1st Place - NECRWA Reader's Choice Awards - Suspense
Rich Cody joined the U.S. Marshals to hunt down bad guys, not babysit witnesses. Orders are orders, though, and now he’s protecting a hacker with ties to the Albanian and Sicilian mobs. It’s just another exciting day in WITSEC.
Leotrim Nicolosi was born into a world of crime and bloodshed. When that bloodshed hits too close to home, taking down Leo’s boyfriend—the son of a notorious mob boss—Leo is determined to destroy the Grimaldi family. He’s got evidence that will send every last Grimaldi to prison, he’s got the family’s wealth in an electronic chokehold, and he’s got a vendetta that can only be settled with the blood of the man who killed his lover.
When a routine transfer to a safehouse goes horribly wrong, Rich and Leo narrowly escape with their lives. With the Marshals compromised and Leo being framed for murder, he and Rich are on the run from criminals and law enforcement alike. They have no one to trust except each other, and nowhere to go that their enemies can’t reach.
And the only way out might mean making a deal with the Devil.
This novel is approximately 77,000 words long.
Chapter One - Rich
“Join the U.S. Marshals,” they said.
“It’ll be fun,” they said.
I glared around the dimly lit hotel room. If this was anyone’s idea of fun, they were crazy.
Three other deputy marshals loitered in the room with me. Greg Rogers, who was basically my mentor, sat back in the chair by the curtain-covered window with his suit coat unbuttoned and his nose buried in a paperback. Alan Holloway, an ex-Marine like me, stood rigidly against the wall, a seemingly contradictory mixture of cable-tight tension and excruciating boredom. Sam Miller sat on one of the two beds, back to me, talking quietly into his cell phone.
And me, I was kicked back in one of the not very comfortable chairs at the table near the door and trying not to fuss with the tie I’d been wearing for too long. My phone was facedown and quiet on the table next to the thick file folder. I’d been through the file enough times to know everything I needed to know about our witness. And I’d been to every end of the Internet on my phone. Now I was just…fucking…bored.
I’d joined the Marshals for the same reason everyone did—to chase down bad guys and bring them in. Especially with the FBI shifting its focus to antiterrorism, we had plenty of work to do. Lots of fugitives to keep us busy. All through training—all twenty-two weeks of it—I’d been chomping at the bit to get out there and do my job.
So imagine my surprise when my assignment had come in. I didn’t mind the location—I could deal with Chicago—but WITSEC? Seriously? I went through all that shit, including kissing Senator Broadwater’s ass so he might eventually nominate me for Presidential appointment to be a district Marshal like my dad, to babysit witnesses? What the ever-loving fuck?
“Just hang in there,” Dad had assured me. “They’re hard up for witness security right now, but you won’t be stuck there forever.”
Easy for him to say when he’d been on the tail of his first fugitive almost immediately after graduation. He’d been dropped right into an active case, and he’d slapped cuffs on a fucking serial killer within weeks.
I’d been doing this for just under a year, and I hadn’t put cuffs on anyone. Well, aside from that guy I’d hooked up with on vacation last summer—Phil? Paul?—but as fun as that was, I hadn’t exactly been hauling him off to federal prison.
No, I’d spent the last eleven months babysitting. Sticking with protected witnesses until they testified, and then helping them transition into their new lives. It was theoretically dangerous work because witnesses wouldn’t need protection if they weren’t testifying against people who’d want them dead or otherwise silenced, but the Marshals were pretty fucking good at hiding people. Once we had them, nobody was finding them. Hell, I’d gotten lost on the way to a safehouse a couple of times because they were so well hidden.
So we protected witnesses as if every supervillain in every comic universe was minutes away from busting down the door, hid them like we were giving the Easter Bunny a run for his money, and then almost keeled over from boredom because nothing happened.
Which was good for the witness. And for us. I guess. Nothing happening meant nobody dying. I didn’t want anything to happen to our witnesses or to any of us.
But holy fuck, BABYSIT—err, WITSEC—was going to kill me.
“Join the U.S. Marshals,” they said.
“It’ll be fun,” they said.
Sam abruptly stood from the bed where he’d been sitting. “He’s on his way in.”
Immediately, Greg and I were on our feet. So was Alan, but…well, I wasn’t sure he knew how to sit down and get comfortable, so yeah, he was already standing.
Anyway, we were all instantly on alert, the room silent and each of us craning our necks to hear what was going on outside. Greg absently checked his sidearm. I realized I was doing the same thing without even thinking about it. WITSEC detail was kind of like combat. Ninety-five percent boredom, five percent sheer terror. Well, okay, it wasn’t really sheer terror. More like ten minutes of excitement while a witness was handed off to us, since that was when he’d be the most vulnerable. This guy had been at a meeting with the District Attorney, and now we’d be taking him into protective custody until the trial. Let the babysitting begin.
Sam’s phone buzzed. He looked at the screen, then at Greg, and they exchanged nods. I was still learning the telepathic signals passed between deputy marshals, but I knew the routine well enough to know what happened next.
As expected, Greg and Alan stepped out. There was some activity—movement and voices—but nothing to raise alarm. A moment later, the door opened again, and they returned with a couple of FBI agents I’d met before, and of course, the witness. There were more agents from both teams lurking outside—in the hall, in the lobby downstairs, in the parking garage—but I couldn’t see any of them.
And anyway, I was having a hard time seeing anyone except the witness.
He was dressed down in an unzipped blue hoody and jeans, but I instantly recognized him. Leotrim Nicolosi was not someone whose face I could forget. It wasn’t just because I’d been poring over his file for the last twenty-four hours, memorizing details and getting a feel for just how many people wanted to shut this guy up. He was…well, who was I kidding? Criminal or not, the guy was hot.
Nicolosi was one of those people whose ethnicity I wouldn’t have been able to guess if I hadn’t had a cheat sheet to tell me he was Sicilian and Albanian. He had artfully mussed dark hair, light olive skin, and rich brown eyes that were even more stunning in person than in photos, not to mention full lips framed by a thin goatee.
He was a little shorter than I’d expected. Maybe five-ten or so. But somehow, when his intense gaze landed on me, I felt like I was the one looking up. These Mafia guys were something else. That much I’d learned in my short career. The big guys could be teddy bears when their peers and bosses weren’t looking, and the smaller ones could be pit-bulls. Or angry chihuahuas in some cases. Something told me Leotrim Nicolosi was nothing that could be described as cute, cuddly, or unlikely to rip off your face with his teeth. I wondered what happened to whoever had busted his nose at some juncture of his life. I had a feeling that had been a “you should see the other guy” moment.
One of the agents was speaking to Sam and Greg while I ogled the witness. “Mr. Nicolosi is due to testify—”
“Leo.” Nicolosi—Leo—sounded tired and irritated. “For the fiftieth fucking time, call me Leo.”
Uncomfortable looks passed between the agents and the other marshals.
Greg extended a hand to the witness. “Leo, I’m Deputy Marshal Greg Rogers. My men and I”—he gestured at us—“will be keeping you safe until you testify.”
Leo eyed him uncertainly. “They say you’ll hook me up with a new name and all when this is over?”
Greg nodded, hand still hovering between them. “Your new identity is in the works as we speak.”
Leo chewed the inside of his cheek, regarding Greg and his outstretched hand suspiciously before he finally accepted it. Then Greg introduced him around.
When he got to me, he touched my shoulder. “And this is Rich Cody.”
“Rich.” Leo shook my hand, his skin a lot softer and smoother than I’d anticipated. “So can I call you Richie?”
“Are you my mother?” I asked, ignoring the be nice to the witness glare from Greg.
Leo’s dark eyes sparkled with mischief. “Not that I’m aware of.”
“Then no. You can’t call me Richie.”
He chuckled, and when the tip of his tongue darted along the inside of his lip, I realized he hadn’t let go of my hand.
As politely as I could, I cleared my throat and loosened my grip. He waited a beat before doing the same, almost like he wanted me to be sure I knew it was his choice to break contact. I wondered if he was trying to intimidate me.
I’ve faced down men twice your size wearing explosives and waving automatic rifles. You don’t scare me, punk.
Maybe turn me on a little, but—
I cleared my throat again and shifted my gaze to Greg, hoping my cheeks weren’t as red as they felt. “Do you want me to radio for transport?”
Greg shook his head. “It’s already scheduled. We’ve got three hours to cool our heels before the car gets here.”
It was all I could do not to groan in frustration. Three more hours in this godforsaken place? I knew there was rhyme and reason and protocol—not to mention the need to avoid getting caught in Chicago gridlock—but I’d been here for too long not to wish we could just go already.
Beside us, Leo looked around the room, and a smirk materialized on his lips. “This your whole crew?” As he turned to Greg, his eyebrow rose. “Let me guess—budget cuts?”
“Something like that.” Greg chuckled. “Make yourself comfortable, Mr.—Leo. We’ll let you know when it’s time to leave.”
Leo grunted quietly, eyeing the beds. He took the one furthest from the door, flopped onto his back, and laced his hands behind his head. While Greg and Sam spoke quietly with the FBI agents, and Alan stood rigidly by the wall like he’d been doing before, I picked up the folder on Leo and flipped through it again. I’d already memorized every line, but it was something to do besides stare at Leo.
Good looks aside, he was my least favorite type of witness. This wasn’t some innocent person who’d been in the wrong place at the wrong time and seen something they shouldn’t have. No, Leotrim Nicolosi was a criminal through and through. The mastermind behind the Grimaldi crime family’s obscenely successful and highly illegal online gambling operation. He wasn’t a made man, but he wasn’t an innocent bystander either. Now that the family had turned their crosshairs on him—Nicolosi hadn’t been entirely clear why—he was turning state’s evidence and planned to bring them all down with his testimony. The man could’ve gone down for decades upon decades of prison time for his own crimes, but since he was helping us, he’d get the works—federal protection, followed by a brand new life and a clean slate. The fucker was a computer prodigy, too, so he probably even had bank accounts somewhere that no one knew about, which he’d be able to access from his new identity.
I didn’t object to protecting innocent witnesses. Unrepentant criminals who were only testifying to save their own skin? Fuck that. I’d joined the Marshals to catch assholes like him, not cater to his every whim so he didn’t change his mind or die—by way of boredom or a bullet—before he could testify. Being insanely sexy—especially lying back with his T-shirt and Kevlar vest pulling up just enough to bare some skin—didn’t negate the fact that he was a criminal.
I closed the folder with a sigh. When I eventually got that coveted position as U.S. Marshal—the President-appointed Marshal in charge of an entire federal district like my dad—I’d look back on this and laugh about paying my dues.
For today, though? Fuck my life.
It was finally time to move on. We all checked our weapons, and Sam and Greg radioed the other marshals to tell them to stand by.
Leo had been dozing, and he nearly took Greg’s head off when the man roused him.
“Come on,” Greg said with his usual endless patience. “You’ll like your new digs a lot better. I promise.”
“Well shit. Why didn’t you say so?” Leo rubbed his eyes as he rolled to his feet. “There’ll be food, right?”
“Of course.” Greg’s brow pinched. “You hungry? You should’ve said something.”
“Meh.” Leo grunted like a kid who didn’t want to get ready for school. “Let’s just go.”
After triple-checking we had everything we’d brought into the room, Sam radioed that we were on the move.
As we left the room, the four men who’d been posted outside joined us, and we led Leo to the service elevator at the far end of the hall. It was guarded top, bottom, and inside by marshals, and would take us to the parking garage where the equally heavily guarded motorcade was waiting.
While we waited for the elevator to arrive, Leo glanced around at his growing entourage, and he smirked. “This must be what Beyoncé feels like.”
Some of the marshals suppressed quiet laughter. I rolled my eyes. Great. I was stuck for the next several weeks with a man who got an ego boost out of needing an armed security detail. I couldn’t wait until this assignment was over.
The elevator finally arrived. The doors started to open.
And as soon as they were an inch apart, all hell broke loose.