Desperate Creed – Alex Kava

Chicago Frankie Russo’s head was already throbbing when her cell phone started blaring salsa music. At five o’clock in the morning she immediately regretted the new ringtone. She tried to tamp down the dread in the pit of her stomach as she stumbled out of the bathroom. Nobody called at five in the morning with good news. Her hand swiped along the wall, searching for a light switch in unfamiliar territory. Where had she left her phone? She stumbled just as her fingers found the switch. The unpacked boxes in her new apartment made her dance through a maze. She was dripping wet, adjusting towels, and deep down she caught herself hoping she’d miss the call. Please just let it go to voicemail. If it had something to do with her father, she’d rather the news be filtered. A recording didn’t wait to hear your reaction. Finally, Frankie saw her phone on the kitchen counter. Before she touched it, she could see who the caller was and relief washed over her. She was relieved, but at the same time, she was pissed off at the request for a video-chat. She adjusted the towel tighter around her body then answered the phone.

“It’s not funny, Tyler,” Frankie said to the smiling face. She pushed at the second towel on top of her head, and it almost threw her off balance. “You know I hate when you want to video-chat with me at home.” “I’ve been hoping to catch you in a towel.” The boyish grin only broadened without a hint of apology. Frankie was too old for Tyler. Fourteen years older. Yes, she had already done the math. And yet, his inappropriate comment made her blush just a little. Instead of scowling at her co-worker she pretended it was no big deal.

She tilted her phone giving him only a headshot and a whole lot of her kitchen ceiling. The two of them had become comfortable with each other. Probably too comfortable. For almost a year their teamwork on different advertising campaigns had spilled over into their personal lives. Frankie blamed herself for not putting up any boundaries. She was the older and wiser one, the socalled seasoned professional assigned to work with the hotshot new kid, fresh out of college. But suddenly, she and Tyler became the envy of McGavin Holt. Paul McGavin, the managing partner of the advertising firm, had put the two together time after time, highlighting their successes as if it were because of his brilliant decision to make them a team. Frankie didn’t care if he bragged or took credit. What mattered more was the much-needed boost to her career.

And the timing helped take her mind off the recent failures in her personal life, like the reason for this new apartment. “You won’t believe what Deacon and I discovered,” Tyler was saying. “It changes everything.” She took a closer look at him and noticed his beard stubble and tousled hair. He hadn’t shaved yet, and he was out walking. She could see streetlamps, brick buildings and slices of empty streets. His eyes were bright and wild, most likely from too little sleep and too much caffeine. If she didn’t know him better she’d say he was drunk, but Tyler and his friends didn’t drink alcohol. Red Bull and Monster were their addictions. “Where in the world are you?” she asked.

She glanced at the digital clock on the microwave. “It’s five-fifteen in the morning.” “I just left Deacon’s place. Remember I told you about my friend, Deke? Deacon Kaye? You said he sounded like a rapper. He loved that, by the way.” He was rambling. “Why are you calling me, Tyler?” “Remember I said I was going to have him use one of their labs to do a chemical breakdown of those organic breakfast bars?” “And remember I told you we don’t get paid to do chemical breakdowns. Tyler, we’re supposed to be creating a marketing campaign.” “What about honesty, Frankie? There’s nothing organic about this product.” “Honesty?” She laughed while she put down the phone to pour herself a cup of coffee.

At least she had unpacked and set up the coffeemaker. The aroma filled the kitchen, contributing a small semblance to her upside down life. “We work for an advertising and marketing agency, Tyler.” She readjusted the towel on her head and tucked the one around her body a bit tighter before picking up the phone again. “That energy drink we worked on last month doesn’t really give anyone super powers.” “No, but it also won’t give you cancer.” She frowned at him. His smile was gone, but he was still wound up. “Glyphosate showed up in all the samples. And that’s not all, Frankie, the levels are pretty high, beyond the limits of safe.

Glyphosate’s an herbicide. It’s found in weed killers. The World Health Organization considers it a carcinogen that can cause cancer in anybody who works around it on a regular basis. It’s not supposed to show up in food. Carson Foods has been hiding it in their research. They know about it, Frankie. If glyphosate can cause cancer from handling it, can you imagine what it does if you eat it?” He brought the phone closer and said, “And how bout if you eat it every morning for breakfast?” He said all this with too much bravado, reminding Frankie that he was still just a kid. He also sounded a bit out of breath but continued to walk. “Look, Tyler, maybe you should ask Mr. McGavin to take you off the project.

” “Cancer, Frankie.” She rolled her eyes and took a sip of coffee. “Did you just roll your eyes at me?” “Do you know how many things supposedly cause cancer?” She held up her mug. “Depending on what latest survey you read, coffee causes cancer. Being out in the sun causes cancer. Doesn’t mean I’m going to stop drinking coffee or spend the rest of my life indoors.” “The breakfast bars aren’t the only things. I gave Deke samples from some of their other products. My little brother eats these cereals every morning. Sometimes a bowl after school.

Regulations call for employees handling glyphosate to wear gloves, so they don’t get it on their skin, but Carson Foods has no problem with it being on our food. And the worst part, the executives at the top not only know it’s showing up in their food, but that the levels are too high. They’re manipulating the data.” Frankie held back another eye roll. She appreciated Tyler’s enthusiasm and the way he threw himself into their assignments. Everything was new and exciting to him. Fresh out of college, he really believed he could change the world. She vaguely remembered that feeling. But sometimes, being around him was simply exhausting. “So why isn’t anybody suing them?” She watched as he held the phone up closer as if he didn’t want the empty streets to hear what he was about to share.

Even his voice was now just above a whisper. “There is a lawsuit pending. But just a few days ago the guy got hit by a car.” He paused like he was waiting for his revelation to sink in, but Frankie shook her head. “Tyler—” “Last week, Deke and I hacked into their CEO’s emails. He’s talking to a senator about some huge global deal for their products. I’ve got copies downloaded on my laptop. I sent you a copy. Listen to me, Frankie, they know. They know this stuff is bad.

They’re hiding it, and they’re doing everything they can to keep it from coming out.” “Hacked?” She banged her coffee mug down on the counter before she spilled it. “Are you crazy? You could get arrested. And don’t get me involved by sending me anything.” “Actually, I offered to show the emails to a police detective, and he told me to forget about it.” “Tyler, he’s right.” “I know the cops aren’t interested. We need to go higher to the federal level. You told me you know someone at the FBI.” “I told you I know someone who knows someone at the FBI.

You really do need to forget about this.” “This is serious stuff, Frankie.” “Maybe we should talk to Mr. McGavin about reassigning you to a different campaign.” “I already talked to him. But not about being reassigned. I told him about the levels of glyphosate and that maybe we shouldn’t be marketing this stuff.” “You what? And when did you do this?” “On Monday.” Frankie had taken the week off to move. One week! Why the hell hadn’t he told her first? They were supposed to be a team.

But instead of asking any of that, she wanted to know, “What did he say?” “He told me he’d look into it. But I could tell he wasn’t going to.” “Why do you say that?” “Just the way he said it. Hold on, there’s a couple of guys here. They look lost.” Tyler dropped his hand to his side giving Frankie a view of the sidewalk and a slice of Tyler’s legs. Beyond him she could see someone else from the knees down. Nice shiny, polished shoes unlike Tyler’s scuffed and dusty tennis shoes. She kept telling him how much shoes defined a person, especially in their business. If a marketing account rep didn’t pay attention to his own appearance, how could he convince a CEO that he could be entrusted with an entire company’s image? “What’s up?” she heard Tyler ask, his voice muffled but calm.

She picked up her coffee mug waiting for him while she processed how much trouble he’d caused. She wondered if Mr. McGavin thought she was in lock step with Tyler. She’d put a lot of time and energy into this project. She didn’t want to get thrown off. What kind of reputation would this get her? She could barely hear the other men, but Tyler’s tone suddenly changed from calm to guarded. The phone bobbed up, and she caught a glance at the two men. Both of them were white. One huge, one average. Jogging suits.

The discussion started to get heated, but their words were muffled. Tyler’s pitch rose. Something was wrong. He raised his hand with the phone as if he were bracing for a blow. “Tyler, what’s going on?” She heard a pop-pop, like a car backfiring. But it wasn’t a car. The street was empty. Tyler seasawed in and out of her view. She got a glance at his face. His eyes were wide.

Was that blood on his forehead? Then the hand fell away, and all she could see was the sidewalk as the phone’s screen slapped against the concrete. “Tyler?” Frankie shouted into her own phone. “What the hell’s going on?” Did he trip? But she knew he hadn’t. Had one of the men punched him? Was it really blood she had seen on his face? She needed to dial 911, but she didn’t want to break the connection. “Tyler? Are you okay? Answer me.” Seconds passed. Finally a sliver of light returned then she saw the sidewalk. The phone started rising, and her view pulled back up. She heard a muffled voice. But it wasn’t Tyler’s.

“He was on his phone.” A man said, his voice deep and not happy. The sidewalk flipped away, and a face filled the screen. Dark eyes squinted at her. A beak-like nose like a hawk and thick black eyebrows on a huge forehead. He pulled away and turned his head. He mouthed something to the other man. The movement was enough to reveal an ugly scar peeking out from under his shirt collar. Frankie’s coffee mug crashed to the floor, and his eyes darted back to the screen. She held the phone at arm’s length while she squeezed and punched buttons.

She needed to end the call. Finally, the screen went blank then returned to her screensaver. She slid the phone onto the countertop. She couldn’t breathe. She was shaking and wrapped the damp towel tighter around her body. Her mind raced. She needed to do something. The sound of salsa music vibrated against granite, and she jumped. Her phone came to life. The screen pulsed with Tyler’s number.

Was it possible he was okay? Without picking it up, Frankie reached over making sure she was out of the camera’s sight. She tapped the button and the screen came to life. But it wasn’t Tyler’s face. A dark sky filled most of the screen with the glare of a lamppost. She could still see a slice of the man who held the phone at arm’s length. His silence told her that he had called back to get a better look at her. This time Frankie could see something smeared on the bottom screen. Dark red. Not just a smear but droplets. A splatter.

Oh god, was it blood? Staying out of sight, she eased her hand across the counter and tapped the END CALL button. When she was certain the call had been disconnected, she grabbed the phone. Holding it as if it were a snake threatening to bite, she started to squeeze and click buttons until the screen went black, and until she was sure the phone was completely shut off. Not just on vibrate. Not just airplane mode, but off. Then she slid the contraption on the counter again, this time sending it away from her with such force it crashed against the stovetop. Still, she stared at it almost expecting the salsa music to blare again. She was cold and trembling. Her heart pounded against her chest. She had been holding her breath, and now her breathing came in short gasps.

She needed to tell someone. She needed to dial 911. And yet, she didn’t dare turn the phone back on. What the hell just happened? 2 Florida Panhandle Ryder Creed could feel her watching. Water lapped around him as he held his arms under the big dog. Despite the life vest that kept the dog afloat—and even with the security of Creed’s hands cradling him—the dog’s ears were pinned back and his eyes were wide. “It’s okay. You’re doing great,” Creed reassured him using a low, soothing tone that had worked before to calm the dog. But that was in a small rehab tank. Maybe it was a mistake to move to the Olympic-size swimming pool.

Perhaps it was too soon. The dog was a new arrival to the K-9 training facility. Creed and his business partner, Hannah Washington had agreed to take him after his experimental surgery. Knight was a two-year-old, blackmuzzled Belgium shepherd. He’d had lost most of his front right leg while serving in Afghanistan. His prosthetic was a marvel of science and medical technology. It still amazed Creed how well the dog had adjusted to his new artificial limb. Being submerged in the large body of water wasn’t only about adjusting to and using the new leg. It was also about trusting his new handler. “I’m not going to let anything happen to you,” Creed was saying when he noticed the dog’s nose sniffing the air.

Knight could smell her. He knew there was an intruder. “It’s okay,” Creed told him, bringing one of his hands up out of the water to pet him. “Everything’s okay.” From the corner of his eye Creed could see her tucked into the shadows of the fieldhouse. His sister, Brodie looked and acted more like a young girl. In many ways she was exactly as he remembered. For sixteen years he imagined her as that same eleven-year-old girl he’d watched skipping in the rain, crossing the parking lot and into a rest stop bathroom, only to disappear into thin air. It was less than five months since they’d been reunited. Only two months since she’d come to live with him and Hannah.

Not unlike the Belgium shepherd, Brodie came with her own injuries that needed healing. So even now, he let her watch from the shadows when he really wanted to tell her she was spooking the dog. But acknowledging her presence might spook her. He knew she tried to hide even that. She was doing her best to be brave when everything around her was new and difficult. She had gotten used to shoving her emotions aside during her captivity when there were other daily needs she had to deal with, like being hungry or cold or left in the dark. But despite her attempt at pretending she was doing okay, Creed could see the truth in her eyes. Just like the shepherd, Creed could sense her discomfort. When Brodie first came to live with them, she followed him around as if she was afraid to let him leave her sight. Creed felt like he had a ghost silently stalking him from behind trees and around corners.

She had been gone from him—gone from the world, really—for longer than she’d been with him. She was still gauging her freedom, testing and pushing the limits, reaching and feeling for the boundaries. Now he could see her edging closer. To the shepherd, Creed said, “Don’t be afraid. You’re okay,” but this time he said it louder, hoping to include Brodie. She had admitted she was afraid of dogs. Early on, she told Creed that her captor, a woman named Iris Malone, had sent a dog to attack Brodie once when she tried to escape. Creed had seen the scar on her ankle. The bite must have been bone-deep. There was nothing he could say to make her trust another dog.

But Grace, Creed’s scrappy, little Jack Russell terrier, had come a long way in convincing Brodie that not all dogs would attack her. Creed knew this was a lesson Brodie would need to learn directly from a dog if she intended to make a home here. The fifty-acre property was a training facility for K9 scent dogs. The kennel—with dog runs and acres of fenced-in yard—was home to dozens of dogs of all sizes and breeds. They came here from shelters; some had been dropped off at the end of their long driveway. Hannah liked to say they rescued abandoned and discarded dogs and turned them into heroes. When she told Brodie this, it seemed to make an impression. The idea of being abandoned was something she could understand. Now suddenly, Brodie was at the edge of the swimming pool. Creed hadn’t even heard her.

She had learned to be quiet all those years she’d spent trying to make herself invisible. Perhaps there was a future for her in some clandestine profession, because he hadn’t seen her approach the pool. He barely saw her now, but the dog told him she was there. His nose sniffed the air, and he was paddling to turn himself around, trying to get a good look at her. He wasn’t panicked. He was excited. Creed kept his attention on the dog as he guided Knight to the shallow end. “What happened to his leg?” Brodie asked as if it was perfectly normal for her to sneak out of the shadows then engage in a casual conversation. One of the first things she had asked of her brother was to tell her the truth, always. No matter how painful he thought it might be.

And, she told him she didn’t want it “sugarcoated.” “He was a bomb sniffing dog in Afghanistan.” “Like Rufus?” He’d shared with Brodie how he and Rufus had worked as a team finding IEDs and clearing a path to protect units of Marines in Afghanistan. Until one day a young boy from the village brought a bomb into their camp. A bomb strapped and hidden on his small body. Rufus had alerted, but by the time Creed made the connection, it was too late. Creed was sent home, but Rufus’ injuries weren’t severe enough. After they patched him up, the dog was returned to service with another Marine handler. It cost Creed a favor to a man he didn’t respect, along with a vow of silence, but he got to bring Rufus back and the two were reunited. The dog still slept at the foot of Creed’s bed.

“Yes, like Rufus,” Creed told Brodie. “But the bomb went off? He missed it?” She looked confused. “No,” Creed corrected her. “His handler missed it.” “Did his handler lose a leg, too?” “His handler was killed.” He checked her face. Her eyes were on the dog, but there was no emotion. It was one of the hardest things for Creed to accept about his sister. She displayed few feelings. Turning off her emotions had allowed Brodie to survive.

But she was twenty-seven years old and after spending all of those years in isolation, he couldn’t help wondering if she’d ever be able to turn that mechanism on again. The dog started swimming toward Brodie, anxious to meet her. Creed expected her to bolt. Or at least, move away. To his surprise, Brodie lowered herself to the side of the pool then sat, dangling her legs over the edge. She had no fear of water and was still a good swimmer. At least there were a few things Iris Malone hadn’t stolen from her. The dog was so anxious he’d forgotten his earlier dependency on Creed. He was paddling on his own, leaving Creed to follow. But it was obvious he was exhausted, and Brodie seemed to sense it.

Almost instinctively, she slid into the pool—shoes, shorts and T-shirt. The water came to her waist. She didn’t seem to notice or care. She grabbed for the handle on the dog’s vest, and he bumped into her, grateful and ready to be helped out of the water. Creed swam up beside them just as the dog licked Brodie’s face and was rewarded with a rare smile. He was impressed that she didn’t wince or pull back. She noticed his surprise but instead of addressing it, she asked, “Can he walk on his own?” “Yes, but I need to help him out of the pool. I don’t want him to slip on the steps.” She allowed Creed to take over, relinquishing the fact that she didn’t have the upper body strength to help the dog. “Swimming will help him build back his muscles without putting pressure on his shoulder,” he explained as he hugged the dog close to his body and walked up the stairs.

She climbed out of the pool and stood beside them. Creed handed her a towel. But he noticed Brodie kept her distance from the dog. She didn’t reach down to pet him. Instead, she awkwardly wiped her arms and legs, but didn’t wrap the towel around herself. He looked up to the windows that ran the length of the fieldhouse. Just like in the kennel, he’d purposely designed them to be above eye-level so the dogs couldn’t see out and wouldn’t be distracted while they were training. But Creed could see the morning sunshine was being replaced by dark storm clouds. He saw a flash of lightning. Brodie noticed, too, but rather than triggering concern, it simply reminded her of something.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” she said. “Hannah sent me to tell you there are storms coming, and you need to get out of the pool.”

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