Monday, August 22nd, 8:05 a.m.
THE BLACK Cadillac Escalade pulled to the curb. Its darkened windows concealed all but the shadowy outline of the driver as the vehicle sat motionless, the engine purring.
The sidewalk was deserted except for an old man, ambling along, working his cane. Soon he was safely away, and the back door of the SUV swung open and a girl stepped out. She carried a small handbag, clutched at her side, a strap over her shoulder holding it in place. She stepped forward as the vehicle pulled out and eased away.
As she turned and went up the sidewalk, if any of the few pedestrians who hustled past looked her way, they may have noticed her blank expression and her vacant eyes. But they hurried about their own business and paid no attention as she walked two blocks, turned into a plaza, crossed the parking lot, and approached a single glass door. She swung it open and stepped into a small lobby.
A wall plaque listed the names of business tenants who occupied suites on the second floor. She glanced at the sign, stepped through another door into a larger lobby, and took the elevator up.
On the second floor, she stepped from the elevator into a long hallway extending in both directions. She turned to her right, continued down the corridor past three suites, and stopped at the fourth. A sign on the door said “Bonfield Development.” She twisted the knob, opened the door, and stepped inside.
A long desk blocked the way to the large room beyond, where expensive prints hung on the rich oak-paneled walls. The hardwood floor reflected the sunlight that poured through wall-to-wall windows. The luxurious room looked more like a showcase than a suite of offices. Several doors along one side, and the back wall, led into other rooms, probably offices, studios, and boardrooms. Music washed from overhead speakers, loud enough to camouflage the gentle hum of the central air conditioner that cooled the room.
A gray-haired receptionist behind the barricade beamed at her. “May I help you?” she asked.
“I’m here to see Charles Robinson.” Her voice was expressionless, her gaze still blank.
“May I ask your name, please?”
“Just a minute.” The receptionist consulted a ledger and poked an intercom button. “Cheryl Waters to see you, sir,” she sang.
The intercom squawked, “I’ll be right there.”
“If you’d like to take a seat, Mr. Robinson will be with you in a few minutes.”
Cheryl didn’t respond as she lifted her emotionless eyes and gazed toward the back of the room.
The receptionist curiously watched the girl a moment, and then went back to her paperwork. The phone rang, and she answered it, arranged an appointment for one of the other executives, and jotted the information in the calendar.
Cheryl didn’t move.
In a few moments, a door at the back of the room opened and a man stepped out. In his midfifties, with silver-gray hair, he wore a pleasant smile. He strode across the room toward her.
Cheryl turned and stepped around the long desk to meet him.
He extended his hand. “I’m Charles Robinson.”
Cheryl ignored his outstretched hand, reached into her handbag, and removed a small pistol.
Robinson lost his smile. His mouth fell open, and he raised his hands.
Gripping the weapon, she pointed the shiny barrel at his chest.
“What do you want?” he managed to ask.
She didn’t answer. Her finger tightened on the trigger, the cold look still in her eyes.
He stepped back, too late, as the gun exploded, hurling lead into his heart. Before he could react, there was a second blast. As he crumpled to the floor, a third shot, this time in the head, made sure he would never breathe again. Cheryl studied him a moment, and then the pistol slipped from her grasp and clattered on the wooden floor.
Monday, August 22nd, 8:15 a.m.
THE RICH SMELL of fried bacon filled the house, and for a moment, Annie Lincoln paused and gazed out the kitchen window. The cloudless sky promised to bring another beautiful summer day. She was thankful, as harrowing as the last few days had been, that her family was safe. She would be lost without her husband.
After many years as a construction engineer, Jake had become one of many cutback casualties. Because of Annie’s extensive experience in freelance research, they decided to extend her expertise and take a shot at private investigations. Lincoln Investigations was born, and she was pleased she could work alongside her husband. However, she’d never expected their new vocation would lead from the safe world of research into a recent brush with a murderer. Everything had eventually turned out fine, they were safe, and she was grateful.
“Mom, the potatoes are burning.”
Annie, shaken from her thoughts, looked down at the sputtering pan. She laughed and flipped the potatoes. “They’ll be all right,” she said. “I know you and your dad like them crispy.”
She dumped the bacon from another skillet onto a sheet of paper towel and cracked a half dozen eggs into the pan. Three for Jake, one for her, and two for Matty. At eight years old, Matty was growing fast, and threatened to be big like his dad someday.
She heaped the plates and brought them to the table. Matty was hungry and waiting, his fork in his hand. Jake dropped his iPad and turned his attention to the still-sizzling meal.
Matty couldn’t wait to dig in, but Jake cautioned him with a look. Matty obediently bowed his head, peeking up with one squinted eye, as Jake thanked the Lord for the food.
Then they attacked the morning feast.
Jake poked a couple of potatoes into his mouth and looked at Annie. “What are your plans for today?”
Annie set her fork down. “Nothing real exciting,” she said. “I thought I would do a little more studying. Those books on police procedure and crime scene investigations are rather interesting.” She paused and suggested, “Maybe you could take a look at them as well.”
Jake shrugged. “You can fill me in on the important points when you’re done.”
Annie laughed. “That could take a while.” She sat back and studied Jake. Finally, she said, “I thought I might buy a small pistol.”
Jake’s mouth stopped working. He looked at her, wrinkled his brow, and stared as if trying to figure out if she was serious. He sat back, wiped his mouth on a napkin and set it beside his plate before looking up. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
He shrugged. He seemed to be thinking as he observed her, and then nodded slowly. “Yeah, maybe you’re right. It might be a good thing.”
Matty’s mouth dropped open, his eyes wide as he stared back and forth at his parents.
“It doesn’t mean I have to use it,” she said. “It’s just in case. You know things can get dangerous sometimes. Maybe I won’t ever use it, but it would make me feel more secure.”
“You’ll have to get a license if you want to carry it,” Jake said.
“I know. That could take a few days, but if you’re good with it, I thought I might go this afternoon.”
“Go for it,” he said as he leaned back in, picked up his fork, and poked the last potato in his mouth.
She didn’t think he would object much. Once he got over the mild shock, he would agree keeping her safe was a good thing. She brushed back a stray golden hair and asked, “Do you have any plans today?”
Jake crunched a piece of toast. “I just have to change the oil in the Firebird,” he said. “And maybe give it a quick tune-up. That’s about it.”
“You might want to take a look at my car while you’re at it,” Annie said. “The motor has been making a scratching noise lately.”
Jake laughed. “Scratching? Engines don’t scratch. They bang and whistle and scrape, but they don’t scratch.”
Annie shot him a wry look.
“I’ll look at it,” he said.
“Are you really gonna get a gun, Mom?” Matty asked.
“Yes, I believe I will. And Matty, make sure you don’t tell anyone. It’s just not a good idea for anyone else to know.”
“Sure, Mom. No problem. I’ll keep it shut and throw away the key.”
Jake set his fork down, sat back, and stretched. “I may give the lawn a mowing later as well. Haven’t had much time the last few days.”
“I’ll do it, Dad. After school.”
Jake reached out and tousled Matty’s hair. “Maybe I’ll let you try in another year or so. I don’t know if it’s a good idea yet.”
“I’ve watched you, Dad. It doesn’t look that hard.” He flexed a small bicep. “I think I can push that thing around.”
Jake laughed. “Yeah, I’m sure you could, but it’s a little dangerous.”
“You could get hurt,” Annie put in, and then wondered if she was a little overprotective.
Matty shrugged one shoulder and took the last bite of his toast. “Thanks for breakfast, Mom,” he said as his fork clattered onto the empty plate. He charged from the room to get ready for school.
Jake helped Annie clean up the table and put the dishes in the sink. At six foot four inches, he towered over her by a foot as he leaned and gave her a quick peck on the lips. It became an extended kiss as she held onto him, thankful it had been her luck to meet such an amazing guy.
Without notice, Matty popped back into the room and whipped open the fridge. He grabbed his lunch from the middle shelf, flipped open his backpack, dropped the bag inside, and slung it over his back. “See you later, guys,” he said and turned to leave.
“Hey, come back here,” Annie said.
Matty trudged over to his mom, looked up, turned his head, and waited while she planted a kiss.
“You can go now,” she said.
Annie watched as Matty wandered from the room. She frowned. “Do you think he’s getting too old to kiss me?”
Jake shrugged. “Maybe.” He pulled her a little closer. “But I’m not.”
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