She realized that she really, really didn’t. Normal life had passed her by, at light speed; she’d cashiered out of the military and hadn’t had time to form casual friendships before she’d taken the job at Fairview…and then her life had ended. Well, maybe not ended, but certainly morphed into something that was not normal even if it was sometimes amazing. When had she last had a simple, glorious evening of movies, pizza, and beer with friends? Or even had one of those by herself?
William stripped off his lab gear and grabbed his motorcycle helmet—despite the statistics, he insisted on playing the odds—and was gone before she finished clipping all the paperwork together for the morning. She carried the packet upstairs and dropped it off with Lucy, then sat down at her desk to check her e-mail.
Her phone rang, and she picked it up, only half-focused on it. “Davis Funeral Home, Bryn Davis speaking.”
“Are you at your computer?” It was a female voice—brisk, unfamiliar, and cheerful.
“Are you at your computer right now?”
“Yes, who is this?”
“Just bear with me. I want you to open your e-mail.”
She just had. There were six new messages—two from Lucy about various office things; one from Gertrude Kleiman whose header was, surprisingly, I quit (and hallelujah about that one); two spam offers; and…one e-mail with no sender name.
“You see the anonymous one with the subject line of Play me?”
“Yes,” Bryn said. She pulled out her cell phone and began texting on it to McCallister. Trace office phone call right now.
“I sincerely urge you to click that file, Bryn.”
She switched her cell to silent mode and put it on the desk before her, then clicked the file attached to the e-mail. She expected—braced herself for it—to see another of those creepy execution videos, but this was very different. It was taken with night vision, in the dark, and it was a close-up on…
On a child’s face. A little boy with thick blond hair and wide, scared eyes. A boy with a gag over his mouth.
The camera pulled back, showing Bryn that he was tied hand and foot, and sitting on a wooden box, in the dark.
“Oh God,” she said, stunned, and touched her fingers to her lips. “What the hell—Who are you?”
“Never mind me. That,” the voice said, “is someone you know—wait, the light should be coming on in just a second. You’ll probably recognize him a little more clearly.…”
She was right. There was a flare of light, the camera switched into full-color mode, and now the little boy looked horribly familiar.
Bryn’s chest ached as if she couldn’t get a breath. “Jeff,” she said. “Jeff Fideli. Joe and Kylie’s son.”
“A-plus, Bryn. You’re doing great. Now, this is what I need from you. You’re going to take that cell phone you just put on the desk, open it up, and take out the SIM card. I’m not cruel—you don’t have to destroy it and lose all your phone numbers—just put it in your office drawer. Then I want you to take your purse and walk straight for the exit. Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t stop for anything. Go straight out the door, get in your car, and meet me at Coffee Jack’s. You know where that is, don’t you? You’re a regular there.”
“Yes, I know where it is,” she said. She was still staring at the screen, feeling numbed and frozen with terror. “Let him go—he’s just a kid!”
“We’ll discuss those options once you come to the shop,” the woman said. “But if you deviate from these instructions, or if you don’t leave in the next fifteen seconds, this particular kid is deader than Dixie. Copy that?”
“Copy,” Bryn said, automatically slipping into the language of her military life. Fifteen seconds. She didn’t have time to try to write a note, or give a signal, or do anything except leave all this on her screen…
Except that suddenly, her computer screen exploded into static, and then turned blue. The error box flashed, and the whole machine powered down.
“Sorry about the virus. Hope you didn’t have anything too valuable on that hard drive,” the voice said. “You’ve now got about seven seconds. Better move.”
There was no time for a plan. She grabbed her purse and ran for the office door, then forced herself to slow to a walk down the hall. She passed Lucy’s desk but didn’t glance at her, didn’t deviate at all as she went outside into the sunlight, through the gardens, out to the parking lot. Her fingers were shaking so badly it was hard to find the remote button to unlock her car, but she made it inside, and didn’t hesitate there, either.
I have to think, she told herself as she drove. I have to get word to Patrick and Joe. Somehow, she knew whoever had been talking to her would be watching her; she would have some way to see if Bryn tried to do anything counter to the instructions.
She simply couldn’t take the risk of doing anything that might put Jeff in more danger, and she didn’t have anything to tell them, except that Jeff had been abducted—which they’d know soon, if they didn’t already. With time, they might be able to trace the e-mail back, or analyze the video file, if it hadn’t taken the e-mail server down along with her hard drive, but if she screwed up now, it wouldn’t matter. Jeff was a hostage for her good behavior.
She had to play it out. The problem was, her tracker nanites weren’t fully attached yet; they wouldn’t be active for hours.
And she’d just gone right off the reservation.
Bryn checked her rearview mirror in the forlorn hope that somehow, impossibly, she might have a tail, that Joe might have stuck with her at the office instead of doing his job at the funeral…or that Patrick might have somehow been close enough in the area to follow.
But the road was empty of traffic, and she kept hearing that cheerful, confident woman say, Deader than Dixie. Copy that?
There wasn’t any choice at all but to keep going.
She parked and lunged out of the car without bothering to lock it up, and felt a warm burst of relief when she saw that there was—as there often was—a San Diego police cruiser parked in Coffee Jack’s lot, and two uniformed officers standing in line at the counter. This might work out. This was her place, not the kidnapper’s; she knew the people well. Dave the Doorman, for instance—he’d see her and know instantly that something was off. Maybe she could pass him a message as he held the door for her. Maybe…
But she wasn’t that lucky. Dave wasn’t there. But then, she rarely came at this time of day. Maybe Dave had someplace else he liked to haunt, a restaurant where he greeted another set of clientele by name and got his meals comped, as so often his coffee came free here for his good cheer.
There were six customers seated around tables in the interior of the shop and two employees behind the counter. She didn’t recognize either of them, but the shift would have changed from her usual morning crew. The warm smell wrapped around her like a fog—coffee, chocolate, steamed milk, cinnamon. Safety. Home. Familiar surroundings.
It shouldn’t have felt so full of menace, so much like being trapped in a nightmare. She couldn’t stop thinking about little Jeff, about the fragile courage on his small face. Bryn stared at the two police officers, willing them to turn and look at her, to see that something was wrong and approach her.…
A hand fell on her shoulder. “Bryn?”
It was Carl, her Pharmadene problem child, suddenly here and in the flesh. She blinked, and turned to face him. “What—what are you—” It didn’t matter. Didn’t matter at all. “I can’t talk to you right now.” She had no patience with coddling him right now. He was an obstruction, not an opportunity. It’d take too long to try to make him understand enough to use him as a messenger.
Carl looked pale, shocky, hunched as if he’d been punched in the guts. “Sit down for a second,” he said. Bryn ignored him and looked around for the woman she was supposed to meet. No one presented herself as a possibility.
Carl grabbed her arm, hard enough to bruise, and forced her to pay attention. “Bryn! Sit down!”
She bent her knees and sank into the chair, staring now at him. “What is this?”
He wet his lips. He looked terrible—really terrible. Gray, as if he was at least two doses down on Returné. “It’s not me,” he said. “I’m not doing this. I’m a pawn, just like, a pawn.…No, sit down! I don’t have a choice.” He spoke in a terrified hiss, and held her wrist when she tried to get up. “Sit!”
She slowly lowered herself back to the chair. “You’re in this with her.”
“No,” he said. He didn’t let go of her. His eyes were wild. “Just wait. Wait.”
Suddenly, she knew what was happening. Carl was under orders.
Protocol orders. He didn’t have a choice in what he was doing.
She didn’t know what he was waiting for until the two cops, chatting and joking with the barista, claimed their coffees and headed out the door. Bryn tried to catch their eyes, and tensed to grab one, but Carl’s desperation warned her that she’d better not try it.
Once the cruiser had pulled away into traffic, he let her go. “Go get a drink,” he said. “Go on. Get in line.”
“I don’t want any goddamn coffee,” she hissed back. “Where’s Jeff? Where are they holding him?”
He stared back at her and didn’t speak, just pointed at the counter. She grabbed her purse and walked to the counter. The register worker took her order and five dollars, and she moved to the other end, where the barista worked the machine and, in about a minute, put a cup up for her to take.
“You’re Bryn, right?” he asked. “Take it.”
The cup was empty.
She felt something blunt jammed low against her back, somewhere in the vicinity of her liver. “Drop the purse,” a man’s voice said—not Carl’s this time. “We’re going to walk very quietly toward the bathroom hallway.”