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"He's late," Jessie Barker said to her sister. "You said he was going to be here by eleven."
"Well, he isn't here, is he?" Laura rolled her eyes the same way she had when they were kids. "Not broke down, or the traffic is backed up on the bridge, or he overslept or something."
Jessie sniffed. "Those are all excuses I don't let my students get away with. Why should I take them from a Web site designer?"
"Because he's willing to work cheap and give us a decent product. And stop shaking your head at me like that, unless you want to hear my opinion on your hair color."
"I don't. I like my brown just the way it is. And I don't see why a beautician needs a Web site."
Laura sighed in her dramatic way. "Esthetician, sweetie. I'm not a beautician. Leave it to you to look down your nose at my business and get things wrong at the same time."
Her attitude made Jessie want to stick her tongue out at her sister. Why did they always argue like this? Probably because neither of them had anyone else to turn to. Laura wasn't ready to let it go yet. "Having my own Web site would be a great help for my business. I could link it to the day spa's site and get more clients. Besides, I figure I could interest some people with a few beauty hints. That would reach a lot more women on the Web than a newspaper ad." Unable to sit still while she talked, Laura dusted the coffee table.
"So the print medium is worthless now?" Jessie looked over her glasses at Laura, who looked as though she could feel a headache coming on.
"Nuts, Jessie. Why do you always make me feel like I've said the wrong thing? I'm twenty-nine years old and around you I still feel like a kid. And not a very smart one, either."
Jessie melted a little. She always did when Laura looked hurt. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to growl at you, but you hit a nerve with that newspapers-areworthless comment."
Laura waved a hand. "Now I didn't say they were worthless. You know I wouldn't ever say that. In fact, I thought you'd want a Web site to promote your new book and link to online bookstores. It would sell a lot more copies that way, wouldn't it?"
Jessie shrugged. Laura might not have been labeled the "smart one" when they were kids, but she'd always been creative. "If you think that many people would be interested in a history of urban legends published by a small university press."
Her sister's face lit up, showing how beautiful she was. "Of course I do. You could probably get a spot on the radio or even get interviewed by one of the TV features reporters just by promoting your book on the Web."
It sounded good, but first things first, Jessie thought. "If you say so. But to do that I'd have to have a Web site. And to have a Web site your Web designer would have to show up, now wouldn't he?"
Laura pressed one hand to her temple. "Couldn't you be something other than logical and literal just once in your life?" Then she laughed. "No, probably not. You wouldn't be Jessie then."
Before Jessie could respond, Laura was grabbing her purse. "Look, if it's such a big deal I'll go looking for him, okay? Give him a break, anyway. He's not a whole lot older than most of your students. He probably just overslept or something. Computer geeks keep odd hours."
Jessie tried to still the aggravation she felt. "I'm not all that familiar with them. They don't speak up in class." Not even in the "pop culture" class that was her favorite, where she got a lot of responses from most of the students.
Laura grabbed her car keys and headed for the garage. She called over her shoulder to her sister. "I'll call you if there's any kind of problem. Otherwise I'll be back here, probably with Adrian in tow, in the next hour, okay?"
"Fine." Jessie tried to look interested in a stack of papers she had to grade. Anything so that Laura didn't see the look of worry she knew crossed her face as her sister left. Laura was an adult. There was no sense in treating her like a child.
Cassidy stood in the shadows across the street from Adrian's town house and watched as Laura Barker knocked on the door. To Cassidy, Laura looked more like a teenager than a woman in her late twenties, with her bouncy step and the way she rapped on the door. When the door opened, the man answering looked far older than Laura Barker, mature and wary in a way Laura wasn't, even though he was years younger.
After Laura went inside, Cassidy pondered how much time to give the two together. It all depended on how much Adrian Bando had connected the dots with the information he had. Cassidy knew the young man was bright; if he'd worked things through and now shared that information with Laura, everything could fall apart even after all these years of careful concealment.
Cassidy knew that timing could be everything. One wrong decision made life collapse like a row of dominoes. Suddenly there was another figure at the door and Cassidy scrambled for even more cover. Being seen now was a bad idea. The figure at the door stood impatiently, checking the street. Then he made a quick motion at the lock, and the door opened without anyone on the other side. Half a block away the noise of an idling engine stopped. The driver of a black sedan opened the door and stepped from the car.
Fifteen minutes later the driver slipped back behind the wheel of the car. The engine purred to life and he pulled away from the curb, slowly turning the corner to disappear from view. If the town house had a back door onto the alley behind it, the car could stop there without being seen.
Ten minutes later Cassidy stood at the front door of the town house, listening for clues to the situation. It was too quiet for more than one person to be in the place. The woman Cassidy found was surpris now, she might live. That would mess up everything, Cassidy thought. But it was easy to fix.
Thirty minutes later an unidentified person made a 911 call from the pay phone across the street from the town house. By then the fire had been burning long enough that the woman inside would be no trouble to anyone. In the chaos of the arriving fire trucks, no one paid any attention to the nondescript person in jeans walking away from the complex.
Where was her sister? Jessie was at the pacing stage. Laura was usually really good at calling if she was going to be late. Of course she wasn't quite as good at remembering to charge her cell phone, so she might have had the best of intentions and not followed through. That was Laura. Still, most of the time she showed up when and where she said she would.
Living with Laura's quirks and habits was such a part of her life Jessie knew them all by heart. And they hadn't changed that much since Jessie's junior year in college. That was when Laura had turned eighteen and aged out of foster care. At the ripe old age of twenty Jessie gave up her brief taste of the carefree life on campus to find an apartment for the two of them and make a home for them.
Even that long ago it had been Laura who'd concerned herself with the niceties of things. Jessie would have been content with "starving student" decor like bookshelves from planks and cinder blocks and a couple of mattresses on the floor if she had to have it that way. Their finances didn't allow for much more. Still, Laura was always filling a jelly glass with wildflowers, or scrounging around in thrift stores for something else to give the place a little lift.
The doorbell rang, jarring Jessie out of her thoughts. "Finally." She went to the condo's incredibly small front hall and looked through the peephole. The man on the other side of the door was alone and he didn't look the way Laura had described the Web designer. Maybe he had gotten a haircut for the occasion.
"Adrian?" she asked, opening the door.
"No, I'm afraid not. Were you expecting him?" In the light of day it was easy to see this definitely wasn't Adrian. This man was taller, lean in a fit way and his hair was a lighter brown than Laura's description.
Laura had called Adrian sort of different looking. "He has long black hair, usually tied back, and he's very pale. Looks like the black belt martial artist a dark alley. But so far he's been this big teddy bear to me."
This man was older than her students, probably older than her for that matter. Sharply dressed in a dark suit, the set of his jaw said he was definitely no teddy bear. He'd asked her a question and Jessie wasn't sure how much information she should give a stranger, no matter how good-looking or nicely dressed he was. She decided to go with the minimum. "Yes, I was expecting someone. We had an eleven o'clock appointment."
"If it's Adrian Bando, he won't be keeping it. I'm Stephen Gardner with the St. Charles County sheriff's department. I'm looking for Jessica Barker."
"I'm Jessica. And I'd like some proof you're with the sheriff's department." He nodded and took out his identification as if he expected it. She looked it knows me calls me Jessica except for something very official. What's wrong?"
The man on the doorstep shook his head slowly, looking even more serious than before. "If you don't mind, let's do this inside." He looked like Jessie knew she did when she had to tell a kid they were on academic probation. So the news wouldn't be good. She asked him in then because she was afraid that if she stood there in the doorway talking to Stephen Gardner any longer she might pass out.
"Something's happened to Laura, hasn't it?" Jessie didn't usually get flustered easily but there was an air about Gardner that sounded alarms in her head. "Tell me she's not dead."
He looked a little relieved then but his dark eyes were still somber. "She's not dead, Ms. Barker. But she is in Mercy Hospital thanks to Adrian Bando or Quite bad."
Jessie felt her heart in her throat. "How bad? Are you saying she might not make it? She's only been gone a little while. What on earth happened?"
"There was a fire. And something happened to your sister even before that. I don't think the doctors know yet how serious her other injuries are. But I know we need to hurry. If you get your things I can take you to the hospital."
Jessie got ready faster than she'd ever done anything in her life. Only halfway to the hospital in the unmarked sheriff's department sedan did she notice that she wore two different tennis shoes. She hoped against hope that once she got to the hospital she could laugh with Laura about the shoes. Then she worried the rest of the way there that she might not get the chance.