Nick looked at the door when he heard the key inserted. Quietly he moved off the bed to the dresser and picked up the folded plastic chair, lifting it above his shoulder so he could get a good swing in. The door opened and as soon as he saw the woman’s head, he swung!
The woman dropped the food tray she was carrying and caught the chair with both hands. He tensed his grip on the chair to keep her from pulling it away, but she surprised him. Instead she shoved it at him, ramming the edge of the chair into his ribs. The pain threw him off balance and she easily twisted the chair out of his grip.
He lunged at her, expecting her to plant her weight. Instead she grabbed his forearms and fell back as she brought a knee up. When she hit the floor with him over her, her knee jammed deep into his stomach, radiating pain across his back, sides, and thighs. As he fell back to escape the pain, his groin smashed against her leg. She rolled through the fall, throwing Nick over her head and onto his back. She leapt to her feet and turned as he pulled himself to his feet.
“Stop, Nick,” she calmly ordered, “you cannot win.”
He didn’t believe her. Nick charged at her, expecting her to plant her weight or duck like she had before, and he was ready for both. What he wasn’t ready for was her to drop on one knee and bow. With his weight thrown into the charge, he couldn’t stop himself. His legs hit her shoulders and he tumbled over her back, landing hard on his already aching ribs and hitting his wounded forehead against the foot of the bed. Momentarily stunned by the pain, Nick couldn’t think or move.
Nick gasped as electricity coursed through him, stealing his strength and coordination. He fell back to the floor, watching everything around him move and sway. He saw her come into his view and expected her to attack him again.
But she didn’t. She simply stared at him as his consciousness faded.
When consciousness came back, Nick quickly remembered he’d gotten his ass kicked by a girl. His aching head was now joined by an aching body. He opened his eyes, finding he was still on the floor. He moved his arms and discovered his hands were handcuffed behind his back.
He heard someone clear their throat and looked up. The woman was sitting in the plastic folding chair he’d attacked her with, one arm casually draped over the back. Her other hand rested her knee that that crossed over her other leg. She dangled the handcuff key from a finger. He couldn’t tell if she was intentionally taunting him, or if she was unaware how vindictive dangling that key was.
Nick slowly rolled into a sitting position but he never took his eyes off her.
“Fully awake?” she asked, and then cocked her head just slightly to the side.
He stared at her, waiting for her to continue. She didn’t, so he slowly nodded twice.
“Good. Now, Mr. Stokes, I do understand your reaction to being kidnapped,” the woman told him, “and if roles were reversed, I would likely do the same things you’ve done. However, no harm will come to you while you are in my custody. To convince you of this, let’s examine two aspects regarding this kidnapping.” She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees so she could look him in the eye. The key was now dangling between her legs and the way she bounced it around, he knew she was intentionally taunting him with that small piece of metal. “The first aspect is why you are here. Raylene Malandra.”
It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. He didn’t get what it meant, but she continued speaking before he could ask.
“Raylene likes you, very much. In the years you two have been friends, I have seen her change in positive ways. Sometimes she smiles, which is something she never used to do. She has become better at speaking to strangers, and she even laughs once in a while. You have been very good for her. Since Raylene is my best, my only, friend, when she called upset that a shooter or shooters were trying to kill you, I agreed to help. The second—”
“Help how?” Nick asked. “Are you one of the woman who threatened her?”
“That is a fair question, and the answer is no, I am not one of the people who threatened her. You seemed to have breezed past my mention that Raylene is my only friend.”
Nick hadn’t, but he wasn’t inclined to believe a kidnapper, either.
“What our mutual friend, Raylene, has to do with this became unexpectedly, and unnecessarily, complicated. I’m sure you already know that six months ago Raylene published a paper in a science journal. This paper detailed a theory to create a very small, but very powerful Long Range Acoustic Device. While it was published stating this was a theory, it wasn’t, was it, Mr. Stokes? In fact you and Stephanie, Raylene’s lawyer, both told her to say it was to protect her.”
“Someone found out it wasn’t a theory, though. Did you tell them? Did you out your only friend?”
“You really do have a hard time conceptualizing what having only one friend in the world means, don’t you?”
He didn’t answer. Maybe he couldn’t trust that she wasn’t going to hurt him, but she wasn’t asking him to trust her that far. She was just asking him to believe that, like him, Raylene’s best interest was also her best interest. He decided to accept that – for now.
“So how did these people find out?”
“I’m not sure. Yet. When this is over, I will find out, and it will never happen again, I assure you. But we aren’t talking about that right now, are we? No. We’re talking about you, and Raylene, and how you’re stubbornness and desire to protect her landed you here, in handcuffs, and covered in bruises. Correct?”
Nick nodded once. He really did hate this woman.
“Raylene assumes the women who contacted her are part of a terrorist group, and refused to sell them the schematics or prototype. She told me that you told her never to sell this to anyone, no matter who they were or what they offered.”
Again, he nodded once.
There was a slight nod of approval, and she continued, “Whoever they are, no was not an answer they accepted, so they began making attempts on your life to change her mind. They came closer to taking your life each time she told them no.” The woman stopped talking, likely to let this information sink in.
And Nick needed it. He wanted to call this woman a liar, to tell her there is no way Raylene would do this to him. But wouldn’t she? Raylene was unpredictable. Half the time he never knew how she was going to react to something, and the other half he was spot on with his assumption. “Raylene… She had me kidnapped?”
“Yes and no. She wanted to pay me, but that was unnecessary. I too want to protect her with all the commitment you have. Instead, I told her I would do this for her if she went to the police, took responsibility for her action in this, and worked with your co-workers to find the people blackmailing her and trying to kill you. Because, as I just said, Mr. Stokes, you are a very good influence on her and that makes you have value to me. Is that aspect clear now?”
She leaned back in the chair, passing the key from hand to hand. He guessed this was another intentional taunting move – she was vindictive when she was upset. Or was she just vindictive naturally?
“The second aspect that you need to have a clear understanding of, Mr. Stokes, is that I am a professional cleaner.”
She stopped talking, letting her profession hang in the air between them. Nick’s mind was quick to brush away a carpet cleaner, car cleaner – because none of those professions would give a person skills to kidnap so effortlessly or fight like she had.
“You kill people.”
“Sometimes. Sometimes I clean up messes. Either way, I am very. Good. At my job. In short, Mr. Stokes, you are safe in my care, and because this is for Raylene, you are safe from me. Have I made these two aspects abundantly clear, Mr. Stokes?”
Nick nodded again.
“I’m sorry? I cannot hear you.”
Her sarcasm only fed his hate toward her. Gritting his teeth he growled, “Yes. Ma’am.”
“In light of this understanding, these are my expectations of you from hence forth.” The woman stood up, walked up to him, and crouched down so they were looking each other in the eye. “Do not be fooled by what I said about valuing you for the benefit of my best friend. Now, Mr. Stokes, I promised Raylene I would keep you alive and safe from the people trying to kill you, and I do not break my promises. However, if you continue to be a problem, I am not above breaking both of your legs. There will be no more foolish attempts to escape. You will never attack me again. I will bring in your meals and you will stay on the bed until I have left the room. Do you need any clarifications for these expectations?”
“Good.” She stood, looking down at him. “Pretend this is a vacation, if that helps. Raylene made sure you had many of your favorite things here to occupy your time; the books, the television, and the PlayStation. So relax, catch up on some sleep. As soon as it is safe for you to return, I will deliver you to a car, put you in it, and you will go back to your life. With that said, do understand that every person in Raylene’s life is under my surveillance, even you. You hurt her in any way, and you will not live long enough to apologize for it. Do not. Cross me.” She walked over to the dresser and sat the key on the edge, and then turned back to him at the open door. “I think it’s only fair to let you figure out how to get out of those handcuffs yourself. If nothing else, it will keep you quiet for an hour or two.” She walked out, closing the door with a slight slam, and the lock rattled.
“You suck at apologies,” Nick muttered to the door.
He clumsily got to his feet and walked over to the dresser, staring at the key. With a sigh, he set about figuring how to get himself out of the handcuffs.
Russell poured over articles about Raylene, or written by Raylene. Understanding what Asperger’s Syndrome was much different than seeing the mind with it work – the IQ of this woman must be close to a record. Under different circumstances, Russell would have wanted to watch her work and pick her brain. Under the current circumstances, however, it made him very worried about Nick’s safety. Her brilliance had made Raylene a millionaire, so she was blessed with both the means and ability to make him disappear forever if they couldn’t find out who was blackmailing her and shooting at him.
Someone enter his office and a report was sat down at his elbow.
Greg told him, “Hodges finished the trace on Nick’s car. There’s nothing new. There weren’t any fingerprints on the note either. The paper and ink were both common, sold in a dozen stores just around the precinct, so that was a dead end too.”
“Great,” Russell said.
“Where do you need me next?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ll text you when I figure that out.”
He heard Greg pick up bags and looked up. The three toothpick and jellybean artwork Raylene had made during her interview were sitting in evidence bags on his desk. They hadn’t told him anything more than she had a thing for patterns – not an unusual penchant for a person with Asperger’s Syndrome.
“Did Raylene make these?” Greg asked.
“I wonder if they’re real.”
“What do you mean?”
Greg sat the bagged projects back on the desk. “These, all three of these, I wonder if they’re real DNA strands.”
Russell looked down at the projects. He picked a bag up, staring at the model inside. Of course there was a pattern! She had made DNA models, but were they real? How could they be? Yes, he couldn’t model DNA without the aid of a computer, but could Raylene? Could she have set clues to where Nick was right in front of him without him knowing?
Russell picked up all three and held them out to Greg. “Find out.”
Greg left with the bags.
Greg passed the computer lab, noticing Morgan staring at a computer monitor. He turned and went back in.
“Any luck on the compositions Raylene gave us?” he asked.
She shook her head, not taking her eyes off the faces of women speeding by on the right side of the screen. On the left was a static composition one of the woman who had attempted to coerce Raylene into turning over her weapon.
“I’m not so sure that woman is telling the truth.”
Greg looked down at the bags in his hand, thinking about that.
“What are those?” Morgan asked.
“When she was interviewed she asked for jelly beans and toothpicks.” He held one up for Morgan to see. “She made DNA models with them.”
Morgan’s eyebrows lifted – he could tell she did or didn’t believe him.
“I’m serious! These are DNA models. I just don’t know if they’re real or not. I have to scan them and see what I get.”
She shook her head, looking back at the monitor when it beeped. Morgan sat up straight.
“I have a…” In a defeated tone, she added, “Hit.”
Greg joined her. Right away he saw the problem. While the computer had found a match to the very detailed composite, the woman’s file was classified by the CIA and even her name was redacted.
“Well, now we know our government is trying to kill Nick,” Morgan angrily snarled.
“We don’t know that. She probably isn’t even really CIA.”
“Who isn’t?” Sara’s voice asked.
Greg turned, watching her walk up.
“The suspect’s… Suspect?” Morgan looked up at Greg with a dubious expression – she wasn’t sure how to say that mouth-full. He could only offer a shrug as advice. “Anyway, the second lady who tried to blackmail Raylene.”
Sara read the screen before pulling her cell phone from her pocket.
“Calling Ecklie?” Greg asked.
“No. Someone better.” Sara smiled at him. There was a quiet hello on the phone and Sara continued, “Catherine, hey, it’s Sara. No, she hasn’t told us where Nick is yet, but one of the composites hit on a woman with a classified CIA file. Could… I’ll text you what we have. Thanks.” Sara hung up and started writing a text message.
“That didn’t take much convincing.” Morgan noted.
“She’s just as worried as we are.” Sara stopped, noticing the bags in Greg’s hand. “Why do you have those?” Sara asked him.
“They’re DNA models.”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Shouldn’t you be finding out?”
He hesitated. “I was, but—”
“Nick isn’t coming back until Raylene’s convinced he’s safe, Greg!”
Greg rushed off.
Nick heard a pop but didn’t look up from the book he was reading. Over the last two days he learned the woman didn’t make much noise.
He heard the key rattle in the door and then flew open. She slammed it shut behind her. Nick’s heart leapt into his throat as the woman charged at him, brandishing a Gloc. Nick had actually believed her promise not to kill him and was kicking himself now.
He yelled, “You said—”
She slapped her hand over his mouth. “Shh,” she whispered.
He heard something begin to pound against a door somewhere else in the cabin. She moved her hand and grabbed his wrist.
“Come on. Hurry,” she whispered.
Nick got to his feet as gunfire raked through the next room. She led him into the bathroom and they both crouched. He looked back into the other room, waiting for whoever was shooting to come through the door. When he heard a soft squeak, he turned his head. The woman was lifting the floor of the shower, revealing an opening that had been hidden there all this time. She turned to him.
“Come on. Get down there,” she ordered him.
“That… That’s been—”
“They’ve come to kill you, Mr. Stokes!”
Nick moved past the shock and over to the hole that had once been the floor of the shower. He paused to assess what he was looking at. The fiberglass floor was held up by six cement pillars and the drain pipe flexed to allow the movement and remain attached to the plumbing. This escape route had been meticulously thought through – something he could see either Raylene or the assassin coming up with.
“MOVE IT!” she hissed softly.
He sat down on the edge and slipped down into the darkness below, landing five feet under the floor. The woman moved into the hole and hopped down. She leapt up a couple times to grab the metal handle on the bottom, but was just a few inches too short. Nick jumped up and grabbed it, closing it over them. The two adjusted it so it fit perfectly back where it had been. His eyes adjusted to the dim darkness and he found they stood in a hole that had been dug into the cabin’s crawl space. The crawl space sloped gently upward. At the top there was a three feet gap but he couldn’t see a break in the lattice work that surrounded the structure.
She slipped the gun in the back of her jeans and moved quickly toward a dark space. Without any good plan of his own, Nick followed. Overhead they heard more shooting. Something broke open and they could hear footsteps on the floor overhead. More shooting. More footsteps.
They were crawling by the time the woman stopped at the edge of the house. Now that he was in dim light, he could see a break in the lattice that was blocked by stacked logs. The woman gave a push and the logs moved back – it was a false door disguised as stacked logs! What other secrets did this woman have in this place?
She moved close to the opening, looking out.
“We need to go,” Nick whispered.
She motioned him to be quiet.
When they heard voices where they’d come through the floor, she pushed the logs back so they could crawl out. She motioned Nick out. He kept close to the cabin, momentarily blinded by the brightness of daylight. Once his eyes adjusted, he was staring at the wall of a garage. He noticed the woman wasn’t beside him and looked back. She had crawled a little further up and was doing something. Suddenly she scrambled out from under the cabin and pushed the fake logs back into place. She grabbed his arm and at a crouching jog, they ran to the back of the building across from them. Nick tried to look back when he heard cries of pain from inside the cabin, but she wouldn’t let him slow down. She checked around the corner and then turned to him.
“Go through the door and crouch behind the vehicle inside. I will be right behind you.”
Nick looked back at the cabin when he heard someone inside scream in agonizing pain. He could hear people pounding on the doors. Items hit the windows, but they didn’t break. He suspected she had set a trap in case this day came, and whatever she did was horrific.
She grabbed his wrist, twisting it painfully with her fingers. He looked at her.
“The men inside are not the only ones here. We have to get out of sight, Nick.”
Nick hurried around the corner to a door. He heard more screams, but these were voices yelling information to other people – something about poison inside the cabin. With the door open he saw the back of an old Bronco and crouched down behind it. The woman darted in behind him, closed and locked the door, and then joined him.
Nick heard a familiar sound – an all too familiar sound. His mind pushed the idea away. There was no way what he thought he heard was real. Not with the surreal events happening right now. That would be the worst luck in the universe if his hearing was right.
“We’ll wait to see what they plan to do. They probably checked out here already.”
“But you don’t know for sure.” He started around the Bronco. “We have to get out of here.”
“Nick, no!” she grabbed his arm and pulled hard enough to yank him off his feet. He landed on his butt and against her.
His hand brushed something that fell over, knocking against wood in the corner of the building. The sound he’d heard earlier became louder and he realized his luck in the universe really was the worst.
Bees. And from the sounds of it, there was a hive of them very close to him. Bees, fire ants, wasps – they all had one thing in common for him. Within minutes of being stung or bitten, anaphylactic shock could kill him unless he had an EpiPen on hand.
Which he didn’t.
“Why would you bring me in here?”
“The hive wasn’t here two weeks ago, when all this started.”
He wanted to be braver than this, but those small insects were a death sentence.
“Nick, your breathing shallow. You need to calm down.”
He wanted to. He really, very much, desperately, with everything in him, wanted to calm down, but his fear ran too deep and his past experience with the vile insects had left traumatic memories. “I’m…” he whispered between each short, shallow, gasp, “Allergic… To—”
“I know. Raylene told me. Let’s get in the SUV, get the windows up, and wait. They can’t get in there.”
He was frozen. He knew her logic was sound, but his fear was much stronger.
Nick felt her hand slide into his, and to his surprise she gave him a reassuring squeeze. That brought him out of his fear and he turned his head to look at her.
“We’ll back away together, okay?” she offered.
The front doors of the garage were pulled open, letting in light so Nick could clearly see the hive. He fixated on it, contemplating get up and inviting a shot versus waiting to be stung
The two pressed against the back of the Bronco. Nick looked back at the hive. He was beginning to think getting shot would be more welcomed than being near this.
The woman pulled her gun from behind her and slowly cocked it to minimize the sound. She lifted it up, listening to the people at the front of the garage. She was ready to kill to protect him. Nick didn’t notice; he could not take his eyes off the hive.
The person walked a little ways into the garage, along the side. Their footsteps walked back out and then a few steps up the passenger side. The person stop, and then five shots were fired into the hive.
And then five shots were fired at the hive.
Angered by the shots, the bees began to fill the garage. The woman grabbed Nick’s arm, pulling him around the Bronco to the driver side. She motioned him to wait and stood up a little. Through the open windows of the Bronco she took aim and fired two shots.
The person in the garage returned fire and she ducked for a moment, then rose up and fired again. The person stopped shooting.
“Get in,” she ordered as she pulled the driver’s door open.
He climbed into the driver’s seat.
“Keep moving. Get over.”
Bullets ripped through the building, piercing the metal and glass of the Bronco. Nick scrambled into the passenger seat. The woman leapt in. She slammed the door and turned the ignition key at the same time. She sat up, threw the Bronco into drive, and peeled out of the garage. Nick looked over the dash, seeing five men standing in their path, still shooting.
He was about to tell her not to hit them when he felt a painful, burning sensation in his shoulder. Expecting it to be a bullet, he slapped his hand over the spot to apply pressure. Under his fingers he felt something hard and wriggling. He pulled his hand back, holding in his palm a dying, squirming bee.
“Oh shit!” Nick said as the dead bee slid from his trembling hand onto the floorboard. His whole body was starting to tremor.
Panic and anaphylaxis gripped him at the same time, hastening the allergic reaction. As each breath became harder to get, the world swayed. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, as if it were about to beat right out of his body. He slowly slumped over, not noticing the Bronco bounce when it ran over several of the men, or when the men hit the window and disappeared over the roof.
People shot at the back of the Bronco as it raced away. The woman grunted and almost slumped forward. She glanced at Nick, finally noticing he had lost all color, his breathing was growing more labored and raspy, and he did not look like he was going to make it out of this place alive.
“Nick?” she said.
He didn’t answer her.
“Nick, what’s wrong?” She laid a hand on his shoulder.
“B-Bee,” he whispered between gasps of air.
The woman glanced in the side mirror. Two cars were speeding after the Bronco. She patted one of her jacket pockets and then another, and produced an EpiPen. She reached over and pressed it into Nick’s hand.
He didn’t take it.
“Nick, that’s one of your EpiPens. Take it.”
He didn’t move his hand.
“I can’t do this for you. They’re right behind us. You have to inject yourself, Nick. I know you’re stronger than this. Give yourself that shot, Nick.”
His fingers slowly closed around the EpiPen. She put her hand back on the wheel, focusing on getting away from the shooters. She glanced at Nick. He had trouble gripping the cap of the EpiPen and pulling it off, but it finally came off. He jammed the needle into his thigh and pressed the injector at the top. His hand fell away, letting the EpiPen fall onto the seat beside him.
She reached over and rubbed the injection spot.
“Do you need a second one?”
“Yes,” he panted.
She fished another from her pocket and handed it to him. He was able to move a little faster this time and massaged the injection himself.
Nick’s eyes drifted to the passing scenery of the forest they raced through.
“Nick, stay awake. Stay with me,” she told him.
The sound of the shooting grew distant and the trees began blurring into blobs of green and brown, with blue high above them.
“Nick, stay awake. Do not pass out on me. Come on, Nick!”Her voice ordered and then begged him to stay awake. Both her voice and his conscious faded away.