Launching a dangerous search in Chicago's underbelly is not Evonne's biggest obstaclepartnering with Trinity is. They'd managed to keep their history a secret, but in close quarters they can't deny the passion that still connects them. And if there's any hope for a Christmas reconciliation, they'll first have to survive their risky assignment .
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Chicago, Tuesday, December 22, 2009, 2:05 p.m.
Only three days until Christmas.
Victoria Colby-Camp smiled as she watched the rush of last-minute shoppers along the sidewalks of Chicago's Miracle Mile.
Lunch with a longtime friend just two blocks from the office provided a nice stroll in the gently falling snow. Though many only endured Chicago's harsh winters, Victoria loved this time of year. It was filled with countless reasons to be joyous and to celebrate. Just six years ago she had celebrated her first Christmas with her son after more than twenty years of not knowing whether he was dead or alive.
Now she not only had her son, Jim, back, she also had gained a wonderful daughter, his wife Tasha, and two amazing grandchildren. A darling granddaughter, Jamie, and five-month-old Luke, Lucas James Colby. James would be so proud. The memory of her beloved late first husband brought a smile to Victoria's lips. He would very much approve of how far she and Jim had come despite the many obstacles life had thrown in their paths.
Victoria paused a moment to consider the building that had become home to the Colby Agency after the original building had been destroyed. Despite the state-of-the-art security, evil still found a way to touch those inside. Certainty chased away the niggling worry. No matter how hard their enemies fought to bring down the Colby Agency, somehow Victoria and her staff overcame the seemingly insurmountable to not only survive but also to thrive.
For this she was immensely thankful.
The chilly wind blew a wisp of hair against her cheek. Victoria swept it away, tucking the strands back into the French twist she'd so meticulously arranged that morning. Not so easy to do with gloved fingers. Sentimentality flowed inside her as she considered the numerous miracles she had observed firsthand over the past two-plus decades. The good somehow always outweighed the bad. She owed much to those who continued to persevere alongside her at the agency and fight the good fight.
Some had moved on to begin new lives elsewhere, but most remained invaluable assets, both as friends and as business contacts. The Colby staff was the best of the best. Victoria appreciated each one for his or her unique qualities. This year she and Jim had decided upon distinctly generous bonuses for every member of the staff.
Another smile spread across her lips. It was the least she could do given the enormous sacrifices each had made through their continued dedication and loyalty during the ups and downs and changes with the agency.
A rush of pedestrians drew Victoria from her tender, affectionate musings.
"Did you see that?" a woman asked another as the two, headed in Victoria's direction, glanced back then hurried forward.
Victoria didn't hear the rest of the conversation since the women moved by so quickly. A group of pedestrians farther up the sidewalk drew her attention there.
A woman stood alone.
Victoria was first taken aback by her lack of suitable attire considering the freezing weather conditions. No coat no hat or gloves. Dear God, no shoes. The woman stood, staring across the street, as if she expected someone or something to appear in her line of vision.
Then she turned, facing Victoria's direction, and trudged forward, her bare feet faltering clumsily through the ankle-deep snow.
Victoria's lips parted with a sharply indrawn breath.
The front of the woman's yellow blouse was stained a deep crimson. Droplets of that same startling color dripped from the fingertips of her right hand and onto the newly fallen snow, leaving a horrifying atlas of her jagged path.
Victoria's gloved hand slid into her coat pocket, wrapped around her cell phone even as a sort of shock held her unable to look away unable to properly react. Who was this woman? What had happened to her?
She stumbled closer. "Can you help me?" Her lips were cracked from exposure and her skin was deathly pale from the icy cold.
Instinct kicking aside the shock, Victoria bolted forward just in time for the woman to collapse into her arms.
"Help me," she begged, her eyes wide with fear and glassy with whatever physical trauma she had suffered. Her left cheek was swollen. Blood had trickled from her nose and coagulated on her skin.
Victoria hit speed dial for the office as she lowered the woman onto the cold blanket of snow. "Mildred," she said before her personal assistant could launch into her practiced greeting, "I need paramedics. Now! I'm on the street in front of the office. I have a female, mid-to-late twenties, who is injured and bleeding."
Victoria surveyed the woman. The bleeding appeared to start at her left shoulder. "Make the call and get me some help out here!"
Tossing the cell phone aside, Victoria opened the bloody yellow blouse to assess the injury. A penetrating wound on the left shoulder. Deep. Still oozing precious blood.
"Please," the woman urged, her voice scarcely a gasp. "Help me."
"I've called for help," Victoria assured her as she shrugged off her coat and ripped the scarf from around her neck. With one hand she pressed the scarf over the wound to staunch the bleeding while spreading the coat over the woman's body with the other.
A sharply indrawn breath jerked Victoria's attention upward. A man, cell phone in hand, stared at the startling sight.
"Take off your coat," Victoria ordered him, "wrap it around her feet and legs."
Still frozen, the man blinked.
"Do it!" Victoria demanded.
His movements stilted, the man shouldered out of his heavy winter coat and moved to do as he had been instructed. "What what happened?" he asked.
"I don't know," Victoria told him. "Help is on the way." To the woman whose lips were still moving with inaudible words, Victoria said, "Can you tell me your name?"
A weak gaze locked with Victoria's. "Help me," she murmured.
"You have my word," Victoria promised. "But I need your name." Sirens wailed in the distance, providing some amount of relief. Help was on the way. Thank God.
"My baby " The rest of the woman's words were thready, indistinct whispers. "He took my Lily."
Victoria leaned closer. "Please, tell me your name." She wanted desperately to pursue the subject of the baby, Lily, but she needed the woman's name first.
"Wanda " She moistened her cracked lips. "Larkin."
"What happened?" Victoria's son crouched on the other side of Wanda.
As if a shot of adrenaline had renewed her, Wanda Larkin frantically grabbed at Jim's shirt with her right hand. "He took my little girl," she cried. "You have to help me!"
Victoria's gaze collided with Jim's for an instant before returning to the woman's.
"Who took your baby?" Jim asked, his voice gentle.
"The paramedics as well as Chicago's finest are here."
Victoria glanced up at Trinity Barrett, a member of her staff. Like Jim, he hadn't taken the time to grab his coat before rushing out into the harsh weather. Victoria nodded, thankful the slippery streets hadn't slowed down the arrival of emergency services.
"Who took your baby?" Jim repeated a bit more firmly.
"My ex-husband," Wanda murmured. "He took my baby." Tears leaked from her glazed eyes. "I tried to stop him. Outside the toy store." She gestured feebly in the direction from which she'd come.
As Trinity filled in the paramedics, Jim prompted more answers from the victim. Where did she live? What was the name of the toy store where the attack and abduction had taken place?
Victoria cleared her mind and took mental note of the information Wanda managed to provide before her ability to listen and respond faded further. Victoria grabbed her phone from the snow and put through another call to Mildred with instructions to send Von Cassidy to the major toy store only a few blocks away. It was the only one in the direction Wanda had indicated. Every moment that passed lessened the likelihood of finding witnesses to the incident. There was no time to wait for the police to react.
Victoria and Jim moved aside as the paramedics took over care of the victim. While the police attempted to question Wanda, Jim gave Trinity a nod and they both slipped away. Victoria covered for them when the questioning turned to her and the man who'd reluctantly helped by giving up his coat.
By the time the paramedics had taken Wanda away in the waiting ambulance and the police had gone with a warning that there would likely be additional questions, Victoria was freezing. "Thank you," she said to the man whose name she couldn't immediately call to mind.
"I'm just sorry you had to ask for my help." He shook his head and offered a bewildered shrug. "You see these things on the news in the movies " He shook his head again. "But you never expect to be the one "
"You reacted commendably," Victoria assured him before he trudged away. She surveyed the sidewalks where those who'd stood by watching now went on about the business of hurrying to their destinations.
When, she wondered, had helping one's fellow-man become more a spectator's sport than a call to action?
She peered at the bloody snow where the victim had lain, then up at the sky. Victoria closed her eyes and let the falling snow sting her cold cheeks. Who was this woman? This Wanda Larkin?
Was the incident related to a custody battle?
Or was this something far more sinister?
Either way a child was missing.
Whatever the motive behind the actVictoria shifted her gaze to the building where her staff waitedthe Colby Agency would find the missing child.
And the man responsible for this unthinkable tragedy.
Humboldt Park, 3:30 p.m. (2 hours missing)
Trinity Barrett surveyed the block surrounding the apartment building where Wanda Larkin lived. Jim Colby reached for the unsecured door leading into the building. Trinity followed his boss inside the dingy stairwell. The wails of an infant somewhere above the first floor were underscored by at least one blaring television. A woman shouting at someone who had evidently made her unhappy drowned out the rest of the cacophony.
Jim studied the row of mailboxes on the wall to the left of the entry door. "Third floor, 306."
Wanda Larkin had given them the street address, but the apartment number she'd murmured had been inaudible.
Three flights of stairs later, Trinity approached Larkin's apartment first. A metal number six identified the unit.
Jim held up a hand for Trinity to wait as he moved to the right side of the door and knocked loudly.
No response from the interior. No distinguishable sound.
Prompted by Jim's second round of knocking, somewhere on the fourth floor a dog barked.
Jim nodded his approval and Trinity reached for the doorknob.
Technically they were entering unlawfully, but the woman had given her address when Jim askedwhich could be loosely construed as authorization to enter the premises. The cops hadn't arrived just yet, which meant Trinity and Jim would need to proceed with caution. Tampering with evidence could impede the investigation as well as get them in serious hot water with the authorities.
The latch released with nothing more than a single turn of the knob. Trinity pushed the door inward and drew back, staying to the left and clear of the opening.
Seconds ticked by with no reaction.
Jim moved into the doorway, then entered the apparently deserted apartment.
The place was neat and clean despite the worn-out furnishings.
No sign of a struggle.
The scent of recently baked cookies permeated the air. A small Christmas tree sat on the table in one corner, the decorations mostly homemade.
Jim headed for the small hall that likely led to the bedrooms and bath.