a mystery novel by Ann Lynes
My thoughts kept wandering back to that message. Who would want to kill me? Who would want to kill Quentin? Who would want to kill us both? J.D. was sure the kidnapper was bluffing, and that if we called the kidnapper's bluff, Quentin wouldn't be harmed. I, however, did not agree. I couldn't afford to give up that type of money either. And my guess was kidnappers didn't take personal checks.
J.D. told me not to worry. A FBI contact was tracing the e- mail account, but even in the hands of the FBI, I still couldn't help but worry. I trusted J.D., but I didn't trust Quentin's kidnapper. J.D. worked with the Phoenix Police Department to devise a plan to exchange counterfeit money for Quentin.
On Friday morning, another e-mail message came through. This time to J.D.'s account.
To: email@example.com From: firstname.lastname@example.org
My dear Cassandra, please come alone and drop off the money. If you come alone, you will be safe for now.
A fear grew inside me. The kidnapper knew where I was. I screamed at the top of my lungs. Both J.D. and Tim ran into see what was the matter. All I could do was point to the screen. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. An icy sensation tickled my spine.
"Oh Cassandra," J.D. exclaimed. "How did he know?"
I didn't know. I hadn't been on the Internet at all. I didn't feel right using my Internet account on someone else's computer. I hadn't even been to work nor had I talked to anyone besides my family, J.D., and Clayton. Oh my God, Clayton! How could he do this to me?
I closed my eyes, praying that if there was God in the Heavens, he wouldn't allow this maniac to kill me. I had no other choice, but to turn the matter over to a Higher Power. "I can't stay here any longer," I decided as I opened my eyes and pushed my chair away from the desk. "I have to take up residence elsewhere. Maybe get out of town." I shook violently, and a lump knotted up in my throat.
J.D. put his arm around my shoulder to steady me. "I understand." He knelt beside me. "Let me take care of a few things here, and we'll rent a cabin up North--Flagstaff perhaps."
I stared at him, studying him for a moment. "You're serious, aren't you?" I elected to swallow all my fears of him coming along. Maybe there would be safety in numbers if J.D. and Tim travelled with me. Maybe the kidnapper would think twice about killing me in front of a child. Then again if this guy was a deranged lunatic like he appeared to be, he might not care.
"Now about the ransom. I have the counterfeit bills in the trunk of your car. Be careful." He stood up. "Are you sure don't want me to come too?"
"You already have the police hidden in plainclothes around the ransom drop-off site." I knew he was trying to protect me, but I was a big girl. I could take care of myself--most of the time. "Thank you anyway.'
* * * * *
A few minutes later I found myself at the mailbox in front of the Cornerstone Pharmacy. I dropped off the briefcase filled with $5000 behind the mailbox as I was instructed. Since the Dance Studio was next door, the police were posing as dance instructors, at least that's what the police told J.D.
As I straightened up from sliding the briefcase behind the mailbox, I noticed a familiar face. Clayton, my mind immediately registered. He had a confused look on his face. When he recognized me, he grinned. "I was called here by one of our clients to deliver their airline tickets, but I've searched every store, and no one knows anything about it."
Likely story, I thought. I was forced to wonder whether it was true, and I cursed myself for not believing him. I caught the eye of a dance instructor that was inside the studio. She sliced her throat with her finger.
I apologized to Clayton for having to rush off and told him I needed to speak with him later in the day. I needed him to take over the agencies while I was hiding out, but if he was the kidnapper, telling him where I was going would prove dangerous. I wanted to believe he wasn't the kidnapper, but I wasn't certain.
* * * * *
My conversation with Clayton didn't go as well as I was expecting. He demanded to know exactly where I would be going in case of an emergency. I assured him of my full confidence in him. He still wanted the location of where I was headed. I finally told him I was going on a road trip to California to bicycle up the coastline. Therefore, I couldn't be reached.
I reflected on the conversation as I packed my long sleeve, white, heavy sweater. If Clayton was the kidnapper, he would search California for me. If not, the real kidnapper would take a while before tracking me down this time. I continued to pack warm clothes--sweaters, long-sleeved blouses, long pants, socks, etc. I didn't know exactly where we were going, only that we were headed North--probably Flagstaff, Payson, or such. J.D. promised to take care of the details.
Several seconds before J.D. walked into the room, I could smell the spicy scent of his Old Spice aftershave. "J.D.," I greeted, not even bothering to face him. "Have you taken care of everything?," I asked cheerfully. Although since Quentin's disappearance, the word "cheerful" hadn't been a part of my vocabulary. I was looking forward to hiding out, away from the maniac who was e-mailing me death threats.
He didn't answer at first. I became alarmed. Maybe all wasn't going according to his plan, if he had one. I turned around instantly. He smiled. "We might be better off if we head out when it gets dark." He reached for me, and I walked into his arms. Holding me tight, he whispered into my hair. "If this person is stalking you, he is least likely to see us at night--especially after midnight."
I agreed by nodding my head as I lowered it to rest it against his chest. I understood what he was trying to say, but midnight was seven hours away. I could hear the rapid pounding of his heart. I wondered which scared him more-- hiding me out or the kidnapper himself. Both scared me.
In seven hours, the kidnapper could break into J.D.'s home and take me at gun point. Or another ransom note could be sent, demanding more money as there was no sign of Quentin's return yet. I had called Quentin's home many times since arriving at J.D's from the ransom site.
It was not really a good idea for me to go out alone or otherwise, J.D. reminded me. I had wondered how I was going to get through the next seven hours until Tim convinced me to play "Glendale"--a "Monopoly"-styled game, utilizing the businesses of Glendale, a town forty-five minutes from Phoenix. Buying Valley West Mall, I commanded the game for most of its duration. Although Tim owned Liberty Bank, he still almost hit bankruptcy several times. Before I realized the time, J.D. was ready to leave.
On the two hour drive from Phoenix to Payson, Tim had to stop several times to go through drive-thrus for snacks, which was tough to do for most of the trip; for "nature calls"; or to just stretch his legs. Although he spent most of his time listening to his Walkman, he seemed a bit restless.
I was relieved to see the sign that declared we were entering Payson. It was a short drive on the Beeline to our destination, J.D. assured Tim and me. A log cabin-styled hotel was on a hill adjacent to the street and a shopping center was on the other side. Tim pointed out a Kentucky Fried Chicken and several other fast food and full-service restaurants. He must have been hungry again.
Snow blanketed the ground just enough to make the roads slippery. J.D. turned onto a residential area, past a canal to Saddle street until he pulled into a driveway of a triangle-shaped house with a hanging carport. Wooden steps led up to the building with a large front yard. As we jumped out of the car, each of us grabbed our luggage and skidded through the snow, climbed the stairs, and walked into the house.
I stood in the doorway, marveling at the Cathedral ceiling. Looking at it gave me goose bumps. My eyes caught a glimpse of the large kitchen and dining room before noticing the wood burning stove in the living room.
"What do you think?," J.D. whispered, brushing past me.
"This is the home I rented every summer for Amber, Tim, and I."
I let out my breath. "Its absolutely beautiful." I wandered throughout the rooms, then realized there was a second level. The upstairs appeared to be an apartment with its own restroom--a large space with a single and double bed, an oak desk and dresser. Back downstairs was a bedroom off the kitchen and one off the living room. I speculated on how long ago J.D. had been here with Tim and Amber.
"I'll go out and get some logs for the fire," J.D. insisted as he headed back out the door.
I took a seat on the black leather couch next to Tim, who had been quiet every since we had walked into the house. "Is something wrong?," I asked, studying his frowned expression. "Maybe you are upset because the last time you were here was before your parents' divorce."
Tim remained still, staring at the large television set on the opposite wall.
"You are probably hoping your parents will get back together. Calvin and I are standing in the way of that, aren't we?" He still did not respond. I wanted to shake him and demand an answer from him, but I managed to keep myself in check. "You don't have to like me. I am going to be around for awhile--whether as your father's girlfriend, or just as his friend." He didn't break his stare. "I suggest you respect your father's wishes as well as your mother's."
Tim ran from the room as J.D. pounded on the door. Upon letting J.D. in, I unloaded the pile of wood he had been carrying. "I scuffed up my shoe when I knocked on the door with it," he commented.
"I think we have a problem with Tim," I informed him, spilling the whole story.
J.D. took on the same glazed look his son had. I knew I was in trouble. "You think you're right, don't you?"
I didn't know what to say. Although I did think I was right, I didn't know whether to admit it.
"You are not his mother. I am his parent."
I put my hands on my hips. "So, I am suppose to be in this relationship while ignoring the fact that your son hates me. I can't do that."
"Basically," he retorted, "Tim is confused. He doesn't know who to listen to."
"You don't want Calvin and I taking your place in Tim's life," I yelled back. "I am not planning to. I only suggested he respect your wishes."
"I don't want any ex-cons or non-parents to tell my kid what to do."
"'Non-parent?' I put my daughter up for adoption because that's what was best for her."
"Or what was more convenient for you?," he demanded as he moved toward the wood stove and opened the door.
"Let's see--I was carrying a baby that wasn't my abusive husband's. The adoption saved her and I both a lot of grief," I returned, walking toward the door.
If he heard my revelation, he didn't feel the need to respond. I turned the knob to the door and walked out into the cold. I didn't know where I was going, but I headed back up the road we had driven on.
Knowing that Allison wasn't Kenneth's child, only worsened my fears of what Kenneth might have done if he had found out. Although the circumstances surrounding Allison's conception were so disturbing and frightening, I couldn't recall to this day exactly what happened. I know I was violated and that Allison was a result of that violation. At the time I felt that life with Kenneth would be more than a child could handle. It seemed only appropriate to give her to someone who could provide her with everything she'd need. That didn't mean I loved her any less.
Before I knew it, I was back on the Beeline. I smiled thoughtfully. It was my only real choice. Even now, I wondered, what I could offer a child. I could offer an economically stable, loving home but was I ready to commit my whole life to a helpless human being?
A man touched my shoulder from behind. I spun on my heel. "Ma'am, do you have any money I can use to buy food? I haven't eaten in several days." His clothes were dirty, wet, and torn. He appeared not to have taken a bath recently, and gin reeked heavily on his breath. He swayed from side to side.
Before I could answer, he fell backward into a small, snow- filled ditch. I knelt down beside him. I noticed his eyes were open, then I checked his pulse. A slow, faint beat. I ran down the street to the nearest pay phone and dialed 9-1- 1, directing an ambulance to the man.
I managed to hitch a ride to the hospital with the ambulance. I was warned that giving me a ride was against the rules because I wasn't family. Arriving at the hospital, I stayed by the man's side.
Only later, when he arrived at the hospital with a sleepy, pajama-wearing Tim, did I think about how J.D. must have reacted to my walk-out. As he approached me, his jaw set. "Do you know how worried I was about you?"
I bit my tongue to prevent me from saying anything I might regret like, "You're more worried about your son than me." Thinking back on the statement, I was glad I refrained from voicing it because it seemed petty and immature. I remained silent.
"Aren't you going to tell me how you got here?"
I swallowed hard. "I was walking along. A man who appeared to be homeless asked me for money. Before I could answer him, he fell over. I called 9-1-1, and here we are." I sat down in a nearby chair. I didn't know if he believed me, but at this point, I really didn't care.
Tim had climbed onto one of the chairs too, draping himself across two of them, then fell asleep.
"You did what?" J.D. threw his hands up in the air. "You're crazy, right?"
God, I thought to myself, what did I do now? "I called 9-1- 1. What the hell is your problem?"
"He could have killed you."
"He was unconscious. How can a drunk man who hasn't eaten in several days have the strength to kill anyone?"
He glanced at me curiously. "You're okay; I guess that's the important part." I stood up and crossed the room to look out the window. He followed. My back turned to him. "Cassie, I am sorry."
"For what?," I demanded, folding my arms across my chest. Do you even know what you're apologizing for?, I wanted to add.
He touched my shoulder. "I am sorry for being an insensitive jerk. I know you were only trying to help."
He would go and say something sweet. Didn't even give me the chance to get really angry. He knew how to play this game. I wondered if it was something his ex-wife had taught him. Somehow I doubted it. Maybe it was because of her. I slowly turned around.
"In that case, I am sorry too." I studied his reaction. His mouth curved. His hands now stuffed into his pockets. He still looked young enough be in his early twenties, perhaps twenty-five, when in reality, he was closer to his mid or late thirties.
"You're coming back to the house with us then?" His voice was smooth as he slipped in his intention.
I felt as if my eyes were going to pop out of my head. "I have to wait and see how the man is."
"Why are you going through all this trouble for a man you've never met before today?" He stared at me as if I were a freak in a circus' side show.
I turned back to the window. "What would you have had me do--leave him there to die?"
"Who left you in charge of his welfare?"
"For Heaven's sake, J.D., give it up. What's done is done. Neither of us can change the past."
"I'm not trying to change the past. I am trying to protect your future." Inching toward me, he touched my arm again. I could feel his warm breath on my neck. "Trying to protect our future together."
Another "ah!" moment. He knew how to make me angry, but just as I am about to explode, he'd say something I would love him for.
"I don't need your protection," I reminded him.
"Someone wants to kill you. I'd say you need protection." He twirled me around to meet his gaze. "And if you'll let me, I'd like to be the one to protect you."
I smiled. "If I need protection--which I don't--but if I did need it, you'd be the first person I'd turn to." I glanced behind him at the nurse approaching us. "I might consider a partner, though." He turned to face the object of my stare.
"Nurse Cartlon," she introduced, extending her hand. "The gentleman you brought in, Ms. Martin," the nurse began, flipping through the pages of her clipboard, "is in stable condition." She looked up. "A case of malnutrition."
"He will be alright?" I peered at the nurse from my location behind J.D.
"He's fine and asking for you." The nurse hugged the clipboard. "Go right in. It's the second door on the left."
I motioned J.D. to stay where he was. "I'll be fine," I cautioned him. "After all, what can happen in a hospital?"
After walking down the hall, pushing open the door to the gentleman's room, I was greeted by a mediciny aroma. I was amazed to see him sitting up in bed. "Ms. Martin," he welcomed, "please sit down on the bed." How did he know my name?
He was bald with a few grayish strands on the sides and had dark brown eyes with gold specks. His spine was arched forward, and his hands curved into little balls, probably due to arthritis.
When I hesitated, a scowl came over his face before he insisted again. I complied. My heart started pounding for no apparent reason.
"You are going to die within the next month," the older man whispered. "I guarantee it." My heart almost stopped. The man turned over and went back to sleep. I scrutinized his breathing patterns a few seconds before joining J.D. outside.
I stared straight ahead, trying to reassure myself the older man was trying to frighten me. I wanted to scream, but my voice wouldn't let me.
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Chapter Six · Chapter Seven · Chapter Eight · Chapter Nine · Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven · Chapter Twelve · Chapter Thirteen