Summary: Isabella has been cooperating with the DEA under her father's nose. A video footage reveals her involvement, her brother murders their father, and she agrees to be a key witness in federal criminal cases against an ex-judge, a congressman, and an array of criminals, including her brother. AH
by Anton M.
Chapter 1: Room 31
"Charles W. Swan, a man better known as El Camaleón, the Lord of organized crime in Baltimore and one of the most sought-after fugitives of the last decade, was murdered in an apartment on Bloomingdale Road last night. After the controversial leaked footage last week, the DEA Chief of Operations, Everett B. Whitman, was forced to admit to one of the most complex undercover operations since the agency's establishment in 1973, but the agency insists that not only do they not have anything to gain from the death of the infamous El Camaleón, they had nine undercover agents to lose.
Indeed, so far, all evidence suggests that the drug lord died through the hands of his own son Jacob, whose fingerprints have been confirmed on the murder weapon. His sister Isabella showed signs of struggle as a result of attempted strangulation and made the 911 call after having successfully knocked her brother unconscious. Because of the notorious nature of the Swan family, rumors run rampant around the incident, which is why we have asked Police Commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, Nicolas Hanson Weaver, to join us tonight."
Fourteen people showed up for Statistical Methods and Data Analysis.
Edward found himself a spot three rows and two seats behind the brunette girl he'd memorized from a photograph. Despite her girlish features and lack of height, Isabella was twenty-two years of age. Animated and straight-forward, she knotted her hair with a sparkly, childish-looking pen, laughing with her friends. She took off her shoe, and raised her left leg to wrap her arms around it when the lecture started. A colorful fake-tattoo covered the back of her neck.
It was a string of hearts.
She scribbled furiously through the lecture, and when her hand shot up and she said something about logarithmic transforming to normality that removed positive skew, and suggested a small adjustment to zeroes, few followed her train of thought. The professor thanked her, answered, and Isabella went back to writing with that incredible focus.
When a man in a grey sweatshirt quietly stood in the corner of the room, she paled and held still. The man picked up the ball-point pen he'd lost and sat back down, showing his face. Isabella relaxed.
So did Edward.
He studied her, quietly, introducing himself to people only when asked. Anthony Warren, he told them, a transfer from Drexel University in Philly. He kept a low profile, offering only enough of himself to gain trust but not nearly enough to be interesting. For three days, he shared every single lecture with Isabella and made sure she got home alive. He kept his distance.
She hadn't slept, he saw. She didn't leave or arrive anywhere without company, and not once did she come up to Edward to introduce herself.
She didn't trust him. She was smart.
On Thursday, as she walked to her swimming practice with a friend, she was being followed, and she knew it. He knew that she knew because she kept changing routes and stepping into stores. Edward caught the guy two blocks away from campus and recognized him as Ralph Trent, her brother's associate. They fought. He got a couple of bruises and nasty gash on his forearm. Trent got a bullet in his leg.
Edward waited for the police and the ambulance, showed his badge and filled in paperwork. A paramedic stitched up his arm.
Isabella's swimming practice had lasted for half an hour when Edward sat on a bench by the window. She was in the middle of swimming laps, freestyle, and he'd counted five of them when she stopped, listened to the coach, and locked eyes with Edward.
It was the first time for her to acknowledge his presence.
He stared back, waiting, but Isabella turned and dove underwater. Her strokes were clean and fast, and he understood why the competition on Saturday was so important to her. She must've had a fair shot at winning.
Another half an hour had passed when Isabella got out of the pool and shared a few quiet words with her coach. She took a towel, walked over to Edward and put the towel next to him before sitting down. Even with a swimming cap and a suit designed to make her look flat, he couldn't deny how attractive she was. But, up close, he could now see a purplish bruise around her neck that she must've previously covered with make-up.
He'd protected witnesses before, but rarely had the danger felt so real.
"I don't trust you," she said, resting elbows on her knees. "But you'd be stupid to kill me in front of so many witnesses."
"Oh, please." Quietly but quickly, she pulled out his gun from underneath his jacket and his backup from his left leg. He let her. She released the magazine, took a round from the chamber and did the same with his second gun. She put the edge of her towel over both unloaded weapons as he looked over the pool. Nobody was paying attention.
".40 caliber Glock and a 340 .357 Magnum," she said, leaning against the window, arms crossed. "The question is, Edward, are you working for my brother or against him?"
It was one thing to know the girl he was protecting was the daughter of the man who had called the shots in organized crime, it was another entirely to witness her not only know where he held his guns but to see her unload them. He didn't ask how she knew his name. Without a word, he dropped his U.S. Marshal badge in her palm. She barely gave it a glance before returning the badge to him.
"You're forgetting the man I grew up with. You can't imagine the blackmail and bribery I've seen. My question stands."
"I'm with Carlisle." He pulled up his sleeve. "Trent is in town. He followed you here. I shot him."
She didn't react to his wounds, but her gaze sharpened at the mention of Carlisle's name.
"Trent? Did you kill him?"
"No. He's a valuable witness."
With a standoffish quality to her actions, she reloaded his guns before returning them to their original places. She stood up and took her towel, but paused. He'd observed her enough to know she wasn't going to tell him she trusted him. She either did or she didn't.
"How much time until we leave?"
"The moment your practice is over."
She pressed her lips together, grimacing, but only gave him a nod before returning to her practice. She trained with fierce energy, and he watched, observing the bystanders, making calls. He waited in the hallway as she changed. She emerged in jeans and a brown leather jacket, a duffel bag thrown over her shoulder and redness in her eyes she didn't comment on. She'd concealed the bruise on her neck. He watched as she gripped the strap of her bag with both hands, eyes lingering on the closed cafeteria and empty hallways. They sat in an old Toyota before she took one last glance at the campus. They drove off.
"You could've introduced yourself on Monday," she said, looking out of the window.
"Carlisle and I wanted you to have until Saturday."
"But I can't."
She nodded, watching the lights pass them by. "So this is really it, huh? No packing, no goodbyes, just sit in a car and disappear until the prosecution?"
"It's better this way."
She turned on the heat. "Where are we staying?"
"At the Super 8 Laurel on Washington Boulevard."
He stopped to grab a bite to eat. She observed him as he drove, but he didn't force her to speak. He'd done this before, with families, but Witness Protection often helped people with a criminal past, people he didn't necessarily like. He'd never helped a girl because she was born into a family that consisted of criminals and murderers.
"Thank you," she said, wrapping arms around her legs. He glanced at her.
"It's my job."
She ate in silence the rest of the way. They checked in as Mr. and Mrs. Payne and paid in cash.
Isabella appeared to be unaffected by their sleeping arrangement as she dropped her bag on the double bed and took the toothbrush he'd bought. In the same calm manner, she accepted the changes needed to her appearance as he cut off her hair and gave her bangs. The rest barely touched her shoulders. Once they'd dyed her hair a sandy blonde, she sat on the bed with a towel around her bruised neck, staring at her new passport.
Emma Matthews, 25, from Lincoln, Nebraska.
Her hair had been photoshopped to look like it did now, but lighter. It seemed to have been done by a professional hand.
"We're married." Edward sat on the edge of the bed, giving her his passport. Anthony Matthews, 30, from Omaha, Nebraska.
"Straight to the point, huh." Her mouth quirked in a smile. "I'm glad I got to skip the wedding. I hate weddings."
He took off his shoes.
"Why married, though? Why not a sibling thing or a friend or whatever?"
"It's easier to get information should one of us be wounded or killed, easier to deal with legalities, easier to explain travelling together. It's just easier."
He opened his bag and put a binder in front of her. "This has all the information about your past. I've memorized everything, so you can have it until tomorrow night. Learn as much as you can about Nebraska. If you have any questions, ask."
The bedside lamp was on when he returned from shower. She'd drawn her knees close to her chest, and the binder was open in her lap but she was staring at a picture on the opposite wall. Watching her, he realized that no matter how drastically they changed her hair, her features were too striking. She had wide, strong eyebrows, a small mouth, and an athletic build. They could've done anything, and it wouldn't have been enough to fool anyone.
He realized he was in a pair of sweatpants when she caught his eye, but when she looked away, blush covering her cheeks, it struck him just how very young she was. It was easy to forget with the life she'd lived, with how smart she was and how calm she'd stayed through the evening. She'd taken the situation in stride.
"What happens tomorrow?" she asked, eyeing the binder until he'd pulled a T-shirt over his head. He sat on the bed beside her.
"We'll catch an early flight to Milwaukee and stay with a friend of mine until further notice."
She looked up, and he saw that her eyes were red-rimmed, but before he could comment, she looked in her lap.
"I don't want to talk about it."
Nodding, he offered her one of his T-shirts. She shut off the lamp and got changed as he separated the blanket from the bedspread and gave her the blanket. He left his gun on the bedside table.
"I don't think I'll sleep, but if I do and I get restless, a kick or a nudge will easily wake me. Whatever you do, don't hover over me when you try to wake me."
Her voice was soft but left no room for questions.
The silence that followed was only interrupted by the distant buzz of cars and the occasional murmur of human voices. He lay on his back, thinking over the preparations they'd made to make everything run as smoothly as possible. He knew she was awake from her breathing, but he didn't know how to soothe her. He'd seen criminals, decades older than her, freaking out and reconsidering their decision, needing constant assurance of the necessity of their decision to the point where they secretly contacted someone they knew and put their lives in danger or got themselves killed. Isabella, however, had handed over her mobile phone and watched with a sort of detached fascination as he took it apart and discarded it at the nearest gas station. She hadn't said a word.
He didn't know how to reassure a girl who hadn't questioned a single step of their plan. He'd been waiting for her to put up a fight, to ask to talk to Carlisle or refuse to cut off her hair. She'd done none of it.
"I'm sorry you didn't get to say good bye to your friends," Edward said.
She turned on her side. "I did."
"I left messages on their computers," she replied. "I know you know. You've been informed not to leave me alone with any technology in case I'm not as trustworthy as you've thought and use my hacking abilities to... make Carlisle's computer incapable of exiting a porn site."
He paused, blinking.
"I'm kidding, Edward."
"I think it's easiest if you call me Anthony. Makes it more natural in social situations."
"Okay," she replied, turning on her stomach but facing him. "Okay, Anthony. Tell me something about yourself, and I don't mean from that binder."
"It's better if you don't know."
"Better for who?" She sighed, wiping hair from her face. "Look, I'm pretty smart. Carlisle is one of the two people I trust with my life, and he handpicked you, which means you're probably pretty phenomenal. But a name can only do so much. I know that you know what happened to me. I know that you've seen that video footage. Now, it's your turn. Give me a reason to trust you."
He paused, turning his face to see her. He could've given her a thousand believable lies, but with this girl, it felt wrong to lie. He wanted her to trust him.
"What do you want to know?"
"Simple things. The truth. Your age, where you went to school, how many fake wives you've had, you know, normal stuff. And don't tell me it's easier for me not to know."
He couldn't make out much, but he could see her smile.
"I'm thirty three."
She made a face. "That's old."
"Thanks," he replied. "I graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia with a BA in Criminal Justice. I have a younger half-sister and a mother, both in Scranton. No ex-wives to worry about, fake or otherwise."
She hummed, and he thought she was going to tease him about being a commitment-phobe, but she didn't.
"Isn't it riskier to pretend to be my whatever than it would be to hire someone random? You're clearly in the system."
"The internet has been taken care of. Any result for any search engine will no longer associate my name with my face. All results will be for my name-sakes. And you're far too valuable to risk letting you spend the next months with just anyone, which is why I will be with you at all times until you testify."
She didn't say anything for a long while, but when she did, her voice, for the first time, sounded vulnerable to him.
"And after that?"
"It's too early to tell."
She fell silent.
He didn't think of himself as an irrational man, but looking at her eyes gleaming in the darkness, desperate to trust him, he was overwhelmed by tenderness and the need to keep her safe.
"Do you know why my brother wants me dead?" she whispered.
"You agreed to witness against him."
"No. Not really. I don't think it bothers him that much. My father, he—left everything to me, including his status as a drug lord. My brother is smart, but I'm smarter, and my father's employees would've been loyal to me if that had been what I'd chosen. It kills him that I'm an heiress to my father's shady throne."
"And what do you think happens now?"
"His followers will skin me alive once they find out, if they haven't already."
"I'll never let that happen."
He could see her teeth reflecting as she smiled, but said nothing. Edward checked the alarm on his phone before staring at the ceiling, clearing his head, knowing that Braswell and Whitlock were downstairs, keeping an eye out for them. They were safe to rest until the morning.
Instead of correcting her, he hummed, and Isabella rested her head on her palm, facing him. A lamp outside illuminated her face and he felt like he'd never seen one as exhausted as hers. The shadows under her eyes made her appear older.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I… if I ask you something, will you promise not to laugh? Even if your answer is no."
"After I… after my brother attempted to choke me, I've had trouble sleeping. I don't want to elaborate. But my roommate had a cousin over for two nights last weekend. She's four years old, she liked sleeping beside me, and holding my hand helped her sleep, but… it kind of helped me sleep, too, and—"
Edward stretched out his arm between them, palm up, and she put her hand in his. It was warm. He squeezed it, and she let out a breath.
"Thank you," she whispered, squeezing it back, closing her eyes. "Thank you."
"Of course," he answered, turning to be more comfortable while holding her hand. It felt intimate. It shouldn't have, but he couldn't help the feeling.
"We have an alarm set for 4:30. Try to get some sleep. You're safe."