Lucas was bored. Where was Julia? His dad had gone inside the house to answer a call from his grandfather back in North Carolina. It was still weird that his grandfather didn’t live with his grandmother Maria. He liked her, she baked him a chocolate cake today when his mom had dropped him off, after spending the night at his grandmother Louisa’s house. She was cool, too, but she hadn’t let him have candy before going to bed last night.
When his ball rolled away, he thought about calling his mom to tell her. But she wasn’t as protective here as she was back home. Yesterday, he’d played with some kids who were apparently his cousins. Though their English wasn’t that good and his Spanish nowhere near decent, they’d bonded over soccer and players’ names. And the entire time, his mom had only come out to check on him two times. This was a safe place.
As Lucas began to walk in the direction where his soccer ball had disappeared, he noticed a man coming toward him. His instincts had him staying where he was, something inside his belly clenching, until the man with the sunglasses and cap reached him. He had his ball cradled in the nook of his elbow.
Lucas only eyed the man, not sure why he didn’t feel okay in saying hi back.
“I’m a friend of your father’s.”
Though he’d noticed almost everyone here knew his dad, Lucas still held back and just nodded.
“I wanted to know if you could give your dad something for me?”
“Okay.” He finally said.
The man handed him his soccer ball, then a yellow envelope which he’d been holding on his other hand.
“Here, it’s a surprise from Julia. She’s my friend, too.”
At the mention of Julia, his tummy did a funny flutter. He liked Julia very much and though it was gross when his dad kissed her on the lips, he was glad he was getting to know her. She was funny and her story had been the best.
The stranger noticed the way the boy let his guard down at the mention of Julia and flashed him a friendly smile. Lucas thought he was creepy and weird because there was no sun and he wore dark glasses and a cap.
“Just make sure your dad opens the surprise after midnight. After the fireworks.”
“‘kay.” Lucas mumbled back.
“Good boy. Oh, and tell him that Julia said she would meet you guys by the church.” He ruffled his hair and something inside Lucas told him to run. He didn’t and waved his hand at the stranger as he disappeared around the corner.
The sound of his mother’s voice made him turn.
“Lucas? What are you doing? Get over here, kiddo.”
He did as she said and when he joined both his grandmothers and his mom, Sophia bent down and saw what he was holding in his hand.
“Where did you get that?”
“It’s for dad.”
“Oh. Well, here comes your dad. Go give it to him.” Sophia frowned after her son.
Damian was coming out from the house and Lucas ran to him.
“Dad! Dad!” He jumped up and down, waving the yellow envelope in the air.
“Hey, son. It’s almost time. Is Julia here yet?”
“No. But she sent you this. It’s a surprise.”
Damian took the envelope from his son and before he could open it, Lucas pulled at the sleeve of his shirt.
“No, you have to wait. You’re supposed to open it after midnight. That’s what the man said.”
“Man? What man?”
“The man who said he was your friend and Julia’s.”
Baffled, Damian stared down at his son. The envelope in his hand had no handwriting on the outside, but as he pressed his fingers against it, he felt something inside it.
Lucas seemed mortified that he would open it now. He was about to follow his son’s instructions when his parental instincts kicked in.
“Did this man tell you his name?”
Damian saw his son’s face light up, as if remembering something and he said. “Oh, and he said Julia would meet us by the church. So can we go now?”
Ignoring his son’s request, Damian scanned the street up and down but saw no one. Why would Julia send him a surprise if she was going to join then in less than ten minutes? It made no sense. And why would she have sent someone to tell them she would meet them some place else? Why hadn’t she called him to tell him? He tried her phone but was sent to voice mail.
An unshakable sense of unease began to invade his body like a million spiders, and with his son in tow, Damian joined the women talking on the sidewalk.
“Did you see who gave this to Lucas?” He asked Sophia.
She shook her head. “No. But he says it’s for you.”
“Yes, I know. I just……”
He glanced at the time and saw it was getting closer to midnight. He tried her phone again but no answer. The unease intensified, and images of her almost dying after the scorpions had his gut tightening.
A voice inside him told him something was not right. Not able to wait until after midnight, Damian tore open the envelope and pulled out a single sheet. It had a glossy texture, like photographic paper. At first, he thought he was seeing maybe a preview of something new Julia was working on, the layout of the paper looked like the design for a book cover. Maybe she was giving him a first look at her next book. Then he read the caption above her name: From the deceased writer, the story of her death.
For the second time in his life, his heart stopped beating. Blood turned to icicles scraping the inside of his veins and the hand holding the paper shook. Julia’s face occupied most of the center of the page and Damian recognized it from the full body shot that had been sent to her the day after the party.
God, he has Julia.
He grabbed his son by the shoulders and said in a strained voice. “Lucas, who gave you this?”
“I already told you, he said he was your friend.”
“Did he say what his name was?” His urgent tone scared his son and caught the attention of his mother, mother in law and Sophia.
“Damian, what’s wrong?” His mother asked behind him.
“He didn’t tell me his name. But….”
“But what?” He saw his son flinch as he snapped at him. He took a calming breath though it did nothing to quench the fear building up in the pit of his stomach. But it did smoothen his tone when he asked again. “But what kiddo?”
“He was scary. He had dark glasses and a cap. He never took them off.”
Damian’s knees turned to liquid when he remembered Julia’s description of the guy from the truck.
It took Damian less than a minute to start running in the direction of the town square and Sonia’s restaurant after he shouted over his shoulder.
“Mom, find Chief Ramos. Tell him he has Julia.”
He reached the crowded edge of the town square and with the adrenalin pumping inside him, he pushed and shoved anyone who stood in his way. Kids cried, women cursed at him and men threatened to kick his ass but he didn’t care. The bastard had Julia.
Sonia was just seeing the last of her customers out when she spotted Damian, his face deformed with dread and worry, running towards her.
“Is Julia still here?” He demanded, panting, the second he stepped inside. It was a long shot and his stomach sank to the floor when Sonia moved her head from side to side.
“I thought she was supposed to meet you. She left like more than half an hour ago.”
“Did you see her leave with anyone else?”
“No. Damian, what the hell is going on? Why are you and Raul so desperate to find her?”
“Raul was looking for Julia?”
“Yeah, he came in just five minutes after she left. He went back out after I told him the same thing I’m telling you. Oh, wait,” she crossed her arms across her chest and inclined her head in the direction of the restaurant’s entrance, “there he comes.”
There was no place for rationality. Desperation controlled his moves as Damian lounged himself at Raul, slamming him into the wall next to the entrance. With his fists, he grabbed Raul by the shirt and stared into the confused, then pissed off eyes of Julia’s friend.
“Where is she?”
“What the fuck man?” Raul tried to wiggle free from Damian’s hold but was slammed back again hard against the wall.
From somewhere a pair of hands hauled Damian by the neck. Raul peeled himself off the wall, both men glaring at each other.
“Where is Julia?” Damian demanded, struggling to free himself.
“You tell me. I need to speak with her. What is going on Damian? Chief Ramos talked to me tonight at the fair. He seemed very interested in my father’s truck. When I asked him why, he said there had been an incident with Julia. Apparently, someone tried to run her over the other day while she was out running.”
“What?” Sonia asked, astounded. Her eyes went from Raul to Damian.
“Is that true Damian?” She demanded.
He shook his head and his sudden outburst of rage ebbed away. He was only left with that deep rooted panic. The shiny piece of paper lay on the floor as it must’ve slipped from his hand the second he threw himself at Raul.
In that instant, Felix came into the restaurant and noting the tension in the air, he asked in a serious voice. “What’s going on?”
“I was asking the same thing. Damian?” Raul insisted.
Damian realized it was Stephan who’d been holding him. When his muscles unclenched, Stephan let go and he dragged his hands through his hair.
“Someone’s been threatening Julia.” And he began describing near accident on the side of road.
“Oh my God!” Sonia finally exclaimed, horrified.
“What else?” Raul said from under his bent head, his insides churning up as if someone were squeezing a lemon over a fresh wound.
Damian told them everything. About the letter, the scorpions, which caused Sonia to gasp and then reach for a chair as if she were about to faint, then the pictures from the party and the emails the next day. They all fell quiet once Damian finished telling them everything.
He was convinced by the way Raul was failing to conceal the same naked worry weighing down on him, and by how the rest of her friends stared at him with grim faces, their color almost a dull gray, that they had nothing to do with the threats.
“He sent me this.” Damian grabbed the glossy paper and everyone gathered around him.
“Son of a bitch.” Felix muttered.
“God, you don’t think he’s going to…..” Sonia was interrupted by their other friend, as she entered the restaurant.
“Hey, what are you doing all mysterious like that?”
Magdalena stood at the entrance, her scandalous red hair tamed in a ponytail, her cheeks flushed. She was wearing a white strapless tube dress, all dressed up for the party.
No one said anything and she simply went over to them. Her eyebrows shot upwards in confusion as she asked. “What are you doing with Jim’s work?”
Everything inside Damian stilled, and his rambling brain skidded to a halt.
“This is Jim’s?”
“Yeah. Yesterday, I was cleaning up the house in the morning and I went into his study to straighten up the chaos of papers and designs he had on his desk. I found a sketch that looked like that, only Julia’s picture wasn’t on the center. He sort of freaked out when he saw I was inside his office but he just said it was something he was working on. But why is Julia’s face on the center?”
“Oh, Jesus.” Sonia gasped.
“What?” Magdalena asked, when they all continued to stare at her.
“Sweetie, you need to tell us where Jim is.” Though Sonia smiled, the gesture didn’t reach her scared eyes, and her voice came out almost like a whisper.
“Why? What aren’t you telling me?” The redhead swirled around pausing on each of her friends. “Did something happen to Jim?”
Oh, something definitely was going to happen to him if he dared hurt Julia, Damian felt inclined to growl at Magdalena.
All he did was grab her by the shoulders and plead. “Please, just tell us where he is.”
“He had to fly to New York. He got a call from the publisher he works for and he left this afternoon. That’s why it took me so long to get here. I had to close up all by myself. Jim usually gives me a hand.”
Her uneven voice implied she was starting to feel nervous and didn’t like the pity look on Sonia’s face nor the condemning ones on Raul, Felix and Damian.
“He’s not here?” Raul asked, incredulous. He turned to Damian and he could see he knew Jim had not gone anywhere and wherever he was in town, Julia was with him.
“No. Please, can someone tell me what the hell is going on?”
“Magdalena, can you think of anyplace Jim might be right now?”
“What? No, he’s not here. God, how many times do I have to tell you?”
Damian was about to lash at her but Sonia stepped between them and said in a gentler voice. “Magdalena, some things have been happening to Julia. Damian and all of us are worried about her.” In an avalanche of anxious words, Sonia told her friend everything Damian had minutes before.
Magdalena just stood there, transfixed, her skin turning even whiter than the dress she was wearing. In a second, the woman Magdalena had been was destroyed and in her place stood a woman with an empty stare, and with her heart bleeding from the inside.
The cries of joy, the laughter and music from outside were surreal to Damian. Somewhere out there this son of a bitch had Julia and he didn’t even know where to start looking.
The redhead continued to stare into nothingness, still in shock as she needed no one to connect what Sonia had said with the image Damian held in his hand. As much as he felt for her, he didn’t have time for this.
Raul echoed Damian’s thoughts as he said. “Damian, we need to get moving.”
All three men made for the door and Damian stopped on his way out to mutter to Sonia. “You have my number. If she remembers anything,” he gazed at Magdalena, “call us.”
He couldn’t make his voice sound confident since a horrific notion popped into his mind. What if he’d taken her out of town? True, the main streets were closed but if Jim had managed to figure out she was Kate Morgan before anyone else, then it meant the guy was resourceful and would find a way. God, he prayed he hadn’t.
They didn’t wait for Sonia to say something else. They stepped out. The crowds outside the restaurant had somewhat thinned, since all were now congregated outside the church to watch the fireworks.
Damian took off with Raul and Felix next to him. He had no idea where to look. For a small town, La Providencia now harbored a million possibilities and not enough time to explore them all. They were halfway down the street when his phone rang and though he knew it wasn’t possible, he hoped it would be Julia. It wasn’t. It was Chief Ramos asking him to wait for him and his men, but Damian said no and hung up on him.
His phone rang a second time and after he barked into the phone, “I said I’m not going to wait, damn it,” he heard silence then Sonia’s trembling voice. “Damian, it’s Sonia. Magdalena just mentioned Jim’s dad passed away three months ago. He was sent to jail on fraud charges, you know a Bernie Maddoff kind of thing. She says Jim swore his father was innocent. They had a rocky relationship but had started talking again recently. But Julia’s father lost the case.”
“Jim’s dad killed himself Damian, three months ago. Remember Jim’s family and Julia’s used to be close?”
Damian stopped running. He had forgotten all about that. Somewhere inside his mind, a series of separate thoughts began weaving together and before he knew it, he had the answer. The reason why Jim wanted to kill Julia.
“Son of a bitch.” He muttered.
Your spoiled girl actions have taken something away from me. You and your father owe me and since daddy dearest is gone, that leaves you, my beautiful Julia.
The words from the letter rang loudly inside his head, and he felt his step falter.
Just then the colorful explosions boomed behind them, and the outline of the castle ripped the black blanket of the sky. He could hear the woes of amazement from the crowd. The excited applause as the intricate structure from the castle lighted up; the fuzes dangling at the very bottom sparking to life, each one breathing life to a different section of the castle.
Raul and Felix both glanced back at the spectacle but neither felt the same sense of wonder they all had, ever since they were little kids. Not when one of their own was in danger. They returned to scan the street before them. Raul’s eyes suddenly widened, hit by the possibility as his stare landed on the very end of the street.
“Damian.” He pointed without taking his attention off the structure at the end. And then, the three men set off at a run, Damian saying in between pants to Sonia who was still on the other side of the line. “Sonia, call the chief. I think we know where he took her.”
And God, he prayed they weren’t wrong.