Authors: Dee Henderson
Tags: #Mystery, #FIC042060, #Christian Fiction, #FIC027020, #Suspense, #adult, #Kidnapping victims—Fiction, #Thriller, #FIC042040
© 2013 by Dee Henderson
Published by Bethany House Publishers
11400 Hampshire Avenue South
Bloomington, Minnesota 55438
Bethany House Publishers is a division of
Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Ebook edition created 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Jennifer Parker
Cover photography by Tyler Gould
never talk about what happened.
There are reasons, good reasons, but I keep those to myself too.
I’m told the cops dealing with my case are wrapping up the last details, the task force dispersing back to their prior jobs. They seem relieved, the ones who have stopped by the hospital—relieved to see me alive, and they are tired. I have dominated their every waking moment, and the stress of the case has been enormous. They are glad I’m alive, and they are ready to move on.
My sister has hired me a bodyguard. Someone to keep the press away, along with the gawkers. There are newscasters vying for the first interview, and photographers trying to sneak in to get first photos. The bodyguard is talking to my nurse down the hall, and I can hear his voice—low-pitched, determined—and the way he says ma’am I can hear his still-fresh military background. He hasn’t tapped on my door to introduce himself yet, but that is coming soon. I think I’m ready.
I hope I don’t see too much pity in his gaze, or too much seriousness. I’m alive, not dead. I’d like a smile occasionally,
or even a laugh, rather than more of the grave intensity I see in everyone around me.
A tap on the door has me looking up from flipping pages in a magazine. I see a guy in jeans and a casual shirt who looks like a college student. Lanky, tall, nice blue eyes. I notice the hands in his back pockets, and the quick scan he’s giving me.
“Ruth, I’m John Key.” The voice puts him as the soldier-now-bodyguard I’ve been waiting to meet.
I decide I like his smile.
“I’m thinking about changing my name.” I have no idea why that is my first sentence, but apparently he’s better at social skills than I am because he merely nods before walking into the room and taking a seat on the edge of the bed, crowding me, but in a nice way, not trying to not make contact.
“Don’t make it Margaret. And I don’t like Shelly,” he offers, taking my suggestion seriously.
“I was thinking about Jessica. Or maybe Charlotte.”
“I could learn to like Charlotte.”
I decide on the spot I’ll be Charlotte. The person I have been, Ruth Bazoni, needs the space to rest, and even, maybe, to be forgotten. Charlotte . . . Charlotte Something—it feels kind of interesting to think of starting over.
I think it’s his voice that I like best. The sound is different from the voices I’ve feared. John is young, but the voice is old. His eyes are old too. There’s experience there that seems out of place. But I understand it. This man has seen war. He only looks young. I wonder if my eyes look the same. A young face, with ancient eyes.
“Your sister hired me, but my job description is so vague it’s got no boundaries. To keep it simple, I’m going to tell people I’m your boyfriend, and then tell them to go away.”
I nod, as if it’s not that big a deal, but it’s a big deal. The fact he would make the suggestion, would look past what’s
happened in order to make it, is an act of deep kindness. I’ve never had a boyfriend, and I know I’ll be single for the rest of my life, but I can pretend if he can. “Could our first date be pizza and somewhere that is not this room? I’m hungry. And I’m bored.”
His laugh is nice. “I’m good for pizza.” He stands. “If we’re going to spend the next few weeks breaking the rules, we might as well start now. The elevator is close by. I can find a place in this hospital complex with at least a view, and a good pizza can get delivered. Think you can get dressed on your own, or should I invent a reason for the nurse to come help you?”
He nods and steps away, lets the door close behind him.
I know I am much too thin—nearly all bones. I’ll probably manage just half a piece of pizza before becoming full. But I can see a day when those will not be the facts, and I want to get there soon.
I change into black slacks and a university sweatshirt, being careful of my aching wrist, and struggle to slip my feet into tennis shoes. I am sweating when I’m done, wondering how foolish I’m going to feel when my strength runs out before I can get back to my bed. I push away the thought, open the door.
John is leaning against the wall outside my room, and he nods to the wheelchair parked beside him. I settle in the chair and spread the blanket he hands me out across my lap. I notice my nurse is gone from the center station. “You told her we were leaving.”
“What she doesn’t see, she can’t testify to.”
He tugs a chain with dog tags and two worn keepsake medals off his neck. “Wear these. They brought me good luck. You could use some too.” He slides them over my hair, lets them fall into place, then steps behind the wheelchair and begins pushing me toward the elevator.
I finger the metal, still warm from being against his skin. I blink back tears. I managed to get a guy who is genuinely nice. I hope he stays, at least a month or two.
“What kind of pizza?” he asks.
I smile, my first real smile in four years. “Supreme, please.”
he day his life changed forever didn’t announce itself; it just arrived.
The winter sun set early, and by the store lights against a dark night Bryce Bishop walked the display cases in his store, visually noting the changes from yesterday. They had done a steady business in old silver—Morgan dollars, Standing Liberty half-dollars. The end-of-day report Devon had generated would give him the exact numbers, but he could see it had been a profitable day.
In ten years he might be buying back what they had sold today. He was in one of the few retail businesses where the merchandise would never again be created and was rarely destroyed—it only changed hands. Most of the high-end collectible coins in the Chicago area eventually came through his store—Bishop Chicago—to be appraised for insurance purposes, to be sold, to be photographed for an upcoming auction. There was good money to be made in old coins if you knew how to buy and sell wisely. He did. He had been doing so for more than a decade.
Bryce polished a spot off the display glass with his shirt-sleeve cuff. He was bored out of his mind, but the business was profitable and gave good jobs to ten people he liked. He could hand
the keys to Devon and be an absentee owner. The store would be in good hands. But walking away from his life wouldn’t solve his problem. He reset the security for the showroom floor and pushed down the restless desire not to come in tomorrow.
“Have a safe night, Mr. Bishop,” the security guard called from his desk.
“You too, Gary.”
Bryce walked around to the back of the building to the parking lot. Snow from the prior night still dusted the pavement. He tugged out his keys. It would be good to get home. No one was waiting for him, and maybe that was part of the problem. But his extended family was important to him—sisters, brothers, parents, cousins, the next generation of kids beginning to look to him for baseball games, movie afternoons, vacation trips—and he had friends who would fill the evening if he wanted to see someone. He was mind-numbingly bored, and it wasn’t a good reality. But it was something he could change if he could just figure out what he wanted different in his days.
He turned to see a woman leaning against an old truck in the far corner of the lot, her hands buried in the pockets of her jacket.
“You’re about to get a call. You should answer it.”
Silence hung between them, and then the phone in his pocket began to ring. He watched her as he listened to the sound, and she didn’t move. Neither did he, as he considered what might be going on. Robbery, with a threat to his family to get him to comply? A kidnapping, demanding a ransom? He could see no one else in the parking lot, but the security lights only illuminated the surface and cast shadows—someone else could easily be sitting in a vehicle watching.
“Nothing bad has happened. It’s simply an introduction.” Her voice floated across the parking lot, faint but clear.
He pulled the phone from his pocket, eyes still on her. “Bishop.”
“I don’t know the lady, but I know who is vouching for her,” Paul Falcon told him, the familiar voice a relief to hear. “This is highly unorthodox, but it’s solid. You can trust what you’re about to see and hear.”
“Thanks, Paul. Call you back.” He slid the phone back in his pocket.
The director of the FBI’s Chicago office was vouching for the woman. He nodded. She pushed away from the truck, walked toward him. “Ten minutes, Mr. Bishop. You’ll have your questions answered.”
“Who are you?”
“Charlotte Graham. We’ve not met before. We do share a few friends.” She was a woman about his age, her hair worn loose and long, the jeans and jacket neither new nor worn. “I have something to show you. That red security door over there”—she pointed—“is the back entrance to the storefront next to yours. Come in with me, please.” She walked over to the door without looking to see if he followed and unlocked it.
He knew the store. A clothing boutique had moved out in an abrupt bankruptcy, and the lease on the property had been snapped up before his company had been able to put in a bid to buy the space. The retail spaces shared a common brick wall, and it would have been an ideal expansion. The front windows to the storefront were still frosted over, with no sign indicating what kind of business was coming in, but workmen had been going in and out for a few weeks.
“Please watch your step,” she cautioned, switching on lights. “The carpet for this back hall was laid a few days ago, and doorway finishing boards are still to go down.” He followed her through the well-lit hallway. He could smell fresh paint and also good coffee.
They entered the shop proper. Walls had been removed,
opening the space into a large showroom. Display cases were arranged in two melding arcs, with comfortable seating, private tables, good lighting, excellent artwork—a nice flow to the space. Tall vases filled with fresh flowers stylishly arranged caught his immediate attention. He’d been to enough store openings to know when a place was one turn of the key away from being ready to open. This was retail in the final finishing stage.
“Please, have a look around. You’re the only customer tonight.”
His first impression was
, for the showroom had that feel of elegance. He walked to the first case and looked inside. Gold coins. His breath settled wrong. He read the discreet sticker prices. He thought about turning around and walking out, but it wouldn’t change what he was seeing. He began at the first case, and he took his time looking.
Charlotte chose a bottled water from the drinks offered near the coffee bar and watched the man prowl the store. Not a man to say much when ticked off. That was useful to know.
Bishop finally slowed his review and turned to look at her. “I see you plan for us to be competitors.” The anger was there, hot, controlled, but his voice remained cool. “Your store is next door to ours, with a layout and elegance similar to Bishop Chicago. Your prices are lower, and while our inventories don’t appear to overlap much, your coins will appeal to the same customer we’ve worked years to attract.”
She screwed the cap back on the water bottle. “These aren’t all the coins. We overlap. I was simply selective in the first inventory I chose to display.”
“We can’t match your prices.” He pushed his hands into his pockets, and she saw them ball into fists. “Was that the purpose of this meeting tonight? To show me what was coming?”
She had expected the anger, planned for it. He was seeing
a threat to his family business, and she’d chosen to make it an in-your-face event. She could cripple his business selling at these prices. She knew it, he knew it.
She set aside the water. “I don’t want to open this store, Bishop. I want you to buy it.”
She watched him as that statement sank in, as suspicion and confusion edged into the anger.
“You want me to buy it.”
“The inventory, not the store itself. I rather like how the remodel turned out, and I’m going to keep the property.”
“If you wanted to sell me some coins, Charlotte, you could have walked into Bishop Chicago and said, ‘I’ve got some coins I’d like to sell.’”
She would have laughed at the dry remark, but he wasn’t in the mood for amusement. She settled for a small smile. “This is more dramatic, don’t you think?”
She poured a cup of coffee and pushed it into his hands. “If you want to keep me out of your business, Bishop, you’re going to have to figure out how to buy my inventory. I’ll give you good prices, I won’t be unreasonable in the volumes I ask you to deal with, but I’m ready to sell some coins and I don’t plan to take forever to get it done.”
She ran her hand across the top of a display case she had filled and neatly priced. “You buy what’s here in the store, I’ll give you thirty days, and then I’ll show you this store filled with more coins. We’ll do this again, round two. You can buy the coins, or I’ll open the doors to the public and become your competition. And after round two, we’ll do round three.”
“How many coins in all?”
“Let’s take this one decision at a time. Buying what is here will give you thirty days of me not being your competitor.” She moved briskly across the room to the desk and retrieved the inventory sheet. “Become a dealer to other coin stores; raise money
from investors to buy the coins, store them, and sell them over a period of years—however you want to deal with them, but the condition is that you buy everything in the store. Tonight.”
He scanned the list. “Why such low prices? You’re not only underpricing Bishop Chicago, you’re below wholesale on many of these coins.”
“Sharing the profit means the people I do business with come back and do business with me again.”
He looked over at her. “You’ve done this before—the store setting, the surprise invitation.”
“I targeted Hamilton-Grice in London for the European coins. You should feel flattered I chose Bishop Chicago. I was considering Cambridge Coins out of New York.”
“I’m not sure ‘flattered’ is the word I would use. Who are you?”
She smiled. “Charlotte Graham.”
“Collector? Dealer? Fence? I haven’t seen coins at these prices in over a decade. For all I know, the coins could be stolen.”
“Hence the introduction from the Chicago FBI director. The coins are mine to sell.”
“I need to know how you came to be in possession of them.”
“My grandfather liked coins. He died recently.”
“I’m sorry to hear it.”
She nodded. “Do we have a deal?”
Bryce looked around the store, then back at her. “Do I have a choice?” He walked over to the desk and initialed each page of the list. “I’ll buy your inventory, Charlotte. Where do you want me to wire the money?”
“A check will do fine.”
Bryce put a security firm on a background check of Charlotte Graham on the drive home, headed upstairs to change out of
the business suit, and called Paul Falcon at his home number. “She’s selling some coins, and she has a very unorthodox way of doing it. Who vouched for her?”
“I can’t say, which in itself should tell you something. Are you buying the coins?”
That answer told him another cop was behind the introduction, someone Paul deeply trusted. Bryce pulled off a dress shoe and tossed it toward his closet. “I’ll make thirty percent on my money, but I’d like to be able to say no as it feels like I’m doing business with the mob. She’s got me as confused as anyone I have ever met.” He was trying to be charitable and give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe she hadn’t intended her dramatic approach to be so in-his-face offensive, but the anger caused by this evening was like a bad toothache.
was the most polite word he could come up with for what he was feeling.
“She’s legit, Bryce,” Paul replied, sounding amused. “And while I’ve never met her, from what I know
her, I would be inclined to like her a great deal.”
“Okay.” That was worth something.
“She really turned you the wrong way tonight.”
“She did. I’ve got Chapel Security doing a full background check.”
Paul was silent for a while. “I’d be curious—professionally—to hear what they come up with.”
Bishop realized the undercurrent. “Charlotte Graham isn’t her real name, is it?”
“I’ll owe you a favor if I can see the report.”
The other shoe landed in the closet. “This night is just full of unexpected surprises. I’ll share the report with you. She said her grandfather passed away. Any estate disputes going on, lawsuits, problems with provenance, or any other mess I’m walking into?”
“Not that I’m aware of, and I’d be aware. On that front you’re fine. The coins are hers to sell.”
“Wonderful.” Bryce kept his tone noncommittal as he pulled off his tie and turned the conversation to his immediate problem. “You want to buy some coins for an investment?”
“How much are we talking?”
“I spent one million six tonight on five hundred coins, and it sounds like I’ll be buying more. She’s got some nice gold—an 1835 Half Eagle, a 1912 Indian five, a couple of gorgeous 1799 tens. I can put together a package of fifty for two fifty and be far enough below market your annual security-clearance review is going to wonder if it was a payoff.”