The SUV roared to life, and I stared out the window at Mitch, who stood on the sidewalk, a blend of fear and powerlessness on his face. My heart ached, feeling as if I'd left a piece of myself behind. Tears pooled in my eyes, and I lifted a trembling hand to wave goodbye, watching him recede into the distance.
I turned to Ava, now nestled in the car seat the agents had provided and held her hand. The tears I'd been trying to suppress finally broke free, coursing down my cheeks as I longed for the familiarity of my daily life.
My mind swirled with questions and dread, attempting to grasp the situation. Who was after us? Why target Rosedale Tech? What if we never saw Mitch again? Overwhelmed with uncertainty and terror, the sedan sped toward our mysterious destination.
"The baby needs changing!" I declared, leaning forward in my seat. "And shouldn't we stop for supplies?"
Agent Johnson's kind eyes met mine. "We have a small bag of baby supplies right here," he said, handing me a plastic bag that clearly came from a convenience store. He continued, "Our fellow agents are handling everything else you'll need at the secure location. Our top priority is ensuring your quick and safe arrival!"
"What's our destination?"I inquired, my voice quivering slightly as I glanced at darling Ava, snugly secured in her car seat. The FBI agents had whisked us away without warning from the charming oceanfront avenue in San Diego, leaving Mitch nowhere in sight and my heart burdened with anxiety.
Catching my eye in the rearview mirror, Agent Thompson responded, "We're escorting you to a safe house in Pine Valley. It's in your best interest that you, Mitch, and the little one stay out of the limelight for a bit." He continued to concentrate on the road ahead. "The safe house is tucked away in a serene mountain village, a couple of hours northeast of San Diego. It's a tranquil and unobtrusive spot that'll provide some respite from the mounting tension you've been enduring."
Agent Johnson swiveled toward me, offering reassurance. "Rest assured, we'll do everything within our power to shield you and Ava," he affirmed. "And we're collaborating with Mitch. He's in capable hands."
I attempted to take comfort in his words, but my hold on the door handle only grew more rigid, my knuckles paling. I tried to console Ava as she wriggled, eager to escape the confines of her carrier, even as my own apprehensions loomed over me. "Everything's alright, sweetheart," I murmured, my voice wavering, unsure if I was trying to reassure Ava or myself. "We'll be just fine."
At last, Ava dozed off as the sedan cruised along the freeway, leaving the comforting familiarity of San Diego in its wake. The urban scenery gradually transitioned into undulating hills, the rising sun casting its warm glow upon the landscape.
We veered onto a twisting, gravelly path that delved deep into the forest. The thick underbrush and towering trees seemed to envelop us, further severing our connection to the world beyond. Soon, we reached a secluded cabin, where a female FBI agent stood waiting.
"Ms. Russo?" she queried, glancing down at her clipboard.
I nodded, cradling Ava as I exited the car. "That's me. Were you waiting for someone else?"
A hint of a smirk played at the corners of Agent Ramirez's lips, her gaze unimpressed as she introduced herself and motioned for us to follow her into the cabin. Crossing the threshold, an icy shiver raced down my spine, as though I'd left something vital behind. Panic surged through me when it dawned on me that I'd lost my connection to the outside world. Anxiety prickled my skin as my thoughts spiraled out of control, the burden of Ava's needs and our financial future bearing down on me like a crushing weight.
Before I could voice my fears, Agent Ramirez offered a comforting smile. "Relax, Amy. We have everything you and your baby need here. We'll take care of both of you."
Gently patting Ava's back, concern threaded through my words. "Could I check the formula you have? Ava can only have Nutramigen. Nothing else agrees with her."
A warm smile softened Agent Ramirez's eyes. She gestured towards the fully stocked pantry. "Mr. Detwiler briefed me on your needs, including Ava's Nutramigen."
A sigh of relief escaped my lips. "Oh, thank you. That's perfect."
As we settled into the snug cabin, curiosity gnawed at me, prompting me to voice the question that had been nagging me since our arrival. "Why isn't Mitch with us? Why the separation?"
Agent Ramirez hesitated for a moment, her gaze briefly flitting away before returning to meet mine. "The Rosedale case is complex and widespread, as you're aware. Kidnappings, murders, and extortion are all entwined in it, just like the ransom they paid for your safe return."
I nodded, the chilling memory of being held captive and forced to film a ransom video while holding that repulsive sign still fresh in my mind. But how did that relate to Mitch and me being apart?
"Right now, Mitch and his team are serving as bait to catch those behind the Rosedale case," Agent Ramirez explained further. "We need to guarantee your and Ava's safety in case the criminals seek revenge or try to use you as leverage."
A pang of fear squeezed my heart at the thought of Mitch facing danger, but I was painfully aware that there was nothing I could do to change the circumstances. My only option was to keep myself and Ava safe while having faith that Mitch was making the right moves.
Agent Ramirez flashed a reassuring smile and gestured toward a hallway branching off from the main room. "Don't worry, you won't be alone here. I'll be staying with you both. I'll do my best to stay out of your way. My room is just down that hall."
With a heavy sigh, I slumped onto the couch and placed Ava beside me. Although having Agent Ramirez nearby wasn't ideal, I had to believe she was here to ensure our safety. Out of nowhere, a loud growl from my stomach reminded me that I hadn't eaten since breakfast. Just as I was about to head to the kitchen, Ava's cries filled the air. I quickly prepared a bottle and nestled into the rocking chair to feed her.
I discovered a portable crib in the bedroom next to the master suite, and my eyes welled up as I laid Ava down. The crib lacked soft blankets, a mobile to play gentle lullabies, or Mitch to tenderly kiss her goodnight.
As I wandered into the kitchen, I settled on a large bowl of mac and cheese. It might not be gourmet, but it was comfort food, and that was all I had the energy for right now.
While eating, I attempted to lose myself in a TV show, but my mind couldn't escape the lingering shadows of the Rosedale case and the unseen threats still hovering around us.