She didn’t look like a prostitute. That was the first thing that came to Liam Jones’s mind when he saw her standing next to a bench outside the courtroom. He didn’t know what he’d expected—not exactly—but it wasn’t a fresh-faced woman in her midtwenties wearing a summery dress in pastel swirls of pink and green, bare legs and sandals. Her blond hair was shoulder length, clean and shining, and held away from her face by cloisonné combs in a way that made her look heartbreakingly young.
There was a definite family resemblance to her cousin, Liam’s new sister-in-law, Angelina Mateja. So she had to be Caterina Mateja. Which meant looks were deceiving.
If he hadn’t known who she was, if he hadn’t known she was testifying in his brother’s human trafficking and prostitution ring conspiracy case, he’d have pegged her as a model—tall, slender, almost delicate in appearance, aloof, with a touch-me-not air. And a definite attitude. She was listening to two men in impeccable dark suits and power ties that shrieked they were the prosecutors on the case—one a dapper man in his fifties, the other younger than Liam. Prepping their witness? he wondered idly. Isn’t it kind of late for that?
And though he couldn’t hear what they were saying, he knew damned well Caterina Mateja wasn’t at all happy with whatever they were telling her. Two other men wearing identical black outfits, badges and sidearms—all of which Liam recognized—stood on either side of her, obviously providing her with protection.
A longtime Diplomatic Security Service special agent, Liam wasn’t there in a professional capacity. Not officially. Officially he was on vacation for the next three weeks. But his brother, Alec, also a DSS special agent—not just a special agent, he reminded himself with a smile of familial pride in his brother’s accomplishments, the regional security officer at the US embassy in Zakhar—had asked him to meet him at the courthouse this morning for the start of the trial. As a witness Alec had been precluded in a pretrial motion from sitting in the courtroom for the proceedings. But there was nothing stopping Liam from being there, and Alec had asked him to attend as a special favor. Not that Alec had told Liam a lot about the case ahead of time, nor would Liam discuss the trial with his brother while it was underway. But this case was important to Alec—a career maker—and Liam would do anything for his brother.
Liam glanced at his watch. He was early, but that was par for the course with him. He planned his days carefully—planned his entire life that way, actually—and he didn’t like leaving things to chance. Traffic in Washington, DC, was rarely predictable, often troublesome even in the summer, so Liam almost always arrived early for whatever he had going when he was in town. He was never late. Not even in New York.
He leaned casually against one of the rotunda’s marble pillars, careful to keep his distance as he waited for his brother. Alec had told him US Marshals were guarding Caterina Mateja since she was a crucial witness in this trial, more crucial than Alec, who had orchestrated it all. So even if Liam hadn’t recognized their outfits and badges he would have known who the two men were.
Liam was armed—he’d had to display his DSS badge and show the guards his SIG SAUER P229R in its shoulder holster in order to bring a weapon into the building past the metal detectors—and he had no intention of making the marshals think he was a threat to their witness.
But even from this distance he couldn’t help notice how beautiful she was. How graceful her hands were as she tried to make some point to the prosecutors. How altogether classy and patrician she looked standing there arguing with them but never losing her cool. Anyone less like a hooker he’d yet to see.
Movement out of the corner of his eye had Liam turning sharply in its direction, then he grinned. “Hey,” he said as Alec came up to him.
“Thanks for coming.”
“Told you I’d be here.”
“Yeah, but sometimes things crop up, so I’d have understood if you couldn’t make it.
When did you get in?”
“Late last night. Thought about taking the train down from New York, so at least I’d get a little sleep on the way, but decided to drive after all. I’d have been here earlier, but there was a screwup with the guy covering for me at the UN.”
Alec grimaced. “Speaking of screwups, I hate to tell you this, but the trial won’t actually start until tomorrow—I just found out or I’d have called you. The jury was supposed to be seated this morning, and the trial was going to open with the big guns—Caterina Mateja’s testimony—but it’s been put off for a day. Last-minute pretrial motions. Sorry I got you down here a day too soon.”
Liam shrugged. “Not a problem. I didn’t have any other plans.”
“So you’re really on vacation? For three whole weeks? How’d you wangle that?”
“Three whole weeks,” Liam agreed, then affected a pious air. “Clean living.”
“Yeah right,” his brother scoffed.
“Well, it might have something to do with the fact that I haven’t taken any vacation at all so far this year, and my boss would like me to use up some of it before he sends me out of the country.”
“That’s sounds more like it.”
Liam grinned. “So are we on for dinner tonight? Or do you have to rush back to your blushing bride?” He made a sound like a squawking hen, devilishly teasing his brother the way they’d done to each other since they were kids.
Alec cursed him genially, fake-punched his shoulder, then grinned too, and said, “Angel’s given me the night off—she’s having dinner with her cousin.” He tilted his head in Caterina Mateja’s direction. “I’m off-limits there. I’m not supposed to have any contact with her—the trial judge was quite clear about that. But the restriction doesn’t include Angel since she’s not a witness in this trial. And Caterina will need her moral support.”
He shook his head regretfully. “The defense attorneys will rip her to shreds if they can. They’ll paint her as black as the judge will let them get away with. A vengeful prostitute is what they’ll call her, out to get her former lover—so they’ll say—any way she can for dumping her. Even lying to convict him.”
“Any truth to that?”
Alec bent a hard stare on his brother. “I’m going to pretend you never asked me that question.”
Liam shook his head. “Look I know she’s your wife’s cousin and all that, but—”
“But nothing,” Alec said in a steely voice. “You don’t know what Caterina’s been through. If you had any idea…if you knew the courage it’s taking for her to face these men—especially Aleksandrov Vishenko—and testify in open court, you wouldn’t—”
The chatter of submachine gunfire and screams from civilians echoing through the cavernous rotunda interrupted whatever Alec had intended to say next. Both brothers spun toward the gunfire, reaching simultaneously for their SIG SAUERs. And both brothers saw immediately they were shielded from the gunmen’s sight by the marble pillar they were standing behind.
How the hell did they get Uzis past the metal detectors? Past the guards at the door? were Liam’s first thoughts, but he didn’t waste more than a couple of seconds on those questions. His gaze swung toward the woman he was pretty sure was the intended target.
The marshals had her down on the floor, covering her body with theirs as they tried to return fire. Both prosecutors were also down—but not voluntarily. One was obviously dead, a grim sight. The other was still alive, but for how long was anyone’s guess. And the marshals weren’t faring much better. One was wounded in the thigh, the other had taken a spray of bullets to his nonshooting arm and shoulder. Both were doing their damnedest to shield Caterina, but they were caught out in the open with only the bench for shelter and no warning. And semiautomatics were a pitiful defense against submachine guns.
“Cover me,” Alec said, darting to his right, not even waiting for acknowledgment.
Liam switched his gun to his left hand—thank God I’m ambidextrous, he thought—operating on instinct and training that was second nature after so many years, not to mention a lifelong knowledge of his brother. He peered around the marble column, took careful aim and fired a volley of shots at the men with the submachine guns to distract them from Alec circling around behind to get the drop on them. Liam had the savage satisfaction of hearing a scream of pain as one of his shots found its target.
One down, he thought, still on autopilot. One to go. He switched his gun back to his right hand, moved in the other direction and fired again from the other side of the column, emptying the clip. His spare clip, which he carried in his jacket pocket, was already in his left hand. Seconds was all it took to eject the empty clip and slam the full one home. Seconds he didn’t really have, because one of the Uzis was still firing.
But then he recognized the sound of Alec’s SIG SAUER, followed by an agonized scream—not Alec’s voice. When he slid cautiously out from behind the pillar he saw Alec kicking the Uzis away from both downed gunmen, and he started running toward his brother. But Alec had other ideas.
“They’re dead,” he shouted to Liam across the rotunda. “Get Caterina the hell out of here. She dies, this case dies, too.”
LIAM’S WITNESS PROTECTION, Copyright © 2015 by Amelia Autin Lam
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