CHAPTER TEN


Jack made a phone call, and the three of them shared a cab to his building. Once there, he used a card key to access the building and took them straight across the lobby to a waiting elevator. Once the elevator door closed, he pushed a yellow button and flashed his ID at a glass panel high on the wall. "Butler," he identified himself. "Escorting a witness for top security."

After a moment the elevator hummed and began to move. Catherine, hands stuffed deep in her pockets, watched the green digital indicator flash an ascending series of numbers. It stopped on thirty-five, and the doors slid open.

"Wait a minute," she said, alarmed. "You said the facility was on the top floor. This building's higher than thirty-five floors. Lots higher."

"Sure," Jack agreed. "But you can't go directly there. I told you it's top security. How do we know you're who you say you are? How do we know you aren't on some suicide mission to assassinate someone already up there? You have to be processed first."

Joe gave her a reassuring nod, and she reluctantly followed Jack out of the elevator. They emerged into a small, steel-walled cubicle. Jack approached a small, mirrored square and held up his ID.

One-way glass, Catherine surmised. Just like in the elevator.

"Thank you, Mr. Butler," a metallic voice said. "Please place your right palm on the ID plate."

Jack laid his open hand against another square; the glass on this one looked smoky. It lit up for an instant, outlining Jack's hand in a dull red glow, then darkened.

"Identity confirmed," the voice announced. "Next."

Jack gestured to Joe. "Show 'em your ID," he said.

Looking bewildered, Joe complied, then placed his hand against the smaller window when requested.

"Identity confirmed," the voice said. "Next."

"She's our witness," Jack replied. "Got any ID on you, Cathy?"

She shook her head. "No."

"Okay. Come here and let the magic laser read your fingerprints. Computer'll identify you in a couple of minutes."

Warily Catherine stepped forward and placed her hand on the glass plate. "How would the computer have my fingerprints?" she asked, eyeing the machine with suspicion.

"When you applied for your job with the D.A., they fingerprinted you," Joe answered. "Remember?"

She smiled wanly. "That was so long ago," she murmured. "It feels like another life."

"You may remove your hand," the voice said. "Still processing. You may proceed."

A panel inset in the steel wall slid open.

"This way," Jack said.

"Already? But the computer hasn't identified me yet."

"Doesn't matter. You're the witness. Sometimes we get people who have never been fingerprinted, but we protect them all the same. Just takes a little longer to process them. Hi, Kelly." This last was to a tall, cool-looking blond woman who stepped into the small, white-painted room they now occupied.

"Hi, Jack," she answered. "What have you got for us?"

"Cathy Chandler, meet Kelly Freemont," Jack said. "She's a guard from the seventy-fifth floor."

"That's the safe floor?" Catherine asked, eyeing the other woman suspiciously. About Catherine's own height and of slender build, Kelly Freemont didn't look as if she could protect anyone from anything.

"Don't be deceived," Jack told her. "Kelly has a black belt in two forms of martial arts and can outshoot anybody on the firing range. Which is located in the sub basement."

Still not ready to offer her trust, Catherine extended her hand for a polite handshake. Jack repeated the formalities with Joe and Kelly escorted all three of them into a large office area crowded with desks, filing cabinets, and computer consoles.

At this time of night, the office was largely empty; Catherine spotted a lone Hispanic man at a computer terminal near where she imagined they'd entered this warren of cubicles, doorways, and halls, and decided he must be the source of the mechanical voice they'd heard over the intercom. He confirmed this when he looked in their direction and waved.

"Kelly!" he called. "We have a match. Catherine Chandler. Computer says she was abducted in 1989. No body."

"Thanks, Steve," she answered. "That's what we wanted to hear." She turned to Catherine. "Would you come with me, please?"

Catherine hesitated, loathe to leave the illusion of safety created by Joe's presence. He smiled and patted her hand. "I'll be right here when you get back."

"Both of us." Jack added his own encouragement.

Catherine braced herself and followed Kelly to a glass-walled office. Inside, a solidly built black woman who looked to be in her mid-forties was seated behind a scarred wooden desk, writing something on a buff folder in front of her.

Kelly paused at the half-open door and tapped. "Arlen?"

The woman looked up.

"Catherine Chandler," Kelly said, by way of introduction, and showed Catherine into the office.

The black woman stood and offered a hand for a strong handshake. "Miss Chandler. I'm Arlen Miller. Won't you sit down?"

Catherine gingerly perched on the edge of a chair in front of the desk. Kelly pushed the door closed and took up a protective stance against it.

"Now, Miss Chandler," Arlen Miller began.

"It's Cathy," Catherine interrupted. "Please," she added, when the woman glanced at her sharply.

"Cathy," she agreed. "Call me Arlen."

Catherine nodded agreement, liking the fierce look in the older woman's eyes. "Arlen," she repeated.

Arlen smiled. "Let's begin again. I know that you've agreed to testify in court against someone who would be willing to kill you in order to stop you."

Catherine gave a cautious nod.

"I don't know the specifics of the case," Arlen explained. "They aren't important. All I need to know is that you are a voluntary witness, as opposed to a plea bargain witness. That's someone who's agreed to testify in exchange for a lighter sentence."

Catherine smiled faintly. "I know," she said. "I'm an attorney. I used to be with the D.A."

Arlen's eyebrows rose a polite fraction. "Oh? Are you familiar with witness protection programs?"

Catherine nodded. "I placed a witness in the federal program once."

"Then you know we'll do all we can to protect you."

Catherine nodded again. "I also know you may not be able to," she said softly.

"Yes. Well, that's sometimes true," Arlen admitted. "Confidentiality is compromised, a new identity is uncovered."

"I don't want a new identity," Catherine interrupted. "I have a safe place to go after I'm no longer needed to testify."

Arlen looked even more surprised. "Most places people think of as safe, aren't," she cautioned. "And if he's brought you here, Jack must think you're in grave danger from someone with a great deal of power."

"I am," Catherine said. "But I'm also sure I don't need a new identity."

"Very well. I'll tell you about this portion of our program, then." She folded her hands on her desk. "We have a facility upstairs where we can accommodate up to six guests..."

"Guests?" Catherine interrupted, unable to keep the bitterness from her voice.

"For want of a better word, yes," Arlen answered. Her smile was wry. "It's better than inmates, even though most of our guests are that, too."

Her matter of fact manner made Catherine smile. "I suppose," she conceded. "Very well. I'm to be a guest."

"That's right," Arlen answered her. "You should know, Cathy, that our particular program has a very high success rate. In the fourteen years since its inception, we've lost only two witnesses... both of whom made the mistake of contacting family or friends after leaving here."

"I'll be completely isolated, then?" Catherine asked through a tight throat.

"No. Not upstairs. We've never lost anyone while in our custody here, and it's my intention that we never will."

Arlen looked grim and fierce; Catherine suspected she would make a formidable foe if crossed.

"You will have a telephone for any calls you wish to make, although outside calls are subject to security approval," Arlen went on. "You may receive approved visitors, either in one of our isolation rooms, where guests are separated from visitors by a bullet resistant glass panel, or, if they pass our security checks, in your own room. You may fraternize with other guests, if you wish."

"I don't know them," Catherine objected, automatically. "What's to keep my..." she hesitated, groping for a word to describe Gabriel. 'Enemy' came immediately to mind, but she didn't want to say it aloud.

"The man against whom you will testify," Arlen supplied.

"Right. What's to keep him from planting a false witness with orders to kill me when I'm not looking?"

"Nothing," Arlen said. "If his man is willing to lose his own life."

Well, that was blunt and honest. Catherine swallowed. "How can you be sure an assassin will be caught before escaping?"

"Because a guard checks on the guest before a visitor is permitted to leave."

"What if the guard is subverted?"

"That's always possible, of course. But we take steps to assure that's difficult. Among other things, our guards do not identify themselves as such in their private lives. They are simply federal agents. It would be difficult for an outsider to accurately identify one of our guards."

Catherine nodded slowly. "I see."

"I believe it was Franklin Roosevelt who told his wife that anyone could kill him if he didn't mind getting caught. I'm afraid that's the best protection we can offer, as well. The assurance that if someone does get to you, he will pay for it."

"Hardly reassuring," Catherine murmured, keenly aware of the unnatural thumping of her heart.

"Remember we've never lost a single witness," Arlen reminded. "We must be doing something right."

Maybe it was because she didn't try to hide the stark dangers, but Catherine found herself putting her trust in this woman. Arlen made her feel safe, as no one but Vincent and her father had ever done before. She nodded. "Yes," she said. "I suppose you are."

Arlen rose. "I'm sure you'd like to see your room and get settled in. Have you any personal items with you?"

"I have my toothbrush and a hairbrush in my pocket," Catherine said. "Nothing else."

"Very well. Kelly will see you are provided with the necessary clothing and toilet articles. Perhaps later your friend Mr. Maxwell can bring you some things."

"Yes. Thank you."

Arlen Miller offered her hand. "No, Miss Chandler," she said seriously. "Thank you."

Before they went upstairs, both Catherine and Joe were searched, Catherine by Kelly and Joe by a passive-faced male guard summoned from an office.

"Sorry about this, but we can't be too careful," Kelly said cheerfully as she completed the thorough pat-down. "Come with me, please."

Catherine picked up her coat from the chair where Kelly had put it after going through the pockets and inspecting the lining. Joe grumbled and straightened his tie and jacket.

"Where are we going?" Catherine asked. "The elevator's back that way."

"That one doesn't go all the way up," Kelly explained. "In order to reach the top floor, you have to stop here. The security elevator opens on only two floors; this one, and the security floor."

"Isn't that a fire code violation?" Joe wondered aloud. "Not being able to get to the ground floor on the elevator?"

"I'll take my chances with fire, Joe," Catherine said softly.

The surprise on his face quickly gave way to understanding, and guilt. "I'm sorry, Cathy."

She offered him a wan smile. "Don't be sorry, Joe. I'm doing what I have to do. It's not your fault it's inherently dangerous."

Kelly paused in front of a door-sized archway that looked like a high-tech version of the metal detectors seen in airports. Her words confirmed Catherine's guess. "Step through the metal detector one at a time, please," she said.

"In case you missed something during the search," Joe said, but his tone was cheerful.

Catherine suspected a small part of him was enjoying the cloak-and-dagger aspect of this. She followed him through the detector and waited as Kelly stepped through herself.

"Why didn't it go off?" she asked. "Aren't you armed?"

"I am," Kelly admitted, and displayed the butt of a small sidearm tucked into what looked like a specially made pocket of her slacks. "The guard on observation turned it off before I went through." She pointed to the video camera mounted above the elevator door.

The room felt suddenly cold and Catherine swallowed. She'd lived in the eye of a camera before and the struggle to maintain a sense of dignity and self was still vivid in her memory.

Joe took her arm as they stepped into the small stainless-steel elevator car. "You okay, Radcliffe?" he asked in an undertone.

"Considering the circumstances," she said, and forced a smile.

"I'm here for you, kiddo," he promised solemnly. "You can lean on me."

She squeezed his hand. "Thanks, Joe."

The elevator doors opened on another small, steel-walled cubicle. Kelly stepped to a yellow button and keyed it. "Freemont here with new guest and visitor," she said into a small metal grille.

"Palm on viewer, please," said a metallic voice that sounded remarkably like the one forty floors below.

Kelly complied with the request, placing her hand on the glass plate.

"Confirmed," said the voice. "Next?"

Catherine placed her hand on the plate and spoke her name clearly. The voice confirmed her identity, and then Joe's.

Outside the cubicle was an open foyer. A camera mounted high in one corner made steady, back-and-forth sweeps of the room; a second camera eliminated blind spots. An armed guard sat at a desk behind a plexiglas shield, a row of monitors set up in front of him. His posture was relaxed, but Catherine noticed his eyes were alert and interested.

"Hi, Butch," Kelly greeted casually. "Meet Cathy and Joe."

"Hi," Butch said. He didn't rise from his chair, and his hand hovered near his weapon.

"Cathy's a guest," Kelly said. "Joe's a visitor."

"I know," Butch answered. "I've been briefed."

"Great. We're putting her in the corner room, right?"

"Right," Butch confirmed. "Morris is getting it ready now."

"Good," Kelly said. "Cathy, have you eaten?"

Joe and Jack had ordered burgers in the diner and had gotten one for her, but she'd been unable to do more than nibble on a couple of french fries. "No," Joe answered for her. "She hasn't."

"I'm not really hungry," Catherine demurred.

"Well, we'll get you something anyway," Kelly decided. "Some soup, maybe."

"I'll take care of it," Butch promised. "See you later, Cathy."

"Thank you," she replied faintly.

Already Kelly was striding away, leading Catherine and Joe along a wide, well-lighted corridor. The soft gray and blue flecked carpet muffled the sound of their footsteps. Kelly stopped before a white-painted steel door and tapped. "Morris?" she called. "You in there?"

A husky black man wearing a uniform similar to Kelly's emerged from the room. "Yeah," he said. "Just finished making the bed." He scowled. "That's two in a row, Freemont. Just remember you're doing the next one."

Kelly gave him a bland smile. "But Morris," she replied, her voice treacly-sweet. "You know I can't make hospital corners the way you can."

Morris, who didn't look much older than twenty, drew himself to his full height and puffed out his chest. "Woman," he said, his voice artificially deep, "that's because I am bad!"

"And awfully good at making beds," Kelly conceded. "I owe you, I know."

Morris's answer was a broad smile that showed white in his dark face. "And I won't forget it." He turned to Catherine, suddenly all masculine charm. "You must be Cathy."

"I am," she answered, and offered her hand. "Thank you for preparing my room."

"Not a problem," he answered, and winked. "Just don't tell Freemont I said so."

He was introduced to Joe, then excused himself and hurried off down the hall.

"Guards seem to be pretty casual around here," Joe commented, watching him go.

"We may seem casual," Kelly said. "But we take our work very seriously." She pushed the door wide.

The room that was to be her new home lay beyond the opening. Catherine girded herself and stepped forward, past Kelly, who stood back politely.

The room was small and square, the walls painted a uniform white. White vertical blinds shielded the single wide window. Opposite the window, a twin bed and small nightstand stood against the wall. A digital clock, its numbers glowing red, was on the table.

Catherine gasped. Nausea rose thick and hot in her throat and she stepped back from the threshold.

Joe caught her arm, turning her toward him. "What is it?"

She stared at him, too overcome with instinctive horror to reply and with rough compassion, he pulled her into his arms. The wool of his overcoat was damp beneath her cheek; odd to think they hadn't been inside long enough for it to dry, when so much had happened.

She would not be sick. She would not permit him that power over her.

"This room won't do." Joe's voice, above her head, was harsh and authoritative. "Find her something else."

But it wasn't the room, it was her memories, and nothing Joe could do would eliminate those. The same unyielding resolve that had sustained her during her imprisonment years earlier rose unexpectedly now. She freed herself from the shelter of Joe's arms. "No," she said, forcing her voice to a steadiness she didn't feel. "This one's fine."

He studied her carefully. "You're sure?"

She nodded. "Sure." She glanced into the barren white interior and swallowed. "But could you do something for me?"

"Sure, Cathy," he said. "Anything."

"Hold my hand?"

Joe's solid grip on her fingers helped her summon the strength to step through the doorway. Inside, the resemblance to that other room high in Gabriel's tower faded. A narrow pressboard entertainment center, complete with stereo, small television, and VCR, stood against the wall by the door. It was flanked by a desk cluttered with telephone, pens and pencils, and a thick pad of writing paper. A few forlorn books tumbled across a shelf too wide to hold them up.

"There's not much in here right now," Kelly said. "We find most of our guests like to modify their rooms to suit themselves. Tomorrow you can go to the library. It has a selection of prints and posters and stuff for the walls, and you can borrow all the books and cassettes and videos you want."

"I'll do that," Catherine said, and looked again at the desk, the television, the almost empty shelf just waiting to be filled. The specter of endless empty hours faded. She could live here if she had to. And she did have to.

"Panic button here," Kelly said, and showed her the flat plastic switch on the wall next to the bed. "There's another one in the bathroom. Push this and you'll have guards swarming all over in about ten seconds."

"Panic button," Catherine repeated shakily, staring at the innocuous little switch. "It goes off at the guard station?"

"It goes off everywhere," Kelly answered. "Up here, and downstairs, too. Once it's been hit, no one gets off this floor until someone down there enters a security code." She grinned. "Try not to hit it by accident."

Catherine smiled back. "I'll try."

And then she looked at the open door. "Kelly."

"Yes?"

"The door. Does it lock?"

Kelly caught the doorknob and pulled it toward her. "Sure. Deadbolt right here, see? Thumbturn on the inside, key on the outside."

"So I can open it," Catherine said. "Any time."

"You bet," Kelly said. "Any time at all. You're not a prisoner here, Cathy."

"No," Catherine agreed. "Who has the key?"

"All keys are kept in a locked key rack at the main guard station. I can get you one if you want to keep your room locked when you're not in it."

"I want all the keys."

Kelly blinked. "All of them?"

Catherine nodded. "I don't want anyone to be able to get in here. Not even the guards."

"I'll have to check with Arlen," Kelly said doubtfully. "What if you fell, or got sick? How would we get in?"

"I'll risk it," Catherine said. "But I won't sleep if I'm not secure. I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry," Kelly answered. "It's just an unusual request. Let me check on it. Meanwhile, I'll see you're given a key." Kelly went out.

Joe cleared his throat. "Listen, kiddo, I should go. Let you get settled in..."

"Please don't. Not yet." The plea slipped out before she knew it was coming; her fisted knuckles were white with the effort required to keep from clutching his arm.

His look was solicitous, but a bit surprised. "Cathy?"

She took a deep breath, and wished her heart wasn't thumping quite so fast. "I'm sorry. You must have things to do..."

"Nothing that won't keep." He took off his coat and dropped into the only chair.

Trembling, she sank onto the edge of the bed. "It's just the idea that when you go, I'll be alone."

"I know, Cath. I wish there was a way to change that. To get somebody up here to stay with you."

"Then they'd be at risk, too, Joe. I couldn't allow that. This is something I have to do by myself. For myself. Just... not quite yet, okay?"

He studied her briefly, then nodded. "Okay." An awkward silence, filled only with the sound of their breathing, followed. Joe forced a laugh. "Now what do we do?"

She tucked her feet up and forced herself to relax. "Why don't you tell me what you've been up to the past four years? Got a girl yet?"

Her teasing foray brought a response she hadn't expected. Joe smiled and displayed his left hand. Gold glinted on his ring finger. "Yep."

She sat up straight. "Joe! You're married!" The first genuine smile of the day creased her face as she bounded off the bed to give him a hug.

He returned her embrace with enthusiasm.

She bounced back onto the bed and settled herself crosslegged, leaning forward eagerly. "Tell me about her. Where'd you meet?"

His grin widened. "We have this mutual friend, see? Who introduced us, but neither of us thought anything about it. Then the mutual friend disappeared, and we got together a few times because we were worried, and..."

"Joe." She interrupted him, her voice tight with intensity. "Who is it?"

In answer, he pulled out his wallet, flipped out a plastic sleeve, and displayed the picture inside.

Looking back at her, radiant in white gown and veil, was Jenny Aronson.

"Jenny? You married Jenny?"

"Yeah." He looked proud enough to pop. "Can you believe it?"

"I don't know," she said slowly. "It's kind of incredible." She stared at the photo and felt a dazed smile creep across her face. "You and Jenny."

Joe grinned. "Didn't think I had it in me, did you?"

She closed his wallet and threw it at him, feeling a little pang as she shut Jenny's radiance away.

So much had changed, and nothing more than herself. What made her think other people hadn't changed, gone on with their lives?

A cursory tap on the door interrupted her thoughts before they quite erased the flush of happiness Joe's bombshell had created. She went to the door and looked out the fisheye peephole.

Morris was outside, balancing a laden tray. Kelly stood behind him.

Catherine opened the door and let them in. Morris carried the tray to the desk. "Here's something for you to eat," he said, stepping around Joe and pushing aside paper and pencil cup to make room. "Hope you like Campbell's tomato soup."

"Thank you," Catherine murmured automatically, but she couldn't help eyeing the tray with suspicion.

"Hey," Morris said, spreading his hands. "I opened the can myself. Got water from the tap myself. Warmed the soup in the microwave myself. Now, I didn't open the crackers, because they were already open, but I confess I've been nibbling on them all evening. If they'd been poisoned, I'd have keeled over by now."

Catherine felt herself flushing. "I'm sorry."

"No need to apologize," Kelly said briskly. "Most of our guests feel that way when they first arrive. You're welcome to use the kitchen to prepare your own meals, or you can eat what our cook fixes. He's one of the guards, by the way, and eats his own cooking."

Catherine couldn't help a smile. "That's reassuring," she said. "Thank you."

"All part of the job," Kelly said, and held out her hand. "Here. Arlen says if you want the keys, you can have them. These are all there are." She laid a ring of four keys into Catherine's palm. "Is there anything else you need?"

Catherine closed her fingers on the keys. "I don't think so."

"Fine. Morris and I will leave you now, but we'll be at the station if you think of anything."

They went out.

Behind her, Joe was on his feet, reaching for his coat. "I'm sorry, Cath. I really have to be going. Jenny had a book signing tonight, but she'll be getting home soon and she'll worry."

She wanted to cling to him, to beg him again to stay. Not that he'd be particularly helpful if Gabriel's minions managed to break in here... they'd just mow Joe down, too. But his presence gave her a peace of mind she knew she'd miss. "All right," she said. "It's good to see you, Joe."

He hugged her tightly. "I missed you these last years," he murmured. "Worried like hell, too. I'm glad you're back. Even under these circumstances." He held her away from him and gave her a crooked grin. "Now, eat your soup and get some sleep. I'll see you tomorrow."

"No." She had to force the word out, but she said it with certainty.

"No?" He looked puzzled. "No, what?"

"No, you won't see me tomorrow."

"Cathy, you can have visitors. Jack told me."

She shook her head. "It's too dangerous."

His face registered hurt shock. "You're not afraid of me?"

"Of you? No, Joe, of course not. For you."

"For me...?" he repeated slowly.

"And for Jenny."

"I don't understand."

"Gabriel," she said flatly. "If he finds out what you mean to me, Joe. If he should even suspect it."

"What? He'll have me killed?"

She swallowed. "As a warning to me. To hurt me. Or Jenny. As a warning to you. I couldn't live with that."

Stark horror flashed across his face. "You think they'd hurt Jenny?"

She nodded. "I know these people, Joe. They're ruthless."

His throat worked convulsively. "I was going to tell Jenny about you as soon as I got home," he said. "I've been thinking about how happy she'd be to hear you're all right."

"Don't," she said. "Don't tell her."

"Because she'd insist on coming up to see you," he said, nodding slowly. "And that might tip off this Gabriel that you care."

"Yes."

His hands moved restlessly. "I hate to leave you here. I hate you being alone in this."

She smiled, and this time it didn't feel forced. "I'll be all right, Joe. Anyway, I'm used to being alone now."

"Yeah." He didn't sound convinced. He brought his hand up and touched her cheek. "Hang in there, Radcliffe," he said softly. "I'll be in touch."

"Be careful, Joe," she answered.

She locked the door behind him and laid the keys on the desk. Tomorrow she could find a way to carry them.


Continued in Chapter 11