Mark Westbrook rolled over in the bed and breakfast’s queen-sized bed while Jamie Westbrook, sitting up next to him, scrutinized the Facebook page once again. Lace curtains billowed in the breeze from the open window and the birds were starting to sing their morning songs. “I swear it’s her.”
By the look on Mark’s face, he wasn’t so sure. “I hate it when you get on that thing.” A former computer programmer, Mark was aware of how easily a person’s computer habits could be their downfall.
It was a valid concern. The last thing the two wanted was the cops nosing around in their business. Their business. Most people wouldn’t call what they did a business. A scam. A con. A fraud. Those were words the average citizen would use to describe Jamie and Mark Westbrook. An opportunity seeker is how Mark had explained it to Jamie so many years ago.
“Everybody wants to believe in something, Sweets,” he’d said. “We just give them that glimmer of hope. We tell them what they want to hear and they pay handsomely for it.”
Mark had told her that nugget of truth after he rescued her from her short time living on the streets. At first, Jamie was convinced Mark must have been a pimp or drug dealer or worse. Luckily, he was just a con-man. A good one. They’d only been caught once in Iowa. But that was when they’d first teamed up and the couple had only a few close calls since then.
By changing their looks and names in every location, Jamie knew they were harder to trace. A little identity theft wasn’t as hard as it sounded and Mark’s computer skills helped.
“I never log on with the same name. You know that.” Jamie could understand Mark’s concern. She didn’t want to go back to jail any more than he did. “You have a ton of safety measures on this laptop. Plus, I use generic e-mails from free servers like gmail or hotmail or yahoo. And I use dumb names. I never use a name we’ve used.”
She wanted to stress that she never used her real name, but it wouldn’t matter. Mark didn’t even know her real name and she was almost sure she didn’t know his. They just called each other “honey,” “sweetie,” “darling,” and other terms of endearment. Whatever names they used or whatever city they were in, she was devoted to Mark pure and simple.
Mark looked at her coolly. “It doesn’t matter. You need to be careful.”
Jamie opted to ignore Mark’s warning. With her, Mark was all bark, no bite. He wasn’t like that with everyone, though. She remembered the time Mark got so angry that one of their cons wasn’t working that he’d punched a hole in the wall of the hotel room they’d rented. Now when Mark needed to cool off, he usually disappeared, sometimes leaving Jamie alone for hours at a time. Like he did last night.
She wanted to ask him where he had gone the night before. Mark had been angry with her after they argued about why they had come to Rubicon Ranch. Jamie was convinced this could be a huge score. Mark worried that they were exposing themselves too much, but he let her plan the con anyway. He must trust me, she thought, even if he did spend most of the night somewhere else. Aloud she said, “You can’t tell me that you don’t think this will work.”
For weeks, Jamie had been watching a Facebook page about a missing girl named Anne Neuhaus. Not long ago, some woman had posted a comment about Anne looking like a kid in her daughter’s class, which gave Jamie the idea. She convinced Mark to contact Anne’s parents, which was why their next stop was Rubicon Ranch. Of course, they weren’t using the same names in both places. That was asking for trouble.
“Let’s go over this again,” began Jamie. This was the first con she’d planned, since usually that aspect was Mark’s domain. “We already contacted the parents in Minnesota, using the names Scott Davis and Melinda Lawrence. They think we’re PIs who are looking for their kid. You got their cash, right?”
Jamie knew she was being controlling—almost anal-retentive even—but this was the first scam she’d ever spearheaded and it was probably one of the duo’s most elaborate. She didn’t want anything to go wrong. Even though the scam was Jamie’s idea and she was taking the lead on it, she couldn’t fool herself into thinking she was in charge. If Mark thought she was going to get them caught, he would either stop her or leave her. Neither option appealed to Jamie.
“Yes, I have their money. And the account in Minnesota should be good for awhile longer.” Mark had created a bank account specifically for the Neuhaus family to deposit the fees they thought they were paying to the private eyes. Instead, Mark and Jamie had no intention to do anything more than making some easy money. Once the Neuhaus family deposited money into the account, Mark would transfer it, a little at a time, to various other accounts—some in other states, some in other countries. It was a safety measure in case the authorities in Minnesota started to get suspicious. The way Jamie and Mark figured it, the Neuhaus family was good for at least another thirty thousand dollars or more, so they needed to give them some new information in order to keep the funds coming in. They had only traveled to Rubicon to keep the con alive.
It had taken more digging than usual, but Jamie was sure Jeff and Kourtney Peterson had something to hide. The couple had left Minnesota quickly around the time Anne Neuhaus disappeared.
“Nobody leaves town that fast,” Jamie had pointed out.
“Unless they’re running,” Mark had replied. “And people who run are willing to pay so they won’t be found.”
It was the comment Jessica Silver had posted on Facebook that convinced Mark to hack into the Rubicon Ranch School District’s computer system. There he found Riley Peterson, daughter of Jeff and Kourtney. The Petersons were the only family in the Silver girl’s class with ties to Minnesota. It was a long shot, but Jamie was convinced she and Mark could extort the Peterson family to double their score.
Jamie twisted her ponytail around her fingers. It was a nervous habit. “The next thing then is to contact this Jessica Silver person via phone and see what she’ll tell Scott and Melinda. After that, we contact the Petersons in person as Mark and Jamie.”
“Right. And explain to them that Scott Davis and Melinda Lawrence from Minnesota think their kid is this missing one and we—Mark and Jamie Westbrook—are willing to act as their intermediaries to make this whole thing go away.” Mark was silent for a moment. “This is a pretty complex con, Honey.”
She sighed. “I know. But we can do it.” She reached over and ran her fingers through his dark blond hair, still messy from whatever sleep he managed to get the night before. “I mean, we already pulled off the Minnesota part of it. It’s just a matter of pulling the Rubicon half. It’s like two cons, really.”
Mark raised his eyebrow at Jamie’s words. “Two cons that overlap and could blow up in our faces.”
His words were sharp, but there was no edge to his voice. Mark’s calm manner surprised Jamie. He had been in an awful mood for the past two days—ever since he got stopped after running that stop sign as they drove into Rubicon Ranch. Of course, he had no intention of paying it and it wasn’t as if Mark Westbrook was even a real person: he existed just on paper. It wasn’t a name they’d ever used before, so there shouldn’t be a problem. But just coming to the attention of local law enforcement was enough to put him in a rotten mood. Maybe his mood was improving at the thought of the big score. Jamie was grateful that he didn’t decide to bail on this one. She wanted to prove her worth to him and this was the only way she could think to do that.
“But they won’t blow up. We can do this. You can do this.”
Mark got out of bed and walked toward the shower. “Let’s get dressed and get this party started.”
The seductive smile on Mark’s face was all the invitation Jamie needed to follow him.
Mark stepped back into the bedroom area, water still glistening on his broad chest, a towel wrapped around his waist. He could hear Jamie singing in the shower.
“Stupid girl,” he muttered. There was a good chance this con wasn’t going to work. There were too many variables. What would happen if the two families got it in their heads to talk to each other? That would ruin everything.
If he didn’t ruin it all first. Running that stop sign as they were scoping out the Rubicon Ranch community was a stupid mistake, one noticed by a cop. Not just any cop, but the sheriff. The stupid car they’d rented was a dark sedan with tinted windows. In this neighborhood, the vehicle might as well have had a neon sign hovering above it. Now the police knew Mark and Jamie were in the area, even if the identities the couple had were good for now. Hopefully nothing else would happen to bring them to the attention of the law.
And staying in this bed and breakfast just outside the exclusive neighborhood was more proof of Jamie’s stupidity. Here they were, the only guests in an out of the way hostel. Strangers outside a neighborhood that valued its privacy. Jamie obviously wanted some kind of romantic trip with this one. Mark’s anger rose as he thought about the chances they were taking on a con that would probably go very wrong. The only thing that had gone their way during this half of the operation was seeing a 9-year-old girl leaving the Peterson house. Her wildly curly blonde hair could have made her a member of the Neuhaus family.
In the bathroom, the water shut off. Jamie must be done in the shower. Her long brown hair would take forever to dry.
He got dressed and went to the briefcase he used to store his tools. Everything from disposable cell phones to files of information on their prey. He also had a set of lock picking tools and blank credit cards and other identification documents. His briefcase held everything a person would need to start a new life, or to steal one from someone else.
He took the Minnesota phone—the one the Neuhaus family could call—and looked through the manila file folder for Jessica Silver’s information. He might as well call her and get this part of the scam over with.
As Jamie stepped out of the bathroom, Mark motioned to her to keep quiet, dialing the number he found for the Silver home.
“Good morning, Silver residence,” came the overly cheerful female voice on the other end of the line.
Mark introduced himself with his “Minnesota name” and explained he had been hired by the Neuhaus family to look for their missing daughter. “I’m calling to follow up on the comment you left on the Facebook page.”
There was an uncomfortable silence on the other end of the line. “Um, well, I don’t really know what to tell you. This girl in my daughter’s class just reminded me so much of that family what with the curly hair and all.” Jessica Silver spoke quickly and quietly, as if she didn’t want to be overheard. In the background, Mark could hear children running and giggling. He briefly wondered if he had called during a party of some type.
“You mentioned that. Is it possible to get a class photo of the girl? We have access to software that might help us in our investigation.”
Jamie grinned. They had no such software, but getting a photo to send back to the Neuhaus family would probably be good for at least another couple hundred dollars from them.
Outside, a car door shut. Employees showing up for work at the B&B, Mark assumed. He made a mental note to check out the employees. It never hurt to have some blackmail information at the ready. Blackmail and bribery had come in handy more than once.
On the phone, Jessica was stalling.
“I can understand your concern, Mrs. Silver,” began Mark. “I certainly wouldn’t want to post a picture of children online, either. You never really know who would be watching, do you?” Mark winked and blew a silent kiss to Jamie who stifled another giggle.
“Oh, exactly,” came Jessica’s relieved reply. “I’m so glad you understand. You just never know what kind of crook and creeps can be lurking in cyberspace.”
The comment almost made Mark laugh, but he controlled himself. “You are so right, Mrs. Silver. You just never know who is looking at sites like Facebook and other social media. It’s a crazy world, isn’t it?”
“Isn’t it though?” she answered, her voice now more calm and open than it had been. Mark’s instincts told him Jessica was becoming less reserved.
“I know. What if you just scanned the photo and sent it directly to me?” Mark suggested. His suggestion served a few purposes. First, he couldn’t give up yet. Jessica Silver would hand over the photo, he was sure of it. Second, the prospect of additional money from the Neuhaus family was never far from his mind.
“Well. . .” Jessica began.
“We would run it through our software and if it’s a match, we have something to go on. If not, the Neuhaus family doesn’t need to know.” Mark paused, as if thinking. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll run the photo personally. The only person who would see it, even, would be me. Does that make you feel a little better?”
From across the room, Jamie shook her head in amazement at the ease Mark was able to convince the woman on the phone.
Jessica Silver agreed and Mark relayed the e-mail address he had set up for this operation. It was the same one the Neuhaus family would be using, ensuring all the “Minnesota information” would be in one place if it was needed—for either getting more money or destroying it quickly if anyone started to catch on to them.
The two said their goodbyes and Mark promised to keep in touch. After hanging up the phone, he looked at Jamie and said, “She’ll do it. We should have the picture in a few hours. We’ll hold it for a day or so before sending it to Minnesota with another request for cash.”
Jamie practically jumped for joy. “Sweet! This will be our biggest score ever!”
“Maybe,” came Mark’s reply.
“You’re not still worried, are you?”
“There are too many things that could go wrong,” he stressed again. “Things we can’t anticipate because there are just too many players—too many nosey neighbors, too many family members with two cons running simultaneously.”
“Yeah, but you scouted the area last night, didn’t you?”
Mark glared at Jamie. “What’s that supposed to mean? You were with me yesterday when we drove around that damn Rubicon Ranch area.”
Jamie’s brows knit together. “Last night. You were gone a long time, so I just assumed you were—”
Menacingly, Mark took a step toward Jamie. “Where I was is none of your concern.”
Three sharp raps on the door caused Jamie to jump.
Jamie ducked back into the bathroom as Mark, having already closed the briefcase, answered the door. But not before shooting his accomplice a threatening look.
Mark took a deep breath and released it as he opened the door. Waiting in the hallway stood two police officers.
“Mark Westbrook?” asked the Hispanic woman. She was beautiful and reminded Mark of a Miss America contestant. Too bad she was a cop.
“That’s me.” Mark kept his voice calm as he leaned against the doorframe, slipping his hand into his jeans pocket. “And how can I help you, Officer?”
“Lieutenant. Lieutenant Rosario Frio and this is Deputy Kelvin Midget,” the woman pointed to her companion. “Don’t joke with him about his name.”
The entire introduction sounded like a rehearsed speech. Mark couldn’t imagine anyone joking about Kelvin Midget’s name. The man looked like a brick wall. Mark briefly wondered if he could convince Jamie to seduce the giant of a man. It might be to their advantage later. Aloud he said, “Wouldn’t dream of it. What can I do for you?”
“Have you seen this girl?” The lieutenant handed him a picture of a young girl who looked just like the one Mark and Jamie were in Rubicon Ranch to see about.
“Nope, can’t say that I have,” was Mark’s response. He didn’t grab for the photo or offer any other information.
Midget’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t respond. The deputy reminded Mark of a bodyguard: his tense muscles and unwavering gaze always on the lookout for trouble.
Frio broke the silence. “What are you doing in town?”
Mark faked a look of surprise at the question. When he saw the officers at the door, he had expected to be asked though Mark wasn’t pleased about it. The last thing he wanted to do was bring more attention to Jamie or himself. He silently berated himself for running the stop sign in front of the sheriff the day before. “My wife and I are just taking a little trip. You know, to recapture of that spark and see a little of the country.” He smiled at Midget in what he hoped was a conspiring manner. “Gotta keep things exciting, right?”
Both officers ignored his question. “How long will you be in town?” asked Frio.
“Well, I don’t rightly know,” answered Mark. “I wouldn’t imagine too long. Probably only a few days.”
Midget finally spoke. “You don’t have anywhere to be?” His voice was as deep and penetrating as his presence.
“Nope, not really,” Mark answered sticking to the cover story he had created for this identity. “I’m a web designer by trade. It’s one of those jobs you can do anywhere.”
Frio nodded while Midget made no indication that he had heard anything. Frio repeated the bogus information Mark had supplied the sheriff earlier. Another repercussion of running that damn stop sign.
“Yep, that’s me,” Mark quipped.
Frio looked around Mark and into the hotel room. “Where’s your wife? I don’t see her in the room.”
Mark flashed another grin and stood up straight, no longer leaning against the doorframe. “Taking a bath. If we’re done, I really would like to get back to her.”
Frio’s icy gaze revealed nothing. Midget remained impassive. Finally the lieutenant broke the silence. “We would appreciate it if you’d stay in the area for a few days. Since you don’t have to be anywhere, I’m sure you won’t have a problem with that, will you.”
It wasn’t a question.
Without another word, the officers left. As Mark shut the door, Jamie stepped out of the bathroom, fully dressed. “What was all that about?”
“Nothing good,” Mark replied. “Absolutely nothing good.”