Two months later, a helicopter banked to the left and descended toward the clearing where Deputy U.S. Marshal Brody Callahan’s new assignment, Arianna Jackson, was being guarded by three marshals. His team would relieve them, so he used his vantage point above the forest to check out the area. Knowing the terrain that surrounded the safe house had saved his life several times. The cabin backed up against a medium-size mountain range on the north and west while the other two sides were made up of a wall of spruces, pines, hemlocks and other varieties of trees that stretched out for miles. A rugged land–manageable only as long as the weather cooperated. It was the end of July, but it had been known to snow at that time in Alaska near the Artic Circle. He had to be prepared for all contingencies.
As they dropped toward the clearing, Deputy U.S. Marshal Ted Banks came out of the cabin, staying back by the door, his hand hovering near his gun in his holster. Alert. Ted was a good marshal Brody had worked with before.
The helicopter’s landing skids connected with the ground, jolting Brody slightly. Over the whirring noise of the rotors, he yelled to the pilot, “This shouldn’t take long.”
With duffel bags in hand, Brody jumped to the rocky earth closest to the cabin while his two partners exited from the other side. Brody ran toward Ted, who held out his hand and said in a booming voice, “Glad to see you.”
“Ready to see your wife, are you?”
“Yep. I hope you’ve honed your Scrabble skills. This one is ruthless when it comes to the game. I’m going to brush up on my vocabulary with a dictionary before I play her again.”
“I’ve read her file.” Arianna Jackson was the star witness for the trial of Joseph Rainwater, the head of a large crime syndicate in Alaska, because she’d witnessed Rainwater killing Thomas Perkins. The man had bled out before the EMTs arrived.
“Doesn’t do her justice. I don’t have anything to add to my earlier phone report this morning. C’mon. I’ll introduce you two.” Ted peered over Brody’s shoulder at his partners, Kevin Laird and Mark Baylor, approaching them while carrying a bag and three boxes of provisions. Ted nodded to them before turning to open the door.
As Brody entered, he panned the rustic interior with a high ceiling, noting where the few windows were located, the large fireplace against the back wall, the hallway that led to the two bedrooms and the kitchen area off the living room. Three duffel bags sat by the door. Then his gaze connected with the witness he was to protect.
Tall, with white-blond hair and cool gray eyes, she resembled a Nordic princess. Still, he could tell she was very capable of taking care of herself from the way she carried herself, right down to the sharp perusal she gave him. From what he’d read, Ms. Jackson had been a good bodyguard caught in a bad situation. Her life would never be the same after this.
She tossed the dish towel she held onto the kitchen counter, never taking her gaze off him. She assessed and catalogued him, not one emotion on her face to indicate what she had decided about him. That piqued his interest.
“These three are our replacements–Brody Callahan, Kevin Laird and Mark Baylor. This is Arianna Jackson,” Ted said. Then he headed toward the door, the tension from his body fading with each step. “It’s been quiet this past week except for a pesky mama bear and her cubs.” He shoved into Brody’s hand a sheet of paper with instructions on how to avoid a bear encounter.
“Good. Have you seen anyone in the area?”
“Nope, just the wildlife. We are, even for Alaska, out in the boonies,” Ted said, giving him a salute. “Hope the next time I see you is in Anchorage. Goodbye, Ari-anna.”
Brody looked from Ted, almost fleeing, to Carla Matthews not far behind him, to Dan Mitchell, the third Deputy U.S. Marshal on team number one, who would be on vacation on a beach in Hawaii. Brody clenched his jaw, curling his fingers around the handle of his bag so tightly his skin stretched taut over his knuckles. Carla shot him a piercing glance before disappearing outside. Slowly, Brody released his grip on his duffel bag, and it dropped to the floor with a thud.
Good thing Ted and Dan worked with Carla. He had once and wouldn’t again. He’d learned the hard way to never get involved with a colleague. In fact, she’d been one of the reasons he’d transferred to Alaska from Los Angeles. It had been a hard shock to find out she’d been recruited to be on the detail protecting Arianna Jackson. At least she would return to L.A. when this trial was over.
Brody swung his attention to his witness, who watched team one leave. These assignments were never easy on anyone involved. The pressure was intense. Never able to let down your guard. And with Ms. Jackson the stakes were even higher because Joseph Rainwater was determined his crime syndicate would find her and take her out, along with anyone else in their way. And the man had the resources and money to carry out that threat.
Her gaze linked with his. “The bedroom on the right is where you all can bunk,” Ms. Jackson said in a no-nonsense voice as she rotated back to finish drying the few dishes in the drain board.
Patience, Lord. I’m pretty sure I’m going to need every ounce of it this next week. He was guarding a woman who was used to guarding others. He doubted she would like to follow orders when she was used to giving them.
Brody nodded to Kevin and Mark to go ahead and take their duffel bags into the room assigned to them by their witness. Then Brody covered the distance between him and Ms. Jackson. “We need to talk.”
She turned her head and tilted it. One eyebrow rose. “We do? Am I going to get the lecture about not going outside, to follow all your ord—directions?”
“No, because you guard people for a living and you know what to do. But I do have some news I thought you deserved to know.”
Her body stiffening, she faced him fully, her shoulders thrust back as though she were at attention.
“Esther Perkins is missing.”
Arianna clenched her hands. “No one would tell me anything about Esther other than she was being taken care of. She didn’t witness the murder. She couldn’t testify about it. What happened?”
“Rainwater thought she might know something concerning the ledger and went after her. Or rather he sent a couple of his men since Rainwater is sitting in jail. We moved her out of state while she tried to help us find that ledger even from long distance.”
“So the police never could locate it?”
“No. They figure it has to be important since Rainwater personally killed a man over it. Usually others do his dirty work. The ledger probably details his contacts and operation. Thomas Perkins was in a position to know that information.”
“So how did Esther go missing? Maybe she just left the program.” She knew that was wishful thinking. When she’d stressed the importance of staying put, the woman always did. She’d been scared of her husband and now knowing who he’d worked for she was even more afraid.
“No, the Deputy U.S. Marshal running the case said it didn’t look like she had. It had been obvious there had been a fight. There was blood found on the carpet. It was her type.”
Her fingernails dug into her palms. Anger tangled with sadness and won. “She didn’t have a detail on her?”
“She was relocated with a new identity thousands of miles away.”
“Then maybe you have a leak somewhere.” She pivoted back to the sink, her stomach roiling with rage that a good woman was probably dead. This all wouldn’t have happened if they had stayed at Esther lawyer’s office for another hour or so. Why, God? It had tested her faith; and now with the Rainwater situation her doubts concerning the Lord had multiplied. As had her doubts about herself.
For the past four years she’d worked for Guardians, Inc., a group of female bodyguards run by Kyra Hunt. In that time, she had seen some vile people who would hurt others without hesitation. She’d thought she had been tough enough for the job, especially with all she’d seen in the military in the Middle East during several tours. Now she was wondering if this was a good time to change jobs.
The continual silence from Brody after her accusation made her slant a look over her shoulder. A frown slashed across his face, the first sign of emotion from him.
His gaze roped hers. “It’s more likely Esther contacted someone when she shouldn’t. Let slip where she was. We’ve never lost a witness if they followed the rules.”
“Take it from me—this isn’t easy to do. Walk away from everyone you know and start a new life. I can’t even call my mother or anyone else from my past.” Ari-anna had always called her mom at least once a week, even when she was on a job, to make sure everything was going all right, wishfully hoping one of those times her father would talk with her. He never had, which broke her heart each time. Not being able to at least talk with her mom, except that one time right after the incident in the Perkinses’ library, added family heartache on top of everything else.
“All I can tell you is that the U.S. Marshals Service is doing everything they can to locate Mrs. Perkins.”
Left unsaid was “dead or alive.” She closed her eyes, weariness attacking her from all sides. Since coming to the cabin, she hadn’t slept more than a few hours here and there. The marshals had moved her from Anchorage because they’d worried the safe house had been compromised. If that place had been, why not this one?
That question plagued her every waking moment. It was hard to rest when she didn’t know the people involved in her protection. When she did lie down, she’d managed to catch some sleep because she had her gun with her. …