Bait and Switch

The branches rattled. Funny, Jessica hadn’t felt any breeze just now. She opened her eyes and nearly jumped out of her skin. Settled neatly on one knee on the grass next to her was the gentleman who had left her with that darned package. His hand swiftly over her mouth, as well as his serious dark eyes, muffled her instinctive outcry. But Jessica Minton was a girl who recovered fast. With lethal calm she freed herself and warned, “If you ever put your hand over my mouth like that again I’ll bite it.”

“Touché, Miss Minton.” His hazel eyes and expression glinted humor, but only briefly. The lean-faced man’s tone was serious as he informed Jess, “I want my package.”

“You think I wander around Central Park toting a ‘Lost and Found’ from Schaftner’s? Get serious, fella.”

This opportunity to strike back at her rat-for-a-brother-in-law, even if only through his hireling, left Jessica inwardly chuckling.

However, there was no humor in her uninvited companion’s insistence, “It’s imperative I get the package. You must bring it to me.”

“So imperative that you have to ruin the one chance I get in over a week for a little peace and quiet? To be perfectly frank, I think you’re nuts. Tell you what, bub, if you want the package you can just go around to Harry Shaftner, leave a message with him, and pick up the darned thing after I’ve had a chance to drop it off.”

“That’s out of the question. They’ll be expecting me there. I can’t be seen with it. I can’t even be seen at your flat.”

“Believe me; you’re not going to be invited.”

“I can’t be seen. It’s too dangerous. You know there are fifth columnists, infiltrators, everywhere. You’ll have to meet me someplace isolated, alone.”

“You? Alone? You sneak up on me and give me all these lines about ‘danger’ and ‘secret meetings’ like some kind of paranoid maniac, and you think I’m going to meet you alone?”

“You’re alone with me now.”

“Not for long, buddy,” Jess retorted, slapping the dark felt hat on her head, grabbing her book, and getting up.

Surprised by her sudden movement, the man instinctively pulled back to let her pass. But he wasn’t surprised for long. In a jiffy he was on his feet, grasping Jess’s elbow and swinging her around to face him.

“I can’t let you go now, Miss Minton.”

“If you don’t let me go,” Jessica threatened, “I am going to beat you to death with my annotated anthology of British literature.”

“The fewer who know you have the package the better. The quicker I get the package, the less chance anyone has of knowing you had it.”

For a moment, an image of the fire plug at Shaftner’s muscled its way menacingly into her thoughts. Wait a minute, what was she getting jumpy about? He was part of the gag, too! Darn, these guys were good. Peter’s little pal here almost had her there for a minute. Almost, but not quite. Two could play this game. Maybe she could have some fun stringing along her brother-in-law and his pawn.

“What if someone already knows I have the package?” she questioned slowly.

“Then you’d best give it me as soon as possible.”

His quiet intensity was unnerving. Only the fact that stuff like this just didn’t happen in real life saved her from falling for Peter’s little plot. Hoping to unsettle her antagonist by calling his bluff, Jess calmly informed him, “I don’t want to get any deeper into this. Maybe I’d better turn the package over to the police.”

His fingers tightened on her arm as he insisted, “No! Don’t you remember, last night I warned you that this is bigger than anything the metropolitan authorities are prepared to handle!”

In spite of her determination to play it cool, Jessica instinctively took a step backward.