Fear followed Dani Gwynne out of sleep, drying her throat to parchment, turning her muscles to wood and digging up her longing to go fetal and whine.
Where... Oh yeah. The safe house. In Denver. Colorado. Dani took an unsteady breath. Water would restore the moisture to her throat, but fetal and whining had to be reburied. Things like that got recorded in "The File." After eight months in protective custody, Dani was suffering from an acute case of lost privacy.
"You awake?" Peg's husky murmur drifted on the same cooled air that circulated the smoke from her cigarette. The Deputy US Marshal had gone from occasional to chain smoker in just over two months, but Dani would bet money that wouldn't make it into "The File."
"Yeah." Dani rubbed her face.
"Another bad dream?" Peg sounded sympathetic.
Bad dream? The hired killer, Dani called him Dark Lord for lack of a real name, did a brief encore inside her head. She gave a slight twitch. Not a good dream, but at least it hadn't been the one where he held her head under a sea of blood until her lungs exploded. That was a bad dream.
"I just need to pee," Dani said. Dreams made it into the file, peeing didn't. She hoped.
The Deputy US Marshal, a dark silhouette against the drawn drapes, gave a tiny, skeptical cough as she checked her wristwatch. "Bang on five a.m."
Smoke made lazy spirals toward the ceiling from her cigarette, then did a sharp right turn when it strayed into the A/C current that had just kicked on. The low hum gave a questioning voice to the waiting silence.
Peg lifted the cigarette and inhaled it, then released more smoke from her mouth and nose in a weary sigh. "I've started setting my watch by your bladder."
"My parts and I are glad we could help." Dani sat up and peeled the sheet off her sticky body. She felt like she'd run a marathon instead of survived another night's sleep in protective custody. Her body was too stiff to get vertical without help.
The book-loaded night stand was all there was, so she used it. The flimsy wooden pedestal rocked, then sent her stack of books tumbling to the floor. The Two Towers, second in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, landed between her feet with a symbolic thump.
Dani had enjoyed the books more when she'd had less in common with the sturdy, stalked hobbit, Frodo. Not a good idea to name the man who hunted her after Frodo's Nemesis with the sun playing coy in the East.
In her own home, back in the days when no one wanted to kill her, Dani would have stooped to pick up her books. She wanted to be that person now. She hated this drop in standards almost as much as the endless waiting, but bending wasn't on her option list this morning.
She plowed through the mess. In the bathroom she groped for, then found the light switch, flinched as light flooded the small space. The mirror gave back her reflection without mercy. Ouch. In the old days, a good day and the right light helped her pass for attractive. She touched the lines around her eyes. Bad day, wrong light.
Life was hard enough without the added stress of being hunted like Bambi's mother, though it was a good way to lose weight. Yesterday she'd seen her hip bones for the first time in years. They didn't look as good as she'd remembered.
"Note to myself," she muttered, "never again make a note to myself to lose weight even if it kills you."
If ever there were a time to be in denial, this was it.
Dani draped a towel over the mirror and turned her attention to what had brought her into the bathroom.
Physical relief achieved, she turned on the water, washed her hands, then filled two glasses and carried them back into the bedroom. One she handed to Peg, the other she lifted in a mocking toast. "To the dawn. May it come quickly."
Peg obliged by clicking her glass against Dani's, before edging back the blinds just enough to study the sky. "It's already getting lighter."
"That's good." Dani accepted the lie, despite a brief glimpse of blue velvet untouched by light. She sipped the water, her hand not quite steady. The sense of menace felt sharper tonight, as if Dark Lord had tapped into her fear and was using it to track her.
It's just your imagination. Dani took a long drink of water. They call it a safe house, remember? She lifted the glass, a sip this time. It didn't erase the acrid taste of fear from her mouth or ease the dryness in her throat and it tasted flat to a palate conditioned to a Diet Dr. Pepper wake up call. A pity she drank the last can yesterday evening. Neuman, the special agent-in-charge, had promised to bring her some when he and McBride came back. She frowned. Odd they hadn't returned yet.
She lowered her glass and found Peg watching her. This wasn't unusual. They all watched her, their eyes reflecting varying degrees of professional worry and distant pity. Probably looking for signs she was about to break.
I bend, not break, she could have told them, if they'd asked. Breaking wasn't an option until after her day in court. She'd made a promise to a dead woman.
Dani dropped into the desk chair, propped her elbow on the smooth faux wood surface and cradled the cool glass against her aching temple. The furtive light winked off Peg's glass as she took a drink, her hand quivering from the effort.
They made quite a pair. The romance writer and the Marshal. Brought together by capricious fate. Too bad Peg had the misfortune to look enough like Dani to be her sister, though her recent visit to the ER had made that resemblance a twin sister. The dim light deepened the hollows in Peg's cheeks and washed out all color but the bruising under her eyes.
How did Peg do it, Dani wondered? How had she puked her guts out, then dragged her butt back here to play decoy for a killer one last night?
It's my job, wasn't enough of an answer. Peg didn't have to be here. In a few hours Dani would be transferred into the care and keeping of the Denver Marshals district. They'd have responsibility for getting her safely into court next week. Peg could have stayed in the hospital. She'd done her duty, above and way beyond.
Instead she'd come back a couple of hours ago, claiming her multiple hurl had been caused by the Chinese they'd had for their last supper together. Even the original OJ jury wouldn't have bought a selective food poisoning theory.
Not that Dani wasn't grateful. Would've been harder to face the dismal dawn with just the men for company. They were good guys and reassuringly competent, but there was something to that "community of women" thing.
"You gonna make it 'till Neuman and McBride get back?" Dani asked.
"Yeah, sure." You're okay. I'm okay. We're all okay--and Clinton didn't inhale. "You shouldn't have come back."
"I'm fine," Peg insisted, looking at her watch before taking another drag on her cigarette.
"You didn't tell Neuman, did you?" Dani almost envied her that cigarette. Popping an M&M didn't have the dramatic effect of blowing smoke, which was the international symbol for waiting.
"He'll find out when he comes."
"He'll be pissed." Dani didn't mind Neuman getting pissed. She didn't mind anything that relieved the monotony. Who would have thought trying not to get killed could be so boring?
"He'll get over it." Peg hesitated. "And it's only for a few more hours."
"Yeah, a few more hours." Dani set down her glass, splashing water perilously close to her lap top. Surprised at her lack of precision, she moved the glass onto the window sill, then dabbed at the damp with the corner of her tee shirt.
The Velcro edge of her money belt scraped her wrist with yet another reminder of how far from home, how far from normal she'd come. Was it petty to miss her purse with all its useful and useless bits and pieces? To sweat the myriad of small things she couldn't do until she did her thing in court? To be so weary of this portable existence she almost didn't care anymore?
Easier to sweat the small things than contemplate the big ones. Like dying before she made it into court--
"So what are you and Neuman going to do once you've handed me off?" Dani hurried into speech again.
"Do? Neuman and I? What do you mean?" Peg's voice sounded a little too noncommittal.
"Did you think I wouldn't notice the hearts and flowers around whenever you and Neuman are in the same room?"
"I suppose you can't help seeing romance everywhere you look." Weary gave way for ironic in Peg's eyes.
"It's one of the main requirements for writing it." Dani turned sideways, trailing her hands across the quiescent keyboard of her lap top. From habit her fingers settled in home position on the smooth, cool keys. The dark screen looked naked without her words scrolling across. The words that kept her sane and paid the bills after her marriage fell apart. The stories that gave her a place to escape to in the past few months.
"Did you get your story sorted out?" Peg asked. "I was hoping I could read the last two chapters before I leave."
"Like the real people in my life, my characters are proving difficult."
A wan smile edged Peg's mouth. "I expect you'll have them whipped into shape before your deadline."
"I expect I will." Dani realized she was tapping out an "SOS" on the keyboard and jerked her hands back, but not before Peg heard the soft sound of the keys.
"You can't start writing now. They'll be here soon. I'm not hanging out that stupid boa," she said, referring to the joke gift the guys had given Dani for her birthday last month, a gift that Dani had converted into a "do not disturb" sign while working against the double deadline imposed by trial and editor.
Dani grinned. In the past eight months, the guys had given up a lot of preconceptions about romance writers. Like the one about them working naked except for a strategically placed boa. Dani had felt obliged to point out that naked was very cold and most women didn't like uncovering what time and gravity had done to their parts.
They gave her that one, but clung to their conviction that romance authors were sex-starved idiots, this despite the fact that she'd failed to jump any of their bones or the long hours she put in at the keyboard. They did seem surprised she could do it under the circumstances.
Even with "The File," they didn't seem to understand she'd never missed a deadline. She wasn't about to let a hired killer or her murderous ex-brother-in-law make her miss this one. Besides, it gave her something to do in-between getting grilled by Richard's slime ball defense attorney. He'd stopped short of accusing her of the murder, but she expected to be trying on gloves and Bruno Magli shoes when Richard's trial finally got under way. If--
"I'm not planning to work," Dani said in a rush.
"So, what are you doing?"
"I'm--" not about to admit she was SOS-ing, Dani improvised, "thinking about going online. I could check out the chat lines, see if my favorite ex-spy is around." He and her other online friends had, in a strange way, kept her anchored to the real, been her lifeline to the normal.
"I'll never understand that online crap." Peg shook her head wearily. "And if Neuman finds out about your little incursions into cyberspace, it'll be my butt--"
"He won't find out. Besides, he's too hot for your butt to care." Dani flipped on the power, waiting for the machine to complete the booting up process so she could access her online program. When she was in, she hit the dial command. "Why don't you lie down? Catch a few Z's? Nothing happening for a few more hours."
"Not when I'm on duty."
"You're not on duty. You're not even supposed to be here--" Dani frowned at the screen. "That's odd."
"I'm not getting a dial tone." Dani tried the dial command again. Still nothing. "Is something wrong with the phone?" She looked at Peg.
Peg hesitated. In that tiny moment of silence, they both heard a muffled thud in the next room.