Chelsea Terrence sagged against the bank counter, fighting the urge to rest her head on her mom’s shoulder. She used to do that all the time when she was little. But that was then, and she was twelve now. Way too old for that. Plague-infected or not.
Why did I have to get the stupid flu? It’s the day before Valentine’s, and all my friends are having fun guessing who’s going to ask them to the school dance.
She drooped to rest her aching head on her folded arms, wishing she could just be home in bed. She didn’t even have enough energy to get out her phone and check Snap.
“I’m sure it’ll be just another moment, honey.” Her mom ran her fingers through Chelsea’s blue-tipped pixie cut. “I think the blue is making you look paler than you are in this light. Doing okay?”
“Mood, I’m so done standing.”
Her mom patted her on the back. “Be patient, honey. I’m sure they’re working as fast as they can.”
Chelsea leaned heavier on the counter before forcing herself upright. If she fainted, they’d likely call an ambulance, and there went any chance of going to the dance tomorrow night. Of course, the ambulance would probably come for the crusty old bank guard they’d passed on the way in the door…
Damn this flu. She’d rather be in science class than at the bank or an emergency room.
At nine in the morning, her mom had thought they could be in and out in a minute’s time before there was any sort of rush, but their little community bank, the People’s Bank of Columbia, was like something out of the Stone Ages.
They only had one teller and some creeptastic manager, who kept eyeing Chelsea’s mom. He sucked in his pudge and grinned with all his teeth, but her mom was oblivious. The temptation to pick up her mom’s hand and flaunt her wedding ring skipped through Chelsea’s mind right alongside a little wash of dizziness.
The teller was a sight to see, too, with her cheugy hair. What had she done that morning, electrocuted herself for funsies?
Chelsea and her mom just wanted to cash a check. But the teller was still waiting for the computers to wake up.
Three minutes after opening.
Chelsea bit off a yawn, and her mom rubbed her shoulder. A day off from seventh grade was grand and all, but Chelsea just wanted sleep.
“I’m kind of thinking…” The words left her, along with her awareness of the latest dizzy spell she’d been fighting. A shadow breezed past her periphery, and she could feel someone looming over her shoulder. Shaky, Chelsea snuck a peek. The security guard was there, along with another man, who stood behind him.
The security guard shook like he might pass out. He had beads of sweat on his upper lip.
The security guard’s veiny hand landed on her shoulder and gripped it too tight, pulling her away from the counter as a gun—a flipping gun!—speared the space between her and her mom, pointing at the teller behind the glass.
“Move.” The man who’d been out of view gestured with his gun, and the guard stepped to the right, bringing Chelsea with him.
Chelsea staggered sideways. The old guard kept his grip on Chelsea’s shoulder, and her mom reached out to help her too.
The robber shoved her mother in the other direction, keeping himself between them.
“You too. Move! Hands on that counter. Stay there, lady. I see movement out of you or your kid, I shoot you both, and she goes first.”
A whimper, like that of a scared puppy, came up out of her mom’s throat, and Chelsea froze along with her. That sound, more than anything, proved this whole thing wasn’t some weirdo prank.
She could see the other man now. The bank robber.
He had one of those green screen masks on, totally covering his face. The top of his head was oddly smooth. Alien-esque.
The robber kept his aim on the teller. “Everyone, remain calm. I’m just here for the money.”
The security guard wheezed something that sounded like, “You shouldn’t do this, son.”
Growling a response, the robber knocked the guy in the chest with the barrel of the gun. “Keep quiet, and nobody gets hurt.”
With the robber at the center of their little huddle, Chelsea doubted he could be seen from the outside walkway. She breathed in deep, getting a waft of oil, like from their old truck that dripped on occasion.
Her mom stood frozen with her arms on the counter as Chelsea and the guard stayed where they were.
“Let’s make this quick and quiet, everyone.” The man tossed a duffel bag over the partition before tapping the glass with a knuckle.
Chelsea’s attention was drawn to a messy sort of tattoo on the inside of the robber’s wrist.
“Fill it up,” he barked. “I want everything in the drawers that’s not rigged. Make sure none of those paint packs make it in.”
A bank manager and the teller got to work, emptying the drawers into the bag. The security guard’s hands shook harder against Chelsea’s shoulders. The man had to be eighty.
Still, she leaned back into his grip a little, tightening her arms across her chest and staring forward. The man might have been using her for cover or trying to keep her safe, with her being tall and him being short, but at the moment, she didn’t care. Any human contact to keep her centered was a good thing.
For a moment, she wondered if the flu could cause hallucinations, but then her mom reached for her, and the green-masked robber swatted her hand and growled.
Dammit, Mom, please don’t draw his attention. Please.
The world got fuzzy, with tears or from the flu. Chelsea pinched her arm hard, bringing herself back to the moment. She wasn’t hallucinating, she couldn’t afford to pass out, and that gun wasn’t a prank.
Chelsea met her mom’s eyes where she stood rigidly down the counter from her, trying to convey that she was all right. They would all be okay, as long as nobody did anything stupid. She worried her mom might reach for her again. Her eyes were wide with alarm, and her fingers clenched the counter’s edge.
When Chelsea’s focus wandered back to her mom’s face, her mom gave a firm shake of her head and mouthed, Stay there. I love you.
Chelsea swallowed the knot in her throat. She mouthed her own message back as tears streaked from her mom’s eyes, tracking through her expensive blush. Love you too.
The bank manager had edged his way behind the teller, putting her in between him and the robber’s gun. “Do as the nice man says, Vivian.” Hovering at his teller’s back, he stretched his fingers in the air and made a show of his hands.
The nice man’s got a cannon, dumbass. And Vivian’s way ahead of you.
Vivian was stuffing wads of money into the duffel bag, not even looking at what she was doing, just focusing on the gun and shaking like a leaf.
Chelsea’s knees weakened, and she wobbled as the robber ran a hand through her mom’s long dark hair.
“You got nice hair, lady. Somebody else’d get a lot better use out of it than you, I can tell you that.”
And the robber kept petting her mom’s hair. At least he wore gloves, but Chelsea thought she might vomit for real.
Her mom’s face went slack, and she shuddered at the robber’s touch. The security guard’s grip tightened on Chelsea’s shoulders, as if to keep her in place.
After carefully climbing onto the counter, Vivian lifted the heavy duffel full of money over the glass partition.
The robber moved his free hand from her mom’s hair to collect it, and his sleeve pulled back, revealing his tattoo once more.
Zero, two. Fifteen. Seventy-eight. Zero, two, fifteen, seventy-eight. Zero, two, fifteen, seventy-eight. Got it.
Chelsea’s eyes remained fixed on the tattoo, taking deep and even breaths. That was what her field hockey coach always told her. “When you’re nervous, take good, even breaths, and the moment will be over before you know it.”
Coach Osborne had been talking about an opposing player coming right at you, ready to knock your socks off with their stick, but the exercise seemed to help in this life-or-death situation too.
“Dammit, woman!” The robber yanked some stacks of money from the bag and tossed them toward the corner, where they exploded in a shower of red next to Chelsea’s mom. She shrieked, flattening herself against the counter.
Red dye now covered her mom’s coat like blood. It was splattered on the floor, too, bright and angry against the basic beige tiles. It really looked like fake blood. Her mom looked down at it all, mouth agape.
We’re never getting that out, Trisha.
Chelsea had to fight down a totally inappropriate laugh. Her mom never left the house without “hair and makeup,” as she’d put it. She always looked perfect.
As the gun roared in the robber’s hand, his elbow knocked into Chelsea. He’d shot beneath the glass.
Vivian fell backward, mid-scream, chest painted red with real blood. She collapsed into the bank manager then slid downward out of sight as the manager screamed over and over.
Chelsea’s ears rang, but the robber was yelling now, barking orders, and swinging his aim back and forth at each of them. Every time the barrel passed in front of Chelsea, she expected to feel a heavy pain in her chest.
The guard pushed her forward, still holding her shoulders…
And then her mom was there beside her, gripping her hand…
“Security boxes! Where are they?” The robber’s scream echoed off the walls.
The blood-splattered bank manager came out from behind the counter and headed toward a hallway. They all followed him at a stumbling walk. Chelsea fought to keep her feet in the little tug-of-war she’d been caught in. Her mom and the security guard both held onto her like she might either be bulletproof or need help staying upright.
At the end of the hall, the bank manager fumbled to unlock a big wooden door even as he begged for their safety, his desperate words beginning to break through the ringing in Chelsea’s ears.
The bank robber wasn’t speaking now, just muttering under his breath.
Now that they’d come to a stop, Chelsea couldn’t take her focus off the manager. The side of his face and his gray goatee were red with blood splatter.
The robber shoved them all forward into the room, which was filled with security lockers, and had a little nook at the back with a curtain hanging half open across it. Their captor gestured with his gun for the group to head toward a privacy curtain. He pulled it partway shut behind them. Somebody was pushed into Chelsea’s back, and she slammed into the wall of to the left of the curtain. Someone else—her mom, it was her mom—guided her to the corner and whispered, “Sit.”
Chelsea scanned the ceiling. No cameras in this corner.
Her phone dug into her hip, taking all her weight as she slid to the floor beside her mom. The old guard slumped down next to Chelsea on the other side, apologizing under his breath for pushing her.
She shook her head to tell him it was all right, but the robber gave the guard a kick in the leg.
“Shut it.” He kicked the man again, in the shoulder this time, sending him sideways into Chelsea and crushing her hip onto her phone again.
The guard righted himself and rubbed his shoulder, giving Chelsea a sorrowful look. She had other things on her mind, though, as she watched the robber stalk back and forth in front of them.
“All of you, stay still and let me do my business. You understand?”
Chelsea played along, nodding hard just like her mom and the guard were doing.
Taking them at their word, the robber turned his focus back to the manager and gestured with his gun. He spoke too low for Chelsea to hear him, but through the opening around the curtain, she watched as the manager began searching the safe deposit boxes. He wiped at his eyes, mixing Vivian’s blood with his tears as he looked about.
The robber took out a key from his pocket and slapped it against the manager’s chest.
“Open it, or the kid gets shot.”
The manager blubbered something, then reached for his own pocket, watching the robber’s gun the whole time.
“Get moving, dumbass. I’ll only shoot you if you pull out anything other than your keys.”
Finally, the manager drew a ring of keys out of his pocket. He dropped them twice before finding the right one. The robber kept tapping his arm with the gun, which wasn’t doing any good.
Chelsea angled her hand and tugged her phone free. With her knees up, she set the phone on the floor between them and widened her legs just enough to see it. She switched to Silent Mode before it could give them away but then noticed she had no bars.
They must be too deep into the secure section of the bank to get a signal.
She could hit record, though.
One eye on the bank manager as he opened the locker, Chelsea turned on her video.
She took aim with the phone, centering in on the robber and manager, who was moving things from a safety deposit box to the robber’s duffel now. Before she could zoom in, her mom’s fist darted between her knees and yanked the phone away from her, chucking it over into the corner of the room.
Chelsea almost lunged for it but froze in place as the robber reacted.
Cowering at the sudden movement, the manager fell to the floor.
The security guard started praying in Spanish.
And Chelsea shrank backward into her mother as the man before them shoved the gun in his pants and yanked a hunting knife from his belt. The thing looked like a Gordon Ramsay knockoff, shiny and sharp and long enough to cut into a boar. He brandished it at her mother.
“Smart move, getting rid of your kid’s phone.” He eyed Chelsea, the green mask nodding up and down. “Dumb move on your part. But if your mom behaves, we’ll call it even. Got me?”
Chelsea forced herself to nod.
“Say ‘yes, sir,’ you blue-haired brat.”
Chelsea tasted blood. She must’ve bitten her tongue.
Her mom nudged her.
“Good girl.” The man’s green nose pointed back at her mother, his knife waving in the air. “Stay still, lady. You hear me?”
Her mother nodded, a look of pure fury on her face.
The man took a hard hold of her mom’s hair. He stretched it out and sawed the knife through it. Taking one chunk, then two, and then a third…until her long, beautiful hair had all been torn away. Not as short as Chelsea’s pixie cut, but it had been a valiant effort.
He fisted the hair as he stood, muttering beneath his breath again. Then he sheathed his knife before focusing his blank green mask back on Chelsea. “Thanks for this.”
Chelsea clenched her mom’s thigh.
In another second, he was back at a table in the center of the privacy room, where the manager had placed one of the locker boxes. He pulled something or another from the locker, a couple of papers fluttering away from his grip before he snatched them up.
In catching the pages, his tattoo flashed from his wrist again. Chelsea wished she’d still had her phone out to capture it.
When he tucked the pages away and turned to his group of hostages again, the gun was back in his hand.
He lifted it, and the barrel swept in front of Chelsea’s face.
She shut her eyes. “I love you, Mom.”
Chelsea opened her eyes to see her mom had shoved herself between her and the robber. “You have what you want, so you can leave now. Leave us al—”
The gun roared.
Chelsea screamed as her eyes snapped shut, and she clapped her hands over her ears.
A heavy thump sounded beside her, followed by a hushed gasp.
Chelsea opened her eyes.
Her mom lay crumpled beside her with a dark stain blossoming on her chest. Blood soaked through everything. Into her coat, her blouse, and her pants, covering the floor beneath them.
Chelsea reached for her. “Mom! No…”
Her mother’s blood spread all over Chelsea’s hands and sleeves as she bent over her, searching for the gunshot and a way to stop the blood. But red oozed everywhere.
The security guard’s prayers increased in volume as the bank manager screamed in the background. And, dimly, from somewhere behind her, Chelsea heard a door slam and knew the robber must be gone, but that didn’t seem to matter so much anymore.
When Chelsea found the hole in her mom’s chest, her own cries had ratcheted up, blocking out all other sound. Her mom’s hand lifted, trailing along Chelsea’s face.
“Mom, Mom, you’re going to be—”
“Chel…baby girl. I—”
Her lips fluttered, and tears leaked from her eyes, but not as fast as those coming from Chelsea’s.
“I love you, too, Mom.”
The woman’s mouth opened, but her eyes were already going flat. Her hand fell from Chelsea’s cheek, limp.
Her mom was gone.
Special Agent Rain Chandler chucked the used disinfectant wipe into the wire bin beside her desk and yanked out yet another from the container. She attacked the phone on her desk until it shined with disinfectant before going to work on the desk surface, mouse pad included. The monitor gleamed under the lights, and she’d already sprayed down the keyboard before anything else.
Come hell or high water, she was not getting sick. This flu could take down all of D.C., but not Rain. She had no time for that BS. Or anything else.
“Get out of here!”
She closed her eyes and scrubbed harder. She refused to think of her mother’s words from beyond the grave. Or what her mom had been so afraid of.
“Rain…go! She can see you!”
Had the voice really belonged to Gina Chandler? And if it had been Rain’s mom, why only show up to scream at her those couple sentences and then disappear?
Why hadn’t Rain listened to Marigold when the psychic warned her about trying to reach out to her mother on her own?
“Understand that opening the door between this world and the Other, even with the purest of intentions and reasoning, can go wrong. It’s a two-way portal we’re talking about, and an infinite number of lifetimes exist on the other side. Your mother may not be the only one listening.”
Yanking out two more disinfectant wipes, Rain attacked her chair. She might not be able to control the Other or the ghosts who appeared in her life, but she could damn well control the number of germs she came in contact with.
After all, she hadn’t been skipping out of yoga for nothing. She’d gone to the studio on Saturday to try and clear her mind of her ill-advised séance only to come face-to-face with two coughing regulars. Hearing them both proclaim that no flu would keep them home from yoga had been more than enough of a wake-up call. Even if staying away meant no Oren.
Seeing him this morning would’ve been nice, though.
Rain grimaced at her own train of thought and refocused. The Bureau wasn’t the place where she ought to be thinking about ghosts or fantasizing about a man, even if he was the hottest yoga instructor in town.
Instead, she pulled out another wipe and started scrubbing at the desk drawer handles.
This flu-demic—as the ever-so-creative news had deemed it—had already taken out about a quarter of the D.C. FBI office, including Agents Denae Monroe and Vance Jessup. Even Agent Sloan Grant in the Counterterrorism unit, who normally prided herself on staying away from germs, was sick in bed.
Leo’s boots stopped beside Rain’s desk. “You trying to make everything lemony?”
“You kidding?” Rain offered him only the briefest of glances before returning to her chore. “Have you talked to Denae? Seen Vance’s texts? Fevers, coughs…this thing is miserable. If a little cleaning’ll save us, I’ll bleach the entire building.”
“Maybe we should just send everyone else on a get-well break.” Leo flopped into his chair and leaned back, not bothering to take any of the wipes for his own desk. “Vance just got over a bug, and now he’s out again? Flu season’s pretty brutal up here.”
Rain forced a smile to go with her quip as her colleague hummed in agreement. The last thing she wanted to do was encourage deeper conversation. Every time they ended up alone, she couldn’t help worrying he’d confront her about the ghosts again.
Seriously, what was she supposed to tell him about the Other?
About the threatening ghosts? The wolf who’d made her fall out of bed? The Other-worldly call that lured her to the deck of a mountain at the B and B, where she very nearly leapt to her death?
If Leo hadn’t saved me…I owe him for that.
Rain swept away the tightening in her chest with another scrub of a wipe, grateful that she could hear Leo’s fingers ticking away on his phone. Maybe there’d be no questions so early on a Monday morning. Which meant she wouldn’t have to make up any excuses.
She reached under her desk and ran the wipe beneath the edge of its surface, just for good measure. Then got on all fours under it. What the hell. Her fingers practically itched with the need to put more distance between her and Leo, but she told herself it was likely the disinfectant making her skin crawl.
Certainly not the echo of Mom’s voice warning me that some unnamed “she” can see me from the Other. Certainly not that.
Maybe she’d been wrong earlier, thinking she’d rather have ghosts floating through the air than the germs from this flu.
“Rain, did you hear me?” Leo ducked his head beneath her desk.
She nearly bumped her head pulling back to sit on her heels. “No, sorry.” She took a deep breath. “What?”
Leo’s eyes narrowed as he casually slipped his phone into a pocket. “I said, I know you’re helping Mia investigate Ned’s death.”
Licking her lips, Rain threw away the latest wipe and swept her hands along her pants, getting rid of the chemicals as she sought retrieval of her voice. “Wha—”
“I heard you two talking. I didn’t mean to,” Leo held out both hands, “but I did. And I want to help. I know how much Mia’s brother meant to her, and I also know what it’s like. To lose someone.”
Leo’s voice had gone a bit gruff, and he shoved one hand back through his curls, mussing them even more than usual. But his dark-brown eyes were all business, so Rain couldn’t find it in herself to joke about the gesture.
She flexed her fingers, her nail beds actually stinging from the disinfectant sinking in. This was not the emotion she’d been expecting from Leo Ambrose today. And the way his voice had just gone heavy…she wasn’t good at vulnerability. Showing it or seeing it.
And still, Leo’s focus remained on her…waiting for some response.
“Leo, I appreciate it, but—”
“Don’t do that.” Leo sat forward farther, holding her gaze. “Don’t put me off. I’m part of the team, and I want to help.”
For a moment, Rain was shoved backward in time to their first case together, when he’d gotten a whiff of a girl being abused and gone off like a bull seeing red. That had turned out to be nothing, but the normally laid-back Leo Ambrose was anything but chill right now. She knew he was sensitive, but still, the man’s layers kept throwing her off-balance.
Whatever losses he’d suffered, the experience engendered a strong sympathy for others going through their own grief.
She thought to joke about his intensity, in hopes of forestalling the inevitable just a little longer, but the shriek of Jeri’s office door being shoved open faster than usual stopped everything.
Their SSA stood at the edge of the team’s shared workspace, near Vance’s desk, with a phone in one hand and her Kevlar vest in the other.
“Rain, what are you doing on the floor? Get up!” Jeri thumbed a text as she shrugged into her vest. “Vests and coats, now. Bank robbery at People’s Bank of Columbia on the outskirts of D.C. Police are in active pursuit.”
Leo was already throwing Rain a vest, and she had it on before she’d reached the door.
A bank robbery. Talk about a fast start to a Monday.
Jeri held the elevator for the two of them as they rushed in beside her. “Mia’s meeting us downstairs. We’ll take one Expedition. You two take another and call me as soon as you’re en route. I’ll brief you on the way.”
Rain glanced at Leo, her eyebrow raised for permission to hit the gas beyond his granny instincts.
“Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re driving.”
Fly the deadly skies…
As FBI Special Agents Stella Knox and Hagen Yates inch closer to apprehending the mastermind behind their fathers’ assassinations, tragedy strikes. A private jet explodes over Nashville, its sole passenger skewered on a skyscraper’s antennae during his descent.
Why would a perfectly good plane fall out of the sky?
The team quickly rules out pilot error and learn that the plane was meticulously maintained. This leads Stella and the rest of the team to a chilling conclusion: intentional sabotage. But why?
A terrorist would have picked a more crowded plane. So who would want the pilot or the single passenger dead?… Read More