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“Hell.” Mac Carlson hit speed dial for a second time, one white knuckled hand gripped the
steering wheel. Crap like this didn’t happen on his watch. Carlson Group, though new in
Atlanta, ranked number one in the security business. He punched speed dial for the third time and swerved to miss a car that pulled out in front of him. He swore at the driver and flipped him off. The idiot would have killed a less skilled
driver. Why didn’t they answer the damned phone?
The Knights’ alarm had activated and then fallen silent. Why? Mac had dropped Allen
Knight off earlier at a meeting downtown. Only Knight’s wife and daughter stayed home, along with the family’s personal security, of course.
Could be a false alarm. Yeah, right. Like the newly installed multi-faceted security system all malfunctioned at once, no chance. Besides, Mac trusted his instincts and alarm bells were jangling through every cell of his being. His gut said this was real, and it wasn’t going to be pretty.
“Answer the phone.”
Where the hell was security? If Allen had allowed him to handpick the on-premise security
team this wouldn’t be happening. Mac pounded his fist on the steering wheel. At his suggestion, Allen Knight had switched to Longfield Technology for electronic security, but he’d held back when Mac pushed to replace the security team, too.
The mini control module mounted on the dash remained blank. Longfield damned well better
have a good explanation for this snafu. Mac had recommended Longfield over Connard because of Longfield’s superior technology and special skills.
Gripping the steering wheel with one hand, he used the other to whack the module. It
remained blank, dead like a tagged Iraqi sniper. He tried a fourth number on speed dial.
Nothing. The security team should have been changed. After this they would be, he’d see to that.
The coal-black SUV sped down Peachtree Street, suppressed power throbbing beneath the
hood. Mac turned onto West Paces Ferry Road. He opened her up, speeding past the Governor’s mansion, and continued west toward the Knight estate. High wrought-iron gates marked the entry.
Gates that should have been closed stood open, allowing anyone entry.
Crap, this was bad, real bad.
He parked the SUV near the barn that housed Knight’s exotic car collection, pulled his Glockfrom the side pocket of the door and slid from the seat. Mac knelt beside the vehicle. Hisspecial forces training decreeing caution, he inched along the wall.
Crouching low, he crept toward the house. Body flattened against the barn wall he rounded
the corner, Glock held ready.
He found the first body on the lawn outside the house. The second lay sprawled in the garage, just outside the kitchen door. The security team. Both had a single gunshot to the back of the head. His fifth speed dial was to 911.
“Damn,” Mac cursed. No time to wait for back up, he had to find Mrs. Knight and Rachael
Body tense and weapon drawn, he entered through the open mudroom door.
Professional security guards wouldn’t have been taken out so easily. He’d warned Knight that as a high-profile executive, he and his family were prime targets.
Mac hugged the garage wall and advanced. Inside more chaos reigned – showroom perfect
kitchen trashed, dishes smashed across the floor, living room furniture overturned and shoved askew.
Worse, the petite body of Lora Knight sprawled on the polished marble floor in front of the wide sweeping stairs that led to the upstairs bedrooms.
He switched the Glock to his left hand and knelt, touching his fingers to her throat. Some of the tension left him when he felt a steady pulse.
Caution and dread brought a steely determination to Mac’s steps. Slowly he climbed the stairs headed toward the child’s room.
* * * *
The twenty-second-floor office high atop the gleaming glass tower overlooked the vista of
downtown Atlanta. He stood at the window and admired his reflection. He flicked an imaginary piece of lint from the lapel of his Canali suit, caught the cuff of his Italian silk shirt and tugged it down below the cashmere and cotton blend of his coat sleeve.
Steps one and two of the plan complete, the decoy installed. He smiled and took a sip from his Scotch. Now on to the next step. He moved from the window. “Soon those clowns will see who has the superior technology.”
His fingers found the small gold placard on his desk and traced the engraved letters, TBC, absently. Fingers tightening on the nameplate, he flipped open the disposable cell phone and made the call. “Send the ransom message. It’s a go.”
“Roger that, and if anyone gets in the way?”
“Take ’em out.”
Mac Carlson would never realize what hit him.
* * * *
A Coke, a fat one, or an orange soda.
“Not gonna happen.” Jolie Wyngate shrugged, climbed from her car and hurried toward the
convenience store to pick up a quick snack before continuing on her way south.
And why not?
“Because I have to drive another hundred and fifty miles, and I don’t intend to stop every half hour for potty breaks.”
You are so not any fun! It’s just a Coke, for Pete’s sake.
“And you, lady, are so predictable.”
Make it chocolate then.
Jolie smiled. Chocolate, a compromise with which she could live. “Right.”
And stop speaking out loud, people will think you’re crazy.
“Me crazy? Get real, Maniac, I’ve talked to you since childhood. If I haven’t landed in the loony bin by now, I hardly think it’s going to happen.”
Humor me, then.
Jolie shrugged, continuing toward the store. She’d pick out a chocolate bar to keep her unseen companion happy.
Serve you right if I quit talking to you all together.
“Put it in writing.” Jolie reached for the door handle.
A giggle erupted within Jolie’s mind. Then, in the tone Jolie hated hearing: Shush, pay
attention. There’s something wrong in there.
Oh, hell. Jolie bit the soft flesh of her lower lip. Her hand tingled as if the door was
electrified. Shit, this was the real reason for the Maniac’s sudden thirst.
The cool, dry air of the convenience store surrounded her when she stepped through the open door. For a second, the young clerk behind the counter looked up from the newspaper spread in front of her. Nothing. Jolie expelled a breath of relief, exchanged a quick smile with the clerk, and then headed toward the candy isle.
Then she saw her. The little girl wandered listlessly down the candy isle, her small hand
trailing over the rows of candy, gently touching, but taking nothing. Jolie watched her for a moment, then scanned the store and saw no one in sight.
The child turned, her gaze lifting until it found Jolie. She tilted her head to the side, her eyes searching Jolie’s for an instant. Then she moved closer and stared up at her. The expression on the small face caused Jolie’s heart to turn over. She knelt to the child’s level and touched the riot of red curls. A jolt of emotion skittered along Jolie’s spine, but Jolie forced herself not to pull away.
“Hey, sweetie, does your mommy know you’re out here alone?”
The little girl looked about three. She continued to stare mutely. Jolie smiled at her. “That your mommy behind the counter?”
She lifted the child into her arms. Unprepared for the sudden shock of pain and despair that engulfed her, Jolie almost dropped her. Instead, she tightened her arms instinctively around the frail body.
Something’s not right.
Slowly the child shook her head. She lifted her small hand and traced a line down Jolie’s
cheek, her touch feather-light. Sadness engulfed Jolie at the child’s soft touch.
You feel it. Jolie pushed the intrusive thought aside. With the small child still in her arms, she moved toward the checkout counter.
“Your little girl?” Jolie asked. “Found her wandering on the candy aisle.”
The clerk focused a smile on the little girl. “I wish, got me two boys. Pretty little thing, ain’t she?”
“She’s here all alone?” Jolie tightened her grip on the child.
“Looking for yourself a new momma, are you, Elizabeth?”
A voice from behind her startled Jolie. Her grip tightened on the small child. She whirled around. Her fight or flight instinct kicked in when she faced a man with long, dirty-blond hair, scraggly beard and dirty clothes. He reached to take the child from her arms.
The tiny body shrank deeper into Jolie’s arms. Her small hands gripped tightly to Jolie’s shirt.
Her brown eyes widened and filled with tears, but not a word crossed her lips.
“That’s her grampa,” the clerk explained when the man pulled the resistant child from Jolie’s arms.
Panic filled Jolie. The child’s eyes never left hers while the man paid for his cigarettes and beer. Large brown eyes, shadowed by a sadness much too deep for her years, eyes that tugged at Jolie’s heart.
Do something: don’t let him take her.
Not now, she silently warned the Maniac.
Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Jolie paid for her candy bar, her appetite for the rich chocolate completely gone. She took her change, then headed out the door, watching the man with the child the whole time.
The nearly empty parking area held only her car and the man’s. He buckled the little girl into a car seat in the back seat of a battered, ancient Chevy. The child’s soulful eyes met Jolie’s across the few feet separating her small sports car from the Chevy. Jolie slid behind the wheel of her candy apple red car and reached for the pad and pencil on the passenger seat.
She peeled the wrapper from her candy bar and took a bite. The chocolate failed to give her the usual rush of comfort and pleasure. She waited while the man walked around to the driver side, opened the door and climbed inside.
The motor turned over and caught surprisingly fast for such an ancient vehicle. While she
watched he pulled out of the parking space and crossed the parking lot toward the roadway.
Panic choked Jolie, her breathing shallow and rapid. She squinted to read the tag number of the Chevy and wrote it down.
Now do something.