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Ice spattered the windshield and laid a thin layer on the streets and sidewalks. Trees began to sag with the extra weight on their limbs. U.S. Deputy Marshal Colton Phillips leaned forward and inspected the roiling dark gray clouds moving in from the west. At least the roads were still passable; the weather lately had been warm in St. Louis, especially for February.
But he didn't have much time to get his witness to the St. Louis Downtown Airport. He was meant to transport the man to his temporary new home in Denver. The pilot of the U.S. Marshals Service's jet had called earlier to warn Colton that, due to the weather, the airport would most likely shut down within forty minutes. Which didn't leave him much time to make the flight.
Colton kept his gaze trained on the lead black SUV in front of his own. He kept some distance between them in case Josh McCall, the marshal driving, had to stop suddenly on the slippery road. Colton had memorized the route to the airport as well as alternative ones in case of trouble. And the more time ticked down and the slower the traffic went, the tenser Colton became.
When they reached a stoplight, he glanced in his rear-view mirror at Don Saunders, the low-life criminal who had bargained his way into the Witness Protection Program in exchange for information on a child-smuggling organization. His skin crawled at the sight of Saunders's smug look.
Weasel was too kind of a description for his witness. Scumbag fit the man better. Behind Don's cold, small dark eyes, Colton didn't glimpse much intelligence, but what the criminal lacked in that area he made up for with a bulky frame over six and a half feet tall and a rock-hard muscular physique. According to the records, Saunders lifted weights in his spare time between illegal activities-the last being the kidnapping of Annie Duncan and her two-year-old daughter, Sophia.
It wasn't his job to question why a creep like Don Saunders would get into WitSec after what he'd done. But it didn't stop Colton's gut from clenching at the expression on Saunders's face as they slowly wended their way through the traffic toward the airport.
At a four-way stop, Colton waited his turn to proceed, scanning the area. His gaze latched on to the other Denver U.S. Marshal, Quinn Parker, who accompanied him in the backseat next to their witness, his attention glued on Saunders. At least Colton didn't have to worry about the criminal trying to escape while he was driving them. Parker was by-the-book, down to the last detail. His job was to keep Saunders in place while Colton drove or at this moment crept.
The lead SUV crossed the intersection, and Colton pulled up to the corner, his brakes gripping the street but not enough to stop without sliding a few feet.
He looked both ways while Don Saunders mumbled, "You need to go back to driving school."
Colton gritted his teeth and ignored the man's comment- one of many complaints he'd expounded on in the short time Colton had been in his presence. Deputy U.S. Marshals Josh McCall and Serena Summers had briefed him and Parker on Saunders's activities that led to his being put in WitSec. The man claimed the death of Annie Duncan's husband was just the tip of a huge organization.
An old Mustang approached from the right, slowing down. Colton eased his foot down on the accelerator and started across. The driver of the Mustang suddenly picked up speed, running the stop sign and fishtailing around the corner into the lane ahead of him. Colton slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting the guy. Again Colton lost control for a few seconds as the back end of the SUV swung around partway before coming to a stop. He quickly checked in the rearview mirror behind him, catching sight of Saunders on the right side in back.
With his hands secured behind him, Saunders jerked forward, the seat belt halting his forward motion. The man let out a few choice words. "You're supposed to protect me, not get me killed in a wreck."
"Okay, Parker?" Colton glanced over his shoulder at the other marshal.
"Fine," he muttered, his attention on Saunders, his hand on his gun.
Colton corrected the SUV's direction, then continued forward, falling in behind the Mustang still traveling between him and the lead car. His gut rumbled with tension. He hated it when an operation didn't go exactly as planned. He smiled, thinking back to the perfect operations he had participated in. Not many. That was why he always expected the unexpected.
A white truck trailed their SUV close, only feet from the bumper. Not good when the streets were icing over. Drivers should know better.
Colton's hands tightened about the steering wheel, the hairs on his nape tingling. Something didn't feel right about this. Nearing another stoplight, he reached for his cell phone to call the lead SUV when the Mustang came to an abrupt halt in front of him, forcing Colton to stomp on the brakes and skid to a stop, missing the car by inches.
The vehicle behind him plowed right into his bumper. The grinding crash of metal on metal filled his ears. The collision jarred his SUV and shoved it into the Mustang. In the side mirror, Colton saw a large man exit the truck and saunter toward him. Colton searched for the lead SUV, which was halfway down the street slowing down, but with the heavy traffic, changing directions wouldn't be easy.
"The guy in the passenger's side is getting out, too. He may have a gun under his coat," Marshal Parker said, pushing Saunders down in the seat.
Wearing a cowboy hat pulled low, the man in the Mustang also jumped out of his car and headed toward the SUV, a thunderous expression carved into his features.
Trapped. A setup?
Colton assessed his chances, made a quick decision and threw his car in Reverse, shoving the truck back a few feet to give him room to maneuver around the Mustang. Then, slamming his car into Drive, he swerved to the left and hit the accelerator as much as he dared with the slick conditions. He left the three men standing in the road. One man stuck his hand in his coat pocket.
"Duck," Colton shouted as he took the corner, tossing a glance in the direction of Josh's car. It had finally made a U-turn and was heading back toward the scene. Colton sped away, not wanting to stick around to find out if a gun was in that man's pocket.
"Everyone okay?" Colton asked as he braked slightly to take another corner ten miles per hour too fast for icy roads. The back of the SUV swerved from one side to the other, but Colton righted it and increased his speed as much as he could afford to.
He glanced at the clock on the dashboard. Twenty-five minutes to get to the plane.
"No, I'm not okay. What if I had been shot? Not to mention the possibility of whiplash. This isn't keeping me safe. If you two can't keep-" Saunders yelled.
"We're fine back here." Parker's calm voice cut into Saunders's tirade.
Keeping his gaze swiveling between the road and his rearview mirror, Colton fumbled for the phone button in the SUV and speed-dialed the other marshals in the lead vehicle. "I'm taking a different route to the bridge. Take care of those guys. I'll get Saunders to the airport," he told Josh McCall.
"I've called for support. A police car isn't far away. When they come, I'll catch up with you."
That might or might not happen. He was on his own as far as Colton was concerned. "Was that little accident planned? Do they have guns?"
"Don't know. They're angry and so are the other motorists around them. Traffic is backing up. I'll call you after this is straightened out. How are you going?"
Colton gave Josh another route he'd mapped out in his mind in case something didn't feel right. He always had a backup plan. "If they're after Saunders, how did they know about this transport from the safe house? How did they even know he was in custody?"
"Don't know, but believe me, we'll be looking into it. Keep to the plan. Don't go off doing your own thing." Steel thread ran through Josh's voice-a man whom Colton had butted heads with over how this case should be handled in the short time Colton had been in St. Louis. Since Josh's partner had been killed recently, Colton thought he was afraid to take a risk. It was just as well that Colton's only business there was to transport Saunders to Denver. Actually, Colton had come up with several different ways to get to the airport. Up ahead the stalled traffic forced him to swing his vehicle down a side street and take another direction than what he'd told Josh. Until he knew what was going on, he had to think the worst: those guys in the white truck and Mustang were gunning for Don Saunders.
"This ain't the way you told him." Saunders hugged the door as though trying to get out.
"Worried your boss got wind of your change of allegiance even with all our precautions?" Colton couldn't keep the sarcasm from his voice, glad the specialized lock made it impossible for the man to dive out of the SUV.
"No. Unless you guys told him." Saunders threw a glare at Colton, then Parker.
Saunders was being transported to Denver because one of the pieces of information he told them was that he was supposed to meet a contact there involved in the smuggling ring. He wouldn't say anything else about it until he was out of St. Louis. If anyone got wind of Saunders being in custody, he wouldn't be able to meet the contact in Denver.
Colton took another turn, pushing the SUV as fast as he could safely go if no one suddenly stopped in front of him. "Nope. Kinda hard to tell him anything when we don't know who he is. But remember this deal goes away if you don't keep your end of the bargain."
Saunders snorted. "Please. Quit trying to be the big, tough marshal. I know what's at stake here."
"This big, tough marshal will be in charge of your detail in Denver, responsible for your safety. So play nice."
Parker chuckled. "Yep, you only get to see our pretty mugs for your stay in the Mile High City."
Saunders muttered something under his breath and twisted toward the side window.
Was he watching for the Mustang or white truck? Had he somehow alerted a colleague he was being moved to Denver? Or did the criminals he was going to rat on know he was in the U.S. Marshals' custody? If so, how? His arrest had been kept quiet. As far as the world and Saunders's colleagues knew, he had gotten away from the law enforcement team in the warehouse. But if that accident had been deliberately caused, the ruse might not have worked. Colton checked his surroundings as he weaved his way through the small side streets of St. Louis toward the downtown airport. So far no Mustang or white truck was on his tail. They weren't far away now from their destination, but Colton knew better than to let up on his vigilance. From the times he had worked with Marshal Parker in Denver, he knew Parker was good, but Colton never trusted anyone totally with his life. He'd seen too much to.
As he fell into the flow of the traffic on the Poplar Street Bridge over the Mississippi River, he ground his teeth together. The small jet the U.S. Marshals used to transport witnesses wasn't flying out of the main St. Louis airport, which he prayed would help his chances to get Saunders to the plane without further incident before the big ice and snow storm hit St. Louis full force.
But if someone was watching the four bridges over the river near St. Louis, he could be driving into a trap. No amount of zigzagging through the streets of the city would change the fact that there were ultimately only a few ways to the airport on the Illinois side of the Mississippi. That was if they knew they weren't using the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
In the rearview mirror he caught sight of the top of a white truck back five cars. Could it be the same one that had smashed into his SUV? He couldn't take the chance. Pushing his foot down on the accelerator, he changed lanes as he neared the Illinois side of the river.
"We may have a tail," Colton told Parker.
The other marshal pushed Saunders down again, but not without grumbling from the witness. Some people didn't appreciate the efforts the U.S. Marshals Service went through to protect them.
The most direct route to the airport from their position was taking Highway 3. Colton approached the exit. The white truck switched to the same lane. At the last second Colton changed his mind, zipping over the rougher pavement back into the stream of cars to take another exit farther down the road. A few horns honked. He increased his speed, putting as much distance between him and the white truck.
"What are you doing? Are you trying to get us killed?" His face beet red, Saunders straightened to look out the back window.
"Calm down. I know what I'm doing." Colton glimpsed the ashen cast to his partner's face.
"You do?" Saunders asked as Parker again pushed the man down on the seat. "Don't look like it to me. One second you're going off the highway. The next not."
"I took lessons to learn to drive this way."
Saunders harrumphed while Parker laughed, switching his attention between the witness and the traffic behind them. Although glad to have help in keeping an eye on the vehicles around them, Colton didn't drop his own alertness. At least on the east side of the Mississippi River the roads weren't as icy since the cold front just started to blow through the area-possibly giving him enough time to get to the plane before the airport shut down.
Lord, give me the patience to deal with this witness. He's going to test what little I have.
Again Colton proceeded toward an exit, but this time he took it at fifteen miles over the speed limit. He checked his rearview mirror. No white truck. He blew a long breath out slowly. They weren't safe yet. In his mind he pulled up the map he'd studied and began crisscrossing his way toward the west and the airport, coming in a back way.
His car phone rang with a call from Marshal McCall. He punched it on.
"The police rounded up the three guys involved in the accident. They've been taken in for questioning. We don't know if it was intentional or not. They say no, but then that's to be expected. Keep your eyes alert. There could be someone else in case those three failed."
"Assume the worst?"
"You've got it. Are you at the airport yet?" Josh asked.
"Almost. We had to take a detour. I thought I saw the truck behind me on the highway. I guess I didn't."
"Detour? Where? We're on Highway 3 right now, nearing the exit for the airport."
"We're coming in from the other side. Maybe five minutes away. Let them know at the airport." If all goes well.
A heavy sigh came through the connection. No doubt Josh McCall wasn't too happy he'd changed the plans without telling him, but Colton had been busy driving in icy conditions.
"See you at the plane." The tightness in the St. Louis-based U.S. Marshal's voice expressed his irritation.