A Risky Christmas
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Copyright, December 2011. All rights reserved.
“This is Christmas. The season of perpetual hope.” Kaylin said with a cold smile. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and the spirit of the season will make me just a little more forgiving.”
Greg and Kyle both grinned knowing the odds of that were dismal.
“Please, please, I have a family. They need me,” Andrew begged in fear. “I didn’t tell the police anything I swear.”
Kaylin strolled around him, running her hands through his hair as she completed the circle coming to stand in front of him. “Now Andy,” she began mockingly, “can I call you Andy?”
She gave a humorless laugh as he nodded jerkily.
“You know what I hate more than you being a sniveling piece of trash?”
“Please,” the man whimpered as he attempted to rear back, away from the hand that had grabbed a handful of his short graying hair.
“I hate you being a lying sniveling piece of trash.” Kaylin said with a pout. “You see I know what you said but just in case my hearing is a little off or maybe you have amnesia?” the last part was said with an amused tilt of her head.
Andrew struggled as she bent and pulled his face to within an inch of hers.
“You don’t have amnesia do you Andy honey?”
Greg pulled a chair to the middle of the room and looked at Kaylin, waiting for a command.
Andrew shivered at the purely evil smile she gave him.
“We’re gonna listen to a tape now. You’re ok with that right?”
“Can I just go home? My wife’s expecting another baby in a few weeks. I didn’t say anything.” Andrew rambled desperately as Kaylin, taller than him by about five inches, pulled him by his hair to the chair.
Andrew trembled at the commanding tone, a far cry from the amusement in her voice mere seconds ago.
Greg stood over him with his arms folded, clearly ensuring there was no escape attempt. Despite the menacing aura of the burly man, Andrew’s fear was for the model beautiful woman walking over to a stereo at the back of the room. The black wavy hair that reached just under her breasts framed a face a photographer would weep at. Her eyes were almost as dark as her hair. She had a slim build that managed to showcase her muscles. Against her dark coloring that pointed to a Latino heritage, she had on a black shirt and dark brown slacks.
Andrew lost control of his bladder as the sound of his interview with the police four hours ago playing on surround sound filled the room.
“I can explain. Please let me explain.” Andrew begged terrified at what he knew would happen next.
Kaylin shook her head sadly, clicking her tongue as Andrew’s voice came over clearly on the speakers telling the officers where they could find the evidence they needed to arrest her uncle and father.
“Well Andy, it looks like your amnesia isn’t going to be your only problem is it?” she asked with a menacing smile as she began walking towards him.
Andrew scrambled from the chair and tried to run knowing all the while that it was futile. The sound of Kaylin’s delighted laughter filled the room mixing with his screams as Greg easily caught and bound him to the soiled chair.
I hummed along with the radio as I tried to keep my balance on the tall ladder and put silver tinsel on the wall at the same time.
“No a little more to your left,” Jessica said as she walked into the bookstore.
“Hey, you’re right on time to help me with the rest of this stuff,” I grinned without turning around.
Jessica held the ladder steady as I made my way carefully to the floor.
“What else do we have to hang up?”
“Tim should be finishing up with the tree over there today,” I said pointing to the corner by the cash register where a 6 foot tree stood, sparsely decorated.
“Where is he?”
“He went across the street to get a few more things. Some of the decorations from last year got broken.”
“Ok so what’s next boss?” Jessica asked mischievously.
“You know I hate it when you do that,” I said rolling my eyes as I moved the ladder to a different spot.
Jessica looked at what I had done so far and getting the idea, went to the box of decorations and pulled some more out for us to hang up.
“Well you’re the supervisor, I’m just the assistant.” Jessica pointed out teasingly.
“Don’t you think this place is a little too small to have all those fancy titles attached? I mean there are only six employees total. Why on earth do we need to stick a label on everyone?” I said ready to launch into my usual rant about the subject.
“Do not start. It’s way too early in the morning for that speech,”
I laughed as I climbed the ladder for what seemed like the hundredth time.
“Hey Jess, when did you get here?” Tim asked as he struggled through the door carrying bags full of even more decorations as well as two cups of coffee.
Jessica left me on the ladder and went to help him.
“What do you think Tim?” I asked as I struggled to get the candy cane at the end of the string to hide the double sided tape. “Did I get it right this time?”
“It’s definitely better than what you were doing before I came but that set you’re putting up there is wrong.”
“How on earth can it be wrong? Tinsel, random Christmas things, then hanging snowflakes, then tinsel again…” I protested as I leaned back to point out the work I had done so far.
“Yeah but we’re going to crisscross that part in the middle so you can’t use the candy canes and bells there because then it’ll be too much.”
I groaned in frustration and yanked the string of ornaments from the tape attached to the wall but the unnecessary force caused me to lose my balance and I came crashing to the floor with the string still in my hand.
“Oh my god, Nicole are you ok?”
“Don’t try to move in case you’re paralyzed,” Tim said panicked.
Jessica and Tim rushed over to me.
“I’m not paralyzed, I can feel every single bone in my body.” I said through gritted teeth. “I think I hurt my wrist when I fell on top of it.”
“Let me see it,” an authoritative voice said behind Jessica.
If the fall hadn’t knocked the breath right out of me, the gorgeous woman bending over me and gently taking my wrist definitely did.
“It looks like it could be a sprain,” she said concerned as she helped me up. “You hurt anywhere else?”
“Everywhere,” I said mesmerized as we both stood. Catching what I had just said I flushed in embarrassment. It figured that I would fall on my ass the one day a beautiful customer walked in to Lakewood Bookstore.
The stranger gave me a slow once over and by the time she was through it felt like she had read my entire soul in one look.
“Who’s in charge here?” she asked her face expressionless.
“That would be me,” I said sheepishly.
“That makes you Nicole Woods?”
I nodded, surprised that she knew my name.
“Ok and the two of you are?” she arched one perfect eyebrow as she waited for a response.
Jessica came out of her stupor first. “I’m Jessica and this is Tim,”
“Thanks for showing up when you did because I was ready to panic,” Tim said with a small grin.
“I’m tempted to ask why both of you were over by a tree which was in no danger of falling rather than holding the ladder so this type of thing wouldn’t happen, but, since you’re supposed to be their supervisor what I’d love dearly to know is why on earth would you go against safe practice in the first place?” she demanded angrily.
“Excuse me?” I said incredulous at being chewed out by a stranger.
“Who the hell died and made you boss?” Tim muttered under his breath.
She turned a cold glare first to him and then folding her arms she glared at me.
“You’re excused, you should go to the hospital and get checked out anyway,” she said to me dismissively. “As for who died? Well last time I checked I owned this place from day one when we started construction on it so nobody had to die to make me boss,” she said coolly to Tim.
“Wait a minute, you’re Kaylin Marcus?” I said in shock.
“The one and only,” Kaylin said mockingly.
I looked over at Tim and Jessica, Tim looked as white as a sheet.
Kaylin stalked into the office in the back as if, well as if she owned the place. She knew her way around so clearly she came here often enough to know where everything was. Wondering why I had never met her before if that was the case, I followed.
“Look I’m really sorry about not following the guidelines that I make the staff follow. I was just trying to hurry it along so I could get back to my work.” I hesitantly apologized.
Kaylin grabbed my purse and coat.
“We’ll talk about it on the way to the doctor’s office,” she said as she helped me into the heavy coat and handed me my purse.
“You would be the assistant supervisor right?” she directed at Jessica as she made her way through the scattered decorations by the counter.
“Ok I’m going to carry Nicole to get some medical attention so you and Tim are on your own. I suggest you call in one of the other workers since I doubt she’ll be back today.”
“Sure, no problem,” Jessica stammered. “I’ll call you later to check on you Nicky,”
I gave them both a reassuring smile as I followed Kaylin into the parking lot.
She helped me into the passenger side of the black suv and as she buckled me in I felt the butterflies in my stomach become frantic at her nearness. Apparently my hormones didn’t care that she was my boss, that she was currently furious with me or that she scared me half to death.
“You know instead of going all the way to the hospital I could just go home and put some ice on it. If it still hurts after that I can always go to the emergency room on my own.”
“Don’t you think you’ve broken enough employee guidelines for one day?” Kaylin glanced at her in annoyance.
“I was just trying to save you some trouble, there’s really no need to keep rubbing it in.” I retorted.
She said nothing as she navigated us through the busy downtown area.
“You know Mercer is in the other direction right?” I asked confused as she turned off the freeway and away from the closest hospital.
“We’re not going to Mercer.”
I waited for her to say more but she seemed content to simply leave it at that.
“Are you going to tell me where you’re taking me?” I finally caved in frustration.
“To a doctor. Do you always ask so many questions?” she looked slightly irritated.
“When someone I’ve never met before just shows up, claims to be the boss I’ve never seen, bundles me in a car and takes off to places unknown I generally try to at least find out where I’m going.”
Her only response was an arched eyebrow and a twitch of what could be a smile.
“You know it’s rude……” I began again.
“We’re here,” she announced as we pulled into a small parking lot that was packed with cars. She pulled into a spot close to the door and looked at me expectantly.
“And here would be?”
“Give it a rest Nicole, I said I was taking you to a doctor and I did. Does a name you won’t recognize really mean that much to you?”
I followed her inside to the busy reception area.
“Well when you put it like that,”
She shot me an amused glance and turned to face the receptionist.
“Hi, could you tell Ed I brought someone to see him,” she said with a flirty smile.
Miffed I watched the receptionist respond to the charm and go off to fulfill the request.
“I bet if you’d used that same tone and smile and told her to strip she’d have done it just as eagerly,” I muttered under my breath, irritated that I had yet to get anything resembling a smile.
Kaylin turned to me with a grin. “Somehow I don’t think she’s that smitten just yet.”
I blushed, mortified that she had heard me.
“Don’t be, the look on your face is priceless,” she teased with a wink. “Who knew redheads could turn that shade of pink, it brings out those unusual eyes though.”
“I’ll go sit over there until he’s ready,” I stammered.
I wasn’t charming or smooth under normal circumstances but I was pretty sure that I had never fallen flat on my ass and put my foot in my mouth in under an hour before. Of course with the way life works my less than stellar day had to happen in front of the first woman I had even been attracted to since my last breakup over a year ago.
I took about two dejected steps toward the bank of chairs where other patients sat waiting their turn before I felt a hand grip my elbow and pull me back.
“No need to sit. I’d only make you stand again in the ten seconds it takes him to come over here.”
“It might take ten seconds to come out to see who’s next on the list but we’re damn sure not the only people here,” I hissed.
The hand she placed on my shoulder literally made my skin tingle and the butterflies in my stomach started doing a happy dance.
“Ed, this is Nicole. She works in the bookstore.” Kaylin said gesturing to me as a tall sandy haired man came up to us.
“Pleasure to meet you,” he said holding out his hand politely.
I smiled as I offered my uninjured hand.
Kaylin’s hand left my shoulder and a part of me ached at the loss of contact, the rest of me wondered where the hell my common sense had gotten to.
The doctor closed the door to the small examination room behind us. “What can I do for you today?” the question was directed at Kaylin.
“She fell off the ladder at work. I think her wrist is sprained but I’ll leave you to do a complete check on her.”
“Not a problem,” he nodded with an efficient air.
“You can change into a gown right over there,” he said pointing to the partition in the corner of the room.
When I emerged again Kaylin was on her phone near the window speaking in a low voice. She spent the entire exam there talking with presumably the same person.
“I’m going to send you for an x-ray of that hand just to be sure,” the doctor said as he calmly made notations in a file.
I sighed. My wrist hurt but my pride was hurt a lot more than the rest of me. I left Kaylin and Ed in the room together and followed his assistant to the x-ray room. When I got back Kaylin was off the phone and examining the notes while the doctor pointed and explained in a quiet murmur.
“Perfect timing,” Ed said as he took the folder from the technician behind me and closed the door.
“Ok it’s not broken or fractured so we’ll wrap it and you can put some ice on as soon as you get home.” Ed stated decisively. “Other than that, you’re fine. You should put some ice on that goose egg but you don’t have a concussion so it will go down on its own soon enough. I recommend you take the rest of the day off and you’ll probably be feeling sore by tonight into tomorrow. Don’t lift anything strenuous and take it easy for a couple days.”
I flushed at how much of Kaylin’s time I had wasted over a few bruises.
“Thanks doc,” Kaylin said with a wink as she firmly led me back to the partition to change. “Nicole you can meet me by the car as soon as you’re ready.”
“Well that was relatively painless,” Kaylin smirked as she drove us back into town. “Are you hungry?”
“I’m fine. I’ve taken up enough of your time as it is. You could just drop me by the subway and I’ll go home.”
“Where’s your car?”
“At home. It refused to start today.”
“Where do you live?”
“Your car normally gives trouble? How old is it?”
“Going on eight years and yeah it seems every time the mechanic gets it working again something else goes wrong,”
“I have to run a quick errand and then I’ll take a look at your car for you.” Kaylin said as she pulled into a small driveway.
I watched her lower the window and punch in a few keys on the security keypad behind the wall. The wall of metal in front of us opened up and she drove us down into what seemed like an underground parking garage/mechanic shop.
“Give me a sec, I’ll be right back,”
I watched her walk over to an elevator, she didn’t get in when the doors opened. It closed again and when it opened a minute later someone else was in it. She got in in front of them, essentially blocking my view and leaned over to where I assumed the buttons were closing them in. I spent the next fifteen minutes staring at the closed elevator and the few workers milling around in dirty coveralls. Nobody seemed to be doing much work.
“Sorry, it took longer than I expected.” Kaylin said as she opened the back door and shoved a cardboard box in the backseat. “So feel like Mexican?”
“You really don’t need to get someone to look at my car. I’ll call my mechanic a little later and you can just drop me off on Queensway.”
“Mexican it is,” Kaylin said with a smirk as she reversed in a squeal of tires and sped off in a totally different direction than the one we had come from, zigzagging over small ramps. This time we came out in a yard where cars parked somewhat haphazardly and more people in coveralls were actually working on some of them. I forgot about my wrist and I grabbed the arm rest as Kaylin drove like a maniac through the yard making what seemed like random twists and turns until suddenly we were back out on the street.
“Is someone chasing us?” I asked in horror as I cradled my arm. My wrist felt like it was on fire and I was worried that the fall from the ladder wasn’t nearly as dangerous as being in a car with Kaylin and her mood swings.
“Well if someone were thinking about it they’ve probably changed their minds by now,” she said with a mischievous grin.
“So why have I never seen you?” I asked curiously in between bites of the best chicken enchiladas I’d ever had. “I mean Andrew interviewed and hired me but he’s the manager and it’s a small store so I don’t get why you didn’t sit in on any interviews.”
Kaylin shrugged as she licked melted cheese off her fingers in obvious enjoyment. Realizing I was staring I quickly averted my eyes to my plate blushing furiously.
“I always had more important things to see about. Besides, what’s the point of a manager if they can’t take care of things like that?”
“It’s just that now that I’ve met you, you seem more like the hands-on type,”
“Actually I quite like the shadows,” Kaylin replied as she gestured to the waitress.
Surprisingly enough, despite our rough first encounter, lunch went well. It felt like I had known her all my life but then she said something or there was a flicker in her eyes that reminded me I really didn’t know her at all.
“Ready to go or would you like dessert?” Kaylin asked with a smile.
“No thanks, I’m stuffed.”
Kaylin nodded at someone behind me and our waitress came back with the check which she handed to Kaylin and a black ice pack which she gave to me.
“Oh I forgot about that,” I exclaimed, amazed that she had been so thoughtful.
“Wouldn’t want you to be in pain by the time I dropped you off now would we,” she said in a low murmur.
I gave her a slow smile and wished with every fiber of my being that instead of my wavy, mostly wild dark red hair, freckles and slightly crooked nose, I looked like an exotic model. My best feature was my grey eyes. Other than that I was just a mildly attractive woman with none of the charisma it would take to seduce someone like Kaylin.
“No I guess we wouldn’t,”
“You know I never would have pegged you for a mechanic,” I said as I placed a steaming cup of hot chocolate in front of Kaylin.
“Yeah well it’s sort of my papa’s place so I grew up there. No sense spending all that time around cars and not picking up anything,” Kaylin replied with a shrug.
“So you like cars or books more?”
“Right now, I’m loving this hot chocolate more than either of them,”
I didn’t need a mirror to see that I sported a bright red blush from the compliment.
“You think I can entice you away from your current job to work in a coffee shop?” Kaylin teased.
Part of me wanted to say I was already pretty enticed but the sensible part managed to smile and not respond just in case the thoughts floating around in my head wound up being exactly what I said.
“It was nice finally getting to meet you although I am sorry you had to fall for me to get to know you a little bit.” Kaylin gestured to my wrist.
“I actually forgot about this,” I grinned.
“Good. That means you’re not in pain,” Kaylin smiled as she stood. “I have to get going, here’s my card, if you need anything give me a call.”
I took the small business card from her feeling an acute sense of loss at the prospect of her leaving. I had spent only one morning with her but it felt like we had known each other forever.
“Thanks for fixing my car for me, and for lunch, and the doctor’s visit,”
Kaylin threw back the mane of dark hair as she laughed, “I’ll make you a deal, I won’t mention this morning if you don’t,” she winked at me.
“Jess, I swear under the attitude she’s so sweet and funny,” I said dreamily as I helped Jessica tidy the shelves and restack books.
“You sound like you have a full blown crush and I can’t blame you, she’s gorgeous,”
“Yeah and charming and probably not interested either. I’m betting that there’s some supermodel girlfriend stashed away somewhere.” I said with a sigh.
“You have a point. People like her always have someone,”
“Maybe we should put a sprig of mistletoe by the door to the office so if she comes back and I get her under it….” I winked at Jessica.
“With your luck you’d have to kiss Andrew,” Jessica laughed.
“So true and so very depressing,” I groaned as I stood up.
“Speaking of, where is Andrew by the way? Shouldn’t he be here by now?” Jessica asked curiously.
“He should have been here an hour ago. I called his cell yesterday to let him know what had happened but he didn’t answer and he didn’t call me back either.”
“Yes and not at all like him.” I said stopping to consider the situation.
“I’ll go try his home number, maybe he’s still there,”
“Or maybe Shelly had the baby,” Jessica said excitedly.
“That’s right she’s due soon. I’ll call the house and if she’s not there then they’re probably both at the hospital.”
“While you do that I’ll start working on the window display since it’s our down time,” Jessica said as she headed to the corner of the store.
The bell chimes to signal the door opening sounded but I figured Jessica could handle it as I dialed Andrew’s home number. No one answered and I gave up in frustration. Where could he possibly be that he couldn’t manage to answer any phones or call me back? I didn’t really want to waste the time calling the three major hospitals because I had no idea where he would have taken his wife to have the baby.
“Nicole, there’s an FBI agent here to see you,” Jessica whispered worriedly.
“To see me?” I asked in confusion.
She nodded. “He was asking me questions about Andrew,”
Jessica looked pale and a sense of foreboding came over me. The agent was standing by the cash register, examining the bookmarks set up on the counter.
“Hi, I’m Nicole Woods.” I said as I held out my hand.
His handshake was firm and brief.
“Agent Crossfield,” he said as he flashed his identification for me.
“What can I do for you?” I asked as I motioned for him to come closer towards the office and away from the three women that came into the store.
“When was the last time you saw or spoke to Andrew Mitchell?”
“Day before yesterday when we were working out the schedule for the extended Christmas hours. Why has something happened to him?” I asked worried.
“What makes you think something happened to him?” the agent asked, cocking his head slightly to one side as he waited for my answer.
“I tried to call him several times after that but I haven’t managed to reach him,”
“Was the owner of this store,” he paused as he checked his notes, “Ms. Kaylin Marcus at the meeting as well?”
“No she’s never in meetings with us and most of the staff has never seen her.”
“Most?” the agent asked staring intently at me.
Feeling uneasy I glanced around the store, Jessica was helping the trio and none of them paid us any attention.
“What does that have to do with Andrew? And why are you asking about him anyway?” I hedged.
“I take it you’re one of those who has met your boss?” he pushed.
“Yes I met her once. That’s about it.”
“Did Andrew seem troubled at all these last few days?”
I shook my head no.
“What was his relationship with Ms. Marcus like?”
“I wouldn’t know, I told you I only met her once. I assumed they got along fine and that she trusted his judgement because he was the one who made most of the decisions from what I could see.”
“Thank you for your time Ms. Woods, I’ll be in touch if I have any more questions for you.”
“Wait!” I panicked. “He’s either dead or in big trouble if the FBI is involved. Please, he was a friend not just an employer,” I pleaded.
Agent Crossfield sighed as he looked at me.
“Police located his body early this morning.”
“Oh my God,” I whispered, numb from shock. “Why would anyone want to kill him? He was a nice family guy. Really conservative. Was it a robbery gone bad?”
“I can’t disclose more information than that at this point.”
“Wait, what about his wife? She must be devastated and she’s pregnant.”
“She and her child are in protective custody,”
“But why? Do you think whoever killed Andrew would hurt her too?”
“I’ll be in touch,” he said shortly.
I practically ran to the office and closed the door for privacy. I was still too shocked to cry but I could already feel the pain welling up inside me. Andrew couldn’t just be gone. Why was the FBI involved? What the hell was going on?
“Nic? Did he say what he wanted?” Jessica asked as she came into the office.
“Andrew’s dead,” I said so softly that I wondered if I had actually said it out loud.
Jessica and I closed the store and called the other employees. I went home in a daze, unable to believe the events of the day and then I remembered that I had a boss who would definitely want to know about Andrew.
“Yeah,” an authoritative silky voice answered.
“Depends,” she said in a low voice that made me shiver despite the grief.
“It’s Nicole Woods,”
“Oh sorry, hi” the voice went up a few notches in terms of warmth.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news. It’s Andrew,”
“Yes I heard. I was going to call you but I got a little tied up with some things,”
“I closed the shop early and called everyone already. The FBI came to the bookstore and asked a bunch of questions,”
“Did you get a name?” Kaylin interrupted.
“I think it was Crossfield why? Did they come talk to you too?”
“Not yet but I’m sure they will,” Kaylin muttered wryly.
I waited but she didn’t seem inclined to add anything to that.
“Are you coming to work tomorrow since…..” I swallowed hard as a lump formed in my throat. “Since Andrew….”
The tears I had stopped from falling earlier were now making an appearance to my mortification.
“It’s just that there are all these things he was supposed to deal with this week and now, now he’s gone,” I knew I was rambling and yet for some reason I couldn’t seem to stop myself.
“Nicole are you alone?” Kaylin asked gently.
“I’m home. We closed the store as soon as we found out.”
“You and Andrew were close then?”
“He was a friend. He could be exasperating at times but he loved his family and he was always really nice to all of us.” I said quietly. “I don’t even know where his wife is so I can call her.”
I could hear voices in the background and idly wondered where Kaylin was.
“Give me a minute,” she said to someone, “Nicole, I have something important that has to be taken care of right now but sit tight and I’ll call you back in a couple hours so we can talk ok?”
“You don’t need to if you’re busy,” I offered dejectedly.
“I’ll talk to you in a little while then,” she said and then hung up.
I considered calling one of friends or even Jessica to talk but thought better of it and turning on the TV I curled up on my couch instead feeling incredibly lonely and depressed.
“Boss, I just talked to Jerry,” Greg said as he handed her a file.
Kaylin motioned for him to continue and put her hand over the mouthpiece so Nicole couldn’t hear the conversation clearly.
“They’re in the process of getting a search warrant, we need to move everything now.”
Kaylin nodded her understanding and quickly debated her priorities. Nicole sounded incredibly upset and she acknowledged the irony that she chose to unknowingly call the cause of her pain. At the end of the day though, no matter how beautiful or vulnerable she was the fact was business and family came first. Knowing her priorities played a huge part in why she was single she sighed and made a quick decision and cut the call short feeling regret that it would make her seem insensitive and cold, not exactly the feelings she wanted to inspire in Nicole. For some reason, since she first saw those gorgeous grey eyes she’d been intrigued and then later, charmed. What she really wanted was a chance to put her charms to good use and pursue something with the redhead even though she could list at least five reasons why that would definitely not be a good idea.
Kaylin navigated the busy streets of the down town area parking by the bakery on the street behind the bookstore. She dialed her father’s number as she let herself into the dark store and went stealthily to the office without turning on any lights.
“Have you completed it yet?” a steely voice answered.
“I’m in the office now actually,”
“How much time did Jerry say we have before they issue it?”
“The judge should be signing it as we speak. Remember though they don’t need to have it in hand to park up right outside and wait so make sure the garage is as clean as here is going to be in about five minutes.”
“This should never have been allowed to get so far. Now they have a confession, a basic layout of the operation and the death of the person who gave them all that information.” Carlos angrily reprimanded.
“None of this would have happened if he hadn’t developed that habit and hid it from me. He was never vulnerable to persuasion before then papa.” Kaylin responded distractedly as she replaced the physical ledgers with the clean dummies placing the real ones in her messenger bag.
“You should still have noticed something Kaylin.”
Sighing she took the screwdriver out of her pocket.
“I was a little busy closing the casino deal for you and tio Ricardo. Look, papa, as much as I would love to play the blame game I have to finish this like five minutes ago so you can yell at me later.” Kaylin said exasperated.
Pushing the end button she turned on the flashlight function and began the process of replacing the motherboard in the pc. She had just gotten the small but damaging evidence out and in her bag when the flashlight went off and a text message appeared.
‘They’re heading straight for you. Get out NOW!!!”
She looked up at the security monitor and watched as the police cars could be plainly seen driving into the parking lot. Quickly securing the dummy motherboard in place and pushing it back under the desk she grabbed the bag. She pushed a button on the security screen and found herself looking at even more police vehicles driving to the back of the store. Her car was at the end of the alley unobtrusively parked by the bakery but she couldn’t take the same route back to it now.
Kaylin switched her phone to silent so no one would hear it vibrate, slipped it into her small bag and strapped the bag tightly around her neck and shoulders so it would not fall off accidentally. Sneaking out of the office she made her way around to the small bathroom, peeping at the front store which still had not been opened. Closing the door behind her she went into the first stall and stood on the toilet seat stretching her arms to the ceiling. She felt around determinedly for the edge of the ceiling tile and pushed, turned and pulled it out. Using the screwdriver she quickly located the small screw in the middle that most people would miss and unscrewed it. She heard the iron grate on the outside of the store go up and heard the sounds of the wooden door in the back being smashed in.
“Guess the DA got here with that warrant,” she muttered to herself as she pushed at the small door.
Standing on her tip toes she carefully put the loose tile on her toes, keeping them straight so it wouldn’t fall off, and pulled herself into the small opening just as the lights started to go on and the sound of a multitude of law enforcement swarmed the small store more than likely heading for the office. Sitting in the narrow space she leaned back down and grabbed the tile while she pulled the rest of her body in. Silently thanking her grandmother for all those gymnastic classes she had insisted her only granddaughter attend she fitted the tile back in and closed the trapdoor.
It took her five minutes slithering through the space to get to the steep shoot that led down to a basement that did not exist on any blueprint or floor plan. Climbing down and then dropping to the floor she looked around the spacious room that was currently cluttered with large boxes. The officers upstairs would never get access to here no matter how many people they managed to bribe or how many warrants they obtained simply because only three people knew of its existence. Kaylin, Carlos her father and Ricardo her uncle.
If they ever needed a safe place to store everything or even to go to ground for a few days the idea was that this place would be untouchable. The wall on the far side had a small door that led to the bakery where Kaylin’s car was parked and she was a silent, untraceable partner.
Kaylin carefully placed the messenger bag in the bottom drawer of her home office and made sure it was securely locked away before taking a shower and putting on dark jeans, a thick navy sweater and her warm black jacket. The snow the weatherman had predicted had already begun to fall by the time she pulled in front of Nicole’s apartment building.
She dialed Nicole’s phone but got no answer and for a minute wondered at the wisdom of just showing up at her door an hour and a half after she had ended the call. ‘Well there’s only one way to find out if she still needs to talk to me’ she thought as she followed a resident into the building and went up to Nicole’s floor.
“Hey,” she said when a red eyed Nicole answered the door in sweats.
On close inspection she could see the streaks on her face where tears had traced a path down her cheeks.
“I thought you were busy,” Nicole said in obvious surprise.
“Can I come in?”
Nicole blushed and stepped back to let her pass.
I closed the door behind my unexpected guest flustered and cursing my choice of attire.
“I’m sorry about earlier, I had a few things to take care of and I was going to call you when I was done but you sounded so sad when you hung up that I figured I should check on you in person instead.”
I smiled my gratitude, the warmth of her consideration chasing away the loneliness and grief of the past few hours.
“Can I get you something to drink or eat?” I asked already moving towards the kitchen.
“I’m fine,” she said as she motioned me to over to sit next to her on the small couch.
The butterflies from yesterday came back with a vengeance as she put an arm around my shoulders pulling me against her.
She stayed like that, comforting me while we talked about Andrew, work, our hobbies and my family. When I started dozing off nestled against her around 2:00am she decided it was time to leave and part of me protested, wishing she would stay and hold me all night.
“You know you’re more comfortable than a pillow,” I teased.
“Really? Hmm, maybe I should switch professions then,” she laughed. “I’m only a phone call away ok?” she promised as she pulled me into a hug.
I inhaled her scent as I nodded.
It was more than an hour later before I stopped tossing and turning in a bed that was suddenly not as comfortable as my couch and finally fell asleep.
I slapped my alarm repeatedly as I groggily tried to shut it off. Frustrated when the noise continued I opened one eye and glared at it before my brain woke up and realized the ringing was coming from my phone next to the quiet alarm clock.
“Hello?” I croaked, wincing at the dryness of my throat.
“Did I wake you?” a silky low voice asked.
Instantly alert I sat up a slow smile spreading across my face.
“Yes, but that’s ok though,”
Kaylin laughed. “Do you know who was supposed to work today?”
“Andrew, Tim and Celeste. I guess I’ll take Andrew’s spot until we can work out a new schedule.” I offered.
“That’s part of why I’m calling actually, the store won’t be opened today. I already had someone put up a sign on the door.”
“Ok I’ll call Tim and Celeste then,” I said reluctant to end the conversation to take care of work. “What was the other part by the way?”
“I just wanted to check on you, make sure you were ok.”
The admission made my heart skip a few beats.
“That was sweet of you. Thanks for last night, I really appreciated it.”
“I’m glad I helped.”
“If you’re not busy maybe I can take you out for a thank you dinner?” I cursed myself as soon as I asked immediately dreading the inevitable turndown.
“I’m sorry, I can’t. I have plans for this evening,”
My heart took an instant dive to the pit of my stomach.
“How about breakfast instead? I’m fairly close to your neighborhood now. I could swing by for you in twenty minutes,” she suggested.
“Sure that’d be great,” I exclaimed enthusiastically.
I slapped my forehead as I pleaded with my brain to quit the outbursts.
“See you in a bit then,” I could picture the cocky grin on her face I detected in her voice.
As soon as I hung up some of the euphoria dissipated and panic set in. What do you wear to a breakfast date? What should I do with my hair? Twenty minutes suddenly didn’t seem like a lot of time to get ready and I practically flew off the bed and into the shower, mentally going through my wardrobe for something that looked at least casually sexy. No matter what anyone says it looks awkward if you’re dining with someone who looks like a goddess even in sweats and you look like you just rolled out of bed and threw something, anything, on.
Finally settling on dark blue jeans and a grey turtleneck that brought out my own grey eyes, I quickly ran a brush through my wavy dark red hair. Wanting to impress her didn’t win out over my distaste for makeup so when she rang the doorbell I was ready. The brilliant smile she gave me when she looked me over made my entire body tingle.
I was definitely in trouble and heading for the dangerous crush zone.
“We talked about me last time, tell me something about you,” I smiled.
“I like hearing about you and I’m a boring topic,” she teased.
Underneath the teasing tone though there was something in her eyes that said her refusal was not a joke. I pushed anyway.
“Family seems like a safe topic,” I suggested cautiously. “Do you have any siblings?”
She said nothing for a minute as she watched me. I couldn’t read her at all so I resisted the urge to fidget nervously.
“I had an older brother,”
“As in past tense?” I asked surprised and sorry I had brought it up when I saw the flash of pain in her eyes before it was masked.
“He,” she hesitated, “he died when I was seven,”
I’m sorry,” I said as I gently placed my hand over hers for comfort.
“I have my papa, my tio and tia and two cousins who are around my age,”
“Are you close?”
She nodded but I could tell from her shuttered expression that I was not going to get anymore than that.
“What about your family?” Kaylin asked.
I accepted the change in topic and we lingered over breakfast until after ten.
Even though we spent most of the morning together I was missing her by lunch time.
‘She’s busy and you’re acting like a damn teenager instead of a mature, sensible 26 year old. Get a grip already.’ I berated myself.
What I needed was a distraction. I didn’t have any new books to read but I felt too restless to sit still anyway. I thought about cleaning then discarded the idea; I wasn’t that desperate yet. I could redo the schedule for work though. It needed to be changed immediately anyway and since we were closed it would give me a chance to catch up on all the paperwork. Book orders needed to be sorted for the Christmas rush and while I was in town I could get some Christmas shopping done as well. It was better that pacing in my apartment and wondering what plans Kaylin had tonight.
With only light traffic on the
road it took twenty minutes to get to
‘The bandits could still be in there’ I thought panicked.
“Ms. Woods, you saved me a phone call,”
I turned towards the voice. “Agent Crossfield,” I said in surprise. “Since when does the FBI investigate burglaries?”
“You mean this?” he asked gesturing to the store where on closer inspection I could see a few officers close to the entrance to the back where the office was.
I nodded as I continued into the store horrified at the damage.
“Can I use the phone? I need to tell the owner what’s happened,” I said gesturing to the phone on the counter.
“This isn’t a burglary. We have a warrant to search for evidence,” he said as he slapped and official looking document in my hand.
“Why?” I asked in shock and not a small amount of confusion. “We’re a bookstore we don’t engage in criminal activity. Is this about Andrew? You said you have his wife but,”
Agent Crossfield’s hand went up silencing the rest of my argument.
“How about we take a little ride to the station?”
The tone was conciliatory but I held no illusions that it was anything less than an order.
“Have a seat,” he said as he pulled out a chair in a small freezing interrogation room. There was no table like on TV. The one way mirror was there but the small quarters made me feel claustrophobic. I sat on the only chair as directed. It was hard and uncomfortable; one of the chair legs was shorter than the other three making me feel off balance no matter how I sat.
When I looked back at the door the agent was no longer there. Grateful that I had kept on my coat I stuck my hands in the pockets and tried to stay warm. A tall man built like he could easily have been a linebacker came in followed by another man holding a cup of what smelt like coffee.
“The heating gives a little trouble at times,” the bulky man who introduced himself as Agent Samuels said by way of explanation as he leaned casually against the wall to the right of me so that I could only see him out of the corner of my eye.
“Coffee?” the other agent offered holding out the cup.
I took it relishing the heat that warmed my fingers and insides. Before either of them could say another word a knock sounded at the door and they both left. It felt like I was left alone for hours even though I knew based on my watch it was actually just the longest forty five minutes of my life so far.
“How well do you know your boss Ms. Marcus?” Samuels asked without any preamble as he made a slow circle around me.
“She wasn’t even present for my interview,” I said exasperated.
An inner caution stopped me from mentioning that I had been spending time with her over the last few days.
“So you expect us to believe you don’t know your own employer,” the blond agent said incredulously.
Samuels stopped behind the chair and leaned on the back of it making me shift forward slightly so it wasn’t such an invasion of my personal space.
“You know we could always charge you with obstruction if we find out your lying,” he said maliciously into my ear.
I tried to swing around so I could actually see his face but that only made it worse.
“How’d you like to write to Santa from a jail cell this year?” the blond agent grinned as I whipped around to look at him in shock.
“That letter would probably say something like; dear Santa, please make big Martha and friends leave me alone,” Samuels whispered in my ear.
The coffee and my nerves chose that moment to reassert their presence and I crossed my legs.
“Can I use the bathroom?”
“Look at that McShine,” Samuels said in pretend surprise. “She’s already trained for big Martha.”
“Am I under arrest?” I asked frightened and completely confused as I almost gave myself whiplash trying to keep them both in my sights.
“Depends,” McShine said speculatively.
“How well do you know Kaylin Marcus?”
“I just told you. Not well. I met her for the first time a few days ago when she came into the office.”
“Do you know what happened to Andrew?” Samuels asked in a low voice.
“Agent Crossfield said they found his body. I assume he was murdered.” I swallowed.
“Yeah it was found alright, his head was missing a tongue and he was almost beaten to death before they took pity on him and shot him.”
I gasped, pained at the mental image of a man who had been both an employer and friend and at my bladder which was promising to humiliate me.
“I don’t know anything about it or whatever has you trashing the bookstore. Andrew never kept anything personal there anyway so if you’re looking for drugs or whatever you should have checked his house.”
They both looked at me silently, immovable as if I were a troublesome child in the principal’s office.
“Can I please use the bathroom now? I already told you I don’t know anything.”
“You know who killed him?” McShine asked idly as he pushed himself off the wall he was leaning on and walked casually to the door.
“Kaylin, your boss. He was about to roll on her and expose their illegal activities,” Samuels answered.
“No.” I shouted in disbelief. “They were friends. She wouldn’t do that.”
“Oh but she did. That little bookstore you work in…..” McShine started in a regretful tone as he opened the door.
“That’s just a front, a way to clean their dirty money and make it legit.” Samuels finished.
“And you’re helping them do it too.”
“Even if you don’t know.”
“You’re wrong,” I whispered.
“You go take a little bathroom break and reflect a little.” McShine said as he led me to the bathroom.
I didn’t feel all that better when I came back out. I knew I was in trouble. I personally didn’t think we made enough to afford the number of workers we had. Were they right?
Crime would explain the FBI’s presence if it was serious enough and my mother always said where there’s smoke there’s fire.
I didn’t know much about Kaylin other than the fact that every time I even pictured her my heart skipped a beat. My brain was screaming at me that I was already being treated like a criminal, it might be time to ignore my heart.
I was taken to a different room this time. This one had a table with pictures strewn across it. Once I got close enough to recognize the subjects I felt nauseated. Pictures of Kaylin and me getting into her car, her arm around me as she helped me in; we looked cozy if you didn’t have the context of a sprained wrist and bruises from my fall. Pictures of the two occasions we ate out, of her in my apartment by the kitchen window and of her leaving in the dark.
“Nicole,” McShine started in a grave tone, “It’s never good to lie,”
“I didn’t. Am I under surveillance?” I asked dreading the answer and cursing my traitorous heart.
“Tell us again how you don’t know her,” Samuels sneered.
“I especially like this one right here,” McShine said as he held up a picture of Kaylin giving me that wonderful, small kiss after breakfast this morning, back when I felt like I was walking on air.
My coat was no longer keeping me warm.
“I can explain all of that. It’s not what it looks like,”
We all jumped and turned to the front of the room, startled, as the door was flung open and a stylish tall brunette stalked in. She was wearing low heels and a black and white tailored suit that hugged her frame and still managed to scream professional. Her dark brown hair was swept up and away from her face in a bun and her manicured hands held a briefcase in one hand and a blackberry in the other.
“Melissa Slake, I’m her lawyer and I demand to know why my client is being harassed,” she announced defiantly.
I looked at her thoroughly confused. I didn’t have a lawyer, no one even knew where I was so they could hire one for me.
“Who called you? Kaylin right?” Samuels asked sourly.
“Is she under arrest for something?” she asked completely ignoring his question.
“No, we were just having a friendly chat, right Nicole?”
“I can leave now then?” I asked hesitantly.
“Of course you can. You’ve done nothing and if they even hinted at infringing your rights we would retaliate immediately. How about it gentlemen? Who wants to tell their kids there’ll be no presents from Santa this year because their dad lost his job,” she threatened as she pulled me towards the door. “I think I’ll borrow that for when I go to court today and file for police harassment and unlawful spying,” she said grabbing the incriminating picture of the kiss still in the agent’s hand.
“That’s evidence,” McShine protested as he tried to grab it back.
“Yes it is, evidence against you. You don’t have the authority for surveillance much less invasion of privacy.”
The lawyer marched us out of the precinct and straight to a familiar silver car. This morning I would have been thrilled to see Kaylin, after what the agents said and the fact that she seemed to have seen this whole thing coming and was able to send a lawyer to my rescue, I was suspicious. I couldn’t trust her completely at this point.
“Are you ok?” Kaylin asked concerned as she gently pulled me to her.
“Why didn’t you tell me about the store?” I asked tonelessly.
“They’re basically done. A cleaning crew is coming to put everything back the way it was.”
“So if I hadn’t gone I would never have known,”
Kaylin nodded and looked over the top of my head at Melissa.
“Thanks Mel,” she said with a smile as she studied the picture Melissa had confiscated and then handed it back.
I didn’t turn around but I knew when she walked away.
“Nicky,” Kaylin raised my chin until I was looking at her, “baby I’m sorry this happened but you’re out, you’re safe and they won’t be allowed anywhere near you without a court order.”
I pulled away from her furious because that statement made it seem likely that those agents were right and despite that the charming smile did actually make me feel better.
“Your car is back at your house,” she said quietly as she drove us away from the precinct.
“I seem to remember leaving
“I moved it so they wouldn’t get any ideas about damaging it like they did the shop,”
I started debating the wisdom of ignoring the accusations when I realized we were heading away from my place.
“Where are we going?” I asked warily.
“We really gonna do this dance every time we’re in a car together?”
“They said you killed him and cut out his tongue for talking and they seemed to think I might have something to say too.”
Kaylin took advantage of the red light in front of us to look at me.
“Do you think I would hurt you?”
My heart screamed no but my brain reminded me that Andrew clearly hadn’t thought she would either and now he was dead so I stayed quiet.
A horn sounded behind us and I breathed a sigh of relief when she stopped staring at me and concentrated on the road instead. She pulled up in front of my building fifteen minutes later. I looked around in confusion unable to figure out where she had veered back on track as I was sure we weren’t always heading here.
“I won’t be available for a couple weeks,” she said quietly as she reached under her seat and pulled out a folder. “This is your new schedule which you can tweak if you want, a list of the promotions you need to run and a list of what you’re including in the Christmas sale which absolutely must start next week Monday since it’s the first week in December we’re already a little late.”
I looked at her blankly wondering how we got to this topic.
“Are you sure you’re allowed to just disappear?”
Kaylin regarded me coolly and the pain of seeing the usual warmth in her eyes disappear rendered me almost speechless.
“The contact information for my second in command is in there too. Consider him the interim manager and if you have questions call him.”
“I’m sorry,” I finally said unable to leave things with Kaylin the way they currently stood. “It’s just that there’s so much you won’t tell me and there must be a reason for what they’re saying.”
Kaylin didn’t respond choosing to stare at the windshield rather than even look at me.
“Couldn’t you just try to see this from my point of view?” I pleaded.
“You think I killed Andrew like they said which makes me a dangerous criminal who could also turn around and kill you too. Am I getting close to what’s in your head?” Kaylin asked in a monotone.
“When you put it like that,” I winced.
“These past few days clearly don’t mean the same thing to you that it does to me. I at least thought if nothing else we could be friends.” Kaylin said as she continued to stare at the windshield. “I was wrong to think it would mean you would trust me over the police. Now I need you to get out and go inside.”
“Kay, please don’t do this. This means more to me than you know and that’s why it hurts so much. I just went through an interrogation and they threatened to throw me in jail and I still have no idea why.” I said as I struggled against the tears that threatened to fall. It had been so long since I felt this way about anyone the last thing I wanted was for it to be ruined before it really got off the ground.
“I asked you if you thought I would hurt you and you refused to answer me. Even if I can’t tell you everything if there is going to be an us you have to trust me and you clearly don’t.”
“You have to earn that. You can’t just expect it to happen. My heart wants so badly to trust you but my brain is saying I don’t know that much about you and what I do know doesn’t make much sense.” I argued.
“So you’re saying you don’t trust me at all then.” Kaylin laughed humorlessly.
“You’re not even trying to put yourself in my shoes,” I said exasperated.
“You know right before I met you I was wishing I could finally meet someone. Everything clicked with you right off and I thought ‘Wow. Ask and it shall be given to you.’”
I lost my battle with my tears.
“I feel the same way and we could still have that if,”
Kaylin shook her head to stop me. “You can’t trust me which means I can’t trust you with the information you want to know. I can’t trust how you plan to use it or how it will change how you view me. A group of people who hardly ever get anything right feed you bullshit about me and you’re instantly doubting me. That’s not even a good basis for friendship far less a relationship.”
“Kay,” I whispered brokenly.
“Get out, ok.”
See this is why it’s so damn hard to find someone,” Greg commiserated as they went over the final plans to undo the damage Andrew and his death caused.
Kaylin looked up at him in gratitude. He wasn’t genetically connected to her but he was more family to her than her cousin Caleb. Greg had been her best friend and right hand since freshman year in high school.
They both heard the footsteps outside the door before the knock came. Due to the increased police activity Kaylin had stopped carrying her gun on her person. Even though it was legally registered to her and she had a license for it the law was irritating about taking it anyway for ‘testing’ just to make sure it didn’t match any homicides. She was fairly certain they would eventually get tired of this cat and mouse game and attempt to plant something.
Kaylin moved to the front door silently out of the corner she could see Greg draw his gun and reach into a catch in the light switch to retrieve hers. Ensuring she wasn’t standing in front of the door where the shadow of her footsteps could be seen outside she looked through the peephole.
Caleb was outside. Operating on gut instinct and a touch of paranoia she motioned Greg to switch the television station to surveillance. There were two other men further down the hall watching Caleb. She only knew one of them, Kyle, the other person who had been there for Andrew’s lesson. Something was off about seeing them together. Kyle was her uncle’s man and Greg was hers, at no time should Kyle suddenly become Caleb’s bodyguard.
There was not much reason to be concerned about her cousin except that Andrew couldn’t have gone so far down this road so silently without a big shove and someone obscuring what was happening until it was too late for the situation to be remedied. Andrew had been hooked on drugs at the very end of his life, first dabbling in dealing and then once he started using things went downhill fast.
Kaylin’s family never touched drugs or guns, drawing the line at the low level crime that only managed to destroy people so Andrew had not been on their business when he started and he had known he would need to keep it a secret or risk a showdown with her. The way he had been arrested stunk of a setup and something on the interrogation tape kept nagging at her.
Caleb knocked again, clearly able to see the light on under the door and she quickly weighed her options as she speed dialed her father’s number. When it just kept ringing she backed away from the door as silently as she had come. It could be nothing, she was known for being a little paranoid. Then again, her uncle and her father had trained her to listen to her gut and follow her instincts. At the moment they were screaming to get out.
Picking up a duffel bag from her
office she emptied the contents of her safe into it along with the evidence
She shimmied to the edge of the space in the direction of the closet. Once there she stood technically in the part of the wall that would have also been closet space if not for some redecorating on her part. It was narrow enough that she could scale the wall with her back sliding up the wall and her hands and feet in front of her balancing her so she didn’t fall. Once she got into crawl space on top of the closet Greg was finally able to squeeze into a standing position. She used sign language to ask for the headphones in the pocket of the duffel and plugged them into her phone connecting to surveillance video in the condo and outside the building.
As she had suspected there were men placed all around the perimeter of the building so even if they had left through a different exit they would have been caught and possibly killed. She watched quietly as Caleb and his goons started looking through the apartment and guessed that he had picked the lock.
The three systematically searched the whole place clearly looking for something in particular.
“There’s a hot pot of coffee on in the kitchen boss,” Kyle said as he entered the study where Caleb as trying to unlock the safe.
“Then she was still in here when we came. The question is where did she go?”
“Should we start searching the building for her or just plant the stuff and leave?”
“Get everyone to report in with their locations so we know we’re not down any men. She probably figured it out and used a clever exit to get into another condo. Focus on the building and outer perimeter, she’s around here somewhere.”
Caleb walked into the bedroom so she no longer needed earphones to hear him.
“Jake,” Caleb said quietly into his phone.
“Yeah, she wasn’t here and knowing her she’s probably long gone and warning them. The girl still home alone? Good, grab her now before Kaylin gets a chance to stash her somewhere, we’re gonna use her as a bargaining chip to flush Kaylin out if it comes to that.”
Confused, she tried to figure out what girl he was talking about but his next words clarified and left her cold.
“They looked plenty cozy in those pictures and that argument today is the most emotion I’ve ever seen out of my cousin so the bitch must mean something to her.”
‘Don’t ask questions, there’s no time. Get into the basement of your building or the back of your car with a dark blanket over you. Don’t try to leave and whatever you do, do NOT go outside. Kaylin,” she used her prepaid cell phone to text Nicole and prayed she would read it in time and follow instructions for once.
“Let me know when you have her.” Caleb said as he ended the call.
Taking a glock out of his waistband he placed it on her dresser carefully wiping all his fingerprints off with his shirt.
“Let’s go,” he bellowed to the other men inside.
Kaylin waited impatiently as they took their time leaving the premises almost half an hour after walking out of her condo.
“He just planted something didn’t he?” Greg asked as soon as they were out of their hiding place.
Kaylin pointed to the gun on the dresser and he picked it up.
“What do you want to bet this is the same gun Andrew was killed with?” he said grimly.
“Call papa and if you still can’t get him call tio Ricardo,”
Greg handed her the phone.
“Papa, what the hell is so hard about answering your phone?” she demanded angrily.
“I was talking to Emanuel, seems the feds have decided to visit so I thought I’d take a drive and leave them to it. Apparently they got a warrant to search my place and Ric’s,”
“Was Caleb in either of your houses recently?”
“You need to go to ground for a bit just in case.” Kaylin advised somberly as she related the events of the past hour.
The call did not last long. Once the FBI found evidence they would obtain a warrant to tap their phones. No heads up had been received for the warrants today and that could easily mean that either their connections had been compromised or they were totally out of the loop. Neither scenario boded well.
“Where to?” Greg asked as he drove them away from her building.
They both watched as a line of police cars passed them speeding to her home. As much as she wanted to direct him to get Nicole she knew it was too big a risk. If that Jake person hadn’t already found her he might wait around on the chance that she hadn’t gone far. Not enough time had passed for him to know she had run.
“No, head onto the Northbound 53 and I’ll direct you from there.”
“You bought a cabin?”
“An early present to myself,”
Kaylin made up the spare room for Greg before emptying the contents of the duffel in her room. She put everything in the safe in the headboard of her bed leaving out just $10,000.00 cash for now. Greg had already turned on the heat and set up the two computers.
“Make sure you connect to the station so if they issue arrest warrants we will know,”
Greg gave a curt nod.
“Caleb will know my car so we’ll park it around back and take the other one to use.”
“You planned this,” he said in surprise.
“I didn’t really know this would happen, especially not with Caleb at the helm,” she shrugged. “I just like to have a few backup plans just because.”
It had taken close to two hours to get to the cabin so she waited until close to midnight to leave. Parking a street away from Nicole’s building she cautiously walked to the back entrance prepared for an ambush. She checked the basement first, if Nicole had hid in time she would be hungry, tired and furious but the basement would have been less uncomfortable than being folded into a car for hours.
She was not there so next she tried the car.
Racing up the stairs she found Nicole’s door open but no signs of a struggle. She searched carefully for her phone. If she hadn’t read the message in time it would not have been with her.
Kaylin ran back to the parking garage and called Nicole’s phone looking for a small sliver of light where there should not be any. Nicole might have been street savvy enough to turn the phone on silent but not enough to remember that phones lit up and take precautions.
Four car lengths down was her reward; a faint glimmer under a car.
My arms and legs were asleep and my left leg was cramping up from my position curled under the car. I had originally been in the back of mine but the muffled sound of someone in the garage spooked me enough that I left that safe haven for somewhere Kaylin could still find. I had planned to take a chance and leave the garage but another man was by the only other exit so I slid under the car making myself as small as possible. I watched in shock as someone popped the trunk of my car and then searched inside.
They looked around and then left but afraid they would come back I stayed where I was.
It felt like I had been here for days rather than hours. I was freezing, in pain and more afraid than I had ever been. It clearly was not the police I was hiding from which meant that I was in danger and still had no clue as to why any of this was happening.
A pair of boots appeared in front of my face and my heart stopped.
A familiar face crouched in front of me.
“Let’s get you out of there,” she said as she gently pulled me out.
My calf muscles seized up the moment I tried to straighten them out. I tried to massage them but the pain was excruciating. I had no idea I was crying until she wiped the tears away.
“God Nic, I’m so sorry,”
I pushed her hand away from me angrily.
She stood and pulled off her black sweater putting it over my tank and I almost sobbed at the warmth. Quietly she massaged the tension from my calves, her fingers were like magic making me forget my anger and fright.
“Can you walk now?” she whispered.
I nodded as I leaned into her, burying my face in the crook of her neck. It felt like heaven when she wrapped her arms tightly around me, like nothing could harm me once she was holding me and I treasured that feeling after the night I had had.
“I’ll take you upstairs to get a few things. I don’t know if your place is bugged so we can’t talk or make any noise that would alert them,” she said as she stroked my back in soothing circles.
“My cousin and whatever faction is with him.”
“So they were going to kill me?”
She shook her head pulling me back to her by a handful of sweater.
“I would never let them lay a hand on you,” she promised vehemently.
We held hands as she took me up the stairs. I lived on the tenth floor and by the fifth, the remnants of the cramp made my legs ache. I figured we didn’t have enough time for a break so I said nothing as we raced up the stairs. When I almost tripped she made us stop.
“Are you still in pain?”
“I’m fine,” I said through gritted teeth determined not to slow her down and increase the odds of us getting killed.
“Nic,” she growled.
“I can make it. Going down will be much easier,” I promised.
The words had scarcely left my mouth when I realized how dizzy and tired I was.
“When was the last time you ate?”
“Breakfast?” I said as I tried to remember if there had been any meals after that.
“Nic, it’s after three in the morning. If the last time you ate was when I was with you then it’s no wonder you’re not doing well.”
“There’s food upstairs.”
“Not enough time. They’ll be back any minute or at least in an hour or so. We need to be gone long before they get back.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered thinking of how I had hurt her the day before. She had more than proved how much I meant to her today by risking her life to come get me.
Kaylin led me onto the seventh floor.
“Stay right against here, make yourself as small as possible. I’ll be back in seven minutes max alright?”
I timed her as I watched down the well lit hallway. She was back in five minutes with my overnight bag and a pair of boots.
“Here, put these on now,”
We were back down the stairs in no time, the descent worse as it made me even dizzier. At the ground floor she opened the side door a crack and looked around before closing it back.
“There’s a car that wasn’t there before.”
She led me down to the basement and out to where the garbage was put out for the truck. Spinning me around she stuffed my hair down the collar of the sweater and then pulled the black hood up. The pathway was close to another building and we climbed the fence and then went to the street behind mine. Her car was parked two blocks away and despite the sweater I was shivering by the time we got inside.
“There’s a blanket in the backseat, put it on,” she said as we drove off.
Between the heater in the car and the blanket I was toasty warm and drowsy in a few minutes and I had to struggle to keep my eyes open. At some point though I must have lost the battle because I woke to the sound of voices.
We had stopped at a drive thru. Kaylin handed me the first bag and a hot chocolate. I gratefully dug in with a whole new appreciation for fast food and hot salty fries.
She grinned at me as she took us out of the city. I went back to sleep after I had eaten waking only when we finally got to a beautiful secluded cabin surrounded by fir trees.
I started to unbuckle my seatbelt when Kaylin came back to the car. She said nothing as she made sure I was securely wrapped in the blanket.
“The flurries made it a little slippery and you’re not feeling well so I’ll carry you in ok?” she explained as she scooped me up into her arms and carried me the short distance to the cabin. I locked my arms around her neck and snuggled into her sleepily.
A tall muscular man with light blue eyes and blond curly hair was typing away on a computer in the spacious living room.
“Greg, Nicole. Nicole, Greg.” Kaylin said by way of introduction.
Greg nodded in acknowledgement and I smiled back. I took off the sweater in Kaylin’s bedroom and slipped between the cool sheets.
“You need anything?”
I shook my head no and she turned to leave.
“Where are you going?”
“To help Greg while you catch up on some sleep.”
I bit my lip, hesitating to ask after essentially saying I didn’t trust her just yesterday.
“Would you stay with me till I fall asleep?”
Kaylin smiled and undressed leaving on a grey t-shirt and royal blue boxers. As soon as she climbed in I rolled so I was sleeping almost on top of her, my head cradled on her shoulder and my right arm hugging her to me.
Kaylin managed an hour nap holding Nicole before she made herself leave the warmth and comfort of bed in favor of work. She had gotten less than three hours of sleep in the past twenty four hours but if she lay there much longer reality would brutally reassert itself and she could easily wind up taking a permanent nap.
They could not allow Caleb to gain even the semblance of an upper hand by going to ground for longer than a few days. She gently extricated herself and showered and dressed.
“What did you get?” she asked Greg who was in the kitchen pouring himself a cup of coffee.
The early morning sun coming through the kitchen window felt great on her face and looked even better with the sprinkling of white that had stuck to the ground.
“They found a few crates of goods in Mr. Carlos’ garage and they’re getting an arrest warrant for him.”
“From the description it definitely sounds like it.”
She skimmed the list of items as she ran worried hands through her thick, long hair.
“This was in the safe house the minute Andrew started singing. No way should it have gotten to papa’s house.”
“They found more stuff at Mr. Ricardo’s house as well.”
“Well then I guess he’s officially downgraded on my suspect list. He wouldn’t set himself up.”
“You thought he and Caleb were working together?”
“Caleb is his son. You don’t just turn on your parent so the thought definitely crossed my mind,” she shrugged unapologetically.
“The only thing that doesn’t add up is how Caleb knew where to find the shipment.”
“He didn’t know about the safe house?”
“No, tio Ricardo wasn’t supposed to say anything to him. At the time we had it done Caleb was being a tad rebellious so we decided he was too loose a canon to trust with the location.”
“Well he obviously knows about it from the looks of this.”
On a hunch Kaylin logged on to her computer and skyped her father. Going to ground meant they all split up so even if Ricardo was involved he should be fine.
“Kaylin, they just issued arrest warrants for Ric and me.”
“I know papa. Don’t go in just yet.”
“We need to conference and formulate a plan to handle Caleb discreetly and quickly.”
“Did tio tell him about the safehouse?”
“We agreed not to remember?” Carlos answered confused.
“Well Caleb got the evidence he planted from there so something is off.”
“Kaylin,” Carlos began sternly. “Ric would never betray us. Don’t even think it.”
“Have you heard from him?”
Even with the poor picture quality she could make out her father shaking his head.
“Where did he go when you called him?”
“To secure the last of the shipment and head to ground like we were doing.”
Kaylin’s heart sank. If he were innocent and tried to secure goods that had been confiscated by the police there was no way he wouldn’t have run into Caleb.
“Papa, I want you to stay where you are. I’ll track him down.”
“I’ll kill that bastard for this. His death will be slow and painful,” Carlos swore vehemently.
“We don’t know for sure.”
“Do not lie to yourself mi hermana. We know.”
Kaylin felt her chest constrict painfully at the grief etched on her father’s face and the pain in her own heart at losing the man who had been a second father to her. She shoved her emotions down where they would not cloud her judgment and summoned cold focus.
“You can’t check it out on your own.” Greg warned when she signed off the computer.
“I know. I need you to have my back but what about Nicole?”
“You take her with us and she’ll slow us down and probably be traumatized to boot depending on what we find.”
“Not to mention we’ll be walking into a trap. He knows we’ll try to reach tio and he’s going to hope we look there or at the hideout.”
“Should we wait until night?”
“They won’t see us but we won’t be able to make all of them either.” Kaylin said. “I’ll go call Randy, see if the cleaning company is done yet. If they’re still working we can borrow a couple uniforms and go through the store. Once they’re not actually in the hideout waiting we can get what we need and get out.”
Greg nodded and handed her a disposable cell phone. In less than ten minutes they were out of the cabin and heading back into trouble. Kaylin knew that regardless of whether they were spotted they would need to ditch their current car and get a new one.
She dropped Greg off at the rent a car company with a fake I.D and a credit card in a phony name while she picked up their uniforms. They dropped off the rental at the mall and caught a ride with the cleaning company so that they blended in with the other employees.
“Looks like Caleb’s man, over the street in the dark blue car.” Greg whispered as they entered the store.
There was no way to tell how closely the store was being watched or how many other cars were there for them. It took less than ten minutes to get underground. Half the boxes that had been there before were gone. Ricardo and his bodyguards lay haphazardly around the room, scattered like broken toys discarded by a child.
“No,” Kaylin said in a strangled whisper.
She knelt next to her uncle taking in the neat bullet hole in his forehead, the dried blood by his mouth and on his chest, his blank eyes staring at nothing.
She felt the walls of ice crack under the weight of her anguish.
“Kaylin we need to go.” Greg said softly as he laid a comforting hand on her shoulder.
She nodded, turning her pain into cold hatred.
“This will be avenged mi tio,” she promised him as she gently rested his head back on the ground and closed his eyes.
Instead of going back out through the bakery, they climbed back into the store. The bakery was meant to be the exit so Caleb would know that and have people watching for them there. They stayed cleaning the store with everybody else righting shelves and putting decorations back into place. At noon, they left with the rest of the crew. The light snow that had begun yesterday was beginning to stick to the ground and the caution they took walking in the slippery company parking lot slowed her down enough for her to realize that the man who had been in front of Nicole’s apartment was there watching them now.
“Company,” she muttered to Greg.
“You drive, I’ll try to figure out who else is watching besides him.”
Greg drove them out of the area as quickly as possible, making last minute turns and weaving in and out of downtown traffic despite the snow as Kaylin counted the cars moving even more erratically behind them.
“Three cars are following us. Everyone has a partner so we’re looking at three to one odds.”
Greg nodded grimly.
“Park on the other side from where you parked the rental.”
“Wanna split them up and play hide and seek?”
Kaylin grinned, “and this is why I love you,”
“Ok let me out right here,” she said pointing to the main entrance. “In ten minutes I’ll drive into the basement lot, be on the north side of it.”
“Got it,” he said as he swerved to a stop at the entrance to the sounds of horns blaring.
Kaylin jumped out and walked quickly inside. Out of the corner of her eyes she could see two of them get out and follow her. She ran through the mall weaving past shoppers and running up the escalator to the second floor. She needed to lose them before she got anywhere near the car.
The second floor was too crowded to even jog through and she ducked into a store and grabbing a shirt and hat she headed into the changing room. Counting a full minute while she cut off the tag from the hat with her small utility knife she calmly put back the shirt and walked out of the store in a red Santa hat.
The two men were easy to spot and she moved along with the crowd, keeping her head down as she walked past them. The sudden ringing of bells to announce Santa’s arrival at the mall sent the children into an immediate frenzy and adults cheerfully went to the railing to catch a glimpse of Santa and his elves walking on the first floor. The commotion created enough space for the men to spot her and the chase was on once again.
She ducked into a major shopping store and wove her way through the aisles and into the back room that said employees only.
“Hey you can’t be back here,” someone shouted but she was already running through the back room to the back hallway they shared with another store. She kept going until she got almost to the end of the floor.
By the time she hit her eight minute mark she had lost them and was in the parking lot. She ran crouched so that anyone coming in would not be able to see her.
Nine minutes passed before she was driving quickly down to the basement parking lot. She slowed as if looking for a spot keeping her eyes open for Greg. In the rearview mirror she saw him dash out of the mall, duck between two cars four car lengths behind her. She unlocked the back door behind her and continued at a slow crawl.
“Took you long enough,” she smirked as he slipped in and immediately hunkered down so that to anyone watching a lone woman was leaving the mall.
“Hey I had to lose four, you only had two.”
“I know that look. You’re gonna hunt them all down aren’t you?”
She shrugged in response and they headed back to the cabin.
I knew something was wrong the minute Kaylin and Greg walked in. Her dark eyes were cold and distant, her face and expressionless mask. There was no trace of warmth when she saw me, she just kept walking as if I was not even there. Unsure whether following was a good idea I stayed in the living room alone. After a few minutes however I gave myself a stern pep talk and cautiously went to the master bedroom.
Kaylin was on her cell phone, her back turned to me. She glanced at me when I closed the door behind me but gave no other form of acknowledgement other than switching from English to Spanish. If she had asked I would have told her I hadn’t been able to make out much of what she had been saying anyway.
“How long have you been up?” she asked as she flipped the phone closed.
“About an hour.”
“A little,” I said hesitant at the tightly wound picture she presented.
“I’ll ask Greg to take you for something,” she said mechanically moving to the door.
“No, I’m fine.” I said hastily.
“Are you afraid of him?” Kaylin asked in confusion.
“No, I’d just rather stay with you.”
“I’m not hungry and I also don’t feel much like company.”
I winced but figured since I was already on this path that I may as well follow it through.
“That’s ok, I’ll just sit here quietly in case you need a sounding board or a shoulder.”
If I had not been watching her closely I would have missed the flash of pain in her eyes that was quickly masked. She moved to sit next to me and I remained as still as possible, afraid that in her skittish state she would shut herself off from me if I moved even an inch.
Moving by painfully slow degrees she lay down on her side, her head pillowed on my lap. I stroked her hair, content to offer wordless comfort until she was ready for more.
Kaylin sat back up and gently pushed me to the head of the bed so that I was reclining against the headboard with my legs stretched out in front of me. She lay back down next to me with her head now resting in the middle of my chest.
“He killed tio, his own father.” She said in an agonized whisper.
She nodded. “I found his body this morning.”
I stroked her hair rhythmically as the tears flowed silently down her cheeks wetting my shirt. Even in grief she was so controlled that I could feel the effort it took her to hold back. Eventually the tears stopped and she snuggled even closer to me.
“Caleb murdered him and started an internal war all because like a spoilt child he wanted something and we all said no.”
“Why did he need your permission? Isn’t he an adult?” I asked perplexed.
“He wanted us to branch out into drugs and guns because those fields make a hell of a lot of money. We don’t want anything to do with the stuff.”
Now I was completely confused.
“I don’t understand, what exactly do you do that’s illegal?”
“We bring in items, almost anything really, for businesses who want to make a little more in profits and pay a little less in taxes and we have our fingers in a lot of jars. We’ll bring in banned car parts for underground drag racing,”
“Is that why you have a mechanic shop?”
“Yes. We’ll bring in pretty much anything that has a high import taxes on it. A lot of the things you pay for really don’t cost that much, but when you factor in all the people who have to be paid for it before it can go on a shelf it becomes pricey.”
“Of all the scenarios in my head that really wasn’t one of them,” I said unable to hide my surprise.
“I don’t think I want to know what you thought I was doing,” she teased.
Turning serious she sat up again and looked at me, “I’m telling you all this because I trust you.”
I nodded at the unspoken message in those words.
“So Andrew was going to expose the bookstore for the front it really was?”
“That’s just it. He already had. The damage was done as soon as he got caught with drugs. The first thing they did was offer a deal.”
“Which he took,”
“He sang like a damn canary.” Kaylin said in annoyance as she leaned back against the headboard.
“So you used him as an example,” I stated not quite comfortable with the fact that she was a killer.
“No,” she said in a barely audible whisper.
“No?” I asked confused all over again.
“Nic, I beat the crap out of him and I made sure not to leave any bruises. Then I sent him back to the cops to feed them bullshit that would have had them running in circles for weeks which would have discredited him as a witness.”
“Wait, you really didn’t kill him?” I asked in shock.
“Of course not. The dumbest thing in the world you can do is kill a witness like Andrew after they had their evidence on tape. You would only bring even more heat your way and that is when you’ll start losing business. If I had decided to kill Andrew as a message no one would have ever found him.
No body, no murder.
Her explanation made too much sense not to be true and it definitely made more sense than what the feds were insinuating.
“So who killed him then?”
“Caleb. I think he used one of the men there that day when we taught Andrew a lesson. I left him for them to take home and ‘m guessing that instead of letting him undo the damage, Caleb had him killed.”
“So that you would take the heat.”
“Partly. But also because if Andrew was already singing then he had no guarantee that he wouldn’t be given up too.”
“I know it sounds stupid since you’ve more than likely done a lot of other stuff but I feel better knowing you aren’t a murderer.”
Kaylin shot me an irritated glare.
“I do what needs to be done.”
My blood ran cold.
“You just said…”
“Just because I didn’t kill him doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have.”
“I couldn’t trust him and he knew too much. He would have disappeared after he cleaned up his mess, Caleb just beat me to it is all.”
I looked at her horrified even though part of me knew logically that it wouldn’t have made sense for Andrew to be left alive. In all the movies the witnesses either die or the perps get sent to jail.
“Nic don’t make me regret telling you anything.”
“I need a minute,” I said as I got off the bed in a daze.
I barely got to the door before she spun me around angrily.
“Damn it Nic! You wanted to know and had to figure it would be something like this. I trusted you more than I’ve ever trusted anyone. Prove me right.”
“Or what? You’ll kill me too?” I retorted before I could stop myself.
She looked at me as if I had slapped her and I regretted saying it. I knew she would never hurt me. I watched her fight herself and find calm when she looked at me, her face mere inches from mine.
“Nicole, I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer. I will only take so much and no more and you’re on that line right now. I’ll protect you regardless but if you walk out on me now then I won’t open myself up to you again.”
Kaylin’s phone chose that moment to ring. She shot me a warning glare as she went to answer it and I used her distraction to slip into the living room and think. Nothing had ever felt as right as when I was with her. Did that outweigh my feelings about what she did for a living? I knew from her face that I had exhausted the amount of chances she would give me. If I wanted us to work I needed to commit or lose her and I cursed fate for not letting her just be a bookstore owner.
I was still struggling with a decision when she came in.
“Pick a friend and I’ll drop you off to stay by them for a few days.”
“What?” I asked as I felt the bottom of my stomach drop.
“You heard me. I’ll take you this evening.”
The thought of losing her hurt more than it should. I had known her for less than a week but it felt like leaving her would be the equivalent of leaving the other half of my soul and I decided it was time to take a risk.
“I don’t want to leave.”
“Nicole you can’t keep doing this. You beg to know more, I open up, you get self-righteous and look at me like I’m some kind of monster. If who I am is always going to be a problem then we shouldn’t even try for anything more than a business relationship.”
“Kay, we haven’t even known each other for long. This is all scary and new and complicated. Cut me a little slack here.”
“Every time you do this you hurt me more than you can imagine. Only a fool would set themselves up for more,” she whispered resolutely.
“You asked for a decision now that I know everything and I’m giving you one. I’m staying.” I said stubbornly refusing to let go of the happiness I knew I would have with her.
Kaylin searched my face and found whatever it was she was looking for because she pulled me into a hug, her forehead resting against mine.
“You sure? I meant what I said, I’ll protect you either way.”
“I want to be with you regardless.”
“Pick a friend,” she whispered.
My heart sank and I started to protest again when she stopped me with a kiss. Her lips were soft and full bringing a delicious heat into my belly as they moved over mine. Her tongue peeked out to lick my bottom lip and I felt my insides turn to jelly.
“I’m not sending you away, or at least not for the reason you think. I need to end this before it gets worse and I couldn’t concentrate like I need to if there was even a chance that you would get caught in the crossfire,” she whispered still holding me close.
“Maybe I could help you,” I suggested not happy at the prospect of leaving the warmth and wholeness of being in her arms.
“I’ll be too worried about you. Please?”
I sighed resting my cheek on her shoulder inhaling her scent and committing it to memory.
“Ok you can take me to Jessica’s.”
She cupped my chin, forcing me to meet dark brown eyes.
“When this is over I’ll take you on an official date and make up for this past week ok?”
The discounts Kaylin had implemented for the season were working like a charm and the majority of staff were out today to keep up with the rush. I could vaguely hear ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ playing on the overhead speakers over the din of customers. Since the aggressive advertising we had been busy restocking, selling and ordering the books we didn’t have.
“No worries boss the craziness is at an end.” Tim grinned as he rang up a customer and wrapped her books in shiny gold paper.
I shook my head. Being busy had actually been a great distraction. It was Christmas Eve, two weeks had passed since Kaylin had dropped me off at Jess’ and I had yet to hear from her. Every day the possibility that she was hurt or had just decided a relationship wasn’t worth it grew in my mind. I was not even going home for the holiday this year. My family would know something was wrong the minute they saw me and the last thing I needed was to be around happy people while I felt broken inside.
“Nicole,” Jessica said bringing my attention back from my wanderings. “There’s a customer over there asking for you.”
I sighed, I could mope later.
We closed at ten and I sent everyone home, staying to finish some of the office work I had not managed to get to in the past few weeks.
I looked up at the sound of a door opening I was sure I had locked the front door after Jessica left. The intruder was leaning casually against the open office door and I felt my heart start thumping in my chest. The achingly familiar voice filled me with a tingling warmth, chasing away the emptiness of the past two weeks.