Authors: Ridley Pearson
SIX YEARS EARLIER
The forty-first day was their last together.
Roland Larson was holed up in a truck stop's pay phone, half-mad from guarding her round-the-clock while denied any privacy with her whatsoever. He resorted to calling her on the phone. He'd slipped her his cell phone, and now dialed his own number to find her breathless as she whispered from her hardened bedroom, the aft cabin of the bus, not thirty yards away.
“I can't stand this,” she said.
He found himself aroused by the hoarse, coarse sound of her. Forty-one days, under every conceivable pressure, and this the first complaint he'd heard from her.
“Us, or the situation?” he asked.
Hope Stevens had been moved on three separate occasions: first, to a wilderness cabin in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, the kind of place Larson could see himself retiring to someday, a lethargic life so different from the one he lived; then she'd been moved to a nearly abandoned Air Force base in Montana, the desolation reminding him of a penitentiary, a place he knew well; and finally, into a private coach, a customized diesel bus that Treasury had confiscated from a forgotten rock band, its interior complete with neon-trim lighting and mirrored tables. Painted on three sides as a purple and black sunrise, the coach comfortably slept six and converted to club seating by day. Three deputies, including Larson, two drivers, and the witness traveled togetherâone of only a handful of times in the U.S. Marshals Service's long history of witness protection that a “moving target” policy had been adopted. The last had been aboard a sleeper train in the mid-'70s.
Ironically, the more attempts made upon her life, the more importance and significance Hope Stevens gained in the eyes of her government. It wasn't for her keen understanding of computers that they guarded her, nor for her fine looks or sharp tongue (when she did bother to speak); it was instead for a few cells and chemicals inside her skull and the memory trapped there, living now like a dog under the front porch, cowering with a bone of truth in its jaws.
The problem for Roland Larson was that the longer he guarded her, the more he cared for herâcared intenselyâa situation unforgivable and intolerable in the eyes of his superiors and one that, if discovered, could have him transferred to some far outpost of government service, like North Dakota or Buffalo. But the few private moments shared with her overwhelmed any sensibility in Larson.
After just seventeen days of protection, the Michigan cabin had gone up in flamesâarson; in the resulting firefight, a shadowy ballet in the flashes of orange light from the mighty blaze, two deputy marshals had been injured.
When, at the Montana Air Force base, mention of “persons unknown” had been intercepted by some geek in an NSA cubicle, the marshals had been instructed to move Hope yet again. Larson wasn't much for running away from a faceless enemy, but he knew well enough to follow orders and so he did.
As a former technical consultant to an industry probe of fraudulent insurance practices, Hope had connected a string of assisted-care facilities to millions of dollars in wrongful charges. The names she'd eventually given JusticeâDonny and Pop Romero and, by inference, the young scion of the crime family, Ricardo Romeroâwere well known to federal law enforcement's Organized Crime Unit. The Romeros, notorious for inventive white collar crime on an enormous scale, also played rough and dirty when required, the arson and the shoot-out at the lake a case in point. Hope's value to Justice was not only her initial discovery of insurance fraudâa scheme involving billing Medicare long after the patient was deadâbut, more important, her interception of a series of e-mails sent to and from the Romeros that proved to be murder-for-hire contracts. Five executives of the same health care consortium that had called for the probe, all referred to in the correspondence as whistle-blowers whose actions threatened the Romeros, had later been found brutally murdered, the victims of so-called Serbian Spasâlaundry bleach enemas that burned the victim from the inside out over a period of several hours, their families tied up and forced to watch their prolonged deaths.
Intended perhaps to implicate the Russian mob, these horrific tactics did nothing of the sort. The FBI had immediately placed the Romeros onto their Most Wanted list and their two remaining witnesses, Hope Stevens and an unnamed accountant, had been placed in protective custody.
The e-mails had been electronically destroyed; they existed now only in Hope's memory. Government prosecutors believed a jury would convict based primarily on her testimony. And so they sequestered her on the garish bus, never allowing her off, never risking her being seen in public, and never stopping the bus for more than fuel or supplies. The strategy had kept her alive for the past ten days and left everyone on board with a bad case of cabin fever. Discussions had begun to once again relocate her, this time to a “static,” or fixed, location, probably a federal facility, quite possibly a short stint inside an unused wing at a federal penitentiary, or in an ICU at a city hospital. They had myriad tricks up their sleeves if left to their own devices. They seldom were.
“Isn't there something you can do?” Hope asked. “Order us to stop at a motel, and arrange for you to guard my room? There has to be something.”
“I'm only guessing here,” Larson answered, “but I think a few of the guys might see through that tactic.” He caught his reflection in the polished metal surrounding the pay phone's keypad. No one was going to call him pretty, although they had as a child. He'd grown into something too big for pretty, too hard for handsome, like a puppy growing into its feet. Pedigree be damned.
She sputtered on the other end, not quite her trademark laugh but a valiant effort.
He said, “You could make like a heart attack, and I could give you mouth-to-mouth.”
A little more authentic this time.
At the cabin, and then again at the Air Force base, they'd managed to find moments together, though not the moment both of them longed for, one he repeatedly daydreamed about. But once onto the bus, they'd barely shared a glance. A phone call was as much as they were going to get.
“It's probably better this way,” she said. “Right?”
“No. It's decidedly worse.”
“As soon as I testify . . . as soon as that's over with . . . they'll put me into the program and that will be that. Right? We should have never started this, Lars.”
Her testimony against Donny Romeroâthe fraud caseâwould come first. The capital murder charges were likely still a long way from prosecutionâa year or twoâbut he knew better than to mention it. One didn't talk about the future with a protected witness, the reality far harsher, the adjustment far more difficult than they understood. In practice, breaking off all contact with one's former life proved traumatic, invariably more difficult than the witness imagined.
“Seriously?” he asked. “Because I don't see it that way at all. I wouldn't trade one minute with you for something else.”
,” he said, an intentional play on her name that he immediately congratulated himself for, though no doubt one she'd heard before.
His feeling for her had come on like a force of nature, as unavoidable and inexplicable. Together, they communicated well; she accepted teasing in the face of all the madness; they fit. And when you found that, you held on to it.
Nearly ten minutes had passed since he'd left the bus. Members of his small squad would be wondering why the delay. Ostensibly, he'd left the bus to settle the billâwith cash,
âbut ten minutes was pushing it.
“My gut tells me we'll work this out somehow,” he lied. He couldn't see them ending this nowânot before they tested the boundaries. He'd attended the seminars on avoiding emotional attachment with the witness. Brother bonding with the male witnesses was as dangerous as what he and Hope had stumbled into. It screwed up everything, risked everything, and he well knew it. It could not possibly have a happy ending. Still, he encouraged her to stay with him while he looked for some way around it all, a way that he suspected wasn't there. At this moment, after what they'd been through together, letting her go was not an option.