Before it was too late.
Two minutes. She had two minutes to change her clothes and transform her life.
Now on the ground in John F. Kennedy International Airport, Fila locked the handicapped accessible bathroom stall door and drew off her burqa in a public place for the first time in ten years. Taking a deep gulp of air, she didn’t stop to celebrate the moment. Instead, she hung her ungainly tan pocketbook from the hook on the stall door, withdrew the smaller, brown purse from inside and replaced it with the rolled up burqa. Unzipping the purse, she pulled out a makeup kit. With trembling hands, she swiped bold, red lipstick on her lips, glittery mascara on her eyelashes, and two swoops of color on her lids. She patted powder on her cheeks, followed by rouge and surveyed the results in her compact mirror. She didn’t look at all like herself.
Next, she pulled out the coup de grace; a short bobbed blond wig. Placing it expertly over her dark coiled braids—how many times had she practiced this very maneuver at home when her so-called uncles were out to work or at one of their many meetings?—and pinned it tightly in place. Another quick look in the mirror told her she was bold, brassy—a far cry from the Fila anyone knew.
Stuffing the makeup back into her purse, she next began to peel off layers of clothing. Anna Langway, the Canadian woman who’d come to Afghanistan with a traveling vaccination clinic, and who had been her chief ally in planning this escape, had slipped her the bundle only a week ago.
“I don’t care what you think of them. Wear them when you reach New York,” she’d whispered. “Your guards won’t believe you capable of it, and you’ll blend in with other young women.”
As soon as Fila got alone and undid the bundle, she knew exactly what Anna meant, and she knew she couldn’t risk getting caught with these items in her bag, either. She’d stolen moments whenever she could to stitch them inside the modest clothing she would wear for the first part of her journey. Now Fila picked at the threads of her black quilted coat until they unraveled to reveal the pink plastic raincoat inside it. Her long skirt fell away in sheets of cloth to reveal a matte black mini skirt. Her drab, shapeless, heavy blouse came apart to reveal a spaghetti strapped tank top.
Next came the contacts Anna had handed her, whispering brief instructions. With skill based on lots of practice, Fila popped them one by one into her eyes, satisfied by her new blue irises. She replaced her traditional silver hoop earrings with dangling bangles, slapped a number of chunky bracelets on her arm and stopped to survey her cheap engagement ring. It had surprised her when one of her uncles placed it on her finger, but he said her new husband would expect her to wear one when she reached America.
She pulled it off, too, after a long moment’s hesitation, dropped it into the toilet and flushed.
Her life in captivity was over. Time to make a fresh start.
Cab Johnson opened his eyes several days later and stared at the curtained window in his nearly pitch-black bedroom. He’d heard something outside. Something that definitely didn’t belong outside at four a.m. on a cold November morning. Was that a truck’s engine idling?
This house was much too big and much too empty for one man to live in. Especially a man plagued with memories of a series of crime scenes at which three young women had met a brutal death. Word at work the day before was that Amanda Strassburg, the last of Grady’s victims, was still in critical condition. He hoped like hell she would make it.
Since moving into Carl Whitfield’s mansion some weeks ago, he’d been as jumpy as a colt with a rattler underfoot. Carl had headed out west for the winter after his fiancée dumped him and offered the place rent free to Cab in exchange for Cab keeping an eye on it. The oversized log home was just too big to keep track of in the unconscious way he normally monitored his apartment for possible intruders. Cab relied on his sixth sense—honed from years on the job—to alert him when things were off-kilter, but in a house this large, with more rooms than you could shake a stick at, his sixth sense just didn’t work. Plus, the mansion made him all too aware of how alone he was. The Cruz ranch, where all his friends lived, was just a few miles down the road, but it might have been a thousand miles away for all the good that did him once he’d settled in for the night. Cab wasn’t the kind of man who feared the darkness. He wasn’t afraid to live alone.
He was just… lonely. He woke often, and each time felt the large, empty space pushing down on his chest. He’d realized in these past few weeks he didn’t want to be lonely anymore. It was time to settle down and start a family. If it couldn’t be with Rose, he needed to find someone else.
He didn’t want anyone else, though.
He sat up slowly, trying not to make any sounds of his own, and froze when the engine running outside shut off. A moment later came a creak and a metallic clunk that told him the driver had just exited the vehicle and shut the door behind him. He’d done so quietly, but there was no way to mask that telling sound, not in the silent clarity of an autumn night. Cab slid his covers back, eased off the bed, and cautiously made his way across the room. He could have traversed his own bedroom in two steps with his eyes closed and not come to any harm, but not this overly large, ornate room. Carl had decorated his brand new home with fine art objects and paintings and priceless Persian carpets before he found out his intended bride had changed her mind and didn’t want to get married after all. The bed was flanked by marble tables, each topped with a bust of some dead Roman poet. Cab suspected they were not reproductions. After nearly knocking one over his first night here, he decided to proceed with caution—and with his eyes open—at all times.
To Cab’s way of thinking, Carl was better off without Lacey, who’d given Ethan the runaround before she decided to play the same game with Carl. Now she claimed she wanted to finish college and become a mental health counselor, but Cab didn’t plan to hold his breath. In his line of work he did sometimes see people change their lives, but more often he saw them screw up over and over and over again. Robbers robbed. Killers killed. And flighty, careless women remained flighty and careless.
Most of the time.
Once Carl realized Lacey wasn’t coming back, he decided he wasn’t cut out for ranch life. Just about any citizen of Chance Creek could have told him that the moment they met him, but the transplant from California thought he’d take to it. He liked dressing the part but as far as Cab could tell, he didn’t want to get his hands dirty, and there was no way to be a cowboy without dirty hands. Stuck with an empty mansion full of expensive furnishings, Carl needed a tenant he could count on to guard it once he left. He’d approached Cab, and Cab had accepted. He made a point of saving his money when he could; he wasn’t going to turn down top-notch accommodations that were free, as well. When he offered to pay at least token rent, Carl waved him off. “My insurance won’t cover it unless someone’s living there. I don’t need the money; I just need a body. A body I can trust.”