The Project: Part Thirteen

Part Thirteen

As the guys sat up front keeping watch, she sensed their restlessness and smoldering impatience. In the back seat of the car, trying her best to ignore it, she remained slumped down with her eyes trained on that door of the apartment building.

Men had always been her downfall. First her father, then her brothers, and later on a succession of less than perfect, albeit necessarily wealthy boyfriends. The present one, her boss whom she hadn’t heard from in days, the one who set this whole thing in motion, had seemingly left her hanging. He hadn’t been in touch with her in nearly a week, and she hadn’t been able to raise him by phone either. Maybe his loving wife had caught on to them, and like the others before him, he was backing out the relationship with her to preserve the one with his wife.

She had been used. She knew it, but she was helpless, and this time, actually unwilling to do anything about it. Things had come too far to give up on the plan. It seemed at one time that they had both been on the same wavelength in their hatred for Jonathan Hart and the success of his Hart Industries. But then, slowly it became clear to her that M.J. had a much larger agenda which also included Claire’s sister, Chris.

Her longtime acquaintances, since she didn’t really consider females to be friends, Claire Allen and Alice Rangel had direct tie-ins to everything important to her. Although he had been acquainted with Claire for a while, M.J. seemed to have gone crazy after finding out about Claire’s older sister and her line of work. Once told about Chris, like a man possessed, he began in earnest making his arrangements, and she had her suspicions about his motivation. What did he want with a woman almost as old as his wife when he could her, someone a whole lot younger and therefore, more desirable?

M.J. blamed Jonathan Hart for his company’s lack of success. She blamed Hart for her father’s absence in her life and for turning him into the pathetic, exiled fat man she found him to be after so many years of looking for him. Her father had once been a top-level Hart executive, working for Hart Shipping Lines. But now he lived abroad, making money doing things he wouldn’t talk with her about. Despite his having taken good financial care of her all of her days, she still resented having grown up in boarding schools with only the idealized image she’d conjured up of her father in her head, as opposed to the disappointing real-life man she had discovered as a young woman.

The three of them, she, Claire Allen, and Alice Rangel had started college together, thrown together in the same dorm and in many of the same classes for their freshman year. Alice, had always been bright, but she wasn’t smart. Claire was intelligent and smart. She had style, lots of nerve, and being the prettiest of them, she attracted the money. As for herself, she was the kind of smart that counted; she had nerve, knew how to have fun, and she knew where to find the money to finance the fun. Once Claire had it on the line, it was she who would do what it took to reel what they needed out of masculine pockets and funnel it their way. Alice, Claire’s quiet and passive friend, had mostly been along with them for the ride.

In the mountains that freshman year, the whole thing had been her idea. It was supposed to have been a lark while they traveled through Europe. They had done it on a dare and in an effort to fatten their pockets. Hers were already pretty well-fed, thanks to her guilt-ridden father, but Claire, who had been taught to work for her money, was always up for making a buck. Alice, like always, had been along for the adventure of it all. If it hadn’t been for their contact getting killed, nobody would have been the wiser, and they would never have gotten caught. It was Chris who came, and somehow gotten them out of it. She always believed it was Chris who had been responsible for getting her kicked out of school afterward and for sending a badly frightened Alice back home to complete her education closer to her mother and father.

Chris.

Chris never made it a secret how much she disapproved of her and Claire’s enduring association. What a bitch. Claire might be scared of her, but she wasn’t. She thought she could sense that M.J had some kind of thing for Chris, but that could not, would not be. The next time Christina Allen tried to meddle in her business, or with her man, she’d get it worse than she did that last time. The next time she would have her killed for sure. If she had a say in it, Ms. Allen wouldn’t be walking or driving away the next time. Other people had tried to double-cross her, to muck up what she had going, but they had already been removed from the playing field.

Maybe M.J. had decided to give up, but she was pressing on with it. She had come too close. Had spent too much money. Was owed too much money to just give up as the guys tried to suggest that she do. Sarah Martin still had to pay off her husband’s debt as well as make up for his failure to follow through on what he said he could do. Mrs. Martin had been wise to take her suggestion and go through Alice to get it done. Claire, in her Hart-arranged absence, couldn’t be counted upon. She had never been all that reliable.

She would have to take matters directly into her own hands.

When the door opened and Alice set two large suitcases outside before closing it behind her, she slid down in the seat even farther to avoid detection. Pulling out her cell, without taking her eye off Alice, she pressed a speed dial button.

__________________________________________________________

Right after Pat got J.J. on the couch, helped her lie down, and then spread the throw over her, she was asleep.

She waited a few minutes, perched on the arm of the couch next to her godchild’s head, to make sure J.J. was completely under. When Third trotted into the den, hopped up on J.J.’s legs settling himself into the space between her body and the back of the couch, and the girl didn’t so much as flinch, Pat was satisfied there would be no more escape attempts for a while.

Before getting up, she leaned down to whisper next to J.J.’s ear, “You are one crazy child, but do I love you.” and pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Just completely, totally nuts. I don’t know how Jen puts up with you and your daddy twenty-four-seven without losing her own mind.”

A soft dream-smile briefly crossed J.J.’s lips, and Pat smiled, too.

Before she closed the door behind her, she took one last look back to that ponytail trailing toward the floor, and finally felt totally at peace with why she had been allowed a last minute reprieve when so many others had not. Evidently someone, somewhere, felt there was still something she had to do and a lot of people who needed for her to stay.

Jonathan needed Jennifer. Jennifer would not have gone with him had she not been there to take care of J.J. Then, who but she would head out for a walk, only to have her on-the-lam godchild fall, busted red-handed in the getaway attempt, right at her godmother’s feet? What if that had been Jennifer on the walk and J.J. had landed in front of her? How much residual hell would Jonathan have caught from that? If it had been Marie out there, she probably would have had a heart attack on the spot and died, sending J.J. into something from which she never would have recovered.

Yeah, it was a good thing Aunt Pat was still there. It took more eyes than Jonathan and Jennifer’s to keep a proper eye on J.J. Hart.

Settling herself at Jennifer’s desk, she picked up the phone and called New York, hoping the signal would finally go through. Either way, she determined, when she finished there she would go up and start getting Marnie packed for her trip.

… yet another one who’s as crazy as hell… arrested twice in one week…. just wait until I get my….

When her longtime live-in housekeeper and personal assistant, Cordelia, picked up and that rich voice she hadn’t heard since very early that previous Tuesday morning anxiously greeted her, she had to fight to keep from crying along with the woman on the other end.

__________________________________________________________

Claire was still sitting hunched over on the bed. From the doorway, August could see from her unsteady movements that the length of time Chris had been on her feet was tiring her, and that had drawn him into the room to stand directly behind her. Her body, inches away from his, was trembling almost imperceptibly to the eye, but he could feel it, and without really thinking about it, he reached out and held her arm to steady and support her.

“Maybe you should sit down with her,” he suggested to Chris.

He hadn’t seen Claire in a few years, and despite arranging for her move from the Four Seasons to the bunker, he hadn’t been directly in touch with her at all since her recent return. She had certainly grown into a woman, but somehow with Chris there with her, she seemed childlike. The healing black eye was disconcerting. Who exactly was “he”? Chris seemed to have a line on it, and that made him wonder how much she knew about it and precisely how much of that she recalled- if she had forgotten any of it.

Chris, still glaring down at Claire, shook her head in answer to his suggestion, muttering, “I don’t do pity parties, August,” but aiming the comment at Claire. “That’s all this seems to be to me. I prefer to stand on my own two feet. I always have.”

Still Claire said nothing; she didn’t even look up.

“Besides,” Chris folded her arms and leaned back slightly, allowing herself to be physically supported even more by August as she continued her disdainful summation of the situation. “Sometimes you have to realize that you’ve done all that you can do. You have to be able to accept when it’s time for you to pull back and let a person come to you for the help they say that they need.”

When Claire maintained her sullen position on the bed, Chris rolled her eyes and mumbled, “I don’t even know why I bothered,” as she backed farther into August in an effort to turn around and, it appeared, leave.

Claire jumped up. “Chris? Don’t go, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

The female security guard who had admitted them to the bunker appeared at the door. “Mr. Lamb, Mr. and Mrs. Hart are here.”

Claire looked to Chris in question. Chris turned around fully to August, and in that instant, a silent message was exchanged between them to which he nodded.

“I’ll go and see to them.” He left, giving them the space Chris had requested.

Both Jonathan and Jennifer were in the outer room. That concerned crease was splitting Jonathan’s left brow, and he could tell by her somewhat rigid body language that Jennifer wasn’t quite her usual self. He could only suppose why that was and hope that it was directed to Jonathan; that none of it had been held over for him.

“We didn’t realize you were here,” she said to him. “We came to see Claire. Is Chris with you?”

“She’s in with Claire. I hope you don’t mind my bringing her here, Jonathan.”

“I trust your judgment,” Jonathan said. “How’s it going? Are they making any headway?”

“We just got here,” August sighed. “But no, it’s not going so well so far. Claire is resistant for some reason, and Chris is fully loaded and cocked. I don’t understand. You’d think-”

Angry voices loudly erupted from the back room. Chris’ was yelling.

“I AM TIRED! I’ve been to the wall for you. If you want my help now, then you’d better tell me! Do you hear me? Tell me!”

The three of them and the guard scrambled for the partially opened door.

“I know you are.” Claire was sobbing. “I know you have. I know you’re tired of me,”

“If you know so much, then why are we here like this?” The fierceness of Chris’ tone told them that her pent-up frustrations were all being unleashed upon Claire. “Why did Mr. Hart have to hide you here?”

In the bedroom, Chris had moved in on Claire, leaning forward with her hands pressed to the bed. Claire, on her knees and crying, had backed up from her as far as she could go, and was cowering in the corner where the head of the bed met the wall. Chris’ whole body now visibly shook; like a lioness after trapped prey, she was honed in on Claire and appeared ready to pounce.

It was August who reached Chris first. Pulling her back, when her legs seemed to give once he had her standing upright again, he supported her with an arm around her back and underneath her arm. He and Jonathan moved her to the chair in the other corner where once she was seated, she slowly shook her bowed head, pressing a trembling hand to her forehead. “I shouldn’t have come,” she mumbled. “I should have stayed where I was.”

Jennifer went to Claire who was still pressed into the corner. To her, she extended a hand.

“You said that you would talk with Chris,” she reminded the younger woman. “You told me that you wanted to talk with Chris.”

Claire didn’t respond. Instead, she peeked across at Chris who still had her head down as she leaned on the arm of the chair.

“We need for you to talk with Chris,” Jennifer said a bit more forcefully as she beckoned with her hand for Claire to come to her. “It’s time for you to tell her what you know.”

The two-way radio that the guard was wearing vibrated with a loud hum on her hip as she stood near the door. When she answered the call, everyone heard when she was told to inform Mr. Lamb and Mr. Hart that, “It’s going down.”

“What is?” Jennifer looked back to ask Jonathan.

All eyes were on him as he answered her, “Alice Rangel is on her way to HartToy.”

“Alice?” Claire asked as Chris raised her head in recognition of the name.

“I told you that I had security on her and that they were going to let me know when she was moving.” Jonathan continued explaining to Jennifer. “We need to go.”

“We all need to go,” Chris declared. “And don’t any of you trying to talk me out of it. Claire, get off that bed, put some shoes on, and run a comb through that head.”

“But, Chris-”

“Do as I said,” Chris commanded.

Claire scooted out of the corner, past Jennifer, and stepped into the slip-on sneakers at the side of the bed. From there, she went into the bathroom.

“Chris, are you sure you’re up to this?” Jonathan asked as he and August reached to help her when she began getting up on her own from the chair.

“No, but I’m going anyway. Hurry it up in there, Claire. Don’t make me come in there after you.”

“All right.” Claire called, appearing moments later with her hair brushed up into a ponytail.

“Is that damned Octavia involved in this, too?” Chris asked her.

Claire hung her head. “I really don’t know. Honestly. I should have listened to you when you tried-.”

Chris pulled out of the protective hold August and Jonathan had on her arms as they helped her up, and headed for the door. “Let’s go,” she ordered as she yanked Claire in front of her and they brushed past the guard, with everyone else following them out.

__________________________________________________________

Mr. Matheson, you say you work for Jonathan Hart Industries, but how can I be sure that you’re telling me the truth?

I’ve given you my name, my badge number, and the names and numbers of my two immediate supervisors. I’m sure that the number I’m calling from now is showing up in your caller I.D. I’ve given you the direct line to call at Hart Headquarters if you want to verify my credentials. You can trace all of that right back to me. I have nothing to hide from you. I just need to talk with you about Alice Rangel.

I also don’t know if I feel all that comfortable giving out information about her to you over the telephone.

I don’t want to know anything personal. We have a situation here at HartToy, and I need your help. We know that she is a personal friend of yours, and what you tell me could perhaps help her out a lot. Wouldn’t you like to help her if you could?

Well, I do know she loves her work at HartToy. Is she in some sort of trouble there?

I’m not at liberty to confirm or deny that. But, I repeat, any information you could give me about her could possibly help her.

Gee… I don’t know, Mr. Matheson.

I won’t get real personal, I promise. How do you know Alice?

A slight hesitation, then a sigh. We went to high school together. That’s where I met her. We were supposed to go away to college together, but toward the end of our senior year, I became pregnant. I graduated with my class, but while the rest of our crowd went away to college, I stayed home and commuted. See, the guy and I broke up, but I wanted to keep my baby. My parents wanted me to finish my education, but I had my son to take care of, too. They helped me out with child care and all while I went to undergraduate school. Alice was the one friend from high school with whom I kept up contact after high school. She’s godmother to my son.

So you know her pretty well.

I guess so.

You’d know if she was romantically involved with someone.

I thought you said you weren’t going to get personal.

Ms. Leonard, a lot is riding on this. I’m really not asking for frivolous reasons. I don’t need or want details. I know and like Alice, too. I’m tying to help her, but there are things I need to figure out. Would you know what I asked you?

Yes, I think I would know.

Is she the type who would be involved with a married man?

No. Absolutely not. The only way that would happen would be if the guy didn’t tell her or he lied to her about it. She’s principled when it comes to things like that. Why are you asking me that?

It’s just something I needed to clear up. Did she know about the party at the park this morning?

Yes, she did. I told her all about it when she came to the school yesterday. I thought she might come out with us, but by the time I got here, the kids had gotten into trouble, and I didn’t think any more about it. It’s all back to normal now. I’m glad Mr. Hart had the dolls collected, though. I’d hate for something to happen to them with these kids acting so silly like they did.

Yesterday? Why did Alice come to the school yesterday?

She knew the dolls weren’t going back to the factory yesterday as originally planned, but she said she wanted to be sure that dolls were operating properly and that they had enough supplies to last over the weekend. She was going to check them over when the kids got to class, but I assured her that they were fine. She seemed very concerned, but she left once I told her that Mr. Hart had phoned me personally to tell me that I didn’t have to worry about them running down or anything.

He asked about it, and I told him that there was enough formula to keep them operational and enough diapers for me to distribute to the kids for the weekend. The kids are responsible for the clothes and equipment, so they had everything they needed. I thought it was real special of Mr. Hart to be so personally involved in this. I guess because his daughter is in my class, he phoned me himself. It was really a sweet surprise; such an important man taking that kind of time on a kids’ project.

He knew better.

It was more than a nice gesture on Hart’s part. It was more than the CEO and the head of operations of HartToy being concerned about his product. As careful and vigilant as Hart was with J.J., it was a whole lot more than a father being in touch with what his kid was doing in school. The little that Carol Leonard had revealed about Alice proved that Hart had probably been suspicious of her for at least a couple of days. He had probably had a line on Alice and to who only knew what else, longer than anyone suspected.

Despite the fact that she knew the plans for the dolls had changed, Alice had gone to the school anyway on the day before. She told her friend she was there to make sure that there was enough formula and equipment to sustain the units over the weekend. But she could have checked on that with a phone call rather than taken a forty mile drive into town. In fact, since she was the one from corporate who had primarily overseen the program, she had to have been aware of what supplies the school had on hand. Ms. Leonard hadn’t said that Alice brought anything with her in the event that she got there and found out that there wasn’t enough. What had been her real motive for going there? It had to have been a pretty strong one.

Alice was coming to HartToy with the thought that the dolls were there. She had been at the park that morning, but had hidden herself from the kids. Had she actually brought goons with her to snatch the dolls? If so, why?

Hart must have an idea of what it was.

Ms. Leonard spoke of Alice as being “principled”. She seemed that way to him, too, but then he had to admit to himself that he only knew her from a professional standpoint. It helped that her friend thought her above having an affair with a married man. Now, along with those phone records, there were two things that spoke to him in her favor. But what had been her connection to Larry Martin? Why had Martin been phoning her with such regularity?

A cursory check of her cubicle might reveal something. The police had been over everything and had talked with everyone more than once, without finding anything. Perhaps it was that they didn’t know what or who to ask, how to ask, or where exactly to look. Hart Industries facilities were noted for being secure and without incident. Being that he was on his own stomping grounds, he might have better luck.

As he got up from his desk, the prickly hair on his neck rose with him. It was Saturday and aside from him, for the moment, the plant was virtually empty. He hadn’t said as much to anyone and he hadn’t asked her about it, but he suspected that on that previous Saturday afternoon, before her alleged accident, Chris Allen had been nosing about, doing something along those same lines.

__________________________________________________________

In order to confuse anyone who might be watching or following, Jonathan took a different exit and a different route from August as they pulled out of the parking structure. Claire was in the back of August’s car with Eva, riding on the floor to keep from being seen, and Chris had been placed in the back seat of his car. Stealing glances at her through his side and rear view mirrors, he wondered what was going through that mind of hers as she leaned with her elbow on the middle armrest with her eyes closed. He could tell from the tension in her face that she was running things through her head.

So was he.

He had no idea what they were all riding into, or if they were riding into anything at all. His instincts said that they were. Having Jennifer with him, aside from her being so exposed, didn’t so much worry him in that instance, she had proven many times in the past that she could hold her own. It was Chris who gave him pause for concern. She wasn’t at her best, and because of that, she could prove to be a liability. And then too, who knew what it was that Claire was holding back from them?

Chris and Claire were puzzling to him, even more so after witnessing their heated, tension-filled exchange in the bunker. After having been apart for so long and under such precarious circumstances, he thought that their coming together again would have been a lot less hostile. Chris mentioned being tired of something that had to do with Claire and trouble, and Claire acknowledged that Chris had a right to be tired. What had that been that about? Neither of them put up a fight when it was suggested that they separate for the ride over to HartToy. It was almost as if they were happy to be away from each other.

Next to him, Jennifer also sat in silence. It was a harder thing for him to gauge from her face what she was feeling or thinking. She could assume a mask faster and more effectively than anyone he knew. When it came to controlling what showed in her face, she was the best. It was her hands, her eyes, and her body that tended to give her away. Sitting still as she was and facing forward, there was no body language or eye contact for him to decipher. The only thing he could sense from her was that she was exasperated and tired; not so much physically tired, but more so mentally fed up and emotionally worn out. Looking back on things, he could see that she had been through so much that year. With J.J., her father, and with him, she had truly been tested. Then there had also been that very recent scare with Pat.

All of what they were currently experiencing couldn’t be helping her. It was only September; there were three whole months left in the year.

They had an anniversary coming up. Maybe….

Celebrating anniversaries big, as they had been able to do before J.J. entered their lives and she started going to school, had become pretty much impossible. September was when J.J. would be just returning to school from summer vacation, and neither of them wanted to disrupt her education at that early part of the school term with taking her with them. Going away and leaving her with someone else for an extended length of time was out of the question. Even if Jennifer would have consented to it, he didn’t believe in it. Being gone from her for a couple of days was one thing, but for longer than that, where they went, their daughter also traveled.

On the year before, for their twenty-fifth anniversary, they had celebrated with a modest gathering at the country club, having decided to hold over the big bash and a world tour for their thirtieth. By then, J.J. would away at college, on her own, and their extended absence would be of no disruption to her life.

Maybe this year, he speculated, with Marnie in New York with Pat, he could take Jennifer there for a long weekend, dropping J.J. off in Manhattan. He hated when rough patches formed between him and Jennifer, especially when he was the cause of them, and he was anxious to settle and get past this latest one. They were overdue for some real, extended private time where they were there to have fun and to relax, not to work out differences or for him to recuperate. Jennifer loved New York. Perhaps once he had her there, he could talk her into sending J.J. back to LA by herself after the weekend was up, then they could stay over and be completely alone a few more days.

As far as he was concerned, J.J. was old enough to leave at home the entire time with Marie, under Carolyn Barnett’s remote supervision. The twins’ mother served as J.J.’s unofficial local godmother. When she was much younger, Carolyn and Chuck would keep J.J. for them when they had to be away for short trips. Carolyn now watched out for J.J. much like Pat would if she were there in Los Angeles all the time. If he took Jennifer away to New York, in his estimation it would be all right for J.J. to stay at home with Marie, and Carolyn could help out by checking in on her.

But, he already knew that Jennifer would not be entertaining that suggestion.

In her head, she would be picturing all the less than savory things a minimally supervised J.J. Hart could fit into one weekend, much less into any other extended period of time. As far as Jennifer was concerned, that girl would be all over, doing everything. J.J. wouldn’t want to ‘bother’ Marie with asking to be driven to and picked up from school. Instead, she would elect to hitch rides to and from school and her activities with her wide ranging circle of mobile friends. Unapproved side trips would, of course, be inevitable, especially if Tiffany and Brittany Landers were involved. Then, too, Marnie’s car would be there in the garage, and even he had to admit that J.J. was known to take her shots where the opportunities to do so presented themselves. No doubt J.J. had her own set of keys to the Beemer, and Marnie would have left J.J. with her proof of insurance, etc., “just in case”.

On second thought, as much as he might not have wanted to do so, even he had to admit to himself that his child was slick. J.J. definitely knew the proper procedures to call into play in order to pull a caper off successfully. In their absence, she would keep in faithful touch with Carolyn, answer immediately his and her mother’s frequent calls. To keep from worrying Marie, who might alert them otherwise, she would dutifully stick to her curfew. Over the phone, in her emails, and in front of Marie she would be sounding and appearing ever so innocent, while all the while she and what was left of her crew were setting the Los Angeles metropolitan area on its ear.

Then, too, there remained to be addressed the matter of Marnie’s having visited the 17-20 Club, not to mention the fake I.D. she had to have utilized to get in and Chance Barnett’s allowing her to do it. Security had alerted him to the less-than-legal specifics of Marnie and Chance’s activities on the night before. And if Marnie Benson was in possession of phony identification, then without a doubt J.J. Hart was also holding. It stood reason, while he was thinking about it, that with Marnie having a car for them to drive, J.J. probably had a bogus driver’s license. And why not? At their age, even younger, he’d had fake I.D. to get him into places and behind steering wheels that he shouldn’t have been, and he hadn’t had anywhere near the means, the connections, or the advanced technological expertise that those girls had at their disposal.

There was that and then in light of the morning’s developments, as well as some of J.J.’s more risqué antics and adventures in recent memory, he couldn’t truthfully say that he blamed Jennifer for being as persistently protective and proactive as she tended to be with their daughter.

Their daughter….

J.J. was both their child, but her last name was Hart, and the kid truly lived up to the moniker. She wasn’t fearful of much, and just as he saw it, for her a chance was something to be taken. Even as an infant, her relentless curiosity and daredevil nature were clearly evident, and he greatly loved that aspect of her nature. Seeing as how they were apparently instinctive traits, ones not subject to change, over the years he had nurtured them in her in an effort to channel them in more positive directions. It was what Max wound up having to do with him once they got together. As such, he could understand Jennifer feeling left out of things at times. The same restless spirit existed within her, but in her, it was tempered with a strong need to be safe. With him and with J.J., curiosity and the need for adventure outweighed that. Cutting Jennifer out wasn’t intentional. That part of the bond between he and J.J. was spiritual, an unspoken understanding; it was a natural bond.

As far as that bonding thing went, though, didn’t she understand that as J.J. was getting older, he was sometimes left feeling cut out of things, too? In his head, he was picturing Jennifer and J.J.’s clasped hands that night in the bedroom as he attempted to find out what they had been doing at HartToy that previous Saturday. He still didn’t feel as if he had the whole story, but they had given him as much as they were going to give him. That type of collusion on their parts wasn’t meant to cut him out. They were mother and daughter, females, and that was just the way the cards had fallen that night. They, too, had an understanding that was all their own. What it worked out to was that sometimes their child needed her father, at other times she needed her mother.

And sometimes she needed both.

A tiny good fairy and a little red devil complete with horns and a spiked tail settled themselves on each of his shoulders. They were taking turns poking him hard behind the ears with their respective wand and pitchfork about the love of his life and their daughter.

You should have called….

I messed up. Sue me.

You made her as mad as hell. Anything could have happened.

d her fussing at being forced to stop sucking made Jennifer laugh. That little one had been stubborn and headstrong starting the first few minutes of her life.But it didn’t happen. I handled it.

But it didn’t happen. I handled it.

You should have called her. She thinks you don’t know… that you don’t understand….

She shouldn’t have said what she said to me. She doesn’t understand. I do, too, know….

She let you off the hook for the flying thing- jets no less- and the credit card. Now here you are ticking her off over the girl again. You should have called….

“Darling, would you like to hold her?”

The nurse had just shown Jennifer how to use her finger to make the baby release the hold she had on her breast. The baby’s greediness an

You should have called her. She thinks you don’t know… that you don’t understand….

She shouldn’t have said what she said to me. She doesn’t understand. I do, too, know….

She let you off the hook for the flying thing- jets no less- and the credit card. Now here you are ticking her off over the girl again. You should have called….

“Darling, would you like to hold her?”

The nurse had just shown Jennifer how to use her finger to make the baby release the hold she had on her breast. The baby’s greediness and her fussing at being forced to stop sucking made Jennifer laugh. That little one had been stubborn and headstrong starting the first few minutes of her life.

He had been sitting there and watching them, almost numb with disbelief, wonder, and joy, but oddly, feeling a bit left out. He and Jennifer had  a baby between them. A brand new little girl. She was less than an hour old, but she was there, right there with them. He would have to go home for the night, but they would remain together at the hospital. She had been with Jennifer for nine months, and it seemed she would be necessarily spending most of her early hours, her first days, with Jennifer upon whom her very existence would continue to depend.

When Jennifer held her out to him, he took the soft, pink bundle from her and sat back with her in his arms. He didn’t think he had ever held anything so tiny and precious. His baby.

She blinked up at him that first time with those eyes that were already so like his, cool blue and observant. When he spoke to her, she momentarily stopped squirming and studied his face as if she recognized his voice, her daddy’s voice. After all, he had been talking to her for at least six months, ever since he’d known of her existence. He placed his index finger inside her hand and she latched on as if she already knew that eyes weren’t the only thing they shared. She already knew him, and she was counting on him to forever be her daddy.

He held her closer. Full of what she had drawn from her mother and tired from her long and arduous journey to enter the world, she drifted off to sleep, nestled safe and secure right up under his heart.

In those first moments, J.J. hadn’t known from wealthy or famous. She hadn’t been aware of bloodlines or lack of same. She wasn’t cognizant of the loss, the  hurt, or the loneliness that came before, nor could she comprehend that end-result wonderful love from which she had been born. Back then, she only knew from Mommy and Daddy.

“Darling, wouldn’t you like to hold her?”

Forever, if you would let me.

If she would let me….

Earlier that morning, even with one functioning eye, which had been closed at the time, J.J. hadn’t been at all surprised when he walked up on her in that emergency room. She wasn’t surprised because she had been counting on him to be there.

Somehow, Chris riding behind him, injured and frustrated, reminded him so much of J.J. He couldn’t figure out how that was. Chris was much older and they didn’t look anything alike, but there was a quality to Chris that he could see J.J. growing into. For starters, both of them were forceful, perhaps even pushy. It could definitely be termed assertive, and it was more like a man might be, but at the same time they somehow retained their femininity.

Although she was out in public, he noticed that Chris hadn’t bothered that day with a dab of makeup, not even to cover those abrasions on her face. At that point in time, she didn’t seem to care about that, just like J.J. didn’t seem to be overly concerned about that black eye, at least not as concerned as she had been about what was going on between her parents. Other matters at hand were more real, and ran deeper in them than superficial things like personal appearance.

Claire. He hadn’t been able to get anything out of her. Neither had Jennifer. But up in that bunker, Claire had done exactly as she was told when Chris told her to do it. He didn’t yet have a clear line on Claire’s personality, but based upon what he had learned through Arnold about what she had been into, she had to have some real guts and assertiveness to her, too. After all, she had been raised for the formative part of her life by Big Chris Allen, who obviously had left the world two very strong girls.

Chris, Jr., it appeared, was to Claire what Jennifer was to J.J. Everybody who ran fast and hard, he figured, had to have some sort of effective positive braking force in their lives to slow them down when necessary.

When he checked the rear view mirror again, he was almost startled to find Chris looking directly at him, and that she didn’t flinch or look away when she saw him notice her. That J.J.-like quality was right there, staring back at him. Chris’ own daddy was dead, so now she was  counting on him, too.

He held her in his gaze for a significant moment longer.

No problem.

In reply, she nodded one time and switched to looking out of the window.

__________________________________________________________

As Jonathan drove and Chris silently rode in the back seat, Jennifer kept her focus ahead of her. Since Chris was over on the other side of the car, she couldn’t catch her reflection in either of the mirrors without being obvious about it. As long as she remained still, Jonathan wouldn’t be able to read her, and Chris, as perceptive as she had proven herself to be, wouldn’t be able to pick up on any signals that she wasn’t even aware that she was sending out. Having Jonathan for a husband, and J.J. Hart for a daughter had taught her to hone and perfect that kind of evasive, but necessary behavior.

“…I heard Daddy go down the stairs. I thought you told me that you wouldn’t go off on him. His feet sounded really mad on the steps…”

“Go off on him”, indeed… only you, my contemporary urban child. The term is ‘angry’, and what were you doing listening to his angry feet on the stairs? You were told to go to bed.

“I’m so sorry… I wouldn’t purposely do anything to make you feel bad.”

It’s ‘badly’, and I know that you wouldn’t. People who love each other don’t set out to hurt each other, but still it sometimes happens.

Every time she pictured J.J. piloting that jet, as if it were a sport utility vehicle, with her father sitting right next to her, her grinning face and the great beyond reflected in his eyes….

“But I’m not sure if you know everything about it. He’s got a lot on him; I tried to tell you that. You probably didn’t give him a chance to tell you everything….”

She had let him off the hook about the American Express card as well as the flying. A damned jet, no less. He did not deserve that second chance.

… but I should have given it to him anyway… he was only being himself with her… doggoned Daddy….

If she hadn’t chosen writing as her primary livelihood, surely performing arts would have been her calling. She had always been a natural actress and an extremely quick study; languages, dialects, and improvisation were her forte. That ability had been inherited from both her mother and from her Aunt Sabrina, who at seventy-something was the biggest spur-of-the-moment clown in southern France- or wherever she happened to be at a given moment. Assuming other personas, dropping into character, had not only been fun, it had also helped in her professional life. At times, it was a necessary survival tactic in her personal life.

That same gift had been passed on to J.J. Hart, who not only effortlessly employed it, but also readily saw through it in others. Mother and daughter were, on the surface, a lot different in their tastes and attitudes, but despite what face J.J. chose to wear, her mother had always had her number. Lately however, it was becoming increasingly apparent, and increasingly interesting, that J.J. had learned to interpret, appreciate, and see through her mother’s assortment of facades.

“You were crying over in the room, weren’t you? I can see it in your eyes….”

I never could hide anything from your eyes… or from the originals….

Which was why she was working so hard at maintaining the non-descript body position she had effected since getting over into the car: motionless, her hands clasped in her lap and her eyes on the road before her. On the inside, her mind was whirling and spinning with thoughts, images, and far too many questions.

For two people who had expressed such a pressing desire to be reunited, it certainly hadn’t happened with Chris and Claire the way that she thought it would. In her head, she was picturing Claire on the bed, with that darkened eye, fearfully pressed into that corner. Chris asked if “he” hit her. Who was he, Marston Knight? And if so, what reason would he have to hit her? Was there ever a reason for such violence?

Her eyes squeezed shut and her stomach wrenched as she envisioned it happening. Chris had every right to be incensed about that despite whatever else might be going on.

At the same time, in comparison to Claire’s frightened retreat from Chris, she could see J.J.’s face on that night when she had to be restrained by her mother to that bed in the villa in Las Vegas. In that instance, J.J. had pushed too hard, too many times, and had to be made to face the truth of her actions, as well the real basis for her anger. It hurt like everything to have done that to her, but as it worked out, it was what they both needed to have done for them. J.J. didn’t know it, and until then, she didn’t realize it either, but that silent guilt they were both carrying was eating at them, and it would still be if they hadn’t gotten things out into the open as they were able to do that night.

It made her wonder even more intensely what was really going on between Chris and Claire. What had Claire done to garner such a harsh reaction in Chris? Even though they had been parted a while, the last few days by strange and frightening circumstances, there had been no joyful reunion. Until the moment Chris appeared in the door, Claire couldn’t have even been sure if Chris was still alive. One of Jonathan’s tactics for breaking her down was to keep from Claire any news of Chris.

Her own strong intuitions said that Chris’ less than positive behavior toward Claire went beyond being a reaction to something wrong or dumb that Claire might have done.

The dull, faraway throbbing was beginning in both temples as the smell of oranges slowly, but surely began permeating the interior of the car.

Migraine.

Damn.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. She lowered the car window and tilted her head a bit in hopes of alleviating the threatening sensations and to allow the fresh air to cut the nauseating scent. With the day’s unusual stresses and tensions, she should have expected it and taken the necessary precautions, but she hadn’t. There had been far too much distraction then to anticipate it.

Just as she was lowering her troubled forehead into one hand, Jonathan’s strong fingers closed around the other. Despite her lingering resentments, his touch was soothing and comforting, just as it had always been.

__________________________________________________________

In the gap between the two front seats, Chris saw Jonathan’s hand as it crossed over the console. Tilting her head slightly left to better see what he was doing, she watched as he took his wife’s hand in his. His fingers fit themselves between hers, both hands knitting into one tightly held unit. Whatever it was that had happened between them when Jennifer called for him to come upstairs, and that had the two of them so uncharacteristically stiff and silent, evidently did not transcend their basic regard for one another. They made such a handsome, inspirational couple. They almost renewed her faith in what could be.

In that instant she recalled riding in the car behind her own parents, safe and secure, back when it was just the three of them. She wondered if J.J. Hart realized how good she had it. J.J.’s life, its fortunate circumstances and her bright future; it was all laid out for her. All that girl had to do was keep being a good kid, keep having fun, and continue listening to her parents and following their example.

And hope that other people’s crap stayed the hell away from her. Hart had to have big dreams for his one very special girl.

Big Chris had big dreams for his kid, too. Her own father tried to keep her safe, but a father couldn’t be everywhere. Afterward, he had done the best that he knew how to do to make it right for everyone, even if it hadn’t turned out so well in the end. Returning to her former position, leaned on the armrest, Chris slipped her hand into that pants pocket for her own comfort and reassurance.

They were on their way to HartToy, where it had all begun for her. Fractured images and details were rushing at her, crying to be recognized, but there were too many of them and their edges weren’t coming in clear enough for her to recognize how to fit them together. The only thing she knew for sure was that she needed to get back into her office. No matter what Jonathan Hart might have planned, her first order of business would have to be getting back into her office.

It was all making her dizzy, the physical and mental exhaustion. It had never been easy being Christina Allen.

Still leaned on the armrest, her hand still in her pocket, she closed her eyes and prayed hard that she and Claire weren’t leading those two fine people in front of her into any kind of danger from which, in her diminished capacity, she might not be able to protect them.

__________________________________________________________

“We haven’t been able to get close to any of them, Viv. We’ve been following and what-have-you all week, and not one of the people you’re trying to get to is one inch closer than where they were. I’m telling you, this is suicide. It’s become too messy. Hart knows, and especially after what happened this morning, we need to get out of it now.”

She ignored his comment, and continued watching the white Honda that was a few cars ahead of them.

“Viv, did you hear me? What’re we going to do if she’s headed for HartToy? We’ll never get in that place. It’s got to be like trying to break into a maximum security prison, trying to get in there.”

“Not if you have the right stuff,” she said, blowing out a long, casual stream of white cigarette smoke. “Not if you know the right people. If she’s headed for HartToy, like it seems she is, then we’re in, no problem. I’ve already taken care of it. You just drive. I’ll tell you where to stop and wait. I’ve already phoned and told her to meet us. She’s our ticket in.”

__________________________________________________________

Stepping off the elevator onto the Saturday-quiet tech floor, on his way to Alice Rangel’s cubicle, Ken Matheson ran into the security shift supervisor who was on rounds. The man slowed the motorized cart he was driving through the plant to wave and speak to him.

“How’s it going, Mr. Matheson? Are you taking Ms. Allen’s place, haunting the joint on your day off?”

“No,” Ken laughed. “I had a few things I needed to look into. Say, you got a minute?”

“Sure.”

The man guided the cart over, closer to where Ken stood, shut it down and got out. “What can I do for you?”

“Larry Martin, didn’t he work your shift?”

“Yeah, he did. Too bad about what happened to him. Doesn’t seem like it was just last week he was here. He’d have been driving this cart today, if-. Well, he was a real good guy; he did his work when he was here, even if he did like the ponies and the slots a bit too much when he was off. I guess we all have our vices, though.”

“Look,”  Ken began, his discomfort at bringing up the topic making it hard for him to get up the words. “I- I need to ask you,”

“Yes?”

“Just how well did you know him?”

“Well enough, I guess. You know we’ve been working together for years.”

“Do you think he was he the kind to have an affair?”

“You mean with somebody here?”

“With anybody anywhere.”

“I can’t say that I knew him like that, but then who really knows about people? Off the top of my head, I’d say no; especially not with anybody here. I’d know about that. You know how Chris is about that kind of thing; that’s the number one no-no with her. Plus I feel the same way, and I keep an eye out for it. Larry was kind of old school; ‘staid’, I guess, is the better word. He even carried his lunch in one of those old black steel containers with the handle. Had a thermos and everything. Wore those heavy, old wing-tipped detective shoes, you know, Dexters.”

Ken had to smile at the reference. His own father had once worn to his job the type of shoes that were being described

“I mean here’s a guy who wouldn’t even use a cell phone. Told me that he read somewhere that they give you brain cancer. I told him he was crazy, but he wasn’t having any part of it. He’d use the desk phone in the booth or go find a pay phone, even when one of us would offer our cell to him to use when it was more convenient.

“One day, he had us all down in the booth, trying not to cry in his face with laughter while he complained about how scarce pay phones were becoming. He was going on and on about not being able to find a phone booth. I mean how old fashioned can you get? Phone booth? When was the last time you saw one of those? And who doesn’t have a cell phone these days? Yeah, he was definitely old school. Getting caught up in the gambling thing, that was the kind of stuff I could see a guy like him doing,” the other man went on. “But messing around, I don’t know. He stayed inside the lines for the most part.”

Ken Matheson blinked with the abrupt shift in focus his brain made. “What do you know about Alice Rangel?” he asked.

“In programming? Nothing, really. Security-wise, there haven’t been any issues. Personally, she just comes and goes. Nothing outstanding. Wait. You don’t think her and Larry-”

“No, no,” Ken reassured the man. “Just asking. Just trying to line things up. Thanks. What you’ve told me helps a lot.”

A few minutes later he was alone again and more confused than ever. Instead of continuing on around to Alice’s work space,  which was why he had come to the floor in the first place, he got back onto the elevator. A call to Arnold Zale was in order, but first he needed to get back in touch with Lamb, and in order to do that, he required the privacy of his own office.

__________________________________________________________

Riding crunched up on the floor of a Hart security vehicle was a far cry from what she had become accustomed to in the latter part of her life, but Claire recognized that she wasn’t in a position to question or complain about anything. Nothing would ever again be as it was, but then, that might not be such a bad thing.

As long as one of those things that wouldn’t be didn’t include her getting back her relationship with Chris. When it came down to it, after all was said and done, Chris literally was all she had. She had come to the conclusion, way too late, that Chris was the only one in the world upon whom she could always count.

Stupid, just plain stupid, that’s was what she had been while she was thinking all the time that it was Chris who was dumb about life and everything else important.

Chris, so pretty and book-smart, but a real stick in the mud. A lonely plodder who was wasting her looks and her talents, working a nine to five from sun up to midnight when she could have had so much more. That was how she had always thought of Chris, even while Chris was giving her the world. Then when she’d found out the real story, she still couldn’t figure out why Chris had chosen the path she had. The means were there for both of them to have lived such different lives, but Chris hadn’t let them. Why hadn’t she acted upon it? Why had she held things from her? It was there for them to do use, but Chris had never exercised upon her options. Sure the truth was ugly, but attempts had been made to fix it. Why hadn’t Chris taken advantage of them?

When she asked her about it that one time, Chris told her it wasn’t her business to know why. She said that well enough should be left alone. But despite being told that, she persisted in digging into it until she found everything out. When she did have the larger part of the picture, and Chris finally filled her in on the rest, it blew her away along with whatever was left of what she and Chris once had. Suddenly nothing was what it had appeared to be. Chris had offered her professional help in coping, but she turned that help and Chris down, finally leaving completely and going instead where she thought she was supposed to be. What a disaster that had been. Fairy tales, she learned, were for children, and she hadn’t been a child in a very long time.

Locked up in that bunker, not knowing where or how Chris was, or even if she still was, forced her to face herself. To see Chris again in the flesh had been gratifying despite her terrible anger and not being herself physically. Who would have thought way back in those early days in college, and fooling around up in those mountains, that life would come back around full circle as it had, tightening into the noose it had become?

Above her head, in the front seat, she could hear August, obviously on his cell phone, talking with someone. In the entire time that they had been together in the bunker and in the car, he hadn’t said a word to her. She had known August most of her life, at least ever since she came to live with Chris in California, and she liked him. He had always been a quiet man, and had always treated her well, but she could sense that he really liked and respected Chris. Most people did. But, for him it went beyond being her superior on the job and highly regarding her work. She could tell that he had a fondness for Chris that was on a more personal level; he looked out for her and cared about what happened to her. Back when she was around them a lot, he would always ask Chris about how she was, how she felt; he talked with Chris, not at her, and Chris seemed to genuinely trust him, which was odd. Chris didn’t put a lot of trust in men; it would seem natural that she wouldn’t trust a black man, but Chris trusted August, and evidently, she trusted Mr. Hart, too.  August would have to be quite displeased with the turn of events between her and Chris, and without a doubt, he would be taking Chris’ side. But why wouldn’t he? Chris hadn’t done anything wrong.

A poke between her shoulder blades drew her out of her thoughts and back to the moment. When she looked around, she found Eva, Chris’ private duty nurse staring down at her. When she looked closer, along Eva’s thigh, she could see that she was holding the butt of a gun which was sticking out of her pants pocket.

“If something happens to your sister,” Eva mouthed while her eyes flitted back and forth between the rear view mirror and down to her face. “Then I’ll be taking you out. Chris is good people. They put me in the car with you, but I have her back in this. You need to come clean.”

Stunned, but not exactly frightened, Claire turned back around and hugged her knees even tighter to her chin. Nobody was who they seemed to be. It had been her experience that they usually weren’t.

They were all on their way to HartToy to meet with Alice whom it seemed Hart was expecting. When she heard that Alice had gotten hired at HartToy, she knew that Chris had to have put in a good word for her. Alice was the one Chris liked and looked out for that time when they all got into so much trouble. It wasn’t coincidence that Alice had landed a position as a senior technician at HartToy. It also wasn’t a coincidence that he had ended up there, too, even though he came with another name, face, and persona. Now he was dead, Alice was in some sort of trouble, and Octavia was on a mission, which had dragged Chris into it.

Her own poor judgment had put her in the middle of all of it. The chick sitting next to her with the gun just didn’t know how much of a favor she might be doing her if she did let her have it.

__________________________________________________________

Apparently recognizing the approaching vehicle, probably more so the personalized front license plate, to Chris’s satisfaction the guard inside the gate booth stepped all the way out beforehand to greet them. Glad for the tinted rear windows, she settled all the way back as if in her black jogging suit she could blend in with the black leather seats. However, she knew that any attempt at not being recognized would prove fruitless.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Hart. Mr. Matheson told us to expect you.”

As Jonathan accepted the clipboard holding the visitor’s roster even he was required to sign before entering the complex, the guard greeted Jennifer with a tip of his cap, “Mrs. Hart”, and then he stepped back, as mandated, to visually check the rear seat.

It didn’t matter who was at the wheel. If the car had a rear seat, Chris required of the security personnel under her command that it be given a visual check along with the rest of the interior of the vehicle. She was pleased to see her directives being carried out, but was somewhat dismayed that she would be observed riding in a subordinate position, in the back seat of the CEO’s car as if she were too weak or injured to transport herself.

Upon spotting her there, the man’s face immediately reflected genuine relief at having followed proper procedure. She could almost hear, “Whew!” as it registered in his head.

“Ms. Allen! It’s wonderful to have you back.”

“Thank you, Charles,” she answered. “It’s good to be back.”

“Has Mr. Lamb arrived?” Jonathan asked as he passed back the clipboard. Upon being answered in the affirmative, he said to the man, “Then I assume everything is in place,” to which the guard discreetly nodded, a transaction which went duly noted by the Harts’ passenger.

Once they were inside the parking structure, and Jonathan shut down the engine, Chris leaned forward, putting herself between Jonathan and Jennifer.

“I remember that you two used to do this sort of undercover detective stuff on the side.” she said. “That Christmas that you masqueraded as Santa and an elf to get inside the plant and check into what was going on with Robbie the Robot was when I was just coming on board. Under the circumstances, you could have gotten yourselves killed, but it was hysterical to hear about it. Now, this afternoon, you two showed up to see Claire, and then, at the mention of Alice, you took off for here. What’s on the agenda?”

Jonathan released his seat belt and twisted around to face her. “What can you tell us about Alice?”

“I need to get inside first,” Chris replied, neatly sidestepping the question. “Had she signed in yet?”

In answer, Jonathan shook his head.

Chris turned to fully face him. “For all of us to come out here to meet with her, you evidently have some sort of plan.”

“We’re going first to where it all started,” he answered. “Since Alice isn’t here yet, we can begin in your office until she shows up. Jennifer and I know from personal experience that going back to square one is the best thing for you right now. Your doctors might say that it’s a bit early for you to be doing this, but-”

“You need to do this,” Jennifer finished for him, her voice sounding oddly strained to Chris’ ears. “We all need for you to do this. Things are happening, and I, for one, am convinced that none of it is coincidence. We need your help. Personally I happen to think that the quicker you get it all back, the better you’ll be able to help yourself and Claire.”

Jonathan took hold of Chris’ hand, the one that was hanging over the back of his seat, saying to her, “Look, I have a very bad feeling about all of this. J.J. told me this morning that Alice Rangel was at her school yesterday, and that she was at the park where the kids took those dolls this morning. We think she had some guys with her. Why remains to be disclosed. It’s what we’re here to find out. I believe that there is something to the dolls, I can feel it. We’ve arranged for Alice to come here so that we can talk with her since she was instrumental in their development. She’s under the impression that the dolls are here.”

In her mind, Chris concurred with him. He probably was on the right track about the dolls; they gave her a bad feeling, too, but she didn’t say to him anything in response. With Alice being part of the picture, that line of thought made even more sense.

Then she noticed Jonathan shift his focus to his wife, which was when Chris noticed how pale Jennifer had become. “Are you okay?” they both asked her at the same time.

Jennifer turned her face away from them, murmuring, “We need to get inside.”

She took her purse from her lap, stuffed it under her arm, and opened the door on her side to get out. For a moment, Chris and Jonathan could only stare after her in slightly stunned silence. Then Jonathan got out and opened Chris’ door to help her out of the back seat. As he did, Chris couldn’t help but notice how he kept his wife in view, and how that radar-like beam of concern radiated from him over the hood of the car to her.

__________________________________________________________

After having spirited Claire from the parking structure and into the building, August and Eva escorted her into a small office that was just off the security command center. There were guards stationed inside the command center suite, watching the monitors which surveyed the interior and exterior parameters of the building. Being that it was Saturday, that smaller office, which the watch commander normally occupied, was empty. He motioned for Claire to sit in the chair in front of the desk while he went around it to pick up the phone. Eva remained by the closed door, alternating between watching the hall through the small, rectangular window and the back of Claire’s head. Claire hadn’t said anything to either of them. It seemed she was keeping true to her word to speak only with Chris. For some reason, one he didn’t quite understand, he found her defeated body language and her silence disturbing.

He had gotten that call in the car from Ken concerning Larry Martin. Zale could only trace that the cell phone in question was registered to Martin; he could not verify who had been in actual possession of it. As good as he was with that computer and those contacts of his, in some areas there was only so far that Zale could go with his digging before he hit bedrock. It was becoming obvious to all of them that they might be being misled about the nature of the relationship between Martin and Alice Rangel. But why and by whom exactly? He let Ken know that he was in the building, inquired of him about the arrangements he had requested be put into place, and told him that the Harts should be arriving right behind him with Chris Allen. Then he hung up and directed his attention to the dejected young woman on the other side of the desk.

“Claire.”

Slowly she raised her head from its bowed position.

“What’s going on with you? Who was it that hurt you?”

She sighed, “Nobody, August, nobody that counts for anything.”

“Why was Chris so upset with you?”

Claire lowered her head and returned to her silence.

Eva stood back from the door to allow it to open, and a uniformed guard stuck in his head to report, “Mr. Lamb, Mr. Hart’s car just came through the main gate.”

When August thanked the man, he noticed the slight stiffening in Claire at the mention of the Harts, knowing that she was aware that Chris was with them.

He stood up from the desk, smoothing out the sitting-wrinkles in his pants. He hoped that when they all got upstairs to Chris’ office that there wouldn’t be anything there that would take her from the path to recovery. It was awfully early for her to jumping back into the fray like she was, however, just as he and Jonathan had earlier discussed, Chris was either in possession of or had gotten close to the answer and just didn’t realize that she had.

Or maybe she did realize it, but for some reason, just hadn’t said.

__________________________________________________________

“God, please let it be there,” Alice prayed for at least the fiftieth time since leaving the apartment and as she sped up the stretch of highway that would put her on the road to HartToy. “Ple-e-e-ase let me get there and find it, so that I can deliver it, and it can all be over.”

Then she prayed another repeated prayer that they didn’t kill her once she had given them what they wanted. After all, what would make her any more special than any one of the others who’d had the misfortune of getting tangled up with Octavia? Although they had been acquainted for years, she was intimately aware of Octavia Dash’s ruthless nature and the reality that she held no allegiances to anyone aside from her father. Why that was, nobody could understand.

If only Chris….

At the thought of Chris, her eyes clouded. With a quick swipe with the back of one hand, she cleared them, and forced herself to stay focused on the road and the fix she was in.

When she took her exit from the freeway, four cars back, a black sedan smoothly changed lanes and came off also, maintaining the discreet separation which made that car less detectable to her, preventing her from picking up on the fact that she was being followed.

__________________________________________________________

As the elevator car took them up to her floor, the now rushing flood of images and recollections had Chris fighting to keep the resultant reeling from being obvious to the Harts. She could tell that Jonathan was concerned about her in the situation they were in, but down in the car they had both noticed that there was something negative going on with Jennifer. She was putting up a good front, but her smokescreen wasn’t quite opaque enough to obscure the fact that she was in some sort of distress.

As Chris watched Jonathan continuing to cast a concerned eye to his wife, she tried even harder to appear self-reliant to keep him from feeling obligated to watch out for both of them. He seemed that sort of man, one who inherently felt that it was his role and responsibility to protect the women in his company. Keeping her eyes on the floor numbers as they flashed above the closed doors of the car, she used them as a focal point while concentrating on staying alert and steady on her feet. All the while, she pushed back the pictures and people trying to force their way to the front of her mind.

The scrolling jumble of semi-vivid recollections sped up the minute she stepped out of the car down in the parking structure, where she had politely pushed Jonathan’s hand away when he reached to try and help her out of the back seat. It was time for her to make a concerted effort to stand on her own. She was accustomed to looking out for herself; she had been taught by the best to stay on point in even the worst circumstances. For those past few days, the physical and mental helplessness which had been forced upon her had been hard to take. But with the passing of time, as well as the severity of the turn of events, her body was getting stronger, and the memories were becoming sharper. Things had been gradually coming to her ever since she woke in the hospital, but lately, even in their disjointedness, the pictures and details were becoming clearer and making more sense. Now, in that elevator car, they were coming down on her like an avalanche, but strangely, it was an avalanche over which she had some control.

Claire, Octavia, and Alice.

Closing her eyes, she leaned back against the wall and in her mind she took over the wheel, swerving away from being crushed by that internal landslide. She would have to go slowly. Get to the office, sit down at the desk, take a deep breath, and let it all ebb and flow back to her.

Alice, Paul, and those dolls… Paul?

Chris?” Jennifer’s voice and the touch of her hand to her arm drew her back.

Jennifer’s face was paler than even before and Chris could readily detect the strain in her features. She hadn’t felt or heard it do so, but the elevator car had stopped. Jonathan was positioned half-in and half-out, with his back to the open doors to keep them from closing before she and Jennifer could exit. He was eyeing both of them.

“Just do it, Chris,” she heard her father tell her as she pushed herself off the wall to stand alone.

If he had lived long enough, she thought, Big Chris would have had a serious claim against Nike sports shoes for making money off a challenge he had been putting forth to his daughter long before they made it famous around the world and took it as their own.

__________________________________________________________

Accustomed to sleeping in her queen bed upstairs and turning any way she wanted while doing so, J.J. turned over and found herself on the floor next to the couch in the den, her legs were tangled in the throw and Third was climbing all over her. Abruptly awakened from his own nap by her sudden and unusual departure, and probably sensing that it had been an unplanned move on her part, he was whimpering with concern and trying to lick her face to comfort her. She suspected he was also using it as an attempt to get close up to that strange thing on her face that was covering that one eye.

“Move,” she fussed as she attempted to disengage herself from the cover and push the excited pooch back at the same time. “Thi-i-i-r-rd, back off! Pleeeease!”

But her efforts to remove him from her person were fruitless; he was a lost cause. It wasn’t until she was able to get up from the floor and stand that he desisted in his frantic behavior. When she did rise to her full height, her head was swimming and she found that she had to drop back to sitting on the couch.

“This is not good,” she whispered to herself and to the dog who had hopped up next to her, nudging his fuzzy head under her arm. “I have things to do, and this is definitely going to hold me up.”

Checking her watch, she could see that she had been asleep for about an hour. She reached around to her back pocket for the cell, but then she remembered that, fearing landing on it and breaking it, she’d left it on the night table when she decided to use the upstairs window as an exit earlier that afternoon.

Her head might have been swimming, but the wheels and cogs in her mind were spinning and meshing with their usual precision, “I wonder who’s home now.”

She remembered Pat saying earlier that her parents had left. Marnie and Bill had been at the park. Only Pat and Marie had been at home when she’d gotten caught by Pat dropping from the overhang into the side yard. She recalled that she had been trying to get out to the tool shed. There were strange cars out there, and she wanted to see what was going on. As she was sitting there thinking, her eye was on the door that led out of that room to the back, wrap-around deck, the stairs of which would put her directly into the back yard. She could leave through that door, and nobody would even know she was gone. If she was quick about it- and she would be- she could dart across the back end, take the path down to the tool shed, peek in the window, and make it back to the couch before anybody even knew she had been out of the house. Then she could pretend to have just woken up and re-enter the familial mainstream, having satisfied her raging curiosity.

The heck with being dizzy and having one eye. I’m out of here….

Pushing up from the couch, commanding Third to stay put, she slipped on her shoes and crept across the room to the door. Checking  the other door, the one which led to the rest of the house, she began backing out of the den door, onto the deck.

“Little girl, you have completely lost your mind. You must think you’re playing with an amateur, here. Just take your narrow, hardheaded, scheming self right back inside, J.J. Hart. Go upstairs, and get into the bed. I’ll be up there in five minutes to check.”

J.J. slowly turned around to her godmother, who was seated right outside the door at the patio table with her phone, a drink, and a copy each of the Los Angeles and New York Times. “Oh, and by the way, Chase Barnett phoned- again. He couldn’t get you on your cell, so he’s been ringing the house. I finally told him you were all right, but that you wouldn’t be seeing any gentlemen callers this evening, and that I was not going to be bothered with him worrying me all night about you; I don’t care how cute he is.”

Slowly shaking her head, J.J. sighed in resignation. “Just tell me this, Aunt Pat, would I have made it if you hadn’t anticipated me? Who else is at home?”

Pat picked up her glass and took a healthy swallow before answering her. “It’s doesn’t matter about who’s home. Let’s just say that it’s best for you and for me that I was anticipating you, and that you didn’t get the opportunity to try it again. Now you just go ahead and do as your TeePat has told you to do.”

At the reference to her childhood nickname for her, J.J. was forced to smile as she complied with her Auntie Pat’s orders.

Back in her bedroom and her nightgown, she was just about to get into the bed when she spied Genie over in the chair. It occurred to her once again that Genie was quiet and that she hadn’t been collected with all the other dolls. She was certain that had been a rare slip on her father’s part, especially given his earlier curiosity about Genie’s improved behavior.

“Whatever the case-“ she said to the doll as she picked her up and carried her over to the bed. “For the time being, you’re mine. I am your Duchess, you are my sweet girl, and as such, you belong with me.”

Climbing into the bed, she pulled up the covers and lie down, hugging the doll close to her body. Playing or sleeping with dolls, or even stuffed animals, had never been her thing, not even when she had been much younger, but somehow, Genie had become special- a bit more than a mere doll.

“Listen. I know you’re probably thinking, but believe me, you don’t have to worry,” she told Genie as she felt pain-medicine induced sleep overtaking her again. “I don’t have a boyfriend or husband that I do hot, nasty things with in the bed yet, so it’s okay if you sleep in here with me. Unlike me in my parents’ room, you won’t have to be feeling all creepy and everything about being in here with me. Jeez ,Genie, I can’t even sit on my mother’s bed without my mind jetting off, trying to take me there.”

Still holding the doll, she shuddered as the mental image of her parents on those satin sheets attempted to force itself upon her. Fighting that off, in its place appeared the shocked, then outraged expression that would have been on her mother’s face if she could have peeked inside her head and seen what she had been thinking, or if she could have heard what she had been implying to the doll.

Oh yeah, Jen, me and my sweet girl were al-l-l-l-l up in your business just now.

Grinning an especially impish grin, and tickled all the way down to her toes, she hugged Genie closer and pulled the covers farther up so that her curly red head nor the yellow rosette headband showed.

__________________________________________________________

Ken was standing there waiting for them, leaned against the secretary’s desk outside the door to Chris’ office. He stood and stretched out his arms to her when he saw her approaching.

“You look good, girl,” he said with a smile when she stepped back from allowing him to briefly hug her. “It’s good to see you back on your feet.

“Thanks, I feel good.” she replied in a businesslike tone. “Look, get in touch with August for me right now before he comes too far. Tell him to take Claire to your office. I don’t want her here just yet. I have some things to sort out inside my office, and I need a few minutes to do that. She’ll only be a distraction to me right now.”

With a nod and a quick hello, Ken acknowledged the CEO and his wife, then he picked up the phone on the desk as Chris proceeded to her office followed by Jonathan and Jennifer. She hesitated a moment before turning the knob, as if she were considering whether or not she wanted to go in, but then she pushed the door open and entered it as if nothing at all had transpired since she last left it. Instead of going to her desk, though, she went over to a door that, upon entry, was to the right of the room.

She gestured to Jennifer. “I need you to come here.”

A puzzled expression crossed Jennifer’s face. “What? Why?”

“Here,” Chris repeated, this time with a crook of her finger as she opened the door. “You have been taking care of  and looking out for Claire and me for days. Now it’s my turn to help you. You can lie down in here. With the light off, it’s nice and dark, and I’ve had it insulated so that sound is a bit less amplified. We’ll all be right out here while you rest.”

Inside was a tiny, neat, attractive even, efficiency apartment complete with a comfortable looking twin bed over in a corner.

“I’m here a lot,” she explained. “Sometimes very early, sometimes very late, sometimes for very long periods of time. And some of those times, I have headaches- like what you’re having right now, Jennifer. I had this spot fixed this up so that I can rest when I feel the need to do so. Please lie down. I know what a migraine can do to you.”

“No,” Jennifer attempted to protest. “I’m fine. I don’t-”

“Yes, you do, darling.” Jonathan placed his arm around her shoulders and moved her into the room, toward the bed. “I know that you do, and you need to admit that you do. You’ve been through a lot today. In the past few days, you’ve been under strain of all kinds. You need to lie down. You don’t have your medicine with you, do you?”

She attempted to pull back and to remove herself from him. “Jonathan, I-” But that only resulted in his tightening the hold her had on her as he insisted, “I said, you need to lie down.”

By that time, he had guided her over to the bed and the only thing she could do was to sit down on the side of it. When she did, he squatted right down to slip the shoes from her feet.

With interest and some amusement, Chris discreetly watched them from where she was on the other side of the room, over by the cabinets. Jonathan Hart might be the head of a successful worldwide conglomerate, and an extremely powerful and wealthy man, but at that moment, he was personally taking care of what meant far more to him than any of the other. Even though his wife had obviously been upset with him earlier, he was calling her “Darling” and removing her shoes so that she could lie down and rest. And it wasn’t because he was trying to win back her favor, he probably didn’t care much about being out of it. It was likely only a temporary situation anyway. She could sense that they probably didn’t stay angry with each other very long when disagreements cropped up. He was taking care of her because he genuinely loved her, was concerned for her, and wanted what was best for her.

Turning her back to them, Chris smiled. Jennifer Hart, she thought, was a very fortunate woman. Mr. Hart was a lucky, lucky man. J.J. Hart was a privileged child indeed to have been sent to such special people. It was good to be raised with such love; she was one who knew.

Having found what she was looking for in the kitchenette cabinet, she poured a glass of water from the tap and took it over to Jennifer who, although still quietly fussing with him and hadn’t quite lie all the way down, had reluctantly complied with her husband’s demands to get onto the bed.

“Do these look anything like the pills you take, Jennifer? My doctor just prescribed these for me. They’re kind of new, and they work like a charm. I know it’s not good to take other people’s meds, but I think we’re in desperate straits here.”

Chris shook two pills over into Jennifer’s hand.

“They look like the ones I take. Mine are new, too,” Jennifer said as she held them up to peer closely at them. “What milligram are these?”

Chris noticed that her hand, as well as her arm, was trembling.

Awfully pale and jittery. Bad one. She might even get sick with it.

“If you need it, Jennifer, the bathroom is through there,” she pointed to the closed door right beside the bed and then checked the prescription bottle. “Those are tens.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Jennifer popped the pills into her mouth and accepted the glass Chris held out to her. “I am desperate at this point. Either they kill me or this headache will.” She handed the glass back to Chris and lie all the way out on her back.

“Don’t even joke like that,” Jonathan quietly reproached her as he kissed her lightly on the lips while brushing a quick hand over her hair. “I’ll be right outside the door.”

“I’m sorry,” she apologized to him in a near whisper. “I’ll be fine in a minute. Please turn the light off on your way out.”

Chris allowed him to protectively take her by the arm and lead her to the door, although since stepping back into her own familiar territory, she was feeling a great deal stronger and a whole lot more steady and alert.

__________________________________________________________

The newly installed camera picked up the car as it somehow used the employee exit gate to enter the parking structure.

Because HartToy conducted such extensive checks on its employees, and the turnover rate within that division had always been so minimal, thereby lowering levels of suspicion, that gate was unmanned and until recently was not a point of observation from inside the security command center. Signing in and a specific code were needed to enter, but none of that had been required upon exiting. After Rider’s murder; however, Chris had ordered surveillance equipment to specifically monitor that gate. After 911 and, it was thought, as a result of Chris’ accident, Jonathan Hart himself had demanded the immediate installation of those cameras, exit codes, and he had stepped up security measures considerably within the facility. Most of the measures he had ordered put in place weren’t immediately noticeable to the untrained eye, but security, of course, was aware of them, and they were also aware of how closely Hart and Lamb wanted the new procedures followed.

The front gate had notified the guards of the presence of both Hart and Lamb in the complex on that Saturday afternoon. That latest car was definitely not following procedure, and without hesitation, the most recent orders to monitor but not get in the way of anything unorthodox were followed: nobody interfered with that unlawful entry. The vehicle and whoever was inside were simply to be tracked on-screen after calls were dispatched straightaway to August Lamb, and at someone’s quick-thinking, last minute suggestion, Chris Allen.

__________________________________________________________

Just as Jonathan and Chris were returning to the office, closing Jennifer in the darkened room behind them, August Lamb was coming through the open office door carrying Chris’ briefcase, laptop, and purse all of which he set on top of the conference table.

“Ken is on his way to his office to sit with Claire. Eva is there keeping an eye on her until he gets there.” August said. “I figured you might want these things, so I brought them out of the car, and then I thought it best if I delivered them to you myself. Claire knows and trusts Ken, so she’ll be all right with him for a while. I don’t know who else to trust at this point, thus my playing delivery man for you.”

Jonathan joined him at the table and both men sat down as August continued speaking to Chris, but positioning his body to include Jonathan in what he was saying, “I was just notified that Alice is here. She’s signed in at the front gate and is currently in the parking structure. I’ve sent a couple of our people down to keep a close eye on her.”

Chris went behind her desk and stood staring at the top of it. “Nothing’s been moved,” she said, pulling out her chair and sitting down in it after a few moment’s visual inspection of the items on top of the desk.

“We sealed this place off as soon as we heard about your having been in an accident,” August informed her. “I came here and saw to that happening myself. We didn’t know what all was actually going on with you, or if at that time, that any of it might have happened here, but we weren’t taking any chances. Too many strange things had taken place by then. You’re sure nothing’s been moved?”

She nodded. “I have a system I use. Small things I do that let me know if someone has come behind me and gone through my things. It’s one of those life-management strategies my father taught me.”

From the angle he was sitting, Jonathan could see the framed photograph of the couple on Chris’ desk that he assumed were her parents. As she spoke of her father, he noticed that Chris focused for a moment upon his image, and he nodded to himself. He knew all about strategically arranging items to let him know if his space had been invaded when he didn’t want it to be.

When he first moved in with Max, before he learned that he could trust him, he had used it as a protective measure. When he brought Jennifer “home” with him to that corporate apartment he and Max shared back in the early days of Hart Industries, it was one of the things that further endeared her to him. Not once had she breached his habitual ‘setups’ during his frequent business-related absences as he wrapped up his affairs before the wedding. She had to have been curious about her all-of-a-sudden fiancée, and she would have been justified in taking a peek or two. It had only been a little over three weeks time since they had met, become engaged, and he had taken her from everything she knew on the east coast to bring her to live with him in Los Angeles. But she hadn’t snooped to find things out about him. Although at that point, she probably didn’t have to be, she had been very careful about respecting his established living arrangements and his privacy, and he appreciated that about her. It spoke a lot to him about her character.

He hated that Jennifer wasn’t feeling well, but in a way, he was glad that she had opted to lie down back there in that secure and secluded area of the building. Recognizing the symptoms of one of her troublesome migraines, he was glad that he wouldn’t have to worry that her being incapacitated would put her in harm’s way should something untoward suddenly develop. When she got one of those really bad ones, like the one that apparently was affecting her, it usually knocked her down for a while, and the medicine she took for them usually put her under. Now his only concern would be Chris.

He and August remained at the table to allow her to finish getting her bearings in relative privacy at the desk.

Chris was slowly flipping through papers which were inside manila folders. When she asked for her laptop and briefcase, Jonathan took them over to her along with the purse Jennifer had been given from her car after the accident, and then he went back to his seat at the table. The room was silent as she powered up the computer on her desk and then the laptop. She extracted several more manila folders from her briefcase, while at the same time she listened to her voice mail messages.

As Jonathan watched her studying her papers, he was slightly intrigued by the prominent place manila folders seemed to have taken in his life over the past few days. And then still watching Chris, her head slightly lowered, he noticed the way she used her hand to hold back her hair from her eyes as she immersed herself in trying to get back to where she had been. It was a gesture that reminded him of Jennifer when she was engrossed in her reading or writing, and out of the blue it occurred to him how it seemed the intelligent women in his life all had such handsome foreheads.

Jennifer, Sabrina, and their clone, J.J.: wide, intellectual, lightly freckled, and accented by those attractive widow’s peaks when they pulled back all that thick red hair.

Pat Hamilton: high, aristocratic, animated when she lifted those distinctively dramatic eyebrows in surprise, awe, or warning; whatever the situation called for.

Chris and Claire Allen: smooth, unblemished, very much alike….

Then he laughed to himself. Even as a kid, he had always noticed and appreciated the oddest things in women; hair, hairlines and foreheads, good conversation, a contagious laugh, a delicate earlobe, a particularly striking profile, or the line of a shapely backside curving its way to a toned thigh and then a calf, slim ankles, smooth heels, manicured and polished toes; a strong air of poise and confidence, that underlying promise of fire…. he was still fascinated by females, especially the smart, spirited ones.

What the hell is wrong with me?

Momentarily disturbed by the strange, out-of-the-way places his usually disciplined mind had taken him, he quite deliberately returned to the business at hand, admonishing himself to stay focused.

“What about Alice?” he leaned in to whisper to August in an effort to get himself back on track.

August inclined his body toward him. “I told you, I have people on her. She won’t see them, I’m sure, but they have their eyes on her. She’s going to go to that cubicle first, I bet you. I’ve had another camera installed in there, too. If that’s where she heads, the guys downstairs have her on monitor.”

From the desk, they could hear the message for Chris that her car was being picked up from impound by the salvage company.

“Who authorized that?” She paused the machine on that message and directed the question to them. “Who told the insurance company to go ahead and total it out?”

“It is a total,” August answered. “But according to the date and time, that message was left for you before we let the insurance and impound guys know that the call had to be fraudulent. I got back with them, told them about you, and that you couldn’t possibly have made the call that they got. Apparently someone wanted the car done away with before you could get back to it.”

She frowned for a moment and then shrugged, but she didn’t comment on or question what he said as she pressed the button to continue listening to her messages.

August whispered to Jonathan out of the corner of his mouth, “Where’s Jennifer?”

“She’s lying down in the back. Migraine.”

“Is she gonna be okay?”

“Yeah, she will. Chris gave her something for it. She just has to be still and quiet for a while.”

“How’s J.J.?”

“She’s all right. She came away from it with a black eye and a lump on the back of her head. They sent her home on bed rest.”

August’s spontaneous snicker came out as an disbelieving snort. “J.J.? In bed? On a Saturday?”

“That’s the same thing I said,” Jonathan chuckled. “She’s probably at home giving Pat fits with her trying to work her way out of the house, much less the bed. She’s not one to be easily tied-”

The voice on the answering machine drew both men’s attention to Chris whose pale cheeks had gone crimson.

“Christina, it’s me. I just found out. Why didn’t you say anything? I understand now why you took off so suddenly without saying anything to me. I am so sorry about everything. I didn’t know. You can believe that I never would have let this happen if I had been aware of what was going on. I just wanted to let you know before word got to you, that I sent her to New York. But, I think he’s gone after her. Honey, please, I don’t want you to worry about anything. I’ll take care-”

That was the point at which Chris was able to get the volume turned all the way down on Marston Knight’s voice. Her  messages had been playing back from the most recent to that one which had come in late on the previous Saturday, the evening of her accident. In fact, Jonathan could see that her hand was still pressing the volume button when the phone itself rang. Although clearly shaken by that particular message, she picked up the receiver just as August was pulling out his own humming cell phone to answer it.

__________________________________________________________

By the time she parked the car, Alice Rangel felt drenched in nervous perspiration. Her pink cotton blouse and matching twill pants seemed to stick in every fold and joint of her jittery body. Her hair was a damp mop on top of her head, and her socks were soaked inside her white leather Reeboks. Being that it was the weekend, and she wasn’t required to keep to her assigned space, she was able to park right next to the elevator. As she placed around her neck the lanyard containing her I.D. card., which she would need to access the elevator get inside the facility and also to enter the tech floor, it occurred to her that she had no idea where the dolls would be. Her hope was that they would have been taken up to the lab on that floor, the place she last worked on them right before they were shipped out.

What had Claire been thinking? Chris told her that Octavia was bad news, but she had been so determined to prove Chris wrong.  Personally, she always felt that Octavia wasn’t someone with whom they should have been associated. She was too worldly and too detached, seemingly devoid of normal human compassion. Having been raised in the manner that she was, Octavia hadn’t formed the proper connections that would make her a caring human being. The two of them, Claire and herself, were different. They had come from loving, intact families. Although Claire’s parents had been killed in that accident when she was a little girl, she still had Chris. Her older sister had taken over their parents’ role, but for Claire, that apparently hadn’t been enough.

After that mess in Europe, at Chris’ advice, she had turned her back on Octavia, but Claire had not. Despite Chris’ best efforts to get them clear of it, that old business had reared its head and sucked her and Claire right back into yet another mess.

She hoped if or when it was all over, that Chris could find it in her heart to forgive her. Over the years, she had come to love Chris like the big sister/protector she had been to her. But in this, Chris had been left in the dark, and she had gotten hurt. It wasn’t until she was forced to dig up Chris’ auto insurance information that it became clear to her that what happened the week before had been part of Octavia’s plan. She didn’t know the particulars, but based upon what she had been ordered to do since then, she knew that Chris was in grave danger, and that she probably wasn’t supposed to still be alive.

In the car, reluctant to get out, she leaned her head back and closed her eyes to allow the shudder to completely pass through her body, all the while thinking that she shouldn’t have let the threats deter her. Despite being warned that informing her could cost Chris her life, she should have told her anyway. Chris wasn’t afraid of threats. She wasn’t afraid of anything.

Because of Chris, she resolved as she sat there, she wouldn’t be either. She was in up to her neck, but running wasn’t the way to get out of it. Besides if she did run and managed to get away, she would be running the rest of her life. Instead, she would just have to face it head on and hope for the best. If what she needed to find wasn’t where she thought it was, she didn’t know what she was going to do, but whatever she did, she wouldn’t be leaving Chris in the dark about it any longer. Ken was the link she would have to use to get to Chris; he would most likely know how to get in touch with her.

Ken had phoned and sent for her to come to HartToy. It was because of him she had turned around and come back. He was supposed to be there waiting for her. If things didn’t work out, maybe even if they did, she would tell him so that he could get word to Chris.

Taking a deep breath, pulling her bag up onto her shoulder, she opened the door and got out.

__________________________________________________________

August hooked the cell phone back onto his belt, quietly reporting, “Security breach, Employee exit gate,” to Jonathan.

At the same time, Chris was placing the receiver back into its cradle. “Problem at the back employee gate,” she stated to the two men who were on their feet and looking as if they were leaving.

“We know.” August said as he came from the table to stand before the desk. “Command Center just alerted me. Jonathan and I are going down with security to check it out. You stay here.”

Clearly ready to argue, Chris stood up from her chair. “I will not stay here. This is my-”

“Chris.” The finality of Jonathan’s tone forced her to stop talking.

“I need for you to stay here with Jennifer. She’s in the back. Remember? We can go down and see what’s going on. Jennifer is going to need someone to watch out for her.”

The retort, “She’s your wife,” got right to the tip of Chris’ tongue, but she held it back.After all, Jonathan Hart was her boss, and what he said went, especially as it related to his wife. If he was assigning her to that all-important detail, then staying behind was what she was going to have to do.

“All right,” she conceded with a sigh as she sat back down. “Be careful, guys.” Besides, it wasn’t as if she didn’t understand the real reason she was being left behind, and she couldn’t argue that they weren’t right in doing so.

A few minutes after the door closed behind them, that other door eased open and Jennifer stuck her head out. “Have they gone?”

Slightly startled, Chris answered, “Yes, they’ve gone. What are you doing up?”

“I couldn’t help but hear.” Jennifer said as she stepped into the room. “Security breach?” I heard Jonathan tell you to stay here with me. What’s going on? Where did he and August go?”

“You could help but hear,” Chris accused, but with a bemused smile. “You should have been back there lying down like you were supposed to be. When you’re in there with the door closed, you have to try to hear what’s going on out here. How are you going to be in there snooping? Why aren’t you knocked out?”

With a wave of her hand, Jennifer sat in the chair in front of Chris’ desk. “Those pills put me down, but not completely out, not if I choose not to be. When you have a child like my J.J., you can’t afford to fully give in to pain or illness; you have to force yourself to keep going. I’m telling you, if that girl is anywhere awake, alert, and walking around, I cannot afford to be completely under. She would run amok for sure if she thought there was no chance that I might get up and come after her. Don’t get me wrong, she’s not in any sense a bad girl. In fact, she is actually a very good child when I stop to consider all she could be. She’s just very nosy and extremely busy. And she’s quick, in every sense of the word.”

Her immediate concern was for what was going on outside her office that she wasn’t being let in on, but Chris had to snicker at Jennifer Hart’s candid assessment of her interesting child. J.J. Hart’s mother had her number.

“I can sort of see that,” she laughed. “I can also tell she’s probably a lot like her mother. She had that eye patch on her eye, but her father had to yank her back to him when she got home this afternoon. Quite obviously injured when her father brought her home, J.J. was trying her best to get into the living room with all of us and see what we were up to. She wasn’t about to let getting hurt stop her, just like you and that migraine you’re currently having.”

“In reality, she’s a whole lot more like her father,” Jennifer asserted. “Believe me. And I’m honestly feeling somewhat better already. That husband of mine has been cutting me out of things ever since all of this began, and that’s not going to continue if I have a say in it, which I do.” She leaned forward, placing both elbows on the desk. “Now what’s going on, I asked you, and don’t try to change the subject on me again.”

Brought back to the seriousness of the moment, Chris slowly shook her head. “I don’t know, Jennifer. A car somehow accessed the employee exit gate and entered the employee parking structure. Alice has arrived and is here somewhere, too. I don’t know if one has anything to do with the other, but it seems mighty funny to me that a security breach would happen here while Alice and Claire are in the same place. As a hard and fast rule, we don’t have that kind of thing going on here.”

“Who is this Octavia you asked Claire about earlier?”

For a moment, Chris studied the face on the other side of her desk before deciding to trust it and go ahead and answer. “She is an acquaintance of Claire and Alice. You see, Claire and Alice did their freshman year together in college. Alice is a very good girl, but she’s a follower. That’s why I eventually hired her, so that I could keep an eye on her. She’s a genius when it comes to technology, but she lacks common sense when it comes to her real life, and it sometimes gets her into trouble. Claire, on the other hand, is smart and has plenty of common sense, but she has other problems that aren’t entirely of her making.”

“And Octavia?”

Chris again took her time in answering. “She also went to school with Claire and Alice that freshman year. In fact, they were all suitemates at one time. That’s how they met. Octavia was always bad news, but for some reason, Claire is drawn to her. To my absolute surprise,” Chris gestured to her open laptop. “I only recently learned that Octavia is the daughter of a man who once hated my father- and your husband. You probably knew of him, too. He once worked for Hart Shipping Lines, and I understand that he had a hit put out on you in an effort to get back at Jonathan for busting up that dock scam he had going with the pension funds and all way back then.”

“You’re talking about a man by the name of Victor Shell. That really was a very long time ago, not long after Jonathan and I were first married.”

“I know. You see, for some time now I’ve been looking into something related to my parents’ so-called accident, and that tidbit about you and your husband came out in the course of my research. I was stunned to find out about that. My father was also part of that dock investigation that led to Shell having to leave the country. My own research led to my finding out about his connection to Octavia. It seems he had her out of wedlock. Her being born and his wife finding out about her broke up his marriage. Then came the dock trouble and his self-imposed exile. Octavia’s mother committed suicide when she was just a baby, and subsequently, her father arranged for her to be raised in a private educational setting as a sort of upscale orphan.

“I never thought what happened to my parents was an accident, and I’ve been looking into it on and off for years. I was just hitting my stride again when-”

Chris stopped, but Jennifer pushed her on.

“When?”

“-when some things with Claire, sort of … well… sort of… I guess broke my concentration… then there was the mess here with the murder, and then I got hurt.”

“The first time or the second?”

Chris raised her face from where she had cradled her cheeks in her hands to stare down to the desk. “What?”

Jennifer leaned farther forward. “I said, do you mean the first time you got hurt or the second? I know about the bruises. Chris. I’ve seen them for myself. I was there the night that they brought you in to the hospital.”

Chris retreated, pushing her body back into the chair as Jennifer continued speaking. “Listen to me, you need to fully trust somebody. It’s just the two of us here right now. Please talk to me. What’s going on?”

The point-blank question and that Jennifer was aware enough of her private physical matters to ask it imploded the last vestiges of the crumbling fortress of pride and privacy Chris had erected over the years to protect herself. Her windpipe constricted as her head receded down between her shoulders and into her chest. Folding her arms, she used her hands to hold herself and to prevent the fragments of her shattered dignity from flying everywhere.

Even with everything else, it had been a long time since she’d felt that degree of exposure and vulnerability. For years, great care had been taken to keep that promise she’d made to herself to never again be placed in that position. She’d gone to great effort and sacrifice to maintain control of those things that concerned her. It had been decades since she’d had to rely on anyone to help her with anything personal. Circumstance had taught her to be self-reliant; it was now all she knew, and she alone had become the only person in whom she wholly trusted.

“I can’t think about that at the moment,” she murmured. “There are more important things going on right now. I should be looking into them, doing my job, checking on Claire. Besides, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

When she heard Jennifer get up from the chair, she stiffened. When she could sense her making her way around the desk to lean against it, right next to her, she held herself even tighter.

“Yes you do, Christina. You do, too, know what I’m talking about. There is nothing that is going on that is more important to me right now than you. The guys can handle whatever is happening outside that door. Last Saturday, when I came here, I wasn’t looking for J.J. I came here for the sole purpose of speaking with you. I came out of the house today to see Claire, but I was going to her only out of my concern for you. I know that you’re both in some sort of trouble. You see, I’ve been doing some investigating of my own.”

Chris didn’t raise her head when she shook it in denial. “Jennifer, it’s- it’s personal… nothing that has to do with HartToy. It’s- It’s-”

“I don’t care about HartToy right now.” Jennifer declared. “When you get right down to the heart of it, I don’t really care about Claire. I do care about you. Not as an employee of my husband, but as a person. One intelligent woman to another, I care about you and what’s going on with you. And I might as well tell you, you cannot duck me or shake me off of it. I have had plenty of practice working with people, particularly young girls and women, who think that keeping things in is the way to solve problems. ”

Jennifer’s fingers reached in, gently working their way under her rigid chin, cradling and lifting it from where it had been protectively tucked away. “Look at me,” she urged. “Christina, open your eyes and look at me.”

Chris complied with the request and saw that Jennifer had placed her other hand on that framed photo of her parents as she stared directly down at her. The warmth in her eyes was genuine, the depth, infinite and oddly reassuring. But still not quite able to speak of it, she averted her own gaze and fought back the tears welling in the corners of the eyes she had again closed. She felt Jennifer release the hold she had on her chin, but then she heard her move and sensed when she squatted down, putting herself right next to her.

When she spoke, the tone of her voice was soothing, as if she might have been attempting to reassure a frightened child. Or as if she might be speaking of something that frightened her to talk about it. The latter caused Chris to focus even more on what Jennifer was saying to her.

“When I really needed her that time, when I’d gotten myself into some bad trouble, the worse mess of my entire life so far, my mother had been dead a long time, too. I was hurt, badly hurt on the inside as well as on the outside. There was nobody on earth that I trusted the way that I trusted in my mother. She was killed in an auto accident, too, and when she left me, I thought that was it. Even though I still had my father, he wasn’t my mother. I believed that without her, I had been left out here all on my own, and nobody anywhere could help me. I was ashamed that I’d been so naive and stupid. I had walked right into it, and afterward, I was afraid that people would think less of me even though what happened wasn’t my fault.”

Chris slowly opened her eyes. They now were face-to-face; holding back the tears was no longer a possibility as Jennifer continued her gentle but persistent efforts to pry open her heart .

“All these years later, I’m still walking around with mine locked up inside me. Shortly after what happened to me, Jonathan came into my life. He had no idea that it is he who saved me, but I do. Since then, my pain has gotten better about lying dormant inside me, but it hasn’t completely gone away. Every now and then, something happens to stir it up and make me feel it all over again, especially as J.J. is getting older and things happen with her.

“J.J. is a lot like you, Chris. She’s strong, smart, self-reliant, self-assured; I believe that’s why she’s so drawn to you, but I’m working with her on learning to trust. In her, for some reason, trust is not an innate entity. J.J. thinks she has a handle on everything. She has a powerful need to be in control of her universe. She craves order, so when she’s upset or things happen that upset her and that take her world off balance, she has a tendency to hold the upset or the trouble inside of her so that she doesn’t appear weak or vulnerable to anyone.

“Christina Allen, I’m telling you now what I’ve told Justine Hart over and over: sometimes, no matter how strong you think you are, how capable you believe yourself to be, no matter how much you think you have power over them, bad things have a tendency to get worse if you don’t deal with them. They fester and have the potential to taint everything else in our lives when we hold them in. I wish I could have done better with mine, but I didn’t, and at this point I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do anything about mine except live with it. I don’t want anything like this for my daughter, and I don’t want it for you. Please talk to me. You’ve been out here on your own long enough. Tell me what’s going on with you and Claire. Who hit Claire, and who hurt you?”

Resolving that even though she was the boss’ wife, that she could and would let her in, Chris had to first reach all the way down to her feet and pull the words up one-by-one through her tense, resistant body. At the same time, images and sketchy details flashed and stung like hot sparks in her mind as she struggled with what Jennifer had revealed to her. What did she mean by “bad trouble”? Did ugly things like raw, real life bullshit happen to perfect people like her?

“Jennifer, I need to ask you. I know it’s not proper, but I really need to know. If you don’t mind, how old are you?”

“I’m fifty-five. I’ll be fifty-six in November.”

“You look damned good for your age. Not like trouble or worry has ever touched you.”

“Well, it has, plenty of times, but I thank you for the compliment. And you?”

“I’m forty- four. I’ll be forty-five next month.”

“You look pretty good yourself. I’d give you maximum thirty-five, thirty-six or thereabouts. But what does how old we are have to do with anything?”

“Nothing really, I guess. I’m just wondering how old I’ll have to be to get as smart and as confident of myself as you are.”

“If I were you,” Jennifer said with a smile, “I wouldn’t let that worry me. In my eyes, you’re not wanting for either of those things.”

Encouraged, but still hugging herself, Chris went ahead and forced the reluctant, whispered response to her lips.

“It was her father, Jennifer. Her father hurt her. It doesn’t matter about me. Despite what Claire said to me about it earlier; it never mattered about me.”

__________________________________________________________

First Ken, then Eva realized too late that they had erred in allowing Claire to use the restroom. When she was seconds longer than she should have been in returning to the outer office, Ken  jumped up from his chair upon remembering the sliding emergency panel in that room. Claire had grown up running in and out of his and Chris’ offices, she was aware of that safety feature, would remember it, and would use it to her advantage if she wanted to get away from them. When Eva went to check, they discovered that was exactly what she had done.

While Eva stood there anxiously patting her thigh and quietly cursing herself about having let Claire give her the slip, Ken returned to his desk and picked up the phone to notify Chris.

When he hung up from Chris, Eva, too, was gone.

__________________________________________________________

August talked nonstop as he slid cards and pushed buttons to get himself and Jonathan through the building and down into the employee parking structure.

“I just don’t know how something like this could have happened. You know that this place is as secure as they come. It has to be somebody who has knowledge of how the system operates and who somehow knows a way to bypass it. We turned off the alarms for this latest thing, but the sensors should have-”

“It’s okay,” Jonathan reassured him.

In his own head Jonathan was running silent scenarios to try to figure out the breach. At the same time he was mentally  hurrying the elevator in which they were riding. He understood August’s nervousness. A master in his field, August would consider something like that a professional, as well as a personal failing, but it wasn’t his fault. No system, no matter how supposedly secure and sophisticated, was completely impenetrable.

“Well one thing,” August said. “Whoever it is won’t get much farther than the parking structure. They’ll need pass codes to even get onto the elevator.”

“They got into the parking structure without having what we thought they needed,” Jonathan reminded him. “We weren’t expecting that, but it happened. No matter how well you think you believe you have a thing wrapped up, if what you have inside the package is worth it to them, there’s always going to be somebody looking for and sometimes finding a way to get into it. Case in point, New York and D.C. this week. We thought we had the lock on that, too, but we found out the hard way that somebody had just the right pick for it. When we get down there we can see for ourselves what’s going on and what needs to be done about it.”

August nodded. It really was all they could do.

“Well, I’m covered,” August patted his blazer under his left arm. “You?”

“Yep,” Jonathan answered. He pulled back one side of the unzipped windbreaker he was wearing to reveal the pistol stuck in the waistband of his khaki slacks. “These days, I don’t leave home without it.”

Leaned against the rear wall, August took a deep breath and exhaled loudly while Jonathan stared straight ahead at the doors of elevator car as it continued its descent. Each man knew that it couldn’t be foretold with what they were going to be faced on the other side, but they were each reassured by the other’s presence. As they stood contemplating what could be, they both hoped that should trouble make its way up there to her, Chris, in her weakened state, would be able to hold her own in that office where they had left her with Jennifer.

__________________________________________________________

The nervous apprehension and fear, as they ricocheted off each other throughout her body, had Alice bouncing on the balls of her feet inside the elevator. Her hands shook uncontrollably and her knees had become semi-boiled noodles, but she had to get to Ken and then to those dolls.

At Starbucks that morning, she had been warned about not coming through with the goods. At the park, she had failed to get close enough to even give a cursory check, much less have anything snatched up. Payment was due on a bill that wasn’t hers, and the sake of her life her- and Chris’ life- she couldn’t afford to come up short again. She had vacillated a moment or two down in the parking structure about going to her cubicle first, but then she decided to get her more important business taken care of before she did anything else.

But those dolls.

That had to have been where he put it. Besides his cubicle, the dolls were the only place she hadn’t been able to look.

__________________________________________________________

It took a moment for what Chris said to register in Jennifer’s mind.

“Her father?”

According to what Pat had uncovered and shared with her, she was aware that there was some discrepancy with Chris and Claire’s relationship. But it wasn’t until the moment Chris indirectly admitted to it, that the intimation became real for her.

“I don’t understand-” she began, hesitating to carefully choose her words in an effort to not be indelicate or too intrusive. “But I thought-”

The desk phone rang, and Chris almost snatched the receiver from its cradle in a manner that Jennifer could see was calculated to keep from having to respond to the question that was about to be put to her.

Chris listened for a moment, then clicked off the phone and put it down before standing up from the chair. “Claire’s taken off on Ken.”

“Where would she go?”

“Anyplace. She knows her way around; she practically grew up here. If she was in Ken’s office, and she’s gotten behind the walls like he says she has, she can get anywhere if she wants. She knows how. As a means to protect herself while she was here with me, I taught her, so I’m sure of what she knows.”

When Chris put her hands down on the desk and leaned into it, Jennifer took that movement as her strength giving out on her again. Jumping up, ignoring her own pain, she reached for Chris.

“Take it easy. Sit down.”

But Chris held up one hand to her, resisting the attempt to move her back into the chair. “I’m okay, Jennifer. For the first time in a while, I’m not dizzy at all. That’s the honest truth. I don’t know what’s going on out there, but I have make sure that she’s safe. That girl knows that she’s messed up with me, so I know that she’s trying to come to me.”

Standing there with Chris, Pat once again appeared in Jennifer’s mind along with that note she took from her pocket and slid to her at the breakfast table that morning. As a publisher and editor, Pat’s success was founded upon her ability to read people, size them up, and set them on the proper literary course. Back when she had been a reporter and then a writer, Pat’s talent had been appreciating, understanding, and crafting complex characters, which Chris and Claire Allen were definitely shaping up to be. It was no wonder that Pat had been so fixated upon Chris.

“I’m leaving to go and look for her,” Chris declared. “I can’t have her out there by herself ignorant of what’s going on around her. Alice is out there, too. Look, I’ll lock the door. You’ll be safe. Nobody will be able to get in here to you.”

“I know they won’t.” Jennifer was already headed for that room where she was supposed to have been lying down. Moments later, she came back out carrying a small gun from which she was removing the safety. “I won’t be here.”

“Do you really know how to use that?” Chris asked, taken aback by the sight of that classy, refined lady in such confident possession of a .22, one which evidently, she’d had the presence of mind to bring with her.

“Please,” Jennifer snorted in response as she held the pistol up so that Chris could clearly see it in her hand. “And remind me to thank Pat for packing my bag for me. I know going out of here was your idea, but are you sure you’re feeling up to all this moving around? You were a little shaky earlier.”

“Somehow, Jennifer, when it comes to Claire, my head clears completely and my legs get strong again. Yes, I’m fine. I have to do this.”

“I understand that part of it completely.” Jennifer stuck the gun down into her pants pocket and gestured with her other fingers to Chris as she started for the door to the office. “Let’s go and see about these girls.”

__________________________________________________________

Wasting no time once she was inside the wall, Claire raced in the direction of the panel that would let her back into the facility proper and set her on the path to Chris’ office. She had heard Ken telling August that Chris wanted her to stay down in that other office for the time being, but she couldn’t. They had been apart too long, for so many wrong reasons, and she needed to set things right. If Alice was there somewhere, she also needed to find out from her what was really going on. Having spoken of it some time back, they both suspected that something wrong was going down when Rod got hired in under that false name, Paul Rider, and with a new, but not quite different face. But neither of them had any idea that it was going to blow up as it had, and end up with him dead. And dead right there in the parking center of Chris’ precious HartToy.

At the time, she thought she didn’t care about Chris losing her job. She felt that looking after HartToy had taken up too much of Chris’ time and her life, and that she would be better off without it. Without it, she thought, Chris could take time for herself and enjoy some of what was rightfully hers. But back then, she had been too stupid to see things for what they were. She had been too short-sighted to understand that what she considered valuable, Chris did not, and what Chris saw as being fulfilling and sustaining were, for her, exactly that and not just something she did to hide from something else.

The bottom line was she had always been too narcissistic and materialistic to appreciate that Chris had done the best she could with her own life, and considering all that she had gone through, she had done quite well with it. It didn’t have to have turned out like that for her, or for either of them. All alone in that vacuum of a bunker, when she had the time to take a good, hard look at everything, she realized that she was probably the reason that Chris had always been so old, so focused, so closed, and so very driven- even after it was out in the open that she didn’t have to be.

She had no idea whatsoever that Chris would be put in such direct danger. But with Octavia in the picture, it had been dumb of her not to suspect that might be the case. It was no secret how Octavia felt about Chris. The only excuse she had for not seeing that Octavia could be deadly to Chris was she hadn’t put it all together until it was too late.

She owed her life to Chris, but Chris had almost lost hers- she was sure of it now- because of her.

The fact that Chris asked about Octavia proved that Octavia had been involved in it, and Chris had a line on it. Chris had a way of knowing, but not saying anything about what she knew until she had to. Up in that bunker, Chris had been as mad as hell. Yelling wasn’t like her, but then she’d been put through so much, just as she said she had. Knowing Chris, she probably was aware of even more than she was about everything and had been just biding her time….

Counting the steel beams, Claire reached her destination. With it being Saturday, she didn’t have to worry about being discreet. Even though she would be exiting inside a utility closet, she wouldn’t have to be bothered with being careful of the door leading out, checking to see who was on the other side before leaving. Sliding the panel open, she pushed open the decoy shelf that blocked her way. The panel slid back into place once she pushed the shelf back against the wall. Still racing, she flung open the outer door and ran smack into someone who was also running. She and the other person knocked hard into one another. Dazed, they both fell, rolling onto the floor.

__________________________________________________________

“I’m afraid that Mr. Hart isn’t here right now. Is there something with which I might be able to help you?”

One of the technicians was on the house phone. Pat had been on her way up to check on J.J. and to assist Marie with beginning to put Marnie’s things in order. Marnie was still at the park with Bill where it had been arranged for her to be- away from J.J.- while the drama  concerning Chris and Claire was unfolding, the tension between Jonathan and Jennifer was playing itself out, and whatever was going on with those dolls was still up in the air. Together, J.J. and Marnie would have been sticking their little noses into every nook and cranny and detail they could find. Injured and incapacitated as she was, J.J. would have been orchestrating, and Marnie would have been gleefully carrying out the missions. Apart from each other, J.J. could rest and Marnie could continue to party in relative ignorance and innocence.

“We’re still out here working, Ms. Hamilton, but we were told that there were twelve units. We only have eleven. We were wondering if Mr. Hart was in possession of the twelfth unit, or if he knows why it isn’t out here. We probably need to get to work on it, too.”

Pat’s mind immediately went to Genie and that she had last seen her on the chair in J.J.’s room. All the other dolls had arrived on the grounds earlier, but Jonathan had removed Genie from underneath J.J.’s jacket when he put J.J. on the bed after her fainting episode with Jennifer. Genie had been placed in the chair to sit with that marionette Teddy had given J.J. when they were together in Maryland during the summer.

Had leaving that particular doll up in the room been deliberate on Jonathan’s part? Or, in light of the other more pressing issues he was dealing with at that time, had it been oversight? Oversights weren’t usually attributable to Jonathan Hart; he was normally much too careful an individual for that. But then, J.J. had gotten hurt, and Jennifer had been extremely upset with him over J.J. The most precious things in his world were his family, and having problems with either of those two could skew his usual sharp focus. That day, he’d had trouble with both of them.

Unsure of what Jonathan’s intentions were for the doll, Pat decided to do what she always did when she wasn’t in a position to make an educated decision.

It’ll just have to sit ‘pat’ until he gets back here and says for himself what he wants to do with Genie.

“I’m afraid that I cannot answer that,” Pat said into the receiver. “You will just have to wait until Mr. Hart returns. Do what you can do with what you have, and I will relate your message to him when he arrives.”

Pat went from Jennifer’s desk, up the front stairs and to J.J.’s room to confirm that Genie was still in the chair and that J.J. Hart was where she was supposed to be. When she eased open the bedroom door, she was surprised to see only the puppet over there; the doll was gone. Tiptoeing into the darkened room- J.J. had closed her blinds to keep out much of the daylight- she took a look around.

J.J. was under the covers. That one shoulder bearing the lace strap told her that her orders had been obeyed: J.J. was in her nightgown, Since that red head hadn’t popped up when the door opened, and that long, slim body hadn’t stirred at all when she came into the room, she could tell that the girl was way under. But Genie was no where to be seen.

Maybe he took it out of here with him, and I didn’t notice it when I saw him on the stairs.

Going through the bathroom, Pat entered J.J.’s sitting room to take a look around. Genie’s baby items were there on the table and the daybed, but she wasn’t. She hadn’t come out of the window with J.J., so she couldn’t have been left down in the den. As far as she knew, J.J. hadn’t been anywhere else in the house since Jonathan brought her back home from the hospital. Even if she had, she had been very responsible about keeping Genie with her, or at least with not leaving her around unattended.

Jonathan must have decided to take her with them when they left.

J.J. had roughly another hour to sleep before she would have to be awakened according to the instructions from the hospital. To keep from waking her prematurely, Pat used to the door that led into the sitting room to reenter the hall and cross over to Marnie’s room where Marie was practically knee deep in Marnie’s belongings; her clothing, shoes, stuffed animals, suit bags, and suitcases were everywhere.

“All of this for what started out as a two-week stay?”

Marie smiled. Having been with the Harts since before J.J. was born, and having had Marnie in her life spending, nights, weekends, and sometimes weeks for over ten of those years; she was familiar with the girl’s traveling habits.

“She packs heavily, Ms. Hamilton. That one leaves nothing to chance when it comes to having what she needs when she’s away from her official home. At least she’s no longer toting all of her Barbie dolls and assorted paraphernalia. When she was little, and she would come for the weekend, in order to fit her bags and all of the toys, Mr. Hart used to have to pick her up in the Range Rover.”

“Not that much has changed,” Pat said as she surveyed the scene, taking in the various Hello Kitty items among all the other things and satisfied that she had been correct in having Cordelia ready the upstairs west suite for Marnie. With all the trappings she had, that girl, and her brother when he visited her as he would most likely insist upon doing, would definitely be in need of that much room. She was looking forward to having Marnie with her and to keeping her in the style, under the conditions, and in the manner to which she needed to and deserved to become accustomed.

__________________________________________________________

“We keep telling you, trying to get at Hart remotely is one thing, but going after him or one of his personally, and on his own property is another. He might be upper crust and all genteel and civilized now, but don’t underestimate him. He is not soft or stupid. The guy came up strong from the streets. No way he’s left all of that behind. How do you think he’s got to where he is? The man has built his turf, and he’s going to do what he has to do to protect what’s his. There’s got to be security all over that place. If you insist on going in there after that girl, you’re going by yourself. We’re not soft or stupid either. You don’t go after a man like Hart in his own house.”

She had offered more money, held out the possibility of elevated positions within the company, and as a last, empty resort, even threatened to shoot them, but they hadn’t budged in their resistance to directly take on Jonathan Hart. Not within his own territory, they said. Then a gun had been pulled on her as she was urged to hurry up and switch cars if she insisted upon proceeding with her plan. They were not going in with her, in fact, they vowed that they had no intention of being there when or if she made it out. The friends they had enlisted to help them at the park had abandoned them. They had since called and said to forget it; the money paid in advance would be waiting for them at the hotel. They were angry at not being told until the last minute that kids would be involved and that Jonathan Hart’s daughter would be one of them.

Maybe things would have been different if she hadn’t had that failed hit put out on Chris Allen. The bitch didn’t scare nor would she die easily. And the terrorist attack, called 9/11, had definitely intensified everything. Security everywhere had been heightened. Everyone was suspicious, edgy, and on alert about everything.

If it hadn’t been for the boys being so skittish about it, she felt in her heart that they could easily have snatched Hart’s wife or the kid, both of whom they had been keeping track of for over a week, especially after Claire had been spirited away, which was whom they should have moved in on right away. They had hesitated with Claire, trying to see what she was going to do, and the guys were afraid of getting too close to the Hart women, sure that, even though they couldn’t detect any security presence, Hart had to have had his family guarded.

She had been livid with them that day at the condo. As Jennifer Hart left the complex and once she was out of sight of the guarded gate, they easily have cornered her and checked out what she had taken from Chris Allen’s place. The woman had been all alone, and it wouldn’t have taken much to force her car over and either have removed her from it or commandeered it with her in it. In either case, they could have taken her to the hotel, and squeezed whatever she knew out of her. If she didn’t know anything, if she didn’t have what they were looking for, then their having her would have been excellent motivation for Hart’s people to find it, and getting rid of her instead of giving her back would have been the ultimate retaliation.

Then Hart’s kid could come up without a mother, and in his despair over the loss of the renowned ‘love of his life’, what kind of father would Hart be able to be to that girl? Let the little miss finish growing up an essential orphan. Leave her with a dead mother and a broken down miserable father, his personal and professional life left in such shambles that he was a mere “shell” of himself.

Why should Hart’s kid grow up happy after he’d made so sure that other people’s kids would not?

She had no doubt that behind those two incidents, Chris Allen’s car accident and 9/11, Hart had increased his usually intense safety measures, and a person would have to be crazy to try to get inside one of his buildings under negative pretense. But she was inside. Her emergency pass into the inner sanctum had met her and the boys a few blocks from the HartToy facility just as she had been instructed to do. Leaving the boys behind, she had gotten into that other car, and a simple, but ingenious method had been used to get the two of them inside the parking structure. Hopefully said emergency pass also had the proper instruments to get them onto the elevator and inside the facility itself. She said she did. After all, she had to have had it when she went after Chris Allen on the Saturday before, even though the job she did hadn’t been an effective one.

Either way, if she did have it or if she didn’t, when it was all over, she’d go the way of her late husband. She was a loose, dangerous end that could not be left flapping in the breeze, drawing unnecessary attention and having the capability, under the right circumstances, of being made to reveal all she knew in the event things got traced back to her. Alice would do that, too, if somebody backed her into a corner.

Being a nobody had its advantages. When it was all over, when she had what she came after; she could put it in the proper hands and return to the obscurity from whence she’d come, satisfied that she had exacted her revenge. Her father had never gotten payback on Hart for ruining his life. When she asked him about it, he didn’t seem interested in pursuing it. Even said that what happened to him was partly his fault for being stupid and greedy. As far as she was concerned, he was still stupid; getting back what was yours wasn’t being greedy.

Maybe she was crazy to have entered upon Hart’s turf, but she had done too much and come too far to turn back. That was what she had to keep telling herself. Maybe M.J had given up on it, but she couldn’t. She wouldn’t. No matter what her step-brothers out there in the car thought of the plan, she had to go forward with it. The hate had been festering too long. It had risen to a sharp, painful head and was just about to the point of involuntary explosion.

__________________________________________________________

When the ringing in her ears stopped, and upon recognizing who she had run into, Claire rolled her body in that direction and clamped her hand around Alice Rangel’s neck, pinning her to the floor.

“What the hell is going on, Alice? I know it was no accident. Who hurt Chris?”

Still dazed from her collision and fall, and then caught off guard by the vise-like grip at her throat, Alice gagged and then coughed, “I don’t know.”

“You do know.” Claire pressed her fingers even tighter into Alice’s flesh. “You also know that if I find out you had anything to with Chris getting hurt, I’ll kill you.”

Regaining her senses and her strength, Alice drew up her legs and used her feet to catapult Claire away from her.

“A whole lot you care about Chris,” she wheezed as she rolled onto her side and massaged her neck where Claire’s hand had left angry red marks. “Why would I have a reason to hurt her or to let her get hurt? She’s been nothing but good to me. It was probably one of your rich boyfriends who Chris was trying to get you to leave alone.”

Claire raised her head from the floor where she had ended up on her stomach. “What rich boyfriend? I don’t have any rich boyfriend.”

“Yeah right. You left here and never looked back, so it had to have been a man or some money that had your attention all this time. That’s all that’s ever held your attention. Now you’re going to just pop up acting as if you give some great big damn about Chris or what happens to her. She’s been in a coma since last Saturday; where have you been for that? The world’s gone to pieces; where were you for all of that? I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re all mixed up in all of it, and now you’re here trying to deflect this mess from yourself, putting it on me. I’ve got my part in it, all right, but it’s only because you wouldn’t cut Octavia loose like Chris tried to tell you to do. I didn’t do anything to hurt Chris. I got stuck into the middle of all of it because of you, and because I didn’t want Chris hurt.”

Claire had to steel herself against the sting of Alice’s words, but the sharp bits of truth she heard in them cut right into her anger, releasing the hot air and thereby softening her defensive edge. “What all is going on?” she asked.

“As if you don’t know. I’ll bet you’re who sent him here.”

“I didn’t send anybody. I didn’t find out that he was here until about a month ago, and I found that out by accident. Then I called you.”

“But I’ll bet that you knew then that something was going on that would discredit your own sister, and you let it happen.”

Again Claire had to take a minute to deal with the jabs of guilty pain before she could try to defend herself. Alice was too naive to lie or to be evasive about anything. Whatever she did, whatever she said, that was exactly how it was, or at least, exactly the way that she saw it and would tell it.

“Alice, I just wanted her to stop working so hard. I wanted her to not have a reason to think she was stuck here. She doesn’t have to be here. She doesn’t have to spend all of her life working and not ever having any fun. But, I didn’t want her to get hurt. I would never want to put her in danger. That terrorist attack was a surprise to me. I don’t know anything about that. That sounds like some Middle Eastern stuff. I don’t know anybody with a hand in anything like that. I wanted Chris to have a way out, but I didn’t want any of what happened here to happen.”

“Did you ever once stop to consider that working like she does is what Chris wants to do? Did you ever stop to realize that not everyone sees big money, clubbing, partying, and hanging around rich, glitzy, supposedly glamorous people as the essence of life? Some people enjoy just working for a living and having a normal, comfortable life, doing what they enjoy doing. She enjoys her work, and she loves you, but because you don’t understand that about her, and you didn’t want to listen to what she was telling you, you turned your back on her and went away.”

Alice rolled onto her knees and stood up. “But I didn’t turn my back on her. She’s been in my corner the whole time. I got scared, and I messed up. I’m still scared, but I’m not letting anybody push me around any more. I’m going to see Ken so that he can get in touch with Chris for me. He called me and told me to meet him here for something else, but I’ve got to tell him.”

Claire was on her hands and knees, on her way to standing, but still breathing heavily. “She’s here.”

“Who’s here?”

“Chris.”

“In the building? Today? Right now?”

“Yes,” Claire slowly drug herself up from the floor. “She’s here with August, Ken, and Mr. and Mrs. Hart.”

“Mr. Jonathan Hart?” Alice’s eyes widened. “How come he’s here? How do you know that?”

“It’s a long story. But trust me, what I’m telling you is true. They’re all here. You can tell Chris what you want to tell her yourself. Ken was trying to hold me in his office, but I got out. I was on my way to her office when I ran into you. We can go to her together.”

When she noticed Alice staring hard into her face, Claire tried to turn away once it occurred to her why she might be doing that.

“Say, who’d you have a fight with?” The question confirmed Claire’s supposition.

“Nobody,” she muttered. Grabbing Alice’s wrist, she took off, pulling her in the direction she had been going before their collision. “I just ran into something else that I should have taken the time to see coming.”

__________________________________________________________

“I’ve done everything you’ve asked, just the way you asked me to do it. All I want now is that you let me get out of here. You said I could go once I got you up here.”

“Yeah, well I lied. Stop whining. You’re not going anywhere. I might need you.”

After the proper security sequence, the doors to the elevator car, which had transported them from the parking structure to the tech floor, slid open.

“Say, I don’t see anybody. It’s mighty dark and quiet up here.

“It’s Saturday. People only come in on Saturday for special projects. This time of year there’s not too much of that going on. In a month or so, according to Lar-”

When her voice trailed off, with a poke in the lower back, she forced the woman who had been speaking out of the elevator and into the HartToy technical department.

“Please, I- I-”

“I, I, hell. Leading me out here had better not be something you and Alice rigged up as a trap because I’m telling you, I will not hesitate to blow your head off and hers once I find her. I have nothing at all to lose at this point.”

“How could that be? I didn’t know anything about Alice coming here until you called me and said to meet you out here. This is crazy. I’ve told you. This place has security everywhere. If it wasn’t for-”

“Then how come we got this far if it’s so secure? I said for you to stop whining.”

Another poke to the lower back prodded the woman to move forward. “Now take me where we’re supposed to go.”

“If she’s not here, then she might be up on the executive floor. If she’s up there, she’s shooting her mouth off to someone, I guarantee you. She’s scary, and I tried to box her in like you told me, but I don’t think she’s as scary as you might believe she is.”

“Look, you just do the showing, and let me do the thinking. We look for her here first, and if she’s not here, then you can take me upstairs. We do know that she’s here’s somewhere.”

One behind the other, the two women proceeded down the cubicle-lined hall.

__________________________________________________________

“Two women,” the uniformed guard said as he pointed to the monitor. “In the tech section. Same two that got out of that car.”

“How could they have gotten that far inside?” the watch commander asked the group that was standing huddled over the seated guard.

From his tone, Jonathan could tell that the supervisor was suffering the same sense of misplaced guilty failing as August voiced in the elevator. Then, Captain E.J. Smith and his crew on the Titanic floated into mind. They had to have felt the same way on that cold, dark night on the North Atlantic so many decades before when faced with the actual vulnerability of their “unsinkable” vessel. The reality must have been numbing. In their present situation at HartToy, he was reassured by his own unwavering conviction that anything was always possible. “Never say never” had become his words to live by; that way, hopefully, his guard would never be caught completely down, just as HartToy’ had not. They could all see the intruders who were unaware their movements were being watched and tracked.

“We’ve got flesh and blood people up there, right?” August asked.

“Yep, I sent Shivers, Maybry, and Cash. The observation towers were already manned before all of this latest thing started.”

“Good move.” August clapped a single pat to the commander’s back. “Good man.”

“Shivers, Maybry, and Cash all have earpieces so that we can talk to them without being overheard.”

“Two women,” another uniform reported from another monitor. “Up on the executive floor. Most of the lights up there are out. Too fuzzy right now to really make out who it is.”

“Uph- two more.”  Someone on the other side of the room said. “Executive floor. I think one’s Ms. Allen, though. Yeah, I’m certain it’s her. With Mrs. Hart, maybe? Red hair, dark pants, light blouse, about the same height as Ms. Allen.”

At that report, August whipped around toward the last speaker to ask, “You are in Ms. Allen’s office, aren’t you?” although everyone in the room was aware that the surveillance cameras up there only scanned the reception area directly outside the Security Director’s office.

“No, sir. I’m in the hall outside that suite. They just came out. They’re moving toward the elevators, it looks like.”

“Tech floor women are headed for the elevators.” That remark from the man seated beneath them spun August back around to face Jonathan standing directly behind him.

“The tech floor women are at the elevator. Car’s been signaled to go up,” the same voice reported.

Muttering, “Shit!” at the same time, both men bolted for the door with the watch commander behind them.

__________________________________________________________

“If Alice thinks she’s here to deprogram the dolls,” Jennifer was saying as she held open the outer office door for her so that she could exit into the hall. “Don’t you think she’d go straight the tech floor?”

Chris, her mind on Claire and distracted by the continuing alarming flashes of recall, barely heard what she said. It took a second or two longer than it should have for the words to register and before she was able to respond.

“She might. She probably would. She wouldn’t have any reason that I can think of to go elsewhere. Unless she’s been told about Claire being here, but I can’t think why anyone would have done that or would have even known to do that. Our being here like this developed pretty quickly.”

“But Claire does know that Alice is here. Do you think she might possibly go looking for Alice before coming to you?”

“I don’t think so,” Chris answered, but slowing her stride somewhat at the reasonable suggestion. “Even with Alice here, I really think she’d come to me first.”

“Then maybe I should go down to the tech floor and check on Alice.”

“No way, Jennifer. You stay with me. I don’t know who else is walking around in here, and you don’t know your way around. There are a lot of nooks and corners down there for someone to hide in. The last thing Mr. Hart said to me indicated that he fully expects for me to look out for you.”

As she spoke about there being places for someone to hide, the dark door to Paul Rider’s cubicle appeared in Chris’ head. Then, thin white calves flashed before her eyes.

“I’ve been a big girl a long time,” she heard Jennifer say. In reflex, her own tongue came back with, “I have, too.”

Then she felt a tug at her arm as Jennifer pulled at her to stop her from moving any farther down the hall so that she could fuss with her face to face.

“I’ve been grown a decade longer than you have, Christina. I’m the elder here. I’m perfectly capable of looking out for myself. Jonathan knows that. Look, all I’m saying is, I can go down and seek out Alice while you wait for Claire to show. That way, Claire can speak with you in private.”

Chris did not budge from her decision. “Jennifer, I simply cannot let you do that, and that’s all there is to it. You’re not at your best. In fact, I don’t know how it is that you’re even standing there; with that medication in you, you should at least be somewhere lying down. Aside from all of that, though, no matter which of us is older, bigger, or has the most life experience; what you’re suggesting would be bad practice. In this setting, I have to be in charge, and you have to stay with me. Besides, whatever Claire has to tell me, it would be better if we weren’t left alone for her to do it. There probably needs to be a witness or two present to keep me off of her.”

“Chris.” The voice came from the dim hall behind them.

Instinctively maneuvering Jennifer into a position behind her, Chris slid her hand down into her pocket while she honed in on the two figures approaching in the distance. Just as she made out who it was, a blinding hot whiteness sparked inside her head like illuminating jerks of electricity marching across a storm darkened sky .

In that instant, as if by magic, her life dropped solidly back into place.

__________________________________________________________

“Wait!”

Claire still had her by the wrist, dragging her along when at the end of the hall she started around the corner and then stopped in her tracks. She ran right into Claire who, started backing up as if she were trying not to be seen. Not looking where she was going or paying attention to the fact that she was still behind her, Claire stepped on Alice’s toes.

“Ow, Claire! What are you doing?”

“Shut up.” Claire hissed as she continued her backward steps. “I mean, just hush.”

She was aware that Claire had cut her off, but she was even more disturbed by her retreat from whatever she had seen around the corner. “What’s wrong? What did you see?”

“Chris.”

Claire turned all the way around and pulling her with her, she started back in the direction from which they just had run.

“Come on,” Claire urged in a whisper. “We have to go back and around the other way. We have to hurry.”

“What’s wrong? And do you have to keep yanking me around like this?”

“Sorry.”

Claire released her wrist, but not before she drew her forward so that they were side by side in their flight. “Just come on, Alice. It was Chris. We need to go this way. Hurry!”

They ended up back at the door of that utility closet where they had crashed into each other. Claire snatched open the door, pushed her inside, and closed the door behind them.

“You’re not supposed to know about this,” she was saying as she pulled a tall shelf full of cleaning supplies toward her, away from the wall, “but we don’t have a choice right now.”

In amazement, Alice watched as the wall panel slid open. She was further shocked when Claire pushed her inside.

__________________________________________________________

One with a head injury. The other with a migraine. Each capable of defending herself, but both physically impaired, as well as stubborn and hardheaded. What in the world were they doing outside the office where they had been left, locked in for safekeeping?

Jonathan’s anxiety and impatience would not let him be still. As the elevator carried him, August, and the watch commander up to the executive floor, he paced the length of the car.

And she complains about J.J. getting it from me. I don’t care what Jennifer says about what I do with her, or how much she complains about J.J. being so much like me; that girl gets being hardheaded, not keeping still, roaming, and going off on her own from that side of the family, straight from her mother and her used-to-be globetrotter grandfather.

“Mommy got lost at shopping today, Daddy. The store lady had to call for her on the loud talking thing. I don’t know why Mommy was so mad and made me take a nap when we got home. I wasn’ lost from her; she was lost from me. She wasn’ paying ‘tention, and she got lost… The store man found her and bringed her to me, and I told her I was ready to go home…

… Daddy, I don’t like shopping with Mommy. She gets lost ev’ry time, but then she makes me take a nap when we get home.”

Hardheaded, fleet of foot, argumentative, determined to get her way, and not shy about being any of it… got those traits directly from “her mother”.

There were so many unanswered questions, but he and Hart Industries seemed to be the common thread in most of them. That someone wanted a piece of him or his business enterprises came as no surprise. It went with the territory, and as such, was to be expected. This wasn’t the first time, and by no means did he believe it would be the last. Although low-key and unassuming by nature, he was actually quite proud of what he had accomplished in his lifetime. But a tough truth of that success was that there would always be those who would try to take what he had from him, or to knock him down from the heights he had worked hard to climb. J.J. called those kind of people “haters”.

When she first explained the term to him, it made him laugh in its absolute appropriateness. The way she slung it around, he learned that it was all right for the “haters” to “hate on him” personally; he could hold his own in any fair, or even not-so-fair, fight, but to try to come at him through his wife or his child, that was not going to happen. When Jennifer and J.J. got dragged into it, the stakes, as well as the rules of engagement, changed dramatically.

He reached around to the small of his back, checking to see that what he might need was still secure as he asked aloud, “Can’t this thing go any faster?”

When neither of the other two men responded, he understood. There was nothing to say. They would get there when they got there. All he could hope for was that they were mistaken in their apprehensions, or that they would make it up there in time if Jennifer and Chris found themselves in the middle of trouble they couldn’t handle.

He didn’t stop pacing even as the car stopped and the doors opened. Without breaking stride, he paced right out onto the executive floor.

__________________________________________________________

“Well, well, wel-l-l-l,” the extremely thin, ethereally pale young woman drawled. “Long time, no see, Ms. Allen. I was hoping to never, ever have the pleasure again. But then, I’m sure the feeling is mutual.”

When Chris stepped up to put herself directly in front of her, Jennifer had lean to the side a little to peek out from behind Chris’ head to see who was speaking. There were two women standing at the other end of the hall. The other one was older than the one who spoke, and a bit more heavy set. Her thin, stark white legs didn’t seem to match up with the body above the torso- an apple. And she appeared frightened. A moment later, she could see that the latter was with good reason. The first woman, her eyes locked on Chris, pulled a .38 from the back of the second woman, and aimed it in their direction.

“Octavia,” Chris said in way of greeting as she studied two people before them. “The feeling is indeed mutual. Who’s your friend?”

“Who’s your fr- Wel-l-l-l, as I live and breathe, if it isn’t Mrs. Jonathan Hart. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

When she tried to move up so that she could be shoulder-to shoulder with Chris, Chris shifted position again, preventing her from doing so, and she did it in a manner that let her know that she should remain behind her.

Since she had been relegated to a rear position, and therefore, somewhat out of sight, she slid her hand down into her pants pocket and took solid hold of the gun she had pushed down into it.

“How did you get in here?” Chris asked. “And what do you want?”

“Too many questions, Christina.”

“Ms. Allen to you. I’ve disciplined you once before about that. I will spank that ass again if you make it necessary.”

Octavia pushed her prisoner-apparent forward, and then she moved a step forward herself, keeping the gun on Chris. “You’re hardly in a position to threaten anybody. If I hadn’t trusted the job to this incompetent bitch, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Although the meaning behind her words registered immediately with Jennifer, if they registered with Chris, it didn’t show. She didn’t move, didn’t so much as flinch. Instead, she continued her deadpan, decidedly unconcerned challenge to Octavia.

“I asked you what you wanted. Why are you here?”

“You have something that belongs to me, and I want it.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Well then, I’ll tell you what,” Octavia said, again pushing the other woman into stumbling in their direction while keeping the gun pointed at Chris’ midsection. “Let’s go over into your office and talk about it. Somebody here knows something, and I have nothing but time. We can wait in comfort. But if you keep me waiting too long, you and Hart’s old lady, there, can die in comfort. You see,I have nothing to lose either.”

“You are so stupid,” Chris told her, shaking her head as she spoke. “Coming here was just plain stupid. If your girl, there, is who I believe her to be, she should have told you how foolish it was when she was letting you in here.”

The other woman, her face haggard with raw fear, began to plead, “Ms. Allen, I-,  She made m-”

A lightning quick chop to the back of her head with the butt of Octavia’s gun dropped the older woman, instantly unconscious, to the floor. A trickle of blood streaked in a thin line out of her hair and down her cheek. The the tiny droplets could be seen staining the tan carpet.

“You are stupid,” Jennifer thought to herself. “Just as Chris said. You just clocked your hostage, your possible bargaining chip.”

Octavia took another step forward. “I said move. Both you bitches, into the office. NOW.”

Chris stood fast, calmly addressing the command, “You know you don’t frighten me, girl. We are not moving from this spot. Whatever you think you’re going to do, whatever you think you have to say, it will have to be said and done right here; I don’t do secondary locations. You came to me, I didn’t look you up. If you’re here to say something to me, say it. If you’ve lost something, I don’t know where it is. If you came to do something, Octavia, do it here. Do it now.”

Still positioned behind Chris, witnessing the unfolding situation, taking in every word; Jennifer eased the gun from her pocket. As she drew it out and dropped that hand down along her side, her finger was on the trigger. She admired Chris’ steely resolve, and backed her a thousand-fold on not allowing Octavia to herd them from the hall around to the office.

“Do it here. Do it now if you’re going to do it.”

Those words she had uttered all those years ago attempted to conjure up those images she tried so desperately to keep at bay. In that ugly circumstance, she hadn’t allowed herself to be moved anywhere else either, and that had probably saved her life.

All of what was happening intensified the pounding and throbbing in her temples, and only served to exacerbate her irritation with the impertinent, and most assuredly foolhardy young woman who was threatening them.

Hart’s “old lady”? Bitches?

She tightened her grip on the gun.

… indeed.

__________________________________________________________

“Trouble,” The watch commander whispered, apparently repeating what was being reported to him via earpiece.

They stopped Jonathan a few steps out of the elevator and were huddled just outside of it. They had just put their heads together to come up with a game plan when he held up his hand to signal that incoming message.

“Around on the other side,” he informed the other two men. “There’s a gun involved. The guys are over there, but they’re holding off for the time being to keep from spooking anybody. They think we should stay put here.”

“The hell if that’s so,” Jonathan growled, reaching behind him. “No way.”

August caught him by the wrist to stop him from pulling out the gun. “You take the time to hire the best,” he reminded him. “Let us do our job. I know that it’s Jennifer, and you think you’re the only one who can keep her safe, but you gotta remember what attracted you to her in the first place: she’s smart and she can take care of herself when she has to. Trust us, Jonathan. Trust her. She’s with Chris, and there’s nobody better- with the exception of you, of course- for her to be with right now.”

“I don’t know about that,” Jonathan replied. “Chris wasn’t at top speed when we were last with her.”

“She’s one to rise to the occasion,” August answered. “You do know that.”

“Five minutes. That’s all I’m giving this,” Jonathan vowed. “And then I don’t care what anybody says. I’m on my way around there.”

The three men had been so intently engaged in what they were saying, that none of them noticed Ken approaching until he rushed up to them, asking, “Did you guys happen to see Eva? Claire got away from us- went into the wall- then Eva took off right after her.”

Jonathan closed his eyes, took a deep breath to deal with his mounting tension, and then shuddered as he exhaled his anxious exasperation, “Women.”

Not only were they running all over HartToy, but they were also running all over his nerves, not to mention his heart.

__________________________________________________________

She wasn’t ever supposed to have to use it. It had been delivered to her at the hospital as strictly a precautionary measure should it have taken Chris longer to get back to herself than it seemed it was going to take. The briefing she had gotten during those days that Chris had been in the coma was definitely coming in handy. She had been given the layout of the HartToy’ security inner floor plan in the unlikely event that Chris needed her assistance once she returned to work, and she had since committed it to memory. Now by some last minute unforeseen quirk of fate, she was using it.

Having entered from the same area that Claire had, she counted support beams as she made her way through the narrow passage which snaked along parallel to the executive floor. Moving quickly just under a fast trot, she headed for the utility closet that would put her back in the hallway.

In her mind, Claire was headed to Chris. If that were the case, then she was on the route that Claire would have to have taken. Suspicious of Claire and her motives, as well as her intentions toward her older sister, she was anxious to get back to Chris. After all, Chris was supposed to be under her direct care. She was confident that Chris was meant to have been, in one way or another a victim of the recent chain of events at HartToy, and she was not convinced that Claire wasn’t there to finish the job.

Just as she turned the first corner, her heart almost stopped along with her feet when a square of light flashed on the right side of the wall as if someone had opened a door a short distance in front of her. Then a woman dressed in pink stumbled  inside, asking someone behind her, “What is this? Where are we going?”

She reached for the gun that was strapped to her waist, underneath her smock. Then she realized.

Her suspicions were confirmed when Claire climbed in behind the first woman, hissing at her, “Just come on.”

“Alice. Claire.”

At the sound of her voice, they froze. Then slowly, they turned to look behind them, their eyes wide with shock. With the gun, Eva gestured for both of them to come to her.

__________________________________________________________

In the dimly lit hall, Chris, her hand still down in her pocket, prepared to blow a hole in her own favorite silk jogging pants, had the pistol positioned to take out one of Octavia’s knee caps. Not only did she have to protect herself and company assets, but the CEO’s most precious personal asset had been left in her care. If it came down to shooting Octavia, killing her wouldn’t be the immediate objective; crippling her would do- unless, of course she made killing her be the immediate objective.

But she figured that behind her, Jennifer Hart probably had her elegant hand on that equally elegant pearl handle she’d shown her as they were leaving the office. Given what she previously knew about the woman, added to what had been revealed to her while they were talking, she also didn’t have much doubt that if she had to, Jennifer would use it. After all, wasn’t she the one who nearly took out that pervert at the mall that time over J.J.? That incident had been the talk of Hart security since it went down that previous spring. When it came to her kid, Jennifer Hart had been her own one woman security force. Having that one behind her was reassuring.

The skinny wench over there pointing the gun at them, making threats and demands that she obviously wasn’t as prepared to act upon as she might have originally believed, just didn’t know. Octavia Dash had an angry, out-of control inner child, the end result of her unfortunate parentage. Her father had probably done the best he knew how to do under the circumstances, but the girl was still carrying a grudge against the world, feeling as if she was the only one who had been dealt a bad hand.

The hand life dealt you, big Chris said, you either worked with or you threw down and gave up on; the choice belonged to the holder.

But coming at her in the way that she had, Octavia had either lost her mind, or she had overdosed on all that nerve with which she had been blessed that she had never put to positive use. In either case, in light of everything, she was small damned potatoes. Despite the current state of affairs, there were a few things with her that had to be cleared up.

__________________________________________________________

Ignoring Alice, who was by this time, a blubbering wreck, Eva trained her attentions and the gun on Claire. “Talk to me fast. Where’s Chris?”

“In trouble,” Claire answered, seemingly oblivious to the threat to her physical person. “In the hall. You can kill me later if you want to, but please, we have to go around this way to help her.”

“What do you mean “trouble”? What kind of trouble? Why this way?”

“We can get behind them- Octavia and that other lady. Octavia has a gun on them- Chris, Mrs. Hart.” Then she turned around, pushing Alice out of her way, to sprint off in the direction she had been going before Eva stopped her. “Just come on,” she called over her shoulder. “Please. We have to hurry. Octavia is crazy.”

Left with the choice of either shooting Claire to stop her from moving away from her, or following her to, she hoped, Chris, Eva opted for the latter. Shoving Alice ahead of her, she took off behind Claire.

__________________________________________________________

“So, what’s it going to be?” Chris asked, leaning her body a little farther back so that she and Jennifer were in even closer bodily contact. The cool metal that brushed against the side of her thigh let her know that she had been right about trusting in the woman behind her. “We are not moving.”

“You’re both going to be sorry that you didn’t.”

“I doubt it.” Chris replied with a quick flip of her free hand. “Listen, I talked to your father. Victor knows what you’ve been up to. He didn’t have the specifics, but he knows you’re in over your silly, pointed head. He told me that he was worried about you. He said your hatred for Mr. Hart was being egged on by M.J., and that he tried to tell you-”

At the mention of her father, Octavia’s eyes momentarily widened and then narrowed into shiny black slits, filled with what Chris sensed was both surprise and outrage. She’d struck a nerve, and figured that while the iron was hot, she would forge on with her mental poking.

“Oh yeah, your father knows about Rod being shot and killed here. He knows about the ruse the two of you tried to pull. He knows that you haven’t been just working for Knight shipping; he told me that you’re mixed up in some mess with M.J. and some other lowlifes. I know that one of the lowlifes was Rod. Paul Rider? Some plastic surgery? He might have gotten past Human Resources, but he didn’t get past me.

“Thanks to me, your father is also aware that you’re sleeping with M.J. He said to tell you that doesn’t approve of you screwing somebody else’s husband, especially that one.”

Chris tossed her head in an offhand manner and frowned while shrugging, “But in my humble opinion, he’s got his nerve on that sleeping around thing; you got it honestly. But the bigger issue for me is, what exactly is going on, Viv? I’ve checked your accounts; you’re bleeding money. Where’s M.J.? Who killed Rod and why?”

“You and Claire slept with M.J.,” Octavia accused, sounding to Chris like the spiteful teenager she had been when they first met, “Now you’re sleeping with his father, so you’re hardly one to talk. And don’t you ever call me ‘Viv’.”

Chris snorted a dry, humorless chuckle. She shook her head at the accusation, a pity shake, but not once did she take her eyes off Octavia.

“Like always, you have it all wrong, baby. You’ve spent your whole adult life trying to get over, trying to make up for what you were denied, trying to make sure that you didn’t miss out on anything else. In the meantime, you’ve missed out on everything, including the truth. I’ve told you and told you, the world does not revolve around men. It isn’t about getting back at them, using your body to get what you want from them, or for them to get what they want from you, which in essence is only the use of your body for the little bit of time that it takes for them to get a nut. M.J. is a married man, and as such, you have no claim to him whatsoever.

“Furthermore, whatever happened between M.J. and me is old, old news, and my business. As for Claire, without a doubt she has never and will never sleep with M.J. I know that you don’t trust me; you never have, but I can fully assure you, you have my word on that one.

Positioning her body so she was solidly shielding Jennifer, Chris extended her hand into the void between herself and Octavia. As she did so, she felt Jennifer subtly shift her own position behind her.

“Now give me the gun, girl, then we can go to my office and talk.”

“All right.” Octavia calmly replied, at first seemingly acquiescing to Chris’ suggestion. But then she abruptly jerked her gun up to aim at Chris’ forehead, hissing, “Fuck you, bitch. Die.”

The shot was deafening and the thud of the body as it dropped to the floor seemed to echo on forever.

Continue to Part Fourteen

 

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