When she arrived in the warehouse meeting room just before 9:30 that evening Nancy was disappointed to find it devoid of hiding places. The boxes and crates which had been in plentiful supply when she had toured the site the previous day had been removed. She could not understand why this had been done. Had the containers been left undisturbed there would have been plenty of open space for the conference. Clearly this new arrangement had not been ordered by her father, else he would not have rehearsed her with the instruction to seek out a place of concealment. Now it was clear that after the lights went out and the signal flare was fired she would have to remain in the midst of the crowd and pretend to be as shocked as everyone else by the untoward developments.
Nancy wondered if the layout change signaled other alterations in plan that might further complicate or deviate from her father's scheme. Perhaps the gangsters knew that a trap had been set for them and were determined to frustrate it. A shiver ran down her spine. She had hoped that all things would go according to the Drews' script. But it seemed possible that a conflicting script for the evening had been written. She didn't know whose plan it was or how it was supposed to go. Her instinct of self-preservation ordered her to leave the room at once. It took all of her self-possession to stroll towards the center of the room without betraying her mounting unease.
At first she worried that the others present might inspect her closely for signs of fear. Strangely, they paid no attention to her at all. Not even those with whom she had developed a friendly, if casual, intercourse made any sign that they acknowledged her existence. This was the second eerie sign.
Nancy decided not to sit directly under the skylight, but slightly to one side. She hoped that this would deflect suspicion from her after she launched the flare. She memorized the path from her seat to where she would fire the gun. She thought it best not to fire at a visibly oblique angle from her seat. That would definitely assist in her identification as the signaling culprit should the lights be restored too early.
The seat Nancy chose was in the middle of an unoccupied section. She hoped that, for the ease of her movements, that the adjoining seats would not all become filled. This wish was granted, but in such a fashion as to make her feel even more uneasy than ever before. When the meeting was about to commence it was obvious that there was no one, among the more than fifty gathered, seated anywhere near her. She felt like an outcast or a leper. What was the meaning of all this: the removal of the boxes, the heads turned away from her, and the empty chairs surrounding her?
She did not have time to brood on these inauspicious signs, for the conference started right away.
The meeting was being chaired by the chief gangster, the architect and boss of the whole slave operation, Mr. Harry A. No one knew what the A stood for, if anything. Most suspected that Harry was not his real name either. Fake or not, the name Harry A. struck terror into all the thugs in the operation. They knew that their lives were held in the palm of his hand. It would take only a sideways glance from Harry A. and death would inevitably follow.
The boss, older than most others present by a generation, sported a suit that might have been considered modish in his own youth, but which now set him apart from the legion of pimps and gunsels gathered before him. His suit was double breasted and altogether too ample in the lapels. His tie was a little too wide and loud in pattern, even for a modern-day gangster. His hair was trimmed in a way that showed that Harry A. sought an image of respectability, but missed it because he had no clear picture of what true respectability was. Unlike the youngsters in his gang he did not sport any earrings. He did wear an ostentatious jeweled flag on his outdated lapel. In the larger community he claimed to be a great patriot, even as he secretly abused and subverted the values for which his country stood.
Surprisingly, Harry's face was not uniformly villainous. He could appear genial or simple-minded when the mood struck him. At that moment, however, his visage glowered like a grey thunderclould from which a deadly bolt of lightning might suddenly appear.
Harry A. banged on a portable podium with a large wooden gavel. Had he only dropped a pin on the floor, all talking would have quickly ceased, such was the fear and respect in which he was held. As it was his resonant pounding brought the entire gang to instant attention.
"We have serious matters to discuss this evening," Harry warned his subordinates. "I won't waste any time with preamble. The sooner matters are taken in hand the better."
Harry's eyes immediately locked themselves upon Nancy. The sinister look quite intentionally filled her with dread. She understood immediately that a sentence of death was about to be passed. Upon her!
"Chantelle McGee, please stand up."
Seemingly without her own volition, Nancy's body obeyed the curt command. No one ever disobeyed Harry A., not in the least request.
"Chantelle, I have known you but a short time, but in these few days you have become like a daughter to me." Harry spoke slowly and distinctly and invested a fund of heartfelt emotion in the word "daughter." "But I find that a very grave accusation has been made against you."
While Nancy knew that her doom had already been pronounced, she understood that in Harry A.'s mind the forms of justice needed to be maintained. This gave her some time-not much, but perhaps enough-a few minutes for her father to orchestrate an early dousing of the lights. This was her only hope of avoiding execution!
"You know Mr. Harry that I would give my life for you and for our family," Nancy prevaricated. Saying this, she swept her eyes round the chamber to review all of the gathered gangsters. "Who is it that accuses me and of what wrongdoing am I charged?"
Harry A. turned his probing eyes to the other side of the room. A young thug stood up and faced Nancy. It was Don Henderson, an ambitious pimp who had been being groomed for a berth in the gang's inner council until "Chantelle" made her impressive appearance. The frustrated hood had made no secret of his resentment at her rapid rise in the organization.
Don was a rugged and lean young man who looked ill at ease in his badly-fitting sporty duds. He did not have a typical pimp appearance. Most of his colleagues were either effete and willowy or else burly and stolid. Had things gone right in his life Don might have been an explorer, a cowboy, or naturalist. Something traumatic in his early life, Nancy had several times reflected, must have caused him to miss his path, not only deflecting him from the path of good, but catapulting him into a milieu where his outdoor nature was distinctly out of place. Don turned all of the subconscious frustration he felt at his wasted and perverted life against Nancy, his direct rival for status in the criminal organization.
"Chantelle has been deceiving us," he said grimly.
"In what way?" queried Harry A.
"She is holding back on the girls that she is training. Anyone can see that they are all hooked and ready for the brothel, and that they should be producing revenue for all of us. But Chantelle will not consent to release them from her supervision. So I conclude that she is farming them herself and keeping the money for her own exclusive benefit. She is making her own personal brothel, and keeping the profit that by rights ought to be shared. She is taking money from all our pockets and purses. Chantelle is nothing less than a thief!"
"What have you got to say for yourself, young woman?" probed Harry A., turning to face Nancy.
A circle of thugs had formed around the defendant at the distance of a few yards. Nancy knew that they wouldn't approach any nearer until they had a further gesture from their boss. It was up to her to see if she could delay just a few minutes-or seconds longer. Her life depended on it.
Why hadn't her father yet turned off the lights? He must be able to see what is happening. Or has he been betrayed or apprehended or, she hesitated to think it, killed? If Carson Drew was not soon in position behind the building security controls she was surely doomed!
"I deny this charge emphatically," declared Nancy. Nevertheless she knew that she could not win the case before this "court." Her fate had already been decided, perhaps based upon some other charge entirely. The awkward accusation being made, she suspected, was just for show. It was something that sounded vaguely plausible, could not be readily disproved, and it would rally the greedy troops behind the guilty verdict.
Desperately stalling for time, Nancy explained how hard it was to train prostitutes with the new drug. Pixie dust had a long lead time, but in the end the victims would be completely at the mercy of the slaveholding gang-far more so than they would be if they had been addicted to "mere" heroin. But pixie dust dependency was worth the wait, for the profits would be greater in the long run.
Don immediately objected to "Chantelle's" self-justification. He cited the already high profit the gang could attain with more traditional narcotics. He didn't believe that there was anything significant to be gained by the delay. Chantelle was the sole gainer by the increase in training time. The rest of the gang, in fact, were all losers.
Just as Nancy was framing her reply, knowing that it might be her last chance in life to speak, the lights flickered. Nancy quickly released her purse and revealed the flare gun. Seeing what looked like a weapon in her hand, the gangsters around her withdrew a pace and all present reached for their revolvers. Nancy knew that she was committed. Nothing would be gained by waiting for the others to draw and fire at her. She had to fire the flare right away in order to call in the police. Her life would be instantly forfeit, but at least she would have achieved her main objective in capturing the criminals and saving countless young people from a fate far worse than her own death. She elevated her arm, aimed at the open skylight, squeezed the trigger, and dived for the floor. Before she hit the linoleum the lights in the room were extinguished and a hail of bullets were in flight over her head!
There were several immediate cries of pain. Nancy could hear the bodies of injured-or dead-gangsters hitting the floor. The gunsels, realizing that they were doing their cause no good, then promptly ceased firing. But a panic had set in amongst the rest of the crowd. The criminals ran about in all directions, banging into chairs, tripping over bodies, and making a dreadful din. Nancy decided to use this opportunity to effect an escape. She scrambled to her feet. Although she was somewhat disoriented, she decided to follow a straight path until she came to a wall. Then she planned to edge around the room until she came to a door. Hopefully by then, the police would have arrived and she would be able to take shelter behind their powerful guns.
Although impeded by overturned chairs and a few prostrate people, Nancy managed to gain a wall without by walking slowly and deliberately. Once, her probing foot detected an inert human form. She stepped over it, taking care to place her foot on a patch of open tile. Another time her hip brushed against the back of a chair. She counted herself fortunate to have gained the wall without having collided with any of the blindly perambulating gangsters.
Moving away from voices and the sound of movement, Nancy carefully and cautiously felt her way along the wall. The length of the wall seemed to her interminable. The darkened room seemed to be of much greater dimension than it had been when light. Although the time that had elapsed since the room had been plunged into darkness felt like hours, Nancy realized that it could not have been more than two minutes. A few minutes more, she prayed, and the police will be here, and I will be safe.
Then, suddenly, the lights were back on again. The alteration from pitch blackness to intense brightness blinded her for a moment. As her eyes adjusted, she looked along the wall and calculated, to her despair, that the nearest door was still more than a dozen yards away. And looking back into the center of the room Nancy saw that she was now presented with an even more formidable wall-a wall of guns, each one pointed directly at her!