A/N: Happy Birthday, BittenBee!

You are a wonderful, magnificent friend and I'm so happy to know someone as beautiful and special as you.

I had a rough idea of a bounty hunter from Dog the Bounty Hunter so I stayed away from that guy. I hope you like it :)

Um, I realized there probably aren't deserts in Washington after I wrote this all out and then put in Arizona. So if I missed a reference to that, forgive me.


Carlisle handed me my newest assignment. The manila envelope was thicker than usual, edges of notebook paper popped out from the well worn package. Several items shifted inside and the palms of my hands dampened in excitement as I pinched the metal clasps together, flipping the flap open to peek inside. I was like a kid on Christmas morning.

"Gentle," Carlisle hissed. "Have you overlooked the caution warning completely?"

I grunted and stuck my hand in, ignoring the paper that sliced my knuckles. The pain was pleasurable in a way, the breaking skin, the slight trickle of fluid that didn't give way to blood just yet. I pulled out a stack of photos and a pack of cigarettes. The pictures were blurry, the silhouette of a man caught by a gas station's faulty camera. The cigarettes were new, still wrapped and an expensive brand.

"So he hangs out at gas stations and smokes Parliaments? That could be any number of people within the south," I said, cocking my head to the side. I didn't usually get such vague information about a target.

Carlisle leaned back at his desk, his brow furrowed as he glared at the envelope in my hand. "Yes, well I haven't been able to get any information about him. He dyes his hair, tans his skin and wears different outfits everywhere he goes. Police have put cold cases on all of his victims."

My stomach jumped into my throat. "I don't have to bring him back alive?" I nearly shouted.

"I'd prefer if you brought him back alive, but if there's a possibility that he could slip through your fingers while trying to get him, well, it'd better if he was dead."

I flipped through the pictures, watching him peruse the cosmetics section before taking off quickly. It was like he could sense the police were on their way and bolted before getting caught. A separate section of photographs were paper clipped, the stack had a series of cars, all stolen and all different colors. The licenses were from different states, none of them matching in any way. He definitely knew how to successfully avoid police.

"How much is he worth?" I asked distractedly.

"Alive, roughly fifty grand from the bounty," I looked up, eyes wide. Carlisle sat back, elbows on the arm rests. "Of course I get my twenty percent. Dead he's worth around twenty, maybe twenty five. He's got a lot of enemies; I'm sure I could make some business and up the ante."

"Do it," I said quickly. "Any certain time frame I need to have him in custody by?"

"A month." Carlisle frowned, his mouth slanting downward and his brow furrowing. "He's got someone with him."

I tucked the envelope under my arm and cracked the knuckles of my left hand. "This is a hostage situation? Aren't the police usually in charge of these kinds of things?"

Carlisle ran a hand over his face. "This guy—James—he knows what he's doing, Edward." He looked at me seriously for a moment. "The reason you're on this is because the hostage he has with him is a police chief's daughter."

I dropped the file onto his desk, taking a step back. "Nuh-uh. Not happening. If there's a chance of police getting on my ass there's no way in hell I'm taking this."

"You've outrun them before." He slid the file back. "I can arrange some kind of temporary agreement with the local forces. The bounty on this one is just too high to not take on, and you're the best of the best at this, Edward."

I sniffed. "Flattering," I scoffed. "You do what you can to grant me protection and I'll take this on. But you only get fifteen percent of the bounty." His mouth popped open and hung slack. "I'm not budging on it. You can take my conditions or give this to someone else."

He spluttered for a few minutes and then threw the file at me. I grinned in triumph.

"You better get him alive," he snapped.

--

I was driving in a beat up car that didn't dare go over eighty and ate up gas like nobody's business. I managed to take off of a mechanic's hands before I left Carlisle's place. I only had a month before police were to 'shoot to kill' and the bounty would be called off completely. This wasn't some drug addict who didn't go in for court or report to their parole officer. I was after a cold blooded murderer.

The last place James Hunter had been spotted in was a gas station right on the edge of Texas and Mexico. I had that feeling, the one deep in my gut that told me he was still here, waiting for his chance to avoid police. It was something of an honor system among criminals like him, you don't border hop until it gets too close. Having a bounty on his head was something of a medal to show off; the fact that he had one was enough to put police in a state of unease. That was why I didn't work for them.

Freelancing my services was better for me. I'd been a cop once, long ago. I was crooked, put evidence where there was none in order to convict criminals I knew were guilty. I couldn't go after cases that weren't mine, couldn't pursue people without certain warrants and certainly couldn't use physical pain as a way of interrogation.

I got to Carlisle on a downward draft. He heard I was frustrated and didn't play by the rules and offered everything that I wanted. And more. The money and bribes were amazing. The amount someone would pay in order to get a crook was really something else. I would pick up homeless men, deliver them to someone and get a hefty sum in response. It wasn't my problem once the perp was out of my hands. I was too busy counting the cash.

The engine sputtered and I kicked under the steering wheel to get it to stop. The windows in the back wouldn't go down and I was sweating it out in the heat. The sooner I got to this gas station the sooner I could have something to drink and top off the gas.

Half an hour down the long road I'd been traveling on I finally found a large cardboard sign painted with neon orange letters reading, "Gas station two miles ahead."

One point eight miles down the desert-like road and I found myself pulling up to a dilapidated gas station. The roof above the gas tanks was slanted downward, wrapped in caution and duct tape as if covering it up would make the roof come back together.

I set my car next to the pump, watching as a little tan kid ran around, his shirt hanging from his pants and beads of sweat falling from his hair. I popped the door for him and he set to filling me up. I smiled at the kid and leaned against my car.

"Hey, mister," he said.

"Hmm," I hummed.

His chicken arms clenched as he held onto the pump. "What're you doing way out here? You're far off from anywhere out here."

I tugged my shirt away my skin, trying desperately to air out the sweat that had built up from hours in the car. The glaring sun didn't help. "I'm looking for someone. You might be able to help out."

"Oh yeah?" he asked eagerly.

"Do you remember the police coming by here a while ago?"

He cocked his head to the side, brows furrowing as he concentrated. "Yeah. There were a lot of them, all looking for this one guy." I pulled out the clearest picture I had of James Hunter at the gas station and then his mug shot from a few years back. The kid's eyes widened. "That's him!"

"Did you happen to fill up his tank when he stopped by?" I asked.

"Yeah, but he went straight inside. He was in with my dad if that helps. I just spoke to lady with him." He pulled the pump out and cleaned off the gasoline streaks.

I took out a notebook from the front seat and poised my pen on the page. "What did the woman with him look like? Did she tell you her name or where she was going?"

The kid nodded three times. "Said her name was Bella. She didn't tell me her last name or where she was going, but she gave me a note. She had long brown hair; I think it had been dyed at one point because she had blonde streaks in it." His brow furrowed once more. "She was really pale, too. That's weird for people around here. Her shoulders got all red and the guy wouldn't let her get sunscreen."

I wrote everything down quickly, messy scrawls and abbreviations marring the top of the page. "Do you still have the note she gave you?"

He nodded and cocked his head for me to follow him. A man at the counter of the store perked his head, eager for business. The kid held up a hand for me to wait and ran up maintenance stairs. While I waited for him I walked over the man at the counter, grabbing a few items as I went along.

"Is my son helping you with everything you need?" he asked. His blue shirt clung to his body like mine and he pulled it away, angling his back to the fan.

I pulled my wallet out as he started to ring up my purchases. "He's been more than helpful. But I'd like to know if you remember the police who came here before. They were looking for a man, probably interrogated you thoroughly about the whole thing."

He nodded placing his arms against the counter. "I'll tell you what I told them. He came in, looked around for a few minutes and left abruptly, didn't even look in my direction."

"What about the woman he had with him?"

"She was in the car the entire time—backseat if you really want to know." He glanced at his son as he bounded through the door and ran to the counter. "My son didn't talk to the cops. He was too shook up by the whole thing."

No wonder the police couldn't find any leads on Hunter, I thought.

The kid thrust the note into my hand, his father watching curiously. "She gave this to me. It's just a bunch of numbers and symbols."

I flipped open the note, scanning my eyes over the frantic writing that done in some kind of grease or makeup. The numbers were smudged but I recognized them as hotel and apartment directions. He was still in the states, in the one over.

I folded the note, tucked it into my front pocket. "You didn't show this to the police?" I asked.

He shook his head, eyes focused on my pocket. "No, but I still want it back."

I grabbed my plastic bag of supplies and smiled at the kid, shaking my head as I left. He yelled after me, and then his father. I got into my car quickly and took off, dropping a twenty out of my window for gas.

--

Carlisle answered fast enough when I dialed his number. "What news do you have?" he demanded.

I pulled out one of the parliaments, letting it dangle between my fingers as I stared at it. "I stopped by the gas station James Hunter was last seen at. The kid there had some pretty good leads for me."

Cradling the phone between my shoulder and cheek and I lit the cigarette, steering the car with my knees. The sun was an hour away from setting but it was still hot as hell. Why did he have to travel through a desert? Why couldn't a car with air conditioning be on sale?

"The kid?" Carlisle asked. "The police reports I got only stated the owner as a witness. There was never any record of a kid there…." I could hear the sounds of paper shuffling as he dug through the files I knew were lying on his desk.

"The kid didn't speak at the time. I don't think his father knew that he'd been anywhere near Hunter or the female hostage. She slipped him a note, though." Carlisle gasped in shock. "Her name's Bella, it's gotta be short for something, can you figure it out?"

"Yes, of course!" he exclaimed. "Did he tell you anything else? What did the note say? There was never any record of her being in contact with anyone besides Hunter."

"The note has numbers for hotels within Arizona. He's been leading trails out toward Mexico to push all the forces south, but he's still here. It's hard to travel with an extra body and he needs to take precautions."

I took in a deep drag of the cigarette; let the creamy smoke slide down my throat until I coughed it out. I spit out through the window and dropped it on the road. Nasty expensive cigarettes.

"What hotels?" Carlisle asked, bringing me back to our conversation. "Give me the names and I'll run it through to see if he's staying under a fake name."

"I'm stopping by North Mountain Motel. She wrote in symbols but I think that's where she's hinted at. If not there, it could be Blue Mountain Apartments. Just check the whole area and ask the managers." He made an affirmative noise. "Hey, Carlisle?"

"Yeah?" he mumbled distractedly.

"There wouldn't happen to be a bounty on the girl's head, would there?"

He chuckled. "No. She's a hostage, remember? But she can't stay with him…."

I brought the speed up from seventy to eighty and stuck my hand out window. "I understand."

--

North Mountain Motel was God awful. It was the pits. It was like hell with a trash problem.

I took pictures of every car in the lot and all the room numbers. Once I had photographic evidence I attached a small camera on the roof of my car right beside the antenna. Two more were placed on a telephone pole facing in opposite directions. I checked out the surrounding area, crawling on my hands and knees as I looked under cars and searched for any kind of surveillance he might have set up.

Once I finished with the parking lot I went inside the motel and dropped a recorder in the plant by the front door. If he did end up being here I would be able to at least determine a location and travel destination.

The bald sweating man at the front desk demanded only that I pay in cash before handing me my key, explaining that if I wanted breakfast I'd have to be up before eight and that there was a pool out back.

I kept my eyes open as I made my way down the sidewalk to the room walkway. There was no sign of anyone else outside beside a few muted lights from four other rooms. I focused on the windows as I walked by, peeping inside for any sign of movement.

And elderly couple was in one. They were arguing and the male had a flannel shirt on with a fishing hat. He held a suitcase and was threatening to leave her there if she didn't stop of accusing him of cheating. I crept away before I got dragged in and headed for my room, checking once more to see that my cameras were still in place.

The room was small and dank. It smelled like piss and the light bulbs were dim. I used the bathroom and as I washed my hands and face my phone began to ring in the other room.

"Carlisle," I answered.

"He's in the area," he said quickly. "I'm not sure if he's staying there, the motel doesn't have any electronic files. You need to check out the rooms—but not draw attention to yourself. He's a professional runner, Edward. He knows what he's doing."

I arched backward, trying to get the knot out from sitting all day. "Yeah, yeah. I know what I'm doing."

He took a breath for the rebuttal but I cut him off before he could try to plant doubt in my head. I pulled my shirt away from my skin and tried to find a fan or air conditioning unit in the room. In the closet a two bladed fan was propped against the wall. I sighed and picked it up, plugging it in to try and circulate the muggy atmosphere. I left while it did its job to survey the area again.

The couple was still arguing, the yelling had decreased but the door was open, making the quiet arguments louder. The trunk of the car was open, packed bags stacked and ready to leave. I shook my head and skirted around the mess.

The drapes to every room were drawn while the tenants slept. A few windows were open to allow whatever breeze came along to bring them relief. Looking around I stuck my head inside, finding two small children on either side of their mother.

The motel was a ghost town with nothing more than the quiet sounds of desert bugs chirping.

I sighed as I rounded a corner. A machine let off a mechanic buzz and I hope for an ice machine as I got closer. The pool gate was keeping me from relief and I hopped it easily. Sure enough a beat up ice maker was gulping as ice cubes fell inside of it. I nearly sprinted to it as it came into sight. I foolishly forgot to check my surroundings.

"Hey!"

I turned quickly, eyes wide at the loud voice. I first saw the brunette sitting on a side of the pool. She'd rolled up her pants to let her legs dangle in the water, kicking away roaches as they floated over. She had a dirty tank top on with dirt smears and blood around the collar. Her eyes were wide—scared.

"Hey, buddy. What're you doing here?"

I pulled my eyes away from her and found myself looking at a dirty blonde with nearly orange skin. Carlisle was right about the fake tanning. He was sitting on one of the chairs, obviously watching his victim as she relaxed from the heat. I seemed to have ruined the calm setting.

I swallowed to remove the lump of pleasure that had formed in my throat. "I was just looking for the ice machine, man," I said as I hitched my thumb in the direction of the humming lump of metal.

He nodded tightly and glanced quickly at the girl. She pulled her feet up, the concrete darkening as she stood and grabbed her shoes. James Hunter stood from his chair and strode quickly past me. My whole body locked to attack as he walked by. I was less than five feet from fifty thousand dollars. I reached into the waist of my jeans and grasped the handle of my gun.

James grabbed the girl's arm. She squeaked and pulled away but he had her pinned against his side. His arm moved and I knew what was going on. I'd seen dozens of hostage situations before. Each was the same. The perp would pull out a gun when he felt threatened.

I released my gun and waited until they rounded the corner before running after them. I slid against the wall of the building, following with my eyes as he pulled her into a room without turning on the lights.

I watched room eleven for two hours before cautiously heading back to my room.

--

I spent the night at my window with the lights off, watching room eleven. I needed to get Bella alone and she would help me get past James's defenses. If she could slip a note without him noticing then she could help me catch him off guard.

I was falling asleep by the time six in the morning rolled around. Movement by the window caught my attention. Bella threw up the screen and leaned out, taking a deep breath of the cool morning air. I dug out my camera and snapped a couple quick pictures, sending them to Carlisle as quickly as I could.

She went back inside the room and opened the door. I heard James bark something at her and she stopped, turning her head a fraction to look at him. He was right behind her, hand firmly holding the base of her neck.

I threw the things on my lap onto the bed and left my room, trailing a safe distance behind the pair. God, I was so close. I could just come up, put him in a headlock and knock him unconscious. I drew in a shaky breath while trying to conceal my excited smile.

The main building had wide open doors for breakfast. My mouth watered and my stomach grumbled as I neared. James released her neck as they entered and took a seat at one of the tables, watching her as she gathered food. The bastard sure knew how to keep his victim within sight.

A waitress came up, placing coffee cups on the table. She unabashedly flirted with him and to my surprise he hit on her. I glanced over at Bella who was piling hash browns on her plate. She licked her lips and I walked in, slow and calm.

I kept my focus on James out of the corner of my eye but otherwise tried not to acknowledge him. The hand in my removed pocket held a gun strapped to my thigh.

Bella glanced up quickly, eyes darting to James. I grabbed a plate and deposited food onto it, not really looking at what I picked. She audibly swallowed beside me and I read the table of contents on a box of cereal.

"Bella, I need you to be calm," I murmured without moving my lips.

"Oh God, oh God, oh God," she chanted under her breath.

"Bella," I said firmly. "You need to look like this is nothing. Slide down, grab some eggs and don't focus on me. Just listen."

She slid down, grabbed a tong full of scrambled eggs and began to neatly arrange them around her other food. I put down the box of cereal and moved in the opposite direction.

"Right now I need to get you away from him, but I assume he's always got a trained gun on you, right?"

"Knife," she whispered quietly. "Four inch steak knife on his right leg, pistol on the left. He has license plates on his chest for protection."

She move down again and I grabbed onto the gun in my pocket again. I didn't doubt that he had that pistol aimed and ready to shoot if necessary. I should have worn a vest. Though it wouldn't have done me any good but a guaranteed shot. It was too hot to wear bullet proof clothing.

"You need to get away from him. We need to get you away from him and then you need to help me get him," I said, sliding closer to her as I spoke. I could see James ready to jump out of his seat, the waitress was trying to regain his attention but he was done with her.

"He's coming, before you leave see if there isn't a way to be without him, even for a moment. I'll be watching." As I finished speaking James rose from his seat and came up beside Bella. His hand was back on her neck, grabbing as he pulled her closer to him.

"I think that's enough food. You don't wanna throw it all up on the car ride." She didn't have time to protest before he yanked her back and walked out of the dining hall in the direction of the motel rooms.

I left as well, ignoring the waitress who was yelling after the two who hadn't paid for the food and then myself. I hid behind a wall as James looked over his shoulder, no doubt watching for me as I was watching him.

I stuffed bacon in my mouth as he threw Bella into the room and locked the door. He began to hit the windowsill until the metal was so warped it couldn't be opened. Smart bastard.

He ran to the car, constantly checking to see if anyone dared to get near the door and soon was out of the lot. Of course he wouldn't park here. Smart money would be further out where cops couldn't find the car and he wouldn't have his belongings looked through.

I ran to the room, turning the knob and banging on the door. "Bella! Can you hear me?"

"Yes! Get me out of here!" she screamed. "He burned the metal on this side and I can't open it!"

I put my palms against the door and looked back toward the road. I had probably less than thirty seconds to get the door down. Window would be too risky. If she crawled through and got caught I had no disinfectant and if she got sick there'd be no helping me.

"Move away from the door, Bella," I yelled and shouldered the flimsy wood. It would break it in the middle, but around the lock….

I jammed my shoulder into the wedge between the frame and the door. It cracked but didn't break. I kept at it until I heard her shout the same thing at me. I moved away from the frame and blanched as a chair leg came through, followed by another until a good sized hole had formed. Her panicked scratches at the door were quieted by the sounds of a car squealing around the corner.

I reared back and saw Bella's frantic beating at the door. She began to shoulder it as I had and her arm came through. Her screams were loud and drawing attention. James threw the car in my direction unstopped by the civilians that were now lining the walkways to watch as he manically tried to run me down.

"Oh, fuck, Bella stay in there!" I yelled at her.

She screamed again. "What the hell do you mean? Get me out of here!"

I lunged behind a car and he swerved around in a fishtail to change direction without damaging his car. I took off in a sprint, pulling out my gun and cocking it. I stopped by an open door to a room where the elderly couple stood in astonishment. Taking aim at the tires, I shot once, twice and the third time I managed to hit the front driver's side. James swore loudly and stuck his arm out, gun in hand.

With the shots fired everyone ran back into their room and I was inside with the elderly couple watching as James threw himself from the car and sprinted to the door. He shot the lock to the door and it flew open. I sat on the floor, only the sounds of my breathing to disturb the suddenly violent silence.

He was right outside the entryway. I could feel his cautious glare as he waited to make his move, probably hoping I'd jump out and attack first. I crouched closer to the floor and set my gun at knee length.

I could see his shadow. He was there, his breathing shook his whole frame and his gun cast an ominous shadow across the gravel. I couldn't kill him but I sure as hell could injure him.

The elderly woman sobbed and James ran in, his gun pointed directly at me. He shot and hit my shoulder, narrowly missing my neck. I hit his shin, off kilter by his blow. He screamed as the bullet penetrated bone and made a sickening sound. He didn't stay to shoot me once more, instead he ran back to the car on his broken and bleeding leg. As he made it to the car Bella broke the door and fell onto the dirt.

He looked at her, then at his leg and lifted his arm with the gun. Bella looked up, eyes wide as she saw the barrel of his pistol.

I held up my gun. "Don't you fucking move!"

He looked up at me and smiled through his breathlessness. "Afraid I'll kill her?" he asked in a cocky tone.

I cocked my gun. "Go ahead," I shouted. "I need you alive, not her."

Bella stood up on shaky legs, not flinching as James's gun steadied on her. She brushed off her pants, cheeks blotchy and eyes watering.

"Screw this," she said. "Go ahead and shoot me, James!" She threw her arms out, making a generous target. "Kill me already. You're been threatening to do it for months so go ahead and shoot me. Right when I think I'm getting help," she sneered, looking at me, "it turns out I'm not even worth saving."

James lowered his gun and quickly held it to his own head. "Shoot at anything and I'll kill myself. Ain't no way I'm going back to police, man. I'll stay on the lamb for the rest of my life before I get fucked over again."

I slowly brought down my gun and with every second it went down he brought his away.

He slid into the car, front tire still missing and leg still gushing blood. As he started up the car James held his gun out again, not stalling as he shot at Bella. It hit her in the side and she fell back to the ground in shock.

I brought my gun back up, shot four times in quick succession, and nailed him in the skull. The windshield shattered into a million little pieces and blood splattered against the roof of the car. The ground was painted in tiny crystal crimson pieces in the most horrific jigsaw puzzle.

I hauled myself up and walked over to Bella, no one stopping me as I went. She was crying on the ground, not so much in pain as it was relief. She looked miserably relieved.

"Thank you," she sobbed.

"Yeah, yeah," I grunted as picked her up. She whimpered as her side bent in my arms but relaxed soon enough.

I put her in the car, cell phone poised at my ear as Carlisle's phone rang. She clung to my side in the car, eyes trained on James's limp, dead body as if it would come back to life. There was no such thing as the headless horseman, though.

"You'll be okay," I said to her. "You'll go home soon enough and—"

"No," she said quietly.

"Excuse me?"

"No. I'm not going home. He got me there, when I was sleeping in bed. I'm not going back. I'm staying with you and you're protecting me."

"I'm not a babysitter and you're not a baby. You're going back home, Bella. Your dad is looking for you and—"

She sat up, looking around frantically as I pulled out from the motel. I wasn't sure if the bounty counted if I left the scene without any evidence. I damn sure wasn't waiting around for police.

"No," she repeated, fingers wrapping around my arm. "I'm staying with you. I don't care."

Carlisle picked up his phone, immediately filling me in with useless details. "Hey, shut up for a minute," I sighed. "I need you to arrange a ride home and medical attention for two."

"You and James?" he asked in a hopeful tone.

"No. Me and Bella. Set up a place for her, alright?" I listened for half a minute while he screamed in my ear before I hung up and threw the phone in Bella's lap, instructing her to ignore it.

She started to cry as we hit the open road. "Thank you."

"Please, don't mention it."


A/N: Happy birthday my dear. I hope you have a good one, even if you're sick.

Boutyward isn't much of a romantic, but I would like to continue it if I get the chance :)