Authors: Olivia Claire High
There weren’t as many streetlights this far down the street. But she had a fairly good view of her surroundings, thanks to the partying neighbors. Although it would have been a lot less difficult if the bag she had to find was any color instead of green. Leave it to her dad to make things complicated. But on the flip side, if the bag was a brighter color that would make it easier for someone else to find it. She gulped in a resigned sigh, lowered her head, and plunged boldly into the overgrown plants closest to the side of the fence by the street, hoping this might be where her dad may have tossed his elusive green bag.
This wasn’t going to be easy.
But she had a feeling trying to explain to Thad why she’d lied to him was probably going to be a far more daunting task.
Thad frowned at his watch and opened the backdoor. He stepped outside to look in the yard, but there wasn’t any sign of Suzanne. He was beginning to feel uneasy about her continued absence, despite her warning him that she’d be staying to visit with her neighbors. Just how long could it take to deliver the food, maybe sit and have a cup of coffee while they ate, and head back? Had she stayed to help with the clearing up and lost track of time?
He looked at his watch again. Whatever the reason for her staying away it seemed to him it was more than enough time to do what she had to do and be home by now. His restlessness increased until his whole body felt like a rubber band ready to snap. He’d waited long enough. He didn’t care what the old folks thought about him showing up at their door. It was time he paid them a call.
Thad rang the doorbell. He heard a safety chain slide into place and waited impatiently until the door opened just wide enough for a man to peer at him.
“I’m sorry to bother you, sir. I’m a friend of Suzanne’s. I’ve been staying with her the last few days. You may have seen me around outside.”
“Oh yes, I believe I have. What can I do for you, young man?”
“To tell you the truth I’m getting a little lonely all by myself in the house. I was wondering when Suzanne might be coming back. We planned to watch a movie together.”
“I don’t understand. Are you saying she’s not at home?”
Thad’s stomach muscles quickly tightened.
“No she’s not. I assumed she was still here with you.”
“Why no. She left quite a while ago. She said she’d come back tomorrow to collect her bowls.”
Alarm mixed with fury. Thad had to force himself to keep the anger out of his voice.
“Did she mention she might be going someplace else? Perhaps to visit another neighbor close by?”
“Not that I recall. Oh my goodness. Perhaps she’s hurt somewhere. Should I call the police?”
Thad shook his head.
“She probably went to the store. She said something about being out of popcorn. No need to call anyone. I’ll just wait for her to return. I apologize for worrying you.”
“You be sure and let me know when you find her.”
“You bet. Goodnight now.” Thad started to walk away, but stopped. “Just out of curiosity, did she ask to borrow your car? She thought she heard a funny noise in hers today and wanted to have it checked out,” he said, continuing to improvise.
“No she didn’t mention the car, but she told me about her phones.”
“She said the house phone is on the blink and her cell needed a charge, so she asked to use ours. Do you want to use it, too?”
Thad kept his expression bland, but anger at Suzanne’s deception dug at him like razor sharp claws.
“I forgot about her phones. Mine’s fine. I should have told her that. Thanks again for your help.”
“Don’t forget to let me know if she’s all right.”
Thad whipped out his phone as soon as he heard the door close. Frustration and worry warred inside him as he jogged back to the house. He couldn’t believe Suzanne would run off after promising to come back. What part of your life is in danger did the woman not understand? He cursed himself for trusting her and cursed her even more for taking advantage of that trust.
Thad knew he probably wouldn’t have discovered Suzanne’s destination so quickly if he didn’t have the right resources to tap into. It embarrassed and infuriated him that he’d ended up having to ask for assistance. He must be losing his edge, or she’d messed with his mind enough to make him trust her. She never should have been able to slip away from him so easily.
Either way, he vowed it wasn’t going to happen again. If Suzanne thought he’d been watching her too closely before, this reckless stunt just cost her any chance at privacy. He never thought she would use her neighbors as a cover to escape him after she seemed so upset about having her other friends involved in this chase to find her father. His hands clenched on his knees, as the taxi slowed to a halt.
“This is where I dropped her off,” the cab driver said, breaking into Thad’s thoughts.
“At this house?”
No. She walked down that way,” the man pointed. “Looks like someone’s having a party down there. I figured she was either crashing the shindig, or maybe trying to surprise someone.”
“Sounds like it.” Thad handed him the fare, with a generous tip.
“Thanks. You want me to wait? This extra just bought you more time on the meter.”
“No. I’ll take it from here.”
The driver shrugged.
“Your call, Ace,” he said, holding up the money. “Thanks for the extra dough.”
Thad stepped out of the taxi and started jogging in the direction the driver had indicated. He kept to the shadows and stopped when he came to the party house. Once his sources had located the cabbie and this area, they’d also discovered she actually lived in this neighborhood at one time during her childhood.
Thad checked the number on the house in front of him. It didn’t match the address he was looking for. Next door would if the numbers were running in the correct sequence.
He walked there, careful to stay out of the glare of the streetlights, and verified what he already knew to be true. This was her old place, but it looked deserted. Who had Suzanne phoned that she didn’t want him to know about – someone at the party house? His gut told him otherwise.
He had a feeling she came to her old house to meet someone, and that person was most likely her father. Had she been lying when she said she didn’t know how to get a hold of him? Was she waiting, knowing her dad would be contacting her? If he was right about that then Suzanne was a better actor than she’d accused him of being.
Her father had probably been manipulating Suzanne and twisting her emotions to his advantage since she was a kid. It looked like she was just another pawn to a man who used people for his own benefit. The idea disgusted him and made him feel sorry for her. But she was an adult now, and it was time she broke free from whatever hold her parent had on her. That’d be up to her. He had more important things on his mind than playing counselor to Suzanne’s dysfunctional family.
He ducked around large bushes and headed along the edge of the lawn before he vaulted over the railing and landed on the porch. Thad wasn’t surprised to find the door locked and a quick check in the front windows showed nothing but dark rooms behind the grimy panes.
Suzanne hadn’t gone in this way unless she had somehow obtained a key. She’d either used a side window or one in back to gain her entry, if she actually went inside. He jumped down off the porch and slid around back checking the perimeter of the house as he went. His search didn’t turn up a single clue that anyone had been here. The yard at both sides of the house needed trimming; but the back was a virtual forest of plants literally gone wild without the hand of man to cut them back.
Thad moved slowly keeping his senses alert, as he eluded the lights streaming over the fence from the neighbor’s house. He’d find Suzanne if she was still here and demand an explanation. He knew she would give him some flak and that was just too damn bad. He wasn’t going to back down until she told him everything. No more Mr. Nice Guy. He had let his emotions cloud his judgment, and allowed himself to have faith in her. His mistake caused him to let down his guard and forget this was a job, not a courtship.
How many times was he going to have to keep telling Suzanne it would make things a lot easier for them both if she would realize he only wanted to keep her safe and help find her father? Thad supposed this was what people meant by that old saying about blood being thicker than water. She insisted on putting him in the role of bad guy when her dad was actually more the villain in her personal life.
Thad caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and dropped to the ground. Suzanne! She
him. He watched and frowned, as she crawled around on her hands and knees pushing foliage out of her way, face close to the ground, obviously searching for something. That something could very well be the phones with the evidence her father was supposed to have collected on the Montanes.
He wondered how the hell anyone would be expected to find anything in this tangled mess with so little light to guide them. He made his way silently over to Suzanne, slithering through the foliage making him feel like a snake. He grabbed her and clamped a hand over her mouth before she had a chance to react. She began to struggle and fight him until he pressed her into the ground rendering her completely immobile with the weight of his body.
Stop fighting me. I’m going to take my hand away, and if you so much as let out a squeak, so help me God I’ll shove a mouthful of dirt down your throat. Do I make myself clear?” he hissed in her ear.
She nodded, and he eased his hand away.
“Are you trying to squash me to death?” she gasped.
Thad shifted, but still kept her pinned down.
“How did you know where to find me?”
“Didn’t you ever hear that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?” he said, keeping his voice quiet and close to her ear, while doing his best to ignore how good her hair smelled.
You didn’t have a car. You used the same cab company I did when we met your friend.”
“You found the cab driver who brought me here? I can’t believe it.”
“I’m here, aren’t I? What are you looking for?”
“What makes you think I’m looking for anything?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because I just watched you crawling around with your nose to the ground like a dog trying to find where a favorite bone is buried.”
“You think I’m a dog?”
Thad rolled his eyes.
“Vanity, thy name is woman. It was just a metaphor. I repeat, what are you hoping to find here?”
“Have it your way. We can lay here like this all night for all I care because I’m not moving until you tell me the truth.”
She wiggled restlessly beneath him.
“You’re not being fair using brute force to get your way.”
“Do you consider it fair that you abused my trust when I let you go to your neighbors on your own, only to have you run out on me?”
“No. And I feel awful about that, especially in using them. I took Greg’s cell phone and a twenty out of his wallet,” she wheezed. “Would you please get off of me? I’m having trouble getting my breath.”
Thad rolled to a sitting position and grabbing Suzanne, tugged her up to sit beside him while keeping his fingers locked around her wrist.
“No more stalling. What are you doing here?”
“It’s a long story.”
“I’ll take the abbreviated version.”
“Oh, all right. Your instincts were correct about Cissy. Dad contacted her and gave her a phone number where I could reach him. And before you jump down my throat, I swear to you I didn’t have any way to get in touch with him before. He said he put the evidence he collected on the Montane brothers in a bag and tossed it into this backyard.”
“Is he expecting you to take it to him?”
“No. He didn’t tell me where he’s hiding. He asked me to turn the evidence over to the police. He’s going to take off and live on some island with his lady love as soon as he knows the Montanes are in custody. According to Dad, she’s pregnant, I might add.”
He’s not exactly Father of the Year material, and now he’s going to have another kid.” Thad shook his head. “Do you believe he really stashed the stuff in this hodgepodge of plants?”
“Why else would he ask me to come here? I don’t want to be the one to dole out his punishment even though I agree he deserves to pay for giving everyone the runaround.”
“That’s some kind of hold he has over you.”
Her jaw clenched.
“You don’t have to tell me something I already know.”
“Then why don’t you stop trying to save your father and concentrate on trying to save yourself?”
“I assume you’re referring to the years I’ve spent trying to please Dad and not about escaping the Montanes. Well, I don’t know how. Now are you going to help me find the bag or not?”
“What does it look like?”
“Green and canvas.”
“A green bag hidden among a forest of green plants. Wonderful. Not that it matters in the dark. I don’t suppose it occurred to your father that it’d be more logical for you to wait until daylight.”
“Dad doesn’t do logical.”
“I’m beginning to think that might be a family trait.”
Suzanne glared at him.
“Could you just please help me find the stupid bag, or would you rather sit here going on about fixing my screwed up genes?”
“Lady, there isn’t enough Super Glue or Duct tape on this planet to fix what ails your family.”
“Well, that made me feel better.”
He removed his hand from her wrist.
“I’m sorry. You have my permission to take a swipe at me.”
“Forget it. I can’t very well deny something when I know it’s true. ”
“All right then, let’s see what we can find here.”
Thad sat back on his heels after they’d finished searching as much of the yard that was possible to reach.
“Either you misunderstood him, or your father’s playing games with you.”
“I know what he said. That bag has to be here.”
“If it is, I don’t think we’re going to find it tonight. There’s something else to consider.”
“Someone else knew about the bag and got here before we did.”
“That means they saw my dad put it here. He said the Montanes were getting too close.”
“Or he’s playing this from both sides. There might be someone in the Montane camp that’s willing to help your father for their own benefit.”
“Which would mean he doesn’t care what happens to me; as long as he gets to leave the country with the stolen cash and his woman on his arm?”
Suzanne pushed the hair out of her eyes.
“Nice of him. You’d think I’d be used to his conniving by now. He pulled the guilt trip on me again. I foolishly tried to be the obedient daughter and help him like I’ve always done. It burns my butt that he can still make me feel like I’m five years old. He didn’t even care that I’d been shot. Well, I’ve had it. I came for the bag, and I couldn’t find it. My conscience is clear.”
“I’ll have someone come back and look in the daylight. I’ll need that number you used to reach your father to see if we can track him down.”
“Okay, but I’d like to get out of here first. My clothes are filthy, I’m full of stickers, and I’m pretty sure there’s something getting ready to crawl up my pants leg.”
Suzanne walked to a pool of light coming from next door and started to brush at her clothes. The music suddenly went to an ear piercing high. Thad shoved her to the ground seconds before a tiny missile shredded the bush above their heads.
“What the hell were you doing, standing up in the light like that?”
“Please tell me that wasn’t what I think it was,” she said, ignoring his question.
Thad pushed her head down when Suzanne tried to take a look.
Another bullet slammed into the dirt near them making Suzanne tremble.
“Oh dear God, not again!”
“Listen to me,” he commanded. “We’re going to crawl to the back gate that leads to the empty field.”
“It’s too overgrown with tangled vines. We’ll never be able to get it to open.”
“Yes we will. Stay low and move away from any light. Now go. I’ll be right behind you.”
Suzanne swiveled her body around, encouraged by his calm confidence and headed for the gate in a commando crawl just as two more bullets hit the ground near their feet. She wiggled over thick weeds, sharp pebbles, thistles, and dirt to reach the gate in record time with Thad following inches away.
Thin streams of sweat streaked her face while she panted from the combination of fear and exercise. Thad breathed so quietly Suzanne couldn’t even hear him. She had no idea how he thought they’d be able to get the gate open until she heard him attacking the vines with quick, aggressive sawing motions.