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Utopian Day

 

 

 

Utopian Day

 

By C.L. Wells

 

 

Copyright Christopher L. Wells (2015) – All rights reserved

Published by Christopher Wells at Shakespir

Shakespir Edition #1 License Notes: This free ebook may be copied, distributed, reposted, reprinted and shared, provided it appears in its entirety without alteration, and the reader is not charged to access it. This book is a work of fiction.

Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Author’s blog: www.fictionwithamission.com

Other works by this author: The Seer: Book 1 in the Supernatural Gift series

For a current list of titles by this author, visit http://fictionwithamission.com/books-by-c-l-wells/

To receive a FREE work of fiction by this author, visit http://fictionwithamission.com/ebooks/

Author’s email address: [email protected]

 

 

 

 

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-Four

Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter Forty-Six

Chapter Forty-Seven

Author’s Note

Thank You

Acknowledgements

About the Author

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Chapter One

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 James stood on the dock wondering about the events that had led him to this point.  Just months before he had been a prisoner serving time in a U.S. prison.  Then, unexpectedly, his sentence had been reduced and he was given a chance to start a new life and go straight – a chance he was eager to make good on.  But now he was in a foreign country, on the run from the FBI, and framed for a crime he didn't commit.  He watched, feeling helpless, as the man who had set him up sailed away on a yacht.  Could things possibly get worse?  His mind drifted back to that fateful day that had started the whole bizarre journey….  [_Six months earlier:_]  As he looked across the table at his client, Cecil Brody Jr. felt pity and sadness.  In his years as a public defender he had seen many such young men follow a similar path.  A troubled youth with a difficult or non-existent family life had a brush with the law and ended up in juvenile detention.  They made friends with the wrong crowd while inside, and went from bad to worse once they were released from prison. Years and numerous incarcerations later – assuming they lived that long – they ended up right where this young man was.   Today, however, was different.  Cecil was here to offer his client something that none of his other clients had ever received.  He was, dare his frequently cynical mind admit, excited about the possibility that today might be a turning point for the better.  Today might be the beginning of a genuine shot at rehabilitation for this young man. The guard who had brought his client in finished securing one handcuff to the table to ensure the lawyer's safety, and exited the room.  Cecil, who had been lost in his thoughts, had his contemplations cut short as he heard the door shut and the loud mechanical lock engage.  He brought his gaze up to meet the eyes of his client. “James, it's good to see you.”   He paused before continuing, but the prisoner did not respond.  “I have some good news for you.  You have been selected to participate in a special rehabilitation program that could cut ten years off of your sentence.” James sat up a little straighter in his chair and leaned forward, obviously interested.  He had so far been incarcerated for two years of a twenty-five year sentence for armed robbery.  The idea of cutting his remaining sentence almost in half seemed surreal.  He wanted to make certain he had heard correctly.   “Ten years?” “That's right.  Are you interested?” “Is grass green?” James responded. “O.k., here's how it works.”  The lawyer slid some paperwork and a pen across to his client.  “It is a highly selective and relatively unknown project the department of corrections has been running for years.  I didn't even know it existed myself.  If you sign up and keep your nose clean, your sentence will be reduced by ten years.  Everything you need to know is right here.” He slid the form across the table and paused while James picked up the paper and began to read.  James was sharp.  He may have been a criminal, but despite his bad choices he had graduated high school with a 'B' average.  He’d even been looking at colleges before his life began to fall apart with break-neck speed.  Cecil patiently waited for the questions he knew would begin coming once he finished reading the agreement. “What is this about 'prisoner waives all rights,' and 'prisoner authorizes implantation of required devices'?  Am I agreeing to be experimented on or something?” “No, nothing like that.  This is just the legal paperwork required for you to get into the program. I've been briefed on the program and I think you are going to like it much better than here.  You will be living in a facility with only nine other people.  There won't be any cells like they have here.  You will have a real room all to yourself.  The 'devices' they refer to are for electronic surveillance purposes only.” Cecil watched James' eyes as he read back over the paperwork.  James didn't appear to be as interested as Cecil had initially hoped he would be. “Listen James,” Cecil began as he stared straight into the younger man's eyes.  “Chances like this don't come around that often.  In fact, I can almost guarantee this chance won't come around again.  If you don't sign this deal today, I walk out of here and you stay here for the next twenty-three years, barring an early release, which we both know won't happen in this state unless hell freezes over.” Cecil paused again to let his words sink in as James stared down at the paperwork in front of him.  This was James' third serious conviction with jail time – by far the longest sentence.  He thought back to his previous sentence of five years and how he had almost committed suicide in the fourth year because he was so depressed.  He was on medication now, but it didn't really help much.  He knew in his heart that he would never make it twenty-three more years.  But thirteen, and in a better environment… maybe he could make it.  He would still be young enough to build a different life when he got out, maybe go straight the way his mom would have wanted him to.  Just maybe this could be the first break he had seen in a long time.  James picked up the pen and signed his name.
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[][]Chapter Two

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 Mia was in a sour mood, and it wasn’t because of the dining experience at Del Posto.  On the contrary, the baked striped bass had been excellent. Followed by the fette biscottate for dessert, it could hardly have been a more delicious meal. Mia’s mood had everything to do with the fact that she was about to end a three month long relationship with Thomas Pendleton.  He was a nice enough man, an investment banker, and he was fun to be around.  They had met at a party for a mutual acquaintance.  She had been working at the time – the only time she ever went to such functions.   Thomas had tried to strike up a conversation with her, and she had politely told him that she was working and could not stop to talk to him.  He had given her his number and asked her to call him so they could have lunch sometime.  She had thanked him, stuffed the number in her pocket, and continued working.  A few weeks later she had called him up and they had been seeing each other ever since. But now, however, there was a problem.  It was the same problem Mia always had with anyone she had dated.  Once it started getting too personal, a switch flipped inside of her head and she started feeling like she was being suffocated.  After that, the relationship was doomed.  She would normally break it off within a few dates after she started getting that feeling.  _This_ date was _that_ date. Thomas reached his hand across the table and gently caressed Mia’s hand.  It made Mia tense up, though she tried not to show it.   “I’ve just bought a new sculpture from an up and coming artist and I’d like to show it to you.  Why don’t we go by my apartment before I drop you off at your place and you can see it?” She knew where this was going.  Tonight was the most expensive restaurant that he had taken her to so far.  He might as well have asked her outright if she wanted to go back to his apartment and have sex.  She was glad she had already made plans to take the subway back to her apartment building after she ended the relationship.  She felt a twinge of guilt about dumping him after he had just spent over three hundred dollars on dinner, but it couldn’t be helped.  Now was the time. “Thomas, I really like you, but I am just not ready to get serious in a relationship right now.  My work keeps me very busy, and I don’t think it is fair to either one of us to continue to see each other right now.  I need a break.  I’d like to keep your friendship, but not the dating relationship.” She had given this same speech so many times she should have a patent on it.  It rolled off of her tongue like the well-rehearsed script that it was and to the desired effect.  Thomas slowly withdrew his hand back across the table, crestfallen.  This was the worst part.  At least he wasn’t getting angry.  A fair number of men became belligerent after being dumped.  She even had one man follow her to her car and try and force himself on her.  He hadn’t made it to first base, but he did manage to get to an ER to get treatment for his broken nose afterwards. “But we’ve been having such a good time together. If things are going too fast, I can slow down.  I don’t want you to feel pressured.  I think we’ve got a good thing going here and I’d like to give it a chance.  I really like you Mia.  So… I’ll back off and give you space, then in a few weeks I’ll give you a call, and see if you still feel the same way.  Fair enough?” “O.k. Thomas, we’ll see.  I really need to go now.  Thank you very much for dinner.” Thomas held up his finger to a passing waiter. “Check please,” he said with a forced smile. “No, Thomas, I’m taking the subway back to my apartment.” “But, Mia…” Before he could finish his sentence, Mia stood up, and walked away from the table and out the door. When Mia had first started experiencing what she had started to call ‘the Mia phenomenon’, she had blamed the men for being too pushy.  But when it happened over and over again, she started to believe it was just something wrong with her.  She read a few books trying to figure out what was wrong, even going to a psychologist for a while.  The psychologist had listened for several sessions, and then she had suggested that Mia was having trouble trusting men.  She theorized that whenever the relationship started to progress past a point where minimal trust was required, Mia bolted. Mia found the suggestion believable.  She’d had a difficult relationship with her parents and had ultimately left home at a young age because she felt that they had betrayed her and could no longer be trusted.  But at this point in her life, she wasn’t sure what to do about it.   Mia caught the subway home, went into her apartment, lay down on the sofa, and cried.   Nick was feeling on top of the world.  The big project he had been working on for some time was finally coming together, and the payoff for all of the hard work was now within sight.  On top of that, he had just crushed Jerry in a singles tennis match. After showering and changing clothes, he met Jerry in the club dining room for lunch.  He was enjoying the review of the game when he had a sudden pain in his stomach.  He winced slightly, and hunched forward a bit. “Are you o.k., Nick?” Jerry asked. “Just a bit of a pain in my stomach, that’s all.  Probably a touch of indigestion or something; nothing to worry about.” He took a sip of seltzer water and continued talking about the match.  He had been having indigestion quite frequently lately, and made a mental note to go to the doctor after he closed this next project.  There was no reason to take time out of his busy schedule now for a doctor’s visit when some over-the-counter medicine would probably suffice for the time being. As he drove back to his office, his cell phone rang.  Tom Freeman’s name came up on the screen. “Hello Tom.  What do you have for me?” “I talked to that cop who owes you ten grand.  He’s willing to take the job.” “Good.  Go ahead and make the arrangements.  Make certain it can’t be traced back to us.” “Will do.” “Oh, and Tom.  When this is all over, see to it that any history of his activity on any of our gaming sites is removed from the host servers and all the backups.  I don’t want any potential investigation to turn up anything.  This has to be clean or we’ll all end up in trouble.” “Consider it done.”   A file lay open on the workbench beside J.T. Thornbacker as he finished up the last few cuts on the wooden carving, the base of which was held tight in a vise.  It was a woman’s face.  She was staring up into the sky with her eyes open, her hair swept back as if it was being blown by the wind, and a beautiful smile on her face.  He stepped back to admire his handiwork.  After staring at it for a few moments, he smiled and put down the carving tool beside the file on the workbench. He opened up the file folder and stared down at the mug shot of the soon-to-be newest member of their dysfunctional little tribe.  James Marlowe, twenty-six years old, convicted of armed robbery.  The profile went on to state that James had attempted suicide and was on anti-depressants, was above average intelligence for the prison population, and had been in and out of jail since he was a juvenile.   “I hope, my friend, that you can find peace here with us,” J.T. said out loud. He thought back to his own introduction to Utopia and all of the life-changing experiences he’d had here.  This place had helped turn a bitter, angry man who thought he was the center of the universe into someone who actually cared about other people and had learned to live in peace with himself and others for the most part.  He had seen the same transformation in many of his fellow-prisoners.   As he left the warehouse where his workshop was located and headed to the library, he enjoyed viewing the orange glow of the sunset over the desert horizon.  He took a deep breath of the rapidly cooling air and felt happy to be alive.  Here in Utopia, each day was a chance to grow, a chance to experience a new level of inner freedom and peace.  It was strange to admit it, but he was glad he had come to this prison.  It had helped save his life.  But the world as J.T. Thornbacker knew it at that moment was about to permanently and irrevocably change forever….
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Chapter Three

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 James woke up in his hospital bed slowly, groggy from the anesthesia.  His hands were in restraints and he was beginning to feel the odd sensation of the monitoring device that had been surgically implanted underneath his skin on the back of his neck, near the spine.  After about fifteen minutes, a nurse came in to check his vital signs and then left without saying a word.  In another half-hour, a doctor came in and asked him a series of questions, then pecked on the screen of his tablet computer for a few minutes, punctuating his flurry of activity with miscellaneous utterances - 'hmmm',  'o.k.', and then finally a 'looks good’ before leaving the room. The next person James saw was a man in a business suit, wearing glasses with small, circular lenses.  He had an intense gaze and black hair that was just starting to grey.  His demeanor was pleasant, but formal.  He took a few moments to look at James' face before he spoke.   “Good afternoon, James.  How do you feel?” “Groggy at the moment.” “That should wear off completely in a few hours.  How does the implant feel?” “Irritating.” The man shook his head up and down slightly, acknowledging the response before continuing. “You will be in this facility for a week.  During that time we will run a series of tests on the monitoring device we implanted, and you will learn about your job at the new facility.  Part of the program includes a six-day, eight hour a day work schedule to help rehabilitate you to a normal productive life for when you leave the facility.  You will be helping to assemble a mechanical device on an assembly line.  At the end of the week, assuming all goes as planned, you will be transported to the new facility. Should you attempt to leave this facility, you will be removed from the program, your sentence reduction will be eliminated, and you will be put back in the prison you just came from for the remainder of your sentence.  Is that clear?” “Yes,” James responded.  He was encouraged about the possibility of any improvements over his previous incarceration.  He liked working with his hands; at least he wouldn’t be bored to death. “Good.  One of the reasons we picked you is that you appear to have intelligence above many of your fellow inmates incarcerated for the same crime.  We hope this will enable you to better appreciate that you have been given a great opportunity, and that you will therefore endeavor to successfully complete the program.  In short, we want you to succeed.  If you do, it makes all of us look good and you will be rewarded with an early release per our agreement.  If you don't, you will make all of us look bad, in which case we both lose.” The man let the last sentence hang in the air for effect, all the while holding James' gaze without blinking.  When the man spoke again, he almost seemed to be a different person.  It was as if he had just completed a script that he had given many times before, and now he was slipping out of character and back into a more comfortable, friendlier role.  He seemed less official, more excited, and more likeable all at once. “You know, James, this program has the potential to completely change everything about our current methods of incarceration.  For you personally, it has the potential to change your life for the better.  We chose you out of hundreds of candidates.” His gaze grew more intense as he spoke the next few words very deliberately. “I believe in you, James.” Without waiting for a response, the man turned and left the room as quickly and as deliberately as he had arrived.   Out of all the things that had happened to James during this whirlwind of change since Cecil had first told him about the program, up until this very moment, nothing had impacted him more those five words this nameless bureaucrat had just spoken to him - “I believe in you James.”  James had been told many things in his life by government functionaries.  He had been told he was nothing but a convict, that he should be ashamed of his behavior, that he was headed down the wrong road, that he was a career criminal, and many other such things, but no one had ever told him that they believed in him.  Those words rang around in his head for hours after the man left and James wondered exactly what they meant to the man who said them.  And inside his heart, somewhere deep, where the last bit of hope glowed like a tiny ember in a pile of ashes - the remains of a fire that had long since begun to go out – that hope began to glow a bit brighter.
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Chapter Four

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 Over the last twenty-four hours, James had been shuttled between an SUV, a government plane, an army Humvee, and now he was in a helicopter.  Just before take-off in the helicopter, he had been given a special helmet to wear which prevented him from seeing anything.  He had no idea where in the United States he was.  In fact, he wasn't even certain he was in the United States any longer. After about an hour and a half, the helicopter landed.  His armed escort led him out of the cargo area of the helicopter and into a building that looked like a 1950’s era diner.  The guard removed the helmet and handcuffs, and promptly went outside to the waiting helicopter and flew away. James squinted to adjust to the daylight.  At the far end of the diner, sitting at a booth facing him, was a man who appeared to be in his late forties.  He had a full head of greying hair and a bushy beard.  He was drinking a cup of coffee and staring amiably at the newcomer.  When he spoke, James thought he detected a slight Southern accent. “Welcome to Utopia.  Coffee pot is behind the counter.  Help yourself.” “Thanks,” James replied.  He poured himself a cup of black coffee before seating himself opposite from the man who had just greeted him.  He closed his eyes and inhaled a long breath, savoring the aroma of the coffee before taking a sip. “How was your trip?” the man asked. “A bit disorienting.” “Yeah, they like to mix it up when they bring folks out here.  It's a bit too James Bond if you ask me.” He took another long sip from his own coffee before setting down the mug and reaching his hand across the table. “Name's J.T.” James reached out and shook his hand.  The first thing he noticed was how big the man's hand was – it engulfed James' own hand.  The second thing was how firm the grip was. “I suppose you already know my name,” James responded. J.T. chuckled.  “Yeah, I know quite a bit about you, James.  Unless I miss my guess, they didn't tell you Jack-crap about this place.  Am I right?” “I just know I signed my life away to get here in return for a reduction to my sentence.” “Par for the course,” J.T. continued.  “Well, I'm the longest serving inmate here.  Been here for the better part of ten years.  I'm not in charge of anything, but I'm the one who gets to show you the ropes.  For starters, I'll go ahead and tell you that the implant in your neck is not just to monitor your whereabouts; it serves as a behavior control device.  If you try to leave Utopia or do something they don't like, you will be zapped with enough voltage to send your brain into temporary overload.  You don't want to go there, trust me.  Think of it like a stun gun pointed at your head 24-7.” “Great, the gift that keeps on giving.” “Oh, and another thing: once we leave this diner, don't touch anyone.  Outside of this diner and a couple of other places, touch is considered out of bounds and you'll be zapped if you do it.  Now, you will start to feel a buzz in the back of your neck if you get too close to someone, and that's your chance to back off before you get zapped.” J.T. tossed a small manual across the table.  “Just about everything else you need to know is in that manual.  Read it _tonight_.  If you have any questions, ask me.” “Will do.” J.T. pointed in the direction of the refrigerator behind the counter. “There's sandwiches in the refrigerator.  Better go grab you one if you want to eat anything tonight.  Curfew is at 8:00 p.m.  You have to be in your room before then, or you will start feeling a low-grade headache, courtesy of your implant. If you aren't in your room by 8:15 p.m., you get the full shock treatment.”  He simulated an explosion with his hand motions and said, “Ka-pow!” James retrieved a sandwich from behind the counter before following J.T. out of the diner and down the street to what looked like a motel. “Your room is lucky number seven.  Here's the key.” J.T. handed him a key with a tacky plastic red number seven key fob attached to it. “What's with the retro 1950's decorations around here?” James asked. “Well, that's a bit of a mystery.  From the geography around here and the fact that I've never seen any planes fly over us, except military planes, I believe we're somewhere in Nevada – probably some military base.  My guess is that this place was built during the cold-war to practice war-games in an invasion scenario.  Whatever it once was, it's your new home now.” He turned to go, and said over his shoulder as he left, “I'm room 34 if you need to call me on the phone to ask me anything; just dial the room number.  I'll be by to pick you up at 6:15 a.m.  Don't leave your room before 6:00 a.m. or....”  He pointed his finger back behind him towards James as he continued to walk away. “...or I'll get the shock of my life,” James responded. J.T. gave him a thumbs up without turning around. James unlocked the door to his room and went inside.  The 1950's era decorations were complete, right down to the vintage bedspread, tacky lamp, two-drawer dresser with a cheap veneer faux wood finish, and the metal trash can with a western motif painting of a stagecoach on it.  He smiled as he thought about how much better this was than going to sleep each night in his former jail cell back East. He sat down on the bed, propped some pillows up as a backrest, and began reading the manual J.T. had given him.
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Chapter Five

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 From the manual:  Inmates are expected to follow all the rules set forth in this manual.  Failure to comply will result in disciplinary measures which can include revocation of any suspended sentence agreement and removal from the program. A central part of the program are the five practices.  All inmates must participate in the following:  1. Participate in the daily exercise regimen. 2. Attend the scheduled group sessions and individual counseling sessions. 3. Practice an approved hobby. 4. Read a book from the approved book list for one hour per day. 5. Contribute to the community by performing approved acts of service.   James was awakened from a deep sleep by an alarm clock noise coming from a speaker positioned in the corner of his room.  After the alarm sounded for about ten seconds, a pleasant-sounding automated voice came over the speaker: “Please report to the exercise field for your morning exercises in 30 minutes.” James barely had time to shower and change into a jumpsuit he found in the closet before he heard a rapping at the door.  He opened it up to see J.T. in a similar-looking jumpsuit. “Come on in.  I'm just putting on my shoes.” “No can-do,” replied J.T.  “We cannot go into another inmate’s room.”  J.T. pointed up into the sky.  “Big brother is watching.” James finished tying his shoes and followed J.T. down the street to what looked like a small park.  Gathered in the middle of the park were six other people in jumpsuits.  J.T. greeted the group as they approached. “Good morning, troops!  This is our new recruit.  His name is James.” James began to move forward to begin shaking hands with the first man, who looked to be in his late forties, about five-foot-six, and slightly built.  The man held up both hands and took a step back. “Whoa!  Don't touch me or you'll be shocked.” James immediately backed off.  “Sorry about that.  Not used to the rules yet.” “That's o.k.  We just wave around here,” the man replied.  “I'm Samuel.”  He waved his hand at James for effect. “Hi Samuel.”  James waved his hand back. Before the conversation could continue, the same automated voice came over some well-hidden speakers. “Position yourself to begin morning exercises in 30 seconds.” The group, James noticed, had grown to the full complement of ten inmates.  Everyone quickly spaced themselves out to begin the exercises.  James had read about the exercise routine the night before in the manual.  Stretching, followed by aerobic calisthenics and body-weight exercises, finishing up with some Tai-chi and a 1 mile walk/run.  The whole work-out was intended to be about 30 minutes long for most people, but 45 minutes was allotted to account for some people taking longer to finish the walk/run at the end. James was surprised to notice that there were five women in the group.  No one had told him that this was going to be a co-ed facility.  He was liking this new facility better by the minute.  When the group started the run, he positioned himself beside one of the women who had short, blonde hair. “How long have you been here?” James asked. “Not interested,” she replied. “Not interested in what?” “Look,” she responded, “we both know you're just starting this conversation because you're attracted to me.  I'm just letting you know up front that I'm not interested.  No big deal, just not interested.” Before James could respond, the woman picked up the pace and ran ahead of James.  James sped up and came up alongside of her again. “Hey, I get it, o.k.?  But since we're both stuck in here, maybe we could be friends.” She turned her head to the side and rolled her eyes.  Next, she sped up the pace again.  James tried to keep up, but it was clear he was in no shape to catch her, so he finally started slowing down.  J.T. soon came jogging up beside him. “Don't mind her.  She's got a chip on her shoulder.” “Why's that?”  James asked. “You ever wonder why you were picked out for this program?  Why anyone was picked out for a program years after it started when only ten people were selected to be in it?” “I haven't had time to think too much about that yet.” “One of us died, that's why.” James put two and two together. “So the one who died was her boyfriend, is that it?” “Yep.  And his replacement is the last person you want to be.  Every time she looks at you, she'll remember him.” “What happened to him?” “Freak accident.  He was allergic to shellfish.  One of the sandwiches they delivered for us had been mis-labeled and had shellfish in it.  One bite and he went in to anaphylactic shock.  Died before we could give him the epinephrine shot.” “Wow.” “Yeah, I miss the guy.  He was a real corker.  So anyway, I'd leave her alone for a good six months if you ever want to be on speaking terms with her.” “Thanks for the tip,” James replied. They finished the run and everyone headed back to their rooms to change into their work clothes.  James had been trained on his job before arriving, so it was no surprise when he walked into the small warehouse and found his assembly station looking very similar to what he had been trained on.  The ubiquitous automated voice came over the speaker system and announced the count-down to the beginning of work.  Thus began James' first day of work in the program. It was easy enough to remember his job.  Put the bolts in here, apply the gasket there, place the completed part in the bin for the next person in line to do their job.  Overall, it was mind-numbingly boring, but it was better than staring at a cell wall for most of the day, so he wasn't too bothered by it. Dinner was in the diner and was very different from any of the prison meals James had ever had before.  Men and women sat together, and it felt more like a pot luck dinner at your grandmother's house than a prison cafeteria.  James sat in a booth with J.T., Julie, and Malcolm.  Julie was very up front about the fact that she was incarcerated for insurance fraud. Malcolm was about fifty years old and was telling jokes throughout the meal that made Julie laugh so hard she snorted. Afterwards, once it was announced that dinner was over, everyone took their dishes and utensils to the counter where three of the group, who were apparently on kitchen duty, took them and began washing them.  Everyone else exited the diner and began walking down the street.  James followed along, wondering where they were headed as they continued in the opposite direction from their rooms at the motel.  Soon they were in front of a red brick single-story building.   Three steps led up to the entrance of the building.  There were four concrete columns at the entrance to a small portico which sheltered the doors to the interior of the building.  Over the door, etched in stone, were the words, “Utopia Public Library”. Everyone but J.T. and James split off once they entered the library.  James could see that there were several seating areas spaced throughout the long middle corridor that ran the length of the building.  The cushioned seats were dated, but comfortable looking.  The inmates began sitting down in the different areas, each with one or more books in their hands that they had retrieved from a shelf near the entrance. “I assume you've read the manual?” J.T. queried. “Yes.  But it was a bit short on the particulars,” James replied. “There are around 100,000 books in this building, with 200,000 more accessible on the intranet from the computer terminals in the back,” J.T. explained.  “The computers are on a closed network, so you can't get to the web – just in case you were wondering.  You pick a book and read it.  When you are done, you punch in the book code on one of the computer terminals and you take a short test that basically proves you actually or probably read the book, and that's it.  Books range from fifth grade reading level through college level.  Classics to modern.  No trashy romance novels, no porn, and nothing that encourages violence or criminal behavior, but beyond that, the field is wide open.  Oh, and I almost forgot – the books can't leave the building.  There are sensors at the door and the cameras are watching.”  J.T. pointed up to where James could see several black orbs protruding on stems from the ceiling. “What happens if you don't get the answers right or just refuse to read?” “Well, I'm thinking you can guess what your options are...” J.T. began. “Tow the line or get kicked out of the program?” replied James. “You see?” J.T. responded.  “I knew you were a smart one the moment you walked in.  Happy reading.”  With that, J.T. wandered off into the library to find his own reading material for the night. James had done well enough in school, but he had never been much of a reader.  Between helping his mom out by working a job after school and doing his school work, he never took the time to explore non-required books.  He wandered up and down the aisles, looking at the shelves full of books he had mostly never heard of.  He wound up in the history section and his eyes lighted upon a thin book entitled _The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin_.  Without much interest other than fulfilling his required reading obligation, he found a comfortable-looking chair and sat down to begin to read.
pre

[]Chapter
Six

James woke up to the sound of the automated
voice instructing him to dress for work and proceed to the workshop
at 451 tenth street. He looked at the clock positioned on the
bedside table and noticed he had been awakened a full hour earlier
than normal. He stared at the ceiling momentarily, wishing he could
sleep in, but knowing that wasn’t an option, so he got up anyway.
He showered, dressed, and headed out the door just as the sun was
rising on Utopia. The street lights were still on and the night
chill was still in the air.

Utopia was designed with one main street
going down the middle of town, with short side streets jutting off
that were themselves perpendicular to the main road at every block.
The side streets were numbered sequentially, so it was easy to find
10th street. James found his destination just behind the first row
of buildings.

The workshop was a brick building with a
metal roof. It had large metal sliding doors facing directly toward
the street, and a smaller door off to the side for pedestrian
access. James knocked on the door three times and waited. There was
no answer, so he went inside.

The ceiling to the workshop was about thirty
feet up, where huge gas-powered lights shown down on the contents
of the building below. There was an empty area directly in front of
the large sliding doors, leading to the alleyway that was big
enough to park a couple of large vehicles. Beyond that were several
rows of industrial-sized shelving units two-stories tall and about
ten feet wide each, which spanned the remaining length of the
building.

“Good mornin’,” J.T.‘s familiar voice echoed
out in the cavernous space. James looked up to see J.T. peering
down at him from the second story of one of the large shelving
units. “Come on up,” he continued as he waved his hand at the metal
staircase attached to the end of the shelves.

James climbed up the stairs and followed
J.T. through a narrow middle passageway that eventually opened up
into what looked like a woodworking shop. Natural light shown in
from the opaque skylight directly above the area. Shelves lined the
open space with what appeared to be wood carvings of mostly
people’s faces. James noticed that the faces on one end of the area
were filled with pain. Some were crying, some were simply sad, and
others looked like the faces of despair and anguish. As he moved
down the line, he noticed the faces began to change. They began to
display softer emotions, even happiness, some of them bordering on
what could be described as joy. J.T. remained silent as he watch
James taking it all in. Only when it was apparent that James had
surveyed the whole area did J.T. speak.

“As I’m sure you’ve read in the manual,
everyone here has to have a hobby.” He spread his arms out wide,
indicating the sculptures before them. “This is mine – wood
carving.”

James walked up to one of the shelves and
picked up one of the sculptures of a crying woman, looking at it
closely and turning it from side to side so he could see it from
different angles.

“Why are so many of them sad?”

J.T. walked up beside James and looked at
the same sculpture. His eyes were pointed at the carved sculpture,
but he was looking somewhere else. Somewhere in the past. When he
spoke next, his voice was subdued and his tone echoed not so much
guilt as acknowledgement.

“Because I’m a thief, James.”

James looked up from the sculpture into
J.T.‘s eyes and the man met his gaze, looking intently back at
him.

“I stole from people. I took things from
them. I stole their money like it was mine to take. Only now, I
realize I was taking a lot more from them than that. From some of
them, I was taking their hope, or a chance to buy medicine for
their sick child, or their college fund. I never thought of that
before I came here, to Utopia. I carve these images as a type of
amends. It’s a way to remind myself that what I did hurt real
people so I won’t ever do it again.”

James looked down at the sculpture he held
in his hands. He began to think of his mother and about how much he
missed her. Tears began to well up in his eyes as he spoke.

“That’s what happened to my mom…. She had
cancer. The doctors told her it was incurable and that she might
live another year or so, but that was it. She found out about this
experimental drug she could get in France that might help stop the
cancer. She was going to take the money out of her retirement fund
to go get the treatment, but right before she was going to get the
money out, they told her the money had been stolen by one of the
fund managers. They eventually tracked the guy down and took him to
court, but they told Mom the class action suit could take years to
settle before she would see any of the money. After that, it was
like the life was sucked out of her. She knew she wouldn’t live
that long. She died on my fourteenth birthday.”

J.T. reached up and put one of his big hands
on James’ shoulder.

“I’m sorry, son.”

“Yeah, thanks,” James replied as he reached
up and brushed away the tears that were threatening to cascade down
his face.

J.T. waited another moment before he
continued in a more upbeat tone.

“We’ll need to get to work soon, so I better
cut to the chase. You need to pick a hobby. This workshop contains
just about anything you need. If you want to paint, learn to play
the guitar, build bird houses, create pottery, take photographs,
whatever. Take a look around the place and pick something. Your
counselor will want to know what you pick – it has to be approved,
as I’m sure you are aware. I’m going to head over to work to get
ready. We’ve still got a few minutes, so look around a little
before you come over.”

With that, J.T. headed back out of the
building.

James began walking up and down the aisles
of the warehouse. Just like J.T. had said, there was a little bit
of everything in there. He saw some machine shop tools, a ping-pong
table, art supplies, even a stack of jigsaw puzzles. He heard the
automated voice announce that there was fifteen minutes before the
work day began and decided to go back to the front of the warehouse
by way of one of the aisles he hadn’t yet explored. About half-way
down the aisle, he saw twenty or thirty bicycles stacked closely
together. The sight suddenly brought back a childhood memory of
being with his dad.

On his seventh birthday, his dad had bought
him a brand-new bike and taught him how to ride. That summer was
probably the best summer of his life. He and his dad would ride
down to the playground almost every Saturday. That was also the
last summer he’d ever seen his dad. Shortly after that, his mom had
gotten cancer for the first time and his dad had left for good. He
abruptly turned away from the bicycles and headed to the door.

 

[]
Chapter Seven

The next day, James went through the daily
routine a bit more smoothly as he began to assimilate into the
scheduled existence of life in his new prison home. He had reviewed
the weekly schedule posted on the wall in the diner and seen that
today there was a group session after work. The manual was fairly
vague on many of the topics it covered, and mention of the group
session was no different. It simply stated that : “The group
session is designed to assist the inmate in facing and overcoming
the challenges of life in the prison environment and in preparing
them for returning to normal life as a fully functioning member of
society.”

After dinner was over and the cleanup was
complete, everyone headed out the door to yet another building
James had not been to yet. The building appeared to be a
well-cared-for 19th century house. The wooden siding was
painted a colorful yellow and the large windows revealed period
rugs, furniture, and decorations on the inside of the house. The
group ascended the steps onto the spacious wrap-around porch and
James noted the ornate carving on the porch railing, spindles, and
posts – all painted white.

They filed inside and the women grouped
together and went down the hall while the men in the group entered
the first door on the right. James followed along. The room was
spacious, with twelve-foot ceilings and a large oriental rug laid
out on the wooden floor. There was a circle of chairs in the middle
of the room and a water-cooler in one corner. Bedsides those items,
there was nothing else in the room. Everyone took a seat and began
talking among themselves as James looked around silently, taking it
all in.

Moments later, from the back of the room, a
door opened and a man in his mid-forties entered, wearing a tweed
jacket and dark-rimmed glasses. His hair was coiffed to perfection,
but didn’t totally eradicate the slightly nerdy aura he emanated.
He was looking down at a computer tablet he was carrying as he
crossed the room and sat down in one of the chairs. When he looked
up, he quickly scanned the group and fixed his gaze on James.

“Ah, James,” the man said with a smile.

“Welcome to your first group session.”

The man reached out his hand and noticed
James’ reluctance to respond.

“It’s o.k., this is one of the locations in
which the monitoring software is not programmed to zap you.”

James reached out and shook the man’s hand.

The man then settled back in his chair and addressed the group.

“Hello everyone. Let’s jump right in. As is
protocol, since we have a new member of the group, we’re going to
start with principle one.” Turning to James, he continued. “James,
this is a twelve-step group somewhat akin to A.A. I could go into a
long explanation, but you’ll catch on soon enough. Let’s introduce
ourselves; then I’ll read the rules and the first principle and we
can begin sharing.”

He looked around at the whole group before
he continued.

“My name is Greg, I struggle with commitment
issues and insecurity.”

When he stopped speaking, everyone but James
spoke in unison.

“Hi Greg.”

J.T. was seated to Greg’s left, and
continued the introductions.

“My name is J.T.. I struggle with stealing
and pridefulness.”

“Hi J.T.,” everyone but James replied.

When it came time for James to introduce
himself, Greg interjected.

“James, you don’t need to tell us what you
struggle with today if you don’t want to. You can just tell us your
name and something else about yourself if you want.”

James felt strange telling everyone who he
was when they already knew, but he did it anyway.

“My name is James, and as you all know, I’m
the new guy.”

“Hi James,” everyone responded.

Once the introductions were completed, Greg
clicked on his tablet and began reading. He read some rules about
not interrupting and not trying to tell someone how to fix their
problems, as well as a few others. The last sentence, Greg read
very slowly and deliberately, as if he were reading to a small
child that might not understand the sentence if he read too
quickly.

“We admitted we were powerless over our
destructive, compulsive behaviors and that our lives had become
unmanageable.”

He looked up from his tablet and took a look
around the room.

“Who would like to begin sharing?” he
asked.

Samuel spoke up.

“Hi, my name is Samuel, I struggle with
anger and desire for revenge.”

“Hi Samuel,” the group responded.

This time James joined in the response.

Samuel continued.

“I think I’m beginning to forgive my father
for never being there, for always working and not spending time
with me. I realize now that he grew up in a dysfunctional home too,
and part of what drove him to work so much was a feeling that his
value in life came from his bank account. I think he neglected me
not because he didn’t love me, but because he felt so worthless
himself that he felt he constantly had to be working harder to make
money in order to feel that he had any value as a person.”

When Samuel was done, everyone but James
said in unison, “Thanks for sharing, Samuel.”

The meeting went on with everyone but James
eventually sharing something. Some were just as forthcoming as
Samuel. James noticed that Greg didn’t give any advice, nor did
anyone else. They just listened. It was a strange feeling, being
listened to. James couldn’t recall the last time someone had really
listened to him like these men were listening to each other. They
weren’t making jokes or wise-cracks at what each other were saying.
They were just listening.

Later that night, after James was back in
his room, he was laying on the bed and thinking over what had
transpired at the group session earlier in the day. He had never
experienced anything like this in prison before. He felt a glimmer
of hope that this might actually help him break out of the
destructive lifestyle he had been in for so long. Maybe he could
find a different, better way to live. Maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t
doomed to follow the road he had been on to the bitter end. Maybe
he could learn to change.

He closed his eyes and began to think about
what a different life might look like as he drifted off to
sleep.

 

 

 

 

[]
Chapter Eight

Laura woke up in a cold sweat as her body
involuntarily sat upright in her bed. She had been dreaming of Paul
again. She hadn’t gone more than a few nights since his death
without having the same nightmare over and over. Only, it wasn’t
just a nightmare… it had really happened.

She got out of bed and went to the bathroom
sink to rinse off the cold sweat with some warm water. She looked
at herself in the mirror and began to cry. She vowed to herself
that she would never allow herself to be in a position to feel this
emotional pain again. It was tearing her apart inside and she
wasn’t sure how much longer she could take it without having a
nervous breakdown – or worse.

The scene played out again in her mind. One
minute, she and Paul were sitting across from each other in a booth
at the diner here in Utopia, laughing and talking. He had reached
his hand across the table and gently caressed hers. They’d looked
into each other’s eyes, each letting the other know how much they
cared for one another in a silent conversation. Then, suddenly,
Paul’s countenance had changed. He began to make gasping sounds and
fell out of the booth onto the floor. His lips began turning blue
as Laura slid out of her seat onto the floor. She grasped his hand
and shouted out, “He’s having an allergic reaction! Someone give me
the epi pen, now!”

Malcolm had run around behind the counter to
the medicine storage unit, a secure refrigerated unit where any
emergency inmate medicine was stored. Malcolm punched in the code
on the keypad and tried to turn the handle to open the door, but it
didn’t turn. Malcolm frantically punched in the code again, but
still the door wouldn’t budge.

“Where is the pen!? He’s dying here!” Laura
yelled as she watched the life ebb out of Paul’s face and his eyes
begin to glaze over. She grasped his hand in hers and looked into
his eyes. “Hold on, Paul, help is on the way.”

“The code isn’t working!” Malcolm shouted
back. He shouted out into the air as if to an unseen entity,
“Security! The code has been changed! What is the current code to
open the medicine cabinet!?”

A nervous human voice came across the
loudspeaker, “Ahh, I’m checking now. Hold on!”

Malcolm could hear papers rustling in the
background as the guard frantically searched for the needed code.
Precious seconds later, the voice returned.

“Try 7238!”

Malcolm punched in the code, ripped open the
door, and grabbed the epinephrine pen. He tore around the corner,
slid onto the floor, tore the top off the pen, and slammed the
needle a bit too forcefully down into Paul’s leg in order to
deliver the life-saving medicine. It was only then that he realized
Laura was no longer frantic, but that a steady stream of tears were
flowing down her face.

“He’s gone,” she said, holding his hand
against her face as the tears continued to flow.

Just to be sure, Malcolm checked for a
pulse, but could find none. He began trying to administer CPR. A
minute later, the on-staff EMT threw open the door to the diner and
quickly moved in to assess Paul’s condition himself. He saw the
pen, but asked anyway.

“Did you give him the shot?”

“Yes,” Malcolm replied.

The EMT felt for a pulse but couldn’t find
any. He took out another epinephrine shot from his medical bag and
gave it to Paul; then he took over administering CPR. He tried
desperately to blow air into Paul’s lungs, but couldn’t. After
trying to resuscitate Paul for fifteen minutes, the exhausted EMT
sat back to catch his breath. He looked over at Laura, who was
still clutching Paul’s hand.

“I’m sorry.”

The next few days were a blur to Laura. A
special investigator was flown out to investigate Paul’s death.
Everyone was questioned. The medicine chest lock was tested and the
code was changed. The new code was printed on the outside of the
cabinet so everyone could see it. Then, the following day,
everything returned to the new normal. The same schedule, the same
activities, the same work, the same food. Except, no Paul.

About two weeks later, in one of the group
sessions, they were informed that Paul, who was allergic to
shellfish, had accidentally ingested shellfish from an improperly
labeled pre-packaged sandwich. The code on the medicine cabinet had
been changed during routine maintenance, but the form that was
filled out so that the inmates could be notified of the new code
had fallen behind a desk and was only found after the investigation
into Paul’s death.

It was about a month later that James showed
up in Utopia. Laura hated to even look at him. His very presence
was a constant reminder that Paul was dead. In her heart, she knew
it wasn’t James’ fault, but she needed someone to focus her anger
on, and for now, James fit the bill.

There was no use trying to go back to sleep
now. It would be a few hours before her mind settled down enough to
allow that to happen. She wished she could make herself a cup of
tea and sit on a nice couch with a blanket wrapped around her, but
that wasn’t going to happen either. Even though she was in Utopia,
she was still in prison, and in a room with one bed and an
uncomfortable wooden chair with little padding on the seat. It
would be another few hours before she could leave her room to get
that cup of tea. Instead, she lay back down in bed and stared up
into the darkness, letting her mind wander back over the years and
consider how she had ended up here.

Laura had grown up in a troubled home with
abusive parents. She could still remember hiding under the kitchen
table while her parents fought, throwing whatever happened to be
near them at each other and yelling at the top of their lungs. Her
dad finally left when she was seven years old, but instead of
things getting better, they got worse. Her mom then began a series
of relationships with abusive boyfriends. As Laura got older and
began to mature, the boyfriends began taking an interest in her
physically. More than one of them would sexually abuse her over the
years.

When she was fourteen, she had had enough,
and ran away from home. She fell in with a drug dealer and began
taking and selling drugs. Her taste in men wasn’t any better than
her mother’s, and she and her drug-dealing boyfriend would have
violent fights. She was arrested for drugs on a couple of occasions
and did time for possession. Then, one night after getting out of
jail for the second time, her boyfriend came home in a drug-induced
rage. For the first time in their relationship, she was terrified
that he might actually kill her. He beat her so badly that she
passed out. When she woke up on the floor, bloodied and bruised
from the beating, she crawled into the bedroom to find him asleep
in the bed, like nothing had happened. She pulled a pistol out of
the bedside table drawer and shot him six times in the head as he
slept. Next stop – prison.

The chance to come to Utopia had been a
chance for a new life. She had begun dealing with her anger and her
past, and had made real progress over the past few years. When Paul
came into the program, she kept her distance. She didn’t want to
get involved with another criminal.

Over time, Paul won her over. He was funny,
charming, and he actually respected her. He did little things like
asking if he could touch her hand for the first time instead of
trying to force himself on her. He shared about his own abusive
past with a father that beat him, and how he’d left home after he
grew bigger because he was afraid he might beat his father to death
the next time he laid a hand on him. He said he didn’t want to be
the same kind of person his father was. He’d begun stealing cars to
make a living at sixteen and eventually ended up in prison, then
Utopia.

Laura could relate to him. They thought
about things the same way and they both wanted their futures to be
different from their pasts. They became allies and tried to help
each other change, and encourage each other when things were tough.
Slowly, they became best friends. Then he died, and she had been in
a tailspin ever since.

The automated voice came over the
loudspeaker, bringing her back to the present and signaling the
beginning of a new day in Utopia. Normally, she hated that voice,
but today she was glad to have something else to focus on besides
her own inner voice and the memories that tormented her. Laura got
out of bed and began to get ready for the morning exercises.

 

 

[]
Chapter Nine

James showed up for his counseling
appointment early and sat out in the waiting area. He wasn’t quite
sure what to expect and wondered if he was going to be asked to lay
down on a couch and talk about his childhood or something. It
wasn’t long before the door to the counselor’s office opened and
Greg walked out to greet him. He held out his hand to shake and
James reciprocated.

“Good afternoon, James. Good to see you.

Come on in.”

As he spoke, Dr. Greg Thompson stepped aside
and motioned with his hand towards the open door with a slight
deprecating bow. James entered the small office, seating himself in
one of the two comfortably cushioned lounge chairs which faced each
other. Dr. Thompson followed him, closing the door before
positioning himself in the remaining chair.

“So, James,” Dr. Thompson began. “It’s been
almost a week since you arrived here in Utopia. What do you
think?”

James was guarded as he considered his
reply. He wasn’t accustomed to prison employees being so nice. For
that matter, he wasn’t accustomed to speaking to a counselor
either. It felt strange.

“It’s much nicer than where I came from,” he
replied.

“Yeah, I bet it is indeed,” Dr. Thompson
continued. “What do you think about the five practices – the
exercise, the group and individual sessions, the reading, the
hobby, the community service…?”

“It’s o.k. It beats being stuck in a jail
cell all day, that’s for sure.”

“What are you reading?”

“An autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.”

“Is it enjoyable? Do you like it?”

“I’m not much of a reader, so I get
distracted when I’m reading, but so far I like it. It’s not like
anything I read in school. I mean, I’ve heard about Benjamin
Franklin, but mostly about what he did in the American Revolution.
I never heard about the rest of his life before.”

“Was there anything meaningful that you
learned? Anything that you learned about his life that inspired you
or caused you to change the way you think about something?”

James looked over at a plant that was
sitting on top of a bookshelf in the corner.

“Yeah. He said something that stuck with me.

He said, ‘The most acceptable service of God is doing good to man.’
He seemed to do a lot of things that helped other people. He
started a library, started a fire department, and a whole lot of
other things that I never knew about. I guess I never thought of
getting up in the morning and thinking about how I can help out
other people a whole lot, not since my mom died anyway.”

“Do you think that would be a better way to
live than the way you have been living?”

James looked at Dr. Thompson
suspiciously.

“I know what you’re trying to do. You’re
trying to get me to admit that the way I’ve been living is the
wrong way and that I need to change. Well, I know that already.
It’s just not that easy. I like nice things. I like to live a
certain way and I can’t exactly get a great job with a background
as a bank robber.”

“Do you want to change, James?”

Dr. Thompson let the sentence hang in the
air and waited for James to reply. He didn’t say it judgmentally or
in an accusing way. The question disarmed James and found its way
in, past the defensiveness he often wore as a shield when other
people asked him questions he didn’t want to answer. It was
something he had thought a lot about since getting sent back to
jail.

“Yes… I do.”

Again Dr. Thompson left the empty space
alone and let James’ response linger in the room.

“Good,” the doctor replied. “Very good.”

 

 

Later that afternoon, it was time to work on
his official hobby. James went to the workshop with J.T. and a few
of the other inmates who also worked on their hobbies there. As he
entered the door to the warehouse, there was a box on the floor. A
white sheet of paper was taped to the box with his name scrawled
across it. He opened it up and found a bicycle manual and a set of
tools, along with some other supplies. He smiled as he picked up
the box and made his way back to where the bicycles were
stored.

Earlier in the week, he had filled out the
required form indicating he would like to fix up the bikes he’d
seen in the workshop as his hobby. He had received notice that his
hobby was approved, but no one had said anything about getting him
a set of tools or a manual. This was definitely not like the
prisons he had been in before, he mused to himself as he began
rolling out the first bicycle on the rack so he could get a better
look at it.

It was a bit rusty, the tires were flat, and
the chain had been de-railed. It was painted white and green and
had silver fenders over the tires. He found a manual bicycle pump
at the end of the row of bicycles and pumped up the tires. The
tires had the small cracks in the rubber that were telltale signs
of dry rot, but they seemed to be holding air for now. He pressed
down on the tires, slightly impressed that they didn’t pop
outright.

He rummaged around in the box of supplies
and found a can of lubricant spray, which he sprayed on the chain
after he re-mounted it on the gear cogs. He straddled the bicycle
and pushed off tentatively, guarding against a sudden tire blowout.
After coasting a few feet without a mishap, he managed to pedal
down to the end of the aisle. He turned the bike around and rode
back down to the other end. He smiled to himself as he dismounted,
putting down the kick-stand and standing back to admire his
handiwork. He didn’t know why they had the crazy rules they had,
but he was beginning to actually like this place.

 

 

 

[]
Chapter Ten

In the weeks since his first encounter with
Laura, James had continued to be attracted to her. Her fiery
personality reminded him of his mother before she got sick. As they
began the morning run, James ran a respectful distance behind
Laura, making certain not to get too close to what he had begun to
consider as her ‘no trespassing’ zone. He had noticed some days
that she would run faster than others, and today was one of the
faster-paced days. Though he had never been much of a runner, he
was beginning to develop a bit of a taste for it through the daily
repetition of morning exercises.

He kept pace with Laura for the whole mile,
maintaining about a ten yard distance behind her until she
completed the prescribed mile course. He slowed to a walk once the
run was complete and he was headed to his room to change for work,
when suddenly Laura wheeled around and came to within a few feet of
him, glaring at him as she approached.

“Stop following me!” she shouted.

“Whoa, hey, what’s the problem?” James
replied as he put his hands up shoulder-high in a gesture of
surrender.

She shoved a finger in his direction before
saying, “You’ve been shadowing me for weeks and I’m over it!”

“I didn’t know it was bugging you,
o.k.?”

“No, it’s not o.k.!”

Laura stepped closer and James could feel
the low-grade electrical buzz of the device in his neck that began
whenever two of the inmates passed too close to one another in a
restricted zone. He took a step backwards and felt the buzz
subside.

“Hey, watch out, you’re getting too close,”
he warned.

“Too close?! That’s exactly what you are,
too close! I’ll show you what happens when you get too close to
me!”

Without another word, Laura ran directly at
James at full speed. James began running backwards and attempted to
turn around and run, but he wasn’t fast enough. The last thing he
remembered before he blacked out was the searing pain of the most
intense shock of his life.

 

 

James awoke to find himself lying on a
hospital bed, dressed in a hospital gown. He had the most intense
headache he had ever felt and immediately closed his eyes,
grimacing against the pain he felt. About ten painful minutes
later, Tony, the facility EMT, came into the room with a glass of
water and two pills that he held out to James.

“Here, take these. They’re migraine pills.

Bite down on them before you swallow them and they’ll make the pain
stop quicker.”

James took the pills and the water, doing as
he was instructed before handing the empty glass back to the EMT.
Tony offered his hand to James.

“Name’s Tony.”

James shook his hand without saying
anything. Tony continued.

“The edge of the headache will wear off in
about fifteen minutes if you’re like most.” He nodded towards a
chair by the door where a plastic bag was placed. “Your clothes are
in there. You’ll need to wash them. The body loses bladder control
when the shock hits. There are some scrubs underneath the bag you
can wear back to your room to change.”

“What’s going to happen to me?”

“You mean are you going to be shipped out of
here? No worries. Everything is caught on video around here. It was
clear you didn’t start anything and tried to get out of the
situation. You’re good to go.”

“What about Laura?” James whispered, trying
not to agitate his throbbing head any more than necessary.

“Well, that’s another story. The docs will
decide that. She’s obviously one ticked off lady. I give her a
50/50 chance either way. They really don’t want to send anyone home
if they can avoid it. Makes them and the program look bad. I’ll
come back in ten to escort you back to town.”

 

 

Laura had woken up in a hospital bed. The
first thing she’d noticed besides the intense headache was that her
hands and feet were in restraints. A few minutes after she’d woken
up, Tony had come in and offered her two migraine pills, putting
them in her mouth and giving her a drink through a straw. It had
been about thirty minutes since then. She wondered what was going
to happen next. A few minutes later, Sheila, the women’s staff
counselor, came in the room and sat down beside her on the bed.
Laura looked out the window, not wanting to look Sheila in the
face.

“I know I blew it,” Laura said.

“You think?” Sheila responded. She waited
for Laura to continue.

“I just couldn’t stand him hitting on me
like that.”

“So that’s what it was, was it?”

Sheila waited again for Laura to speak.

Laura’s eyes started to tear up, and when she spoke next, there was
a different kind of pain in her voice.

“I miss him. I miss him so much.”

“It’s not James’ fault, you know.”

“I know. But every time I see him, I think
of Paul and how Paul should be here instead of him.”

“So you turned your anger about Paul’s death
onto James.”

“Yeah. I guess I did.”

“Did it help?”

There was a long pause. Tears were slowly
making their way down Laura’s cheeks. She began moving her head
from side to side.

Sheila let out a long sigh before she
continued.

“I’m going to try to keep you here, Laura,
but you have to promise me you won’t do something like this
again.”

Laura turned and looked at Sheila.

“O.k.,” she replied.

Sheila placed a motherly hand on Laura’s
forehead and smoothed the hair to one side that had fallen down
over Laura’s eyes before turning to leave. As she was heading out
the door, Laura spoke.

“Sheila?”

Sheila stopped and turned towards the bed,
“Yes?”

“Thanks for not giving up on me.”

Sheila smiled slightly and nodded at Laura
before turning and walking out the door.

 

[]
Chapter Eleven

James worked steadily in doing his part on
the assembly line, but his mind was somewhere else. His job was
simple enough that he could perform it while thinking on other
things without too much chance of making a mistake. During a break
at the water cooler as he leaned against a wall, away from the
others, J.T. wandered over in his direction.

“What’s on your mind?” J.T. inquired.

James’ eyes were staring off into space and
J.T.‘s question brought his focus back into the room. “Just
thinking about stuff,” he replied.

“Look, if you don’t want to talk, fine by
me, just tell me and I’ll buzz off. But if you want to get
something off of your chest, I can listen,” J.T. continued.

“This whole thing… being here in Utopia…

I’ve had some time to think about my life. The counseling, the
reading, all of it…. I guess I have a different perspective now
than I did when I came here.”

“How’s that?” J.T. responded.

James started shaking his head from side to
side as he continued. “I’ve made a lot of stupid mistakes. I’ve
been doing it all wrong.”

“What exactly do you mean by that?”

“I’ve been living life wrong. When my mom
died, I was angry. I took it out on everybody and I didn’t listen
to the people who tried to help me. I let that anger lead me to a
bad place and did some really stupid things. I took what I wanted
because I thought I deserved it and I had the power to take it. I
never thought about what my actions might be doing to somebody
else… and now I’m here… in prison…. I don’t want to live that
way anymore.”

“Well, James,” J.T. replied, “you don’t have
to. You can learn to live a different way. You know, you and I are
a lot alike. Before I was convicted, I lived in much the same way
you described. I took what didn’t belong to me because I thought I
deserved it and I had the ability to take it. Then I came here. It
took me a few years being here and soaking up the lessons of this
place before I began to get it. But when I did, it wasn’t long
before I came to the same conclusion you just did. Since then, I’ve
been working my program as best I can, and I can tell I’m really
changing on the inside, where it counts. You can change, too,
James.”

The automated voice came over the
speakers.

“Now is the time to return to your
workstation… Now is the time to return to your workstation.”

James went back to work and, for the rest of
the day, he kept thinking about what J.T. had said and about that
twelve step statement he heard in the first group session he’d
attended: [_We admitted we were powerless over our destructive,
compulsive behaviors and that our lives had become
unmanageable._] He wasn’t certain how he could change, but he was
sure of one thing; his life had certainly become unmanageable and
he wanted to do whatever it took to learn to live a better way.

Later that evening at the library, James sat
down at the computer terminal and prepared to take his first book
exam. He had read up on the process in the manual the night before
in his room. After reading whatever book the prisoner chose, he or
she had to complete an online assessment to prove they had actually
read the book. The test was to be comprised of four multiple choice
questions and a short answer question at the end, asking what they
had learned from reading the book. He punched in his user ID and
password as they had been printed in the manual, then punched in
the code on the back of the book he had been reading. The questions
popped up on the screen:

 

[_When Benjamin Franklin was twelve years old,
what profession did he begin:_]

 

[___ Candle-maker_]

___ Printer_

___ Painter_

___ Farmer_

 

James selected ‘Printer’ and moved on to the
next question.

 

[_About the year 1730, Benjamin Franklin
started the first one of these in the American colonies:_]

 

___ Newspaper_

___ Insurance company_

___ Public library_

___ Firearms manufacturer_

 

James was fairly certain it was either
‘newspaper’ or ‘public library’. He was glad this was an open book
test. After spending a few minutes thumbing through the book, he
located the answer. He selected ‘public library’, and continued to
the next question.

 

[_Which of the following are descriptions that
Franklin gave among his list of thirteen virtues:_]

 

[___ “Speak not but what may benefit others or
yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”_]

[___ “Lose no time; be always employ’d in
something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”_]

[___ “Wrong none by doing injuries, or
omitting the benefits that are your duty.”_]

___ All of the above._

 

He thumbed through the book for a few
minutes and eventually found the section where the thirteen virtues
were listed. He found all of the quotations on the same page and
selected ‘all of the above’ from the list of answers.

 

[_Benjamin Franklin started the first one of
these in Philadelphia:_]

 

[___ A fire station named “Union Fire
Company”_]

[___ A restaurant named “The Golden Eagle
Tavern”_]

[___ A hunting club named “Foxglove Hunting
Club”_]

[___ A gambling club named “The Gaming
Diversions Association”_]

 

He selected the fire station and continued
to the last question.

 

[_What have you learned by reading this
book:_]

 

James looked at the last question and sat
back in his chair. After some consideration, he leaned in towards
the monitor and began pecking out his response on the keyboard:

 

[_Benjamin Franklin started life out without
much education. He read a lot, tried to learn as much as he could
that would help him move ahead in life, and didn’t spend much time
getting angry over things other people did to him that were wrong.
He also did a lot of things that helped other people. I would like
to be more like him in the future._]

 

When he was done typing his answer, James
clicked on the “submit answers” icon on the screen. Immediately,
his score flashed in front of him:

 

Congratulations! You scored 100%

 

He smiled to himself. “That wasn’t so bad,”
he thought. He looked up at the clock on the wall. He still had
forty-five minutes left before they were sent back to their rooms
for the night. He picked up the journal that Dr. Thompson had given
to him during their first session together. He flipped to the page
where he had written down the title of the book that Dr. Thompson
had recommended he read next, [+Some Fruits of
Solitude+] by William Penn.

He selected the library catalog program on
the computer and typed in the book title, locating the book
location code and writing it down in his journal. Then he went and
found the book on the shelf. It was another thin book, which made
him wonder what Dr. Thompson was thinking about his reading
abilities.

He pulled the book off of the shelf and
found a good spot to begin reading. It was a bit difficult at first
because some of the words the author used had been spelled
differently back when the book was written. It caused him to read
more slowly than usual. However, it wasn’t long until he read
something that hit him like a ton of bricks. He read it again and
again, letting it soak in to his mind. Then he opened up his
journal and began copying the words down so he could read them
again later:

 

[_We understand little of the works of God,
either in nature or grace. We pursue false knowledge, and mistake
education extreamly. We are violent in our affections, confused and
immethodical in our whole life; making that a burthen, which was
given for a blessing; and so of little comfort to ourselves or
others; misapprehending the true notion of happiness, and so
missing of the right use of life, and way of happy living._]

[_And till we are perswaded to stop, and step
a little aside, out of the noisy crowd and incumbering hurry of the
world, and calmly take a prospect of things, it will be impossible
we should be able to make a right judgement of our selves, or know
our own misery. But after we have made the just reckonings which
retirement will help us to, we shall begin to think the world in
great measure mad, and that we have been in a sort of bedlam all
this while._]

[_Reader, whether young or old, think it not
too soon or too late to turn over the leaves of thy past life. And
be sure to fold down where an passage of it may affect thee; and
bestow thy remainder of time, to correct those faults in thy future
conduct; be it in relation to this or the next life._]

 

– quote from the preface of Some Fruits of Solitude, In Reflections and Maxims [_-
by William Penn, published in 1682_]

 

James must have read the passage about ten
times in all. He began thinking about the conversation with J.T.,
the group sessions, the one-on-one session with Dr. Thompson, and
about where his own thoughts had been leading him recently. He was
beginning to realize that it was all a pattern. It was all guiding
him to a destination.

He thought back in his life and recounted
the direction he had been taking – the wrong direction. He
remembered how even then there had been those in his life who had
tried to direct him along the right path. But he was too busy, too
angry, or too distracted to really understand that he was in
desperate need of the direction that was being offered to him. Now,
here in this place, he was being given a second chance. He wasn’t
sure why they had selected him for this program, but he wasn’t
going to let this opportunity slip by. He decided that whatever it
took, he was going to leave this place a changed man… a man
changed for the better.

[][]
Chapter Twelve

 

As he ascended the New York brownstone’s
steps, Silas McGruder had disturbing thoughts. He thought of what
he was about to do and who he was about to do it for. He thought of
his wife of twenty years and his teenage son. He thought of their
quiet suburban life in New Jersey and their plans to eventually
retire in Florida. He thought of how his gambling had put a strain
on their marriage and put all of those plans in jeopardy.

He paused at the top of the steps as he was
about to press the doorbell. Once he did this, there was no going
back. Once he did this, he would officially be a dirty cop. He
could still turn around and walk away. He could come clean to his
wife and tell her they were about to lose the house because of his
gambling debts, and then get counseling – maybe the marriage would
survive. He couldn’t bear the thought of being without Maggie and
their son. Losing the house and having to start all over again with
a rental while they slowly built up credit to buy, then trying to
fund their retirement plans….

No, not today. He shook his head from side
to side. Not when he could possibly stop the avalanche from
beginning just by finishing what he’d come to do. He was in the
home stretch. After all, it was just information, nothing more.
Just words on a piece of paper and a few pictures. He reached down
and pressed the doorbell quickly before he could think anymore
about it or lost his nerve.

It seemed like an eternity as he waited.

Silas had to fight the urge to turn, jog down the steps, and walk
down the street to escape. Then the intercom speaker came to life
and a husky man’s voice spoke.

“Who is it?”

One thing Silas could do was focus when
required. It’s what made him such a good detective. He was like a
bulldog that way: once he got hold of something he never let go
until he was good and ready. When he heard the voice come over the
intercom, he pushed all the previous thoughts out of his mind. In
that moment, he committed 100% to finishing what he had come here
to do. No more debate. The decision had been made.

“I’m Johnny D. I’m here to see Mr.

Bartonovich,” Silas said with conviction as he introduced himself
with the prearranged code name he had been given.

“One moment please,” the voice responded
flatly. In a few moments, Silas could hear the door being unlocked
and then a stout-looking wall of muscle opened the door. “This
way,” he croaked as he motioned to the staircase, pausing only long
enough to shut and lock the door before lumbering over to the
staircase and leading Silas up the stairs.

The room to which Silas was led was at the
top of the brownstone’s four stories. His guide opened the door to
the study and stood aside for Silas to enter, then closed the door
behind him as he went back down the stairs. The room was large and
had little furniture in it. There was a bar at one end of the room.
At the end of the bar stood a strikingly beautiful woman of Asian
descent with shoulder length black hair. She was tall for an Asian,
Silas thought to himself, probably about five-foot-seven. She was
dressed in closely fitted all-black clothing that a woman who
wanted to show off her figure might wear, only she looked classy
rather than catty. Judging from her eyes and something about her
demeanor, he put her age somewhere between forty and forty-five,
although many people who didn’t pay attention to details the way a
cop did would have guessed about fifteen years younger than that.
She watched him like a snake with a gaze that made a slight chill
run down his spine as he walked across the oriental rug to the man
he had come to see.

The massive oak desk had four huge carved
wooden legs supporting it. The two front-facing legs had large
lions’ heads carved into them at the top, with their fangs bared.
The lack of side panels on the desk gave it a cleanly efficient
look. On top of the desk was a laptop computer off to one side and
a bottle of water on a coaster. Directly in front of the desk and
facing it were two burgundy leather wing-back chairs.

Silas didn’t bother sitting down in either
of the chairs. He wanted to get in and get out. From the
temperature in the room, he guessed Mr. Bartonovich was not going
to ask him to have a long chat either. His host was turned to the
side in a leather swivel chair and talking on a wireless headset.
Silas caught the tail-end of the conversation as he waited for his
presence to be acknowledged. He was somewhat surprised by the
crisp, upper-crust slightly British sounding accent he was hearing,
which belied Mr. Bartonovich’s East European ancestry. His previous
dealings with Mr. Bartonovich had been brokered by someone else and
this was the first time he had seen or heard from his employer
directly.

“…and I don’t really care what your excuse
is Myron. You defaulted on the loan and now it’s time to pay the
piper. I’m sending my man over to pick it up. And don’t try to hide
it because I know where you live.”

Nick Bartonovich hit the disconnect button
on the cell phone he had been holding in his hand and turned to
face Silas without breaking stride.

“What do you have for me?”

Silas pushed the USB drive across the desk
towards his employer. Nick picked it up, plugged it in to his
laptop, and began opening files and scanning through the
contents.

“Sit,” Nick said without any preamble. Silas
cringed inside as he sat down in one of the chairs, his hopes of a
hasty exit evaporating in the process. Nick spent about ten minutes
reviewing the documents and photos on the USB drive before turning
to address Silas again. “You are sure the information about
accessing the funds in the Cayman Islands is accurate?”

“That copy of the contract came directly
from one of the bank’s vice-presidents. I flew down there myself
and picked it up straight from him in his office at the bank. If
it’s a fake, it came straight from the top.”

Nick smiled slightly, with his mouth but not
his eyes, while he continued to look directly at Silas. He seemed
to be considering something, and it was several seconds before he
spoke again.

“You’ve done well. Consider your debt
canceled. I presume the money I gave you for the expenses covered
everything else?”

“Yes, it did,” replied Silas.

“Good. Have a nice day, Detective.”

Silas nodded his head without saying
anything, stood up, and walked out of the room. The Asian woman
followed him to the staircase and watched him exit through the
front door before returning to the office and closing the door. She
crossed the room quietly and sat down in one of the wing-back
chairs without saying anything, waiting for Nick to speak.

“Mia, is everything in place for the
extraction?”

“Yes, all we need is the green-light from
you and it is a go,” she replied.

“Do it. Meet me at the airport in two hours.

We’re taking the jet to the Cayman Islands so we can prepare for
our guests.”

Mia rose silently from her chair and exited
the room without another word. Nick leaned back in his own chair
and contemplated the events that were about to unfold. He had
waited ten years for this day to come, and now that it was here he
was going to savor it like a fine wine. He smiled and relished the
thought that his old friend and business partner J.T. Thornbacker
had no idea what was about to happen to him.

 

[]
Chapter Thirteen

Laura walked into the diner for breakfast
and she could feel the tension in the room. It was her first foray
back into the general population since the incident two days
before. She knew everyone must be thinking about what she had done
to James and wondering whether or not she was going to freak out
again and attack one of them. She walked to the breakfast bar and
began serving herself breakfast, trying to act as if nothing had
changed.

James was already seated at the far end of
the diner and saw Laura come in. He decided to try and act as
normal as possible, considering what had happened the last time
they had spoken. His plan was to eat and get out the door without
speaking to her at all. Better to not do anything that might
trigger another outburst, he thought to himself. Even though the
implant devices wouldn’t shock anyone while they were in the diner,
there were still forks and table knives available, and he didn’t
want to take any chances.

He tried to keep his focus on his own plate,
but out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Laura was walking
towards him with her plate and a glass of orange juice. “Great,” he
thought to himself, “now I’m going to have orange juice and
breakfast food all over me.” Laura stopped about three feet from
his table, too close for comfort.

“James, I have something to say to you,” she
said.

James looked up from his plate timidly.

“O.k.,” he replied.

“Look, I know I was out of line the other
day. I wanted to say I’m sorry and to let you know that it won’t
happen again.”

“O.k., thanks,” James replied, not certain
how to respond.

Laura turned away from him and went to a
booth farther towards the door, where she sat down and began
eating. James realized he had been holding his breath and exhaled.
The tension in the room dropped several notches and everyone
continued eating their breakfasts.

 

 

The next day, right before the group began
their one-mile run, Laura walked by James and said
matter-of-factly, “You can run with me if you want.” Then she
started jogging down the running course. James wasn’t sure whether
it was a good idea to follow her or not, but curiosity got the
better of him and he started off after her. He came up on her right
side, a respectful distance away just to be on the safe side, and
kept pace with her for about a minute, not saying anything.

“I was angry, you know,” she said. “Paul
dying the way he did…. It felt like… well, I was really angry about
it and I took it out on you, but it wasn’t your fault.”

James remained silent, giving her space, not
sure what to say.

“I just wanted you to know that we could be
friends. After all, we’re going to be stuck in here for a long
time,” she said, saying the last sentence somewhat
sarcastically.

“Laura, I’m sorry about Paul. I want you to
know that.”

“Thanks.”

They ran for another minute in silence.

James saw the end of the course coming up and they both began
slowing down as they neared it.

“I would like very much for us to be
friends, Laura,” James said.

Laura smiled slightly as she turned towards
her room and went to get ready for the workday.

 

As nighttime fell and darkness descended on
the town of Utopia, three all-black ATVs silently approached the
town’s perimeter. They each sported a state-of-the-art electric
motor that made them virtually silent except for the sound the
wheels made as they rolled over the terrain – sounds not audible
over the song of the desert Cicada, which sounded like a symphony
after dark. Each ATV was manned by two commandos, dressed in
all-black and armed for the occasion.

The trio of ATVs stopped just outside of the
town and two of the commandos dismounted. One moved silently to the
back of the building where the night watchman kept tabs on all of
the town’s extensive video monitoring feeds. Selecting one of the
electrical wires, he took out a pair of wire cutters and cut it in
half. The other commando had positioned himself near the front
door. As soon as the power went out, he unlocked the door with a
skeleton key and entered the building.

Inside the control room, the monitors and
lights went dark and the emergency lights kicked on in the hallway.
The night watchman cursed, got up, turned on his flashlight, and
began making his way down the hall to the circuit-breaker box. As
he rounded the corner, he felt a stinging in his chest. He grabbed
at the area where the tranquilizer had penetrated his uniform
reflexively, moments before the dart’s payload took effect. The
commando at the other end of the hallway lowered the blowgun from
his lips. The watchman slumped into the wall and slid down to the
floor, his flashlight rolling down the hall noisily. The commando
silently crossed the hall, turned off the flashlight, and headed
out of the building to re-group with his team.

 

 

James was dreaming of his mother. In the
dream, he was a young boy, and he and his mother were rowing out
into the ocean in a small rowboat. She had brought the fishing
poles and they had begun fishing. Suddenly, James had a bite. He
jerked the line to set the hook and began trying to reel the catch
in. As he reeled, he saw a fin break the top of the water. He had
hooked a shark, and it looked like a big one.

“Mom, cut the line and let’s get out of
here,” he said.

His mother looked at him and smiled,
seemingly oblivious to the shark that was fast approaching.

“Good boy, James, you’ve got something. Reel
it on in, honey,” she said, smiling.

“Mom, I’ve hooked a big shark and he’s
headed right for us! I’m scared! Let’s cut the line and get out of
here!”

Just as he finished his sentence, the big
shark rammed the boat and his mother fell out, into the water. She
surfaced quickly and began to laugh as if nothing was wrong.

“Mom! Give me your hand!”

James stretched his hand over the side of
the boat towards his mother, but he couldn’t quite reach her. She
was close enough to reach him, but she just smiled and looked at
him as she continued to tread water. Suddenly, his mother jerked to
the side and a cloud of blood began to rise around her, but still
she continued smiling.

“Mom!” James cried as he grabbed the oars,
trying to re-position the boat closer to his mother so he could
pull her to safety.

“It’s o.k., son,” she said. “I’m o.k.”

The door to James’ room burst open and two
darkly clad figures with headlamps shining blindingly into his face
came rushing through the door. James sat bolt upright in bed,
awoken from his nightmare by their theatrical entrance. He raised
an arm to shield his eyes from the light. He heard the crisp report
of two tranquilizer darts leaving the chamber of the dart gun,
feeling the sting as they embedded themselves in his upper torso.
The last thing he felt was someone sliding something around his
neck before he was swallowed by the darkness.

 

[]
Chapter Fourteen

When James finally began to wake up, he
could feel the floor moving under him. At first he thought it was
the after-effects of whatever he had been drugged with, but the
smell of the salt air and rhythmic movement of the floor made him
realize he was probably on some sort of boat. His mouth had been
taped shut with duct tape, his hands were bound behind him with
plastic restraints, and his feet were likewise bound.

He re-positioned himself, pushing himself up
on one elbow and then into a seated position. It was then that he
saw the armed guard dressed in black, staring at him from across
the room, and the two other bodies lying on the floor near where he
was positioned. At first he could only see their backs, but as they
too began to wake up, and move around a bit, he realized with
astonishment that J.T. and Laura were his fellow captives.

Laura’s eyes grew wide with fear as she
began to look around, but as she saw James and J.T., her panicked
look gave way to confused bewilderment. J.T. came around a few
minutes later. His look betrayed neither fear nor confusion, and
James wondered what thoughts might be running through his mind at
this very moment.

After all three were fully awake, the guard
spoke into a two-way radio.

“Leader 1, they are awake.”

He said nothing else, but continued to look
back and forth between the three of them as if trying to determine
exactly how coherent each of them was. A few minutes later, another
man dressed in black came through the door. He was big and burly,
with a shaved head that was beginning to show signs of hair growth
stubble where his sparsely spaced hair was beginning to grow. His
three-day beard growth offset the unlit cigar now protruding from
his mouth.

He knelt down beside Laura first, and with a
huge thumb, he attempted to push her eyelid upwards to get a better
view of her eye. Laura shook and pulled away, glaring at him with
daggers. The big man abruptly grabbed a fist-full of her hair and
held her still, repeating the maneuver with this thumb as he
spoke.

“Be still, you little tramp. I’m just trying
to see how dilated your eyes are.”

James could tell Laura was seething, but she
didn’t try to pull away again, not that it would have done much
good if she had. He then removed what appeared to be a neck-brace
from Laura’s neck similar to the one he was wearing. The big man
repeated the procedure on J.T. and James. Once this was done, he
appeared to be satisfied and stood up again, addressing them
all.

“I can see you are all awake and none the
worse for wear. I’m sure you have a lot of questions, which I will
likely not be willing to answer, so I’ll keep it simple and tell
you what you need to know. You will not be harmed as long as you
cooperate. There’s no use trying to escape since we are in the
middle of the ocean and there is nowhere to go. I’m going to have
my man here remove the duct tape from your mouths, and as long as
you don’t start screaming, I’ll leave it off. We’ll be at our
destination in about four hours.”

He looked at the guard and gave him a quick
nod before exiting the room as abruptly as he had arrived. The
guard came by each of them and removed the duct tape without much
tenderness or apparent concern that gentleness in that procedure
was desirable. As soon as Laura’s tape was off, she began peppering
the guard with questions.

“Where are we?” No answer. “Where are we
being taken?” No answer. “What are you going to do with us?!” No
answer.

Before she could ask question number four,
the guard paused, picked up some earbuds that had been draped
around his neck, and plugged them into his ears, smiling as he did
so. He could not hear the obvious curses Laura was hurling in his
direction, but he could tell by her reddened face that they were
not very polite, and he chuckled out loud. Laura, seeing her
attempts to gain information were futile, let out an audible sigh
and slumped back against the hull of the ship.

Meanwhile, the guard produced three water
bottles with straws and proceeded to go between each of them,
letting them drink as much as they wanted before moving on to the
next person. Having accomplished this task, he resumed his original
position in the corner, continuing to listen to whatever music was
playing through his earbuds. Seeing they were now apparently free
to talk, James spoke up.

“Is everyone o.k.?”

“I’m just peachy,” Laura replied with
obvious sarcasm.

“What about you, J.T.?” James continued.

“I feel like I’ve been rode hard and put up
wet, but besides that, I think I’ll be o.k.”

J.T. repositioned himself, stretching a bit
and grimacing slightly at the soreness he felt from his poorly
positioned night’s repose on the floor of the ship.

“Does anyone have any idea what is going
on?” Laura asked.

“Well,” J.T. replied, “I’d be willing to bet
that when we arrive at our destination, we’re going to find one of
my former business associates on the other end.”

James and Laura both looked at J.T. in
surprise.

“Why do you say that?” James asked.

“Back in my robber-baron days, I stole a
great deal of money. Not all of it was recovered. My guess is, one
of my former business partners thinks I still have some of it
squirreled away somewhere.”

“Do you?” Laura queried.

J.T. turned and looked at her straight in
the eyes. “No, I do not. But he doesn’t know that.”

“Oh, crap,” James responded.

“‘Oh crap,’ is right!” Laura chimed in. “You
know exactly what’s going to happen to us if this guy doesn’t get
what he wants. We’ll all be fish food! What are we going to
do?!”

“Now just calm down a minute,” said J.T. “We
don’t know for sure it’s who I think it is or that he (or they)
want what I think they want. But if I’m right, you two better leave
the talkin’ to me when we get where we’re going.”

 

[]
Chapter Fifteen

Silas came into the police precinct carrying
the coffee that he had made at home just like he did every morning
since he’d become a detective. He plodded up to his office and sat
down at his computer to begin reading his email and reading over
the news before the business of the day had him going in a hundred
different directions.

When he saw one of the news headlines, he
felt a knot form in his stomach. The tag line read, [_‘Notorious
corporate embezzler J.T. Thornbacker and two others escape from
Nevada prison’_]. He clicked on the link to read the whole story,
but it was just a short blurb from one of the newswire services. He
focused intently on the few lines and read them over and over
again, trying to absorb any hint of additional details that might
give him some relief from the weight of dread he felt pressing down
upon him, but found none.

 

[_Three inmates escaped yesterday from the
Nevada prison system. Two men and one woman believed to be
traveling together have been identified as J.T. Thornbacker, James
Marlowe, and Laura Bristo. Prison officials offered few additional
details on the breakout, stating only that the three should be
considered armed and dangerous. Officials have requested that
individuals having information on the whereabouts of these convicts
contact the FBI._]

 

Silas slumped back in his chair, his mind
racing. The day before, he had turned over information to Nick
Bartonovich on the banking operations of a non-profit corporation
based in the Cayman Islands named the Porfiry Group. The group was
very secretive and only the law firm of Handle and McQueen was
mentioned in most of the documents. He wasn’t hired to read the
legal documentation, just to track down where the money was coming
from that Handle and McQueen had been funneling out to various
individuals for the past two years. But he didn’t feel good about
the job, and so he had read through the bank documents to see if
anything set off a red flag. Nothing did. It all seemed like
legalese to him. But he had managed to find one person’s name
buried towards the end of the document: J.T. Thornbacker.

He clicked on the links at the end of the
article to the FBI website where images of the three escaped
convicts were posted. He studied them closely for a few minutes,
then printed them out. He grabbed the printouts off of the color
laser printer and headed back out the door he had just come in
through a few minutes before.

Thirty minutes later, Silas was marching up
the steps of Nick Bartonovich’s brownstone. He knocked on the door
and waited, but the speaker remained silent. He leaned over the
side rail and looked into the windows. Fortunately for him, the
drapes were not drawn. He saw no one milling about or lounging at
the dining room table that was viewable from his perch. He went
down and behind the stairs to the ground level entrance, peering
through the windows to make certain no one was there, and then he
put on a pair of rubber gloves before picking the lock.

He opened the door and quickly confirmed
that it was wired to an alarm system by locating the tell-tale
contact strip attached to the top of the door. After locking the
door behind him, he took out his cell phone and dialed the precinct
dispatch officer.

“Yeah, this is Silas. I just witnessed a
break in on 3rd street, house number 1900. No, it’s just some kid,
probably looking to watch porn on the television while the owner’s
at work. Anyway, no need to send a patrol by. I’ll take it and run
him in. Yeah, you too. Bye.”

Silas cautiously made his way up to the
office on the top floor, just in case his earlier assessment proved
wrong and there was anyone in the house. Once he entered the
office, he crossed to the desk and sat down in the leather chair
that Nick had been sitting in hours before. It was just as
comfortable as it looked, he thought to himself as he opened the
desk’s one drawer and began going through its contents.

He lamented to himself that more and more
people were keeping the information he needed as a detective on
their electronic devices. It made it more difficult for an
old-school detective like him to quickly find what he needed,
particularly with someone as careful as Nick Bartonovich. He had
apparently taken his laptop with him, so even if Silas had
possessed the technical skills required to access the computer’s
data, they wouldn’t have done him much good at the moment.

There were few items in the desk drawer. A
herringbone letter opener, some writing pens, a pad of post-it
notes, a few paperclips, and some other odds and ends. A small,
black leather business card holder caught his eye. He opened it up
and found several business cards for Nick Bartonovich, President of
CES Enterprises. Nick’s picture appeared in the corner. “Thank you,
Mr. Bartonovich,” Silas thought to himself.

Silas took out one of the cards and replaced
the holder in the desk drawer. He put the card on the desk and took
out his phone, taking a picture of the card and then a close-up of
the photograph in the corner. He put the card in his pocket and
then dialed a number. After three rings, a man picked up on the
other end. He was greeted with a hearty, “Hello?” in a thick island
accent typical of the Cayman’s.

“Marty, it’s Silas,” he began.

“Oh! Silaaaas! It is good to hear from you,
my friend. What can I help you wit today?”

Silas could picture the tall islander with
his colorful shirt and sandals. He had been very helpful tracking
down the information Silas needed to get for Mr. Bartonovich
before. He hoped he would be as helpful this time.

“I’m going to send you some pictures. I want
you to go to the same bank as before and call me as soon as you see
any of these people anywhere near the bank. Can you do that?”

“Ya mon, I can do it,” came the reply. “You
got sometin’ for me now?”

“Yeah, same rate as before.”

“O.k. mon, I am on it.”

With that, Silas hung up the phone. He took
out the three pictures he had printed off before and took pictures
of each of them with his phone, sending them to Marty along with
the photo of Nick Bartonovich. He couldn’t risk sending them from
his work computer, so this would have to do for now. He completed
his search of the office without finding anything else of value,
and left the brownstone the same way he had come in, making certain
to lock the door on the way out.

Next, he called Darby Jones of the
white-collar crimes division.

“Detective Jones,” he answered.

“Hey Darby, I need to locate a plane.”

“Hello to you, too, Silas. Who does it
belong to?”

“Belongs to a guy named Nick Bartonovich. It
may be registered under a company by the name of CES
Enterprises.”

“Hmmm… let me check.”

Silas could hear Darby typing feverishly on
a keyboard in the background. About a minute or so passed before
Darby spoke next.

“Yeah, looks like he has a plane out at
Newark International.”

“Any chance you could tell me where that
plane might be at the moment? He may have left town yesterday
afternoon and I need to know where he’s going.”

More typing could be heard in the
background.

“Well, I checked the public flight plan
database and it’s not there. Looks like he had his plane put on the
BARR list, which means his flight plans won’t be publicly
accessible in this database. But I have a buddy who’s been working
on a program to pull the audio between the planes and the air
traffic control towers. They run it through this program which
translates the audio file data into text, saves it to a database,
and posts it to this website he set up. You wouldn’t believe it –
there’s this whole sub-culture that records this stuff for all the
major airports and they share it online. He just downloads it
and…”

“Darby,” Silas interrupted. “I just need to
know where the plane was headed.”

“Yeah, o.k., just a minute,” Darby replied,
slightly disappointed that he hadn’t been able to finish his
monologue on the technical aspects of the process.

“O.k., yeah, it looks like he was headed for
the Cayman Islands, Grand Cayman to be exact.”

“Thanks a million, Darby, I owe you.”

“No problem, that’s why we’re here, to serve
and protect,” Darby replied.

“Seriously, next time I see you at the bar,
drinks are on me.”

Silas disconnected the call. Everything was
falling into place. Whatever the end-game was, it was going to
happen soon and in the Cayman Islands. He was willing to bet his
pension that it would be at the bank he had been researching and
that J.T. Thornbacker was involved. He reviewed in his mind what he
knew so far:

 

#

There was a bank account in the
Cayman Islands with a large sum of money in it.

#

According to the documents he had
obtained for Nick Bartonovich, only J.T. Thornbacker could withdraw
or otherwise transfer funds from that account if the amount was
more than twenty thousand dollars in a month.

#

J.T. Thornbacker had escaped from
prison.

#

Nick Bartonovich’s private jet had
left from Newark International Airport bound for the Cayman Islands
the night before.

 

Silas had a decision to make. He had used
his position and resources as a police officer to perform work for
Bartonovich, which was illegal. By doing that illegal work, he had
likely (albeit unwittingly) contributed to the escape from prison
of one J.T. Thornbacker. If he didn’t do something to stop this
train wreck, then he was likely helping a convicted felon withdraw
enough money from a foreign bank to disappear forever. That was
aiding and abetting a known criminal, which could get him jail time
in addition to getting him fired.

The knot in his stomach, which had
disappeared with all the activity of the past few hours, was
returning with a vengeance. He couldn’t tip off the FBI, even
anonymously, without risking his own role being discovered. Should
he do nothing and hope J.T. Thornbacker and Nick Bartonovich got
away with it, and his role was never revealed? Should he intervene
and try to bring J.T. Thornbacker back to prison, developing a
cover story that would obscure his own involvement in the affair?
He cursed under his breath as he considered his options – none of
which were appealing. He had the distinct feeling that this was not
going to end well for one Silas McGruder.

 

[]
Chapter Sixteen

The leader of the commandos came in through
the cabin door. The guard, who had been listening to his music, got
up out of the chair he had been sitting in and pulled one earplug
out so that he could hear any instructions that might be given.

“Listen up,” said the man as he looked at
his three captives. James, Laura, and J.T. all stared in his
direction, each wondering what was going to happen next.

“We’re going to move you to the top deck,
where you will be transferred to a smaller boat and moved to
another location. We’re going to cut your foot restraints off so
you can move about. Don’t get any ideas about jumping ship and
swimming anywhere. We’re in the middle of the ocean and there’s
nowhere for you to go. If you do decide to try anything, you’ll get
a nasty shock from one of these.” He pulled a Taser from a side
holster that was strapped to his leg, adding emphasis to his
threat. “This little beauty will light you up with 50,000 volts of
electricity, after which you will still be going where I want you
to go. So don’t try anything.”

After the leader’s speech was concluded,
both he and the guard came around and cut the foot restraints of
all three unwilling passengers. They were led out of the cabin and
up on deck, where they were greeted with a bright, sunny day,
crystal blue water, and not a speck of land for as far as the eye
could see in any direction.

James squinted at a small dot off in the
distance and thought he could just make out another boat. The two
commandos who had brought them up to the top deck helped them down
into two awaiting inflatable boats. James and Laura were offloaded
into one, where there were two other commandos waiting. J.T. was
placed in the remaining boat, which the lead commando entered,
along with their guard.

As the two boats sped away from the larger
craft, they headed in the direction of the boat that James had
thought he spotted when they had first come on deck. In a few
minutes, they were approaching a one hundred foot long yacht. The
first inflatable boat pulled up alongside of the boarding ladder
and one of the commandos climbed up, then turned around to help
bring J.T. aboard. Once the first inflatable was secured, the boat
that James and Laura were in similarly unloaded their
occupants.

After everyone was on deck, James, Laura,
and J.T. were led to a seating area at the back of the boat where a
table had been set with a lavish lunch. James’ stomach rumbled as
he was reminded that they hadn’t eaten anything since being
abducted the day before. The lead commando headed off into the
interior of the boat, while the remaining three commandos
positioned themselves around the deck and watched the three
prisoners.

Moments later, Nick Bartonovich came through
the sliding glass door leading on to the back of the boat, followed
by Mia and the lead commando. Nick smiled devilishly as he saw
J.T.

“Well, hello, J.T., it’s been quite a long
time.”

“Hello Nick,” J.T. responded flatly. Turning
to Mia, he added, “Hello Mia.”

Mia nodded, with a slight smile. Nick turned
to address the lead commando.

“Let’s not leave our guests tied up; they
won’t be able to eat.”

He crossed the deck and sat down at the head
of the table along with Mia. The guards cut the hand restraints and
they all began massaging their hands where the restraints had been
hampering their circulation. Nick motioned to the table.

“Please, come sit down and enjoy some lunch.

We have much to discuss.”

Each of them took a seat. As Mia and their
host began to eat, both Laura and James began serving their own
plates, while J.T. looked warily at Nick.

“What do you want with us, Nick?” J.T.

asked.

“In due time, my friend. Why don’t you try
some of this shark? It’s delicious and fresh. I just caught it this
morning.” He motioned towards a plate in the middle of the table
with his fork as he took another bite.

J.T. could tell Nick was enjoying himself
and thought that there was no reason to deprive himself,
considering the situation, so he began serving his own plate.

“I’ve thought about you often these past
several years, J.T. Languishing in that prison all by your
lonesome. I have to say, I appreciate that you didn’t give me up to
the prosecutor during the trial in exchange for a deal.”

James and Laura eyed each other.

“But what I didn’t exactly appreciate,” Nick
continued, “was that you took eighty percent of our hard-earned
profits and stashed them away somewhere.”

Nick watched J.T. closely for a reaction. He
leaned forward, keeping his gaze fixed on J.T. as he spoke the next
sentence. “I want it back, J.T.” He broke his gaze and focused back
on his plate, cutting another bite of shark and eating it.

“I don’t have it,” J.T. replied. “I had to
give the feds something or they would never let me out of prison. I
turned it over to them in exchange for a deal.”

“J.T.,” Nick feigned an offended expression
as he spoke, “I’m hurt. After we spent so many years building up
that little nest egg and leading others astray in the process, do
you really think you can lie to me and I won’t know it?” He took a
sip of wine and sat back in his chair.

“Look around, J.T. Can you hazard a guess as
to where we are?”

J.T. continued to look at Nick.

“I know you can’t see land from here, but
the climate and the color of the ocean should give you a clue,”
Nick said mockingly. “We’re anchored just off the Cayman Islands,
my friend.”

J.T. sighed heavily and sat back in his
chair. Nick looked over at James and Laura before continuing.

“You see, James and Laura,” Nick continued,
“Ole J.T. here thought I wouldn’t find the eighty million dollars
he hid in a bank in the Cayman Islands. He hid it very well. It has
taken me years to track it down. In fact, he may have gotten away
with it altogether if he hadn’t gotten all soft-hearted.
Apparently, J.T. here started feeling guilty about how we
accumulated all of that money, and decided to give some of it back.
About two years ago, he had his lawyer visit him in prison and
start up a sort of social security for all of the people who lost
their jobs or their pensions because of what we had done.”

“Now, I had been watching very closely and
had just about given up on getting any of that money back until the
money started flowing out of the lawyer’s office to all of those
poor creatures. Once that started, all I had to do was follow the
money trail back here, and voilà!”

Nick paused and turned to stare at J.T.,
watching delightedly as the reality of the situation sank in for
him.

“By the way,” Nick continued. “If you are
counting on being rescued, don’t. Those neck braces effectively
blocked the transmission from the tracking devices they implanted
in you. Now they are so far out of range that they are virtually
untrackable.”

“O.k., so what’s the plan, Nick?” J.T.

finally responded. “You want me to waltz right in to the bank and
take out the money, or else you are going to hurt these two people
who had nothing to do with it? Is that it? You really think I’m
stupid enough to believe you aren’t going to kill all three of us
once you get what you want?”

“I’m not planning on killing anyone, J.T.

That’s really not my style,” Nick replied.

“Really?” replied J.T. “Tell that to Jacob
Styles’ widow.”

“Now, that was an unfortunate accident, J.T.

As I recall, he died from a massive heart attack – not my
doing.”

“Yeah, while he was in the hospital from
injuries he sustained at your direction!” J.T. said accusingly.

“Come now, J.T. You remember the situation.

He was the last vote we needed on the board to sell us the Jenkins
auto-supply factory. We nearly lost the deal when he died. If I
hadn’t been able to bribe his replacement, the whole thing would
have collapsed. Besides, if we had known he had a weak heart, I
would have asked Mia to go easy on him.”

Laura looked at Mia with surprise. Mia
returned a cold stare that sent shivers down her spine.

“Look, I don’t want us to get off on the
wrong foot. You should be thanking me. I rescued you from that
desert prison you were in and I’m offering you a chance to be free
when this is all over. If everyone does what they are supposed to
do, I’ll let you keep ten million and let these two have a million
each for their trouble. Then we can all go our separate ways. Think
about it.”

Nick stood up from the table. “Mia will show
you to your accommodations.”

With that, he turned and went back inside
the yacht.

 

[]
Chapter Seventeen

Mia led the way back inside the yacht and
below the first deck. Two of the commandos followed behind James,
Laura, and J.T. to ensure they went where they were told to go.
They were deposited in a cabin at the bow of the yacht. It was a
small room with two bunk beds on either side of the entrance, a
small table in the middle, a closet off to one side of the door,
and a bathroom/shower on the opposite side. Once they were inside,
Mia closed the door and Laura heard the clicking sound of the lock
as it slid into place. She sat down on one of the seats at the far
side of the room and leaned her head back on the cushion.

“What just happened?” she wondered
aloud.

“I think you and I were just offered a
million dollars apiece to help take some money out of a bank,”
James responded, somewhat bewildered.

Laura lifted up her head and looked at
J.T.

“What is going on, J.T.? You said you didn’t
have any of the money this guy was after.”

J.T. sat down at the table and looked over
at James and Laura.

“I know. I had hoped to keep that hidden
from these guys in case they were listening in on our conversation
back on the other boat, but Nick already figured that out.”

“So just who is this guy?” James asked.

“His name is Nick Bartonovich. He and I met
in college when he was running bets for the college sports games.
We hit it off and started working together once we were out of
college. We raised money to take over vulnerable companies, then
sell off assets and unprofitable business units. We would create
shell companies – companies that only existed on paper – to hide
the losses from some of the legitimate businesses, which we would
then sell for far more than they were worth. The new owners would
think they were buying a solvent business, only to find out that
what they’d actually bought was a bankrupt company. The people
working for these companies would then lose their jobs when the new
owners had to liquidate the company assets to pay off their
creditors. Often, the retirement plans the company had invested in
relied heavily on the same company’s stock, so most of the people
who lost their jobs also lost their retirement money.”

“One of the lawyers we used to help set up
the shell companies was arrested for having sex with a minor and
decided to spill the beans on our operation in return for leniency
from the judge. The lawyer didn’t know Nick, but I’d had a meeting
with him once and he knew I was in on the scheme, so he gave the
prosecutor my name. The prosecutor had a field day, and I was
convicted and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, but before
I left, I created my own insurance policy. Nick and I had this
offshore account where we had kept the operating funds that we used
to conduct all of our under-the-table deals. We had a hundred
million in it. Right before I went to prison, I had eighty million
dollars of that moved to a bank here in the Cayman Islands, and
left twenty million for Nick. I hoped he would be satisfied with
that and leave the rest alone, considering I’m the one who went to
prison.”

“O.k.,” Laura finally responded, “but that
doesn’t explain why James and I are here. He only needs you for
this deal to work. Why bring us, too?”

“Leverage,” J.T. responded. “If I don’t go
along with it, you two get squeezed.”

“You mean tortured… or worse,” James
replied.

“But why us?” Laura persisted.

“He needed someone close to me – that’s why
you’re here Laura. I don’t have any family left alive, so people
close to me in the program are the closest thing I’ve got to
family. As to why James was picked, I don’t know. He’s new in the
program, so it doesn’t make sense to me from that perspective. But
one thing I’ve learned over the years is that Nick has a reason for
everything he does. I’m sure he will use James as leverage, I’m
just not sure how he plans to do it yet.”

That night, the three companions went to
sleep in paradise, wondering what their fate would be at the hands
of their new jailer.

 

 

The next morning, one of the guards came to
unlock the door and led everyone up to the dining room, where a
sumptuous breakfast was served. Nick was reading the news on a
tablet computer while he finished his breakfast, which consisted of
a bagel, a poached egg, and a glass of freshly squeezed orange
juice.

“Have a seat and enjoy some breakfast,” he
said as they entered the room. After everyone was seated, he
continued. “It seems you have made front-page news in the [_Nevada
Free Press_], and even received a mention on the nightly news,
J.T. You are a wanted man.”

“Did you think breaking me out of prison was
going to go un-noticed?” replied J.T.

“No, not at all, but you should consider the
situation you are in. No one knows that I kidnapped you against
your will. For all they know, you three planned the whole thing
together. Do you really think that anyone will believe the
truth?”

“What’s your point?” James chimed in.

“The point is that, should you choose not to
cooperate with me, all I have to do is drop you off anywhere in
United States jurisdiction and make a call to the FBI for you three
to be sent back to prison with a long extension to your current
prison sentences. Sentences not likely to be served in the same
cushy circumstances that I found you in, I might add.”

James’ appetite was suddenly much smaller.

The thought of spending even longer than his current sentence in a
regular prison was something he didn’t think he could face. He
would rather die. He stared at his plate, unwilling to take the
next bite of food, temporarily frozen in contemplation of the
possibility of going back to a regular prison.

“What exactly do you want each of us to do?”
asked Laura.

“Well, that’s the easy part,” Nick
proceeded. “All you and James need to do is behave yourselves and
enjoy a two-week vacation here on the yacht. You can eat great
food, entertain yourselves in the library – fishing, swimming,
sun-bathing, whatever you like, so long as you follow a few simple
rules.”

“J.T. will have the slightly more demanding
task of accompanying me to the bank every day to withdraw the
money. You see, he had a provision put in when he set up the bank
account that he could not withdraw more than one tenth of the cash
balance from the account on a given day unless the account was
going to be closed out. In that case, the balance could only be
withdrawn in ten equal amounts over a ten day period. Evidently, he
anticipated that such a day as this might eventually come.” Nick
looked directly at J.T. as he spoke the last sentence.

“And it’s a good thing I did, too,” J.T.

replied.

“Mia,” Nick said without taking his gaze off
of J.T. “Please give J.T. a change of clothes. He will be
accompanying me to the bank shortly.” Addressing J.T., he
continued. “We leave in an hour; don’t be late.” With that, he
returned to reading the news on his tablet computer and finishing
his breakfast.

A few minutes later, Mia arrived with a
tailored suit on a hanger. “I have your suit, J.T.,” she said.
“Time to get dressed.” J.T. stood up from the table and began
walking back to the cabin they were assigned to stay in. When he
reached the door, he turned to take the suit from Mia, but she held
on to it when he tried to take it from her grasp. “Nick wants you
to shave your beard off, so you’ll look more business-like.”

“Do I have a choice?” J.T. retorted.

Mia raised one eyebrow to let him know that
he did not.

“Do you really think this is going to work,
Mia?” J.T. asked.

“Yes,” Mia replied with a determined look
that J.T. knew well. “I intend to see that it does.”

 

 

J.T. looked at himself in the mirror as he
shaved off the last remnants of his beard. He was racking his
brain, trying to decide how to get out of this situation without
getting himself, or James and Laura, hurt. The one thing he had on
his side was time. If he kept calm and looked for an opportunity to
get a message out, he might be able to pull it off. He might be
able to get Nick’s tablet for a few minutes and send an email to
alert his lawyers and have them contact the FBI.

He bolstered himself with that thought as he
dressed in the suit Mia had brought for him. It felt nice. He
hadn’t been in a suit since his last appearance at trial seven
years before. This was a nice Italian suit with Gucci leather
shoes. He wondered where they had picked it up and how they had
gotten his size right.

When he opened the door of the cabin, he
encountered one of the guards, who motioned for him to go in front
of him. Up on deck, Nick was waiting, similarly dressed.

“Shall we?” he said as he motioned to the
awaiting fifty foot cigarette boat docked at the back of the
yacht.

J.T. got into the boat along with Nick and
two of the commandos, who were suitably attired for the occasion.
One of the commandos took the controls and began to pull the boat
away from the yacht. J.T. thought to himself that it was a
beautiful day in a beautiful place, and in other circumstances, he
would have been able to enjoy it, but his mind quickly returned to
what they were about to do. He and Nick had made a lot of money,
and needlessly hurt a lot of people in the process. Many of those
people had lost everything they had. He had begun the process of
making amends to those he had wronged, starting to restore what he
had taken, but now all of that was being put in jeopardy. He prayed
a silent prayer as they sped towards the island. “God, somehow,
someway, please get us out of this.”

 

[]
Chapter Eighteen

Mia explained the rules to James and Laura,
and posted a copy of them on the inside door of their cabin:

 

#

Stay away from any navigational or
communications equipment, including computers, tablets, phones, or
the yacht’s radio.

#

Stay away from the other
watercraft, such as lifeboats.

#

You must be accompanied by a guard if you go
anywhere except your own cabin.

#

If you go swimming, you must stay
within sight of the yacht.

#

All other cabins but your own are
off-limits.

#

After dinner each night, you will
be escorted to your cabin where you will stay locked in until
someone comes to get you for breakfast.

 

“Beyond these rules,” Mia said, “you can do
pretty much anything you want.”

Later in the morning, Laura decided to make
the best of their captivity in paradise and do some sunbathing. She
found a suitably sized swimsuit in their cabin and, after changing,
she went to lay down in one of the lounge chairs on the deck of the
yacht. James came and sat down in the chair beside her a few
minutes later, and pretended to be focusing on the ocean view. He
spoke quietly, hoping that the nearby guards wouldn’t hear too much
of their conversation.

“Laura, what are you going to do when this
is all over?”

Laura didn’t open her eyes as she
responded.

“I’m still just trying to process everything
that has happened. To tell you the truth, I’ve never been too much
of a planner. That’s kind of why I ended up in prison; I just flew
by the seat of my pants. Right now, I’m just trying to enjoy the
sun. We’ve got almost two weeks to figure out what we’re going to
do, right?”

“That depends on whether or not this Nick
character is telling us the truth or not.”

“Well, he has treated us pretty good since
we arrived here. Why wouldn’t he keep his word?”

“A better question is why would he? We know
what he is doing, what he looks like, what his name is. We know
everything the FBI would like to know about this guy, and with
J.T.’s testimony, this guy could go to prison for a very long time.
Dumping our bodies somewhere in the ocean seems like a simple
solution to that problem.”

“Yeah, but like he said, who’s going to
believe us if we talk? We’re just a bunch of convicts. Anyway, if
he keeps his word, I’ve got about a million reasons to keep my
mouth shut. J.T.’s the one who should be worried. He’s the one with
the real details that could sink this guy.”

James sat quietly for several minutes,
thinking about the whole situation.

“What if he does keep his word and pay us,
and let us go like he said he would? We couldn’t go back to the
states without going back to jail, and serving out the rest of our
sentences. That’s 13 years for me, longer if I get convicted for
breaking out. And like Nick said, that could be back in a high
security federal penitentiary.”

Laura pushed herself up on her elbows and
turned to look at James.

“You’re really worried about this, aren’t
you?”

“And you’re not?” James replied.

“It’s on my list, but right now, I’m just
going to enjoy the moment,” Laura responded as she smiled and faced
towards the sun. “The sun feels too good to worry. Cheer up, we’ll
think of something.”

With that, she lay back down and closed her
eyes. James couldn’t stop thinking about their situation, but with
Laura obviously not in the mood to talk about it more at the
moment, he sat there in silence.

 

 

J.T. Thornbacker and Nick Bartonovich
entered the lobby of the Grand Cayman Central Bank along with their
escorts and made their way up to the circular desk in the middle of
the atrium where a young dark-skinned woman was seated, staring at
a computer terminal. As they arrived in front of her, she stopped
what she was doing and looked up to address them.

“Welcome to the Grand Cayman Central Bank.

How may I assist you today?”

“I’m Mr. Bartonovich. I have an appointment
with Mr. Takata.”

“One moment please,” the young lady
responded. She picked up the phone and dialed a number. “Mr.
Bartonovich is here to see you.” After hanging up the phone, she
turned back to Nick. “He will be down momentarily, please have a
seat.” She motioned to her right where there were a number of
leather couches and chairs. The group moved over and everyone took
a seat.

“You cleaned up well, J.T.,” Nick said. “You
no longer look like the hippie guru you appeared to be when you
came aboard yesterday. I’m glad to see Mia’s recollection of your
suit size was correct.”

“It’ll do the job,” J.T. responded. “Let’s
just get this over with and get out of here.”

A short Asian-looking man in a three-piece
suit came briskly across the floor towards where they were seated.
As he came near, he walked directly to where Nick was seated and
extended his hand.

“Welcome back, Mr. Bartonovich,” he
said.

Nick shook his hand and turned towards
J.T.

“This is my colleague, of whom I spoke to
you earlier.”

Mr. Takata extended his hand towards J.T.

and they shook hands. “Hello, so glad to meet you.” Mr. Takata
motioned towards an elevator at the far end of the atrium that was
flanked by two armed guards. “Please, follow me.”

As they walked, J.T. spied a pen on the
circular desk counter. When he passed by, he pretended to trip on
the back of his shoe, putting his hand out to catch himself on the
counter and palming the pen. One of the guards reached out to help
steady him. “Thank you,” J.T. said. The whole incident took no
longer than a few seconds, and no one seemed to notice he had
pocketed the pen.

They entered the elevator and Mr. Takata
took the key card from around his neck and slid it into a card
reader in the elevator control panel, then punched in a code. The
elevator began moving down, below the first floor. Less than a
minute later, the doors opened to reveal a red carpet leading up to
a wall of bars, behind which was a layer of bullet-proof glass. Two
guards with machine guns hanging down by their sides were stationed
beyond. As Mr. Takata approached, one of the guards on the inside
punched a number in an electronic keypad and opened the door for
them to enter.

Once the door was closed, Mr. Takata
proceeded around the corner, where the room opened up to reveal yet
two more armed guards flanking a vault. Mr. Takata turned to face
the group. “Mr. Thornbacker,” he said, addressing J.T. by name for
the first time. “Please place your hand on the scanner to verify
your identity.”

He motioned to the hand scanner mounted to
the side of the vault door. A bar of light passed up and down the
scanner screen, scanning J.T.’s hand, and then the whole screen
turned green. Mr. Takata then scanned his own hand with a similar
result. Finally, he placed his key card in the card reader and
typed in a code on the keypad. The electronic locks could be heard
disengaging from the large vault door. Mr. Takata turned the manual
locking wheel counter-clockwise and slowly pulled open the
eighteen-inch thick door.

He was only inside for a few moments before
he returned, pushing a cart before him which was stacked high with
large bundles of one hundred dollar bills. He motioned to one of
the guards, who shut the door and locked it. The large locking pins
could be heard sliding back into place once again as Mr. Takata
pushed the cart over to a table that was off to the side.

“Seven million, nine hundred and ninety-five
thousand dollars in one hundred dollar bills, as you requested,”
Mr. Takata announced. He handed J.T. a clipboard with a withdrawal
slip attached to it, then handed him a pen. “Please sign here Mr.
Thornbacker.”

J.T. signed the slip and handed it back to
Mr. Takata. Nick opened the briefcase he had brought along and
produced two duffle-bags that, when expanded, were large enough to
hold the huge pile of cash sitting on the cart. The two commandos
helped divide the money between the two bags, each taking one. The
group then proceeded back the way they had come and up to the bank
lobby. Mr. Takata shook hands with Nick and J.T., then made his
departure.

On the way back to the marina, Nick, who was
seated in the front of the car, turned around to face J.T. “I’m
afraid I’m going to have to ask you to put on a blindfold, old
friend.” Nick nodded to the commando in the back seat. The commando
produced a blindfold and secured it in place, covering J.T.’s
eyes.

About thirty minutes went by while he was
blindfolded. The car stopped for about ten minutes. It sounded like
two people exited the vehicle, but when J.T. started to reach up
and loosen the blindfold, a strong hand reached over and prevented
him from doing so. “No. Leave the blindfold on,” came a stern
warning.

A few minutes later, the car started moving
again. When the car finally came to a stop, J.T.’s blindfold was
removed and he saw that they were back at the marina where they had
left the cigarette boat earlier in the day. They got into the boat
and headed back in the direction of the yacht.

 

[][]
Chapter Nineteen

 

Later that evening, dinner was served on the
yacht. Angel-hair pasta topped with a local variety of fish that
James didn’t quite recognize, with grated Parmesan cheese and diced
jalapeños to top it off. It was better food than he had eaten in
his whole life. Laura seemed to be enjoying herself, and even J.T.
seemed more relaxed than he had been at breakfast. James allowed
himself to relax a bit and even enjoyed the banter back and forth.
The guards standing around with guns at their sides seemed the only
reminder that they were still prisoners.

Shortly after dinner, they were dismissed to
their cabin for the remainder of the evening with a complimentary
bottle of wine. The door was shut and locked in place. Laura sat
down on the couch and reached out her hands towards the corners of
the room in a long stretch before interlacing her fingers behind
her head and leaning back on the comfortable cushions. She seemed
like she didn’t have a care in the world.

J.T. walked over to the table where the
bottle of wine had been placed and proceeded to open it up, letting
it breathe for a few minutes before pouring himself an inch of the
dark red liquid in one of the glasses they had been provided. He
closed his eyes and lifted it up to his nose, inhaling slowly and
deeply. At last, he sat the glass down on the table, finished
filling it along with the two others, and then walked over to
Laura, stretching his arm out to hand her the glass.

“Here, take this,” he said.

Laura opened her eyes and reached out her
hand to take the glass.

“Thanks, although I’m not certain I could
put anymore in my stomach right now.”

“We have some decisions to make,” J.T.

responded cryptically. He walked over to the table and handed James
the other glass before sitting down on a chair that he had placed
between them so that he could see them both equally well. He
motioned for them to draw in close to him and he began to speak in
a whisper.

“They may be listening to us, so speak
quietly. We have to decide what we are going to do.”

J.T. took a sip of wine before he
continued.

“I know that Nick has offered you each a lot
of money to go along with his plan. I think that we need to look at
all of our options and decide together what our next move is going
to be. Whatever we do, we need to do it together. First off, I’m
not entirely certain that Nick won’t decide to kill us all.
However, if he doesn’t and he keeps his word, then we need to think
it through. If any one of us decides to go back to the states and
turn ourselves in, then we should all go. Otherwise, those who
don’t go back will be hunted down all the more quickly.”

“Wait just a minute,” Laura interrupted.

“What do you mean, turn ourselves back in? Like Nick said, if we
turn ourselves in, there is no guarantee that we won’t get even
more jail time tacked on to our sentences. And even if we don’t, we
all have long sentences to finish, regardless. If I have a million
dollars to live on, why do I want to go back and turn myself
in?”

“Well,” J.T. responded. “There are a few
things you need to consider. First off, if we don’t go back, there
is the fact that the FBI takes a very dim view of escapees. We are
all likely on the most wanted list by this point, which means that
a team of FBI and other law enforcement officers are looking for us
this very minute. If they catch us, and they often do catch those
on the most wanted list, then we are all likely to end up with more
jail time than we can shake a stick at, and in a maximum security
prison.”

“If they don’t catch us, then we are going
to be looking over our shoulders for the rest of our lives, waiting
for the moment when someone might. I don’t know about you, but that
is not the way I plan to spend the remainder of my life on this
planet.”

“So what do you suggest we do?” asked
James.

“I’m not suggesting anything just yet. Let’s
just put all the cards on the table first and see what kind of a
hand we’ve got. Let’s consider what happens if we go back. Turning
ourselves in is easy enough. We show up at the United States
Consulate in George Town and tell them who we are and that we want
to surrender. What happens after that is debatable. We will likely
each get interrogated separately for as long as it takes to
convince them that we are telling the truth. If we tell them the
truth, then any money we have been given by Nick will be forfeited.
Next, we get shipped back to prison – and likely NOT Utopia, to
serve out the remainder of our sentences. Unless, of course, they
don’t believe us and decide to revoke the contracts we signed, and
put us in for the remainder of our original sentences and then
some. If we try to lie and pretend we didn’t get any money, then
we’re depending on them not finding out that information. If they
catch Nick, then he will tell them outright we have the money and
we’re on the hook for lying to the FBI – not a good idea.”

“So you’re saying we’re screwed either way,”
Laura lamented. “There’s no way they are going to believe us. We’re
three convicted felons! It’s not like we’re all paragons of
truthfulness or anything.”

“Listen to me,” J.T. continued, “I’m not
saying I have this all figured out either and I’m certainly not
suggesting we decide tonight. We have almost two more weeks before
we’re going to be cut loose, whatever that means. All I’m saying is
that we should begin to consider our options and come up with a
plan together. Can we agree on that?”

After a few moments of silence, Laura
responded, “I’m willing to talk about it, but that’s all I’m going
to commit to at this point.” She took a long drink from the wine
glass, wanting to rewind to the good feeling she’d had after
dinner, before she was so abruptly confronted with the reality of
their situation.

J.T. looked over at James, who had been
silently considering everything that had been said. James slowly
nodded his head up and down. “O.k., let’s make a plan. But like she
said, we’re just talking. I’m not ready to commit to anything
either.”

Satisfied that they had at least agreed to
talk about making a plan together, J.T. stood up from his chair and
walked over to the starboard portal, where he could just see the
sun setting in the distance. He stared at it for several minutes,
finishing his glass of wine and watching the darkness descend.

 

 

Silas McGruder immediately spotted the
slightly beat-up silver van and the lanky driver who was sticking
his long arm out of the window and waving at him as he exited the
terminal at Owen Roberts International Airport. He ambled over to
the passenger side of the vehicle and deposited his tired body in
the seat, uttering a tired greeting to his driver as he did.

“Hi, Marty.”

“Helloo, Mr. Silas,” came the cheery
response. “Welcome back, my friend.”

Marty pulled the van away from the curb and
guided the van back towards George Town.

“Tell me everything you saw,” Silas prompted
him wearily.

“I see dah man in dah nice suit from dah
picture you sent me. He came in with tree otha people.” He held up
three fingers to emphasize the point.

“You mean three other people?” Silas
asked.

“Dat is what I said, mon, tree otha people,”
Marty continued. “One of dem look like dah man in dah orange shirt
wit dah beard, but he had shaved it off.”

“Yeah, I could tell from the pictures you
sent me. What I want to know is, where did they go after they left
the bank?”

“I try to follow dem, but dey take da narrow
streets, mon. I could not follow dem o dey see me. So I did what
you tell me to do. I stop an’ call you.”

“Good job, Marty. Good job. Now get me to my
hotel before I pass out.”

The rhythmic noise and vibrations from the
road lulled Silas to sleep as he leaned his head against the
window. When he awoke, the van was pulling in to the hotel that he
had booked the night before on the internet. He turned to Marty as
he got out of the van.

“Pick me up tomorrow morning at 6:00 a.m. I
want to make sure we get everything ready before they come back to
the bank tomorrow.”

“O.k., Mr. Silas, I see you den.”

Silas checked in to his room and sat down in
one of the chairs. He took out his cell phone and began scrolling
through the pictures that Marty had sent to him. From the pictures,
he could tell that the two unidentified men were probably the hired
security. It wasn’t going to be a walk in the park, but he had
about ten days or so to plan things, so time was on his side. He
set the alarm on his phone for 5 a.m., took off his shoes, and laid
down on the bed. As he fell asleep, he thought to himself, “J.T.
Thornbacker may have pulled off the great escape, but the game is
definitely not over, not by a long shot.”

 

[]
Chapter Twenty

The alarm on his phone was blaring and Silas
wearily opened his eyes, willing the alarm to silence and allow him
another hour of sleep. After a few seconds of fumbling, he
retrieved the phone and turned off the alarm. He located an energy
drink he had purchased at the airport the day before, opened it up,
and drained the bottle. He was going to need all of his wits about
him, and quickly, if he wanted to get the jump on these guys.

He grabbed a cream-cheese bagel at the
continental breakfast bar provided by the hotel and was finishing
off the last bite as Marty drove up under the awning to pick him
up. It was one of the things he liked about Marty – he was
punctual.

He had Marty drive him to the bank and go
over everything, step by step. Next, he had him drive the route
that Thornbacker’s car had taken once they had left the bank. Marty
stopped at the narrow alleyway where he had lost the car the day
before. “And dat is where I stopped following dem,” Marty said,
pointing at the entrance to the alleyway.

“Drive down the alleyway,” Silas
instructed.

The alleyway led to a small open park where
five other streets dispersed.

“This is perfect,” Silas said out loud.

“What do you mean?” Marty replied.

“This is the perfect place to lose a tail,”
Silas replied. “Anyone following them would need to wait to come
down the alleyway or else they would be recognized. Once they make
it here, though, they have five choices to take them where they
really want to go. By the time anyone following them makes it to
the park, they are long gone.” Silas excitedly turned to Marty.
“O.k., here is what I want you to do. They will probably use this
same route every day. You stay here in the park on that bench over
there, facing the alleyway. Once they come out, make sure you see
which street they take next, but don’t make it obvious. If this is
going to work, they can’t know someone is onto them. I’m going back
to the bank and follow them from there as far as the alley. I’ll
call you when they leave the bank.”

 

 

Back at the bank a short while later, Silas
saw J.T. Thornbacker and Nick Bartonovich get out of the car with
their escorts at 9:30 a.m. sharp. Nick was carrying a briefcase.
The way the two guards looked around, surveying the area, he would
have bet money they were former military. Silas drove slowly past
the front of the bank and was just able to see J.T. Thornbacker sit
down on one of the couches beside the central desk before he drove
out of range. He turned the van around and positioned it so he
could see their car clearly and follow them when they left.

They were inside the bank for about fifteen
minutes before they came back out, got in the car, and drove away.
Silas thought it was odd that Mr. Thornbacker got in the back,
while Nick sat in the front. “They must not like each other very
much,” Silas thought to himself.

He called Marty to let him know they were on
their way and followed them to the alleyway where Marty had lost
them. He kept his foot off of the accelerator after breaking as the
car carrying J.T. Thornbacker slowed to make the turn down the
alleyway. He wanted to coast past the alleyway slowly, without
needing to break and possibly draw attention to the van. As the
alleyway was almost out of his peripheral vision, he thought he saw
their tail lights go on. He quickly pulled over to the curb and got
out of the van, walking back in the direction of the alley. He
stopped and pretended to be window shopping in front of an old
antique store directly across from the alleyway. He tried to be
nonchalant as he studied the alleyway’s reflection in the store’s
large plate glass window.

The car had indeed stopped. They were close
enough that he could tell that one of the passengers in the back
was putting something on the head of the man next to him. Then they
proceeded down the alleyway. A minute later, his phone rang.

“I see where dey go, Mr. Silas.”

“Yeah, o.k., I’m coming to pick you up.”

As he drove down the alleyway, he stopped
right where the other car had stopped, got out of the van, and
looked around. There was nothing there. He processed what he had
just seen, trying to make sense out of it. In a few moments, it
came to him. “J.T. Thornbacker was kidnapped,” he said out loud. He
smiled as he jumped back in the van and drove down the alley to
pick up Marty.

“Did you see anything unusual about one of
the men in the back of the car?” he asked Marty, once he was back
inside the van.

“Yes, I did. One of dem had a black cloth
over his eyes.”

“Yes!” Silas exclaimed. “This is good.”

“Why is dis good?” asked Marty.

“J.T. was kidnapped!” Silas exclaimed,
proclaiming his earlier revelation as if he had just won the pot at
a poker game. “Why else would they blindfold him? Ole’ Nick
Bartonovich kidnapped J.T. Thornbacker and is using him to get the
money out of the bank. That explains why he sent me down here to
get the bank documents, the blindfold, the fact that a guard rides
in the back with J.T., the whole business. They aren’t in business
together; J.T. is simply the key to the piggy bank.” He slammed his
hand down on the dashboard of the van for emphasis.

“I am glad you are happy, Mr. Silas,” Marty
proclaimed. “Dis is good, yes?”

“This is very good, Marty, this is very
good!” Silas responded. “Now I need you to find me the best
pick-pocket in all of George Town.”

“What do you need wit a pick-pocket, Mr.

Silas? A pick-pocket can never get what is in dat briefcase.”

“Just trust me, Marty. Just trust me.”

 

 

James had decided to swim around the yacht
to see if he could shake the sense of cabin fever that had been
building since they’d arrived. He had become accustomed to the
daily exercise regime in Utopia and needed to burn off some energy
to calm his nerves. As he swam, he thought about both the future
and the past.

He thought about how he was potentially
about to get the big score he had dreamed of before, when he was
planning a bank robbery. He had thought that would make everything
better. He had thought that his problems would be solved by a big
wad of cash. Yet now that the big score was potentially in his
sight, he only wanted to rewind to a few days earlier when he was
serving out the remainder of his sentence in Utopia, headed for a
changed life, a life free from being chased by law enforcement
officers. He’d just been beginning to believe he could find a
better, more peaceful, and fulfilling way to live. Now all of that
seemed so far away. How do I get back there? he thought to
himself as he swam.

Even if he got the money, he would never be
able to go back to the States without looking over his shoulder
constantly. And even if he stayed here or somewhere like this, a
million dollars wouldn’t last him forever. He would need to find
some other way to make money eventually, and being a criminal was
all he really knew how to do. He couldn’t think of a way out of it.
He knew in his heart that he couldn’t live the rest of his life on
the run, but he also knew that he couldn’t survive twenty-three
more years in prison – or longer if they threw the book at him once
he got back.

As he swam lap after lap, he came to a
decision. Whatever the consequences, when this was all over, he was
going to turn himself in. If he ever wanted to be free, then he
would need to do the time he had been sentenced to serve. Maybe
they would be lenient on him, maybe they would even reduce his time
for having come back – who knew? And if he ended up getting more
time added on, well, he would cross that bridge when he came to
it.

He felt a weight lift off of his shoulders
as he swam a final lap around the yacht and climbed back up the
ladder, where the ubiquitous armed guardian watched his every move.
He grabbed his towel and dried himself off.

 

[] Chapter
Twenty-One

Laura was curled up on a couch in a spacious
room on the main deck of the yacht, reading a book when James came
in from his swim. He sat down on a chair next to the couch and
finished drying his hair.

“Are you getting your hour a day of reading
in?” James joked.

Laura smiled as she looked up from her
book.

“Yeah, the habit kind of grew on me when I
was in Utopia. They don’t have much of a selection here,
though.”

“What did you think about the program at
Utopia?” James inquired.

“I think it was good for me,” Laura
responded. “My life was definitely a mess when I went there. I
think the structure was good for me. It helped me level out and
clear my head. The twelve step stuff helped me, too. I was a bit
weirded out by the whole ‘Higher Power’ thing to begin with, but
after a while, that sort of began to make sense to me, too.”

“So you believe in God?” James asked.

“Yeah, I do. I mean, I look around at all
this,” Laura waved her hand at the seascape that could be seen
through the windows, “and I think there definitely must have been a
creative being that made it all. I don’t think it happened by
accident. What about you?”

“My mom believed in God. She prayed to Him
to heal her when she had cancer and to help me stay out of trouble
– neither one of those prayers were answered. God certainly doesn’t
do things the way I would like Him to.”

For the first time since they’d known each
other, Laura looked at James and felt empathy with him. She could
identify with feeling like things hadn’t worked out the way she
wanted them to.

“I guess that’s the reason for steps two and
three,” Laura responded.

James looked at her with a puzzled look.

“Steps two and three of the twelve steps,”
Laura continued. “Step two is basically believing that there is a
Higher Power Who wants to help straighten our lives out, and step
three is where we make a decision to turn our lives over to that
Higher Power. Thinking back on all of the crappy things that have
happened to me in my life, being sent to Utopia was the best thing
that ever happened to me. I mean, if I hadn’t been sent there, I’d
probably be dead by now.”

“Yeah,” James concurred, “me, too. I mean, I
believe there is a God, and I want to be a better person than I was
before I went to prison. Like you said, being sent to Utopia was
one of the best things that has happened to me in a long time. I
liked the reading thing, too. I never really read much, but now
that I’m away from Utopia, I miss the books I was reading.”

“What were you reading?” Laura asked.

“It was a book by William Penn – the founder
of Pennsylvania. It was called Some Fruits of Solitude. I
still remember a quote from the introduction of the book. I wrote
it down in my journal and read it over and over. ‘We understand
little of the works of God, either in nature or grace. We pursue
false knowledge, and mistake education extremely. We are violent in
our affections, confused and immethodical in our whole life; making
that a burden, which was given for a blessing; and so of little
comfort to ourselves or others; misapprehending the true notion of
happiness, and so missing of the right use of life, and way of
happy living.’”

There was a long pause after James finished
the quote. Laura felt a hint of something inside that hadn’t been
there for a while. She felt that James might not be that different
from her after all.

“That’s beautiful, James. That quote
describes what my life was like before Utopia.”

James turned and looked at her, directly in
the eyes.

“What about now?”

“What do you mean?” Laura asked.

“I mean, what about after this is all over
and we get a load of cash? Then what? How do we get back on track
to learning how to live a better way than we did before? How do we
do that, while we’re fugitives? Money can change a lot of things,
Laura, but I know enough now to understand that money isn’t going
to make me a better person.” James looked down at his feet and
shook his head. “I just don’t know what to do.”

There was another long pause, but the
silence was broken by the sound of the cigarette boat engine
approaching the yacht.

 

 

On the boat ride back from the island, J.T.

thought to himself about how the run to the bank had followed the
same routine as the day before. After they entered the car with the
day’s allotment of cash, they had driven to a narrow alleyway where
he was blindfolded. Next, they drove for another fifteen minutes
before stopping, where he was fairly certain that Nick and one of
the commandos got out of the car. After a few minutes, they
returned and drove back to the marina, where the blindfold was
taken off and they boarded the boat for the return trip to the
yacht.

He had been paying close attention to the
surroundings today to see where the best opportunity might be for
delivering a note to someone at the bank to let them know he was
being held prisoner against his will. He thought that the best
candidate was likely the receptionist in the atrium. His main
concern was what she would do with the information. If she took it
to her boss, Mr. Takata, would he tell Nick or go to the
authorities? If Nick had paid him off as part of this whole scheme,
then Nick would be notified. It was risky either way, but then
again, desperate times called for desperate measures. The next
hurdle would be to find some paper on the yacht to write a note on.
The place had been cleaned out of anything to write on – a move no
doubt initiated by Nick in order to prevent just what J.T. was
planning to do.

Once they were back on the yacht, the
afternoon and evening followed a predictable pattern, even down to
the bottle of wine that was delivered to their cabin once they were
locked in for the night. He surveyed the room and found a small
shelf of books. He immediately went over and began to casually
thumb through each book, finally selecting one that had a blank
page at the back of it. He could remove this page and use it for
writing an S.O.S. note. He turned it back to the front cover and
noticed that it was a copy of [_Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the
Sea_] by Jules Verne. He smiled to himself as he sat down and
began to read. It was a book he had read once in high school and
enjoyed immensely. No time like the present to reacquaint himself
with it, he thought.

He read for about an hour as both James and
Laura each showered and appeared to be getting ready to turn in,
each of them dressed in the designer pajamas that Nick had so
graciously provided for the occasion. Nick was certainly going out
of his way to make everything seem as hospitable as possible. It
was an attempt, no doubt, to lure James and Laura over to his way
of viewing the situation, and illicit their support. Now it was
time to see just how far that effort had gone.

J.T. went over to his bunk and put the book
on top of his pillow. As he turned around, he noticed that both
James and Laura were reading books of their own. Utopia, it seemed,
had had some positive effects on them all. He hoped it would be
enough of a common bond to help see them through the difficulties
that remained to be faced. “Can we talk about our plans?” he said
out loud.

He spoke quietly, but loudly enough to be
heard by both James and Laura. He sat down beside Laura, who
reluctantly put down her book. James came over and sat down on the
other side of Laura so they could communicate with a minimum of
volume.

“I have a plan,” J.T. began. “There is some
danger involved, but I think it just might work.”

“Let’s hear it,” James responded.

“I was able to get a pen at the bank
yesterday, and I found some paper that I can use to write an S.O.S.
note on. I think I can deliver it to the receptionist at the bank
without being noticed. If so, and if she helps us, she could
contact the authorities and let them know we are being held
captive.”

“And then what?” Laura replied. “We wait for
the police to storm the boat and rescue us? Have you forgotten we
have four armed guards and that lady guarding us while you are
gone? They may be able to rescue you on land well enough, but out
here, anyone getting within a mile of this boat will be seen. James
and I are likely to be killed in the process.”

“Like I said,” J.T. continued, “There are
risks.”

“Why don’t we just go along with Nick’s
plan?” James mentioned. “I mean, he seems like he has no intention
of harming us. Once he’s done with us and lets us go, we can do
whatever it is we want, right? Why go ahead and risk getting killed
on an escape?”

“Yeah,” Laura agreed, glad to have James
thinking along the same lines as she was. “What’s the rush?”

“The rush is,” J.T. proceeded, “that Nick
may not intend to let us live once this is all over. Why would he
give us eleven million dollars just for our cooperation when he can
just as easily put a bullet in our heads and dump our bodies in the
ocean? This man is a thief, remember that. Secondly, I’m concerned
about recovering the money. He’s taking it somewhere; he’s not
storing it on the boat. If I lose track of it now, I may never get
it back.”

“So that’s what this is about?” Laura said
angrily, raising her voice to a level which risked their being
heard by the guards.

“Keep your voice down. Laura!” James
whispered cautiously.

Laura lowered her voice, but not her
intensity as she continued. “This is all about you getting that
stolen money back, isn’t it?! And you are willing to put us at risk
to do it!”

“Look,” J.T. lobbied, “you have to remember
that is money that I’m using to pay back the people who got fired
or lost their pensions when Nick and I destroyed the companies they
worked for. That money is being used to pay mortgages, provide
college tuition, pay medical bills. If I lose it now, I may never
get it back. I’m trying to do the right thing here.”

The fire ebbed in Laura’s eyes and her voice
toned down as she responded. “O.k., I get that. But I’m not willing
to risk my life so you can make amends for the things you did.
Remember that program you talk so highly about? I seem to recall
that amends are only to be made when you won’t be hurting someone
else, or have you forgotten that?”

J.T. was silent for a moment as he recalled
the ninth step of the program, the steps he had tried to live by
the past few years.

“You’re right,” J.T. said in a subdued tone,
“I guess I forgot about that in the process of trying to think
about how to save the money. But the first part of what I said is
still a good reason to think about it. What if Nick’s plan is to
kill us when he has all the money? I still think it is worth the
risk, but I won’t try it unless we all agree.”

He paused and waited for James and Laura to
consider what he had said. Finally, James spoke.

“There’s another possibility.”

“What’s that?” J.T. queried.

“You could get caught trying to deliver the
note. Then Nick might not be as accommodating as he has been. Who
knows what he might do? We already know he is willing to kidnap the
three of us and risk being caught doing it by the FBI. If we try to
blow the whole deal for him now, he may decide to go back on what
he promised us and kill us after all.”

“James is right,” Laura added, “I don’t like
our chances. I say we wait it out and take our chances on Nick
keeping his word.”

J.T. sat back and let out a long sigh,
running a hand through his hair as he did. He was obviously
disappointed.

“O.k.,” he said, resigned, “I guess I’m
out-voted. I’ll continue to go along with Nick’s plan and hope for
the best.”

As J.T. lay awake in bed that night, he
considered the possible outcomes that might befall them. Losing the
money was regrettable, but the possibility of being killed within
the next ten days was front and center. As he lay in the darkness,
he uttered a silent prayer.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the
things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and
the wisdom to know the difference.” And with that, J.T. Thornbacker
drifted off to sleep.

 

 

Nick opened up his laptop and quickly
reviewed the transcripts just delivered to him on the USB thumb
drive by the man in the radio room. With so much riding on this
operation, he was leaving nothing to chance. The video and audio
devices he’d had installed in the cabin where his new guests were
staying ensured that any movements and any conversation, no matter
how hushed, would be captured for his review. A note at the end of
the transcript indicated that nothing unusual had appeared on the
video feed for the evening. As he re-read the transcript of the
conversation that had just taken place, he smiled and congratulated
himself. The psychological dossiers he’d had prepared on each
prisoner at Utopia had helped him choose just the right accomplices
to his plans.

 

 

[] Chapter
Twenty-Two

The next day, the routine of the previous
two days continued. J.T. and company arrived at the bank and went
through the withdrawal process. They got in the car and went on
their way as they had done previously. The car exited the narrow
alleyway per the usual route and circled around to the third road
before exiting the round-about.

No one in the vehicle thought anything about
the man at the end of the road who was walking slowly along the
sidewalk. Silas had positioned himself so that he would have a
perfect view down the street and be able to tell if the car turned
anywhere.

Silas bent down and pretended to be tying
his shoe when they got close to where he was standing so that Nick
wouldn’t get a good look at his face and possibly recognize him.
With a hat and sunglasses, it wasn’t likely, but Silas had known
stakeouts to be blown for simpler reasons.

The car continued down the street, almost to
the end, before abruptly turning into an alleyway. Moments later,
two men, each carrying a duffel bag, came out of the alley and
walked down the sidewalk to one of the shops, and then went inside.
A few minutes later, they came back out, got back in the car, and
continued down the street going in the opposite direction from
Silas.

Silas took out his phone and dialed Marty,
who was positioned in an alleyway at the end of the street with a
rented moped.

“Marty, he’s coming your way. Follow him,
but not too close,” he instructed.

“O.k., I see him,” Marty replied before
disconnecting the call and putting the phone back in his
pocket.

The car drove past where Marty was waiting.

He waited a few seconds for good measure and then pulled out behind
them, following from about half a block away. This time, they drove
along busy roads where he could blend in with the local traffic and
not be noticed. Marty stopped when they pulled in to the Barcadere
Marina parking lot. He got off the moped and began to walk in their
direction, being careful to act as if he was in no hurry. He was
close enough to see that they boarded a cigarette boat and quickly
began moving away from the dock, out to the open ocean.

 

 

After putting his phone away, Silas began
walking down the street to see where the car had been parked and to
examine the shop that the two men had entered. He was fairly
certain that one of the two men had been Nick Bartonovich. The
alleyway offered no surprises. It was too narrow for more than one
car, and dead-ended into another building. He came out of the
alleyway and made his way to the shop door where the two men had
entered. It was a bakery on the first floor, with a wooden
staircase leading up to the second floor. An acrylic sign hung down
from the ceiling over the staircase that read “CES
Enterprises”.

“Bingo,” Silas thought to himself. He
wandered over to the bakery counter and picked out some delicious
looking croissants. After paying for them, he left and headed back
down the street to where he had parked the van. He took out his
phone and called Marty.

“Did you find out where they went?” he asked
when Marty answered the phone.

“Yes, I did. Dey went to da marina and left
in a boat.”

“Good work, Marty. Meet me back at my hotel;
we’ve got some planning to do.”

 

 

Once they were back on the boat, J.T. went
to his cabin to change out of his suit. As he hung the pants up in
the closet, something slid out of the pocket and onto the floor. He
bent down to pick it up. It was a small pen with a piece of paper
taped to it. He unfolded the paper and began reading what was
written on it:

 

[_J.T. – I know you are being held hostage and
that Nick Bartonovich is using you to withdraw money from the bank.
I am here to help you escape. I need to know as many details about
your daily routine as you can give me: where you go each day, and
where you are being held would be very helpful. Write them out on
the back of this paper and slide it between the cushions of the
couch where you sit each day when you go to the bank. I will place
further instructions in the same place for you to retrieve the
following day. – A friend who can help._]

How did this get into my pocket? J.T.

thought to himself. He carefully reviewed the errand to the bank
from earlier in the day, trying to focus on who had the opportunity
to pass him the note. He finally remembered a man who had brushed
against him as he left the bank. That must have been it. He quickly
walked over to his bunk and stashed the note and pen under his
mattress before heading back up to the dining room for lunch.

The afternoon consisted of various leisure
activities. Reading, fishing, swimming – everything you might
expect from a vacation except for the armed guards. At one point,
Nick even tempted Laura and James into going water-skiing. James
had done a bit of water-skiing with a local boys club as a young
man, and after a few bungled attempts, he was able to hold his own.
Laura, on the other hand, had never skied before. Before the end of
the afternoon, though, she was able to stay up on the skis and even
jump a few small waves created by the wake of the boat. Mia and
Nick took their turns on the skis, as well. They were both quite
accomplished skiers, and Nick showed off his skill as he slalomed
on one ski.

While everyone but the three remaining
guards were off skiing on the cigarette boat, J.T. went down to his
cabin and prepared the note for his new friend:

 

[_We are being held on a yacht about an hour
out from Barcadere Marina. There are two other people being held
captive with me. Each day I am taken to the bank to withdraw money.
Nick, two armed guards, and myself go into the bank. We arrive at
9:00 a.m. and are there for approximately 15 to 20 minutes before
we leave. We drive to an alleyway about a block away where I am
blindfolded. We then drive for a few minutes and stop. I think two
of them get out at that point. A few minutes later, they get back
in the car and we drive off. They remove my blindfold just before
we get to the marina, where we board a cigarette boat and go back
to the yacht. There are five other armed guards who remain on the
boat while we are gone to the bank._]

[_Do NOT attempt to rescue us without the
assistance of the FBI, as it will put us all in danger. Please go
to the U.S. Consular office here in George Town and have them
contact the FBI to let them know where we are and what our
situation is._]

 

Thank you for your help,

 

J.T. Thornbacker

 

When he was done, J.T. put the completed
note back under his mattress. He felt a twinge of guilt about what
he was planning to do, but he believed it was the right thing. Now
that he had help from the outside and could possibly get the FBI
involved in rescuing them, he had to take that chance. If he
consulted with James and Laura beforehand, they might actually
alert Nick to his plan in order to try and secure the money that
Nick had promised them. A million dollars was a big temptation. He
just couldn’t take that risk. That night, as he fell asleep, he
felt that they finally had a fighting chance.

 

[] Chapter
Twenty-Three

J.T. finished putting on his tie as he faced
the mirror in his cabin. James and Laura were still up at breakfast
per what had quickly become the daily routine, while J.T. and Nick
had excused themselves to dress for their bank excursion. J.T.
walked over to his bunk and retrieved the note he had written,
placing it in his pocket before he exited the room. When he arrived
on deck, he was surprised to find Mia joining them as they prepared
to board the cigarette boat for the island.

Mia, who looked like a runway model, was
Nick’s enforcer. J.T. had once seen her take down three college
football players in a bar fight in college when Nick had gotten
drunk and insulted one of the player’s girlfriends. The three had
come to rough up Nick, but Mia intervened before they could get
within two yards of him. Mia came out without a scratch, while the
other three went to the infirmary. One of the players had to sit
out the entire season because of his injuries. Needless to say, she
was not an errand girl, and her presence on the boat back to the
island was not a good sign.

“Why are you joining us today, Mia?” J.T.

tried to ask in as unassuming a way as possible, so as not to
betray his concern.

“Oh, just a bit of business I need her to
take care of while we go to the bank,” Nick replied. He smiled
amiably at J.T., who didn’t feel any better after getting the
answer to his question.

Once on the mainland, Mia did not ride with
them to the bank, but instead headed off on foot in the opposite
direction. J.T. tried to retrieve the note with as little movement
as possible, attempting to disguise the maneuver in the process of
exiting the vehicle. He was relieved as they headed into the bank
without anyone appearing to have noticed.

Once they were in the bank, the two guards
took up their normal standing positions, flanking the leather
couch. Nick nodded at the receptionist – who by now knew that was
her cue to call Mr. Takata. J.T. tried to sit down on the couch in
as casual a manner as possible, and slipped the note between the
cushion and the arm rest as instructed. Mr. Takata arrived shortly,
and they completed their practiced transaction with a minimum of
delay, leaving the bank with their daily trove of cash and heading
back to the yacht – or so J.T. thought.

Once his blindfold was removed for the
return trip, he immediately noticed that Nick was not in the
vehicle.

“Where’s Nick?” he asked the guards.

“That does not concern you,” the lead guard
replied.

The guards were not big on conversation,
J.T. had discovered, and he was not likely to get anymore
information from either of them, so he contented himself with not
knowing the answer to his question as they boarded the boat. He had
expected Mia to join them, but the guards did not wait for her, and
began the journey back to the yacht without her.

 

Silas had watched J.T. and Nick enter the
bank, then exit again and drive away with their guards. Once they
were safely out of sight, he entered the bank, walked across the
atrium which served as the lobby, and sat down on the leather couch
where J.T. had placed the note. He slid his hand between the
cushion and the armrest, retrieving the expected note and putting
it in his pocket. He looked around to see if anyone was observing
him, waited a few more moments, and then stood up and walked back
out of the bank. He headed down the block and around the corner,
where he had parked the van out of sight of the bank entrance. The
last thing he remembered before blacking out was reaching for the
driver’s side door handle and feeling a hard blow to the back of
his head.

When he woke up, the first thing he noticed
besides the sharp pain in the back of his head was that he was
duct-taped to a chair. Arms, legs, torso, and mouth were all
duct-taped. After struggling in vain for a few moments on the off
chance that he might be able to break free, he stopped and looked
around. From his surroundings, he surmised that he was in a
basement. The chair, it seemed, was bolted to the floor. About ten
feet away, to Silas dismay, lay an electric stun baton on a table.
Silas began to struggle against his bonds with renewed vigor,
attempting to find a weakness in his bonds.

He heard footsteps coming down the wooden
staircase located in the far corner of the room. When Nick
Bartonovich came into view, followed by the Asian woman he had seen
in Nick’s home just days before, Silas felt the blood drain from
his face and he began to sweat. This was definitely a worst-case
scenario.

Nick had removed his coat and tie, and was
carrying what looked like a bottle of scotch and a glass with ice
in it. He crossed the room and pulled out a chair at the table,
setting down his glass and slowly pouring himself a drink. Mia
stood in front of Silas and stared at him with those same cold,
steely eyes that he remembered from the office visit – emotionless,
penetrating, deadly looking eyes.

Nick took a long, slow sip of scotch and put
the glass down on the table. He stared at Silas for some moments as
if considering what he was going to do next. At last, he spoke.

“You know, Silas, I don’t like disgruntled
employees who try to take advantage of my generosity. I cancelled a
ten-thousand dollar debt of yours in exchange for a bit of
detective work on your part, and now here you are putting your nose
where it doesn’t belong, and attempting to spoil my plans.”

“I liked your little note, by the way, very
concise. A bit limited in the vocabulary, but that’s understandable
coming from someone with your educational disadvantages. Now, I’m
going to keep this simple for you. I want you to go over every
detail, starting from when you picked up the banking contract from
Mr. Takata to the point when you arrived here today. If I don’t
like your answers, then Mia here is going to help persuade you to
provide a better answer.”

He turned and nodded to Mia, who stepped
forward and unceremoniously tore the duct tape off of Silas’ mouth.
Silas quickly considered what his options were. If he told the
complete truth, Nick would know that he had acted on his own and
likely had no backup. He also needed to protect Marty if he could,
and provide some incentive for Nick to keep him alive. He decided
to lie.

“I saw J.T. Thornbacker’s name in the bank
contract you had me track down. When I heard he had escaped from
prison, it didn’t take a genius to figure out he would be coming
here to get the money. I contacted the police here in George Town.
After I told them what I thought was going on, I arranged for them
to let me work the case with them. I watched the bank until I saw
J.T. come in and I followed you afterwards. That’s where I saw the
blindfold and figured you were using him to get the money.

“Look,” he continued, “they’re onto you.

Tomorrow, they are going to pick you up and send you and your
little sweetheart here back to the States in nice little orange
jumpsuits. If you let me go and come in with me now, I’ll speak to
the judge to see if we can get you a reduced sentence for the
kidnapping charge.”

Nick sat back, slowly poured himself another
drink, and drank it down to the bottom.

“What is the name of the detective you are
working with on the local police force?”

Silas felt sick to his stomach. He had no
clue what any of the local police officers’ names were, so he made
one up.

“Detective Jameson.”

“First name, please,” Nick prompted.

“Detective Andrew Jameson,” Silas
replied.

Nick took out his cell phone and dialed a
number. He nodded to Mia as he did. She deftly replaced the duct
tape over Silas’ mouth.

“Hello, I need to know some information. Do
you have a Detective Andrew Jameson on the force here in George
Town? Hmmm. Thank you very much.” He smiled as he disconnected the
call.

“Silas, I don’t think I like your answer
very much. You see, there is no Detective Jameson on the local
police force.”

Mia walked over to the table and picked up
the electric stun baton.

“I’m afraid this is going to be a very long
afternoon for you,” Nick said, right before the electric stun baton
touched Silas and he felt a searing pain shoot through his
body.

 

[] Chapter
Twenty-Four

The boat arrived at the yacht as usual, and
one of the commandos, along with J.T., disembarked. The remaining
commando immediately set off again in the cigarette boat,
presumably toward the island to pick up Nick and Mia. J.T. had an
increasingly uneasy feeling about the change in schedule, but as
there was nothing he could do about it at the moment, he went below
to change out of his suit and into something more comfortable for
lunch.

At lunch, Laura and James asked about Mia
and Nick. J.T. told them what he knew, which wasn’t much, and they
all continued to wonder what errand they might be on. Laura went to
work on her tan after the meal, while James asked J.T. if he wanted
to do some fishing. J.T. and James made their way to the far end of
the yacht where the fishing equipment was kept.

The guards typically stood farther away
whenever they were fishing, so as not to get impaled with a
fishhook during casting. James was counting on them keeping a
respectful distance so he could talk to J.T. privately.

“O.k., I heard what you said during lunch,
but now that we have a bit more privacy, is there anything else out
of the ordinary that happened on your trip today?” James asked in a
whisper.

J.T. hated to lie to James. He was trying to
live more honestly since embracing the program at Utopia, but he
had decided he wouldn’t reveal anything about the offer of help
from the anonymous do-gooder until he had to. He couldn’t risk
either James or Laura saying something that might compromise their
only shot at rescue.

“Everything went as smooth as possible at
the bank – same as the other days,” J.T. replied half-heartedly. He
put some bait on one of the hooks and cast a line into the
water.

James baited his own hook and proceeded to
cast his line. They continued to fish for another half an hour
before the sound of another boat could be heard approaching the
yacht. Both James and J.T. looked off in the direction of the
oncoming boat to see if their hosts were returning. The familiar
cigarette boat came into view and docked at the side of the
yacht.

When Nick got off the boat, he addressed the
lead commando.

“Victor, bring everyone to the upper
deck.”

Victor spoke into his radio headset and the
guards began herding J.T., James, and Laura to the upper deck. Once
everyone was assembled on the upper deck, Nick turned to face the
three captives.

“I have some rather unfortunate news. It
seems that J.T. here has decided to try and organize a little
rescue.”

Laura turned to J.T., her eyes glaring.

“You said you wouldn’t do that, you
bastard!”

“What have you done, J.T.?” James added, his
face reflecting the fear he was feeling as the possible
repercussions raced through his mind.

Nick addressed Victor, “Tie their hands to
the railing.”

“Nick, they didn’t know anything about what
I did. It’s not their fault! I’m the one you should be taking it
out on, not them!” J.T. petitioned.

James thought about his chances as he saw
the commandos approaching and noted that one of them had his Taser
drawn. Laura saw the Taser as well.

“We can do this the easy way or the hard
way,” the commando stated.

J.T. didn’t fight as they used the plastic
restraints to lash his hands to the upper rail that ran around the
side of the ship. James and Laura submitted as well, deciding that
resistance was futile against the six well-armed commandos.

“What are you going to do to us?” J.T.

asked.

“You see, old boy, I think it will be much
more effective if I punish… her, instead,” Nick replied.

“No!” James shouted, “You stay away from
her!”

“Mia?” Nick said. Mia came from the back of
the group, carrying a telescoping electric stun baton at the
ready.

“No!” Laura shouted. “Please, God, no!”

“Leave her alone! Punish me, not her! She
had nothing to do with it!” J.T. protested.

Mia touched the end of the baton to Laura’s
bare thigh and she let out a scream, then started crying. James
struggled against his restraints, willing to take his chances with
the guards if he could get one good swing at Mia first, but they
wouldn’t budge.

Nick looked at J.T. and a wild look was in
his eyes as he spoke. “You never asked how I made it happen in the
old days, J.T. How the votes of all the board members seemed to
line up magically, how the regulators always approved the sales.
You never asked because you didn’t have the stomach for it!” Nick’s
look was one of contempt as he continued. “Now you’re getting a
taste of it, my friend.”

He walked up to J.T. and grabbed him by the
hair, forcing his head to turn and face Laura.

“Do you see that?! That, is what will happen
to all of you if you try anything else before I’m done with you!”
He nodded at Mia as he finished his sentence.

Mia moved the stun baton to shock Laura
again, but James shot out his leg and kicked the prod away as he
shouted, “No!” Mia’s eyes flashed for only a second, and then she
spun around and kicked James in the solar plexus, landing back in
the same place she’d started from. With James gasping for air, she
easily advanced the baton to its intended target and Laura let out
another shriek.

“AHHHH! AHHH! PLEASE STOP! Pleeeease
staaahhhppp!” Laura continued crying and sobbing, tears streaming
down her face.

Nick backed up and surveyed his handiwork.

Apparently satisfied that he had made his point, he addressed the
commandos.

“Cut those two loose and take them to their
cabin. They won’t be joining us for dinner tonight.”

The commandos dutifully cut James and Laura
loose, and escorted them down the stairs and to their cabin. Once
they were gone, Nick turned his attention back to J.T.

“J.T., I really had hoped to avoid such
unpleasantries. I hope, as you spend the day up here on the top
deck, out in the sun, that you will reconsider your actions and
avoid disrupting my plans further. Oh, by the way, that gentleman
who wrote you the note won’t be helping you anymore. I’ve taken
care of him.”

Nick stepped closer to J.T. so that they
were mere inches away from each other, face to face. His
countenance was showing malevolent anger as he spoke his next
words.

“Just to be absolutely clear, if you try
anything like this again, I’ll break Laura’s legs so badly that she
won’t be able to walk again. Is that clear?”

J.T. stared straight back as he responded,
“Crystal clear.”

Nick’s countenance changed, a slight smile
coming across his face as he backed away. “Good,” he responded. He
turned and began walking towards the staircase leading down to the
deck below.

“I pity you, Nick,” J.T. said as Nick was
leaving.

Nick turned around, curious. “Why, pray
tell, is that?” he asked.

“You are using your considerable talent to
gain a pile of money that won’t make you any happier. If twenty
million won’t make you happy, eighty-eight million won’t either.
You’re going about it all wrong. You can change, though… I still
believe you can change.”

“If that is supposed to make me let you all
go, give up the money, and join a twelve-step program to find inner
peace, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed,” Nick retorted.

“However, since you appear to be so concerned with my happiness,
I’ll let you in on some information. Money is a means to an end,
and happiness is a state of mind. I enjoy what I do. To use your
word, it makes me happy. I like the game. It’s exciting. You might
say I’m an adrenaline junkie. Being a saint is…boring.” With that,
Nick turned and walked away, leaving J.T. to bake in the scorching
afternoon sun.

 

 

 

[][]
Chapter Twenty-Five

 

The sun beat down on J.T. Thornbacker as he
sat on the top deck of the yacht. He found that he could just
barely sit down on the decking, even with both of his hands secured
with plastic restraints to the railing running around the edge of
the deck. He had been able to move his shirt over the top of his
head so that it provided some shade for his face, but there was no
coverage for his arms. He was sure to get some nasty burns if he
was left up here until the sun set. Thankfully, he had put on some
long cotton pants before being herded onto the deck and lashed to
the side railing. He had been on deck for about two hours now. He
was sweating and thirsty.

Over the past two hours, he had re-traced
his actions since finding the note in his pocket on to when he’d
been confronted by Nick about trying to set up an escape attempt.
He was wracking his brain, trying to determine how and when he had
gotten caught. Did they have a video camera in the cabin where they
were staying and see him read the note or stash it under his
mattress? Did they see him hide the note at the bank? Or was there
something else in play? Did his would-be rescuer even exist? Was it
all some elaborate ploy by Nick to see what J.T. would do? After
all, the person who had slipped the note in his pocket probably
could have been hired by Nick himself.

J.T. finally decided that there was no way
to know for certain if the mystery man was a legitimate ally or if
it was all set up by Nick as a ruse. He decided that another
attempt would be reckless. He believed what Nick said about hurting
Laura if he tried anything else. Seeing both Laura and James get
hurt because of his failed attempt to get them help this time had
been bad enough. Seeing Laura’s legs get broken was something he
was not prepared to risk. He resigned himself to going along with
Nick’s plan to the end, wherever that might lead them. He still
wasn’t convinced that Nick was telling them the truth about
planning to let them go with a nice send-off and millions to burn –
that part just didn’t make sense to him. Time would tell.

Around four p.m. Nick came back up on the
top deck. He was wearing sunglasses and a broad-rimmed hat which
shielded him from the sun. He was carrying a glass of ice water.
J.T. licked his lips almost involuntarily at the sight of the
water. He was thirsty, very thirsty. The sun had come around in
front of him during the past few hours and he couldn’t shield
himself adequately from its rays no matter what he did. If he
covered his face as best he could with his shirt, his stomach would
be exposed. With his upper-torso covered, his face bore the brunt
of the sun’s rays along with his arms. At this point, he was burned
on his arms, and his face and stomach were rosy as well.

Nick pulled up a chair about ten feet from
where J.T. was tied to the railing and sat down. He crossed his
legs and took a nice, long drink from the glass of ice water that
he had obviously brought to torment J.T. with.

“How’s it going, old boy?” he said with a
vindictive smile.

“How do you think?” J.T. responded.

“You seem to be holding up well enough.

Don’t worry, I won’t leave you out here too long. I still need you
to be functional enough to go to the bank tomorrow morning.”

“Good thing,” J.T. replied.

“You intrigued me earlier with all of your
talk about happiness and how I should change my ways and join you
on your new-age spiritual enlightenment journey,” Nick said
mockingly.

“It’s not new-age,” replied J.T.

“Semantics,” continued Nick. “I want to know
more about what makes you tick, J.T., today, not the you from
before. I knew you had gone down the repentant sinner path and it
was useful to know about your bleeding heart to repay our past
victims. I also discerned correctly that you would be motivated by
the threat or use of violence against your two compatriots down in
the hold. But I would like to know more about why you changed. What
was it that made you go soft? It might be useful to me in the
future, and if you are willing to regale me on the finer points of
your conversion,” Nick waved his hand and performed a mock bow, “I
am your willing listener.” When he was done speaking, Nick sat back
in his chair and took another long drink of ice water.

J.T. considered the request. He knew Nick’s
angle – he wanted to know how he might use whatever J.T. shared in
order to manipulate or control him for his own purposes in the
future. He had just admitted as much. But was there more? Was it
possible that somewhere, deep down, he might be genuinely
interested? He decided it didn’t matter at the moment. The more he
complied with Nick’s wishes now, the more likely Nick mightay be to
spare their lives and be lenient with them once their usefulness to
him was outlived.

“I’m a bit parched to be telling stories at
the moment,” J.T. responded, looking longingly at what remained of
Nick’s drink.

Nick sipped at the ice water until it was a
mere inch from the bottom before offering the straw to J.T., who
eagerly sipped the last bit of liquid from the bottom of the
glass.

“Let’s hear it then,” Nick probed as he
returned to his seat.

“The first few years in prison, I was just
upset about getting caught,” J.T. began. “I had the lawyers
exploring every legal option to get me out with a mistrial or get
my sentence reduced. As the years progressed, I began to realize I
might actually be serving the whole stretch. I was getting
depressed. I started taking anti-depressants prescribed by one of
the prison docs, but it made my thinking go fuzzy. I couldn’t even
read the business journal and focus on an article long enough to
finish it, so I stopped taking the stuff.”

“There was this AA program being offered in
the prison I was in, and the prison doc suggested I attend. I
figured, ‘Why not?’, so I went. I started hearing stories from some
of the other prisoners about their lives. The messed-up childhoods,
the drug abuse, sexual abuse, you name it. Of course, compared to
most of them, I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I started
thinking about my life, what I had before. I began wondering if I
had ever really been happy or if I had simply chased after what I
thought I needed to be happy, chased it so fast and hard that I had
never really slowed down enough to feel the void that was there all
along. I gave that some serious thought. I didn’t have much else to
do, staring at the walls all day. The more I thought, the more
convinced I became that I really didn’t have any idea what would
make me happy, much less content or fulfilled.

“That’s when I hit what we call in the
program ‘rock bottom’. Faced with the prospect of being in that
prison until I was an old man and seeing what a mess I had made of
my life, I decided I was ready for a change. I decided that J.T.
Thornbacker didn’t know squat about how to run his life in a way
that would lead to contentment, fulfillment, or peace.”

“So that’s when you found God and started
your bleeding heart campaign to try and save the world with our
ill-gotten gain?” Nick asked half-heartedly.

“No. That’s when God found me…. And that’s
when I asked this God Whom I knew nothing about to straighten out
the mess I had made of my life. It was a couple of years later when
I got to the point where I decided to use the money to try and
right some of the wrongs I had helped to perpetrate,” J.T.
concluded.

“And that,” interrupted Nick, “is when I
found the money. I suppose I should thank this god of yours for
that.”

“God had nothing to do with that,” J.T.

replied.

“Don’t be so sure, my friend,” Nick said
with a smile. He stood up and moved the chair back a few feet
before walking to the stairs. “Thank you for the conversation. It
has been enlightening,” he concluded before descending the stairs
and leaving J.T. to suffer some more under the discomfort of the
afternoon sun.

 

[] Chapter
Twenty-Six

At sundown, one of the commandos came up to
the upper deck of the yacht and cut the wrist restraints off, then
he led a thirsty, sunburned, and tired J.T. Thornbacker back down
to the cabin that was his temporary holding cell. The commando
unlocked the door and motioned for J.T. to enter, locking it after
he was inside.

J.T. stumbled in the door and stood for a
moment, stretching his back. James, seated on the couch at the far
side of the room, stood up and crossed the room towards J.T.,
hitting him in the face with his fist when he came within range.
J.T. staggered back across the room and hit the bunk beds installed
in the wall of the yacht, stopping his backwards progress. James
stood there scowling at him, waiting for J.T. to fight back. J.T.
reached his hand up and wiped away the trickle of blood trickling
down from his lip with the back of his hand.

“I deserved that,” J.T. said.

“What were you thinking?” James reprimanded,
still staring at him angrily. Laura just stared reproachfully at
J.T. from where she was seated, saying nothing.

“Look,” J.T. began, “I apologize for the
trouble I got you two into today. This guy came to me. He slipped a
note in my pocket at the bank, saying he could help get us out, and
I saw a chance to end this. I thought it would be better if you
didn’t know because I thought you might try to stop me.”

“At least he’s being honest about why he
didn’t tell us,” Laura quipped sarcastically. “Maybe after today,
you’ll listen to us when we tell you it would be better to just do
what Nick is asking you to do.”

“I will. I will,” J.T. promised.

“How do we know we can actually trust you
this time?” asked James.

“I know I let you guys down. I’m sorry about
that. I can understand you don’t trust me right now. I can’t say
that I would trust me either if the shoe was on the other foot. But
there’s nothing you can do about it but take my word for it and
wait and see.”

“That’s what we did the last time; it didn’t
work out so well for me then,” Laura pointed to the burn marks on
her leg where she had been zapped with the electrical shock
baton.

“I get it,” J.T. lamented. “I really do.” He
edged over to the couch and slumped down into the seat. “Do we have
any bottled water? I’m parched.”

“You look like hell,” James replied, going
over to a small shelf where there were some bottled waters and
throwing one over towards J.T. It landed on the couch within his
reach.

J.T. picked up the bottle, opened it, and
began taking small sips. The door lock turned, and one of the
commandos came in with a plate of sandwiches and unceremoniously
deposited them on the table, along with three cold bottles of
water, before exiting again.

“Hallelujah!” James exclaimed as he and
Laura both advanced on the food. After eating in silence for a few
minutes, Laura noticed that J.T. hadn’t moved.

“Don’t you want something to eat?” Laura
said between bites.

“No. Think I’ve got sun poisoning. Better
off just drinking water for now,” J.T. replied.

“I’m still mad at you,” Laura said to J.T.,
“but I’m glad you’re o.k.”

“Me, too; sorry they used that shock stick
on you.” J.T. replied weakly. “I won’t try anything else, I
promise.”

“Yeah, I hope you’re telling the truth this
time, for all of our sakes,” James replied.

Over the next several days, the bank routine
continued without interruption. Some changes were made in the
process to ensure J.T. didn’t try to contact anyone else. He was
patted down and his pockets were searched before he left the yacht
and upon his return.

On the final day of the withdrawal process,
after everyone had finished the gourmet lunch that was provided on
the yacht, Nick opened up a bottle of champagne. He poured a glass
for everyone at the table and handed them out, and then he proposed
a toast.

“Here’s to the completion of our little
journey together, the end of your captivity, and the beginning of
this next phase of our lives,” he said as he raised his glass.

Mia and Nick smiled as they drank the
champagne. James and Laura politely sipped the champagne, not
wanting to offend their host, but not quite certain what was going
to happen next. J.T. didn’t drink at all, but quietly put his glass
back down on the table.

“I’m sure you are all wondering if I am
going to keep my promise. Toward that end, I’ve prepared a little
briefing for you in the conference room. You can bring your
champagne if you like. Mia will escort you there,” Nick continued,
motioning to Mia with his glass and slightly nodding his head in
her direction.

“Please follow me,” Mia said, standing up
from the table.

James, Laura, and J.T. dutifully followed
Mia to the deck below, and into a conference room that they had not
seen before. A long table surrounded by leather chairs was in the
center of the room, with a video screen hanging prominently on the
wall at one end. Three of the commandos followed them, positioning
themselves around the edges of the room.

A few moments later, Nick entered the room
carrying a briefcase. He opened the briefcase, took out three
manila envelopes, and placed them on the table in front of him. “I
have information in these folders that you are going to find very
interesting. I have a very specific reason for giving you each a
very large sum of money. The simple truth is that I need you to
remain lost to the FBI and never return to the United States. I
need the U.S. government to believe that the three of you planned
and executed your own escape from prison, and that you have fled
the United States for parts unknown. This way, I am removed from
any involvement in the escape and can continue my business
activities in the United States without any problems with the
authorities.” He smiled as he made the last statement.

“Now, I considered the possibility that one
or more of you would consider returning to the U.S. and attempting
to convince the authorities that you were not complicit in the
escape, and give them information about my involvement. Toward that
end, I have taken the liberty of providing myself with some
insurance.”

He tapped the file folders in front of him
on the table with two fingers for emphasis.

“A few minutes ago, an anonymous tip was
placed by one of my associates from within the United States to the
FBI, claiming to have information related to your escape. When the
authorities follow up on this tip, they will find a warehouse full
of evidence to implicate each of you in the planning and execution
of your escape from prison.

“During this past week, I have taken the
liberty of collecting numerous items that each of you have touched
and left your fingerprints and DNA on around this yacht. I have
sent these items to my colleagues in the States to place
strategically around this warehouse, providing proof that you all
spent time there after your escape. Additional evidence that will
be uncovered there will indicate that you all planned to immigrate
to Europe under assumed identities, aided by plastic surgery to
disguise your appearances.”

Nick passed each of them one of the
folders.

“I have provided enough information in each
of these folders to convince you that what I have just told you is
true. Should you ever return to the United States of America, you
can rest assured that you three will be convicted of planning and
executing your escape from prison and your flight out of the U.S.
You will each spend the rest of your lives in prison if you are
caught.”

He paused to let the gravity of what he had
just said sink in. James, J.T., and Laura began looking through the
contents of the folders that lay before them. Laura recognized one
of the blouses she had worn the week before, hanging in a warehouse
locker that she had never seen before. There were photos of a table
in the warehouse with glasses she recognized from the yacht. A
hairbrush she had used, a towel from the yacht, even the prison
clothing that they had worn while at Utopia, all present and
accounted for in the warehouse photos.

“We’re screwed,” she said, staring down at
the contents of the folder.

Confident the others would have reached the
same conclusion, Nick continued.

“The good news is that I don’t want you to
be caught. That’s why I’m giving you each enough money to live on,
why I’m pointing the FBI in the wrong direction, and why I’m
leaving you here in the Cayman Islands. I don’t want to get
arrested for breaking you out of prison, and you don’t want to end
up going back to jail for the rest of your lives. Furthermore,
while murder isn’t against my morals, it’s too messy for my tastes.
This way, you get to live and we can both help each other out.”

Nick nodded to Mia, who walked around the
table and gave each one of them a backpack. J.T. received a blue
backpack, Laura a red one, and James a black backpack.

“You’ll find new identification documents
along with your promised cut of the money in these backpacks.
Victor will escort you back to the island and drop you off at the
marina. Have a nice life…and try not to get caught.” Nick smiled as
he said the last statement. He nodded to Victor, who took his cue
and stepped forward to open the conference room door.

“This way, please,” he said, motioning with
his hand for J.T., James, and Laura to leave the conference
room.

J.T. was the last one to leave, and before
he exited the room, he turned to Nick and said, “Do you really
think you are going to get away with this, Nick?”

Nick smiled as he looked J.T. in the eyes
and said, “My dear fellow, I already have….”

 

[] Chapter
Twenty-Seven

J.T. looked out over the ocean from the
balcony of his home on Rum Point, Grand Cayman Island as he waited
for his dinner guests to arrive. He contemplated the many changes
that had taken place during the past year since they’d been dropped
on the dock at the marina by Nick Bartonovich’s hired guns. Nick
had indeed kept his word. They each had the promised disbursement
of funds and everyone had new identities, complete with background
biographies, U.S. driver’s licenses, Social Security cards – the
whole nine yards.

After Nick had set them free on the island,
it took them a few days to realize they had actually escaped the
ordeal relatively unharmed. They had slowly begun to build new
lives for themselves. They had all found new places to live. J.T.
had bought this place out on Rum Point, and James and Laura had
found places to rent in town.

While none of them had the need to work,
they had all developed occupations over the past year. James was
bored out of his mind just laying around, so he had begun hanging
out at one of the local bike rental and repair shops. An elderly
man owned the place, and James had convinced him to teach him the
business and sell him the shop once he was ready to retire. He
liked doing something productive with his hands, and enjoyed taking
the tourists on bike excursions around the island.

Laura had continued the hobby she had
learned while in Utopia – making stained glass. She had set up a
room in her small apartment where she made beautiful island-themed
stained glass pieces which she sold on the internet. She enjoyed
the work and it was therapeutic for her. She had also begun
volunteering at the women’s crisis center in town that helped
abused women by providing them a place to stay, trauma counseling,
childcare, and legal services.

J.T. had begun investing in the stock market
online. He had helped Laura and James invest, as well, so that they
could live off of their investments instead of spending all of the
money they had. He had done well enough with his own investments
that he was able to keep giving money away to those he had harmed
before he went to prison, and still had enough left over to provide
for his own living without dipping into the remaining principle
investment.

Laura and James had forgiven J.T. for going
behind their backs in an attempt to get them rescued, and over
time, they had all developed strong relationships with one another.
One of the habits they had developed was meeting together once a
month at his house for a nice dinner. They would use the
opportunity to catch up and talk about what was going on with their
new lives.

As J.T. thought about all of this, he closed
his eyes and inhaled deeply, relishing the salty ocean air mixed
with the delicious smelling food that was waiting on the table in
the dining room. He’d had a local restaurant deliver a meal of
ackee and codfish, which was one of his favorite local dishes. He
was looking forward to tasting it and catching up with James and
Laura.

As he opened his eyes, he saw James’ car
pulling up in the driveway with Laura in the passenger’s seat. He
turned and went back inside the house, crossing the spacious great
room as he made his way towards the front door – which was actually
positioned on the side of the house. He made it there just in time
to hear James rapping his knuckles on the door.

J.T. opened the door and James crossed the
threshold to give J.T. a big bear hug.

“Hey J.T., it’s good to see you.

Although J.T. was officially known as Sam
Walters – the new identity that Nick had provided for him, the trio
often slipped back into using their real names when they were alone
on occasions such as this.

“Hey James, good to see you.”

He saw Laura standing behind James, holding
something in a plastic container. He gave her a hug too, being
careful not to dislodge what was likely a wonderfully tasty dessert
from her grasp.

“Hey Laura.”

“Hi J.T.,” she said as she returned his
embrace.

They all made their way over to the dining
area and sat down at the table. James started serving his plate
immediately, failing to notice that J.T. was patiently waiting for
him to stop.

“James, J.T. usually prays, remember?” Laura
said.

“Oh yeah, right,” James said, feeling
slightly embarrassed, putting down the serving spoon and sitting
back in his chair. J.T. had started saying a prayer at the monthly
meals about six months ago. He had modeled it on the original
serenity prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr. Praying wasn’t
something James was used to doing before meals, and he still
frequently forgot about it whenever they ate together. J.T. laughed
at James as he sat back, looking ashamed.

“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

It’s not like God is going to strike you down or anything.”

“That’s a good thing,” James replied
jokingly.

Laura rolled her eyes at James.

“Can we pray now? I’m starving,” Laura
pleaded.

“Sure, here we go,” J.T. said as he began.

“God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot
be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Living one
day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as
a pathway to peace. Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it
is, not as I would have it. Trusting that You will make all things
right if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably
happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the
next. And thank You for this food. Amen.”

The meal progressed from there with vigor.

J.T. opened a bottle of wine and poured everyone a generous
portion. The conversation was lively as the three caught each other
up on the previous month’s activities.

“I just broke one thousand dollars in sales for the
first time this month!” Laura exclaimed.

“Hey, good for you!” J.T. replied, raising his
glass. “A toast to Laura’s stained glass business.”

“Here, here,” James enjoined, raising his own glass
and taking a generous swig of wine along with the other two.

“What about you, James, anything new and exciting to
report?” J.T. asked.

“Well… actually there is…” James replied, looking
across the table at Laura. She turned beet red and started looking
down at her plate.

“Oh, do tell,” J.T. encouraged, seeing Laura
blush.

“Laura and I are dating,” James continued.

“Oh, so you each found someone to date within the
last month? Who are these two other people?” J.T. asked jokingly,
looking at Laura and enjoying her embarrassment. She took a carrot
off of her salad and threw it at him.

“Stop it! You know what he means; we’re dating each
other.”

“Oh, o.k. I get it now,” he said, pretending not to
have understood what James was getting at. “Well, that’s good
news,” he continued with genuine affection. “How long has this been
going on?”

“About three months,” Laura replied. “We agreed not
to tell you in case it didn’t work out. We didn’t want it to be
awkward between us all.”

“Well, shoot fire,” replied J.T. “I’m happy for you
two.”

“What about you, J.T.? Do you have anything new
going on?” James queried.

“Well, as a matter of fact, I do. You both know that
as part of making amends for my past, that I track down former
employees of the companies I helped shut down and help them out.
Well, there were a few that were hit particularly hard. Some of
them had heart attacks, some of them committed suicide….” J.T.
stopped speaking, having begun to choke up. Laura could see tears
welling up in his eyes. He paused for a moment to collect himself
before continuing. “Over the years I’ve been doing this, I have
made a list of those people and vowed that if I ever got the
chance, that I would visit them personally and apologize.”

“Wait a minute, J.T.,” James interrupted, “you can’t
be serious about returning to the States. What if you get
caught?”

“Now, just hold your horses,” J.T. replied, putting
both hands up in a gesture of surrender. “I’m not going back to the
U.S.”

Laura and James both sat back in their chairs,
visibly relieved.

“I’ve arranged for each of these people to be
invited on a cruise, supposedly at the expense of their former
employer. One of the stops is in Nassau. I’m planning to fly out
there and meet with each of them individually at a pre-arranged
time in a rental office in one of the hotels there. It’s already
all been arranged. I’ll even be in a disguise so they won’t be able
to recognize me.”

He stared between Laura and James, looking for any
indication of alarm.

“If you can think of anything that might set off the
alarm bells, let me know within the next week. I can still have one
of my lawyers do the meet in my place, but I would rather do it
myself if I can. I feel this is something I really need to do.”

Laura and James both looked somber, considering what
J.T. had just said, wracking their brains in an attempt to see any
possible flaws.

“If you get caught, it will lead them right back to
us,” Laura stated. “Then we’re all going back to jail.”

“It’s only for one day, right?” James asked. “Are
you using your real name or your alias for anything?”

“I only used my alias to book the flight to Nassau.

Everything tied with the cruise and renting the office will be in
the name of my law firm – protected information that they can’t
legally be forced to disclose under U.S. law. I’m planning on
introducing myself as Jack Smith, one of the people responsible for
shutting down the business – no more detail than that.”

“You can’t seriously be in agreement with this?”
Laura said to James, obviously upset. “If he gets caught, we all
get caught. Our lives would be over, James.”

James looked directly at Laura.

“My mom died because somebody ran her company into
the ground and she lost her insurance and couldn’t get the right
treatment for her cancer. It would have meant a lot to me if
someone responsible for that would have looked me in the eye and
said they were sorry for what they did.” He turned to look at J.T.
“I think you should go, but only if Laura is o.k. with it. Like she
said, we’re all in this together.”

J.T. looked at Laura, who was shaking her head from
side to side.

“Look, Laura,” J.T. continued, “you don’t have to
decide tonight. Think about it. I’m not scheduled to fly out until
next Saturday.”

Laura stood up and began walking out the door. “I’m
going down to the beach. I need to be alone,” she said.

James turned to look at J.T. “Let’s just give her
some space… and eat some of that cake she brought,” he said with a
smile.

“Darn straight.” J.T. replied as they both got up
from the table and went to the kitchen counter to open the
dessert.

When she arrived at the beach, Laura sat down on the
sand and looked out over the beautiful tropical ocean view before
her. She was full of conflicting emotions. She was mad that J.T.
was planning to do something that could destroy the life they had
all worked to build for themselves over the past year. She was also
scared that he might actually get caught and get them all thrown
back into prison. As she looked out at the waves, she thought about
the prayer that J.T. had said before dinner and about her own
journey of recovery in the program at Utopia.

“Give me the courage to change the things which
should be changed,” she said out loud.

She thought about what James had said, about how it
would have made a difference for someone to apologize for their
role in his mom’s loss of insurance and the resulting damage that
had been caused. She thought about how it would have helped her
heal if any of her former abusers had had the guts to accept
responsibility for what they had done and say so to her face. After
staring at the ocean for a few more minutes, she stood up and
walked back to the house.

Back in the house, Laura found J.T. and James
playing pool. James was losing badly, as usual, but he was having
fun. She smiled as she walked up to the two. They stopped the game
and looked at her, waiting for her to say something.

“I think you should do it. I have one condition,
though,” she said.

“Name it,” J.T. replied.

“You call us once you are in the air on your way
back to let us know you didn’t get busted.”

J.T. nodded soberly, “Will do… and thanks for
understanding.”

“I think it’s great what you’re doing, J.T.,” Laura
said.

“I just hope it can help them move on somehow,” he
replied.

J.T. went to bed that night looking forward to the
upcoming trip, wondering what it would be like. He was both scared
and excited at the same time.

 

[] Chapter
Twenty-Eight

Nick Bartonovich sat in the chair across
from the doctor as he was given the results of the battery of tests
that had been run over the past few weeks. It was never a good sign
when you were called back in to the doctor’s office to get the
results – they never liked to give bad news over the phone, it
seemed. All the same, he hadn’t been prepared to hear the ‘C’ word.
Appendicitis, an ulcer, anything but cancer.

There had never been anything that Nick
couldn’t handle, even since he was a kid. When his parents had died
within weeks of each other, he had cried, sure, but he never let
anyone else see. He was only ten, but he determined then that he
would never let anyone hurt him that badly again. He decided that
he would be the one calling the shots, making the plans,
bending events to his own will and desire. When his uncle tried to
get him to take off more time from school to grieve, Nick snuck out
of the house and went to school anyway, hitting the books harder
than ever. His hard work paid off and he eventually earned a
scholarship into college. Once he was there, he started dabbling in
running numbers for the college games, found he was good at it, and
started the path he was still on today.

But this was different. This wasn’t some
external enemy he could defeat with the force of his will. He
couldn’t write a check and make it go away or send Mia out to
persuade cancer to change its mind and leave. And for the first
time since he’d been that little boy who had just lost his parents,
Nick Bartonovich was afraid.

He sat in a daze as the doctor talked about
possible therapies for stage two stomach cancer. Surgery would be
mandatory, possibly followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
All of it coming at him so fast that he felt like a mosquito caught
in a rainstorm, having to dodge every word like it was a drop of
water, threatening to envelope him if he came too close to it. He
came out of his daze at the end of the conversation to hear that he
had an appointment the following week with an oncologist.

The doctor slid a card across the desk
towards him with the particulars of the appointment before asking
if Nick had any questions. Nick could barely breathe. It was as if
all of the oxygen had been sucked out of the room and he didn’t
have enough air in his lungs to speak. So he simply stared at the
card and nodded his head from side to side.

He almost had a head-on collision while
driving home because he wasn’t paying attention to driving – still
attempting to process the news he had just been given. He parked
the car in the garage and made his way to the den, where he poured
himself a scotch and sat down in his favorite chair, looking out
the front window. That was where Mia found him when she came in the
front door.

Nick had told her to come in around 2:00
p.m. because he had a doctor’s appointment and wouldn’t be back
before then. He had planned on following their usual routine at
that time. He would review his various business activities for the
day and assign to her any tasks he needed taken care of.

Mia wasn’t anything like a secretary. He had
a half-dozen of those that worked at his corporate office downtown.
He could video conference, call, or email the corporate office
administrator from his office here at home should he need something
done. Mia was more of a specialized personal assistant. She would
handle the coordination of delivery and pickup of funds that were
made or lost from the gambling enterprises. If some of the high
rollers were having a bad spell and refusing to pay up, she would
persuade them to change their minds and come back with the cash. If
a business associate needed help deciding to do what Nick was
suggesting, Mia was the one he sent to work it out. She was very
good at what she did and he had complete faith in her abilities.
But today, there would be no such assignments.

Mia could tell that Nick was not in a good
mood, so she did what she normally did when she found him in a foul
mood – she waited. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes passed and Nick
didn’t move. He was just staring out the window, holding the
half-consumed glass of scotch in his hand as his arm lay on the
armrest of the chair.

Mia could only recall one other time that
she had seen him like this. It had been in college when the girl he
had been dating had dumped him. He had tried to win her back with
gifts and flowers, but she had finally told him that there was
nothing he could do to win her back, that she just didn’t love him
and never would. He had sat in a chair and stared out of the window
for the rest of the afternoon just like he was doing now. It wasn’t
something he could fix. He couldn’t force her to love him like he
could force someone to pay a debt. He knew that and he was undone
by the fact.

At the end of the day, he’d snapped out of
his stupor, told Mia to get dressed to party, and they had gone out
together. It was the first time Nick had ever asked her to go
anywhere with him socially. Before, it had always been business.
They had gone to a few bars and Nick was beginning to get drunk.
When they entered the next bar, Nick caught sight of his former
girlfriend sitting at a table with her new football player
boyfriend and a couple of his teammates. Nick began hurling insults
at his former flame and her new beau. After the second or third
comment, the big football player had stood up, red-faced, and begun
coming towards Nick, intent on a fight. He was followed closely by
his two teammates.

Mia did what she did best. She protected
Nick and looked out for his interests. Before the first would-be
assailant had come within striking distance of Nick, Mia had
already covered the distance between them, delivering a side-kick
to his knee that sent him crashing down to the floor in agony – an
injury that would leave him out of commission for the rest of the
season. Without skipping a beat, she took another step and leapt
into the air to deliver a well-placed knee to the second man’s
diaphragm. At the same time, she used the palms of her hands to
strike his ears violently, leaving him breathless and in
considerable pain in the process. The third man was at her side by
this time. Seeing what he was up against, he decided not to take
any chances. Lady or not, he was going to punch Mia – or so he
thought. Mia easily deflected his clumsily delivered haymaker and
delivered an open-hand strike to his trachea. He instantly put both
hands to his throat and began gagging and gasping for air.

Nick had been watching the whole time with
great amusement. Mia quietly walked over and said to him, “Let’s
leave before the cops get here.” They left the bar and Mia took
Nick home, making sure he made it inside to his bed before he
passed out. That was what had happened the last time she had seen
him look this way.

She went to the kitchen to make some tea and
brought it back in on a tray with two cups and some sugar, setting
it down on the coffee table in front of the couch. She poured
herself a cup and began drinking it as she waited. After another
fifteen minutes or so, Nick spoke.

“Mia….”

She waited for a few seconds, expecting him
to finish his sentence. When he didn’t, she replied.

“Yes?”

“Mia…I…I have cancer….”

 

 

The next six months were very difficult. The
treatment plan the oncologist suggested for Nick involved a surgery
to remove a mass of cancer, followed by chemotherapy. Mia’s role
began to change. She was still protecting Nick’s interests, but now
that included driving him to and from doctor’s appointments.
Helping walk him to the car when he was dizzy, and helping him make
some of the common business decisions that he had trouble making
because he couldn’t think clearly due to the drugs he was
taking.

Nick had asked Mia to arrange for a nurse to
be around during the day to help him through the recovery process.
The nurse was to help bring him pain medication, help him up and
down the stairs when he was dizzy, or help clean up when he
vomited. One day, Nick called her on the phone.

“Mia….”

Nick’s voice was strained.

“Yes, what is it?” Mia asked.

“I’ve fallen down the stairs and I need your
help.”

“I’ll be right there,” she replied.

She depressed the accelerator and sped
towards the house. When she came inside, she found Nick sitting in
a chair, with his leg propped up on a foot stool with a pillow
under it. Marcus, the security man whom Nick usually kept at the
house, was bringing a glass of water over to Nick when Mia
arrived.

“Are you o.k.?” she asked Nick.

“I’m not sure,” Nick replied.

“What happened?”

“The nurse didn’t show up today. I thought I
could make it downstairs to get myself some breakfast before
starting to work, but I began feeling dizzy towards the bottom, and
fell down the last four steps. Marcus helped me up and over here to
the chair.”

He took the offered glass of water from
Marcus. But before Marcus could turn and leave, Mia’s gaze fell
upon him, her eyes burning a hole right through him. He had seen
that stare fall upon others and he immediately felt a knot in the
pit of his stomach, unsure of what would happen next.

“Why didn’t you help him down the stairs?”
she asked him, her eyes staying focused on him like lasers.

“I…I didn’t know he wanted my help,” Marcus
replied weakly.

“You should not wait for him to ask. If the
nurse is not here, you help him. Understand?”

“Ye.. yes… ma’am. Understood,” he replied,
unsure whether he was dismissed and should leave the room, or if he
should be still.

“Go!” Mia commanded as she pointed out of
the room. Marcus retreated hastily into the foyer.

“Don’t be too hard on him, Mia,” Nick
encouraged her. “After all, if it wasn’t for him, I’d still be on
the floor.”

“Not good enough,” Mia replied. In Mia’s
line of work, it was handy to have a doctor on the payroll to patch
up any employees who had been recently injured. This frequently
happened while rendering some of the more dangerous services
required in their business. She scrolled through the contacts in
her phone, selecting one and hitting the call icon. In two rings, a
doctor answered personally on the other end. Mia did not bother
with introductions. “Come to the house; Nick has fallen down. His
leg is injured. Hurry.” She disconnected the call.

The doctor arrived and, after a thorough
examination, concluded that Nick had only sprained his ankle in the
fall. He suggested that Nick use crutches until the leg healed up a
bit, and that he have someone assist him when he went up or down
the stairs. He told Nick that he would come back by in a few days
to check up on him and see how the healing process was going. Mia
fired the nurse that afternoon and selected a different company.
She began a routine of calling Marcus each morning to confirm that
the nurse had arrived before she headed to the house herself.

Nick lost all of his hair and so much weight
during the chemotherapy that he had Mia buy him a new wardrobe of
clothes that fit him more snugly. He said that he refused to look
like a scarecrow wearing his old clothes that were now far too big.
Eventually, the chemotherapy ended and his hair began to grow back.
The side effects of the drugs began to disappear and his sprained
ankle healed up so that he no longer needed crutches. Finally, the
day came when the doctors declared Nick to be cancer-free.

One day afterward, Mia was heading home
after the last business errand of the day when Nick called her on
her cell phone.

“Yes,” she said.

“Mia, can you come by the house, I have one
more thing I need you to take care of before you go home.”

“O.k., I’ll be right there,” she
replied.

She pulled up to the house and went up the
steps, entering the security code to let herself into the house.
She’d started to head upstairs to Nick’s office when she saw Nick
come out of the den.

“Thanks for coming back,” he said.

Mia was still not used to Nick saying ‘thank
you’. Before his illness, he would ask people to do things and
expect it to be done, but rarely did he ever say thank you. While
he’d been sick and had needed people to do so many things for him,
he had begun to say ‘thank you’ far more frequently. The illness
had definitely changed him.

“Would you come into the dining room,
please?” Nick said.

Mia dutifully followed him into the dining
room, where she saw the table set for two. Nick walked over to one
of the chairs and pulled it out for her.

“I have some business to discuss with you
and I haven’t eaten yet; would you mind if we had dinner while we
talk?”

“O.k.,” Mia responded as she sat down at the
table. It was a bit awkward as Nick pushed in the chair for her –
something he had never done before.

Nick opened the door to the kitchen and told
the chef that they were ready to eat – another oddity, as Nick
usually only had a chef when company was coming over. The chef
brought out the food and set it on the table. They began eating in
silence. After a few minutes, Nick stopped eating and took a
sizable drink from his wine glass. Mia could tell that he was
nervous – and Nick was never nervous. She was immediately on edge.
She wondered if the cancer had returned.

“Mia,” Nick began, “this recent illness
brought about many changes in my life. I had to rely on many other
people to help me in ways I’ve never had to have help before. You
were chief among those helpers, and I wanted to think of an
appropriate way to say thank you.” He slid a black box across the
table before continuing. “Thank you.”

Mia looked down at the box, stunned. Nick
had never given her so much as a birthday card before. Their
relationship had always been solely professional. He paid her well
and treated her with respect, but the business line had never been
crossed. She slowly reached forth her hand and took the box.

“Thank you,” she said, almost as a
question.

“Well, go ahead and open it,” Nick
prodded.

Mia timidly opened the box to reveal a ruby
and diamond choker necklace. She stared at it, speechless for
several seconds before looking up at Nick with a confused
expression on her face.

“Put it on,” Nick encouraged her.

Mia picked up the necklace and held it up.

It was beautiful. She just stared at it.

“Here, let me help you,” Nick said. Nick
stood up and came around behind her chair, and took the necklace
from her hands. He put it around her neck and secured the clasp for
her.

“Why don’t you stand up and take a look at
it in the mirror?”

Mia stood up and turned around to the large
mirror hanging on the wall behind them. The necklace looked even
more beautiful around her neck, she thought to herself.

“Do you like it?” Nick asked as he stood
beside her and watched her in the mirror.

“Yes,” Mia said as she reached her hand up
and ran it along the stones, “I like it very much.”

“Good,” Nick replied, satisfied. “Shall we
finish our dinner?” he said as he pulled out her chair for her once
more.

They finished eating dinner and Nick did
most of the talking. Mia had never been one for chatting, but she
liked listening to Nick as he talked about his recovery and how he
planned to start keeping a better eye on his health. He paused here
and there to ask her questions, to which her replies were
predictably short and to the point, but he didn’t seem to mind. In
fact, he seemed positively giddy – like a schoolboy just let out on
summer break. She wondered what was happening. It was confusing to
her, but she liked this new side of Nick.

Nick saw Mia to the door and out to the car
after they had finished their dessert. He said goodnight to her –
something he also had never done before, and went back into the
house. Mia drove home thinking about the evening. At one point, she
glanced into the rearview mirror to check the traffic behind her
and caught a glimpse of her own face. She was smiling. It was
something she had not expected to see. Mia did not smile very
often. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time she had smiled
at all.

 

[] Chapter
Twenty-Nine

Mia Chen had come to the United States with
her immigrant parents. She was an only child whose parents had
desperately wanted a boy. Her father opened up a martial arts
school in New York City. He pushed Mia to learn the trade just as
hard as if she were the son he’d always wanted but never had. He
was cruel to her and would hit her if she failed to meet his
expectations. Her mother would do nothing to stop him. So Mia
determined at an early age that she would not fail to meet those
high expectations.

By the time Mia was fifteen, she was able to
beat anyone in their studio in the school fighting competitions.
She won regional competition trophies and even went to a state-wide
championship competition when she was eighteen. She caught the flu
the day before the state competition, but her father forced her to
compete anyway. She lost. He was irate, berating her and shouting
at her all the way home. Once they were home, he hit her in the
stomach and she threw up. He was good at hitting her just hard
enough so as not to break any bones or cause any lasting physical
damage, but the bruises and psychological damage were bad enough.
That night, Mia made up her mind to run away.

After she ran away, she began picking up odd
jobs where she could. She got a job teaching martial arts at
another studio, but her father found out about it and came to take
her home. He almost caught her, but she saw his car pull up and ran
away through Central Park before he could catch her. After that,
she stopped teaching martial arts, afraid he would track her down
again.

She saw an advertisement on a local college
bulletin board. The ad stated that one of the sororities was
looking for a security guard for an upcoming party. When she showed
up in front of the sorority house and met the head of the sorority
for her interview, the girl almost laughed when she saw this thin
Chinese girl was applying for the position.

“I’m sorry, miss,” her interviewer began,
“but I’m not sure you’re…big enough for this job.”

Mia looked around and saw a male college
student about to enter the sorority house to visit his girlfriend.
He was six-foot three and built like a tank. Mia ran up to him.

“Excuse me,” she said, “can you help me one
moment?”

He looked a bit surprised.

“I need you to come over here,” Mia motioned
to where her interviewer was seated behind a table with a smirk on
her face. The man reluctantly came over to where Mia was motioning,
not sure what he was getting into.

“Is this man big enough?” Mia asked the
lady.

“Well, yes, he is, but he isn’t applying for
the job; you are,” the lady contended.

Mia ignored her and turned to the man.

“Stand here,” she said as she positioned him several feet in front
of the table at which her interviewer was seated. She held up a
twenty dollar bill so that he could see it and placed it on the
table, positioning herself between him and the money. It was the
last twenty dollars she had to her name.

“If you can pick up the money, you can have
it,” she said.

The student chuckled, walking forward and
reaching his hand out as if he was going to move her aside and pick
up the money. Mia grabbed his wrist and twisted it while applying
upward pressure with her other hand to the underside of his elbow,
putting him in a submission hold that easily deflected him away
from the table.

“Try again,” she said to him as she released
him.

The big student flexed his shoulders up and
down, this time stepping forward and attempting to put Mia in a
bear hug to move her away from the table. Before he could step
close enough, Mia stuck two fingers towards the base of his neck
between the clavicle bones, pressing downward into the epiglottis.
The move stopped him dead in his tracks and he reflexively moved
his hands towards his throat, at which point Mia grabbed his wrist
and put him in a submission hold again.

The big guy backed off, dazed, and beginning
to get a bit upset that this little Chinese girl had stopped him
twice. A small crowd was beginning to gather around the table and
Mia could see from the look in his eye that he was thinking about
taking a real swing at her. She looked him straight in the eyes
without flinching.

“Thank you for your help. You can go now,”
she said.

Something about the look in her eyes made
the man decide that twenty dollars wasn’t worth the effort, and
that his pride would be better off if he didn’t try again.

“You’re welcome,” he said stiffly as he
turned and walked away.

Mia heard clapping noises from behind her as
the interviewer and a few other sorority members applauded her
demonstration.

“I underestimated you, my dear,” the
interviewer responded. “You are hired.”

 

 

The party was a typical sorority affair.

Lots of girls, lots of guys, lots of booze. Mia’s job was to hang
around the main floor of the sorority house and serve as a bouncer
if anyone tried to start a fight or make a big scene.

Mia had never been to such a party before.

She had never even had a drink of alcohol. She wasn’t quite sure
what to expect, so she brought along a few tools of the trade. A
telescoping police baton was clipped to her belt, and a knife was
strapped to her calf, just under her jeans.

The night was proceeding without incident
until an obviously drunken fraternity brother started making
unwelcome advances towards his date.

“Stop it! Let me go!” the girl
protested.

“Come on,” the man slurred, “let’s go
upstairs where we can be alone,” he said as he began dragging her
towards the stairs by her wrist. The girl resisted futilely,
outweighed by about a hundred pounds. Mia quickly positioned
herself on the stairs in front of the advancing man and confronted
him.

“Let her go,” she said as she put up her
hand towards the man in a stopping gesture.

The man looked up and laughed as he
attempted to walk into and over Mia. Before he could touch her, Mia
thrust her knee up into his solar plexus, grabbed his left hand
while stepping behind him, placed her foot in the crook of his leg,
and applied pressure to force him down onto the stairs. He was then
left gagging for air, face-down on the stairs with his arm behind
his back. Mia had her knee in his back so that he wasn’t able to
get up. During the brief melee, he had released the girl he had
been dragging up the stairs.

Mia turned to the girl. “Are you o.k.?” she
asked.

The girl looked stunned and was rubbing her
wrist. “Yes,” she replied, “thank you.”

Mia turned her attention back to the man on
the ground. “I’m going to let you go and you will leave the party
now. Yes?”

“Yes,” came the man’s strained reply.

Mia released his wrist and took her knee off
of his back while quickly moving up the steps and turning to face
the man. The man stood up, rubbed his wrist for a moment, and then
lunged at Mia without warning, throwing a punch at her face. Mia
dropped down into a sitting position on the stairs and delivered a
swift side-kick to the man’s groin. As the man dropped to his knees
cursing, she leaned forward while still in a sitting position and
delivered a forearm strike to the side of the man’s face, which was
now level with hers due to his position on the stairs below. His
head slammed into the side of the substantial bannister and he
crumpled to the ground. Mia had already stood back up and was
prepared to continue the assault, only to find that it was
unnecessary, as her attacker wasn’t moving.

“Bravo,” came a voice from the main floor
below. Mia looked down to see a well-dressed male student leaning
against the archway leading into the next room.

“I don’t think he will be bothering anyone
else tonight, except perhaps for the ER doctor,” the man
continued.

Mia eyed him warily as she walked down the
stairs. The man pulled a business card out of his pocket and
extended it in her direction.

“How would like to come work for me?”

Mia took the card and read it:

 

Gaming Entertainment Enterprises

Nicky B.

555-724-9845

 

“What kind of job is it?” she asked.

“Oh, nothing you can’t handle,” he replied
with a sly smile.

From that day forward, she became Nick
Bartonovich’s personal bodyguard and enforcer. It was good money
and she liked the work. The job gave her frequent opportunities to
take out her frustrations against her father on numerous
unfortunate surrogates. Nick was amiable, and talkative – the exact
opposite of Mia and Mia’s father. It was easy to know what Nick
wanted because he told her, and he always smiled when she
delivered. It was a perfect match.

Now, as she entered her studio apartment,
she stared into the mirror hanging on the wall, admiring the
expensive necklace that Nick had just given her. She wondered for
the first time in their relationship what it was, exactly, that
Nick wanted. The possibility that he might be interested in her as
a woman and not just a business associate caused her heart to beat
faster. Many women her age had already married and had children,
but Mia had such mistrust for men that she had never been
comfortable progressing beyond a few dates with any potential
suitor. Nick, however, was a man she trusted completely. She could
envision a future with him. She noticed as she looked into the
mirror that her cheeks were turning slightly red. She had never had
this feeling before and it was confusing – but she liked it.

 

[]
Chapter Thirty

J.T. got off the plane in Nassau and took a
cab to the British Colonial Hilton, where he would be staying. He
was nervous. He hadn’t met any of his former victims face to face
since the trial, and then only a select few had been brought into
court to tell their stories for the jury. Back then, he’d felt no
pity for them and no shame. Since that time, he had learned to stop
objectifying his victims and begun to see them as real people, even
to empathize with them. As that process had taken place, he’d begun
to feel ashamed about what he had done. Over time, he’d worked
through the shame and accepted responsibility for his own actions.
Eventually, he developed a desire to make things right, or barring
that possibility, to at least own up to what he had done and
apologize to their faces.

He checked in to his room and deposited his
suitcase on the bed, unpacking his clothes and hanging them in the
closet. The sight of the suit brought back memories of the old
days. Except for the ordeal at the Cayman Islands bank, he hadn’t
worn a suit in almost eight years. It felt as if he was staring at
a relic from the distant past.

Once he finished unpacking, he grabbed the
book he had been reading, [_Compelled to Control: Recovering
Intimacy in Broken Relationships_] by J. Keith Miller, and headed
down to the hotel restaurant for something to eat. The food in the
restaurant was more than adequate. The wine he ordered was good,
and he lingered at the table after his meal, drinking another glass
of wine and reading more from his book. As he read, he came across
a passage that hit home:

 

…[_the shift from being in charge of all
outcomes to one of doing our best and turning the outcome over to
God puts many of us into a spiritual life, a life controlled by the
reality and power of God’s Spirit instead of our own manipulations
and controlling behaviors._]

He thought about how his life had changed
this past eight years. He had gone from being a corporate big-wig
who thought he had it all under control – who felt the need
to have it all under control – to an ex-con who was trying to make
amends for the wrongs he had done, and to let go of the perception
that he was by any means in control of anything other than his own
actions. He was nervous about the meetings he had scheduled for
tomorrow, but he knew in the final analysis, he wasn’t responsible
for what the other people did with his attempts to make amends. He
was only responsible for what he did personally.

He pondered this thought as he went back up
to his room and went to bed, saying the Serenity Prayer before he
drifted off to a dreamless sleep.

 

 

The next morning, J.T. woke up and had
breakfast on the beach at the hotel before heading back to make
certain the conference room he had reserved was ready. Afterwards,
he went back to his room and dressed in the business suit that he
had brought for the occasion. He took out the disguise kit he had
brought and began the practiced routine of pasting on the fake
eyebrows and mustache, inserting the temporary dental implant, and
putting the colored contacts in place. He had done this so many
times in preparation for this trip, it was almost as routine as
brushing his teeth. One last check in the mirror confirmed that
everything was in place before he went back down to the conference
room to await the arrival of his first appointment.

His first two guests arrived on time. Mr.

and Mrs. Thompson were a black couple in their sixties. The husband
had worked for one of the companies that J.T. had sold off and
which was subsequently liquidated. The man had suffered a heart
attack the week after learning he was going to be let go and that
his pension fund was insolvent. The wife was already retired at
that point, but didn’t have a pension. The husband went on
disability, taking social security as soon as he could in order to
make the house payments which they were already behind on. When
J.T.’s lawyers had tracked him down, they had been about to lose
their house. Through the foundation that J.T. had set up a few
years before to help his former victims, the house had been saved
and they were receiving a check each month, which was worth about
twenty-five percent of what his pension would have been.

They exchanged greetings and J.T. introduced
himself as Jack Smith – the alias he had chosen for the occasion.
They exchanged small talk for a few minutes as J.T. asked them
about the cruise and whether or not they were planning on shopping
while they were on the island. They were a nice couple, easy to
talk to, and J.T. felt horrible for what he had done to them. He
let the feelings sink in, reminding himself that his worth wasn’t
defined by his past actions, but that he was still responsible for
the damage those actions had caused. It helped him gain perspective
before he spoke.

“Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, I arranged to come
here today to talk to you for a very specific reason. You see, I am
one of the primary people responsible for the demise of the company
that you worked for and the failure of your pension fund. I’m here
today to take responsibility for those deplorable actions and let
you know that I am sincerely sorry for the pain those actions have
caused you.”

J.T. stopped and paused before he continued.

He braced himself for their reaction. The old couple looked at each
other in a bit of confusion and then back at J.T. There was silence
that seemed to last for a thousand years before the old man finally
spoke.

“I appreciate you saying that, son,” the old
man began. “You know, I was pretty devastated when all of it first
happened. I had a heart attack and we almost lost the house – there
were some pretty rough times. I was bitter and angry and it started
to eat me up inside.” The man turned to his wife and looked at her
with eyes full of love. He placed his hand on top of hers and they
smiled at each other before he continued. “But my wife came to me
one day and challenged me about my attitude. She asked me why I was
letting some company take away our happiness, when all they really
had the power to do was take away some things that were going to
turn to dust one day anyway.” He looked back at J.T. and continued.
“So I decided to let it go and move on. I decided to forgive
whoever did it and move on with my life.”

He reached across the table and patted
J.T.’s hand. “So I thank you for your apology… and I forgive you.”
He smiled at J.T. and tears began to form in J.T.’s eyes.

“Thank you, thank you very much. You don’t
know how much that means to me,” J.T. replied.

They talked for a few more minutes before
the couple left, and they ended up hugging each other before the
man and his wife walked out of the door. J.T. went back to his
chair at the conference table and sat down, totally blown away by
what had just happened. He sat there in a daze for several minutes
before a knock came on the door.

He answered the door and introduced himself
to an attractive woman in her mid-thirties. His briefing on her had
indicated that her name was Theresa Borne of Toledo, Ohio. Ten
years before, her husband had committed suicide after losing his
job and his health benefits at one of the doomed companies that
J.T. had helped to gut. Her husband had been on anti-depressants
and could no longer afford the medication once his insurance was
cancelled, being unable to afford the more expensive COBRA
insurance. He’d committed suicide by slitting his wrists after
getting drunk out of his mind. Theresa had found his body in the
bathtub when she returned home from her job.

After the introductions and polite banter,
J.T. began his confession.

“Mrs. Borne, I arranged to come here today
to talk to you for a very specific reason. You see, I am one of the
primary people responsible for the demise of the company that your
husband worked for and…”

Before he could finish his sentence, Theresa
Borne threw the glass of water at J.T. and began cursing at him.
The base of the glass tumbler hit him in the forehead. Blood began
trickling down his forehead from the gash that had been opened.
Theresa had gotten up by this time, stepped over to where J.T. was
seated, and begun hitting him in the face, all the while cursing at
him. J.T. managed to grab her wrists and prevent her from
continuing, only to have her spit in his face and begin kicking his
shins.

The racket the woman was making had reached
the front desk, and a security guard made it to the room just in
time to see the enraged Mrs. Borne attempting to bite J.T.’s hands
in order to get him to release her so she could continue to hit
him. The security guard grabbed Mrs. Borne from behind,
immobilizing her arms and pulling her back out into the hall.

J.T. decided that going out into the hall
would not be a good idea and sat down to compose himself and
catalog his injuries. He went to the men’s room and cleaned up a
bit before the next interview, re-applying a slightly sideways fake
eyebrow that had been moved during the altercation. He made it back
into the conference room just minutes before the next person
arrived.

All told, J.T. had ten different interviews
by the end of the day. There were a variety of reactions that he
experienced, but the best and the worst had been the very first two
interviews of the day. He caught the plane back to the Cayman
Islands that night, texting Laura when he was able that he was
on-schedule with no mishaps. He was exhausted. He had experienced
just a small portion of both the venom and the forgiveness to be
had from all the people he had wronged in his past, and he quietly
began to weep as the mixed emotions of gratitude and sorrow
overwhelmed him.

 

[] Chapter
Thirty-One

Over the next several months after Nick had
given Mia the ruby necklace, he began asking her to accompany him
to an increasing number of lunches, dinners, and walks in the park
that had nothing to do with business. It was quickly obvious that
he was moving their relationship towards something more, but Mia
was still unsure how to take all of the attention.

In the past, when Nick had been romantically
involved, it usually ended up in sex with the woman in question on
the second or third date. Gifts and parties, taking the private jet
to various events and exotic locations for romantic weekend
getaways, all followed by the inevitable breakup about six months
later, when Nick became bored with the girl or she became too
demanding. Yet, none of that was happening between Nick and Mia.
Apart from the ruby necklace, no other gifts had been given. He had
not attempted to make sexual advances, and everywhere they had gone
together, outside of business trips, had been in town, within
driving distance of Nick’s house. It was unusual for Nick, but Mia
was enjoying herself and decided to wait it out. She knew that Nick
would tell her whatever he had to say when he was ready. Nick was
nothing if not goal-oriented. She trusted him, and that was all
that mattered.

One evening, Nick was scheduled to attend an
art gallery exhibition. It was a black tie event. Mia always
accompanied him to these events as his bodyguard and followed
behind him as he moved through the crowd in his trademark style,
saying his hellos to friends and making new acquaintances. Mia
usually busied herself looking for signs that someone may intend
bodily harm to Nick, making sure no one with a score to settle
showed up close enough to pose a threat, and going over possible
exit strategies in her mind to keep from getting bored.

In the past, events such as these would be
where Nick would frequently find his next girlfriend. The
interested female would usually wander over into his circle and at
some point make it obvious that she was available and interested.
One of two things would then happen. Nick might ask for her number
and call her to arrange a date at a later time. If he was
exceptionally taken with her and the woman was obviously willing,
he would make his exit and take her back to his house, where they
would usually end up having sex. Mia knew the latter because, on
numerous occasions after dropping the two off at Nick’s house, the
women had still been there the following morning when Mia had come
in to work.

The exhibition was following a predictable
pattern. The champagne was flowing, Nick was working the crowd, and
in between conversations, he was stopping to view the photography
exhibits. This particular artist was focused on trees, specifically
close-up shots of different parts of the trees, like the bark, a
leaf with rain on it, and an exposed root system. Mia personally
preferred performance art rather than photographs or paintings. She
supposed this was most likely due to her background in martial
arts.

A woman whose dress was showing entirely too
much cleavage sauntered up to where Nick was standing and began
talking to him about the photograph he was looking at. He responded
politely and the woman stepped even closer to him, obviously
flirting with him and attempting to get a response. Physically, the
woman was Nick’s type. Young, athletic build, blond, and busty. Mia
felt her face getting hot. Her breathing rate increased and her jaw
muscles started tensing up. She realized with some alarm that she
was jealous.

All the dinners and walks and drives in the
countryside with Nick over these past months had changed their
relationship. She realized for the first time that, during this
time, she had actually begun to develop romantic feelings towards
him. She was falling in love and now this young woman was
threatening that experience. Mia wanted to walk up and push her
away from Nick, perhaps with a well-placed open-hand strike to the
throat. But she kept completely still and watched, her gaze never
leaving Nick and the woman.

Nick took a step back and attempted to
extricate himself from the situation, telling the woman to have a
nice evening and turning his back on her to move on to the next
exhibit. The woman took several steps, going around Nick,
positioning herself in front of him, pressing herself into him
again, obviously not the type to give up easily. When it became
clear that she was not going to take the hint, Nick turned to Mia
and gave her the subtle but practiced sign that he wanted Mia to
run interference. Mia smiled slyly as she gladly stepped forward to
handle the situation.

Nick took a step back from the woman in
practiced fashion just as Mia arrived at his side and slipped
between him and the woman. Nick turned and walked away, leaving the
two women alone.

“Mr. Bartonovich would like you to leave him
alone now,” Mia said to the woman, smiling as she did.

The woman, who had obviously had too much to
drink, looked angrily at Mia. “Get out of the way, you slut!” she
spat, and attempted to walk around Mia, in the direction Nick had
walked.

As the woman attempted to walk past, Mia
stepped into her, discreetly grabbed her wrist, and twisted it into
a wrist lock so that the woman could not advance without causing
herself considerable pain. The woman took in a gasp of air and was
likely about to call out for help, but Mia had already begun to
whisper in her ear.

“Find another man, honey, or I will break
your pretty little hand.”

No sooner had Mia finished her sentence than
she had released the woman and stepped backwards, standing between
her and the path that Nick had taken. The woman was obviously angry
and was rubbing her wrist, but not drunk enough to miss the point.
She turned away in a huff and walked in the opposite direction.

Mia caught up with Nick, who had just said
hello to an old friend of his and was engaged in conversation. He
caught Mia’s eye as she took up her familiar position not too far
from him, and he nodded his approval.

After the party was over, Mia escorted Nick
home in the rented limo. Once she saw Nick had closed the door to
his house, she had the driver drop her off at her own apartment.
She thought back over the evening with some satisfaction, pleased
that Nick had not taken anyone home with him. In fact, she’d
noticed he hadn’t even taken a phone number from any of the many
available women he had talked with during the evening.

 

 

The next day, Mia arrived at work as usual
and went to Nick’s office, ready to work on the day’s business. The
morning progressed as it normally did, with Nick working on the
laptop, talking on the phone, and frequently giving Mia items to
put on her task list to be taken care of later in the day. It was a
beautiful day, and when they stopped for lunch, Nick suggested that
they take a walk down to the sandwich shop just down the street and
eat in the park.

As they passed the park on the way to the
sandwich shop, Nick stopped in front of the park’s water fountain
and began staring into the fountain, as if he was lost in thought.
Mia stood beside him as she often did, waiting.

“Mia, have you enjoyed the changes in our
relationship these past several months?” he said without looking
away from the fountain.

Mia felt her face getting warm. “Yes, I
have,” she replied.

“Me, too,” Nick replied. He suddenly turned
towards Mia and took her hand. “Mia, since I had cancer, I’ve
changed. What I want has changed. I see things differently than I
ever have before. I see you differently than I ever have
before.”

Mia’s face was practically on fire. She
could feel a burning sensation in her chest. She didn’t move.

“Mia, I haven’t loved anyone for a very long
time; you know that. But I love someone now. And I want to be with
that someone. Mia, I love you, and I want to be with you. Not like
all those other girls, not a one night stand, not a six month
fling. I want to be with you for the rest of my life.”

Mia felt tears begin to well up in her eyes.

She had never loved a man since her father had betrayed her all
those years before. She had never trusted any man besides Nick.
Now, as he spoke to her, she knew in her soul that she loved him,
too.

Nick reached into his pocket and pulled out
black box, holding it out to her. “Mia, will you marry me?”

Mia reached out her hands and cradled Nick’s
face, looking up into his eyes in a way she had never looked into
them before. Then she answered with all of her heart, “Yes. Yes, I
will.”

They embraced in front of the fountain.

 

 

Nick and Mia were married a week later in a
private ceremony with a few of their closest friends in attendance.

A few days after that, they took a private jet to Charleston, South
Carolina, where they stayed at the Wentworth Mansion for a week.
Nick had booked the Grand Mansion Suite for their stay, a beautiful
one-thousand square foot luxury suite complete with chandeliers and
two floor-to-ceiling marble fireplaces. It was quintessential
southern charm at its finest.

They toured Charleston and Fort Sumter, rode
bicycles through the historic district, and ate at the finest
restaurants. Mia had never been so happy in all her life. She got
up each morning in the bed next to Nick and pinched herself to be
sure she wasn’t dreaming.

Nick was a changed man. It was as if he had
been reborn. He was no longer solely focused on making money and
achieving his business goals. He was actually enjoying life and was
finding that Mia was so much more interesting and beautiful than he
had ever imagined. He couldn’t believe he had been so blind to the
fact all these years.

On the jet back to New York, they viewed a
slide-show of all the pictures they had taken and reminisced about
the wonderful time they’d had in Charleston. Once they were back in
town, Mia and Nick moved her things into the brownstone. That
night, they sat on the couch and watched one of Mia’s favorite
movies – Casa Blanca. Mia was curled up next to Nick, who
had his arm around her as she rested her head on his shoulder. For
them, time had stopped. They had each other and they were in love.
Nothing could have been better.

 

[] Chapter
Thirty-Two

Silas stared at the dashboard of his police
sedan in shock. All he had wanted since he was a kid was to be a
cop. He had joined the Army at 18 and gone straight in to the NYPD
Police Academy when he was honorably discharged at the age of 21.
He eventually worked his way up to detective. He had been a good
cop. Emphasis on the word had.

Somewhere along the way, Silas had
discovered online gambling and gotten hooked. What started as an
innocent pastime slowly grew to dominate more and more of his
income. He started picking up extra shifts and side jobs as a
security guard as his habit grew and his losses started getting
larger. One night, he thought he was about to win big, enough to
pay off the house. He was on a roll, working up a one thousand
dollar stake into over 100K. One more good hand and he promised
himself he was going to cash in and log off for the night. Then he
started losing. Before it was over, he was 10K in debt to the
house, and the house belonged to Nick Bartonovich.

That was when things had started going
downhill fast. He had compromised his integrity to get rid of that
debt, which eventually led him to where he was sitting right now.
He had hoped that somewhere along the way he would find the path to
redemption, to turn back the hands of time and somehow set things
right, but it hadn’t turned out that way.

After being tortured by Nick and Mia, they’d
shot him up with some sort of drug and he had passed out. When he
woke up, he was in a hospital in Nevada. After seeing he was
conscious, a nurse had given him a sealed manila envelope with his
name on it. She said that someone had delivered it the day after he
had been admitted and asked her to give it to him when he regained
consciousness.

As he looked through the contents of the
envelope, his heart sank. In it was enough information to convict
him as an accomplice to J.T. Thornbacker in the prison break. As
part of the frame-up, his fingerprints were all over ‘evidence’
that was to be found by the FBI at a location near the Nevada
prison where the break out occurred. Never mind that it was all
fabricated evidence planted by Nick and company. His career would
be ruined in the process of even trying to prove his innocence.

Of the two locations where evidence had been
planted, the first had nothing tying Silas to the prison break. The
second location, however, did. A note in the envelope said that the
FBI had already received information about the first location,
proving J.T. Thornbacker and company had planned the escape. It
further stated that the information about the existence of the
second location would only be turned in to the FBI if Silas decided
to pursue Nick Bartonovich, J.T. Thornbacker, or anything related
to the Cayman Island heist. The message was clear: leave us alone
or we’ll destroy what is left of your life.

After reviewing the information from a cop’s
perspective, he knew his chances of staying out of prison, should
the FBI ever receive that second tip, were slim to none. There was
enough money in the envelope for him to buy a bus ticket back home
to New York. He went home with his tail between his legs, vowing to
never gamble again.

His resolve to stop gambling lasted about
three months. He kept the losses at a minimum for a while, but one
night, he thought he had a chance to score big again, only to end
up a thousand dollars underwater. He was tapped out. Maggie had
told him that if he lost any more money gambling, that she would
leave him, so he couldn’t tell her. He needed cash fast. Then,
later that week, Silas was cataloging some physical evidence from a
small-time drug bust down at the station and he had an
epiphany.

Silas and his partner Dave usually took
turns taking the evidence down to the evidence locker. Today, his
partner had a dentist appointment and had decided to leave before
they were done cataloging the evidence. He’d told Silas to sign his
name on all the necessary documents, because his tooth was killing
him and he had to go to the dentist ASAP. After his partner left,
Silas counted fifteen hundred dollars that they had retrieved from
the perp when they’d busted him. Silas’ partner had no clue how
much money was there. Silas could log $500, pocket the rest, and no
one would ever know. The perp would figure it out, but since it was
drug money and he was a drug dealer, who was going to believe him
over a cop?

Silas checked to make sure no one was paying
close attention to him as he cataloged the evidence. He pretended
to accidentally knock the money onto the floor. When he bent down
to pick it up, he put a thousand dollars in his sock as discretely
as possible before standing back up.

That was the first of many thefts that Silas
began making to cover his gambling habit. He rationalized it in so
many ways. It was drug money, so it was no big deal. He deserved
it, after all – cops were underpaid and performing a public
service. Why should the bad guys make all the money? He was putting
these guys behind bars – shouldn’t that be rewarded?

One day, Silas and his partner were going to
stop at one of their favorite lunch hangouts. Silas parked the car,
opened the door, and was about to get out when Dave put a hand on
this arm.

“Hey Silas, hold on a minute. I need to talk
to you about something.”

“Yeah, o.k., what is it?” Silas said as he
turned to his partner.

“Shut the door,” Dave said, nodding at the
open car door.

“Sure, Dave,” Silas said, wondering what was
up as he shut the door.

“Silas, how long have we been partners?”

“About ten years now, I think,” Silas
replied, wondering where Dave was headed with this.

“Yeah, that’s right, about ten years,” Dave
echoed. “I don’t know how to ask this, Silas, so I’ll just come out
with it. Are you stealing money from the evidence we turn in?”

Silas felt the blood drain from his face and
hoped that it didn’t show.

“No, Dave, why would you think that? I would
never do that,” Silas said, trying to sound indignant.

“Silas,” Dave continued, “there was a little
over two grand on the perp we arrested on 5th Street
about two months ago. I counted it when you went to take the
statement from the shop owner. I signed off on the evidence because
it was your day to write the log and I didn’t check on it too good,
so I didn’t see that you had only put down about a grand. Later
that day, I found a cigarette lighter from the perp on the floor –
you know the one with the skull and cross-bones case on it? I went
down to check the log to see if we had recorded it and to add it
into evidence, and that’s when I saw that the money was short.”

Silas tried to smile and laugh it off.

“So I maybe miscounted the money?”

“I counted it, Silas. The money’s
missing.”

“Dave, I didn’t take the money. There has to
be some other explanation,” Silas protested.

“Silas, I’ve been counting the money from
the busts we’ve made ever since, when you weren’t looking. Half of
the busts we made whenever you were in charge of filling out the
evidence logs were short.”

Silas slumped back in his chair. He looked
down to the floor. He was busted and he knew it.

“What are you going to do, Dave?” he said
without looking up.

“I don’t want you to get busted, Silas,
you’ve been a good partner and a good cop, but I can’t trust you
anymore. I’ll keep my mouth shut if you resign.”

Silas looked up at him in shock.

“Resign? Dave, I’m just a few years from
retirement. That would ruin me.”

Dave’s face remained stern and
un-moving.

“You should’ve thought of that before you
went on the take. What you did was wrong, Silas. Once we go there,
where’s the line get moved to?”

Silas didn’t answer; he just continued
looking at Dave.

“You’ve got to the end of the day to turn in
your resignation or I take what I know to IAD. I’ll take a cab back
to the precinct.”

Dave got out of the car and shut the
door.

 

[] Chapter
Thirty-Three

It was 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning when
Nick’s cell phone rang next to his bed. He woke up immediately and
reached over for the phone. Calls that came in this early on a
weekend were usually important. Since he and Mia had married, he
had begun instructing all of his business associates not to call
until at least 8:00 a.m. on the weekend.

He looked at the caller ID and saw that it
was Katrina Byers as he made his way into the bathroom and quietly
closed the door so that Mia wouldn’t be disturbed. In fact, he knew
she was already awake. It was an occupational necessity for her
that she was a light sleeper. But Nick liked to provide her with
these small courtesies. It felt good to be looking out for someone
besides himself these days. It was relatively new ground for Nick
Bartonovich.

“Hello,” Nick answered after he hit the
‘answer call’ button.

“Nick, I’m sorry to be calling you so early
on the weekend, I know how you hate that,” she replied. Katrina
Byers was one of Nick’s top CPAs, one who worked exclusively for
him and was immensely valuable to his organization. If she was
calling, it was important.

“What is it? What has happened?” he
replied.

Nick listened as Katrina detailed the
situation for the next fifteen minutes, asking few questions, just
letting Katrina explain in her usual, very detailed way. When they
were done talking, Nick said that he would call her back within the
hour as he disconnected the call. This was not good news, it was
not good news at all. He looked in the mirror, his mind racing,
trying to decide what the best response to the situation would
be.

He walked back into the bedroom and sat down
on Mia’s side of the bed, then began gently stroking her hair. She
opened her eyes and smiled – something she had been doing an
increasing amount of during the past year since they had gotten
married.

“Mia, darling, we need to talk. Katrina
Byers has just called with some bad news and we need to decide how
to handle it. I’ll make some coffee for us downstairs.”

He leaned down and kissed her gently on the
forehead before leaving to make the coffee.

 

 

Downstairs, Nick made the coffee
mechanically as he thought about what he had just been told. When
the buzzer on the coffee maker alerted him that the brewing cycle
was completed, he poured two cups of coffee and took them to the
den where Mia was already waiting. He thought about how many times
in the past year he had enjoyed their morning coffee. How much he
loved making Mia’s coffee just the way she liked it – strong,
black, freshly ground gourmet coffee that they purchased at the
organic co-op. But today was different. Today they had bad news to
discuss.

He went into the den area and found Mia
sitting on the couch with her feet curled up underneath her,
waiting. She took the coffee from him and cradled it in her hands,
closing her eyes and inhaling the coffee’s aroma. She waited for
Nick to sit down in his usual chair before she spoke.

“So what is the matter?” she said at
last.

Nick put his own coffee mug down on the side
table, not really in the mood to drink it.

“Katrina has gotten considerably worse. The
doctors don’t think she will make it to the end of the week.”

“Oh, my God,” Mia exclaimed.

About six months prior, Katrina had been
diagnosed with renal disease, a.k.a. kidney failure. She had told
Nick about the dialysis treatments she would be taking and how the
disease would affect her work hours. She had been put on the kidney
transplant list and told she had a good chance of getting a
transplant in time, based upon the current stage of the
disease.

Once Katrina began going to dialysis, she
needed someone to watch her daughter Sasha, who was nine, while
Katrina was at the clinic for the lengthy dialysis process. She
began making a short list of people that she trusted who could help
with this task. She had noticed the radical change in Nick since he
had married Mia. He actually smiled in a genuine way now, not in
the sly way he had before, as if he was about to close a business
deal. She’d noticed that Mia had changed, too. She’d seen them
together several times at Nick’s office when she would go by to
cover the quarterly financial reports with Nick, and she had been
impressed with the atmosphere change in the house. It was no longer
a hard business atmosphere… there was love there now. She decided
to ask Nick and Mia if they would be on the rotation to help watch
Sasha a couple of times a month. After Nick and Mia talked it over,
they’d agreed to do it on a trial basis.

Sasha and Mia hit it off almost immediately.

Sasha was into the latest music, and fashions, like most kids –
things Mia was never allowed to participate in when she was Sasha’s
age. Mia began asking questions and showing a genuine interest in
what Sasha was doing. Soon, Mia was downloading the latest music
and taking Sasha shopping. Sasha even helped Mia open up a Facebook
page and they friended each other. It was as if Mia was re-living
her own childhood in a way she had never been allowed to experience
before.

Nick’s affection for Sasha had grown, as
well. He began to accompany Mia and Sasha on some of their shopping
trips and they would all eat lunch together. Once, on the spur of
the moment, Nick suggested they all go out to the horse farm where
Nick and Mia kept their horses, and go for a ride. Sasha’s eyes lit
up like it was Christmas morning. They had a blast and Sasha was
continually asking if they could go back. Nick and Mia enjoyed
these outings so much that, after three months, they had asked
Katrina if they could up the ante and watch Sasha once a week.
Katrina had obliged, glad to be able to rely on them for more help
without feeling like she was imposing.

They had all known the possibility existed
that Katrina wouldn’t get a transplant in time, but no one had
seriously considered it. Mia put her coffee cup down on the table
in front of her.

“Is there anything we can do to help?” Mia
asked.

“Actually, there is something Katrina asked
us to do. She asked us to adopt Sasha,” Nick replied.

Mia inhaled slowly, looking away from Nick
at a painting of a lone ship in the ocean that was hanging on the
wall. She held the breath in as she allowed the words Nick had just
spoken to roll around in her head. Then she looked back at
Nick.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“I want one of my best accountants and a
good friend not to die,” Nick replied seriously. Then he added,
“I’m almost fifty years old, Mia. I’ve never brought up having kids
with you because I thought I was too old. These past few months
spending time with Sasha have been good. She was like the daughter
I never thought I would have. And the three of us together have
such a good time….” He looked Mia in the eyes. “Look, I don’t want
to pressure you into anything, but if you want to do this, I’m
willing to jump off the ledge with you. You know I like a good
rush.”

He smiled as he waited for Mia to respond to
what he had just said.

Mia looked back at the painting on the wall.

The painting reminded her of her own life’s journey in many ways.
In it, a single ship was out in the ocean with no land in sight.
The seas were rough and the crew was struggling to keep the ship
afloat. They were struggling for their very lives with somber
determination. She continued looking at the painting as she
spoke.

“I know what it is like to be on your own,
without your parents for support, without anyone you can count on
except yourself. It is a hard life with no guarantees that you will
make it. We could give Sasha a good life. We could love her and
give her all of the things that I never had when I was growing up.
I want to protect her. I want to help. Yes,” she said, turning back
to look at Nick, “I want to do this.”

Nick reached over and placed his hand on
Mia’s, squeezing it gently.

 

[] Chapter
Thirty-Four

Nick and Mia called Katrina immediately and
let her know that they would be happy to adopt Sasha. They visited
Katrina later that same day in the hospital. Sasha was at her
mother’s side when they arrived and was very upset. When Nick and
Mia entered the room, she walked over to Mia and hugged her, tears
streaming down her face. Nick could tell by the look on Katrina’s
face that she was in a bad way.

Katrina spoke to Sasha and explained that
she would be staying with Nick and Mia while Mommy was in the
hospital. After they had visited for a little while, Nick asked Mia
if she would take Sasha down to the car, saying that he would be
there in a few minutes. Sasha didn’t want to go, but Katrina told
her that she could come back and see her tomorrow, but that her
mother needed the rest right now. Reluctantly, Sasha kissed and
hugged her mother goodbye before she left with Mia.

“Have you told her yet that you don’t have
long?” Nick said when they were alone.

“Not in so many words, but she’s a smart
kid. She knows,” Katrina replied.

“You should tell her yourself. It would be
best if she hears it from you, to help her let go and all,” Nick
continued.

Katrina looked up at Nick with tired eyes.

“Thank you.”

Nick nodded his head.

 

 

Later that day, Katrina’s lawyer came by and
she changed her will to indicate that she wanted Nick and Mia to be
Sasha’s legal guardians. She decided not to discuss the matter with
Sasha. It would be enough for her to deal with Katrina’s impending
death. Katrina reasoned that Mia and Nick could tell her when the
time was right, after she had some time to grieve. They had decided
that Nick and Mia would adopt Sasha as soon as possible after
Katrina passed. Katrina dictated a letter to her lawyer to be given
to Sasha upon her death, explaining that this was her wish so that
Sasha would hear it straight from her.

Once the whole legal process was completed,
Katrina felt relieved. Over the next few days, Sasha came by every
morning and they spent many hours together. They talked, played
cards when Katrina felt able, and Sasha would read the latest novel
she had been reading out loud to her mother. Nick and/or Mia would
drop Sasha off, then pick her up for lunch and bring her back by in
the evening. These precious days went by so fast for Katrina. She
was relishing the time with her daughter, but she was grieving for
herself at having to leave Sasha when she was so young.

On the fourth day, Mia had dropped Sasha off
and was saying goodbye to Katrina as she prepared to leave, but
Katrina asked her to stay. Katrina looked much weaker than she had
the day before. She could barely talk and Sasha had to bend her ear
down close to her mother’s mouth to hear what she had to say.
Katrina whispered in her daughter’s ear, “I love you, Sasha. I will
always love you….”

“I love you, Mommy,” Sasha said with tears
beginning to flow down her face.

The alarm on Katrina’s heart monitor went
off and soon the medical staff was rushing in with the crash cart
to try and revive Katrina. Mia pulled Sasha back as the doctors and
nurses worked, but it was soon clear that Katrina was not coming
back. Sasha turned to Mia, who pulled her close while Sasha
cried.

The funeral was brief and attended only by a
small circle of Katrina’s friends, and her younger sister. Her own
mother was dead, and her father was in a nursing home and unable to
attend. After the service, Nick and Mia took Sasha by her house to
pick up some of her things before returning to their house. They
simply said that Sasha would be staying with them for a while and
Sasha didn’t ask why, too overcome by grief to ask any questions of
them at the moment.

The hours turned in to days and weeks, and
eventually years. Sasha began to move on with her life and
acclimate to life in her new family. Nick and Mia officially
adopted her on her eleventh birthday.

There were many changes that took place in
the Bartonovich household over the next several years. Nick moved
his office to the second floor so that Sasha could have a bedroom
upstairs next to Nick and Mia’s bedroom. They bought Sasha her own
horse, which she named Katrina’s Pride in honor of her mother. She
became quite an accomplished rider and even won some riding
competitions. Nick and Mia had to develop new work schedules. Mia
began farming out some of her more dangerous activities to other
members of their company. Nick even began shifting some of his
business activities towards more legitimate enterprises, not
wanting Sasha to associate with some of his former colleagues who
had frequented the house prior to her arrival. Overall, the
addition of Sasha to the Bartonovich household was resulting in a
kinder, gentler family atmosphere.

Nick was amazed at how much better his life
had become since getting married and adopting Sasha. He now had a
purpose beyond himself and he was finding genuine fulfillment in
his role as a family man like he had never had before when business
was his primary focus. Mia, too, was blossoming into her role as
mother and wife. While both Nick and Mia still pursued the business
side of their lives, they made the adjustments necessary to make
home life a big priority. Life for the Bartonovich family was
good.

 

[] Chapter
Thirty-Five

Laura sat beside Valerie in the crisis
center and held her hand as she cried. She had a busted lip and her
left eye was almost completely swollen shut. She listened to the
story patiently, a variation on a similar theme she had heard a
hundred times.

“He saw me in the supermarket and followed
me outside. He grabbed me and drug me down an alleyway. He tried to
get me to tell him where I’m staying. When I refused, he did this
to me.”

Valerie paused in telling her story and
sobbed before continuing.

“He wants our daughter. He said that he will
find out where she goes to school and take her from me.” She turned
and looked at Laura with a look of desperation in her eyes. “Ms.
Laura, I can’t let him take my daughter! He was abusing her
sexually, and that is why I left him! I can’t let him take my
daughter!”

“It’s going to be o.k., Valerie. We’re going
to help you, just calm down,” Laura replied.

But even as the words came out of her mouth,
she wasn’t sure how much she believed the words herself. If
Valerie’s ex had found her in the supermarket, then he was too
close to finding out that Valerie was staying here at the crisis
center, which was only a few blocks away. Assuming Valerie hadn’t
been followed back to the center today, it was likely only a matter
of time until she was. Laura could feel her blood begin to boil as
she thought about her own past experience with sexual abuse, how
powerless she had felt, and now to hear that this woman’s young
daughter had been sexually abused by her ex. It was too much.

She tried to remain calm as she continued.

“Valerie, do you have a picture of your ex?”

“Yes, yes I do.”

“Good, I want you to go and get it. Then I
want you to write down his address where he lives and works. I’m
going to call the police and we’ll report him.”

“O.k., Ms. Laura,” Valerie replied, getting
up and walking off to her room to get the picture.

Laura called the police and asked them to
send someone down so they could report the attack; then she went
out back behind the crisis center, and once the door was shut, she
let out a scream. “Ahhh!” She turned around and saw a metal trash
can and kicked it with the side of her foot. She paced up and down
the alleyway for several minutes before finally feeling calm enough
to step back inside.

She found Valerie sitting down at a table in
the common area, writing down the information Laura had requested
on a piece of paper. Laura took it from her and went into the
office, making a photocopy of the information and the photograph.
She folded the copies and put them in her back pocket before she
went back out to where Valerie was sitting. She handed the
originals back to Valerie.

“Valerie, hold on to these for when the
police get here. You just tell them exactly what you told me. I
have to go right now, but I’ll be back to check on you later. Just
grab one of the other volunteers when the police get here and they
will help you with everything. O.k.?”

Valerie nodded her head up and down.

Laura took out her cell phone and punched in
the home address of Valerie’s ex. It was about five miles from
here. If she went on her bicycle, it would take her about twenty
minutes. She unlocked the bicycle lock, removed her bike from the
bike rack, and began pedaling.

The address was for a second floor
apartment. It was a small duplex unit, with one apartment on the
bottom floor and the other on the second floor. A stairway led up
the exterior of the unit to the second floor apartment door. Laura
positioned herself across the street where she would be hidden from
view by some shrubbery. She parked her bike out of view and stood
behind the plants, watching.

It took about an hour before the police
finally came by. They walked up the stairs and knocked on the door.
A medium-sized man answered the door. After he had talked with the
police for a few minutes, they escorted him down the stairs and put
him in the police cruiser.

Laura waited until they were gone before
crossing the street and going up the steps to the apartment. She
knocked on the door and waited for someone to answer, but no one
did. She tried the door and found it locked, so she went back down
to her bicycle and rode home.

It was a few days before she found out from
Valerie that her ex had been released on bail. Valerie was scared
out of her mind that he was going to take her daughter away and
hurt her again. Laura tried to comfort her, but she was beside
herself. She was still crying when Laura left for the day.

Laura wasn’t scheduled to volunteer at the
crisis center for a few more days. She went to her apartment,
packed a few things in a backpack, and rode her bike back to the
apartment where Valerie’s ex lived. It was around 6:00 p.m. when
she arrived. She hid her bike in the foliage and positioned herself
in the same location as before so that she wouldn’t be seen.

At about 7:00 p.m., the ex left the
apartment. It was a Friday night, and from the way he was dressed,
he was going out to party. She waited until he was out of sight
before crossing the street and going up the stairs. She knocked on
the door just to be sure no one else was home. No one came to the
door. She looked around to be certain she wasn’t being watched by
some nosy neighbor. When she was certain she wasn’t being watched,
she slipped on some latex gloves and tried the door. It was locked,
as expected. She retrieved some lock picking tools from her bag and
picked the lock – a handy skill she had picked up in her drug
dealing days.

Once inside, she shut the door behind her
and locked it. A quick look around the house revealed that this
door was the only entrance to the apartment and that no one else
was around. She retrieved a black ski mask from the bag and a
junior sized baseball bat. She positioned the mask on top of her
head so that she could pull it down in a moment’s notice, and then
she looked for a place to sit where she would not be seen from the
outside. Once she was positioned, she waited.

There were some down sides to this plan. If
someone else came back with the ex, Laura could be in trouble. In
that case, she might need the gun she had brought along that was
tucked in the back of her pants. From the looks of this place,
though, he wasn’t going to bring a girl back here. She supposed he
was the type of guy who would convince the girl to go back to her
place. That way, if it got rough, he could leave after he smacked
her around a bit and she wouldn’t know where to find him. Scum. She
could hardly wait until he got back.

There were a few false alarms from neighbors
coming home or leaving, but Laura’s mark finally returned at 1:00
a.m. He was whistling as his foot hit the bottom stair. She pulled
down the mask over her face so that he wouldn’t be able to identify
her later. The door was solid wood and he hadn’t left a light on
inside when he left, so he wouldn’t see Laura until it was too late
to do anything about it.

He had just opened the door and reached over
to turn on the light when Laura sprang into action. She slammed the
big end of the bat hard into his solar plexus, and then she kicked
him between the legs. He dropped to his knees and she easily tipped
him back out the door and onto the landing with her foot. He lay
there in a fetal position on his back, gasping for breath. She
stepped across the threshold and took a small can of pepper spray
out of her pocket. She aimed it at his face and sprayed it in his
eyes. While he was screaming and trying to wipe the pepper spray
out of his eyes, she reached down with both hands and rolled him
down the stairs as hard as she could. She was pleased to see that
he made it all the way to the bottom before he stopped. She quickly
gathered her things and walked down the stairs. Laura bent down
beside him as he lay there moaning, pointed her phone at him, and
hit he ‘play’ button on the pre-recorded message she had created
using an internet app that disguised her voice.

“If you touch Valerie or her daughter again,
it will be the last thing you ever do,” said the creepy-sounding
automated voice.

She quickly crossed the street into the
alleyway where her bicycle was hidden, and turned around to make
certain she wasn’t followed. The whole episode had taken about
thirty seconds. As she turned around, she just saw the door begin
to open on the bottom apartment as someone came out to see what all
the noise was about.

A few days later, she read about the attack
in the local paper. The man had apparently sustained a concussion,
broken a leg, dislocated his shoulder, and required ten stitches to
close a gash in his cheek caused by an exposed nail on the wooden
staircase.

“Those darned nails,” Laura thought to
herself as she smiled.

 

[] Chapter
Thirty-Six

Silas looked down at the document that had
just arrived in the mail. He knew what it was, but forced himself
to open it anyway. He had to read it for himself. There was
something about reading it in print that seemed to hit him like a
ton of bricks. Maggie and Silas were now officially divorced.

Resigning from the force had been a hard
blow to Silas. He started drinking heavily. He told Maggie why he
had quit – the truth, and she was mad as hell. He swore to get
help. He even attended Gambler’s Anonymous for a while, but the
itch just wouldn’t go away. He kept thinking that all he needed was
one big score to set things right.

He was making ends meet with private
detective and security work, but kept skimming money off of his
paycheck to gamble with on the side so that Maggie wouldn’t know.

They began to have more and more fights over money. There were many
times that Maggie would borrow money from her sister to cover the
mortgage payment when they couldn’t come up with the funds because
of his gambling losses. Their marriage continued to disintegrate.
Finally, Maggie gave him an ultimatum. Either stop gambling for
good, or their marriage was over.

One weekend, Maggie and their son Tommy had
gone to visit her sister. An old friend invited Silas over to watch
the football game. Once the game was over, the guys wanted to play
some cards. Silas knew he should say no, but he stayed. He told
himself he would just spend twenty dollars on the game and then bow
out for the night if he lost it. He ended up losing one hundred and
fifty dollars before the night was over. It was money they had
needed for groceries.

Maggie and Tommy returned from their trip
and Maggie eventually asked Silas for some money to go to the store
and buy the groceries. When he confessed that he had lost the
money, she went ballistic. It had been the last straw for Maggie.
She took Tommy with her and moved in with her sister that same
day.

Silas put the divorce papers down on the
kitchen table and poured himself a tall glass of scotch. All of
this could have been fixed with money, he told himself. He thought
back to when it had all really started to go downhill several years
ago, and fixated on the Bartonovich affair as the starting point.
The online gambling site must have been rigged, he told himself.
How else could the site have won so much money back from him in so
little time? That led to the debt that caused him to decide to take
the job from Bartonovich in the first place. Since it was
Bartonovich’s site, Silas reasoned in his inebriated stupor, it was
his fault that Silas’ marriage had fallen apart. That was the last
coherent thought he had before he passed out on the couch.

While he was asleep, he had a dream about
the bank in the Caymans where Nick Bartonovich had taken J.T.
Thornbacker. In the dream, he saw large bundles of cash fall out of
the duffle bag that Nick was carrying out of the bank. He simply
walked away without picking the bundles up. Silas ran up and began
picking up the cash, stuffing it into his pockets and into his
shirt until he couldn’t carry anymore.

He had the hangover from hell when he woke
up the next morning. He drank two glasses of water, showered, and
made himself some strong coffee with two slices of toast on the
side. He sat at the breakfast table eating the toast, drinking
coffee, and staring at the divorce papers. By the time he had
finished his toast and coffee, he had convinced himself of two
things. Firstly, if he had enough money, Maggie would take him back
and he would have his family again. Secondly, if his money problems
had gotten drastically worse because of Nick Bartonovich, then Nick
Bartonovich could make those same financial difficulties go away
for good.

Silas started spending every spare moment he
could researching Nick’s businesses and watching his house. He
determined he would learn everything he could about the man, find
his weakness, and exploit that weakness to score a big pile of cash
for himself.

One afternoon as he was watching Nick’s
house, he saw the girl leave with Mia in a car. He had determined
her name was Sasha some weeks before by going through the
Bartonovich’s discarded trash. He followed the car as
inconspicuously as he was able. They left the city and made their
way over to Newark, New Jersey. Their first stop was at a florist,
where they came out with a bouquet of flowers. From here, they
proceeded to Fairmount Cemetery.

Silas pulled into the cemetery behind them,
far enough back so as not to be noticed. He followed them until he
was forced to turn down one of the side roads to prevent being
discovered tailing them. He quickly exited his vehicle, grabbing
his binoculars and finding a spot where he could see their car
fairly well.

The car stopped. Mia and the girl got out of
the car with the flowers and went over to a grave stone. He
couldn’t make out the name on the grave stone, but the girl
appeared to be crying. They stayed a few minutes, the girl put
flowers on the grave, and then they got back in the car. Silas
pretended to be visiting a nearby grave when they drove by the road
where he was positioned. Once they had left the cemetery, Silas got
back in his car and drove down to where the girl had put flowers on
the grave. It didn’t take him long to locate the grave with the
particular bouquet he had seen them place. He took out his phone
and took a picture of the grave stone before getting back in his
car and heading home.

This was something significant. Sasha was
the key to Nick Bartonovich’s money – he was sure of that. This
graveside visit just might be the leverage he needed to turn the
key. He didn’t know who Katrina Byers was or how she was related to
Sasha, but he would find out soon enough. And once he knew, he
would be able to exploit that information to achieve his goal. He
slept well that night and had the same recurring dream. In the
dream, Nick Bartonovich was dropping bundles of cash for him to
collect.

 

[] Chapter
Thirty-Seven

It was a beautiful day for sailing. J.T.,
Laura, and James had taken the sailboat out in the morning. They
had been out for around two hours and were about to stop and drop
anchor for lunch.

Since starting their new lives in the Cayman
Islands, J.T. had developed a passion for sailing. About a year
before, he had purchased this thirty-two foot Hunter 326 sailboat.
It had one mast with two sails in the classic Bermuda rig style.
There were two couches in the main cabin, with a table in the
middle, two sleeping areas which were each behind their own
bulkhead, a lavatory, and an open galley.

James went below and was beginning to get
the meal ready. He had developed into quite an amateur chef and had
prepared one of his latest dishes for them to try. Today it was
going to be jalapeño Tilapia served over angel-hair pasta with
grated Parmesan cheese, accompanied by a white wine.

J.T. was at the wheel and was about to lower
the sails and come to a stop. Laura had just come up from the hold
after retrieving some sunscreen. She put her sunglasses down on a
small seat located at the stern of the boat just behind the
wheelhouse. The seat was built into the railing, with the second
rail curved out and around the seat to provide back support.

She was just about to put sunscreen on her
face when the movement of the boat caused her glasses to slide off
of the seat and onto the ledge below, just past the railing at the
back of the boat. She put the sunscreen in the cup holder next to
the seat and grabbed the railing, stepping over the side of the
boat and onto the ledge. As she was reaching for her glasses the
boat hit a wave and lurched to the side, causing Laura to lose her
balance. She fell forward, hitting her head on the side of the boat
before falling into the water.

“Wow, did you see that wave we just hit?”
J.T. said as he turned around to where he thought Laura was
sitting. He saw her orange PFD in the water about twenty yards
behind the boat, where she was floating face down. He immediately
began turning the boat around, heading back in her direction.

“James! Get up here! Laura fell off the
boat!” J.T. yelled.

James came rushing up from the galley.

“Where is she?!”

By this time, J.T. had succeeded in turning
the boat around and was headed straight towards where Laura was
floating, still face down in the water.

“Right there!” J.T. exclaimed as he pointed
to where she was. “I think she hit her head and got knocked out.
I’ll pull up alongside and you jump in to get her.”

When the boat was close enough, James jumped
in and swam over to Laura, immediately flipping her over so that
her head was no longer face-down in the water. He began swimming
with Laura in tow back to the boat.

“Hang on, Laura! Hang on!” he exclaimed.

J.T. turned the boat back around once more
after passing by Laura, dropped the sails, and engaged the motor so
that he could come up slowly on his friends. When he got close
enough, he tossed out a life preserver. James grabbed on with one
arm and held Laura with the other as J.T. hauled them in.

Once they had Laura on the deck, J.T. could
see that Laura’s lips were blue, indicating she wasn’t breathing.
He immediately removed her life vest and began performing CPR.
After about thirty seconds of CPR, Laura vomited. J.T. rolled her
onto her side so that the vomit wouldn’t go down her windpipe.
Laura began coughing and spitting, gasping for air.

“James, go get a blanket,” J.T. ordered.

James came back with a blanket and wrapped
it around Laura. After a few minutes, Laura’s lips started turning
pink again.

“Are you o.k.?” James asked.

“Give her a minute, James,” J.T. said.

“Don’t you worry about talking right now, Laura, just focus on
breathing.” Turning to James, he continued, “It takes some time to
get your breath back after something like that. I know, I almost
drowned as a kid. Took me about an hour before I could speak.”

After they took Laura below, J.T. told James
to watch her and make sure she didn’t go to sleep. He was concerned
that she might have a concussion, and felt that they needed to have
her checked out at the hospital to make certain it wasn’t too
serious.

J.T. turned the boat around and set sail
back to the marina. He called ahead so that an ambulance was there
waiting on them by the time they returned. The doctor in the ER
gave Laura some oxygen and checked her over. Eventually, he
diagnosed her with a concussion and sent her home with James and
J.T., giving them a print-out on what symptoms to look for at home.
He told Laura that she needed to gets lots of rest and take it easy
over the next few days. She was to let him know if any of the
symptoms listed on the sheet he gave her persisted or got
worse.

J.T. suggested that they all stay at his
house for the next day or so. That way, he said, he and James could
take turns keeping an eye on Laura’s condition. Laura protested a
bit, but in the end, she was too exhausted to give them much
resistance and she capitulated.

A few weeks after the boating incident, they
were all eating over at J.T.’s house, and Laura brought in two
presents from the car. She gave one to J.T. and one to James. They
looked at her with questioning looks until she said, “Well, go on.
Open them up.”

J.T. unwrapped his first. It was a beautiful
stained glass piece of a sailboat on the water. Laura had included
a note inside the box. J.T. opened the note and read it to himself.
“Thanks for saving my life,” it read. James opened his and found a
similar note. His stained glass scene depicted a boy riding a bike
down the beach.

J.T. went over to Laura and gave her a big
hug.

“I’m just glad you are o.k. Thanks for the
gift.”

“Yeah,” James added, “thanks. That was
pretty scary. Next time, you stay inside the railing, young lady,”
he said in mock sternness, wagging his finger at Laura as he
spoke.

“Yes, sir!” Laura said with a mock
salute.

 

 

Laura’s near-drowning had been concerning on
more than one level. The x-ray that had been performed on Laura in
the ER had revealed the implant which had been installed for
monitoring the prisoners while they were at Utopia. The doctor
started asking questions about it. Laura had told him that it was a
private medical issue, and that she didn’t want to discuss it.

After a few more prodding questions, the doctor finally let it
drop.

They were all concerned that if they didn’t
get the devices removed, it might lead to their true identities
being revealed and land them back in prison. They began discreetly
searching for a good hospital somewhere other than the Cayman
Islands where they could have the devices removed. The Caymans were
too close to home and too many questions would be asked. It had to
be somewhere else.

They finally located a good hospital in
Costa Rica. Research had revealed that Costa Rica had some of the
finest medical care in all of South America. The whole procedure
would cost them each ten thousand dollars, plus the cost of the
charter plane split three ways. They flew into San Jose on a Friday
afternoon, spent the night in a hotel, and then had all three of
their devices removed on the following day at a local clinic – no
questions asked. One more day in town to monitor for any signs of
infection, and it was back to George Town on Sunday.

All in all, life had been good for the three
of them during these past eleven years since they had been
kidnapped from Utopia. Not only had they escaped re-capture, but
they had been able to build new and fulfilling lives in Grand
Cayman and become good friends all around. They had no idea that
their world was about to be turned upside down once more.

 

[] Chapter
Thirty-Eight

Sasha’s eighteenth birthday party had been a
huge success. The party started out with a trip to the Trapeze
School of New York, where Sasha and a group of her friends tried
out swinging from the trapeze. Next, it was back to the
Bartonovich’s brownstone for a catered birthday lunch, complete
with three-tiered birthday cake, presents, music, dancing – the
whole nine yards. Lastly, they finished it off with a movie.

The following morning before breakfast, Nick
and Mia asked Sasha to come into the library so that they could
give her one last birthday present. They sat down around the coffee
table and Nick placed a manila envelope on the table that had
Sasha’s name on it. Sasha was still on a party-high from the events
of the day before and she was grinning from ear to ear.

“Thank you again for the party yesterday,
Nick and Mia. It was the best birthday party ever.”

Although it had been years since they had
officially adopted her, she still preferred to call them by their
first names. Mia could understand completely. No one could replace
Sasha’s mother, nor did she want to. She was just glad to be a part
of Sasha’s life.

“Sasha,” Nick began, “I’m very glad you had
a good day. We have one more present to give you, but it’s not what
you might expect. I have some very good news for you, but it also
might be very difficult news.”

Sasha looked from Mia to Nick and back, a
quizzical expression on her face. “O.k., what is it?” she
asked.

“When we adopted you, there were certain
facts about your life that we didn’t feel you needed to know at the
time,” Nick continued. “Mia and I talked about it and decided that
you needed time to grieve and adjust to your new life before we
told you. Due to other circumstances that will hopefully be clear
in a few minutes, we decided it would be best to wait until you
turned eighteen to tell you those details.”

Sasha had moved to the edge of her seat with
curiosity, wondering what was about to be revealed.

“Sasha, your biological father is still
alive.” Nick paused to let Sasha process what he had just said,
knowing that her entire world would shift with the words he had
just spoken.

“That can’t be possible,” a confused Sasha
replied, “my father died in a car crash in Canada when I was a
baby.”

“Sasha,” Nick continued, “I know this is
hard to accept, but your mother didn’t tell you the truth about
your father.”

“So you’re saying Mom lied to me about my
father’s death? Why would she do that?” Sasha said, visibly
upset.

“Look, I know this is a lot to process, but
your mother had a very good reason for not telling you the truth
about your father. Your father is a man named J.T. Thornbacker.
When you were born, he had just been sent to prison for twenty-five
years. He didn’t even know your mother was pregnant with you. In
fact, he doesn’t even know you exist at this moment.”

“I’m sure your mother just did it to protect
you,” Mia added, touching Sasha’s hand gently as she spoke.

“Why did you guys wait so long to tell me?”
Sasha asked, looking hurt.

Nick and Mia looked at each other.

“Your father is currently on the FBI’s
wanted list. He escaped from prison nine years ago,” Mia
answered.

Sasha’s eyes widened and her mouth came open
with a look of surprise.

“What?”

“I know it’s a lot to take in. Everything
you need to know is in this envelope,” Nick said, tapping the
envelope on the coffee table with his finger. “Once you have had a
chance to look over it, ask me anything you like.”

“So no one knows where he is?” Sasha asked,
picking up the folder and placing it in her lap.

We know where he is, Sasha,” Mia
said.

Sasha looked at Mia with a mixture of
surprise and bewilderment.

“He is living under an assumed name in
another country,” Nick went on. “We can arrange for you to meet
him, but there are some complications. Because he is a wanted man,
if the FBI finds out about him, he will go back to jail for the
rest of his life.”

Sasha stood up, clutching the manila
envelope in both hands. She began backing away from Nick and Mia.
She was upset, her brain not sure which question to ask first.
Should she be mad at Nick and Mia, or her mom, or at anyone? She
didn’t know. Her thoughts were a jumble of emotion-filled
firecrackers.

“I need some time to think,” she said as she
turned and practically ran out of the library and up the flight of
stairs to her room. Nick and Mia heard the door slam.

Sasha sat down on her bed. She opened up the
manila envelope and poured out the contents onto her bed. Her eye
was caught by an 8 ½ by 11 inch photograph of J.T. Thornbacker. He
was smiling as he faced the camera, and dressed in a three-piece
suit. She went over to her mirror and held the picture beside her
face as she peered into the mirror so she could see her image side
by side with her father’s. The resemblance was undeniable. She
wondered when the picture had been taken.

There were various articles in the pile on
her bed. One was about J.T. being appointed CEO of some company.
Most of the others were about his arrest and trial for embezzling
funds and various other illegal business practices. She read them
all, devouring them for information about who her father was and
what he was like. The last article was about J.T. Thornbacker’s
amazing escape from prison, along with two other prisoners. It
detailed how the hideout that they had fled to after leaving prison
had been discovered, and that all indications pointed to their plan
to flee to Europe and live under false identities. She wondered how
Nick and Mia had found him after all these years.

Before today, she had believed her father’s
name was Steven Byers, and that he’d been a school teacher who had
died in a car crash in Canada. Today, she had learned that she had
been lied to by both her mother and her adoptive parents about one
of the biggest facts in her life. It was unsettling. The more she
thought about it, the madder she became.

She needed someone she could talk to,
someone she could trust. She called her best friend Marty to see if
she could come over and talk.

“Hi Sasha,” Marty answered.

“Hi Marty. Can I come over? I need to talk
to you.”

“Sure. What’s up?”

“I can’t talk about it on the phone and
there’s something I need to show you first.”

“O.k. When do you want to come over?”

“I have to wait until the coast is clear.

Maybe in about an hour?”

“No problem. Just text me when you leave to
come over, o.k.?”

“O.k. See you soon.”

She was taking a risk in talking to Marty
about her real father. But she needed someone she could trust to
listen to her. Right now, she was having some definite trust issues
with Nick and Mia. Marty had been her best friend since grade
school. She had been Sasha’s confidant when her mom had died. If
she couldn’t trust Marty, then she couldn’t trust anyone.

Sasha grabbed her backpack and tossed in a
windbreaker, a flashlight, and her phone. She collected all of the
papers spread out on her bed and put them back in the envelope,
tossing that into the backpack too. Now all she had to do was wait
until Nick and Mia went to bed. She didn’t want them knowing where
she was going and she certainly didn’t want them asking a lot of
questions or trying to stop her. She was eighteen, after all – old
enough to do what she wanted.

Mia came and knocked on her door around
10:30 p.m.

“Yes?” Sasha responded.

“Are you o.k.?” Mia said without opening the
door.

“Yeah, I’m o.k. I just want to be alone
right now.”

“O.k. If you need anything, just come and
get me.”

“Alright. Thanks.”

Sasha heard Nick and Mia’s bedroom door
close down the hall. She waited another thirty minutes until she no
longer heard any sounds coming from the direction of their bedroom.
She slipped on her backpack and quietly opened the door, looking
down the hall to make certain the light was off in her parents’
room. She had practiced going downstairs without making a sound,
marking each place she would need to step without making the floors
creak. She paused before each floor to carefully peer around the
wall separating the stairs from the rest of the floor before coming
down to the landing, making sure Nick wasn’t still up. She went all
the way down to the basement, punched in the security code to turn
off the alarm, and exited the door that led out to the sidewalk.
She closed the door as quietly as she could, locking it with her
key.

She started walking in the direction of
Marty’s house. She turned the corner and was about to walk past an
alleyway when she was grabbed roughly from behind. She tried to
scream, but there was a cloth over her mouth. As she inhaled, she
felt weak and couldn’t keep her eyes open. In seconds, she lost
consciousness.

Silas McGruder dragged her into the
alleyway, out of sight of anyone who might be passing by.

 

[] Chapter
Thirty-Nine

Sasha’s phone didn’t have a password on it,
which was good for Silas. That way, he didn’t need to use the burn
phone he had purchased to send a message to Nick Bartonovich. It
was 6:00 a.m., time to get the ball rolling. Silas took a deep
breath and exhaled it slowly. This text was about to start the
events moving that he had planned for so long. He had checked and
double-checked all of the details. Everything was in place. Now all
he had to do was send this text.

He scrolled through Sasha’s contacts and
selected both Nick and Mia’s numbers, and then he typed out the
message:

 

I have sasha. 10 million in cash, one
hundred dollar notes, or you never see her again. Put the money in
a big cooler with wheels on it. J t thornbacker must deliver the
money. Will contact you in 24 hours to tell you where to meet me
with the money. No cops or else.

 

He checked the message twice to make sure he
had all the details right, then hit the send button. He then took a
picture of Sasha, duct-taped to the captain’s chair in the RV, and
sent it through, as well. Once the message and picture were sent,
he removed the phone’s cover and popped out the battery. It was
just a precaution so that they wouldn’t be able to track the phone.
He checked Sasha’s restraints one more time before climbing in to
the driver’s seat of the RV and driving away.

As Silas drove along, he thought about the
events that had led up to this moment, and a smile came across his
face. All of the planning, all of the time spent surveilling and
researching, the investment he had made in the miniature
microphones that he had placed around the Bartonovich’s house – it
had all paid off. Now the brass ring was in sight.

Many months before, when Silas began to
focus on Nick Bartonovich as the key to his future success, he had
started looking for a way to spend more time staking out their
house. He’d found a basement efficiency apartment on the opposite
side of the street from the Bartonovich’s home, down on the corner.
It was the perfect place from which to surveil all of the comings
and goings at their residence. Besides, he had needed a place to
stay since he’d lost the house in the divorce.

He had purchased a set of high quality
remotely accessible microphones that he was going to use to bug
their house, but he needed a way to get inside undetected in order
to plant them. One day, the HVAC company that the Bartonoviches
used was out doing routine maintenance on their system. Silas was
home and was watching the Bartonovich house that day. He noticed
that Nick and Mia left together shortly after Sasha headed off to
school, leaving the HVAC technician alone in the house. Silas had
simply walked over with a box containing the bugs, tipped the HVAC
tech a hundred dollars to let him in the house, and planted the
bugs.

He had been settled on the kidnapping scheme
for some time. He decided that nothing else would provide the
leverage he needed to get what he wanted. He had everything planned
out except how he was going to get Sasha alone so that he could
grab her. Breaking into the house would set off the alarm, and
doing something in broad daylight near their house was too risky.
Then, when he had heard from the bug in Sasha’s room about her plan
to leave the house after dark without her parents’ knowledge, that
problem was solved. Finding out that J.T. Thornbacker was her
father from the bug in the library was just icing on the cake. He
couldn’t resist using J.T. as the courier. The last thing Nick
wanted was for J.T. to get caught by the cops – then he would be
connected to the prison breakout he had orchestrated and go to
jail. Every bit of insurance Silas could get to make certain the
authorities stayed out of his way was welcome. Yes, this was going
to be sweet revenge indeed.

 

 

Nick Bartonovich reached over to the night
stand and picked up his phone. He looked down at the sender and
wondered why Sasha was texting him this early in the morning from
the next room. He opened the text and read the message. Then he saw
the picture that came through next and he immediately jumped up out
of bed, ran down the hall to Sasha’s room, and threw open the
door.

“Sasha!” Nick exclaimed. “Sasha, if this is
a joke, it isn’t funny. Where are you, sweetheart?” There was no
answer.

By this time, Mia had put on her robe and
was walking down the hall to Sasha’s room.

“What is going on? Where is Sasha?”

Nick handed Mia his phone.

“Oh, my God!” Mia exclaimed.

Mia and Nick began a hurried search of the
house, each of them calling her name as they checked each floor,
hoping and praying this was all a joke. When they had gone through
every room, they met back up in the kitchen. Nick placed his hands
on Mia’s shoulders and looked straight into her eyes to make
certain he had her full attention.

“Mia, I need you to call the airport and
have them get the plane fueled and ready to go to Grand Cayman. You
stay here and get the money. I’ll call you once I’m in the air and
we can work out the details.”

Nick dressed quickly and left the house for
the airport. He pulled out his phone and dialed a number. It was
5:00 a.m. in the Cayman Islands, so it was a long shot that his
office administrator would be awake, but he dialed anyway. It rang
several times before finally going to voicemail.

“This is Nick Bartonovich. Drop everything
you are doing and call me as soon as you get this message. This is
an emergency.”

He hit the disconnect icon on his phone. His
mind was racing. How had Sasha been kidnapped? Why was J.T. being
pulled into this? He could only speculate at this point as he drove
as fast as he could to reach the airport.

 

 

When Sasha came to, she was sitting in a
captain’s chair in the back of an RV. Her hands and feet were
duct-taped to the chair, and her mouth was gagged. She could tell
by the road noise that the RV was on the move. The drapes on the
windows were all drawn, and a curtain which separated the cab of
the RV from the rest of the vehicle was also drawn. She could hear
country music playing on the radio.

She began breathing faster as the fear hit
her. She tried desperately to break free of her restraints and to
scream. After a few minutes of struggling, she realized that she
was getting nowhere, and stopped pulling against the restraints.
She started looking around to see what information she could gather
from her environment that might help her escape or notify someone
that she was a captive.

It was an hour or more before the RV slowed
to a stop. Sasha could hear the driver getting up from the driver’s
seat. She heard the curtain rustle as the driver stepped back into
the main cabin. Sasha’s chair was turned to face the rear of the
vehicle, so she couldn’t yet see her kidnapper. A mixture of fear
and curiosity gripped her as she waited to see who it was and what
they would do next. Silas stepped in front of Sasha and sat down on
the couch across from her.

“I’m glad to see you are awake,” Silas
began. “I’m not planning on hurting you, Sasha. You are simply a
means to an end. You see, your daddy has a lot of money. And he
owes me. But what you need to know right now is that, as long as
you do what I tell you to do, I won’t hurt you. On the other hand,
if you try to escape or start screaming, then I will hurt you. Do
we understand each other?”

Sasha nodded her head up and down to
indicate that she understood.

“Good. Right now, we are off of the
interstate and pulled over on a side road. There’s nobody here to
hear you if you scream, so don’t even try it. I’m going to let you
go now so that you can go to the restroom here in the RV and get
something to eat and drink. If you cooperate with me, this doesn’t
have to be a horrible experience.”

Silas produced a knife and began cutting
away the restraints from one foot, then the other. He did the
wrists last, letting Sasha remove the gag herself. Sasha eyed him
warily the entire time, wondering if he was going to assault her or
if he was telling the truth. She massaged her wrists where the duct
tape had been constricting the blood flow as she walked over to the
lavatory.

The bathroom ventilation window was too
small for her to fit through and the privacy glass obstructed her
view, but she was able to get a look at the surrounding area. All
she saw was the woods. After she had relieved herself, she began
looking around for anything she might use as a weapon or to cut the
duct tape with, but she didn’t find anything. She finally decided
that she couldn’t stay in the bathroom forever and came back
out.

True to his word, there was a bottle of
water and a pre-packaged sandwich sitting on the table for her when
she came out. Silas motioned for her to sit down opposite him,
where the food was placed, and she complied. She ate the sandwich,
which tasted just shy of edible, and drank half of the water before
Silas looked at his watch.

“O.k., time’s up, back in the chair; we have
a long way to go yet.”

“Where are you taking me?” Sasha asked.

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head
about that,” Silas replied.

Sasha thought about making a break for the
door on the way back to the chair, but Silas had positioned himself
strategically in front of the door as he motioned for her to sit
back down in the captain’s chair. She reluctantly complied and sat
back down. He picked up the duct tape and began securing her to the
chair once more. When he was done with the duct tape and gag, he
went back to the front of the RV and soon they were back on their
way to wherever it was that they were going. As they drove down the
road once more, Sasha prayed to God that Nick and Mia would give
this man whatever he wanted so that he would let her go back to her
family.

 

[]
Chapter Forty

Nick Bartonovich exited the plane
practically jogging down the steps to the awaiting car. Tammy, his
local office administrator, was sitting in the back seat. The
driver opened the back door for Nick and then sprinted around the
front of the car to the driver’s side. Nick had prepped Tammy on
the phone about what he needed done while he was in the air. He
turned to her as soon as the door was shut, hoping everything was
taken care of.

“Give me a status report,” Nick said.

“He is in the house out on Rum Point. I have
a local resource out there right now watching him. Sam was seen
this morning watering his garden and hasn’t left the house since,”
she reported.

“Good work, Tammy. Jared,” Nick said,
addressing the driver, “I want you to come with me to the door just
in case the greeting is less than amicable.”

Jared nodded as he glanced at Nick’s face in
the rearview mirror. Jared was one of a few local heavies that
worked for Nick from time to time as drivers and/or security
personnel. He was a first-rate martial artist, not to mention that
he was also a body builder who could probably bench-press a small
car.

It took less than fifteen minutes to arrive
at the house. Nick didn’t wait for Jared to come around and open
his door. He exited the car and briskly walked up the ramp to the
side door of the house. Jared had to jog the first few steps to
catch up. Nick rang the doorbell and looked down at his watch
impatiently as he waited for someone to answer the door.

J.T. had just finished his morning coffee
and was about to log in to his online brokerage account to check on
his investments when he heard the door ring. He glanced over at the
security camera monitor that he had installed on the side of his
desk before getting up. When he saw who it was, he couldn’t believe
his eyes. He switched the view on the monitor to single out that
lone camera for magnification, just to make certain. His heart
started beating faster. He grabbed his cell phone and quickly sent
out a text, and then he opened a side drawer and pulled out a Smith
and Wesson .45 caliber revolver before he went to answer the
door.

Nick was reaching his finger down to depress
the doorbell once more when the door finally opened. J.T. was
standing there with the gun in one hand, pointed down at the floor.
He said nothing, but stared at Nick warily, waiting.

“Hello J.T.,” Nick said without smiling, “I
need your help.”

J.T. was shocked a bit at Nick’s
introduction. This wasn’t the Nick he knew from years before, who
demanded cooperation at the point of a gun.

“What are you doing here, Nick?”

Nick reached his hand into his coat jacket
pocket. J.T. started to raise the pistol and Jared started to grab
Nick to pull him to the side of the door, out of range of the gun.
Nick put out his free hand and said, “Hold on, I’m just going to
retrieve my phone.”

Once J.T. lowered the gun, Nick slowly
retrieved his cell phone and pulled up a picture of Sasha. The
resemblance to J.T. was unmistakable. He turned the phone around
and handed it to J.T.

“J.T., this is your daughter, Sasha. She is
also my adopted daughter. She has been kidnapped, and I need your
help to get her back safely.”

J.T. slowly reached forth his hand and took
the cell phone from Nick. He looked down at the face smiling back
at him on the phone and felt like he had been hit with a
sucker-punch in the stomach.

“Come in,” he said as he turned around,
still clutching the phone in one hand and the gun in the other.

He walked slowly over to the couch. Once
they were seated on the couch, J.T. took his eyes off of the phone
and looked up at Nick.

“This is impossible. This is a young woman.

She would’ve been born sometime when I was in prison,” J.T.
said.

“True,” Nick replied.

“Assuming this is true,” J.T. continued,
regaining some of his composure, “who is the mother?”

“Katrina Byers.”

J.T.’s mind recalled back almost nineteen
years before, to when he had met a young woman who’d worked for
Nick. She was an accountant who would give J.T. information from
Nick that was deemed too sensitive for email or other forms of
communication. They had hit it off instantly. She was funny and
vivacious, full of life. J.T. asked her out to dinner after their
second meeting. It was a risk that they might be seen together and
his connection with Nick might be discovered, but she was worth
it.

Then the investigation began. Nick and J.T.

terminated communication with each other. They wanted to avoid
being discovered working together, bilking the company that J.T.
was currently working for as a CEO. He and Katrina continued to
meet on the weekends at a hideaway in the countryside so they
wouldn’t be discovered together. During one of their rendezvous,
Katrina had asked J.T. what he thought about starting a family one
day and what he thought about children. J.T., always the
self-confident, self-centered business man, told her that he didn’t
think that would fit in with his plans. He didn’t want children, he
said.

He remembered the fight they had after he
made that statement. She accused him of not loving her. He said
that he wanted to be with her, but that love, marriage, children –
those weren’t things he was interested in. She stormed out of the
house and drove back home that night. J.T. tried to contact her,
but she didn’t return his calls. Shortly after, he was arrested,
and he never heard from her again.

“How do I know you are telling the truth and
that this isn’t just another one of your scams?” J.T. said warily.
“And if this girl whom you claim is my daughter is in so much
trouble, why isn’t Katrina here to help convince me all of this is
true?” he demanded.

“Katrina is dead, J.T.” Nick replied
somberly.

J.T. could tell Nick was telling the truth.

Nick was many things, but in all the years he had known Nick, J.T.
could never remember one time that Nick had lied to him.

“How?” he asked.

“Kidney failure. She died eight years ago.

It’s a long story that I don’t have time to get into, but Mia and I
got married. We helped watch Sasha when Katrina was sick. Katrina
asked us to adopt her when she knew she wasn’t going to make it. We
did. It’s all here.” Nick put his briefcase on the table and opened
it up, dumping out a set of papers that included Sasha’s birth
certificate, the adoption papers, pictures of Sasha with Katrina,
Katrina’s death certificate, and pictures of Mia, Nick, and Sasha
together. He waited as J.T. looked through the information.
Finally, J.T. looked up at Nick.

“This isn’t the Nick Bartonovich that I
knew,” he said finally.

Nick paused, trying to decide how to best
answer that charge. Honesty, he decided, was the best approach.
“Look,” he began, “I got cancer. I had an operation followed by a
long recovery…it changed me.”

J.T. was looking straight into Nick’s eyes,
looking for some sign of deception.

“If I could go back and do things
differently… there are a lot of things I would change,” Nick
continued, “but right now, I don’t have time to go through all of
that. Sasha needs our help and I’m asking you to please help
me.”

J.T. picked up a portrait-sized picture of
Sasha. He could see the eyebrows and mouth were his, no doubt. The
nose was thankfully Katrina’s. He remembered Katrina’s perky nose.
He smiled. If there was any way this girl was his, and she
certainly looked like she was, then there was no way in hell he was
going to pass up the chance to help her. He wanted to get to know
her, to make sure she was o.k., and to have some kind of
relationship with her.

“O.k.,” he said, still looking at the
picture. “Tell me what I need to do.”

“The kidnapper wants a ransom and says that
you must be the one to deliver it. He will call in about eighteen
hours to give more details. No police or else. I need you to come
back to the States with me. I have a plane waiting at the airport
for us now.”

J.T., still looking at the picture, began to
nod. “O.k., but I have a request, too,” he said.

“Name it,” Nick replied.

“James and Laura will be coming with
us.”

“I hardly see how they can help,” Nick
replied.

J.T. looked up at Nick with determination in
his eyes.

“Eight years ago, you used me to take almost
eighty million dollars out of a bank, leaving me a fugitive from my
own country and living under a false identity. Now you waltz in
here and tell me I have a daughter that you have known about for
years but haven’t bothered to tell me about until now. In addition
to that, you want me to risk going back to prison for the rest of
my life to help get her back from a kidnapper.”

“Back Stateside, you have money, power,
resources, everything. You have your own network of contacts and
hired hands. James and Laura are my network. They are the
people I have had to rely on for years. We trust each other with
our lives because we can’t fully trust anyone else. I’m willing to
take it on faith that this girl is who you say she is. I’m willing
to go out on a limb and believe you don’t have some scheme up your
sleeve to lure me back to the States and turn me over to the feds.
Now I’m asking you to trust me a little bit and bring Laura and
James along to help out. I trust them, and if everything is what
you say it is, we need people we can trust to help us out on
this.”

“O.k., I hear what you are saying,” Nick
replied. “If you think they can help, then bring them along, but we
need to leave soon. She may be your biological daughter, but she is
my adopted daughter and I love her very much. The clock is ticking
and we need to get moving. Where are they and when can they get
here?”

J.T. went to his office to retrieve his cell
phone. He called James and Laura on a three-way call. Once he had
them both on the line, he briefly explained the situation and asked
them if they would consider coming back to the States with him to
help get his daughter back.

“Wow,” Laura exclaimed. “That is a huge
bombshell, J.T. I don’t want to be the black cloud here, but are
you sure she’s your daughter?”

“Well, the paperwork looks authentic enough,
and then there’s the pictures. She’s not my spitting image, but the
resemblance is pretty strong. I think there is a good chance Nick
is telling the truth. Besides, he could have turned me in at any
time in the last eight years if he wanted to, or sent his goons to
kidnap me again, for that matter. Nick’s changed too, he’s
different somehow. Strange as it is for me to say this, I think I
trust him on this one.”

“Well, if you feel that confident about it,
I’m in,” Laura replied.

“What about you, James?” J.T. asked.

“With all we’ve been through, I’m not about
to let you two go back to the States alone. I’d be glad to help you
out, J.T. Just tell me when and where.”

“Be at the airport in twenty minutes. I’ll
text you the gate info on the way.”

J.T. threw some items in a backpack and
headed out the door with Nick. Thirty minutes later, James, Laura,
J.T., and Nick were on an airplane and headed back to New York.

 

[]
Chapter Forty-One

Silas pulled in to Toakama, West Virginia at
about 10 a.m. in the morning. He pulled the RV behind one of the
abandoned buildings and shut off the engine. It had been a long
day. He cut Sasha loose so she could go to the facilities and eat
something, then secured her back to the captain’s chair with a
generous amount of duct tape. She would be uncomfortable and
probably wouldn’t sleep much through the night, but she was young
and would be fine after a day’s rest back home in her comfy bed in
New York City.

Toakama was an abandoned mining town in the
middle of nowhere. It had been a thriving little town until the
mine shut down after an explosion that had killed twenty workers
back in the 1950s. The mining company had shut down the mine and
moved the workers to a more profitable location about a hundred
miles away. A few residents stayed around, but without anyone to
support the local businesses, eventually everyone had either died
or moved away.

There was only one road leading into the
little town, making it perfect for this ransom exchange. The road
was about three quarters of a mile long and terminated in a
cul-de-sac that served to allow people to turn their vehicles
around and head back out of town. The road into town crossed over a
fifty-foot gorge just before the city limits. The gorge had a
bucolic stream flowing at the bottom of it and the whole town was
surrounded by forest. The mountains rose behind the town, leading
further up into the Blue Ridge Mountains. A post office, a barber
shop, a grocery store, a hardware store, a diner, and even a small
town hall at the end of the street were among the various brick
buildings that lined the main street that was Toakama.

Silas had liked hiking since he was a kid.

He had discovered this place on a hiking trip that he had taken
years before. Being in the great outdoors helped him clear his
head. When he had begun to plan the kidnapping, this was the first
place that came to his mind as a potential exchange location. It
was perfect. It was surrounded by rugged terrain, he could see
anyone trying to enter the town on the one road in or out, and you
could hear a pin drop in the deserted streets. The buildings
offered perfect cover so he could watch the whole drop-off without
being seen. And best of all, it was in the middle of nowhere, with
the next populated town being twenty-five miles away.

He reached into the refrigerator and pulled
out a six-pack of beer, then headed up the hill about a hundred
yards. From this spot, he could see the RV and the whole town
below. He popped the top on the first beer and enjoyed the view.
Not too long from now, he was going to be a very rich man. He
smiled at the thought and took a drink from the can.

After he had finished three beers, he went
back into the RV and took a nap in the back. Later in the day, he
would have to double check on all the preparations he’d already
made, and there was no sense being tired when he did so. He slept
like a stone and dreamt of buying a nice house somewhere in a
tropical island, and being reunited with Maggie and Tommy when this
was all over.

He woke up about two hours later, feeling an
intense need to relieve himself. He went outside and up the hill a
few yards behind a tree and took care of business. He thought to
himself that he felt like a million dollars. Then he laughed and
said out loud, “I feel like ten million dollars!”

Before he made his rounds to check on all of
the items he had prepared for the ransom exchange, he went back
into the RV and took Sasha’s gag off to give her a drink of water.
After all, he told himself, he was no monster. When that task was
done, he went to work.

He walked behind the row of buildings on the
upper-side of the town’s main street. He could see the
tarpaulin-covered Jeep from where the RV was parked. It looked just
the way he had left it a few months before, except for the generous
dusting of pine needles and small twigs on top of the
tarpaulin.

After he removed the cover, he reached far
under the seat and retrieved the keys, checking first to make
certain there were no black widows or other creatures lurking
underneath. He popped the hood, connected the battery, and jumped
in the driver’s seat. He had brought an extra battery just in case,
but he hoped he wouldn’t need it. He turned the key and the engine
tried to turn over twice, then roared to life. He smiled.
Everything was going according to plan.

He un-holstered his .38 revolver, which he
carried in a shoulder sling, and checked the ammunition. It was
good to be prepared when you were in the woods by yourself. You
never knew who, or what, you might run into. He left the
jeep running to warm up the engine and went back inside to get
Sasha. He walked her out and put her in the passenger’s seat,
leaving her hands bound and putting on the seatbelt for her. He
couldn’t afford to leave her here alone – she was his ten million
dollar ticket.

He climbed up in the driver’s seat and put
the Jeep in gear, driving up a mountainside road that looked like
little more than a trail. He needed to make sure this old logging
road hadn’t been blocked by any fallen trees during his absence. It
would be a shame to get stuck trying to remove a tree from across
the road with ten million dollars in the back of his vehicle. He
was under no illusions about what he was about to do. He knew Nick
Bartonovich would come after him as soon as he knew his daughter
was safe. Having a quick escape route available was essential.

He drove for about thirty minutes up the
winding road before he had to stop and remove a small tree that had
fallen across the pathway. Luckily for him, it had cracked in two
when it hit the road, making it easy to roll out of the way and
down the hill into the woods to the left of the road. He had a
small chain saw in the back of the jeep in case he needed it, but
rolling the broken parts of the tree downhill was even easier. He
got back in the Jeep and drove for a few more minutes without
encountering any obstacles, and decided he had come far enough. He
turned the Jeep around and headed back to town.

Back at the RV, he let Sasha sit at the
table inside while he cooked some hamburgers for them on the stove.
He waited to remove the duct tape from her hands until they were
ready to eat, just in case. She ate like a horse. Silas thought to
himself that it must be the mountain air. He was hungrier than
usual himself and cooked them both another hamburger.

“You eat pretty good for a girl,” Silas
said, putting down the second hamburger in front of Sasha.

“Thanks for the second hamburger,” she said
as she began eating. “Why are you doing this?” she said at
last.

Silas looked up at her from his hamburger
and smiled, “You mean, besides the money?”

“Yeah, I guess,” she replied hesitantly.

“It’s complicated. I gambled, I lost a lot
of money on a crooked gambling site that your dad ran, I lost a
good job, my wife left me, yada, yada, yada.” He took another bite
from his hamburger and washed it down with a swig of beer. Sasha
didn’t say anything, just waited.

“I guess at some point I decided that I
deserved a better hand than the one I had been dealt. I was a cop,
at one time, and I saw a lot of crooked guys get away with a lot of
money while I was keeping the law and struggling to pay the
mortgage.” He shrugged his shoulders. “So I decided it was my turn
to walk away with some of that money.”

He looked at Sasha. “It’s nothing against
you, but whether you know it or not, Nick and J.T. Thornbacker
didn’t get rich because they were nice guys. This money they are
paying me with was stolen from some other people.”

Sasha’s anger got the better of her and she
said without thinking, “Nick is not a crook!”

Silas looked at her for a minute before he
spoke. “Listen, Sasha, I don’t expect you to agree with me. But
enough about me, it’s time for dessert.”

Silas went to the refrigerator and took two
ice cream bars out of the freezer, handing one to Sasha before
sitting back down at the table. She took it from him and opened it
up, thinking how strange it was for this man who had just kidnapped
her to be giving her ice cream. They ate dessert together in
silence.

After they were finished, Silas said, “O.k.,
time for you to go back in the chair. I can’t have you running off
now, can I? Go to the bathroom first, though; it may be a while
before you get a chance to go again.”

Sasha reluctantly got up to go to the tiny
RV bathroom. Silas remained in his seat while she did. When she
came out, Silas was still seated, finishing up his beer. She walked
over in the direction of the captain’s chair, resigned to being
restrained with duct tape again. When she got close to the door and
noticed Silas wasn’t out of his seat yet, she suddenly saw an
opportunity to escape. She lunged for the door, opened it up, and
dashed outside before Silas could stop her.

Silas realized his mistake too late, jumping
up and heading out the door, running after her. Sasha had a good
head-start on him of about fifteen feet. Silas had never been much
of a runner, and he knew he couldn’t outrun her if all things were
equal. Just as Sasha began opening up a bigger lead, she tripped on
the exposed root system of a large oak tree and fell down. Silas
didn’t miss his opportunity, closing the distance between them
before Sasha regained her traction.

He reached down and grabbed her arm. Sasha
turned and bit him as hard as she could. Silas released her and let
out a yell, but he shot out his leg and kicked her in the stomach
before she could stand up. She buckled to the ground with a groan
as Silas briefly looked at his bleeding hand to assess the damage.
Silas’ days as a cop subduing suspects on the streets of New York
had been fine-tuned over the years. No uptown socialite teenager
was going to get the better of him in a street brawl.

Sasha sat up on the ground, trying to
breathe and stand up at the same time. Silas’ anger got the better
of him and he stepped forward and back-handed her hard across the
face with the same hand she had just bitten. Sasha went down like a
sack of potatoes, letting out a whimper as she hit the ground.
Silas didn’t wait for her to regain her footing or even sit up. He
grabbed her by the forearm and began dragging her back to the
RV.

“I told you that you would get hurt if you
tried to get away, didn’t I? Why did you have to go and do that?!
Huh?!”

By the time they had reached the door of the
RV, Sasha had still not regained her footing. Silas grabbed the top
of her pants from behind with one hand and the back of her shirt
with the other, lifting her up onto her feet and pushing her into
the RV. Sasha collapsed onto her hands and knees on the floor.

Silas stepped into the RV and shouted at
her, pointing to the captain’s chair, “Get in the chair!”

Sasha practically crawled up in the chair.

She was bleeding from her lip and her left eye had already started
to swell up. Tears were coming down her face as Silas busied
himself taping her hands and feet into position. When he was done
taping her to the chair, Silas grabbed another beer from the
refrigerator and stormed out of the RV.

 

[]
Chapter Forty-Two

The airplane ride back to New York was
filled with activity. After an awkward first greeting between Nick,
James, and Laura, Nick began a briefing that covered everything he
had told J.T. Once James and Laura were up to speed, Nick began
making phone calls.

He first called Mia to make certain she had
obtained the required ten million in one hundred dollar notes, as
the kidnapper had specified. She confirmed that all was ready. The
next call he placed was to someone that J.T. knew from personal
experience – bad personal experience.

“Victor, I need your assistance on an
important job…. Yes, we leave tomorrow morning at 6:00 a.m. This is
not the usual job. It is a rescue of sorts. It seems some lunatic
has decided to kidnap my daughter…. Yes, the usual fee, plus a
bonus when she is returned unharmed. A six man team would be fine….
We don’t know yet where it will be. I suggest you have your plane
fueled up and ready to go anywhere. Oh, and Victor, you remember
that job a few years back in the Cayman Islands? Well, those three
will be joining us…. Yes, life is strange sometimes. It’s a long
story and I don’t have time to tell you now, but suffice it to say
that this time we are all working together…. O.k., I’ll call you at
this number as soon as I have more details.”

Nick disconnected the phone.

“You’re still hiring that mercenary to do
work for you?” J.T. asked.

“Yes, he’s the best. As you know from
personal experience, he gets the job done,” Nick replied without
his usual sly smile.

“I thought you said the kidnapper said no
cops? How do you think he is going to react to a bunch of commandos
armed to the teeth showing up on the scene?” J.T. queried.

“Probably not very well if he ever sees they
are around, but I’m not prepared to depend solely on the promises
of an unscrupulous kidnapper for Sasha’s safe return. I’m planning
on being prepared.”

“I can’t argue with that. Just make sure
these guys stay out of sight unless we need them. We don’t need the
kidnapper or kidnappers to be spooked and do something
crazy. By the way. Do we know anything more about
him/her/them?”

“Nothing,” Nick replied. “I received the
message on Sasha’s phone and the battery was taken out shortly
thereafter, preventing us from tracing the call.”

J.T. turned to James and Laura. “Thanks for
coming, you two. I needed to have some familiar faces backing me up
on this,” he said.

“Don’t mention it,” James replied. “Business
down at the shop was getting a bit slow anyway,” he continued with
a smile.

“Yeah, besides, it will be good to see if
these fake IDs are as good as Nick said they were,” Laura
quipped.

 

 

The plane landed at the airport and everyone
filed into an awaiting SUV once they had de-planed. James, Laura,
and J.T. were relieved that they were able to avoid any scrutiny of
their documents for the time being. They sped along the highway and
into the city, arriving at the Bartonovich residence in early
afternoon.

When they entered the house. Nick greeted
Mia, who was busy packing the ten million dollars into an oversized
cooler. with Marcus’ help. Nick skipped the awkward introductions
and instead offered everyone some lunch. Mia had ordered some
gourmet sandwiches, which were already laid out on the dining room
table.

J.T. noticed that both Nick and Mia checked
their phones frequently. He assumed they were checking to see if
the kidnapper had provided any additional instructions. Once the
money was packed, the cooler full of cash was rolled in to a closet
until it was needed.

After lunch, Nick showed J.T., Laura, and
James to the downstairs guest bedrooms where they would be spending
the night, and then everyone migrated up to the library. Drinks
were served to everyone as they prepared to pass the anxious hours
until the kidnapper sent further instructions.

“Nick,” J.T. said, “I’d like to see Sasha’s
room, if that’s o.k.”

Nick looked up, as if he was caught
off-guard by the request. He turned to look at Mia in order to
ascertain what she felt about it.

“I’ll take you up,” Mia said in
response.

J.T. walked slowly into the room, taking his
time, looking around at everything and soaking it all in. There
were traces left of the girl Sasha had been when she’d first moved
in to the room. A plastic pony, some softball trophies, a few books
that an eight-year-old girl might read intermixed with more recent
teenage selections. He walked over to the desk that now held a
laptop. He looked down at pictures of Sasha and her friends from
school. There were freshly opened presents piled high in one corner
of the room, remnants of the birthday party the day before she’d
been kidnapped. He picked up a picture of Sasha from the table. He
held it in both hands as he sat down on the bed and began to
cry.

Mia was watching the whole scene from the
doorway. When J.T. started to cry, she turned to walk away,
intending to give him some privacy.

“No, wait,” J.T. said as Mia turned to go.

“I’d like you to stay. I want to know more about her…about
Sasha.”

Mia turned back around, taking a look around
the room herself as if to conjure up in her mind memories from the
day before, when Sasha had been in the room.

“Sasha is a very strong person. A free
spirit. She loves to ride horses and take risks. She reminds me of
you, in many ways.”

J.T. looked up at Mia. “I wish you would
have told me about her sooner,” he said.

“We did what we thought was best,” Mia
replied.

“I guess my sins are catching up to me,”
J.T. continued. “All those years when I took from others things
that were important to them. Now the most important person in the
world to me has been temporarily taken away from me before I even
got a chance to meet her, and I’ll do anything to get her
back.”

Mia crossed the room and put a hand on
J.T.’s shoulder. She looked him straight in the eyes with that
determined, steely look that only Mia could deliver as she said,
“We will get her back.”

 

 

The remainder of the evening was uneventful
as everyone stayed in the house in case the kidnapper contacted
them. No one was very hungry after the late lunch they had
consumed, so they ate a light dinner consisting of soup and
crackers. After they had finished eating, Nick turned on the sports
channel as he, Mia, and J.T. reclined in the game room. He and Mia
continued to check their phones alternately every few minutes.
Finally, Mia went to walk on the treadmill to burn off the nervous
energy that was building up as they waited for the next
communication, leaving J.T. and Nick to pretend to watch
sports.

James and Laura wandered up to the library
where James retrieved a copy of [_The Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn_] and picked up reading where he had left off a few days
before. Laura retrieved her Kindle from her backpack and pulled up
a new book she had just downloaded about stained glass. They curled
up next to each other on the couch in the library as they read,
just like they liked to do back home.

By 10 p.m., everyone was ready for bed. Nick
promised he would wake J.T. as soon as further instructions were
delivered, and everyone went off to their rooms for the night. J.T.
lay awake for about an hour, thinking of the amazing fact that he
had a daughter who was eighteen who he had never met. He prayed to
God that she would be returned unharmed tomorrow before he finally
drifted off to a fitful sleep.

 

[] Chapter
Forty-Three

J.T., Nick, and Mia were all dressed for the
day and assembled in the kitchen by 5:00 a.m. Both Nick and Mia’s
phones lay on the kitchen table. Marcus hung back in the corner,
trying not to intrude. Nick made a pot of coffee for everyone while
they waited anxiously for the message they were all expecting.
James and Laura wandered groggily into the kitchen at 5:30 a.m.,
still in their p.j.s. Laura began nursing a cup of coffee like it
was a spiritual experience. It was like a séance as they all took
up places around the kitchen table and stared at the phones,
willing the phones to communicate with them. No one was willing to
speak out loud and break the silence.

At 5:50 a.m., James whispered into Laura’s
ear, “I’m going to go get dressed; things are probably going to hit
the fan in a few minutes when the kidnappers call, and we should be
ready to go.” With that, he headed back downstairs as quietly as
possible. Laura took the remainder of her coffee and chugged it,
then made her exit as well.

A few minutes later, both phones buzzed
almost simultaneously, indicating a message had been delivered.
Nick and Mia both grabbed their respective phones and opened the
text message that had just been delivered. J.T. quickly came around
behind Nick as they all read the message simultaneously in
silence.

 

Toakama, WV. 12 pm noon EST. Bring the cash
in the cooler with wheels with the lid duct taped shut. Only j.t.
crosses the bridge into town alone with the cash. He will walk down
the main street to the end. Further instructions will be given to
him then. Give him one of these phones. No tricks or else.

 

The message was followed by another picture
of Sasha, with a copy of a Roanoke, West Virginia newspaper from
the day before featured prominently so that the date could be
seen.

“Mia, find the nearest airport to Toakama
and get the plane ready,” Nick said urgently.

“I’m on it,” Mia replied. She went over to
the kitchen computer desk and sat down to search for the
airport.

Nick speed-dialed Victor.

“Victor, the exchange is at 12 p.m. noon,
Eastern Standard Time, in Toakama, West Virginia. We’ll be flying
in to the nearest airport at…” He looked over at Mia.

“Roanoke, West Virginia,” Mia said.

“Roanoke, West Virginia. I’ll call you once
we are in the air to coordinate where to meet. I’ll get us three
SUVs to use. I’m forwarding you the message we received from the
kidnapper right now. Don’t be late, Victor, I’m counting on
you.”

Nick hit the disconnect icon on his
phone.

“Meet at the car out front in five minutes,”
Nick said as he rose quickly from the table and left the room.

J.T. went down the stairs to the recreation
room and repeated Nick’s announcement to James and Laura in a loud
voice, “Meet at the car out front in five minutes.”

The trip to the airport seemed to take an
eternity. Once they arrived, they quickly boarded the plane. Soon
after, they were up in the air on their way to Roanoke, West
Virginia.

 

 

Silas had reviewed the message carefully
before hitting the send key. He waited to make certain the message
was delivered before he shut the phone off and removed the battery.
Cell coverage had come a long way since the early days. Still, he’d
had to climb to the roof of one of the abandoned buildings to get
even one bar in order to send the message.

He went back down to the RV and began to cut
Sasha loose so that she could go to the bathroom and eat some
breakfast. The swelling from where he had hit her on her face had
mostly gone down. There was a bump on her lip and the cut had
scabbed over during the night. Her eye had a bruise under it,
too.

Silas stepped back from the chair and stood
with his back to the door, facing Sasha, and cutting off any hope
of escape.

“Now, go to the bathroom and then sit down
over there for some breakfast,” he said.

Sasha dutifully complied, not seeing any
opening to try for another escape. When she came out of the
bathroom, Silas motioned to the seat at the table farthest away
from the door, where a bottle of water and a breakfast bar were
placed on the table top. Sasha sat down and began eating.

“You know, you don’t have that much longer
to be here. Your dad will be bringing the money at noon, and you’ll
be going home. So don’t try anything else, o.k.?”

Sasha continued to eat without saying
anything. When she was done, Silas stood, blocking the door again,
and motioned with his head to the captain’s chair. Sasha went over
and sat down for their now practiced routine as Silas secured her
to the chair with yet more duct tape. Once that was done, he exited
the RV to complete the preparations for the arrival of J.T. and the
money.

 

 

Victor was waiting at the airport when Nick
and company de-planed. Once they had rented the SUVs and exited the
airport grounds, Victor told them to pull over next to a mini-van
taxi that was waiting on the side of the road. The five other men
from his team exited the taxi and loaded several large black duffel
bags into the back of the SUVs. Victor got in the vehicle with
Nick, Mia, and J.T.

The caravan took off, following a route that
Nick had already laid out to their destination. He had printed off
a map on the printer while they were flying, just in case the GPS
on the SUV malfunctioned for some reason. He was leaving nothing to
chance.

Victor turned to J.T. and held out a small
black box with some wires extending out of it.

“This is a two-way radio transmitter. I’m
going to put it on you so we can communicate while you make the
drop. This piece goes in your ear so we can talk to you, and this
piece will be positioned near your collar so that we can pick up
anything you say.”

“O.k.,” J.T. replied as he watched Victor
hold up the various parts of the device.

“Now take off your shirt so I can tape
everything in place.”

J.T. removed his shirt and Victor began
securing the various wires and the box with a special type of tape.
He placed the earbud in J.T.’s ear and worked the wire into place
so that it was less visible. After he was done, he flipped a switch
on the black box, and then he put on his headset and told J.T. to
say something.

“Check, check,” J.T. said into the
microphone.

“That’s good,” Victor said. “I’m going to
tap on this microphone; tell me if you hear it in your
earpiece.”

Victor tapped on the microphone and J.T.

heard the soft tap-tap sound in his earpiece.

“I hear it,” he replied.

“O.k., when you walk down the street into
town, speak out anything that might seem out of the ordinary,
anything that seems out of place. We may not be able to get eyes on
you, depending on where we are positioned. If things go bad and you
need us to come in after you, just let us know over the mic,”
Victor concluded.

It was one hundred and thirty miles from
Roanoke to Toakama. The winding mountain roads slowed down their
average speed to around forty-five miles an hour. It was almost
twelve when they approached the bridge that crossed in to Toakama.
Victor instructed Nick to pull off the road right before the
bridge. He had studied the aerial photographs available on the
internet and seen that, after crossing the bridge, the road took a
sharp turn left. They would then be inside the town limits.

“We go on foot from here,” Victor said. “Be
quiet when we get out of the car, we don’t want them to think we
came in with this many people. Let’s hope they don’t have eyes on
us already.”

Once they exited the vehicles, Victor turned
to his team and gave them hand signals indicating they should
switch on their two-way radios and stay silent. The men quietly
complied. Two men opened up the duffle bags and began handing out
the weapons they had brought along, including two sniper rifles.
They all put on camouflage hats and face paint. The team assembled
next to Victor near the lead SUV at 11:57 a.m. Two of the commandos
unloaded the cooler with the ten million dollars and put it beside
J.T.

Victor handed Nick, Mia, James, and Laura
two-way radios so that they could all communicate. He told them to
leave the radios on so that they could hear if he needed them to
bring the SUVs up to their position quickly. Nick walked over and
handed J.T. his phone.

“Take this. The kidnapper said you should
have it for the drop. Be careful out there, J.T.; Sasha is counting
on you.”

J.T. nodded his head, then picked up the
handle and began pulling the two-wheeled cooler behind him as he
approached the bridge. Three commandos followed on one side of the
road, three on the other. Nick, Mia, Laura, and James all stayed
behind in the SUVs so they could quickly drive into town should
they be needed.

The bridge was barely a hundred feet long.

The frame was made of steel, with wooden cross-planks that served
as the road surface. The steel was rusted with patches of the
original red paint still visible here and there. The wood looked
sturdy enough in most places, but J.T. noticed several spots where
it had begun to rot. The cool mountain air and the sound of the
stream running under the bridge provided a peaceful setting, but
J.T. was sweating nervously as he stepped off of the bridge and
began walking slowly around the corner.

Victor and his men had quietly slipped off
of the road and into the woods as J.T. rounded the corner and the
first buildings came in to view. The sign on the side of the road
read, Welcome to Toakama, population 312.

“Just keep walking down the center of the
road slowly. We’ll keep eyes on you from here,” J.T. heard Victor
say through the earpiece in his ear.

J.T.’s heart was beating faster as he
continued walking down the road into Toakama, and he wondered what
was going to happen next.

 

[] Chapter
Forty-Four

Silas saw J.T. Thornbacker through his
binoculars as he rounded the corner from the bridge to Toakama at
12:03 p.m. He appeared to be alone and pulling the cooler filled
with cash, but Silas knew better than to think that Nick didn’t
have some hired guns nearby. Fortunately for Silas, he was prepared
for such an eventuality.

It took J.T. the better part of five minutes
to walk the entire length of the street and arrive at the
cul-de-sac at the end. When he arrived there, he saw a chair with a
note taped to it and a cable with a hook on the end which led off
to the right-hand side, through an alleyway and behind a building.
The note read: [_Hook the cable to the handle of the cooler, then
back away from the chair ten paces and wait for further
instructions._]

J.T. read the note out loud for the benefit
of the listeners on the other end of the two-way radio, and then he
took the rope and tied it to the cooler as indicated, backing off
ten paces as instructed when he was done. Once he began backing
away from the cooler, he heard a distant whining sound and the
cable grew taught as the cooler began moving along the ground and
down the alleyway, out of sight from where J.T. was now standing.
About a minute later, the whining stopped.

Silas un-hooked the cooler from the winch
and cut the tape so that he could open the lid. He smiled as he saw
bundles of one hundred dollar bills. He took one out and examined
it more closely to make certain that it was a genuine one hundred
dollar bill. He was no treasury agent, but he had gotten pretty
good as a cop in telling the genuine article from a counterfeit.
Satisfied it was the real thing, he re-taped the cooler top closed
and pushed it up into the back of the Jeep via the ply-wood ramp he
had constructed, securing it with several elastic tie-downs for
safety. He glanced down the alleyway to ensure that no one was
there before he got into the Jeep and started the engine. He
reached over to where Sasha was seated in the passenger’s seat and
cut loose the duct-tape from her feet. Then he cut her hands loose
from the tape that held them to a bar that ran along the side of
the doorframe of the jeep.

“Get out and go down the alleyway; your
father is waiting for you,” Silas ordered.

Sasha got out of the car and began running
down the alleyway, tearing the tape away from her mouth as she ran,
and yelling, “I’m here! I’m down here!”

Silas gunned the engine of the Jeep and
headed up the old mining road, out of town and in the opposite
direction from where Sasha was running.

When J.T. heard Sasha calling out, he ran
towards the alleyway and towards Sasha. He immediately recognized
her from the pictures he had seen. “Sasha!” he cried as he reached
her and hugged her in his arms. She had recognized him from the
pictures Nick had shown her and didn’t resist as J.T. embraced
her.

“She’s safe!” he said into the two-way radio
microphone.

As soon as he had uttered the words, he
heard Victor respond. “Bring the SUVs up now!” Nick hit the
accelerator on the lead SUV and the wheels spun wildly as the
vehicle sped forward, closely followed by James and Laura in the
other two SUVs. They rounded the corner into town to see Victor and
the rest of the commandos quickly working their way along opposite
sides of the street, clearing each alleyway and moving towards
Sasha and J.T. Nick roared past the commandos and came to a quick
stop, pulling up alongside Sasha. Mia and Nick jumped out of the
vehicle and embraced Sasha.

Victor ran over to where they were standing.

“Are you o.k.?” he said to Sasha.

“Yes, I’m fine,” she responded.

“I heard a vehicle drive off; which way did
it go?” Victor asked.

Sasha turned and pointed down the alleyway.

“Down there is an old road leading up into the mountains.”

“How many people were there in all?” Victor
continued.

“It was just one man,” she responded.

Victor turned and pointed to two of his men,
“You two stay here with them. The rest of you come with me.”

He motioned to James with his thumb,
indicating he should exit the SUV he was driving. As soon as James
was out of the seat, Victor jumped in. Once his men were in, he hit
the gas and tore down the alleyway and up the old mountain road,
following the path Silas’ Jeep had taken. Victor took a tracking
device out of one of the utility pouches on his uniform and turned
it on. A blinking dot appeared towards the edge of the screen. He
knew he had to keep that dot within a two-mile radius or the
transmitter that he had put in the bottom of the cooler would be
out of range.

 

Silas stopped the Jeep and got out. He
probably only had a few minutes head start before some of Nick
Bartonovich’s hired guns would be storming up the mountain to hunt
him down. He walked to the uphill side of the road, to a large pile
of logs that were being held in place by three upright posts
supported by a rope tied between two large trees. Silas took out
his knife and quickly sawed through the rope, making sure to stand
behind the tree and out of the way of the soon-to-be rolling logs
as he did.

Once the rope was severed, the mass of logs
quickly rolled down onto the road below Silas’ Jeep, hopelessly
blocking the road for any following vehicles. Silas jumped back in
the Jeep and drove away. He wanted to be long gone when his
pursuers arrived. While they couldn’t pass this point with a
vehicle, they could still shoot him if he didn’t make it around the
next bend in the winding road first.

 

The SUV Victor was driving lurched up the
mountainous road at a speed almost too high for safety, tearing
around the corners and on up the next incline in an effort to gain
on the man they were pursuing. As Victor rounded the next bend, he
saw the mass of logs up ahead and brought the vehicle to a stop
about twenty yards away. He peered through the window, looking
around to see if there was someone positioned nearby to ambush
them.

“You two take the upper side; Miles and I
will take the lower side,” he ordered.

The men exited the vehicle with their
weapons drawn, immediately taking cover behind the available trees
as they worked their way forward and beyond the pile of logs that
blockaded the roadway. Once they had ascertained there was no one
waiting in ambush, they re-grouped on the far-side of the log jam
from where they had parked their vehicle.

Victor looked down at the mass of logs,
estimating several of the logs weighed in at four or five hundred
pounds each. There was no way they were going to move them quickly,
especially since their SUVs didn’t come equipped with winches. The
forest above and below the road was too steep and forested to drive
around the log jam. He spoke into his two-way radio.

“Tommy, is everything stable back down
there?” he asked.

“Yes. We’ve searched practically the whole
town. No one else is here but us,” he replied.

“Good. You and Vlad get up here ASAP. We
need to move some logs that our man blocked the road with.”

“O.k., we’re on our way.”

Forty-five minutes later, Victor’s team was
finished clearing the road so that the SUVs could pass. The
exhausted team re-entered their vehicles and continued the search
for the kidnapper. Victor periodically checked the tracking device
on the off chance that the kidnapper’s location would re-appear on
the screen. After about thirty minutes of driving, a blip suddenly
appeared.

“We’ve got our target on the tracking
screen, a little over two klicks out,” he said to the rest of the
team.

As they approached the target, Victor began
to slow down. He and his men were scanning the surrounding areas,
trying to get a visual on the target. They were practically on top
of the signal, but still they could see nothing. Victor stopped the
car and said into his microphone, “Fan out and find this scum bag.
We’re practically on top of the transmitter.”

The team exited the vehicles and fanned out
in practiced fashion, with three men sweeping uphill and three
down. They located the cooler in a few minutes, discarded and empty
on the downhill side of the road. They quickly re-entered their
vehicles and resumed the drive along the mountain road, which had
leveled off and begun to descend slightly. Around the next bend,
the road intersected a paved road. Victor slammed his fist down on
the dashboard of the SUV, realizing that their chances of finding
the kidnapper had just plummeted.

The team split up, taking opposite
directions on the paved road. They drove for another hour before
Victor called off the search and headed back to Toakama.

 

[] Chapter
Forty-Five

“Are you o.k.?” Mia said to Sasha, looking
at her bruised eye and cut lip. All she felt for the kidnapper at
that moment was hatred. She prayed he hadn’t sexually assaulted her
daughter. God help him if he had. On second thought, she hoped God
wouldn’t help him in that case.

“I’m o.k.,” Sasha said, giving Mia another
hug. “I’m just so glad to be free now.”

“Sasha, I need you to be honest with me,”
Nick said. “Did that man touch you inappropriately? Did he rape
you?”

“No. No. he didn’t,” she replied.

“Guys, you should come see this,” James
yelled from down the alleyway that Victor had driven down
earlier.

Everyone walked en masse down the
alleyway to where James and Laura were standing. There, behind the
building, was the RV where Sasha had been held captive.

“That’s where he kept me hostage,” Sasha
informed them.

Mia left Sasha’s side and walked
determinedly towards the RV. She went to the driver’s door, opening
it up, and began to look around the cab.

“What is she doing?” J.T. asked Nick.

“She’s looking for clues to who this man is
or where he went. She’s quite good at it, actually. It’s a skill
she developed years ago when she used to track down some of our
more recalcitrant debtors,” Nick replied. “I’d wager, if there is
anything he left behind that indicates who or where he might be,
she’ll find it.”

“I think I can help you with that,” Sasha
replied.

Nick and J.T. both turned to look at
Sasha.

“Do you know who he is?” asked J.T.

“Not exactly, only that he said that he had
been ripped off by a gambling website that you owned, Nick. He also
mentioned that he used to be a cop,” Sasha continued.

Nick’s face showed a glimmer of recognition,
which he quickly hid. “Describe him to me,” he said.

A quick description of the kidnapper from
Sasha confirmed Nick’s suspicions.

“We’ll get a sketch artist to help draw a
picture of him so that we can identify him and stop him from doing
things like this to anyone else,” Nick said with finality. He was
going to find him alright, and when he did, there would be hell to
pay.

Back in the RV, Mia had conducted a thorough
search and collected all the receipts and paperwork that she could
find. A quick review of the material indicated that the kidnapper
had paid cash for everything except the RV rental, which had
required a credit card. The RV rental paperwork she found in the
glove box listed the name of Silas McGruder.

Leaving his real name on the rental
agreement was either stupid, sloppy, or a planned deception. Mia
had encountered a few of the people she had tracked for Nick in the
past who had used this tactic. They had deliberately used their
real names to lead her off of their trail just enough to buy an
airline ticket using an alias and temporarily escape to some
far-off destination, supposedly out of her reach. If that was what
Silas had planned, she knew just what to do. Whatever the reason
for using his real name, she was anxious to find him as soon as
possible.

Mia exited the RV and walked back to where
Nick, J.T., and Sasha were standing.

“We need to get back to New York,
now.”

Nick nodded in agreement. He turned on his
two-way radio, but got nothing but static when he tried to reach
Victor. He tried Victor’s phone, but it only went to voice mail. He
left a message telling Victor to call him with a report as soon as
possible, and let him know they were returning to New York. If
Victor had apprehended Silas, they would know soon enough. If not,
they needed to get back to New York and start tracking Silas down
from there.

They collected James and Laura, who had
finished a cursory search of the remaining town. They had found
nothing else that might be of help in tracking down the kidnapper.
Everyone piled in to the remaining SUV and headed back to Roanoke.
Three hours later, they were in Nick’s plane and headed back to New
York.

 

 

The next day, James, Laura, and J.T. boarded
Nick’s plane and went back to the Cayman Islands. Even with their
new identities, they reasoned it wasn’t safe to stay too long in
the States. Before they left, J.T. arranged for Sasha to fly down
and visit him in Grand Cayman on her spring break. J.T. and Sasha
shared a tearful goodbye as he boarded the plane.

Within a week, Sasha’s face had healed and
life was beginning to return to the new normal. Mia and Nick had
insisted that Sasha have a bodyguard for the time being, and she’d
had to answer a million questions from her friends due to the fact
that he followed her everywhere except to the ladies’ room. Over
time, though, it became second nature to have the bodyguard around,
and it only irritated her when she went on a date with her new
boyfriend.

Over the next few months, before Sasha
visited him on spring break, J.T. kept in touch with her via
facebook, twitter, and phone calls, trying to catch up for lost
time. He was thankful that she wanted to have a relationship with
him and was looking forward to seeing her when she came down to
visit. He was determined not to let her slip away the same way he
had let her mother exit his life. He had learned many things since
going to prison and beginning recovery. He had learned that
although relationships could be messy, it was worth it to work
through your problems and continue to reach out and invest in
relationships with those you loved.

James had been in contact with a youth
center in the United States for several months before the
kidnapping episode. Once they were back home, he continued working
out the final details to arrange for a yearly retreat in the Cayman
Islands for at-risk teens. The youths would fly down and spend a
week biking around the island, camping out, and fishing. He wanted
to help other kids avoid taking the wrong path like he had. In
addition to working on starting the youth camp, he finally
convinced Laura to marry him. They had a quiet marriage ceremony in
the garden at J.T.’s house. Laura continued to work at the women’s
shelter, occasionally providing some extra unlisted services to
certain women whose abusive former husbands or boyfriends just
couldn’t take the hint.

Nick and Mia continued to search for Silas.

Mia recognized that one of the receipts she’d found in the RV was
from a sub-shop in a part of town that she recognized. It was
located near where they had obtained the identification documents
for J.T., James, and Laura. A visit to the document forger, along
with a memory-enhancing bribe, soon revealed the name of Silas’ new
alias – Bob Conner. They put Silas’ new name and picture out
through their usual channels in hopes of tracking him down, but it
had been two months and they still hadn’t heard anything. It
appeared that Silas McGruder had fallen off the face of the
earth.

 

[]
Chapter Forty-Six

Nick and Sasha were sitting on a bench in
Central Park. It was a beautiful day. Everything was beginning to
bloom as spring made its reappearance, and all seemed right with
the world. Walking in the park was something Sasha had done
regularly with her mother when she was alive. It calmed her and
helped her remember the good times she’d had with her mother. Nick
had walked with her through this section of the park many times
when Sasha’s mother was sick, and they had continued the practice
in the years since.

“Nick,” Sasha began, “I want to ask you
something and I want you to tell me the truth.”

Nick raised an eyebrow and looked over at
Sasha with interest. Whenever she asked him a question like that,
he knew what came next was going to be serious. He remembered the
first time she had used that phrase with him, “I want you to tell
me the truth.” It was after her mother had died. She had asked him
then if he believed in Heaven. Nick had never been one to
prevaricate. He had always told the truth boldly and without
reservation. He was always direct in asking for what he wanted. He
admired that same quality in Sasha. And so, when she had asked him
that question, he’d told her what he really thought. He simply
said, “I don’t know if Heaven exists or not. I can’t say I believe
in something that I’m not certain exists.” That seemed to satisfy
her and she had never asked him that question again.

“Go on,” Nick prodded.

“When that man kidnapped me, he told me that
you were a crook and that the money you were paying him for my
ransom was stolen from someone else. Is that true?”

Nick smiled in spite of himself. He
regretted what Silas had said to her, but he admired the fact that
she was bold enough to confront him about it directly. He looked
her in the eyes as he answered.

“Many years ago, I made a lot of money by
conducting illegal business deals. I was convinced that nothing
mattered but making money. A lot has changed since then. Now, I’m
not going to tell you that everything I do to make money today is
completely legal, but I don’t do things the same way anymore. I’m
more selective about my business dealings today.”

“Were my mom and J.T. involved in what you
did before?”

“Yes,” Nick responded flatly, wishing she
hadn’t gone in that direction.

“What did my mom do?”

“She was an accountant. She helped us
launder the money and disguise the transactions so that we didn’t
get caught.”

“But J.T. did get caught. He went to prison
for what you all did, right?”

“Yes, he did.” Nick looked at Sasha,
watching the wheels turn in her mind, both regretting the end of
her innocence and feeling proud that she was ready to tackle the
muddy truth of it all on her own.

Sasha didn’t ask any more questions. She
just turned and watched a man playing frisbee with his dog in the
field across from where they were sitting.

About a week later, Sasha knocked on the
door to Nick’s office.

“Come in,” he said.

She came in and sat down in one of the big
wing-back chairs facing Nick’s desk.

“What can I do for you today, m’lady?” Nick
asked playfully.

“Be careful what you ask for,” she said in
reply.

“Ah, methinks the lady doth have something
weighty on her mind. What is it, my dear?”

“I’ve been thinking about that conversation
we had in the park the other day.”

“And?”

“And I want to ask you a few things.”

“The usual part about telling the truth
applies, I suppose,” Nick responded.

“Yep.”

Nick prepared himself. “O.k., fire when
ready.”

“Are you and J.T. still working
together?”

“No, my dear. We stopped working together a
long time ago. Now we are simply friends who share a relationship
with you.”

“O.k. Next question, sort of. I’ve been
thinking a lot about what you all did to make money back then, and
I’ve been having a hard time reconciling the fact that I love all
three of you, and Mia, too, whom I assume was involved in it with
you, as well. I need to be able to process it all somehow, to make
sense of it.” Sasha fidgeted with the corner of her shirt with her
fingers as she paused before blurting out, “Well, I’m having a hard
time with the fact that you were all doing illegal things to make
all of this money. There, I said it. I want to undo it but I can’t.
So instead, I want you to help me set up a foundation to do good
things with that money. I want to do something good with the money
you made doing something bad. I want to know that our family is
doing something to make the world a better place, not a worse
one.”

Sasha slumped back into the chair, obviously
relieved at having spit it out, but unsure about what Nick was
going to do with the request she had just made. Nick sat behind his
desk with the inscrutable poker face which she could never read. It
was the same way he’d looked at her the first time she had asked if
she could go out on a date with Teddy Fromeyer. That look betrayed
nothing. It was stone. She waited.

Nick looked off to a painting that hung on
the wall behind Sasha. It was a painting of ancient Rome being
re-built after the fire that had burned it down in 64 A.D. He’d
always liked that painting. It symbolized something good coming out
of a tragedy. Like his marriage to Mia coming out of his battle
with cancer, like Sasha coming into their lives out of the tragedy
of Katrina’s death. And now he was being given another opportunity
to bring something good out of a past that had produced wealth, but
no happiness. A past that had produced riches with emptiness that
was devoid of more than temporary fulfillment. It provided power
and influence, which was nice, but ultimately, it lacked the power
to fill one’s soul with real contentment.

He was not the same man as he once was.

True, he was no saint and probably never would be. He still ran an
illegal gambling business along with many legitimate gaming
enterprises. But as he grew older, he began to see the point that
J.T. had made to him years ago on the yacht while they’d been
moored outside of Grand Cayman. He wasn’t sure exactly where it
came from or if he even believed in God, but he did feel a sense of
guilt about some of the things he had done to gain the wealth he
had acquired – especially in the early days with J.T.

His greed to get that money back from J.T.

had ultimately paved the way for Sasha’s abduction. Silas wouldn’t
have even known she existed if Nick hadn’t hired him to track down
the money in the first place. Now, Sasha of all people was
beckoning him to come over from the dark side, to turn over a new
leaf, to rectify some of the past wrongs. It was as if some cosmic
force in the universe, call it God if you like, was luring him to
change his ways and become a force for good.

He stared at the picture for a good few
minutes. Sasha could tell he was deep in thought, so she didn’t
interrupt him or demand an answer. That’s one thing she had learned
from Mia. When dealing with Nick, it was best to wait it out and
not push him. He would answer when he was ready.

Ever since he’d had that bout with cancer,
Nick had been pondering what his legacy would be after he was gone.
He knew that Mia loved him. Since Sasha had entered his life, he
had come to know that Sasha loved him. But beyond those two
relationships, what would there be in the world when he was gone
that was a result of his having lived his life? Money? Many people
had money. In and of itself, it meant little. A business? His
businesses consisted largely of gambling, both legal and illegal,
as well as a healthy real-estate portfolio – hardly what he
considered a worthy legacy.

He supposed that Sasha’s challenge was
fortuitous. He realized in that moment that she had just helped
provide the answer he had been looking for. He decided it was time
to take the plunge and take action instead of simply pondering the
possibilities. He looked back at Sasha.

“What, exactly, did you have in mind?”

“Well, I have a few ideas. One was a
scholarship fund for medical students, a possible grant program for
research on renal disease and cancer treatments. There are a lot of
things we could do. Are you interested?”

“Yes. As a matter of fact, I am,” Nick
replied, almost as astonished as Sasha to hear the words coming out
of his own mouth. “But we should discuss it with Mia first. If we
are going to do this, we need to make the decision as a team.”

Sasha was beaming. She ran around behind the
desk and gave Nick a big hug.

“Thanks, Nick, you’ve just made my day!”

“And you’ve just made mine,” he said as he
returned the hug.

 

 

Nick and Sasha talked it over with Mia when
she returned to the house for the day. She liked the idea of doing
something to help eradicate the diseases that had taken Sasha’s
mother and almost taken the love of her life away from her. It was
a way to fight back, and Mia had always been a fighter. She had
never been one to just sit around and do nothing when faced with a
challenge.

She and Nick had a private and more serious
discussion later that day. They decided to begin phasing out their
illegal enterprises in favor of legitimate businesses in gambling
and real-estate. Nick came up with a plan that would accomplish the
task in a little over a year. They decided that there was no reason
to continue to run the risk of getting sent to jail for mere
money’s sake. They would remain millionaires by virtue of the
income from their legitimate businesses alone.

They established the Katrina Beyer’s
Foundation for Public Good with an initial endowment of
seventy-five million dollars. The money was invested, and the
grants and scholarships would come out of the earnings, not the
principle, so that the foundation could continue to operate
indefinitely. Sasha decided that she was going to major in business
with an emphasis on non-profit management when she went to college
in the fall, so that she could take an active role in managing the
foundation.

On spring break, as promised, Sasha traveled
to the Grand Cayman Islands to spend the week with J.T. Nick
insisted that her bodyguard accompany her. J.T. and Sasha had a
great time and Sasha discovered that she shared a passion for
sailing with her dad. They worked out a plan where Sasha would come
and visit a few times a year. J.T. hated to see her leave at the
end of the week, but he was pleased to know that she would be
pursuing her plans for the foundation. He was as proud as a father
could be.

 

[] Chapter
Forty-Seven

Silas McGruder, alias Bob Conner, came in
the door of his Nassau, Bahamas home whistling one of his favorite
songs. He was riding high after a good night at the blackjack
tables at the Crystal Palace Casino. He’d gone in with ten thousand
dollars and was coming home with fifty thousand. It didn’t matter
right now that, over the last few months, he had racked up a net
loss of one hundred thousand dollars. Right now, he was on top of
the world.

He went into his office and opened up the
closet door, revealing a large safe. He placed the briefcase
containing his winnings on the ground and kept whistling while he
worked the dial of the combination lock. He turned the handle and
opened the safe to reveal stacks of one hundred dollar bills. He
smiled even more as he removed the money from his briefcase and
began putting it in the safe.

Suddenly, he heard a door creak somewhere in
the house. He quickly reached into the safe and grabbed a .45
caliber revolver before spinning around and bringing the gun up to
firing position. He slowly got up and began working his way over to
the office door. Besides the light in the office, there was a
single lamp on in the living room, as well as the light in the
kitchen range hood. It was too dark for comfort, but he couldn’t
exactly run around flipping light switches now.

He cleared the doorway as quietly as he
could, looking first one way, then the other. The back part of the
house was completely dark. He was taking a chance either way, but
he guessed whoever or whatever had made the sound was probably in
the front part of the house. He went left out of the office, moving
as quietly as he could, his gun at the ready.

He heard a sound in the kitchen, just ahead
and to his right. He quickly stepped forward and brought the
revolver around, using the door frame for cover. When he did, he
saw the neighbor’s cat jump down from the counter. He let out a
sigh of relief and lowered the gun.

“You almost scared the crap out of me,
Melvin,” he said as he tucked the gun behind his back and into his
waistband.

He picked up the cat and walked over to the
door, opening it and tossing the cat outside. He locked the door
and began walking back towards the office to finish what he had
begun a few minutes before. He had taken one step into the office
when something hit him hard in the side of the thigh, causing his
knee to buckle. He cried out in pain as he dropped to one knee.

He reached behind him to grab the gun in his
waistband, only to have someone grab his wrist and twist it behind
his back. He felt the gun being removed as he was shoved forward
onto the floor.

“The money is in the safe; you can take it
all, just let me live,” he said to his yet unseen attacker.

“Turn around,” a voice behind him said.

He pushed himself up into a sitting position
and turned around slowly. As he saw Mia Bartonovich standing before
him with his own revolver trained on him, his eyes widened in
fear.

“How did you find me?” he said, shocked that
he had been tracked down. He had been so careful.

“It’s very hard to completely disappear.

First, I found out the name of your alias, and then I waited for
you to contact your ex-wife. I traced one of the calls you made to
her and found it came from Nassau; then, all I had to do was show
your picture around the casinos to find out where you were. You
should have stopped gambling.”

“Son of a gun,” Silas said in disbelief.

“You should not have kidnapped my daughter!
You should not have hit her!” Mia said, her voice growing louder
with increasing emotion.

“I…I’m sorry about that, o.k., I wasn’t
planning to hit her. I’m very sorry about that. Please, just take
the money and go.”

Silas began bringing his knee up slowly as
he talked, trying to get the backup pistol he had strapped to his
ankle within reach without being noticed.

“You are just like my father. He used to hit
me when I did not do what he wanted.”

“Look, I regret what I did, really. I lost
my head and I’m very sorry. Will you please forgive me?”

He was close now, very close. If only he
could get her distracted for a moment. Then, as if on cue, Mia
tossed the gun into the far corner of the room. As soon as she let
go of the gun, Silas went for his backup. He almost had it out of
the holster when the telescopic baton that Mia carried slammed into
the back of his hand, causing him to involuntarily release his grip
on the handle of the gun.

He brought his other hand around and
attempted to punch Mia in the stomach as she was standing in front
of him. His punch never found its mark. Mia stepped inside of his
swing and brought up her knee, catching him in his face and
breaking his nose. Silas’ head snapped back as blood spurted out of
his nose.

He quickly regained his balance and lunged
forward with everything he had. It was a last-ditch effort to grab
Mia and wrestle her to the ground, where he could use his size and
physical strength to his advantage, but he was too slow. Mia
stepped to the side and connected a side-kick to Silas’ head,
sending him off of his trajectory and causing his head to slam into
the door jamb. He crumpled to the floor and didn’t move.

Mia had already re-positioned herself for
another offensive, but Silas remained motionless.

 

 

A few days later, Sasha came running into
the kitchen, where Nick and Mia were just finishing up their
morning coffee. She was ecstatic.

“You’ll never believe what just happened!”
she exclaimed.

“Tell us, my dear,” Nick replied.

“An anonymous donor has just given 9.5
million dollars to our foundation!” she replied, barely able to
contain herself.

“That’s wonderful, Sasha!” Mia
responded.

“The weird thing is, we haven’t even been
running a donation drive. I can’t figure it out,” Sasha
continued.

“Well, I’m sure the word has gotten around
the philanthropic community about the work we’ll be doing. I’m just
happy there is someone who believes in the mission enough to write
a check for the cause,” Nick said.

“Yes, I’m sure that’s it,” Mia agreed,
taking a sip from her coffee.

 

 

Later that week, Nick Bartonovich was seated
in his office perusing his email. He noticed an email from Mr.
Watanabe – the man they frequently used to track down delinquent
debtors. Inside the email were two sentences, followed by a link.
The message read simply, “[_This will interest you. Not our doing
though.”_] Nick clicked on the link and it brought up a story
from the New York Times.

 

A man was found dead in his home in Nassau,
Bahamas yesterday, the apparent victim of a robbery gone wrong. An
undisclosed amount of money was missing from an open safe found
near the body. The man has been identified as Silas McGruder, a
former New York City policeman who was living in the Bahamas under
the alias of Bob Conner. Police have no leads on who may have
committed the crime at this time.

 

Nick raised an eyebrow in interest. [_Well,
that’s one potential problem we don’t need to worry about any
more,_] he thought to himself. He forwarded the article to Mia
before moving on to other emails.

 

 

  • THE END

********************

 

 

[*The following is a preview of the new
book*] [_[*The Seer: book 1 in the Supernatural Gift
series,*]_] [*by author C.L. Wells. For information on how to
obtain further FREE preview chapters of this book, please visit*]
http://fictionwithamission.com/ebooks/

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

 

Waves crashed against the rocks in a
deafening chorus of nature’s fury as the sea lashed the Tillamook
Lighthouse mercilessly. The storm had been in full force for about
an hour now and Dan Moses was hoping the generator house wouldn’t
get flooded again. Occasionally, one of the really big waves would
hit and he’d feel the vibrations from the soles of his feet to the
top of his head.

He had retreated to the main keeper’s
quarters where he sat in his favorite chair, waiting out the
tempest that raged outside. He’d given up on reading, which was
what he usually did to wait out the lesser storms that frequented
the area. As the next big wave hit and he felt the ground beneath
him shake, he remembered one of the stories he had read about in
the history of the lighthouse, from the great storm of 1934. During
that storm, the lighthouse had been repeatedly submerged by the
onslaught of waves. Sixty-pound boulders had been spewed forth from
the ocean and crashed through the roof of the lighthouse. The watch
room had been repeatedly flooded, the water rising up to the necks
of the watchmen before finally draining out of the entrance door to
the tower below them. They had been unable to leave the tower for
the duration of the storm, which had lasted four days. Dan hoped
this storm wouldn’t escalate to that level. At almost sixty, he was
getting too old for this.

Suddenly the violent assault of the waves
ceased. The wind continued to howl as it forced its way around the
buildings and he could hear the rain falling, but not a single wave
could be heard hitting the shore or crashing into the lighthouse
tower. Dan opened his eyes and sat up straight. He sensed a
presence he hadn’t felt in decades and he was instantly afraid.

Seconds before he would have laughed at the idea that there was
another living soul on this island besides himself. Now he was just
as certain that he was no longer alone. He strained to hear
anything that might indicate where his visitor could be.

Dan slowly pushed himself up from his chair
and backed up against the wall, looking from side to side as he did
so. He startled himself as his back touched the wall and then
exhaled in relief when he realized what he had done. When a knock
came at the door, he snapped to attention once more.

Slowly crossing the room, he drew back the
bolt on the door. He reached down and grasped the door handle. As
he briefly closed his eyes, he inhaled and exhaled slowly to brace
himself for what he was about to encounter. Reluctantly, but with
finality, he opened his eyes and turned the door knob.

Before he could open the door of his own
accord, the wind blew it open, hurling him back onto the floor. As
he turned back towards the door, the lightning flashed in the
distance, illuminating a hulking figure as it crossed the threshold
and took a step towards where he lay. He brought an arm up
defensively as he let out a startled cry, but the figure advanced
no further. Instead, a large hand reached down and took hold of his
own, effortlessly pulling him to his feet.

Dan stood and stared at the figure before
him, unsure of what was going to happen next. It was the Keeper,
just as he had suspected. Their first encounter had been a violent
one that Dan wasn’t anxious to repeat. He stared at the Keeper’s
face unblinkingly and waited.

The Keeper held Dan’s hand and stared back
at him. At six foot seven, with shoulders wide enough to fill the
largest of doorways, the Keeper towered over Dan. He was bald on
the top of his head, with a white, closely cropped beard covering
his face. His visage was stern-looking and his eyes were crystal
blue. As the Keeper held his gaze, Dan suddenly felt as if this
being could peer into his very soul. He felt naked, terrified, and
mesmerized all at the same time, unable to look away.

After several seconds, Dan found the courage
to speak.

“Why are you
here?”

“Another Seer has been
chosen,” came the reply. The Keeper’s voice was just as he had
remembered it. Commanding, firm, with a strange and other-worldly
accent that he had never heard before anywhere else.

The Keeper turned and shut the door, locking
the bolt in place. He turned back around and gently guided Dan back
to the chair he had been sitting in previously and motioned for him
to sit down.

“He will come to you
seeking answers. Tell him what you know.”

“When… when will he
come?”

“Soon.”

“What is his mission?” Dan
asked.

“That is not your
concern.”

“How will I know
him?”

“He will tell you that he
has seen me.”

As he thought back over the moment days
later, Dan wasn’t quite certain what happened next. The only thing
he knew for sure was that the Keeper was suddenly gone and the
storm had returned in all of its fury. In the days following the
storm, he wondered who the new Seer was and what he had been chosen
to do.

 

 

The pictures spread out before him on the
table were proof enough. Susan was cheating on him. A younger man,
some would say handsome, was holding his wife the same way he’d
used to hold her not so long ago. He should have seen this coming.
But a drug dealer? Really, she should have been more discreet. He
glanced up at the detective sitting across from him, wondering what
was going through his mind.

“So, how much is she
spending on the drugs every week?” he said, trying to direct the
conversation away from the embarrassing photos.

“About a grand from what I
can tell,” the detective replied.

“What is it?”

“The drug?”

“Yeah, the
drug.”

“Cocaine.”

They had used cocaine recreationally at
parties in the past, but they had never been regular users. Now,
apparently, cocaine had become Susan’s go-to entertainment and
emotional pain killer.

“You know,” he said
rhetorically, “she says my job is my second wife. I guess I should
have seen this coming.”

The detective remained silent.

When he’d hired a private investigator to
find out just how bad her drug habit really was, he hadn’t expected
to find that another man was sleeping with his wife. His original
plan was for a sort of intervention. He would confront her with the
evidence, and give her an ultimatum to clean up. But that was
before. Now this other man had to be dealt with first.

“How much do I owe
you?”

“Twenty-five
hundred.”

He paid the private investigator for his
services and waited for him to leave, and then he took out his cell
phone and speed-dialed the man who would help him handle this
little situation.

Samuel J. Pendleton had not risen to his
present height of power by sheer business acumen. One of his early
risks had been to tap in to the lucrative world of money
laundering. In the process of building up his list of clientele for
these services he had become acquainted with numerous influential
members of the criminal community. None of these was more
influential than Martin “the Hammer” Scalini. He waited as the
phone rang for the third time. The man who answered the call spoke
in a crisp, high-pitched voice and reminded Samuel of the florist
he frequently spoke to when he wanted to send flowers to his
mistress.

“Mr. Scalini’s office, how
can I help you?”

“Bobby, this is Samuel
Pendleton. I need to speak to Martin.”

“One moment
please.”

Samuel waited on hold for about thirty
seconds before hearing Martin’s deep voice come on the line.

“Sammy! How’s the world of
high finance treating you these days? No problems with any of my
interests, I hope.”

“No, everything is fine,
Martin. This is actually a personal call. I have a delicate
situation that needs handling and I was wondering if you might
recommend someone who could help me out….”

After Samuel hung up the phone a few minutes
later, he smiled and sat back in his chair. It was nice to have
such influential and discreet business associates. He contemplated
this fact with satisfaction for a few moments before leaning
forward and beginning to gather the pertinent information. The
photographs showing Susan and her lover must, unfortunately, be
included. It would be less embarrassing if there were some pictures
with the man by himself. It wounded his pride a little to let
someone else see them like that. He selected the documents listing
the home address where he and Susan lived, the home address of her
lover, and the details concerning the times of their meetings.
Adding these to the photographs, he slid the items into a manila
envelope.

He stood up and moved his chair out of the
way as he turned to face a picture on the wall behind his desk.
Pulling on one side of the picture frame revealed a safe mounted in
the wall, as the picture swung open like a door. He typed in the
combination on the illuminated keypad and turned the lever to open
the safe’s door.

In his line of work it was prudent to keep a
large amount of cash on hand in order to take care of the
frequently fluid cash flow needs of his more unconventional
clients. Having this cash in his office meant he could be more
responsive to those needs, and therefore, charge a premium for
prompt service. He hadn’t counted on being the next one to need the
cash so readily available, but then again, luck favored the
prepared. He counted out fifty thousand dollars and added it to the
contents of the envelope, returning the remaining funds to the
safe.

As he waited for Martin’s courier to come by
and pick up the envelope, he went about his day’s work. Between the
conference calls and emails, he frequently wondered what his wife’s
lover was doing at the moment. Martin had said not to worry, that
the situation would be taken care of, and the less he knew, the
better. Samuel did know better than to press the point, and
contented himself with the thought that he needn’t worry about the
interloper again.

 

  • END OF PREVIEW *****

 

 

h1={color:#365f91;}.
Author’s Note

Utopian Day is filled with
interesting characters, most of whom are deeply flawed by way of
being thoroughly human. One of the main themes I attempted to weave
throughout the story was the theme of redemption and positive
change in the lives of people whose past and present is marred with
moral and personal failure, greed, and tragedy. There are a number
of questions that are touched on throughout the story that are
related to these themes. How does positive change happen? What is
the process a person goes through to decide that they want to
change? What does that process look like? How can a person who
starts out life with a series of moral failures and bad
circumstances actually turn their lives around?

One set of characters in this story decide
they want to turn their lives around and pursue that process of
recovery and positive change through a unique prison program that
intertwines psychology, religion, and a twelve step program.
Another set of characters evolve over time from criminals who
appear to enjoy their lives of crime and the fortune it brings them
to a place where they have developed a different set of values that
is no longer compatible with the old criminal lifestyle. The
transformation for both groups of people is gradual and incomplete
when our story ends, but the change is undeniable and the process
is ongoing.

We live in an imperfect world where there is
good mixed with bad. We see people commit crimes and atrocities on
the one hand, while others do good deeds – sometimes there is a
progression from one to the other for the same person over the
course of time. My hope and desire is that you found this book
entertaining on the one hand, and encouraging on the other.
Wherever you are in life, know that positive change is possible.
You can be different, and you can stop the unproductive habits of
your past or present and begin the process of positive change. I
hope this book has given you some ideas about how you might begin
to do that if you so desire, or perhaps encouraged you to continue
on the journey of change that you are already on.

I encourage you not to allow yourself to be
defined by your mistakes. Instead, I challenge you to allow
yourself to be defined by Whose you are. We are all God’s beloved
children and are intrinsically valuable by virtue of that fact.
When we live life in that reality and combined with God’s
assistance, positive change is always possible.

 

Thanks for reading,

 

C.L. Wells

 

 

Thank You

 

If you enjoyed this book, I would appreciate
a short review on the site where you purchased the book. If you
know of others who would enjoy reading this book, please pass the
word along. Your participation is greatly appreciated. Thank
you!

To join my email list and be informed about
new books as they become available, or simply to ask a question or
make a comment, you can email me at [email protected].

 

h1={color:#365f91;}.
Acknowledgements

Thanks to my wife for her support and
encouragement during the writing of this book. Thanks to Alcoholics
Anonymous for the twelve-step program that organization initiated
that is referred to in the book, along with references to some of
the principles taught by that organization. Thanks to Reinhold
Niebuhr, the author of the Serenity Prayer, portions of which are
used at various points in the book. Thanks to Jennifer Collins, my
editor, whose work and comments helped to make this a better book.
Thanks to Monique Nelson, who designed the cover of the book. Both
Jennifer and Monique can be reached at Elance.com.

 

h1={color:#365f91;}.
About the Author

 

Christopher Wells has a degree in History
from West Georgia State University and a Master’s Degree in
Computer Information Security from Capella University. He lives in
South Carolina with his beautiful wife and their wonderful
children. His hobbies include kayaking, paddle boarding, hiking,
and bicycling.

To find out more about the author and see a
complete list of books by the author, please visit www.ficitionwithamission.com.

 


Utopian Day

International crime, kidnapping, and murder intertwine themselves in this fast-paced debut novel by author C.L. Wells. Three convicted felons, who are attempting to leave their criminal ways behind them, are suddenly pulled back into the world of crime. James, Laura, and J.T. are blackmailed into stealing 80 million dollars and set up to take the fall for the heist. With no one to trust but each other, and the authorities on their trail, they must each confront their own beliefs about what is right and wrong, and decide just how far they are willing to go to be free of their past mistakes. With enough exciting plot twists and turns to keep you engaged to the very last page, Utopian Day delivers an entertaining and action-packed read!

  • ISBN: 9781311497987
  • Author: C.L. Wells
  • Published: 2016-06-21 23:05:23
  • Words: 75250
Utopian Day Utopian Day