Chapter 1 - Escapes NJ
Tom Brand spotted her as soon as he walked through the smoky glass doors of the bar. It was the easiest mark he ever made.
It wasn’t the long plaid shirt she was wearing or that her curly hair was thrown back in a messy ponytail amidst a sea of fashionably dressed Jersey girls with perfectly flat-ironed hair, so straight it shined. It wasn’t even that she sat tucked in the corner of the bar repeated pushing back her large glasses as they slipped down her nose. It was that she had no phone. For every other twenty-something in the bar their phones seemed an extension of their arms. It seemed the local college team had a good game and by extension everyone was having a great night. He strode toward her through the throng of jubilant selfie-takers, live-chatters, Instagram snappers and texters. The young woman simply sat and stared glumly at the drink in front of her, rolling the amber liquid slowly around the glass.
He was within a few feet of her when he stopped. Maybe it was a little too easy. He now took out his own phone and swiped at it as he surveyed the bar again. Nothing seemed out of place although in the last few moments, as the light mist outside turned to a heavier rain, it had gotten very crowded. People out on the street to smoke and vape ran back in, leaving George Street virtually empty. Brand was thankful for the rain. It was easier to do an extraction with less people on the street, especially if anything went wrong. He looked around again, unable to shake the feeling that something was off. He headed for the men’s room to get a better look around before committing.
The spot was a local favorite, despite being off the beaten path of the college town’s main downtown area. The crowd reflected this and there were more young professionals and alumni than drunken frat boys, although there were a few. The whole place was dark wood and chrome, even the bathroom. Brand gave this room a thorough look, sweeping for weapons, before washing his hands and returning to the bar. He took up a spot opposite the girl for to observe her another moment. No one seemed to notice her, not even the chihuahua of a man doing tequila shots next to her, although he was talking excitedly to everyone else around him. Using the mirrored wall behind the bar, Brand scanned the faces of the people sitting there. Everyone seemed cool. There was only one dude that concerned him. He looked like he could be up to something. Dressed in a sharp black jacket, black shirt and black tie, the man looked completely pissed off. Brand watched as a young lady tugged at him and whispered urgently in his ear. When he shook her off she stumbled and he grabbed her back toward him. It was nothing but young, drunk love, Brand thought.
Brand headed back around the bar and squeezed himself in between the girl and the man next to her. He leaned over to try to catch the bartender’s eye and then glanced back at her and asked, “Brandy?
The girl gave him a blank, bored look.
“No, Scotch,” she answered tilting her glass a little in his direction. Her voice had an Irish lilt to it.
Brand shook his head. “I mean the name. Brandy?”
She started at that.
“Oh, yes, Brandy. You mean my name. Yes, of course. I’m sorry.”
She leaned toward him, putting her hand up to her mouth, “I’m new at this. My name is actually Leah.”
“I’m Tom,” he said.
“Tom?” She wrinkled her nose a bit and took her glasses off, tucking them in the pocket of her shirt.
“I don’t think that’s the name I was told.”
He turned and looked at her full in the face. Her blue eyes were wide and innocent, framed by long blonde lashes and freckles that were sprinkled across the bridge of a nose on a face graced with otherwise porcelain skin. Brand was sure it had never seen a day in the sun at the Jersey shore.
“They gave you my name?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered, “Mike Schmittelli – or something like that. Sounded Italian to me. Why?”
Because clients were never given the name of the person extracting them. Code names were a one-way protocol.
Brand felt the hairs on his neck stand up and then a woman screamed. He turned to see black jacket guy grappling with someone. It was a woman. A woman with a gun. An assassin. Brand had missed her, distracted by him.
How he hadn’t noticed her, he could not explain. Although on the surface she looked like every other young lady in the place, the straight hair, blouse with cutouts, leggings, he had missed the a-little-too-over-done dark make up, the musculature and sinewy strength of the neck. After another second she had subdued Black Jacket by slamming his head against the bar. The guy would have a hell of a headache tomorrow if he wasn't dead. She was a professional. Brand would have given anything to see the surprise on her face when that guy tried to take her gun away from her. Brand was thankful for Black Jacket's interference. He had slipped up and the man was the only reason he wasn't laid out on the floor right now.
Brand dove to the ground, pulling Leah off her bar stool with one hand and pulling out his gun with the other. The fight and sight of a gun had started panic and a mass exodus. He hoped to take advantage of it, without too many people getting killed. He could sense that the woman was still at her place at the bar biding her time. He knew she would not hesitate to shoot anyone in her way. As the crowd continued to push through the doors, he could not see a way to exit. On his own, he would have been fine, but he now had Leah to think of as well.