Never Surrender to Death Purchase Now
Liam Forest Henwood turned on the bedside light, plugged in his cell phone, pulled back the bedcovers and then decided to check on his two youngest children one last time before turning in himself. He walked down the hall in his stocking feet and peeked into the bedroom. Isabella and Jacob were both, as expected, fast asleep, finally appearing to be recovering from their bout of chickenpox, the affliction that, oddly, left their older sister untouched. Caitlin probably would have come down with it as well if circumstances where normal, but at the time they were not. It is said that if one of your children gets the chickenpox virus that you should expose all of them to it and get it all over with. For a child to continue into adulthood without having contracted and then built the immunity to the disease is setting them up for the possibility of serious problems later. Adults do not handle chickenpox very well.
The circumstances were, however, that the family was scheduled to fly to the United States for a ten day holiday tour of Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., and the tickets were non-refundable. For all of them to cancel would waste the holiday for the entire family. On top of that, Chloe, Liam's wife and the mother of their three children, had not had chickenpox as a child and so it was not in her best interest to be continuously subjected to the virus. The solution that Chloe came up with was that she would take Caitlin and go on the planned holiday, leaving Liam home with Isabella and Jacob.
He wasn't happy with the solution and it led to the biggest out and out fight that he and Chloe had ever had. In the end he had to concede that it did make sense.
Maybe what he should have told his wife was that he had other business in the states that he'd been secretly working on; business that would make them rich. He hadn't even told his partners, Nate and Phoenix. They knew he'd been working on something but he'd kept them in the dark as well. Maybe he should have told them. The problem was, he didn't trust them. This was his expertise. He was a salesman.
He was supposed to meet the buyer, Eitan Hashbarger, in New York, where Chloe and Caitlin were at that moment, the second stop on the holiday. To get himself there, he'd lied to her, told her he'd gotten a bonus and could fund a family holiday, when in fact he'd used his savings. It was a risk, no doubt, but who'd thought it'd be brought down by a childhood disease? Instead of suggesting a holiday, why didn't he just say that he had to go to New York by himself on business? She'd probably have believed that lie even though his work had never taken him out of the southern hemisphere. Sure, the kids would have still gotten the chickenpox but Rose, Chloe's mother, would have certainly stepped in while he was gone so that Chloe could keep her distance. Why was it that the correct actions were always so obvious after it was too late? What should have been a wonderful family adventure and the possibility of a huge monetary windfall, became a bonding of mother and eldest daughter and a wipe out of Liam's meager savings.
So now Liam was using the scheduled holiday time off from work to stay home with Isabella and Jacob. His own time for bonding, Chloe had concluded, trying to put a positive spin on it all. She always had a positive spin. What would be her spin if she knew the truth?
He'd gambled and he'd lost, taken down by a virus.
He did contact Hashbarger and was assured that there was still a way to pick it back up, though he didn't sound nearly as enthused about the deal as he had been before. Maybe Hashbarger thought Liam was scamming him, that the chickenpox story was nothing but a pile of horse manure.
He hovered in the bedroom doorway of the youngest two, gazing at their sleeping forms, noting that the nightlight that Jacob always insisted he needed was not lit. He flipped it on and turned it toward the carpet in case one of them woke up, which Jacob sometimes did, at which time he'd come crawling into bed with them.
He thought about the earlier call from Chloe. They'd agreed that she would try to ring each day at 12:30 pm on the American east coast, which would be 7:30 pm on New Zealand's North Island, unless she was somewhere that the call wouldn't be possible, such as taking a tour of something or other. He'd have the kids in their pajamas and ready for bed. Otherwise the backup call would come at 5:00 am his time, 10:00 pm her time, and it would be just the two of them. Today's call found mother and daughter in the middle of their third day in Boston, preparing to board Amtrak to New York. The call had been less than five minutes and Caitlin was excited by everything that she'd seen or had been doing. She'd made a point of telling him that she'd taken pictures of Fenway Park for her daddy even though there was hardly anybody in the park and it was covered with snow.
"And it is only March!" she'd proclaimed. In New Zealand it was late summer.
He'd then made her promise to get pictures of the Statue of Liberty. He'd forgotten to ask Chloe how she'd managed to get them in to see Fenway Park. Who'd she sweet-talk? The call was cut short because it was time to board the train. After getting assurances from him that the chickenpox blisters had all scabbed, that there were no new blisters, and that her babies were indeed on their way to healing, Chloe promised to ring again at 10:00. That meant he'd be getting up in barely over five hours. He didn't mind. He wasn't sleeping very well anyway, the bed too big and too empty, the stress over money too weighty now that the windfall he'd hoped for in New York fell through. Tomorrow would have been the day, the big meet with Eitan Hashbarger, the big payoff. Now there was nothing he could do. His gut twisted at the thought. He'd had no backup plan and even now couldn't come up with one. He hadn't yet told Nate or Phoenix that the trip had been cancelled, at least for him. Of course he hadn't told them the real reason for the trip, the reason he also hadn't told his wife. Everyone thought that he was going to be in America enjoying a two week holiday with his family.
For him, his arrival in New York was the most important part of the fourteen days. He loved Chloe and his children, was happy for her and Caitlin, doing what they were doing, but the New York thing was life changing, not only for him, but for all of them.
Maybe he should have told Chloe.
What difference would it have made? She would have thought it was stupid and would have talked him out of it. It wouldn't have been hard, he had to admit. It did seem rather unreal, like someone was playing a practical joke. But it wasn't stupid and it wasn't a joke. It turned out to be better than what he'd expected, better than he could have imagined in all his wildest dreams. If the meeting in New York had come off as he'd expected, she could have opened a dozen more Head to Toe Salons if she wanted.
Still, he couldn't tell her; not yet anyway. Not until after New York. Not until the deal was sealed. How was he going to arrange to get to New York on his own, now? He could have probably faked a business trip before, but now that he'd used up his holiday time, and savings, it wouldn't be all that easy. He could resign. If New York had gone well he'd have probably been resigning anyway. Or maybe he could get Hashbarger to come to him. Send him a sample? He'd have to think on that.
He pulled the door until it was open only about twenty centimeters and then instead of returning to his own bedroom, wandered downstairs to the kitchen for a late night bowl of ice cream. If he wasn't going to sleep well anyway, he might as well get some enjoyment out of it. Maybe he could come up with what he was going to do next, what he was going to tell his partners. Seeing as he hadn't told them about his meeting in New York to begin with, there wasn't much point in telling them anything. Phoenix would understand but Nathan, the outsider who Liam was regretting ever meeting, was a hothead and was starting to get impatient.
Liam dipped the ice-cream by the light of the refrigerator, New Zealand Natural's White Chocolate Raspberry, and then with bowl in hand made his way through the darkened house to his office. He didn't turn on a light. Instead, he sat with his feet up, slowly spooning his way through the delicious concoction.
He'd sniffed around Melbourne and Sydney a bit before finding the opportunity in New York, someone who could turn his raw find into a fortune. Hashbarger wanted to see what he had, his proof in hand. And so he came up with the bonus money idea, which he thought was brilliant. Finance a family holiday in America in order to get there. New York would have been a much better deal being completely out of his hemisphere but still an English speaking market. Australia was too close. He'd also considered the biggies, Antwerp, Tel Aviv and even Tokyo, again in another hemisphere, but . . .
Maybe he should tell Chloe what he'd been doing now that he was on the verge of success. Once she understood the full impact it would have on their lives, the fact that they'd never want for anything again, she'd be thrilled. She'd agree that a separate trip to New York for him would be a good plan, wouldn't she? They'd borrow the money.
Why was it he never told her, anyway? Because in the beginning it was stupid and she'd have pulled no punches telling him such. A fluke, she'd have said. No way in New Zealand. Never heard of such a thing. So to keep it under the radar he created a series of scenarios and started lying to her and once he started the lies he couldn't stop, couldn't back out, could only keep adding to them. He should have known better because from the beginning of their relationship and marriage she couldn't fathom lies, no matter what the reason.
And the bonus was more than just a lie. The truth was that not only did he not earn a bonus—who did in that company?—he was on the verge of losing his job. His numbers were falling off and no matter what he did, he couldn't get them back. He'd started feeling like the black sheep of the sales staff.
He'd used most of his savings for the bonus, which was now entirely wrapped up in the holiday that Chloe and Caitlin were enjoying. How was he going to finance and justify his own solo trip to New York? Of the three of them, he and his two partners, their relationship sealed in a handshake, he was the only one with the wherewithal to do the meet, to make the presentation. He was a salesman. He knew the lingo, could talk the talk, could dress the part. The other two, hell, they were mules, the pick and axe crew, didn't have two shillings to rub together between them, as his dad used to say. If you can't dress the part then get out front and pull the cart.
Maybe he was being too harsh on them. Nate seemed to be doing okay financially, was intelligent and all. He was just a bit too heavy handed and in-your-face when it came to salesmanship. Phoenix was another story. Liam never could put his finger on the man. At his age he should be settled into something, a family, a career. He was still floundering. He had all the parts, just couldn't seem to put them together.
And then he got to wondering what his dad would think about the whole thing, or his mum if she was still alive. When was the last time he'd talked to him? Christmas; not this last one but the one before? Clean out in Perth in Western Australia. Too long a trip, his father had said.
Maybe he'd call him tomorrow.
There were four spoonfuls remaining in the bowl when Liam's thoughts were interrupted by a noise from the back of the house, the kitchen or maybe the dining area. His office was to the front, separated from the back by the stairs, then a coat closet and guest toilet along the hall. He carefully set the bowl down and stood, stalled his breathing, listened. All he could ascertain was his own heart beating and a slight rumble from his stomach.
He didn't take up the bowl, though, remaining silent, his ears still attuned for anything odd. It was probably a bird or rodent scurrying along a sill. As the seconds clicked by and no more sound came, he gradually released the tension, returning to a more normal breathing rhythm.
Finally he totally relaxed back into his chair. As he started to reach out for the bowl, the sound came again. A series of clicks and scratches. He imagined a rodent running along the window sill, claws scratching at the bottom edge of the screen, looking for an access point. But he hadn't seen a rodent in ages. A possum nosing about at the back door? There had also been sightings of hedgehogs. He lifted to his feet again. The clicking didn't stop. He stepped out into the foyer, past the bottom of the stairs and slowly made his way down the hall.
Just as Liam passed the closet and approached the toilet door there came one more click and then the unmistakable sound of the back door swishing open, something he'd heard hundreds of times. Someone was entering the house. He froze just out of view, listening to the shuffling, the sound of a person or persons cautiously entering his kitchen.
"Close the door."
The words were no more than a whisper, unmistakably male. And he was certainly not talking to himself which meant that there were at least two. The door swished closed.
Liam's heart was now in racing mode, his thoughts moving just as fast but in too many different directions. He turned sideways in the hall in preparation to attack or retreat, thinking about his children asleep just above his head. Retreat to their door to protect them in hopes that the intruders never came upstairs, or go on the theory that the best defense is an offense. Rush in at them, grab the first thing that comes into his hand to use as a weapon. He and Chloe never left knives out so that wouldn't be an easily accessible weapon. There was a fry pan on the stove, waiting for morning breakfast. He could get his hand on that as he went at them.
But what if they were armed? Why would they be? They likely thought that the family was in America; thought that they had the entire house to themselves for as long as they wanted. If that was the case it also meant that he probably knew them. Not that many people were told about their trip. The police had been warning people to not advertise if they were leaving town for any extended period of time; especially don't advertise it on social media. For that reason, only his and Chloe's family knew, a few neighbors, each of her salon managers, now numbering seven, and his boss and a few close associates at work.
And that got him to thinking about the bloke's voice.
Close the door.
Something about those words, that accent, South Island, sounded familiar but his mind was racing in so many different directions at one time that he couldn't fully focus on it, not realizing that he would have known him immediately if he had.
All of these thoughts came to Liam in the space of about five seconds. The decision as to his action took another two and included his phone which he'd left on his bedside cabinet. His gun was in the safe, unloaded, bullets in a locked box on the closet shelf, key in his desk drawer. Would he have enough time to get to it all, put it all together?
He started a slow sidestep down the hall, away from the intruders.
He'd snatch the key from his desk, high-step it up the stairs, grab his phone, punch in 1-1-1 and while waiting for the connection, try to get his safe open. Could he dare turn on a light? Was there a torch in the bedside cabinet? There was one in the cabinet on Chloe's side, he was sure. Bedside light was already on. Should he turn it off? Closet light? Grab the torch? He'd only shot the gun a few times. Could he get it loaded and keep from shooting himself?
A rough plan in mind, he bolted for the office, trying to stay light and quiet. The hallway was carpeted, but the foyer was hardwood, slicker than ice beneath his stocking feet and in his rush to make the turn into his office he lost purchase. His feet went out from under him and he slammed into the small foyer table. The resulting crash may not have been enough to wake the neighbors, but it was certainly enough to alert his unwelcome visitors.
"Shit! What was that?"
Again the words ignited a sense of familiar, but Liam still couldn't fully place it, couldn't convert the frantic whisper into a full voice. He scrambled to his feet and took the stairs two at a time. There was no time to get the key and his gun now; at best he'd only be able to snatch the phone. He dashed into the bedroom, swept the phone into his hand and ran back out into the hall, breathing hard, his heart pounding in his chest.
"Do they have a cat or something?"
The blokes were at the bottom of the stairs.
The voice was . . . was what, who? He still couldn't place the damned whisper. He rushed into his children's bedroom, closed the door, picked up the end of the dresser and dragged it across the carpet until it was braced against the door. With that he looked around for a weapon. There was nothing in the closet except stuffed animals and hangers full of clothes. He pictured himself attacking them with a handful of hangers, kangaroos and panda bears.
He listened at the door, hearing nothing. Maybe they'll in fact think that it was the non-existing cat and leave it at that, go about taking whatever it was they'd come for.
He remembered the phone where he'd thrown it to drag the dresser. He snatched it up, dialed 1-1-1 and waited, breathing hard and fast, the phone pressed to his ear.
He swung about to find Isabella standing next to her bed, Jacob sitting up in his own. It was at that moment that Liam understood his mistake. By making a racket and then retreating into their bedroom, he'd possibly drawn the intruders to them. He should have attacked and then drawn them away. Even if they'd hurt him or killed him, they most certainly wouldn't have hung around to go searching the house for others, wouldn't have discovered the children. They'd have vacated, leaving Isabella and Jacob untouched.
"Hush, sweetie," he said softly. "Go back to bed. Close your eyes and go to sleep, okay?"
She looked at him for a long time and then said, "Okay." She sat back on her bed.
"Lay down Jacob. Maybe I'll wake you when Mummy calls in the morning."
Jacob slid out of bed and ran over to crawl in with his sister. Together they curled up together, not saying anything, eyes like giant saucers in the dim nightlight. They of course knew that something was up with the crazy way their daddy was acting.
Liam turned around to face the door, the phone still pressed to his face. No one had answered his 1-1-1 call. He looked at it. Nothing was happening. It was like the call hadn't gone through, or maybe he hadn't punched the call button after dialing the numbers, or maybe his cheek hung it up. He dialed again and made sure he'd hit call this time. While he waited he thought about what to do next. He could still be aggressive, go on the attack, maybe drive them out of the house. He wasn't a big guy but then neither was he small. He was a father in protection mode and that in itself
would add to his strength and ferocity.
He'd hit them with his rage.
He could step out into the hallway and go to where he could just peer down the stairs and when they started up and he could see the top of their heads he would launch himself down at them like a missile, send them all head over heels onto the foyer floor. He'd dialed 1-1-1 and if it went through the police would be responding even if he didn't or couldn't say anything.
Suddenly the door slammed him in the face and chest, driving him sprawling onto his back up against Isabella's bed. Without hardly thinking, Liam hooked his fingers under the side rail of the little twin bed, said, "Be very quiet," and lifted it onto its side, sending the children to the floor against the wall, his last effort at protecting them. Surprisingly they didn't make a sound.
He turned to face the intruders; however, the door hadn't fully opened, having stopped when it hit him. And then, as though being pushed by a light breeze, it began to move, gradually revealing two dark shapes backlit by the light spilling out into the hall from the lamp in Liam's bedroom. Although one face was dark, the second just out of sight, he recognized who they were, knew who owned the whispers.
"This is not good, Liam," Nate said. "You weren't supposed to be here." With those words came a sight that raised Liam's panic-level several more notches. Nate held a gun, a massive thing in the dim light. "I'm so sorry."
"No, Nate!" The declaration came from the second bloke, just out of Liam's sight. "Holy shit! Where did that come from? We don't need to do it this way."
At that moment Liam regretted ever meeting Nate, the pain in his arse with whom he should have never shaken hands. But Phoenix? . . . Why? Maybe he was wrong and the other bloke wasn't Phoenix. At that second, however, Liam wasn't thinking clearly enough to sort the two men out, to voice a challenge or an explanation, well aware that the thin mattress behind him would do nothing to protect Isabella and Jacob if he didn't stop the man from pulling the trigger, or at least stop the bullet should he do so.
All he could think to say was, "Why, Nate?"
"You're supposed to be in the States on your stupid holiday. It's that simple, Liam. Now it's all messed up."
The other bloke's face showed over Nate's shoulder and Liam's heart sank even further.
"It takes time to find the market, Nate, and I'm close." Liam looked at Phoenix and back at Nate. "Another month or two. I had a meeting in New—"
"Shut up! Do you actually think we're stupid enough to believe you anymore, Liam. We're tired of you playing us. It's over."
"I'm not playing you. The markets—"
"Fine. Fine. Just don't. You can have it all."
"Too late for more bullshit. We don't need you now. We're ready to go find our own market. Don't really care about you, never have. You're a waste of skin, never wanted to get your hands dirty, and now you're a threat."
Phoenix put his hand on Nate's shoulder. "Don't, Nate."
Nate shook it off. "So sorry, mate."
Liam jumped to his feet, made ready to attack when the gun went off, sounding no louder than a tennis racket hitting a ball. When he didn't feel anything, he rushed at him and the gun went off again. Liam felt the bullet strike this time, somewhere in his center mass. He stumbled but was determined to remain on his feet, a barrier for his children. The gun kept going off, three, four, five times and his children were screaming. He fell to his knees just as the sixth round caught him square in the eye, only the second one that he fully blocked, but by then it was too late. All the screaming had stopped. Liam had successfully intercepted only two of the bullets. Two had passed on through. The remainder had missed by only inches. Five of the six, unfortunately, found a deadly mark.
The only sound beyond the resulting silence was Nate's heavy breathing and Phoenix's, "Holy Christ! Holy Christ!"
And then from Liam's pocket came, "1-1-1. What's your emergency?"