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"Jed, let me bring you in," DEA agent Rowe Cusack's voice crackled in the beat-up pay-phone receiver.
Because everyone had cell phones nowadays, Jed had been lucky to find a pay phone, let alone one that was still working. But then this small mid-Michigan town was a throwback to about fifty years ago. With bright-colored awnings on its storefronts that faced out onto cobblestone streets, Miller's Valley might as well have been called Mayberry.
"You're not safe out there," Rowe continued.
Even at night, with the antique street lamps barely burning holes into the darkness, it was hard to imagine any danger here. Despite the cold and blowing snow, in any other city, people would have still been outselling or buying things or services that shouldn't be commodities. Jedidiah Kleyn would like to believe that there was actually a place where no crime happened, where no evil existed, but he'd learned the hard way that nothing and nobody were ever as innocent as they might appear. And at times, some things and some people weren't as guilty, either.
"Is that because I'm a cop killer?" Jed asked quietly with a quick glance around him to make sure nobody overheard. But the cobblestone street was really deserted. No one lurked in the shadows here, as they had at Blackwoods.
This town, on the outskirts of Grand Rapids, Michigan, was so rural that everyone was early to bed, early to rise. So hopefully no one, inside their little houses behind their picket fences, was awake yet to notice the stranger in the borrowed dark wool jacket with the knit cap pulled low over his face, walking the snow-dusted streets of their town.
"You're not a killer." The certainty in the lawman's voice eased some of Jed's anxiety.
"That's not what a jury of my peers and a judge decided three years ago." He had been convicted of killing his business partner and a police officer who must have happened upon the murder.
"I've been going through the case file and the court transcripts," the agent said.
For the past three years he'd wanted to get his hands on those files, but his lawyer hadn't been able to get the records past the guards at Blackwoods Penitentiary. The maximum security prison had had no law library, no way for prisoners to learn about their legal rights.
The warden hadn't cared that even convicted killers had the right to aid in their own appeals. Jefferson James hadn't been just the prison warden. He'd been the judge, at least the appeals court judge, the jury and, more often than not, the executioner.
But Jed was no longer in any danger from Warden James. The warden was the one behind bars now. So Jed focused on what was truly importanton what had kept him going for the past three years.
"Did you find anything that will prove I was framed?"
And who the hell had done it?
A sigh rattled the already crackling connection. "Not yet. But I will."
Jed appreciated the agent's support but there was only so much the man could do. "You don't even know where to start."
"You do," Rowe surmised. "That's why you broke out of prison."
"The prison broke," Jed reminded him. From the gunfire and explosions, the brick, mortar and wood structure had nearly imploded. "It was more dangerous to stay than to leave."
"Not now. It's too dangerous for you on the outside," the DEA agent insisted, his voice deep with a life-and-death urgency. "You need to let me handle this."
Over the past three years, Jed had learned that his black-and-white code of integrity was something few people followed. Most people, even lawenforcement officers, lived life with shades of gray. Some darker shades than others.
"Is there a shoot-on-sight order out on me?"
Rowe's silence confirmed Jed's suspicion.
The prison guard who had stepped aside and let him escape the burning ruins of Blackwoods had warned him that his life would be more at risk on the outside. That there were lawmen who took it very personally when one of their own was killed. Cop killers rarely survived in jail or on the outside.
"Then it's not safe for me to go back into custody, either," Jed pointed out. "No doubt I'd wind up having a fatal accident!''
"I will bring you in," the DEA agent said. "And I'll vouch for your innocence."
A smile tugged at Jed's lips. "Do you really think anyone is going to take your word that I'm innocent just because your girlfriend says so?"
"She's not my girlfriend."
Jed's breath left his lungs in a whoosh of surprise. He had only seen Rowe Cusack once since helping the agent survive his undercover assignment at Blackwoods Penitentiary, but during that brief meeting in the midst of the riot, he had been able to tell that the guy had fallen hard for Jed's younger sister. "Is Macy all right?"
Because if Rowe had hurt her, the DEA agent would be seeing Jed againbut not to bring him back to prison.
"She's my fiancée now," Rowe said.
"You proposed?" The guy had fallen really hard.
"She's everything you told me she was," Rowe said, his voice gruff with emotion, "and so much more. I would have been a fool if I let her get away."
Jed had been a fool like that once. He'd fallen hard but had let the woman get away. In the end, it had cost him his freedom. And given that shoot-on-sight order, it could wind up costing him his life, too.
"I hope she wasn't a fool to accept," Jed said. As he'd learned, people weren't always what you thought they were or what your heart wanted them to be.
"Your sister is no fool," Rowe said, defending her, his voice sharp with anger now.
"No," Jed agreed. Macy was the only one who had believed in his innocence until the DEA agent. But Jed suspected that Rowe just believed in Macy, which was fine with him. His younger sister deserved to have someone who supported her and who obviously loved her. "Congratulations."
"If I had my way, she would already be my wife,"
Rowe admitted, "but she won't set a date for our wedding until your name is cleared."
Jed choked on a laugh. "So Macy's given you some incentive to help me."
"You gave me the incentivewhen you saved my life," Rowe reminded him. "Twice."
"I didn't do that to give you incentive," Jed said. "I did it because it was the right thing to do." And because he could never have lived with himself had he let an innocent man be murdered.
"I know," Rowe said. "That's why I believe you. That's why I want you to do the right thing now. Tell me where you are, so I can bring you in."
Jed blew out a breath that steamed up the cracked Plexiglas of the old pay-phone booth. He'd already talked to the agent too long, just hopefully not long enough for the man to have tracked Jed's location. "Tell my sister I love her."
"If you love her, you would"
"Stay alive. That's what Mace wants most of all," Jed said with absolute certainty, "my safety." Macy would have broken him out of prison herself if he'd agreed to go along with her plan. But he hadn't wanted her to risk her freedom for his. And for years he had believed that justice would prevail and his innocence would be proventhe real killer finally caught.
He wasn't that idealistic and naive anymore. He knew that he was the only one who could prove his innocence. "I won't be safe until I have irrefutable proof that I killed no one."
Yet. Because he couldn't trust the justice system to work, he might have to take his own justice.
"Jed, you have to come back, or it won't matter if you clear your name," Rowe said, trying to reason with him.
But no one really understood that nothing mattered to Jed but clearing his name. Not even his own life "I'll keep in touch, Rowe."
Jed hung up, hopefully before Rowe had had time to trace his call. The DEA agent would excuse his interference as help. But Jed didn't need anyone's help. He had broken out of prison because there were certain thingscertain peopleonly he could handle.
Erica Towsley was one of those people. He wadded up the page he had ripped from the dangling phone book and shoved it into the pocket of his jeans. He had found her. For over three years he'd had his lawyer looking for her to no avail. In the three days since he had escaped from Blackwoods Penitentiary, Jed had tracked down his alibi.
He stepped out of the booth and sucked in a breath as the wind picked up, whipping icy chunks of snow at him. But then he thought of her, and his blood heated. Oblivious to the freak late-spring snowstorm, he trudged along the deserted street deeper into the heart of the small town. The businesses were closed, the storefronts dark. But above a few of those businesses, lights glowed in some of the apartments on the second and third stories.
Behind the blinds at one of those windows, a shadow moved. He couldn't see any more than a dark, curvy silhouette, but his pulse quickened and his breath shortened.
He knew it was her.
Erica shivered but not because of the cold air seeping through the worn frames of the front windows. She shivered at what she saw as she gazed through the slats of the blinds.
Despite it being spring for a few weeks now, winter had snuck back into Miller's Valley in the form of a blizzard. But the return of winter wasn't what chilled her blood even with the snow blowing outside, nearly obscuring the street below the third-floor apartment. Nearly.
Erica still caught a glimpse of someone standing on the sidewalk across the street. He was just a tall, broad-shouldered shadow. But she could feel his gaze as he stared up at her window. And it chilled her far more than the cold air.
"There is no way that he found you," she whispered, reassuring herself again, like she had been doing since that special report three nights ago. Nothing was in her name. Not the business. Not the building. Not even the car she drove. "It's safe here."
But despite all of her assurances, those doubts niggled at her, jangling her already frazzled nerves. That was why she was up so late, because every creak and clunk of the old building had her pulse jumping and heart racing.
Even though her eyes were gritty and lids heavy, sleep eluded her. So she paced and kept watch, making sure those creaks and clunks were nothing but weather testing the structure of the old building.
But what about the shadow watching her window? She stepped closer but caught no glimpse of him now. Had there really been someone there, or had her overwrought nerves conjured up the image? She studied the street for several more moments, but the wind picked up, swirling the snow around and obliterating whatever footprints might have been on the street or sidewalk.
The snowstorm was late in the spring even for Michigan's unpredictable April weather. The temperatures had dropped, and rain had turned to sleet and then snow. No one would be out walking in such a storm.
She must have just imagined someone watching her. She exhaled a shaky breath of relief. As her nerves settled, exhaustion overwhelmed her. Maybe she could finally sleep. She stepped back from the window and crossed the living room to shut off the light switch by the door before heading down the hall.
Her heart slammed into her ribs. This was no creak or clunk.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Midstep, she stopped in the hall and whirled back toward the door that rattled under a pounding fist. Her hand trembling, she reached out and flipped on the lights as if the light alone would banish the monsters that had crept out of the shadows.
"Who's there?" she called out, her voice quavering as her nerves rushed back and overwhelmed her. She couldn't movecouldn't even step close enough to the dead-bolted door to peer through the peepholeas if he might be able to grab her through the tiny window.
"Ms. Towsley," a gruff voice murmured through the door, "I'm an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration."
How the hell did he know who she was? And what could he possibly want with her? She knew nothing about narcotics; she rarely even remembered to take her vitamins.
"Prove it," she challenged him.
She shook off the nerves, so that she had the courage to press her eye to the peephole. But the man was so tall that he blocked most of the light in the hall. And he stood so close to the door that Erica couldn't see his face, only his wide chest.
"What?" he asked with an impatient grunt.
"Prove that you are who you say you are." Because she had been fooled before; she had thought a man was something he wasn't, and the mistake could have cost her everything.
Now she had even more to lose.
"Open the door," he replied, "and I'll show you my credentials."
"Just hold your ID up to the peephole," she directed him.
She had once chuckled over Aunt Eleanor installing the tiny security window in the doorgiven that no one had ever committed a crime in Miller's Valley. But now she was grateful for her great aunt's paranoia; too bad it had actually been the first symptom of the Alzheimer's that had eventually taken the elderly woman's life.
The shadows shifted as he stepped back and finally she was able to seebut just the identification the man held up: Rowe Cusack, Special Agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He was the lawman the news hadn't stopped talking about since the prison break. He was the DEA agent who had gone undercover to expose the corruption at Blackwoods Penitentiary and had nearly lost his life.
"Why are you here?" she asked.