Working third-shift security at the lab on Christmas Eve was the only way Melody was going to pay her heating bill that month. Besides, she was almost doing a good deed. Parker had been scheduled to work, but Melody offered to switch. The bear hug he had given her and the image of him reading The Night Before Christmas
to his three kids in their pajamas made the empty feeling in Melody’s stomach go away. Well, almost.
Melody had debated putting up the Christmas tree this year. It was her first holiday since the divorce. Her parents were in Hawaii. Christmas would be just her and her ferret Renaldo. And since Renaldo slept most of the time, he wouldn’t care if Christmas dinner was twenty-four hours later than what the calendar said. But in the end, she decided she would put a tree up when she got home tomorrow morning. It was time for new traditions anyway. But why did starting fresh have to feel so…lonely?
Walking down the hall, Melody shone her light into each of the locked labs. Nothing was stirring, not even the mice—they were drugged up on the latest test batch. There had been budget cuts so only the safety lights were on. Melody had just a handheld flashlight to light her way. She almost hoped something would jump out at her, like a mutant rat along the lines of the ones in The Princess Bride
“ROUSes? I don’t think they exist,” she said in a fake British accent. Melody waited expectantly, but neither a black-clad pirate nor a rat the size of an ottoman appeared.
She shrugged and moved on. Too bad, she could really use a good pirate. One that would love her madly and take her on grand adventures—as long as those adventures didn’t put her on the mob’s radar again.
Once Melody was back at her desk in the well-lit lobby, she adjusted her gun belt and sat down. Flicking on the monitors, she scanned the parking lots and exits. Nada.
A light snow was beginning to fall.
“Looks like it’s going to be a white Christmas after all,” she said. At least she had control over the office sound system. She put on the Christmas mix she’d spent hours ripping and reorganizing until it was just right.
“Just like the ones we used to know,” she sang in a half whisper. She looked out the glass doors but saw the ghosts of Christmas past—the good ones anyway. Like the time she and her grandmother spent all Christmas Eve baking pies and dessert for the family. Or the Christmas when her parents did a total Gift of the Magi
. Her father had sold his computer to buy her mother a dress to go to the opera. But she had sold the opera tickets to buy him a special keyboard that did dorky things. They’d laughed and claimed it was the best Christmas ever. Melody had been eight and couldn’t think of anything sadder than not being able to play with your Christmas presents. Now, she’d give anything to have that
be the worst thing to ever happen to her. To have that kind of love.
Then there were the bad memories of Christmas, which not so coincidentally, included the ones she’d spent with her ex-husband Bobby. Those memories revolved mainly around drinking and hangovers. Spending the holidays in casinos or running from loan sharks. Melody shook her head, hoping to erase the memories—as if her brain was a gigantic Etch-A-Sketch. She poured herself a cup of hot black coffee from her Thermos. She took an appreciative sip—the brew would probably last her only half the night, and then she would have to suffer through the vending machine swill.
Her gaze darted to the Solitaire icon on the computer, and she forced her hand away from the mouse. It would be so easy to play a few hands. But Melody knew where that would lead. She’d soon be logging into an online poker game—no money, just for fun. But that would open the floodgates. Melody knew that she wouldn’t stop until she had swiped her credit card for a mere fifty bucks, just to see if she could still play.
Before she could think any more about it, she maximized the camera views to take up the entire screen. With a final look at the monitors, Melody opened up a paperback. The motion detectors would ping an alarm if anything out there moved, and her cell phone would remind her when it was time to do another round. As an afterthought, she logged onto NORAD, which was tracking Santa’s route, and watched the big guy fly across Europe.
Loud pounding on the lab’s front door made her jump up and only stellar reflexes and an inbred sense of self-preservation kept her from spilling her precious coffee. Melody glared outside and saw a powder-blue convertible parked out front—without a driver. She checked her cameras, but no one was outside.
“Who the heck is knocking?” Melody asked. She set the cameras to record and went outside to take a look. Enabling the building alarm, she unlocked both sets of doors, letting them lock behind her. That way, even if someone managed to take her down and use her keys to get inside, they would set off the internal security and the cops would arrive in minutes. But she didn’t think that would happen. The PETA protestors wouldn’t stage something in December—not when the college kids who made up the majority of their warrior-staff were on vacation.
“Who the heck is driving with the top down on a night like this?” she wondered, shining her flashlight into the empty front seat.
“That would be me,” a voice from behind her replied.
Melody whirled, pulling her pistol from the holster. She held the flashlight and the Glock at a man who had managed to get between her and the doors without her noticing. He was a big man, but his presence wasn’t menacing.
“Easy,” he said, raising his hands up in surrender. “I didn’t mean to spook you.”
“Who are you? What do you want?”
“My name is Karam. The casino told me I could find you here.”
Karam was swarthy enough to be a pirate. His dark eyes reminded her of the strong-brewed coffee she had in her thermos, deep, rich, and addicting. His shaggy black hair dusted his shoulders. If his face wasn’t so stern, he might even be called handsome. He didn’t look like a knee-breaker, but he did have a grim determination set to his posture. Melody flicked the safety off the pistol.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I need to talk to you about your husband.”
“Right.“ He nodded. “Ex. “
“Are you a bill collector?”
“In a matter of speaking.”
Melody sighed but didn’t lower the pistol. “Look, Bobby and I are divorced. I’m no longer responsible for his debts, and if you think you can get to him through me, don’t waste your time. He left me for a blackjack dealer with huge gazongas after they embezzled several hundred thousands of dollars. Believe me, if I was in on the cut, I would not be working here on Christmas Eve. I don’t know where he is. If I did, I’d tell you. Honestly.”
“You must have some idea,” Karam said.
“Somewhere tropical near a casino would be my guess. Puerto Rico, maybe? Monte Carlo?”
Karam shook his head. “Monte Carlo is too sophisticated for them.”
“Why are you looking for him?”
“That blackjack dealer used to be my wife.”
“Oh.” Melody lowered the pistol, putting the safety back on.
“And they took my little girl with them.”