Line of Fire, An Autumn Rain Novel
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Copyright ©2000 Rachel Ann Nunes.
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Jared jerked suddenly from sleep. Cricket song and the sounds of other night animals echoed in the cool mountain air. He listened to their symphony and breathed in the fresh smell of pine from the forest. Nothing out of the ordinary. What had awakened him? Why did chills of fear ripple through his body?
Just a dream, he told himself. Since his release the week before, he had dreamed several times that he was still being held captive by his former boss, Laranda Garrettson, and Big Tommy, the mobster. But Laranda was dead and Big Tommy in prison; neither could hurt him or Cassi again.
Knowing this didn't prevent him from having bad dreams or from feeling angry when he thought of the danger and terror Laranda had put him and Cassi through. During the years he had worked for Laranda as a buyer for her art gallery, she had used him to smuggle goods into the country; and when he and Cassi had finally realized what Laranda was doing, the discovery almost cost them their lives. Only one good thing had come from the experience: he and Cassi had fallen in love.
Yet the problems had not ended with the miracle of love. Laranda had been wounded in their first encounter, but her injuries were largely faked. She soon escaped her hospital prison and joined forces with her nemesis, Big Tommy. She had many plans, among which was to take over Big Tommy's organization. But hate, jealousy, and revenge had also consumed her, and she had come after Jared and Cassi again with a single-minded vengeance. She had attempted to murder Cassi and to corrupt Jared's soulthat, or see him dead. He knew only a miracle had saved their lives.
Jared forced the unwanted thoughts away; it was all behind them now. Cassi slept next to him in the bed, her soft breaths coming deeply and regularly. He watched her for a moment by the light of the moon streaming in through the window, marveling at his good fortune.
Alone in a mountain cabin with the most beautiful woman in the world. What more could a man ask for?
A two-week stay in this one-room cabin in the French Vosges had been her idea for the honeymoon. This was their second night together, and already it was proving the most exciting and profound time of his life. He loved being married to Cassi.
Thump! The sound burst through the calm of the night, a stark noise that didn't resonate with nature's simple music. Was this what had awakened him?
Jared slipped from the bed and went to investigate, his toes curling at the touch of the cold boards of the cabin floor. He cast a backward glance at Cassi, still lying peacefully on the bed. Even without the long hair he had so adored, he thought she was beautiful. The tight brown ringlets, lightly touched with auburn, splayed over her face as she slept, her lithe body curled in a loose fetal position.
Grabbing his robe from the table where he had left it earlier, Jared headed for the door, wondering who could be outside. The Perrault family, who had provided them with both the cabin and a vehicle for their stay in France, certainly wouldn't intrude upon their privacy so soon, if at all.
The noise came again. It was a dull thud, sounding as though something had been dropped on the porch.
Jared opened the door quickly, his eyes widening in surprise. A blond, tousle-headed boy stared back at him in the bright moonlight, his jaw clenched and his face sullen. On either side of the child sat two large, battered suitcases. A taxicab was heading down the dirt drive, away from the cabin.
"What are you doing he?" Jared didn't wait to finish his question to the boy, but sprinted after the taxi. "Wait!" he shouted. The small, sharp rocks on the ground dug into the soles of his bare feet. "Wait! Ow! Wait! Ow! Ow! Wait!" But by the time he was halfway down the drive, the taxi had disappeared.
Jared stared after the vanished car for a full minute, shaking his head in frustration. The air was cool and fresh and uncluttered with smog, unlike the city of San Diego where he and Cassi lived. Nearby, he could hear a brook gurgling in its never-ending cycle of life. It was the perfect honeymoon retreat, far from the demands of the art gallery which Cassi had only recently inherited from her boss and mentor, Linden Johansen. But their retreat had now been suddenly invaded.
Jared started back toward the cabin, determined to get some answers out of the child. For the first time he noticed the coolness of the late September eveningor early morning, more likely. He pulled his dark blue robe more tightly about him and wished he had stopped for his slippers.
The child waited for Jared on the moonlit porch, his dark gaze sullen, his stature defiant. That made at least two of them who were less than happy about this situation. Who was this child? And why did he seem so familiar?
"Who are you?" Jared asked sharply. "And why are you here?"
"You're Jared, aren't you?" the boy said.
"Yeees." Jared elongated the word. "You seem to have an advantage over me."
"I'm here to stay. I don't like it any more than you do." The boy clamped his jaw shut and glared at Jared.
Jared glanced at the cabin door, wondering if the commotion might awaken Cassi. "Look, we got off on the wrong foot. I just want to know who you are and who I can call to get this straightened out."
"My dad's in jail. Like you didn't know."
"And your mom?"
The child's scowl deepened. "Dead."
Jared ran a hand through his blond hair. "It's not that I don't like kids. But I'm here on a honeymoon, you know? This is bad timing. We have to find out where you belong. You have to have a guardian, someone who's looking for you. They'll be worried."
"There's nobody. That's why I'm here. And like I said, I don't like it any better than you do. I'd be better off on my own. In fact, I'll be going now." The child reached for the suitcases that together must weigh more than he did, causing the small flight bag on his shoulder to fall to the porch. He picked it up and reached again for the suitcases.
"Wait." A suspicion formed in Jared's mind. There was only one child whose father was in prison, awaiting sentencing, and who was also remotely connected to him and Cassi. That dimple in his chin certainly looked familiar, and the large brown eyes as well.
The door to the cabin swung open. Cassi, dressed in her lace-trimmed red nightgown, yawned delicately as she stretched in the doorway. "What's going" She stopped as she spied the boy. "Sampson! What are you doing here?"
Jared's suspicion had been correct. "This is Big Tommy's son?" he asked. Instinctively, he scanned the trees for hidden eyes. A mobster's son as a visitor was not a good sign, and Jared had seen enough guns and thugs to last a lifetime. He had hoped those days were behind them.
"Dad sent me. He said now that he was in jail, where you put him, you could take care of me."
Cassi hefted one of Sampson's suitcases. "Come on, it's a little cold out here. Let's go inside."
Jared stifled a sigh and picked up the other suitcase. This was not exactly how he had envisioned his honeymoon. He saw Cassi smiling; no doubt she knew exactly what he was thinking, and it amused her. Jared had to admit that if it had happened to anyone else, it would have been laughable.
"Did you just come from the airport?" Cassi asked as Jared lit the lantern. She swept up her sheer red robe from the chair by the bed and wrapped it around her.
"Yeah, in one of my dad's planes."
Jared caught Cassi's gaze again. What was so important that Big Tommy had wasted a huge sum of money on fuel to send Sampson to France? Jared doubted the reason had been to ruin their honeymoon.
"Are you hungry?" Cassi asked. "It's nearly one in the morning here, but it's still daytime in San Diego."
Sampson brightened. "I could eat."
In the cupboard Cassi found some boxes of cereal they had purchased in town yesterday, but Jared put them back. "I think this is a bacon and eggs story." Truth was, Cassi couldn't cook more than burnt toast, and Jared needed to do something to help him keep his emotions under control. Cooking was therapeutic. With one match, he lit the prepared fire in the wood-burning stove where they cooked their meals.
"So tell us what you know, Sampson," Cassi said, sitting at the small round table. "Why would your father track us down all the way in Europe and send you? I don't get it."
"It's for my protection." The careless way Sampson said the words showed Jared how little he thought of the idea.
Cassi passed out the plates Jared handed her. "Why do you need protection?" she probed.
"Because I'm the only heir. Dad just wants to make sure I'm safe till he gets out. When I'm old enough, I'm taking over."
"Taking over what?" Cassi asked. Jared knew that the innocence in her tone was faked. She was testing the boy.
"Over what my dad does. The family business. You know."
"I do. But I wonder . . . do you know what that really is?"
"Course I do," Sampson said. His voice had resumed its sullen tone, but Jared noticed the boy still answered Cassi's questions, his eyes almost never leaving her face.
"So who do you need protection from?" Cassi's next question was one Jared really wanted answered. He left the bacon in the pan on the stove and approached the table to hear the answer.
"The competition, who else? Like, duh, with my dad and me outta the way, our guys'd lose heart and the competition could take over."
Cassi looked up at Jared, alarmed. He motioned for her to continue her questioning. "So your dad thinks you're in danger, huh?" she asked. "But instead of telling the police, he sends you to us. Why?"
Sampson stared steadily at Cassi before answering. "He said he could trust you to take care of me. He said you would do what was right."
Cassi's bewildered glance told Jared that she was as confused at this turn of events as he was.
"So don't you have any relatives who can do the job?" Jared asked.
Sampson didn't reply.
"Tell us," Cassi urged. "Someone's taken over running the business while your dad's in jail. Who is it? And why aren't they taking care of you?"
"Dad has a cousin, but he died. I got an uncle, too. He's the one running the business."
"Why didn't your dad send you to him?"
Sampson gave a shrug. "Dad said he had his hands full enough."
Jared thought he heard a ring of truth in Sampson's words. The boy believed what he had been told. But Jared doubted it was the whole truth. "How old are you, anyway?" Jared asked.
"You tell me," the boy said darkly.
Jared hazarded a guess. "Eight?"
"No, older," Cassi said. "About nine, right?"
Sampson snorted. "You guys know nothing. I'm not some baby. I'm eleven now." He shook his head woefully. "And you're supposed to take care of me. What a joke! You guys know nothing about kids."
"You're right." Jared glanced at Cassi. "We'd better call Fred at the FBI and let him know what's going on."
"No!" Sampson protested. "I'll just run away."
"Look, we're not making any decisions right now," Cassi said. "At least not before we eat. Are you hungry, Sampson?"
Sampson sniffed appreciatively. "That bacon smells good."
Jared took that as his cue to return to the stove. In minutes he had eggs, bacon, and juice on the table. Before sitting with the others, he slapped thick slices of French bread in the pan to toast.
Sampson lifted his fork to dig into the meal, but Cassi's touch on his hand stopped him. "We give thanks first." It was Cassi's turn, so she offered the prayer. Jared thought it was just as well. Sampson didn't seem to mind anything coming from her.
"Mmm," Cassi said after taking a bite of scrambled eggs. "I don't know why, but it always tastes better in the mountains."
Sampson gave a grunt, but didn't pause in his hurry to down everything within reach.
Typical boy, Jared thought.
"Jared's a great cook," Cassi said as Jared served the toast.
Sampson shot a deadpan glance at Jared. "My dad never cooks."
Jared laughed. "Your dad's a multibillionaire and an organized crime boss. I bet there are a lot of things he's never done. Not to mention a lot of things he's done that many people would never do."
Sampson dropped his fork onto his plate, as though unsure whether to take offense or not. Cassi offered him more bacon and the boy scooped up his fork and resumed eating, pausing occasionally to scowl at Jared.
After breakfast, Cassi took their dishes to the sink. Jared joined her, keeping an eye on their unwanted guest. "Do you want me to light the heater?" Jared referred to the small water heater that connected to large bottles of natural gas. The device heated the water almost instantly as it circled through the heater and out into the sink or the tub. An efficient and effective system.
Thanks," Cassi said. She waited until he lit the heater and adjusted the temperature before she turned on the water and added soap.
"I don't like this," Jared said in a low voice over the sound of the water.
"I know it's inconvenient, but we'll take care of it." She gave him a seductive grin. "You've waited thirty-five years for a honeymoon and I've waited twenty-nine. What's a few more days?"
"It's not just him coming here now, it's him coming here at all. It doesn't make sense that Big Tommy would send him to us when he's got an uncle."
Her hands suspended motion, as though frozen in the warm water. "Unless he can't trust that uncle."
Jared's jaw dropped. Cassi's intelligence was one of the reasons he was so attracted to her. "Why didn't I think of that?" He rubbed a hand over his tired eyes. "But, Cassi, that only makes it even more important for us to report this to Fred."
"You're right, of course. We'll shower and get dressed and go into town. We'd better hurry, though. It's almost five now in San Diego. Isn't that quitting time for Fred?"
"Naw, Fred's always working, from what I've seen," Jared said. "But it's too bad this cabin doesn't have a phone so we could call him from here."
"Hey, we're lucky it has hot water. And I'd rather have hot water than a phone any day."
Jared grinned. "Count your many blessings, huh?" He gathered her into his arms.
"While we're at it, we can count the car, too. The Perraults are one nice family for lending all this to us."
"They are," Jared agreed. "But this just isn't the way I'd planned on spending my honeymoon. Three is definitely a crowd."
She gave him a wry smile. "Well, me neither, but here we are."
Jared kissed her, but a disgusted grunt near the front window cut short the fun. "I guess I'll go get ready," he said. "The sooner we get rid of our chaperone here, the better."
"He's just a kid. I'll bet he's had a hard life."
"With Big Tommy as a father, it's no wonder."
Cassi's dark eyes grew thoughtful. "Quentin loves his son, but I don't know what kind of father he's been. I suspect Sampson's been lonely since his mother died. Quentin told me she died from a tumor three years ago."
For a moment, Jared had forgotten that Big Tommy, a.k.a. Quentin Thomas Holbrooke, had any other name. "I'm wondering if old Big Tommy's motive for sending his son isn't twofold," Jared said. "The guy was half in love with you."
"Yeah, right," Cassi replied, her voice full of irony. "He was in love with me after meeting me only twice. That's why he almost killed both of us."
Once again she had a point, but Jared was too irritated to admit it. He loved Cassi more than he had ever loved anyone, and these two weeks had been their time to be alone. He looked over at Sampson. "Don't worry, I'll be nice. I like children, remember?"
She smiled. "I know you do. And you're good with them. But this little boy doesn't seem to like you too much."
Jared left her at the sink and went to stand with Sampson in front of the window. "It's pretty in the daylight."
Sampson gave a noncommittal grunt.
"Have you ever been in France?"
"Tons of times."
"Oh, yeah? Ever been fishing?"
Bored eyes focused on Jared. "Yeah, all over. My dad has more yachts than he has cars."
"Impressive." Jared had seen the huge garage on the Holbrooke estate. It could have easily held twenty automobiles.
"Well, have you been hiking?" he asked the boy next.
"In just about every country in the world. I like the Amazon jungle the best."
Maybe it was time to try a different approach. "Ever been to church?"
"Sure. I go to mass sometimes."
"Oh." Then Jared had an idea. "Ever been tracting?"
Jared laughed. "Maybe I'll show you sometime. But right now I'm going to grab some clothes. We need to go into town."
The boy's eyes followed Jared as he went to the small bathroom. He hoped he'd made the boy curious enough to take him seriously. "Eleven going on forty," Jared muttered. "What's this world coming to?"
* * * *
Supervisory Special Agent Fred Schulte hadn't expected the press would care much about Big Tommy's capture and pending sentencing. He was right. There had been a few flashy articles in the paper when the initial information was released, and then nothing more as either Big Tommy's friends bribed them into silence or other more pressing issues hit the headlines. Either way, it was all the same to Fred. In light of the evidence against him, Big Tommy, alias Quentin Thomas Holbrooke, had agreed to discuss a plea bargain to kindly save taxpayers the expense of a lengthy trial. Hah! Fred knew that more than likely Holbrooke was simply trying to save himself from extra time in prison. An unbought jury would have sent the mobster away for life. Now, if they were lucky, he might serve ten years. At least for the time being, he was out of Fred's hair.
For this reason, Fred wondered why Brooke Erickson of the San Diego Union-Tribune wanted to meet with him to discuss Big Tommy's case. She arrived promptly at five o'clock on Tuesday afternoon, the time Fred would have left for his apartment if he had ever gone home on time. He didn't know what he had imagined from her crisp, no-nonsense voice on the phone, but she wasn't what he expected. Brooke Erickson was beautiful. She had short-cropped golden blonde hair, striking pale blue eyes, and a figure that made men look twice. Or even stare. But like her voice on the phone, her manner was all business.
"How long do you think he'll be sentenced for?" she asked after hearing his brief, over-rehearsed statement on the events leading up to Big Tommy's capture.
Fred sighed, thinking of the stack of unsolved cases in his files that he could be working on. "It's hard to say. He deserves three or four life sentences with all the dirt we have on himforgery, fraud, murder, and kidnaping, to name a few. But he's got money and expensive lawyers who don't care who they hurt as long as they get paid. I hear they're working out a plea bargain. Just what it is we'll find out at the sentencingwhenever that finally rolls around."
"I know. That's partly why I'm here. I'm amazed that they didn't stall the idea of a plea longer. I mean, I've seen these types of characters living months in freedom while their lawyers cause all sorts of delays."
"Well, part of that was because Big Tommy, or Quentin Thomas Holbrooke, was denied bail. Our guys proved that he'd skip town. He could work his brand of sordid magic just as well from some European country."
"Still, I'm surprised his lawyers didn't come up with something to get him freed."
Fred tensed and felt the ache from the week-old bullet wound in his upper right arm, suffered at the last showdown with Laranda Garrettson and Quentin Holbrooke. Or was the ache coming from his heart? "Big Tommy was responsible for the death of a very good friend of mine and others here at the FBI."
"No. A guy who worked with us sometimes. Linden Johansen. We all pushed to get the ball rolling on Big Tommy. And go figure, this time it worked. Or started to, until this plea bargain stuff came up. I doubt Big Tommy will get half of what he deserves."
"I guess we'll have to wait and see," Brooke said.
"Well, you'll still see a lot of stalling, I'll bet," Fred continued. "Big Tommy's an expert at deals. No, this thing is far from over. We got him, and he'll have to serve some time, but before long he'll be my problem again."
"Yes, this isn't the first time you've been after this group," she said. "But it seems you've had a lot of success working with people who aren't FBI agents. That's amazing. I guess what really fascinates me is that the two people who were primarily responsible for putting Big Tommy in jail are Mormons."
"Oh, and why does that interest you?" But he knew before she answered. "You must be a Mormon-hater, huh?"
What these newspaper reporters will do for a story, Fred thought. It rankled him that she would try to inflict damage on the reputation of those he considered his friends, albeit not very close friends. Jared and Cassi were two of the most upstanding people he had ever met. And their likewise Mormon friend, Renae Benson, the perfect image of womanhood, was still in Fred's thoughts far more that he cared to admit.
"No, actually, I am one." Brooke blushed, but didn't look embarrassed. For the first time her voice wasn't crisp and precise. "A Mormon, that is. Definitely not a Mormon-hater. And there are so many negative things about us in the papers . . . I guess I try when I can to give some of the good."
Fred felt himself warming to her. He was suddenly glad that last month he had quit smoking after a fifteen-year addiction. It was a dirty, smelly habit anyway. One that wouldn't impress this fine lady. "So how can I help you?" he asked.
"I want to know a little about Jared Landine and Cassi Mason."
"Both Landine now. They're married."
"Oh, I didn't realize that. And what about their friend who was almost killed? Is it true the doctors say his undergarment saved him?"
"Yes, it's true. The cloth stuck in the wound and helped stem the bleeding."
Brooke glanced at the tape recorder on the desk to be sure it was recording. "Interesting." Then she asked a few more personal questions about Jared and Cassi.
"Look," he said, "I'd feel more comfortable if you got your answers from them. They're on their honeymoon right now, but when they get back, I'll give them your card."
"Okay, thank you." But she didn't leave. "Do you think Big Tommy's in any danger?"
"I thought you were interested in the Mormons."
"Not just. After all, without Big Tommy, there wouldn't be a story." She gave him a slight smile. "I couldn't just write about Mormons, you know. I wouldn't last long on the paper."
"I guess not." Fred certainly admired her persistence. "Well, the answer is that of course he's in danger. He's a mobster. There's no telling how many people he's responsible for killing over the years, or how many fortunes he's stolen. And then there's the question of the plea bargainingwho's he planning to give up? It has to be somebody big. Yep, in all, I'd say there has to be a ton of people out there who'd be happy to see Big Tommy dead."
"So you think he'll be killed."
"No, I didn't say that." He leaned back in his chair and studied her, enjoying the puzzlement on her face. It wasn't often that he was alone with such an attractive woman. Her blonde hair reminded him vaguely of Renae Benson and the potent feeling she had evoked in him. Renae, of course, hadn't shared his feelings. She had been loyal to her husband, Trent, and Fred had worked hard to see that Trent was returned to her in one piece. The last time he had seen Renae was when he had put her and her baby on the plane to Portugal to be with her wounded husband. Later, after returning to California, she had sent him a polite thank-you note and a picture of her, her husband, and their five children. Fred was glad she appeared happy.
"Then what are you saying?"
Fred met the intense pale eyes and realized that Brooke didn't look anything like Renae. Her hair was shorter, blonder, and more artfully styled. And her figurewell, she looked like she had never given birth to one child, much less five. Was she even married? Involuntarily, Fred's gaze dropped to her left hand, where a simple gold band circled the ring finger. He felt a keen sense of disappointment. To cover the unexpected feeling, he pretended to smooth his moustache in deep thought.
"I'm saying, Ms. Erickson, that someone might try to kill him, but might not succeed. There will be just as many people trying to earn money by protecting him. And then there are the guards, of course, who try to watch both sides and keep order."
"I see. So it's like a game."
"Right." He rubbed gently at his sore arm. "A deadly game. And anyone could win."
"Yeah," he agreed, liking her even more. "Or lose."
"Well, what about the rumor of a billion dollars in paintings and other art objects that Laranda Garrettson supposedly has stashed in another location apart from those found in Portugal?"
"I've heard the rumors, but I haven't been able to substantiate them. Holbrooke, of course, would be the one to verify any of this, but if they do exist, he probably will go after them himself once he's out. After all, any money that was used in acquiring the paintings had to have come from him."
"None of them could be stolen?"
"Well, yes. But Holbrooke would have still paid someone to steal them. Garrettson had a lot of resources, but not
Brooke's next question was lost in the buzzing of Fred's intercom. "Excuse me," he said. "It must be important. I asked the secretary not to be disturbed." He pressed the black button. "What is it, Cherral? Jared Landine? You've got to be kidding. No, put him through. Immediately. Thank you."
Brooke's eyes grew more interested, but Fred scarcely paid attention. Why would Jared be calling him? Certainly even Mormons had better things to be doing on a honeymoon than calling an FBI special agent. It could mean only one thing: trouble.
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