chapter seven —
What else hadn’t he seen that was right in front of him?
“What is he talking about Jules?”
She raised her gaze to his, and the defiance she had demonstrated in the face of Otto’s arrogance transformed into stark apology. Jules lifted her wrists and held them out as though she was waiting to be handcuffed. The canned lights in the ceiling shone down on the black wristbands she wore. It would have been easy to mistake them for those wearable pieces of technology that were all the rage these days. A second look revealed what they really were.
“In case you were wondering, there is no trigger to press—or as may be, not press,” Kessler said. “If I don’t terminate the connection between those wristbands and my phone within the next fifty-nine minutes, one of your oldest friends meets her maker.”
Jules shook her head, but Seth couldn’t process the meaning of her gesture. His brain was stuck in a loop, the same thought playing over and over.
“She was the first one, wasn’t she?” Kessler asked. “That’s what he said. That she was the first one that you took from her family and how poetic it would be to trade her life for my Janie.”
Seth crossed the bar and knelt down beside Jules, heedless of the blood surrounding her. Danielle slid out of Jules’ protective embrace and gave them some space.
His hands closed around her wrists and he examined the black wristbands. Tiny round lights circled the circumference of the bands and glowed red, about half an inch apart. While he could see where the two sides connected, he couldn’t find a release mechanism.
From behind him, Kessler said, “The only way to open those cuffs is by pressing this button on my phone.”
He didn’t turn and look at Kessler. Seth locked his eyes with Jules’ and gently squeezed her wrists, whether to reassure her or himself he couldn’t be sure. “I’ll find a way to get these off.”
Jules nodded and said, “I know you will. I just need you to know that I’m going to be okay. No matter what happens, no matter what you have to do, don’t let him find her, Seth.”
He shook his head, instantly denying what she had left unspoken. “I’m not going to sacrifice you for her, or vice versa.”
“I know. I trust you,” she replied, her voice unwavering.
“Amazing,” said Kessler, and Seth heard a sound that could only be Kessler’s feet hitting the floor. “Even in the face of certain death, you still put your unswerving trust in him. Tell me, exactly how did the two of you meet?”
His voice changed and Seth knew he was walking toward them, but still he focused on Jules. He had said the code word earlier, but given the fact that no chatter had come through his earpiece, Seth couldn’t be sure that Allie had heard him. The entire time he’d been here, he hadn’t heard a single ping, ring, or jingle, and he wondered if Kessler had a device jamming cell phone signals. If he did, there was a good possibility that the signal emitted from his earpiece would also be disrupted, and that meant there was no guarantee that help was on the way.
Jules turned her hands and now she was the one grasping his wrists. “Do you remember?” she asked, and the smile on her face was soft with remembrance and embarrassment.
“I remember,” Seth replied, using the same gentle voice she’d been the first to show him he possessed.
“Did I ever tell you that you were the first one I worked up enough courage to approach?”
She hadn’t had to tell him. The way her fingers had shaken, the way her voice had trembled, the way she had looked everywhere but directly into his eyes were enough clues for Seth to know that the seventeen-year-old girl trying to proposition him was a novice. “Why did you choose me?” he asked, voicing a question that had run through his mind more than once in the first few days of their acquaintance.
“Because it wouldn’t have destroyed me if you’d taken me up on my offer,” she answered. “I thought that with you, I could get through it. When you turned me down flat and offered to buy me a hot meal instead, I was terrified because I knew I’d have to try again with someone else.”
Seth had always been grateful to fate, or destiny, or whatever higher power had made her choose him that day. The idea of her approaching someone else, of what could have happened to her, sent him to one of the many dark places in his mind he did his best to avoid.
“You saved me,” Jules said. “You have to save her, too.”
He shook his head. “Neither of you needed a savior,” he told her. Not for one minute did Seth subscribe to any sort of savior or hero complex. He left that to his friends. “You only needed someone to show you the smallest bit of human kindness.”
Jules leaned forward and murmured, “You really believe that, and that’s how I know that you’re going to defeat him. You have no idea how special you are, never have, and maybe you have to be made the way you are in order to do what you do. His problem, and whoever this mentor of his is—they don’t know who you are. I do. Be who you are, Seth, who you’ve always been.”
He had always been careful to keep the side of him she was talking about well hidden from her. Since he’d left the life that he’d been living when he’d met her on the streets of Nagasaki and made Arlington his permanent home, there had been countless opportunities for Jules to glean the details of his current job and wheedle hints from him about his past. In truth, he’d revealed far more to her than he should have.
But then, Jules was a friend, and Seth had learned that having friends meant having someone who gave a damn about you. Who cared enough to listen when you needed to talk and coax you into talking even when you didn’t want to.
“He says that your mother is still alive and has spent the last decade searching for you,” Kessler said. “She wants to find you and reunite with you, just like I want to reunite with my Janie.”
Jules’ hands closed tighter around his wrists, and her tone was sharp and hard when she spoke, “Then he lies.”
“Does he?” Kessler asked. He squatted down next to them, the tips of his black combat style boots inches from the blood he had spilled. “What did your hero tell you? That he tried to find her but she didn’t want to be found? That she’s dead? Did he take you to her grave as proof? How do you know for sure that he’s not the one who’s lying?”
Seth gripped Jules’ hands in his. It had been years since they had mentioned Jules’ mother, even in passing. Jules’ mother had abandoned her on the streets of Nagasaki after her father had been killed in a training accident on one of the installations at Okinawa. She had been living on the streets alone for a year when she’d approached him, hungry and destitute and out of options. The anger and resentment Jules had felt toward her mother had stayed with her for a long time, eating away at her existence even as she built a life for herself in the States after Seth had managed to get her back into the country. Seth and Jules both had things they didn’t want to talk about, and they each respected the other’s boundaries.
Jules’ mother was one of the ghosts in her past, and they both knew how that particular spirit had been exorcised.
“I know,” Jules said.
But Kessler didn’t respond to the warning tone in her voice, either because he didn’t hear it or he didn’t care to heed it. “You trust him blindly when you should question everything he says and does. Your mother has been looking for you. She wants—“
“My mother wants nothing,” Jules said, her voice cold and harsh. “She’s dead, and I know that she’s dead because I’m the one that killed her.”
chapter eight —
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.
Want to know what happens next? Click here to read Chapters 9 and 10