Główna Jesse Jacobson - [Special Forces: Operation Alpha] - Skye
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SKYE (SPECIAL FORCES: OPERATION ALPHA) JESSE JACOBSON CONTENTS Foreword Acknowledgments Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Epilogue Afterword Other Books By Jesse Jacobson More Special Forces: Operation Alpha World Books Books by Susan Stoker This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. © 2022 ACES PRESS, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED No part of this work may be used, stored, reproduced or transmitted without written permission from the publisher except for brief quotations for review purposes as permitted by law. This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please purchase your own copy. Dear Readers, Welcome to the Special Forces: Operation Alpha Fan-Fiction world! If you are new to this amazing world, in a nutshell the author wrote a story using one or more of my characters in it. Sometimes that character has a major role in the story, and other times they are only mentioned briefly. This is perfectly legal and allowable because they are going through Aces Press to publish the story. This book is entirely the work of the author who wrote it. While I might have assisted with brainstorming and other ideas about which of my characters to use, I didn’t have any part in the process or writing or editing the story. I’m proud and excite; d that so many authors loved my characters enough that they wanted to write them into their own story. Thank you for supporting them, and me! READ ON! Xoxo Susan Stoker ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Thank you, Susan Stoker, for your continued support of authors like me. Ethan “Chaos” Watson, from Searching for Lilly, appears in this book courtesy of Susan Stoker, creator of the Eagle Point Search and Rescue Series. Several style decisions were made to make the book more enjoyable for Kindle text-to-speech readers. The most noticeable one is the lack of a period after Mr, Mrs, Dr and Ms. When a period is used after Mr the text-to-speech translation reads as “Em - Ar,” rather than “Mister.” When the period is omitted, the text-to-speech reads it correctly. The second style decision involved minimal parts of the book where Mandarin Chinese is phonetically used. In typical translations used to translate Mandarin into English using English letters, special characters and accents are used. As I found out, the speech-to-text voice has a very difficult time with that and, additionally, older e-readers and tablets do not recognize some of those special letters and accents. In the interest of the best overall reader experience I elected to replace special characters and accented letters with a close English equivalent. This is a work of fiction. The Ghost Dragons Triad and the characters represented as being part of it, are fictionalized. Though triads do exist, any similarities to a specific one is purely coincidental. ABOUT THE BOOK Skye Knight is a brilliant and beautiful paralegal, known for her sharp mind, detailed powers of observation and for exercising extreme caution when it comes to men. One evening, during the approach of a hurricane, a different kind of storm turns her life upside down. She is attacked in her own home by a crime lord who is seeking a rare gem, believed to have last been in the possession of Skye's now-deceased father. The attackers inform her they have also abducted her sister-in-law and niece. They demand that she find and return the gem to them within three days, and threaten to kill her family at the first sign of her contacting the authorities for help. With no one else to turn to, Skye seeks out a stranger she'd met by chance the evening before, a former Navy SEAL, now-jobless and down on his luck, to help her to find the gem and figure a way to save her niece and sister-in-law. And their adventure begins. PROLOGUE Thunder rumbled like a distant avalanche. The wind kicked up, whipping through her hair and cooling off the ninety-degree heat from earlier in the day. Thick gray clouds loomed ominously overhead, nature's warning of bad things to come. Skye Marie Knight had lived in Virginia her whole life and had weathered many storms, but few looked as foreboding as this. Earlier, the northernmost tip of Hurricane Emily had struck the east coast near Norfolk causing a fair amount of property damage but fortunately, no one died. The category two hurricane rocked Myrtle Beach and Wilmington hours earlier. By the time it reached Richmond, Emily had been downgraded to category one, but the town was still on full alert. It hadn’t started raining yet, but soon, she thought, it’d be coming down in torrents. Skye Knight had parked her silver Cadillac XT6 SUV nearly two blocks away from Hamilton’s at First and Main in the heart of Charlottesville’s business district. It came as no surprise that she found no parking spots closer. Hamilton’s was one of the more popular places in town, especially after work on Fridays when executives, attorneys and brokers sought to unwind after a long week. The weatherman said that traveling inland would take a lot of the fight out of Emily but Charlottesville was still expected to be hit with heavy rain and high winds. She thought about bagging it and heading home, but she enjoyed the time she spent with friends at Hamilton’s and it had been a stressful week. God knows she could use a strong drink and light conversation with friends. She walked east on West Water Street toward First. Less than a hundred feet into her walk she came upon Iron Paffles and Coffee. She smiled as she approached the small, family-owned pastry shop. The pleasant, all-too-familiar aroma tickled her senses. They served delicious coffees and made the most delightful pastries she’d ever eaten. Her favorite was the mince pie. Before she moved to Charlottesville, she’d barely heard of the sweet treat filled with a mixture of dried fruits and spices. She considered dashing into the shop to pick up a pastry to take home for later but decided against it. She’d added five pounds onto her nearly perfect five-ten frame over the last two months and was determined to work it off. Eating mince pie would not help her cause. Just outside the door of the pastry shop were two small wrought-iron tables, pushed up against the building because of the narrow sidewalk. Normally, there were only cigarette smokers sitting there. Today, there was only one person, a man, sitting at a table. It struck her as odd seeing him sitting there in the gusty wind. He was not smoking, just sitting quietly. She would have been very uncomfortable sitting outside, sipping a hot drink in the gloomy, windy weather. He barely glanced at her as she approached. He wore a hoodie over his head. Locks of straight dark hair peeked out of the front, down his forehead, partially obscuring his eyes, but even so, Skye believed him to be a young man, perhaps mid-thirties, not much older than herself. At his feet was a worn green duffle bag. She’d seen bags like it in the past; it was a military issue. At first, she thought the man may have been homeless, but as she got closer, she thought differently. His clothes were rumpled as though he’d been on the road for a while. His body language made her think he was isolated and careworn. She wondered if he was sitting outside because he was not made to feel welcome in the cafe. He looked up and caught her eye as she was passing. When she saw him looking up, she turned her head quickly to avoid eye contact. “Pardon me, ma’am,” came a deep male voice. Skye pretended she didn’t hear him and kept walking. “Excuse me, ma’am, I’m sorry to bug you,” he repeated, in a calm voice, albeit a little louder and clearer. His deep voice was sexy. There was a touch of southern twang, but also . . . sadness. There was no pretending she didn’t hear him this time, so she stopped. She glanced in his direction, not offering a smile. “Yes?” Skye replied, stopping almost directly in front of him. “I was just wondering if you knew of any cheap rooms or hotels in the area,” he continued. “How cheap?” she asked. He shrugged, “The cheaper the better. I’m not interested in amenities. I just need a bed and a shower.” Skye sighed as she thought about it, “Well . . . there’s a Schooner Inn just up the road about a mile and a half. I drive by it all the time. They have a big white sign with bright red letters advertising rooms for thirty-nine dollars a night. I think they offer HBO, too.” The man looked down the road in the direction Skye had pointed. The hood was still up over his head; it hung on him loose and long, covering his torso. She glanced at the green duffle once again. She suspected everything the man owned could be found in that bag. “Thirty-nine, huh?” he said. “Not too bad. I guess that’ll have to do.” He took a sip from his cup. “They have good coffee here, don’t they?” she asked. “Huh? Oh . . . I don’t know. I’m not a coffee guy. This is tea. So, no other places are cheaper, you think?” “Can’t think of too much cheaper than thirty-nine bucks.” He sucked in a breath through his nose and nodded slightly, “I guess you’re right.” “If you’re looking for a room for the night you might want to act quickly,” Skye continued. “I heard on the radio that a lot of people on the coast have driven inland to get away from the storm. And Jason Aldean is playing at the John Paul Jones Arena on Sunday night . . . if they don’t cancel it because of the storm. He packs' em in from all over the state.” “Jason Aldean?’ he repeated. “I don’t really listen to much music these days and when I do, I’m more of a classic rock fella.” He put the cup to his lips and took a sip. As he drank his hoodie sleeve slipped up on his arm, exposing a tattoo near his hand. She recognized it. It was a Navy SEAL tattoo. She loved military men. Her father, and brother were Navy men. Her uncle still served to this day, but neither of them were Navy SEALS. The SEALs were the elite of the elite. She learned a great deal about them from her brother in particular. He aspired to become a SEAL but never qualified for their BUD/S training. “A classic rock man, huh?” she said, offering a small smile. He looked up, “Yep.” For the first time, Skye caught a look at his face, still framed by the hoodie. She’d guessed right. He was young, no older than she, perhaps thirty-five. And hot as hell, too. His firm jawline, facial scruff and sexy eyes were hypnotic. “I . . . I grew up loving classic rock,” she managed to say, stammering a little, hoping he didn’t notice. “It’s the only music my dad and brother played in the house when I was growing up.” He smiled, “Oh yeah?” His eyes reacted with a trace of a sparkle. “What bands were your favorites?” “We listened to a lot of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd . . .” “Ah, the British Invasion,” he said. “I like them too, but I was more into The Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker and Lynyrd Skynyrd.” “So . . . you like country music, but didn’t know Jason Aldean?” “The bands I mentioned are old school southern rock,” he said. “Ah . . .,” Skye replied, “that makes sense. I mean, we are in Virginia.” He nodded, “True enough, but I’m from Chattanooga, originally.” “You’re from Tennessee and don’t like country music? Isn’t that against the law?” “Oh, I like country music just fine, just not the new stuff. Give me a little George and Tammy, a little Johnny Cash, some Waylon and a little Willie Nelson, and I’m right at home.” He smiled at her softly. She smiled back, “So, you’re an old soul.” “That’s what everyone tells me.” She nodded toward his duffle, “If you don’t mind my asking, what brings you to Charlottesville?” “Just passin’ through, ma’am,” he said, “on my way to Fallport, to see a friend about a job.” Skye noticed that his eyes lit up as he talked about getting a job. He was not a drifter. He wanted to work, to establish roots, to build a life. Something happened to him along the way. She wondered what it was. “Fallport, huh?” Skye replied. “I’ve heard of it. Small town, down around Blacksburg, right?” He nodded, “That’d be the place. Do you know it? Is it a nice place to live?” “Never been there,” she admitted. He nodded, “I got into Charlottesville about three hours ago but the buses have been delayed because of Hurricane Emily. The next bus to Fallport doesn't leave until noon tomorrow.” “I guess you’re just stuck here then,” she said. “Yes, ma’am.” A hint of a smile formed on his face once again. That, along with his ice blue eyes drew her in like a magnet. The man was handsome as hell. She was staring at him. She felt her face turning pink with the realization. He had to notice it, she thought. She forced herself to look away. “Well . . . I should be going,” she said. “It was nice meeting you, Mr . . .? “Everyone calls me Double-T,” he said. Skye smiled, “Sounds like a nickname you got in the Navy.” He looked shocked when she mentioned the military. It took him by surprise but he smiled, “The Navy? That was oddly on point. What gave me away?” “Tattoo on your left wrist. Saw it when you lifted your coffee cup. And then there’s your duffle. It's a military issue. My brother had one very similar.” “Touché,” he said. “You’re quite observant, and you’re right. Twelve years in the Navy, the last four on SEAL Team Six.” Skye’s jaw dropped, “You were on SEAL Team Six?” “Yes, ma’am, from 2016 to 2020.” “Oh, so, you were part of the surprise attack on the Bayda Province in Yemen in 2017.” “Wow. You know about that?” “I do. My dad and brother were in the Navy. My uncle still serves aboard the U.S.S. Churchill.” The man’s eyes widened, “The Churchill . . . really? My team rendezvoused with the Churchill in 2017. They’re the ones who brought us home. What’s your uncle’s name?” “Sam Knight,” she said. His eyes and mouth gaped wide, “Holy shit . . . that’s your uncle? Commander Sam Knight?” Now it was her turn to be surprised, “You know him?” “Yeah, I do,” he said, “well, in passing. When he greeted my team, he found out I played a lot of chess.” “That had to be exciting for him,” Skye said. “He loves chess.” “Yep, we played several times on the trip home.” “Wow. He’s a chess master. Did you ever beat him?” “Oh yeah, but only one out of three. I had him dead to rights in the rubber match, but he wiggled out of it and took me down. He’s good, alright. And you’re his niece? It’s a small world.” Chess? she thought. If he played competitively against my Uncle Sam, this man was no dim bulb. “It sure is,” Skye said. “You said you were part of the surprise attack on the Bayda Province?” “Yep. The team took out three prominent members of Al Qaeda. and fourteen of their soldiers. We lost one brother in that raid–Chief Petty Officer Ryan Owens.” “I remember. I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for your service to our country,” she replied. “You’re welcome, ma’am.” “My name is Skye, and it's a real pleasure to meet you.” “Pleasure’s mine, ma’am.” “And now that you know my name, you can drop the ma’am.” “Yes, ma’am.” She chuckled, “Well . . . I should be going.” He smiled at her again, “Thanks for the chat. Have yourself a nice evening.” “You too.” She paused awkwardly, trying to think of a way to slow her retreat. She thought about begging off meeting with her friends and buying him dinner, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. For all her outward appearances of confidence and self-reliance, she always felt awkward and a little shy around men, at least at first, and especially when they looked like this one. She opened her mouth to say something but nothing came out. Instead, she smiled and turned, walking away. She made it five feet before stopping. She turned back toward Double-T, “You, know, as I mentioned before, the hotels are probably full. I work as a paralegal at a law firm here in town. One of our clients is the manager of the Fairfield Inn. It’s right down the street. If you’d like, I could call him and see if I could get him to squeeze you in.” “Oh, I wouldn’t want to put you out, ma’am,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a problem,” she said. “It would only take a minute.” “Really? How much ya’figure they charge at the Fairfield Inn?” “I’m not positive. I think it’s about eighty dollars a night.” Double-T bit his lip and offered a soft smile, “I see. I’m on a tight budget. I appreciate your offer but I don’t have much more’n what I need for bus fare to Blacksburg . . . but ma’am?” “Yes?” she replied. Ask me to stay for a while, have some coffee. Ask me. I’ll say yes. “It was very nice of you to offer. Thank you.” Skye offered a small smile of her own in return, hoping the disappointment didn’t show on her face. “Well . . . if every place is sold out, what will you do?” He gave her the brush-off wave, “Oh, don’t worry ‘bout me none, ma’am. I’ll be alright.” Skye sighed and walked back toward the young man, “You know, Double-T, my brother and father were both Navy men, too. They’ve both passed away, but they’d roll over in their graves and haunt me if they thought I left one of their Navy brothers out in the cold rain. How about if I loaned you . . .” “Oh, no, ma’am,” he interrupted, waving her off. “I wouldn’t hear of it. I’ll be just fine. I’m so sorry to have disturbed you. I . . . I should be going. Thank you again.” And with that, Double-T smiled at her again. It was a sweet smile, a sexy smile, but a sad one, too. It nearly made her melt. He stood and walked away. The rain was beginning; it was a slow drizzle. She watched Double-T walk away. He never looked back. His hoodie was a bit baggy but not so baggy that it could hide his broad shoulders, and thighs that stretched the limits of his jeans. She sighed loudly as she turned away, wondering if she’d ever see him again. CHAPTER 1 When Skye arrived at Hamilton’s, her friends were already seated and waiting. They spotted her and waved her over. Mary held up a vodka and tonic as Skye arrived. “You ordered for me,” Skye said. “Bless you, my BFF.” “My pleasure. Drink up,” Mary demanded, playfully, “you’re already a full drink behind. What the hell took you so long? We were just about ready to send out the fire and rescue team.” Mary chuckled. The lighting in the bar picked up the highlights of her shoulder length auburn hair which framed a round, adorable face. Skye sat, pulled her coat off and allowed it to drape over the back of her chair. She used her fingers to reposition her damp windblown hair. “How the hell do you do that?” Mary asked. “Do what?” “It’s raining and the wind is blowing hard,” she said. “You walk in here and finger your hair and in ten seconds you're ready for the red carpet. When I walked in, I looked like the bride of Frankenstein. It took me fifteen minutes in the bathroom to . . .” “You’re exaggerating,” Skye said. Mary worked with Skye at AJ&S, Ambrose, James and Stone, Attorneys at Law. She was another paralegal and had been Skye’s closest friend since she started at the firm two years earlier. Like Skye, she'd never been married, but unlike her, Mary had gone through nearly every eligible bachelor in the firm under fifty, with no relationship lasting beyond a few weeks. She noticed that every man in their workplace, client or employee, would watch her as she walked through the office, often inappropriately attired. “Sorry I’m late,” Skye said. “I ran into this guy . . .” “Whoa!” Cindy interjected, pushing her large, dark-framed glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Stop right there. Do you mean to tell me that Skye Knight stopped and spoke to a guy, and a stranger at that? Someone call the paramedics. I think we have an emergency.” She smiled at her own humor, turning her pale cheeks pink in the process. Cindy worked as a broker in the financial district. She was one of the horniest women Skye had ever met, and that was saying something in a group that included Mary. A year earlier, after her divorce, Cindy decided to invest a little money into her appearance, wanting to identify and lure Mr Right. I suggested contact lenses, an experienced hair-stylist, and a gym membership. Mary suggested new boobs and since Mary had a fairly new set herself and had no problem getting men, the nudge was all it took. So, the new boobs were on and the scars healed. Cindy perpetually looked for opportunities to let those new puppies out of their cage on Friday nights. They did their job to a degree. She had lots of one-night stands but almost never saw any of them again. “So, tell us more about this . . . guy,” Mary encouraged. “It wasn’t a big deal,” Skye replied. “He’s just passing through town. It was a fleeting conversation. I’ll never see him again.” “What made you stop to talk to him, then?” asked Julie, a dental hygienist who worked in the medical building just a block away. She worked for a dentist who seemed to only hire beautiful, single blondes and seemed to think that applying cologne with a garden hose was somehow attractive. Skye knew this because Julie often smelled of it on Friday nights. It made her believe that the man was using his dental chairs for more than just root canals. Skye and Mary met her at Hamilton’s a few months ago. She was very sweet, but rather naive. “He was the one who approached me,” Skye answered. “He was asking for directions. Turns out, he’s a former Navy SEAL.” “A SEAL . . . military guy?” Julie asked. “Former SEAL, but yes,” Skye said. “Let me guess,” Mary said, “you had a few minutes of awkward conversation and then ran away.” Skye shrugged, “well, there was a little more to it, but essentially, yeah.” Cindy let out a breath, “Jesus, Skye, what are you . . . a nun?” “Don’t dismiss her feelings. She has these keen powers of intuition,” Julie said. “Skye, did you perhaps sense something was . . . off about him?” “That’s a good question,” added Mary, “I mean, why is a hunky Navy SEAL wandering around Charlottesville like a vagabond?” Skye shook her head, “It wasn’t like that. Every part of my intuition tells me this is a quality guy, just a little down on his luck, and a little bit sad. He’s not a vagabond. He mentioned he was meeting a friend about a job in Fallport. The buses were delayed because of the hurricane. He’s leaving town tomorrow.” “Well, the key word in that phrase was leaving town tomorrow,” Julie said, pulling her straight blonde hair behind her ear and exposing a perfect set of teeth in a wide grin. “It leaves all kinds of possibilities for tonight.” “We’ve had this conversation before,” Skye said. “I don’t do one-night stands. It’s not in my DNA.” “Damn, girl,” Mary piped in. “There’s a big gap between sleeping with a different guy every night of the week and living like a monk. Everyone needs a roll in the hay every now and then, even you.” “I know, but . . .” “But nothing,” she interrupted. “Who was the last guy you dated for any length of time? It was Roger, right?” “Dean,” Skye corrected. Mary took a healthy sip of her drink, “That’s right. Dean, from family law. You went out with the guy for what, a month?” “Two months,” she corrected. “Whatever, it’s been over for months. Dean adored you. He is on track to make partner; he’s knocking down two-hundred g’s a year and drives a Tesla, and not the entry-level model. He isn’t too hard on the eyes, either.” “I’m with Mary,” Julie said. “I think you made a mistake letting Dean off the hook. You had him right where you wanted him.” “That’s just it,” Skye said. “I didn’t want him at all. He was boring. I couldn’t even talk the guy into a two-mile hike on the weekend. He just didn’t light it up for me. He was a ‘movie with popcorn at home’ kind’a guy but even that was a challenge. I’d surf to the latest Jason Statham or Liam Neeson action movie and he’d want to watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for the third time.” “Wasn’t the sex good?” Cindy asked. “If your idea of good is a six-minute missionary special,” Skye said. “I could use the guy for timing an egg.” Cindy cackled. “Ugh,” Julie said. “Say no more. That would be awful.” “I guess I see your point too, though I like Keanu Reeves as John Wick better than Jason Statham,” said Cindy. “What? Jason Statham would kick Keanu Reeves’ ass,” Skye claimed. “What I like about Keanu Reeves has very little to do with fighting.” Julie chuckled. “No offense, girlfriend,” Mary said, “but I’ve been your friend for two years now and I’ve seen some of the most eligible bachelors in Charlottesville take a run at you, and you shut them all down. Why don’t you just go out and pick one? You’re stunning, Skye. You could have any man you want. You know it and I know it.” “Even if I agree with you, and I don’t, I simply haven’t found the one yet.” Mary sighed in exasperation, “Bullshit. Dean was perfect. You could have taught him how to act in bed. Instead, he’s going out with that twenty-six-year-old first-year attorney . . . What's her name?” “Gloria,” Skye said. Mary chuckled, “That’s right, Gloria, with ass-cheek implants, the collagen lips and not a single brain cell in her empty head.” “Guys like chicks with wide asses these days,” Julie said. Cindy nodded in agreement, “I agree. One guy I went out with described me as a nice girl with a ‘scrawny ass.’ I was home alone by nine-thirty that night.” “Even with that new rack of yours?” Julie asked. “This was pre-rack.” “Oh.” “Looks like Dean is off the market,” Cindy said. “Well, she can have him,” Skye said. “Dean just isn’t the guy for me. He’s not my type.” “Who is your type?” Julie asked. She shrugged, “I’ll know it when I see it.” “This Navy SEAL . . . is he your type?” Cindy asked. “Physically, oh hell yeah,” Skye replied. “He is dreamy, firm and fit with broad shoulders and just the right amount of facial scruff; sort of the strong, silent type with eyes that . . . well, they were the dreamiest eyes I’ve ever seen.” “Damn, I’m getting moist just hearing about him,” Mary said. “I sure wish I could have met him.” Julie nodded, “Yeah, right. The least you could have done is invited him here, Skye.” Skye smiled and shrugged, “Not a chance. He was already soaking wet from the rain. I couldn’t have you three drooling all over him.” Mary chuckled, “That good, huh.” “Oh yeah. You would not be disappointed, that’s for certain. He was a hunk, but like I said, he’s leaving tomorrow, plus . . . he had issues.” “What kind of issues?” Julie asked. “Well, he’s not homeless but he does have financial issues. The whole reason we met is that he was looking for a cheap hotel. When I told him about the Fairfield, he said he couldn’t afford that and bus fare for the next day.” “That’s too bad,” Cindy said. “Men with no jobs are not high on my list.” “I don’t care about that part,” Skye said. “This is not a guy who can’t hold a job. There’s a story there. There’s a reason he is where he is, and I’m betting it’s not his fault. He was trying, he was working at it, but beyond that, I could tell there were other things. I sensed he was carrying a weight on his shoulders. He looked sad, dispirited. I think the guy has a lot of emotional scars.” “If he was a SEAL, you know he saw action,” Mary said. “Those military guys see a lot of ugly stuff. Some of them carry it back with them.” “Wonder where he went?” Julie asked. “I have half a mind to go find him and help him out.” Mary chuckled again, “Yeah, I know what kind of help you’d offer.” Julie grinned mischievously, “Well, I wouldn’t mind, but still, a Navy SEAL, down on his luck with no place to stay in a strange town that is about to be hit by a huge storm. . . it’s so sad.” “Julie’s right. You should've helped him out, Skye,” Cindy said. “I tried, trust me. I offered to pick up the tab for a room at the Fairfield, but he refused.” “You might’ve gotten a different response if you’d offered to . . . you know, show him the way home?” Julie and Cindy chuckled. Skye shook her head, “Nah, it wasn’t like that, really. This guy is not a horn dog. He is a pure southern gentleman. I do wish he would’ve let me pick up the room for him. It’s going to be ugly out there tonight.” “Probably too proud to let it happen,” Mary said. “That would be just like a military man. Pride and honor are big things for them.” “Speaking of big things,” Julie said. “Check out the beefcake at the bar. He’s been checking Skye out for the last five minutes. Take a peek.” “I think he’s checking me out,” Mary insisted. “Nope,” Julie said. “He’s definitely checking out Skye. All the men do.” “Why does Skye seem to get all the looks?” Cindy complained. “My boobs are way bigger.” “Skye’s got the whole Jennifer Aniston hair thing going,” Julie said. “Men like that.” Skye glanced over her shoulder at the guy. He happened to be looking away. She gave him the once over and turned back to Julie, “You think he’s a beefcake? More like a meat head if you ask me.” Mary glanced at him first. She smiled and then looked at Skye, “I think he’s pretty good looking. I could do without the fake tan and the seventies porn mustache, but I wouldn’t kick him out.” “He sure dresses nice,” Cindy said. Skye glanced at him again. This time he was looking her way. He smiled at her. He was on the plus side of forty, a big man, over six-three, barrel-chested, perhaps two-hundred and thirty pounds that he carried pretty well. He lifted his drink and waved at Skye, inviting her to join him. Skye offered a small, not-too-friendly smile that said thanks but no thanks and turned back to her friends. “Ooh, he didn’t like that too much,” Cindy said. “Did you see that look he gave you?” “He’ll get over it,” Mary said. “So, what’s wrong with him?” Julie asked. “He’s probably the best-looking guy in here.” “Well, first off, I saw the guy arrive as I walked in. He was driving a five-year-old Prius. He is wearing a fifteen-hundred-dollar blazer and drives a Prius? That doesn’t compute. They’re probably the nicest things he owns. The shoes are Ferragamo’s–seven hundred bucks, but they haven’t made that particular shoe in ten years or more. He’s trying too hard to make us believe he’s a player with money, and he is neither. He’s probably a night manager at Wal-Mart.” Julie, Cindy and Mary began laughing. Skye joined in. “I didn’t realize you were so materialistic,” Julie said. “Oh, I’m not, not by a long shot,” Skye insisted. “I just can’t stand men who put on airs and present themselves as something they’re not.” Julie looked over at the man again and then back at Skye, “Oh shit, I think our laughing just pissed him off.” “Ooh yeah, you’re right,” Mary agreed. “He’s scowling. He thinks we were laughing at him.” “We were laughing at him,” Cindy said. Mary shrugged, “Whatever. Skye, you said first off. What else about this guy told you he was a loser?” “Well, as you pointed out, the guy had a fake tan. How pretentious is that? He also has a white line on his ring finger. The dude is definitely married.” “Son-of-a-bitch, she’s right,” Cindy said. “That white line is as plain as day. I can see it from here.” Julie chuckled, “Skye, one thing I’ve always loved about you is your incredible powers of observation. You don’t miss a thing.” “All in a day’s work,” she said. “It’s true,” Mary added. “I see Skye in the office every day. She notices every little thing; things I’d never notice. No detail gets past her. It’s quite a gift.” Julie was looking at her phone, “Damn. I just got a weather alert on my phone. They are expecting five to seven inches of rain and wind gusts of thirty miles an hour or more in Charlottesville.” “It’s raining harder right now,” Mary noted. “Look out the window,” Cindy urged. “It’s coming down pretty good.” Skye nodded, “I parked a couple of blocks away. I think I’m going to call it a night.” “That’s a good idea,” Mary agreed. “Me too.” “Well, I don’t have far to go,” Cindy interjected, “I think I’m gonna hang out for a bit and see if I can interest our fake tan guy in Plan B.” “You can do better, Cindy,” Skye opined. “Not tonight I can’t.” She unbuttoned the top two buttons on her shirt and cupped her boobs, pushing them up. “How do my tits look?” she asked. “Freshly made,” Julie replied. “Skye, I was able to park out front,” Mary said. “Do you want a lift to your car?” She shook her head, “No. I won’t melt. See you Monday morning. G’night, ladies.” The women settled their bill. Rather than slipping her windbreaker on, Skye draped it over her head and walked down the street at a brisk pace toward her car. The rain had lightened a bit; it was a slow steady drizzle, but she knew it would be coming down harder very soon. As she reached Iron Paffles and Coffee she thought of Double-T. She wondered where he was; how he was doing. Did he find a room? Some other shelter? Was he standing under a tree, cold and soaked to the bone? She was less than a block from her car when she heard another vehicle approaching from behind. She glanced behind her. A white Prius was rolling alongside her, pacing her. She turned toward it and saw the window rolling down. It was fake tan guy. “Can I offer you a lift?” he said. Skye kept moving, “No, thank you. My car is only twenty yards away.” “You know . . . you’re nothing special,” he said. Skye stopped, “Excuse me?” “Back at Hamilton’s,” he said, stopping the vehicle. “You made fun of me to your friends. All of you were laughing at me.” “Maybe you’re just a funny guy,” Skye snapped back. “Maybe you’re just a stuck-up bitch.” “Oh, I see how it is. Just because I didn’t want to leave my friends and have a drink with a married man, I’m a stuck-up bitch? Maybe you should look in a mirror sometime, asshole. You’re the one who’s nothing special.” “You’ve got a smart mouth, lady. Maybe someone should teach you a lesson.” “Oh, really? And who’s going to teach me this lesson?” “Never can tell. I’m sure the list of people who’d wanna do that is long.” “That’s great. OK. You’ve had your say. It’s time for you to take your little Prius and move on.” “Maybe I’ll just stay and we’ll start that lesson right now,” he said. “You heard the lady, Mister,” a deep voice resonated from behind Skye. “Leave her alone and move on.” Skye turned. Double-T emerged from the shadows. He’d been taking shelter in the entryway of an office building. “Who the hell are you?” fake tan guy barked. “An interested third party,” Double-T snapped back, “one that could become your worst nightmare very soon if you don’t move along.” “I wasn’t going to hurt her,” he said. “Intimidating her is enough to get me going. Now move along.” Fake tan guy looked Double-T up and down, then decided it was time to move on. “Fuck you. Fuck you both,” he said, finally. He pulled away as fast as his Prius would allow. Skye looked at Double-T, “Thank you for that, but I didn’t need your help.” “What?” “I said, I didn’t need your help. Why do men always assume that all women need protecting or saving. I had the situation under control.” Double-T blinked twice and looked away, “Fair enough. Sorry, ma’am, I uh . . . didn’t mean to . . .” “Look, I know I sound like I’m being ungrateful, but that isn’t the case. I’m sorry. What you did was gallant. You were trying to do the right thing.” “Thank you. Just out of curiosity, if he had gotten out of the car and tried to make good on his threat, what would you have done?” “I’d have put my four years of kickboxing lessons to good use and kicked that bastard’s ass to hell and gone.” He nodded and chuckled, “I believe you would.” She looked over his shoulder into the dark entryway of the office building, “Is that where you’re spending the night?” she asked, “in the entryway?” “Uh, no. Of course not. I was just . . . uh.” “Save it, Double-T. It’s raining. Grab your duffle and follow me.” “What?” “We can talk or we can do. What’s it gonna be? The rain is really coming down. I’m soaked to the bone and I’m not in the mood for a long discussion. Can we go, please?” “Where are we going?” “My car. I’m taking you to the Fairfield Inn.” “I told you, I can’t afford it.” “I can. No more talk. Move.” “I appreciate what you’re trying to do but I can’t . . .” “Jesus. What is it with men and their stupid-assed pride? You’re a former SEAL. Maybe you’re a little down on your luck, temporarily. It’s alright. Consider this to be a civilian saying thank you for your service to our country.” “Ma’am . . .” “It’s Skye.” “Skye . . . thank you so much for what you’re trying to do but I’ve spent nights outside under way worse conditions than this.” “Yeah, well this isn’t Yemen, it’s Virginia, and no one who’s laid his life on the line for our country is sleeping on the sidewalk on my watch.” Skye walked past him into the entry and picked up Double-T’s green bag. She was startled by the presence of a dog, who emerged from the shadows, “Holy shit!” she exclaimed. “You have a dog?” “Not really. He sort’a found me a little while ago. He doesn’t have a collar. He’s really underweight. I think he was abandoned.” “Whatever. Say goodbye to the dog. Let’s go.” She started walking away. Double-T stood there, dumbfounded. Skye turned back around. “You coming, or what?” Double-T followed. The dog started following, too. “Oh no, Fido. You stay here,” Skye demanded, and continued on. The dog cocked his head and whimpered. Double-T followed. The dog remained behind. Double-T allowed Skye to walk ahead. When he was convinced that Skye was not looking, he turned back to the dog and patted his leg. The dog needed no more encouragement. He bounded toward his new friend. __ Twenty minutes later, Double-T and Skye stood at the front desk of the Fairfield Inn. Outside, it was now pouring rain. They were both soaking wet. Evidence of that was puddled on the floor at their feet. “Welcome to the Fairfield Inn. What name is your reservation under?” the clerk asked. “We don’t have a reservation,” Skye said. “I need one room for the night.” “I’m sorry, ma’am. If you don’t have a reservation, I can’t help you. We’re booked solid.” “I know you’re booked,” she said, “but my friend is stranded here for the night and he’s ex-military.” He looked at Double-T, “Thank you for your service, but it doesn't change the fact that we are booked solid.” “I’d like to speak to Colin Deidrick.” “Mr Deidrick is off tonight,” the clerk said. His name badge read, Rod. “Well . . . Rod, maybe you could call him.” “Sorry.” “Never mind. I’ll call him myself.” Skye pulled out her cell, tapped the screen a few times and hit the call button. The phone rang three times. “Skye!” came the greeting. “This is unexpected.” “I need a favor, Colin,” she said. “I have a friend from out of town. Every other place in town is booked.” “We’re booked solid, too,” he said. “You should have made a reservation a few days ago.” “This visit was . . . unexpected. Please, Colin. I could use a solid.” “Skye, there’s nothing I can do.” “Bullshit. You owe me, Colin, or have you forgotten?” “No, of course not, but . . .” “But nothing. It’s raining pigs and chickens outside. I’m cold and wet. My friend needs a place to stay. He’s a former Navy SEAL. I need you to just take care of this.” “Skye . . .” “Colin, cut us a break here. It's important to me.” Colin paused. She heard him sigh, “Take me off speaker and hand the phone to Rod.” Skye turned off the ‘handsfree’ button and handed the phone to Rod, “He wants to speak to you.” “So, I heard,” Rod said, smugly. He put the phone to his ear. “I’m here.” Rod listened for three minutes, punching his keyboard all-the-while. Finally, he said, “Thank you, Mr Deidrick. I’ll take care of it.” He hung the phone up and turned to Skye, “Well, it appears we have a cancellation after all.” Skye started to fire off a snarky comeback but it was getting late and she decided to shut up and take the win. Besides . . . “Oh, I forgot,” she said. “He also has his dog. He’s tied up outside.” “We do not allow dogs in the hotel,” he said. Skye held up her cell phone, “Do I need to make another call . . . Rod?” He bit his lip and glared at her, “No. Just make sure the dog stays quiet.” “No problem. The dog is very quiet,” Skye said, turning to Double-T, “right?” Double-T cleared his throat, “Of course . . . very quiet.” “Good,” Skye said, slapping her credit card on the table. Rod pushed the card back to her, “The accommodations for the night are compliments of Mr Deidrick.” “Well, that’s nice. Tell Colin I said ‘thank you.’” “I will. Now, I’ll just need the name of your friend.” Skye looked at Rod and blinked twice. “It’s Tanner,” Double-T said. “Tanner Tate.” Rod offered a wry grin at Skye, “He’s such a good friend, you forgot his name?” “No, of course not,” she said. “She always calls me Double-T,” Tanner Tate said. “Right,” Rod sighed, realizing he was hearing bullshit but not in the mood to argue. He began entering information into the computer. Skye smiled. “Why are you smiling?” Double-T asked. “Tanner Tate,” she repeated, “T-T . . . Double-T. I get it.” Rod slapped a room key on the bar, “You’re in room five-fourteen. Elevator is to the right, down the hall. Do you need a second key for your . . . friend?” “No,” he said. “She’s not staying. Thank you, Rod, and thank you Skye. I’ll just go get the dog.” Double-T walked outside and retrieved the dog. The rain was now falling in torrents, Skye noted. He was wagging his tail as he was led inside. The dog scored a big win and he knew it. Smart dog. “Oh, it’s a Border Collie,” Rod said. His face lit up; he smiled broadly. “Border Collie?” Double-T repeated. “Are you sure?” “Oh yeah,” Rod said, “didn’t you know?” “No,” Double-T admitted. “I just kind of met him tonight.” “Yet another surprise,” Rod said, smiling at the dog. “At least this one is a pleasant surprise.” Rod slipped out from behind the counter. He patted his thighs. Double-T let go of the leash he fashioned from his belt and the dog went right to him. “I had a Border Collie as a kid growing up. Did you know that they are the smartest dogs on the planet?” “I wouldn’t doubt it,” Skye said. “He managed to find a couple of patsies to feed him and find him a warm place to sleep.” Rod nodded, “He’s adorable but he looks malnourished. How about I take him back to the kitchen and get him something to eat. I’ll bring him up to your room in an hour.” “Make it three patsies,” Skye said. Rod scowled at her. “Thank you, Rod. Sounds good to me,” Double-T said. “You know, for a guy who was adamant about a dog not coming in, you sure seem to like dogs.” “I love dogs,” Rod said, “and I really love Border Collies. It’s just my job to not let them in the hotel. What’s his name?” “Don’t have one yet,” Double-T said. “Well, for now, we’ll call him ‘Good Boy.’ C’mon Good Boy, let’s go.” Rod and the Border Collie bounded away. “So, I guess this is it?” Skye said. “Thank you. Thank you for everything,” Double-T replied. “If you write down your address, I’ll send you money for the room.” “The room was comped,” she said. “You don’t owe me a thing.” “Oh . . . yeah. I remember. Well, thank you again.” There was an awkward pause. Skye cleared her throat, “Well, I hope you get where you’re going safe and sound.” “Thank you. I’m sure I will.” “What time do you leave in the morning?” “Oh, about ten-thirty, why?” “Oh I was just thinking, if you need a ride to the bus stop . . .” “Oh no. I’ll be fine. You’ve done enough.” Another ten seconds of awkward silence slipped by, “Well, then, I’m out. Take care of yourself, Double-T.” “Tanner,” he said. “Call me Tanner.” “I thought you went by Double-T?” “To my military brothers, I do. But to my family and to people who . . .” “Who what?” “People who I like to hang out with. They call me . . . Tanner. I’d love for you to call me Tanner.” Skye smiled, “Well, in that case, Tanner, it is. Good night, Tanner.” Sky smiled. They made eye contact for several seconds until things felt awkward. “Well, g’night,” she said. Skye ran back to her car as fast as her legs would carry her. The rain was pounding. She could not recall ever being so wet while fully clothed. She opened the car door and slipped into her seat. She looked up at the room lights in the hotel trying to figure out which one Tanner was staying in. She was disappointed he didn’t ask for her number. They’d made a connection; she felt it. Perhaps he was as awkward around women as she was around men, or perhaps, because he happened to be in an unpleasant situation, he felt unsure of himself or worse, undeserving. She knew he had a cell phone. He was looking at the display screen when she first saw him. She should have just asked for his number. She started the ignition, put the car into gear and headed home, wondering for the second time tonight if she’d ever see him again. CHAPTER 2 . . . an hour later The wind was kicking up harder now, turning the pounding rain nearly sideways. The sky was blanketed in ominous dark clouds. Weather reports indicated it would be like this for several more hours, perhaps until morning. The wind was bad enough that it made her car hard to control. Her porch light was on. That meant she still had power. She was grateful for that. She passed by at least two neighborhoods that were shrouded in total darkness. Thirty-percent of Charlottesville was without power, the radio announced. She pulled into the drive of her two-acre property, drove past her thirty-year-old two-bedroom rambler and pulled into the detached one-car garage at the back of the house. She made a mad dash to her front door, though she was already cold and soaked to the bone. She reached for her house keys, but as she fumbled through her purse for them, she caught something out of the corner of her eye; something wrong; something very wrong. Her front door was ajar. She gasped and stepped back. The door was never left unlocked much less ajar. She tried looking through the window to the left of the door. The living room was dark but not so dark she couldn’t make out that the room had been tossed and not only tossed but ripped apart. She used the flashlight app on her cell and illuminated the living room through the window. She sucked in a breath and squelched a scream. Couch pillows had been shredded with a knife. The intruders destroyed the case where her grandmother’s Goebel Hummel figurines were displayed. What remained of them were in pieces on the floor. The flat screen television had been ripped off the wall. It was now on the floor, broken in half. They were not robbers. Those who broke in were not trying to steal valuables, she deduced. They destroyed the big screen and the Hummel figurines. They were looking for something, but what? She called nine-one-one, but received an automated message. It seemed that emergencies related to the storm flooded the nine-one-one line. Leave a number, the message said, and she would be called back in the order her message was received. She eased the front door open and stepped inside. To her right was the kitchen. She switched on the light and groaned. Someone had ripped her built-in microwave off the wall and slammed it on top of her mother’s antique kitchen table. The refrigerator had been emptied onto the floor and overturned, the cabinets were open and emptied onto the floor. Broken glasses and cracked plates were all over the floor. She surveyed the damage silently, almost in a trancelike state. Who would do this, she wondered, and why? It was then she heard a noise. Someone was still in the house. She gasped, sucking in a breath and holding it. Her hands began to tremble. She felt her heart pounding in her chest. She wanted to kick herself for not getting back in her car and driving away once she failed to reach the police. But she didn’t. She made a move for the front door, but it was too late. A cloth bag was forced over her head from behind. Whoever slipped the bag over her head was large and powerful. He pulled it tight, jerking her head back in the process. She screamed, knowing that her nearest neighbor was thirty yards away and would never hear her calling out. She instinctively reached for her neck where the bottom of the bag had been pulled tight, but her attacker jerked her backward. He forced her down. She felt her butt hit the seat of a chair. She tried to fight back but the man caught her by surprise and was simply too big and too strong. Her attacker jerked her back once again, this time sending spasms of pain down her neck. “Shut up and hold still,” he said. She recognized the man’s accent as Asian, “OK. OK, just let me breathe,” she barked. “Shut your mouth, bitch. Do as I say and I won’t hurt you. Take your hands away from your neck and put them on your armrests. Do it now.” “What do you want?” Skye screamed out. He jerked the bag tighter around her neck, causing her to choke and cough, “I said shut up and do as I say,” he commanded. Don’t panic. Don’t panic, she thought to herself. She was hyperventilating, nearly frozen in fear but still had the presence of mind to understand that losing control would not make her situation better. Skye nodded, then complied with her attacker’s request, placing her hands on the armrests of her chair. Within seconds her attacker had zip-tied her wrists to the arms of the chair. “What do you want?” she asked, doing her best to speak clearly and calmly. “Shut up!” he barked and, then, “Gaogui de, Ta hen anquan.” Skye heard footsteps approaching from behind her. Another person entered the room. Gaogui de, the attacker had said. He spoke in Mandarin Chinese. She did not speak the language but her firm had Chinese clients and she had heard the term before. It meant ‘noble one,’ or something similar. “Skye Knight?” the voice said. The man addressing her now was behind her. He also had an Asian accent. He was older than her attacker by the sound of his voice, perhaps in his sixties. “Yes, who are you?” “My name is not important,” he said. “You may call me . . . Mr Elder. Your father had possession of something very precious to me, and I want it back.” “My father? What are you talking about?” Skye replied. “My father died four years ago. He lived in Richmond, not Charlottesville. I don’t have anything of value . . .” Her attacker pulled the bag tighter around her neck, choking her once again. She tried to scream out but the bag was too tight. She couldn’t breathe. Her body was spasming, as though she was having a seizure. She flailed her legs. She tried to move her arms but they were tethered to her chair. “Please stop,” she tried to say but all that came out were choking noises. Her attacker finally released his hold. Her body fell limp as she drew in a deep breath. “Are you still awake, Ms Knight?” Mr Elder asked. “Yes,” she said, still sucking for air. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I swear.” “The star, Ms Knight, the Blue Star. Your father had it. I want it back.” “My father’s been dead for. . .” she began. “. . . four years. Yes, I know this,” he said. “It’s taken me a very long time to finally trace it to him. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the man who acquired the star was dead.” “Listen Mister, I swear to you, I don’t know anything about any . . . Blue Star.” “Wo yao shanghai ta ma?” the big attacker said. “Gaogui de?” Mr Elder scowled at his companion, “Buyao shiyong wo de mingzi.” “What did you say?” Skye asked. “Nothing,” Mr Elder replied. “I actually believe you, Ms Knight.” “Then, you’ll let me go?” Skye asked. Mr Elder chuckled, “Sorry, no, Ms Knight. We have only just begun.” “But you said you believed me,” she spat back. “And I do,” Mr Elder replied. “You see, when I discovered your father acquired the star, I ordered an exhaustive search of his personal records. He had no bank deposit boxes, no offshore accounts. The Blue Star seems to have disappeared. “I never heard of this . . . Blue Star.” “I believe you. We’ve acquired and gone through all of your father’s personal messages, texts and emails, social media and the like, hoping we would find a clue as to what he did with it. In his emails and texts to you, there was never a mention of it. I hoped that you had it. I thought perhaps he may have chosen to speak with you directly about it, but I can tell . . . you genuinely know nothing of its whereabouts.” “It’s true, I swear,” Skye pleaded. “I know nothing of any Blue Star. I don’t even know what it is, so . . . you can let me go.” “I am afraid not,” he said. “We will remove the bag now. I urge you to remain calm and quiet.” Skye felt the bag come off her head. Stay calm, Skye, she told herself. Look for clues and small details that might later be of value to the police. Standing in front of her was the man who called himself Mr Elder. He wore a sock hat, sunglasses and a COVID face mask. He was short and thin, but solidly built. Other than that, he was unidentifiable. The only other thing of note was locks of black hair, peppered in gray, peeking out from underneath his sock hat, mullet style. “I don’t understand,” she said. “I don’t have what you want. Why won’t you let me go?” “Because you, my dear Ms Knight, are going to recover the Blue Star for me.” Skye looked confused, “What? How can I do that? I’ve already told you; I don’t even know what it is, much less where it is. Why do you think I can recover it for you?” “Because no one knows your father as well as you,” Mr Elder said, “and frankly your reputation for analysis and intelligence precedes you. Our background check tells us that you are brilliant and very resourceful. Your father may have hidden the star somewhere special for safekeeping. Perhaps someplace only a loved one would know about. I would not know where to begin. But you, on the other hand . . . you can find it.” “I don’t know anything about a Blue Star, goddammit!” Skye screamed. Mr Elder looked at his enormous companion, “Teach her some respect.” The big man pulled Skye’s hair back with his left hand and placed his enormous right hand over her throat. He choked her . . . hard. Skye gagged. Her attacker’s hand cut off her airflow. She felt her face turning blue. For thirty seconds the big man choked her. She was close to passing out. “Stop,” Mr Elder commanded. He stopped. “Uhhhhhh!” Skye cried out, several times, gasping for breath. She saw the powerful man for the first time. He, too, wore a sock hat, sunglasses and a COVID mask. He was enormous, over six-feet-two and close to four hundred pounds. She also noticed something curious. The big man had a tattoo on his wrist–two Chinese characters, 子墨. She committed them to memory. “I am going to show you something,” Mr Elder said. He pulled a cell phone from his pocket and began swiping the screen. When he found what he was looking for, he smiled, and turned the phone’s display toward her. “Do you recognize this child?” Mr Elder said. “Ohhhh, no! Not her,” Skye cried out. “I will take that as a yes,” he said, sneering. “This is your niece. Olivia.” “Leave her alone!” Skye screamed out. “She’s just a child.” “I am aware, and not just any child, but the daughter of your dearly departed brother. I understand you and Olivia are quite close.” “Please! Please! Leave her alone.” “It is too late. I have her.” He swiped at his phone display again and showed her another picture. It was of Olivia and her mother, Jessica. In this photo, they had been bound and gagged and were sitting on a couch. She did not recognize the couch or its surroundings. The room was void of windows or any decoration. They were being held somewhere else. The poor child looked frightened out of her mind. “Do not worry, Ms Knight, she has not been harmed,” Mr Elder continued, “and as long as you do as I say, I will not harm her.” “I don’t know where your star is,” she snapped, “and I have no idea how to find it.” Her mind reeled as she considered possibilities. Jessica was unemployed. She lived a secluded life, even as most of the COVID pandemic waned. No one would be looking for her anytime soon. “Such a shame about your brother,” he said, ignoring her previous comment. “COVID is such a nasty business. It would be a shame to see anything happen to this poor child and her mother. If I am not mistaken, Olivia is your last remaining blood relative.” Her uncle was also a blood relative, she thought. That must mean Mr Elder didn’t know about him. “You’re an animal!” she barked out. Mr Elder’s eyes darkened; his brow furrowed. He clenched his fist and drew his arm back to strike, but stopped. Instead, he leaned into Skye; his face now inches away from hers. She smelled . . . something . . . foul. “You are wrong, you know,” he whispered. “I am not an animal. I am worse. I am capable of so many unpleasant things, far worse things than anything an animal would do, and if you do not do as I say, I will show you.” “I’ll do anything you want. Just don’t hurt her.” “We have ripped your place apart,” he said. “I do apologize. Even though I was confident the star would not be here, I needed to be certain. There is no evidence or indications that leads us to believe the Blue Star ever left Richmond. You were born there, right?” “That’s where I grew up, yes. What do you want me to do?” “That is entirely up to you. You have seventy-two hours to find the star and return it to me,” he said. “Otherwise, I will kill your niece, your sister-in-law and you. Then I will disappear. Do you understand?” “Three days? That’s not enough time. I don’t know where to start . . .” “Seventy-two hours,” he snapped. “Not a minute more. I am sure that going to the authorities has crossed your mind. Let me explain the situation to you in clear terms. You do not know who I am, but I can assure you, I am a powerful man with extensive resources. Do you believe that, Ms Knight?” She nodded. “Good. I tell you this because your sister-in-law and niece are in a very safe, secure place. They are unharmed and being treated well, but if you fail me in any way, they will pay the price. If you report this to the police, I will know. If you call the FBI, I will know. Your sister-in-law and your precious niece will die and then I will disappear, but rest assured, I will come back for you. You will not know when or where, but I will be back. And when I return, you will die a painful, bloody death. Your only way out is to recover the Blue Star and return it to me. Do you understand what I have said to you, Ms Knight?” “Yes,” she said. “And one final warning. We have been watching you for some time now. We know your friends and colleagues. If you try to engage their help, we will know. If you communicate with them, we will know. You would not want to see Mary, Julie or Cindy hurt . . . would you?” “No.” “Good. We understand each other then.” “How do I know you’ll keep your word?” Mr Elder straightened his back, “My colleague and I wear a mask so you cannot identify us. That is for your protection, Ms Knight.” “How so?” “I only want the Blue Star back. I have a granddaughter, close to Olivia’s age. I have no desire to kill children. I just want my property back. You bring my property to me, and I will let Olivia and Jessica go free. You do your job and I will keep my promise to you. You have my word.” Skye sucked in a breath and nodded, “OK. I’ll do it.” “Good.” He pulled a cell phone from his pocket and placed it on the table in front of her, “This is for your use,” he said. “You will keep it turned on and with you at all times. No exceptions. Even if you take a shower the phone had better be within arm’s reach. Do you understand?” Skye nodded. “Listen to me carefully. I am also using the phone to track you. Do not turn it off or allow the battery to die. If you turn this phone off, Olivia dies. If you do not answer before the third ring when I call, Olivia dies. Do you understand?” Skye nodded again. “Say it!” he demanded. “I understand,” she said. Mr Elder held up Skye’s cell phone, “I will be checking up on the people in your life; your friends and work colleagues. If any of them show signs of . . . activity, there will be serious repercussions . . . for them and for you. You are to tell no one—no one at all. Understood?” “Yes.” “Excellent. I am told the brunt of the storm will pass through the night. Get some rest, Ms Knight. It is too dangerous to drive tonight. The storm will be bad. You must leave first thing in the morning.” “I need more time,” she said. “More time is something you do not have.” “Just please, don’t hurt Olivia or her mother.” “Whether or not they are harmed is up to you, Ms Knight,” he said. “I want to talk to them,” Skye said. “You are in no position to negotiate,” he barked back. Skye held her ground, “You want me to go find this Blue Star? I need to know you are telling the truth. You said they were alive and unharmed. Prove it to me or . . . no deal.” Mr Elder chuckled, “This is how you want to play it? I will kill them both.” “Give me five minutes on the phone with them. That's all I ask.” He glared at her. Ten seconds passed, then thirty, then a full minute. Finally, he pulled his cell. He dialed a number, hit send and waited. “Put the child on speaker,” was all he said. Mr Elder hit the speakerphone button on his own phone and held it near Skye’s face. “Hello? Auntie Skye?” came a young voice. “Olivia, yes, it’s me.” She started crying, “I’m scared. I want to go home.” “I know, baby, I know. Are you alright? Have they hurt you?” “They haven’t hurt me but I'm scared, Auntie. I just want to go home.” “How about your mom?” Skye asked. “Is she alright?” “She’s here. She’s tied up. They have a gag on her mouth.” “But is she hurt?” “No. I don’t think so. Can you come get us?” “I will. I promise. I have to . . . run an errand for the men who are keeping you but I will come for you.” “Please hurry,” Olivia pleaded. “That’s enough,” Mr Elder said, pulling his phone away and hitting the end button. “My niece is scared,” she said. “I need you to . . .” “Enough talk!” Mr Elder screamed. We are leaving you now. Seventy-two hours, Ms Knight. That is Monday evening, eleven p.m. Not a minute more. I demand regular check-ins and you answer the phone when I call without exception.” Skye swallowed and nodded. He nodded at his oversized companion, who cut the tethers securing Skye’s arms. They turned and walked away without another word. After her attackers left, Skye immediately retrieved her laptop from her case. Her case had been emptied and searched but the laptop was unharmed. She opened a web browser and began a search. She already knew that the big man referred to his boss as ‘noble one.’ She also made note of the tattoo on her attacker’s wrist. She burned the image of the characters in her head--子墨. She had no idea what the characters meant, but intended to find out while they were fresh in her memory. She typed Blue Star into the search engine. Hundreds of pages of stellar astronomy information spilled out on the display. That was of no use. Outside she saw flashes of lighting filtering through the curtains; thunder boomed, sounding close; rain pattered loudly against the roof; she heard the sounds of high winds whipping through her trees and against her house. She placed her fingers on her laptop again. This time she typed Blue Star + jewel into the search bar. She hit enter and watched the results pop onto the screen. At the top was a large image. “Holy shit!” she said aloud. She stood and decided to fish through the chaos in the kitchen and find her Keurig coffee maker. It was going to be a long night. CHAPTER 3 She searched one website after another for hours, trying to make sense of her situation. The storm was bad but she barely thought about it, that is, until her power went out. It was three in the morning and she was almost thankful the power outage forced her to take a break. She crashed on her bed and fell asleep, waking at six. She got up, feeling as though she hadn’t slept at all. Richmond was less than an hour and a half away. It was a straight shot on I-64, but she was on the clock. The sooner she got there, the sooner she could unravel the mystery. She took a quick shower, grateful the water was still warm, then packed a small bag. She was on the road before seven. The road to the interstate took her straight through downtown Charlottesville. The rain had stopped; the wind had calmed to a light breeze. The morning sky was still ominously gray but clearing in the horizon; there was a moist chill in the air; puddles of standing water filled every dip in the road; broken tree limbs covered lawns and streets; sections of fences had blown down. Hurricane Emily may not have smashed Charlottesville, but it certainly made its mark. She gassed up before reaching town, deciding to make one last stop at Iron Paffles and Coffee for the largest and strongest coffee they had. She actually bought two cups, figuring she’d down one of them in minutes and sip the other along the way. She fired up the engine when she got back into the Caddy and turned left on West Water St. Within a minute she passed the Fairfield Inn. Given the events that occurred after she left the bar, she’d forgotten all about Tanner ‘Double-T’ Tate. Her mind lingered on him as she passed the hotel but she shook it off. She had much bigger fish to fry than to distract herself with fantasies of a gorgeous hunk or rethinking how she handled their chance meeting. As she passed the Fairfield Inn she glanced at the hotel through the rearview mirror. A thought suddenly rushed over her causing her brain to go into overdrive. She pulled into a supermarket parking lot and stopped the car. She pulled out the cell she’d been given and dialed a number from memory. “Hello” came the response. It was from her uncle, Commander Sam Knight. “Uncle Sam, it’s Skye.” “Skye? I almost didn’t answer. I didn’t recognize the number. Did you get a new phone?” “Something like that,” she said. She considered just telling her uncle the story. He would certainly want to help her, but he would press her to call the FBI and she was convinced, now more than ever, that word would leak to her attackers and Olivia and Jessica would pay the price. “Is everything OK?” Commander Knight said. “Yeah, sure,” she lied. “I’m calling because I ran into a former member of SEAL Team Six, and I heard you picked them up and brought them home from a mission in 2017.” “I did,” he confirmed. “Who was it you ran into?” “A man named Tanner Tate. Do you remember him?” “Double-T, from Chattanooga?” “That’s him.” “Yeah, I remember all the boys from SEAL Team Six. That was a helluva group . . . still is. Double-T was a good chess player. Had one of those styles that made you believe he didn’t know what he was doing, then he’d lower the boom on you— sneaky little bastard. He played every game tight. Why are you calling about him?” “What can you tell me about him?” She heard her uncle letting out a breath as he collected his thoughts, “Good man; strong; loyal, competent. Of course, that goes without saying. You can’t be a SEAL and not be able to kick some serious ass. Had the respect of everyone around him. Why?” “Can I trust him?” “Sure, of course. I never heard a bad word about him. Are you two . . . involved?” “No. Nothing like that,” she said. “He’s looking for a job.” “I heard. What would he be doing?” “Maybe some . . . security work for my firm,” she responded, thinking quickly. “Right up his alley,” the commander said. “So, you think I’d be good to hire him?” “Absolutely, after everything I’ve heard that he’s been through, he deserves a break.” “What do you mean? What’s he been through?” “I shouldn’t speak out of school,” he said, “but you are family. Double-T lost his pop in the line of duty in 1987, when he was just a kid. It was sudden.” Skye let out a gasp, “Oh, no. I’m sorry to hear that.” “That’s not all. A year ago, his mom was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, stage four. He did not re-up because of it. Went home to take care of her. He thought she had a year or more but she passed on within a couple of months of him coming home, I’m told.” “Oh dear,” she said. “I’ll bet he was crushed.” “Yeah, he was. Along with the mess in the Bayda Province I heard he went into a depression.” “What mess?” “It’s classified. Let’s just say, a lot of ugly things happened. Don’t get me wrong, he did nothing wrong. He engaged the enemy and when that happens, sometimes there’s collateral damage. Sometimes that damage sticks with you, whether you are responsible or not.” “But you think I can trust him?” “I do, but I’ll ask you again . . . he’s not someone you are involved with, is he?” “No, but why would that bother you? I would think it would please you if I dated a SEAL.” “It would, under normal circumstances, but that boy’s carrying some heavy emotional baggage, and you lost your dad and brother. It hasn’t been that long. I just don’t think . . .” “Uncle Sam, you have nothing to worry about,” she said. “This is strictly professional. Say, I’m in a rush. I gotta go.” “Call me again, sometime.” “I will, Uncle Sam. Do me a favor though . . . keep your phone on this weekend.” “You’re worrying me, Skye.” “Don’t worry. I’m fine. Bye now.” Skye hung up and, after a quick web search for a phone number, dialed and hit send. The phone rang twice. “Fairfield Inn. How may I direct your call?” came the greeting. “Would you patch me through to Mr Tanner Tate, please? I believe he is in room five-fourteen.” “Certainly. One moment please.” The phone rang almost immediately . . . twice, three times, four. “C’mon, pick up,” Skye barked aloud at her phone. The phone continued to ring. She was just about to hang up when she heard a click. “Hello?” “Tanner, this is Skye from last night.” “Skye!” he replied, “it’s good to hear your voice. I was hoping you’d get in touch. I wanted to thank you again for the room. I almost missed the call. Good Boy and I were just coming back from a run.” “You mentioned that you were headed to Fallport today . . . for a job, as I recall.” “That’s right . . . why?” “When does that job start?” “Actually, I haven’t interviewed for it yet. I’m meeting up with a former SEAL brother. He’s going to introduce me to a guy he knows and . . .” “I don’t mean to cut you off, but I have an urgent matter and I need help.” “Oh, OK, what kind of help?” She thought for a second, “Security.” “Can you be a little more specific?” “I’ll pay you a thousand dollars a day for three days. How many more details do you need?” “Wow. This is unexpected. C’mon, give me something?” Skye sighed, “I have to find something, something valuable and I’m on a timetable. I’ll have eyes on me. There may be people who will attack me as soon as I get it. It’s risky and I know it’s a big ask, but you are my best option–actually my only option. I’ll pay you in cash. Will you come with me?” “You don’t even know me.” “I know enough,” she said, “and I have great instincts. All my instincts say you’re a good man.” “Well, I appreciate that, but . . .” “Both my father and brother served in the Navy. What I’m doing will protect my brother’s family. He passed away. Think of this as helping a military brother.” She heard him let out a big breath, “I need time to think about it,” he said. “I’ll give you five minutes to think it over. I’m almost there. Think about it and then come downstairs. Be ready.” “Wait,” he pleaded. “I need a shower and . . .” “OK, then. I’ll see you in twenty, then. I need to dash to the supermarket for a minute anyway. I’ll be waiting by the front door. The car will be warm and running.” “But Skye, I have questions. I can’t just . . .” She hung up the phone. There’d be time for questions later, she thought. -- Twenty minutes later Tanner Tate strolled out the front door of the Fairfield Inn. Good Boy, the black and white Border Collie, led the way on Tanner’s makeshift belt-leash. He carried a light-weight jacket in his free hand. She couldn’t help but soak him in. He wore a tight camo t-shirt that revealed sculpted arms and pecs as well as muscular ripples around his stomach. There was not an ounce of fat on him. Without the hoodie, Skye got a good look at his face for the first time. It did not disappoint. His dark hair was just over his ears and parted in the middle, combed back on top. His facial scruff was a little thicker around his mouth and chin and patchier on his cheeks. And the eyes–magnetic. All-in-all, Tanner Tate was one sexy man. Skye exhaled and popped the tailgate on her SUV from the inside. Tanner tossed his duffle in the back and then coached Good Boy to jump inside. “Good Boy looks like he’s got a little more spring to his step this morning,” Skye said, once Tanner slipped into the passenger seat. “For good reason,” Tanner replied. “Rod fed him well last night and this morning, too. I took him for a run a little while ago. These Border Collies don’t get tired, I’ll tell’ya that. This fella can go all day. He’s a happy guy, but he’s thin. I think the run wore him out. I’ll bet he sleeps all the way to . . . where we goin’ again?” “Richmond.” “I suppose you’ll tell me why you need to be in Richmond and why you want me to go with you, too?” “We have about ninety minutes to kill,” she said, navigating the SUV back onto West Water, “That should be just about enough time, but first, I’ll bet you’re hungry. We are on the clock here, so I thought we'd go through a window. Hardee’s, OK?” “If they have food, it’s fine. I’m not picky. What’s in the plastic bag in the back seat?” “Things for Good Boy,” she said, “dry dog food, treats and whatnot. I picked out a leash and a dog collar, too.” Tanner looked at her and smiled, broadly, “That’s so nice of you.” “Got a couple of doggie toys too, oh, and food and water bowls. I was calling you from the parking lot of a Mini Mart. I figured you’d be bringing him along. Oh, one last thing. I bought little poop sacks, too, but let’s be clear on one thing. You’re the one on poop detail for the entire trip. Do I make myself clear?” “Yes, ma’am.” “And quit calling me ma’am.” Tanner chuckled, “Sorry. It’s a habit.” “I know. I’m sorry. I’m a bit snippy. I don’t mean to be.” “It’s OK. I know you’re going through some stuff. It’s understandable.” “Thank you for coming,” she said. “What would you have done if I said no.” “You weren’t going to say no.” “You’re pretty confident, aren’t you?” She shrugged, “More like desperate. I wasn’t in the mood to take no for an answer.” “I gathered that,” he said. “All the same, thank you. This means a lot to me, really.” “I get the feeling this trip was a big surprise, and that you aren’t exactly sure about what we’ll run into when we get there.” “Right on both counts,” Skye said, pulling into the Hardee's Drive-Thru. “Let’s order and get on the interstate and I’ll give you the low down. Here, I bought you a cup of coffee. Actually, I bought it for me, as a second cup for the trip, but you can have it.” “I don’t drink coffee, remember?” he reminded her. “Oh yeah. How is it that I met you at a coffee shop?” “They serve great tea,” he said. “What do you want to eat? Let me guess . . . a bacon cheeseburger?” “Who’s buying this cheeseburger?” “I am. Consider it a per diem.” Tanner nodded and winked at her, “In that case, I’ll have two bacon cheeseburgers with fries.” CHAPTER 4 Skye ordered fast food from the drive-thru and Tanner filled Good Boy’s water bowl from a bottle he pulled from his duffle. She pulled the Caddy into a spot in Hardees’ parking lot. They sat and ate. When they were on the road Skye brought him up to speed on what happened to her after she got home. Tanner listened to her quietly, never interrupting and never taking his eyes off her. He seemed to not only be listening to her story but absorbing every detail, soaking everything in as it was being told. “Damn, that’s quite the story,” he said, when she stopped. She’d paused at the point where her two attackers issued their orders to her and left. Tanner said nothing for more than a minute. Skye could almost hear the wheels turning in the man’s head as he continued to process everything he heard. Finally, he sighed, “I don’t have to tell you that kidnapping is a federal offense. Skye, you need to call the FBI and let them handle this.” “Not a chance,” she said. “After they left, I did a little digging and found out who these guys were. The older man who called himself Mr Elder is a man named Hu Zhao. He’s the head of the Ghost Dragons Triad out of New York.” Tanner froze momentarily; his mouth gaped open, “The Triad? You mean the Chinese Mafia?” “Exactly.” “I thought you said these guys wore masks.” “They did, but they left me clues,” she said. “What kind of clues?” “The big guy has a tattoo with two Chinese characters on it. I have an excellent memory, so I drew the characters on a piece of paper, took a digital image of it and uploaded it into my translation software. That’s how I learned his name was Zimo.” “And how is it you have translation software like that?” “I’m a paralegal. The firm has Chinese clients.” “I still don’t understand why you can’t go to the FBI with this,” Tanner said. “Because, as I was researching the Ghost Dragons, I stumbled on a criminal case where four FBI Agents were arrested for passing confidential information to Hu Zhao. Only one of them was convicted. Hu Zhao bragged to me that if I went to the police or the FBI, he’d know immediately.” “He could be bluffing.” “I don’t think so, and I’m not prepared to take the chance.” “Damn. You are between a rock and a hard place.” Skye nodded, “Tell me about it.” “Tell me more about Hu Zhao,” Tanner said. “I’m getting there. I did a traditional web search of the name and added criminal activities, arrests, extortion, kidnapping, murder and several other keywords to the search. It didn’t take long to find a three-hundred-and-eighty-pound Chinese assassin named Zimo.” “And you did this on your own?” Tanner asked. “Yes, last night.” “Wow. You’re good.” “Thank you. At any rate I found out Zimo works for the Ghost Dragons Triad out of New York. Once I found him, it was easy to find Mr Elder.” “How do you know this Mr Elder guy is the leader?” Tanner asked. “I mean, he had a mask on too, right? Why couldn’t he be some other Triad guy?” “For two reasons. One, Zimo called the man Gaogui de. It means, Noble One. It’s a way for underlings to address their superiors with respect, kind of like we say Sir or Your Honor. He would not call an equal or even an under-boss Gaogui de.” “And two?” “He did wear a mask and sock hat but his hair came down below the hat, kind’a like a mullet and the hair was black but streaked in gray in an odd fashion, one that I recognized in the picture. The men who kidnapped my niece and attacked me are Zimo and Hu Zhao. I’m positive.” “Wow, good work, Skye. You know, your talents are being wasted in a small town like Charlottesville. You should be working for the government in intelligence.” “Thanks.” “But now that you have all that information, I’m sure the FBI could . . .” “No, Tanner. Hu Zhao is way too powerful and dangerous. He has many resources. He’s been the Dragon Head of the Triad for fifteen years. He’s never spent a day in jail, and if you can believe the internet, the Ghost Dragons take in hundreds of millions in drugs, prostitution, illegal arms sales and the sex slave trading. He has a reputation for cruelty but he is also one smart son-of-a-bitch.” Tanner nodded, “Smart enough to know when the FBI is on his trail.” “Right, and if that happens, he'll cut his losses and disappear. Olivia and Jessica will be killed. He’ll bide his time for a while and then he’ll come after me and kill me too.” “You said you wanted me to watch your back,” Tanner said. “You expecting trouble while we’re in Richmond?” “I expect trouble the moment I find this Blue Star. Hu Zhao gave me a phone and took mine. He’s using this new phone to track me. He threatened to kill Olivia if the phone was ever not answered or turned off. He told me he’d ‘be watching.’ If I find the Blue Star, he won’t wait for me to bring it to him. He’ll try to kill me and take the Blue Star.” “And then Olivia and Jessica are no more than loose ends?” he speculated. “That’s right. That’s why I need you to make sure they don’t do that.” “Me? One man? Against the Chinese Mafia?” Tanner said. “You’re all I have.” “What makes you think I could possibly do that?” “I called my uncle. He said you were rock solid.” Tanner thought for a moment and nodded. “So, I assume you also figured out what this Blue Star is?” he asked. “I did.” She pulled a folded piece of paper from the sun visor and handed it to Tanner. He unfolded it and checked out the image. It was of a very large blue gemstone. “Wow,” Tanner said, “A gem? It’s beautiful. What am I looking at?” “It’s one of the three largest blue diamonds in the world. It’s called the Blue Star because of its shape. It was sold to a private collector at Christie’s Geneva auction for over fifty million dollars in 2006. They never released the name of the purchaser, but the media listed him as a prominent Chinese businessman.” “So, what happened?” “I only know so much,” Skye said. “In 2012 the diamond was stolen from its owner.” “And he thinks your dad stole it?” “No. I don’t think so. I believe he thinks someone else stole it and that it changed hands multiple times and ended up with my dad.” “What kind of work did your dad do?” “He was a jeweler, and a damn good one. He owned a beautiful store in Richmond. He was highly respected in the industry but never wealthy enough to trade in merchandise anywhere close to this level of value.” “So, what’s the connection, then?” “I don’t know . . . yet. We’ll have to find out. Hu Zhao said it took him years to find a trail leading to his property. He used the word ‘trail.’ By the time Hu Zhao traced the Blue Star to my dad’s store, he’d already died.” “I think I get it,” Tanner said. “This Dragon Head gets his Blue Star stolen and he begins a search that spans several years. He finally gets a lead to your dad’s jewelry store in Richmond but hits a dead end when he finds out your pop passed away. He probably ran down every possible lead and found nothing, so he comes looking for the next of kin. That’s all he’s got left.” “I think that’s exactly right,” she said. “And that’s when he finds me.” “But you know nothing?” Tanner asked. “Not a damn thing,” she said. “My dad made good money, but not the kind of money needed to buy the Blue Star, even off the black market. When his estate was settled, my brother and I got three million to split between us.” “That’s quite a bit of money,” Tanner said. “Yeah, but if he owned that Blue Star, we’d have split a lot more.” “Wouldn’t he have said something to you if he had the Blue Star?” “Perhaps. I don’t know. If he knew it was stolen by a Chinese Triad leader and was worried about this man tracing it to him, he would have kept it a very closely guarded secret. And there’s another factor.” Tanner’s ears perked, “What?” “Up until the day he died we believed my dad to be in perfect health. There was no warning at all. He experienced a massive pulmonary embolism, one day, totally unexpected. He grabbed his chest and fell to the floor in his own jewelry store. He died before the paramedics arrived.” “How old was he?” “Fifty-six.” Tanner nodded, “I’m so sorry it happened.” “So, your dad may not have said anything because he thought he had plenty of time left on this earth.” “It’s possible,” Skye said. “So, what’s the plan when we get there?” Tanner asked. “We’re going to pay a visit to a man named Miles Lefevre.” “Who is he?” “He was my dad’s business partner for over twenty-five years. When dad died, Miles took over the business and ran it for another two years. He was then diagnosed with early-stage dementia–Alzheimer’s. He sold the business two years ago.” “You think he might know something about the Blue Star?” “The Blue Star was stolen from Hu Zhao in 2001. The internet was filled with rumors about what happened to it. The one consistent thing I’ve read was that the owner was obsessed with finding it. Whoever had the Blue Star had to have known that they were dealing with a hot potato.” “So, you’re thinking that your dad may have acquired the Blue Star before the partnership was dissolved and Miles LeFevre may know something about this?” Skye sighed, “Not exactly. I think Miles may have been the one who acquired the Blue Star in the first place.” CHAPTER 5 “What makes you think that your dad’s partner may have acquired the Blue Star?” Tanner asked. “Because I know my dad,” Skye replied. “He was as honest as the day was long. He would have never knowingly allowed himself to get involved with anything like a black-market blue diamond.” “But Miles Lefevre would?” “You bet’cha he would. My dad was always financially secure. He managed his money well. He was happy with his single jewelry store operation. It was Miles who always wanted more. He wanted to expand and pushed my dad to take high risk, high reward deals. My dad was conservative by nature. It would have been very uncharacteristic for him to get involved with something like that.” “So, I take it Miles was not financially secure?” “No. Miles was in financial arrears all the time, even though he made great money.” “If he made great money, what were the issues?” “Two ugly divorces and the nearest race track,” Skye said. “Miles had a taste for women and horses, and not necessarily in that order.” “So, you’re thinking that maybe Miles got jammed financially and saw a way to cut himself in on a sweet deal?” “I don’t know yet, but I will say it’s far more likely that Miles had something to do with it than my dad.” “So, out of curiosity, don’t you think this Hu Zhao character would have found out about Miles Lefevre when he traced the Blue Star to your dad’s jewelry store?” “I would have thought so, but even if he did, he would have gotten a big surprise.” “What surprise?” “Even if Hu Zhao found Miles, he would have not learned a thing. He’s in his early eighties now and living in a Richmond nursing home. He’s in an advanced stage of dementia.” “Wow. I’m sorry to hear that. Do you really believe he’ll have the mental capacity to talk to you about this?” “Very doubtful.” Tanner did a double take, “Then why . . .” “Because the person I really want to talk to is not Miles . . . but his niece, Shelly. Miles never had children of his own, but he adored his niece and treated her like his own daughter. If Miles was truly involved then finding out what Shelly knows is going to be critical.” “What do you think she knows?” “Don’t know for sure, but I intend to find out.” “Why can’t you go to her directly?” “Because I don’t know where to find her,” she replied. “I don’t even know her last name.” “It’s not Lefevre?” “No. Shelly is the daughter of Miles’s sister. She grew up as Shelly Davis. The last time I saw her, though, was at my father’s funeral. She was twenty-one, just married and pregnant. Husband’s a big-time surgeon as I recall. I never caught her new last name. I only spoke to her briefly. I did remember that she was still living in Richmond at the time. That was four years ago, of course.” “So, why are we going to this nursing home at all,” Tanner asked. “Because at my father’s funeral I heard that the only person who visits Miles is . . .” “Shelly,” Tanner finished. “OK. I get it. I have to say, Skye, for a woman who is going through what you’re going through, you are awfully cool and collected.” “It’s all on the outside, trust me. Right now, the very best thing I can do to help Olivia and Jessica is to remain focused. Believe me, if losing my shit and flipping out would help the situation, I could scream and cry with the best of them.” Tanner nodded, “Well, it’s impressive. How long before we get there?” “Probably twenty minutes,” Skye said. “Keep me from dwelling on things. Tell me a little about yourself. I know you’re a former Navy SEAL and that you served in Yemen. You like stray dogs, you’re originally from Chattanooga and you like classic rock. You were on your way to see an old military bud about a job in Fallport. Fill in the blanks.” Tanner let out a breath, “You are certainly incredible with details. What would you like to know?” She’d already decided to not ask about his mother. The issue may be sensitive, she believed. “Let’s start with the basics; is there a Mrs Double-T? Do you have kids?” Tanner chuckled bashfully, “No Mrs Double-T. No kids.” I can check that box off, she thought. And now for the next biggie . . . “What about a main squeeze?” “Main what?” he asked. “Girlfriend. I can’t imagine anyone as good-lo. . . I mean . . . like you . . . not having a girlfriend.” “Oh . . . uh . . . no,” he said. “You hesitated.” “I did?” “Yeah, you did.” He smiled and drew in a breath, “OK. I broke up with a woman right before I left Chattanooga.” “So . . . you broke up a couple of days ago, then.” Damn. He’s on the rebound. “More or less,” Tanner said. “Well, I’m not letting that one slide. Let's hear the story.” “It’s very long and complicated,” he said. Skye shrugged, “I’ll take the abridged version then.” Tanner nodded, smiling softly, “OK. Well, Sylvie and I started in high school. Her family didn’t like me at first. Sylvie’s mom and dad were both attorneys in Chattanooga and they lived in a big house in the nicest part of town.” “And you?” “I lived on the other side of the tracks; was raised by a single mom. My dad was in the Navy. He was killed in the Persian Gulf when I was just a youngster. He was on the USS Stark in 1987 when it was struck by two Exocet anti-ship missiles killing thirty-seven men, including my dad.” Skye gasped, “Oh, Tanner, I’m so sorry.” “Thank you. My mom drew a pension from the government and she worked for McKee Foods.” “Never heard of them,” Skye said. “Little Debbie?” “Oh, yeah. Their cupcakes were in my grade school lunches.” “Mine too. At any rate, we lived in an old, small house and I wore my cousin’s hand-me-downs to school. I made so-so grades but I was nothing special. We never went hungry but we had bills. Life was a struggle. Sylvie’s parents wanted more for their daughter. I was amazed Sylvie went out with me in the first place. I’m not even sure what she saw in me.” Skye offered a faint smile. I know exactly what she saw in him, she thought, “Go on.” “At any rate, Sylvie ended up getting pregnant and the shit hit the fan. Her parents pretty much made her keep it a secret and forced her to get an abortion before she started to show.” “How did you feel about that?” Skye asked. “Horrible. I wanted to marry her. I wanted her to have the baby. The problem was, I was just out of high school, with no job and no real skills. Sylvie’s parents pushed hard to get her to dump me and start over.” “And did she?” “Yeah,” he sighed, letting out a long breath. “I couldn’t believe she gave in after all we’d been through. I was crushed.” “What’d you do?” “I left town, joined the Navy, became a SEAL.” “That’s quite an accomplishment,” Skye said. “You have no idea. BUD/S training was the hardest thing I ever went through. Luckily, I had a great mentor. His name was Matthew ‘Wolf’ Steel. He’s the most amazing man I ever met. He pushed me to the limits. He encouraged me every step of the way.” “And this was in San Diego?” “Yes, and in Virginia Beach. That’s where Wolf is now. He’s a consultant for the Naval Special Warfare Group Two, based at Little Creek, near Virginia Beach, Virginia. I was hoping to see him before I got to Fallport, but the storm kind’a put me behind.” “You really like him, huh?” “I wouldn’t have made it without him. Because of him, I became a SEAL and I served my country. When I was discharged, I came home to a hero’s welcome.” Still no mention of his mom, she thought. Interesting. “And that’s when you reconnected with Sylvie?” He sighed softly and nodded, “But it wasn’t the same after twelve years. In that time, she’d gotten married, and had a baby. Things didn’t work out for her marriage, though. She got a divorce but her daddy got her a great job. After all that, she wasn’t the same person, and neither was I.” “So, you left?” “There's more to it, but suffice it to say, after twelve years in the military, I had a tough time integrating into civilian life, and being an expert in hand-to-hand combat and underwater demolition didn’t translate well into the job market in Chattanooga, Tennessee.” Skye paused and nodded, “So, the job market is better in Fallport, Virginia?” “When you have a SEAL buddy living there, it can be, yes, and at least, I hope so.” Skye’s cell phone rang. She exchanged glances with Tanner and looked at the display. “Dammit, it’s him,” Skye said. “Be quiet. You’re not supposed to be with me.” Tanner nodded as Skye hit the green button, “Hello?” she said. “Is Jessica alright?” “They have not been harmed,” Hu Zhao said. “I need a status report.” “I’m on the road, five minutes outside of Richmond,” she said. “I can see that through the GPS,” he replied. “I want to know what your plan is.” “My plan is to get your Blue Star and exchange it for Olivia and Jessica, as we agreed.” “Don’t be coy, Ms Knight. How will you do it?” he said. “I have a plan but I’m not telling you what it is.” “Refusing to tell me what I want to know is not wise, Ms Knight. You forget, I hold all the cards.” “Most of the cards, not all,” she said. “If I tell you what I’m doing you might decide you don’t need me. You might decide to do it yourself. If that happens, Olivia, Jessica and I all become liabilities. Look, Mr Elder, or whatever your name is, we have an agreement. I intend to uphold my end of it. You gave me until Monday night to get the Blue Star and return it. That is what I’ll do.” “It sounds as though you know where it is?” “I do not, but I do have a plan. I want to speak with my niece.” “Very well,” he said. “Hold on.” Ten seconds elapsed, “Aunt Skye?” “Olivia, baby, are you alright?” She heard the child crying, “I’m alright, but I want to go home now.” “Soon, baby, soon. I promise. They haven’t hurt you?” “No.” “Are they feeding you?” “Yes.” “How about your mom? Is she OK?” “Yes.” “That’s enough,” Hu Zhao said. “You are a cool customer, Ms Knight. The ball is in your court, but remember, I’ll be watching. Do not disappoint me.” The phone line went dead. Skye took a moment to collect herself. Tanner saw that she was struggling. “Want me to drive?” he asked. “No. I just need a moment.” “Take slow deep breaths,” he said. “It helps.” She did as Tanner asked. “So, that was the bad guy, Hu Zhao?” he asked. “Yep, that’s him.” “I know it's tough to stand your ground when he’s holding your niece and sister-in-law captive but you absolutely did the right thing. You handled that well.” “Thank you.” “Mind if I ask a question?” “Please.” “When you addressed him, you called him Mr Elder or whatever your name is. You didn’t say Hu Zhao. Why?” “Because when they attacked me, they wore sock hats, masks and sunglasses. They went to great lengths to try to prevent me from knowing who they were. I identified them by the big guy’s tattoo.” “I remember,” Tanner said. “I guess they believe if you went to the FBI, you could not tell them who attacked you, just that it happened and the attackers kidnapped Olivia and Jessica.” “I want to keep the fact that I know who they are under my hat. I plan to use it as leverage later,” Skye added. “What kind of leverage?” “If we find the Blue Star, you’ll see. We’re almost there.” Tanner looked up as Skye pulled into the parking lot for The Veterans Care Center. They had a big sign with a VCC logo. “What’s the plan for when we get inside?” he asked. “Well, I’d like to talk to Miles on the off-chance he is cognizant enough to talk to me, but I doubt that’s the case. What I really need is contact information for his niece, Shelly. I know she visits him. I’m sure she is his emergency contact. She’s the only family he has left. Tanner nodded, “Got it. How can I help?” “I’ll do the talking. You’re just my . . . arm candy on this one. Follow my lead.” “Arm candy, huh? Well . . . roger that, boss,” he said with a quick two-finger salute. Skye parked. Tanner slipped Good Boy’s collar around his neck and leashed him up. He walked Good Boy to a tree and he dutifully christened it. He tied the leash to a post where he could see through the glass window. “I’ll be back soon,” he said to the dog. He scratched the dog behind his ears, “Who’s the good boy?” he said in a goo-goo voice. Skye shook her head and sighed. She and Tanner stood in front of the reception desk a few seconds later. “Welcome to VCC,” said a perky receptionist, overlooking Skye completely, focusing on Tanner instead. Skye eyed her up and down. Amanda, as her tag read, was short and a little thick around the middle. Aside from being a little beefy she was cute, Skye thought, that is, once you got past the smell. The young woman’s perfume, which she must have put on with a garden hose, combined with the entire can of hairspray she used this morning, was gagging her. Skye offered a Pan Am smile, “Hi . . . Amanda. I’m over here. I’m here to see Miles Lefevre. She took her eyes off Tanner and onto Skye as though it was an annoyance to do so. “Please hold a moment,” she said and began typing on her keyboard, her two-inch lime-green nails clickety-clacking away. “Are you Shelly, by chance?” “No. My name is Knight, Skye Knight.” She served up a fake smile and turned back to Tanner, “And you are?” “He’s my . . .” Skye began. “I’m her brother,” Tanner interjected. “My name’s Tanner.” Amanda immediately brightened up; Skye noted. “Tanner, huh?” she said, displaying all her pearly whites. “I like that name.” “Good, because it’s the only one I got.” Amanda giggles. Tanner smiled again, “Say, is the coffee in that lobby machine any good?” he continued. “The best I can say is, it’s not awful,” she replied. “Such a ringing endorsement,” he said, flashing a sexy smile in Amanda’s direction. Were her cheeks turning pink? Tanner sauntered over to the coffee machine. Amanda watched him unabashedly. “Excuse me . . .” Skye said. “Are you family?” Amanda asked Skye. “In a way,” Skye replied. “Miles and my dad were business partners. I grew up . . .” “I’m so sorry. There are strict rules regarding Mr Lefevre’s visitation– approved family members only and there’s only one person on the list. I’m very sorry.” “But as I explained . . .” “Very sorry, ma’am, no exceptions.” Skye smiled, “Do you have a manager here?” “Yes, Margaret Dillon is our Center Administrator.” “Would you let Ms Dillon know I’d like to speak with her?” “I’m afraid not. Margaret is away at a continuing education conference. It wouldn’t do any good anyway. She’s a stickler for the rules.” “Pardon me,” Tanner called out, “Amanda, is it?” Tanner interrupted the conversation by thumping his palm on the coffee machine, “I can’t seem to figure this machine out. Would you mind helping me out?” “Oh certainly,” Amanda said enthusiastically, moving out from behind the counter with cat-like speed. Amanda joined Tanner at the machine. “You’re putting the bills in upside down, silly,” she said, giggling like a schoolgirl. Tanner smiled brightly and chuckled, as if embarrassed, “How silly of me, but as long as you’re here, how do I get cream and extra sugar?” “Here, let me show you,” she said. Amanda took the bill from his hand. Tanner stole a look back at Skye. The smile left his face. He tightened his lips and nodded toward the computer. “Oh shit,” she whispered under her breath, finally getting it. “I love that scent,” she overheard Tanner saying, “Is that Replica by Maison Magiela?” Skye moved around behind the counter and looked at the screen. Amanda had left Miles’ room information on the screen. Room 222. “Well sort of,” she heard Amanda reply. “I can’t afford the real thing, but it’s a pretty good knockoff don’t you think?” “Oh, I do,” Tanner agreed. “You smell so sweet I just might have to take a bite out of you.” “Oh you,” Amanda called out, turning even pinker and giggling. Gag me, Skye thought. “Say, I need to get back to the counter,” Amanda said. “Hold on a second,” Tanner said. “You have something on your cheek.” “I do? What is it?” That was my cue, Skye thought. He’s buying me a few extra seconds to get back in position. Tanner used his thumb and forefinger to remove an imaginary foreign object from Amanda’s cheek, which had transitioned from pink to red. “Ah. It’s just a hair,” he said. “All gone. You look great.” Amanda sucked in a deep breath. Skye thought she was going to faint on the spot. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to help you,” Amanda said, walking with Tanner back to the counter, holding a coffee in his hand. Skye gave him a subtle thumbs-up sign at waist level that Amanda didn’t notice. “That’s OK,” Tanner said. “No worries. Say, sis. It’s eleven a.m.” “So?” Skye said. “So . . . you were supposed to call your . . .