Authors: Jonas Saul
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller
At the bottom of the escalator, Hank motioned for her to come with him. He moved to a large round pillar off to the side and placed her back to it, with him in front of her, a man on either side.
Hank touched his earpiece and mumbled into his lapel. She hadn’t noticed his communications setup earlier. She followed his gaze and counted the men he nodded to throughout the food court and above. At a count of eight, her stomach dropped.
Hank had said there was only six. He nodded at another man. Then another.
She grabbed his arm and spun him around. The man on her right wrenched on her shoulder to pull her back to the pillar.
“You said you only had six men,” Sarah said. “I count at least nine so far. What the fuck?”
“Calm down,” Hank whispered. “I do only have six.” He looked left and right to make sure no one was watching them. He nodded at the guard on Sarah’s right and the hand on her shoulder lifted off. “There are at least twenty men in the area waiting for Rod Howley. Local law enforcement were called in. They are working in conjunction with us to stop Rod.”
“Geez, when one of your members goes rogue, you guys really show him a good time.”
“What Rod has done and what he knows about us—well, let’s just say, he can’t be trusted. My six men answer to me. The rest have no idea who you are or why you’re here. They aren’t a threat to you. Don’t worry, you still get your ten seconds. Rod doesn’t get any.”
Hank turned around and whispered into his lapel again.
There had been something in his eyes, a flicker, a twitch. She was sure he was lying about something, but she had no idea what. She wondered if the local law enforcement really knew who she was and were no threat to her. Would Hank have given that information up so easily? She knew these Sophia Project men, and their reputation was subterfuge only. Hank would never tell the locals who she was. He would lie to serve his purpose.
“What have you told the local authorities about me?” she asked.
He spoke into his mic, ignoring her.
Sarah scanned the area. Nothing was familiar. Average Canadian families walked around with shopping bags and babies in their arms, some pushing strollers with no idea what was about to happen at any moment.
Across the labyrinth of tables and chairs, two men with white-powdered faces, wearing long black overcoats stared at her. She stared back trying to see if they were watching Hank and his men or her. When she was sure they were watching her, she looked left toward the sporting goods store to see if there were others watching her. A quick look to the right toward the rest of the small fast-food restaurants revealed nothing.
When she looked for the two men in black overcoats, they were gone. Something about them disturbed her. She frantically searched the immediate area, but didn’t see them.
Her hand numbed.
Oh, no, not now, Vivian. I have nothing to write on.
The numbness faded, pins and needles came and went. She flexed her hand and tried to calm her nerves.
I know you’re with me. Thanks, Vivian.
“Hank?” she called.
He checked the time on his watch and then half-turned to her. “What?”
“Are any of your men dressed in black overcoats?”
He frowned, met the eyes of his guards and then brought his attention back to her. “No. Why do you ask?”
The two men weren’t just curious. The look in their eyes held intent. She’d seen it before. They were up to something and they weren’t part of Hank’s crew.
Who are they? Rod Howley’s men?
She hopped from one foot to the other. She would only get one chance at this. Her heart rate increased, adrenaline flowed. She flexed her arms and fingers and waited for Rod to show.
“Hank?” Sarah said again.
“What?” he said without turning around, an edge of agitation in his voice.
“What if Rod calls at the last minute and sets a new place to meet? Or what if he doesn’t show at all?”
“He’ll show. I’m not worried about that. I know him.”
“Yeah, but he’ll know you have the place surrounded. Why would he willingly walk into the trap?”
“Because he thinks he holds all the cards. We won’t move on him as long as he has Joan and once he gets you, he thinks we won’t move in on him.”
Hank half-turned to her again. “Because he knows how good you are and doesn’t imagine that we would kill you. Yet. That’s where he’s wrong.”
“Gee, thanks. Why am I helping you again?”
“You’re not helping. You’re here because you have no other choice.”
“I could kill you with my bare hands within three to five seconds. So I actually do think I have a choice …”
“What did you just say?” a voice to her left asked.
She looked into the eyes of a tall, dark-skinned man with a barrel chest. He towered over her by at least a foot.
“Don’t worry about her, Detective Waller. She’s here to help the exchange take place.”
He scowled down at Sarah. “It sounded like she just uttered a death threat.” His deep voice resonated through her. It was the kind of voice she envisioned her husband having one day. The kind that made her feel safe, protected and cherished.
“She did,” Hank said. “She’s pissed off that she has to be here, but don’t worry about that. She’s my problem. Is everyone in place?”
Detective Waller’s piercing green eyes turned and met Hank’s gaze. “Yes, all my men have been told about your sex offender.”
Sarah coughed out a chuckle, then clamped a hand over her mouth.
Detective Waller turned to her and leaned in close to her. “Do you find something funny, little girl?”
Hank reached around and pulled Waller back up by his arm. “As I said a moment before, disregard her. She doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation.”
“Remind me why she’s here again. If this guy is meeting us here, why do you need her? We’ll just pick him up. Quick and clean.”
“Do you know Parkman?” Sarah asked Waller. “He must be here. How about it, is Parkman around?”
“I appreciate your cooperation,” Hank said to Waller, completely ignoring Sarah. “But I’ve worked with this guy Rod for many years. He’s a professional. The odds of just picking him up quick and clean are low. We have to do this right and for that, we need her. Now, are your men in place?”
Waller nodded. He kept sneaking glances at Sarah but didn’t say anything more to her. She wondered if he recognized her from all the recent media attention she had gotten.
“Good,” Hank said. “It’s three minutes to one, so get everybody ready. Howley is probably already here.”
Detective Waller took one more look at Sarah and stepped away, disappearing in the throng of shoppers seconds later.
Hank backed into the shadows, crowding Sarah. He lifted his lapel and said, “Everyone, be ready. This is it. First one to spot Howley, radio it in. And remember, he may have his own people with him. No weapons. I repeat, no weapons in the mall. Tasers only. Subdue and secure. Clear?”
Numerous men chimed in, but Sarah could only hear a metallic reply from Hank’s earphone.
Her hand went numb again. She shook it off and mumbled, “Not now.”
The guards on either side looked at her. Hank half-turned. “What not now?” he asked.
“Nothing.” She widened her eyes, smiled and shrugged for a brief moment like a crazy person.
“What not now?” Hank asked again.
“Vivian is trying to tell me something. I don’t like this. Something’s wrong here. It doesn’t feel right.”
Hank scanned the crowd and adjusted his earpiece. “What doesn’t feel right?” he asked.
“I don’t know. It just … feels off somehow.”
“We have a minute left. This is no time for a conscience or nerves.”
“I’m not talking about nerves, asshole. Rod wouldn’t do this. He wouldn’t kidnap Joan and then set up a meeting to exchange for me. He knows you and what you would do to him. Something’s not right. The more I think about it, the more it just feels off.”
“You know, you’re right. This doesn’t feel like Rod. But desperate people do desperate things.”
“Yeah, so why exchange for me? What does he want with me?”
“You saved his life, didn’t you?”
“He’s returning the favor.”
Sarah shook her head. “No, he would do something else. He would contact your superiors or get his own team together to come after me. Hell, he could’ve organized a visit to your compound and broke me out if he wanted to. But kidnapping your wife? Doesn’t feel right. Too personal.”
“You’re telling me this now because …” Hank scanned the area again and checked his watch. “This is it. It’s one p.m.”
“It all happened so fast. The alarm at the complex, you putting me on the helicopter. I haven’t really thought about it until now.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter. He’s going to show any second. We’re out of time.”
Since Sarah woke to sirens in her cell that morning, she hadn’t fully grasped the seriousness of the situation. A week in one room, solitary confinement with only a book, her pen, and a pad of paper to keep her company had dulled her senses.
Her food had arrived through a slot in the door. Nothing had tasted good. Hank and his men had been her only visitors. He came each morning and relieved her of any written prophecies from her sister.
They had given her one novel.
by Robert McCammon. She thought of Swan, the main character in that novel now. Even after nuclear war, Swan had carried on and brought life to all that she touched. Lucifer had walked the earth, but Swan was untouchable. Evil may have won, but it would never conquer.
Sarah felt like that now. She would walk away from this as long as she was smart. These men had orders to kill her. There had to be an escape without harming the public.
The sporting goods store was no more than twenty feet away. She could cover that distance in seconds. All she had to do was wait for Rod Howley to show with Hank’s wife and she would be ready. There was no way Hank would order her shot down in the middle of the food court. He was counting on her running out the subway doors or up the escalator to the ground level. That gave him time to chase her and catch her away from all these people. He didn’t count on her staying on this level and fighting back. She had nothing but her hands to fight with. They had weapons.
But Rod hadn’t shown and Hank was growing increasingly agitated. He whispered into his lapel and wiped his forehead. His men moved closer, edging around the perimeter of the food court, jockeying for a better position to watch for Howley.
Still, nothing happened.
“Shit,” Hank exclaimed, slapping a fist into his open palm. “Where the fuck is he?”
He stepped out farther. Anyone on the level above could see him now.
Sarah waited and watched. This was her only chance. Even if Rod didn’t show, she would have to make a break for it. If she was locked in a cell, there was no way Hank would ever let her back out again.
Her hand numbed and then cleared.
I know, Vivian. I’m ready.
Sarah saw her first. A lone woman standing on the other side of the food court. She looked sickly pale. Her lipstick smeared past her lips on each side of her face making a line across her cheeks. She was crying.
Then Hank saw her.
“Joan?” he whispered. “Joan,” he said louder.
He stepped out of position and started across to her. The two men flanking Sarah each grabbed an arm and guided her across the food court behind Hank.
The pale look on Joan’s face was white powder and the red smears wasn’t lipstick at all.
It was blood.
Sarah’s stomach turned at the sight.
Everyone was on edge now. The guards let Sarah’s arms go so they could be ready, one hand on their weapons. A commotion started behind her while Detective Waller’s men began the daunting task of cordoning off the area for the safety of shoppers.
Hank reached Joan and asked again and again what had happened. Joan appeared dazed, as if she was on drugs. He grabbed her shoulders and shook her.
Sarah watched for her chance.
“What happened?” Hank asked. “Where’s Rod Howley? What did he do to you?”
Joan opened her clenched palm and handed Hank a picture. Hank snatched it and studied it. People ran by them headed for the underground subway.
Sarah had to make a break for it. She had to go now. Any moment, Hank would pay attention to her again and her chances of escape would decrease very fast.
Another second ticked by as she waited for more chaos. A woman screamed, a man shouted. She was tempted to turn around to see what was happening, but waited. Any second now. Patience.