Protecting the Witness
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Protecting the Witness

by Linda Style

Time Is Running Out…

She had vowed never to return to Houston's crime-riddled East End. But Detective Crista Santiago's promotion to the Chicano Squad has put her right back in the violence of the barrio. Determined to transfer out as fast as possible, Crista first has to prove herself by solving a series of drive-by shootings.

Crista has


Time Is Running Out…

She had vowed never to return to Houston's crime-riddled East End. But Detective Crista Santiago's promotion to the Chicano Squad has put her right back in the violence of the barrio. Determined to transfer out as fast as possible, Crista first has to prove herself by solving a series of drive-by shootings.

Crista has only one witness—four-year-old Samantha Del Rio. Protecting Samantha becomes Crista's number one priority, which means staying close to the little girl. And her widower father, Alex. But "staying close" soon changes into becoming part of the family. And the more attached Crista becomes to the girl and her father, the more she's afraid she's lost her edge…and her ability to protect the witness.

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Women in Blue , #3
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The little girl was still alive.

Detective Crista Santiago braced one arm on the door frame of the ICU at the Texas Children's Hospital, closed her eyes and drew a breath.

Alex Del Rio, the child's father, slumped in a chair at her bedside, his dark head bowed, hands clasped and pressed against his forehead.

Crista prayed, too. Prayed the girl would live.

A moment later the man started humming, his voice barely audible. Hush little baby, don't you cry…a lullaby he'd probably sung to his daughter from the time she was an infant. Grief was etched in deep lines on his face as he reached out to hold the child's tiny hand.

Swallowing around a sudden lump in her throat, Crista pushed away from the door, dark memories of her own surfacing like demons from the deep, memories of another hospital—another time. Fourteen years ago.

She hurried down the hall and past the nurses chatting in hushed tones at the desk, her boot heels clicking too loudly against the tile, the sharp scent of alcohol burning her nostrils. No…she couldn't question Alex Del Rio right now. Not when he didn't know if his little girl would be okay.

As she approached the glass doors to exit, she saw her partner, Pete Richter, pacing outside.

"Finished?" he asked as the automatic doors swished open.

Crista stepped outside into the crisp autumn air, squinting in the morning sun. She shook her head, still disturbed by the image of Del Rio at his little girl's bedside. The child's name was Samantha, and whether she lived or died, Crista still had to question her father about the shooting.

"You must think I'm really good if you expected me to finish in ten minutes." Crista kept walking toward the car, her partner in step alongside.

"I would have."

"Of course. You're a much better cop than I am," she said facetiously.

"Maybe. Maybe not." The tall, blond man shrugged.

Pete hadn't gone in with her because his wife was about to have a baby and had kept him on the phone while she was experiencing false labor pains, the third time it had happened in the past two weeks. And from the dry tobacco scent in the air, Crista guessed he'd needed a cigarette, as well.

"So what's the problem?"

"The father was distraught. I couldn't question him right now."

Pete looked at her askance as she slipped into the passenger seat of the gray, department-issue sedan.

She knew the look. "I know. I know. I'm thinking like a woman, not a detective. And Englend's not going to be happy."

Pete nodded, not mentioning the most important part of the equation. Houston's mayor, Stan Walbrun, was all over their captain about the recent increase in drive-by shootings, most of them in the tougher barrios. On Wednesday there'd been a drive-by in Paloverde Park, and a man had died. This time the shooters had targeted Encanto, the old but upscale Hispanic community where Alex Del Rio, one of the mayor's staff, lived. Bottom line—the mayor wanted the case solved and he wanted it done yesterday.

Pete pulled onto Fannin Street, the main road that curved around the Texas Medical Center.

"So where to?"

"We've got some research to do."

Her partner popped a breath mint into his mouth and made a quick U-turn to head back to the station. "I say gang initiation. Open and shut."

"It appears that way, doesn't it. Or maybe one of the gangs was claiming new turf." She was going to need a reliable contact to find out anything about the shooting. "You know any good snitches in the barrio, Pete?"

He shook his head. "Nope. I was North Patrol before I came here. You're the one with the experience."

"Not recently." It'd been fifteen years since she'd lived in the Paloverde barrio—a place she despised and had vowed never to return to. How ironic that her new assignment would take her right back. Anger coiled in her stomach at the thought.

When she'd received the promotion to detective a year ago, she'd put in for a job in Special Operations. She'd heard nothing until several months later when she was transferred to Homicide's Chicano Squad—supposedly because she knew the culture and spoke the language.

Lord, she was tired of being labeled. Tired of being defined by a happenstance of birth. Her identity didn't hinge on her heritage—only now it seemed, her job did.

"Yeah, but you have experience with the homies. Right?"

Crista had to chuckle at Pete's attempt to sound hip. "It was a long time ago. And if you talk like that in the hood, you'll be laughed off the street."

She knew there was more to her transfer to the Chicano Squad than experience. In her former unit, she'd been branded a troublemaker for speaking up for herself and for standing up for her friend Risa when she was under investigation. Voicing her opinion when it was different than most officers on her team was the same as breaking the code. The silent code every cop knew. Cops didn't make waves against the system. One cop didn't complain about another. If you had a problem, you had to suck it up. It had taken a long time on the force for Crista to learn that lesson.

She figured the powers that be, namely her old captain, wanted to show her she had to toe the line if she planned to remain on the force. In addition, she'd heard the Chicano Squad had an affirmative action quota to meet. How convenient that Crista hit two AA marks—she was Hispanic…and a woman.

Well, she had no plans to stay on the Chicano Squad and was going to put in for a transfer as soon as another opening in Special Ops came up. But for any transfer she needed the captain's recommendation. To get that, she had to prove herself—and solving the Encanto case seemed the perfect way to do it.

At headquarters, they cruised into the parking garage and up to the fourth floor, pulling into the space for unmarked police vehicles. Together, they headed inside to the Chicano Squad's offices, a unit separate from the rest of Homicide, located at the end of a long hall.

Crossing to her desk in the middle of the room, Crista nodded at Laura, the department clerk, ignored the low whistle, the click of a tongue. More subtle than catcalls, yet the effect was the same.

At least she could wear pantsuits with long jackets to cover herself. But nothing stopped the guys with only one thought on the brain. Thank heaven the whole unit wasn't like that. She sat at her desk and pulled out the papers to write up her report.

"Hey, Pete. You and J.Lo crack the case?" Clyde Hanover, asked. From the suggestive tone in his voice he wasn't talking about the driveby.

Pete gave the other detective a hand gesture. "You guys are animals."

Thank you, Pete. If she'd been there longer, she would've given Hanover a shot herself, but after all the trouble she'd had in her last unit she wasn't going to challenge something so insignificant. Before she'd arrived, the Chicano Squad had been an all-male unit, and she knew she had to gain the team's confidence before they considered her one of them. Even then, she wasn't sure it would happen.

Her first day on the job, she'd learned she was one of five Latinos on an eight-person team. An interesting mix. In addition to regular duties, the Chicano Squad provided investigative support and follow-up on homicides, serious assaults and kidnapping that required knowledge of the Hispanic culture and language.

On that same first day, the captain had made no secret of the fact that he liked his unit as it had been before her arrival—testosterone across the board. Rumor had it that he'd taken her on under the threat of demotion.

Six years of law enforcement and she still had to prove herself.

At her desk, Crista glanced at her teammates. Across the room on her right, Clyde Hanover, the loudmouth in the group, and his clone, Dylan Farrell. On her left, Jesus Garcia and David Munez, a guy who looked like he might've been a sumo wrestler in another life. David's partner, skinny Martin Vargas, sat behind Pete, whose desk butted against hers. Except for her partner, she'd made no friends yet.

She was definitely the outsider. And maybe that wouldn't matter as much if she'd still had the support of her academy friends. Until four months ago the six women, Crista, Risa Taylor, Lucy Montalvo, Abby Carlton, Mei Lu Ling and Catherine Tanner, had maintained their strong friendships. And then Risa had come under investigation for shooting her partner.

By openly supporting Risa, Crista had incurred the wrath of the guys in her old unit who'd worked with Risa's partner before. When Crista stood behind her friend even after it was confirmed the bullet had come from Risa's gun, she'd been shunned by her fellow officers. Her old academy nemesis Bernie Schwartz had led the pack.

She hadn't known how dangerous taking that lone stand would be. Not until she'd been sent in as a decoy on a drug sting that went bad. She had called for backup three times, crouching behind a Dumpster, gun in her trembling hand. After the third call, she knew no backup was coming. She withdrew, made no arrests and was subsequently reprimanded for screwing up the job.

Devastated, she'd told Risa she could no longer openly support her. Crista hadn't given her friend all the ugly details, because, Lord knew, Risa had enough to worry about. Risa said she understood. But when Crista's calls went un-returned, she finally quit calling.

Each of the six friends had an opinion—and some disagreed bitterly. Lucy was convinced justice would prevail in Risa's case, but Crista knew firsthand what the system could do to a person's career.

In the end, Crista had made the only choice she could. Self-preservation. She'd worked too long and too hard to let her career slip away. And she'd learned a hard lesson in the process. Stay neutral. Never take a stand that appeared to be against a fellow officer.

When Risa was cleared and it came out that she'd been set up, Crista made another stab at resurrecting the friendship and called Risa, telling her how happy she was that the investigation was over. Risa had said thanks, and that was the end of it.

A sharp pain jabbed in her chest just thinking about it. Four months since she'd made the decision to step back and she still wondered if she'd done the right thing. She missed her friends terribly.

Pushing the half-finished paperwork away from her, Crista looked up to see Captain En-glend motioning her to his office. Embarrassed that he'd caught her daydreaming, she got up, trooped into his office and stood facing his desk, her hands on the back of the chair in front of her. He nodded. "Sit."

"I'm okay." At five-foot four, she'd always felt she had more leverage when she was standing. Besides that, she had too much energy to sit for very long.

The captain's eyes narrowed. "Suit yourself," he said and dropped into the black, high-backed leather chair behind his desk. All the desks in the unit were gray metal except the captain's. His was oak.

Captain William Englend oozed authority. A bull of a man with close-cropped white hair, he was all about power and control. He didn't manage his unit, he reigned over it.

"What've you got?"

"Nothing yet. The child is in intensive care. The bullet nicked her shoulder and hit an artery. She lost a lot of blood. Her condition is still questionable, so I thought it best to wait and talk to the father tomorrow."

Englend's expression never changed, but she could tell by the rigid set of his mouth that he wasn't happy with her answer.

"And if the kid doesn't get better?" Without waiting for a response he continued, "If we worried about everyone's feelings, we'd never get a case solved. Get it done, Santiago. I want someone in jail."

"I'll do what I can, Sir."

She started for the door.

"In this unit, we don't do what we can. We get the job done."

His words stopped her cold.

"If you want to stick around, forget the sentimental crap."

Gnashing her teeth, Crista stormed back to her desk. From the second he'd assigned her lead detective on such an important case, she'd thought something was fishy. She was the newest detective in the group and was partnered with a guy who, though he'd had years of experience in other units, hadn't been with the CS much longer than she had.

Until the Encanto case, the captain hadn't given her any lead assignments, and she'd found it hard to believe he was giving her a chance to prove herself. Now her gut was confirming her suspicion. She'd been given three other detectives to work with and so far none of them except Pete had done anything on the assignment.

Worse yet, the captain was demanding action—never mind that drive-bys were rarely solved unless you had hard evidence or could find a snitch or an eyewitness who could identify the shooter. And so far…she had nothing.

Meet the Author

Linda Style is the award-winning author of 14 novels with Harlequin Superromance. She readily admits to being a travel junkie, a photoholic, and a tennis fanatic. She won't admit to having way too many pairs of shoes in her closet...or possessing the ability to eat a family-sized bag of Lay's potato chips in one sitting. But, she says, nothing is more rewarding than writing her stories or romance, suspense and intrigue.

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