Jill Cassidy’s fingers stabbed into the mud as she saw the light spearing the darkness on the road ahead. The vehicle was going slowly, but they’d never see her on this side path. She had to get to the main road. But she had no shoes, and every muscle was aching, throbbing. She’d tried to get to her feet and walk as soon as she’d heard those bastards leave, but she was too weak. She had only managed to crawl slowly, painfully, through the jungle.
She could do this, she told herself desperately as she forced herself to propel her body through the mud on the path. The pain wasn’t as bad as it had been when they’d first left her. Ignore it, think about the story. Always think about the story. It wasn’t the pain, it was the shock that was causing her to shake and feel so weak.
The shock and this gentle, warm tropical rain that had started to fall just as she’d finally managed to pull herself together and force herself to move. Strange that warm rain could make her feel this cold. So gentle, she thought dazedly. Why on earth had that word occurred to her when there seemed to be no gentleness left in her world?
The headlights drew closer.
She had to get to the road before the car passed her.
She tried to move faster.
It was a jeep, she realized. The motor was so loud…Would they hear her if she called out? She had to catch their attention. She made a last effort and rolled out onto the road.
“Jill!” The jeep screeched to a halt. “Dammit to hell!”
Novak, Jill realized. It was Jed Novak, and he was angry…That was okay, let him be angry. All that mattered was that he had come, and nothing else could happen to her as long as he was here.
He jumped out of the jeep. “Jill.” He was striding toward her. “I almost ran over you.”
“You…wouldn’t do…that. Spoil your…image. CIA to the…rescue.”
“Shut up.” Then he was kneeling beside her, the rain beading off the brim of his hat as he looked down at her. “Just look at you, Jill,” he said hoarsely as he wrapped his jacket around her. “I told you to be careful. What happened? Why wasn’t someone with you?” In spite of the roughness of his tone, his hands were gentle as he picked her up and set her inside the jeep. “How badly are you hurt?”
“I don’t know. It…feels bad. But I made it through that jungle…so I guess it’s not—” Jill struggled to keep her voice steady. It was over. Those bastards were gone. Don’t let them do this to her. “I thought they—were going to—kill me. But it turned out they—only wanted to teach me a lesson and get me sent home.”
“You have some nasty bruises.” He stiffened as the dashboard lights fell on her torn blouse and upper body. “Blood. Shit. I shouldn’t have moved you.”
“Not—my blood. Hadfeld. They—wanted to show me—his head. They threw it at me…He’s dead, Novak.”
“You’re not in good shape yourself. Those bruises are really bad, and they’re all over you.” He was carefully feeling her arms and body. “Here, too. Your head? Concussion?”
“I don’t think so. I never totally blacked out.” She’d wanted to black out, but she’d been afraid that if she stopped fighting, she’d never wake up. She started to shake again. Don’t think about it. She’d made it this far, and she’d be fine. Just don’t think about it.
But she couldn’t stop shaking.
“Hey, it’s okay. You’re safe.” Novak had pulled her into his arms and was holding her tight. “Breathe deep. Just take it easy. We’ll talk about it later.”
Safe. She lay there against him, letting his heat warm her, shut out the chill. He was so strong, and she felt as if his strength were pouring into her and shutting out that horrible weakness. Yet more than five minutes passed before she could stop shaking.
She finally sat up and pushed him away. “I’m sorry,” she said unsteadily. “I fell apart. You asked me why—there wasn’t someone—with me. I got the phone call from Hadfeld. But it was a trap. They were waiting for me.”
“How many were there?”
“Can you describe them?”
Describe the pain? Describe the smell of them? Describe the helplessness she’d felt? But she had to focus and try. She shook her head. “Scarves over the lower…half of their faces. One black man, three white. Two of the white men had dark hair, one was fair-haired. It felt like…straw. Most of the conversation was in a Maldara dialect.”
She had to stop a minute before she could go on. “They…wanted to hurt me and…they did. The one who was fair-haired kept driving the others to hurt me more and more. He beat me himself, then he told the others what they had to do and how to do it. He said they’d been sent here to do a job, so do it.” Say it. She had to tell him. She swallowed. “I have a little blood—down there, and I’ll need a rape kit.”
Silence. “They raped you?”
“Three of them did. The one with fair hair only seemed to want to beat me. He seemed…angry.”
“Son of a bitch.” Then Novak began to swear softly and viciously. “We’ll get you to the local hospital in Jokan,” he said. “Another fifteen minutes.”
“No hospital. Not here,” Jill said jerkily. “You’re CIA, and I’ve seen you pull strings. You can get me anything—I need—without throwing me into the system. Do it, Novak.”
“The system isn’t all that bad when you’ve been savaged the way you’ve been, Jill. You’re one of the best journalists I’ve ever come across, but not even a Pulitzer is worth this.” He added harshly, “You should have done what I told you and stayed out of it. Would it have been too much to leave it up to me? You knew I’d follow up.”
“Yes, I know you would,” Jill said wearily. “Because you’re as obsessed as I am. But it was my story—you might have been—too late.” She was getting weaker, she realized. That temporary adrenaline rush when she’d felt so safe with Novak was fading. And there was something she had to do, she remembered vaguely. “Do you have a first-aid kit in this jeep?”
“You don’t have to do it yourself. I’ll get you help right away, Jill.”
“It’s not for me. I need some medical gloves. I couldn’t describe those men, but I—fought them. When they surprised me, they took away my gun, but they’ll have scratches.” She looked numbly down at her hands. “And I might have some DNA beneath my nails if it survived my trip—through—all that mud.”
He muttered another curse, reached into the backseat for the first-aid kit, and handed it to her. The gloves were on top of the bandages, and she quickly pulled them on to protect her nails. She set the first-aid kit on the floor at her feet. Better. One more thing done to rid herself of that terrible feeling of helplessness. “You were driving slow. You were looking for me, weren’t you? How did you know I was here?”
“My informant at the embassy intercepted an anonymous call to the secretary shouting about how U.S. journalists were to blame for the ruin of his country and claiming that he’d taken care of one tonight. Their directions were pretty damn accurate. They wanted you to be found. I was lucky to reach you before the soldiers from the embassy.”
“No, I’m the lucky one.” Though luck was a bittersweet concept tonight. But she could imagine how she would have felt if anyone but Novak had found her. “Now take me somewhere you can get those gloves off to a lab so I can get clean again. Then I’ll try to figure out how to find out how they knew it was me Hadfeld had contacted.”
He was silent. “It might be my fault.”
Her gaze flew to his face. “You’ve got a lead?”
“Better. I think I might be able to get my hands on the skull. So go home and let me work on it,” he said roughly. “You’ve gone through too much as it is.”
“Yes, I have.” Her hands clenched into fists. “And I’m not the only one. Do you actually believe I’d ever let those bastards get what they wanted? Can’t you see? They knew the first thing that the embassy would do if they found out about this would be to notify my publisher. And then they’d send me back to the U.S. to some discreet hospital to go through debriefing and therapy. That’s why that bastard told those other men that they had a job to do. That’s why they kept beating me. That’s why it was rape.” Her eyes were suddenly blazing at him. “After all that’s gone down here in Maldara, the last thing those diplomats would want would be to have a journalist injured and raped at this stage of the game. Six hundred thousand people were murdered here. Genocide. Now they think they’ve put Humpty Dumpty back together again. So they’d need to hush any disturbance and wrap me in tender loving care. Why else do you think this happened?” Her voice was shaking. “I told you, those men knew what they were doing. They wanted to hurt me. They had their orders. Well, I won’t let them get away with it.”
“Easy,” Novak said quietly. “I’ll take care of it. No one’s going to let that happen.”
And if he took care of it, it would mean anyone in Novak’s way would be destroyed. She had seen it before. But she didn’t want it to go down that way. “You bet they’re not. Do you know how weak they made me feel? The pain kept coming and wouldn’t stop, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I’m never going to be that weak ever again.” She wanted to close her eyes and just stop arguing with him. She needed to shut out the world. and maybe, for a little while, those four monsters would vanish with it. But she had to get Novak’s promise first. “So this night never happened. Because you’re going to let me see to it myself, aren’t you? It will take a little while for me to get over this, but you’re not going to let anyone sideline me. You’re going to let me go after them. I deserve it, Novak.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?” he asked hoarsely. He looked away from her. “Okay, you don’t go back to the U.S. I use you and let you help me take them down. And, if you get hurt again doing it, I just consider you collateral damage. Is that the plan?”
“That’s the plan.” She could close her eyes now. She could relax her body and attempt to block out the pain…and the memory. “Just get me fixed, and then you can tell me how you’re going to get the skull.”
“And just how am I supposed to fix you, Jill?”
She was getting so blurry she wasn’t sure she understood. “You’re right, I spoke without thinking. My responsibility…Just take me somewhere, and when I’m better, I’ll take care of it.”
He was cursing beneath his breath. “Never mind. You’re not thinking straight enough to recognize monumental frustration when you hear it.” He said slowly, clearly, “Listen. Stop trying to be strong. I know you’re strong. You don’t have to prove it to me. And I’m not leaving you until I know you’re okay. We’re in this together.” He reached out, grasped her hand, and pressed it tightly. “Do you understand? I’ll not let you go.”
And, in spite of Novak’s being one of the toughest men she’d ever met, he was having trouble with her being hurt and not being able to put her back together again. Strange…
But she couldn’t help him now. Maybe later…
Right now, she could only cling desperately to his hand and take whatever comfort he could give her. Because she was starting to shake again, and he had said she didn’t have to be strong. “That’s very…kind. Do you mind if I—don’t talk anymore, Novak?”
“Hell, no.” His grip tightened. “Look, this is what we’re going to do. I’m taking you to Baldar, the private airport we use near the border, and flying you to Nairobi. There’s a hospital there where I send my men when I need absolute secrecy. No reports. No leaks. No one in Maldara will know where you are.” He muttered a curse. “Even though I don’t want to do it because it will take about an hour and a half to get you there.”
“That doesn’t matter.” Yet she could see he was upset again, and she had to make one last effort. “None of this was your fault. Your decision. My—choice. Stop blaming yourself.”
“That’s right,” he said bitterly. “Collateral damage.”
She didn’t reply. She was at the end of her strength, and she just wanted to crawl away somewhere until she could heal.
It wasn’t an accurate description of her role in this nightmare. She had gone after the story with her usual drive and determination. Novak might have thought that the decision he had made caused this to happen to her, but she did not. She’d not been smart enough to read the signs of betrayal when Hadfeld had phoned her. She’d been too eager to get to him and obtain the proof she needed. Even if Novak had found a way to get the skull, things might still be on the verge of exploding.
And there might be true innocents on the horizon who could be hurt by what had happened here at Maldara.
Two Weeks Later
“I thought you’d be finished with her by now.” Michael was tilting his head and gazing in disappointment at the reconstruction of the skull on Eve’s worktable. “I wanted to see Nora before I left today. Did you have trouble with her?”
“No.” Eve made a face at her son as she wiped the clay off her hands with her work towel. “I had trouble with you. I was busy packing your bags and making arrangements for that summer camp your sister, Jane, is so set on taking you to. Nora had to wait.”
“She won’t mind.” Michael wasn’t taking his gaze off the skull of the six-year-old child who was Eve’s current forensic sculpture. “She’ll know you’re trying to do what’s best for her, that you’re trying to bring her home, Mom.”
His voice was gentle. Even as a toddler, he had never had a horror of these skulls of the victims that had appeared in her studio through the years. Now, though he was only ten years old, that understanding and gentleness seemed to have deepened. Eve had never had to explain to him about the monsters who had killed these children, then tried to burn them, bury them, toss them away as if they had never existed. Michael just accepted that Eve was trying to fix something that was broken, that those children were lost and had to go home. Lord, she was lucky.
She gave him a quick hug. “Well, Nora may understand, but the Chicago Police Department isn’t that patient. I have to finish this reconstruction and get it back to them so that they can start sending out photos to the newspapers and TV shows. We have to see if anyone can identify her.” She turned him around and pushed him toward the hall. “And you have to gather all the treasures you can’t bear to leave behind for the next month and pack them in your duffel. Last chance. We have to be at the airport in four hours.”
“Right.” He smiled at her over his shoulder, his amber eyes shining with mischief. “You’re first on the list. Can I take you, Mom?”
She wished he could. She didn’t know what she was going to do without him and Joe for a month. “I wouldn’t fit in your duffel. But we can Skype.” She made a shooing gesture. “Get going.”
He laughed and ran down the hall.
She turned back to the reconstruction with a sigh. Noise. Laughter. Family. She was going to miss all of it. She reached out and gently touched the reconstruction’s cheekbone. “Sorry, Nora. You’re important, too. I’m just having a few issues at the moment.”
“Then come with us.” Joe was standing in the doorway, looking at her. “A month is a long time.” He crossed the room and took her in his arms. “Or let me come back to you.” He kissed her. “Screw that seminar. I’ll go next time.”
“Scotland Yard doesn’t offer them that often. And everything is cutting-edge when they do.” Joe was a detective with ATLPD and was always interested in all the bells and whistles connected with crime fighting. “And the timing is just too good to miss. Jane is taking Michael to that dig in Wales, and you’ll at least be close enough to keep an eye on them.”
“Come on, Jane adores Michael. And she’s introducing him to digging for ancient Roman treasure at that Welsh castle. Treasure and playing in the dirt. A ten-year-old’s dream. He wouldn’t miss me.”
“He’d miss you.” She kissed him again. “Just as I will. But I’m not ten, and I’d feel better if one of us is near him. So would you.” Michael had become the center of their lives since the night he’d been born, but neither of them could deny that he was…unusual and always a challenge. “And you can never tell which way he’s going to jump.”
“Tell me about it,” Joe said dryly. “You could come and work in London.”
“And then you’d feel guilty about spending all those hours at the Yard.” She gave him a quick kiss. “I’ll tell you what I told Michael. Skype. Go finish packing. I need to clean up before I take you to the airport.” She grimaced. “And I gave in and agreed to give an interview at one this afternoon. Annoying, but it was the only time the reporter could fit me into her schedule. I’ll take her out on the porch and try to get rid of her as quickly as possible. But you guys are on your own until we leave here at two.”
“We’ll manage.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “Reluctantly. Why the interview? Does it have anything to do with Nora? She’s not even finished.” He frowned, puzzled. “And you don’t usually give interviews anyway. You say it’s a waste of your time.”
“It is a waste. They tend to focus on me and not the victim.”
“Imagine that,” he said mildly. “The foremost forensic sculptor in the world who is both charming and beautiful. How could you possibly compare to a hideous skull that’s been buried for decades?”
“Not beautiful, interesting-looking. And I’m not charming, that would require effort. I always opt for kind and intelligent. You must already be missing me if you’re resorting to flattery.”
“You’ve got that right.”
She cleared her throat. “Me too.”
“So why the interview?”
“It’s Jill Cassidy. I liked the story she did on that DFACS scandal. She never gave up and fought those politicians who were ignoring the child abuse and fraud claims all the way.”
Joe nodded slowly. “I remember. She won a Pulitzer for it.” He gently touched her hair. “I should have known it would have something to do with kids. She wants to do some kind of profile on you?”
She shrugged. “I guess she does. We didn’t discuss it. I said I could give her an hour if she insisted on its being today. It seemed worthwhile. I don’t think she’d waste my time on trivial junk.”
“You mean like telling the public how brilliant and famous you are? Heaven forbid.” He was heading down the hall. “Not only trivial, but totally boring…”
Eve shook her head as she watched him disappear into the bedroom. Wry, mocking, yet as full of mischief as their son. Nothing boring about Joe. She was already missing him. Their relationship had taken them through valleys and mountains, and they had come out of both with a closeness and love that no longer faltered no matter what strain was put upon it. She frowned as she had a sudden thought. Good Lord, what if that interview involved Joe and Michael? The last thing she needed was a journalist looking for a tell-all piece that violated her privacy. She could not permit it.
Don’t jump to conclusions.
If she saw that was the way the interview was heading, she’d just end it immediately. She wasn’t shy about protecting her family’s privacy.
And she’d taken the interview because Jill Cassidy had shown herself to be a responsible journalist. Joe had been joking about Eve’s being boring, but it was true that she was not someone whom social media would find particularly fascinating. She was not only a workaholic, she was too complicated…and very private.
She just had to hope she wasn’t getting mixed signals from Jill Cassidy…
“Hello. I’m Jill Cassidy.” The young woman at the door was smiling warmly at Eve as she shook her hand. “Please call me Jill. I can’t tell you how eager I’ve been to meet you, Eve Duncan. Thank you for agreeing to see me.”
“Eve. Come in. I’m sorry I can’t give you very long. I have to take my husband and son to catch a flight.” Eve was studying the reporter and feeling distinctly relieved. Jill Cassidy must be late twenties or early thirties, a little on the thin side, with medium-length brown hair and wide-set blue eyes. Full lips that had a touch of sensitivity and humor and clear, glowing skin. But those eyes were steady and honest, and Eve felt the honesty was also very real. She was dressed in dark slacks and a simple white blouse that made her appear businesslike yet perfectly natural and unassuming. “I expected you to be older. You won that Pulitzer two years ago.”
“I got lucky. Right story. Right timing.” She was looking around the open living room and kitchen. “This is wonderful.”
“It’s home,” Eve said simply.
“That’s why it’s wonderful. You can feel it. I’m traveling most of the time, so my home is usually the nearest hotel.” She gestured to the smiling portrait of Eve dressed in her old blue work shirt on the wall beside the window. “That’s terrific. Relaxed, but there’s still a sense of purpose. Your daughter, Jane MacGuire, painted it?”
Eve’s eyes widened. “Yes. You’re right, Jane is terrific. Her career as an artist is zooming these days. How did you know about her?”
“I do my homework.” Her gaze was wandering around the room. “You have a longtime relationship with Joe Quinn, a police detective whom you married eight years ago. You have a ten-year-old son, Michael; and besides Jane MacGuire, whom you adopted when she was about Michael’s age, you and Joe Quinn took in another young girl, Cara Delaney, and made her your ward. She’s not with you now either, since she’s a promising violinist and she’s on tour.” Her gaze returned to Eve’s face. “Now, I found her background to be very interesting indeed.”
Eve stiffened, instantly on guard. That remark had been too full of meaning to miss. “Really? But you asked to interview me, didn’t you? I don’t consider my husband or children to be fodder for the press. I believe you’d better leave.”
She shook her head. “Do you think I’d have mentioned Cara Delaney if I’d meant to cause you problems? I just had to make certain you knew that I could hurt you if I chose and had no intention of doing so. Otherwise, you’d be worried all the time I was talking to you that I was going to cause some kind of scandal by revealing that your ward is the granddaughter of Sergai Kaskov, a known figure in the Russian Mafia.” She gestured impatiently. “I don’t care about that. All I care about is that you’re brilliant and have devoted most of your career to helping children who have been murdered and abused. Evidently, somewhere along the way, you’ve also been able to build a life for yourself and your family that I envy with all my heart. Good for you.”
“You couldn’t have hurt Cara.” Jill Cassidy seemed to be sincere, but Eve was still wary. “She wouldn’t give a damn about scandal. All she cares about is the music. Though you’d find the rest of the family very protective and might find yourself in an extremely uncomfortable situation.” Eve stared at her. “You could have just not mentioned my family at all. This was all very deliberate.”
She nodded. “Because as I said, I do my homework. You’re sharp and very protective. You’d start questioning what I was asking of you the minute you realized I wasn’t being totally honest with you.”
Eve frowned. “That’s not quite clear.”
“And you like everything crystal clear,” Jill said brusquely. “And you said we don’t have much time. Can we sit down somewhere and talk?” She smiled crookedly. “Unless I’ve completely misread you, and you’re going to throw me out?”
“I came close a few minutes ago,” Eve said slowly. “I’m still not sure about you. I believe I might have to do a little homework on you, too.”
“It’s a good idea,” Jill said soberly. “Don’t trust me. I promise I’m not trying to hurt you or your family. But you don’t know me.” She smiled. “And all that honesty might be intended to disarm you. But can we still sit down and talk? That won’t hurt you.”
Eve hesitated. And that honesty was disarming her, she realized. Her first wariness was fading, and she was beginning to like Jill Cassidy. “We can talk.” She gestured toward the porch. “I’ll give you a cup of coffee on the porch. It’s our only guarantee of privacy. Joe and Michael might be all over the place while they’re packing.”
“Great.” Jill started to turn away; and then her attention was caught by the skull reconstruction on the worktable across the room. “You work here?” She moved across the room. “I thought you’d have a separate studio.” She was reaching out and touching the skull. “May I?”
“It appears that you may,” Eve said dryly. “And will.”
Jill looked at her. “I just wanted to see your work. She’s not finished?”
Eve shook her head. “Close. But Nora will take a few more days.” She gazed at her curiously. “How did you know she was female?”
“The lips. The nose. Both very feminine. The rest is blurred and incomplete, but she’s there, waiting to be born.”
“No, she’s not. Nora was born six years before a monster decided to snatch that life away from her. Now all I can do is help her to try to find someone who loved her as much as that monster hated her and send her home.” She added grimly, “And hope I can find the monster and send him to the electric chair.”
“Amen,” Jill murmured. “I understand you’ve managed to do that a number of times.”
“Not enough. Never enough.” She gestured to the porch door. “There are too many monsters out there.”
“Yes, there are.” Jill was still staring at the reconstruction. “You called her Nora. You have some idea who she was?”
“No, I always name my reconstructions. It helps me to connect with them.” She started for the door. “Now I have a question for you. You appear familiar with skulls and reconstructions. You not only have a good eye, you know what to look for. Have you been taught?”
Jill shook her head. “Heavens no. Self-taught on the Internet because it’s both your profession and your passion. But the key word is familiarity. I only wanted to know what I was seeing.”
“Are you planning a series of articles instead of just interviewing me?”
“No.” She grinned. “And that’s two questions.” She opened the porch door. “I’ll wait on the porch while you get me that cup of coffee. But I’ll give you a teaser to make you want to hurry it along.” She looked back at Eve. “I don’t want to interview you at all. I want to offer you a job that I hope I can convince you to take. Gross misrepresentation. If you’re too pissed off to even let me try, you can toss me in that beautiful lake. Okay?”
Jill didn’t wait for an answer. She closed the door behind her.
“I don’t have time for this,” Eve said as she handed Jill her coffee five minutes later. “You picked the wrong day, Ms. Cassidy.”
“We’ve gone back to formality?” Jill asked. “At least you didn’t choose the lake option.”
“I considered it.”
Jill tilted her head. “But you were curious. You have a certain amount of respect for me and were willing to risk being disappointed. But you also have an innate curiosity, which is natural considering your profession.”
“That curiosity will be fading away if you don’t satisfy it soon. You don’t wish to interview me.” She asked bluntly, “What the hell do you want with me?”
“Basically the same thing you’ve done during your entire career,” she said quietly. “I want you to identify a number of skulls and bring resolution and peace to their families and loved ones.” She paused. “I want you to bring them home.”
“I already have a waiting list of cases,” Eve said impatiently. “I don’t need any more. There are other forensic sculptors you can hire.”
“But they’re not you.” Jill leaned forward. “And they won’t give those children the skill and dedication you would. They were murdered, and now they’re already being forgotten.”
“Children? Plural? How many children?”
Eve felt a ripple of shock. “A mass murderer?”
“Oh, yes. Though not what you might think.”
Twenty-seven children. It made Eve sick to her stomach. “Then tell me what I should think.”
Eve went still. “My God.”
Jill slowly nodded. “Though I haven’t seen any sign of God in Maldara since the moment I stepped off the plane two years ago. What do you know about Maldara?”
“What everyone knows. Two warring groups in the depths of the Congo struggling for supremacy. Civil war. Blood. Gore.” She swallowed. “Another Rwanda. So many deaths. The ruling party managed to triumph about eighteen months ago.” She searched for a name. “The Kiyanis I think. Their president was able to persuade the U.N. to support her.”
“Yes, Zahra Kiyani is very persuasive,” Jill said. “Over six hundred thousand people died in Maldara during that conflict, and only fifty thousand were laid at her door. She was Teflon.”
Only fifty thousand. Eve could only vaguely remember the details of that horror she had seen on TV and the Internet two years ago. “Men, women, and children. Butchered. I didn’t want Michael to watch it.” She lifted her head as a sudden thought occurred to her. “Children. You want me to do reconstructions on the children of that massacre?”
“Not all of them. You’d be there for decades.” Jill’s lips twisted. “There are far too many. But there’s a school in the village of Robaku, near Jokan on the northern border, where I’ve been doing volunteer work. Twenty-seven students were killed by a machete brigade led by Nils Varak, a mercenary who was hired by the Botzan faction because it was practically on the Kiyani doorstep. The children were chopped to pieces. Then the school was burned to the ground.”
“Terrible,” Eve said, sick. It wasn’t difficult to envision the terror and pain that must have enveloped the children that day.
“Yes, every minute of it was terrible,” Jill said jerkily. “Some of the children weren’t dead when the fires were lit. Varak was too impatient to wait. He wanted to lure the people from the village to the school with the screams.” She drew a shaky breath. “But you’re in a hurry. I have to tell you why I need you. Almost half the villagers were killed that day, most of them parents. But some are left, and there are other relatives, grandparents, uncles, aunts, who also loved those children. But after the massacre, those relatives were devastated. They don’t even know which of the children are their own. The damage was too great. The government of Kiyani offered a common grave, but they’ve refused offer. They want to bury their own children in the village where they were born.” She added softly, “It seems the feeling is universal. They want to bring their children home, Eve.”
Eve nodded. The story had touched her unbearably. “Have they tried DNA?”
“It was a bloodbath. With the fires and scattered remains, only a few had enough quality DNA left to be matched. And even those parents wouldn’t be satisfied. These are simple village people, Eve. They don’t want to be given a piece of paper with a DNA result. They’re willing to wait for the years it will take to DNA the bodies, but not the skulls. They want to see, to touch, to recognize.” Her eyes were glittering with moisture. “They need you, Eve.”
“Not necessarily me, Jill. I’m good, but I’m not the only one who could do this. Besides, it would be a massive undertaking to gather those remains and send them to me. The U.N. should hire several forensic sculptors and set up studios on-site at Robaku. That would be the quickest way to get it done.”
“The quickest, not the best. Having you do it would be the best.” Jill shrugged. “And U.N. funding isn’t an option. They’ve already refused to approve anything but the least expensive methods of disposing of those children. Maldara has turned into one huge cemetery they don’t want to face. If a mass grave wouldn’t be such bad press, they’d probably even approve that over working with DNA.”
Eve felt a ripple of shock. “That’s pretty harsh.”
“It’s the way of the world,” Jill said wearily. “The U.N. has too many fires to put out for sentimentality. They regard Maldara’s fate as settled, so they want to put a period to it and move on in the most economical way possible. That’s only good business. Zahra Kiyani would even like everyone to forget about that massacre and has been pushing to move the villagers to another location. I’ve been writing story after story about Robaku to keep the interest and sympathy high and not let the wishes of those relatives be forgotten.”
“There are many charitable organizations not connected to the U.N.,” Eve said. “I’ve worked with a few over the years. Ask for money and volunteers.”
“I am,” Jill said simply. “I’m asking you to volunteer. I can gather enough money together to pay you to come to Maldara and do the reconstructions on those children. You’re the best one for this job, and they deserve the best.”
“I’m sure they do, but there are other fine forensic sculptors.” Eve had seen where this was going and had tried to offer alternatives to avoid having to refuse her. She could see that Jill Cassidy was passionately committed to helping those children. The story had touched and horrified Eve, and she could almost feel the agony of the parents who had lost their children to those butchers. “Not me, Jill,” she said gently. “I have a career with commitments. I have a family who needs me. I can’t go flying across the ocean to work in a country in the middle of Africa.”
“I know I’m asking a lot.” Jill’s face was tense. “But they need help. If you could see…” She reached in her briefcase and pulled out a manila folder. “Here. You can see them.” She thrust the folder at Eve. “You could put off your other commitments for a little while, couldn’t you? These people have lost so much already. Someone should care enough to give them something to make—” She broke off, then said, “I can talk about your work, but there’s nothing I can say that would make leaving your family any better. I don’t even have a family any longer, but I know it would suck.” She drew a deep breath. “But if you could give those kids just a few weeks, it would give me time to try to work something else out for them.”
Eve shook her head. “I have a life, Jill. You’re asking me for a major disruption. And I don’t even know if it’s the best thing for those village families. You’re asking me to trust your judgment.”
“Yes, I am. Or your own judgment after you look at the biographies and photos in that envelope.” She reached out and grasped Eve’s hand. “Look, I know it’s a sacrifice. Who wants to go to a wild, underdeveloped country and set up shop in a jungle for those weeks? But if you agree to do it, I know you’ll come back feeling good about it. And maybe it’s not so underdeveloped any longer. It has a U.S. embassy, there’s a temporary U.N. headquarters, and reps come in and out of Jokan, the capital city, on a regular basis.” She grimaced. “It’s practically civilized compared to when I first visited.”
“You said that was two years ago.” She frowned. “The fighting was still going on then. I’m surprised they let you in the country.”
“They didn’t. But I had a few friends in high places and even more in low places who managed to smuggle me under the radar. I had an idea it might be the story of the decade, and I wanted to be there.” Her lips tightened. “I knew it was a second Rwanda, but I thought I was tough enough to take it. And I did take it, I just didn’t realize I’d be caught up in the nightmare and start bleeding myself. You don’t go through an experience like that without its changing your life.”
“I was first on the scene, and I told the stories.” Her face was haunted. “But you can’t do that in a place like Maldara without becoming part of the story.”
“Yet you want me to go and tell stories of my own when I do those reconstructions,” Eve said quietly. “And you know that it will probably hurt me to do them. Every single one I’ve ever done has hurt me, Jill. It goes with the territory. And this time, I wouldn’t even have the comfort of doing it to try to find the butchers who murdered them. They had to have been killed or imprisoned by now.”
“I know.” She nodded jerkily. “So do it for their parents or grandparents. Nothing is perfect. Particularly in Maldara.” Her hand tightened on Eve’s. “Just do it. I promise I’ll make it safe for you and as comfortable as I can.”
“I know you would.” Eve gently pulled away her hand. “And I admire you and what you’re trying to do for these people. But I have my own commitments I have to think about. Maldara is half a world away from them. But I promise I’ll try to find an organization that will be able to give you the help you need.”
“Thank you.” Jill’s voice was unsteady. “I guess I couldn’t expect anything else from you.” There was desperation in her eyes as she held Eve’s gaze. “But you’re the help I need. Please. Will you promise to think about it?” She reached in her pocket and handed Eve her card. “Just call me, and I’ll arrange everything.”
“I’ll think about it,” Eve said. “But I’m afraid I’ll disappoint you, Jill. I can’t do—”
“Mom, we’re ready to go!” Michael was standing in the doorway, his eyes shining with eagerness. “Dad’s grabbing the suitcases and that present I made for Jane.” His gaze was on Jill. “But if you’re still busy, I’ll help Dad take the suitcases down to the car and we’ll wait for you there.”
“No, I believe we’re finished here.” Eve got to her feet. “It took a little longer than I thought.” She held out her hand to him. “This is my son, Michael, Jill. This is Jill Cassidy, Michael, come and shake hands with her. She’s a very famous journalist, and you’ll probably be seeing her stories in newspapers and on the Net.”
“Really?” He was across the porch and smiling at Jill. “That will be neat. I’m very glad to meet you, Ms. Cassidy.” He shook her hand and looked her straight in the eye. “I’ll be watching for them. I think you must be very smart if you’re this famous so young.”
“Not so young.” Jill smiled. “Compared to you, I’m ancient. I’m happy to meet you, Michael. I can see why your mother is so proud of her family.”
“We’re proud of her, too.” He turned away and went back to Eve. “I think I’ll go back inside and help Dad. He might need me.” He leaned forward, and whispered to Eve as he passed her, “She’s so sad, Mom. Be nice to her.” Then he was through the door and talking to his father.
“Sweet kid.” Jill was looking after him. “You’re lucky.”
“Yes, I am.” She shouldn’t have been surprised at Michael’s instant insight, but she was. Jill had been hiding that vulnerability very well, even from Eve, until those last moments. But then Eve and Joe had known since the moment he was born that Michael saw deeper than other people. “But like all kids, he has a few issues.” One of which was to make her feel guilty when she agreed with what he saw, she thought crossly. Gazing at Jill Cassidy right now, Eve was acutely aware of the scars that had been born of the emotional battles the woman had fought over the years. “He can be very demanding on occasion.”
“I see absolutely nothing wrong with that,” Jill said with a smile. “I can be demanding myself. I believe we’d get along fine.” Her smile faded as she turned toward the porch steps. “But I’m in your way. You said you had to take your husband and son to the airport. Thank you for seeing me.”
“You’re welcome. I’m sorry I can’t help you.” She followed Jill to the steps. “I meant what I said, I’ll get on the phone tomorrow and try to talk to several charities.”
“I’m sure you will.” Jill looked back at her, and Eve was once more aware of that hint of desperation in her expression. “Just look at the family photos and read my biographies of the children. That’s all I ask. After meeting your son, I know that’s a lot. But I have to ask it.”
Eve gazed at the manila envelope on the cushions of the porch swing. “I’ll look at them.” She shook her hand. “But I can’t let them change my mind. It was nice meeting you, Jill.”
Jill nodded and made an effort to smile. “Yeah, I hope Nora turns out the way you want her.”
“That depends on her,” Eve said. “I never know until the last sculpting.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Jill waved and ran down the steps.
Eve stood there and watched her as she got into her dark blue Volvo and backed out of the driveway. Jill smiled again as she waved and drove down the lake road.
She’s so sad, Michael had said.
“Hi.” Michael was suddenly standing beside her, his gaze on the car. “Did we stay inside long enough? Did you have time to fix it?”
“No,” Eve said. “Sometimes people have to fix their own problems. Though I’ll make a few calls for her tomorrow.” She gave him a little push to stop the protest she could see was coming. “But right now I want to spend time just being with you and your dad and not thinking of anyone else until you get on that jet. Go get your luggage.”
Jill pulled onto a side road a few miles from the lake cottage and turned off the engine of the Volvo. She realized she was shaking. Stupid. Everything had gone well, and there was no reason for her to be this upset. Yet she had felt like she had to take a few moments before she got on the freeway. She had wanted to catch a final glimpse of Eve Duncan and her family before she took the next step that would send Eve spiraling into the coming nightmare.
Maybe it would not happen. She had tried to take precautions that might keep Eve safe.
Or might not.
Either way, Jill was committed, and all the regrets in the world wouldn’t alter what she’d done. So stop this nonsense and make certain that the rest of the plan was set as well. She quickly dialed Jed Novak before she could change her mind. “It’s okay,” she said when he picked up. “They’re on their way to the airport, and Eve Duncan isn’t getting on that flight with them. The only worry I had was that she might change her mind. She’s very close to her family, and that could have happened.”
“But you said it wasn’t likely,” Novak said dryly. “And I built the entire scenario around your judgment. I’m glad you didn’t disappoint me.”
“You would have just made me come up with something else. You don’t allow failure, Novak.”
Silence. “No, I don’t. Not once you were committed. The stakes are too high.” He paused. “Is she going to do it?”
“I think she will. She turned me down, but she’ll look at the photos and the children’s stories. They’ll be very effective. Then she won’t be able to resist going back and finding out more about Maldara. She’ll allow a little time to pass, then she’ll find a way to do what I asked.”
“You seem certain.”
“I’m as certain as I can be considering how intelligent she is. As I told her, I did my homework.” Jill added curtly, “She doesn’t want to do it. She wants to keep her commitments with all those law-enforcement bodies she had on her agenda. And she has family responsibilities and knows that there’s always a possibility of harm when you go to a country like Maldara. That’s why you have to reassure her that the risk is minimal when she starts checking. Have you set it up?”
“Of course,” he said dryly. “This isn’t my first rodeo, Jill.”
“No, you were probably there when they built the Colosseum. I’m the one who doesn’t have the experience. But I have to do this right, Novak.” Her hands tightened on the steering wheel. “And the risk has to be as minimal as we’re letting her think. You have to keep her safe, Novak.”
“It will go right if you’ve read Eve Duncan right. You’ve told me all the things that are con, what are the pros?”
“Only two things. I’m good at what I do. I made very sure the photos of the massacre and the families will shock and touch her. And I guarantee my stories in that envelope will do the rest. They’re going to haunt her, she won’t be able to forget them.”
“And the other thing?”
“She likes me,” she said simply. “And I know it’s hard for her not to trust someone she likes.” She drew a shaky breath. “Because I like her, too. So make sure we don’t get her butchered, Novak.”
“I’ll work on it.”
She braced herself. “And while you’re doing that, I should tell you that on that last day before I left Maldara, I thought I was being followed.”
“You were. Don’t worry. I’m on it. I’ll get back to you.”
“That’s comforting,” she said dryly. “Kind of you to let me know.” She cut the connection.
She didn’t feel as if she could talk to Novak any more right now. He was a master at the games that all those covert organizations played, and she was a rank amateur. That was fine with her; she had never wanted to be anything but a journalist and tell the story.
But not this story.
She stiffened as she glimpsed Eve Duncan’s Toyota driving down the lake road. She was at the wheel, and her son and husband were smiling and talking to her. She was also smiling and looked happy as if life was good and there was no Maldara in the world.
And Jill could make certain there would be no Maldara for Eve Duncan. She could step away and take the story in another direction.
But she knew she wasn’t going to do it.
She was going to let it happen.
“I’ll call you from London as soon as we get in,” Joe said. “Jane said that we’ll be going out to breakfast after she picks us up, then drop by her apartment to rest until she and Michael leave for Wales tomorrow evening.”
“And you’ll be using her apartment while you’re at the seminar,” Eve said. “I told you it was meant to be. The timing was almost too good to be true.”
“Not if you’re not with us.” His hand reached up to cup her cheek. “Change your mind?”
“I’m tempted.” More than tempted. The idea of going back home while they flew off into the wild blue yonder was already causing her an aching sense of loss. “Maybe after I finish Nora. I’ll see in a few days.”
“Good.” He kissed her. “I’ll keep after you.”
“If you have time,” she said ruefully. “During that last seminar at the Yard, you were busy from dusk to dawn. And afterward, you and the guys were cementing international relations at every pub near Scotland Yard.”
“Only the one on Whitehall. The others closed too early. But I might just have time for you.” He grinned. “Try me.” He slipped his arm around her waist, and they walked toward the jetway, where Michael was waiting, playing a game on his computer. “Though I’ll have to think about it. I was a little insulted when you sent Michael in to tell me we had to sit down and wait until you finished that interview with Jill Cassidy.”
“It wasn’t exactly an interview. It turned out to be something different.” That was an understatement. “And that wasn’t me, that was Michael. He liked her. He was feeling sorry for her and thought I should help her.”
“You know Michael. He just said she was sad.” She shrugged. “And maybe she is. Journalists don’t have tremendously happy lives. They see too much. Big-time stress. But I told him sometimes people have to fix their own problems.” She turned and kissed him again, hard. “And the only problems I want to fix right now are yours and Michael’s,” she said fiercely. “You take care of yourself, and I’ll expect at least one Skype a day. Even if it has to be from a pub on Whitehall Street.”
“You’ll get it.” His hand gently caressed her cheek. “Don’t work too hard. I don’t want to come back to a haggard wife who will send me running back to that pub to drown my sorrows.” He grinned. “Now go say good-bye to Michael. I’m sure he wants to lecture you about your mistreatment of Jill Cassidy.”
“No, he won’t. Not this close to the time he’s going to have to leave me. I’ll get a break.” She was moving toward Michael. “But he might do it on our first Skype call!”
Eve could feel her eyes sting with tears as she drove up the driveway to the lake cottage. The place seemed just as empty as she’d been afraid it would without Joe and Michael. It had been bad when she’d watched the plane take off, but this was worse. This was where there were a million memories, and she’d have to fight them every single day.
She wanted to run back to the airport and jump on the next plane.
Yeah, that would be mature and responsible. It would be good for Michael to spend time with his sister. He and Jane didn’t get a chance to bond that often. And she’d be in Joe’s way while he was networking. Just get busy and this month would fly by and they’d all be together again.
She ran up the porch steps and threw open the door. It was getting dark, and she flicked on the light. That was more cheerful. She threw down her purse and moved to her worktable in the studio across the room. “Hi, Nora.” She looked down at the reconstruction. “It’s just me and you, kid. But we’ll get along just fine, won’t we?” She touched the clay of her cheekbone with her index finger. “And after that, we’ll find someone else to help.”
Nora gazed up at her from blind eyes. Eve hadn’t put the glass eyes in the eye orbits yet. That was always the last touch. Usually she didn’t even notice that emptiness, but she did today. Probably because she was feeling so empty herself. “Maybe we won’t work right away.” She turned away. “No offense. I’ll just have a cup of coffee, then call Jane and tell her they’re on their way. We’ll get together later tonight.”
But the call to Jane went straight to voice mail. Jane was always busy, and she might even have a gallery showing. Later. Everything seemed to be later today.
She took her coffee to the porch and looked out at the lake. Beautiful as usual. But it wasn’t as lit by sunlight as it had been earlier when she’d been out here with Jill Cassidy. The sun had gone down, and it was a little somber.
Promise you’ll look at them.
Her gaze went to the manila envelope she’d left on the porch swing. She didn’t want to look at those photos. She’d seen more than enough horror photos in her career in forensics. She was depressed enough today.
She could almost see Jill standing on those steps, pleading desperately.
She’s so sad.
And Michael had ganged up on Eve.
Oh, well, just do it. She crossed to the swing, plopped down, and reached for the envelope. It might be better that her mood was as somber as that lake out there. She pulled out the photos and switched on the light. It couldn’t be any worse than what she’d seen before…
Two hours later, the tears were still running down Eve’s cheeks. So much worse than anything she’d ever encountered in her career thus far. Not only the butchery and the burning of innocents, but Jill had researched and interviewed parents, relatives, friends, and siblings of each child in the village. Then she had written their stories from birth to the day of their horrible death. Each word simple but poignant until Eve had felt that every one of those children belonged to her.
She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, but the tears still flowed. She could still see that day, feel the darkness of terror as the militia had come and hacked and hacked with their machetes. Would she ever not see it? Jill Cassidy had made every moment come alive for her and anyone else who read those damnably beautiful, agonizingly human, stories.
Close it out.
Jill had known it would be impossible. That’s why she had made Eve promise to look at them. Brilliant, wise, Jill Cassidy, who had done her homework and had no trouble reading her. She would have been resentful except for the fact that Jill could not have written those words if she hadn’t been caught up in the same agony as Eve was feeling now. They were bound together by the pain of those helpless children butchered in that village.
But don’t let Jill Cassidy manipulate her. Push it away. Don’t give in to it. Six hundred thousand people had died in Maldara. These were only twenty-seven children.
But now, she knew every single one of them.
She opened her eyes. She would not cry again. Tears did no good. Find a solution or accept the pain. She reached for her computer and flipped open the lid.
It wasn’t Joe but Jane who called her four hours later. “I’m calling from the apartment. Michael and Joe are here and safe,” she said. “But there’s something missing. You. I thought I was going to be reasonable and not harass you, but then when you didn’t show up at customs, I decided that was bullshit. Get on the next plane. I don’t care if you smuggle that skull through customs and just work here at the apartment. Or if you decide to go with us to the dig. At least you’d be here. That’s where you belong. Now do what I say, dammit.”
Eve could almost see her toss her red hair as she said those last words. Jane was always passionate when it came to family, and this wasn’t totally unexpected. “I’m thinking about it. Though we both know that you’re all going to be so busy that you probably wouldn’t know I was around.”
“We’d know.” She sighed. “I just thought that I’d add my two cents’ worth to the guilt trip Joe has no doubt been bombarding you with. I guess I’ll just have to leave it to him.”
“You’ll have enough on your plate with supervising Michael on that dig. He’s so excited about it. I know it’s going to be wonderful.”
“I think it will. Most of the time, they only permit older students on these digs. I went on my first one when I was a teenager, remember? So when I ran across the information on this one in Wales that was allowing younger kids, I jumped on it.” She chuckled. “And I’m not sure who’s going to supervise whom. Michael is already making plans and reading all my literature on it. I’m expecting sunrise to sunset to be the time-frame agenda.”
“See? You’d have to squeeze me in.”
“I’m not handling this well. I’d better hand you over to Joe. He has more experience at bulldozing you. I love you.”
The next moment, Joe came on the line. “As Jane said, we’re here and already missing you. She insisted on trying her powers of persuasion one more time. We stopped for breakfast on the way from the airport. Did I wake you?”
“No, it’s only a little after midnight here, and I’ve been busy,” Eve said. “Good flight?”
“Passable. Michael and I played cards. He’s decided that counting cards shouldn’t really be considered illegal in the casinos, and he’s perfecting his technique.”
“Heaven help us. Don’t you dare take him to a casino.”
“I think he’ll be content with Jane once they start working at the dig in Wales. Why weren’t you sleeping? Nora?”
“No.” She paused. “Just doing some research about some skulls found in Maldara. I didn’t know much about it.”
“Maldara? From what I remember from the news stories, you’d do better researching almost anything else. Nightmare stuff. I remember you were very careful to keep it away from Michael’s eyes.”
“Which meant I had to ignore a lot of it myself. I only knew it was a civil war between the Kiyanis and the Botzan factions in central Africa that tore the country and most of its people apart. It went on for almost two years before the U.N. sent in forces to stop it.” Her hand tightened on the phone as she remembered the photos of what those troops had found when they’d crossed the border. “The Botzan had hired a mercenary, a guerilla leader, Nils Varak, to run rampant over the country and attack the Kiyanis. Most of the butchery and burning was done by him and his men. He used the Botzan militia machete troops on occasion, but mostly he liked the personal touch.” She added harshly, “The news stories said he had more blood on his hands than Hitler before the U.N. forces managed to kill him.”
“Not soon enough,” Joe said grimly. “When he first started that bloodbath, every police department in the world was canvassed for information about him. When I read his rap sheet, I was tempted to volunteer to go after the son of a bitch myself. Varak was into everything from child trafficking to terrorism. Pay him enough, and he’d do anything.”
Even kill twenty-seven small children who had done nothing to deserve it. “I agree, he wasn’t killed soon enough. I don’t remember your telling me about that query.”
“It was hardly dinner conversation. Since I decided not to do anything about it, I didn’t see why I should discuss it. I was just as glad you were in Michael-protecting mode. You didn’t need any more darkness hanging over you.”
He paused. When he next spoke, his voice was curt. “And why were you researching skulls in Maldara? Whose skulls?”
She didn’t want to get into this now, but she wouldn’t lie to him. “Children. I don’t really know. When do I ever know, Joe? I just heard about this massacre at a school in Robaku village from Jill Cassidy and felt I had to know more about it. But I couldn’t find out much. In spite of the U.N. presence, that country seems to still be in chaos.”
“I can believe it,” Joe said grimly. “Which is why I don’t like you even thinking about it.”
“Maybe if someone had thought about Maldara before that chaos started, I wouldn’t have had to hear about those children’s skulls today.” She drew a deep breath. “Go to bed, Joe. All I did was do a little research. No big deal. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Right now, I’m going to put in an hour or so on Nora. I’ve been neglecting her today.”
Silence. “Yes, you have. And you were so anxious to get her finished. Now I’m anxious for you to do it, too, because I want you here, Eve.” He paused. “I love you. Being without you sucks. I’ll talk to you when I get back here to the apartment tomorrow night.”
“I love you, too. Tell Michael I’ll call him before it’s time for him to leave for Wales this evening. Good night, Joe.” She cut the connection.
She had worried Joe, and it might be for nothing. She should have just kept her mouth shut about Maldara. No, she shouldn’t. She rejected the thought immediately. Their relationship was based on total honesty, and silence could also be dishonest. Besides, they were so close, he would probably have sensed her disturbance.
Just work on Nora for a few hours and go to bed and get to sleep. Maybe by the time she woke tomorrow, that aching unrest would have lessened.
She picked up her ruler to check Nora’s mid-philtrum measurements one last time. That space between nose and lips was so small, so delicate, on a child. Six years old…
There had been six-year-olds in that classroom in Maldara, too. One girl and two little boys. Robaku had been a village school, and one teacher had taught various ages and grades. Jill Cassidy had spent a good deal of time and effort detailing the short lives of those six-year-olds.
Eve had to stop working and close her eyes for an instant as the wave of horror and heartbreaking sadness overcame her once more. Then she got control again and put the ruler down and started to fill in the clay around the mid-philtrum.
It might be a long night.
Damn you, Jill Cassidy.
Eve stabbed in the phone number on the card that Jill had given her. She wasn’t surprised when Jill answered the phone in two rings. “Get over here. I want to talk to you.”
“I thought you might,” Jill said quietly. “Actually, I thought it could be—”
“Get over here,” Eve interrupted. “I’m angry, and on edge, and I want to see your face while I’m listening to what you say to me. You went to a hell of a lot of trouble to tear me apart, and I have an idea why. How quick can you be here?”
“Ten minutes. I’m in a motel just off the freeway.”
“I thought you’d stay close,” Eve said curtly. “I’m surprised you didn’t camp out in your car.”
“I thought about it.”
“I’m sure you did. I’ll expect you in ten minutes, and don’t expect either coffee or politeness. We’ve gone past that now.” She hung up.
She got to her feet and moved toward the door to the porch. She needed air and to calm down a little before she confronted Jill. She hadn’t realized until she’d actually made contact with her how the anger had been building in the last few hours. Or perhaps it had started building earlier, during all the hours she’d been working on Nora last night.
She took a deep breath and gazed out at the lake, trying to steady herself.
Sunlight. Beauty. Peace.
Everything that she wanted to surround her while she was working on Nora and others like her who had been robbed of all three.
And this was Eve’s life, her home.
The anger was growing again.
But now she had a target.
Jill was driving down the lake road and pulling into the driveway.
Eve met her at the top of the stairs. “You’re early. You must be eager to see me.”
“I broke a few speed laws. I figure that you needed to vent before you exploded,” she said. “You don’t get angry often, but when you do, it’s supposed to be impressive.”
“Of course you’d know that about me, too. Research.”
“Yes.” Jill’s gaze was studying her face. “Circles. You didn’t sleep last night. I’m sorry.”
“Are you? I don’t believe you. I think it was all part of your plan to manipulate me. You knew exactly how to do it. You knew which buttons to push and took time to coordinate them in the right order.” Her lips tightened. “Those photos and biographies were a masterstroke. They brought me down as if I’d been run over by a fifty-ton truck. You knew they would, didn’t you?”
“Yes. It was your principal weakness.” She added, “And your greatest strength. I had to use it.”
“You’re not even denying it.”
“Why should I? You’d know I was lying, and I wouldn’t insult you.” She paused. “Besides, I’ve won, haven’t I?”
Eve stared at her in frustration. It was difficult to hold on to her anger as she gazed at the reporter. Jill wasn’t boasting; there was only vulnerability and that sadness Michael had noticed. “Not yet. I hate being manipulated. Last night, I started thinking about every way you’d done that since you walked in here yesterday afternoon. It took me a little while to get it together because you were so clever and so good at what you do. Even those photos weren’t close-ups of the children. Just loving family shots. Because you knew I never looked at facial photos of my reconstructions.” Her lips tightened. “And then you hit me with the photos after the massacre.”
“I didn’t want to do it. But I had to convince you.” She moistened her lips. “We need you, Eve. You don’t realize how much. But I promise if you come, that you’ll see how worthwhile it is.”
“I can tell that you think it is. But you’re asking me to put my life and career on hold while I do those reconstructions.”
“Only for a few weeks. I told you, I wouldn’t expect more from you.”
“How generous of you,” she said dryly. “It’s what I expect of myself that matters. You’ve been playing me to get what you want, but that’s over.” She was silent. “I’m the only one in charge of what I do, but there are things I have to know before I commit.” She stared her straight in the eyes. “Is everything you told me the truth?”
Jill’s gaze didn’t waver. “Absolutely. Every word.”
“Even those stories you wrote about the children at the school, their stories?”
Jill nodded. “I swear it. You can ask their parents and grandparents. You believe me?”
Eve couldn’t help but believe her. “You’re so good at what you do. I had to be sure.”
“I am good. I’m a fantastic storyteller. It’s my primary talent. I have others, and I’ve always had to use whatever skills I have to survive. But I try to be honest, Eve.”
“I had to be sure about that, too. You told me not to take you at face value. I didn’t. I spent a little time this morning finding out about you.”
“I thought you might. Did you discover anything interesting?”
“You spent your entire life until you were eleven years old trailing around the world with your father, who was a photographer. When he was killed in Tibet, it took the U.S. consulate over a year to get you back to the States. But you had no relatives, so you were fostered out for the next five years. Then you worked your way through a community college and started freelancing. Your gift for languages helped you to get ahead, but the first couple years must have been hard.”
“Not that bad. I liked traveling around on my own again. I was a little gypsy until my father was killed.” She added, “But you didn’t find anything incriminating, did you? Other than being a loner, I’m pretty much what I appear on the surface.”
“I wanted to find something.”
“I know you did. It would have been an excuse to close your eyes again.” She paused. “Are you going to come with me?”
“I’m close,” Eve said jerkily. “Not because you want me to do it. Whether it was for a good cause or not, you tried every weapon in your arsenal to make me do what you wanted. And I could see how you’d pried and researched into who I was to make that happen. That’s probably what I resent most. Talk about violation of privacy? And you did such a damn good job.” She gestured impatiently. “No, it’s because last night I realized those stories were like a poison inside me. I couldn’t forget them. And I knew the only way I might be able to was to do something to help, to heal, those children. But you probably knew that would be my reaction?”
“I thought it was likely. You’re very caring.”
“And I can’t heal them, but I might be able to heal those closest to them.”
Jill nodded silently.
“So when I decided that those stories might have trapped me into doing this, I decided I had to look the situation over and explore how bad it might be. First. My family. I have a husband and a son who need me. And I need them. From what I’ve been able to find out, Maldara is still too unstable to be considered safe on any level. Yet you said that I’d be safe while I did those reconstructions. How?”
“I have friends at the embassy. And the U.N. staff on-site think reporters have to be given special protection. No bad press. I’ll just convince them to extend that protection to you.”
“From what you said, they don’t even want the work done at Robaku.”
Jill grimaced. “But I’ve been a thorn in their diplomatic asses over the last year. They’ll be glad to shut me up and get rid of my nagging as long as it doesn’t affect their budget.” She added, “But, you know, it might be a good idea for you to call one of those charities you mentioned and tell them you’re volunteering to do the job. You have tremendous name recognition, so there’s no question they’ll jump at sponsoring you. Just ask them if they’ll contact the U.N. and advise them you’re operating at their request. That way you’d get the official protection and not raise any U.N. hackles by mentioning me.” She shrugged. “And the charity would get credit in the international community that might translate to donations later. Everyone wins.”
“And more manipulation,” Eve said.
“Would you rather I do it? I’ll do anything that will make you feel more comfortable.” Jill was obviously being perfectly sincere.
“No, I’ll take care of it.” Eve ran her hand through her hair. “If it’s even possible. I just remembered I don’t have a visa, no documents. That could take—”
“Twenty-four hours,” Jill said. “Give me your passport, and I’ll have it processed. We can stop and have the necessary shots on the way to the airport.”
She smiled. “I told you that I have friends in high and low places. This is a piece of cake.” She turned and strode toward the door. “And while you’re getting me your passport, I’ll make you a cup of coffee.” She glanced over her shoulder. “If I’m forgiven enough to be let back into your good graces?”
“Marginally.” She followed her into the house. “I’ll let you know when we get to Maldara.”
“Then you might never forgive me. It’s hot, humid, and the poverty will break your heart.” She started pouring the water into the automatic coffeemaker. “How will your husband take your decision?”
Eve was not about to deal with that now. Later. “That’s not your concern.”
“It is if it’s going to make you unhappy.” Jill was frowning. “He’s a detective. Let’s see…He’ll be worried about your safety. I’ll give you a couple of names of law-enforcement officials in the Kiyanis government for him to contact. And I know a few agents with the CIA and MI6 who operate in Maldara who might reassure him.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it.” Eve’s brows rose. “Is there anyone you don’t know in Maldara?”
“Not if they’re useful.” Jill handed her the cup of coffee. “Survival. You’ll only have to be there for a few weeks. But I’ve been there for two years.”
“Two years…” Her gaze narrowed on Jill’s face. “Okay, I need to know what I’ll be facing there that I couldn’t find on Google. According to what I read, for decades Maldara has been torn by conflict between the Kiyanis to the north and Botzan to the south. The Kiyanis possessed most of the wealth in the country, which was based on rich farmlands and diamond mines. They even managed to develop a fairly stable republic in the last thirty years. The Botzans were poor by comparison, mostly mountain people, except for a decent fishing industry, and they changed rulers every couple years. The mountain population were principally made up of roving bands who made the majority of their living stealing from the Kiyanis, whom they hated. They’d been raiding the Kiyanis’ properties for years before the Kiyanis suddenly decided to go on the attack. Civil war. The Botzan faction was finally defeated by the Kiyanis after the death of that mercenary, Nils Varak, and with the help of the U.N.” She paused. “Is all of that correct? Is there anything else I should know? Is Botzan still a danger?”
Jill shook her head. “It’s pretty well broken up now. The U.N. was getting too much static because of the Varak massacres, and they saw to it that the Kiyanis took over most of Maldara.” She grimaced. “And Zahra Kiyani, their president, is taking full advantage. She’s even charmed the U.N. into giving her the right to speak at the next General Assembly meeting.”
“I think I read something about her. A modern-day Madame Chiang Kai-shek?”
“Yes, that’s who they’re comparing her to. But you’ll hear a lot more about her now that she’s been able to draw a breath and start taking stock. Her father, President Akil Kiyani, was assassinated six months after the conflict started, and she tearfully accepted the presidency to honor him.”
“I’m not a fan. When I interviewed her, she reminded me of Eva Peron. She’s quite beautiful and much more flamboyant, of course. But her grateful people had just erected a statue of her in the main square of the capital city of Jokan. I found that odd after a war that had almost destroyed the country.” She shrugged. “But that’s politicians. She seems to have everything under control.
She’s built a hospital and gives to charity. The army and police seem to do their jobs. Everyone is fairly safe as long as they stay in the capital and don’t go running around the countryside. She might even invite you to tea. That village where the massacre occurred is just outside Jokan. She’s visited it twice and had a splendid and tearful photo op. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend.”
“I don’t believe I would either.” Eve could see how that political circus would have hurt Jill. “And I’d think you’d be ready to leave Maldara. Isn’t your story almost finished?”
“It’s finished when it’s finished. I’ll know when it’s done. Like your reconstructions.” She’d turned away and was gazing at the reconstruction of Nora on the worktable across the room. “You’ve made a lot of progress on her since yesterday. She looks close to completion.”
“I had a lot of time to work on her. Thanks to you, I couldn’t sleep last night.” She took a sip of her coffee. “And looks can be deceiving. The final will probably take me another twenty-four hours or even longer. I’m going to need this caffeine.”
“But I might be able to get you out before that.”
“Wrong,” Eve said flatly. “I don’t leave until Nora’s finished and sent off to Chicago. It’s bad enough I’m having to put off other commitments, I won’t push her aside.”
Jill nodded. “Sorry. I knew that, I just didn’t think. If you’ll give me your passport, I’ll get out of your way so you can get back to her.”
“Fine.” Eve went to the kitchen cabinet where she and Joe kept their documents in a lockbox. “You’re being amazingly cooperative.” She handed her the passport. “I’ll call you when I’m available to leave.”
“Cooperative?” Jill’s brows rose as she slipped the passport in her pocket. “I know how lucky I am that I talked you into going. I’m not about to rock the boat. Anything you need, just let me know.”
“I’ll do that.” Eve gave her a cool glance. “And neither of us should pretend that luck had anything to do with your persuading me to commit to several weeks doing the reconstructions on those children. You were clever. You made sure you knew what would push every button. And you played me.”
“Yes, I did,” Jill said quietly. “But I still consider myself lucky that you allowed me to do it. If I work hard enough to make this trip easy for you, I hope you’ll forgive me.” She smiled with an effort. “I’ll be in touch soon if you don’t mind. Just to see if there’s anything you need.” She turned and walked quickly toward the door. “In the meantime, I’ll e-mail you those names and contacts I mentioned might be useful to you.” She looked back over her shoulder. “I’m sure your Nora will turn out wonderfully. Good-bye, Eve.” Then she was gone.
Eve stared after her for a moment. There was no reason to feel as if she had somehow hurt Jill and should try to heal the hurt. Eve was the one who had been maneuvered into throwing her life into chaos for the next few weeks. And Jill Cassidy had not even denied it was done deliberately. Yet the emotion she felt for those children had to be genuine, and where was the line drawn in the sand where brutality toward children was concerned? Eve had never found it.
Forget Jill Cassidy. Eve had made the decision. Now she had to cope with making the best of it.
She was still drinking her coffee as she crossed the room toward the skull on her worktable. As she’d told Jill, she’d need the caffeine.
“Okay, Nora.” She stopped in front of the reconstruction. “We’re almost there, but now you have to help me. You’re going to have to tell me who you are, show me what to do…”
Jill dialed Jed Novak as she walked toward her car. “It’s done,” she said jerkily. “She’ll be ready to leave in twenty-four hours if she finishes the current reconstruction by then. I think she will. She’s driven right now.”
“Putty in your hands, Jill?” Novak asked mockingly.
“Don’t say that,” Jill said fiercely. “It’s stupid. She’s not putty in anyone’s hands. I made a situation impossible for her, and she’s just trying to survive it. She’s a completely private person, and she knows I probed deep to get what I wanted from her.”
“Easy,” Novak said. “Bad joke?”
“Very bad joke.” She stopped as she reached her car and drew a deep breath. “And a very bad meeting with a woman I admire, Novak. She’s smart, and nothing really gets past her. So you need to prepare very carefully. I’ve given her your name and a few others to pave the way. She might call you. Make her feel comfortable.” She paused. “Have you heard anything from Jokan?”
“Not yet. Only a few rumbles. We still have time.”
She wasn’t as sure about that as Novak. “Let me know if it changes. I’m not going to let Eve go near the place if it does.”
“But you’d go yourself,” Novak said softly. “Who’s going to stop you, Jill?” He added wearily, “It probably wouldn’t be me. Never mind. I’ll let you know.” He cut the connection.
No, it wouldn’t be Novak, Jill thought. She had never known anyone as tough or more ruthlessly motivated than Novak. He would get the job done no matter who fell by the wayside.
Yet he hadn’t been ruthless after he’d taken her to that hospital in Nairobi, she suddenly remembered. He’d swept her into the ER, giving orders and making everyone snap to attention. Then he’d stayed with her, guarding her, watching that she was given the best possible attention.
And he’d been there, moving shadowlike in the background, for the entire four days she’d been forced to spend at the damn place.
But there had been nothing shadowlike about those nights he’d sat beside her bed and fought off the dragons that attacked from the darkness. There had been moments when she had hated how strong and dominant he had been during that period when she had been so weak. But there had been other times that he had seemed her only path to survival…
She was smothering!
She sat bolt upright in the hospital bed, her hands tearing off the sheet.
“No.” Novak was suddenly sitting on the bed beside her. “You’re fine. Only another dream, Jill.” He was holding her, rocking her back and forth. “I’m here with you. Nothing can hurt you.”
She was clutching at him. Her heart was pounding so hard that she could hardly breathe. “I hate this.” But she couldn’t let him go yet. Another minute…Then she would be strong again.
No, she couldn’t allow herself that time. It was another sign of weakness. She drew a deep breath and pushed him away from her. “Thank you. I’m okay now. I don’t need you any longer.” Need. How she detested that word. “In fact, I don’t know why you’re here anyway. As you said, it was only a nightmare. I’m not a child who can’t deal with bogeymen.” She leaned back against the pillows and said impatiently, “For that matter, I shouldn’t even be in this hospital. It’s been three days, Novak. I thought I’d be in and out of here in a matter of hours. Why won’t they release me?”
“You know that besides severe bruising you had a cracked rib and a few other less obvious problems. I told them not to let you go until they could promise me that they’d done all they could for you.” He got off her bed and settled back in his chair. “I guarantee they didn’t want to break that promise. I tend to get a little testy. Now go back to sleep.” He paused. “Same nightmare?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.” She was glad of the darkness. His stare was always laser sharp, and she didn’t want to face it right now. When he came to her at night, he was always only a deep, soothing voice, a strong hand that wove a barrier to keep out the weakness and the terror. “Tell them to let me leave here, Novak. I would never have come if I’d known you’d make me a prisoner. You even have a shrink coming in to talk to me every day. I don’t need all this. I’m not one of your agents. Give me a week or two on my own, and I’ll work it out for myself.”
“No harm in getting a little therapy. The doctor says what you’re going through is PTSD. I think talking to the psychiatrist is doing you good. I’ve noticed that you’re not as tense as you were that first day.” He added, “And only one nightmare so far tonight.”
“I can work it out for myself,” she repeated. “That’s the way it has to be. It’s my story, and I have to tell it.”
She hadn’t meant to say that, it had just tumbled out. What did it matter? He had learned more intimate things about her during these last days. “When I was a kid, I had trouble understanding everything that was happening to me. But I loved books and reading, and the stories always made sense to me. There seemed to be a reason for everything, and I thought the writers had a kind of magic that could always make it that way if they tried hard enough.” She added, “And it still makes sense to me to think of myself as writing my own story, incomplete, a work in progress, but totally in control of who I am.” She shrugged. “Weird, huh?”
“Interesting. And totally logical for a premier storyteller.”
“And you’re probably being polite and think that I’m nuts. That’s okay, it works for me.”
“And that’s all that’s important.”
“See? You’re being polite. Look, you’re a busy man, you don’t need to be wasting your time on me. I’m going to leave here tomorrow and go back to Maldara.”
“We’ll see.” He leaned forward and took her hand. “Maybe if you don’t have another nightmare tonight. So concentrate on keeping them all at bay.”
“I’m going to leave tomorrow.” But she found her hand instinctively tightening in his grasp. He had been her anchor in the storm, and she didn’t want to let him go quite yet. She could go to sleep holding his hand as she’d done for the past three nights. She was nearly healed, but she could be with him for these next hours. She would be strong tomorrow. “No more nightmares, Novak…”
And the next day Novak had taken her back to Maldara, and she had started to make the plans and do the research that had brought her here to Eve Duncan.
She looked back at the lake cottage as she got in her car. Eve was probably already working on that reconstruction. In a way, Eve reminded her of Novak as far as motivation and steely determination were concerned. But Eve lacked the kill gene that made Novak lethal. She didn’t doubt that Eve would kill to protect family or friend, but that was different.
But she knew others who possessed that kill gene, too.
And she and Novak were sending Eve right into their target zone.