Authors: J. T. Ellison
aylor had never been happier to see her exit.
She’d thought about getting a condo downtown for years, and with the influx of housing in the Gulch, Terrazzo and The Icon opening with their rooftop pools and private security, she was even more tempted. She’d spent most of her adult life in a cabin atop a hill west of town, and when she and Baldwin got engaged, they’d bought a home together, one that was big enough for them both to have offices, and a beautiful bonus room for her pool table. She loved the house. It was open and airy, lovingly decorated in their eclectic style, but at times like these, when she was hauling herself home, twenty minutes from downtown, she wished she had something closer. Driving, hell, walking a few streets over from the office would be a nice change, especially when she was this tired.
Her insomnia was getting worse the older she got, and she’d noticed that lately her waking hours were tinged with a slight fog. Stress and years of sleepless nights were finally catching up with her. When she did sleep it was due to sheer exhaustion. Not good. Situations like that would take her off her game if she wasn’t
careful. She would run, run, run then collapse, never getting the right amount of sleep, and to be honest, until now, never really having to. She could do with three or four hours a night and be perfectly fine.
Maybe it was just this case, the horror of what happened to Fitz, the pressure she’d put on herself to eliminate the threat to her life’s order, but she was feeling the lack of sleep keenly. It worried her. She didn’t want to be anything less than razor-sharp right now. Since she didn’t know how long this case would drag on, she really needed to start taking better care of herself. Even the tiniest slip could derail her world, and she couldn’t afford any mistakes. Not now. Not when she was so close.
After this case was over, she could always get Sam to give her something to sleep. Or Baldwin, though she hated admitting her weakness to him. She liked that he reveled in her strength. It made her feel even stronger, more inspired. No, Sam was the place to go. Even if it was just for a night, she could recharge the batteries.
Baldwin had been quiet on the way home. She loved their silences as much as their conversations. It was a sign of true love to her that she could be quiet with him, letting the air charge with electricity without ever saying a word. He had a stillness inside of him, a deep inner peace, which attracted her like a fly to honey. She had the same piece of quietude within her, and the two spoke to each other wordlessly, their bodies flowing in a symbiotic dance.
He pulled into the garage and smiled at her. “Go upstairs. I’ll meet you there in a few minutes.”
She was happy to oblige. She felt her body dragging as she mounted the steps. The sun getting ready to rise, casting meager light through the blinds. She pulled the
curtains shut so the room was totally dark, stripped off her clothes and fell naked into the freezing bed. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow.
Baldwin paced the downstairs, making laps through the dining room, foyer, living room, kitchen, dining room. He knew he needed to get some sleep. He was just as deep in the slumber deficit as Taylor was, and she’d been visibly dragging. As tired as he was, his mind wouldn’t stop spinning. The idea that Taylor had come across Ewan Copeland’s radar earlier than they’d originally thought was haunting him. If he’d known that, he would have approached this case very differently.
He stopped to put the kettle on, maybe some herbal tea would help him relax. He was amped up on caffeine and adrenaline, and pure, unadulterated fear. Losing Taylor was something he’d never be able to handle. He knew that now. The mere thought that he’d miscalculated, that he could have gotten her hurt or killed with his mistake, nearly handicapped him fully. All he wanted to do was get Taylor on a plane, get her the hell out of here. Find some little tropical island where he could buy off the local constabulary to keep them safe and protected, hire a phalanx of bodyguards and nestle down until this bastard was caught.
Not rational, but tempting. Very tempting.
The stove’s small burner was taking forever to heat up. He decided to go out and get the mail from yesterday. They’d been gone to North Carolina and he’d not bothered to get it when they first arrived home. He disabled the alarm so the beeping wouldn’t wake Taylor and slipped out the front door. Sunlight streamed into his eyes, making him squint. He put his hand to his
forehead to block the light—fresh, new sun, first of the day, as blinding as a strobe light.
The mailbox was full, the usual crap. He thumbed through the stack as he walked back to the house. Bill. Bill. Credit card solicitation, two of them, one for him and one for Taylor. Catalogs from stores they’d never shopped. Magazines. He sighed. Just a bunch of junk. He shuffled the edges back together as he returned to the house.
He almost missed it.
If he hadn’t tripped on the step and dropped the stack, he wouldn’t have seen it until it was too late. It spilled out onto the brick patio, buried between the magazines. A red envelope, with the name
hand-printed on the front. It wasn’t glued closed, the flap was just tucked into the bottom of the envelope. He used his pen to feed it open. There was a Valentine’s Day card inside.
He opened it, ignoring the schmaltzy words in favor of reading the note inside. It said:
Roses are Red
Violets are Blue
Colleen Keck is Dead
And So Are You.
Inside the card was a thin, clear plastic case with what looked like a CD inside.
He dropped everything on the steps and rushed inside the house, slammed the door behind himself, took the stairs two at a time.
Their bedroom was dark, quiet, the only noise Taylor’s soft breathing.
She was fine.
He wasn’t. He was thoroughly rattled. He watched her sleep for a few minutes, then quietly went through the entire house, clearing closets and bathrooms. No one there. No traps, no tricks. The son of a bitch was playing with them again.
He retreated to the downstairs, did the same sweep, then went back out to grab the mail. It was scattered on the front steps where he’d dropped it. He picked up the card from the concrete, ignoring the words this time, looking at the jewel case.
Using the American Express envelope balanced against a
he flipped the case over. There was writing on the CD itself, block letters in black marker. Numbers. Before he could decipher them, he felt his heart rate rise, the hair stand up on the back of his neck. Someone was behind him.
He went very still.
So this was it. Even on high alert he’d been caught unawares, standing outside his own home. The front door was unlocked, the alarm momentarily disabled. Perfect timing. How could he have been so stupid, to let his guard down when Taylor was at her most vulnerable?
Nothing. No shots, no sounds.
He couldn’t help himself, he looked over his shoulder.
There were two men standing on either side of him. Big boys, fit, heavy through the torsos, wearing sunglasses and holsters. Neither one moved, nor went for their weapons.
He was still breathing.
Baldwin took his time standing up. He gathered the
stack of mail, then smoothed his pants down. A lapse in his mental judgment, going to the mailbox unarmed, unseeing, rushing into the house, leaving the door unlocked. Caught up in his own mind, so focused that he kept forgetting what was at stake.
The men didn’t move.
“Gentlemen,” he said finally. “What can I do for you?”
“Is Miss Taylor okay, sir?”
Sir. Miss Taylor. Deferential. His breath came back, he had to force himself not to gust out a huge, relieved sigh. They were on the job. Taylor’s guards.
“She’s asleep. Who are you?”
“I’m Wells. That’s Rogers. Miss Taylor hired us. Personal protection. She missed her call in.”
He wasn’t stupid, he wasn’t going to take any more chances. He should have done this back in North Carolina before things went to shit.
They pulled out credentials, pictures that matched their faces, the
overlaid with a dollar sign, Price’s insignia, stamped plainly on their papers. Everything looked legit.
The bigger of the two shifted slightly, a subtle movement. Baldwin saw that his hand was now resting on the butt of his gun.
“Sir, I have to ask again. Where is Miss Taylor?”
“She’s fine. We’re exposed. Come inside,” Baldwin said.
The men followed him without hesitation, he wondered exactly how forceful his voice must have sounded. They didn’t work for him; they worked for her. Maybe she’d told them to follow instructions from Baldwin, too? No, that didn’t sound like Taylor. Damn woman,
prancing off on her own to arrange her security. Like the FBI wasn’t enough. Like
He composed himself as the two men crowded into the kitchen. They were wide, not as tall as Baldwin but much thicker through the chest and forearms. Strong. Capable.
“Tea?” he asked, motioning toward the kettle.
They both shook their heads. Baldwin assumed tea wasn’t exactly the right drink for these two. Battery acid on the rocks, perhaps.
“You’ll forgive us, sir, but we need to lay eyes on her, make sure she’s okay firsthand. Orders from Mr. Price,” Wells said.
“I understand. She’s fine, she just crashed. I wanted her to get some sleep. It’s been a long couple of days.”
“Tell me about it. But—”
“I’m not waking her up so you can satisfy Price’s curiosity, you understand?” Baldwin tried to keep his tone pleasant, but he’d had just about enough. Wells recognized the signs of impending anger, weighed his choices, then nodded briefly.
“Give me a second,” he said, then flipped open a cell phone. Baldwin heard Price’s voice on the other end of the phone. Wells relayed a status update, said “uh-huh” a couple of times then handed the phone to Baldwin.
“He wants to speak to you.”
Baldwin took the phone.
“Well, you don’t sound as angry as I expected. She told me you called off your dogs. I think she’s just scared, Baldwin, and hates to admit it to you.”
“You could have given me a heads-up when she called.”
“And risk the wrath of Khan? Hell no. That’s her business. Her cash.”
“You’re right, Mitchell. It’s her choice who to trust right now. I won’t keep you, I just wanted to confirm that these boys were yours.”
“They are. Keep safe, Baldwin. Keep her safe for me.”
Baldwin clicked the phone off and handed it to Wells, who stowed it in jacket pocket.
“We’ll just wait here until she wakes up, sir.”
“Fine. Have a seat. She’s been out for about an hour, I’m going to wake her up at seven. Try not to break anything while you wait.”
They didn’t sit, but Wells leaned against the kitchen counter, meaty arms in a pyramid across his chest. His partner, Rogers, was the quieter of the two. He simply stared at the floor as if he found the wood grain the most interesting thing he’d ever seen, looking up occasionally as if asking permission to continue imitating a statue.
Baldwin shrugged and left them to their devices. Damn if he didn’t feel good having them around. This was all spinning out of control, the grains of sand shifting through the hourglass faster and faster. He could feel it in the very air that surrounded them, a sense of expectation, of doom. They were hurtling toward the resolution of the case whether they wanted it or not.
He called in to Lincoln and asked about Colleen Keck. She was apparently fine, madder than a wet hen that she wasn’t being allowed to leave, but safe, and alive. So the card wasn’t entirely accurate. Just another stupid threat. He told Lincoln to take extra precautions, then hung up the phone.
He discarded the mail on the counter and put on
a pair of purple nitrile gloves from the stash in the kitchen’s junk drawer. The beef brothers watched him with interest.
The CD jewel case was taped closed. It had been hand-delivered, obviously. No postmark on the envelope, nothing that could be traced. Smart, creepy as hell. He hated that the Pretender knew where they lived, could access their home at any time.
“Hey, did either of you guys watch the house over the past day?”
Wells shook his head. “No, sir. We followed you to Forest City. Damn boring drive, I’ll tell you that.”
“What, the majesty of the Blue Ridge didn’t do it for you?”
“I prefer the Rockies, sir. Those are real mountains. Better yet, insert me through a HALO jump twenty-five thousand feet above the Hindu Kush. That’s some fun times.”
Wells almost cracked a smile. Almost. Rogers looked interested for the first time.
Mercenaries. Ex-military yahoos, back in the States. Professional tough guys, keeping tabs on his fiancée. He didn’t know whether to be furious or grateful.
“Well, while y’all were on our tail, our killer dropped this in our mailbox.”
“We should call that in, sir,” Wells said, reaching for his pocket.
“Just hold on, okay? Let me see what this is first.”
Wells stopped. There was something to be said for career soldiers, they took instruction well.
Baldwin went to the pantry and took out a small toolbox, one equipped for a rudimentary forensic investigation. A to-go kit. He withdrew fingerprint powder and a brush. Prepped the jewel case, then brushed the
powder over the slick casing. Nothing. He used a scalpel to slice through the tape that held it open, then took up a fresh brush and followed the same procedure on the inside. It was too much to hope that there would be prints… Disappointed again. Clean as a whistle.
He took the CD from the case and read the letters. It was gibberish. A bunch of numbers and letters, which meant nothing to him. He was decent at codes, it was one of the weird little things he’d picked up, but nothing was leaping out, announcing itself. He ran it through his mental ciphers, still nothing.
He carefully copied the letters and numbers into his notebook, then left the kitchen for the living room. They had a Bose stereo system. He popped the CD in and hit Play. Turned the volume down so whatever was on the CD wouldn’t go booming out into the world and wake Taylor.