“Countdown” by Carey Baldwin
Six Months Earlier
For the second time since Rose Parker entered her target’s backyard, the Ruger LCP nearly slipped from her sweat-slicked shaky grip.
Careful to maintain her hold on the pistol, she halted, wiped her palms on her jeans, one at a time, and then resumed forward progress. Papa hadn’t raised her to be a weak-willed helpless woman. If only he were here to give her a steadying slap—because she was going to take care of Tommy Preston or die trying.
Dying wasn’t an option.
Then there would be no one left to get the job done.
Suddenly, the pulse in her ears seemed loud enough to burst her eardrums.
You don’t have to do this.
She checked out her toes. Dust obscured the newness of the two-sizes-too-big men’s Nikes that had arrived in the mail yesterday.
Yes, you do.
A bitter taste worked its way up the back of her throat. She spat onto the ground and instantly regretted it. Could they get DNA from dirt-spit? Better keep her saliva to herself from here on out, just to be on the safe side. She wasn’t worried about shoe prints though. If documented as evidence, these would only mislead the cops—something that was easy to do, and a skill she’d mastered at a too-young age.
She pulled her shoulders high and tilted her face up. The rays of the white, west Texas sun had blanched the color from the heavens, changing them into a transparent film. Sweat trickling down her forehead stung when it reached her eyes. Longing to shuck out of every stitch of clothing on her body, she unbuttoned the top of her blouse. Weird how claustrophobia could hit you out in the open like this, but the soaring temperatures and the sheer, heat-wrinkled sky made her feel as though she were trapped in a giant earthen bowl covered by Saran Wrap.
Gulping hot air to prove there really was oxygen to be had, she shaded her eyes. Her Ray-Bans would be nice to have right about now, but she had no purse to dump them in, and when it came time to set that bastard in her sights she couldn’t afford to have glasses slipping down her nose. Even on a good day at the shooting range with no pressure on her, she wasn’t a great marksman. So under circumstances like these, any distraction would add an unnecessary layer of risk.
Up ahead, a column of dust lifted off the ground, stretched vertically, and then spun itself into a dust devil.
Willing her heartbeat to slow and her mind to still, she curled her finger a hair’s breadth away from the Ruger’s trigger.
To kill a man she needed her head level and her blood as frosty as that mug of beer she’d been wishing for even though it was not yet noon.
You can take care of your own self, girl. Don’t let anybody tell you different.
She had to give Papa his due about one thing—he’d set no stock in the notion that a woman was less than. Sis claimed that had just been his excuse to be harder on them than he would’ve been on any son. But Rose disagreed—yet one more example of how she and Sis didn’t always see eye-to-eye. The way she looked at it, Papa had done them a favor by teaching them to live by their wits. Sure, they’d paid a high price for the lesson, and yes, she’d promised herself she wouldn’t carry on the Parker family’s vocation once Papa was gone, but at least life with him had prepared her to outsmart any trouble that came her way. So, no, it didn’t matter if she couldn’t match Tommy’s physical strength—she had a gun.
And she might not be a stone-cold killer, but she could get the job done all the same. Her whole life had been about doing things she either didn’t want to do, or was ill equipped to do in order to please Papa and protect the family. And today, she was pushing her boundaries for a righteous cause. Not to mention she had to get rid of Tommy Preston if she was ever going to have that normal life she and Sis had always dreamed of.
A normal life.
Surely killing a man wasn’t the way to go about getting one.
What if they lock you up and throw away the key?
She couldn’t think about that.
She had to act.
Her unreliable breath hesitated yet again.
There was still time to turn back. Why not just go to the police and tell them everything she knew about Tommy?
Steer clear of the cops.
The memory of her father’s words rebuked her hard. There was no exception to this rule.
Parkers got a problem? Parkers take care of it.
Of course, Parker wasn’t her real name—Papa had stolen it from history. He’d robbed it off the guy who used to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to “marks” several times a week—but paired with her true Christian name, it had come to feel as natural as her two green eyes and her straight small nose, and the dimple in her right cheek that was a mirror image of the one in Sis’s left.
She squeezed her eyes shut.
Pictured Tommy prone on the floor of his luxurious home, a bullet in his back, blood pooling around his lifeless form, ruining his expensive Persian rug. But instead of steadying her, the image made her want to puke. She opened her mouth for more air, and her chest locked up. For a good ten seconds or so, she truly couldn’t breathe—maybe the world really was covered in plastic.
One thing was sure—she was going to be sick.
She eased her finger away from the trigger and covered her mouth, trying to quiet the sound of her revulsion, which had now become a physical, unstoppable force. Milk and soggy, undigested Cheerios, and a fluid resembling her morning coffee spewed around her hand and through her fingers.
She had to get it together.
She mustn’t lose her nerve.
In light of the very personal, present circumstances, Tommy was her responsibility. It didn’t figure into it that every cell in her body recoiled at the thought of taking a human life.
She couldn’t let it figure in.
Pretend you’re Anna.
Her chest loosened at the idea. She should’ve thought of it before. When she and Sis were small, and Papa needed one of them to do something a good little girl would never do, he’d have her pretend to be a fearlessly naughty little girl called Anna.
Make believe you’re someone else—someone who doesn’t mind doing the things you cannot bear to do.
Like playing dress-up in your mother’s shoes—only she and Sis didn’t have a mother.
The Anna game was a simple concept that even an eight-year-old could understand. One that had steeled her nerve and saved her ass on many occasions.
Pretend you’re Anna.
The tingling in her fingers disappeared.
She looked down at the pistol, now steady in her hand.
In the stillness, she heard branches crackling behind her.
She whirled around to find Tommy’s black Doberman, Vader, lumbering toward her. A current of fear electrified Rose’s blood, but Anna refused to heed the warning.
Instead, she wiped her hands on her shirt, met the guard dog’s big chocolate brown eyes, and willed him to be civil. He tilted his head in a not unfriendly fashion. Extending an open palm, Anna whispered, “Hey, buddy, it’s me.”
The animal made a welcoming noise. She patted the top of his head, and when he didn’t sound the alarm, she set her pistol on the dirt and took his face between her hands. “Good boy. Sit.”
Vader did not break eye contact with her as he lowered himself to the ground—a strange mix of sharp teeth, sinewy danger, and unconditional doggie love.
“Stay.” She retrieved her Ruger and started to back away slowly.
When Vader made a move to follow, she put up her hand in a stop sign. “Stay!” Hard to make a whisper sound commanding.
Vader obeyed, but ventured a yelp of protest.
She gripped the pistol, and holding her breath, dared a glance over her shoulder at the house. No curtains lifted. No face appeared in the window to check on the canine’s concerns.
She backed up some more, keeping her eyes glued to the dog. Luckily Vader had seemingly lost interest in following her. He stuck his nose to the ground, sniffed her vomit, cautiously at first, and then, happily, he began lapping up the remnants of her breakfast . . . and along with it her DNA.
She sucked in more air, filling her lungs with oxygen and her heart with courage.
You got this.
She turned her back to Vader and with a determined step, crept closer to the house. She noticed a new coat of white paint refreshing the shutters and trim on the exterior of Tommy’s redbrick home. Had this estate been parked in a Dallas suburb, it would’ve been nothing remarkable. But in Riverbend—a low-end-of-the-middle-class county—the property drew envy and admiration. Here, six thousand square feet plus guest quarters, presiding over a two-acre lot, was more than a mansion.
It was a dream.
Proof of good character.
A promise of what life could be if you worked hard and could coax a bit of luck your way in the process.
Casting her gaze down, she noted new sod had replaced the gravel that had previously led up to the perimeter of the lap pool. Atop the back porch, colorful urn planters overflowing with cheery geraniums had appeared. Tommy must’ve added these touches in anticipation of bringing home his new bride.
A new spasm of sick washed over her.
Play the game. Pretend you’re Anna.
A hot breeze blew around her ankles, bringing with it the smell of mown grass and summer flowers. Scents as wholesome and optimistic as the man Tommy presented himself to be. Tommy Preston wasn’t just a pretty face that turned the ladies’ heads. He was an industrious man. A solid citizen. He loved dog and country and minded the rules of the homeowners’ association. Ask anyone who lived in this town and they’d all tell you the same thing. He was a good neighbor—and a good guy. He was the first friend you’d call if your car broke down in the middle of nowhere. The Samaritan who’d dig out his cables and jump-start a stranger in the Kroger parking lot. He paid his bills on time and went to church regularly. He’d earned a master’s degree in marketing from the University of Texas at Austin, and now he owned his own small business—lots of them, in fact. Preston Enterprises employed nearly a third of the workers in this community.
He was the kind of man men wanted to be and women just plain wanted. A favorite son in Riverbend, Texas. And that was precisely the reason she couldn’t back down or go to the police.
Who would believe her—the daughter of a two-bit con man—over Tommy Preston?
Her own sister hadn’t believed her.
And she had no real evidence against him, only the whispered words of a stranger: Find Sadie.
She tapped the pistol’s magazine against the palm of her hand.
Tommy Preston was an evil, dangerous man.
And she sure as hell wasn’t going to let him marry her sister.
The carefully orchestrated plan Anna Parker had initiated back in Riverbend, Texas, hadn’t exactly gone off without a hiccup.
But no matter.
Any successful venture required a willingness to reevaluate along the way and make adjustments as needed. And that was just what Anna intended to do. She slipped on her Ray-Bans to cover her startling green eyes, smoothed the plain, conservative skirt she was wearing and smiled down at her dowdy low-heeled pumps. She’d chosen the perfect outfit for the occasion.
She was going to meet Papa’s banker.
Her step quickened.
Right now, she was supposed to be at the spa with Sis getting a pre-wedding massage. She’d begged off, claiming a migraine, but she couldn’t stay away too long. After the spa, her sister would feel the need to check on her, and she needed to be present and accounted for.
The small satchel she’d slung across her shoulder banged her hip as she hurried along. When she’d decided to walk the two miles to the bank, she’d been in high spirits. The morning air was still cool, and she’d had just enough time. She’d planned to cab it on the way back—by then she’d have plenty of cash—but at the moment, all she had on her was five hundred CFP francs, worth slightly less than five bucks. Now, her previously unworn pumps were working up quite a blister on her right heel.
She wanted to hail a cab, and to Anna, lack of funds had never been an impediment.
She halted in front of a bakery and stepped into the shade of its covered stoop. From the fold-over clutch she was carrying, she removed Anna Parker’s passport, driver’s license and birth certificate, along with Papa’s death certificate, and then transferred them into her small shoulder satchel.
Clasping her five hundred francs, she snapped shut the now empty clutch and waved at a smiling, long-legged teenager across the street. He waved back before returning to his engrossing task of chasing something on the sidewalk. A lizard? Maybe a frog?
She waved again, this time with a more obvious come-here motion.
He pointed to his chest.
He looked both ways and crossed to her side of the street. Then he slowed his approach, as if torn between curiosity and timidity.
She removed her sunglasses and waited for him to work up the nerve to meet her eyes. “Thanks for coming to my assistance. You speak English?”
His smile revealed a set of crowded teeth and, she thought, a friendly disposition. “Yes. My English is good.”
“Hooray. I’m Anna. What’s your name?”
“Antoine. Are you lost?”
She shook her head. She not only knew where she was going, she knew what she had to do to get there.
“But you need help?”
“Are you a fast runner?”
His shoulders lifted. “I won a medal in school for the relay.”
“Excellent,” she said, but nothing more.
She didn’t want to come on too strong. Better to let him draw it out of her.
“You need me to run somewhere fast for you?”
“In a way.”
He scratched his head. “Maybe my English isn’t so good.”
“Oh, no. Your English is perfect. It’s my fault for not explaining properly. It’s just that I hate to ask such a big favor.”
“Go ahead. I don’t mind.”
She shifted back and forth on her feet, as if nervous. “I need to play a trick on someone, but I can’t do it alone. I’ll pay you five hundred francs.”
His grin widened. “You don’t have to pay me. I like jokes.”
“It’s only fair I pay you since the joke is a little . . . well, it’s different than what you might expect. I want you to steal my purse.” She held up her clutch.
He scratched his head and stared at the purse. Stuck his hands on his hips.
“It’s okay, really. It’s only a trick.”
He twanged his bottom lip with his fingers.
“I won’t let you get in trouble. But you have to do exactly as I say.” She reached out, and when he didn’t back away she put one hand on his shoulder and leaned in to whisper instructions.
“What if I make a mistake?” he asked.
“Then I’ll fix it. I’ll explain it was only a game, and you’ll still get your five hundred francs.” Stepping back, she swept her hand to indicate his long legs. “But you’ll have no problem. You won the relay medal.”
Laughing, he reached out and snatched her purse.
“Not yet.” She pressed the money into his hand and exchanged it for her clutch. “Be patient. We have to wait for our mark.”
As she chatted with Antoine about nothing, her heart sped up, and a rush of endorphins bathed her brain. Much like running, the anticipation of a good con often triggered a physical high in Anna.
She was ready.
And just in time.
A man, midthirties, with short legs and expensive shoes, waddled toward them.
“Leave me alone!” She took a sharp step back from Antoine and cowered.
A big grin lit his face, and then he grabbed her clutch. To a count of ten, she struggled with him and then released the purse.
He ran, clutch in hand like a relay baton.
“Help!” she screamed. “Help!”
The waddler rushed his steps into a semblance of a trot. “Stop! Stop thief!”
Bringing her hands to her mouth, she bit her nails and bounced on her toes, watching the little man go. His arms pumped furiously, and he picked up so much speed for a second, she thought he might actually catch Antoine.
But Antoine’s timing, like hers, was perfect.
Antoine tossed the clutch behind him and disappeared into the alleyway.
Her mark pulled up short, grabbed his knees and wheezed like a set of bagpipes that had seen better days.
Nice work, Antoine.
Red-faced and sweaty, Anna’s hero scooped her clutch from the sidewalk and limped back to her. “I believe this is yours, mademoiselle.”
“Oh, thank you, sir. Are you okay?” Her hand flew to her heart. “I—I was so frightened. I—I mean what if that young man had had a weapon?”
His bright red face blanched. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Well, you’re very brave just the same. Let me give you a reward.” She huffed out a breath and held out her hand for her purse.
“I couldn’t possibly take a penny.”
“No. No. No. I insist.” As she opened her clutch she bit the inside of her cheek, making her eyes fill with tears.
He peered inside her purse along with her, and sweat dripped from his forehead into her beautiful bag. That was going to leave a stain in the silk lining.
“Your purse is empty,” he said, brilliantly.
“I—I can’t believe it! I had five hundred dollars in there. That’s fifty thousand francs, my money for the whole month.”
“Let me give you something to get you home. How about two thousand francs?” Now it was his turn to pat her shoulder.
She stifled a sob. “Th-thank you but I can’t accept. I mean what good will it do me anyway? I—I don’t get paid again for two weeks.”
“Two weeks?” He put his hands in his pockets.
“I could maybe spare a little more.”
“Oh, no. Unless . . .” She touched her index finger to her lips. “What about a loan? I insist on paying you back. Let me give you my number. Do you have a pen?”
“No. But I’ll add you to my contacts.” He sounded pleased.
And why not? He’d rescued a woman in jeopardy and then gotten her number. It was a story he could tell his friends at the bars.
While he typed into his phone, she dictated her favorite phony number.
“I’ve got ten thousand five hundred francs.”
“I’ll take ten thousand.” She’d leave him what she’d had to begin with. “Call me!” she cried as she hailed an approaching cab.
“Where to, mademoiselle?” the cabbie asked.
“Première Banque Nationale de Papeete.”
“Tout de suite.”
She kicked back in the cab and transferred her papers into her purse once more. The traffic was light and within minutes she pushed through the door of the First National Bank of Papeete—an establishment large enough to handle major transactions yet small enough to know your name. Papa’s name anyway.
She stopped in front of a chest-high counter, cleared her throat and signed the book.
Rightly interpreting the throat clearing as impatience, a slender woman dressed in much the same manner as Anna headed toward her. “Sorry to keep you waiting.” The woman glanced at the sign-in sheet. “If you’ll follow me?” She indicated a desk situated near several other desks, distinguishable only by the family photos and knickknacks on display.
Anna adjusted the satchel over her shoulder. “I’d like to speak to the manager please.”
“I’m the assistant manager. How may I help you?”
“I—I’m afraid I’ll need to s-speak to the manager.”
The assistant manager quirked an eyebrow. “I’ll see what I can do, mademoiselle.”
She straightened her back and infused her voice with authority. “Tell him it’s Anna Parker. George Parker’s daughter.”
Another lift of the brow and the woman left.
Anna stood, eschewing the leather chairs until a beefy-faced man hustled into the waiting area. He extended his hand while still a good yard away. “Anna Parker?”
He arrived, and she shook his hand. “Yes.”
“I’m Bertrand Fontaine, the bank manager. I was sorry to learn of your father’s passing. A wonderful man.”
“Thank you.” She cast her gaze around. “Is there somewhere private we can conduct our business?”
“Mais oui!” He reached his hand toward her shoulder but it didn’t land. He directed her, by only the insulation of a touch, into his office. Like the lobby, the walls were painted in vibrant colors. The desk looked to be genuine wood rather than veneer and thank goodness there was a door for privacy. After pulling out a chair for her, he took his place behind his upgraded desk and tapped his fingers together. “Such a pleasure to meet you, Mademoiselle Parker . . . but before we speak further I’m afraid I’m going to need to see proper identification.”
She slid her papers across the desk and studied his bald spot while he examined them.
“It all seems to be in order. How may I be of assistance?”
Smiling, she leaned in close and asked, “May I count on your discretion?”