“All right, all right.” Marshall chuckled, waving both hands in an effort to quiet the laughter around the conference table. The sun was just barely peeking above the perimeter wall, the coffee was flowing and they’d just completed a very busy end of July weekend. Summer was starting to wind down, school would be starting up again soon, August always seemed to be one of their busier months and Marshall had no reason to believe this August would be any different. Everywhere he went in the Castle, the energy was as high as it had been over the Fourth of July, and that included here at this table.
Jackson and Kade were cracking jokes, Parker was practically bouncing in his seat with a personal announcement just eating him up inside, and the wind-whipped shadows of at least one banner was fluttering across the far wall, letting Marshall know if he didn’t get everyone back on track, the meeting was going to run over its allotted time. He hated it when that happened, already Grimsley was checking his pocket watch. In addition to those select Masters whom he considered his stalwart right hands—Sam, Jackson, Parker, Kade, Alan, Grimsley, and Miranda, headmistress of the house, all of his left-hand lieutenants were gathered here as well.
Twins Travis and Trevor were harassing the ex-military and part-time screw-ups Erik and Reeve. Nelson was at the coffee pot, refilling his cup. Eamon was yawning, probably after another late night. Even Dominick had showed up on time this morning and he never did that. A ‘waste of precious ass-beating time’ was what he liked to call Marshall’s mandatory Monday-morning meetings. In a few hours’ time, when he was mid-flight on his way to O’Hare International Airport, when Marshall looked back on this exact moment in time, he supposed this was what should have been his first clue that things were due to go cock-up in a hugely spectacular way.
“Let me have your attention,” Marshall said a little louder, bringing reluctant order back to all those still laughing and chatting around the table. “If we can get through this—”
Swiveling his chair around, Marshall looked at Kaylee in surprise. His wife had cracked the door far enough to poke her head in. She had a forbidden cellphone in her hand. It was pressed flat to her chest just above her very pregnant belly in an effort to mute what she was saying for whomever was calling.
“You’ve got a phone call,” she said softly.
“I am in a meeting,” he replied, more astonished than he was upset. They’d been married now almost two years. For more than three she had been his personal secretary, and he would have thought this rule well beyond the need for reminders. Apparently not, though, and how fortunate it was for him that his office came fully stocked with all the reminder switches a discipline aficionado should need. Even for a Monday. “Go back to your desk,” he told her gently. “We’ll talk about this—”
“No,” she said, and it wasn’t until then that he realized that expression of grim worry on her face might not be due to the consequences of interrupting the meeting, but rather because of the phone in her hand. “You need to take this.” She held it out to him. “You need to take it right now.”
Kaylee was not and never had been one to exaggerate drama.
Shoving his chair back, only vaguely aware that the room had fallen silent, Marshall crossed to her, already reaching for the phone. He didn’t recognize the number on the digital display and his wife did not offer a name. She didn’t immediately retreat to her desk either, but stood in the cracked-open doorway, worrying her hands and watching him. The only conversation Marshall heard in that room was the one he started when he put that phone to his ear and said, “To whom am I speaking?”
“Is this Marshall Leaf?” a man on the other end asked.
“This is.” A tiny kernel of foreboding dropped into the pit of Marshall’s stomach. The only people he knew who started conversations by clarifying his name were police and hospital emergency staff. “Who may I ask are you?”
“My name is Holt Nequest, I’m a detective for the Wabasha Police Department. Do you know a woman by the name of Grace Barnes?”
That tiny kernel sprouted ice-cold roots, a multitude of which sank all the way down through his gut and into his legs.
“Grace is my cousin,” Marshall heard himself say. The only one he had, though he hadn’t seen her, not for years. Not since she’d lost her sight. What had that been, ten years ago? Fifteen? She’d been a kid, all knobby knees and missing teeth, scrawny uncoordinated limbs and a smile that could have melted even the iciest of hearts. “Why are you asking?”
Those icy roots gripped tighter. His chest felt tight now too. The cold was growing and it was big enough now to blossom. Detectives from distant police stations never called to tell anyone ‘don’t worry, your cousin is doing just fine’. They didn’t even call to say, ‘we just took your cousin into custody’. If she’d been in an accident—if she were lying injured in a hospital somewhere—he’d be getting this call from a doctor. Marshall wasn’t a stupid man. He did his own math, whittling down the possible options until only one thing was left.
“How soon can you come to Wabasha, Mr. Leaf?”
“If you need me to identify her body, you need to say so now.” Marshall was surprised at how calm he sounded. He didn’t think it was obvious yet, but he felt shaken. The urgency to just move—in any direction—was growing in conjunction with the icy weed inside him.
“Mr. Leaf,” the detective said, each word clipped with deepening determination, “believe me, I am doing everything I can to prevent that from happening, but she is not making that easy for me. I need your help, and so does your cousin.”
She was alive, then.
The relief that swept him weakened his knees and very nearly dropped him to them. He gripped the doorjamb with his free hand instead. Behind him, chairs scooted back from the table as other masters stood. Kaylee looked at his hand and then at him, her silent alarm ratcheting that much higher. She probably didn’t even realize she’d just grabbed her stomach.
“I’ll be on the first flight out,” Marshall promised. He was the Master of the Masters, and despite his reputation, he was neither perfect nor infallible, but he did always keep his word. And to that end, he left without pausing even to end the meeting first.
Marshall Leaf walked into the busy Wabasha police precinct and was greeted by a cacophony of unpleasant sounds. Phones were ringing, computer keyboards were clacking, and no less than sixty people were crowded into a space meant for twenty. There were ten desks, all of which were occupied. People were giving statements or lodging complaints. Arguments had broken out at two of them, one of which had grown heated. A man banged on the vending machine that had just eaten his money until the officer at the front desk yelled for him to knock it off. But nowhere in any of this mess did Marshall spot his cousin.
It had been a long time since last he’d seen her. He gave every woman with Grace’s chestnut brown hair a searching look, but who knew? She could have dyed her hair. She could be tall and thin by now or short and plump. She hadn’t had all of her adult teeth the last time he’d seen her. What exactly should he be looking for? Not a girl of twelve, like his mind kept trying to match up against all these unfamiliar faces, that much was certain.
“Can I help you?” the cop at the front desk asked, once Marshall made his way to it.
“I believe Detective Nequest is expecting me.” Marshall supplied his ID. He’d been working at the Castle for so long, it always gave him a start when he saw himself in photographs. He frowned as the officer logged his information. He really ought to smile more. He wasn’t yet forty, and already he was developing fine lines.
“One moment, please.” Picking up the interoffice phone, the reception officer dialed an extension. “Marshall Leaf, here to see you,” he said once the other end picked up. A few minutes later, a man in a dark suit and red-checkered tie came striding just a little too purposefully through the chaos of the rest of the precinct. His dark hair was mussed. His coat was unbuttoned and wrinkled, like he’d slept in it, except the dark circles under his eyes argued against that assumption.
“Mr. Leaf?” Detective Nequest stuck out his hand, a greeting Marshall accepted without hesitation. “Come with me please.”
Marshall followed the detective’s hurried stride back through the chaos of the precinct. “My cousin—” he tried to ask, but stopped abruptly when the detective shot him a silencing look.
“Not here,” he warned, his dark eyes sweeping back through the room behind them, checking to see if anyone was close enough to overhear them. Another of those icy kernels dropped into the pit of Marshall’s stomach. Finding no one, the detective said, “Follow me.”
Marshall followed, each step bringing with it another question, all of which he kept locked behind tightly pressed lips. He was brought to an office door with the detective’s name stenciled on the textured glass. Holding the door so Marshall could slip in past him, Nequest took another cautious look around before he slipped inside.
Marshall almost didn’t recognize the young woman huddled on the couch with her knees hugged to her chest. Her long brown hair swept over her shoulders to shield her face like a curtain. “Grace?”
Her head came up, and it was her eyes that finally clued him in. They were his Aunt Sadie’s sea-blue eyes, so much like his mother’s that it was uncanny, with his family’s infamous piercing stare. It was the same one that had damn near made him a legend from the moment the Castle opened its doors. His relief was palpable. It swept over him on waves so overwhelming that he almost didn’t notice how his younger cousin stared just a little too low and off to one side for her truly to be staring at him. Blind since she was twelve, she faked having sight very well. The moment he moved, her ears locked her in to exactly where he was and she reoriented the direction of her gaze as well as the reach of her hand.
“Marshall.” She came up off the couch seconds before their hands touched. Throwing her arms around his shoulders, she clung to him. Which was, apparently, all he needed to lose every stitch of calm and patience he’d been carefully holding on to since that first phone call nearly eight hours before.
“What the hell is going on?” he growled, turning all that fury not just onto Detective Nequest, but the two men now entering the room to join them. “You could not have been more cryptic if you’d tried. Do you have any idea the thoughts you put into my head with that shit you told me this morning? At first, I thought she was dead! Then I thought she must be in some kind of serious—”
“You have no idea the serious trouble your cousin is in,” Nequest snapped back, as only a man with a ton of responsibilities and no sleep to fuel him could. Marshall knew the sound of that when he heard it; he knew how heavy that burden could feel. He shut his mouth, frowning as Grace trembled in his arms, and even went so far as to accept a seat on the couch when Nequest wearily gestured for him to sit. “I’m pretty sure Ohio has its own news and God knows this never went national. Why should it? It’s not like the guy was the president, right?”
“God forbid,” agreed the older of the two new detectives, the one now quietly closing the office door again. The glass in the door was cloudy. No one could make out more than a shadow of those passing by on the other side, but he drew the shade for added privacy anyway. He looked to his companion.
Shrugging one shoulder, knowing some kind of input was expected of him, the younger added, “I voted for the other guy.”
Nequest gave him the most vocal ‘oh for fuck’s sake’ look Marshall had yet seen. It was starting to feel like he was back in the conference, trying to bring order to a room full of the twins, Kade, and screw-ups.
Almost out of habit, Marshall brought the focus back to the target topic he desired. “I feel like we’re all starting in the middle of the conversation. Can we back it up to the beginning?”
Detective Nequest combed both hands through his short brown hair. “Yeah, we can do that. Two months ago, there was a murder.”
“I can almost guarantee Grace had nothing to do with it.” Marshall’s thoughts made incredible leaps, branching out in all directions in search of even a half-assed guess that would make the puzzle-piece that was his cousin fit. He couldn’t find one.
“She didn’t shoot the guy, no,” the younger detective agreed. “But she did walk in on the guy who did. Fortunately for her, the shooter was interrupted again almost immediately, this time by a guy named Harvey Cabena. Followed by another guy named Winston Ollington.”
“I’m sorry,” Marshall said, fighting hard not to feel stupid and yet still not finding a connection. “Who are you, again?”
“Alex Fahey,” the younger detective said.
“Captain Martin Quill,” the older supplied.
Neither offered to shake his hand. Probably because he was still holding Grace. She was still shaking and he wasn’t about to let go first.
“I’m not quite making the connection,” Marshall confessed.
“We didn’t, either,” Nequest said. “See, nobody saw our shooter then. He must have used a silencer, since Grace, Harvey and Winston were all on the stairs between garage levels within seconds of Denton Walding’s assassination.”
For the first time, her voice half muffled against his chest, Grace spoke up. “I didn’t even feel him, Marshall. Usually I can feel it when someone’s around me, especially when they’re trying to be quiet. But I didn’t feel anything.”
That would have meant more to Marshall if only he weren’t already stuck on a different problem. “Denton Walding… why does that name ring a bell?”
“Probably because you read the papers or watch the news,” Captain Quill answered dryly.
“Like I said,” Nequest said, in a tone that matched, “he wasn’t the president, but I’m sure he’s probably sold to a few.” Circling around his desk, the detective gave Marshall a ‘come hither’ look and sat down. A quick dip into a lower desk drawer produced a thick manila file. Out of that file came a small handful of pictures, one of which Nequest dropped face-up on the desk in the corner nearest Marshall.
The only difference between gazing on that photo and watching a murder mystery on late-night television was that Marshall knew without a doubt that was a dead man sitting behind the wheel of that grey sedan, head thrown back against the collage of brains, blood and bone flecks that splattered the headrest behind him. Indeed, it splattered the entire backseat area, including the rear and side windows. He was glad Grace couldn’t see this.
“That’s Denton,” Nequest explained. “He was found within a half hour or so of when it happened. The first unit arrived on the scene twenty minutes after that. It was a week before we knew where exactly the sniper clipped him from.”
“There was zero evidence left at the scene,” Captain Quill added.
“We found shit,” Fahey reinforced.
Marshall’s mind began leaping again. “If you found nothing, no one saw or heard anyone or anything, then how do you know Grace was even there when the shooter was?”
“Because,” Nequest said grimly, producing another picture, “three weeks after Denton, Harvey Cabena was found in his bed with a pillow over his face, shot through the left eye at point-blank range.”
The sinking, dropping, spreading ice-roots sensation came back with a vengeance when he dropped a third photo on his desk in front of Marshall. This was even more gruesome than the first two.
“This is Winston Ollington,” the detective said bluntly. “He was decapitated when his convertible slammed into the back of a semi on the I-235. His brake lines had been cut. He’d been going almost ninety when it happened.”
“Sheared away the entire upper half of the car,” Fahey said helpfully. “Popped his head clean off. We found it in the backseat of the car behind him.”
“The man didn’t have so much as a single speeding ticket,” Nequest said, snapping an exasperated look to his companion. Fahey only shrugged, as if saying ‘only trying to help’. “His accelerator had been tampered with too.”
“And now he’s after Grace,” Marshall said, finally making that heart-stopping connection.
Nequest’s jaw worked, clenching and releasing twice before he forced himself to agree. “We believe so, yes.”
“And you have no idea who this murderer is.” Softly though he said it, it was no less a statement of fact.
“Oh, no,” the detective disagreed. “We know exactly who he is.” He dropped the last picture on the corner of the desk, allowing Marshall a long look at the grainy black and white photo taken by what looked to be a home security camera. “His name is Carmen ‘The Bulldog’ Massino, and he’s about as bad as they come. The kind of bad that doesn’t take chances when it comes to witnesses and getting caught.”
“And he’s after Grace,” Marshall repeated, a tiny drop of anger at last falling in amongst the sea of cold constricting his gut.
“We can stop him,” Nequest said. “We’ve got his face on camera and a laundry list of crimes that will, if he pleads out, put him in prison for the rest of his life.”
“And if he doesn’t plead?” Marshall challenged.
Nequest flexed his fingers before he clasped them. The look on his face was nothing but determination, with only hints of exhaustion creeping in around the edges. “Then he goes straight to death row and I’m happy to drive the bus that takes him there.”
Marshall looked from Nequest to Fahey, and then to his captain. Something wasn’t adding up. “Why was I called?” he asked, suspicions deepening.
“Your cousin,” Nequest said, although to his credit, he did try to soften his reproach with a tight smile. “She won’t cooperate.”
Against his chest, Grace sighed. She raised her head. “They want to put me in witness protection. They want me to sever ties with everyone I know. I have to leave everything—my friends, my job, my apartment.”
Fahey shrugged when Marshall looked at all three of them again. “It’s the safest thing for her.”
“Marshall,” Grace whispered, her hands sliding up his chest to ‘see’ his face. Her fingertips barely caressed the line of his jaw, assuring herself that he was looking at her and taking her seriously. “Carmen the Bulldog? A name could not get any more mafia if it tried.” In that moment, Marshall knew her objection before she could whisper it. His mind had just reached the same conclusion. “They won’t put me in a safehouse here because they say the mafia has police on their payroll. If they have police, they can get to me in witness protection too.”
“You’re not going into witness protection,” Marshall said, putting that entire argument to bed with the tone of a man unaccustomed not to being obeyed.
Nequest frowned. “You’re supposed to be helping us.”
“I intend to,” Marshall shot back. “I’m going to take over, at least where your protection and my cousin are concerned. Witness protection?” He tried not to scoff. “My home is witness protection. I am an expert at preserving the anonymity of my guests’ identities. I have done it for years.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Fahey laughed. “You own a hotel? Is your hotel a fortress, because it would almost have to be to keep out a guy like Massino.”
“Funny you should say that.” Marshall both tsked and winked at the look of confusion and uncertainty that made the younger detective retreat half a step.
“Mr. Leaf,” both Nequest and his captain said in the same hardening tone.
“You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into,” Captain Quill said.
“You have no idea who I am or what I do for a living.” Marshall’s iceberg stare had the same withering effect here as it did at the Castle. In fact, the only ones who stood up to it without flinching were Grace, because she couldn’t see it, and Nequest. “In my ‘house’, anonymity is key.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Fahey snapped, turning to the captain as if for clarity.
“It means, I’m taking Grace home with me,” Marshall said, staring him coldly into submission before turning the full force of his glare on the police captain, and then finally on Detective Nequest.
“This is a horrible idea,” Nequest tried to warn him.
“Your objection has been noted,” Marshall replied. “Now kindly send someone to fetch her things. I’m taking my cousin to the Castle.”