Katie’s rapid heartbeat was all she heard pounding in her ears while she scanned the area. Shadows danced around her, playing tricks with her eyes as a few strategically placed fluorescent bulbs lit what they could of the warehouse. Crates of various sizes were strewn about in uneven stacks, making navigation difficult. The musty warehouse smell, along with the scent of the wooden crates, overpowered Katie’s senses while she continuously reminded herself to breathe with each step she took. A warehouse? How original. She shook her head.
The scuff of a shoe to her left made her jump. Silently, she crept around the wooden crate with her gun aimed and placed it on the back of the young man’s head. “Police. Place your hands on your head. Otherwise don’t move.”
“Officer MacKenna, it’s me, Damian. You know, Nick’s friend?”
Katie let out a breath of relief. “Damian! What in Sam Hill are you doing here? You scared me to death!”
“I live here. Scary people work here, though, so I’m hiding.”
Katie knelt beside him and asked, “Do you think you could get out of here safely? Is there a back way out?”
“I can get out the front unseen. What are you going to do, though? You can’t stay in here. I’ve seen some nasty stuff over the last few months. These people will kill you on sight!”
“I’m not in here alone. There are three other officers in here with me.”
“They have someone tied to a chair. I already called Nick. He’s on his way.”
“That way, on the other side of the warehouse,” he said, pointing to his left. “He’s got some vest on him with what looks like gray clay bars.”
“Got it. I need you to get out there and tell Nick what’s going on. Look,” she placed her hands on his shoulders, crouching down to look at him at eye level, “I don’t want anything to happen to you. You’re only, what, eighteen years old?”
“I’m nineteen,” he corrected.
“You have your whole life ahead of you. You’re straightening out your life. Your GED should be in the mail any day. I want you to continue to chase after your dream.”
“You’re not all that old either. You shouldn’t be in here.”
Glancing around the warehouse, she explained, “I’m here because they’re after me. I want to end this.”
“You can’t do it alone.”
“I’m not alone. If I’m not done with what God has planned for me, He’ll protect me.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“I know I’m right,” she said, confidently. “Now, go,” she said, and then shoved him in the direction of the front of the warehouse.
Running outside, almost blinded by the amount of flashing lights from the federal, along with the police and rescue vehicles, Damian spotted Nick in the distance, talking with several people. Practically running to him, Damian hugged Nick, relief evident on his body.
“Wha...?” Nick was stunned for a moment before he saw the dirty face and grungy clothes of the young man he had been taking care of for several years. “Damian, what are you doing here?”
“She’s here,” he said, slightly panicked.
“Officer MacKenna! Katie! She’s here. She’s in the warehouse.”
Looking toward the building Nick’s stomach lurched. “Are you sure it was her?”
“Yes, I talked to her. She said – ” A loud ‘BOOM!’ cut him off.
To Nick, everything suddenly began to move in slow motion. Damian’s body slammed into his before Damian flew overhead, landing like a rag doll several feet away. Seeing his other friends and co-workers near him soar through the air, along with the debris from the warehouse, Nick curled into a ball under the car next to where he landed in order to prevent further damage. Covering his ears when glass shattered, metal twisted and turned, and screams and shouting joined the mix, creating a cannonade of thunderous disharmony. A deafening crash of vehicle that flipped and landed within feet of him sent a shockwave through his body that took his breath away. The ringing in his ears irritated him while he struggled to recover from the daze of surviving the devastation created around him. Looking toward the warehouse, he gulped when he remembered Katie was now encased in the mountainous remains. Adrenaline coursed through his body as he pushed to stand before staggering toward the warehouse – to Katie.
Seth grabbed him. “No, man, you can’t go.”
Dakota and Todd leapt in front of him to push him back as a secondary explosion went off toward the back of the warehouse. Hoping nothing else would explode, it took all three of them to hold Nick down.
“You can’t go in there!” Seth shouted over the chaos.
“I have to get her! I can’t leave her! I’m not losing her! Katie!” he shouted, struggling to get off the ground and get to the rubble that the warehouse had become. “KATIE! KATIE! NO!”
* * *
Katie gasped as she sat straight up in her bed. Breathing heavily, she looked around the room. “No. Nothing. Just another nightmare,” she said aloud, as her heart raced out of control and the echo of the explosion pounded in her head.
Body shaking, she got out of bed and paced the room to release the anxious energy. “It was a nightmare. It’s not true. It’s not real. God’s going to keep me safe. I graduate on Friday. Nick kept his promise, and I will make it to graduation. God won’t let me down.”
Flipping on the light from her desk, she picked up the approved apartment lease and scanned it again. A couple weeks prior, Nick told her that Crystal was moving out, which meant the apartment across the hall from his would be open. The security of the building brought comfort to Katie, so she applied for the apartment. She then contacted Jim Anderson to let him know her intentions, since she would need money for a security deposit and the first and last month’s rent. Without a credit history, the apartment manager wasn’t taking any chances on her. Truth be told, the only reason she got it was due to Nick’s recommendation.
Living across the hall from Nick would make it easier for them to continue to work together. Nick was Katie’s mentor in her journey toward being an agent, and he took that seriously. Over the last year, he taught Katie many self-defense techniques to the point that the moves become instinct. He also taught her how to fire a gun with extreme accuracy up to twenty-five yards and good accuracy at fifty. Working on defensive driving and tactical training were the bigger challenges, but they survived. In doing the training, it would give Katie a leg-up in the police academy, as well as Quantico.
It took her four long years, but her goals were slowly coming to fruition. Her graduation was on Friday, and she was to move into her apartment on Memorial Day weekend. The interviews, along with written and physical fitness tests were completed and she was set to begin the police academy the first week of June. On top of all that, her twenty-second birthday was quickly approaching on July 3rd.
While her last several years were dramatically eventful, and at times terrifying, she wouldn’t change any of it. All of those events made and shaped her into who she was, and ultimately landed her in the position she was currently in on that day.
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,’” she said, quoting Jeremiah 29:11. She looked toward heaven and said, “I know Your plans are perfect, and that You have everything under control. Thank You for looking out for me. As things continue to progress, please continue to protect me. Thank you also for all of my friends. Please keep them safe as they move forward in life and go out each day. I have a crazy couple of weeks coming up, so if You could keep things on schedule, I would appreciate it. And, please, no surprises. In Jesus’ name I pray...Amen.”
Glancing at the clock, she cringed. She had four more hours until she had her first appointment, but she didn’t want to go back to sleep and chance falling back into the nightmare. Choosing to scan her social media page, she flipped down the postings half-heartedly. With everything that went on over the last two years and her graduation this year, Katie’s friends from Oklahoma, as well as from college, convinced her to get on social media so they could stay connected easier. Seb jumped at the chance to spend time with her, taking over an hour to educate her on the ins and outs of her page, along with a couple other social media sites she wasn’t aware of. While she knew it took longer than necessary, she didn’t mind the company, and they ended up going out to eat afterward.
Glancing over to see who was online, she noticed Seb was on. “Speak of the devil,” she said aloud. Clicking on his name, she typed, ‘You awake?’
‘Yep. Question is why are you?’
‘Want me to call?’
‘Yeah,’ she typed, and got off her computer as the phone rang in her room. “Hello?” she answered the phone, jumping in the bed under the covers.
“Morning, Katie. What was your nightmare about?” Seb asked as he snuggled under his own covers. His dad had the air conditioner cranked a little too high for his liking, even for May. He was looking forward to moving into his own house in few weeks down near the café.
Just after Dominic created the mess for Cook’s Corner Café, Riccardo asked Seb to be a partner. It was an intelligent move by Riccardo. The restaurant almost had to shut down with all of the bad press, but when Seb became part owner, it gave new life to the café. It took them a bit, but things had turned around in the last six months, and Seb felt comfortable in purchasing a house of his own.
“I don’t want to talk about it. Can you distract me instead?” Katie asked, bringing him back to the conversation.
“Sure. We graduate on Friday, right?”
“Yep. I also get my apartment in two weeks, just before I head to the police academy.”
“Ugh. Please don’t remind me.”
“What do you mean?”
“The idea that you’re going to be a cop here in Cleveland terrifies me. It gives me nightmares.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I’ve lived here for the last five years. I know what kind of riffraff lurks around here. This world is not a safe place, especially for a young lady with as sweet a heart as you have. I’m afraid your heart will become jaded...or worse, that you’ll get killed. I don’t think I could handle it if something happened to you.”
“God will protect me.”
He sighed. “I know. You keep telling me that. I just wish I could be as confident as you.”
“I trust God. He hasn’t let me down yet.”
“Okay. I think we need to move onto a different subject.”
“What would that be?”
“Well, we’re graduating on Friday.”
Katie giggled. “We’ve been through that.”
“Would you go out with me now that we’re graduating?”
Katie abruptly sat upright in bed again for the second time that night. “What did you ask?”
“Katie, it’s no secret that I’m in love with you. Would you please do me the honor of going out with me? I’ve waited four long years to take you out.”
“Are you serious?”
“Very. If you would, I was thinking we could go to Sandusky and take the ferry across Lake Erie to Kelley’s Island for the day. There are a lot of little shops that I know you’ll like, and we can get lunch and dinner on the island before we come back. How does that sound?”
Katie felt her heart drop into her stomach. Could she really date one of her best friends?
“Well?” he asked after a long minute of silence. It was almost more than he could handle.
“Actually.” She inhaled a deep breath. She’d made a promise to Aaron two Christmases ago that she had yet to keep. “Yes,” she said, releasing a sigh of relief to have finally fulfilled that promise. “When?”
“Would Saturday work?”
“Yes,” she said, almost proud of herself. “I would love to go out with you.”
“Sweet!” he shouted. Then he quickly changed the volume of his words. “I mean, sweet! I hope I didn’t just wake...Hi, Dad.” He cringed as his dad walked into his room.
“Oh no! I didn’t want to get you into trouble,” Katie said, slightly panicked.
“What are you yelling about? It’s four in the morning,” his dad pointed out.
“I, uh, Katie finally said she would go out with me,” he explained, weakly.
“Really?” His voice sounded pleasantly surprised, which eased Seb’s anxiety. “That’s great! Way to go!” He gave Seb a high-five. Before he left, he mentioned, “Just keep it down, okay? While I have to be up in a half-hour, the rest of the house still has about three hours until they have to be up.”
“Yes, sir,” he said with a grin. When the door closed, Seb added, “I love my dad.”
“He seems cool,” Katie agreed. “I would have gotten in big trouble had I been home.”
“Have to admit I was a bit nervous, but he knows how long I have wanted to go out with you.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’m looking forward to going out with you.”
“Me too! I’m too excited to sleep. Want to go to breakfast?”
“Now?” she asked, stunned. “It’s four in the morning. I should actually go back to sleep. I have some things to take care of in the morning and my first appointment is at eight.”
“All right,” he relented. “Sweet dreams and I’ll see you and Stacey for lunch at the café?”
“Yep. Oh!” A thought struck her. “I have to get my bridesmaid dress for Stacey’s wedding today.” Getting out of bed, she went over to her desk and scribbled the new listing on her ‘to do’ list. “Speaking of which, what are you doing next weekend?”
“By the direction of the conversation, can I assume I’m going to a wedding in Pine Crest?”
“If you would?”
“I already was, but of course I’ll go with you.” He grinned. “Kelley’s Island this Saturday, wedding the next Saturday, and helping you move the Saturday after that. Good grief! My schedule just got incredibly full.”
“Imagine my schedule. It’s all of that, along with unpacking an apartment, and getting ready to start the police academy right after that. That’s not including the graduation trip to Oklahoma either.”
He took a deep breath. “Going to support you. Not happy about the police thing, but I know it’s important to you.”
“Thank you,” Katie said, relieved.
“In the meantime, my schedule will be happily full.”
“Good. Now, go get some sleep.”
“Too excited and thrilled to sleep. I’ll see you at lunch.”
“See you at lunch,” she said, and hung up.
Knowing she would hear it from Ethan, she justified it by reminding herself that Seb asked first. She knew that wouldn’t pacify him, and that it could potentially decimate their friendship, but with college over she was moving on. It would be up to Ethan if he wanted to end their friendship or continue.
* * *
“Heard a rumor this morning,” Ethan said as they met on the staircase of their dorm.
“Did you?” Katie cringed. The rumor mill worked faster than even she gave it credit for.
“Yep. But, I said it couldn’t be true, because I was sure you would tell me yourself.”
“Unless I didn’t have time before you heard it. How did you hear it by the way?”
His face reflected the shock and hurt that ripped through his heart. “It’s true?”
“Yes. Seb asked me out this morning around four, and I agreed.”
“But...I can’t....” He shook his head, beside himself, as he leaned against the wall with his arms crossed.
“I told you both I wasn’t dating until graduation. We graduate on Friday, and he asked me for Saturday.”
“Wow. He works fast.”
“You had the same opportunity. Look, can’t you just be happy for us?”
“Ah-ah-ahhh,” he shook his finger in front of her, “you haven’t gone out yet. Who says it will work out?”
She crossed her arms in a huff. “That’s encouraging.”
“A guy can always hope.” He shrugged. “Besides, if it doesn’t, then it may be me taking you to Stacey’s wedding next week.”
“Who says I’ll go out with you?” Katie snapped, irritated by his presumptuous attitude.
“How do you figure?”
“You like me.”
Anger flashed through her eyes as they turned a steel green. “How dare you!”
“Look,” he put his arm over her shoulder, but she shoved it off and crossed her arms. “Katie, we’re destined to be together.”
“You know it.”
“I really hope you’re joking.”
“Nope. I’m being realistic. Seb’s too overprotective. I understand you. I get why you want to be a cop and want to move on to the FBI. I know you’re fixated on that goal and nothing is going to stop you. I respect and admire that about you.”
Katie sighed, shaking her head.
“Let’s change the subject. When are your friends and dad coming in?”
“They should be here on Wednesday.”
“Who all is coming?”
“My dad, Cami, Ryan, Abby, Steve, Eden, Emily, and Ty. Then, next week I go to Oklahoma for their graduation on Thursday night. I’m also going to clean out my storage shed on Thursday morning and head back right after their graduation to get here in time for Stacey’s wedding rehearsal dinner on Friday night.”
“Good grief! You’re going to be exhausted!”
“That’s not including the move into my apartment on Sunday before the academy. I’ll need to go to the police academy just to get a break from the crazy schedule.”
“Are you going to stay with your dad while you’re in Oklahoma?”
She nervously tucked her hair behind her ear as she admitted, “I don’t know.”
“Okay. Well, you’ll have to do an immediate turn-around after being up all day emptying your storage and then graduation in order to get back for Stacey’s wedding rehearsal on Friday, right?”
“Want some company on the drive? That’s a long haul, with not a lot of time in between.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Tell ya what,” he said, thinking how to make his proposition appealing to her. “What if Cierra, Seb, and I go with you? He and I can share a hotel room, and you and Cierra can share one. I can drive my truck, too, so you won’t have to rent a trailer.”
“I don’t know.” She shook her head. “If I’m going to go, I would rather go on my own.”
“What happens if you break down?”
“Call for help. That’s what the auto club is for.”
“Some days you can be so stubborn.”
“Look, I haven’t been home since I left to come here. I think I need to face this myself. I need to be a big girl.”
“You don’t have to do it alone, though.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Stubborn,” he said under his breath as he shook his head.
“I have a crazy schedule over the next several weeks. I need to keep on track. If you want to support me, the best thing you can do is not be so pessimistic about my date with Seb, and support my decision to go to Oklahoma on my own. The last thing I need this week is stress.”
Ethan cringed as jealousy ripped his heart out regarding Seb.
“I gotta go. I love you like a brother. Please be supportive?”
“Oh!” Ethan grabbed his middle and slammed against the wall as if he were shot. “The ‘b’ word! Oh! That’s torture!”
A smile finally crossed Katie’s face as she giggled. “Yes, a brother.”
“Well, at least you admitted that you love me. I’ll take what I can get.”
“Please, and thank you.”
He gave her a hug, and then watched her bolt back up the stairs for her backpack. He couldn’t believe Seb beat him to asking Katie out. Seb knew how Ethan felt about her. He wasn’t sure which was more hurtful...the fact that Seb asked her out or that she accepted. Walking outside into the spring air, he hoped with every bone in his body that it wouldn’t last. He was still hoping to get his chance to go out with her before she headed to Quantico. If he could, he knew it would be a strong possibility that he may be able to talk her out of going into the FBI. He hoped to protect her and keep her from the dangers that came with that career choice. His only hope was that she would listen.