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Kate Reed opened her eyes. It was still early, well before dawn. The drapes were open and she could see the stars in the night sky, blinking, twinkling, beautiful. She turned her head to the green glow of the digital clock on the nightstand beside her. Just before five o'clock. She had a few minutes yet to come awake. Above Pop's oak bookcase bed, the ceiling fan cut the air slowly, lazily revolving and throwing whispery waves of cool air over her bare arms.
Her husband, Michael, was already up, which surprised her. She could hear him moving around, probably in the kitchen because of the faint light in the hallway outside their bedroom. She tugged the soft quilted blanket up to her chin, comforted by the fragrance of Downy clinging to it. She didn't want to get up yet, especially since Joey was still sleeping soundly in the bassinet beside her. At the thought of her beautiful baby boy, she shifted on her elbow and looked down into the portable crib. They'd only gotten him a month ago, after two years of trying to adopt, and she already loved him as much as if she had given birth to him herself. He slept peacefully, and she peered through the dim light a few more seconds to make sure his tiny chest was rising and falling.
He was fine, so she lay back and let her mind stray until she began to wonder why on earth Michael was fooling around in the kitchen at the crack of dawn. Good grief, he'd managed to beat the sun up! Not like Michael at all.
Beside her, Joey grunted, coughed, then began to stir around, kicking his arms and legs and working himself into a good, hungry wail. The digital numerals on the bedside clock blinked to 5:02. Eager to pickup the baby and cuddle him, she swung her legs off the bed and slid her feet into house slippers. Yawning, she pulled on the embroidered robe that matched her black silk pajamas, the outfit Michael had brought home from his last business trip.
Sleepily she shuffled across the room to the dressing table and switched on a small lamp. Her reflection loomed in the mirror, looking a little worse for wear after the first month of motherhood. She combed her fingers through the long, honey-blond hair tousled around her shoulders, liberally sunstreaked with lighter shades from recent weeks on the river. Yawning, she leaned close enough to examine eyes the color of rich brown sable, but at the moment a bit bleary and bloodshot from so many middle-of-the-night feedings. But it was little price to pay for all the joy Joey had brought into her life, she thought, smiling as she turned back to the crib. Joey was just about the best thing that had ever happened to her.
"Good morning, sweetie," she crooned, lifting the squirming baby up against her with the doting tenderness she'd learned since becoming his mother. He seemed so small and fragile but the truth was that he was a big baby for his age, healthy and strong. She sighed with contentment. There was nothing else like it, this bond forming between them, strong and irrevocable, mother and child.
As she'd expected Joey's diaper was sopping wet, so Kate sat on the bed and changed him, then got him all snug and comfy in a brand-new drawstring sleeper gown, one from Baby Gap, no less. Michael had become quite extravagant with his new son and made enough purchases from Neiman Marcus to outfit ten newborns. She smiled, pleased that her husband loved their son the way she did. Carefully she lifted him, raising him and cooing to him while he kicked his feet and made funny little gurgling goos back at her.
She took a moment to tuck him into the quilted sling Michael had also picked up for her, a lifesaver she'd soon found, because she could keep him lying contentedly against her chest while her hands were free for work. Sort of like a papoose but worn across the front instead of the back. She wondered if Joey liked it so much because he could hear her heartbeat and feel her warmth, kind of the same principle as putting a ticking clock in a puppy's basket. She'd found the device worth its weight in gold since it allowed her to keep Joey with her when she ran the bait shop and canoe rental on the riverbank behind the cabin.
"Okay, sugar lamb, time to eat, huh? You're a hungry boy this morning, I know you are. You want your bottle, don't you?"
Murmuring soothingly to Joey, who was getting a little riled up about her taking so long to get his bottle ready, Kate walked down the hall and into the brightly lit kitchen where she found Michael down on one knee, lifting the hem of the curtains and peering outside at their detached garage.
"What are you looking at?" she asked curiously, pausing in the doorway. Somewhere far out on the river she could hear the low buzz of an outboard motor, no doubt an early angler wanting to beat everyone else to his favorite fishing hole.
Michael dropped the curtain and spun around as if she'd caught him peeping into a bedroom window. What on earth was his problem lately? He'd been so nervous.
"I heard Bubba barking's all. It woke me up so I thought I'd see if anyone was around."
Bubba was a bluetick hound who lived with Maude Cecily at her cabin, about two miles downstream from them. As far as Kate was concerned, Bubba was a good dog that caused trouble for no one. Her grandfather and his friends used to feed him leftovers from their lunches down by the river. Kate smiled when she remembered how Bubba used to sit up and beg if anybody opened a bag of barbecue potato chips. He wouldn't touch any other flavor.
"Bubba doesn't usually come up close to the house," Kate told Michael, moving to the refrigerator and pulling out a couple of Joey's bottles that she'd prepared the night before. "He's always chasing something. No reason to get so uptight about it." She turned and leveled an inquiring look. "You sure are jumpy lately, Michael."
"I'm not jumpy. Just being careful. It could be a prowler out there, for all you know."
Kate couldn't help laughing. "Here? Who'd want to burglarize us? All we have is live bait and the soft drink change. If I were you, I'd be more concerned about our new house sitting empty up in Clayton."
"You don't have to worry about that with the alarm system it's got. Down here, it's a different story. We're out in the boondocks where anything could happen. I'm just thinking about you and the little guy there."
Kate smiled as he came over and took Joey out of her arms. He shifted him into one arm and chucked him under the chin with his knuckle. "Hi there, tiger. We're gonna have to get you a dog one of these days, too, you know. A watchdog, maybe. A beagle like the one Pop used to have?"
Michael's innocent remark brought up all the grief she'd fought daily since her grandfather had his fatal heart attack about six weeks ago. Pop had raised her since she was four after her parents had died in a fiery crash outside the air force base in Tokyo where her father had been stationed. Pop had been the only family she'd had left, until she'd married Michael, and now they had Joey. Having the baby was helping her cope, though. "Try not to worry so much, Michael. Pop was never broken into, and he lived in this house for nearly thirty years. By himself, since Grandma died."
"Yeah, and he was the sheriff, too, for most of that time, with a shotgun he kept loaded and ready. Everybody for miles around knew it. That's why nobody bothered him." Michael sat down at the kitchen table with Joey. "Now we've got a son to worry about. Can't let anything happen to him, now can we?" Kate stopped shaking the bottle in her hand and watched him gaze fondly at the baby. He'd grown to love Joey, too, she had no doubt of that. They'd had their troubles in the past, but Joey was going to make their marriage strong again, she knew it.
"Is the bottle about ready? Joey wants some breakfast, and right now."
Kate nodded, hardly able to believe they were actually living at the cabin together instead of up in St. Louis. Once they'd moved up there, they'd grown apart, but maybe down here along the river, they'd be happy again, as happy as they'd been at the beginning of their marriage.
"Put him up against your shoulder and pat his back. He likes that."
Michael stood up and transferred the baby to his shoulder, his handsome features absorbed with his son. At five foot eight she was almost as tall as he was, and she smiled, pleased at what a good father he'd become. He'd never shown much interest in children but he was certainly showing his willingness to help care for Joey. But he'd been very apprehensive, too, and she didn't know if that was because of his inexperience with the baby or the fact that he wasn't yet used to the quiet life along Current River.
Turning, she switched on the gas underneath a small saucepan of water, then put a bottle on to warm. She stuck the other one in the zippered pocket on the outside of Joey's sling for later, along with Joey's pacifier and a couple of clean disposable diapers, so she wouldn't forget them later when she took him down with her to open the bait shop.
"You sure that dog's not barking at somebody out there?" Michael suddenly asked, twisting around to look out the windows.
"I don't think so. He's just on the scent of some animal. Why are you so worried about it?"
"I guess I'm just on edge," he said then. "I can't help it. This place just seems so isolated after living in the city so long."
Michael still looked a little sleepy as he raked one hand through his short, wheat-colored hair. He was an extremely good-looking man with classic, movie-star features, fair of complexion though his face was very sunburned at the moment, and very fit from lifting weights and working out on the Stairmaster. When they'd wed, everyone had thought them the perfect couple, both young, blond, and athletic.
"We're safer down here than in the city. I never got used to all the crime up there."
She poured herself and Michael cups of coffee but only got a sip or two before her son let her know in no uncertain terms that he was not happy. He was ready for his breakfast, and he was ready for it now.
"Okay, okay, precious, it's coming," she murmured in the ridiculous singsongy baby talk she often found herself using with the baby. But it made Joey smile and screw up his face until the double dimples under his right eye deepened, and Kate loved that. "Now let me test it, sweetie cakes, so it won't burn your little mouth."
Joey would have none of her delay tactics this morning, and though he usually was an incredibly content and quiet baby, he didn't mind fussing and squirming around in Michael's arms as she tested the temperature of the formula inside her wrist. Just right, thank goodness. She picked him up and tucked him carefully into the sling before she touched the nipple to his lips. He shook his head in a frantic attempt to get it, then took to it like a hungry bass to a spinnerbait. Kate chuckled as he began to suck greedily, his bright dark eyes glued to her face.
"At the rate he's going through these bottles, he's going to be a twenty pounder before the fourth of July," she murmured more to herself than to Michael, who sat watching her where she leaned against the kitchen counter.
"He's getting big, all right," Michael said, sipping his coffee. The note of pride Kate had sensed so often in him revealed itself loud and clear again, as his eyes lingered on the infant in her arms.
Kate had caught him on occasion all alone in the nursery, bending over the cradle, smiling at Joey and letting the baby hold onto his forefinger. He'd taken part in caring for him, feeding him, even changing his diaper, though Kate liked to keep Joey with her for the most part. In the sling against her heart. He was her heart, had already filled some of the empty nooks and crannies left by Pop's passing.
Yes, she had to say that Michael had been good as gold the past month, taking care of all the grocery shopping and trips into town. Kate hadn't been anywhere but home for over a month, but that was fine by her. At the moment Kate could truly see the affection in Michael's gray eyes, and was pleased he was bonding with their child, too.
Unfortunately, Michael's tender expression disintegrated as Bubba erupted in an insistent yapping somewhere down in the backyard near the riverbank. He got up and peered out the window into the darkness.
"I'm telling you something's out there. I wish this fog would lift. I can't see a thing past the dusk-to-dawn light."
Kate shook her head, nonplussed by his uneasiness. She'd never seen him so nervous and on edge. Back home in St. Louis, he was usually so confident, secure about himself and everything else, but maybe that was because they had a child now, a child to love and protect. She knew she had become much more protective now that she was responsible for Joey, but she really didn't share his concern about being burglarized. Nearly everyone along Current River knew everyone else, and besides that, one of Pop's best friends, Gus Shelter, was the county sheriff and often dropped by the bait shop to check on her. Nobody was going to rob them.
"Bubba barks all the time. He's a hound, and they're always trailing rabbits or squirrels."
Michael still didn't look convinced. As her husband continued to peer out the window, Kate shook her head at the way he was dressed. Even down here on the river, where everything was supposed to be informal and laid-back, he was still a lawyer at heart. He wore creased Calvin Klein jeans and a black-and-white-striped Perry Ellis sweatshirt, and though sockless, he wore a pair of expensive tasseled loafers. Yes sir, a regular river rat, he was. Kate laughed to herself, knowing that his poverty as a boy made him appreciate such things. Her indulgent smile quickly faded, however, and she gaped at her husband in complete astonishment when he suddenly whipped out a great big, chrome-colored pistol from somewhere behind him and held it pointed up in front of his shoulder like Sonny Crockett used to do on Miami Vice.
"My God, Michael, where did you get that thing?"
"I carry it with me sometimes. It pays to arm yourself these days."
"Or when you represent sleazeballs who'd just as soon shoot you as give you the time of day?"
Kate really hadn't meant to say it that way; it'd just slipped out. She'd meant it sarcastically and that's the way it had sounded. She'd much preferred it when they'd first married three years ago and he was a district attorney in St. Louis. He was making only a fraction of what he pulled in now but he'd been proud of his work then and talked to her about his cases. Since he'd become a criminal defense attorney he'd become secretive about his clients and unwilling to discuss the people he dealt with.
"That's right. Sometimes they get pissed off at me so I have to be ready for them."
Kate glanced down as Joey squirmed and pushed the nipple out of his mouth with a disgruntled sputter. Time for one of his gigantic belches, she supposed. She took him out of the sling and placed him upright against her shoulder, gently patting him on the back. Bubba was barking his head off again, and Michael looked really alarmed now.
"I'm gonna go down and see who's out there. Stay here and don't come out till I get back."
"I really think you're overreacting, Michael...."
"Maybe so, but I'm still going to check it out," he said in the stubborn tone that meant she wouldn't be able to dissuade him. She watched as he opened the door and eased cautiously across the rear sundeck. He had definitely been cooped up down on the river too long. She made up her mind to encourage him to go back to the city for awhile and get a fix of police sirens and traffic jams. Otherwise, he was going to drive her crazy, too.
When Joey gave a long, hearty burp, Kate smiled, always amazed how loud they were, more like a teenage boy than four-week-old tyke. Now he was ready for more, and she shifted him back into the sling and put the nipple back into his greedy little mouth. She secured it to the elastic loop that held it in place and freed her hands. She picked up one of Joey's silky black curls and caressed it between her thumb and forefinger, hoping Michael wouldn't get so excited when he came across Bubba that he'd shoot his own foot off. He'd never been one to handle guns before, certainly wasn't a hunter like Pop had been.
Once the baby was settled in the sling and sucking happily, she carried her coffee mug to the sink and stood looking outside. Good lord, it was so foggy. She hadn't realized it was so bad, man, a veritable London soup. She took another much-needed sip of coffee and admitted yet again what a complete caffeine fiend she was. She wondered why the fog was so dense this morning. There were always mists over the river this early in the spring but this looked thick and dank, the kind that rolled low and spookily over the ground.
Kate could see Michael halfway down the sloping backyard now, still on the concrete flight of steps, up to his knees in swirling smoky clouds so that it seemed he descended into a boiling cauldron of water. He really wasn't much more than a silhouette against the eerie yellowish glow thrown out by the tall vapor light mounted high on a utility pole. He was holding his gun out in front of him with both hands, straight armed. Yeah, he was definitely a would-be Don Johnson, she decided.
She listened for Bubba but the dog had hushed up his racket, probably munching on a chicken bone he'd dragged out of the bait-shop trashcan. Maybe Michael would finally admit they were all safe now and come back up and eat some breakfast.
Michael had stopped now, directly underneath the yard light. He was advancing slowly, looking from side to side like a member of a SWAT team, and she suddenly remembered that she needed to thaw out something for dinner. A roast would be good, she decided, since she could put it on frozen in the crockpot before she and Joey went off to work.
Still watching her husband make everything safe and secure for his family, she readjusted the bottle, tightening the elastic band so it'd stay put, then sneaked another swig of java. Joey was settled comfortably and would fall asleep soon. She glanced out the window, coffee mug in hand.
Oh, God. Who was that? Someone else was out there. A second figure was moving out of the shadows into the smoky light right behind Michael. Michael didn't see him, and Kate hit her palm frantically on the glass trying to warn him but could only watch with horror as Michael suddenly whipped around. The other man's arm was extended, and a shot cracked, the report strangely muffled underneath the low-hanging fog bank.
"Michael!" she screamed, panicking, but both men had disappeared now, hidden by the thick swirls of fog. She wasn't sure if he'd been hit or not. Her shock faded as she realized she had to call 911. She ran to Pop's old rotary-dial phone, grabbed the receiver and held it between her ear and shoulder, her fingers fumbling at the numbers.
"Put the phone down."
Shocked to hear a voice so close behind her, Kate whirled around, losing her grip on the phone. It fell hard, clunked against the wall, then swung erratically back and forth by the cord. Kate stared at the complete stranger standing in her kitchen, disbelieving in that first stunned instant that he was actually there.
"That's a good girl," he said in a voice that was strangely subdued, almost casual in tone, but very thickly accented. "Now put kid on floor and back that way." He gestured toward the sink with the automatic weapon he held in his black-gloved right hand, a deadly dark-blue steel pistol aimed at her head.
Sheer, unadulterated horror engulfed her, and she couldn't make herself obey, couldn't make herself believe this was really happening, that it wasn't some kind of terrible nightmare. Fear jerked a knot in the back of her throat, and she put both arms protectively around Joey in his sling and stared wordlessly at the intruder. The man was tall, at least six feet, deeply tanned with faintly lighter circles around his eyes such as a lifeguard or an alpine downhill skier would have. Long white-blond hair was bound back at his nape. He wore a tiny diamond stud in one earlobe, and looked young, in his twenties most likely, lean and strongly built. He wore some kind of black windsuit and black Nike hightops. His eyes were black frozen ice. He watched her unblinkingly out of them, completely calm.
"Do it. Put boy down so you and me can have little chat." He pronounced the last as lattol shot, and she suddenly recognized the accent. It was Russian. Like some of the Olympians from Moscow she'd met when she'd been running in marathon competitions. Oh, God, what was a Russian doing here? What did he want?
Kate finally forced her lips to move, but her knees were trembling violently inside the legs of her black silk pajamas. So was her voice when she got her mouth to work.
"Who are you? What do you want?" It had to be a robbery, she realized then. Michael had been right, after all. "We don't have any money here, but take the cars, they're expensive models, there's a Lexus and a brand-new Ford Explorer, take them both, take whatever you want. Just don't hurt us."
The blond kid smiled, revealing straight, extremely even teeth as white as his hair. "I know of you, Kate Reed. You win bronze medal. You gutsy woman, I think, but not so stupid. Put boy down so he won't get hurt."
For a fleeting instant Kate held to the hope that this was a bad dream, a really, really bad dream, but when she looked down at Joey, he was still sucking happily at his bottle, his round eyes latched adoringly on her face. He stopped a moment to grin, his lips curving around the nipple in his mouth. Oh, God, she couldn't let anything happen to him. No matter what else happened, she couldn't let them harm him.
"Do it," the man ordered sharply. "Don't be stupid."
Kate stared at him, her mind racing, trying to come up with a plan. He wasn't wearing a disguise. She'd seen his face, could identify him, and everybody, especially the granddaughter of a lifelong law officer, knew what that meant. He meant to kill her. There was no compassion in those weird obsidian eyes either, nothing but cold, merciless power. And now as she continued to balk, a sliver of anger appeared in him, disrupting his unruffled demeanor.
"Do it!" he said, louder this time, but he was getting impatient because his alien accent became even thicker.
"All right," she hedged, her heart thumping so hard that she shook with each beat. "Please, don't hurt us. We'll do what you want."
The pan of water was still boiling on the stove. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see steam rising in wisps, though she didn't look at it. An idea began to form, and she slowly obeyed the man with the gun, lifting Joey out of the sling with both hands, then turning slightly as if she meant to lay him on the linoleum floor in front of the dangling telephone.
As she bent over with him, she suddenly darted to the left instead, slapping her palm hard atop the push-button light switch. The room plunged into darkness, and Kate grabbed the handle of the pan and flung the boiling water at the intruder. The scream of pain that followed told Kate she'd hit her mark.
Clutching Joey, she dropped to a crouch behind the counter and crawled toward the bedroom as he stumbled around in the darkness, yelling in his own language and knocking over kitchen chairs in his search for the light switch. She didn't have much time, and she scrabbled quickly on hands and knees into the hall. A shot went off behind her in a strobe flash of black and white. The acrid odor of burning cordite filled her nostrils. Oh, God, he was going to kill her! Joey wailed as Kate tightened her grip on him and took off for the sliding doors in the bedroom. Struggling desperately, she finally forced the lever up and slung back the heavy glass door, just as the light flared on in the kitchen.
Frantic, heart thudding wildly, she ran across the small side deck and jumped down into the grass, losing one house shoe in the iris bed. She had to get away from the house, into the woods where the fog and darkness would hide her! She could hear the blond kid yelling again in Russian words she couldn't understand as she gained the forsythia hedge at the edge of the yard and scrambled headlong into its thick, low-lying branches.
Throat clogged with a solid lump of terror, she rocked Joey back and forth, trying to muffle his scared cries against her breast. He wouldn't stop, getting more and more furious and frightened as she tried to get him to hush, and she fumbled desperately for the bottle in the elastic band. She found it and gave it to him the best she could with hands shaking uncontrollably, praying he'd stop crying, her whole body quivering. He took the nipple, and Kate held him tightly. Oh, God, they already had Michael. They shot at him. Oh, God, oh, God, what was she going to do?
Copyright © 2000 by Linda Ladd
Posted January 12, 2014
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