a mystery novel by Ann Lynes
"I owe him. I stood him up at the altar."
Without giving her the satisfaction of an inquiry about the last part, I retorted, "That was years ago. You can't keep paying for a mistake you made when you were young."
She tossed back her dark hair, pacing around her living room; hands waving frantically in the air. "You don't understand."
"You're right I don't understand." I was trying to keep my voice from raising. When I was upset, my temper and voice tended to flair. I had caused many a scene in my time.
"My sister's leukemia reached a critical point. I had to rush to the hospital to be with her," she yelled; her fists rolled up tightly into white, little balls.
"I gave the message to the church secretary, but the word was never passed on," her voice found a level an octave, maybe two, below her previous tone. "I know how damn humiliating it must have been for him. Our friends and his family watching his every move."
I noticed the tears whelming up in her eyes. "Why didn't you reschedule the wedding."
"Because I never saw Quentin again."
That wasn't the answer I had been prepared for. I assumed it would something more like her parents hated Quentin or she fell out of love with him. "Why didn't you see him anymore?," I demanded, not sure of whether I should be supportive or angry. I wanted to do things up right this time around, give Cassandra everything she needed--both emotionally and physically. The problem was I had no clue as to want she needed, or even wanted.
"My father's job transferred him across town. And although I didn't live with my parents, I wanted to be close to my sister."
That made sense. Plenty of sense. However I still disliked the idea of Quentin calling in favors from Cassandra now. I didn't relish the thought of him working for her either. She was my woman. I chastised myself for being so possessive. Cassandra was a woman; a lady to be respected, loved, and cherished. She wasn't a car, a house, or a boat and didn't come with a title of ownership, nor should she be treated in that manner.
A knock came upon the door. Cassandra peered out the peephole before letting Quentin inside. "I finished the mural. I wanted you to see it."
Quentin's eyes met mine. He wasn't exactly what I had been expecting. I had anticipated a tall; wiry; long, blond-haired; blue-eyed guy with the muscle tone of a well-trained distance runner. Time hadn't been kind to Quentin. A slight receding hairline and wrinkles were the least of his problems. He had gained a few pounds and probably hadn't seen the inside of a Fitness Center in quite some time. My fears of living up to Quentin's image suddenly faded. "I see you have company."
Cassandra quickly made the introductions. "I'd love to see it." She turned to me. "Maybe tomorrow."
"No," I insisted, closing the gap between Cassandra and me, "I'd love to see it too. Let's go."
Cassandra shot me a warning glance before grabbing her purse and maroon wind breaker. I helped her into the jacket as Quentin led us out the door.
Obviously she didn't want to see the mural tonight. I'd be damned, though, if I was going to leave him alone with her more than I was forced to. I didn't trust him. The way he was scrutinizing me, I gather he didn't trust me either.
"That was fast. You must have worked day and night on it." I heard Cassandra comment to Quentin while remaining a conservative five paces behind him.
I slid behind the wheel of the Geo convertible. I loved the way the car felt. Turning the key in the ignition, she purred just like a well-fed cat. I smiled.
Twenty minutes later, we were driving through the tree-lined streets of Scottsdale, which was named "The Most Liveable City in the World" a couple of years earlier. I pulled into the parking lot of a rustic, adobe building. Cassandra searched through her pockets for her keys. I couldn't figure out why she hadn't located them prior to this. When she finally found them, she unlocked the glass door with Martin's Travel painted in blue on it.
After fumbling for the light switch, she flipped it on, shining light on a nearly completed agency. As we entered the agency, a large reception area greeted us. Three desks, one behind the other, were angled toward the reception area on both sides. In the background was the break room and the manager's office.
One wall was covered with a large, colorful mural of a cruise ship out at sea by moonlight with a crowd of passengers throwing confetti off the side of the boat. He had even painted a person with a captain's hat. Cassandra studied the picture a few minutes before she nodded approvingly.
At the very least, Quentin had talent. His use of blacks, blues, and whites to convey the night sky made it look so real. His choice of darks and lights and texture were remarkable. I felt as if I had been transported into the lives of the cruisers, wondering who they were and what their backgrounds were.
"Worth every penny," Cassandra told Quentin, surveying the mural as she spoke.
"I am impressed, Quentin," a deep voice said from the manager's office. I turned to see a man wearing a black knitted ski mask emerging from the office with a revolver aimed at our group.
My heart was already pounding wildly. Should I try something heroic like trying to grab the gun or be a coward and talk him out of killing us?
"Don't worry, Cassandra, J.D., I won't hurt you. I want Quentin." The man was small-built, and his hands were pretty small for a man. He wore a brown leather jacket and blue jeans with frazzled threads around the pant legs with brown penny loafers.
Quentin appeared visible shaken. "What do you want me for?," he whispered hoarsely.
The man inched closer. "You have a debt to repay."
I waited until the man grabbed Quentin by the arm before I sneaked up behind him.
Cassandra stepped between the man and Quentin. "Now, hold it right there. This is my property, and you will be leaving right now...alone."
I slipped my arms around his waist and was almost ready to remove the gun when the man turned around. "If you let Quentin go with me, I won't hurt either of you."
I swung my fist at him, impacting his nose with my fist. He fired the gun at me, barely missing my arm. I kicked the gun out of his hand in a roundhouse kick. As he reached for the gun, I kicked him again. He threw a punch at me, then I struck him back. We pounded each other until he fell backwards. While we were fighting, Cassandra had led Quentin out the front door. When the man got to his feet, he realized Quentin was gone and ran out the door, screaming up and down the street. If I hadn't thought the man was insane before, his screaming would be an indication.
Like that was going to do anymore than wake the neighbors. I quickly locked the front door, found the back door, and turned off all the lights from the breaker box. After sneaking out the rear entrance, I hid, crouched behind a large metal dumpster, until the screaming ceased. I drifted toward the corner of the building. What was going on? Had Cassandra been kidnapped or shot? She could be lying out there unconscious. Or Quentin. Or both. Then again, wouldn't I have heard the shots? I proceeded cautiously around the corner and met with a blanket of total darkness. Whereas there were light posts in the back of the building, there were none in the front. Odd, I thought. It would be easy for a criminal to break into any of the offices in the building without being noticed. As I edged toward the front, an indistinguishable car pulled up beside me, "Get in," a familiar voice murmured.
I complied. Cassandra sped away, barely allowing me to shut the car door. I looked around the car. "Where's Quentin?"
She kept her eyes on the road. "I don't know. He ran in one direction, and I went in the other."
"You didn't run after him?," I screamed incredulously..
Her eyes flickered over to meet my own. "I circled the building several times and haven't seen any sign of him."
I made Cassandra turn around and circle the building some more. We searched in the car and on foot, separately and together, with the police and without for several hours before I gave Cassandra permission to give up. Quentin, in all estimations, had been kidnapped by the ski-masked man.
Who was the ski-masked man? And why did he want Quentin? Where has he taken Quentin, and what did "to repay a debt" mean? Upon arriving back at Cassandra's home and answering all the police's questions, I glanced at my watch, and quickly excused myself. It was past midnight, and the babysitter I had hired--through an agency I had found in the Yellow Pages, then checked her background thoroughly--for Tim must have worried sick, thinking I'd abandoned my son.
* * * * *
I was amazed at how strong Cassandra really was. She called Quentin's parents to explain the situation but met with resistance. Not the "it can't possibly be my son," or the "bad things happen to other people" attitudes. The moment she mentioned Quentin's name, the phone line went dead. She stared at the receiver a few moments before re-dialing. Again, upon mentioning Quentin's name, the speaker promptly set the receiver back down. What could their son have done to met with this type of treatment?
"I should have realized. Quentin always said that he was never sure his mother loved him." She swirled in her living room desk chair. "One time Quentin and I were with a friend of mine, and she had made a comment about the way he was raised," she sighed. "He became irate. No one talked bad about his mother, but he admitted she treated him like he was the scum of the gutter instead of her own flesh and blood."
I helped her to her feet and into my arms. She laid her head on my chest. I lifted her chin and gazed into her eyes. Golden specks in greenish-brown pools. I couldn't read what she was thinking. She appeared confused, perhaps worried. Brushing my lips against her own, I finally knew how fantastic it felt to kiss her. The heat of her lips had electrified my entire body. I smiled. "We'll find Quentin, I promise." I smoothed my hand over her hair. "It's just like you to befriend someone like Quentin."
She was extremely quiet. "Are you hungry?," I asked, remembering the picnic basket I has sneaked into her refrigerator when I had first arrived. I was surprised she didn't notice. She was too involved in tallying up the paperwork for all of her branches, printing ledger sheets and the weekly sales report. She mentioned during the commotion that if she didn't send the weekly sales report to ARC, she would be in deep trouble. No excuses allowed.
She nodded, giving me a weak smile.
"Good." I led her to the kitchen as the rain pattered on the rooftop like a pack of wolves rushing to find their mother. "I made some ham and cheese sandwiches. Fruit salad." I took the large wicker basket off the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. "Why don't you spread a blanket on the living room floor?" She returned to the other room. Her silence wasn't an upset, brooding silence. There was a controlled strength about it as if it took all her concentration to maintain that control. Although she seemed to accomplish the effect effortlessly.
When I came into the living room, I saw that Cassandra had spread a dark, multi-colored, Indian-styled blanket on top of the light brown carpeting. She had thrown two pillows on the floor as well. Sitting down, I unpacked the wicker basket. Placing a red checker- board in front of Cassandra and then myself, I smiled. "You have to eat, Cassie." I set a Saran-wrapped sandwich in front of her. She slowly unveiled the sandwich and nibbled at it. Handing her a glass of grape juice, I brushed her hand.
"You have been so sweet," Cassandra said finally. "I wish I could be better company." She simpered. "I can't help wondering who kidnapped Quentin and why?"
"I wonder if he made any enemies in New Orleans?"
"That's possible, but I've also been thinking only three people have a key to the Scottsdale agency."
"It did appear to be an inside job," I agreed. I wasn't sure where she was going with this.
"That's the problem. Quentin and I were at the scene, and the only other person who has a key to that branch is Clayton." I waited until she spoke again. "Clayton couldn't have done it."
I bite into my own sandwich and watched her carefully. "Why not?," I asked after I was finished chewing.
She seemed offended at my question. "I've known Clayton for years. He's a model employee. I did a thorough background check on him before I hired him."
Taking a sip of my grape juice, I frowned. "Maybe he had enough, maybe life pushed him over the edge."
"What reason would he have to hurt Richard or Quentin?" She was half-way through her sandwich. At least, she was eating.
"Maybe he was out to hurt you," I paused to take another sip. "After all, what else do Richard and Quentin have in common?"
She polished off her sandwich. "But what would he want with me? I explained to him why I didn't promote him sooner."
"Maybe he didn't like your explanation." I had noticed that the man who had kidnapped Quentin had a similar build to Clayton.
"He vowed never to use a gun after a traumatic childhood incident."
Although I was curious about the incident was, I refrained from asking. "Of course, he could have been lying," she added after pressing her eyebrows together.
I touched her hand. "You don't like that thought much, do you?"
"Clayton has helped me build Martin's Travel into what it is today." She glanced down at her hands. "I could have done it without him, but it wouldn't have been as quickly or efficiently. It's hard to believe he could have fooled me."
"You have to admit--your judgment when it comes to men isn't exactly perfect." I reached into the wicker basket and pulled out a large bowl and two spoons. "Case in point, Richard."
She turned her head toward the window. "You don't have to remind me."
The far-away look in her eye troubled me. I wondered if she really wanted to be with me, if she really loved me like I loved her and wanted me to be with her. I questioned all the times we'd spent together, all the conversations.
She turned back around, as if sensing my mood. "I'm glad I didn't make that mistake in this relationship. It is so rare when someone I care about, cares about me too."
"Care about"--I could handle that. Maybe those feelings would eventually turn into full-blown love. Again, I was willing to wait. "Good things come to those who wait" was the only spark I was holding onto. "Cassie, I have something for you."
The other day, Tim and I went to Los Arcos Mall, and as we passed Kay's Jewelers, I saw a gold chain with a gold heart locket dangling on it. The heart was outlined in small diamonds. I rushed in and impulsively put the necklace on my Mastercard. Cassandra had to have it, I reasoned with myself.
"Believing Clayton may have been a bit naive under the circumstances." She ignored my last statement, visually biting her bottom lip. "After all, the gun was sold to a Clayton Walker, and he is the only other person with a key. And did you notice the kidnapper was wearing the same Sears penny loafers that Clayton does--the ones with the tousles?"
"Cassie, I have something for you," I repeated. I reached into the wicker basket and retrieved a long, white box.
Her eyes fell upon it silently. I handed her the box and watched as she slowly lifted the lid. When she pulled the necklace out of the box, she dangled the chain off her finger. The chain looked even better against her skin. Opening the locket, her eyes watered. Inside I had fitted a picture of Tim and me. "Turn it over," I told her.
After she flipped it over, she smiled. "To Cassandra, with all my love, J.D.," she read aloud. She ended up in my arms. She had forgotten about Quentin...at least for the moment.
* * * * *
"Daddy," Tim yelled as he shoved me. I lifted my eyelids halfway, peering over my shoulder to look at him. "Cassie's on the phone. I think she's upset."
"About what?" I moved deeper under my covers on my bed, slipping back into sleep.
"Dad! Cassandra says it's urgent!" Tim continued, climbing onto the bed to poke and prod me.
I jumped up with a start, picking up the receiver from the night stand. "I received a note on my e-mail. It was a ransom note."
Immediately, I got to my feet and walked over to the closet, Putting on the first shirt and leaping into the first pair of pants I found, I replied, "What did it say?"
"$5,000 in exchange for Quentin's life." She paused, obviously trying to catch her breath.
There was something frightening about her silence. "What else did it say?" She still didn't speak. "You have my cell phone number. Call it in five minutes. Tim and I are on our way over. See you then." I wasn't sure if she heard me.
I'd find out soon enough. I glanced at Tim. He was still wearing his Power Rangers pajamas. He and I locked the house, climbing into the convertible just as we were. I was pulling out of the driveway when the cellular phone rang. I kept Cassandra on the line until I walked into her house.
She had been sitting in front of the computer in her bedroom. The message showing on the screen. She was dressed in a long, silk nightgown that reached the floor. Her hair hadn't been combed, and she held her hands tightly around her coffee cup. After answering the door, she returned to her bedroom terminal. We followed her. On the computer screen, I saw the bewildering message.
To: email@example.com From: firstname.lastname@example.org
Quentin is fine right now. Unless you slide a briefcase with $5,000 at the mailbox in the shopping center at 40th Street and Indian School Friday morning at 6 am, he will die.
I am watching you. I follow your every move. I will catch you, and I *will* catch you. You will dead too. Yes, Cassandra Martin, I mean you.
Staring at the message for a few seconds, I twisted my mouth. "wheights would be who?"
"Don't know," she admitted finally. "I've been trying to figure that out. I don't know anyone with the last name Heights."
I knelt beside her. "First thing we need to do is pack your bags. You are coming to stay with me until this blows over." I noticed she was wearing the necklace. Her fingers flew to it, almost instinctively.
She played with the chain, getting an annoyed look on her face. "I can't."
"I am not asking for your opinion," I told her. Cassandra's eyes grew wide. "You are in danger here." A thought struck me--maybe she thought I expected her to sleep with me if she stayed at my house. "Cassie, we have plenty of bedrooms. After all, it is a three story house. You don't even have to sleep on the same level as me."
"Unfortunately," she retorted, exiting out of Windows and turning off the computer with a flip of the main switch, "I have no choice. If I stay here, I will be dead." She went to pack her bags.
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