Cleansing Rain

Chapter 1

            The edges of the microscope’s eyepiece gently pressed on Zoe Antos’s eyelids as she counted the shards of microplastic in the sample. Her team was testing a new formulation for their plastic decomposition project, a formulation she had developed. If they were successful, they would be one step closer to solving the plastic problem plaguing the oceans. The results she was seeing so far looked promising.

            “Zoe, what are you still doing in the lab?”

            Startled, Zoe whipped her head around, sending her brown ponytail over her shoulder. Her boss, Brett Klein, was leaning against the back wall, watching her with amusement. “I wanted to double-check the counts from this afternoon’s samples before the weekend.”

            “You know we have a whole second shift of techs to do that.”

            “I know, I just wanted to see what the results were for myself.”

            “And?” Brett pushed off the wall and came over to look at her notes.

            “It’s the fastest rate of breakdown we’ve seen yet, though we’re still not at a hundred percent decomposition.”

            “You’ll get there.” Brett picked up the clipboard to read it better. He picked up a pencil and make a quick note next to one of the lines—a data point he thought was significant. “Well, I’m taking off. The boys and I are heading up to the cottage to get it ready for the winter.”

            “And to give Kathy a weekend to herself.” Zoe cocked an eyebrow at him.

            “That too.” Brett folded his arms and looked down at her, a fatherly expression on his face. “You really should wrap it up for the day too. Don’t you have some big date night planned with Cole?”

            “He has a late meeting, so I have plenty of time to finish and still make it to his place in time.” Unlike the last two weeks, during which she had been so distracted by the experiment that she had completely forgotten to meet Cole at the restaurant. That man was a saint for putting up with her.

            Brett laughed. They had been working together long enough for Zoe to know he didn’t believe her. “If all of the lab supervisors here worked as hard as you do, we would have already solved all the earth’s environmental problems.”

            Zoe rolled her eyes. “I’ll see you on Monday.” She would never finish on time if he kept distracting her. She turned back to the microscope, hearing Brett chuckle as he left.

            It didn’t take long before she got lost in her work again. She was on the last sample when her phone started to buzz in the pocket of her lab coat. Pulling it out, she saw a reminder on the screen that simply read, You’re going to be late. Cole must have put it on her phone while she was in the shower that morning. She cleared the reminder and saw the time. If she didn’t leave right now, she really was going to be late.

            Zoe quickly cleaned up the samples, making sure everything was put away properly. She raced upstairs to her cube and barely slowed down to grab her jacket, purse, and computer bag, which she’d had the forethought to pack before heading down to the lab. By the time she reached the main level again, her jacket was on.

She dug through her purse, searching for her keys as she walked across the parking lot. Usually, she got them out before she left her desk, but she had forgotten in her hurry to get out the door. As her fingers enclosed the ridged metal of her apartment key, Zoe collided with something. The contents of her purse went flying across the asphalt as she stumbled back a few steps.

            “I’m so sorry!” She didn’t know the man she had run into; he had to be new to the facility. Green Tech Laboratories wasn’t a huge operation, and Zoe recognized everyone who worked there, even if she was terrible at remembering all of their names. This man couldn’t have been more than a few years older her—maybe he was working on a joint project with one of the local universities? The box he was holding had been knocked sideways, and half of its contents were strewn on the ground, mixed among the pens, notebooks, and lip gloss that normally lived in her purse. “Let me help you.”

            Zoe knelt and started to gather up the scattered papers. She wasn’t trying to read the files, but the words “microplastics” and “decomposition rates” kept jumping out at her. These were files from her project. The reports were old, the research long outdated.

Why would anyone be reviewing this data when the project had progressed so far from what was in these files?

            “I got it.” The man snatched the files from her hand, shoved them back in the box, and took off across the parking lot. He was out of sight before she could fully comprehend what she’d seen.

Zoe gathered the rest of her pens from the ground while considering what to do. Something didn’t feel right. She wasn’t aware of anyone removing archived data in her five years working at Green Tech. Getting up, she headed back toward the building. Cole wouldn’t be happy, but she couldn’t ignore what she saw.

            The security guard at the front desk looked up when she entered the lobby. “Hey, Zoe, did you forget something?”

            “Hi, George.” Zoe joined him. “It’s probably nothing, but I ran into someone I didn’t recognize in the parking lot, and he had a box of archived research from my department. I didn’t authorize any document transfers—did Brett?” Maybe Brett had approved the transfer and forgotten to tell her. That might have been why he came to find her before leaving and had gotten distracted by the latest counts. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that had happened.

            George turned toward his computer. “What did the guy look like?”

“Ummm.” Zoe closed her eyes and tried to picture him. “He had dark hair, almost a buzz cut, light tan skin. He might have been Middle Eastern? Probably in his mid-thirties, wearing a black leather jacket. Sound familiar?”

George shook his head and turned back to the computer. He clicked a few times, then grabbed his radio. “I need a gate check set up. Code 809.”

            His voice was calm and measured, very out of character for him. It put Zoe on edge. “Is everything okay?”

            “The removal of any archived files requires authorization from the department head and the security chief. I don’t have anything on file.” George stood up and grabbed his jacket off the back of his chair. “Someone probably forgot to file their paperwork.” He clipped his radio onto his belt. “Just to be safe, why don’t you wait here while I do a quick check of the parking lot?”

            Zoe sighed and took a seat on one of the lobby’s brown leather chairs, pulling out her phone. She needed to let Cole know that she would be late . . . again. He was tied up in a meeting for at least another half hour, so she texted him: Some kind of security issue going on at the lab. Will leave as soon as I get the all clear. Shouldn’t take too long. Sorry. Be there as soon as I can.

There—now he would know it wasn’t her fault.

            To her surprise, her phone vibrated with Cole’s response. R U Okay?Zoe could almost picture him at the head of an overly large conference table on one of the upper floors of Wilborn Holdings, texting under the table while trying to slyly blow the hair out of his eyes. He had an appointment to get it cut on Sunday, though Zoe always preferred it a little long.

            Zoe: Yes, I’m sure it’s nothing. Aren’t you in a meeting???

            Cole: I’m only here because Dad and Jackson were busy. My presence is just symbolic.

            Zoe: It’s your family’s company. You’re important too.

            Cole: Only to you. How late do you think you’re going to be? I made a reservation.

            Zoe: IDK

            Cole: I was looking forward to a night out.

            Zoe: I know, I was too. I’ll make it up to you.

            Cole: How????

            Zoe: I’ll share my dessert with you.

Zoe looked down at the ring on her left hand. The weight of it still felt foreign. Cole had proposed over breakfast last Sunday. She had asked him to pass the milk, and instead he’d handed her the ring box. It was a quiet simple proposal, unlike most things the Wilborns did, but to Zoe it was perfect.

            Cole: I was thinking something more personal. Like you could put on that outfit I like and have a little grown up fun.

            Zoe: Focus on your meeting.

            Cole: That’s not a no.

            Zoe: Get back to work.

            Cole: Whoever schedules meetings for Friday afternoon should be forced to work the weekend. Maybe I’ll put out a memo.

            Zoe: You do that. I’ll see you tonight. Love you.

            Cole: Love you too. I’m looking forward to tonight. 😉

            With a chuckle, Zoe put her phone away. They had both been so busy lately, it would be nice to focus on actually being a couple again. They didn’t have any social engagements that she knew of, so it would be an obligation-free weekend. She doubted she would have any issues convincing Cole to stay in with her.

            “I couldn’t find anything in the parking lot,” George said as he came back into the lobby. “There’s no reason for you to stay.”

            “Great.” Zoe gathered up her purse and computer bag.

            “Do you want me to walk you to your car?”

            “No I’ll be fine. See you Monday.” She left the building, this time making sure she had her keys in her hand.

            Halfway to her car, Zoe felt a presence behind her. A bead of sweat rolled down the back of her neck. This wasn’t normal. She quickened her pace, but couldn’t seem to gain any distance. She was about to make a run for it when someone grabbed her arm and pressed what she assumed was a gun to her back. Zoe didn’t need to look to know it was the same man she had run into before. Why hadn’t she let George walk her to her car?

            “Don’t do anything stupid and I won’t have to hurt you,” he whispered in her ear, and a hysterical part of her wanted to laugh. That was something people said in movies, not in real life.

            Her muscles tightened. “You can have whatever you want. Please, I don’t want any trouble.” Her voice was barely a whisper.

            “It’s too late for that. You’re going to get me out of here, and then we can figure out how you’re going to repay me for losing my files.”

            “Let me go and I’ll call off the gate check. You can walk out of here without anyone suspecting a thing.” Her voice was shaking so much it sounded like it belonged to another person.

            “Right, ’cause I’m supposed to trust you.” He increased the pressure of the gun on her back. “Which car is yours?”

            Zoe tried to keep her hand from trembling as she pointed to her blue Chevy Bolt, which was plugged in at the back of the parking lot. There wasn’t another car in the row. Most people had left an hour ago to make the most of one of the last nice weekends before winter. Why couldn’t she have been one of them?

            The man pushed her toward the car, never taking the gun off her back. Her legs fought her each step of the way, dragging as if there were weights strapped to her ankles. The man grabbed the keys from Zoe’s hand and pushed her into the passenger seat. There was a moment when the gun wasn’t pointed at her while he walked to the other side of the car, and part of her knew she should make a run for it—he probably wouldn’t chase her now that he had the keys. But instead she just sat there, the disconnect between her brain and body growing with every passing moment.

            Her captor turned in the driver’s seat to face her. “If you give me away, you’ll regret it.” He put the gun in his jacket pocket and started the car. It only took a few seconds to reach gate.

            “Hey, Zoe,” the female security guard said as Zoe rolled down her window. Zoe knew she was the second shift security chief, but she couldn’t think of her name. “Isn’t this your car?”

            “Yeah, it is.” Zoe tried to keep her voice as natural as she could. “But Stan has never driven an electric car, so I offered to let him take mine for a test drive.” She glanced over at her captor, who looked at the guard with a perfect boy-next-door grin.

            “There isn’t a Stan on the employee roster.” The second guard scrolled through something on his tablet, and Zoe’s stomach flipped over. Had she already failed? Who would pay the price, her or the guards?

            “He’s a graduate student visiting from the U of M School of Natural Resources. I thought he signed in when he arrived this morning.” The lie flew out of Zoe’s mouth.

            “I’ll have to go back up to the office and grab the visitor log.”

            Out of corner of her eye, Zoe saw her captor’s muscles tense. She wondered how long it would take him to pull out the gun and shoot the guards. “Is that really necessary? We lost track of time in the lab, and now we’re running late to meet Cole for dinner.” She didn’t like throwing Cole’s name around, but she wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep this up. If there was ever a time to play the dating-the-owner’s-son card, it was now.

            “The research Zoe’s doing is really remarkable. I could have spent days in there if she’d let me,” her captor said with a chuckle. Zoe did not like the casual way that he said her name, like they were friends.

            “If you vouch for him, that’s good enough for me,” the female guard said.

            No, no, no. It can’t be good enough. Please don’t let us leave, Zoe thought while she sat quietly and smiled until her cheeks hurt.

“If you could pop the trunk, we’ll take a quick look and you guys can be on your way.”

            “Sure thing.” Her captor reached down to the lever releasing the trunk and flashed the guard another award-winning smile. Zoe tried to mimic his calm demeanor, even though her insides were screaming.

            She flinched at the soft bang of the closing trunk. “You guys are all set. Have a great weekend.” Both guards stepped away from the car, and Zoe bit back the tears that formed as they pulled away from the lab.

            They had only been driving for a few minutes when a ringing through the speakers interrupted the silence in the car. Zoe looked down at the car’s touchscreen in horror; Cole was calling.

Within a second, the gun was pointed at her again. The car swerved slightly as he cocked it. “Act normally and I won’t have to use this.”

            Zoe choked back a sob and nodded. How was she going to talk to Cole normally with a loaded gun pointed at her? She took a deep breath as he hit a button on the steering wheel to answer the call.

            “Hey.” Her voice cracked.

            “I’m leaving the office now. Are you on your way yet?” The sound of Cole’s voice shot through her, and tears bubbled in her eyes again. She couldn’t do this.

            “Um, no. I’m still at the lab. Security hasn’t given the all-clear yet.” Zoe prayed he wouldn’t notice the panic in her voice. She made the mistake of glancing over at the driver’s seat. The gun was still pointed at her, and its owner watched her out of the corner of his eye.

Zoe fixed her sight on the road. She needed to focus if she was going to pull this off.

            “Do you want me make some calls and see what’s going on?” Cole asked.

            “No, it’s alright. I’m sure it’s just routine and they’ll let me leave soon.” Her voice cracked again, more noticeably this time. She braced herself for a bullet, but nothing came.

            “Zoe, is everything okay?”

            “Yeah. It’s just been a long week and I feel bad about missing date night again.” At least that wasn’t a lie. “How about you pick up some sushi from that place I like and we have date night at home? We won’t have to worry about the food getting cold while you wait for me.” She prayed Cole would understand what she couldn’t tell him.

            “Are you sure you’re alright? It sounds like you’re in your car. I thought you said you were still in the lab.” There was a hint of panic in his voice that brought hope to her heart.

            “It must be a bad connection or something.” Her captor was getting antsy, his finger twitching over the trigger. “Look, I should let you go so you can call in the food. I love you, Cole.”

            The call ended before he could respond.

“Give me your phone,” her captor growled. Zoe hesitated before fishing it out of her purse. It was in her hand one second and gone the next; she turned in time to see it shatter on the pavement behind them.

#

            Cole did a U-turn the second the call ended, ignoring the honks from the other cars as he pressed his foot on the accelerator and raced toward Green Tech Laboratories. He tried to call Zoe back as he drove, but she wasn’t picking up.

Something was wrong. Zoe hated sushi. She would never ask him to pick some up for dinner, and she certainly didn’t have a sushi place she liked.

            The parking lot was mostly empty when he pulled in. He glanced over at the row of charging stations where Zoe normally parked, but her car wasn’t there.

“Where are you, Zoe?” he muttered under his breath. He nearly hit the security chief’s car as he slammed on his breaks, jumped out of the car, and ran into the building, not caring that he was taking up three parking spaces.

            “Where’s Zoe?” Cole yelled as soon as he entered the lobby, startling the elderly security guard at the front desk. How had this guy managed to get a job in security?

            “I’m sorry, Mr. Wilborn, my shift just started and I haven’t seen her.”

            Cole slammed his hands down on the desk. “I called her twenty minutes ago and she told me she was here!” He didn’t mean to yell, but his panic was starting to take control.

            “Zoe left about an hour ago.” The second shift security supervisor emerged from her office.

            Cole swung around to face her. “Are you sure?”

            “I searched her car myself before she left. She was with a visitor. She said they were running late to meet you for dinner.”

            The story didn’t make any sense. Who was Zoe with? She had never sprung someone on him unexpected—she hated surprises of any kind. And she would never do something like that on date night.

“I need to see the security footage.” Cole didn’t wait to be invited back to the security office; there was no doubt the supervisor would follow him.

She sat down at the bank of computers and started to rewind the footage. “Okay, here they are at the security gate.”

            The video was in color ,but there was no sound. Cole was shocked to see Zoe wasn’t in the driver’s seat. She rarely let him drive her car, and there was no way she would let a stranger drive it. It was almost impossible to see her on the security video, but the man she was with looked completely at ease. Did Zoe know him? Had she lied because she was cheating on him?

Cole dashed the thought from his mind at once. There had to be more going on than what this video showed.

            “Is there any footage of them getting in the car?” Maybe he would recognize who Zoe was with from a different angle?

            “Let me see what I can find.” She changed to a different camera and rewound until she found Zoe leaving the lobby, alone.

            Cole watched in horror as a man approached her from behind. A flash of metal in his hand was visible right before he grabbed Zoe and pulled her against him. It was the same man driving her car.

Cole reached for the phone on the desk and dialed.

            “9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” The woman’s voice on the other end of the line sounded disinterested.

            “My fiancée’s been kidnapped!”

            “You can file a missing person’s report at your local police station if she’s been missing longer than twenty-four hours.”

            Cole’s blood boiled with rage. “She’s not missing. I’m looking at security footage of a man forcing her into a car at gunpoint.”

            That piqued some attention. “Sir, I’m going to need you to calm down and tell me your location.”

            “I’m at Green Tech Laboratories—the security supervisor will give you the details.” Cole thrust the phone at the woman and strode out of the office. He couldn’t stand around and wait; he needed to do something. Zoe was getting farther and farther away every second. He wanted her back. Now.

            Cole pulled out his phone and called his dad. It only rang once.

“Cole? Is everything alright? Aren’t you supposed to be out with Zoe?”

            “Zoe’s been kidnapped.”

            “Where are you?” his father asked with a proper sense of urgency in his voice.

            “Green Tech.”

            “Stay there, I’m on my way.” The line went dead.