"Okay, Brendan. Tell me where we're going?" Freya turned to her partner, stifling a yawn.
"Upstate. Um, did I mention that I'm really sorry you had to cut your vacation short?" Dean reached over to flip on the wipers as the intermittent showers became a steady downpour. He strained to see the lines on the road in the darkness, the daylight having long since disappeared. I hope June wasn't too disappointed that you had to leave Martinique so soon after you got there. And I am NOT picturing the two of you on a beach in bikinis!
"Yeah?" Intent on following the unfamiliar highway, he didn't notice the weariness in her voice. Between the rain and the darkness, I can hardly see the road. Hope I don't miss the turn.
She sighed, which also escaped his notice. "Tell. Me. Where."
"What? Oh, right. Um, we're heading upstate." Hey, did I not just tell you that? Because I swear I already answered that question.
Another sigh, deeper and more weary, but still unnoticed. "Why are we heading upstate, Brendan?"
Still only half listening to her, he turned the wipers up a notch. "Um, we need to interview a couple of potential witnesses." Rain's definitely getting worse. Guess the weatherman was actually right for once.
Freya lightly banged her head against the seat back before turning to her partner, determined. "Brendan, I need to know what's going on here. If I don't have any background on this, I'm not going to be able to effectively do my job. Now please, tell me about the case and who these potential witnesses are."
He shot a quick, but surprised look before returning his attention back to the road. "You mean Harper didn't fill you in when he called?" Sometimes that guy can be a real...never mind. Just keep your mind and your eyes on the road, B.
Had she not been so tired, Freya would have been amused at her partner's thoughts. But after a long day of traveling, frantic packing and rushing to make flights, connecting flights, and more connecting flights, all she wanted was the information she needed. "Brendan!"
Woah, touchy-touchy! I was just trying to find out what Harper said so that I don't end up repeating everything, but hey, no problem. "Okay, okay. A little over two months ago, we were contacted by a guy named Joseph Delancey Carrington." He shifted in his seat, his eyes still deeply intent on the road. "Carrington owns CFT Enterprises, one of the largest legit import-export business in the country. While on vacation in St. Tropez two weeks before he contacted us, Carrington was approached by two men who attempted to 'persuade' him to export a shipment for a group of their associates in the US. When he refused, they threatened his family. So first thing he does when he gets back to New York is contact the NSA. Seems this shipment of stuffed animals was going to have a little extra 'stuffing' inside some of the units." Dean reached out and wiped away the condensation beginning to build up on the inside of the windshield. Damn it, I wish this rain would let up already.
Freya waited for him to take up the story again, but he said nothing more. Sighing, she rolled her eyes. "And?"
"What?"Oh, good one, B, you're really slipping-come on, just fill her in on the damn case. Gotta remember to talk to Harper about his lame, sorry-assed excuse for a so-called briefing first chance I get though. "Um, let's see, where was I? The shipment, right? So Carrington comes to us with the information and there's an investigation. Turns out these 'associates' have gotten a hold of some key components of our newest, top secret guidance system and are using this toy manufacturer to try to smuggle them out of the country to foreign buyers. So the bosses decide that this would be the perfect setup to nab these creeps and Harper gets Carrington to agree to work with us. Only the night before the shipment is set to be delivered to CFT, Carrington calls Harper and wants out. Something had him really spooked, but Harper finally got him to agree to a meet. Only Carrington never showed and no one's seen him since." Brendan reached over to flip on the defroster, switching it to full power.First the rain, now the windshield's fogging up. It's gonna be a miracle if we ever get there.
"And you think these potential witnesses might have seen something or know something about Carrington's disappearance?" Though she was still exhausted, Freya's mood was improving considerably now that she was getting some straight answers. "Who are they?"
Dean again swiped his hand across the glass, trying in vain to open a clear view. How am I supposed to get us there in one piece when I can't even see the damn road? "When Carrington called that last time, Harper said he could hear giggling in the background. Carrington has twin daughters, so Harper thinks they were there, in the room when he called. So if they were there when he called Harper, chances are they might have been around when whatever-or whoever-shook him up so badly. He wants us to talk to them, see if we can get a lead or something."
"Kids? We're interviewing kids?" Freya was stunned that they'd asked her to cut short a long-overdue vacation to interview children. "How old are these girls anyway? What are their names?"
Oh, she's gonna love this one. "Their names are Bailey and Hailey and they just celebrated their sixth birthday a few weeks ago."
Freya's eyes nearly popped out of her head. "Six? Isn't that a little young for you to be giving them the third degree?" Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Or is that why I'm along? You think they'll respond better to a woman?"
You're a dead man, B. You won't have to worry about the road conditions much longer because she's going to kill you-dead-when she hears this. He shot her a wary look, his full attention now on her instead of the road. "Did I forget to mention the not-talking part?"Deader than dead, even.
"They're mutes?" She couldn't believe what she was hearing, her eyes going wide. "You want me to read the minds of two little girls who can't even talk?"
"They can talk!" he fired back. "According to the nanny, the doctors say that there is no physiological reason that they can't talk. They just...don't."
"Look, I don't like this any better than you do, but we're at a dead end here. If we're going to have any chance whatsoever of finding this guy alive, we're going to have to find out what, if anything, the girls know. If we don't, we won't have a prayer of keeping them from becoming orphans. Is that what you want?"
"No!" Freya sighed, her anger fading. "Of course not. It...doesn't seem right. They're kids, not criminals."
"I know." When I get my hands on the creeps who are making us do this...I'm gonna nail their asses to the wall.
She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, blocking Brendan's thoughts and allowing a comfortable silence to fall over them. Lulled by the motion of the car and the sound of the rain and wipers' rhythmic beat, Freya quickly fell asleep.
"Brendan Dean, NSA, and this is Freya McAllister. We're here to interview Bailey and Hailey Carrington regarding the disappearance of their father." The agent flipped his badge open for the stern-looking woman who answered Carrington's door to see. "I believe we're expected."
The woman scowled, but did not move aside or invite them in. Though trim in figure, she was nonetheless imposing and obviously used to getting her way. "They can't tell you anything," she snapped. "There's no reason to be putting them through something like this." Why that fool woman ever agreed to allow this is beyond me. Putting those precious babies through such things. I should go check their credentials. Serve them right if I left them standing out here in the rain. They're probably sleeping together.
"Yes, ma'am," agreed Brendan. "If you'd take us to see the girls now please?" Wow, somebody's sure got her panties in a bunch. Carrington doesn't need a watchdog with her around-just set her loose when the alarm sounds and I bet she'd be on 'em faster and meaner than a trained pit bull. Kinda looks like one, too, come to think of it. Man, I'd hate to see what she'd do after she caught 'em. Remind me to check out the basement before we leave.
Freya had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing out loud at Brendan's musings, allowing him to continue to take the lead. She smiled sweetly at the woman, her fists clenched at her sides to keep from belting the woman.
Before the woman could respond, a voice sounded behind her. "Mrs. Havarsham, would you mind seeing the girls to the parlor? I'd like a word with the agents before they speak to Bailey and Hailey."
Mrs. Havarsham glared at Brendan once more before rounding on the newcomer. "I'm only doing this for those dear sweet little girls-so don't think for a moment that I'm going to start taking orders from the likes of you." Just because you're young and attractive and you have Mr. C's eye, don't think you're going to walk all over me, you little hussy. I run this household and don't you forget it, you little witch.
The attractive newcomer paid her no mind, instead moving over to take the older woman's place by the door. She extended her hand, smiling cordially. "I'm Sarah Jennings, the Carrington's nanny. Please come in." Didn't anyone ever teach that old bat that it's not polite to make a scene in front of guests? Honestly, I do not understand why JD insists on keeping her around. You'd think she owned the place instead of him.
"Brendan Dean, NSA, and Freya McAllister." Brendan snapped his ID shut and shook the offered hand, ignoring the internal drama between the two women for the time being. Pretty face, good figure, nice hair. Looks like a walking, talking Barbie doll. Wonder if she's sleeping with the boss?
Ms. Jennings swept her arm wide, motioning for them to enter the foyer. "As I told Mrs. Havarsham, I'd like a word before you speak to the girls. I want to make this as painless for them as possible. They're totally devastated over their father's disappearance." I wish their mother would have consulted me before agreeing to let them question Hailey and Bailey. This is going to accomplish nothing save for upsetting the girls even more.
Brendan nodded. "We all want this to be as painless as possible for them, Ms. Jennings. However, I would like to point out that time is of the essence here. The sooner we find out what, if anything, they know that could help us locate Mr. Carrington, the better the odds of our finding him alive." Geez, is everybody in this place a control freak? I'm not a monster and I'm not going to interrogate them like hardened criminals, for pete's sake. I just need to ask them a few questions.
The nanny forced an insincere smile. "I realize that, Agent Dean. But there are some things you need to understand before you speak with them." I'm not going to have my girls subjected to the third degree from anyone, even if they are just about the hottest thing I've ever seen.
Freya had heard enough from all parties by now, both vocally and mentally. "Ms. Jennings, I can assure you that neither Agent Dean nor myself have any intention of doing or saying anything to upset Bailey and Hailey. We do realize that they are just little girls, a fact that will be uppermost in our minds during the entire interview."
Jennings' mouth twisted. "You do realize that they cannot verbalize their responses to you?" Probably sent a woman along to lull them into a false sense of security.
"Their mother has made us aware that they do not speak. However, we also know that they are able to communicate through written word." Brendan flashed her his most charming grin. "Now, please, Ms. Jennings, take us to the girls; then we can be on our way and out of your very lovely hair." Geez, B, lay it on a little thicker, why don't ya? Because I'm sure a looker like her hasn't ever heard a line like that before, you idiot.
Looking like she'd just eaten the sourest lemon in existence, Jennings turned on her heel, calling over her shoulder. "Very well. This way please." They don't know anything. Why can't they just take my word for it and leave the girls in peace?
Brendan gave his partner a quick look before following her. And now let's all play a rousing game of follow the leader...are we having fun yet? Hey, maybe we'll get to play ring around the rosies next!
Freya swatted at him playfully, falling into step along side of him. She didn't like it any better than the nanny or the housekeeper, but she did recognize the necessity of interviewing the girls. All she could do now was to hope it was worth it.
The two agents were led down a long hallway adorned with expensive art, including paintings, busts, and full-sized statues. Special lighting gave the place more of a museum feeling than a family home, an atmosphere that carried through to the expansive room that was revealed when the passage finally ended. Groups of chairs and sofas, both small and large, dotted the entire enclosure. More art was displayed in every conceivable location, again including everything from full-sized statues to table top busts to paintings on the walls. Two of the three outside walls were almost solid glass, their windows stretching from floor to ceiling, with a sliding door opening to the outside on each side. The third outside wall was directly ahead and home to a monstrous fireplace. Floor to ceiling bookshelves lined the wall on either side.
Freya watched as Brendan instantly cataloged every detail. His memory was truly amazing and she knew that even weeks from now he'd be able to recall every statue, every painting, every single bust, book, sculpture, and piece of furniture in the large room. The agent shared a quick look with her. Damn, you could fit my entire apartment inside this room.Possibly yours, too, I think.
The squeal of high pitched giggling drew their attention to a grouping of furniture in the far corner of the room. Appearing over the tall back of one of the sofas, two small blonde heads bobbed up and down as their owners bounced merrily up and down.
"Girls!" The sharp rebuke from Ms. Jennings had the same result as throwing ice water on them, the pair instantly stilling. That effect didn't last long, however, as within seconds the giggling started up again, though softer than before.
The nanny led them around to a seat opposite the youngsters and introduced them. "Hailey, Bailey, this Agent Dean and Agent McAllister. They're trying to find your father and would like to ask you some questions."
Brendan smile warmly as the two girls, still giggling, played shy and watched him from lowered eyelids. Cute kids. Hope they can give us something we can use. Funny, though, they don't seem all that upset to me. Nothing like Nanny HotLegs insisted. "Hi there. I'm Brendan and this is Freya. We'd like to ask you some questions about your dad. Is that okay with you?"
The youngsters shared a long look. Grjak luk malla? Idj lamma meenak. Adja. Namla.
Identical blonde heads turned back to smile shyly at him. The girls were dressed exactly the same, in navy blue jumpers with long-sleeved white blouses. The only difference was the initial embroidered on their dresses. Hailey-or at least the one with the H on the bib of her jumper-nodded, immediately dissolving into another fit of giggles thereafter.
Brendan shot Freya a quick look. Well?
She gave a subtle shake of her head in answer, causing his eyes to widen.Nothing at all?
She gave another barely perceptible shake of her head before turning to the two little girls. "Hi, I'm Freya. Brendan and I need to ask you some questions about the night your father...left. Can we do that?"
Hailey and Bailey again shared a long look. Grjak naluk thallna? Jovas masolu koa. Adja. Shamnat dojut.
Freya watched them closely, realizing that a telepathic exchange was going on. With them sitting next to one another, she had no idea who was saying what-even their voices were identical. For that matter, she also had no clue what their gobbledygook meant. Still, if they were were able to hear one another...maybe they'd be able to hear her as well. Girls? Can you hear me? If you can hear me, I want you to look at me now. Right now.
She held her breath, waiting for them to turn and look at her. To her immense disappointment, neither girl made any indication of acknowledging her overture. Instead, they continued to stare at each other, their mental discussion going on uninterrupted. Idj lamma meenak. Ashallo sobbo umaz. Adja. Adja.
Finally, the two turned back to face them. With the same shy smile, Hailey-clearly the spokesman for the duo-pointed directly at Brendan.
"What? You want me to ask the questions?" Dean seemed stunned at the development. What the heck is going on here? Nanny HotLips over there says they're devastated, but they're acting like they haven't got a care in the world.
Still looking up at him through half-lidded eyes, both girls nodded. Shooting a quick puzzled look at Freya, he nodded. "Okay, we can do that. Like Freya said, we'd like to ask you about the night your dad left. My boss's name is Agent Harper and he said he heard you guys when your dad called him. Do you remember that?"
There was no hesitation as in unison, they coyly nodded at Dean. "Good, that's good," encouraged the agent. What the hell was Carrington thinking letting his kids hang around to overhear stuff like this?
Brendan tried to keep things low-key, but some of the intensity he was feeling crept into his voice. "I need to know if you were with your father before he talked to Agent Harper on the phone. Do you know who he talked to before he called the NSA?"
Again, the girls immediately nodded. Dean smiled widely at them, pulling a small flip top notebook from his pocket. Before he could ask them to write down what they knew, however, the nanny intervened. "Girls, where are your notepads? Didn't Mrs. Havarsham tell you to bring them?"
The change in the youngsters was instant. They jumped to their feet, eyes wide as they shook their heads. "Well, hurry and run get them-Agent Dean doesn't have all day to wait around while you two waste time." Ms. Jennings tone was sharp, her face set in an expression to match. "What are you waiting for? Go!"
Before either Brendan or Freya could protest, the twins scampered off. Annoyed, Dean turned to the nanny. "I have paper and pen right here they could have used." Why do I get the feeling that she's stalling? It's almost as if she's trying to keep us from finding out what they know.
Jennings smiled condescendingly. "The girls are six, Agent Dean. They have yet to master the concept of writing small-you'd be lucky if they managed to fit even one word per page on a notebook that size." Too bad you'll just have to wait a little longer before you can resume your interrogation, Hot Stuff. "Trust me, it will be better for everyone for them to have their own notepads." And you have no idea how much better. Too bad, really. We could have had some major fun under other circumstances, Stud Muffin.
Freya coughed at the nanny's less than pure thoughts. "Brendan, can I have a word, please?"
Brendan stood, following his partner's lead. "We'll just be over there," he informed the nanny, pointing to the opposite side of the room. "If you'll excuse us?"
"Of course." Her smile was fake and it was obvious that she was annoyed by the development. What's going on? I don't like it. What could she possibly have to talk to him about that they don't want me to overhear. I don't like this at all.
Freya went first, forcing a smile at the other woman as she passed. Brendan immediately followed, his eyes widening as he reached Ms. Jennings. A familiar red dot had suddenly appeared on the chest of the nanny, right over her heart. "Get down!" he yelled, grabbing the woman and falling on top of her.
No sooner had the warning left his mouth than the window behind them shattered, glass spraying the sofa they'd just vacated. "Where's the light switch in here? We need to kill the lights so they can't see us." If the shooter has night vision or infrared, we are royally screwed here.
Jennings' eyes were wide with fear, her breathing fast and erratic. "O-on th-the wall where we came in. B-b-but the lights on the artwork are on...automatic timer-can't turn them off...from in here." She coughed, closing her eyes tightly as a trail of red trickled from her mouth.
"Damnit!" Brendan scanned the room, quickly calculating how many lamps there were. Must be a couple of dozen lights along those walls alone, and that doesn't even count the statues or busts. Way too many to shoot out and Jennings here is in serious trouble.. Damn it! This is not good, B. Not good at all.
"I think I can get to the light switch, Brendan," suggested Freya.
"No! You stay put. I'll get it. When I give the word, I want you to crawl on your stomach to the doorway. We have to get away from these windows-we're sitting ducks in here." Pulling himself off of the nanny, he gasped and grabbed at his shoulder, only then realizing he'd been wounded himself.
"Brendan, what's wrong?" Freya started to crawl over to him, terrified that the only thought she could read in his mind was pain. Overwhelming, debilitating, intense, mind-numbing pain.
"Stay back," he ordered through gritted teeth. "I'm okay. I'm going for the lights now-be ready." Damn that hurts. Nice and easy, B. Nice and easy. After a moment to gather his strength, Dean pulled the nanny to safety behind the sofa and set off through the maze of furniture and art, dragging himself with his good arm. Gotta get to the wall switch. Ignore the pain, don't think about how your shoulder is on fire and leaking all over Mr. Carrington's fancy expensive floor. Keep moving, just don't stop. You're almost halfway there.
A large plaster statue exploded next to him, showering him in dust and chunks of white debris. Brendan coughed, groaning loudly as the motion set off a firestorm in his injured shoulder.
Freya heard the bullet destroy the statue and her fear for her partner soared to new heights. "Brendan! Are you all right? Brendan, answer me!"
Dean remained silent, his thoughts once again nothing but a fiery pain consuming his chest and left shoulder. She couldn't stand it any longer and prepared to crawl over to him. "Brendan, answer me or I'm coming over there right now!"
Her words finally penetrated the haze of pain, and he called out. "No, stay down and stay put! He's still out there. That goes for both of you," he warned.
Jennings whimpered loudly, which again set off a coughing fit; it was the only response she offered. Freya managed to keep a cool head, though it wasn't easy knowing her partner had been wounded and was in such extreme pain. "Brendan, you've been shot. Let me do this. I'll stay low, I swear."
"No!" Although injured, Dean's reply was emphatic. "Stay put; I'm almost there." Slowly, painfully, he started off once more. Come on, B, you can do this. Just keep going. Nanny needs doctor. 'S up to you. Keep 'em safe. Gotta get there. Get help. Nanny needs...help. Focus, B, focus.
Intent on remaining conscious and reaching his destination, Brendan didn't hear the crunching of glass on the other side of the room. But Freya did. She stayed close to the floor, peering under the sofa she had sought refuge behind when the first shot rang out. She could see the would-be assassin's black boots, methodically checking behind each piece of furniture, art, or potential hiding place he encountered.Come out, come out wherever you are. You shouldn't have let the feds in, Sarah baby. Boss didn't like hearing that you were cooperating with them at all. Ah, so there you are, sweet-cheeks. Still with us, huh? No matter, I'll finish you later-gotta find me some prime official US government bacon first.
She had to warn Brendan. Calling out would lead the shooter straight to her, but was her partner in any shape to be able to save her? Wait-maybe a diversion. Think, Freya! She slowly sat up, careful to keep her head below the back of the sofa and out of sight. Quickly taking in her immediate surroundings, she spied a ceramic figurine on the end table and carefully made her way over to it. She held her breath as she grabbed it and pulled it down, clutching it to her chest and waiting for any sign that the shooter had seen or heard her. Bingo! At the man's triumphant declaration, she squeezed her eyes tightly shut, bracing for the bullet she knew would come.
Intense pain flooded her mind, but she was surprised to find it coming not from herself but from Brendan. "Agh!"
"Well, if it isn't Mr. Federal Agent Man himself." Freya's eyes widened in horror as she realized that Brendan had been discovered. "Nice of you to leave such a pretty red trail for me to follow." She peeked over the edge of the seat back and was dismayed to find a tall man, garbed in hunter's gear, standing over her partner and pointing a high-powered rifle at him. "Shame this has to go down so quick, but I got orders. Gotta take care of you-then I'm gonna hunt down that pretty little thing you brought with you and have me some real fun before I leave."
Freya swallowed hard, blocking the sickening images of what the monster had planned for her. Think about Brendan, Freya-you've got to help Brendan!
Her partner's thoughts filtered in, breaking through the sick images of their attacker. Wait for it, B. He hasn't taken your gun, so wait for the opening. Focus, damn it! You cannot lose consciousness now, not yet.
Sensing her opening, Freya stood and quickly exchanged the small statuette with a larger, heavier one. Silently, carefully, she raised it over her head and crept up behind the man with the rifle. "Say good night, Mr. Fed-er-al A-gent." When his finger began to tighten on the trigger, she swung with all her might, bringing the heavy bust down on his head. To her dismay, she hadn't been close enough and the blow glanced off the side of his head. He staggered, but didn't fall, instead swinging the rifle around to point at her. She stood there, her eyes wide, waiting for him to pull the trigger.
She flinched as a loud bang rang out and again squeezed her eyes shut, expecting the pain to blossom any moment from the impact of the bullet. When it didn't come, she opened them to find a look of stunned disbelief on the assassin's face. The rifle dropped, followed almost instantly by the intruder. Shocked at the turn of events, Freya turned to find Brendan, his revolver still in hand and pointed. Got him, but is he dead? Her eyes went back to the downed attacker and she started to bend down to check when Dean stopped her. "No! Kick...kick the...rifle...away...first," he warned.
After doing as instructed, she carefully bent down to check for a pulse. "He's dead, Brendan. There's no pulse-he's dead."
Dean's sense of relief flooded her mind. Good, 's good. Call...help. Nanny...needs... His thought trailed off as his head rolled to the side, his eyes closing.
"Brendan!" Freya screamed his name even as she scrambled over to him. Fighting panic, she placed her fingers on his neck, alarmed at the rapid and erratic beat she found. Frantic, she fumbled to pull out her cell phone and dial. Propping the phone to her ear, she grabbed a throw off a nearby chair and balled it up, pressing it to the hole in Dean's shoulder.
After what seemed an eternity, her call was finally answered. "This is Freya McAllister. Agent Dean is down. I repeat, Agent Dean is down-he's been shot. Hurry!"