January, six years later
Essex County, New York
The night was crystal clear, vacuum still and brittle with cold. Pale gold rings rimmed an egg-shaped moon floating in a diamond black sky. A killing moon. In a graveyard sky.
With no wind to slap it into thin wisps, smoke from the twin chimneys of the 1800's two-story brick-and-mortar building curled skyward in thick, lazy streams. Snow hung in heavy drifts from north-facing windowsills, on thick concrete eaves and on the winter bare limbs of dormant trees.
"A regular Currier and Ives Christmas card moment." Amy Walker watched her breath crystallize through chattering teeth in the arctic air inside her car.
Yes, it would have been picture-pretty if she hadn't known that Winter Haven was home, mental hospital and sometimes prison to the tortured souls inside.
"G'night, Mom," Amy whispered, looking up toward the third window on the second floor where a faint light burned behind the barred panes. "And good-bye. For now."
Tonight it was particularly hard to control the pain that always accompanied thoughts of her mother. Anger followed quickly on its heels.
Soon, Mom. I'm going to find him. And I'm going to make him pay for what he's done to you.
And for what he's done to me.
It was a promise she fully intended to keep. It was a payment she fully intended to make. She was close now. Closer than she'd ever been. Thanks to Jenna McMillan.
"Amy, I think I've found him."
Amy's fingers had tightened on her cell phone when Jenna had called earlier today. "Where?"
"He's here. Back in Argentina. Can you meet me in Buenos Aires?"
Yes, she could. She would. Just as soon as she could get there.
"Let me give you an address . . . just in case we lose cell contact," Jenna had added. "Got it? Okay. If I'm not there when you arrive, ask for Alvaro. He'll know where to find me."
"Jenna . . ."
"Thanks." It wasn't enough. After what Jenna had done for her, Amy could never say or do enough.
"Just get down here."
Yeah. She'd get there. "Be careful, okay?"
"Careful's my middle name," Jenna had said with a smile in her voice and broken the connection.
It had been hell working through the rest of the day. Amy had wanted to leave for Buenos Aires right then. But she had to be so careful. Not to draw attention. Not to give anyone who might be watching her reason to be suspect.
Tamping down the anxious anticipation she'd felt ever since Jenna had called, Amy steeled herself for the confrontation to come. Her need for retribution outdistanced her fear--and her fatigue.
For the past five months she'd worked as an aid at Winter Haven so she could be close to her mother. Often, like today, she'd pulled back-to-back shifts when one of the aides had called in sick. That was fine. It gave her more opportunity to be close to her mother.
Her mother. Who was broken. Because of her grandfather.
Amy was ready for Edward Walker this time. Knew what kind of a monster she was facing now. Wouldn't be caught off guard and vulnerable again. Not ever again.
"Soon, Mom," she promised aloud.
But first, she had to get this car started in the sub-zero cold.
"Please, please, please," she pleaded into the red muffler wrapped around her neck and cranked the key.
After a long surly groan and a screeching grind, the engine of her ten-year-old Taurus finally, grudgingly, chugged to life.
"Thank you," she whispered through a shiver. With a shaking hand she felt under the driver's seat for an ice scraper.
She finally had to remove her mitten, lean forward and grope around on the floor. Her fingers slide over the stone-cold barrel of her Glock before she found what she was looking for.
"Gotcha," she said in triumph. With the scraper in hand, she sat back up.
And choked on a scream.
A face, distorted by frost and shadows, pressed against her driver's side window.
"Hey . . . Relax, Erin. Cripes. It's just me." Ben Chambers' grin wasn't nearly guilty enough to compensate for the beating Amy's ribs were taking from her heart.
"Just making sure you got started okay."
Heart still hammering, pulse still spiked, Amy bundled her coat around her. She shoved her bare hand back into the mitten that matched her red muffler, put her shoulder to the door and pushed it open.
"Well, that took at least five years off my life," she said, working hard to sound good-natured. "It did warm me up, though, so thanks for that." She forced a smile.
Ben worked third shift--usually came in just as Amy was leaving. He was a sweet guy. And he meant well. Just like everyone else, however, he had no idea that she was wrapped as tight as wire coiled on a spool.
No one knew because Amy went to great pains to hide it. Just like she hid her true identity behind the mouse-quiet persona of Erin James.
"Car seems to be running fine." Ben had the good sense to sound a little sheepish now that he realized how much he'd shaken her.
"Thanks for checking on me." "Erin" brushed a fall of black hair back out of her eyes, careful not to dislodge her wig beneath her red stocking cap. Then, because Amy knew Ben would hang around if she encouraged him--maybe finally work up the nerve to ask her out--she turned her back, dismissing him.
It was cruel. Amy knew that. But she didn't want to encourage Ben's infatuation. She didn't want to hurt him. She didn't want to get involved.
Not with any man.
Not after what she'd been through.
And yet one man came to mind as she started scraping ice from her windshield.
She hadn't counted on liberal doses of what she had started to think of as the "Garrett factor" to plague her nights and days. Hadn't figured that hardly a day would pass in the six months since she'd left him in West Palm Beach that she hadn't thought of him. Played the "if only" game. If only she'd met him earlier. If only she was the same person she'd been before . . . well . . . before Dallas and his brothers had rescued her from the Abu Sayyaf terrorist cell on Jolo Island.
"Can't change the past," she whispered, angry that she'd let herself digress. Again.
The rhythmic chug of her car's motor and the sound of Ben's dejected footsteps trudging across the snow toward the hospital brought her back to the moment. She turned back to the task of clearing a thick film of frost off her windows, pushing away thoughts of the horror she'd experienced during the months she'd been held captive on the remote Philippine island. A horror that her own grandfather had arranged.
She squelched memories of Jolo and of Dallas, blue eyes dancing, soft smile encouraging, into her past where they belonged.
Her crepe-soled boots crunched and squeaked on the packed snow in the parking lot as she worked her way around the car. It was starting to warm up when she crawled back inside, fastened her seat belt and backed slowly out of her parking spot.
A tremor that had nothing to do with the cold eddied down her spine. She cut her gaze to the rearview mirror as she shifted into drive.
The dimly lit lot was empty. Ben had disappeared into the building. No one stood outside in this frigid New York January night watching her. No one had a reason to watch Erin James, and that's how everyone knew her.
And yet . . .
"Stop it," she muttered. There was no one there. Just like no one had been watching her last night. Or the night before--even though a sixth sense warned her otherwise.
Just because she'd been asking questions again. Just because she was close to confronting the monster responsible for placing her mother in Winter Haven--the same monster who had ordered Amy's abduction in the Philippines--didn't mean he'd found her.
She'd covered her tracks this time. Only Jenna knew what Amy was up to, and Jenna was as careful and concerned about secrecy as Amy.
Drawing a bracing breath, Amy steadied herself. Icy air seared her lungs; her fingertips stung with cold. She was safe. She was fine.
Because of her grandfather, she was also paranoid.
"Welcome to my world."
Inside her mittens, she flexed her fingers on the steering wheel as she drove into a darkness cut only by her headlights that sliced twin beams along the glistening snow-packed highway.
By the time she'd driven three miles down a road slick with patchy ice, she'd settled herself down. Warm air blew from the vents on the dash. She'd stopped shivering.
And then she spotted them. Headlights in her rearview mirror.
Her heart revved up several beats.
Headlights. On this road. At this time of night.
Headlights closing in fast.
All of her warning flares fired off. As she'd been taught in her self-defense class, she shot from condition yellow, aware of her surroundings, to condition red, sensing an attack.
She was the last one to leave on her shift. She was always the last one to leave. She made sure of that for this very reason. So she wouldn't have to wonder if anyone was following her.
No roads intersected the one she traveled--not for the first four miles. Which meant she wasn't so paranoid after all. Whoever was behind her had been hiding from her. Waiting for her.
They weren't waiting any longer.
Less than a city block separated the headlights from her taillights now. Telling herself to keep calm, that she may have missed someone leaving Winter Haven after her, she tightened her two-handed grip on the steering wheel. But she didn't recognize the vehicle--and she'd made it a point to learn the make and model of the vehicles of each of the staff members. She'd never seen this one. And it was too late for even a stray visitor to be leaving the facility.
It was an SUV. A big one. A Humvee, she realized as it closed the distance. Riding high on over-sized tires, blocky and bulky, the hulking black menace tailed her in the dark, snow-laden night.
Gaze darting between the road ahead and her rearview mirror, Amy slowed down, inviting the driver to pass her when the distance closed to a few yards.
Instead of going around her, the Humvee closed the gap to a few feet, riding her bumper. Bright lights glared in her side mirrors, blinding her.
She blinked away the spots dancing behind her eyelids, tried to focus on even breathing. On the survival lessons she'd studied and learned. Managing the immediate fear by controlling her heartbeat was crucial if she was to avoid setting off a chain reaction of escalating stress. If her motor skills became impaired, if her peripheral vision became restricted, if she lost her depth of focus, she was as good as gone.
She breathed deep, felt her heartbeat slow and focused on how to survive the very real possibility that whoever was behind her wanted her dead.
In her mind's eye she pictured the road ahead. A sharp curve. A major incline. Tricky to negotiate in daylight on dry paving. A disaster to travel in the dark on ice.
To the right, a deep ravine fell away into a forest of maple, oak, hickory and aspen. To her left, a wall of exposed shale where the road had been cut through the hillside cast a deep shadow across the highway.
It was a deserted stretch of narrow road. The closest house was miles away. So was the nearest town. She'd just passed a green sign with white lettering announcing that Cayuga Lake was still miles away. Only forests and pastures lay ahead for miles. And more curves, more hills. Steep hills. She'd often worried as she'd crested a hill that she might meet another vehicle head on. She wasn't worried about oncoming vehicles tonight.
She was worried about the one behind her.
She speeded up.
So did the Humvee with its four-wheel drive capability clawing a firm grip on the road.
Palms sweating inside her mittens, she gave the Taurus more gas. Her heart lurched again when she felt the rear tires spin, fight for traction and lose. The back end of the little car swung to the left then started to fishtail.
That's when the Humvee hit her. And that's when training lost out over sheer horsepower and force and she fell prey to the laws of inertia.
The Humvee banged her bumper again, a jarring whack that snapped her head forward. Her forehead hit hard on the steering wheel. Pain exploded behind her eyes, momentarily blurring her vision. When it cleared, a solid wall of rock rushed toward her.
Gripping the wheel so tightly her fingers ached, she jerked it hard to the right, stomped on the brake. Too late, she realized she'd overcorrected. She shot across the center line like a bullet, caromed off a low metal guard rail and felt herself spinning out of control on the ice.
Then it was all velocity and impact and freefall. The nose of the Taurus dove toward the side of the road. Her airbag deployed when she plowed through the guardrail and plunged into the ravine.
Tree trunks flew by in a blur of black shadows as the compact car arrowed straight down the steep embankment; limbs and ground brush grabbed at the windows; the underbelly of the car thudded and screeched against the uneven terrain, dragging and bumping and tunneling through snow drifts that rose higher than the windshield. The noise was deafening. The speed terrifying.
And then, suddenly, it was over.
The Taurus ground to a shuddering, skidding stop at the bottom of a deep ravine. But for the soft ping of the cooling motor and the sound of her labored breaths, everything was quiet. Everything was still. Deathly so.
Moments passed--Amy didn't know how many--before she forced herself to move. To assess for damages. Amazingly, except for the bump on her head and a sore spot on her knee, she seemed to be fine. Between the airbag that now slowly deflated, and the seat belt, she was okay.
Yeah, she was okay. If you didn't count the fact that she was alone, on a sub-zero night, in a wrecked car a hundred yards down from the highway. If you didn't factor in that the driver of the Humvee might, at this moment, be sliding down the steep grade to find out if she was dead or alive.
She had no doubt now that whoever was behind the wheel was hoping for dead. Or that he'd been sent by her grandfather to finish the job this time. And she couldn't sit here any longer waiting to see if he was coming after her.
She understood that she was running on sheer adrenaline now. She also understood that when it gave out, a world of trouble would crash down on her. Shock and hypothermia could kill her just as dead as a car wreck. It would merely take longer.
That's when her training kicked in. Her hands shook with adrenal overload when she reached around the airbag for the key. She wrestled it out of the ignition then used it to puncture the bag. The remaining air whooshed out in a sickly sigh along with a powder that burned her eyes. Tears welled up. She wiped them away and bent forward, searched the floor for her Glock. Because her hands were shaking, it took both of them to grip it then shove the .45 ACP into her coat pocket. Took several bumps of her shoulder to force the driver's door open and into a drift of snow. Finally, she crawled out into the knee-deep powder.
A glance back up the ravine told her she'd been right. Headlights angled down from the road; the bold stroke of a heavy-duty flashlight beam descended slowly down the steep slope.
He was coming after her.
She controlled the terror that shot through her blood, making her sweat and shiver, shake and stiffen up. She fought back the panic. Forced deep breaths. Slowed her heart rate. Consider the options.
She couldn't stay with the car. The unmistakable smell of gas permeated the night; the gas tank must have ruptured on the bumping skid down the ravine. One well-placed shot--she had to figure he had a gun--and she and the Taurus would blow like a bomb.
That left one recourse when facing a threat she had no way to size up: defense.
She slogged through knee-deep snow to the trunk of the Taurus. "Come on, come on," she pleaded through clenched teeth as she worked the key in the lock.
Finally, the trunk popped open. She grabbed her escape bag--the one she'd been carrying since she'd realized she was still a target--slung the backpack over her shoulder and moved. Wading, crawling, and sometimes digging her way through the snow.
When she encountered solid rock--a big one that she could tuck in behind--she stopped.
Here was where she'd make her stand.
Her throat burned raw from dragging in the frigid air; her breath trailed above her in telltale puffs that crystallized into ice; inside her heavy coat perspiration drenched her skin, soaked her winter-weight sweater.
She tugged off her mittens with her teeth. Reached in her coat pocket for the Glock. Reminded herself that the reason she carried it was because it was the best made revolver known to man. It never jammed, never misfired, never malfunctioned.
With it, after months of practice, she could unload a ten-cartridge magazine into a paper target at fifty yards, placing ten holes in a ten and a half inch grouping. Not expert. Not even close. But given that the average head size was ten inches, it was close enough.
Knees planted in the snow, she racked the slide to chamber a round. The sound of metal against metal rang through the still forest.
The flashlight went out. She knew she'd just lost any small advantage of surprise.
Whoever he was, he was a hired killer. He'd recognized the slide action of the Glock. Knew now that she was armed.
Amy steadied the barrel on the rock. Controlling her breathing, she clutched the grip with both hands and placed her right index finger on the trigger. Then she sighted toward the spot she'd first seen the flashlight. He'd been within one hundred yards of her then.
With every second that passed, he'd grown closer.
When she'd made those observations earlier, she'd never thought they'd be metaphors for what the night might turn out to be.
She searched the woods. Held her breath.
Waited . . .
White. The snow was so white.
Black. The shadows were thick and black.
So very, very still.
Until one moved. Less than twenty yards away.
She aimed, sighted, and on an exhalation of breath, squeezed the trigger.
The shot echoed like a whip crack in the dark.
She watched him drop.
Heard him hit the ground.
Saw the body twitch then fall still.
And trusted nothing.
Not what she saw.
Not the total absence of movement.
Not the devastating silence.
Long moments passed. Still she didn't move.
Blood pounded through her ears. Her rapid breaths froze in cloudy puffs.
Finally, she felt a sickening lurch of reality.
She'd hit her target. Had done what she'd trained to do.
Taken a life.
Very slowly, she rose to her feet. Was surprised that her legs held her.
Slower still, both hands wrapped around the grip, one finger still on the trigger, she waded toward the dark outline, supine and still on the ground. Snow filled her boot tops, caked the knees of her pants as she approached the bulk of a man bleeding out on his back.
A 1911-A1 lay within fingertip reach of his open palm.
No threat to her now.
She'd hit him clean. Hit him square. Dead center in the middle of his forehead. A lucky shot. A golden BB.
Blood ran black in the snow beneath his head.
A chill ran deep as he stared up at her through eyes as void of life as he'd been void of conscience.
Him or me. Him or me.
Her adrenaline let go like a flood tide, sweeping away her strength with it. Her knees gave out. She sank to all fours. Vomited with a violence that matched what she'd just done. Tears spilled to the ground, melted the snow as she knelt there, her bare hands freezing. Recovering. Reliving. Accepting.
When she thought she could stand, she pushed slowly to her feet. Like an automaton, she wandered back to the rock. Retrieved her escape bag with cold, stiff fingers. Then she slogged back to the dead assassin and avoiding looking at him, pocketed his gun.
Breath heaving, she climbed, crawled, clawed her way up the ravine and away from the body that, like her car, may not be found until spring.
The Humvee was still running when she reached the road.
Without hesitation, she climbed inside.
There would be others. When the man lying dead in the snow failed to report in to her grandfather, there would be others.
And there was only one place she could go to escape them. One man she could trust to save her. The one man she'd sworn she would never place in jeopardy again.
A hundred miles passed before she could meet the eyes that looked back at her from the rearview mirror.
She dragged off her knit cap and with it the black wig. But for the brown contact lenses, Erin James was officially gone.
And so, she feared, was Amy Walker.
A stone-cold killer had taken her place.
She'd taken a life tonight to save her own. . . . In doing so, she may have lost something just as precious. Her soul.
Copyright © 2007 by Cindy Gerard. All rights reserved.