As mentioned, we’re starting a new challenge — the Genre Writing Challenge. Each round, the three writers — Perry, Gary, and me — will write a story on a given genre. The Twins decided the first genre is Mystery/Crime.
For the record, I would have split those into separate genres, but that’s fine.
We’re also doing something different as far as posting the stories. Dropping three stories that can total anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 words is an imposition on readers, so we’re going to stagger the posts. First up was Perry’s story. This is Gary’s story, and finally, my story in two days.
Our usual disclaimer:
The writing challenge has no restrictions, and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG range, with a few perhaps pushing into the R range. Those ratings are guidelines, but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same goes if you are not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).
So, without further ado, here’s my contribution to the Mystery/Crime genre. About 5,000 of these words were written today, trying to meet my self-imposed deadline. I’ll do some proofing in the next few days, but meanwhile, if you find errors, be kind and ignore them.
Wait . . . first, the blurb:
Have you ever wondered about Michelle Maul’s early days? Well, wonder no more. Don’t know who Michelle Maul is? I’ll put some links in the comments for them who want to read about her. She’s a tough lady, she is.
Michelle Maul Murder Mysteries — Prequel
Copyright 2023 — E. J. D’Alise
(7,000 words – approx. reading time: about 26 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“Any idea why The Boss wants to see you?” Rick asked.
“The Boss wants to see me?”
“Yeah. I tried asking why, but he didn’t even bother answering,” Rick replied. “Did you ever meet the Boss?”
“No,” I answered. “Never even seen him. You handle all the administrative and planning stuff.”
“Hmm … I can’t think of anything that might prompt a meeting. You’re listed on the team reports, but nothing happened that would have set you apart.”
“Gee, thanks, boss,” I replied with a playfully sarcastic tone. That’s me, Michelle Maul, jokester and an all-around casual person.
I joined SPSI a few years ago after dropping out of college. It was meant to be temporary as I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, but it turned out I liked the personal security industry. I enjoyed working on a team, the training, and I got to carry a gun. Plus, every job was different, and that suited my personality.
Getting hired by Shield Personal Security, Inc., had been fortuitous. One of my MMA training partners had mentioned that SPSI were hiring and said they were always looking for females who could take care of themselves.
I didn’t even know these kinds of outfits existed, but I figured I’d give them a go once I spoke with them. As I said, it suited me, and I’m still here.
Well, mostly suited me. I’m not much for respecting authority, and I’m lucky Rick, the leader of our small team, wasn’t one to stand on formalities and hierarchy. Don’t get me wrong, he expected his orders to be obeyed but was casual about other stuff. Mutual respect was implied, and the team followed a pecking order based on seniority, but it didn’t stand on displays of authority and submission.
“I offered to accompany you, but he said he wanted to meet you alone,” Rick continued. “Are you sure you don’t know him?”
“I’m sure, boss. Never even seen the guy.”
Rick looked me in the eyes for a few seconds before looking away.
“Be careful, Mitch,” he said.
“Something I should know about The Boss?” I asked. “Something related to me being a woman?”
“Nothing I’d ever heard about,” Rick replied, walking away.
I was left to imagine all sorts of bad scenarios as I drove to the main office.
Jack Moretti had founded SPSI after leaving the Army, and that’s about the extent of what I knew about him. There had been profile pieces on the man, but those presented the public persona and were likely publicity pieces dressing up a few general facts. Other than that, the man was never in the news. He hadn’t worked in the field since before I got there, trusting team leaders to work out the logistics of jobs as he concentrated on landing said jobs. Rick interviewed and hired me, and, truthfully, I saw Rick as more my boss than the outfit’s owner.
I arrived at the main office a bit early. I’d only been here once before, to the Personnel office when I got hired. I checked my gun at the front desk, along with my pocket and belt knives and kubotan pepper sprayer.
I tried joking with the guards at the metal detector checkpoint, but they showed no response to my fantastic wit.
But the guy outside Moretti’s office laughed when I told him it’s much easier getting by with a smile and a gun than just a smile.
“That’s very true,” he said, still smiling.
It’s not just that he smiled at my tired old joke; he also looked like a nice guy . . . A nice guy who looked good.
“I’m Daniel,” he said, “but my friends call me Dan.”
“I’m Michelle,” I replied, “but my friends call me Mitch. Nice to meet you, Dan.”
It looked like the beginning of something, but then the intercom buzzed, and Dan turned serious.
“Mr. Moretti will see you know,” he said, indicating the door.
I didn’t know what to expect as I went through the door, but certainly not a teen girl sitting in the high-back leather chair behind the massive desk. I saw the man pouring himself a drink at the bar along the wall after I closed the door.
“Care to join me, Ms. Maul?” the man I presumed was Moretti asked.
“Do you have a ginger ale?” I asked
“That would be great, and Michelle will do. “
I took a measure of the man as he prepared the drinks. Early fifties, I would guess, still in shape, but probably softer than he’d been twenty years earlier. His face was marked by either laugh or worry lines, and I hoped it was the former. I revised my estimate of his physical shape as he moved toward the coffee table in the sitting area. He moved with the confidence and balance of someone in peak physical condition.
“She’s checking you out,” the girl at the desk said. I’d forgotten all about her and was flustered at being caught staring. Not as much as a few seconds later when Moretti answered.
“I know,” he said without looking at either of us.
I cleared my throat and scrambled to regain a measure of control of the situation.
“Sorry about that. A bad habit of mine, assessing people I meet,” I said, and immediately added, “and also wondering why I’m here.”
“That’s my daughter, Roberta,” Moretti said without addressing my question.
The girl rose from the chair and stood in front of me. I’m not a small girl, and Roberta had a few inches on me. I probably carried more muscle, but she wasn’t far behind. Call her me in a slimmer package.
“Friends call me Robbie,” she said, offering her hand.
“OK, then call me Mitch,” I replied as we shook hands. I noted the firm grip and calluses; this girl worked out, probably the influence of her father.
“Please, sit,” Moretti said, indicating the plush chair opposite where he sat.
I grabbed the glass with the ginger ale, sat, took a sip, and waited for Robbie to sit near her dad before putting the glass down and sitting back. I’d asked my question, and it was time to be patient as I waited for the answer. Patience is not one of my strong suits, so that took a fair amount of effort.
“I’d like you to help Robbie train,” Moretti said. “MMA, knife, and guns.”
“No, thank you, can I go now?” was my first impulse—the impulse I resisted, trying a more diplomatic approach instead.
“…uh… I’m not qualified as an instructor,” I said.
“We have an instructor,” Moretti said. “What Robbie needs is a training partner and one who won’t hold back.”
“Wouldn’t training with a male partner be better? Men are stronger and faster,” I said, stating the obvious. “A stronger opponent is the way to go if the goal is to prepare for real fighting.”
“MMA is as dependent on technique as strength,” Moretti said. “Fighting is more than just about physical ability. Learned techniques and skills can counter stronger opponents’ strength and striking gains.
“And before you make more excuses about your skill level, remember I get status reports and evaluations of all SPSI personnel,” Moretti concluded.
I looked from one to the other—Moretti, serious and dispassionate; Robbie, smiling and seemingly bemused.
“So, I can’t refuse?” I asked. My automatic response to such situations was to do exactly what someone told me I could not do.
“You’re free to refuse and return to your unit. Your refusal won’t impact your position or future with SPSI,” Robbie said.
“However, I would at least ask you to consider it. It’s not just training; my father wants me to have a bodyguard, and I would very much prefer one who is also a friend, Mitch,” she continued.
I’d been assigned bodyguard duties before, but usually in connection to the whole team operating as a unit. I had no experience working solo, but it couldn’t be that different from working with a team. Other than not having a backup.
“So, I asked, I would be in rotation with someone else?”
“Ah . . . No. This would be a 24/7 assignment. You would move in here with us and be with her all the time,” Moretti said.
I took a few moments to review what they said—personal bodyguard, 24/7; no downtime, vacations, or personal time. A full-time job that would rob me of my social life — if I had any — and upset any plans for my life — plans I’d not yet made — and would take up every moment of every day.
The thing was that I had no real reason to turn the job down . . . which some might consider sad. I got to thinking about just how much the Moretti duo in front of me knew about my life because they perfectly matched the opening with a person who was the perfect fit; me.
I accepted, of course. As much as I liked the team, regular hours, and stable structure, I was also getting bored. Security work sounds exciting, but we rarely saw any action. A typical day consisted of a duty shift, a training shift, and then me trying to find something to occupy the remaining time before getting a good night’s sleep.
We circled each other, looking for an opening. I split my time between watching her core’s movement and her feet’ positioning. Forward balance was a possible attack; back balance defense and center balance could be either. I’d already disrupted one of her attack moves, and she was now more cautious with her movements, looking for an opening.
“There are two ways you can lose a fight,” I said. “One is to attack without a plan, and the other is to wait for the other person to attack with a plan.”
That had her shift her balance rearward, and I took advantage of it. I charged, but rather than try a grab, I swiped at her legs, causing her to shift her balance further, and that’s when I pushed on her blocking arm. She purposefully dropped, pulling me down and trying to wrap her legs around me, but I captured one of her legs in front of me and pushed, forcing her to twist, giving me an opening to try and get behind her head even as she tried to lock my arms and grab the head. She twisted to free her leg, and I blocked her other leg. I crossed my legs to lock hers and pressed, forcing her to open up. I would have taken out her ankle in an all-out fight, but this was grappling. On the other hand, if this were a real fight, we would have been exchanging blows long before this, but this was learning to attack pressure points and lock up joints.
She was doing a good job of avoiding getting locked up and was about to trap my arm when Moretti entered the gym.
“Break. We need to talk,” he said as he picked up a couple of towels and threw them at us.
We broke, bowed, and then bantered.
“I almost had you,” Robbie said. “A few more moments, and you would have been toast.”
“In your dreams,” I replied. “I was contemplating fighting with one arm because I was bored.”
“Oh? Were you using two arms? It didn’t seem like it.”
Moretti smiled and brought us each a bottle of water.
“Robbie, I need you to run an errand for me,” he said.
“Sure thing,” she replied. “What is it?”
“I need you to cover a meeting on the West Coast. Long Beach.”
“What’s going on?” she asked as I walked to the side, letting them have some privacy. I could still hear them, but at least I wasn’t hovering.
“There’s a conference on government contracts. It covers how State and Federal government use security firms,” he explained. “It’s an opportunity to network and explore potential partnerships.”
“I thought you were scheduled to go.”
“Something’s come up, and besides, this will give you an opportunity to meet the players in the security industry.”
“Is Chris going to be there?” Robbie asked. I detected the hint of excitement in her voice. Chris owned a small IT security outfit that SPSI had contracted to revamp its servers and firewalls against the latest and greatest threats. He and Robbie had hit it off and had promised to keep in touch, but they hadn’t seen each other since.
“Likely,” Moretti said.
“Sorry, Mitch. I might be ditching you if the opportunity arises,” Robbie said jokingly.
“NO!” Moretti said, probably more forcefully than he had intended. “No,” he continued, now looking at me. “You don’t leave her side for any circumstance.”
Both Robbie and I lost our smiles.
“What’s going on, dad?” Robbie asked.
“I’ll tell you when you get back, but for now, just know that you both need to be on your toes.”
“Jack,” I said, “if there’s a threat, I need to know as much as possible. It won’t do me any good when we get back.”
“It’s nothing specific,” Moretti replied. “More a feeling than anything else. I plan to look into it while you two are away.”
I was about to press the issue but stopped as I looked into his eyes. He didn’t want to worry Robbie. But, more importantly, he didn’t want to worry about Robbie. If I had a chance, I’d try to catch him alone later, but I opted to nod in agreement for now.
That chance didn’t come until we were ready to leave for the airport and had a few moments out of Robbie’s earshot.
“Jack, what’s going on?”
Moretti maintained a casual stance, but I noticed him surreptitiously looking around as if concerned about being spied on.
“Someone is setting SPSI up as scapegoats,” he hurriedly replied. “Minor stuff at first, but lately, jobs haven’t been going smoothly, and some clients are getting wind of it. It looks innocent enough, like isolated incidents, but when you start putting them together, they look like a series of isolated incidents.”
“That’s what I suspect, but I can’t figure out how or, more importantly, who.”
He smiled, and his voice took on a more relaxed tone as I saw Robbie approaching.
“I hope you two get some business done and that it’s not all fun and games,” he said as he hugged Robbie.
“Well, only so much work, don’t you know. There’s a great aquarium in Long Beach, and the Queen Mary — the boat, not the person — and, oh yeah, a long beach!” Robbie smiled, but I noticed the smile didn’t quite reach the eyes. Two people, not wanting to worry the other, and me in the middle.
I didn’t pressure Robbie during our drive to the airport or while waiting at the terminal, but once settled in First Class — one of the perks of my new job as a bodyguard-slash-trainer-slash-friend — I put on the pressure.
“OK, spill it. What do you know about what’s going on?”
Robbie sighed, leaned over, and spoke in a hushed voice.
“I pressured Dan into telling me what he knew,” she said. “It’s not much, and that’s also telling because my Dad relies on Dan for everything. So whatever it is, he’s keeping it close to his vest.”
“But did you find out anything at all?”
“According to Dan, Dad is under pressure to sell SPSI to Security International, Inc.”
“Pressure from whom?” I asked.
“Some of our biggest customers are complaining about recent jobs, citing lack of resources and hinting that if SPSI wants to keep the contracts, they should partner with SII.” Robbie looked around as she finished speaking as if worried about being overheard.
“What’s he doing that prompted him to get us out of the way?” I asked.
Robbie shook her head. “I’m not entirely sure. As best as I can tell, he’s working with Rick and your old team, reviewing recent contracts.”
“An internal investigation,” I said. “But why get us out of the way?”
“Dan wasn’t sure, but he thought Dad might have received threats from parties unknown.”
“You should have told me,” I said. “We should be back there, helping him.”
“That’s what I said when I confronted dad, but he dismissed the threats and said he needed me to talk to owners of other security firms and see if they’re facing similar pressure,” Robbie said.
As a plan, I wouldn’t say I liked it. One thing I learned was that when faced with danger, irrespective of what horror movies showed, you don’t split up because it makes you easier to pick off.
The Long Beach Hyatt was within walking distance of the Aquarium and a short bus ride to the Queen Mary, but both attractions and the beach were now of little interest. So we hit the convention floor early and mingled as much as possible, casually striking up conversations with some people Robbie already knew and using the excuse of introduction to meet owners Robbie hadn’t yet met.
As careful as we were, we still aroused someone’s suspicions because we noticed the head of SII heading toward us, accompanied by two bodyguards who looked more like enforcers. I immediately took a dislike to all three, but especially the head honcho.
“Roberta Moretti,” said honcho said. “Allow me to introduce myself; I’m Hans Carter, head of Security International.”
OK, so the voice is another good indicator of a person’s character, and the voice didn’t match his visage. It was friendly and not in that fake politician-like way that have you count your fingers after they shake your hand.
“Mr. Carter,” Robbie replied, extending her hand. “I wish I could say it was a pleasure meeting you.”
“About that,” the man replied, “I’m a little perplexed by the kind of questions you’ve been asking and more than perplexed by implied insinuations.”
His tone wasn’t threatening or impolite. He seemed genuinely curious.
Robbie was about to answer when something caught her attention. I looked where she was looking but didn’t spot anything, so I assumed she just wanted to break contact with the guy.
“Excuse me a moment, would you?” she said. “I’ll be right back.”
She moved to walk around Carter and his goons, and I moved with her. She surprised me by putting out her arm and stopping me.
“Wait here,” she said. “There’s someone I need to see.”
Carter and I watched her walk across the main floor toward the far wall, but I broke visual contact when he spoke.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We’ve not been introduced.”
I looked at him, still trying to resolve the conflict between my impressions based on his looks and voice.
“I’m Maul,” I said, naturally transitioning into my private James Bond joke by following it up with, “Michelle Maul.”
“Ah! A double-oh-seven fan, I see,” he replied, a smile breaking free from his austere visage.
I was momentarily distracted both by the fact he got the joke and that the smile transformed his face into that of someone I might have enjoyed knowing. By the time I looked back, Robbie was nowhere to be seen.
I ran across the room, scanning faces as I went. I stopped when I arrived at the last place I’d seen her, looking around. I grabbed my phone just as Carter and his escort caught up with me. I ignored his questions as I fired up Google Maps. Robbie and I shared locations, and sure enough, I saw both the position of my phone and that her phone was on the move. I rotated my phone until my directional icon aligned with hers and broke into a run, vaguely aware Carter followed.
Outside the conference room, I took another reading. Her phone had stopped, so I slowly walked toward it, splitting my attention between my phone screen and the surroundings. I stopped before the elevator, but the phone was again on the move by then. I looked at the number above the closed doors; it had stopped on the third floor and was now on the way down.
I didn’t wait, running for the stairwell, taking the stairs two at a time. At the third floor, slightly out of breath, I exited the stairwell into the hallway and took another reading. Robbie’s phone wasn’t moving, but what I saw gave me a sinking feeling. Ahead of me, just about where her phone showed up, was a cleaning cart in front of a room with an open door.
I scared the cleaning lady who watched me empty the dirty linen bin onto the floor. I stopped when I saw the phone bounce on the carpet and hit the far wall. I’d been duped.
I stood there, focusing my thoughts, when I heard the ding of the elevator and turned to see Carter and his goons exit and make their way to me.
It was a stupid thing to do, but I still wasn’t thinking clearly. I pulled my gun, which I wasn’t supposed to have at the conference. All three stopped as I walked toward them, the two bodyguards reaching for the guns they also weren’t supposed to have on them. Doesn’t anyone follow rules these days?
“Don’t!” I said. Not loud, not panicked, but firmly. “Pull those, and he’s the first I shoot,” I continued with their hands frozen inside their jackets.
I stopped at least ten feet away; the minimum distance I was confident gave me enough time to shoot all three if they tried rushing me.
“Where is she?” I asked.
Carter didn’t say anything, studying me.
“I understand your frustration and worry,” he finally said, “but I can assure you I had nothing to do with Roberta’s disappearance.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said.
“OK, how’s this then?’ he said. “You can either put the gun away and work together to figure out what happened, or we turn around and leave. You can choose to shoot us in the back, but then, good luck finding Roberta while sitting in a cell or on the run from the police.”
It was the voice. In his place, with possibly an unstable female pointing a gun at me, there was no way I would be as calm and unconcerned. It’s not that he wasn’t afraid of dying; it was that he’d made his peace with it.
I contemplated the man for a few seconds and then asked him a question.
“What’s your favorite James Bond movie?”
He smiled and replied without hesitation, “Casino Royale, the 1967 version.”
“Good answer,” I said and holstered my gun.
It turned out SII had installed the camera system, and it took little convincing from Carter for the hotel security manager to give us access to the recordings. Carter and I were both in agreement that it was too early to involve the Police. For one, we still didn’t know for sure whether Robbie had gone willingly or if she’d been coerced. We leaned toward the second option, but once we called in the Police, the investigation would be out of our hands.
While waiting for the footage to be retrieved in the security office, Carter asked me a question.
“Was that a poor attempt to save face?”
“You mean, the movie question? No. I genuinely wanted to know,” I replied as I not quite managed to suppress a smile.
“But, let me ask you, why that movie?” I shot back.
“It’s the most realistic of the whole franchise,” he replied. “Plus, being young, the scantily clad actresses left an impression not matched by latter so-called bond girls.”
Despite the seriousness of the moment, I laughed, but the flickering on the screen cut that short.
“Someone sprayed paint on the hallway cameras just before Roberta left the conference room,” Carter said.
We both looked at stills of the spray-can-wielding figure, but it was even difficult to say for certain if it was a man or woman. We figured the path that the perpetrators — and presumably, Roberta — had taken by tracing which cameras had been affected. They’d come in and left via the loading dock, but we had no description of the vehicle nor how many people were involved, let alone who.
“The hallway cameras might have been covered, but not the ones in the conference room,” I said. “Can we see the footage from around when you met us to when she leaves the room?”
These cameras were mounted higher, and we watched as Robbie seemed to focus on someone across the way. Even after freezing the action, we couldn’t be sure where she was looking or at whom. We saw her move, get to where I’d last seen her, and change directions to head out of the room.
I asked to rewind the footage and, after several tries, identified four people who had been in the general direction Robbie had walked toward before heading for the exit. They weren’t the only ones, but those four headed for the exit and left the room between when Robbie left my side and when she also exited.
It was a safe assumption that one of those four attracted her attention and drew her to leave the room.
“She obviously recognized someone,” I said, “but I don’t know any of those four.”
Carter asked for screen captures of the four and sent them to his security chief. I texted Dan and then sent the files in an email along with an update for him and Jack, asking for a call-back if they had any information.
I got a call too soon for it to be anything other than Jack acting on his worries. He was too professional to blame me for the course of events, but that didn’t lessen my guilt. I remembered his warning not to leave her side, and I’d let myself be distracted.
While talking with him, I heard Dan come in, discussing the images I’d sent. Neither knew any of the people who had left the room ahead of Robbie.
At this point, we’d run out of leads, ideas, and options. We considered involving the Police but decided they might do more harm than good since their first priority would be to focus on — and question — the people who’d last been with Robbie; us.
“Let’s have dinner while we regroup and discuss this. Perhaps a breather will jog loose some detail we missed,” Carter suggested.
“I’m not sure I can eat anything right now,” I said.
“Let me give you some advice; never pass up the chance to rest or eat because you never know when something will happen where you’d wish you’d done one or both.”
“The voice of experience?” I asked.
“I spent more years in the field than I have behind a desk, but the conditions are the same; being tired and hungry is not conducive to good decisions or outcomes.”
Ten minutes later, we were eating in The Market, the restaurant inside the Hyatt. A casual atmosphere and sufficient privacy away from potential eavesdroppers.
“So,” Carter said.
“Needle pulling thread. Buttons on your underwear.”
He blinked. “Sorry?”
“My apologies; it’s an automated response. Something an old boss of mine used to say whenever I said ‘so’. I don’t even think about it anymore,” I replied.
It took him only a second to get it and smile. “I’m going to steal that,” he said before turning serious and continuing.
“First, I’m indeed interested in either partnering or buying SPSI, but Moretti approached me, not the other way around, and he did so to appease a few of his customers.
“Second, I had nothing to do with any sabotage of SPSI jobs. Aside from not needing to do it, the risk is too high. Compared to SII, SPSI is small. I’d be jeopardizing a hard-won reputation for minimal gains.”
“Agreed,” I said, “but whoever is behind this has connections to the security industry. If not a rival . . . If not a rival, then a customer,” I continued.
“Someone with an ax to grind because of a real or perceived past wrong.”
I was dialing the phone even as I was finishing speaking.
Dan picked up on the first ring.
“Any news?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I answered, “but I have a question. Can you think of any jobs we did that went sideways? Jobs where the customer suffered a loss sufficient to hold a grudge?”
“Hold on,” he said and put me on hold. I put the phone on speaker so that Carter could also enjoy the crappy music.
Jack came on a few minutes later.
“The only job with that strong a motive would be a kidnapping case about ten years back. We got called in after the customer involved the Police. We strongly objected to the plan of trying to capture the perp during the money drop, but the police insisted.
“It went south, and the perp died in a shootout at the drop site,” Jack recounted.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The guy got there early and literally bumped into me.”
“You made the drop?”
“Yes,” Jack continued. “The guy panicked and pulled a gun on me. His shot went wild; mine didn’t. The guy died at the scene.”
“Did the kidnap victim die?”
“No, but it was touch-and-go. It was two days before we found her. Alive but in good shape.
“The customer blamed you?” Carter asked.
“Hans?” Jack asked.
“Sorry,” Carter replied. “I should have let you know I’m helping Maul and that I was listening in.”
“No, that’s fine. I’m glad you are. To answer your question, a little. But, mostly, they were glad to have their daughter back,” Jack finished.
“This doesn’t make sense. Are you sure you don’t recognize any of the four people in my email?” I asked. “There has to be some connection.”
“Four? We… hold on,” Jack said.
I could hear one of the other lines ringing in the background and heard Dan answer it. After a brief pause, I hear Dan say, “It’s them.”
A brief rustling, and Dan’s voice came over the phone.
“I think that’s the kidnappers. They wanted to speak with Jack,” he said.
“Dan,” I said, “this is important. Hang up the phone and call me from your cell.”
“What?” Dan replied, obviously distracted by the other call.
“Dan!” I said in my command voice.
“Hang up the phone. Call me from your cell.”
Less than a minute later, I asked Dan an important question.
“How many images were in the email I sent?”
“I sent four,” I said. “I’m texting you all four images via secure text. Tell me if you recognize anyone.”
“Hold on a sec … Jack is leaving to meet the kidnappers in LA in the morning. He’s asking you not to interfere,” Dan said.
“Where is he meeting them?”
After a brief exchange with muffled voices, Dan came back on. “He’s not saying. He just repeated not to interfere.”
“Let me speak with Jack,” I said.
“He’s already gone,” Dan said.
“Uh, Mich . . . I recognize the guy in one of the photos.”
I sat next to Carter in his personal Suburban, a 1988 model without GPS or other tracking devices. His two bodyguards were in the second row. One other guy sat in the third row, a long case across his lap. A skinny guy and one of the calmest people I’d ever met, unperturbed by what we planned on doing, his role, and the possible outcomes.
None of us spoke.
Jack was on a red-eye flight to LA to keep a morning appointment with the kidnappers. Jack still hadn’t shared the location he’d been given and had reiterated his request not to interfere.
In turn, I’d asked Dan not to tell Jack about what we planned on doing, as he probably would have nixed the idea.
“Do you think Robbie’s alive?” I asked Carter.
Carter looked at me and didn’t answer. Instead, he offered advice I learned to follow to this day.
“Concentrate on what you can affect. Thinking of what might be affects your concentration, degrades your abilities, and makes you mistake-prone.”
I didn’t respond. Jack didn’t know me, so I could forgive him mistaking cold anger for anxiety.
After walking up the long drive on foot, I knocked on the house’s door. It was an older ranch sitting on a large, mostly treed lot. Some might call it a remote location and might even call it rustic. Except, the three dish antennas of different sizes aimed at different points in the sky didn’t look rustic. Neither did the cameras tracking my progress climbing the steep and winding gravel drive to the house.
I knocked again and waited for the door to open.
“Hello, Chris,” I said. “I’m here for Robbie.”
He looked at me and then at a pad he held in his hand. I could just make out a grid of twelve video images on the angled screen, and I waited patiently instead of shooting him on the spot. No doubt, he wanted to make sure I was alone.
“She’s not here,” he answered. “I don’t know where she is.”
“I think you do,” I said.
I slapped him hard enough for his head to bang against the door frame.
He dropped the pad, and I moved aside as I yanked him to the ground just outside the door and locked up his arms.
“But the question isn’t whether you will tell me where she is. The question is how much of you will be left when you finally do,” I said as I pulled my knife.
He blanched but kept at least some of his wits.
“You’re being recorded,” he said. “Do anything to me, and I’ll ruin your life!”
“Chris, Chris, Chris . . . You’re assuming you’ll survive this. That footage isn’t going anywhere. Heck, there won’t even be any footage by the time I leave.
“Now, let us get serious,” I said as I poked his biceps with the knife. Not too deep, but enough to draw a scream.
“Let me start . . . I’m pretty sure you’re not the kidnapper. It’s just not your style, what with being a hacker and all,” I said as I gave him another poke, this time in the triceps.
He grunted but said nothing.
“I assume being a security consultant made it easy to load a stealth program when you updated SPSI’s servers,” I continued. “It’s how you could keep track of SPSI jobs and pass the information along to people who could cause the teams trouble. It’s also how you deleted your photo from the set I sent to Dan.
“That was a mistake,” I said as I gave him another poke, this time in the deltoid, but near enough to the clavicle to touch the bone maybe.
“You should have replaced it with a different photo.”
“I… I didn’t have time to duplicate the time stamp and logo of the original,” he said.
“Look, I admit to that,” he added, “but I had nothing to do with kidnapping Robbie.”
He struggled against my grip, testing my hold. I pulled tighter, and he yelped in pain.
“Except for being the bait,” I said. “You’re a smart guy, Chris. All I want from you is where Robbie is being held.”
“I don’t know, I swear!” he yelled as I poked his trapezium.
“Fine, let’s assume you don’t . . . But I’m pretty sure you monitored the calls in and out of SPSI. Hence you know the location of the meet.”
“They’ll kill me!”
“Chris, you’re not thinking straight. They might kill you. On the other hand, I’m about to slice off your nose,” I said as I pressed my knife to the bridge of his nose hard enough to draw blood.
He must have really liked his nose because ten minutes later, I had the location of the planned meet. I left poor Chris all trussed up and promised to send someone over the next day. He’d also have to buy a whole new security system, but I assumed he could afford it.
I also made him another promise. One that had me reasonably confident Chris would put this whole affair behind him and never mention it to anyone.
Finally, I suggested moving to a place where Jack Moretti wouldn’t find him, but that part was entirely up to Chris.
I watched the two dark sedans round the corner of the abandoned warehouse. I was sitting on the ledge of a loading dock in a long row of loading docks, my feet dangling, my hands resting on the cement beside my thighs.
I was rotating my feet in opposite directions, like eggbeaters. I’d seen an infant do it once, and it remained with me for no other reason than it was so odd; I’d never seen any other infant make what seemed like purposeful gestures. Let me tell you, it takes some concentration, making it all that more impressive when I think of a nine-month-old kid doing it.
But, the more important matter was the cars slowing and coming to a stop on either side of me. The people who exited the cars seemed less than happy to see me.
“Good morning,” I yelled out.
They seemed a bit nervous, looking around as they advanced. Two of them eyed the opening at my back, not bothering to conceal the guns in their hands.
The last guy to exit the car was less nervous. In fact, he was confident, cocky, even, as guys who fancy themselves in charge often are.
“I must say, I didn’t expect you here, Mich.”
“Ah, see,” I replied, “only my friends get to call me Mich.”
“I know,” he said. “I read your file. Speaking of which, I know your team is still back East. Do you even have any friends here, Mich?”
“A few,” I replied.
“I assume you got this location from Chris?”
“Yeah, he has a nose for this kind of information,” I smiled at my joke, but I don’t think Toby Fraser got the joke.
Toby Fraser, son of James Fraser, the man Jack had shot in self-defense ten years back.
“The thing is, Toby, I’d like for you to hand Roberta over and go on your way. You see, I’d rather you not be here when Jack arrives,” I said.
Toby smiled and looked back at the car to his right. I could make out two figures in the back seat.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Toby said. “She’s my insurance. You or anyone else tries anything, and she dies.”
“How do I know it’s even her?” I asked.
Toby made a circling motion with his hand, and the window dropped enough for me to see her face.
“Robbie,” I said with a raised voice, “nod if you can hear me.”
“Close your eyes,” I said a few seconds before a bullet impacted the head of the other figure in the car.
Toby and his men stood frozen, processing what had just happened.
“Oops,” I spelled it out to them, “it looks like your insurance is gone.”
Toby growled; literally growled. He spun as he drew his gun and moved toward the car. Another headshot and Toby was at peace.
The others looked confused, so I again helped them out.
“This might be a good time not to appear threatening,” I said. They all dropped their guns as Carter’s bodyguards walked out of the opening behind me, M4 shotguns leveled at the men.
I jumped down from the ledge and walked to the car. I helped Robbie out of the vehicle and walked her to the steps next to the loading dock before turning my attention back to the remaining men.
“Here’s an idea,” I said. “First, strip down to your underwear. Then, load the bodies in the cars, and then you wait in the cars until we leave. You can then drive away and forget about all this. Does that sound reasonable?”
It indeed sounded reasonable to them, and I inspected the cars while they did their striptease. It wouldn’t do for them to have access to weapons while we were still in the vicinity.
Before they were finished, Carter’s Suburban came around the corner and stopped next to Robbie. I grabbed a Hyatt robe from the back of the Burb and walked with Robbie into a sheltered area of the warehouse. There, I helped her strip, clean up with disposable washcloths, and put the robe on. She was still in shock, so I had to help her clean up, but she seemed to recover somewhat by the time she settled in the back seat of the Burb. She barely glanced at the guy with the long case sitting in the third row.
We waited an additional ten minutes before Jack showed up, during which time I gathered up the men’s guns, wallets, and phones. I took pity on them and left their clothes in a heap in case they cared to get dressed after we left.
After a brief and somewhat heated exchange with Jack, I got into Jack’s rental along with one of Carter’s bodyguards, and Jack got into the Burb next to Robbie. A couple of minutes later, we left the area.
On the way back to the Hyatt, I had the bodyguard make a 9-1-1 call about a break-in at Chris’s residence using the phones of one of the men. After wiping it, it flew out of the window in the middle of the highway. It would be interesting to know how many cars drove over it.
Jack eventually calmed down and agreed my approach had been sound, especially after Robbie confirmed that Toby Fraser had planned on killing them both. But, this was the last straw for Jack. He sold SPSI to SII, and last I heard, Jack and Robbie moved to Costa Rica.
Me? I stayed with SII for a few more years. I eventually rose to head their Internal Security department before I got tired and decided to head out on my own.
But that’s a story for another day.
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