CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The stairway tilted. Jenny fell helplessly against the wall and fought hard. His eyes were inches from her and for a frozen instant, she saw not a man, but a blonde curly-headed boy, wearing a Chicago Cub's baseball cap. His blue eyes were not smiling. She twisted against his strength.

       "Give it up, Jenny." He twisted her wrist and forced her to stumble ahead of him down the stairs to a side door. At the parking lot, a scream built in her throat, but before she could release it, the boy grabbed her wrist and twisted again. An excruciating pain shot up her arm. He pushed her into the passenger seat of a black van, locked the door and jogged to the driver's side.

       Behind the wheel, he glanced at her with a boyish grin. "I seen your picture. You're even prettier in person."

       "Who are you?" How do you know me?" Jenny rubbed her painful wrist.

       "It don't matter, lady, but I'll tell you anyway. Curly's my name and I think you can guess why." He pulled off his cap and ran his fingers through his tight curls. "Me and your dad are the only ones who got out alive. Them stupid cops were waiting outside for us to show our faces. But the quake wrecked everybody's plans. After the shaking let up, two cops come running in. Your dad was out like a light. They heard him groaning in the attic and found him pinned. Lucky for me they was thinking of him and didn't see me. Freddy and Lucas? Dead. A fireplace fell smack on them. Cool man. That was something to wake up to."

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       Through his torrential spray of words, Jenny grasped his meaning. Her father had been injured and Lucas was dead! Where was the briefcase? She willed herself to stay calm, hoping to outwit him.

       "Who are you?" she asked again.

       "I told you. My name's Curly, always been Curly. I'm alive and that no-good Freddy bossing me around, and crazy Darke trying to run things are dead.

       "Where are you taking me?"

       "To a house you won't believe, like one of those movie star mansions in Beverly Hills. This here house is in the mountains. If you're thinking of escaping, forget it."

       "Were you with my father?"

       "You might say that."

       Jenny quietly reached for the door handle. Locked.

       Curly looked over at her with a wide grin. "No chance, sweetheart. You're my prisoner, and we're gonna spend some time together. When Sammy flies in, you'll tell him where your dad hid the money. Then we're done with you."

       Jenny stared at him. What money?

       "Don't try and con a con, Jenny. Sammy knows your old man stole millions from us. Why do you think he sent some of the boys to L.A.? To enjoy the weather? Nah. He don't care about weather. He cares about the cash your old man snitched. We woulda got the info from him, but we was rudely interrupted by the Man upstairs. But I wasn't injured. No Ma'am. Not me. A hurt finger is all. I was where I shoulda been. In bed. Imagine those guys sitting around by the fireplace at four in the morning. They was having a smoke, when rock and roll, down it comes right on top of them."

       "My dad? How badly was he hurt? Please tell me."

       "Don't know. Don't care. The cops came rushing in like superman and carried him out. I hid until they cleared out the place. That house is so huge, they didn't know I was there. Then I used my head and followed

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them to the hospital. I figured you'd try and find your old man. And," he threw her a lopsided grin, "here you are."

       Jenny's throat filled. Whatever this monster intended to do, she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of tears. This is my punishment, she thought, for slipping away from Alex. Where was he? He'd be frantic. Or would he? Maybe he was already on his way home to Chicago.

       Curly whistled off-tune as he maneuvered the van over broken roads, past downed trees and blighted streets.

       Jenny asked casually. "Curly, could I ask you a question?"

       "Shoot."

       "Did you happen to see a briefcase?"

       "I wasn't looking for no briefcase, lady. I was outta there as soon as they left. But if it's there, Sammy will find it."

       Jenny's blood chilled. "Sammy?"

       "He's the big boss."

       "When is Sammy coming?"

       "I'm surprised Sammy's coming around earthquake country, but in this case he's so mad, he's defying God and earth. When he shows up, you'll be the first to know."

       "You can have the briefcase, Curly, but please take me back to see my father. I haven't seen him in over a year and..."

       Curly's icy blue eyes stared into hers. "And whose fault is that? He ratted on the mob, stole our money! Did he think he'd get away with it?"

       "He didn't steal money! He was storing money in his safe for your... your people."

       "Yeah, he stored it good, where we can't find it. But we will, little lady, we will."

       Jenny swallowed. Two accusations against her dad in one day. Could it be possible? Had he been tempted to take some of their money? It wasn't a secret. Her father longed for wealth, but enough to risk stealing mafia money?

       "Please, take me back. My dad needs me."

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       "Knock it off, will you? I'm thinking."

       Jenny bit her lip to keep tears from spilling. She was determined to hide a terror riding high inside of her.

       Curly resumed whistling as he sped recklessly along the west end of the valley. He stepped hard on the gas pedal when he saw a sign marked "Chatsworth."

       "Maybe the police are searching the house, "Jenny said.

       Curly shook his head. "In your dreams, lady. It's a busy day. Cops ain't gonna hang around no one place. Hope we don't find no looters though. If we do, I have my trusty friend with me. He touched a revolver under his jacket."

       Jenny was aghast at the damage in the exquisite hills of Chatsworth. In the distance, mountains rose majestic and the mountain terrain stood firm as if they knew nothing of the earth's upheaval.

       Curly pulled into a circular drive before a house that would have been right at home on the cover of Better Homes and Garden. He came to an abrupt stop, raced around the van and opened the passengers' door. Grapsing Jenny's wrist, he jerked her out. The moment they stepped onto the driveway, he pulled her close.

       She pushed hard. "Get away from me."

       "Yeah? You can make me?"

       "Don't touch me like that again."

       "Who sez?"

       "I say." She looked at him with such loathing that he threw back his head and roared.

       "Don't like me, eh? You got a boyfriend?"

       "If you touch me again, I'll tell your Sammy. I'll bet he won't like it."

       Curly grimaced. "You got that right. He'll want you for himself. Stay cool, I ain't gonna touch you again."

       He grabbed Jenny's arm, and pushed her through the front door which was hanging open on its hinges. In the enormous entryway,

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Curly whistled. The crystal chandelier lay shattered in scattered pieces on a brightly designed oriental rug.

       "This is Sammy joint," Curly said as if he were leading a tour. "This is where they brought your old man."

       Jenny's legs trembled. She sat abruptly on the staircase. "Did they hurt him?"

       "Naw. Didn't touch him..Sammy's orders."

       Jenny narrowed her eyes, "And you? How did you escape unharmed?"

       "How did I escape unharmed?" Curly mimicked her tone. "Ain't you happy for me, lady? I told you, I was where I shoulda been, in bed. I hopped out just in time. A huge dresser fell where I was laying. Just before I slept, I heard Lucas say how you left your briefcase under the table. They didn't dare to open it. They were talking that it probably told where the money was your old man stole from us."

       Jenny paled. "So you did see a briefcase?"

       "Maybe I did, so what?"

       "My father would never steal from anyone. Anyway, you have it backwards, don't you? They were the drug dealers, the thieves, the..." she sputtered.

       Curly paced the entry. He suddenly stopped. "Did you hear something?"

       "What?"

       "I heard something. Just a minute." The moment he took off, Jenny raced for the half-opened door. Curly turned, ran for her and grabbed her waist. "Where do you think you're going? Now I'll have to tie you to a chair."

       "No," Jenny struggled. "I won't run again. I promise. Please don't tie me."

       Curly pushed her into the kitchen, held her against him and while he wildly opened drawers. He found rope and tape and shoved her into a chair. "Ah, just what I need until I can think."

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       As he bound the rope around her arms and legs, Jenny strained against his strength. She kicked and scratched his arms and face. She stopped when she saw him smile. He was enjoying the struggle.

       "You'd think I was in Boy Scouts." Curly stood back and admired his work.

       When he reached for the tape, Jenny shook her head. "I won't say a word, please don't tape my mouth."

       Curly tilted his head. "I'm reasonable guy. My mouth was taped once and it killed me to breathe. I want you to tell Sammy I treated you real good, so I won't tape your mouth. For now. One scream and I change my mind. Now I'm gonna find that noise. Someone or something is in this house with us."

       After Curly left, Jenny twisted and squirmed. She couldn't budge against the rope. Tears flowed down her cheeks. She sniffled helplessly and whispered a prayer....

       "God, I asked that Dad wouldn't be sent to prison and you answered that prayer. Now, I ask that you help him get well and get out of this jam. While you're at it get me out of this mess too."

       Curly returned with a puzzled frown. "I was all over the place. Nothing. Nothing but a bird flapping up against the attic window, making noise."

       "Curly," Jenny kept her voice low and pleading. "Please return the briefcase to me. It has some important papers."

       Curly smirked. "Yeah?" He was fiddling in the cupboard, spooning three tablespoons of coffee into a filter. He poured water into the coffee maker and pressed a button.

       "Curly," she tried again.

       "Shut up, lady." He opened the refrigerator, reached inside, and pulled out slices of lunch meat. "I'm hungry, ain't you?"

       Jenny shook her head an glanced out the window. Darkening trees were bending together as though whispering secrets. How could this

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happen? How could she be a hostage of a demented member of the Chicago mafia?

       Curly slapped turkey on the bread and peered inside the refrigerator. "No beer. No mustard. How can anyone eat a sandwich with no beer and mustard?" His agitation frightened her. "A millionaire's house, and there ain't no beer and mustard."

       Jenny watched him build two sandwiches of lettuce, smoked turkey and mayonnaise. He snapped open two cans of coke.

       She forced a smile as he patted down each sandwich. "How can I eat a sandwich with my hands tied, and with aftershocks threatening to tip me on the floor? It's scaring me."

       "Ain't it though."

       "Please?"

       "Promise not to try anything funny?"

       She nodded vigorously. Curly looked out the wall of kitchen windows at the darkened sky. "Maybe Sammy will change his mind about flying into L.A." He was talking to himself. "He usually keeps far away from danger." He turned to Jenny. "But he was crazy and at your pa for witnessing against the mob and for stealing our money."

       "He didn't steal your money. You must believe me."

       Curly paced the floor and continued his monologue. "Sammy's mad enough to fly into a storm to get revenge. I remember one time Sammy walked into a hospital, stole a doctor's jacket, went into a snitcher's private room, pulled the plug that let him breath and walked out. One thing for sure. Sammy don't want no one making a wrong move on him."

       Jenny took a deep breath. "Would he like it that you tied me to a chair?"

       "You're right, lady. He'd be mad."

       Curly scrounged in the kitchen drawer for a knife and cut the rope on Jenny's hands.

       For a moment, he held her hand. Jenny withdrew it and rubbed her wrists.

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       "Don't worry, sweetheart, I ain't gonna touch you, much as I'd like to."

       He handed her a sandwich and bit lustily into his own. Jenny took one bite and laid it aside. "Curly," she smile sweetly, "will you please answer a question?"

       "Now what?"

       "What do you mean, my dad stole money from you?"

       "Oh come on, babe, you know what I mean?"

       "I don't know. My dad had to go along with Benny Berkowitz. He threatened harm to my mother and me. But steal money? No."

       Curly laughed. "You're really stupid, ain't you, Lansing? He got away with millions. Why do you think we're after him? He hid our money someplace, but Sammy will find it. No one ever put nothing over on him. He had your phone bugged since the day your dad left for the so-called Witness Protection Program. Sammy said he'd cave in and call you."

       A gnaw of doubt chilled Jenny. "What are you talking about?"

       Curly straddled a chair, and stared into Jenny's eyes. His were so icy blue she felt dizzy with panic. "You really don't know, do you?"

       She lifted a chin, "I know my dad is honorable, and trustworthy. Maybe a little impetuous, but he'd never..."

       "Never what? Never steal?"

       "Never. You're wrong. You're all wrong."

       "Then why, Miss Fancy-talker," he chucked her chin, do you think we're chasing him around the country?"

       "I...I don't know."

       A powerful aftershock rattled the dishes in the cupboard and set the chandeliers to swaying.

       "I hate those things." Curly stood and reached for a cigarette in his shirt pocket. He took his time lighting it and deliberately blew smoke in Jenny's face." It might snow and blow in Chicago, but at least the ground is steady."

       "Curly, please tell me. Where is the briefcase?"

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       "Hey, stop asking stupid questions." He laughed and exhaled another puff of smoke. "But I'll tell you this: I saw Darke with a briefcase. When the quake hit, it must of flew across the room."

       Jenny's heart plunged. "Then where is it? Curly, I'd really appreciate if you'd return it to me."

       "You can talk fancy all night, lady, but I ain't putting my hands on that briefcase for nothing. That's Sammy's job. I know who's buttering my bread and it ain't you."

       He glanced at his watch. "now shut up while I make a call to Chicago. Get up. I gotta find a safe place for you."

       He grabbed her arm and forced her three flights up and around the staircase into a tiny cupola. "Sit tight. I'm getting some shuteye after I make my call."

       Jenny sank into a chair at the sturdy table, and retreated into memories of the past two days. She thought of Alex. He'd been upright, comforting, and protecting, and she'd rewarded him by walking away without warning. His suspicion of her father had infuriated her. Now a frightening feeling surfaced. Was Alex right? Was Curly right? Had her father diverted some of the funds to his own account somewhere? No, she shook her head, her father would never cheat or swindle, not even from cheaters or swindlers.

       Jenny looked around the small cupola, and instinctively knew that this was the room where they'd kept her father. But it wasn't only instinct. Under the table, in the corner of the room, she found his business card. On the back he'd scribbled a note.

To Althea, my love.
I married an angel.
You lit up my heart, my life, my world.
And with reckless disregard I extinguished your light.
And now I sit alone in the dark.

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       Slow, hot tears shimmered on her cheeks. She whispered aloud. "Daddy, you're not alone. I don't care what you've done, I'll always he here for you. That is, if I get out alive."

       The earthquake had saved her dad's life, but what would save her? She had visions of being stuffed into the trunk of a car, driven to a pier at midnight, and tossed into the ocean. One minute she shuddered, and the next she whispered a prayer.

       "God, I know I haven't spoken to you lately. I've been mad at you for taking Mom and for letting Dad get involved with those terrible people. But now you're all I have, and I need you desperately. I'll even endure another earthquake if you'll get me out of this mess."

       Like a comforting hand on her shoulder, a sweet presence filled the room. The memory of her mother softly reading the Bible stories to her with absolute love and security between them reached across the years. The memory surfaced of nestling close as her mother enacted each character in the story. Her favorite was the story of Samuel and how God had called him while he slept. She'd begged to hear the same story each night at bedtime. After her mother tiptoed out of the room, she'd stay alertly awake hoping God would call her name. Just like Samuel she would answer, "Speak, Lord, I'm listening." But he had never called. Or hadn't she been listening?

       I'm listening now, God, Jenny whispered through trembling lips. Help me out of here. I must get to my father. I must convince Alex that my dad would never, ever steal from anyone, especially not a corrupt organization like the mafia.

       Thoughts of Alex permeated her mind. If, in her lifetime, she gave FBI agents a thought, she'd imagined them as untouchables. Alex was tough and he was tender. She closed her eyes against the memory of his arms holding her close, of the look in his eyes as they lingered on her face. He had touched a chord in her soul. She tried to refocus her thoughts on her father but they kept wandering to Alex Kendall. His blue eyes, his compelling voice and tousled dark hair. Not only was he a

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strikingly handsome man, but he was a gentleman. There was an electric quality about him that she'd sensed the moment they met. She'd felt a strange, new sensation as they walked together early this morning. Alex seemed someone who, like her father, made her feel safe. No, she turned her thoughts over in her mind. He wasn't like her father at all. Philip Lansing wasn't one to listen or answer question or understand unspoken words. He immersed every spare moment in plotting and writing his latest nobel. Between books, his thought were on the bookstore's sales receipts. Not that he ignored his family, no, if asked, he would have said that everything was for his beloved Althea and sweet Jenny. Every sale, every dream of a blockbuster novel was for them to gain entrance back into Althea's elitist world.

       No, Alex wasn't like her father. Alex listened with his posture, with his eyes, with his mind. His direct gaze unnerved her. When he listened, he was there. She scolded her thoughts. Of course he was there, it was his job, wasn't it? She mustn't be taken in by his charm. He was only doing his job. His striking looks and smooth manner means nothing. He was a stranger. Somewhere he had a life of his own, maybe a girl. If he only knew the real Philip Lansing. A dreamer, yes, but an honest man who would never, ever have been involved with the mafia if they hadn't threatened his family. No matter what Alex Kendall thought or said, she knew the truth. Her father was a decent man, a caring man, a loving man. She would defend him to the death. She was all her father has in the world. Of course, there was Uncle Charlie, but she'd never counted him as family. He was like a mirage. Now you see him, now you don't. No, he couldn't or wouldn't comfort his brother because he had no comfort in himself. Not restless, unsettled Uncle Charlie.

       Jenny dropped her face into her hands. She prayed again...for her father and for her own safety. It seemed forever before she jerked her head up and listened with a pounding heart. Footsteps were thumping up the

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stairs. Coming closer. She clasped her trembling hands and steeled herself against the whirling panic jumping nimbly down her throat.

       Curly burst into the room. "I called Sammy." He plopped on the bench. "He was otherwise preoccupied, but he said he'd call right back."

       "Is he coming?"

       "I'll know when he calls. But I'd bet on it."

       "What will he do to me?"

       "What do you think? Though it's too bad. You're a gorgeous tomato, and if Sammy wasn't coming, I'd take a bite out of you myself." He roared with laughter. "But I tried it once with one of his babes, and he almost blew my head off."

       Jenny pulled her jacket around her shoulders. "Who else is in this house?"

       "Just you and me, babe." He grinned. "You thirsty?"

       Jenny nodded. "Yes, please, I'd love a glass of water."

       Curly pulled the door open. When he turned to smile at Jenny, he looked as if he could be a high school student playing in Senior League baseball.

       "Why, Curly?" she asked, "why are you involved with Sammy Gavota?"

       His smile faded. His glance grew sharp. "It's none of your business, lady, but I'll tell you anyway." He walked back to the chair, and straddled. It's a door my old man opened and all I had to do was walk in." He patted her cheek and walked out of the room.

       Yes, his father had opened a door, Jenny thought. If only he could foresee his future. There were two exits if he kept on this road, prison or death. She pitied his prospects. Suddenly she thought of her own future. Did she have a chance of escaping?

       She tiptoed to the door and peered down the hall. The telephone rang, startling her. Leaning precariously over the staircase, she listened to the one-sided conversation.

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       Now, she told herself, while Curly was distracted, she might make her way down the long, circular staircase, and race into the night. Remembering his strength and dangerous smile, she momentarily hesitated. On the first landing, she caught a glimpse of his back as he spoke into the telephone.

       "Yeah Sammy? Yeah, thanks for calling back. I got the girl right here. Not to worry. Quite a dish, you know? What? Of course. I ain't stupid, am I? She's all yours." A lewd laugh sent a shiver down Jenny's spine. "You taking a cab here when you land? Yeah, I got a pencil and paper. I'm taking down the times."

       Jenny slipped off her shoes, and took another step down the stair case. The broken front door was in view. Holding her breath, she tiptoed toward the entrance.

       Curly was describing the earthquake with dramatic emphasis on his own bravery and survival. "Yeah," he crowed, "Luke and Freddy went down. They was crushed by the fireplace. Lansing was injured. The police got him. Put him in the hospital." His voice became a whine. "I tried, Sammy, I tried."

       Curly was talking nonstop vividly describing the earthquake when Jenny quietly tiptoed through the open front door and ran out into the black night.

Chapter 19  ||  Table of Contents