The Pandora Key aka The Hostage Room

The Pandora Key aka The Hostage Room

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She left the corporate world of airlines, lured by the dark arts of private investigation. Now Alex Shanahan is stirring up a cold case with global implications.

Years after she dumped him for a younger man, the scheming ex-wife of Alex's partner, Harvey Baltimore, returns for an unexpected visit. While Alex tries to figure out why Rachel is back, another mystery begins to unfold halfway around the world. Four years after a bloody, high-profile airline hijacking, personal effects belonging to the victims are found in a terrorist safe house. The discovery of this chilling time capsule triggers a chain reaction that leads straight back to Rachel. By the time Alex has untangled Rachel's lies, she will be on the run from the Russian Mafia, caught in the web of a global vigilante group, and forced to take a reluctant trip into her partner's past – where she will find the key to solving the mystery, but also learn painful lessons about holding on, letting go, and why some keys should never be used.

Lynne Heitman
The Pandora Key aka The Hostage Room

The fourth book in the Alex Shanahan series, 2006

Prologue

MY ASSIGNMENT IS TO KILL THE HOSTAGES. I HAVE GROWN to like some of them over our ten days together, but my duty is clear. The army is gathering outside the airplane. It is time to execute the plan. We all know our places. We all go to our duties. I dig an extra clip out of the bag. I do not know how many rounds it will take.

I stop at the front of the airplane, in the section that we have reserved for ourselves to pray. Then I go back through the curtains, and when they look at me, they know. By the way I hold the Kalashnikov or by the way I stand or by the way I look at them. Something tells them I am there to finish it.

But I’ve never killed anyone before. I’ve dreamed of it. I lied about it to be part of this operation, but I have never done it before. I level the rifle. The first one gets down on the floor between the seats and curls into a ball. I point the barrel at his head and fire. The recoil jams my shoulder back. When the bullet hits, it stops him in the middle of a scream. His head ruptures.

The others run like frightened beasts. They climb over the backs of the seats. They stumble and fall and step on each other, but there is no place for them to go. I smell the fear. They should die like men, as we all will soon.

Outside, firing begins. At first it is like rain, a sprinkling against the outside of the airplane. But then the deluge. The first bomb goes off. The floor rises up, then drops from under me. A wave of pressure pushes me down. My ears hurt, and when I get to my knees, I can’t hear. One of them is coming. I find the rifle and shoot. He’s screaming, but I can’t hear, and he keeps coming. I shoot again, and he falls. When I try to stand, there is too much smoke. My eyes burn, but I can still see they are all coming. Their faces look like my son’s crayon drawings. I try to raise the rifle again, but they push me down and step on me as they go over.

Another bomb goes off. The seats are on fire. The air feels greasy, like kerosene. Because I can’t hear, everything feels slow. I crawl up the aisle. A man with blood on his face and his arms on fire runs toward me. He bumps into something and falls backward. On the floor in front of me, he twists and kicks and turns and screams until he is still. I pull myself into one of the seats. And I wait.

1

HARVEY BALTIMORE’S HOUSE WAS DYING. ONCE STATELY, the Tudor had become an embarrassment to its Brookline neighbors. Glossy black paint flaked off the shutters, the pocked shingled roof covered the house like a disease, and the other half of the duplex, which had long been a source of good, steady income for Harvey, had been vacant and closed off for almost six months. The dwelling, like its owner, seemed to be declining at an accelerating pace.

The doorbell was broken. I let myself in with my key. For someone as private as Harvey, giving me the key to his house had been a monumental concession, but it only made sense. He wasn’t exactly mobile anymore.

“It’s me,” I called out while I wiped my shoes on the welcome mat in his foyer. No response, as usual, but I knew what I would find. If it was a good day, he would be clean-shaven, reading his newspaper by the light of the sun slanting through open blinds. If it was a bad day, he’d be sitting at his computer in the dark, unshaven, playing Minesweeper. Either way, he’d be in his wheelchair, his body ravaged by the multiple sclerosis that had been stealing function from him in excruciating increments. I hoped for a good day. There hadn’t been enough of those lately.

“Harvey, your shutters are flaking. We need to get them-” I rounded the corner, walked into the office, and stopped.

Harvey was there, all right, and it must have been a good day-a very good day-because there he sat in his wheelchair, engaged in a passionate kiss with the woman on his lap. At least, until I’d barreled in, at which point they tore themselves away from each other to stare at me.

Too late to back out unnoticed. I was too embarrassed to go in any further. “I’m sorry…I’ll just…I didn’t…” have any idea what to say.

“Oh, my.” Harvey went every shade of red and some from the orange spectrum. Despite his confinement to the chair, he managed to do a lot of fluttering about, mostly with his hands. He encouraged the woman off her perch. She slipped off easily, stepping gingerly so as not to get entangled in the workings of the wheelchair. Of the three of us, she was the only one who didn’t look as if she wanted to curl up into a ball and roll out of there.

I took a step back. “I can just leave you two and, um…come back later.”

“No,” Harvey stammered. “Please stay. It is I who should apologize.”

“Why should we apologize?” The woman seemed more annoyed than embarrassed, as if I had just tracked mud into her clean house. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”

She was petite and fragile-looking, a good thing to be if your habit is to sit on the legs of wheelchair-bound men. She was also vaguely familiar, though I couldn’t imagine where I might have seen her before. She wore her chestnut hair cut in a short, shaggy bob. Her tight cotton slacks stopped just above her ankles, and her high-top basketball shoes were tied with thick white laces. She could have passed for a twelve-year-old boy except for her eyes. I took a closer look at those eyes, and I knew who she was.

“You’re Rachel.”

“Do I know you?”

Since Harvey couldn’t seem to find his voice, I did the honors. “I’m Alexandra Shanahan, Harvey’s business partner.”

She smiled down at Harvey. “You told her about me?”

I pointed to the picture on Harvey’s desk, the only personal photograph on display in the entire house and one of the few things she hadn’t taken when she’d walked out on him six years before, two years before I’d met him. I had caught Harvey making out with his ex-wife. No wonder he couldn’t find his voice, and no wonder I hadn’t recognized her right away. She didn’t look anything like her photo, especially with the flowing locks cut short.

“Would you like a cup?” Rachel must have noticed me staring at the full china tea service set up on the coffee table. Harvey hadn’t been able to make his own tea since he’d dumped a full pot of hot Darjeeling in his lap. That meant she’d made it, which meant she’d been there for a while.

“Harvey said you would be coming, so I made enough for three.”

“No, thanks. I’m good.” I set the cup I’d brought from Tealuxe on the desk. Harvey’s favorite blend had gone cold anyway.

Harvey cleared his throat and waded in. “Rachel has a job for us. I asked her to wait until you arrived to detail it.”

“Both of us?”

“But of course. Why would you-” He blinked at me and reached up to scratch his head, bumping his glasses in the process. “Oh, my, no. That was just…it has been a long time since we have seen each other, and…”

“I’m sorry. It’s none of my business. I’m just surprised. I didn’t know you two were…together.”

“Together?” Rachel laughed. “This is the first time we’ve seen each other in how long?” She reached over and straightened Harvey’s collar. Then she just went ahead and hoisted one petite haunch up on the armrest of his chair. “Four years?”

“Yes,” he said. “Almost.”

“We were talking and reminiscing about how much I used to enjoy giving him his back rubs, and one thing led to another-”

And that was all I needed to know. “What kind of a job?”

“I need someone to go to my house in Quincy and pick up a few things. Some family photos, mostly, and some jewelry. Some things my mother gave me.” She glanced at Harvey with a shy smile. “Some things Harvey gave me.”