It takes two days to get a loved ones ashes back from the crematorium. That’s something I know now. After meeting with the cheap estate lawyer my mother had used to draw up a will when she and Bob moved to Georgia, we learned that it was her wish to be cremated and that her ashes be spread over the sound in Seattle.
She’s left everything to Bob, minus some jewelry that had belonged to my grandmother and an old antique hope chest that she wanted me to have. He argued with me at first and said that my mother’s things should go to me since the will had been written before their separation, but under the circumstances I’d rather he make the decisions over what to do about the things that are all that remain of the life they had together. I don’t need her things. Things don’t bring her back and looking at them is too painful. Still, both he and Christian are insistent that I at least go through what’s left in the house before we leave to make sure there’s absolutely nothing of hers that I want to keep. So, on our last night in Georgia, Kate comes with me to my mother’s home and helps me sort through everything.
“Oh my god,” she says with amazement as she makes her way deeper into my mother’s closet. “I just got to the nineties.”
I sigh. “She never threw anything away. Except husbands, I guess.”
Kate frowns, but pulls out an azure colored power suit with over the top shoulder pads sewn in. “Awh, I remember this! Didn’t she wear this to our kindergarten graduation?”
“Yeah. Donate it.”
“What? Are you sure?”
I look away from her so she can’t see the tears welling in my eyes and quickly shake my head. “Yeah, I’m sure. I don’t need it so just donate it.”
“Well, I know you don’t need it, but don’t you want it? Something to remember her by?”
Her words wash over me and I can’t stop the grief that bubbles up inside of me. My face crinkles with pain and I break down into tears on my mother’s bed.
“Shit, Ana. I’m sorry.” The dress falls out of her hands and she crawls onto the bed next to me to wrap me in her arms. I try as best I can to pull back the tears, but now that the dam is broken, there’s no way to call back the flood.
“I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“Okay, we’ll take a break.”
I shake my head. “No, I don’t want to do it at all. Just get rid of everything, okay? I don’t want any of this stuff.” After a few calming breaths, I untangle myself from her arms and sit upright again, wiping the tears from my face and trying desperately to hang on to some form of composure. “I’m fine. I just want to throw everything away and get out of here. I’m fine.”
She watches me wearily as I climb off the bed and start to gather the things I had previously decided to take, a blanket she’d crocheted when I was a baby and has been around as long as I can remember, the jewelry box, and a sweatshirt that says Harvard Mom, and while I struggle to put the items into the oversized canvas bag I’ve brought along, she reaches out to stop me.
“Ana, you’re allowed to grieve. You don’t have to put on this strong front… no one would ever accuse you of being weak.”
“I’m not. I’m fine.”
“I just don’t want to talk about it, okay? I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to think about this and I don’t want to feel this. I can’t handle it, so I’m just not going to. I’m not going to do this.”
“I don’t think it works that way, Ana. You can’t just skip grief.”
“Annie?” We turn towards the sound of my father’s knuckles rapping against the door frame and the second I see the look on his face, I once again have to fight the dry ache in my throat and the sting of impending tears in my eyes.
“I’ll just give you two a minute…” Kate says. She squeezes my hand and then moves to leave the room, but at the door, she pauses and leans up on her toes to whisper something in my dad’s ear. He nods and then steps aside so she can leave. Once she’s gone, he closes the door and comes to me. He’s holding a book, but I can’t see what it is because his arms open like he’s going to hug me, and I immediately have to move out of his reach.
“Don’t…” I warn him. “Please, don’t. I can’t cry anymore and that’s all you’re going to do, so please don’t.”
“It’s okay to cry, Annie. It’s okay to be sad. You should be. I know that it’s been rough for you two for a while, but I know that you loved your mother and that she loved you.” He takes a deep breath to quell his own emotion. “I know how hard this is for you.”
“No you don’t. I’m sorry, but no you don’t. The last time I spoke to her, I told her that I didn’t want her in my life anymore. I told we were done and then I asked my CPO to take her out of the room and out of my life. She died thinking I hated her, Dad. And I did.” My voice breaks on the last word and I have to sit back on the bed to keep myself from falling to the ground. “I did because I was so angry I couldn’t give her the time to explain herself. And when she reached out to me and tried to tell me what had happened, when she wrote to me trying to warn me of what was coming, I ignored her. I didn’t even read those letters until it was too late. I’m never going to be able to take that back, Dad. Mom died thinking I hated her.”
“No.” He chokes over the word as he begins shaking his head and wiping away his own tears. “No, she died thinking you had tried save her.”
He sits on the bed next to me and I immediately fall into him, letting him wrap me in the warm embrace that has comforted so many of my fears and heartaches over the years, yearning for it to do just that now.
“Why did this have to happen? I’m not ready to let her go. There’s so much she’s going to miss and that I’m not going to be able to share with her. Calliope will never know her. She won’t be there for her first birthday, she won’t see her first step or hear her first word… She’s gone, and I’m never going to see her again. What if… what if I forget her?”
“You won’t. Not ever.” I sniff and he hugs me tighter to him and kisses my temple before pulling me back so he can look me in the eye. “Come here, I want to show you something.”
I nod and move into the center of her bed while he pulls back the comforter and crawls in beside me. As I nestle down into his side, my mother’s smell surrounds me. I pause to breathe it in as deeply as possible, ignoring how tight it makes my throat feel, and try to memorize everything about it. It’s undoubtedly the first thing that will be lost to me in her absence, so I cling to it.
“Bob and I were going through your mother’s trunks and we found this.” He pulls the book he was carrying and places it on his lap in front of the both of us. As I look down at it, I realize that it’s a photo album. “There’s a lot of good stuff in here.”
He opens the cover to the first page, revealing pictures of the day I was born scattered across the black cardstock. My mom looks so young in these pictures, and extremely exhausted. My biological father was deployed, in fact, he died the day after this, so it’s my grandmother who leans down next to her in the only photo here that isn’t just of the two of us. The two of us. That’s how my life started. Just her and me. And the look on her face as she stares down at me in her arms in each and every faded photo makes my chest ache. There’s love there. Unrelenting, true love, which I recognize because it’s the way I feel when I look at my own daughter.
He turns the page and suddenly Ray is in our lives. This must have been after they were married because I look almost a year old in these photos, and as I stare at both my mother and father’s hair and clothes that are the late eighties personified, I can’t hold back my laugh.
“I still have those pants, you know,” my dad says, pointing at a pair of authentic parachute pants with some kind of chaotic black and white pattern spread across them.
“I can’t believe you ever wore those!” I giggle. He flashes a broad grin at me.
“Your mother bought them for me. She was very MTV back then and…” he sighs. “Oh, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have done for her. Look how happy we were.” He points at a photo in the corner of the three of us. It looks like they’re trying their damndest to take a good family photo, but I’m perched on Ray’s hip and far too interested in taking his sunglasses to look at the camera. My mom looks beside herself with laughter while Ray clutches his sunglasses against his face and tries to move out of the reach of my tiny little hand.
It’s the perfect picture, encapsulating the way I remember my life felt before Ray found out about the affair my mom had when I was fifteen, their subsequent divorce, and her disastrous marriage to Stephen. I’d forgotten this and how much I’d idolized her when I was a child, probably because of the resentment I harbored against her when Ray left. But it wasn’t always like that. She was amazing, and she worked as hard as she could to make sure I had a wonderful childhood. The evidence of that is spread across these pages.
We flip through photos of old vacations, holidays, and picnics in the park. My dad takes the time to reminisce over each and every memory and shares with me every one of the stories that are tied to the pictures here. I listen eagerly to everything he has to say and as we laugh together over a picture of my mom screaming and running away from a fish on the end of Ray’s pole, a welcome sense of peace crosses over me.
This is how people move past this. The hopelessness that’s had me spiraling between anger and overwhelming pain is all because I can’t handle the thought that I’ve lost her forever. That I’m never going to see or speak to her ever again. But she isn’t lost. She’s here, on these pages. She’s in the sixteen years of stories and memories I share with my dad, and the six more years of memories I have without him. And, as I listen to his stories and hear the side of things I never got as a child, I realize that she’s actually in every decision I make, everything I stand up for, and in the way I treat and love the people around me. Because she’s in me. She made me the person that I am. I’ve learned from her mistakes, and from her triumphs, and her guidance has not only made me a better person, but it’s going to make me a better mother too.
“Thank you, Daddy,” I say, cuddling into his side and wrapping my arms around him as tightly as I can.
“You’re welcome, sweetheart. There’s more of these out in the living room, I think you should keep them. That way, when you’re sad or you miss your mom….” His face morphs with pain and he leans back for a second, looking up and away from me to try and hold back his own tears. He can’t though, and when he speaks again, his voice is strained and a tear rolls from the corner of his eye down his stubbled cheek. “Call me, okay? And we’ll look through these together.”
I nod and bury my face in his chest, but I don’t have the chance to fall apart all over again because my phone rings from the place where it’s resting at the bottom of the bed.
“That’s probably Christian. I left him alone with Calliope.”
“Uh oh.” My dad laughs and releases me so I can pick up the phone, but when I look down at the screen, it isn’t Christian’s name I see displayed there.
“Shit, it’s Lydia…”
“My book agent. Crap, I’m probably going to be sued by Random House for abandoning my book tour.” I take a deep breath, steeling myself, and answer the call. “Hi, Lydia.”
“Ana, you darling girl. You’ve done it!”
“I just got the email, Escape is going to debut at number three on the New York Times’ bestseller list.”
“Apparently, all of this press from leaving at the very beginning of your tour for this family emergency has drummed up a ton of interest in you, and by proxy, your book. You’ve moved 14,000 copies in the past four days..”
“14,000 copies? Of my book? Oh my god. That’s amazing!”
“Yes. Yes it is. But we can’t lose momentum. I’ve spoken with Random House and they’re willing to cancel the rest of your scheduled publicity tour if you sit down through a press junket to give some written interviews, do an AMA, and attend one public black tie party where they can invite a ton of fabulous people and the press and have you do one reading.”
“It’ll be in Seattle. I was at least able to ensure everything would come to you so you didn’t have to travel and be away from your family while you’re dealing with all of this.”
I sigh and let my head drop back as I consider the request. In Seattle or not, this isn’t good timing. We still have so much unresolved and a big public event presents a certain amount of danger. Especially in Seattle. Or… maybe the fact that it is so public would make it okay? Last March, when I was leaving the hospital, Taylor said the press was my friend. No one would attack me with cameras pointed directly at me at all times, and that’s exactly what this would be. It gets me out of the lengthy tour obligation, keeps me home so our security isn’t spread out, and it gives me the chance to celebrate this life long dream that, in light of everything else, has felt like nothing more than an asterisk mark to all other drama on my life.
“Okay,” I agree hastily. “Let’s do it.”
“Oh, good. I’m so glad you agreed because it’s already been planned. Your book party will take place at the Columbia Center in downtown Seattle on Saturday night. Eight o’clock.”
“Saturday? Lydia, it’s Thursday!”
“I know, but Random House is really trying to push you to number one by next week. Apparently Stephen King has some big novel coming out in the next few weeks and they’re afraid if we drag this out too long, that top spot is going to be stolen out from under you.”
I actually have to pause for a second and let those words wash off me before I can respond. She just used mine and Stephen King’s name in the same sentence… about the number one slot on the New York Times’ Bestseller List. My face breaks into a huge, uncontrollable smile that makes me glad she can’t see me through the phone.
“We’ll find a way to make it work. Thank you, Lydia.”
“No problem, Ana. I’ll see you Saturday. Oh! And, congratulations.”
“Thank you. Bye.” I hang up and the moment the phone is out of my hand, my dad pounces on me.
“I’m a New York Times bestseller.”
“Annie!” I let out an elated laugh as he pulls me into his arms and rocks me back and forth. “This is the most amazing news! I’m so proud of you, baby girl.”
“Thanks, Dad.” I look up at him beaming down at me, but as I see the pride reflected in his eyes, the enormity of that phone call hits me. “Oh my god, I have so much to do… I need to get back to Seattle. I have to get a dress and figure out what to do with Calliope and… fuck, security. What am I going to do with Taylor being here? They said they can’t transport him back home until next week, and we haven’t gotten Mom’s ashes back yet. How am I going to get her ashes?”
“Don’t worry about all of that, that’s all just extra stuff that we’ll figure out along the way. You’ve got a good support network around you and we’ll help you with whatever we can. You just worry about enjoying this, Annie. This is your moment and after all you’ve been through, you deserve it.”
I smile. “Okay.”
“Good, then first things first. Let’s go tell your husband and get you back home.” He pulls the blanket back so I can climb out of bed, and I lean up to kiss him on the cheek before grabbing the album and scurrying from the room to where Luke is waiting in the living room. He’s plugged into his laptop, focusing hard on the screen as his fingers fly over the keyboard, and he’s so engrossed in whatever he’s doing that when I tap him on the shoulder, he jumps.
“Fuck,” he says, pulling an earbud out so he can focus on me. “You scared me.”
“Scared you?” I give him a hard look. “Keeping a real sharp eye out, huh?”
“Sorry, this is just taking me longer than I expected and it’s… frustrating.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m trying to hack your husband.”
“My husband? Why?”
“Because log-ins can be traced and, if I’m right, I don’t want Gresham knowing we’re onto him.”
I stare at him with confusion as he begins typing on his keyboard again, entering a long line of nonsensical code in a black text box and then watching the responding codes that follow.
“What are you talking about? What is this?”
“Grey asked me to find a link from Gresham to the plot against you and I have a hunch but…” He stops as his eyes begin scanning through the new code on the screen, and after inputting a few more lines of his own, there’s a slight disruption in the display and then a new screen pops up. It’s a portal to a bank account with a ridiculous number of zeros attached to the balance.
“Fuck… I’m right,” Luke says.
“What is that?”
“This is your husband’s Cayman Islands trust account. It’s the same kind of thing Gresham’s been using to hide his paper trail from us.”
“Why does he have $63 million in an offshore account?”
“Because he set it up for you, remember? When he thought there was a chance that he was going to prison last year?” I look down at the screen and try to remember that night, which is difficult because I’ve done everything I could to forget it. He told me there was money set aside for me and gave me a business card. My purse is on the sofa so I begin digging through it until I find my wallet, and in the mix of the dozen or so loyalty and rewards cards I have shoved in the folds, I find the crumpled up business card Christian gave to me should any of my information ever change. Embossed on the front in flat, silver typeface is the name Charles Gresham.
His name has been in my wallet this entire time.
“Wait, I thought he said there was $65 million in that account?” I glance up at Luke and toss him the card.
“There was.” He tilts the screen towards me so I can see the dozens of purchases for various amounts of money. $6,000, $1,800, $32,000, even $250,000. In total, over $2 million is missing and it all been paid to the same company. Limited LTD.
A chill washes over me as I hear Christian’s words from a past conversation echo through my head, ‘Taylor may have found something in Leila’s financial records, a paper trail. Her tuition, her apartment, her living expenses were all being paid out of an offshore account owned by a company called Limited LTD, based in Panama.’
“Oh my god… That’s his company. Gresham’s. Limited LTD was the shell company he used to tie up the trust in Panama. He’s been paying people with Christian’s money.”
“Looks like it.”
There’s a knock on the door behind us, which makes Bob come out of the kitchen where he’s been sorting everything that is being shipped off to Goodwill later in the week. Luke and I fall silent as he opens the door, but relax when we see that it’s Christian who steps inside, holding a very wiggly Calliope in the crook of his arm.
“Christian!” My dad says jovially, coming out of the kitchen behind Bob. “I should have known you wouldn’t wait until we got back to celebrate. Isn’t this exact news we needed right now?”
“I’m sorry… what?” Christian looks back at my father with blank confusion and when his eyes shift to me, I feel my cheeks heat with a kind of prideful embarrassment. “You have news?”
“Yeah, um… I got a call from Lydia. Apparently me not going on my book tour was publicity all in itself. Escape is going to debut at number three on the New York Times’ bestseller list.”
His eyes widen. “What?”
I nod enthusiastically and his face breaks into a breathtaking smile.
“Ana, that’s incredible. Congratulations.”
“You didn’t tell me that, you punk.” Luke backhands me across my hip, but when I turn back to look at him, he’s smiling. “That’s awesome. Congratulations, Ana.”
“Well, if you’re not here to celebrate, what are you doing?” My dad asks. “Don’t tell me my perfect, angel granddaughter is giving you trouble.”
“Oh, she and I have had quite the day, but I’m here because we’re all headed to dinner and I wondered if you had time for a break and could join us?” He looks back to me and I frown.
“Actually, I came out here to talk to Luke because I needed to go find you. Lydia said Random House is willing to cancel the rest of my book tour if I fulfill a few last publicity obligations in Seattle. We need to fly home. Tonight, if possible.”
“Oh, well… yeah. I’ll call my pilot and have them fuel the plane. After dinner, we’ll go back to the hotel, pack, and be on our way.”
“Good, but first…” I turn to Luke, and as the excitement on his face turns somber and he reaches for his laptop again, Christian stiffens.
“Have you found something?”
“Unfortunately, yes. There’s a connection between Gresham and the account that’s being used to fund this plot against you. The account Taylor uncovered through Leila’s finances, the one that he’s used to pay all of the people who have come after you, is being funded through your own Caymen Islands account.” He turns the laptop towards Christian so he can see the purchases. “Authorization, Charles Gresham.”
The confusion on Christian’s face doesn’t diminish as he glances over the proof displayed on the screen of Luke’s laptop but I have a sneaking suspicion that may be because of shock.
“What did you just say?”
“Limited LTD is funded through your account, and the funds are transferred from that shell company into the Panama account he’s using to pay his people He’s using your own money against you.”
The color drains from Christian’s complexion and as I see his body begin to shake, wonder if I should take the baby from him. Before I can move though, he turns to yell in the direction of the kitchen.
“Kate?” It takes a few seconds but she stumbles through the opening between the kitchen through the living room, her knees covered in dust, pulling yellow dishwashing gloves off her hands.
“My parents are taking Elliot and Mia to the 45th St Bistro. Would you and Ray mind getting Ana’s things together, taking Calliope, and letting them know we’ll be late but that you should all start without us? We’ll be leaving tonight, so I don’t want them to wait.”
“Uh, sure. Is everything okay?”
“Fine. We’ll be right behind you.”
She glances suspiciously between Christian and I for a moment, but shrugs and holds her hands out for Calliope. The moment he slides her into Kate’s arms though, she starts crying.
“You’re sure you want me to take her?”
Christian nods. “There’s a pacifier in her car seat. She’s been a little attached to me today but she also hasn’t napped much. Hopefully, she’ll fall asleep once you get her in the car.”
“Okay.” Her tone is dubious, because we all know that Christian is the one person Calliope has a hard time being separated from when she’s feeling comfortable, but she doesn’t argue. She turns to make her way back up the hallway where I’ve left the bag containing the things I wanted to keep of my mother’s and the moment she’s out of sight, Christian rounds on Luke.
“I want screenshots of everything. We need physical proof of every transfer that he’s made and the corresponding dates to when they hit the Panama account. Start a file that we can send to Hsu at the FBI. I want enough evidence for them to go after him by the time we touch down in Seattle.”
“And I don’t want to leave Taylor or Reed here with no one to keep an eye on them. They’ve been targeted once, they’ll be targeted again. Who do we have that we can spare?”
“That have been vetted?” He shakes his head. “No one.”
“It’s just Kommer and I now.”
“How long will it take to bring someone on?”
Luke frowns. “I–I don’t have the contacts that, Taylor does. I’m not head of security, I’m just a tech guy who can throw a punch and shoot a gun. I’d have no idea where to start for recruiting…”
We all turn to face my father, who is standing looking purposefully at Christian, and my mouth drops open in horror. “What? You? No!”
“I can help, Annie. I’m more than capable of keeping watch on a civilian hospital for a few days and once Taylor is able to be airlifted home, I can bring your mother’s ashes to you. It solves everything.”
“No,” I argue again, shaking my head. “No, I don’t want you separated from us. If he’s trying to target me, he’ll hurt you.”
“I’m not afraid of him.” He turns back to Christian. “I have 23 years of experience in special ops for the United States army and Jason Taylor was wounded while trying to protect my family. I took an oath to never leave a man behind, and I don’t intend to.”
Christian looks wearily at him for a moment, torn between his need for my father’s help and the quiver in my voice.
We all turn at Luke who is looking down at his laptop now with wide eyes, tapping furiously on the keys as though he’s trying to undo something.
“What is it?”
“The Panama account. It’s empty.”
“What? What do you mean it’s empty?” Christian asks.
“We saw over two million dollars in transfers to that account,” I add.
“We did, but it’s gone. It looks like it was emptied by wire transfer this morning.”
“This morning? To who?”
“I don’t know, sir. It only tells me that the transfer was made…”
“Fuck.” Christian’s jaw clenches. “He knows we’re onto him. He’s going to try and run. Get Kommer on the phone. I want eyes on Gresham, now. He doesn’t move, he doesn’t even breathe without us knowing about it.”
He turns back to face my father. “It could be dangerous for you to stay behind.”
“I’m well aware of that, Son.”
He nods. “Okay then. Thank you, Ray.”
“No! Christian, No!”
“Ana, we don’t have another option. Sawyer’s right. It’s just him and Kommer now. I don’t have anyone else and both Reed and Taylor need us take care of them right now.”
“I’ll be fine, Annie.”
I shake my head again. “You don’t know that.”
“Alright, we’re all set,” Kate says, coming back into the room. “You said they were at 45th…” She stops as she catches up with the mood in the room. “What’s going on?”
“Change of plan,” Christian says. “We’re not going to dinner. We’re leaving now.” He holds his hand out to me. “Ana.”
“I’m not leaving my dad here alone.”
“We don’t have a choice, Ana.”
“No.” I look back at my father, my eyes pleading. “Please don’t make me beg.”
He takes a deep breath, and then turns to face Christian. “Go on. She’ll be out in a second.”
Christian nods then reaches out to take Calliope back from Kate, and after Luke has gathered all of this things, the three of them say goodbye to Bob and make their way through the front door.
“No. Dad, I’ve already lost mom. Please, please, don’t make me risk losing you too.”
“I know you’re scared, but I can handle myself, sweetheart. I’ll be fine.”
“You can’t promise me that. You don’t realize what he’s capable of, what he’s willing to do!”
“You just have to trust me. I’m going to be fine. I’ll be home in a few days and when I get back, we’re going to get on that big boat of Christian’s with the rest of the Greys and we’re going to sail out into the middle of the water and say goodbye to your mother together. You said yourself that’s what you wanted, this is how we make that happen.”
I stare at him, feeling tears prick my eyes as I try to find the words to argue with him more. The problem is, he’s right. Christian’s right. There’s no one else and I don’t want to leave Taylor or Carter vulnerable anymore than I want to keep my Dad out of harm’s way. They’re family too and, for their safety, my dad really is the best for the job.
“I promise you, Ana. I know what I’m doing. This is what I’ve done my whole life. Right now, you need to go back home and take care of your business. You need to get on that plane and so your husband can go home and find this guy and put an end to it once and for all. If he’s trying to run, you don’t have a lot of time, and if you’re going to protect yourself, your husband, your daughter… you need to stop him before he gets away. I can’t help you with that. But I can help with this. I need to stay hand and look out for what’s ours.”
I swallow, and after a long moment of hesitation, finally nod. “Just… don’t be a hero, okay? If something happens, protect yourself as much as you’re protecting them. Promise me that.”
I bite down on my lip, still not feeling comfortable with the idea of him staying behind but knowing with more certainty after each passing minute that there’s no way around it. He gives me a reassuring smile, so I step forward and wrap my arms around him as tightly as I can.
“I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too, sweetheart. Go knock ‘em dead. I know very well that that top spot is all yours. Nothing stops my Annie, right?”
I nod into his jacket and give him one last squeeze before letting out a harsh but cathartic breath and pulling away. Bob is standing by the door and as I pick up my purse from the couch I glance over and give him a wistful smile.
“I’m gonna miss you, Ana,” he says. “You’re a good kid. It’s been an honor being your step-dad.”
“There’s no reason to miss me,” I reply. “Just ‘cause Mom’s gone, it doesn’t mean you’re not apart of my family. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I do this thing where I like to keep my step-dads around.”
He laughs and nods. “I appreciate that. I really do.”
I cross the room and wrap him in a hug too, and as his arms curl around me, I feel his body sag. “Keep in touch, okay?” I tell him. “And, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Fourth of July, Callie’s birthday, hell… President’s Day, you’re always welcome in our home.”
“I love you, Ana.”
“I love you too, Bob. Call me later, okay?”
“Okay. Now get out of here and go get that book to number one.” He leans down and kisses the top of my head before releasing me and giving me one last affectionate smile. I turn back to my dad, hesitating once more, but wave and turn to leave.
I pause as Bob turns around and heads back into the kitchen, and when he returns my throat tightens once more when I see what he’s holding in his hand. It’s one of the dozens of souvenir Disneyland mugs my mother has collected over the years.
“Nothing in this world makes me think of your mother more than these mugs. I thought you should have one.”
“You’re right,” I say, laughing in spite of myself as I take one. “Thank you, Bob. This really is great.”
“See you soon, kid.”
I give him one last smile and then turn to leave for real. The door closes behind me and I immediately hear Calliope screaming from her car seat, while Christian and Kate stand over her, huddled tightly together in the open space between the car and the door, trying to coax her into taking a pacifier. And while hearing Calliope so upset triggers every one of my maternal instincts to calm and care for my baby, the scene before me is actually very comforting. There’s normalcy in it, and normalcy means life moves on. Right now, that’s the most meaningful thing in the world to me. The knowledge that in spite of everything we’ve been through, my family is strong and life will go on.
We have to go through a drive thru on our way from the hotel to the airport, and watching Christian eating Burger King as though he’s being forced to choke down poison has both Kate and I laughing so hard it makes our sides hurt. It’s the perfect thing to keep our minds off Gresham until we’re all seated on the plane, preparing for take off, and I glance over to see Luke on the phone trying to coordinate with Kommer while again typing furiously on his laptop. He hasn’t been able to pin down exactly where the wire transfer was received or who signed for it yet, so he’s setting up a remote connection in Seattle to keep the program running after we take off and he loses connectivity.
“Just find him, Kommer,” Luke sighs into the phone. “I don’t care how, just find him and keep in Seattle until we land. By whatever means necessary. I’ll handle it from there.”
He hangs up and glances over at me, but immediately shifts his gaze back to his computer once he realizes I’m staring at him. I want to talk to him and try to get a better idea of the situation and how much control we really have over what’s happening, but I don’t because he slips headphones back into his ears so he can concentrate and Natalia comes down the aisle with the mug of tea Christian asked her to bring for me.
“Thank you,” I say gratefully, and she smiles.
“Is there anything I can get for you, Mr. Grey?”
“No, this is fine.” His tone is sharp, and the anger apparent in everything from the set of his mouth to the way he sits in his seat has Natalia nervously scurrying away from us and disappearing towards the front of the plane. I can feel the tension radiating off of him, and it has me on edge. All this time, I thought if we could just figure out who it was, then we would settle this and it would all be over. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Christian said he was going to try and run, how far out of our reach could he get?
“Everything is going to be okay, right? This is all about to be over?”
He looks at me, but his stoic poker face doesn’t give anything away. He doesn’t say anything, he just leans over and kisses me softly on the cheek.
“I have some work to do. Do you need anything?”
I shake my head and then lean back as he pulls out his own laptop and brings up a prospect report from Ros and a contract with the GEH letterhead at the top. Normally having him occupied by work for the entirety of the long flight while I’m drowning in nerves and unanswered questions would drive me insane. But today, I have my own distraction. There’s an email in my own inbox from Lydia going over questions she thinks will be asked in the interviews I’ll sit down for on Saturday, and how she thinks I should best answer them. With over seventy questions to review and to memorize responses for, I’m actually able to successfully keep my mind diverted from thoughts of my dad staying back in Georgia or the unknown of what we’ll find back home. That is until we land in Seattle and both Christian and Luke begin exchanging nervous looks, first with each other and then out the dark window. There’s a line of cars waiting to take us and Christian’s family home home, and the sight of the headlights cutting through the misty air has all of our collective minds back on Gresham.
“Let’s go,” Christian says, grabbing my hand and pulling me from our seats the moment the doors have opened. We step into the warm night, which is heavy with moisture from rain that seems to have just stopped falling. It’s quiet, more so than is normal for the airport, and it actually seems to intensify my nerves. Like someone is watching us, waiting… The passenger’s side door of the car first in the line opens and Kommer steps onto the tarmac. We all turn to face him, hopeful, but his face doesn’t suggest he has good news for us.
“Fuck,” Christian hisses, making the same observation I have. He pulls me down the steps with him and waves off the driver who comes around to greet us. His attention is only on Kommer.
“Where is he?”
“I’m sorry, sir. He’s gone. His house, his office, it’s all been cleaned out. I collected what I could from his residence, even had a laptop to bring to Welch, but the hard drive had been wiped. He must have known we were coming after him and ran. He’s disappeared.”