CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

"This is it, Kendall," Jerry Gilman, an undercover agent spoke into his car phone. "I'm going in. Murphy will join you in your car. If I'm not out in ten minutes, call for backup and come in."

       "Right." Alex reached over and unlocked the passengers' door. He nodded to Agent Red Murphy who climbed in beside him.

       They watched Gilman make an U-turn and park down the incline from the Gavota estate. Alex had been involved in many sting operations, but this was the first one that involved him personally. His blood ran cold thinking what those thugs might do to Jenny. He closed his eyes and silently prayed for her safety.

       He picked up his car phone and dialed the operator. "L.A.X. please." Once he received the number, he glanced over at Murphy. "I'm checking to see if Gavota is on a flight today or tonight."

       "Like they'll tell you." Murphy, a rookie agent, smirked.

       "They'll tell me. Just need an official ID." Alex dialed the number and turned to watch the Gavota estate. "Yeah," he spoke into the mouth piece. "This is Special Agent Alex Kendall. I need to know if a Sam Gavota was on a flight from Chicago anytime today. Here's my identification number. I'll wait, while you check it." His eyes stayed glued on the estate. "He's booked on a morning flight? And what time will that plane land?

       As he replaced the receiver, an aftershock shook the Taurus. Murphy turned pale. "I'm getting a transfer out this crazy place."

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       Alex grinned. "But think of the alternative, Murphy. Snow ... ice ... tornados..."

       Murphy grimaced. Silently they watched as a black Cadillac backed out of a driveway passed their car and drove slowly down the hill. They didn't notice a figure huddled in the back seat.

       "Did you see inside that car? Alex asked.

       "Yeah, an old guy and his wife. Kind of late for them to be out, don't you think?"

       "Anybody else in the car?"

       "Couldn't see anyone."

       Murphy glanced at his watch. "It's been over five minutes and there's no sound or sight of Gilman."

       "Let's go."

       "Didn't he tell us to call for backup?" Murphy asked.

       "You do that while I check the house."

       Letting himself out of the car, Alex held his revolver and crept to the estate. The front door was unhinged and open. He stepped into the entrance and peered past the foyer into the living room. A brick fireplace had collapsed into a grand piano splitting the top in two.

       Inching his way into the kitchen, he stopped. The earthquake had opened cupboard doors shattering dishes on the tile floor. A once enormous bay window lay splintered allowing the chilly night air to filter through the length of the room.

       Alex slowly backed out of the kitchen. He heard a slight noise behind him and quickly reacted. He was too late. Strong arms grabbed him and jabbed a revolver into his ribs. He took two staggering steps back ward and using all his considerable strength he twisted himself free. As he did, his gun fell to the floor. The two men faced each other. Alex's first thought was that this was a kid who belonged on the Little League team he coached each summer. A baseball cap sat precariously on his curly blonde hair. Though he had the looks of a teenager, his

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blue eyes were those of a killer and the revolver he held was pointed straight at Alex's heart.

       In all his years with the Bureau, Alex had never felt so close to death. He weighed his options as he heard the safety released. The kid was smiling, his finger poised to squeeze the trigger. As Alex whispered a silent prayer, a gun exploded. Stunned, he watched the baseball cap fly off the kid's curly hair, his eyes widen, and his jaw drop as he slid slowly to the floor.

       Gilman was leaning against the doorpost, his gun still pointed toward Curly. Blood was seeping from a wound in his shoulder. He staggered toward Alex who caught him as his knees buckled.

       "You saved my life," Alex choked out the words. "That kid was hot to squeeze the trigger."

       Gilman groaned. "Thank God. He shot at me when I came in and would have finished me if you hadn't come when you did."

       "Are you okay? Can you walk?"

       "It's just a flesh wound. I'm okay."

       "Anyone else in the house?"

       Gilman shook his head. "don't know. The kid was standing behind the door when I entered. He spent a few minutes taunting me and finally took aim at my heart. He missed, and hit my shoulder. That's when you came in."

       "Lean on me, Gilman, let's get you to a chair. Sit still until I check the kid."

       Alex looked into the face of his would-be killer and took a deep breath. Horror was still frozen on the boy's face. He'd had no final moment. This boy, hardly in his twenties, had paid the ultimate price for his foray into crime. Alex had enacted this scene far more times than he cared to admit. He looked up at the sound of running footsteps and shouts from the entryway. Their backup had arrived.

      "He's dead," Alex said from his crouched position. "My partner needs an ambulance."

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       Murphy was right behind them, his face ashen gray.

       Alex stood. "Follow me Murphy. We'll search the place."

       The house was silent, except for their quick running steps. Revolvers in hand, Alex motioned for Murphy to search the downstairs as he sprinted up the circular stairs two at a time. At the top he was surprised to find another short flight of stairs. The door of a cupola was open and he stepped into the tiny room. He abruptly stopped. The faint scent of Jenny's cologne stirred his senses. This is the room where they'd kept her, he thought. Where was she now? Had they taken her to another location?

       "Hey, Kendall," Murphy called from the lower rooms. "Nothing here. Let's go. This place is a disaster."

       "Give me a minute," Alex called back. he sank into a chair at the broken table and looked up at the frame of the small sunburst window. This entire case had a kind of nightmarish quality turning his world upside down. Without a doubt he'd found the woman for him. Now, she'd slipped out his grasp.

       Suddenly, he was in a hurry. Jogging down the stairs, Alex motioned for Murphy to follow him. As he drove Ferguson's green Taurus down the curving hills of Chatsworth, Alex retreated into his thoughts. Either Jenny was taken from the estate to another location, or she had escaped. If she did find a way out, he knew where he'd find her. How she'd get there, he had no idea, but knowing Jenny's strong will she'd find a way to her father.

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