Excerpt for Going Gone! by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



GOING


GONE!








Mystic Circle Books



Other titles by Author

Anita Dickason


SENTINELS of the NIGHT

A Trackers Novel



First-rate police procedural novel, fast-paced and absorbing thriller. Dickason's plot is taut and unrolls beautifully. Will have serial killer mystery fans and paranormal urban fantasy junkies alike getting excited over a new series which has something for just about everyone. A compelling debut novel.” Reader’s Favorite Review


Outstanding book! Great read and the words flow off the page. Enjoyed that it was not your typical crime drama, but that the author added in some paranormal and Native American elements. Reader Review


A riveting high stake read which cleverly fuses a police procedural with the allure of paranormal fiction, Sentinels of the Night proves an edgy and notable debut for Dickason with the promise of more to come.” Book Viral Review



Available in hardback, paperback, and eBook




GOING


GONE!



A Trackers Novel










ANITA DICKASON





This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


Copyright © 2017 Anita Dickason


All rights reserved. No part of this book or cover may be used or reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews.


Publisher: Mystic Circle Books

Cover Design: Mystic Circle Books & Designs, LLC

Cover image courtesy of Pixabay


ISBN: 978-0-9968385-3-5


Library of Congress Control Number: 2017915446








To my daughters

Julie and Christy

Thank you for your support

and helpful comments.





To my grandson

Tyler

who was the inspiration for Tristan

and his infatuation with dinosaurs.


















One

Texas


His heart raced, and lungs heaved as he gulped in air. Huddled under low-hanging branches, rocks and pine needles jabbed his bare feet. Tristan’s body trembled, but not from the cold, damp air seeping through the thin material of his pajamas. He was afraid, so very, very afraid. A dirt-encrusted hand swiped at the tears trickling down his face, leaving muddy streaks across his cheeks.

He’d escaped, but where was he? What happened? He knew he had gone to sleep in his bed. Tristan remembered his momma tucking the blankets around him and kissing him on the forehead. But when he woke, he was in a room he’d never seen and on a bed, that stunk. His head and stomach hurt. A strange man with an angry face, stood beside the bed and peered down at him.

“Who are you?” Tristan had whispered, hoping this was just a bad dream. It wasn’t. As a deep, harsh voice told him to shut up, he leaned over the edge of the bed and threw up. The stuff hit the floor and splattered the angry man’s pants and shoes.

The man hollered, grabbed him by the arms and shook him, then tossed him back on the bed. No one had ever done that to him. Scared, he had scooted backward until his back was against the wall. Still yelling and using words Tristan wasn’t supposed to know, the man stomped out of the room and slammed the door shut.

Tristan didn’t move until he couldn’t hear any more sounds. Then he’d slid off the bed and crept to the door. Gripping the knob with both hands, he slowly turned it and opened the door, just like he did at home to keep it from squeaking. He peeked out before stepping into the hallway.

Tiptoeing on the wood floor, he passed the living room where two men sat, their backs to the door as they watched TV. Another doorway led to the kitchen. The room was empty though there was a strong smell of coffee. The odor made his stomach rumble, and he had to breathe through his mouth to keep from getting sick again.

When he reached the back door, he eased the door open. If he could get outside, he’d find someone to help him. That’s what his momma said—find people, then run and scream to get their attention. When he slipped through the doorway, there were no people, no houses, no lights, only trees covered by a gray mist.

The awful voice shouted, “He’s gone.”

He ran, weaving around the trunks and bushes as he headed deep into the woods. His feet had slipped, and he’d belly-flopped on the ground. Sobbing, he’d picked himself up. The slam of a door had sent him scurrying under the nearest tree to hide.

Footsteps crunched the pine cones that were everywhere. Tristan pushed back, pressing against the trunk until the bark dug into his back. Arms hugged his chest as he tried to stop shaking. If he made any noise, they’d hear him, and he didn’t want to go back into the room with that man.

The footsteps came closer. A beam of light flashed over the ground. Pulling his knees tight to his chest, he wrapped his arms around his legs, tucked his head under his arms, and squished his eyes shut. Tears clogged his throat. Momma, where are you?

The harsh voice sounded over his head. “I don’t see him over here. I’ll circle the other way. The damn brat can’t get far.”

When the noisy steps faded away, Tristan scrambled from under the tree and ran. Pajama bottoms flapped around his bare ankles. Ahead was a break in the woods, and he raced toward the opening.

A shout echoed not far behind him. “He’s running toward the road.”

It was the man from the bedroom. Terror pushed him. His legs pumped, but he couldn’t go any faster, and it hurt to breathe. He had to find another place to hide, but where? It was getting dark, and the mist made it hard to see. Behind him, footsteps kept getting louder.

Ahead was a fence, a road—then—lights. A car. Could he reach the road before it passed? Dropping, he crawled under the barbed wire and felt a hand scrape the sole of his foot.

Her back rigid, Kerry Branson’s hands gripped the steering wheel as she peered over the hood, her gaze intently focused on the edge of the narrow road. The thought of ending up in the bar ditch or worse, meeting another car sent a tingle of alarm through her. She was lost. Not just any ole’ ordinary lost, but lost in a thick fog with visibility down to a few feet.

This was her reward for waiting until the last minute to leave. She’d spent the weekend in East Texas visiting her best friend and planned to leave by mid-afternoon. Instead, Cindy talked her into staying another couple of hours. If Kerry took a back road shortcut that weaved through the Piney Woods, it would save at least an hour or more in reaching the interstate.

Her gaze flicked to the navigation system to see if the message had changed, then grunted in irritation. It hadn’t. ‘You are in an area where no information is available. Follow the route on a map.’ Even the damn GPS was lost.

Oh yeah—the map—what a joke. Kerry glanced at the paper, the so-called map, lying on the console next to her phone. When Cindy handed her the directions, she had chuckled as she read them—stay left at the Y, turn right at the burned tree, go a half mile and turn left, take another right after she passed an old metal gate with a flying horse, turn left at the chicken farm sign, then right at the Tucker convenience store.

Well, she wasn’t laughing now. Somewhere, in the murky mess, she’d taken a wrong turn, and now it was getting dark. She should call for help, but the thought of being the butt of her friend’s jokes kept her hand off the phone. ‘Yep, my friend Kerry, the super sleuth, got lost and needed help.’ Oh, no, listening to Cindy’s hilarity wouldn’t happen. She’d get out of this.

Forced to use the edge of the road as a guide, her speed had dropped to a crawl. What? A surge of exhilaration shot through her. There’s the dang gate again—the one with the flying horse. She’d passed it at least thirty minutes ago. Since she had a reference point, time to regroup and look at the stupid directions again. God, what had she been thinking when she agreed to Cindy’s plan.

As she braked, something, barely visible in her headlights, crawled under the fence bordering the edge of the road. For a few seconds, she stared at it through the gloomy haze. It appeared to be an animal until it cleared the fence and stood. My god! It’s a small child. Stunned, she shoved the gearshift into park and jumped out.

A deep, guttural voice bellowed in the gloom. “Goddamn! A truck stopped.”

The child scrambled across the ditch and raced toward her. Bare feet slapped the asphalt as he screamed, “Don’t let the bad man get me.”

Kerry had moved in front of the truck. At the sound of the terrified voice, her cop mode kicked into gear. She stepped toward him, grabbed him around the waist, then spun to reach the driver’s door. Tossing the boy on the front seat, she jumped behind the wheel.

A burly man had crawled over the fence. Seeing a gun in his hand, she shoved the boy’s head down, and her foot stomped the gas pedal. Tires squealed in protest. A shot rang out. Kerry flicked her eyes at the rearview mirror, but the man had disappeared into the gray mist that filled the roadway.

Racing along the road, she could only spare a quick glance at the boy who cowered on the seat. Wild-eyed, he stared at her. His face ashen, and his body trembled as he sucked in deep breaths. Hoping to reassure him, she said, “You’re safe now.”

Who is this kid, and what the hell happened back there? Somehow, she had to find her way out of this maze of roads, get him to a hospital, and let the local cops sort it out.

Not wanting to stop and look at the directions, she had to rely on her memory. Once I pass the gate, it's right at the next road, then the chicken sign, then the store. When Kerry spotted the crossroad, she realized where she had made her earlier mistake. She had veered left, not right.

Once she reached the main highway that led to the interstate, she pulled to the shoulder. Flipping on the overhead light, her eyes skimmed the thin body that still shook.

Thank god, there’s no blood, though dirt smeared his face and pajamas, and twigs stuck in the shaggy red hair that hung over his forehead. Kicking the heater to full blast, she grabbed towels and a bottle of water from the emergency container of supplies on the floor behind her seat.

“I’m Kerry. What’s your name?” Her arm slid around his shoulders as she helped him sit up before tucking a large towel around him. Not wanting to increase his fear, she was careful to keep her movements slow and easy.

His voice weak, he said, “Tristan.”

“Tristan. What a neat name,” Kerry said, and handed the bottle to him. “Drink some.”

After a few swallows, he handed it back.

Dampening the edge of the other towel, she wiped the dirt from his face and hands. “How old are you?”

His voice still a low murmur, he replied, “Six.”

Her palm rested on his forehead. His skin wasn’t feverish. Fingertips lightly probed his scalp, searching for bumps or cuts before she picked the small pieces of pine needles and stems from his hair. “That’s a lot of dinosaurs on your pajamas. Which one is your favorite?”

“Uh …” he pushed the towel away and pointed to one that covered the front of his pajama top. “That’s T-Rex. I like him the best.”

Her question certainly perked him up. “He looks like he’d be my favorite too. Do you hurt anywhere?”

“My feet.”

The cuts on his ankles and feet were superficial, though several still bled. Kerry swabbed the dirt and blood with the wet end of the towel, then wrapped the dry end around his legs.

“Does anything else hurt?” she said as her gaze flicked over him. The glassy look had disappeared from his dark eyes, and the trembling had stopped. His cheeks had color, and now that the dirt was gone, a faint dusting of freckles across his nose was visible.

“My head did, but it's better now,” Tristan said and snuggled under the towel.

She breathed a sigh of relief, and the tension in her shoulders rolled away. He didn’t appear to have any severe injuries. Pulling the seatbelt around him, though he was too small for it to fit right, she asked, “Tristan, did you know the man who ran out of the woods?”

“He was in the room when I woke up.”

“Do you know his name?”

When he shook his head no, Kerry asked, “How about your last name?” A smile crossed her face at the scornful look he cast her way as if he wouldn’t know his last name.

“Murdock,” he emphatically said.

Since her first sight of him, a memory had niggled in the back of her mind. Hearing the name, the connection clicked. Before she left the office on Friday, her boss, Mike Bradford, head of Bradford Security and Investigations had mentioned a call he’d received from a local FBI agent. Senator Murdock’s son had been kidnapped from his Austin home, and the Bureau wasn’t releasing the news. The agent wanted Mike to know in case any of his investigators picked up rumors from their sources on the street.

Dumbfounded, she stared at the child nestled in her old towels. Was it possible? “Tristan is Senator Anthony Murdock …”

“He’s my daddy.” His head nodded, and eyes drooped as he fell asleep.

Holy Hell! Well, there went her idea of contacting the local cops. An Austin police detective turned private investigator, Kerry was familiar with kidnapping protocols. When the FBI went into lockdown on details, especially in a high-profile abduction, there must be a problem.

Kerry pulled onto the highway, inserted her ear piece, and hit the speed dial for her boss. When Mike answered, she said, “I came across a kid running from an armed man on a deserted county road not far from where Cindy lives. I got him in my truck, but the guy took a shot at us before I could get away. Turns out the boy is Tristan Murdock.”

His voice incredulous, he said, “Senator Murdock’s son! Good, God! Are you okay?”

“Yeah, though my truck may have a hole.”

“What about the boy, is he injured?”

“Other than a few scrapes, he appears to be okay. I can’t be certain, though, until I get him to a hospital. Call your FBI friend and tell him I am headed to Mt. Pleasant.”

Passing a slow-moving truck, she pulled back into her lane. A quick glance at Tristan reassured her he was sound asleep. A few minutes later, her phone chimed. Caller ID showed—unknown. This was probably the agent. “Branson,” she answered.

“Special Agent Will Cooper. Mike Bradford said you found Senator Murdock’s son. Are you certain he is Tristan Murdock?” Skepticism was evident in the man’s sharp tone that bordered on rude.

Kerry never ceased to be amazed at how fast the FBI could tick someone off. Not bothering to hide her irritation, she said, “He told me his name. If that doesn’t convince you, how about his clothes? I bet Tristan was wearing pajamas printed with dinosaurs when he was kidnapped.”

A deep sigh followed by a short silence before the agent said, “Yes, it’s Tristan. How’d you find him?”

Kerry quickly detailed the circumstances.

“I wonder how he got away? Well, the questions will have to wait. Where are you now?”

“A few miles south of Mt. Pleasant. I’ll be at the hospital in a few minutes.”

“Mike said the boy wasn’t injured.”

“Minor cuts and abrasions are all I could find. Since I’m not certain what happened to Tristan, a doctor needs to examine him.”

“No, you can’t do that. Hold on,” Cooper said.

His voice muffled, Kerry couldn’t hear what was said. Her irritation kicked up another notch.

“Branson, a plane with two agents is leaving Austin. Get him to the airport.”

Emphatic, she said, “Unless you have a doctor on board, I’m headed to the hospital.”

Cooper’s voice vibrated with anger. “You don’t understand. The hospital will require his name. We can’t risk a leak of his identity.”

Undeterred, Kerry snapped back. “No! You’re the one who doesn’t understand. My only concern is this child’s welfare, not whatever is pushing your agenda. Your agents can wait at the airport or meet me at the hospital.” Jeez, just what she didn’t need—a pissing match with a fed.

“Damn it, Branson! This is a matter of national security.”

Over the years, she had worked with the FBI on several investigations. They liked to play the ‘national security card’ to enforce their edicts, even when it wasn’t applicable. Still, she couldn’t take a chance and ignore Cooper’s warning. This time, when they cried wolf, there might be one.

“I’m still headed to the hospital, but I’ll figure out a way to hide his identity. How long before your agents arrive?”

Evidently, her answer pacified him. His tone was less agitated as he said, “An hour or more. I’ll have them meet you at the hospital. Mike said someone shot at you. Any chance you were followed?”

“I don’t see how. Even though the gunman saw my truck, he doesn’t know where I went.”

“Do whatever is necessary to keep Tristan safe but don’t, I repeat, don’t let anyone know he’s the Senator’s son. I’m texting you my number if you need to contact me. Otherwise, I’ll call when the plane lands.” The line went dead.

Now what? She didn’t have a clue how to conceal Tristan’s identity and only a few minutes to come up with a plan. The highway sign she passed read, ‘Mt. Pleasant—5 miles.’

Moore’s instructions were specific. Report in at the prearranged times. If something went wrong, he was to call, let the phone ring twice, hang up and wait for a callback.

He had no choice. The call had to be made. Two rings, and he disconnected, then paced. Two men, Sanford and Boyd, leaned against the wall, stoic as they kept their gaze fixed on their boss’s face. A third, T.J., waited in a chair.

In the background, the cries of a child exacerbated his anger and pushed his icy control to the limit. “Your instructions were to keep them drugged,” he said, scowling at the men against the wall.

Defiant, Boyd replied, “They got sick, so I stopped. I didn’t sign on to clean up vomit.”

Moore’s voice vibrated with rage. “Why the hell didn’t you lock the damn door.”

Boyd shrugged his shoulders, then said, “Thought the brat was too sick to get away.”

Moore glanced at his watch. Only a few minutes had passed. He had no idea how long he would have to wait. When the phone buzzed, he swiped at the sweat on his brow and answered.

A derisive voice on the other end said, “Explain.”

“A package is lost.” As seconds ticked by, the lack of a response increased his uneasiness. He hastily added. “There was a mistake in handling it.”

“Which package?”

“The priority shipment,” Moore said.

A sharp intake of breath echoed in his ear before the toneless voice said, “What have you done to locate it?”

“A woman found it before it could be retrieved.”

Another lengthy period of silence before the caller said, “Do you know who was responsible for the loss?”

“Yes.”

“Take care of him. What is the status of the other package?”

“Safe,” Moore said.

“Then divert to the alternate plan.”

Slipping the phone in his pocket, he glanced at the person responsible for his current predicament. Boyd had a history of screwing up assignments. It wouldn’t have happened if one of his team had been here. The operation, though, had his men spread thin, and Moore was forced to add Boyd and Sanford as guards. Another two days and Boyd’s demise wouldn’t be a loss. His only decision was where and how.

“We’re moving. T.J. get the girl ready. Take Boyd and Sanford’s car, deliver her to Creel, then hook back up with us. You two,” stabbing his finger in their direction, “get your gear. You’re coming with me.”

T.J. held a rag saturated with chloroform over the girl’s face. Within seconds, she was unconscious. Cradled in his arms, he carried her outside, laid her on the backseat, and tossed a blanket over her to hide her from anyone who looked inside the car.

Moore positioned several explosive devices in the house. Since it was in a remote section of the county, the explosion shouldn’t attract any attention. Still, he set the timers to allow for ample time to get out of the area.

As he followed T.J. to the main highway, his phone rang.

“Mt. Pleasant hospital,” the grim voice said, a click, and the line went dead.



Two

Turning off the engine, Kerry scanned the hospital parking lot, then checked her watch. In all her law enforcement experience, she didn’t believe she had ever eagerly anticipated the arrival of the FBI. This had better work, or I’m up a creek without the proverbial paddle.

She flipped open the center console, picked up her pistol and stuck it in the waistband of her pants. Her hand gently shook the boy’s shoulder. “Tristan, wake up. I need to talk to you. Come on sweetie, wake up.”

His eyes slowly opened, “Momma?” he said before he realized she wasn’t there, and panic flashed across his face.

Her hand brushed a strand of hair from his forehead. “It’s okay. Your momma is waiting for you at home. Until we get there, let’s play a game.”

Games caught his attention, and he straightened in the seat. Head tilted, he gazed at her with a hint of suspicion on his face. “What kind of game?”

“I want to pretend I’m your mother. Since I don’t have a little boy, it would be so much fun for you to call me momma. It will be like Halloween when you try to fool everyone.”

“I was Spiderman and got lots and lots of candy. Do I get candy?”

This has to work, even if I have to promise him candy every day for the next year.

“I bet I can find some. Since we don’t have costumes, you can have a new name.” The dinosaur Tristan had pointed out gave her an idea, one he might remember. “Let’s use Rex, like your dinosaur. If someone asks your name, you say Rex Smith. Can you remember it?”

“Rex Smith,” he said.

“Let’s try it here in the car. Now, young man, what is your name?” Kerry said in a clownish voice.

Tristan giggled, and what a welcome sound to her ears.

“Rex Smith,” he shouted.

“Wow, aren’t you smart. I think we will have everyone fooled,” and hoped she had not outsmarted herself, and he’d blurt out T-Rex.

As she slid from the truck, she grabbed her jacket. It came down over her hips and concealed the gun in the small of her back. Pushing the towels aside, she lifted Tristan, holding him close to her body. “Now, who am I?”

“You’re my momma,” he said, followed by another giggle.

“Good boy,” she said and kissed him on the forehead.

Inside the emergency room, she approached the front desk. A nurse looked up and rushed toward her. “What’s the problem?”

“This is my son, Rex. He was playing in the woods behind our house and got lost in the fog. I found him huddled under a bush.” Shifting his weight on her hip, she added, “Scared the bee-Jesus out of me. I don’t believe he is injured, but he said he tripped over a log. I want to be sure. His feet are scratched and bleeding.”

“I’m Nurse Simpson, let’s get him into a treatment room. What’s your name?”

“Kerry Smith,” she replied and followed the woman into a room located along a hallway. She laid Tristan on the table.

Simpson surveyed his dirty and torn pajamas, and said, “My goodness, you look like you fell into a hole just like Alice in Wonderland. Do you know who Alice is?”

Tristan giggled, then said, “Nope.”

“She chases a rabbit down a hole and has all sorts of adventures.” She paused to take his blood pressure, then asked, “And who are these fearsome looking animals?” pointing to the creatures on his pajamas.

“Dinosaurs.”

“Oh … and which one is your favorite?”

“T-Rex,” he said, pointing to the large head.

“Just like your name.” She unbuttoned his shirt and examined his chest and back.

“Uh, huh,” Tristan said and gave Kerry a wide, mischievous grin.

A warm glow spread through her. This kid will be a danger to the female population once he gets older. He had already tugged at her heartstrings.

“He went through some brush and tore his pajamas. These are his favorite. I told him we’d get a new pair, but he couldn’t scare me like that again.”

While Kerry rambled on, hoping to keep Tristan from talking, she had stood close to the table, holding his hand. As the nurse examined him, she also scanned his body and choked back a sigh of relief when there were no cuts or bruises under his pajamas.

Simpson started on his feet. Once the cuts were clean, she applied a salve.

“He looks fine except for his feet. Young man, next time you wander in the woods make sure you remember your shoes.” She grabbed a blanket from the warmer and wrapped it around him. “This should get you nice and warm.”

She turned to Kerry. “To be on the safe side, Doctor Harper should examine him. It’s why I didn’t wrap the cuts on his feet. He’s with another patient. In the meantime, I’ll bring you the insurance forms,” and left the room.

Kerry checked her watch. She might get to the airport after all and glanced at Tristan. He had fallen asleep on the table. Poor kid, he’s exhausted. What kind of hell did he go through in the few days he’d been missing?

Simpson walked in with several documents on a clipboard. “It will be at least another twenty or thirty minutes before the doctor can see Tristan. He’s stitching up a man who got tangled in barbed wire. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

She leaned back in a chair and studied the forms. What do I do now? She’d have to wait for the agents to arrive. She checked her watch again and sighed. How long can I stall? When the nurse opened the door with a questioning look on her face, Kerry said, “Still working on them.”

Several minutes later, Simpson returned. “I need the forms. The intake clerk is waiting for them.”

“It will be another few minutes,” Kerry replied as she held the clipboard to her chest. She couldn’t risk the nurse seeing they were still blank. “I forgot to bring my insurance information and called my husband. He’s on his way home from work. Once he gets there, he’ll call and give me the policy number.” Oh, that was a good one. It should buy me more time.

A mulish expression crossed Simpson’s face. “Mrs. Smith, let me have the forms. You can add the policy number when you get it,” she said and held out her hand for the clipboard.

A voice sounded in the hall, the door opened, and a man in blue scrubs walked in. He looked at the nurse. “Would you help Mr. Lewis get dressed? He’s ready to leave.”

Kerry stifled a sigh of relief as the woman left the room.

Turning to Kerry, he said, “I’m Doctor Harper. Let’s take a look at this boy of yours. I understand from my nurse he had a bit of an adventure tonight.”

Kerry said, “He decided to imitate a character from his favorite video game, only he did it in the yard and woods around the back of the house.”

He scanned the nurse’s notes, then pulled the blanket back to examine the sleeping boy. Tristan never stirred during the light probe of the doctor’s fingers. “Other than his feet, he appears to be fine. With a good night’s sleep and an ointment, I’ll prescribe, he should be back to normal in a few days,” he said as he repositioned the blanket around Tristan’s shoulders.

A quick glance at her watch—okay, where’s the cavalry? The door opened, and a deputy sheriff walked in. Damn, wrong cavalry!



Three

The deputy said, “Evening, Doc. You doing okay?”

“Just fine, Jerry, just fine. I’ll be at the nurse’s station if you need me.”

The officer turned to Kerry. “I’m Deputy Benton. Do you have a driver’s license or other form of identification?”

Kerry’s mind rapidly considered her options. There weren’t many. “Oh, I was in such a rush to get my son into the emergency room, that I left my purse in the car. What’s the problem, Deputy?”

“We got a call from a hospital representative regarding the child’s injuries. What’s your name?”

Hospital personnel were trained to look for suspicious injuries. Evidently, her cover story didn’t pass inspection with the nurse.

“Kerry Smith, this is my son Rex. As I told the nurse, he was playing in the backyard. He didn’t have on his shoes, and his feet are scraped and cut. Those are his only injuries.”

“I still need your identification. I’ll wait here with the boy while you get your purse.”

The deputy’s forceful tone disturbed Tristan. “Daddy?” he mumbled.

Kerry walked over and lightly ran her hand over his head. “No, it’s not daddy. Go back to sleep, sweetie.” She pulled the blanket around his shoulders before turning to the deputy.

“I don’t want to leave him. He had a bad scare in a hospital, and I need to be here in case he wakes up again. If you talk to the doctor, I’m sure he will reassure you my son’s injuries are not suspicious.”

“Ma’am … I need your identification. I’m sure he will be fine for the few minutes it will take for you to get your purse.”

Kerry had no choice. The deputy’s gaze was unwavering, and his expression grim. She had to leave. She glanced at Tristan. He had gone back to sleep. Hopefully, the deputy wouldn’t try to talk to him after she left.

Laying the clipboard upside down on the chair, she turned to the door as screams erupted that seemed to come from the front entrance.

“What the hell,” the deputy said as he opened the door.

A voice shouted, “Everyone—on the floor. Where’s the kid that just came in?”

The deputy pulled his radio and requested backup for a disturbance at the hospital before moving into the hallway.

Kerry stuck her head out the door and watched him slide along the wall toward the lobby. Shifting her gaze, she looked at the opposite end of the corridor. Overhead signs pointed to labs and the X-ray.

She stepped to the side of the table and picked up Tristan. Wrapping the blanket tight around him, she pulled a corner of the material over his head. With the boy snug against her chest, she took another peek at the hallway. The deputy’s attention was focused on whatever was happening in the lobby, and she slipped out the door. A bend in the hall and up ahead was an exit sign. The door opened onto the parking lot on the side of the hospital. Tristan groaned and twisted in her arms.

In a whisper, Kerry said, “Tristan, this is another part of the game. Can you pretend to be a ghost and not let anyone know you are here?”

At the sound of her voice, he relaxed. “I think so.”

Hugging the wall as she moved, Kerry scanned the parking lot for any movement. At the corner, she stopped to peep around the edge. A man, wearing a dark ski mask, leaned against the front of her truck.

Damn! The boy’s weight was heavy in her arms, and she leaned against the brick wall. What was she going to do now? She hated to leave her truck, but she had to find a place to hide.

Shouts, then a shot rang out from inside the hospital. Leaning forward for another peek, she saw the man straighten, hesitate as he looked around the parking lot, then race to the front door.

With Tristan balanced in one arm, her fingers groped in her pocket for the keys. Hitting the remote, she unlocked the doors, then sprinted to the truck. Opening the back passenger door, Kerry set Tristan on the floor and told him to stay down. As she slid behind the wheel, she shoved the pistol into a holster mounted between her seat and the console instead of inside the compartment where she normally kept it. Before exiting the parking lot, she darted a quick glance at the entrance, but couldn’t see what was happening inside.

Turning onto a side street, she weaved through several neighborhoods. For the second time that day, she had no idea where the hell she was.

Once Kerry was sure that no one had followed her, she stopped on a residential street and peered into the backseat. Tristan’s large dark eyes stared at her, and his hands gripped the edge of the blanket. “Are you okay?” she asked.

“Uh … huh,” he said, though his voice quivered. Rage bit deep into her gut at the men responsible for the fear in his eyes.

“Let’s get you into the front seat,” she said and helped him crawl over the console. Tucking the blanket around him, she bunched a section of the material for his head to rest against. “It won’t be long until you are home.”

Checking her text messages, she found Cooper’s number. As she waited for him to answer, she watched Tristan’s eyelids droop, then close.

“Cooper.”

Anger resonated in her voice, though she kept it low, not wanting to wake Tristan. “The kidnappers followed me to the hospital!”

“Damn! What about Tristan, is he okay?”

“He’s safe, though I’m certain they’re searching for me. How soon before your plane gets here?”

“It should land in a few minutes. Can you get Tristan to the airport?”

“Yes, but make sure your people know I have a problem.”

“Here’s the number for one of the agents, Ryan Barr. Call him.”

Kerry programmed it on speed dial.

A deep voice answered. “Barr.”

Her tone terse, she said, “This is Branson. I was followed to the hospital. I’ll meet you at the airport. How soon will you be on the ground?”

“Fifteen minutes or so. When we stop, pull your vehicle up to the door. Once Tristan is on board, we’ll take off again. What is his condition?”

“Before my hasty exit, a doctor examined him. His only injuries are the cuts on his feet. I’m driving a black Ford pickup.”

“Any idea how they found you?”

“Since I wasn’t followed, I sure as hell don’t.”

After disconnecting, Kerry pondered his question. How did they know she was at the hospital? Heading to town, she had kept a close eye on her rearview mirror, and no one had followed her. Plus, she could have turned south instead of north. Nerves tingled. Something wasn’t right, but she didn’t have time to figure out what.

She pulled up a map of the city. The airport was south of town, and she remembered passing the entrance. Not good. The kidnappers could be watching the main highway. Studying the streets, she located another route, longer as she had to circle around the west side, but it let her approach from another direction. She also didn’t like the setup at the airport, only one way in and out. A large plant across the road might be the answer.

Within a few minutes, she reached the plant’s parking lot and backed into the shadows near the loading dock. From her position, she could scan the hangars and terminal with the binoculars she kept in the glovebox.

Two cars were parked by the terminal’s front door. Lights gleamed inside the small building and along the sides of the runway. Quiet, nothing suspicious, still, she couldn’t shake her uneasiness. Occasionally, a car passed on the main highway. When a black SUV slowed to turn into the airport, hackles on her neck rose. It was running without headlights. Instead of parking next to the terminal, the vehicle headed to the end of the hangars. Three men exited. With rifles slung over their shoulders, they eased their way to a position on the sides of the buildings.

Oh, my, god! They’re waiting for me.

Punching the number for Barr’s phone, she said, “It’s a trap! There are three armed men at the hangars on the south end of the runway.”

“Where are you?” he asked.

“In the parking lot across the road from the airport.”

“We’re on final approach and will land in a few minutes. I’ll come to you, stay put.”

Not bothering to keep the sarcasm from her voice, she added, “Yeah, and how do you plan on doing that without them seeing you?”

“I haven’t figured it out yet. I’ll get back to you,” he answered and disconnected.

Kerry hit the button to roll down the window. The sound of a plane’s engine grew louder. She glanced at Tristan. Slumped in the seat, his head rested against the pad of the blanket.

Lights twinkled in the sky as a plane dropped lower and lower. Her phone rang.

“Where are you again?” Barr asked.

“In the parking lot of a plant across the road from the entrance.”

“I’m dressed in black cargo pants and a black jacket and will be carrying a backpack.”

Well, this ought to be some magic stunt, as she had no idea how he could get off the plane without the armed men spotting him.

Ryan checked his backpack to make sure everything was secure before tightening the straps on his shoulders. He didn’t want to damage his laptop.

Fellow agent, Nicki Allison sat across from him. “Are you sure this will work?” she asked.

“No, but it’s our only option. We can’t risk getting Tristan to the plane, not with three gunmen waiting to stop us. I’ve got to reach this Branson woman. I don’t understand how the kidnappers found her. She said she wasn’t followed, but she must be mistaken. If she is right, though, then we’ve got an even bigger problem … a leak.”

Nicki’s anxiety was reflected in her face. “I don’t like how any of this has gone down. This was to have been a routine pickup, not one that has turned into a potential firefight. And … I don’t like the fact we don’t know anything about this woman. All Cooper said was that she was a private investigator. How the hell did she find the kid? Too many questions and no answers.”

The pilot’s voice came over the speaker. “Five minutes out, turning off the cabin lights.”

Ryan had worked out a plan. As soon as the plane landed, the pilot would turn and taxi to the terminal. Once the door was out of view of anyone at the hangars, he would jump and hide in the trees along the edge of the runway. If he timed it right, the waiting men shouldn’t even realize someone had exited. The pilot would sit for a few minutes as if waiting for the woman to show up with the kid, then take off again.

His phone rang. It was Cooper.

“What’s your status?”

“Getting ready to land at the airport.”

“Let me know as soon as you have the boy and are back in the air.”

Disconnecting, he glanced at Nicki. “Until we know who we can trust, I don’t want Cooper to know there is a change of plans.”

At the jolt of the wheels hitting the concrete, Ryan moved to the doorway. The co-pilot waited to open the door. The plane slowed, and began to turn. The pilot’s voice sounded over the speaker. “Now!”

Wind swirled through the open doorway. Hands gripped the door frame, then he bent his knees and jumped. When his feet hit the concrete, he twisted, allowing his body to roll. The backpack dug into his back. Ignoring the sharp pain, he picked himself up and raced to the trees.

Kerry watched the plane land, roll toward the end of the runway where it slowly turned, then taxied to the terminal. The gunmen had slipped from hangar to hangar as they worked their way closer to the plane. Heads repeatedly turned to glance over their shoulders at the entrance to the airport.

The cabin lights came on, and a woman exited. Must be the other agent. She paced in front of the open door, occasionally looking at her watch, then made a call. A few minutes later, she re-entered the plane. It taxied to the end of the runway and lifted off.

The men walked to their vehicle. One held a phone to his ear. Before leaving, they slowly drove around the hangars, then exited, turning north, back into town.

As soon as the car was out of sight, Kerry grabbed her gun, opened the door and slid out of the truck. Shoving the weapon in her waistband, she scanned the tarmac and entrance with the binoculars. A shadow crossed one end of the runway.

Well, I’ll be damned. I bet that’s Barr, and how did he get off the plane?



Four

The phone rang twice, and Moore hung up.

Within seconds, it rang. “Do you have the package?”

“No, the woman never showed. The plane landed, then left after several minutes,” Moore said.

“Did anyone get off?”

“A woman, but she got back on before it left.”

There was silence for several seconds. “What’s the status of the next package?”

“It’s being delivered. What are your instructions for the one that’s missing?”

“As soon as I learn its location, I will call you.” The line went dead.

Kerry watched the man stroll onto the parking lot. Six-foot, with a slim build, he moved with the fluid agility of an athlete. His gaze flicked across the parked vehicles. She recognized the moment he spotted her truck. There was a slight hesitation before he continued his visual search.

As he approached, Kerry hung the binoculars around her neck and pulled her pistol. Until she was certain this was Barr, she wasn’t taking any chances. “Stop! Put your identification on the hood.”

As he peered into the deep shadows, he asked, “Are you, Kerry Branson? I’m Agent Ryan Barr.”

“I still want to see your ID.”

Pulling a black case from his pocket, Ryan laid it on the hood.

“Now, step back, away from the truck.” With silent footsteps, she eased along the side of the vehicle.

As a slim, lithe figure, dressed all in black, her face shadowed by the brim of her ball cap came into view, his eyes widened in shock. The damn woman has a gun pointed at me! Anger rippled through him. “Hey! I sure as hell don’t like a gun pointed at me.”

“Right now, I don’t give a damn what you like!” Picking up the badge case, she flipped it open. Her gaze flicked between the picture and his face.

Sliding the gun into her waistband, she handed the case to him. “I’m Branson.”

His tone terse, he said, “Yeah, I figured that one out. Where’s the boy?”

“Asleep in the truck. How did you get off the plane and did anyone see you?”

The implied criticism piled irritation on top of his anger. “When the pilot turned, I jumped and hid in the trees on the other side of the runway, and no, I wasn’t seen. I waited until the men left. I don’t suppose you got a license plate number?” he jabbed back.

“I couldn’t. There was no front plate, and the back had something over it. They were prepared. How about telling me what’s going on.”

“I will, but let’s get out of here first,” he said, stepping to the car door.

Her voice amused, she added, “You’ll have to sit in the back, Tristan’s in front,” as she slid behind the wheel, tossing her ball cap on the dash.

Glaring at her, he slid onto the back seat, leaning forward to look at the sleeping child snuggled under a blanket. His anger and irritation vanished. Branson might be a pain in the ass, but she had saved the boy.

“Are you familiar with this area?” he asked.

“Enough to get us on secondary roads to head south to Longview. I want to get away from this town. Those men are likely still searching for me.”

“As soon as you reach a place where we can pull over, let’s move Tristan to the backseat.”

Kerry turned onto the same road she had driven to get to the airport. When she spotted the parking lot of a feed mill, she pulled in.

She studied him as he unbuckled Tristan’s seatbelt and picked up the boy. How far can I trust him? Ryan didn’t even look like a federal agent. The man had a pretty boy look, a classical elegance in the high cheekbones, narrow nose, and blue eyes. Strands of blond hair with a hint of a curl drifted across his forehead, and brushed his collar, long for a fed. She guessed he was in his early thirties.

No, until she knew more, she would err on the side of caution. When he laid Tristan on the back seat, she moved her pistol into the holder beside the console instead of inside.

The boy never stirred as Ryan wrapped the seatbelt around him. With Barr in the front seat, she pointed out her route on the GPS screen. As she pulled onto the roadway, his phone rang.

“I’m checking to make sure your butt wasn’t plastered all over the runway,” Nicki said.

“Yeah, rough landing, but I’m still in one piece. I’m with Branson and will keep you posted on our progress. Any problems on your end?” Ryan listened and said, “Okay,” before disconnecting.

“That was my partner, Nicki Allison. She’s on the plane.”

“Time to start talking,” Kerry told him.

Ryan stared at her, debating what to say. His few experiences with private investigators had not left a favorable impression of their knowledge or experience. The abduction was already mired in the political currents swirling around Senator Murdock. The inept bungling of an individual, no matter how well-meaning, could have disastrous consequences.

Her appearance didn’t inspire confidence. Age-wise, she looked to be in her late twenties. Slim, around five-seven, her face had a pixie look with its heart shape and large dark eyes. The long hair pulled into a ponytail, trailed over her shoulder. Still, she had kept Tristan out of the hands of the kidnappers. Until he knew more, he would tread lightly.

“Before I do, tell me how you found the boy.”

Kerry recapped the series of events from the moment she had spotted Tristan on the side of the road.

“Did you get a look at any of the men?”

“Only a glimpse of the one who took a shot at me, big and burly. Dark clothes and a cap. The one at the hospital had on a ski mask, and at the airport—well, too dark and too far away.”

“Since the details haven’t been released, how did you know about the abduction?”

“I’m a private investigator and work for Mike Bradford, head of Bradford Security and Investigations in Austin. An agent called Mike and told him the Murdock boy had been kidnapped, just in case we picked up any rumors from our informants.”

“I’ve heard of BSI.” Ryan’s opinion of Kerry shot up. If she worked for Bradford, she had to be good, he only hired the best. This might not be as bad as he first thought. “The kidnapping happened at Murdock’s home in Austin. So far, there’s been no contact with the kidnappers.”

“That’s strange. Why would you kidnap a child if you are not asking for a ransom or make some type of demand?”

“Since we don’t know, it’s one of the reasons we haven’t gone public with the abduction. Senator Murdock is the head of the Senate Appropriations Committee and is one of the most powerful men on Capitol Hill.”

His phone rang. Caller ID showed it was Cooper. Ryan let the call roll to his voice mail as he continued. “He is negotiating a series of contracts with the Chinese government. If the Chinese delegation finds out his son has been kidnapped, it could cast doubt on his credibility in the negotiations.”

When Kerry’s phone chimed, she picked it up from the console. “This is probably Agent Cooper.”

“Don’t answer. Cooper called me, but I don’t want to talk to him yet.”

She laid it back down, glancing at him with an inquiring look.

Ryan picked it up, popped the back and removed the sim card.

“Okay, now you do have me concerned,” she said as he laid the pieces of her phone in the cup holder.

“How do you know you weren’t followed after you picked up Tristan?”

Since Barr didn’t know her, Kerry tried not to let the question irritate her and tempered her sarcasm. “Because I’m damn good at what I do and can spot a tail. I wasn’t followed when I found Tristan, and I wasn’t followed from the hospital. They knew I was there, and I only told two people. My boss, who I trust, and Agent Cooper.” She took a deep breath, then added, “I’d say you’ve got a leak and a hell of a problem.”

“Yeah, I’ve figured that one out too.”

He punched another number on his phone. “Scott, Tristan Murdock is safe. He’s with me, but we’ve got a major dilemma.”

Kerry listened to him explain their predicament and suspicions to whoever Scott was. When Kerry’s name came into the conversation, she glanced at him. Their eyes met and his hard gaze revised her assessment. No, Ryan Barr wasn’t a pretty boy.

Disconnecting the call, he explained, “My boss, Scott Fleming.”

A small voice, barely audible, came from the back seat. “I have to go potty, and I’m thirsty.”

“Oh, boy,” Kerry said. How was she going to handle this? Her only experience with a child was the few hours she’d spent with Cindy’s new baby.

Ryan smiled at the note of panic in her voice. He looked at the passing terrain. They were on a deserted stretch of roadway.

“If you’ll pull over, I’ll take him outside.”

Kerry stopped on the shoulder and turned on the overhead lights. Tristan had sat up. The blanket was clutched tight in his hands and a look of fear on his face as he gazed at Ryan.

“Where did you come from?”

“Hi, Tristan. Your daddy sent me,” Ryan said.

“You know my daddy?” Reassured, he wiggled higher on the seat.

“Yes, and he’ll be happy to know you are with me.”

“I want my daddy.” Lips quivered, and fists rubbed his eyes.

Hoping to avert the tears, Kerry quickly said, “Tristan, we’ll get you home as soon as we can. I know your daddy and mommy are waiting to see you. Ryan, there are bottles of water in the container on the floor.”

Ryan stepped out and opened the back door. He picked Tristan up and within a few minutes had the boy back inside. Grabbing a bottle of water from the box, he removed the cap and handed it to the child.

After several sips, Tristan asked, “Are we still playing a game, are you my pretend momma?”

Ryan sent a questioning look at Kerry as he secured the seatbelt around the boy.

“I’ll explain later,” she told him, then said to Tristan. “Not now, sweetie. We might want to play it again later.”

Ryan stood by the open door. He hated to question the child, but they needed all the information he could get. “Tristan, what happened after you went to sleep in your bed?”

Tristan took a long drink from the bottle before saying, “I woke up, but it wasn’t my room. The bed smelled bad, and it was dirty.”

“Do you know how you got to the room?”

“Huh uh … I got sick. He didn’t like it.” A smug tone of satisfaction crept into his voice. “It hit his shoes.”

“Someone was there?” Ryan asked.

“A man. He shouted, said some bad words, and shook me.”

Ryan hesitated, then asked, “Is that the only time he touched you?” Relief swept over him when the boy nodded yes. “Did you see anyone else?”

“Yep, another man. He was watching TV with the bad man. They didn’t see me,” he replied with another smile of self-satisfaction.

“Why didn’t they see you?”

“I snuck out of the bedroom and was real quiet when I walked.

“How did you get out of the house?”

“I ran out the back door and hid under a tree, then I ran again. I screamed at Kerry like mommy told me to do. Kerry grabbed me.”

“Wow! What a brave boy you are. Your daddy and mommy will be very proud of you. You did good. Is there anything else you remember about the house?” Ryan asked.

“A girl. She was crying.”



Five

Kerry had twisted to look over the seat as Ryan questioned Tristan. Her gaze shot upward to stare into Ryan’s eyes, their faces mirrored the shock from Tristan’s words. Was there another kidnapped child?

After several more questions, it was evident, Tristan had told them all he could remember. When the boy yawned, Ryan grabbed the bottle, then positioned him so he could lie down and tucked the blanket around his body.

As she pulled back onto the highway, her thoughts swirled at the implication of another kidnapped victim. She glanced in the rearview mirror at Tristan. He had fallen back asleep.

“Are you thinking the same thing I am? There is another kidnapped child?” she asked.

“It’s exactly what I am thinking,” he said.

“Do you work for Cooper?”

“No, I work for a specialized unit, the Trackers. We’re based in Washington, D.C. My boss received a call to help on the Murdock kidnapping.”

His phone rang. Answering, he activated the speakerphone. A female voice said, “Where are you? Cooper called again.”

He laughed and said, “Careful what you say, you are on the speakerphone. Nicki Allison, say hello to Kerry Branson.”

“Hmm, Barr … not nice to do that to someone. Remind me to return the favor one of these days. Hello, Kerry. Sounds like you landed in the middle of a mess.”

Kerry grinned at the bubbly voice on the other end. “Nice to meet you, and yeah, I did.”

“Nicki, we may have another victim. Tristan heard a little girl crying.”

“If that’s the case, why haven’t we heard anything?” her voice serious.

“Good question. And, if our suspicions are correct, we have a mole. The kidnappers followed Kerry to the hospital and then to the airport. Her only calls were to her boss and Cooper. If you can, steer clear of the agents in the Austin office until we can figure this out.”

Disconnecting, he said, “Nicki and I had finished an investigation in Clinton, Mississippi when Scott received the call and sent us to Austin.”

“I’m curious how you got to Mt. Pleasant so fast.”

“We had just landed and were on our way to Cooper’s office. When your boss called him, we were only minutes from the airport.”

As she listened to Ryan talk, a new worry wormed its way into her thoughts. “If someone in the FBI is involved, is it safe to take Tristan home?”

Startled, he glanced at her profile as she drove down the highway. He had the same concern and said, “I’m not sure since we don’t know the reason he was kidnapped. There is certainly a determined effort to get him back. If I had a place, I’d stash him for a few days. Plus, I need to find the house.”

“I know where we can leave him. It’s the home of the person I visited this weekend. Cindy is a friend from college and lives in the middle of several thousand acres. No one would even think to connect her to Tristan. Plus, her husband is ex-military and as tough as they come. His brothers live nearby and are also ex-military.”

Ryan agreed, saying that would at least solve their problem for the night. He’d wait and make his own assessment before deciding to leave the boy.

Up ahead was a convenience store, and she needed gas. Ryan stepped out to fill the tank.

A quick stop at the restroom, then a pass along the cookie isle to pick up a snack. Just in case Tristan woke up, she wanted to have something he could nibble on. Uncertain what a six-year-old boy liked, she decided on a package of animal cookies. On her way to the checkout counter, Kerry spotted the display for paid cell phones. Grabbing a half-dozen, she paid for the items and her gas, glad she had acquired an ample supply of cash before she left Austin. She didn’t want to use her credit card.

Back in the car, she waited while Ryan made a trip inside. Activating one of the cell phones, she called Mike. “It’s Kerry. Get a burner phone and call me back on this number.” He always carried one in his truck.

A few minutes later, the phone rang. It took several minutes to explain what had happened and the suspicions someone in the FBI was involved.

“I don’t like your situation. Can you trust Barr?”

“Umm … I didn’t at first. But, after talking to him, I believe I can. He’s not part of Cooper’s team.”

Mike knew Kerry’s instincts were reliable as he considered her one of the best investigators he had ever worked with. “Who is his boss?”

“Scott Fleming, and it’s the Trackers Unit in D.C.”

“I’ve heard of it. It’s new, and only the elite of the elite get offered a position. If Barr is a Tracker, I would agree with your assessment he’s not involved,” Mike said.

“You may get a call from Cooper, so be careful what you say. Right now, Ryan’s not talking to any of the local agents.”

“I’ve known Coop for several years and can’t believe he is involved, but still, it’s better to not take a chance.”

“If you need to call, use this number. My phone is disabled.”


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