“He’s all yours.”
U.S. Marshal Grier Vanderhall looked at the sullen, dark-haired eighteen-year-old named Benji Warner and wanted to give a sarcastic “Yay.” Instead, she nodded to the district attorney, a tall, mirthless woman, and motioned to Benji to follow her. Maybe spending time with that woman had sucked all the fun from the kid. Or maybe it had to do with being a reluctant witness with a bounty on his head.
It was broad daylight and she walked Benji out to the truck, which was directly behind the back door with her partner parked behind it. Jack nodded at her as she escorted Benji into the waiting truck. She preferred using her own car for transfers, but the marshal’s truck was appropriately bulletproofed, with tinted windows, an unfortunate necessity for this case.
Mr. Sullen was in the backseat, where there were no door handles. This wasn’t her first rodeo, and there were plenty of instances of a witness scared and running like a rabbit. She also cuffed one of his hands to the metal loops on the floor using a long chain. He couldn’t get to her in the front seat that way, but he wasn’t completely constrained.
He complained bitterly about it under his breath but he didn’t try to resist.
He was both a witness and a criminal—the reluctance of the first made the latter more of an issue than it might normally be.
She was looking at a minimum five-hour drive to get to the safe house. She fired the truck up, opened the window and waved for Jack to pull up.
“The place is all set—I vetted it myself this morning and Al will check on it right before you get there. Call him when you’re half an hour out. I’ll be there tomorrow night,” he told her.
His dark hair was hidden under a Cabela’s baseball hat, his dark eyes hidden by the Ray-Bans he always wore. He would finish out their old case, handing off the witness to her new handler tonight. Watching Benji was their new twenty-four-seven gig for the next two months. This was without a doubt her most high-profile witness— Jack’s as well.
“Do what you have to. We’ll be fine,” she said.
“Watch yourself,” he mouthed before pulling away, and she took the truck in the opposite direction, heading down toward the freeway. She looked in the rearview mirror. “We’ll stop for lunch in a few hours.”
Awesome. She turned up the radio and zoomed along, determined to get there before nightfall. There had been ugly threats during this case aimed at Benji, the DA and anyone else involved, including the marshal’s office. The men who led the illegal fighting ring were both currently out on bail and purported to be trying to leave the country. The only evidence against them was Benji, and that had come late in the game.
Either way, it was going to get ugly.
She got them half an hour from their destination—this inconspicuous diner was the perfect place for a quick bite before they made it into town. Benji followed her, ordered an obscene amount of food and then stared out the window.
She didn’t press him. Didn’t say anything until the food came—she was hoping that made him semihuman.
After she finished half her own burger, she told him, “You’re going to be all right. You’re young. You can start over.”
He blinked. Frowned. And finally, he spoke more than a one-word answer. “They’re never going to just let me go like that. These guys . . . you don’t understand.”
“I hate to tell you this, Benji, but all my witnesses say that. It’s okay to be scared, but you have to not let it rule your life. That’s my job.”
“That’s not much of a life.”
She wagged a fry at him. “You’re smart—for someone so young.”
“Eighteen isn’t young.”
No, it wasn’t. And he was facing jail time for causing the inadvertent death of a sixteen-year-old during one of the cage fights. The dead man’s parents were the ones who had started the ball rolling on this, and even though this case was growing so big and threatening to topple everyone in its path, they were pushing forward.
For Benji, it was testify or go to jail. And even then, he’d picked jail. It was only at the DA’s insistence—and no doubt the scare tactics of a minimum twenty-five years to life versus freedom and WITSEC that he’d reluctantly agreed. She didn’t want to know the specifics he’d been threatened with.
“You sure you don’t want to contact your parents?” she asked, and he shook his head.
“No. It’ll put them in danger and I’ve put them through enough hell not being in contact with them for the last two years. You protect me, I’ll protect them.” He looked her right in the eye as he spoke those last words. He was older, wiser than his years. His sense of honor could very well get him killed. He reminded her of a young Reid.
She bit into her burger viciously, her teeth gnashing together the way they always did when she thought about him. She didn’t know why—he was the one who had every right to be mad, not her.
The boy pushed his plate back, finally satiated. He’d been living on his own for two years, making more money than he’d make at any other job in such a short amount of time. Even after a doctor told him that another concussion like the recent ones he’d suffered could either kill him or cause permanent brain damage, he still wanted to fight. Told the DA, “It doesn’t matter. It’s what I’m good at.”
It wasn’t her job to counsel him. She was supposed to find him a safe place to live, give him money and ensure he kept a low profile until the trial, which already had constant continuances.
Three months, minimum. She took money from her wallet and put it down on the table. “Come on, if you’re finished. Let’s get you settled.”
“Gotta use the john.”
She nodded. Couldn’t exactly follow him in there but she did go in first to check. No windows. Perfect. She made her call to Al while waiting in the hallway leading to and not outside the door to be less conspicuous, and he rolled his eyes at the whole thing.
Once they were back in the truck and moving, there was silence for most of the trip. But when they pulled up outside the motel, where the marshals had a block of four adjoining rooms on the second floor, he leaned forward and put a hand on her shoulder.
“Are you going to give me a weapon? Because when these guys come after me, I’m not going to be able to fight them with my fists.”
She turned to face him. “No weapons. You won’t need them. You have me.” She didn’t know if that answer satisfied him or not.
* * * * *
Grier secured the doors from the inside and alarmed them so Benji couldn’t leave. Those same alarms would alert her if someone tried to get in by buzzing the button she wore around her neck.
She was supposed to handcuff one of his wrists to something at all times.
He’s a dangerous kid, Grier. He kills with his hands, Jack had warned her. And she wasn’t stupid.
“Come on, settle in somewhere so I can put this on.”
She held up the cuffs, was surprised when he offered no resistance. Maybe he was tired. She locked a wrist to the metal of the bed, the chain long enough for him to sit up, lie down and generally get comfortable. “Just yell if you need anything or want to move.”
There was a table with two chairs. She put the remote near him, and a bottle of water. The rooms were already stocked with snacks and there were take-out menus and clothes.
Once in, they weren’t coming out until trial. She and Jack would relieve each other, but they’d each be sleeping here, hence all the rooms. Plus, it was a good way to keep surveilling the street.
“You’re not scared of me, are you?” Benji asked suddenly.
“No,” she answered truthfully. “Should I be?”
“I only fight in the ring. For money. And I didn’t mean to hurt that kid.”
She wanted to correct him when he said hurt, but didn’t. It was in his eyes—he knew what he’d done. The only reason he’d gotten caught was through a routine traffic stop—but the police had an APB out on him, thanks to a video one of the members of the audience had filmed and put up on YouTube. It had been damaging enough to force Benji to admit what he’d done to the DA. But until he got in front of a jury—and even when he did—all bets were off. He could recant everything.
Grier didn’t want to know exactly how. “You’re doing the right thing now. Fighting for money the way you’re doing it isn’t legal for a reason. People get hurt.”
“Boxers get hurt all the time. Football players too,” he pointed out.
“Yeah, well, they’re trying to regulate all that now, aren’t they?”
“Never happen.” He was staring down at his cuffed wrist. His hand was fisted and she saw the scars on his knuckles, courtesy of the skin being broken open time and time again. “I miss it.”
“Training. It’s a release for me. You wouldn’t understand.”
“You’d be surprised at what I understand.” She watched him for a long moment. “I can’t let you leave here, but I could let you work out. I won’t be able to get much—some weights. A jump rope.”
His face brightened a little. “Yeah, that would be good. Thanks.”
“Get some rest.” In return, the TV blasted behind her. When she turned back, his eyes were closed.
By the time she settled in, it was after midnight. She was holding the phone, the way she always did around this hour, because she was thinking about Reid. She’d taken his number off her phone to avoid temptation or misdialing but she’d memorized it. Repeated it over and over in her head, thought about his blue eyes and handsome face, the rub of his hands on her body.
She put the phone back into her pocket and blew out a frustrated breath. Things were so complicated between them. When they’d met, she’d been chasing down a missing witness named Teddie, and Reid had been protecting Teddie by running interference. Grier and Reid had a brief affair, during which she’d bandaged his wounds—and he’d paid her back by saving her life. It culminated in her being targeted by the very dangerous man hunting Reid and WITSEC’s plan to fake her death to help her escape.
That’s where everything went terribly wrong between them. He’d watched her get shot, and then he’d figured out what she’d done, but she could only imagine how he’d felt. He’d been so angry— rightfully so—and then he’d come through and saved her ass again, not once, but twice after that.
Maybe that was the problem—she wasn’t ready to admit she’d been wrong. That had never been her strong point. She’d also convinced herself that it was better—safer—that he didn’t know the plan. And she was right about that, but Reid wasn’t just anyone. He was a Delta Force Operator, worked black ops jobs and knew the inherent dangers of her situation. And then she’d let a year go by—a lifetime for a man like that. He’d probably been to a different country a month, started a war, found different women to seduce.
She was so tense. Needed a long run. Maybe when Jack got here tomorrow, she’d sneak out and run until she stopped thinking.
She heard the clinking of Benji’s chain. When she looked in, she noted he’d turned on his side, his arm dangling down. The TV seemed to be louder than it had been, but it kept him asleep.
Witnesses were generally happiest when asleep.
Her phone rang. Unknown number, but that wasn’t odd for her.
“I’ve got information on the fighting ring.” It was a low, gruff voice with a heavy East Coast accent.
New York, for sure. “I’m listening.”
If she held him on the line for thirty seconds, she’d get a trace. But the entire world knew that trick now. “I need to see you in person.”
“Not possible,” she said.
She whirled around, because the voice had come from behind her. A tall man stood there, his face uncovered.
He’s not bothering to cover his face.
She fought for her life—it was the only way she could save herself and her witness.
He was too close, too big and he pinned her arms. She fought. Scratched, clawed and punched and she might’ve actually gotten to her gun in her pocket if another man hadn’t come up from behind her and squeezed the pressure point in her neck.
Before she lost consciousness, she heard one of them say, “We’ve got ourselves a fighter.”
Then she dropped with a thud that echoed in her ears. Woke in a moving car—the trunk—and fought to keep her eyes open. There was duct tape around her arms and legs. Across her mouth. She tried to move around, to find a weapon, anything.
Before she could stop herself, she passed out again.
The next time she woke, everything was wavy and she fought the urge to laugh. Everything was funny. Everything was wonderful, especially because the duct tape was gone. She stood, stared at the wavy lines again and realized they were iron bars that reinforced the heavy metal door from the inside.
And she laughed again.
The next time she opened her eyes, her head throbbed and she definitely wasn’t laughing. She lay there for a few minutes, looking around, noting the camera mounted in the far right corner. She couldn’t get up to look out the square window, but saw nothing but darkness.
Her hands were tied above her head, ankles lashed together and her head throbbing. She’d been drugged—she knew that for sure—and they’d hit her over the head for good measure, the bastards.
She swallowed—her throat was so dry, it burned. She’d been put into a short-sleeved T-shirt and she searched her arms, looking for track marks. She finally found them, in between her fingers.
“You’re as smart as I thought you’d be.”
She glanced up to see a big man watching her. She blinked, stared at his face. He was handsome, despite the craggy pockmarks that cratered the skin on his cheeks. “Where am I?”
“The place you and your people were trying to keep Benji from. And now you’ve got a job here.”
She stared back down at the track marks, her mind working overtime. They were drugging her with addictive narcotics. She’d go into withdrawal without them if they kept injecting her at this rate. She’d have to beg them for drugs, would have to fight for them.
She’d always felt that it was safer to work within the law, and she wasn’t so sure that was going to save her this time.
She closed her eyes and thought about Reid, what he’d do in a situation like this.
He’d fight, any way he had to. He’d always been dangerous. When she’d told him she thought he was one of the good guys, he’d told her she was wrong.
Wrong or not, she wished he was here to help her, but she’d used up all her get-out-of-jail-free cards with him.
She shouldn’t be using this time to think about regrets, shouldn’t be seeing her life flash before her eyes. That meant she was giving up and she couldn’t do that yet.
“I never thought women would be such a big draw. But some of their fights actually outperform the men’s for money.”
She committed the face to memory. This wasn’t the man on trial for illegal cage fighting. And this operation was bigger than any one conviction could touch. It had sprawled, spawned leagues and the like.
He smiled. “Right back where he wanted to be. Fighting.”
“I want to see him.”
“You’re not in a position to give orders, Grier. You’re just another fighter, struggling up the ranks.”
“I hope there’s a direct-deposit option for my checks,” she deadpanned.
“We’ll see if you still have your sense of humor after tomorrow night.”