She could hear him breathing.
Icy talons of fear shredded the fabric of sleep and brought Ellie Mulder instantly awake. Old habits had her keeping her muscles lax, her eyes still closed as she strained to identify what had alerted her. When she did, her blood ran as cold as the frigid Colorado wind beating against the windows.
The sound was the same snuffle snort that warned her whenever he was coming for her. He’d returned, just like he’d threatened. He’d snatch her from her bed, from her house and this time, she’d never get away. Not ever.
Her eyes snapped open, a scream lodged in her throat. The old terrors were surging, fighting logic, fueled by memory. It took a moment to see through the veils of the past and notice her familiar surroundings.
She was home. In her room. In her bed. And Art Cooper wasn’t here. He would die in prison.
A long sigh of relief shuddered out of her. The bright illumination of the alarm clock on her bedside table said one-eighteen A.M. The sleep scene on her computer lit the corner of the room that held her desk. And the large aquarium on the opposite wall was awash in a dim glow. She often ‘forgot’ to turn it off.
The items had been chosen because of the light they afforded. Her mom and dad had worried when she’d needed doors open and lights blazing to go to bed at night. But they’d been happy when she’d casually mentioned wanting a computer. Had expressed an interest in tropical fish. Had selected things to decorate her bedroom like the brightly lit alarm clock. Those things were normal, the psychologist said. And Ellie knew it was important that she seem normal. Even if it was a lie.
The slight noise sounded again and she tensed, her hand searching for the scissors she kept on the bedside table. But even as her fingers gripped the handle, her mind identified the sound. It was the gurgle of water in the overflow box for the aquarium. Not Cooper’s asthmatic breathing.
The realization relaxed her, but she didn’t replace the scissors. She kept them clutched in her hand and brought them close to her chest, the feel of the small weapon comforting. Learning her daughter slept with a knife under her pillow had made her mother cry. So Ellie pretended not to need that anymore.
She had become very good at pretending.
So good that her mom and dad had been thrilled with her new interest in Kirigami several months ago. She’d heard the psychologist tell them that the act of creating, of folding and cutting paper into pretty shapes would be very therapeutic for her. So there was never any fuss about the constant paper scraps on the floor. Fresh supplies appeared on her desk without her ever having to request them.
Only she knew that the new hobby was an excuse to keep a sharp pair of scissors with her at all times. And the psychologist was right. That part, at least, was very therapeutic.
The initial flare of panic had ebbed. She listened to the blizzard howl outside the windows and found the noise oddly soothing. Bit by bit she felt herself relax. Her eyelids drooped.
She had the half formed thought that she needed to replace the scissors before her mom came in the next morning to check on her. But sleep was sucking her under, and her limbs were unresponsive
It was then that he pounced.
The weight hit her body, jolting her from exhaustion back to alarm in the span of seconds. She felt the hand clamped over her mouth, the prick of a needle in her arm and fear lent her strength beyond her years. Rearing up in bed, she flailed wildly, trying to wrest away, trying to strike out. She tasted the stickiness of tape over her lips. Felt a hood being pulled over her head.
There was a brief flare of triumph when the scissors met something solid, and a hiss of pain sounded in her ear. But then her hand was bent back, the weapon dropping from her fingers and numbness started sliding over her body. She couldn’t move. The hood prevented her from seeing. A strange buzzing filled her head.
As she felt herself lifted and carried away, her only thought was that she was being taken.
Kell went through the rest of the tax reports before going on to the next set of folders in the file. No doubt his boss, Adam Raiker already knew about the man’s marital history. It would have been in the dossier Stephen Mulder collected on all prospective employees. He wondered then if the man kept the records of those prospective candidates he turned down for jobs. He made a mental note to mention it to Raiker. They’d naturally look at anyone Mulder had fired in the last few years, but they should look as carefully at the ones he’d never offered a job to in the first place. If Mulder was the target, rather than the man's daughter, revenge might be a primary motivation for hatching this plot.
“That’s it for the boxes.” Colorado Bureau of Investigation Agent Travis eyed Kell. “You about done with the files?”
“Almost.” The last few folders contained the survey and property assessment for the house, and meticulous records of maintenance on the man’s vehicle. The final one was thick and contained records of investments Hubbard had with a well known company. Kell skimmed it quickly, finding little to quibble about in the man’s investment holdings. His portfolio showed a fair balance between assets, if a little on the conservative side. His own investment counselor would approve. The most current record showed Hubbard’s holdings worth around eighty thousand. He shoved them back inside the drawer and did a perfunctory search beneath and behind it. His fingers slowed when they came in contact with what felt like a plastic bag attached behind the metal backing of the drawer.
He wrestled it out of its tracks and eased it out of the cabinet so he could see what was secreted there. A clear Ziploc bag was duct taped to the back metal plate. “I’ve got something here.” He was aware of the immediate interest his words elicited from his companions even as he gently worked the bag free of its attachment.
Macy and Travis crowded closer as he opened the bag and extracted the large folded paper inside it. He handed the bag to Macy, and unfolded the pages. The three of them stared at what appeared to be a blueprint of the security schematics of the Mulder estate.
“Jackpot,” muttered Kell. There was no legal way for Hubbard to have acquired copies of the blueprint specs of Mulder’s security. Either he’d somehow gotten them from the security company that had sold the billionaire the system or he’d stolen them from Mulder. Either way, their presence was incriminating.
“Let’s start bagging and tagging evidence,” suggested Agent Travis. “We’re about done here, aren’t we?”
“Why don’t you check out the garage first?” Kell rose, folding the sheets and replacing them in the bag. “That’s listed on the warrant, right? This place should have a basement. I’ll look through that. Macy, get pictures of every room, and especially on every piece of evidence we’re going to be collecting. Oh, go through the garbage first. We need to…what?” Belatedly, he noted the looks he was getting from the other two.
“Nothing,” Macy said with that snippy little tone that dripped with the Queen’s English. “Perhaps we could run out and get you coffee, too.”
The suggestion had him trying, and failing to recall when he’d last eaten. “Not a bad idea, but we really don’t have time. We can grab a sandwich on our way back, though.”
“You’re not running this op, Burke.” Travis’s dry tone succeeded in distracting him from his stomach. “I think that’s what your partner’s trying to point out, with more subtlety than I’d use.”
“Well, Jesus.” Mystified, he put his hands up in surrender. “You want to check for a basement while I go outside, I’m fine with that. And you,” he shot Macy a look. “Go ahead and do whatever the hell it is that you want to.”
“If I did,” she informed him as she swept by, “you’d be bleeding.”
He made a what’d-I-do gesture to the agent, who just gave him a smug smile as he followed her into the hallway.
“I’ll take the garage.”
“Good idea,” he muttered wondering what the hell that had been about. Okay, so he’d been accused of being less than diplomatic before, but someone had to take the lead. Sitting down and negotiating who does what just wasted time and he hadn’t been kidding about being hungry. He hadn’t eaten since grabbing something from an all night drive through on the way to Manassas this morning.
Mood slightly soured, he went to the drawers of the dresser to check them more thoroughly before heading downstairs. Pretty unlikely there’d be any more secret info taped behind or under drawers, but it bore checking out. He’d learned the value of thoroughness through his long years with Raiker.
Diplomacy was a lesson he’d failed to learn from his boss, since Raiker was frequently devoid of the quality himself.
He pulled the dresser out a bit from the wall to peer behind it, found nothing. Certain it was a waste of time, he did the same thing to the bed so he could look behind the headboard.
The voice was Macy’s, sounding closer than he’d expected. She was still somewhere upstairs. “Yeah.”
“Come look at this.
“I will.” He moved toward the door and into the hallway. “Without complaint, and without getting all bent out of shape about being told what to do, I’ll willingly follow your order. 'Cuz that’s the kind of guy I am. That’s what teamwork is all about.”
There was no response to his gibe, which should have warned him. But Macy was frequently silent in the face of his remarks because, he figured, she was more used to dull lifeless guys who talked only about stocks and the weather. Her response was often easy to read, though, and he’d be lying if he denied taking a twisted pleasure in making the color flare in her creamy cheeks.
But the expression on her face when he found her, crouched on the bathroom floor, had all thoughts of teasing wiped from his mind.
“I saw this first,” she said without preamble and shifted slightly so he could crouch beside her. Not much bigger than a pinhead, it was tough to identify the stain on the tile without a magnifying glass.
“I thought it could be. But I didn’t see any more spots on the floor. So I started looking inside the tub. Check out the hem of the shower curtain. That’s how I found it. Shut like that.”
Interest sharpening, he pulled the curtain partly open and looked first at the tub. It was clean. Far cleaner than it would have been at his place if he didn’t have a twice monthly cleaning service because --- although he was handy enough with a vacuum and dust cloth --- bathrooms grossed him out. Even his own.
Turning his attention to the inside of the shower curtain, he opened it wider and stepped inside the tub wearing the shoe covers he’d donned after taking off his boots inside the door. With a sweep of his arm he closed the curtain again and began inspecting it. He saw what she’d discovered at its hem, although if he hadn’t known what he was looking for it would have taken him longer.
Again, it would require testing to be sure but it looked like blood. Flecks of it on the bottom seam. None on the face of the curtain itself. None on the tile along the three interior walls. Maybe because someone had done some deliberate cleaning. But to get to the hem they would have had to turn up the bottom edge and they’d been too careless or in too much of a hurry to bother.
Her earlier mention of the neatness of the place took on new meaning. Dread pooled in his gut. Pulling the curtain open again, he looked at her, and saw the trepidation he was feeling mirrored on her face. “We’d better get a call into Raiker. Tell him to have CBI Assistant Director Whitman send the crime scene responders over here when they’re done at Mulders.”
Raiker and CBI Assistant Director Whitman and the two CBI agents were already in the office when Macy and Kell walked in. What little hair Dobson had was mussed in the back. Someone already had coffee in pots on the table with a sleeve of Styrofoam cups next to it. Macy made a beeline for it.
“The message came in twenty minutes ago.” Whitman looked up as more agents entered behind them. “We’ve been monitoring the account in the duration. Dobson was on when this came in.”
Forgetting about coffee for the moment, Macy joined the crowd around the computer screen. But expecting to see text, she was shocked to see a picture. She leaned forward for a better look. “Is that video?”
“Very poor quality. This is as good as I can enhance it without calling in the techies.” There was an underlying thread of excitement in Dobson’s usually matter-of-fact voice.
Poor quality was right. Macy squinted at the screen. From the distance of the table it would have been impossible to make an identification. But this close it was impossible to deny. The girl on the screen was Ellie Mulder.
“Quality’s not good enough to make out the newspaper’s date.” Whitman came up behind her. “But that can be verified. And he’s making it easier for us. But you can see for yourself. “
The video was less than a minute. And Macy found herself looking at the girl more closely than she listened.
The pajamas she wore were likely the ones she’d worn the night of the abduction. Her hair hung dull and listless. It was obvious that she’d suffered in the duration. Her hands, barely freed enough to hold the paper, had contusions around the wrists. There was bruising on her face.
But her voice was strong and clear, if emotionless as she read from the news story.
“I’ve got verification,” Pelton called from the laptop he was manning at the conference table. For his audience’s benefit he zoomed in on the screen. “It’s this morning’s issue of USA Today. And that story she’s reading from is below the fold, front page.”
“This is good news, people,” Whitman said. Macy wondered if he’d gone to bed at all. He was clad in the same clothes he’d worn earlier that evening. “We can expect the video to be quickly followed by…”
“We’ve got another message,” Dobson called out laconically.
This time Macy hung back as Whitman and Raiker peered at the computer. With a stab of a finger, Dobson had the email printing out.
“Arrogant son of a bitch,” Whitman muttered. Straightening, he made a gesture to Dobson, who passed out the copies he’d just run.
As you can see the girl is alive for now. If you’re smart she can be back home soon. Be at the bank tomorrow ready to move the money at three AM. I’m sure it can be arranged. You’ll be contacted again.
Remember her future is in your hands.
Raiker looked down at the paper in his hand again. “He recognized that we’d require proof she was alive. This message was primarily to deliver that. By sending it the day before the ransom is due he’s trying to guarantee our cooperation, while still not leaving us any way to discuss or negotiate it.”
Assistant director Whitman looked over at Dobson, who was still hunched over the computer. “How fast will you be able to get the owner of the IP address?
“It’s different from the one used before, but it’ll be lot quicker than last time, since we placed that patch on Mr. Mulder’s email account.”
Macy noted answer didn’t seem to pacify the man. “The sooner we have an owner the sooner I can get a warrant. Although it’s likely he just cruised another part of time and found another unsecured network.” His smile was grim. “At least we know the sender is in the vicinity.”
“Agent Whitman and I have been making plans for the payoff.” Adam eased his hips on the corner of the conference table. “The timing of the transfer will be tricky, but with CBI’s help we can arrange it with the bank. Whitman will have a team equipped and ready to follow the money if it’s to be a physical drop. If it’s electronic, I have a system in place to try and follow the money, possibly even divert it if Ellie at the last minute.”
“We have to find the girl before three AM tomorrow.” Kell headed to the table for coffee, his voice grim. “Unless Dodge has changed his specialty, she’s dead as soon as the money gets paid.”
Because she was close enough, Macy elbowed him. Hard. The movement jostled his arm so he spilled some of the steaming liquid on the table.
He sent her a reproving look. But before he could speak again, Adam put in, “Paulie Samuels put together a file on Dodge. Given his talent for information gathering, I suspect it’s at least as complete as any that that an individual law enforcement entity has on him. Dodge has a particular set of skills that makes him attractive for specific jobs, yes. But he’s honed other skills to make the enactment of his jobs easier. He likes to stalk his victims, so he has the patience for this sort of task.”
Kell surprised her by handing her the first cup he’d poured before filling another for himself. Macy sipped from it gratefully as Raiker continued. “Some of the jobs attributed to Dodge had him waiting inside the home of his victims, so he’s got some talent in circumventing security. He couldn’t have managed the patch on Mulder’s video feed himself, and the specs he planted in Hubbard’s house also indicate he had some help with the security. But Kell is right about one thing. There was absolutely no reason to pay the price for an assassin if he wasn’t going to be used in that capacity.” He looked around the room, his visage grim. “Ellie Mulder’s chances of being found alive plummet drastically after the ransom is paid.”
There was the sound of a throat being cleared. But the gravity of the prediction kept the room silent for long moments.
Whitman finally broke the quiet. “We’ve divided all agents into teams of two or three and assigned each team a specific task. We’re going to come at this from as many ways possible, people. We’ve got less than twenty-four hours.”
“I’ve got one of my men on his way. He’ll go directly to the bank Mulder will use. He and another investigator have been working on this from headquarters for a few days. They’ve developed a dandy little spybot to install on a designated bank computer if this money goes electronically.”
“Burke and Agent Travis will follow up with the dog and trainer. Macy.” Raiker looked at her. “You’ll want to do another threat assessment. Compare the notes, although there’s no reason to believe they weren’t generated by the same person.”
Macy nodded but the entire process would probably only take a couple hours. If there was a positive match on both notes, there was no reason to run this newest one against the written communication samples again. The threat assessment tests always took the longest.
And she was certain she’d discover the threat implicit in this note just as real as in the last.
Excerpted from DEADLY INTENT: The Mindhunters, Book 4 © Copyright 2011 by Kylie Brant. Reprinted with permission by Berkley. All rights reserved.