Warm air from our captor’s breath penetrated the cloth of the black hood over my face and moistened my ear.
“Derrick, I already know you’re both spies,” he snarled. “Admit it and save yourselves some pain.”
I tried to control my fear as I struggled against the rough ropes that bound my hands behind my back and to the chair. Beads of sweat dripped into my eyes.
“We’re not sp-ies,” I declared, but my voice betrayed me with a quiver. I had to get the ropes undone before…
Thump. Thump. Was the chair next to me scraping against the floor? Kurt must be trying to escape too.
A cramp shot through my shoulders as I pulled against my bonds, but they wouldn’t budge.
My gut clenched. To control the panic, I focused on breathing. Inhale, exhale. Hold it for the count. 1, 2…
Zap! Pain seared me, and every nerve jumped. Even tied, I flopped around in the chair while the electricity jolted my body. I tasted blood as I bit my lip. The pain consumed me.
I screamed and sobbed. I’d beg him to stop if I could only form the words.
Kurt swore at him and called him obscene names. The excruciating pain suddenly cut off, leaving me breathless.
A crackle sounded on my right. The stun gun. Kurt’s chair jumped against the floor as he flailed, but only a gasp came from him. Not one scream. Kurt stayed strong.
Shame filled me. My own weakness disgusted me. How long would it take before I’d reveal anything to stop the torture?
Would I fail the R2I, Resistance to Interrogation Training?
Chapter 1: Taking Risks
“There’s no such thing as safe.” Connor (Family friend)
Everyone thinks being rich guarantees happiness. It doesn’t.
Dad’s wealth wasn’t making him happy. He worried all the time. One of his worries was someone kidnapping me—like they took my sister.
I was a prisoner here. I wasn’t even supposed to leave the mansion to tread the grounds without informing our guards. But I wanted to prove myself—not just to Dad—to me. I needed to be fearless.
My heart drummed like a jackhammer ran inside as I jogged to the back of our estate. The mid-morning sun left few shadows to hide in. If our guards mistook me for a trespasser, they had orders to shoot.
Taking risks never concerned me before. I loved the furious pounding of my heart—didn’t I? I yearned to feel invincible again.
I stopped at the gate. The tall fence of wrought iron rails with black mosaic panels blocked my view of what lay inside. The shiny panels caught my reflection, giving my medium height and build a much taller and thinner fun-house effect. My black hair, brown eyes, and the muscles I’d worked so hard to develop disappeared in the blurry image.
With today’s heat, it didn’t seem as if fall had replaced summer. Between my sweaty hands and shaky fingers, punching in the security code wasn’t easy. I finally opened the gate to the separately fenced training compound.
When I stepped inside, I snorted at the sight of the first obstacle in the course—a tin dinosaur head, its mouth wide open to show the tunnel beyond.
Even with his wealth, Dad liked to repurpose things. The mechanical dinosaur used to be on the pee-wee golf course he built on our grounds after I asked to visit one, only it hadn’t been fun to play alone. This obstacle course wouldn’t be as easy as pee-wee golf—it was to be an agent’s final test.
After my performance in R2I training last month, Dad likely doubted whether I had the skills necessary to realize my dreams. Ever since I was a kid and heard Dad’s best friend, Connor, talking about some unsung heroes foiling a terrorist attack, I wanted to be one of those heroes. I’d imagined them as silent ninjas moving in the shadows to protect the innocent. Innocents like my sister. After ten long years, law enforcement had given up on finding her, but Dad hadn’t. I wanted to do more than miss her every day.
At age seventeen, I had to wait before I could apply to be a secret agent. If the CIA didn’t hire me, plan B was working for the FBI, but neither would consider me unless I was eighteen and had a bachelor’s degree. And first, I had to convince Dad I could do the job.
I walked toward the dinosaur.
The custom foam bags to pad the new obstacle course weren’t delivered yet. I could get hurt. A cold fist squeezed my heart.
I pushed the button on the pole next to the dinosaur. A tinny voice came out of the speaker, “To pass this course, overcome fifteen obstacles in fifteen minutes, starting now.”
The hum of motors whirred to life. Clang. The dinosaur’s teeth had crashed together. Those jaws opened again. I counted one, two, three. Clang. The mouth slammed shut. None of this was tested yet. Could I be crushed?
I sucked in some courage and raced toward the dinosaur. Timing the jaws, I dove through the mouth into the tunnel. A jagged tooth caught my pant leg. No. I kicked frantically, scratching myself. Blood trickled down my calf. My jeans ripped. I yanked my feet out of the mouth right before the teeth slammed together. Relief flooded me.
Inside the tunnel, the mid-morning sun didn’t penetrate very far. Ahead, it was as dark as a moonless night. The tinny, mechanical voice echoed in the tunnel from another speaker. “One minute elapsed, fourteen remaining.”
I needed to hurry to finish the remaining obstacles in time. I hit the button on my watch. A blue light bathed the concrete tunnel with an eerie glow. Without room to stand up, I scrambled forward on my hands and knees.
The grade of the tunnel rose steeply, so I wedged both feet against the sides to keep from sliding back. The tunnel leveled out, and light appeared ahead. Was I close to the exit? I turned off my watch light as the tunnel grew brighter. Clack, clack, clack. A giant fan with spinning blades split the sunlight. The metal blades whirled too fast to dive through them.
The tinny voice reported, “Two minutes elapsed. Thirteen remaining.”
I needed out. Now. But how?
There. Mounted on the tunnel wall was a gray electrical box. I threw open the lid. A slide of the heel of my boot and click, a compartment popped out that held a multi-function tool. I used the screwdriver to unscrew the top of the panel and reveal wires. I cut them. The fan stopped. I maneuvered my body through one of the gaps, careful not to touch the sharp fan blades, blinking as my eyes adjusted to the sunlight.
I was on a ledge about twelve feet off the ground, perched at the top of a wooden climbing wall with rock holds mounted on it. Drat. Descending a wall was more difficult than scaling one.
I carefully lowered myself to each hold, my shoulders burning under the strain. A third of the way down, a whoosh parted the air. What was that? A knife thunked into a wooden plank so close, it scratched my hand. My jaw dropped open.
The obstacle course wasn’t supposed to be that risky once the padding was installed. Why would Dad put knives into the program?
Wait. Where was the hum of motors and the tinny voice? A minute must have elapsed.
I gasped as the revelation hit me. Someone must be in here to silence them. Our guards would yell and use guns, not knives. It had to be someone else.
Someone who wanted to kill me.
My mouth dried. Dad’s wealth presented a motive for kidnapping, but why would anybody want to kill me? My mind screamed, why didn’t matter now. The response to a threat was D-E-C. Determine. Evade. Counter pursue.
Determine–the threat came from an unknown suspect wielding weapons. Evade—I was too exposed on this wall. I needed down ASAP, but it must be an eight-foot drop with no cushioning. I could break bones.
Another whoosh sounded. Another knife? My heart hitched as I flung myself back from the wall.
I plummeted toward the ground.
Chapter 2: Freed
“The greatest things in life aren’t paid for with cash, but tears.” Victor Costa (Derrick’s dad)
The ground rushed toward me. I flexed my knees to soften the shock. My feet hit, and I flung myself in a roll to ease my landing. “Oomph,” escaped me when my breath flew out at the impact.
However dazed, I needed to move. Counter pursue. I lunged for my ankle holster, pulling out my 38 snub-nosed revolver, and jumped to my feet. In the shadow cast by the wall, I caught a movement.
I aimed my gun. “Freeze, or I’ll shoot.”
A laugh rang out. There was no mistaking that laugh.
“Okay, you have me,” Dad called.
I lowered my gun and moved toward his disembodied voice. Dad excelled at remaining unseen—a great asset for a spy. His dark hair, brown eyes, and medium skin tone blended into the shadows and most ethnic groups. When I drew near, his arms snaked out to wrap me in a strong hug.
He said softly, “You shouldn’t be taking this test yet.”
My cheeks warmed as my relief turned to frustration, and I stepped back. “I wanted to prove I could be fearless, again, but I couldn’t even convince myself.”
He shook his head. “You were naïve. It’s not fearless when you don’t recognize the risk. Fear’s a natural reaction to danger. Only if an agent doesn’t let the fear stop them do we name them fearless.” He caught sight of the blood on my hand and grabbed it to examine the injury. “You should have moved when you heard the knife coming.”
For Dad to throw a knife at me was really crazy. “I might have been seriously hurt, or shot you, thinking you were an enemy.”
Dad’s chin jutted out. “You needed to learn you can’t relax your guard anymore. There are threats.”
Not this again. When Mom died, Dad had withdrawn from us. But after Deidra was kidnapped, he went to the other extreme. He hovered and made the grounds much more difficult to enter or escape.
“I’ll be eighteen next year. You can’t keep me fenced in forever.”
“You won’t be anymore. I’m leaving, and it might be a while before I come back.”
Wait. My stomach knotted. I didn’t want Dad gone indefinitely. Other than disagreeing about his restrictions, we got along great.
“Can’t you take me with you?” I asked.
“No, and I don’t have time for explanations.”
Had Dad decided to spy again? He hadn’t been on a mission since Mom’s death, eleven years ago. According to him, his business kept him too busy after he added the civilian division. With his launch of the I-Spy cameras during the dot-com revolution, consumer sales exploded. The little camera that looked like a glass eye and used an application that connected to a cell phone to watch property, kids, or cheating spouses. It came in everything from stuffed animals to garden gnomes.
Dad hadn’t completely left spy work. He still made toys for other agents and helped train them. That wasn’t very risky since no one but agents knew of his involvement. Usually family didn’t even know. I only did because I was great at eavesdropping and had confronted him and Connor.
“Are you going to do a black op?” I asked.
“Something like that.”
I knew better than to expect him to divulge any details of a covert operation. My phone’s ringtone sounded. I pulled it out of my pocket to look at the screen. “It’s the guard shack at the gate.”
“Put it on speaker, but I’m not here.”
I punched the button. “Yes.”
“Derrick, it’s Ivan. The system’s down—every camera and microphone. I’ll call someone to work on it. And Jake’s here. Do you want me to send him in?”
I’d rather talk more to Dad and learn what was going on. Jake and I had a shaky friendship at best.
Dad mouthed, “Act normal. Let him come back.”
“Yeah, tell Jake to go to the training compound.” I hung up the phone and asked Dad, “I take it you took down the system?”
Dad smiled. “Where’s Angela?”
If my latest tutor was here, I’d be stuck inside studying. “She left early this morning. She said she had a family emergency.”
Dad said something in Italian I didn’t recognize. “Are those swear words?”
“Yes,” he admitted.
I’d never heard him swear. What happened to his “no-one needed swear words if they had a good enough vocabulary to think of something intelligent to say.”
My gut churned. “What’s going on?”
“Coincidences don’t exist. I shouldn’t have trusted Angela, and neither should you. In fact, don’t trust anyone but Connor.” The tension lines in Dad’s brow revealed his concern.
If I had to choose one person to trust besides Dad, it would be his best friend, Connor. He’d been like an uncle to me.
“I’ve got to go. Remember, I love you, and you know who I am.” Dad took a step away. “Keep Jake out of the mansion for fifteen minutes.”
“Wait, is there any way I can contact you?”
He turned back to whisper, “Music at 12A, QSO CW PL 94.8 Use K-24. I’ll be N-14. No one else but you.”
He’d listen for radio tones in Morse code, using the private frequency at 12 a.m. tonight. It would be an illegal transmission since I’d be using a call sign not registered to me, but it was better than nothing.
“Derrick, are you in there?” It was Jake.
“Go,” Dad mouthed, then he jogged deeper into the course.
I shook off my worry for him. Dad’s skills were considerable. That’s why he’d been asked to train so many other agents.
“I’m coming, Jake,” I yelled as I ran down the far side of the course to avoid the obstacles.
When I reached the gate, it was open, and Jake stood framed in it. Not even a tuft of hair dared to stick out from Jake’s short military cut, and his clothes looked freshly pressed. Some agents called Jake “golden boy.” He appeared “golden” this morning with the sunlight framing his blonde hair and light complexion.
My thick black hair and brown eyes would never be called golden. Not that I wanted that, but it might be nice if I didn’t have to work as hard to impress agents. Everyone seemed to believe Jake would succeed while they doubted me.
He pointed to the course. “I thought it wasn’t finished.”
“It only lacks the foam bags, but I wanted to do it before we leave for the FBI’s leadership camp.”
Jake turned up his nose. “Leadership camp is nothing compared to tradecraft.”
Dad’s tradecraft camp was secret since it was for agents, but he let a few of us kids with excellent skills attend.
Jake’s lip curled. “I can’t believe you’re doing the course without cushions. You never see the difference between challenge and recklessness.”
Jake’s superiority complex grated on me. If he’d been locked behind gates all the years I had, he might have done some reckless things too. Jake even attended school—a private school—but he went. One of the few places Dad considered safe enough for me to go was the Bureau’s camp.
Now I could go anywhere. A chill of foreboding ran through me. I shook it off. I’d be all right. Hadn’t I shot a pellet gun before I learned to ride a bike? As soon as I graduated from college, and turned twenty-one-years old, surely I’d be recruited as a spy too.
When Deputy Director Johnson called, he’d said Jake needed something to do besides worry about his older brother, who was on his first black-op assignment, and overdue checking in.
I was concerned about Jake’s brother too. “Have you heard anything more about Kurt?”
“No. And now he’s two days late. There’s no way he went rogue.”
Rogue—an agent who left an assignment uncompleted, or who defected to another country. Kurt wouldn’t have done either.
“He might be surrounded by people and unable to make contact without revealing himself.” Even as I tried to convince us both, my gut churned.
Jake nodded. “Yeah, that’s got to be it.”
Tires squealed somewhere close, an engine raced. I pushed past Jake to see a white pickup truck and a black SUV leave the driveway and go off-road, careening around the mansion and the trees on the grounds to speed toward us. One of our security jeeps chased them both. The white pickup truck tried to pass the black SUV. The SUV swerved into it, but the white pickup broke free and pulled in front.
My ring tone pierced the air. I answered my phone to hear Ivan’s voice. “Before we could close the gates, an unknown pickup raced through behind Connor and Parker. E and E if you can. Shoot if necessary. We’re pursuing.”
I reached down and pulled my revolver from my ankle holster.
“What’s happening?” Jake shouted.
“The pickup’s a gate crasher! We’re to evade and escape!”
Jake pulled his pistol as I scrambled to the side.
“We should spread out. Find a tree for cover,” Jake yelled.
“That’s what I’m doing.” I slipped on the leaves under the maple I pivoted behind and recovered my balance. Jake ducked behind an oak as the vehicles approached my tree. The pickup truck slammed on its brakes. I leveled my gun.
The SUV careened into the driver’s side door of the pickup with its nose, blocking the driver in. The passenger side door of the pickup truck cracked open.
I slid my safety off.
Chapter 3: Accusations
“Great nations aren’t formed or kept without sacrifices, and our nation is the greatest.” Victor
Something inside the white pickup truck glinted—a gun. The trespassers were armed.
As CIA agents, Connor and Parker should be prepared to face anything, but I still yelled a warning, “They have a gun.”
They ducked, leaving only a shock of Connor’s red hair visible, then vaulted out of the SUV.
Two of our guards raced up in their jeep to the other side of the trespassers’ pickup truck. Luis aimed an assault rifle while Ivan barked into a bullhorn. “Put your hands up.”
Inside the pickup, both trespassers raised their arms. One of them shouted, “We’re licensed bounty hunters. We don’t have to be on opposite sides. We can split the reward.”
What were they talking about?
“Unless you have a warrant, you’re trespassing. We’ll shoot if you don’t do exactly as told.” Ivan’s tone rang with menace. “Exit the vehicle slowly.” When they did, he grabbed them and zip-tied their hands behind their backs.
Relief flooded me. I lowered my pistol, slid on the safety, and holstered it. As Ivan led them to the jeep, he glanced over at me. “We’ll call the police to pick up these perps. There may be more, so stay alert.”
What did he mean? I shouldn’t demand answers in front of the trespassers. After our guards loaded them into the jeep and drove off, I turned to Connor.
“What’s going on?”
“A lot. Where is everyone?”
“It’s the maids’ day off, our cook’s grocery shopping, and my tutor had a family emergency.”
“What about your dad?” he asked.
Dad said to only trust Connor, and Jake and Parker were listening. “He should be at work.”
Jake rushed to ask. “Is there some news about Kurt?”
Connor’s eyelids lowered for a millisecond. Not even good agents could hide every micro-expression. When Connor didn’t want to tell me something, his lids dropped a fraction.
He waved at the SUV. “Everyone get in.”
I blew out my breath. I wanted explanations, but everybody else was climbing in. Parker was buckling up in the front passenger side. Jake scooted over in the backseat, leaving me room. When I jumped in, Connor started the SUV. It sounded fine even though it had a big dent.
Connor did a U-turn and stepped on the gas. My head slammed into the roof when we hit a bump, so I grabbed the handle above the door to stop my bouncing as we raced over the lawn. When we reached the front of the mansion, Connor skidded into the driveway near Jake’s Corvette and shifted into park.
He looked over his shoulder at Jake. “Parker will drive you to meet your dad. I’ll follow shortly with Derrick.”
Parker got out, but Jake just sat there. His face had paled. “Is it bad news?”
Connor removed his key from the ignition. “The Deputy Director ordered us not to say anything before he sees you.”
My heart lurched. Who waited to reveal good news? Jake’s hands shook as he reached for the door and climbed out.
“I’ll see you later, Derrick,” his voice cracked with strain.
As Parker drove off with Jake, Connor removed his seatbelt. “We should go inside, lad. You need to pack anything you can’t live without.”
Connor spoke a dozen different languages, but when he reverted to using an Irish term, and called me lad, it usually meant he was upset.
My gut churned as I jumped out of the SUV. “Tell me what’s going on.”
“It’s teeyou,” Connor answered as we moved toward the mansion.
A chill raced through me. T.U. meant turned upside down. Something bad. Unexpected. I’d heard him use the term once before, the day Deidra was kidnapped.
Connor’s shoulders drooped. “PD raided a house after they received a tip about someone being tortured.” His voice lowered. “They found Kurt dead and evidence incriminating your dad as a mole.”
Pain stabbed my heart. Even though Kurt was four years older, we’d trained together, and I considered him a friend. Unlike Jake, he was quick to offer help, and his skills were impressive. Could he really be dead? And why would anyone believe Dad was a mole? That was crazy.
“Dad would never do anything to harm operatives.” I punched in the alarm code and opened the door. “And we don’t need money.”
Connor trailed me in. “Supposedly, it wasn’t just for money. They were blackmailing him to keep Deidra from being harmed.”
Our steps clicked against the marble tiles as we walked through the grand salon with its inlaid ceiling and crystal chandeliers. “Dad wouldn’t sell out Kurt, even for my sister. You don’t believe that, do you?”
Connor blew out his breath. “Not really, but it looks bad. There’s a lot of incriminating evidence, videos, the works.”
“That proves it wasn’t Dad. If he’d done it, there wouldn’t be any evidence.” We passed the formal crème chairs and divan to go over to the steps. “Someone has to be framing him.”
“Who? After the Bureau’s agents were killed investigating this terrorist group, Deputy Director Johnson kept Kurt’s assignment secret. Your dad and I are the only ones who knew because I was his handler and Vic trained him.”
I grabbed the banister and started up the steps. “You weren’t the only ones. I knew since I trained with him, and Kurt told Jake.”
Connor’s voice sharpened as he followed me up the stairs. “Did you or Jake tell anyone?”
“I didn’t. And I can’t believe Jake would, knowing the risk to Kurt. What about Angela? Was she informed?”
“No. Now you see why the Deputy Director believes Vic’s the mole?”
My breath caught. “We have to convince him Dad’s innocent.”
“I don’t think we can. Not without proof. And Vic didn’t help anything by disappearing. The Deputy Director’s assigned me to bring him in.”
“What?” My gut lurched, and I hesitated on the landing of the wide sweeping stairway before continuing to climb. “You’d do that?”
“Victor trained most of our operatives, so he can identify them. No one wants to risk him blowing their cover. But that’s not the worst of it. When PD raided the house, news crews were there, so the Company couldn’t keep it under wraps.”
The CIA rarely let details of operations emerge, and they were good at containing that information. Hard to believe they’d failed. It all seemed unreal. Could I be dreaming? I’d never dreamt something this crazy. I reached the second floor and turned down the hallway.
“Is that why those bounty hunters came here?”
“Yes. A reward’s been posted, along with your dad’s picture. They’re calling Vic a terrorist, so there will be plenty more after him.” He glanced at me. “Derrick, I have to be the one to bring him in. I’m probably the only one who won’t shoot him on sight.”
My heart ached, and my feet faltered. Connor put a hand on my shoulder. “If you know how to contact him, you need to let me know.”
Dad had said no one, but me. Besides, with what I knew now, I’d rather trust in Dad’s ability to hide than agents who wanted to see him dead. Connor couldn’t guard him 24-7. Hard to get away with lying when agents look for revealing tells, so I stuck to the truth.
“I don’t know any way of contacting him right now.” I only know how to reach him tonight.
I opened the door and walked into my spacious room. My huge bed, desk, chair, computer, and small replica of the mansion didn’t even come close to filling it.
“Why can’t I stay here?” I asked.
Connor sat in the chair. “Under the law known as civil asset forfeiture, the government can seize anything used in a criminal activity. The Company believes Victor trained agents here to learn their identities. Plus, money they assume was pay-offs was deposited in his accounts. Even you and Deidra’s trust has suspicious deposits. Everything’s already frozen.”
My neck felt uncomfortably warm as my anger surged. “How can they do that? Dad hasn’t been convicted.”
“It doesn’t require a conviction for the government to do it. I’m sorry.”
I punched the wall, and pain slammed through my fingers. Dumb move. It didn’t relieve my anger.
I spit out, “It sure seems like someone doesn’t want Dad to have the resources to clear his name.”
My head spun with everything. Like I was trying to swim in an ocean with huge waves pummeling me, and I couldn’t reach the calm water. What would Dad say? Focus on one task. Prioritize. What was first? Packing. I tromped to my walk-in closet and took out my duffel with the clothing and toiletries I’d planned to take to the FBI’s leadership camp.
I’d need my suit for Kurt’s funeral. I packed it and my sunglasses. I looked at the replica of the mansion on the floor.
“This isn’t going to fit in my duffel.”
Connor shook his head. “I don’t think you want to be carrying around a dollhouse.”
What dollhouse had perches inside? “It’s not a dollhouse.”
“I know, but other people don’t. Just put Pip in his shoebox.”
I patted my leg. My pet Sugar Glider came running out of his house to me. His five-inch length and four-ounce weight were barely noticeable as he climbed up my leg to where I could reach him. “The shoebox is for when he eats, and there’s a hole so he can get out. I don’t like being caged, and I don’t cage Pip.”
I slipped the elastic translucent band with gray polka dots over Pip’s head and under his chin. The dots blended into his coloring and held a camera lens, a receiver, and the new protocol of an undetectable bug Dad developed. When I gently placed Pip in my duffel, he disappeared under the clothes as I stuffed his box with bowls, pellets, vitamins, and an apple slice inside.
I dug through my dresser drawer for my cash. A quick count revealed $49. Not much. I crammed it in my jean’s pocket. I slipped my radio and the rods for my Slim-Jim antenna inside my bag.
“Will the government be upset about you letting me take this stuff?” I asked.
“Probably, but I don’t suspect it will harm the country if we lose a few of your things before they secure the mansion.” Connor motioned to my bag. “You won’t be able to get in again, so is that everything?”
What else did I want? My family. Our family portrait was sitting on my desk. I slipped it out of the frame and into the front compartment of my bag.
I zipped my duffel partially shut, leaving an opening so Pip could look out. “So what’s going to happen to me?”
“We’ll discuss it, but first I need to go to your dad’s office. The Company wants his computer and files secured.” He moved out of the room.
I slung the duffel over my shoulder and followed him. “So someone can plant more stuff to frame Dad?”
Connor practically jogged down the hall to the steps. “I have to follow my orders, but I’ll backup the hard drive. If anyone tampers with it, there will be evidence to the contrary.”
“Okay. Dad said I could trust you.”
Connor’s feet froze on the steps, and his eyes flickered once.
There was that tell again. “Can’t I?”
Connor blinked a couple of times. “Whatever happens, I hope you’ll remember I love you and your dad.”
I tensed. Connor was acting weird, and he wanted to bring Dad in. I couldn’t warn Dad until tonight. Meanwhile, I needed to do everything I could to convince the Deputy Director of Dad’s innocence.
We turned into the hallway off the grand parlor and hurried into the office. Connor pressed the separate code on the key panel beside the steel doors. They slid open to reveal the cherry paneling lined with shelves of books, Dad’s desk and computer, and his business files.
Connor rushed to the desk. After pushing the button underneath to release the floor bolts, he shoved the desk aside. He pulled the rug back and tapped a sequence with his foot. He checked his watch before tapping the next sequence. They had to be timed right. The panel slid open, revealing a bare safe. He shut the panel and put the desk back.
“Have you been in here?” he asked.
“You’re the only one Dad gave the codes to.”
He snorted. “Like that’s ever stopped you.”
I gave him a smirk. “I didn’t clean out the safe.”
“Then it had to be Victor.” He strode to the computer and pushed the power button. Nothing happened, so he turned it around. “The hard drive’s missing.” He re-engaged the office alarm. “Okay, let’s go.”
In the foyer, I took one last look back before I left the mansion, the only home I remembered. At times, I’d believed it a prison, only now I couldn’t return. Despair rose up, and a lump formed in my throat. Dad was in danger, and we’d lost a place to call home.
I trailed Connor outside. “I wonder how Dad will feel when he finds out the country he risked his life for is taking everything he worked so hard to get.”
Connor frowned. “What’s your dad say about material things?”
“They’re like catsup. Nice to add flavor, but catsup’s not good on its own. People are more important than things.”
Connor moved onto the driveway. “Wherever Victor is, he isn’t going to be upset about losing this stuff. He’ll be more worried about you. And he wouldn’t blame the country he loves for the actions of a few.”
He was right. Dad wouldn’t. And he wouldn’t want me to either. Connor motioned to his car. “Jump in the passenger side. There’s more I need to tell you.”
More? I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. Dad was always saying to be adaptable, to expect the unexpected. He’d throw surprises at us during training exercises to see whether we could cope. Could this be a test, and not real—a fabricated scenario? I wanted to believe it, but the grim set to Connor’s face dashed my hope. I dragged myself to the other side of the vehicle and reluctantly climbed in.
Connor shifted into drive and peeled away from the mansion. As we approached the gate, the guards raised it, and Connor drove the SUV down the lane and onto the main road.
“With your dad gone, you’ve become a ward of the state. Since I’m your family by love, not blood, and I’m out of the country so much, they wouldn’t agree to you staying with me.” Connor turned onto the entrance ramp to the Fred Washington Parkway. “Kids without family normally go to a foster home. Unfortunately, few want teens, and no-one wants those labeled unadoptable since that name’s also assigned to kids with behavioral issues. Victor hasn’t relinquished his parental rights, so you’ll be sent to Fallentier group home.”
“Can’t I be emancipated and live on my own?”
“If you could prove you can support yourself, but that’s not going to happen with your trust frozen. At least it’s only a year before you age out. Just keep your head down. Are you still packing?”