Read altercation epub format

Authors: Tamara Hart Heiner



November 1, Victoriaville, Canada

Chapter One, One week earlier

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

October 27, Idaho Falls, Idaho

Chapter Five

October 28, Idaho Falls, Idaho

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

October 30, Shelley, Idaho

Chapter Eleven

October 31, Cincinnati, Ohio

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

November 1, Victoriaville, Canada

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

November 2, Montreal, Canada

Chapter Sixteen

November 5, Montreal, Canada

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

November 4, Idaho Falls, Idaho

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

November 5, Idaho Falls, Idaho

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

November 7, Cincinnati, Ohio

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

November 10, Cincinnati, Ohio

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

November 11, Cincinnati, Ohio

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four

Chapter Thirty-five

Chapter thirty-six


About the Author



Salt Lake City, Utah


Copyright © 2012 by Tamara Hart Heiner

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written consent of the publisher.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, organizations and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or organizations is entirely coincidental.

Cover Design by Tracy Jo Blowers
Graphics by Andy Oakden


ISBN: 978-1-937178-21-5
Printed in the United States of America



Also by Tamara Hart Heiner




To Hillary, who is exactly the kind of friend a writer and a girl could hope to have. Thanks for thinking my writing is awesome (or at least pretending like you do) and thanks for hanging out at IHOP at midnight.


And to my brother Spencer, who somehow managed to worm his way into this book.




November 1, Victoriaville, Canada

etective Carl Hamilton leaned out of the hole blown into the four-story building, studying the concrete pavement three floors below. Pine trees speckled the mountainside and swayed in the chill autumn air.

Pulling his head back in, he examined the raw edges of drywall. It looked as though a bazooka or rocket-propelled grenade had blasted through. Similar holes dotted the rest of The Hand’s lair, and the garage door lay crumpled like a tin can in the driveway. Had the criminal been ambushed? If so, why?

One of the local police officers poked his head through an open door. “We found a desk. It has a piece of paper with names and phone numbers taped to it.” The radio on his shoulder sputtered and someone spoke in rapid French. The officer said to Carl, “They are dusting the attic for prints. We think that is where the kidnapped girls were held.”

“Sir?” Another officer came in, several small, colored books in his gloved hand. “We found passports in a shoebox in the closet.”

Carl slipped on a thin plastic glove before taking the passports. The picture remained the same, but they used several different names and represented the majority of known countries. One name repeated itself several times: Jeff Truman.

Finally. A name and a face. “There’s no American passport.” Sirens went off in Carl’s head. The Hand lived too close to the border not to have an American passport.

“He must have had it on him when the house was attacked,” the officer replied. “Perhaps he was planning a trip to the States.”

“But why?” Carl’s mind flashed to the girls, only recently rescued and tucked into an FBI safe house. The Hand couldn’t know they had been rescued. Certainly he didn’t know where they were. “I better warn the FBI.”

Chapter One,
One week earlier

acinta Rivera crouched under an evergreen bush, grateful for the needles that hid her from sight. Footsteps crunched around her and she shuddered, pulling her knees in closer to her.
Please don’t let them find me
. If there were any food in her stomach, she would have vomited.

The footsteps stopped in front of her. Black leather boots pointed in her direction. Jaci looked down at her hands, suddenly aware of the metal pistol she gripped.

The boots walked toward another bush.
Jaci knew that Sara knelt there, also hiding, probably also frozen with terror. Jaci stood up without a second thought.

He started to turn, but he was too late. Too slow. She shot him in the head four times, tracking his movement. He fell backward, his empty eyes gazing at the treetops. But instead of their kidnapper, Ricky’s familiar face stared upward. Horrified, Jaci dropped the gun and began to scream.

“Jaci!” Sara shook Jaci’s shoulders. “Wake up, Jaci. Wake up!”

Jaci smacked her head against the tree trunk. She opened her eyes, taking in the dim light coming from the hotel window and the cloudy sky outside.

Hotel. Window. She wasn’t in the woods anymore. Her eyes focused on Sara Yadle, huddling over her.

“Bad dream?” Sara whispered, moving off the bed.

Jaci closed her eyes, tears leaking down the sides of her face. “Yes.” Again. Both girls had been plagued by nightmares ever since their rescue four days earlier. But that’s all they were, thank heavens.

“What happened this time?”

Jaci struggled to remember the dream even as wisps of it floated past her like cotton balls being pulled apart. “The same. Hiding. Being chased.” Her heart thudded at the mere mention. “Something about Ricky.” And a gun.

“Dreaming about Ricky?” Sara said, a cautious smile reaching her eyes.

The terror of the dream fully dissipated and heat rushed to Jaci’s face. “It wouldn’t be the first time,” she admitted. Having a crush on her friend’s brother proved to be a bit awkward, now that they were all in tight quarters. She looked around the hotel at the other queen bed, shared by Amanda Murphy and Megan Reynolds. Empty. “Where’s Amanda?”

“In the other room, I think. Getting breakfast.” Sara fished through her newly acquired pile of clothing and pulled out a shirt. “I woke up when you did. Well, a few seconds before.”

Jaci climbed out of bed and wandered over to the vanity. She surveyed the purple rings under her almond-shaped eyes. Would she ever get a good night’s rest again? “I’m hungry too.” Her stomach rumbled. It hadn’t taken long to get accustomed to eating every day, even several times a day. She pushed open the door that separated the two hotel rooms.

Amanda looked up from the round table and waved a speared pineapple at her. “Morning.” Her auburn hair hung in wet ringlets down to her shoulder blades. Even the plain white t-shirt looked cute on her.

Jaci joined her and glanced around the room. “Where’s everyone else?”

“Across the hall in the boys’ room.” Amanda slathered butter on a pancake.

Pancakes again. They had room service every day. Jaci had never been so pampered.

Not that it felt like a vacation. Not with an FBI agent in the room across the hall. For the first time in months, Jaci felt safe. But she couldn’t wait to be free.

“Jaci?” Sara stuck her head into the room. “I’m going to take a shower. Then will you do my hair?”

Jaci nodded. She gestured at the pineapple and melons in front of her. “Don’t you want to eat?”

Sara wrinkled her nose. “No.”

“Just come get me when you’re done.” Jaci kept her long brown hair in a pony tail, but she’d styled Sara’s hair often enough to become familiar with a blow-dryer.

A knock tapped out on the hotel door: the secret signal. Jaci undid the latch, letting Mrs. Reynolds and her teenage daughter Megan in.

“Hi,” Megan said. “I got you another book.”

Reading was not Jaci’s forte, but it was either read or watch TV. Besides, how could she say no to Megan? The tall girl seemed almost awkward in her desire to please. Jaci turned the book over. “Thanks, Megan.” She put it down and stared at the soap opera playing out on the screen.

Sara returned, her damp blond hair leaving streaks of water on her shirt. She spotted Megan and Mrs. Reynolds. “Oh, hey. How are the boys?”

“They’re fine, honey,” Mrs. Reynolds said.

“When do we get to see them?”Sara asked. Her twin brothers shared a room with Agent Reynolds.

“Agent Reynolds will be over at lunch. He’ll give you an update.”

Sara nodded, and Jaci followed her into the adjoining hotel room.


“Here.” Sara put the blow-dryer into Jaci’s hand.

Jaci lifted it just as a maid called from the hallway, “Room service!”

“Is that our door?” Jaci asked.

A loud knock echoed down the hall, and Sara shook her head. “No. It’s the next one over.”

Jaci let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Per the FBI’s instructions, the “Do not disturb” signs remained on the doors at all times to keep anyone from accidentally walking in. Jaci didn’t know why it scared her so badly to think of one falling off, or of the maid coming in.

Sara cleared her throat. “Jaci. My hair.”

“Right.” Jaci turned on the loud dryer, losing herself in the mind-numbing noise.

Chapter Two

’ll tell you exactly what I told the boys.” Agent Reynolds studied the three rescued girls before he continued.

Megan settled back in her chair, content to be in the background of this discussion. She picked at what was left of the taco platter in front of them.

Her father took a deep breath. “We don’t know where The Hand is. Nor do we know if he’s stopped hunting you. So we must assume he hasn’t.” He reached a hand up and rubbed it over his short-cropped hair. “But you can’t stay here forever. The FBI has prepared a safe house for you in Ohio. We’ll be moving you by car in two days.”

“Will our parents be there?” Sara asked, leaning forward, hope in her eyes.

Agent Reynolds shook his head. “No. We still can’t let the public know you’ve been found.”

“Will the boys be there?” Amanda asked, glancing at Sara.

“Of course they will be,” Sara answered. “They’re my brothers.”

Megan looked at her father, pulling on a strand of her reddish-brown hair. There was no guarantee that Sara would stay with her twin brothers, but Megan didn’t know if the younger girl could handle the strain otherwise. She seemed so frail, almost broken.

“Ricky and Neal will both be going,” Agent Reynolds affirmed.

Jaci and Sara both exhaled, and Megan smiled, mirroring their relief.

“Until then, you have to stay here. No looking out windows or opening the door. No phone calls. Nothing that could be intercepted or dangerous. Clear?”

“Of course.” Amanda sighed, crossing her arms. “We’ll just sit around and do nothing.”

“But we’re grateful,” Jaci said, her brown eyes earnest as she stared at Agent Reynolds. “It’s better than wandering around the woods.”

Or stealing from farmhouses, shooting policemen, and washing away in swollen rivers, to name a few activities,
Megan thought, remembering some of the stories the girls had told her.

“Megan.” Mrs. Reynolds stacked up the dirty plates and trash. “Put these in the hall for the maid to pick up, please. And check on your brother. Make sure the boys put their trash out.”

“Sure.” Megan helped gather up the trash and took it to the door. She was about to slip into the hallway when a hand touched her arm. Sara stood there, holding out a piece of paper that had been folded like an envelope.

“Will you take this for me?” she asked, extending it to Megan.

Megan eyed it warily. “Is it a letter?”


Megan opened her mouth to object, but Sara quickly explained, “To Neal. Just to my brother. I heard your mother ask you to go over there.”

Megan relaxed and took the paper. “Sure. I’ll take it.”

Sara didn’t quite let go. “Promise you won’t read it?”

Megan held back a laugh. Sara was only fourteen, after all, and entitled to some dramatics. “I won’t read it.”

Sara let go. Megan took two steps across the hall, and then knocked the special code. She heard the chain slide across seconds before Spencer, her younger brother, opened it.

“Sorry, no maid service,” he said, and closed it.

Megan rolled her eyes and waited. He opened it again. “Oh, it’s you. Confused you with the maid.”

“Right.” She followed him into the room. “Because I look middle-aged and fat.”

“Yeah, that confused me,” he agreed, putting the chain back.

Megan resisted the urge to slug him. “Mom says to put your trash in the hall for the maid to pick up.”

“Oh, well, you can just take it with you.” Spencer piled it up and held it out to her.

She ignored him and directed her attention to the identical teenage boys playing a card game on the bed. She hadn’t learned to tell them apart yet, though just from their posture she could guess. One sat cross-legged over the cards, back straight, while the other lay on his side, head propped up, an expression of utter boredom on his face.

“Neal?” Megan held out the note.

Sure enough, the one sitting cross-legged twisted toward her. He took the note.

“It’s from Sara,” Megan explained.

The other boy’s mouth turned up in a lazy grin. “Lest we should think it was you who wrote the note to Neal.”

“She wanted me to give it to you. I think she misses you guys. She doesn’t seem to be doing all that great.” Megan clamped her mouth shut. She always said too much.

Neal’s eyes scanned the paper. He looked up, his brows knit together. “Is something wrong?” A piece of his straight brown hair fell across his forehead, and he tossed his head.

Megan resisted the urge to tell him that a haircut would fix that problem. “Um, no. I don’t think so, anyway. She’s just always, you know, kind of sad.”

The twins exchanged a look. Neal held up the note. “Did you read this?”

Megan shook her head.

“She wants us to sneak out and see her. She’s waiting for my reply to know when.”

“What?” Ricky exclaimed. “Sara? She’s willing to risk being found to see us?”

“Yeah.” Neal nodded. “That worries me.”

“My father said you guys will be moved in two days. Can’t she wait until then?” Megan said.

Neal grabbed a pen from the hotel veranda and began writing on the back of the paper. “That’s what I’ll tell her. Megan, keep an eye on her, okay?”

“Sure.” Not sure what else to say, she turned back for the door.

“How are the other girls?” Ricky asked.

She shrugged. “It’s a lot, you know, to let go of.” Sara spent most of her time crying. Amanda acted as if none of this affected her. Jaci had nightmares almost every night. “They’re fine.”

“Tell them we said hi,” Neal said.

“I will.”

“Take the trash on your way out,” Spencer said, holding it out like an offering when she opened the door.

“Take it yourself, lazy.” Megan shut the door behind her.


Megan lay in the queen bed she shared with Amanda, staring in the direction of the ceiling. The light from the bathroom, always on in case someone woke up disoriented or scared, cast the room into exaggerated shadow. Amanda breathed deeply from her curled up position beside Megan. Jaci tossed about on the other bed, a whimper escaping her.

None of these sounds were new. So what had awakened her?

There was a click, and then a sliver of light appeared at the hotel room door. Before Megan could consider screaming or hiding or anything so extreme, she saw Sara’s silhouette in the doorway. Megan shot out of bed and grabbed Sara’s arm, yanking her backward. She tried to slam the door shut with her other hand, but a rolled up towel blocked it from closing. She kicked it out of the way.

Sara gasped and whirled around, her hands slapping at Megan.

“Sara!” Megan hissed. “It’s me!” She quickly slid all the bolts and chains back into place. “What the heck were you doing?” She looked Sara up and down. The girl appeared uninjured, though tears welled up in her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Megan took a deep breath, feeling the adrenaline surge dissipate. “What were you doing? Were you trying to sneak out?”

“Please don’t tell anyone,” Sara said, the tears glinting in the bathroom light as they trailed down her face.

Megan shook her head, annoyed that Sara would put her in this position. “I have to tell my father.”

“No!” Sara began to cry. “I just wanted to see my brothers. I’m okay. I—I . . .” She stopped and took several breaths. “I didn’t leave the room. Nothing happened.”

Megan relented a bit, feeling guilty for her earlier irritation. “It will be okay. I’ll just tell him you tried to see Ricky and Neal. But Sara, you
do that. Don’t you understand? The only reason you are safe here is because no one knows you’re here. All it takes is for one person to see you and the whole cover’s blown.”

Sara jerked her arm away and stumbled over to her bed. Even burying her face under the pillow didn’t muffle her sobs.

Chapter Three

t was just a little after two in the morning when Agent Reynolds woke Jaci. She knew the time because she had checked the digital clock on the nightstand a few minutes before. No matter how she tried to sleep, her nerves were too taut to allow it.

“Come on,” he said, touching her shoulder. He moved to Sara next, gently shaking her. “It’s time.”

Jaci shook her head to clear the fog. They were leaving. Yesterday, their last day in the hotel, had been strangely silent. She couldn’t begin to imagine what came next. She leaned over and picked up the plastic sack that held her belongings.

Megan stirred when he woke Amanda. “Make sure you lock up behind us,” he said to his daughter.

“I will,” she murmured.

With their plastic sacks in hand, the girls stood behind Agent Reynolds while he undid the locks on the door. Jaci’s heart rate quickened in anticipation of finally leaving the hotel.

He checked the peephole one more time, and then swung the door open. He peered down the corridor before motioning the girls out. “We’ll take the stairs.”

Their room was on the third floor.

“What about the boys?” Amanda asked, blinking her eyes several times to clear them.

“Another agent is getting them.” He escorted the girls into the stairwell. “Let’s go quickly.”

A fifteen-passenger burgundy van waited in the parking garage at the bottom of the stairs. Dark tinting blocked the view of the interior. Agent Reynolds unlocked the van and started the engine. “Get in.”

Amanda climbed up. Footsteps sounded on the stairwell, and Jaci turned around. Agent Reynolds took up a protective position in front of them. Another man in a dark suit emerged, followed by Ricky and Neal. Jaci’s stomach flip-flopped, and she quickly dropped her eyes.

“Neal!” Sara clutched her brother when he reached her.

Ricky turned to Jaci. “Long time no see.”

“Yeah.” She tried a smile. “Are you guys okay?”

“Get in the van,” Agent Reynolds interrupted. “You can talk on the drive.”

Jaci’s hand brushed Ricky’s as she pushed past him. His fingers grabbed hers, squeezing them for a moment before letting her go. She shoved into a seat in the middle row. The van seemed uncomfortably hot. Sara sat down next to her, and Jaci scooted over to the window to make room.

Neal and Ricky joined Amanda in the back, and Agent Reynolds closed the door. He settled himself in the passenger seat with the other agent driving. The van moved, pulling out of the parking garage. Agent Reynolds faced the teens. “It’s a five-hour drive from here to Cincinnati. We should get there around seven in the morning. We won’t make any stops, so I brought a cooler with food it in it if anyone needs a snack.

“I’ll go with you to Ohio, but then I’ll leave you in the FBI’s custody while I join up with my family. This is Agent Banks.” The driver waved. “He’ll be your custodian. Any questions, ask him.”

Jaci waited, but when he didn’t offer any more advice, she leaned her head against the window and closed her eyes. They might not be going home yet, but each mile brought them a little bit closer to Shelley, Idaho.

When Jaci woke up, tiny rays of sunlight peeked through the gray cloud coverage in the October sky. It was raining. She breathed on the window and drew a circle inside the fog of her breath. A hint of her reflection stared back at her: brown, almond-shaped eyes and long dark hair pulled into a ponytail.

She was pretty sure in Idaho they would have snow, not rain. Jaci moved her head enough to see the time on the dash. A quarter after seven. They had to almost be there.

The van plodded down a quiet country road, then turned off the pavement onto a dirt path tucked into the trees. Jaci wondered what it was like to be in a safe house. How could it be safe? The Hand was still out there.

The quiet murmur of the FBI agents in the front of the van drifted back to her. Agent Reynolds turned around and surveyed them. His eyes met hers, a somber expression keeping his face grim. Jaci didn’t want to see the concern and pity behind the gaze. She turned her head and stared out the window again.

Two fingers touched her arm, and she looked at Sara. Tired circles still clung beneath her eyes, in spite of a few nights of good sleep. Jaci put an arm around her. “Are you okay?”

Sara’s head bobbed up and down.


The van pulled up to a large wrought-iron gate. Inside sat a red-brick rambler, the colors bright from the constant rainwater. Agent Banks rolled the window down and pressed in a code before swiping his badge. Jaci saw his profile in the side mirror, blue eyes flicking around the perimeter of the house. A thick unibrow shaded his face. The gate opened and the van rolled forward.

Bare bushes clung to the exterior. Reds and yellows in the trees matched the brick and made Jaci long for her own home.

Banks parked in the four-car garage and turned the engine off. He ducked his head and climbed out before unfolding to his full height of more than six feet.

“Come on,” Agent Reynolds said. He extended a hand to Sara and pulled her out.

The garage was empty of tools, bikes, cat food, and everything that cluttered hers. Two black, nondescript cars parked next to the van.

“Are we here?” Amanda’s groggy voice carried from the back of the van where she slept. She lifted her head.

“Yes,” Reynolds said, reaching in to help her. Ricky and Neal came last.

Banks spoke up, turning and walking up the steps to the door. “You’ll see the medical practitioner first. She’ll set you up a menu based on your nutritional needs. We want to get you into good shape.”

“I hope that doesn’t include exercise,” Amanda said. She turned to Ricky. “I hate exercise.”

Jaci would give anything to get to a track and run. Just run.

Banks entered the house first, leaving them on the steps with Reynolds. A moment later he returned. “Premises secured.”

Jaci fell in line behind him. Sara clung to her arm. Her tiny frame didn’t seem capable of holding up her head. Neal and Ricky flanked her like a pair of secret service agents.

The garage opened into a hallway that met up with the kitchen. A hint of vanilla wavered in the air. Banks went down the hall, his head nearly touching the top of the doorways. They followed him, crossing through a living room with blue carpet and gray couches. He tapped on an open door, and a woman stepped out.

“Yes?” she asked, and then she saw the teenagers. “Oh, they’re here. All right, you may go.”

“Hang on,” Banks said. He opened a hall closet and pulled out a combination-locked briefcase. Unlocking it, he handed each of them a plastic card on a lanyard. “These cards will get you through the basement door and your rooms. Swipe the barcode to let yourselves in.” He passed out the cards and checked his watch. “We’ll have a late breakfast in about an hour. Then we’ll talk.”

“Everything will be fine now,” Reynolds said to them. He clapped Neal on the shoulder and then he and Banks continued down the hall.

Jaci wanted to run after them.
Don’t leave us with this strange woman!

The woman peered at them over wire-rimmed glasses. “I’m Agent Combs. I’m a nurse practitioner.”

“Is this place the FBI headquarters?” Ricky asked.

“No. This is a private, unaddressed location used as a protection house for those in danger.”


Jaci rubbed her thumb across her palm and cleared her throat. “Are we still in danger?”

“That is not a question for me to answer,” Combs replied, her voice aloof. She turned on her heel and went into the room.

Jaci glanced at Ricky and wrinkled her nose.

“Nothing like pulling out the welcome mat,” he said.

“Yeah, no kidding.” She cracked a smile, then exhaled and followed Combs. The four others came in behind her.

Agent Combs stood inside, hands on her hips. Her gaze landed on Neal and Ricky. “Boys.” She pointed out the door. “I don’t need you in here. Wait in the living room. There’s a TV and magazines.” Opening a closet, she pulled out three white robes and placed them over a chair. She turned her attention to the girls. “Undress and put these on. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” She closed the door.

Nobody moved. “Well, I guess we don’t really have anything to be embarrassed about, do we?” Jaci took her shoes off. She heard the rustling of clothing and knew her friends were also changing. She kept her eyes down and pulled her navy blue jacket over her head. Quickly she slipped the robe on and plopped herself into a plastic chair.

Sara sat on the examination table, kicking her feet, and Amanda sat in another chair. The counter was clear except for a metal tray and a sink. Behind the counter was another door.

“Oh my gosh, look at this,” Amanda said, grabbing a tube of nail polish off the tray. The sparkly red liquid clung to the sides of the jar as she tipped it around and examined it in the light.

Jaci looked down at her bare feet and curled her toes. Ugh. How horrid. She should have trimmed the nails at the hotel.

The acrid scent of alcohol filled the room as Amanda uncapped the polish. She spread a glossy veil of red over her toenail.

“Amanda. Don’t use other people’s things,” Jaci said, though she wasn’t very surprised.

Amanda shrugged, not even glancing up. “Who uses up all the contents of a bottle, anyway, before getting bored with the color and buying another?” She bent over her knees, straightening one leg in front of her and spreading her toes.

“Maybe it’s not for nails,” Sara said. “Maybe they use it to label things.”

“Maybe,” Amanda agreed as she slid the tiny brush over her misshaped toenails. “There’ll be plenty left over.”

The door opened and Amanda quickly capped the polish. She slipped it onto the counter and looked demurely at Agent Combs.

“Good, you’ve changed,” Combs said, putting three file folders on the counter. “Let’s get this examination done. If anything seems seriously amiss and beyond my skills, I’ll be informing the doctor. There’s a bathroom.” She pointed to the second door and looked at Sara. “How about you first, since you’re already on the table?”

“Okay. Do I just stay here?”

“Yes. I’m going to take a blood sample.”

They watched in silence as Combs tied a rubber tourniquet around Sara’s arm and then flicked her forearm with her fingers a few times. Sara looked away as Combs poked a needle into her vein and attached a vial to it.

She filled four vials with blood, and then pulled the needle out. Pressing a cotton ball to the vein, she stuck a bandage over it. “Brave girl.” She handed Sara a paper cup. “Now go in the bathroom and pee in the cup for me.”

, Jaci thought, moving out of the way for Sara to pass her.

Combs looked at Jaci. “Your turn.”

Jaci climbed up on the table and gritted her teeth. Just because she liked biology didn’t mean she wanted to be the pin cushion.

“Make a fist.”

She clenched her fist as Combs tied the rubber around her forearm. The needle bit through her flesh and she tried not to hold her breath.

“Done.” Combs untied the rubber band and handed her a paper cup.

Sara stepped out of the restroom and put the cup on the counter. Jaci stepped in. A light turned on when she closed the door. She came out and added her sample to the tray. “What are you looking for?”

“Ketones and glucose, protein, and hCG.”

“What are ketones and hCG?”

“Ketones are the byproduct your body produces when it burns fat for fuel. It’ll help us evaluate your food intake.”

“And hCG?”

“It’s a pregnancy hormone.”

Jaci watched as Combs finished pulling test strips out of her sample. “Do you always do a pregnancy test?”

“It’s standard procedure on teenage girls. Yours is negative, by the way. Sara.” Agent Combs removed Sara’s pH strips. “Yours is not.”

Chapter Four

s soon as the medical exams were done, Agent Combs took them downstairs to the bedrooms. The girls shared a large room with two bunk beds. A vanity with a double sink sat outside the bathroom, hotel-style.

“What about the boys?” Sara asked.

“They’ll be in the room next to yours.” Combs closed the door behind her, leaving them alone.

Jaci sank down on the bottom bunk closest to the door, examining their sterile room. White carpet, white sink, white sheets, white cinderblock walls. The only color came from the thick, multi-colored blankets at the foot of each bed.

Amanda stopped in front of the vanity and picked at her teeth. “Look, guys. New toothbrushes!” She turned around, brandishing them, still wrapped in plastic.

Jaci didn’t respond. At least they’d survived the exams. All of them were thin and malnourished, but otherwise healthy, according to Combs.

Except for Sara.

“Sara.” Jaci watched her, standing at the entrance to the room, staring at the bed. “Are you okay?”

Sara shot her a glare, and instantly Jaci felt like an idiot. What a dumb question.

Sara lowered herself onto the mattress beside Jaci and dropped her head between her legs. “I don’t feel so well.”

“Why don’t you take the bottom bunk? I’ll be right above you.”

She looked up, her eyes red. “No. I like the top more.” Sara put her head down again.

“Well.” Amanda heaved a sigh and crossed the room. “Nothing else to do. Let’s go upstairs.” She opened the door and paused. “Coming? It’s time to eat, you know.” She glanced at her watch, the same watch she had had when they left Idaho.

“Yeah.” Jaci stood up. Amanda had been unusually nice since the rescue, and Jaci hoped she would stay that way. “I’m hungry. Sara?”

Sara heaved herself up and walked out in front of them.

“Moody much?” Amanda murmured.

A door blocked off the main floor. Jaci pulled out her lanyard and tried the card Agent Banks had given her. The door whirred and then clicked.

“Nice.” Amanda pulled it open.

Agents Banks and Reynolds sat at the table, eating a late breakfast that looked more like a lunch. Tin containers cluttered the counter, as well as paper plates and utensils.

“Who cooks?” Jaci picked up a plate and spooned barbecued pork on top of a roll. Her stomach rumbled in anticipation.

“Caterer,” Banks said. “Delivers once a week when the safe house is in use. We just heat it up.”

“Ah.” She added a spoonful of potato salad and sat down next to him. Tilting her head, she peered at Reynolds, who read a magazine next to Neal, a cleaned plate in front of him. “Agent Reynolds,” Jaci said, “I have a favor to ask.”

He put the magazine down and focused on her. So did everyone else, which unnerved her. She swallowed. “You don’t have to; you’ve already done so much for us.”

“Ask,” he replied.

“Shelley isn’t too far from Montana.” Jaci hoped she sounded calm and reasonable, not desperate. “If you are ever going that way—would you go see my family? Our families?” she added, looking at Sara and Amanda. “Since we can’t, anyway.”

“I will make it a point.” Reynolds stood up and cleared his plate. “I have appointments tomorrow and need to go soon if I’m going to make it back to Montana in time.” He stopped at the head of the table. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Neal stood up and offered his hand, which Reynolds took in a firm handshake. “No, sir. We can’t thank you enough for rescuing us.”

“You did a fine job of watching out for them. I’m certain you would’ve held everyone together until help came.”

“I have my doubts,” Ricky muttered.

Jaci wanted to give Agent Reynolds a hug. Instead, she nodded her concurrence. “Thank you.”

Sara and Amanda echoed the sentiment, and with that, Reynolds stepped into the garage and disappeared from sight.

Agent Combs came into the kitchen and popped open the fridge. “My replacement here?” she asked, oblivious to the somber mood in the room. She pulled out a jug of apple juice.

“Not yet,” Banks said. “We’ll let you know when she gets here.”

“Who’s ‘she’?” Amanda grabbed the fridge before it shut. She scanned it briefly and plunked a carton of Tropicana orange juice on the counter.

“Always has to be a female agent present,” Banks said. “Combs is a medical officer. She doesn’t stay here full-time.”

Of course it made sense that they needed a woman chaperone, but Jaci felt safe with Banks. His gruff voice and kind eyes reminded her of her father. Though he was often away on business trips, she’d always felt they had a close relationship. Like she had with Seth, her brother.

Jaci hadn’t figured out yet if her father was a good guy or a bad guy. The Hand knew him by name, and apparently it made her a more valuable commodity.

“How are the kids?” Banks asked, running a thumb over his unibrow and leaning back in his chair. “Healthy?”

Combs swallowed her juice with one swig and eyed Sara. “Young one there needs an OB. I’m not licensed for that.”

A pink hue crept up Sara’s face.

Banks shot her a sympathetic glance. “I’ll get one over here.”

Combs tried to shuffle between the counter and Ricky, and he scooted closer to Jaci to let her by. His forearm brushed hers, sending waves of heat rushing up to her face. She kept her eyes glued to her plate and concentrated on lifting a fork to her mouth.

Outside, a vehicle whispered over the smooth concrete driveway. A moment later the door leading to the garage opened and a tall woman with ebony skin and black hair stepped in.

“Hello. I’m Agent Magrew.” Her rich, silky voice calmed Jaci’s nerves. “Here.” Agent Magrew dropped a package on the table. “Mail.”

“Agent.” Banks nodded to her. “Thought I heard your car. What’s in the package?”

“Letters,” she answered. “Sent from the office. The parents were all notified in person of the teens’ safety, and they were invited to send correspondence back with the agents.”

Combs dropped her paper plate on the counter. “I’m off.”

“No letters for us.” Neal sat down next to Jaci.

“Guess that’s what happens when you don’t have living relatives,” Ricky grunted.

“What do you call me, dead?” Sara asked.

“Hey.” He squeezed her shoulder. “I forget we have you. You’re a new addition to the family.” Though Ricky and Neal were Sara’s brothers, she had only met them a few weeks earlier.

“Let’s see here.” Magrew opened the package and tossed several envelopes on the table. “And a note from Agent Reynolds’s daughter.” She tossed a three-by-five note card on top of the envelopes.

“I knew Megan had a crush on me.” Ricky picked it up.

“It’s to the girls, you idiot.” Neal snatched it from his brother and handed it to Jaci.

Jaci pocketed Megan’s note and flipped through the envelopes until she found the one from her mother. Tears filled her eyes as she read the elegant script that sprawled across the paper. “
,” she whispered. She held the letter in her hands. She didn’t want to read it now, in front of everyone.

“Can we write them back?” Amanda asked.

Banks shook his head. “No, unfortunately. We’re keeping it a secret that you’ve been found. No mail can be sent because it might be intercepted. If news leaks, we’ll have to move you to a location with tighter security.”

Jaci wanted to read her letter on her bed, without any interruptions, savoring every word. “I’m going downstairs.”

“Hang on,” Banks said. “We want to give you kids a tour of the place. There’s a dojo and a fitness room downstairs.”

“I’m sure I can find it,” Jaci replied. The envelope practically burned in her hand. “I just want to be alone.” She waved the envelope.

No one argued further, so she hurried away. She entered the shared bedroom downstairs and sank back on the bed, exhaling. She’d always enjoyed her alone time, though she was used to getting it on the track field as mile after mile disappeared beneath her sneakers. She pulled out the letter, fingers trembling with anxiety.

It was short, only a few paragraphs. The flowing Spanish cursive read haltingly, like her mother wasn’t sure what to say or how to say it.

Jaci understood why. Her father had vanished, according to her mother. Simply disappeared. No phone calls, no letters, nothing. The police had been searching the house for clues, as they believed him culpable of misconduct. Tears pricked Jaci’s eyes, and the words blurred.

She had suspected a problem, of course. Especially after she overheard their kidnapper calling him the
, or the Butcher. How could he have lied to his family this whole time?

And Seth, her older brother, wasn’t doing very well. He was short-tempered and moody. His grades were falling and he was in danger of losing his scholarship.

A knock sounded on the door. How long had she been crying? She kept her head down, ignoring it.

She must not have closed the door all the way, because it slid open.

“Hey, Jace.” Ricky stood in the doorway, his light brown hair falling in his face. “Pretty impressive fitness room. Want to see it?”

Jaci turned around, fumbling for a pillowcase, trying to wipe her eyes. “I’ll be right there.”

She heard him cross the room, felt the bed sink when he sat down.

“What’s wrong?”

“Problems at home.”

“Like what? Everyone okay? Your brothers?”

She shook her head, still speaking to the pillowcase. “No. Everyone’s not okay.”

Ricky touched her forearm. “What’s happened?”

Jaci peeked out at him, noting the tension and concern on his face. “It’s not that bad. I’m worried about my brother.” She couldn’t tell him her suspicions about her father.

“Is he in trouble?”

“Yes,” Jaci whispered. Ricky knew about trouble. He had been on probation for starting a fire in school and stealing a car when she met him. “But not that kind of trouble. You wouldn’t understand.”

“I might.”

“It’s trouble with his grades.”

He gave a short laugh. “Okay. I might not.”

She picked up her letter and shoved it under the pillow. “My mom said he’s not doing well in school. He’s quit going to church. He doesn’t seem interested in anything.”

“Jaci, his little sister was kidnapped. He has a lot on his mind.”

And his dad’s vanished.
“I’m sure that’s all it is.” She dried her face with her fingers.

“So, you’re crying because your brother doesn’t like school anymore?”

Seth was only part of the reason. But she couldn’t tell him that. “You’re right. It’s not that bad. Show me the fitness room. I hope it has a treadmill.”