Ricki felt so grown up, living on her own and making her way as a cashier in her hometown grocery store. Her life was simple until a stranger revealed her past, and a secret that could very well cost her life.
A meaty hand clamped over Ricki’s mouth. The man who pressed his body against hers smelled like musky pine. The scent stirred an odd memory, but adrenaline took over. She struggled against his strong grasp.
“Stay quiet.” His wet words against her ear made her knees buckle. She whimpered against his rough fingers.
He pressed her to the floor behind the register. She counted each breath he exhaled against her neck. Another few minutes, and Ricki would have been leaving for the night. Panic stirred anew in her belly as she wondered if she’d ever leave again.
From the back of the store, two voices broke the silence. She couldn’t make out the words, but they sounded urgent.
“I don’t think they saw you,” the man behind her whispered.
His hand slipped, and a scream ripped from Ricki’s mouth. He clapped his hand back and spun her to face him. She wasn’t sure what to expect, but he wasn’t it. He was at least as old as her parents, with steel gray eyes that reminded her of her own.
“Are you trying to get us both killed?” The panic in his expression made her stop struggling.
“Over there!” a deep voice bellowed from across the store.
A woman’s voice responded, “Clear the aisles. That bitch is somewhere.”
“They’ll find you if you don’t move. Quietly.” The man held her still, and yet his face seemed etched with concern. “Can you do that?”
Fear gave way to confusion, and instinct compelled Ricki to nod. He removed his hand from her mouth and she inhaled deeply. He flicked his head toward the next register.
Ricki peeked out enough to look down the aisle. At the back of the store, a man in black pants and a sport jacket swept the barrel of a rifle from side to side. The stranger beside her mouthed, Now!
She scrambled around the end of the next register, praying silently that she wouldn’t be seen. Ricki leaned against its cool metal sheeting and hugged her knees into her chest. The exit door taunted her from across a wide-open, brightly lit span of tile.
The stranger slid in beside her, his shoulder pressed against hers. Ricki’s eyes widened as he drew a pistol from under his jacket.
This time, his words were almost soothing. “I’ll get you out of here. I promise. When I stand, run for that door, and don’t look back.”
He popped up, pistol raised, and fired shots across the store. Ricki fled just as he commanded.
Ricki fastened the chain lock on her front door. Pangs of guilt mixed with fear. She wondered if the man who’d saved her had even survived. Why they’d been after her, she couldn’t guess. Who goes after a small-town grocery store cashier whose greatest offense in life was toilet papering a teacher’s house in high school?
She grabbed a framed photo from the entry table and slid to the floor. Her parents stood beside her, frozen in time at her graduation. When they’d retired to Florida earlier in the year, she’d felt all grown up, finally living on her own. She brushed her fingers over the glass.
A knock on the door sent her flying to her feet. She edged forward to peek through the peephole.
“Let me in. Quick.”
“No.” She backed away.
The memory of his face, pleading and panicked, flooded her mind. She stepped forward and opened the door against the chain. “How do you know my name?” she asked.
“I can explain. But we might not live long enough if you don’t let me in.” His words bit through the cold air.
She opened the door and he slipped inside. Before she could speak, he handed her an envelope. Ricki pulled a report from inside and saw her name below a header that read “DNAnswers – Your Life, Revealed.”
She studied the man standing in her living room. “Why do you have my DNA results?”
He nodded toward the papers. “I’m John. I’m… those results–”
The sound of tires grinding to a stop halted him mid-sentence. He pulled back the curtain, closed it quickly and placed a protective arm across Ricki’s chest. The scent of his cologne washed over her again.
“We’re going to have to go out the back,” he said.
“Who are those people?” Ricki fought the temptation to look out the window.
“They have eyes everywhere. They’re using you to get to me.”
“But I have no idea who you are!”
Glass shattered beside them and a pillow on her couch burst into a cloud of feathers. Ricki yelped as John grabbed her shoulder and shoved her to the ground. “Out the back! Now!”
She scrambled across the floor and through the kitchen, test results still clutched in one hand. John grabbed the back-door handle and stood with his pistol raised. He flung the door open and ducked back.
“They’re trying not to attract attention,” he said. “Silencers. Minimum shots fired. But that doesn’t mean they won’t take another shot if they get one. We’re going to have to run for it. I’ll cover you.”
Ricki sprinted out the door.
“Left!” John yelled from behind. She turned and saw a black SUV parked half-way up on the sidewalk.
“Get in!” John ordered.
Bile rose in Ricki’s throat. Nothing about getting in that car seemed wise. But with John poised, ready to shoot whatever might come at them, she felt like she didn’t have another option.
John slid into the driver’s seat and started the car. As they sped through her quiet neighborhood, he tapped the papers in her lap. “Why did you order that test?”
“Because I could,” Ricki snapped. “You never answered my question. Why do you have my results?”
“You couldn’t have known.” John adjusted the rear-view mirror. His eyes widened. “Hold on.”
He turned hard down a side street, then another, and another, finally emerging on a main road traveling the opposite direction they’d originally headed.
Ricki studied John in the darkness. Part of her wondered if this was all an elaborate kidnapping scheme, but there was something so familiar about him. She couldn’t place it, but she could swear she’d seen him before. She clicked on the reading light and studied the papers in her lap. “Why does my report have information about my parents?” She inhaled sharply. “My mom and dad… this… this can’t be right. I’m adopted?”
John nodded. “You were such a beautiful baby.”
“Are you saying–?” Ricki couldn’t finish the sentence. The flood of cologne hit her once more. That wisp of a long-forgotten dream stirred confusion inside of her.
“Ricki, I’m your father,” John offered.
His words struck like a weight, and in the earliest reaches of her mind, she saw those steel gray eyes looking into hers, the smell of musky pine enveloping her. Felt the safety of his arms.
“You’re–” Ricki didn’t get to finish the thought.
“Shit!” John swore.
She felt the car accelerate. A quick glance out the rear window told her why. A car behind them closed the gap.
“Why do they want to kill me? You? Us!”
“Let’s just say I’ve had a rough past. I swore it would all change when I found out your mother was pregnant.” He whipped the wheel to the side and the tires screamed.
Ricki looked back. “I think you lost them.”
“Not for long.” His flat tone made her shiver.
“They’ve been after you for a long time, haven’t they?”
“I made a deal with the police and we went into witness protection. Except they got to your mother before we… I had to do something to protect you. I gave you up.”
Ricki’s stomach threatened to let loose. Deep down, she felt the puzzle pieces of her life click into place.
“Graduation,” she whispered. “You were there.”
“I was,” he said. “And prom. Your first soccer game. Always watching, getting as close as I dared. This is all my fault. If I would have just walked away like I was supposed to–” John’s voice cracked. He cleared his throat. “That test you ordered; you couldn’t have known the risk. They have eyes everywhere. Fortunately, so do I.”
“I don’t follow—”
“When you order a DNA test, the information goes into a giant computer. Hackers use them to pinpoint locations, family ties. It’s a Mafia playground. Everyone has to know their damned genetic code now… may as well paint targets on your backs.”
“Normal people don’t worry about the Mafia! Besides, I was just curious.” Her words were only half true. Ricki loved her parents, but there were so many things that never quite fit. She studied John’s profile and saw a rougher, older contour that matched her own. She touched her nose, then her chin.
“There’s so much about you that reminds me of your mother,” he said. “But to look at you, you’re a mirror of your Nana. My Mama.”
“Gone. Yes. Thankfully she never got the chance to see, well… me… like this.”
A shot ricocheted off the rear panel of the SUV.
Ricki ducked. “They’re behind us!”
“The car has bullet-proof glass and reinforced panels. As long as they don’t hit—”
The explosive pop of a rear tire reverberated through the car as it careened sideways. Ricki grasped at anything she could hold as the SUV slid to a stop.
“What now?” she yelled.
“Out!” John unbuckled his seat belt and reached across her to fling the door open. “Go! Go!”
John pushed Ricki toward the front of the car. “Stay behind the tire.” He opened the rear door and pulled out a rifle. “I’ll be right back.”
He sprinted behind a concrete wall, leaving her alone. Around her, empty warehouse buildings cast long shadows in the night. There’d be no chance of anyone calling for help. This part of town was dead even during daylight hours.
A deafening silence overtook the night. Ricki peeked under the car. Shadows ducked in between buildings. She sat up, her breath coming in gasps. The glint of metal caught her eye. A pistol lay in the back seat of the SUV.
A round of shots echoed down the street, followed by a man’s scream, then silence. Ricki pulled the gun from the car.
Footsteps crunching in gravel made her freeze. Her heart pounded in her ears. She clutched the pistol.
“Hey, bitch.” It was the woman’s voice from the grocery store. She paced behind the car. “Daddy’s not coming for you this time. See, he followed our bait.”
The woman stepped into view, her weapon leveled at Ricki’s head. Her slicked-back dark hair accentuated angular features. She looked like a cat, poised to strike cornered prey. Ricki gulped down fear and raised the pistol. Tears stung her eyes. She pulled the trigger.
She pulled it again. And again.
The woman laughed, cold and cruel. “It’s just you and me and one loaded gun. Mine. Sorry, bitch. Say hi to your Daddy for me.”
Ricki closed her eyes.
A shot shattered the night.
Ricki opened one eye, then the other.
John stood over the woman’s body, his chest heaving. He tossed the gun to the ground and gathered Ricki in his arms. She wept against his shoulder.
“Is it over?” she asked.
He blew out a long breath. “I wish I could tell you it was.”
“So, what now?”
John helped Ricki to her feet. “I’ll take you to your parents.” The lines around his eyes softened and he cupped her chin. “You live your life, and I’ll keep watching.”