Authors: Wendy Byrne
She wanted to believe him. She also wanted to believe in the power of love, but that had failed her once again. He'd gone down the path of her uncle. She should have known this would happen. Uncle Frank had not been someone she wanted her brother to emulate.
No, she wanted those happy thoughts of a ten-year-old boy who wanted to be a cop like her when he grew up. If she tried hard, she could still remember the sounds of his not-yet-changed voice when he talked about going to the academy after college. Of course, then he'd follow it up with his desire to become an NFL player. She missed those days.
"What's Jennings's e-mail?" She drew her head from his chest, but not enough to look into his eyes. Pity was something she couldn't take at the moment.
"Send it to me, and I'll forward it. It's a top-secret kind of thing. And he has more firewalls than the FBI. Pretty much every e-mail gets blocked unless it's from an already known address."
"Who are these people your siblings work for?"
"Good folks. The best. And if there's a way to figure this out, they will."
Suddenly, she had a whole new respect for the man. Maybe this would all work out after all.
* * *
Max felt guilty that she spent the rest of the day staring off into space. If he counted how many times she replayed that video, it probably numbered into the hundreds somewhere. It was as if she thought she'd find something different when she watched. And each time she did, he felt like a bigger and bigger asshole.
Finally, she fell into an exhausted sleep around midnight. While she slept, Max went to work. He needed to plan this perfectly, down to every last detail. If he didn't, there'd be no way to save this mission, save him, the kid, or Gianna. Everything would be one big disaster if he screwed this up. Now was the time to put the second part of his elaborate plan in motion. Do or die, as the saying went. And it had screwed him over on many occasions. He had to hope this wasn't one of them.
At three in the morning, he went outside their hotel room and brought his laptop. For the time being, he was going to keep her in the dark on his insane plan. He didn't want to, but it was the only thing that made sense. He called Jennings first.
"Max, what you're proposing is crazy. The whole thing is a disaster. You need to give us more time. We can get this done."
"The video worked to convince her. We can't wait any longer. She's losing her mind and going to do something stupid. What other choice do I have?"
"I could call in Jake and Sabrina."
"Absolutely not. I started this mess, and I'm going to finish it. They've already given up enough because of me." Max gulped back the wash of emotion. He couldn't think about his siblings without guilt stabbing through him.
"If something happens to you and Jake and Sabrina find out I knew about this harebrained scheme of yours, they'll kill me."
"Your secret is safe with me. Besides, they're not going to find out, because I'm going to be fine. Just like always."
Jennings hesitated. "Lucien and Angie are on the call as of now. Let's work on the timing of things."
"Perfect. How about the kid? Is he good?" That was the one thing Max didn't have confidence in. The other players, Angie and Lucien, since they worked for The Alliance, he had complete faith in, but Mick was a red herring as far as he was concerned. He could fall either way on the continuum of trouble in this. Banking on his compliance was an issue. He could only trust Lucien and Angie's assessment. Putting faith in other people outside his brother and sister had been something he'd struggled with his entire life. Except for now, when he had absolutely no choice in the matter but to do what he had to do to make things right.
"Let us know when you're ready, and we can set things in motion," Lucien said. "We've been around here long enough to see the writing on the wall. But a heads-up—they're getting paid more than we thought to make this happen. Last I heard, it was twenty million. Not sure who's pulling the strings, but I'm pretty sure it's a group of people, not just one."
Holy shit. Sure, he expected as much, but could this get any worse? Max drew in a breath and tried to still his racing pulse. "Any idea when you'll get that information?" Max had to be certain and leave nothing to chance. Maybe they should wait.
"No way to know, and time here is limited," Angie said. "It's your call. We can hold on and wait for the opportunity. But in my opinion, the window is closing on that. We might not be able to salvage this at the end of the day."
"Are you saying the kid is expendable?"
"I'm saying everyone is expendable right now," Lucien said. "There's a lot of pressure to find you, and if the kid isn't getting that done, then they'll figure out another way to get to you. Bottom line is, you or whoever makes that happen is the winner here." Lucien's words sealed the decision.
Max drew his hands through his hair. This had gone from bad to cluster-F in quick order. He needed to change the power structure, and he needed to come up with a quick and efficient way to do that, or all bets were off the table.
"For what I'm thinking about, it has to be well orchestrated. The kid has to be a viable piece of the puzzle, and we need to make sure the timing piece is perfect. She already believes her brother has gone over to the dark side. We have to confirm it."
"I was hoping you'd say that. Tomorrow it is." Max closed the laptop and walked back inside the room.
Exhaustion finally pulled him in as Max lay next to Gianna on the bed and contemplated for the millionth time how it all began. How he became mother, father, and brother wrapped into one. The enormity of that responsibility seemed to hang on his shoulders like leaden weights dragging him down until he wanted nothing but a sense of relief for even a minute or two. He couldn't think about that without second-guessing what he'd done at the time. He should have paid more attention when the three of them were growing up. Maybe he could have helped without the aid of Petrovich.
He was so scared. And tired. Overwhelmed by the responsibility well beyond his years.
Sabrina had been whimpering nonstop for a couple of days, and he thought he'd lose his mind. Every other minute she asked for Mama and then kept repeating it like a broken record. She kept saying Mama had the magic powder to make her feel better. He didn't know what she was talking about, but he figured it was something their mother told Sabrina when she didn't feel good, or was scared, and wanted her to take medicine. After Sabrina stopped whining, she kept asking to go home, saying she was tired and wanted her doll. How could he explain death to her? Or the fact that their parents weren't coming home? Or why she couldn't stay in her bedroom and wake up and they'd be there? Death to her hadn't been permanent. It had floated in that in-and-out kind of way that made her believe any moment they'd walk through their door, and she'd be safe again. Each day the responsibility had worn on him, and twelve-year-old Max had fallen deeper and deeper into a depression. He understood that now. But back then, he didn't have words to explain what he was feeling.
There was no way out of their situation. His parents were never going to come back alive, and he had to take charge of the situation.
"Maxie, where did Mommy and Daddy go? I want to go back to my room."
Her eyes started to well. Crap. What a bad brother he was. Jake watched as if trying to decide what to say based on Max's lead. But he didn't want to lead anymore, even if that was how he usually communicated with his siblings. Telling them what to do was good until it all rested on his shoulders.
Sabrina hiccupped. "Is Mommy mad at me? Is that why she's been gone so long?"
Max shook his head and fought back the tears. He couldn't cry. He had to be strong for his family. "No, Mommy and Daddy are sick, so we've got to stay away so we don't get sick too."
"But when will they be better?"
"I'm not sure." He held the soup spoon up to her lips. "Take a drink, Saby. You're getting sick too."
"Are you going to leave me like we left Mommy and Daddy?" Her large eyes glanced up at him, the fear and worry shining through like the words were imprinted on her eyeballs.
"No, I'll never leave you." He glanced over at Jake. "Both Jake and I will always be here for you. No matter what happens, we'll never leave you. Ever. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Maxie." She yawned, the soft, innocent sound of a mere babe. "I'm so tired and cold. Will you hold me tight and rock me like Mommy does?" Her eyes fluttered closed.
Then and there he knew what he needed to do. Once she'd fallen asleep, he handed her pliant form over to Jake as he did the work of the devil. Some killers were born, some were made. And some were formed by their circumstances. Although he'd tried to outrun it, his fate had been written in the wind since the day he was born. He knew that now. And he could never go back.
He sat up in bed as the scene he remembered from so long ago revisited, and the fear resurfaced. As many times as he'd said he believed he'd done what he had to do to ensure they were all safe, he couldn't make it right within his head. The nagging questions and second-guessing wouldn't allow him to stop rehashing his decision that day. At the time, his twelve-year-old self couldn't think of a way around it. His thirty-five-year-old self sought a different solution, even if it wouldn't change the past and would only haunt him further.
Sweat coated his body as he pulled back the covers. Those few minutes of tormented sleep were probably the only moments he'd get after having his own personal visit into hell. Once his mind had brought him back, there was no way of recovering outside of exercising or meditation. Either would work to bring about the necessary pain to wipe the scene from his mind, albeit temporarily. But that was all he could currently hope for. In fact, that was all he could ever hope for. Nothing would change what was to be. He knew that now. He knew that before as well, and it had been written long before he'd been born.
He placed a fresh towel from the bathroom on the floor of the room and went to business. Push-ups until he could no longer feel his arms. The muscles had gone well past cramping by the time he stopped. Followed by sit-ups until his stomach muscles constricted and would no longer cooperate. One pain for another. It was the way he'd always fought through it. Throwing himself into his work was another strategy that had served him well. But since that particular option was off the table, he had to reconcile himself with punishing physical exhaustion until his mind blurred, his vision of the scene obliterated.
"You know what this means, son?" The face of Petrovich blurred before his eyes. "I own you. Just like I owned your parents."
The acknowledgement stuck in his throat like a glob of glue had been forced down there. He acknowledged his pact with a nod and a garbled response. "Just me."
"As you wish. Although I think your siblings show great promise. I like the idea of a female coming on my team."
The idea that this POS would rob his little sister of her innocence burned like a hot poker against his skin. "Noooooo." The word tore from his throat. "That's not the deal. Leave them out of it."
The man had the audacity to shrug, as if this conversation wasn't about the gravity of Max selling his soul to the devil. "If you say so."
But in the end it didn't matter—they were all wrapped up in the spell that would forever and always determine their future because of Max. And only he could end it. Cleo and her followers had made that clear now. He was in this alone, and alone was how he would have to end it. But in order to set the trap, he'd have to have some help. He couldn't draw her out alone. But as he was unwilling to add one more person to his personal body count, he had to come up with a way to keep those involved from dying.
Max sucked in a breath. This had to work. Nothing could be left to chance. He had to play this like his life depended on it. Hell, his siblings' and probably Gianna's life depended on it as well.
"Are you sure they're taking him out to rob another bank?" She sucked in her bottom lip and glanced down the street. "Where?"
"I'm sure…" He let his voice trail off so that she could fill in the blanks, even though he felt like an ass for doing it. He had to get her to buy this whole thing, and he could see the calculating wheels of the cop brain working.
She held up a finger. "Another job. I get it." She tsked and firmed her wobbly chin. "Let's set up the perimeter. You take that side. And we'll wait."
"We think there'll be two others with him, just like last time." Max had to keep up pretenses if this was going to work. He'd done stuff like this a million times in the past to get something done, but this time felt different somehow. "They're going to come out, and we have to hope he does the right thing."
"What do you mean?" The edge to her tone spoke of nerves and exhaustion. This whole debacle had to end soon.
"Comes willingly without a fuss." The Shaw itch crab-walked up his back until he had to fight back the shudder. He hoped it was from nerves instead of more trouble he didn't foresee.
A door opened into the alley. Sweat beaded along his forehead despite the evening chill. It had been a long time since he'd put together something this elaborate. This thing felt all kinds of wrong. It was on the tip of his tongue to pull out, but he couldn't. It was the only way he could think of to make this work.
Neither of them spoke a word as Mick rushed outside followed by two more people. They wore all black, carried guns, and held gym bags.
"Mick." She started to move away from their hiding spot, but he held her back.
"He might not be the kid you knew. He's been hanging with some heavy-duty characters and has been brainwashed. That video's proof. Who knows what kind of crazy shit they talked him into? He might be gunning for you for all you know." Adding to the persona he'd created would only help the cause.