The defense attorney’s annoying, nasally voice rings out pompously for what seems like an eternity before the district attorney finally jumps to his feet with a disgusted “Objection, Your Honor. Badgering the witness.” Took him long enough. The look of distress on Indigo’s face has my stomach clenching. Knight looks ready to commit murder. Fuck.
The courtroom is packed with people. Billed as the most newsworthy story of the year, people have flocked to the bail hearing of William Armatrout III – so many people, in fact, they’ve had to turn a number of them away.
Yesterday, the guys and I gave evidence against the bastard being granted bail. Today is Indigo’s turn, and we’re all here to support her. After being blackmailed and terrorized by this psychopath for years, the last thing we want is for him to be back out on the streets and risk him coming for her again.
The woman seated next to me moves restlessly on the wooden bench, probably trying to get comfortable. Can’t say I blame her; the damn things get harder as the day wears on. She lifts her head at the same time I turn to look at her, our eyes connecting, and I feel the impact as if it were a physical blow.
They say it’s clichéd to describe someone as having doe eyes, but in this instance it’s too accurate to describe them any other way. Large and luminous, her brown eyes invite you to come on in and get lost in them. I’m hard-pressed to decline the invitation.
A cough from somewhere behind us breaks the spell. She smiles shyly before looking away. Shaken by my reaction to this stranger, I turn to face forward again but see nothing as my mind churns to process what the hell just happened. I get so lost in my thoughts I miss the judge calling a recess. It’s only as people around me start getting to their feet that Dutch leans over and whispers, “Recess, dude.”
“Thanks. I missed that.”
His snort of laughter precedes his words. “Yeah, I kinda got that when you didn’t move.”
The guys are on their feet waiting for me when I feel a soft touch on my arm. Turning, I find it’s Doe Eyes. “I’m sorry to trouble you, but I was wondering if I could have a word with you outside?”
Weird. What could she possibly want to talk to me, a complete stranger, about? “What about?” The words come out far more abruptly than I intended. “Sorry, that was rude. It’s just, I don’t know you and have no idea what you could possibly want to talk to me about.”
“Sure, I can understand that. It’s not anything terrible, perhaps a little out of left field, but it would be easier to talk outside where there’s less noise, and it’s not so crowded.”
“Fair enough.” I consider for a moment and decide, what the hell? It can’t hurt. “Give me a second.”
I turn back to Dutch and the others. “You guys go on ahead. I’ll catch up in a bit.”
With a frown, he asks, “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, all good. Just gonna have a quick chat with …” I wait for the woman to give her name.
It takes a minute, and then she realizes we’re waiting for her. “Agatha. Agatha Traeger.”
Dutch gives her a thorough study before grinning. “Pleasure, Agatha. We’ll be out in the hall over by the water fountain when you’re done.”
Nodding, I turn my attention back to Agatha. It’s my chance to study her, taking her in from head to toe. Not the biggest human in the nation, but we’ve learned never to underestimate anyone based on size.
“Lead the way.”
I follow her out into the hall and almost run her over as she stops suddenly. She scans the crowded hallway before taking off again, headed for the exterior doors. Out front is far less crowded and noisy; I can actually hear myself think out here.
Picking out a spot to stand out of the flow of foot traffic, Agatha’s silent. Finally, I ask, “So, what did you want to speak to me about?”
Clearly not expecting it, she jerks, clapping a hand over her heart. “Oh. Sorry. I kind of got lost in thought there for a minute.”
“I noticed,” I reply, snorting at her words.
“Sorry about that. Um, so … see, here’s the thing. I heard your testimony yesterday. You mentioned you’re a sniper–”
Everything goes on alert at her words. The conversation has barely begun, and I’m already uncomfortable with the direction its going. I don’t know this woman, what could me being a sniper have to do with anything relating to her?
“What’s that got to do with–”
“Just give me a moment to finish, and it’ll all become clear. It’s nothing nefarious, I promise.” Neither happy nor appeased by her words, I gesture for her to continue.
“Like I said inside, my name is Agatha Traeger. I’m an author – romantic suspense – and the current story I’m researching and outlining is about a sniper. I was wondering if you’d be willing to do an interview with me?”
No matter how innocent or doe-eyed this woman appears, I don’t know the first thing about her. She’s wanting to interview me about something that’s important to me, an integral part of who I am. I have no idea what her endgame is, what she’ll actually do with any information I might potentially give her, and that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t even know if it would be sanctioned by my commanding officer.
Without hesitation, I reply, “I’m sorry but I’m unable to assist you.”
She studies me for an uncomfortably long moment. “You’re unable or unwilling?” she asks baldly.
“Either way, I can’t help you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, ma’am, I have people waiting for me.” With a last suspicious look, I walk away to join my teammates.
I find the guys exactly where Dutch said they’d be.
“Hey, dude. Where you been? You disappeared quick enough with that rather lovely lady you were seated next to.” Scooter wiggles his eyebrows, a grin splitting his face.
“Bite me, jackass. She was just looking for information I can’t give her. End of discussion.” To deflect any further questions, I ask, “So, what did I miss?”
“Nothing. We’re just shooting the breeze while we wait for court to resume. Worrying about Indigo. She looked pretty traumatized after that low-life sleaze of Armatrout’s had hold of her,” he replies.
“Asshole. You guys shoulda just let me end him while we had the chance, instead of arresting his slimy ass,” Bear all but growls in frustration. “What if the bastard gets bail?”
“Then we’ll make sure he doesn’t get anywhere near her again.” Gator adds his two cents.
Just then, the bailiff calls the end of recess, and we make our way back into the courtroom.
I wait to see if the woman will be bold enough to take her seat beside me, and yip, bold as brass she does. Hats off to her for having the stones to do so after I blew her off, and grudgingly, I feel respect for her tenacity. She even gives me a hesitant smile before facing forward again during the balance of testimony.
When the last witness has been badgered and subtly intimidated, the judge calls another short recess to deliberate his decision. The fact that it takes less than twenty minutes is worrying, and I have a sick feeling in my stomach I know where its headed.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I know it’s been a long day. So I’ll keep my judgment short and to the point.” The judge clears his throat, and the court collectively braces for his ruling. “Having gone over the facts presented by the witnesses over these last few days, as well as the case presented by the applicant, it was a clear cut, yet difficult decision to make.
“While it is abundantly clear that the majority of the witnesses who appeared before me suffer from trauma of one kind or another, and that it was suffered at the hands of Mr. Armatrout, there is no tangible evidence that ties any of these allegations to him.
“Our legal system’s success relies on sticking to solid evidence that can be verified. Failing this, the system fails. It is based on this lack of substantiable evidence, I find I am unable to make any other ruling than to grant Mr. Armatrout bail–”
He doesn’t even get a chance to complete his sentence before chaos descends. The judge bangs his gavel, and his bailiff calls for silence in the courtroom. When finally the room returns to a restless silence, he once again clears his throat.
“Order will be maintained in my court, or I will have the room cleared. Am I clear?” He waits a moment, I’m assuming for his words to sink in. “Now, as I was saying, based on a lack of substantiated evidence, I am forced to grant Mr. Armatrout bail. Bail is set at five million dollars, and you are to turn in your passport in. Court is adjourned.”
The judge gathers up his things and exits the room as the gallery erupts once again. My eyes track to where Indigo’s sitting, her expression the same as I’ve seen on bomb victims. Her glazed eyes beseechingly fix on Knight, and I can feel my own heart clench. I’d have to have a heart of stone not to be affected by it.
As one, our team of brothers and I surround them in support, all thoughts of Ms. Agatha Traeger forgotten.
Photos scattered across the table telling a story of gruesome atrocities have me recoiling in horror. The mass grave is nauseating, but it’s the sight of a tiny hand clutching a handful of material of the person holding them that breaks me. A silent sob catches in my throat.
Trapped in a nightmare recounting the visual horror story, I can’t seem to wake up. Stuck in a twilight zone somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, I’m aware it’s only a dream but unable to fight my way back to consciousness.
The ringing of my cell phone finally snaps me out of my no-man’s land, and I come fully awake, drenched in perspiration, grief bubbling beneath the surface. Taking a moment to gather myself, I check the display and see it’s my personal assistant.
I don’t have it in me to deal with her right now, so I leave the call to ring to voicemail, hauling myself out of bed instead. From experience, I’ve discovered the best way to deal with a nightmare hangover is to stay busy.
I strip the bedding off my bed and carry it through to the laundry room. Once I’ve loaded it into the machine, I add my wet pajamas to the wash and start the washer before hopping into a refreshing shower.
By the time I’m done showering, dressing, and doing my makeup, I’m feeling less rattled and more able to face the day. My first cup of coffee firmly clutched in my hand, I settle at my desk to get some writing done. Because this book sure as hell isn’t going to write itself.
When the traumatic impact of my work as a crime reporter forced me to retire from journalism, I embraced my dream of writing crime fiction instead. My years as a journalist amassed me a wealth of experiences to draw from in crafting my stories, and for the most part, I love that I get to write fiction for a living.
There are days, though, I regret choosing to “write what I know.” Days like today, when the things I’ve seen haunt me, and I can’t seem to find my equilibrium. When the fear, pain, and sheer hopelessness of the victims I encountered weigh heavily on me.
Shaking the morbid thoughts off, I sip on my coffee, savoring that first hit of caffeine. I soak in the silence, allow it and the incredible view of the ocean from my home office to soothe my disquiet.
Just as I turn my attention back to my manuscript, contemplating what happens next, my cell phone rings again. Loud in the silence. Seeing my assistant’s name on the screen again, I connect the call.
“Good morning, Tigs. How’s it going?”
“Good, thanks, hon. You?”
“Same.” I can hear the smile in her voice. Toni’s probably the most bubbly, upbeat, optimistic person I know.
“How’s the book coming?”
“It’s coming along. I’m currently researching snipers and sniping for the storyline, but it’s taking a little longer than anticipated.”
“I was hoping I could find one to interview. No luck so far though. I thought I had a lead a couple of days ago, but it proved to be a dead-end.”
“Oh. I didn’t know you were at that point already. I have a contact at the naval base, a family friend, who’s sure to have someone we can talk to amongst the teams he commands. Let me reach out to him and see what I can organize.”
“You’re a rock star, Toni. What would I do without you?”
“Good thing you don’t ever have to find out, no?”
“That’s for sure.”
“All right, sweets, I’m going to let you get back to it, and I’ll see what I can organize for you. I’ll be in touch.”
The sexy sniper from the courthouse the other day pops into my mind. A pang of disappointment has me sighing. Observing him interact with his teammates and seeing how protective he was of the woman with them, the intensity of his gaze when we talked out front of the building, I can’t deny missing that in my life.
I’m blessed with my circle of friends – as the saying goes, quality over quantity — but with the long hours I work and the constant travelling I used to do, a relationship was never something I fostered.
It never felt right to expect someone to be waiting for me to come home from my travels, or to be thankful for any spare time I could give them between assignments and deadlines. But there’s no denying the yearning for someone to treat me the way those men treated that woman.
While it was obvious she was with one of them, the other five men were still pretty attentive and protective, ensuring she was all right at all times. When Armatrout was given bail, it was incredible to see them close ranks, keeping her at the heart of their group and everyone away from her.
The whole thing pulled at the romantic in me. Yes, I picked the very antithesis of romance in my career, but it doesn’t mean the heart of a romance addict doesn’t beat within me. I simply chose to champion the abused by highlighting their plight through my writing. And since crime is what I knew, that’s the genre I stuck with when transitioning from non-fiction to fiction.
But days like today, I deeply regret my career choice. Maybe I should have tried my hand at writing romance after all. Not that I truly believe it would eliminate the nightmares that still haunt me. I’m just grateful they’re far fewer now.
Coffee. That’s what I need to help me out of the funk this morning. Coffee and the escape of crafting a story. Grabbing my mug, I dash to the kitchen to get myself cup number two before seating myself back at my desk to lose myself in the story I’m writing.
After a solid fifteen minutes of staring at the blinking cursor on my monitor, I push back from my desk in disgust. Obviously more rattled by the bad dreams than I was willing to admit, I realize there’ll be no words until I can center myself.
The beach is the best place for soothing the soul and quieting the mind. And that’s where I’m headed, I decide, so I grab my flip-flops and keys before I head for the elevators. Exiting on the ground floor of my building, I make my way down to the beach just across the street.
In a matter of minutes I’m on the well-maintained strip of sand. Shoes in hand, I start walking, already feeling the magic at work within me. My mind starts to calm, and the ragged edges smooth. Taking a deep breath, I take the fresh sea air into my lungs and exhale the lingering anxiety.
Setting my sights on a rock formation some distance away, I walk toward it while I work on clearing my mind. By the time I reach it, I’m feeling a million times better. Slower this time, I make my way back before flopping down on the sand to watch the ebb and flow of the waves.
With no time to track it, I have no idea how long I’ve been sitting enjoying the tranquility when I’m overtaken by a feeling of being watched. Carefully, I scan all around me, trying my best not to seem as if I am, but see nothing out of the ordinary. I’m literally the only person there.
The sensation makes me comprehend how vulnerable I am with no one else about, so I get to my feet and head for home. This time, I pay attention to everything around me as surreptitiously as possible, but get back to my building still not having seen anything or anyone suspicious. By the time I let myself into my condo though, I have an idea for what comes next in the book.
Without delay, I hurry to my office and sit down to flesh out my idea, finally losing myself in the words. Time flies by, and it’s only when my stomach growls in loud protest that I come back to reality to find I’ve missed lunch. Not having eaten breakfast either, it’s no wonder I’m ravenous.
I check my phone for messages while I eat and see I have one from Toni letting me know she’s been in touch with her contact, and he’ll get back to her with details as soon as he’s spoken to his sniper.
Dashing off a quick thank you, I sit back and contemplate a list of questions I want to ask to ensure not only accuracy in my writing but dealing with the topic sensitively. Rated one of the most stressful careers, I can only begin to imagine the emotional burden these brave souls carry.
Thoughts of this as yet unknown person run through my head as I eat an early dinner. I can’t help but wonder what they’ll be like. Unbidden, an image of the man I met at court comes to mind – Jessen Ambrose, if I remember correctly.
I’m guessing the man’s somewhere around the six-foot mark, luscious dark hair cut short, and muscles that tell you he takes his job seriously. The beard and mustache he sports are neatly trimmed, spotlighting his totally kissable mouth. Pity I couldn’t convince him to talk to me.
Finished eating, I rinse my dishes and pop them into the dishwasher before I go back to work. Thoughts of the aloof SEAL sparking ideas for a scene, it isn’t difficult to get lost in the rhythm again.