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A cooling ocean breeze drifted over Mission Viejo, California, so the girl went to the window for some fresh night air. Her life was nearly perfect until the premature death of her mother.

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Chapter One

A cooling ocean breeze drifted over Mission Viejo, California, so the girl went to the window for some fresh night air. Her life was nearly perfect until the premature death of her mother. Then her father remarried, and she never fully accepted the friendship the new stepmother extended. As she began to adjust, another tragedy disrupted her life. Her father suddenly and unexpectedly died of a massive heart attack.

Jill Winters opened the window, swung back the screen on its hinges, and sucked in a deep breath of the cool night air. She should have been asleep hours ago, but the numerous social media features on her smartphone kept her busy. She watched from the second story dormer window of her bedroom as the black SUV slowly pulled up the circular drive. It stopped, but nobody got out, and no interior lights came on. Visitors frequently arrived and left at all hours, day or night, but since no one got out, she was intrigued. She was a teenager. It was her job to be nosy.

Her bedroom was dark, and she had stepped a couple of feet back from the window, so she knew she was unobserved. Jill moved forward a step when the porch light came on, and her stepmother came into view. The darkened passenger window slid down. Jill watched as her stepmom began to converse with the passenger, or perhaps the driver through the passenger window. She assumed it was just another official government vehicle, a natural assumption because her father had been some sort of agent who did something she never completely understood. Her stepmother also worked for the government in a capacity that was also unknown to her. They weren’t all that close.

She was about to return to her bed when a streak of fire immediately followed by another startled her. She watched in astonishment, dropping the phone that was usually attached like an appendage, as the woman collapsed in a heap, and blood began to pool around her inert body.

Involuntarily, her hands went to her face, and she cried out, eyes wide with horror, as the color drained from her face. Not a scream—more of a gasp. Jill was not able to look away from the mind-blowing scene. The reality of the situation struck home when the doors of the Suburban flew open, and three men rushed toward the house. As they left her range of vision, the porch lights went out, presumably when one of the men broke the bulbs, but not before Jill saw the guns…handguns with long extensions. Suppressors. Things her father had casually told her about.

It took only a moment for her to realize what was happening. She grabbed a pair of jeans, snatched up the dropped phone, stuffed it in her purse and went to the dormer window. Jill looked around the bedroom thinking it might be for the last time. Hating to leave what had always been a haven, she stepped out. The steep roof caused her to slip, so she didn’t get the window back down. With the purse straps in her teeth and the jeans around her neck, she started to climb using her hands, forearms, knees and toes. She had on slick-soled moccasin slippers that were not the best for scaling a steep composite shingled roof. It was difficult work. Her skin became chaffed from the gravelly texture of the composite shingles, but she finally made it to the ridge of the roof. She heard faint noises coming from the house as the gunmen cleared the rooms, so she rested only a moment before crawling along the ridge toward the garage. Straddling the ridge made the going easier and faster than the crawl up the steep slope, and soon Jill looked down to the single story roof of the garage. She swiveled onto her belly and eased her legs over the edge hoping to drop silently onto the garage. Jill carefully pushed herself backward, but the steep angle of the roof caused her to lose her grip and she dropped hard onto the garage.

“Oh, God—oh, God,” she muttered through her clenched teeth, her breath coming in gasps and her heart rate increasing with each passing second. Jill knew from discussions with her father the danger of panic, but it was difficult to suppress. The pitch of the garage matched the main house, and Jill began to slide, scraping her belly and thighs along the abrasive shingles. The slide stopped when her toes went over the edge and caught in the gutter.

Another bout of panic began when she realized they must have heard her fall. With the purse still in her teeth and the jeans around her neck, she eased down and grabbed the gutter. She took a deep breath and, her heart now hammering like a paint shaker and dropped to the ground. The drop was so short it surprised her, but it took only a beat for her to gather her senses and sprint for the back fence.

Jill paused between two camellia shrubs just long enough to toss the purse and jeans over and was about to pull herself to the top of the six-foot fence when wood shattered beside her. It sounded as though someone hit the fence with a hammer. A millisecond later she was over and flat on her belly as three more holes erupted in the fence and wood splinters showered down.

She picked up the purse and jeans and crawled forward a few feet, then began running across the neighbor’s yard. As she passed their car, she hit it as hard as she could and prayed that an alarm would sound. It didn’t. It occurred to her to go to the door and yell for help but the fast thinking girl didn’t slow down. The gunmen would be there and gone before help could arrive.

Across the street was a wooded greenbelt area, and she was tempted to run for that, but some natural survival process told her it was what they would expect. Fighting down panic, she remembered her father’s lectures. She took the phone from her purse and threw it toward the green belt, then turned left and ran as hard as she could. Forty yards into the sprint, she turned left again and dropped prone into a small drainage ditch. She couldn’t hear any pursuit over her breathing and her heart pounding in her ears but if they could find or track the phone, they’d think she went into the woods.

Jill tried to calm herself with very little luck. She dropped onto her back and pulled on the jeans. Gasping for breath, she rolled over and crawled toward the end of a concrete pipe culvert. It was a twenty-four-inch storm drain that transferred water across the block for nearly a hundred yards from an inlet on her street. There was a trash rack grate over the end of the pipe, and when Jill pulled on it, the grate lifted. She slithered under and let it drop back into place. Please, Lord, please let them think I went into the woods. She began to crawl into the dark void of the pipe.

Panic began again as she realized if they found her in here all they had to do was shoot their silenced guns into the pipe. She would be dead and left to decompose inside the pipe. This prompted her to crawl faster as other disastrous thoughts crept into her mind. A venomous spider, rattlesnakes, skunks and God-knows-what might be living in the pipe. She shuddered as chills ran up her spine, but kept on crawling. Her mind raced through dozens of scenarios, none good. But the worst was bullets.

Jill had crawled only a few feet into the pipe when she tried to turn and look back. She had never been in such a claustrophobic situation and the realization that she couldn’t turn around caused her to hyperventilate. The frightening thoughts racing through her mind made it worse. What if something plugged the pipe? What if it caved in? Her chest rose and fell ever faster she became frantic.

For a moment, terror prevented her from moving a muscle. The chest-crushing grip of fear surged up, and tears ran down her cheeks. Get a grip, girl. Bad men are back there, and you need to move. Nothing happened. She placed her head on her arms and closed her eyes. See, this is just like lying in bed. No reason to worry.

Jill took deep breaths that stirred up a little dust from the silt in the pipe and nearly made her cough. Keeping her eyes shut, she raised her head slightly and continued to breathe deeply and slowly. She could feel her heart rate decrease slightly as the panic subsided, and her respiratory count decreased. Now she was just scared. She opened her eyes and resumed the crawl, but the near total absence of light prevented any vision of what might be ahead. “I can do this…I can do this…I can do this,” she softly said. Lying calmly with her eyes closed had helped. “I got this,” she said through clenched teeth, but she still continued to tremble.

Jill Winters was not only a gifted student and a superb athlete but also a survivor. It was in her genes. When her mother died, she had mourned and for a few days fallen into a deep depression. Then one morning she rose from her bed, showered, fixed bacon and eggs for her father and calmly said, “It there anything we need to talk about?”

“Only if and when you want to,” her father answered.

“Mom’s gone. She’s not coming back, but I have memories. If that’s all I get, I’ll have to take it. There’s a lot for me to do so I’d better get with it. That’s what she would want.”

After that, they occasionally spoke about her mom, but it was always pleasant memories.

But now, with her teeth still clenched, Jill continued to crawl and soon she could see a little light ahead. Her spirits rose. The end was in sight. But it was only an inlet at about the half-way point, and she nearly cried. Jill rolled over onto her back and pushed on the grate. Nothing happened. She braced herself and tried again pushing all her strength. Still nothing. After a brief feeling of crushing disappointment, she rolled back and kept on crawling, renewing her resolve. I got half way okay so I guess I can do the other half; she thought.

Three men began a systematic search of the woods while the driver rolled Jill’s stepmother in a plastic sheet and loaded her into the Suburban. They found the open window to the bedroom and knew exactly how she had escaped. Even if she could not identify the assailants, it was not prudent to allow a witness to escape.

Jill crawled on not knowing she was completely safe in the pipe. She crawled through a spider web that brought on another fit of near panic. Fear of spiders had never been a factor, but things were different inside the confines of the pipe. Her imagination ran wild for a moment. She closed her eyes again and took a few deep, calming breaths. She gathered her courage, and then she hurried on, wiping the webs free of her face and arms, wanting to put as much space as possible from any potentially dangerous spiders. She nearly panicked again at the mental picture of black widow spiders crawling around on her back.

You’re okay, girl. You got this. Just keep going. Quit imagining things.

The low crawl is the most inefficient means of travel and also very hard work, even for a girl who was very athletic and into sports. Her forearms and knees, already raw from the escape on the roof, were becoming bloody, but she hardly felt it. When she finally reached the end of the pipe, she pushed away another trash rack, rolled away from the end and flopped over onto her back in near exhaustion, from both work and the fear. Her eyes teared up both from watching her stepmother murdered and for her personal plight. She understood a witness to a murder couldn’t be allowed to live, and the panic started coming back. Jill forced herself to set up. After a couple of deep, calming breaths, she muttered, “Thank you, God. I may need some more help so please don’t go away on me.”

The key in her purse and the instructions her father had given her were foremost in her thoughts now. She could not go to the police. The black Suburban guaranteed that.

Who were those men?

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