The clock in the downtown mall chimed once at the top of the evening hour on the busy Friday night as Kari scrolled through her play list and found a soothing song to relax her fried nerves after a erratic and stressful week. She had spent the week with a new client at the prestigious financial institution where she worked who had been transferring a substantial amount from various international accounts. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly as she walked by the various glass storefronts of boutiques and art galleries that boasted staggering prices for original oil paintings and numbered lithographs.
Kari suppressed a shudder as she replayed her last meeting of the day with the new wealthy client John Black. She was so lost in her thoughts that she failed to see the man who had been following her ever since she left work for the week and drove to the mall that was unusually deserted for the night before the plunge into the weekend. She found a parking place in the tri-level parking garage.
She had intended on heading straight home but the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge was backed up with traffic that she decided she'd stop and do a little window shopping and keep her fingers crossed that the cars would thin out. She smiled when she thought the mall was empty because they were all bumper to bumper on the bridge's expanse breathing noxious fumes.
She paused to look in the window of a jewelry store and their lavish offerings of diamond encrusted bracelets and rings. If she had chosen at that moment to turn and look over her shoulder she would have locked eyes with him. He had paused when she did and watched as her eyes moved over the tempting jeweled baubles and tangible tokens of affection.
He sent a cryptic message to his employer and closed the distance between himself and Kari as he slid his phone back into his inner jacket pocket.
"Found my gal, I'm going to go talk to her."
"Ms. Kari Paige?"
The low voice pulled Kari from her thoughts and she turned towards the well dressed man who was looking at her with dark eyes that seemed endless.
"Yes?" she asked taking a small step back as her eyes dropped from his to the dark shadow of facial hair that highlighted his cheekbones and warm skin tone. Her eyes lingered on the stiff olive green collar of his shirt, he had left the top couple buttons open and she could see the smooth hollow at the base of his throat.
He extended his hand towards her and tried to fix a believable smile on his face. "I'm with the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and I need to ask you a few questions."
She grasped and shook his hand before she saw past his smile and was too late to pull her hand back.
She opened her mouth to protest when he yanked her forward into his embrace, she felt her words freeze in her throat when he waved a hypodermic needle in front of her round dark eyes and then felt the press of the chill needle against her neck. She closed her eyes and could still see the bright green contents of the syringe that he could release into her body with a simple push of the plunger.
Kari felt the strength radiating from his body as she halted all struggling when he lowered his lips to her ear and spoke in a solemn tone.
"If you make any sound or even sneeze without my expressed permission, I will empty this delicious mix into your neck and promise you nothing less than paralyzing pain and suffering. Nod once if you understand and agree Kari."
She nodded her head stiffly and let out a big breath when she felt him remove the end of the needle from her neck. She rubbed her neck when he gave her a small bit of breathing room and adjusted the cuffs of her sleeves.
"I didn't know the Federal Reserve was so violent" she said as she tried to wade through her suffocating and still growing fear.
He half smiled and waited until her breathing returned to a somewhat normal state before he spoke in a conversational tone.
"You had a meeting with Mr. John Black today of Entrope Inc." he stated and continued when he saw that he had her full and undivided attention.
"As I'm sure you were able to see, Mr. Black is a very wealthy man and he just merged his company with another pharmaceutical lab that is developing a vaccine for several exotic viruses."
Kari nodded when he paused, her eyes moved around this man that stood in front of her who was wearing an intoxicating cologne or aftershave that made her think thoughts that couldn't be considered normal with the present circumstances.
"What do you want with me?" she asked, afraid to hear his answer.
"You're going to come with me and do a little money shuffling."
She narrowed her eyes, "you mean steal from Mr. Black and pad your bank account?"
He shook his head, "some of it."
She shook her head, "I can 't do that, I don't have the access."
"You have managed to transfer money every other month to your own account with no problems this year, just like you have for the past decade" he stated with a deliberate slowness that made a soft cry fall from between her lips. He watched her eyes dart to either side of him.
"Don't think about running" he said in a dangerous voice and she shook her head.
"I'm not and I really needed the money, I have lots of medi…bills" she said in a defensive snap as she crossed her arms.
"I'm sure you did need each and every one of those healthy deposits" he said with a dry sarcasm and added before she could interject. "That's why if you want those past transactions to stay quiet as well as secure the future of your own finances you will do everything I tell you."
"I needed that money" she said again and sighed hard in resignation and raised her hands, palms facing outwards.
"Okay fine, I'll send money all over the world and beyond if it pleases your little heart" she said with a hiss before her voice broke and she turned her face away from him.
He felt a surge of triumph coupled with immediate disappointment at how soon she agreed. He watched her try to control her shaking hands and trembling lower lip before he moved his eyes down the line of her neck and the small line of skin that was exposed before her buttoned blouse smoothed over the curves of her shoulders and breasts.
He had hoped she would be more resistant, he liked seeing her eyes fill with anger before her fear drowned out every other emotion.
She pulled a battered tin of sharp tasting mints from her pocket and tried to open the lid with her still shaking hands. He watched her with interest as she cursed under her breath when she wasn't able to maintain a grip on a single mint that kept alluding her fingertips.
He caught the quick flick of her eyes over his shoulder and turned his head in the barest of movements. During that split second, Kari threw the open container of pungent mints at his face and turned on her heels and sprinted down the long tiled corridor that would spill into the parking lot that surrounded the sprawling mall.
He was after her it seemed as though he knew what she was planning Kari thought as she sprinted down the Tuscan tiled hall. She was too grateful for words that she had worn shoes that allowed her to move without restraint, she didn't want to turn her head and risk slowing down but she could hear him closing the distance between them at a rapid stride.
She rounded the corner and saw the exit sign shining bright above the closed door that would lead to help. Her lungs were burning from the unaccustomed exertion and she was only able to manage a strangled cry when she felt him grab her upper arm and overtake her.
His hand was over her mouth and stifled any additional sound as he fumbled at his pocket for a moment and she felt the return of the needle to her neck. This time though she felt the smooth metal slide into her flesh and her eyes flew up to meet his.
He paused when their eyes met, he was going to depress the plunger and let her slide into a sea of comatose splendor for a few hours. The bright green shade of the contents of the syringe would not cause her pain as he stated, it was actually a strong sedative coupled with a muscle relaxant. Once the drugs were in her system she would take on the appearance of a stumbling, bumbling drunk until she passed out. It would be long enough to get her to the car before she lost consciousness, but there was something in her eyes and face that made him take pause.
He had become intrigued by her statement about defending her longtime embezzlement, he was certain she was going to say medical before she switched to the benign term "bills."
"Kari, I don't want to hurt you but I can 't let you try something like this again. Do you understand?" he asked while his eyes searched hers. She nodded and he could feel the soft press of her lips under his palm, a single tear formed in her eye and rolled down her cheek in a slow and lazy pace. He felt the bloated tear drop make contact with the skin of his hand and he continued to speak in a slow tone, aware for any sounds of approaching foot traffic or one of those security kids with their flashlights and plastic badges.
"I will remove my hand if you agree to not scream."
She nodded and he lifted his hand from her mouth, he also pulled the needle from her neck. She didn't let out her breath until she saw him return the needle to inside his jacket. She smoothed her blouse down and cleared her throat, when she raised her eyes to meet his again she spoke with almost no tremble to her voice.
"Can we negotiate the terms?"
"Bargain?" he chuckled at her request since she would have no way of defending herself if he ignored her words.
He noticed the flash of fear that spilled across her face before she dropped her eyes and plucked invisible lint from her sleeves.
"Okay, let's negotiate" he said with a more serious tone and moved away from her.
She thought of the large food court, "could we get a coffee or something to snack on?"
He shrugged, "sure I could use something."
They walked from the chilly corridor to the warm food court with its combined tantalizing aromas of sticky cinnamon rolls hemorrhaging sweet frosting and buttery popcorn. They walked to a trendy coffee counter and Kari ordered a vanilla latte and brown sugar and almond scone, she looked over at Edward when he ordered a black coffee and maple glazed doughnut. She reached for her wallet when he passed his credit card to the clerk.
He looked over at her and smiled, "you can pay next time" he stated with an unreadable expression painted across his face. He held her gaze trapped with his brilliant green eyes that glinted with golden highlights, he broke contact as he signed his receipt and stuffed the yellowed copy into the pocket of his tailored charcoal grey slacks.
They stood in silence while the barista prepared her latte. The other clerk with the blunt cut brown hair quickly filled a paper cup with black coffee for Edward. After the latte was done, they each carried their pastry and coffee to a small round table with a slick wooden surface. The mall logo was etched into the surface of the table and Kari broke off an end of her scone and felt the warmth of the coffee spread across her belly when she drank off of her biodegradable cup.
"Well where do we start?" she asked as she broke off a bigger piece of the scone, sugar crystals stuck to her fingertips when he sat across from her in silence, taking a bite from the stale confectionary.
"Well you asked to negotiate so why don't you tell me your terms and we can discuss them" he said taking a sip of his dark Colombian roast coffee. He was almost unable to contain his shock at her first statement and was quick to take another drink from his cup so she couldn't see all of his face.
"I'd like to be paid for doing the transfer of funds" she stated with a confident bluntness that didn't match how she felt on the inside.
"How much?" he asked with no lapse or hesitation.
"20% of total funds transferred, split into two accounts and cash."
"Do you have the access codes for the European accounts and no lying Kari" he asked and stated at the same time.
She straightened her shoulders, "I know most of them" she said with an airy nonchalance.
"And the ones you don't know?" he asked leaning forward in his chair.
"I know where to find them" she said in a hushed tone despite the lack of noise and occupants of the food court.
"You can find all of them and do the transfers from a remote location?" he asked as he drank his coffee.
She nodded, "as long as I have the complete routing and account numbers and a good connection" she said with a continued soft voice and then added unnecessarily with rising nerves. "International transfers can take longer without it."
He nodded and tried to keep a smile from his lips at the ebb and flow of her waves of anxiety.
"What else will you need?" he asked and produced a slate grey pen from his pocket and poised his hand over one of the cheap paper napkins to record what she'd need to complete the money transactions.
He wrote in scribbled short hand as she listed what she would need.
"How will this work?" she asked with a timid hesitation.
"We'll take your car and drive to a safe place where we'll be undisturbed and you can do the transfer."
"Then what?" she asked concerned more with what happened post financial transaction.
"Then I'll take you wherever you want to go, you'll have enough money to start over anywhere" he said and watched her face as she absorbed and interpreted his words.
"How much money will I have?" she asked and watched as he wrote some numbers on the corner of the napkin and passed it across the slick surface of the table that was dotted with sugar crystals.
"You must have added an extra zero by mistake" she said with a high nervous giggle and went still when he shook his head.
"God damn" she breathed. "I could buy a villa in France and retire there now" she said shaking her head with incredulous shock and disbelief and then asked a question that came into her mind about an earlier comment he made.
"You said we'll be undisturbed, who else is going to be at this safe place?"
"Just you and I" he said with a casual tone as her eyes widened at his words.
"Where is this place? How long will we be traveling?" she asked her tone rising as he drained his cup.
"It's across the Canadian border" he finally admitted when he saw her worry and added in what he hoped was comforting. "It will take a few days to get there if we don't hit much traffic and do most of the driving at night, but you'll be free from harm provided you keep your word. You'll have to call in sick to work, after all I don't imagine you'll continue working there should we come to an agreement."
"What if we don't come to an agreement" she asked and tugged a loose thread from her blouse's cuff.
"Let's not talk about that" he said in an easy tone. "I think we can find some common ground."
"I don't know where to go from here" she said and swirled the warm and sweet espresso beverage.
"I suppose we should just start covering the rules of traveling and expectations" he said as he watched her stare at her cup.
He continued when she only nodded her agreement. "It can start with you promising to not attempt any escape or alert anyone under any circumstances and I won't keep you under lock and key."
She swallowed hard and stared down at the etched letters of the mall, the indentations had been filled in with a combination of light and dark blue paint.
"Okay" she said and added with barely a pause "I promise to not try to escape or draw attention but I want you to promise that you will not hurt me."
"I will not hurt you in any way as long as you keep your promises and adhere to whatever we decide at this table. I make that promise and I also swear that if you go back on your word than so will I."
"That's fair" she said and finished the last of her scone. "What's next?" she asked as she tucked a few strands of her behind her ear that had escaped from her tight and low ponytail.
"You'll share the bed with me or wherever we end up sleeping for the night, I'm not going to risk having you too far away. I'm going to get a refill, do you want anything?"
She shook her head and blinked her eyes rapidly as he walked away and ordered a refill of his plain coffee selection.
He returned and hid a smile at the frown that was causing a crease to appear on her forehead.
He drank from his fresh cup of steaming coffee as he could practically hear her mind processing his words.
"I'll sleep in the same bed with you, sleep" she said in a tone that was stained with nervousness.
He tried not to grin and nodded in agreement. "Sleeping, but I get to pick out what you wear to bed" he added and pointed across the mall. Her eyes went to where he pointed, it was a popular lingerie boutique that had sky rocketing prices for a scant amount of shiny and often see-through fabric.
"I like the one of the right" he said in a low tone and watched her face fill with a blush as she looked at the mannequins arranged in the glass window front of the retail chain.
The model had plastic and high sculpted cheekbones, a slim neck and waist. Her ample and artificial breasts were encased in hot pink lace that almost allowed the plastic pink nipples to peek above the fabric. The long legs of the model were posed standing on their tiptoes and had a miniscule amount of fabric covering the apex at the top of their plastic thighs.
"Not from there" she said shaking her head, "those aren't for sleeping, which is what I will be doing." She placed extra emphasis on the word "sleeping."
He nodded, "okay then from there" he said pointing to another lingerie store that had more modest choices, often in sexy designs and brilliant color but left more to the imagination.
She nodded "okay, but I get the final say on all purchases."
"Alright, you can have the final say but only if you are affectionate."
He left his sentence open ended as she sat up straighter and gripped her paper cup harder.
"What does that mean?" she asked and hoped her voice sounded more steady than it was.
"Don't look scared, I promised to not hurt you. I want you to hold my hand as we walk around, let me touch you" he said in a low tone and reached and pushed a few loose strands of her hair behind her ear and added to his reasoning.
"We will have to spend a lot of time together and interact with people at restaurants, stores and gas stations along the way. A couple will blend in better, instead of strangers with two beds to a room and looking mismatched or uncomfortable with each other."
She cleared her throat and unnecessarily adjusted the collar of her blouse. "Can we play that by ear? Will you stop touching if I ask you?"
He watched emotions play across her face and the bright pink hue that had returned with the force of a tropical storm. The blush extended down to the exposed skin of her neckline, the skin visible was brilliantly bright.
She waited to see if he would add more and it soon became apparent that his one syllable reply was all he was going to offer.
"We'll stay in safe and clean places and have hot meals?"
"Yes, I'll make sure your needs are met" he said with a teasing tone to his voice. She averted her gaze to the row of clothing stores.
"Well then let's go shopping."
He stood and held out his hand in her direction, she cleared her throat for a record time that day and remained seated as another question swam to her conscious mind and she almost laughed out loud.
"What is it?" he asked noticing her amusement.
"What shall I call you?" she asked standing and crumbling her napkin into a wad in her hands.
He gave a rare smile when she grasped his outstretched hand. "Edward" he said as he closed his hand around hers.
His rough skin was in stark contrast to the smoothness of hers. They left the food court and took the small elevator to the ground floor and walked to the lingerie boutique whose mannequins curves were hidden under smooth satin and lace but was more subtle than its slutty sister store.