The blaze reached toward the night sky, leaping away from firefighters and warring with the billowing smoke trying to blot out the stars. It was mesmerizing, might even have been beautiful, if the end result wasn’t so devastating.
Rick Dreyer had better things to look for. His boss would ask if this fire was tied to the case he was working and the woman under his surveillance or simply a lousy coincidence.
It was a sucker bet and a Murphy’s Law kind of moment, but he was too jaded to assume coincidence.
Using the cover of displaced residents and gawking bystanders, he skirted the crowd to keep his target in sight. The target, a gorgeous brunette, was the only perk of this assignment. Her hourglass figure and sleek, long hair would tempt any breathing man. But there was something in her eyes, a wariness he caught whenever he zoomed in with the camera lens or binoculars. It made him wonder what put it there.
He didn’t care for the feeling. Wondering, experiencing genuine concern about a target wasn’t in his repertoire anymore. He worked his cases straight forward and knew the boss valued his ability to remain neutral.
As far as the current case went, Nicole Livingston wasn’t a threat to the client. Being displaced by a fire just weeks before Thanksgiving didn’t constitute immediate danger. Pulling out his phone, he sent a cursory alert to the office until he could file the full report.
Relieved he could leave Virginia as soon as he finished the verification appointment slated for the morning, he knew it was time to walk away.
He moved closer.
* * *
Huddled with her neighbors, Nicole let them watch their chic suburban apartment building go up in flames while she watched the shadows and the spectators for any sign of who had done this. It was a nightmarish end to another tedious day at work.
Her best friend, Allie, had disappeared a few days ago amid terrible rumors circulating at their office. She desperately wanted to know if Allie was okay, but her company laptop had died a sudden death, and now her personal computer – along with the rest of her personal life – was being incinerated.
It could be a coincidence.
Right. Obviously she still believed in fairy tales.
Nicole knew she was the last person to have contact with Allie and the only person who knew where her friend had been planning to hide from the trouble dogging her.
She glanced around, looking for a face that didn’t belong, for anyone wearing an expression that didn’t match up with the traumatic situation. There were plenty of reasons for an apartment building to catch fire. It was a wonder accidents didn’t happen more frequently with so many people living in close quarters. Still, she had a feeling there was more to this particular blaze.
Seeing one of her favorite neighbors in tears, she went over to give the woman a hug. “They’ll have it out soon, Mrs. Beaumont.” The worst of the blaze was confined to Nicole’s side of the building. “Your apartment might survive.”
The older woman pressed her fist to her mouth, her gaze locked on the firefighters coming and going from the building. “He’ll never make it,” she cried, seizing Nicole in a terrified hug. A retired science teacher, Mrs. Beaumont’s classroom iguana, Oscar had retired with her.
Nicole rubbed the older woman’s back. “Did you tell someone?”
“He was in my hands,” she said. “I heard the alarms. There was too much smoke in the hallway.” She pushed up her glasses to rub her eyes. “He was in my hands. I dropped the fire ladder out the window and he leaped away. Oh, my poor baby.”
Nicole carefully extricated herself from Mrs. Beaumont’s grasp. “Let me go ask someone.”
“Do you think they’ll actually search for a lizard? Not many people have a fondness for reptiles.”
“Let me try,” Nicole said, forcing her lips into what she could only hope was a reassuring smile. Having experienced more than her share of grief and loss, she resolved long ago to spare others that pain whenever she had the chance.
Wanting to race around the building, she had to use a cautious approach. Displaced residents and curious bystanders had been herded into a flexing knot of humanity near the emergency vehicles. She rummaged in her purse for her work ID card and the digital camera she kept with her at all times. Clipping the badge to her jacket lapel she hoped the dark and the confusion would get her past the safety line if they thought she was a journalist.
With a confident stride she moved closer to Mrs. Beaumont’s side of the building. Pretending she had permission, she mentally rehearsed a response if anyone stopped her.
But no one did. It never ceased to amaze her what a valuable tool a camera was. When she reached the rope ladder, she dropped the camera back into her purse and looped the strap so it crossed her body, pushing it behind her to make the climb.
Mrs. Beaumont often said Oscar liked to curl up in the bathroom sink when he was stressed out. Nicole hoped the lack of smoke coming from this side of the building was a good sign for the iguana and her attempt to save him. Mrs. Beaumont was a kind woman who didn’t need the guilt, however misplaced, of abandoning Oscar.
Determined, Nicole jumped for the lowest rung on the ladder but it slipped through her hands. She wiped her palms on her jeans and tried again.
Successful this time, she hauled herself up toward the apartment window. At the edge, she peeked inside, but saw only thin smoke, no flames. Maybe Oscar had a chance.
The incessant wail of the fire alarm battered her ears and set her heart pounding as she worked against her most basic survival instincts. She crawled under the smoke, feeling her way through the dark toward the bathroom. Carpet gave way to cool tile under her palms and she breathed a little deeper before reaching up into the sink.
It was empty.
“Oscar?” She called his name with as much calm as she could muster under the circumstances. Pulling her phone from her purse, she used the flashlight app, praying the light wouldn’t aggravate the poor reptile.
She spotted the leash, and followed the bright ribbon of it to the corner between the tub and commode, careful not to flash the light directly into his eyes. “Smart boy,” she said. “Let’s get out of here. Your mom is worried about you.”
She tucked the phone away, and securing the loose end of the leash around her hand, she scooped him to her chest and used the straps of her purse to help hold him in place.
Oscar wriggled around, clearly unhappy with her rescue attempt. Pressing her lips together, she held back the cry of pain and shock as Oscar’s claws raked through her shirt and scored her skin.
Clutching the panicked iguana, she hurried back to the window and leaned out into the fresher air. Navigating the ladder with one hand wouldn’t be easy, but waiting for rescue wasn’t an alternative.
Above her, the window exploded with a boom and sparkle of raining glass. Flames shot eagerly into the night and the fire roared in victory.
Nicole slid and jerked her way down the ladder, her mind focused solely on reuniting Oscar with Mrs. Beaumont.
* * *
Rick watched his target sneak past the perimeter of emergency personnel toward the building, raising more questions in his mind. Baffled, he watched her climb up the rope ladder and wondered what could be so important she’d risk her life. This apartment wasn’t even on the same floor as hers. Had she stashed something valuable in a neighbor’s place?
It wasn’t adding up. None of their intel said Nicole knew much of anything about illegal activity at the pharmaceutical company she and Allie worked for. With a sigh, he prepared to follow her up the ladder, but another figure moved from the shadows toward the same goal.
Cloaked in a hoodie the Unabomber would envy, the guy – he couldn’t be sure, but the person moved like a guy – climbed halfway up the ladder. Rick recognized the practiced motion that brought a butterfly knife to life. Not good. The blade flashed with the reflection of the emergency vehicle lights on the street as the guy worked on the rope ladder.
What the hell?
As the kid leaped back to the ground, Rick caught a glimpse of the local gang colors. Which meant he was outnumbered, even if he couldn’t see the others right now. Gangs weren’t about individuals and bangers didn’t do anything without the support of an audience.
If Nicole didn’t die up there in the fire, she might well break something trying to escape on that ladder, leaving her vulnerable. Part of his assignment here was to verify her safety.
Going in after her meant he’d most likely trap them both. It was a fool’s errand to try and go in by another route. He could just as easily die in the process of searching for her.
Rick wasn’t ready to breathe his last, but he wasn’t about to leave his target in danger either. Besides this was an intriguing development and it might have bearing on the case. Curiosity wasn’t the worst of his weaknesses and he’d honed other skills through the years to offset it.
The firefighters had their hands full with the blaze ripping through the building. Rick’s gaze cycled between his watch, the window, the shadows, and the flames.
Just as he was sure she’d succumbed to the smoke and become a statistic, she appeared at the window. With a thunderous boom, the glass blew out of the window above her. The fire had shifted.
No other escape route, she had to use the damaged ladder. He watched her, concern mounting as she lurched her way down with one hand. She must have hurt herself in there.
“Wait!” He rushed forward as she neared the place where the ladder had been weakened. “The ladder won’t hold you.”
She looked down, her eyes wide and edging toward panic in her soot-streaked face.
Rick did a fast count of the rungs, judged the distance. “Come down two more.”
“Now hold the rope on the left. Not the step, the rope,” he clarified as she moved into place.
She had to be getting tired using just one arm. As if on cue, she gave a little whimper confirming his theory. He glanced around, but so far no one was taking exception to his rescue attempt.
He coached her down, relieved with every inch they got out of the sabotaged ladder. “Almost there.” He eyed the distance and moved directly under her. “Drop to me. Use my shoulders.”
She was dangling in front of another window. If it blew out… well he didn’t need that visual in his head.
“No choice. On three.” He counted. She dropped, skidding down his body. As the momentum took them both to the ground, he twisted absorbing most of the fall.
She nodded. “Thanks.” Tears gleamed in her eyes, on her face, and the arm she favored was tucked between them. “I have to go,” she said, pushing off of him and limping away.
He let her think she was rid of him, taking a minute to catch his breath before winding his way back to join the rest of the crowd and resume his surveillance.
This time he was looking for a certain hoodie as well as Nicole. He expected to find her getting treatment with one of the paramedic crews on the scene. Instead, he found her huddled on the curb near the parking lot with her neighbor. Both women were smiling through the tears shining on their faces.
From his vantage point, he couldn’t see much and he didn’t want to spook her by coming too close. Still, nothing could have surprised him more than the flash of a spiked head and a long green tail wrapping around the neighbor’s arm.
Nicole had gone into a burning building to save the neighbor’s lizard? He’d seen some crazy things in some dangerous parts of the world, but he couldn’t imagine anyone handing out a bronze star for iguana rescue. Having watched her for a few days she didn’t strike him as a glory hound, but that was one hell of a risk for any pet. She didn’t strike him as stupid either, until she’d climbed into a burning building without backup.
He also didn’t believe the ladder sabotage was about stopping a lizard rescue or as simple as a gang jump in. He’d have to check the database for local gang trends. Arson maybe, but he sensed there was something more behind this.
As if the world wanted to affirm his logic, he caught sight of the same gang colors on a pair of kids leaning against a glossy modified Honda. The way the pair was watching the blaze made Rick think the only thing missing was a bucket of popcorn. He wanted to snap a picture with his phone, but it wasn’t worth the risk.
Nothing was lining up the way it should be here. Splitting his attention between Nicole, the Honda pair, and the crowd, he searched for anyone else with undue interest in Nicole. Fortunately he came up empty. Either the hoodie knew he’d missed a golden opportunity, or it had been a random act of stupidity and opportunity after all.
Rick ducked behind an SUV when Nicole parted from her neighbor. He assumed the typical shock of displacement was setting in as she retreated to her car rather than seek help from the nearest ambulance crew.
His car was parked nearby, but he didn’t have to rush or call attention to himself. He’d put a GPS tag on her vehicle so he wouldn’t lose her if she did manage to get a head start.
But she just sat there, cell phone in her hand and her gaze steady on the colorful collection of emergency vehicles.
What was she thinking?
Concerned, he pulled out his cell phone and sent another text to the office. They had a basic background on her but his gut – and the sabotaged ladder – told him it was time to dig deeper.
* * *
Nicole’s chest burned from Oscar’s claws. It felt like she might never be rid of the imprint of his teeth in her collar bone and she could feel the blood seeping into her shirt. Her arms ached from the awkward descent on the broken ladder, but the rest of her was remembering the feeling of the muscled body that broke her fall.
She blamed the spike of desire on the adrenaline as her mind turned over the bigger question. Who was he?
He might actually have been a journalist who’d spotted her where she didn’t belong. She shook her head. He might just as easily have been the sicko who’d stared the fire. Assuming this conflagration was arson. And the ladder had been in perfect working order when she’d gone in for Oscar. If he’d sabotaged the ladder while she was inside, why had he changed his mind and helped her down?
Who he was seemed irrelevant – was irrelevant – in light of her more immediate troubles.
Sitting in her car, Nicole looked down at her phone and tried to make herself dial the number she was supposed to dial in the event of a life threatening crisis. Yet, it was impossible to drum up any enthusiasm to make the call that would pluck her up and away from this mess like a magician pulling a rabbit from his hat.
Except the rabbit wouldn’t look like an amnesiac while it adjusted to yet another fabricated name and background.
Really, she should be grateful to have been Nicole Livingston long enough to get through high school and college as one person. She studied the chaos, searched her surroundings, and rather than irreparable destruction, this time she saw the singular opportunity.
The small, rebellious corner of her soul, the one place where she still felt like her original self, had been preparing for this chance. Did she dare take it?
She toed the rubber floor mat, knowing there was a prepaid credit card and enough cash tucked under the lining of the carpeting for a train ticket to get her to the next step on her private underground railroad.
They’d taught her well in the two previous incarnations of her life. She knew how to stay under the radar, how to create a history, and most importantly how to let go of an identity.
This time the names, preferences, and profession would be of her choosing. She smiled into the rear view mirror, master of her fate once more.
The smile turned to a wince as she pushed the key into the ignition. The movement aggravated the wounds the panicked Oscar had inflicted.
The medical assistance nearby was tempting, but would only reduce her head start – or completely prevent her escape. Whether or not she made the call, she knew someone would be dispatched as soon as the address of the fire made it up the chain of command. Once she was away she could risk a visit to a drug store to deal with the cleanup.
She bid a silent farewell to Mrs. Beaumont and Oscar, and drove away from the scene.
Catching sight of a couple of kids sporting gang colors in the parking lot, she didn’t go directly to the train station or even a motel. She drove carefully through the neighborhood and took a turn around a nearby shopping mall before joining the light traffic on the Interstate.
As best as she could tell, no one was following her. Of course, the powers that be had likely tagged her car with GPS and she knew they could do the same with her phone, no matter that she’d turned down the service when she’d bought the thing.
But after all this time being compliant and cooperative, those magicians who controlled her life would surely underestimate her determination to be free of them, regardless of the personal risk.
A small voice in her head told her this was a ridiculous mistake, insisted she was throwing away a steady, secure life on a whim. She told the voice to shut up, but it persisted in reminding her that to take this step, to push on down this path, meant justice might never be served.
“To hell with the system,” she said aloud as she took the ticket at the airport long-term parking garage.
She’d forfeited more than any one person should for the sake of justice in a case that no federal attorney felt any rush to pursue. Well, she’d had enough with their excuses and the rigors of their programs. None of it would bring back her mother and her sister. Nothing they did now would restore everything she’d lost along the way.
Retrieving the card and cash from the floor of the car, she grabbed her purse. She was tempted to leave behind her wallet and everything with her current name in it, but decided that would only tip her hand. Instead, she locked the car and hurried toward the terminal as if she was running late for her flight.
Passing the trash bin near the stairs, she tossed in her cell phone and car keys. Mentally, she crossed her fingers they’d assume kidnapping and spend precious time chasing down the wrong leads.
* * *
From his parking space two rows away, Rick checked his phone for any reply from the office. Where the hell was Eva with the details when he needed her?
He knew Nicole hadn’t come to the airport to make a previously scheduled flight. And no one meeting an incoming flight would choose the long term parking garage.
She was up to something, running scared if he was reading the signals correctly.
He turned off his phone and slid it into his jacket pocket as he stepped out of his car. At the trunk, he checked his pistol, hoping he wouldn’t be forced to toss the convenient Hi-point 9mm compact pistol and the .22 revolver at his ankle in order to pass through airport security. Slipping the backpack over one shoulder, he closed the trunk lid and used the key fob to lock the car.
He used his phone as a flashlight to check the trash can and a cold curiosity settled in the pit of his stomach when he saw her keys and cell phone. That kind of behavior signaled a rather permanent change was in the works.
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