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"Give her a couple of months," George Webster had said, "and she'll forget all about this. Kids are resilient."
Easy for him to say. The agent's little girl hadn't spent the past eighteen months being shuttled from one safe house to another in the dead of night. The agent's little girl hadn't been asked to trade her big, bright, once-happy home for a series of windowless dumps where gunshots, angry shouts and screaming sirens disturbed her sleep.
Nate stopped pacing and looked at his four-year-old daughter, Melissa. The flickering blue-green glow of the cheap alarm clock gave off just enough light to see her, lying spread-eagled in the narrow cot beside his. The soft, steady sound of her peaceful breaths reminded him of the many nights when, because he'd come home too late to tuck her in, he'd stood beside her bed, staring like a mute fool, thinking perfection, from the moment of her birth to this. Tears stung his eyes and a lump ached in his throat. Greed and arrogance were responsible for every wasted moment that could never be retrieved.
The clock on the battered nightstand said 10:15 p.m. In a little over twelve hours, he and Melissa would board a Baltimore-bound plane and begin the final leg of their slow passage into the unknown. "Don't think of it that way," Webster had said. "Think of it as leaving all the bad stuff behind. Focus on starting a whole new life in Maryland."
Easy for him to say, Nate thought again. But something to hope for, anyway.
Hope. Pretty much all he had left, thanks to his own stupid choices. Choices that had brought them here.
Last night, when Webster had delivered the packet containing Nate's and Melissa's new identities, he'd also delivered what sounded to Nate like a well-rehearsed speech. He'd said he'd coached dozens of kids Melissa's age, and felt reasonably certain he could stress the importance of sticking to the program and keeping secrets, all without terrifying her.
Reasonably certain. Webster had said the same thing on the day of the trial, when Witness Security had moved Nate from the courthouse to the first of four safe houses by way of a long, meandering route. And it's what he'd said before each of three additional moves. The agency couldn't guarantee safe transport. Couldn't promise security, so what else could they say?
This time, at the conclusion of Webster's instructions, Nate had heard a worrisome, unspoken postscript: if the details traumatized Melissa, those consequences would be his fault, too.
The chirrup of his throw-away cell phone startled him, and he grabbed it before it could wake Melissa. The glow from the phone's display led him to the bathroom. Leaving the door slightly ajar, he flicked on the light.
"George," he whispered, squinting into the brightness, "what time is it?"
"Nearly 9:00 a.m."
Nate had spent hours, alternately pacing and staring at the jagged ceiling crack that jolted from corner to corner like a black lightning bolt. By his calculations, he'd dozed off at four, maybe four-fifteen. A good thing, he supposed, since he didn't know when he'd next fall asleep.
"So what's the plan?"
"I'll be there in half an hour, with breakfast. I'll have that little talk with Melissa while she's distracted by pancakes."
They hadn't eaten a meal-hadn't done any- thing in public-since the trial. By now, the agent knew Melissa's preferences almost as well as her own dad did. And pancakes were her all-time favorite breakfast food.
"Unless there's traffic, I should be there by ten," George said, and hung up.
Nate showered and dressed, then sat on the edge of Melissa's cot. And as he'd done every morning since taking her from the only home she'd ever known, he sang her awake.
"Good morning, good morning, good morning ."
Long lashes fluttered as her lips formed a sweet smile. Stretching, she climbed into his lap. "Well," she said, "what are you waiting for? Let's sing the rest!"
Nate pressed a kiss to her temple, and they completed the song, together.
When they finished, she told him about the dreams she had had, another tradition that had started the morning after he had taken her from everything and everyone who meant anything to her. Melissa described how a talking lady-bug had taken her for a ride, all the way around the world. And after that, she'd dreamed of a red-and-green parrot that sounded like George and told knock-knock jokes.
"Want to hear one?"
Even before he could answer, Melissa said, "Knock, knock."
"What are you cryin' about?"
Laughing, Nate hugged her, then covered her face with kisses.
"Daddy, stop. You're tickling my cheeks."
"Sorry, can't help myself."
"Knock, knock," she said again.
"Time for your bath," he interrupted. "George is on his way over with breakfast. You can tell both of us knock-knock jokes while we eat, okay?"
Melissa slipped on her Barbie slippers and headed to the bathroom. "Okay, Daddy."
It amazed him that she'd never pressed him for answers; surely she'd wondered why they'd been living in bleak, dark rooms all these months. Why the last home-cooked meal had been prepared on a hot plate. Why they hadn't visited grandparents or cousins, or talked to anyone on the phone except for George. What amazed him more was that she didn't seem to miss any of that. Not even her mother. All very normal, according to the agent.
Normal. Nate didn't think he could remember the definition of the word anymore, let alone experience the sensation.
"When you're all clean and shiny," he called to Melissa, "you can watch cartoons while we wait for George."
"I like George. He's nice. And funny."
Yeah. Hilarious. The agent was solely responsible for every inane riddle and groan-inducing knock-knock joke now stored in Melissa's subconscious. But at least he'd kept her laughing.
"Don't forget to brush your teeth."
As he packed their meager belongings, Nate heard the telltale splash that told him she still hadn't tired of the trick he'd taught her that first night away from home. If squeezing a wet bar of soap until it spewed into the air and landed with a plop could produce giggles after all they'd been through, it was worth the time and effort required to clean up the bathroom floor. Far more important than that, maybe George was right, and Melissa would adapt to their new life, quickly, and with no lasting aftereffects.
Nate folded the tiny pj's purchased during George's now-famous Fifteen Minute Walmart Expedition, and tucked them into the sparkly pink backpack that had replaced the purple one Melissa had carried to day care for two years. Using the list provided by Nate, George had also bought a week's worth of clothes and shoes for dad and daughter, puzzles, crayons and coloring books, two Barbies and assorted outfits for each. While adding the last items to her pack, Nate cringed, because later today, Melissa would lose her favorite doll, Cassie, which had been hand-sewn by her mother while pregnant.
He didn't have time for a lot of self-reproach, because George arrived just then with breakfast. Melissa loved the way the agent changed things up. Doughnuts one day, bagels and cream cheese the next, fast food from the local burger joint the day after that. Nate understood that the different types of food had nothing to do with surprising Melissa. Three meals daily, purchased from the same take-out place by a guy alone, would have sent up red flags.
Today, George produced pancakes from a big white bag. He opened foam containers and handed out plastic flatware, then dealt napkins as if he was playing cards, while Melissa shared last night's dreams, unwittingly providing the opening that allowed him to introduce her to her new name.
"You know how to play the name game?"
"I guess so," she said, pretending to feed her doll a bite of sausage.
"Excellent! Let's pretend your name is Alyssa, and my name is Mr. Poopie Pants, and your dad is-"
"Poopie?" she echoed, wide-eyed. "But but that's a potty word!" She clucked her tongue. "You're lucky Mrs. Cameron isn't here. She makes everyone who says potty words stay inside when it's playtime." Melissa looked at Nate. "I know we're not allowed to go outside, so how will we teach George about potty words?"
"I think we can let him get away with it. Just this once." Melissa donned her but-that-isn't-fair! look so Nate added, "But only because he didn't know the rules." Nate shook a warning finger at George. "But next time, mister "
The agent chuckled while Melissa thought about it.
Brow furrowed, she said, "Not even a timeout?"
"Not this time."
"Boy, are you lucky." A sly grin lifted one corner of her mouth. "Okay then, Mr. Poopie Pants, if my name is Alyssa, what is Daddy's new name?"
Present tense, he noted. And she'd said new name, not pretend. A lucky break? Or had she figured things out, all on her own? The latter, he hoped, because if she slipped up, even once, they could end up dead.
The word caused an involuntary flinch. It didn't seem as if she'd noticed his movement, but just in case, he stuffed a huge bite of pancake into his mouth to hide it.
"The guy with the chipmunk cheeks, you mean? His new name is Noah. And you both get new last names, too. From now on, your name is Alyssa Preston."
"But why? Mommy told me that Melissa was her grandma's name. And that her grandma was her favorite person in the whole world. until I was born."
George scrubbed both hands over his face. If it was that tough answering a question he'd no doubt been asked before, Nate didn't know how he'd manage his own remorse for being the reason she was asking it in the first place.
"Well," the agent said, laying a big hand atop Melissa's, "you know why we don't go outside, right?"
She speared a bite of pancake and used it to draw figure eights in the syrup. Nate winced when she said, "Because it's dangerous, and we don't want to get hurt." She rested an elbow on the table, leaned her head on her palm. "But," she said, emphasizing the word, "I think it's a dumb rule."
"I know," George said. "But sometimes it's the dumb rules that keep us safe. One of the dumb rules is you can't use your old name anymore."
She sat up straighter. "Never?"
She put her fork on the napkin and leaned back in the chair. If she'd seemed sad or confused, Nate might have been able to ignore it. But she looked resigned to her fate, and that made him hang his head. Everything that had happened to her-her mother's murder, her own near kidnapping, living like an Old West outlaw all because of him. He deserved to die for that, but she did not. Joining the WITSEC program didn't guarantee that, but, God willing, she'd never end up like Jillian.
George folded large-knuckled hands on the small table. "Think you're big enough to remember all that?"
Her brow puckered slightly as she said, "'Course I am. I'm four" She brushed blond bangs from her forehead and brightened slightly. "We learned about rhymes in school. Alyssa rhymes with Melissa. I can remember that." She pointed at Nate. "And Noah starts with an N, just like Nate." She shrugged. "Easy peasy."
George sent Nate a nod of approval, then fixed dark eyes on Melissa. "Your daddy wasn't kidding when he said you're smart for your age, was he?"
Yeah, his girl was smart, all right. Smart enough to pass for a first grader when she started school in the fall? Smart enough to maintain the charade, permanently? God help them if she wasn't.
His mind whirled with the memory of those final seconds in the courtroom: he'd just opened the big wooden doors when a loud, gruff voice had stopped him. "Nate Nate Jud-son!" He'd turned, saw soon-to-be former Senator O'Malley straining against the deputies' grip. As the officers half shoved, half dragged him away, he had shouted, "You can run, but you can't hide!"
Nate groaned inwardly as George and Melissa swapped knock-knock jokes. He sipped coffee from a foam cup, remembering .
The deeper the prosecution dug, the more evidence they'd gathered on O'Malley. The stuff they'd coerced Nate into testifying about was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Even now, more than a year after agreeing to turn state's evidence, the senator's threat made his blood run cold, because despite a lack of evidence linking O'Malley to Jillian's murder, Nate knew the senator had ordered the hit. And if his hired goon hadn't coughed, alerting the school's staff, he would have succeeded in kidnapping Melissa, too. "Nobody turns on me and gets away with it," the senator had said.
George's voice broke into his thoughts, and Nate wrapped trembling hands tighter around his coffee cup as the agent asked Melissa, "So what's your new name again?"
"Alyssa Preston," she said, and spelled it.
He aimed a thumb in Nate's direction. "And he is.?"
"He's my daddy." Then she giggled. "I'm teasing you. His new name is Noah Preston."
George nodded in approval. "Here's a trick question. What's my new name?"
"That's easy. You're Mr. Poopie Pants."
Chuckling, George slapped his meaty thigh.
"By Jove, I think she's got it!"
He wasn't smiling when he stood and looked at his watch. "Guess we'd better hit the road. We don't want to miss our flight."
Nate recalled the order of events George had outlined on the phone last night. Once his badge got them through security, they'd board the plane from the tarmac, rather than at the gate. To further confuse possible O'Malley disciples, they'd change planes in Detroit, and again in Philly before landing at the Baltimore airport.
Nate sipped coffee, wondering if their Baltimore-based sitter had stocked the apartment kitchen with real mugs, as promised. Over the past few weeks he'd spent enough time on the phone, and in Skype conversations with Maxine-aka Max-to know that she'd stocked the pantry and fridge, and added to the Walmart wardrobe George had provided. Everything they owned fit nicely in their backpacks, the only luggage they'd need between this dismal room and their new home in Elli-cott City.
Nate slung his bag over one shoulder, helped Melissa into hers. She'd been a real trouper to this point, going along with every change, accepting every loss, for no reason other than that he'd given his word that things would get better soon. Would she feel that way after her favorite doll, Cassie, "disappeared"? Maybe. But just in case, he had an ace up his sleeve, an idea born as he'd tucked her in bed the night before last:
"Will Santa be able to find our new house?" she asked.
"Of course he will."
"But how will he get in? Does our new house have a chimney?"
Nate hadn't noticed a fireplace in the pictures Max had sent to his cell phone, but it was a hundred-year-old building . "I'm not sure," he had said, "but even if it doesn't, we'll leave a door unlocked. You can tell him which one when you send him your wish list."
"I'm only writing one thing puppy/"
His heart ached now, just remembering how excited she'd been when she'd said it. Nate hated to disappoint her, but what choice did he have? Dogs barked, relieved themselves outside, needed to be walked, and he couldn't afford the exposure. Maybe he'd surprise her with a kitten instead, and hope it would ease the pain of losing Cassie.
George opened the door as Nate exhaled a frustrated sigh. "Ready, cupcake?" he asked, tousling his daughter's hair.
She was on her feet and beside the agent in an eye blink. Fortunately, George was big enough to block the exit. Goose bumps formed on Nate's forearms. He needed to be on guard for that kind of thing from now on, because if she darted out of his sight, even for an instant.
A shiver snaked up his spine as she chattered excitedly about her first airplane ride, about meeting Max in person. Melissa didn't realize that Maxine Colson, like George, was a WIT-SEC agent. All she knew was that her Skype pal would meet them at the airport and deliver them to their new home. Max had helped Melissa find Baltimore on the map, taught her that the city was famous for the Orioles and the Ravens, steamed crabs and people who called each other "hon." Nate didn't know a whole lot more than that himself. But they had the rest of their lives to learn, together.
As she climbed into the backseat of George's boxy blue SUV, Melissa looked up at Nate. "Oh, Daddy I mean, Mr. Preston? Can you belt Cassie in with me?"
She looked so proud about remembering his new name. Overwhelming sadness wrapped around him as he looked into her angelic face. "Sure thing," he said, tucking the doll under the belt. "Now you behave yourself, and listen to Alyssa, okay, Cassie?"
Nate slid into the passenger seat. Alyssa. Alyssa Preston. Would he ever get used to calling her that?