Who wouldn’t go out on a limb to help a child who was fighting for his life?
“Can you please help us, Ms. King?”
Ani’s gaze shifted from the desperate man and woman to the almost perfectly intact fourteen-centimeter-high bronze and gold statue of Tyrion III. With reverence she held the piece that came from the tiny country of Masia. She studied the art as early morning sunshine poured into the antique shop’s fifteen-foot-high windows, highlighting the statue’s delicate gold inlays.
If she wasn’t mistaken—and she was pretty sure she wasn’t—the statue was from the twenty-second dynasty, circa 900 b.c. She’d seen only one other like it, and it was in the Brooklyn Museum in New York.
Formerly an art curator for a major metropolitan museum in New York City, Ani now ran a dinky antique shop in Bisbee, Arizona. The Witness Security Program wouldn’t allow her to be in the same field as she’d been in before, but at least the U.S. Marshals had put her into an environment she could relate to. Even if most of the “antiques” in the place were junk.
But this . . . this was a priceless treasure.
A lead weight settled in her belly. It was likely also a very illegal treasure. It was against the law for any artifact to be taken out of the country where it had been excavated unless bequeathed to a museum.
Ani looked to the husband and wife who had brought her the artifact to ascertain its value. It was early morning and the Harrisons had been waiting for the shop to open to talk with her. They wanted to see if they could sell the statue to help pay medical bills for their son, a burn victim, and get him to a top-notch center that could treat burns of such magnitude. The mere thought of what the child was going through made her own twisted scars itch from the small of her back to her shoulder blades.
Ani barely kept her hands steady as she settled the small statue into the intricately carved ebony box Mr. and Mrs. Harrison had brought it in. The velvet-lined box itself looked to be of some value. It smelled of aged wood and dust, but was in beautiful condition.
“Where did you get this artifact?” Ani asked the couple, wondering how something so priceless and illegal had ended up in Bisbee.
“My older brother just arrived from Montana.” Mr. Harrison shuffled his feet and glanced down before looking back up at Ani. “He gave it to us to see if we can sell it to help our child.” The hollow-cheeked, emaciated Mr. Harrison fidgeted, then stuck his hands in his jeans pockets. “Our great-grandfather was an archeologist.” His voice was scratchy as he spoke. “This statue was passed down through our family. His other findings went to museums and Masia.”
Ani studied him, her heart breaking apart for the family. “I can’t do anything with this piece. It’s illegal to possess an artifact from Masia unless it has been donated to a museum.”
Mr. Harrison cleared his throat. “In a secret drawer at the bottom of the box is a letter from Masia’s King Aronan awarding the statue to my great-grandfather. It was a gift of appreciation for discovering the tomb of Tyrion III.”
Ani raised an eyebrow. Mr. Harrison stepped forward and showed her an almost invisible indentation in the wood at the bottom of the box. She pushed the catch, and a drawer slowly opened.
Nestled inside more velvet lay a yellowed parchment. She withdrew it and carefully unfolded the parchment, which felt rough and brittle between her fingers. She scanned the page and her belly did a little flip. A letter from King Aronan himself awarding the priceless treasure to James Harrison for the exact reason the younger Mr. Harrison had said. It was stamped with a red wax seal and the letter looked as authentic as the statue. The letter by itself would be worth a fortune.
Ani looked up from the paper and met Mr. Harrison’s pleading gaze. She tried to keep her voice from wavering with excitement. “I know a collector who might be interested in purchasing this artifact. If you’ll give me two weeks, I’ll see what I can do.” In two weeks she’d be done with her testimony, the trial would be behind her and she’d feel safer contacting someone from her former life.
“We don’t have that much time.” Mr. Harrison interrupted her thoughts as he looked from his wife to Ani. “We only have enough money left to pay for a few more nights at the motel we’ve been staying in since our home burned to the ground.”
“Do you think that statue will bring enough to pay Jamie’s medical bills?” Mrs. Harrison asked, her brown eyes bright with unshed tears.
Now? Could I do it now? The trial’s already started—it’s as good as over in a few days. Why couldn’t I help this poor boy? Isn’t it the right thing to do?
Heart aching even more for the family, Ani said, “I can’t promise anything, and the statue and letter will have to be authenticated. But I think this may be of some value.”
More than you can imagine.
Mr. and Mrs. Harrison looked at one another then back to Ani. “Please find out as soon as you can,” Mr. Harrison said.
Ani had been in the Witness Security Program for almost two years—two quiet, uneventful years. She had the contacts from her past life to help these people, and her gut told her she should. Definitely the right thing.
“I’ll do my best.” Ani slipped the parchment into the drawer and shut it, then put the lid back on the wood box and extended it to them.
“No.” Mr. Harrison waved it off with a pained expression. “You’ll need the statue to make this happen for our boy, Ms. Carter.” She could see in his eyes how strong his love was for his son. The treasure meant nothing compared to Jamie’s welfare.
Ani offered him a smile even though her soul was wrenched in two for the little boy. “Let me get you a receipt.” She set the box on the counter. “And call me Ani, please.” She’d been Ani Carter for two years, and the name rolled easily off her tongue. But she still couldn’t think of herself as anyone but Anistana King.
Even though they usually recommended keeping the same first name, the U.S. Marshals couldn’t allow her to use hers, Anistana, because it was too unusual. But they did allow her to use an abbreviation of it.
Once the Harrisons were gone, Ani braced her hands on the glass countertop and stared at the ebony box. It had gold inlay within the carvings. Likely it was as old as the letter, over a century.
All that little boy would need to cover his treatment, but . . . did she really dare call George Hanover?
“I have to,” she said aloud. “I can’t live with myself if I don’t.”
Two years was a long time for her to be off the radar, but Hanover was a good guy. He wasn’t part of the Russian Mafia—and it wasn’t likely the Mob had contacted her old clients. It had been so long, and the Mob probably didn’t know about Hanover anyway. George would buy the piece, and if she asked him to, he’d keep his mouth shut. She’d be careful. She’d go about this the right way, and she’d be able to help Jamie Harrison before she went to New York City to testify.
The trial . . .
She held her hand against her belly where it felt as if an ice block had frozen. The FBI case agent, experts, and other witnesses were already testifying. She was on call and was to be flown in a couple of days before she had to get up on the stand in order to be prepped by the associate U.S. attorney, AUSA, John Singleton. He, as well as the FBI and U.S. Marshals, wanted to keep her out of New York City until the last possible moment. According to the AUSA, she was the one piece that would pull the entire puzzle together.
Now, here she stood with the welfare and life of a child in her hands. It wasn’t likely the Russian Mafia would have contacted her old clients. It had been so long. How would they even know about George?
Tears stung the back of her eyes at the thought of Jamie Harrison. Second- and third-degree burns covered eighty percent of his tiny body. The family’s home had burned down and the eight-year-old boy had been trapped in his bedroom until firefighters rescued him. The tragedy had been on TV, but as small as Bisbee was, everyone knew about it and many had been donating clothes, food, and other items. Even with monetary donations, they didn’t come close to fulfilling the need for Jamie to be sent to the best burn center in the U.S.
The burns Ani had received in the fire two years ago were nothing compared to Jamie’s. Her scars only covered her lower back up to her shoulder blades. It had been the most painful experience of her life . . .
No, losing her entire family had been.
Ani clenched her fists on top of the counter and closed her eyes. The little boy needed her, and she had the ability to make this happen. All she had to do was contact a friend from her old life.
With steely resolve, she raised her chin and tucked back an errant brown curl that had escaped her upswept hair. The Russians wouldn’t have a clue if she called George. He’d been one of the kindest men she’d ever known. The billionaire had an extensive collection of art, all legally obtained. He’d always struck her as honest and upfront and had become a good friend over the years they had worked together.
Plus, she’d use her cell phone. Then she would be sure her call couldn’t be traced. Her number was unlisted, so the possibility of the Russians identifying her location was next to nil.
With a lump in her throat, she pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and called information. When the operator came on the line she asked for George Hanover in Brooklyn, New York. There were three listings, but she recognized one of the addresses. Ani grabbed a pen to scratch the number on a notepad by the phone.
She took a deep breath. Her fingers trembled as she gripped the cell and punched in the number for the customer-turned-friend, and her hand shook when she brought the phone to her ear. She immediately recognized his voice when he answered.
“This is Anistana King.” It seemed weird saying her real name again instead of Ani Carter. “How are you doing, George?”
A brief moment of silence was followed by, “Anistana, what happened to you? I tried getting a hold of you at the museum, but they said you’d more or less disappeared. Are you all right?”
It felt so good to talk to an old friend and to hear the concern in his voice. Yet at the same time Ani’s gut churned. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea.
But the Harrison family needed what she could give them.
She gripped the phone tight enough that her knuckles ached. “When my parents died, I just had to get out of town.”
“Such a tragedy.” George’s voice softened. “I’ve thought of you often since then.”
“I’m glad we have this chance to chat.” A smile touched her lips. “Even if I have a motive behind it.”
He gave a low chuckle. “Go on.”
She toyed with the pencil in her free hand. “I’m calling because I’ve come across something that will fit perfectly in your collection.”
George cleared his throat and she could imagine the balding man tipping back in his office chair and studying the artifacts in his den. “Shoot.”
Ani heard excitement in George’s voice when she told him what she was certain she had. “It still needs to be authenticated,” she added. “But I don’t think that will be a problem.”
They negotiated a fair price that would more than help the Harrisons with Jamie’s bills, and then some. Before disconnecting the call, Ani gave George her cell phone number, swearing him to secrecy and asking him to not give out her number or tell anyone about her call. He sounded puzzled, but agreed.
For a moment, memories of other friends, coworkers, and acquaintances flowed over Ani and her chest ached. She hadn’t been able to say goodbye to anyone. One day she was in a burn center in New York City, and the next day she as good as disappeared from everything and everyone she’d ever known.
Ani missed terribly the three friends she’d lived with in the old carriage house in Brooklyn. Jules, Erica, and Lexi had probably been frantic with worry when Ani vanished. She’d lost her family to a murderer, then lost everything from her old life when she signed the contract to enter WITSEC.
No connections to her past, no information about people from her former life, no trail that the Mafia could follow. WITSEC was absolute on that point, and the loss on top of loss had been brutal. Still, the hit the Russians put out on her was enough to convince her to enter the Witness Security Program. She intended to live to testify and put the man who murdered her family behind bars for manslaughter, among other crimes.
Just the thought of that bastard made her chest ache with rage and fear.
Ani caught her breath as she opened the box to peek at the figure of King Tyrion III again and marveled at its beauty. She carefully touched the blackened bronze, feeling its coolness beneath her fingertip. She could never get enough of true art, even if she couldn’t work in a museum because the Russian Mafia could possibly track her down in such an obvious occupation. And the Russians wanted her badly enough they’d do anything to get to her.
Not that anyone would recognize her now. She was the same cultured, refined, sophisticated woman she had been in New York. But with all of the trauma in her life since that night, she’d had a hard time eating and had lost eighty-something pounds, most of it in the last year. She’d gone from a size twenty-two to an eight, which was a bizarre feeling. She’d always been heavy and had been comfortable in her own skin. Now she had a lot less skin and it just felt strange. She had to start eating again, or there would be nothing left of her.
Her black slacks hung loose on her hips as she took the box containing the statue to the back room, her high heels ringing against the tile floor. She locked the box in the old-fashioned but very secure vault. They kept what few valuable treasures they had in the safe along with the store’s daily take of cash. Which wasn’t much considering the price tags Tammy put on the merchandise. Ani had furnished her own small house on the street above Castle Rock with some of the nicer pieces that came into the store.
After she finished locking the safe, she went back to work in the shop. From the time the store opened at nine a.m., starting with the Harrisons’ arrival, it continued to be a busy day. Tourists picked through the collectables and not-so-collectables, most taking their time to browse the shop that included a huge lower level. Bisbee was an artists’ community with tourism supporting the economy, and the tourists definitely supported this store.
In between interruptions, Ani worked on the inventory program she’d convinced Tammy to buy. Even though she was constantly interrupted by customers, she still managed to get work done.
Her friend Lyra stopped by on her lunch break to see if there was anything new and interesting, specifically old lunch boxes and other old tin items. Lyra worked up the street in a shop where she sold metal sculptures she made out of pieces of tin and aluminum from various items. Ani had several of Lyra’s pieces in her own home. Lyra was one of the few friends Ani had made in Bisbee along with Lyra’s husband, Dare, a private investigator.
Around noon, her cell phone rang. “This is Ani,” she answered. The line crackled. “Hello?”
It crackled again, but she didn’t hear anyone. Probably one of the few friends she had in Bisbee, calling from a cell phone out of range. Happened all the time with Bisbee being in the Mule Mountains. The caller ID said “not available,” so it could have been anyone.
She punched off when no one on the other end responded.
The rest of the day flew past and Ani fielded a few calls on the antique store land line, along with another out-of-range call on her cell that didn’t come up on her caller ID. By the end of the day her feet were killing her and she had a headache.
Her cell phone rang again.
She glanced at her watch. Six o’clock. Time to close the store, and it was Friday. Also time for Daniel’s call—maybe he’d been the one trying to reach her earlier, even though he never called her that early in the day.
Her heart raced as she slipped her cell phone out of the pocket of her slacks. On the caller ID it said “unknown,” but she was certain it was Daniel.
She answered the phone with a breathless, “Hello.”
“Hi, Ani.” Daniel’s deep, sensual voice affected her the way it always did. It sent a twist of sensation in her belly and caused her heart to beat faster.
“Hey.” Ani closed her eyes, imagining Daniel’s lean, muscled physique, his slightly wavy brown hair and warm coffee-brown eyes. It had been an entire year since she’d seen the Deputy Marshal, the Inspector, who was her contact, but she could picture him in his Stetson and Wranglers, down to his boots. “Anything exciting today?” she asked.
“Not until you answered the phone.” His voice was smooth and sexy, like warm buttered rum, but the man never said anything he didn’t mean.
Ani almost sighed out loud at the feelings he stirred within her. “Same here,” she said as she opened her eyes and saw only Daniel in her mind’s eye. He’d been there from the beginning, moving her to the Oregon Burn Center, to rehab, to a safe house, and then to Bisbee. She’d been in Bisbee for a year now.
He used to call every now and then to check in on her, but those calls became more frequent and more personal, until they talked almost every Friday. Sometimes on the weekend. She’d fallen in love with everything about him.
She’d fallen in love with a man she could never have.
“How ’bout you? Anything interesting happen today?” Daniel asked in his lazy drawl.
She shook her head even though he couldn’t see her. “Same old same old.” She walked to the front door, locked it, and turned the open sign to closed.
“Oh, wait.” A buzz of excitement quickened her pace as she returned to the front register that sat on a long glass case. “A man and woman came in first thing this morning with a priceless treasure.” Her delight in handling such an object faded as she realized why it had ended up in her possession in the first place. “Their son is a burn victim, Daniel. Eighty percent of his body.” The large scar on her back itched again, but she tried to ignore it. “They need the money to pay his medical bills, so I helped them broker the piece.”
Daniel was quiet for a moment. “Honey, what did you do?”
“Well, ah . . .” Heat flushed Ani. “I called an old client who collects Masian artifacts and hashed out a deal.”
“Shit!” Daniel’s voice came out so loud and harsh she held the cell phone away from her ear. “Goddamnit, Ani. You know the rules.”
“They have to have the resources for their son’s treatment.” She blinked back tears. “It’s been two years. George Hanover is an old friend—and he’s very discreet. How could the Mob find me through him?”
“I’m coming to get you.” Daniel’s voice steeled and suddenly she didn’t recognize him. This man’s tone was harsh and unforgiving. “Do not leave the store. Stay in the back room, away from the windows. I’m sending in local police. Do not open the door for anyone except the police—if you’re absolutely positive it’s the cops.”
Ani said in a rush, “I used my cell. You and I use our cell phones all the time.”
“I’m not a contact from your past—your friend was,” Daniel said in a voice that sounded like a low growl. “He’s the point of reference the Mafia could start with and work backward until they found you.”
“It’s a four-hour drive from Phoenix. I don’t have a Deputy Marshal available who’s close enough to you, so you’ll need to wait at the police department until I get there.”
“Like I said, don’t open for anyone but the cops, and there’d better be sirens and flashing lights. Do you understand?”
“Are all the doors and windows locked?”
“You are not to call anyone that you know, anywhere. Understand?”
She sucked in a deep breath, but the tears wouldn’t stop flowing and she couldn’t stop the tremble in her voice. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“I don’t have time to talk. I have arrangements to make.”
He severed the connection. She brought the cell phone away from her ear and held it in both fists as she flipped it shut. She leaned her head back against the wall and slid down it until her butt hit the floor. Tears ran freely from her eyes as she dropped the phone, wrapped her arms around her knees, and buried her face against her slacks.
With one little phone call she’d screwed up everything. She could possibly have put herself in danger, and she hadn’t even thought about placing Daniel at risk.
She raised her head and dried her tears with the backs of her hands, then thunked her head against the wall when the tears continued to flow down her cheeks. What a freaking mess. Why did her father have to—well, do what he did? If he hadn’t gotten in bed with the Russian Mafia, her whole family would be alive today.
Those bastards—especially Dmitry Borenko—needed to pay.
Ani’s skin crawled and her heart kept an unsteady beat. “I’m so stupid.” She rubbed her temples, got up from the floor as she picked up her cell phone. After she pocketed her phone, she slipped into the back room, locked the wooden door between her and the shop. She checked the locks on the big metal door that led to the alley.
When she checked again to see that the doors were secure, she started to pace the length of the room, but then she plopped into a chair by Tammy’s ancient rolltop desk. There was one window in the back room and she had to stay away from it. Smells of dust and pine-scented cleaner from the recently mopped floors clogged her nose and made her even more nauseated than she already was.
All she had wanted to do was help that poor child. After being in a burn center herself, she could relate to Jamie, if only in a small way. God. Eighty percent of his little body. She wiped tears from her eyes with the backs of her hands again. She had just wanted to help him.
How could George be any kind of link to the Mob? How could the Russians even know she had called George? Of all the millions of phone calls going on throughout the day, how could her one little call be traced?
Nothing would likely come from it, but still, she had screwed up. Maybe she could have had Tammy call—but then the rather reclusive George Hanover would wonder how she knew of his collection.
But could the Russians have contacted every one of her past clients and friends? Her heart nearly stopped at the thought. Were her old friends and clients in danger? What if they’d been threatened from the time she vanished into the WITSEC program?
The old shoulder wound from the bullet ached and the scar on her back itched. She rubbed her hands up and down her arms as she glanced in the direction of the shop itself, which was on the other side of the locked wooden door. With all the windows the store had, being in that section was like walking out in the open.
The antique shop was a corner building at the end of Main Street. Being the gossipy and busybody type, Tammy liked keeping the fifteen-foot-high windows without blinds so that she could watch everything that went on outside, and so potential customers could see in. The store was directly across from the post office and library, and catty-corner to a small indoor mall. Well, if one could call it a mall.
She stopped rubbing her arms. Oh, jeez. She needed to let Tammy know she wouldn’t be back. Ani found a notepad on the antique desk where Tammy preferred to do her paperwork.
Ani felt the weight of her cell phone in the pocket of her slacks, but remembered she wasn’t supposed to call anyone. She leaned forward in the chair and started a note, telling her friend and employer she was sorry but she had to leave due to an unexpected family emergency.
Sadness crept over her as she erased “family.” Tammy knew Ani had none. Tammy didn’t know the true story, just that her mother, father, and sister had died in a fire.
Ani reworded the letter so that it simply said she was leaving due to an unexpected emergency.
For a moment her eyes glazed as she remembered her sister. Her mischievousness, her sense of humor. God, how her heart ached every time she thought of Jenn. They’d fought a lot as they’d grown up—what siblings didn’t? But they’d matured, and they became so close that Jenn had been her best friend, and now Ani missed her so badly. Every single day.
Ani shook her head, trying to focus on the present. She fought back more tears, sniffled, then looked around her.
The safe drew her attention. The Harrisons. They had to be taken care of.
With a deep breath, she sketched out a note about the statue, the Harrisons, and their contact information. She also added George Hanover’s information.
When she finished the note, she signed it “Ani.” She’d really screwed things up now. She’d had a good life this past year, even if it was a small town, so different than what she was used to. After the trial, she would end up in another place with another name, and possibly a different Inspector Marshal if Daniel was mad enough at her.
The fact that Daniel was so upset with her made her gut clench. She gripped the armrests of the chair. The tone of his voice had been cold and professional once she’d told him what she’d done. When he arrived it would be the first time she’d seen him in a year. All the times she’d imagined herself being close to him again, it hadn’t been like this.
He’d been in every one of her fantasies. She loved his deep, sexy voice, his soft laughter when they spoke and something amused him. His concern when she’d had a bad day for one reason or another. She even talked with him about her family and how much she missed them. He stayed with her through the tears, calling her “honey” and making her feel like she had someone in her life who really cared for her.
She’d learned a lot about Daniel, too. He told her of his two brothers who were in the military—Aaron was in Special Forces, and Jacob was a Navy SEAL. Their father was a retired U.S. Deputy Marshal. Daniel had told her things about his childhood and about his hobby of creating model airplanes. Sometimes he told her about cases he was working on—nothing classified, of course. After all of their intimate conversations, she almost felt like she knew him heart and soul.
Copyright © 2008 by Cheyenne McCray. All rights reserved.