Louis Cantrell watched the sprawling blue house from his car, which was parked across the street and three doors down. He blew a breath through the weave of his woolen gloves in an attempt to warm his frozen fingers, cursing under his breath when the resulting fog succeeded only in clouding the windows. The weather seemed to conspire against his surveillance in a combination of frigid temperatures and the wet snow coating his windshield. An occasional swipe of the wipers became a necessity, but the heater was a risk he refused to take. A quiet car at the curb could go unnoticed. A car with the engine running, generating clouds of exhaust, not so much.
The sun climbed over the trees, a fuzzy blur of light in the cloudy sky. If there was a God in heaven, warmth would follow. The worn vinyl seat crackled under his weight as he reached for his battered thermos. After a quick shake, he tossed the empty container into the floorboard already layered in unpaid bills and fast food burger wrappers. Just as well. He needed a bathroom, now, and the cold didn’t help that either.
He burrowed further into his jacket and allowed his thoughts to wander while the morning dragged on. Five years ago he’d been working in a filthy auto repair shop, a job so beneath him it still brought him shame, when fate finally dealt him a winning hand in the form of Samantha Evans and her kid sister, Iris.
Their names brought a greedy smile to his face. Poor little lost girls. Deserted by their father, mother dead, struggling to make it on their own, and way too trusting for their own good. Winning their confidence had been a piece of cake and the money in their two savings accounts the hefty brass ring. But once Samantha told him she was pregnant, his plans to empty both accounts went south, and he’d gone west. He’d cleaned out Samantha’s bank account and split for a sunnier climate without a backward glance, putting closed to that chapter of his life.
His fond dream of a high-rolling life in Las Vegas had since become a harsh reality. Thirty thousand dollars didn’t go very far in today’s world, not if you liked the noise and lights of the casinos. What he’d stolen from Samantha hadn’t lasted through the first year. There’d been other cons as the years passed, more bad luck than good. He’d never known when to quit. Now he owed a serious amount of money to some very ugly people. A debt his silver tongue couldn’t talk him out of. It was only a matter of time before they came to collect.
Seeing Sam on television with her rich writer daddy a few years ago had been like a big neon sign pointing him back to greener pastures. Knowledge he could put away for a rainy day. Well, it was drizzling, and Louis needed an umbrella. He’d been able to scrape together just enough cash to make the story he wanted to sell sound legit. If this con failed, his life wouldn’t be worth the cost of a cup of hot coffee.
The white front door of the house opened. He grabbed a rag from his floorboard and wiped a patch of windshield free of condensation so he could have a better view. His patience was rewarded as a child skipped out of the house and down the two steps to the sidewalk. He squinted through the glass. My daughter? Hard to tell. He searched his heart for any twinge of fatherly feeling or recognition—and came up empty. No big surprise there. Louis had no use for kids, apparently even his own.
He picked up a book from the seat next to him, comparing the child on the sidewalk to the infant in the picture. Didn’t really look the same, but knowing his sister’s kids, he knew how much the brats could change over time. Kids...he shuddered. Except for the obvious pleasure involved in making them, he just didn’t see the point. Why would anyone bring such a long-term complication into her life? Louis had the answer for any woman dumb enough to get herself knocked up. Cryogenics. Freeze the little brats at birth, feed ‘em with a tube, educate them subliminally, thaw them out on their twentieth birthday, and send them on their way to fend for themselves. No muss, no fuss.
He watched the kid while grinning at his own clever idea. Today was the first of December. According to the birth certificate he had in his pocket, the one Samantha had so conveniently put his name on, his daughter would celebrate her fourth birthday in just a couple of weeks. Four years...a comfortable buffer against the three-year statute of limitations on any grand larceny charges Samantha might be tempted to pursue.
The child ran to the curb in a red jacket, her dark curls bouncing with each step. She stopped and turned back to the open door, stooping and clapping her hands, her mouth moving in laughter and words he couldn’t hear. A huge blonde dog bounded from the house after her. The dog received a hug, and together they continued to the curb to collect the morning newspaper. Dog and child looked up suddenly.
Louis cut his eyes back to the door.
Any trouble identifying his daughter did not extend to recognizing the child’s mother, his sweet Samantha. She still wore her dark brown hair in the straight style he remembered, just a little longer. She hugged a baggy sweater around her petite curves. Louis slid lower in the seat. He had fond memories of those curves and her innocent blue eyes. Samantha motioned the child back inside and closed the door.
Louis started his car. He had the right place. After forcing himself to wait a couple of extra minutes to make sure everyone remained tucked inside, he headed back to his cheap hotel room. There were plans to make and a family to reclaim. He hoped they would be as excited to see him as he was to see them.