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(a Donovan Creed Crime Novel)
BOOKS BY JOHN LOCKE
Donovan Creed Series:
Now & Then
A Girl Like You
Vegas Moon (May 2011)
Follow the Stone (An Irreverent Western Adventure)
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For previews of upcoming books by John Locke and more information about the author, visit http://www.SavingRachel.com
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Copyright © 2009 John Locke. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical without the express written permission of the author. The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials.
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The small house was old and cramped by furniture that seemed even older. A transaction was taking place at the kitchen table, where the three of them sat. A slightly foul odor seeped in from the living room. Trish didn’t know it yet, but the next few minutes would change her life. She cleared her throat.
“We were hoping to get eighteen thousand dollars,” she said to the loan officer.
The young blond loan officer wore her hair combed back with a part midway above her left eye. “No offence,” she said, “but it took more than eighteen thousand dollars of stress to put those dark circles under your eyes. Not to mention the car in your driveway, the condition of your home, the fact you’ve been turned down by every lender in town…”
Trish swallowed, seemed about to cry.
The loan officer’s face was visually stunning, with flawless skin, impossibly high cheekbones, and sandy blond eyebrows that arched naturally over electric, pale-gray eyes. Her name was Callie Carpenter, and she was wearing driving gloves.
Trish’s husband Rob wasn’t looking at the gloves. His eyes had found a home in Callie Carpenter’s perfectly-proportioned cleavage.
“You know the vibe I’m getting?” said Callie. “Pain. Frustration. Desperation. There’s love in this home, I can feel it. But it’s being tested. I look at you guys and I see the vultures circling your marriage.”
Trish and Rob exchanged a look that seemed to confirm her words.
Trish said, “This sounds all New Age to me. I’m not sure what this has to do with our loan application.”
Callie looked at the chipped coffee cup in front of her from which she’d declined to drink. She sighed. “Let me put it another way: how much money would it take to remove the stress from your lives, allow you to sleep at night and help you remember that the important thing is not other people and what you owe them, but rather the two of you, and what you mean to each other?”
Trish had been quietly wringing her hands in her lap, and now she looked down at them as though they belonged to a stranger. “I’m afraid we have no collateral.”
Rob said, “The banks got us on one of those adjustable rate mortgages that turned south on us. Then I lost my job. Next thing you know—”
Callie held up a hand. “Stop,” she said. “Would a hundred thousand dollars get you through the bad times?”
“Oh, hell yeah!” said Rob.
Trish eyed Callie suspiciously. “We could never qualify for that type of unsecured credit.”
“This wouldn’t be a conventional loan,” said Callie, getting to her favorite part of the story. “It’s what I call a Rumplestilskin Loan.”
Trish’s voice grew sharp. “You’re mocking us. Look, Ms…”
“…I don’t particularly care for your sense of humor. Or your personal assessment of our marriage.”
“You think I’m playing with you?” Callie opened her briefcase, spun it around to face them.
Rob’s eyes grew wide as saucers. “Holy shit!” he said. “Is that a hundred grand?”
“This is ridiculous,” Trish said. “How could we possibly pay that back?”
“It’s not so much a loan as it is a social experiment,” Callie said. “The millionaire I represent will donate up to one hundred thousand dollars to any person I deem worthy, with one stipulation.”
“What’s that?” Rob said.
Trish’s lips curled into a sneer. She spoke the word with contempt. “Rumplestilskin.”
Rob said, “Rumple—whatever you’re saying, what’s it mean?”
Trish said, “The fairy tale. She wants our first born unless we can guess the name of her boss.”
“What?” Rob said. “That’s crazy. We’re not even pregnant.”
Callie laughed. “Trish, you’re right about there being a catch. But it has nothing to do with naming a gnome or giving up future children.”
“Then what, you want us to rob a bank for you? Kill someone?”
Callie shook her head.
“So what’s the catch?” Trish said.
“If you accept the contents of this suitcase,” Callie said, “someone will die.”
Trish said, “All right, that’s enough. This is obviously some type of TV show, but it’s the cruelest way to punk someone I’ve ever seen. Here’s an idea for the next one: get a normal-looking woman instead of a beautiful model. And don’t use all the flowery New Age language. Who’s going to buy that bullshit? Okay, so where’s the camera—in the suitcase?”
From the moment Callie lifted the lid, Rob had been transfixed. He’d finally found something more compelling to stare at than Callie’s chest. Even now he couldn’t take his eyes off the cash. “Do we get some sort of fee if you put this on TV?”
Callie shook her head. “Sorry, no TV, no hidden cameras.”
“Then it doesn’t make sense.”
“Like I said, it’s a social experiment. My boss is fed up with the criminal justice system in this country. He’s tired of seeing murderers set free due to sloppy police work, slick attorneys, and stupid jurors. So, like a vigilante, he goes after murderers who remain unpunished. He feels he’s doing society a favor. But society loses when any person dies, no matter how evil, so my boss wants to pay something forward for the life he takes.”
“That’s a crock of shit,” Trish said. “If he really believed that, he’d pay the victims’ families instead of total strangers.”
“Too risky. The police could establish a pattern. So my boss does the next best thing, he helps anonymous members of society. Each time my boss kills a murderer he pays society up to one hundred thousand dollars. And today you get to be society.”
Trish was about to comment, but Rob got there first. He was definitely getting more intrigued. “Why us?”
“A loan officer forwarded your application to my boss and said you were decent people, about to lose everything.”
Trish said, “You represented yourself as a loan officer.”
“And you’re not.”
“I’m a different type of loan officer.”
“And what type is that?”
“The type that brings cash to the table,” Callie said.
“In a suitcase,” Trish said.
Trish looked at the cash as if seeing the possibilities for the first time. She said, “If what you’re saying is true, and your boss is paying all this money to benefit society, why tell us about the killing at all? Why not just pay us?”
“He thinks it’s only fair that you know where the money comes from and why it’s being paid.”
Rob and Trish digested this information without speaking, but their expressions spoke volumes. Rob, thinking this could be his big chance in life, Trish, dissecting the details, trying to allow herself to believe. This was a family in crisis, Callie knew, and she had just thrown them the mother of all lifelines.
Finally Trish said, “These murderers you speak of. Is your boss going to kill them anyway?”
“Yes. But not until the money is paid.”
“And if we refuse to accept it?”
“No problem. I’ll ask the next family on my list.”
Rob said, “The person your boss is going to kill—is there any possibility it’s someone we know?”
“You know any murderers?”
Callie could practically hear the wheels turning as Rob and Trish stared at the open suitcase. Callie loved this part, the way they always struggled with it at first. But she knew where this would go. They’d turn it every way they could, but in the end, they’d take the money.
“This sounds like one of those specials, like ‘What Would You Do?’” Trish said, unable to let go of her feeling this was all an elaborate hoax.
Callie glanced at her watch. “Look, I don’t have all day. You’ve heard the deal, I’ve answered your questions, it’s time to give me your answer.”
Her deadline brought all their emotions to a head.
Trish’s face blanched. She lowered her head and pressed her hands to either side of her temples as though experiencing a migraine. When she looked up her eyes had tears in them. It was clear she was waging a war with her conscience.
Rob was jittery, in a panic. No question what he wanted to do—his eyes were pleading with Trish.
Callie knew she had them.
“I’ll give you ten minutes,” she said briskly.” I’ll put my headphones on so you can talk privately, but you’ll have to remain in my sight at all times.”
“How do you know we won’t contact the police after you leave?” Trish said, wearily.
Callie laughed. “I’d love to hear that conversation.”
“What do you mean?”
“You think the police would believe you? Or let you keep a suitcase full of cash under these circumstances?”
Rob said, “Are we the first, or have you done this before?”
“This is my eighth suitcase.”
Again they looked at each other. Then Rob reached over, as though he wanted to stroke the bills.
Callie smiled and closed the top. “Nuh uh.”
“How many people actually took the money?” he asked. There was a sheen of sweat on his upper lip.
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Why not?” Trish asked.
“It could influence your decision and impact the social experiment. Look. Here’s what you need to know: when someone takes the money, my boss feels he’s gotten the blessing of a member of society to end the life of a murderer.”
“This is crazy. This is just crazy,” Trish whispered, as if daring herself to believe.
“People die every day,” Rob said. “And they’re going to die whether we get the money or someone else does.”
Trish looked at him absently, her mind a million miles away.
“They’re giving this money to someone,” Rob explained, “so why not us?”
“It’s too crazy,” Trish repeated. “Isn’t it?”
“Maybe,” Callie said, putting on the headphones. “But the money—and the offer—are for real.”
“And you, Mr. Creed,” she said.
I looked up from my mixing bowl. “Ma’am?”
“What do you do for a living?”
“Apart from making brownies? I’m with Homeland Security.”
Her name was Patty Feldson and she was conducting a home study as part of the adoption process. My significant other, Kathleen Gray, was hoping to adopt a six-year-old burn victim named Addie Dawes. Addie was the sole survivor of a home fire that claimed the lives of her parents and twin sister. Ms. Feldson had been watching Addie and Kathleen play dolls on the living room floor. Satisfied with the quality of their interaction, she turned her attention to me.
“Do you have a business card?” Patty said.
“I do.” I took my wallet from my hip pocket and removed a card that had been freshly printed for this very occasion. I handed it over.
Patty read aloud: “Donovan Creed, Special Agent, Homeland Security.” She smiled. “Well that doesn’t reveal much. But it certainly sounds mysterious and exciting. Do you travel much, Agent Creed?”
I wondered how well we’d get along if I told her I was a government assassin who occasionally performs free-lance hits for the mob and for an angry, homicidal midget named Victor.
“I do travel. But I’m afraid my job falls short of being mysterious or exciting. Mostly, I interview people.”