a mystery novel by Ann Lynes
Suddenly she walked over to the window and stared out again. I followed her. Something was wrong, and I intended to find out what. "Cassie, please tell me what's the matter. Maybe I can help." I touched her shoulder. To my surprise, she didn't push it away. "Did he say something to upset you?"
She slowly turned around. She scrutinized me; I could feel the warmth of her eyes on me. "He said I would be dead in a month."
Oh my. I never suspected another death threat. No wonder she was aloof. I tried to wrap my arms around her, but she walked out of my embrace. "Cassie, maybe he's just trying to scare you." *I* didn't even believe that.
"He deserves a promotion then," she retorted. She was down right mad--her jaw set, her forehead wrinkled, her mouth curved. And she had every right to be. "So, where's our next destination?"
"You're right. I guess we can't stay here." I knew the answer, but I didn't have a solution. Where was I going to take her now? Out of state? Then a thought struck me--what about a cruise? Being a travel agent, Cassandra could book us on a cruise, pull a few strings with a few contacts to get us on the next cruise. I didn't care where it was going. I did have one problem: what to do about Tim. "On a ship."
She seem to consider the idea a moment. "Let's say I can make all the arrangements. Since the Century--the "Internet" ship, many cruise lines have come up with Century "knock-offs." I can easily book us on one of those."
That's what got us in this mess in the first place, I hypothesized. But it might be fun to see what an "Internet" cruise would be like. How long the cruise was would determine what to do with Tim. So I asked her how long this one would be.
"The average cruise is seven days."
Seven days. Tim had four weeks off of school for Christmas as he went to a year-round school. The questions were should we take Tim along and what would there be for him to do around a large vessel.
"They have special activities for children like a room filled with computers and lab assistants to guide children through the wonders of the computer."
I still wasn't convinced that a cruise was right for Tim. It would involve close quarters and day-to-day contact. "Could we possibly get adjoining rooms?," I suggested, giving her a weak smile.
She nodded. "I'll try to arrange it."
With that said, we gathered Tim and stayed in the log cabin hotel for the night.
We spent several nights in the comforts of the log cabin hotel. I paid one of the bell persons handsomely to pick up our luggage at the Saddle Street house.
Tim and Cassandra were driving each other crazy by the time we boarded the plane to meet the *Galaxy*. I wondered how long they would last on the ship without trying to kill each other. I vowed, more to myself than to them, that I would be supervising them at all times. Actually, I would pay the security guards on board to look after them.
Cassandra refused to be treated like a child, and she made that known. Although I trusted her completely with Tim, I was fully aware that no love was lost between them. And I always ended up in the middle. How could I choose between the woman I loved and my son? I resented having to make that choice at all.
The first day aboard, I became sea-sick, so I spent all morning worshipping the "Porcelain Goddess." Tim and Cassandra went off to explore the vessel. Later, Cassandra forced me to eat an apple, and to my surprise, it did settle my stomach enough to let me do some exploring of my own.
Something had bothered me about the night Cassandra and I argued about Tim. She had mentioned that her daughter hadn't been her husband's. Who's was it? I got the distinct impression Cassandra didn't want to discuss it, which led me to the ship's library.
As I walked in, I was amazed to see how much information was actually available. Computer terminals were set up to aid in finding books on board and was connected to the Internet for further research.
First of all, I contacted the Vital Statistics Department of the Arizona State Government, inquiring about Allison Martin, possibly born in 1986 in Phoenix, Arizona, with the mother being Cassandra Martin. Since I didn't have an exact date, the clerk said she'd call me back.
When she found the ideal match--an Allison Martin born April 21, 1986 at Scottsdale Memorial Hospital North, she faxed me a copy of the birth certificate. Unfortunately, Kenneth was listed as the father. A dead end.
From there, I decided to search for her adoption papers. However, that was easier said than done, as the saying goes, as I didn't know if Allison had been privately or open adopted. Outside of calling each and every adoption agency in Maricopa County, I felt like I was digging for a diamond on a mile-long island.
I proceeded to see if Allison was listed on ALMA--a network of adopted children and birth parents looking for each other. An ALMA director was very helpful. Although, she did point out, that children under the age of eighteen were not usually listed.
After several hours, we finally located Allison's name-- Allison Vangetti. With that, tracking Allison down would be a snap. However, that still didn't answer the paternal question. I elected to contact Allison's attending physician at her birth. As I glanced down at my watch, I realized I was ten minutes late for dinner with Tim and Cassandra. Talking to the doctor would have to wait.
"What have you been?," Cassandra demanded as I approached the table. I surveyed it. Tim sat across from Cassandra and was dressed in a miniature tuxedo. His hair and face had been washed. Amazing I could never get him into a tuxedo or a shower without a major fight. I smiled as I sat down.
"I was checking out the library and lost track of time."
She motioned for the waiter, apparently forgetting my tardiness. Picking up a menu, I studied it. "Cassandra, what are you having?"
She looked up from her menu. "I've learned to stick to something safe. That way I don't starve."
I asked the question again.
"A Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato on wheat." The same thing she had at Spinners. I had to work on her sense of adventure.
"What did you do today, Tim?" I regarded the young man, sitting there as quietly as possible, probably wishing he was invisible.
Tim's eyes brightened. "Cassie took me to the casino. We had a blast. I played blackjack and roulette and the slot machines."
"Cassandra!" How dare she take a ten year old boy to a casino? Did she have no sense of responsibility?
Cassandra painstakingly folded her hands. "It was a kids' casino. They play for tickets that they can redeem for prizes like stuffed animals and toy spiders. Safe things."
"That's how they start out and then it only gets worse."
I nodded. I knew I was going overboard, but I couldn't help it. I couldn't return Tim to his mother as a gambler. "I won't allow my son to turn out like that. Do I make myself clear?"
"Crystal. As you can see, the best decision I ever made was giving Allison up for adoption because I obviously wouldn't make a very good mother. I just thought Tim was having fun." She sipped her water before continuing, "I didn't realize I was starting him on a life of crime."
"Anyway, I thought you and Tim hated each other."
"We called a truce...for your sake."
A lump formed in my throat. What a wonderful gesture, but it still didn't excuse the gambling. "From now on, I don't want Tim in the casino. I don't want him thinking gambling is a way to make easy money. Nothing in life is easy. If it is, it isn't worth it."
Cassandra opened her mouth to say something when the waiter finally approached. "Ma'am, you have a telephone call. Please follow me." The waiter helped the bewildered Cassandra out of her chair.
Tim leaned in as he waited until Cassandra was out of earshot. "Dad," he began, "if you keep hanging around Cassandra, mom won't ever come back."
Not this again. "Look, Tim, I've explained this to you several times." I unfolded my napkin and placed it on my lap. "Your mom and I no longer make each other happy. All we do is argue."
"You can work it out."
"Your mom and I have separate lives now, and we are happier now than we were together." I sipped my glass of water.
"You can be happy together. We're a family."
"Tim, that isn't going to happen." I touched my son's hand briefly. "You know that."
Tim stared at me. His eyes widening. "Don't you care about *my* happiness?"
I considered that it might seem selfish to a little boy. "Timothy, you know that if your mom and I were to get back together for your sake, all of us would be miserable." I looked him right in the eye. "I don't want to hear anymore about it."
Tim was silent and then opened his mouth. I pinned him with a stern look as Cassandra approached the table again. She didn't look well. Her cheeks--paled. I rose to my feet and helped her into her chair. "Cassie, what happened?," I knelt beside her.
She looked down at me, smiling through a prism of tears. "He found us."
A cold sliver shot through my heart. *He found us* kept ringing in my ears. "What did he say?"
Her voice quivered as she spoke, "He wants to play a game."
"A game?," I repeated, almost in disbelief. Why would he want to play games? God, this guy really was a lunatic. "What type of game?"
"A poker game for the life of Quentin."
"We'll see the madman face to face and apprehend him."
"He's sending Quentin to play for Quentin's own life," she corrected. "He wants to play the last night of the cruise, 'if I'm still alive'."
I took her hand. "I'm an excellent poker player."
"I have to play." She gazed into my eyes. I could see the whelming fear, almost overpowering her. "If I win, Quentin doesn't die and neither do I, but if he wins, Quentin dies and I am taken hostage."
Releasing her hand, I stood up. "That's it. We have to contact the authorities."
"If he finds out, he'll kill me."
I stood there, scrutinizing her. "We can't take the chance that this whole game is a setup to kill you in the first place."
Reluctantly, she agreed.
We took the matter to the head of security aboard and were assured that the ship's security personnel would be on alert. The first thing they did was move our quarters to a more remote part of the ship and placed armed guards outside the door. One kept a close eye on Cassandra by following her everywhere--except to bed, to the rest room, or in the shower.
I did a background check on each security guard myself. Cassandra's body guard was a clean cut man, in his late twenties, with no record. I felt confident in him. So much that I set up a satellite conference in the meeting room with the doctor who delivered Allison. I didn't know why, but I felt Allison played a role in Cassandra's present situation.
Her name was Doctor Estrada. and when she appeared on the screen, I frowned. She couldn't have been much older than I. Her long reddish hair pinned up in a bun, freckles marked her cheeks, dressed in a white lab coat.
I flipped my FBI badge at her. "Although I am not on official business, the FBI has granted me permission to investigate any leads that may lead me to arrest a criminal."
She rubbed her chin with her hand. "And you think that I am one of those leads. Let me assure you--"
I put my hand up to stop her from continuing. "This is regarding a patient you had delivered a baby for ten years ago."
"Cassandra Martin. My nurse briefed me about your inquiry. Your point, Agent Hoffman?"
"Tell me what you remember about Cassandra Martin," I instructed the doctor, trying to plan my next question.
Her eyes pinched together. "That's not hard; she was in my office about two weeks ago," she commented off-handedly. "I remember the first time I met her." The doctor's greenish eyes clouded as she continued to work on her lap top, probably making notes on a patient or something of the like.
"A stranger found her and brought her into my office. She had been badly beaten and unresponsive. I was the nearest doctor, the stranger confided later."
"If it isn't too much of a doctor-patient breach of confidence, what was her condition?" I had a vague idea of what her condition might be, but I needed proof and confirmation.
I noticed the plaques on the doctor's wall--a diploma from Harvard Medical School and her "Woman of the Year" award hung right next to her "Physician of the Year" award. Impressive, to say the least.
She hesitated before speaking, "I did a full medical exam. It confirmed what I already suspected; she had been raped."
It was my turn to be quiet, reflecting on the revelation that I too had suspected rape. I finally found my voice. "How did she become a regular patient of yours?"
"I wouldn't say regular. For the next couple months she came back regularly until we discovered she was pregnant." The doctor took a deep breath. "I pinpointed the date of conception to be around the time of the rape. Since her husband had been out of town around then, I could only conclude the baby was the rapist's."
One part of this explanation bugged me. "How did she convince her husband the baby was his?"
The doctor stared at me a moment. "She couldn't remember the rape and argued with me that she couldn't have conceived the child when I said she did."
My heart sank. "In other words, you let her believe a lie."
"What was I suppose to do--jar her memory and cause potentially more problems?" The doctor returned to her lap top.
I considered the situation a moment. "I guess you're right."
"Now if there are no more questions--"
"I have two more questions. When Allison was adopted out, what adoption agency was used? And who is Allison's father?"
The doctor continued typing. "I don't know Allison's father, and for the past fifteen years, we have only used the 'In Good Hands' adoption agency. Now if you'll excuse me." She cut the link before I could respond.
I gazed at the screen in awe. There was something that disturb me about Doctor Estrada. I pushed it away. One answer down, one to go. Although I suspected Cassandra had been raped, I wanted to have learned of another outcome like she had cheated on her husband. Why that would be more acceptable? I don't know. Maybe because cheating didn't involve violence and brutality.
Next it was time to get in touch with "In Good Hands." I worried about how cooperative they would be with my investigation.
An older woman hobbled over to me. I recognized her as the head librarian. "Are you J.D. Hoffman?"
When I nodded, she whispered. "Cassandra Martin wants you to met her immediately in her cabin. She says it's urgent." I darted for the door.
When I arrived at Cassandra's cabin, she was reluctant to let me in. I could hear her sobbing. I finally convinced her to let me inside.
I wasn't prepared for what I saw. The cabin had been ransacked. The contents of the drawers were spilled out all over the cabin floor. The dresser tops were cleared off. The suitcases had been rifled through; clothes carelessly tossed on the floor. As I walked into the rest room, I found the medicine chest had also been searched through.
Cassandra sat in the middle of the floor in the fetal position, scrunched up in a ball. Tim rested on the floor next to her. The security guards were fingerprinting the touched items and photographing the scene. One, even attempted to question Cassandra. "Could she answer these questions later, please?"
The officer seemed slow to give in but moved on. "What happen?," I inquired, grabbing her hand.
"We came back from the arcade and found her cabin like this," Tim supplied. He glanced around the room. "What did they want, Dad?"
I shook my head. "I don't know, son."
Cassandra's tear-stained face lifted. "They wanted me." She handed me a note. "This time it was your things, next time it will be you," I read aloud. I squeezed Cassandra's hand before reading the rest. "Here's a token from my last victim," the note continued.
She opened her other hand to reveal a human ear. "It's cold and smells of formaldehyde.
Oh my God. My heart felt as if it stopped. How had this happened? Why didn't the security guards prevent it?
Cassandra started to cry even harder, finding her way into my arms. I vowed to catch this guy for putting Cassandra, Tim, and me through this ordeal.