St. Louis, Missouri
Interstate 70, Northbound
Rose maneuvered the gold Camero past slower traffic. "I think I see why Dan wants one of these. Makes the mini-van feel stodgy."
Elena laughed. "Going to get him one?"
"Hell, no. If I get one, it'll be for me. Dan can get his own. After the kids are older and in college."
"Pity. I can see you driving Pascal to school in this."
"He prefers to bike to school, even in winter. Maybe when he's older he'll get car crazy like Amber. Well, maybe not like Amber."
"No one can be like Amber."
"Thank God." Sexton's digital assistant trilled. "See who that is, Elena."
Elena picked up the Blackberry. "Caller ID says it's Sexton. Want to talk to him?"
"I've got my hands full with this beast. Go ahead and answer."
"Hello, Mr. Sexton," Elena greeted. "Rose is a little busy right now. I'm her partner. I see." Elena's voice turned icy cold. "I will pass along the message." She disconnected the call. "Rose, find a place to pull over."
"What did he say?"
"Get off the highway and pull over first, Rose."
Rose took the next exit from Highway 70, arriving on Natural Bridge Avenue. "Elena, what is going on?"
"Stop the car, Rose."
The Camero came to a stop in front of a convenience store. Rose shut off the engine. "What did Sexton say?" she asked with an even tone.
Elena took a deep breath. "He has Maria."
"What?" Rose roared. "That god damned son of a bitch! Where is he? Did he say?"
"Calm down, Rose. He's doing this to provoke you."
"He damned well succeeded."
"Rose, get a grip!" Elena closed her eyes. "He's going to call back in fifteen minutes with instructions and he won't talk to me. We've been through a similar hostage situation before. Rio de Janeiro, 1988, the Polish ambassador's wife."
"That was different."
"How was it different?"
"She wasn't my daughter!"
Elena checked the clock on Sexton's Blackberry. "We have fourteen minutes, Rose. You can be upset later. Right now, we need to get moving."
"We would be if you hadn't told me to stop the damned car."
"I'm telling you now to get it going again."
Rose turned the key in the ignition. The engine roared to life. With a high-pitched protest from the tires, the Camero jumped back into traffic. "Where are we going?"
"Now is not the time to joke, Elena."
"No joke. I've arranged to get some supplies we can use. It'll take us twenty minutes to get there, so you need to stay together to delay Sexton."
Rose inhaled deeply. "You're right, damnit. But it's Maria. She's innocent."
Elena gave Rose a stern look. "Just get to the Wal-Mart."
St. Louis, Missouri
Columbia Avenue, Westbound
Allison spotted the Grand Am sitting in the parking lot of a Target first. She pointed out the maroon Pontiac to Amber. "There!"
"I see him." Amber careened the Charger around, across several lanes of traffic, driving into the parking lot. She pulled up beside the Grand Am and waved to the driver. Rolling down her window, she called out, "Looking for us?" She revved the engine.
The eyes of the agent in the car bugged out. He sputtered on his coffee. Amber revved her engine again, breaking the agent's shock. He tossed his coffee cup out the window, the creamy brown liquid splashing on the asphalt and on the Grand Am's fender. The agent reached inside his suit jacket.
Amber gunned the engine and threw the Charger into gear. Smoke rose from the rear tires as they spun in place briefly before gaining traction. The Dodge surged ahead as the agent cleared his pistol from his holster. Amber checked her rear view mirror to keep an eye on what the agent was doing. The Grand Am came to life.
"Allie, get out the map. I need to know where I'm supposed to go." She checked her mirrors again. "Now comes the fun."
Allison unfolded the map. "Rose mapped out a circuit of downtown. Closest intersection is Grand where it crosses Interstate 44."
"Behind us, then, right?"
"Um, yeah, right," Allison confirmed after glancing at the map."
"Hold on!" Amber twisted the steering wheel, fishtailing the Charger around one hundred and eighty degrees. Now facing the agent's Grand Am head-on, Amber floored the accelerator.
"Are you insane?" Allison cried.
"Possibly." Amber kept the Charger going straight. The Grand Am swerved out of the way. "Chicken!" the green-haired woman called.
Allison resumed breathing. "Don't do anything like that again!"
"Allie, I need you to call out the turns. Give them to me at least three blocks ahead."
Allison glanced at Amber. "Okay?" The brunette's face showed her confusion.
"I'm going to be busy keeping us on the road and away from Mr. Agent there to pay attention to street names. It's not difficult."
Allison nodded. "Okay. Just . . . just keep going straight for six, no, seven blocks."
The Charger cut through oncoming traffic as it left the parking lot. Amber steadied the car as its rear end threatened to fishtail. Behind her, the agent in his Grand Am maneuvered through parked vehicles and past cross-traffic to keep up. Horns blared as drivers braked or swerved to avoid colliding with the Pontiac.
Allison held on to the door handle with a tight grip. "I hope you know what you're doing."
"Of course." Amber's smile grew maniacal. She changed gears, throwing the motor into a deeper hum. "Think we have him?"
A gunshot rang out from behind. Allison craned her neck to find the shooter. "Oh, yeah, we have him. He's pissed."
Amber steered the car to the far right lane. Two more shots followed, one destroying the Charger's driver side mirror in an explosion of glass and plastic. Amber felt the car bounce away from the sidewalk curb. She glanced down the road. "Come and get me!"
The Charger climbed on to the sidewalk, maneuvering between two lamp posts, jouncing Amber and Allison. "Amber!" Allison yelled. "Street! Now!"
"Where he can shoot at us? No way!" Amber did a quick shoulder check. The agent's Grand Am followed behind, remaining on the road. "Ha! Knew he wouldn't have the balls to try to follow."
"Quiet please, I'm driving." The Charger knocked a garbage can off the sidewalk, sending it clattering into the street. The agent's Pontiac nailed it, throwing it further down the street. The car smacked it a second time, careening it across oncoming lanes.
On the sidewalk, Amber blasted the Charger's horn, warning pedestrians of her approach. Those still staring at the red vehicle rushing at them broke out of their shock and dove off the sidewalk, either on the street or back into a building. The people who escaped to the roadside leapt back on to the sidewalk as the Grand Am bore down on them.
East St. Louis, Illinois
157 Elm Street
Sexton finished closing the last drape in the house. He glanced over to Thompson. "How's our visitor?"
"She's in the bedroom, still cuffed," the agent answered. "Sexton, are you sure this will work?"
"Velasco won't risk her daughter's life," Sexton explained.
"The kid can identify us."
"And? It's not like any of those bitches are going to live." Sexton checked his watch. "Get the brat. Time for a call to Mommy."
Thompson nodded and disappeared up the stairs. Sexton picked up the phone and dialled his Blackberry's number. On the second ring, someone picked up. "Velasco?" he asked. "Good. Listen carefully. I want my laptop and every copy you've made of my hard drive back. This is not negotiable." Sexton looked over as Thompson returned, dragging Maria downstairs. "Maybe you'll see reason after you talk to my guest." He covered the mouthpiece of the handset. "Bring her over here," he whispered harshly. Once Thompson had Maria standing in front of him, Sexton thrust the phone at the girl. "Talk to your mother."
"Mom?" Maria stuttered. "Mom, is that you?" Tears formed in the girl's eyes. "Mom, you have to help me! You have—"
Sexton tossed the girl aside. "Now do you believe me? Or do I have to send a part of her?" He nodded. "Good. You have one hour. I don't care how long it took you. One hour. Do you take me for stupid, Velasco? No, I'll tell you where when you call. No sooner. Do anything other than getting the laptop and the CDs and the kid is dead." Sexton hung up. Turning to Maria, he said, "Your mother had better make the smart choice."
St. Louis, Missouri
Rose threw the Blackberry violently on to the Camero's backseat. She stomped on the gas pedal, speeding up the car and forcing it to race past traffic. Elena looked over. "Rose, take it easy."
"Not until I have Maria back," Rose snapped.
"You can't help her if you get into an accident. Slow down. What did he want?"
"His laptop and all the CDs."
"Figures. You know that even if he gets that, he's not going to let either you or Maria go."
"Not helping me at all, Elena."
"One hour, then I call him to make the exchange."
Elena nodded. "Good thing we're going to Wal-Mart. Turn here."
Rose glanced at her passenger. "You have a plan in mind."
"Standard operating procedure during a hostage situation," Elena explained. "Never give in to their demands except when it gets you closer to your goal. Even then, make it only appear that you're giving in."
Rose pondered over her partner's words. "Devious."
"Stock in trade, remember? Especially when in came down to inter- and intra-departmental rivalries."
"Happy to be retired?"