Read an Excerpt
Death hung suspended at arm's length.
She stared with hypnotic horror down the barrel of the gun, seeing no light at the end of that long black tunnel. Only darkness and death.
Hers and her daughter's.
Lifting her gaze from the empty hole that held her demise, she looked into the eyes of her killer. What had she expected to find there? Sympathy? Regret? There was nothing, a flat void of expression as deadly and cold as the bore of the gun.
Was this what her husband had seen, this empty, soulless stare, in the last seconds of his life?
Would this be the last intimacy exchanged between man and wife, this shared precursor to their own end at the same indifferent, yet well-known, hand?
Robert D'Angelo was dead already, his life taken in this same room some months before by this same man. By this man who'd been his friend, his betrayer.
Her heart beat fast and frantically, pounding in her chest, hammering inside her head, the sound amplifying, intensifying like a desperate, unvoiced scream.
Please! I don't want to die!
Tessa sat beside her, calm, fierce, her father's daughter. Instead of begging for mercy, she argued with, even taunted, the man who held their futures in cruel hands. So brave, so confident. So precious. In the twenty-eight years they'd shared, had she told her how precious she was?
An anguished plea burned in her throat, twisting, tearing for release.
Don't take my daughter.
If she jumped forward, if she grabbed the gun, using her body for a shield, perhaps Tessa could get away. There was a chance one of them might survive. Tessa. It should be Tessa, who had so much to live for.
Her breathing caught as an awful realization slammed through her. These could be the last moments of her life.
And then his words, with their terrible finality. "Sorry, Babs. Nothing personal."
Something moved in his fixed stare. Something so dark and unbelievably terrifying, her plan to save her daughter by sacrificing herself froze in timeless terror.
Pleasure. He was going to enjoy killing them. An explosion of movement coincided with a shrill of sound. Her dream shattered like that remembered glass as Barbara D'Angelo woke to the ringing of her phone.
It took her a long moment to separate nightmare from reality.
She sat up on the leather love seat, drenched in a sweat of panic. Afternoon sunlight slanted through the windows of the enclosed porch where, after another restless night, she'd fallen, exhausted, to sleep. She forced a constricted breath. Then another. The threat was gone, now behind bars awaiting justice. She was here, safe in her home, not at her husband's office at the mercy of his killer.
The only thing that didn't change upon waking was the fact that her husband was dead.
Vestiges of fear beaded coldly upon her skin. She scrubbed her hands over her face. Only then did she reach for the insistent phone. In another few weeks it would be turned off, the number disconnected as she removed herself forever from this place, from this life. She would be moving on, leaving the past and its ugly scars behind. None too soon.
She lifted the receiver and spoke with what she hoped was coherent civility.
An amiable greeting sounded on the other end of the line. It wasn't a solicitor trying to coerce her into opening her checkbook for some worthy cause. It wasn't a friend requesting a long overdue lunch. It wasn't her realtor wondering if the house was ready for the market. It was a voice from the past. One that still echoed, horribly, impossibly, from her nightmare of moments before.
The voice of her husband's murderer. "Hello, Barbie. Did you think I'd forgotten you?" For a moment she couldn't respond. Her entire system shriveled into a tiny knot of disbelieving panic. How could it be? How could it be him?
"Babs? You still there? Cat got your tongue?" His chuckle was warm and jovial, making it all the more terrifying. "Nothing to say to me after all we've shared? That's okay. You can just listen. Guess where I am?"
Finally, her shocked stupor ended upon a snap of outrage. "You should be burning in hell, but a life behind bars will have to do."
"I've been to hell, Babs. It was hot and green. But no, I'm not going back there, not for a long while.And right now, there's nothing between me and a fine view of Lake Michigan. Nothing but two lovely young ladies."
He was out. That knowledge stabbed through the protective bubble of her supposed safety, leaving her exposed and alone. She gripped the receiver in sweat-slicked palms, clinging to it in desperate denial. Another more awful notion began to germinate like a toxic virus in her brain. She wanted to hang up, to sever the link, to halt the horrible truth she feared was coming. But she couldn't. She had to know.
"Why are you calling me?" It was little more than a whisper.
"It's a beautiful day. It's great to be alive. At least I'm sure that's what your daughter is thinking. I'm watching her right now."
Barbara's eyes squeezed shut. Panic and helplessness tightened within her chest. Tessa... "We've been having a wonderful time here on the Navy Pier," Chet Allen continued cheerfully as if he were a part of the outing of school children her daughter was chaperoning in Chicago for the long weekend. "Your Tess particularly enjoyed the display of stained glass inside, but the girls are dragging her down to the Ferris wheel. She's not afraid of heights, is she? I didn't think so. Your scrappy little girl isn't afraid of anything. That's because she doesn't know what you and I know. She doesn't know that her life could be over before she finishes paying for those ice cream cones."
"What do you want?" she all but screamed into the phone.
She could almost see him smiling on the other end of the line, a cold, smug smile of control.
"I want you to do me a favor. But first, a few ground rules just in case you get confused about who's in charge here."
She could hear carnival music in the background and the innocence of happy girlish chatter. She could hardly breathe as she heard him say, "Excuse me, young lady. I think you dropped this."
And then Barbara trembled at the sweetly familiar sound of her adopted grandchild's voice with its delicate Spanish accent.
"Thank you, señor."
Rose. Sweet Rose.
After a brief pause, Chet Allen spoke crisply, clearly, so there would be no mistaking the danger.
"You see how close I am? I could have just as easily given her a blade between the ribs as returned her bag of cotton candy. Do we understand each other, Barbara? Do you get the picture?"
"Yes," she whispered. She got the picture in Technicolor.
"Good." He was all pleasant humor once again.
"Make no mistake. There is nothing, no one, that can come between them and me if you don't do exactly what I tell you. Before you can call your commando son-in-law, before you can scream for help to the Windy City police, I'll have them. They'll be dead. Are we clear on that?"
"Yes." Clear as her Waterford crystal.
"Excellent. Now, back to that favor. You're flying to D.C. this afternoon. I've expressed a ticket to your office. It should be there in about an hour. That doesn't give you much time to pack your party dresses. You've got reservations for two at the Wardman under your maiden name."
"I've arranged for a traveling companion for you, seats 12A and B. Someone who's capable of handling the behind-the-scenes work that needs to be done while you dazzle and distract. The two of you will have a common goal when it comes to saving your daughter's life. Whether you want to tell him why he's got so much at stake is up to you. Just make sure he's motivated to help you. And to help himself."
Surely he couldn't mean...
She couldn't even bring his name into focus for fear of remembering all. She tried to take a breath through the complex emotions wadding in her throat. The effort nearly strangled her. She forced herself to get behind the paralysis of surprise. Not now. Not yet. She could deal with that later. Right now, she had to think of Tessa. She made her mind move forward. Think. "How did you get out?" Suddenly, that mattered, knowing who was pulling the strings. "They said you couldn't make bail. The evidence--"
"Is gone. No more damning paper trail. No more greedy Councilwoman Martinez." She heard his fingers snap. "No more solid case against me. I'm free as a bird with clipped wings. The only ones who can try to put me back in that cage are you and your daughter. But before you get the chance to testify, one of two things will have happened, either you'll join Martinez and disappear or I will."
It took a long moment for her to digest that. What if he was telling the truth? "Martinez..."
"Had an unfortunate accident in her cell. I'd just as soon neither of us have to keep her company. She was really quite unpleasant."
Barbara's mind spun like that dizzying Ferris wheel, trying to make sense of what she was hearing. Martinez was dead. Allen was out on bail. "Who killed her? Why?"
"Let's just say my particular talents were needed to finish up some long overdue business and certain parties were eager to have me on the streets. So I want you to play a game with me. You remember how much I like to play games. This isn't hide-and-seek or spin the bottle. It's a survival game."
"Why should I care if you survive? You killed Robert. You killed my husband."
"That's what I do. And I do it better than anyone else. Don't hold that against me. It was just a job. And now I have another job to do."
"Keeping Tessa and me from going to court," she all but whispered.
Allen laughed off her greatest fear. "Babs, you're not that important in the giant scheme of things. Neither am I. They wouldn't have gotten me out just to tie up my loose ends."
"Them that makes the rules. Rules I have to follow. Rules they've always made me follow even when I didn't want to. It's not about what I want. I can't break those rules. But you can."
"Rules? What are you talking about, Chet?"
"Ask Mac. Those rules used to apply to him, too. He broke them and now they want me to punish him for it. That's my new job, Barbie. That's why I thought you might be interested in playing."
"I don't understand."