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Annoyance shot through Kent, and he aimed the gun at her head. “Shut your mouth and start moving.”

Anger flowed through her gaze at Kent. “You proud you shot an old woman? A strong man like you picks a boy as a victim? Hell holds a special place for people like you.”

“Lady, I’ve been living in hell for twenty years.”

She looked at Jake. “Hold on, son. God will watch over you.”

“Get out!” Kent screamed. An inner hot flash heated his brain, and he fought the urge to shoot her in the face. His finger touched the trigger. She swallowed hard, sent an apologetic look to Jake, and started to slowly scoot on her rear toward the front of the store.

Relief flowed through Kent. He rubbed his forehead with the back of the hand holding the gun. He wouldn’t have to shoot her again.

“Thank you for letting her go, sir. The police are on their way,” said the employee through the speaker.

Good. I want this over with.

Faint sirens sounded from outside the store, barely noticeable over David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s “Little Drummer Boy.”

“What do you want my dad for?” Jake asked.

“Shut up, kid.”

Time to wait. Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.

Ava sat with Mason in the back of ASAC Ben Duncan’s SUV as it sped toward the grocery store. She clutched Mason’s hand as he stared out the window. More details of the story he’d first told her in bed had spilled out of him when they’d first gotten in the vehicle, but now he was oddly silent.

Mason had slowly lowered his cell phone after the kidnapper’s call at McKenzie’s home and stated, “I know where he is.”

She and the other law enforcement had held their breath.

“It’s Kent Jopek. I killed his son.” He’d turned dead eyes toward Ava. “He’s the father of the boy I told you about.”

“That wasn’t your fault!” Ava had shouted. She’d wanted to shake him. All life seemed to have drained from Mason as he stood stunned in McKenzie’s home.

“It doesn’t matter. Kent blames me. And now he wants me to suffer as he did. He’s going to kill Jake.” Mason had blinked a few times, shaking his head. “He’s at the Safeway on Fifteenth in Portland,” he’d stated to Duncan. “In the freezer aisle.”

Duncan had immediately thrown the machine into action, calling the Portland FBI office for that branch’s SWAT team. He discovered that Portland Police and their Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) had already received a call about a hostage situation in the grocery store.

And someone in the grocery store had already been shot.

“He’s crazy,” Ava muttered in the back seat. “Why? Why does he think this is the right thing to do?”

“I don’t know,” answered Mason. “He said something about bringing it back into balance. I guess that means I’m going to lose my son the way he did.” He stared out the window.

“No you’re not,” Ava stated. Anger fumed through her. Jopek might be playing some mind games with Mason and everyone else, but he was going to lose. “The FBI will get Jake out of there.”

“They don’t have time,” said Mason. “They aren’t even going to be in position in time. SERT will get there first. They’re good, but not as good as you guys.”

“We’ll do whatever we can when we get there. We need to talk to him, see what he wants.” Jake’s sad face filled her brain. The poor kid had been through so much in the last few days. His family had turned into zombies with Henley’s kidnapping, and he’d been left to float in the breeze the best he could. She’d tried. She’d reached out and voiced her concerns to the other adults. Had she not done enough?

“I’m going to kick his ass for leaving the house,” swore Mason. “We told him not to go anywhere.”

“This guy was obviously paying attention to everything going on with Jake. He wouldn’t have stopped until he had Jake. I wish we’d known Jake was his true focus.”

“Police say the person who got shot was an older female.” Duncan turned around from the front passenger seat. “She’s on her way to the hospital. Don’t know how bad it is. He shot her at close range when she tried to get the boy away from him.”

“Jesus Christ,” breathed Ava.

“He’s holed up in an aisle with Jake. Looks like the only weapons are a knife and a gun.”

“There wasn’t a gun the first time,” said Mason. “Except for mine and my partner’s. The homeless guy only had a knife.”

“I guess he’s evening up the odds this time,” replied Duncan. He looked at Ava. “Our SWAT team won’t be there yet. The local SERT team has a negotiator on the scene. You’ve got the most negotiator experience in the office. You up to giving him a hand until the team gets there?”

“Absolutely.” Adrenaline spiked through her. This could be the most important negotiation of her life.

“We’re gonna get your boy back,” Duncan said to Mason. “Jopek has got to have a vulnerable side if he’s camped out in the middle of an aisle.”

Ava glanced at Mason, who didn’t seem encouraged by Duncan’s words, but he nodded at the man. “Snipers?” he asked.

“Yep. We’re bringing in ours, and I know SERT will have some. Someone will have a shot,” Duncan said.