For a moment, I studied the face of the woman who’d loved me my entire life. I’d always trusted my aunt. I’d always believed her and in her.
But suddenly I didn’t because she hadn’t smiled when I appeared. She hadn’t even moved from behind her desk to greet me. Instead she swallowed hard as she stared at me with emotionless eyes, then looked at Stan.
I followed her gaze. Good-looking guy with a great smile and beautiful green eyes, but the first time I met him, I thought he’d died. He hadn’t. Oh, not that I wasn't glad he hadn't died but he'd used deception every step of the way. Lie and more lies after which he’d turned on the charm and apologized in an attempt to win my trust, to beguile me. Hadn’t I learned with Danny not to trust a man who sidestepped the truth, even if he was very attractive?
I’d met Stan only days ago, and he’d run me around in circles every minutes of that time.
Because Mel and Stan both looked grim and glared at each other with deep dislike, I feared for my safety. Suppose I chose the wrong person to trust? It seemed as if they were playing a dangerous game for big stakes. For days I’d been watching, even taking part in, a huge undertaking with no idea what was really happening.
"What’s going on?” I repeated. No, this time I demanded.
Still they looked at each other. Their silence and menace scared me enough that I took a step back and glanced toward the display window. Outside, I saw people passing. Dozens of pedestrians stood on the curb waiting for the light to change and others strolled along the sidewalk. I wasn’t alone. Surely I was out of harm's way as long as others walked by so closely. Assured of my safety, I needed to concentrate on sorting this whole mess out. But that didn’t look likely and the two still glowered at each other so I took another step backward.
As I did, Mel shouted, “Get out of here, Sonya. Run! Now!”
At the same time, Stan growled, “Don’t even try it.”
Which quickly made up my mind whom I could trust, who cared about me.
“If you try to escape, I’ll kill your aunt.” He moved quickly behind the desk and gripped Mel’s shoulder. Not a friendly placement of his hand but an action that told me who was in charge. He weighed seventy pounds more than Mel and was thirty years younger.
“Stan,” Mel said, “you aren’t a killer. You’re a double-crossing, worthless jerk with no moral fiber but you’ve never harmed anyone, at least, not directly.”
“You’re right,” he said. He shot me a warning glance. “Okay, so I won’t kill her but I can make her feel a lot of pain.”
“Don’t listen to him. Go!” Mel shouted.
I took several steps toward her desk and dropped in the chair across from her. "I'm not leaving you alone with him."
Mel moaned. “I’ve made such a mess of this. I didn’t want you hurt. That’s why I sent you to Seattle, to get you out of the way.”
“Out of the way of what?”
“The least we can do,” Mel said to Stan, “is tell her what was going on. She deserves an explanation.”
Was my aunt playing for time? I could go along with that.
“Go ahead.” Stan shoved my aunt into her desk chair but kept his grip on her shoulder.
“First, I’m so ashamed,” my aunt said. “My voodoo feelings were completely wrong. They told me he,” she jerked her thumb toward Stan, “was a good guy. He came to me with a story that people I sent on tours were bringing drugs in from foreign countries. He said he was. . .oh, some kind of federal agent. Flashed a badge. I should have checked. I shouldn’t have believed him.” She shook her head. “I can’t believe I was so gullible.”
People love to work with a federal agent,” he said. “Makes them feel important and special.”
I studied Stan, wondering if I could have realized he was an evil person. He didn’t have crazy eyes. He was handsome, appeared to be a nice guy. Add a dark suit and sunglasses and he would look like federal agent.
Mel sighed. “After a few days, I realized I should’ve checked him out. I called the FBI. They’d never heard of him but were interested in the man posing as a special agent. A couple of real special agents showed up five minutes later to interrogate me.”
"That’s good,” I encouraged her.
“No, it was too late.” Mel shook her head. “I’d given him a list of our clients who left for Asia last week.”
“Once you found that out, why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.
“I couldn’t.” She bit her lip and shook her head. “He threatened to hurt you if I warned you. And your mother. And to blow up a bridge or. . .I can’t remember everything he threatened, but I didn’t dare cross him. I tried to keep in touch, to make sure you were all right, but I couldn’t put you in danger.”
“Why did he want that list? What was he smuggling? Drugs?” I started to add weapons but realized no one smuggled guns into the US.
He laughed, a sound that didn't show the least bit of amusement. Suddenly I knew.
“Cinnamon.” I sat back in my chair and wondered why I hadn’t picked up on that sooner. “That’s why you smelled spicy. You’re smuggling cinnamon.” I considered my words. “But why? Why not use what’s already available here?”
“They’re developing a very high grade in Sri Lanka,” Stan explained. “Very closely guarded. Illegal to ship even an ounce out of the country.”
“Then it’s got to be dangerous to smuggle it,” I said.
“Not really, not for me here in the states. It’s a spice, after all, not drugs,” he said. “I have a man in Sri Lanka who places it inside the covering of the suitcases of people on your tours. No one notices anything except their clothing smells great.”
“But what’s so wonderful about any spice that you’d make an effort to bring it here?”
Mel said, “The real FBI agent told me this particular type is easier to process and has a flavor doesn’t degrade and is especially delicious.”
“So, Stan, you planned to use this spice in your restaurant and become famous?” I attempted to figure this out. “For what? Cinnamon rolls? Sopaipillas?”
“Fried chicken,” he said. “Why would I take a risk for cinnamon rolls?”
Why would he take a risk for fried chicken? I thought. But I said, “You plan to be the Colonel Sanders of Seattle?”
I was flummoxed. “You’ve dragged me all over and threatened my aunt and risked been poisoned for a fried chicken recipes?”
Mel shook her head and put her finger to her lips. “Brilliant idea,” she said. “There’s a lot of money in good fried chicken.”
If I hadn’t guessed it before, I now realized the man had gone around the bend and Mel was warning me not to push him any further in that direction.
“So everything you’ve done has been to manipulate my aunt and to give yourself time to rifle through the suitcases of returning travelers for your contraband?”
“Not completely. You’re cute. I enjoyed being with you.”
Although the entire mess had become a little clearer, a few things still confused me. "What happened the first time we met? When you passed out?”
“A warning from my family, a low dose of a substance to make me sick, not enough to kill me. They knew about the cinnamon and wanted to intercept the suitcases before I could. They planned to use it in chicken mole.”
“And all that stuff about the Seattle Underground?”
“That was to be the site of his new restaurant, away from the family,” Mel said.
Stan placed the hand that wasn’t on Mel’s shoulder on his temple and began to massage it. “Shut up. I’m tired of your questions,” he said. “Be quiet and let me think.” He glanced around him.
There’s not a lot in that office. Our desks, a lot of posters, several chairs—and the backdoor to the storeroom. No place to hide.
“Okay,” he nodded toward me. “Sonya, stay there. Your aunt’s going take me out the back door. You are not going to do anything or I will hurt her.” He picked up a pair of scissors with his free hand and touched her throat with the sharp point.
I stood, turned around, and looked out the window toward the street, hoping the passing pedestrians would see we were in danger. Oddly, no one was out there. The street was completely empty.
Mel said, “Don’t interfere, Sonya, because Stan has a pair of scissors at my neck.”
An odd things to say because I could see that.
The words caused Stan to look up, his gaze searching the ceiling. “Is this place bugged?” he asked, his hand holding the scissors shaking. “If it is . . .”
Before Stan completed the sentence, Danny Steele opened the door and entered. Danny, my ex-boy friend who’d broken up with me last week, came in the front door smiling at me as if we were still in love and planning a wedding next year.
“Hello, darling.” He approached and put his arm around me to kiss me on the cheek before he turned toward where Mel stood with the scissors pressed against her neck. “Hello, Mel. Did I interrupt something?"
“What the . . . .” Stan began.
“Danny, how lovely to see you. Do you know Stan?” Leave it to Mel. Even with a crazy guy pressing scissors against her neck, she sounded like the perfect hostess.
We stood there, the four of us staring at each other for nearly a minute, an eternally long sixty seconds. I had no idea what was going on but I could see terror and confusion in Stan’s eyes. As for Mel and Danny? They seemed completely relaxed. I wasn’t.
“Why don’t you put the scissors down, Stan?” Danny asked politely. “You must be aware the place is bugged. We’ve heard every word you said in here and will use them at your trial.”
“We?” I asked.
“A lot of FBI special agents and officers from the Drug Enforcement Agency out there.” Danny gestured toward the door. “Stan, you know we have snipers. They’ll take you down without a thought if I signal, and I will, if you don’t put the weapon down.”
Stan scrutinized Danny's face as if searching for a clue on how serious the threat was.
“I will give the signal if you don’t drop the knife and step away from my fiancée’s aunt. You’ve given both of them a hard time and I don’t mind extracting revenge.”
I’d never seen Danny’s face look so hard, his expression so serious. Stan must have read the same because he stepped back, drop the scissors, and let go of Mel’s shoulder. She hurried toward me while several men came in a slipped handcuffs on Stan. Then more agents and a couple of cops shoved into the agency. One grabbed my arm and Mel's to escorted us outside.
I watched Danny intently through the front window. Within a minute, he’d talked to the law enforcement officers and turned to come outside.
"Sonja I’m so sorry.” He pulled me into his arms.
I shoved him away. “Okay,” I said angrily, “would you mind explaining? You,” I shoved him in the chest with my index finger, “broke up with me last week. A few minutes ago, you called me your fiancée and now you want to hug me. Well, I don’t buy this.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Let me explain.” He paused as if attempting to think of the correct words. “You know I’m a lawyer.”
I nodded. “You aren’t? Is that another lie?”
“I never lied.” He grimaced and fidgeted. "I am a lawyer."
“How did a lawyer get caught up in this?”
“Ummm. . .Hard to explain.”
Good, I was glad he was uncomfortable. He’d broken my heart but darned if I’d tell him that.
“I got pulled in on a drug case by a friend on the force. He wanted me to keep track of another lawyer in the firm.”
I tapped my foot.
“Okay, I didn’t tell you. I couldn’t.”
“You should admire that, Sonya. It could’ve been dangerous,” Mel said as she came up behind me, obviously more forgiving than I.
“My friend didn’t think so. He just wanted information and I was in a position to provide it. Then the case got more complicated and they found Stan was smuggling and thought it was drugs, too. When Mel called the FBI, my friend got in touch with me. For your safety, my friend’s boss told me to cut any link between you and me and Stan and your aunt.”
“Oh?” I raised an eyebrow, beginning to believe him but deciding to let him sweat a little more. “For my safety?”
“That’s right, ma’am.” A man flipped his wallet open to show me a badge. “I’m Tommy O’Grady with the DEA. We have a joint task force with the FBI on drug trafficking from Asia.”
This had become very complicated.
“We don’t like to work with civilians,” O’Grady said. “Too dangerous for everyone. The special agent who asked for Mr. Steele’s help has been disciplined. To keep you safe, I asked Danny to break off with you until we could complete the investigation and arrests were made.”
“I still don’t understand.” I shook my head. “Why would the DEA be interested in cinnamon?”
“When the investigation started, we didn’t know what Stan was smuggling. When we found out, we realized he’d set up a great network that drug dealers would take over. We had to shut it down.” Then O’Grady shook my hand as well as Danny’s and Mel’s. “Thank you for your cooperation.” He went back into Mel’s agency.
I turned toward Danny, arms folded and my toes still tapping.
"I love you.” Danny gazed into my eyes. “I couldn’t put you at risk. That’s why I broke up with you. That’s why I'm here now. I had to make sure you were okay.”
Sincere blue eyes filled with love were a lot prettier than green eyes. “I’m not sure I’ll forgive you.”
“I plan to spend the rest of my life convincing you.” With that, he put his arm around me and pulled me toward him. I leaned against Danny’s chest, feeling safe for the first time I days.
"I love you,” he murmured. Then he lifted my chin to kiss me and I realized I was along for the most romantic ride of my life.