Chapter 1 - Six months

Marshall closed his eyes, rubbing his throbbing forehead. He resisted the temptation to plug his ears with his fingers. The shouting coming from the next room could probably be heard down the street. His new witnesses were not happy to be here. Elizabeth and Timothy Prader. On the road to divorce by the sound of it. He sincerely wished he were on the road to divorce from this witness and his wife. Every time he met with them, it came down to this. Elizabeth was so angry at Timothy over his perceived betrayal she vibrated with rage, which percolated up through her vocal chords and emerged in decibel breaking shrieks. Marshall was a kind of trigger for that anger. A position with which he was unfamiliar.

He normally had a very good rapport with his witnesses. Elizabeth's open hostility towards him was difficult for him to accept. Served him right for thinking everyone liked him. He glanced over at his partner. Well, maybe not Mary, it was hard to tell with her. Some days she definitely didn't like him, but he thought there were some days she did. Or at least tolerated him.

And the day had started out so promising. Mary had been in a good mood, not something that could be counted on. She had actually brought in coffee for him and Stan. If one glossed over the fact that she wanted something, in this case for Marshall to complete some of her more tedious paperwork, it could almost seem like she had done something nice. Their first two witness visits went extremely well and Mary had even been agreeable to going to his favorite place for lunch. And then came the Praders.

Timothy had been cooking the books on the side for a low level mobster. Elizabeth believed he was an accountant for a small book store. Which he protested with great vigor that he was – this was just a second job. She resented the lies he had told her, she was angry over being torn from her family and her home, she was livid at Timothy for placing his family in danger. He had agreed to testify about the books and the money in exchange for witness protection. He thought he was doing this for his family, as a way to get out, a fresh start. Elizabeth did not see it quite that way. And Elizabeth had connected Marshall in her mind with her present situation. Marshall, who had escorted her away from her home, her life, without her agreement. It was Timothy who agreed to this, not me! Marshall, who had told her everything she had to give up. No, you can't bring your photos, your diplomas, your cell phone, your furniture, the rest of your clothes. Marshall, who wouldn't even let her say goodbye to her mother. I'm sorry Ma'am, it's not allowed. Every time he showed up her rage bubbled up to the surface and a fresh shouting match ensued. Marshall had come to dread his visits as much as Timothy had. But it was required. He had to check in on them. Like it or not, they were his responsibility.

He opened his eyes and watched Mary out of the corner of his eye, standing with her arms crossed over her chest, studiously examining the contents of the bookshelf by the fireplace. Didn't seem to be much bothered by the shouting. Or was simply tuning it out. Marshall wondered briefly if she had a lot of practice at that.

The Praders two year old daughter Evelyn, came toddling out of the bedroom where her parents were arguing, and made a beeline for Mary. She grasped her pants leg and cowered behind her, as her parents emerged from the bedroom. Mary looked down in surprise. Evie's trusting little face looked up at her, framed by strawberry blond curls Her mouth tightened as she brought her head up to glare at the Praders, Elizabeth still sniping at Timothy.

"Hey, numbnuts," she ground out, as Marshall winced. He was always taken aback at her crudity of language. "You're scaring your kid. And it's got to be bad, if she's looking to me for comfort. Get back in there and duke it out, get this resolved. I am tired of listening to it. Either you're in the program or you're not. Either you stay married or you don't. Elizabeth, if you hate it so much, divorce his sorry ass and leave. Figure it out. You're giving Marshall a headache and then he's cranky the rest of the day. And a cranky Marshall makes me cranky. Stop wasting our time. Figure this out. NOW."

They gave her startled looks and slunk back into the bedroom, closing the door. Evie clutched Mary's leg even tighter and began to suck her thumb. Marshall watched in some surprise as Mary's face softened and she bent down to pick Evie up. One wounded soul attracted to another? Carrying her over to the couch, she gave Marshall a tight smile. She sat down with Evie in her lap, listening with her full attention as Evie babbled about this and that. Marshall leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms, trying to reconcile the scene in front of him with the woman he had known for the last six months. Was amused at the thought of him making Mary cranky. Breathing made Mary cranky.

Their partnership had a rocky start. Marshall suspected all of Mary's partnerships had rocky starts. She had tried to exert control from the beginning and left no doubt she expected him to do as she said. Marshall's easygoing personality largely allowed it, but he made it clear he would push back when he believed in something strongly enough. A hint of a smile touched his lips as he recalled the day they met, Mary breezing into the office, stalking over to his desk, thrusting out her hand and giving a firm shake to a startled Marshall.

"Mary Shannon. I've been assigned to you. And if you do what I say, we'll get along fine." Mary had already given him a cursory once over and had clearly arrived at an opinion. Marshall had stared at her, quickly looked her up and down, then unfolded his tall frame from his chair. Still holding Mary's hand in his grasp, he straightened up to his full height and stood just inside what he judged to be her comfort zone. He tightened his hold on her hand, not letting go as she tried to back away and she was forced to look up at him. She had to tilt her head back uncomfortably to meet his eyes.

He held her gaze and said in a measured voice, "Marshall Mann. And I will be happy to do as you say if it is in the best interest of the witness. If it is not, I will take my own counsel." Emerald green eyes flashed at him and she opened her mouth, then shut it again. Grudging respect showed and she nodded.

"Fair enough. Can I have my hand back now?" He had released her with a genuine smile. During the ensuing months, they had arrived at a somewhat uneasy alliance, still feeling each other out. Mary just beginning to realize the depths of the man and Marshall gradually coming to understand just how much of Mary's prickly personality was a cover for deep seated hurts and fears. Both recognizing the level of competence and professionalism in the other.

Mary had never struck him as being particularly good with kids, but as he watched her with Evie, he could see a connection between them. As Evie cringed when her parents voices raised and Mary clasped her tiny body close to her, he began to wonder just how familiar this family situation was to her. Mary had never talked about her family, her upbringing. Maybe he needed to start asking a few questions. He had always believed in allowing people to divulge what they were comfortable with, but perhaps with Mary, a few nudges would be needed. He was frequently at a total loss to understand what drove her. And if he understood her better, he could be a better partner to her.

The tirade carried on and Evie eventually fell asleep in Mary's arms, the flimsy barrettes in her fine hair coming loose. Mary gently removed them and was stroking her silky head. Marshall came to sit down next to them.

"Jeez, Marshall. When is the trial? I don't know how much longer I can keep this up. Seems Elizabeth hates WitSec, hates Albuquerque and I think hates her husband. She certainly hates you. Maybe they can be relocated after the trial to somewhere more to their liking – and to ours," she muttered.

Marshall looked over at her with weary eyes. "We can only hope. The trial is in six months. And it will probably go on for weeks. It's not going to be pleasant." It was rare he felt this much distaste for a witness. This couple was sapping all his natural cheerfulness right out of him.

"Well, I hope they realize what they are doing to their little girl," she said darkly. Marshall gave her an assessing look and grunted his agreement. He noticed Mary's arm start to quiver from holding up the weight of Evie's head and reached around them to place a sofa pillow under Mary's elbow. Mary smiled her thanks, relaxing back with Evie's weight.

The Praders eventually emerged, both looking beat down and sullen. Marshall quickly asked the requisite questions, got monosyllabic answers and departed as quickly as possible, drawing a somewhat reluctant Mary with him. She was watching Evie with sharp eyes, as Elizabeth walked over to pick her up. Evie's big blue eyes tracked Mary over her mothers shoulder, and she raised one tiny hand in good bye.

After they left the Praders apartment and were on their way back to the office, Marshall looked over at his silent partner. Wondered what was going on in that complicated brain of hers. Refrained from asking. Shortly before he turned into the parking lot, she said in a low voice, "It was like a flashback to when Brandi used to hide behind me and cling to me." She didn't look at him. "We had a lot of 'uncles' growing up. There were always arguments. It scared Brandi." She didn't mention it scared her too.

Marshall looked at her and carefully asked, "How old were you?" Mary continued to gaze out the window, her hair falling over her cheek, hiding her expression.

"When Brandi was Evie's age, about ten."

Marshall was stunned. So Mary had been playing caretaker from a very early age. He knew she had a sister, she had mentioned something about her stupid sister's boyfriend once. Assumed Brandi was the sister. Wondered where her father was when she was a child. Looked at her stiff and tense body, arms crossed protectively across her chest, and didn't ask. She would tell him if she wanted him to know. He began to hope that one day she would want him to know.