The Philanthropist, Prequel
After receiving a desperate call for help from her sister in Minnesota, Lottie Nightshade is determined to do anything to help her, including going AWOL from her Army base.
Her sister, Maggie’s, domestic situation has become lethal, and Lottie is the only person Maggie can trust to neutralize her abuser.
As Lottie prepares to desert her post, she is presented with a risky alternative from a mirror-image soldier. Swapping identities for one night.
It’s Lottie’s only option for rescuing her sister and avoiding court-martial. But if anyone discovers the truth about that snowy Minnesota night, careers, lives, and families would be ruined.
Fort Benning United States Army Base, Georgia
Call me ASAP. Army Specialist Lottie Nightshade stared at her phone. The message had come in from her sister, Maggie, in Minnesota. Her heart rate sped. What was going on?
“Nightshade.” From across the table, the Major blasted her name out like it was a curse. “Are we losing you?”
She looked him in the eye. “No, sir. Sorry, sir.” Lottie glanced toward the end of the table where a Lieutenant had been reading the mission plan from her laptop. “My apologies.”
Lottie and nine officers were grinding through the tenth hour of planning Lottie’s next assassination.
She moved her phone under the table and set it on her thigh. How could she get out of the room to call Maggie?
The session had been called to review the specifics for an operation Lottie would be conducting off American soil. Her flight would depart in three days, and she would be deep cover for between five and fifteen days, depending on the accessibility of her target.
Under the table, her phone lit again. She leaned back and looked at it.
Maggie, again. Please, please call me.
Lottie frowned and sat up, her eyes darting around the room.
At the head of the table, the Major raised an eyebrow at her.
She looked at her laptop screen and followed what the Lieutenant was reading, but it wasn’t necessary. Lottie possessed the unique ability to remember anything and everything with meticulous detail. That was one of the reasons she’d been selected to serve in the capacity of assassin.
They’d almost finished here. Late Friday afternoon, everyone wanted to be somewhere else. If no one had changes or objections to the plan, they would wrap this up in a half-hour. Then she could call her sister.
What did Maggie want? This was not normal. Her sister wasn’t needy or demanding. She wouldn’t keep texting if it wasn’t important.
Maggie, her husband Rafe, and their three kids, Tassie, 12, Benicio, 10, and Sydney, 8, lived in St. Paul, Minnesota. Maggie and Rafe had purchased the huge old house Lottie and Maggie had grown up in, which had been built by their great-grandfather.
Her phone lit again. Lottie leaned back.
This is 911. From Maggie.
The Lieutenant’s recitation stopped. All eyes focused on Lottie.
She swallowed, feeling her face warm. With her red hair and pale skin, everyone had to see the hot blush on her cheeks. “I apologize.” Lottie looked at the Major. “Sir, may we take a quick break?”
He puffed out a breath. “We’re all trying to get done here, so let’s make it quick. Everyone, fifteen minutes, and be back early.” He stood.
Lottie jumped up and left the room. In the hallway, she dialed Maggie’s number, but there was no answer. “Oh, fuck.”
At double-time, she rushed through the hallways toward her quarters, dialing her sister, getting no answer, and dialing again.
Maggie’s husband, Rafe, had been backsliding into his old ways recently. Drinking too much, missing work, and taking out his frustrations on his family.
Five months ago, Lottie had straightened him out. She’d taken leave and driven back to St. Paul after Maggie had needed a trip to the emergency room and stitches. Lottie had sat Rafe down and let him know that his anger and violence would end immediately.
Rafe had been apologetic, had promised to be a better husband and father, and agreed to get counseling. He had been improving, following through on promises and meeting with a church counselor to work on his issues.
Were Maggie’s texts about Rafe? Or something else? What was going on?
She glanced at her phone. Maggie still wasn’t answering.
Lottie continued to dial, rushing through the hallways.
When she’d almost reached her quarters, her call was answered with a click. Nothing else.
“Maggie?” No response.
Two people walking the hallway backed against the wall to let her pass.
“Lottie.” Her sister whispered. “I’m sorry to bother you. But I don’t know what to do.”
Lottie’s heart thudded as she stopped at her door. “What’s happening?” She stepped into her quarters and closed the door, hanging on to the door handle like it was a lifeline.
“I don’t know what to do.” Maggie started crying. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Mags.” She made her voice soft. “Just tell me. Right now. Tell me.”
“Rafe. He choked me.” She sucked in an uneven breath. “Until I was unconscious.”
Lottie’s heart skipped a beat. “Tell me what happened.”
“I got home from work at seven this morning.” Maggie worked the night shift at a battery plant. “He went crazy. I’ve never seen him so out of control.”
“You were unconscious?” Lottie held back the urge to punch something and concentrated on helping her sister. Maggie was petite and blonde, a beautiful, emotionally strong woman, but delicate.
“Yes.” Maggie whimpered for a few seconds. “When I came to about an hour later, he was gone. He came home just now, drunk, and said he was going to finish me tonight.”
She checked her phone. It was 15:25 in Minnesota.
Lottie paced, the feeling of helplessness ramping up her fury, making her nearly frantic. “Where is he?”
“He’s sleeping it off. I made him a big meal, and he passed out on the bed with his clothes on. I’ve never seen him this bad, Lottie.” Maggie cried quietly. “I think he might be doing drugs again.”
Rafe was an angry person, and drugs would multiply that. “Where are you?”
Lottie walked a loop past her bed, past the bathroom, past her couch, and around the small space again.
A week ago, Lottie had gotten a call from her ten-year-old nephew, Benicio. Ben had told her how his dad was mean to the three kids, but they didn’t want their mom to know. He asked Lottie how he, little Benicio, could make it stop. It had brought tears to her eyes then. Now, with Maggie desperate and helpless, it pushed her over the tipping point. The panic she’d felt turned to calm.
The situation had morphed into life-threatening, and she had to fix this. Permanently. The only way she knew how.
Maggie breathed fast, choking on her cries.
“Mags, slow down.” Lottie spoke quietly at a slow pace. “Take slow, deep breaths. Let’s figure this out, the two of us.”
Her sister attempted to get her breathing back in control. “I truly believe…he will kill me.” She sucked in air. “Lottie, promise me you will take the kids if I die.”
Lottie stopped pacing. That switched her into operational mode; cool, intelligent, make decisions, make it happen. “Listen carefully. Get out of there. Right now. Grab the kids and go. Do it before he wakes up.” She would book a hotel room for them somewhere.
“The kids are at the church. They’re leaving for the winter retreat. They’re taking a bus up to St. John’s in Collegeville.”
Lottie felt some relief knowing the kids weren’t in the house. “When does the bus leave?”
“Um.” Her sister sounded breathless.
“The bus to St. John’s, Maggie. When does it leave?”
“In about an hour.”
“Go with them.” Lottie had to get Maggie out of the house, and out of the city would be optimal.
Maggie sniffled. “I can ask the Monsignor if I can go along, but he….”
“No asking.” Lottie used her in-charge voice. “Just show up with a suitcase, say you had signed up as a chaperone. Don’t let him say no.”
“But he might not….”
“Mags. If the Monsignor says no, you tell me, and I will call him.” Lottie and the Monsignor had butted heads before. He would gladly welcome Maggie on the trip if threatened with a call from Lottie.
“Okay.” Maggie started crying again. “But when I come back Sunday, I’ll have to deal with Rafe even angrier. And the kids.” She breathed heavily for a few seconds. ” Lottie, I’m afraid for the kids.”
“Mags, listen, this is imperative. Are you listening?”
“Yes.” She sounded so young, so scared.
“I’ll take care of this. Say nothing to anyone. You and I did not talk today. Now, repeat those three things.” A trick she used with new ops to keep them focused.
“You’ll take care of it. I’ll say nothing to anyone. We did not talk today.” She sounded a little stronger.
“Mags, hurry. And be quiet. If Rafe wakes up before you can get out of the house, call the police and hide until they arrive.”
“Okay. But I need clothes.” Maggie breathed a few times. “Oh, wait. I’ve…I’ve got laundry in the dryer.”
“Good.” Maggie was thinking now, planning, and not just reacting. “There’s a suitcase in the basement apartment.” That was where Lottie stayed when she was home on leave. “In the bedroom closet. Go right now, Maggie. Go.”
Lottie listened as her sister went into the apartment. The squeak of the damn hinges on the closet door came through the phone. “Quiet.” She whispered the word, knowing Maggie was doing her best.
“I got the suitcase.” Maggie breathed hard. “Going for the laundry room.”
A few seconds later, she heard the click of the dryer door opening. “Good. Now, take everything from the dryer and put it in the suitcase.”
“Some of this is Rafe’s and Syd’s.”
“Just grab it all and put it in the suitcase.” Every second wasted positioned Maggie further from escaping.
“Okay.” A few seconds, then a zipping sound. “Done.”
“Go out through the root cellar.”
More silence. Lottie pressed her phone to her ear, stopped breathing so she could hear better. “Mags, please say something.” A world away from Maggie, it physically hurt Lottie to not be there for her.
A click sounded.
Lottie checked to be sure the call hadn’t dropped. “Maggie?”
“Shhh. I thought I heard something.”
Long seconds of silence. Lottie’s heart beat faster. Her chest tightened.
“Okay. I’m going to go out.”
Relief came in a flood. Then anxiety built as she pictured Maggie walking from the laundry room to the root cellar. Her sister was vulnerable now as she passed by the stairs that led up to the kitchen.
The sound of the door from the house into the root cellar opening…then shutting.
Lottie’s body reminded her to breathe. She sent out good thoughts for her sister’s safety.
“I’m at the slide door.” Maggie spoke quietly.
The door that led out of the root cellar and into the back yard was set at a forty-five-degree angle. When they were kids, they’d use it as a slide.
“Peek out first, Mags. Make sure he’s not out there.”
“Yeah.” The squeak of the root cellar door hinges.
A long wait. Lottie held her breath.
“It’s clear. I’m going.” Louder squeaking, a soft thud as the door closed, then Maggie’s breath puffing into the phone as she ran.
Lottie sucked in air and focused on the route her sister would take to get to the church.
“I don’t have my purse. I don’t have my car keys.” Maggie sounded agitated.
“You don’t need them. The church is three blocks away. Run. Go now. Don’t stop for anything.”
“Okay. Okay.” The sound of Maggie running and the background noise of traffic.
Lottie paced again, concentrating on her sister’s escape.
A few minutes later, “Okay, I’m in the church basement.” Maggie breathed fast, then it slowed.
“Are there people there?”
“Yes. I’m safe.” Maggie let out a heartbreaking sob. “I’m so sorry.”
“No. Maggie. Hold it together. You have nothing to be sorry for.” Lottie’s hand fisted as she thought of her brother-in-law. “This is not you; this is Rafe’s fault.”
Lottie should have handled this a year ago when he started getting so fucked up. She thought her talk with him five months ago had stuck. Evidently not.
“Mags, now that you’re safe, do you think you should see a doctor? Rafe could have damaged something.”
“No. I don’t think so. I looked up the side effects after I came to, and I’m doing okay.”
“If you start to feel dizzy or have pain at the site, find a medic.” Lottie imagined Maggie’s neck, bruised and sore. “But Mags, this is important. Don’t tell anyone what happened. Okay? Make sure nobody knows what Rafe did. Nobody, okay?”
“Yes, okay. Nobody.” Maggie’s voice sounded stronger. “I see a woman here who works at a clinic. I can go to her if I have any problems.”
Mags sighed. “Promise. Lottie, I love you.”
She swallowed a lump of emotion. “I love you, Mags. Take advantage of the time alone at the retreat. Do some self-healing. You had a major trauma today.”
“Roger that, ma’am.” Maggie gave a soft laugh. “Sorry.”
“That was almost funny.” Lottie recognized her sister’s way of easing out of an emotional situation. “Remember, Maggie, we never talked. And no one can know what Rafe did.”
“Yes. I understand.” A few seconds of silence. “Hello,” Maggie called.
“Someone is there?”
“Yes, they are. I’m going to let you go. Thank you for calling.”
Lottie listened while her sister cheerfully asked where the youth group coordinator was, then she ended the call. Maggie had gotten good at acting. Acting like her home life wasn’t a scary, dangerous existence.
Lottie paced the room. Her family had gotten out of the house. If everything went as planned, Maggie and the kids would be on a bus to Collegeville within the hour.
Lottie had spent twelve years journeying the globe, assassinating targets under the direction of her military handlers. Now she needed to formulate her own plan and conduct the mission without backup. A plan for handling Rafe.
This had to happen now. Tonight. She had to fly to Minnesota, but there was no chance the Major would let her have time off when her mission was due to start in three days.
The family would be returning home Sunday. How could she get off the base and avoid facing charges for leaving without permission?
If she had more time and wasn’t so emotionally involved, she could figure something out. She didn’t have time.
She needed help.
Lottie typed a text to Samantha Peterson, a technician whose quarters were down the hall. Need help. ASAP. My room. Sam had excellent surveillance skills and occasionally served as an operative on Lottie’s missions. She was also her friend and would give her good advice.
Was Sam still on base? She had leave this weekend. Maybe she’d left already.
Pacing again, she reviewed her options. No, option. She had only one option.
Lottie had to go AWOL.