"They should have let me go along," Steve complained, nervously from the side window, where he paused to part the curtain with his finger before resuming his restless walk around the room.
Ever since Bo and Roman had left for their rescue mission, he had been pacing impatiently around the living room, unable to sit down and relax. He walked from the window, past the sofa, on which Kayla sat with her sister Kim, and stopped at the front door, where he turned around and circled behind the sofa. His hands restlessly stroked through his hair, straightened his eye patch, and were shoved in and out of his pockets.
"What the hell is taking so long?"
Seated on the sofa with her sister, Kayla had been watching her husband's nervous agitation, understanding his desire to help bring the kidnappers to justice, but inwardly gratified that he was safe with her. "I know you want to be there for Adrienne," she said. "It probably makes me sound selfish, but I'm glad you're here with me. If something had gone wrong, if those people had gotten the drop on you . . . I don't think I could stand it if I lost you again."
His expression softened and he paused behind the sofa to gently caress her cheek with his hand before resuming his stroll through the living room. "I know, baby, but I hate not knowing what's going on. I have a bigger bone to pick with these guys than anyone, but they're keeping me away from it. I should be there."
"Don't get angry at me for saying so, but I can understand why they insisted you stay behind," Kim said, her voice soothing and non-judgmental. "These people have high stakes in this game, and they wanted to lure you out in the open. What better way to rattle your cage than to offer up a loved one in exchange? Who knows what would have happened if you had been there?"
Steve could not feel rankled by Kim's calm assessment, because he knew that she was right. "I know," he admitted. "They know I might have done something rash. I just don't know what's going on out there. If they hurt her –"
"Steve, don't do this," Kayla admonished, quietly. "We can't just sit here and imagine all the things that might go wrong. Roman, Bo, and Abe are the top brass in their departments, and they're are all good at what they do. They will do everything they can possibly do to keep her safe."
"My head knows you're right, but my heart . . ." He paused briefly, his expression one of worry and grief. "I brought this right to her doorstep, Sweetness. She was kidnapped and placed in danger because of me."
Before Kayla could respond with an attempt to comfort him, her phone rang, and she reached into her purse for it. "Hello?" She listened for a moment, then offered it to Steve. "It's Bo. He wants to talk to you."
A stricken expression crossed his face as he reached out to accept the phone, certain that something had gone wrong, that something had happened to his sister. He pressed the phone to his ear, and his voice was anxious when he said, "Bo?"
"Steve, we have her," Bo told him. "She's fine, and she's anxious to see you."
He relaxed visibly in relief, his shoulders slumping as if exhausted. "Thanks, man. I owe you one."
"I'm bringing her to you right now. Tell Kim that Shane has been delayed at the scene and he asked me to take her back to the Pub."
Steve glanced at his sister in law. "I'll tell her. He's okay, isn't he?"
"He's fine." Bo paused to glance at his watch. "We're about five minutes out. We'll talk when we get there."
"See you in a few." He passed the phone back to Kayla. "She's fine. Bo's bringing her here."
"That's wonderful news!" Kayla exclaimed, with Kim echoing the sentiment.
Kayla stood up, and he swept her into his arms for an exuberant hug. "This is almost over, Sweetness!" he told her. "Then we'll be able to start our lives over again. As a family."
"I can't wait," she replied.
Adrienne had listened from the passenger side of Bo's car while he reported her safe recovery to Steve, hoping he would allow her to speak with him, but to her disappointment, he snapped his cell phone closed before she could ask.
"We'll be there in a few minutes," he said, indicating that he understood her eagerness to see and speak to her brother.
"Tell me what happened to Steve," she said. "How did this happen? Those criminals wouldn't tell me much of anything, except that they wanted to trade me for him. At first, I thought they were talking about Jack, but the one called Vaughn kept taunting me with references to Steve. Carlton told me he was alive, but he never told me anything more than that. I don't understand how this could happen."
As he drove along the country lanes, keeping an eye on his rear view mirror, Bo gave her an abbreviated rendition of Steve's kidnapping and incarceration.
Adrienne listened with growing astonishment. "And he has no idea what it is they're after?"
"None. I'm starting to think that Vaughn and his people don't know precisely what it is, either. I think the mastermind is keeping that detail to himself. Whatever it is, it must be very valuable, at least to him, but whether its monetary value or personal value, we don't know at this point. Whoever this person is, Alamain or someone else, he has a really deep pocketbook."
"Poor Steve," she lamented. "It must have been a miserable existence, locked up like that all this time."
"I don't doubt it. I don't know many people who could endure it as well as he has. It kind of reminds me of people who have been in prison for a long time and then released when DNA evidence proved them innocent. Unlike them, though, he was trapped in that underground room, never seeing the daylight. He's understandably angry and bitter at the people who did this, but he's coping well."
"He's a fighter," Adrienne declared. "He's been through a lot in his lifetime, and I think it made him stronger." Turning her head, she looked out the window at the lush green scenery. They and entered a heavily wooded area, and the dirt road had narrowed until it was little more than one lane. "I've really missed Salem," she said. "I'd forgotten how pretty and green it is here."
"Well, we Salemites are pretty fond of our old town," Bo agreed.
"It was hard to leave it, but Justin and I both agreed we needed a fresh start somewhere else." Noticing that Bo was repeatedly glancing in the review mirror, she turned in her seat to look behind the car, but saw nothing except the trailing plume of dust kicked up by the tires on Bo's vehicle and the long tunnel between the large trees that arched across the narrow road. "Is someone back there?"
"No. We're getting close, and I was just making sure that we're not being followed."
A pang of fear jolted through her. "We're not, right?"
"No, we're not. I don't think Vaughn has the courage to follow us himself, but it's possible that there are others working for him. We won't know for sure until Shane interrogates them."
"Better to be safe than sorry, Mama says."
As they came around a curve in the road, they were confronted by what initially appeared to be a pile of brush and debris in the road, and Adrienne tensed as Bo applied the brakes.
"Is that going to be a problem?" she asked.
He smiled. "That is camouflage, designed to look like an impenetrable pile of debris, when in actuality it is a gate."
He rolled down the window, and to Adrienne's surprise, a police officer appeared through the dense trees and brush. Bo showed him his identification, even though he obviously already knew him from the friendly greeting.
After glancing at the I.D., he opened the gate, and Bo drove through it. Adrienne turned in her seat to watch as the gate was closed behind them.
"Steve is well protected," he told her with a reassuring smile.
"Yeah, I can see that," she agreed, settling back in her seat. "Thank you for taking care of him."
"I bet Kayla's really happy."
"That is an understatement. I don't think she ever completely got over losing him. She went on with her life, of course, but she was never able to find another man to love." He smiled again. "I guess that turned out to be a good thing." He shook his head, slowly, in disbelief. "I tell you, I thought I was seeing a ghost when Shane brought him over. That was just about the last thing I expected when Roman sent Hope and me out there to pick up him and Shane."
Following another curve in the road, they emerged into a clearing, and in the center of the clearing was the two-story cottage, the safe house he had told her about.
Adrienne felt her heartbeat quicken in anticipation. "That's it?'
"That's it," Bo confirmed, stopping the car near the door. He and Adrienne got out and started up the sidewalk.
Rubbing her sweating hands on her jeans to dry them, she said, "I'm so nervous."
"Don't be. He hasn't changed much over the years. He's still the same Steve you remember."
They went up the steps, and Bo punched the code into the security device, then knocked on the door. "Steve, Kayla? It's me."
Kayla opened it, and her face lit up in a brilliant smile when she saw her sister in law.
"Adrienne! Thank God you're safe! What you must have been through!"
They embraced, tightly.
"It's nothing compared to what Steve must have gone through all these years!"
A movement caught her eyes and she drew away from Kayla's embrace and stared at her brother as if he was an apparition. "Steve," she whispered. Then joy spread across her face and she rushed into his arms. "Steve!"
"I'm proud of you, baby," he praised, holding her tightly. "You did good. Did they hurt you?"
"No. No, they treated me okay, for a hostage."
"They had her chained by the ankle to a pillar inside the warehouse, but they had a sofa and chairs for her," Bo explained. "She was allowed to move about as far as the chain would reach."
"The only one I was kind of worried about was the one they called Jennings -"
"He's a hothead." Steve turned to Bo. "So, did you get all of those bastards?" Steve asked, one arm around Kayla, the other around Adrienne. "Are they behind bars where they belong?"
"Vaughn wasn't there. Roman, Shane, and Abe are still there, scouring the area, but it doesn't look promising. We got the other three. They were all there in the warehouse, right where Adrienne's message indicated they would be." He gave Adrienne an admiring glance. "You did good," he praised. "Kim is the one who figured out what you were trying to tell us, and after that, it was just a matter of pulling some officers together and getting out there."
"I was hoping someone would remember that old fruit plant. Justin and I drove past the warehouse once when we still lived here, and I started noticing the label on the pie filling when I was at the grocery store. It didn't take long for me to realize where I was." She smiled gratefully at Kim. "I should have known it would be a woman who would figure it out. I'm glad you were here."
"Me too," Kim agreed, responding to Adrienne's smile with one of her own.
"So, Bo told me on the way over here that these guys were the ones who were holding you prisoner all this time," Adrienne said to her brother. "I just wish they could have gotten that Vaughn person. He seems very . . . unbalanced."
"Demented," Steve added, in complete agreement.
"Well, I think he's been effectively neutered by losing his helpers," Bo said. "I get the impression he doesn't do much on his own, and Roman has an APB out on him. It's just a matter of time before we get him"
"So does that mean we can get out of here?" Steve asked.
"Not until Roman thinks it's safe. Vaughn probably doesn't have the means here to replace his men, but with a tranquilizer gun, he could easily stalk you and take you down. Plus he had resources to kidnap Adrienne in Dallas, so we have to assume he has the ability to bring others in to help him."
Steve sighed, disappointed. "I know. I just hate being cooped up like this."
"It shouldn't be much longer. Anyway, we're going to interrogate these three guys and see what we can learn. Shane's trying to figure out which one to start with, which one might be the most willing to cooperate –"
"Carlton," Steve said, promptly. "I always had the impression that he was not happy with what he was doing, but for some reason couldn't get out of it."
"Carlton," Bo repeated, pulling out his cell phone. "I'll let Shane know."
"I want to be there when he's interrogated," Steve said. "Can that be arranged?"
"Yeah, I don't see why not."
Feeling rather guilty about abandoning Kim at the safe house, Shane drove directly back to the Salem Inn as soon as he left the warehouse, and his first act upon reaching his suite was to retrieve his laptop computer from the closet safe. After booting it up, he tapped into the I.S.A. Database and typed in the names of the prisoners, and within minutes he received some of the information he was seeking.
While he had waited, he had received a brief phone call from Bo, informing him of Steve's suggestion that they concentrate on Carlton.
With that information in hand, Shane placed a call back to Thiessen.
"I have some additional information for you," he said when his supervisor answered the call. "I conducted a Database search of the three prisoners we apprehended, and it turns out that one of them is indeed a former I.S.A. agent. A fairly decent one, by all accounts. He appears to have left the organization some eight years ago to do what is listed as unspecified personal issues resulting from gambling debts."
Thiessen was silent a moment, pondering the information Shane had provided. "So none of them are current agents, and therefore have no security clearance. Is there any way to determine if he has remained in touch with any of the current agents, someone with access to those security devices?"
"No, nothing short of interrogating him, which I plan to do in a few hours. Steve Johnson suggested that he be the one we focus our attention on, that he might actually be the one most willing to talk. His name is Lance Carlton. Neither the name nor the face rang any bells with me, but I swear he was looking at me as if he knew me, or at least recognized me."
"That wouldn't be surprising, would it? You've become something of a legend within the organization. So, what concessions do you recommend as incentive for him to spill the goods on the others?"
"That depends on how far you're willing to go."
Thiessen instantly became cautious. "What do you mean?"
"Call it a feeling," Shane replied. "Perhaps instinct, if you believe in that sort of thing. Steve told me some things about his guards on the flight over, and I think Carlton is merely a pawn in all this, rather than a major player. He may or may not have provided the name of an agent willing to betray his oath, but personally, I don't think he's the liaison. I think that's' someone higher up in this group. Someone like Vaughn himself. Vaughn had access to employment records, knew who might be more willing to be bought off."
"Sounds like this Carlton may not be of much help to us."
"That is not necessarily the case. To the contrary, I think he may be of great help."
"So what do you suggest?"
"If I can get the American authorities to agree, I'd like to offer him clemency in exchange for everything he knows about Vaughn, this mastermind, and the theft of the devices."
"You mean let him off scot-free? I doubt the Americans will agree to that, especially since Johnson is the police chief's brother in law."
"He's my brother in law too, or at least he was," Shane reminded him. "Roman Brady wants Vaughn and the mastermind of this operation, and we want the agent responsible for the theft of I.S.A. equipment. With Carlton's complete testimony, we all win."
"Provided he has the answers you're after."
"If he doesn't have the answers, then it proves my point that he's merely a pawn. I took the liberty of checking for priors, and he has no prior criminal records of any kind, and he was a good agent when he was employed with us. My gut is telling me that he somehow got in over his head."
Thiessen was quiet for several moments, considering Shane's proposition. "I don't know, Shane. Regardless of how much he knows or doesn't know, I don't like the idea of him getting away with no punishment at all for his actions."
"I'm not suggesting that. I was thinking more in terms of probation and community service. His main purpose appears to have been to guard Steve to make certain he didn't escape and bring his meals to him. He has a family, Ryan."
"There are a lot of hardened criminals out there who have families, Shane. It doesn't make them redeemable."
"I know, but I don't think Carlton is one of them. I think with incentive, he will tell us what we need to know."
"Very well, then. Speak to the Americans, see if they are agreeable, and if they are and this Carlton can provide something useful, you may offer your concessions. I urge you, however, to proceed with caution on this matter, just in case you are wrong."
"I'll keep you informed," Shane promised.