THE WITNESS

By Margaret Johnson

CHAPTER ONE

His was the last voice she expected to hear on that stormy January morning. He was allotted one call a month and even then a security inspector, assigned by the Witness Protection Service, had to be present in the adjoining room.

     Now his voice was hushed, urgent. "Jenny, listen carefully. I can only talk a minute. I must leave here."

     Jenny Lansing bolted out of bed and began to pace the room. "Oh, Dad, no. They found you again?"

     Panic shook her father's voice. "Book a flight on the next plane for L.A. I'll be staying at the Marriott Hotel in Woodland Hills registered as Peter Thornton." He cleared his throat, and spoke in a whisper. "The envelope is sealed and in safekeeping?"

     "Yes, Dad. I did what Uncle Charlie told me. It's in a safe place."

     "Good girl. Bring it with you."

      The line went dead. Her Father's frantic plea jolted Jenny into action. She dashed around the bedroom, her thoughts in disarray. She stopped to call Carole, her friend and assistant manager of the family-owned Sparrow Bookstore. When Carole answered, her voice was thick with sleep.

      "Carole," Jenny struggled to keep her voice steady. "I must leave town for a few days. Take care of the bookstore for me, okay?"

      "Huh? What's happened, Jenny? Are you in trouble? Shall I call the police?"

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      "Good grief, no!" Jenny forced a laugh. "Something came up. I must take a few days off. If you need to contact me, call my home phone. I'll pick up my voice mail."

       Jenny hung up and immediately jerked the receiver from its cradle. Flipping open her address book, she dialed United Airlines, booked an early morning flight to Los Angeles, pulled her suitcase from the top shelf of her closet, threw it on the bed and tossed in a few clothes. She slipped out of her flannel pajamas and pulled on a pair of faded jeans and a white sweatshirt.

        She hurried to her bookcase where, hidden within the hollow casing of a row of fake books, was the lockbox where she'd hidden the sealed manila envelope she was keeping for her father. Stuffing it in her briefcase, she hurried down the stairs to hail a cab.

        On the drive to O'Hare, Jenny imagined nightmare scenarios. FBI Agent Tim O'Reilly waiting at the airport, or, more horrifying, her father's enemies forcing her into a long black limo and whisking her away. Why, she wondered, when I've settled into a semblance of calm after the stinging winds of the past two years, does another storm threaten to spin my life out of control?

        Glancing out at the windy clouds of snow swirling down and blanketing the expressway, she allowed herself a half-smile. She'd always wanted to see Los Angeles — and what better time? She closed her eyes and envisioned the warm sun, balmy breeze, sandy beaches, and waving palm trees.

        At O'Hare, Jenny stood restlessly in a long line at the ticket counter. Suddenly she froze. There he was; the same husky man who had been frequenting the bookstore the past two weeks. The first time he'd ambled in he'd cast a sideways glance at her as he browsed through the narrow aisles. He stopped to pluck a book from a shelf, paging through it before moving on to another section. Whatever the reason he was in the shop, she'd thought as she watched him, it wasn't to purchase books and somehow he seemed to want her to know it.

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        Just yesterday, as she was checking inventory at the front desk, a prickly sensation alerted her. Looking up, there he was again. She met his dark piercing eyes and quickly looked away, an inexplicable sense of danger sending a cold chill dancing down her spine. This man was no casual costumer. His deep-set, shifty eyes betrayed him.

        And now, standing in line at the airport, given the risk of making this trip at all, she shuddered to think that he might be stalking her for the very reason her father had gravely warned her to watch her back.

        The stranger moved to the ticket counter. She studied him. Yes, the same stocky build, the same unkempt long hair, and dark eyes under thick, dark brows. Who was he and why was he on this flight?

        A voice boomed over the intercom. "Attention, United Airline passengers. Due to weather conditions, Flight 841 bound for Los Angeles will be delayed for an undetermined period of time. We apologize for the inconvenience and ask that you will wait at Gate C4 until we're cleared to take-off. At that time we will begin boarding and will depart as soon as is possible. Thank you for your patience."

        Jenny glanced at her watch with a fervent hope that the delay wouldn't be too lengthy. She must meet her father before he was sent to another destination, not only to give him the envelope he seemed desperate to receive, but because she was eager to see him after a year filled with distress and anxiety.

        Following the noisy, grumbling crowd on the walking escalator to Gate C, Jenny resisted an urge to look over her shoulder. Taking a seat among the restless passengers, she covertly glanced across the room. There he was, seemingly intent on an article in the Chicago Tribune. She relaxed and glanced at her fellow travelers, easily distinguishing frequent flyers who, accustomed to delays, were casually reading paperbacks or newspapers. Rare flyers, on the edge of hysteria, were marching defiantly to the airline counter, demanding a prediction of the weather.

        Jenny glanced at her watch again, and, picking up her briefcase, strolled toward a gift shop to purchase a paper. As always, Jenny Lansing

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turned heads and now, admiring glances followed the stunning long-limbed brunette. She returned with the Chicago Tribune, settled into a seat, stared at the headlines, and read nothing. Her racing thoughts centered on her father's unexpected call and his urgent request for the mysterious sealed envelope she'd placed in the briefcase sitting by her side.

       Not a day had passed that she hadn't wondered what the envelope contained. Of course she suspected whatever her father had ordered sealed must somehow relate to the Berkowitz trial and her dad's unwitting involvement with the Chicago mafia.

       "Good Morning."

       A deep, male voice from the seat next to hers startled her. She turned to look into remarkable blue eyes deep set in a smiling, tanned face. Typical Californian, she thought dispassionately, undoubtedly from spending weekends sunning and surfing on Malibu beaches.

       "Good Morning," she half-nodded and turned back to her paper hoping to discourage further conversation.

       The blue-eyed Mr. Malibu, as she'd mentally dubbed him, stood and stretched. "I'm for coffee. Care to join me?"

       Glancing up, a prickle of fear slid through her, The husky stranger had folded his newspaper under his arm and was staring at her.

       She hesitated a moment before she nodded. This respectable looking gentleman just might dissuade the husky stranger from approaching her.

       "I think I will, thank you." She dropped her newspaper on the seat, picked up her briefcase and walked beside him to a nearby coffee shop.

       While they munched on Danish rolls and sipped coffee, Jenny hoped he wouldn't complain that if the plane didn't take off soon he'd miss an important business meeting, or explain how anxious his wife and children would be over the delay. Blessedly, he did neither.

       "My name is Alex Kendall." He broke the silence. "Bound for L.A.?"

       His flawlessly cut, impeccable charcoal gray suit, a soft blue shirt and dark navy tie established him in Jenny's mind as a corporate attorney or

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successful stockbroker. That is, when he wasn't loafing on a stretch of Malibu beach.

       "Yes, and you? You're headed for home in California?"

       "Yes, temporarily. Are you visiting a family?"

       Jenny might have chuckled had the situation been less precarious. "You might say that."

       Suddenly her attention was diverted. There he was again, his powerful body filling the doorway, his dark gaze scanning the crowded cafeteria, settling on her. Was he one of them? Did he know about her father's call? Or had he been following her all along? Should she phone the FBI and report suspicions? No, her father had called against orders and he'd be severely reprimanded. If the stranger was stalking her, she'd find a way to elude him in Los Angeles.

       "Are you okay?" Alex asked.

       Jenny nodded and forced a smile. "I'm fine. Why do you ask?"

       "You turned pale." He leaned forward. "Are you sure?"

       "Yes, I'm sure." Jenny gripped her coffee mug to still her trembling hands.

       The stranger wasn't trying to hide from her, or he'd be more discreet about his movements. What if she marched to his table and asked him why he was following her? But, she calmed her thoughts, it was possible that he'd booked a ticket on the same flight and thought it seemed a strange coincidence he could have legitimately been in the bookstore. What kind of foolhardiness would it be to accuse him of shopping in her bookstore a few times, and coincidentally booking the same flight to Los Angeles? Yet vague, disquieting feelings troubled her. Even more troubling was the briefcase at her feet. Was he after her or the envelope?

       Around the dining area, conversations swirled, peppered with dismay over delays, missed appointments, and intolerable inconvenience. If only inconveniences were my only worry, Jenny thought.

       "Thank you for the coffee," Jenny smiled and picked up her briefcase. "I think I'll check my briefcase into a locker."

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       Alex tossed dollar bills on the table. "I'll saunter out with you." Before she could object, he took her arm and walked with her to the row lockers against the west wall. She retrieved the key, and stuffed her briefcase inside the locker. She turned and almost collided with him. He apologized and stepped back. A trickle of apprehension shot through her.

       Was meeting this man a chance encounter or was he one of them too? I'm so stressed, she thought, I'm suspicious of everyone. But why had this Alex Kendall followed her to the locker and why had he been standing so close? She wished he'd disappear along with the stalking stranger.

       "I must make a phone call." Jenny sidestepped him to find a telephone. To her relief, he didn't follow her. She watched as he headed back to Gate C.

       Long lines at the telephones discouraged her from checking her voice mail. Reluctant to return to the gate, Jenny restlessly strolled into a gift shop and stared absently at the rows of best-selling books and colorful, glossy magazines. Her thoughts assessed her father's call. What could have happened that he must suddenly leave? This was the second time he'd been discovered at a safe house. If only he was permitted to tell her where he was to be moved.

       When he'd first been placed in the Witness Protection Program, she'd begged Agent O'Reilly for information about her father's whereabouts but he'd steadfastly refused.

       She eagerly awaited her dad's monthly calls, and cherished every moment of their conversation. His voice revived sweet memories of happier times, of carefree days with her fun-loving father and gentle beautiful mother, but that was long before the nightmare began. But she mustn't think of that now. Her only objective was to evade a suspected stalker — or stalkers — and get to her dad as quickly as possible.

       Her thoughts drifted to the day after trial over a year ago. The FBI had sent her father to his first safe-house. She was delighted when Uncle

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Charlie called and asked if she'd meet him for dinner. He'd be leaving town soon, he said, and wanted to see her before he left.

       Charlie. She smile inwardly. Daddy's brother. Wanderlust Charlie, her parents had laughingly called him when postcards intermittently arrived from exotic places. Each time he returned to Chicago, he'd stay for a month in his south side apartment and regroup for his next trip. But to his credit, he did stay in town for her dad's trial.

       She knew that Charlie traveled on the funds inherited from his grandmother's trust fund. But he hadn't missed the flutter of scorn across her mother's face whenever Charlie's name was mentioned.

       "He's always been a maverick," her dad would shrug and change the subject.

       Now Jenny retreated into her memories of the bewildering dinner with Uncle Charlie. He had ambled into the restaurant late, and because he so resembled her father, tears welled in her eyes. Uncle Charlie was her only family now. That night he'd been unusually tender, gently explaining that someday this messy business would be in the past and her dad would be home for good.

       "You must think positive, Jenny," he'd said, "and believe that your dad was only guilty by association. As long as he's in the Witness Protection program he'll be safe."

       "If only I had gone with him."

       "Now, Jenny, you know that he needs you to carry on with the bookstore. This was handed down to him by our father, and Dad wanted to keep it in the family." She thought she detected a hint of sarcasm, but she couldn't be certain.

       "I'll carry on, Uncle Charlie. I'm pleased that the bookstore is doing well. In fact, business has increased since the publicity of the trial." She paused, and added softly, "I'm not exactly safe, you know. If they want to get at my father, they know where I am. Eventually they'll come after me.

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       Charlie's face reddened. She suspected he'd had the same thoughts about himself. Where was he going this time, she wondered? India? Nepal? The Himalayas? Probably as far from Chicago as possible.

       Charlie reached for her hand. "Before I leave, I have something to give you... from your father."

       She'd straightened with surprise when her uncle handed her a sealed manila envelope. "What is this?"

       "Your dad instructed me to give it to you for safekeeping. Now, listen, Jenny and do as he asked. Don't open it. Keep it in a lockbox at your home?"

       Jenny stared at the envelope. "But .... what's in it? Why didn't he give it to me himself?"

       Charlie shook his head. "I asked him the same questions. His only comment was 'no comment.' But he did insist the envelope remain sealed until he notifies you."

       They'd said goodbye on the sidewalk outside the restaurant. "I'm not sure how long I'll be gone this time." Charlie hugged her. "But you're young and beautiful and have many friends. Live life to its fullest, Jenny, and try not to brood over your dad. And remember, don't open the envelope. Lock it in a safe place. I'll be in touch."

       Jenny nodded though she was aware how seldom he contacted his Chicago family. He signaled a cab for her and she returned to wave as the driver pulled the cab away from the curb into heavy traffic.

       At home she turned the envelope over and over in her hands. Guiltily she held it into the light, hoping she could decipher its contents. I mustn't betray my father's trust, she thought. Unlocking her lockbox, she tucked the sealed envelope inside then hid the box on the bookshelf in her office.

       Now, waiting at the airport, her mind ached with tangled thoughts.

       What was in the envelope? Money? Keys? Papers?

       What was of such importance that Dad had forbidden her to open it, and what could be so urgent that he was willing to risk calling her?

        And why must he have the envelope now?

Chapter 2  ||  Table of Contents