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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 landmanageable 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 replacementsBrody 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 orddirections?"
"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 methis 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. She'd brought extra money, a switchblade and her gun without the marshals' knowledge. In case something went down, she wanted to be prepared. That was the only way she would agree to all of this. She would see to her own protection. She didn't trust anyone but herself to keep her alive.
Not even God anymore. That thought crept into her mind and prodded her memories. She wouldn't think about the reason she'd left the army, much to her brothers' and father's dismay. But how could she trust again when one of her team had sold her out? In the end it wasn't the Lord who had saved her. She'd saved herself.
That was when she'd vowed to protect others. She never wanted another to live in fear the way she hadscared she would go to prison for a crime she hadn't committed.
She turned toward the marshal, appreciating what her clients must have felt when she'd guarded them and told them what to do. "Promise me you'll let me know if you all find Esther. She was my client. I feel responsible for her."
"You did everything you could. If you hadn't been there, she would have been dead next to her husband."
"And now she may be dead, her body somewhere no one has found yet. May never find."
"Yes," Deputy U.S. Marshal Brody Callahan said over the sound of the helicopter taking off.
The blunt reality of what might have happened to Esther, and still could happen, hung in the air between Arianna and the marshal. She went back to drying the lunch dishes. Anything to keep her occupied. If this inactivity didn't end soon, she might go running through the woods screaming.
Mark Baylor, the oldest of the three marshals, with a touch of gray at his temples, strode to the door. "I'm gonna take a stroll around the perimeter."
Usually one marshal stayed outside while two were insideoften one of them taking his turn sleeping. That was the way it had been set up with Ted and his team.
"Do you need any help?" The deep, husky voice of Brody Callahan, the marshal who seemed to be in charge, broke into her thoughts.
"With cleaning up?" she asked, surprised by the question.
She glanced back at him. Six inches taller than her five-feet-eleven frame, Brody carried himself with confidence, which in its own way did ease her anxiety about her situation. His figure, with not an ounce of fat on him and a broad, muscular chest, spoke of a man that kept himself in shape. "I've got it under control." About the only thing in my life that is.
"We equally share the duties while we're here."
"That's good to know. I don't cook."
She finished drying the last plate. "Never had a reason to learn. I went from living at home with my family to the army. Then when I started working for Guardians, Inc., I found myself on assignment most of the time with wealthy clients who had cooks." She shrugged. "The short amount of time I was in Dallas I ate out or ate frozen dinners."
"That's okay. I love to cook," Kevin Laird, the youngest of the marshals, announced as he came into the living room.
Brody chuckled. "That's why I like to team up with Kevin when I can. He can make the most boring food taste decent."
"Good. I'm not averse to edible food." Arianna moved out of the kitchen area, trying to decide what she should do next. Let's see maybe a crossword puzzle. Or better yet, solitaire. She still had at least fifty varieties to work her way through. The thought of more days like the past week heightened her boredom level to critical.
She began to pace from one of the few windows, drapes pulled, to the hearth. It was empty and cold. They couldn't have a fire even at night when it did get chilly since it indicated someone was at the place. She counted her steps, mentally mapping out an escape route if she needed it. Her thoughts were interrupted when Kevin spoke up from the kitchen.
"This is a park ranger's cabin. Where's the guy that usually stays here?"
"On an extended vacation." Brody prowled the living room in a different direction from her.
"Does he know we're using it?" Arianna asked as she peeked out the window. The previous set of marshals had told her about the cabin, but only now had she started to wonder what the tenant had been told.
"No, the cabin belongs to the park service. No one knows you're here or that the U.S. Marshals Service is using it to protect a witness. A bogus agency has rented it while the park ranger is gone. They think we're here on vacation." Brody parted the drapes and looked out the only other window in the room.
"When's he due back?" Arianna spied a bull moose in the thick of the trees. Seeing the beautiful animals was the one thrill she got being where she was. She loved animals, but because of her job, she hadn't been able to have anynot even a goldfish.
"Not for two more weeks. Do you see it?" Brody's gaze captured hers, nodding in the direction of the moose.
"He's beautiful. I wish I could go outside and take a picture. I took the Perkins assignment because it was in Alaska. After I finished guarding her, I was going to take a long overdue vacation and do some touring of the countryside up here. The most exciting thing that's happened to me this week was the helicopter ride to this cabin. Breathtaking scenery."
"Don't even think about going outside to snap a picture."