Saving Sophie: New Excerpt

Saving Sophie by Ronald H. Balson is a legal thriller about a Chicago attorney whose daughter is kidnapped and taken prisoner to Palestine (available September 15, 2015).

Jack Sommers was just an ordinary attorney from Chicago. That is, until his wife passed away, his young daughter was kidnapped, and he became the main suspect in an $88 million dollar embezzlement case. Now, Jack is on the run, hoping to avoid the feds long enough to rescue his daughter, Sophie, from her maternal grandfather, a suspected terrorist in Palestine.

With the help of the investigative team of Liam and Catherine, and a new CIA operative, a secret mission is launched to not only rescue Sophie, but also to thwart a major terrorist attack in Hebron. But will being caught in the crossfires of the Palestine-Israeli conflict keep their team from accomplishing the task at hand, or can they overcome the odds and save countless lives, including their own?

One

Pellets of rain and snow, driven by bone-chilling February winds, splattered the windows of Chicago O’Hare’s international terminal, occluding the view of those ticketed passengers trying to get a look at the tarmac. Intermittent gusts bowed the windows with an unsettling creak. Restless travelers paced the gate area, silently willing the gate agent to pick up her microphone and start the boarding process. After all, the flight from Chicago to Rio de Janeiro, from winter to summer, would take over twelve hours. Groans rumbled through the room as the beleaguered agent posted yet another delay. Sadly, she could offer no explanation other than “It’s weather related.”

A tall, thin man in a blue sport coat, white polo shirt, and cream-colored panama hat stood beside the Starbucks kiosk, a leather briefcase in one hand, his coffee cup in the other. He patiently scanned the crowd until his eyes finally settled on a young student seated cross-legged on the floor, an olive backpack by his side. An open laptop, plugged into the wall, rested on his legs. The man pulled out his cell phone and meandered toward the student.

“Yes, this is Dr. Sommers,” the man said loudly into his phone, pausing directly before the student. “What’s her heart rate?… Hmm. I see. Where’s Dr. Goodman? Who’s attending?” He nodded as he listened. “Has she been stabilized?”

Drawing an inquisitive stare from the student, the man continued in his high-decibel discourse. “I’m at O’Hare about to board a plane.… To Brazil, for Christ’s sake. Isn’t Dr. Withers available?” Pause. Then calmly, with a sense of resignation: “No, no, I understand completely.… Yes, I’ll cancel the trip. I’ll be there in an hour.”

He ended his call, shook his head, and looked down into the face of the curious young man. “There goes my trip to Rio. I’ve been planning this for over a year, but when the congressman’s wife has a heart attack, all bets are off.”

The explanation drew a sympathetic response. “Sorry for you, man. Guess you’ll have to go another time.”

Sommers shrugged and gazed at the passengers who were finally lining up to board. “Want to fly first-class?” He held out his boarding pass. “You can have my seat. I sure as hell can’t use it.”

The young man shook his head. “They won’t let me take your seat. I have a coach ticket.”

“I purchased this seat, I don’t see why it should go empty. We’ve already gone through security. We’ve shown our passports. The flight attendants don’t know what I look like. Take my ticket. When you get on the plane, tell them you’re John Sommers. Who would know the difference?”

The young man examined the boarding pass. Seat 4A. “Do you think I can? Do you think it’ll work?”

“I don’t know why not. Go for it.”

“Hell yeah.” The young man bounced to his feet, taking the boarding pass. “Thanks a lot, Doc.” Sommers watched him scan the boarding pass and proceed down the first-class Jetway.

Sommers exited the international terminal and hailed a green-and-white taxi. The laminated license identified the driver as Delroy Johnson. Sommers set his hat, attaché, and overcoat on the seat beside him.

“Where to?” the cabbie said.

Sommers exhaled. “I’d like to go to the Milwaukee airport,” he said quietly.

The cabbie nodded and put the car in gear. “Up on Milwaukee Avenue, you mean,” he said over his shoulder. “Now they callin’ it the Chicago Executive Airport. Used to be Palwaukee Airport. That’s in Wheeling, you know, ’bout fifteen minutes, but you have to pay meter and a half.”

“No, Delroy,” Sommers answered as the cab pulled away from the terminal. “I mean Milwaukee. The city of. General Mitchell International Airport.”

Johnson slowed his cab and pulled to the side. “You serious? I don’t go that far. I’m a Chicago cab. Shit, man, you at the airport. You could fly up there.”

Sommers leaned forward. “Delroy, I just want a nice comfortable ride to Milwaukee. It’s worth five hundred dollars to me. Will you take me?”

“Well … since you put it that way. You crazy, but for a five spot, just sit back and relax, and let Delroy do the driving.”

Eighty minutes later, Delroy glided to a curbside stop at Mitchell International. His passenger, who had slept most of the way, handed him a roll of bills. “Thank you, Delroy. You have a nice day.”

“Hey, thanks to you too, mister,” Delroy called, leafing through the bills, but Sommers had disappeared into the terminal.

With boarding pass in hand, Sommers walked directly to the security line. He shuffled forward and handed a Kentucky driver’s license and his boarding pass to the TSA agent, who examined them and smiled.

“You have a pleasant flight, Mr. Wilson,” she said.

Sommers nodded, checked the departure board, and walked to his gate. His flight to LA was lightly booked. Sommers placed his leather case carefully into the overhead bin. It held a laptop, a trifold wallet filled with assorted credit and debit cards, and a change of clothes. On this day, at this fork in his road, that was everything he’d need. He took his seat by the window and watched the ground crew.

*   *   *

Ninety miles south, inMILES SOUTH, IN the brick-and-steel canyons of Chicago’s Loop, a group of businessmen and their attorneys gathered to celebrate the consummation of a business deal—Leland Industries had acquired the assets of Kelsen Manufacturing Company. The mood was ebullient. Champagne flowed. All of the tedious negotiations, the threats, the maneuvers, the posturing, were now history. The deal was sealed. The air was light.

Walter Jenkins, managing partner of Jenkins & Fairchild, Attorneys at Law, stood by the conference-room windows with his client, Victor Kelsen. Jenkins was tall, in his midsixties, gray at the temples, and elegantly dressed. Kelsen, a few years younger, was stocky, with a workingman’s physique. Plainly dressed in a suit from a department-store rack, Kelsen’s understated appearance belied the wealth he had amassed in his business career.

The morning storm had lifted, and the setting sun painted long shadows in the federal plaza below. A visual metaphor, Jenkins thought—the end of days for Kelsen Manufacturing.

“Why, Victor, you’re actually smiling,” Jenkins said. “I haven’t seen that in quite a while.”

“Well, why shouldn’t I? I got a good price for my company, and now some other sucker can worry about the packaging market.” He gestured across the room at a group of young men, uniformly dressed in two-button shades of charcoal. “Look at them all, Walter. Clinking glasses, laughing and joking. All my high-priced executives. So pleased with themselves to receive bonuses on the sale of a company they had no part in building. And I ask you—how long will that bonus money last any of them? These guys just don’t get it. Leland Industries doesn’t need any of them and won’t keep them past next Christmas. And soon they’ll all be sending out résumés in our dandy economy.”

“Oh, they’re bright people, I’m sure they’ll land on their feet,” Jenkins said. “Anyway, are you taking Helen out to celebrate tonight?”

“Nope. The Deacons are playing Northern, and Helen hates basketball. But I haven’t missed a home game in years and I’m certainly not going to start now, just because I sold my company.”

“And cleared ninety-six million dollars.” Jenkins reached across the table, grabbed a bottle of champagne, and offered to refill his client’s glass, which Kelsen declined with a shake of his head.

“Ninety-six before taxes, Walter. Listen, I got to get out of here. I’m sick of looking at these guys. It took me thirty years to build my company. On my back. These MBA types think they bring something to the table. They bring nothing. It’s guys like me who built this country, not a bunch of full-of-themselves finance majors with six-figure salaries.”

Jenkins winced. “Yes … well … I get your point, Victor. But you won’t have to put up with that any longer. What time’s your game tonight?”

Kelsen checked his watch. “Seven thirty, but I usually go early.” He retrieved his wool overcoat from a rack and Jenkins held it for him as he slipped his arms into the sleeves. “Most importantly, Walter, what time do I get my money tomorrow?”

“We expect the closing escrow to disburse about eleven A.M. I’ll have Sommers over there first thing in the morning. I assume that Harrington will be there as well?”

“He’d better. That’s why I pay him. That’s another thing I won’t miss. Paying my good money to a gloom-and-doom CFO.”

Jenkins took a sip of his champagne. “Speaking of your CFO, I haven’t seen Harrington at all this afternoon. Isn’t he going to join the bunch for dinner?”

Kelsen shrugged. “As far as I know. I expected him to be here by now. It’s not like him to miss a free meal. But since you mention it, I haven’t seen your man Sommers either.” He feigned a chuckle. “They’re probably both sitting in a bar somewhere discussing balance sheets and tax write-offs.”

Jenkins smiled and patted Kelsen on the shoulder. “It takes a lot of work to sell a three-hundred-million-dollar company, and they’ve been the men in charge. I’m sure they’ll be here soon. Relax.”

“I’ll relax when the escrow closes and I get my money. See you at eleven tomorrow,” Kelsen said, and left.

 

Two

Sommers awoke abruptly as the plane’s wheels bounced hard on the LAX runway. He shook the cobwebs from his head and checked the time. Barely an hour to make his connection to Honolulu. He lifted his carry-on from the overhead bin and stretched his cramped muscles. Emerging from the Jetway, his hat pulled low over his forehead, he paused to survey the people standing at the gate. What would he do if they were already here? The FBI. The LA police. Waiting to greet him. Not a thing, he supposed. Not a thing he could do.

He exhaled a sigh of relief when no one paid attention to him. Head down, avoiding eye contact with someone who might later say, “Oh, yes, Officer, I saw that man getting on the flight to Hawaii,” he ambled slowly through the crowd and made his way from Terminal 4 to Terminal 6, stopping to buy a newspaper and a couple of bottles of water. Taking a seat in a back row at Gate 16, he slouched and buried his face in the financial section.

Boarding could not come soon enough for Sommers. He had read the same page over and over, never managing to digest a single word. When the flight was finally announced, he merged into line with a noisy tour group and smiled at the gate attendant as she took his ticket, though he failed to respond when she said, “Have a pleasant flight, Mr. Wilson.”

A bittersweet memory stopped him as he stepped onto the Jetway. The last time he’d boarded a plane to Hawaii he was with Alina and Sophie. They were just beginning their first family vacation. Back then, he held hands with his giddy four-year-old, who bounced along, full of glee, bursting with joy. Back then, he and Alina had smiled so proudly as Sophie skipped along beside them. But that was back then.

His window seat was toward the rear of the plane, and for a brief time the adjoining seat was vacant. How fortunate, he thought, as he set his panama hat on the empty seat and took out one of his water bottles. But as the doors were closing, a young woman, the last to board, rushed down the aisle and stood before his row.

“I think that’s my seat. Twenty-two B?”

Sommers nodded, rose, placed his hat on his attaché in the overhead, and slid back into his seat.

“Must be a pretty special hat,” she said, smiling. “It almost had its own seat all the way to Hawaii.”

Sommers returned the smile. He watched the belated traveler compose herself, organize her knicks and knacks, and settle into her seat. She was obviously of Polynesian lineage, with smooth, gentle features and rich, black hair. He judged her to be in her late twenties or so, maybe six or seven years younger than himself. Her skin was tanned, but her face was flushed and her forehead was slightly moist, which Sommers attributed to her dash to catch the plane.

“I almost didn’t make this one,” she said, still breathing hard. “Bad traffic on the 405.” She slipped her magazine into the seat pocket, took a series of deep breaths, and eyed the bottle of water in Sommers’s hand.

He caught the look. “I have an extra bottle, would you like it?”

“Oh, God, yes. You’re a lifesaver.”

“Are you all right?” Sommers said, handing the bottle to her.

She nodded. “Winded, that’s all. I only had a few minutes.”

Sommers thought of other things he could say to keep the conversation going, but decided against it. Perhaps at another time, in another part of his life, it would have been nice to start up a conversation with this pretty Hawaiian girl, pass some of the next four or five hours engaged in pleasant small talk and maybe even catch up with her on the island. But given the present circumstances, he thought it best to say little and retain his anonymity. It would be safer if she didn’t remember him.

The preflight video started and the plane pushed back from the gate. Sommers let his eyes stray every now and then. She was leafing through her magazine when she caught him in the middle of one of his glances. “Malani,” she said with a smile, and held out her hand.

“Jack,” Sommers answered, shaking her hand and immediately sorry that he’d used his real name.

“First time to Hawaii?”

“Yes,” he lied. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“Well, you’ll love it. I’ve lived there all my life.”

Sommers buried his attention in a magazine. Malani took out her earbuds, untangled them, and was soon lost in her music.

Copyright © 2015 Ronald H. Balson.

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Ronald H. Balson is an attorney practicing with the firm of Stone, Pogrund and Korey in Chicago. The demands of his trial practice have taken him into courts across the United States and into international venues.

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