EXCERPT: SWEET REWARD
“Livingston, where the hell are you?”
As Noah McCall’s terse words rang in his earbud, Jared’s mouth twisted with a wry grimace. His boss was pissed—not an unusual event. Couldn’t do a damn thing about that…especially right now. Standing on a six-inch ledge twelve stories above the ground and only a few feet from a maniac with a gun impeded his ability to answer.
Plastered against the red brick wall, his concentration fierce, Jared focused on his destination: the half-open window ten feet to his right. His muscles strained as he extended his arms above him; his long fingers gripped the small overhang as his feet inched along the ledge of the building.
They had been on the other side of the apartment door for over two hours trying to talk a nutcase into freeing a ten-year-old girl he’d snatched off the street. So far, all they’d gotten were threats to shoot the child if they tried to come in. Jared had gotten tired of waiting.
McCall had been in the midst of conversing with the man when Jared had walked away. The Last Chance Rescue leader was a good hostage negotiator, but hearing the child crying had turned Jared’s stomach. He figured he had two choices: walk away and let the negotiations continue or do something to speed up the process.
“Livingston,” McCall snarled softly, “if you fall, I swear I’ll figure out a way to bring you back to life so I can kill you myself.”
Apparently someone had alerted his boss that Jared had found an alternate entrance.
He was an avid climber and at least once a year, he went somewhere—lately Mont Blanc—and fed his need. Compared to that, hanging out on a ledge in downtown Agar wasn’t that much of a challenge. Still, even just this high up, the air was fresher and the only creature around was a bored-looking pigeon that had barely acknowledged him.
A heavy gust of wind slammed him hard against the wall. His fingers tightened on the ledge. It was a good reminder that while a twelve-story building wasn’t much of a challenge, it could still get dicey.
He inched closer to the window. Since they’d managed to slide a mirror beneath the door, he had a good idea of what was going on inside. The creep faced the door; his back to the window, he held a gun to the girl’s head. It seemed to Jared that the best option for a live rescue was to come in behind him.
At the edge of the window, Jared stopped. Barely easing his head over, he got his first real glimpse of what was going on inside. The man, known to them only as Bernard, stood about four feet from the window. A young girl sat on a stool in front of the man, her thin body shuddering in obvious terror, and with good reason—the gun was still pressed to her head.
Jared quickly took in the rest of the room. Sofa and chair to the left, small kitchen with a bar to the right. No one else around. Looked like the guy was on his own for this.
The window was open about half a foot, with no screen, thankfully. Shooting the bastard was a temptation, but one Jared couldn’t risk. Bernard’s finger was on the trigger. One involuntary jerk and the child was dead.
A sudden flutter of wings was Jared’s only warning as a pigeon dove toward him. As he instinctively ducked, his left foot slipped and he slid to one knee. His right hand latched onto the windowsill, saving him from plunging to the ground. A cooing sounded above him; Jared glared at the two birds sitting on the ledge. Not one whit intimidated, they continued their pecking and ignored him.
With a firmer grip on the windowsill, Jared pushed himself back to his feet and drew his gun from its holster. In that instant, Bernard whirled around. Wild, bloodshot eyes went wide as he stared at Jared. He swung his gun around, moving it away from the girl’s head. Jared had a split second to make the decision. Without hesitation, he took the shot. A small hole appeared in Bernard’s forehead and the man fell to the floor.
A flurry of people burst through the door. Jared slid the window open wider and slipped inside. Medics rushed to the girl; McCall stalked in after them. His boss’s eyes went straight to Jared, and the expression on his face promised a future dressing down.
Jared mentally shrugged. He and McCall had a weekly “What the hell were you thinking?” meeting. He had gotten used to them. Sure he had a deep respect for his boss and the work LCR performed, but Jared had told the man up front that following rules wasn’t his strong point. McCall didn’t always like Jared’s methods, but he got the job done.
He moved across the room toward the lone Agar policeman, who also happened to be the police chief. A small town like Agar had only a skeleton force. LCR often helped out when small towns needed assistance. Though it had been a clean kill, that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be questions. In Jared’s previous life, he’d been able to walk away with no one even knowing about his existence, much less asking questions. Odd how he didn’t miss those old ways.
Always aware of his surroundings, he knew McCall was bringing in the mother to console the sobbing child who’d raced to the corner of the room the instant after the bullet hit Bernard. In the middle of the room, LCR operative Aidan Thorne stood over the dead man as a medic examined him.
The jaded, tired eyes of the police chief told Jared more than any words ever could. This was a man who’d been around the block a few times and had seen it all more than once. He’d probably moved to Agar from a larger city, expecting low crime and an opportunity to enjoy some peace and quiet. Problem was, evil had no respect for boundaries. It had a tendency to show up in the damnedest places these days.
In case those tired, knowing eyes had missed the obvious, Jared gave him the information: “It was a clean kill.”
The older man nodded grimly, then proceeded to pepper him with questions, letting Jared know that even though he looked like he’d rather be anywhere else than here, he planned to do his job.
As Jared answered each carefully worded question with his own careful answers, his phone vibrated in his pocket. To most people, that wouldn’t be a big deal. Phones rang twenty-four/seven all over the world for all kinds of reasons. His phone didn’t. He could count on one hand the number of friends he had; and on the other, he could count who else might need to get in touch with him. Either way, he wasn’t going to ignore them.
Holding up his hand to stop the questions, Jared pulled his phone out and answered, “Yeah?”
“Jared?” A sobbing gasp and then: “Please…I need your help.”
He was rarely surprised, but his ex-wife’s frantic voice asking for his help came as close as anything had in years. With the phone pressed to his ear, he turned and walked away for privacy. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s Mandy. Oh God, Jared, my baby is missing.”
The fact that both McCall and Aidan had stopped what they were doing and were staring intently at him told him they were aware of the importance of the call. A second later, McCall went over to the police chief. Knowing his boss would handle any further questions, Jared headed out the door. In the hallway, he stopped at the entrance to the stairwell and said, “Tell me what happened.”
“I went to her room this morning and she wasn’t there.”
“You called the police?”
“Yes, they’re on the way. Carter’s outside waiting for them.” She paused and then added, “Please, Jared, I’m begging—”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.” He closed the phone on her plea. Damned if he wanted to hear her beg.
He turned to find McCall behind him. “I’m headed back to Paris. Lara’s daughter has gone missing.”
His boss’s too sharp eyes assessed him briefly, and then he said, “Let me know if you want us involved.”
Jared gave a stiff nod of thanks and strode to the elevator. The elevator, old and most likely unreliable, took its own sweet time getting to the ground floor. As soon as the doors opened, Jared took off at a run to the motorcycle he’d parked a couple of blocks away.
As he ran through midday pedestrian traffic, he thought about his boss’s lack of questions—something he couldn’t help but appreciate. Most people wouldn’t have the same control. They would have wanted to know why Jared cared about helping a woman who’d gone out of her way to let everyone know she despised the man she’d once been married to.
Most people didn’t know the truth, and since it was no one’s business, he kept his mouth shut. Lara had a reason to hate him and while the feelings he’d once had for her were wisps of vaporous memories from another life, he owed her his help in any way he could provide it.
He spotted his Ducati half a block away. As usual, the cycle had attracted some admirers. Focused on getting out of town quickly, he moved through the small crowd and, without a word, jumped on the bike. Turning the switch, he revved the engine and was gone.
Two hours later, Jared stood at the entrance to the Dennison living room. Unnoticed by the occupants, he took in the scene. Lara, Jared’s ex-wife, sat in a chair close to the fireplace. Her ash-blond hair was pulled away from her pale face and her slender frame seemed to have shrunk since the last time he saw her. The medium sized man perched on the edge of an ottoman in front of her—was her husband, Carter Dennison. They were speaking in low soothing tones to each other and the affection in their expressions was telling. This was a couple grieving and finding solace in each other.
The few who knew the truth behind Jared’s failed marriage felt that Lara was at least partially responsible for their divorce. Jared disagreed. Watching Carter and Lara together at such a stressful moment reinforced that opinion. For one thing, he and Lara wouldn’t have had children together. They had talked about it before they’d gotten married. Lara was focused on her career and couldn’t take the time off; Jared hadn’t seen the need to bring another child into the world when there were so many already here who needed good homes. Adoption had been in the future…until that future blew up in their faces.
And secondly, if their child had been abducted, he’d be out looking for her. Offering comfort and support wasn’t part of his skill set. He was a doer, not a giver. Ask him to take out an evil dictator—Jared was the go-to guy. Want a kitten rescued from a tree, he was more than happy to oblige. Rescue a child from a crazed lunatic? Sure, he’d be there in a flash. Open his arms and offer love and comfort? Look to someone else because Jared would be somewhere else.
Lara raised her head and noticed him. The expression of relief on her face was a surprise. Last time he’d talked to her—the day their divorce was final—she’d called him a monster and told him to get the hell out of her life.
He had no hard feelings toward her. They’d had a few decent years and when she’d found out the truth, he’d gotten out. She’d finally gotten a glimpse of the real Jared, hadn’t liked what she’d seen and wanted him gone. Wasn’t like he hadn’t been down that road before.
“Jared, thank God you’re here.”
Before he could speak, she jumped from her chair and threw herself into his arms. When they’d been married, such spontaneous outbursts of emotions had rarely happened. In fact, the only time he’d ever seen Lara lose her composure was when she’d learned the truth and had demanded that he leave. Her calm, no-nonsense demeanor had been one of the biggest reasons he’d thought they could make a go of it. She’d seemed a lot like him. Hell, maybe that had been the problem.
He extricated himself from his ex-wife’s arms and held out his hand to Carter Dennison. After the couple had married, they’d moved to Paris so they could work at the same hospital. Lara was an ER doctor; Carter was a thoracic surgeon. Jared had seen the man only once. He had been standing in a deli, waiting for takeout, when Lara and Carter had walked in the door. It had been a brief and awkward moment. Now, having a better understanding of his ex-wife, Jared thought she and Dennison made a good pair.
“Thank you for coming, Livingston,” Dennison said. “Lara insists that you have the kind of skills that can bring our baby girl back home to us.”
Jared shot a quick glance at Lara. He had never told her the full truth of his experience. When it had become clear that the little information he had provided disgusted and shocked her, he’d seen no reason to go into more detail. If she couldn’t handle the little things, she sure as hell didn’t need to know more.
Apparently thinking she needed to explain, Lara said, “He knows you work for a rescue organization.”
Her reticence to talk about her ex-husband to her present one didn’t surprise him. Lara hadn’t been one to talk that much. Another reason he’d thought they’d get along well.
Jared nodded and jerked his head toward the couch. “Sit down and let’s get started.”
The couple seated themselves on the sofa, holding hands. Jared took a seat across from them and said, “When’s the last time you saw Mandy?”
“Last night I put her down around seven for the night. Then she woke me at three for a bottle. I fed her and put her back to bed. This morning, around six, I went to wake her…” She inhaled a trembling breath and finished, “And she wasn’t there.”
“Any sign of forced entry?”
Carter shook his head. “The police checked every door and window. They took our fingerprints, and other than one set that belongs to our housekeeper, there were no others. No broken windows or doors.”
As he took the parents through a series of questions, Jared kept a close eye on Dennison. Though he knew Lara well enough to be certain she would never endanger her own child, he didn’t know enough about Dennison to say the same thing. The man’s worried and grief-ravaged expression seemed sincere, but Jared knew better than anyone how easy it was to play a role.
“The police have any leads?”
Lara shook her head. “They’re sending someone to ask more questions this afternoon.” She straightened her shoulders, an expression of sheer determination hardening her soft, attractive features. “I haven’t told them about you, and I don’t plan to.” She leaned forward. “I want my baby girl found…no matter what you have to do, I want her back.”
The message was clear: Do whatever it takes.
Now, that was one thing Jared knew how to do.
“I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I didn’t have any money to feed her. They said they’d take good care of her.”
Arms propped up on her desk, Mia Ryker leaned closer and tried to see the truth behind Sandi Winston’s lies. The girl was pencil thin. Dark shadows beneath her eyes told of poor sleeping habits, her pallid complexion was an indication of bad health and her black hair, limp and lifeless, proof of improper nutrition. She was scratching her arms almost frantically, which could be anything from severe dry skin or fleas to a side effect from her condition.
Mia had seen enough addicts to know the symptoms. Sandi said she’d given her daughter away because she couldn’t feed her. More likely, it was in exchange for her drug of choice…whatever that was.
“When did this happen?” Mia asked.
“Two weeks ago.”
“And you told the police everything?”
The flicker of her eyelids and slight dilation of her pupils gave Mia a warning before Sandi lied: “Yes…everything.”
Mia would come back to that later. “And did these men say where they were going to take her?”
Sandi lifted a bony shoulder in a tired shrug. “They just said they would take her to a safe, warm place where she’d be fed and loved.”
Keeping her expression as bland and nonjudgmental as she could, Mia asked, “How much did they pay you?”
Sandi’s bloodshot eyes went wide with denial. “I didn’t…they didn’t…”
“I need to know as much as I can if I’m going to find your daughter.”
Sandi chewed on her dry lips, apparently trying to decide whether Mia could be trusted or not. Allowing the young woman time to consider, Mia reviewed her next steps. She had contacts—unofficial avenues—the authorities wouldn’t and couldn’t pursue.
If the men were new, she might have more trouble tracking them down. But if they were some of the regular slime that dealt in human trafficking around the city, she should be able to locate them.
The two-week time delay was her biggest concern. The child could be halfway around the world by now.
“When did you tell the police?”
“A couple of days after it happened. I got to thinking maybe they weren’t legit…you know?”
Yes, she did know. Most likely, Sandi had woken from her drug-induced haze and realized what she had done. Screaming at the young woman who thought so little of the precious gift of a child was a temptation, but one Mia couldn’t take. Finding the little girl trumped lecturing the mother.
That didn’t include not putting Sandi on a major guilt trip, though. “Your daughter is depending on you. When a mother brings a child into this world, she gives her a promise that she’s going to take care of her.”
“But I did. I—”
Mia raised her hand to stop another lie. “If you really want to help her, you’ve got to tell me the truth.”
Hoping the silence would eat into Sandi’s guilt, Mia kept her mouth closed and waited. She pushed aside the need to jump up from her desk, grab the girl by the shoulders, and shake her until she told the truth. At one time, that’s exactly what would have happened. Experience had given Mia wisdom and, more important, patience. Pissing people off or scaring the hell out of them only worked sometimes, under certain circumstances. Patience would give her much better results.
Mia was almost to the point of reverting to her old ways when Sandi finally spoke: “Two thousand dollars.”
Alarms went off inside Mia’s head. From a human-trafficking standpoint, two thousand wasn’t a huge amount of cash for a healthy child. But if these were local lowlifes and they saw how desperate Sandi was, they should have known she would have taken much less. To give her that much made Mia think it was as much about buying Sandi’s silence as it was about purchasing her child.
She picked up her pen and began to jot notes. “Describe them for me and how you met them.”
“A friend hooked me up.”
“And this friend’s name would be…?”
“Arnold, Ernie…something like that.”
Mia ground her teeth together, the vague answers from Sandi putting her on edge. Again, she fought the need to shake the girl. “Sandi, look at me.”
Startled and too old eyes widened as Mia’s stern voice shook the girl from her lethargic state.
“You either give me all the information you have…answer all of my questions—or get up and leave with the knowledge that you’ll probably never see your daughter again. Which is it?”
Sandi released a shaky breath and said, “It was my friend Freddy…I just didn’t want to get him into trouble. He hooks me up with the good stuff sometimes. When I told him I didn’t have any money, he told me about these men who might be willing to help me out.”
“There were two of them. They never told me their names.”
“What did they look like?”
“One was real short and kind of fat. The other one had a foreign accent, was tall and thin, and walked with a limp. They were both kind of old.”
“Old? How old?”
“I don’t know…maybe forties or something like that.”
Though life experience had aged her considerably, Sandi was most likely still a teen. Forties probably was old to her.
“What about hair color?”
Sandi slowly began to describe the men, her descriptions surprisingly vivid and detailed as she warmed to her task. Flipping to a clean piece of paper, Mia sketched the men. When Sandi stopped, Mia quickly finished her hasty drawing and then turned the paper for the girl to see. “Did they look anything like this?”
The gasp Sandi released told Mia she’d nailed the drawings. Not for the first time, she was grateful for the art classes her elite education had provided.
As Sandi suggested a few changes in the drawings, Mia absently made them while her mind zoomed toward what she needed to do. These men weren’t any she’d seen or heard of before. Since setting up her rescue business, she’d become acquainted with the local slime that traded in people as if they were marketable merchandise instead of human beings. In some cases, she’d helped the police put the creeps away; others continued to evade detection. But she knew most of them by sight or reputation. These men were new.
What had they done with Sandi’s one-year-old daughter? Was the child even still in Chicago, or had she been taken to another state already? Or another country?
“If I get your daughter back, Sandi, you’re going to have to clean yourself up and be the mother your child deserves. You going to be able to do that?”
The emphatic nod seemed genuine, but Sandi’s physical appearance indicated that she was a longtime addict. Making promises and not following through was as habitual to her as the drug itself. Little did the girl know that that Mia would make sure that either she cleaned herself up or the child would be taken away from her. She’d do all she could to help, but no way in hell was she going to put a kid back into her mother’s arms if she was going to be endangered or sold again.
Mia opened a drawer in her desk, withdrew a disposable phone, and handed it to the younger woman. “I need to be able to get in touch with you. My number is already on speed dial. I’ll call you if I have other questions, and if you think of something else, you can get in touch with me at any time.”
The girl stood. “That’s it? Is there anything else I can do?”
“Yes. Clean up and get yourself some food. There’s a restaurant on Eighteenth Street called Maxie’s. Tell them Mia sent you. They’ll feed you as many times as you need. Do you have a place to stay?”
“I’m staying with a friend.”
“Is your friend using?”
“No. She’s been trying to get me clean. She’s the one who told me to come see you.”
Eager to get started on the investigation, Mia stood and walked the girl to the door. “I’ll call you as soon as I know something. And remember, if you think of anything, call me. Okay?”
Sandi nodded, her eyes filling with tears. “Do you think they’re feeding and taking care of her?”
As much as she wanted to snarl at the girl that her motherly concern was too little too late, she wouldn’t. Having Sandi’s cooperation was imperative. Mia had learned long ago to keep judgment out of her tone and manner. Putting people on the defensive rarely helped a case.
However, neither would she lie. “I don’t know what their plans are for your daughter, but I promise I’ll do all I can to bring her home.”
The instant Sandi cleared the door, Mia turned back to her desk. Even with a detailed description of the men, she had her work cut out for her.
She picked up her phone and began to make calls to the network of people she relied on daily for help. The little girl had been gone for over two weeks. Finding her after such a long time was going to take everything she had, but she refused to believe it wasn’t possible.
Having overcome impossible odds before, Mia was determined that this would be just one more challenge she would conquer.
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