Jessy Tanner sat on the curb near the truck and waited for the guys to get their butts out of the bagel shop. The routine had grown tiresome. It seemed the crew needed their little treat before heading out on the road. She'd noticed that Kevin smelled like a brewery again this morning. Stupid college kid. At least he's gorgeous and good with a net.
The two guys came out to the truck with the rustle of paper sacks and the smell of coffee.
"You're not eating bagels today, Jessy?" Conrad Manzey tapped Jessy on the shoulder as he rounded the front of the truck. Con was the crew foreman, head of the fisheries program for the state of New Hampshire.
Jessy didn't think his question required an answer. She stood, opened the truck door, and used the overhead handle to hoist herself up into the passenger seat. "You guys got your carbohydrate fix for the day? Let's get on the road."
"Jess, why are you so eager to get up north?" Kevin Shepherd sat in the backseat of the supercab truck, kitty-corner from Jessy. He rummaged in his bag and produced a cinnamon raisin bagel. "Sure you don't want one of these? I bought a whole bag full. I got plain and garlic cream cheese."
"You're putting garlic cream cheese on a cinnamon bagel?" Jessy wrinkled her nose. "What a disgusting combination. No, thanks, Kev. I'll pass." The night's libations wafted up to the front with his exhales, and Jessy tried to guess. Wine? Beer? Probably both. She strapped the seat belt across her chest and flipped her sunglasses down from her forehead. It's just a damn good thing you have a cute butt.
Conrad gave her a puzzled look. "Not looking forward to the trip this time, eh?" He lightly grazed her leg with the outside of his hand, holding a raspberry scone.
"Ah, I'm sorry. I'm just bummed thinking about how many prerequisites I need to get into the accounting program. I met with the dean of admissions last Friday. He said everything will transfer from the University of Kansas--they just don't have any use for all my music classes."
"Accounting? I thought you were looking into nursing." Con took a sip of his coffee.
"Ah, no. Accounting." Jessy fixed her gaze out the window and wished she had a cup.
"Jessy, you told me you wanted to be a Web designer." Kevin's words dripped with sarcasm. "And before that, it was a used-car salesman."
She pursed her lips and blew at a few stray curls. "All right, smart-ass."
Con came to the rescue, reeling in the straying conversation. "Accounting. So are they math classes or what?"
"Yes. How could I graduate from college with no math? I guess I should have spent less time in the studio and more time in stupid algebra classes."
"Are you kidding me?" Conrad took his eyes off the road just long enough to give her a quick glance. "Your music is a gift. I wish I had some musical talents."
"A lot of good it does me. People aren't exactly lining up to hire piano players. Seems like those four years were a waste, ya know? Heck, even the husband I met in college is history." Jessy tried to laugh at her joke but didn't really see the humor.
"Well, I don't know about the husband--you're probably better off without him--but education is never a waste." Conrad looked over at her again with a comforting smile. "Didn't you say you started playing the guitar? I bet you picked that up in no time."
That was true. Jessy had found a beat-up Fender guitar at a garage sale for three bucks. After a few weeks and a new set of strings, she sounded pretty good.
"It just seems like everybody else has a sensible progression to their life, one thing segueing to the next. Like dominoes. My dominoes have never lined up. They all fall independent of one another--and only because of some external jolt." She punctuated this with a punch of her fist into the open palm of the other hand and glanced over at Con with a weak smile.
"Scone?" He held out his half-eaten pastry.
"I'm good." Jessy was crazy about Conrad. He was new to the department, only on the job a few months. When she first met him, she thought he was impossibly sexy and wondered how she'd be able to work with him without spending every damn day in a horny fog. The guy reeked of masculine energy. He had wavy blond hair that he wore layered and longish, and it always looked windblown. And his body. Phooey. This past summer, watching him cover that gorgeous ass of his with a pair of bulky chest waders seemed like a crime.
She thought he could look like a badass if he wanted to--a "don't mess with me" quality. Until she looked into his eyes. They were a soft, sweet pale blue that made Jessy's heart race. She thought the best part of Conrad was his mustache. It was probably unprofessional--at least, she'd heard that about mustaches. To be taken seriously, men had to keep their mustaches neatly trimmed or forgo them entirely. His grew long and skirted down the sides of his chin. At six-five, Con didn't have any trouble getting people to take him seriously. She sometimes caught herself daydreaming about what his kisses must feel like with that soft brush of whiskers.
"Jessy, did I tell you we got the go-ahead to purchase that software package? We'll probably start entering this summer's data directly into that. There's a training course offered up in Bangor. Maybe we can send you up there."
"Remember I told you my mom and sister are visiting in a couple of weeks? Any chance that training will overlap with their visit? Please?"
Con laughed. "Training's not until November. I take it you're still not looking forward to having guests."
"You have a sister?" Kevin butted into the conversation with a mouthful of bagel. "Is she anything like you? Older or younger?"
"She's younger, and we are nothing alike. And before you get your hopes up, Kev, let me warn you. She would eat you up and spit you out, pickin' her teeth with your bones."
He wrinkled his nose. "What the heck does that mean?"
"Morgan is a man-eater."
"Oooo. I like 'em feisty. Is she beautiful like you?"
Jessy's heart melted at Kevin's comment. "Morgan was Miss Kansas. And right now, she's a cheerleader for the Kansas City Chiefs. Does that answer your question?"
A few minutes of highway slipped by before Con mused to no one in particular, "A cheerleader?"
The truck hummed along as the smell of coffee and garlic and Kevin's boozy breath filled the air. Jessy flipped through a UNH catalog and tried to concentrate on the required course load for a first-semester accounting student. At thirty years old, she knew she would be the oddball old person in all the classes.
She had been a fisheries biologist now for three calendar years--counting the two summers she'd spent as an intern. It wasn't what she'd planned on doing. It was one of those dominoes that fell independent of the others.
When Jessy and her then husband, Jeff, moved to New Hampshire, she found a niche playing keyboard in a local bar band. Brad Deals was the lead singer in the band and also the fisheries crew foreman before Conrad. After her divorce, Jessy needed a more reliable income than the band. She'd picked up a few piano students, but that wasn't much. When Brad asked her if she wanted to be his summer intern, she was dubious. She'd grown up fishing the reservoirs of Kansas with her dad, but that sure as hell didn't make her a biologist. She'd put lots of bandages on skinned knees, but that didn't make her a nurse.
Brad was like a brother to Jessy, and she trusted him. She interned with him for two summers, and when the full-time position opened up, he used his professional muscle to squeeze her in. She became a half-assed fisheries biologist, who could play the piano like nobody's business.
As the morning passed with light truck banter, Jessy's mood lightened. She put the college catalog away and felt stupid for her grumpy mood. Her life had had the stuffing knocked out of it when Jeff left. She'd been aimlessly kicking fluff into the air for a couple of years--what were a few more days? This was one last field trip with her friends.
The crew had spent nearly every day together over the summer, wading in streams all over the state, collecting fish, and recording data. Some days it would rain, and they trudged through it anyway. If the weather became dangerous, they huddled together in the truck until it passed. They ate lunches on the shore, sweated together, laughed together, got pissed off at each other, and got over it.
Kevin was a summer intern. She had to admit, he was a good one. In their line of work, they sent electricity into the water from a long wand. The fish would feel the jolt and try to escape. Kevin had reflexes like a cat. Nothing ever got by him. He'd lean against the handle of his net, grinning, probably still bombed from the night before. But when the electricity went on, he was ready. And those eyes. Big, beautiful brown puddles filled with mischief. His smile was nothing short of breathtaking. The butt, the sculpted arms, the gorgeous black curls--whoever landed this one was a lucky gal. At nineteen, life was a joyride for him.
Jessy stared out the window, tired of hashing and rehashing her plan to go back to school. She thought about Con's encouraging words. He was such a great guy. Why couldn't she meet a man like that? She laughed to herself. She already had met a man like that. She had extended her daydreams out so far that if she went back to school and if she no longer worked with Con... Could he think of her as anything other than a scrappy biologist? His coworker?
In their four-month relationship, he'd only seen her sweaty and dirty, her hair up in a ponytail. She hadn't had the chance to show him her feminine side--show Conrad that she had legs and dresses and preferred flowers over fish. But then, she didn't know what kind of women Con liked. Maybe he liked them rugged and tough. Jessy sighed. Con was a mystery man.
"Jess, you got any gum?" Kevin poked his head to the front. "I have a funny taste in my mouth. Cinnamon and garlic."
Jessy dug in the back pocket of her Levi's and pulled out a stick of Juicy Fruit gum. "It's my last stick. I only give up Juicy Fruit for guys I really like. Now, who's carrying the sampling buckets today?" She playfully waved the gum under his nose.
"I am, Jessy--you know I'd do that for you, even without the gum." He gently plucked the foiled stick from her fingers.
She did know it. The sampling buckets weighed a ton when they were loaded with fish. Jessy counted on Kevin so much with the really physical work. "So, what did you do this weekend, Kev? Did you break any hearts? Or any laws?" She glanced back. He froze in midchew and wagged his eyebrows a few times, as if to say, Right on both counts.
"Hey, I saw Cory on Saturday." Kevin smacked his gum with exaggerated gusto. "He's mad as hell that you wouldn't let him come on this last trip, Con. But he sure had some nice things to say about you, Jess."
"Me? Like what?" Jessy stomach went into a knot, and she couldn't explain why. She always thought Cory was a little weird, and was glad he wasn't able to make this last trip.
"Well, actually, what he had to say wasn't nice at all, and I wouldn't dare repeat it. Even made me blush. He was pretty loaded. That guy likes his marijuana."
Con and Jessy exchanged glances. Cory Johnson was the other summer intern. His employment started with a thud when Con caught him smoking a joint in the boat shed. He didn't fire him, but Jessy knew he wanted to. Sure, Kevin liked his booze, but he always showed up ready to work. He was just a college freshman testing his boundaries. Cory was older, out of college. He was looking to make a career with the New Hampshire fisheries program and already off to a bad start.
"With that broken collarbone, he wasn't able to do a whole lot. I saw no need to drag a one-armed netter along for the ride," Con commented. "He wasn't even that good at netting fish with two hands." Jessy saw him glance at Kevin in the rearview mirror. "We'll hook up with Lon Briggs from the Vermont office tonight and be just fine."
"So, Conman, did we bring the live wells for specimens this trip?" Kevin turned and glanced into the bed of the truck. He was in charge of critter keeping. The crew learned early in the season that he had a knack for keeping fish alive for a few days during transport.
"Not this trip. Too far to travel, gone too long. We'll just keep a good paper record. Jess, did you grab the digital camera?"
"Yup, and fifty million batteries."
"Seems like a lot," Con muttered absentmindedly as he focused on the road. The first fishing site was off the beaten path. Way off. They needed to take some logging roads to get there, and Con had gotten directions from the local logging company. GPS navigation wasn't going to help much for these roads.
The truck bumped along with their gear secured in the back end. Jessy read the directions, amused that Con had taken the time to type them. She knew hers would be scrawled on a gum wrapper. "Con, I think the river is just through those trees. See how there's a break in the canopy? If you stop here, I'll hike in and check it out."
Conrad pulled the truck onto the grassy edge. "Why don't you and Kevin both go. It looks like the woods get pretty thick in there. It'd be safer with two. I'll see if I can get some GPS coordinates."
Kevin and Jessy climbed out of the truck and started into the woods. She was certain the river they were in search of was just a quick hike away. They'd driven the road back and forth but weren't able to find an access. This may be the best they were going to get. She led the way, and Kevin followed.
"You better not be looking at my butt, you little pervert."
"Forty-year-old butts don't interest me, Jess."
"What! I'm nowhere near forty, and you know it!" She blew a pretend huff over her shoulder. "You're mean."
The afternoon heat stifled the surrounding forest, and Jessy drew in a long, deep breath, happy to be out of the truck. Just ahead of her, the shrubs and undergrowth suddenly rustled. She stopped. Were there bears around here?
"Kev, did you see that?" she whispered.
"See what? I was looking at your butt." He caught up to her, and she swatted him with her arm.
"Listen. There's something up there." The woods settled once again to an eerie silence. "Hmm. I don't hear anything now."
In that instant, twigs snapped behind them, and everything went black. Strong arms wrapped around Jessy, and she felt her feet lift off the ground. A dark fabric veiled her vision as she wrestled to get free. "Kevin? Kevin!" The arms squeezed her in a vise and immobilized her as she struggled to regain her footing. "What the fuck is going on? Is this a joke?"
"This ain't no joke, honey. Now shut up. Not one more word."
She felt a solid poke in the middle of her back. She'd never had a gun in her back before, but it definitely felt like a gun. In a shroud of darkness, her lungs wouldn't fill. Sunlight and precious oxygen couldn't penetrate the thick fabric that covered her head and shoulders. She gasped for air and found very little as the cloth collapsed against her mouth and nose.
"Who are you? Kevin, are you there?"
"I'm right here. I can't see shit. I'm covered--ooof."
Kevin was silenced by what sounded like a violent punch. "Shut the fuck up! Both of you. Now we ain't gonna hurt you. We just have a little project we need your help with."
Jessy felt her captor's arms shift as the man maneuvered around for something. "Put your hands behind you."
"Put your damn hands behind you." The man sounded fed up, as if he were talking to an uncooperative child. "Do it!"
Jessy put her hands behind her and felt a rope winding around her wrists. We're screwed. "Kevin, are you okay?"
"We have a bunch of people with us--they're gonna wonder where we are." Kevin's voice rasped like he'd had the wind knocked out of him.
"We know all about your fearless leader." The man gave a final jerk on the knots around her wrists with a huff for the effort. "Don't worry. We took care of him."
Conrad. What had they done to him? Jessy felt fear pool in the pit of her stomach, and tears stung her eyes. Her breath felt hot as it circled back onto her face.
The commands thus far had come from one man. Now the other one spoke. "He's tied. You lead, Red."
"All right, let's go. Start walking. One foot in front of the other."
"Where are we going? What have you done with Con?" Jessy pleaded for information as she stumbled through the woods. Her shoulders cried out for release, and her wrists were frozen in place by vicious knots of rope. She heard Kevin and his escort behind her.
What the hell was happening?