Authors: Rebecca Crowley
For the ROSAs, who make sure South Africa is never without its share of romance.
Bronnik Mason paced silently but uneasily around the perimeter of the small parking lot. A single light was visible inside the low brick building that housed the dental practice, and it seemed to burn brighter by the minute as the late August twilight faded quickly. It had been a cool summer in this suburban town in northern England, and what little heat there had been in the day was by now long gone.
He glanced at his watch. It was almost eight o’clock. His man would be here any minute now—if he was on time.
Bronnik allowed himself a grim smirk. Of course he’d be on time.
He scanned the thickly wooded area that bordered the lot, his hand hovering above the Beretta holstered at his hip. He paused in his prowl across the blacktop, straining to detect even the slightest sound, but the parking lot was eerily still. Even the trees seemed to be holding their breath.
When the woman’s strangled, terrified shriek rang out from within the building, it was like someone had set fire to the blood that coursed through Bronnik’s veins. His breathing came quick and hot as he forced himself to push aside the fury that threatened to overwhelm him and hold tight to the cold, detached logic that had gotten him through five years in the Special Task Force of the South African Police Service.
He heard the distant slam of the building’s front door and knew his partner, Thando, must have moved inside with the dual intention of trying to save the girl and flush their target out toward the parking lot. Bronnik drew his gun and, holding it pointed down, squared his feet to face the back door.
“Come on, you bastard,” he hissed between clenched teeth.
A light metallic
echoed to his left. He barely had time to register that the small metal cylinder must have been lobbed from an open window before it exploded with a silver flash and a pop, and a thick cloud of noxious smoke roiled across the pavement.
His eyes watered and his throat burned in the toxic air, but he made himself endure, dragging air raggedly into his lungs. He heard the back door click shut and raised his gun blindly.
“Nice trick, Hardy,” Bronnik called into the smoke. “Now I can tell the inquest that your fatal head wound was the result of poor visibility. You’ve saved me a lot of paperwork.”
Lloyd Hardy’s chuckle was sinister, and closer than Bronnik had estimated. He rotated slightly, trying to identify Hardy’s position, his eyes still stinging from the smoke bomb.
“You’re right on one count.” Hardy’s voice was even closer, and Bronnik took a hesitant step backward, squinting as he peered through the opaque air. “You certainly won’t be doing any paperwork.”
Hardy’s short, compact form seemed to materialize in front of him, wearing swimming goggles and a leering grin, looking like a villain in a science fiction movie. Bronnik raised the Beretta, pointing it at Hardy’s forehead.
“That’s enough,” he said coolly. “You may have kept that detective on the run this last year, but I’m in charge now. This game ends here.”
Hardy threw back his head in laughter, and that was when Bronnik felt the knife plunge into his side.
His arms buckled involuntarily, the barrel of his gun sagging toward the pavement. Pain roared through him, dulling his senses, and for the first time in his professional career he felt utterly bewildered.
The faint tap of Hardy’s soles on the tarmac as he ran toward the woods revived something in Bronnik. Clutching the handle of the switchblade with his left hand—and swallowing a wave of nausea as he realized how deeply it was embedded in his flesh—he raised his gun with his right. The smoke was clearing, and he could just make out Hardy’s shape as he reached the edge of the tree line.
He squeezed the trigger, and the sound of the shot resonated in the empty lot.
There was a crash in the undergrowth, a pause, and then more footsteps retreating through the woods.
Distantly, Bronnik heard the clatter of his weapon as it hit the ground beside him. Suddenly he was on his knees, the asphalt rough and cold under the palm of his right hand.
The deep voice of his partner and the tinny crackle of a radio sounded from somewhere, although he was finding it hard to hear anything over the pounding of his own heart.
“Heading southwest through the woods… Mason is down, I repeat, Mason is down… Backup… He was hiding in a hollowed-out filing cabinet… No, she’s dead.”
“I think Hardy’s wounded,” Bronnik heard himself say. “I think I shot him.”
Then there were sirens screaming, uniformed police racing past with German shepherds, the snap of rubber gloves, a worried crease in Thando’s forehead that belied his reassuring smile.
Bronnik ran his tongue across his teeth.
He tasted blood.
“Sure thing, Mrs. Pickett, now if you’ll hold just one second, I’ll be right with you.” Lacey Cross punched the hold button on the phone and cast a quick glance toward the window. Outside the crisp February sky was blue and clear.
“Wait and see.” Lacey nodded to Dana, a big-bosomed woman in her early fifties and her colleague behind the reception desk. “We’re going to reschedule all these appointments and then we won’t get a flake of snow.”
Dana rolled her eyes in agreement as she picked up another ringing line. Lacey got back to Mrs. Pickett, rescheduled her daughter’s cleaning and x-rays, and then did the same for another three callers before there was a moment of peace.
She reached up to gather her hair into a ponytail. When the phone rang again she was twisting the elastic band into place.
Dana sighed heavily. “Would you mind grabbing that? It’s probably just another hang-up. I’ve had about ten this morning.”
“That’s weird,” Lacey mused, but picked up the phone. “Good morning, Woodward Dental Associates.”
The pause that ensued was so long she nearly hung up, but as she moved to put down the phone a man’s voice came on the line.
“Yes it is, how may I help?”
Another pause. “I look forward to seeing you, Lacey. On the third day.”
“I’m sorry, do you have an appointment?” But the dial tone chimed in her ear. The line was dead.
“Who was that?” Dana asked.
Lacey shrugged. “Some man. He had a strange accent. Maybe European?”
Dana tapped a finger on her chin, thinking this over. “We don’t have many foreign clients.”
“No,” she agreed. “But he must have been here before. He knew my name.”
The two women stared at each other in undecided judgment for a moment until the ringing phone broke their reverie.
Lacey took calls, made appointments and greeted clients steadily for the next four hours. The sky had darkened gradually, and shortly after three o’clock the first flakes of snow began to drift down and settle on the strip of grass that edged the sidewalk outside.
“Here it comes,” Dana said with a hint of apprehension in her voice. “They say we’re in for six to ten inches in total.”
Lacey regarded her sympathetically. Her colleague lived on a few acres outside the Topeka city limits, and her weathered old Buick regularly struggled with the commute.
“Things are pretty dead around here.” Lacey gestured to the empty waiting room. “Check with Dr. Woodward, but I think I’ll be fine to handle the rest of the day by myself if you want to try and beat the storm.”
Dana gave her forearm an affectionate squeeze. “You are such a good girl. I owe you.”
As Dana hustled down the corridor to find Dr. Woodward, Lacey smiled bitterly. A good girl—that was her through and through. The youngest of three children raised by a single mother, she’d been an impeccably behaved, obedient student, keen to restore the family name after her two older brothers had terrorized the school system. While her mom was picking them up from jail and attending their court dates, Lacey was waiting tables after school and on weekends. And when her mom was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her with devastating speed, Lacey walked away from an out-of-state college scholarship to stay home and care for her.
Lacey the good girl. Responsible, hardworking, reliable.
Dana came back down the hallway followed by their boss, Rick Woodward.
“I’m heading out, hon.” Dana reached under the high, broad reception desk to retrieve her purse.
“Good idea. Drive safe.”
Dr. Woodward leaned his elbows on the desk. He was lean, in his late forties, and such a kind man that she always talked herself out of her sporadic plans to go back to school or find a more career-oriented job, certain she’d never have such a supportive boss again.
“It’s starting to come down heavier now.” He glanced out the window. “I’ll try to get everything wrapped up in the next hour so we can get home too.”
Lacey shrugged. The small house she’d bought with the meager inheritance from her mother was only about a fifteen-minute drive away, but she supposed she could use the extra time to swing by the grocery store for some supplies. A snowy evening spent tucked indoors, sipping hot cocoa and working on a few sewing projects sounded heavenly.
“See you later,” Dana called over her shoulder, but just as she reached the door it swung open with a bang, and three men stormed inside.
Lacey recognized Detective Bill Harris from her brothers’ various brushes with the law, but the other two were strangers.
Harris’s face was grave. “Lacey, we need to talk to you about something.”
Alarm shot through her. “Is it Harlen?” She named her middle brother—the oldest, Wade, had moved to Nebraska last year.
He shook his graying head. “I’m afraid it involves you this time.”
It had to be a mistake—she’d never had so much as a parking ticket. If this was another case of presumed guilt by last name, so help her she was going to file a complaint.
She opened her mouth to tell Detective Harris exactly that when one of the other men—tall, blond, blue-eyed and remarkably handsome, she couldn’t help but notice—pushed toward the desk and flashed a strange-looking badge.
“Miss Cross, my name is Bronnik Mason. This is my partner, Thando Zarda.” He indicated the third man, who appeared a little older. He was bald, and his skin was the color of rich brewed coffee with a splash of milk.
“We’re with the Special Task Force of the South African Police Service,” Bronnik continued, and as she listened to his accent, something clicked into place.
“Of course. You called earlier.”
Bronnik and Thando exchanged cryptic glances. “You need to come with us, miss.”
Detective Harris began to button his coat, but she remained where she sat, paralyzed by disbelief.
“Excuse me?” she managed as soon as she found her voice. “This must be some kind of mistake—you must have the wrong person. I am Lacey Cross, but I’m just a receptionist.” That could be the only explanation for two South African police officers appearing in Kansas—they had their details mixed up. She was so certain they’d tracked down the wrong person that she offered an apologetic smile, regretting their wasted time.
Dr. Woodward’s gaze darted between her and the police officers, and Dana hovered at his elbow, her face betraying her warring instincts to hurry away from this bizarre tableau and stay to find out what happened next.
Harris appeared to be about to speak, but Bronnik fixed his hard blue eyes on her own.
“There’s no mistake—you’re the one we’re after. Rest assured we are acting very much in your best interest, but I’m afraid I can’t disclose anything more than that right now.” He cast a significant glance at her colleagues, then nodded toward the door. “If you’re ready?”
By now a knot of worry had formed in her stomach. His tone brooked no argument—but what possible connection could she have to South Africa? Unless Wade or Harlen had really gotten in over their heads, involved in some kind of smuggling…
She dismissed that idea with a wince. Neither one of them was smart enough to pull off something so exotic. Even with the clues in the name they’d probably struggle to locate South Africa on a map.
So what could it possibly be? She didn’t do drugs, she barely drank, she’d never even left the country. She swallowed hard as she gathered up her purse and coat from behind the desk, working to keep her expression free of the anxiety churning in her gut.