Disclaimer: See Part 1
Part 20 (Conclusion)
Lauren Darkwolf absentmindedly ran her fingers through her hair. When Maureen had called that morning, she had just finished showering and never got around braiding her long hair like she usually did. Maureen liked it when it was loose like that, but to Lauren it wasn't very practical. Her gaze traveled to the road, willing her partner and Casey Planters to appear. They were close, she knew that, but she would only stop worrying when Maureen was safely within arm's reach. The fact that two different cars had been involved in following her and Casey made Lauren think there was power and organization behind the people monitoring their moves, which validated Eva's claim a senator in D.C was involved. It was the main reason for Lauren's concern. Powerful people had an enormous reach and were very tough adversaries. They would have to be careful in planning their next steps. A soft voice behind Lauren startled her out of her musings.
“Are you okay?”
Lauren turned and sent Sigrid a smile. “I will be when Maureen's back here.”
Sigrid nodded. “I totally understand that. They should be here soon, though.”
“I know. I guess I'd better start some coffee, knowing Maureen , that's the first thing she'll ask for.”
“What is it with law enforcement people and coffee?” Sigrid's tone was light and Lauren appreciated the attempt to distract her.
“It's what keeps us awake at all the odd hours we have to work,” she answered. She walked toward the kitchen and started assembling the items she needed. “But it's not just us. I have a friend who is a nurse and one who is a physician and trust me; they're more addicted to the stuff than I'll ever be.”
Sigrid laughed and leaned against the breakfast bar that divided the kitchen from the dining area. “You're right. As an EMT I deal a lot with Emergency Room physicians and nurses and they always have fresh coffee available.”
“As they should,” Lauren sent Sigrid a wink. “I'd like them to be awake and alert when I need their services.”
“No kidding.” The smile on Sigrid's face faded.
“Bad memory?” she guessed.
“I just remembered shooting Donny.” Sigrid sighed and Lauren saw her eyes cloud over. “I know I didn't have much of a choice and thank goodness I hit his shoulder and not some more vital area.” She looked up at Lauren. “I feel bad about it.”
Lauren nodded. “I understand that. You did save Eva's life, though.”
“I know, and I would do it again if I had to,” Sigrid said. “But it doesn't feel very heroic to shoot someone, even in those circumstances.” She bit her bottom lip and cast down her gaze. “I hate guns.”
Lauren slowly nodded. “I do, too,” she said. “That might sound strange, coming from a person in my line of work, but I always try to keep in mind that the reason I carry a gun is to protect others and myself, and because it often brings me on equal footing with the bad guys I try to put away.” She paused for a moment. “It's a necessary evil.”
“That it is. I'm very happy Eva will start teaching soon and won't be in the field anymore.”
Lauren smiled. “And what will you do?”
“I don't know yet.” Sigrid blew away a strand of hair that threatened to fall in her eyes. “I feel I need some time to think about what I want. But first I want this case solved, the arrest warrant gone, and at least a weekend of uninterrupted sleep.”
“Sounds good to me.” Eva's voice sounded.
Sigrid half-turned and sent her a warm smile. “How was your shower?”
“Very nice, thank you,” Eva said. “Is that a pot of fresh coffee in the making, Darkwolf?”
Lauren turned to Sigrid and chuckled. “See?”
“See what?” Eva took a seat at the breakfast bar and her gaze traveled from Lauren to Sigrid and back again. “Are the two of you speaking in code?”
“We were just discussing what coffee addicts law enforcement officers and healthcare workers are,” Sigrid said with a grin. “You just proved us right.”
“Anything to make you happy.” Eva reached out and tucked a wayward blonde curl behind Sigrid's ear. “How are you feeling?”
“We've got to bring this case to a close so you can sleep a whole weekend,” Eva gently teased.
“Let's get on that,” Lauren said. She pointed to the window. “Here's Maureen with her charge.”
“What are we going to do now?” Twitch stared at her friends who were sitting across from her at their favorite table at Chez Me. They were having a late lunch and were discussing the events of the last couple of days.
“I don't know,” Meg answered. “I don't see what else we can do but wait. I pretty much feel our roles are over.”
“Amen to that.” Betty let out a sigh. “I've had enough adventure for the time being.”
“Does that mean if Sigrid needs us, you'll refuse to help?” Twitch asked. She pointed her fork at Betty and glanced at her over the rim of her glasses that always seemed to end up at the tip of her nose.
“Of course not!” Betty's indignant voice carried across the small restaurant making the waitress look up with an inquisitive gaze. Immediately, Betty lowered her voice. “Of course not. If Sigrid would need us I'd be ready and willing to help. It's just that…well, I think there's nothing we can do right now. I agree with Meg, we should just wait.”
“And we can be there for Morgan and Ellen, at least until they return to Portland ,” Meg added.
“She's such a sweet girl,” Twitch said. “She asked me to give Sigrid and Eva a letter from her, in case she wouldn't see them again.” She rooted through her purse. “Where are they? I swear, the bigger my purse, the more crap I…here they are.” Twitch pulled out two envelopes and put them on the table.
“What's that?” Betty asked.
Twitched looked at her like she had lost her mind. “What do you mean? They're letters, can't you tell?”
“Yes, Twitch, I can see that, thank you.” Betty chuckled. “What is this ?” She pointed at a small plastic square that had fallen on the table when the envelopes were taken out of the purse.
Twitch frowned and picked up the small item. The look on her face was a mixture of curiosity and guilt.
“Twitch?” Meg asked, leaning forward. “You look like you are caught with your hand in the cookie jar.”
“I forgot about this thing, whatever it is,” she said. “It's been in my purse all this time.”
“What is it?” Meg asked.
Betty reached across the table and picked up the small, transparent plastic box.
“It looks like a petrified stamp to me,” Twitch mumbled. “It must be Japanese or something, because it says ‘San Disk' on it.”
Betty stared at the tiny blue item in the box. With a frown she looked up at Twitch. “If you don't know what it is, where did you get it?”
“Do you know what it is?” Twitch asked.
“It's a memory card,” Betty answered. “My grandson uses these in his digital camera. Where'd you get it, Twitch?”
Twitch pushed her glasses back on the bridge of her nose and cast down her gaze. “I found it in church.”
“Oh, well maybe it belongs to one of the kids,” Meg said. “You should give it to Sigrid.” She paused. “I wonder if Sigrid will be back as our—.” She was interrupted by Betty.
“Um, well, that's the…, well, after I found it I put it in my pocket, because I wanted to give it to Sigrid, but then all hell broke loose.”
“Holy crap.” Meg let out an explosive breath. Her eyes were wide when she looked at Twitch. “Grace Sophia Anderson, did you find that thing on the day of the murder?”
When Twitch slowly nodded, both she and Betty groaned.
“Before you say anything else, I completely forgot about it, alright,” Twitch said. She looked from Meg to Betty and back again. Her eyes seemed bigger than usual behind the thick glasses that, once again, had slid to the tip of her nose. “Do you think they'll put me in jail for withholding evidence?”
Meg snorted. “They should.”
“We don't know if it's evidence,” Betty said. She closed her fingers around the small box. “We should find out, though.”
“How? It's not like we can contact Sigrid, or the Inspector,” Twitch said.
“No, but we could try to get a hold of Charles Benoit,” Meg said.
Eva Clemente looked at the slender woman who was sitting on the couch with her laptop in front of her on the coffee table. Casey Planters looked tired. Dark circles underneath her eyes were testimony to the fact she had missed out on a lot of sleep recently. Mentally, Eva snorted; hadn't they all? In spite of Casey's obvious fatigue, there was a keen intellect in her eyes and her mouth was set in determination. To Eva, it was easy to see the characteristics that made Casey Planters such an excellent investigative reporter.
Eva's gaze traveled to Sigrid and she suppressed a chuckle when she noticed the intensity with which she studied Casey. Her blue eyes held a pensive look and Eva was certain Sigrid's mind was going full speed. She was sure Sigrid had many questions to ask, but she showed remarkable restraint.
As if Casey could feel Sigrid's gaze, she looked up, but to her credit, she barely flinched under the scrutiny.
“I'm ready to take questions,” Casey said with a small smile.
Before anyone else could utter a word, Sigrid moved to the edge of her seat and unconsciously leaned forward. “I'd like to hear the entire story,” she said. “But right now, the most pressing question I have has to do with the restroom at Kennebunk. That was you, wasn't it?”
Casey bit her bottom lip and slowly nodded. “Yes, that was me.” She took a deep breath and her gaze leveled at Sigrid. “It was pure coincidence I ran into you and Eva that day.”
“I'd never met you before, but you recognized me,” Sigrid said. Her voice was laced with curiosity. When Casey nodded she leaned back into her chair. “How?”
“I had seen your picture in a file.” Casey raked her fingers through her hair and for the first time she seemed a little flustered. “I'd like to start at the beginning, if that's okay?”
Sigrid nodded. “Sure, I'm sorry if I—.”
“No, don't be. It was a valid question.” Casey sent Sigrid a small smile. “About a year-and-a-half ago I was doing an article about lobbying and bribery on Capitol Hill. I spent a good two months going back and forth between Boston and Washington and during that time I interviewed a lot of people, from janitors to senators.” She paused a moment and took a sip of the coffee that Lauren had handed her. “I met a senator, Arthur Chandler, who was very helpful. He was able to give me a lot of good information and even supplied me with some names and examples that, ultimately, helped expose a huge corruption scandal within the Department of Agriculture.”
“I remember that,” Maureen said. “Potato-gate.”
Casey let out a soft chuckle and nodded. “That's the one, yes. After the story broke, this senator and I kept in touch and eventually I became romantically involved with him. It was a pretty clandestine affair, since he's married.” Casey shook her head and stared at the mug she was holding. “That's probably the most unethical, low-life thing I've ever done,” she whispered. She took a deep breath before continuing. “From the very beginning, he assured me he was in the process of divorcing his wife, but since they're both high-profile people, it was a slow, quiet process.” Casey let out a humorless laugh. “I believed him, which really doesn't say much about my instincts and intellect at that moment. Every now and then I asked him about the progress of his divorce and he always had a plausible answer.”
“One day, a few months ago, I was staying at his apartment in Rockville when, all of a sudden his wife arrived. He whisked me away in his office and told me to stay there while he dealt with his wife. He told me she'd probably had some divorce papers to sign, which I found odd. Anyway, I sat in his office, trying to figure out what was going on. I already had a suspicious feeling about his divorce, but I didn't have any substantial information. While he and his wife were talking, I noticed a vacation itinerary on his desk. I couldn't suppress my curiosity and peeked at it.” Casey took a deep breath and shook her head. “It was trip for him, and his wife, to Bangkok , Thailand .”
Immediately, Eva stiffened. “ Bangkok ?”
Casey nodded. “Yes. Back then I thought he and his wife were going on a romantic getaway, but now I think differently. Anyway, his vacation plans showed me he and his wife were most likely not at all going through a divorce, which validated my gut-feeling. I was hurt and angry, so I threw the piece of paper back on his desk, but knocked over a stack of folders. I picked them up to put them back, when a few pages slid out.” Casey paused and looked at Sigrid. “One of the pages had a picture of you on it; the others contained names, addresses, and numbers. There were also a few copies of invoices and bank accounts. When I saw his name on a Swiss account, my investigative senses finally woke up and I became suspicious. I used my phone to scan in as much of the file as I could.” Casey patted her laptop. “It's all in here. At first, I didn't know what I was looking at, so I decided ,very carefully, to poke around a little and see what I could find out. One of the local newspapers published the story about the body found in the church and printed a picture of you,” Casey said, looking at Sigrid. “I recognized you and immediately felt something was going on, something bigger than I had expected. I talked it over with my editor and he told me to start some serious investigation. When I ran into you in the restroom at Kennebunk, I was blown away. At that time there was a story on my desk about the murder that was going to be printed in the next Sunday edition, but after seeing you and Eva, who was about to grab her gun when I stared at you, I knew there was a lot more to it than I anticipated, so I asked my editor to put the story on ice and told him I was going to Concord to talk to someone from the Major Crime Unit.”
“Chuck,” Eva said with a nod.
“Yes, Chuck. I brought the files I had. He and I compared notes he filled me in on some of the information he had. All of a sudden pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place and the story grew.”
“May we see those files?” Lauren asked. She had been listening intently and Eva was grateful she had asked her friend for help. It seemed like the case was going to get bigger and more complicated. Having Lauren Darkwolf at her side was an incredible reassurance.
Eva watched Casey boot up her laptop and used the opportunity to take a seat on the armrest of Sigrid's chair. A pair of blue eyes looked up at her and she smiled. Sigrid's answer was to silently rub her cheek against Eva's arm, before focusing on Casey again. The gesture left Eva feeling warm inside.
“Here.” Casey turned her laptop around and Lauren left her seat to kneel down in front of the coffee table.
Lauren's dark eyes scanned the screen and after a brief silence Eva noticed a small smile appear.
“Sigrid, remember how you hit a roadblock with the Swiss account?” Lauren gazed up at Sigrid and sent her a wink. “I think there are some numbers here that will help you to jump over that obstacle.” Her attention went back to the screen and she slowly nodded. “This is a great addition to what we already have. It does not exactly prove Chandler 's personal involvement yet, but it will get us a lot closer.” Lauren stood and looked at Eva. “We'll need to do a little more digging, but if we can link his Swiss account directly to the payments from Brothers', and find something that connects him to the trafficking we might have a case.”
“Did he go to Bangkok already?” Maureen wanted to know.
Casey nodded. “Last month.”
“Do you know if Chandler has anything to do with international business consulting?” The tone of Sigrid's voice was pensive. “Like, an agency that provides nannies, housekeepers and such?”
Lauren sent Sigrid an appreciative look and smiled. “Smart woman! Are you thinking about the money trail Charles followed?”
Sigrid nodded and focused her attention at Casey. “Do you know anything about that?”
Casey had gone pale and with trembling fingers she put down the coffee mug she was holding. “Oh, my God. You're right! Why didn't I see that before?” She seemed genuinely upset. “Arthur is on the board of directors for ‘Borderless Aide'. It's an international Agency that places nannies and housekeepers all over the world.”
Douglas Whitfield let his gaze wander across the room and nodded in satisfaction; everything was taken care of. The temperature in the small building was starting to get more pleasant, the doors were all locked as were the windows. They had done a good job with the renovation. The highway was very close, but inside the house it was impossible to hear the passing vehicles. The little house had not been used a lot yet, and he had been lucky that it was empty. Not that it would have mattered anyway. He wouldn't have done anything differently. He strolled to the small kitchen, opened the refrigerator and pulled out one of the beers he had stored in it earlier. He was thirsty. So far, it had been a stressful day, but from now on it would become rapidly better. He chuckled when he popped the cap off the bottle. He had the upper hand, even though Eva Clemente did not realize that, but she would soon enough. He would make sure of that. The leverage he had acquired was going to get him what he wanted; out of the country. It wasn't like he didn't have any connections abroad. He could practically pick where to go. He took a swig of beer and smiled. Indonesia was supposed to be a beautiful country and its most attractive feature was the lack of an extradition treaty with the United States .
Douglas Whitfield emptied the bottle and let out a satisfied belch. He briefly debated whether he would have another one, but he decided against it. He had an important phone call to make.
“I have their website right here.” Sigrid pointed at the screen in front of her. “Of course they look like a legitimate company.” Her eyes scanned the screen. “Their services are pretty extensive, as is their network. They really are all over the world.”
“Part of the company is probably what they say it is,” Maureen said. She was looking over Sigrid's shoulder. “I'm sure they provide honest, English speaking staff that has been cleared by immigration services. But it sounds like they provide a whole lot more than that.”
“We need more information, though,” Lauren said. She cast a look at Sigrid. “At this moment we can't use Federal resources, because I'm convinced Chandler has made sure any inquiry will be flagged.” She paused and raised an eyebrow. “How are your hacking skills?”
“Rusty,” Sigrid said.
Eva stepped closer toward Sigrid and tapped her shoulder. When she looked up it was in a pair of quizzical eyes.
“Is there something you forgot to tell me?”
Sigrid chuckled and shook her head. “I told you about my brother.”
“Who is not a hacker,” Eva said, but she smiled.
“Um, no, he's not. I…didn't I mention I used to hang out with some federally employed hackers when I was working with the NYPD?”
“No.” Eva laughed and shook her head. “I'm starting to realize it's a good thing you're on the right side of the Law.”
“That's what my Dad used to say,” Sigrid muttered. Her fingers flew over the keyboard and in rapid succession she brought up a variety of windows. “All I have is this laptop, so this might take a little while.”
“Whatever it takes,” Lauren replied with an amused grin, while Maureen chuckled. “Just let us know what you need.”
Sigrid nodded, already absorbed in her search for information.
Casey shook her head. “If I ever get to finish writing the article I started, people will believe I made up this stuff.”
Maureen was still looking over Sigrid's shoulder and gently nudged her. “Do I dare ask where you got access to this hacking software?” She could not hide the amusement in her voice.
“Better not.” Sigrid looked up and grinned. “Besides, this is pretty outdated already and it's very basic, which suits my skill level just fine.”
“Girl, to me it looks like wizardry.” Maureen laughed. “But don't let me interrupt you.” She stood and stretched. “I need some nourishment. Does anyone else want something to eat as well?”
“Good idea.” Lauren stood as well. “I'll give you hand. What are you hungry for?”
Maureen subtly raised an eyebrow and Lauren chuckled. She reached out and grabbed Maureen's hand, pulling her along toward the kitchen. “Later,” she promised.
Eva watched her friends disappear into the kitchen and with a small smile she took a seat across from Sigrid, who was completely engrossed in her illegal activity. She motioned to Casey's laptop. “May I have another look at those files?”
When Casey nodded she grabbed the computer and pulled up the files that had been found in the folder in Arthur Chandler's office. The picture of Sigrid brought a small smile to her face. It was a good one. It was from her FBI file and listed her credentials and achievements. It angered Eva that a US senator was involved in human trafficking. The fact that he deliberately had targeted Sigrid as scape-goat made her blood boil. If there was something Eva loathed even more than criminal activities, it was the abuse of power by someone who had the trust of a lot of people. Arthur Chandler was in a privileged position that was supposed to be used for good, not to inflict pain and suffering. While going through the information again, Eva made some mental notes on things to follow up on. She stared at a list of names. Jeremy Brothers and Archibald Tate were just two of the twelve and she wondered if the others were just as involved as they were. If that were the case, the network was definitely national. Besides New Hampshire and Boston there were addresses in Maine, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, Oregon, Montana, Nebraska and Michigan. In her mind's eye, Eva drew lines from state to state and she slowly nodded when she realized that, when connected, the network circled the entire country. She wondered if the list she was looking at referred to home addresses of traffickers or safe houses. Eva was so deep in thought she almost jumped when her phone started buzzing. With a frown she glanced at the display and cursed.
Immediately, Sigrid gazed up with a worried look. “Who is it?”
“Whitfield.” Eva's voice was barely more than a growl.
She pressed the talk button and brought the device to her ear. “Clemente.”
“Hello, Inspector. I'm so glad you are answering your regular phone. You must be in a safe place. How is this unscheduled leave of absence working out for you?”
“Go to hell, Whitfield,” Eva spat.
“Now, now, is that the correct way to address a superior?”
Eva cringed at the arrogant tone of voice and wondered what Douglas Whitfield had up his sleeve. He had to think it was good, otherwise he wouldn't have called her.
“Soon to be ex-supervisor.” Eva was barely able to control the anger in her voice. “What do you want?”
“Oh, I thought that was obvious! I want that cute little pastor.” Whitfield's voice was smug. “And you, of course, I want you too, but that's a given.”
“Why don't you save yourself a lot of trouble and turn yourself in at the closest police station,” Eva said.
“Where's the fun in that?” Whitfield let out a laugh that made Eva cringe. He sounded like he was balancing on the edge on insanity. “No, I have a better plan.”
“I thought you'd never ask.” Whitfield chuckled, but to Eva's ears it sounded closer to a giggle. “How about you and I, and Pastor Meyers, meet somewhere this afternoon? Just to get this pesky little situation solved and get on with our lives.”
“Do you really think I'm that naïve?”
“No, not really, but one can try.” Whitfield sighed. “Alright, I will put my bargaining chip on the table. How's that?”
“Depends on the chip.”
“Fair enough. How about trading you and the Pastor for something I have that you would like back?”
All of a sudden Eva's felt like her body weighed twice as much as normal and she quickly sat in a chair, afraid she would fall down. It was if a cold hand had grabbed her insides. Her legs felt rubbery and she was light-headed. “What do you have?”
“Well, there's a story to it,” Whitfield said. “I had been wondering where you'd gone off to, so I figured you'd go home, to your family. But that was too obvious, so I decided to discard that idea. Still. I couldn't suppress my curiosity, so I drove through your home town. What a charming place you grew up in, Eva.”
Eva gritted her teeth and kept silent, even though it took all her willpower to do so.
“Anyway, I was cruising down Main Street and all of a sudden I saw you. ” Whitfield laughed. “I was so delighted. But then, when I came closer I was so disappointed, because, as far as I know, you don't have two little children.” He paused for a moment. “Of course, my disappointment didn't last long, because all of a sudden I got this great idea.” Another pause. “I figure you can guess what the idea was, can't you?”
“If you dare to —.”
“Oh, honey, I'm way past that stage. I dared. And guess what? I have three delightful guests! I have to say the resemblance between you and Iris is uncanny. You could have been twins.” Whitfield chuckled. “Those kids are adorable. So, before you say anything else, I want you to think for a moment. I'll call you back in ten minutes.”
“Don't hang up on me. Whitfield!” Eva yelled, but the connection had been severed and with an anguished cry she slapped her hand on the table, ignoring the stinging it caused; the pain she felt inside was so much more intense.
Sigrid left what she was doing and moved to kneel in front of Eva, who had her head buried in her hands and was visibly shaking. Tentatively, she put a hand on Eva's knee. “Eva, honey, what's going on?” She tried to keep her voice steady, but could not hide the worry she felt.
Maureen and Lauren had left the kitchen and were standing next to Sigrid; Lauren's hand on her shoulder.
“Eva.” Lauren's voice was calm but urgent. “Talk to us.”
Slowly, Eva lifted her head. The look in her eyes was one of desperation and pain. “He's got Iris and the twins,” she whispered. A lone tear slid down her cheek and she breathed in deeply, trying to regain her composure, which failed miserably.
“What exactly did he say?” Lauren pulled up a chair and sat down facing Eva. “Focus, Eva.”
Eva swallowed hard and entwined her fingers with Sigrid's. In a hoarse voice she repeated what Douglas Whitfield had told her. The more she related of the conversation, the more audible the anger in her voice became.
“When he calls back, tell him he can have me, if he let Iris and the twins go. We can meet somewhere and make the swap.” Sigrid sounded calm and determined, but the look in her eyes showed anxiety and fear.
“No.” Eva's fingers tightened around her hand.
“What choice do we have?” Sigrid briefly pressed her forehead against their clasped hands. “I can't have him…hurt your sister and her children, Eva. Not if exchanging me for them will get them back safely.”
“Do you really think the bastard will let them go?” Eva's voice was weary.
“Why don't we wait until he calls back and listen to what he wants, exactly,” Lauren suggested. “We can take it from there.” She put her hand on Eva's shoulder and gave it an encouraging squeeze. “He doesn't know about Maureen and me being here, which is in our advantage.” With a grim expression on her face Lauren pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. “He will tell you not to contact the police, but we need more manpower.” She looked at Eva while she waited for her call to be answered. “He'll probably try to set up a meeting. I need you to buy us as much time as you can. He doesn't know where you are, so tell him you're hours away.” Lauren's voice softened when she saw the distress on Eva's face. “I know he has your sister and the kids, and we want to get them out of his claws as fast as we can, but we need to think this through, Eva.” She turned away and walked to the window when her call was answered. “Joe, it's me—.”
Sigrid sent Maureen a questioning look, which was answered with a small smile.
“I think Lauren is calling the Darkwolf posse.”
It was not completely dark in the small room. A small bulb that hung from the ceiling provided a weak light, barely enough to illuminate the entire room. A mattress in the corner was the only furniture. Even the floor was bare. There was one window, painted black on the inside, so it was impossible to tell whether it was day or night. It was set high into the wall and even though she might be able to reach the narrow sill, she would not be able to pull herself up in order to even try and break the glass. If there was glass. Iris could not tell if the window was boarded up, barred, or even bricked shut.
Iris Clemente-Holbrook sat on the raggedy mattress, a sleeping child tucked against both her sides. Her mind was still desperately trying to wrap itself around the situation she was in. This morning she had been running some errands when she had run into the man who had claimed he worked with Eva. When he had introduced himself, his name had sounded familiar. He had known so many details about her work; Iris had no reason to even consider he wasn't genuine. Oscar had been a little fussy and Douglas Whitfield had offered to give her a hand with the groceries. His chatter had been friendly and he had even made her laugh with some funny stories about Eva. He had helped her to strap the twins in their car seats and had surprised her when he opened the passenger door and sat down. At first she hadn't noticed the gun pointed at her, but when she did her blood had run cold. He had casually told her to do exactly as he told her to and calmly gave her instructions on where to drive. The drive had been long enough to lull Olivia and Oscar to sleep and she had driven as slow as she dared, hoping someone would notice her with a stranger in the car. After all, most people in town knew each other. Too soon they had arrived at the destination Douglas Whitfield had in mind and within minutes Iris and her children were locked inside the room they were currently in. Her bag with groceries was dumped in a corner and her phone was taken away. After that the door was slammed shut and she heard a lock slide into place.
Iris looked down at the two sleeping children at her side and suppressed the panic she could feel rising up in her chest. She knew that by now Jesse would be worried sick and the thought of her frantic spouse made her tremble inside. Would Douglas Whitfield have contacted her? What would he have told her? What did he want? Money? Iris doubted it. Jesse had a nice income, but with two children, a mortgage and study loans not much was left at the end of the month. Her kidnapping somehow was tied in with Eva. Iris figured it had something to do with the case Eva had been working on, the one that had her and Sigrid visit for a few days. She didn't know any details just that Sigrid had been targeted by someone and Eva had protected her. Eva. Could it be that Douglas Whitfield needed something from her?
Iris' gaze traveled through the room. There was nothing she could use to escape or use as a weapon. Besides, trying to attack her kidnapper wasn't an option; not with her children in the room. They were too vulnerable. But she would do anything to protect them. Olivia mumbled something in her sleep and Iris pulled her a little closer, careful not to wake her. She leaned in and dropped a kiss on the tousled, dark hair. The pressure in her chest was building and she could feel her throat constrict. Swallowing was painful, but she did it anyway. Breaking down and crying was not going to help her. She needed to figure a way out of her predicament while keeping her children safe.
Iris leaned the back of her head against the wall behind her and closed her eyes. She was not able to keep a few tears from sliding down her cheeks.
“What number did you say again?” Betty slowly drove down a quiet neighborhood street in Pembroke, a small town north of the capitol, Concord . They had been able to find Charles Benoit's address in the phone book and had called him to tell him they had new information on the case. Even though he was out on medical leave he immediately had asked them to come to his house and not to talk to anyone else.
“Twelve,” Meg said from the back seat. “It should come up on the right any time now.”
“Or so the Noodle map says,” Twitch added.
“Google, Twitch,” Betty replied absentmindedly. “It's ‘Google'.”
Twitch shrugged. “Whatever. I wonder how reliable those webbed maps are anyway.”
Meg chuckled. “Webbed maps?”
“Yes, from the interweb.”
Meg rolled her eyes and shook her head. “You'll never learn, will you?”
“Probably not.” Twitch chuckled. “I am too old for all that modern stuff.”
“That's probably why you didn't recognize what you found.” Meg's words were mumbled, but Twitch had heard her anyway.
“That's not very nice, Meg,” Betty said, before Twitch could reply. “Had it not been for my grandson, I wouldn't have known either.” She slowed down even more, causing the driver of a car behind them to loudly protest by using its claxon. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Betty muttered. “Don't tie your britches in a knot. Here it is, girls.” She steered her car into a driveway and killed the engine.
“There he is,” Twitch said.
Charles Benoit had already opened the door and was gesturing them to come inside. They slowly left the car and made their way up to the house. Betty noticed the strained expression on Charles' face and she gave his uninjured arm a friendly pat.
“How are you doing, dear?” she asked.
Charles mustered up a smile. “Not too bad. I'd feel a hell of a lot better if all of this is behind us and Eva is safely home.”
“Amen,” Twitch said, accepting Charles' outstretched hand when she climbed the two steps to his front door.
As soon as they were all inside and seated, Charles looked from Betty, to Meg, to Twitch and back again. “Tell me. I'm dying from curiosity here,” he said. “What exactly did you find out?”
“It's not what we found out, but what we found,” Meg said. “Well, to be exact, what Twitch found.”
Charles sank down in his recliner and took a deep breath. His gaze travelled to Twitch who was rummaging through her purse.
“Don't tell us you lost it,” Meg said.
“”Don't be silly,” Twitch replied. “I saw it in here just before we left. I…ah, here it is.” She handed Charles the item and they saw his eyebrow rise.
“An SD card?” He looked up and frowned. “Where did you find it?”
“Church,” Twitch said. She cast a slightly nervous look at her companions before adding: “The day of the murder.”
“The day of—.” Charles stood up from his chair, shook his head and sat back down again. “How —?”
“I found it when I walked into the church.” Twitch's words tumbled out fast. “I was going to give it to Sigrid, but then she found the body and I completely forgot about it.” Twitch paused to take a deep breath and pushed her glasses higher up the bridge of her nose. “I didn't know what it was, that it could be important.”
Charles looked at the small plastic box that looked even smaller in the palm of his large hand. “Is it?” he asked.
Betty gave the distraught Twitch a pat on the back and turned her attention to Charles. “We think so,” she said. “I asked my grandson to show me what was on it.” She let out a shaky breath. “There are pictures on it,” she said. “Lots of pictures. I only saw the first few and decided I had seen enough.”
“What did you see?” Charles pressed, looking at the SD card.
“I saw a picture of Jeremy Brothers with Senator Chandler, a picture of the house we found the children in, a picture of someone watching Sigrid's house.” Betty shivered. “When I saw that one I knew this…card had to be related to whatever happened to Sigrid.”
Charles looked up at Betty and slowly nodded. He got up from his recliner and walked to a desk that held a computer. He tapped the mouse and the screen came alive. He took the card out of its box and slid into the appropriate slot. When a window popped up he clicked and within seconds he was looking at a large collection of pictures. Quietly clicking through them, he muttered under his breath. “Son of a bitch.”
His exclamation made Twitch and Meg almost jump up from their seats.
“Is…were we right?” Betty asked. “Is it related to the case?”
“Absolutely.” Charles looked up from his computer and pointed to the screen. “This is gold,” he said. “These pictures can break this case wide open and put some pretty bad boys behind bars for a very long time.” He let out a delighted laugh. “Wait until Eva sees this.”
“Do you know where she is?” Meg looked at him expectantly.
“No.” He shook his head. “But I do have an idea.” He retrieved the little memory card and carefully put it back into its plastic case. “The problem is that I can't drive, though.”
Meg, Twitch and Betty looked at each other and had a very brief, silent conversation.
“I can,” Betty said. “Just tell me where to go and we'll take you.”
Driving from Lincolnville back to Eva's hometown was a quiet affair. Lauren was driving, while Eva and Sigrid were in the backseat, flanked by Casey Planters, who was very quiet. They were sitting close together and it was clear they were silently giving each other as much support as possible.
When Douglas Whitfield had called her back Eva had been able to convince him she was out of state and that it would take her at least six to eight hours to make it to the small strip mall where Iris had been abducted. He had not counted on that, she could tell. It had made him nervous. The delay interfered with his plans and six to eight hours would be after midnight. That would make him vulnerable, because he would not be able to keep an eye on his surroundings after dark; not if it was just him. When he had ordered Eva to meet him just after sunrise at the park and ride just outside town, part of her had been relieved while the other part had let out a silent scream in frustration. Sunrise would mean Iris and the twins would be at his mercy for a very long time. Deep down inside Eva also knew that they would have an edge. Whitfield had made a mistake by telling her where to meet him so far in advance. It gave her insight in his state of mind. He was panicking and scared. If she could keep her cool, they might have a chance.
After Whitfield had ended the call, Eva immediately had called her brother, Felix. He would pick up Jesse and take her to his parents' house where they would meet the rest of the family.
Eva leaned back her head and closed her eyes. Jesse. She had not called her sister-in-law until Felix had been by her side. Only then she had broken the news about Iris' and the twins' kidnapping. As expected, Jesse had broken down and Felix had to carry her to a chair. Eva knew they had safely made it to her parents' house, because Felix had called her when they had just left Lincolnville. She could only imagine what Jesse was going through. Had something similar happened to Sigrid, she would be an emotional wreck. And she wasn't married to Sigrid and didn't have two kids with her.
Eva swallowed and could not prevent a tear from escaping. She could feel it slide down her cheek, but before she could wipe it away a gentle thumb had beaten her to it. She slowly opened her eyes and was met by an intense look. Sigrid's blue eyes were dark with distress and something else. Eva lifted her head and made a failed attempt to smile. “I'm glad you're here,” she said.
“So am I.” Sigrid leaned in and pressed her lips against the soft skin of Eva's cheek. “I am so, so sorry,” she added.
The blue eyes filled with tears and Eva tightened her grip on Sigrid's hands. “It's not your fault,” she said. “Please, Sigrid, this has nothing to do with you. Don't let him make you believe that.”
“Had it not been for me, Iris and the twins would have been home now, with Jesse, where they belong.” Sigrid sniffed and angrily wiped her eyes.
“It's not your fault,” Eva repeated. “Whitfield is a sick son-of-a-bitch who is trying to fix his mistakes. But I know him, he's not a murderer and he would not hurt innocent little children.”
“Is that what you're telling yourself?” Sigrid asked in a low voice.
Eva nodded. “I have to if I want to keep my sanity. I have to believe he will not hurt them. If I don't do that, I…I won't be able to think.”
Sigrid buried her face against Eva's shoulder. “You have to know I'd exchange myself for them in a heartbeat.”
Eva nodded. “I know.” She swallowed hard. “Thank you.”
After a long silence, Eva felt moisture seeping through the fabric of her shirt. Gently, she pushed Sigrid's face up; alarmed to see the tears freely flow from underneath closed eyelids. “Sigrid,” she whispered.
“I'm sorry,” was the choked answer. “I…it's just so much to deal with.”
“Come here.” Eva pulled her closer and nodded at Lauren who glanced at her through the rearview mirror. “You need to try and push those thoughts aside. I need you to focus.” Eva dropped a kiss on the top of Sigrid's head before pulling away. She needed to look her in the eyes. “Sigrid, I need you to focus. Iris needs you to focus, so do the twins. We can fall apart later, after this is all over and Iris and the twins are home, with Jesse. Until then–.”
“We need to focus,” Sigrid interrupted with a watery smile. “I'll try.” She sniffed and gave Eva a squeeze. “Okay, focus. We need to find out where they can be. What was the last time Jesse saw them?”
“Around eleven this morning. Iris took the twins to pick up some groceries and she went to the post-office. She was supposed to meet Jesse at eleven-thirty, at home, because they were planning to take Oscar and Olivia to lunch and the toy store.”
“What time did Whitfield call you?”
“Twelve-thirty,” Eva said.
“So, Iris was abducted between eleven and twelve-thirty. We know it couldn't have been eleven sharp.”
“Felix had Jesse look at their on-line bank account. Iris paid for the groceries at eleven-twenty-five.” Eva exhaled slowly. “So she was abducted between eleven twenty-five and twelve-thirty.”
Sigrid sucked in her bottom lip and for a moment she was lost in thought. “He has to be within a thirty minute radius of town,” she said. “Can you think of any place he could have taken them? It should be fairly isolated.” Sigrid paused and her face fell. “Or not. If it's crowded, he could have simply vanished in the crowd.”
Maureen half-turned and cast a look at Eva. “Did you hear any background noises that could be helpful?”
Eva shook her head. “No. It was very quiet.”
“No cars, no water, no birds?”
“No, nothing. Sorry.”
“We'll pull up a map of the area,” Lauren said without taking her eyes off the road in front of them. “An estimated thirty minute drive should put him fairly close.” Her gaze traveled to the rearview mirror. “Eva, what do you think is the distance between where Iris was kidnapped and the Interstate?”
“Maybe seven miles, but there are a lot of stops in between, so it could have taken between five and ten minutes to get there.” Eva let out a shaky breath. “It would have taken longer if it wasn't winter, because of tourists on the road.”
“We need a map,” Maureen said.
“I have one.” Casey unzipped the side pocket of her laptop case and pulled out a neatly folded map, which she handed to Sigrid.
Spreading the map out on her knees, Sigrid's eyes scanned the roads and town, but before she had located what she was looking for, Eva's finger tapped the paper.
“So, what are we looking for? Anything within a thirty minute radius from where Iris was kidnapped?” Casey looked up at Eva. “At an average speed of what? Thirty-five miles per hour?”
“Until he reached Route 1,” Sigrid said. “If it would have taken him ten minutes to reach that, he could be as much as forty to fifty miles either way.”
“I think it's less,” Lauren said. “He needed time to get Iris and the kids inside and get them settled before he would have made the call.” Lauren's gaze caught Eva's in the mirror. “Besides, Route 1 is not the Interstate, so the speed limit is probably between forty-five and fifty. Do you have any idea what kind of car he's driving?”
“A Hyundai Elantra,” Eva answered. “If he's using that car, he'll be off Route 1 somewhere. It's unlikely he went off road in a car like that. In this time of year you need a four-wheel drive that's higher off the ground. If he took Iris' car he would have been in the same situation; she drives a Volkswagen Jetta; not high enough and not a four-wheel drive.”
Lauren smiled. “Good thinking. So we need to concentrate on buildings that are not far off Route 1 and that are, most likely, abandoned or vacant rentals.”
“Is this the exit we want?” Betty risked a glance at Charles Benoit who was sitting in the passenger seat.
“Yes, this is it. At the end, you'll want to take a left.”
“It's pretty here,” Twitch said. She was sitting behind Betty and had been very quiet for most of the drive.
“A typical Maine coastal town.” Meg pointed at one of the faded billboards at the side of the road. “Lobster land.”
“Have you gotten through to Eva yet?” Meg leaned forward and peered at the cell phone that Charles was clutching in his uninjured hand.
“Not yet.” He sighed and carefully shifted position, afraid to jar his painful shoulder. “I do hope her family has an idea of where she is. This memory card makes me feel I'm carrying around an explosive device.”
“You were smart to make a copy,” Twitch said. “I didn't even know that was possible.”
“You didn't even know what it was when you found it”. There was a teasing edge to Meg's voice.
“I am learning though.” Twitch shot her friend a look and pushed her glasses back onto her nose. “I might have to get one of those computers now; they seem a lot of fun.”
Meg sighed. “God have mercy. What would you do with it?”
“I could noodle things I want to know more about.”
Twitch grinned and patted Meg's knee. “Recipes, I could talk to my grandchildren through the webbed camera.”
“Web cam,” Meg automatically corrected.
“I could read the news, gossip, read the Karma Sutra.”
Meg reached out a hand and covered Twitch's mouth. “Forget I asked.”
“Take a right here.” Charles pointed to a street off the main road that ran parallel with the ocean. Snow was neatly pushed to the side of the road and by the looks of it was iced over. Betty followed Charles' directions and within a few minutes he told her to pull up in front of a large house. A sign in the front read: ‘Fur and Feathers; Veterinary Clinic.' The fairly long driveway up to the house was occupied by at least five cars.
“Is Eva's car here?” Betty could not hide the anxiety in her voice.
“I'm not sure what she was driving,” Charles answered. “There's only one way to find out.” He opened the door and unfolded his tall frame until he stood on the snow-free, narrow sidewalk in front of the clinic. Slightly bending over he looked at Betty. “I'll go in first. I'd like you ladies to wait here until I come back.” His gaze traveled to Twitch who was visibly restraining herself from making a face. “Please?”
She sighed. “Oh, alright. But don't be too long, because I'm dying of curiosity.”
Iris sat on the thin mattress, with her back against the bare wall and two toddlers draped over her legs. The twins were still asleep, which she was grateful for, but she knew they could wake up at any time, after which they would want something to eat. And there was nothing she could give them. Her groceries had been taken away from her and she could only hope that they had not been tossed away. The bag contained some fruit and snacks. It would be sufficient for Oliver and Olivia, at least for a little while.
Iris' gaze traveled to the small window and again she wondered what was behind the blackened glass. As soon as they had entered the small house they had been whisked away in the small room, but Iris know it was situated at the front of the house. The wall she was leaning against had to be an outer wall. What if she would be able to knock the glass out? She didn't have any tools, but if she would wrap her shirt around her fist she might be able to break the glass and not get any deep cuts. Not that something as trivial as cuts would stop her. Not if it meant she had a chance to escape.
She sighed. “I can't just sit here and wait.”
A while ago she had overheard Whitfield talking on the phone and Iris just knew it had been Eva he had been yelling at. It had been clear to her that he wanted to trade her and the twins for Eva and Sigrid. The thought alone made Iris' blood boil. She knew Eva well enough to know she'd make the trade without a hesitation, even though she'd do her best to leave Sigrid out of it. For a brief moment Iris smiled. She had seen the glances between her sister and her cute, blonde friend. There definitely was a strong attraction between the two. It would devastate Eva to have Iris and the twins hurt, but she would be equally shattered if something was to happen to Sigrid.
“We can't let that happen.”
Very careful not to wake up her children, Iris moved them to the side and covered them with their jackets. It was time to explore the room they were in. The small bulb did not provide a lot of light and the corners of the room were fairly dark. It was time to explore them and see if she could find anything that would help her in her quest to escape, or at least make life miserable for Douglas Whitfield.
The first corner she walked to was close to the door and when she glanced aside she could see a tiny sliver of light that she thought must come from the room Whitfield was in. It meant the door did not close all the way and she filed that information away. It was something she might be able to use at some point. Iris peered at the walls and floor intently, every now and then carefully touching the surface. It was all smooth and cold to the touch. The next corner provided her with the same result and, disheartened, she went to the corner that was farthest away from the door. It was also the farthest away from the weak light bulb and Iris cautiously touched the wall, letting her hands slide down until they reached the floor. Again, she could not find anything. It was obvious the room had been thoroughly cleaned. Just as she stepped sideways to move to the last, unexplored corner, her foot came into contact with something that rolled away. Iris' ears perked up. It sounded like metal. She knelt down and felt around on the floor. At first she could not feel anything but some dust and sand, until, all of a sudden her fingers touched smooth, cold metal. She lifted the item and half-turned toward the faint light in order to get a better look. It was a thin, hollow rod, about the circumference of a pencil and she had no idea what its function was, or what to do with it, but it was something. And right now, anything could give her hope. Now all she needed to do was be creative. Continuing her search she let her hands slide across the floor and the wall. Instinctively, she pulled back quickly when her fingers bumped into something that was sticking out of the wall. Cautiously, she returned her fingers to the spot and cautiously touched the area. There. It felt like metal and when she touched it, it moved.
Iris smiled. “Who knew I'd be so happy to run into a nail,” she whispered to herself.
It only took her a few seconds to wiggle the nail free from its spot on the wall and when Iris turned toward the light bulb to examine her find, she saw she was holding a nail that was about three inches long. It was a little rusty, but she was unable to bend it, which she thought was a good sign. Thinking she could make a weapon, she tried to drop the nail into the metal tube, but it didn't fit, until she put it in with the pointy side first. With a smooth motion the nail slid down the small metal pipe, until the flat end of it became stuck in the opening. Iris smiled. She couldn't believe her luck. All that was left to do was find something to stuff inside the small tube to keep the nail from sliding back. It briefly crossed her mind that she was making a weapon and just the thought to have to use it made her nauseous. But one look at the sleeping twins chased that feeling away. There was nothing she wouldn't do to protect her children.
This time Eva didn't feel the need to approach her parents' house cautiously, like she had done before. She didn't think anyone was watching the house. As soon as the car stopped, she opened the door and jumped out, ready to run down the driveway, into the house. By the look of the cars that were parked in front of the house she knew her entire family was present; she just hoped her siblings had left their children at home with a baby sitter.
“Come.” She grabbed Sigrid's hand and quickly walked up to the house, knowing her friends would follow. This was not a time for polite introductions and pleasantries, those would come later.
As soon as Eva stepped into the living room her eyes sought and found Jesse. She let go of Sigrid's hand and knelt down in front of Jesse who had her head buried in her hands.
Iris' spouse raised her head and the expression in her eyes almost brought Eva to tears. “I am so, so sorry.” Her hand grabbed Jesse's. “We'll get them back. I promise.”
“It's been more than six hours.” Jesse's voice was soft. “Have they made any demands?”
Sigrid nodded and slowly rose to her full height. “A trade; me for them.”
“And me,” Sigrid added. There was a steely resolve in her voice.
Eva's gaze settled on Felix and a wordless conversation took place. He nodded and took a seat next to Jesse, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her closer to him. Even though they were in his jurisdiction, he would follow Eva's lead.
“A trade?” Leon stepped away from the table where he'd been staring at a map. “You and Sigrid for Iris and the twins? What kind of trade is that?” His voice was hoarse and Eva swallowed hard when she noticed the expression in his eyes; fear and desperation.
Leon turned to Felix. “Why aren't you calling in all troops? What is going on here?”
Felix didn't answer, but his gaze travelled to Eva and he gave her a nod.
“It's complicated, Leon ,” Eva said. “If we involve the local police, they'll have to arrest Sigrid and most likely me as well. We can't let that happen. We have no time to wait for them to try and sort out the mess we're in. By the time they realize we're being set up, it'll be days later.” Eva sighed. “Later I'll explain everything and I'll answer any question, I promise. Right now you'll have to trust me.” She paused and looked at the faces of her family members. “You do trust me, don't you?”
Felix was the first one who spoke. “One hundred percent, sis.”
“Of course we trust you, Eva,” Leah said. She was sitting in a recliner with her husband, David perched on the armrest. “It's not a matter of trust, you should know that. If we can't call in the police, then how are we going to solve this?”
Before Eva could answer, a voice behind her spoke.
“That is where we come in.” Lauren Darkwolf gave Eva's shoulder an encouraging squeeze and stepped forward, into the middle of the room. “My name is Lauren and this is my partner Maureen,” she said. “We are friends of Eva and we work for the government.” She paused and smiled. “We're in law enforcement as well. The case Eva and Sigrid are involved in has become a federal one, but it's important we fly under the radar, so to speak.” Lauren turned to address Leah and sent her a smile. “I understand your concerns, but help is on the way.”
“There is?” Felix asked. There was hope in his voice.
“It's unauthorized help, but I trust them with my life,” Lauren said.
“But how—.” The look Leon shot Eva was a puzzled one.
“Sometimes it's better to ask forgiveness than permission,” Maureen spoke. “I call them ‘Lauren's posse'. They are her brothers and cousins and they always have her back.”
Lauren smiled. “And yours.”
Felix did not seem entirely convinced. With a frown he looked at Eva. “Have you met them?”
Eva nodded. “As a matter of fact, I have. A few years ago while I was in Oklahoma for a conference, Lauren invited me to her tribe's pow wow.” She sent Felix a reassuring smile. “I trust them, Felix. We can expect them any time now. They're part of the plan.”
“And what is the plan?” It was the first time Jesse spoke up and everyone turned her way.
Eva exchanged a look with Lauren, who gave her a quick nod.
“We know that my, soon to be ex-superior, Douglas Whitfield, has Iris and the twins. Judging by the time on the receipt of the grocery store and the time Whitfield called me, we know they can't be too far from here. Iris checked out at eleven twenty-five and Whitfield called me at twelve-thirty. Based on that timeline, plus the fact that it's very likely he took them out of town we think he's holed up somewhere off route 1, either twenty to thirty miles north or south from here.”
“I think it's less.” It was the first time Sigrid spoke and she sent both Eva and Lauren an apologetic look. “Let's assume it took him five minutes to get Iris and the twins into the car and another ten to reach Route 1. That means there are forty-five minutes between him reaching Route 1 and calling Eva. However, he must have had a destination in place and when he got there, it's likely he had to make sure Iris and the twins were inside, without any way to escape. Let's assume that took him ten minutes, which would be pretty fast. That leaves about thirty-five minutes. The average speed on Route 1 is forty-five miles an hour, so I think he's somewhere between fifteen and twenty miles from here.”
There was a long pause after Sigrid spoke, until Eva gave her a quick hug and dropped a kiss on her forehead. “You're absolutely right.” She turned her attention back to her family. “Does anyone know about an abandoned building or vacant rentals within that radius?”
“Not abandoned,” David Fisher, Leah's husband said. “There are a lot of seasonal properties, though. Right now they're all empty.”
‘David! That's it!” Eva exclaimed. She turned to Lauren and grabbed her arm. “I just remembered that Whitfield once told me he and his family spent the summers at the Megunticook campground. It's right off Route 1.He knows that area well and the campground has cabins.”
“How far is it from here?”
“Less than ten miles.” Leon already stood and grabbed his jacket he had draped on the back of a chair. “Let's go.”
“Slow down, honey,” Connie said. She grabbed her husband's hand and pulled him back into his chair. “You can't just run in there half-cocked.”
Eva shook her head. “No, Leon. I appreciate the idea, but Connie is right; I need you to stay here.”
Leon opened his mouth to respond but the voice of his father stopped him before he could utter a word.
“Listen to your sister, Leon.” Rick Clemente's voice was softer than usual and his worry was clearly audible. “Leave it up to the ones who are trained to handle situations like this. The last thing we need is you to get hurt.”
After a brief silence, Leon nodded and sat back down next to his wife. He looked dejected and frustrated, but he abided by his father's wishes.
“What are we going to do next?” Leah wanted to know.
Before anyone could answer that question, the sound of footsteps in the hallway made everyone turn to the door. Lauren cast a quick glance at her watch. “If those are the boys, they've made excellent time,” she said to Maureen who nodded.
When the door opened both Sigrid and Eva let out a sound of surprise.
“Chuck, what are you doing here?” Eva stepped closer to him and put a hand on his uninjured shoulder.
“Aren't you supposed to be home, resting?” Sigrid wanted to know.
Chuck nodded and shot Eva a small grin. “I was, until I received a phone call from one of your friends,” he said looking at Sigrid.
“Uh oh. What did they get into this time?” Sigrid winced and brushed unruly hair from her forehead.
“Something pretty good, actually.” It was only then that Chuck really noticed the room full of people. “I'm sorry for barging in like this.”
“Don't worry about it.” Eva turned to her family and patted Chuck on the back. “Everyone, this is my partner at the Major Crime Unit, Charles Benoit. Chuck, this is my family and at some point today I will properly introduce everyone. What do the girls have for us?”
“An SD card full of pictures that will incriminate half of our unit, including the Chief, plus some people higher up, all the way to D.C.”
“Are you serious?” Lauren stepped a little closer. “Where do those pictures come from?”
“As far as I understand, one of the ladies found it on the floor of the church on the day of the murder. She didn't know what it was and wanted to ask you later, Sigrid, so she put it in her purse. That was just before the body was discovered. After that, she completely forgot about it.”
“Do you have it with you?” Sigrid asked.
“Not on me, but yes, I do have it with me. That, plus your three friends. They are waiting in the car. They want to hand over the memory card only to Eva or Sigrid. They refused to let me have it, although I was allowed to make a copy. Just in case.”
“I'll go get them,” Sigrid said. She slid between Lauren and Eva, giving the latter a friendly pat on the back and disappeared out of the room.
“How incriminating are those pictures exactly?” Felix stood up from his seat next to Jesse and look in his dark eyes was intense.
“Chuck, this is my brother, Felix. He's the local Deputy Chief of Police here in Rockland ,” Eva said, quickly introducing the two.
“And you haven't arrested Sigrid yet?” Chuck smiled warmly. “Good man.” The expression on his face turned serious again. “I only had a look at a few of them, but it helps ties things together. One of the pictures I saw was of a person, dressed in camouflage, staring at Sigrid's house. In the picture there are only a few inches of snow on the ground, so it must have been early winter, which makes me believe they had been keeping track of her whereabouts for quite a while.”
“And someone kept an eye on them , by the sound of it,” Maureen said.
“If the SD card was found in the church at the day of the murder, Michael Bell could have dropped it. It could have been one of the reasons they murdered him.” Lauren's voice was pensive. “Or the murderer retrieved it from Michael and accidently dropped it on his way out of the church. Do you know exactly where it was?”
Chuck shook his head. “No, but you can ask Twitch, since she's the one who found it. By the way, she feels incredibly guilty about forgetting she had it for such a long time.”
As soon as Betty saw Sigrid walk toward the car she let out a relieved sigh. “Oh, girls. She looks tired, but at least she seems to be in one piece.”
“She's probably going to kill me.” Twitch sank a little deeper into her seat, trying to make herself as small as possible.
Meg nodded. “She should, although you do have a defense.”
Twitch looked up with a frown. “Which is?”
“You're senile.” Meg grinned at the dark look that was shot her way.
“Well, I guess if it keeps her from hurting me, I'll use it,” Twitch said.
“Sigrid wouldn't hurt a fly,” Betty spoke from the driver's seat. She glanced over her shoulder at Twitch. “Although, in your case I'm not sure.”
“Thanks. We've been friends since the French Revolution and now you're throwing me under the bus.”
“Well, we did hear you upgraded your life insurance policy.” Meg grabbed the hand that pinched her thigh and let out a chuckle. It was nice to goof around a little, even though the situation they were in was still quite serious. The rear passenger door was opened and she looked up in Sigrid's smiling eyes. “Hello, cute stuff. We're here to bring you some dynamite.”
“That's what I've heard. Let's go inside, so we can have a look at it.”
“It's pretty incriminating,” Twitch said. She unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the door. Immediately, Sigrid moved and reached out a hand to give her some support.
Twitch patted her hand. “Thanks, sweetie.” As soon as she had solid ground underneath her feet she stood up straight. “You look tired and sad. Hopefully you'll be able to arrest all those creeps now and get some rest.”
Sigrid let out a sigh. “I wish it would be that easy,” she said. “But there are some complications at the moment.”
“Oh, dear, that doesn't sound good. What happened?”
Sigrid took a deep breath and quickly wiped away some moisture that was collecting in the corner of her eye. “Eva's sister and her two year old twins have been kidnaped by her supervisor.”
When Iris and Eva were growing up, one of their favorite television shows had been ‘MacGyver' and it was the memory of that show that had Iris create something out of nothing. The rusty nail was secured in place by pieces of fabric that Iris had been able to pull off the mattress. She had stuffed the hollow tube with foam, which had been a frustrating task because the only thing she had to aid her to push the stuff down into the tube was the filling of a cheap ballpoint pen that kept bending. Determination helped her finish though. To secure the nail, she had stuck it through a piece of fabric and tied a knot at the bottom of the now filled metal tube. The knot was as tight as she could get it in order to prevent the nail from slipping. If she would be given the chance to use her weapon, it was most likely she would only be able to use it once, so it had to be solid and secure enough to take at least one stab at her kidnapper.
“And then what?” Iris whispered to herself. “You stab him with a nail, but he has a gun. What are you going to do then?”
Frustrated, Iris looked at the item in her hand. She wondered if she should just forget about her half-baked plan. All of a sudden the memory of Jesse, playing hide-and-seek with the twins in the living room made her heart do a double-take. She owed it to her partner and their children to at least try and do something about the perilous situation she was in.
“The solar plexus.” Eva's voice echoed in the back of Iris' mind. “If anyone tries to hurt you, try to hit them in the solar plexus, as hard as you can. Trust me, that will leave them gasping for breath.”
“And being stabbed with a nail hurts even more,” Iris whispered. She looked from her invented weapon to the door and then to her children, trying to calculate the angles and distance. She needed the twins to cooperate, but how can one ask that of a two year old? What if they would get in the way and get hurt? That would be something she would never be able to forgive herself for. Still, there had to be something she could do.
Somewhere in the building she heard an angry voice. It was hard to make out the words, but the sentiment was crystal clear; their kidnapper was anything but happy.
Lauren Darkwolf looked at the group of people that was gathered in the Clemente's large living room. It was easy to see the resemblance between the different family members and Lauren expected Iris to share her siblings' dark coloring. Still, she made a mental note to ask for a picture of her and the twins, just to make sure she would recognize them.
Eva was standing next to her brother, Felix and was talking to him in a hushed voice. Every now and then he nodded. Their faces wore a grim expression and it was easy to see that underneath their calm exterior there was a simmering anger. Lauren was happy to see they managed to stay composed and did not rush headlong into a rescue attempt. After all, they had the entire night to come up with a plan.
Lauren's gaze travelled to Maureen and Sigrid who were using their laptops to go over satellite images of the area. Every now and then they wrote something down, before returning to the screen. It was their task to map the area around the Megunticook campground in order to figure out who would take what position and where. The rescue operation they were planning had to go as smooth as possible and they had to be prepared for every scenario in order to bring Iris and the twins safely home again.
Maureen must have felt Lauren's gaze, because her head lifted and for a brief moment their eyes met. They exchanged a smile, before Maureen turned her attention to Sigrid who was pointing out something on the screen. It left Lauren with a warm feeling in her chest. Their current case was ‘of the books', so to speak and even though they officially were on vacation, their involvement could potentially get them into trouble. Still, Maureen had not hesitated one moment when Eva's call for help had come in. Neither had their supervisor, who had approved their use of a federal jet. Of course, the fact that the aircraft had to go to the Northeast had been tremendously helpful.
Lauren's phone buzzed and she pulled it out of her pocket to look at the screen. She smiled when she noticed the sender of the text message; her brother Jim and their cousins had arrived and were waiting for instructions. Lauren quickly answered the message, before putting her phone away. Her gaze swept the room and rested on Eva when she cleared her throat before speaking.
“May I, please, have everyone's attention?”
All heads turned to Lauren and the room went very quiet.
“I've called in some help and those troops have arrived.” For a fleeting moment a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth when she saw Maureen's grin. “They are my brothers, Charles and Joseph and my cousin Aaron, who flew them here. All three of them work directly, or indirectly for law enforcement and I trust them with my life.” Lauren paused for a moment. “I've send them ahead to scout the area where we think Whitfield is keeping Iris and the twins.”
“Are you sure that's a good idea?” The expression on Felix' face was one of worry. “They're not familiar with the area.”
“They don't have to be,” Lauren said. “They are excellent trackers. They feel very much at home in the wilderness, any wilderness.” Lauren looked at a clock on the wall. “It's a little past midnight now. They'll get back to me within the next hour or so. After they do, we can finalize our plan.”
‘Thank you, Lauren.” Eva's voice was soft and she sounded tired. Lauren figured they could all use a few hours of sleep, but she knew the suggestion would fall on deaf ears. Nobody would sleep until the family was complete again,
It was dark in the woods. The moonlight was not able to illuminate the pine needle littered ground underneath the towering evergreen trees. Booted feet carefully made their way through underbrush and around tree stumps and saplings. The only audible sound was that of a distant owl.
Branches were carefully bent, but never broken, when three dark figures made their way through the woods. Even though their surroundings were dark and unfamiliar, they knew exactly where to go. With a map firmly planted in their memory they made good time and it didn't take long for them to arrive in an area where the trees grew more scarce, which was a clear indication the road they were heading for had come closer. Sticking to the darkness and cover of the tree line they continued following the curve of the road, heading for their goal that had become visible as soon as they had rounded a corner. Soft light illuminated a window and the three shadows halted. A silent conversation took place and three shadowy figures split up and continued their journey in different directions.
Iris shifted on the mattress, careful not to wake Olivia and Oliver, who had finally gone to sleep. The last few hours had been incredibly difficult, because both of them had been crying and, in Olivia's case, screaming, because they wanted to go home. At first, Iris had turned their situation into a game, but it hadn't taken long for the twins to become bored and whiny. They were cold, hungry and could feel Iris' anguish and stress, which had only made matters worse.
Donald Whitfield had loudly banged on the door, demanding Iris keep her children quiet. His speech had been slurred and Iris was afraid he was drunk, which made her even more worried. If he ended up doing something utterly stupid, she and the children had nowhere to go. Concern for her children had asked her to please give them something to eat, because it would most likely help settle them down. There had not been an answer, but a few minutes later the door was opened and two bags were thrown inside the room. Before Iris had been able to react, the door had slammed shut again and she had heard the lock click back into place.
One bag had contained a loaf of bread, a spoon and a plastic jar of peanut butter, while the other one revealed a couple of water bottles. Iris had immediately checked to see if the seal was still intact, which it was. The last thing she needed was for their abductor to all sedate them with something.
Oliver and Olivia had wolfed down two sandwiches each, but Iris had not been able to eat. The anxiety made her stomach churn every time she thought about food. She had drunk a little bit of water and luckily that has stayed down. She had been able to convince the twins that they were playing a game and that they had to stay quiet; the one who could do that for the longest time would be the winner. Unfortunately, two year olds do not have much of an attention span and within the hour they were both asking her when they could go home. Iris had no answers and had come up with a few other games to play. Eventually, Oliver had fallen asleep again and Olivia followed suit. That had been a few hours ago. Iris wondered what time it was. There was no light coming through the window, so whether it was day or night remained a mystery.
Slowly, Iris stood up and stretched. After being in the dimly light room for hours her eyes had adjusted and she was able to see more than she had after she had just arrived. There was a small closet in the corner of the room. It was empty. When she had opened the door, she had been greeted by four shelves that were securely in place and discouraged she had turned away. She refused to give up and just accept her fate. There had to be something she would be able to do. Opening the door would be would be impossible, because she had seen the padlock at the other side of the door. If, by a miracle, she would be able to make a hole in the door without Whitfield noticing, she still would have to pick the lock, something she had never done before and was clueless about.
Again, Iris gaze traveled to where the small window was. If she'd stand on her toes and stretch, she would be able to feel if it was glass or something else. She walked until she was underneath the window and stretched. When she put her hand against the material, she could feel it was glass. The surface felt a little rough, which must have been the paint that had blacked the window out.
Iris gazed at the improvised weapon in her hand. Maybe she could scratch some of the paint away. Or better yet, if she could break the window and knock the remaining shards out they might have a chance to escape. Deep down inside she knew she was grasping at straws, but anything was better than sitting around and doing nothing. She owed it to herself and her children to at least try.
Sigrid cast a gaze at the clock in the right hand corner of her computer screen. It was almost two o'clock in the morning. Four more hours until they would rendezvous with Douglas Whitfield. The thought both terrified and comforted her. Iris and the children would be safe, but she would be in the hands of a madman. She hadn't really worked it out in detail yet, but her plan was to make sure Eva would not be able to join her in the exchange. Whitfield clearly wanted her, probably as a bargaining chip, since the organization he appeared to be a part of was slowly starting to unravel.
Sigrid's gaze traveled to Eva who was slumped on the couch, in between her brothers. Her eyes were closed and at first glance it was like she was sleeping, but a closer look showed her breathing pattern was anything but deep and regular. Her facial features were tense and Sigrid knew Eva's brain was anything but resting.
“Why don't you try and nap for a while?” Maureen's voice was low, almost a whisper, in order to prevent anyone who actually was sleeping from waking up.
Sigrid shook her head. “I can't. I am too worried. Too nervous. Too…everything, really.”
Maureen nodded and pushed a strand of hair away from her forehead. “I know the feeling, trust me. And I don't like it one bit. I hate having to wait like this. Don't think I like action-packed shoot-outs, chaos and mayhem, although at least I feel like I'm doing something then. This is nerve wracking.” She paused and took a look at the information on Sigrid's laptop screen. “That's some impressive sleuthing.”
“Thank you.” Sigrid rubbed her eyes. They felt gritty and dry. “It has taken me quite a long time to get all this information together, though. And even longer before I could see what tied it all together.”
“There's no way you could have known a senator was involved in human trafficking.” Maureen's voice was low, but full of conviction. “Don't beat yourself up.”
Sigrid looked up and Maureen smiled.
“I've been there, done that. I've worked cases that seemed like endless gathering of information. And then when I thought I had it all together I couldn't make sense of it. When I finally did, I wondered how much damage could have been avoided if only I had been a little faster, or a little more suspicious, or smarter.” She let out a soft laugh. “Trust me, it won't do you any good.”
“I know you're right,” Sigrid said. “Still, I can't help wondering how many victims like Megan, Danh and Anjuli could have been saved if only—.”
Maureen lifted her hand and interrupted. “Don't go there. Just think about it this way; how many children will you save by shutting down this trafficking ring. It looks like they have branches spreading out all over the country. Who knows how many Megans, Dahns and Anjulis we will find within the next few weeks.”
After a brief silence Sigrid gave Maureen a friendly pat on the hand. “Thank you,” said. “I think that's exactly what I needed to hear.”
“Anytime.” Maureen smiled. She grabbed an empty cup that was sitting on the table in front of Sigrid and held it up. “I can tell you won't be going to sleep any time soon. Would you like a refill on your coffee?”
The house was dark, except for the light coming through a window near the front door. They had observed from a distance and circled the building twice, looking for security cameras and booby-traps, but they had not found anything. Using sign language, a silent conversation took place and mere minutes later the three figures split and went in different directions. The only sound that could be heard was the hoot of an owl, somewhere above their heads, and the occasional soft rustling of branches that were stirred by the breeze.
With all her senses alert, Iris stretched out her arm and used the nail she was holding to try and scape some of the paint off the window. Because of the dim light it was hard to tell if her effort was successful, even though her fingertips could feel the tiny, curled flakes of paint that had come loose. She had decided to try and clear a tiny area, just enough to be able to see if it was day or night. It took a few minutes to clear a spot and Iris' arm felt like it was on fire from working in an outstretched, tense position. At first she could not see any difference; the entire window was as dark as it had been before. But then, after peering at the spot she had been working on, she thought she noticed a different kind of darkness; a darkness that was less black than the window.
“It must be night then,” Iris whispered to herself. She wondered if her abductor was asleep. It had been hours since she had heard him stumbling around the house, talking to himself or maybe to someone on the phone. The last thing she needed was him barging into the room while she was trying to figure out how to get herself and the twins out of the room and out of the house.
Iris stretched as far as she could. She let her fingertips explore the narrow windowsill. It was a long shot, but still, if she was lucky she might discover a latch to open the window. To her surprise her fingers bumped against something hard. It felt like metal and while she let her fingers carefully map the object, a picture formed in her mind. It was a latch, one of those that had to be pushed sideways in order to unlock a window. Iris' fingertips grabbed the latch and she pushed. Nothing happened. The latch did not move. She then pulled and again there was no movement at all.
“Damn. It must be painted shut.” Iris took a step back and rubbed her sore arm. “I hate it when people do that.”
“Did you send them ahead to just scout, or did you give them some additional tasks?”
Surprised, Lauren turned around. Eva was standing behind her and looked at her with a calm, but curious expression.
“Why would you think that?” Lauren countered.
“You sent them ahead to scout quite a while ago. I've been told about their reputation as trackers and I know they must have told you whether they've found Whitfield's location or not.” Eva paused for a moment. “So, have they?”
Lauren's gaze took in the people in the room. Only she and Eva were awake. Even Charles had dosed off in the big recliner Agnes had put them as soon as he had walked in. Meg, Betty and Twitch had been offered the guest rooms, which had been gladly accepted. It had been a long day and their exhaustion had been clear to see.
Lauren did not want to lie to her friend. “Yes, they have.”
Eva nodded. “That's what I thought. What's the plan?”
Lauren smiled. “You're not annoyed with me for doing this behind your back?”
“I would have been if I felt you didn't know what you're doing. So, no, I'm not annoyed.” Eva sent Lauren a small smile. “Care to share?”
“I don't think Whitfield is doing this by himself. He's not the type for solo actions like this kidnapping.”
Eva was about to speak and Lauren quickly held up her hand.
“Before you say anything, I've got…eyes on Brothers and Tate and they are moving.”
“Are they heading this way?” The expression on Eva's changed from curious to grim. “Do you really think they're in it with Whitfield?”
Lauren nodded. “I do.”
“Who are ‘your eyes'?” Eva wanted to know, using her index and middle finger to make quotation marks.
“Have you met Ronald Thureaux?”
Eva frowned. “I've heard the name. Isn't he a State Trooper in the Lakes' Region?”
Lauren nodded. “That's the one. He went to college with one of my brothers and they've stayed in touch. When I asked him if he could keep an eye on Brothers and Tate he was more than willing to help out.”
Despite the tension and worry, Eva chuckled. “I guess it's nice to have connections.”
Lauren smiled. “It sure is.”
There was a brief silence. “So, your brothers have found Whitfield. What's next? Will they follow him to the drop-off? What's the plan?”
“We're not waiting that long. I —.” Lauren was interrupted by her buzzing cellphone. She quickly pulled it out of its case and glanced at the screen. “Excellent.”
Iris had made herself as comfortable as she could on the thin, lumpy mattress. Her arm was sore and she was cold, hungry and tired. Her initial fear had turned into anger. It fueled her determination to, somehow, fight back. The window didn't provide an option to escape, the door was padlocked and there was no other way out. Iris calculated how many steps it took to get to the door from where she sat. As soon as she would hear fumbling with the lock, she would get to her feet, take a firm hold of her makeshift weapon and try to incapacitate their kidnapper. It didn't seem a great plan, but at the moment it was the only one she could come up with. Even though she had no sense of time, it seemed like time was crawling. It had been hours since she had heard any sound coming from the other side of the locked door. Her kidnapper must have fallen asleep.
Iris twirled the metal rod in her hand. Her eyes were glued to the nail that was sticking out of it, while in her mind the words ‘punch, stab, kick' were forming a mantra. The idea of stabbing another human being with a rusty nail made her nauseous. No matter whom that person was. The only thing that would make her perform an act of violence like that was to protect her children. She would not stand by and do nothing while her twins were in danger. As soon as Whitfield would walk in the door, Iris would be waiting for him. Before he would be able to react, she would hit him in the solar plexus, jab the nail in his shoulder and, if possible, kick him in the groin.
All of a sudden the sound of someone stumbling startled Iris. She quickly jumped to her feet and glanced at Oliver and Olivia. They were still asleep, oblivious to their surroundings and briefly Iris wondered how she would get them past Whitfield, once she had incapacitated him.
Iris felt her heart rate pick up and she quickly wiped her sudden clammy palms on the top of the jeans she was wearing. The last thing she needed was the spiked metal rod to slip out of her hand the moment she really needed it. A rush of fear made her light-headed and she shook her head to get rid of the feeling. Now was not the time to faint. The realization that if she would lose consciousness Whitfield could grab her kids and leave caused a surge of anger. It was what she needed to stay focused and with a few steps Iris was standing next to the door. She figured that anyone opening the door would have trouble seeing who was inside and where they would be, because of the dim light. She would use that knowledge to her advantage by striking as soon as the door opened and Whitfield stepped inside. Iris had a firm grip on the metal rod in her hand and while her heart pounded in her chest, she waited.
“Excellent?” Eva looked at the look of satisfaction on Lauren's face. “What happened?”
Lauren turned her phone and held it up so Eva could read the message on the display.
“Done. Waiting for package.”
“Does that mean what I think it means?” Eva said. “They have found the place where Whitfield is holding Iris and the twins?” She hardly dared to hope, but the smile on Lauren's face was her answer and a feeling of profound relief chased away the heaviness that had settled in her chest the moment she had received the call from Douglas Whitfield telling her he had Iris and the twins. “It's a little after three now, when are we going?”
“Within the next hour,” Lauren said. “There's something you need to know, though.”
Eva could feel her body tense and a feeling of trepidation crawled back into her stomach. “What?”
“Come on, come on.” Iris body was so tense she could feel her knees tremble. She was facing the door, ready to strike the moment Whitfield would walk inside. In her head she had gone over the steps multiple times. It was Eva's voice that kept repeating the instructions: punch, hard, use your fist and go for the area just above the stomach, when your attacker doubles over you elbow him in the temple. If he doesn't double over after you hit him, kick him in the groin, as hard as you can. Then elbow him.”
“Punch the stomach, stab the arm with the gun, elbow his temple” Iris whispered. She glanced over to where the children were sleeping. Every now and then Olivia mumbled in her sleep, but she had not woken up yet.
A sound just outside the door made Iris almost jump. She could feel her mouth go dry and her heart rate doubled. “Punch, stab, elbow.” The mantra kept repeating itself inside her head while she took up position behind the door. She double-checked the distance between the door and where she stood, wanting to make absolutely sure the element of surprise would be in her favor.
With a loud click, the door was unlocked. Iris clenched her weapon in her hand and willed herself not to tremble, which only partly succeeded. She took a deep breath and cast a quick look in the direction of her sleeping twins. All of a sudden, she felt calmer and she knew she would be able to do what she had to to protect them. No matter what.
Slowly the door opened and Iris squinted her eyes against the light that fell through. For a split second she was blinded, but then she noticed the outline of a tall body and without warning she surged forward, her weapon firmly clenched in a fist and held out in front of her. There was no way she could miss. The body she was aiming for turned sideways the moment the tip of the nail touched fabric and the noise of fabric tearing filled the silence.
“What the —?” a man's voice exclaimed.
A large hand grabbed Iris' arm and she wrestled to get loose. The man was talking to her, but in her state of near-panic the words did not penetrate the fog of fear that surrounded her. From behind, a strong grip pinned her arms against her body. The calm voice near her ear finally registered as Iris gasped for breath.
“Calm down. Relax. You're alright. Just take a deep breath. We're here to help and get you and your children to safety. Your sister Eva and brother Felix know we're here.”
It was the last sentence that made Iris aware of her surroundings again and her body relaxed.
“My name is Joseph Darkwolf and the tall dude over there, holding Mr. Whitfield by the scruff of his neck is my baby brother, Charles. We're going to take you out of here.”
“How can I know you're telling the truth?” Iris was not ready yet to believe what she was told.
“Good question. I will show you my badge, as long as you promise not to stick me with that thing you have.” There was a hint of humor in the deep voice.
When Iris shook her head, one hand let go of her to reach inside a pocket. A few moments later she was looking at his badge and immediately her body relaxed.
“Oh, God, I almost stabbed you,” she whispered.
Joseph Darkwolf grinned and gently patted Iris' back. “Almost doesn't count,” he said. “All I have is a ruined shirt. Now, let's get your babies and get you out of here.”
Lauren's gaze traveled to the room behind Eva. All the occupants were in some state of slumber. Nobody was paying attention to their conversation.
“Your sister and the twins are safe.”
The words were spoken very softly and Eva thought she had misheard. She tilted her head. “What?”
“They're safe, Iris and the twins. My brother Joseph is taking them to a safe place right now.”
There was a brief silence in which Eva tried to comprehend what she had just heard. “But, how—?”
“We'll hear the details later. The goal was to locate and retrieve, which has been accomplished. Now all we have to do is wait until the brain, or brains, behind this kidnapping will show up.”
“I'm still blown away by what you've just told me, but I'd like to be there when they arrive,” Eva said.
Lauren smiled. “You will. Now, go tell Jesse her family is safe and sound. She can't leave to be with them yet, though.”
Eva nodded. “You think someone is monitoring the house?”
“It wouldn't surprise me, so I don't want to take a risk. I really want to catch as many of this trafficking ring as possible, especially if they're highly ranked within the organization.” There was a grim expression on her face. “And I'd really like to get my hands on this senator.”
“I don't have a good feeling about this, Archie. I mean, it all went to hell in a hand basket when we tried to get to them in the woods. They keep escaping us.”
“One of the reasons of the woods fiasco was your nephew,” Archibald Tate said to the man who was driving the truck they were in. “You seriously lost control of him.”
“How could I know he was such a religious freak? I swear I had no idea he'd go that far. All I asked him to do was follow that Meyers chick and scare the crap out of her. He went completely nuts.”
“That's what I mean; you lost control of him and because of that, we lost those kids. The boss is furious about that, because now we've got to find a new place and change the route.”
Jeremy Brothers clenched his fists. “When I get a hold of them, I swear, they'll pay.”
Archibald Tate, a short, overweight man whose skin was pasty looking, cast a look aside and chuckled. “The boss wants to talk to them first.”
“I know. But after that, I'd like to be the one to hurt them.”
“Only if you beat Whitfield to it. The man has serious issues with Clemente. But then, I'd be pissed as well if someone lower in rank would outsmart me.”
“You sound like you admire her.”
“In a way I do. I like an opponent who keeps me on my toes.”
Jeremy Brothers snorted. “You're out of your mind. This opponent can land us in jail for the rest of our lives.”
“Only if she wins. Right now we're one step ahead of her. She and Meyers will be walking into the trap Whitfield set and we'll be there to watch.”
“Will the boss be there as well?”
“Hell, no. He's not gonna dirty his hands. He'll be waiting somewhere else and need us to bring the package to him, so he can deal with them first. I'm sure he wants us to make it look like an accident.”
After talking to Lauren Darkwolf, Eva Clemente headed over to where Sigrid was dozing in a chair that was so big, it almost swallowed her whole. In spite of the tense situation, Eva smiled when she saw Sigrid, curled up in the chair, her blonde hair a contrast against the dark fabric.
Eva knelt down in front of the chair and put a hand on Sigrid's thigh. She gave it a gentle squeeze and chuckled when Sigrid muttered something in her sleep.
“Sigrid, wake up, sweetie.” The term of endearment passed her lips spontaneously.
A pair of sleepy, blue eyes opened and looked at Eva with a mixture of alarm and confusion.
“What —?” She immediately sat upright.
“I need to bring you up to speed,” Eva said. She deliberately kept her voice down. “There has been a positive development.”
“I can do positive.” Sigrid stifled a yawn and gazed up at Eva expectantly.
“Let's go to the kitchen, so we can talk without waking anyone up.”
Sigrid quietly stood and followed Eva through the large room. All of a sudden she grabbed the back of Eva's shirt and stopped. “Where's Jesse?”
Eva took her hand and gave it a gentle tug. “She's with Lauren and Maureen. I'll fill you in when we're in the kitchen.”
“I hope that comes with coffee.” Sigrid's voice was low, but Eva had heard the remark and she smiled.
“A whole, fresh pot.”
As soon as the kitchen door closed behind them Sigrid turned to Eva. The sleep had left her eyes. She was wide awake and looking up at Eva, ready for her to start talking. “What happened?”
“Iris and the twins are safe.” Eva decided to start with the most important news first. The explanation would follow.
“Oh, my God! That is wonderful. What —?”
Eva smiled at the happiness on Sigrid's face. “Let me give you the summary.”
After Eva had related the newest events, there was a brief silence.
“So, what's the plan now? Are we still going ahead with the exchange?”
Eva nodded. “We are. There's no way Whitfield would have been doing such a tricky thing all by himself. This is our chance to catch his associates.”
“Tate and Brothers,” Sigrid said.
“We don't know that for sure.”
“Maybe not a hundred percent,” Sigrid said. “But after what I've heard, read and seen, I firmly believe those two are the ones who will be summoned to do the dirty work. Senator Chandler will do anything he can to keep his hands as clean as possible.”
“Lauren hopes they'll give us enough evidence to nail the senator, even though we have the pictures. The information Casey has is pretty incriminating on its own,” Eva said. She took the coffeepot and filled two mugs with the steaming liquid. She added a dash of milk to one of them and handed it to Sigrid, who sent her a radiant smile.
“You already know how I take my coffee.”
Eva chuckled. “No sugar, milk, not cream.” She leaned in and gave Sigrid a quick kiss, careful not to spill the hot coffee.
“You are very trainable,” Sigrid teased.
“You have no idea.” Eva smiled.
Sigrid took a sip of her coffee and hummed in delight. “I'm very much looking forward to advancing your training to the next level.”
Eva laughed softly. “Are you flirting with me?”
“Very much so and if you have to ask, I'm not doing it right,” Sigrid quipped. She put her mug down on the kitchen counter, next to Eva's and half-turned to be able to wrap her arms around Eva's neck. “I know we'll be leaving soon and things might get tricky, so, how about a proper kiss?”
Eva did not need much encouragement. She wrapped her arms around Sigrid's slightly smaller frame, pulled her close and covered her lips with her own. Within moments they had lost themselves in the warmth and sensuality of their connection. Sigrid's hands slowly slid down Eva's back and found a way underneath her sweater, caressing the warm skin she found there. She let out a soft moan when Eva mimicked that action and pressed even closer. Still, somewhere in the back of their minds they remembered where they were and why they had to curb their rapidly intensifying kissing. With mutual, unspoken consent they slowly drew apart, until they were looking at each other almost nose-to-nose.
“Thank you,” Sigrid whispered against Eva's lips.
“You're most definitely more than welcome,” Eva said softly.
They both smiled and simultaneously reached for their coffee.
Sigrid let out a deep sigh. “I know this is not exactly the ideal place and time to make a confession, but I'd like you to know I have fallen hard and fast for you.”
Eva smiled, reached out a hand and tucked a strand of blond hair behind Sigrid's ear. For a moment, her fingers lingered and caressed the soft skin of her cheek. “Same here. I think I was attracted to you the moment I saw you in your office. I remember thinking you were very cute, even though you were completely shaken up.”
“It's not every day I find a dead body in my church,” Sigrid said. The memory made her shiver. “I still have bad dreams about that.”
Eva nodded. “I know. You talk in your sleep.”
“That's great. I guess I won't be able to keep any secrets from you then.”
“Would you want to?” Eva teased.
Sigrid chuckled and shook her head. “My Dad always says I'm an open book anyway. And now this open book is talking in her sleep as well. Great.”
Eva couldn't help herself. She leaned forward and kissed Sigrid again. Her lips were warm, moist and tasted like coffee. “Would it help if I said you're very adorable when you sleep, even when giving away all the FBI's secrets?” she whispered.
Sigrid licked her lips and sighed. “Absolutely.”
They both laughed and stepped back a little.
“So, what plan did you and Lauren come up with while I was asleep?”
Eva took a sip of her coffee before answering. “The plan is to go to the cabin where Whitfield was holed up and join Lauren's brothers. Aaron, her cousin will stay with Iris and the kids until this is all over. Whitfield is not talking, but the brothers found evidence he's expecting company. We plan on being in the cabin when the company arrives. The most simple scenario is that they walk in and we arrest them. Clean and simple.”
“In theory,” Sigrid said.
“Correct. We both know simple is usually not how thing develop, so we'll have to be prepared for the worst as well.”
“Which would be —?”
“That they find out we're there and come in guns blazing. I don't really expect that, because we do have the element of surprise, but still, one never knows,” Eva said.
“Do we have to hike to the cabin?”
Eva shook her head. “There's a service road behind the cabin. Our cars will be out of sight.”
Sigrid nodded. “Good. I've had my share of wading through snow and being shot at. That reminds me, did they ever get back to you with the names of the goons who were chasing us when we found the kids?”
“They had no ID, their fingerprints are not in the system and they're still refusing to talk. The local police believe they might be members of a militia.”
Sigrid made a face. “Oh, that's great. That makes this case a lot more complicated, doesn't it?”
Eva nodded. “Unfortunately, yes. Although I doubt they're willingly involved in the human trafficking. They're usually just anti-government and don't deal with the likes of Tate, Brothers and Chandler .”
“They must have told them a good story about us then, if they were willing to shoot at us.” Involuntary, Sigrid shivered. “I'll be so happy when this is all over.”
“That makes two of us,” Eva said. “Let's hope we can put it all behind us at the end of this day.”
“Are you sure this is the right place?” Jeremy Brothers stared at the snow-covered road in front of them. A single set of tire tracks was the only sign someone had traveled the road at some point after the last snowstorm.
“Yes, it is. He's waiting for us in one of the cabins at the end.”
“We hope,” Brothers muttered. “How do we know it's not some kind of trap?”
“Because the text Whitfield sent us was loud and clear. He's the only one in this park and he's waiting for us with the woman and kids. As soon as we're there, we'll load them up and drive to the exchange spot.”
“And we'll finally have to chance to shut up those broads forever.”
Tate grinned. “That's right. Meyers has been annoying me for a few good years now. I don't have any patience for queer folk.”
Brothers nodded. “It's a waste for her to be a lesbian, she's not unattractive.”
They both laughed as Tate steered his truck onto the small track that would lead them to the cabin where Douglas Whitfield was waiting for them. Their excitement grew when they noticed a single car in front of one of the cabins. The curtains were drawn, but they could see the light was on.
“He's up already,” Brothers said, unbuckling his seatbelt when Tate parked the truck behind the car in the tiny driveway.
“He better got some coffee ready as well.” Brothers stepped out of the truck and hiked up his jeans that had slid down his wiry frame. “That was a long damn drive all the way from home.”
“Even better if he's got a shot of liquor to go with it,” Tate said. He followed the taller Brothers up the shoveled path to the front door and waited for the door to be opened after he had knocked.
“Door's open,” a muffled voice sounded from the back of the house.
“I can smell the coffee already,” Brothers said with a grin. He opened the door and stepped inside, closely followed by Tate. The room was fairly small, but it was nice and warm. It was sparsely furnished, like so many rental cabins, with a couch, a recliner and a small coffee table.
“It's not the Ritz, that's for sure,” Tate joked.
“No kidding.” Brothers looked around and softy snorted. “My idea of a cabin is some deer on the wall, a roaring fire, a big recliner and my wife cooking for me.”
They both laughed again. “Hey, Whitfield. Where the hell are you?”
Tate grinned and closed the door behind him. He froze when, all of a sudden, he looked into the barrel of a gun. He was so surprised his mouth fell open, but no sound came out.
“What the —?” Brothers whirled around and reached inside the pocket of his jacket.
“I wouldn't do that, if I were you,” a deep male voice said. He almost sounded amused. “But then, if you do, I've got plenty of reasons to put a hole in you. Trust me, I'd love to do that to such a scumbag.”
“Damnit,” Brothers cursed. “Who the hell are you?”
“Police,” a lighter, female voice stated.
Both Tate and Brothers turned around and the surprise on their faces almost made Lauren laugh.
“Right here.” Eva Clemente walked into the room with a handcuffed man in front of her. Sigrid was right behind her.
“Hello, boys,” she said.
The anger turned Tate's face red. The look he sent Sigrid was full of hate. “You little…I should have —.”
“You'd better be careful with what you're going to say,” Eva interrupted him. “Because as of now, all you say can and definitely will be used against you in a court of law. You do have the right to remain silent,” she added lightly.
Lauren stepped forward and grabbed Brothers' arm, firmly putting it behind his back. “Jeremy Brothers , you are under arrest for the trafficking of humans, endangering the welfare of minors, the possession of child pornography and a whole slew of other offenses.” The handcuffs clicked shut. “And like my friend already said; you do have the right to remain silent.”
Before he knew what was happening, Archibald Tate was cuffed as well. Furious, he tried to kick at Joseph Darkwolf, who simply stepped aside. His dark eyes were filled with contempt when he looked at the much shorter man. “I will not hesitate to put shackles on you,” he warned.
Tate's gaze settled on Sigrid. “You don't know who you're messing with,” he spat.
Sigrid, unafraid, stepped forward. “As a matter of fact, I do,” she said. “There's a lot we already know and we actually have evidence to back it all up. It was such a pity you couldn't find the SD card, wasn't it?”
All color drained from Tate's face and when Sigrid cast a look at Brothers she noticed he had turned pale as well. She reached in her pocket and pulled out the tiny plastic box that held the memory card. “One of you dropped it while leaving my church and I believe it's only a matter of time before we know who killed Michael Bell.”
“I never killed anyone in my life,” Brothers quickly stated.
“Must be you then,” Sigrid said, addressing Archibald Tate.
“What do you know?” he yelled. “You're nothing but a pitiful church person. The day they let you women preach was the end of established morals.”
“Just tell us how you feel,” Eva muttered.
“Oh, haven't I told you?” Sigrid feigned innocence when she pulled out her leather ID. She flipped it open and made sure both Brothers and Tate could have a good look at it.
“FBI?” Brothers whispered, turning even whiter than he already was.
Eva grinned. “Among other things. Now, I'd love to stay and chat, but we have work to do. It would be very helpful if you'd tell us where you're supposed to meet with Senator Chandler.”
“Who?” Tate croaked.
“Your boss,” Lauren said. “You know, the person who tells you what to do, when to do it and how to do it. I'm sure the prosecutor would be willing to believe you cooperated if we testified to that.”
“How can I be sure of that?” Brothers asked. He looked defeated.
“You can't,” Lauren said. “You'll have to wait and see. I have a problem dealing with lowlifes like you, so don't take any chances ticking me off more than I already am.”
Brothers cast a look at his friend who shook his head. “What do you want to know?”
“Are you crazy?” Tate yelled at him. “Don't you tell them anything, you hear? You know what happens with snitches.”
Lauren gestured to her brother. “Please, take him to another room, Joe. He's interfering with a good conversation.”
Tate wanted to resist, but the taller and much stronger Joseph Darkwolf practically lifted the man up and took him into the room where Whitfield had held Iris. It was where Charles Darkwolf and Maureen were holding Douglas Whitfield, who was sitting on the floor, his hands behind his back and his head bent. The moment Tate laid eyes on him, he started to curse and he only stopped when Joseph's grip on his biceps became unbearable.
“Welcome to the party,” Maureen grinned.
“So, where were we?” Lauren pushed Brothers down on the couch and looked down on him. “You were going to say —?
Sigrid looked in the mirror and readjusted the collar of the blue dress that reached just above her knees. Her freshly washed hair framed her face that bore only the lightest touch of make-up. “I'm not going to mess with it,” she told her reflection. “I'm pretty sure this will do. If anyone has a problem with this, well, they'll just have to deal with it.”
“Deal with what? Are you talking to yourself?” Eva stepped inside and Sigrid immediately forgot what the question had been.”
“Wow, look at you.” She slowly walked around Eva, admiring every inch of her.
“You're making me slightly uncomfortable,” Eva said. There was a hint of humor in her voice.
“That's your own fault for looking like this,” Sigrid said.
Eva was wearing black jeans, a black turtleneck sweater and a black leather jacket. Her short, dark hair was deliberately mussed up with some gel, giving her a boyish yet still feminine look.
“You look stunning.” Sigrid sighed and stopped in front of Eva. She reached out and fingered the zipper of the leather jacket. “Next to you I look drab.”
Eva laughed and shook her head. “You could never look drab, even if you tried. You look beautiful in that dress.”
“Is it not too short?”
“Is that the Pastor asking?” Eva teased.
“No, it's Sigrid, who hasn't been on a date since…well, since forever. And before you say anything, I know this isn't exactly a date, but we are going to a club, so…never mind, I'm rambling.” Sigrid shook her head and turned to walk back to the hotel's mirror in the hallway, but she was stopped by Eva who had grabbed her hand.
“You are gorgeous,” Eva said. “The blue dress is sexy, without being provocative and color accentuates the blue of your eyes. You look utterly scrumptious. If anyone makes a pass at you, I might have to deck them.”
Sigrid laughed. “That would be something to behold.” Her face quickly turned serious again. “I'm a little nervous.”
“Because you don't have room for a gun in that outfit?” Eva joked.
“Oh, heavens, no. Besides, don't even mention guns. By the sound of it, this club is going to be crowded. Can you imagine someone pulling out a gun? That would be utter mayhem.” Sigrid paused. “And I'm counting on you, Lauren, Maureen and the boys to keep me safe.”
“And I promise we will.” Eva reached out and let her fingers slide through Sigrid's blond hair. “We all will be there.”
“I'm still amazed Senator Chandler would meet his minions in a gay club like the ‘Drag ‘n Dress'.”
“Probably because he knows no-one would expect him there,” Eva said.
“He's gonna flip out when he sees me, though,” Sigrid said. “According to Casey he knows what I look like.”
“But he doesn't expect you at all. He's waiting for Tate and Brothers. You have the element of surprise. Personally, I'm thrilled. This club has been bugging me ever since we found its name connected to Michael Bell. Now we know he must have been on to Chandler using it for his shady meetings.”
“It does make all the pieces fall into place.” Sigrid took a deep breath. “Alright, I'm ready.”
“Let's go then.” Eva cast a look at her wristwatch. “Lauren and Maureen are probably there already.” She grabbed Sigrid's hand and together they walked to the door, but before she opened it she turned and kissed Sigrid's lips. “This is the last round. After tonight the only thing that will be left is paperwork. After that, I'll take you to Florida , because we have a date with a white beach.”
“That sounds heavenly.” Sigrid smiled. “That thought does make me want to do this as soon as possible, so we can actually lounge on a beach. I know a perfect spot near where my parents live.”
“I'm looking forward to you showing me.” Eva gave the hand in hers a gentle squeeze.
“You just want to see me in a bikini.”
Eva laughed. “That, too.”
The music in the club was loud and the strobe lights were bright. The dance floor was packed with bodies moving to a thundering beat that was deafening and disorienting. Sigrid had needed a few minutes to get used to the atmosphere before she even could step closer to the bar which was the length of the wall. She could count at least six bartenders. Wait staff smoothly moved through the throngs of people to deliver drinks to about ten tables behind the dance floor. It was hard to see if all the tables were occupied, but judging by the amount of people inside the ‘Drag ‘n Dress' Sigrid expected there was probably no place left to sit.
In the far corner a stage was being readied for the weekly drag show and Sigrid realized Chandler 's timing was good. With all eyes focused on the stage, no one would pay him any attention.
Sigrid's eyes scanned the crowd, looking for familiar faces. She couldn't find Charles, but she did see the tall Joseph. He was standing at the far corner of the bar. He was wearing a black sleeveless, tight shirt that nicely showed off his impressive biceps. A few young men surrounded him and it seemed he was dealing with the attention good naturedly.
Sigrid knew Eva would be close by at all times and she resisted the urge to look around in order to find her. The last thing she needed to do was draw attention to her. Chandler probably figured she would not be alone, but it wasn't necessary for him to know whom she was with. Not until they had figured out if he had brought protection and if so, where they were.
Sigrid moved along the edge of the dance floor and almost tripped over her own feet when she noticed Lauren and Maureen. The latter was wearing tight, black leather pants and a loose white tunic, while Lauren wore black jeans, a white shirt, topped with a colorful, beaded vest. They made a stunning couple and Sigrid noticed how many people cast them looks that ranged from admiration to envy. Inwardly she chuckled when Lauren sent her a wink. It was good to know they were keeping an eye on her.
When she finally reached the far corner of the dance floor she finally noticed Charles. He was standing in the corner, looking dark and brooding. The plan was for Chandler and his people to think he was a bouncer, while the other people in the club thought he was part of Chandler 's entourage. He was wearing dark shades, so Sigrid could not see his eyes, but she did notice that the corner of his mouth slightly turned up.
Aaron was nowhere to be found. Lauren's cousin had blended in so well, Sigrid could not see him and she hoped he was nearby as well. After she had first met him, when he brought home Iris and the twins, she had understood why Lauren had sent him to stay with Eva's sister; he was a bear of a man. He was as tall as Joseph, but broader, which made it an accomplishment on his part to blend in as well as he did.
Sigrid finally noticed Senator Chandler. He was sitting at the corner table, all by himself, but close by stood two men who almost screamed ‘security'. Their crew cuts and dark suits gave them away immediately. Sigrid decided to ignore them, knowing they would not want to make a scene in such a crowded club. Not yet, anyway.
Senator Chandler was busy with his phone and did not notice Sigrid until she sat down at the table across from him. His eyes briefly left his phone.
“Excuse me, young lady. I'm waiting for some friends, so when they arrive I might have to ask you to leave.”
“They're not coming,” Sigrid replied.
Chandler 's head shot up and Sigrid could tell when it dawned on him who she was. His eyes went wide and his body jerked slightly. He quickly regained his composure.
“Senator Chandler,” Sigrid said. She leaned back in her chair, waiting for him to start the conversation. She didn't have to wait too long. After all, Arthur Chandler was a politician.
“I'm surprised to see you here, Miss Meyers.”
“Not as surprised as I am to see you. After all, you voted against marriage equality stating that homosexuals are an abomination to God. That was you, right?”
“I'm sure that's not the reason you are here,” he stated in cool voice.
“Not exactly,” Sigrid said. She put her arms on the table and leaned forward a little. “I have something I'm sure you'd like.”
“Such as —?”
“Documents that show a link between you and a business that makes a lot of money with the trafficking of women and children from Asia .”
A frown marred the Senator's face. “I have no idea what you're referring to.”
“I also have pictures, many pictures.” Sigrid pointed at his phone. “If you're interested, I'm sure you'll find a few in your email.” She paused while the Senator stared at his phone. When he looked up again he was visibly pale.
“This doesn't prove anything,” he said.
“No, those couple of pictures don't, I agree. However, I've got more, this was just a preview.” Sigrid took a deep breath. “Senator, I have enough evidence to put you behind bars for the rest of your life, where you belong.”
“Then why are you here. Why am I not arrested yet?” He sounded defiant.
“Because I am asking you to do the right thing; turn yourself in. Don't make this harder on your wife than necessary.”
“You ordered Michael Bell to be murdered in my church. This meeting point here, the ‘Drag ‘n Dress' gave you the idea to put him in a dress, just to confuse the investigators. You had me followed by a religious zealot who went overboard and would have killed me had he been given the chance. He did burn down my house. You sent the militia after us. I'm not sure if that was to kill me, or just a scare tactic. Nevertheless, it's serious business. What else?” Sigrid paused for a moment and from the corner of her eye she noticed Charles Darkwolf had come closer. He was now leaning against the wall a few feet away from one of Chandler 's security men. “We found a safe house, part of a trafficking ring that has ties to you. In said house we found three children. You don't have to worry about them, they're safe now.” Sigrid's sarcasm made the Senator cringe. “We can prove that too. Oh, and Archibald Tate and Jeremy Brothers send you their best.”
Sigrid leaned back in her chair and watched Senator Chandler struggle to comprehend all she had told him. After she had mentioned Tate and Brothers, all color had drained from his face. He was breathing hard and for a split second Sigrid worried he might suffer a cardiac arrest. If he did, she would have to do CPR on him, which would be awkward.
The Senator looked away from Sigrid and gestured one of the security men to step closer. Sigrid's heart hammered in her chest and she could feel the palms of her hands were sweaty. She resisted the urge to wipe them on her dress. She didn't understand the few words the Senator whispered, but she did recognize the subtle movement the man made to try and free his sidearm. He was never able to do so. Before he knew it, Charles Darkwolf had his arm in an iron grip, while his cousin Aaron, who had suddenly appeared out of nothing, was holding both arms of the other member of security behind his back. When the Senator saw that, he jumped up from his chair, pushed the table into Sigrid, who had the presence of mind to stop the piece of furniture before it hit her and made a beeline for the dance floor, where he was swallowed up by the dancing mass of people.
Sigrid slowly stood, not sure if her trembling legs would be able to carry her, but to her contentment they did. She turned to look at the dance floor, but made no attempt to follow the Senator.
Lauren Darkwolf and Maureen Reynolds had kept a close eye on Sigrid. Although they couldn't hear the conversation, they could tell by the Senator's body language that the man became increasingly upset. When Charles and Aaron quietly restrained the Senator's security detail, they had eased closer to the edge of the floor. Trying to throw the table at Sigrid was not something they had anticipated he'd do, but to their relief Sigrid did not seem hurt. The Senator had made a mad dash toward the dance floor, but was now trapped in the mass of bodies. Thanks to her height, Lauren was able to keep an eye on him while she and Maureen followed him as closely as possible. As soon as he cleared the floor he headed to the door, but was stopped in his tracks by Eva, who calmly put her body between him and the exit.
“Going anywhere, Senator?” she said.
“Get the hell out of the way,” Arthur Chandler spat.
He reached out a hand to push her aside and all of a sudden found himself on his back, on the floor, gasping for breath.
“You said?” Eva asked with a grim expression on her face.
Together with Lauren, she hauled the senator back to his feet. Before he could even utter a word, Maureen slapped a pair of handcuffs on his wrists.
“Arthur Chandler, you are under arrest for the trafficking of humans, money laundering and accessory to murder.” Maureen continued to Mirandize him, while firmly pushing him toward the door.
People had started to notice the commotion and more than a few faces were turned to see what was going on. Before anyone could start asking questions though, they had stepped outside. Eva showed the bouncer her badge and he nodded, silently stepping aside to let them pass.
The last one to step outside in the cold evening air was Sigrid. Because of her size it had taken her considerably longer to make her way through the crowd. Her eyes searched for Eva and when she noticed the black clad woman she let out a sigh of relief. The Senator was in cuffs and was loaded into a car and nobody had gotten hurt. A good ending of a stressful day. She walked up to Eva and without uttering a word she wrapped her arms around the taller woman and buried her face against a leather clad shoulder.
“Is it over?”
Eva's arms snaked around her to pull her close.
“So, now we can work on finding Anjuli and Dhan's families and not worry about bad guys?” Sigrid lifted her face. “Do you think there's still an arrest warrant out for me?”
Eva grinned. “Not anymore. Don't worry; you lost your fugitive status after we dropped off Whitfield.”
“Good.” Sigrid pressed her face against Eva's neck and felt her body relax. “Where do I go now? My house is completely gone. All I have left is my cat. Even this dress is borrowed.”
“You can stay with me tonight. How does that sound?”
“Like heaven.” Sigrid pressed a kiss against the soft skin that was too close to her lips to ignore. “Does that mean we get to sleep in the same bed?”
“If that's what you want.”
“It is. I am so tired. I can't wait to just snuggle up with you and relax, knowing this is all over and a big blow has been dealt to this trafficking ring.” Sigrid paused. “It's sad it's only a tiny part. So many more children are being abused.”
Eva stroke Sigrid's hair. “I know. But Megan, Anjuli and Dahn have a chance at a better life now. They're safe. And the FBI has the list of all the safe houses and the names of people involved. In the end, there might be hundreds of kids saved.” She kissed Sigrid's forehead. “You did good.”
“ We did good.”
“Are you sure they won't mind?”
“Of course not, Betty. They've left already and the place is back to usual.”
“What if they find out?”
‘Stop worrying, Meg. We are adults who can make up our own minds. We don't have to justify our actions.”
“We might be adults, but others might think we're senile,” Betty muttered, which made Meg let out a nervous laugh.
“Just make sure to turn down your hearing aid.”
“I don't have a hearing aid,” both Meg and Betty said at the same time.
“You might need one after tonight.”
Twitch gestured Betty and Meg to follow her and with trepidation they did.
“Next time she has an idea like this, drop me off at the local nursing home,” Betty whispered. “I'm sure they have a bed for me.”
“Next time, I'll be hitting her over the head with a cane,” Meg said.
Twitch had stopped at the door and had to crane her neck to look at the man standing in front of it.
“Young man, can you please let us in?”
The man looked startled. “Um…Ma'am, this is not what you might think it is. Bingo is the next street over.”
Twitch shook her head. “We're not interested in bingo. Is there a problem? Is there an age limit to this club?”
“Then I'd suggest you let us in. The show will start in five minutes and I want a good spot.”
Completely dumbfounded the man opened the door and gestured the three women to enter. A wave of sound greeted them and immediately Twitch's head started to bob in rhythm with the music.
“Oh, my God, why did we let her talk us into this?” Betty had to yell in order for Meg to hear her, but she followed Twitch inside.
“She's gonna fall and break another hip,” Meg shouted back, pointing at Twitch, who was already dancing with a grinning, handsome dark-skinned man. When she started twerking both Betty and Meg burst out laughing.
“Oh, what the hell, Meg, we might as well have fun while we're here. Besides, I've never been to a gay club before!”
Two months later…
Sigrid Meyers stretched and enjoyed the feel of her skin sliding against Eva's. In spite of the air conditioned room she had been sweaty, which, she knew, was due to her extended love-making session with the woman she was almost resting on top of. Her body felt so relaxed, she wondered if she would be able to stand up. It was a good thing she didn't have to.
Through the foggy haze in her brain a memory slowly surfaced and she chuckled.
“What?” Eva Clemente's voice was as lazy as Sigrid felt.
“Did I tell you about the invite Twitch received?”
“What invite?” Eva used her foot to stroke the skin of Sigrid's calf.
“One of the drag queens she met while they were at the ‘Drag ‘n Dress' has asked her to be in his show next week.”
Eva laughed, which caused Sigrid to almost slide of her chest.
“Are you serious?”
“As serious as a migraine,” Sigrid said.
“Is she going to be in drags?”
Sigrid grinned. “I hope so.”
Eva's hand found her way into Sigrid's hair and her fingers played with the disheveled strands. “What time do we arrive in Boston ? Three?”
“Yes.” Sigrid lifted her head to peek at her lover. “Do you want to go to the show?”
Eva bit her lip and chuckled. “I wouldn't want to miss it for all the sand in the Sahara .”
“You know, I really hope I'll be that adventurous when I reach their age,” Sigrid said. “They're having so much fun.”
“If you want to be in drag, I won't stop you,” Eva said. “As a matter of fact, you'd probably look very cute in a suit and tie.”
Sigrid softly snorted. “I wouldn't go up that stage in a million years, cute or not.”
“But you used to preach.”
“And you think there's no difference?” Sigrid laughed.
A lazy smile spread across Eva's face and her hand slid down Sigrid's naked back. “I prefer you without clothes anyway.”
“Which makes your priorities perfectly clear.” Sigrid kissed the warm skin underneath her cheek and let out a happy sigh. “As long as you don't expect me to leave the room like this.”
“I don't. I'd like to keep that part of you all for myself.” She slid her arms around Sigrid and tugged her closer. “Come here. My lips are getting lonely.”
Sigrid laughed and poked Eva's ribs. “You are so pathetic. What kind of sappy line is that?”
“Okay, how about ‘I've caught my breath and I would really want to make love to you again.'?”
“Do you now?” Sigrid smiled and slid across Eva's naked body until her mouth could reach her lips.
Eva nodded. “I do.” Her lips caught Sigrid's, effectively silencing her. A very long moment later, Sigrid let out a soft moan, pressing closer to the body underneath hers.
“How do you do that?” she muttered.
“Do what?” Eva whispered.
“Turn me inside out with just one kiss?”
“That's simple,” Eva said. Her lips slid to soft skin underneath Sigrid's ear and she could feel the goose bumps erupt underneath her roaming hands.
“Yes. To me you are the most beautiful, and sexy woman in the world. My goal is to make you feel that.”
Sigrid could feel Eva's hand sliding up her sides, until they reached the smooth skin of her breast, where they lingered. They made Sigrid gasp for breath. “ Mission accomplished,” she managed to say, before Eva's hands and lips chased away all rational thought. From that moment on gasps, moans and whispered words broke the silence in the room.
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