Guilt Game

Chapter 1

Roxanne MacFarlane watched on the monitor as three people approached the building. A bearded fifty-something man, a thin eager woman, and a pensive teenage girl. Damn! The reverend had come along. This could get sticky. Rox hoped she didn’t have to resort to kidnapping, but she would do whatever it took to help her client. Every case was personal for her.

The trio disappeared inside the building, so Rox glanced at the second monitor. The view of the lobby was a little distorted, but she could clearly see her partner—her stepdad, Marty, in a fake security uniform—scoot out from behind a small counter. He blocked the access door and gestured for the man in the black cloak to step aside for a weapons search. The reverend looked annoyed but complied.

That was her cue. Time to put on the act. Grabbing the girl and dragging her out would be easier, but at forty years old, Rox was finally learning to pretend. After a deep breath, she bolted down the short hall, opened the door to the lobby, and stepped partway in. “Mia Bankston? You’re late for your appointment.” Rox focused on the girl, a slender fourteen-year-old.

“ I am? I’m sorry.” Mia bit her lip and turned to her mother. The woman shrugged and glanced at the phony spiritual leader and polygamist she’d married. Reverend Jonah was arguing with the security guard, who had his hands under the cult leader’s robe. Nice touch, Marty.

Rox stepped forward, holding the door open. “Let’s get this done right now, or we’ll have to reschedule. I have another appointment soon.”

“ I’d like to wait for my husband.” The mother’s voice was soft and uncertain.

“ I just need Mia to sign.” Rox paused, then projected her voice. “If she wants her money today.” She had lured the girl and her mother—who rarely left the polygamist’s home—with a letter about a phony inheritance.

“ Go ahead,” the self-appointed reverend said. “I’ll be right behind you.” He was pulling ID from his wallet.

Greed had overruled his usual control and caution.

The girl stepped past Rox and through the opening. Rox quickly followed and shut the door behind her, locking the mother out. Rox grabbed Mia’s arm and steered her down the hall. She had rented the small building for a week just for this assignment.

“ What about my mother?” The girl seemed surprised but not alarmed.

So far so good. Ideally Mia’s actions should be voluntary. “Your great-aunt left the money specifically to you. I just need a signature so I can release the funds.” Rox kept moving. She’d done her best to disguise herself with a wig and oversize reading glasses, but she still wanted minimal exposure. During her time at the CIA, they’d never let her do fieldwork, but she’d learned a lot from the operatives anyway.

Behind them the mother screeched, “Why is this door locked?”

The girl stopped.

Damn! Two more steps. Rox gave a small shrug. “Don’t worry, it’s just stuck. Happens every day, but I don’t have time to deal with it right now.” She tugged on Mia’s arm. “Come get your money.”

For a moment, the girl hesitated, her eyes wary.

Rox gave her another charming smile. She was dressed in her only lawyer-looking clothes, a navy skirt and jacket, and she knew she had a trustworthy face. One of the reasons they’d hired her at the CIA—that, and her analytical skills.

Mia shrugged and moved forward. Rox opened the door at the end of the hall, and they entered the room where her client waited.

The girl let out a shocked cry. “Dad?” She stepped forward, confusion and joy playing out on her innocent face. “I thought you were dead!”

“ No, honey. No . . . I’m . . .”

They ran toward each other and embraced in a tight hug.

Rox smiled. This was why she did this work—to reunite people with their families.

The man and his daughter stepped apart and started crying. Tears of joy had always confused Rox. Why did people cry when they were supposed to be happy? It wasn’t logical. But she’d become used to not being able to read people correctly. Except for Marty, whom she’d had a lifetime to figure out.

Rox took a photo of the two, then stepped out of the room to give the family some privacy. Her part was done. Now it was up to her client to convince his daughter to go with him—rather than stay in the polygamous cult and end up as a child bride for a man who already had six wives and fourteen children he controlled with an iron fist. Mia’s father had joint custody, which had been established at birth with his name on the certificate, and never altered in court. But Mia’s mother had taken the girl and gone into hiding.

Rox was careful about custody issues and had done her homework. At fourteen, the girl was free to choose who she wanted to live with. Her client had hired her to find the girl, then get her out. He hadn’t trusted the legal system to help because he had a criminal drug record. But he’d turned his life around and started a business that was doing well enough to afford her twenty-thousand-dollar fee. The second half was being held by a bank that would release it when she showed them the photo. She’d learned early not to trust people to follow through with the final payment, or as she liked to think of it, her success bonus. Her very first client had stiffed her once she had her son back, giving a sob story instead.

Rox left through the back of the building to avoid drama in the lobby with the reverend. Her client would do the same. Marty had probably already escorted Jonah from the building. Her stepdad was an ex-cop and could take care of himself, but she called him anyway. “Are you out?”

“ Yep. That bastard came at me when he realized the girl wasn’t coming back, but I hit a few of his pain centers, and he decided to cooperate. I’ll be at the meet-up spot in five minutes.”

She walked a few blocks to her car, then drove another three to join Marty, who was already in his own car. They usually took both in case circumstances called for it. He got out, gave her a high five, then burst out laughing. “I dig the adrenaline rush of messing with assholes to rescue someone in need.”

“ Me too. See you at home.”

Marty gave her a mock salute and drove off. She’d loved seeing him in uniform when she was a kid and followed him into law enforcement as an adult. But the department had stuck her in tech support after a year on the street. She’d been disappointed but not surprised. The way her brain worked, with its atypical neurologics made her a great data cruncher. But after six years spent cyber hunting addicts and thieves, she’d gotten bored and joined the CIA. Hoping for fieldwork, she’d ended up as an analyst again. After her sister, Jolene, died, Rox had left the agency and started an investigation firm. Now she was her own operative and doing pretty well. With any luck, the treatments she was about to start—a new form of magnetic brain therapy—would make her even better.

Successful missions were essential. She’d failed to rescue Jolene when her sister was in a cult-like multiple marriage. Rox had taken an overseas CIA assignment instead, and Jo had been murdered by the cult leader while she was gone. Rox would never forgive herself. But she was doing her best to make up for it.

Twenty minutes later, she parked at the bank as her work cell phone rang. Assuming it was her current client, she picked up. “Is everything all right?”

“ No. Is this Karina Jones?” The woman’s voice was tentative and stressed.

Jones was the code name she used with clients. Another one already! “Yes. Who is this?”

“ My name is Jenny Carson. My husband, Dave, and I need your help.”

“ Who referred you to me?”

“ Detective Scott Monroe.”

Rox didn’t know Monroe personally, but she knew of him. She and Marty had put out the word about her services among certain law enforcement people with the understanding they would pass it along to others they could trust. Only her first circle of close friends knew she conducted extractions. Beyond that, clients knew her fake name and paid in cash deposits, including some that went directly into a bank account.

“ What kind of help do you need?”

“ Our daughter joined that charity cult, Sister Love, and we haven’t seen her in months. We’re worried sick.” The woman choked back a sob.

Another extraction so soon? Rox didn’t feel ready. And she was supposed to start her therapy tomorrow. But the woman sounded so desperate. Plus, the group mentioned was local, so she wouldn’t have to travel. “What specifically are you worried about?” A rescue target had to be at risk for her to take the case.

“ We think the leader is keeping her captive. Other girls work in their soup kitchen, but Emma doesn’t, and we haven’t seen her since she joined.” The mother burst into tears.

This grief she understood. “Have you been to the police?” Of course they had.

“ They won’t help us. Emma is eighteen, and she joined Sister Love willingly.” Jenny Carson had to stop and take a deep breath. “After we didn’t see her at the soup kitchen, we asked the police to check on her. But even if they knew where the cult members lived, they can’t go in there without a search warrant, and they say we don’t have a real reason to think anything is wrong.”

Rox understood the legal limitations officers faced. “Do you have any evidence that your daughter is being abused or restrained?”

A telling pause. This time, Dave Carson spoke, and she realized they were on speaker phone. “No, but they prey on vulnerable girls. We think the leader trolls online for conversations about suicide.”

A flash of rage burned in Rox’s chest. This was a new low. “That’s deplorable. Do you know his name?”

“ Yes.” Mr. Carson was still doing the talking. “We called the state office where charities have to register, and it was founded by Deacon Blackstone and Margo Preston.”

Deacon? She hoped that was his name and not his religious title. The other person, Margo, might not even exist. “How did he contact your daughter?”

“ Online.” Mrs. Carson was still fighting for control of her emotions. “Our girl was in a car accident, and her best friend died.” Another sob. “Emma was devastated, and she joined the group out of guilt. I’m afraid he’ll ruin her life.”

Rox knew she would take their case. “Okay, I’ll meet with you, but I have conditions. Such as, you can never tell anyone where my office is or discuss the details of my services—unless you’re sending me someone who needs my help. Did Detective Monroe mention my fee?”

“ He said you were expensive, but money is no object.”

Good to know. “I’ll need ten thousand in cash up front. Bring it with you when we meet. If the case has unexpected expenses, we’ll discuss them at the time. If I’m successful, I get another ten grand. Are you fine with that?” Rox sometimes reduced her fee for clients who couldn’t afford her rate, so she had to get full payment from those who could.

“ Of course. We just want our daughter back.”

“ Come to my office tomorrow morning at ten. Bring photos of your daughter, a large one and a wallet size. I’ll text you directions and instructions later today.” At the moment, she was still in Salem, fifty miles south, and had to pick up her payment from the bank, drive back home to Portland, and wrap up the details of her current case.

It was unusual to have another extraction so quickly. She often went months without a call and had to supplement her income with other investigative work. But she itched to get started. After six years as a cop and ten with the CIA, she loved the thrill of the chase, even when it was all on paper. Plus Deacon Blackstone seemed like a dirtbag predator, and she couldn’t wait to extract Emma from his clutches.