Malicious Pursuit KG MacGregor
Ruth was pretty sure that there had to be a shortcut or a bypass that everyone in town knew about and used to get from one end to the other, but today was not a good day for experimenting with alternate routes. Until she learned her way around, she thought it best to stay on the main road. That meant one stoplight after another, and many long minutes alone in the car with her enigmatic passenger.
"Where exactly are we?"
Ruth shot the dark-haired woman a sidelong glance. "What do you mean? This is Manassas."
"Yeah, I got that from the sign on that building back there. But I mean what highway is this and where does it go? How do I get back to DC from here?"
Beats the hell out me, Ruth admitted to herself. "I'm not sure."
"You don't ever go to the city for anything?"
"We haven't lived here very long."
Spencer considered this new bit of information. Come to think of it, Karen had shared very little about herself. Then again, it wasn't like they were friends or anything.
The three of them had eaten a quiet breakfast, then the mother and daughter had gone to the landlady's house to visit the puppies. The little girl stayed with the landlady when Karen said she had a quick errand to run.
"So where are you from?"
"Maine," Ruth answered nervously, knowing that her license tags had already given that away. Changing those to Virginia plates was a top priority. She'd try to do that this afternoon.
"What brings you down here?"
"The usual a bad marriage a new start." None of that was a lie.
"What kind of work do you do?"
"Enough with all the questions!" she groaned in exasperation. Okay, that wasn't the right response, she admonished herself, pushing her hand through her hair. She was going to have to deal with people's natural curiosity, and this was not a good start.
"Sorry." If there was one thing Spencer understood, it was a private nature. And on top of that, it made perfect sense that this woman wouldn't exactly feel comfortable with opening up to a suspected murderer anyway.
"No, it's okay. I'm just not used to talking about myself."
"It's alright. I have to learn not to be so nosy."
The pair rode along through town silently, finally spotting the turnoff up ahead for Super Wal-Mart.
"Here we are."
"This is where you found me?"
"You're kidding, right?"
"No, I really don't it's just that things aren't real clear to me about the other night. Getting smacked in the head can do that, I guess," she joked, touching the tape on her brow. "I really don't remember us meeting."
"Well, that's because we didn't exactly meet. You got in my car while I was in the store, and I didn't find you until I got home."
"Oh." That explained why she hadn't been pushed out and left in the parking lot. But it still didn't answer why the woman hadn't called the police once she'd reached home and found her there.
"Yeah, you were kind of out of it," Ruth added.
The blue-eyed woman looked around in confusion. It had been dark and raining the other night, and none of this looked familiar. The store was surrounded by woods in the back and on one side, and she wasn't sure where she'd left her bike.
But that wasn't Ruth's problem, Spencer knew. She'd obviously worn out her welcome.
"Listen, I appreciate this everything more than I can say. When this all gets cleared up, I'll stop by and settle up for the food and stuff."
"It isn't necessary."
"I know. I just want to find a way to say thanks."
"You don't have to." Again, Ruth heard the edge in her own voice, and told herself to calm down. "Really, it's okay. Sometimes we all need a little help."
Spencer nodded. "Well, if there's anything I can ever do for you ," she had no idea what that might be, "I'm in the book. DS Rollins. Call me."
"Okay." Ruth pulled in and drove through the lot. "Where do you want me to drop you?"
"I guess at the front door. It's going to look pretty funny for me to just walk into the woods and disappear." She might have to wait several hours until dark, she realized grimly. But then if she did that, she'd have trouble finding her bike.
Ruth looked at the woman beside her and knew that wandering into the woods wouldn't get her half the attention her appearance would. Her eye and forehead were black and blue, and her denim jacket was stained with blood. Her pants were filthy, and her hair looked as though it hadn't been washed in a week.
"Why don't I just drop you over at the edge? Then you can just go straight to your bike."
"That would look kind of suspicious, don't you think?"
"Maybe," Ruth said diplomatically, "but I doubt people would notice that as much as they'd notice you walking around the store. You don't exactly blend in with this ," she touched the denim sleeve, "colorful attire, not to mention your equally colorful face."
Spencer conceded that the woman had a point. "Yeah, I guess you're right," she sighed. Frustration seemed to be her constant companion, and it was made worse when the large raindrops began to pelt the windshield. "Oh, boy."
Great! Now Ruth felt guilty about putting the woman out in the rain. But Spencer Rollins wasn't her problem, she kept telling herself. Jessie was her problem, and so was everyone back in Madison who was probably looking for them by now. She couldn't be in the middle of this, and she couldn't do a thing about the weather.
"I'm really sorry," she offered.
"That's okay. I really appreciate everything you did."
The Taurus stopped at the wood's edge. Spencer grabbed her rain suit from the back and opened the door.
Ruth watched her climb out. "Take care of yourself. I hope everything works out." God, that was lame. I hope you're not killed or anything.
"Thanks. Thanks for everything."
Spencer closed the door glumly and climbed the muddy bank to the edge of the woods. Any moment now, the sky was going to open up and douse her good, but she needed to get out of sight before stopping to put on her rain gear.
Ruth couldn't shake the feelings of guilt, no matter how much she rationalized her decision. But it had to be this way. Too much was at stake here with her and Jessie, things Spencer Rollins knew nothing about. She wished she'd been able to explain it all, so she wouldn't seem so callous.
Absorbed in her thoughts of the injured woman's problems, Ruth fell in behind a line of traffic, mindlessly turning left before she realized her error. The road she was on led out to the interstate. That was in the opposite direction from the trailer, so she immediately started looking for a place to turn around or circle back. A cutoff up ahead looked promising, and she followed a couple of cars as they turned.
The rain was heavier now, and she turned her wipers up a notch. On her left was a wooded area; in fact, she realized, it appeared to be the same woods where she'd dropped her passenger, except on the other side. Peering through the trees, she tried to catch a glimpse of .
Fuck! Ruth slammed on her brakes, narrowly avoiding the stopped car in front of her. Did the idiot just stop in the road or what?
The flashing blue lights up ahead sent a shockwave to her bones. From here, it looked like a checkpoint of some sort. Her only driver's license was for Ruth Ferguson, a fugitive. It was too late to turn around without being seen, and already, three more cars had lined up behind her.
Her knee bounced uncontrollably as she inched forward and saw with relief that the commotion wasn't a checkpoint after all. Apparently, it was just a minor accident of some sort, because there were yellow lights from a wrecker on the other side of the road. As she drew closer, she followed the patrolman's direction to keep right, finally seeing what all the activity was about: Two uniformed patrolmen were guiding a red motorcycle down the embankment. And parked behind the wrecker was a black sedan with government plates.
So they'd found Spencer's bike.
With a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, Ruth realized that the woman she'd dropped off was at this very moment walking right into the hands of her pursuers. That man, the one in the raincoat standing in front of the government car, might even be one of the men who Spencer said wanted her dead. But surely the Manassas police would keep her safe, and she could explain what happened.
But what if everything that Spencer had said was true? She might never have a chance to tell her story. She might be killed in their custody, and they'd just report that she tried to escape or something. Not like it hadn't ever happened before. Suddenly Ruth felt as though she held the woman's fate in her hands.
This is not your problem, the voice said. Your priority is Jessie. Spencer Rollins will be okay.
Even as her conscious mind repeated that mantra, Ruth slowed and pulled onto a gravel road. When traffic cleared, she turned back toward the wrecker, looking away as she passed the patrolman again. Two quick turns later, and she was back at the spot where she had dropped her passenger.
Leaving the car at the edge of the pavement, Ruth got out and scampered hurriedly up the bank and into the woods. Pushing through the wet underbrush, she fought the urge to call out, not wanting to give their presence away. Through the rain, she could make out the figure of the tall woman moving slowly in the woods up ahead. If she could just catch her before she went too far. Running faster, Ruth hurdled a fallen log and charged through the slippery forest floor in pursuit.
Spencer looked about anxiously as she scoured the woods for her bike. She hadn't remembered walking this far when she came upon the Wal-Mart. Thinking she'd just been following the wrong angle, she turned to her right, freezing in place as she caught movement behind her from the corner of her eye. Crouching behind a rhododendron, she waited and watched, shocked to see that the blonde woman had followed her into the woods. Stepping out, she started to call out.
Frantic, Ruth ran faster, waving her hands and gesturing wildly for Spencer to stay quiet and get back down.
"They've got your bike," she whispered, joining the taller woman behind the bush. "They're just over the rise at the edge of the road. It's the black car, just like you said."
The blue eyes grew wide at the sudden danger.
"We need to get back to my car. Let's go!"
Spencer didn't need to be asked twice. Stealthily, the two women moved back through the woods, finally sliding down the muddy bank to where the car was parked.
Still shaking, Ruth started the engine and turned around. In seconds, they were back on the highway toward town, both gasping for breath in the wake of their near miss.
"How did you know?"
Ruth shook her head, still in disbelief at what had almost happened to both of them. "I took a wrong turn and ended up on the road on the other side. They were bringing a red motorcycle out of the woods."
"And you're sure the black car was there?"
The blonde woman nodded, "with the government tags."
Spencer sighed hopelessly. "I don't know what to say, Karen. I can't believe you came back for me."
"I couldn't let you just walk into that. I still don't believe that the feds want you dead, but on the off chance that they do, I just ."
"Thanks, for whatever reason. You may have just saved my life."
"It was her bike, no mistake about it," Pollard reported. The store's surveillance photos from Saturday night showed a blurry image of someone wearing black and white running into the parking lot from the area where the phones were mounted. The pouring rain that night kept them from making a positive ID, but if it had actually been Rollins, it was doubtful she was running to her bike. The lot itself was out of the camera's range.
"Goddamn it! That means she left in somebody's car. Are you sure you cut her off before she told Diaz?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. I even got Diaz telling somebody about it on the phone; that she didn't know where she was."
Akers sighed with annoyance. "Look, we need to tighten the screws on that woman."
"Cal, I can't just tap her phone at the IRS."
"Talk to her boss. Tell him what you're doing and why. If you run into any trouble, say you think she's holding out. Rollins doesn't have anywhere else to go."
"I think you should get in the back and cover up. It's best if Viv doesn't see you when we get back to the house."
With Spencer's only real option gone now, and with Ruth starting to get a sense of the danger the woman was in, they'd turned and headed back to the trailer. At the very least, Spencer needed some time to come up with a new plan, a plan for coming forward that wouldn't mean risking her life.
The tall woman squeezed between the seats and curled up in the back, pulling the plastic tarp over her.
"I'll go in and make sure they're busy, and you sneak back into the trailer."
Ruth couldn't believe she had given in to her conscience and let this woman come back. She had so much at stake with hiding Jessie, but she couldn't bring herself to turn her back on someone who had absolutely nowhere to go.
And if Spencer had meant to hurt them, she would never have gotten out of the car in the first place.
"I really appreciate this," Spencer said as she exited the small bathroom, her hair still dripping from the shower. "I know I keep saying that, but I really mean it."
Ruth and Jessie had returned to Wal-Mart in the afternoon to pick up a few more things for their new house, and with Spencer's last forty-five bucks, had bought a few changes of clothes, including jeans, t-shirts, a sweatshirt, and underwear. From her own reserves, Ruth picked up some socks and a size ten pair of sneakers.
"Yeah, it was self-defense. You were starting to smell," Ruth answered with a chuckle.
The tall woman's jaw dropped. Had that stiff woman just made a joke?
"Viv said I could use her washer, so if you'll give me your other stuff, I'll throw it in with that blanket you bled all over."
Spencer disappeared down the hall and returned with her laundry, confirming with a sniff that it really was rather pungent.
"Is there anything I can do to help out?"
"Sure. Why don't you stir this while I go put all this in the washer? We're almost ready to eat."
Spencer took over at the stove stirring a skillet filled with sliced beef, peppers and onions. The rice was ready, and a small bottle of soy sauce sat on the counter. The little girl had barely spoken a word since returning from the store with her mother, seemingly afraid of this dark-haired stranger.
"So what's your doll's name?" Spencer asked, trying to set the child at ease.
"Lisa," Jessie answered shyly without looking up.
"That's a very pretty name. One of my best friends when I was a little girl was named Lisa." That was a lie. She'd gone to school with Lisa McCall, but she had hated her guts.
"My best friend is Brittany."
"Does Brittany have a pretty doll too?"
The little girl shrugged her shoulders, still not making eye contact. She didn't like being left alone with this other woman, even if she was nice.
As soon as Ruth walked in the door, Jessie jumped up and ran to her mother's side.
"Megan was just telling me about her friend Brittany."
"Was she now? She and Brittany went to the same Little School back in Maine. We're going to find a new Little School here. Won't that be fun, Megan?"
The blonde child shook her head. She didn't want to be away from her mom, unless it was with Viv and the puppies.
"Sure it would. School's fun. You learn things, and play games, and make friends. You've always liked school," she encouraged. "I bet you'll like it when you make new friends."
"Do I have to go?"
"Not yet. I think we can wait a little while."
Her daughter visibly relaxed at the reprieve.
"But we should find a new school soon, because I think you'll have fun."
"I want to be with you."
"I know, but I'm going to need to find a job when we find you a school."
"Because people are supposed to go somewhere every day. Big people go to work, and little people go to school."
"Viv doesn't go to work."
"That's because Viv's retired. She worked a long time and now she doesn't have to anymore," she explained patiently.
"Spencer doesn't go."
"Well, you see, honey, Spencer's lazy." She needed an explanation on the spot and hoped the other woman could take some good-natured teasing.
"Lazy?" She really is in a mood.
"That's right. Lazy people just stay in bed all day and that's what Spencer has been doing."
The tall woman shook her head in disbelief. She couldn't believe she'd suddenly become the butt of Ruth's jokes. On the other hand, it was sort of funny to find herself being picked on. In fact, it was a lot like being around Elena.
"Hey, I think dinner's ready. Grab a seat, and I'll bring it over if I can stop being so lazy." she teased back.
"See?" Ruth laughed in answer, dragging the armchair from the living room to the bar so they could all sit together. The threesome ate quietly until Jessie asked the question that had been bothering her all day.
"Why do you have a boy's name?"
"There's a boy named Spencer at my Little School, and he's a boy."
"Well Spencer can be a girl's name too," the blue-eyed woman argued gently.
"I don't know any girls named Spencer, just boys."
"Well, now you know a girl named Spencer. It's what my mother and father named me."
"It is kind of an unusual name for a girl," Ruth agreed, as a friendly jibe and a way of letting her daughter know that she understood her confusion.
"It's a family name," Spencer explained defensively. "I was named for my grandmother."
"So your grandmother's name was Spencer, too?"
"Yes," she answered in mock indignation.
The tall woman shifted uncomfortably. "Her last name was Spencer."
"Oh! So your first name is somebody else's last name." Ruth was starting to enjoy the teasing.
"No, actually it's my middle name."
"Mommy, what's my middle name?" Megan asked.
"Alise. Megan Alise Oliver."
"What's your middle name?"
"Michelle. My whole name is Karen Michelle Oliver."
"So what's your whole name?" Jessie asked Spencer pointedly.
"Oh, no!" Ruth interjected. "You said Spencer was your middle name. So what's your first name?"
"Now if I told you that, I'd have to kill you."
Suddenly Jessie's eyes went wide and she jumped down to stand behind her mother.
"She's only teasing, honey." She reached around to take her daughter's hand and pull her into her lap. "You can't say those kinds of things around a four-year-old," she admonished.
"Sorry. I was just kidding, Megan. I would never hurt anybody, but especially not you or your mom."
"So what's your first name?" the child demanded.
Defeated, Spencer dropped her fork and leaned back, looking away from the twin pairs of pretty green eyes that waited expectantly. "Dolly."
"Dolly?" Ruth asked in disbelief.
"Yes, Dolly. Dolly Spencer Rollins. I'll have you know that my grandmother was named Dolly Mavis Spencer, and I'm very honored to be named for her."
"Yeah, I can tell by the way you announced it so proudly," Ruth teased. "Dolly Rollins."
Jessie squealed with laughter.
"You think that's pretty funny, huh?" Spencer couldn't believe how these two were ganging up on her.
"Yeah! I think it's funny Dolly." Unable to hide her smirk, Ruth turned the question to her daughter. "Do you think it's funny?"
The little girl nodded happily.
"See there? The jury's verdict is in."
Spencer rolled her eyes. She'd try a new tack. "You're not setting a very good example for your child, teaching her to laugh at people's names."
That was true, Ruth admitted. "You're right. It isn't nice to make fun of people's names even funny names."
"Okay, that's it!" Tossing her napkin on the table, she stood abruptly. "You two want to laugh? I'll give you something to laugh about." Reaching over, she dug her hands into Jessie's ribs and started to tickle. As soon as the child dropped to the floor squealing with laughter, she started on Ruth, who also dissolved onto the floor. Only the pain in her own ribs stopped the assault, as Spencer sat back down in the chair.
"Now I better warn you there's more where that came from," she said menacingly.
Ruth caught her breath and climbed back onto her stool, pulling the child up with her.
"Okay, we give ," and with a very tiny voice, she added, "Dolly."
Spencer smiled and got two smiles back. It felt good to let go of the tension for the first time in three days.
"Okay, since I have to prove that I'm not lazy, I'll clean up the dishes."
"Can I I mean may I watch TV?"
"Just for a little while," Ruth acquiesced. Under any other circumstances, she would have said no, but this was the very first time ever that her daughter had used "may" instead of "can" and it called for a reward.
Spencer made quick work of the dinner dishes, waiting for one last glass. "Are you finished with your drink, Megan?"
"Uh-huh." The little girl jumped up and stretched to grab the glass so she could take it to the sink, accidentally tipping it over so that it rolled off the counter and shattered on the floor. "Uh-oh!" The bare-footed child started to pick up one of the pieces.
"No, Jessie! Don't move." Ruth picked her daughter up and ushered her to the couch.
"I'm sorry," the child whimpered. Being sorry got her nowhere when she did things like this around her father; but her mother hardly ever got mad about anything.
"It's okay. I'll clean it up. I just didn't want you to get hurt."
Spencer had already started sweeping the glass into a dustpan.
"I'll do it," she offered, stooping to hold the dustpan.
"That's okay. It's just one less dish I have to wash, and that's good because I'm lazy," she joked.
Together, they mopped up the mess and gave the floor an extra going-over. Soon after, the blonde woman and her daughter disappeared into the bathroom to get ready for bed.
An hour later, Ruth emerged from her daughter's bedroom to find Spencer spreading out the sheets on the couch. "You don't have to sleep out here. I don't mind the couch."
"No, you should have your own bed. I'm better now. I don't hurt all over like I did, thanks to you."
Ruth looked the tall woman from head to toe then measured the couch with her eye. "So do your legs unscrew, or does your head come off?"
"You really are quite the comedienne tonight, aren't you?"
Ruth smiled and dropped into the recliner.
"It's been nice to laugh for a change," Spencer said quietly. In fact, their fun earlier seemed to have changed the whole atmosphere here in the trailer. All three of them were more relaxed; it was almost like their living together was just ordinary.
"Yeah, Megan and I haven't laughed much lately either."
"So who's Jessie?" she asked without a hint of reproach. "Or should I ask who's Megan? And who's Karen?"
Ruth sighed heavily. She realized when they were in the bathroom that she had called her daughter by the wrong name in that brief moment of danger. Her first instinct was to deflect the question with simple lie, but it wasn't forthcoming. Her next thought was to just put the subject off-limits. She owed Spencer Rollins no explanations at all. But instead, she found herself wanting to open up, wanting to explain things so that Spencer could understand why she'd been so insistent about not wanting her here.
"Megan and Karen Oliver were two little girls that died a couple of years ago in a boating accident. Their grandfather had opened savings accounts for them at my bank, and Jessie and I needed new identities when we left. I was able to get their social security numbers from the accounts."
"Your husband must be some kind of beast if you have to run away and change your names."
Ruth nodded without looking up. "He never could deal with Jessie not being Little Miss Perfect all the time. He didn't have much patience for kids."
"So you left to get away from him."
"We're divorced. But he got primary custody."
"Wha? You're kidding!"
"I wish. He told a bunch of lies at our hearing. He said that I left Jessie home by herself; that I would sometimes go days without changing her or feeding her. He put on this big act and the judge bought it hook, line, and sinker. He didn't want her. He never wanted her. He just wanted to make sure I didn't get her."
"So you kidnapped her?"
Again, Ruth nodded, tears filling her eyes.
"She hated living there. She would scream her head off every time she had to go back. And then a couple of months ago I started finding bruises on her arms and legs. She always said she fell. I just wasn't going to let that happen to her anymore."
Now it all made sense why Ruth had taken her in without calling the police. Spencer reached out and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. "I'd have done the same thing. I think anybody would."
"Well, I guess now you can see why I was sort of ."
"Yeah, I can see that my being here complicates things for you," Spencer said seriously. "I'll get out as soon as I can, Karen. Or should I call you something else?"
"My name's Ruth. But I need to move on from that. Jessie and I both do, so it'd be best if you could just call us Karen and Megan."
"Sure, whatever you want." Spencer was suddenly struck by the irony of their respective circumstances. "You know, it's amazing when you think about it, that both of us are hiding out, and that we ended up together."
Ruth shook her head and chuckled. "Yeah, like either of us didn't already have enough excitement in our lives."
"I know I really do complicate things for you, Ruth, but if I'd ended up in anyone else's car that night, I'd probably be dead by now. I really do owe you, and if there's anything I can do when this is over to help you and your daughter, I will."
"I don't think there's anything anybody can do," Ruth said, obviously discouraged. "I guess I need to get on to bed. I have a lot to do tomorrow, and Jessie will probably have me up at the crack of dawn to go see the puppies."
"Go on and take the bed. I'll be okay out here." She gestured toward the couch. "Besides, I'll be sleeping in tomorrow, on account of I'm so lazy."
Spencer woke before dawn, her mind racing with the bits and pieces of information she had about what had gone down on Friday night. Getting out of this mess called for a careful plan, and she approached that like she did her programming tasks. First, she needed to step back and get the big picture. No matter what the circumstances now, where did she want to end up?
That was easy. She wanted to see Henry's killers brought to justice. She wanted to stop whatever it was that was going on at Margadon that made Henry's life expendable. And she wanted her own life back.
Rummaging through the kitchen drawers, she found a drawing tablet and a few crayons, selecting the blue one because its point was the sharpest. At the top of the page, she wrote Henry's name; beneath that, she scribbled fragments of the things he'd said:
The programmer stared at the words for a long time, trying to imagine each of the steps her partner had taken to find the problem. His call hadn't come until almost midnight, so it must have been an arduous process. But following the trail had gotten him killed.
With that thought, Spencer added one more note:
That was why Henry was dead, because he had called James. So that meant that James knew about the changes in the program, and therefore, he knew what the program was doing. But he couldn't have done this on his own; he would have needed another programmer, since his own skills were rudimentary at best. Come to think of it, James had never struck her as being the brightest bulb in the pack anyway, so it was likely that he was just along for the ride by virtue of his position as controller. If they were skimming the books, like Henry had said, they needed someone like James to cover the gaps in inventory. But there had to be others involved; someone in production and probably even their supplier.
What didn't make sense at all was why the FBI
"Will you get me some juice, please?"
Preoccupied with her analysis, Spencer was astonished to see the pajama-clad child standing before her clutching her doll. She had no idea how long the little girl had been standing there.
"Well, good morning!" Dropping her papers, she got up and went to the kitchen. "You want some cereal too?"
Jessie shook her head. "Toast and jelly."
"Toast and jelly," she repeated. "That sounds good. Maybe I'll have some too."
Minutes later, they were sharing breakfast when Ruth stumbled down the hall.
"Is there coffee?"
"Yes, there is. It was made by the Lazy Lady."
That got a giggle out of Jessie, and a smile from her mom.
"What kinds of things do you have to do today?" Spencer asked casually.
"I have to get my car registered, and get a new driver's license. Do you want me to pick up anything while I'm out?"
Anyone listening might have thought they'd been married fifteen years.
"Yeah, can you bring me a notebook of some sort? I borrowed a few pages from Megan's tablet. I hope that was okay."
"And maybe you could find me something a little more...adult to write with?" She held up the crayon she'd been using.
"You mean like markers or maybe a paintbrush?" Ruth teased. "I have a pen in my purse you're welcome to use. Anything else?"
"Gee, I was thinking more like a computer." Even that wouldn't help, though. What she needed to figure all of this out was access to her own terminal at Margadon, and that lay within an impenetrable firewall.
"Are we getting a computer, Mommy?" Jessie asked with excitement. First a puppy, now this!
"No! She's being silly. We can't afford a computer."
Spencer leapt off the couch and began pacing. "All I need is access to a computer. Henry sent it to the server. I'm sure of it."
"What are you talking about?"
Now excited, she explained. "Henry and I used to do a few jobs on the side, you know, contracting with small companies to write code. But we couldn't park that kind of stuff at Margadon, so we bought a server and set it up in Vienna. When we wanted to work on Margadon stuff at night or over the weekend, we'd send it to the server so we could both have access. I bet Henry sent what he found to the server."
"So how can you find out?"
"I need a computer with a modem."
"Well, we don't have either one. Even if we had a computer, I don't have a phone."
"We need some kind of Internet café."
"What about a library? Don't they have terminals?"
Spencer nodded. "Yeah, but they're public buildings. They might have some kind of surveillance. I could get caught. But worse than that is that they'll find the server and go after it. Then all of the evidence would be gone."
"Okay, listen. I need to get going on this car stuff. I have no idea how long we're going to be gone, but if you figure out how we can get to a computer, we'll go when I get back."
"Can I stay here with Spencer?"
"No, honey. You have to come with me."
"Duh! Both of you. Viv doesn't know Spencer is here, and she knows I wouldn't go off and leave you by yourself."
"Oh," the others said together.
" so I told him like, I'm not gonna do that, and he goes, well why not, and I go, I'm just not, so then he goes oh, shit! Not again! Melanie, I gotta go. There's a cop behind me and he's pulling me over. Bye!"
Sixteen-year-old Carly Porr had been driving less than two months, and this was the third occasion on which she'd been stopped. The first time, she'd gotten a stern warning about rolling through a stop sign. The second was for a series of vehicle safety violations: one headlight and both brake lights in the old Plymouth were out, the tires were nearly bald, and one of the windshield wipers flopped aimlessly in the rain. For all that, she'd gotten ticketed, but it convinced her father to buy her something a little more road-worthy.
That's how she came to be driving the brand new Saturn; at least it was new to Carly. They'd picked it up from her dad's friend Dick Huggins in Farmington on Sunday.
"License and registration, please," the uniformed officer demanded.
"What'd I do this time?" She dug out her license and the bill of sale. The registration hadn't arrived in the mail yet.
"Step out of the car, please."
"What'd I do?" she practically shouted. Some of her friends had warned her about cops who stopped women for no reason, just to bribe them into having sex so they wouldn't get a ticket.
Ignoring her question, the officer studied the bill of sale, matching the vehicle identification number from the brass strip affixed to the dash beneath the windshield. It was definitely the car they were looking for, the one that had belonged to Ruth Ferguson.
"Miss Porr, I'm going to have to ask you to come with me."
Oh my god! Shaking with fear, she pulled out her cell phone. "I'm not going anywhere till I call my daddy."
"Is your father Harold Porr, the owner of this car?"
"Then he's going to have to come to the station, too, I'm afraid."
Oh, shit! She must have really done something awful this time. While the officer double-checked her license and bill of sale, Carly peeked at the grill to see if she had a bicycle or something stuck there.
The cranky four-year-old stormed into the trailer and went straight to her bedroom and slammed her door.
"There is no need to slam this door, young lady," Ruth said sternly as she followed her daughter into the room. "I know you're tired and that you didn't have a good time. I didn't have a good time either, but you heard me promise Spencer that I'd take her somewhere when we got finished."
Spencer felt guilty to learn that she was the cause of the child's consternation.
"Can I go see the puppies?"
"It's may I' and I don't think so, because I'm not very happy with the way you're acting right now."
The pouting child responded with a mumbled apology.
"I think you need to sit in here a while and think about how you've acted. Maybe if you took a little nap, you would feel like being nicer."
Jessie kicked off her shoes and curled up on her bed. Ruth watched her settle down, the teary green eyes a sure sign of remorse. She walked over and gave her a soft kiss on the forehead. "I love you, sweetheart."
Spencer sat on the couch, looking sheepish at having witnessed such a personal moment between mother and child. Ruth plopped tiredly in the recliner.
"You're wicked," the tall woman teased softly, bringing an easy smile to her new friend's flustered face.
"That was my toughest Mommy act," she laughed.
"Well, it had me peeing in my pants."
"I'm not kidding. Remind me never to cross you."
"You're so funny." Ruth shook her head, still chuckling. "So Karen Michelle Oliver is now licensed to drive in the state of Virginia, and her car has brand new plates on the front and the back."
"Congratulations. How'd you pull that off?"
"I bought the car two weeks ago for cash from a private seller. I asked him to write me a receipt and I filled in my name. And I told them at the DMV that I'd never had a license before; that I was always afraid to drive. They tested me and that was that."
"Yeah, it helps when you get in a long line of people who are abusing the poor clerk behind the counter and you're the first person who treats him like a human being."
"Catching flies with honey?"
"That's right. Listen, she's going to be a lot more pleasant after a nap. Then I guess we should go look in on the puppies for a few minutes. Did you decide where you needed to go?"
"No. Without a phone book or anything, I couldn't even guess. How would you feel about just riding around a little and seeing what we find?"
"That's okay. But I need to take her somewhere to play for a while. Waiting in that line for three hours was torture."
"Sure. Maybe we'll see a park or something."
Ruth looked at Spencer with gratitude. "Thanks for understanding."
"Not a problem. It's taken thirty-three years, but I've learned that life isn't all about what I want," she grinned.
Viv was pleased to see the pair standing inside the porch at the back door. It was nice to have these two as tenants, and she loved seeing the pure joy on Megan's face each time she peeked in on the puppies.
"Come on in. They've missed you today."
The excited child made a beeline for the room off the kitchen where Maggie and her pups had settled.
"This is the highlight of her day," Ruth said.
"Then you should bring her over more often. Or she could stay here if you had to run out for something."
"That's very kind. We don't want to be any trouble."
"I wouldn't have offered if it was any trouble. Say, I've got your laundry back here."
"Oh my goodness! I forgot all about it. I'm so sorry."
"That's okay." Viv handed over a small basket of folded clothes and the blanket. "Those were some awfully long jeans in there," she remarked casually.
"Uh, yeah I sometimes wear them long because I like to roll em up. You know, cuffs."
"Uh-huh," she said skeptically. "Look, Karen. I know you got somebody else staying over there. I heard the toilet flush after you and Megan left."
Ruth could feel her face redden.
"Now I don't really understand why you haven't said anything about her, but I guess you had your reasons. It's your business. But you don't have to be sneaky about it. Makes me think you've got something to hide."
Ruth stared at the floor, ashamed to meet her landlady's accusing look. If she only knew.
"She's just going to stay a few nights. I'm sorry I didn't say anything."
"You don't have to be sorry. It's your home and you can have company stay whenever you want. You don't need my permission. But this sneaking in and out isn't necessary. You should go get her and bring her over. "
"Okay." Ruth started out the back door, but stopped. "Viv, how did you know it was a she?"
The gray-haired woman chuckled. "No boxers. No briefs."
Ruth hauled the laundry basket up the steps, balancing it on her hip to open the door. "My landlady knows you're here, and she wants to meet you."
"I forgot the laundry and she found a pair of jeans that were about two feet too long for me. And she heard the toilet flush when Megan and I weren't here."
"Great. Are you in trouble?"
"No, but she wants to meet you, so come on."
"What if she's seen me on TV?"
"Pull your hair back or something."
"Oh yeah, that'll do it," she said sarcastically. "I'll look like a whole different person. Who did you tell her I was?"
"I didn't tell her anything. I just said you were staying here a few days. She's a little put out that I didn't mention anything."
"So, what? Am I a friend of yours from Maine? A relative? Help me out here."
"You can be a friend from Maine, but you're living here now and you lost your job. I didn't tell her much, so you get to make up whatever you want. Just remember that Megan may get curious and start asking questions, so you better keep it simple."
With Ruth in the lead, Spencer nervously walked in through the back door of the house. To her infinite embarrassment, the blonde woman introduced her as Dolly Rollins, which brought a snicker from the little girl, and a renewed threat of tickling from Spencer.
Viv asked worriedly about the black eye and Spencer explained that she'd been in an accident, but that it wasn't serious. She wished later that she'd been more forthcoming about her bruises and injured arm, as that might have staved off the landlady's next request.
"To tell you the truth, I'm glad there are two of you over there. I could use some extra hands with the storm windows now that it's turning cold."
Their plans for looking for Internet access were scuttled when Viv directed them to the shed where the windows were kept, showing them where to find the glass cleaner and the ladder. For the back porch, she had gotten a roll of heavy plastic, which had to be measured, cut, and stapled all around.
"Don't worry about Megan," Viv said. "I'll keep an eye on her. We'll watch the puppies, and maybe play around a little on the computer."
"Would ice help?"
Spencer shook her head. Her ribcage was screaming at her from all the activity with the storm windows yesterday afternoon; and Viv had presented them with a new list of chores for today.
"Too late for that."
"You shouldn't have done all that work without wrapping it up. That's why I got the bandage."
"I know," she groaned. Ruth had advised her twice to stop, offering to wrap the elastic around her ribs. "I'll do it today. But I might need some help."
"I don't know about you, but I'm not all that eager to get started," Ruth said, peeking past the curtain to the house. "I'm afraid if we get finished with stuff, she'll find more for us to do."
Spencer chuckled. "I think we're being punished for me hiding over here. The chores are going to keep coming until she's gotten her pound of flesh."
"You're probably right." Wordlessly, Ruth picked up the elastic bandage and gestured for the tall woman to lift her shirt. "You need to be careful with this. If they're broken, they'll never heal if you keep pulling on it."
"I think they're just bruised. They don't hurt like they did a couple of days ago." Spencer grimaced as the bandage was pulled tight across the dark contusion. Still, she got a nice jolly from the warm hands.
"How's your arm today?"
"It's much better, Dr. Ruth." As soon as she said it, the image of the diminutive sex therapist popped into her head and Spencer snorted.
The blonde woman said nothing, her only response a hard yank on the elastic.
"Ow! Not so tight!"
"Sorry." She wasn't really.
"Do you think Viv will let me use her computer?"
"I don't see why not. Tonight's bingo night, you know. I think you should have to come along for that before you're granted computer privileges."
"Well, I would volunteer, you know, but since my picture's on the news as a wanted murderer, it might be best if I pass," she answered sweetly, batting her eyelashes with exaggerated innocence.
"Excuses, excuses." Ruth moved around behind the dark-haired woman to attach the metal fasteners. "You know, you were asking me the other day about how to thank me for letting you stay here. I think I've just come up with a way, every Wednesday night."
"What, you don't like bingo?"
"It'll be fun. You just need a positive attitude."
"Yeah, right. That reminds me, would you watch Jessie tonight so I don't have to keep her out so late?"
"Sure. But I think she's afraid of me."
"Well you did threaten to kill us both, as I recall," Ruth joked. "But she likes you alright. She doesn't ask just anybody to play Candy Land." In fact, Jessie had insisted the night before that Spencer play too, because somebody had to be green. And when the mother-daughter pair trounced the newcomer in consecutive games, Spencer had been a very good sport. It was the first time in ages that Ruth could remember having fun with her daughter and another adult.
On the surface, Spencer was proving to be a really interesting person, easy to be around. Ruth could sense those times when the programmer's thoughts would turn to her dilemma, and she wished there was more that she could do to help. It really touched her that Spencer seemed to have also taken on her problems with Skip, though it was pretty doubtful she'd be able to help with that.
"Look, I really appreciate all your help with Viv's chores, but you really do need to take care of this. Let me do the heavy lifting today, okay?"
"And stop calling me Ruth."
"You're all wet!" Jessie declared, as if either her mom or Spencer might have been unaware. Viv had grossly misrepresented the enormity of the dog bath task.
A happy Maggie joined her hungry puppies while Thor preened nearby. The dogs really did smell a lot better, but the same could not be said for Ruth and Spencer.
"Dibs on the shower," the blonde woman called as the threesome walked across the drive to the trailer.
Spencer muttered a few choice words under her breath, ever cognizant of the presence of a four-year-old.
"What was that?"
"You don't want to know." She was exhausted, but at least Viv had agreed to let her use the computer tonight while they were at the church. She wanted to look for a job, she said.
Viv had them back over for dinner, and soon after, the landlady and Ruth left to seek their fortunes at the Goodwill Christian Church.
"You're getting three?" Viv had no idea that her new tenant was so enthusiastic about the game. She'd expected to be dropped off that's what Norma had always done when she'd lived in the trailer but no, Ruth was not only going to stick around, she was going to play three cards at fifteen dollars apiece.
"Well, Megan wanted me to play one for her, so I said I would. Then, she wanted me to play one for Spencer. But I drew the line at playing one for Willy and her doll," she explained earnestly.
"Yeah, I usually say I'm playing this other one for Thor and Maggie, but if it wins, it's mine," she joked.
Ruth took a seat at the long table, surprised to find herself excited and eager to start. From the looks of those around her, this was serious business.
"So which one's yours?" Viv asked, indicating the three cards in front of her tenant.
"Don't know yet depends on how they do," she smirked.
"You catch on quick, Karen."
Spencer finished the last of the dishes and helped Jessie find the children's channel on TV. She felt guilty knowing that Ruth didn't like the idea of using the television as a babysitter, but she needed to take advantage of this chance to get online. At least they were together in Viv's den.
Ever since Ruth had followed her into the woods on Monday, the blonde woman seemed to accept Spencer's situation, and was even lending her support. They were no longer talking about when Spencer would leave; in fact, it was as though they both understood that she couldn't, at least not until she found a way to turn herself in without getting caught in a trap.
Considering all that Ruth had done for her taking care of her, providing for her, hiding her keeping an eye on Jessie was the least she could do.
"Let me know if you need anything, okay?"
Jessie didn't answer, already absorbed in the cartoon.
With a small smile, Spencer spun around in the office chair to start to work. Accessing the net through Viv's ISP, she went first to the website for the Washington Post to read about Henry's murder. Late yesterday, authorities discovered James' body, and they'd intensified the search for Spencer Rollins. Skimming through the story, she sought clues for who else might be involved. Predictably, executives at Margadon were expressing all the appropriate shock and sadness; but one comment stood out:
"I don't think anyone really could have predicted this, but I can't say that I'm completely surprised by what has happened. In my own interactions with Rollins, I could see that she had a volatile temper, and even Mr. Estes had told others that she thought people at Margadon were out to get her."
The reporter had spoken with Stacy Eagleton, a senior product manager at Margadon who had primary responsibility for the Kryfex contract. In her six years at Margadon, Spencer had spoken with Eagleton no more than five times. Even if she did have a volatile temper which she didn't Eagleton would never have seen it. Added to the absolute bullshit about her purported paranoia, that preposterous assessment put Stacy Eagleton at the top of her list of those involved in this conspiracy.
Before she left the article, Spencer turned on the printer and waited for it to warm up.
"Is your show good, Jessie?"
The girl nodded absently, and then her eyes grew wide. "You called me Jessie!"
"Oops! I made a mistake. Your name is Megan." Spencer doubted she would ever think of the pair as Karen and Megan again, but she needed to help them keep their cover.
"How did you know my name was Jessie?" the child demanded.
"It slipped out when you broke the glass," the tall woman answered calmly. "Remember when your mom shouted at you because she was afraid you would hurt yourself?"
"She called you Jessie, so that's how I knew it was your name."
"But you can't tell anyone, cuz it's a secret."
"I won't tell anyone, I promise."
Thoroughly scolded, Spencer turned back to her work. When she printed the news story, she took a deep breath before taking the next step. Accessing the server was an enormous risk. If the feds knew about it they'd be watching, and they might trace the number right to Viv's front door.
No one except Spencer and Henry knew of the server's existence. When they routed things from work out to Vienna for remote access, they routinely cleaned up the log file at Margadon so no one would know. The company's security team would have a fit if they knew that internal documents and programs had left the local network, but both programmers knew their server was secure, and that the information was not at risk. Besides, they never stored company data, just bits of their code. The way they saw it, Margadon's security measures were overkill.
So the big question was: If Henry did send the files, did he have time to erase the entry in the log file before he was killed? Of course he did. He did that automatically after every upload or download, just as she did. It was part of their procedure, just like logging off. Routine.
With another deep breath, Spencer typed in the URL for a public proxy, a site that allowed her to surf the web anonymously. It wasn't foolproof, but unless those guys had an expert watching the server, they weren't going to find her anytime soon.
From the public proxy, she opened the browser and keyed in the FTP for the server. Her index finger hovered over the "enter" key as she gathered her nerve. Henry was a slave to detail, the most meticulous person she'd ever met, she told herself. No way would he have left the record in the log file. She tapped it and waited for the directory of files to appear.
There it was, a folder of documents sent Friday night at 11:33, about ten minutes before Henry had called her at Elena's. He had probably called James by that time, but that gave him plenty of time to clear the log file. Had he not, the feds would have taken this folder down, she realized with relief.
With a few clicks of the mouse, Spencer downloaded the files he had posted. They were programs, page after page of the documentation and Visual Basic commands that managed the inventory at Margadon. Henry had uploaded more than eighty pages that he thought were relevant to the problem, eighty pages that he would have wanted her to see.
Spencer logged off when the download was complete, hurriedly reloading the paper tray. Anxiously, she sent each of the documents to the bubble jet printer and waited for the output. At four pages per minute, this was going to take a while.
The first twenty six pages were the global program they'd written to execute all of the appropriate modules. As she glanced at the intricate routines, she couldn't help but remember the fun they'd had together when they wrote this. It was when she was seeing Elena, and Henry had .
"What are you doing?"
Spencer was surprised to find that she had a small visitor over her shoulder.
"I'm just printing some things to read later. Is your show finished?"
Jessie nodded and yawned. "What's it about?"
"It's about it's a mystery story, like a puzzle with words. I have to figure out all the pieces."
The little girl had come to stand closer and was now leaning against the programmer. Spencer reached out and swept her into her lap.
"Are you getting sleepy?"
Again she nodded. "When's Mommy coming home?"
Spencer looked at her watch. It had been more than a half hour since she'd accessed the server. The fact that their door hadn't been broken down by the feds was a good sign.
"Not for a little while, but I'm finished here." Still holding the four-year-old, Spencer stood and scooped up the last of her papers. A few more clicks, and she shut down the computer. "Why don't we go back to the trailer and I'll read you a story that's more interesting than this one? You wanna do that?"
The sleepy child nodded one more time, seemingly very much at home in these long arms of the woman who had frightened her only a few days ago. They walked quietly into the kitchen, where they said soft goodnights to the dogs, and then exited to the trailer.
"I can't believe this! I come every Wednesday night, and I'm lucky if I win once a month. You win on two cards your first night."
"Beginner's luck," Ruth explained, feeling a little guilty but not a lot. It was about time she got a break. "Tell you what. I'll spend my winnings on dinner, if we can cook and eat at your house."
"You've got yourself a deal. And I'll go you one better. You spend your winnings on a fat turkey, and I'll do all the rest. Thanksgiving's the week after next, you know."
For the first time, it hit Ruth that Manassas was her new life, that she wouldn't be sharing holidays anymore with her parents, or with Skip's family. With a few simple words on a whim, Viv Walters had just made her part of a new "family," and it felt better than any family Ruth had ever had.
Once she'd gotten Jessie settled for bed, Spencer began the task of retracing her partner's steps. For some reason, he'd uploaded two copies of their global program, or so it seemed. Something was obviously different, but damned if she could see what it was. The longer she looked at it, the more confusing it became.
Among the other documents were several pages of macros, the shortcuts they'd written so that the program would run more efficiently and error-free. The last few pages were unfamiliar, but just as she was starting to review them, she heard the Taurus pull up in the muddy drive.
"Did you have a good time?" she asked the smiling blonde.
"I cleaned up," she bragged. "I won the Coverall and the Eight States."
"I take it that's a good thing?"
"It's a very good thing," she proclaimed, digging out her winnings as she swaggered across the room. "It means I paid forty-five dollars for three cards and I won $132, so that's eighty-seven in the clear."
"And you obviously had a good time. Can't beat that."
"Bathed, storied, and sound asleep," Spencer answered smugly.
"You're kidding." She was mystified that Jessie had gone to bed without a fuss, but she was pleased. What was more confusing to Ruth was how quickly she'd come to trust a virtual stranger to care for her daughter. But it was obvious that she did. There just wasn't anything about Spencer Rollins that was threatening.
"Nope. She got tired, so I put her to bed. Hope that was okay."
"Sure. So were you able to get online?" It was a stupid question, she knew, since Spencer had stacks of papers all over the counter.
"Yeah, but it's going to take me awhile to find what Henry was talking about." Spencer turned back to her work as Ruth settled in the recliner.
"You mind if I watch the news?"
"No, go ahead."
Ten minutes into the broadcast, the Margadon story was updated to include video of police recovering the body of James Thayer from the Chesapeake Bay. Thayer had been sought as a suspect in the murder of Henry Estes, but it now appeared that Spencer Rollins had committed both murders. She was last seen in the Manassas-Centreville area of Virginia, and was presumed armed and dangerous.
Spencer grew nauseous as she watched the clip, just as she did every time she was reminded of her friend's horrid death. It was beyond belief that anyone would think her capable of such a vicious act. But more than proving her innocence, she wanted the animals who had done this brought to justice.
"Oh, my god!" Ruth shouted suddenly, leaping from the chair and out the door.
"Viv! She was going in to watch the news."
Ruth raced across the yard and pounded on the back door, shouting for her landlady to hurry.
Inside, Viv Walters had just gotten the fright of her life when she saw the picture of the woman wanted for murder. At once, she'd grabbed the phone, intent on calling 9-1-1. Only the pounding on the door stopped her, as she realized the danger for Karen and her little girl. Hurriedly, she threw the bolt to let the frantic woman in.
"I just ," she pointed absently at the television, the shock apparent on her lined face.
"It isn't true, Viv. Spencer didn't do it," Ruth said, gasping for breath.
"But they said ."
"No, it isn't true."
Behind her tenant, the tall stranger was approaching slowly from the trailer. Fear gripped the older woman as she imagined the worst.
"She's right, Viv. I didn't kill those people," Spencer said softly.
The calm in her voice was contagious, and the older woman began to relax. "Why are you hiding then? Why don't you just go to the police and tell them you're innocent?"
"Because the guys who killed her friend are the police, and they're trying to kill her," Ruth explained. "It's true. I know it's hard to believe, but they're after her, Viv. She's staying here because nowhere else is safe."
Spencer could see that the older woman wasn't convinced. "I'll leave if you need me to. Karen can take me tomorrow and put me out on a street corner if that's the way you want it. You both have already done more for me than I have a right to ask. But just please don't call the police tonight." Her request was as much for Ruth as it was for herself.
"What are you going to do?"
The programmer waved the papers that she'd printed earlier. "I have to prove that somebody else did it. That's why I needed your computer tonight. I have the evidence in these printouts, Viv, but I haven't figured it out yet," she pleaded. "I'm so sorry that I lied to you, but I'm not lying now."
Spencer led Viv to the kitchen table, where she explained in the simplest way possible how she came to be hiding out with Ruth, and what she needed to do to exonerate herself. She showed her bruised ribs and the scar on her arm as proof of the chase.
"These people are dangerous, but they aren't as smart as they think they are. I need some time, Viv, but I'm going to bring them to justice. Please trust me. I promise that I'm not the person they say I am."
Over the years, Viv had gotten pretty good at sizing people up. You had to do that when you rented to strangers. There was nothing about Spencer Rollins that remotely suggested that she was capable of something like this. "I believe you," she said simply.
Ruth watched the exchange, feeling guilty now about her own lies to the obviously compassionate woman. She wanted to come clean about her own secrets, but her situation wasn't like Spencer's. Regardless of how she justified it, there was no misunderstanding or conspiracy about what she had done: She had kidnapped her child.
Clutching her doll, Jessie shuffled sleepily down the hallway toward her mother's room. Yesterday, Spencer had gotten her breakfast while her mommy slept, but today, Spencer was still asleep on the couch.
"Mommy?" she called softly.
"Hey, sweetie. Come on in." Ruth lifted the blanket and Jessie crawled onto the bed, snuggling against her mother's warmth. "How did you sleep?"
"I'm sorry I got home so late last night, honey. But I won."
"I certainly did. And I'm going to buy us a big fat turkey for Thanksgiving, and we're going to eat a big dinner at Viv's house. Won't that be fun?"
Jessie smiled in agreement. "Will Spencer be there too?"
"Maybe, if she wants to. You like Spencer, don't you?"
The little girl nodded. "She's funny?"
"Oh yeah? What does she do that's funny?"
"She tickles me, and she makes you laugh."
"Yes, she does. I think she's funny too. You think we should go wake her up?"
"Uh-huh. And she has big feet."
"Yeah, come see."
Holding her daughter's hand, Ruth walked into the hall, at once covering her mouth to suppress the laugh. Indeed, Spencer Rollins had big feet, so big in fact that they hung over the end of the couch, blocking the path to the living room. Tiptoeing back into her room, the conspirators laid their plans.
Each armed with a cotton swab, they crept back down the hall, stooping low to take turns trailing the swabs softly across the instep of the bare feet. Mother and daughter worked hard to contain their giggles as the toes curled, the feet twitched, and the legs jumped.
"Someone is going to be very sorry," a deep voice threatened from around the corner.
Jessie squealed and ran into her room. Ruth followed and huddled with her daughter on the bed, bracing for the inevitable onslaught. And Spencer made good on her word, suddenly appearing in their doorway, her face etched in mock fury. After five full minutes of frenzied tickling, the woman with the big feet returned to the living room, avenged and now wide awake.
"My granddaughter's been kidnapped, and I want to know what you're going to do about it!" Roland Drummond, Sr. bellowed. He was furious at the ineptitude of the local police, but that paled next to his opinion of the social worker who had persuaded the judge to allow unsupervised visitation. Ruth Ferguson didn't care about that child; she was obviously bitter about the divorce, and only wanted to hurt and embarrass his son.
"I assure you, we're doing everything we can, Roland," the sheriff pledged. "I've contacted the FBI, and they're sending an agent over this afternoon to go over all the details. Once they put their pictures out there, there won't be anyplace to hide. I promise you, we'll bring em back here."
"And when you do, I want that woman in jail! She ought never see the light of day again for this."
Skip hung back, perfectly content to watch his father take the lead in berating the investigators. Over the last few days, it occurred to him that the best possible outcome from all this would be that they never found either one of them. Sure, it would mean that his ex-wife would get undue satisfaction from thinking that she'd beaten him. But the real truth was, if they never found her, he wouldn't be saddled with a child to raise, but he would have the support and sympathy of the community instead. Having Ruth run off with Jessie was exactly the freedom Skip was looking for.
Off and on all day, Spencer studied the printouts, still not sure of the paper trail her partner had created. Why would he post two copies of the same document? The answer was that he wouldn't. Something was different in these two sets of twenty-six pages; she just had to find it.
In the meantime, she examined the program Henry had appended. It was amateurish at best, but still, James was incapable of writing it. Either he had subbed it out, or another person was involved in this conspiracy.
"You making any progress?" Ruth asked, returning with Jessie from a tour around town with Viv.
"A little, but not much," Spencer conceded. "I know the key is in here somewhere. I'm going to have to go through all this line by line."
"Can I help?"
"Karen? Spencer?" Viv was calling them from the back porch.
The blonde woman went to the door as Spencer rolled her eyes.
"Can you two help me with something?"
With Jessie in tow, both women walked over to the house, where their landlady promptly directed them to the burned out overhead light in the kitchen.
"It just popped when I turned it on," she explained.
Ruth and Spencer retrieved the ladder from the shed, the taller of the two climbing up to disassemble the dirty fixture. That started Viv on a crusade to clean all the fixtures, and before they knew it, their afternoon was gone.
"She's a slave driver," Ruth moaned as she dropped onto the couch.
"Yeah, but I've got no complaints. I'll do whatever I can to help her, considering what she's doing for me." Spencer took the recliner and leaned forward. "And that goes double for you, Ruth."
The blonde woman managed a small smile. Spencer Rollins had literally forced her way into their lives, and something told Ruth already that she would stay there. Though she knew nearly nothing about this woman, she felt close to her; closer in fact than she had to anyone for a long time. A shared sense of urgency bonded them, sort of "us against the world."
"Stop calling me Ruth," she laughed.
"I'm sorry. You just don't look like a Karen." Spencer looked at the blonde woman intently. It was presumptuous, but she got the feeling that she knew Ruth Ferguson as well as anyone.
"You don't owe me anything, Spence. I've liked having you here. I know it wasn't like that at first, but now that I see what you're up against, I want to help."
"Thank you. And I meant what I said about trying to help you too."
"If you do, that'll be great. But even if you don't, you're going to get out of this mess, and when you do, I hope we'll still be friends."
"Me too," she said sincerely. "So you think you'll stay in Manassas?"
"It's as good a place as any, I guess. Where's your home?"
"I have an apartment in Fairfax, not far from here, actually. But I'm originally from North Carolina."
"How'd you end up here?"
"A job. Right after college, I took a job in McLean. That's where I first met Henry. That company went under, and we applied as a team to Margadon. Been there ever since."
"Is your family still in North Carolina?"
Spencer's eyes went far away with the simple question. "No," she answered quietly. "My parents died in a fire about four years ago."
"Oh, I'm so sorry. I shouldn't be asking so many questions." Ruth stood up and patted her new friend's shoulder. She felt awful for stirring up the memories. "I should check on Jessie."
As she looked in on her napping daughter, Ruth's stomach clenched with anxiety at the thought of something so horrific happening to those she loved. Now, she understood why Spencer had no place to go, no one to turn to but the friend she'd tried to call. And she knew too what a loss Spencer must feel for the friend who'd been murdered.
"You want some coffee or something?" she offered, returning to the kitchen, where the programmer was once again poring over her code.
"Yeah, that'd be nice." Spencer was amazed at how comfortable she felt with Ruth, so much so that she'd been ready to talk about losing her mom and dad, something she'd done with only Henry and Elena. Her two closest friends were the only reason she'd gotten through the tragedy.
"So what about your family? Where are they?"
"Oh, you don't want to hear about my family, I promise. My own father stood up at Jessie's custody hearing and told the judge he thought she'd be better off with Skip because I had always been difficult to control."
"Were you? Difficult, I mean. I know the part about Jessie is a crock."
"I wasn't difficult compared to most teenagers. But my parents had rules out of the Dark Ages, and the consequence of even bending those rules was more and more distance between us. It was like they didn't even want me to be their daughter anymore if I couldn't be perfect."
"So they were strict."
"They were way past strict. If they'd had their way, I'd still be in a chastity belt at twenty-five years old."
"Wow, how'd they feel when you got married? Were they okay with that?"
"Hardly," she scoffed. "See, I did the getting married-getting pregnant thing out of order."
"And that just added to what they already believed about you." Though her loss was tremendous, Spencer doubted that it was even half the void this woman had felt.
"I guess. All I know is I won't miss them. You can't miss what you never had."
Spencer put her papers down and went into the kitchen, where Ruth was gathering a stack of vegetables from the refrigerator. "Can I help with dinner tonight?"
"I'm just going to make some soup. You can...," she pulled a pound of hamburger from the meat tender, "brown this in that pan while I chop these. Or if you want, you can just stand there and keep me company."
The tall woman smiled, ripping open the package. "I think I can handle this without doing too much damage."
"So tell me about your friend, the one you tried to call the other day."
"You mean Elena? Gosh, what can I tell you about Elena that wouldn't send you running and screaming?" she joked. "I told you she was an IRS agent, right? Mostly she investigates ill-gotten gains. She looks for people who seem to have more money than they should."
"Like drug dealers?"
"Exactly. They're the easiest to find, because most of them don't have jobs. The tougher ones are money-launderers, white-collar criminals, government officials on the take. They all go to work every day, so they have to do something really stupid to get tripped up."
"It sounds like an interesting job."
"She likes it. She gets to carry a gun. She says it helps her pick up chicks." The last word she said tenuously, realizing too late where the conversation would go from there.
"She's a lesbian?" Her question was surprisingly matter-of-fact.
"Yeah. And so am I."
Ruth felt the words as much as she heard them, a shudder traveling through her body like a strong wind. It was as though in that instant Spencer Rollins had been fully revealed, and the result was utter fascination. Miraculously, she managed not to cut her thumb off.
"So you and Elena ?"
"No. We were, but that was a long time ago. We're just friends now. Well, not just' friends. We're good friends. Even without talking to Elena, I know that she knows this is all bullshit. And even without me telling her what to do, she's already trying like hell to find out why these guys are after me."
"She knows you that well?"
"Yeah, that well."
Ruth had calmed the butterflies, though she had no idea where they'd come from. It didn't make sense that Spencer's disclosure would have unnerved her like that.
"So what happened with you two? How come you're not still ?"
Ruth nodded. A soft tremor rippled through her again.
"Basically, she dumped me."
"Dumped you? Why would she dump you?"
"That's what I said!" Spencer said haughtily, and they both laughed. More seriously, she explained, "Elena's just a really unique person, and she's a great friend to have. But she's one of those people who has to be in control of everything all the time. And she knows she can't control other people, so she keeps them at arm's length. I think I may have scared her, though, you know, threatened her independence. I know she loved me, but she couldn't go forward, and I couldn't stay put."
"I don't really understand why people want to be alone. Of course, I might understand it better now, though, since I've got all this baggage. I know I don't ever want to take a chance on losing my child again."
"I don't think Elena really wants to be alone. I think she's just afraid that she'll hurt somebody who loves her, and she doesn't want to risk it."
"What about you, Spencer? What do you want?"
The dark-haired woman sighed. "I want to find love someday. I want to find somebody who makes me want to stay and stay."
Ruth smiled in understanding. Whoever won Spencer Rollins' heart would know love, she was sure. This woman was definitely a "giver" and, Ruth believed, a person who was capable of fierce loyalty. Those were things that she wanted from a partner, and things she was willing to give. And just where the hell did that thought come from?
Ruth and Jessie were long asleep, while Spencer waded through the pages, line by line. She found what she was looking for on page fourteen of the second copy. It was a single line, and it simply redirected the process to a different global file. So every Friday, Spencer or Henry would run their global, unaware of the switch. It was pretty fucking clever.
Henry followed the redirect to a new global, which called an unfamiliar macro as it processed the Kryfex data. The new macro stood out like a sore thumb because it was written in a totally different style. Coding style was unique, like handwriting. Programmers like Spencer and Henry relied heavily on loops and macros to minimize not only the processing time for the computer, but also the keystrokes used in the commands. It was a favorite game for both of them to see who could write a particular program using the fewest lines of code. Invariably, the final product would be a combination of their best efforts.
Other programmers were more rigid, repetitive in their detailed logic so that each routine was clearly delineated on the page. Such programs typically took longer to run, and were, to Spencer, a royal pain in the ass to patch, because each routine had to be addressed individually. It was an example of the latter style that leapt out from the stack of papers she held. Neither she nor Henry would have written a command in such longhand.
So there it was, the evidence that had gotten Henry killed. Someone at Margadon most likely someone contracted by James had toyed with the original global module, redirecting the process to a new global, one they didn't even know existed. This second global file was a carbon copy of their own, but an additional routine was included to inflate the number of cytokine units by twenty-five percent. Another macro contained a few lines of code that reduced the order for the Kryfex cytokines, but the cost was unaffected. And in the final program, one she didn't recognize at all, the additional payment was then redirected off the books, presumably into a third-party account. The accountants and auditors would never know because the net profits were unaffected. And from what Spencer knew about cost per unit for the cytokines, someone was pocketing about sixty thousand a week.
In the notebook Ruth had brought her, she began to put the pieces together.
Ruth awoke in the night, surprised to see the light still streaming under the door. It was almost 3 a.m. Getting up to check it out, she found Spencer slumped forward at the kitchen counter, her papers scattered and the notebook marked in red.
Gently, she shook the broad shoulders. "Hey, you need to go to bed."
Spencer lifted her head and looked around. She couldn't have been asleep more than a minute or two. "I have to clean this up."
"I'll do it. Go on back to the bedroom."
"No, I'll get the"
"Go on. It's okay," she quietly insisted, gathering the papers and moving the coffee cup to the sink.
Spencer complied, and within minutes, she was sound asleep. She never even noticed when Ruth got back in bed beside her.
Roses are red, violets are blue. Think Ruth & Spencer will buy a clue? Part 4
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