John Mason looked beyond the gun to the eyes of the man about to kill him. Only a coward shot someone unarmed and duct-taped to a chair. John couldn’t even twitch the tape was so tight around his chest, pinning his arms to his sides so he could grasp only air in his fists.
His breath puffed out like smoke and the sweat on his forehead was a layer of permafrost. How long until he sank into hypothermia? Probably not faster than it would take to be on his back in a pool of his own brain matter…still tied to this chair.
Two heavies stood behind him, one at seven o’clock and one at four. The mouth-breather was starting to get on his nerves and John had more important things to think about. Like last requests, and not crapping his pants.
The gun being aimed at his front shifted with the gunman’s movement. John bit the inside of his lip in a concerted effort not to flinch.
“Think you’re a big man, don’t you? Mr. U.S. Marshal John Mason.” The gunman’s lip curled. “That’s right. I know all about you, the big shot who takes all the hard cases. Trackin’ down guys like me who just want to get on with their lives. I took the trouble to escape from Allenwood. You’d think that might tell ya’ll somethin’. You think you gonna take me back?”
John dropped the blank mask and lifted his chin. “At this juncture, I’m thinking that option might be off the table.”
The gunman raised the weapon and slammed it against John’s temple. Pain struck with the strength of a three-hundred-pound enforcer. John kept his eyes closed, swallowing the nausea.
“Too right…” The words he said next washed over John. He’d been living in this world too long if the double-barreled insult didn’t even make him blink. He was going to die here, drowned in the ocean of filth that had penetrated his pores for the last twelve months and become part of him.
So why wasn’t he dead yet?
The gunman shifted his stance. John dipped his head to the side and wiped the blood from his cheek onto the shoulder of his formerly white t-shirt.
The ceiling was two stories high with bird nests where the metal beams crossed each other. Pallets were strewn on the floor, like someone just tossed them and walked out…fifteen years ago. The air was thick with dust and a cat had possibly died in the corner to his left, sometime in the past decade.
The mouth-breather was at it again, until a car pulled up outside. “Boss is here.”
The gunman’s spine snapped straight. “Good. I’m done dealin’ with this guy.”
Or he’d done enough to warrant an extended sentence and didn’t want the wrap for murdering a federal agent. Apparently, the gunman was happy to pass the privilege on up the chain.
John kept his eyes on the door while two car doors slammed… a third.
Four men strode in. Tailored suits, the two at the back had automatic weapons. How many bullets were they planning on putting in him?
The front man of the pack was more myth than bona fide human. He never came out in daylight, never met with anyone. Did all his business through his lieutenants and had never in his life been convicted of anything. Why he needed an army of federal fugitives on his payroll was open for estimation, but no one had a clue. Least of all John.
The man’s hair was dark and slicked with grease, his forehead completely smooth, which meant he either got Botox or he’d had a stress-free life. John wasn’t convinced enough to put money down on either. His suit was brown and he had an honest-to-goodness gold tooth to brighten his smile.
“I’d shake your hand, but…” John shrugged with his head as much as was possible.
“I see that. It’s unfortunate, I’m not a fan of killing a man when he’s restrained.”
“Untie me then.”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it. I just said I’m not a fan.” He motioned to the gunman with his fingertips and the gun was placed in his hand.
It was now or never.
John said, “So, you’re the great Alphonz. Honestly, you look more like a Charlie.”
“Is any of us really what we seem? Take you for example. On paper John Mason is a two-strike car thief with no assets and poor taste in shoes.”
What was wrong with his sneakers?
“However, when one digs beyond the smoke screen, John Mason is in fact the fourth son of a deceased Kansas plumber whose widow currently resides in Richmond, Virginia. Dropped dead in his truck, didn’t he?”
How did Alphonz know this?
“The brother of the Dolphins newest quarterback.”
Nate made the team?
“And one currently unemployed, former U.S. Army logistics specialist.”
Ben might appear unemployed on paper but he did have a job. It was just none of them knew what it was and he wouldn’t talk about it when they asked.
“And last but not least, the oldest son. Grant Mason, the director of the U.S. Marshals.”
John bit down on his lip.
“In addition to this salt-of-the-earth pedigree, John Mason also has an ex-wife who has since remarried and an eight year old son who barely knows he exists.”
John tasted blood.
“It would be a shame for any of them to meet an untimely demise. No?”
“What do you want?”
Alphonz lifted the gun. “It appears I already have it. But I’m not a bad man. Do you have any last words? Some pithy sentiment I can personally pass to your boy?”
John struggled against the tape but he was bound too tight to move. “You don’t touch my son.”
“What do you care? It’s not like you ever see the boy. He’s perfectly happy with his mother and step-father. I should know, since I personally looked into it.”
A guttural noise emerged from his throat. John tried to swallow it down but he couldn’t. His eyes filled with tears.
“Goodbye, John Mason.”
John squeezed his eyes shut. His last breath was a shuddered inhale.
The gun fired, followed by another—a rat-tat.
John felt nothing. The rear right leg of the chair gave out and he crashed to the floor. Lights flashed on and a wave of booted federal agents ran into the room.
Automatic gunfire rang out and someone returned fire. The gunman hit the floor in front of him. John tried to shift with the chair but only got an inch. The blood from his temple shifted to run into his eyes. John jerked harder against the tape but he was still bound.
“Drop your weapons!”
He knew that voice and the others who yelled, “Freeze! Federal Marshals, you’re under arrest!”
John’s chest got tight. Someone knelt by his face and he was being jostled. He moaned at the pain in his shoulder. The tape loosened and he was pulled to his back. A sleeve closed in, wiping off his forehead and then he saw who it was.
“Sorry, man. Your brother couldn’t make it. He was tied up in something but he said he’d call you later.” Marshal Banks’ bushy gray eyebrows folded together. He flashed a tiny light in one of John’s eyes and then the other. “Anything hurt other than your head?”
“We’ll get you checked out.” Banks leaned back to sit on his heels. “It’s been a long year. How are you doing?”
“Is it over?”
“Thanks to you, yes.”
John turned his head. Alphonz was on his face with a knee in his back as the marshal cuffed him. Alphonz’s dark gaze settled on John. “You’re a dead man.”
“Pretty sure I’m alive, actually.”
Marshal Banks squeezed the wrong shoulder. John blacked out for a second. Dislocated. “Don’t worry about him.”
John blinked a few times and found the older man’s face. “How’s Pat?”
“I’ll get you a phone. You can find out for yourself.”
“No, he’ll be in bed.”
“Better off if you get a shower and a good night’s rest and go see him in the morning.” Banks’ eyes shifted. “Medics are here.”
John took a shower at the hospital. After they admitted him and did an MRI to check for cranial bleeding. Good for him, his luck wasn’t that bad. They kept him for observation and he barely slept since every marshal on the east coast traipsed through his room to shake his hand and congratulate him on their largest take down in years.
“Good job, man. Well done.”
“Glad no one else was hurt. You did good.”
“Congrats, Mason. Your brother must be proud.”
“Keeping all the glory in the family, eh?”
Except John had been sent in to find out why Alphonz was recruiting federal fugitives, something he still didn’t have an answer to.
He lay awake in the hospital room, the light in the bathroom on and the door cracked like the nurse thought he needed a nightlight so he could sleep. John stared at the ceiling tiles.
Why had the team breached tonight of all nights?
The whole point of going undercover was being out of contact. So how did they know Alphonz was going to show up and try to kill John? There must have been someone else in Alphonz’s operation. Or they’d gotten a tip from a fugitive with an attack of morals who knew John’s real identity and didn’t want to see him killed.
The whole thing was beyond bizarre. Not that he wasn’t thankful to be alive. Even if his shoulder being put back into place hurt more than any other injury in his life. Pain meant you were still breathing.
Grant had to know where he was, so why hadn’t his brother called? What could be more important to the director of the marshals tonight than their biggest take-down in years?
John would have asked him, but Grant never called and John didn’t remember the number.
The key stuck in the lock. John muscled open the front door of his apartment and dumped his duffel bag on the entryway floor. The place smelled like bleach bathroom cleaner and the surfaces were free of dust. John found the patio door key and opened it, trying to air out the place. His mom must have come by or hired someone to clean.
Everything was just as he’d left it twelve months and three days ago—when his son had been seven. Now Pat was eight but it wasn’t long enough he’d have forgotten who his father was. Given time, they could reconnect. If Ellen let him.
John sank onto the couch and kicked away his boots. He gritted his teeth and stripped off the scrubs top the hospital had given him after they cut his shirt away.
Dawn crept across the dining area between the vertical blinds, but he didn’t sleep. Alphonz might be in custody but John didn’t feel any of the satisfaction which should’ve been there.
The satisfaction he’d felt with other undercover assignments.
By the TV he hadn’t watched in a year was a framed picture of him and Pat when his son was about four. Pat was on his hip and they were smiling at each other, his tiny hands touching John’s face.
John fell asleep with the feel of Pat’s hands on his cheeks.
Pounding on the door woke him. It was dark and his watch said six-thirty p.m., same day. He yanked the door open, still blinking away the blur of sleep. “What?”
“Charming as always, Jonathan.” Ellen cocked the hip of her tiny skirt, not an ounce of fat on her. If he hugged her she’d probably feel like a tree branch. But that would mean she let him touch her, which hadn’t happened for a lot longer than the four years they’d been divorced.
“It’s been a long week.”
“Your mother told me you were home and I didn’t want to wait any longer to speak with you.”
Uh-oh, she was using her city-girl lawyer voice. That was never good.
John shifted and looked around her. “Where’s Pat?”
“That’s what I wanted to speak with you about.”
Something heavy settled in John’s stomach. “Come inside.”
“Perhaps you could put a shirt on.”
It wasn’t a question. John turned and flipped on the light switch. Ellen gasped. He ignored her and trailed to his bedroom closet where he grabbed the first t-shirt he laid eyes on. A bruise stretched across the back of his shoulder. He could see it in the mirror even with the dim light of his bedroom.
John strode back out. “You want some coffee?”
“There’s no need. This won’t take long.” She set her purse down on the couch—if she put it on the floor the bottom would get dirty—and opened the latches of her lawyer-bag to pull out a manila envelope, which she set on the breakfast bar.
“We already got a divorce.”
She didn’t smile. “Those are custody papers. I had them drawn up.”
All the fatigue in him dissipated. “If you think for one second I’m going to give up my right to—”
“Perhaps you could make that claim if you ever actually saw your son.” Ellen’s already tiny lips thinned into a pressed line. “But be that as it may, you’re home now. I’m not waiting any longer. Stefan was offered a position in Boston and he has taken it. I’m to join him as soon as possible and I’m afraid this move is not conducive to bringing a small child.”
“Our boy is cramping your high-falutin’ lifestyle?”
“Can you, for one second, not be the hick-town boy so we can have a civilized discussion?” Her body tightened so much she looked like a popsicle stick. “I have been the lone parent of our child for long enough, John Mason. It’s time for you to quit being so selfish and be the parent now.”
“Fine.” John folded his arms across his chest. “Where is Pat?”
“I dropped Patrick at your mother’s this morning.”
“If I take him, I want full custody for good. No changing your mind.”
Her lips pulled back to reveal unnaturally white teeth. “I am not the bad guy here. You’re the one who hasn’t seen his son in a year.”
“I was on assignment.”
“You didn’t have a phone?”
“You know it doesn’t work like that. You of all people know what this job entails.”
“The job of being a marshal, or the job of doing everything possible to make your brother proud of you?”
Neither of them needed to go there. “Ellen—”
“I signed the papers. All I need now is your signature and I will file them with my attorney. I want two weeks in the summer and alternating Christmases.”
John would have his son with him permanently? He had no idea what position he’d be in next. Surely Grant would make sure John got home for dinner regularly.
He almost said, “Whatever you want” but that was never a good idea with Ellen. He’d worry about how this was going to work with his job later. She was right, even if he didn’t like the fact she was essentially dumping Pat on him.
It was his turn to be the parent.
John strode to the counter, signed the forms and then handed them to her. “If we’re done here, I’d like to get to Pat.”
Ellen took the papers and collected up her purse and leather briefcase. “I almost feel as if I should say something. Mark this occasion somehow. After all, it’s been a whole fifteen minutes and we’ve managed to not shout at each other.”
John felt his lips twitch. “Let’s not get carried away.”
“Take care of him, John.” Sadness edged into her gaze, darkening her face despite the light blond shade of her hair and the peach color that flashed every time she blinked. “I knew Stefan didn’t want children of his own. I thought that meant he was content to be a step-father to Patrick. But this move will be good for us. The time alone means we can…re-connect.”
Was she going to stop talking sometime soon? John wanted to know if his son was okay. Now. He swiped up his keys.
Ellen sighed. “I don’t expect you to understand.”
“Good because I don’t. You’re giving up your son for your marriage?”
She looked down her nose, despite being two inches shorter than his five-foot-eleven. “You gave him up for your job.”
“I’m not arguing with you.” He clenched and unclenched the hold on his truck keys. Was she going to leave already? Ellen stared back at him.
John sighed. “Take care, darlin’.”
Her stern face melted. “We did have some good times, didn’t we?”
Yeah, and currently the good part of their marriage was at his mom’s house in who knew what state. “I guess we did.”
Right up until John started working undercover. It had been a step in the right direction for his career, but ended up costing him his marriage when his wife of five years decided she didn’t want to be a single parent. Then she divorced him so she could become one anyway, with the added bonus of child support.
“You’ll call me if Pat needs anything?”
“Sure.” But he wouldn’t.
John was done with undercover and he was going to make sure Pat didn’t need anything ever again.
He didn’t knock on his mom’s door. John grabbed the hide-a-key from the crack in the siding and let himself in. “Mom, it’s me.”
It was Grant who strode from the living room, his hair still more brown than gray even though he was pushing forty-seven. “She’s at bingo.”
“She left?” John ran a hand through his already disheveled hair. He needed to get it cut.
“Pat promised her he was fine. He’s stubborn, like someone else I know.”
“Where is Pat?”
The little man stepped into the hall, which was lined with cardboard boxes. Pat’s stuff? John zeroed in on his son’s face—a mini version of his own but with Ellen’s nose before she had it fixed. Pat looked at his feet, rubbing one shoe against the toe of the other.
His son looked up.
John bit his lip. “Hey, kid.”
Grant frowned. John’s brother and his wife had three girls—now teenagers—so he might think he was the expert on parenting, but Grant had never understood the bond between father and son. At least, John hoped they still had one. Maybe he’d killed it.
He rubbed his chest, right above his heart. Pat’s eyes were wide but he didn’t look angry or upset. That was good, right? John sank to his knees in the foyer, ignoring the pain in his shoulder. He rubbed his forehead, his fingers scratching at the bandage. Right. His head. He’d forgotten about that.
“Dad?” Pat’s voice shook.
John lowered his hand. “I’m okay.”
He tilted his head and motioned Pat over. Okay, that hurt. Thankfully Pat didn’t hesitate, so John didn’t have to suffer Grant watching him fail as a father for the seven-billionth time. It was bad enough without an audience.
Pat’s steps gathered speed as he crossed the foyer. John opened his arms and Pat hit him at a full tackle, knocking John onto his backside. He wrapped his arms around his eight-year-old son and held him for the first time in a year. The assignment wasn’t supposed to have taken this much time, but he’d known going in it would be as long as it took to complete the job.
Pat’s body jerked. “You don’t want me to live with you?”
“I can stay here with Grandma. It’ll be fine.”
John touched his cheeks, the same way Pat had done with him in the picture. “Listen to me now. I’m not going anywhere, not anymore.”
He hoped Grant heard him, just as much as Pat. Because John didn’t want any more assignments.
And if his brother didn’t like it, he was going to quit.
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