Pieces of the Past
144 pages
English

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144 pages
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Description

The past is closing in on Christine Scott. Uprooted from her pleasant life in Chicago, she and her two children are thrust into the Witness Security Program when the mistakes of her husband catch up with him. He lands in prison, while she and the kids are transplanted to a quiet Kansas town. Christine does her best to keep life normal for her active ten-year-old son and persistently moody seventeen-year old daughter. But when they start receiving gifts from an anonymous sender, reminders of their old life, it becomes obvious that someone has found them. Doug Jackson's been in service with the US Marshal’s office for fifteen years. He hasn’t lost a witness yet, and doesn’t intend to start with Christine or her family. If he can get them to cooperate, his job might be easier. Unfortunately, no one seems concerned about making Doug's life easy. Not the man in the white sedan who eludes him, nor the pretty Christine, thoughts of whom he can't seem to shake. Their lives depend on Doug keeping his head in the game, and he's determined to do just that.

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Publié par
Date de parution 09 juillet 2014
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781772999662
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0032€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

Pieces of thePast
Witness Security, Book One
By Jamie Hill
 
DIGITAL ISBNs
EPUB  978-1-77299-966-2
MOBI  978-1-77299-967-9
WEB 978-1-77299-968-6
 
PRINT 978-1-77299-965-5 
 

 
 
Copyright 2014 by Jamie Hill
Cover Art by Michelle Lee
 
 
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rightsunder copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may bereproduced, stored into a retrieval system, or transmitted by anymeans (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, orotherwise) without the prior written permission of both thecopyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
 
 
Dedication
 
To Roxanne N., Jude P., and Kay Z., for helping me totell a better story. I appreciate you all very much!
 
 
 
 
 
Witness Security – The Series
 
Pieces of the Past – Book One
 

 
The past is closing in on Christine Scott.Uprooted from her pleasant life in Chicago, she and her twochildren are thrust into the Witness Security Program when themistakes of her husband catch up with him. He lands in prison,while she and the kids are transplanted to a quiet Kansas town.Christine does her best to keep life normal for her activeten-year-old son and persistently moody seventeen-year olddaughter. But when they start receiving gifts from an anonymoussender, reminders of their old life, it becomes obvious thatsomeone has found them.
 
Doug Jackson's been in service with the USMarshal’s office for fifteen years. He hasn’t lost a witness yet,and doesn’t intend to start with Christine or her family. If he canget them to cooperate, his job might be easier. Unfortunately, noone seems concerned about making Doug's life easy. Not the man inthe white sedan who eludes him, nor the pretty Christine, thoughtsof whom he can't seem to shake. Their lives depend on Doug keepinghis head in the game, and he's determined to do just that.
Prologue
 
Life is hard, then you die . He’d readthat on a T-shirt once. It seemed like a fitting expression. Maybe I should get me one of those shirts . Then at leastpeople would know what to expect when they saw him coming. If they saw him coming.
He chuckled and adjusted the air vent on theleft side of the car’s dashboard so it aimed directly at his face.He’d started to sweat profusely, and wanted to nip it in the bud.He used a wadded-up fast food napkin to pat down his baldinghead.
The neighborhood seemed quieter than usual.From what he could tell, the oppressive heat had sent children insearch of pools and adults inside, seeking relief. Even through hisclosed car windows, he heard the drone of air conditioning units ashe drove slowly down the street.
He stopped a half a block away and studiedthe yellow house, its sidewalk framed by a red brick planter fullof petunias. No bicycle in the driveway, no loose basketball lyingat the base of the hoop, which sat atop a pole next to the house.For a moment, he wondered if the family was away. They can’t be.I saw those things here yesterday.
When the front door opened and the woman cameout, he breathed a sigh of relief. I’m paranoid . Notuncommon for someone in his line of work. He adjusted the rightvent so the cold air blew in his face, too.
The woman glanced in each direction beforeshe inserted a letter into the shiny black mailbox and raised thesmall red flag on the side. She gazed toward his car and seemed tostare right at him.
He crouched down low in his seat. Shecan’t see me from there. A new bead of sweat formed on histemple, and trailed down his face. I hope .
Without missing a step, the woman walked backinto her house and closed the front door.
He swabbed his forehead, straightened hisshoulders and settled back against the rented sedan’s leather seat. The coast is clear. A bit too close for comfort, but no harmdone. Plus, he got a good look at her, so there was no doubt he wasat the right place.
He lifted several photos, and sheets ofinformation accompanying them, from the passenger seat. Thumbingthrough the pages, he paused when he reached the picture of thewoman and examined her closer. Straight dark hair framed her face,falling past her shoulders. Young. She looked much less thanher purported thirty-five years. She’s a pretty dame . Clearbrown eyes and a happy, innocent smile.
Bet she’s not so happy anymore. Reality had a way of taking that from people. I shouldknow.
He flicked the photo back and forth againstthe steering wheel. If the woman was somehow happy again,after everything she’d been through, he’d be amazed. And sorry thatsomeone was intent on blowing it. But that’s the way the cookiecrumbled.
This is no big deal. Just another job .He tossed the photo back into the passenger seat and stared at thehouse once more. Same game, different players. There had tobe different players, if he did his job right. If I ever messup, I’ll be the one lying on the slab. He hadn’t screwed upyet, and wasn’t too concerned about it. He was very good at what hedid.
He yawned, fiddled with the vents again, andsettled back into his seat.
Chapter One
 
 
Topeka, Kansas
 
 
Christine Scott closed the front door and locked it out of habit. Their firstAugust in Kansas was hotter than blazes outside. She didn’t expecteither of her kids would be going out. Ethan was in the family roomplaying a video game. Peyton was in her room, where she spent mostof her time.
Christine sighed. It had been a frozen daylast January when she and the kids moved to the quiet city ofTopeka. The state capital was large for Kansas but nothing likeChicago, where she and both children had been born and raised. Themove had been quite a jolt, on top of changing identities andliterally, their lives. The marshals in the Witness SecurityProgram had encouraged them to keep their same first names andinitials, hence the Stewart family became Scott. Seventeen-year-oldPeyton, furious about the relocation, the divorce, everything, hadtaken it hard.
Jordan Burke, the US Marshal assigned totheir case, did everything she could to make things easier.Christine liked the woman, even though a part of her was envious ofthe dark-haired beauty with her long, thick black hair and a figurepeople couldn’t help notice. She could tell Peyton was enthralledwith Jordan, partly because of the woman’s looks, but also becausethe marshal treated Peyton like an adult. That scored major points.Christine watched them interact, saw her daughter was starting toidolize their protector, but didn’t really mind. Jordan wasgorgeous and just plain nice. She understood that the kids weren’tthrilled by uprooting their lives and relocating from Illinois toKansas.
Christine hadn’t been thrilled either, butshe was an adult and could see the big picture more clearly. Heraccountant husband of eighteen years had lied to her and put theirfamily in jeopardy. He’d thought the cash he received launderingmoney for the Russo crime family would make up for the hardshipsthey’d had to endure. He’d been wrong on so many levels.
No amount of cash could ever make up for thedeath threats Christine and the kids had received. They’d had nochoice but to enter the protection program. Neither child seemed tobelieve it when she explained she was divorcing Daddy and they wereentering the Witsec program. After they moved, they’d never seeDaddy or Grandma and Grandpa again. Ten-year-old Ethan wasdevastated. Peyton had chosen anger, and remained angry for a verylong time. Christine wasn’t sure the girl was over it yet.
The phone rang, startling her out of herthoughts. She grabbed her cell and recognized the number as one ofEthan’s classmate’s. “Hello?”
“Hi, Christine, this is Donna Ulinky. How areyou today?”
She pictured the pretty, auburn-haired woman,with the freckle-faced red-headed son. Unlucky son . Rogerhad broken his arm in the early weeks of baseball season and hadspent the whole summer in a plaster cast. “Hi Donna. Fine, thanks.How’s Roger? Did he get his cast off?”
“This morning. He’s so excited to finally beable to swim. He’d like to take some friends to the pool thisafternoon. Is Ethan free? We could swing by and pick him up, anddrop him off in a couple hours.”
“I don’t know.” Christine glanced toward thefamily room nervously. She usually preferred to take him placesherself. “Maybe we could meet you there.”
“Nonsense. If he wants to go, we’ll pick himup. There’s no reason you should have to deal with the heat.”
Christine gripped the phone until herfingertips turned white. “I, uh—”
“Both my husband and I will be there. Ipromise you, we’ll keep an eye on the boys.”
She hated being thought of as anoverprotective mother. She’d always prided herself on being cooland laid back. Another facet of her life her husband had strippedaway and she had no choice but to live with it. She had a realreason to be protective of her children, but the people in theirnew lives could never know about it. “I’ll see if Ethan wants togo. Hang on, okay?”
Christine muffled the phone as she stood inthe doorway of the family room. “Honey, Roger Ulinky got his castoff today. His parents are taking him swimming. Would you like togo?”
Her son’s bright brown eyes sparkled.“Really? Sure!” He proceeded to punch some buttons on thecontroller in his hand to close out the game.
Christine inhaled and lifted the phone.“Donna, Ethan would love to go. What time will you pick himup?”
“Fifteen minutes?”
“Fine. Thanks for including him.”
“You bet. See you!” Donna ended the call.
Christine punched her cell off and set itdown.
Ethan had turned off the video game and washeaded up the stairs.
“Remember to grab a towel.” She went down ashort hall and entered the kitchen for the bottle of sunscreen sheremembered seeing on the counter.
When he reappeared, she helped him apply thethick white goo to his back and face while he did the parts hecould reach. Christine blended the lotion on his cheeks and heldhis face in her hands for a moment. “Have fun, but be careful.”
Ethan rolled his eyes, obviously used to hercautioning words. “I will, Mom.” An ornery grin spread across hisface. “Take a chill pill.”
She squinted her eyes at him. More likeyour daddy every day. Larry used to tell her that on a regularbasis. Ethan remembered, and liked to say it. They weren’t supposedto speak of Larry outright, but the boy learned early on thatrepeating pet phrases of the man got his point across. He may havebeen told to forget his father, but he never would.
“Chill pill, my left leg.” A stupidexpression, but it’s what I always said to Larry. It was theresponse Ethan expected. She tousled his sandy blond hair andsmiled.
Their fifteen-second banter spoke volumesabout what Christine wanted to say. Be careful. Notice yoursurroundings. If you see anyone unusual remember his or herdescription. Come straight home and tell me about it. And mostimportantly, I love you.
Jordan had discouraged the warnings, ofcourse, but that didn’t keep Christine from thinking them everytime she left her son. He seemed to understand, and allowed her tocoddle him a bit. He’d matured a lot in the past year. He’d beenforced to.
A car pulled into the driveway andhonked.
Ethan slipped into his flip-flops and grabbedthe five dollar bill she offered. “Love you, Mom.” He skipped downthe hall and was out the door in a flash.
She barely had time to reply, “Love you too.”Christine followed him to the door and saw him hop in the back seatof the Ulinky’s green minivan before it took off.
She closed the door and leaned against it,forcing her breathing to slow to a normal rate. It was going to bea long two hours until he returned.
 
* * * *
 
Somewhere around five-thirty, Peyton paddeddownstairs and stood quietly in the entryway to the familyroom.
Christine looked up from her book. For amoment, the sight of her daughter startled her. Tall and slenderwith long, straight brown hair, she looked much the same asChristine had in high school . Looks like me now, except she hasbangs and lacks my wrinkles. “Hi,” she said simply.
“Any idea what’s for dinner?”
“Ethan wants to make homemade pizza. We needto wait for him to get home.”
Peyton removed a vibrating cell phone fromher jean shorts pocket and looked at the screen. “Where’d he go?”she said to her mother, still looking at the phone.
“Swimming.”
The girl nodded and held up one finger,answering her phone. “Hello? Yeah. Hi. Oh, um, I don’t know. Well,maybe. Hang on.” She held the phone to her stomach to cover themicrophone. “It’s Ryan. He’s going to get pizza and take in amovie.”
Christine blinked innocently. “So why is hecalling you with his plans for the evening?”
“Mom!” Peyton scowled in disbelief. “He’sasking me to go with him.”
Christine smiled. “Oh, I see. Well, I supposeyou can go.” She liked Ryan Armstrong okay. Peyton had been seeinghim since the first week of school. He was a football player, whichshe feared was her daughter’s motivation for dating the boy. Peytonhad been a cheerleader in Chicago, but much to her dismay, hadn’tmade the squad in Topeka. Adjusting to life on the lower rung ofthe high school ladder hadn’t been easy. All of a sudden this year,with the new boyfriend came a new social status. Christine wasn’tsure she liked it, but she hadn’t put a stop to it yet. She waskeeping an eye out, though. “He’ll need to come in so we candiscuss the movie.”
Peyton’s expression changed to one ofhorror.
Christine merely shook her head. “That’salways been the rule, no exceptions.” That had been the rulewhen they lived in Chicago, and it was something Larry strictlyenforced. Christine suddenly realized that Peyton hadn’t been to amovie all year. There’d been a few dates and lots of groupactivities, but a real ‘boy-girl’ movie, no. She smiled again.“I’ll be nice. I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page.No balconies, that kind of thing. That’s not so much to ask.”
“Theaters don’t even have balconies anymore,Mom.” Peyton stared for another few moments before pulling thephone up to her ear. “Sure I can go. My mom wants you to come infor a minute of course, but she’ll be cool. Okay, great. I’ll beready. See you.” She pushed a button and ended the call. Glancingup, she added, “He’s picking me up at six-thirty. There’s an eighto’clock show at the Varsity.”
Christine opened her mouth to ask about themovie, but Peyton cut her off, apparently sensing the question.
“It’s the new Spielberg flick. RatedPG-13.”
Nodding, Christine asked instead, “So whatare you going to wear?”
Another look of horror, before Peytonsprinted for the stairs. “I have no idea!”
“Want some help?” Christine called after herdaughter, and heard the bedroom door slam in reply. “I’ll take thatas a ‘no’. And I will be cool. No worries.” She smiled to herselfand returned to her book until Ethan got home.
He appeared wind-blown and slightlysun-bronzed despite the white goo she’d slathered on him. Bubblingover with excitement and enough enthusiasm for him and his sisterboth, he talked non-stop from the moment he walked in, pausing justlong enough to change his clothes, then resumed his barrage as theybuilt a do-it-yourself pizza on a store-bought crust.
“Sounds like you had a great time.” She slidthe pizza pan into the oven and set the timer for fifteenminutes.
“I did. Roger’s mom said they might go againtomorrow. She’ll call you.”
“You want to go again tomorrow?” She rubbed ahand through his hair. “It’s miserable outside.”
“I know, but it’s not bad in the water. Rogerhasn’t been able to swim all summer. We’ve got to go as much as wecan before the pool closes.”
“I suppose that’s true.” School had recentlystarted and there were just a few weeks until Labor Day, when allthe pools called it quits for the season. “Guess I’d better go hangup your suit and make sure it gets dry overnight.” She headed downthe hall and glanced back at him. “Unless you hung it up, ofcourse.”
He smiled sheepishly.
Christine chuckled and climbed the stairs.Peyton’s door was still closed. “Need any help?” she called overloud music, an artist she couldn’t begin to identify.
“Nope,” came the reply.
“No problem.” She slipped into her son’s roomand picked the damp swimming suit off the floor. Reaching for theequally wet towel, Christine was surprised when a blue ball capdropped out from under it. She picked it up, her heart thuddingwhen she spotted the bright red “C” logo on the front. Glancingaround the room, she saw all of Ethan’s blue Kansas City Royalsmemorabilia in place, including the cap with the white “KC” logo.The Royals were the nearest baseball team to their new home, butthanks to his father, Ethan had been a Chicago Cubs fan from birth.Much to her son’s dismay, all his Cubs gear had been leftbehind.
Christine forced herself to remain calm. Shehung the wet items in the bathroom before marching to the top ofthe stairs, hat in hand. That’s when she lost her composure. “EthanPatrick Scott!” she bellowed. “Where did you get this?”
He appeared at the bottom of the stairs,glancing up at her with confusion.
Peyton opened her door slightly, a similarexpression on her face.
Christine knew her tone was sharp, she justcouldn’t control it yet. “Where did you get this cap?” sherepeated, shaking it at him.
“From a guy at the pool. It’s no bigdeal.”
“Oh shit!” Peyton stepped from her room andstared at the hat, studying it intently like she’d never seen sucha thing before.
“It’s no big deal,” Ethan repeated, with lessenthusiasm.
Her daughter’s expression validatedChristine’s concern that it was, indeed, a big deal. “Watch yourlanguage,” she told the girl and turned back to Ethan. “Whatguy?”
“What guy at the pool?” Peyton asked at thesame time.
The doorbell rang. Mother and daughter lookedat each other.
“I shouldn’t go, should I?” Peyton’s voicewas nearly a whisper.
Christine took a couple deep breaths andtried once again to calm herself. She offered her daughter a weaksmile. “Of course you can still go. Let him in.” She glanced at thehat. “We’ll take care of this later.” She hurried down the stairsand pressed the cap into Ethan’s hands. “Take this in the kitchenand wait for the pizza timer to go off. Use the oven mitts to getit out.”
“Okay.” He seemed relieved to be dismissed,and darted into the other room.
She turned to Peyton, on her heels. “Not aword about this to anyone. We’ll handle it.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Like anyone isgoing to understand why you’re freaking out about a Cubbiescap.”
“Peyton Isabella,” she muttered throughgritted teeth.
“Take a chill pill, Mom.” Peyton opened thefront door and smiled at the tall, blond-headed boy standing there.“Hey. Sorry it took me so long. There’s always one crisis oranother around here.”
“No problem. Sounds like life with mysisters.” He stepped inside. The kids smiled at each other likeonly teenagers can.
Christine gave the good-looking boy theonce-over, but her heart wasn’t in quizzing him. All she coulddwell on was wondering who would give her son a ball cap at apublic pool. “Hello Ryan,” she murmured.
“Hey, Mrs. Scott.” He looked decidedlyuncomfortable, but no more than her daughter did.
Christine let both of them off the hook.“Sorry I can’t stay and chat, I need to get dinner out of the oven.Have fun you two. See you after the movie.”
“Oh, yes Ma’am.” He appeared surprised thatthe inquisition hadn’t happened, but he didn’t waste any timestanding around in case she changed her mind. He headed out thedoor and held it open for Peyton.
Her daughter paused for a moment and lookedat her. “You okay, Mom?”
“I’m fine. Have a good time.” She turned andwalked slowly into the kitchen, adding a last minute, “Behaveyourselves!” She heard the click of the front door behind her.
Ethan was carefully removing the pizza fromthe oven.
She waited until he’d set it safely on thehot pads before speaking. “Looks good,” she commented, and turnedoff the oven.
“Yeah.” He squirmed, his gaze going to theball cap on the counter.
Christine took a seat at the kitchen tableand pulled out a chair for Ethan.
He sat and watched her face intently.
She sighed. Ryan’s appearance had been enoughof a distraction that she’d calmed considerably. But fear stillbubbled inside her, and she tried to tamp it down. “Ethan, it’svery important that you answer my question. Who gave you the Cubscap?”
He slumped in his chair. “Just a guy at thepool, Mom. He was there with his son. They were in the chairs nextto ours. I noticed the hat sitting on top of his towel and shirt,and said I liked it. He asked if I was a Cubs fan, and I didn’tknow what to say, so I said, ‘sort of’.”
Christine felt awful for him. Why should heknow what to say? The question would have tripped her up, and shewas thirty-five. Even with all the training the marshals gave them,they couldn’t cover every subject, or come up with an answer toevery possible question. Sure, I used to be a Cubs fan, beforewe were forced to move away and change our identities. “Whatdid the man say?”
“He just kind of laughed. He said he and hisson were done swimming and that I could keep the cap. I told him Icouldn’t, but he left it on the chair next to me. I shouldn’t havetaken it, I know that, but I couldn’t resist. He just left itthere.”
“You didn’t see him after that?”
“No.” Ethan shook his head.
Thoughts rolling through her mind, Christinerose to get plates and silverware. She poured two glasses of milkand cut the pizza. After one slice, she was beginning to relax alittle. Not such a big deal , she decided. Just a manbeing nice. He didn’t have a prolonged conversation with Ethan,didn’t try anything funny. He simply gave him a ball cap. Ethan hadprobably been drooling over it. The man was just being nice. Shesmiled. Her son could turn the charm on when he wanted to.
He’d calmed as they ate, too. He was on histhird slice of pizza when he made the observation, “Funny how Ikeep finding Cubs stuff. Like the second day of school, when Ifound those folders. Now this cap. Funny.”
Christine froze. She’d forgotten about thefolders. Two new, glossy pocket folders found lying next to hisbooks on the playground at school, both bearing Cubs logos. Ethansaid he’d asked around and nobody claimed them.
Her stomach lurched. Coincidence? I thinknot.
She didn’t want to worry him, so she waiteduntil they’d cleared the dishes and he was watching TV before shepunched Jordan Burke’s number up on her cell phone.
“This is Jordan,” the Witsec marshal answeredon the second ring.
“Hi, it’s Christine Scott. We may have aproblem. I mean, I don’t know if we have a problem or not.”
“What’s up?”
“Ethan went swimming at the city pool thisafternoon with a friend, and the boy’s parents. While he was there,a man gave him a Cubs cap.”
“A what?”
Christine fought her impatience. “A ChicagoCubs baseball cap. It was Ethan’s favorite team.”
“His friends gave it to him?”
“No, some stranger. A man swimming at thepool with his son. Ethan admired the cap, and the guy gave it tohim.”
“Odd, but hardly a federal offense.”
“I was trying to tell myself that, and then Iremembered something that happened just after school started. Ethanfound two Cubs folders on the playground at school, lying next tohis stuff.”
“Folders? Like school folders?”
Christine closed her eyes, and tried toremember it was Jordan’s first time hearing any of this. The womanneeded to process the information. “Yes, school folders. Brand newones. Lying on the playground.”
“He kept them?”
“He asked around to see if they belonged toanyone, but no one spoke up.”
“So now he’s flashing Chicago Cubs gear allover the playground? I’m not sure that was the thing to do. Heshould have just ignored them. The hat, too.”
“He’s ten,” Christine reminded. “What he should do often conflicts with what he does do.”
A loud sigh on the other end of the phone.“You’re right. Are you guys home now? I should stop by and talk tohim.”
“We’re home. Just go easy, okay? I alreadyoverreacted and probably scared him half to death.”
“It’s not overreacting if there’s been asecurity breach, Christine. This is life and death stuff,remember?”
“How could I ever forget? See you soon.” Shepunched her phone off, sucked up her courage, and headed into thefamily room.
She didn’t mention Jordan coming over untilthe doorbell rang.
Ethan glanced at her with surprise, knowingthey rarely had unexpected visitors.
“Oh, yeah. Jordan’s stopping by.” She roseand went to open the front door. “Hey.”
“ Hola .” The woman brushed past her,smelling of jasmine and looking better than a person should beallowed in jeans and a fitted, two-button T-shirt.
Christine smirked and locked the door behindher. “Do you actually know Spanish, or is this like the Portuguesephase you went through a while back when you said ‘Oi’ allthe time?”
Jordan grinned showing perfect, snow-whiteteeth. “I find it’s useful to know a few words in lots oflanguages.” She kept walking into the family room and looked atEthan. “Isn’t that right, sabelotodo ?”
He stared at her, slack-jawed.
Christine followed the marshal and tried notto smile at her son’s awe-filled expression. Is he admiring thefit of that T-shirt, or simply wondering what the heck Jordansaid? Choosing to believe the latter of her innocentten-year-old, she tried to let him off the hook. “We have no ideawhat that means. You want something to drink?”
“It means ‘smarty pants’, and no thank you.So what’s up E? Who was this dude giving you the ball cap today?What did he look like?” She chose the chair closest the boy andleaned in toward him.
He sighed and muted the TV. “I’ve never seenhim before. Not too tall, skinny, kind of bald on top but brownhair sticking out over his ears.”
Jordan nodded. “Good description. Have youever seen him around before?”
Ethan thought about that and shook his head.“I don’t remember him.”
“What did his son look like?”
“Who?”
“You told your mom he was at the pool withhis son. What did he look like? How old was he? Did he seem aboutyour age, older, younger?”
Ethan shrugged. “I never saw his son. Justthe man.”
Jordan spoke slowly. “Even when he said theywere leaving, you never saw the boy?”
“Nope.”
She turned to Christine. “I didn’t want to dothis, but I think you better call the folks who took E to the pooltoday. Give them the description he just gave. Best case scenario,he’s the father of one of their classmates. Maybe they saw him andknow who he is.”
Christine frowned. “What’s the worst casescenario?”
Jordan glanced at Ethan then back atChristine. “We’re not ready to go there yet. Call the people.”
“And what, exactly, am I supposed to tellthem?”
“Look, some man approached your kid at thepool today. That’s generally frowned upon in most parental circles.Ask if they saw him, knew him. The other no-no was giving your sona gift. Major League Baseball stuff is expensive. Strangers don’thand it out to kids for no reason. Ask them. They won’t questionwhy you’re calling. They’ll apologize all over themselves for notkeeping a closer eye on E.”
With a slight nod, Christine grabbed herphone and punched up the Ulinky’s number. It took less than twominutes to determine they hadn’t seen the guy, and knew nothingabout Ethan coming home with a ball cap. As Jordan had predicted,they were very apologetic that the whole exchange had taken placeand they were totally unaware. She thanked Donna and disconnectedthe call. “You were right. They didn’t know anything about it.Didn’t see anyone, don’t remember a man fitting that description,and definitely didn’t recognize anyone there today as the father ofa classmate.”
“ Maldito sea!” Jordan stood and pacedthe length of the sofa.
“Now you’re just being annoying.” Christinesmiled nervously.
Jordan tossed her thick dark hair over hershoulder and whispered, “It means ‘damn it’. You might want toremember that one. Handy to cuss in front of the kids and theydon’t know what you’re saying.”
Ethan folded his arms across his chest. “Canyou say ‘Google’? I do know how to spell, you know.”
“Stay off the internet, sabelotodo ,”Jordan snapped back at him. “Bad things happen there.” Shecontinued to pace.
Christine could almost see the wheels turningin the marshal’s head. “Is this bad?” she finally asked.
“Well, it ain’t great. But I’m not sure howbad it actually is. I think I’ll place an undercover team out onthe street to keep an eye on things for the next twenty-four hoursor so. Do you have plans for the rest of the weekend? It’d beeasier if you stayed in.”
Christine bit her lip. “We usually go tochurch on Sunday morning.”
“I’m going swimming again tomorrow,” Ethanpiped up.
“No and no.” Jordan said to both of them. “Nomore swimming right now, and let’s break up the routine a bit. Youcan say your prayers at home for one Sunday, can’t you?”
“Sure.” Christine felt a bit guilty about thewhole church business anyway. After what Larry had done, surelythey were on the outs with God these days. She tried to keep lifenormal for the kids, but hadn’t quite reconciled this issue in hermind yet.
“I thought you said I could go swimmingtomorrow.” Ethan’s tone grew whiny. “There’s just a couple weeksleft—”
Jordan cut him off. “Trust me on this one,kiddo. You’ll be able to swim soon, just not tomorrow, okay?” Sheflashed him her patented smile.
How could he resist? Christine watchedhim until grudgingly, he nodded.
The marshal clapped her hands, like a coachrallying the team. “Okay, we have a plan. You all stick close tothe house for the rest of the weekend. If everything seems quiet,it’ll be back to work and school as usual on Monday.” She pointed afinger at Ethan. “Stay cool, little dude.”
She walked toward the front door and turnedto Christine. “Is Peyton in her room? I’ll just run up and sayhi.”
Christine shook her head. “She’s on a date.Pizza and a movie with a football player .”
Jordan waggled her eyebrows, but herexpression was wary. “Football player, eh? Do me a favor, checkwith her when she gets home, and make sure everything was quiettonight. No balding man with brown hair sticking out on thesides.”
Christine took a step closer to Jordan andlowered her voice. “Do you think we have a problem, here? I don’tlike the look in your eyes.”
The woman shrugged. “Probably not. Just beingcautious with kids in the house.”
“I agree. Which is why, if we have a problem,perhaps we should do something about it?”
Jordan’s eyes darkened. “What do you suggestwe do? Uproot your family again, change identities, and move to anew town? Because that’s what ‘doing something’ involves, you know.Or, we can keep an eye on the situation and see if maybe we’reoverreacting.”
“Weren’t you the one who said it’s notoverreacting if there’s been a security breach? Nothing is moreimportant to me than my children, Jordan. I’ll do whatever it takesto keep them safe. Hell, I already have.”
“I understand that. If a move is required,I’ll be the first one to suggest it. But the Justice Departmentfrowns on witness hopping, so we’re going to monitor the situationbefore deciding anything, okay?”
“Okay.” Christine knew Jordan had their bestinterests at heart. She trusted the woman, which was saying a lotafter what Larry had done to her.
“So call me if Peyton notices anythingsuspicious. I’ll be in and out tomorrow but I’ll be available bycell.”
“Will do. Thank you.”
Jordan touched her chin. “Cheer up, Mamasita . Everything’s going to be fine.”
Christine chuckled. “You’re an oddcombination of brilliant and nuts, you know that?”
The marshal grinned. “Aren’t you glad I’m onyour side?” She let herself out and motioned for Christine to lockthe door behind her.
Smiling, Christine obliged. She watched TVwith Ethan until he went to bed, then read until Peyton returned.Her daughter practically floated into the house, and actually spentten minutes with her discussing the evening. Christine was pleasedto hear she’d had a wonderful time, and there’d been nothingunusual that she’d recalled.
The next morning as Christine flippedpancakes instead of taking the kids to church, Peyton joined themin the kitchen. “Good morning. How’d you sleep?” she asked herdaughter.
The girl’s brown eyes clouded over. “Prettygood. Something was nagging at me, though, and I finally rememberedit during the night. I did see a bald guy with brown hair on thesides at the pizza parlor. For a minute it seemed like he waslooking at me, but then he wasn’t, he was just eating. I noticedhim again and he was reading a paper and eating pizza. I forgotabout him after that.”
Ethan piped up, “Bald on top with brown hairsticking out over his ears?”
Peyton took a pancake from the platter, toreit in half and nibbled. “That’s what I said, doofus.”
He ignored the insult. “Was he kind oftall?”
She rolled her eyes. “He was sitting in abooth. You think I could tell how tall he was?”
Christine shoved a plate in her daughter’shands. “You don’t have to be nasty. We’re all concerned about thisguy. I need to call Jordan and let her know.”
Peyton’s eyes lit up. “See if she can comeover.”
After removing the last of the pancakes fromthe griddle, Christine grabbed her cell and punched in the number.“She said she was busy today, so I don’t know.”
“Ask,” her daughter urged.
She nodded as the call connected.
“This is Jordan.” She sounded winded, out ofbreath.
“Hey, it’s Christine. Did I catch you at abad time?”
“Well actually, yeah. I was hiking with somefriends this morning and I fell, twisted my ankle. Hurts likehellfire.”
Christine heard someone yell, “It’s broken!”in the background.
“It is not,” Jordan snapped back. “Justsprained or something. But we’re going to the ER now.”
“Oh! This can wait. I should let you go.”
“We’re on the way as we speak. And no, itcan’t wait, Christine. I was going to call you this morning anyway.The undercover team spotted a car on your street. The driver fitsthe description of the man Ethan saw.”
“Peyton saw him at the pizza parlor lastnight, too,” Christine’s voice was nearly a whisper.
“Damn, damn, damn!” Jordan muttered, thenmoaned. “Ouch, that hurts! Slow down up there, these curves arekilling me!”
“We need to get you there!” the voice yelledback.
Christine’s gut churned for her family’ssituation, and also for Jordan. We’ll just have to hang on untilshe’s taken care of, then she can get back to us. “Jordan,” shetried to get the marshal’s attention. “This can wait.”
She heard the woman speak through whatsounded like gritted teeth. “It can’t wait, Mama. I’m sending mypartner over to meet with you. He’s up to date on the case, he’llfill you in.”
Panic gripped Christine. “Who? How will Iknow him?”
“You met him when you moved here, remember?Doug. Tall, with short brown hair and a goofy smile. He’ll be theresoon.”
“But Jordan—” Christine vaguely rememberedthe other marshal, but didn’t have good feelings about him. He’dbeen arrogant, and if her first assessment had been correct, hewasn’t so great with kids. I’d rather wait until Jordan is backon her feet.
“Gotta go, Mama. We’re at the ER. Doug willtake care of you, and I’ll be in touch. See you!” The callended.
Christine gripped her cell, panic threateningto overwhelm her. She turned and looked into the questioning eyesof her children. Seeing the worry in their faces reminded her thatshe had to be strong for them.
But who’s going to be there for me? She suddenly felt more alone than she ever had in her life. Damnyou, Larry.
Chapter Two
 
 
Metropolitan Correctional Center
Special Housing Unit
Chicago, Illinois
 
Orange jumpsuits were not particularlydapper, though they were fairly comfortable. He stretchedhis legs out on the bed, wiggled this way then that way, butcouldn’t relax. He’d heard lots of stories about prison--the hardwork, the gangs, inmate pecking order, always being hungry--thosethings were true. The one thing nobody ever mentioned was boredom.Prison was damn boring, especially in solitary.
A guy could only read so many books. He couldonly work out for so long. Watching mindless TV? Well, that seemedto go on forever. But he could only stand it in short spurts.
He was used to being busy. The multi-milliondollar company had kept him hopping, and he loved every minute ofit. Things just grew out of control too quickly. And he’d gottengreedy. If only he’d backed off just a bit. Not tried to move somuch stuff in such a short time. The more people that got involved,the greater the chances that someone would slip up. And someonehad.
A soft vibration tickled his backside.
He stood and looked both ways down the hallin front of him. No one in sight.
Reaching under his mattress, he removed thecell phone and answered it. “Yeah.”
“Just checking in like you asked. Got a lineon the woman and kids. They’re tucked into a nice little house, newidentities and all that. Quiet neighborhood. Easy to keep tabs onthem.”
His gut churned, thinking about people livingordinary lives while he was socked away in the slammer. “Keep aneye on them, but don’t do anything yet. I’ll let you know what andwhen.”
“Whatever you say, boss. You call theshots.”
“Don’t ever forget it. Call me tomorrow, sametime.”
“Yes sir.” The call ended.
He turned off the phone and returned it toits usual hiding place, in the bottom of a fake can of shavingcream. He only pulled it out when he was expecting a call or neededto make one. The rest of the time it remained hidden, in case thescrews decided to toss his cell, which they did on a semi-regularbasis.
He thought back to the days when he didn’t goten minutes without checking his smartphone. Stock updates, email,porn, all right at his fingertips. He no longer had access to anyof those things, and it grated on him daily. Not fuckingfair.
Nothing about this situation was fair. Forthat, someone had to pay.
 
 
* * * *
 
 
 
 
Topeka, Kansas
 
 
Doug Jackson stuck his sunglasses in hisT-shirt pocket as he rang the doorbell of the cheery yellow house.In his profession, he knew all too well that looks could bedeceiving. Not much cheer inside this house today, hesuspected.
He heard shuffling on the other side of thedoor, but it didn’t open. Whipping out his marshal badge, he heldit up so it blocked the peephole.
The dark-haired woman who opened the doorsquinted at the bright sunshine. “Got it, thanks.” She smiled wrylyand moved back to allow him in.
He clipped the badge on his belt and steppedinside, glancing around. “Just making sure. Jordan said you didn’tremember me, which frankly, I found hurtful.” He touched a hand tohis chest over his heart.
With an exaggerated roll of her eyes, shemotioned for him to follow her. “Don’t take it personally. Noteveryone is that memorable.”
“Zinger!” He trailed behind, clutching hischest. The family room was empty but she looked around anyway, asif to make sure. Doug’s gaze followed hers, taking in thesetting.
Typical suburban home . Big TV, videogame system at the ready, a couple of overstuffed chairs and a sofawith a handmade throw tossed over the back. Fireplace on one wall,he noted, thinking it’d be a comfortable space in winter with afire burning.
At the moment, he could hear the central airunit struggling to keep up. Late morning, it wasn’t hot inside yet,but it was August in Kansas. Unless you were rich, it was tough tokeep a house really nice and cool in this weather. Most people useda combination of AC and fans to get the job done.
He looked around once more until the petitewoman moved in front of him and folded her arms across her chest.“I do hope you intend to take this seriously, Mr.—”
“Jackson. Doug Jackson. Again, I’m hurt.” Hestared into her chocolate brown eyes for a moment before heblinked. “I assure you, I take my job very seriously. This isn’texactly how I’d planned to spend my Sunday, you know.”
She looked over his ripped jeans and fadedT-shirt. “Yeah, I see we caught you on your way to church. Sorryfor the inconvenience.”
He gazed at her evenly. “I didn’t say it wasan inconvenience. I said I might have had other plans. Sowhat’s going on Chris? Jordan filled me in, but I’d like to hear itfrom you.”
Her face clouded as she obviously struggledfor composure. She finally cleared her throat and mumbled, “No onecalls me Chris. It’s Christine.”
It was Doug’s turn to roll his eyes. Hewalked away, nosing around the hallway and eventually ending up inthe kitchen. Aware she was right behind him, he turned and raisedhis hands submissively. “Whatever you say, ma’am. I’m just tryingto get to the bottom of things.”
She stared at him with a hard gaze for amoment before eventually giving in, perhaps deciding they were onthe same side. She motioned to a kitchen chair and pulled a pitcherof tea from the fridge, holding it up.
Doug nodded.
She poured two glasses and added ice.
He sat and observed, trying to ignore theshapely curve of her hips in the snug jeans. She was thin for awoman with two kids, he mused, but had curves in all the rightplaces. Straight brown hair fell past her shoulders, giving her ayouthful appearance. He knew from her case file she wasthirty-five, but he’d never have guessed it.
“Sugar?” She set a glass in front of him.
“Yes, dear?” He blinked at herinnocently.
She started for the cabinet before pausing,his words apparently registering as she turned back to look at him.A bright red flush started at her neck spreading upward, and shescrewed up her face. “I was asking if you’d like sugar in yourtea.”
Doug grinned. “I knew what you were asking. Ijust like to see you blush. You’re easy to fluster, you know.”
Christine’s eyes flashed for a quick moment,then she pointed to the cabinet. “Well?”
“No, thank you.” He raised his glass anddrank.
She sighed and sat across from him, pokingthe ice in her drink. “I have reason to be flustered, don’t youthink? Someone is watching my house. Following my children. We’renot safe here anymore.”
Doug listened as she retold the story he’dheard from his partner Jordan. He drained his glass and sherefilled it, talking the whole time. She stopped only when hisphone barked.
Christine’s eyes widened.
He smiled sheepishly. “Text message. Excuseme.” Pulling the phone from his pocket he scrolled the screen a fewtimes and read the message.
“That would get annoying,” she muttered.
Doug’s fingers flew as he replied to themessage quickly, and stuck the phone back in his jeans pocket. “Ichange it up a lot. It used to burp.”
“Great. Don’t let my son hear that.” Sheshook her head.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to talk to yourson, but it looks like that’s not going to happen. Jordan has abroken ankle. They’ve splinted it and once the swelling goes downthey’ll have to operate. She’s out of commission for theforeseeable future.”
“Oh no!” Christine looked as if she mightburst into tears.
He reached out and touched her hand. “She’llheal. It’s just her ankle. Jordan’s a strong woman. She’s going tobe okay.”
“I know she will,” the woman sniffed. “I feelawful for her, I truly do. And I don’t mean to sound crass...butwhat about us? Are we going to be okay?”
Realization dawned on Doug and he felt likean idiot. This woman wasn’t concerned about his partner, someoneshe barely knew. She was afraid for her family, her children, herown life. He silently cursed the man who put Christine in thisunenviable position. How could a husband do such a thing to hiswife and kids?
Not that Doug really knew what a husbandmight be capable of. He’d come close to getting married once butthe bride and groom got mutual cold feet and split up before theycould go through with it. Since then, he’d been a happilyunattached ladies’ man.
Pushing old memories aside, he cleared histhroat. “Of course you are. Listen, we don’t know what thisbald-headed guy is up to. Right now we’re waiting and watching. Wedon’t want to do anything hasty.”
“Hasty?” Her eyes flashed. “He gave a gift tomy son!”
“Which in itself is not a crime, Christine.Keep a clear head about this.”
“A clear head?” She rose, her voice alsorising in pitch. “How can you say that to me? We have no idea whatthis man is capable of! What if someone from the Russo family senthim? He could be a hit man. What if he does more than talk to Ethanthe next time? What if he snatches him and I never see himagain?”
“Whoa!” Doug stood and grasped one of herarms. “Slow down the ‘what if’ train. Worrying about stuff likethat will only make you crazy.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re the one who’sgoing to make me crazy. I’m a mother. It’s my job to worry. Do youhave any idea what those people from Chicago are capable of?There’s a reason my family and I are here, remember?” She shook herarm to release his grip.
He didn’t let her go. “Yeah, I remember.Dealing with people like this is my job, do you rememberthat? Hundreds of people have passed through my life in the WitnessProtection Program and not one of them who followed the rules hasgotten killed. The key to that is following the rules. And stayingcalm. Don’t freak out on me, Christine. Your kids need you. Jordanand I need you to remain in control.”
She took a deep breath and exhaled. Visiblycalmer, she eyed him and the grip he maintained on her arm.
Doug let loose and took a step back.
Christine nodded. “I can stay calm, but youneed to talk to me. I’ve got to know what you’re doing, what anyone is doing, to keep my children safe.”
Her son entered the kitchen and looked fromone of them to the other. “Is Jordan here?”
Composing herself, his mother went to the boyand put an arm around his shoulder. “No, sweetie. Jordan hasapparently broken her ankle. One of her friends is going to behelping us out. This is Mr. Jackson.”
“Call me Doug.” He stepped forward andextended a hand to shake with the boy. “You’re Ethan. I remembermeeting you last winter.”
Seemingly surprised but well-mannered, thechild nodded, shook hands and then stepped closer to hismother.
“I’m Jordan’s partner ,” Dougcorrected.
“You’re a marshal too?” Ethan sized him up.“I kind of remember you. There were a lot of people those firstcouple days.”
“Yes there were. The first few days in Witsecare usually a confusing mess. I seem to recall you made it throughokay. With the help of a handheld video game, that is.” Hesmiled.
Ethan grinned.
Christine kept a protective arm around hisshoulder. “He doesn’t go far without that.”
“I didn’t use to, either. ‘Course in my day,the games were a lot bulkier. And the graphics were laughable. Everplay Pac Man, Ethan?”
The boy shook his head.
“Space Invaders? Missile Command?”
He shook his head again.
“Tsk, tsk,” Doug looked at Christine. “Kidsthese days, don’t know what they’re missing.”
She gazed at him coolly. “He can access theinternet from his video game. He can stream music, videos, movies,whatever he wants, and watch them on the handheld or the TV.”
Doug resisted the urge to make a snarkycomment and simply said, “Kids shouldn’t be on the internet. It’s adangerous place.”
“Like the world we live in is not,” shecountered. Christine looked at her son. “I need to talk to Doug,honey. Can you please go to your room for a while longer? I’ll callyou when we’re done.”
“I’m hungry.” He glanced over her shoulder tothe counter.
“Here.” Christine released him and steppedback. She opened a plastic container and pulled out some cookies,putting them on a plate. She poured a glass of milk and grabbed anapkin, handing the snack over to her son. “Have this now. We’llfix lunch in another hour or so.”
“Thanks, Mom.” Hands full, he nodded to Dougon his way out. “See you later.”
“Yeah, you will. Enjoy those cookies.” Dougsided up to the counter and sniffed longingly.
With an air of irritation, Christine put onemore cookie on a napkin and handed it to him.
He smiled. “Chocolate chip. My favorite.” Heate while she laid into him.
“Don’t try to get all friendly with my son.You have a job to do here, Mister, and I expect you to focus onthat. Not video games. I asked you before and now I’m asking again.What are you doing to keep my family safe?”
Doug folded the napkin, wiped his mouth, andtossed it in the trash can at the end of the counter. He facedChristine. “The Topeka Police Department is checking out the whitesedan our mystery man is driving. We’ve got a couple contacts overthere. They’re keeping an eye on your house and on the car, if itshows up again.”
“Can they arrest him?”
“He hasn’t done anything. All we can do iskeep him under surveillance for now. If he tries anything—”
“Like snatching one of my children?”
“You’re awfully focused on that idea, aren’tyou? What makes you think anyone wants one of your kids?”
“Oh, gee, let’s see. Maybe because my husbandhasn’t testified yet at one of the biggest trials Chicago is goingto see this year?”
He couldn’t resist. “Ex-husband.”
She looked surprised for a moment, thennodded. “Ex-husband. His employer, Valcor, was a multi-milliondollar corporation. Their CEO, Martin Newsome, paid Larry well tofix their books and launder drug money. Larry has crucialinformation that’s going to put Newsome away for a long time, ifnot forever. Nobody really knows if that information is going toincriminate Sal Russo, who heads a Chicago crime syndicate. But mysuspicion, and the suspicion of the folks who grabbed us up andstuck us in witness protection, was that Russo thinks Larrymight have dirt on him.”
“I understand all that,” Doug tried to get aword in edgewise.
“And my poor, misguided ex-husband, whothought accepting huge bribes of drug money would help our familyrather than hurt us… despite all the stupid things he did, he loveshis children. That’s the one good thing I can still say about him.He has always loved his kids. If something happened to Peyton orEthan, it would no doubt influence Larry’s testimony. Russo has toknow that. Doesn’t that make my kids pawns in this twisted, sickgame?”
Doug shook his head. “Larry is totallyisolated in prison. Nothing is going to happen to you or Peyton orEthan. But hypothetically speaking, if it did, your ex-husbandwould never know about it. The DA would make sure of that. They’vetaken great pains to ensure that everyone else knows it, too. Theywant to decrease the appeal of hurting your family as much asanybody.”
She looked at him incredulously. “Decreasethe appeal of hurting my family? Please try to remember, we’rereal people here, Mr. Jackson. Not just another case to beworked.”
Doug started to reply then checked himself,and took a breath. “I understand that,” he finally said. “Look, Iknow you’re scared and right now it seems like everything isfalling apart. But I really think you’re okay. We’re monitoring thesituation, and if things don’t feel right we’ll take you and thekids to a holding place until we can decide what to do.”
“What kind of holding place?” Shesniffed.
“Usually a safe house the service maintains,sometimes a hotel. But listen, that’s our last resort, only ifwe’re sure there’s a credible threat. If we take you away fromhere, you won’t be coming back. You understand what thatmeans.”
Christine leaned against the counter andclosed her eyes. “New city, new home, new identities. New job, newschools…” She opened her eyes. “I’m not sure we can do that, Doug.I’m barely keeping things together as it is.”
The look in her eyes tugged at hisheartstrings. He stepped forward and squeezed her left hand. “Ofcourse you can. You’ll do whatever it takes to keep your familysafe. We’re just discussing possibilities right now, Chris. I toldyou, I think you’re safe. When I don’t think that anymore, you’llbe the first to know it.”
She stared into his eyes. “And I told you,nobody calls me Chris.”
He smiled sheepishly and shrugged. “Maybeit’s time somebody did. I’m going to take off now. I want to getyour file from the office and make sure I know all there is to knowabout Russo and his syndicate.”
“Some light reading for a Sunday afternoon.”Her expression was grim.
Doug smiled and squeezed her hand beforeletting go. “You’re going to be fine. I’ll make sure the TPD is onduty, keeping an eye out for the white sedan. I’ll check in withyou later and let you know the game plan for tomorrow. Business asusual, or not.”
“Okay. Thank you.” She nodded and turned awayas he walked down the hall to the front door.
Doug had one hand on the doorknob when heheard an unfamiliar voice behind him. “Is Jordan really okay?” Heturned to face the girl on the stairs, the spitting image of hermother with long brown hair and deep-set eyes.
“She’s got a broken ankle but it’ll heal.She’ll be back to normal before we know it.”
“But she’s not on our case anymore?”
“Sure she is. You just get metemporarily.”
Peyton smiled. “Not a bad trade.” She moveddown the stairs gracefully, pausing on the bottom step. “I mean,I’m sorry she got hurt and all. But I think if someone’s going toprotect us, a man might be the smarter choice.” She batted herlashes.
Doug forced back a groan. Teenage girlsare the worst witnesses. They were generally a mix of moodinessand attempted sultriness that was nothing but a pain to deal with.“Oh, I don’t know.” He raised his brows. “Jordan’s been my partnerfor five years. I wouldn’t want anyone else watching my back.”
“That’s good to know.” She folded her armsacross her chest. “So what did you mean—‘business as usual ornot’?”
She’d been listening . He sighed. “Whydon’t you not worry about that right now?

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