Welcome! Come on in. Kick back, prop up your feet, and hunker down for a good read.
We know there are three main hurdles readers must overcome to buying a book. The first is content. Will you like the book? Is it well written? The second is price. Even $4.99 seems a little steep for an unknown author or a book you’re not certain you will like. Third, is time. How long will the book take to read? Does it engage you enough to keep reading after many stops and starts?
Here, we hope to answer all of those questions. To accomplish that, we will be posting as much of the book as we dare. We promise to have at least one posting a day (maybe up to three!), so you’re welcome to read in bite-sized pieces, or wait and digest more all at once.
So, take a look around, plan to stay a while, and scroll down to start the journey. Enjoy!by thefoolishandtheweak
She glided down a street she did not know. It held no resemblance to the glorious avenues of New Columbia, and yet, there was a certain familiarity—the dark edifices lining each side, from which roiled a river of people, pushing past her, through her, terror frozen on their faces.
What were they fleeing? While she strained to see beyond them, the crowd directly ahead of her became transparent, and her gaze locked onto the scene unfolding up the street.
She felt a chill at the sight of it. Two males and one female were suspended in the air by some force that sprang from another being beneath them. As she drew nearer, she could see the twisted agony of the captives, but the glow of the energy field surrounding them cast their captor’s visage in shadow.
In that moment, fear became conviction, willing her to act. She raised her hands and clasped them above her head, a white-hot flame bursting from their union. Just as the bolt was unleashed, the landscape wrenched violently away and Paciencia was left in the gloom of her bedchamber, her entire body covered in perspiration, her lungs gasping for air.
The vision had overcome her three times now, one right after the other. How many more times would it assail her? With urgency engulfing her, she vaulted from her bed, the nightgown she wore replaced by a loose-fitting blouse and skirt before her feet touched the floor. When the vision did not return, she realized something else failed to occur—confirmation.
Troubled, she left her room and padded softly down the corridor.by thefoolishandtheweak
“It seems I am not privy to your vision, child.”
Paciencia stood in the archway of her caretaker’s suite, her head bent respectfully, her arms folded. The words of her elder echoed oddly in the open space and rang for several moments in Paciencia’s ears.
While still considered young, Paciencia was fully aware of the repercussions of the vision she had received. Her people had lived in near seclusion for more than two hundred years; it was their primary mandate. The recurring vision she had just conveyed to Tilda—her surrogate mother—appeared to go against that mandate entirely.
This wasn’t the first time Paciencia had been given a vision—far from it. In each instance, however, Tilda had received it, too.
To Paciencia, it made no sense that Tilda had not seen this particular vision. When the visions were not wholly personal, particularly when they had far-reaching implications, like this one did, others would see them, too, thus confirming the vision’s validity.
And yet, Tilda had not received it.
“You believe me,” Paciencia stated, stiffening.
“Yes, yes,” Tilda answered quickly, her left hand flailing as if she could wave the uncertainty away. “The question is, why only you?”
Paciencia felt relief wash over her. Worse to her than the vision and what it meant was the possibility that someone, especially her beloved Tilda, would think she were capable of fabricating it.
“Quite the quandary,” Tilda added solemnly. Suddenly, the corners of her mouth curled and there was a gleam in her eye. “I wonder if the Seer has …”
Before she could finish speaking, the older woman’s eyes stared blankly into space.
Paciencia knew the look well. Tilda was seeing something. Was she finally receiving the vision, too? Then Paciencia gasped, the involuntary inhale she always had when she was swept into dream state. No, this wasn’t her vision at all. This was….
“Come along,” Tilda commanded, her voice cutting through. “I want to be nearing his chambers before—”
A pleasant chime sounded in their ears, and then a portion of the room’s outer wall vanished to reveal a tall man in billowing robes.
“—Abrem arrives,” Tilda finished. Her face fell in disappointment.
“Hard to outsee a seer,” Abrem said, winking at Paciencia. The younger woman couldn’t help but return a smile. To Tilda, he added, “Given the lateness of the hour, I will be brief.”
“You have seen it, then?” Paciencia asked, even though the mere presence of Abrem meant the answer was yes.
“Perhaps we should all sit down,” Abrem suggested.by thefoolishandtheweak
As Tilda glanced at a bare section of the floor, a divan and two ornate armchairs appeared there out of thin air. The two women took the chairs, leaving Abrem the divan. As they sat, the Seer cleared his throat.
“Before I begin, I want to …” He stopped speaking and looked down at the floor, his eyelids fluttering.
“You first saw this vision when she was born,” Tilda abruptly chanted. Her eyes, momentarily glassy, returned to full sternness.
“Yes …”Abrem smiled, but he did not look up.
“You were instructed to wait—” Tilda chanted again, the glassiness returning. She didn’t finish the sentence.
Paciencia did that. “—until I had received it! You have known all this time!”
“And I did not,” Tilda said. She closed her eyes and bowed her head. “I would have liked to have known.” The statement was not accusatory, but a gentle entreatment. It was not directed at the Seer.
Abrem sighed. As he looked up at Tilda, his expression matched hers.
“I have long said that I am not so much a seer as I am a safe—a keeper of knowledge until it is granted and bestowed.”
“Can you tell me what it means?” Paciencia asked.
Abrem shrugged. “It appears that you are to engage an unidentified foe in the outside world, with powers not known to it.”
“While the rest of us do nothing?” Tilda asked, rubbing her brow. Her voice sounded tired now.
“Paciencia is to face this challenge alone,” Abrem answered. He leaned forward with earnest. “We can still assist her from here … check the archives for clues … perhaps the space between realms …”
As his voice trailed off, Paciencia finally realized what was in Tilda’s voice, what now was reflected in Abrem’s eyes—sadness.
There were all kinds of troubling aspects to this vision, the greatest, of course, being what it could mean to their society and their centuries-old mission. A select few from the outside world knew of New Columbia. The secret of its existence was part of the mandate the people lived by—their executive order. A battle like the one in Paciencia’s vision would undoubtedly raise questions and lead to investigations by the nations of the outside world. While it was most unlikely that any person or nation could find New Columbia, it was just as unlikely that anyone in the outside world possessed the power Paciencia was to confront there.
That was what Abrem meant by “powers not known” to the outside world. New Columbia had technology and individuals capable of such feats. The outside world did not. That suggested someone from New Columbia was behind this. Of it all, that possibility was the most unthinkable, and yet….
Was this why Abrem and Tilda were so upset?
“Do you know when my vision will come to pass?” Paciencia asked, putting aside their emotions.
“No.” Abrem shook his head. “There are still many unknowns.”
“I am more concerned about who the aggressor is,” Tilda said, “and whether or not there are others.”
“As I said, there are still unknowns.” Abrem took a deep breath. Certainty and determination rang in his voice when he spoke again. “While this vision is unprecedented in our history, with dangerous ramifications, there is no doubt in my mind that it shall come to pass, and that you, Paciencia, are meant to be there when it does.” Abrem punctuated those last words by rising to his feet. “Mandate or no, we have always been at the mercy of He Who Grants All Life.”
“Then, I will leave immediately.” Paciencia’s words seemed to linger for a time, as if giving either Tilda or Abrem an opportunity to object.
“Who else will you tell of this?” Tilda finally asked Abrem, ignoring Paciencia’s declaration.
“Those who are to know already do. Given what is to come, I will not have to tell anyone else.” He peered over Tilda’s shoulder to give Paciencia a farewell glance and then mustered a wan smile. “Good night,” he said with a slight nod.
A section of the wall disappeared to allow Abrem to leave. As it reappeared, Tilda rested her head against it. Moments of silence enveloped the two women as each pondered what had been said.
“Are you well?” Paciencia finally asked.
Tilda sighed. “You are not my flesh and blood,” she said softly, “but I have treasured you as such. I do not cherish the thought of losing you to the outside world.”
Paciencia smiled. It wasn’t New Columbia or their mandate, after all. It was her safety that worried Tilda!
Paciencia tried to reassure her. “I will return as soon as I am able.”
Tilda lifted her head. “Then, be off,” she said, apparently deciding she had said too much.
Resolute, Paciencia turned to leave. As she did, Tilda stopped her. She looked forlornly into the younger woman’s eyes, embraced her soundly, and kissed her forehead.
Tears welled up in Tilda’s eyes as she whispered, “Hasten back.”by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz Kirkegaard burst through the back exit of Feral, a trendy Washington, DC dance club. After a furtive glance up and down the alley, she chose a direction and took off.
As she did, eight police cars arrived—no flashing lights or sirens—from two different directions to converge on the hot spot. The sixteen beat officers who piled out and rushed to surround the premises weren’t there for the eclectic mesh of local and not-so-local bands. An anonymous tip had come in several minutes earlier indicating that drugs were being sold in the establishment—though not by anyone affiliated with Feral—and the police were there to lock down the club until their search warrant showed up.
Paz was so far down the alleyway, she wasn’t even aware the authorities were there. She was also oblivious to the two figures who detached themselves from a doorway as she hurtled past them.
“We’ve lost containment,” one of them said over a Bluetooth earpiece. “Where did all the uniforms come from?”
“Keep on her,” a voice answered in his ear. “We’re hemmed in.”
The objective of ‘Bluetooth’ and his companion had been to herd Paz in the other direction, where their associates waited in an SUV. With the police showing up, though, the two on foot didn’t know if their cover had been blown, so they let Paz go. Ordered to follow, they first made sure they had not been detected by the police officers and then took up pursuit while maintaining a discretionary distance from Paz.
Not that Paz would have noticed them. In her current state of mind—trying to blink away tears of rage so she could pick her way through the dark—she probably would have overlooked anything that didn’t run into her and knock her down. Her reason for flight was not the drug bust at Feral but her tardy conclusion that she was an idiot for being there at all.
An idiot, because, Brad, the young man she had gone to the club with, was not nearly as cool as she had made him out to be in her mind. He was just another twenty-something jerk, who after downing a couple beers, had proceeded to grope her.
She had sneaked out to Feral with Brad after her mother had explicitly told her she couldn’t go. Now, she was suddenly vulnerable and vastly outmuscled by not only Brad, but either of his buddies who were there and might want to see her succumb to, and perhaps get in on, whatever obscene intentions Brad might have with her.by thefoolishandtheweak
The alleyway came to an end and she emerged onto a street. Paz had no idea where she was. To her left, she could see a corner, but it was the same street that fronted Feral, and she felt the need to avoid it. She didn’t want to risk any chance of Brad knowing which way she had gone. So, she took off to her right and hoped she had made a good choice.
Back up the street, Bluetooth communicated her position. “She’s heading east. You clear yet?”
In his ear, the voice said, “We’re working on it.”
Paz felt a boost of confidence as she continued on. While the alleyway had been convenient for her, the lighting was poor and it was hardly public. She had been propelling herself on pure adrenaline, too, and now she could feel it wearing off. She knew from running cross-country how to moderate her stride. It was time for her to calm down and let that training kick in.
After she settled into a good, steady pace, her mind couldn’t help but wander back to her predicament. She was the only one to blame. She was not familiar with Washington, DC and knew parts of the city could be dangerous at night—her parents had certainly told her that enough times—and she was a good hour and a half away from her grandparents’ home, where her family was staying. That was by car. How long would it take her to get home on foot, even if she didn’t get lost? It was already nearing eleven.
Taking a taxi home would have been the most logical option, but in her escape, the pouch she normally carried her money in had been ripped from her neck and was now likely in the possession of Brad or one of his cohorts. Her cell phone, house key, and ID were also in it, so she couldn’t even call home, nor could she get in the house once there, without waking someone up.
Even running, it took a while to get to the end of the block. Paz couldn’t tell until she was almost at the corner, what street she had been approaching. Not that it helped much. The street name certainly didn’t, nor did the block number just yet, but a direction was also included on the sign. Apparently, she was in the northwest part of the city. As she checked for cars, she felt a jab of pain on the bottom of her left heel. The entire sole of her shoe had come away and flapped each time she lifted it.
Removing it, she leaned up against a lamppost and felt for the source of her pain. A blister had apparently formed while she had been dancing that had since popped. She felt the stickiness on her fingers, along with the sting.
Running in shoes not particularly made for it had been yet another bad idea. Paz wasn’t wearing socks or stockings, but she figured it would be better to go barefoot and risk getting an infection rather than end up injured from falling. She tossed her shoes into a nearby trash can and decided to continue down the street she was on, since she still didn’t know which direction she was headed.
Behind her, the voice in Bluetooth’s ear crackled, “Okay, they’re cutting us loose. Where are you now?” When Bluetooth answered, the voice asked, “Which way is she going?”
“I don’t think she knows,” Bluetooth said. “Wait, she’s staying on T.”
“We’ve got to head south,” the voice said, “and we’ve got one-way streets for the next two blocks. We’ll catch up with her at the intersection with Vermont.”
It didn’t take long to get to the next corner, but when she did, Paz realized she was heading in the opposite direction of where she wanted to go. Or, at least she thought she was. The numbers were getting smaller, which meant she was on an easterly course. She wanted to head west, out of the federal district and toward Virginia.
Now she wasn’t sure what to do. She could continue in the direction she was going, which had to be wrong, or she could double back. The latter didn’t sound like a good idea for the same reason she had avoided it in the first place. She wanted to get as far away from Brad as she could. She didn’t think anyone was following her, but she hadn’t really checked to make sure. She resisted the urge to look over her shoulder and kept running.
“Still on T Street,” a somewhat winded Bluetooth said. “Where are you?”
“Just leaving Twelfth and getting on Vermont,” the voice said.
“You’ll have to hurry if you want to catch her at the crosswalk.” Bluetooth now realized they had underestimated Paz’s athletic prowess, even if it were true she had no clue where she was going.
“We’ll make it. Just maintain contact.”
“Easy for him to say,” Bluetooth’s companion muttered after Bluetooth relayed the message.by thefoolishandtheweak
Her outfit wasn’t exactly made for running, but the dark blouse and knee-length skirt Paz had on were certainly flexible and allowed for air circulation. She was warm enough for now, but she could see each time she cleared the tree line that the skies threatened rain. Unfortunately, her jacket had also been abandoned back at the club.
She reached the next street in no time. Were the blocks getting shorter? She couldn’t tell for sure yet, but it looked as if the next street wasn’t that far away, either.
“Where are you?” growled Bluetooth into his earpiece. Both he and his partner had a hard time keeping up with Paz.
“Just coming off Eleventh and back onto Vermont,” the voice said.
“You’re not going to make it.”
To his partner, Bluetooth said, “We need to move up.” The other rolled his eyes, but they ran faster.
Paz approached a two-lane road. Instead of continuing straight through the intersection, the crosswalk veered off to the right. Reflexively, she followed it over two lanes and a median. A sign across the way informed her she had reached Vermont Avenue. Just before she made it to the other side, she saw another crosswalk that angled back toward the street she was on, but in the split second it took to make a decision, she heard the motor of a car racing toward her from her right and instinctively stayed on her new course. It took her to another one-way street. Behind her, she could hear the tires shriek as the vehicle came to a sudden stop. Eyes straight ahead, Paz kept running.
“You all right?” the voice demanded.
“He’s trying to kill me,” Bluetooth said. Groaning, he rolled over and pushed himself up off the road where he had landed after slamming into and bouncing off the driver’s side door of the SUV. His partner, a couple steps behind him, had managed to avoid the collision and now assisted him.
As Bluetooth got to his feet, someone laid on a horn. The SUV had stopped well past the crosswalk and was nearly at the intersection. Another car was trying to make a turn to go the same way Paz had gone. It was impossible for the SUV to make the hard right without backing up, and now there were other cars approaching from behind.
“She can’t be far. We’ll take T and circle back,” the voice said.
Bluetooth grimaced. “Next time, you can herd.”
Paz heard the honking and hoped everyone was all right. Up ahead, under another street lamp, a street sign indicated her direction had totally changed. In making the veer, instead of heading what she figured was east, she seemed to be heading south. In reality, south was probably better, but at some point, she needed to head west.
“She’s passing Westminster,” Bluetooth said. His breathing was considerably more labored now, and he felt as if he’d bruised a rib. He knew his right knee hurt.
“Hang in there. We’re on Ninth, and we’ll head toward S Street. Try to move up again, if you can.”
Oh, great, Paz thought. Ahead of her now, she could see a cluster of people coming toward her. As she got closer, she counted five of them. Judging by their hoodies and baggy basketball shorts, she figured they were all young men. Paz didn’t know what they might do if she continued on her current course, but she felt gun-shy and wasn’t sure if she wanted to take any chances. She wasn’t going to make the next street without running past them, and she could see they were already tracking her as she closed in.
Off to her left, across the way, she saw what looked to be another alley. It would take her east again. Did it have an outlet, or did it dead-end? She either had to trust her luck with the boys now, or risk being cornered later. Paz figured she could find someplace to hide, if all else failed, and then headed to the entrance.
“She’s off the street,” Bluetooth said. “And we’ve got company.”
“What kind of company?”
“Punks.” Did it matter? They’d been way too public back at the intersection. They didn’t need to be positively identified as following a girl who was last seen going into an alley. “We’re pulling back.”
“We just passed the alley’s outlet on S,” the voice said. “We’ll sit on it and collect her.”
Halfway down the alley, Paz began to doubt her decision. It was hard to tell in the dark, but it looked like a parking lot that didn’t go all the way through. It wasn’t likely the guys were gone yet, so she kept going and hoped she wouldn’t regret it. Nearing the end, she saw a side entrance to her right. She was about to take it when a vehicle entered the driveway, its lights blinding her.by thefoolishandtheweak
She turned her head, blinking, and then saw for the first time another exit to her left. Hardly slowing down, she put her back to the headlights and increased her speed to the exit. She felt a pounding inside her ears as her heart rate elevated and a second wave of adrenaline kicked in.
Before she knew it, she was back to the street with a need to choose a direction. Half afraid the vehicle would follow her out, she did not hesitate to make a decision but turned right and quickly ran to the corner. Again, another decision, and again, she turned right.
“Something is wrong,” the voice announced. “She didn’t come out.”
“She didn’t double back,” Bluetooth said. The teens had just moved on and he and his partner were already heading toward the alley.
Bluetooth heard a muffled honk in his ear. “We’ve got cars again,” the voice said. “We’ll have to come around.”
By the time Bluetooth and his partner made it to the end of the alley, the SUV was there behind them. “The driveway goes straight through,” Bluetooth grumbled.
“Get in,” the voice said.
“Smart.” Bluetooth glared at the driver.
“I was following your directions,” the driver answered.
“Tell that to my knee and ribs,” Bluetooth retorted, as he followed his partner into the back row of seats.
“Give it a rest,” the man in the front passenger seat said. His voice matched the one in Bluetooth’s ear. “Any guesses?”
“I think she was scared off course,” Bluetooth said. “I think she was heading back to T Street when Mario, here, almost ran her down.”
“Okay, I’ve had enough of—” the driver began.
“I said knock it off,” the passenger said. “Let’s go.”
It took a couple of blocks for her to get reoriented, but Paz finally saw more street signs. Her little deviation down the alley had turned her around, but at least she was heading south again. In the back of her mind, she had started to piece together the evening’s trip into the city, as well as a previous time she had come in with her family. She thought she needed to head south as well as west.
So, she turned onto the next street and followed it to where she mistook another alley for the corner. Finding it mainly a parking lot, she kept going and eventually made it to some kind of park or playground. She passed a deserted basketball court and then she was back on the street. It was another two-way with a median, and instead of heading east and west, it ran southwest.
Even before T Street became Florida Avenue, Bluetooth was second-guessing himself. They couldn’t be that far behind her. When asked which way to head on Florida, he told the driver to go east, since that matched the direction Paz had been going before the deviation at the intersection. He was sure she was trying to get as far away from the club as she could.
Meanwhile, the passenger was going through the intel by memory, searching for something they might have overlooked, anything that might inform them where Paz might be headed. The answers, one by one, came back negative. The only people she would know worked with her father, and they were all U.S. congressmen or their staff. There was also her uncle, Franklin, a three-term senator.
The likelihood that she would trust any of them was slim, however. Her father had been elected back in November but only recently sworn in this January. The Congressman and his brother―the Senator―were estranged at best. Congressman Kirkegaard had worked on a presidential campaign, but that had been years ago, and so far as anyone knew, the Congressman had not introduced either of his children to his old colleagues. Since that time, the Kirkegaard family had lived primarily in Bryan, Texas, and not in DC.
The only known relatives were her grandparents, and they lived in Virginia on a sprawling estate northwest of Fredericksburg. Paz, along with her mother and brother, were only in town because Congress was taking the next week off so the legislators could go back to their districts. The family had plans to tour the national memorials, monuments, and museums.by thefoolishandtheweak
“Turn right onto Rhode Island,” Bluetooth ordered.
“You got something?” the passenger asked.
The driver gave the passenger a quizzical look, wanting confirmation that he should continue following Bluetooth’s directions. He obviously thought they’d already lost Paz.
“She doesn’t know anyone here.” Bluetooth’s voice was subdued, and he sounded annoyed with himself. “She doesn’t even know her way around. She was putting distance between herself and the club. Now she’s trying to get to her grandparents’ place.”
“Do it,” the passenger told the driver.
Paz finally felt good about the direction she was taking. The soles of her feet were a little worn from running on concrete, but other than that, she seemed to be holding up pretty well. She hadn’t run like this since the college cross-country season ended in November. She had contemplated taking up track but had decided to dedicate spring term to her studies, as she had done her freshman year.
She made quick work of the few blocks in front of her before arriving at a roundabout. In the center of it was Logan Circle Park. The crosswalks were arranged such that she would first cross to a median and then into the park, so she followed the L-shape of the painted lines to get into the circle.
Her feet found relief in the grass as she bore down on a large, carved stone in the center of the circle that served as a pedestal for a statue of a horse and rider. It was a representation of Major General John A. Logan, and the depiction on the slab beneath the statue appeared to be some kind of swearing-in ceremony. She didn’t stop to study it but pressed on, enjoying the cool grass for as long as it lasted.
“There she is,” the driver said, just as Paz entered the park. He contemplated taking the SUV up the curb after her but did not, following the roundabout to the right.
“She’ll stay on Rhode Island,” Bluetooth predicted.
As they came around to P Street, a car moving into the roundabout forced them to slow down to avoid hitting it. As they did, they saw Paz reach the median and head to the opposite side of Rhode Island Avenue. That put her against traffic, which would make it harder for them to get to her.
“Slow down and stay behind her,” the passenger commanded, as if he were reading the driver’s mind. He could tell the driver was beyond ready to get this over with. He also knew he wasn’t the only one feeling that way. “We’ll cut her off at Fourteenth.”
Even though she was on the sidewalk, Paz felt compelled to cross the street so she could see the cars coming toward her. If nothing else, she could tell when one was approaching rather than being surprised from behind at the last minute. Now, completely wary of two-lane intersections, she slowed as she approached yet another one. Making sure there were no cars coming from any direction, she started to cross.
It wasn’t until then that she saw the 7-Eleven, and while she might have preferred a police station, it was the first open shop she had seen, and she hoped to convince the clerk to call her grandparents.
She had not yet reached the other side of the street when she heard the acceleration of an engine followed by the squealing of tires—for the second time that night. A dark SUV appeared out of nowhere, sliding to a halt between her and the curb.
“Get in,” someone yelled through the driver’s window.by thefoolishandtheweak
Now that you’ve had a taste of both the prologue and the first chapter, a quick analysis of the two could be in order.
They don’t seem to blend very well, do they?
Some readers have commented that they were led to believe the book would be more science fiction because of the prologue, but then chapter one takes a left turn into modern day, right in the middle of a kidnapping attempt.
A prologue is supposed to start the tale with an event that does not immediately jive with the ones related next. In some cases, time has passed, in other cases, you’re in a different part of the world, so it appears as if two disparate story lines exist that weave into one. Eventually, the two seemingly different stories meet.
Does it seem impossible that the characters and plot presented in the prologue could match up with what’s going on in chapter one?
Hopefully not. It might seem like the two times and places described are millennia and worlds apart, but they’re truly not. How so?
That, dear reader, is for us to know and you to find out!
In all seriousness, things do become clearer as the story unfolds. If you’d like a hint, we can compare what’s happening thus far with what might happen if a native from the deepest darkest part of the Amazon, or Africa, were to suddenly find themselves in New York City. Same world, same time period, but the experience would definitely be shocking and mind blowing for the native, now wouldn’t it?
With that in mind, we return you to your regularly scheduled reading of The Foolish and the Weak.by thefoolishandtheweak
Frozen in mortal terror, Paz stared at the vehicle. It looked familiar to her, and so was the voice, but neither seemed to register.
“Get in, Paz,” a second voice repeated the command, this time adding her name.
“Mom?” Paz headed toward the SUV and opened the rear door. As she did, the SUV’s dome light came on and she saw her mother’s serene face looking back at her from the passenger side.
“Hurry, Paz,” her mother urged.
“They’re coming,” the driver announced, glancing at the rearview mirror.
Before Paz was in and seated, the driver hit the gas pedal. Miraculously, she wasn’t thrown from the car, but into the seat, and the door slammed behind her.
“Please fasten your seat belt and hold on,” her mother said.
Paz, barely getting the latch on the belt locked, twisted around to see another SUV bearing down on them. It had been the first time she’d looked behind her since she’d left the club. Had it been following her the whole time? A sense of panic struck her.
For a split second, she thought it was Brad in the SUV. He had followed her after all! But the vehicle wasn’t right, and she didn’t recognize either of the two men in front.
Wild-eyed, Paz turned back to her mother, who was also looking over her shoulder.
“Who are they?” Paz asked.
“We don’t know, but they’ve been following you since the club.” Despite the words her mother said, her tone was calm. “We’re going to lose them.”
Their pursuers were so close, Paz didn’t know how her mother planned to do that, but she was too frightened to ask. She knew they were exceeding the speed limit for the area, but their driver was also using a lot of caution. Paz tried to watch where they were headed while keeping a nervous eye on the SUV following them.
They ran the light and zoomed by a church on their right. For a brief moment, it dawned on Paz that there were landmarks here she would like to see, but not when they were running for their lives. Her gaze fell upon the digital clock in the SUV’s dash—11:19 p.m. Paz shook her head in disbelief. What had felt like an eternity of wandering around had not even been thirty minutes.
They came upon another stoplight, but this one was green and they entered into another, smaller roundabout. “Hold on,” the driver warned. He gunned it into the curve, maintaining the outside lane. As they flew by the entrances from adjoining streets, they reached the halfway point, where they narrowly avoided being sideswiped by a car trying to gain access from a feeder street. Paz couldn’t help but scream as their SUV swerved, and then she screamed again as she heard the horrible shriek of rending metal, breaking glass, and burning tires.by thefoolishandtheweak
Their pursuers had smashed head-on into the driver’s side of the car they had just missed, right at its wheel well. Time seemed to slow. The force of the crash spun the other car back, and Paz was close enough to see the driver and front passenger of the pursuing SUV lurch forward just before the airbags deployed. Then their images fell away as Paz, her mother, and their driver sped on. They completed the roundabout full-circle to return the way they had come.
“Everyone all right?” Bluetooth asked as he felt the gash on his forehead. Groans from three different sections of the SUV served as his answer. Having already undone his seat belt, he pushed at the door and stumbled out. He didn’t bother to see how the passengers in the other car were. The mission had been blown, and now it was every man for himself.
Paz was surprised to see they were actually retracing her route. After turning right onto Rhode Island Avenue, they entered Logan Circle but went right on around to pick up Rhode Island on the other side. A few minutes later, they turned onto First Street and followed it up past Bryant.
About mid-block, they stopped in front of what looked like a recently restored home, only it was much larger than either building flanking it, and a sign on the base of the porch read: Bloomingdale Inn.
Since their escape, no one had said a word. The only sounds had come from the engine and road noise. Still rattled, Paz jumped when her mother told her to get out.
“We’re staying here?” Paz asked, as she slid over the seat to the curbside door.
“Just for the night,” her mother replied. “Thanks, Colin,” she said to the driver.
Colin? Only then did Paz realize their driver was also her father’s head of security, Colin Haynes.
“I’ll let the Congressman know you are safe, and see if we can ID who was trailing Paz,” he said, “and I’ll be back to pick you up tomorrow at—”
“Make it eleven,” her mother said.
“Good night, ma’am, Paz.”
“Good night,” Paz and her mother said together.
Paz started to shiver. The perspiration on her skin had cooled and the temperature outside wasn’t helping. She didn’t move, though, transfixed by the taillights of the SUV.
“Why don’t you call Dad?”
Her mother was already on the porch. “Let’s get in out of the cold.”
The two didn’t talk much after that. They were greeted by the night desk clerk, who addressed her mother as Ms. Reyes—her maiden name—and then they went up to the second floor to their room. Named the Chita Rivera, it was elegantly furnished with a four-poster queen-size bed and a crystal chandelier. Her mother’s overnight bag was already there, sitting open in a corner.
Paz expected her mother to say something about her disobedience and nearly getting kidnapped, but she didn’t. Instead, she told her to go take a shower and handed Paz her favorite pajamas to change into.
As Paz washed away the grime and perspiration, she felt her muscles finally relax under the heat of the spray. It wasn’t until then that she realized just how tense she was. She stood for several moments, letting the warmth and the sensation of the water jets pound against the back of her shoulders, neck, and head. She tried to reflect on the events of the evening, to make sense of what had transpired, but she was distracted by how good the shower felt, and soon became drowsy. It took extra effort to finish her shower, towel off, and get dressed.
After blow-drying her hair, she walked back into the main room. Her mother was already in bed and looked like she had fallen asleep. She had turned off all the lights except for a small lamp on an antique secretary desk. On its fold-down writing surface sat a bottle of Gatorade. Paz twisted off the cap and gulped down the liquid.
The bottle emptied, she put it back and turned off the lamp.
Paz slipped into bed next to her mother and heard her murmur sleepily, “Good night, Paz.”
“Good night, Mom.”by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz awoke to the sound of running water, a not-so-unpleasant way, she decided, to be brought out of a satisfying, restful sleep. She sat up, noted her mother was no longer beside her, and assumed that she was the one running the water in the bathroom. Wondering what time it was, Paz checked the room’s digital alarm clock—9:15 a.m.
Stretching, she flopped back down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. This really was a nice place, she thought, and the bed was way comfortable. The events of the previous night began to filter in, but the luxuriousness of the bed prevented them from dampening her mood.
Her mother had not yet had any discussion with Paz about last night, or her disobedience. Of course, it had been late; they had just survived a rather harrowing experience, and little was known about her would-be kidnappers. However, Paz knew her mother could answer all kinds of questions. For starters, when did her mother know she was gone and how did her mother and Colin manage to locate her, just in the nick of time?
Then, there would be other queries. Why didn’t her mother call Dad last night instead of Colin’s offering to do it? Why did she use her maiden name, Reyes, rather than her married name, Kirkegaard? As far as Paz knew, her mother had never done that before. She might seem strange in a lot of ways, but she was nothing but a traditionalist when it came to whose last name she used.
Had her parents argued while she was gone? The question fit the circumstances, but it would be completely out of character for the both of them. Her parents didn’t have fights. They rarely even disagreed with each other.
How many people had commented to her how happy they seemed together? The public image, oddly enough, wasn’t that much different from the private one. She was told that wasn’t normal, mainly by her best friend back home in Texas, Madison Townsend.
Paz had made some comment one time about how nice Maddy’s parents were. The conversation had come about because Maddy, again, had brought up what she saw was a strange effect Paz’s mother had on people. “It’s not natural,” Maddy had insisted. “People aren’t that nice.”
“Your parents are nice to me,” Paz said.
“To you, but that’s just for show. They fight and they yell at us all the time. The smiles come on when they’re around other people. Otherwise, they’re at each other like cats and dogs.”
“My parents aren’t like that,” Paz said. “What you see, is what you get.”
“I know.” Maddy looked crestfallen. “It’s weird.”
Paz laughed. “There must be other parents like mine.”
“Not that I know of. All my friends at school say their parents are just like mine.” Maddy paused and her eyes took on a distant look. “I’ve met some of them during sleepovers and such. Oh, they’re nice enough to the guests in front of their faces, but behind their backs, it’s another story.”
Maddy had a funny way of talking sometimes, especially when she was passionate about something. It was endearing, but it made Paz laugh again.
“Oh, fighting over how long us girls should stay up. Trying to confine us to a certain part of the house or to only eat a certain amount of snacks. It’s all quite petty, if you ask me.”
“I guess I haven’t slept over that much,” Paz said, a big grin on her face.
That was true. She’d spent the night at Maddy’s house a couple of times when it had been just the two of them, but that was about it. Paz and her brother, Thomas, had been homeschooled, though she had participated on the local high school’s cross-country team. That’s where she had met Maddy. Paz didn’t have that many friends, though. Fortunately, she and Maddy had hit it off well enough, and while it wasn’t generally a sleepover, they did spend quite a bit of time together.
“You’re not missing out,” Maddy said sullenly.
“I still say my mom isn’t all that different from other moms.”
“Believe me, she is.” Maddy started to play with her golden locks. “Did you see the way she handled Mrs. Donahue yesterday?”by thefoolishandtheweak
“Yeah.” Paz thought back to the day before, trying to figure out what had been so special about the interaction between the neighbor and her mother. She wasn’t even really sure what the conversation had been about, other than it had to do with something her father had written in an editorial.
“Mrs. Donahue was all up in her face, practically spitting on her. Your mother just smiled and talked to her for a while, and the next thing you know, they’re the best of friends.”
“What’s so weird about that?”
“My mom would have pulled her hair and scratched her eyes out if Mrs. Donahue had pounded on the door and demanded to speak with her like that.”
“No way.” Paz shook her head. She took some mischievous delight in imagining what a fight between Mrs. Donahue and Maddy’s mom would look like.
“I tell you, it’s true.” Maddy was insistent.
“Okay, so what if it is? How is my mom so weird?”
“How old is your mom?” Maddy asked, seemingly avoiding the question.
“My mom is only thirty-six.”
Paz didn’t see where her friend was going with their mothers’ ages. “So?”
“Your mom looks way younger. There are times where, I swear, she doesn’t look that much older than you.”
Paz had been fourteen at the time. To say her mother looked like a teenager was a stretch, but it was hard to deny her mother looked young. People who didn’t know her had mistakenly guessed she was an older sister. That was particularly true as Paz got older. Paz thought her mother had looked like she was in her mid-to-late twenties. She still did, even now.
“Your dad, though,” Maddy continued, “looks like he’s twice as old as your mother.”
That, too, was true. Paz’s father was three years younger than her mother, but he looked his age―maybe even a little older―because of his receding hairline. When the two were together, he looked like her father.
“So, my mom looks young.”
“She doesn’t use makeup.” Maddy offered more evidence. “She doesn’t exfoliate, she’s not vegan, she doesn’t exercise, and she doesn’t eat little green beetles.”
Apparently, Maddy felt all those things could account for the youthful appearance of Paz’s mother. Paz didn’t know if all of that was actually proof of anything, particularly the bugs, but it was true. Her mother did nothing to preserve herself.
“Maybe she’s found the fountain of youth,” Paz joked.
“She is the fountain of youth.” Maddy’s eyes narrowed. “You’d tell me if she sucked blood, right?”
Paz grinned. “She’s not a vampire, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“There’s only one explanation, then.”
“She doesn’t age. She can make people who are spitting mad become happy. Your parents never fight …” Maddy left the last sentence hanging and gestured with her hands as if the evidence she laid out should lead Paz to a logical, if not obvious, conclusion.
“Your mom is a witch.” Maddy looked straight at Paz as she said it.
Paz could tell Maddy was dead serious, too. She also expected Paz to agree with her. When Paz didn’t reply, but just sat there staring and looking stunned, Maddy added, “Oh, she’d be a good witch, mind you.”
Paz struggled to stifle her laughter. Maddy was so convinced and so matter-of-fact with her expression and her tone, but the words that came out of her mouth were so nonsensical and so impossible, the combination was utterly hilarious. Somehow, Paz managed to keep a straight face.
“You okay?” Maddy asked.
Paz bit her lip. “You’ve been reading too much Twilight.”
“That’s about vampires and werewolves,” Maddy said. “Harry Potter would be a more apt analogy.”
Paz shook her head. “Seriously, my mom is not a witch.”
“I don’t want to believe it, either, but what else could it be?”by thefoolishandtheweak
One way or another, there’s something going on with Paloma Kirkegaard. Her youthful appearance is undeniable, and her way with people is quite unique, as Maddy so emphatically points out.
Would it surprise you, dear reader, if Paloma did turn out be a witch? Or an alien? Or some other fanciful fantasy creature?
Probably not, since everyone’s a vampire, werewolf or trill these days. Or for that matter, a superhero of some sort, suped up with cosmic rays, gamma rays, or just good ol’ fashioned nondescript radiation.
And couple that with the idea that being nice all the time is not only impossible, but downright creepy, if not pure evil, well, it’s not hard to see how Maddy could draw her conclusions, now is it?
What’s more peculiar to us, however, is that our teen protagonist, Paz, seems more concerned with how her mother was able to locate her and the strange use of her maiden name at the inn (thus the memory of her conversation with Maddy) than she is with who was just trying to kidnap her and why. You’d think Paz would be way more fixated on that, but alas, she’s not.
Not yet, anyway.
Ah, to be young and blissfully unaware.by thefoolishandtheweak
Startled from her reverie, Paz looked up. Her mother had come out of the bathroom in her white terry cloth robe combing her shoulder-length, honey-colored hair.
“Are you hungry?” Her mother peered at Paz through thick, silky tresses.
“Starving.” Paz suddenly realized that dinner had been at five o’clock the previous evening, and she hadn’t eaten a lot.
“They serve a Continental breakfast here. Or, I think we can use their kitchen if you don’t like what you see.”
Still stroking her hair, her mother disappeared into the bathroom.
Paz took that as her cue to get dressed. Already laid out at the foot of the bed was a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, a change of underwear, and anklets she recognized as hers. While she changed, her thoughts returned to Maddy.
She hadn’t seen her friend lately. They’d chosen to go to different colleges. Paz went to a community college for her core classes; Maddy had enrolled straight to Texas A&M University. Paz would catch up with her next year. In the meantime, they did try to see one another as much as possible on holidays and breaks, but there always seemed to be family things and other interests getting in the way―like this two-week trip to Washington, DC, for instance.
Paz and her family had attended her dad’s swearing-in ceremony back in January, since he was the new U.S. Representative for the 37th Congressional District of Texas. The duration of that trip, however, had amounted to a couple of days. She and Thomas had mainly spent the time with their grandparents while their parents attended social events.
This latest trip was intended to reunite Paz’s family and give them an opportunity to poke around the nation’s capital. Naturally, neither Paz nor Thomas had been all that thrilled about it, though they did like to visit their grandparents, and both missed their dad. Still, it was cooler to say, “I’m going to South Padre Island” or “I’m going to Cancun” whenever someone would ask, “You going anywhere?” Washington, DC didn’t evoke nearly the same reaction. “Oh, that’s nice,” was usually the response.
That, more than anything―a feeling of missing out―had compelled Paz to go against her mother’s wishes and go with a guy she barely knew to a club she’d never been to in a city she didn’t know. She was nineteen, she had reasoned. For a lot of things, she was already considered an adult. She didn’t need others telling her what to do.
There had been other bouts of independence leading up to last night’s sneaking away, but unlike some of the others, this particular foray had not turned out anything like Paz believed it would. Instead, it had only validated her mother’s wisdom. She could admit that to herself, but was Paz ready to admit that out loud to her mother?
Paz had just finished tying the laces on her sneakers she’d found lying next to the bed when her mother reemerged from the bathroom wearing a blouse with a skirt that was very bright, with red, orange, and yellow flowers on a white background. She loved flowers, and the vibrant colors went well with her naturally tanned skin and her youthful appearance.
Even that’s strange about her, Paz thought. The only time her mother wore pants was to work in the yard or perform some other manual labor. Otherwise, she preferred a skirt.
“Ready?” her mother asked, heading for the door. Paz didn’t answer but followed her out.
The spread before them in the dining area downstairs was better than the normal Continental breakfast found elsewhere. At this point, it could have been the worst and Paz would have eaten it, she was so hungry. This surprised her since she didn’t normally eat a big breakfast, but something about her adventure last night made her body want to load up. So, she grabbed some scrambled eggs, bacon, yogurt, and some fruit while she waited for her waffle to cook, which she coated with real butter and a healthy dousing of maple syrup. She downed it all with milk and orange juice.
“You weren’t kidding when you said you were starving,” her mother said. She’d eaten some oatmeal with cinnamon-sugar and a piece of toast with jam and was finishing off her hot cocoa while she watched Paz eat.
“I promise, I’m not pregnant,” Paz said between bites.
Her mother didn’t respond, but the smile on her face faded a bit.by thefoolishandtheweak
When they got back to the room, it was almost ten thirty. Her mother gathered their dirty clothes and placed them in a bag the inn provided. She tucked it neatly away in her travel bag. After assuring herself that she had picked up everything, she turned to Paz, who was sitting on the bed.
“Colin is going to be getting us soon,” her mother said. “I think we should talk a little about last night before he arrives.”
“Me or you?” her mother asked. She wondered which of them should start the conversation.
“Okay.” Her mother paused. “Your father and I were extremely worried about you.”
“I know, and I’m sorry.” Paz decided there was no use being proud. She’d been chiding herself since the night before. “I disobeyed you, I lied, and then you had to come all this way to rescue me.”
“You’re not a little girl anymore, Paz. You haven’t been for quite some time. I hope you’ve noticed that I’ve been trying to treat you as an adult.”
“You have.” Paz realized it was true. She had much more independence now than when she was younger.
“Okay, so can you explain to me why you decided you should sneak out without telling anyone where you were going?”
“Other than I was being childish? No … I did want to go to the club, and I thought I liked Brad, but—”
“Did he hurt you?”
Paz thought she saw something flash in her mother’s eyes. Concern? Anger? Despair? She couldn’t tell but settled on a combination of them all.
“No, but he did grab me on the rump. He wanted to do more, but I slapped his hand away and told him to stop. Then he tried to grab me again, and I kicked him in the …” Her voice trailed off as a grin came to her face. “He dropped to the floor and I ran out.”
“So he has your pouch with your ID, phone, et cetera?”
Paz nodded. “I think so. It came off my neck when he grabbed for me. I don’t know for sure. My jacket was left with the coat check girl.”
“And the claim ticket is―”
“In my pouch.” Paz nodded again.
Her mother sat down next to Paz on the edge of the bed and leaned in to take hold of Paz’s hands with her own. Paz felt their warmth and softness.
“I’m not mad at you, Paz. I’m not even disappointed. You’re the best daughter a mother could hope for, and I don’t want anything to ever happen to you. I know I can’t protect you forever, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to at least try.”
Paz knew exactly what the glistening in her mother’s eyes was about.
“I want you to protect me,” she said. “I do. I just started feeling sorry for myself that I wasn’t going someplace cool. It was stupid. As it is, Brad and his friends got drunk. It wasn’t fun at all. It wasn’t anything like I wanted it to be, and I’ll make sure to be more up front and honest next time.”
Her mother smiled. “You’re not making this very hard on me.”
“I was pretty mad with myself last night. I did a lot of running around because I was an idiot.”
“About that,” her mother said, ready to move on, “you really didn’t know you were being followed?”
Paz shook her head. “Not a clue. I thought maybe Brad or someone else might come after me, but I made sure to get away from the club as fast as I could, and I didn’t look back. When I wasn’t caught, I thought I was safe.”
“I don’t think the kids you rode in with made it out. There was a drug bust.”
“We heard it on Colin’s police scanner. Since you had asked if you could go there, it was the first place we had intended to check.”by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz was dumbfounded. How was that possible? She hadn’t seen a single police officer, but they couldn’t have arrived much after she left.
“How did you know to even go looking for me?”
Paz’s plan had been rather elaborate. She had come up with it after her mother told her she couldn’t go with Brad to Feral. On one of Paz’s trips to stay with her grandparents, she met a girl named Shelby, who lived down the road less than a mile. Yesterday, about seven in the evening, Paz told her mother she wanted to go for a walk. While she was out, she planned to see if Shelby was home. Paz would call her mother if the girl was there. She did actually walk to the girl’s house, but Paz never knocked on the door. Instead, she kept walking down the road and then called her mother and told her the girl was home. She said Shelby had invited her to spend the night so they could do some catching up.
Her grandparents had allowed her to do so a couple times before, and Paz said she thought it would be fun to reminisce. After a brief consultation with her grandmother, her mother had said okay.
Paz kept walking. A few minutes later, she arrived at the bottom of the hill at Stengel, the main road that wound back into Fredericksburg. As she got there, Brad arrived with two of his friends and two other girls. Somehow, they all managed to fit in his late-model Camaro. Because parking would be sparse at Feral, Brad drove to a train station so they could take the metro into the city. After the concert, they would take the last train out, get the car, and then head home to drop off Paz sometime around one in the morning, when she was pretty sure everyone would be asleep. Her grandparents had a pretty comfortable loft in their barn and she figured she could get some rest up there and then show up in the house later that morning.
“I realized after you hung up, that you hadn’t taken a change of clothes,” her mother said. “No big deal, I suppose, but when I called back and you didn’t answer your phone, I waited and called again―still, there was no answer. I wanted to call Shelby, but your grandma didn’t know her last name and wasn’t even sure of her address, so I decided I’d go over there with the pretext of bringing you something to wear.”
“After I called, I turned the ringer off.” Paz apologized. “I didn’t even look at my phone to see if someone had called me.”
“Shelby’s family doesn’t even live there anymore. Apparently, the house was sold three months ago to some other extended family members. Your grandparents didn’t know that because the house was never put on the market.”
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
“I know. I need to tell you this, though; it’s not just about you. That would be bad enough, but we think this also involves your father.”
Paz stiffened. “Dad?”
“Why? Did he do something wrong?”
“He got elected as an Independent to the U.S. House of Representatives. That, in and of itself, puts him in the crosshairs of many people in Washington.”
“Enough to kidnap me?” Paz was incredulous. “But how would they even know I was going to―” She stopped speaking because a thought popped into her head, one that was absolutely unbelievable.
“Brad may have been in on it,” her mother said. It was as if she were reading Paz’s mind.
Paz closed her eyes. How was that even possible? She had met Brad purely by chance.
“Colin plans to check on Brad to find out if he was arrested or detained at the club, and then try to talk to him. It’s the only way the men chasing you could have known you’d come into the city. Even if Brad isn’t involved, there has to be some kind of connection.”
Paz felt shell-shocked. She was mad at Brad for what he tried to do at Feral, yes, but this? A plot to kidnap her wasn’t something done impulsively under the influence of alcohol. It was cold, calculating, and coordinated, which meant that everything he said to her had been a lie, a means to lure her to the club, so they…
No, it couldn’t be. It just couldn’t. Brad had been so genuine—a kindred soul. Caught up in denial and disbelief, Paz’s memory tugged her back to their first encounter.by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz had to lean back to look at the young man who introduced himself. Lanky, he was an inch over six feet tall. Paz was not. Barely five-foot, she found herself looking up to most people, including her brother and her mother.
Her mother was just under six feet tall. Her father, who was of Danish descent, was six-foot-four, and her brother, Thomas, three years younger than Paz, was well on his way to passing them all.
“Paz,” she replied. She and Brad stood across from one another at the food table, where she picked her way through vegetables and chips. The occasion was a birthday party for the grandson of a distant neighbor of her grandparents. Except for them and her family members present, she knew no one, which included Brad, who had a look on his own face of being out of place.
“Do you know anyone here?” Brad’s question confirmed what Paz had guessed.
“My grandparents live up the road.” Paz waved toward a white-haired couple sitting at the end of the covered picnic area. “I’m visiting with my mother and brother.”
Brad smiled. “My aunt talked me into coming. Then she got sick.”
“So, you came alone?” Paz was surprised. Brad didn’t seem the type who would feel obligated to fulfill a relative’s wishes.
Brad shrugged. “She’s my aunt. She raised me, pretty much … long story. Anyway, someone had to bring the kid his present.”
“That was nice of you.”
“No big deal. It’s not like I had anything better to do.”
Paz finished selecting her food and turned to go sit with her family. As she did, Brad came up beside her. “Do you mind if I sit with you?”
Paz glanced back over to the table where her family was sitting, which was already crowded. There would be room for her, but that was about it.
“Go ahead and find a spot for the two of us,” she said. “I’ll go tell them I’m sitting with you.”
Brad nodded and went to look for a place. Paz drew a breath. She wasn’t used to having boys talk to her, let alone offer to sit with her. She didn’t know why that was, exactly, other than she had not attended public school, and, therefore, hadn’t had as many opportunities to meet boys.
That, however, was changing. In her second year attending a community college, more young men were starting to take notice of her. Unfortunately, most of them she just couldn’t get into.
“Is that all you’re going to eat?” Grandma Kirkegaard asked. She had a look of worry on her face. “There’s plenty of food here.”
Paz shrugged. “I’m not that hungry.”
“Sit down here by your grandpa,” her grandmother entreated. Under her breath she added, “Move over, Grandpa.”
Her grandfather scrunched a little more, but there just wasn’t that much more to go. “Here you go, Paz,” he said warmly.
“Oh, it’s okay. There’s a guy over there named Brad. He’s by himself and I said I’d sit with him.” She looked at her mother, flashing her an exaggerated smile that was more pleading than an expression of happiness.
Her mother craned her neck to look in the direction of where Brad was and then glanced at Paz’s grandmother. “We’re your guests, Ann,” she said.
“Oh, that’s okay with me,” Grandma Kirkegaard said. “We’ll have lots of time to talk.”
“Thanks,” Paz said, turning.
“We’ll be leaving after the cake,” her mother called after her.
Brad was twenty-one—almost twenty-two—and had moved to Virginia to live with his aunt when he was twelve. His parents had divorced and his father had won custody, promptly sending Brad off to a private school. Instead of living on campus, his Aunt Carolyn, his mother’s sister, took him in, which allowed his mother to visit him from Illinois when she was able to get away and scrape up enough money for the trip.
Now in college, he spent most of his time studying or working, so he didn’t have a whole lot of free time. He had some friends at college who were trying to persuade him to go into DC to a dance club. Normally, he’d say no, but he didn’t have any homework and he didn’t have to work Saturday night.
“That sounds like fun,” Paz said, when Brad paused to take a sip of his Coke.
“I guess,” he replied, not so enthusiastically. “They say the music is good, and there are all kinds of people there.”
“Is your aunt cool with it?” Paz immediately wished she hadn’t asked. She was probably the only one on the planet who was over eighteen and still had to ask her parents for permission.by thefoolishandtheweak
“Oh, she’s all behind it. She thinks I should get out more. Meet more people—more girls.”
“You don’t sound so thrilled.”
“I don’t have anyone to take.”
Whether it was the thought there was someone else like her, who just hadn’t had many offers to go out, or his expression, which wasn’t desperation but more resignation, words that Paz normally wouldn’t speak came flying out of her mouth before she could think about them. “I’ll go with you.”
Brad gave Paz a funny look.
“That is, if you want me to.”
“Oh, yeah … sure,” Brad said. “That would be great. What about your family? You must have plans?”
“Oh, yeah … plans.” Paz propped her elbow on the table and then put her chin on her palm. Her whole body seemed to sag. “We’re touring the Capitol and the White House.”
Brad tried to hold back but broke out laughing. He smiled at Paz. “Sorry, now you’re the one who doesn’t look thrilled.”
“All the people I know at school were going to a beach somewhere—without their family—for Spring Break.”
“It’s good to have family.” Brad said.
Paz heard a hint of sadness in his voice. “I know, but at some point, it’s nice to be on your own, doing what you want to do.” She didn’t know why she was being so open with her emotions with a stranger, but even though their lives and circumstances were clearly different, she felt as if Brad were a kindred spirit, someone who could understand her.
“I guess you don’t get out much, either?” he asked.
“I’m the last one to give advice on that. There’s certainly nothing wrong with working hard and staying out of trouble. It pays off in the end.”
“I know. Life doesn’t need to be one big party.”
“There needs to be some balance.”
“My aunt says that all the time.”
“Then, let’s go to the club.” Again, Paz blurted out the words before she could think about them. What was going on? She’d never done anything like this before. There was just something about Brad that attracted Paz. It didn’t hurt that he was easy to look at, but this was something that seemed to work despite his handsome, self-assured exterior. Besides, what was wrong with her taking the initiative? She could set up the date, right? If she didn’t, who would?
“Are you sure? Shouldn’t you ask?”
Paz ignored his question. “You know where Stengel Road is?”
“You can pick me up at the bottom of the hill.” Before Brad could say anything else, Paz got up. “I’ll be there at seven fifteen, Saturday night.”
Brad grinned. “Thanks.”
“Paz, are you okay?” her mother asked. They had fallen into silence. “I know you like Brad …”
“Brad is a jerk. I don’t ever want to see him again.”
Just then, the hotel room phone rang. Paz’s mother got up and answered it. “We’ll be right down…. We’ll carry them.” She hung up the phone and headed over to the suitcases. “Colin is here.”
Paz glanced at the alarm clock. It was now ten fifty. As usual, Colin was early, and Paz wanted to talk more.
“Paz?” her mother asked, when she didn’t move.
“How did you find me?”
Her mother took a step toward the bed. “We went to the club and saw the police officers. As we drove past, Colin noticed police searching an SUV on a side street. Nothing out of the ordinary there, but the men in suits didn’t look like clubgoers. They looked like Colin. When they were detained and later released, Colin had a hunch they might be after you, so we followed them.”
That’s an awfully thin hunch, Paz thought. They could have been there for all kinds of reasons. She couldn’t think of any offhand, but there were men in suits all over DC. Some other congressman’s daughter, accompanied by bodyguards, could have been there, for that matter.
“So, they’re security?” Paz wasn’t sure what the proper term was. This was insane, she thought. Nothing like this had ever happened to her. Now it was happening just because her father was a congressman who wasn’t a Republican or a Democrat?
“Something … FBI, CIA, hired professionals of some kind. Colin thinks they were pretty good.”
“Then, why didn’t they catch me?” Of it all, that seemed the most incredible. She hadn’t been trying to elude them. She didn’t even know she should!
“Someone was watching over you,” her mother said with a wondrous smile. She held out a hand. “Shall we?”
Still stunned and not sure what to think, Paz took her mother’s hand, and together, they went downstairs.by thefoolishandtheweak
Quite the head scratcher brewing here, eh?
Someone, using a seasoned security team, is trying to kidnap Paz. That’s about all that is known at this point.
No who. No why. Except, maybe, whoever it is wants to get to Congressman George Kirkegaard through his daughter, Paz.
Whoever is behind all this, they know things only members of the Kirkegaard family should know. And somehow, they were able to get at Paz with the one thing she was most vulnerable: a tall, handsome, sensitive-seeming guy.
Paz is like most teenage girls. She wants to date boys. She wants to have fun. She wants to eventually find the right one and fall in love. Is that truly too much to ask?
Normally, we’d say no. Lying, scheming, going against the will of her parents. That’s another story.
Fortunately, for her, as her mother, Paloma, notes, someone was watching over her. Under normal circumstances, Bluetooth and his compatriots would have scooped her up and spirited her away without a trace.
But, a surprise raid at Feral by DC police scared Bluetooth and his partner into inaction. Then, despite not knowing anything about navigating DC streets, Paz was able to outwit everyone who was after her. In fact, she made them look like amateurs.
So, obviously, a lot is going on here than what has been revealed.
One thing you can count on is that the security team members after Paz aren’t happy about being made to look like chumps.
They’re not done yet, not by a longshot, and they won’t be underestimating Paz and her family again.by thefoolishandtheweak
“Cantwell has disappeared.”
After loading her mother’s travel bag in the trunk of a silver Buick LaCrosse, Colin held doors for Paz and her mother and then settled his six-foot-two, two hundred twenty-pound frame behind the wheel. They took a circuitous route to ensure no one was following them. They were finally heading out of DC when Paz’s mother asked for a debriefing.
Brad’s full name, Colin said, was Bradley Darren Cantwell. According to the information officer at the DC police department, several Feral patrons had been detained, including Brad. He was not in possession of a controlled substance, and according to the officers who spoke with Brad, he was responsive and polite during questioning. He was told he should remain available in case they needed to contact him, but the phone number he left was disconnected.
“Does disappearing equate to involvement?” Paz’s mother asked.
“Not necessarily,” Colin replied, “but it’s still suspicious.”
“What about Paz’s pursuers?”
“They’ve all disappeared, too. Emergency crews were on scene to that wreck within ten minutes, the police shortly thereafter. No one was in the SUV.”
“Earlier, at the club … anything in the police report about them?”
“Actually, yes,” Colin said. “They were cleared.”
“They said they were advance scouts for a federal official whose daughter wanted to attend the club. They were looking into security measures. Their story apparently checked out.”
“Did they say which official?”
“So, how did the police clear them?”
“The agents gave them a number. When the police called it, it rang into the Capitol building’s switchboard and then automatically transferred to an undisclosed agency’s after-hours answering service. The operator vouched for them―even gave the officer a reference number in case he wished to call back.”
“Did anyone do it?”
“They did. So did I, just before coming to get you. The number rings in to the switchboard, but I was left on hold for thirty minutes. DC police had a similar experience.”
Paz’s mother sighed. “What about the plate?”
“Federal motor pool,” Colin stated.
“Okay, so some official’s security detail was out checking a venue while they were also attempting to kidnap Paz?”
“There are at least a couple layers to this,” Colin replied. “It could be the two ops―the scouting and the kidnapping―were totally unrelated. That would give the official plausible deniability if he were found out, and it would give the security detail an out in case they were stopped.”
“So, these security officers could have been working for two different clients?”by thefoolishandtheweak
“Were the people in the other car okay?” Paz asked, when Colin and her mother fell silent.
“They were taken to the hospital, but both are expected to leave this afternoon,” Colin said.
That helped Paz feel a little better. It was bad enough she had been the target of a kidnapping attempt. She didn’t need anyone dying or seriously injured because of it.
“So, we don’t know anything more than what we did last night.” Paz’s mother closed her eyes and shook her head. “What did George say when you told him all of this?”
George was Paz’s father.
“He wants to go public.”
“But you don’t think that’s wise,” Paz’s mother said.
Colin nodded. “At this point, we don’t know who we’re dealing with. If I’m going to find out anything, it’ll have to happen behind the scenes and off the record.”
“So, what do we do in the meantime, to keep it from happening again while you investigate?”
“I think the best thing to do is to lay low.”
“Just like Brad,” Paz mused.
It was hard to tell if Colin had gotten any sleep. As she listened to him brief her mother on what he knew, Paz had to wonder. If he hadn’t slept, there was no hint in either his voice or his demeanor. He seemed to be as sharp as ever.
Sometime that morning, via a secure line, Colin and her father had discussed what to do. They both agreed that coming back to the Kirkegaard estate was not a good idea. They also decided her brother and father should leave immediately, without telling Paz’s grandparents where the two were headed. Paz felt a twinge of sadness that she wouldn’t be able to say good-bye to Grandma and Grandpa K., but she also felt a greater sense of relief. She didn’t know what she would do if something happened to them.
Apparently, the entire plan had not yet been fleshed out. Paz’s family and Colin would meet up at a hotel in Durham, North Carolina, where they would plan their next move. One thing was certain, however. Spending the week in DC was no longer an option.
At this point, neither was going home. They would need to avoid obvious places for now.
As the miles rolled by, Paz’s mind began to work on what she thought were plausible outcomes. What if they never found out who these people were who wanted to kidnap her? Her family couldn’t run and hide forever. Her father was a congressman. He couldn’t just leave and never come back. Besides, that would essentially give the bad guys what they wanted, wouldn’t it? If their intent were simply to intimidate or silence her father for whatever they thought he might do as a representative, making him go into hiding accomplished that pretty well.
If this was what politics was all about, Paz hated it. Why her father had ever wanted to run for office, she didn’t know.
As they drove on, Paz tried to stay awake to watch where they were going, but after Colin filled them in on what he knew, the car became quiet. With nothing to do, her mind started to wander, and after a while, she nodded off.by thefoolishandtheweak
“George Kirkegaard, U.S. Congress.”
It was February, last year. A stack of red and blue yard signs sat in a box in their living room. Paz had pulled one out to look at it.
“It has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it?” Her mother peered over her shoulder, smiling.
“You should be running,” Paz said, as she put the sign back. “You’re the one the people like to see.” With her hands, she gestured the words of her mother’s name, as if they were going up on a billboard. “Paloma Cruz Reyes, U.S. House of Representatives.”
Her mother—Paloma—served as both her father’s campaign manager and spokeswoman. She hoped it was temporary, until more donations came in and they could actually afford someone, but she was good at both jobs, and people responded to her astonishingly well.
“I’m not a politician,” her mother answered. “Besides, it should say Paloma Kirkegaard.”
“Dad isn’t a politician, either. In fact, he’s pretty bad at campaigning. And a lot of women use their maiden names, even after they’re married. Your maiden name is more powerful. You’d carry the Hispanic vote, no problem.”
Her mother brushed off the compliment. “If I can help your father get elected, then I will, but I’m not running. And so far as your dad’s campaigning is concerned, he doesn’t tell people what they want to hear. He tells them what they need to know. Most people want to know what the government will do for them. He tells them what they should do for themselves.”
“Is that why he’s not a Republican?”
“No. There are good people in both parties, just as there are not-so-good people in both parties. Your dad doesn’t want to owe favors to anyone, which means no party affiliation for him—not even official Tea Party backing. It’s a hard way to go. That’s why we’re starting now, even though he won’t be a part of the primaries.”
“I just can’t get into it.” Paz sat down heavily on the couch and took a bite of her oatmeal cornflake cookie, still warm and moist and the cinnamon just right.
“I know,” her mother said, as she sat down next to her. “No one expects you to. In fact, the less you and Thomas are a part of it, the better. But you did say you were okay if Dad did this.”
“I know. I’ll figure it out.”
“If he wins, and there is no guarantee he will, our lives will change. And not necessarily for the better.”
“Then, why do it?”
“Someone has to—your father feels that he’s needed.”
“Do you?” Paz took another bite of her cookie.
“I wouldn’t have said yes to all of this if I didn’t. This isn’t the first time he and I have been around campaigns.”
“Neither of you had children then,” Paz said. “Oh, sorry.” She added the apology when she saw her mother’s expression, a bittersweet look that sometimes came over her.
“It’s okay. It was a long time ago. You know my life was very different when I was younger. I don’t want you repeating my mistakes.”
That was hard to do, Paz thought, if she didn’t know what the mistakes were. She knew her mother had aborted a child when she was fifteen and had given up another child through adoption when she was sixteen. But other than that, Paz knew very little about that period of her mother’s life.
“Don’t worry,” Paz said. “I can’t get pregnant if boys don’t even look at me.”
“A lot of boys look at you—too many look at you.”
“Just the ones who don’t have girlfriends … because they can’t get any,” Paz added under her breath.by thefoolishandtheweak
“Homeschooling you and your brother kept you from being a bigger part of the social scene. Sports and church have been the main outlets for that. I don’t regret it. I know I learned much more on my own than I ever did in school, when I actually attended.”
Paz remembered how shocked she felt when her mother had told her she dropped out of school when she was eleven. The last full year of public schooling she’d had was the fifth grade. You certainly couldn’t tell it, talking to her now. She carried herself and sounded like someone who had graduated from some Ivy League university. She was well versed in a whole range of topics, even more so than Paz’s dad. Her mother knew how to explain even the most complex of ideas, and she always seemed to have personal experiences to go with them.
“I don’t feel I missed out on anything. I think Maddy’s favorite line is, ‘Public school is not all it’s cracked up to be,’ whatever that’s supposed to mean.”
“I like Maddy. I hope you two stay close.”
“We’re trying, but it’s definitely harder,” said Paz.
“Dad running for Congress isn’t the only thing causing change at home,” her mother said softly. Again, her expression became bittersweet. “Growing up is a big part of that.”
“At this rate, I probably won’t leave home until I’m thirty-five,” Paz teased. “If you and Dad are lucky.”
“That’s good. More people to help with the chores,” her mother teased right back. She slapped the couch. “Speaking of which, we probably should get dinner ready.”
Paz awoke to the sound of her mother’s outburst. She had a cell phone to her ear. Squinting, Paz rubbed her eyes and then her neck. She looked out the window; nothing looked familiar, but they were still on a highway.
“This is unbelievable,” her mother said out loud.
Paz continued to listen and then heard her mother say, “No, she didn’t mention anything about that… Okay, I’ll ask her, but I seriously doubt she… I will… I love you, too. We’ve probably another hour or so. Bye.”
“Bad news?” Colin inquired, his voice hushed.
“Exactly,” Paloma answered.
Obviously, both of them thought Paz was asleep.
“Was that Dad?” Paz asked.
“Yes,” her mother said, turning around in her seat to look at Paz.
“What’s wrong? What does he want you to ask me?” Since she’d been right about the identity of the caller, Paz also assumed they had been talking about her.
“Apparently, pictures of you at the club are posted on Facebook, and a video of Brad grabbing you is on YouTube. Your dad said, ‘Nice kick,’ by the way.”
Paz buried her head in her hands. “This just keeps getting worse.”
“One of the photos shows you with a beer in your hand.”
“A beer?” Paz’s mind reeled. She was underage! She’d never had a drop of alcohol in her life. “I didn’t drink anything,” she stammered. “The club was carding everyone.”
“Okay, good. We’ll let your dad know the picture is fake.”
“Wait.” Paz winced at a flicker of memory. She slapped her forehead. “Brad asked me to hold his beer while he went to the restroom.”
“Do we know which Facebook page?” Colin asked.
“It’s not just one,” Paloma replied. “Thomas saw a link to it on a friend’s page, and it’s a trending topic in Google and on Twitter.”
“Are we talking about photos and video from a cell phone, or something professional?”
“George wasn’t specific about that. The photos were good enough to positively identify Paz and the beer bottle, though.”
“I’m so stupid,” Paz said.
“I can work on containment when we get to the hotel,” Colin said.
“How about you start now,” Paloma said. “Pull over somewhere and I’ll drive the rest of the way.”
“A restroom would be nice.” Paz could probably hold it, and she was probably stretching her luck by asking to stop, given what they’d just found out, but she really needed to go.
“I think there’s still an exit to Henderson up here,” Colin offered.
“Go ahead,” Paloma said.
Less than a minute later, they exited the freeway and followed a highway marked U.S. 158. They saw only trees for at least a mile, and then they finally came to another road. On the right was a Lowe’s. Colin pointed it out and Paloma consented.
As it turned out, all three took advantage of the facilities. Ten minutes later, they were back in the car, but Colin was again behind the wheel. It appeared that he and Paloma had talked while Paz was in the restroom, and they had decided to hold off on any scrubbing efforts, at least for now. When Paz asked about it, her mother said they would find out what her father thought before they did anything.
Her mother sighed. “This is more complicated than just protecting you.”
“I deserve everything I get. Just don’t let my stupidity hurt Dad.”by thefoolishandtheweak
“We’ll figure it out,” her mother said, as if the mess they faced were just some kind of math problem. “You’ll know better next time, too. We need to find a way for everyone to have fun without it becoming a potential public relations nightmare. Or worse.”
Again, they fell silent, each one alone in deep thought. With them close to Durham, Paz was able to stay awake, and she tried to take in the sights around her. Then she remembered something her family did when driving on longer trips, called the alphabet game. Each player had to find the entire alphabet, in order, on road signs. The first one to the letter Z was the winner. She wondered what her mother would say if she asked her to play but decided it wasn’t the best of times to be asking, and settled for doing it by herself.
It hadn’t been very long―she was only up to L―when she heard her mother ask, “What is it?”
She had apparently noticed something Colin was doing.
“Tail,” he said. “Late-model black Camaro.”
Without thinking, Paz began to turn around.
“Don’t look,” her mother told her.
“Brad has a new black Camaro,” Paz said, immediately wishing she hadn’t. The hairs on the back of her neck felt as though they were standing on end.
Colin took something out of the inside pocket of his suit coat, presumably his phone, though Paz couldn’t see it. It was an Android-based HTC running special software that allowed Colin to, among other things, do a lot of background checking. His eyes darted from the phone to the rearview mirror to the road ahead, in paced succession. A few moments later, he put the device back in his pocket.
“It’s registered to Cantwell,” he said.
“How long has he been following us?” Paloma asked.
“I didn’t notice him until after we were on the road from Lowe’s. His vehicle doesn’t blend very well, nor is he particularly good at tailing. He either ID’ed us at Lowe’s or after we were back on the highway.”
Paloma paused a moment and then said with certainty, “We need to talk to him. Is there a way to do it without risking our safety?”
“I don’t know.” Despite Colin’s emotionless expression, he seemed conflicted. “If he stumbled upon us by chance, then it could be he’s running, too. It’s unlikely that the suits who tried to kidnap Paz would send him to follow us. Not in that car, and not with his lack of surveillance skills.”
“But?” Paloma sensed Colin was holding back.
“That’s under normal circumstances. Things haven’t exactly been conventional up to this point.”
“Can you tell if anyone else is following us?”
“No, but if Cantwell were a decoy of some kind, his backup would keep his distance and use Cantwell to communicate our position.”
“But you said you just picked him up since Lowe’s. If he’s not that good, is it likely he could have followed us from DC?”
“No.” Colin sounded very convinced of that.
“What if we pull over to the side of the road … keep things public?” Paloma suggested. “We really ought to talk to Brad while we have the chance.”
Colin didn’t answer. If he were debating what to do, his face did not show it. A few moments later, he worked the car over into the slow lane and then onto the shoulder.
“He’s coming,” Paz said, daring to look back. She felt a creeping sensation of panic again. She didn’t know if she was so much afraid of Brad after their altercation as she was dreading seeing him again because of what he had tried to do to her.
“Stay in the car,” Paloma said to Paz.
“You should stay in the car, too, ma’am,” Colin said in a firm voice.
The Camaro came to a stop several yards behind the LaCrosse.
Paloma looked directly at Colin. “I know you’re the best equipped to handle Brad if something goes wrong, but I want the truth.”
Before Colin could say anything else, Paloma unlatched her seat belt and opened the door. “Paz, get in the driver’s seat. If something happens to Colin and me, I want you to get out of here.”
“What?” Paz cried. What could happen? And, if something did happen to them, how could she leave them behind?
“Please do it, Paz,” her mother said.
“Here’s the phone.” Colin hastily dropped it on the car seat as he got out. “If something does happen, call your father. His number is on redial.”
Hearing Colin say that snapped Paz to attention. Whether or not she agreed with her mother going or not, Colin was the security expert. As he jogged to catch up with her mother, Paz got out and walked around the front of the car so she could watch what was going on. She stopped at the door and hesitated, but her mother shouted over her shoulder, “In the car, Paz.”
Paz clenched her teeth. How did she know? Eyes in the back of her head? Mother’s intuition?
“Maybe she is a witch,” she muttered aloud, but she did as she was told.by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz hated not knowing what was going on. Why did she have to be the one to stay in the car? This was about her, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t she be the one to hear Brad’s lame story firsthand? She was sure they were asking him about last night and any connections he might have to her pursuers. She wondered if her mother would tell him to keep his filthy hands off her daughter, too.
Those thoughts were going through her mind when the phone Colin had left behind squawked, and Paz could hear voices. The sound startled her and she froze, staring at the phone. It only took a few moments, though, to realize the voices were those of her mother and Colin, and that Colin was somehow patching Paz into the conversation with another device still in his suit coat.
Thomas would love this if he were here, Paz thought.
She snatched up the phone and fumbled for the volume controls. When she could hear what they were saying, she put it back on the seat and kept her eyes on the rearview mirror.
Paz heard some cross talk between her mother and Colin about what they would do in case something happened. They decided they would meet Brad halfway, in case he wasn’t alone. So far, no one else had emerged from the Camaro, and it was impossible from Paz’s vantage point for her to see if Brad had anyone with him.
No one spoke as Brad approached. Paz could hear some road noise over the phone’s speaker as cars on the highway sped by, but whenever someone spoke, noise cancellation technology allowed her to tell who was speaking and what they were saying.
“I was afraid you might not recognize me,” Brad said.
“We know who you are.” It was her mother’s voice. “Why are you following us?”
“I wasn’t following you,” Brad started. Then he realized what he said wasn’t quite right and he tried to amend it. “I mean … I wasn’t following you until I saw you. I’m on the run, too.”
“Why?” her mother asked, choosing to ignore his acknowledgement that he knew they were fleeing. So far, Colin hadn’t entered into the interrogation.
“Didn’t Paz tell you about last night?” Brad asked.
Paz couldn’t be certain, but there seemed to be some desperation in his voice.
“She did. I’d like to hear your side of it.”
“Do we have to do it here?”
In the rearview mirror, Paz could see Brad look over at the traffic. He seemed nervous.
“If you want to talk to us, it happens now,” Paloma said. “You know we don’t trust you.”
“Yeah, I know. Okay. I took Paz to Feral last night with a few of my friends. We were having a good time. I had some beers, and I got a little out of control.”
“A little?” In her mind, Paz saw her mother raise her left eyebrow, just like she did whenever she doubted the truth of what someone was saying.
“I was drunk. I got carried away.”
“Is this why you stopped, Brad, to apologize?” Paloma asked.by thefoolishandtheweak
Brad stared at Colin and Paloma for a moment and then looked away. Brad seemed to realize there would be no charming his way out of this one, not with these people, which meant he had something to hide that he didn’t want to share.
“We want the truth, Brad—all of it,” Paloma said.
Brad hesitated. “This was a bad idea. I shouldn’t have tried this.” He turned to go, but with surprising quickness, Paloma grabbed his wrist.
“Oh, no you don’t,” she said, holding on. Paz thought for sure Brad would wrench free, but he didn’t. Instead, he just stood there, partially turned away, with his arm twisted behind him.
“What are you doing, Mom?” Paz wondered aloud.
“You need to come clean, Brad. We don’t think inviting Paz to the club last night was your idea. We think you had a little help. We think last night was a setup, and we want to know how deep you’re in on it.”
Brad shook his head but didn’t try to break free. “I―,” he started to say, but Paloma cut him off.
“If you’re innocent in this, you can go,” she said. “We’re only looking for answers. We just want those who are responsible.” Her voice took on a soothing tone, almost like a mother trying to calm down a hysterical infant. She let go of his wrist, but Brad did not move.
“Ma’am,” Colin said, “I’m picking up two GPS signals from his car, and there are at least three listening devices on his person.”
“Any video?” Paloma asked.
“There are no conventional transmissions coming from him or the vehicle. That doesn’t mean someone isn’t seeing this. We need to leave.”
“I’ll tell you what I know if you promise amnesty,” Brad said, his face an expression of panic, bordering on horror.
“Tell me what you know, and I’ll tell you what we’ll do.”
“Ma’am …” Colin said.
Without looking at him, Paloma raised her hand from her side slightly, a subtle but obvious signal that she wanted to continue the interrogation.
“Quickly,” Paloma urged.
“I was asked to invite Paz to the club. I was told I should do something that would make her want to leave. So, I pretended to get drunk and then I tried grabbing her. She reacted just as they wanted her to. She got away from me and ran out the back of the building.”
“They?” Paloma asked.
“They told me they were with the House Ethics Committee, investigating Congressman Kirkegaard. They wanted to talk to Paz, but they said you’d never allow it.”
“They didn’t tell me. They said it was some matter of national security, and they paid me $10,000 to keep this all quiet.”
“Ma’am …” Colin repeated.
Paloma ignored him again. “And if you didn’t do it?”
“They’d make my life miserable. I’ve had some close scrapes with the police before.”
What happened next seemed to play out in slow motion. Paz watched her mother start to turn toward Colin. As she did, Colin propelled himself toward her, and Brad began to look over his shoulder. Then, without warning, the Camaro exploded.by thefoolishandtheweak
Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!
Poor Paz. She’s a good kid. A very good kid. For the most part, she’s listened and obeyed her parents and she’s tried to do the right thing.
So, she does one thing wrong, and now, it appears, that her whole world is falling down around her! How totally unfair!
Not only is someone trying to kidnap her, and it’s evident now Brad had something to do with it, but it apparently has something to do with getting at her father.
Then, while they’re trying to flee the bad guys, who do they find following them? Brad! Only, he claims he’s fleeing, too. Poor little Brad. Got in over his head, did he?
Paz is beginning to see and feel the repercussions of her actions, and how they do affect others. We’re not saying she’s being punished for some major crime—far from it—we’re merely pointing out that actions have consequences, good and bad, and there is something to heeding the advice of your mother and father.
Oh, and don’t worry about us, dear reader. The end of Chapter Four kind of left things in a mess, so we’ll let you get back to reading.
While we silently weep that a New Camaro was destroyed because of the follies of others.by thefoolishandtheweak
The blast started from the back, lifting the car up on its front wheels as it progressed forward. The shock wave rippled out, knocking Brad, Paloma, and Colin off their feet and into the air. A wall of flames shot straight up from the engine accompanied by the loudest noise Paz had ever heard. Instinctively, she ducked down and covered her head. Panic-stricken, she looked back. She couldn’t see any of them. Wherever they’d landed, they were below her line of sight. Beside her, the phone crackled with static.
Her first inclination was to get out of the car. Her mother’s command to take off if something happened to them kept her in the seat as she strained to see over the top of the trunk and listened for any signs of movement. She couldn’t just leave her mother. She couldn’t.
Something slammed against the top of the car. Not knowing what it was, Paz screamed and twisted back around. Colin had left the engine running, so all she had to do was put the car in drive and hit the gas pedal. With its tires squealing, the LaCrosse bucked forward.
Something else hit the car, this time the back window. Terrified, Paz looked into the rearview mirror just in time to see a piece of flaming debris crack the glass before careening off into the ditch. Frightened once more, Paz again pressed down on the accelerator, and the car surged forward. She traveled several yards without really knowing it.
“Are you hurt, ma’am?” It was Colin’s voice on the phone. Paz looked up in the rearview mirror again and saw Colin bent over her mother as she struggled to get up. Behind them, she could see Brad sprawled on the asphalt, not moving.
That’s weird, Paz thought. The three were looking smaller and smaller in her rearview mirror. Then Paz realized she was moving away from them and slammed on the brakes.
She saw her mother gesturing toward Brad, as if to tell Colin to go collect him instead of helping her. He hesitated but finally went. As Paloma got to her feet, Colin checked Brad for a pulse. Finding he was still alive, he hoisted Brad up and over his shoulder, and they started moving toward the car.
As Paz watched them, it dawned on her that she could go back for them. Throwing the transmission into reverse, she put her arm over the seat, looked through the rear window, and tried to calm herself. The last thing she wanted to do, after they’d all survived the explosion, was to run them over.
With the LaCrosse closing most of the gap, the three were at the car in a matter of seconds. Paz brought it to a halt, shifting back into drive while keeping a foot on the brake pedal. She thought either her mother or Colin would take the wheel, but neither of them did. Paloma limped to the front passenger seat and got in awkwardly as Colin laid Brad down in the backseat and then got in behind him.
“Are you okay?” Paz choked down emotion at the sight of her mother, whose left arm was bleeding. Paz thought she noticed a rip in the back of her mother’s skirt, as well. It had been hard to tell, though, due to the brightly colored fabric. Now, obviously in pain, her mother sat in the seat next to Paz.
“Let’s go,” her mother croaked.
“Where am I going?” Paz asked. Why am I driving?
Colin took over. “Just get us into traffic.” He reached over the backseat to try to ascertain the extent of Paloma’s injuries. “Ma’am, you need to tell me if you’re bleeding anywhere other than your elbow.”
“I don’t … think so,” Paloma replied, in gasps. “The wind … was knocked out of me, and my side … still hurts, but the pain is starting to … go away. What about him?” she asked, referring to Brad.
“He’s unconscious,” Colin replied, without taking his eyes off Paloma. “He’s got a nasty bump on his forehead and some abrasions, but that appears to be the worst of it. He’ll probably be out for a while.”
“What about the …bugs?”
“I’ll check,” he said, but he continued to watch Paloma.
“Good. We … don’t need … to be foll …” Paloma didn’t finish. Her head fell forward and she slumped toward the glove box. Somehow, Colin managed to catch her.
“Mom!” Paz screamed and shot a hand out to try to stabilize her.by thefoolishandtheweak
“I’ve got her. You drive. I’ll get her seat belt on her.”
Again, Colin’s taking charge calmed Paz. She eased the car forward and looked into her side mirror and out the window. As an afterthought, she put on the turn signal.
“Strange,” Colin said softly.
Unsure what he was referring to, Paz looked into the rearview mirror and stole a look at the Camaro. It was still on fire, but the blaze was weakening as it ran out of fuel and material to burn. Smoke engulfed it, but as the wind shifted, she could see that it was a gutted husk.
“What?” she asked.
“The cars,” Colin said, sitting back now after securing Paloma. “They’re not slowing down.”
When a sizable gap appeared between vehicles, Paz got them off the shoulder and into the first lane of traffic. When she was able, she switched lanes as needed to keep driving as fast as possible.
When they were safely on their way, Paz quizzed Colin. “What were you trying to warn Mom about?”
“I just felt we needed to go.”
“Did you know the Camaro was going to blow up?”
“At the last second, I did. My sweep didn’t pick up any detectable traces of explosives on the car, but just before it ignited, there was a pulse of some kind.”
“An energy surge I’ve never seen before.”
There was something about the way Colin admitted his ignorance that Paz found disconcerting—like he wasn’t telling her the whole story. “But you have a guess, right?”
“I don’t think it’s possible.”
“What isn’t possible?”
“Maybe I should start with what it wasn’t,” as if the exercise would help Colin eliminate the possibilities of what had just happened. “It wasn’t a car bomb; it wasn’t a rocket-propelled grenade, a missile, or a projectile of any kind―like a bullet―and it wasn’t a remote detonation.”
“The car didn’t just ignite on its own.”
“I figured that,” Paz said, with some exasperation.
“An EMP wouldn’t have made it explode,” he checked off, ignoring her emotion.
“Electromagnetic pulse. It will stop anything electrical within a certain radius, depending on the strength of the pulse.”
“But you said you detected a pulse.”
“Yes, but not that kind of pulse. This was a different form of energy. And it didn’t wipe out my gear. An EMP probably would have.”
“So, what’s left?”
“There might be plenty.”
“I know you don’t want to scare me, but I need to know what you think it is,” Paz said. Not knowing would make her worry more.
“A laser,” Colin finally said.
“What? Like in Star Wars? Star Trek?” Thomas would know better what Colin meant, Paz thought.
“Like laser pointers, but thousands of times more powerful. The air force has been working on one for some time and may even have a prototype. The navy is working on one, too.”
“I thought you said you didn’t think one exists.”
“Not portable ones. Both of the lasers I described require a large amount of energy to fire a beam hot enough to do anything. They’re huge.”
“Whatever it was, it came from behind. I watched the car blow up, and it definitely started at the back and worked its way forward.”
Colin pondered what she had just said. “I should call your father. I need to tell him about your mother.”
Paz gave her an anxious glance. “Is she going to be okay?”
“As long as she told us the truth about her injuries. She’s in shock right now.”
“Shouldn’t we have waited for the police? Or take Mom and Brad to a hospital?”
“I don’t think Brad or your mother are in any immediate danger, and until we know more about what we’re up against, we need to get somewhere safe.”
“You think there is somewhere safe?”
Colin didn’t answer.by thefoolishandtheweak
Just like when her mother had talked to her father earlier, Paz was only able to hear Colin’s end of the conversation, but she felt a sense of relief when someone answered his call. Colin asked how things were and then replied, “Good.” He then launched into a concise but informative summary of what had befallen them. After he finished, he fielded questions. “I don’t know if we’re being followed now, but we certainly can’t rule it out. We should definitely move our rendezvous.”
“Are they okay?” Paz asked a minute later, after Colin ended the call.
“Aside from being very concerned about the two of you, yes.” He glanced over at Paloma, who was still out cold.
“Do we have a plan?”
“A change in plans,” Colin said. “It’s possible we’ve been compromised.”
“Where are we going?”
“It’s best if I just give you directions.”
“In case we’re still bugged?”
“The ones on Brad are dead. We’re just being cautious.” Colin’s voice sounded upbeat, but Paz doubted he really felt that way. She certainly didn’t. “Keep going straight,” he added. “I’ll tell you when we need to do something else.”
“I really don’t mind if you want to drive,” Paz offered, thinking it would make things easier.
“You’re doing fine. It’s probably best if I keep an eye on Brad and your mother, and I can’t do that if I’m driving.”
They reached the outskirts of Durham just after four in the afternoon. The digital miles-per-gallon readout indicated they still had over two hundred miles left before the gas tank reached empty, so they didn’t stop for fuel. About an hour later, they rolled through Greensboro.
In the meantime, Paz decided she really liked the way this car handled—smooth and responsive. She liked the feel of the leather seat, and the Head-Up Display projected her speed onto the windshield―something else Thomas would find cool, she thought. He was very much into technology and gadgetry. So much so, he was one of those people who would stand in a line for hours just to get the newest thing, that is, if one of their parents would let him, which was the case most of the time. His latest acquisition had been the new iPad.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t normally like being around her brother, but Paz was especially excited that she would be seeing him again soon. They had a lot to talk about for once, which was unusual, since they seldom held something in common.
Paz wasn’t nearly as geeky as her brother, though she liked to use her own iPhone. Her father was into Apple products, and Thomas had pretty much followed suit, which meant everyone in the family had something with an Apple flavor to it. As long as she could see movies and play her music, Paz didn’t really care. Thomas, on the other hand, had as many apps on his devices as he could get.
Paz continued to drive. Periodically, Colin checked to make sure both her mother and Brad were still breathing. Colin didn’t seem concerned that they hadn’t woken yet, but he wasn’t much on showing concern. Paz knew he had been in the military prior to working in security and, undoubtedly, had been in worse situations than this. Now, as part of a security detail available to federal legislators, he was well trained and well equipped.
Paz didn’t know exactly how old he was, but she guessed he was in his early to mid-thirties based on how many years he was in the Green Berets, and then how many years he had worked security detail.
Was he married? Did he have a girlfriend, or children? Those things Paz didn’t know. In the couple of months he had worked for her father, she hadn’t really had much of a chance to be around Colin. It amazed Paz how much he would tell her mother about everything that was going on. Sometimes it seemed as if he worked for her mother rather than her father. Paz doubted her dad minded her mother being so well informed, but Paz could see a definite, growing bond between her mom and Colin.by thefoolishandtheweak
Another eighty or so miles, and they were nearing the city of Charlotte. The car’s readout showed they still had another one hundred miles worth of gas to go. They did not go into Charlotte proper but stayed on the same highway until they got to the 485, headed south. Several miles after that, they crossed the state line into South Carolina.
With the gas seriously dwindling, Paz wondered if they would stop before the car ran out. It was also nearly seven thirty, and aside from some chips and other snacks, she hadn’t really eaten since breakfast. Her stomach had been growling for a while and she wondered if Colin could hear it. She’d asked if there was anything left in the bag of goodies they’d brought, but Colin said she had eaten the last bag of trail mix before they’d reached Charlotte.
They passed a sign to Riverview and then crossed a river. It was dark, but it seemed to take longer than it should to get across the bridge. A few miles later, Paz was just about to ask Colin how much farther they were going to go, when he had her take an exit for Werner Avenue. They followed it west and turned north onto Paramour Street, and then took another right onto a gravel road. She slowed down, not at all sure where they were headed, but it seemed obvious that it wouldn’t be a hotel, since the area was too secluded. A bed and breakfast, maybe?
They came to a fork in the road, but Colin had her continue straight, past a driveway and into another.
“We’re here,” Colin announced as they drove up to a one-story house with a large covered porch. There were trees to the south of it, and the headlight beams revealed a few outbuildings and a forest beyond them. A couple of cars were parked in the driveway, neither of which Paz recognized, and the outside porch light was on.
“A friend of your mother’s, or so I’m told.”
Just then, the front door of the house flew open and Thomas appeared on the porch followed by a large, black dog and the siblings’ father. They clamored down the steps, with the dog barking and growling every so often as it nipped at the back of Thomas’s legs. Paz thought the noise would wake both her mother and Brad, but it didn’t. Both of them slept right through it.
“How is she?” Paz’s father asked, as Colin got out of the back of the car. Kirkegaard opened the front passenger door and studied his wife with obvious concern.
“She’s been asleep since I called you, but she’s breathing regularly. We still need to know the exact extent of her injuries.”
“You’ve come to the right place,” a voice said from back on the porch. A woman, probably in her mid-fifties, stood in the doorway, surveying the scene. She had a short crop of salt-and-pepper colored hair and dark bags under her eyes―as if she hadn’t slept lately―and despite her positive tone, her face looked worn and worried. If she were wondering what she had just gotten herself into, Paz mused, she didn’t blame her. “We’ll fix Palomita up right fine,” the woman added.
Gingerly feeling around Paloma’s back and side for signs of blood or anything askew, Paz’s father lifted her mother out of the car and carefully carried her up the steps and into the house. It fell on Colin to heft Brad again, something Paz noticed he did with less care than her father had with her mother.
“Are you okay?” Thomas asked Paz, as they watched the other five disappear into the house. The dog sniffed around her and poked its nose where it shouldn’t.
She petted the dog on the head, mostly to get it to stop smelling her, and then reached up and gave her brother a warm hug. “Yes,” Paz said in his ear. “I don’t know how, but I’m still alive and still free.”
The embrace lasted just a moment, but Paz could tell her brother was glad to see her.
“Colin says she’s in shock. She was limping before she got into the car, and she was having a hard time breathing. Before she lost consciousness, she said the wind had been knocked out of her.”
“Did you really drive all the way from Durham?”
Thomas was sixteen, but he still hadn’t gotten his license yet. He wanted it badly, but their father said Thomas would have to pay for the driver’s exam, the car itself, as well as the insurance on whatever car he bought. Thomas worked mostly Saturdays at a grocery store back home―taking as many holiday and summer hours as he could get―to have enough money to pay for everything. He hadn’t been very happy when he learned he wouldn’t get a chance to earn any money for two weeks.
Paz nodded to answer her brother’s question. “Is there any food? We haven’t eaten anything except snacks since we left DC.”
“I’m reheating dinner right now,” the woman said, back at the doorway. “If you’re inclined to come in, I’ll serve you a plate.”by thefoolishandtheweak
An explosion. Caused by an unknown energy pulse. A portable laser perhaps? That’s science fiction still. Yes, a couple branches of the military have working prototypes, but their lasers aren’t the kind you carry in your hand.
We’re talking Star Trek/Star Wars kinds of things going on here. Who would have that kind of technology?
Good question. But that’s not the most curious thing to us.
What we find of particular note is that no one on the road seems to even care that a car has just exploded mere feet away from them. Where we come from, that would snarl traffic for hours.
So, what just happened? Will Paloma be okay? What about Brad? Will they be able to get more information out of him?
The only way to know for sure is to read on, dear reader.by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz wasn’t a picky eater, but normally she liked to know what she was eating. At this point, just like that morning, she was so hungry that she could have eaten bugs and worms. The food, whatever it was, was way better than that. She knew she had some kind of chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and a biscuit, but she wasn’t familiar with the two vegetable dishes or the dessert. Paz liked it all and had to refrain from saying yes when the hostess asked if she wanted more. As Paz finished her dinner and Thomas kept the dog entertained, their father and Colin attended to their mother and Brad.
The woman of the house retrieved Paz’s plate, washed it, and then settled into a soft recliner chair in the living room. “I guess we haven’t been introduced yet,” she said, watching Thomas and the dog. “Everyone else pretty much knows who I am.” She leaned forward a little bit and looked over at Paz, who had followed her into the room. “My name is Pamela, but friends call me Gracie.”
“Your father thinks the world of you.” Gracie smiled, and some of the worry on her face went away.
“I’m sure he’s being polite,” Paz said, rubbing the back of her head. “I’m the whole reason we’re in this mess.”
The older woman nodded. “So, I’ve heard. Although, it sounds to me like it’s more that young fella’s fault than yours.”
“Yeah.” Paz decided to change the subject. “So, I’m not even sure why we’re here. Are you a friend of my mother’s?” Colin had said someone here was.
“Oh, no, not me. It’s my husband, Karl Jeffrey.”
“Oh.” Paz hadn’t expected her mother to be friends with a man.
“Now, don’t be getting any ideas. My husband assures me there was nothing between them. It was the only reason I agreed to marry the old coot.”
Paz wasn’t sure what she had been thinking about her mother and the doctor, but she appreciated Gracie’s cutting to the chase.
“Cool. I’m not the only one who didn’t know,” Thomas said, his eyes still on the dog. “I thought for sure they would have told you about it.”
“About what?” Paz asked.
“Your mother was kind of a celebrity when my husband met her.”
“What?” The thought of her mother being famous brought a smile of disbelief to Paz’s face. “Mom?”
“He can tell it better than I,” Gracie said, meaning her husband, “but basically, your mother had been traveling around the United States, looking for some fool teenager who had run away from a foster home. Your mother needed a doctor when she got here, and someone referred her to my husband. That’s how they met.”
“How long ago was this?” Paz was intrigued. She was also more than a little relieved that her mother was actually getting some medical attention, even if she, herself, didn’t know who this Dr. Jeffrey was. He hadn’t been in any part of the house Paz had been in yet. She figured he must be back with the other adults, tending to the wounded.
“Well, let’s see,” Gracie said, screwing up her face in thought and placing a finger on the side of her nose. “It’s been more than twenty years ago now―twenty-two, twenty-three―something like that.”
“And my mother was a celebrity because she was hunting down a runaway?”
“Oh, no,” Gracie said, flapping a hand, “although that really should have been a bigger news story than it was. No, she was a celebrity because she almost got herself elected President of the United States.”by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz’s jaw dropped.
Thomas snickered. Apparently, he had looked over at his sister in anticipation of the utter surprise now visible on her face. She looked at him and then back at Gracie.
Thomas grinned. “Dad says it’s all true.”
“Wow,” Paz managed to say. “Wow.”
“I guess I’m not surprised she never told you,” Gracie said. “She didn’t seem to be the type who went around bragging about herself.”
This morning, while Colin drove, Paz fell asleep and dreamt about a conversation she and her mother had last February, when her mother had insisted she wasn’t a politician. Now, Paz was hearing she’d almost gotten herself elected president of the United States. How in the world did you almost get elected without being a politician?
“My husband can tell it better, but somehow, your mother managed to get on television a lot as she traveled the country. People just fell in love with her and her dedication to look for the boy. She would pop up at protests and at rallies, and the next thing you knew, a reporter would interview her. She would be asked about whatever it was that was going on at the time, and she would give her answers. People liked what she had to say. She’s a very persuasive person, your mother, and she’s sincere.” The old woman shivered. “Sends a chill through me just thinking about it.”
Gracie’s comment reminded Paz of another conversation—the one with Maddy. Here was another person confirming what her friend had said—that her mother had some kind of an effect on people—only Gracie spoke in terms that were a little more believable.
She better not tell me my mom is a witch, Paz thought.
“And so, just because she was on television, and I guess, was able to speak her mind, people voted for her?”
“Pretty much. My husband did, and so did I.”
“She was on the ballot, then? She was nominated by a party?”
“Oh, no,” Gracie said.
“She was an Independent, like my dad?”
“Not exactly,” Thomas chimed in.
“Write-in,” Gracie said, as if the answer should have been obvious. “She got thirty-five percent of the vote in the general election.”
“Nope.” Gracie started to rock in the recliner. “She got thirty-five and the Republican and Democrat split most of the rest. What’s his face, the Republican, he had thirty-three; the Democrat had thirty, I think. Someone else got the rest of it.”
“But, if she got the most votes, why wasn’t she elected?” Paz asked.
“Well, presidents, you see, they―,” Gracie began.
“What kind of tall tale are you telling?” a male voice interrupted. A man had come down the hall beyond the dining room. Like Gracie, he also looked to be in his mid-fifties, but his hair was grayer. Paz figured he must be Dr. Karl Jeffrey. He wasn’t quite as tall as her father, and he was thinner, wore glasses, and kind of looked like a doctor, Paz thought. He wasn’t wearing a white lab coat, though.
“Is Mom awake?” Paz asked.
Thomas stopped playing with the dog, much to the animal’s dissatisfaction.
“Licorice,” Gracie said, as the dog growled. “Hush.”
“Yes, actually,” said Jeffrey. “Smelling salts and some water brought her out of it. Aside from having the wind knocked out of her … I didn’t find any broken bones, and she doesn’t appear to be bleeding internally.”
“Where are they?” Thomas asked of their parents.
“Second door on the left. Your folks and the security fella are talking, though. They said to give them a few minutes.”
“I was telling them about how Palomita was nearly elected president,” Gracie said.
“I doubt their mother would like that much.” Jeffrey took a seat on the couch.
“I think it’s rather inspiring, really,” Gracie said, waving him off.
“So, you’re Paz,” Jeffrey said, changing the subject.
“Your mother is a very good person. She helped me more than she’ll ever know.”
“Your wife said she needed a doctor once.” Paz noticed Thomas was paying more attention now, even though Licorice kept rubbing against him. Thomas must not have heard this part yet.
“She was dehydrated and on the verge of starvation, as I recall. She was in pretty bad shape.”by thefoolishandtheweak
“Why?” Thomas asked, his eyes widening.
“Gracie told you about your mother chasing the boy all over the country, right?”
Paz and Thomas both nodded.
“She didn’t have a lot of money when she left, so every so often, she had to stop and work. She’d work as much as she could when the trail went cold, and then she’d pick it back up and head out. I guess she’d run out of money since her last stop but was still closing in on him and didn’t want to give up. A couple of people found her unconscious in her beat-up truck on the side of the road. ‘Bout two miles west of here.”
Thomas exhaled. “Whoa.”
“You said she helped you,” Paz said. “It sounds to me like she’s the one who owes you.”
“Oh, she paid for that by working just for meals as my assistant for a week—she insisted on it. After that week, though, I was able to hire her.”
“Your mother was so good with the few patients he had,” Gracie explained. “They started telling their friends. His clinic had been hurting big-time before that. By the end of the week, he had more patients than he knew what to do with. He had to hire her just to keep up.”
“Pulled us out of a right rough patch, your mother,” Jeffrey said.
“Wow,” was all Paz could say.
Why weren’t these things her mother would tell them herself? These were positive things, things that, like Gracie said, were inspiring. In the conversation she’d dreamt about earlier, her mother had said she wanted Paz to avoid the mistakes she’d made. Surely, helping people couldn’t be considered a mistake.
That proved to be the end of the talk about their mother. The conversation moved to other things, where both Paz and Thomas shared about their own lives, like school, sports, or hobbies they were involved with, and what they hoped to do when they were older. Paz wasn’t yet sure what she wanted to do, but Thomas was definite. “I’m going to be a professional football player.”
Jeffrey looked at his watch. “You probably ought to get back there now.”
“Thank you,” Paz said, getting up. She felt the urge to give the doctor a hug and caught them both by surprise when she did.
“I’m afraid I didn’t do anything,” he said softly, his face flushing.
A little embarrassed herself, Paz stepped back and then followed her brother, who was already down the hall. She found her family, along with Colin, in the room. Her mother was the only one not standing. She reclined against the headboard of a full-sized bed and was currently embracing Thomas, whom she hadn’t seen since the previous evening.
Watching Thomas and her mother hugging, Paz flew into her father’s arms. “I’m sorry, Dad.” She fought against the desire welling up inside of her to cry. Tired and scared, she also felt guilty for all that had happened. Somehow, she managed to fight back the tears, but she didn’t know if she would be able to keep them at bay.
“None of this is your fault, Paz. If not you, they would have come up with something else to try to get to me.” From his pocket, Paz’s father pulled out a pouch and handed it to her. She recognized it as hers—the one she had worn at Feral—and found her key, driver’s license, and money inside. “We got that off Brad. You can have your cell phone back when we know it’s safe to use it.”
“Do you know who they are?” Paz asked, looking up into her father’s face. “Do you even know what they want?”
“No, and no,” he answered, as Paz took a step back. Thomas and her mother, no longer hugging, both looked at George. “It’s obvious, though, from what Brad told your mother, that they meant to use you in some way. I’m a U.S. congressman now. They probably wanted my votes in return for your freedom. Fortunately, they weren’t able to complete their mission.”
“But why?” Paz questioned. “You just got there. What do they want you to vote on?”by thefoolishandtheweak
“Anything and everything. I’m sure they want to intimidate or influence my vote on a lot of things. It happens all the time. They call it lobbying when it’s done legally, but even lobbyists can put a lot of pressure on us. And with votes like the federal budget, extending the debt ceiling, and whether or not to repeal the health care bill, there are plenty of major issues to try to influence right now.”
“But, why you?”
“I doubt I’m the only one―I can’t be. They’ll need a lot more than just my vote. It could be they’re targeting all of the freshmen, and you just happened to be―”
“It’s getting late, Papá,” Paloma interrupted. She gave him a stern look, as if she didn’t want him to dredge up memories of last night again. “We need to tell Paz and Thomas what we’re doing, so we can all get some rest.”
George nodded in agreement. Obviously, the adults had settled on a plan in their absence. Their father seemed hesitant, however.
“Dad is going back to Washington with Colin and Brad. The three of us will hide out for a while.”
“What?” Thomas was obviously not thrilled. Paz wasn’t either, and by the look on their father’s face, that made three of them. Colin was the only one who didn’t show his emotions, though Paz couldn’t believe he’d signed on to this idea. He was becoming the entire family’s security, not just her father’s.
“I can’t run away,” her father answered, closing his eyes. “Even though Congress is in recess, my staff expects to be able to get ahold of me, especially with the president touring South America and authorizing use of military force in Libya.”
“You were going to be doing all that while we were touring DC?” Paz asked.
Her father’s tone became somewhat defensive. “I was going to be with all of you, but I’d probably be getting phone calls and e-mails, too―nothing major, but that’s the way it has to be. I have to be available. Fortunately, it’s Sunday, and so far, no one has really missed me. I could tell my staff I wasn’t going to be around, but then they’d want to know where I was going and how I could be reached. It just wouldn’t work.”
“Then there’s Paz’s trip to Feral,” her brother said. Despite his mother’s preempting of his father mentioning it, Thomas decided to throw in that little fact. “It’s all over the Internet.”
“Fortunately, that story hasn’t broken yet in the mainstream news media,” his mother said, giving him the same glare.
“But, it will,” Thomas insisted. “Right?” He looked at his father.
“Most likely,” his father admitted, “but we should be able to get ahead of it. I can’t do that if I’m not in Washington.”
“Is this safe?” Paz asked, abruptly. She’d turned to look at Colin. He straightened slightly as Paz directed her attention to him.
“It’s not us they’re after,” her mother answered. “We’ll be okay.”
“Colin?” Paz asked, hands on her hips.
“There aren’t many alternatives,” he finally replied. He seemed to be weighing his responses. “This is the best option available to us.”
Paz tried to read his face, watching for the same conviction in his eyes that she heard in his voice. Colin, however, was inscrutable.
“You think Brad is going to go back willingly?” Paz didn’t have a better idea, but that didn’t mean she had to like this one. Besides, they’d just barely reunited.
“No,” her father said, “which is why we’re going to keep him sedated until we’re in DC.”
Thomas threw up his hands in exasperation and moved toward the window. “So, where are we going?”
“Road trip, basically,” his mother answered. She was definitely working hard to keep things positive, as if she could give them all a sense of normalcy. “We head to Florida in the morning.”
“You know someone in Florida, too?” Paz asked the question in an accusatory way and regretted it the moment it slipped out. But feeling tired of her family’s predicament, all she wanted was to get home to Texas and be left alone.
“Actually, yes, I do.”
“If they still live there,” her father added.
“If not, we’ll stay in a hotel overnight and move on,” her mother said. “We’ve been over this, now, haven’t we?”
“Yes.” George exhaled. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“We’ll check in every day,” Paloma promised. “It’s not as if I’m looking forward to this, either. I really wanted that tour of DC.” With that, a smile came to her face.
“Yes!” Thomas exclaimed quietly, trying hard to keep his excitement to himself. He, too, was smiling.by thefoolishandtheweak
Almost President of the United States?
Our jaw would drop, too, if we just were told our mothers barely missed out on being President.
But what was Gracie going to say when she was interrupted by her husband? Something about Presidents. It was the reason why Paloma wasn’t actually recognized as the winner even though she had more votes?
Regardless, Paloma’s mystery deepens, as we’re introduced for the first time to old friends. So, too, does Paz’s own situation. She’s still eating voraciously.
Then, there’s the plan. Take Brad back to DC and hope to smoke out the kidnappers. Sounds awfully risky, but can you blame them? Paz’s father, George Kirkegaard, sounds convinced that it’s him the kidnappers are ultimately after. In other words, yet another high stake game of national politics.
As always, we’d warn you not to take everything at face value. There’s always more going on than meets the eye.
The house, Paz discovered, while big, did not have enough bedrooms for each of them to have one, so they decided to double up. The Jeffreys tried to give up their room, but Paz’s parents politely declined, convinced it would be better if their hosts slept in their own bed. Meanwhile, Thomas and Paz would share rooms with their parents—Thomas with their father, and Paz with their mother. Colin would essentially keep an eye on Brad from a sleeping bag in the hallway.
Licorice had a bed at the other end of the hall, just off the dining area, where her food and water dishes were located, and where she could escape through the doggy door in case she needed to relieve herself in the middle of the night. She, too, was to act as a sentry.
It was nearly ten o’clock when they all bedded down. Paz opted for an air mattress and some blankets, leaving her mother the bed. Paz thought her mother looked as if she felt a lot better, but regardless, she had sustained injuries, and Paz knew the air mattress would be comfortable enough for her for one night.
As they lay there with the lights out, Paz could hear a hushed conversation going on between Thomas and their dad in the next room. She couldn’t make out the words, but they seemed to be talking about what her father would be doing after he got to DC. She would have liked to have been part of that conversation, too, but figured her mother would know what her father intended to do.
“He’s going to do whatever needs to be done,” her mother answered after Paz had asked the question out loud. “They’re going to have Brad questioned by the FBI, and there will definitely be questions asked of him about―”
“Me,” Paz said, before her mother could finish.
“Can’t get around it now. And we can’t hide it. As your mother, that was my first instinct―get rid of the photos. However, even if you didn’t have permission to go to Feral, you weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary for a lot of nineteen-year-old girls in America on a Saturday night, and your father will just tell the truth about the beer you were holding.”
Paz stared up at the dark ceiling. “What if the FBI is in on this?”
“Colin doesn’t think it’s them. Anything’s possible, though, until we get more answers. We’ll just have to trust his experience and expertise.”
Colin’s good, Paz thought. He was even good at delegating tasks to others (such as herself)—who had no clue what they were doing—and have each person do them satisfactorily. Paz knew she would miss his quiet, steady demeanor. He instilled confidence without saying a word. She lay there thinking about what was before her, her mother, and Thomas, as well as what it was going to be like for her father. Then it occurred to her to ask about their latest plan. “Was this Colin’s idea―them going back and us basically running away?”
“No, it was mine. Colin walked us through a number of scenarios, and this one ended up being the best.”
“Colin is good at walk-throughs,” Paz said, not knowing how else to put it. She thought Thomas used that term with his video games, and it seemed to apply here.
“Yes, he is.”
Paz could hear the smile in her mother’s voice.
It wasn’t until she started awake to the sound of Licorice going crazy outside their window that Paz realized she had fallen asleep. She shot up just as her mother bolted from her bed, and they barely missed colliding with each other.
Someone or something was already down at the other end of the hallway, and as their attention was diverted, Paz’s father ran past them.
“What’s going on?” Paz asked, struggling on the air mattress to get to her feet.
“I’m not sure,” her mother replied, getting to the door before Paz. “Stay here.”by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz finally gained her footing as her mother disappeared from the doorway. Paz decided to go see if Thomas was okay. She practically bumped into him as she stepped from the bedroom.
“Do you know what’s going on?”
“Brad escaped,” Thomas said. He looked toward the back end of the hall where Colin had been lying. He wasn’t there.
Paz sped to the room where Brad had been and found the light on. No one was in the room and the curtains over the window, now open, fluttered in the cool breeze. Involuntarily, Paz shuddered.
“What time is it?” she asked. She looked for a clock in Brad’s room but did not find one.
Thomas produced his iPhone and answered, “1:07.”
“Thank heavens,” they heard a woman’s voice say. They looked up and saw Gracie, gathering a bathrobe around her. Behind her, Dr. Jeffrey headed to the porch with some sort of rifle.
“Brad is gone,” Paz said, realizing Gracie was expressing relief that the two of them were alive and safe. “Everyone else has gone after him, including Licorice.”
“Nothing better happen to her,” they heard the doctor say before the screen door shut behind him.
“I don’t suppose the two of you are likely to get any sleep until your parents get back,” Gracie said. “Let’s sit at the table. Either of you want some pecan pie or cocoa?”
“I’ll take both,” Thomas piped up without a shred of hesitation.
If Paz had been consuming a lot in the last twenty-four hours, Thomas did it every day. No doubt, it was a big reason he was already taller than their mother and was about an inch or so behind their father. Of course, all the sports he participated in probably didn’t hurt, either―football in the fall, wrestling in the winter, and track and field in the spring. He’d turned out to be quite the athlete, and with it, a budding ladies man. Or at least, the girls his age thought so. Thomas was interested; he just didn’t fawn over them as much as they seemed to fawn over him.
Paz had to admit, though, he was pretty handsome, and he did have broad shoulders and muscles. All he needed was money and a car, and he’d be set.
Unlike me, she thought. Short but stocky, she looked more Mexican in appearance than anyone in her family―not that there was anything wrong with that, she was often told―with her brown eyes, dark skin, and hair―even the extra tufts of it on her arms. She didn’t mind it there, but she constantly battled hair under her arms, on her calves, and above her top lip. Her mother told her that was pretty normal for all girls, but Paz didn’t think her mother ever had to shave. She didn’t have to do anything to keep herself lovely and presentable. Meanwhile, Paz mused, she was fighting to keep from turning into a werewolf.
Paz decided to have pie and cocoa, too, more out of Gracie’s insistence than anything else. It tasted very good and she consumed it all, but not with nearly as much enthusiasm as Thomas, who asked for, and then vacuumed up, another piece of pie.
He wasn’t quite through the second slice when the doctor returned, the rifle lowered at an angle over his arm. He caught Gracie’s inquisitive glance as he approached the table. “No sign of him here,” he said. “Nothing seems to be missing, either; cars are still here, so unless someone came for him, he’s on foot.”
“Licorice light out after him?” Gracie asked.
Her husband nodded. “I could hear her baying down the road, but it’s been a while now.”
“She’ll be all right. She knows how to mind herself.”by thefoolishandtheweak
“Did you see our parents or Colin?” Paz asked.
“Just your mother. She’s down at the end of the drive, waiting for the others.”
“You think they’ll catch him?” Gracie asked.
“That Colin fella might,” her husband replied. “He might even outrun Licorice.”
“Oh, pooh,” Gracie said, waving off that last part.
“Young’uns are eatin’ all the pie,” Jeffrey said, looking over at Thomas.
“Never you mind,” his wife said. “You’re not starvin’ or nothin’.”
“Still wouldn’t mind a piece,” he said, flashing a smile at Paz, who couldn’t help but smile back.
“You’ve got two hands,” Gracie said.
Jeffrey handed her the gun and proceeded to dish up a slice. Meanwhile, Gracie headed over to the door.
“Someone is coming. Looks like your mom,” she said to Paz and Thomas, as she stepped outside. “Any sign of him?”
“Not that I ever saw,” said Paloma. A moment later, she came over the threshold. “I caught a glimpse of Colin just as he reached the corner, and George, of course, but that was it.”
“How about the dog?” Jeffrey asked, swallowing.
“Long gone,” Paloma replied, rounding the wall and seeing Paz, Thomas, and Jeffrey sitting at the table with dirty plates and mugs in front of them. “Eating, I see.”
“Man’s got to keep up his strength,” the doctor said, when neither of her children responded.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Paloma said playfully.
“Now you know what I live with every day,” Gracie chimed in with a pained expression.
“She wouldn’t miss a minute of it, either,” her husband said.
“Oh, is that so? I keep offering to go visit my mother and leave you here without your victuals and your pie.”
The doctor winked. “And I keep offering to take her up on it.” The pair had all three of them laughing, even Thomas, who generally got bored of grown-up banter. The Jeffreys went back and forth for a while longer, eliciting more snickers, until they heard the screen door open and close.
“He’s gone,” Kirkegaard said, as he entered the dining area.
“What about Colin and Licorice?” Paz asked.
“They’re coming. They definitely gave Brad a run for his money.”
“Pie?” Gracie asked.
“Don’t mind if I do.”
“See, she never asks me that,” Jeffrey said with mock hurt.
Gracie grimaced at the back of his head, where she promptly pretended to hit him with a spatula. A piece of pie flew off and landed on his neck.
“We having a food fight?” he asked, swatting at the spot where the food had landed. Jeffrey picked it off, inspected it, and popped it into his mouth. Everyone laughed again. “Not bad,” he said, smacking his lips.
Licorice bounded up the porch steps a good ten minutes later and stood dancing at the screen door. Paloma went to let her in and then waited there. A short time later, Colin arrived. His suit pants were dirty and his shirt ripped on one side. His usually slicked-back hair was disheveled, and he smelled cold and sweaty.
“I lost him at the end of Paramour,” he said, when Paz’s father asked about Brad.
“How did he outrun Licorice?” the doctor wondered aloud. The dog was now sitting next to him, getting her neck and head rubbed.
“He didn’t,” Colin answered. “She came back for me.”
“Did something happen to you?” Paloma asked.
“I got caught on a fence.” While his expression didn’t reveal it, Paz thought she detected disappointment. “Licorice came back to see if I was okay. We chased after him some more, but we lost sight of him. She probably could have tracked him down, though, had I let her.”
“So much for Plan A,” Kirkegaard said.
“I apologize,” said Jeffrey. The kidding tone of earlier was gone now. “I was afraid of giving him too much of the sedative.”
“And I should have heard him getting out of bed long before he got to the window,” Colin added.
“And I shouldn’t have stopped us to talk to him in the first place,” Paloma threw in.
“So, what now?” Paz asked. It sounded to her as if their plan to split up had unraveled.
“I think we stick to it,” her mother said. “Don’t you?” She looked first at her husband and then over at Colin.
“Aside from helping us get to the bottom of this, I don’t suppose his taking off changes much,” George answered.
“I agree,” Colin said.
Paloma looked at the clock that dangled over the stove. “It’s almost two in the morning. We’ve still got a few hours until we need to be up and out the door.”
“I wouldn’t mind taking a shower,” Colin said, directing the request toward the doctor, “and if I could bother you for a glass of water.”
“By all means.”
“I’ve got tea, too,” Gracie offered.
“Water is fine.”
“Looks like you get to sleep in a bed after all,” Paz said, standing up. She meant it to be a silver lining in the middle of their disappointment, but she realized when Colin didn’t answer, that it hadn’t helped any.
“Off to bed,” her mother commanded.by thefoolishandtheweak
“Well, guys, what kind of car should we get?”
Now after seven thirty, it was cool but dry and in the middle fifties as the trio stood outside the Enterprise Rent-A-Car office in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Their mother studied the parking lot of cars from the doorway of the office building while Paz and Thomas walked up and down the rows. Thomas was much more into choosing something than Paz was, saying something about a reputation and sense of style he had to uphold. She didn’t know just what he thought they should get. It wasn’t like the selection was huge. So far as Paz was concerned, the LaCrosse she, her mother, and Colin had driven was just fine. Her father and Colin, however, had driven off in it two hours ago to head back to DC, leaving Dr. Jeffrey and Gracie to drop Paz, Thomas, and their mother off at the car rental place.
“Oh, yeah!” Thomas stood four rows over from Paz in front of a late-model Corvette convertible, exuberance all over his face.
“Like they’ll never see us in that.” Paz rolled her eyes sarcastically. “Besides, I don’t know why you’re picking. You can’t even drive.”
“This is for all the honeys,” he shot back.
“What honeys? There aren’t any honeys.”
“Oh, there will be.” Thomas pointed at the Corvette with both hands. “There will be.”
“Whatever,” Paz said with a degree of exasperation. Thomas liked to sound full of himself, but it was mostly for show and the reaction he’d get. Deciding she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction, Paz looked back at her mother, who was quietly conferring with the rental agent.
Her mother and the agent disappeared into the office. A few moments later, Paz could see them through the storefront window, one on either side of the counter.
“Do you think she’ll get it?” Thomas hadn’t budged but was still admiring the Corvette. If the door had been open or the top down, he would have surely gotten inside.
“Not unless you want her chauffeuring you, which means no honeys.” Paz decided not to bring up the obvious fact that the car had only two seats. She was sure he’d be more than willing to leave her behind just to have his ‘honeymobile’.
What she did voice aloud was enough and served to bring Thomas down a bit, but then his face brightened right back up. “Maybe I can get my license while we’re down here.”
“Got any money?”
He patted his back pocket. “I’ve got a few on me.”
“How about proof of residency?” Paz asked, after thinking hard about something else she could say to discourage him. “Do you got that, too?”
Thomas frowned. “I’m a citizen. What do I need that for?”
“Most states require proof of residency―like a bill with your name and address on it—before they’ll issue a license.”
“We live in Texas,” he said.
“You’re not helping.”
“You should have gotten your license.” Paz sighed and turned away.
When she’d been younger, this bantering back and forth had been all kinds of fun for her. At one time, she had reveled in crushing Thomas’s dreams or latest harebrained scheme. He often came up with far-fetched ways to make money; some of his ideas had actually worked.
But at some point, and she wasn’t sure when, Paz came to the conclusion she didn’t like torturing her brother anymore. Maybe it was because both of them had grown up. Still, doing it now seemed to be therapeutic, adding a touch of normalcy to an otherwise out-of-control situation.
Her mother was still signing papers at the rental counter when something else caught Paz’s eye. At first, she wasn’t sure if she had seen anything, because it didn’t seem to make any sense. About eight rows over, and toward the street, she thought she saw someone, but they’d vanished. She had seen it with her peripheral vision, and she knew from past experience, that it could play tricks on her. She’d had many a scare accompanied by an embarrassing outburst because of something she thought she saw just out of range.
She’d all but talked herself out of whatever this was when she thought she saw something bob up above the door of another car, this time in a row closer to her.
A tingle went up her spine. She looked back at Thomas and tried to whisper and yell at the same time. “Did you see that?” It was enough to catch his attention, and she waved over in the direction of whatever it was that had caught her eye.
“What did you say?” Thomas looked at her as if she were losing her mind. Then, he apparently saw it, too. “What the―”
“Guess you saw me,” a voice said. The sound of it made Paz whirl back around, and she felt the muscles in her jaw, neck, and shoulders tense.
It was Brad, grinning broadly and sliding over the hoods of cars to get to her.by thefoolishandtheweak
So, let’s see if we got this straight.
Brad shows up at a birthday party for a neighbor kid of Paz’s grandparents, saying his Aunt knows the family but couldn’t make it.
He talks only to Paz, gets her to invite him to a dance club in DC, she sneaks out against her parents will to go with him, then ends up running away after Brad appears to get drunk and then fresh with her.
Yet, it all turns out to be a ruse, as trained security professionals chase her all over DC in attempt to kidnap her, but somehow, can’t catch her before her mother shows up to rescue her.
Paz, Paloma and security chief Colin Haynes leave DC for points unknown, not knowing who they can trust. On their way, they find that Brad just happens to be fleeing, too, which isn’t entirely clear as to why other than he’s trying to lay low after the incident. They all pull over to the side of the freeway, and as Paloma is trying to get answers, Brad’s Camaro explodes, knocking Paloma and Brad unconscious.
Paloma’s only out for a while, but thanks to Dr. Jeffrey, Brad stays under longer, so they can transport him back to DC to answer more questions, and hopefully track down the men who were after Paz in the SUV.
But Brad escapes in the middle of the night, outrunning Colin and Licorice, the Jeffrey’s dog, only to pop up later that morning at the car rental lot, all smiles.
Did we miss anything? Oh, yeah. Paz eats. A lot.
Okay. Back to it.by thefoolishandtheweak
“What are you doing here?” Paz demanded, trying to regain her composure. It was all she could do to hold her ground. She wasn’t about to let Brad know that.
“Yeah,” Thomas added. He now stood next to his sister. “You seemed in a hurry to get away from us last night.”
“I was.” Brad kept his eyes on Paz.
She noticed that despite his bravado, he didn’t look very good. His clothes were mussed, as if he’d slept in them, but his eyes were droopy, as if he hadn’t slept at all. He was dirty and she was sure he’d knock her over if she got a whiff of him.
“Your parents wanted me to go back, but I’m not going back.”
“Then you better leave. My dad will be here any minute,” Paz bluffed.
“No, he won’t. He and Frankenstein are headed to DC. You all are going somewhere else.”
“Don’t you dare call …” Paz wasn’t about to let anyone, especially Brad, bad-mouth Colin―not after all he’d done for her.
“So, what if we are?” Thomas interrupted. Catlike, he slid between Paz and Brad.
Paz had to move to the side to see what was going on. In doing so, she saw that her brother was every bit as tall as Brad, and bulkier, too. Brad was wiry, while Thomas was thicker through the torso. Brad could probably outrun him, but if they were to wrestle, Thomas had a good twenty pounds on him.
“So, I’m going with you,” Brad replied, nonchalantly.
Paz couldn’t tell if he was intimidated at all or not, but he didn’t seem interested in picking a fight, either.
“You’re delusional,” Thomas said. “The only place you’re going is to jail.”
That got Brad’s hackles up. “And you’re going to put me there?” He straightened more and puffed out his chest.
“If I have to.”
“Thomas, stand down.” His mother walked across the lot from the rental office. “Brad, over here,” she commanded.
In the confrontation, Paz had all but forgotten her mother was there. So, too, it seemed, had the guys. Despite the fact they were taller and outweighed her, they both did exactly as Paloma said.
“Yes, ma’am,” they both murmured, shooting glances at each other that more or less said, You won’t be so lucky next time.
Brad sauntered over to Paloma, attempting to keep some semblance of a devil-may-care attitude.
Paz realized he was slouching now, and he seemed to be stiff, particularly his left leg and hip. He also had a small bandage, barely visible, just behind his right ear. It was flesh-colored and easy to miss, but she wondered why she hadn’t seen it before now.
“You don’t seriously think she’s going to let him come with us,” Thomas huffed, bursting through Paz’s analysis of Brad.
“Oh, probably,” Paz said, an indignant look on her face. It didn’t make her happy one bit, but even as distraught as she was at the thought, she could still see logic in such a plan. They needed answers. Brad might have them. She just didn’t know how they could possibly trust him when self-preservation was his only prerogative.
Paz raised a finger to his lips. “It’s okay,” she said. “That was pretty brave of you, by the way. Thank you for standing up for me.”
A strange look came over Thomas’s face, a combination of surprise and relief. “You’re welcome,” he said, though it could have just as easily been a question, the way he answered her.
Paz started to walk closer in order to hear Brad and her mother’s conversation, but without looking at Paz, her mother waved her off. Though somewhat closer, Paz still couldn’t hear anything, not with the sound of the cars on the nearby road and the fact that her mother and Brad were talking quietly. Paz tried to decipher their conversation by their body language, but neither of them was very animated. In fact, from the side, Brad looked completely worn out, as if he might collapse at any moment.
The conversation took a while. At one point, Brad nodded and took something out of the front pocket of his pants and handed it to her mother. A few minutes after that, her mother finally gave Paz and Thomas a sideways glance and said with finality, “Let’s go.”by thefoolishandtheweak
“He’s going with us?” Paz asked.
“Yes.” Her mother didn’t seem happy about it, though, which surprised Paz. Back before Durham, her mother was the one who wanted to talk to Brad in the first place. They all wanted answers, but she was the one who’d been willing to risk their safety to interrogate him. Had he said something now that made her regret it? Or, was it something else altogether?
Paz wanted to ask her but decided it wouldn’t be smart within earshot of Brad. She also doubted her mother would give her much of an answer, anyway.
“What car we taking?” Having conceded the fact that Brad would be going with them, Thomas was hoping to be consoled by the choice of their ride.
His mother walked right on past the Corvette, and Paz saw Thomas hunch in dismay.
Poor guy, Paz thought, actually feeling some sympathy. He deserved some compensation for coming to her aid.
For a second, it seemed they were headed straight for a minivan, but her mother stopped a row short of it and used a key fob to unlock the doors on a four-door Chevy Cruze Eco. The color reminded Paz of ginger ale.
“Eco?” Thomas asked, reading the model name off the rear of the vehicle.
“As in economical,” his mother said. “It’ll get up to forty-two miles to the gallon on the highway.”
“And zero to sixty in ten seconds flat,” Brad added.
“Shotgun,” Thomas called out, deeming it front-seat worthy.
“What?” Paz asked.
“Nothing,” he said, getting in on his side.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“You’re kidding, right?”
Whatever private moment of mirth Brad had enjoyed while getting into the car was now extinguished with a groan. His tagging along had changed their schedule of departure. Instead of leaving Rock Hill immediately, other destinations had been added. The first one was the shortest, where they traversed the parking lot from the Enterprise office to Kmart.
“You said you wanted a change of clothes,” Paloma said. “It’s the closest thing open.”
Paz taunted Brad. “I’m sure you’ll find something that won’t ruin your image too much.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that, because we’re all getting something,” her mother said.
“Oh, great,” Thomas muttered, rolling his eyes.
Inside the store, the four divided into two groups, with Brad and Thomas going into the men’s section, while Paz and her mother headed for the women’s department. Paloma gave them each thirty minutes to find three pairs of pants, three shirts, a pair each of shoes, sunglasses, and shorts, and at least a week’s worth of underwear and socks. Each of them was also to look for a hat and a hooded windbreaker or light raincoat.
Brad and Thomas were less than thrilled―after their battle of words―to be shopping anywhere together, let alone in the same section, but they went without a fight and stayed as far away from each other as they could. They took off farther into the store to find their clothes. As they rounded a corner, they nearly bowled over a group of girls coming back toward the front of the store. That got the guys and the girls turned around awkwardly, with both parties saying they were sorry before continuing in their separate directions.
Paz wanted to hurry and start questioning her mother but was forced to wait for the girls to pass by them. Obviously, they were returning from the grocery section of the store, since they carried mainly snack items―chips and sodas. Each had a backpack slung over her shoulder. One girl wore a Rock Hill High School letterman jacket. The girls appeared to be glued to their cell phones, watching something.by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz waited until the girls were out of earshot and then turned to her mother. “What did you and Brad talk about out there?”
“He’s going to pay for our car rental and gas, plus our clothes, and any meals or lodging expenses we might have.”
“He is?” Interesting, Paz thought. “Out of the $10,000 he got paid to help kidnap me?”
“Seems only fair.”
“He’s got all of that on him?”
“Well, $4,000 of it. He was paid in hundred dollar bills, and that was about what he could stuff into his wallet. The rest blew up with the car.”
Paz laughed. Serves him right, she thought, even though they might need the rest of the money by the time this was all over. They made it to the women’s clothing area and started to pick through the racks. Paz noticed the high school girls were now in the aisle across the way and had just been joined by two others, bringing their group to a total of five. They huddled close to one another as if they were watching something, and Paz thought she could hear music playing.
“We probably should be as thrifty as we can,” her mother added, trying on a hat.
“And if he runs out?”
“You mean out of money, or runs off?”
“We’ll see. I asked him to give me his wallet, and he agreed, so I have the money and his identification.”
“So, we’re just going to use cash?”
Just then, Paz heard a gasp from the girls. They hushed down, and then she heard another gasp. Abruptly, the music she’d heard moments earlier ended, and the girls all started to talk at once.
Paz heard them say, “Do it again. Do it again,” but the rest of what they said was confused gibberish.
“Colin thinks it’s best if we avoid ATMs and using our credit cards,” her mother finally replied. “He’d also like us to avoid surveillance cameras, too, if at all possible. The only way I know to do that is to wear hats and sunglasses.” She paused, taking a look at a skirt she had picked up. “Brad does seem sorry for what he did and is willing to make amends. He really doesn’t want to go to jail.”
“Yeah. So, did he tell you anything about the men who wanted to kidnap me?”
“Not a whole lot. I guess you heard the conversation out on the highway yesterday.”
“Aside from telling me he got paid, he swears he doesn’t know a whole lot about them.”
“Do you believe him?”
“Yes. I doubt they would tell him their life stories. Besides, he got paid to lure you to the club and to keep quiet about it. The less he knows, the better.”
There was yet another outburst from the group of girls. Just as whatever they were watching ended, another girl ran up and joined them, excited. She whispered something to them, which elicited giggles from her friends.
Paz thought she heard one of them say, “Are you sure?” Then the newest girl to have arrived nodded vigorously.
Turning back to her mother, Paz decided to find out what had been troubling her mom after the discussion with Brad. “You seemed upset about something, after talking to him.”
Her mother dropped a peach-colored, cotton blouse into the basket. Staring at Paz, her mother seemed to be debating whether or not to answer the question, and then how much detail she should offer. “Something Brad said back on the highway bothered Colin,” she finally replied.
“Just one thing?” Paz could think of a lot of things Brad had said that worried her―being paid to be an accessory to kidnapping, for starters.
“The whole thing is scary,” her mother acknowledged, “but even after Brad began telling the truth, part of his story didn’t make sense to Colin.”
“He’d said they would make his life miserable if he didn’t do the job, because he’d had scrapes with the law.”
Paz remembered that. “Okay.”
“But instead of just blackmailing him into doing the job, he said they paid him.”
“Colin believes they would either pay him or threaten him―not both.”
“Well, for one, his regular work for them would account for scrapes with the law, like his being questioned by police at the club. Two, if they could buy his loyalty, or at least his silence, they could minimize the risk of him somehow implicating them.”
“So, he’s still not telling the truth.”
“Not completely. He’s more involved than he’s letting on.”
“Do you think he’s one of them?” That possibility really spooked Paz.by thefoolishandtheweak
Her mother shook her head. “No, Colin called him a freelancer, someone they bring in to do certain things. Brad wouldn’t know whom he’s really working for or what the real reason is. But he might know more than he’s saying about his contacts―the men who tried to kidnap you.”
Paz didn’t know when it happened, but at some point, half of the girls had disappeared, while the others remained across the aisle from her and her mother. The girls huddled around one phone as its owner’s thumbs flicked letters into words. Occasionally, one of the girls would giggle and they would all quickly look at each other before looking back to the small screen.
Was this what public high school was like? Paz wondered. Cross-country certainly had its cliques, but there wasn’t much time for this kind of goofing off during practice. She wondered what time school started. She knew it was after eight o’clock now, because that’s when the store opened.
As she placed a package of underwear into the shopping cart, three girls returned, acting giddy. They’d reappeared from the direction they had come from originally, but they didn’t have any new items in hand. They were confirming they had seen something, or someone, and were passing around one of their cell phones as proof.
Just as Paz turned away to finish up her shopping, one of the girls looked up. For a moment, the smile on the high school girl’s face beamed, and then it slowly faded to surprise. The others noticed it almost immediately and lifted their heads to see what their friend was seeing.
In that moment, Paz realized what the girls had been so animated about―the video! They’d been watching the YouTube post of her scuffle with Brad. One of the girls had finally recognized him, and she’d gone back with two of her friends to confirm it and bring back proof for the others. Now, they had all recognized Paz!
“I was afraid this would happen,” her mother said softly. She had pieced it together herself. “I was hoping we’d get out of the store first.”
“What do we do?”
“Keep shopping … until we’re done.”
“Excuse me.” It was the girl who had noticed Paz first. Though she couldn’t be more than sixteen, she was an inch or two taller than Paz with long, dark hair and lashes, and smooth skin, like milk chocolate. Her phone was in her hand, as if she were ready to take a picture.
“Don’t look up,” Paz’s mother said quietly as she turned away.
“Excuse me,” the girl repeated.
“Yes?” Paz decided to acknowledge her. She couldn’t just ignore her now, but she did keep her head down, trying to find a pair of jeans in her size.
“Are you the girl from YouTube?” the high school girl asked.
What should Paz say? Her first thought was to deny it; the next was to play dumb.
“The one with the ‘Friday’ music video?” Paz asked. She planned to follow it up with, “No, I’m not; sorry,” but the girl sighed loudly.
“No, not her,” she said rather pointedly. “The one who kicks the guy between the legs.”
Paz played dumb. “You think I look like her?”
“Here, I’ll show you.” The girl moved closer to Paz, thrusting the phone toward her.
Paz waved. “It’s okay. It’s me.”
“I knew it!” The girl hopped and then giggled. “That was awesome what you did … boy had it coming, all right.”
“Thank you,” Paloma said, deciding it was time to steer the girl away so they could finish shopping. “We appreciate that very much.”
“Did you know he’s over there?” the girl said, pointing through some display cases to roughly where the men’s clothing section would be.
“I―,” Paz began, but her mother cut her off.
“Oh, no.” Her mother reached over and touched the girl’s shoulder. “Thanks for telling us.” She then turned to Paz. “Let’s hurry, dear.”
“We all think you’re great,” the girl said, as Paz and her mother moved away. When Paloma smiled and waved, the girl did the same. For a few seconds, she didn’t seem to know what else to do. Then one of her friends called out to her.
“What did she say?”
“It’s her!” The girl hurried back to the group. “I couldn’t get a picture, though.”
“Was she cool?” another asked.
“Did she tell you what happened?” questioned a third.
“We’re going to be late,” stated a fourth. Almost immediately, they hustled toward the checkout stands so they could purchase their items.
“How much do you have left to find?” her mother asked.
“Just a hat and coat.”
“Okay. I’m going to go check on the guys while you pick something out. Please be ready to go when we get back.”by thefoolishandtheweak
We live in a world where anyone can become an instant celebrity.
Paz, just wanting to get away from a situation that went downhill quickly, found the hard way just how easy stardom can be achieved. Especially if those picking the stars are teenage girls.
Such an incident wasn’t about to go unnoticed, or unrecorded. Not in Washington, DC, where anything and everything can be used against you, if the time is right.
Undoubtedly, the question Paz, Paloma and Colin will have is, who took the footage and posted it, and just how widespread will the damage be?
After all, the theory still is someone is trying to get to Congressman Kirkegaard through his daughter. This could be one more way to blackmail him.
Our question would be, what else about the night is about to be revealed?
No doubt about it, either, there’s something strange about the whole Brad reappearance. He seems way too willing to join their ranks. Just what is his motive, aside from personal preservation?
Maestro! Next chapter, if you please.by thefoolishandtheweak
“You’ve gone viral, Paz.”
The quartet was back in the Cruze and turning southwest onto Cherry Road. Thomas had pulled out his 3G iPad and had gone to YouTube in search of the video of Paz and Brad. As it came up, he saw the number of views and let out a whistle. In less than twenty-four hours, there had been over a million.
“We’re famous,” Brad said. Paz expected a stupid grin on his face when she looked up, but he was serious. Maybe it was exhaustion, but she thought she saw sadness, too.
“I always wanted to be a YouTube star,” Paz quipped dejectedly.
“Those girls think you’re a hero, Paz,” her mother said. “I consider that a good thing.”
“It’s got everything,” Thomas said. “Action, romance, epic win, epic fail.”
“Shut up,” Brad demanded.
“Do you still want the shower first, or do you want to go eat now?” Paloma asked, wanting to defuse the fight that was brewing.
“Shower,” Brad murmured, still glaring at the back of Thomas’s head.
It took less than ten minutes to get to the YMCA. Paz noticed her mother knew exactly how to get there, even though, so far as Paz knew, her mother had not been in Rock Hill for over twenty years. Not that it had been hard to get to, but her mother didn’t need Thomas to locate it on Google Maps.
Paloma parked in the second row, right in front of the entrance. “You two coming in or staying in the car?”
“In,” Paz said, deciding she didn’t want to be in the car when she didn’t have to be. They had a long trip ahead of them and she could already tell the car would be confining, even if they all managed to be nice to one another.
“Me, too.” Thomas brought his iPad with him, though, just in case he needed to be entertained.
The group approached glass doors. Taped on the inside were various flyers or announcements. One of the more prominent ones advertised an upcoming area event called the Come-See-Me Festival, and featured a dancing frog. The others announced services that were available at the YMCA, including childcare and a schedule of classes.
Paz had never been inside a YMCA before. As they pushed through the doors, it was slightly humid, though not bad, and had a chlorine smell, which she guessed meant it had an indoor pool. She could hear noises coming from a room farther in, probably from some kind of exercise class, but she didn’t get to see, since her mother headed straight to the front desk.
Behind the counter was a woman in her forties, talking to a younger woman, who was a couple years older than Paz. Both employees wore light blue T-shirts bearing the YMCA logo. The letters were all white with a large ‘Y’ in a stencil font. The older woman’s name tag was labeled with ‘Tonja,’ while the name tag the younger woman wore identified her as Kayla. It sounded as if they were talking about scheduling when the four approached.
“Good morning,” Tonja said, turning toward them and smiling. “May I …?”
“Paloma? Is that you?”
Thomas shot Paz a glance that asked, Who is she?
Paz returned the look with one of her own: How would I know?
Brad seemed to be the only one who took this reunion in stride. Or, perhaps he was too tired to care.
“It’s good to see you again,” Paloma said.
“It is you!” Tonja came from around the counter and the two embraced amid smiles and laughter. “Look at you. You look …” Her smile faded.
“Thank you.” Paloma replied, taking the woman’s unfinished sentence to mean she looked good. “So do you.”
“You haven’t changed a bit.” Tonja shook her head and recovered somewhat. “How long has it been? Twenty years or so?”by thefoolishandtheweak
“I wonder if we could ask a favor,” Paloma said, to cut through the other woman’s shock. “Brad, here,” pointing to him over her shoulder, “is in need of a shower. We’re passing through, and instead of renting a room just for that, I―”
“But, of course,” Tonja interrupted. Turning, she said, “Everyone, this is Kayla.”
“Hi, everyone,” Kayla replied.
“Would you show Brad the way?”
Kayla nodded and asked Brad to follow her. He picked up the travel bag he had just bought at Kmart, and the two disappeared down the hall.
“So, you’re just passing through?” Tonja asked, turning back to Paloma. At the same time, she invited them to all take a seat in a nearby waiting area.
Paloma then introduced Paz and Thomas. “Nice to meet you,” the two of them said.
“This is Tonja―” Paloma started.
“Clemmons, now,” Tonja added. “It’ll be eighteen years in May.”
“Ooof.” Tonja exhaled and laughed. “Yeah, eighteen years and four kids later … did a number on me,” she added, looking down at her waistline.
“Time takes it toll,” Paloma agreed.
“Except on you.” Tonja shook her head. Obviously, she was still marveling at how young-looking Paloma was. “You look exactly the way I remember you.”
“You’re very kind. I definitely feel older.”
“Don’t we all. So, I know the young man taking a shower isn’t your husband … or does he age like you?”
“No, my husband is on his way back to Washington.”
“Washington? You mean the Washington?”
“He’s a congressman,” Paz piped up, deciding she wanted in on the conversation. Her mother, though, gave her ‘the look.’
“Really, now …” Tonja said.
Paz noticed Tonja’s expression changed somewhat.
“He just got elected,” Paloma said, downplaying its significance. “He had to go back, so we’re on vacation by ourselves.”
“Uh-huh.” For some reason, Tonja didn’t seem to believe what she was being told, and it had started with Paz’s father being in Congress. “Your mama ever tell you how we met?” Tonja asked after a pause.
What’s going on? Paz wondered. Tonja studied her mother as if she were a mystery that needed to be solved. Obviously, the surprise at seeing the same young Paloma of twenty-odd years ago had worn off, and maybe Tonja was wondering if it were possible she was really peering at an impostor.
“No …” Paz’s eyes darted from Tonja to her mother and back again.
“She was looking for a place to stay,” Tonja started, finally looking away to Paz. “The Y had some beds, and there just happened to be one available. I’d just gotten a job here, cleaning.” She added the last word as if it were significant. “She didn’t have any money yet and was working for free with a doctor―”
“Dr. Jeffrey,” Paz said.
“Oh, so you know him, do you?” Tonja smiled.
“If you have to tell the story, tell it,” Paloma said, putting a hand up to her forehead. Apparently, she’d figured out where the conversation was going, and she didn’t seem at all comfortable with it.
Tonja kept her eyes on Paz, as if her mother hadn’t said a word. “Your mom offered to do some odd jobs in exchange for the bed and breakfast. First day, the director told her to help me with the cleaning.” Again, she emphasized cleaning.
Paloma leaned forward in her chair and let her hand fall over her mouth. Paz noticed that Thomas had looked up from his iPad and now followed the conversation with interest, just as he had at the Jeffreys’ house.
“I didn’t mind,” Tonja said, wanting to make that point clear. “Except for an hour or so overlap, we didn’t work the same shift. I came in the morning; she came straight here after working for the doctor.
“In that hour overlap, after I would tell her what work I didn’t get finished, we would talk awhile about how things were going. She was looking for some runaway and didn’t have much of a life outside of that. I was going to night school and trying to make something of myself. We made quite the pair.” Her tone changed at that point and her eyes seemed to soften.
“Oh, just get to it,” Paloma demanded.by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz thought she heard what amounted to a high-pitched squeal in her mother’s voice, but it was barely perceptible.
“After we’d comment on our days, we’d often talk about the presidential election coming up. I was pretty liberal, so I would tell her how bad I thought the other side was. Your mom would say that good and bad existed on both sides, and she was quite adamant that nothing was ever going to be accomplished by playing the game of Republicans and Democrats―that it was going to take much more than that.
“I kept telling her that it sounded to me like she should run for something―get involved. She said, ‘No way; I’m not a good liar.’”
Paz heard her mother laugh despite her trying to stifle it. Paz couldn’t help but smile, and even Thomas had a sappy grin on his face.
“Besides,” Tonja added, “she said that for change to occur, it would have to come from the people. Well, this went on for a couple months. The doctor was able to start paying her, and someone else needed the bed. By that time, your mom was able to afford to pay for a room. We’d gotten to know each other pretty well at that point, and then one night, she told me the boy she was looking for had moved again, and that she would have to go, too.”
Tonja hesitated. Paz could see the woman’s eyes beginning to mist over. “That was the last I heard from her.” Tonja sniffed. “A couple months later, it was time for the election. I voted and then went home to watch the returns. By the time I did, the TV announcers were all in a tizzy about how the race was so close because of a bunch of write-in votes. It started in the East and continued all the way through the South, and then the Midwest to the West. By the time it was all said and done, the write-in candidate had the most votes.”
So, that was it, Paz thought. This part she did know, from Gracie. She thought about saving Tonja some of the story but decided to keep quiet.
“I didn’t watch much TV in those days,” Tonja continued, “so I didn’t know who the write-in might be. Imagine my surprise when I found out it was your mother! ‘I’m not a politician,’ she said, over and over. And yet, there she was, getting the most votes! I found out later that she’d managed to get on television all over the country.”
Tonja turned back toward Paloma. “Not once did she mention any of that. Reporters found her at different events and would ask her to comment. She’d tell them what she thought and move on. Somehow, it was enough to get a bunch of people to vote for her.”
Paloma grinned. “I didn’t know it was going to happen; it just did.”
That sounded like something Paz used to say when she was younger, whenever something got broken or didn’t go right. Paz found it funny now to hear her mother use it as an excuse.
“And now I find out you’re married to a congressman! How does that happen? You go from cleaning the Y for free to almost being president and marrying a congressman?” With playful exaggeration, Tonja punctuated the words ‘cleaning,’ ‘free,’ ‘president,’ and ‘congressman.’
“I didn’t almost become president,” Paloma defended, “and he wasn’t a congressman when I married him. He was a Washington correspondent.”
“Oh, well that’s so much different, Miss anti-politics.” Tonja laughed, throwing her hands up in the air.
“I’m still not a politician.”
“And I’m thankful you’re not.”
“It was so good seeing you again,” Paloma said, straightening.
“Does that mean you’re leaving?” Tonja’s face fell. “Already?” She turned to see Brad, freshly bathed and having changed his clothes, coming toward them.
“I’m afraid so,” Paloma said, standing up. “I’m glad we got a chance to talk, though. I really didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Oh, it’s good. It’s good,” Tonja insisted, knowing what Paloma meant. “I’m director of Upper Palmetto,” she added proudly. “Going on three years now. All that schooling was worth it.”
“Good for you.” Paloma smiled, this time initiating a hug. “I’m glad it all worked out.”
“Thank you for encouraging me when I was ready to give up. I’ve wanted a chance to tell you, and now you’re here. Wait, just a second,” she added, holding up a finger. Tonja left the waiting area.
Paloma signaled to the others to follow her. Hastily, they left their seats. They didn’t quite make it to the front desk when Tonja came back, holding a card.
“Here,” she said. “My cell number is on it. Call me.”
Paz picked up on the fact that her mother didn’t commit to calling. If Tonja noticed, she didn’t show it.
Tonja waved. “Bye, y’all.”
Everyone but Brad waved back as they made their way out the door.by thefoolishandtheweak
So. Another person who knew Paloma way back when and fills in more about her past.
Tonja is more than a little surprised at Paloma’s agelessness, but more so that she’s married to a Congressman. If she had truly remembered the discussions they had about the country and its direction, she might not have been. When duty calls, it is up to everyone to come to the aid of their country.
This is one of those times.
Earlier, Paz wonders why her mother has kept so much from her and her brother. To a degree, she can understand keeping any bad things a secret, but the good things? Why wouldn’t Paloma want her children to know about her near miss with the Presidency.
Some people are humble about their accomplishments, and Paloma could certainly be one of them, but there just seems to be more to it than that. Something else she is guarding.
Hints have already been given, and more will manifest as the chapters roll on.by thefoolishandtheweak
“What a pig!”
They had returned to Cherry Road and headed back the way they had come, passing Kmart on the way. Just before I-77, which they would take to head south, Paloma stopped at a McDonald’s so Brad could get some breakfast. The others had eaten before leaving the Jeffreys’ house, which meant there wouldn’t be another stop until lunchtime. Since their shopping had been interrupted, they didn’t have much with them in the way of snacks, either.
Paz’s outburst hadn’t been directed toward Brad, though. He’d ordered the Big Breakfast and was cutting into a stack of hotcakes. Instead, Paz was calling Thomas out. Not only had he stuffed himself earlier, but he had just ordered two Egg McMuffins and an apple pie, plus a milk, to wash it all down.
“What?” Thomas asked, with his mouth full. Even though he was still in the front seat, he knew Paz was talking to him.
“I still want to get to Palm Coast by dinnertime,” their mother said, reiterating what she’d told Thomas when he had wanted to order, since she’d asked him to check the mileage and the time it would take to make the trip.
“I got it,” Thomas said, still chewing.
Without stopping, and adhering strictly to the speed limit, it would take a little over seven hours. With lunch added in, it would probably be closer to eight. It was just after nine o’clock now, so five was their estimated time of arrival.
They hadn’t been on the highway long before Brad fell asleep. With the shower and the food, he’d gotten some of his color back, but he was long overdue for some rest. It meant, however, that questions Paz had for him would have to wait.
She sat there, staring at him. He looked so innocent now, in repose, as much as a twenty-one-year-old male could look. She supposed sleep did that to most people. Even when awake, though, there was something about Brad, a quality that had made her want to be around him. As she studied him, she realized that it was still there, even though his actions had been nothing more than a crude, brutish, ransomed betrayal. He had seemed so genuine, a lonely soul reaching out to anyone who would care to listen. It was all a lie.
And yet, here he was. Paz didn’t understand that. She knew he didn’t want to go back to Washington and answer for what he had done, but why did he feel compelled to hang around?
Why had her mother consented to his coming along? She’d said she didn’t trust him completely. She knew he was still holding back something. How was it worth risking their safety on the off chance he might actually be attempting to make amends? That was just one of the things Paz still hoped to get out of her mother. And there was plenty more beyond that, like, who was in Palm Coast that her mother knew? Paz wondered what she and her brother would learn about their mother from whomever it turned out to be. It was as if her mother’s life was slowly beginning to unfold before Paz, one layer at a time. Unfortunately, every time something was revealed, it led to more questions.
Some of it had come to light on this trip, like an impromptu write-in presidential candidacy and the fact her mother had helped people along the way. Her amazing, youthful appearance and her equally amazing way with people had both been highlighted. But that just deepened the mystery. What about her mother’s parents? Without them, how had her mother managed to survive what sounded like a terrible childhood?
Little was known about Paz’s maternal grandparents. Her mother had been abandoned shortly after birth at a Catholic church in Puerto Rico. Based on the birth certificate that accompanied little Paloma, she was a U.S. citizen, but not because she was born on the territorial island. Strangely enough, Paloma had been born in Douglas, Arizona, located on the Mexican border. Paloma’s mother was Maria de la Luz Reyes Santos, a native of Mexico, with her birthplace listed as Ciudad Juárez.
How Luz ended up in Douglas, no one knew. There was no U.S. immigration record, so it was entirely possible she had crossed the border just to have her daughter. There were hospital records of Luz’s death, however. At the age of seventeen, Luz died of complications related to childbirth, just two days after Paloma was born.by thefoolishandtheweak
While Luz’s brief life was very much an enigma, more of an unknown was Paloma’s father. On the official hospital records was the name, Juan José Cruz. He was not Mexican, however. Rather, he was a native of the Dominican Republic, having been born in San Pedro de Macorís.
From what Paloma had been able to piece together years later, her father had not been at the hospital when she was born. Yet, the only logical explanation for Paloma’s arrival at Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria in Mayagüez, was Juan. The theory was that Juan, grief-stricken, had returned to the Dominican Republic with little Paloma after Luz died, but for some reason, a few weeks later, he found it impossible to care for the baby. Instead of making the trip back to the United States, he traveled the shorter distance to Puerto Rico.
That was it. Paz didn’t know which was worse―not knowing hardly anything about your parents, and not having them or anyone else around to ask―or having them right there but reluctant to share their lives with you.
For Paz, the biggest question was why?
So far, what she and Thomas had been finding out was good―incredible, in fact. Why would their mother want to keep that a secret? Yes, their mother was pretty humble when it came to her accomplishments, but their dad could have told them, or at least started the conversation. Why hadn’t they met the Jeffreys or Tonja before now? Did it take a crisis, where they were on the run, to uncover their mother’s past?
Maybe it’s better I don’t know.
It was an odd thought for Paz to have. She loved her mother. Why wouldn’t she want to know more about her? It was a part of who Paz was, after all. The more she learned, the more she saw just how wonderful her mother was.
It wasn’t about her mother, though. It was about how Paz regarded herself. With such a charismatic mother, a father who was in Congress, and a brother who was smart, athletic, and otherwise full of promise, Paz wondered where that left her.
More than once, Paz had tried to figure out how she fit into this family. She didn’t look like any of them, and she didn’t feel nearly as gifted. Her father told her, on more than one occasion, that she was not adopted; she was definitely their daughter. It wasn’t as if she was an outcast or a misfit, either. To herself, Paz just seemed so … ordinary. It was easy to feel that way surrounded by family members who were always excelling, always achieving greatness. In fact, it didn’t end with her immediate family. Her uncle, her grandparents, and even her great-grandfather—they all had some claim to fame.
What had she done? Moreover, what would she ever do?
Another thought popped into Paz’s head―a memory. “You shouldn’t think like that,” her mother had told her once after Paz had expressed feelings of inadequacy. She’d just done well on a test, but it had taken a long time to grasp the concepts of the subject. She wanted it to come easy and to be more natural, like it seemed to be for Thomas.
“I just wish there was something I could do that no one else could,” Paz had said.
“This world has need of all of us, Paz,” her mother had countered. “We all have to find our way in it. There will always be someone faster, smarter, richer, and luckier. But there will also be just as many who are slower, dumber, poorer, and less lucky. So, you have to work hard sometimes―”
“All the time,” Paz corrected.
“There’s nothing wrong with that. We learn more when things are hard. We grow more when faced with resistance. Someday, you will feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, and it will take endurance, perseverance, and an indomitable will to keep you from giving up―from surrendering. Someday, Paz, there will be something only you can do, and you will need to be ready for it.”
Her mother had spoken those words over three years ago. While they were still comforting, Paz didn’t see how they were true, or how they could possibly be fulfilled.by thefoolishandtheweak
Her stomach growled long before they stopped for lunch. A couple of times, Paz thought it was loud enough to wake up Brad, but he continued to doze, regardless of the noise around him. That included the AM station her mother turned on to hear the news, a channel she ended up listening to for quite some time, even though a national radio talk show host was on the air.
Paz had been afraid her dance club escapade would be all over the news, but strangely enough, it wasn’t in any of the top-of-the-hour breaks. Nor did the talk show host mention it, though he actually did make a reference to the freshmen house members being the only ones trying to accomplish something on Capitol Hill. He also ranted about the president’s trip to South America while sending troops to Libya, and wondering how that didn’t require consent from Congress, especially since the president had been so adamant that his predecessor should have such consent.
While her mother listened intently, Thomas begged for her to change the channel to some music. She largely ignored him, and after a while, Paz found herself tuning out the radio host.
She understood that situations happening a world away could affect things in America, perhaps even personally. That was a given now, since her father would be a part of those decisions. Still, there were far more immediate and pressing issues to deal with, the most surprising of which, as well as annoying, was her growing hunger.
Maybe her mother heard her stomach’s complaints, or maybe it was a scheduled stop, but shortly after noon, they left the interstate at a place called Yemassee, still in South Carolina. So far as Paz could tell from the exit they took, it didn’t seem to be anything more than a glorified truck stop, but along with a local restaurant, she saw a Subway. The latter was closer, and their mother pulled into the deli’s parking lot; she knew that both Thomas and Paz would eat the food there.
They arrived to find quite a few customers working through the line, though hardly any of them stayed to eat. After being asked what they wanted, Paz, Thomas, and Brad were sent to look for a booth while Paloma ordered and paid for the meals. She raised an eyebrow when Paz not only asked for a foot long meatball sandwich on wheat bread but also requested a bag of original Baked! Lay’s Potato Crisps, a macadamia nut cookie, and a bottle of apple juice. Her mother wrote it all down, however.
“Who’s the pig now?” Thomas asked, after basically equaling his sister’s order.
“I didn’t eat two breakfasts, now did I?”
“You mean McDonald’s? That was just a snack.”
Brad winced. “Do you two always do that?” He was still very tired but had decided he’d better eat, especially if the next stop wasn’t for another five hours.
“We’re brother and sister. Deal with it,” Thomas said.
Brad folded his arms on the table and rested his head on them. “Whatever.”
“It’s weird,” Paz said, taking the conversation back to her unusual appetite. “Ever since Sunday morning, I’ve been really hungry.”
Thomas winked. “You know what that means.”
“Shut up,” Paz said, shooting a wary glance at Brad.
If he’d heard or understood her brother’s inference, Brad didn’t show it. Paz had a sneaking suspicion, however, that Brad would find some way to make Thomas pay for his brazenness.
“I’m not pregnant.”
“Then, you must be growing.”
“I haven’t done that since tenth grade.” Not so coincidentally, that was the same year Thomas had passed her in height. She’d held out hope throughout the rest of high school that she would add on a couple more inches, but no manner of wishing made it so.
Thomas smirked. “I guess that means you’re going to get fat, then.”
Sometimes, he just couldn’t stop blathering, even if he wasn’t trying to be mean.
“Thanks, Tommy.” She knew her brother didn’t like being called that. It served as a reminder that, despite his being taller, he was still the youngest, and still the baby. Unfortunately, sticking out his tongue at her in reaction to the nickname didn’t do much to show any maturity.by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz looked around the eating area, trying to keep tabs on the people around them. She didn’t want a repeat of the incident at Kmart. Their hats and sunglasses were probably helping to disguise them, but for the most part, the others at the Subway were adults on lunch breaks or also traveling, and none of them seemed to be as wrapped up in social media as the high school girls had been. Thomas was the only one fiddling with a phone in the small eatery.
After several minutes, Paloma returned with their meals, which they ate, mostly in silence. In doing so, they were able to overhear different conversations going on around them, but none of them focused on anything remotely related to Saturday night’s events.
Mostly, the talk was personal―about unemployment running out, waiting on the results of job interviews, or wondering how to make the next mortgage payment. Some complained about work, too, and how they had too much to do but not enough time to do it.
The ongoing tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan would be sprinkled in, usually following a comment about how it could be worse. “Why are we bombing Libya?” was a question someone asked. Only one person talked about how the government was going about things all wrong.
The rest of the chatter revealed some who seemed to marvel more at the fact that, despite so-called signs of economic recovery continually touted on television and in newspapers, the people most affected by the downturn weren’t experiencing much, if any improvement, at all.
One by one, as they finished, the four threw away the wrappings of their meals and went to the bathroom. Paloma was the last to do so but gave Paz the keys so the others could get in the car. “Want to drive?”
“That’s so not fair,” Thomas complained.
Both Paz and their mother ignored him.
In order for Paz to take the wheel, she needed to make adjustments to the mirrors and the seat. Thomas had just pointed out how she could use a booster chair or blocks tied to her feet when their mother showed up and took Paz’s place in the back.
Meanwhile, Brad had done his best to get comfortable so he could fall asleep again. Paz didn’t know if her mother intended to interrogate him further or if she was tired of driving, but if the former had been her plan, she did not press it.
The skies were overcast, but the road was dry as they sped down I-95. A couple of times, Thomas gave an update on the number of views of the YouTube video, which had been watched by another one hundred thousand people since they’d last checked, prompting his mother to put him on more constructive duty, looking for articles related to Paz or their father. Thomas found nothing. If the video and the photos were uploaded with the idea of embarrassing Congressman Kirkegaard, so far, none of the major media outlets had pulled the trigger.
While the video might have been taken by a partygoer, the photos seemed to be planted, since they concentrated specifically on Paz, and, in particular, the beer in her hand. Those beer photos were the ones that could be used against her father.
Whether or not it was because Paz’s image was widely unknown, or because the powers that be were waiting for the right moment, the news stories about Saturday night still had not come.
Colin was to look into the appearance of both the photos and the video. He may well have done so already, Paz figured. On the way back (if it was still there), Colin and her father also planned to take a look at the burned-out Camaro, to see what they could find. Unless there was an emergency, though, both parties were to wait until around eight o’clock each evening to check in and catch up with what the others were doing. That meant Paz and her group would already be in Palm Coast before they knew anything.by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz put the rental car on cruise control, only changing lanes when she would creep up on someone not quite doing the speed limit. She’d learned early on, there was no glory in keeping her foot on the gas pedal when the car could do it for her automatically. It wasn’t too long before they crossed the border into Georgia, and then a while later saw some signs for Savannah. Her mother had told Paz they would stay on I-95 until they saw signs for Palm Coast, so Paz tried to keep things as simple as possible.
The miles seemed to go by quickly for Paz. At one point, she was the only one awake, since Thomas, and finally, her mother, both dozed. Paz wasn’t sure if she should feel good that they were all comfortable with her driving, or if she should be scared that there wasn’t anyone to keep her awake. Fortunately, she didn’t feel drowsy, which was more a by-product of being behind the wheel than anything else, though the leftover Sprite from lunch had helped, too.
They’d already arrived in Florida and were just leaving the greater Jacksonville area when her mother called up to the front. “Where are we?”
Paz told her and then her mother added, “We’re almost there.” Paz had been watching signs for Palm Coast, and the latest had them fifty miles out, but she was glad to have her mother’s assurance that they were getting close. While Paz had plenty of room up front, she was still tired of sitting and would be glad to get out and stretch her legs again.
To her right, Thomas stirred, winced, and then changed his position. Behind her, so far as she knew, Brad hadn’t moved a muscle since they’d left Yemassee. Both, she thought, had slept plenty now, so Paz wasn’t feeling all that sorry for either of them.
“Who’s in Palm Coast that you know?”
“Her name is Oneida Ochoa.” Her mother leaned forward to hear Paz better. “When I met her, she was a single mother with a three-year-old son and another on the way.”
“You think she still lives there?”
“I don’t know. It’s been a long time, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised so far.”
“Someone must have known the Jeffreys were still there, right?”
“Your dad called Dr. Jeffrey after our plans changed. He’s semi-retired, but the doctor’s office is still in his name, so he was easy to locate.”
“Is Ms. Ochoa someone you worked with, too?”
“She’s the sister of Ramón Ochoa, the teenage runaway I was looking for.”
“So, she’ll definitely want to help us.”
“We wouldn’t come here if I didn’t think she would let us stay with her. A lot can change in twenty-odd years, but I hope she still considers me a friend.”
“Why haven’t you told us more about your life?” Paz ventured to ask. Now seemed as good a time as any to broach the subject.
“A lot of it, I’m not proud of,” her mother answered after a moment of thought. “The period of time I was looking for Ramón is okay, I guess, but I didn’t want either you or Thomas growing up thinking your mother was famous or something.”
“There are people who think you are.” So far, there had been the Jeffreys and Tonja. Undoubtedly, Oneida Ochoa would be added to the list.
“You’re talking about those who knew me; they became my friends. The majority of people have completely forgotten about me, as well they should. It’s helped your father and I provide you two with a normal life, up until now.”
“You might want to hold that thought,” Brad said. Apparently, he was awake, after all.
Paz tried to see him in the rearview mirror, but because he was directly behind her, it wasn’t easy to tell what he was doing. She thought he was looking out the back window, which was what her mother was now doing.
“Where are they?” her mother asked.
“Black Escalade in the fast lane, five cars back.”
Paz felt a sense of panic returning. “We’re being followed? How do you know that?”
“I’ve ridden in the Escalade before.” Brad’s response was matter-of-fact.
“So, you wake up and just happen to look out the back and notice them?”
“Paz,” her mother said quietly, as she leaned toward the front again.
“Yes,” Brad simply said.
“Colin didn’t give you very high marks for the way you tailed us yesterday,” Paz continued. “Tell me why we should believe that you can so quickly pick out a tail who is actually an expert at it.”
“Paz,” her mother repeated.
“I called them last night and told them where we were,” Brad said.by thefoolishandtheweak
More about Paloma this go around, but thanks to her, we also know more about Paz. Some foreshadowing, as it were.
“Someday, you will feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, and it will take endurance, perseverance, and an indomitable will to keep you from giving up—from surrendering. Someday, Paz, there will be something only you can do, and you will need to be ready for it.”
That sounds like a certain plot line set up if we ever heard it. We think, dear reader, you would do well to remember it. Not just for the story to come, but as far as life is concerned, too. We all have points in our life where we doubt our abilities, or think we don’t fit in.
We later find out it matters less where we are or where we were as it does where we are headed. What we become.
If all we can see is the outer shell, without looking inward, than chances are, we won’t grow much more beyond that. In a way, we self-fulfill our own prophecy.
But when others take the time to assess our situation, and to tell us, especially when that person is as enigmatic as Paloma, it’s best to take heed.
Oh, and what’s up with Brad, anyway? Calling the kidnappers like that. Is he friend or foe?
Keep on scrolling!by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz’s voice took on a high shrill, somewhere between horror and anger, as her mother finally got a word in over Paz’s grilling of Brad.
“We talked about it this morning at the car rental place,” her mother replied.
Paz’s mind flashed back to the look her mother had after she and Brad had talked there. She’d asked about it while they were shopping and her mother had told her it was because Brad wasn’t being completely honest. Now, as it turned out, neither was her mother. What else should Paz expect from someone who was still largely a mystery?
Paz raised her voice. “And you didn’t think that was something important to tell me?”
Thomas scrunched up his face. “Hey, what’s all the yelling about?”
“Brad betrayed us,” Paz said, “and Mom decided to keep it to herself.”
“If you’ll listen just a minute―,” her mother said calmly.
Nearby, a horn blasted, long and loud. Paz gripped the steering wheel and turned her head to look for the source of the noise. She realized she had been drifting into the middle lane and was cutting off another car. Correcting her course, she returned to the slow lane and took a deep breath.
“Okay, I’m listening.”
“This was Brad’s idea,” her mother said. “This was a part of the plan we hatched last night.”
Paz knew the grown-ups had been strategizing. She and Thomas had been told the plan afterward. It had consisted of them heading to Florida with their mother while Colin and their dad went back to DC to try to figure out who was behind the kidnapping attempt. Brad had been unconscious, though, after the explosion. And Dr. Jeffrey had given him a sedative to keep him asleep.
“What?” Thomas rubbed his forehead. He was obviously remembering the same thing Paz did. “Brad had been knocked out.”
“I came to shortly after we got to the Jeffreys’ place,” Brad interjected.
“So, your taking off last night was part of the plan,” Paz said.
“Yes,” her mother answered.
“So he could misdirect the kidnappers. Brad was carrying listening devices and―”
Paz interrupted. “But Colin said the bugs had been knocked out in the explosion.”
“That’s not possible,” Brad said, “and Colin knew that.”
“What? Why isn’t it possible?”
“Because they were all shielded against an assortment of things so they wouldn’t short out, and one of them was embedded behind my ear.”
“So, Dr. Jeffrey gave you a sedative,” Paz said, “so he could take the bug out?”
“Exactly.” Brad was leaning over now so Paz could see him. He had a big grin on his face.
That explained the flesh-colored bandage she’d barely noticed back at the rental lot.
“And we’re not worried there’s another one?” Paz remembered the way Colin had put it―that there were bugs, as in plural.
“The other two were in the clothes I was wearing, which I threw away at the Y.”
“And the one behind your ear?”
“Your father and Colin took it with them. Remember, the ruse was, Brad would be going back with them―”
“To DC!” Thomas interrupted his mother.
“Okay,” Paz said, following along thus far, “does that mean they’re not really in DC then?” She sure hoped they were somewhere behind them. None of this made much sense if they were on their own.
“They’re tailing our tail,” Brad confirmed.
Thomas grinned. “Awesome!”
“And you called …” That part Paz was kind of fuzzy on. If the kidnappers were listening in, wouldn’t they know where to find them on their own?
“He did,” her mother said. “While Brad and I were both unconscious, you were driving and Colin talked to your father. Colin didn’t tell you where you were headed; he just gave you general directions. The Jeffreys or their location were never mentioned around Brad, so the men trying to kidnap you didn’t know where we were.”
“How did you talk about all of this with all the bugs working?”
Paz could see her mother smiling in the rearview mirror, a significant amount of satisfaction on her face.
“Out loud, we talked about the plan we told you and Thomas,” Brad explained. “And when your family and Colin got together, you went over it again. We had the bug from behind my ear in the room so the kidnappers could listen in. The real plan, though, we wrote down on paper.”
Thomas had a look of discovery on his face. “This is sick!” he said.
Meanwhile, Paz thought something wasn’t quite right about Brad’s needing to call his contacts, but she wasn’t exactly sure why.by thefoolishandtheweak
“They couldn’t just track the bug, then?” Paz asked.
“They didn’t bother to equip it with its own GPS,” Brad answered. “They were mainly trying to prevent me from ever giving them away, so their concern was to listen in on my conversations. Plus, they could keep track of me with either my cell phone, which I almost always carry with me, or the navigation system in my car. My phone was charging, so―”
“It blew up with the Camaro!” Thomas blurted out.
That’s it! The part about the Camaro was what confused Paz.
“I thought they already knew where we were,” she voiced. “How else could they blow up the car?”
That revelation surprised Paz more than anything else, and there was a lot to be surprised about, including how easily she and Thomas had been deceived by their own parents. No doubt, they both thought it was for their children’s own good―or the fewer who had to keep the secret, the better―but it still annoyed Paz that she had been out of the loop this whole time, especially when she had been doing all she could to know what was going on.
Thomas asked the obvious question, his eyes big and his voice low. “If they didn’t do it, then, who did?”
“That, we don’t know.” His mother’s face was solemn. “Apparently, there are others involved, and we don’t know if they’re friend or foe.”
“Which is another reason to keep quiet for so long,” Brad said.
“And we’re not worried about them, whoever they are? Paz asked. If they could make a car explode without using any normal means, surely they could listen in on the discussion they were having now.
“Blowing up the car actually helped us,” her mother said. “And since no one got seriously hurt, we’re hoping that whoever these people are, they’re on our side.”
Paz looked at Brad. “How can we be sure it wasn’t your guys? If they’ve bugged you and tracked you all this time, they could be lying.”
“It doesn’t make sense. I knew they were keeping an eye on me. They told me they would, and I knew when they implanted the bug in me. I’ve been trying to come up with a way to get it out ever since.
“When I saw you all yesterday―and totally by accident―I decided this might be my chance. I called and told them I’d spotted you and asked them what they wanted me to do. They were the ones who came up with the idea of having me confess, just enough so you would let me tag along. That way, they could track all of us. Blowing up the car, even if they could have done it, didn’t fit into that plan.”
“You don’t think it’s a setup?” There was certainly enough deception going on to make Paz skeptical.
The question had been meant for her mother, but Brad answered it instead.
“When I came to and remembered what had happened, I realized they weren’t behind me, or they would have called me off. The less I’m involved, the better. The only way they would use me is if they were nowhere near us. They’d need me to keep tabs. Just to make sure, though, Colin told me to ask them point-blank when I called them.”
“And?” Paz asked.
“The contact I spoke with was not at all happy. In fact, he tried to blame me for the car exploding. I’m sure he got an earful from his employer about it.”
“He actually thought you blew up your own car?”
“No, he was just trying to take it out on me. He knows I loved that car.” Brad’s voice took on a momentary tone of solemnity. “Besides that, I told him my money was still in it.”
“So, they think you’re with Colin and Dad,” Thomas stated.
“No. They know I’m with you. I told them it was a decoy.”by thefoolishandtheweak
“We did that so they would concentrate their manpower on us,” Paloma explained. “We’re hoping if they can keep tabs on your father and Colin through the bug, they won’t split up and go after them, too.”
“Just how many of them are there?” Paz asked.
“I can’t be positive, but I think four,” Brad said. “The times I’ve worked with them before, they liked to keep things tight that way. Even now, I doubt they would bring in more muscle. It just means more mouths to keep shut.”
“What about your friends?” Paz was thinking out loud now. Four others had gone to the club with them.
“I didn’t lie about them. They actually attended and graduated from college with me, and they don’t know about any of this. I’ve used them as cover a couple times before, when it fit the operation. Oh,” he added, as if anticipating other questions, “and my parents really are divorced, and I have lived with my Aunt Carolyn since I was twelve. I’m not twenty-one, though. I’m twenty-six.”
Nice of him to make those points, Paz thought. Eventually she hoped to ask him about their ‘chance’ meeting at the birthday party. For the moment, though, she was busy wondering what they were going to do now.
“We’re the bait,” her mother said when Paz demanded to know the rest of the plan. “Colin and your father do the rest.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Even though I-95 went through Palm Coast, Paz was instructed to take the Dixie Highway exit and then follow Old Kings Road North into town. It was a longer route and took more time, but the idea was to make the Escalade back off them even more as traffic thinned out. More importantly, it gave a tactical advantage to Paz’s father and Colin.
Since her mother had mentioned the possibility, Paz wondered what the contingency was in the event the kidnapping team split up. The answer she got was that her father was driving the LaCrosse, and Colin was driving yet another rental. Her father would follow the Escalade, while Colin would stay behind anyone who might be tailing her father. Taking the early exit would give both men a better chance to see what they might be up against.
In the meantime, the goal of being bait was to keep from getting caught. How Paz and the others were supposed to do that, exactly, wasn’t so finely detailed, other than they were to keep moving. Supposedly, they would eventually show up at Oneida’s house, but they hoped to have the operatives out of commission before then. How that would happen was up to Paz’s father and Colin. The ‘bait’ just had to lead the bad guys someplace public.
The plan wasn’t completely foolproof, her mother said, but to Paz, even with the unknowns, it sounded pretty impressive―better than what she could have figured out. Her admiration for Colin went up another notch, and begrudgingly, she gave mental kudos to Brad. She still didn’t know if he was trustworthy (what she did know was that she had not yet forgiven him), but he certainly had the appearance of someone who was all in and genuinely trying to help―even if he was still serving his own interests.
That made Paz wonder what the backup plan was, just in case Brad turned out to be one of the bad guys, or more to the point, his sense of self-preservation took precedence over the well-being of the rest of the group. If such a contingency plan existed, Paz realized she would just have to see it unfold, because it was impossible to discuss it with Brad awake and within earshot.
That, in and of itself, was enough to put Paz on edge, and the stress of their predicament was enough to threaten her sanity, if she let it. Just as she had wondered after the Camaro exploded, she now wondered why she was driving. She was the least experienced, knew the least of where they were going or what they were doing, and she had a real urge to roll up in a ball somewhere.by thefoolishandtheweak
Thomas had been told to list them as a party of four, so they were led to a freshly cleared and wiped table with four chairs. Situated close to the end of the long dining area—with only four other tables to the side of them—the group could watch anyone who came and went. Not that they were expecting their pursuers to come in, but based on all that had happened so far, Paz wasn’t about to put it past them. If anything, she was learning to expect the unexpected, which included, she mused darkly, the bad guys crashing through the wall in the Escalade and snatching them up, or spewing sleeping gas throughout the building’s ductwork.
While they pored over their menus, Paz ran through other scenarios in her head, mostly to keep her mind off her hunger. Even after she ordered (the Tour of Italy, Chicken and Gnocchi soup, and a raspberry cream Italian soda), she kept herself quite entertained with more lavish and outrageous kidnapping attempts. By the time the breadsticks and her mother’s salad arrived―both of which Paz helped herself to―she decided her favorite hypothetical was a teleportation device that whisked them away mid-bite without anyone noticing.
She’d have to tell Thomas later. Since it involved science fiction, she was sure he would appreciate it.
“When do we call Dad?” Paz finished up a breadstick and took a sip of her soda. Since everything else about the plan had changed, she assumed the eight o’clock check-in time had, too.
“He’ll call us,” her mother replied. She’d hardly touched her salad, letting Paz eat most of it. She had a look on her face that Paz couldn’t decipher—like the bittersweet look she got whenever she was reminded of certain things in her past, but it was softer and it was directed at Paz.
Paz wiped her mouth with the cloth napkin. “What?”
“She can’t believe how much food you’re eating,” Thomas said. “And that’s before you get what you ordered.”
Brad smiled. “You sound jealous. Don’t like the competition?”
“She didn’t used to eat like this—that is, until she met you.”
“Thomas,” Paz warned.
“That’s enough,” their mother said. “All of you,” she added, looking at Brad, who shrugged and continued to grin.
“What if Dad and Colin can’t get the bad guys here?” Paz was changing the subject, but no one was going to be able to explain why she had the sudden appetite anyway. If she kept pressing, maybe she could get more answers about their predicament.
“Then, we find a hotel,” her mother said.
Paz closed her eyes. Yet another variable. “What about Ms. Ochoa?”
“We’ll still look for her, but we don’t want to bring the bad guys to her―not yet, anyway.”
“So, what’s the hotel for?” Thomas asked.
He wasn’t the only one who felt confused. Paz had been wondering why they were trying to find a woman from her mother’s past who might not be there, or impose on her if she was. With so much of what they were doing thought out and fairly intricate, the plan seemed to be hinging way too much on an unknown.
“We need to ditch your iPad,” Brad said.
Thomas’s face fell.
“Just for a while.” His mother put an arm on his shoulder. “We want to give them the slip.”
“What happens if Ms. Ochoa isn’t there, or doesn’t want to help?” Paz asked.
“Then, we go to another hotel,” Brad replied, as if the answer should be obvious.
“Why don’t we just take them out!” Thomas said. “Forget the running.”
“There are four of them―,” Brad started.
“And there are four of us,” Thomas countered.
“They have guns. We don’t,” Paz finished.by thefoolishandtheweak
“We don’t want any of us kidnapped or hurt,” her mother said. “We didn’t have a lot of time to plan this, but we all felt we needed to do something sooner, rather than later. We can’t run forever, and we won’t always have a chance to surprise them.”
Paz sighed. “Why can’t they just leave us alone?”
Her question went unanswered as the waiter showed up with another wave of food, which included Paz’s soup and an appetizer sampler Brad had asked for. “Dig in,” he offered. Thomas didn’t need to be told twice, and neither did Paz.
They left the restaurant a few minutes past seven thirty. Three breadsticks, two bowls of soup, two helpings of salad, a third of the appetizer plate, one Italian soda, two glasses of water, and her entire Tour of Italy pasta dish later, Paz finally felt satisfied—not stuffed, but like she had actually eaten something. She almost asked for dessert, but when everyone else passed, she declined as well. Thomas finished all of his meal, too, while her mother and Brad each had some leftovers.
Paz had never eaten like that in her life. It seemed as if her capacity to eat increased with each new meal. Why? And then, where was it all going? She didn’t feel bloated, and she didn’t have more of a need than normal to go to the restroom. Maybe Thomas was right. Maybe she was growing. The quick glance she gave herself in the full-length mirror while in the ladies’ room produced nothing unusual; she was the same old, ordinary Paz.
She knew she was going to need to shave soon, though. She hadn’t really had time to do that the last couple of days, and she could feel and see hair starting to come in where she didn’t want it. It would be a while before it grew enough to be embarrassing, though, and it wasn’t like there weren’t other higher priorities than her personal grooming to be concerned about. It struck her funny that she could still worry about such mundane things even though she had been in near constant danger for the last forty-eight hours.
It might be the only thing keeping her from becoming a basket case. That, and the calmness that both her mother and Brad seemed to exude. Brad’s was self-confidence, like he could get himself out of any difficulty. Her mother’s was more serene resignation—that she couldn’t control everything—but with faith, somehow, someway, things would work out okay.
Paz thought about how nice it would be to feel either form of certainty for herself, but she took comfort that the grown-ups seemed to be taking things in stride, even if it might all be to benefit her and Thomas. Paz decided she didn’t want to know if the optimism was an act or real until after this was all over―if and when it was over―and assuming they were all still around to have the conversation.
It was dusk as they ventured to the other end of the parking lot to get to the car. They kept together, trying to stay in the open as much as they could, while Brad kept an eye out for any suspicious movement. Paloma took over driving duties again, and she backed the car out before the rest of them got in.
Brad took over shotgun, too, relegating the younger two to the backseat. Surprisingly, Paz thought, Thomas didn’t object. He didn’t even request his iPad, and his iPhone remained in his pants pocket. Despite the three-hour nap he’d taken earlier, he looked like he was ready to sleep again. In contrast, Paz felt rejuvenated. What she could really go for was a good, long run.
As they drove to the front of the parking lot, her mother asked Brad if he thought anyone was around.by thefoolishandtheweak
“Not that I could see, but that doesn’t mean anything.” Brad glanced in his side mirror frequently, taking note of how many sets of headlights appeared behind them and comparing their heights and any changes in proximity.
“Do you need me to look up anything?” Brad asked Paloma, reaching for the iPad as they turned onto Highway 100.
“I think I saw our hotel on the way in.”
It didn’t take long for Paloma to be proved right. Not far from the intersection with Old Kings Road, nearly hidden behind a Hampton Inn & Suites, was a Holiday Inn Express. With its proximity to the interstate and being right next door to a shopping center, it seemed like an ideal location for any traveler. For Paz and the rest, it provided more than that; by car, there was only one way in or out, and only the parking area on the east side could be easily monitored. Flanking the back, on the south side, was a grove of trees, a thinner strip of which ran along its west face, acting as a buffer and a natural wall, since the highway ran directly past it.
Paz half expected her mother to know the desk clerks at the hotel, just because they seemed to run into old friends wherever they went. Such was not the case this time; both were somewhere between the ages of Paz and Brad. The four had put their sunglasses and hats back on, anyway, making it more difficult to be recognized, even if they were to run into someone from twenty-plus years ago.
Paz watched intently as the male desk clerk worked through their reservation. He told them they had three rooms, one on each floor. The one on the bottom floor was at the end of the east hall, near the entrance; the one on the middle floor was directly above the lobby and could be accessed quickly by the elevator. The last room was on the third floor on the west side of the hotel, next to a stairwell.
The rooms were booked under three different names―Brad, Paz, and Paloma―the latter again using her maiden name. Thomas made some pouting comment about being left out, but then his mother reminded him he was under eighteen and couldn’t reserve a room yet.
“And it is noted here that you don’t want to be disturbed,” the desk clerk said. “We won’t be verifying your stay here, unless it’s a law officer with ID,” he added. “And we’ll take messages if anyone calls.”
“Thank you,” Paloma said, peering over her sunglasses.
As they went back to the car, she handed Paz and Brad key cards, but not to the rooms reserved in their names. The last card―for the room on the third floor―she gave to Thomas. “I’ll let you hold onto it,” she said. That brightened him up somewhat, even though he knew he wouldn’t be spending the night in the room, let alone by himself. They parked the car in a space on the east side, where the first-floor room was, and then they took their luggage out of the trunk and went inside.
“We’re going upstairs,” her mother said, when Paz went to open the door of the nearest room. Then they took the east-side stairwell to the third floor and crossed the full length of the hallway. Thomas smiled when he got to insert the key card and unlock the door.
Once inside, his mother gave them all instructions. “Pick out a change of clothes,” she told Paz. Brad was already rummaging through his bag and Thomas was sent back down to the front desk to secure his iPad and iPhone in the hotel’s safe deposit box. After he got back and chose his clothes, Paloma stuffed all of the clothing into a plastic laundry bag she found sitting in the closet.
“Now, we wait,” she said.by thefoolishandtheweak
It’s one thing to find out that the guy you don’t really trust is squishy on who’s side he’s on—it’s quite another to find out your parents are in cahoots with him.
Yet, that’s exactly what Paz finds out, and it almost causes her to crash into another car!
We’ve got to hand it to Colin and the rest of the adults. They sure can be sneaky when they want to be. Even better than Paz hoped to be.
But that doesn’t quite lift the angst or the uncertainty, does it? There seems to be all kinds of risks being taken here, without any assurances of outcomes. Any one of a myriad things could go wrong with their plan.
Nah. That couldn’t happen right? Colin is one of the best chiefs of security in the business. Regardless of the circumstances, he’s been keeping the Kirkegaard’s all safe so far, hasn’t he?
What could possibly go wrong?by thefoolishandtheweak
Tasked with watching the news, including the local stations, for anything related to Paz’s Feral incident or their current situation, Thomas sat down on the sofa and flipped through the cable channels. So that Paz would also have something to do, she had been given the cell phone with the secure line since leaving Olive Garden. It wasn’t helping to distract her much, since it had yet to ring. It was not quite eight o’clock.
“Shouldn’t they have called by now?” Paz was concerned, and more than a little bored.
“They’re okay,” her mother replied. “They’ll call.”
“How much more we going to wait around?”
“We’ll give them another hour or so, and if we don’t hear from them, we’ll go see if we can find Oneida.”
“Why her?” Paz wondered out loud. The longer she thought about it, the more she was convinced there must be some reason besides a friendship of more than twenty years ago. Maybe she was the closest person they knew where their plan could work, but the Jeffreys had been armed, and their house would have been as good a place as any to make a stand.
“She and her family moved up here from Miami to be farther away from the drug gangs. It wasn’t as if they could get away from it completely here, either, but Palm Coast was much smaller than it is now―it wasn’t even a city back then―and so it was a quiet place to live. Anyway, they would have guns, and they would have places we could hide where we couldn’t be found.”
“I don’t know if I like the sound of that,” Paz said. Drug gangs and disappearing people didn’t normally end well.
“It’s a long shot they’re still around,” Brad said. “You won’t have to worry.”
“Hey, check this out.” Thomas had stopped channel surfing on the local ABC affiliate out of Daytona Beach in time to see a short tease to the eleven o’clock news, which was virtually over by the time he got everyone’s attention.
“What did they say?” Paz asked, standing next to him.
“There’s a major wreck on the freeway somewhere around here. I thought I saw—”
“I thought I saw the car you, Mom, and Colin were driving. The one Dad and Colin took off in this morning.”
“You think?” Brad asked. “Or, you know?”
“I don’t know,” Thomas said, irritated mostly at himself. “You saw it; it went by pretty fast.”
“Did you see your father?” his mother asked.
“No, just a shot of the mangled car.”
“There’s not a DVR on this, is there?” Paz inquired, as she walked over to the box on the television set.
“No,” Brad said.
Paz saw concern on his face.
If her mother shared it, she did not let on. “Keep watching,” she told Thomas. “Let us know if it comes back up again.” She turned to Paz. “I want you to press the redial button on the phone. Let it ring several times. If no one answers, hang up. We’ll try again if no one calls us back.”
Paz did as she was told, listening breathlessly for the rings. She’d counted four, and then the phone made a noise like someone had answered it. “Hello?” Paz greeted, but it rang again and continued to ring several more times before she gave up.by thefoolishandtheweak
“We’re not changing the plan, are we?” Brad asked. “We don’t know if that was …”
“No,” Paloma replied, taking a deep breath. She closed her eyes. For a moment, she didn’t say anything. “We’re going to stick to the plan. We need more proof that something went wrong before we go and deviate from it.”
That seemed to bring some relief to Brad. Paz wasn’t sure it helped her, even if there could be dozens of LaCrosses out on the road, or Thomas got the make and model wrong altogether. Waiting around for things to happen wasn’t exactly her strong suit. She was starting to feel like Thomas had earlier when he wanted to confront their pursuers. Action was much better than doing nothing, even if it was stupid and the most dangerous thing they could do. Sitting around just made her want to get it over with or fight her way out―surrender―but do something.
It was just about nine when Thomas warned them about another news teaser. This time, he had anticipated it, and so they were able to watch most of the fifteen-second spot together. Unfortunately, it had nothing to do with the freeway wreck; it was all news in Daytona Beach.
“Great.” Paz slapped her hips in exasperation.
“Let’s go,” her mother said. She snatched up the laundry bag.
“Is that all we’re taking?” Thomas asked. He was about to turn the television off, but Brad told him to leave it on.
“Turn it up some,” he added.
The TV wasn’t blasting when they left the room, but the volume was loud enough that it could be heard if someone stood and listened at the door. Thomas started to head down the corridor the way they’d come in, but his mother stopped him.
“This way,” she said, pointing at the west-side stairwell.
“We’re not taking the car?” Paz queried.
Her mother shook her head.
“We’re walking?” Thomas winced. It really did make him look like a three-year-old.
His mother smiled. “We’re taking a taxi.”
Brad took the lead and was the only one to leave the stairwell when they got down to the first floor. A minute or so later, he returned with the all clear. From the west-side exit, they crossed the parking area and headed directly for the tree buffer. A six-foot chain link fence ran along its length.
“This way,” Paloma told them.
For a moment, Paz thought they were going to sneak along the fence line past the other hotel, all the way to Highway 100. Instead, they stopped at a spot in the northwest corner of the Holiday Inn’s parking lot where a section of fence had been cut.
“Convenient,” Paz said.
Before they stepped through the tree line, they could hear cars heading northbound on the freeway. As they emerged onto the grassy shoulder, they saw them, whizzing by at seventy-plus miles per hour. Paz realized they were closest to an off-ramp, and the cars were actually slowing down as they went by. She still didn’t know what they were doing there when her mother yelled, “There’s our ride.”by thefoolishandtheweak
A white van with something written on the side had passed them and pulled over onto the shoulder where it was level, so it could park. Paloma hurried them to it, while Brad pulled open the slider door on the passenger side. Paz was able to read the red lettering in the glow of the streetlights. Between strips of black checkers were the words RIDES and TAXI, along with a phone number. Then she noticed the yellow taxi sign on top.
Thomas recognized the driver right away. “Colin!”
“Get in,” the security guard ordered. If he was happy to see them, he did not show it. To Paloma he said, “You’re right on time.”
“Where is my husband?” she asked, taking the front passenger seat while Brad and her children piled into the back.
“He was in a wreck on the interstate south of here; he was taken to the hospital about forty minutes ago.”
“It was him!” Thomas said, with both fear and vindication in his voice.
“Thomas saw a clip of the wreck on TV,” his mother explained. “How is George?”
“Quite well, considering. They took him in as a precaution. He tried to talk them out of it, but they insisted.”
“And you left him?” Paz cried. She didn’t want it to come out as accusing as it sounded, but she couldn’t believe it was true. Everything seemed to be unraveling now.
“I assure you, he’s all right,” Colin said. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise. He didn’t want you stranded out here and wondering what happened to me or him.”
“Is that the best thing to do?” Paloma asked. She rubbed her temples with her fingertips.
“Considering he took out the operatives who were trailing him, I’d say yes.”
“He did what?” Paloma asked.
The van was back on Highway 100, and for a moment, it appeared to Paz as if they were going right back to the hotel. Instead, they turned north onto Old Kings Road, which meant they were retracing the way they had come in.
No! She needed to see her dad, to make sure he was alive and well. This was all her fault. People were getting hurt because of her. This was more than she could take!
“The hospital is back that way,” Paz yelled, remembering she’d seen a sign for it on the way to Olive Garden.
“Paz, you need to calm down,” Brad said. “He’s safe for the moment, and we’ve got things we need to do.”
“Was getting in a wreck a part of the plan?” she demanded to know as tears welled up in her eyes. She’d been holding it together for the past forty-eight hours, but instead of getting better, things were getting worse.
“No, Paz.” As always, her mother’s voice was calm. “Let Colin tell us what happened.”by thefoolishandtheweak
Colin took a deep breath and began his account from the time Paz and the others had left the freeway at the Dixie Highway exit. Her father had followed them off the freeway, and in doing so, was able to pick up on another SUV following him. He led his pursuers around Old Kings Road but then turned onto Palm Coast Parkway instead of continuing south to Highway 100.
Since they didn’t have a tracking device on Kirkegaard or his car, they needed to follow him the old-fashioned way, by sight. So, they trailed him to an Outback Steakhouse, where he ate an order of Kookaburra Wings and a Queensland Salad, and then found a gas station to fill up the LaCrosse. It wasn’t quite six thirty when he got back on the freeway, headed south.
Meanwhile, Colin had followed after the Escalade in the van, trailing it past the Olive Garden and down the street to a place where the operatives could park and wait for Brad and the Kirkegaards to move again. The accident occurred while they were inside the restaurant.
The congressman had led the SUV down to Daytona Beach, headed toward an exit that, among other things, goes to the airport, when his pursuers apparently decided it was time to make a move. They attempted to cut him off, but he slammed on his brakes enough that the SUV flew right past him. Then, making a split-second decision, he accelerated into the SUV, hitting the driver’s side door. His car had enough inertia to knock the bigger rig off the road, where it landed in a ditch and flipped onto its side before crashing into some trees.
Bruised and dazed, Kirkegaard got out of the car to go check on his pursuers. He had to clear away some branches and brush to see them through the cracked windshield. He couldn’t tell if they were dead or unconscious, but they weren’t moving. The driver hung awkwardly, suspended from his seat belt like he could fall on the passenger at any moment.
Kirkegaard was about to call 911 when he saw someone else pull off the side of the road. He saw the driver get out while talking on a cell phone, so Kirkegaard went back to his car. His intent was to drive away, but then he saw the ruined state of the front passenger wheel and the radiator of the LaCrosse, and he realized he wasn’t going anywhere.
Twelve minutes later, emergency services personnel were on the scene, along with the Florida Highway Patrol. The two operatives were extricated from the SUV and taken to a nearby hospital, alive, but in serious condition.
“There was a chance the accident would cause the men following you to move in, but they didn’t,” Colin said. “When the Congressman was able to tell me what had happened, I left to go get him. By the time I got there, they were already loading him up in an ambulance. They wouldn’t let him go with me, but they did bring him back here to the hospital in Palm Coast. I don’t think he’s been recognized. Fortunately, I had all of our things in here, and he’d left his congressional ID behind, just in case.”
“Any idea what caused them to jump?” Brad asked.
“Not exactly. Obviously, it wasn’t the safest or most secluded place to do it. My guess is that they got orders. They had the heavier vehicle. By all rights, they had him, but fortunately, the Congressman thought fast and did exactly the right thing.”
Paz wiped away her tears with her sleeve and sniffed. “So, he’s okay?”
Colin nodded gently. “Yes. However, I’m sure the team assigned to you is well aware of what happened; they’ll know where your father was taken. As long as they don’t move on you back at the hotel and discover that you’re gone, he’s good.”
“I’m going to go and get him as soon as we check out the Ochoas’ place,” Colin added.
“Take a right up here,” Paloma directed.by thefoolishandtheweak
“This was a waste of time.”
Thomas had uttered the words as Colin came back to the van. As they parked in the driveway of the two-story, stucco house, they could see that no lights were on inside. It was late, but not that late. Then they saw the foreclosure sign in the front yard, and Colin confirmed he’d seen a realtor lockbox on the doorknob.
“Okay, so we go back and get Dad and get out of here,” Paz said.
Brad pointed out half a dozen homes on either side of what had once been the Ochoas’ house.
“Several of these homes look deserted.” “Nearly twenty percent of homes in Florida are vacant,” Paloma added. “The report came out last week. Palm Coast and Flagler County haven’t been hit as hard as some other places.”
“Can you get us in?” Brad asked Colin. The expression on Brad’s face showed he knew the answer was yes; he mainly wanted to know if Colin would do it.
“It would be better if I went back alone,” Colin agreed, deferring to Paloma.
Paz could see her mother weighing options in her mind. “Do it,” she said.
“What about a weapon?” Brad asked.
Colin shot him a glance, which Paz interpreted to mean, Now you’re asking too much, but Colin didn’t say anything. Again, he deferred to her mother.
“Do it,” her mother repeated.
“Yes!” Thomas said with a fist pump, though keeping his voice low and turning away to avoid being seen.
The device Colin used to get into the lockbox to retrieve the set of house keys was able to deduce the digital code within moments. Just like that, they were inside. They were met with stale air as they walked into the entryway, and they confirmed that the power was off. Colin, with the aid of a flashlight, found the breaker box in the garage. When he threw the main switch, nothing happened. Likewise, water service to the home had also been shut off.
He produced a few low-light battery lamps and placed them around the living room. This part of the house was open, so one could see into the dining and kitchen areas without leaving the living room. Meanwhile, Brad took a flashlight upstairs to make sure that part of the house was indeed empty. He came back just about the time Colin appeared from down the hallway.
“Three bedrooms, two and a half baths, and an office,” Brad said as the two men compared notes. “Not bad.”
“Not exactly a drug mansion,” Paz said. She sat down on the floor against the far wall, since there was no furniture. That had been expected, but other things were gone, too―the refrigerator, for one, though that was fairly common in an empty house―but so was the stove, the built-in microwave, and the dishwasher. Colin reported the water heater and furnace had been removed, too.
“Oneida wasn’t a drug lord,” her mother said, “nor were members of her family. That’s why they moved up here―to get away from that influence.”
Paz apologized. She had calmed down considerably over the last several minutes. Strangely, though, she still didn’t feel tired but was filled with nervous energy, like she was on an adrenaline rush that wouldn’t quit. She feared that when she finally wound down, she would crash hard.
“It could take up to an hour or so,” Colin told Paloma, as he headed out. “Stay away from the front windows and lock the door behind me. I’ll call you when we’re standing outside here.”
“Be careful,” Paz entreated.
Colin smiled. “Always.”
“No power, no television, no iPhone, no iPad,” Thomas grumbled after his mother had shut and secured the door. “This just keeps getting better and better.”
“We probably should crack a couple of windows,” Brad offered, “and get some air circulating in here.”
“What happens if we have to go to the bathroom?” Paz wondered out loud, as Brad went first to the kitchen window and then moved down the hall to the master bedroom.
“If you need to go number one, go out back, next to any bushes,” her mother answered. “Number two, you’ll have to hold.”
Thomas scrunched up his face. “Gross.”
“Let’s see how long you last,” Paz retorted. “Are we really going to spend the night here?” she asked, directing the question back at her mother.
“We’ll talk to Colin and your dad when they get here.”
Just then, Brad walked back into the living room. “Okay, you should start feeling some airflow through here.”
“So, more waiting,” Paz said.
Her mother nodded and smiled.
Paz groaned. “Joy.”by thefoolishandtheweak
We’d say the Kirkegaard family, up to now, has been pretty fortunate.
Fortunate that George was able to somehow disable the SUV of the two kidnappers following him, and escape the mayhem relatively unscathed.
Fortunate that the two kidnappers following Paz and company didn’t move on them after their comrades were taken out.
Fortunate that they were able to escape from the hotel and link up with Colin.
Not finding the Ochoa family home is an inconvenience, albeit, a sign of the times. Still, it does provide a respite for the Kirkegaards, even if it turns out to be for a little while.
Perhaps we should say that a little more definitively. Their respite will be just for a short while.
Buckle up, dear reader. Chapter thirteen is where things get a little… well, crazy.
Just one other thing we’d like to note. There is quite a bit of contrast between how Paz reacts to things, and how her mother, Paloma, does. It’s been talked about quite a bit, and now we’ve actually seen it occur a few times.
Keep that in mind as we travel into the next several chapters.
Onward and upward!by thefoolishandtheweak
“They should be here by now.”
Paz wondered what was taking so long after finding out from her mother that it was ten thirty-five. This meant it had been over an hour since Colin left. Paz grew more and more antsy as the night wore on. Sitting around with absolutely nothing to do, and alternately standing when she got too sore to sit down, had not been any help.
To pass the time, she’d asked Brad about how he’d gotten into freelancing for government officials, thinking her mother might be interested in that information, too. Oddly enough, the opening to start the conversation came from Brad.
“Do you know if Congress has more plans to revive the economy?” he asked Paloma.
“Not if my husband has any say. All they’ve managed to do so far is to fend off the inevitable, and make it worse in the process.”
“You mean another deep recession?”
“No,” Paloma replied.
“A depression?” Paz chimed in. Not that she was eager to carry on such a conversation about national gloom and doom when her own personal situation was bad enough.
“Worse,” her mother answered softly.
“What’s worse than a depression?” Brad’s expression told all that he doubted such a thing existed.
“Default,” Paloma answered, “and then insolvency.”
“You mean the government can do that?” Paz questioned.
“They can print money,” Brad said. “They’ve been borrowing some and printing the rest. They’ve been doing that for a long time.”
“Eventually, though, it will catch up.” Paloma’s tone was ominous, even without a change in pitch.
“And you think we’re finally there?”
Paloma shrugged. “I’m not the economist.”
Brad smirked. “I consider that a plus.”
“I’m not a fortune-teller, either,” she continued. “I just know that at some point, something has to give.”
“Like devaluing the dollar to the point that it’s worthless?”
“It doesn’t have to be completely worthless for it to happen,” Paloma countered, “just enough so the dollar is no longer used as the world’s reserve currency.”
“What’s that?” Paz asked.
“When one country does business with another country, they either do it in dollars, or based on the dollar’s value,” Brad answered. “It’s why we can print as much money as the Treasury has over the last couple years. Most of the world trades based on dollars, which means there’s more area to diffuse more dollars throughout the system.”
“Let’s not leave out the Federal Reserve’s role in all of this,” Paloma said.
“Right. The Fed pretty much is the de facto governing authority when it comes to monetary policy.”
“Who knew you would be so concerned about the welfare of our country, or so well read.” Paz said it sarcastically, but she was genuinely astonished at Brad’s interest. Knowing what she did about him, it was by no means a stretch to conclude that he held his own self-interests above all else, which would also include love of country.
“I got into the business I’m in because of it.” Brad seemed taken aback by her bluntness.
“Kidnapping congressmen’s daughters?” Paz tried to be serious, but her voice sounded just playful enough that Brad’s face relaxed, and he smiled.
“No. I got started helping the good guys against the bad guys.” Brad’s smile faded. “I just wasn’t good enough at telling the difference.”
“It doesn’t help when they switch sides, does it?” Paloma sounded sympathetic.
“No, it sure doesn’t. It only took one misread, too, and I was stuck with a bug behind my ear and the proverbial threat clichés―first me, then my parents, then my aunt. It’s been enough to keep me in line.”
“Just how many of these missions have you done?” Paz asked.
“I haven’t kept track.” Brad shook his head and closed his eyes. “Dozens, probably.”
“How long have you been doing it?” Paloma asked.
“Six years.” Surprise flashed across his face followed by a blank stare. “Yeah, six years. I started while I was still in college.”by thefoolishandtheweak
“And this is the first opportunity you’ve had to get out of it?” Paz couldn’t bring herself to believe that Brad had tried all that hard, especially when this time didn’t seem to be so ideal, either.
“This is the first time I thought I might actually do it,” Brad corrected. “It’s kind of an all-or-nothing proposition.”
“And what’s so different about this time around?”
“Me?” Paz asked.
“Well, all of you,” he clarified. “Most people wouldn’t give me a second chance after what I’ve done, let alone let me hang out with them at night in an abandoned home.”
Paz continued to interrogate Brad. “But you said it was the kidnappers’ idea that you make contact with us.” She could see her mother smiling in her periphery. “The only interaction you’d really had before any of this was with me, and we didn’t exactly part on the best of terms.”
“Let’s just say I did some digging after that and got to know who I was dealing with.”
“What? Secret government files?”
“Google. Your dad just won an election to the House of Representatives. There are tons of articles about him and what he stands for. There’s a lot of information on you, too,” Brad added, looking at Paloma. “Recent stuff, and stuff that goes back twenty or more years.”
“The Internet wasn’t around back then,” Paz countered.
“No, but there’s been a lot of online archiving going on since then. You can get a lot of information about people if you know where to look.”
So much for avoiding Facebook and other social media, Paz mused. Her parents hadn’t strictly forbidden it, but they had discouraged it at length. Growing up, she didn’t have a cell phone. Thomas finally begged enough―and spent his own money on them―to get the iPhone and the iPad, but that had been within the last year. Paz had gotten an iPhone out of the deal, too, but aside from calling and occasional texting with Maddy, she didn’t use it nearly as much as it could be used.
Brad’s statement about gathering information on everyone basically killed the conversation. Paz wasn’t sure if she should be completely creeped out by Brad’s clandestine investigation or flattered that he deemed them worthy of risking his life over because of what he’d found.
A few minutes later, Paz asked for the time and became agitated over the answer. She got up to pace the floor.
Abruptly, Paz heard a noise. It came from outside and was so faint, had anyone been speaking at the time, none of them would have heard it. As it was, everyone did, other than Thomas, who had fallen asleep in the corner.
Paz froze. She was about to say something when her mother motioned for her to keep quiet and then pointed at the cell phone.
Then it hit Paz. Colin had said he would call when he and her father were at the door. Paz and the others waited in silence, expecting the phone to ring at any moment. Then, they heard another noise. This one came from the front door.
Brad, who was also on his feet, signaled to Paz and her mother to join Thomas before pointing to the gun in his hand and indicating he was heading out back to see what was going on. Paz didn’t think it was such a hot idea, being left defenseless, but her mother didn’t object, and Brad disappeared soundlessly through the sliding patio door.
Paloma gently tried to wake Thomas, hoping he would do so quietly. As she did, she and Paz heard two more noises, one that seemed to come from around the back of the house, where Brad was, and the other, from the front door. The latter sounded like metal on metal, and in the dimly lit room some forty feet from the door, Paz thought she saw the doorknob begin to turn.by thefoolishandtheweak
Thomas moaned softly as his mother persisted in waking him. She covered his mouth lightly to muffle the sound, but it actually served to bring him into consciousness. He bolted, wide-eyed, looking around and batting at her hand. As she moved it away, Thomas looked groggily at her and then at Paz.
“What—?” he began, but his mother replaced her hand. She signaled for him to shush and pointed toward the door.
“Where’s Brad?” he mouthed.
Paz poked a thumb at the back door.
With Thomas now on his feet, all three huddled in the corner. Their mother indicated they should move and decided the best place to go from there was through the kitchen and into the garage. As Paz opened the door, they heard something that sounded like the scraping of stone, and they froze in place.
From the patio door, they were startled when they heard a voice. “That’s far enough.” A second later, they saw a gun pointed at them. Next, they could see the arms of whoever was steadying the weapon, and finally, the full outline of the person.
He was one of the kidnappers. Wearing a charcoal-colored suit, dark gloves, shoes, and glasses, he blended in with the surrounding gloom. In his ear was a rather conspicuous Bluetooth earpiece.
“Close the door,” he commanded quietly. “Slowly.”
Frightened, Paz did as she was told. There was a creak as the door met resistance on the hinge, and then they heard the latch catch.
“Now, toward me, slowly.”
The Kirkegaards turned to face the man and then stepped in his direction. As they did, another kidnapper, dressed nearly identically to the first, appeared from the entryway. Paz and her family were told to lie in the middle of the floor in the living room, facedown, with their arms behind their backs, and their ankles and wrists together.
Bluetooth took a large roll of transparent packing tape from his jacket pocket and tossed it to his partner. “Wrap and ship,” he said.
Bluetooth’s partner bound Paz’s mother first, and being less than gentle, Paloma winced and gasped in pain.
“Leave my mother alone!” Thomas yelled. He tried to get up, but before he could, Bluetooth kicked him.
“Stop, Thomas,” his mother said, as calmly as she could through gritted teeth. “I’m okay. We’ll be all right.”
While Thomas groaned and rolled back onto his stomach, Bluetooth pointed the gun at the back of Thomas’s head.
“Don’t hurt him!” Paz shrieked, as panic filled her being.
“Paz,” her mother said gently. “I know it’s scary right now, but we need to stay calm.”
Bluetooth’s partner, now finished with Paloma, moved over to work on Thomas. As he did, Bluetooth pulled the gun away and headed toward Paz. As the pressure of the gun barrel left his skull, Thomas twisted, whipping his partially bound ankles into the jaw of Bluetooth’s partner. The man careened backward and hit the wall, where he sat, looking dazed.
At the same time, Thomas reached out for the cuff of Bluetooth’s left pant leg, but before he could do anything, Bluetooth pinned his forearm to the floor with his right knee and then slammed the butt of his gun into Thomas’s temple.
There was a sickening thud, and Paz saw her brother go limp.
She was unaware of her mother’s cry. Seeing her brother lying there so lifeless―helpless before Bluetooth―something snapped inside of Paz. With agility she had never known, she jumped to her feet and was about to launch herself toward Bluetooth. His arm recoiled, the gun shifting in his hand, and menacingly, he hovered over Thomas as if he were waiting for a twitch or groan—anything to give him a reason to do the boy more harm.
Out the corner of her eye, Paz saw Bluetooth’s partner move, as well, a dull glint extending from his gloved hand.
Paz didn’t know if the scream was hers, or if it came from her mother, but it was instantly swallowed up by a booming thunder, which, in turn, was vaporized in the blinding brilliance of a white-hot light.by thefoolishandtheweak
Conversation over the national economy and dire predictions of doom and gloom.
Brad’s cyberstalking of the Kirkegaard family, only to see if they might be his means of escape, of course.
And if that’s not bad enough, somehow Bluetooth and his partner track them all down, apparently taking out Brad in the process, with no sign of George or Colin.
Obviously, though, the biggest cliffhanger of all is just what happened as Paz moves towards Bluetooth to stop him from hurting her brother.
The scream, regardless of who it came from, is fairly ordinary, given the circumstances. So is the thunderous noise. A gun, fired in an enclosed space, would do that, after all.
But what was that light? It’s so bright it either dulls every one of the other senses, or incredibly, it wipes out every other sensory input.
So, the question is, what just happened?
Did the kidnapper’s bullet find its mark? Or, does something else account for the light?
Well, the answers aren’t going to be found in Chapter Thirteen, now are they?
That’s what Chapter Fourteen is for. Hopefully.
The gentle trill filtered into a languid envelope of succoring warmth. The pitch rippled with the modulation and seemed to vibrate as it echoed. The sound was soothing but the word meaningless.
“Paz? Wake up, Paz.”
Four more vibrations struck the pitch, launched over all dimensions of its depth. They, too, bounced melodiously, and yet, comprehension refused.
“Paz, you need to wake up … now.”
Reverberations rocked the darkness, rolled it, and sent it fleeing before an ever-brightening wave of light. In mere moments, where once only the pitch had ruled, now it could only be found in full retreat.
Where none had existed, nor were they wanted, rays of light made her eyes flutter and Paz found herself wrenched from the welcoming, eternal abyss of profound, peaceful slumber, to the reality of morning and gloomy beams stabbing through large day-lit windows.
“I’m here. It’s okay.”
Paz started to sit up and immediately wished she hadn’t. Her body ached. She felt as if she would faint, and she saw stars. With a groan, she rubbed her eyes and tried not to move.
“What time is it?” she asked quietly.
“It’s nearly four o’clock in the afternoon.”
“On Tuesday?” That didn’t seem right. How long had she slept?
“Yes.” Paz could feel her mother’s long, slender fingers stroking her hair.
“That’s going to put me to sleep again,” she purred.
“I’d let you, if I could, but you and I need to talk before the others get here.”
“Where are we?”
“We’re at Dr. Jeffrey’s clinic.” She leaned away from Paz, taking some of her warmth and softness with her.
Paz frowned. “What? Why?” She realized she had no idea why they were there. She couldn’t remember getting there, either.
“We needed to make sure that you, Thomas, and Brad were okay.” Her mother slid off the bed and came around where Paz could see her. She had the bittersweet look again, which was becoming more commonplace.
“Thomas?” Paz repeated the name. She knew that was her brother, but she couldn’t figure out why he would need to see a doctor. Or Brad. Or, for that matter, why would she? Something was impeding her memory and her ability to think clearly. She felt like she was slogging through a dense fog.
“You don’t remember anything about last night?” her mother asked.
“I …” What did she remember? She knew they were in Florida, in a place called Palm Coast. Why? It was still Spring Break for some schools—she knew that much. Maybe they were going to the beach here, then? That didn’t seem right. Why couldn’t she remember?
“Dr. Jeffrey said you might have some temporary amnesia. You’ve had a pretty traumatic last couple of days.”
“It’s important that you try to remember,” her mother said. “If you can’t right now, that’s okay. We’ll take it slow.”
“Do you remember what happened Saturday night?”
Paz closed her eyes. Saturday night? “I went to …”
“Where did you go?”
“I went to a dance club with a boy named Brad,” Paz finally managed to answer. Her voice sounded robotic and trancelike. She was seeing bits and pieces of her past, but they came in fits and starts.
“That’s right. Do you remember what took place there?”
“We danced. He got drunk and grabbed my …” Again, her voice trailed off. “I kicked him in the …”
“Then what did you do?”
“I ran. I ran and I ran and I ran …”
“That’s right, you ran. Then what?”
Paz smiled. “You found me—you and Colin.”
“You saved me,” Paz corrected.
“I was being chased. I didn’t know I was, but I was being chased by men who wanted to …”
“What did the men want to do, Paz?”
“Okay, that’s good. Can you tell me what else happened?”
Paz gasped. Her eyes flew open. It was like rolling down a hill, gaining enough speed until there was too much inertia to slow down. Suddenly, the haze in her mind dissolved and images and feelings were flying in faster than she could articulate them.
“We’ve been on the road and on the run ever since,” she said, more lucid. “We knew we were being followed, and Colin and Dad―” Dad! Her father had been in a car wreck! “Is Dad okay?”by thefoolishandtheweak
“Yes, he’s fine. He’s with Thomas and Brad.”
Oh, no! She remembered about Thomas―the kick to his side and the butt of a gun to his head―but she couldn’t remember anything about Brad except that he’d gone outside.
“Are they okay?”
“Yes. Both of them have nice knots on their heads and roaring headaches, but they’ll live.”
“And you’re okay?” Paz remembered the rough treatment her mother had received while being wrapped up in tape.
“Yes, I’m fine.” Her mother smiled and rubbed her wrists. “I’m none the worse for wear.”
“Am I okay?” The thought finally occurred to Paz. She didn’t seem to be able to move much without feeling violently dizzy. She felt no nausea, she noted with thankfulness, but the room started to spin anytime she moved her head. She could move her arms and legs without the vertigo, but doing so hurt. It felt like the times she and Thomas used to hit and kick each other when they were little.
“You will be.”
“Mom, what happened to me?”
All the other memories had come back: the club, her lying, apologizing, them fleeing, seeing Brad, his car exploding, meeting the Jeffreys and Tonja, Brad running away, Brad coming back, hoping Oneida Ochoa would help them, the abandoned house, being surprised by two of the kidnappers, her mother and brother being bound with tape, Thomas fighting back and his being struck on the head….
“Try to remember, Paz. It will be better if you do it on your own.”
“I …” She pushed her memory a little more. Lying on the floor, not yet restrained, she had jumped to her feet and charged toward Thomas’s attacker. In the process, the attacker’s partner had regained his senses and his gun. Smoke and flame belched a bullet from the barrel and―
“I was shot!” she cried, quickly putting both hands to her face. With her fingers, she felt along her forehead, the sides of her ears, down her jaw, and then her neck and shoulders. There was something strange about what she felt, but there were no wounds and no bandages. She took a moment to study her fingers. They seemed odd, too, as if they were thinner than they should be, and a lighter shade of brown.
“No, Paz, you weren’t.” Her mother gently lowered Paz’s hands. “The kidnapper tried to shoot you, but he missed.”
“But I …”
“Think hard. Think,” her mother implored.
Again, Paz closed her eyes, replaying the most recent memory again. She saw Thomas lying limp and the kidnapper who had pistol-whipped him kneeling over him, waiting for an excuse to do it again. She felt panic give way to … what? Adrenaline? Power? It had been an overwhelming, consuming need to act before anyone else got hurt. With amazing speed, she was off the floor and flying at the man who had hit Thomas. At the same time, she was aware of the other man, regaining his wits and bringing his gun to bear. She heard a scream, a boom, and then―
Paz gasped. Memory once again flooded in, demanding space where none existed. She saw herself, hovering a few inches off the floor, sheathed in white flame. The kidnappers moved in slow motion, with shock and then terror registering on their faces, and then they simply collapsed.
With their assailants disabled, Paz became aware of a sound penetrating the flickering aura surrounding her. Her mother was calling her name. Paz looked down and saw her mother’s face and the bittersweet expression.
The last thing Paz remembered, she was falling into darkness.
Her mother whispered through Paz’s memory, bringing her back to the present. “Did you see?”
“What happened to me?” she asked, again looking at her fingers.
“Something wonderful—something I thought would never take place.”
“I was on fire,” Paz said slowly, wide-eyed and in disbelief. “Something came out of me and hit the men …”
“Yes, and for now, only you and I can know the truth.” The tone of her mother’s voice changed from glowing warmth to solemn finality. “No one must know. Not yet.”
“Why?” What about her dad? Thomas? They were her family. Shouldn’t they know?
“You need to understand what’s happened to you first,” her mother answered. “Once you’ve done that, then others will believe. Until then, we must keep it secret.”by thefoolishandtheweak
“It’s rare, but I’ve heard of cases like this before.”
Dr. Jeffrey stood at the foot of Paz’s bed. Minutes before, her mother had opened the door to let him enter, along with Paz’s father, brother, Brad, and Colin. They surrounded her now, some sitting on corners of the bed and others standing. All of them listened to the doctor with rapt attention.
“So, you’re saying it’s normal to grow like this?” Thomas asked. He sat next to Paz, who was now propped up with pillows. She felt a little better since recalling the events of the previous night.
“No.” The doctor shook his head. “It’s not normal to grow three inches in such a short period of time.”
“But there are documented cases?” asked Paz’s father. His face carried obvious concern, but he seemed as dubious about the growth spurt as his son.
“Yes, but not quite like this.”
“I don’t follow,” Brad said. He stood opposite Paz’s father, his arms folded and a bandaged cut under his right eye. A walnut-sized purple and olive welt protruded from the left side of his forehead.
“Paz has grown in a virtual instant,” Dr. Jeffrey said, “and it seems to have been induced by an incredible amount of trauma or stress.”
“She has been eating a lot lately,” her mother said. “Could that have anything to do with it?”
The doctor shrugged. “At this point, anything is possible. We won’t really know without running some blood tests.”
“I am pretty hungry,” Paz said, looking around at the group. Her stomach had begun to complain the moment she learned what time it was. Fortunately, she hadn’t noticed it right away, but now there was no denying it.
Her admission solicited some nervous laughter from the group.
“It is all right if she eats, isn’t it?” her mother asked.
“Yes, of course. I’ll have Gracie bring in some broth and JELL-O to start with, and if that stays down, we’ll move toward something more substantial.” The doctor turned to go. “You’re all welcome to stay with her for a while, but if she starts to tire, it’s best that she get some rest.”
“Just when I thought I was going to dwarf you all,” Thomas muttered as the door closed.
“Paz makes a last-minute surge,” their father said, grinning. He tousled his daughter’s hair. That, too, had changed somewhat. Instead of being jet-black, it was now a shade or two lighter, just like her skin.
“I’m happy for all the concern and attention,” Paz said. “I really am. I’d still like to know more about what’s going on and what we’re going to do.”
“I’ll request a House investigation into the matter,” her father said. “I’ve talked to a couple other freshmen House members, and they’ve also had pressure tactics applied, although this is the only incident of kidnapping that I know of so far.”
“What about our kidnappers?” Paz asked. “Do we know anything about them? Have they said anything?”
“The two from the crash are still in critical condition and have been in and out of consciousness since last night,” Colin reported. “The two who attacked you aren’t talking yet.”
Paz wondered if her attackers remembered what had happened to them the night before. If so, it wouldn’t matter if she and her mother kept it quiet.
“So, we still don’t know who they’re working for?” Paz pressed.
“No,” Colin answered, “but we are getting closer. Brad has agreed to testify against them in exchange for protection and immunity―”
“It’s the least I could do,” Brad interrupted, as Paz flashed him a look of gratitude. He tipped an imaginary hat to her.
“And we might get some information out of one of the kidnappers,” Colin added.
“Where are they right now?” Paz asked.
“The two from the wreck are still in the hospital in Daytona Beach,” Colin replied. “The two who attacked you are on ice with associates of mine in Charlotte. We’ll be picking them up and flying them back to DC.”
“We?” Thomas asked.
“He means himself, Brad, and me,” Thomas’s father clarified.
“What about the three of us?” Thomas asked.
“We’re still on vacation,” Paz said. With the kidnappers hospitalized or detained, maybe they could still have a real vacation.by thefoolishandtheweak
“We’ll be going home to Bryan as soon as you’re cleared to fly,” her mother said. “It’s best that you don’t overdo it until we know your situation has stabilized.”
“That’s not fair,” Thomas said, echoing Paz’s sentiments, although for different reasons. So much for his delusions of beach honeys.
“This is your sister’s well-being we’re talking about, Thomas,” his father said softly. “Right now, her needs come first.”
“Which means she gets chicken soup and cherry cream swirl.” The door popped open and Gracie stood in the doorway, holding a tray with the described food, along with a cup of 7UP.
“The rest of us should probably think about getting something to eat, as well,” her father said, rousting her brother.
“What? You’re leaving me?” Paz protested. “I’ve got more questions.”
“They can wait,” Brad teased, heading to the door. “Your needs come first, remember?”
“What about my need to know?” For one thing, she hadn’t quite heard what the ‘official’ story was from last night. She knew her mother would come up with something, but it was rather disconcerting how well her mother could cover up things. Paz had seen it working full force since they left the Jeffreys’ house the first time, and obviously, there was the whole thing about her mother’s past that Paz kept getting glimpses of.
“We’ll be back after a bit,” her mother said, giving Paz an encouraging wink.
“Bon appétit,” Gracie said, as she uncovered the lid from the soup bowl with a flourish. “If there’s anything else you need, just let me know.”
Paz smiled. “Does Dr. Jeffrey fall in love with all his hired help?”
“Nope,” Gracie replied from the doorway, “just me.”
Not only did Paz have no problem keeping the soup and JELL-O down, she was also able to eat a salad, pasta, and a piece of fried chicken. She could have eaten more, but her mother insisted she stop before she ate all the clinic’s meager food reserves.
Not long afterward, Dr. Jeffrey came in and took a blood sample. “I think we can keep this all very discreet,” he said, answering a question Paloma asked regarding the lab where the samples would be sent. “I’ll inform you of the results,” he added. “Are you sticking around here or going back to Washington?”
“Neither,” Paloma replied. “We’re going to take Paz home. She’s supposed to be in school, anyway, and it would be nice to give her a chance to rest in familiar surroundings.”
“I’m afraid I’m not used to long-distance patient care,” Dr. Jeffrey said.
“I really do feel better,” Paz said, getting out of bed and standing up for the first time since arriving at the clinic. “It’s kind of weird to be taller, though.” As she walked around, her equilibrium seemed to be fine, but her center of gravity was definitely different, even if she was only a few inches taller.
“Well, be careful,” Dr. Jeffrey ordered. “Don’t go running any 10Ks or doing any strenuous activities for a while. You could probably help with the dishes, but get plenty of rest and keep your nourishment up. It’s not often I get to say this, but an increase in calories is important right now.”
“Thank you, Karl,” Paloma said, giving the doctor a hug. “Did someone give George the bill?”
“Nope, this is on the house.”
“I know you don’t bill health insurance, but you do bill your patients,” Paloma said. “Besides, there will be lab expenses, too.”
“Yes, but I still owe you from last time.” Dr. Jeffrey waved his hand. “I wouldn’t even be here now to help if it hadn’t been for you.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Yes, but seeing you again makes it seem like yesterday. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of just how important you were to my practice and my sticking it out. So, as long as I’m around and can help you, I will.”
“You’re too kind.”
“What I should be doing,” Dr. Jeffrey added with a chuckle, “is getting a sample of your DNA. I’d make millions if I used it to develop a youth serum.”
“You’d put all your colleagues in the plastic surgery profession out of business,” Paloma teased back.
“Oh, we wouldn’t want that,” the doctor said. “I’ve got a few more things I need to do before I can leave. I’ll see you both later.”by thefoolishandtheweak
Now, that’s the kind of chapter we like.
Reveal something completely bizarre and unnatural about Paz, and then tell her to keep quiet about it, when she really doesn’t even know what happened or why.
Paz, sheathed in white flame, emitting some kind of pulse, taking out the bad guys in the process. On the one hand, you could see why Paloma would want to keep that quiet. We’ve seen enough movies and comic books to know when talk gets around about someone having “powers,” it doesn’t go well for the person who has them.
But that doesn’t seem to be Paloma’s primary concern at all. Rather, Paz needs to find out for herself what’s happening to her, understand it, and then the others, namely members of her family, will believe, too.
Maybe that’s not quite the same reason for keeping abilities hidden, but effectively, it’s the same result.
Oh, and then there’s the growth and coloring thing. How about Dr. Jeffrey’s being able to diagnose it? There are strange cases going on all the time, certainly, but boy, we’d like to know what goes on in his clinic.
One thing we have to say, though, Paz sure gets a sweet deal, here, doesn’t she? Eat good food to her heart’s content, and not worry about gaining a pound. In fact, if anything, she appears to be losing!
Man, could we stand to have an “ability” like that!by thefoolishandtheweak
After Dr. Jeffrey left, Paz got dressed. In doing so, she passed a full-length mirror and stopped to look at her reflection. It was like looking at a stranger, but not quite; it was still her―a little taller and a little thinner―though her body seemed to adjust around the growth proportionally. The coloring of her skin, hair, and eyes was off, too. They were all lighter now. Her mother had gone to buy yet another set of clothes for her, guessing she had grown more than an inch in her legs as well as her torso. The guess had been right, but her hands and feet had grown a little, too. Paz put on the same tennis shoes she’d worn the night before, and while they still fit, they didn’t have the customary quarter-inch of space in the toe, and they seemed as if they weren’t quite wide enough. Her socks were a little snug, too.
Since they were alone again, Paz asked her mother what she had told the others about last night.
“More or less the truth. Thomas took down one of the kidnappers before being knocked out, and you took out the other one by ramming him into the floor.”
“And they believed that?” Paz didn’t even believe it. Before last night, she had weighed one hundred twenty pounds. The kidnapper who had hurt Thomas easily outweighed her by nothing less than sixty pounds. Even had she caught him by surprise, knocking him out with one blow seemed very remote.
“They do for now, and with the doctor vouching for your growth spurt, we’re covered there for the moment, too.”
“What will we do when the blood test results come back? Wouldn’t they show something is radically wrong?”
“I don’t think they’re going to find anything, other than you’re a normal, healthy nineteen-year-old young lady.”
“Who just managed to grow three inches in an instant.”
“And lost five pounds in the process. It’s a good thing your body was bulking up before that.”
“Mom, do you know what happened to me?” It sure seemed to Paz that her mother knew.
“As I said earlier, it’s better if you discover the reason on your own.”
“Just how do I do that?” Paz wondered. She had personally experienced it, and yet she still had no idea why. How could something like this be easily understood, let alone be explained? She could remember the flames encircling her body. She could feel the warmth, but she was not burned. The sensation had not lasted very long, however. In fact, it had lasted just long enough to get her and her family through the crisis, and then, whatever it was, it went away as quickly as it had come.
“You’ll know,” her mother replied, mussing Paz’s hair.
“You sound so sure. It’s like it’s happened to you, too.”
“We probably should get going.” Her mother picked up Paz’s bag, conveniently ignoring her daughter’s statement.
As they drove away from the clinic, Paloma brought Paz up to speed on what was going on. Colin and her dad had spent a couple hours dealing with the consequences of the wrecked LaCrosse and turning in the rental van earlier in the day. Colin had used the kidnappers’ Escalade to transport them to Charlotte. The Cruze would continue to be used and then turned in at the airport when Paz, Thomas, and their mother went to catch their flight.
The others had already gone back to the Jeffreys’ house. They would all spend the night there and then travel to the airport for their respective flights. Paz kept asking questions of her mother as they drove from the clinic to the house, though she avoided anything directly related to her transformation.
Paz learned that after she had passed out, her mother had been the only one who remained conscious, but she was bound and was unable to find anything that might cut through the tape wound around her wrists and ankles. Neither of the kidnappers had any knives or other sharp objects on them that she could readily access. She had been squirming around on the floor, moving from Paz to Thomas, and then to the attackers, to check their conditions and to try to find something that would help free her, when she heard noises and a groan from outside.by thefoolishandtheweak
It was Brad, regaining consciousness from his run-in with the attackers. They had more or less been waiting for him when he came around the side of the house and had dragged him, out cold, to just inside the gate. Brad felt lucky to be alive, her mother added, which he hoped meant that the jury was still out so far as the kidnappers were concerned, pertaining to his loyalty status. That, or they had intended to finish him off later, after they’d taken care of the others.
Brad had a small pocketknife he used to cut Paloma free, and then he taped up the kidnappers. It wasn’t too much longer after that when Paz’s father and Colin arrived. They weren’t happy about the fact they had not been there earlier (apparently, the hospital had found out who her father was and had become more careful than needed in looking after him). At any rate, it had taken longer than planned to get him released, which is why Colin’s prediction of an hour stretched to almost two.
It was nearly eleven at that point, but after Colin had determined that Thomas and Paz were not in any danger (that, despite Paz’s new height and appearance), the adults reasoned it would be better to drive back to Rock Hill than to risk another hospital stay. Word had already hit the local news about the Congressman’s accident, so any subsequent hospital visits by others in his group would have raised even more eyebrows, especially one involving Paz. Colin felt if her father’s accident went national, then the events of Saturday evening would, too. They were still hoping to keep a lid on things while they grilled the two they were flying back with to Washington.
Brad drove Thomas, Paz, and the unconscious kidnappers in the Escalade. He did this despite his injury and the fact his ultimate loyalty was still in question. Apparently, though, the journey was completed without incident. Colin brought the van, while Paloma took the Cruze, leaving her husband to rest in the backseat, since he was still sore from the wreck.
They rolled into Rock Hill just after six. They caught Dr. Jeffrey as he was heading to the clinic. After a quick check of the elder Kirkegaards, he told them to eat and get some rest—that there was nothing they could do for their children while they remained unconscious. Brad followed the doctor to the clinic with Paz and Thomas while the other adults ate breakfast.
Initially eschewing sleep, Colin took the kidnappers to nearby Charlotte, where he got five hours of rest and then drove back to Rock Hill. In the process, he worked the phone, running down leads, including the license plates of the vehicles used by the kidnappers. Both were registered to the federal motor pool. He avoided checking on the identities of the kidnappers, however, hoping not to alert their superiors or benefactor to their current situation. He couldn’t do much about the two kidnappers in Daytona Beach, so he didn’t even try. Colin figured someone would spring them before the day was out.
With the Escalade in the possession of the Kirkegaards and the other SUV in no condition to be driven, Colin hoped a lack of ready transportation would at least slow the hospitalized kidnappers down if they managed to check themselves out in the next twenty-four hours. He hadn’t arrived at the accident scene in time to remove phones or other communication devices from them but had been luckier with Bluetooth and his partner. While password protected and hardened against hacking, Colin’s associates in Charlotte held out hope they could at least find a list of recent calls on one of the devices.by thefoolishandtheweak
Meanwhile, Paz’s parents had slept until about one in the afternoon, when Colin showed up. By then, Brad had been checked out and released, and had gone back to the house. He ended up falling asleep from the pain pill the doctor had given him. Thomas revived only a few hours after getting to the clinic but was kept under observation until his mother arrived. Paz showed no sign of coming out of it, even up until the point her mother finally asked if she could try to wake her. Smelling salts and other medical attempts had failed, but because it was her mother, Dr. Jeffrey had relented.
It took most of the fifteen-minute drive to recount this information. Paz was barely asking about earlier events regarding Colin and her father’s findings with the Camaro and such when they pulled into the Jeffreys’ driveway.
“I’ll let you ask them,” her mother said.
Ten minutes later, with her belongings situated, Paz sat on the sofa flanked by her parents, while Brad, Thomas, and Colin sat in chairs brought in from the dining room. Licorice, lying in her basket, looked rather forlorn.
“There’s not a whole lot to tell,” her father said, after Paz asked about their earlier adventures. “We got gas, drove to Durham, rented the van, and then headed up to where the Camaro had exploded. It was gone by the time we got there.”
“Did you find out who towed it?”
“Actually, we didn’t. Colin called the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, the Henderson Police Department, and the Vance County Sheriff’s Office. None of them knew anything about it, nor did the fire district.”
“So, it just disappeared?” Why didn’t that surprise her? With all that had happened, and was continuing to happen, each new mystery seemed to be par for the course. Paz didn’t like the feeling of the abnormal being the norm.
“Quite literally,” Colin replied. “Not only was the burnt-out frame not there, but all the pieces that blew off it were gone, too.”
“And no one saw anything?” There had been all kinds of traffic when they’d come through the area. Someone must have seen something.
“No. And no one reported it,” Colin confirmed.
“There wasn’t a single 911 call,” Thomas said, chiming in. He’d already been given the rundown earlier when the adults had all compared notes.
“No way,” Paz said.
“There’s no record, and no one on duty remembers receiving a call,” Colin said.
“So, how does a blown-up car just disappear in broad daylight without anyone seeing it or being concerned about it?” Paz asked the question with more exasperation than incredulity.
“The same way it blows up in the first place, apparently,” Colin answered.
“It sounds like you folks have had quite the adventure,” Gracie said, rocking nervously in her recliner. “You still haven’t told us what this is all about.”
“You probably know too much now, as it is,” Kirkegaard said.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat?”
“We’re good, thank you,” Paloma replied. “We’re just thankful that you and the doctor have been so kind and generous with your hospitality. We couldn’t have asked for better.”
“It’s our pleasure,” Gracie said, a smile forming on her lips, though the worry never quite left her eyes, “and I do mean both of us. You are all welcome here, anytime.” Then she looked directly at Brad and added, “That goes for you, too, young man.”
“Thank you.” Brad sounded genuinely grateful.
“Okay, well, I’d better get something going for the husband,” she said, getting up. “Are you sure I have no takers? Paz?”
“I’m fine.” It wasn’t exactly a lie, though Paz was sure she could have packed in some more. Her stomach wasn’t protesting, though, and she was sure there would be some dessert or snacks later she could snag if needed.
“Were you able to get the military transportation you were talking about?” her mother asked, when Gracie had entered the kitchen. The question was directed at Colin, who shook his head.
“No. We decided against it.”
“You’re going to fly commercial?” Paz asked, stupefied. Finally, something surprised her.
“I know an air marshal, and she’s managed to work her schedule to match our flight,” Colin said. “I’ve got permission to bring my concealed weapon, so that will make two of us. It’s not a full flight, either, especially in first class.”
Colin can pull strings when he wants to, Paz thought.
“What time do you fly?” she asked.
“Late, after ten tomorrow evening,” her father said. “Best we could do with such late notice.”
Her mother had told Paz that the two of them and Thomas would fly out of Charlotte at eleven fifteen in the morning. They’d be in Houston just before one.by thefoolishandtheweak
“Are we flying first class, too?” Thomas asked.
His mother nodded. “Actually, we will, this time. Because it was so last-minute, there wasn’t much difference between the two rates, so your father and I decided we might as well get as much for our money as possible.”
Kirkegaard sighed. “This is costing a mini fortune.”
“Won’t the government pay for the five of you?” Paz queried.
“Yes, but I’m still not happy about it.”
“You could have gone for the military plane,” Thomas reminded.
“Unfortunately, that would have cost more and would have included more red tape,” his father answered. “Maybe if I’m ever Speaker of the House …”
“George,” Paloma scolded.
Kirkegaard grinned. “She’s objecting to my being Speaker.”
“You’re lucky I gave you permission to run in the first place,” Paloma came back. “I knew how cutthroat it could be, but if I’d known it would be like this …”
“No one could have predicted this,” Colin said. “I, for one, am glad you ran, sir.”
“That’s awfully kind, even if it’s in your best interest,” Kirkegaard said with a smile. “I know you’ve worked for others you weren’t so enthusiastic about.”
“That’s putting it mildly.”
“So, I’m not the only one with a corner on that market,” Brad said. It was only a half-hearted tease, and Colin seemed to recognize it as such.
“It gets harder and harder to tell who the good guys are,” Colin admitted. “There’s something in the air that changes people. I’m convinced of it.”
“And the cocktails,” Kirkegaard proffered. “It’s called power, and they’re drunk with it.”
“That’s why you’ve got four years, and that’s it,” Paloma said. “No career politician in this family.”
“Like my brother?”
“I’ve heard he’s considering a run for president,” Brad said.
“Oh, he’ll run,” Kirkegaard replied. “He decided that when we were seven―when he found out our grandfather was a senator.”
“That’s right, you two are twins,” Paz recalled. The conversation had shifted into politics, and while it was somewhat interesting at times, Paz felt the need to pounce on every opportunity to learn about her family. Her uncle―Franklin Wilson Kirkegaard―was another mystery. She didn’t really know why, but her father and uncle rarely saw each other, and they spoke to one another only slightly more. She knew she had two cousins, both boys―one older and one younger than she was―but she didn’t know too much more than that.
“Yes, we are.”
Paz noticed the faraway look on her father’s face.
“Why don’t we ever hang out with them?” Thomas asked. He had apparently picked up on Paz’s interest, along with his own. Thomas wasn’t much for politics, either.
“Mostly, because your Uncle Franklin is pretty busy,” their father answered.
“But there’s something else?” Paz thought there might be some kind of issue between them, but she wasn’t sure. Her parents very rarely mentioned her uncle or his family, which she found strange, given what Maddy said about her own family. Apparently, Maddy’s parents were always talking about all their brothers and sisters and what they were doing.
“Let’s just say your father and uncle haven’t always seen eye to eye when it comes to politics and government,” Paz’s mother said, “and leave it at that.”
“Didn’t the Senator help out with your campaign?” Brad asked.
“No.” It was Colin who answered, and a little too pointedly. While it wasn’t much, Paz thought Colin’s response might actually amount to emotion for their head of security.
“In all fairness, he did offer,” Kirkegaard clarified. “I just thanked him and said I’d rather do it on my own.”
Brad shrugged. “I would have thought you’d want his pull. He’s got quite a bit of it.”
“I don’t even live in his state, but I wouldn’t trust that wolf in sheep’s clothing with a rifle in my right hand and electric shears in the other.” The door had just opened and Dr. Jeffrey walked in.
“I think the proper allegory is RINO,” Brad said with a grin.
“Oh, he’s a Republican, all right,” the doctor retorted, hanging up his hat. “He’s just the kind that gives Republicans a bad name. Progressive.”
“Supper is ready.” It was Gracie calling with forced cheer from the kitchen.by thefoolishandtheweak
While we all stop to catch our collective breath, let’s see what we know now.
1. Paloma knows what’s happening to Paz, but she won’t tell her. Paz needs to find out on her own. It’s as if Paloma has experienced it herself.
2. Everyone is still wary about Brad, but so far, he’s been following orders.
3. Though there were plenty of people around at the time, no one seemed to care that the Camaro exploded, or that someone might be hurt by it. No calls to the police or fire departments were made.
4. When Colin and George went back to where the Camaro exploded, it was gone. No trace of it or the explosion. No record of it being hauled off by anyone.
5. Colin can pull strings when he has to.
6. George has a twin brother, named Franklin, and the two don’t get along. Paz and Thomas don’t really know their aunt, uncle and cousins, because of it.
7. Franklin is a Senator from Virginia.
As usual, the information received leaves more questions than answers. The mystery deepens!
Just the way we like it!by thefoolishandtheweak
If Paz hoped to learn more about any branch of her family, it was not to be. While Dr. Jeffrey ate, the conversation returned to politics, and even though it was still fairly early in the evening, Paz found herself drifting in and out of the grown-ups’ conversations. Some of it had to do with the trauma her body had sustained the night before. Some of it had to do with the fatigue as a result of that trauma, but in the end, it had to do with not completely understanding the subject matter or its personal relevance.
She tried to follow along but soon found herself daydreaming about all kinds of things―past conversations, recent events, what she did actually know about her parents and extended family, and just how in the world she was supposed to understand the impossible―specifically, what had happened to her in the abandoned Ochoa home last night, and why.
She had understood Dr. Jeffrey’s theory that the growth she had experienced could be a direct manifestation of her body under sustained duress, as unlikely and rare as it may be. The fact that it was in direct correlation with her mutating into a being sheathed in white fire wasn’t a part of that working theory, though she didn’t know exactly how that would help things, even if the doctor knew. That only led to more questions with few answers.
The exception to this was that her mother seemed to know what Paz had experienced―or at least had an idea―but she wasn’t sharing it. She’d told Paz she must find out for herself.
Her mother’s voice came through Paz’s reverie at one point. “Are you tired, Paz?” Her father was expounding the virtues of limited government for the benefit of Brad, who didn’t seem to be objecting to it so much as he was playing devil’s advocate. He seemed to enjoy the role, with way too much relish. Fortunately, her father was able to see it, so the exchange had remained low-key. Her father could get worked up when he wanted to.
“A little,” she admitted. “What time is it?”
“About eight thirty.”
That was still a little early yet, but Paz decided sleep actually sounded good, especially since her mother didn’t want her eating anything else for the time being. She excused herself from the group, each telling her good night in return, and she went to the room she and her mother had shared the other night, except this time, she got the bed.
As was typical, she didn’t fall asleep immediately, but by the time her mother finally entered the room around eleven, Paz was completely under.
With a start, Paz later woke with a whisper of lingering dread. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought she’d dreamt of being on fire again, but her mind lost the memory of it before her eyes fluttered open. It was not yet light outside. In the gloom, she was able to see her mother’s watch. She noted with mild amazement that she could not only see where it was perched on a chest of drawers, she could actually read the time. The distance must have been a good twelve feet, but the hands clearly pointed to five twenty-nine.
She could see her mother’s outline on the air mattress beside the bed and supposed she could get to the door without disturbing her, but Paz wasn’t entirely sure what to do once she got there. One thing was for certain; she was wide-awake.by thefoolishandtheweak
Paz got up and walked over to the window. She could do that without stepping over her mother. She moved the filmy curtain from its place and tried to peer through the window. For the most part, it was blurry, streaked with the morning dew. Through it, she was able to discern dark green hues―probably the forest―and some dark browns, which might be outbuildings. Paz could also see something white mixed into the colors. It wasn’t much more than a blip, and she might not have even noticed it, except it seemed to be moving.
She didn’t know, but she assumed it was possible that there could be animals in the trees. It had never come up before in conversation, but no one had ever really said how thick the forest was, or how far it extended—there could be all kinds of life in there. Part of Licorice’s duties included chasing off squirrels and other critters that might get into the vegetable garden, but Paz didn’t even know if it had been planted yet, and if so, she doubted much could be growing this soon. Licorice was not very subtle when it came to pursuing prey, however. Paz was pretty sure she would hear her baying if she were out and pursuing anything.
As the white object flitted around, settling in the dark green area, disappearing behind some brown, and then reappearing in front of another section of green, Paz’s curiosity increased to the point that she decided to open the window. The latch fell away rather easily, but hoisting the window up wasn’t nearly so simple. She was sure she could do it with one big heave, but she didn’t want to wake her mother or the whole house in the process. Besides, she might scare away the white object, whatever it might be.
So, for what seemed like minutes, Paz inched the window up, watching the filmy shape through the moisture. When she’d raised the window a couple inches―enough to feel the cool air flowing in―she scrunched down between the bed and the wall and tried to peer through the open space.
Her guesses on the greens and browns had been pretty accurate, though some of the latter turned out to be tree trunks. The white object, though, was harder to discern. It was still there, and it was moving, but it didn’t seem to rove nearly as much as she thought it had. Rather, it was stationary, but parts of it billowed out and retracted, like a sheet blowing in the breeze.
Paz wondered how far away it was, and how big it might be. She could tell it was well down the gravel drive but not yet to the main road. She also wondered what it was, since it didn’t look like any animal she recognized. It could well be something that had gotten caught on a stake or a branch. It was hard to tell in the predawn light. Paz contemplated pushing up the window some more, so she could climb out, but she heard her mother stir and turned to look at her. When her mother did not wake up, Paz turned back to the window. Whatever it had been, it was gone.
Paz rubbed her eyes. Maybe she was seeing things. Was she really awake? She could be dreaming. She knew, though, that she wasn’t. Nor had she hallucinated the illusive whiteness, either. With the outside air bringing a chill to her skin and the room, she closed the window and hurried back under the covers to get warm. As she lay there, she tried to figure out what she might have seen. It wasn’t anything readily identifiable, but for some reason, with Paz not knowing why, it seemed familiar, like déjà vu.
That last thought struck Paz more than the fact she’d seen something that had so quickly vanished. After all, it wasn’t menacing. She hadn’t felt fear―far from it―she had been drawn to it, and as she thought of it further, she felt a pleasing calm. What kind of shapeless form could invoke such feelings? What did it remind her of?
Her thoughts were still inconclusive minutes later, when the rest of the house began to rise and move about.by thefoolishandtheweak
“She’s not there.”
The young woman for the Transportation Security Administration running the backscatter machine at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport didn’t look to be much older than Paz. She also appeared extremely bored with her job, popping her bubble gum and barely looking at the x-rayed images of the travelers going through. It was difficult to tell if she was uninterested, or if boredom or embarrassment explained her behavior, but her entire demeanor changed when Paz was ordered to place her hands above her head and strike a pose.
Earlier in the morning, Paz, followed by her mother and brother, had showered, dressed, and eaten another sumptuous and filling breakfast. Paz tried to control herself, but Gracie kept asking and she kept accepting, until Paz finally had to leave the table. That was after six slices of French toast, five pieces of thick hickory-smoked bacon, two slices of honey ham, three sausage links, a double portion of scrambled eggs, and two glasses of orange juice and milk each. As had become the case with previous meals, Paz was satiated but did not feel like she had just gorged herself.
A peek in the mirror told her that little had changed in her figure from the day before. She was still taller and more slender than she had been, and her skin, hair, and eyes were still their new colors. What’s more, she didn’t feel different anymore, as she had when she first woke up. This new form felt natural, and she could feel herself abounding with energy.
At the appointed time, Paz, her mother, and brother had said their good-byes. Paz gave Gracie and Dr. Jeffrey extra-long hugs, not knowing if she would ever see them again. She knew a lab report would follow, but that wasn’t a guarantee that a visit would be in order. Since she would be seeing her father and Colin again, she lingered less with them, and then when she got to Brad, she wasn’t exactly sure what to do. He had betrayed her, and now he had protected her. Did that make things even? She gave him a solid embrace and thanked him, for which he seemed truly grateful, and then turned to follow her mother and brother out to the car.
The airport was about a forty-minute drive in late rush-hour traffic. With the flight leaving around eleven, they wanted to be there an hour and a half ahead of time, which meant leaving the Jeffreys’ home about eight thirty to allow time to return the Cruze to the Enterprise lot and then make it to the US Airways check-in line. That part went off without a hitch. So did the initial security screening. Her mother and brother both made it through without being selected for further screening via the backscatter machine, but when it was Paz’s turn, she was chosen.
When her image failed to appear on the screen the first time, the accompanying TSA agent had her step aside so that someone else could come through. The move allowed screeners to verify the machine was indeed working and not entirely malfunctioning. Then, the agent, joined by a second screener, made Paz―already feeling uncomfortable with the machine―go back in. Most of this took place before her mother was aware of it, and when she saw that Paz had not picked up her shoes and other personal items, she went back to look for her.
A third TSA agent now looked at the screen, since it was to him that the younger agent had earlier expressed her disbelief over the blank screen. He came back around from the viewing area and told the second TSA attendant, a taller woman in her late thirties, to walk Paz over to a secluded area off to the side, where they would ask her questions and initiate a search.
“What’s wrong?” her mother asked, as Paz was led away.
“Ma’am, I need you to wait over there for a moment,” the second TSA agent said.
“I want to know what you’re doing with my daughter.” Paloma was polite, but she continued to follow them.
“Please, wait over there,” the agent repeated, signaling to where a baffled Thomas was being watched by yet another security agent.by thefoolishandtheweak
“I realize this is your job, and you are following procedure, but unless you tell me why you need to search my daughter, I’m going to request to speak to your supervisor.”
“They say they can’t see me,” Paz finally answered, when the TSA agent did not.
“Can’t see you?”
“On the machine … it works for everyone else, but not for me.”
“Mom?” Thomas called out. He wanted to join them but felt reluctant, still feeling a little wimpy after being kicked in the ribs and bludgeoned on the head by one of the kidnappers. Paz had no doubt if pushed, however, that he would come barreling to their aid.
“It’s all right, mijo,” his mother said. “We’ll be done in a minute.”
“Ma’am.” The third agent, seeing that Paloma was following TSA agent No. 2 and Paz to the pat-down area, came up behind Paloma and placed a light hand on her shoulder. Upon touching her, he suddenly stiffened and withdrew his hand, as if he had been shocked.
“Would you mind telling me what’s going on?” Paloma asked firmly.
“Since your daughter isn’t registering on the machine, we need to search her before she can leave security.”
“How can you be sure it’s her and not your machine?”
“Everyone else has gone through without a problem,” TSA agent No. 3 replied.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate that my daughter be patted down.”
“She can’t leave without it.”
“Then, I need to speak with your supervisor.”
“I’m the supervisor,” said a woman wearing a suit jacket and skirt in TSA colors. Apparently, she had been told of the commotion and had come over to see what was happening.
“Would you please tell her what you told me,” Paloma said calmly.
“The young lady doesn’t show up on the scanner,” agent No. 3 said simply. “Everyone else does, so we don’t think it’s the machine.”
“I see,” the supervisor said.
“I know everyone here is doing what they can to keep all passengers safe, and I very much appreciate that. However, I’m afraid I can’t have my daughter subjected to a pat-down.”
“She can’t leave security without being properly screened,” the supervisor said.
“I believe she has been,” Paloma insisted. “Her things are waiting over there. They made it through security just fine. She was randomly selected for the backscatter machine, correct?”
Agent No. 3 nodded.
“Then, again, I must insist that you let my daughter leave with her dignity intact.”
“Ma’am, I understand your concerns, believe me,” the supervisor said. “This will all be over quickly if you’ll just let us―”
“No!” Paz shouted. She moved away from TSA agent No. 2. “I will not allow this to happen.”
“Young lady, I’m afraid it’s not―” the supervisor began.
“I am a citizen of the United States of America. I have protection under her Constitution. It is the individual’s rights that are protected, not the State’s. If you must detain me by force, that is your prerogative, but I will not allow my person to be searched without warrant, and without probable cause.”
“I …,” the supervisor began. Slack-jawed, she was visibly amazed at what Paz had just said, as were the other TSA agents. The security line had all but stopped. Even those farther back in line strained to hear what Paz had said.
“Stop me if you must. Otherwise, I take my leave.” With that, Paz linked her mother’s arm in hers and they walked away.
With a bright smile and glistening eyes, her mother whispered, “That was beautiful, Paz.”
“What?” Paz appeared as if she had just been startled from a daydream.
“What just happened?” Thomas asked. Paz and her mother stopped and turned around. The TSA agents continued to gape after them, and so did everyone else. No one seemed to be in a hurry to stop the Kirkegaards, however.
“Nothing,” his mother said. “Get your things.”by thefoolishandtheweak
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