THE ONLY WITNESS
When a child is abducted in front of Laney Kensington, she desperately tries to save the girl. But Laney is shot and left for dead; the kidnappers, their dark van and the girl long gone. FBI agent Grayson DeMarco explains she's the only witness to a worldwide child-trafficking ring. And if the kidnappers discover she's alive, they'll be back to finish the job. Yet Laney is determined to find the missing children. Even if it means returning to the search and rescue work she thought she'd left behind. And Grayson is just as determined to keep his sole witness protected. Especially when evidence hints that the real threat is closer than he ever imagined...
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Mary Ellen Porter’s love of story telling was solidified in fifth grade when selected to read her first children’s story to a group of kindergartners. From then on, she knew she’d be a writer. When not working, Mary Ellen enjoys reading and spending time with her family and search-dog-in-training. She’s a member of Chesapeake Search Dogs, a volunteer search and rescue team that helps bring the lost and missing home.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
It was a passing glimpse, no more. A young teen walking slowly along the edge of the darkening side street, a violin case tucked in the crook of her arm, her face illuminated by her cell phone screen as she furiously texted, aware of nothing but the phone in her hand.
The van made even less of an impression, the driver all but invisible as the vehicle passed Laney Kensington's Jeep Wrangler.
Both should have been easy to ignore, but they nagged at Laney's mind—made the hair on the back of her neck prickle. Laney told herself it was just her imagination getting the best of her—but she couldn't simply drive on.
Call it intuition, call it divine intervention—Laney called it never wrong.
She'd never ignored it on a search. She wouldn't ignore it now.
She glanced in the rearview mirror, pulse jumping as the van swung a wide U-turn and headed back toward the girl. Laney did the same, stepping on the gas, her Jeep surging forward.
The slowing van closed in on the girl. She finally looked up, eyes widening as a figure jumped out and sprinted toward her. The violin dropped from her arms and she tried to run.
Too little, too late.
The man was on her in a flash, hand over her mouth, dragging her toward the van. In seconds they'd be gone. One more child missing. One more family broken.
Not today. Not if Laney could help it.
Although it had been years since she'd last prayed, Laney found herself whispering a silent plea to God, begging Him for help that deep down she knew would never come. She'd learned a long time ago that the only one she could depend on was herself.
Putting her trust anywhere else was just too risky.
The van was right in front of her, and there was only one thing Laney could think to do to stop the kidnapping. She braced for impact, ramming the front of the van with her Jeep in the hope of disabling it. In the back seat, Murphy yelped at the jarring stop; there was no time to comfort the dog.
Leaping from the Jeep, Laney threw herself at the would-be kidnapper. His weight off-balance from the struggling child, he tumbled over. The girl went with him, her high-pitched scream piercing the still air. Laney snagged the girl's hand, yanking her to her feet.
"Run!" she shouted, but the kidnapper was on his feet again, snatching a handful of the girl's shirt and dragging her back.
"Back off!" he commanded, his voice chilling.
Laney slammed into him again, this time with so much force they all fell in a tangled mass of limbs, pushing and grabbing and struggling. The kidnapper grunted as Laney kneed him in the kidney. His grip on the girl loosened, and Laney shoved her from the heap.
But the kidnapper would not let his prey go without a fight. He reverse punched Laney, propelling her backward. She tumbled onto damp grass, her head slamming into hard earth. She had a moment of panic as blackness edged in. She could not lose consciousness. She willed herself up, lunging toward the struggling pair as they neared the van. Laney yanked the guy's arm and slammed her foot into the back of his knee. He cursed, swinging around, the girl between them.
"I said back off!" he growled, his dark eyes filled with fury, his hand clamped firmly over the girl's mouth.
Laney eased around so that she stood between him and the van. She saw that the girl was still fighting against his hold, but her efforts were futile. She met Laney's eyes, the fear in her gaze something Laney knew she would never forget.
It's okay, Laney wanted to say. He's not going to take you. I won't let him.
"Let her go," Laney demanded.
"I don't think so." The man glanced just beyond Laney's shoulder, a cold smile curving his lips.
The girl stilled, her eyes widening.
Laney knew without even looking that someone was behind her.
Her blood ran cold, but she turned, ready to fight as many people as it took for as long as she had to. Eventually, another car would come, someone would call the police, help would arrive. She just had to hold the kidnappers off long enough for that to happen.
A shadowy figured jumped from the van's open door. Laney had the impression of height and weight, of dark hair and cold eyes, but it was the gun that caught and held her attention. Although the gunman was shorter and more wiry than his stocky partner, the firearm in his hand made him far more lethal.
"Don't move," he snapped, the gun pointed straight at Laney's heart.
Laney stopped in her tracks, hands in the air in a display of unarmed surrender.
She wanted him to think she'd given up; she needed him off guard. She had to get the gun out of his hands, and she had to free the girl.
"Get the kid in the van before someone else comes by," the gunman ordered his accomplice.
"What do we do with the woman?" the other man asked as he dragged the child around Laney, grunting and tightening his grip as the girl's sneaker-clad foot caught his shin.
"Get rid of her. She's a loose end. No witnesses, remember?" The words were spoken with cold malice that sent a wave of fear up Laney's spine.
No cars coming, nothing to hide behind. No matter what direction Laney ran, a bullet could easily find her. If the girl was going to survive, if Laney was going to, the gunman had to be taken down. Laney braced herself for action, waiting for an opening that she was afraid wouldn't come.
Please, she prayed silently. Just give me a chance.
The girl grunted, trying to scream against the hand pressed to her face. They were close to the van door, so close that Laney knew it was just a matter of seconds before the girl was shoved in.
"Bite him!" she yelled.
"Shut up!" the gunman barked, glancing over his shoulder to check on his accomplice's progress. That was the opening Laney needed. She threw herself at his gun hand. He cursed, the gun dropping to the ground. They both reached for it, Laney's fingers brushing cold metal, victory right beneath her palm. He slammed his fist into her jaw and she flew back, her grip on the gun lost in a wave of shocking pain. A dog growled, the harsh sound mixing with the frantic rush of Laney's pulse.
Murphy! She'd not given him the release command, yet he raced toward them, teeth bared.
The man raised the gun. Laney tried to scramble out of the way as he pulled the trigger. Hot pain seared through her temple, and she fell, Murphy's well-muscled body the last thing she saw as she sank into darkness.
Grayson DeMarco rushed through Anne Arundel Medical Center's fluorescently lit hallway, scanning the staff and visitors moving through the corridor. He'd been working this case for almost a year. He'd dogged every lead to every dead end, traveling from California to Boston and down to Baltimore, and he'd always been a few steps behind, a few days too late.
Sixteen children abducted. Four states. Not one single break.
Finally the abductors had made a mistake.
A young girl was missing. The police had received her parents' frantic call less than thirty minutes after a woman had been found shot and unconscious on the sidewalk, a violin case and cell phone lying on the grass near her. The case had the missing girl's name on it.
Grayson had been called immediately, state PD moving quickly. They felt the pressure, too; they could see the tally of the area's missing children going up.
Like Grayson, they could hear the clock ticking.
They'd found a gun at the scene, spattered with blood, lying in the small island of grass that separated the sidewalk from the street. Grayson hoped it would yield useable prints and a DNA profile that could possibly lead him one step closer to the answers he was searching for.
He prayed it would, but he wasn't counting on it.
He'd been to the scene. He'd peered into an abandoned Jeep, lights still on, driver's door open. He'd opened the victim's wallet, seen her identification—Laney Kensington, five feet three inches and one hundred ten pounds. He'd gotten a good look at the German shepherd that might have been responsible for stopping the kidnappers before they were able to kill the woman. He'd pieced together an idea of what might have happened, but he needed to talk to Laney Kensington, find out what had really gone down, how much she'd seen. More importantly, he needed to know exactly how valuable that information might be to the case he was working.
Time was of the essence if Grayson had any chance of bringing these children home.
Failure was not an option.
A police officer stood guard outside the woman's room, his arms crossed over his chest, his expression neutral. He didn't move as Grayson approached, didn't acknowledge him at all until Grayson flashed his badge. "Special Agent Grayson DeMarco, FBI."
"Detective Paul Jensen, Maryland State Police," the detective responded. "No one's allowed in to see the victim. If that's why you're here, you may as well turn around and—"
He cut the man off. "We don't have time to play jurisdiction games, Detective. As of tonight, three kids are missing from Maryland in just under six weeks."
"I'm well aware of that, but I have my orders, and until I hear from my supervisor that you're approved to go in there, you're out."
"How about you give him a call, then?" Grayson reached past the detective and opened the door, ignoring the guy's angry protest as he walked into the cool hospital room.
The witness lay unconscious under a mound of sheets and blankets, her dark auburn hair tangled around a face that was pale and still streaked with dried blood. Faint signs of bruising shadowed her jaw, made more evident by the harsh hospital lights. A bandage covered her temple, and an IV line snaked out from beneath the sheets. She appeared delicate, almost fragile, not at all what he was expecting given her part in the events of the night. Fortunately, as fragile as she appeared, the bullet had merely grazed her temple and she would eventually make a full recovery.
Unfortunately, Grayson didn't have the luxury of waiting for her to heal. He needed to speak to her. The sooner the better.
He moved toward the bed, trying to ignore the pine scent of floor cleaner, the harsh overhead lights, the IV line. They reminded him of things he was better off forgetting, of a time when he hadn't been sure he could keep doing what he did.
He pulled a chair to the side of the bed and sat, glancing at Detective Jensen, who'd followed him into the room. "Aren't you supposed to be guarding the door?"
"I'm guarding the witness, and I could force you out of here," the detective retorted, his eyes flashing with irritation and a hint of worry.
"What would be the point? You know I've got jurisdiction."
The detective offered no response. Grayson hadn't expected him to. Policies and protocol didn't bring abducted kids back to their parents, and wasting time fighting over jurisdiction wasn't going to accomplish anything.
"Look," he said, meeting the detective's dark eyes. "I'm not here to step on toes. I'm here to find these kids. There's still a chance we can bring them home. All of them. How about you keep that in mind?"
The guy muttered something under his breath and stalked out of the room.
That was fine with Grayson. He preferred to be alone with the witness when she woke. He wanted every bit of information she had, every minute detail. He didn't want it second- or third-hand, didn't want to get it after it had already been said a few times. He needed her memories fresh and clear, undiluted by time or speculation.
Laney groaned softly and began to stir. Just for a moment, Grayson felt like a voyeur. It seemed almost wrong to be sitting over her bed waiting for her to gain consciousness. She needed family or friends around her. Not a jaded FBI agent with his own agenda.
He leaned in toward Laney. Though only moments ago she had appeared to be on the verge of waking, she had grown still again.
"Laney?" he said softly. "Can you hear me?"
He leaned in closer. "Laney?"
She stirred, eyes moving rapidly behind closed lids. Was she caught in a dream, or a memory? he wondered.
"Wake up, Laney." He reached out, resting his hand gently on her forearm.
She came up swinging, her fist grazing his chin, her eyes wild. She swung again, and Grayson did the only thing he could. He ducked.
* * *
Calm down," a man said, his warm fingers curved around Laney's wrist. She tried to pull away but couldn't quite find the strength. Her head throbbed, the pungent smell of antiseptic filled her nose, and she couldn't manage to do more than stare into the stranger's dark-lashed blue eyes.
Not the kidnapper's eyes. Not the eyes of his accomplice. She wasn't lying on the pavement in the dark. There was no Jeep. No van. No struggling young girl with terror in her eyes. Nothing but cream-colored walls and white sheets and a man who could have been anyone looking at her expectantly.
"What happened? How did I get here?" she asked, levering up on her elbows, the hospital room too bright, her heart beating an erratic cadence in her chest.
"A couple ofjoggers found you lying on the sidewalk," the man responded. "Do you remember anything about tonight?"
She remembered everything—heading home from Murphy's training session, seeing the girl and the van, struggling and fighting and failing. Again.
"Yes," she mumbled, willing away nausea and the deep pain of failure.
"Good." He smiled, his expression changing from harsh and implacable to something that looked like triumph. "That's going to help a lot."
"Help who?" Because her actions tonight certainly hadn't helped the girl or her family. Overwhelming sadness welled up within her, but Laney forced it back. She had to get a grip on herself. She had no idea how long she'd been unconscious, what had happened to Murphy, or most importantly, if the police even knew a child had been taken.
"I'm Special Agent Grayson DeMarco with the FBI," the man explained. "I'm hoping you can help with a case I'm working on."
"I'm not worried about your case, Agent DeMarco. I'm worried about the girl who was kidnapped tonight." She shoved the sheets off her legs and sat up. Her head swam, the pain behind her eyes nearly blinding her, but she had to get to a phone. She needed to tell Police Chief Kent Andrews what had happened. They needed to start searching immediately if there was any chance to save the child. And there had to be a chance.
"The girl is my case—and several other children like her," Agent DeMarco responded. "The local police are at the scene of the kidnapping. They're gathering evidence and doing everything they can to locate her, but she's not the only victim. If you've been watching the local news, you know that."
Because he seemed to expect a response, Laney nodded, realizing immediately that was a mistake as pain exploded through her temple. Her stomach churned.
"Lie down." Somehow Agent DeMarco was standing, his hands on her shoulders as he urged her back onto the pillows. "You're not going to do anyone any good if you're unconscious again." The words were harsh, but his touch was light.
Laney eyed him critically. She'd been working around law enforcement—local as well as Secret Service and DEA—for much of her adult life. She knew how the agencies operated. The FBI wouldn't be called in on an isolated, random child abduction.
"I'm fine," she muttered, pushing the button on the bed railing until the mattress raised her...
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