DANGEROUS MEMORIES

Chapter One

  

"Gun!"

U.S. Marshal Levi Cooper did a three-sixty search for the person shouting or confirmation of an actual gun. He couldn't see anything, but he couldn't take a chance with Jolene's life. He moved. "Everybody down!" The few people attending the funeral heard the warning and scattered away from the casket.

All except the target.

So he ran. Slipping and sliding downhill through the mud and sheets of pouring rain, he ran to save her life.

He watched Jolene Atkins continue to stand under the canopy erected by the funeral home. Next to her father's casket, still suspended on the lowering system, her shoulders shook as if she were crying.

She didn't take cover.

Levi hurdled a flower arrangement to get to her faster. He should have listened to himself earlier and never left her side. He heard the shot. Choices? Either hit the dirt or run like those in his peripheral vision. He leapt in a flying tackle to take Jolene down with him.

He'd pushed hard off the slippery grass, heavily landing on top of her. He turned as much as he could to take the brunt of the fall. Their bodies slid off the fake-grass rug, into the mud.

Wreath stands fell onto the casket.

Roses and other flowers fell on their heads.

Rain pelted them like ice shards.

Levi rolled on top of her, keeping his weight on his elbows and knees, using the bulletproof vest he wore to shield her heart. If it were only that easy.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

Jolene shook her short dark hair and wiped the rain from her face.  Was the hitch in her breathing and wide-eyed confusion from falling or recognition he was there?

"You."

Recognition. She twisted trying to free herself. "I should have known you'd stoop to dramatics to prove yourself right."

"What's that supposed to mean?" He eased his body the opposite direction he wanted her to roll.

"I'm not going anywhere with you." She shoved him aside, and a blood red carnation fell to the puddle between them. On her stomach, she put her hands in the mud and curled her toes.

He'd knocked her right out of her shoes.

"Did you have to ruin his funeral?"

"We need cover." Ignoring her accusations, he jerked her hand into his, forcing her close to his side. He pulled his weapon from its holster. Not a good situation. No backup. No idea who had pulled that trigger.

The shot had definitely come from the top of the hill behind them. On their knees, he awkwardly draped an arm over Jo, keeping her body low to the ground until they could sit with the coffin at their backs—the only cover he had.

"Did you stage this?" she asked, one hand in a fist, the other pointing toward the trees.

The coat she wore was thin and already soaked through. She'd be frozen in a matter of minutes.

"Stage a guy trying to kill you at your father's funeral?"

"I wouldn't put it past a devious person to do anything to get what he wants."

"I thought this site was a bad idea." He didn't blame her. He'd been against having the funeral in St. Louis from the start. She'd insisted on using the plot next to her mother's.

"Four years ago, you and my father assured me he was no longer in witness protection."

Yeah, she was angry. Someone had just taken a shot at her and she was yelling at him.

"One problem at a time. I can't see a shooter."

The trouble really began when Levi tried to explain why her father had convinced her he was no longer in the witness protection program. Explaining was difficult when he didn't understand why Joseph had lied, either.

"Jolene, I'm here against orders because I'm probably the only person left who believes your father." Believed. A week had passed and it was still hard to think of Joseph as dead. "Why won't you trust me?"

"You lied." She drew her knees up to her chin and hid her face. "You both lied."

Levi couldn't respond. It was a truth he couldn't deny or justify at the moment. Helping her would keep his promise to her dad but it wouldn't make her feel better. Wanting to comfort her was a part of attending the funeral. He knew how hard it was to say goodbye to a parent. Not exactly under these circumstances, but he knew. There wasn't any time for comfort.

The sound of car engines faded and the whine of police sirens grew.

Mourners were gone. Flower arrangements were destroyed. No sounds other than the tent canopy flapping in the wind and rain pelting the tarp. The chance to say goodbye with dignity was done. Jolene couldn't hear his professionalism shattering within his mind.

"Is there any reason to continue sitting in the mud?" she asked, wiping rivulets of water from her face.

"Give me a minute to check things out." Making demands had never worked with Joseph Atkins' daughter. Hadn't worked with him, either.

She seemed to accept his statement, remaining still while he zigzagged from one headstone to the next, attempting to draw another attack. Nothing happened. No one in sight. Even the cemetery workers had fled.

"Let's go, Jolene." He raised his voice and ran back to the gravesite, swiping at his wet face. "We need to leave before the cops haul us in for questioning."

"Your big marshal badge won't keep the police at bay?" She pushed back her hair and seemed to notice the strewn disorder around them. "I can't leave things like this." She immediately set flowers straight, scooped her heels from where she'd originally stood and stuffed them in her coat pockets.

His badge wouldn't give him any authority over Jolene and he had no official reason to be in Missouri. Jolene stopped short at a small headstone—the one placed to declare her death and escape into WITSEC.

"Jo…" He took her elbow and gently tugged her toward his car. "He'd want you safe."

"But—"

"No buts. We're going."

They skirted the edge of the cemetery back to his rental car, exiting through the gate opposite where the police entered. Joseph Atkins would rest in peace next to the wife he'd never stopped loving. Which was the reason Levi had finally agreed to bury him where friends thought he'd been buried for twenty years.

Five minutes down the road with the heater blasting on high, Jolene took a visible, deep breath. The tears seemed to be over for the moment. He needed her calm. Thinking straight.

"What are you doing here, Levi? Or should I call you Marshal Cooper?"

"I came to say goodbye to a good friend."

"Don't you mean client? Or witness? I can't believe Dad kept this from me. Why? What was the point? How could you have gone along with it?"

"I admit that being introduced to you as a family friend wasn't my idea, but your dad did what he thought was right. He was always thinking about your safety."

"Come on, Levi. Does this really seem like the best thing to you?"

They were both soaked to the skin, making him wish he'd rented a car with warming seats. Her makeup was circling her emerald eyes from both tears and the rain. Did it look like the best thing? Not by a long shot, but she was alive.

"In the past week, my father died in a car accident. The United States Marshals Service advised that burying him next to my mother may alert her murderers to my whereabouts, but because I wasn't officially in the WITSEC program they couldn't help me. And you show up yesterday with a letter supposedly from my father."

"It's real."

"Stow it. He lied for four years, he's lying now. I did not witness my mother's murder." She shook her short hair so hard drops of water sailed across the car. "I've seen the best therapists WITSEC had to offer. Everyone believes I'm not a witness—except you."

"And your father. And the person who tried to kill you a half hour ago."

"If you hadn't shouted 'gun' we would have finished his service. In all the rain, you probably saw a stick or something."

"I didn't shout gun." So who had shouted? Someone who wanted the crowd out of the way?

One warning. One shot. One attempt. And no one tailing them. Didn't make sense. If they were tailed, he'd pull into one of the restaurants with rear street exits he'd found yesterday. Easier to elude a following car than attempt to outrun them.

"And I know the difference between a stick and gun. Even in the rain."

"Yes, but you are a liar."

"That does it." He quickly switched lanes, pulling into an empty fast-food lot and headed toward the dumpster.

Stomping on the breaks, the rental skidded to a stop. He had it under control, but Jolene still held onto the dashboard. It took her a minute before she relaxed into the seat.

The rain continued. Hail pinged the roof a couple of times or he would have stood outside. He shook off his coat in the cramped space, pulled at the straps holding the vest in place and yanked it over his head, tossing both into the backseat.

"Would you take me to my hotel on Paige near Highway 270? Aren't you worried they're following us?" She shook her hands in the air. "Whoever they are."

"Yes, as a matter of fact I am." He shifted in the seat and hooked his arm over the steering wheel. "But let's get one thing straight. I did not willingly lie to you. I respected your father's wishes. For some reason he wanted you away from him. He said it was important for you to have a life outside of witness protection after you graduated. So I helped with that by keeping the fact I was his WITSEC handler to myself. I have to protect others every day. It's part of my job. But I am not a liar."

She didn't respond. He put the car in gear, checking the mirror often, turning suddenly a couple of times without using his indicator. Just in case the gunman was following. He couldn't see much with the rain pelting the car. The back window was foggy, obscuring his ability to watch for cars that may have followed.

"My mother's murder was a long time ago, Levi. And I honestly don't remember anything about it. I was hiding. It's in every report. Hiding in my toy box."

Jolene's resolve was straightforward, confident. The same person he'd grown to admire during his visits with her father. Okay, he could admit that all the visits hadn't been just to see a man well settled in the life WITSEC had provided. Maybe a few of the visits had ulterior motives. Extra Sunday dinners or even Monday leftovers. Extra visits with both the Atkins.

"The triple homicide involving your mother is an ongoing investigation. They never caught or identified all the men your father saw. The man he put away was killed shortly after arriving in prison." Time to be honest about everything. "One of the guns was used in three other murders as recently as six months ago."

"Why did he keep this from me?"

 "I can't answer that, Jo. What I can do is get you back to WITSEC and to someone who will help you remember."

"I can't do that."

The confidence was gone. Even the idea of trying to remember seemed to frighten her.

"With the proper help—"

"Let me say it a different way. I won't remember. Why would anyone try to remember their mother being slashed to death?"

"To stay alive."

The sincerity Jolene saw as Levi said the simple words scared her to her marrow. He meant it. And she believed him.

The words resonated, bouncing around in her head. Stay alive. An echo of something. But her father had said those words her entire life. Everything they'd done was in order to stay safe…to stay alive.

"You really think they want me dead? I was only five when it…when mama…"

"Hey," he said with a comforting sigh. He watched the road, but his hand slid across hers, covering her shaking fingers, warming the chill away. "There's time to talk later. Right now we should pick up your suitcase and change into dry clothes."

So much, so fast. Too fast.

She removed her hand from under his, deliberately meshing her fingers together and tucking them under her chin. He was a U.S. Marshal. Not a confidant. Not her father's colleague. And never her true friend.

She may trust Levi Cooper with her life, but not any part of her heart.

Been there. Done that. Saved the hurt.

Waiting to discuss the details was fine. She was cold, wet, emotionally overwhelmed and at the moment, easily swept up into the idea of danger she'd been cautioned about her entire life. She didn't know if she believed Levi's gun sighting, but she wanted to see the letter her father had written.

Her father's precautions had kept her safe for twenty years. But she had no intention of traveling to wherever the marshal wanted her to talk with more experts. Nothing would bring back the memories.

Nightmares were just nightmares.

Speeding through the first couple of yellow lights seemed normal. He was on edge and she'd been lost in thought. But when Levi gripped the wheel tighter, slowed for the yellow, then sped up through the red, she knew there was a problem.

"You could give a girl some warning." Her bare feet were pressing hard on the floorboard, trying to stop the car, then just keeping her in her seat.

"How did they find us? Nobody followed from the cemetery." He slammed his palm on the steering wheel.

"Honestly, if you think I'm going to fall for—"

She turned around to see a black car run the light, causing a chain reaction crash with crossing traffic that tried to avoid a collision. She verified her seat belt was tight and clenched the dash again. "I don't believe this is happening."

"Believe it."

Levi drove like a professional racer, darting in and out and around the cars in their way. Skidding around corners in the rain. The black car stayed right with them—never gaining, never falling behind.

"You can't keep driving like this. You aren't that lucky. They won't have to kill us because you will."

There was no difference in Levi's expression. No recognition that his thoughts may have gone to her father's death in a car accident. He seemed to concentrate on his driving too much to look at her, but she could stare nowhere else except at him. If she watched the cars or the road or paid too much attention to the close calls, she'd begin to panic. She couldn't control the helplessness building in her throat. It was buried deep inside somewhere and bubbled to the surface every time there was a near miss with a car.

"Why aren't the police following us yet?" she asked, keeping her focus on Levi's eyes. "Wouldn't that get these guys off our backs? Can I call them?"

"It might, but I think it's both good and bad. So let's skip the local explanations and go straight to the airport."

"Skip talking to the police and just leave town?"

He slowed to exit the highway they'd been traveling on for a short time. Jolene looked at the road in time to see a sign for Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. So all his turns had been deliberate, heading here. Nowhere near where her chosen hotel was located. He'd planned this and she hadn't noticed where he'd been going.

They passed through the airport entrance and the black car continued down the road. They weren't being followed any longer. They were safe.

For the moment.

"I didn't think they'd like the security cameras at the airport. I need you to use your phone and call the airline."

"You want me to leave now?" At first the cost of changing her ticket made her cringe, but at least she'd be sleeping in her own bed tonight. That thought made her sigh with relief. "My ticket to Atlanta is for tomorrow and all my stuff's at the hotel."

"Nothing that can't be replaced or shipped?"

"Fortunately, no." No makeup, no toothbrush. A trip to the store on the way home instead of straight to bed. Her bed. Was he coming with her? The thought tied her stomach in more knots.

He slowed the car to a crawl waiting for people crossing the street. He acted so calm and casual, leaning against the door, his hands relaxed on the steering wheel instead of his previous death grip. It was infuriating how he could turn the adrenaline on and off. Her heart was still beating fifteen hundred miles an hour and her stomach was still ten miles back.

"My duffel's already in the trunk. Your hotel is too risky. These men know your name, where you live, what you do. I'm not sure how they found out, but it's a safe bet they've already tracked you through your phone."

"I'm not throwing away my new phone." Or giving up my life. Changing my name. Leaving everything behind. Or taking you home with me to my one bedroom apartment.

"Who asked you to? We'll take out the battery."

"Oh."

Her heart had jump-started at his answer. What did he have planned? He parked in the first spot on the highest garage floor. No one was in sight. Just the rain beating a strange rhythm that made her nervous. Or being in close quarters with Levi did.

Or maybe it was the realization that someone believed she could recognize her mother's murderers and had attempted to kill her. Of course, that could have something to do with the urge to lose what little she'd had for lunch.

"If they're tracking my phone, why use it to change the tickets?" she asked. "We could just go inside."

He raised his eyebrows and grinned. With chocolate-colored wet hair curling on his forehead and dirt streaked across his dimpled cheek, he looked like a sweet, innocent little boy who had made his first mud pie.

"You want them to know about the ticket change."

He nodded.

"Because we aren't going to use them."

"Right again. We're taking the train."

"Then how do I get back? Won't they just track me from wherever we're going?"

"We can't let that happen," he said flatly.

"Just so we're clear, I have no intention of returning to Boulder." She'd already asked a college friend to oversee the sale of furniture and shipping of her father's things. "I can't talk to anyone about what I didn't see so it won't do any good to go back."

"You have to try. They were very clear that I can't take you into WITSEC until you're an actual witness."

"You're confusing me. Just tell me where we're going so I can say no."

"I was thinking about Dallas."

No. No. A thousand times no.

"But Dallas is where…"

"Where your mother was murdered."

 

 

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