Though Linda wasn’t in the mood to go home. Not yet. Things were tense with her husband. She acknowledged staying late would invite more questioning. More accusations. Not that he was completely off base.
Her phone rang, her husband’s name glowing from the screen. Taking a deep breath, steeling herself, Linda clicked the green accept button.
“Charlie,” she tried to hide the exasperation in her voice, “I’m on my way.”
“It’s bad weather out. Hurry home, it’s supposed to get worse.”
Linda looked out of the large office window and could see heavy clouds already beginning to crowd each other.
“Thanks for the heads up. I’ll be home in ten.”
“I love you,” she added to the conversation, flattered he checked in on her for only safety reasons. He was a good guy, someone to work things out with.
Static on the other side.
“Yes, well,” he coughed, breaking the silence, “Drive carefully.”
As close to love as he could express.
Linda hung up the phone and threw it into her purse, heading towards her car as promised. Charlie was a good guy, he deserved more, deserved better than me, she thought, beating herself up for the twentieth time that day.
Everything was going wrong.
Her husband was unemployed. A victim of the economy-no one was building. Construction managers were not needed. They were scraping by with her assistant salary. She couldn’t lose her job.
If only he understood.
Even if the money she brought home wasn’t always honest, they could always pay rent.
Why couldn’t he understand? An assistant salary wasn’t enough.
Charlie had a natural brawn, smarts, and craftsmanship. His job had been based off his skills.
As Linda slid into her car she locked the door and sighed. She had looks. A well maintained bottle-blond with red pouty lips. A body formed by yoga. She had skills like conversation, putting people at ease, a nurturer. But those skills didn’t pay out like Charlie’s.
So Linda had her looks…
And she used them.
To keep food on the table and bills paid. Was that really so bad?
Her brother loaned them money, looked after her the best he could. She hated being a burden, and his charity couldn’t last forever. Being a burden was not her style. Not when she could do something about it.
Stalling, drumming her red manicured nails on the wheel, she finally started up the engine.
Concentrating on the rainy road ahead, Linda failed to notice a pair of headlights following her out of the parking garage.
Chapter One - Patrick-
“Don’t hang up. Don’t you dare hang up. We don’t have that sort of money,” Patrick growled into the phone, his normally friendly blue-green eyes turned to pools of black. He could feel his body wanting to twitch, the internal hidden shake he held in, wanting to punch something and destroy it. One hand supported him as he leaned on the desk, the other constricted into a fist at his side. Steady, he thought to himself, controlling his breathing, steady.
There was no outlet. If he pounded the table it would sound, letting the caller know he was getting to him. His partner paced the room, keeping a wide birth, ready to take over if Patrick lost his cool.
He wouldn’t. They were professionals. Trained to handle surging anger, adrenaline, and testosterone coupled with coffee, stress, and Five-Hour Energy Shots without snapping. The trick was to give off only a little steam at a time.
So one man clenched and re-clenched his fist.
The other wore down the carpet.
Both zeroing in on the phone in the center of the table, in the center of the room. The center of their world.
“I’m not coming down any lower. Midnight tonight. Unmarked bills or things will get much worse,” said the voice on the other side of the line.
“He hung up,” Patrick grunted, finally pounding the table so hard everything shook.
David Harper, his partner in this mess, collapsed in a chair, hanging his head, “And how are we supposed to get one million dollars by midnight?” he checked his watch, “It’s noon. The families don’t have that. The Bureau would take twenty-four hours and they might not even approve.”
Patrick finally sat as well, supporting his head in both his hands. If he sat up fully he might have fallen over. The stress from the phone call was ebbing out and all that was left were caffeine jitters and the knowledge he hadn’t slept in two days. He rubbed his eyes, trying to wake up, feeling like a hollow shell of a man. Even lesser since he had been unable to drive the ransom down to a manageable amount.
“We have to get that money,” Agent Harper implored, between them he had the most sleep, so it was his job to make the logical decisions, “Get the families to draw out what they can. Get the Bureau to cough up the rest. See if there’s any cash in evidence.”
“He’s going to kill those girls,” Patrick muttered, rubbing his jaw, reminding him that he hadn’t shaved since this mess all started, “He killed the last two even with the ransom paid.”
The room went silent. That was last week. The wound was still raw and the crying mothers’ voices rang in the air. As did the hollow “we did everything we could.”
“We have to tag the bills,” David agreed, “Two duffle bags, first payment upon the safe return, the rest after. We’ll have explosive detecting devices.”
“What if he offers one girl and holds onto the other?”
“And gets the last payment and kills the remaining girl,” David finished, frustrated enough to put his forehead down on the table with a slight bang, “Then we are screwed.”
“Snipers at the drop off? Have them be prepared to take that shot. If he changes the drop off location, then we have to take it.”
David laughed, sitting up finally, “So we need sleep, solid plan, and a million by midnight. Oh, good.”
This was all railroading towards worst case scenario. From day one.
Up on the chalkboard was the picture of Thomas Maynard, age 54, the laid off accountant/kidnapper in question. Patrick glared at the black and white and photo, studying it, as if the ink would give any insights into the man. The drop had to go differently this time.
Maynard worked for Lance and Cooper Accountants for 25 years and was laid off three weeks ago without notice. Budget cuts thanks to oil and gas markets. Security walked him out peacefully. No tears, no rampages. Just the fuse of a sleeping time bomb being lit.
Maynard, with credit card debt, student loans from two kids, a mortgage and two car payments seemingly snapped. From working with the people around him he knew all about their families and began kidnapping their children. Mariam and Dylan-ransomed and returned safely within 24 hours. Patrick negotiated that case easily.
Amy and Carly… kidnapped from the bus stop waiting for school. Their backpacks left behind, empty other than instructions on how to contact Maynard. The agents all guessed the man had gotten a taste of money and crime and liked the flavor.
They thought they were after a rookie.
Patrick swallowed the lump in his throat. Everything had gone right that night till…The girls were in the FBI car…buckled in safely, smiling. Laughing, even with all they had been through. Their hands were bound crudely with rope and the agents next to them were untying them-Freedom!
He exhaled, a whoosh, trying to purge the scene from his system.
“I’m going to kill him,” Patrick said, his voice breaking, “If you’re not okay with that, then get reassigned.”
“We’re going to kill him,” David affirmed.
The girls hadn’t known that threaded into the rope was a small locket, a timed explosive device.
Patrick’s eyes wondered over to the newspaper clippings of other victims spanning five years. Cold cases. The only evidence ever left behind was a small, opened locket in a heart shape. A serial killer had been hiding in plain sight for all those years, hiding behind spreadsheets and numbers and tortoise shell-rimmed glasses.
Till now. His fists clenched.
Maynard’s lay-off didn’t trigger the crazy. It made him change his pattern. A huge misstep.
“I know how to get the money,” he said.
David’s expression took on shock, “The one who ruined your career at the U. S. Marshal’s? Her? A teacher?”
“An heiress. Sixteen million.”
“Are you sure you want to…revisit…”
Patrick felt his stomach turn, of all the bad guys he faced on a day to day basis, only she made him truly nervous.
“Anything to save the girls. And I do mean anything.”
Even if it meant facing the past.
He licked his lips and downed some coffee, sighing. There was nothing like a woman to mess up a man.
Mornings usually involved breakfast in bed. Bryson made great scrambled eggs and biscuits. He knew how I took my coffee and never made fun of me when the drink became more white than black as I added the creamer. He delivered the tray to the bed with a smile and slid back in next to me. Bryson was thorough and thoughtful, two very good traits to have in a boyfriend. That and his honey-brown eyes that looked down at me as if I was the entire world.
“I’d let you sleep till noon. But I was starving,” he said, watching amused as I wiggled up into a seated position, “So it’s brunch today.”
“This looks amazing,” the spread was more than his usual breakfast, “Chicken, waffles, and an omelet?”
I couldn’t get to my fork fast enough, cramming down the first few bites before even thanking him. Dating a pseudo chef was something I had never done before and something I was definitely not regretting. He left things like chicken cordon blu and spaghetti pie in my fridge. A keeper in my book. Sticking with him meant never lifting a finger on Thanksgiving.
My kitchen was getting more action than I ever gave it.
“Amazing,” I groaned, “Thank you.”
“How’d you sleep last night?”
“Like a brick.”
Bryson nodded, happily dropping the subject. He had waffles to eat.
I had been seeing a psychiatrist for the past year to help me sleep and finally I was three months sleeping-pill free. The doctor and Bryson were helping me put my ex-boyfriend and my ex-fiancé (two different people) in the past for good. In short I had been in the Witness Protection Program and fell in love with my handler while my fiancé was busy embezzling. My handler, US Marshal Patrick Taylor, was in charge of investigating said fiancé. It was an odd year. I had to take a lot of antacids.
Needless to say, that era of my life was a disaster and while I had moved on, it was still a process.
Bryson was amazing accepting a woman of baggage into his life.
“I know it’s Saturday, but I need to run by the office. Look over some files. I have a big case on Monday going to trial.”
“I thought your load was light,” I whined, wanting to spend the rest of the day in bed.
“Mine is,” he wagged a fork in the air, “But I’m sitting second chair on a case. Mentoring the new guy.”
“Fine, go, leave me,” I teased dramatically as he leaned over to kiss me goodbye.
He climbed from the bed and disappeared into the bathroom to get ready for the day. I sat there, eating the rest of waffles, feeling smugly proud of the life I pieced together for myself. A great place to live, my condo was huge and freshly redecorated from floor to ceiling. Nothing reminded me of any of my exes in there. In fact, on my dresser, staring back at me was a picture of Bryson and I smiling in a snow flurry in front of Rockefeller Center. He had a warm, toothy smile, a chiseled jaw line and a rich booming voice. A radio voice with a model’s face-I lucked out. Bryson Brill, was sometime more brand than man, a well known defense attorney who charged so much his nickname in the press was Bryson “Bill.” More than looks, he was smart and cared for me. And I had the local police department investigate him after date number two and he turned up all clean. No more dating embezzlers for me.
Full, in heart, spirit and tummy, I slid back down to catch some shut eye.
A perfect start to the weekend.
A knock at the door. I paused, my hairbrush only halfway through my hair and my toothbrush hanging from my mouth. No one was coming by today; this was odd.
Throwing on my robe and belting it tightly, I rinsed my teeth and swept my hair up into a pony. Unannounced visitors did not deserve make up.
At the door though, I wished I freshened up more. I stepped back, debating letting the past back in. Why was he here? I stood, hand on the doorknob, in limbo.
“Let me in, Amanda,” said that familiar voice that could run goosebumps down my arm.
“Why are you here? I thought we agreed…” my voice shook, “I don’t want to see you.”
“‘Ever-ever again.’ I remember. But this is an emergency and it isn’t about me,” he dropped his voice, “Please.”
“No. Go home.”
“It really is an emergency.”
I could feel my resolve weakening. Patrick was good at doing that to me. Part of me did want to see him again, even if his face brought on painful memories. Time hadn’t yet let me forget the good ones as well. The ones his smile and wink brought back. The way he arched his eyebrows at me, or that special peripheral glance he threw my way. A million different looks and expressions, all just for me. Well, at least there once had been.
My stomach grumbled. Too much of a good thing hurt.
“What do you want?” I yelled through the door. So much for the great Saturday morning.
“Something that can’t be yelled through the door. You could say I’m here on business.”
He held up his badge. I groaned. His trump card.
Fine. I was not going to get in trouble with law enforcement. I opened the door and stepped back, turning around so that he could follow me into the living room, but also letting him know that he was not really welcome. I leaned against the back of the couch, facing him with arms crossing my chest. A clear indication he was not invited to sit. He would not be staying.
“How do you need help?” my voice was direct, but not rude. This was business; that’s what he said, and I was doing my best to not interject emotion.
A great act on my part. I wanted to simultaneously kiss and throw him out. Roughly.
“You know I respect your wishes. I wouldn’t be here unless I had to be,” he handed me a file folder, “Open it. Two girls. Their lives are in danger.”
Two middle school girls looked back at me from their yearbook photos. I snapped the folder shut.
“What does this have to do with me? I’ve never seen them before.”
“They’ve been kidnapped.”
Ah. He was playing on the fact that something similar happened to me and my best friend months prior; how kind of him to remind me.
“How dare you bring this to me?” Now my voice was hard. How could he bring up the past? His face was reminder enough. I shoved the folder back into his hands. Just because I’ve been kidnapped before and he was there to rescue me did not give him license to expect anything in return.
My stomach gurgled. Okay, it actually did. I owed him my life.
“The ransom is one million in cash by this evening,” he continued, “There’ s no other way to get that much that fast without you. Help me save these girls,” he held up the folder, “It’s not about us.”
I closed my eyes and exhaled. He was right. I couldn’t let anyone go through what I had gone through, not if I had the means to help.
“I’ll help you. Just this once,” I agreed, “A million… I’ve never withdrawn that much. You’ll have to go to the bank with me. I have duffle bags upstairs I can donate. I bought them for a camping trip I never went on. So, lets…” I shrugged, “Okay, let’s do this. Save the girls.”
Before he could think he wrapped me into a hug and spun me into the air. Till he remembered we were broken up, and he stiffened awkwardly, letting me down gently. I stepped back, getting distance, backpedaling towards the stairs, yet still not unable to unlock our eyes.
“I’ll ah, go get those bags and get changed,” I said, my voice breaking, not to mention my heart. I thought it had healed.
He sat next to me in the car. The driver was his partner who only regarded me with a curt nod. I was the evil and horrible ex. Buckling my seat belt, convincing myself to stay in place and go through with this, I reminded myself this adventure was not about us; it was about saving others.
“You look like you’ve been doing well,” Patrick said, trying to thaw the ice.
This was not about us.
I studied my cuticles. This was not going to be some grand reconciliation.
“Are you ever going to…” his voice drifted off.
“Forgive you? No.”
Not much he could say to that.
In the vault, I was able to stay away; I was told to stand in the corner and not touch anything even though it was my money. The bank manager, Patrick, and his partner were stacking bills and loading the duffle bags. My job was to watch and sign documents. It was worrisome that the men were working with speed and efficiency that read of doing this before. What did Patrick get himself into? Originally, he worked undercover in the US Marshals till my case with him became too public and he had to quit.
The case was all across the media, making the Marshals switch Patrick to a desk job. He wasn’t the sort of man who could sit behind a desk and watch everyone else get in on the action. So now, due to some great connections, he was in the FBI, once again in the front lines.
I bit my lip; I did not like him being in danger, dealing with criminals. I stepped away from that life. But he lived for it. Watching him, packing the money, there was a gleam in his eye. The action-the excitement-this was food for his soul and it lit him up. And that scared me, that one day he’d step in too far and get himself killed.
It scared me, that if I looked in the mirror, that same glint in my eye would reflect back.
This was exciting.
“Done,” the bank manager said as he zipped up the last bag. They used five of my duffles. All of the money was finally marked and invisible inked.
“No one open these. As soon as the zipper is released invisible ink bursts out covering the money and anything nearby,” the manager warned.
“Hopefully they will think we didn’t tag the money. The invisible ink should buy us time unless he is smart enough to run a black light over everything,” Patrick said, throwing a duffle bag over his shoulder and turned to address me, “We will do everything our power to pay you back. Thank you.”
I shrugged, “Let me know when you get the girls back safe.”
“Will do. Alright. Let’s drop you off at home and the rest us will prepare for the drop.”
He sat next to me in the car again. I didn't know why; he was normally the driver. In control.
This was still not about us-I was not here for us. Patrick should have been up-front and ignoring me.
“When you’re ready, however long that takes, I’m ready to talk,” he said, gazing at me with those annoyingly expressive eyes.
I swallowed the brewing anger.
“Don’t forget you left me first. Not the other way around. You made your decision.”
“You did a good thing here this morning,” he sighed, “Maybe I made the wrong one.”
“You betrayed me. In europe of all places.”
Patrick grunted, leaning back in his chair and muttered, “I don’t have time for this. You made choices too that night.”
I glared and shifted myself away from him, as far as I could in a small car’s backseat. Really there was nothing else to say. We were both right.
Luckily, I lived close to the bank and the car slowed to a stop before our conversation was able to go on. His partner came around and got the door for me, holding it open, urging me out.
“Good bye Patrick. I don’t expect to me hearing from you for a good while,” I nodded towards his partner, “Good luck you guys. Be safe. Get those young ladies back.”
Saving lives was basically the only valid reason to see an ex.
“Goodbye, Amanda. As always, good to see you,” Patrick returned, as David kept his enthusiasm at a nod.
I harrumphed and walked away. The sound of the door slamming behind me carried me ahead faster-I had to get away from him and his world. It was that or be drawn in again. Drawn back into those pleading pools of blue and green.
I had distance now, peace and safety. And a Bryson Brills to come home to at night.
In fact, he had fancy dinner reservations for us coming up. Rumor was he was planning on proposing.
No matter how much the past was tugging at me, I was not going to look back. I was not going to mess up this engagement.
Chapter Three -Amanda
I was back. On that plane to Switzerland. Sitting next to Patrick, ready for our romantic getaway with only a thorn between us. A really, really large thorn. More like a tree branch. I wanted to stay quiet. We deserved this trip. I deserved it, I wanted to get away from everything that reminded me of being kidnapped.
“What are you thinking of?” he asked into my ear, in a low rumble so others wouldn’t hear, “You look worried.”
“You,” I grinned, trying to diffuse my stress, “I love you.”
He grinned right back at me, but it was a bit weary. It was hard to fool him. “Love you, too,” was all he said.
I leaned against his shoulder, closing my eyes, breathing in his light scent of aftershave. This was where I belonged. Patrick was worth more all the millions. Letting the money go meant truly making the decision to give up on my ex-fiancé and our plans and all that he once offered me. I owed Patrick that.
“Patrick?” I began, keeping my eyes closed.
Would he still love me, once he knew?
“I have something to tell you.”
“Of course, what?”
Now or never.
Would he forgive me?
“There’s something I have to tell you…Something I’ve been holding onto for quite some time.”
“What is it?” His posture straightened, but he gave my hand a reassuring squeeze.
My stomach gurgled at the endearment, but I had to thunder on, “The money Randall stole, I think I know where it is,” I paused to consider how much I really knew, “Well, I’m not sure exactly if it’s the stolen money…but I know his bank account and everything t could be figured out from there.”
Randall, my ever-reliable ex was either dead or running from the government. Patrick opened his mouth to say something, but he snapped it back shut at my slight shake of the head. If I stopped to answer questions I’d never finish my story.
“When we first moved into the condo he gave me a gift, a key. It was to what he called our nest egg. Our retirement plan. The rainy day fund. The most interesting thing about the account was that neither party alone could withdraw more than 8 million. Ever. It was to be divided evenly in case of-anything-Unless a death certificate is issued. Then the remaining party would receive 16 million.”
I exhaled. I had been keeping that in for a while.
“So we check the withdraw. If eight million is gone, he’s alive?”
“You’re taking this well,” I paused, studying him, squinting. Was he not exploding because we were on an airplane? “Are you mad?”
“Not as mad as I thought I’d be. I’m impressed you finally said something.”
“What? Wait? You knew?”
Patrick smirked, “I’m good at my job. Of course I knew. I knew Randall opened a Swiss account of a large sum with only two names on the signature card. Didn’t take much to guess the rest. Luckily you are right. With his multiple accounts in the US and Switzerland we cannot define the source of the money.”
“Until you…until you get one of the names on the account to print out a list of withdraws and deposits.”
“Bingo. The American accounts are easier. Right now they are frozen and we are combing through them.”
“So, wait, this wasn’t a romantic getaway? You’re just using me?” I asked, my voice was getting oddly high pitched; I was bristling, tired of men using me. Now it was my turn to get mad. He seemed hardly put out by life-shattering news. He knew my secret the whole time and was just waiting for me to crack. All the questioning, all the journaling he had me do, he was patiently waiting for me to come around. The anger was boiling under my skin, but I sort of understood and respected him a little more. Not like I was going to let him know that.
He waited for me to trust him on my own terms. To make my own decisions.
Talk about being conflicted.
“You’re not in cuffs now are you?” he smirked, “Well, at least not yet.”
Chapter Four- Patrick-
Bags were loaded in the truck. Snipers cleaned their scopes. Patrick and David had already gone over the plan, the marks on the wipe-off board looked more like a football play than a rescue plan, though everyone was clear on their position. They were a well-functioning oiled team. The only thing left to do was wait.
Patrick filled his time by double checking the truck. Gas, air in tires, extra ammo. He was checking off lists that had already been checked, but nervous energy kept him moving.
“We’re going to get them back,” David said, standing beside him, watching their men pace out their pent-up energy. The air in the garage was kinetic.
Patrick crossed his arms across his chest, “It’s five to midnight. He’d have called by now.”
“Maybe not. He’s keeping us on edge.”
“He’s always called at eleven. He’s learning,” Patrick looked over at his partner, grateful for the stoic positivity his friend always possessed, “He’s getting better at this. Each time.”
“Then let’s make sure it’s the last.”
Before Patrick could respond, his cell rang. Holding up a silencing palm, all the chatter died down and silence swept across their make-shift meeting room. Swallowing any nerves, Patrick took a second and answered.
“Been looking forward to hearing from you.”
“Do you have the money?”
“All of it. How are the girls? Are they near?”
“They are, now write this down, go to the Fed Ex. The attendant in the shop next to you will be able to instruct you on the rest.” And then there was a click. He hung up.
“Mail him the money?” Patrick asked, shutting down the phone call, “He hasn't done this before. Thoughts?”
Even though he hadn’t been with the FBI for long, and they were partners for only a little under a year, a deep layer of trust and respect had been forged between Patrick and David. They played off each other as if they had worked together for years. At first Patrick had been worried, he was used to working alone and reporting in at a distance, but now, especially in cases like this, having back up next to him was priceless.
“Let’s play it out,” David said, and then turned to address the men, “Move out. Treat the Fed Ex office as hostile grounds. Who knows what he’s done to that store clerk.”
Patrick jumped in the driver’s seat, gunning the engine, hardly waiting on the men to follow in behind. There was something he was willing to wait on for, however.
“Bring the dogs,” he spun around in his seat to address his team, “We sweep for explosives first. This could be a trap.”
David nodded, “He won’t care about blowing up a million dollars. Not if he thinks he’s getting the only people after him.”
“‘The shop next to you’ he knows us. This is getting personal,” Patrick added, “Let’s go. Last dog’s in. We’re not letting him win on our home turf.”
Three minutes later the bomb sniffing team was out of the truck and sweeping the building. It was a small stand-alone franchise office, wrapped by pavement. Loading docks in the rear, parking in front. The fact that it was filled with wrapped mail parcels concerned Patrick. A bomb could be hiding in any box, encapsulated in something that would distract the dogs from signaling them. The squad, after pacing the exterior declared the perimeter and entries clean.
Five extra minutes passed.
His men assembled behind him at the front door, one minute. He gave them a moment of peace before raising his hand and motioning them to follow. Who was he kidding? He needed that extra second-nervous sweat was pooling down his face, getting into his eyes. Luckily the heat of the night and the gear offered another explanation. No one needed to know how much this meant to him. His guys needed to have one hundred percent faith in him and his abilities, and he owed them no less.
Truth was he only operating at ninety -percent. Seeing Amanda again had ripped away ten percent of him-again. Every encounter with her left her less than a whole man. In dealing with her, he was never quite reasonable. David should have been sent alone to collect the money. Her face, though, selfishly he wanted to see it again. Talk to her. Even though it ripped him apart and made him less than ready for tonight. Anything that went wrong would be on him.
Regardless, he swept all thoughts aside, and entered. Eyes traced the floor line, the door frames for trip wires. Nothing. His ears perked up at a a muffled yelp. Moving at a quicker pace, he headed towards the check-out desk. A clerk was sitting, tied to a chair with coarse rope and duct tape across his mouth. The kid was probably in the range from eighteen to nineteen, scared and wiggling through the restraints. He stopped, once he saw the rescue team.
“Hey, we got you,” Patrick said, squatting down next to him, “This might hurt.”
Slowly he peeled back the tape and the kid grunted, but freedom was worth the pain. The clerk sighed in relief, rubbing at his red jaw line, “He said you’d come.”
“Who’s ‘he’? You’re going to have to tell me everything.”
“Untie me first?” the kid whimpered.