Malicious Pursuit

By KG MacGregor

2003

kgmacgregor@aol.com

 

 

 

Disclaimers:  By now, you should know this part by heart.  If you like to envision these characters as familiar faces, I won’t mess with that. 

 

This is an action/adventure story.  I wanted to call it a thriller, but I thought that was a little presumptuous.  However, it is my hope that you have to read the whole thing in one sitting.   Oh, and there’s romance between women.   Thought you’d appreciate that.

 

Thanks very much to TNovan & Ann who helped me out with the technical details.  Any errors you find are questions I forgot to ask, things I didn’t clarify, or stuff I made up.  If you find mistakes, please let me know.

 

A HUGE thanks also to Tami, my beta reader en fuego, and to the “fresh eyes” who gave it a read.  And thanks also to my Sweetcakes, not just for her editing, but for talking through all of the critical parts until we got things to work.

 

 

Malicious Pursuit – KG MacGregor

Part 1

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

“Five…ten…fifteen…twenty…,” Ruth Ferguson mumbled to herself as she counted the nickels in her drawer.  With a quick tap to the calculator, she scooped the change into its tube and continued with the pennies.   If there were twenty-six, her drawer balanced for the forty-third day in a row.  “Twenty-four…twenty-five…bang!”

“Again?” Arlene Jones was envious of her co-worker’s streak, though she was seldom off in her own drawer, and usually then by only a few dollars or cents.  

“Again!”  Thank goodness for small favors, because Ruth wasn’t interested in hanging around to reconcile her balance sheet today.  It was Friday, and her weekend to be with Jessie.

“Congratulations!  And the grand prize is you get to keep your job another week,” Sharon Petrie joked.  She supervised the tellers at the Bank of Madison, and loved the fact that Ruth kept the pressure on all of them.

“Lucky me,” the blonde woman answered with playful cynicism, shouldering her purse as she readied to leave.

“You got Jessie this weekend?” Arlene asked.

“Yeah, I’m headed to pick her up right now.”

“Any big plans?”

“No, we’ll probably just hang out at the house and play.  This rain’s supposed to be around all weekend.”

“Well, have fun.”

“Thanks, good night.”  Ruth stopped at the door and took one last look back.  She liked working here.  The work was fun because her customers were so nice, and some of the people she worked with had shown themselves to be true friends through her ordeal of the past year. 

The November wind had already torn the last of the leaves from the trees; now it was serving final notice that the cold Maine winter was ahead.  Ruth hurried across the parking lot in the drizzle, pulling up the collar on her raincoat to ward off the chill.  The days were getting shorter now, and it was dark already at five-thirty.   From inside her pocket, a tap on the keychain unlocked the door and caused the lights to flash on her black Saturn coupe.  Shivering, she started the engine and glanced at the clock on the dashboard.  She would be early.  

And as always, Skip would be late.

 

**********

 

“A kid’s meal, please, with an orange drink; and a…chicken sandwich with a cup of coffee.”  Ruth placed her order at the busy fast food restaurant, her regular dining establishment every other Friday when she met Skip Drummond to pick up her four-year-old daughter.  Her ex-husband was better behaved in public places, so the restaurant was mandated in the court order to host the exchange. 

Ruth hated it when her ex-husband came to her house, and she managed to get this one small concession by pressing the social worker who monitored her visits.  Monitored her visits.   That thought caused the young mother to shake her head in disbelief.  It was beyond comprehension that things had fallen the way they had, but she vowed that this charade would end soon.

The pickup truck pulled onto the lot at 6:20.  She knew it was Skip by the obnoxious fog lights positioned on top of the cab.   Knowing him, he’d driven by the place at five till six on the off-chance of getting there before she did so he could raise hell about her being late.  But Skip and his bullying demeanor wouldn’t matter to her in about two minutes, once he delivered their precious little girl.  Then he could go fuck himself.

“Mommy!”

“Jessie!”  Ruth kneeled down to catch the running child in a fierce welcome that stung her eyes with tears.  She steeled herself against the image of the tall booted man who walked behind her carrying a colorful backpack.  At six-foot-six, Skip Drummond cut a handsome figure in his faded jeans and white buttoned-down collar shirt.  His sandy hair was thinning already at twenty-nine years old, but it was nothing a Red Sox cap couldn’t cure. 

“Well, she’s your headache for the next forty-eight hours,” he muttered low so no one around them would hear. 

Ruth ignored him.  “How are you, sweetie?”

“Fine.”  Jessie was the spitting image of her mother, blonde, slightly built, and with expressive green eyes.   Eyeing the kid’s meal already spread out for her, she climbed eagerly into the booth and began to munch on a fry.

“Jessie, what happened to your arm?”  Ruth felt her blood run cold when she saw the bruise on her daughter’s upper arm as she pulled off her coat.  Angrily, she glared at her ex-husband in accusation.

“Tell her.”

“I fell.”

Ruth didn’t believe it for a minute and Skip knew it.  Neither did he care.  “She’s got one on her butt, too.  She’s pretty clumsy.”  He dropped the backpack with a thump as he turned to walk out.  “See you on Sunday.  Don’t be late,” he taunted.

The son of a bitch!  How could he hit his own daughter like that?

Ruth took three or four breaths before sitting down with her child.  It was important never to cloud their time together with the specter of Skip Drummond, and in ten seconds, he would no longer exist in their minds.

“So what did you bring in your backpack, honey?”

“Just a shirt…and pants…and socks….”

“Who packed it for you?”

“Grandma.”

That was good to hear.  When Skip packed, he usually “forgot” things that he knew Ruth would have to go purchase on her meager salary.  As it was, Jessie already had nightclothes, a toothbrush, underwear, and several changes of clothing at the small house.  And she was wearing her heaviest coat, Ruth noted with relief. 

“Where’s Lisa?”  Lisa was Jessie’s favorite doll, a lifelike infant in a diaper and terry sleeper.

“Grandma said I had to leave her there, ‘cause she’d get dirty at your house,” the child answered innocently. 

Ruth took another calming breath as she processed this tidbit.  Her former mother-in-law sure explained why Skip was such a son of a bitch, as that’s exactly what Barbara Drummond was.

“Do you want ketchup?”  Jessie had stopped eating her fries.

“Uh-huh,” she nodded vigorously.  “Can we go out to the slide when I get finished?”

“Not tonight.  It’s raining a little, and we really need to get home soon.” 

“Why?”

“Somebody’s coming to see me.  He’ll only be there for a minute, but I need to be sure we’re home when he comes.”

“Who is it?”

“His name’s Dennis, and I don’t think you know him.”

“Why is he coming?” 

Jessie was world class in the question-asking department.  Ruth tried very hard to be patient with it, because she knew that Skip probably never answered anything.

“He’s coming to pick up something.”

“What?”

“You’ll see.  Have another bite of your cheeseburger.”  Ruth forced herself to take another bite of the chicken sandwich.  She’d lost her appetite after the encounter with Skip, but she knew she needed to eat.  It was going to be a long night.

 

**********

 

Ruth pulled into the driveway of the small rented house, suddenly anxious about the impending visitor.   Guiding her child up the back steps, she fumbled with the key and pushed open the back door.

“It looks different,” Jessie announced, looking from one side of the room to the other.  “I know, you took my pictures down.”  She pointed to the refrigerator, where Ruth had proudly posted her art work, not only as a reward to her daughter, but as a bright reminder of all that was good in Ruth’s life.

“I put them in a box, sweetie.  I’ve put all of our important things in a box.”

That sent Jessie running to the closet in the hallway, where she always kept her toys and games.  They were gone.   “Where’s the box?”

“I’ll show it to you later, honey.  I need to change my clothes before Dennis gets here.  You want to come into the bedroom?”  On their weekends together, they barely spent a moment apart.  

Jessie came in to bounce on the bed and chatter as she watched her mom change.   Ruth had laid out jeans, a pullover, socks and tennis shoes, so she dressed very quickly.  When she was finished, she hung her dress on a hanger and draped it across the bed, laying the shoes next to it.

A sharp knock on the front door interrupted Jessie’s story of what Lisa had done that day. 

“That’s probably Dennis.  Listen, I need to go outside with him for a few minutes.  Can you stay in here?  Please?”

Jessie didn’t want to do that, and she shook her head no.

“Jessie, please?  When I’m finished, we’re going to put our coats back on and go somewhere, okay?”

“Where?”

“You’ll see.”  Ruth had used that answer already, and didn’t want to put her daughter off any more than she had to, but for right now she had to.  “Just please stay in here.”

Flipping on the front porch light, she swung the door open wide to find a young man in pressed slacks and a fleece pullover.  “Are you Ruth Ferguson?”

“Yes.  Are you Dennis?”

“That’s me!  I thought for a minute I had the wrong house.”  He turned to wave to the driver who had dropped him off.

“I’m sorry.  I just got home a few minutes ago.  I should have turned the light on for you.”

Dennis held out an envelope.  “Mr. Huggins said for me to give you this.”  Dick Huggins owned a used car dealership in Farmington about twenty miles away.   Ruth had stopped in on Wednesday night to see what they’d give her in a cash deal for the 2000 coupe.

“Thank you.”  Ruth quickly opened it and counted out sixty-five one hundred dollar bills.  “Yes, that’s right.  It’s right out here.”  Digging in her pocket, she clicked the keychain to light the interior lights.  “I have a screwdriver in the glove compartment.  The title’s there too, if you want to fill out the mileage.  I just need to sign it.” 

“Why don’t you fill all that out while I take the tags off?” he offered, holding up his dealer tag.  In just a few moments, Dennis was trading the plates for two sets of keys.  “Thank you very much ma’am.  You buying a new car?”

“Yeah, I’ll go looking with a friend tomorrow.”  Lie.  Big fat lie.

“Good luck finding what you need.”

“Thank you, and thanks for coming to pick it up.”  Her plan was now irrevocably in motion.

“No problem.” 

Ruth stood and watched the car back out, glancing across the street and to either side to see if the activity had been noticed.  This continuing drizzle was a nice cover for her clandestine moves tonight.  No lights had come on outside, and no one appeared to be coming or going at any of the houses, so she had every reason to believe that this part of her plan had gone off without a hitch.

“Jessie?”  Ruth returned to the bedroom to find her daughter looking in the empty closet.

“Where’s your clothes, Mommy?”

“Jessie, listen.  You know how I always try hard to answer your questions so you’ll understand things?”

The little girl nodded.

“Tonight, I need for you just to trust me.  I won’t be able to answer a lot of your questions right now, but I will soon.   I promise.  Can you trust me tonight and try not to ask so many questions right now?”

Jessie agreed hurriedly.  She didn’t want to see her mother get mad the way her father did.

“Okay, I need you to go put your coat back on.  We’re going to take a short walk to where I parked our new car.”   Ruth slid the license plates and screwdriver into her daughter’s backpack.

“We have a new car?” she asked with excitement.

“Yes, we do.”

“What color is it?”

“Sweetie, remember what I asked you to do.  No more questions right now, okay?”

“Okay.”  But Jessie couldn’t help herself.  “Are my toys in the car?”

“Yes, honey.  It has all of our stuff in it already, as much as I could fit.  I got all of your toys and games, and all of your clothes.”  As she was talking, she was helping zip the pink coat that she’d bought just a little large a few weeks ago.  “Now when we go out, I need you to be very quiet, okay?”

The four-year-old made a motion of buttoning her lip. 

“That’s right.  Until we get in our new car, I don’t want you to say anything, starting…right…now!”   Ruth picked up the dress and shoes from the bed, the child’s backpack, and her own purse and raincoat.  Leaving the light on in the kitchen, they walked out onto the back porch and she turned to lock the door.    

Juggling her load, she dropped one hand to grasp the hand of her daughter, and they walked soundlessly across their own back yard and through that of the neighbor behind them.  Stopping by the thick shrubbery next to the house, Ruth scouted the street for traffic or for people out walking in the persistent drizzle.  Seeing neither, she led them into the front yard onto the sidewalk, where they turned and walked half a block toward a column of parked cars.  Reaching the third, a dark red Taurus station wagon, she unlocked the door and helped the small child into the front seat, leaning across to fasten the safety belt as she shoved the things she was carrying behind the passenger seat.  Quietly, she closed the door and hurried to the street side, where she slipped in and slid a single key into the ignition. 

“You okay, honey?”

“Is this our new car?”

“Yes, it is.”

“I like red.”

 

**********

 

In minutes, Ruth was headed toward the outskirts of town, where she pulled into a strip mall and parked next to the large blue box for outgoing mail.

“What are we going here for?”

“We’re not, honey.  I just needed to stop for a minute.  I have to do a couple of things, but I’ll leave the heater on,” she explained.

The blonde woman got out with her screwdriver and plates and fastened them to the front and back mounts.  Next, she grabbed a small stack of envelopes from her purse, including one that wasn’t yet sealed.   She dropped her house key into that one, inside a thank you note she’d written last night.  In her apology for the late notice, she gave her landlord permission to keep the two hundred dollar security deposit for the furnished house, and wished him luck finding a new renter. 

The other letters were mostly bills, each containing just a little extra to cover any additional charges since her last statement, and a note instructing them to close her account.  Only one note was personal, the one to the bank where she’d worked for most of the last seven years.

The mail from the drop box wouldn’t be picked up until Saturday afternoon, meaning it wouldn’t be delivered until sometime on Monday.  By then, everyone would know she was gone.  This would confirm that she’d planned it that way, and that she hadn’t met with any sort of foul play.  She hoped her friends wouldn’t worry, and she couldn’t care less how Skip took the news.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

“I think you ought to call her.”

“And I think you’re insane.”

“Aw, come on!  How are you going to get a date if you don’t ever ask anyone out?”

Henry scoffed at his coworker, though he appreciated her support more than he could ever say.  Spencer Rollins was quite simply the best friend he’d ever had. 

“You like her, don’t you?”

“Yes,” he answered meekly.

“And she waved you over to her table at lunch.  I’m telling you, Henry, she likes you too.”

On the surface, Henry agreed with his friend’s assessment.  Kim had been very nice, and it seemed that she was going out of her way to be friendly.  But the young man’s confidence fell way short when it came to personal relationships.  At twenty-six years old, he could count on one hand the total number of dates he’d ever had.

“Maybe just a movie or something, you know, something casual,” Spencer encouraged.  Guys as nice as Henry Estes were rare, she thought, but few women were willing to see past the snow-white hair, red eyes, and chalky skin.  In the spirit of political correctness, he called himself “pigment challenged.”  But Henry was her kind of guy – smart, funny, and decent – except that guys weren’t her thing.

She and Henry had worked together as programming partners for six years, the last four here at Margadon Industries, where they’d applied as a team when their former company went under.  Headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, Margadon was a leading manufacturer of pharmaceuticals.

“Here comes another one.  Only three to go.”  Henry logged the report and put it in the queue for processing. 

Each Friday between five and six o’clock Eastern time, product managers from all of their plants submitted final inventory figures for the week.  The complex system that Spencer and Henry had designed tracked not only production, but materials, thereby automating the inventory control and accountability.  Tracking inventory was a continuous process, as each new unit of materials was earmarked to a specific product, and to a unique lot number.  Should quality control issues arise, line producers could easily isolate the affected shipment.   Another benefit of their system was that supplies and materials were automatically reordered as they were consumed, assuring continuous production and cost flow.

The Friday report was an executive summary of sorts.  The product managers at each of the Margadon plants, which were scattered throughout the country and abroad, were required to constantly monitor the inventory for their line of pharmaceuticals, but senior managers in Bethesda wanted production summarized on a weekly basis.

“What are we missing?”

“Let’s see…the Dolicaine…the Kryfex…and the…wait, here comes the Dolicaine now.  And there’s Topectol.  So it’s just the Kryfex.” 

Kryfex was Margadon’s new wonder drug for the Dawa virus, an auto-immune disease that was prevalent throughout eastern Africa.  Last spring, the company had won a massive government contract to distribute the drug through diplomatic and humanitarian channels in Ethiopia.  In return, the US military was given permission to locate a permanent air base in the northeastern part of that African country, an area essential to operations in the Middle East.

“Come on, guys!  Find your butts and get them in gear.”  Spencer had a party on tap tonight, and she’d promised Elena she’d try to get there early to help set up.

“Why don’t you go on?  I’ll wait.”

“Nah, then I’d owe you, and you’d ask to borrow my bike.”

Henry chuckled.  “Perish the thought.”  He had no interest at all in borrowing the big Kawasaki.  It was all he could do to get on behind Spencer just to go to lunch.

Twisting in their chairs, they chatted another ten minutes as they waited for the last report from the plant outside of Little Rock.  “I think I’ll give ‘em a call,” Henry finally said.

On cue, the phone rang and Spencer lunged to grab it first.  “Margadon, Spencer Rollins…oh, no wonder.”  Holding the phone aside, she explained the holdup to Henry.  “It’s Tim Wall in Little Rock.  Somebody dropped the bar coder and they didn’t have another one that worked.  They had to do it all by hand.” 

“Do they have the numbers?”

“Yeah, he’s going to read them off.  I’ll pull up the screen.”  With a few short keystrokes, Spencer accessed the Kryfex form.  “Okay, Tim, go ahead.”

One by one, Spencer entered the numbers into the corresponding fields, watching the “Cost” columns fill automatically.  That was the beauty of a well-written program, she thought, mentally congratulating herself and her partner.  The final report would show the week’s production of Kryfex, its expenditure of resources, and its corresponding cost and net for the company.  Only a handful of people at Margadon got to see these figures.  In fact, when the data were uploaded from the barcodes, the reports were generated automatically, going directly to their boss, James Thayer, the company’s controller; and he would then route them for distribution to “eyes only.”  

Spencer and Henry figured out when they were testing the code that they could just about deduce the chemical formulas for nearly every product on Margadon’s shelf, using only the gross quantities of ingredients and the size of shipments.   As the dock manager read off the figures, Spencer found herself playing the game in her head, trying to guess the number in advance, knowing approximately how much of each component would be used for the week’s total.   She was close on each part until they got to the cytokines, which was the active protein used in Kryfex.  By the quantities already listed in the report, she expected a larger number than the one Tim supplied. 

“Wait a minute…let me have the cytokines again.”  She backspaced to clear the field and waited for Tim to find his place again on his sheet. 

He repeated the number, and she verified it.  “Does that sound right to you, Tim?”

He had no idea.  Clearly, Tim didn’t play these formula games in his head.  His job was to get the shipments in one door and out the other.

“Okay, go ahead.”  Spencer tabbed to the next field and the most amazing thing happened. 

“What the fuck?  Sorry, Tim…hold on.”  Spencer backed up again to the cytokine field and hit the delete key.  “Give it to me one more time.” 

Spencer grabbed a pencil to jot the number down this time, but Tim was growing impatient and let it show.  “Look, the only reason I’m still here tonight is because you dropped the goddamned bar coder and broke it!  So just give me the number one more time.” 

The unusual outburst got Henry’s attention and he quickly came to stand behind his partner.  He watched as she entered the number and tabbed to the next field.  The number changed!

“Did you guys switch suppliers on the cytokines, or did they change the packaging or something?” 

The dock manager wasn’t about to have his head handed to him again, so he calmly answered her question.  No, nothing had changed as far as he knew.  He finished his list and Spencer finally let him go.

“Something’s fucked here, Henry.”

“Cool!  I was looking for something to do this weekend,” he joked. 

“I mean really fucked.  If this is doing what I think it’s doing, it’s so fucked we may be looking for work next week.” 

Spencer re-entered the numbers and watched as both the quantity and cost column inflated when she moved to the next field.  “That’s how many there should be, but that’s not what he said they used.   And somebody had to write something in our code to change that number.”  Now she was pissed.   It wasn’t cool to patch someone else’s program when the original programmer was still available to do it. 

“Pull up the code.” 

She did and they pored over what would be gibberish to most, but what to them was a source of immense pride.  Line by line, they studied the program.  Nothing in their code explained the adjustment on the data sheet.

“Look at Alvadin.  It’s set up the same way,” she said.

Henry sat back down and called up the weekly report for Margadon’s protease inhibitor at his terminal, studying the field calculations.  “This one’s okay.  See, the cytokines…,” he deleted the field and re-entered.  ”They stay the same.”  

“So what the fuck’s going on with Kryfex?”  Spencer scrolled down to the bottom of the program to see if any comments were written to connote changes, though she didn’t expect to find any. 

“I don’t know what’s doing that.  We didn’t write it.  Unless….” 

“Unless it’s calling a different mod.”  Mods were modules – lines and lines of syntax that caused a program to do what it was supposed to do.  Coders worth their salt never used a whole word when half a word would do.

“Exactly.” 

Henry opened the global file, the one they applied to all of the uploaded data in order to generate the weekly reports.  Without this master program of macros and loops, they’d have to repeat procedures for each product manufactured by Margadon.  “It’s calling the right mod.” 

“Then where the hell is the new number coming from?”  Spencer used the calculator on her partner’s desk to compute the number change for the cytokines in Kryfex.  The altered figure was one-fourth higher than the one she’d entered.  “Okay, watch this.” 

She entered 80 and hit the tab.  The number changed to 100, and its cost increased by the same percentage.  Then she entered 100; it changed to 125.  “Somebody’s fucked with it.”

“Tell you what,” Henry offered, “why don’t you let me look at this?  You’re going to be late for your party.”

“I can’t just leave you with this mess.”

“I don’t mind.  It’ll be fun.   Besides, if you’re late, Elena will think it’s my fault and kick my ass.” 

“I don’t know why you’re so afraid of her.  She’s only this high.”  Spencer held out her hand shoulder high, gradually moving it upward until it passed her own five-foot, ten-inch frame. 

“Yeah, and not only is she taller than you, she carries a gun.” 

“That’s just to pick up chicks.” 

Henry laughed.  “Go on, really.  I’ll work on this and park what I find on the server so you can look at it over the weekend.”  

The two had set up their own server years ago in Vienna when they took on a small contract for after-hours.  Last year when Margadon implemented a new policy restricting file access to the local area network, they had gotten into the habit of parking bits of code on their server so they could work on things from home.  The company would have a fit if they ever found out, but no one at Margadon knew of the server except Henry and Spencer; and besides, programmers were notorious rule breakers.

“This really pisses me off, Henry!” 

“Fuggedabouddit!  Go have fun.   If it’s really fucked, it’ll still be here on Monday.”

Spencer picked up the black helmet beside her desk and grabbed her denim jacket.  “Okay, but call me if you need me.”  

“I will.  Tell Elena hi.”

“Thanks, pal.  I’ll tell her.” 

 

**********

 

The tall programmer bounced down the steps of the fire escape and exited through the back door to the employee lot.  Her red Kawasaki 650 was squeezed into a corner alongside two other bikes, both Harleys.  On occasion, she would arrive or leave at the same time as the others and would have to endure their ridicule over her ride.  But Spencer liked the feel of the Kawasaki, and the brand would always be her sentimental favorite because it was the kind of bike her father had ridden, and the first one he’d bought for her. 

With rain and a cold snap in the forecast for tomorrow, tonight would probably be her last ride before parking the beast on the patio of her garden apartment and covering it for the winter.  Next week, she’d be sitting in a long line of commuters in the car she’d picked up eight years ago as her “basic transportation.”  The jibes she got for the Kawasaki were nothing compared to those for her Chevy Cavalier.

Spencer’s best bet for getting around the rush hour traffic tonight to Alexandria was to hop on the George Washington Memorial Parkway, as most of the commuters would be pushing their way out of the city in the opposite direction.  In just under thirty minutes, she was squeezing the bike between two cars parked in front of her friend’s townhouse.

“Agent Diaz?” she called playfully, letting herself into the foyer.

“Thank god you’re here,” a woman’s voice called from the kitchen.   “I’ve got six bags of ice melting in the trunk of my car.  Will you bring them in and take them out to the back porch?  The keys are by the door.”

Without taking another step forward, Spencer grabbed the keys and headed back out and down the steps.  Making yourself at home had a whole new connotation at Elena’s house.  Clutching a ten-pound bag of ice in each hand, she made the first of three trips up the stairs and through the kitchen, stopping to greet her former lover with a quick kiss on the lips.

Women and men alike fell prey to the beauty and charms of Elena Diaz, an IRS criminal investigator whose wide brown eyes could slay from across the room.  Spencer knew from experience what it felt like to have those eyes on her, and for a very brief time, she thought that she might be just the one to tame this creature.  But it wasn’t to be. 

“You only invited me for the heavy lifting, didn’t you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.  You’re here in case I get dumped by my date.”

Serpiente.”   Even before they became lovers, Spencer learned of Elena’s love ‘em and leave ‘em reputation, and dubbed her The Snake.   The IRS agent had insisted that the Spanish word was much more flattering, so it became her moniker. 

Spencer tossed the two bags into the large cooler and returned to the kitchen, this time wrapping her arms around the taller woman from behind.  Elena was one of her favorite people in the universe, someone Spencer trusted with her life and limb, but not with her heart.  The word “monogamous” just wasn’t in the Latin woman’s vocabulary.

“Kelly asked a few of her friends over.”  Kelly Kuykendall was Elena’s Woman of the Month. 

“You mean there’ll be people here you haven’t slept with already?” the programmer joked.

“Aren’t you funny?”

With a snort, Spencer bounded out the front door again for a second load, then a third, finally stopping in the kitchen to await her next orders.

Elena stopped her preparations to address her friend.  “I was just thinking that if one of Kelly’s friends turned out to be cute, you might be able to turn on that charm of yours and get lucky tonight.” 

“God, it’s been so long since I’ve been lucky, I wouldn’t know which end to fuck.” 

 “Oh, now that’s charming!”  Despite herself, Elena laughed at the crude remark.  “Just keep talking like that and you won’t have anything to worry about.” 

In the deep recesses of her heart, Elena Diaz knew that one day she would regret not accepting the simple gift of love that Spencer had offered seven years ago.  Like all of the other relationships in her life, she and the beautiful brunette had started out as passionate lovers, getting to know each other as more of an afterthought to their sexual adventures.  But the more they talked about their lives, their interests, their values, the closer they drew; until one day when Spencer had uttered the words that gave a name to what they had together.

 

“I love you.”

“You shouldn’t say that, you know.”

“I can’t help it.”  Twisting in the bed, Spencer rolled on top of her naked lover and pinned her in place.  “And I don’t want to share you anymore.”

Elena reached up and pulled her down, tucking her dark head to the side so she wouldn’t have to look into the insistent blue eyes.  “You know I’m no good at that kind of stuff, Spence.”

Elena Diaz could give her heart easily to the likes of Spencer Rollins, but she knew herself well enough to know that sooner or later another pretty lady would turn her head.   She wouldn’t risk hurting someone she loved by making promises she couldn’t keep. 

 

With the realization that they couldn’t go forward, Spencer had taken the painful step to end what they had.  She wanted more out of love than what Elena could offer, and she couldn’t ask her to be someone else.   In the end, they’d forged an unbreakable bond of friendship and trust, and they’d finally gotten past the lustful pull.  

It was hard, though, for each woman not to wonder what would happen if the door between them were to open again.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

REDUCED SPEED AHEAD.  

It seemed like every time she’d start to gather speed on the outskirts of a small town, another sign would appear to announce the next wide spot in the road.  Ruth was firm in her resolve to stick to the back roads, though.   Practically all of the major highways running through New England were toll roads, and that meant stopping, being seen, and worse, being caught on a surveillance camera in a car no one would otherwise recognize as hers.  

The blonde-haired child beside her was asleep on a soft pillow with a light blanket pulled up to her chin.  They had talked and laughed and sang until almost ten o’clock when Ruth could hear the tired lilt in Jessie’s voice.  Even with the back seat folded down to make room for all of their things, the passenger seat reclined a good bit, and leaning it back had been the impetus for the little girl to finally call it a night.

Welcome to Sturbridge, Massachusetts!

At last, Ruth could pull onto an interstate without worrying about tolls.  From what she could tell on the map, I-84 would take her across the corner of New York and into Pennsylvania, where she could pick up something going south.  She hadn’t quite worked out where they were headed, assuming that if she didn’t know, no one else would be able to figure it out either. 

All she knew for sure was that she wanted to start a new life far away from Madison, Maine.  She wanted her daughter to have a happy childhood, and to be safe from the angry man her father had become.   Ruth tossed her head in disgust at that thought.  Skip Drummond had always been angry; no one could please him, and everything he’d ever done was in order to manipulate someone else. 

But Ruth couldn’t lay all the blame for this mess at her ex-husband’s feet.  No, she had to own up to her own mistakes, of which she’d made plenty. 

The Fergusons were not well off by anyone’s standards, but they had always gotten by.  Ruth’s father Roy had worked his whole life at the paper mill, bringing home a check just big enough to cover their bills, but not to provide many extras.  Still, her mother Mildred had been resourceful, making many of their clothes at home, and finding ways to save here and there for coats and shoes or something new for the house. 

They were a close-knit family; Roy insisted on it.  Ruth, named for the faithful Biblical figure, was expected to spend most of her free time at home, even when her high school friends begged her to come along to football games or parties.  Roy and Mildred favored a strict setting for their daughter, and guarded her virtue by refusing her permission to go out with boys until she reached the age of seventeen years old.  Even then, the young men in question were scrutinized and given a rigid set of rules. 

Her parents were angry and dismayed when Ruth graduated high school and soon after moved out into her own small apartment, taking a clerical job at the Bank of Madison.   The division deepened when it became obvious that she’d abandoned the lessons of her upbringing and started going out to dance clubs and bars in Augusta with her new friends and coworkers.    

Skip Drummond was her only real boyfriend of any duration, and he turned out to be the one she’d saved herself for.  Skip’s family owned the area’s biggest home appliance and electronics store, and his future was carved out in retail before he was even born.  Four years ahead of her in school, the 24-year-old was considered quite a catch in this small town.  He was good-looking and popular; he played in all the sports leagues at the recreation center; and he liked to go out and have a good time.

They’d been dating for about six months when Ruth made her first real mistake.   She got pregnant.  Though she’d been pretty faithful with her diaphragm, the doctor had told her it would be more effective if her partner used condoms as well, and Skip wasn’t about to do that.  After all, he’d argued, he wasn’t the one at risk of getting knocked up.

So there she was, ten weeks along with a boyfriend who was furious, parents who were inconsolable, and a will to have her baby and raise it, no matter what anybody said or thought.  The only other person who seemed to like the idea was Skip’s father, Roland Drummond, Sr., for whom Skip was named.  It was time, Roland thought, for Skip to settle down if he was to be entrusted with more responsibility at the store.  A wife and a child on the way just might do that, he thought, and he encouraged the couple to take the step.   To sweeten the pot, he offered his son a raise and a manager’s post at the store, all conditional on his becoming a family man.

Accepting a proposal that had been coerced in the first place was Ruth’s second mistake.  Even as they sat in the car after they agreed to go through with it, there was no joy, no anticipation, no resolve.  Instead, there was just a shared sense of resignation that they had both lost control of their lives.  

The little girl shifted in the seat beside her, bringing Ruth back to the present.   Almost an hour had passed since she’d pulled onto the highway, and she was making pretty good time.  She’d spent a lot of hours mired in her past, but that was all going to change soon.  Skip Drummond and his cold, overbearing parents wouldn’t be part of their lives anymore.  For that matter, neither would her own parents, but Ruth couldn’t bring herself to care about that.  All she needed was this precious child beside her.

Living with Skip had been difficult right from the beginning.  There wasn’t a day that went by that she didn’t feel his resentment about the trap his father had laid for his life.  But everything that bothered Ruth about her new role of wife vanished when Jessie Riane Drummond was born.  Being a mother was simply the greatest thing she’d ever done.  For the first time in her life, Ruth really liked herself.  She was proud of the way she took care of her daughter, and excited about spending time with other young mothers and learning the best ways to do things.  Best of all, she was starting to feel like the events of the last year and a half – getting pregnant and getting married – weren’t at all the trap she thought they’d be.   Skip liked showing Jessie off to his family and friends, and he carried her proudly everywhere they went.  He didn’t seem to want much to do with home tasks, but Ruth wrote that off to Skip being the typical husband her friends had described. 

It wasn’t until Jessie started teething that Ruth really started to understand how Skip felt about their daughter.

 

“Will you shut her the fuck up!”

Ruth practically leapt out of bed to go see about Jessie in the night.  Picking the child up from her crib, she shushed her to calm her down.  It always comforted the baby to be held, even if her mouth still hurt.  

Skip was growing increasingly agitated by Jessie’s everyday behavior, none of which was out of the ordinary for a ten-month-old.  He complained about her crying, he hated having baby things in every room, and he even ridiculed her in her high chair for having baby food on her chin and hands.  Not that Jessie could understand his cruel words, but it hurt Ruth badly to hear her husband speak to their daughter that way, and she asked him to stop.  Mature guy that he was, he stopped interacting with her altogether, except when others were around.

“Why can’t you get it through your head that she’s a baby?  She can’t help the things she does any more than you could when you were a year old.” she screamed one night when he’d gotten angry about Jessie pulling some magazines off the coffee table.

“Because I never wanted a baby, and I’ve got news for you, Ruth.  I never wanted you either.” 

“Then why did you get married, Skip?  Why didn’t you just let me have Jessie all by myself?  You think I needed you?  I’ve got a little news for you too.  I didn’t, and I still don’t.”  Ruth was past hurt.   She was hopping mad.  “And neither does Jessie!”

 

That was the first time she had seriously threatened to leave her husband, and looking back, Ruth wished she’d just done it that night.  Jessie was only a year old, way too much trouble for a single father to deal with, especially one with little or no interest in the welfare of his child.  It would have been an easy parting, and not walking then was what Ruth thought of as her third big mistake.

Instead, she’d hung around for another year, taking the insults and watching her husband go out alone at night.  She didn’t care if he wanted to go screw somebody else.  She was long past wanting to have sex with him. 

And then one night, everything changed forever when Ruth ran into the kitchen to find Skip towering over a screaming Jessie, his hand raised high and coming down hard on her backside.  Ruth screamed too, and wedged herself between them to take the angry blows.

That night, she locked herself and Jessie in the child’s room.  The next day, she packed up everything that wasn’t Skip’s and returned to her parents’ home with her daughter.  They were none too thrilled to see her, and blamed her headstrong ways for bringing this on herself.  The way Roy and Mildred saw it, Skip wouldn’t feel the need to lash out like that if she were stricter with Jessie; and if she didn’t provoke her husband with her sassy mouth.

Ruth stayed two weeks with her parents, quickly growing tired of the constant berating.  When she found a small furnished house for rent, she called the landlord and made arrangements to move in right away.  She and Jessie lived there for almost a year.  It was the happiest time Ruth had ever known.

Her fourth big mistake was underestimating the impact her leaving would have on the community gossipmongers, and the subsequent reflection on Drummond Appliances.  Roland Drummond was not going to have his son’s standing in the community harmed by the vicious lies Ruth was telling about how Skip had beaten them both in a fit of rage.  Skip had told his father a completely different story, and Roland was insistent that his son do something to squelch these rumors.

Ruth filed for divorce, seeking permanent custody of Jessie, and asking the court that Skip be allowed visitation only under close supervision.  She doubted he’d ever want to see Jessie at all, but she’d insisted on the minimum recommended amount of child support so that her daughter would have some of the things growing up that she’d been denied.

And her fifth and biggest mistake of all was thinking that her storefront lawyer could handle the divorce transaction.  She’d expected her ex-husband’s objections to be about the financial settlement and she was prepared to make concessions to end this miserable stage of her life.   She was totally blindsided when he stood to ask for full custody of their daughter, attacking her fitness as a parent. 

 

“She’s got problems of her own, your honor.  Serious problems.”

“What kind of problems?”

“Well, sometimes I’d come home from work at night and poor little Jessie hadn’t had a bite to eat all day.  She’d be wearing dirty diapers and still be in her pajamas.  I’d bathe her and put her in fresh clothes.  I was worried she’d get sick being dirty and soiled all the time.  It got better after Ruth went back to work, because she had to clean her up to take her to day care.  She wanted people to think she was such a great mother, but it wasn’t like that at all at home.”

“That’s not true!”  Ruth was incredulous at the pack of lies pouring out of Skip’s mouth. 

“You will control yourself, young lady, or I will hold you in contempt of this court.   You’ve already had your chance to speak,” Judge Howard admonished from the bench.

The biggest blow, though, came when Roy Ferguson stood and told the judge that he believed Jessie would be better off in her father’s care.  Ruth had always been uncontrollable, he said, and he feared that his granddaughter would be neglected or allowed to run wild and do whatever she pleased.      

 

Her father’s testimony had sealed her fate, and without even asking her to answer Skip’s charges, Judge Howard granted the divorce and awarded full custody of Jessie to a father that couldn’t stand her.  Ruth was allowed two hours of visitation every other weekend, but only in the presence of a social worker.

When three-year-old Jessie was ripped screaming from her that day, Ruth felt as though her very heart had been cut out.  And the triumphant look on Skip’s face boiled her blood.  In that moment, she understood completely why some women simply killed their husbands in their sleep.

In no time at all, the social worker assigned to oversee their visits saw the truth about Jessie Drummond and her mom, and she argued to have visitation extended to two full weekends a month, with the restrictions loosened to “monitored” rather than “supervised.”  Those weekends had become Ruth’s only lifeline.

From one of Skip’s cousins, Ruth learned a little about her daughter’s life with the Drummonds.  Jessie spent most days with her paternal grandmother, a stern woman who resented having to care for a small child all day.  From what Ruth could gather, the little girl was confined to a single room for most of the day, and rarely allowed to play outside.  In the evenings, she usually played alone in her room while her father watched television.  Skip hated having to stay home so much, but his dad convinced him that it would look bad for him to be out when people around town knew that his daughter depended on him so much.

What a crock! 

Ruth pushed the thoughts of Skip out of her head again.  He wasn’t going to be part of their lives anymore.  Tonight, she’d taken the biggest risk of her life, kidnapping her own daughter and running away with no intention of setting foot in Madison, Maine ever again.  And so far, everything was coming together just as she’d planned it.

Last Monday, she’d driven to Augusta after work to have a look at the Taurus, a 1989 model that she’d seen in the Auto Trader as for sale by owner.  She’d taken out the $3,400 from her savings account, and managed to buy the car for only $2,000 on the stipulation that she could pick it up on Thursday.   So last night, she’d taken a bus back to Augusta and gotten a cab to the man’s house, getting home late and packing it with practically everything she owned before parking it around the corner. 

After settling her bills and selling the Saturn, Ruth now had about $7,500 in cash.   That would have to last her and Jessie until she got a job and got back on her feet.

The weary driver turned her attentions back to the road signs.  It was almost midnight and she was sixty miles from Waterford, Connecticut.   She needed to start looking for a gas station, and cup of coffee would really hit the spot.

 

 

Chapter 4

 

 

“So who’s your new girlfriend?” Elena teased as her ex-lover came into the kitchen to pour another soda.  Spencer wasn’t much of a drinker.

“Her name is Kaitlyn.”

“Kaitlyn!  That sounds so pre-teen.”

“She says she’s twenty.  What do you think?”  Spencer had locked eyes with the young woman as soon as she walked in the door.  Hanging out mostly in the kitchen, she was on hand when Kaitlyn came in for her first drink, and they’d had the chance to meet.  Throughout the evening, Spencer circulated, helping to keep things picked up so Elena wouldn’t have a mess the next morning.  But after each pass through the house, she would return to the pretty brown-eyed blonde for more flirting.

“Yeah, I’d say it’s possible.  But I’d check her ID if I were you,” she joked.  “Hell, even if she is that old, thirteen years is a pretty big age difference.”

“Well, if I was looking to get married or something, I’d be inclined to agree.”

“Oh, I see.  So you have something a little more frivolous in mind?”

Spencer grinned mischievously.  “Maybe.”

“Think you’ll need any technical advice?”  That jibe was in reference to Spencer’s earlier remark.

“No, I think it’ll come back to me,” she smirked, sauntering out of the room with exaggerated cockiness.

Fifteen minutes later, Spencer retrieved her helmet from the floor of the hall closet.  Bidding her host goodnight with a knowing grin, she walked out to find the young woman waiting at the foot of the steps.

“Should I just follow you?”  Kaitlyn had her keys out already.  “I really don’t want to leave my car here overnight.”

“Sure.  My bike’s right here.  I’ll pull out and wait.”  Spencer leaned forward for their second kiss.  The first one had come on the back porch, and it clearly signaled where the rest of their evening was headed. 

As she watched the cute blonde disappear down the sidewalk, her cell phone jingled in the left breast pocket of her denim jacket, bringing an immediate smile.  It was probably Elena calling to tell her not to do anything she wouldn’t do, which meant she could do anything she wanted.

But it was Henry.

“Hey, what’s up?”  She hadn’t given Margadon a second thought since she’d left.

“Spence, you’re not going to believe this!” he said excitedly.  “You’ve gotta come look.”

“No way!  I’m about to get laid.”  She had no secrets from her longtime friend.  “What’d you find?”

“Somebody’s fucked with it, alright, just like you said.  It’s backing out the cytokines.”

“What do you mean backing out?  How?”  She’d never heard Henry this agitated.

“It’s in the global.  It bumps the number for the report, but then it takes it back out in a hidden field.  And the cost, too.”

“You’re not making any sense, pal.  We looked at the global.  There wasn’t anything wrong with it.”  

“It’s not calling ours, though!  It’s a whole different one, Spence.”

“Whoa, that can’t be right.  How would it do that?”

“Look, you have to come see it.  I already called James.  He’s on the way in.”

“You called James?”  It had to be serious for Henry to actually call their boss.

“This is a big fucking deal!  Somebody’s fucking with the formula for Kryfex, and it looks like they’re skimming the books.” 

Just then, a set of headlights pulled up behind the motorcycle and stopped.   Spencer looked at her watch.  It was almost midnight.  So much for servicing her libido, she thought miserably.  She might be able to make another date with Kaitlyn, but that would require an actual date, and that wasn’t exactly what she’d had in mind with the young blonde.

“Okay, I’ll be there in about half an hour.  Prop the back door open, will ya?”

 

**********

 

Spencer doubted seriously that Margadon would appreciate her sacrifice tonight, but as Henry had said, it sounded like a pretty big fucking deal, and she and her partner were right in the middle of it.  A half hour after the call, she swiped her card at the automatic security gate at the company’s headquarters, entered the parking lot and jumped the curb to park the big bike on the sidewalk by the fire escape.  As promised, Henry had slid a piece of paper between the door latch and the cutout so she wouldn’t have to walk all the way around to the main entrance.  Employees had gotten no fewer than half a dozen notices warning them against this practice, but everyone thought it was silly.  Even with the fire escape open, the building was still secure, since a key was needed to access each floor.

When she exited the stairwell onto the third floor, the programmer stopped in confusion.  Except for the emergency lighting and red exit signs, the entire floor was dark, including the glass office on the other side that she shared with Henry.  Spencer walked around the hallway that surrounded the cubicles in the center of the large room.  Over the top of the cubicle walls, she could see two people in her office, but couldn’t imagine why they were standing there talking to each other in such hushed tones, and in the dark, no less.

She was seconds from calling out to them when she realized that neither was Henry.  Stopping in her tracks, she listened to what sounded like a frantic conversation.

“Can’t you just delete it?”

“This is our code,” James explained.  “We need this for things to work.  I don’t know how he found it, but I have to move it off his doc list.”

“Well, do it!” the stranger ordered impatiently.

Spencer stepped closer to the office and peered through the window to see what they were doing.  To her horror, she saw Henry lying on his side at their feet; his red eyes open in a blank stare, a power cord knotted around his neck.  A wave of nausea gripped her as the reality of the awful scene sunk in.  Henry was dead.

Shaking violently, Spencer stepped back from the window, tiptoeing backwards down the hall toward the fire escape. 

“We need to get this cleaned up,” the stranger’s voice said. 

When she rounded the corner and ducked below the level of the cubicles, Spencer just missed being seen by the mysterious man as he stepped out into the center area.  

“I’ll have this fixed in a minute,” James said.  “What are we going to do with him?”  As he asked the question, the controller turned to face his accomplice, just in time to see the door to the fire escape open and close behind him.  “Somebody’s here!”

When she reached the stairwell, Spencer picked up her pace, still careful not to make any noise.  Halfway down, she heard the door above her open.

“Hold it right there!” 

No fucking way!  No longer concerned about the noise, she raced down the final flight, flinging open the door and pulling her helmet into place.  In mere seconds, she had the bike in gear, tearing toward the guard gate to escape her pursuer. 

As she reached the lot, a black sedan came out of nowhere to block her exit.

Thank god, she thought, her headlight shining on the US Government license plate on the front of the car.  Someone had already called the feds.  Relaxing at once at what she assumed would be a friendly face, Spencer started to remove her helmet when she saw the figure from the fire escape emerge and continue toward where she sat on her bike. 

Something wasn’t right.  The man from upstairs was undeterred by the presence of this federal vehicle.  And he and James had just killed Henry.

Spencer looked nervously from the car to the man walking toward her, and back to the car.  No, this wasn’t right at all.  Suddenly terrified, she gunned her engine and squealed around the car and across the parking lot, jumping another curb to tear across an open field to the gated entry.  But the gate was closed, and the only way to open it was to swipe her card and wait.  There wouldn’t be time for that, as the black sedan had turned and was closing in from behind. 

The Margadon property was secured by a fence, six feet high with three rows of barbed wire at the top.  Spencer whipped back through the lot over the curb, tearing up the grass as she searched for a way out.   The driver tried to corral her in the back, while the man on foot was running diagonally toward the back of the property to cut her off.  Swerving left, she raced behind the building, remembering too late that there wasn’t an outlet to the other side.  Instead, she found herself cornered where the building met the fence, and the two men were now angling toward her on foot from only fifty yards away. 

Out of choices, she turned the bike in their direction and watched them slowly approach.  Behind them, in the far right corner of the property, the ground sloped to a ravine, and the fence dipped out of sight.  That meant that the ground level before the property started to slope was higher than the top of the fence, but she couldn’t envision the distance between the hilltop and the fence.   If the hill was steep, the fence might be close enough that she could clear it on the fly.  And if it wasn’t…well, crashing into a chain-link fence at eighty miles an hour was probably preferable to Henry’s fate, she thought. 

The clock in her head ticked loudly as they approached.  She couldn’t let them get too close, but if she bolted too soon, they’d close the gap….

Now!

Gunning the engine again, Spencer charged between the two men, one of whom chased her while the other ran back to the car.  As she neared the corner of the lot, she leaned forward on the racing Kawasaki, searching for the top of the fence.  Please be close…please be close.  As soon as she saw the top line of barbed wire, she jerked the front wheel off the ground and went airborne, clearing the fence by scant inches. 

It was perfect…almost.

Unfortunately, the bike landed at an angle, and Spencer was thrown end over end, barely missing a tree trunk that might have killed her.  On impact with the ground, her left elbow jammed against her ribs, and her hip hit something hard.  At the same time, a protruding stick pierced her upper arm, all the way through her denim jacket. 

Dazed and wounded, she realized with growing fear that her ordeal wasn’t over.  From beneath the bushes where she lay, she could see one of the men now climbing the fence.

“I’ll drive around and come through the woods.” the other shouted.

In the dark, she rose and stumbled to her fallen bike, pulling it upright and climbing back aboard.  The key wouldn’t fire the ignition, so she dropped the kick starter. 

Three pumps…four pumps…the man had reached the top of the fence.   For a split second, she weighed her chances on starting the bike versus dropping it and running like hell.

Five pumps…he cleared it, vaulting to the ground on a dead run toward her. 

Frantically, she jumped high in the air and came down hard on the lever.  With a sudden roar, the bike came to life again. 

Lurching forward, Spencer rode recklessly through the dark woods, emerging onto the highway just as the black car was pulling to a stop on the shoulder.  Instead, it drew up behind her as she raced down the nearly deserted two-lane pavement.  On the open road, she lost any advantage of maneuverability and rapid acceleration.  The sedan was soon on her tail and threatening to bump her from behind. 

At speeds of more than ninety miles an hour, she pushed toward the Beltway, where she climbed the onramp and scooted rapidly to the far left lane.  Jockeying for position, the sedan fell back a bit, encumbered by slow moving traffic and cars changing lanes.  But the pursuit was relentless, and at every opening the driver of the black car would swerve and surge forward.

Spencer pulled up behind two cars driving side by side, shooting between them on the dotted line to increase her lead.  Up ahead, she saw the exit for the Georgetown Pike and held her position in the far left lane, mentally mapping where each car on the highway would be when they reached that point.   At the last possible second, she veered off, too late for the sedan to react without risking a pileup. 

As she coasted down the ramp, Spencer blew out a breath, realizing now that her left arm and side felt as though they’d been crushed and mangled.  All she wanted was to stop and rest. 

Instead, she saw the commotion ahead, where the government car had pulled off onto the shoulder and was now creeping down the embankment to the exit ramp.  The fucker wasn’t giving up! 

And neither was Spencer.

This time, she pulled off the ramp onto the shoulder, climbing up the bank to head east on the Pike – in the west bound lanes!  Hugging the yellow line to avoid oncoming traffic, she pushed the Kawasaki again to top speeds, this time, putting real distance between herself and her pursuer.  When she reached a long gap in the traffic, she turned off her headlamp and slowed, executing a U-turn that sealed her escape.  Riding west with her lights off, Spencer watched as the black sedan flew past her in the opposite direction.

Out of danger for the moment, she drove past the Beltway and turned right onto a two lane road that took her out of traffic, entering the only haven she could find: a public park.  A paved bike path wound into the woods, and she followed it until she came upon a small service shed.   At last, she killed the engine and coasted to a stop, sitting perfectly still as she listened for any sound of traffic coming into the park.  Satisfied that she was alone, the tall rider dismounted, her legs shaking so badly that she could hardly walk.  With her last measure of strength, Spencer pulled the heavy bike behind the structure out of sight. 

Exhausted, sore, and bleeding, she collapsed in a heap to assess her injuries.   Merely touching her upper left arm sent fire all the way to her fingertips; the four-inch protruding stick explained that.  Grasping the end, she tugged, seeing stars as it twisted deep inside.  Finally it snapped, leaving a part still inside, the part that hurt so goddamned much.

“Elena…,” she murmured, slapping her breast pocket in search of her phone.  It was gone, probably lost when she crashed over the fence.  Fuck! 

Spencer stretched out on the ground, completely spent.

 

**********

 

“This is Akers.”

“I lost her, Cal.  She was headed east on the Georgetown Pike.”  FBI Agent Mike Pollard hated the fact that he hadn’t held up his end on the chase.  They couldn’t afford a breach like this. 

Akers sighed in disgust.  This was a problem, a big problem.  They had planned just to clean up the computer mess and dump the programmer’s body where it would never be found.  But there was no way to cover up what had happened with the biker on the loose.  And someone would ask tomorrow why the ground was torn up around the building.  No, they needed another plan.  “Okay, get on back here and pick me up.  I found her cell phone in the woods.  We’ll start there.”

“So did you and Thayer finish things?”  

“Yeah.  He says he erased all the evidence.  You and I need to go out to Silver Springs tonight, though.”

“Understood.  I’ll see you in ten minutes,” Pollard said.  A trip to Silver Springs meant one thing: James Thayer’s night was about to end very badly.

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

Jessie stirred in the front seat and began to fidget, her eyes still closed as she fought against waking.  From the dashboard glow, Ruth could see the marks on her child’s forehead from where she’d leaned against the door. 

“Hey, sweetie.”  She reached over and softly stroked her daughter’s thigh. 

Jessie made a face – her grouchy face, Ruth noted – and struggled against the seat belt to sit up. 

“You okay?”  The dashboard clock read 3:14.  They’d been on the road for almost eight hours, and had just crossed the Pennsylvania state line.   Ruth had been watching for a rest area, as she was long overdue for a break. 

“Where are we going?” the four-year-old whined.

Ruth was too tired to talk about things right at that moment, but she felt badly about putting the girl off again.  “I know this is hard for you, honey.  I’m going to pull over soon, and we’ll go to the bathroom and rest for a little while.  Think you’ll be okay for a few more minutes?”

Jessie didn’t answer; at least, she didn’t answer verbally.  But her body language gave away her mood as she slumped against the seat in frustration.

As promised, Ruth pulled into a rest area and parked alongside several other cars.   Quietly, they went to the restroom together and got back into the car.   This time, Ruth lowered her own seat back, fixing the small pillow so that it covered the console.   That let Jessie stretch out with her head in her mother’s lap, and soon they were both asleep. 

 

**********

 

Only four hours later, the sound of slamming car doors roused the pair from their slumber.  This time, they got out and walked around a bit to stretch their legs.  The persistent cold drizzle made the car’s interior more comfortable and inviting, and soon they were underway again.   

“Where are we going?” Jessie asked again, this time with more curiosity than impatience.

“We’re looking for a new place to live, sweetie, just you and me.”  

“Why?”

Why indeed?  “Honey, you remember when you asked me if you could stay with me and not go back to your daddy?”  

Jessie nodded.  It made her nervous to talk about her daddy because he was always telling her she’d better not say anything to her mother or else.

“Do you still want to stay with me, and not have to go back to the other house?” 

“Yes,” the child answered, not hesitating at all. 

“It means you won’t see your daddy anymore at all, not even on the weekends.”  Ruth glanced at her daughter’s face to see the response.  “Does that make you sad?” 

Jessie thought only a second before shaking her head no. 

“And you won’t get to go back to your room and play with your toys anymore.”  With that bit of news, she saw the anxious look on her daughter’s face.  “Not the toys at your daddy’s house, anyway.  I brought all of the toys from my house.  We’ll probably have to get a few new toys and some new things to wear, but we can do that.” 

“Can I get another Lisa doll?” 

“Yes, we’ll find another Lisa doll,” she assured.  “Jessie, if you stay with me, it means that no one will ever hurt you again.  I promise.  But you have to help me.  Can you do that?” 

The little girl nodded eagerly.  If she had her mommy and Lisa, she didn’t need anything else. 

“You remember that game we play sometimes, hide and seek?” 

“Yeah!” 

“Well, honey, that’s what we’re doing.  We’re hiding from your daddy.  That’s why we had to drive a long way, so he won’t find us.” 

“Is he going to look for us?” 

“I think he will.  But if we both keep a secret, I don’t think he’ll ever find us.  Do you think you can keep a secret?” 

She nodded again.  Even at four years old, Jessie was an old pro at this secret stuff.  

“We can’t tell anybody about Daddy or that we’re hiding.  We can’t tell your new friends or my new friends.  Not anyone.  Can you promise me that?” 

Jessie was confused about the secret part.  “But if we don’t tell them it’s a secret, they might tell Daddy where we are.” 

Clever child, Ruth thought.  “No, this is the kind of secret that’s so secret, we can’t tell anyone.  In fact, it’s so secret that we can’t even tell anyone that we have a secret.” 

Still, the child looked bewildered. 

“You know, your daddy is going to look for a little girl named Jessie and a mommy named…?” 

“Ruth!” 

“Right!  So right now, we’re going to change our names.  Okay?” 

“Can I be Brittany?” 

Ruth groaned inwardly.  Brittany Schaefer was Jessie’s best friend from pre-school.  “No, Brittany is a very nice name, honey, but I’ve picked out something a little different.  I want your new name to be Megan.  I think it’s very pretty,” she coaxed.  “Do you like that?” 

Jessie thought it over.  She didn’t know anyone named Megan, but that was okay, she finally decided.  “Yeah.” 

“Okay, honey, and I’m going to change my name to Karen.  You can still call me Mommy, but I’m going to tell people that my name is Karen Oliver and you are my little girl, Megan Oliver.” 

 

The sadness in Edward Melnick’s eyes brought tears to her own.  Ruth knew at once why the old gentleman had come to the bank today.   Quietly and respectfully, she walked him through the closure of the two savings accounts he’d started a few years ago, cutting a cashier’s check for the total made out to the Children’s Home Society.   Ed Melnick had tragically lost both of his beautiful granddaughters, Karen and Megan Oliver, when they’d drowned in a boating accident at Great Pond.

 

Ruth vacillated between shame and honor at commandeering the names and social security numbers of the two lost children.  In her heart, she hoped that Edward Melnick would understand her need to save her own daughter from danger. 

“You and me will have the same last name.” Jessie realized.

“That’s right.  Megan…,” she pointed first to her daughter, then to herself, “and Karen Oliver.  Starting right…now!  Okay, little girl, what’s your name?” 

“Megan.” 

“Megan who? 

“Megan Allber,” she answered. 

“Megan Oliver.  Say it with me.   O-li-ver.” 

“Oliver!” 

“Good, let’s try again.  What’s your name?” 

“Megan Oliver!” 

“You’re so smart.  Karen and Megan Oliver have a secret that no one will ever know.  Right?” 

“Right.” 

“So tell, me little girl, do you have a secret?” 

“Uh-huh.  Me and my mommy….” 

“Un-unh!  Do you have a secret?” 

“No!” 

Ruth laughed out loud at her daughter’s enthusiasm.  It would take a few days to instill the importance of hiding who they really were, but over time, she knew that her daughter would forget much of what had been her early life.  And that could only be a good thing.

At the next exit, they pulled off to get gas.  Inside the food mart, Ruth gathered sweet rolls, orange juice and coffee for breakfast and they set out again, the skies overcast and dreary. 

“Where’s our new house going to be?” 

“I haven’t decided yet, sweetie.  If we see a nice town, maybe we’ll stop there and find a place to live.” 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

The battered woman rolled over on the hard ground, adding injury to insult when her knee collided with the cinderblock wall.  With a yelp, Spencer awoke, momentarily confused about her surroundings until the fire-like pains in her arm and side brought rushing back the events of the night before.   And just in case lying on the ground in agony wasn’t enough, it had started to rain.

Using her good arm, Spencer pushed herself up and scooted under the meager overhang, her back to the wall.  There was a rain suit in one of her saddlebags, but she just didn’t have the energy to get up.

Clearing her head as she stared into the empty woods, tears suddenly rushed to her eyes as she allowed herself to fathom all that had happened.  Her dear friend Henry was dead, murdered by their boss and a man who she thought was a government agent.  Whatever he found in the code last night had gotten him killed. 

And now, the killers were after her, presumably because of what she knew about the code and about Henry’s death.  On the phone, her partner had said something about a different global, one that “backed out the cytokines,” whatever that meant.  It was indeed a big fucking deal, and calling James about it had sealed Henry’s fate. 

As she had last night, Spencer reached into her breast pocket for her phone, now remembering that she had lost it during the chase.  She needed to talk to Elena and tell her what had happened.  The IRS agent had lots of friends in law enforcement, and Elena could tell her what to do.

Still weary and now a lot sorer than she’d been last night, Spencer gingerly pushed herself onto her feet.  Her injuries seemed to be only on her left side.  Her ribs ached with every breath, but it was her arm that hurt the most, oozing blood through the denim jacket.  Staggering a bit, she walked to the bike and yanked the strap on the saddlebag, pulling out the black and white nylon rain suit.  Leaning against the building, she stepped into it, wincing in agony as she pushed her injured arm through the sleeve. 

Shivering against the damp chilly air, she pulled on her helmet and climbed back onto the Kawasaki.  To her dismay, it cranked with a simple turn of the key.  Sitting for a moment as the big bike idled, it occurred to Spencer that she didn’t have a clue about where to go.  Obviously, she couldn’t go home right now.  These fuckers knew who she was, and they’d be waiting. 

First things first, though, she needed gas.  It was a miracle she hadn’t run out last night. 

Now creeping down the bike path toward the park entrance, the blue eyes alertly scanned the parking lot for a dark colored sedan, hoping against hope that she’d seen the last of the sinister tail.   Only a couple of cars were there, both of them economy compacts.  When the tall rider reached the road, she headed back toward the Georgetown Pike, turning east toward the District, this time in the proper lane.  On a corner up ahead was a gas station with a food mart.  

Thank goodness Spencer still had her wallet, though it held only sixty bucks, which wouldn’t go far if she had to hide out for a few days while Elena got this sorted out.  Ten-fifty filled the six-gallon tank; that would get her all the way to Jordan Lake near Raleigh if she had to get away.  Of course, if these guys were any good, they’d think to look there eventually.

With her tank now full, Spencer pulled to the side of the building and went in to get the change from the twenty she’d left at the counter so she could call her friend from the payphone outside.  Elena just wasn’t going to believe any of this.

As she stood in the rain waiting for the agent to answer, Spencer set the heavy black helmet at her feet and gently plucked the blood-soaked sleeve away from her throbbing shoulder.  Getting this goddamned projectile out of her arm was going to be a top priority.

“Hello?”  A groggy Elena Diaz would need many more hours of sleep to recover from the night before.

“Elena, it’s me Spence.”

“Wha—?  This is way too early, bitch.  Didn’t you get laid?”

“Elena, listen.  I’m in trouble.  Henry was murdered last night.  I got called in to work when I left your house and I saw the guys who did it.  They chased me, but I got away.  I need your help.  I don’t know where to go.”

Spencer waited for the inevitable barrage of questions, but it didn’t happen.

“Elena?”  Fuck!  “Elena?”

“If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again….”

Angrily, she slammed the phone down and dug deep in her pocket for more quarters.   This time, she called her friend’s cell phone. 

“All circuits are busy.”  It cost her fifty cents to find that out.

“Fuck!  Goddamn it!”   Spencer screamed in frustration as she threw in her last two quarters and dialed the home number again.  This time, it didn’t even ring.  Nor did it return her coins.

Who else could she call?  Henry and Elena were her only real friends.  She had neighbors, but what good would it do to call them?  For all she knew, those fuckers had tossed her house already and her neighbors would want to know why.

She needed more quarters, but the clerk inside wasn’t in the mood to make change.  Grudgingly, she tossed a sweet roll onto the counter.  “How much?”

“A dollar nine.”

“Perfect.”  After pocketing the change, she grabbed another roll and threw two ones on the counter.

“You got a dime?” he asked.  Dense.

“No.”

“But I just—“

“I lost it.  May I have my change, please?”

The light bulb finally went on and the young man sighed and shook his head.  

Armed with six quarters, Spencer decided to try the cell phone one more time.   Again, she set her helmet on the ground by her feet, cradling the phone in her ear as she dialed with her working hand.  This time, the call went right to voicemail.  Elena had call-waiting, so she must have turned it off, probably to avoid being disturbed again.  Fuck!

Out of options for the moment, the injured woman pulled one of the sweet rolls from her pocket and ripped open the cellophane.  She needed to find a dry place to wait out the day, a place near a phone.

Turning toward her bike, Spencer caught sight of a police cruiser slowing as it headed toward the store.  A coffee run, probably…she hoped.  Relax…be cautious, but relax, she told herself.  She’d done nothing to warrant the attention of the police.  Gripping her bruised side as she swung a leg over the saddle, she shoved the remains of the roll back into her pocket and prepared to ride out. 

It was at that moment that she saw the second black and white, creeping around the corner from behind the building.  Spencer tried to calm her rising paranoia, cranking the bike and gripping her helmet.  

“Stay where you are and put your hands on your head!” the car’s loudspeaker barked as it pulled onto the lot. 

What the fuck!  Surely this wasn’t about telling the clerk that she’d lost her dime.  And it could only be about one other thing.

There wasn’t time to weigh options.  Spencer’s instincts were screaming at her to get the hell out of there, and that’s exactly what she did, dropping her helmet to the ground as she shot past the incoming car.   Crossing three lanes of traffic on the nimble bike, she hurdled the median and sped off, this time heading west toward the Beltway.  Over her shoulder, she saw one police car already in pursuit, lights flashing and sirens blaring; the other cruiser was hung up on the median.  She never saw the third car that joined the chase.

Accelerating wildly, Spencer felt the sting of the cold rain on her unprotected face.  She’d gotten a good jump this time – better than last night – but with the commotion behind her, it was only a matter of time before her pursuers caught up.  She had to lose them.

On the Beltway, she picked up even more speed, crouching low behind the small windshield as her speedometer topped 110 miles per hour.  A cyclist couldn’t afford a lapse in concentration at this speed; nor could she spare a glance over her shoulder.  The sirens had faded, but she doubted they would give up the chase this soon. 

At I-66, Spencer peeled off at the last second toward Fairfax, unknowingly missing the patrolman that was lying in wait on the Beltway up ahead.  When the lookout radioed that she never passed, two of the three cars giving chase abandoned the Beltway, one turning east on I-66 toward Arlington; the other following the interstate west. 

In the left lane ahead, Spencer spotted yet another law enforcement vehicle, this one a Fairfax County sheriff’s deputy.  She hung back near the exit lane, knowing she’d call attention to herself riding in this rain without a helmet.  Too late, she heard the siren behind her as the deputy drifted to the right to seal off her advance.  

Cold, wet, bleeding, and now completely demoralized, Spencer slowed and pulled over to the shoulder, coasting to a stop as the deputy pulled over in front and got out of his car to walk back toward where she waited.  She would just tell him exactly what she saw last night, and surely they would find a conspiracy if it were there.

Her knees still shaking from the adrenalin rush, she sat idling on the bike as the car behind her came to a stop.  With her thumb, the cyclist wiped the rain from the tiny rear view mirror. 

The sight nearly stopped her heart.

In disbelief, Spencer turned to see the black sedan that had chased her from Margadon, prominently sporting its US Government plate.  A suited agent in an open trench coat walked tersely toward her, his steely eyes daring her to move.  This was the man who had been in Henry’s office last night; the man who had probably killed her friend; and a man who now wanted her dead as well.

Not waiting for an introduction, she spun the throttle and popped the clutch, rocketing forward again as the deputy scrambled back to his car.  Without her helmet, she heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire from the man in the trench coat. 

 

**********

 

“Come back to bed,” Kelly groaned, incredulous that her lover would be up and about so early after the party that had raged until almost three a.m.

Instead, the IRS agent pulled on her jeans and slipped a sweatshirt over her head.   “Something’s wrong with Spence.”

“What is it?”

“I’m not sure.  She said she was in trouble and then the line went dead.  I can’t call out, not even on my cell phone.”  Elena grabbed her socks next, then her ankle boots.  “Look, I’m going to head over to her place and see if she’s okay.   Go back to sleep.”

The naked woman complied.

Still interested?   Part 2


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