a mystery novel by Ann Lynes
I noticed that Cassandra was visibly shaking. I was curious how she was actually coping with all this. She was a remarkable woman, but she had "suffered" tremendously. I took her in my arms, trying to calm her. She kept muttering words that seemed like gibberish to me. Something about having to contact Bobbie. Who the hell was Bobbie and why did Cassandra have to contact her? She kept repeating Bobbie's name. "Where is Bobbie?" I asked her, humoring her rather than being serious.
She smiled briefly and pointed toward the door. "In the conference room."
I looked desperately at the agents. "Bobbie Holbrook, Private Investigator."
"A PI? Why would she hire a PI?" Recognition finally took over. "Why didn't you stop her? This Holbrook person will hinder the FBI investigation of this case."
"Upon discussing the situation with Agent _____, he decided it would be better to allow Ms. Holbrook to investigate. After all, she has agreed to cooperate with our investigation," Agent Landis explained, still standing with his hands clasped behind his back. "We did a thorough investigation on her. She used to be an FBI agent herself. Excellent record."
"Barbara Jo Holbrook?" I knew the name sounded familiar. She had been a better FBI agent than most of the males I knew. Very militaristic, earned rank very quickly. "What are you waiting for? Take Cassandra to make a ship-to-shore call to Ms. Holbrook."
After the Agents ushered the bewildered Cassandra to the conference room, I dashed off to the other conference room on the other side of the ship. I dragged Tim along with me. I promised him a game of pool on the Ledo deck as soon as I was done.
Checking in with "In Good Hands Adoption Center" was an interesting experience. I contacted them via the satellite system, but for an unknown reason, the picture would not reciprocate. I could only get the audio version. After Mr. Brook's greeting, I identified myself and began my line of questioning.
"Mr. Brook, in regards to the Allison Vangetti case, what did you find out?"
"The social worker on that case can fill you in." Then I heard silence and a female voice picked up another phone and greeted me.
"Agent Hoffman, I have been waiting for your call."
"I take it you found me some useful information."
"I don't know how useful you will think it is. She's in a foster home in Colorado Springs, Colorado."
"How the heck did she end up there?"
"It's a long story," she said finally, after a lengthy, pregnant pause.
"Try me." I folded my arms across my chest. This ought to be one damn good tale. I settled back into my seat.
Another pause. "It seems that the Vangettis who adopted Allison moved to Colorado Springs soon after they adopted her. Mrs. Vangetti was a famous brain surgeon. You remember the life-saving neurosurgery that was done on that poor little girl from Austin, Texas, a few years back?"
I vaguely recalled the story of a young girl who needed a desperate brain surgery to save her life and her parents were dirt poor. When a neurologist in Colorado heard about it, she volunteered her services free of charge. "Get on with the story."
"Mrs. Vangetti conducted that little girl's surgery. Several months later, Mr. and Mrs. Vangetti died in a car accident on their way to pick Allison up at school."
I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer. "That's how she ended up in a foster home?"
"Yeah," the social worker cleared her throat, continuing, "I hope you don't mind me asking, but why do you need this information?" I was silent for a moment.
"I am working on a case and believe that Allison is the key to the death threats my client is receiving."
"Is this client the biological mother?"
"I can't reveal that." I gathered she knew the answer.
"The child," the social worker said, going over her notes, "hasn't spoken since her parents' deaths." If I had doubts, that relieved them. This was definitely Cassandra's daughter.
"I am sorry to hear that." I paused, then told her, "I'll be contacting you again for the information on the foster home." I cut the connection. Allison Vangetti was in Colorado Springs. That still didn't answer the question of paternity, but one step at a time. I couldn't tell Cassandra yet about locating Allison. I'd have to wait until the right moment.
Tomorrow was the last night of the cruise and maybe I could convince her to take a trip to Colorado Springs. I had been there several times. It was a much cleaner place than Denver. It had at least two malls in case Cassandra felt up to shopping. Granted, this was if she survived the poker game. My heart sank to my stomach. I had four alarms going off in my head about leaving the bodyguard agents outside the door of the Casino, but the game was scheduled for after Casino hours and only a limited number of people were allowed in by the management. I persuaded the casino management to allow me to pose as a casino worker. I hadn't shaved for several days in an attempt to grow a mustache, and tonight I was going to dye my hair and mustache blond. I didn't want Quintin or anyone else who accompanied him to recognize me as they had specified that she come alone. So, at least, I would be there.
Prior to going to my quarters, I dropped Tim off in one of the kid's activity groups. When I reached the quarters, I walked in to find Cassie lying face down on my bed. She appeared to be asleep. Probably the first bit of sleep she'd had in a while. I went over and sat on the edge of the bed, watching her sleep. "I love you," I whispered, then kissed her softly on her cheek.
She lifter her head, giving me a sleepy smile, eyes half-closed. "I love you, too." She wrapped her arms around my waist and squeezed tightly. Her head rested against my shoulder. I moved back to the headboard and she snuggled up against me, falling back asleep. I smiled down at her. A sharp, cold pain hit my heart. What if I lose her tomorrow? What if this is the last time I get to hold her in my arms? I reached my arms around her waist and sighed.
Amber, my ex-wife, was never this strong. She was weak in spirit, dependent solely on others. She was an FBI agent. I never figured out how she could be so clinging and still be a competent FBI agent. Amber didn't even physically resemble Cassandra. Amber was an extremely tall blond with crystal, blue eyes and an abundance of breasts and long legs. Men were always talking to her, and when she dropped her purse, at least four men were there to pick it up. A husband can't compete with that type of attention.
I only wished I had met Cassie sooner. Although some of her life was still a mystery to me, I was eager to learn all I could about her. I laid my head on top of hers.
I must have fallen asleep because by the time I woke up, the sun was shining through the porthole, and tomorrow was now today. My arms were empty. I glanced around the room, watching. Tim walked out of the rest room with a towel wrapped around his waist. He was drying his hair with another.
"She wants us to meet her on the main deck for breakfast."
I sighed a breath of relief. For some reason, I panicked when I realized she was gone. Obviously, she meant a lot more to me than I had originally anticipated. I darted into the rest room and into the shower, trying to sort this mess out in my head. I knew what I had to do.
About noon, I finally caught up with Cassandra, who was leaning over the railing on the main deck. She seemed to be taking in the smells of the salt water and enjoying the breathtaking view of the ice caps as well. "I hope you are not thinking of jumping," I teased, joining her.
She looked up, her eyes twinkling. "I was thinking about the poker game."
"I was, too." I lifted up her chin with my hand. "Cassie, I have been thinking about what would happen if I lose you tonight."
"You aren't going to lose me." She grinned from ear to ear.
"If I do, I would feel a tremendous loss. Cassie, I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I have never felt so close to anyone else in my life." I stroked her cheek.
She looked questioningly into my eyes. "J.D., what...?"
I fumbled to retrieve the velvet box from my jacket pocket. Handing it to her, I drew a ragged breath. "Cassandra Martin, marry me. Be my wife."
She inched open the box. I had had a tough time deciding which ring to buy in the ship's gift shop earlier in the morning. I picked out a simple ring with one teardrop-shaped diamond. Staring at it a moment, she held it out for me to slip on her finger. As I did, I asked, "Is that a 'Yes'?"
She gave me a tearful "Yes."
"Good. I reserved the chapel for two o'clock."
She gave me a playful punch on the arm. "What if I didn't say 'Yes'?"
"I would have been crushed." I took her hand and put it to my rapidly beating heart. "We have a lot to do before the wedding, like breaking this to Timothy."
"You really want to marry me today?"
"Don't ask such a silly question. Of course, I do." I brushed my lips fully against hers.
"Okay, then; let's go for it," she agreed when she came up for a breath.
* * * *
I put my left hand up in the hair against hers. Our gold rings glistened in the sunlight. We were lying in bed, wearing not much of anything. Tim wasn't excited to be my best man, but he did on the condition that he could go to a movie with a group of kids, chaperoned by the ship's kids cruise director. While he did that, we consummated our marriage. Kind of the final touch on an already perfect day.
"Mrs. Cassandra Hoffman," I whispered. "It has such a nice sound to it."
"Doesn't it?" Her lips stretched into a brilliant smile. "Don't expect me to change Martin's Travel to Hoffman's Travel."
I pushed out my lower lip in a mock pout. "Why not?"
She laughed. I hadn't seen her this happy before. It was amusing as well as exciting. A thought struck me--the poker game! I sat up in bed.. I hadn't dyed my hair yet. Cassie's smile quickly turned into a frown. "We have hours before the poker game."
"I still have to get myself ready, going blond and all."
"Couldn't you put it off a little longer? We just got married."
We had had to find a fancy dress in the gift shop and a semi-decent outfit for me. Not to mention, a flower bouquet. Even with all the rushed preparations, the ceremony went off without a hitch. The captain put the ship on automatic long enough to marry us and sign the marriage license.
I sighed and slipped back into the mass of covers.
* * * *
Hours later, I emerged from the rest room to find Cassandra staring at me. She was now fully dressed--in blue jeans and a white, long-sleeved shirt. "My God," she cried, "you look so peculiar."
"Peculiar good or peculiar bad?" I was eager to get an opinion on my transformation.
"You even dyed the eyebrows. Nice touch." Her lips formed a smile. "You definitely don't look like the J.D. I know." Her smile turned into a wicked grin with a glint in her eye to match. "How long are you going to look like that?"
"Long enough to keep you out of trouble."
"Trust me. I can take care of myself." She patted the spot next to her on the bed. "If you want to do me a favor though, don't worry. It's unbecoming of you."
How could I not? We were dealing with an unknown--a madman. I wondered exactly what this man had in mind. I sat down next to her. Was he going to kill her right out, or were they actually going to play poker. "Sweetie, that isn't so easy."
"I know, but I need you to be fully aware of what is going on. You can't let worry get in the way of your senses." She was dead serious. Her jaw clenched. Her expression was eerie enough to send a shiver down my spine. She was right, of course. "What are you going to do with Tim?"
"I arranged for him to sleep with a friend." I cradled her chin in my palm.
"When you make it out alive, we have the whole night together."
She nodded half-heartedly. My guess was that the consequences of the poker game finally settled in her brain. The clock alarm buzzed, bringing her out of her reverie.
"Time to go." She headed out the door reluctantly, dragging her feet. I grabbed my revolver from my dresser drawer and quickly loaded it. Something told me that guns might be fired.
* * * *
In the casino, I put on the uniform--a starched, white pants and short-sleeve shirt set. Cassie help close the casino with the exception of a lone table in the far right corner with two chairs. She assisted in folding tables and chairs from the left while we worked from the right. I could tell she was nervous. As she folded the chairs, I could see her hands shaking. I didn't blame her. Quentin was fifteen minutes late. The FBI agents were hiding in the corridor. At the sound of a gunshot, they were to rush in. My heart was pounding in anticipation of Quentin's arrival.
Suddenly, I caught Cassandra staring behind me. "Barkeep, a beer for me. Kitten, what are you drinking these days? Your usual white wine?"
Nodding, she seemed to relax. I mentally clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth. Mistake! "I told you never to call me Kitten, Quentin."
"Even in the midst of danger you're a fireball." He sat down in his chair. "I'm assuming my capturer told you the stakes."
Cassandra leaned forward. "How are you?"
He shuffled a deck of cars that the casino had provided. Passing out ten cards between Cassandra and himself, he smiled ruefully. "Five card stud. Cassie, don't cheat now. My capturer will know. First person to win five hands, wins."
Something struck me odd about Quentin. For being held hostage for so long, he seemed alert, well-clothed and confident. He didn't seem at uneasy.
I could see Cassie's hand from behind the bar where I was wiping the counter. She was holding a four, eight, King and Jack of Spades, as well as the Ace of Hearts. After making their bets, Cassandra traded the Ace of Hearts for another card--the Ace of Clubs. Quentin never took his eyes off Cassandra as he went through his bets and discards. He raised her two, and she saw his two and two more.
I noticed Quentin reached into his jacket pocket. Alarms went off in my head. Cassandra kept her eyes even with his while making movements of her own under the table. I reached for my gun, hand on the trigger. Quentin pulled the gun out of his pocket carefully and methodically. By the time he pointed it at Cassandra, I heard a gun cock and fire. Quentin's face fell onto the table. I could hear his muffled cried.
Cassandra sat still and was ghastly white. Her hand clutched the weapon. The FBI agents rushed in yelling, "What happened?"
"He pulled a gun on her, and she shot him," I explained quickly, relieved that Cassie was alive and worried about her state of mind.
In a low voice, Cassandra muttered as two of the agents carried Quentin out of the room. "I saw that look in his eyes. It scared me and yet I knew it meant danger. I have seen that look before somewhere." She seemed to be in shock. I put my arm around her and, after putting on plastic gloves an agent had given me, gently eased the gun out of her hand.
"You could have been killed." I coaxed her, trying to edge her to her feet.
She looked at me, a blank expression on her face. "Deja vu," she whispered almost inaudibly. I decided to pick her up, and I carried her to the room that way.
* * * *
The next morning, Cassandra was up with a start, stretching like a jaguar in her territory. I hadn't gotten an ounce of sleep, thinking about what had happened and how I was going to persuade Cassie to go with me to Colorado Springs.
"How did last night go?" She looked down and added, "Unless this is heaven, I guess I am still alive. That's a good sign."
I stroked her cheek. "You don't remember, do you? Quentin pulled a gun on you, but you shot him before he could shoot; you shot him."
"Is he okay?"
"Yeah, it was just enough to stop him. A flesh wound."
She was silent for a moment. "Was he taken into custody?"
I nodded. "Attempted murder, to start."
"What about me? I am still up for Richard's shooting."
I took her in my arms. "Don't worry. The FBI is taking care of all your charges; after all, everything you've done has been in self-defense." Actually, after the agents and I sent them our daily reports on this situation, they convinced the Phoenix Police Department to drop Cassandra's charges since all the evidence was overwhelming that Cassandra was the victim. "I've got some business to take care of after Tim heads back to D.C. In Colorado."
"What with all the confusion, I forgot to ask in which home are we going to live? And are we going to live in Washington, D.C. or Phoenix."
I never thought of that. Everything had happened too fast. "We'll decide when I come back from Washington, D.C., to pick you up in Phoenix to go to Colorado.
She studied my face a moment. You are going to leave me alone?"
"Yeah, the danger's over. Quentin's in jail."
"So, you're saying that Quentin arranged his own kidnapping?" She frowned.
"You were there. There was a ski-masked man."
"A man hired by Quentin."
"I don't think so. I believe Quentin has a partner, and I am afraid I don't wish to die."
I decided to humor her just in case Quentin's partner was the actual brains behind the death threats. "I guess I can send one of the agents back to D.C. with Timothy. We can head right to Colorado from here."
She nodded; getting up, she started to pack. I decided to join her.
By the time we headed downstairs with our luggage and Tim exchanged addresses and phone numbers with all hills new friends, it was time to disembark. As we shook hands with the cruise director, she smiled. "This was left for you by a gentleman." She handed Cassandra an envelope. Cassie ripped it open with her index finger. Turning white, Cassie allowed the note to slip out of her fingers.
I picked up the note that had cut-out magazine letters pasted on it.
* * * *
Cassandra You escaped me this time, but I make this promise: I will catch you. I will kill you.