WITNESS TO MURDER
A gang of masked gunmen murder a man right in front of reporter Olivia Brant. Now they're after herthe newswoman witness who won't rest until she gets her story. She's rescued in the nick of time by a six-foot-four former bodyguard, but Olivia hardly feels safe. She's certain Daniel Ash is connected to her investigation into the dead man's business dealings, but how? With no one left to trust, Olivia accepts Daniel's offer of shelter at his abandoned country house in rural Ontario. But the killers are not far behind, and determined that Olivia takes the evidence she's uncovered to her grave.
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Shock rippled like a wave through the crowded Toronto courtroom, leaving a rumble of anger seething in its wake. The crown attorney had just announced that Brian Leslie, sleazy owner of Leslie Construction, was going to walk out the door a free man, despite stealing hundreds of thousands from both the government and his own employees. Which meant the construction crew he'd left both unemployed and broke had just seen their best hope for justice go up in flames.
Reporter Olivia Brant tightened the grip on her notepad. Her green eyes grew wide. That man's sloppy, reckless attempts at tax evasion had made headlines across Canada. How could the authorities possibly think it was "in the public interest" to let a thieving creep like him go free? Growing up, always shuffling from one lousy rented apartment to the next, she'd seen all too well how working for really bad bosses could tear someone's family apart.
Well, even if I don't succeed in saving my own position at Torchlight News, at least the last story I write will be about something I care about. Although hopefully, if she acted fast enough, this would turn out to be the one big news story that actually kept her from losing her job.
Olivia tightened the clasp holding back her fiery red mane and leaped to her feet. The camera that she'd nabbed off a coworker's desk clattered to the floor. She scooped it back up and pushed through the rows. The courtroom was packed to the seams with former Leslie employees eager to see Brian pay. Now that justice wasn't coming, the room felt like a mob waiting to surge. A large bald man with a hawk tattoo on his neck cursed and gripped the seat in front of him until his knuckles cracked. Beside him, a woman with spiky hair cried loudly.
Brian sat alone and was grinning so widely he might as well be gloating. The only other living member of the wealthy Leslie family was Brian's teenage niece, Sarah. Much to the media's dismay, the seventeen-year-old heiress hadn't agreed to any interviews about her uncle's arrest and hadn't attended his trial. Didn't look as though any friends had shown up to offer Brian support, either. Olivia wondered if the rumors of his gambling addiction and drug use were true.
Any moment now, he'd walk out of the courtroom, head down to the private parking garage and drive out as a free man into the hot summer air.
When he got to his vehicle, she'd be waiting.
Dear God, please help me get this interview with Brian Leslie. Or at the very least a picture and a quote to make my article solid enough for the front cover. I really don't want to lose my job. The newspaper's the only place I've ever really felt at home.
Prayer slipped through her heart like an instinct. It was funny, no matter how many times she tried to put her childhood faith out of her mind, whenever stress hit she could feel it pushing back in at the edges. Not that all the desperate prayers she'd prayed as a child had ever kept her dad from losing one job after another. While Vince, her editor at Torchlight News, was one of the most dedicated people of faith she knew, that still didn't alter the fact that recent changes at the paper meant he was going to have to lay off almost a third of the staff by September.
Her phone buzzed with a text message. It was from Ricky, a young photographer at Torchlight who was probably facing the chopping block, too.
Hurry back! Vince is looking for you. Also, you seen the camera? R.
Guilt dripped down her conscience like a nagging cough she couldn't clear. She hadn't told Vince she was covering the Leslie Construction trial. There were dozens of potential stories like this in Toronto every day. Torchlight could only afford to send reporters out to so many. Newspaper policy was that writers brought their article ideas to the weekly story meeting, like treasure hunters piling their maps into the middle of the table. Vince would then decide which stories would get reported on and who covered what. Getting a good, hard crime story meant a chance at seeing your story hitting the front cover. He'd never given her that chance.
Maybe Vince won't like that I just took the initiative and jumped on this story without asking. But if I pull it off, it'll prove I have what it takes and he'll think twice about letting me go. Or at least, it'll give me a great story on my resume to help with my job search.
Her fingers slid over the handle to the stairwell door.
"Hey! Where do you think you're going?" A large hand landed on the door in front of her. She turned, coming face-to-face with a young man in a dark blue police uniform and a bushy blond beard.
"I'm sorry. I was just"
"You can't go down there."
Olivia rolled her slender shoulders back and stood tall. Sure, she was only five foot two, and this man was easily twice her size. But she'd worked in a newsroom long enough to know police couldn't just block public access somewhere without cause. This belligerent officer hadn't even flashed her a badge.
She flashed him her media credentials. "I'm a journalist with Torchlight News and, yes, I can. This is a public stairwell and you have no legal reason to detain me." His eyes narrowed. In her experience, while most cops were amazing, a handful of them got just a little too used to throwing their weight around and expecting the public to obey. Not the type of cop a reporter ever wanted to tangle with. What was worse was this cop had even covered the badge number on his uniform, so she wouldn't be able to report himan illegal but sadly not unheard-of practice that the chief of police had been clamping down on hard. She raised the camera, hoping the thought of being caught on film would be enough to make him back down. He just scowled.
"Is there something else going on here that I should be reporting on?" she asked.
A loud crash came from behind them, along with a whole lot of yelling. She turned. A muscular dark-haired man was being forcibly ejected from the waiting area. He was putting up such a fight it took multiple guards to handle him. The blond officer snickered.
Olivia ducked under his arm and dashed down the stairs.
"Hey!" The questionable cop's voice bellowed through the staircase like a freight train. "Stop!"
Her feet pelted down one flight of stairs. Stopping wasn't an option. But maybe a route change wasn't a bad idea. She hit the second floor, slipped through a side door and came out on an administration level. Her footsteps sped up, weaving through rows of people waiting for their trials to be called. She went down one more staircase and came out on the opposite side of the parking garage. The officer was gone. A slight smile crossed her lips.
The garage was dark, lit only by the eerie glow of yellow fluorescent lights. She readied the camera. The state-of-the-art equipment would just keep snapping once she pushed the button, taking hundreds of pictures a minute. She only needed one of the pictures to be usable, so the odds were in her favor. Brian's car was to her right.
That was when she noticed the truck. The bright green pickup was parked a few spots away, looking like a flash of sunlight on a fresh spring leaf compared to the sea of concrete around it. Her breath caught. There was a man in the driver's seat. He was tall and rugged, with broad shoulders and a faded plaid shirt. Strong arms rested on the steering wheel. His head was bowed, showing a mop of chestnut-brown hair that curled slightly at the neck. He looked nothing like a lawyer. Bit too casual for a journalist, at least from anywhere reputable. A member of Leslie Construction's crew, perhaps? But then, why would he be down here instead of in the courtroom?
He glanced her way. His eyebrows rose. She looked down at her camera.
The door to the staircase flew open. Her camera started snapping. Brian Leslie walked through. He glanced around the garage, turned back toward the stairs for a moment, then hurried to his car.
"Mr. Leslie!" Olivia started across the parking garage toward him. "Olivia Brant, Torchlight News. What do you have to say to your former employees? Are they ever going to see the money you owe them?"
"Seriously?" He laughed and yanked his car keys from his pocket. "You heard how those ungrateful jerks booed me in court today? As if my family didn't keep them working for years. You tell them that I'll be dead and buried before they get one more cent of money from the Leslie family. Tell them fat chance winning in civil court now." He pressed the button on his key fob to unlock his car. The car didn't respond. He frowned and jammed his finger on the button. Nothing happened. "Stupid waste-of-money car."
Then, it was like everything happened at once.
A stairwell door banged open to her right.
Three figures in black fatigues and blank featureless masks ran toward Brian.
Three men without faces.
A gunshot split the air. Olivia screamed.
Brian wheeled around. Blood spread across his chest.
His car exploded in flames.
* * *
Daniel Ash froze with his hands on the steering wheel. The scene unfolded in front of him through a haze of smoke and fire. Just moments ago, he'd been sitting there trying to pray for Brian Lesliean endlessly unpleasant man who he'd briefly called his brother-in-law a very long time ago.
Then Brian walked into the garage, three masked men surged from the shadows and the world erupted in fire.
A car bomb. A weapon fired. A bullet through Brian's chest.
It was like Baghdad, Manila and Damascus all over again.
Here. In Toronto.
Just moments ago he'd seen a woman running toward Brian. Now her screams echoed through the flames.
Instinctively, Daniel yanked open the glove compartment to feel for his bullets and gun. It might be too late for Brian. But he could still save the beautiful stranger from the line of fire.
His hand came up empty. There were no bullets. He had no gun.
Reality hitDaniel wasn't a bodyguard anymore. His handgun was long gone.
He was just a regular guy back home in Canada, a place where it was incredibly difficult for a personal bodyguard to even get a license to carry a handgun. This wasn't his first firefight. But this time he was unarmed and unprotected, without even an armored vehicle to shield him.
His hand gripped the door handle. His eyes rose in a split second of prayer.
Lord? What do You want me doing right now? Can I still save her?
More gunfire now. Sounded as though only one of the masked men was firing. But he couldn't see either the shooter or the target, just a series of bangs and flashes in the billowing smoke.
The woman's screams fell silent.
He'd never once run from danger. But like it or not, his hero days were over. Daniel had given up being a bodyguard four years ago, because his former stepdaughter had no one else to turn to. I made a commitment to be Sarah's legal guardian. With her uncle Brian's death, the teenager was now the last remaining member of the Leslie clan. For all he knew, whoever had killed Brian would now be coming after her, too. He needed to be there for her. He needed to protect her.
How can I risk my life to save a stranger? The woman might not even still be alive.
Reluctantly, Daniel turned the engine over. He grabbed the gearshift, ready to drive. Then, through the smoke, he saw a flash of red hair. She was running toward him, beautiful and terrified, like a phoenix rising. Dark lashes fringed eyes wide with fear. Auburn hair tumbled loose around her face.
He couldn't just leave her to die.
Daniel threw the door open. "Here! This way! Run to me"
A second explosion shook the air and tossed her onto the ground. Daniel leaped from the truck. He pelted across the parking garagetoward the flames, the chaos and the woman now lying still on the concrete. In moments, Daniel had reached her side. Her eyes were closed. But when he clasped her wrist, he felt that her pulse was strong. He scooped her up into his armsbag, camera and alland cradled her up against his chest. He ran for the truck. A huge, faceless brute of a man loomed out of the smoke and yelled at Daniel to stop. He kept running. Bullets ricocheted in the darkness behind him. Prayers poured from his heart over his lips, "Please, God, guide me now!"
He climbed into the driver's seat, not letting his strong arms loosen their grip on the woman's body for an instant. As he slid her off his lap and into the passenger seat, her press pass caught his eyeOlivia Brant, Torchlight News. He reached across to buckle her seat belt. Her cheek brushed his shoulder. Luminous green eyes fluttered open, inches away from his own.
"Olivia? Hey, my name's Daniel. Don't worry. It's going to be okay. You're safe here with me." He glanced up and counted three masked, black-clad figures in the haze. The brutish one now had a gun in each hand. A short man was fiddling with a small box. An extremely thin one barked orders at them both. The big one raised both guns toward the truck. "And we're getting out of here." Daniel slammed his door. "Right now."
He hit the gas and swerved a hard left, narrowly steering the truck between the thin man and a concrete support pillar.
"Daniel?" Her voice beside him was faint. "Who are you? What are you?"
Thank You, God! She was both conscious and able to talk, which hopefully meant no serious injuries, even though her mind was probably reeling and her ears would be ringing. No doubt she wanted to know what kind of man had just scooped her into his truck. But now was no time for long answers. The short version would have to do.
"I used to be a bodyguard." He focused his eyes on finding an exit. "Spent a decade overseas. War zones and danger spots mostly. Getting someone safely from point A to point B like this was kind of my specialty. Now I'm just a carpenter." One who apparently could still swerve around an obstacle course of parked cars and concrete at full speed.
He couldn't tell if that was really a question or if she was just repeating back the only word she'd managed to catch. Depending on how hard she'd hit her head, she might not even remember any of this. "How are you feeling? There's a hospital only a few blocks from here. That's where I'm taking you. If you've a phone handy, please call 9-1-1. We've got to let the police know what happened here."
He couldn't begin to guess how much of the garage was actually covered by security cameras or how security would respond to whatever they saw. Sometimes surveillance only covered the stairwells and exits. For all he knew, they'd just seen smoke and were treating it like a car fire. Instead of what exactly? A terrorist attack? Some kind of organized crime hit on my former brother-in-law?
There was no answer from Olivia. Daniel risked a sideways glance. Her eyes had closed again. There was a cell phone in his jacket, but that was in the backseat and he wasn't in any position to reach it. Could he afford to stop, grab his phone and call the police before he reached the hospital? No. He had one task right now and one task onlysaving the life of the person in his care.
"Thank You, God, that we're both still alive," he prayed aloud. "Please have mercy on everyone else who might be in danger. Please prompt someone else to alert the authorities. Any help and guidance You want to give me right now would be awesome."
An engine roared behind him. The sound echoed off the concrete walls. There was the crack of a gun being fired and the clang of a bullet hitting his tailgate.
He raced up the final ramp. Another shot was fired.
His truck's rear window exploded in a spray of glass.