a mystery novel by Ann Lynes
I knew J.D. was trying to protect me when he called in favors from the FBI. He had approximately four stocky men and one tall, slender woman met us at a stop in Mexico City. The agents followed me everywhere. If I went to the main dining room, my "chorus" would be standing around me at parade rest. If I went for a stroll, there would one in front of me, two in back of me, and one on either side. If I went to the restroom, the female agent went in first to make sure no one was waiting to pounce on me.
I felt so protected, but it was at the price of being striped of my freedom. Convicts had more freedom than I did, I was sure. What kind of life was I leading?
Although we had gone to the ship's security first, I felt more comfortable in the hands of the FBI. Login, the FBI agent in charge, shuffled a deck of cards. He did the kind of fancy shuffling you see in Las Vegas casinos. Fanning out the cards and bringing them all back together, he performed the "bridge" shuffle. When he finally dealt the cards, he dealt each of us five. "Five Card Draw" he called out in a low, steady voice. Instantly, everyone knew what that meant, including me.
I picked up the cards in front of me. An Ace, a ten, a four, and a Queen of Hearts, and a Jack of Diamonds. I stared at my cards before raising the pot a dollar. All the others raised the stakes, in turn, two each. Agent One--who I nicknamed "Grumpy" because of the way he snapped at the other agents before he had his morning coffee--drew two cards. Agent Two--the way he answered "Huh?" to every question asked him and wore a dumb expression led to his nickname "Dopey"--drew one. Agent Three--"Doc" was his nickname as he was a certified Harvard-trained doctor in addition to being a FBI agent--drew two cards. Each discarded the appropriate number of cards from their hands. Working on a flush, I studied my cards before abandoning the Jack and four. Agent Four--she was always sneezing from some allergy or another, so "Sneezy" seemed appropriate--drew one, and Login drew four.
My mind kept wandering to the ear the kidnapper sent me. My stomach churned every time I thought about it. Sweat beads formed on my forehead. The cards shook in my hands. I could feel my breakfast make the trek back up my esophagus. Running for the restroom, I slammed the door in "Sneezy"'s face. I barely made it to the "Porcelain Goddess" before the eggs, bacon, and toast I had eaten came up.
I hated being sick alone, nevertheless, having an audience. Splashing water on my face, I reached for a towel to dry it when I glanced at myself in the mirror. I looked haggard, ashen, and basically like I'd been through an Army training hike with a forty pound knapsack on my back. My youthful appearance was replaced with an older, aging woman that I didn't even recognize or know. Tears stained my face.
The FBI agents pounded on the door until finally I opened. Rushing me, the common question was if I was alright. But they didn't accept the answer. They insisted on taking me to see the ship's doctor. "Dopey" and "Grumpy" stayed behind to sit with Tim.
As the doctor prodded and poked, I saw his face fall. After he drew blood, I knew something was wrong. "What is it?," I demanded. I kept demanding when he continued his investigation by taking my blood pressure, temperature, etc. without acknowledging my question.
Studying his walls, I gathered that he had graduated from Harvard Medical School and use to teach medicine at many prestigious colleges around the world. I wondered how he ended up on a cruise ship and whether he and "Doc" ever attended Harvard at the same time.
He took a deep breath. "Ms. Martin, you've been poisoned." His eyebrows pinched together.
"I cannot tell you until after I get the blood results." He ran the back of his palm across his forehead. "You have all the classic signs of food poisoning."
"What can we do about it?," I asked in a hushed tone, trying to figure out exactly when I'd been poisoned. I didn't doubt it was the kidnapper. I'd had room service bringing my food to my room every morning since we arrived. "Since we caught it in time, I believe we can just pump your stomach." Thoroughly running his soapy hands under the water at the hand sink, he prepared to do just that.
*** * * * *
After he had pumped my stomach, I drifted off into a sleep- like state. I remember the Doctor telling me to rest. He wanted to keep me overnight for observation. I woke to find a man in a ski mask standing over my bed. A knife in his hand; a red liquid dripping from the blade. "What is she doing awake?," he howled a blood-curdling scream. An oxygen mask was placed over my nose and mouth. What I inhaled, though, wasn't oxygen. It was chloroform. At the end of the knife, an ear was pierced by the knife's point. Suddenly, a baby's cry filled the room with an uneasy tension. I grabbed the mask, pulling it off.
I jumped up to find the baby. I searched everywhere--under the bed, in the bassinet, on the bed, etc. The baby suddenly appeared in the arms of the masked man. He switched the baby to his left arm and poised the knife above the baby's heart. The ear now gone. I lunged between the baby and the knife, feeling the knife enter my back. My heart pounded.
My eyes opened, and I looked around. The FBI agents were surrounding my bed in the infirmary. The doctor rushed into the room. "Is everything alright?"
I realized that this was reality, and what I had experienced a few seconds ago was a nightmare. As I assured the doctor that I was okay, I heard the door slam. I turned my head to see J.D.
"Cassandra Martin, what do you think you are doing?" He walked toward the bed. "Someone is trying to kill you. Do you not get that?" He spun around to Agent Login. "Why did you let her come here, Login?"
The doctor stepped in front of J.D. and Login. "You said someone was trying to kill her. That would explain why she is here."
J.D. stared at the doctor dubiously, "I don't understand."
"She was brought here because she was feeling ill," the doctor explained. He folded his arms. "I had to pump her stomach because she had been poisoned."
"Then why is she still here? Were there complications? What was she poisoned with?" J.D. was obviously upset as he started pacing the room. I couldn't figure out why he was so perturbed. I was curious as to what happened to get him all riled up. It couldn't just be my poisoning.
The doctor took a ragged breath before answering. "I want to continue to monitor her progress. After all, she could have died."
J.D. looked at the doctor before objecting, "Doctor. I am sorry, but she won't be able to stay. As I mentioned, someone wants to kill her, and I have to make sure she is safe.
"Wouldn't the safest place for her be here?," the doctor retorted.
"Yes, but nothing," I interrupted J.D. "If someone is trying to kill me, we shouldn't stay in the same place."
He reluctantly agreed.
"And what better place for someone to try and kill me than the infirmary?"
"That's the craziest thing I've ever heard," J.D. replied to my last statement. "But then I can't force you to come with me back to your cabin." He looked around the room; his eyes fell upon a chair. Sinking into it, he mumbled, "You aren't going to stop me from staying here with you."
"What about Tim?"
"'Dopey' and 'Grumpy' as you refer to them, were watching him last time I checked." He curled up in the chair. The doctor provided him with a pillow and blanket. "He'll be safe with them."
I nodded and suddenly felt extremely drowsy.
I noticed a man. His head concealed in a black ski mask with holes for eyes and a mouth. He inched closer with a knife. It didn't take a genius to figure out he was trouble, so I began to scream, "J.D., help me."
The man grabbed my arm roughly and whispered, "He can't help you now." He put the knife to my throat. He sat on the bed and pried my legs apart.
The doctor came in the room, carrying a baby wrapped in a pink blanket. Only the doctor was Doctor Estrada, the woman who delivered Allison.
Opening my eyes, I realized I had been dreaming again. I was still in the infirmary of the *Galaxy*. Why was I having these nightmares? And why did I have that last one? What did it mean? Chills ran down my spine. I sat up and pull the covers close to me. Knees to chest, I rocked myself back and forth for hours in the dimly lit medical facilities. I don't know whether he sensed I was awake or whether he hurt from being rolled up in the chair like a ball, but J.D. woke up and immediately came and sat on the bed; arms outstretched. He didn't say anything.
"I had a nightmare," I told him, careful not to wake "Sneezy" from her sleep. The agents worked in shifts--two stayed up while one slept. They switched every two hours.
J.D. nodded. I rested my head on his shoulder. He moved his hand in several circular motions on my back as if to say, "Go on."
I told him the dream and waited for his reaction.
His face turned grim, and his mouth curved. "Do you think you might be remembering the circumstances surrounding Allison's conception?"
I didn't know. Those memories had been buried for so many years. Why would they resurface now? Unless all of this had something to do with my current situation. Oh Heavens. I wondered if the guy in my dream was the man responsible for kidnapping Quentin.
* * * * *
For the next few hours, I rested in J.D.'s arms. I was afraid to sleep for fear of having another nightmare. I planned how to break away from the FBI team for a few minutes. Something bothered me about why I couldn't remember who Allison's real father was. There were so many things I couldn't remember. I had to shed some light on the subject.
I decided against telling the agents I needed my privacy as wanting my privacy could get me killed. I couldn't bring them with me to do "what I had to do." I wanted to keep it confidential and being friends of J.D., I couldn't take a chance that they would blab. Then again, they were FBI agents, trained to keep secrets. Maybe I could trust them.
Once I was released from the infirmary, I headed to the conference room. I had one of the agents grab my Organizer from the cabin. Flipping to the P's, I studied the business card of a Private Investigator. I had used her several years ago to locate a run-away manager who had run off with $24,000 in sales. Thankfully, she caught the manager in Tahiti and was able to recover $20,000 of the stolen money.
Finally, I put a call through to her. When she appeared on the screen, she was just as I remembered. Average height, dark hair cut to the end of her neck, pale complexion, small built, and the most intriguing green eyes I'd ever seen. One look into her eyes, and I trusted her completely as if she was an old friend. She had classic Roman features, including her nose. "Ms. Holbrook," I greeted her, glancing around at the agents' reactions. If they had one, they kept it to themselves. Hands clasped in front of their bodies. Standing as straight as traffic light. "I need your help."
"Please call me Bobbie." She smiled, showing just enough teeth.
"Bobbie." I tried to pronounce each word carefully as Detective Holbrook was deaf. She had a childhood disease that left her vocal chords intact but with no hearing. I found her lip-reading technique quite uncomfortable at first. "Someone is trying to kill me."
She nodded. "That's why all the FBI agents are in the background." She stared at me, steepling her fingers. "What makes you think I can help you if the FBI can't?"
A valid question, which deserved a valid answer. "I need outside help. Someone with a fresh perspective on the case. Someone who is not bogged down in bureaucratic paperwork or with babysitting me." I turned to the agents. "No offense. I know this is no picnic for you either." I faced the scrutiny of her eyes again.
"Do you know who is trying to kill you?"
"If I knew that, I wouldn't need you, now would I?"
She grinned again. "I suppose not. Tell me all you know about him/her."
I searched my memory back to the first incident. "First, the doctor I was seeing turned out to be downloading child porn off my Internet account." I paused, twisting my mouth. "An undercover FBI agent on the Internet chatted back and forth with me, thinking I was the criminal."
"Could you tell me anything that wasn't in the newspapers?," Bobbie insisted.
"J.D.--the FBI agent--and I fell in love through the conversations on the 'Net. Soon after that," I paused again, "The doctor was shot, and I was arrested for his attempted murder."
"Again, that was all in the newspaper. The charges against you were dropped when new evidence was submitted." Bobbie's face was scrunching up. She was clearly irritated.
"Quentin--a friend of mine--was kidnapped while J.D. and I were held hostage. The criminal, who was wearing a ski cap, escaped." I cracked my knuckles on my right hand, fully aware that it was bad for me. "Then, I received my first dead threat via e-mail. I moved into J.D.'s house, an e- mail message came there too."
I had piqued Bobbie's interest finally. "We went to Payson, but there I took an old man to the hospital after he passed out in the snow. He told me I'd be dead within a month guaranteed."
"What happened then?" Bobbie was vigorously taking notes while keeping her eyes focused on me. A practiced skill, I ventured.
"We decided to take a cruise. Unfortunately, now the 'madman,' as I call him, wants me to play a poker game. The 'madman' is sending Quentin to play for Quentin's own life. If Quentin wins, both of us are held hostage. If I win, we are both killed."
She stared. "Oh my Heavens!"
"J.D. is afraid it is a whole set-up to kill me. Recently, I received another note with a human ear enclosed. Supposedly from his last victim." I was fighting hard not to cry, but I felt a tear form in my eye. "Thus the FBI agents."
"What horrific events."
"It isn't over yet. Yesterday I spent most of the day and night in the infirmary. Diagnosis? Food poisoning."
Bobbie was silent for a few minutes, probably trying to soak up everything. "How can I help?
"I want you to find this 'madman'." I studied Bobbie's face. A glint returned to her eyes. The same glint I saw when she took my first case. "So, you will help me?"
"I have to warn you. I will work with the FBI, not behind their backs."
It was my turn to smile. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
"Where can you be reached?"
"Here on the *Galaxy* until Saturday."
"Very well. If you receive any more death threats, let me know. I'll be in touch."
The screen faded, and I was left alone again in the comfort of my "chorus." I wasn't alone long. The screen lit up again. This time with the image of Clayton Walker. How the devil did he find me?
"Ms. Martin. I am so glad I tracked you down."
"How did you?"
"Malcolm dropped by the other day at the Scottsdale branch and asked if I'd heard from you, whether you were enjoying the *Galaxy*," Clayton explained in one long breath.
Malcolm--that big mouth. Since he worked for Galaxy Headquarters, he located three tickets for the *Galaxy*'s sold-out cruise for me. I requested that he keep the favor quiet. "What happened, Clayton?" I could tell Clayton was anxious. He was pacing the floor.
He paced back and forth a few more times before standing still and looking at me. "The Scottsdale branch was broken into a few days ago. Then the Westside branch two days ago. And today, the Main branch."
My jaw dropped. My heart pounded. "How much was taken?"
"$500 from each." Clayton feigned a smile. "It could have been more."
"Was anyone hurt? Was anything else taken?" I could hardly catch my breath.
Clayton shook his head negatively. "Could you possibly cut your trip short?"
"Clayton, is there something you're not telling me?"
"I just fear the robber may hit again."
I considered the possibility of leaving the ship early. It would involve getting off at the next port and flying to Phoenix. The 'madman' wouldn't get to have his poker game and somehow I didn't think he'd approve of that. Where would we go? We'd been to my home, J.D.'s home, Payson. What was left? "I'll be back as soon as I can." Maybe those robberies were a scam to lure me to the Main Branch so I could be killed. I cut the link with Clayton and headed back to my cabin.
When I arrive at the cabin, J.D. was waiting with a table for two set up with lit candles, wine glasses, and two domed platters of food. He helped me into my seat while the agents tried to blend in as much as they possibly could into the background. Soft music probably Kenny G, was playing. J.D. knew how much I loved the saxophone. "What's this all about?"
"I figure you deserve a relaxing night after what you've been through." He smiled, straightening the bow tie on his dapper dress shirt and pants combination. "In fact, when this is all over, I am going to make sure the rest of your life is stress-free."
I knew he couldn't pull off that promise, but I would have fun watching him try. "I talked to Clayton today."
J.D. fell silent for a moment while popping open the cork on the champagne bottle. "What did he have to say?"
"Three Martin's Travel Agencies have been robbed in the last few days."
J.D. stood up and turned on the lights. Blinking, I looked up at him questioningly. "We're going home," he announced.
"The poker game, remember?" I joined him on his feet. "I don't think this 'madman' will take too kindly to us ditching him."
"Maybe not." J.D. flung himself back into the chair. "But what are our other options?"
"As far as I am concerned, moving has caused one problem right after another," I began, "maybe staying in one spot will bring will bring us better luck." I excused myself, and "Sneezy" followed me into the restroom. When I glanced at the mirror, I screamed. There was a message written in crimson. "Poker Game. Saturday 7 pm. Casino. Be there or be dead."
J.D. and the other agents rushed in and noticed the note.
Terror marked their faces. "I guess our decision has been
made for us."