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Lisa Meador was running late again, ridiculously late thanks to the passive-aggressive front office manager, who had scheduled her for yet another dental cleaning way too close to school dismissal.
Still in her scrubs following her long afternoon, she was wound up in knots and already thinking about her next errand when she swung into what ought to be the line of parents waiting in cars at her son's elementary school.
Except there was no line. She was the last and only car. The last parent, picking up the last and tiniest of students, who stood with an impatient-looking teacher in attendance.
I'm so sorry, Lisa mouthed before her older-model silver Camry slowed to a complete stop. But the knot of tension in her stomach loosened as five-year-old Tyler came dashing toward the car, his huge smile seeming to run ahead of him.
It was the smile Lisa lived for, the one thing that had kept her breathing, putting one foot before the other, in the thirteen months since her husband, Devin, had been killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan.
Only twenty-eight when she was widowed, Lisa was determined not to dwell on the unfairness of her loss. Instead, she focused on the five good years she and Devin had had together and the tawny-haired boy whose antics kept her scrambling to keep up.
The teacher on duty, a plump, graying woman in old-fashioned cat-eyed glasses, did some scrambling of her own to beat tiny Tyler to the back door of Lisa's car and hold it open.
"No running into the circle, Tyler, or you'll have to miss next recess," she warned as the boy clambered into his booster seat like a spider monkey. "We don't want anybody getting hurt, now."
"Yes, ma'am, Mrs. Davies, ma'am." Tyler's back straightened, and his right hand shot stiffly to his brow in his best approximation of a soldierly salute. His dad's salute, remembered only from Skype calls and home videos. Duty done, Tyler snapped the buckle and hugged his plush stuffed octopus in his arms before tacking on a worried "Sorry I forgot again. I'll do better next time."
Mrs. Davies flicked a pointed look toward Lisa before her stern pretense dissolved into a smile. Lisa understood, since it was hard staying angry, even for a minute, at the smallest boy and biggest live wire in the kindergarten class.
"I'll remind him, too," she told the teacher. "And I promise, I'll be here earlier tomorrow."
She swore she would keep that promise, even if it meant a showdown with the most vindictive office manager in all of Coopersville. Because as important as Lisa's job was to her and Tyler's well-being, she refused to give in to the reign of petty evil.
Once they left the school, she turned onto the town's main drag. Her heart constricted as she noticed that most of the businesses had put out both American and Texas flags, along with a host of cheerful signs and banners welcoming home the heroes of the nearby base's returning combat unit.
Devin's combat unit, or what was left of it.
Swallowing back grief, she drew a deep breath and gave a silent prayer of thanks for all those who were coming home to happy families. Walking into their arms instead of being carried in a grim, flag-draped procession.
"I'm really hungry, Mommy," said Tyler. "Can we stop for a kid's meal? Please?"
"Sorry, sweetie," she said, glad for the distraction. "We have to go get Rowdythe groomer's closing early today. And then we're heading straight home for the good stuff."
Tonight she was determined to cook her son a healthy dinner with some actual vegetables in it, no matter how stressed she was or how tempted by the idea of an easy drive-through pickup.
"But kids' meals are the good stuff," he argued. "They have toys inside."
Sighing, Lisa mentally cursed whatever marketing genius had dreamed up putting kiddie kryptonite inside the cartoon-covered boxes. Tyler sulked, refusing her attempts to talk about his school day. Choosing to ignore the behavior, she soon pulled into the parking lot of a small gold bungalow, sliding into a space between a beat-up white panel van and a bright yellow Beetle with a Buttercup's Cuts-4-Pups bumper sticker.
"Come on, champ," Lisa said with as much cheer as she could muster. "Let's go bail out Rowdy. He'll be so glad to see you."
For a moment, Tyler looked as if he meant to balk, but apparently the thought of seeing his beloved doga rescue puppy she'd adopted on impulse two days after Devin's funeralwas enough to get him moving.
Five minutes and fifty dollars later, they emerged with Rowdy, freshly shorn of much of his cream-colored hair. Once he reached the grass, the little dog rolled and peed and jumped and barked and spun like a deranged wind-up toy on the end of his leash. But at least the Lhasa apso mix's excitement had Tyler laughing again.
It had Lisa laughing, too right up until the moment she felt something hard and unyielding shoved against her lower back.
She didn't know it was a gun at first, not until she heard the hiss of a woman's voice in her ear. "Stay very still, and don't scream. Not unless you want your brat to watch you die."
Lisa's eyes widened, and her muscles froze. Shock waves detonated through her; she couldn't move or breathe or think.
But her eyes instinctively found Tyler, squatting beside Rowdy and rubbing the wriggling animal's belly. Worthless as a watchdog, the animal remained as oblivious as the boy.
"That's such a good girl," the woman praised her, the menace clinging to the words redefining the word "evil" in Lisa's mind forever. "Now get him in the car. We're going for a ride."
Never let an attacker take you to a second location. The advice floated up from memory, one of her police officer dad's grim lessons from her younger years.
"You can have my purse. My paycheck's in it." Her voice trembled. "I'll even sign it for you and give you the PIN for my bank card."
The barrel ground painfully against her backbone. "One bullet in your spine, another in your head. And then I start on him, if you don't follow my directions. To the letter."
"Tyler, honey," Lisa croaked. "Tyler, in the car, please. Take Rowdy with you. Quickly."
Tyler looked up sharply, his blue eyes huge and worried as his gaze moved from her face to whoever was standing behind her. "Hi?" he ventured, his voice very small.
"Better do as your mom says," the stranger advised, and something lurking behind the iced-sugar sweetness of those few words had Tyler scurrying to comply without a word of argument.
As the pressure on her spine eased, Lisa dared to turn her head. Not all the wayshe feared she would be shot point-blank if the woman caught her staringbut enough to get a peripheral impression of a taller figure topped with blue-streaked, unnaturally black hair, hacked unevenly to chin length. Dressed in black, too, all skintight straight-leg jeans and a tiny micro T-shirt that clung to small, pigeon's-egg breasts.
"What is it you want?" Lisa asked as the white door of the panel van slid open.
When a skinny man stepped from the opening, fresh dread launched icy daggers through her system. He was slightly taller than the woman. His shaved head and the black chin-strap beard weren't half so alarming as the wild gleam in his eyes and the way sweat plastered his wife-beater T-shirt to a wiry-thin body crawling with dark tattoos.
Could this be about rape, then, if not robbery? Did they mean to take her somewhere in the white van, leaving her child here alone?
Gut-churning as the thought was, Lisa knew that at least Tyler would be safe here. He would run inside the groomer's shop as soon as she disappeared from view. Even if terror froze him in place, someone would soon find him. Then the police would call her sister, who would get here as quickly as she could. Who would raise her child if she had to.
Because Lisa knew if she got inside that white van, she wasn't coming back alive.
"What we want," the woman finally answered, shifting her thin shoulder beneath the strap of the oversize duffel bag slung over it, "is for you to take us all for a little ride in your car. We're going to the main branch of the First National Bank of Coopersville."
Confusion sent Lisa's mind spinning back to thoughts of robbery. "But my bank's the military credit union over on-post."
"You damn well better do what she says!" the man roared, making Lisa jump. "Exactly, or it's over."
Hurrying to obey, she fished her keys from her purse, then opened the driver's-side door and got in. Before she could stab the shaking key into the ignition, the woman had climbed into the passenger seat beside her.
More horrifying still was the moment the man climbed into the rear seat, sitting right beside her son, who started wailing loudly.
As Rowdy, on the booster seat's opposite side, began to whine, too, the woman thrust the gun toward Lisa's face. "Shut the brat up, or I swear I'll do it for you."
Panic spiraled through Lisa's body, a sickening physical sensation that took her back to the moment she'd learned of her husband's death. She hadn't been there to stop it, but she wasn't letting this sick couple do anything to her son. Whatever she must endure, she swore she would keep him safe.
With that vow, an eerie, disconnected calm washed over her in warm waves, giving her the strength to turn to Tyler, to reach back and touch his small leg. "Tyler, baby. You have to listen. Listen to me, soldier."
He responded when she called him soldier, coming to attention so sharply that she thanked God for this phase he'd been going through for months now. But red blotches stood out on his pale face, and tears trembled on his lashes. If she didn't reach him right away, he would quickly lose it again.
"When Daddy was in battle, he had to keep his troops safe. Rowdy and Octobuddy are your troops now. It's up to you to set a brave example, to keep them safe and calm."
The anxiety in his blue eyes shifted; just like that, he slipped into the plane of childish imagination, a safe haven from this nightmare. "I can I can be brave," he said uncertainly.
She looked into her only child's face, directing every atom of love and confidence she could muster toward him. "You can be a hero, Tyler, with medals just like your dad's and generals coming to salute you. And Daddy will be so proud, watching over you from heaven."
Tyler gave her a crisp salute, his moppet's bangs falling into his eyes. Swallowing past the lump in her throat, Lisa saluted back.
"Real freakin' touching," said the woman, a sneer on her thin face. A face and voice that nudged a memory Lisa couldn't place.
Could she have met this woman before? Inadvertently done something to bring on this horror? Before she could stop herself, the question slipped out. "Who are you?"
To her surprise, the woman's mouth twisted into a cruel smile, and she answered, "You can call me Evie. Let's make it Evie LeStrange. Now give me that damned purse."
As she yanked it away, then pulled a straw bag from her duffel and tossed it at Lisa, the backseat passenger hooted with laughter before the woman sliced her vicious blue gaze his way. He fell silent in an instant, confirming Lisa's suspicion that "Evie" was calling the shots.
Heart pounding, Lisa risked a second question. "Why are you doing this to us? Have I somehow"
A blur of motion preceded a sharp blowthe barrel of the woman's gun striking the side of Lisa's skull. Her vision dimmed as pain arced through her, but terrified of upsetting Tyler, she did no more than gasp.
Beside her, her assailant snarled, "Any more questions? Good. Now let's get movin'. Bank's closing in a half hour, and trust me, Sweet Girl Baby, you do not want to be late."
Sweet Girl Baby. The familiar words sent a queasy ripple through Lisa's midsection, but she was too occupied with keeping herself and her son alive to think about it now.