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Jules looked at him, and in that moment he saw the woman who had cried over her mother’s broken, lifeless body. The same combination of fear, anger, and regret in her eyes now had been there then. In spite of her mother’s abandonment, Jules had still been the lost little girl who wanted her mother to come back.
“It wasn’t your fault, Jules.”
“Wasn’t it?” she countered.
What could he say? Even though he hadn’t been the one to pull the trigger, wasn’t he blaming himself for Gabe’s death?
“This soul searching moment the two of you are having is touching, but time to get back to the matter at hand,” said Kessler. “There’s enough C-4 in those wristbands to kill her, and unless you give me what I want, she’ll breathe her last breath in less than an hour.”
Reluctantly, Seth released Jules’ hands and asked, “Exactly how much time?”
Kessler pulled his smartphone from his pocket and swiped the screen a few times. It occurred to Seth that with his mind on the phone, there was an opening to go on the offensive and wrest the gun out of his hand. What stopped him was the fact that he had no idea how to disarm the wristbands, and he didn’t know if cutting them off her wrists would trigger the explosives.
“Fifty-four minutes, thirty seconds.”
Seth set his watch for fifty-three minutes. He looked at Jules, nodded and then stood. Facing Kessler, he said, “All right. We both know what the other wants. Let’s negotiate terms.”
“Seth, don’t do this. Not for me,” Jules said.
A broad, victorious smile spread across Kessler’s face. “Call Janie and have her come to the bar. Once she’s here, I’ll terminate the connection between my phone and the wristbands and leave. No one else gets hurt.”
“What makes you think she’s in D.C.?” Seth asked.
Kessler replied, “He told me that she’s here. Actually, he said it was one of the few mistakes you’ve made. He says you should have relocated her, taken her to live in some other state.”
Once again Seth wondered about the identity of the mysterious “he” Kessler kept mentioning. Whoever he was, he’d been digging in Seth’s life, digging deep and uncovering secrets he thought he’d erased out of existence.
“Is that why he activated you first? Because of proximity?”
The question poked at Kessler’s pride and his face twisted with anger. “He chose me to be the first one to challenge you because I’m the best that he’s got.”
“You?” Seth pushed. “If you’re the best he’s got, then this little war you keep talking about is going to be nothing more than an inconvenience to me.”
Kessler squared his shoulders and took a step back. It was the opposite reaction Seth had been trying to provoke.
“Call her and tell her to get here within the next thirty minutes,” Kessler demanded. “I know that she’s close enough to the bar to get here within that timeframe and have minutes to spare. Do it. Now.”
“Let Kit and Belinda go,” Seth returned. “Let them go, and I’ll call Janie.”
Kessler’s gaze went over to the two women sitting in the booth. Seth watched him thinking over the consequences of letting them go, calculating the risk against the reward. He read Kessler’s response in his eyes before he uttered it aloud.
“No. No one leaves.”
Seth shook his head. “Then I guess we all sit here and wait for the big boom.”
Kessler’s eyes went to Jules. “You wouldn’t risk her life. No matter what she might say to the contrary, you’re not going to stand there, do nothing, and let the clock tick down to her death.”
“No matter what you read in that dossier your benefactor gave you, you don’t know me,” Seth told him. “A man is more than words on a page.”
“I know what you’ve done, and I can anticipate how you’ll react in any given situation,” said Kessler. “He didn’t just give me a file to read. We’ve had a lot of discussions about you. He knows you better than you know yourself.”
“If that’s true, then you know exactly what I’m going to do if you refuse to let Kit and Belinda go.”
Seth waited for Kessler to decide. While he waited, he thought about how he would handle the inevitable conversation with Janie that loomed ahead of him. Talking with her would be the easy part. Figuring out what would happen after that was the hard part. For the first time in a long time, he felt cut off from his team. Alone. It wasn’t an unfamiliar state of being, and he slid back into the headspace as easily as he slipped on his favorite leather jacket.
Kessler walked over to the two women and pressed the barrel of the gun to the center of Belinda’s forehead. Looking at Kit, he said, “Get your wallet and hers, and show me your IDs.”
Her movements were slow and measured, absent of hesitation. Kit accomplished the task with efficiency, laying both her driver’s license and Belinda’s on the table for Kessler’s inspection.
Kessler went one step further, taking a photo of the IDs with his smartphone. “If you tell anyone what happened here, if you send the police here, you’ll be dead by morning.” He looked first at Kit and then Belinda. “Do you both understand me?”
“We understand. We won’t tell anyone,” Belinda blurted, nodding her head in furious agreement. She nudged Kit with her elbow and said, “Tell him, Kit. Tell him that we’ll go and won’t say anything about this. Ever.”
With the same calm, cold detachment she’d exhibited from the moment she’d told Seth her name, she nodded and said, “I understand. Dead by morning.”
Seth assessed her with greater scrutiny. His impression of Kit was that she said exactly what she meant, and yet her words just now had been vague. She could have been talking about herself and Belinda, or she could have been talking about Kessler. Seth bet on the latter, and yet wondered at her meaning. Who was she?
Though what she’d said aroused Seth’s curiosity, Kessler took her words at face value. He stepped back from the table and lowered the gun away from Belinda’s forehead. Motioning toward the door, Kessler said, “Go.”
Kit gathered their IDs and tucked them into the back pocket of her jeans. Rising to her feet, she pushed the table out of the way and helped Belinda stand.
“Don’t go to the nearest hospital,” Kessler said. “Take her to St. Catherine’s.”
Was it a stroke of luck or did Kessler know that one of his friends was a doctor on staff in St. Catherine’s ER? Not that it mattered since he had no way to give Kit a message to take to Jensen, if he was even on duty tonight.
Kit wrapped her arm around Belinda’s waist, and as they slowly made their way to the front door, Jules and Danielle got up and out of the way. Neither Kit nor Belinda could avoid stepping in the pool of blood, and the wincing pain he saw register on Danielle’s face before she looked away ripped into him like a clawing beast.
Kessler followed them, and once they were though the door, he pulled it closed and twisted the lock. Turning around, he tossed his smartphone to Seth and said, “Make the call.”
Seth caught the phone mid-air and said, “I don’t know her phone number from memory.”
“Yes, you do. Make the call, and put it on speaker.”
Seth looked down at the phone. The screen had been unlocked and the keypad was open and ready for him to enter Janie’s phone number. His first thought went to how he could get into whatever app controlled the cuffs on Jules’ wrists, but the part of his mind that was strategically working the problem warned against taking an unnecessary risk at this point in time.
With his thumb, Seth keyed in Janie’s number and activated the speaker. He listened, waiting for the connection to go through.
“Hey, you! How’s it going?”
Her happiness always hit him like bright sunshine. “Just another day.”
“Why don’t I believe you?” she replied. “What’s up?”
“Look, I know it’s late, but could you meet me?”
“Seth, what’s wrong?”
The sunshine evaporated out of her tone, and though Seth missed its warmth, he was also glad for it. He needed her to be on her guard. “Nothing’s wrong. It’s just been a really long day,” he said carefully. “I also have some news that you need to hear.”
“Okay, but can’t you tell me on the phone?”
Good, he thought. She remembers.
“It’s not really something we should talk about over the phone. Can you meet me? Thirty minutes at the Compass Bar.”
“Yes, I remember it,” she said. “The one that’s owned by your friend, Jules, right? On Lincoln?”
“Lexington,” he corrected.
“That’s right. Okay. I’ll be there in thirty.”
Seth nodded, and it wasn’t just for Kessler’s sake. “See you soon,” he finished, disconnecting the call and tossing the phone back at Kessler.
“Happy?” he asked, behaving exactly as Kessler expected. Though he maintained eye contact, his mind’s eye roamed every square inch of the bar. Kessler had locked the front door, but he suspected the back door hadn’t been secured. During normal business hours, Jules kept the door unlocked even though he’d cautioned her against it.
“Not yet, but I will be,” Kessler spoke, drawing his attention.
Seth focused on him. The conceited, self-satisfied grin that showed his cigarette-stained teeth barely touched his awareness. His mind was too busy forming a strategy for what would happen once the next thirty minutes came and went.
Because Janie Savoy wasn’t on her way to the bar.
READ CHAPTER NINE ON TUESDAY, 9/12