ZAMBOANGA CITY, PHILIPPINES
“ETHAN. UM. HI. IT’S . . . DARCY.”
Darcy Prescott had known this call would be hard. She hadn’t talked to Ethan Garrett in the five years since their divorce. So yeah, dialing his number had been good and hard; saying his name—even into his answering machine—was painful. Emotions strong with it made her voice break.
Gripping the receiver with both hands, she dug deep for a steadying breath. “Look. I . . . I think I might be in some trouble here.”
The admission was as difficult to make as the phone call. Saying the words out loud gave them credence. It did horrible things to the rhythm of her heart, which had been getting a helluva workout in the past few hours.
That would show those misinformed souls who wondered in admiration and awe over her seemingly unflappable control.
If they could only see me now.
“Maybe some bad trouble,” she confessed, still reluctant to believe it as she dragged a hand through her hair. “It’s . . . it’s almost midnight here in Zamboanga. I can’t . . . I can’t think, you know, how that equates to West Palm Beach time. Maybe one in the afternoon? Two? I’m not sure.”
She paused again when she heard a thread of hysteria creep back into her voice. She blinked up at the white ceiling of her hotel room.
God. This is great. Piggybacked with her current state of mind—which was only a little to the left of full-blown terror—she felt like she was spiraling out of control.
Okay. That soaked it. She’d never dreamed hysteria would be a part of her vocabulary. Not in this lifetime—which may not be all that long, she reminded herself with a grim compression of her lips.
“Okay, look,” she said, if not steadier, at least resolved to calm herself down. She absently repositioned the base of the phone on the rich mahogany nightstand sitting beside her bed. “I’m at the Garden Orchid Hotel. It’s on . . . let me think. Governor Camins Avenue. Here’s the phone number.
“Can you . . . can you call me, please? As soon as possible, okay?” Darcy slowly closed her eyes, forced them open again. “I’m in Room 333. If . . . if I don’t answer when you call, well, try again, okay?
“Look, Ethan. I—” She cut herself off as a tear surprised her and trickled down her cheek. She brushed it angrily away with the back of her hand. “Just call. And hurry.”
She hung up the phone. For a long moment she sat motionless, staring at the cradled receiver. And praying that he would get her message.
Before it was too late.
It probably should have bothered her that her ex was the first person Darcy thought to call the moment she’d realized she had a problem. And it might have if she could function on a level separate from the fear. So far that wasn’t happening.
This morning, she hadn’t been afraid. This morning, she’d had her usual busy day in the Consulate office at the U.S. Embassy in Manila. But this morning, Amanda Stover had still been alive. When a coworker had called Darcy on her cell phone an hour ago and told her about Amanda’s death, a cold chill had swept her from head to foot.
“How?” she’d asked, sinking down, in shock, on the hotel bed.
It had to be an accident, she had told herself over and over, her heart hammering as she’d scrambled for her briefcase and dug out the envelope Amanda had given her just before Darcy had left the embassy to catch her flight to Zamboanga.
Darcy stared at the envelope she had promised Amanda she’d open as soon as she had time. The envelope she’d ripped open only moments ago.
The minute she’d read the note tucked inside, Darcy had known. The car that had killed Amanda hadn’t done so by accident. Amanda had been murdered. And because Darcy suspected that she was now in possession of the reason Amanda had been killed . . . she was also certain that she would be targeted as the next person to die.
With trembling fingers, she picked up the padded manila envelope she’d resealed as tight as Fort Knox. Then she addressed it and slapped on enough postage to send it to the moon. All the while she fought to gain the upper hand over a damnable rising panic.
Panic wasn’t going to help her get out of this alive. Clear thinking was.
On a serrated breath she stood and walked across the room, her sandals sinking into the plush cream-colored carpeting. Slowly, she opened her hotel room door. She looked up and down the empty hall. Reasonably certain it was safe, she slipped outside and headed for the elevator.
“Good evening, Miss Prescott.”
Rudy Mar startled her as she hit the ground floor and stepped out of the elevator into a lobby done in soft tropical colors and more mahogany wood so deep reddish brown it was almost purple. She paused to see the night clerk standing at his post behind the polished registration desk where the older man appeared to be reading the Manila Bulletin.
She forced a smile. “Good evening, Rudy Mar.”
She always stayed at the Orchid when her duties took her from Manila to Zamboanga. She knew many of the staff on a first-name basis. Had learned that the Zamboangueños were warm and friendly. As a rule, she enjoyed a little pleasant banter with Rudy Mar, whose chocolate brown eyes and salt-and-pepper hair made him look grandfatherly and kind.
Tonight, however, the rules had changed.
“Going out so late, miss?” Rudy Mar’s wide smile was tempered with concern.
“Actually, I need to mail a letter.”
Rudy Mar laid the newspaper on the granite top of the registration desk. Darcy thought of the headlines that would appear on tomorrow’s edition: U.S. Embassy Employee Victim of Hit-and-Run, and her blood ran cold.
Her gaze snapped to back to Rudy Mar. His expectant look made her realize she’d completely tuned out something he’d said. She forced a smile. “I’m sorry . . . what?”
“I said I’d be happy to take care of that for you. The letter,” he clarified with a nod toward the envelope.
Involuntary reflexes had her clutching the envelope in question tighter. “Oh. Thank you, but I . . . I want to take a walk anyway, get a little air. I’ll just drop it at the post office while I’m out.”
She smiled in what she hoped was a credible impersonation of a woman who wasn’t about to jump out of her skin.
“As you wish, Miss Prescott. Enjoy your walk. But stay on the main streets, all right?”
“Thank you. I will. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
As she walked out the hotel door, Darcy understood both Rudy Mar’s concern and his puzzlement over her actions. American embassy staff were often targets of terrorists in the Philippines and she was not employing hazardous-duty procedure. Normally she followed protocol to the letter—she buried her route to work in the mornings, alternated modes of transportation, and when out of Manila, as she was now, she would normally phone for a car and driver if she needed to go out.
Tonight, there wasn’t time. She had to get the envelope out of her possession, in the mail, and get back to her room before Ethan called back. And the bigger problem: she no longer knew whom she could trust.
She cut a seemingly meandering path along the main streets, checking often to see if anyone was following her, hoping she’d spot a motorcab or a jeepney and could hitch a ride. One or the other would provide some cover and a little anonymity at the least and make her less of a target with a big bull’s-eye on her back. Tonight, however, both were as scarce as taxis. So she walked. Fast.
It was a typical Philippine evening. Close, hot, tropical. The sidewalks had sucked in the sun’s rays during the day and now breathed them back out like heat from a cooling oven. Darcy had dressed for the sweltering night in a white short-sleeve cotton T-shirt and khaki shorts. Still, her back was damp with perspiration. In her espadrille sandals, the soles of her feet were damp as well.
Another night, another time, she’d have enjoyed an evening stroll as she had many times in this beautiful place that was heralded as the city of flowers and reminded her of southern Florida. But this wasn’t just any other night.
She caught a glimpse of herself in a storefront window and realized how tense she appeared. Determined not to draw attention to herself, she made her shoulders relax, deliberately slowed her pace in the face of a warning voice that cautioned her to hurry.
Struggling to ignore it, she walked on past a towering old cathedral rich with Spanish influence, past a more modern gift shop. The streets were, for the most part, deserted, but should anyone see her, they would see an American of average height, a little on the slim side, out for an evening stroll. No one special. Nothing remarkable. Except, maybe, for the auburn hair she’d cut to shoulder length a year ago when she’d started her Permanent Change of Station with the embassy in Manila.
Tonight more than ever before, she regretted the bureaucratic snafu that had restationed her from Mexico City to Manila. As she’d always done when her rotation was drawing to a close, she’d filled out her dream sheet requesting a PSC in Paris. Paris, Philippines— easy to get the two mixed up, she thought sourly, then sucked in her breath on a gasp when a cat sprang out of an alley and, yowling, ran in front of her.
When her heart dropped back into her chest, she made another quick visual search around her. Only after she was satisfied that no one was following her did she walk across Corcuera Street toward the post office she’d intentionally bypassed the first time she’d strolled past, playing tourist again, staring at the Mayor’s office.
Without breaking stride, she walked behind the Mayor’s office where the post office was located, fished the padded envelope out of her purse, and dropped it in the after-hours mail slot.
For the first time in an hour, she felt a tentative sense of relief. If anyone was watching her, they’d never have noticed what she’d done. And if anything happened to her, at least now there was a chance someone would eventually discover the envelope and know the reason why.
Now all she had to do was make it back to her room and wait for Ethan to call and tell her what to do to get out of this fix.
Everything was going to be fine.
And then she noticed the van.
Her heart did that ricochet thing again and she faltered, barely catching herself before she stumbled.
A quick glance over her shoulder told her the vehicle was long and black and beat-up; the windows were tinted so dark she couldn’t see inside. Even as she told herself it was nothing to worry about, her pulse ratcheted up several beats.
But when the van crept up and kept pace beside her, her heart damn near jumped out of her chest.
Adrenaline fueled by apprehension rushed through her system so fast it made her nauseous. She told herself that just because a van was the most commonly used abduction vehicle in the islands it didn’t mean that’s what this one was about. But when it pulled up to the curb a few feet ahead of her and the side door slid open, the apprehension churning through her chest shifted to flat-out panic.
“Don’t stop; don’t stop; don’t stop.” She repeated the command like a mantra.
When the gruff voice belching out from the murky black interior of the van ordered her to do just that, she broke into a dead run.
She was three blocks from the hotel. So close she could see the sign—GARDEN ORCHID HOTEL—ahead.
She pushed herself harder. Pushed until her lungs burned with the effort.
Almost there. Almost—
Something slammed into her from behind. She fell face-first onto the pocked concrete walk. And pain momentarily edged out the panic as the fall knocked the air out of her lungs.
She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream, as the leaden weight of a man who smelled like smoke and sweat and mean sandwiched her between him and the sidewalk.
The white-hot abrasion of her skin scraping against concrete seared her knees; her palms, where she connected with the paving to break her fall, burned like fire.
Her breath finally rushed back on a gasp. She tried to scream, but a filthy hand clamped over her mouth. Something jabbed into her ribs, hard.
Oh God. He has a gun.
“Come with me or die here, Miss Prescott. You decide.”
She went limp, prayed for a miracle—the pulis, police, an off-duty Special Ops soldier. Anyone who might help her.
No one did.
Her attacker stood, made sure he stayed behind her so she couldn’t see his face, and hauled her roughly to her feet. With the gun still buried in her ribs, he pushed her toward the van, then shoved her, hard, into the backseat.
Her head hit the opposite window with a crack. She groaned, fighting through the dizzying pain. She was still seeing stars when her abductor climbed in behind her. Before he’d even slammed the door behind him, the van shot off through the Zamboanga streets with a squeal of tires.
Coarse hands wrenched her arms behind her back; he tied her wrists so tightly that she bit back a cry when the rope dug into her skin. Then he blindfolded her.
She fought it, but there was no escaping the dirty rag that he pressed over her mouth and nose.
Panic outdistanced pain.
Loss of consciousness was terrifying and fast.
Her last coherent thought was of Ethan. His name broke on a sob just before everything faded but the truth: not even Ethan could save her now.
He could feel an irritating nudge at his ribs. Hear the ring of his alarm. And his wife gnawing away at the edge of his consciousness.
“Charles, for God’s sake. Wake up and answer the phone.”
The cobwebs started to thin.
The phone. Not the alarm.
He dragged a hand across his face, shook his head to clear the sludge, and reached for the phone on his bedside table.
“What?” he said in a tone that said much more than the four-letter word suggested.
“I am sorry to bother you at this late hour, sir.” The man on the other end of the line recognized anger when he heard it, and this was the last person he wanted to piss off.
“Then why are you?” Charles growled, and glanced at the alarm. It was the fucking middle of the night.
“You said to notify you when it was done, sir.”
Charles lay back on a pillow cased in fine Egyptian linen. He stared at the dark ceiling. Ah. Yes. He had asked to be notified.
So it was done.
Well. He hadn’t expected to feel remorse. Frustration over the need for it all, yes. Relief that his little problem was solved, absolutely. But not remorse.
He exhaled a deep breath. Couldn’t be helped.
“And you’re certain of this?” he asked finally, relieved to hear Marion’s deep breaths beside him, telling him she’d fallen back asleep.
“Yes, sir. It is done.”
Without another word, he hung up the phone.
Darcy Prescott’s pretty face flashed before him in the night. It wouldn’t be pretty now.
It was a shame. A waste to lose her.
Amanda Stover had been no great loss. She had been a blond airhead. Yet she’d been smart enough to run to Ms. Prescott when she’d discovered what she’d gotten ahold of, hadn’t she? a niggling voice reminded him.
He plumped his pillow, cursing his own carelessness.
It was water under the bridge now. Everything was taken care of. Everything was fine.
And what was done was done.
He rolled over and went back to sleep.