Deathwatch (Broslin Creek: Book 1)

The only person who can identify the most notorious hit man in the country, Kate Bridges is running for her life. Murphy Dolan is in the Army Reserves, returning from his 2nd tour of duty, only to find a stranger hiding in his house. She's scared spitless. He's completely burned-out on violence. Neither of them has any trust left to give.

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Chapter One

Kate Bridges thought attending her own funeral would be the hardest part.

The California sun radiated merciless heat on the Spanish-style church and its parking lot on the outskirts of Los Angeles, but the inside of the chapel always stayed cool. Friends and family filled the first pews. Their dark clothes, bent heads and slumped shoulders stood in sharp contrast to the vibrant saints in the stained-glass windows who did their best to surround the mourners in a gentle embrace of light.

Kate’s mother clutched a black scarf around her shoulders as she stared forward, red-eyed, wedged between Kate’s father and her sister while the clear notes of “Amazing Grace” floated from the organ.

Outside, the parking lot stood silent. The white FBI van, parked a dozen cars down from the flower delivery van, had been painted with pink roses. To a casual observer, the two vehicles looked identical. Nothing in the deserted lot seemed out of place.

Inside the FBI van, Kate watched the service through closed-circuit cameras under Agent Cirelli’s wary eye. Two rows of monitors displayed live footage from a dozen hidden cameras in the chapel, the images a little grainy but the audio perfect, transmitting her grieving mother’s soft sobs as clearly as the sermon.

Kate’s heart twisted, a sharp jab of pain in the middle of her chest. “This is a mistake. I can’t. Nobody should have to go through this. I want to tell them now.”

The forty-something agent glanced over, her sharp eyes the color of gunmetal. “In a little while.”

Her meticulous charcoal suit stood in stark contrast to Kate’s “comfort jeans” and her slightly irregular, homemade Christmas sweater. It might not have been what the average person would pick for a funeral in July, but if she ever needed her lucky sweater, this was the time.

“How much longer?” Kate rubbed her fingertips over the uneven rows of yarn. She’d never meant to cause her family pain.

But Cirelli, a hand on her earpiece, was focused on whatever information she was receiving from the rest of her team. They all reported in at regular intervals.

Inside the chapel, the stout young priest stepped behind the open casket that held a wax replica of Kate Bridges’s body. “In this time of despair, beloved, let us remember…”

Kate bit her lip as her gaze focused on the open white coffin. A shiver ran down her spine, disjointed thoughts racing through her brain as she stared at the wax replica of herself. “Do you think it looks real?”

The agent tapped her earpiece, muting her mike for a moment. “They put on plenty of makeup. The face is a little off, but it’s what people would expect after an accident like that.”

Kate gave an uncertain nod. The head-on collision with the tree had been brutal. That part hadn’t been faked. She had a broken collarbone to prove it, in addition to myriad cuts and abrasions that covered her upper body, courtesy of the shattered windshield.

What her family and friends inside the chapel didn’t know was that the crash hadn’t been an accident. She’d driven straight into that live oak because her car window had been shot out, the bullet coming within an inch of her face.

She didn’t remember hitting the tree or what happened immediately after. She’d been unconscious when the ambulance had taken her to the hospital. According to the FBI, the fact that she’d looked dead from afar had probably saved her life.

So the FBI decided to leave her dead, to make sure no more bullets came looking for her. The whole situation seemed as far-fetched as a Hollywood movie. And her only wish was that, like most Hollywood movies, the day would come to a happy ending.

Kate shifted in her seat as she watched. A blue sling supported her left arm, her shoulders in a figure-eight brace to stabilize her broken collarbone. She was in rough shape, but not rough enough, thank God, for a funeral.

The agent said, “Shouldn’t be long now,” in a sure, crisp tone. “He’ll come, we’ll get him, then you can go and tell your family why we had to do this. They’ll understand.”

Kate swallowed her doubts. Yet what other choice did she have? “I suppose this is what happens when you’re the only person who can identify the most wanted hit man in the country.”

“It’s all good,” Cirelli reassured her. “This is our first real break since we’ve been looking for Rauch Asael. All these years, we had little more than his list of aliases and his hit list. Now we have you,” she said with a smile that said Kate should somehow be happy about this.

Yay for me, a witness to murder, Kate thought, grief flooding her at the memory of Marcos choking on his own blood as he’d died in her arms.

He’d been her first true friend, one of the few people who stood up for her when they’d been two lost kids in foster care. He was one of the smartest people she knew, but something was broken inside Marcos, and he couldn’t use his smarts for good. He’d gone the other way. She’d tried to talk to him about that from time to time, begged and nagged. Then the life he lived had caught up with him before she could help him see the light.

Cirelli tilted her head. “If you have any information about Marcos Santiago’s businesses—”

Kate raised a hand to cut her off. Sooner or later, every agent she came in contact with had found their way to the same questions. “Marcos never talked to me about business. He knew I didn’t approve. I wanted more for him. He would have been successful at anything he tried.”

And he was trying to change at the end. Too late.

Cirelli pushed. “Anything you can tell us about him could be helpful. Look, we got the rival crime boss who ordered the hit. You want the hit man brought to justice too, right?”

Kate moved her gaze from monitor to monitor. “That’s why I’m here.”

She’d seen the bastard’s face as he was slinking away from his dying victim, and the killer had caught a glimpse of hers. But while the FBI hadn’t been able to find the man based on the image the sketch artist had come up with using her description, Asael had no trouble tracking her down.

Kate glanced back at the agent. “Do you think he’ll come?”

“You’re the only person who can make positive ID.”

Translation: the killer simply couldn’t afford to let her live.

The muscles clenched in Kate’s chest, her throat tightening enough to make swallowing painful. Nervous energy buzzed inside her, pushing her to get up and pace, but the rigged-out van had no room. So she simply hugged herself, her gaze drawn back to the monitors, to her white coffin smothered in a blanket of pink and white roses.

Her mother still saw her as someone perfect and innocent. She’d always seen Kate as a pure soul, never as someone tainted by past abuse and a rough time in the foster care system. Not the wild preteen the social workers had dropped off in the middle of one night, the wild cat who threw food on the floor and punched holes in the walls when she couldn’t control the pain and the anger.

The agent rolled her neck. “How did you know Santiago?”

Kate pressed her lips together. “I already told everything to the officers who responded to the 911 call, then to the first agents who came to see me once the FBI got involved.” She didn’t want to go through all that again. But she wanted Cirelli to know that Marcos hadn’t been a monster. He’d stood up for her so many times. She owed him a testimonial.

“We were in the foster system together,” she said after a moment. “Had a short-term placement with the same family once. He defended me on a bad night, was sent to a group home for it. From time to time, as we both got kicked around the system, we’d end up at the same school. For some reason, he got the idea that he was responsible for me. We lost touch for a year or two, met up again in high school.”

Her gaze cut to her family on the screen. “I was with the Bridgeses by then, being loved and taken care of.” Despite her sea of mistrust and prickly personality. Marcos hadn’t been that lucky. “He came to school with bruises more often than not.” She’d seen them, no matter how hard he’d tried to hide the black-and-blue welts that covered his skinny legs and arms.

“He was dealing by then, everything from pot to other kids’ ADD meds. He didn’t use.” That would have been a waste and stupid, according to Marcos. “He was in it for the money. He wanted his independence more than he wanted air to breathe. He wanted to be in a position where nobody had power over him ever again.”

The agent nodded, as if she could relate to that. “You kept up with each other over the years.”

“Barely. After high school, I went to UC Santa Cruz, and he moved to LA. We’d lose touch for months at a time, then he’d call in the middle of the night when he was in the mood for a stroll down memory lane.”

“You were his only connection to what could have been, had he chosen another path,” Cirelli observed. “He fancied himself as your protector, but he needed you too.”

“He was my protector. For a time.” In exchange, she hoped she’d been able to give him a little of what he’d needed—just one person in this world he could truly connect with, one person who wouldn’t judge him. “Once, when he found out that a boyfriend was knocking me around, then stalking me after I broke up with him, Marcos came to visit me at college.”

Cirelli’s perfectly shaped eyebrows arched. “The ex-boyfriend switched schools the next day?”

He had. “We didn’t talk much for a while after that. Marcos was busy with other things.”

“How did you hook up again?”

“My father was transferred to the LA headquarters of his company, so the whole family moved. I ran into Marcos at a party.”

He told her he’d sold off some of his shady businesses, was making a slow shift toward becoming legit. “He just bought a penthouse apartment in the middle of the city. With a doorman. He was so proud of it. He invited me up for drinks. He said that in exchange for having some outstanding charges dropped against him, he was turning evidence over to the FBI on an old rival.” God, that had made her happy.

She’d been thrilled for him, offered to help with whatever she could. “He said the FBI promised protection.” Kate shot a dark look at Cirelli.

“Was that the night he was killed?”

Kate hugged herself tighter as she nodded.

Agent Cirelli didn’t ask any more questions. But, after a moment, she held out a business card. “If you ever remember anything he might have told you about people he worked with, I’d appreciate a call. I understand that he was a friend. I understand that he had good in him. There usually is, in pretty much everyone. But he worked with some seriously scary associates, and if we could get any of those guys off the streets, everyone would benefit.”

Kate took the card, shoved it into her back pocket without promising anything, then they both refocused on the memorial service, although they’d kept their eyes on the monitors even while talking.

“Would you like a sandwich?” Cirelli offered, gesturing toward the white takeout bags behind her.

Her stomach in a hard knot, Kate shook her head, even if turning down food went against her instincts. Having food at hand made her feel safe. Sometimes, if she didn’t pay attention, she hoarded it.

Her earliest memory was hunger.

She never forgot how after a day without food, hunger woke with soft growls, not very threatening at all, maybe like a cat that sat heavily on your stomach. After two days, the dull pain came. The stomach cramps didn’t start until the third day. But when the woman who’d given birth to her left Kate locked in the filthy one-bedroom apartment for a week at a time, hunger roared like a tiger, clawing at her little baby body, threatening to eat her from the inside. She could remember begging for food. When she had, the woman beat her.

Kate never thought of her as her biological mother or used any expression to refer to her that had the word “mother” in it.

The first foster home she could remember was the Pederios when she’d been around four or five. The Pederios had food in the refrigerator all the time. They didn’t hit. They were churchy people. Kate had her first piece of chocolate after a children’s service at church, and forever associated chocolate with heaven, and with everything good and right.

Her time with the Pederios didn’t last long. Too soon, she had to go back to the monster. Beyond the hunger, Kate most remembered the beatings and the screaming.

“I’m gonna snap your neck, you little shit.”

“Shut up or I’ll stomp your stupid guts out.”

“I’m gonna smack you so hard, your head will snap off, you hear?”

All delivered from the screaming, wild-eyed face of death.

By the time she was ten years old—the woman all big and even moodier because she’d forgotten to get rid of a pregnancy in time—Kate had been threatened with violent death a million times. And she believed she would die.

She was small, weak and hungry, while the screaming monster was strong and all-powerful. Kate knew she would die—starved or beaten to death—it’d just be a matter of time.

Yet, watching her own memorial service now, nearly two decades later, was still beyond surreal.

The priest continued his eulogy in the chapel, his shock of black hair a contrast to his pristine white robes on the grainy monitor. “The length of our lives has little to do with the impact we make, and this has certainly been true with Kate.”

She blinked her burning eyes. She hated making her family go through this. But if her loved ones were hurt because of her, it would be much worse. If Emma had been in the car with her when that bullet crashed through the window….

“Although she is gone from among us,” the priest went on, and Emma turned in the first pew, so Kate finally caught a glimpse of her sister’s face in profile.

More than a decade younger than Kate, Emma sat ramrod straight, her long black hair cascading down her shoulders in waves, nothing like Kate’s short, blond pixie cut. They had different coloring—Kate pale, Emma a shade darker. They had different fathers. Nobody would guess that they were sisters.

The priest began to pray.

“Are you going to make them go to the cemetery?” Kate asked as she watched her mother cry.

Cirelli tapped her fingers on her knee. “Things shouldn’t come to that. If Asael comes, he’ll come here. Before the coffin is closed.”

To make sure Kate was inside. Then the FBI could grab him, and all the pretending could end. As mad as her family would be at her for this setup, Kate hoped they’d be so happy that she was alive that they would forgive her.

When she’d agreed to this miserable charade, she hadn’t thought it would ever get this far.

A break-in at the funeral home had been anticipated; the FBI kept the “body” under constant surveillance. But in the end, it seemed the killer would to take the easy way and come to the chapel, slipping in among family and friends.

The priest wrapped up his brief closing prayer. “We ask you this in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Kate shivered. The air conditioner in the van was cranked to the max. As ridiculous as her lucky Christmas sweater—a gift from Emma—looked in July, she was glad she’d brought it. Even if Emma had miscounted the rows so the reindeer’s left hind leg was a little bent, and a little high, and made him look like he was happy to see Mrs. Reindeer.

Agent Cirelli leaned closer to the monitors. “Do you see him?”

The longer they waited, the more the agent’s shoulders tightened. She was going to need a massage to work the knots out, Kate thought and scanned the pews again, looking for the face that haunted her dreams. A few seconds passed, the bitter taste of disappointment bubbling up her throat. “I don’t think he came.”

Inside the chapel, Emma stood and walked slowly up to the coffin. Her shoulders slumped into a tired angle, hurt etching her face. She looked more somber than a teenager should ever have to look.

“The strange thing, you know, is that I don’t feel like Kate is gone. I don’t feel it in my heart.” She shook her head, big brown eyes brimming with tears.

Kate blinked in unison with her, wanting more than anything to break out of the van, bust into that chapel and shout, I’m here! This is all a big mistake.

She glanced sideways at Cirelli.

The agent was watching her. “Almost over.”

Emma, standing close enough to the coffin to lay a hand on it, cleared her throat. “My first memory of Kate is when I talked her into helping me set a trap for the tooth fairy. I was six, just lost my first tooth.”

Tears flooded Kate’s eyes at the same time as a smile tugged at her lips. God, the tooth fairy incident. She couldn’t believe her sister even remembered that. She pressed her fingers to her mouth and listened as Emma gave a slightly different version of the story than Kate recalled.

As Emma recounted their mad caper, their father slumped in his seat. Their mother laid her head on his shoulder, raising a tissue to her face. An invisible fist squeezed Kate’s heart.

She had to be the most heartless person in the universe to let them go through all the grief.

Or a woman without a choice.

A movement on the nearest monitor caught her attention—a man about the right height easing in through the side door, stopping just inside, his posture apologetic, as if embarrassed for being this late. The nose was wrong, and the hair color, but that jaw…the jaw was right.

The breath she was about to take lodged in Kate’s throat, her heart lurching into a desperate rhythm.

She didn’t have to say anything; Agent Cirelli followed her gaze and pointed at the screen. “That one?”

Kate nodded, unable to look away, instantly back in Marcos’s penthouse apartment again, blood all over the white rug, bubbling up Marcos’s throat, coating her hands as she hung on to him and begged him to live.

Cirelli tapped her earpiece, then snapped out orders into her radio unit to the team of undercover agents who stood by. On the screen, two mourners stood in the back pew. A member of the chapel choir stepped away from the rest.

The ceremony went on uninterrupted. Sam Roecker, Kate’s partner at their rehabilitative massage studio, said a few words, his face drawn. He was a pioneer in developing a special form of therapeutic massage for abused children who might never have been touched in a way that didn’t hurt, kids who were scared of any physical contact.

When Kate had knocked on his door for a job six years ago, all she’d known was that she wanted to use her massage-therapy skills to help others. He’d hired her, trained her, then eventually made her his partner. He became her friend.

But she couldn’t look at him long now. She couldn’t look at anyone but the killer. Her entire body stiffened as he stood up, slid out of his pew and slowly moved toward the side door.

He wouldn’t get far. Undercover agents were blocking the exits.

He glanced up as he reached the door, right at the camera hidden in the flowers. His cold eyes blazed through the display screen in the van. The look on his face sent a message as clearly as if he had spoken. I’m coming for you.

Even as Kate gasped, he slipped through the door and disappeared from the monitor. A handful of “mourners” followed him, a few seconds behind.

Agent Cirelli stopped the live feed and rewound the footage, freezing it on the killer’s face to get a closer look. Endless seconds ticked by as she listened to her earpiece.

Heart pounding, Kate clutched her hands tightly on her lap, telling herself to breathe. The whole nightmare was about to be over.

But instead of giving the all clear, Cirelli’s face darkened as she listened.

“Two agents down.” She snapped out the words, her jaw set tight with determination as she checked her weapon and reached for the door. “You stay here.” And then she was gone, the door sliding closed behind her with a dull thud.

Kate couldn’t hear anything from outside the soundproofed van, so she turned back to the surveillance monitors where her memorial service eerily continued. But it was the frozen screen she couldn’t look away from.

The killer stared right at her, as if he knew exactly where she was.

A cold chill ran down her spine. She rubbed her arms. Almost over. They’ll get him. The trap was foolproof; the FBI had promised her that. They’d said they wouldn’t grab him in the chapel to make sure none of her family got hurt, but they had a tight net in place. He’d have no way to leave the church.

Mindful of her broken collarbone, she maneuvered her way carefully to the black curtain that separated the back of the van from the front seats, opened the panels an inch and peered through the gap.

The double doors of the church, carved with solemn angels, stood closed. She liked those graceful angels, enjoyed coming here on Sundays. Going to church, all of them together, was such a normal family thing, the kind of life she craved, with roots and connections.

The steps, always crowded before service, now stood empty. But an old woman shuffled through the metal door of the fire exit on the building’s side, wearing a Sunday hat that covered most of her face.

Her back slightly hunched, she made her way carefully forward. She slowed by the real flower delivery van and slowly bent low as if adjusting her shoe. But she straightened and hurried forward much faster a moment later, then she ducked between two cars with a sudden agility that belied her age.

The earth shook when the flower van exploded the next second, setting off car alarms all around.

Oh no, no, no.

Head down, her heart in her throat, hands half covering her face, Kate stared in shock as the old woman hurried forward and headed toward the FBI van.

Asael.

Recognition hit Kate hard, stealing her breath.

A wave of adrenaline washed through her, got her moving at last. She lunged to the front seat, keeping down, ignoring the pain in her shoulder. Hurry! Fingers trembling, she opened the door on the side away from the killer, just enough that she could slide to the ground, never popping so high that she could be seen through the window. She closed the door and rolled under the car next to the van, scooted over, rolled under the next vehicle, then the next and the next, hoping to be far enough when the FBI van blew.

Oh God, that hurt.

Her broken clavicle ground together in her shoulder, the pain—hot pokers stabbing into her flesh—making her see stars. She gritted her teeth and kept going. Any damage she caused would be negligible in comparison to the damage a bomb could do to her. Go, go, go!

An eternity seemed to pass, but it couldn’t have been more than a minute before the second explosion hit, shaking the ground under her and bringing her to a halt, spraying her with fine gravel. Dust covered her face, sticking to sweat. She tried to blink it from her watering eyes.

She had dirt in her nose, in her mouth, in her lungs. Her chest spasmed, but, even as her insides shook, she didn’t dare cough.

Her ears rang. She couldn’t hear footsteps, but through the settling dust she could see scuffed brown shoes coming rapidly toward her, the feet way too large for an old woman.

The feet moved faster and faster. The killer was running now. Probably for his car. Kate held her breath and prayed it wasn’t the one she was hiding under. Then he was right there suddenly, coming straight toward her.

She reached for the fist-size stone by her hip, even as she knew it wouldn’t make a difference. The next second he would open the door, jump in and back up, see her on the pavement. He’d pull his gun. One bullet and his troubles would be over.

Limbs frozen, she gripped the stone, too petrified, too bruised and battered to run.

But instead of jumping into the car above her, Asael ducked into the next one over. And then he was gone, peeling out of the parking lot as people ran from the church.

Kate coughed at last, spit dirt, coughed again. She lay still, suddenly boneless, amazed to be alive. At least a full minute passed before she gathered herself enough to crawl from under the car, holding her breath against the pain. The fire and smoke of the burning vans kept her hidden from the church crowd for the moment, blocked her from the agents who were herding everyone back inside so they could secure the scene.

Cirelli was circling the burning FBI van, gesturing wildly with her arms, her mouth moving as if shouting, although Kate couldn’t hear a word.

She shook her head, trying to shake the ringing from her ears, but it didn’t work. She needed to lean against something for a second to catch her breath, but the lid of the trunk moved under her hand. The explosion must have popped it open.

Common sense said she should head back to the agents. Reality said they couldn’t protect her. They hadn’t been able to protect Marcos, and Marcos had been just a job for the killer. Eliminating Kate was a lot more personal.

Rauch Asael wouldn’t stop coming until he killed her. He couldn’t afford to let her live. And if he came after her, her family could easily become collateral damage, caught up in the crossfire.

Even as her knees shook, her overwhelmed brain struggled to think, circling back to the same thought: the only way to keep her family and herself safe was to disappear forever. So instead of running toward the church and the FBI, she opened the trunk wider and slipped awkwardly inside, pulling the lid closed. Hidden. Safe. She coughed again, wiped her face with her sleeve, scrambling to think.

Except for the faint glow of the emergency-release lever, darkness surrounded her that smelled like rubber, probably from the spare tire in the tire well under her.

She didn’t mind the cramped space. It reminded her of the gap behind the washing machine in the laundry closet where, as a kid, she used to hide from the monster’s hard slaps. Some people disliked tight, dark places, but Kate thought of them as sanctuaries.

She closed her eyes. He didn’t get me. She was unhurt. And once she was far away from here, the people she loved would be safe too.

Her heart slammed against her chest. Her family was everything to her. She was twenty-nine but still lived at home, kicked in money to pay bills. The arrangement helped everyone financially. She was saving for a house. And since she didn’t have a huge rent payment, she was able to contribute to Emma’s college tuition. She could also waive her fees when she had a client whose parents couldn’t afford help.

She’d waited forever to have a family, so she’d been reluctant to leave them, especially since they didn’t want her to go. The Bridges family had been the first and only place she’d truly been safe. In her subconscious, they defined “home” and “safety,” the two things she craved above all else.

After today, she would no longer have either.

Her breath hitched. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Compared to the air-conditioned van, the trunk was an oven.

Fire trucks wailed in the distance, coming closer and closer. As her hearing returned, she could even hear the agents in the parking lot, shouting orders. She tuned them out, her brain barely able to process what had just happened.

The FBI’s setup wasn’t supposed to end like this. The agents were supposed to grab their man, and she was supposed to be back with her family, explaining herself by now. The sudden change in direction sent panic racing through her.

She tried to regulate her breathing, slowly drawing air in through her nose and blowing it out threw her mouth. Okay. Asael’s gone. I’m safe. Everybody is safe for now. Long breath. What do I do next?

She was a massage therapist, not some super spy or action-movie heroine. She knew muscles and anatomy. She had no idea how to disappear, how to find a new identity, how to hide from a man who always found his target.

The sirens came closer—until she felt as if they were going off inside her skull—then the sound suddenly cut off.

She didn’t know how much time passed before someone came for the car she was hiding in—maybe an hour. She was ready to pass out from the heat by then. The door opened, then slammed shut. The engine hummed to life.

Her nails sank into the heel of her hands as her fingers curled into tight fists, her entire body tensing. Oh God. Last chance to change her mind. She could still get out. She could go to the agents.

But she didn’t. She stayed hidden in the trunk, racked with doubts, as the car backed out, then slowly rolled forward.

Her family thought she was dead. What if she never saw them again? That invisible hand kept squeezing her heart, hard, until she could barely breathe. Tears spilled at last and washed down her dirty, sweaty face.

She had thought attending her own funeral would be the hardest part. She’d been wrong.

Leaving it was harder by far.