Hard Core Justice
September 29, 2020
Witness Security Breach
Their only hope is each other.
There’s not a target out there that US Marshals Aiden Yazzie and Charlotte “Charlie” Killinger can’t bring down. Until a high-profile witness goes missing and a fellow marshal is murdered. On a killer’s hit list, they go on the run. Their will to stay alive is challenged only by their long-denied physical attraction. Can they steer clear of temptation to find their witness and dodge their pursuers before it’s too late?
The next four words to leave his mouth would obliterate a life. Four words every US marshal hated saying. Four words every person in the witness security program dreaded hearing.
“You’re in imminent danger,” Aiden Yazzie said, closing the last set of kitchen blinds, muting the bright April sun. He turned and met Eugene Potter’s terrified face.
The urgency of the situation was spelled out in big, bold letters across the bulletproof vests of Aiden’s four-man special operations team, the CAR-15 rifles strapped across their backs and the tactical, turbo-charged vehicle with blacked-out windows parked in front of the suburban Palisades home. When the US Marshals Service identified a need for extraordinary measures, it was the Special Operations Group—SOG—that answered the call.
The sixty-two-year-old man staggered back and sat on a stool at the counter. “But how?” He ran a shaking hand through his thinning gray hair. “I’ve been so careful. How was I blown?”
Aiden exchanged a glance with his partner and best friend, Charlotte “Charlie” Killinger. The answer to Eugene’s question had the entire Justice Department in an uproar, had tarnished the impeccable reputation of their San Diego field office and sent the SOG scrambling.
Eugene had a right to know, along with the other unsuspecting individuals in the program that’d been compromised in the Pacific Coast region, but the rea- son was classified.
In typical Killinger fashion, Charlie redirected. “If you want to live, we have to relocate you again. Immediately.”
“I—I can’t.” Eugene’s mouth hung open. “My wife is at work.”
Aiden stepped up beside the trembling man. “We’re prepared to pick her up before we head to the Safe Site and Protection Center. At the SSPC, you’ll both be briefed.” He put a hand on the older man’s shoulder. Tension coursed through Aiden. Each minute they spent in the house endangered Potter. “We should leave now.”
“You don’t understand.” Eugene shook his head. “We’ve only been married six months. I followed procedure. Sharon doesn’t know who I really am or the things I’ve done.” Despite the air-conditioning that matched the temperate SoCal weather, a sweat broke out on his brow. Propping an elbow on the counter, he wiped his forehead with the heel of his palm.
“It’s good you followed protocol. Smart,” Charlie said in a clipped tone, flicking a look at her watch. “I’ll explain why you couldn’t have disclosed the details.”
Those in WITSEC left everything behind, buried the old version of themselves and were instructed never to share the truth or their past with anyone. Not even a new spouse.
In the event of an ugly divorce, the secret could be divulged out of revenge.
Starting a marriage based on lies was brutal. But not as brutal as a bullet to the head.
Following the rules kept people alive and no witness who’d done so had ever been killed. It was Aiden and Charlie’s job to make sure that didn’t change.
“She’ll know I lied to her!” Eugene’s face snapped up. “She’ll question everything. My love. Our marriage.” His gaze flew to the photo gallery above the breakfast nook. Family memories featuring young children adorned the wall. “Sharon will never leave San Diego. Her four kids are here, six grandbabies. Cindy, her youngest, is pregnant with her first. I thought I’d be here for the rest of my life. It’s the reason I married her, allowed myself to become part of the family. You people promised that after I testified and got settled, I’d be fine.” His features twisted in pain, his eyes brimming with tears. “I’m going to be sick.” He jumped to his feet and ran into the hallway bathroom, shutting the door behind him.
“What’s taking so long?” Johnny Torres asked over the comms device in their ears.
He and Dale Banks were the other two tactical marshals assigned to the high-priority detail. They were covering the front and rear of the house.
“The dynamic duo should’ve had this wrapped up by now,” Dale said, his tone caustic.
Aiden rolled his eyes. He and Charlie were indeed dynamic together. They were the best SOG operators in the unit. Smack talk came with the territory. Under normal circumstances he would’ve enjoyed it, but after taking a wrecking ball to a man’s life, he wasn’t in the mood.
Charlie met his gaze. Those sapphire-blue eyes of hers were hard as gemstones. Held an incisive gleam that never dulled. With blond hair cut in a sleek bob, her fair skin and icy veneer, she was stunningly good- looking, and called the snow queen by the other guys.
To Aiden, she was more of a Viking warrior ready for battle. She was simply spectacular.
She toggled her earpiece. “If we want your opinions, we’ll give it to you. Torres, start the car. We’re leaving the wife behind and heading straight to the SSPC.” She disconnected.
After Torres gave a curt acknowledgment over comms, Aiden asked her, “Isn’t that premature? Mr. Potter might want to try to convince his wife to go with him.”
“Did you take a gander at that?” Charlie hooked her thumbs in her gun belt and inclined her head toward the picture-perfect wall of photos. “Each person is an anchor, weighting his new bride to her old life. He never should’ve been foolish enough to fall in love and buy into some fairy-tale ending. A clean break is best.”
“It takes courage to love.” Aiden strode up to her, bringing them face-to-face. Their eyes locked. “Don’t knock it until you’re brave enough to try it.”
Charlie slinked closer, sexy as sin, and hoisted her chin like a gladiator, quickening his pulse. They would’ve been nose to nose if he didn’t have a good six inches on her.
“What you call bravery, I see as delusion.” Her voice was low and cold but heated his skin.
For a second, he was tempted to lower his head and kiss her. Melt her glacial facade with all the red-hot passion burning in his veins that wasn’t professional or platonic, but restraint bred from lots and lots of practice had become one of his virtues.
When he made his move, it had to be the right time and place. He didn’t want to be one of Charlie’s lovers who had the shelf life of bread. He wanted to be the love of her life.
“Leaving Mrs. Potter behind with a clean break isn’t our decision to make,” he said.
“Nevertheless, Tweedledee and Tweedledum outside have a point. This is taking too long. We agreed that we’d be in and out in ten minutes.”
Aiden didn’t need to check his watch to instinctively know they’d been inside for six. Already his gut agreed with Charlie. They’d been there too long.
“You still have that bad feeling?” she asked, her hand resting on the gun on her hip.
The moment they’d pulled up, it was as if a clammy finger had been dragged down his spine.
He wished he could chalk it up to nerves over keeping his big news from Charlie. Telling her that this might be their last assignment together if he accepted the coveted position as an SOG instructor at Camp Beauregard in Louisiana. It was a conversation he wanted to have about as much as he wanted to get a root canal without Novocain. But this wasn’t nerves.
Aiden stepped away, scrubbing a palm over his jaw. “Yeah, I still have it.”
“You might be in denial about your sixth sense, but I’m not. I’ve learned the hard way never to ignore your gift.”
Denial couldn’t be further from the truth. If experience was any indication, the prickly tingle warned that someone was going to die today.
Was it a gift to know when death was going to come calling? Felt more like a curse.
“We can’t wait for Eugene to pull it together.” Charlie shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Crossed her arms over her chest. “We need to go.”
No bad feeling necessary to realize that was an understatement.
There was a high price on Eugene’s head. His personal information had been sold on the dark web. At least one hit man that they were aware of had been contracted, prompting the urgent relocation. It was possible others might come slithering out of the gutter to try to collect.
A toilet flushed and water ran.
Eugene stumbled out of the bathroom, looking peaked and more devastated than before. “I need to talk to Sharon, say goodbye at the very least. Tell her I’m sorry. I owe her that.”
Aiden threw Charlie an I-told-you-so look, which she returned with a conciliatory nod.
“Let me grab something first,” Eugene said, “and then we can go.”
“There’s no time for you to pack anything.” Aiden sidestepped, blocking his path. “All the essentials will be at the SSPC, just like last time.”
“It’ll only take a second. I won’t leave without it.” Eugene pivoted, scurrying around him to the open shelving beside the stove, which was lined with cook- books, dishes and knickknacks. He took down a display of wine corks in a tall glass vase, dumped them onto the counter and fished out one from the pile. A relieved look washed over him. “Okay. Now we can g—”
The kitchen window shattered with a pop.
“Get down!” Aiden was already in motion as the words left his mouth.
He lunged for Eugene. At the same time, Charlie drew her 9 mm, taking a defensive posture.
Aiden shoved Eugene hard to the floor as the vase on the counter shattered, spraying glass over them. More bullets buzzed through the air and punched holes in the cabinets, sending jagged plywood shards in all directions.
They had one big problem. The rifle trained on them. Covering his head with his hands, Eugene shrieked but had the sense to stay pinned in the chaos of the fusillade.
Aiden tightened his hold on him, ensuring Eugene was shielded. No bullet would reach Eugene unless it went through Aiden first.
Her name was on his tongue when she came crawling around the kitchen island with her STI Staccato-P, locked and loaded, in hand. Only SOG carried the STI rather than the Glock 22 that rank-and-file marshals were issued. What elite operator didn’t want a gun that held twenty-one rounds, shot superfast and never failed in accuracy?
Another volley of gunfire tore through the room.
Distance. Aiden needed distance from the scene.
He pushed back mentally, slowed down the external factors along with his breathing and the rush of blood through his ears. His soul quieted.
His mind brought everything into razor-sharp focus, discarding every distraction in seconds.
From the sound, the rifle being used was suppressed. Based on the I-want-to-blow-off-your-head-sized holes in the cupboards, it was also high-powered.
The impossibly rapid gunfire was controlled, calculated. Bullets whizzed way too close for Aiden’s comfort. The shooter’s accuracy indicated that he or she was well trained, stationary, and had a good, if not spot-on, idea of where they were despite the drawn blinds. Aiden had gotten Eugene behind cover—but apparently they weren’t concealed. Which left only one explanation.
Their sniper had a precision-guided smart scope that could track targets behind walls. “Shooter is using LIDAR or ultrasonic technology,” Aiden said to Charlie.
“Must be military grade.”
If they didn’t want to ingest lead, sitting there wasn’t an option.
“We’ve got to move,” Aiden said. “Now!” Not waiting for Eugene to react, he grabbed the older man by the collar and hauled him up to his knees.
Bullets peppered the spot where they’d been.
They shuffled forward. Aiden used his own body as cover. Glass crunched beneath them.
A maelstrom of rounds strafed the kitchen all around, riddling the drywall with holes. A hot slug sliced past their heads.
Too close. One centimeter closer and Aiden would’ve been toast.
Eugene fumbled, a panicked flush on his cheeks. The wine cork slipped from his grasp.
“I need it!” He had the reckless gall to resist moving and reached back for the cork. A piece of glass sliced open his palm, drawing blood.
Eugene yelped from the small cut like he’d been shot. Aiden pushed him lower and grabbed the wine cork. Rather than handing it over, he held on to it and forced Eugene toward the refrigerator.
The fridge was one of those massive units, a sixty- four-inch side-by-side fridge-and-freezer set.
Aiden opened the fridge and tucked Eugene behind the door.
“Give it to me!” Eugene tried to wrest the cork from Aiden’s hand.
If he was more concerned with a piece of bark than taking a bullet, no way in hell was Aiden giving it to him.
Eugene snatched hold of one end of the wine cork and pulled on it, separating it in half, revealing a concealed flash drive.
“What is this?” Aiden asked, holding tight to the drive.
“I need it!” Eugene clawed at Aiden’s fingers like his life depended on getting it back.
Aiden shoved him against the interior of the fridge before he waved Charlie over to take the other side. There was only space for two behind the doors.
“Torres, Banks,” Charlie said over comms, her voice like steel as she made her way to the refrigerator, “we’re taking gunfire. What’s your status?”
“I left the vehicle. I’m headed inside to help get Potter out,” Torres responded.
Any assassin worth his weight in salt would have both exits covered. Taking Eugene outside would only increase his exposure. They’d never get him to the car alive.
Aiden tapped his earpiece. “Torres, don’t. Track where the gunfire is coming from and lay down suppressive fire to give me a chance to move. We’ve got to kill the sniper first.”
“Banks?” Aiden waited for the next reply that didn’t come. “Dale, come in.”
“I think he’s down,” Charlie said, echoing his thoughts. If that were the case, the sniper did have a line of sight to the backyard, kitchen, most likely the front, too, and had taken out Banks before unleashing a torrent of slugs on them.
“Protect Potter,” Aiden said to Charlie. “The fridge door will make better cover and take the brunt of the gunfire.”
He guessed the rifle was a .50 cal. The thick stainless-steel doors wouldn’t hold up indefinitely under the heavy firepower, but they should withstand the onslaught long enough for Aiden to take care of the shooter.
“You stay,” Charlie said, her eyes bright and shining, her voice too eager. “I’ll go—”
“No. It’s an order.” Aiden only played the I-outrank-you card when necessary. It wasn’t that Charlie couldn’t handle the sniper—she was more than capable, but she was drawn to danger like a moth to a flame, and he’d do anything to prevent her from getting burned.
Coming up on one knee, he drew his gun and then moved without hesitation toward the door leading to the yard. He’d be easy pickings once outside. Since Banks had taken the back, Aiden didn’t know if there was anything out there that he could use for cover besides a couple of stone pillars.
A grill. He recalled noticing a gas grill on the patio as he’d lowered the blinds, but the propane tank made it more of a hazard than potential cover.
Going outside was a dicey move, but necessary. Eliminating the threat required two people. One as bait to draw fire while the other went in and neutralized the enemy.
Aiden stopped before reaching the doors and stood with his back to the double-wall ovens in a pocket of space protected from gunfire. “Torres, you got a bead on our sniper?” Aiden asked, slipping the thumb drive into his pocket.
“Yep. He’s on the roof of the house on the west side.”
The location made perfect sense based on the lines of sight, and would put the sun at the shooter’s back, but the gunman hadn’t been out in the open when they’d arrived at the exact same time Eugene had been pulling into the driveway, returning from errands. The sniper must’ve set up while Aiden and Charlie had been in- doors explaining things to Eugene. Risked pulling off the hit in broad daylight rather than taking the chance of losing his target.
“I need a distraction so I can move,” Aiden said. “Got it. Be ready on my mark.”
Aiden glanced at Charlie.
The fridge doors were doing a good job of absorbing the bullets. Charlie would make sure Potter didn’t lose his head, literally or figuratively.
Aiden braced for what was to come, for what he had to do next.
An icy stillness stole over him. His heart pounded, but he grew utterly calm. Resolved. Focused on nothing except the plan forming with brutal clarity. Warfare meditation.
“Go now,” Torres said in his ear.
Gunshots from a handgun rang out. As expected, the suppressed rifle fire refocused.
Aiden dashed through the dining area, slipped outside and shut the door.
In the grass, Dale Banks was down on his back. Blood pooled from a hole in what was left of his head. Aiden’s gut clenched at the thought of Dale’s pregnant wife and how there wouldn’t be an open casket.
Aiden pressed his spine hard against a stone column, ensuring he wasn’t in the line of fire. Then he drew on honed professional detachment.
Low pops from the big rifle whizzed in the direction where Torres must’ve taken position on the side of Potter’s house.
This was Aiden’s chance. It wouldn’t last long.
He took two deep breaths and bolted toward the fence, racing across the spacious yard before the shooter spotted him. He scaled the six-foot wooden barrier with little effort while Torres played decoy.
Making his way around the adjacent ranch-style house, Aiden crossed the short distance to the far side of the home. He had to sneak up on the sniper’s rear and deal with him quickly.
A trash bin had been propped against a section of the stucco wall alongside an AC unit. The shooter must’ve used it to get up to the second floor, where there was a broken window.
No time to go through the house to get to the roof. Besides, the plastic receptacle might make unwanted noise or buckle under his weight, giving him away.
He searched for a better option.
Fragrant honeysuckle climbed a trellis that screened either side of the back porch.
The wooden lattice might be perfect. Provided it was sturdy enough.
A quick shake after putting his full weight on two bottom rungs showed it to be a durable frame that’d been built to last.
Aiden holstered his firearm and scaled the privacy trellis. He climbed smoothly, moving from one hand-hold to another. At the top, he hoisted himself up onto the patio roof and landed softly, straining not to make a sound.
The sniper was clad in all black and in a prone position only several feet away, cheek pressed against the stock, trying to put holes in Torres.
Aiden crept forward. Slipped his sidearm from the holster on his hip. “Freeze! Or I’ll blow your head off.”
The semiautomatic gunfire stopped. The shooter stilled.
“Hands up off the rifle. Now!” Aiden stepped closer, aiming for the shoulder. If he had to shoot, he’d prefer to wound him so they could question him and find out exactly who’d taken out the contract on Eugene.
Slowly, the man with a buzz cut complied, raising his gloved hands to ear level, staying down on his belly.
Aiden unhooked handcuffs from his gun belt and tossed them over to the guy. They clattered next to his left elbow. “Cuff yourself. Hands behind your back. Take it nice and slow.”
“Please, don’t shoot,” the sniper said with a heavy twang that came from somewhere below the Mason- Dixon line. “I’m just going for the handcuffs.”
Dixie reached across his body with his right hand toward the cuffs, posture tightening, muscles shifting gradually. No sudden moves. Fingers dipped out of sight in front of his chest.
Then a lot happened in a flash.
The killer rotated lightning quick, flipping onto his back.
In the same heartbeat, Aiden squeezed the trigger. Missed by a hair and hit a roof shingle because the assassin had been anticipating it, prepared for it.
Steel glinted in the sun. Fast, so fast, Aiden almost didn’t see the fracture of light as the hit man threw a knife.
If Aiden had blinked, he would’ve been dead.
He ducked, narrowly avoiding a tactical blade to the throat. But the gunman launched himself up to his feet while throwing a second knife in one smooth motion.
The four-inch combat knife struck Aiden in the bicep, destabilizing his firing arm.
Dixie rushed him, two hundred pounds of desperate muscle charging.
Aiden used the nanoseconds he had and lowered his own center of mass, grounding his body weight for the impact.
The blow was harder than expected. Aiden used momentum, sending his enemy up from the ground and overhead.
But Dixie grabbed hold of Aiden and ensured they both went down.
They tumbled. Pure kinetic energy propelled two conflicting forces. They rolled and rolled right over the edge, plummeted, falling.
Aiden threw a knee into the other man’s gut and twisted, positioning himself on top.
The ground rushed up to greet them.
Dixie’s head smacked against the AC unit with a nauseating crunch.
Aiden slammed down hard, his bones jarred, the breath forced from his lungs, the blade knocked from his arm, but the hit man’s body had helped cushion the fall.
He rolled off the body. The contract killer’s head lay at an unnatural angle, his neck snapped. That was when Aiden spotted it.
A wireless, flesh-colored comms device tucked in the dead man’s ear.
The sniper wasn’t alone.