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Colby Agency, 2:00 p.m.
Victoria Colby-Camp collected her purse and prepared to order the car. Picking up her granddaughter at school would definitely be the highlight of this day.
After spending a good portion of the morning at the E.R. with J.T. and Eve, then dealing with that unnerving call from the bastard behind the abduction attempts, Victoria had long passed exhaustion.
She needed Lucas at her side. The government contact that served as a liaison whenever Lucas was on assignment had been unable to reach him or any member of his team. The reason, of course, was classified. Victoria had put off reaching out to Lucas again as long as she dared.
She could no longer presume the threat to her granddaughter was minimal. With that call, the danger had escalated to a new level.
This threat was not linked to Lucas or one of his personal enemies. The past had come back to haunt the Colby Agency once more.
An associate of Errol Leberman, the archneme-sis of the Colby name, was behind the threat. Victoria had not recognized the caller's voice. He had refused to give his name, pushing Victoria into a corner and limiting her options to the single one she had hoped to avoid. Reaching out to Jim.
The past few years her son had taken great strides in settling into a normal, happy life. Jim and his wife, Tasha, were immensely happy and their daughter, Jamie, thrived. This extended vacation to the remotest regions of Africa was the couple's first getaway. Victoria had not wanted to disturb their escape. Her son so deserved to take a real vacation for the first time in his life. To experience an adventure that was for pure enjoyment and not related to his work.
But the caller and the situation had left Victoria no choice.
As she'd been forced to reach out to Lucas, her people had been attempting to reach Jim all day.
Recent political unrest had concerned Victoria as to their selection of this safari for their getaway. Tasha had great empathy for the country and its many woes. She had chosen the place for that reason. Jim had agreed. Victoria had reminded herself that her son was more than capable of taking care of himself and his wife in any situation. There had been no need to worry.
But that had been before. Before rumors surfaced that Jamie Colby was a target. Before they had been ambushed and three people had lost their lives.
Before the call.
Victoria shuddered as memories of Leberman and the horrors he had used against the Colby name crowded into her thoughts. Anyone associated with him would be every bit as evil and twisted. Worse, they would go to any lengths to accomplish their mission.
The possibility of their success terrified Victoria.
She swallowed back the emotions that constricted her throat. Victoria never allowed anyone or anything to shake her confidence and determination to this degree.
But this absolutely shook her to the core.
Perhaps she was not as strong as she once was.
Her office door opened, snapping her to attention.
"We have Jim on the line," Ian Michaels announced.
Simon Ruhl came in behind him, closed the door.
A mixture of relief and anticipation seared Victoria's senses. "Finally."
They moved to the conference table, where Ian activated the conferencing system. "Jim, Simon and I are in Victoria's office. Are you in a position to speak at length?"
"For as long as the connection lasts," Jim granted.
Emotion surged upon hearing her son's voice. Victoria smiled even as tears welled in her eyes. "Jim, it's good to hear your voice."
"What's wrong? I can hear the worry in your voice, Victoria."
Victoria had hoped at some point her son would feel comfortable calling her mother. But that hadn't happened yet. Years of brainwashing and bitterness had made any sort of intimacy on a normal level difficult. Still, their relationship was close, solid.
"There's a situation," she explained, annoyed that her voice quavered. "We had hoped to contain the threat without interfering with your vacation, but that has changed now."
"Tell me," Jim commanded, his tone fierce, "that my daughter is safe."
"Jamie is safe," Victoria hastened to assure him. "She is unharmed and having a grand time being the center of attention. We have the maximum security measures in place. For now, all is under control where her welfare is concerned."
"There's been a threat against her," Jim surmised.
His voice had lost all inflection. When threatened he closed out all emotions, a tactic he'd learned after years of abuse. Agony twisted in Victoria. She would give most anything not to have to do this to him.
"Yes," she confirmed. "Ian is going to bring you up to speed."
Surprised, Ian shifted his attention to her and Victoria nodded for him to take the reins. She did not trust herself to maintain her composure.
She looked away as Ian launched into the details of the threat to her granddaughter. More of those stinging emotions burned in her eyes. Inside, where no one could see, she trembled.
For the first time in a very long while she was afraid. Uncertain of herself. The past year her agency had worked hard to pull together a reconnaissance division specifically for finding the missing. How could her agency possess such talent and still be vulnerable to this kind of threat?
The answer was all too clear.
Leberman, an evil man with extensive power, had reached out from the grave and done this to her family. The years of torment the struggle to overcome the misery he'd elicited in her life even now sent dread welling inside her.
She blinked, returned her focus to the two men seated at the conference table with her. "Yes?" She mentally scrambled to catch up. Had Ian asked her a question? What had she missed?
"Jim is ready to listen to the recording."
She nodded. "Of course."
Ian gave Simon a nod. Simon initiated the playback of the recorded call.
Victoria clasped her hands in her lap, held on tightly as the sinister voice filled the room. Ten million dollars was the price for calling off the abduction of Victoria's granddaughter. But she knew that no amount of money would guarantee Jamie Colby's safety. The threat had to be neutralized at its core.
When the recording had reached an end, the silence thickened for several moments before Jim spoke.
"His name is Clayton Barker. He operated the mercenary camp where I stayed for two years. Do not underestimate him. If he's behind this "
Victoria heard talking in the background. One voice sounded like Tasha's.
"Jim?" A new kind of tension quivered through Victoria. The background conversation sounded clipped, tense.
"Look," Jim said, apparently moving away from the conversation in the background since the voices faded. "I'm coming home. I don't know how long it will take. There's been some trouble here."
More of that paralyzing fear streamed through Victoria's veins. "Related to the recent shift in the political climate?"
"Yes," Jim confirmed. "We thought we were safe but trouble has moved into this area. We were already preparing to move out before your call was patched through. Tasha and I will head back to Kenya and get on the first flight back home."
"Can we get a helicopter to your location to facilitate your departure?" Ian suggested.
"Won't work. The government has shut down all air traffic in the area. We'll have to try getting out in the jeeps. If that doesn't work, we'll do it on foot. I will get there, one way or another."
"Jim." Victoria worked at keeping her voice even. "Are you and Tasha safe for now?"
"For now." His tone was grave.
Adrenaline fired through Victoria and she snatched back her crumbling resolve and courage. "Listen to me, Jim," she said, her voice stronger than before, "you take care of yourself and your wife. Make your way back here, but don't take unnecessary risks. All of us are working on this situation. We will find Barker and we will do whatever necessary to stop him. Jamie will be protected. Do not doubt that for a moment. You have my word."
Her resolve buckled for a minute, but there was no way Victoria Colby-Camp was going to be undone by a degenerate like Barker. She would prevail. She looked from Ian to Simon. She had the best of the best behind her.
"I know you'll do all you can," Jim said, "but I can't risk that it might not be enough. I'm coming back. Nothing here will stop me."
The call ended with one last plea from Victoria for him to take care.
He needn't worry, she would not let him down.
As much as she understood that her son loved her and that his words were not a reflection of her failure, she knew what his statement meant.
Victoria had done all within her power to keep Jim safe as a child.
And it hadn't been enough.
At 4:20 p.m. Victoria's final appointment for the day arrived. Stuart Norcross settled into a chair flanking her desk.
"I know we just spoke on Friday," he began, "but I'm anxious to see how your investigation is going."
Victoria picked up the file Mildred had placed on her desk. "Completely understandable, Stuart." She smiled. "Your wife and son are safe thanks to this man and you'd like to be able to properly show your gratitude."
"Precisely." Stuart settled back into his chair, the tension in his regal frame receding marginally.
Stuart Norcross was one of Chicago's leading entrepreneurs. Despite the struggling economy, Stuart had taken his custom personal chef service nationwide. Having devoted most of his life to building his business, he had only in the past few years taken time for a true personal life. He'd met and married a wonderful woman and they'd had their first child just two years ago.
Victoria checked her notes. "His name is Troy Benson. Jane Sutton, one of our investigators specifically trained for finding the missing, has located Mr. Benson and is preparing for contact. I expect to have feedback no later than tomorrow afternoon."
"Outstanding." Stuart smiled, his relief palpable. "I knew I could depend on your agency, Victoria."
"Thank you, Stuart. We pride ourselves on thorough, efficient work."
Stuart inclined his head and studied her a moment. "Do you have any idea as to why Mr. Benson left the scene so suddenly?"
One week ago Stuart's wife, Reese, had visited an old friend in Meriden. Driving back to Chicago late that evening in the pouring rain, their son asleep in his car seat, Reese had braked hard to avoid a dog and lost control of the vehicle. The car had plunged off the road and into a dangerously deep ravine. Thankfully a thicket of small trees had stopped the vehicle before it crashed headlong into the rocks below. Badly injured, Reese had realized that the protection of the trees wouldn't last but there was nothing she could do.