“I’m sorry, Jared,” Peyton said, once she removed her briefcase from the chair and sat. Whether she apologized because she hadn’t trusted him, or as an offer of sympathy, he couldn’t say, so he remained silent and waited for her next question.
She slipped off her pumps and tucked her feet beneath her. “How did they find you?” she asked as she smoothed her hands over her slim navy skirt.
“I’m not really sure. You know what the bureau’s computer system is like and what they can access. Nothing is private anymore, I don’t care what line the public is fed. You know it and I know it. How else would they have known where to find me?”
“But, Jared, you know how to hide. You were once Navy Intel. Black Ops. Surely you had contacts.”
“I didn’t have the money for a complete new identity,” he said. “Plus, I figured they’d know most of my contacts, so instead of creating a new me without a past that could trigger something in the computer, I crossed the border into Missouri, then hit the big cemetery in Independence in search of a male who’d roughly be around my age if he were still alive. A trip to the county registrar’s office for a copy of the birth certificate, then back across the border for a social security number and Kansas driver’s license, and Sean Barnett was reincarnated.”
“Let me guess. You found someone who’d recently died.”
He made a sound that roughly resembled a laugh. “I’m not stupid, Peyton. No, I used the name of a child who died roughly thirty years ago, one who wouldn’t have a traceable past. I honestly don’t know how they found me, but they did.
“Since Beth and I both worked graveyard at the truck stop, afternoons were free. I’d left her at home and had taken her car in to have the brakes done. Normal everyday stuff. While I was waiting, I spotted a couple of suits coming out of the sheriff’s office. I knew they were agents, so I called Beth right away, told her the jig was up and we should meet at the location we’d discussed, about an hour after sunset.”
“How much did she know? You had to have told her something, or was she really operating on blind trust?”
He shook his head. “By this time, I’d told her I was wanted by the FBI for crimes I didn’t commit. That was good enough for her,” he said with a condescending lift of one eyebrow.
Peyton kept silent. A smart move, since she couldn’t very well argue with him when his word hadn’t been enough for her, not without him calling her a hypocrite yet again.
“I played it cautious,” he continued, “and parked the car in the brush, about a mile and a half away from where we were supposed to meet, then stayed off the road as I made my way down toward the lake. Only about a half mile ahead, the place was crawling with agents. A couple I recognized from the D.C. office, but the rest were probably locals from Kansas City. My first instinct was to double back and get the hell out of there, but I couldn’t leave without Beth. I didn’t know if she had told them about the house or the lake and they were holding her there, but I know if it’d been me, I’d have taken her to the house, where there was less of a chance of her being injured if anything went down. So that’s where I went first. If she wasn’t there, then I’d approach the lake from another location and find a way to get us both out of there.”
He ran his hand through his hair and released a short, impatient breath. With each memory he dredged up, his guilt mounted. He’d been foolish to believe that keeping Beth in the dark might save her life if they ever did catch up with him.
“By the time I made it back to the house, I knew something was wrong, especially since there wasn’t a single agent near the place. I searched the perimeter before going in, then made my way toward the bungalow.
“I went in through the back, and found her in the kitchen. She’d been shot, and the place looked as if we’d had some huge fight.”
Peyton gasped. “To make it look like you did it. But why? And who in the bureau would do such a thing to an innocent woman?”
Restless energy or a vain attempt to escape the guilt had him off the bed and pacing the room again. “Someone with something to hide. And they want to keep it that way.”
She straightened and wrapped her arms around her middle once more as she leaned forward. “But why kill Beth?” she asked. “If you didn’t tell her anything important, what could she possibly know?”
He stopped his pacing and listened, then shook his head in dismissal when he realized it was just the brake of some 18-wheeler coming off the highway. “Considering we were married, everything, as far as they knew. Or nothing. Obviously Beth was a loose end someone wasn’t willing to risk.”
“Do you think it’s one person?”
Jared continued his contribution in wearing out the already worn carpet. “I don’t know yet. And until I do know who is pulling the strings, your life, and mine, aren’t worth shit.”
“But why me?” That hint of fear reappeared in her eyes. “We haven’t seen each other since you left. It just doesn’t make sense that they’d come after me instead of your sister.”
Peyton was light years away from dim-witted, but she sure as hell was stubborn on the issue of her own safety. “It makes perfect sense,” he argued. “They couldn’t get to Dee. And now she has someone who’d give his life to protect her. Plus they already know there’s nothing she can tell them. They’ve tried and they’ve never been able to get to her. They got to Beth and now they’re coming after you for the same reason.”
Peyton shook her head in denial. “You can’t know that.”
He knelt on the floor beside the bed. “Yes, I can. And they’ve already started.” He lifted the mattress and pulled out the material Chase had given him. “They’ve been building a case against you from the very beginning.”
“Building a case? But I’ve done nothing wrong,” she railed. “There’s nothing to build a case with.”
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