chapter five —
Seth stared at the boy’s lifeless body. Had he and Danielle had plans for later, after she got off work? Had they been just friends? Or would he have stolen a kiss before saying good night? Maybe she would have given the kiss willingly, and maybe more than one.
Get up! You’re vulnerable.
Did he have parents? Was he one of the popular kids at school? Was he part of one of the smaller cliques you find in any high school in America? Or was he a loner? How many people would be devastated by his death? How many people would mourn him at his funeral? How many days after this one would Danielle cry her eyes out just as she was doing now?
Get up! This isn’t over. There are eight other lives at stake, plus your own.
Seth got up. Yes, there were eight other lives at stake. Only eight. Because with that bullet, Sean Kessler had signed his own death warrant.
He started toward the front door, but Kessler stepped in front of him, barring his path. Icy fury turned his body into a glacial monolith. Nothing was going to stand in the way of him getting what he wanted, especially not Sean Kessler.
“No one leaves.”
“I don’t need you to repeat your instructions,” Seth spoke, his voice and tone controlled by that part of him that had spent a lifetime cultivating the cold detachment required to do his job. “I’m not leaving him there. Show me that you possess the most basic of human decency and get out of my way.”
Seth watched Kessler’s expression change from defiant to cautious. In his head, he counted the seconds ticking by. More than a minute passed before Kessler gave way, and the length of time it had taken him to prove that he was something like human only pushed him closer to his own hour of death.
He went over to Danielle. Frozen in place, she was sitting back on her heels, her knees and calves within the pool of the boy’s blood. The boy’s head was cradled in her lap, her bloody fingers stroking through his hair. As he approached, he saw that the kill shot had been a single bullet to the carotid artery in his throat. Either Kessler was a good shot, or the bullet had missed its intended target. Seth didn’t know if he’d meant to hit the boy or Danielle, and it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he had to deal with the result.
“Danielle,” he started, saying her name in the softest voice he owned. Tears slipped from her eyes and down her cheeks as she looked up at him.
It was a shaky, broken whisper, and Seth’s gut clenched with sympathy. He knelt down beside her and said, “I’m sorry, Danielle. I’m so sorry.”
She looked down at the boy and brushed away a lock of hair that had fallen over his forehead. Her entire body shook with the sobs she tried hard to suppress. “He was…he…he wasn’t supposed to be here. I was going to…but I…” Danielle met his gaze again and she shouted, “He wasn’t supposed to be here! This wasn’t supposed to happen to him! Why did…Why?”
Her anguished grief should have melted the glacial ice that had taken residence in his body, but instead it dropped him into a deeper, subarctic zone. Seth wanted to give her the answers she needed, but even if he had had them to give, nothing would soothe her grief. Nothing would make this boy’s death right.
“What was his name?” Seth asked her in a voice just loud enough for her and only her to hear him.
The tears she’d been valiantly holding back rushed out of her in a torrent. His use of the past tense had snapped her control and though he regretted his lack of foresight, he’d have to excoriate himself for his lapse later. Danielle needed his focus, and he gave it to her unconditionally. Listening to his instincts, he leaned forward and closed his arms around her. Seth didn’t rock her like a child, and he didn’t fill her ears with empty platitudes. He didn’t tell her it was going to be okay because it wasn’t going to be okay. Ever. He said nothing but gave her what he thought she needed most—a safe place to spend her grief.
Minutes passed, and slowly Danielle’s crying eased into silent shudders. Seth sensed movement behind him, and when he looked over his shoulder he found Jules standing beside him. She nodded at him and settled on her knees behind Danielle, her hand settling gently on the girl’s shoulder.
Seth didn’t rush her. He waited for the moment when she pulled away from him, but even then he cradled her head in his hands and looked her in the eyes. “I have to move him, Danielle. When this is done, I’ll make the proper arrangements for him.”
Danielle shook her head in denial. “Don’t…you can’t—“
“I can’t leave him here,” he told her, finishing the sentence she couldn’t. “We can’t leave him here like this, Danielle. You don’t want that for him, and neither do I. We have to do everything we can for him now. Right?”
He watched her swallow hard, forcing down the sobs that threatened to consume her once again. She straightened her spine and nodded once. “Right. You’re right,” she forced out, her voice still shaky but stronger than it had been. “Where will… where will you take him?”
“The walk-in cooler,” Jules answered.
Danielle nodded again. She stroked the boy’s hair one last time, and then she leaned down and pressed a lingering kiss to his forehead. “Forgive me, Gabe,” she whispered. Her tears fell on the boy’s cheeks, and Danielle wiped them away with the sleeve of her shirt, cognizant of the blood on her fingers and unwilling to mar his face.
Gabe. The boy’s name was Gabe.
Leaning in, Seth put his mouth next to Danielle’s ear and promised, “He won’t get away with this, Danielle. I will make him pay for taking Gabe’s life. We clear?” Shifting away from her, he met her gaze with unflinching resolve and waited for her response.
“Yes,” she said, and this time her voice didn’t shake. This time, hard anger surfaced along with the barest hint of scorn. “Yes, we’re clear.”
It was Seth’s turn to nod, and it sealed his promise.
He shifted into a squatting position, and with great care he slid his arms beneath Gabe’s body. Wordlessly, he took Gabe’s weight into his arms and stood. Jules wrapped her arms around Danielle, putting one hand against the back of her head as if to encourage her to look away. Seth paused, once again waiting on a silent cue from Danielle. He waited as she took one last look, and only when she’d turned her face into Jules’ neck did Seth turn on his feet and start toward the back of the bar.
All eyes were on him as he made the slow walk from the front of the bar to the walk-in cooler at the back. Like a general carrying a fallen soldier off the battlefield, Seth kept his eyes forward and cradled Gabe’s body with the care and respect the boy deserved.
Moser followed behind him and pulled open the door. Seth stepped inside and moved to the back of the space. Gently, as though he were putting a baby down for a nap, Seth set Gabe’s body on the cold concrete floor. As he settled the boy’s body, his hands came away sticky with blood. The coppery smell, all too familiar to him, assaulted his nose. Seth stayed there a moment, squatting down beside the dead teenager’s body, staring at his bloody hands.
First Belinda’s. Now Gabe’s. Would someone else’s blood be on his hands before he found a way to end this?
As Seth stared at his hands, he remembered the promise he’d made to Danielle.
Time to get it done, he thought.
Rising to his full height, Seth looked at Gabe one last time. He’d been in the cooler enough times to know that there wasn’t anything at hand that he could use to cover the boy’s body. The only thing he could do for Gabe was bring the man who had taken his life and stolen his future to his knees.
Seth wouldn’t have espoused the eye for an eye mentality as a first option, but he also wouldn’t argue against it being the necessary course of action when the situation warranted. In Seth’s world, too many people who deserved mercy never got it, and those who preyed on others never paid for their crimes.
Sean Kessler would pay for this, and Seth would show him no mercy.
chapter six —
Seth emerged into the short hallway leading from the walk-in cooler to the main part of the bar. The first person he saw was Neil Moser.
“What’s your plan?”
“Convince him that it’s in his best interest to let some of these people go,” Seth returned. Kessler had insisted they were two men in the midst of a negotiation. Perhaps he could use that to his advantage while withholding the one piece of information Kessler wanted most. “What’s happened out here in the last few minutes?”
“The college kid struck up a conversation with the perp. What is his name anyway?” Moser asked.
Moser said, “I’ve got your back.”
Seth nodded his appreciation, and in the next moment they were back inside the bar proper and he spotted Kessler. He stood on top of the bar, arms crossed over his chest, his focus on the frat boy who had urged Seth to reveal Janie Savoy’s location. He was too far away to hear what was being said, but the frat boy was doing all the talking.
Kessler’s gaze snapped over to him, and again Seth wondered about the sharpness of his reflexes. Everything he’d learned about Sean Kessler prior to playing his part in Janie Savoy’s getaway told the story of a man who worked as a landscaper-for-hire and spent his nights in his neighborhood bar. Nothing suggested a man with the physicality or agility Kessler had demonstrated tonight.
“Your benefactor,” Seth started. “You said that he gave you a file on me.”
“Did he also provide you with combat training?”
Kessler looked down at the tattoo on the back of his hand. “He provided me with everything I would need to get back what’s mine.”
“I told you. Women are not property,” Seth spoke.
“And I told you. If you had ever loved a woman, you’d think differently.”
“Where is your benefactor located?” Seth asked. “Here in D.C.? Somewhere overseas? The jungles of the Amazon? I really want some face time with him. Can you set that up for me?”
Kessler strode down the length of the bar. With affected purpose, he looked down his nose and said, “He wants to see you, too, but he’ll do that in his own time. Considering all of the people waiting in line to take their shot at you, it could be a while before that happens. A long while. You see, there’s something I don’t think you’ve figured out yet.”
“You took someone from him. It’s one of the reasons why we have orders not to kill you. He’s keeping that pleasure for himself. You don’t have to go looking for him. When he’s ready, he’ll find you.”
“You have a lot of faith in him,” Seth remarked, keeping the conversation moving even as he processed everything Kessler said. No matter what information was in the file he had been given, Seth knew his own history better than anyone. If half of what Kessler said was true, then the list of people who could be coming after him was a long one.
But, who on that list would have the resources to pull together this kind of operation?
“He has done everything he said he would do,” Kessler replied. “He’s earned my trust and my loyalty.”
And his obedience.
“You, on the other hand, have shown that none of the people here should trust you, least of all with their lives,” said Kessler.
Seth moved his gaze to the frat boy still standing at the bar. “What is your name?”
“Otto,” he started. “Tell me, what do you think we should do?”
Without hesitation, Otto answered, “Give him what he wants.”
“Because once he has what he wants he’ll let us go,” Otto said.
“And you don’t care that he just killed a teenage boy and shows no remorse for it?” Seth challenged. “You really think that a man who just killed another in front of a host of witnesses can be trusted to keep his word?”
Otto glanced in the direction of his friends, but neither of them would make eye contact with him. He moved closer to Seth until they stood toe-to-toe, his hands propped on his hips. “From the way that he tells it, he’s not the only man in this room who has taken a life. What makes you any different than him?”
Seth swept his eyes around the bar. Each person there was looking at him, listening, waiting for his response to Otto’s challenge. His gaze stayed on Jules for a few seconds longer than anyone else. This was happening in her bar because he hadn’t kept distance between them like he should have. He had thought that staying close, checking in on her from time to time, was the right thing to do. Instead, there was a corpse in her bar, blood on her floor, and a young woman weeping in her arms. He hadn’t protected her. He’d made her a target just waiting to be hit.
He turned his attention back to Otto. “If you’re looking for me to justify my past or my actions to you, then look somewhere else. Are we done here, or do you have something else you want to say?”
“No, we’re not done,” Otto returned. “There are eight of us and one of you. I say, that since it’s our lives you’re putting in danger, we get to be the ones to decide what you do next.”
He spun around and opened his arms wide. “What say you, people of Compass Bar? Should this guy tell our captor where he can find his ex? Or do you want to continue cowering in your seats and wondering if you’ll be the next one to take a bullet?”
“Man, what are you doing?”
Seth looked at the table where Otto had been sitting with his friends. The one that had spoken in a hushed but anxious tone wore a dark green button down with the sleeves rolled up over his forearms. Beneath the sleeve, a tattoo peeked out. He moved and the sleeve shifted upward, showing more of the tattoo. A stylized Celtic cross.
“Sit down and shut up,” the other one at the table urged. He wore the jersey of Argentina’s national soccer team. “You’re going to get someone killed and I don’t think this is the guy you want to piss off right now.”
“You don’t want to piss either one of them off,” said the one with the tattoo.
“Two votes for cowering,” Otto remarked. Turning to the two women sitting on the opposite side of the bar, he approached them and asked, “What about you? I heard you tell him your name is Belinda. Wouldn’t you like to get to a hospital where a doctor can give you a painkiller and get that bullet out of your leg?”
Belinda opened her mouth to speak but Kit responded before she could get a word out. “If he’s the only one standing between a woman and her abuser, then I want him to keep doing what he’s doing.”
Kit turned to Belinda, and from where Seth stood, he could see her eyes narrow and her features harden. “No. We are not the kind of people who would endanger another woman’s life to save our own. I won’t be that kind of person. What if it was you? What if you were this Janie Savoy and had no idea that the man who had abused you for who knows how long was about to show up on your doorstep?”
“She can call the police,” Belinda replied. “Get a restraining order. Or we can call the police once we get out of here. We can get help to her before he does anything to hurt her.”
“Is that what you really believe?” Kit asked. “Or is that what you want to believe?”
Belinda said, “I don’t want to die.”
“I don’t want to die, either, but I’m not going to vote to sell this woman out,” Kit replied. She looked up at Otto and said, “You can call it cowering if you want and that’s okay. A lot of people don’t recognize courage when they see it. Now go away.”
Kit’s eyes landed on him, and the weight of her stare was the equivalent of a silently spoken command. She hadn’t assumed that she could control him or the situation but she had made her voice heard.
Otto was smart enough to move away from the booth Kit and Belinda occupied. Focusing on the other two women in the bar, he went over to them and squatted down beside them. They hadn’t moved from the spot they’d been in when Seth had lifted Gabe out of Danielle’s arms, and Otto took care to avoid the blood pool.
“What about you, honey?” he asked, his eyes seeking Danielle’s.
Danielle straightened away from Jules’ embrace. “Don’t call me that. When Gabe came in earlier you were rude and obnoxious to him. You’re a bully, just like the man pacing on the top of the bar, acting like he’s a lion prowling in the Sahara. You both prey on people you think are weaker than you. I’m not weak and neither was Gabe.”
Seth had never heard Danielle raise her voice to anyone, not even rowdy, drunken bar patrons who tried to put their hands where they weren’t invited. He had taught her a few simple defense moves that would cause plenty of pain and get her point across without having to say a word. Even in her grief she was fierce, choosing words as her weapon.
“You’re a hothead with no regard for anyone but yourself,” Jules said. “If it’s a choice between trusting Seth or trusting the maniac on my bar, then there is no choice.”
He watched Otto rise to his full height. The arrogant bravado that had carried him through the bar made him turn and look at Kessler, who stalked the length of the bar in the same way he had seen Josh pace in a straight line from one end of his office to the other. Otto waited for him to get closer. Seth watched the silent exchange take place between them, and his internal alarm system went off.
Otto moved his gaze to Moser. “And you, old man? Are you with him, too?”
Moser rose an eyebrow in response.
Seth studied the interplay between Otto and Kessler. He was missing something. Something damn important. Moser had told him that Otto and Kessler had gotten chatty, but Seth had attributed Otto’s forwardness to a brash personality. Had he misread the situation? Were the two really strangers or did they know each other?
He looked at Otto’s hand. No maze tattoo.
“It’s too bad you’re all with him,” Otto said.
“Why’s that?” Moser asked.
Kessler raised his gun and pointed at Jules, but it was Otto who said, “Because if he doesn’t get what he wants in the next sixty minutes, she goes boom.”
Want to know what happens next? Click here to read Chapters 7 and 8.