Authors: Debra Webb
Those seconds were ticking by way too quickly for his comfort. The steel necklace seemed to tighten at the thought.
“Tell me about this man,” Riley prompted, hoping to lessen the tension.
“He's a doctor,” she explained. “He takes care of lots of folks who can't afford the regular clinics and hospitals.”
“What's his connection to Renwick?”
“He treated him once for cancer.”
Riley shot her a look. “What kind of doctor is this guy?”
Her evasiveness nudged Riley's instincts. “Different how?”
“You'll see. It's difficult to explain. He's just different.”
2:30 p.m.â43 hours, 30 minutes remaining
The cold invaded Tessa's jacket as she led the way to the home belonging to the man who called himself Moses. The sun had already dropped to the treetops. It would be dark soon. She would be happy to have this part over with before the darkness claimed the day.
The rustic cabin amounted to nothing more than a shack perched on the edge of a swamp. Frigid water lapped at the ramshackle dock, swaying the small boat moored there.
She couldn't recall Moses having any dogs. A shudder rocked through her. She hoped not. Strangely, she was far more fearful of dogs than guns. Maybe because guns had been a part of her life for a very long timeâ¦whereas she couldn't remember ever having a dog.
Tessa pushed the thoughts of her past away.
There were plenty of times over the past five years
and ten months that she had tried to remember her life before but it was always so painful and dark. The Master told her it was because her parents had abused her, that they had never really loved her. It was best not to try to recall. She had accepted that because it had been easier. Because her very survival had depended upon her acceptance of his ways.
Would she have been able to find the courage to do something to help the children long ago if she'd made different choices? If she had been less accepting?
At the porch Riley moved up beside her and murmured, “Stand to the side of the door just in case. I'll do the knocking.”
She nodded her agreement but she didn't think the step was necessary. Moses was strange but harmless. Stories about the old man included many bizarre activities but never violent ones.
When she stood to the right of the door, Riley banged on it with his fist a couple of times.
Tessa listened hard. Music played so softly inside that it was almost inaudible. Did that mean he was home? Wasn't he always home? Rumor was he didn't make house calls. Those who wanted his expertise came to him. She really hoped that was the case.
Riley pounded on the door again.
Tessa moistened her lips and decided not to wait any longer. “Dr. Moses!” She moved closer to the door, ignoring Riley's disapproving look. “Dr. Moses, we need your help.”
“Who's we?” echoed through the closed door.
She recognized the voice. A little thin with age but strong and distinct. “It's Tessa, Dr. Moses. We met once before. I'm here with a friend.”
Rusty metal squeaked as the door handle turned. Tessa silently repeated the same prayer over and over.
Please let him be able to help.
He pulled the door open just a crack. She recognized the soft music then, an old Cajun tune she'd heard somewhere. “What kind of help you need?”
Moses stayed out of sight behind the door but Tessa didn't allow that to deter her. “We need to find one of your former patients. It's really important.”
The door opened wider then. Moses glared at her, a shotgun held firmly in both hands. “You know the business of all my patients is private.” His gaze narrowed as he studied her face. “I know who you are.”
Her throat closed a little, making a decent breath impossible. “We've met before.” She gestured to the man beside her. “This is my friend, Riley.”
Moses eyed Riley skeptically. “He's not from around these parts.”
Tessa shook her head. “No. He's from up north.”
Moses lifted his chin, calling attention to his scruffy gray beard, as he assessed Riley more thoroughly. “What's that around his neck?”
“Trouble,” Tessa admitted. “We need to talk to you about that, too.”
Riley sent her a scathing look. She felt confident that he didn't want some swamp-woods doctor taking
a look at the explosive device counting down the minutes around his neck.
“Come on in.” Moses stepped back. “You're letting Old Man Winter in my house.”
Tessa started to step inside but Riley moved ahead of her. She let him. He had the gun after all. Though she wasn't afraid of Moses in the least.
The furnishings and interior were as rustic and eclectic as the exterior and the landscaping. The one unexpected element was the mountains of books stacked all along the walls. More books than even the Master had in his elegant library.
With the aid of a cane, Moses walked over to a table flanked with chairs. Papers were spread over the top so she presumed that was his desk. He propped his shotgun against the wall and gestured to the chairs. “Take a load off.”
Tessa joined him at the table. Riley did the same but with a bit more caution. He seemed to still be assessing the place and the man.
“You have a quest?” Moses asked.
Tessa nodded, trying not to show her surprise. One of the stories about Moses involved his ability to see the future. She resisted the impulse to ask him if the children would be rescued safely. The risk that he might say no was far too great for her to bear.
“We need to find a man who can help us accomplish our quest,” she explained. “His name is Renwick. I believe you treated him for cancer.”
Moses nodded. “I remember the case. The city
doctors recommended he get his house in order since his time on this old earth was short. But last I heard his cancer was gone away.”
Tessa had heard the same. “Your treatment saved his life.” Such as it was. Like the Master, if any man deserved to die it was Renwick.
“I don't like to take credit for such things,” Moses allowed, “but that's what they say.”
“We need to contact him or his man Phipps,” Tessa said, getting right to the point. “You may remember Phipps. Quite tall and thinâ”
“Red hair,” Moses cut in.
“That's the one,” Tessa confirmed. “We need a way to contact one or both. It's very, very important.”
“About that?” Moses gestured to Riley's necklace.
Tessa considered keeping that part out of the conversation but she had a feeling Moses would know she was lying. “Yes. And for other reasons.”
The old man's dark eyes fixed on hers. “The children?”
Her mouth seemed to fill with grit. “Yes.”
“And you?” he ventured.
“You knowâ” Moses leaned back in his chair “âslavery ended in this country a long time ago. What your Master does is wrong.”
Emotion tightened in her chest. “Very wrong.”
“Renwick ain't no better,” Moses declared, “but he came to me for help. He got a new lease on life and
he's repeating the same mistakes. There's a special place in hell for men like him.”
The old man got up from the table and crossed the room to rifle through an old chest of drawers.
Tessa dared to make eye contact with Riley then. If skepticism were rain clouds, a dense dark cluster would be hanging over his head.
When Moses returned to the table he tossed a cloth sack in front of Tessa. He pulled out his chair and lowered his frail body there. “There's a bartender at the Rusty Hinge,” he said. “Name's Ike. He's one of Phipps's contacts. You convince him to put you in touch with Phipps and you'll be in business.”
Hope dared to take root amid Tessa's fears. “Thank you. We really appreciate your help.”
Moses untied the strings holding the cloth bag closed, then tossed the contents onto the table. Tessa blinked and looked again to be sure her eyes had not deceived her.
Moses looked over the pattern of the bones atop his many papers with great care before lifting his gaze to Tessa's. “The past is catching up with you, child. Your life is about to change in ways you've been afraid to consider.” A smile parted his thin lips. “It's all good. No worries.” His smile faded. “Unless you trip yourself up with all those bad things that evil man's put in your mind. Be careful, child, you'll be treading a slippery slope.”
A new kind of fear trickled into Tessa's veins.
“Now youâ” Moses turned to Riley “âyour future is a horse of a different color.” His attention settled on the steel necklace. “Death is all around you. You might not be able to beat it. That part's not clear in the bones, Mr. Porter. You got a war in front of you. You been lucky your whole life, but luck ain't always enough.”
“I appreciate the advice,” Riley said, though his tone sounded more perfunctory than appreciative. He pushed to his feet. “We'll check into the lead you've provided.”
“Thank you,” Tessa said as she, too, stood. She looked to Riley. “We're glad to support your work.”
Riley pulled a few bills from his pocket and offered them to the man. Moses took the money and rubbed it between his fingers.
He nodded. “I'll take it.” His gaze moved from Riley to Tessa and back. “This money is clean. That's a good thing.”
“Thank you again,” Tessa offered. “We don't have much time so we need to be on our way.”
Moses held her gaze. “You got less time than you think. Better hurry.”
By the time they were in the truck and winding their way along the narrow dirt road worry had worked Tessa's nerves into a frenzy.
“What if he's right?” Parts of what he'd said she hoped were rightâ¦but the last. Dear God, time could be shorter than they knew.
“I'm not really a believer in that sort of thing,” Riley commented.
If that was supposed to make her feel better, it didn't.
“He's helped a lot of folks,” she reminded Riley. “That has to mean something.”
“Maybe,” he allowed. “There's also a possibility that Renwick's cancer simply went into remission. The same might have happened whether he was treated by Moses or not.”
That was true, she supposed. Something Moses had said suddenly poked through the worry. “He called you Mr. Porter.”
Riley's gaze bumped hers for a split second. “So.”
She shook her head. “I didn't tell him your last name. I only said that you were my friend, Riley.”
Riley thought about that statement for a moment. “Maybe you did and you don't remember.”
“Do you remember?” she countered.
He shrugged. “Whatever. Which way to the Rusty Hinge? I've been there, but not from here.”
She gave him turn-by-turn directions as they went.
Her mind wouldn't let go the idea that Moses had warned of a major battle for Riley. Tessa considered his strong profile. He was a handsome man. Not that much older than her, she thought. Solid square jaw, a little bruised at the moment. Pleasantly shaped nose. His eyes were different. The shade of gold that made
her think of sparkling sunshine. Bright and warm and welcoming.
Her attention slid down to the steel band around his neck. What if that thing couldn't be deactivated?
She had dreamed of a hero for so very long. Not once in all that time had she considered that the hero she longed for might have to sacrifice his life to save the children and her.
From the moment she'd laid eyes on Riley in the questioning room, she had sensed something different about him.
Tessa didn't want him to die.
Rusty Hinge, 3:55 p.m.â42 hours, 5 minutes remaining
HEY'RE NOT OPEN FOR
business yet.” Tessa scanned the vehicles parked at the side of the run-down warehouse that now served as a hangout for the less than savory members of New Orleans society. She didn't see any that she recognized. Good thing.
If the Master had tried to call the cell phone he'd given her, he, of course, wouldn't get through. But he knew where she was. Ross's people had confirmed that ugly fact.
What was wrong with this man? “We don't have the time.” She reached for her door. “If Ike's a bartender, chances are he's in there preparing for the night.”
“You're not going in there alone.” Riley wrapped
those long, protective fingers around her arm. “No way.”
“No one's going to talk to you about Renwick.”
“That may be so, but I can't let you take that risk. At least at the convenience store I could see you.” He flung a hand toward the warehouse. “I can't do that here. It's out of the question.”
Tessa took a moment, searched his eyes. He did care what happened to her. Not in that overbearing possessive, twisted way that the Master did. But basic human compassion. The kind the master did not possess.
“I'll be fine.” She drew in a breath of courage. “I have to do this. We can't waste any more time.”
Riley pulled the gun from his coat pocket. “Take this with you.”
He was likely to need it more than she, but if it made him feel betterâ¦she accepted the weapon and slid its comforting weight into her coat pocket. She reached for the door again.
“Five minutes,” he warned. “If you're not back out here in five minutes I'm coming in.”
She nodded. Clearly she wasn't going to talk him out of that condition.
Tessa trudged through the muddy parking lot. The day's warmer temperature had melted the snow and turned the ground to mush. The front entrance of the establishment opened with ease, surprising her. She'd expected to have to pound on the door for someone's attention.
A guy mopping the floor stopped and stared at her.
“I'm looking for Ike.” She kept her hands in her coat pockets, let her fingers wrap around the butt of the handgun.
The guy jerked his head toward the bar. “He's stocking.”
“Thank you.” Tessa stiffened her posture and headed that way. Her mind kept ticking off the seconds. Making this happen fast was essential.
The man behind the bar settled a bottle of whiskey into place before meeting her gaze. He braced both hands on the counter. “If you're here to tell me that you're carrying my child, then get in line. I ain't interested in getting married and I don't make enough here for child support.”
His crude comments flushed Tessa's cheeks. “No. Nothing like that.” She wasn't quite sure how to respond to his proclamation. “Iâ¦I need to get in touch with Renwick. I heard you could help me.”