Authors: Wendy Byrne
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HARD TO KILL
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Copyright © 2014 by
Cover design by Janet Holmes
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
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"Get the hell out of there. Now." Jenning's voice crackled to life in Sabrina's earpiece.
She ignored his command even while her skin itched, foretelling her sixth sense kicking in.
Yep, she was close
Now, Shaw. His friends are heading your way. You—"
She clicked off the receiver to stop the tirade that no doubt would follow. A few minutes. That was all she needed.
Tiptoeing up the metal staircase in her black combat-style boots, she inched her way to apartment 203. Eddie Ramer might be able to fool the cops but not her. The bottom feeder had been enticing Caitlyn for weeks with his promise of high-paying modeling gigs. And then she'd disappeared.
Coincidence? Yeah, right.
A heavy smell of weed permeated the air, despite the open balconies outside the apartment doors. The metal railing and no-tell-motel appearance of the building didn't shock her. In fact it worked in her favor. The thin walls made her privy to the conversations along the journey to her prize.
201. 202. Finally, 203.
Peeking inside was made impossible by the closed drapes. Instead, she crawled under the window then slid along the wall, stopping outside the apartment door. A cacophony of motorcycle engines in the distance signaled Eddie's friends were getting closer.
Her heart beat heavily while her fingers tingled. Everything inside her longed to grab the gun strapped to her thigh, but she resisted the urge. Only if necessary. She held her breath, keying into the conversation on the other side of the door.
"Let me see what you've got, baby." The voice came from inside.
Sabrina closed her eyes, dispelling the vile thoughts racing around her head. Focus remained the key to her success.
"I thought—" The girl's shaky voice signaled her fear.
"You have a smokin' bod, but I gotta know you can sell the goods. That's the way this works. Only then can I open doors for you."
With one strategically placed kick, her boot separated the lock from the flimsy door. Seconds later, she charged inside, tackling Eddie to the ground. He tried to reverse her dominant position, but she was one step ahead of him, bringing the tip of her blade to his throat, a mere flick away from his carotid artery.
She slid off his chest and eased them both to a standing position, never wavering on the location of the blade.
"Now Caitlyn and I are going to leave without any trouble from you or your ragtag group of merry men. Got that?"
His brow furrowed while his lips curled into a smirk.
"Caitlyn? She's ancient history."
A sinking sensation settled in her gut as Sabrina turned toward the girl. Hovering close to the bed, a young Hispanic girl with striking looks and long, dark hair stood, her blouse partially unbuttoned. Definitely not Caitlyn Collins.
That half-second of non-focus on her part was all Eddie needed to grab her forearm, dislodging the knife and sending it flying across the room into the wall. Despite his bulk, the alcohol reeking from his pores slowed his reflexes. She easily ducked the clumsy punch he sent her way. When he grasped her bicep and pulled up, that left him open for her counter strike to the round part of his shoulder, followed by a punch to his liver through the intercostal nerve, robbing him of breath, then a chop to the side of his neck, hitting his vagus nerve with enough force to stun.
Sabrina grabbed the girl and ran.
Dread chilled her bones as she bounded down the steps, yanking the frightened girl along with her. For the first time in her life she
'd failed her mission. She'd given the Collins family hope when she'd promised to rescue their daughter. Now she was coming back empty-handed. There had to be another way.
* * *
Eddie's words rang in her ears:
She's ancient history.
What did that mean besides the obvious?
Over the course of the last day and a half, those words had cycled through Sabrina's brain constantly as she waded through every possible meaning, from the mundane to the tragic. Yep, she was grasping at straws, but right now that was all she had to hold on to.
Right now she couldn
't think of anything worse than stepping up to the Collins' door in Scarsdale and seeing the evidence of failure reflected in their eyes. They'd trusted her above everyone else at The Alliance, and she couldn't deliver.
Instead of dwelling on things she couldn
't change, she sucked in a breath and steeled her spine. Seconds later she pushed the doorbell.
John Collins opened the door to let her in, but Martha was right behind him. Both their eyes were red-rimmed, while Martha had a tissue to wipe the perpetual leak of tears clogging her nose. Evidence of the perilous hold on her emotions was displayed in the tight clench of her jaw.
"I'm so sorry." Sabrina shook her head. How could she make the words come out to mitigate the impact? She couldn't. And that was what hurt the most. "She wasn't with Eddie like we thought."
Even though this wasn
't new information, Martha sucked in a sob. "Isn't there anything else you can do?"
I've got to take another look at what she was doing online." While it was a shot in the dark, it was the only possible lead she had. They'd already explored friends from school, and that had resulted in a big fat zero. None of them knew a thing about what happened to Caitlyn, except to tell her about Eddie.
They looked at each other, and tears began to leak from the corners of their eyes.
Kill me now
. Failure was tougher than she could ever have imagined. The taste of it rolled around her mouth until she felt like the she might gag on it.
She never gave us any trouble." John shrugged. "Except for her fascination with Eddie. We were so positive…" His voice trailed off into the abyss of grief.
Let me see what I can figure out. Show me her room again." Sabrina trailed them down the hall, praying for a crumb of information, even while knowing the possibility of success was remote.
The pain of being in Caitlyn
's room must have been too much for them to bear, as they left her alone seconds later. She chewed on her lip and flexed her fingers as she searched Caitlyn's computer history, finding nothing unremarkable. Then Sabrina dug a little deeper and found the deleted history. The search instantly got more interesting.
Something called Trinity Modeling had been deleted by an eraser program through the website. Interesting.
There was almost always a way to get deleted information, unless the hard drive had been physically damaged—which, thankfully, it hadn't. She needed to find a way of retrieving what had been expunged, but it would no doubt be a painstaking process given the level of sophisticated data cover-up she'd encountered so far.
Untangling the information must have taken hours, but she
'd lost track of time so couldn't say for sure. Finally a sliver led to a thread, which led to another, which led to a chat room Caitlyn had apparently been visiting over the last couple of weeks. Sabrina's heart kick started inside her chest as hope bloomed. Gotcha.
Martha. John. You need to see this."
When they arrived seconds later, she pointed to the screen.
"Caitlyn had been corresponding with somebody named Marco about modeling in Europe."
Martha sucked in a breath even as fresh tears began to flow.
"She's had this modeling bug for a while now, but I told her no. Why didn't I—"
You couldn't have known. This Marco guy took advantage of her naiveté and made a lot of promises about putting her in runway shows in Paris with something called Trinity Modeling Agency." She held up her hand to stop their questions so she could finish. "I did a search. There is no such modeling agency."
How did you find all this stuff?" John asked.
Even when you delete information from the computer, it's never really deleted." The itch started as her sixth sense kicked in. Without a doubt, she'd hit the mother lode.
Martha grasped her hand and held tight.
"You've got to help us."
Count on it."
All she knew was she couldn
't face this family with another failure. She was going to get Caitlyn back or die trying.
Sabrina ran to her laptop when the ping sounded, and pulled up the new message.
There's a ticket waiting for you at JFK for the two p.m. flight to Paris tomorrow. You'll be walking the runways in no time. Regards, Marco.
Uncertain whether she should be elated her ruse had worked or terrified, she sat down to finish the rest of her packing. Even though she
'd already dyed her hair and had secured fake IDs, she needed to start mentally preparing to become Grace Williams, nineteen-year-old college student.
Glancing in the mirror, she scrutinized every wrinkle and line on her face as she worried about passing for someone ten years younger. Photoshop worked wonders, but in person would they buy her ruse?
Before she had a chance to think about it any longer, the downstairs buzzer sounded. She glanced at the camera mounted outside her Manhattan condo. Crap. Her brothers Jake and Max stood outside holding pizza boxes and wine. After she'd told them of her impromptu trip, she should have known she wouldn't get out of New York without a little complication.
Before she let them in, she closed down her laptop and hid any evidence of her impending mission, As for her newly colored hair, she
'd figure something out.
She pushed the release button, opened the door, and waited until they appeared in the hallway.
"Nice of you two to bring me dinner."
It was difficult to lie to them. She never had before. They were the only family she had, and she trusted them with her life. But they wouldn
't understand her need to rescue Caitlyn without the backing of The Alliance.
They walked inside, taking turns giving her a kiss on the cheek before placing the pizza on the coffee table in front of the couch and walking toward the kitchen. Max opened the cabinet door and pulled out glasses for the wine while Jake grabbed some plates.
"Why the impromptu trip to Paris?" All six foot, four inches of Max plopped down on the couch and helped himself to a slice of pizza. Considering he was still wearing his charcoal gray Brooks Brothers suit and teal silk tie—his fancy Wall Street attire—he must have come from his office.
With a little more notice I would have vacationed with you." Even though Jake was a year younger than Max, most people thought they were twins with the way they looked so similar in physique and mannerisms. With dark eyes and hair that had a tendency to curl when it got too long, they'd left a string of broken hearts across Manhattan with their charming ways and good looks. The only difference was the way they dressed. Max tended to indulge in tailor-made suits, whereas Jake was all about the grunge look, with tattered jeans and concert t-shirts as his wardrobe du jour most days.
She shrugged as nonchalantly as her guilty heart would allow.
"I was in between assignments and figured what the heck."
And the whole red hair thing, is that part of your adventure?" Jake asked.
"What? Don't you think it makes me look haute couture? Trendy? Younger?" She smiled as both her brothers raised their eyebrows simultaneously.
Truth?" Max didn't wait for an answer but barreled on. "You know I love you, sis, but the red hair." He made a face. "Not so much."
Ditto," Jake added.
Glad you two agree on something." She sat between them on the couch, feeling diminutive by their standards, even though at five foot six, she was above average for a female.
"Where are you staying in Paris?" Jake asked.
She should have known neither of them would be happy with minimal information.
"The Shangri-La." With a great location near the Eiffel Tower and amazing amenities, it would be an obvious choice if she were really going for a pleasure trip. She brushed back the surge of guilt. Lying to them felt all kinds of wrong, but she knew if she told them to the truth they'd try to talk her out of it. And she was hellbent on doing what she'd promised.
You going alone?" Max asked.
You sure you're not hiding some boy toy?" Jake said as he finished off his wine and grabbed another piece of pizza.
You two will be the first to know if I decide to get myself a boy toy." Despite the worries, fears, and what-ifs running through her brain, she managed a giggle as she grabbed the last slice of pizza before Max or Jake had a chance.
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Sabrina readjusted her position as best she could even while her brain pounded like it wanted to escape the confines of her skull. Every inch of her body screamed for attention as the drugs they'd given her began to wear off.
Numb. Just go numb,
, as Petrovich used to say. She hated how easily he invaded her thoughts.
Fear kept her from opening her eyes. But the poor girl nee
ded her. Fast. That superseded any strategy or game plan for the time being.
Memories tumbled around her head, but nothing clear rose to the surface. Waiting for the A Train to JFK Saturday morning was the last slice of recollection she had.
Where was she?
Curiosity overruled fear as she slid open her eyes.
Rough cement flooring chilled her bare skin, making her bones ache even more than they already did. The crude structure of the stone walls let her know the basement of the building they'd brought her to was old, clearly predating building codes.
Two small hexagon
-shaped windows, covered in dirt and grime, were misaligned along one wall, letting in no light, making it impossible for her to tell if it were night or day. Illumination came from a lone bulb hanging in the center of the room.
After taking in her surroundings, t
he next thing she noted was the person lying on the other side of the room. Sabrina breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the shallow rise and fall to the women's chest. Like her, the woman was naked with both hands chained together, one arm tethered to the wall by a length of chain.
In her naiveté she
'd assumed they wouldn't attempt anything until she'd gotten to Paris. But she was wrong. She'd bet money she'd somehow landed in Europe, but how had they done it? How she'd been overcome and how she'd gotten to this dungeon-like place remained a mystery.
With a little luck, Marco
had taken her to the same place he'd brought Caitlyn. Maybe Sabrina was headed in the right direction after all—if she could stay alive long enough to figure it all out.
needed to escape the chains. Given the technical sophistication of remote data erasing, she had to believe they kept all their client names and addresses, as well as the names of the girl they bought on a computer. All she'd need to do was hack into it and suck out whatever data she could about where Caitlyn had gone. She twisted at her already chafed wrist and tried to readjust to a comfortable position as she examined the floor for anything that might help her pick the lock. Since she hadn't planned on being stripped naked, the lock picks she'd hidden in the seams of her shirt were of no use to her now. And what she wouldn't give for a few acupuncture needles to help relieve some of the achiness running roughshod through her bones.
he girl on the other side of the room moaned as she shifted her position on the floor. The chain rattled with each move she made.
Are you okay?"
The girl shuddered then coughed as spasms shook
through her body. She whispered something indiscernible before her fragile voice came through on a gasp of air. "I want to go home." Tears flowed freely down her cheeks as sobs racked her small frame.
As much as she wanted to, Sabrina couldn
't offer any comfort given the distance between them. Impotence surged through her veins, making her fingers shake, her heart beat faster.
How could she make this right
The girl had a patrician nose and a head full of deep auburn hair. Pure terror reflected in her almond-shaped brown eyes.
"I'm going to get you out of this. I promise." Sabrina's voice, even to her own ears, sounded more like some kind of primal growl as disgust twisted her guts into a knot.
How?" The girl shivered from the cold and more than likely the kind of fear that made the blood in your veins turn icy.
's brain still felt scrambled from the drug she'd been given. But when she got her bearings, she'd figure something out. What other choice did she have?
You let me worry about that," Sabrina replied, keeping her voice light and positive. "What's your name?"
Liz…Elizabeth." She shuddered out a breath. "My mom and dad call me Lizzie. I hated that name. It sounded like a little kid…but now—"
I'm Sabrina." Needing to distract the girl, she interrupted. "I'll get you out of this."
She felt a little like Scarlet
t O'Hara in
Gone with the Wind
uttering words of conviction without a clue how she could accomplish the task. But it didn't matter. Just like Scarlett, who swore to never go hungry again, Sabrina wouldn't give up until this girl was free.
Failure is not an option
. The words of Petrovich echoed unchecked inside her head.
I'm scared." Liz whispered, as if to say the words out loud would make the sensation disappear.
So am I, honey. So am I." Admitting she was scared rolled off her tongue so easily Sabrina almost thought another person had uttered them. Fear hadn't been a part of her internal makeup for a very long time. By the time Petrovich had taken hold of her psyche, fear of anything but disappointing him had been exterminated.
She shook off thoughts of the past and the melancholy that accompanied it.
"Can you sit up?" Lying prone felt powerless. While the change in position wouldn't help their situation, sitting up might offer a much-needed change in perspective and clear the fog invading her brain.
I feel kind of dizzy," Liz said.
Let's give it a try. Me first."
Sabrina used her elbow to maneuver
to a sitting position. Her muscles screamed in protest but she managed to right herself. As soon as she did, flashes of lights danced before her eyes and the room began to spin. She brought her head between her knees to keep from passing out.
Whatever they gave her, it was powerful. The effects, combined with lack of food or drink, lingered like a bad hangover with a getting-the-crap-kicked-out-of-you chaser. An almost overwhelming urge pulled at her to give up the fight and slump back to the floor. She fought against the impulse, knowing all too well the line between momentarily caving and capitulating was tenuous.
needed her. Now Liz needed her. She needed to figure out a way.
Take it slow, Liz."
After a feeble attempt, Liz slid back to the floor. Sabrina didn
't want to scare her, but they both needed to shake off this bout of lethargy and concentrate on how to get out of this alive.
Come on, you can do it. At the count of three. One, two, three." With her encouragement, Liz maneuvered to a semi-upright position and even managed a small smile.
Do you know where we are?"
Liz shook her head.
"Wherever we're at, they don't speak English."
Just as she suspected.
Traveling by air would make sense if they wanted to make a quick getaway. But it would also mean Marco, or whoever was the mastermind behind Trinity Modeling, had a private plane at his disposal as well as an airfield that was willing to look the other way when transporting semi-comatose women. How did they manage that?
Are there other girls here?"
There was a girl named Caitlyn, but she left yesterday, or maybe the day before. It's hard to judge time down here."
Sabrina gulped back the dose of victory. To know she was headed in the right direction didn
't feel nearly as good as it should being that she was naked and chained to a concrete wall without so much as a stray nail in sight to help her pick the lock. "What's your story? How did you get involved in this?"
I met this guy, Francois, on the internet. He said he was studying in Paris and dabbled in modeling. It sounded so…fun. We had a lot of things in common. My parents were pressuring me to stay in college. I wanted to travel." A trickle of a tear slid down her cheek. "I figured I could do both."
Her story sounded familiar. The name and the ploy used were different, but the results were the same.
"It's not your fault, Liz."
A sob traveled through
Liz's body. "Francois said he wanted to meet me. I took the train into New York. The next thing I remember is waking up here…I'd give anything to be back home right now."