apart, full of awkward silence. If she can act like that was nothing, then so can I. Ben looked around, trying to spot the Leatherneck, but the guy was nowhere. "Is he gone?" Ben asked, glad his voice was level. Lara fumbled a bit reaching for her beer mug and took a long drink before answering. When she faced him again she nodded. "He's in the lou." Her voice was as calm as if she was asking for groceries. Ben just looked at her wordlessly. "I had to shut you up." She said to him after a few awkward moments of silence. "You were getting.a bit loud." Ben & Lara Chapter Nine by Ross Jenkins, c 1998 Ben & Lara IX-More Questions Well, that had been.interesting. Lara would liked to have said that her kissing Ben had purely been for camouflage reasons, but she was it wasn't very truthful. She'd seen the Leatherneck duck into the washroom almost as soon as Ben had started on her neck. She could have stopped him then, or maybe even earlier, but it had felt so good. Admit it, girl, you've wanted to do that for days. Ben had been cold to her for the last half hour or so since they had broken their embrace. It was understandable, she supposed. One look at his face and it was obvious. He felt that by enjoying himself with her he was betraying his gang. She hoped that what they had done, even though it was an innocent or maybe not so innocent kiss, didn't affect their-for lack of a better word-professional relationship. Oh well. If it did it did, if it didn't.well the next few days may prove to be very interesting. The Leatherneck that Ben claimed was a scout had left the restaurant about fifteen minutes ago, and since then about twenty or so Leathernecks in colours had drifted into the place. They weren't forming mobs or anything, but there was a pair or a trio near every exit. Ben was right. These people are very organized. If I continue to under estimate them, it will be my down fall. She only recognized about five of them from either the Horny Bull or the Polecat camp ambush, but still didn't want any of them to see her face. That's why we are in disguise. Yes, she and Ben looked very different than when these bikers had last seen them, (and they sure won't be looking at your face Ben had said to her. A compliment of sorts) but they didn't look that different. All things considered, died hair and a mini skirt was rather thin armour to cling to, but it was the only armour they had. She and Ben were keeping their movements to a minimum, trying to steer clear of the various Leathernecks, but it was getting harder to do. The one thing they had going in their favour was that as the afternoon turned to evening, the Rebar was beginning to fill up. Lara had no idea that there were enough bikers in the city of Fulsome to occupy a bar like this, but she couldn't argue with the empirical evidence. "There he is." Ben growled. She felt him bristle beside her. Lara looked to the door of the bar and saw Gunny's imposing bulk enter. She kept forgetting just how huge the man was. He was wearing a black leather jacket with chains and studs and stood head and shoulders above anyone else. I went toe to toe with that. He strode in, clapped one of his fellow gang members on the shoulder and surveyed the bar. Lara suddenly found herself studying the picture on the wall. He was the length of the bar away but still. Beside her, hate and vengeance rolled off Ben in almost tangible waves. He stood rigid, muscles bulging, eyes locked onto Gunny's large form. Don't do anything stupid, sport. You'll get us both killed. This was about as far from an ideal place to confront Gunny as was possible. Gunny strode across the slowly filling dance floor to, ironically, the table Ben and Lara had been at earlier. There was no one else seated there, and Gunny sat down to wait. For a tense hour, Gunny sat at that table, waiting with visibly increasing impatience. Ben and Lara gave up their pool table and occupied a place near the bar, trying to keep an eye on Gunny and hide from the depressingly high number of Leathernecks in the place. She was tense and jumpy, and knew that Ben was champing at the bit. The music wasn't helping. It was kind of a industrial/hard rock with glaring guitars that was setting Lara's teeth on edge. Her stomach was growling, having had nothing put into it today but the occasional nibble of bar food, but she was too anxious to eat. Gunny's table was on the far side of the dance floor and as it filled up it was getting harder to keep an eye on the man. She saw Ben craning his neck to keep an eye on Gunny and frowned. Could you be any more obvious, sport? He was attracting attention again, and Leathernecks were crawling all over the place. There was only one way to keep an eye on Gunny, and it was a way Lara was reluctant to try. She got to her feet and lay her hand on Ben's arm. "Would you like to dance?" Dancing with Ben was dangerous in more ways than one. He was wearing heavy boots, probably had no sense of rhythm, and Lara feared for her toes. More than that, though, the last thing either of them needed right now was to move rhythmically in close proximity to each other. Still, I'm not a victim of my hormones, and either is Ben. We can both keep out minds on the task at hand. Hopefully Ben stared at her hand dumbly for a moment, then shrugged and walked wordlessly to the dance floor. My, aren't you the charmer? She knew that the only reason they were here to find out who Gunny was meeting, but the man could show even a modicum of courtesy. When he reached the edge of the dancers, Ben turned to face her. They were closer to Gunny, and while it wasn't the ideal place to surveil him from, it was adequate for their purposes. Ben had been a bit stiff when they had started, but once he warmed to it he actually wasn't that bad a dancer. Her toes remained happily uncrushed. The style was a little more free form than Lara had been trained for, more moshing than actual dancing, but she got the swing of it soon enough. Ben's face was stone the entire time, and his eyes were only on Gunny. She ignored the sudden pain that went through her. It is, Lara reminded herself, why we are here, after all. The object of his vengeance was right before him, but he was unable to touch him. It must have been hard, but Ben was doing it. If the circumstances were similar, she wondered if she would have been able to do the same. She wasn't exactly known for her self control. They kept it up for about twenty minutes, dancing to the awful music and keeping an eye on the increasingly irritated Gunny. Lara was aware of Ben the entire time, how his body moved and how good he looked, but more what presence he had. She was getting more and more attracted to him, and it was frustrating. As much as she may have wanted to act on her desires, there just wasn't time or room for anything. Ben had his vengeance and if she did anything now it wasn't going to work. Later, maybe if there was a later. Out of the corner of her vision, she saw someone go to Gunny's table. She tried to bring it to Ben's attention but he had already seen it. The man was in his early thirties, thin with short black hair. He was maybe six feet tall but looked dwarfed next to Gunny. His suit had the unmistakable shine of orbitally grown silk. Expensive. He looked out of place and uncomfortable. Lara didn't know what she had expected when she saw Gunny's contact, a bolt of lightning perhaps, or maybe a neon sign above him saying 'This man is a criminal', but he was totally unremarkable. Lara brought her head close to Ben's. "Do you know who he is?" she yelled in his ear. He just shook his head. The two men began to speak, but between the volume of the music and their proximity, they couldn't hear a word of it. She began to maneuver closer to the table, trying to listen in, but it was no use. They were so close! They had to find a way to hear what the two men were saying. The music chose that moment to change. The selection thus far in the evening had been a variety of metal and industrial music. The spirit of Father Torque must have been watching over the two of them at that moment, for the next song seemed tailor made for their situation. Stairway to Heaven. It was slow and went on for ever. The various couples on the dance floor chose this moment to either leave the floor, or clutched each other and began to shuffle and sway. Lara looked at Ben, trying to gauge his expression, then stepped close to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. Ben's face was blank, and his body wooden, but after a moment he put his arms around her and rested his hands on the small of her back. She rested her head against his shoulder and sighed. Even though they were here for the most unromantic reasons, standing in Ben's arms felt...good. His chest was strong and warm, and his arms felt good wrapped around her. His jaw, rough with a half day of stubble, rested against her head. They clutched and swayed like every other couple on the floor and strained their ears to hear the conversation happening not even five feet from them. "It's about damned time you got here." She recognized Gunny's steel grated voice from the other conversation of his that she had overheard, at the Polecat camp massacre. The other man's voice was smoother and calmer, though tinged with irritation. "I had business." He had an East coast cultured accent. Every syllable was clipped and enunciated. "I was detained." She and Ben rotated a bit and out of the corner of her eye she could see Gunny wave off the man's explanation. "I don't want to hear your stupid excuses." The big biker growled. She wanted to move her head and watch the two men, but was unwilling to perform any action that would alert Gunny to their presence. "I don't even want to be here, Williams. You wanted this damned meeting." Williams. Lara startled and she felt Ben's hands tighten. Was he the same man that had tried to abduct them last night? "I want a progress report." Williams said to Gunny. She could almost hear Gunny's teeth grind. "I could have radioed one in. I didn't have to come eight hours out of my way to this damned city to do that." "I don't want anything being said on open air." William's clipped voice said. "If anyone in the government gets the slightest hint of what we are doing, and it is over." Gunny snorted. "Yeah, whatever." There was a pause and Lara cursed silently. Being able to do nothing but stand and listen was frustrating. "I wish we could have done this in a place somewhat more.private." Williams said to Gunny. "I like it here." Gunny replied. "Its too public, so you can't screw me, and it's the kind of place that won't have ears." Lara was glad that Ben's shoulder hid her smile. "Yes, well, I still don't like it." Gunny chuckled. "I can just leave. I've made enough on this deal so far that I can cut and run and still break even." She felt Ben stiffen. The money that Gunny had made had been on the bloody corpses of Ben's gang. Ben, don't do anything stupid. She thought at him urgently. This isn't the time or place for it. After a moment he relaxed marginally "You can't leave." Said Williams urgently. "Dammit Jordan-" The biker cut him off "Gunny. Call me Gunny." Touchy, aren't we? "Very well, Gunny." Williams over-emphasized the name. "You don't want to leave yet." He continued furiously. "You still have a great deal of money to make." "I've heard all this before." Gunny sounded annoyed." Let's just get on with it." Williams hesitated. "Before you begin, I have to ask you something." He sounded reluctant. "Yeah, what?" "Do the name's Ben Polecat or Lara Croft mean anything to you?" The blonde man asked. Both Ben and Lara stiffened. This was definitely the same man who had ordered them captured last night. Gunny answered with a grunt. "Croft, no. Polecat, yes. What about him?" Williams exhaled loud enough for Lara to hear it. "My father received a suspicious call from the chairman of Corley Motors," Mo "asking him to personally guarantee that a man named Ben Polecat entered the city with no problems." Who was this man's father? Obviously someone in the upper echelons of the city. "He had the entry guards let him through, but I put a flag on his name to alert me when he entered." Gunny came more alert. "Polecat's in the city?" It was almost a shout. His voice continued to rise, until it was easily audible. "You had him and you let him through your fucking fingers?" She heard his fist smash into the table. "I didn't know who he was." Williams hissed quietly, but not quietly enough. "He entered with this Croft person. I thought that it was suspicious, him getting permission to enter the day before our meeting." He paused. "I ordered some of my people to have him captured, so that I could question him-" Gunny interrupted the man's explanation. "Did you get him?" he asked. Williams hesitated. ".No. He and the woman evaded capture." Lara smiled into Ben's shoulder. Sorry to disappoint you, sport. "I can't believe you didn't tell me that Polecat is in this city and loose." "I asked you before if there were any loose ends." Williams protested. "If he was a problem, you should have advised me on it then." Gunny's voice was an irritated hiss. "You didn't want any radio traffic, remember?" He continued loudly. "I was supposed to come here and give you your fucking report." "Yes, well, that not withstanding," Williams continued, "who is he, and who is this Croft person?" Lara frowned a little. Even though her anonymity had probably worked in her favour, she was still a little annoyed that he hadn't heard of her. She had books in print, articles. She wasn't a complete nobody "Polecat is the head of one of the gang's in the corridor. The chick is just a chick." Lara frowned. I beg your pardon? "I thought you took care of all of the gangs." Williams voice was filled with distaste. "I said that I had secured the area." Gunny corrected. "I did. The corridor for the pipeline is under Leatherneck control. As far as anyone knows, we're just a new gang that has come into the area. Polecat and some others may have escaped my trap, but they just think we're just another gang that muscled into their turf." Lara's mind was whirling. Pipeline? Why weren't the Leathernecks just another gang? What was their agenda? This is infuriating. This meeting at the Rebar was supposed to answer Ben and Lara's questions, but all it was doing was forcing them to ask new ones. "I see." Williams paused. "If Polecat knows nothing, then why is he here?" "I don't know." Gunny answered. "Hiding?" "He had a corporate CEO call in a personal favour to get him into this city." Williams replied testily. "It seems to me that there are easier rocks he could have hidden under." "Shit." Gunny paused a moment. "He couldn't have heard anything-"the big biker mused, trailing off. "the old man!" He said suddenly. Father Torque. She felt Ben's arms stiffen. "What old man?" "Some old biker." Gunny answered absently. Ben's hands ball into fists against her back. "He stalled me while I was hunting for Polecat." Control yourself, Ben. "The only time I mentioned to any one that I was coming here was to Turner after I knifed the old bastard." Ben tried to step away from Lara, but she held him fast with her arms. Just hold on a little bit more! "If Polecat got to him before he croaked, he might have mentioned it." Ben tried to pull Lara's arms away from his neck, and in desperation she stepped hard on his foot. He grunted and she whispered fiercely into his ear. "Just control yourself a little bit longer! Find out what he has to say first!" Ben subsided but his muscles were rigid. This had to be hard for him. Williams voice was worried. "Then he might be here, in the bar." Lara hid her face in Ben's shoulder, mentally willing them both invisible. She got ready to run, or fight. "No way." Gunny's voice was flat. "My boys have this place bottled up tight." You think so, do you? "There's no way Polecat or that bitch Croft could have gotten in or out of this bar." You're wrong, sport. Lara thought. And your language is terrible. Williams did not seemed convinced. "It still seems to me that things are not in your control." "Shut up." Gunny snapped. "If you'd grabbed him when he entered the city, we wouldn't have this problem." "My father called the head of security personally." Williams protested. "I couldn't countermand that. I was barely able to place the flag on his name." "We can whine about this all day, but it won't change a damn thing." Gunny growled. "If Polecat's in this city, I'll find him." "The pipeline cannot face any more delays," Williams answered, "but I don't want to go ahead while this Polecat is out there." "The pipeline is on schedule!" Gunny barked. "I'll get Polecat, don't worry. Let me know if any more flags on him or his chick show up, and I'll take the bastard out." "I don't like this." "Relax." Gunny drawled. "Other than Polecat, everything is going fine. I'll nail his ass, then get back in time for the first shipment." "You're sure?" Williams asked doubtfully "You hired the best, Williams." Gunny reassured him. "I'll be there." I'll be there as well, Lara thought, with Ben. Maybe then they would get some answers. "For all our sakes, you'd better." Williams sounded only slightly mollified. "I've invested far too much into this venture to lose it to a rogue biker." "You won't." "Very well, then." She saw Williams get to his feet. He did not offer his hand. "I'll meet you in fort Kennedy in two days." Lara exulted. Fort Kennedy. She had a name. "I said I'll be there." Gunny growled. "Just let me know if Polecat or Croft show up anywhere in this city. If they go through the gates, stall them." "I will." Williams sounded pleased that the meeting was over. "Good bye, Jordan." "Its Gunny." The biker corrected with a growl. She could almost hear the smirk "Yes, of course. Good bye Gunny" Ben and Lara continued dancing. After Williams had left, she heard Gunny mutter. "What an ass hole." She had to agree. * * * Ben was torn. He wanted to charge over to Gunny right now and rip out his heart. He could do it, and he even knew how. A beer bottle to the back of the head, smash his face into the wall, then kick him until his ribs smashed and he coughed up blood. Let him drown in his own body fluids. By that time, the other Leathernecks would be on him and he'd probably die. If Ben did that, he'd have his vengeance, but it would cost him his life. Was it worth it? Was Ben willing to die for his boys? If it was only Ben, and if there weren't any unanswered questions: maybe, but as it stood now, no. There was this whole business with this Williams guy. There was the mysterious pipeline, and the corridor it ran through. There was Fort Kennedy, and the secret that 'if any body got wind of, would be over'. These were the reasons the Polecats were killed, and Gunny was just a hired thug. If Ben took Gunny out now and died in the process, then he'd never know why William's had ordered his gang killed. Until Ben answered that question, there could be no reckoning. There was also Croft. If he went after Gunny now, he knew that she'd back him up. That meant that if he went down, she'd go to. It just wasn't an option. Ben watched as Gunny got up and walked out of the bar. For better or worse, the opportunity was gone, and Ben hoped the he would get another one. He swore under his breath. Robert Plant crooned the final bars to Stairway to Heaven and it was replaced by a faster, more modern tune, all full of screaming vocals and wailing guitars. The magic and feeling of intimacy between himself and Lady Grace shattered with the grating noise. Lara's enticing smell, the same as when they'd kissed, stayed in his nose, and his body ached with the memory of where she'd been pressed against him. She took away the arms that had felt so right across his neck and stepped away from him. Her face was unreadable. Considering everything that happened in the bar tonight, Ben should have felt anger, frustration, or something, but all he felt was emptiness as he and Lara parted and left the dance floor. The two of them made their way to the bar. Ben ordered a beer and some hot wings. At least while he was stuffing his face he had an excuse not to talk. He knew Lara was waiting for him to speak and he was doing everything he could to delay it. They sat and drank in silence. Lara shifted impatiently and after a few moments spoke up. "Shouldn't we be leaving or seeking revenge or something?" Her voice was sarcastic. Ben just shrugged. "The city gates are closed," he said flatly. "We can't do squat until morning." He took a draw of beer. "Might as well have a drink." Lady Grace crossed her arms and leaned one svelte hip against the bar, looking at Ben crossly. "Do you intend to swill back beer in this bar the entire night?" "You got a better idea?" She didn't answer, just grinned evilly. * * * Lara winced as Ben drove his fist into the Leatherneck's gut. The big biker had put his entire body into the hit and his victim lifted bodily off the ground with the force of the blow. The guy fell to his hands and knees, coughing up blood and gasping for air. "Where are they?" Ben's voice dripped with the desire to inflict violence. Lara had lured the Leatherneck and his now unconscious partner into the alley with a few smiles and deep breaths, then had stepped back and loosed Ben upon them. After finally leaving the Rebar around midnight, Ben and Lara had gratefully changed out of their bar clothes. Ben's hair was its normal shade and he wore his precious Polecats jacket. Lara was pleased that she was out of her 'biker chick' clothes. In a black Nike T-shirt and jeans, she felt much less like a piece of meat and more like a real person. They were trying to find out where the rest of the Leathernecks were holing up for the night. Unlike Ben and Lara, who were running on almost on empty, their enemies were most likely enjoying a full nights sleep. If she wasn't in such a hurry to escape the city Lara would gladly have imitated them, but she and Ben unfortunately had miles to go before they slept, and Ben at least, had several promises to keep. The biker tried to get to his feet but Ben kicked the guy's arms out. He fell to the dirty pavement with a gasp and a groan. "Where," Ben growled again, "are the rest of your scum-sucking gang hiding out?" "If I-" the biker gasped out in a faint voice, "If I tell you, Gunny'll kill me." Ben's voice was as cold as death. "If you don't tell me, I'll kill you." He was so intense that even Lara, who was only listening, was chilled by his words. It was, she realized, the first time since the massacre that Ben had come face to face with any of the people that had killed his gang. He had a great deal of anger to get out, and it seemed that a good deal of it was going to go into this unfortunate biker. Lara might have felt some pity towards the man, if she had not recognized him as one of the raiders from the Polecat camp. The bastard deserved whatever he got. The man paled visibly at Ben's threat, and begin to sing like a songbird. "They're in the-the Fulsome Motor Hotel." "How many?" "Just one squad." Lara frowned. A squad? That seemed most ungang like. Ben seemed to agree with her. "What the fuck is a biker squad?" "A squad. Five fists." Ben frowned at the guy. "A fist?" "Five guys." Ben's frown grew bigger, if that was possible. "How many squads are there, and where are they?" "Five squads." Now that the biker had decided to spill his guts, it seemed that there was no way to shut him up. "There's Hell Squad, that's us, here in the city, plus Bastard Squad outside the gates. The other three are either hunting down gangs or waiting back at the Fort." "You mean Fort Kennedy?" He looked surprised that Ben knew the name of the place. "Umm...Yeah." Ben reached down, grabbed they guy by his shirt front and slammed him against the wall. He reared back with his other fist. "Then you ain't got nothing else to tell me." His voice was flat. The biker paled and tried futilely to get out of Ben's grip. "Wait, no man you can't...." His voice was a frightened squeak that ended abruptly as Ben drove his fist into the guy's face. The biker went limp, his face a bloody mess, and slid bonelessly to the pavement. Ben just watched the guy fall and stared at his crumpled, bloody form. Lara looked at Ben's face and saw only rage and pain. Was he going to kill him? She knew Ben could kill in the heat of combat; she'd seen him do it, but in cold blood with an unconscious victim? She spoke quietly. "Ben, don't do it." He showed no signs of hearing her, just stood and stared at the guy with eyes of hate. His conflict was plain on his face. "Ben, he's beaten." She placed a hand on his shoulder and tried to pull him away, but he wouldn't budge. Ben voice was cold. "He killed my boys." She stepped between him and his fallen opponent, trying to break his spell. "Ben, he's unconscious." It took his Ben's eyes a moment to focus on her. His reply was so quiet she barely heard him. "I'm gonna kill'em all. I swore it to Torque." She made another attempt to reason with him. "This has to be against the Code" She wasn't sure though. The Code of the Road was made by bikers, who tended to be a blood thirsty lot. Ben just stared at her. His blue eyes bored into hers, and she forced herself not to look away. It was hard, much harder than she expected, but after a long minute of silence he turned away. "Yeah, it is." He walked silently towards their bikes and Lara fell in step beside him. "Twenty five guys inside, twenty five more outside." Ben said after a moment. By his tone, he could have been discussing the weather. "Almost a hundred more at Fort Kennedy. You gonna split?" Lara thought a moment of why she was still with Ben. A story. Not hardly. The promise she had made to Ben? He was leting her out of that right now. No. She couldn't leave Ben to do this alone, and that was more than just lust talking. She wasn't about to risk her life just for a cute pair of buns, and what a pair of buns they were; there was more to it then that. What Ben was doing was right. It was the Code; it was justice. She had been a loner when she had rode into the desert. Now, with Ben, she was just a little bit...more. "Are you?" she asked. Ben just snorted, the question not worth answering. "This is more than you signed on for." He growled. "I'm not going to leave you Ben." She said. "I promised, remember?" He threw her an unreadable look. "Don't be stupid. You promised to stay until I wanted you to go. I want you to go." She shook her head. "I'm not ready to leave yet." They walked in silence for a few moments, the comment hanging in the air between them. "You really do have a death wish." A day ago she would have denied it, or started an argument. Right now she didn't want to fight. "Then we should make the perfect pair." Their bikes came into sight, hidden behind a overflowing dumpster. They both mounted in silence. She felt him watching her as she sat on her bike. "Whatever." He said after a long pause. "If we're going to go get killed, we might as well get started." He started his bike with a road and burst of flame. Lara's bike started with a quiet purr a moment later. She yelled over the sounds of their machines "I hear the Fulsome Motor Hotel is wonderful for an evening's entertainment." Ben didn't reply, just rode off in a cloud of exhaust. Ben & Lara Chapter Ten by Ross Jenkins, c 1998 Ben & Lara X - Escape From Fulsome Author's Note: Despite my best efforts for the last month, I cannot seem to make this chapter work. I am getting tired of beating my head against a wall and have given up-for now. I want to and need to tell the rest of this story but have been unable to do so with this chapter looming over my head. I will (hopefully) come back later and finish this part, but in the mean time will continue with writing chapter 11 (or is that XI?) and beyond. If any one has any ideas or suggestions please, please feel free to tell me about them. From a story perspective, chapter 11 will pick up the next morning outside the Fulsome City gates, after a long night ducking Leathernecks and cops. Ben and Lara have sabotaged the Leatherneck's bikes, giving them (hopefully) a bit of breathing room as they make a break for the hills. Once again, I'm really sorry and frustrated, but, as they say, the story must go on. We now return to our program, already in progress. * * * "Splunge, sir, Splunge!!" The shocked executive stood up, clad only in his tutu, and pointed his bony finger towards the door. "Get out and take the chimp with you!!" Somewhere in the background, a large foot came to earth with a 'splutting' sound. The sound of singing Mounties could be heard. Sorry, wrong program. Ben & Lara Chapter Eleven by Ross Jenkins, c 1998 Ben & Lara XI - The Biker Chase Despite their best efforts, Ben and Lady Grace didn't get out of the city till after 9am. They had been in line since before six, but had spent hours sitting around while the customs officials had 'lost' files and had to 'verify' their records. If it had gotten to Lady Grace, Ben couldn't tell. Despite the fact that she hadn't had a square meal or a decent night's sleep in over 48 hours, she looked as polished and as calm as a fashion model. Figured. He both looked and felt like crap, and it didn't help that with every minute the two of them spent inside Fulsome's claustrophobic walls he felt like he had a bull's-eye tattooed to his head. They had scattered and slowed down the biker's inside the city last night, but Gunny kept in contact with his guys with radios. That meant that 'Bastard Squad' knew where and when he and Lara were going to leave Fulsome, and without the Fulsome neo-nazi šber-cops cramping their style they were going to be armed to the teeth. Great. Still, they were finally out of the damned city and even if they were riding into the barrel of a gun, at least for they moment they had the freedom of the road. The two of them wove in and out of the thick morning traffic at high speed, tense and waiting. They knew where to go: about 50 miles off, in the foothills buried under a cactus were Lara's pistol and Betsy. It didn't seem like much against over a hundred well armed bikers, but it was more then they had now, which was Ben's tire iron and harsh language. Hopefully, Bastard Squad were spread thin along the hard top looking for them, and he and Lady Grace would only have to take on a couple of them. Ben was indestructible on the road, but even he was only so good. He knew Lady Grace was tough, and he knew she could ride, but he didn't want to find out just how tough. Ben looked in his side mirror and saw five slow slung bikes powering up the road behind them. It was too late. They were here. Ben waved and caught Lara's attention, then pointed behind him to the pursuing Leathernecks. She nodded and poured on the gas. Ben floored it as well. Ben's ride was a big road eating monster; a big bike with a big engine. It wasn't as manoeuvrable as a smaller machine like Lara's, but nothing on wheels could match his top end. Mo had installed a recoil booster on his bike last year, and Ben could have used it now to blast him even faster, but that would leave Lara behind. Her motorcycle was smaller than his, but it had a newer, more efficient engine that gave her a top end pretty close to his. The Leathernecks, if the bikers inside the city were an indicator, had older bikes that weren't even Corleys. As long as he and Lady Grace could keep up the speed, the bastards behind them would only be eating dust. The problem with going totally red lined was that the roads weren't all that great. The pot holes and the roadkill came at you too fast to dodge, and all it took was one screw up to turn you into street pizza. Ben usually liked to keep his road speed between 80 and 120 mph, or even as low as 40 if the road was the shits, but this wasn't a usual time. He was doing an insane 165mph, the howl of the wind vying with the scream of his engine to see which would deafen him first. He had his goggles on to keep the crap out of his eyes, but every bug and bit of dust that hit his face stung like a hot poker. He would have gritted his teeth, but didn't want anything to get in his mouth. Ben looked in his side mirror and smiled grimly. Lady Grace was keeping up pretty good, her slender form bent low over the bars of her bike. Her face was a mask beneath her mirror shades and her braid flew straight out behind her like a pole. The pursuing Leathernecks about 200 yards behind them and not getting any closer. At this speed, they were doing almost three miles a minute and that fifty miles to Betsy was getting eaten up pretty fast. He and Lara weaved around a slow moving land train and Ben swore. Ten bikes, maybe more, were in front of them They were going in the same direction, but slower and it wasn't going to take long before he and Lara overtook them. Those bikes were surely armed, and if the two of them got nearer, then they were going to get chewed apart. At the same time, if they slowed down, the bikes behind would overtake them, and they would be equally screwed. Stuck between a rock and a hard place. Damn. On the open road, the Leathernecks held all the aces. With their guns, they could keep their distance while picking Ben and Lara apart, and with their numbers, the bikers could herd them where ever they wanted. On top of that, according to that dumb jerk last night in the alley, the Leathernecks were broken down into twenty five man 'squads'. That meant that there were still ten bikes unaccounted for, and that was what worried Ben most of all. The only thing worse than an enemy you knew was an enemy you didn't. Double damn. Ben had to get off this highway and find a way to even these sucky odds, or he and Lady Grace were buzzard bait. A sign flashed by saying that the road ahead split, with a branch heading south to the Mexican border. Ben grinned. All he had to do was wait until the bikers ahead committed to one route, then take the other. Once he was in front of them, he and Lady Grace could burn rubber and be home free. The jerks following them would eat exhaust all the way to Fort Kennedy. The Leathernecks in front approached the fork, but instead of going down either route, they split into two groups of five, and each took one branch. Ben swore. These bastards are smart, I've gotta keep remembering that. Hadn't he just made that point to Lady Grace last night? He and Lara came up to the split and Ben thought a second over the route. Either one they took, they were screwed, but if they could manage to survive for a few minutes, the left branch met up with a pain in the ass back road that took them right to where Betsy was buried. Lady Grace flashed him a cool-as-a-cucumber look and in answer Ben left. Great. They knew where to go, now they just had to find a way to get there. Father Torque seemed to be watching, for what Ben needed suddenly appeared in front of him, a ten truck convoy in tight tail-to-nose configuration. Ben grinned. Thank you, Father. It was just what he needed. As the convoy approached, doing a sedate eighty miles per hour, Ben slowed himself to match speed, then weaved his bike into the one motorcycle wide gap between two of the trucks. Lady Grace, either trusting in him or more likely, having the same idea herself, did the same. The trucker blew his horn and gave Ben the finger, but did nothing else as Ben's bike entered the small gap between the front bumper and the rear of the preceding semi. Ben grimaced. He'd had bad experiences with semis. Both Emmett and Rip Burger had done their level best to either run him off the road or turn him into street pizza in big trucks. The damned things were just too damned big and impersonal. They didn't notice if they ran over something small and crunchy like a motorcycle, and more often than not, the drivers of the damned things were jerks. With Ben jammed between the two trucks, the bikers could only come at him -hopefully- one at a time, and at close quarters. Ben was an expert at close quarters bike fighting. He'd spent years cutting his teeth on the old Mine Road, and he'd been taught by the Best. Ben cast quick glances to either side of him, unsure from which way the first biker would come. With his left hand he gripped his tire iron and gave a brief fond smile. The worn steel rod didn't have the history the Betsy did, but it had seen him through all the crap he'd been through last year. That was the good thing about steel: it was always there and it never let you down. Unlike people. Ben didn't let himself pursue that train of thought any longer, because a Leatherneck came into view on Ben's right side. Ben quickly switched hands on his tire iron and veered into his opponent as fast as he could. As Ben came in close he saw the guy raise a machine pistol up to fire. With a heavy grunt Ben brought the tire iron down on the guy's wrist. When it connected Ben felt the bones break and a moment later both bikes collided into each other. Ben's bike was the heavier of the two and Ben had been expecting it. He kept control easily, but the other guy wasn't so lucky. He was still stunned from the pain of his broken wrist and his lighter bike was harder to keep control of, but he still almost managed to keep the bike on its wheels. Ben took the decision out of the guy's hands by smashing his tire iron into the guys head. The bike and rider slued clear of the truck convoy before pitching over, but by then it was out of sight and out of mind. Ben ducked back between the trucks and waited for the next rider to come at him. One down, twenty four to go. He couldn't keep this up for long. These guys all had guns, and sooner or later they would shoot him before he could close, or they would come in on both sides. When that happened he was one dead puppy. Either he had to get armed, or something else had to happen to even the odds. He wondered how Lady Grace was doing. * * * Lara watched as Ben ducked between the trucks and silently congratulated him for the idea. It was really the only choice they had, and she intended to make the most of it. She quickly manoeuvred her motorcycle into the gap one truck behind Ben's then wondered what to do next. In these narrow confines, the Leathernecks could only come at them one or two at a time, but that was one or two to many. She was on a lighter bike and had only the hunting knife she had nicked last night as a weapon. Her first priority, whatever happened, was to relieve one of these gentlemen of their guns. Then she could use her greater agility to evade their fire while picking them off one at a time. It was a technique she used to great effectiveness while on foot, jumping diving and rolling about while raining pistol fire upon her opponents. Unfortunately, while she was stuck hiding between these trucks her main asset, speed, was nullified. It was a factor she had to change, but she was damned if she knew how to do it. Further thought on the matter was brought to a halt as the first Leatherneck came abreast of her hiding place. He had a large calibre revolver in his hand and when he saw her he extended it to shoot. Lara cursed. Her knife was still tucked in her belt and she had no time to draw it. All she could do was dodge, and she couldn't do that in here. That meant, unfortunately, leaving her cover and exposing herself to the entirety of the Leatherneck biker squad. Well, she was damned either way, and this way, at least, gave her a modicum of a fighting chance. She leaned her body all the way over the side of her bike, giving the shooter only one of her arms and legs to target and sped out from her hiding place in the opposite direction. Over the roar of the engines of the trucks, she still heard the report of the gun and felt/heard the bullet pass narrowly over her. Lara came out of hiding near the back of the convoy on the left side. The Leathernecks had surrounded the convoy in an effort to both contain and keep an eye on Ben and Lara. That meant that they were fairly spread out along the sides of the ten truck convoy. Since she was near the back of the convoy, she could see six bikers in front of her. That was six bikers that could not look behind them or -more important- shoot at her. Lara knew that she was an inviting target to however many bikers were behind her and did not intend to make herself an easy mark. As soon as she cleared the trucks she gunned her bike and began to weave back and forth. From behind her she heard gunfire but thankfully none hit. Looking back, she saw three bikes. Sooner or later they were going to hit her. Blast. Lara hunched over her bike as much as she could, making herself as small a target as possible. To give the bikers behind her pause, she tried to line herself up with the nearest Leatherneck in front of her. Maybe with their comrades in the line of fire, they would hesitate a moment before shooting, and for Lara that moment was one more she was alive. God, it was exhilarating. Lara closed quickly with the biker in front of her. He was peering between the trucks trying to get a glimpse at what she thought was Ben and didn't see her. Grinning ferally, Lara drew the knife from her belt and shifted around to his right side, where he held his gun-some sort of machine pistol-in a barrel up ready position. With a hearty battle cry, Lara plunged her knife deep into the man's leg, then pulled it out again for another blow. The biker cried in pain, but despite his wound wasted no time in trying to smash Lara with the butt of his gun. She parried aggressively with her knife, bringing the blade along the side of his wrist as his hand descended, then used her forearm to deflect the blow. The strike did little bit piss him off more and make him bleed, though it certainly made her arm hurt. The biker tried to veer away from her but she kept her bike in close with his as they fought. She was in too tight for him to use his gun, and had to find some way to grab it. Unfortunately, she needed one hand to control her bike and the other to fight, or she would have just grabbed it. He tried to smash her with the gun butt again, but when he raised his arm to strike she slashed him across his ribs. Again, he made no notice of the cut and swung the heavy gun butt down again. Lara's brought her arm up again to block, but it was a 'hard' block -one that pitted her strength against his with no attempt to redirect the force of the blow- and this time it proved too powerful for her to deflect. His strike smashed down on her back, just behind her shoulder, and left her arm momentarily numb. Her opponent swung his gun down again and being currently unable to block, all Lara could do to avoid the hit was veer her bike away. It worked, the attack missed, but now he had enough room to extend his arm and bring his gun to bear. Lara slammed on her brakes for a moment and shot backward, barely dodging the burst of gunfire. Desperately, she swung her bike around his rear to his other side, trying to stay out of his arc of fire. The biker, alert despite the wounds she had given him, swerved to his right in an attempt to keep her in his sights, but Lara and her bike were too quick. Coming up on his off side, she switched hands with her knife and tried to plant it in the guy's back, but he dodged and she struck the seat. Trying to get another shot off, he brought his gun across his body and fired, but Lara used her bikes nimbleness to dance out of the way and duck behind him. Unfortunately, when the biker fired across his body, he forgot about one important factor: the expended brass casings that were ejected when the gun fired. Normally they fired safely away from his body, but he was holding the gun now-on its side with the ejection chamber pointed up-and the hot rounds flew right into his face. Instinctively, he tried to cover his face with his free hand-which happened to be on the handlebars-and the vehicle lost control. Lara, who had been coming around behind him when this happened, was quick to take advantage of her opponent's weakness. His hands had gone immediately back to his handlebars, but his gun hand had been flung out and up in an attempt to balance himself. It was almost too perfect. Coming up close to him, Lara stood up on her bike and with a back handed swing plunged her knife straight into his chest. It was a poor blow with weak penetration, but it was enough to make the stunned and wounded biker loosen his grip on his gun. Lara plucked it easily-if any manoeuvre done on the back of a racing motorcycle could be considered easy-and smashed the butt down on his wounded leg. He lost control and crashed. Lara didn't have time for self congratulations. In her side mirror she saw another Leatherneck coming up behind her, gun pointed towards her. She veered to the left, dodging his burst, then decelerated until she was at his side. The biker tried to bring his gun to around bear on his agile target, but Lara beat him to the chase. With a quick trigger pull, she fired three rounds into his body, then accelerated beyond his body and cartwheeling bike. Two down. Lara grinned and bared her teeth. The odds were still far from even, but she was armed now, and that made things a damn sight better than they were before. * * * Ben swore as the trucks he was hiding between began to split up and break formation. He couldn't blame them for not want to stick around a bike fight-they had cargoes to haul and they were the ones who had to foot the bill if their goods got shot up- but he had to admit they had lousy timing. He had wasted one more Leatherneck that had come in from his right side. Something on the left side of the trucks, probably Lady Grace, had kept them too distracted to try and get him. With a blast of their horns, and a few angry gestures, the big rigs split up, leaving Ben suddenly alone on the road with a lot of angry bikers and no cover to hide behind. One of the Leathernecks, taking the opportunity to try and bag himself a Polecat, appeared on Ben's suddenly vulnerable flank and began spraying wildly with his machine pistol. Ben swore and began to jink and dodge like mad. Shooting with one hand from a moving motorcycle was damned hard, as well Ben knew. Betsy was a single shot rifle for that reason, but a lot of weaker -and lazier- shooters made up for that with a 'spray and pray' technique that was mighty thirsty on ammo. The guy behind him was shooting up a storm and Ben heard at least one round go into his exhaust pipes. Ben frowned. He messed up my bike. That biker's gonna die for what he's done. He steered his bike onto the road's gravel shoulder and heaved back with his arms. The massive bike seemed to defy gravity as it rose ponderously onto its back wheel and before the guy behind him figured out what he was up to, Ben triggered his recoil booster for just a second. It wasn't enough to send the bike anywhere-Ben wasn't gonna leave this battle without Lady Grace-but it created a huge cloud of dust and shot the gravel on the road beneath him into the air like bullets. Ben let his front wheel hit the ground, thankful that it stayed there (popping a wheelie always made him nervous now) and immediately veered right while he hit the brakes. The biker behind him, stung by the flying gravel and blinded by the dust, never saw Ben and his outstretched tire iron until it was too late. The impact from the ran up Ben's arm all the way to the shoulder and almost disarmed him, but it sent the biker crashing to the ground which made it all worth while. Ben looked around frantically for bad guys, but more importantly for Lady Grace. He didn't even try to rationalise the intense relief-almost enough to make him feel giddy-that he felt when he saw her alive, zipping around like a hornet and firing off her stolen pistol like she was born with it. As he watched, her gun ran dry and without a moment's hesitation she threw it into the front wheel of a bike close to her, making it pitch up and send its rider flying. He was struck by the grace of the manoeuvre-she made it seem as natural as breathing-and also by how much he suddenly realised he felt for her. Love. He'd never used that word before in a sentence not involving the word Corley but nothing else seemed to fit what he was feeling now. That realisation shook Ben to his core, but he couldn't dwell on it, not now, not with a whole slew of Leathernecks still out there and all of them wanting his -and Lara's-hide. The side road to Betsy was coming right up, and it was about damned time. Staying on this highway being shot up by merc bikers was running the odds a lot narrower then he cared to. Sooner or later, he and Lara were gonna get nailed. He drew in a breath for courage, then let it out. This road, especially while getting chased, was going to be a bitch. It was pitted, narrow and twisted like a sidewinder. It was going to take both hands to drive, so the Leathernecks wouldn't be able to shoot as they chased Ben and Lara, or if they did try maybe they'd end up as smears in the bedrock. With no more hesitation, knowing that Lara would follow him, Ben turned off and burned down the road full throttle. * * * Lara cursed as he gun ran dry. She'd been trying to conserve ammo as much as possible, but a gun had only so many bullets and hers had run out. Also, shooting from a moving motorcycle while dodging and evading was bloody hard. She'd managed to perforate three of the Leathernecks with it, so she couldn't complain too badly, but there were still far too many remaining and now she had only harsh language with which to stop them. Her throw of the empty gun managed to catch one more, an act that surprised her surely as much as the biker she upended with it, but still left the odds horribly uneven. She was glad to see Ben's smirking face alive and well, and when he vanished down the side road she followed immediately. Two Leathernecks made it in before her and it turned into a bizarre race. Ben was in the lead, riding hell-bent for leather, with two riders behind trying to match his insane pace. Lara came behind them on the narrow twisting road, and the rest of the Leathernecks followed her in some sort of insane motley parade. The road twisted and curved, with loose gravel and some wicked potholes that Ben was somehow negotiating like a pleasant Sunday drive. The rest of them, Lara included, were having a somewhat harder time of it. Lara, in her lighter, more agile bike, had an easier go of it then the man in front of her. Slowly, yard by dangerous yard, she gained on him. As she drew near to the rider, who wore a Highway Patrol style helmet and goggles, spotted her and tried to run her off the road. Lara frowned. Trying to keep up on this sorry excuse for a road was bad enough, but to try road combat? The man must be daft. She squeezed her brakes briefly, letting the biker hit only air, and tried to pass around him on his other side. The biker swerved back, trying to mash her between himself and the rock face that made up the side of the road. It was an unfortunate side effect of having a small, agile bike; every single one of these riders could ram and force her wherever they wanted. It was a price she was normally happy to pay when she was armed, but she wasn't and thus was truly out of luck. She tried to accelerate past her adversary, but he jockeyed back to the middle of the road, preventing her from passing. They continued to play cat and mouse on the narrow treacherous roads for a few moments, and Lara became increasingly frustrated. They were stale mated; he couldn't seem to manage run Lara off the road and she was unable to pass him. On a particularly straight and rare patch of road, he tried to swipe at her with some sort of club, but Lara wasn't fool enough to get into a bike fight on these trails. As the two of them swung around a wide turn, Lara saw her chance. The biker went wide on a turn, and she managed to cut inside him and break ahead. She spent a moment congratulating herself, but began to curse as a bullet flew past her ear. The crazy bastard was trying to shoot her, on these roads! Either the man was a demon of a biker, one hell of a shot, or just insane. She was leaning towards the latter. As if just riding this road and keeping ahead of a horde of bikers wasn't enough, she had to dodge bullets, too? Not bloody likely, sport. Unfortunately, he was quite a good motorcyclist. He had attached himself to Lara's flank like a limpet and was only shooting when he got to a fairly flat, straight stretch. Thankfully, they were few and far between on this road. Still, he was getting far to close to the mark. As they entered a straightaway, Lara zig zagged back and forth like mad. Bullets were flying all about her, but none of them seemed to hit. She began to aim for pot holes and rough patches, anything that might through her pursuer off. This has to end one way or another. Either he has to shoot me or he has to crash. He crashed. The Leatherneck's bike caught a tank sized pot hole and the front wheel lurched to the side. If the man had had both hands on the wheel perhaps he could have kept control or even avoided the obstacle, but with only one hand controlling the bike and the other raised to shoot, he had no chance. His bike jerked away from Lara's and tumbled end over end twice before slamming into the rock face on the side of the road. Lara rode around him with a fierce grin, mentally punching the air as she triumphed once more over Death, if only for a moment. Ahead of her she could see Ben grappling with another biker. Ben had his tire iron in his free hand and was trying to club the other man with it, but his opponent had Ben's forearm gripped in his hand, and they were struggling for supremacy. Lara was amazed that even with one hand on the grips and while wrestling another bike, Ben still managed to outride every other biker on the road. As she watched, Ben forced the other biker closer and closer to the rock wall at the side of the road until she could see sparks being struck off the metal side of the bike. Lara could see an outcropping of rock jut out of the stone wall in front of the biker, and apparently he did to, for she could see him trying to disengage from his fight with Ben. Ben, however, was having no part of it. His bike had the other man pinned, and his big arm was keeping the guy there. With a flat crunching sound, the Leatherneck and his bike slammed into the outcropping and stopped dead. Ben avoided the same rock with no difficulty, holstered his tire iron, and put both hands back the controls. Firmly back in control, he gunned his bike and started going even faster up the road. It was all Lara could do to keep up. * * * Ben and Lara shot out of the narrow canyon road onto the faded asphalt with no Leathernecks in sight. Ben couldn't help but be a little bit proud. He could honestly say that he had just done the best, hardest riding of his life, and Lady Grace had kept up to him the whole time. Of course, her bike was a lot more suited to the kind of back road travel that they had been doing, but the fact that she had kept up at all was proof that she had a biker's spirit. Ben's bike began to make unhappy noises, and he felt a pang of guilt. He had promised his bike a good fixing after the chase from Torque's place (God, had that only been three days ago?) but had never gotten around to it, and now he had just forced it to perform way above and beyond the call of duty. A quick glance at the dash showed the engine light on, and a glance behind him showed a smelly black cloud of smoke. Hmm. Over heating and burning oil. He needed that like he needed a kick in the head. If he had to ditch his bike, a thought that ranked right up there with vivisection, he and Lara on her cute little machine wouldn't be able outrun an old lady on a walker. Besides that, who would drive? Come on, darlin', just make to where Betsy's hidden. Ben urged his flagging bike along silently. We can hide out then, but you've gotta last me that long. He wasn't sure how much of Bastard Squad had made it through that narrow road, but whoever was left was going to be pouring out of there like pissed off ants pretty time soon, and his plume of black smoke was an easy trail to follow. It was the perfect time to red line it and get as much space between them and the Leathernecks, but Ben's bike wasn't co- operating much. He was nursing it along, doing maybe 60, and against the Leathernecks that wasn't anywhere near fast enough. The only upshot to the whole situation was that he and Lady Grace were maybe five miles from where they had hidden their guns. Even with Ben limping along, that was still only four or five minutes away. He and his bike could make it that far, couldn't they? Lara pulled up and yelled to him over their combined engine noise. "How's your bike doing? Will it make it?" Suddenly Ben didn't know what to say to her. He tried to keep his mind on business. "We'll be fine." "Do you think we lost them?" Ben shrugged. "For now. They'll be on us before too much longer." Lara frowned. Even with her dusty and wind chapped face, she still looked beautiful. "Is your bike up to a chase?" He looked glumly at all the warning lights blinking on his dash. "It kinda has to be, doesn't it?" "We should hide, or -" Ben cut her off. "I'm done hiding, and I'm not leaving my bike." "Even if it gets you killed?" Even yelling above the bike noise, he could still hear the disapproval in her voice. "It won't get me killed." Hopefully. "And you said I had a death wish." She accused. It's not a death wish. I trust me and I trust my bike. "Like you said, it makes us the perfect pair." She flashed him a blinding smile. She seemed about to say something, but then she caught sight of something behind her. "Ben, they're coming!" Ben glanced behind him. Five of them, two miles off and they were closing fast. Between himself, Lady Grace and the road, they'd taken out ten riders. Not bad, Polecat. Not bad at all. Still, they were out of tricks and Ben's ride was wounded. Five Leathernecks would be more than enough to finish them off. "Go on ahead, get the guns." And what about their ten man reserve? Where were they? "Ben, I'm not leaving you." Lara's voice didn't brook any argument. Dammit, there wasn't time for this! "If you stay, we're both dead." Besides, Ben still had one trick up his sleeve. "Go, grab Betsy and cover me," he growled. "It's the only chance we got." He stared Lara down, trying to convince her through sheer force of will. She was, unfortunately, just as damn stubborn as he was, and for a moment he thought she was going to defy him just for the hell of it. Lady Grace returned his determined gaze with an intense brown eyed stare of her own, but after an eternal moment, nodded and roared off at a speed that right now Ben could only envy. As he rode along alone, Ben did the math and found he didn't like the numbers He was five minutes away from any sort of fire support, and the Leathernecks were about three minutes behind him. That left, what, two minutes? Not long enough to cook an egg, but more than enough to turn me into toast. Was it enough time for Lara to get the guns, dig them out, and come save his ass? Probably not. Ben, however, was damn well not giving up without a fight. He was going to fight for every second he could, and hope it was long enough for Lady Grace to do her thing. He still had one ace up his exhaust pipe, but he had to let the Leathernecks into spitting range to use it. It was just Ben and the road. Up until a couple of days ago that would have been ok, but now that he had met Lady Grace that number seemed too small by one. I'm getting soft in my old age. Ben gritted his teeth. The Leathernecks were still about a minute off, and all he could do was sweat and wait for them to come. I hate this part. It was like a damned target was tattooed on the back of his head. He glanced in his side mirror and saw the five remaining Leathernecks getting fairly close. A flash came from one of the bikes, and then his mirror ceased to exist. Shit, they were shooting at him. Now for the fun part. Ben swore and began to weave erratically. There was no cover for him to duck behind this time, and even if they just kept spraying like a fire hose, eventually some rounds were going to connect. He gunned his engine, but the only effect seemed to be an ungodly grinding sound noise and an even bigger cloud of smoke behind him. Damn. His poor bike couldn't take much more of this, and the Leathernecks were getting way too close. Bullets brought up puffs of dust in front of him, and he felt one round impact with his exhaust pipe. Well, he wasn't sticking around for any more of this. Sayonara, suckers. Ben stabbed his thumb down on the button for his recoil booster, and braced himself for the sudden acceleration that came along with the rocket blast. Nothing happened. Ben began swearing in earnest. He began with cusses he had learned in the streets of Springfield, moved onto the huge volume of curses that he had accumulated over his four years in the Marine Corps, and ended off with every single swear he had learned over thirteen years hanging around the desert. All said and told, it was a fairly impressive collection of profanity, but other making him feel a little better did nothing to improve his situation. Just when it looked like things couldn't get worse, the recoil booster erupted in a tooth rattling explosion. It rocked Ben's ailing bike and nearly face planted him in the asphalt. Ben blinked, trying to keep his bearings and somehow managed to right his bike. The booster must have taken a hit from the gunfire or during the chase. He said all of his curses over again, but with more feeling this time, and kept riding his bike erratically. That, at least, was easier to do. This wasn't part of the damned plan. Ben continued to ride desperately, jinking all along the highway and watching helplessly as the Leathernecks came nearer and nearer. They weren't shooting now, now that they saw he was wounded. Ben gritted his teeth, feeling the heat from the invisible bull's-eye burn into him. Everything had happened too fast. There was no way she could have gotten to the guns this quick. He was helpless. It was a feeling he wasn't familiar with, and one he hated. Ben swerved and jinked like mad, trying to avoid that one final shot, but the damn bikers kept pace easily, keeping him inside their horse shoe. They all had guns out, pistols and SMG's, and they were all pointed at Ben. Ben knew that he had stretched this out as long as he could. Getting out of this whole thing had been a long shot at best, and this time he wasn't beating the odds. No way in hell this Polecat is going out with out a fight. Ben gritted his teeth and reached for his tire iron. "Get it over with!" Ben yelled, picking a Leatherneck at random and charging. The biker just grinned and lifted his gun to shoot. It was over, Ben said to himself and time seemed to slow. He saw the guy raising the gun, saw the smile on the biker's face, and two thoughts went through his head. I'm sure gonna miss my bike, and then another, unexpected one. I'm sure gonna miss Lady Grace. We only kissed once, we never even- Still in slow motion, Ben watched as the biker's chest erupted in blood. The gun he was about to shoot Ben with fell from nerveless fingers as he slowly began to fall off the bike. Reality snapped back into normal time. Lady Grace. She made it. Must be snipering from the ridge. He didn't even try to figure out the gamut of emotions that ran through him. There was just too much. Ben swerve around the falling bike and tried like hell to get outside of the firing arc of the remaining bikers. He'd still be in at least one guy's field of fire, but hopefully their tight formation would work against them and keep them from shooting. If he was lucky they might even shoot each other, and save Lady Grace some bullets It was an odd sensation, to put himself in another person's hands, to trust another person with his life. He'd thought that his trust had died along with Torque and the Polecats, but now... Four guns opened up with Ben as their only target, and somehow he managed to evade most, but not all of them. He felt one round graze his leg and at least four bullets impact with various parts of his bike, and then he was out of their field of fire. He saw another biker jerk and then fall, followed by another five seconds later. Ben urged his bike into one last burst of speed, and the bike leapt forward with an almost human like shriek. He raced up behind one of the two remaining Leathernecks and swung his tire iron into the back of the man's head. The last rider tried to evade Lara's fire and lost control, his bike sending a shower of sparks as it slowly slid to a halt. Ben's bike, with a last seizing gasp, shut itself down and he coasted to an oddly quiet stop. Ben let the bike rest. It had lasted as long and done as much as you could ask any machine, even a Corley. After the hours of screaming engines and gunfire, the silence was deafening. He put the kickstand down along the flat road, and for a moment just took in the glorious sights, sounds and smells of life. I did beat the odds. It was an exulting moment, and he had a thought. This must be what Lady Grace feels. Suddenly she made a bit more sense. He took a deep breath, taking in the smell of exhaust and cordite and feeling the sun beat down upon him. It all seemed...brighter, somehow. The colours, the smells, the sounds were all so much more vivid; like his life up until now had been lived with blinders on. With a hand over his eyes, Ben scanned down the dirt trail where he had buried his guns, scanning for Lara. In the distance, a hundred yards or so off, he could see a cloud of dust as she rode towards him. 100 yards, and that was just the final shot. She had hit two other bikers still farther out. That was damn good shooting. About 20 yards off, Ben heard a man groan. He looked over to where the last biker had skidded out and saw the guy, bloody and limping push his bike off of himself and slowly get to his feet. He was unarmed. "When Gunny finds you," the biker said between gasps of breath, "You're a dead man." Ben glared at the defeated Leatherneck. "You tell Gunny to watch his back." There was hatred and venom in his voice. "You tell him Ben Polecat's coming for him." The biker said nothing, just slowly and painfully righted his bike. "You tell your brothers," Ben continued in his low, rough voice. "Any man I see wearing Leatherneck colours is gonna die." The guy mounted his bike wordlessly and painfully. "You should just toss that jacket and start running," Ben warned. "Next time I see you, I shoot to kill." The biker flinched at the word 'kill', but started his bike and drove away, saying nothing. Ben just sat there and watched him go. After a moment he turned to look for Lara. Lady Grace stood straddling her motor bike, her Brownings in her holsters and Betsy on her shoulder with the gun trained on the retreating Leatherneck. When she saw he was looking at her, she leaned the lever action rifle over her shoulder, put her other hand against her hip and smiled. She was covered in dust, half of her hair had escaped her braid, her clothes were mussed and there was a rip in her jeans, but she was the most beautiful thing Ben had ever seen. Slowly, minding his bullet wound that was just now beginning to hurt in his leg, Ben got off his bike and began to walk towards her. Words and emotions went through his head in a cacophonous jumble: respect, anger, lust, love, an overwhelming desire to crush her in his arms and never let go, but no words came to his lips. What do you tell a woman who had just stolen your heart and saved your life at the same time? As he neared her, she set down her kickstand and leaned against her bike, propping her sunglasses up and smiling. He stopped about three feet off and opened his mouth to speak, but only silence came out. The only sound was that of the desert wind and her engine ticking. Ben licked his lips and tried again. "That was pretty good shooting." It wasn't what he wanted to say, but it would do. "Thank you." She replied politely. "Are you all right?" Ben shrugged. "A few scratches," he looked in her deep brown eyes and saw...something. "I'm fine." He added softly. They just stared at one another, lost in each other's eyes. "How-how's your bike?" Lara asked, her voice catching. It was barely a whisper. Ben walked closer to her, reached out and took away Betsy from loose fingers, all the while staring in her eyes. "Needs a tune up," he mumbled and set the gun down. Lara licked her lips and took in a breath to reply, but there was no point in talking. He slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her to him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and stared into his soul. Gently exhaling, Ben lowered his lips to hers and they melted into each other. There was no pretending this time; no bar, no mixed messages. The bike chase that had happened didn't matter; nothing mattered right now, just one man, one woman and the road. Ben & Lara Chapter Twelve by Ross Jenkins, c 1998 Ben & Lara XII - Making Plans After a brief eternity, Lara and Ben had parted. It would have been easy to stay lip locked and see what developed, but the uncertainty of the situation as well as the limitations of their fleshly shells had gotten in the way. Sooner or later, whatever Leathernecks from Bastard Squad had survived were going to come back, and it was best if Ben and Lara weren't there when that happened. It was really hard for Lara to stay awake right now as she helped Ben tinker and cannibalise from the various bikes littering the area. Every part of her -including parts she hadn't known existed until now- was sore and aching. Her skin was raw and sore from all of the flying dust and rocks from the chase, and the various blows she had taken over the last few days were making themselves very well known. Lara groaned. During the nail-gripping chase she had been able to ignore her pain and fatigue, but now that the rush of adrenaline was gone all her body wanted to do was shut down. Shutting down, however, was not an option. They had to flee the area, find a place to refuel and plan -not to mention eat a decent meal- and to do that they had to somehow resurrect Ben's fallen motorcycle. Lara had suggested abandoning it and taking one of the fallen Leatherneck cycles, but Ben had given her a flat disbelieving look and a harsh 'no' that had almost removed the growing feelings she was having for him. It was a bit frustrating and Lara had experienced a moment of totally irrational jealousy. I wish that he would give me as much attention as he gave that bike. She was on her third bike so far, having sacrificed one in the Polecat massacre and drowned the other in the Med, but she knew that with a biker it was different. To Lara, a bike was a tool to be used, but to them, their bikes were part of who they were, a crucial part of their identity. The care and affection they gave their machines was akin to that of Arabian cavalry, who fed and maintained their horses before making camp or tending wounded. A biker without a bike wasn't a biker. Ben had gone over his sad looking machine with a look of pain that would have been humorous in any other circumstance. In truth, though, the bike was in a sorry state. It's forest of exhaust pipes and headers were riddled with bullet holes and set at odd angles from the destruction of his rocket booster. The front forks were bent from the jarring they had received on that horrid road and the rest of the bike looked, well, tired. Ben had said that he had cracked the oil pan during the chase, and had barely kept the engine from seizing. The two of them had been going from fallen bike to fallen bike hunting for oil, fuel hoses, washers, and a new back wheel. Ben's rear tire had shredded when the booster blew, and he had mangled the rim in his subsequent riding. The two of them had been silent other than the occasional mechanical question and reply. After all, what was there to say? During and right after that toe-curling kiss -it made their embrace last night in the Rebar seem tame- they had experienced a very intense, intimate moment and she for one did not want to ruin it with awkward and meaningless small talk. Instead, their tasks had a comfortable and companionable feeling to them that Lara couldn't remember having felt for quite a while. It was something she could get used to. Somehow, in the last hour Ben had performed a miracle and pronounced his bike ready to ride, but Lara remained dubious. It didn't look fixed. Admittedly, the back wheel had been replaced but the bike still looked like a wreck. Still, it was Ben's baby, and he pronounced it road worthy then she was willing to humour his delusion. The sooner we get out of this place the better. The Leatherneck reinforcements, or at least a clean up crew, were overdue, and while they were armed, Lara didn't think that she and Ben were up to yet another stand up fight. They had been burning the candle from both ends and sheer exhaustion was going to be by far their worst enemy. "So do you know where we're going?" Lara asked as Ben mounted his fragile machine. He had Betsy sheathed at the bike's side and she wore her pistols happily on her hips. The bike groaned ominously as Ben settled his weight onto it. "A guy called Maury," Ben answered laconically. "He runs a bike shop about two hours north west of here." Lara mounted her own bike and got ready to ride. "He'll help us? Can we trust him?" "He was a good friend of Torque's." Ben said flatly. "He won't turn down a biker in need." He brought his leg down on the bike's starting lever. The bike wheezed, groaned and spat out a black cloud of smoke, but didn't start. Ben frowned, caressed the gas tank in an intimate manner that made Lara frown and whispered something under his breath. He kicked down on the starter again, and after a moment of indecision, the bike grudgingly coughed itself to a semblance of life. It was running very rough, but at least it was running, though Ben didn't look very happy about it. Without any further conversation, he rode off in a cloud of smelly black exhaust, and Lara quickly followed, though she made sure to stay at his side where the air was cleaner. * * * Even though Ben had gotten his bike road worthy, it wasn't up to sprinting. Hell, it was barely up to running period.If their situation wasn't so shitty, he would have limped his bike along at maybe thirty of forty, but in the interest of not getting his ass blown off by Leathernecks, he somehow managed to urge his tired bike up to an insane eighty. Driving at that speed was a full time job, keeping an eye on the gauges and trying to keep the wobbling bike from pitching over. Lady Grace was keeping a eye on the road, for which he was grateful, riding ahead to scout or falling back to check something over. Twice she had motioned them to pull over and hide, and both times a pair of Leathernecks roared past their position. Ben was positive that the very thin line they were balancing on was going to break, but two and a half tense and weary hours later, he and Lady Grace pulled up in front of Maury's place. The place was a retired gas/service station, with an attached home for the operator on the second floor. It was old, dusty and windblown like everything else in this desert, with antique analogue pumps and an old, shattered neon sign that still bore signs of red and blue 'Chevron' stripes. A stripped semi tractor sat in the lot, vying with the tumbleweeds for the best sun. The name of the place, 'Last Chance Auto and Gas' was spray painted on a piece of plywood hung over the door. Ben mercifully shut his bike off, ending its misery for now, and put down his kickstand. Getting off the bike reminded him just how tired and sore he was. Once he got this bike under cover and into Maury's hands, he was going to find a nice dumpster and pass out. Then some kind of meal, even sawdust would do, and then finding out more about Fort Kennedy. Ben had spent enough time dicking around; it was time to start kicking ass and taking names. He had fifteen deaths to set to right, and hanging around here in the middle of nowhere was doing nothing towards that end. Ben took off his shades and pushed open the dusty screen door. A wind chime attached to the door tinkled; it was the only sound in the room. "Maury?" Ben called out as he walked in, "where are you, you old bastard?" It was said with affection. Faded sunlight lit the room and filled it with dark shadows. Old motor part posters covered the wall, as well as an old calendar featuring a young woman draped over a motor bike. She didn't, Ben noted, even come close to holding a candle to Lady Grace. The whole place was covered in dust, and for a moment Ben wondered if the old guy was still around. Maury had never been in the best of health; if he had popped off odds were no one would notice for months. Ben hadn't been to see the grizzled old bastard in a couple of years. Anything could have happened. Lady Grace came into the building behind him and gave the room a once over with her cool brown eyes. "Charming." Ben grunted in reply and pounded his fist against the Formica countertop. "Maury!" He yelled, "you old cripple, get your ass out here!" Lara shot Ben a startled look. "Ben," she chided him, "don't you think that's a bit rude?" From the back, Ben heard machine parts clanking and a door slam. He gave a short laugh. "You think that's bad, you should hear Maury," he told Lara. "The guy has a worse mouth than Gunny." Lara gave a very slight frown and raised her eyebrows. "How charming." "Don't listen to a damn thing he says, honey," Maury called out in his gruff voice. The man hobbled into view a moment later. "I don't know who this Gunny person is, but I am a complete gentleman." He was looking ok, Ben thought, all thing considered. Maury must be in his -what?- late fifties. He was about five eight, maybe 180 lbs. He had long unruly salt and pepper hair with an uncut beard just a shade lighter. He walked smoothly with two canes, like he'd been doing it for years, and Ben knew that his pants hid the two prosthetic legs that the guy wore. Ben snorted. "You don't even know what a gentleman is." He offered out his hand and mentally winced when the older man set down one of his canes and took it. The guy was a gimp, and as a result used his hands a lot more than normal. Besides that, he was a mechanic. His grip was harder than Torque's. Slowly, methodically, and completely on purpose, he crushed Ben's hand into hamburger. It was a modern test of manhood, however, and Ben didn't flinch. Snatching his hand back and flexing it to see if he had any circulation left, he introduced Lady Grace. "Maury, this is Lara Croft." He smirked as she took the old guy's weathered and callused grip. For a moment, the two just stood there, staring at each other, and Ben winced as he saw the old guy's arm tightening with exertion. Ben looked at Lara, and saw that her arm was flexing as well. The two just stood there, faces calm, each trying to out vice the other, as they stared each other down. After a long, quiet moment they both let their hands drop. Maury's eyes were lit with amusement. "Hell of a woman you got there, Ben." He leaned against the counter with both hands. "What can I do for you?" "I don't got her, Maury," Ben corrected. "We're just riding together." The old guy chuckled. "You got it for her that bad, huh?" He kept talking before Ben could protest. "What the hell brings you out my way? You and your boys don't come out this way very often." Maury leaned over the counter and looked outside. "Where is your gang, anyway? You on a honeymoon?" he asked the last bit with a smirk and a sparkle in his eyes. Ben suddenly wasn't in the mood for small talk. "They're all dead Maury, Torque too." It was easier to say this time. It had happened a few days ago, and the reality of it seemed more concrete. Maury frowned. "Damn." He looked of into space for a moment, then looked back at Ben's face. "I'm sorry Ben, for everything." Ben just shrugged. "You on the run? Need place to lay low?" Ben nodded, happy he didn't have to explain any more. "My bike took a beating. I need you to fix it up." Maury craned his neck to look outside as he gave Ben's machine a once over. He whistled. "That's one trashed bike." He turned back to Ben. "What the hell did you do to it?" Ben didn't say anything. Words didn't begin to cover it. "I'll do what I can, Ben, but I think that bike has ridden its last ride." Ben grimaced. These were words he did not want to hear. Maury gave Ben a quick glance. "You look like shit, Ben," he glanced at Lara as well. "Both of you." He began to hobble into the back. "Come on and I'll give the two of you a place to crash." With the word 'crash', the weight and pressure of the last three days hit Ben like a wave. Suddenly he could barely keep on his feet. However, there was one thing he had to clear up first. "Maury." Ben called out. The old man stopped and looked back. "I ain't got no money." "Are you gonna get some payback?" Maury asked from the door. Ben nodded solemnly. "Then its on the house." He led the two of them up a fight of stairs to a small, neat living area. "What do you want to do first? Eat, sleep, or shower?" It didn't take much thought. "Sleep." Maury gestured with his cane. "Spare room's through that door." He looked at Lara as Ben stumbled off to the spare room. "What about you, honey?" Ben frowned as he took his jacket off. As tempting as getting Lara into bed with him was, now just wasn't the time for it. When he finally did sleep with Lady Grace, he wanted to be conscious for it. "Another bed, if you have one, or the couch." She said from behind him. Ben slowly and painfully stripped off his pants and boots. He couldn't remember ever having been this tired. At least during all the crap that had happened last year, he'd either been knocked out or had passed out enough so that it didn't matter. He was still fighting with a stubborn sock that refused to leave his foot when his head hit the pillow, and then he remembered no more. * * * Lara woke to the late afternoon sunset. Blinking and covering her eyes, she looked about to get her bearings. It took a moment, but then she remembered. She was on Maury's couch under a blanket, and an errant ray shining though an open window had made its way slowly across the room until it had rested on her eyes. Falling back with a sigh, Lara took a moment just to stretch out and luxuriate in the sensation of not being chased, threatened or shot at. From the moment she had seen Big Willie skulking around the streets of Baron's Head almost four days ago, she had been constantly moving, riding or fighting. Her sore muscles and dark bruises were testament to her body's unhappiness to the situation. She really needed a hot bath and a good stretch, and by hook or by crook was determined to get both before she left this place. Her growling stomach reminded her of her less than ideal diet as of late. She thought about what food she most would like to eat, more as a form of torture than anything else. Grilled marinated chicken breast on a fresh sour dough roll with saut‚ed mushrooms and Spanish onions. Mmm, yes, that would hit the spot. Beef vindelou with steamed vegetables and saffron rice. A bit spicy, maybe, but Lara could never resist Indian food. She continued to tempt her stomach as she got up from the couch and dressed. She looked over at the door to the room where Ben had gone in, but it was closed. Poor man needed the rest even more than I did. Ben had been through all of the running and fighting that she had, but he had to do this with his entire life shattered before his eyes. She padded over to the kitchen table where Maury had left an assortment of canned and dried food to choose from. All dreams of gourmet faire aside, she was more than content to dine on tinned beef stew, stonewheat crackers and fruit cocktail. Leaving some on the stove for Ben, she next went to the bathroom. Thankfully, Maury had hot water. The next thirty minutes were quite possibly the most blissful of her life, definitely the best in recent memory. The water was hot, almost too hot, and she used its penetrating heat to work all the aches out of her body. For the first time in days she was totally clean, with her hair washed and combed out, and it was a wonderful feeling. Only when her skin threatened to wrinkle up like a prune did she reluctantly remove herself from the water's gentle embrace. Lara changed into her familiar tank top and shorts, noting that Ben was still dead to the world. What she needed now was a good stretch and workout in the desert sun. On her way out, she heard sounds coming from the service bay and decided to pop in and thank Maury for his hospitality. He was seated on a wood bench and working on Ben's bike. Ben surely would have had a heart attack if he saw his beloved machine in its current state. Maury had it completely disassembled and bike bits were everywhere. There was a radio playing an old country tune that Lara didn't recognise, and Maury was singing along as he used a steel brush to clean off some obscure engine part. He had a surprisingly good voice, a whiskey soaked baritone that rose and fell with the song easily as he worked. In another part of the empty service bay Lara saw her new bike sitting cleaned and tuned. Maury stopped singing when he saw Lara. "Oh, hi, sweetheart." He called, raising his brush in greeting and shutting off the radio. He openly admired Lara's new attire as she walked up to him. "You look pretty good, honey." She didn't respond as she cleared away am oily rag from the bench and sat. "Thank you for your hospitality," Lara said by way of greeting, but Maury just shrugged. "You looked like you needed it." He said absently as he inspected the cylinder for defects. "Ben still dead up there?" She nodded. "He needed the sleep." Maury grunted and continued to scrub with his brush. "So what the hell happened, anyway? Ben said Torque was killed?" For what he was doing for them, letting the man know how his old friend was killed and why was the least Lara could do. She gave a brief summation of the last few days, starting with Ben's first encounter with Gunny in the Horny Bull and with their escape from Fulsome. Maury listened quietly until she had finished. "So what the hell is going down at this Fort Kennedy place?" he asked when he was done. Lara shrugged. "We don't know. Something about a Pipeline and a Corridor." "And who the hell is this Williams guy?" "We think that he is part of Williams Consolidated Chemical." Lara replied. Maury motioned for a rag and she handed one to him. "They're one of the companies that run Fulsome." The legless man buffed for a moment. "Sounds pretty weird." He said finally. Lara smiled thinly. "I don't think weird begins to cover it. I'm prone to use the word 'sinister'." She watched Maury work. He was very good with his hands. "Whatever they are up to, they are willing to kill anyone to keep it secret." His voice was bland. "The two of you going up against all this, sounds pretty hairy." She began to trace patterns in the oily dirt with her toe. "I have no intention of taking on over a hundred bikers, thank you very much." She replied. "This is just a reconnoitre." He finished cleaning the cylinder and picked up another engine part. "And then what?" He picked up his brush and began to scrub. "I don't know." Lara admitted. "I suppose it depends on what we find." She paused and thought. "Contact the authorities, I suppose." He gave out a bitter laugh that sounded more like a quack. "You think Ben's gonna be happy to call the cops?" he asked. "Even assuming they do something about it, he's got a lot to avenge." Maury looked over at Lara. "He's going to want blood." She met his gaze sadly. "I know." He quirked an eye brow up, then went back to his work. "So what are you going to do?" There weren't really that many options. "Watch his back, I suppose." She said after a moment. "Try to keep him from getting killed." A bloody fat lot of good that's going to do. "So what's your stake in all this?" Maury asked her. "Why are you involved?" "I'm still trying to figure that part out." Lara admitted. "For Ben, I suppose." "Is he worth dying for?" It was a simple question, yet impossibly hard to answer. "I..." Maury cut her off, his voice hard. "If he ain't, then you had better get on that bike and high tail it while you've still got a chance." "No." She said quickly, without having to think about it. That wasn't an option. "I'm not leaving Ben." Her statement hung heavy in the air for a moment. Maury paused his work, then said with deceptive easiness, "You must really love him." Love. The word hit her like a runaway train. "I...I suppose I do," she admitted, both to him and to herself. The room suddenly seemed lighter, happier. "Then what the hell are you doing down here jawing with me?" He barked loudly, jarring Lara out of her reverie. "You're both going into hell tomorrow. This is your last night to make it all worthwhile." He made shooing motions to her with his hands towards the stairs. Lara was almost too stunned to speak. "Yes, I suppose it is." She rose to her feet began absently walking towards the exit. "I'll have both your bikes fixed up by morning, so don't let that worry you," Maury told her reassuringly from behind her, but she was only half listening. "Just get out of here before you make me feel any older." Lara smiled. "Yes, I will." She stopped at the base of the stairs "Oh, Maury?" "Yeah?" Her voice was soft. "Thank you." It was for more than his hospitality and both of them knew it. The older man waved her off with an oily rag. "Stop it. You're making me blush." Lara chuckled and made her way upstairs, but before Maury was totally out of ear shot she heard him mutter to himself, "Youth is wasted on the young." She walked slowly up the stairs, her mind reeling. She was in love with him. They'd known each other less than a week, but that didn't seem to matter. Maybe it wasn't rest-of-your-life type love, but it was close, and Lara knew that she couldn't deny her feelings any more. She came quietly up the stairs to Maury's home. Was Ben awake, or was he still sleeping? With a light smile, Lara wondered what would be the best way to wake him. Maybe slipping under his covers... but as she crested the top of the stairs, she saw that he was up and had already eaten, though he hadn't cleaned up after himself. Typical male, she thought affectionately. He had showered and was standing in the window, watching the desert sunset and lost in thought. He hadn't heard her. He was a beautiful sight. The setting sun through the window covered the horizon burnished gold, and orange and pink clouds radiated from the deep red orb. It cast an orange light over everything, leaving deep shadows everywhere. Ben's skin seemed to be glowing, with the other half of him in shadow. His hair was washed and slicked back. He was wearing jeans and a white undershirt which clung to his muscular chest like a second skin. He was leaning against the window frame with one arm, the other cocked absently at one hip. His face was in profile as he stared out at infinity, propped against his hand, and he looked both very sad and very wise. It took Lara's breath away. Biting her lower lip and mentally steeling herself, she walked towards him. * * * Ben had been thinking about everything and nothing when he heard Lady Grace's light footsteps behind him. He'd realised before that he had loved her, but that was during the heat of battle. Sure, they had necked a few times, but was that really love, or was it just the accumulated lust and tension of the last few days? He didn't know. Did it really matter? The two of them had been through a lot over the last few days, it was only natural that they gravitate towards each other. On top of that, there was his vengeance. He was supposed to be getting revenge for his boys, and for Torque, and sitting here thinking about Lara hot body wasn't doing anything for their memory. He'd asked himself before if thinking about Lara was betraying his boys, and he still had no answer. One thing for damn sure, though, no matter what he did someone was gonna get gypped and he was going to feel guilty. Ben blinked, trying to think of what to say to her when he felt her warm hand against his shoulder. He slowly turned. She was standing not even two feet away from him, wearing that transparent tank top. Her hair fell in auburn waves, leaving her face lost in shadow. Her brown eyes were deep pools that Ben was lost in immediately. "Hello Ben." Her voice was low and cool. He nodded and responded just as coolly. "Lady Grace." They said nothing for a moment, just stared into each other's eyes. He could feel the heat from her body. "What are you doing?" she asked after a long moment. A short eternity passed before he answered. He shrugged. "Just thinking." "About?" Her voice was quiet. Ben found himself tracing her with his eyes; the slope of her eye brows, the line of her nose. "I don't know." He was drawn back to her eyes. "Stuff, I guess." Life. Death. Me. You. She smiled a Mona Lisa smile and Ben knew he was lost. "Ah, stuff." He tried to look away, but couldn't. "What are you doing here, Lady Grace?" His voice was hoarse. Her smile disappeared. "Will you please call me Lara?" Her voice was sad. It took Ben a moment to clear his throat. "What do you want, Lara?" "I..." she looked down at his neck for moment, then reached out with her finger and gently began to trace his collarbone. His skin burned where they touched. After a moment she brought her eyes up to his again. "I don't want any regrets, Ben." His soul ran cold. "What do you mean?" She just looked at him and didn't answer. He hated to say the words, but he had to know. "Are you leaving?" She smiled. "No, I'd definitely regret that." Ben remembered to breathe. "Then what?" Wordlessly, Lara stepped close to Ben and wrapped her arms around him. The hell with it, Ben thought. Vengeance can wait until tomorrow. They brought their lips together for a perfect, timeless kiss. "If we don't do this," Lara whispered into his ear, "I'll regret it the rest of my life." Ben couldn't agree more. There were no more words to be said as they disappeared into Maury's spare room. Ben & Lara Chapter Thirteen by Ross Jenkins, c 1998 Ben & Lara XIII - Behind the Lines "I don't know what to tell you, Ben." Maury said apologetically. "Your bike is a piece of shit." It was the next morning. Despite the fact that he'd had almost no sleep last night, Ben hadn't felt this well rested in years. Spending the night with Lara had been... He frowned. No time for that now. There were more important things at stake. Ben groaned. "Oh, no. Not again." The last time his bike had been trashed, Mo had been able to fix it right up, better than before. Hmm. On second thought, Ben didn't want to think about Mo right now, not with the imprint of Lara's body still hot in his memory. "You can fix it, though, right?" He was disgusted to hear how pathetic his voice sounded. "Nope." Maury shook his head and looked sadly at the bike he had spent the entire night trying to breathe life into. "I fixed it up a bit, but it ain't never gonna gonna be anything other than a piece of shit." Ben shook his head. This couldn't be happening. "You want me to get something for you? New forks? A blow torch? I can-" "Ben!" Maury cut him off. "I already got a blow torch and new forks won't help. Ben, I'd have to replace every damned component. The engine is shot, the frame is being held together with tin foil, and your engine processor can't play tic tac toe." He put a comforting hand on Ben's shoulder that the big biker shrugged off. "It'll run for now, but the first time you push it, it's gonna to blow up in you face." "But-" The old guy had to be wrong. He had to. "No buts, Ben. It's time to give that bike a rest. Send it on to that highway in the sky." Ben looked at his bike sadly. "Damn." That bike and he went way back. He'd beat a guy into pulp for it fair and square, almost twelve years ago. With a sigh he got onto it. "Well, it has to last me at least through today. We've got business to attend to." Maury just nodded. "Fort Kennedy." He gave Ben a long steady look. "Do you have any idea what you're gonna do when you get there?" It was a question Ben had been asking himself for days. "Get in, bust them up, get out." It was as good a plan as any. "What about Lara?" Ben glared at him. "What about her?" "If you go in there and get yourself killed with a damn brainless idea like that, what's gonna happen to her?" Ben cut him off with a sharp gesture. "Listen, you old bastard. I put up with a lot of shit from you 'cause you and Torque go way back, but you're pushing it!" The old guy gave a sage nod that made Ben want to knock his block off. "Hit a sore spot, huh?" Ben's glare could melt armour plate. "Watch it." Maury angrily shook a cane under Ben's nose. Ben tried to swat it aside, but Maury was having none of it. "No, you listen to me." Ben just stared at him, fuming. "That woman upstairs loves you, and she'll follow you to hell. If you go off with some half baked plan like the one you gave me, you're either gonna get her killed, or you're gonna get yourself killed and break her heart. Either way, you won't be doing Father Torque's or the Polecats memories any good." Ben was mad enough to chew steel. "I made a promise, and I'm gonna keep it!" Maury stared down an Ben, an angry frown on his face. "You're vengeance won't mean a damn thing if you die along with them." It was only deference to his dead mentor that stopped him from slugging Maury right in his big fat face, cripple or no. Instead, he reigned his temper in and let out a long unsteady breath. "Are you done?" Maury turned away in disgust. "Yeah, I'm done. Go get yourself and Lara killed. See if anyone's dumb enough to avenge you." Ben just sat on his bike, fuming. If he didn't have to wait for Lady Grace, he'd have ripped out of here. Where was she, anyway? She had said that she would be right down. All she had to do was 'freshen up a bit'. Women. It had been a while; Ben had forgotten that 'a minute' to them could take forever. They'd crawled out of bed at dawn, not that they'd really been sleeping before that. Ben had no adjectives for what waking up with Lara Croft in his arms was like. It was like every night in his life that she hadn't been there was incomplete. The way she smelled, the way her breath whispered out of her barely open lips. The way she curled up against him, how her long sinuous back lay against his chest... It wasn't just the sex, although that had been great. More than great. They'd sat up and talked about...everything. About her plane crash in the Himalayas, her problems with her father, Ben's time in the marines; how he'd decked his CO and spent almost a year in the brig before being dishonourably discharged. It wasn't like she was the only person in the world he'd slept with, but he could honestly say that he'd never been closer to a person or more intimate then he was last night with Lara That was what had made Maury's little 'hint' so hard to swallow. From the very beginning, he'd known that hunting down Gunny was a fool's errand, a suicide trip. That was OK; it was a price that Ben had been willing to pay. Up until now, he'd always assumed that Lady Grace wouldn't be there when the end came. He'd tried to persuade her last night to let him go this alone, but she'd been against that in pretty uncertain terms. Lara didn't do anything by halves. It was probably the one main reason that she had survived all the crap she'd put herself through. When she fought, she fought with everything she had. She made love with the same intensity, and she stuck to what she believed in the same way. Now, like it or not, he had a partner, one that would stuck with him through thick and thin. It meant he had to change his game plan, only the damn thing was he didn't know how. Gunny and his boys were too many. Never in his wildest dreams could Ben, or Ben and Lara, take on over a hundred bikers. More than that, how did Williams and this damned 'Pipeline' fit into things? Even if Gunny had pulled the trigger, Williams had given the orders, and that had all been done for the Pipeline. Was getting Williams enough? Did he have to shut down this pipeline, too? Tell me when enough is enough, Father. Ben silently implored. Let me know when I've done you right. Just like every other time, there was no answer. Ben was alone. Well, maybe not alone. As Ben sat scowling on his bike, Lara came downstairs and his mood lightened right up. It was hard as hell to stay pissed off when a woman looked like she did and smiled at you like you were the greatest man on Earth. She swayed up to him, trailing her rucksack and gave Ben a long, lingering kiss. "Good morning," She whispered into his ear. The way she said it was like foreplay. Ben tried to keep his scowl up but couldn't. He mumbled something and then she skipped off to her bike, stowing her bag in one of her saddle pouches. She got onto her bike and then waved to the stairway. Ben looked over and saw Maury. His scowl returned. "Thank you, Maury" She called out across the garage. "For everything." Maury waved back, which pissed Ben off even more. Lara cocked Ben a curious look. "Aren't you going to say good bye or anything?" In answer, Ben started his bike with a thunderous roar then burned rubber out of the garage. Maury was right. It was running rough and the timing was off. It wasn't burning as much oil as it had been yesterday, but it still was. Damn. He didn't want to get a new bike. Knowing that Lady Grace was on his tail, he pointed his wheel towards Fort Kennedy and sped off full throttle. * * * Lara chased Ben down the faded roadway. She was in good spirits, despite the fact that she and Ben were riding into the mouth of hell. She most definitely had no regrets about last night, save that it was over. She and Ben had squeezed as much out of the time they had, but inevitably morning had come. After Ben had gone downstairs to check on his bike with Maury, Lara had a few calls to make, to her editor and then one other. She had been on her way downstairs when she had heard Ben and Maury's shouting match. She was touched by Maury's concern, even if it were perhaps misplaced. She and Ben would be fine. By no stretch of the imagination would the going be easy, but they'd pull it off. Lara had been in worse scrapes, and she'd always pulled through. She just knew that she was going to make it. When a hundred thousand tonnes of stone was coming down around her ears in the Atlantean pyramid, she'd had that same confidence, and this was no different. Now she had Ben on her side. That could only make things better. When she had come downstairs, Ben and Maury's mood had been palpable as soon as she walked through the door. Ben was sitting on his bike with a dark scowl on his face and Maury was grumping away in the front office. She'd plastered a smile on her face and given Ben a quick kiss in an attempt to lighten him up, but it had done no good. His scowl and rude send off miffed her a bit, but Lara held high hopes. They would come through all right. They had to. * * * It was a long ride to Fort Kennedy, about seven hours. They had stopped off for a quick stretch and to wolf down some food. He and Lady Grace had stayed fairly quiet. Ben was as frustrated as hell. He and Lara had spent an amazing intimate night together, and as much as he wanted to spend today and a whole bunch of tomorrows just hanging around her and screwing until his dick fell off, there was serious business coming up. He had some serious planning to do, and he couldn't afford to be distracted. For the most part it was working. I've just got to ignore the way she fills out that shirt, forget how her lips felt as they ran down my chest... Ben shook his head, trying to clear it. Planning would have been easy if he just knew what he was facing, but he knew bupkiss about Fort Kennedy. He knew the area, but hadn't been there in almost ten years. It had just been a burned out two hundred year old fort before. Who knew what had been done to the place since then. All that rushed through his head were possibilities and eventualities. What if Gunny had his guys fortify the place. Maybe there were sentries and security systems. If the Pipeline was being funded and set up by WCC [Williams Consolidated Chemical], was it flammable? Explosive? Poisonous? Most importantly: how was he going to get into and out of this whole mess keeping himself and Lara in one piece? More questions he couldn't answer, and every time he encountered another one his mind kept going back to Lady Grace and her slip hips that haunted his vision as they rode. This road trip had better end soon, before I lose my mind. * * * It was late afternoon, and Ben and Lara were on foot. Ben, it seemed, knew the back roads of the desert very well. When they had driven within a hundred miles of the fort, he had led them onto a series of narrow winding roads and dried river beds. It added a few hours to their time but they didn't encounter any Leatherneck patrols. It would be sheer lunacy to presume that the area wouldn't be guarded. They had hidden their bikes beneath some tumbleweeds in a gully and were proceeding -armed, of course- up a rock ridge to where they could overlook the Fort. They were both ready for anything. Ben was carrying Betsy with both hands, the lever action rifle locked and loaded while Lara's hands were itching to draw her pistols. Lara was having no troubles with the steep rocks. Compared to some of the things she had scaled, this was child's play, but Ben was having a somewhat harder time of it. She was crouching on the top of a twenty foot vertical face, watching the hillside below them for movement while Ben huffed, puffed and cursed below her. He was making slow, if unsteady progress up the cliff. She didn't offer to help him, knowing that he was too proud to accept it. It didn't stop her, however, from chuckling at his expense. A minute or so later he pulled himself up and lay on his back, gasping for breath. "You're out of shape, Ben." Lara chided him. "Are you getting to old for this?" "Blow me." He gave Lara the finger and groaned. "Maybe later," she smiled and patted his hip. "If we're going to be here for a while, I could order a pizza or something." She offered. He got to his feet with a grunt and glared at her evilly. She just grinned and handed him his rifle. "Can you handle the rest of the slope, or would you like me to get you another ladder?" "Any other biker chick wouldn't give me this much lip." He muttered and continued to climb. Lara just laughed. Ten minutes later, they came to the top of the ridge and looked below them at what was happening at Fort Kennedy. The fort sat in the bottom of a steep mountain valley. The valley floor was mostly flat, but a faded gravel road made its way along the bottom. The ruins of the old fort were visible in on small rise, but that was not the most notable feature in the valley. There were about twenty large storage vats, easily thirty feet in diameter, all along the far side of the valley wall. They were all painted with desert camouflage patterns and no doubt were invisible to satellites. There were plenty of connecting pipes and hoses running from container to container, with a larger set of pipes running out of the ground. All the pipes were either painted to match the terrain or had rock formations built on top of them. The next thing that Lara noted was the trucks. There were about thirty tractor trailer rigs, also painted in camouflage patterns, sitting under the sun. All of the trailers were the ovoid cylinders of liquid transport containers. "What the bloody blazes," Lara said softly to herself as she went to her hip for her binoculars. Beside her, Ben frowned. "How the hell could they have set this up and not have anyone notice," he muttered to himself. Lara handed him the binocs. "They obviously went to a great deal of trouble to avoid detection. If you try hard enough and have enough money, I suppose anything is possible." He just grunted. They surveyed a moment in silence then Ben pointed down into the valley. "Leathernecks. Eight of them." He handed the binoculars back to Lara. They were sitting in the shade of one of the tanks with their bikes parked near by. "If that's all the security they have, I imagine that we'll have an easy time of it." Ben snorted. "Dream on, lady. There's a whole lot of stuff we can't see from here. They could have a hundred guys down there and we'd never see them." Lara continued to look for more bikers but Ben was right, there were too many points of concealment. "So what now, then?" "We gotta get closer, find out what's going on." "That is a very wide open space we have to cross." Lara pointed out. "We'd be spotted for sure." Ben had a thoughtful look his face. If Lara leaned close to his ear she was sure that she would hear gears turning. "We'll go in disguise." Perhaps his gears needed lubrication. "What disguise would that be?" she asked dubiously. "Them." Ben pointed down to a rough road cut out of the valley wall below them. A two bike patrol could be seen on it, about two miles back. "We take them out, put on their jackets and drive right up to those storage tanks." Lara thought for a moment. "It's probably not as easy as that." "Gotta better idea?" Ben asked. Unfortunately, no. She surveyed the terrain between them and the road that was being patrolled. "We'll have to be quick about it." "Fine." Ben was already on his feet scrambling down the rocky slope. Lara got to her feet easily and started down the slope, quickly outdistancing Ben. "The terrain's kind of rough, can you keep up?" she called out, hardly winded yet. "You keep up." Ben replied to her as he started down the slope in earnest. Lara smiled and shook her head, then began to run down the slope. The two of them were too absorbed in their task to talk much further, and Lara had to admit that what she was doing was maybe a bit extreme. Running as fast as she could down a steep slope with gravel and loose rocks on it? Maybe I should put this on my assault course. It certainly was challenging enough, and surprisingly, Ben kept up to her the entire way. She made it to the road maybe a second ahead of him and all either of them could do for a moment was put their hands against their knees and gasp for air. Lara grinned her victory to Ben, who accepted defeat gracefully. "What..." Lara gasped out, "...do we do now?" "You're bait." Ben said in between huge breaths. "Stick your tits out and smile while I nail'em from behind." She gave him a cross look. "Why do I have to be the bait? Can't you distract them?" Ben shook his head. "They'll recognise me and shoot on sight." "I'll probably be recognised just as easily." Lara pointed out. Ben started climbing up the rocks for a place to hide. "Yeah, but they won't shoot you." Then he was gone. Lara stood alone in the middle of the road, listening to the sound of the approaching motorbikes. "Bother." She muttered. She unbuckled her gun belt and tossed it into the ditch. Maybe if I'm unarmed, it will give them an extra second of pause. A week ago she wouldn't have trusted anyone enough to disarm herself and place her at their mercy. A lot could happen in a week. The pair of bikers rounded the corner and slowed down as they saw her. Now what? How had Ben put it? Stick my tits out and smile? She frowned briefly before pasting a smile on her face and taking in a very deep breath. I'm going to have to teach him to use better language. Both Leathernecks came to a stop ten feet from Lara. One drew a stainless steel revolver and the other a Calico machine pistol. Lara kept her smile painted on her face and wished that Ben would get on with it already. "Who the fuck are you?" yelled out revolver-boy. "I'm so glad that I've found someone." Lara gushed. "My car crashed, and I've been wandering-" The one with the Calico cut her off. "Hey, its that Croft chick Gunny warned us about." Revolver boy got off his bike and stepped close to look at Lara. "Are you sure? She don't look so danger-hey!" Ben obviously was waiting for her to sweat for a bit before he got off of his duff and took out the bikers, so she put her own plan into motion. And this one doesn't involve me acting like a brainless Barbie doll, either. Before he could finish his sentence, Lara stepped in, slapped his gun aside and put him on the ground in a painful submission hold. Even while she was digging her knee into his spine, she was bringing his heavy revolver to bear and training it on the other rider. Before she could shoot him -or he could shoot her- Ben finally graced all of them with his presence and butt stroked the remaining biker in the head. Lara shot him an annoyed look and lowered her gun as he came out of hiding above the road. "You took your bloody time." Her prisoner struggled beneath her and Lara elbowed him in the head. It seemed to slow him down, if nothing else. Ben shrugged and begin stripping the unconscious Leatherneck of his jacket. "You were doing OK." Lara frowned. I was rather hoping for an apology. She forced her groggy prisoner to his feet and pointed his-now hers- revolver at him. "Strip." He looked briefly at the gun, then at her stern face, and began to quickly remove his clothes. Lara liked the feel of the revolver, a Colt Python according to the barrel. It weighed almost twice as much as one of her Brownings and only carried six shots, but it was a heavier bullet with a lot more stopping power. There was no way she could fire it with one hand, but with its eight inch barrel and tight rifling the Python had a great reputation for accuracy. There was no way she was going to stop carrying her Brownings any time soon, but maybe a third gun in a chest holster... "What are we going to do with the two stooges here?" Ben asked as he tried to put the one biker's jacket over his broad shoulders. He only partly succeeded. Lara pondered the problem as she put first one arm of her prisoner's jacket on, then switched hands with the revolver and slipped her arm in the other. As prudent as it may have seemed to do so, she had never been able to bring herself to kill an unarmed or helpless man. "This one," she indicated the Leatherneck she held at gunpoint with a flick of her barrel, "has a length of chain for a belt. We'll lash him and his friend to a rock out of sight from the road." "They'll die of from exposure in a day or two," Ben pointed out. By the tone of his voice, he couldn't care less either way. "I'm sure they'll wriggle their way to freedom before then." She motioned with the revolver for the man to remove his belt. * * * An hour later, they were cruising their way on high- jacked bikes on the valley floor. There was a lot of stuff, Ben noted, not visible from the ridge. For one thing, there were a lot of people here. Each truck had two drivers, and with thirty trucks that meant sixty guys, not to mention over forty Leathernecks hanging around. Plus, there was a loading and servicing crew that were filling up the tankers with who knows what, so tack on about fifteen guys. There were some caves cut into the valley wall and a bunch of rooms in the ground beneath the web of pipes and conduits. It all added up to one hell of a confusing maze with pipes, bikes, trucks and people who wanted to kill him everywhere. So far they were staying unrecognised by wearing Leatherneck colours and not stopping their bikes. Ben looked OK in his stolen coat. It was tight across the shoulders but it fit alright. He had his own coat stowed away in the bike. When he took action, it was going to be as a Polecat, not wearing the colours of their killers. Lara had one of those leather peak caps on with her braid stuffed into it and was keeping her jacket zipped up. Luckily she was fairly tall and they had stuffed one of the patrol guy shirts into the shoulders of the coat, so she could pass inspection as a guy at a distance. If anyone saw her up close, though, it would be pretty easy to tell that she was no man. Unfortunately, to really poke around and get some answers, they had to hoof it. He and Lara pulled their bikes into an empty maintenance shed and killed the engines. Making sure the coast was fairly clear, they stepped out into the open. It was hard to stroll around like you belonged there when the moment any one recognised you were toast. "So," Ben said quietly to Lara as they walked along. "Any ideas what this place is yet?" She stopped talking and moved to Ben's side, using him as a blind as they passed a pair of truckers. "Well, it involves shipping chemicals." She said when they were clear. Ben rolled his eyes. Talk about stating the obvious. "Thanks," he said sourly. "I hadn't figured that part out." She shot him a look from beneath the peak of her cap. "You shouldn't be so snappish, Ben. It doesn't become you." He just snorted. "I'll try and get over it" Their walking took them out from the shadow of a storage tank and by a set of large pipes set into the valley wall. "Well," Lara said, "the chemicals come in from those large pipes there." Ben grunted his agreement. "Yeah. Must be from a refinery or factory or something." They turned and started walking towards what looked to be a set of offices. "Does WCC own anything near here?" Lara asked. "This isn't our turf , I'm not sure." Ben squinted his eyes in thought. A Leatherneck in the distance waved to them. Ben waved back. "I think there's a factory or something about fifty miles north of here." "Fifty miles is a lot of pipeline." Lara replied. This is getting us nowhere. "Yeah, well it doesn't really matter where it comes from." Ben said sourly. "It goes into these tanks and onto those trucks." They both looked at the trucks in question, hoping to divine some answer from their presence. "And from there to who knows where." She concluded glumly. "What does shipping chemicals have to do with wiping out gangs?" Ben punched his leg in frustration. "It doesn't make sense!" She slipped her hand into his and gave it a gentle squeeze. To Ben's surprise, it helped. He gave a gentle squeeze back. "It does if you were in the path of where the trucks went." She slipped her hand back before people started wondering if the two bikers were fags. "If they wanted to keep everything mum -and by the looks of this place, they really want it kept secret- then anyone who could see these trucks would have to be hushed up." Ben thought about it for a moment. "Makes sense, I guess." They spotted a group of about ten people coming towards them. They were in a fairly narrow path, and would be found out for sure. Lara pointed towards an open door and they both made for it-casually. Lara tried the door. It was open and they made their way inside quickly, but not too quickly. There was no lock on the inside of the door, so Ben held it shut with his hand. Hopefully anyone checking it would think it was stuck. If not, well as long as they only came in ones and twos, he and Lady Grace could take em out and hopefully no one would be the wiser. Yeah, right. That'll happen the same year Gunny runs for President. They waited in tense silence. Ben locked his eyes with Lara's brown ones and saw that she was ready and waiting. Knowing it was a bad time to think about it, Ben thought about how lucky he was to have Lady Grace with him on this. She was no shrinking violet, that was for sure, and when the shit hit the fan he knew that she could watch his back with the best of them. He gave her a small smile and almost melted when she returned it. Things could be a lot worse, Polecat. A lot worse. The sounds of footsteps against the desert ground filtered through the door and Ben tensed for action. Betsy was too big to carry around off the bike, no other bikers seemed to carry long guns and he didn't want to make waves, so he was toting the Calico pistol he'd ripped off the biker on patrol earlier. He liked Betsy for the stopping power of the 30.30 round as well as the feel of the gun, but there was something to be said for a fifty round mag capacity. He saw Lara pull out the big ass revolver she'd taken and the two nodded. The second anyone tried the door, it was hot lead time. The sounds of footsteps grew closer, and Ben also heard voices talking, though he could not make out what they said. The talking continued and made no sounds of going away. Ben tightened his grip on the Calico and made sure the safety was off. That would be a really sucky way to start a fire fight. Lara had the revolver braced in a two handed grip pointed at the door. Sweat was starting to trickle down into Ben's eyes, and he wished fervently for a third hand to wipe his brow with. The sounds of the voices and footsteps started to recede. Ben relaxed and took a steadying breath. Squeaked through another one. Father Torque must be watching us. He put the Calico back into its oversized holster on his belt but kept his grip on the door handle. "I wonder what's in here," he heard Lara say softly. Ben turned to see her rummaging throughout the room. They seemed to be in a storage room of some sort. There were shelves and crates through out the room, but most of it seemed to be pipe fittings, camo netting, and O rings. Lara, near the back, seemed to find something more interesting. When she came to the door again, she had a wrapped bundle in her hands and an evil smile on her face. "What's that?" She just smiled. "A surprise." Ben glared at her, but she still said nothing, just held the bundle and smiled devilishly. Ben shook his head. Women. They cautiously made their way outside again. "Is there anything to be gained by staying down here any longer?" Lara asked him. "No," Ben concluded after a moment's thought. "We know the odds, we know the placement of things, and basically we know what's going on. Lets get back in the hills and find out where those trucks are going." She nodded and they started their way back to where they had parked their bikes. It'll also give me a chance to ditch this jacket, Ben thought. Wearing this thing is giving me hives. They made their way back slowly and carefully, avoiding detection and groups of people. It was getting harder, though. As the sun sank lower on the horizon, people starting scurrying around with a purpose. Something's happening after sundown. Something big. He and Lara rounded the corner to where the bikes were and saw fifteen bikers with guns out sitting by the door. Ben swore, drew the Calico, and turned to run. There were ten more behind him. Oh, shit. In a split second dilemma that slowed to an eternity Ben faced two not so great choices. Fight or flight. If he fought right now, he'd take out maybe four guys before they cut him to pieces from both sides, but then again maybe not. There were guys both in front and behind him. Being stupid disorganised bikers, they'd set up fields of fire that faced one another. If they opened up on him, they'd probably hit each other too. Still, he might end up taking more with him when he went, but all these guns would still cut him and Lady Grace into hamburger. Lady Grace. Shit. Any fight right now would kill her too. That left flight. If he made a break right now for cover, he might just make it. Also, a lot of the cover here carried possibly flammable chemicals. That might give the Leathernecks pause. Or maybe not. They might just fire, cover me in toxic shit, and even if I survive this my kids will be squids. Hmm. Rock/hard place. Hard place/rock. No decision really. Time sped back up to normal and suddenly Ben was running, running, running for cover as he pulled the trigger of the Calico over and over. He may even have hit someone, he didn't know, but as soon as he started running a truly impressive hail of fire erupted both in front of and behind him. Thank the Spirit of Father Torque, none of them hit him but a lot came close, and he knew that he heard at least one guy go down in the cross fire. Its pretty obvious that Gunny is the only military guy in this whole gang, because they wouldn't be that stupid. He realised in a panic that Lara wasn't with him. Ben scanned the fire zone for a slender, braided corpse and was relieved to find none. With the unique magic that was Lara Croft, she'd somehow managed to jump, flip and shimmy her way into cover without getting hit. Ben grimaced. He could use a bit more of that magic right now. I don't care what kind of magic it is, I'll take whatever I can get. With his back to the wall of a storage vat and with a forest of pipes in front of him, Ben gripped the heavy Calico with both hands. Come on and get me, you bastards. I've got fifty rounds of payback waiting for you. Ben & Lara Chapter Fourteen by Ross Jenkins, c 1998 Chapter XIV-Dead Man's Bluff When Lara saw the group of Leathernecks waiting she knew that the game was up. She didn't know how they had been discovered. Maybe some one had recognised a jacket belonging to the wrong person, perhaps someone had spotted the two motorcycles where they were not meant to be. It didn't really matter, for the end result was the same either way. Urging every ounce of strength from her muscles, Lara sprinted and dove behind a nexus of pipes, bullets chasing her footsteps like a cloud of angry hornets. When she hit the ground, she kept moving, rolling fluidly, seeking something a bit more solid and a wee bit taller before she stopped. After a crazed few seconds, with bullets still landing closer to her than she liked, she managed to climb, roll and dive her way out of the line of fire. Lara quickly pulled off the Leatherneck jacket. It made her sick to wear it and it was too large besides. She was going to need her freedom of movement in the near future, and that jacket was going to trip her up. Panting both with the rush and the exertion, she drew her new heavy steel revolver. She was between a chemical tank and the valley wall, with some sort of retaining barrier at her back. There was only one way in which people could come at her, through the narrow gap between tank and wall. Unfortunately, that also meant that it was the only way for her to get out. With her back to the retaining wall, she held the Python out and waited. Fortunately, she had been able to plant her 'surprise' before all this had happened. Not only would its bulk have been rather debilitating right now, if it happened to get shot...well, the results would have been very unpleasant. And rather messy. She didn't have to wait very long. A biker poked his head around the corner of the tank and Lara removed it with a single trigger pull. The boom of the powerful handgun seemed larger in the confined space and the recoil stung her hands. She smiled. I could get to like this. Hopefully the dead body would deter his companions from venturing around the corner any time soon. Maybe it would be long enough for her to find another way out. Walls and storage tanks were probably enough to contain any other foe the Leathernecks may come across, but Lara Croft was not so easily contained. Sticking the revolver in the back of her belt, she looked up the wall of the storage tank until she found what she was looking for: a lip, about ten feet above the ground. An easy jump compared to some of the ones she had attempted. Gathering her legs beneath her, Lara leapt straight up until her strong fingers gripped the composite surface. She quickly pulled herself up, leaving the ground entirely and soon was on the top of the container. I hope Ben's all right. They had been forced to run in different directions when the fur started to fly, and now all she could do was hope that he had escaped the hail of gunfire. She had told Maury that she intended to watch his back, but circumstances had made that impossible. Well, better late than never. From her new vantage point, she had almost a complete view of the area, including the junction where the first shootout had taken place. Lara gasped. There were three bodies bleeding on the ground, and they all wore Leatherneck colours. She examined them a well as she could, then breathed a sigh of relief. One was blonde, another dark haired one was far too skinny, and the third had a beard. None of them were Ben. She heard a flurry of pistol fire coming from behind a group of pipes. Lara smiled. Give'em hell, Polecat. "Hey, there she is!" yelled a voice below her. She looked to her left and saw a biker pointing up to her position. His two companions followed his finger to her and then lifted their weapons. In the time it had taken them to do that, Lara had already drawn her Brownings and began to lay fire down upon their position. She hit the one that had spotted her, and winged one of his friends before the others fire forced her back from the edge. She holstered her guns and looked for a way off of this container. There was really only one: down. She had the advantage of surprise for now, but sooner or later they would have her treed like a cat. It was not an acceptable option. Lara made a running jump across the top of the chemical reservoir and flew into space. The next container was easily thirty feet away, too far for even her to jump, but that wasn't Lara's target. There was a pipe in the air between the two platforms and that was what Lara aimed for. She caught it with both hands and, remembering her gymnastics lessons from when she was a teenager, swung herself around and pulled her feet up to the bar. Just as the bikers below began to fire on her, Lara pushed off from the bar with her entire body, stretching it as far as she could, using every extra inch that her training and stretching gave her to... got it! Her fingers found purchase on the edge of the cylindrical container and she quickly pulled herself over the edge and out of harms way. Quickly rolling in place, Lara drew her pistols and managed to get one shot off, winging a Leatherneck, before she ducked back. Below, the gunfire from what she assumed was Ben's position continued unabated. She smiled. As long as there was shooting, he was alive, and as long as he was alive, there was still the possibility that they would both get out of this OK. She caught motion from the corner of her eye and saw someone trying to climb onto the platform she was hiding. After making sure that it wasn't Ben, she fired one quick shot into his head and dropped him. Lara scanned the terrain from the top of the platform. She had several places to jump, duck and hide, and plenty of ammunition. As long as the Leathernecks kept charging her like testosterone charged lemmings, she would be alright, but once Gunny or another biker started giving decisive leadership, the jig would be up. I suppose the challenge is to see just how many lemmings I can force off the cliff before that happens. She slapped fresh magazines into her guns and grinned ferally. It was time to see who was hunting whom. * * * Life for Ben was the smell of cordite, empty shell casings and the sound of 9mm gunfire. Seven dead or injured bodies lay before him, but the seemingly bottomless magazine on the Calico had finally gone dry. By some miracle -or maybe just Ben's fierce desire to come out of this thing in one piece- he was mostly uninjured. He had blood trickling down his arm from a nick on his shoulder, and a matching graze on his left leg to match the one he had received on his right yesterday escaping from Fulsome. Still, he was a damn sight better than the blood soaked corpses laying before him. It was make or break time. Sooner or later they were either going to storm his hidey hole, or some guy was going to chuck in a grenade and ruin his day. Having no ammo made his need to get the hell out of Dodge even bigger. Ben looked around urgently, trying to find someway, any way out of this alcove that didn't involve charging down the guns of a dozen pissed off bikers. He spotted a grate set below the pipes. He tried to lift it, but it was locked down. He pulled his trusty tire iron out of his borrowed coat and pried the thing open. Like I told Lady Grace, don't leave home without it. With a quick glance to see if any Leathernecks were coming, he shimmied into the crawl space and pulled the grate shut behind him. He had at most a minute before they figured out where he was and posted look outs at all the exits to this tunnel. Ben took off in a half stoop/half run, wishing like hell he had a gun with bullets in it. The first grate he came to had a padlock, but one swift kick took care of that problem. He felt a slight twinge from the gunshot in his leg, but did his best to ignore it. A line from an ancient action movie he had seen as a kid came to mind: I ain't got time to bleed. Ben got to his feet and looked around, trying to get his bearings. So far so good. He could hear gunfire about thirty meters from his position, pistol, double shots. He smiled. It had to be Lara. For the moment, no one who saw him seemed to recognise him. It was the jacket, he realised. He was still wearing Leatherneck colours, and no one could tell who he was, yet. Straightening up and trying to act like a biker, Ben did his best to run around like a chicken with his head cut off like everyone else. "Form up by squads!" yelled a booming voice to Ben's right. He looked over to see a guy who positively reeked Career Military, probably a sergeant. He was black and wasn't that tall, but his head was shaved like a bullet and he was built like a brick. He had a cigar clamped in his mouth and was bellowing orders. Every biker in sight stopped and listened to the guy. "Killer squad, that bitch is on the south end. Keep her boxed in, and get word to me when she'd contained!" He devoured about an inch of his cigar and glared at a biker. "Move your ass!" Well, Ben knew where he was going next: the south end. Killer squad my ass. "Death squad!" the sergeant bellowed. "Polecat's gone in the tunnel system somewhere." He raked his gaze across the bikers standing near. "He could be anywhere. Move out by fists and do not split up." He began giving out directions. "Turner. Take your boys, make sure he doesn't get to our bikes like he did in Fulsome!" Four bikers took off at a run across the compound. "Second fist, watch the crawlspace entrance near the seventh and eighth reservoirs. Third, take the other end and keep your eyes peeled." More bikers took off at a run, leaving Ben with less bikers to hide behind. He really didn't like sitting around in plain sight like this, but didn't know how to get out of it. "Fourth fist. Go back to Ebb & Charley's bikes and make sure he doesn't double back." He pointed a warning finger at the remaining bikers. "Check your fire zones this time. Any man gets in any other guys line of fire and I'll personally rip his head off and shit down his throat!" Yup, definitely a sergeant. "Fifth fist, your with me. We're gonna hunt this asshole down." Hmm. That didn't sound very good, but Ben knew where they all were stationed. It was going to make avoiding them easier. All he had to do now was get out of here unnoticed. "You, biker!" Ben jumped. The sarge was talking to him. He met his eyes with a mix of fear and belligerence. "Yeah, what?" Ben tried to find a way out in case the shit hit the fan, but he couldn't find one that could get him under cover before the rest of the bikers here filled him with holes. "What fist are you with?" Ben could see the guys jaw bunch. Ben picked a number out of the air. "Third." His tone said 'wanna make something of it?' "Then MOVE, asshole!" The sarge extended a fat finger in the direction where the third fist had gone. "What are you waiting for, a chauffeur ride?" Conditioned reflex thought long erased compelled Ben to run where the guy pointed. He still hadn't been found out, which meant that he and Lady Grace still had a chance. As soon as he was clear of where the sarge was, he planned to duck out of the way then go help out Lady Grace. Something made him look back, though, and he saw the big black asshole watching him. Damn. I can't cut and run while this guy's eyeing me. He trotted up to a group of bikers that he thought was the third fist. Maybe I can convince them not to kill me. "Who the fuck are you?" asked a wiry guy with a purple mohawk. Hmm. Maybe not. Ben had always been a rotten liar, but he gave it a go anyway. "I'm a runner from the first fist. We saw the guy heading towards here. Your supposed to be on your guard." A Chicano with a goatee squinted at Ben, examining him. "You ain't with Turner's fist." His eyes widened in recognition. "Hey, your-" Ben smashed him backhanded across the jaw with the barrel of the Calico. Boring conversation anyway. The other bikers were stunned for the moment, and Ben used the opportunity to barrel into Mohawk. If he was all tangled up with the guy, hopefully they wouldn't shoot. The two of them slammed into the ground, Ben making sure his shoulder was in Mohawk's gut. The guys gasped out and fought for breath as Ben drove his fist into the guy's chin. He heard a gun being cocked and dove to the side. A string of automatic fire stitched the ground over Ben's head. Oh, shit. I'm in for it now. He threw the empty Calico at the guy, hoping against hope for a lucky hit. No dice. The guy's gun jammed. Ben heard the fire die off abruptly and the guy's angry curse. He turned and looked behind him and saw the Leatherneck fighting with the action on his machine pistol. There were two more guys around here somewhere, but Ben couldn't get a tag on them right now. He scrambled to his feet, looking both left and right for the guys before they could blind side him. He wasn't fast enough. Ben was about to jump the guy with the jammed gun when he got whacked from behind. Another of the bikers in Third Fist, Death Squad brought the butt of his pistol down on Ben's collar bone and Ben grunted in pain at the hit. It was a tough blow, but he was tough biker too, and it didn't take him out the way the guy probably expected him to. It slowed Ben down, but still managed to slap down the jammed machine pistol of the guy he was going for and slug him in the chin. A hand grabbed Ben's shoulder and spun him around. Ben tried to get his hands up to block, but couldn't do it before a big scarred fist smashed into his face. Ben staggered back, seeing stars, and tripped over the guy he had just slugged and knocked down. By fortune or coincidence, the jammed machine pistol was right below his hand. The biker who had just decked Ben stepped in for a kick. His foot was still raised, getting ready to kick Ben's balls for a thirty yard field goal when Ben grabbed the pistol, cleared the jam, and held down the trigger. A spray of bullets caught the guy in the head, legs and torso, and he jerked around like a bloody marionette on drugs. Ben kept hosing him down until he fell, then turned to find the last biker. He heard a flurry of gunshots and Ben felt a searing pain in his gun arm. He cried out in pain and dropped the machine pistol. He rolled over and tried to get to his feet when a kick to his jaw took him right out. His face exploded in a white blast of pain and all Ben could do was fall face first on the ground. He tasted blood in his mouth and knew he had lost at least one tooth from when his jaws had smashed together. They can't take out a Polecat that easy. He got his hands under him and tried to pull himself off the ground when he felt another kick, this time in his ribs. He gasped at the pain and fell as another kick laced into his guts. "Don't kill him!" Ben heard through his haze of pain. "Gunny wants to finish this one off himself." Oh, great. I bet that will be a lot of fun. "Besides," the voice continued. It was the sergeant, Ben realised. "We can probably use him to lure the Croft chick out." No way, thought Ben. I'll die first. "But Apone," another voice, the guy who had been kicking him protested. "He just killed knocked out Hoight and Lefty, and shot up Swann, too." 'You wanna tell Gunny when he gets here that it your fault that Polecat didn't make it?" The threat of Gunny's displeasure seemed to be enough to shut the guy up. "Good," Apone continued. "Now pick that asshole up and bring him with me." Two pairs of hands grabbed Ben by his armpits and lifted him to his feet. Ben was too out of it to fight it. "Lets go catch us a bitch." * * * Run, shoot, jump, then run some more. Lara had been doing all right for herself, all things considered. At least four more Leathernecks killed, with probably that same number wounded. For about ten minutes, the bikers had been going about in disorganised ones and two, and taking them out was almost too easy. She could sneak up either behind them or from above them and they were dead almost before they knew they were under attack. However, all that had changed. Until then, she had been hunting them, now she was the one being hunted. They were travelling in larger groups, watching all around them and covering each other. Also, they were systematically driving towards the south end of the complex where, presumably, more bikers were waiting in ambush to shoot her like a dog. Herd me like a lamb to the slaughter? Sorry, sport, I'm not playing that game. At least there were no innocents in the line of fire. All of the support staff had hidden themselves in various buildings and sheds, and the truckers seemed to have retreated to the armour plated sleepers in their rigs. In this compound, of course, the term 'innocent' was relative. Surely all the men here knew they were involved in an illegal operation. The camouflage on the trucks, the covert nature of this entire thing, not to mention the army of armed bikers were all signs that things were not on the up and up. Innocent maybe didn't apply, but perhaps 'non combatant' did. Lara was not a big fan of killing people, she never had been. However, life had shown her that not everyone had the same compunctions. If anyone had the intention of causing her harm, Lara was more than willing to cause them harm first, but if they didn't, she was also able to live and let live. If the truckers and loaders were sitting this fight out, then Lara was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they didn't want her dead. She had more than enough people trying to kill her without adding to the pot. Currently she was crouched on a quartet of pipes about twelve feet off the ground, watching a quintet of bikers slowly go beneath her. She was wearing mostly black and was firmly in the shadow of the tank the pipes were attached to and had few worries about being seen. You can look around for me as long as you want, but I can hide up here and avoid you all day, thank you very much. Avoiding their ambush was one thing, but she was getting worried about Ben. There had been almost no noise from the other end of the compound for the last five minutes. That meant that Ben had either escaped, was hiding somewhere, or, more likely, had been captured or killed. More likely perhaps, but certainly not what she was hoping for. Hopefully his lust for revenge had not got the best of him. Even if he took a number with him to his grave, Ben would still be dead and that did Lara or himself no good. Silently, she waited until the Leathernecks below her had moved on, then climbed up onto the top of the reservoir. Tiger crawling along its top, she made her way north, back to where she had last seen Ben. The crunch of her knees and elbows against the infrared shielding spray rock on the top of the structure was the only sound she made. She peered cautiously over the edge to the grounds below. The coast was clear. There was a wire of some sort hanging between the tank she was on and the one adjacent to it, about thirty feet off. Lara gritted her teeth. Yes, she was agile and had a good sense of balance, but she wasn't a bloody circus high wire artist. Still, if there's no other way... Lara firmly clamped her tongue between the teeth on the left side of her mouth and with arms extended to her side, put first one foot and then the other on the power cable. This isn't so bad. She was doing all right. Ten feet out across the way, and not so much as a slip. I wonder how many high wire artists carry guns, though? She continued to put one foot in front of the other, trying not to rush herself or do something stupid. It wasn't like the fall would kill her or anything, it was just twenty feet. She'd fallen from higher and come out with no more than a sprained ankle, but she did not want to be stuck lame on the ground in her present circumstances. Her only asset right now was that she held the high ground. It gave her cover and manoeuvrability that the bikers just couldn't hope to match. Ten more feet now... "Hey, there she is!" A gunshot rang out to punctuate Lara's urgency and precariousness. She swore. Of all the places to be caught with my knickers down. She was only eight feet away from the edge. Surely she could jump that. More gun shots rang out, one whistling past Lara's ear. That was too bloody close. They were going to hit her in the next few seconds, and all she was doing was walking calmly in a straight line twenty feet in the air. Six feet now. She couldn't hold out any longer. Lara sprung forward with a cry, pushing off of the power line with all the strength in her legs. The line shifted under her, absorbing most of the force of her jump and throwing her off balance. Lara found herself falling short of the mark. More gunshots rang out, flying through the air she had just only just vacated, and Lara stretched out with her fingers, trying to find some sort of grip on the wire, the edge of the of the chemical tank, anything. Her left hand caught the lip of the storage tank and she gripped it like a vice. A bullet slammed into the container not even an inch from her face, and shards of metal dug into her face like hot stinging needles. She clenched her teeth and swore under her breath while she grabbed onto the edge with her other hand and pulled herself up. Once over the edge, she lay on her back for a moment and breathed in with big sucking gasps. So much for sneaking around. All thoughts of stealth were now gone right out the window. A year ago, this would have made her excited and exhilarated, having cheated death one more time, but right now she was just scared for her life and more, for Ben's. She had to find him. Over the sounds of gunfire behind her, she heard the revving of motorcycle engines. Not just the sounds of powering the machines up, but running the rpm as high as they could go and maintaining it. In her experience, it was either done in challenge, like at a drag race, or in celebration, much like firing a pistol in the air. Somehow, she felt this was the latter. Lara dragged herself to her feet and began to run along the top of the tank she was on. She had to get to where those bikes were. It had to do with Ben, somehow she knew it. By going straight across the diameter of the tank, she knew that she could outrun the chaps who had to go all the way around the damned thing. Maybe that way she could get to Ben and free him -or do whatever it was that needed doing- before any reinforcements arrived. It was rather anorexic as far as plans went, but it was all she had to work with right now. The edge of the tank came up and Lara leapt off into space. She spread her arms out as in flight and for a brief moment it was almost as if she was flying, the air flowing past her, the sensation of weightlessness in her stomach, and then she came to the next tank and caught its lip with both hands and quickly pulled herself up before anyone spotted or shot at her. She pulled herself to her feet and continued to run, her lungs beginning to burn, trying to get to where she somehow knew Ben was in trouble. Lara came to a stop at the edge of the cylinder. The sound of revving bikes was just below her, and now she could see what they were up to. There were four bikes, each with a chain or rope attached to their back fender. Attached to the other end of each chain was either a hand or foot of Ben Polecat. The riders were running their rpm up and occasionally popping in the clutch, making their bikes jerk forward, each time coming closer in their attempts to draw and quarter Ben. Ben looked beat up. They had stripped off his stolen coat and she saw blood stains cover his body. Some of it probably belonged to his opponents, but most of it was probably his. His face was black and blue and Lara winced when she saw it. He was bleary and semi conscious. At least all of his limbs were still attached to him, which in his current circumstances was a very good thing. There were about eight bikers standing around watching and laughing at his predicament. Each time a bike jerked and pulled at Ben, they cheered and punched their fists in the air. One of them, Lara saw, was surely their leader. He was Negro and bald, with military bearing and a cigar sticking out of his mouth. Lara looked at the scene at a bit of a loss. She could hit one or probably even two of the riders, but if she did that than the others would drive off and leave Ben minus a few limbs, if not ripped entirely in half. Besides that, there were eight more people there with guns who would either finish Ben off or just shoot her. Bother. An open firefight was not going to work. Lara smiled. She still had a plan up her sleeve. Of course, right now she didn't have any sleeves, but that wasn't important. She had to get their attention, and she knew just the way to do it. With a tight grin, she drew the .357 Colt Python. The gun had a louder report than her Brownings and was much more accurate besides. Bracing it in a two handed grip, Lara took aim and fired one careful shot. The Negro commander's cigar ceased to exist as the magnum bullet ripped through it and impacted in the ground. An inch to the left, and it would have been his face. He jumped back in surprise and reached for his holstered pistol. The gunshot galvanised the bikers into action and they all either ran for cover, drew a gun or both. The commander looked around until he saw Lara, standing against the edge of the chemical tank, the steel plated revolver pointed at his head. Within two seconds, every gun in sight was pointed at Lara, and her common sense screamed at her to take cover and run for her life. Lara ignored it. She hadn't paid attention to her common sense in years. There was a tense moment of silence. Finally the commander grinned and dropped his gun. He pulled a fresh cigar out of his chest pocket and lit it. "I was wondering if you were gonna show up." He called up to Lara as he began to pull contentedly. Lara was not in the mood for small talk. "I want you to untie him right now." The Python was held rock steady aimed between his eyes. The commander didn't seem intimidated by his situation. "You ain't in no position to make demands, missy." He gestured at her with his cigar held between two fingers. "There's one of you and twelve of us." He pointed out. His voice became ugly and cold. "Even if you get away from this, there's no way you're leaving this valley alive, and we've got your boyfriend here right where we want him." He was right on all counts. She was severely outnumbered, and her tactical situation was poor. They had Ben, though, and that told her to screw the odds. "Perhaps," she said evenly. "Perhaps, hell." He snapped. "If you don't come down from there right now, we're going to fill your sweet body with so much lead they're gonna think you're a pencil." The various bikers pointing guns at her seemed to relish the prospect. "No, you're not." She snapped. Lara was to angry and worried over Ben to be intimidated. "You're going to untie Ben and back away slowly." She cocked back the hammer on her revolver. He just laughed. Not a chuckle, but a deep belly laugh that got the other bikers laughing as well. "And why would I be doing that?" he asked Lara between laughs. "If you shoot me then my boys here are gonna kill your ass." Lara wasn't amused. "I'll tell you why not," she said crossly. "I've planted a bomb." There was a moment of stunned silence. "You've what?" The commander asked incredulously. Lara gave a tight smile. The revolver didn't shake by as much as an iota. "Somewhere in this valley, where it will do a great deal of damage." He gave Lara a scrutinising look. "You're bluffing, honey." He said after a moment. Lara looked straight into his eyes. "I never bluff." She saw a glimmer of uncertainly in his eyes. "Yeah? And where did you get your hands on a bomb?" "In your storage shed." Lara spoke quietly and evenly. "A standard demolition charge. One kilogram of commercial grade plastic explosive." He grimaced when she said what and how much her bomb was. "Its on a two hour timer." She seemed to have their complete attention. Lara continued speaking. "This place," her gesture took in the entire valley, "seems to be made for secrecy. It's camouflaged and thermally insulated to be invisible to satellites. I rather think that if this place goes up in a fiery explosion that Mister Williams and WCC will be rather displeased." The commander glowered at her. "What do you want?" He asked quietly. "Untie Ben." Lara said simply. "Give us both a pair of bikes and let us go. I tell you where the bomb is." "No deal." "Then we all stand here." Lara shrugged. "You die. This place turns into a fireball and everyone loses." "I got a better idea." He grinned and took a drag on his cigar. "You give your gun to the guys behind you." As he said this, Lara heard a footstep behind her and spun around. A rifle butt smashed into her kidney and Lara fell to her knees, immobilised with pain. Below her, the commander kept talking. "I tie you up and we find out if there s a bomb. Sound good to you, honey?" She writhed on the ground and clutched at her back. Through her pain she felt hands removing her guns from her holsters and grabbing her by her arms. She tried to twist free, but was to stunned to make a decent go of it. She'd been captured. Bloody hell. Ben & Lara Chapter Fifteen by Ross Jenkins, c 1998 Chapter XV-Touchy Feely Crap Ben slowly and painfully came to his senses. He never really lost consciousness, but he'd been in so much pain that for the longest time it was all he could concentrate on. Only now that people had stopped beating him, racking him and tearing him apart with motorbikes -again- did he slowly regain his powers of thought. "Ben?" It was Lady Grace. Ben didn't bother answering, just groaned and opened his eyes. He was laying on the ground chained to a bar by his wrists. His whole body hurt. "Ben, are you all right?" He looked over with bleary eyes to see Lara chained up just like he was about three feet away. She had a shiner and looked like she'd been in a scrap. "Ben how do you feel?" "Taller." He replied sourly. He sat up painfully and leaned back against the forest of pipes. His joints ached from being spread eagled like that and his arm hurt like a son of a bitch from being shot. He flexed his hand experimentally. He had full strength and mobility; must have been a clean shot, right through the meat. Clenching his teeth against the pain, he glanced around and took in the scene. They were in some sort of room, made for servicing the pipes that they were currently chained to. "Looks like we're pretty screwed." "Perhaps." Ben turned to face her and glared. "What do you know that I don't? She gave him a Mona Lisa smile. "A great deal, really," her voice was mischievous, "but most of it deals with ancient cultures, global affairs, or etiquette." "Cute." Ben rolled his eyes. "What do you know about our situation?" he clarified. She pointed with her eyes and head towards the closed door. "I'd rather not say. We may have eavesdroppers." He grunted. She knew something, that was for sure. If only she could tell him what it was. "Great. So we just sit here and wait for some Leatherneck to come kill us?" She gave her head a slight shake. "Not a Leatherneck. The Leatherneck." Her lips tightened. "I overheard someone say that Gunny was on his way here with Mr. Williams." "Oh, perfect." Just when you think things can't get any worse.... "Don't worry, Ben." Lara reassured him. "We'll be fine." He shot her a look that said 'don't feed me any bullshit'. "While you're living in your private little world," he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "do me a favour and get me a cheeseburger." He settled against the post and closed his eyes. They were quiet for a moment, listening to the sounds of various bikers and truckers going about their business outside. After a while Lara spoke up, her voice quiet. "I have no regrets, you know." Ben didn't even open his eyes. "Hmm?" "Coming here. Being with you." Ben opened his eyes and looked at Lara. She was gazing at him with a mixture of sadness and sincerity. Like always, the moment he met her eyes he was lost. "I have no regrets." "What are you, on crack?" As soon as he said it he regretted it. "Don't be vulgar." She flared with hurt anger. "Here I am, pouring out my heart to you. The least you could do was listen." She was right. "Sorry." He said gruffly. "I'm not into all this touchy feely crap." That made her smile. "I've noticed." She looked at him fondly for a moment. "Do you?" Huh? She was changing tracks in this conversation faster than he could keep up. "Do I what?" "Have any regrets? About me? Or what's happened." Ben deliberately misunderstood. "Do I have any complaints about what's happened here?" He snorted. "Don't get me started." She wasn't letting him off that easily. "That's not what I meant." He sighed. "I know." He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. Dammit, didn't she know how hard it was for him to talk about things like this? It had been hard enough for him to thank Mo for getting him into Fulsome. When he tried to speak the second time, it was harder, but he did it. "Lara, meeting you is the best thing that's happened to me in years." He looked away. "I only..." She smiled encouragingly. "You only what?" Ben let out a pent up breath. "I wish I'd met you before all this happened." He tried to gesture with his hand, but the chains got in his way. "Every time I look back at how we met I'm gonna think about Gunny, Torque and the Polecats." He gave a sad smile and a shrug. " I can't think about you without thinking about them." Her eyes were filled with sympathy. "Ben, I'm sorry." He snorted, trying to change the mood. "Don't get your panty hose in a knot," he growled. She didn't rise to the bait. "Ben, I know its hard to say but I...." ...love you. It was written in her face and she didn't even have to say the words. It was just as well, because at that moment the door slammed open, startling them both. The incredibly large and imposing form of Gunny burst into the room. He monstrously huge, and was wearing a olive green T-shirt that was too small for his frame. It only made Gunny's massive strength even more evident. He wore a set of desert camo fatigue pants and combat boots. A knife that was more of a short sword was on his belt, as well as the largest handgun Ben had ever seen. Behind him, almost totally eclipsed by Gunny's bulk and presence, was the man Ben recognised from the Rebar. Williams. "Well ain't this a pretty sight." Gunny said in a voice like shredded steel. "Am I interrupting you two love birds?" he asked with a leer. "Can I get you two a room?" With Ben chained to the floor, Gunny looming over him seemed even larger then he had before. Ben glared at the large biker and was filled with sudden rage, the pain in his body forgotten. This is the bastard who killed Father Torque. "Gunny, this is your last chance," he said in a voice thick with hatred. "Free us or die." Ben's tone almost gave him pause. Almost. Instead, he gave out a sharp laugh. "Ha! Not in this lifetime." Ben's eyes bored through his thick crew cutted skull. "You know I'm gonna kill you." Gunny just put his arms across his massive chest and looked down at Ben. "Not chained to that wall you aren't." He sounded so smug, and Ben wanted to kill him all the more. Ben jerked against his bonds, trying to stand, to get his fingers on even one part of the bastard. "So unchain me." He taunted. "We'll see who's the tougher biker." Gunny didn't fall for it. "I don't think so. " Lara interrupted then, her cool voice cutting through the tension. "What's all this about? What is the Pipeline?" The ex-gunnery sergeant looked at Lara and cackled. "Oh, I forgot. This is the part where I reveal my sinister plot, right?" He wagged a massive finger at her and chuckled. "Then I leave you two in some weird fucked up death trap, and wait for you to escape." His face turned red with anger. He drew the gun, which had the distinctive triangular barrel of an IMI Desert Eagle Magnum. "Well, you can forget it." He yelled. The room shook with the power of his bellowing voice. "I ain't gonna tell you shit, and in about five seconds I'm gonna blow both your fucking heads off." He pointed the gun right at Lara's head. Ben jerked towards Gunny, trying to stop him or do anything, but was caught by his chains. Ben was both furious and frantic. He couldn't imagine a worse fate then having to sit here helpless and watch Lady Grace be killed. Lara, with a calmness that amazed Ben, just shrugged. "You can't blame a girl for trying." She said it as if she were ordering a soda. Forgotten behind Gunny, Williams spoke up. "What about the bomb?" He sounded nervous. For five seconds Gunny stood there, the barrel of his gun aimed al Lara's forehead. Veins were popping out of his forearm he was gripping the gun so hard. His eyes were wild and Ben was sure that he was going to pull the trigger. He wanted to look away, but was unable. Lara looked calmly into the man's eyes. "Fuck." Gunny turned away abruptly and lowered his gun. Ben was too stunned to do anything. It had come so close... "The bomb." The head of the Leathernecks thought for a moment, then whirled back to Lara. "OK, Croft. Here's what's happening." He brought the pistol back up to bear, but this time on Ben. Ben just stared up the gun's barrel, entranced, following the rifling patterns with his eyes. "You tell me where the bomb is or I give your boy toy here a third eye. How's that sound?" "If you shoot Ben then I tell you nothing." Her voice was cold. "And in one hour we all die." Gunny just snorted and kept the gun trained on Ben's head. "You're full of shit, lady." There was maybe a hint of doubt in his voice. "Perhaps." Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw Lara give a small shrug and a tight smile. "Can you take that chance?" Gunny grinned wolfishly. "You bet." Ben watched with infinite slowness as Gunny's finger tightened on the trigger. Like Lady Grace said. No regrets. He waited quietly to die. "NO!" Williams stepped in front of Gunny and tried to force his weapon arm down. The smaller man could have jumped up and down on the ex-marine's arm for all the good he did. "Gunny!" He stared the big man in the face. "We can't kill either of them until this bomb is found." Gunny didn't move the gun, but looked at Williams standing before him. "There is no fucking bomb." He growled. "She's yanking our chains." Williams shook his head emphatically. "I can't take that chance. I've invested far to much in this to blow it now." Gunny shoved the smaller man aside like a rag doll. "You put me in charge of this, Williams," he accused. His free hand wagged a finger in Williams' face. "Trust me. There's no fucking bomb." Williams remained unconvinced. "She said we have one hour. Keep her alive until then and start to look for it." Lara chose that moment to add her own two cents to the conversation. "Even if you'll find it." She said coolly, "You'll need me to defuse it." Gunny snorted and gave Lara a condescending look. "I can undo any bomb a limey bitch like you comes up with." She kept her cool. "Really?" She met Gunny's wild gaze with her own. The big man stared back in a contest of wills. Ben knew Lara was the most stubborn woman o the planet, but she was trying to stare down the man who had murdered Torque and slit Big Willie's throat in cold blood. I give Lady Grace 3/2 odds. Williams stepped between the two of them, cutting off their visual duel. "Why are we sitting here arguing about this, Jordan?" He asked. Gunny grew incensed at the mention of what Ben assumed was his real name. The huge biker whirled on his employer. "Gunny!" He shouted in the man's face. "Its Gunny!" Williams just stood there for a moment, obviously shaken and stunned by the sudden confrontation. "You are still my employee." His voice was thin and shaky, but he did stand up to the big biker. Ben had to reluctantly admire the guy. He seemed to have some balls. "Gunny." Williams's voice strengthened. "We keep them alive." Gunny seemed taken aback for a moment, then grinned. "You're just to much of a fucking wimp to take em out your self." Williams blinked at the change of subject. "No, I'm just protecting all of our interests." He glanced quickly at his watch. "Our blackout window from here to the border is in two hours." He looked Gunny briefly in the eyes before looking away. "We can't afford any delays." Gunny reached out and grabbed the guy's wrist. He pressed the Desert Eagle into William's hand. "Here's my gun." He pulled the dark haired man's arm and aimed towards Lara. "Do it right now. Put it right up to her fucking head and pull the trigger." Just like before, Lara stared down the barrel of the weapon like she was waiting for tea and crumpets. Williams tried to jerk his arm away but couldn't escape Gunny's grip. "What? I-What are you doing?" It came out as a squeak. "She' can't dodge. Gunny growled quietly. Quietly for Gunny, anyway. "Do it. Blow her head off. Do it. It's better than sex." Ben looked at Gunny with revulsion. Just when you thought you couldn't hate a man any more... The Vice President and Heir Apparent of Williams Consolidated Chemical braced with his whole body and managed to get his hand out of Gunny's vice-like grip. "You are insane." He looked aghast at the huge man. "We need her to tell us where the bomb is." "There is no fucking bomb!" Gunny yelled. He turned his back on Williams in disgust. "And you're a god damned wimp." Williams face turned purple in embarrassment and rage. "That's enough!" He turned to Lara and tried to speak in a calmer tone of voice. "Miss, would you be so kind as to tell me where you planted the bomb." She responded with a cold voice. "Not until you release both of us and escort us to the compound's edge." With a roar of frustration, Gunny smashed his massive fist into the wall. It went straight through. "That's fucking it!" He yelled. "We keep them alive just in case, and in the mean time we'll find out if this fucking bomb exists." "It does," Lara informed him. He whirled to face her. "Shut up!" He bent down and crouched in front of Lara. Their faces were maybe three inches apart. "You've got one more hour to fuck like bunnies and then I'm gonna come in here and personally shoot your fucking head off." Ben could see flecks of spittle spraying onto her face. Gunny got to his feet explosively and turned to leave. "It's a date then." Lara said calmly as she wiped her face. "I'll mark it in my calendar." "Fucking slut." Gunny muttered as he and Williams walked out the door. "Charmed as always." Lara said to his retreating back. The door slammed shut so hard it nearly jumped off its hinges. After the two of them left the silence was deafening. Ben let out a rattling breath. He had really thought that Lady Grace had bought it. After a few minutes, he had collected himself enough to speak. He looked over at Lara. She was sitting cross legged on the floor, her back to the pipes. "I still don't know if you're lucky or insane." He said to her. She looked over at Ben and smiled. "I'd like to think that I make my own luck." Ben still didn't know if he was angry at her for goading Gunny, or just relieved that they were still alive, for another hour at least. "He was this close to taking your head off." Ben held his fingers about an inch apart. "I knew he wouldn't do it." Lara said calmly. Ben just shook his head. "How?" "I just knew." She looked over at him thoughtfully, her head angled a bit. "He couldn't risk it. Not with that bomb out there." "So there is a bomb?" "Of course." She looked at him like he had just asked a really dumb question. "I never bluff." Hmm. "I'll have to remember that." Lara uncoiled herself and braced both legs against the wall behind her. She looped her chain tightly against the steel bar that held them both and braced herself. "Unless my timing is off, we have about one minute." Ben just looked at her strangely. "One minute until what?" "Until we escape." She said simply. All that shouting with Gunny must have knocked loose some brain cells. "How do you plan to do that?" She began testing the bar for weak points. "The two of us working together should be able to pull this pipe out of the wall." She motioned for him to take the same pose. Ben was still slow on the uptake. "Huh?" She rolled her eyes. "We probably could have done it earlier, but it would have made far too much noise." Ben shrugged and braced himself to pull against the pipes. "So what's happening?" Lara waited expectantly for something to happen. About four seconds later Ben heard a large explosion outside. Beside him Lara smiled. "That." At his amazed look, she explained. "I set the timer for one hour, not two." Ben just sat there, dumbfounded. "Your amazing," was all he managed to say. She gave him a dazzling smile. "You're not so bad yourself." She turned back to the wall and began to heave. "Now brace yourself and pull." * * * The bomb trick had worked beyond her wildest expectations. Finding it on that storage shelf, with a timer and everything, had been stroke of luck. She certainly hadn't been planning to use it in this fashion, but you couldn't argue with results. Pulling the pipe out of the wall was a noisy and messy affair, but in short order she and Ben were free. They still had about eighteen inches of chain apiece shackled to their wrists, but they could solve that problem later. "Come on, lets go." Ben led them out of their little room. They were covered in concrete dust and sweat from trying to pull free. He limped as they left the room. Lara was worried about him. He'd been beat pretty badly by the Leathernecks and had been shot through the arm besides. He was a walking wound, although his rage and determination was making him go on for now. Once they got out of here -and they were going to make it out- she would have to see to dressing his wounds, because god knew the man would never do it himself. The sun had set over the horizon, but there was still plenty of light to see. Lara's little surprise had ignited the petrol reservoir for all the trucks, and it was burning merrily. There were bikers, truckers, and service personnel running around trying to put it out. People were sealing off tanks and driving trucks out of the danger zone, creating blocked traffic and general insanity. It was wonderful. "We should be able to get out of here no problem." Ben turned and gave her a look. His face looked tired, though his eyes burned with feverish intensity. "We can't leave now. We've got them on the run!" He gave a look at the mayhem. "Let's go kick some ass." Lara gripped his wrists. "Ben, we're wounded and unarmed." She stared into his eyes, trying to make him see reason. As always, it was a losing battle. "It won't take them long to get that under control and regroup." By the stubborn set of his jaw she could tell she was making no headway. Lara set her jaw as well. Two can play the stubborn game. "We don't have any more tricks up our sleeve," she said firmly, willing Ben to come around. "If we stay here, we will die. We have to fall back, lick our wounds." Again, no progress. Lara tried her trump card. "I'm not going to stay here and watch you die, not after everything we've been through. I'm leaving with or without you." She saw indecision warring on Ben's face, but before she could persuade him further, she saw a pair of bikers running towards them. "Shit, Gunny was right. They're escaping!" They approached, guns drawn. Lara bit her lip. While those two had their weapons out, there wasn't much she could do. Beside her, she saw Ben groan and go down on one knee. I hope he's faking it, and not really succumbing to his wounds. "Ben?" Lara asked, trying to keep him upright. He continued to sag. "You have to help him!" Lara said to the bikers, who were looking a bit confused right now. "He's been shot." One of the bikers, the dumber one, came close to Ben. "I ain't gonna help this bastard. He killed Swann." He reared back to kick Ben. With a roar, Ben lashed out, holding his chain in his hands and wielding it like a cudgel. It smashed into the biker's gun hand, breaking the guy's arm and sending the pistol crashing to the ground. While the Leatherneck stood stunned in pain and surprise, Ben brought his chains across the man's face. The biker collapsed like a rag doll. Lara dove for the fallen gun, rolling with it in her hands and coming up in a two handed firing stance. The second biker, who had wisely stayed back out of hand to hand range, was bringing his gun to bear on Ben. We can't have that. Lara put three bullets through his centre of mass. Lara smoothly got to her feet. "Ben, this is our once chance to get out of here. We have to leave NOW." Ben grunted noncommittally and held the chain away from his one wrist. "Maybe your right. Get this damn chain off me, will ya?" Lara blinked. Ben conceding a point? He must be hurt more than she thought. She brought the pistol -some 10mm automatic- up to Ben's bonds and pulled the trigger. They were unshackled in a few more moments, and both armed. Lara realised with a frown that she had lost her Brownings, and her new Python as well. Well, easy come, easy go. They were tools, easily replaced once she returned to civilisation, and in the mean time these bikers' guns would have to do. "We should put on their jackets. It will help us blend in." "No." Ben's tone brooked no argument. "The only colours I'm gonna wear are Polecat." Lara sighed with exasperation. Does that man even know how to not be stubborn? "Ben we don't have time to argue about this. Let's just go!" Gunny would surely send more people to check on Ben and Lara's status soon, if not come herself. Once word got out that they were free, no place in this complex would be safe for them. The two of them made their way quickly to where they had stashed the bikes that they had come in on. Ben's limp was getting worse, and she could see that he was barely keeping upright. The combination of shock and blood loss was getting to him. They had to get out of here soon. The had walked no more than fifty feet before Ben began to slow and stagger. Lara rushed to his side. "I think," Ben gasped out, his face grey, "That I should sit down for minute." "Yes, alright." Lara helped him to a place to sit, her mind whirling. What was she going to do now? She couldn't carry him out. He weighed almost a hundred pounds more than her. She half led, half carried Ben behind a large pipe. Hopefully it would hide him from casual observation. "You just stay here, I'll go get us some transportation." "I'm riding out of here," Ben muttered stubbornly. Lara patted him on the shoulder. "Of course you are." With me, sharing a bike. Lara was about to leave him when she felt Ben's hand on her leg. "Just give me a minute, I'll go with you." She bit off a curse as she knelt down next to Ben and grasped his face with both of her hands. She stared into his eyes at a distance of three inches, trying to sheer force of will to convince him to see reason. "We don't have a minute, Ben.," She hissed fiercely. "You can barely stand. You're bleeding from at least four different wounds, and probably going into shock." She bit off each word. "Stay. Right. Here." Not giving him a chance to reply or do anything, Lara took off for the bikes at a run. It took a bit of ducking and evading to get to where they had hidden their 'borrowed' bikes, but Lara made it. Things were beginning to calm down as the workers got the fire under control and Gunny restored order to his mercenary bikers. It wouldn't be long before they discovered that she and Ben were free, and then they would really be in trouble. She ducked into the darkened alcove, tucking the pistol in the back of her belt, wishing once more for her gun belt and for her guns as well. Wishes and dreams won't help me get out of this one, Lara my girl. She opened the cargo box of the bike Ben had been riding and pulled out his treasured Polecats jacket. Even if he were on the brink of death, she knew Ben would come back for this jacket. Telling herself that it was only to make sure it didn't get lost, she slipped it on. It both felt and smelled like Ben, and felt good on her shoulders. "I just knew that you'd come back here, sweet heart." Lara cursed and went for her gun, but Ben's jacket slowed her up. Before it could even clear her belt, Lara was staring at the blocky shape of an automatic pistol pointed at her. She brought both hands away from her waist and raised them in the air. That's twice today some one has gotten the drop on me. I must be getting old. A shape materialised out of the dark shadow. It was the Negro commander whose cigar she had shot earlier. He motioned her out of the alcove with his gun and Lara could do nothing but what he wanted. "Lose the gun." Under his watchful eye, Lara had no choice but to throw her pistol to the ground. "You were right about that bomb," he said as he put his unlit cigar in his mouth with his free hand. "I never bluff." Lara replied quietly. Easily a dozen bikers were waiting outside the alcove, covered with soot and grinning at her predicament. They formed a loose ring around the two of them. "Where's your boyfriend?" He asked around his cigar. "Safely away from here." Lara said to him, trying to find some way out of this mess. "He's gathering reinforcements even as we speak," she bluffed. The commander shook his head slowly. "I don't think so. I don't think he would have taken off without his sweet honey pie." He stayed about ten feet away from Lara and kept his gun trained on her. "Besides, he was pretty hurt and Gunny must of tuned on him a while." He chewed down on his cigar. "I bet he's hiding somewhere licking his wounds while you scare up some transport." Lara gave what she hoped was a wicked smile. "He's gone by now, and there will be dozens of bikers streaming into this place in an hour or two. Like I said, I don't bluff" Lara said, lying through her teeth. "I didn't lie about the bomb, I'm not lying about this." "Yeah, well, maybe," conceded the commander. "But in an hour, you'll still be dead and we can handle however many bikers may come down here." He slowly circled Lara, inspecting her like she was a chunk of meat. She kept her hands in the air, not moving, more nervous now then when Gunny had been screaming in her face. I had a bomb up my sleeve then. "You're that Croft chick, right?" The commander asked after a moment's inspection. "Pleased to make your acquaintance," She regarded him coolly, "but I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage." "They call me Texas Apone," he said to her. "Let me guess. You were in the Marines." "Best twenty five years of my life." He answered, chewing on his cigar. Lara raised her eye brows. "You went from serving your country to becoming a mercenary?" Disdain dripped from her voice. "I'd rather know who by boss is and see his face than answer to some faceless asshole in Washington." was all he said. He continued to walk around Lara. All of the bikers surrounding them looked like they were waiting for a show to begin. I don't like where this is going. "I talked to Kramer in Fulsome." Apone continued. "He said you did some Jap-slapping bullshit to him." Lara blinked. "Excuse me?" What in the name of god was 'Jap-slapping'. "Jap slapping." Apone answered. "Jackie Chan shit. Kung fu." "Ah," Lara said, catching on. Now I know what the show is. "It's jujutsu, by the way, not Kung Fu." Apone just shrugged. "Same shit to me." He handed his gun to one of the bikers in the 'audience'. "I taught CQB in the Corps for ten years," he said as he began to unbutton his shirt. "CQB?" "Close Quarters Battle," he informed her. "Hand to hand." He stripped off his shirt to reveal a big, brawny and scarred chest. "I always did want to fight some jap slapper. I hear your supposed to be pretty good." He walked back to Lara, stopping again about ten feet away. "Better than some." Lara replied. She watched him closely as he approached her. He had five inches on her and about eighty pounds. She was going to have to rely on agility to save her. One or two of his punches would be enough to ruin her day. "And why pray tell would I want to fight you?" Apone grinned. "If you don't, I just have you shot. If you do, I figure you still got some chance of getting out of here." He put his hands up an a classic combat stance. Lara gave him a weak grin and fell into her own fighting stance. "I see your point." Ben & Lara Chapter Sixteen by Ross Jenkins, c 1998 Chapter XVI-Jap Slapping Ben got to his feet with a groan. Stay put my ass. He just had to sit down for a minute, and it had been a minute. He limped out of his hiding spot and heard some cheering and shouting from where Lady Grace had gone. Great. Leave her alone for one minute... He saw a ring of people and inside the ring the distinctive movements of Lady Grace. She was fighting Apone, the sergeant who had taken command of the bikers earlier. There were way too many guys for him to sneak up and take out, even if he hadn't been shot and beaten into hamburger. He needed a distraction, and Lara had used up all their bombs. Ben looked around frantically, searching for something, anything. Damn, damn, damn. What did you distract a bunch of bikers with? The traditional answer was beer and women, but he was all out of beer -though I sure could use one right about now- and the only woman on the scene was what he had to distract them away from. Through a forest of pipes Ben saw the blocky form of a tractor trailer rig. He smiled. * * * Lara knew a little about military style hand to hand combat. Her major domo was an old salty British infantry man, and they sparred every now and again. What she had learned from Ian told her was that the last thing she wanted to do was let Texas Apone get anywhere near grabbing range. If you couldn't shoot an opponent, cut him with a knife, stab him with a bayonet or bop him with a rifle butt, you were to get as close to him as possible and rip him limb from limb. In the course of doing so, you used every dirty trick in the book: face attacks, eye gouges, biting, harsh language; whatever. There was pretty much only one rule: do whatever it took to win and survive. Seeing as Texas Apone had no rifle, combat knife or bayonet -much to Lara's relief- he had to rely on his eighty pounds of weight, five inches of height and massive upper body strength. If he managed to get those mitts of his on her, all it would take was one good hit and she would be out like last weeks laundry. They circled each other for about ten seconds, each eyeing each other, psyching each other out and testing reaction time. Normally Lara would have taken a strong offence, striking out at atemi, or vital points like the knee or throat. With Apone's size and build, hitting him was going to be like kicking a brick wall, the only way she was going to score was going to be through striking at his body's natural weak spots. However, he was proving to have very fast reflexes, and besides that it was only going to take one punch to send her packing. Odds were he was just going to absorb whatever she threw at him and throw a simultaneous counterstrike. It meant she had to be very fast and very careful when she attacked. With a growl, Apone stepped in, jabbing at her with his left fist. Lara blocked his punch to the outside, trying to turn his body away from her to expose his kidney and make his defence harder. Apone was having none of it. He resisted her easily then released a strong combination of punches, stepping closer and crowding all the while. Lara danced back, using her greater agility and speed to keep her distance while she blocked his powerful fists. She managed to slip a blow past his guard and drive her left fist into his face, but Apone didn't even feel it. Lara felt a very small bit of satisfaction. She may have managed to strike the first blow, but it hadn't fazed him and this little scrap wasn't for points in some tournament. Lara tried to step around him, to expose his back and his vulnerable kidneys, but the black former hand to hand instructor lashed out with a back hand strike. She blocked it with both hands but the force of the blow still sent her stumbling. This man is too bloody strong. He was on her too fast for her to dodge. He grabbed her wrist and tried to get her into a submission hold, but Lara used her speed to break out and throw him to the ground with a hip toss. Her positioning wasn't good for any sort of follow up, so she tried to back away from Apone and wait for an opening, but he grabbed her ankle and jerked her off of her feet. She fell onto her front facing away from Apone. He reached in with his other hand to solidify his hold, but Lara brought her free leg up and with a snarl kicked him savagely in his short ribs. When that didn't seem to stop him she reared back and struck him squarely in the jaw. It seemed to so the trick. Lara jerked herself free and scrambled to her feet, watching as Apone did the same. "Nice hit, sweetheart," He gave her a bloody grin and spat out an ivory tooth. "It's the only one you're gonna get." Lara couldn't think of a witty reply. She leapt forward, faking a head kick and bringing her heel down squarely on his knee. He made to grab the leg but Lara was too quick for him. This is going to be a long bloody fight. * * * Ben hobbled up to the big truck, keeping an eye on the two guys leaning against the front fender. They were almost hidden in its shadow and the main thing Ben could see of them were the bright red cherries of their cigarettes. He could hear them talking faintly as he approached. "You're shittin' me. Now we ain't moving out until four in the freakin' morning?" asked one of the guys in a beer belly voice. "With all the crap that happened here tonight, we're gonna miss our satellite window or something," answered the second guy, the taller of the two who was closest to the front. Ben had to take them out in order to get in their truck. He reached for his trusty tire iron before remembering that one of Apone's men had taken it. "Shit." Replied the first trucker, banging his fist against the armoured side of the tractor. "We could have been to Santa Ana and back five times in all this time we've been sitting here waiting." Ben's ears perked up. Santa Ana? Mexico? He pulled his appropriated autopistol out of his belt and approached the two men, trying to keep his walk steady. * * * Apone's fist bulldozed past Lara's defence and clipped her in the jaw. A bright light of pain flared in Lara's eyes, but she managed to keep her senses enough to deliver a punishing counter blow to his floating ribs. Apone accepted the hit like he had every other one Lara had delivered to him: with no indication that it had effected him what so ever. Lara was becoming convinced the man had no nerve endings. She had hit him no less than six times, and other then the one kick on the jaw, none of them had had any effect what so ever. He, on the other hand, had only to throw a strong attack, and even if she managed to block it, more often than not, it still either powered through her defence or sent her stumbling. He still hadn't managed to connect with a full force blow, but once he did it was good bye Lara. Her luck was running out. She had to end this now. Lara had spent most of the fight frantically retreating from Apone, so when she stepped into him and delivered a lightning fast crescent kick to his head, she could see him smiling. This sort of flashy 'Hollywood' attack was the sort of thing he had been expecting from the beginning. It was an attack that Lara would normally never use against an experienced opponent; head kicks were slow, obvious, and easily blocked. Besides that, they threw you totally off balance. Apone intercepted her kick and caught it, just like she knew he would. She knew that he was going to use his grip on her leg and her fragile balance to get her to the ground and end the fight in a horrible, brutal fashion, or at least that he was going to try. Lara knew that what she was about to do was very risky and that if it failed she was finished, but Lord Henshingly's little girl had always taken foolish risks, and -so far- they had always paid off. Apone's two hands were both gripped on Lara's leg, and that meant that he had none free to block. In the second before he could take her down, she launched herself from the ground with her free leg. With a powerful kiai and every ounce of power she could muster, Lara delivered a powerful roundhouse kick to the big ex marine's exposed head. She knew she connected. She knew it was probably the most powerful blow she could have struck. She felt his head snap back under the force of the attack, but somehow the man still managed to retain his grip on her leg as he fell. It was by no means a perfect technical takedown on his part, but with his two hundred pounds of weight and his unbreakable grip on her leg, when he hit the ground she was pulled with him like a rat with an anchor. He was still stunned, but that wasn't going to last long. Any other man she fought, that kick would have knocked him out like a light, if not broken his neck, but if Apone was conscious now odds were he was going to stay that way. I certainly hope I can 'persuade' him to let me go before he comes to his senses. On the ground, in close combat, they were in his domain. Unless she could cripple him or break free in the next few seconds, he was going to tie her into a pretzel. Lara tried to pull her leg free but it wouldn't budge. Apone was laying on her captured leg, covering it from shin to thigh, with her free leg around his back in a kind of scissors. She leaned forward and smashed one fist into the side of his head and, not waiting to see if it had any effect, extended her other fist into a rigid knife hand and drove it into his throat. Unfortunately, it seemed that the term 'Leatherneck' seemed rather apt describing Apone. The blow only seemed to draw him back to his senses. With a furious expression and a roar, the big marine grabbed her leg and tried to flip her over. Lara wasn't inexperienced in ground fighting; in fact jujutsu taught a great deal of it, but Apone's weight and training still gave him an incredible edge. Fortunately, his wounds seemed to be slowing him up, and for a few moments she actually held her own. Not enough to get him into a lock or break a limb like she had been trained, but enough to keep herself alive. Two can play at fighting dirty, sport. Lara tried everything she could to get out alive. She clawed his eyes, grabbed his scrotum and pulled, but in the end it was taking a healthy bite out of his nose that got him to release her. Lara scrambled away from Apone and to her feet, bruised, twisted, and weary. Her shirt was ripped almost off from Apone's grip and she could taste blood in her mouth. The booing and jeering from the 'ring' reminded Lara that even if she managed to beat her opponent, she still had over a dozen bikers to contend with. With their attitudes towards women, she knew that she would be lucky if they just killed her. The possibility of being passed around to be raped by every man present was enough to keep Lara fighting. There is no possible way I will allow that to happen to me. I'll take as many with me as I can before bring me down. That was how it was going to end, Lara knew, unless somehow Ben could come and save the day. Unfortunately, that was unlikely to happen. Ben was laying hidden out there somewhere, probably in shock or passed out from loss of blood. Lara watched grimly as Apone, bloody and weary, got to his feet, still ready to fight. As always, it was up to Lara to fight her battles alone. * * * Ben walked up to the two truckers. "Who the hell are you?" The tall one asked. Ben didn't reply, just walked up to the guy and swung the gun barrel into the guy's gut. He doubled over with a 'whoop' sound. Before the other one could react, Ben swung with pistol barrel up with a wordless roar and brought it across his face. "I need to borrow your truck." Ben growled to the two men who lay on the ground, then he opened the semi's door and pulled himself inside. When you get it back, though, it ain't gonna be drivable. He shut the door behind him and locked it. Ben looked around the cab with trepidation. The last time he had been in the driver's seat of one of these babies, it had been hanging out of a plane suspended over a cliff. It wasn't a fun memory. He brushed a fast food wrapper off the dash. These two guys were slobs, but if they'd been waiting out here for Gunny's go signal for a few days, it kinda made sense. Ben cast his eyes over the controls, and in a moment found the onboard computer console. He flicked it on and scrolled through menu screens until he found the command for 'trailer release'. He punched it and heard a hydraulic click from the back of the truck. Good. For what he was going to be doing, he was going to need all the speed he could get, and he couldn't get that hauling a few thousand gallons of whatever the hell they were hauling. Ben twisted the key and the truck's big diesel engine roared to life. He put the thing in gear and it started with a lurch. Ben frowned. Now I remember why I hate these things so much. Too big, too clunky and -as he tried to gear up and listened to the transmission scream- too many damn gears. He sounded the air horn and hit the retarder brakes, anything to make noise and get peoples attention. I've had enough of sneaking around. Come on, shoot at me with your little pop guns. This baby is armour plated!! With a fierce grin, Ben steered the big truck towards where he'd last seen Lady Grace. Hopefully he wasn't too late. * * * They both staggered about like punch drunk fighters, which in a way they were. Lara didn't know why Apone was still fighting. They were both beaten mostly to a pulp. Her hip felt like it was almost dislocated from when he had tried to twist her leg off of her body. If and when she made it through this, she was definitely going to need some physiotherapy. Apone could barely see out of one eye and was finally limping from that kick she had scored on his knee. She may have stretched the fight out to a draw, but she'd lost the battle and they both knew it. All he had to do now was step back and let his various and sundry subordinates finish her off. They certainly wanted to. Her ripped shirt was certainly giving them a good show, and the comments and threats they were yelling were not the sort you could repeat in polite company. It was only stubbornness and refusal to be beaten by a woman, she supposed, that kept Apone standing and coming back for more. He threw a strong left hook that Lara ducked. She jabbed him in his cracked ribs with her fist, and he brought his knee up to strike her in the face. Lara managed to get up an double handed block, but the blow still sent her back a few steps. Apone followed up on her with a powerful right hand roundhouse swing, which Lara deflected with both hands and tried to turn into an arm bar. He spun around with his other fist and tried to take Lara's head off. She had to duck and retreat from the blow, forcing her to give up her grip. They were both tired and slowing. Lara sucked in lungfuls of air, trying to stop the leadenness that was infecting her limbs. She circled around Apone, trying to find a moment of weakness before he found one in her. Suddenly, she heard the shriek of an air horn and the roar of the engine of a semi truck. She wanted to look and see what it was, but knew that if she did so that Apone would clock her. Instead, she kept herself focussed on the fight. Apone didn't seem to have Lara's self control. He turned briefly to glance at the noise and she used the opportunity to bury her foot in his groin. Apone gasped and tried to shake off the blow, but Lara wasn't finished yet. She stepped into him and drove a near perfect side kick into his sore ribs. He staggered back and Lara attacked full force. She had to get him down now, showing no quarter. Her only chance was to knock out Apone and maybe she could get away while the confusion from this truck was going on. She smashed her foot into his leg with a kiai, and he fell to one knee. Summoning every remaining bit of strength she had, Lara leapt into the air and brought the heel of her foot down in an axe kick across the back of his head. She thought she felt/heard a 'crack' as the blow stuck home, but it may have been her imagination. Whether it was from a broken neck or he was just knocked silly, Apone, former Marine Corps hand to hand instructor, fell to the ground and stayed there. Lara didn't have time to congratulate herself on her victory. Her slim chances of escape hinged on her seizing the moment. She gave a brief look around, seeing where the bikers were and what was going on with that semi. Lara cursed. The damn thing was right on top of her. She had never truly appreciated just how large a semi tractor was until it was barrelling towards her at twenty miles per hour. They were bloody huge! Six and a half tonnes of steel and tires and it was coming right on top of her. She leapt to the side, hoping it was enough. At least the thing seemed to have scattered the various bikers. They had all dived for cover when the big rig had come through, and now it was just Lara and the truck. Lara rolled to her feet about one yard away from the things massive wheels when it screeched to a halt. Lara ran behind it, hoping to get to some cover before it could turn to face her again, when she heard Ben's voice call from the cab over the growl of the engine. "Lady Grace, get your ass in here!" Lara stopped and looked into the cab in surprise. It certainly was Ben, and though he looked like hell, seeing him here in one piece, he was one of the most wonderful sights she had ever seen. She nimbly climbed up the cab, opened the door and slipped in. "For a guy who can barely stay on his feet I sure saved your ass," Ben growled. "Your right." Lara said quickly as she gave him a brief kiss on the cheek. "I was totally wrong. You're healthy as an ox." She shut the passenger side door with a slam. "NOW GET US THE HELL OUT OF HERE!" Ben chuckled and they took off with the sound of shredding gears. * * * I could get used to this. So far in the armoured truck, they had been able to just drive through the various Leathernecks they had run across. The bikers had sprayed them with small arms fire, but the truck's Kevlar lined siding and ballistic windows made the cab totally immune to the 9mm and .45 rounds that the bikers were firing. The truck caromed off of a post that Ben tried to swing around but failed. Then again, maybe not. This thing is about as manoeuvrable as a brick. Lara shot Ben a look that said 'you do know how to drive, don't you?' Ben scowled back and tried to figure out what exactly he was going to do now that they were in the truck and he had saved Lara from the fight with Apone. Not that she needed saving, mind you. She'd cleaned his clock pretty good by the time I show'd up. "Do you have a plan or were you just going to drive in circles all night?" Lara asked acidly as Ben slammed on the brakes to make another turn. So far, he had been driving in sort of a crazy figure eight through the compound, not wanting to drive in a straight line long enough for anyone to line him up with a real weapon. He'd seen a few assault rifles and old surplus anti tank rockets on these guys, and didn't want to give them any more of an inviting target then he had to, "I haven't thought that far yet," Ben snapped back. "I was too busy saving your hide." She was right, though, as usual. They had to find some way to ditch this target on wheels and get the hell away from here. Even as the thought went through his mind, he saw Gunny step into the path of the oncoming truck. Ben stamped on the accelerator, a ritcus-like grin on his face. I was hoping to end this with a scrap, but running over the murdering bastard in a truck will do just fine. Ben's grin disappeared when he saw that Gunny was carrying an old surplus M 60. Ben swore and frantically tried to bring the truck around. That 7.62 hardball will cut through this cab like butter. The truck was going too fast. Ben had floored it when he saw Gunny, and now wouldn't be able to take the turn without flipping the truck over. Ben didn't have much of a choice. He grabbed Lady Grace and ducked under the dash, hoping that the fire wall and engine block of the big truck would be enough to save them from becoming swiss cheese when Gunny opened up on them. Ben couldn't see the machine gun open fire, but he could hear it. He could hear the high velocity bullets tearing into the engine and cutting through the windshield. The truck began to lurch and sway, and Ben knew that Gunny had nailed the tires as well. "Hold on!" Ben yelled as the truck jerked to the side and flipped. Ben's world turned upside down as the roof of the truck became first a wall and then the floor. Ben held Lara firmly in his arms as they bounced around inside the cab like beans in a castanet. He felt the steering wheel gouge into his side and his head bounce off the gear shift as the truck continued to slide gratingly across the valley floor. Suddenly, the truck collided with something very solid and came to an abrupt stop. Ben groaned. Can this night get any worse? He mentally kicked himself the moment he thought it. Dumb question, Polecat. It can always get worse. In his arms, Lara stirred to life. "Not another bloody car wreck." He heard her mutter under her breath. "And I'm sure the bastard is going to try and shoot me just like before." Ben didn't pretend to know what the hell she was talking about. She was right, though. Gunny probably had a lot or rounds left in that squad automatic, and he would be an idiot if he didn't come and finish the two of them off. Yup, they had to get out of this death trap of a semi and they had to do it now. Ben looked over at the passenger side. No way out there. The truck had slid into the valley wall and the only thing past that door was rock. The windshield was out, too. The ballistic glass hadn't broken, just starred up, and there was no way he was going to be able to kick it open. Ignoring the pain in his body, Ben crawled along the roof of the semi to the driver's side door and with a heave popped it open. He could hear guys yelling in the distance. So far, though, no Gunny. He and Lara came out of the truck and checked out where they were. They had flipped and skidded right past Gunny and had in fact cleared the compound. From the dim reflected light of the fire from the bomb Lara had set, he could see bikers running towards him and the little flashes of light from their muzzle flashes. A bullet impacted near Ben, making him swear. Lara grabbed his arm. "Ben, we have to leave!" Ben just grunted his agreement. The two of them had just started running when Ben saw a burst of light erupt from one of the bikers and saw the flash of a rocket. "Oh, shit!" He and Lady Grace jumped to the ground and covered their heads, a moment before the truck they had stolen erupted into a huge diesel smelling fireball. The hot, smelly concussion wave hit them like a hammer, jarring Ben's teeth and making his ears ring. Hot bits of truck shrapnel fired out from the explosion all around them, but through the never ending grace of Father Torque, no big pieces hit either of them. Countless small shards of hot metal filled Ben with agony wherever they hit and every part of him that didn't ache before -which wasn't many- did now. He spared a look at Lady Grace, his ears ringing. All of her body parts were still there and one look at her face told him that she was plenty pissed off, but alright. Summoning reserves of strength that he never knew existed until now, he grabbed Lara's hand and got both of them to their feet. They really had to make tracks now. The Leathernecks were gonna check out the area, and there would be no more playing games. No more one-on-one macho fights or chaining people to a bar. It was going to be one shot in the head, along with a few clips in the body for good luck. Gritting his teeth, Ben forced his body to move. He had really been through the meat grinder today. Only his desire for revenge and fear for Lady Grace's life had kept him going. Once this whole thing ended -if it ended- he was going to sleep for a month. Lara, by far the less injured of the two, moved out ahead of him and began to look for a place to hide. She came back a moment later. "Ben, there's a ledge about eight feet up. In this light we should be alright." She gave him a concerned look. "Can you make it?" He gave her a patented Ben Polecat smirk. "I kinda have to, don't I?" His cocky words aside, climbing up to the ledge was really hard and it was mainly through Lara's frantic pushing and pulling that got the job done. Ben had just pulled his leg up and out of sight when the first of the Leathernecks came near. He lay on his back, wheezing and listening. "How can two people cause so much fucking trouble?" Ben heard the unmistakable voice of Gunny ask. Another biker answered him. "But their dead now, right?" "If it were anybody else, yeah." Gunny gave a snort. "These two should have been killed three times over by now. They've got more lives than a fucking cat." "But they were in the truck." The biker made it sound more like a question. "You shot them full of holes and then the bodies were fried in the explosion." "You wanna go in there and check?" Gunny snarled. "We won't be able to tell for a few hours, until the damn thing cools down, and in the mean time we've gotta try and fix all the fucking damage they caused." He cursed. "One tractor greased, at least fifteen guys dead or wounded, including that stupid son of a bitch Apone, and who knows how much damage caused to the depot." "What about Polecat and Croft?" "It'll take too much manpower to hunt'em down in the dark, if their not crispy critters. Fuck'em. We'll triple the guard tonight and get this shipment off in the morning. Even Batman and Robin here won't be able to stop a convoy with sixty Leathernecks riding escort." Ben heard Gunny punching his fist into his palm. "Once that's done though, I'm gonna hunt that son of a bitch down and rip out his heart. As for that Croft chick, I'll show her what a real man's like." Over my dead body, Gunny, Ben thought fiercely. You and I are gonna rumble. Then we'll see who the tougher biker is. It was Ben's last thought before he passed out. Ben & Lara Chapter Seventeen by Ross Jenkins, c 1998 It was the sound of voices and the familiar smell of bikes that woke Ben up. Oh, shit. The Leathernecks got us. His whole body hurt and it was hard to think, but something in that equation didn't seem right. Why are we still alive? He felt a damp rag press against his forehead, and the light touch of a woman's hand brush against his jaw. It sent his addled brain reeling in confusion, but after a moment he came to the sleepy conclusion that if some one was tending to his wounds, then they must have gotten away and couldn't be in that much trouble. He relaxed, still half asleep. His eyes closed, Ben managed a light smile. "Don't stop, Lady Grace, that feels good." The hand stopped for a moment then pulled away. Ben reached out blindly until he felt a leg. He rubbed it, feeling the taut muscles beneath it and smiled. "Just because I'm awake doesn't mean you have to stop." "Actually, Ben, I think it does." Ben blinked. That wasn't Lara's voice. It had an American accent, and it was lower, like it had been soaked in whiskey. Ben opened his eyes and squinted, only able to see a feminine silhouette. Other than maybe Flo -wherever she was hiding, it had damn well better have been a long way from here- the last person he had expected to see tending to his wounds was Maureen Corley. He snatched his hand away from her leg like it had been burned. He pushed himself up painfully onto his elbows. "Mo? What are you doing here?" With strong hands she helped Ben sit up. "I'm tending to your ugly hide again, that's what, you crusty old biker." "Yup." Ben rubbed his head and winced. His whole body ached. "Just like old times." He blinked and looked around, trying to take in the scene. The two of them were in a steep sided gully, and a number of small campfires winded their way along its floor. Around the fires were a number of motorcycles and people, about twenty or so. Ben looked at Mo, confused. What the hell was going on? Who were these guys, and -more importantly- where in hell was Lady Grace? He looked at Mo. she was wearing her old Vulture colours. Ben had to admit that she looked a hell of a lot more natural in her turtle neck and leather vest than she ever did in a business suit. "Mo, what's going on?" "I got a call this morning, from Lara Croft," Mo told him. Her face was enigmatic in the distant fire light. "She said that the two of you were going to go against the Leathernecks today, and if we wanted a piece of it we should meet about five miles north of Fort Kennedy at midnight tonight." Ben blinked. Lara had done what? Why? When? He wasn't sure if he should be angry at her or thank her. Confused, he pushed his feelings back and tried to get more information. "So you went to Suzi and called up the Vultures, huh?" He looked around, counting bodies. "There's more than just Vultures here." "The Leathernecks hit every one pretty bad, Ben." He couldn't see her face, but her voice was sad. "Suzi figured that every one would want to get some payback, so she got the word out to all the gangs." "Hmm." Ben's mind was racing. Two bikers against sixty was a lost cause, but twenty some was a possibility. "So who's here?" He tried to keep his voice casual. Mo stirred the ground with her finger. "Suzi and the Vultures, some Rottwheelers and a few Dragons." Normally you couldn't get two gangs together without having a pissing contest over a million old slights and grudges. Tonight there four here, if he including himself as a Polecat. "How many?" "Including you and me, twenty seven." "Twenty six." Ben said flatly. "You ride a desk now. You shouldn't be part of this." Maureen flared with anger. "I may wear a suit during the day, Ben, but I'm still a biker." With that fire in her eyes there was no doubt of that. "These guys killed a lot of friends of mine." She poked Ben in the chest to make her point. "I'm in." Her voice brooked no argument. Ben had learned with Lady Grace not to bother fighting a woman when she had that tone in her voice. Besides, it seemed pretty obvious that Mo was still tough where it counted. She'd hold her own. "With Lady Grace that makes it twenty eight." She gave Ben a curious look. "Who?" "Lara." Maureen gave Ben a long, considering look. "I have to admit, Ben, the two of you...I never saw that coming." Ben gave a sour chuckle. "Me either." "Does she make you happy?" She asked quietly. Ben thought a moment before answering. Happy? Since he'd met Lara he'd been to hell and back. His mentor had been killed, his gang and his best friend rubbed out over some sort of chemical smuggling pipeline, and Ben himself had been almost killed more than a few times. But despite all that, there was really only one answer. "Yeah, she does." "I'm glad." Mo said. She reached over and squeezed his hand. "Me too." Why am I putting up with all this touchy feely crap? Ben thought. I must have hit my head pretty hard to sit here talking out my feelings, with Mo of all people. Ben shook his head in disgust. Brain damage. It had to be. She seemed to sense that the moment was getting too maudlin. They sat for a moment in awkward silence, then Mo slapped her palms on her thighs and got noisily to her feet. "Sooo, are you going to tell me what this whole thing is about? Who these Leathernecks are and what they're up to?" Turning a deaf ear to his aching bones and shrieking muscles, Ben stood up. "I don't know," he admitted reluctantly. It pissed him off. After all he and Lara had been through, he still didn't have half the answers he wanted. He knew enough, however, to kick some ass. His voice turned grim. "But I know their numbers, I know where they're gonna go, and I know when they're gonna leave" Beside him Mo shrugged. "Sounds like you know enough to me." Ben frowned and looked around the darkness. "I guess." Where was Lady Grace? She'd obviously gotten him away from the blown up semi, but now she was gone. "So." Mo's voice snapped him back to their conversation. "We came for a fight, Ben. Are you gonna give us one?" Her voice had a violent edge to it Ben looked at her and frowned in confusion. "What do you mean?" She gave him a thin smile. "I mean every one knew that you were Father Torque's heir apparent." Oh really? Ben raised his eye brows. I guess everyone knew but me. "You know what we're going against." Mo continued. "Are you going to lead us into a rumble with the Leathernecks or not?" "I can't do that," Ben protested. "I'm just a biker without a gang. I've fought against these guys." His gesture took in the entire camp. "They won't let me lead them." "Yeah, they will." Mo insisted, her blue eyes filled with determination. "No one else can, Ben. No one has been through what you have, or knows the Leathernecks as well as you." She looked at Ben earnestly. "You have to lead us." With a sinking feeling in his stomach, Ben knew she was right. "That's was Torque's position," he argued feebly, "not mine." "Torque is dead, Ben." Hearing it from her lips didn't make the words hurt any less. "We need a new Father, and no one else can fill his shoes." Ben looked off into the distant moonlight, at a loss for words. In a dusty part of his brain, Ben had always knew that some day he would inherit Father Torque's position among the bikers. But not like this, and not now.... "That would make me..." his voice trailed off. He couldn't say the words. "Father Ben." Mo finished for him. "It suits you." "It doesn't sound right," he grumbled. When she said the words aloud, though, Ben felt the responsibility come down like an engine block on his shoulders. He also knew that he couldn't buck the job. Not now. Not with the future of all of the bikers -all his bikers- at stake. He heard as well as saw her smile. "Get used to it, Father Ben." Ben grimaced. Well, there's no point sitting around waiting for grass to grow. "What time is it?" He asked, walking over to a clear flat space near the edge of the gully. It was as good a place as any. "Just after one." Hmm. That trucker said that they weren't leaving until four. That leaves me around three hours to scrape together some kind of plan. Ben stretched his muscles, ignoring the anguished groans from his various body parts. He could lay back and let his body heal later, but not now. He put two fingers to his lips and let out a loud, piercing whistle. Around the gully, all conversation ceased and everyone's head swivelled to Ben. A bike's head lamp came on, illuminating Ben in its beam. His mouth suddenly dry, for a moment Ben had no idea of what to say. Another headlamp turned on, blinding him. He put his hand up to shield his eyes. "Get that thing out of my face or I'll crack your heads open." Ben would normally have objected to the glare of the headlamps. A headlight travelled pretty far at night, and they were in hostile territory, but they were five miles away from Fort Kennedy, with a mountain between him and the Leathernecks. Gunny had said that he wasn't sending out any patrols and they were in the bottom of a steep gully. It seemed to break the ice. The collected biker's gave a chuckle and the light swerved to splash against the rock at Ben's back. In the reflected light he could see the several leather jackets and chains that made up his 'flock.' He couldn't put it off any more. Taking in a deep breath, Ben began to speak. "All right, listen up." He cracked his knuckles to hide his nervousness. "Some company called WCC had some sort of secret depot built at the old Fort Kennedy sight. They've got all these tanks of chemicals there, and they've put together a convoy to take them south of the border to Santa Ana in about three hours." A voice from behind the light piped up. "Santa Ana? What the hell are they gonna do with it there?" Ben frowned at where he heard voice come from. Just what I need. Comments from the peanut gallery. "Have a bath," he snapped. "How the hell should I know?" Ben ground his teeth. "Look, I don't know what all this is about, but- " Another voice, this one feminine and very familiar spoke up. "I do." Ben rolled his eyes. Trust Lady Grace to make a dramatic entrance. Every head swivelled to the dusty and curvaceous form of Lara Croft as she stepped into the light. She was wearing Ben's leather jacket. He had to admit that it looked a hell of a lot better on her than it did on him. She held Betsy lightly in one hand. So that's where she went. He gave her a flat look as she walked up to him. "You want to fill me in, Lady Grace?" She handed Ben his rifle and sat down on a nearby rock with a smooth, fluid motion. She kept the jacket. "Actually," she said in her quiet voice, "it wasn't until you mentioned their destination in Mexico that it all made sense." Ben folded his arms and frowned down at her. "So why did my boys and a lot of good bikers die?" Behind the lights, he could hear a few angry grumbles from the various bikers. Lara was, as always, unflappable. She sat on the rock like she was ruling over her court and began to speak in prim tones. "Where would you like me to begin?" "The beginning." "Well, I believe that would be about the turn of the millennium." Ben could almost hear twenty seven pairs of eyes rolling. Only Lara would start this whole thing with a history lesson. "We don't got all day, Lady Grace." Lara raised her eye brows and looked at him coolly. "Bear with me on this, Ben." He felt about an inch tall under gaze and motioned for her to continue. She adopted a kind of lecturing tone and Ben sighed. This was going to take a while. "As you all may or may not know, in the late nineteen nineties, the economies of several South East Asian nations bottomed out, which threatened many of the first world nations." "Yeah. The Ninety Nine depression." Ben interrupted, trying to get a move on with things. "What has that go to do with all of us?" She gave him a patient look. "Well, as you may also know, in an effort to preserve the value of their national dollar, the United States instituted a series of very stiff trade tariffs on all imports and exports." The subject matter was dull enough to dry paint, but whether it was the way she said it in her high class accent or they were just ogling her, the assorted bikers gave Lara their rapt attention. "It was thought at the time that if they could keep American jobs and products in the country, that they could stave off the economic upheaval." Somewhere in the ring of lights an anonymous biker spoke up. "Yeah. It turned this part of the world into a regular paradise, didn't it?" There was a round of chuckles. Lady Grace continued as is if she hadn't been interrupted. "Well, the wisdom of the policy not withstanding, one very similar to it is currently being implemented." Where was this going? "So?" "So," Lara continued coolly, "that means that America is a very tight market. If you are a small petro chemical company trying to expand, there is almost nowhere you can do so. The export tariffs make trading outside the country virtually impossible." All the bikers here knew about the stiff fines for taking goods over the border. All of them had made some cash over the years by smuggling. Mo spoke up. "So why don't they open a subsidiary chemical plant in Mexico and bypass the tariff that way?" She was standing, listening patiently outside the ring of lights. Ben had forgotten she was there. "There are Corley plants in Canada, France and Taiwan." Ben blinked. There were? It had never occurred to him that Corley dealt with the rest of the world. Hell, before he had met Lady Grace, he hadn't really thought about there being a world outside the desert. Lara pursed her lips in thought, then answered Mo's question. "Too much of an investment, I would think. WCC is a comparatively small corporation compared to Dow or Exxon." Her face hardened. "I saw the names painted on the chemical reservoirs in Fort Kennedy. Drexxol, an industrial solvent. Synthodran, a high temperature lubricant. These chemicals are all very much in demand in third world industry." Ben didn't like where all this was heading. His voice was ugly when he spoke. "You mean that Father Torque and everyone else died so that some prick in a grass hut could get bootleg gas?" By the end he was yelling. His boys had been killed so a damn company could smuggle chemicals out from under the government's nose? It damn well wasn't fair "That's not how I would have phrased it, but yes." Lara's look shared his pain. "I'm sorry Ben." It made Ben feel a little better, but not much. A Rottwheeler spoke up. "It still don't make sense to me why they created the Leathernecks and went after us." The question snapped Ben out of his sorrow. "I do," he replied. The dead were dead, and it was up to the living to avenge them. He had a job to do. They all did. "Draw a line between Fort Kennedy and the Mexican border. Whose turf do you cross?" He let the question hang for a moment. "I'll tell you. Polecat, Vulture, and everyone else whose been shot up by Gunny and his psychos." There was a moment of silence as everyone digested what he had just said, There were more than a few angry murmurs. "So why start a gang war over this?" someone asked. "What kind of biker would become a corporate stooge, anyway?" "Gunny ain't no biker." Ben snarled. "He doesn't follow the Code." Everyone cursed or grunted at that statement. "He's just a merc who hired some thugs." Lara's smooth voice cut through everyone's anger. "The government has almost no control in the desert. All they ever see are bike gangs and the dregs of society. If any of you tried to stop a convoy of trucks, or made some sort of fuss, the government might notice and start and investigation. Williams had to control the route his trucks travelled, and he had to do it in a way that didn't attract attention." "Yeah." Ben's voice was bitter. "No one cares if a bunch of bikers kill each other off." The words sat in his mouth like ashes. "This whole thing was a god damned blind." He wasn't sure if he was more disgusted or sad. Lara gave Ben another sympathetic look. "I'm afraid so." He met her eyes and suddenly it was just the two of them. Mo and the rest of the bikers didn't exist. "It ain't your fault." He said it softly, meant for her ears alone. Mo's determined and angry voice brought him back. "So what do you want us to do, Ben?" Suzi, the head Vulture, chimed in. "Yeah, Ben. We're all behind you. Tell us the plan." "The plan." Ben blinked and cleared his head. This was no time to go all soft for Lady Grace. "Yeah. Well, best as I can figure there are a few routes they could take to sneak through the border." He called out to a portly biker who headed the Dragons, the southernmost gang that was represented here. "Hey, Fats, that's your turf. What do you figure is the best place to sneak a bunch of semi's past Uncle Sam?" The old fat biker rubbed his cue ball head for a moment before answering. "That'd be...Spirit Canyon." "Spirit Canyon." Ben nodded. "That's what I figured." The actual name for the place was Espiritu Canyon, but no one north of the border used that tongue twister Spanish name. "Its pretty narrow right, and winds a lot?" Fats nodded. "Yeah." Ben rubbed his fingers along his stubble. It always helped him think. "They'd have to take those trucks through pretty slow, huh?" Fats caught on and grinned. "Yeah. They would." "That's where we hit'em." Ben drove his fist into his palm with a loud slap. "They'll be taking off out of Fort Kennedy at four." He looked at Fats. "They should reach the Canyon about, when? Six?" Fats squinted one eye as he worked out the times. After a bit he nodded. "About that." "Dawn." Ben savoured the word. Four hours until everyone got some payback. The other bikers made happy sounds, anticipating violence. "That should give us enough light to hit em. How many of you guys got rifles and know how to use'em?" Twelve people put up their hands. Ben smiled grimly. "Good." With him that made thirteen. "How many of you could hit a moving bike at a hundred yards?" This time only eight guys put up their hands. Ben nodded. "Not bad." It was actually more than he had been expecting. "If we snipe at them from the back first, and then the front, we can get off two salvos before they break formation. That should get the numbers down closer to even." Even assuming every guy hit and got a kill with two shots, that only took the Leathernecks numbers down by eighteen. Then it would be forty to twenty seven. Closer to even, but still way too much in Gunny's favour. "That gives us just over four hours to get there and set ourselves up." Mo said, her mind on the practical stuff. Like always. "We should leave soon." "No." Ben shook his head. "Gunny's pretty smart. He's gonna send some of his guys out as a reserve. We're gonna have to nail them first." Mo raised her eye brows but didn't dispute him. which surprised Ben a bit. "Where are they gonna be?" "Gunny's got all his guys grouped in the depot at the fort." Ben replied. "He's probably gonna send out an advance element to scout the way, and leave his reserve to follow up behind." All the crap he'd thought he had forgotten from his time in the Corps popped back into his head. "They'll be taking off from the fort about a half hour after he leaves." The same biker that had been asking annoying questions through out this bull session spoke up again. "How do you know what he's gonna do?" "Gunny's a marine. That's how marine's think." Ben cracked his knuckles. "We'll hit the fort about ten minutes after the trucks and their escorts take off." Suzi spoke up. "Why don't we hit them on the road?" Ben shook his head. "It'll be too dark for a road fight. We're gonna have to get them roosting." Just like they caught my boys roosting. That's when a biker's most vulnerable. "Besides, I wanna nail Williams where it'll hurt him the most." "Where's that?" Mo asked. "His assets." Ben grinned evilly. "He got into this whole thing for cash. That depot must have cost him a pretty penny, and he made the whole thing on the sly. He can always get new bikers and truck, but if we bust up his depot, he's gonna have to tell his daddy where the money went. Odds are Big Bob Williams won't be too happy." The other bikers chuckled. "But we have to get to Spirit Canyon before the trucks do." Mo protested. "How can we do that if we nail their base after they leave?" He'd asked himself the same question, and didn't really like the answer. "They have to stick to back roads and travel on the sly," he replied. "Besides that, they're a bunch of semis and travel pretty slow. If we head to the interstate and red line it, we should be able to beat them there." Maybe. He would have liked to split up his bikers and nail Gunny's reserve with about a third of his guys, but he only had just under thirty riders. Their best odds against the Leathernecks was take them on in bits with their whole number. It would minimise their own losses and maybe that way they could bring the odds down. That was the theory anyway. Everyone nodded slowly. "So what do we do until then?" Suzi asked. "We have to pack up and be ready to go by three thirty. Its not even two, so every one catch some zees." Ben yawned and stretched. His body picked this moment to remind him how sore and tired it was. He tried to ignore it. "We're gonna have to be frosty when the time comes. He turned to go but paused. These guys were going to fight and die for him. He had to say something. "Listen, ah," he swallowed. "I know we've all had our differences, and we've been on the opposite sides of a few rumbles, but I...." words escaped him. Mo cut in and let him off the hook. "Don't sweat it, Ben. We know." Suzi and a few other nodded. "This is bigger than all of us, and we trust you to see us through it." Ben was relieved that even with all the touchy feely crap he'd in over the last few days, he was till man and biker enough not to tear up. "I, ah, thanks." It was hard though. All the bikers went off to their respective gangs and fires with a lot of quiet talking. More than a few slapped Ben on the shoulder as they walked by. It was an act of camaraderie that he had thought he'd never experience again. It felt good. Finally it was just Ben standing there, and he sat down on a rock. His mind was still whirling furiously, trying to work numbers, tactics and trying to outthink Gunny. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up. Lara was beside him in his leather jacket, watching him with her deep brown eyes by the starlight. "You handled yourself very well with them, Ben." "Hmm?" It took him a moment to focus his mind. "Oh. Thanks." They sat for a moment in silence. The fight in a few hours was going to be a bloody one. He made one try to get Lara to stay out of it, already knowing what her answer was going to be. "You don't have to be a part of this, Lady Grace." Lara gave Ben a faint frown and wrapped her arms around his. "Don't you pull that on me now, Ben," she scolded. "We're linked, you and I." She tightened her grip on his arm to emphasise her point. "There is no way that I'm going to let you out of my sight until this is over." She stretched up and planted a kiss on his stubbled cheek. "I have a vested interest in getting you back all in one piece." Ben just chuckled. "Linked, huh? Is that like hitched?" The words came out before he could stop them and big alarms began to sound. What the hell had he just said? Hitched? Ben Polecat? He knew he had brought it up, but she was a chick. The second the 'h' word was mentioned, a chick tightened her jaws like a pit bull. He liked Lady Grace. By the light of day maybe he even loved her, but hitched? He was definitely brain damaged. She just lay her head against his shoulder and let out a soft laugh. "Lets at least get to know each other for a month before we start talking marriage." Ben relaxed a bit. Off the hook...for now. "Besides," Lara continued, "if I was wed in anything less than a cathedral, my father would have a fit." She chuckled at the image. "He'd probably disinherit me, just before he had a heart attack." Ben looked down at her. "I thought you already were disowned." She casually wrapped her arms around Ben's chest. He barely noticed when his ribs began to protest. Lara's voice was light. "Then I imagine he'd have to find something worse to do to me." "Like what?" Ben shivered at the touch of her hands. "Send you off to the states and hook you up with a biker?" It probably is his idea of a worse fate, too. Ha. His loss. My gain. "I can think of worse fates." She leaned her face up and Ben could see she was beaming. She brought her lips to his and they shared a long, passionate kiss. "I do love you, Ben," she whispered when they parted. I love you, too. He wanted to say it to her, but the words just wouldn't come out. Too macho, I guess. "I know." Lara looked up at him quizzically in the starlight. "That wasn't quite the response I was hoping for." "You'll get over it." Her kisses awoke a deeper desire in Ben. "Lets go find some place to lay down for a while." They rose as one and went to find a private shadow. "I thought we were supposed to get some sleep," she murmured. "I don't feel like sleeping." She just laughed. Author's Note: That's all I wrote. Unlike some authors (right, Chuck?) who tack on on a wried or surprise ending, I just didn't finish. Before you start yelling and crying at me about this, you have to understand why I wrote this story in the first place. I wrote Ben and Lara because I was fascinated by the characters. The whole point to this whole thing was the journey of two tough, scarred individuals. All I wanted out of this was to turn Ben and Lara from what they were into something that was greater than the sum of their parts. By the end of this last chapter, that journey is complete. I have no more characterization to do, just to resolve the plot, but the plot was always secondary to me. I mean, sure, I wanted it to be interesting, but it always came after the characters. It has holes in it, (why the heck are Gunny and Williams talking in that dumb bar about such a sensitive matter? Why didn't Apone just shoot Lara instead of having that stupid fight?) but who cares. It was all just trappings and weight. At this point I have said all that I wanted to say, and found that the burning desire that I had at the beginning of this story has faded. Besides, all that is left is a boffo action sequence, and we all know how that ends up, right? This story was meant to be nineteen chapters and an epilogue. The chapters that I have not written (incuding chapter 10) I will leave an abreviated 'TV Guide' Version to. I may finish Ben and Lara some day, or I may not. Only time will tell Chapter Ten--Escape From Fulsome Ben and Lara get into a conversation detailing exactly why organizing bikers into squads goes against the biker life style and why it is so dangerous, not only to Ben and Laara, but to the biker way of life. They discover that Williams is in fact Robert Williams Jr., the son of Big Bob Williams, who is the CEOof Williams Consolodated Chemical, one of the five companies that runs Fulsome. They also manage to sugar the gas tanks of most of the Leatherneck's bikes and manage to get into a fight while doing so. It is here that Lara fights Kramer, Gunny's Right hand, and breaks his arm using 'Jap Slapping.' Chapter Eighteen--Payback This is, of course, the big fight between Ben's Biker army and the remaining Leathernecks. Allen Wong Kah Weng, a cyber-friend of mine (and fellow fanfic writer, if he ever gets it out.) pointed out that if Ben and company blow up the Fort Kennedy plant with Gunny and his pals just ten minutes away, they'd notice and come back. This kinda stumped me and is one of the reasons why this chapter was never written. Anyway, Ben plans his ambush but of course it doesn't go as planned. Gunny is no dummy and knows that Spirit Canyon is a perfect ambush point. He sends half of his guys away from escorting the trucks and has them swing around, so Ben's ambush get's ambushed. Much violence ensews, which leads to... Chapter Nineteen--The Reckoning Ben's biker army fights for its life and comes out on top (barely). Ben and Gunny end up on the top of one of the trucks and have a huge fight, which ends (of course) with Gunny falling to his doom off a cliff. Ben survives, but only because he does the one thing Gunny never thought he would do: he sacrifices his bike. It's pretty much a gonner anyway, but it is the one thing Gunny didn't expect. Lara has a part in this somewhere, but I could never figure out where. I gave her her big fight against Apone in chapter 16, so I figure that she can take a back seat while Ben has his moment. In the end the good guys win, with about eight guys (including Mo. even I couldn't kill off the president of Corley Motors), which leads to... Eplilogue, One Month Later Ben and Lara are chilling out. The two of them have had a month to relax and get to know each other while they figure out where their lives are going. Ben inherits Father Torque's bike, of course, and is kept busy in his new role. Lara writes her story and makes a few bucks. Robert Williams Jr. is terminated from his post at WCC. After a month (remember Lara's comment to Ben 'Lets get to know each other a month before we start talking about marriage'?) the two have a chat. Ben says to Lara "Stay with me here in the desert." At the same time Lara says ""I just heard about the Dagger of Xian. Come with me and we'll search for it together (it sure would have changed the plot to TR II). Ben says "No, my place is in the desert." "I want to settle down," Lara says, "But I just need to do this one last adventure. You understand, don't you?" "Yeah," Ben answers. "If you change your mind. you know where I am." They both know, however, that if they part now, that its for good. The story ends (how can it end any other way?) with Lara standing there while Ben rides, alone, into the sunset. (Or maybe Ben is standing there while Lara rides into the sunset. I never quite decided) The End Oh, finally, a small challenge, but you don't get anyting if you win. In the course of this story, as an homage to George Lucas and the creators of Full Throttle, I added a few lines from the Classic Sci Fi movie, Star Wars. Can you spot them? There are three, if my memory serves, but maybe there are more, I can't quite remember.
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