Everything felt like a blur.
The way the walls caved in on each other and the windows shattered on impact was so sudden that no one had time to take cover. However, they were lucky that the pillars holding the building held firm and stopped the ceiling from crashing down on them.
The first instinct Sarah had was to go on top of Penny and act as a shield. Shards of glass pierced her skin, and a boulder sat on her right leg, but all she could think of Penny. The little one was still breathing but coughing and wheezing so much because of the polluted air. Sarah had to get her out of there. When she tried to move, the pain that shot through her leg was so intense that she stayed in place.
Aaron and the others lay still like they were dead. If they weren’t on impact, the fumes were going to kill them, she thought.
Was help coming?
Sarah was facing the entrance, and through the smoke, she could see men in black and gas masks coming towards them. They didn’t look or act like the police because they weren’t checking the bodies they passed by for signs of life, and it seemed like they were looking for something or someone. It was getting difficult to stay awake, but Sarah saw through a blurry vision that they had reached her and were lifting the boulder off her leg. Strangely, they didn’t help her up. Instead, they pushed her aside and dragged Penny out from under her. She tried to scream, but no words came as Penny’s figure disappeared in the haze.
Penny! she screamed inwardly. She had to stay awake!
But she couldn’t. In no time, the fumes overpowered her senses, and all she could see was darkness.
There was no way she could tell how much time had passed when she opened her eyes again, but she guessed it was close to 6.00 pm the way the sun dimmed behind the clouds. She was outside the building, on a stretcher, and connected to a gas mask. Around her, Gareth and Brooks were in similar positions but unconscious while Aaron sat at the edge of the medical van, giving information to the police.
Jail. Sarah had to find Penny first. Who could have taken her?
Sarah removed the mask amidst protests from the attending nurse. ‘I have to go,’ she said to the confused nurse, who cast a worrying glance at her leg.
She followed the nurse’s gaze, but Sarah didn’t mind if she had to limp out of there with a bandaged leg.
‘The police say you are under arrest,’ the nurse informed her. Sarah looked around and saw that no one was paying attention to her. Most of the officers were at the building, looking for survivors, and Aaron was still giving his statement. ‘Please help me. They took my daughter. The people who did this took my daughter.’
The nurse followed her gaze and looked around. ‘I will get into serious trouble if I let you go.’
‘Please! I will turn myself in once I find her,’ Sarah insisted, with all the strength she could muster.
The nurse sighed and pointed to a secluded alleyway.
Sarah limped carefully out of sight while the nurse backed her and guided her escape.
‘What in the world are you doing?’ Aaron yelled from behind the nurse. ‘She is looking for her daughter,’ the nurse said, with no remorse in her tone. ‘I couldn’t deny a mother the opportunity of looking for her daughter.’
Aaron spotted Sarah and saw how difficult it was for her to move with her injured leg.
‘She promised to turn herself in once she found her,’ the nurse continued while scanning the area for another patient that needed her help. ‘You know how things are here. It’s not like they will help her look for a kid, knowing she’s a criminal and I believed her.’
Aaron sighed and nodded in approval. Even though it was against protocol, she did the right thing. If anything, he wished he could help Sarah because Aaron felt like he got her into this mess. She was in police custody and under arrest. He needed to buy her time.
From a distance, Sarah saw her mustang in the heat of the action. There was no way she could reach it, and her heart bled some more. How would she find Penny now? Where was she going to look for Penny? A sharp pain emanated from her leg, forcing her to lean against a wall for a moment. Who took Penny? There were too many questions and no answers.
She needed help.
Christopher. She felt a tightness in her chest when she thought of him. There was no way back for her now, not after this.
She wouldn’t have kept this from him if losing Penny was the price she was going to pay.
As she tried to call herself a cab, her mind wandered to the day she met Aaron Knox. Aaron promised he would fix everything if she went through with the mediation, but she should have stuck to her guns and gone to jail.
After Christopher told her there was nothing between them and stormed out of her room in the hospital, she thought nothing could compare to the pain she was feeling, but she was wrong. Shortly after, Aaron walked in like he owned the place and dropped a Dozier at the foot of the bed.
‘Sarah Wilcox,’ he said.
She wasn’t interested in having another conversation after the blow Christopher had landed, even though she expected nothing less.
‘Or is it Sarah McKenzie or Sally Whitfield or Ginny Dolls? It’s so hard to keep up with all your aliases.’
‘What do you want?’ Sarah asked, irritated.
‘I’m the police. I’m here to take you in,’ Aaron said, with a straight voice.
Her heart stopped for a moment, but she tried to remain calm. ‘You were expecting me,’ Aaron said, studying her.
‘I expected this day to come,’ she replied with a resigned tone. ‘I’m tired of running. I’m tired of not knowing who I am. So get it over with.’
He was silent for a long time. It was almost as if he wasn’t expecting Sarah’s response. She didn’t care. She held her arms out together to make it easy for him to cuff her.
‘I saw a little girl leaving this room a while back,’ he continued, sitting by her bed. ‘Was that your daughter?’
‘What’s it to you?’ Sarah snapped.
‘You have such a mouth on you. Don’t you want a chance to be with your daughter?’
Her hands fell back on the bed, and for the first time, despair took over. ‘She’s better off without me.’
‘I don’t think she feels the same way. She kept on asking of you all through your surgery. She was scared she was going to lose you.’
Sarah’s gaze fell to her hands like they always did when she was ashamed.
‘Just get it over with,’ was all she could say.
‘Stop being selfish, Sarah. I have a deal that will benefit you. Your accusers…’
‘No deals!’ Sarah cut in sharply. ‘I’m done with deals and threats and cons! No more. Just arrest me and shut up!’
‘Your accusers are your exes, Mr. Gareth Connor and Mr. Bryan Brooks. They are willing to come up with a favorable arrangement that will get them what they want and keep you out of jail,’ he continued like she hadn’t interrupted.
Her eyes had widened for a moment. They had found her, and now they knew each other. How?
‘Not interested,’ Sarah decided. ‘Do you think I’m a fool? If they don’t want to go to court, it’s because they don’t think the court will grant them everything they want.’
Aaron looked thoughtful for a moment. Sarah laughed aloud, mocking Aaron for not doing his homework properly. ‘Yes, they want what you took from them, but I can tell you don’t have it anymore. It is my job as a mediator to come up with alternative ways of paying them back.’
‘I’ll take my chances with jail,’ Sarah announced. If she knew them well, and she did, they would bleed her dry if it meant getting everything back.
Aaron remained defiant. The man baffled her. Wasn’t it better for him to turn her in? She had been a fugitive for so long, and her cases were cold, thanks to Tim’s intervention. She wasn’t an expert in the law, but she was sure that an arrest of this caliber would earn him a promotion.
‘I’ll come clean with you, Sarah,’ Aaron said, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. ‘I’m a retired policeman turned mediator. An agreement between two parties makes the district attorney’s office happy. That’s why I’m important to them, and I should be important to you too. I’ve read your files. You are what others call the scum of the earth, but I believe in second chances. I’m giving you one. Do you think jail will be kind to you?’
Her expression remained the same, and Aaron sighed. He felt like he was talking to a brick wall.
‘I heard if all goes well, you might be home in a week or so.’
She turned away. ‘What does that have to do with anything?’
‘A lot, Sarah a lot. You need to show commitment. Show up for meetings. Show your willingness to do better, be better. I’m not just saying this in terms of our goal, but if you can produce two or three character witnesses who can attest to your change in attitude, it just might get us where we need to be.’
She laughed. ‘That’s like finding a small needle in a haystack.’
He didn’t look amused. He pointed to the door. ‘The doctor that left this room moments ago. He’s your daughter’s father, right? Do you know what he is?
She frowned. ‘That’s an awfully stupid question.’
He ignored her and grabbed her shoulders.
‘It will be hard to find a more credible witness than Dr. Christopher Wallace, and if you can get him to speak in your favor at mediation..?’
‘Forget it, old-timer!’ Sarah said bluntly. ‘There’s no way Christopher’s finding out about that! He already thinks I’m crazy.’
Aaron let go of her shoulders. ‘I hear the pain in your voice. You love him, right? Yet, you act like an obnoxious little b***h. Get your act together, and maybe he will look at you differently.’
Sarah grimaced at his insult.
‘If you think Dr. Wallace will not and cannot find a replacement for you, especially for his kid, you are even crazier than I thought. Do you know how many women will kill to be with a man like that?’ Aaron stated, with a grave expression on his face.
Her eyes watered. This man was right. She could lose Christopher for good if she hadn’t already. She had given him enough reasons to throw her in the dumps as it were. Aaron studied her again. Whatever he was doing was working, and he wouldn’t stop till he got what he wanted.
‘Yes,’ Sarah said in a hushed tone.
‘I didn’t hear that,’ Aaron announced, moving his ear closer to her mouth.
‘Yes, alright?’ she screamed, almost bursting his eardrum.
Aaron moved back, rubbing his ear in agony.
‘You ill-mannered woman!’ Aaron snapped, irritated by her behavior.
She didn’t respond.
He picked up the Dozier from the bed and headed for the door. ‘I’ll send the police into cuff you,’ he said as he walked.
‘I’m sorry,’ she muttered.
He stopped and a smile formed on his lips.
‘Say it, again,’ he ordered.
‘I’m sorry,’ she repeated, as her cheeks turned red.
He turned to face her. ‘How hard was that to do?’
She shook her head while responding. ‘Not hard.’
He returned to the chair.
‘Where will you be after you get discharged?’ Aaron asked, looking into his eyes. She looked away because she was sure he could see that she had started crying.
‘He … I mean … Christopher asked me to stay with him because of the children.’
‘Good,’ Aaron said. ‘When we started talking, you said you were tired of not knowing who you were. There’s a good chance that Dr. Wallace doesn’t know either. You need to show him who you can be.’
‘And who is that?’ Sarah said, between her tears.
‘The woman who loves him. The mother who loves her daughters.’
‘I don’t know how,’ she cried. ‘I’m afraid I’ll screw everything up! I’ve never been good for anything!’
‘Dr. Wallace saw something in you, and he chose you out of all the plethora of women that swooned over him,’ Aaron said, falling back on his seat. He had broken her. He had to drive this home.
‘It was an act,’ Sarah announced. ‘A con.’
‘The woman I see right now is a con. Hiding behind a rotten attitude to
stop herself from showing how damaged she is.’
She sniffed. ‘Christopher won’t forgive me for what I let the girls go through.’
‘Then it’s time to change.’
Sarah buried her head in her hands because she was feeling too many emotions at once. If he only knew how badly she had messed up.
‘Your assignment, my dear Sarah is to win him over and get him to mediation,’ Aaron said.
She shook her head. ‘When Christopher is mad, he is mad. I’ve pushed him over the edge.’
‘Do you want him back or not?’ Aaron asked bluntly.
‘I do!’ she said, almost like she was unworthy to answer that question.
‘Then follow my lead. I promise you will get Christopher back and get a favorable deal with your exes.’
He stood up to go and heaved a heavy sigh as he did.
‘How do you know I’m not going to trick Christopher into thinking I’ve changed?’ Sarah asked and immediately wished she didn’t.
‘I’m half-expecting that, although that would be a stupid move. I doubt Dr. Wallace will fall for the same trick twice. Besides, like insurance, I want your elder daughter as the second character witness. From the way she stormed out of here earlier, she’ll be an even greater challenge.’
Sarah swallowed a lump in her throat. How would she manage that?
‘Be real with them,’ Aaron added, reading her thoughts.
She looked at him with a glamour of hope in her eyes. ‘Do you believe I can do this?’
‘If you do what I say, yes, but I won’t go easy on you because you have to take this seriously. I will schedule meetings for one hour every afternoon. Service rendered for payment owed. Nothing you can’t handle. If you stick to what I say, we will get what we want.’
Or so he thought.
Mediation started, and Aaron told her exes she didn’t have their money and she was willing to work for them to pay back what she took from them during the divorce.
‘It’s like community service, instead of jail time,’ he had explained.
They didn’t believe him or seem satisfied. Gareth told him there was no need for mediation if she insisted on lying about the money. He was about to pull the plug when Aaron blurted out that he wouldn’t force them to commit to any agreements unless Sarah produced two character witnesses that could vouch for her.
They laughed, just like she did.
‘You shouldn’t believe anything this woman says,’ Mr. Brooks said.
‘Doctor Christopher Wallace will be one of the witnesses,’ Aaron said confidently. ‘Sarah will bring him here in a month. I promise you that. If she manages to bring the other witness here, I will put pen to paper myself on her behalf.’
Both men looked at each other in surprise and agreed to the terms.
She grew suspicious because she didn’t think they would give up on their money so lightly, but she trusted Aaron and the relationship he had with Gareth.
She supposed Gareth had her investigated after that, and finding out about the girls was all he needed to convince Bryan that Christopher would pay a hefty sum to keep the matter out of court.
Even though she had accepted to go to jail for her crimes, which meant her exes wouldn’t get the money they wanted unless they conducted another mediation, both men had leverage over Christopher now, and she didn’t know how they were going to use it.
A new problem.
Part of her wished they didn’t survive.
Cabs weren’t stopping because of her appearance. They probably thought she would die at any moment. She tried using a payphone to call Christopher several times, but it didn’t ring. The operator said he was out of range. Strange.
It wasn’t safe for her to be on the streets, she thought. The men that took Penny didn’t care if she died in that building, so they wouldn’t have a problem shooting her on sight.
There was also the small matter of eluding the police.
She stuck to the alleys and took shortcuts when she could. It was to be a long and painful walk but finding Penny was all the motivation she needed. Her baby never gave up on her. She would die before she gave up on Penny.
It took four hours to get home.
There was blood at the entrance, and Sarah held her breath before she wobbled in. Was Daisy alright? She left her alone at home, and she hoped the bodyguards were able to keep her safe. Sarah forgot about her sore leg when going over the yellow tape and stumbled forward. As she was about to hit the floor, she looked to her right and saw a tall man making long strides towards her.
He looked … angry.
He knew she had lost Penny.
Before she could utter a word, he had his palm to her neck and had her pinned against the wall.
She couldn’t breathe.