Read the preview chapters below or HERE
Down and Dead in Dallas
Down and Dead, Inc., Book 3
© 2017, Vicki Hinze
What was she doing here?
Good grief, she couldn’t be here. Yet, there she stood, plain as day. Why, of all places, was the woman in Even? Was she trying to get them killed?
Fear and dread collided and pumped a massive dose of adrenaline through Rose Green. Her fingers tingling, her heart thumping against her ribs, she pulled her phone from her pocket, speed-dialed her brother, then whispered to avoid being overheard by the other diners in the busy Main Street café. “Jackson?” Rose’s gaze never strayed from the beautiful blonde woman she’d met as a redhead not three months ago.
“Hey, sis. How are you?”
“At the moment, I’m at Danny’s Diner having a heart attack.“ One more shock would do it. Her heart would crack her ribs and bust her chest wide open.
“You and Matthew at odds over having a baby again?”
Of course, Jackson would go there. It was barely seven in the morning and she was having coffee at the diner instead of at home in her kitchen. “We are, but that’s not why I’m calling.”
Two men entered and headed to a table near the front window. Both were in their sixties and a little slump-shouldered. The shorter of the two shuffled his steps. No threat there, yet Rose remained hyper-vigilant.
“This time, are we for or against you having one now?” Jackson asked.
Rose frowned, a little miffed he wouldn’t see it. “This time, he’s for, I’m against, but that’s beside the point.” Couldn’t her brother hear her anxiety? Evidently not, but he had been driving all night. Safer to travel under the cover of darkness…
“Switched sides again, huh?”
“We both did.” Her patience snapped. “Jackson, would you forget the baby debate? I said, I’m having a heart attack.”
“I heard you,” he barked back, then hesitated. “Oh, that isn’t over whether or not to have a baby?”
She couldn’t blame him for his confusion. The debate had been raging back and forth between Matthew and she for the last six months. It had almost become a friendly war with all their switching sides and everyone they knew weighing in. “No, a baby has nothing to do with this heart attack.” Though the debate likely would incite one of its very own.
“Well, what’s wrong then?” Jackson asked, then before she had time to answer ran another question to her on its heels. “You haven’t been spotted…?”
“Not yet but, as we speak, we’ve got a disaster in the making.”
His tone dropped low, hushed and simmering. “What’s wrong, Rose?”
Finally, her baby brother had tuned in. “You remember that woman you brought to the house last Christmas?”
“That’s the one.”
“Sure, I remember her—”
Rose cut him off. She needed verification—the sooner, the better. “Did you really take her to Dixie and then to…” Rose dropped her voice even more, cupped her hand over the phone and then whispered, “Sampson Park?”
“You know I did. I told you so myself. Why?”
Rose’s stomach dropped to her knees. She skimmed the diner, gauging to be sure the senior men seated at the next table for their daily prayer meeting were talking to each other loudly enough to cover her voice. This morning, they were debating signs of the Second Coming. “Well, apparently she’s missed a step in her instructions on staying dead.”
“She’s here, Jackson—alive and well and above ground.”
“I’m looking right at her.” The object of Rose’s worry smiled and filled coffee mugs for the two men seated near the front window. How could she be so cheerful? It wasn’t natural anytime, but under the circumstances…
“What’s she doing there?” Jackson asked.
He had to be kidding. “Well, aside from waitressing at the diner, I do not know. Since you brought her into our world, I hoped maybe you could tell me—”
“You’re sure it’s her. Caroline Branch Easton is waitressing at Danny’s Diner in Even?”
He muttered, “Holy—“
“There’s nothing holy about it. The idiot woman is going to ruin everything.”
Beneath the table, Rose rubbed her Grant half-dollar so hard its ridges felt almost smooth. “Between learning the funeral home business, making connections and getting all the licenses and everything in order, I just last week got my garden planted, and Matthew finally had time to paint the kitchen, which is why I’m at the diner this morning having coffee instead of at home.” Rose again cupped the phone and dropped her voice another decibel. “If I have to die again and move already, I’m going to be seriously ticked-off, Jackson Lee Grant.”
His whole life, she’d reserved that middle-name warning for only his most serious offenses, and she meant for him to know this woman’s sudden appearance on Rose’s turf was deadly serious.
“Did you talk to her?”
“I said hi.” Rose sipped from her steaming coffee cup and watched Caroline wait on two of the regulars from the auto shop down the block. Billy Joe Baker and Dean Hester sat grinning, clearly enjoying their conversation with her. Considering Billy Joe never smiled much less grinned, she obviously had a knack for engaging conversation.
“Something’s bad wrong, Jackson,” Rose said. “When she poured my coffee, she looked right through me. The woman didn’t have a clue who I was.”
The worry Rose felt penetrated, and her brother’s tone sobered. “Did you call Miss Emily?”
That very thought had crossed Rose’s mind. “I’m not exactly able to do that, being in a public place with the wrong phone.” He knew as well as Rose one only called the Sampson Park matriarch using one’s dedicated phone. “I didn’t expect to walk in here for coffee and see a ghost, you know?” Rose let her exasperation show. “You brought her here and now she’s going to fool around and get us all killed again.”
“Calm down, and don’t borrow more trouble than we’ve already got,” he said. “There’s likely a reasonable explanation. Let me call Miss Emily and see what’s up.”
“There’s nothing reasonable in her risking our futures. She’s got to get out of here before—“
“Don’t jump the gun, sis. We don’t know what’s at risk yet,” he cut in. “I’m only about ten minutes out. Hang tight, and don’t let Caroline out of your sight.”
“You need not worry about that.” Rose wouldn’t shoot her, but if she had to hold her at gunpoint, she wasn’t above it. “Whatever brought her back here, we’ve got to resolve it fast. Our first funeral is in a few hours.”
“It’s not yours or Matthew’s, is it?”
Hadn’t she just told Jackson if they had to die again and move so fast she’d be ticked? Rose’s temper spiked but, lucky for her brother, empathy also did a slow roll through her. He was upset about this news, too, and rightly so. Rose tempered her response. “Not this time. Carl Wooten’s heart gave out. But with your friend here, we could be next. Or you.”
Jackson’s tone soured, went deadpan flat. “I’ll call you right back.”
Rose ended the call then dropped her phone into her shirt pocket. The object of her anxiety, wearing jeans, sneakers and a Dixie Darling t-shirt, came up to the table, carrying the coffeepot. “Refill?” She smiled.
“Please.” Rose looked her right in the eye. She might be a blonde now instead of a redhead, but she was definitely the same beautiful woman Jackson had transported from Dallas and brought home to Christmas dinner. Testing the waters, Rose said, “You look so familiar to me.”
There was a hope and eagerness in her voice that sent cold chills up Rose’s spine. She swiped her auburn hair back over her shoulder and nodded. “What brings you to Even?”
Caroline glanced around then bent low and whispered a warning. “Another time. I have to tell you something.”
“Expect a little trouble at Carl Wooten’s funeral. The locals are bent out of shape and plan on showing you they’re not pleased.”
“About what?” Rose asked.
“Carl selling the funeral home to you instead of to a local then dying as soon as your training was done.” Her gaze shifted uneasily. “Just thought you’d want to know. It’s ironic that Carl’s would be your first solo funeral.”
It was. “Surely they don’t think we wanted Carl dead.” He had been and would have remained a tremendous asset to them, particularly when their mentor, Paul Perini down in Dixie began sending them special clients.
“They haven’t gone that far. At least, not that I’ve heard. They’re just saying letting outsiders in brings Even bad luck.”
Rose had expected a little of that kind of thing. Change always upset some. But to stir up trouble at a lifelong resident’s funeral? She couldn’t see that. Carl had been a pillar of the Even community his whole life. “I appreciate you letting me know.”
“We outsiders have to stick together.”
Rose didn’t know what to do with that. Did the woman remember Rose, then? Probably not. Yet her call had been accurate. Unless your kin have been in Even for three generations, you are an outsider. At least, you are unless an outsider who didn’t live in Even at all messes with you. Then you are a local. That mentality might seem a little twisted on the surface, but it had been one of the reasons Matthew and she had chosen to settle in the one-street, two-traffic-light town. It shielded its own. In their new enterprise, that shielding was vital for them.
“Caroline.” Danny, the owner and cook, yelled from the kitchen. His apron had grease splatters across the chest that gave his wife, Hazel, fits. Hazel liked things nice and neat and her whites spotless. Everyone in the county with a stubborn stain called Hazel for a remedy to remove it. “Order’s up.”
Rose’s insides froze to ice. Caroline. Same name. Yet zero recognition. What had happened to her? And why had she come back here?
“Coming,” Caroline called out over her shoulder then turned back to Rose. “Excuse me. Can’t serve the prayer breakfast group cold food.” Her eyes twinkled. “They’ve got consequential connections.” Turning on her sneaker-clad heel, she rushed to the kitchen pick-up window.
A guest in Rose’s home three months ago and today the woman truly didn’t know her from Adam? How could that be? Something had to have happened to her. Something bad.
Figure this out and do something, Jackson. Fast.
Rose sipped from her freshly filled cup, inhaled the steam and hoped it soothed her, though, truth be told, anything soothing her right now seemed impossible. Whatever this sudden appearance was about, it was suck-lemon-bad trouble. Only a fool wouldn’t know Caroline’s presence in Even could wreck a lot of lives—and deaths.
In Dallas, in Dixie, at Sampson Park, and in Even.
Why hadn’t the woman had the good sense, or the mercy, to stay down and dead?
Ten Days Earlier
Seated at the desk in her upscale office, Dr. Nell Richmond finished a few notes from her last patient session with Mr. Kendrick, then sat back in her chair.
Her neck felt stiff. Rubbing at it, she sat back and gazed out the wide window onto a bustling downtown Dallas. It’d been a long day and she’d been booked solid, which was both a blessing and a curse, and normal. Requests for her appointments generated a waiting list longer than most counselors’ patient lists.
Her receptionist lightly tapped on her door. “Dr. Nell?”
Nell responded. “Come in, Belinda.”
Dressed in green scrubs for reasons only she understood, Belinda walked straight over to Nell’s desk, carrying a large white Tyvek envelope. “While you were in with Mr. Kendrick, Miss Branch dropped this off. Must be important. She said to put it straight in your hands, so here you go.”
“Thank you.” Nell took the package. “We are officially done for the day, yes?”
“Yes, ma’am. The front desk just called. Mr. Kendrick has cleared the exit door.”
Last visit, when leaving the office, he’d had a flashback, crouched down in the corner of the waiting room, and barked orders to bug out into an imaginary radio. It’d taken hours to talk him around. Poor guy thought he was back in the desert. Nell stroked her ebony cheek. “Good.” She was weary tonight and had held her breath, hoping this session he would make a clean exit. “PTSD takes all forms.”
“Don’t we know it? And he’s such a nice guy—when he isn’t fighting the demons.”
“Not demons, Belinda.” Hadn’t they had this discussion a dozen times? Maybe more.
“They are to him,” she countered, tilting her head. “I’m headed home. You want the alarm on?”
Considering Caroline Branch had just left the office, Nell didn’t think twice. “Definitely. And watch yourself going to your car.”
“Don’t worry about me. I stay locked and loaded,” Belinda said. “Though, if I had to shoot through my purse today, I’d be madder than a hornet.” She wrinkled her nose and untucked it from the pit of her arm. “It’s new.”
A hunter orange clutch with a leather bow over the clasp. Not exactly Nell’s style, but closer than Belinda’s usual. “Cute.”
“I love it. Had my nails done to match.” Belinda wiggled her acrylic-tipped fingers then left the office without a backward glance.
She was one of two women Nell knew who didn’t give a flying fig what anyone else thought about anything. If she liked something, she liked it. Appropriate or not, Belinda could care less. She also had a loyalty streak a mile wide and was unflappable, which came in handy with some of Nell’s more problematic patients and more than compensated for a multitude of sins, especially with fragile patients like Caroline Branch.
Rattled, Nell stared at the package. Caroline was supposed to be safely hidden away in parts unknown. What in the world was she doing back in Dallas? At Nell’s office, no less? Was she determined to let her crazy ex-husband kill her?
Nell ripped open one end of the envelope with an unsteady hand. Spotting a CD, she pulled it out and a note came with it. She read:
There’s a video and a letter on the enclosed CD. For your own protection, do NOT watch the video or read the letter now. If you don’t hear from me on or before March 31st, then watch the video, print out the letter and deliver both for me on April 1st. I hate to assume you’ll do me this favor, but if I don’t get in touch by then, odds are good I’m dead. That leaves me little choice but to impose.
Between the video and letter, you’ll know what to do.
Thanks for everything, Nell. You’ve been a wonderful friend.
Caroline protecting Nell? Now, that scared her to death. Hiding out had never been Nell’s style. She was a well-heeled, successful African-American woman. A respected psychologist specializing in PTSD and domestic abuse. Little happened in anyone’s life she hadn’t run across at some point in her practice. Caroline knew all that, and yet she still felt compelled to protect Nell? That was downright terrifying.
As terrifying as looking at the CD and having no idea what was on it.
Did she dare to wait until April 1st to view it?
Nell vacillated between watching and reading, and not watching or reading. She shouldn’t do it; Caroline trusted her. But, in Nell’s experience, knowing what was coming could make all the difference in surviving what came. Forewarned is forearmed. Bearing Caroline’s precarious position in mind…
Nell pulled open the CD case and popped the disc into her computer.
The video loaded.
An image of Caroline appeared on Nell’s computer screen. No longer was her hair short and red. The video background was blacked out, giving no clue to her whereabouts at the time of filming. Just the woman seated in an armless chair, her long blonde hair pulled back at her nape, resting below the shoulders of her blood-red blouse. A haunted expression Nell hadn’t seen on her in months marred her beautiful, oval face.
Anxiety tumbled into worry. Nell’s mouth went dry. She adjusted the volume and braced, instinctively knowing whatever had forced Caroline out of hiding and into making the video had to be significant. The question was how bad it was, and how many would pay the price. The costs would be heavy. No skirting that truth.
She pushed play to start the video.
On the screen, Caroline drew in a deep breath, then began to speak…
Today is March tenth, but for you to understand what I’m about to tell you, I need to give you a little history and start at the beginning. Well, at the beginning of the trouble.
This whole mess started just over seven months ago. My sister, Caroline, and I were on the telephone—her, in her penthouse in New York, and me, on my ranchette in Dallas.
You see, we had to keep our conversations secret because her husband, Martin Easton, would give birth to a live cow if he knew we were talking at all. He’s forbidden Caro—I’ve always called Caroline, Caro—from talking to me for years. Actually, since early on in their marriage, he’s forbidden her to have any contact with anyone other than him.
The truth is, Martin Easton is an abusive control freak of the worst kind. Physically and emotionally. Caro once tried to leave him, but he forced her to return. How? I don’t know. But she says she had no choice. Since she’s all the family I have left in the world—our parents died in a train derailment the year we turned sixteen—and since I’m grateful we’re talking again these past two years, I don’t ask her questions. I’m afraid to rock the boat. The last thing I want is for her to clam up and disappear from my life again.
I know she didn’t go back to the jerk because of money. We both inherited enough from our parents to live well forever. It’s…something else. Honestly, I have no idea what he’s holding over her head, but whatever it is, it’s strong and powerful and evil.
Caro is meek, the timid one. Me, I’m bold and blunt. I’m not sure why we’re so different, but we are and we always have been.
Anyway, out of the blue one morning last August, she phones me and says she’s arriving in Dallas that day on a late-afternoon flight. She’s done with Martin. I asked if he’d hit her—he has before, I suspect, many times—and she told me she’d asked herself the question and answered it.
I knew what question she meant. It was one I’d put to her. How long are you going to live like this? That she was coming to Dallas confirmed she’d answered it. When I asked for her specific response, she said, “I’d rather be dead than live like this one more day.”
Hearing that shattered my heart, but it also frayed every nerve in my body. What Martin the Miserable had done to make her finally fear staying more than leaving him, I can’t tell you, but with his record, it had to be wicked. Frankly, I didn’t think about the reason much then. Instead, I rushed to plan for Caro’s arrival.
I hired a crew of bodyguards to protect her around the clock and the best abuse counselor in the state, Dr. Nell Richmond. You can’t be a long-suffering victim of something like Martin put Caro through and not need help working through it. Whether or not Caro would agree to talk to Nell, well, that was another matter, but Nell was there waiting for her, and we both hoped Caro would accept her help.
And so Caro came to Dallas. As soon as I saw the bruises she’d tried to hide—her makeup was so thick it looked like she’d applied it with a trowel—I knew what had happened, if not why, and, when I looked in her eyes, I knew she meant what she’d said—she was finished with Martin the Miserable Easton. There would be no going back to him this time. Not ever again.
I have to tell you, I’m not normally the violent type, but that day, knowing Caro had finally broken his hold on her and had left him for good was the only thing that kept me from finding and killing that man for what he’d done to her. How bad was it? Ask Nell. She took pictures in case Caro needed them for, um, legal reasons.
Back when we first started talking again, I had a courier deliver Caro a few necessities while she was in the grocery store shopping. A phone, credit card, and a duplicate copy of my driver’s license. I’d specifically sent them so I knew she had the means to escape from Martin. Grocery shopping was one of the few things Martin permitted her to do on her own. Having the delivery made to her there might seem like overkill paranoia, but it wasn’t. Her doorman was a snitch. If I’d sent the courier to her there, he would have reported the delivery to Martin immediately.
Oh, Martin tried to make it impossible for Caro to escape, taking the house phones and Caro’s purse and money with him every time he left their apartment. Her home might have been opulent, overlooking Central Park in Manhattan, but that place was her prison. I would have moved heaven and earth to get her out of there. If she hadn’t sworn she wouldn’t come with me, I’d have gone up there and pulled her out. Since she had refused, I provided the means for use when she was ready, and finally—dear God, finally—she had been.
Even today I don’t know the details of that final straw. All I can say is imagining is the stuff of my nightmares.
Once Caro was tucked away at my ranchette in Dallas and protected by the bodyguards and me, she faced a different problem: Surviving. I mean that literally.
Martin had threatened to kill Caro if she ever left him again, and he’d convinced her he meant it. She’d left him anyway, so we both expected trouble. But looking at her in the airport, I saw the shell of the woman I knew as my sister. Battered. Beaten down physically and emotionally…I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so weary.
It was clear that more than anything, she needed time to heal. Only when she remembered who she was would she be ready to take Martin the Miserable on in court and divorce his sorry backside.
The day after she arrived in Dallas, it became clear he had no intention of giving her time and every intention of giving her trouble. Alex, the head bodyguard I’d hired, reported two private investigators at the gate asking for her. They took to parking on the street and watching the gate. We all knew they were Martin’s thugs, and their presence really unnerved Caro. She was brave but so fragile. Something had to be done, so I did what sisters do. I planned and arranged Operation Switch and Bait.
Caro and I would switch lives and I’d bait Martin’s goons away from Caro while she healed and divorced Martin. It was a simple plan. Effective, I thought, but simple.
Caro opposed it from the start. She was afraid of me drawing Martin’s fire. He was ruthless, she said, and he’d do anything to force her to bend to his will. I assured her I was equally determined she would not. She would assert her own will. Martin Easton, I vowed, would not break me. I hoped I wouldn’t have to kill him to keep that promise but, after what he’d done to Caro, truth be told, I’d sleep nights fine either way.
Finally, Caro agreed to the plan, and so, with the help of my trusted hairdresser, Dawn, we pulled off the switch and bait. Going into the salon, I was myself, the redheaded Christine Branch, a single and successful software developer. Coming out, my sister was me and I was the blonde Caroline Branch Easton, estranged battered wife of Martin Easton.
Our careful planning worked. Martin and his hired thugs believed I was his Caroline and they followed me. Caro, as me, went home to my Dallas ranchette.
The new Christine was motivated to reclaim herself, and Nell stood by her every step of the way. That helped me to do what I had to do in ways I can’t even express, which included staying away from my sister and the ranchette, though we did talk by phone—untraceable ones we used only to talk to each other—every Saturday morning at ten.
For me, the next six months were, to say the least, interesting. Martin’s thugs threatened me often and kept me hopping, but I eluded, evaded and ran the marathon race, trying to stay a step ahead of them.
I got a fistful of restraining orders across more counties than I care to recall, too, but I learned quickly that words on paper don’t change what’s in a man’s heart—or the determination of thugs getting a paycheck to keep getting a paycheck. Martin the Miserable was spending a fortune on the thugs, and I did my level best to make them earn every single penny—twice.
Four states later, something changed. Martin lost patience with being inconvenienced. He has a thing about that. Caro says it brings out the worst in him, which is saying something. If the man’s got good in him, I’ve never seen it.
Anyway, he fired the old thugs and hired a new crew that began tracking me. They weren’t as ethical, and they sure didn’t toe the line on the law. These jerks loosened the lug nuts on my tires. They tampered with my brakes. And they put a rock the size of a head of cabbage through the front window of my motel room at three in the morning.
Fearing they’d do even worse kept me far, far from Dallas and my sister. She sounded better on the phone, stronger, but something like that rock incident could have had her hiding under the bed or sleeping in the closet for months. I couldn’t risk that.
While I’ve been undercover as Caroline, I’ve done my software developing on the side and worked as a waitress at dives across the South because that’s what Caro did before marrying Martin. Our parents insisted we work from sixteen on, so we appreciated the value of a dollar. I preferred solitude and computers. Caro loved being around people. Waitressing was made for her, and people just seemed drawn to her to share their troubles. She’s a nurturer and empathetic.
The job and she were well suited. I endured it, and looked forward to us spending Christmas together. But a couple weeks before, an event occurred that proved we couldn’t celebrate the holiday together. One of Martin’s new thugs ate at the restaurant I was working in at the time. On his way out, he slipped me a message scrawled on a napkin. “Go home now and he’ll let you live. If you don’t, he’s coming for you.”
That was in Grady, Louisiana. I called the police, but they said not to take the threat literally. Tense people tended to jack up emotionally around the holidays.
I knew the message was a warning, and I’d be crazy not to take it literally. Martin stayed jacked up. In giving me the note, the thug was putting me on notice. He either had a conscience or a heart. Anyway, he didn’t want to kill me, but if Martin issued the order, he would do it. I think the thug was trying to give me a fighting chance.
Then a few days before Christmas, Martin showed up at the ranchette and confronted my sister. Thank heaven, he believed she was me. Otherwise that visit would have ended even worse than it did. He told her to get a message to his wife. “Be home by Valentine’s Day or else.”
No further explanation was needed. By then, Caro had divorced Martin, but he refused to accept it. Caro was livid. She told Nell, who happened to be at the ranchette during the confrontation, it was time we both got our lives back. Nell recorded the whole ordeal, should you care to hear it. She assured me Caro was leaving Dallas and the ranchette—destination unknown—in a good place mentally and emotionally and she would soon be in touch.
Nell was right about that. I heard from Caro on Christmas Day. She said a Dallas chef was helping her get away and Operation Switch and Bait was officially over. It was past time she put a stop to Martin threatening me. She also said she’d resumed her true identity and was traveling as herself.
At the time of the call, Caro said she was in Even, Georgia, but within the hour, she would be leaving for Sampson Park. She promised to call me as soon as she settled in there and had a minute.
I haven’t heard a word from her since then and it is now March. Was the chef a chef or a serial killer? Did he work for Martin the Miserable? Had Caro been lured away from Dallas? Kidnapped or murdered? I have no idea.
I don’t think Martin has her. His henchmen haven’t eased up on me. If anything, since Valentine’s Day, they’ve been more aggressive and persistent. Once his “get home” deadline passed without Caro returning to New York… well, let’s just say his thugs have been ruthless and relentless. They’ve also been harder to shake and evade. My guess is he’s offered them a whale of a bonus and put them on a short deadline to get Caro to him and collect it.
Because he hasn’t called them off, I’ve stuck with my Caro identity. Whether or not Martin has her, there being two of her creates a confusion factor and uncertainty. Martin’s doubt about whether she’s his wife or me might be Caro’s only protection.
While I’ve been getting restraining orders and a conceal carry permit and learning to shoot, she’s been doing only heaven knows what to shore up the tools in her self-defense arsenal. Actually, she’s probably been cooking. When she’s stressed, Caro always cooks.
It’s possible, of course, Martin knows exactly where she is and he’s yanking my chain to keep me from going to rescue her. He’d love to torment me for sport. According to Caro, it really needled him that he couldn’t control a woman who looks like his wife.
The bottom line is I don’t know if he has her or not. He could, or he could know she’s running and is hoping to locate her through me. Believe me, I wish I did know. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since she went missing. Martin is sadistic and totally obsessed with getting her back, so the truth could be just about anything.
I do know for fact I’m terrified. Terrified in a way dealing with Martin and his jerk thugs has never terrified me. I always knew, if he could get away with it, he’d kill me. And I knew he’d kill Caro without a second blink. Those were givens. What keeps me in a cold sweat is, I have no idea where Caro is or who she’s with or if she’s even still alive.
Martin could have found and killed her. He could be letting me keep Operation Switch and Bait active to shore up his alibi. Give people enough time and they’ll forget anything.
It makes me sick to say it, but her death could be behind her disappearance. If Caro could have called me, she would have. She’d have kept calling Saturdays at ten on her special phone. If she had an interim emergency, she would have called then. Something has happened to her, and whatever it is, I fear she never saw it coming.
Her not calling at all leaves me between the rock and the hard place. I have no choice but to stop misdirecting the thugs and do all I can to find her. I have to know what’s happened to my sister. Which means, I have to ignore my instinctive inclinations to stay away from her and go to Even, Georgia.
The risks in that should now be abundantly clear to you. If Caro is still there and I’m followed, Martin’s thugs will nail us both. If she’s not there, maybe someone who is can lead me to Sampson Park. So far, I haven’t been able to locate even what state it is in, provided it’s in the States. None of my techie friends have had any luck, either. Sampson Park seems to be a phantom park that doesn’t exist. That’s what has me worried about the chef supposedly helping her and his motives.
Now that’s what’s happened to get us to this point. I’ve asked Nell to hold this video until the end of March. She has no idea what’s in it yet, but if I fail to contact her on or before March 31st, on April 1st, she will view it and hand deliver the video to you with the following note:
To: Hon. Dexter Devlin
I’m enclosing double your usual retainer fee of $1,000,000 and asking you to view the enclosed video. Once you do, it is my hope you will search for my sister and me.
I realize you handpick your clients and you don’t know me from Adam, but you’re reputed to be the best legal mind maybe ever, and my sister and I need all you have and maybe more to survive… or for those guilty of killing us to be held accountable.
If my sister and/or I are dead, look first to Martin Easton. The video will explain. And please start looking for us in Even, Georgia.
Nell cringed in her seat, her mind whirling. So Christine—the real Christine—had made the video and delivered it. Not Caroline. Shaking the envelope, a check fluttered out and landed on Nell’s desktop. It was made out to Dexter Devlin for $2 million and signed by Christine Branch. “Oh, my word.”
Nell ejected the CD and put it and the check back into the envelope, then grabbed and dialed her mobile phone with her free hand.
The man whose neck lay as exposed as her own didn’t answer. His voice mail picked up…
And it kept picking up for the next eleven days.
Had Martin Easton found him?
That thought horrified Nell. The implications for him, her and so many more had her breathless and mentally staggering.
On March 21st, someone picked up. Nell held the phone in a death grip and said, “Jackson, finally! Thank goodness—“
The call then rolled over to voice mail. “Sorry, I can’t take your call right now. If you’ll leave a message after the tone, I’ll get back with you as soon…”
Why wouldn’t he talk to her? Had their parts in this been exposed?
Nell let her head loll back against her neck, closed her eyes and prayed for intercession. The man either couldn’t or wouldn’t take her calls. That was troubling news. Daring to hope he hadn’t been compromised, she paced a short path between her desk and the back of a cream leather sofa, waiting for the beep, then left the same message she’d left every day since Christine had left the package with her on March 10th.
Any guilt Nell had felt about violating Christine’s wishes and viewing the video and reading the note to Dexter Devlin before the appointed time had long since fallen under the weight of fear.
Considering the circumstances and her own part in them, by the end of her first view of the video, Nell had been hyperventilating, horrified, and calling Jackson. Every day, she had the same reaction. Every time any of this sordid mess so much as crossed her mind, she had that same reaction.
In all her years of counseling, Nell never had faced an issue like this. One that could cost her everything. Dexter Devlin, for pity’s sake. The man was notorious for never giving up and for going toe-to-toe with anyone short of God. He’d bury Nell and Jackson and everyone else involved.
In this case, there was a lot buried in Dallas that needed to stay buried.
The name of the patient whose records Nell had made disappear, whose appointments had been erased from her calendar. Whose every connection to her had been not only severed but obliterated. Those things topped the list but they weren’t the only things on it, and Caroline wasn’t the only patient. If Nell and Jackson weren’t careful, their whole group could wind up down and dead in Dallas.
With a shaky ebony hand, Nell poured herself a stiff drink then downed it in a single gulp. It burned going down her throat. Of all times for Jackson to pull a disappearing act, he had to choose now?
Her hands sweat, making the phone slick and hard to hold. She shook all over. Her stomach knotted, and a bitter taste filled her mouth. Check your messages and do something, Jackson. Please!
Finally, she heard the droning beep. “It’s Nell again,” she said. “Call me as soon as you get this. I don’t care what time it is, as soon as you get in, call me, Jackson.”
She hesitated hanging up, then said aloud the name she’d avoided mentioning to anyone, including in her previous messages to Jackson. “It’s about Caroline.” Nell’s voice thinned. “We have an emergency…”