“Run!” Arms pumping, legs churning, she cast off the high heels that completed her cobalt business suit and prayed it would be enough. All that was left of her life was in the stylish black leather backpack looped over her shoulders.
“Run!” Her lungs burned, the humid air dragged at her. She dug deep for a higher gear, sprinting for the safety of the house. Getting caught was worse than losing the data, possibly worse than death.
She heard him gaining on her, his feet slapping the pavement just a micro-second quicker than her own.
He caught her around the middle, stealing her breath as they crashed to the street.
Heart hammering, Allie Williams leaped out of the dream, clutching her midsection and fumbling with the light. With shaking hands, she reached for the glass of water on the nightstand.
Three times this week the nightmare had left her feeling trapped and helpless. She didn’t need a dream analysis or psych evaluation to tell her what it signified.
They were closing in and she was out of options.
Out of friends.
Out of time.
* * *
Ross Carpenter sat up a little straighter in the late model Ford sedan when a soft glow lit up the curtains in the second story bedroom window.
He made a note in the log and didn’t need to page back to know this was the third time in five nights. In his years of security and surveillance he’d learned the guilty often had trouble sleeping.
Lucky for him, this time around the guilty party was easy on the eyes. With that lean athletic body that rocked a business suit or running gear, and the new short cap of sunny blonde hair, Allie Williams was still a sight to behold. Even after all these years.
He enjoyed his job, regardless, but on long stakeouts like this a little eye candy kept the team alert. This woman, this case, was going to need their full attention.
He’d bet his recovery bonus she didn’t know exactly who was following her, but after five days on the job, he was sure she felt someone out here, watching and waiting for the right moment to haul her in.
Which meant she was smart and guilty. Fine by him, he enjoyed challenges. He might be enjoying this one a little too much.
Another light, in the bathroom this time. He imagined her splashing water on her face, analyzing the dark circles under her eyes. Yesterday’s photos proved she was good with concealer, but the strain was starting to show.
Those dark circles bothered him on a personal level he couldn’t shake. All his memories of her were bright and happy. Well, nearly all.
“Do everyone a favor, sweetheart,” he muttered, “and come clean.”
The location wasn’t really the issue. He could blend in anywhere, but the small Southern town routine wasn’t his favorite. Even with a solid cover story he kept his South Carolina team stationed an hour away in Columbia so they wouldn’t have to chat too much with the locals. They were generally nice people in this particular small town, but too concerned about their neighbors for his line of work.
He knew two strangers checking into the motel on Main Street or shopping at the Piggly Wiggly would be front page news around here.
He glared at yesterday’s local paper in the passenger seat. Already they’d run a feature on the niece of the local rich widow coming home, returning to her roots. He snorted. The above the fold feature mentioned an extended stay.
“Well, where else would you go?” He aimed the question at the big house.
Life was irony. Thief or not, Haleswood would always give Allie a hero’s welcome and give him the cold shoulder. Must be a courtesy to the prodigal daughter kind of thing. Since he’d never bothered to come back home until this assignment, he wouldn’t know.
Time was the real issue and hers was running out.
The curtains stirred, parting as his target peeked out into the night. He hunched deeper into the seat. She couldn’t possibly see him, couldn’t possibly tell his sedan apart from the others in the darkness.
“Go back to sleep, sweetheart. If you can.” Her nerves were rubbing off on him. He ran down the operation checklist for the mental distraction. Following her had been easier in Virginia with the larger population. Now, his team changed cars with every shift since she’d rolled into Haleswood two days ago. They were never seen in town together and he only worked the night shift. They had different cover stories and different reasons to be in her general vicinity.
He and his team were professionals, experts in the field. Their target wasn’t. He had every advantage here and yet something pricked his instincts, made him wary. There was a desperation about her lately, and he worried she’d do something crazier than she’d already done.
They’d been looking for a legal way into the aunt’s house, or at least into that black leather bag Allie – the thief – kept with her at all times.
No, she wasn’t a professional, and beyond the desperation, she was paranoid enough for a whole gang of thieves. Scared too, he thought, when the bedroom light stayed on.
She had good reason for the fear, and with him on her tail, she had good reason for the paranoia.
When the name had come across his desk, he’d called it coincidence. Williams was common enough as names went. The pictures of her at corporate galas, hospital benefits, and racing in this or that triathlon sparked the inevitable flood of memories.
Hearing she’d stolen sensitive data didn’t stem the tide of old feelings, it just made him more determined to reel her in quickly.
* * *
Allie looked at the bed, but knew she couldn’t sleep. She didn’t want to risk even an attempt so soon after the nightmare. She couldn’t lie there in the dark pretending anymore, the tension, the uncertainty were tying her up in knots.
She wanted to move. Needed to move. Her body craved a hard run in the cool pre-dawn air, but she was too afraid of the darkness outside, despite the pervasive safety of the quiet neighborhood that overlooked the sleeping town.
A few taps on her phone brought up a Sudoku puzzle but the distraction wasn’t enough to tune out the negativity cycling through her head. She needed help, but there was no one to call on. The incriminating evidence on the hard drive in her bag meant she couldn’t involve any of her professional associates. Bottom line: she was guilty. She’d deliberately stolen sensitive information.
Information that proved her bosses were guilty of deplorable behavior.
Stealing made her a criminal, but at least she wasn’t hurting innocent people.
She set the phone aside and pushed her hands through her hair. In her dream it had been long, but she’d chopped it off before her last triathlon, back when her life had been simple. Only last month, but it felt like years. At the time, she’d been disappointed she hadn’t won the race for the good publicity for her company. Now she was grateful she hadn’t added even one more small accolade to perpetuate the myth that they cared about anything other than their bottom line.
When the fidgeting got the best of her and yoga breathing didn’t help, she changed from her nightshirt into a sports bra, shorts, and running shoes. Her aunt kept a treadmill downstairs, in a small room tucked between the garage and the kitchen.
Allie could scan the news networks while she worked off the tension. She might even come up with some brilliant idea for her next move.
It seemed childish, turning on every light along her path though the big house, but she couldn’t shake the nerves. What did it matter?
She was alone, staying here while her aunt enjoyed a couple weeks cruising the Mediterranean. Allie wouldn’t have hidden here if it meant putting her aunt in the line of fire, but with her aunt safely out of the way and the clock ticking, this was the best of her limited options. She had to figure this out or turn herself in soon.
She grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator on her way through the kitchen and felt ridiculously accomplished when she reached the exercise room without trouble or a nervous breakdown.
Then she tried to feel nothing at all as she set her feet into the soothing motion on the treadmill. It felt so good to move, to focus on nothing but her breathing, she muted the volume on the television as she increased her speed. Running outside was better, but this was a fair compromise. If she survived the consequences of this decision she’d made, if she managed to stay out of jail, she knew compromise would be the theme of the rest of her days.
Her career as a publicist for the pharmaceutical research and development industry was over, but there might be other options. With her master’s degree and athletic experience, maybe she could coach at the junior high or high school level. Except along with that experience, came her name and a comprehensive resume that ended with the glaring black mark of stealing from her employer.
While it was tempting, she couldn’t hang out here in Haleswood, hiding in plain sight indefinitely. It was only a matter of time before someone dug up this address in her family records and came calling despite the lack of cover available in a tiny town where every visitor was big news.
If she managed to settle things peacefully she might be able to negotiate something just shy of a complete career meltdown and gain a little breathing space. Even if the town eventually judged her with the facts as presented by her former employer, she and Aunt Ruth would know the truth. It might even boost business at her aunt’s coffee shop in town if people thought they could come by and hear the gory details of the prom queen gone bad.
Prom queen. That felt like a million years ago.
She turned the television volume up a few notches above low, flipping between news stations for any word yet on her criminal activity and disappearance. It had been six days and still nothing had been announced publicly. No doubt the executives were locked in a conference room analyzing their options. They would be meticulous about finding the best approach to out her before she could out them and they held all but one of the cards.
In the past few days she felt someone watching her and knew the sensation was more than her own guilt. Her bosses, with so much money on the line wouldn’t hesitate to hire someone to track her down. While she wished she could’ve made it more of a challenge, she didn’t have the resources beyond a new phone and the safety of a loyal small town. Sure she had the truth on her side. The trouble was that truth might never come to light.
It was disconcerting how well her boss kept everything out of the news. For another moment, she considered posting the incriminating evidence online and forcing him to react, but that would only make it easier for the company to discredit her. She understood the game and how they could spin her story as just another disgruntled employee out for revenge. The waiting was horrible, but until she had more instructions from the law firm she’d contacted, it was her best option.
Her palms sweaty from thinking about the hornet’s nest she’d stirred up, she bobbled the remote as she went to change channels. With an easy move, she hopped off the treadmill to pick it up.
The treadmill screeched and the control panel lit up in a shower of sparks. What the –? Her ears were ringing from the blast of sound. Someone had shot at her…from only a few feet away. Someone was in the house!
For an infinity of two seconds she froze.