With a pang of regret, Elisabeth walked up the stairs.
Through a fog of alcohol, Elisabeth made the way to her room at the Banes-Flatt B and B after fully reading the distressing email she had received as her evening with Michael was winding down. She had been considering making the evening with him last longer; she had a growing attraction to the man and was beginning to feel comfortable with him, to trust him.
But while enjoying Michael’s company, she had made the mistake of reading the email banner on her phone when it had vibrated in her lap to indicate a new message.
Subject: I saw you today
We should talk, just to see how you are doing…
Nico999@gmail.com. Nico? He must think he is clever, she mused. What an idiot, she concluded. Elisabeth had long feared the wretched hoodlums were looking for her and might know of her whereabouts. Had Nicolas actually seen her that day? Those horrible men must be close. When will I ever be free of them? she contemplated. Simply by her distance from California, she had lulled herself into hoping she had more time to throw them off her tracks and to come up with a solid plan to keep them out of her life forever.
* * *
Nicolas Marcos was never a likeable man. His uninvited advances toward her had always been accompanied by a haphazard mix of bullying tone and sleazy flirtation. Elisabeth had thought of the man as an ugly toad who would not know how to properly treat a woman even if she had wanted to be with him. The man had come to the Meekses’ estate a few times with his employer, Walter Breem, the Oakland metal salvage mogul, an associate in some fashion of Ned Bolting, a close friend of Huntington Meeks, her employer.
She had never liked either of the men, Marcos or Breem. They were slimy characters, and she could not understand why Huntington had allowed them into his sphere of influence, let alone to venture onto the estate. She often asked herself what Ned Bolting could have on Huntington, what Walter Breem had over Ned Bolting, and what their endgame was. She had pointlessly pondered these questions many more times than she could recollect.
Breem wanted something of or from Huntington. She did not know what it could be. Was it influence or respectability? Probably something less reputable than either of those prospects, she recalled thinking so long ago.
“How has he found me here and discovered my email address?” she said aloud as soon as she was alone in her room and the door had been closed and securely locked. Elisabeth knew right then, in answer to her own question, that she had been foolish to think she had the wherewithal, the necessary skills, to stay ahead of such horrible people. She was now fully aware of what they wanted, what it meant to them, and she realized that they would do anything to find her and to get it from her. But she would resist, absolutely knowing they would not be gentlemen or gentle in their approach. Had Nicolas brought along his greasy-headed-punk sidekick, Billy? she thought as she continued to dwell on the pressing subject. Though she assumed not, she wondered if Breem was in England, too. She recalled that the man had always let his boys do the dirty work.
Elisabeth had learned of Breem’s nefarious businesses and supposed connections with the Bay Area organized crime bosses and drug dealers through servant-quarters’ gossip at the Meekses’ estate and through a few newspaper articles that had mentioned the salvage company, but never through Walter Breem himself. It seemed to her that the man usually kept his alleged dark dealings at considerable arm’s length. Newspaper articles made suggestions, but of course, to avoid lawsuits of libel, they would always paint a picture of questionability and nothing more. Local journalists would propose potential links, connecting dots between the investigations of the district attorney’s office into Breem’s dubious dealings with companies known to have associations with the metal salvage business and other businesses owned by a Breem-controlled consortium.
And then there was the somewhat credible link within the household staff. Jenny, a young woman from Berkeley, then serving as kitchen help and part-time as assistant cleaning woman, had a brother-in-law on the Oakland police force. Though somewhat estranged from her family because she preferred a freestyle life, Jenny had heard Tim, her sister’s husband, at family gatherings discussing unsavory activities of the “Breem bunch,” as he had referred to them.
Elisabeth gave little credence to such talk, but she found herself believing more and more of the gossip and accusations as her disdain for the weary gang grew. The weary gang was a lighthearted label she had created for her own use when thinking of the greasy, dark-suit, dark-glasses-wearing mobsters. Although she had very few clues with which to make any valid judgment, Elisabeth relied on her intuition, mostly because it would not leave her alone, as it was always on the surface when the men were present.
* * *
The last time she had seen Breem and his boys on the estate was actually a happy moment for her, for she had witnessed what appeared to be a terse discussion between Breem and Huntington. The men were making their way back to the house after an early-morning dove hunt on the oak-studded lands leased to cattle ranchers in the low foothills of the Atlas Peak range, all in the eastern reaches of the estate. The estate consisted of hundreds of acres covered in wine grapes, olive orchards, pastures, and Huntington Meeks’s beloved rolling hills.
As the men made their way toward the farm sheds and the estate manager’s office, where the vehicles and shotguns were kept, she could see from her room on the servants’ level that something was amiss. Even watching from that distance, she could tell that the men’s conversation was heated because their hands were flying about with abandon.
Elisabeth had never seen Huntington in such a state, though it was difficult to perceive precisely the reason from so far. Moreover, she could see Ned Bolting sitting in the back of the World War II–era Jeep and trying to calm the two men in the front seats. But Huntington was having none of that; she could tell that much from her vantagepoint.
After that very day, the wannabe mobsters were never seen again on the estate. Unfortunately, though, Nicolas would often run into her in town, supposedly by accident, always trying to make small talk with Elisabeth and to see what was happening on the “lovely estate,” as he called it, or to inquire about “dear Mr. Meeks.” She wanted to retch each time the man opened his ugly mouth. Elisabeth could tell that the Breem men wanted something from her (beyond what Nicolas wanted for himself and would never have). When many years went by and a few puzzle pieces—some large, some small—had fallen into place, she eventually put it all together.
The most unfortunate piece to the unruly puzzle had come when Huntington had later been ravaged by a stroke. Elisabeth had so admired the man from their earliest interactions, especially those relating to old Mrs. Stedman. She had felt equally comfortable discussing household or her own personal matters with the wise gentleman. Huntington Meeks had a well-known and well-respected integrity, one highly regarded by his peers, though few they were. The one blemish, in her mind, had been that odd relationship with Breem and his fellow thugs those many years prior.
* * *
Quietly reflecting on her foolishness and missteps over the last few hours did nothing to help Elisabeth in her current situation: she had suddenly fallen into the hands of Nicolas’s rather inept partner in crime, grease-headed Billy. Her worst fears had come to fruition. She repeatedly asked herself where Michael was this morning and if he would be looking for her or missing her.
Elisabeth felt as silly as a teenage girl for her thoughts about him. However, she was very aware that she had developed an attraction to the American man. An American, for goodness’ sake! She chided herself for this growing interest in Michael, though he was unlike any American man she had ever met before.
Continuing to puzzle over her situation, she wondered where the hell Billy was taking her. She had asked him that very obvious question earlier and had been met by a single sneer from the ugly beast of a little man. That, as was well intended, pushed hard on the tangled fear already building inside her gut, a fear he had deftly created in the first moments of her capture. It was deeper than any fear she had ever experienced in her life.
The ordeal began when she had ventured downstairs for some fresh air in hopes of clearing the fog created by the previous night’s overindulgences and to possibly bump into Michael Seltzer as he made his way out to start another day of cycling in the vast hills of the Lake District.
She had, unwisely she thought later, been alone in the garden and in view of the road passing in front of the B and B when Billy suddenly crept up behind her and made the grab, leaving no trace of her or his criminal, heinous act.
Once he had shoved her in his car, Billy quickly tied her hands and said words that a man would only say to a woman in an attempt to garner a deep, disabling fear in her to subdue her.
Elisabeth had immediately gone deep inside her mind, reminding herself of her own power. She began by hoping for a safe outcome for herself and a quick capture of the thug, or thugs. She also summoned Michael Seltzer in her thoughts, reflecting on a promising trust that she knew she had in the man.
Elisabeth made her own survey, slyly, she had hoped, looking about the inside of the little sedan for a heavy object or other means to disable the pale, sickly looking man who had—with a rare flare of bravado—snatched her from the quaint garden beside the B and B, where she was lodging.
Following a call from Nicolas, she assumed, Billy had stopped the car at the side of the street near an intersection and a small enclave of businesses to look around for something or someone. Elisabeth meekly asked, “What are we doing here?” Billy just grunted and continued to sit in the driver’s seat, surveying the area around the old car.
Pulling herself away from the fruitless search for anything with which to pound her assailant, Elisabeth looked up and outside the vehicle to take in the scene for future reference, if for nothing else. Through a purposeful calming of her mind to ground herself, she could sense Billy’s tenseness and felt that the car’s motor was still running. A sound somewhere between a purr and a sputter echoed from the sedan’s exhaust. Despite her circumstances, she could see that it was shaping up to be a very nice day outside.
Wishing she could truly appreciate the beauty of the day, Elisabeth heard a roaring engine and saw a larger vehicle, maybe a Jeep or utility van of some sort, speed up the street in their direction. The vehicle flashed very quickly past their location. The rushing vehicle moved at such speed that she forgot her current state for a split second. She looked out of the window of the sedan and across the street. The larger vehicle, of a dark color, zoomed past and left behind, well in her view, the man she knew as Michael Seltzer, the man she had conjured out of nowhere.
She could not believe—could not quite give credit—that Michael was right there in her line of sight. The first short-lived emotion presented her savior. But as Michael, nearly killed by the speeding Land Rover, began to absorb the scene, her emotions turned from sudden surprise, to fear for Michael himself, to the hope of being saved, to a souring realization that the American could not possibly understand her dire need to be rescued from the pale monster beside her.
All of those emotions and an accompanying frisson of firing neurons flashed through her mind in quick succession. She had no idea if Michael could have understood her circumstances. Just then, Billy, startled by the speeding vehicle and his captive’s sudden attention elsewhere, put the red sedan into gear and sped away from the scene.
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