Throw the Key

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Psychological Suspense
Date Published: 10/06/18
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 “Lock the doors and windows…don’t talk to anyone…keep the kids with you.”
Jenna Bradley knows she needs to be afraid, she just doesn’t know what she should be afraid of. An evening phone call from her husband, Eric, rattles her to the core. “I’m coming to get you and the kids. We have to go away for a while.”
No explanation, just a few orders laced in panic.
Jenna can only assume that as a reporter, Eric has exposed the wrong people. It’s only a guess. The distance between them grows every day, Eric living his life, Jenna living hers. She doesn’t know what he’s been working on any more than she knows where he went that morning. If only the gunmen holding her and her children hostage believed that.
Eric has the answers Jenna seeks, but when the engine of his private plane stalls over Lake Michigan, his desperation to get home and whisk his family to safety takes a back seat to a seemingly futile struggle to survive.  
Federal inmate, Kurt McElroy has answers too, but heavy prison monitoring prevents him from sending a clear warning, not to mention getting the help he needs. The private prison he’s been contracted to is as corrupt as they come, but that corruption reaches beyond the prison walls to officials with everything to lose. 
Jenna fears it’s her family that will lose, namely their lives. The clock is ticking. The gunmen are growing restless. Can she find an escape before it’s too late?
Excerpt
Chapter One
August 5, 7:00 p.m.
My husband didn’t even greet me when I answered the phone. “I’m coming to get you and the kids.” He sounded rushed, almost panicked, and his deep voice squeaked as if puberty had returned.
My three-year-old son sat on the kitchen floor in front of me, banging on a stainless steel pot with a wooden spoon. I pulled my cell from my mouth and cupped it with my hand. “Please be quiet, Jack. Mommy is on the phone.”
He kept beating the pot, his head jerking from side to side as he belted out a made-up song. “I want to play all da-a-ay, I want to play all day…”
Cute as could be with big chocolate eyes, smooth cherubic cheeks, and dark hair the shade of his eyes. Picture perfect, actually, the kind of child on television and in magazines. But if he had been my first, I probably wouldn’t have had Emma, so quiet and poised, the exact opposite of her brother. Thank goodness. As much as I love the little guy, I never could have kept up with two of him.
I plugged a finger in my ear, paced to the French doors, pulled them open, and stepped onto the cobblestone patio off the kitchen. “Eric? Sorry, Jack is…”
“Jenna, just listen.” Prickles stung my skin, tiny pins jabbing my flesh. “We need to go away. For a while.” His words were clipped, the steadiness in his voice forced.
“What? Why? What is wrong?”
Eric paused. “I need you to pack everything we’re going to need for the next couple weeks or so. Whatever you can fit into four suitcases. No more.”
“A couple weeks? I can’t. Lucy…” Even though I quit my job as a speech pathologist a few years ago, I continued to work with Lucy a few times a week. She needed me in so many ways. I couldn’t just leave her, especially without having a chance to talk to her about it first. She’d be heartbroken, has already suffered through more than any child should know.
“I’m sorry. We have to.” He didn’t sound sorry. If anything, he sounded like the Eric I’ve come to know lately. To the point. Distracted. Disinterested. A far cry from the man I married.
I could hear my own breath huffing over the line. “Why?”
Another pause, short this time. “Lock the doors and the windows. Turn on the security system. Stay in the house and keep the kids with you. Don’t talk to anyone. Do you understand?”
Why wouldn’t he answer my question? “Eric, you have to tell me what’s going on. You can’t just…”
“I’m sorry. Really. Lock up, turn the security system on, and pack.”
“But…”
“I’m in the Lance, getting ready for take-off.”
His plane? Had we grown so far apart that I didn’t know my own husband left in an airplane that morning?
Then again, he hadn’t known where I’d gone either.
I tried to think, picture the morning, but it blurred with every other day, the goodbyes ranging from a half-hearted kiss on the cheek to the distant click of a door. I didn’t allow myself to think too far back, remember the long, warm kisses, loving embraces, and playful touches.
“I’ll be home in a couple hours. Be ready. Stay inside until I get there. Don’t even come out to the hangar.”
The hangar was so close, right across the street. “Eric…”
He hung up.
I stood on the cobblestone with the phone still pressed to my ear. My heart pulsed in my throat, constricting it, allowing only wisps of oxygen through. I stared past the patio, the potted geraniums, and the fire pit into the forest.
Lock the doors and windows…don’t talk to anyone.
A violent shudder rattled my body. I scanned the forest twice. Was someone lurking in the shelter of the trees? I didn’t know who or what to be afraid of – or why I should be afraid at all – yet I felt cold despite the sticky August air.
Eric, should’ve given me an explanation, a clue, anything.
With a silent gasp, I jerked the phone from my ear and examined it as if I expected a rabid creature to slither from beneath the screen. Maybe Eric didn’t explain because he couldn’t. Maybe he feared our phones were bugged.
The phone felt like fire in my hands, scorching my skin, driving me to toss it across the yard and get the device and whoever may have been listening as far away as possible. I didn’t do it, though, tried to calm my mind, think logically, breathe.
My cell was always with me. Except for Eric and the kids, no one could’ve done anything to it. I allowed my arm to relax at my side, the phone still in my hand. If anyone’s phone was bugged, it was Eric’s.
I checked the forest again. I didn’t see anything, just the soft shadows of evening settling over the foliage. If anyone was out there, they couldn’t be too far. The wooded land only ran so deep before butting up to the Newman’s property. It gave us enough privacy and distance, but they were close enough that I never felt alone. Until now. Miles seemed to stretch between my home and the nearest soul. I swallowed hard, looked to the ground but even the yard took on a life of its own, breathing in hushed tones.
I shot my gaze next door. Greg Callaghan, an old friend of my father’s, lived beyond a row of Arborvitaes and through a patch of mature maples. At night I could see bits of light poking through the branches, but it was still too bright out. Was he home? Could I call out if I needed him?
Don’t talk to anyone.
But why?
I stood alone on my corner lot, a row of green to my left and forested outcroppings to my right. Prime property for Chicago’s North Shore, but it suddenly felt like an island, its natives on the hunt for me.
I chewed on my lip, the deep green of the forest fading, images blurring together like a Monet. Think…
Realization pulsed through me, an electric zing through my veins.
Eric had mentioned that he was onto a major story that would give his career a boost. He bragged that it would take him from suburban reporter to the Chicago Tribune. Had he uncovered something that put him in danger? More specifically, had he uncovered something that put the kids and me in danger? 
I glanced behind me, through the French doors that led to the kitchen. I could still hear the muffled banging of wood on steel, Jack’s squeaky voice filling the void between strikes.
Jack and Emma. Why was I standing out here staring into the woods?
I strode toward the glass, catching my reflection. Just those few minutes in the humid air had managed to wilt my hair, the brown mass lifeless. I pulled the door open, stepped inside, locked the door behind me, and set my phone on the counter.
“I want to play all da-a-ay…” Jack sang at the top his lungs, accompanied by his makeshift drum. I walked over to him and squatted beside him onto the Brazilian cherry flooring, my legs weak and my hands trembling.
It didn’t matter that I knelt right in front of him, he bellowed as if he needed the volume for me to hear. The banging of the pot throbbed behind my eyes. I reached for the wooden spoon and lifted it from his chubby hand. “Okay, that’s enough for now, buddy.”
His mouth puffed into a frown, his dark hair slightly disheveled from swinging his head about. I ran my hand over it to smooth it. “But I want to play all day.” He crossed his arms.
I cleared my throat, hoping to steady my voice. “I need you to help me with something, okay?”
“Help with what, Mama?” He looked down at the pot still propped between his legs.
I slid the spoon across the floor behind me, pulled my hands together in a shaky steeple, and forced a wide smile. “We’re going to go on a trip!” I didn’t mean for my voice to slip, but it did.
Jack didn’t seem to notice. He cocked his head. “A trip?”
“Yes, a vacation. Daddy is on his way home to pick us up in his plane. We’re going to leave tonight.”
Jack smiled widely and pushed himself to his feet, kicking the pot aside. “Tonight?”
“Yep, tonight!”
He jumped up and down and clapped his hands. He tugged on my hand as if to pull me from the floor. “We tell Emma?”
My fake smile started to hurt my cheeks and the deep breaths did little to calm my heart rate. I didn’t want the kids to sense a problem. There was no point in causing them panic. “Sure.”
Jack tipped his head to the side, his deep brown eyes studying me, so warm and caring despite his young age. He inherited that compassionate gaze from Eric. I could only hope that it wouldn’t fade from my son like it had my husband.
Jack’s smile straightened. “Mama sad?”
I blinked. My eyes stung and a tear slipped onto my cheek. I hadn’t even noticed it there, had been too busy avoiding hyperventilation. I squeezed Jack. “Of course not. We’re going on a trip!”
Jack smiled and jumped. “Tell Emma!”
I got up off the floor. “Yes, let’s go tell Emma. I just have to check a few things first.” I picked up the pot and spoon, absently setting them on the counter beside a vase full of yellow roses. The kind of flowers Eric used to bring me. The flowers I now bought myself.
I allowed myself a precious second to take in the cheerful petals, relish in the peace of the sight. Yellow roses had been my favorite as far back as I could remember, symbolizing everything beautiful and right about the world. That’s how I saw them, what the brilliant petals and deep perfume aroma meant to me.
It also meant something else to me, something entirely opposite of peace. Sadness. Loss. Grief. Yellow roses had been mom’s favorite, too.
“I could really use you now, Mom,” I muttered under my breath. How I longed for her calm manner, comforting smile, and encouraging words.
But all I had right then was my three-year-old, his precious face staring up at me, trusting me to take care of him, keep him safe. I held my hand out to him. “Come with me.”
Jack grabbed on tightly and toddled beside me in more of a dance than a walk. “I’m going on a tri-i-ip. I’m going on a trip.” His voice boomed as loudly as before.
I moved as quickly as I could with Jack bopping beside me. I checked the window over the kitchen sink. Locked. I stepped past the cherry cabinets to the sliding patio door at the other end of the kitchen. Not locked. I flipped the lock, tested it, and made my way to the family room, past a family portrait taken just after Emma’s birth. Eric had insisted on that photo. He’d been so excited to have a family started and wanted the moment preserved.
I steadied my hands to flip the lock on the family room window, Jack’s song still bouncing between the walls, piercing my temples. I suspected a story at the root of Eric’s call, but I wasn’t sure if he told me what he’d been working on. He could’ve shared every detail and I would’ve simply nodded, my eyes not meeting his, too many other things rushing through my mind. He brought it on himself when he didn’t put his family first. He said I didn’t get it, but it was Eric who would never understand.
Jack drifted from my side, pulling my arm as we approached the living room window. His song stopped as he looked from the television to the couch. I tugged him, hoping the motion would be enough to get his focus back.
I checked the latches on the windows, and moved toward the dining room. With a jerk, Jack pulled his hand from mine, his bare feet pattering over the carpeting, carrying him back to the window. “Jack…come on.” I walked over to him, reached for his hand. “We have to pack.”
He pressed his nose against the window, his finger pointing. “I want my ball.”
I looked out the window. On the opposite side of the sidewalk, Jack’s large red ball sat beneath the branch of a bush.
“Not now. We have to hurry.”
He wiggled away from me, his feet stomping, cheeks reddening. “I want it!”
I didn’t have time for a tantrum. Lock the doors and windows. Turn on the security system. My heart pulsed with urgency. “Daddy is going to be here soon. We have to pack your things.”
“I wanna pack my ball!”
“It won’t fit in your suitcase, but if you’re good, maybe we can grab it on the way out.” I reached for Jack, but he squirmed away and ran toward the foyer. “Jack!” I called, taking off after him. My heart beat faster, harder. I didn’t know what lurked around each corner, yet alone beyond the doors.
At the front door, Jack twisted the knob with both hands. I scooped him up and propped him on my hip, despite his kicking feet and blood curdling shriek. “Do you want to go on the trip?” My words rattled as they escaped my throat.
Jack nodded back at me, his arms crossed, eyebrows knit. Another expression of Eric’s, this one much too recently familiar.
“Then you need to stay with me. Do you understand?”
He surrendered with a grumpy nod.
I bounced him slightly. “Okay, good. Let’s finish up down here so we can go tell Emma.”
I backtracked to the library and then made my way through the dining room, the television room, back to the foyer… Still three more rooms to go, and it was only the first floor. I loved this big house. It had been a second home to my dad before he signed it over to us because of lack of use. I loved it so much that I kept it over his mansion after he died. Suddenly it seemed too big, as if there was no way I’d make it to every room in time.
But in time for what?
I moved faster, hefting Jack higher on my hip as I headed for the staircase. He started singing again, his mouth much too close to my ear. Song or no song, I was not going to set him down again. I grasped the banister and headed up the stairs. My feet moved in a labored jog, my memory attempting the same. What had Eric been working on?
The danger could be over something else, though. It didn’t have to be a story. My pace slowed, my legs heavy, rubbery. Could Eric have been involved in… What? Eric was as straight-laced as me, maybe more. But he had been gone a lot lately. I wouldn’t have known where he was. I didn’t even know he’d left in his plane this morning.
Thoughts buzzed through my mind like a swarm of bees in a shaken hive. I thought of an angered mistress’ spouse, a vengeful reader who thought Eric portrayed them in bad light, even possible involvement in a drug ring.
I continued up the stairs, Jack’s feet bouncing against my thigh, his weight burning my arms. Nothing criminal fit Eric, but I couldn’t be so sure he wasn’t having an affair. The thought made me cringe, betrayal, loss, and even guilt colliding in my heart. It wasn’t the first time it crossed my mind.
I bit my lip, didn’t want to think about it. I doubted it had anything to do with the danger we faced, anyhow. That was what I needed answers to.
I paused and shifted Jack to my other hip.  It had to be a story and it angered me to even think about it. Eric didn’t need to work. We had the inheritance from my high-profile, defense attorney father to live off of. He could’ve spent his days doing the things he loved, actually living like I tried to do. Instead he insisted on working.
“I need to make my own way, Jen.”
Whatever.
I understood the need to do something worthwhile. I did that too, continued as a speech pathologist in a very part time, volunteer capacity. I had satisfaction and freedom, a balanced life that Eric was suddenly jerking me away from as if I had no responsibilities at all. Lucy needed me. I couldn’t just disappear.
I really needed to focus, get up the stairs.
“I’m going on a tri-i-ip.”
At the top of the stairs, I gently turned Jack’s face to mine and put my finger to my lips. “Shh, you’re going to ruin the surprise for Emma.”
Jack threw his hand over his mouth and nodded dramatically, his eyes wide.
I rounded the balcony and headed to the master bedroom. I’d finish locking the windows upstairs before I went to Emma’s room. At seven-years-old, my examination of the house would cause her to suspect something that Jack wouldn’t. The French doors in my bedroom leading to a small balcony had been left unlocked, so I flipped the lock into place.
I moved quickly through each bedroom, but in the guest room I stopped so suddenly it caused Jack to tense. The window hung all the way open. I know I hadn’t opened it. The air conditioning had been on for the past week and there was no way I’d have given the excessive humidity an inlet. Jack couldn’t have opened it. The window was over the bed. He would’ve had to have climbed onto it to reach the window and the comforter sat undisturbed. Emma couldn’t reach either.
I glanced over my shoulder, shifted my eyes fast enough to make me dizzy. Had someone slipped into the house?
Jack started singing again, sending my heart into my throat. I held my free hand to my chest. “Jack, the surprise,” I reminded him, once again raising my finger to my lips.
“Oops!” He slapped his hand over his mouth.
I stepped closer to the bed, hefting Jack higher on my hip as I examined the cream colored carpeting and nightstand near the window. Nothing seemed out of place and the carpet still looked freshly vacuumed. I squinted, inspecting the window. The screen was locked in place. I reached up, slapped the window shut and secured the latch. No one could’ve come in. If they had, I’d at least have seen a footprint. Maybe Eric had opened it before I last vacuumed and I didn’t notice.
The logic did nothing to calm me.
I stepped into the hallway and made my way to Emma’s room, wishing my hands would steady before I got to her. Surely, she’d notice.
I tapped on Emma’s bedroom door and then slowly pushed it open. She rested against a pillow on her bed, her fingers sliding over a tablet. Princess, the white Persian kitten we’d given her for her birthday, snuggled on her lap. Emma looked at me as we stepped inside.
I set Jack down and he ran over to her and jumped on the bed. “Emma, we’re going on a trip! Daddy’s coming to pick us up right now!” Startled, Princess hissed and then jumped to the floor.
Emma started to reach for the cat, but turned to me, her smile wide and eyes shining. “Really, Mom?”
I tried to act excited and hoped the red had faded from my eyes. “Yes, really!”
Emma sat up straight and held her hands together, her shoulder-length blonde hair bobbing. “Where are we going?”
Good question. Just play the game, Jenna. “I have no idea. Daddy said it was a surprise!”
Emma squealed. “Maybe Disney World?” She’d wanted to return to the happiest place on earth since we left there two years earlier. Jack would have no memory of the trip, having been just a year old and spending the week in a stroller. We’d planned to return there someday, but I doubted Eric was whisking us off to any such place now. By the way he sounded on the phone, I pictured a secret hideaway in the middle of nowhere.
I cocked my head. “Well, I don’t know about that. Wherever it is, I’m sure we’ll have fun.”
“Can Princess come?”
Another good question. If I couldn’t talk to anyone, how could I arrange for someone to take care of the cat? We couldn’t just leave her here for two weeks. I nodded to Emma. “I don’t see why not.” Eric wouldn’t be pleased, but I didn’t care.
“Yay!” Emma slipped from her bed to the floor, straightened her pink flowered t-shirt, and gingerly limped toward the kitten. “Did you hear that, Princess? We’re going on a trip and you get to come, too!” It triggered another round of song from Jack.
“Okay, Jack. Enough. We know.”
He smirked at me.
Emma ambled toward me, dragging her left leg. Her hip always bothered her most after she’d been still for a while. So many tests and Irritable Hip was the only diagnosis the doctors could come up with. Nothing seemed to be wrong with her. They said she’d outgrow it. I hoped it would happen soon. She’d been dealing with it for five years now.
“Okay,” I said, holding my hands up to get their attention. “I need both of you to listen carefully. Daddy is planning on being here in just a couple hours. We need to pack fast.”
Jack ran for the door. “Where are you going, buddy?”
“To pack my stuff.”
Keep the kids with you.
I waved my hand, motioning for him to come back. “Let’s make this fun. Why don’t we take turns helping each other pack?”
“I wanna go first!” Jack squealed.
I glanced at Emma. She rolled her eyes, more hazel than brown like mine. “Just let him, Mom.” She leaned into me, held her hand next to her mouth as she whispered, “Maybe then he’ll shut up.”
I nodded and winked at her. “Okay, Jack gets to go first.” I still needed the luggage from the basement storage room. I also had to flip on the security system from the panel in the master bedroom, but I couldn’t do that until I knew that everything was locked in the basement. I should’ve thought to check that before coming up here.
“Before we can help Jack pack, we need to go downstairs to get our suitcases. Why don’t you both come help me.” I turned to Emma and took a glimpse at her leg. She might not be ready for a trip down the stairs.
I glanced to the window and then back to my daughter. “Do you think your hip is okay or should we wait a minute?”
Emma walked back and forth across her room a few times. “I’m okay.”
“You must have been up recently?” She never moved quickly this soon. It could take up to an hour before she felt capable of taking the stairs.
Emma nodded, squeezing Princess in her arms. She followed behind me with Jack marching behind both of us. I moved slowly in case Emma had problems. She gripped the railing, taking each step slowly, favoring her hip while hugging Princess to her chest.
I paused. I could’ve left her in her room, let her walk it off for a bit while I checked the basement. Jack could have stayed with her, too. I’d be able to move faster on my own, make sure the house was as secure as I could make it. We weren’t too far down to turn back.
But, I thought of the open guest bedroom window. It was better that they stayed with me. Just in case.
I moved slowly down the stairs, allowing Emma time to recover after each step. We made our way to the main floor and then down a second flight of stairs to the finished basement. We passed through the recreation room, past the air hockey table, and to the storage room. I flipped the light and quickly retrieved our bags.
Jack took his own suitcase, and Emma reached for hers with her free hand. Princess dangled from her other arm, seemingly oblivious to her position. I closed the door to the storage room, both kids behind me. “I just need to check the locks down here. Gotta make sure everything is locked up tight before we leave.”
When I felt confident that every lock was latched, we made our way back up to Jack’s room. “Okay, Jack, pick out your favorite clothes. As many as you can fit into your bag.”
I paused, looking at my kids. The security system still had to be turned on, but I couldn’t let Emma see that. She’d know something wasn’t right. I normally only turned it on before I went to bed or when we left the house, if I remembered to turn it on at all.
There was a panel in my bedroom at the other end of the hallway. I’d be fast. I’d been through the whole house and no one was here. “I just have to check on something, okay?”
Jack didn’t answer. He scrambled to his dresser, tossing aside different shirts in search of his favorites, his song beginning again.
Emma plugged her ears. “Mom, can you tell him to stop?” She dropped onto the bed with her kitten.
“Jack,” I held a finger over my lips. “Let’s do this quietly, okay?”
“Okay,” he whispered loudly. In the same loud whisper, he resumed singing.
Emma rolled her eyes. At least it was a little less annoying. I stepped across the hall toward my bedroom. I’d move fast. I knew I had to. Despite my rush, I welcomed the break from the kids, the moment to stop my fake smile and excited words.
As I stepped into my room, the anxiety bled from me. My heart pounded as if I’d just run a marathon and my breathing returned to quick gasps. My arms hurt from my efforts to keep them from shaking in front of the kids so for the moment, I let them go, watched them tremble at my sides.
That moment was all I would have. I stepped to the wall beside my closet, searched the security panel, selected the right setting, and punched in the code. Now I just had to keep Jack and Emma away from the windows and doors. Easier said than done, especially without scaring them.
Despite the four windows in my bedroom, it began to darken in the eerie orange sunset. An amber glow highlighted the down comforter on my bed. Just that morning, I’d woken beneath it with Eric by my side, each of us in a hurry to get away from the other. At least, I assumed he couldn’t wait to get away from me. If that wasn’t the case, whoever called him at the crack of dawn must have convinced him otherwise.
It took little to separate us, so unlike when we first met in a creative writing course at Northwestern. Back then, we looked for every excuse to spend our free time together.
“Do you have some time to help me with a stanza tonight?” I’d ask him, really just wanting to be with him, but also enjoying the inspiration for my poetry.
He never declined and it wasn’t like I had to ask often. Eric usually beat me to it. “Coffee tonight? My plot is weak and it would really help to bounce it off you.”
We fell for each other fast and hard, each of us no longer needing an excuse to spend time with the other. Now, it felt as if nothing could keep us together. I looked away from the bed. It was time to get back to the kids and play calm again.
I paused. Silence. Jack was never quiet for long.
The next sound I heard was my heart pulsing in my ears.
I sprang for the door to get to my kids, but stopped with a start.
A rumble.
And then a shrilling scream. “Mama!”
Jack.
About the Author

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Christine Barfknecht has a passion or weaving the darkest bits of the human psyche into page-turning fiction. She is the author of Apple of My Eye and the upcoming The Man I Knew. She lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband, children, and pets.
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