Ruth caught a glimpse of the lettering over the main glass doors as the car slowed: Federal Bureau of Investigation. The black sedan turned and started down a ramp to the underground garage. The short ride had been quiet; so quiet in fact that she still didn't know if this was about Spencer Rollins, Ruth Ferguson, or Karen Oliver.
"I don't have the evidence with me," she offered.
Neither man responded as the driver pulled into a marked space near the elevator. When they stopped, he got out and opened her door, uttering his first words.
"Step out of the car and place your hands behind your back."
Continuing to shake, she stood and slowly turned around. Too slowly, it seemed, as the driver pushed her shoulder hard to bring her hands together for the cuffs. Next he patted her down, removing her car keys and the small wad of bills she'd stuffed into her back pocket. Roughly, he seized her elbow and thrust her toward the elevator.
When they reached the fifth floor, they escorted her more casually down a hallway of offices to a small interior room an interrogation room from the looks of it. Six chairs sat at a rectangular table underneath an array of fluorescent lighting. The agent who identified himself as Pollard pulled out a chair and indicated that she should sit.
Ruth did so and leaned back uncomfortably on her arms, her hands still bound by the metal cuffs.
"Are these really necessary?" she asked.
Again, they ignored her, stepping back into the hallway and closing the door.
Fine! Her mind had been spinning all the way over about how she was going to play her part. These assholes had just helped her decide. She wasn't going to tell them jack shit about anything. Thankfully, she'd had the foresight to leave her wallet in the glove compartment of the Taurus. If this wasn't about Karen Oliver, they'd never find Jessie. For that matter, they wouldn't find Spencer either.
The driver, the surly one, came back in and took a seat opposite her across the table. "Why don't we start with your name?"
"I have nothing to say to you."
"Then it's going to be a very long night, because I'm not leaving here until I've had my questions answered," he stated firmly.
This time, Ruth didn't reply.
"So let me ask again. What is your name?"
"Hearing problem?" she mumbled.
Akers' jaw flinched in anger. He needed this woman to tip her hand, and that wouldn't happen if she didn't talk at all. "Very well, then I'll start. I'm Special Agent Calvin Akers of the FBI. Special Agent Pollard and I are conducting an investigation in conjunction with Elena Diaz, an agent with the IRS. You spoke with her from a payphone in Reston on Friday afternoon, claiming to have information on one George Roscone. On Saturday morning, you met with Agent Diaz on the mall and passed her a blue folder, purportedly containing evidence regarding Mr. Roscone's accounts. You called Agent Diaz again this morning from a payphone in Fairfax and you were on your way to a second meeting at the Lincoln Memorial when we intercepted you. That is what we already know. What we are missing is who you are and why we should believe that you have knowledge of a bank account belonging to Mr. Roscone."
"I was promised a reward," Ruth answered, sticking with her original story. This was almost certainly about Spencer, or they wouldn't have known about her calls.
"And there is a reward. Your reward is that you will be allowed to leave once you have given us the information we seek."
The blonde woman fell silent again. The clock on the wall said 11:45; Spencer would be expecting her. In a couple more hours, the programmer would get worried and take action; Elena Diaz and her team would find her and end this.
"Of course, if it's money that interests you, I do happen to have a case I'm working on that involves a $25,000 reward." He pulled from his pocket a photo of Spencer Rollins and pushed it across the table, looking carefully for her reaction. "Do you know this woman?"
Ruth looked at the photo as if for the first time and shook her head. "No."
"Have you seen this picture before?"
"Do you ever watch the news or read the newspapers?"
"Surely, you've seen the news at least once or twice in the last week, haven't you?"
"Not that I remember." Ruth needed to stop answering his questions. He seemed to be having too much fun, as though she were playing into his hand somehow.
"Have you heard about the recent murders at Margadon, the pharmaceutical company in Bethesda? One of the victims was an Albino." That was the sort of information that people would have remembered. "His picture was in the paper too. Did you happen to see that? He looked just like somebody had powdered his face, you know what I mean?"
This man was despicable, Ruth thought. "No," she repeated furiously.
That had gotten a nice rise, he thought. One would almost think she'd known Henry Estes to evoke that sort of angry response.
"'Course, he wasn't white like that when we found him. He was sort of purple, what with that little hitch knot around his neck." He watched with satisfaction as the woman's face reddened.
"Did you happen to know Henry Estes?" he asked. "I mean, you look a little like you're getting pretty upset at hearing about all this."
"I'm not used to hearing people talk so callously about the dead," she answered coldly.
Akers chuckled. "I guess we do get a little desensitized to these sorts of things after a while. But then there's the other end of that spectrum, where we learn to be very sensitive to things. Over the years, I've developed quite a sense of smell, especially for rats. And that's what I'm smelling here: a rat. See, I'm not buying this story about Roscone. I think you're perpetrating a hoax on the good people of the IRS, and I'm prepared to hold you here until I learn otherwise. Am I clear on that?"
"Now that you're finally accusing me of something, I suppose this would be a good time for me to ask for an attorney." Ruth knew there was no way in hell that her wish would be granted, but she needed a little more leverage against this son of a bitch.
"I'll be happy to summon an attorney for you. Who shall I say is calling?"
"I'm requesting a public defender."
"You're getting nothing until I get a name."
"Then you can consider these my last words to you," she sneered, "Calvin."
Spencer looked at the clock again, miserable to see that only three minutes had passed. Ruth was late very late. The shopping center at Fairfax was only thirty minutes away, forty-five in heavy traffic, but it wasn't rush hour. She'd been gone over three and a half hours.
Even if Elena had called her into the city, she would have known that the others would be worried and she'd have found a way to call Viv or something. And if she wasn't in Elena's hands, she was in unspeakable danger.
"Jessie?" Spencer tiptoed into the bedroom to wake the napping child. "Sweetie, we need to go over to Viv's. I need to go out. Can you finish your nap there?" As she talked, she gathered the sleepy child in her arms, picking up the Lisa doll and the soft pink blanket the little girl used for her naps.
Stumbling onto the porch, the pair were met by Viv, who held the door and directed them to the guest room. Jessie settled down quickly and went right back to sleep.
"Viv, I need to borrow your car. Ruth should be back by now. I have to go see about her. I may have to make a call to my friend."
"Won't they be listening? Maybe I should go."
"No, it doesn't matter. If those bastards have picked up Ruth, I don't care what happens to me. I need my friend to get her out before they find out about Jessie."
"Be careful," the older woman advised, handing over her keys. "And don't do anything foolish."
In twenty minutes, Spencer was sitting at the shopping center. There was no trace of Ruth's car, which at least meant that she hadn't been picked up while she was on the phone. But if she wasn't here, where would she have gone? Ruth didn't know DC well enough to find her way around. She knew the Wal-Mart, she knew the shopping center in Reston where she'd called from last Friday, and she knew the Franconia-Springfield stop on the Metro. And if she'd gone to the city, her car would be there.
The programmer wheeled the vehicle back onto I-66, hopping onto the Beltway and heading south for the Franconia exit. As she approached the parking garage, she was reminded of Viv's admonition not to do anything foolish. Driving into a place where it was possible the agents were waiting certainly fell into that category. If they'd figured out who Ruth was, they'd use her as bait. Spencer needed to be smarter than that, for both their sakes.
Turning off Franconia Road, she stopped in a small strip mall, where a payphone was mounted under the awning near an ATM machine. This needed to be fast, and she needed to be able to get the hell out of there in a hurry. Thankfully, they wouldn't recognize the Jeep.
Nervously she dialed Elena's cell phone and waited.
"Are you sure she didn't just get cold feet?"
"I thought about that, Chad. But when I got back here, I found out that Pollard wasn't in the van," Elena explained.
Her boss raised his eyebrows in question.
"I walked over there and knocked on the goddamned door!"
"And you're assuming the reason he's not there is because he went to intercept our informant?"
"Chad, Pollard is always in the van. Except when he's sitting in his car watching my house. If he's not there, it's because he's doing something more important. And he just happens to do it when our informant goes missing? You know how I hate coincidences."
"I wish I had a little more." They had agreed when they got their case together, they would involve the senior FBI field agent who supervised Akers and Pollard, Chad's equivalent for the Bureau. Chad was certain his counterpart would help if their evidence was solid, but the first instinct of any agency would be to circle the wagons.
"If we could"
The cell phone in her pocket interrupted her thought.
"It's a payphone in Franconia," she said. "This is Special Agent"
"Where is she?"
Spencer! "I don't know. She was supposed to meet me and she never showed." Elena was pacing the room, waving her arms excitedly to let them know who was on the phone.
"They've got her, Elena. You have to get her out of there."
""I'm working on it. You need to come in. You'll be safe here."
"I can't!" She had to protect Jessie and Viv. They knew enough to get killed for their part in this. "Not yet. I'll call you when I'm ready."
Abruptly, she hung up the phone and raced for the Jeep. She needed to get the hell out of there before the police arrived. She had no way of knowing that the technician who had monitored her call was left without such instructions.
Ruth had been left alone in the room for almost two hours when the two agents finally reappeared.
"We have great news for you Miss Ferguson." Akers delighted in the look of shock on the blonde woman's face. "That's right. It seems one of the interns in the hallway recognized you from your picture on our recent update and he thought to offer his congratulations for making your arrest."
Ruth glared at the two of them defiantly. There were no conditions under which she'd reveal where her daughter was. Even if they sent her back to Maine and locked her up forever, Jessie was going to be free.
"So maybe we should take a step back and re-evaluate your situation. You've got a little girl you'd like to keep. You've also got some information I'd like to have. Sound like an even trade to you?"
"I'm not telling you where my daughter is. I don't care what you do with me."
"Let's forget about your daughter for a moment. Hell, just for the sake of argument, let's assume that I don't give a rat's ass about where your daughter is. What I want to know is what you know about Spencer Rollins and George Roscone." If she really knew about Roscone, chances were that she wasn't involved in the Rollins case at all.
"Nothing! I don't know shit about Roscone. It was a scam for the reward."
"How did you know about it?" Was this finally the truth coming out? If it was, it wasn't what they were looking for after all.
"I looked it up in the paper. I sat for three days, going through back issues until I found the right story."
The agents looked at her skeptically, but appeared to be listening.
"Look, I worked in a bank when I lived in Maine. I heard a story about somebody pulling a scam like this for the reward money. I thought I could pull it off if I strung her along. I need money!"
For what felt like an hour, the agents traded questioning looks until Akers finally slapped his knees and stood.
"Take her upstairs and lock her up. And call the boys in Maine to come take out their trash."
Thomas Fennimore stepped off the Ratheon Beech turboprop onto the tarmac at Augusta Airport, his bulging briefcase in one hand, a garment bag in the other. He didn't expect to be here very long, and didn't care if he didn't sleep tonight. This was going to be great fun.
The connecting flight from Boston had been delayed a bit, but not enough to crimp his plans. The auditors would meet him at five o'clock at the appliance store a half hour before closing where he would present a federal warrant to review the books. If they found what they were looking for, they'd need one more warrant, and Elena was on standby in DC to secure it.
Following the line of passengers into the small terminal, Thomas unknowingly passed his quarry. Roland Drummond, Sr. and his son Skip were ticketed for the next flight to Washington National, where they would confront Ruth Ferguson and bring their little girl back home where she belonged.
Spencer stormed through the back door of the house, this time without bothering to knock.
The landlady rushed to the back porch for the news. The four-year-old was watching television in the den, already anxious about her mother.
"They've got her. The feds picked her up about three hours ago."
"Oh, no!" At once, the older woman realized the gravity of the situation. Ruth wasn't coming back, and it was time to honor the promise she'd made just yesterday. "We have to hide Jessie."
"That's right. It won't be for long, Viv. My friend will get her out before anything happens. But you two have to get out of here before they find us. Is there someplace you can go till this blows over?"
"We can go to Jerry's. He's from the church."
"Can we trust Jerry?"
"Of course. We've known each other for years. And he has a barn where we can hide the car."
"Great! How soon can you be ready?"
"Ten minutes," she answered, pitching the contents of her laundry basket.
"I'll put Jessie's things in the car. Hurry!"
When she'd loaded a few clothes and all of Ruth's valuables, Spencer ran back onto the back porch, nearly falling over a laundry basket full of puppies and a bewildered Maggie and Thor.
"Come on, you two. Let's go for a ride." She picked up the basket and slid it into the Jeep's cargo area. The older dogs followed, immediately nosing the puppies to make sure everything was alright.
Viv and Jessie appeared at the back door, the latter holding her pink blanket. Spencer helped the little one into the back seat and clipped her seat belt. Viv stowed the dog food and a few of her own things.
"She's in the city, meeting some people."
"When is she going to come home?"
"I'm not sure, honey."
"Where are we going?"
"We're going to stay with a friend of Viv's for a little while."
"Because," she hesitated, "some people are coming over and we don't want to see them."
"Are we hiding from Daddy?" This she understood.
"Yes, Jessie. We have to hide, but it's going to be okay," Spencer assured.
"How will Mommy know where to find us?"
"I'm going to tell her where we are."
"Are you going to see her?"
"No, but I'm going to tell my friend to go see her. And my friend will bring her to us." Spencer hoped like hell that she was telling the truth.
"I want to go see her too." The four-year-old could tell that Spencer and Viv were worried, and that made her worried too. "I want to be with her."
"You can't right now, sweetie. You have to stay with us," Viv soothed, sensing how confused the child must be.
"No!" she shouted, and started to cry.
"Jessie? Listen to me, okay?" Spencer said softly. "Your mommy will come as soon as she can. She wants you to stay with us, not to come where she is." The driver strained to make eye contact in the rear view mirror. "Please, honey? It'll be okay."
"Will you stay with me?"
"I'll stay until we get everything settled at ," she looked quickly to the landlady.
" until we get settled at Jerry's. Then I need to go tell my friend where we are so your Mommy can find us. While I'm gone, will you help Viv look after the puppies?"
The child's blubbering stopped as she stretched to look behind her at the dogs. "Okay," she finally answered.
"Thank you. I really appreciate you being such a big girl, Jessie."
"Well, look at it this way," Pollard said chuckling. "Diaz still looks like a fool."
"At least that's something," Akers agreed.
The two agents had stopped for a leisurely lunch after the excitement of their morning. Their boss would be pleased that they'd nailed a fugitive, even if it wasn't the one they were looking for. A collar like that would keep the pressure off them on the Rollins case. The Bureau hated to spend resources and get nothing in return.
"Why don't you drop me back at the van so I can check in with the techies? I'll grab a taxi later to pick up my car."
Akers pulled over at the curb on Constitution Avenue. "I'm going to head home and get some sleep. I'll relieve you over at the house about nine."
Pollard slammed the door and strode to the van.
"Anything happening here?" he asked casually.
"Didn't you get my call?"
"I left you a voice message about two hours ago. Rollins called in and wanted to know where the woman was. Diaz told her she never showed"
Fuck! Pollard stormed back out of the van to see Akers disappear into the distance. The Ferguson bitch was working with Rollins all along, and they'd just turned her over on a kidnapping warrant. Angrily, he pulled the phone from his pocket, the window indeed announcing a voice message. He placed the call to Akers, dreading the tirade he knew would come.
"Cal! The Ferguson woman she's working with Rollins."
"What the hell? How do you know?"
"Rollins called Diaz about two hours ago to find out where she was."
"Why didn't that stupid fuck call and let us know?"
"He says he did, but the idiot must have dialed the wrong number or something." Pollard wasn't about to admit that he'd forgotten to check his messages.
"Stay where you are in case she calls again. I'm going to go get some answers from this bitch if I have to break her arms," he growled.
"Hey, Elena, birthday cake in the break room," her fellow agent announced, jerking her head toward Chad's office.
For the last two days, Elena had fought the urge just to yank the bug off the bottom of her desk and crush it with her boot; but they'd all agreed that it was better to work around it than to worry about it showing up somewhere else. Chad's office was swept several times a day and deemed secure, so all of their business with the Spencer Rollins case was conducted there.
"What is it?"
"We got the dirt on Stacy Eagleton," Lori Pruitt proclaimed with a grin. "She had a little trouble about eight years ago when she worked for Southern Health Supply in Atlanta. They started an investigation into some inventory problems, but they dropped it when she resigned."
"What kind of inventory problems?"
"Short shipments, it would appear, a lot like what's happening at Margadon. But at Southern, she was pulling the cash out of her own budget instead of spending it on her vendors. Southern let it go quietly because they didn't want to call attention to the shipments that went out under spec."
"Akers and Pollard must have found out about it and confronted her. So she set up another scheme and cut them in on it," Elena concluded. "Is that what you're thinking, Chad?"
Her boss nodded with satisfaction. "Makes sense to me. How are we going to prove it?"
"Why don't we pull her phone records and see if she has any calls to these agents?"
"That's a start. Have we heard from Rollins again?"
"No. But I did confirm that the FBI has Ruth Ferguson in custody and that's she's awaiting extradition back to Maine. Apparently, they haven't made the connection between her and Spencer, so we're good there. But ."
"But what?" Chad asked, knowing already what Diaz would request.
Elena looked sheepishly at the other agents in the room, prompting her boss to dismiss them so they could discuss this alone.
"We're moving on that case as well. Agent Fennimore is arriving in Madison, Maine right about now to start going over the books at Drummond Appliances. If we have any leverage for keeping Ruth Ferguson here in DC, I'd like to call that in."
"We're no match for a federal kidnapping warrant, Elena."
"Chad, this woman risked her freedom to help with this case. I'm not asking for a pardon here. I'm just asking that we hold her here until Fennimore completes his work."
"We can't use the IRS to strong arm people into giving up their kids. You know that," he scolded.
"But there's something wrong with this case. This mother should never have lost her kid in the first place, and Thomas thinks maybe the judge was bought. That makes it our jurisdiction and our obligation to investigate."
"What kind of evidence are we looking at?"
"Drummond Appliances was her ex-husband's company and it had a huge write-off right about the time the case went to court. It wasn't carried over to the next quarter like their other bad debts; and it wasn't handed to their collection agency. It was like they just gave something away."
"That's all you've got?"
"For Christ's sake, Chad! Just give him twenty-four hours to look into it. You know how I"
"I know, I know. You hate coincidences."
Ruth leaned back against the concrete wall counting her blessings. Jessie would be safe. Spencer and Viv would see to that, and nothing else on earth mattered. In a few days, Elena would find a way to end the Margadon case, and Spencer would be safe.
But by that time, it would be too late for anyone to help her. An agent had stopped by to explain that they'd received her extradition papers and she was to be sent under escort of a US Marshall to jail in Maine with or without revealing her daughter's whereabouts. They had already begun the search.
But they wouldn't find her, she told herself again. They were probably already gone from the trailer, and Jessie would be taken to a safe place. She was sure of it.
Startled from her ruminations by a creak of the door, Ruth looked up to see a very angry Calvin Akers. With his red face and the prominent veins on his neck and forehead, the man looked like he was about to have a stroke.
"Why, hello again, Calvin," she said sarcastically. "Did you miss me?"
"Miss Ferguson, I've just been apprised of your involvement in another federal case, and I think it would be a good idea for us to discuss some options that might be available to you." Akers was so angry that he wanted just to grab her throat and squeeze, but the only way they were going catch Rollins was to cut a deal or at least to appear as though they were cutting a deal. If Ruth Ferguson knew the details of the Rollins case and it was apparent that she did her fate was a foregone conclusion. He just had to figure out how it would happen.
"Don't waste your time. I'd rather rot in jail, thank you."
"Would you?" he sneered. "You know we're going to find your little girl eventually, Miss Ferguson. What's going to happen when she starts school next year and the kid next to her has her picture on his milk carton? Or when we send out the flyers to the schools? You think she's going to stay hidden forever?" Ferguson's face showed both her anger and her fear. This was good. "Let me answer that. No, we're going to find her. And when we do, she goes back to that awful place you didn't want her to be, that place that was so bad, you risked everything just to get her away. And you're going to be in jail, unable to do a damn thing about it."
"Except you're not going to find her," she argued, her voice more hopeful than certain.
"Let me give you another scenario to think about. You and Jessie Drummond get a nice house somewhere in a small Midwestern town. You get a new job that pays good money, enough so that you and your daughter can have nice things. You both get new names and the trail for Ruth Ferguson and Jessie Drummond goes ice cold. Agents get pulled off the case and reassigned. You never have to worry again. How does all that sound?"
Those were just about the same plans Ruth had made for herself. She didn't need this dickhead's help for that. Except that she was in jail and Jessie was hiding out there with Spencer and Viv.
"And all you have to do is tell me where I can find Spencer Rollins." His offer was simple and a bald-faced lie. But she was their best chance, their only real chance.
"Go to hell."
"I really appreciate this, Jerry, especially on such short notice and all."
"I know you wouldn't be asking if it wasn't important. Besides, it's about time I got the chance to start paying you back for all you've done for me over the years." Jerry was an electrician, a widower in his late fifties. He kept a few horses on his land, including a couple that he boarded for the extra money he could earn.
"You don't owe me a thing and you know it. We settled that a long time ago," Viv said firmly, squeezing the big man's shoulder. Jerry fell on hard times a few years ago when doctors diagnosed a ruptured disc that required surgery. With no medical insurance, he had no way to pay; and he couldn't work because his back hurt too much. Viv heard about his troubles through the church, and showed up at his house one day with a check.
Nobody in Manassas had any idea that Viv Walters was worth so much, and she wasn't about to tell. At one time, she'd owned all the land that bordered the few acres that now held only her small house and the trailer. She'd sold it back when Sheila and Robby were little, her late husband's farms and rental properties too much to manage. For over twenty years, the profits had sat in CDs at several banks around town, rolling over every couple of years while she drew the interest to live on.
Jerry had enough room for everybody at his big farmhouse, and just as Viv said, the Jeep was out of sight in the barn. Jessie was playing with the puppies; Viv was fixing dinner for everyone; and Spencer was pacing on the front porch, trying to figure out what she would do next.
As long as she was free, the FBI would keep putting the pressure on Ruth. They had probably offered her freedom freedom to take Jessie and run but there was no way they would ever let her go. She knew too much. If Spencer turned herself in, Ruth would lose her only value.
"Spencer?" Viv came onto the porch. "We have a problem."
"What is it?"
The landlady sighed. "Lisa."
"Goddamn it! How could we forget Lisa?" Spencer walked inside to find a sobbing Jessie.
"She's all by herself," she wailed.
"I know. But she'll be alright, Jessie. She's been by herself before."
"Not this Lisa," she argued, hiccupping amidst her tears.
Spencer sighed. Lisa wasn't just a doll to Jessie. She was an anchor, a constant; and Jessie needed to have her to be okay.
Thomas Fennimore and the auditors found exactly what they looking for in only two hours, following the theory they'd developed back in Washington. Skip Drummond was even stupider than Thomas had predicted.
Drummond and Ruth Ferguson had appeared in court in October of the previous year for their final divorce hearing. That was when permanent custody of Jessie Riane Drummond was awarded to her father.
It was also the month that Drummond Appliances wrote up a bill of sale for a state of the art home entertainment system worth over eight thousand dollars. The purchaser was a William Johnson, no address, no phone. But the best part at least if you were an IRS agent looking for wrongdoing was that there was no record of payment, either partial or otherwise. And the debt was written off as uncollectible two months later, with no record of billing.
It appeared that Skip Drummond had been too cheap to pay for his own bribe. That was greedy. But it was the stupid part that excited Thomas so much: The delivery logs for that day showed the entertainment system going to the home of Judge Malcolm Howard.
Thomas was ready for the second warrant.
"So Diaz is still in her office?" Akers had canceled his nap after learning that Rollins had surfaced.
"Yeah, but she hasn't gotten any more calls."
"I don't like it, Mike. They're up to something. Hold on, I need to take this other call." He placed his partner on hold and punched the blinking line. "Akers."
"I found it," the intern said excitedly. "An old Ford, just like you said. It was in the garage at Franconia-Springfield."
"Was there anything in it?"
"Yeah, there was a wallet in the glove compartment with a driver's license for Karen Michelle Oliver, address 843 Old Richmond Road in Manassas."
"That's the jackpot, Andrew. Good work." Akers clicked back to the blinking light. "We have an address. I need you to find a way over to the office ASAP. We're going out to see Spencer Rollins."
The wall clock in the third floor conference room said eight o'clock, and the small group had already started to gather. Elena Diaz, three IRS special agents, and six members of the support staff took seats around the long table to await the arrival of their boss.
Elena checked the battery in her phone for the fourth time to be sure it was fully charged. Missing a call from Spencer at this stage of the game would be disastrous.
Chad Merke entered quietly with another gentleman, unknown to most of the staff, but not to Elena. This was the director of the FBI's District Field Office, Jeffrey Wilkinson. Like Chad, Jeff was in his early fifties, a few pounds slower than when he'd worked cases, but not a man to be taken lightly. He'd had a stellar career, and was well-respected by all of the local law enforcement agencies, including the IRS.
Chad made the introductions, and then turned the meeting over to Elena so that she could make her case.
Before she began, she disclosed her close friendship with Spencer Rollins. It was only fair that Wilkinson should have all the facts though their sex life was none of his business when he considered the evidence.
Step by step, she laid out their case, beginning with Stacy Eagleton and her history at Southern Health Supply. The first evidence against the two FBI agents was that they missed or more likely, overlooked the reasons for her resignation from that company.
From there, Elena described the evidence against the four Margadon employees: the doctored program that diverted funds from the federal contract into a hidden account; the extravagant purchases; and a record of personal contact during the FBI's background checks with agents Akers and Pollard.
Next, she produced tax returns for both agents, followed by a copy of the bill of sale for Pollard's vacation home and receipts for Akers' travel and expenses in gambling locations.
Finally, she showed a chart that outlined the significant events of the past ten days, from the murder of Henry Estes to the arrest the abduction, in fact of Ruth Ferguson.
"But Ruth Ferguson is wanted on federal kidnapping charges," Wilkinson point out. "Picking her up was under their jurisdiction."
"With all due respect, Agent Wilkinson, Akers and Pollard knew that Ms. Ferguson was en route to meet me when they picked up her. It's my contention that they did so to prevent further contact with our office and to gain access to Spencer Rollins."
A staffer from their offices upstairs entered the room and quietly dropped several pages onto Elena's chair. The agent walked over to examine the contents, smiling wryly and nodding. "And here's another piece of evidence I'd like you to consider. In the past ten days alone, Stacy Eagleton has made six calls to Agent Akers. That strikes me as unusual."
"It's not unusual to me, Agent Diaz. Agents Akers and Pollard have been assigned to investigate two murders of Margadon employees. It's perfectly understandable that they would maintain contact with company officials. As you know, the Bureau has a lot of resources dedicated to this case, including our surveillance of you in the event you are again approached. If Spencer Rollins is innocent, that can all be sorted out when she comes forward. This evidence, as you call it should be considered as part of a bigger picture."
Elena couldn't decide if the man was being sincere or obstinate. While he might offer an alternate explanation for the individual elements of her evidence, he surely couldn't dismiss the suspicious nature of all of it taken together. She was about to challenge his reasoning when Chad mercifully interrupted and saved her from sending the senior agent into a more defensive posture.
"Jeff, we're aware of how serious these allegations are, and we also understand that you'd rather have more ironclad proof of wrongdoing before acting against two of your own agents. What we'd like to ask of you is that you pull Akers and Pollard off this case while we continue our investigation and that you place Ruth Ferguson in protective custody right away. On our end, we're fairly certain they're involved, and we plan to proceed with this case against all the parties we've named as an official investigation of the Internal Revenue Service."
"Why does Ferguson need to be in protective custody?"
"We fear that she's in danger because she knows about these events."
"In danger from my agents?" That was ridiculous!
Merke merely nodded.
Wilkinson heard the plea for what it was, a desperate favor from fellow investigators who were genuinely convinced that two of his agents were involved in not only embezzlement, but murder. The financial data on his two agents was unsettling, but he needed to weigh it in light of the IRS agent's personal interest in the suspect. If he took action and they were wrong, it would cost him the support of his entire staff. On the other hand, if he ignored them and they were right, it would cost him his career.
With her recent practice, Spencer had gotten to be an old hand at moving through the woods in the dark. It was too big a risk just to drive back to the house so she'd gotten directions from Viv on how to get access from a neighboring road. If someone were there already, she'd just turn around and leave; otherwise, she would go on in the back door, get the doll, and go back through the woods.
The house was totally dark when it finally came into view. According to Jessie, Lisa was still "taking a nap" so that meant she was on the bed in the guest room. Foregoing the lights, Spencer walked purposefully through the house, banging her knee hard on a table she hadn't remembered. Finding Lisa was the only way to bring even a thread of comfort to the little four-year-old, whose whole world seemed to be unraveling all at once.
Her eyes adjusting to the darkness, she spotted the small figure on the bed and scooped it up, turning to go back out the way she came, this time more cognizant of the table. When she reached the kitchen, a ray of light swept through the whole house, like headlights moving down the drive.
Spencer froze as she picked up the sound of a car creeping along the freshly spread gravel. Her heart pounded as her brain tried to force her feet to move.
"You take the trailer. I'll get the house," a male voice ordered.
There were two of them and they were in the back where Ruth usually parked. Quickly, she ran to the front door, banging her knee on that goddamned table again. In the dark, she fingered the thumb bolt, and turned the knob. Viv seldom used this door, and the top corner stuck when she tried to open it. With a hard yank, it came free.
The storm door was locked and she worked her long fingers frantically in the dark to flip the latch. She could hear the back door squeak, and when she finally pushed the storm door open, it sent a stiff breeze through the whole house. Careful not to let it bang, she lost precious seconds waiting for the hydraulic closer to release its air.
Moments later, she was off the porch and headed for the woods on the side of the house. She would have to circle behind the trailer to get to where she'd left the Jeep. With any luck, they'd
"Mike!" It was the agent inside the house. The other one appeared in the doorway to the trailer. "Get the flashlight. I think somebody just went out the front door."
Oh, bloody hell! Spencer pushed along in the darkened woods, staying low to avoid the anticipated sweep of the flashlight. The recent rains had made the ground soggy, so at least she wasn't making a lot of noise rustling the leaves. Over her shoulder, she could see the men entering the woods where she had gone in. If they found her trail in the wet leaves, they would close quickly.
The woman was behind the trailer now, picking up speed. Only a hundred more yards through the woods and she'd come out where the Jeep was parked.
"Go get the car and see if there's another way around."
Fools! She'd won this game last time at Margadon, and she would win it again. On a dead run, Spencer cleared the woods and climbed into the Jeep, tossing the still sleeping Lisa into the back seat, where the rear window suddenly exploded in an ear-splitting blast. The vehicle lurched forward, fishtailing and spraying the air with gravel and mud. As she reached the main road, the long black sedan turned to block her escape.
"You can't be serious," she muttered, jerking the gearshift into four-wheel drive as she bounced across the culvert, catching the front of the car with the powerful SUV and pushing it to the ditch on the other side of the road.
Triumphant once again, she sped away, turning as soon as she could onto a secondary road that would take her back to Jerry's. She needed to get this Jeep stowed as soon as possible, and then it might be a good idea for all of them to move again.
The bespectacled agent in a rumpled suit stood on the doorstep of the yellow Cape Cod home, flanked on both sides by deputies from the Somerset County Sheriff's Office. The porch light suddenly came on, and the tall door swung open.
"Can I help you gentlemen with something?" Deputies often came to Judge Howard's home in the evening to get warrants signed, but they usually called first.
"Uh, we have a warrant, Judge Howard," one of them stammered.
"Very well. But you should have called first," he scolded, taking the document as he held the screen door open. "Come on in. I need to get my glasses."
The deputies and the IRS agent stepped inside, the latter following the sound of a sitcom that emanated from the den off the main hall.
"That appears to be what we're looking for, deputies," Fennimore said, standing in the doorway and pointing to the expansive entertainment system. "Would you verify the serial numbers for me?"
"I beg your pardon," the judge said indignantly. "Who are you, and who gave you the right to go wandering through my home?"
"My name is Thomas Fennimore. I'm a Special Agent with the Internal Revenue Service. That warrant you're holding was signed by a federal judge in Washington, DC, and it gives me the authority to search these premises for a JVC home entertainment system, delivered to this home by Drummond Appliances on October sixteenth of last year. According to their records, this system was never purchased and it was written off an as uncollectible debt. While you are certainly allowed to receive such a generous gift, Drummond Appliances is not allowed to deduct its value as a business loss, and is therefore in violation of the Federal Tax Code." Thomas observed with satisfaction the ghastly look on the judge's face and he dropped the other shoe. "I'll be returning for your statement once I've completed the other phases of my investigation. Of course, if you wished to be forthcoming about any unusual circumstances pertaining to how you came to acquire this gift, I would be most grateful to take that information and your cooperation under consideration as the Federal Government proceeds with this case. I assure you that all violations will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
"I'm really sorry about your car, Viv."
The gray-haired woman waved her hand flippantly. "It's just a car. Thank goodness you weren't hurt."
"Okay, the truck's packed, puppies and all," Jerry announced. He'd loaded up their things as soon as Spencer had gotten home. The whole group was headed out to stay with friends of his cousin. The underground network was coming to life tonight to help, all because Viv had helped Jerry out when he needed the surgery.
"Listen, Viv, when Jessie gets settled, I'm going to ask Jerry to borrow his truck so I can go find a phone. I need to call Elena again and see what's happened." Spencer hoisted the tired little girl into the front seat.
"You should take Jerry with you. He might be some help."
"I don't want to put him in danger, Viv. It's bad enough that I've put all of you at risk. And now Ruth's been caught ." The emotion overwhelmed her for a moment and her voice shook while her blue eyes filled with tears.
"Don't worry about us. We'll be okay. I promised Ruth I'd take care of this child and if it takes my last ounce of strength, that's what I'll do."
Spencer drew the older woman into a hug then helped her up into the truck beside Jessie and her doll. On the way to the next house, Spencer asked Jerry about borrowing his vehicle.
"You don't need to go find no phone. You can just use my cell phone."
"It's not that simple. They'll trace the call back to you and then you'll be part of all of this too."
"I'm already part of it. Besides, they ain't gonna trace my phone," he said cockily.
"What do you mean?"
"Mine don't broadcast," he said with a grin.
"How'd you manage that?"
"It's one of those old analog phones. I took it apart once to see how it worked and I had a couple of pieces left over when I put it back together. Ever since then, it don't flash a caller ID, and if we drive around out in the boondocks, they won't even be able to triangulate the signal."
Spencer was skeptical, but Jerry was an electrician, which made him the closest thing to an expert they had. But there was a hell of lot at stake here. "Are you sure?"
Cal Akers dumped another load of gravel from inside his folded jacket into the ditch beneath the rear wheel. If they could just get a little more traction, they could get back up onto the road.
"Okay, let's try again." They'd been at this for over an hour. As Pollard gently applied the gas, Akers bounced on the rear fender, pushing it into contact with the ground, throwing rocks and mud against his shins as he cursed. Finally, the sedan jolted forward, catching the lip of the ditch as it sent one final spray of mud in the face of the frazzled agent.
"Where to?" Pollard asked innocently.
"I need to change my clothes," he answered sarcastically. "Then we have to head back downtown. We need to do something about Ferguson before she talks."
"What did you have in mind?"
"I was thinking you might bring her back out to the trailer to identify some of her belongings. A desperate woman like that might escape."
Pollard didn't like that idea. It would reflect on his service record if she got away under his watch. But Akers was the senior agent, and he'd done the dirty work on Estes and Thayer.
Elena Diaz was dead on her feet. Since Saturday morning, she'd had only a few hours of sleep, most of that coming early Sunday. But things were finally coming together.
Twenty-three critical warrants sat on her desk, all signed by a federal judge and awaiting execution: the IRS would freeze all accounts for the individuals suspected of involvement; Margadon's Kryfex operations would come to a halt and the company's network would be disabled; suspects would be taken into custody; and Spencer, Ruth, and Ruth's daughter would be transferred to protective custody. Ideally, the operation would be initiated when Spencer turned herself in, as she was the one person who could pull the whole case together.
"Agent Diaz?" Chad stood in her doorway, his tie loosened and his coat thrown over his arm.
"You calling it a night?"
"Yeah, for both of us. Come on, I'll walk you down." Elena got up and walked into the hallway, away from the listening devices.
"I don't know, Chad. I have a feeling Spencer's going to call again. I think I should wait here."
"You need some sleep, Elena. There's nothing you can do from here that you can't do from home."
Elena nodded in resignation, returning to her office to gather her things. As she and her boss started down the stairs, the phone in her pocket rang.
Glancing at the display, she shook her head in confusion. "Elena Diaz."
"Did you get to her? Is she okay?"
Relief rushed through the agent's veins. It was Spencer.
"She's in custody. She's due to be extradited tomorrow morning." The agent hated delivering the bad news, but this wasn't the time for sugar coating. "But we're on it, and things look pretty good for her. We have to deal with you now," she said firmly, knowing that the sons of bitches in the van were tuning in.
"They know who she is, Elena. They know she's with me."
"I don't think so. They know she's"
"They know! They came to look for me."
Elena held up her hand to shush her boss, who was encouraging her to have Spencer come in.
"Okay, listen, we're not ready for this yet. I need for you to stay out of sight for at least another day. I tell you what, Spence here's what I want you to do: tomorrow, the pizza place, usual time. Do you understand?"
"That's right, Tuesday, same time as before."
"I've got it."
"Stay out of sight until then. And take care of yourself, okay?"
"Take care of Ruth."
"Don't worry about her. We're on it."
The call ended and Elena cracked her first smile in nine days. The boys in the van were scratching their heads about this one. She was a genius.
Elena looked at her watch. "We need to get rolling with the warrants, Chad. She's coming in in about two hours."
"What's the pizza place' all about?" Chad was totally out of the loop.
"It's kind of personal, Chad," she answered sheepishly. "But she's going to walk into an all-night grocery in Alexandria at one a.m. and we need to arrange for a black and white to bring her into custody and take her to their precinct."
"But you told her tomorrow."
"I said Tuesday, same time. She knows what I mean."
"So we're rolling?"
"That's right. It's time to get everyone in place."
"The pizza place," Spencer chuckled. "Good call."
"I've got good news and bad news, Jerry. The good news is that you get to get rid of me, and in a day or so, your life might be back to normal. The bad news is that I need you to drop me off in Alexandria at one o'clock in the morning."
"No problem." Jerry enjoyed the excitement, and if it helped Viv, he wanted to do it.
Spencer smiled to herself at her ex-lover's coded message. When their respective libidos ignited on their first date, she and the IRS agent skipped the restaurant and went right to Elena's townhouse. At one a.m., they emerged from their carnal explorations, starving, but with nothing in the house to eat. Spencer insisted that she was owed a dinner, so they picked up a frozen pizza at an all-night grocery nearby, later feeding it to one another in bed. To this day, it was always their recommendation when someone suggested going for pizza.
"Why don't we go back so I can tell Viv what we're doing? She's going to need a way to know when it's safe for her to go home."
"What the hell does that mean?" Calvin Akers was pissed as hell. They'd caught the conversation when Rollins called in, but Diaz was trying to give them the slip. "The pizza place, same time."
"I guess Rollins and Diaz had a favorite place they'd meet for pizza," Pollard offered.
"Ya think?" There were times Akers thought seriously about offing his stupid partner.
The surveillance team reported that Diaz and her boss had gone home for the night, but Akers didn't trust this woman as far as he could throw her. It was time to call out the troops.
"Look, I'm going to drop you at the office. Go ahead and take care of Ferguson and I'll handle Rollins."
"What's your plan?"
"Just do your part and don't worry about mine," Akers growled with irritation.
Akers pulled to the curb and watched Pollard go inside. On his cell phone, he dialed the memory code for Jeffrey Wilkinson. His best chance was to make this about ego.
The director had gone home after his meeting at the IRS, still unsure of what action he should take. But the more he thought about it, the more he concluded that Elena Diaz was too close to the suspect in this case to be objective. There might be something illegal going on at Margadon, but the idea that two of his agents were involved in crimes murders, no less was absurd.
"Hello, Jeff? Akers. Listen, something's moving with the Rollins case, but we can't tell what it is. She called in and Diaz gave her some sort of code for coming in. I don't trust her. Rollins is going to slip through our fingers if we don't go full force to bring her in. We're not just going to lose this collar; we're going to be the laughingstock of the Bureau if she pulls this off right under our noses."
Wilkinson grew incensed as he heard his agent's report. If Akers and Pollard were up to something, they wouldn't be playing it out in front of the whole force. Diaz and Merke had crossed a line with their little cat and mouse game, and it was time to remind them that the Bureau was the King of the Hill.
"Tell me what you need."
Jessie and Lisa were sleeping soundly in a room with twin beds, the other bed occupied by the nine-year-old girl who lived there. Spencer eased down to sit by Jessie, brushing the blonde curls from the little girl's face. She'd held up pretty well considering the excitement of the night and the separation from her mother. From what Ruth had said, the poor child was used to being with adults who treated her like she was a bother, so at least that wasn't the case here. They'd all been welcomed by these friends of Jerry's cousin.
Leaning down, she gently kissed the child's forehead. "Be safe, Jessie. Your mom loves you very much." Careful not to wake the girl, she stood and tiptoed out of the room to say her goodbyes to Viv.
"I think you should plan to wait at least three days before you call. And use Jerry's phone like I did. You can't let them know where you're staying." Spencer was outlining what Viv should do if she didn't return right away.
"Do you think I can go to a bank? I'm going to need some cash."
Spencer nodded. "Just be careful. If it hangs up, take off."
"Good luck to you." Viv pulled her into a motherly hug.
"And to you. Jessie couldn't be in better hands."
With that farewell, the programmer got into the truck and closed the door.
"So what's this about a pizza place?" Jerry asked.
Spencer gave him directions to the all-night grocery, anxious to have this part end. Once she was out of danger, she could at least get Ruth out of the hands of the agents who were tracking her. She'd be of no use to them any more. She had to hope that there was some way Elena could help her avoid what awaited her in Maine. Maybe if she were a witness in this case, that would get her special consideration.
"Is this alright?" Jerry had pulled into the store's parking lot. Only a handful of cars were parked out front at this hour.
"Yeah," she sighed, directing him to a dark corner of the lot. "Thanks for everything, Jerry."
"Glad I could help."
"You should get out of here. Okay?"
The man gave her a friendly salute, which she returned as he drove away. Her eyes nervously scanning the lot for the black sedan, Spencer walked toward the store. When the automatic door opened, she turned immediately to the produce aisle on the far right, anxious about finding a rear exit.
In the tilted mirrors that lined the back wall, she watched as two uniformed officers strode through the front door, one following her route, the other heading directly to the back of the store. Gradually, she inched toward the corner, where a swinging door led to the storage area and loading dock.
Studying her options, she watched as they drew closer. Both of them were in her line of sight, a barrel-chested African-American approaching from the produce aisle, a wiry Hispanic man from along the meat display in the back. The closer they came, the more her heart pounded in her chest.
"Spencer Rollins?" the Hispanic officer asked.
Almost imperceptibly, she nodded, her eyes wide with apprehension.
"I'm placing you under arrest for the murders of Henry Estes and James Thayer. You have the right to remain silent ."
His instructions droned on as he cuffed her hands in front of her and gave her a cursory pat-down. The store's few shoppers had congregated in the neighboring aisles to watch the arrest, seemingly dismayed at the ease with which the suspect was taken.
Spencer was escorted back through the store, out the front door, and into the back seat of a waiting cruiser. The African-American officer took the wheel and the Hispanic officer sat up front beside him, a metal screen separating them from their suspect.
The car pulled out of the lot and turned, parking almost immediately on a dark street. The din of the police radio was the only sound, and Spencer suddenly worried that she'd just made a big mistake. Shouldn't these two be taking her somewhere?
The Hispanic officer turned around and opened a sliding window. "Hold your hands up here; I'll unlock the cuffs."
Still fearful, Spencer raised her hands and watched as he removed the metal links.
"There's a vest under the seat. You should put it on."
"Agent Diaz's orders."
Spencer visibly relaxed at hearing her friend's name, slumping back against the seat. Elena had arranged the whole scenario. "What's next?"
"When you get that on, I'm going to call in that we have a suspect en route and she'll meet us at the station."
"This is kind of tight," she said, struggling to get the body armor pulled down over her sweatshirt."
"You should probably take off your shirt and wear it underneath. That's what we do," he explained. "Having it on the outside is kind of like wearing as sign that says shoot me in the head.'"
Spencer could have gone all night without hearing that. "Are you expecting any trouble?"
"No, this is just a precaution. What Agent Diaz wants, she gets." He and his partner faced forward while she pulled her shirt off and slipped into the vest.
"Yeah, she's kind of forceful, alright."
"We're glad to do it. Last year, she put a commendation in our file for some work we did for her. Most people don't take the time to do something like that, but it really meant a lot to both of us."
That sounded like Elena, Spencer thought, always looking to shore up the right allies. When she needed a cop, she wanted a good one.
"You all set?"
"Okay, I need for you to put the cuffs back on, but you don't have to make them too tight."
Spencer did as she was told, feeling more confident when they pulled away from the curb.
"This is unit 416. We have a suspect in custody and are en route to the precinct."
"Unit 416, can you clarify what suspect?"
"Female shoplifter; not identified."
Calvin Akers sat in the black sedan, its front and rear fender smashed and one headlight out. The condition of his car was the very least of his worries.
Caffeine would be his constant companion for the next twenty-four hours. He needed to stay awake and monitor the situation with Rollins. It was doubtful that a pizza place would be open all-night, but he couldn't take the chance. He'd already called all the shops in Alexandria, figuring that one near the agent's home was the best bet. Two of them were open until one a.m. That was fifteen minutes from now and he had the directions in his head.
With the portable unit in the console, Akers was privy to all of Diaz's telephone conversations, plus the bug Pollard had placed on her end table when they came the first time to question her about Rollins. He had almost nodded off when the phone rang loudly inside the house. Sitting up straight and shaking his head, he adjusted the volume to hear the exchange. But after four rings, the call went to voicemail.
"What the fuck?" The bitch wasn't even home.
Yanking out the earpiece, Akers started the car and dialed the dispatcher at the field office. "This is Special Agent Akers. I need all available units in Alexandria for Operation Top Dog. Suspect is presumed to be in the area."
"We have three units in the Alexandria vicinity."
"Send more," he said gruffly.
Field Office Director Jeffrey Wilkinson pulled into the underground garage, irritated beyond measure at the actions of the IRS, especially in light of his promise to take their concerns under consideration. Even if he had decided to do what they wanted, it wasn't going to happen now. They were not to be trusted.
Wilkinson had made the special trip back in tonight so he could have a look at the duty logs. He'd given the go-ahead for Akers to commandeer all available agents as needed calling it Operation Top Dog had been his idea but now, the director wanted to spearhead this operation himself. He would get great satisfaction out of taking custody of Rollins away from the IRS under a federal warrant.
As he approached his office on the fifth floor, Wilkinson was surprised to see Agent Mike Pollard turn the corner at the far end of the hall. Pollard was Akers' partner. Shouldn't he be out in the field?
His curiosity getting the better of him, Wilkinson walked on, stopping at the last office on the right. "Was that Agent Pollard that was just here?"
Agent Jill Burke practically leapt from her chair, startled at the sight of her boss. He almost never came to the offices during her shift. In fact, she'd only met him once in two years. "Uh, yes sir. He said he was ," what had he said? "Oh, he was picking up a prisoner and taking her to a scene."
Odd. "Did he say which prisoner?"
Wilkinson continued down the hallway, pushing the side door to enter the stairwell. The prisoners were housed one flight up on the top floor. As he reached the landing, he was met by Pollard, who was escorting a petite blonde woman wearing handcuffs. What the hell was going on?
The young man froze as he came face to face with his boss. "Yes, sir?"
"I was hoping to have a word with you, but I can see that you're busy."
"Yes, sir, this woman is being held on a kidnapping warrant. I'm escorting her to a trailer in Manassas where she's been living so that she can recover her personal items."
"At one o'clock in the morning?"
"Yes, sir. She's being returned to Maine first thing tomorrow."
Wilkinson nodded vaguely. "Agent Pollard, would you mind bringing your prisoner in here for a moment so I can get your input on a case?"
Pollard hesitated briefly, but with no way to avoid his boss's request, he complied. Wilkinson held the door while the agent pushed the woman through.
"Just go into that office right there and wait for me." He nodded toward an open door, then turned to poke his head into Jill Burke's office again. "Agent Burke? Can you step across the hall with me for a moment?"
The woman hurriedly stood and rounded the desk, astounded that the man even knew her name. Oh, it was on the nameplate on her desk.
"And bring your gun."
Burke's eyes grew wide as she processed the request. Her gun?
Wilkinson and Burke entered the office across the hall, the director immediately moving to position himself between Pollard and the prisoner. Removing his own gun from its shoulder holster, he took control of the situation.
"Agent Pollard, will you very carefully place your gun and your badge on the desk and step toward the window?"
"Agent Burke, would you collect this agent's gun?"
"Now, Agent Burke, I'd like for you to escort this prisoner back to her cell. When you reach the sixth floor, would you ask two of the guards to come at once to Room 523?"
Mike Pollard stared into the barrel of the director's gun. He was toast.
"Calling all units." That was the FBI frequency. "Operation Top Dog is suspended effective immediately. All agents are to stand down and return to regular assignment."
Like hell! If Top Dog was over, that could only mean that Wilkinson had pulled the plug. But Akers wasn't backing out now.
The stubborn agent had just intercepted the kind of transmission he'd been waiting for. Unit 416 of the Alexandria Police Department had picked up an unidentified female shoplifter and was en route to the station. A shoplifter at one a.m.? It had to be about Spencer Rollins.
Akers pulled past three cruisers at the curb at the Mill Road station, blocking a dumpster at the end of the row. Within seconds, a fourth black and white arrived and two uniformed officers escorted a tall woman with long dark hair into the jail.
Yes, indeed! That was Spencer Rollins.
His cell phone chirped, announcing a call from Jeffrey Wilkinson. He had ignored the earlier order to stand down; this call likely meant that his boss was taking Diaz's word against his. If he could just take care of Rollins, there would be no evidence against him, no matter what they thought they knew. He let it ring, tossing it onto the passenger seat as he climbed out of the car.
Through the front window of the building, Akers could see Rollins being escorted out of the receiving area, presumably to a holding cell. He entered and approached the officer at the desk, flashing his badge as he introduced himself.
"I'm Special Agent Calvin Akers of the FBI. There's a federal warrant for the person your officers just delivered, a Spencer Rollins. I'm here to take custody of the prisoner."
"I'm sorry, Agent ."
"Agent Akers. The suspect who was just delivered was not identified as Spencer Rollins."
"Look Officer Ellis. I don't know who that woman said she was, but I assure you, she's Spencer Rollins and she's wanted for two murders in Maryland. She also has knowledge of the whereabouts of a four-year-old girl who is missing tonight and is probably alone and in grave danger. Now you can sit on your hands and fret about who she claimed to be, or you can let me question her at once. If you choose right, we might just save that little girl's life tonight."
"You'll be safe here. Agent Diaz said she'd come as soon as she got the call."
"Thank you. Thank you both." Spencer rubbed her freed wrists and watched her saviors disappear down the hall to the office area where they would file their report.
For the first time in ten days, Spencer allowed herself to think that this ordeal might be over. As soon as she was free, she would take on Ruth's fight, wherever it was. Shed spend her last dime making sure they hired the best lawyer in Maine to get the kidnapping charges dropped and the custody issue settled once and for all.
And maybe when they got things taken care of in Maine, Ruth would want to come back down to Virginia and really start over, free and clear. Spencer had tried not to think about it too much, but she really wanted Ruth in her life and in her arms.
God, was that just last night that they'd made love?
Spencer looked up to see the officer from the front desk unlocking her cell. Elena must have arrived, she thought with relief.
"Step this way, ma'am." He held the door open as she stepped into the narrow hallway and waited for him to swipe a card that would open the exterior door. "First door on your left."
Spencer did as she was told, confused at seeing a table and four empty chairs. The door closed behind her and she whirled, finally spotting the figure in the corner of the room.
"Good evening, Ms. Rollins."
Recognition was instant as she stared into the cold face of Henry's murderer.
"Help! Officer! Help! He's a murderer." Frantically, she crossed the room to the other side of the table to put distance between herself and the menacing agent.
"Even if they could hear you which they can't I can't imagine they'd be surprised at your calls for help. I'm the FBI, Ms. Rollins. They all know how much trouble you're in now."
In a fluid move, the surprisingly nimble agent vaulted the table, his arm straight as he aimed his service revolver directly at her chest. "You shouldn't have gone for my gun like that."
The next two seconds seemed to pass in slow motion. In terror for her life, Spencer lunged forward, both hands reaching out to push the gun away. The sudden blast reverberated off the concrete walls as a hammer hit her chest and a fire erupted in her belly.
In the next heartbeat, Elena and Chad stormed through the door, the latter's weapon already drawn. On their heels were the duty officer and the two patrolmen who had brought her in.
"Spencer!" The female agent rushed to the crumpled figure.
"She went for my gun," Akers declared. "I had to shoot her."
Elena rolled the woman over to check her wound.
"Bullet-proof, my ass," Spencer hissed, the pain in her gut greater than any she'd ever known.
Elena lifted the sweatshirt and saw the perforation. Even the highest grade of body armor couldn't handle a bullet from point blank range. She lifted the vest to see blood dribbling freely from a wound just above the pelvis.
"Get an ambulance!"
The desk officer returned quickly to his station and placed the call. Never lowering his own gun Merke ordered the two patrolmen to take Akers into custody.
"No fucking way." Calvin Akers placed the barrel of his gun against his temple and pulled the trigger.
The clunky sound of plastic dishes stirred the unfortunate occupants of the sixth floor of the FBI field office. Ruth pushed herself up on the rigid cot and swung her bare feet to the cold tile floor, angry at herself for being hungry enough to eat. To her thinking, if she refused to participate in this incarceration, she would be spared the memory when she was finally freed. It was bad enough that they'd dressed her in this orange jumpsuit.
How frightened Jessie must have been at spending the night away from her. At least Spencer was there with her, and the bond she'd seen growing between those two was her only real source of comfort. Between Spencer and Viv, Jessie would be protected from her mother's probable fate, a return to the dismal place from which she'd fled.
Sitting now in the stark environs of the eight by six concrete room, Ruth couldn't help but turn her thoughts inward; though introspection at this juncture was moot. Going out on a limb to see Spencer to safety was not an action she would second guess, unless it meant that Jessie's new life had been compromised. She hoped that her efforts weren't in vain, and that Elena was still working on bringing Spencer in. From the looks of things, there hadn't been anything the agent could do for Ruth Ferguson.
Two pairs of footsteps one decidedly female grew louder as they approached her cell, and before she ever saw the face, Ruth knew one would be the IRS agent. A tired-looking Elena Diaz waited while the guard opened the door and motioned her out.
"Good morning, Ruth." She held up her hand to silence the question on the prisoner's lips. "We're going to go to a conference room so we can talk privately about where everything stands."
Ruth nodded once and followed her down the hallway, the guard bringing up the rear. Once they were situated, he closed the door and took his leave.
"Is Jessie okay?"
"I honestly don't know the answer to that." Elena saw the frantic look and continued quickly. "We don't know where your daughter is, but I think it's safe to assume that Spencer left her in good hands."
"Spencer left her?"
"We brought Spencer in last night. She we had some trouble at the station with one of the FBI agents Akers and she was shot."
"Oh, my god!"
"Don't worry, she's okay." The agent stretched out her hand to pat the arm of the woman across from her. It was clear that Ruth Ferguson had come to care for her friend, and from what Elena could gather from Spencer's insistence that she come here first thing this morning, the feeling was mutual. "She was wearing a vest and the bullet struck her chest plate and ricocheted to her lower abdomen. She had surgery last night, but she's going to be fine."
Ruth couldn't stop the tears that came as the horror of Spencer's close call overwhelmed her. "Is it over?"
In simple terms, Elena explained what had happened last night. The evidence in the case was frozen; and the suspects were taken into custody. All would be arraigned this morning, including Pollard, who now occupied a cell in the opposite corner of the sixth floor from her own. Akers had died instantly of his wound.
"So what happens now?" the blonde woman asked.
"You mean with the case?"
"No, with me."
Elena sighed and leaned back, forcing herself to look the woman in the eye. "A US Marshal is slated to take you back to Maine this morning. I can't stop that, Ruth. I wish I could."
The prisoner dropped her head, her lower lip quivering in frustration and worry. "And Jessie?"
"Things with Jessie are really complicated, but we have a few options to play with here. And I do have some good news for you."
Ruth looked up to see a glint of encouragement in the agent's brown eyes.
"My assistant, Special Agent Thomas Fennimore, has been up in Madison going over the books at Drummond Appliances. He found an interesting transaction a rather expensive gift to a Judge Malcolm Howard right about the time of your divorce and custody hearing. We're pretty sure it was a bribe, and I think we'll be able to force the facts out one way or another."
"A bribe!" Suddenly, it all made sense. No wonder the judge had simply accepted Skip's word. It was all arranged.
"That's right. And the real fun is going to start in about half an hour. That's when your ex-husband and his father are due downstairs to meet with the agent in charge."
"Why would they come here? I mean, I'm supposed to be sent back today, right?"
"Right, but they came to collect Jessie. At least, that's what I heard they were ranting about yesterday. But when they show up today, they're both going to be arrested, and I get to do the honors," the agent grinned slyly.
Ruth would love to see that. But it wouldn't answer the question about her daughter's fate. "So you said there were options with Jessie?"
"I did, and this is where you're going to have to make a tough choice, Ruth. Custody issues really aren't my area of expertise, but I know that you're going to be asked to produce your little girl to the court to show that she's okay. Until otherwise decided, she's supposed to be with her father. My guess is that the Drummonds will post bail, and she'll probably be sent back there."
Ruth was already shaking her head at that scenario. No way was Jessie going back to that. She'd promised.
"Another option is that you leave her where she is. If you do that, your chances of being released any time soon aren't very good; and the odds of you ever being given permanent custody are probably nil. But if you think she's safe where she is and that it isn't worth the risk to give her up, just don't tell anyone where she is."
"But then I might not ever see her again."
"You have to decide if keeping her out of your ex-husband's hands is worth that."
Ruth needed to reach deep inside to answer that question. Winning custody for the sake of winning was Skip's game. "He beats her, hard enough to leave bruises. She's terrified of being there, and no one no one at all loves her but me."
"Maybe that's your answer then," Elena said calmly.
"To keep her hidden?" The tears poured again as Ruth weighed the ramifications of that choice.
"I was actually thinking that you needed to fight for her. If you're really the only one who loves her, it seems like she needs for you to do that," she explained. "And the bribery thing might work in your favor."
"I think at the very least, there will be a new hearing with a different judge. I have to be honest, though. The kidnapping charge is going to work against you. But we can probably leverage what we have on Drummond Appliances to get some concessions from your ex. I like to see people like that do time, but we'll bend to get the best outcome for your daughter."
"No, really, Elena. I appreciate all that you're doing here. I know that Jessie and I really aren't your concern."
The IRS agent chuckled. "That's where you're wrong. Spencer Rollins is my concern, and what you did for her makes you my concern too."
As Ruth had noticed in the park, Elena Diaz softened at the mention of her ex-lover's name, and her brown eyes sparkled.
"You really love Spencer, don't you?" the blonde woman asked, even as she dreaded the answer.
"She told you?"
"I love her more than I realized. I can't believe I well, at least we get another chance."
Ruth drew a shallow breath as she fought the mounting pressure in her chest, an inevitable despair sinking deep into the pit of her stomach. She opened her mouth to speak, but the words wouldn't come. Pushing back from the table, she stood.
"I suppose I should get my head ready to deal with all of this. Can you find out from Spencer where Jessie is?"
"And, uh tell Spencer I said thanks for everything, and good luck."
Spencer turned the old Chevy Cavalier onto the dirt road, stopping to collect her mail from the row of boxes. A half mile ahead, the road ended at what used to be the Rollins property, a sprawling acre with an expansive view of Jordan Lake.
Spencer had swapped the coveted vista where her parents' house had once stood for a wooded half acre on a cove with a three-bedroom cabin. She'd hired out the renovations to one of her neighbors, a contractor who remodeled the kitchen and baths, updated all the wiring, and added insulation for year-round comfort. The finishing touches were a dock for the boat she didn't yet own, and a gazebo for the parties she would probably never have.
But the cabin was now home. In February, she finished her first six weeks of training in Albany, Georgia; after which she started her new job as a criminal investigator with the IRS, applying her skills to the hunt for business fraud. That had been Chad's idea, and one that her best friend had enthusiastically supported. The disappointment at least for Elena had been Spencer's request to be stationed permanently at the field office in Raleigh.
She needed a new start, and here she had it. Special Agent Spencer Rollins had a new career, a new home, and a new Kawasaki. And if she ever decided that she wanted to try picking up chicks again well, now she had a gun, too.
The dark-haired woman grinned as she turned into her dirt driveway, immediately recognizing Elena Diaz's Acura sedan. Her friend had been noncommittal about the invitation to spend the weekend at the lake, so she was a little surprised, but pleasantly so. They'd gone through a rough patch right after the shooting, when Spencer realized that her ex-lover had had an epiphany of sorts about their relationship. But the magic was gone for Spencer or rather, it was elsewhere.
"You made it!" The programmer entered through the sliding glass door on the side to find her taller friend coming in from the screened in back porch. In three quick steps, they were hugging fiercely.
"It's good to see you," Elena said.
"You too! How long can you stay?" Spencer had offered to take a couple of days off if Elena wanted to stay past the weekend.
"I'm actually not staying," her visitor squeaked.
"What? What do you mean you're not staying? What, are you here for work or something?"
"No, I just came down to talk to you about something important."
Spencer lost her smile. "Are you okay? Is everything alright?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Nothing's wrong."
"Then what?" Spencer followed Elena to the leather sofa and sat close, imploring her friend to explain this before her heart jumped out of her chest.
"I figured out something recently and I wanted to come share my revelation."
Spencer was intrigued, but she was going to throttle this woman if she didn't start talking faster. "What?"
"See, when things chilled with us, I kind of figured you were still under a lot of stress about being shot, and having to hide, and and then I considered the fact that you might have been yanking my chain all along and when I called your bluff you freaked out."
"That wasn't the case at all, Elena."
"Yeah, I know that. But what I just figured out is that you were hung up on somebody else."
That her words lingered there unchallenged was all the confirmation she needed.
"Why didn't you tell me, Spencer?"
The programmer squirmed uncomfortably, unable to meet her friend's brown eyes. "It didn't matter. It wasn't she didn't feel the same way. How did you know?"
"Ruth Ferguson called me on Monday."
Ruth Ferguson. Just hearing the name caused Spencer's spirits to drop. She hadn't even seen Ruth in the five months since their ordeal, the latter pulling away almost immediately. Their two or three phone conversations were friendly, but formal; and Ruth discouraged her from coming to Maine. There were lots of reasons she would do that, Spencer had told herself. Maybe Ruth was disappointed in her after her assurance that Elena would help. Instead, she'd been sent back to Maine in handcuffs. Or maybe she didn't want to compromise her chances for custody of Jessie by starting a relationship with a woman. Or maybe she just didn't feel the same way Spencer did. Whatever the reason, it was out of Spencer's hands.
"So is she doing okay?"
"I think she's better now than she was. She said she and Jessie weren't fitting in back in Madison, so they packed up and came back down. She's staying for the time being in that trailer out in Manassas."
Spencer hoped that things were finally working out for Ruth. The young mother had spent almost a month in jail back in Maine before the kidnapping charges were dropped. Bit by bit, the prosecutors worked behind the scenes to see that the wrongs were righted, and that the best interests of the four-year-old child were served. The Drummonds avoided jail, but paid a heavy fine for their tax error. In the end, Skip relinquished all claim to Jessie Riane Drummond, forever closing that unfortunate chapter of his life.
Spencer knew every detail thanks to Thomas Fennimore, whom she called every week until the case was resolved. She'd bypassed Elena, thinking it best not to hurt her further by raising suspicions about her feelings for Ruth, since it looked like nothing was to come of it anyway.
"When she called, she asked how we were doing, you and I."
"Why would she ask that?"
"Well, it seems she looked you up in the book said you'd told her once that she should do that and your number had been disconnected. So I guess she assumed that you were living with me."
"Don't stop me now! I'm getting to the good part."
Spencer threw herself against the couch back in frustration. She thought she heard someone laughing outside but when she strained her ears to listen, it stopped.
"You remember that morning in the hospital after you'd been shot? How you insisted I leave you and go see Ruth?"
"Well, I did. And we talked about her options with her daughter, and what our office would try to do to help, just like I said I would. Somewhere in the middle of that conversation, I told her that I loved you, and that I wanted another chance to show you how much." Even after being turned away almost six months ago, Elena's voice still held a bit of optimism, as if her friend need only say the word.
"Oh, Elena," she whispered, the tears ready to fall again at the heartache she'd caused her dearest friend.
"But what I didn't know was that the two of you were whatever the word is ."
"Elena, it wasn't something either of us really had a handle on. We didn't I don't think she really ."
Out back, a dog began to bark and a child's voice got louder. "Go get it, Willy!"
Elena held out her hand to lead her friend to the back porch, Spencer hoping against hope that she'd see what she wanted to see. There by the back door were two large duffle bags, a plastic knap sack, and a Lisa doll.
"I think she did."
"I'll be damned!" Spencer whispered.
"Anyway, I brought you a couple of visitors. I don't think she's got two dimes to rub together. I told her I'd be back to pick her up in a week or two, or whenever you called."
"And if I don't call?"
Elena chuckled. "If you don't call, then I'll figure it out." Yeah, this had been a good idea. "I'm going to head out of here now and give you guys some space. Is that okay?" She was still holding the other woman's hand and she gave it another squeeze.
"You don't have to go, you know."
"Yeah, I do. I've gotten on with my life, Ms. Rollins. I'll have you know I have a date tomorrow to do the Museum of Natural History."
"With who?" Spencer didn't believe her for a minute.
"Her name's Jill Burke. She's FBI."
"You like her?"
"Well you tell her she better treat you right or I'm going to have to come up there and kick her ass."
"Will do." Elena gave her old friend a strong hug and took her leave out the sliding glass door, knowing that the part about getting on with her life needed to be true.
Spencer walked out on the porch to watch the laughing child play fetch with a chocolate Labrador.
Ruth tapped her toe on the gazebo's wooden floor, rocking the swing in a steady rhythm. She'd heard the car pull up and knew Spencer was inside. Elena would talk to her about them staying for a little while; that was the plan.
She and Jessie had arrived back in Virginia a week ago, the old Taurus wagon heaving its last breath the next day. Out of money and out of luck, Ruth finally got up the nerve to call Spencer, thinking she might ask to borrow a little cash for a down payment on a used car. She hoped to get a job soon, maybe in a bank. Thomas Fennimore had gotten her record expunged and she had seven years experience and good references. That should count for something, she hoped.
She was genuinely surprised to learn that Spencer and Elena hadn't gotten back together after all. And when the agent told her about Spencer's career change and the move back to her home state, it was like a stab in the heart to think she would probably never see the woman again.
Disheartened at all the changes, and nearly defeated by her own lack of resources, Ruth resigned herself to push ahead. She and Jessie would get through this. She would go to work soon; they would somehow get another car; they would find a nice place to live; they would make friends. She was going to make her life in Manassas, Virginia.
And then Elena came by the next day to say that she was driving down to see Spencer on Friday and thought they should come along. Ruth declined at first, feeling now like she'd treated Spencer badly, pushing her away when she'd gone back to Maine.
"That doesn't matter."
"But I don't want to show up and have her think it's just because"
"It doesn't matter, Ruth. None of that matters to Spencer. She'll be happy to see you. Whatever happens between you two is going to depend on what you do now, not what either of you did before. Spencer would want you to come."
Ruth sure hoped Elena was right.
"Spencer!" Jessie saw her first and made a beeline to the tall woman, the excited puppy nipping at her heels.
Spencer caught her on the run and swung her high in the air. "I missed you!"
Ruth got up slowly from the swing, marveling at how lovely and relaxed the tall woman appeared here at her home. She walked over to join them, smiling nervously, secretly wishing for a similar reception.
Spencer balanced the child on her hip and held out an arm to bring the mother into the circle, hugging her tightly very tightly. "I missed you, too," she said, her voice filled with emotion.
Ruth basked in the warm reception, very nearly crying when she felt the taller woman's lip press hard to her temple. This was a whole lot more than she'd hoped for, a whole lot more than she thought she deserved.
When Ruth's arms went around her waist, Spencer felt like they were halfway home.
The vibrant Labrador impatiently clawed at their legs, jealous and excited to meet the newcomer.
"And this is Willy?"
"He's big!" Jessie boasted.
"He sure is. And so are you."
Like they'd never missed a beat, Spencer took Ruth's hand and wove their fingers together, turning the mother and daughter toward the cabin. "I hear you've gone back to the trailer."
"Yeah, we just we didn't belong in Madison anymore."
"She's great. But she's got the house up for sale."
"Yeah, she and Jerry got married in March and they've decided to live in his big old farmhouse."
"Viv and Jerry?"
"Can you believe it? She said they really got to know each other last year while we were disrupting everybody's lives."
"It's interesting how tough times can bring people together, people who might not have found each other at all had it not been for ."
"You mean like us?"
"Yeah, like us," Spencer agreed, squeezing the fingers. "It's nice to know that Viv and Jerry thought it was enough to build on."
Ruth wouldn't let herself read too much into that, but her heart wanted to cling to the hope that Spencer thought they too might have enough to build on. Even in these few minutes since they'd been reunited, all the feelings had rushed back full force and she found herself unable to resist the pull.
Spencer stopped and turned toward the blonde woman, this time tugging Jessie close. "I know you guys just got here, but I'd really like it if you'd think about making this place home. There are lots of good jobs, the schools are great it's a beautiful area."
"Can we?" Jessie already liked it, especially the lake. "I mean may we?"
That got a laugh from both women, though Ruth blushed at her daughter's forward request.
Did Spencer mean this place, as in North Carolina, or this place, as in this place? "We'll see, honey."
Spencer tossed an eyebrow, no more satisfied with that answer than Jessie had been.
"I think that we might stay a while and see if we like it." She needed to add the next part so they'd both know that there were no expectations. "But I don't want us to wear out our welcome."
"You can stay here as long as you need to, Ruth. Take your time to sort things out, to see what you want." To see what we want.
Jessie had had enough of this grownup talk. Willy wanted to play with the ball some more.
"And what about what you want?" Ruth asked seriously.
Spencer pulled her into an embrace and looked her right in the eye. "I just want to feel the way I did the last time I held you like this."
And then their lips met in a sweet kiss, one that reignited their past and gave them both hope for their future.
Thanks very much for reading. As always, I'd love to know what you thought: things that worked; things that didn't.
Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org, and the next time you stop in at one of those wonderful sites that hosts the stories you like, let the webmasters know how much they're appreciated. Thanks again.
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