As a novice FBI agent, Jackson McGraw was deeply touched by the young single mother—a murder witness—in his protective custody. When her baby girl was almost killed, Eloise fled—selflessly leaving her child in his care with a note to find her a good Christian home. Now, twenty years later, the mob is obsessed with retaliation against the woman whose testimony imprisoned their late don. Jackson is determined to track Eloise down to protect her—and reclaim two decades' worth of love.
Excerpt of chapter one:
TO: FBI Organized Crime Task Force; U.S. Marshal's Office
FROM: Jackson McGraw, Special Agent in Charge, Chicago Field Office
RE: Operation Black Veil
Federal Bureau of Investigation Date: June 2, 2010
Chicago Mafia kingpin Salvatore Martino is dead. Per informant—Vincent Martino, now the head of the Martino crime family, will make good on a final tribute to his father by executing Eloise Hill, the woman who testified against Salvatore twenty-two years ago.
Recent sightings place Vincent Martino in Montana—READ—he intends to oversee this hit himself. Through joint investigation with the U.S. Marshal's office, we've learned that even though Eloise Hill left the Witness Protection Program, she is still living in Montana under an assumed name. Current location and name—on a "need to know" basis. Agents currently in place. Witness under twenty-four-hour surveillance. Subject will be immediately informed of these developments and will remain under protection until suspect is apprehended.
Please contact SAC Jackson McGraw on any new leads or changes regarding the above information or any new developments in the Martino case.
Special Agent Jackson McGraw did a visual sweep of the trees on the other side of the little stream then watched as a butterfly fluttered around a cluster of vivid pink bitterroot blooming just outside the window of the vacant apartment he'd been holed up in since 3:00 a.m.
The brown, yellow-tipped butterfly was beautiful, a quiet and graceful contrast to the tension coiled like a snake inside Jackson's gut. Something wasn't right.
Something hadn't been right for the past six months, but now he instinctively knew that something was about to go all wrong, completely wrong, if he didn't move quickly. This entire investigation had boiled down to one thing—he had to keep Eloise Hill alive.
But in order to do that, he had to find the leak that seemed to stem from the U.S. Marshal's office, a leak that had jeopardized the entire Witness Protection Program and caused a number of people to be killed. And he had to find Vincent Martino and stop him, one way or another.
Jackson thought back on his last conversation with his informant—the Veiled Lady—back in Chicago two weeks ago. They'd met on a sunny day near a heavily wooded park by the lake. But even though the day had verged on being warm, the woman had worn the same outfit she always wore—a wide-brimmed black hat with a heavy veil covering her face and a black wool coat, gloves and dark shades. And there under the cover of trees surrounding the secluded park, she'd told Jackson the very thing he didn't want to hear.
The woman spoke in a whispery, low voice, her words slow and carefully formal. "Salvatore is dead. He died late last night in his home with several of his top capos there by his side. Vincent was there, too, but as soon as his father is buried, he will be leaving for Montana. He is going to find this woman—Eloise Hill—and finish the job himself. This will be his final tribute to his father. As if Salvatore Martino would care one way or another. The man had no heart." She'd paused, taking a deep breath that almost sounded like a sob. "And neither does his son."
Those chilling words spoken two weeks ago contrasted sharply with the beautiful June morning, Jackson thought now as he looked out the window. His gaze didn't stay on the butterfly. He was watching the other apartment just across the quaint little bridge between the chalet-style brown-and-beige buildings. And he was waiting for the woman who lived there to turn on a light, indicating she was up for the day.
Finally, he'd get to see her and make sure she was all right with his own eyes.
This had been a long journey, trying to find Eloise Hill before Vincent Martino did. She called herself Ellie Smith now, but she would always be Eloise—his Ellie—to Jackson. He'd often called her Ellie many years ago. And apparently, she would always be a threat to the powerful Martino crime family, since Vincent Martino was determined to see her dead. Jackson had the body count to prove it, and he was determined to end Vincent's obsession with revenge. He had to warn Eloise. He had to protect her.
And he also had to tell her that her daughter, Kristin Perry, knew about Eloise and wanted to see her.
The static in his earpiece broke the taut summer silence of the early morning. "Big Mac, come in."
Frowning at the nickname his team member Roark Canfield used, Jackson answered. "Talk to me."
"Subject is late for work, sir."
"So I noticed. It's not her day off, is it?"
"Negative. She always leaves at sunrise. She walks a short distance to work just after sunup, no matter the exact time, and she has a big dog with her, sir. Really big German shepherd—dangerous animal."
"I get it about the dog, Roark," Jackson said. "GQ, what's the status at your location?"
"She's not here, sir," Marcus Powell answered from his spot at the restaurant around the corner. "Staff arrived right on time and everyone's busy preparing for the day." A pause, then, "But the one named Verdie has tried calling her several times. No answer. Verdie seems a bit worried from the conversation going back and forth behind the counter."
Jackson rubbed a hand down his neck, the tension going from coiled to twisted. "We're sure of this schedule? Thea, what's your take?"
A feminine voice purred across the line. "Her restaurant is a popular spot, and subject is never late for work. Or at least she hasn't been in the time we've been watching her."
"Affirmative," GQ added. "Staff of three comes in around five every morning to prepare for breakfast rush, but proprietor and two part-timers come in later, just in time for the crowd. Subject stays after lunch to prepare next day's menu from what we've seen so far. She should be on her way by now, sir." Silence, then GQ said, "Uh, Jackson, we have another problem, too. One of the coworkers is also late. Young, blonde, pretty. Her name tag says Meredith. She's usually at the door before anyone else."
Jackson looked at his watch. It was six-fifteen on a Tuesday morning. The sun had been up a good twenty minutes and was now brightening the morning sky with each ticking second. And his gut was burning as hot as those incoming rays. Had the bad gone to worse already?
"I'm on it," he said, his mind ticking off all the logical explanations while his stomach sizzled with the worst-case scenario. "Cover me."
"You got it," Roark said.
Jackson checked his holster, secured his weapon, did a quick surveillance of the nearby city park and the walking trail between buildings, then opened the front door a crack. With Roark stationed in the park and Thea in a car down the way, he didn't need to worry about being secure. But he sure wasn't prepared to see Eloise just yet.
He hadn't planned on announcing himself this abruptly, but Eloise might already be in trouble.
Glancing around, he stalked along the perimeter of the trees, his heart pounding a heavy beat that matched the thud of his hiking boots against gravel. He hit the footbridge over the stream with a run, the echo of his steps chasing him with an eerie cadence across the arched structure.
He was about to come face-to-face with the woman he'd loved for over twenty years. And he prayed he'd find her alive.
She couldn't stop shaking. First the roses and now this. Eloise stared at the clock on the wall of her kitchen, a forgotten cup of coffee steaming in her hand. She had to steady herself to keep from spilling the coffee. Her German shepherd, Duff, rubbed his nose against her robe, trying to get her attention. Duff could sense her trauma and her fear.
Touching a hand to the faithful dog, Eloise gently pushed him away then glanced at the trash can where she'd tossed the white roses. White with pink-edged petals.
Duff sniffed and whined, giving her some measure of comfort. She should have taken him with her last night when she'd deliberately gone out the door to help her friend, but she'd been afraid Duff's barks would bring too much attention to the situation. She'd promised Meredith no cops, but Eloise wished she hadn't kept that promise. She'd arrived only to find her friend dead.
This can't be happening again, she thought, her stomach roiling as a wave of nausea assaulted her. Memories from two decades ago, brutal and raw, hit her with the force of a fist in her solar plexus. She could still see the blood everywhere, could still see Danny's face as he'd begged for his life there in the seedy warehouse in South Chicago. Could still see the quick burst of smoke from the guns and hear the staccato spew of the silencers—once, twice—as Danny and another man were killed in cold blood while she watched from the shadows.
Killed in cold blood. Twenty-two years of trying to forget and it all still seemed as if it had happened last night. Twenty-two years of hiding, of staying invisible, of living like a shadow, always looking over her shoulder. And always wondering what had happened to the child she'd been forced to leave behind. She'd found solace in her faith, in her church and in her work.
She'd almost found a sense of peace.
And now, she'd witnessed another murder.
Remembering the elaborate spray of white roses at Danny's funeral, Eloise rubbed a finger over the scar near her lips. Back then, the Martino family had sent the roses. Salvatore Martino loved roses; he grew them in the massive garden inside the Martino compound.
And he sometimes sent them to the funerals of his victims.
She'd received a box of her own yesterday just before closing at the café. A dozen long-stemmed, lush roses— a creamy white with just the blush of pink around the tips of the petals.
And no card.
She'd been so paranoid she'd rushed out of the café, hurrying down the street with Duff right on her heels and the box of roses still crushed in her arms.
Who sent them? Who knew she was here?
Putting the horrible questions out of her mind, Eloise sank down in a chair, her thoughts reeling with what she'd seen and heard last night after she'd arrived at Meredith's. Screams, a scuffle, then a distinctive thump and footsteps running, running. A man's voice crying out, "No, no." Then Meredith. Dead. Sweet, innocent Meredith. Her friend and her employee. Dead. Lying in a deserted parking lot, blood pooling underneath her head, her eyes open and vacant as she stared up into the night sky.
It seemed as if Meredith had been staring right up at Eloise, asking her why she hadn't come sooner.
"Come up the back stairs," Meredith had shouted over the phone. "He's in the kitchen. I think he knows, Ellie. He's going to kill me. Hurry! You have to get me out of here."
"I'll be there and I'll call 911."
"No!" Meredith was adamant. "No cops. They won't help me. They won't—they'll side with him. Just hurry!"
"Why didn't I get there in time, Lord?" Eloise whispered in a prayer for forgiveness. She shivered in spite of the summer morning and Duff's efforts to console her. She'd tried to help her friend and she'd failed.
Meredith called her, crying and frantic, in the middle of the night. Eloise rushed into the dark night, her own fears somehow pushed aside in order to get Meredith away from her abusive husband. But she'd arrived too late.
"Why didn't I get there sooner? Why didn't I call 911 to help you?" She reached for Duff, rubbing her hand over his soft brown fur. "Why didn't I take you with me, boy?"
But Eloise knew the answer to all of those questions. The roses. She'd been so afraid to leave her house after she'd received the roses. She didn't even take her car. She'd walked the few blocks to Meredith's house. And now, she had to stay hidden, had to stay out of the limelight. She couldn't risk the glare of cameras and reporters and questions from the local authorities. Because she couldn't trust anyone to help her, either. Not even the police.
If she'd been able to step forward sooner, to alert the authorities that Meredith's husband was dangerous, their plan might have worked. Meredith would have gone to a safe place. But Meredith didn't want to go to the local authorities, Eloise reminded herself now. Meredith knew, just as Eloise did, that sometimes the police were actually part of the problem. So they agreed to keep quiet and Eloise finally talked Meredith into escaping. They formed a solid plan, talked about it quietly and secretly for weeks. Everything was in place. And Meredith was finally ready to leave.
But apparently, Meredith's husband had figured things out.
And for that reason, her friend was now dead.
And she was paralyzed with a fear she'd been running from for over twenty years. Paralyzed because Meredith's husband had still been there at Meredith's house last night when she arrived. He stood over the still body, crying quietly as he stared down at his dead wife. A killer crying in regret over the woman he'd murdered.
And that killer might have seen Eloise.
It was just a glimpse in the dark, she reminded herself. He couldn't have caught a good look at her. And since she'd disguised herself with a big hat and a scarf, she prayed he couldn't identify her. But he'd heard her intake of breath, heard the shocked gasp as she stood on the landing above, her silhouette hidden in the shadows.
But he hadn't come after her. Yet.
No one had come after her. Yet.
But the roses…the roses meant that Randall Parker might not be the only person who wanted her dead and gone.
Had the Mob found her after all these years?
"I have to get to work," she said, forcing herself out of the chair, her knuckles white from clutching her now-cold coffee. "I have to pretend everything is all right."
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