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CHAPTER 1:

FRIDAY NIGHT

He'd never found a pattern to it. As fog off a river delta, it quietly enshrouds, lingers, and then drifts on. He was engulfed by a damp, gray emptiness, the cries of childhood close to his lips. He was cold, too cold.

But there was no fog here, only the Nevada desert. Although mountains blocked his view, he was gazing toward the southwest in the direction of Los Angeles. The moon doubled his height in a shadow, blurring the tension in his broad shoulders and short neck.

When he could again taste the crisp, desert air, he took control of his eyes first; he focused on the horizon. The urge was strong to walk to where the bright, brilliant stars were within reach. Instead, he turned back toward the filling station, a sprawling blemish beside the old highway. To the north, light from Las Vegas was a dome of whiteness against the dark sky.

He walked carefully, avoiding broken car fragments abandoned to the desert wind and sand. Skeletons of dead vehicles were silhouetted by the moon. With the station lights off, darkness lent respectability, hiding the flaking paint and rusting walls of the building.

He stopped abruptly. Something wasn't right, but all he could grasp was the wrongness of it. He struggled to bring himself back, as if over a great distance. The station was completely dark. It shouldn't be. Jake couldn't be more than half finished with his nightly bookkeeping chores.

Moving quickly now, he picked his way silently around the far end of the building opposite the office. The side door to the service area was still open. At the doorway, he heard the muffled sounds of voices. He heard Jake moan. He drifted swiftly through the blackness, trying not to hear the old man's cry on each additional blow. But the sounds soiled the night, each a lonesome, keening wail.

"Hold the son'bitch higher," a man demanded.

"Fuck it. This old fart won't tell us nothin'."

He felt in the darkness among the tools on the wall and picked an open end wrench. It was eighteen inches long. It had the weight he needed.

"Old man," said a third voice. "We got what ya was fixing to bank. We only need tomorrow's cash. It ain't worth dying for."

He was close enough to hear Jake's faint reply. "Christ. You got it all."

"Hold the bastard. He's slippin'," the first man demanded.

"You'll kill him, ya keep hitting him like that," the third man commented mildly.

"Fuckin' right I will, if he don't tell me right soon."

As he moved toward the entrance to the office, he was careful to keep the heavy wrench away from the metal wall. In the moonlight filtered through the dusty office windows, he could see the man holding Jake and the larger one as he buried his fist in Jake's gut. This time, Jake made no sound, sagging deeper into the grip of the man holding him. All he could see of the third man was the .38 revolver, pointed in the general direction of the action.

He took a guess at where the knees would be below the weapon, gripped the metal door frame, and brought the wrench from behind him, powering it low through the doorway into the unseen man.

Bone breaking has a distinctive sound. He heard it now. He was inside the room before the beginnings of the man's cry. The .38 fell to the floor as a scream of agony burst from his mouth. He paid no attention to the man or the .38; one whose knee has just been shattered does not think of weapons.

It was the startled face of the big man who'd been beating Jake that held his attention. He threw a slow, rolling, overhand punch at the man's broad face with his left. As expected, the blow was blocked. The heavy wrench in his right hand crashed downward into bone above the left ear. The man dropped as if dead.

Swinging upward, almost as a continuation of the blow, he broke the jaw of the man holding Jake. Teeth flew and blood exploded from his mouth as he crumpled.

He grabbed the wrench through his shirt, hastily wiped it free of prints, then dropped it to the floor. Ignoring the harsh screams from the man holding his knee, he grabbed the phone and dialed.

"I'm at Jake's Service Station. Three fellas took his money and beat hell out of him."

"May I have your name, sir?"

"Get the police and an ambulance. If you move it, Jake might make it." He hung up. It wouldn't take long. Las Vegas police respond swiftly and effectively; money-laden tourists are not to be disturbed.

After wiping down the phone, he gently picked up the old man and carried him outside. He laid him on the front seat of a car that had been propped against the station wall. "Oh, Christ, it hurts," Jake murmured.

"Hang on. An ambulance is coming. And cops."

"Your name's not Fairchild, is it?"

"No." He crouched on his heels, holding both the old man's hands as if comforting a small child.

"You better get out of here."

"Yeah." Flashing red lights were moving toward them down the highway, not more than four or five minutes away. "What do you say, Jake? I left at eleven?"

" 'Bout five after, as I recall."

"Thanks, Jake."

"Hell. It's the least I . . ." The old man fainted.

He glanced at the office. The three men would keep. "Sorry as hell I didn't get inside sooner," he murmured softly to Jake.

Gently he eased the tired, bony hands down to the car seat, rose, then moved quickly off across the highway and on into the desert. It was more a trot than a run, a pace he could maintain for hours.

* * *

The Four Aces Motel had been passed by time and a new highway. There were no lights showing in any cottage as he approached from the rear, but the moonlight helped. He picked his way cautiously through years of scattered debris, moving soundlessly in his heavy, steel-toed boots. Although his breathing was heavy after the fast three miles, it had slowed considerably during his final approach. Concerned about police at the moment, there were others he didn't want to meet.

A glance at the door showed the dead leaf he'd placed that morning was still there. He entered, closed the door, and walked across the room to the scarred table beside the bed. When he turned on the small lamp, cockroaches scurried for cover. He hated to take the time, but escape from a city in the middle of a desert is not easy. The airport and bus terminal were out. And he'd never make it looking like Jake's mechanic. He removed his boots, stripped and stepped into the dingy shower.

He lathered quickly, paying particular attention to his coal black hair, grimy from the undersides of cars. He used the towel briskly to erase the last of the desert grit.

His hands took more time. His short nails were easy to clean with the brush and cleanser. But he had to work with care around the quicks and knuckles. He wanted no sign of grease from the station.

As he worked, he thought of the old man. Jake was desert tough, but he'd taken a hard beating. He tried not to think of the three men he'd hit, but that only heightened the images. Sure, they would have killed Jake. But did they deserve crippling blows? Or death?

He slipped into clean clothes, his best shirt and slacks, and laid his sport coat on the bed. He dusted off his black dress loafers with a towel, then tightly rolled what little remained and packed it into the carry all bag. He wrapped the boots in the towel and slipped them inside. The Colt .45 auto load was the last item tucked inside.

His plan was simple. He was known in Vegas as a poker player who won more often than not. He'd play long enough to hitch a ride out of town with someone leaving. The police would not be looking for him in the casinos.

He stepped once again into the bathroom, reached under the toilet tank, and stripped the heavy tape loose, freeing the money belt. Tightened around his waist, the belt was hidden by the drape of his shirt. As he slipped into his coat and reached for his bag, he saw the first hint of dawn through the dirty, dusty window.

He snapped off the light, walked to the door, opened it, then stopped abruptly. His wide mouth was a grim slash across his face. The wide set gray eyes were expressionless.

The tall woman was leaning against the trunk of the nearly dead elm, holding her purse in both hands. Dangling rhinestone earrings accented her long neck. He decided the odd bulge in her purse was a pistol.

"Amanda sent me," she said evenly in a low-pitched contralto. "I'm Josie Botsworth."

"Why would Tom Fairchild interest either of you?" So far as he could tell, none of his tension showed in his soft, easy bass.

She shook her head. "You're Brad Ashton and you're wanted for murder."

"Bounty hunter?" he asked, watching her long fingers holding the purse. Was it open?

"Sometimes," she replied, holding his steady gaze. "Not at the moment."

"Then what do you want?"

"To talk."

"If I don't want to?"

"I'll leave."

"Police?"

"No."

He could see little of her eyes, but they were large and bright. Her nose was too big for her narrow face. There was an intriguing tautness about her. He couldn't tell whether she was ready to run or attack.

"I've news from Amanda you should hear," she said quietly, but emphatically.

"Tell me more about Amanda," he demanded, probing for identification that can't be put down on paper.

"You cost her two hundred and fifty thousand when you skipped bail. That's more than many in the bail bond business can afford."

"You're here to get it back?"

"I'm here because she loves you."

The words jarred, stated so casually in the emptiness of the desert. They startled him. He'd never tried to put Amanda's feelings toward him into words, but those he'd just heard would do nicely.

"Did you know Sgt. Hank Walters was handling your case now?"

"No." His surprise faded into memories of night patrols and the awesome, pounding throb of choppers overhead.

She stepped away from the tree toward him, stopping three feet away. He could smell her faint perfume and whatever she'd last used on her long, black hair. "We'd be more comfortable inside."

"Yeah."

As he turned back into the small room, she followed. He dropped the bag on the bed and turned the light back on. He motioned to the worn overstuffed chair by the lamp and settled into the wooden chair at the foot of the bed.

When she sat down, he could see her more clearly in the forty watts fighting through the dust encrusted lamp shade. She wore a pale blue vest and matching skirt. Her long sleeve, Jersey blouse invited attention. Both her face and neck were splattered with large sprawling freckles. He could see, now, her hair was streaked with dark red.

"Satisfied?" she asked, tossing her hair back over her shoulder.

"Sorry," he said, feeling the blush in his cheeks. He saw the hint of a smile, quickly gone. "How'd you find me?" he asked.

"Amanda knows you play poker. She's had friends keeping an eye out for you. Someone recognized you early last week in the Golden Nugget. She asked me to come up and keep track of you."

"You've been on me over a week?"

"Every move."

He hadn't seen her; he'd had no hint anyone was interested in him. Respect for her skill added another dimension to his impression of the tall, competent woman he faced.

"I stopped by Jake's, hoping to catch you there." For an instant, distaste clouded her features. "Perhaps we should be talking in my car while driving south out of Nevada. If you're responsible for what happened, the police will be looking for you."

"How's Jake?"

"Sitting up when I left, talking about a god-like, blonde stranger who saved his life. Bruised ribs seem to be the extent of his injuries."

"And the other three?"

"Do you care?"

"Yes."

"Sorry. The question was uncalled for," she said. "The paramedics said they'd live, but they looked dead or dying to me."

"You don't approve?"

"To be fair, perhaps you had to act as you did. But I don't care for violence, even when it seems to solve problems."

"Why are you carrying a pistol?"

"That's a point, isn't it?" Abruptly she snapped the purse closed and laid it on the table beside her. She clasped her hands and leaned forward on her elbows, shrinking the gap between them. "This business in Los Angeles, wouldn't it be better to settle it? To put it behind you?"

"Yes," he replied decisively. Hell. That was all of it. How to arrange it was the constant question. Nothing else could matter until he was free.

"When you were arrested for the murder of your brother-in-law, you ran; you couldn't cope. The war and that Cong prison camp had ripped you apart." She paused, searching for a clue in his eyes. "It's different now. Obviously you've regained your health. You may have a good deal of uncertainty and some unanswered questions, but you've basically got things together. It's time to go back."

He made no reply as he combed his still damp hair back with his fingers.

"Everything is arranged. Sgt. Walters and your attorney took your case back to the District Attorney's office. It took a week and a meeting with Judge Tofler, but they came up with a deal. I checked; there aren't any strings."

"A deal? Strings? What are you talking about?"

"Your attorney promised you'd turn yourself in Sunday. Judge Tofler agreed to a hearing Monday and to reinstate bail. The District Attorney's office agreed to drop charges for lack of evidence."

His mouth opened, but there were no words.

"You'll receive a suspended sentence for skipping out. You'll be free. But don't take my word; call Amanda."

He tugged gently on an ear lobe. "All that evidence just went away?" His eyes called her a liar, but a ray of hope had begun to glimmer, screening him from murky, black fears.

"A lot of people saw you take Gerald's .45 away from him in the bar. Your ex-wife supported your statement that you went to bring home her drunken brother as a favor. But she claimed she saw you shoot him. You were arrested, spent the night in jail, and were then arraigned.

"You didn't ask for help, but Amanda found out somehow, and put up bail. She also asked Jeffery Walden to take your case.

"The day after you left, Lydia changed her story. She claimed she'd been misunderstood, that all she'd meant was the killer looked like you."

"What if Lydia changes her story again?"

"Walden would never allow a jury to believe a story in its third version." She studied his face, then asked, "Do you still have the .45 you took from Gerald?"

He nodded.

"You've friends in LA," she said, looking away. "They believe you're innocent." She turned back to face him, tossing her hair over her shoulder. "If it's the murder weapon, bury it. If not, turn it over to Sgt. Walters. They never found the weapon." She met his gaze evenly.

"No need to bury it," he said. He liked the warmth that flooded into her eyes.

"Then we should leave."

He stood and began pacing, a hard restlessness in every step. He stopped, facing her, tugging gently on his ear. "It's not that easy, Ms. Botsworth."

"Josie is friendlier."

"Josie, then." He paused, gathering his thoughts. "It's too good to be true." He interrupted her reply with a slight lift of a hand and continued. "I believe what you said. At least I believe you believe what you said." He moved to the window and gazed out at the desert. The moon had gone down and the sun was beginning to brighten the sky. The morning breeze tossed faint, flickering light off the desert sage. He turned to face her.

"I grew up and trotted off to war with the idea our government was the finest possible. It's different now. I know it's the best on this planet, but it's a crock." His gray eyes were flat with disgust. "And our highly touted legal system? It flat ass terrifies me. Walden had to wake that judge up twice in twenty minutes. Hell. I don't mean any more to him than dust on a window sill." Abruptly he resumed pacing.

"I can see why you might feel that way," she said, "but it's not that bad."

He sat back down in the hard wooden chair, leaning toward her, struggling to still his body and his racing thoughts. He was silent for several moments. "To go back your way, to let them get their hands on me, that would be hard."

"I know."

"Even one night in a cell." He shuddered. "Ever been in jail?"

She shook her head.

He looked away, out the dirty window. He was gone to a place far away, to an ever present past. "They dropped me into a hole, then covered it over. There was no light, no sound, except from an occasional drop of water seeping through the ground above me.

"I counted five hundred and twenty-three drops before I lost count the first time." When he turned toward her, his face was pale. "I've never believed it was only a month. I just don't know if I can do it. The night I spent when they arrested me seemed like years."

"You're stronger now."

"Maybe." He allowed himself to get lost in her dark blue eyes. "If it goes wrong?"

"Walden said if it goes to trial, he'll win easily."

But what if something went wrong and Walden didn't win? The chill in his back translated to an uncontrollable tremor in his hands.

The silence dragged on. Josie leaned back in the chair, waiting. Finally he said, "You're very convincing."

"It's not difficult in this case. You're an intelligent man; the facts speak for themselves."

"Yeah." He stood slowly. "Maybe we best get going while those facts are real clear in my head."

"You're sure?" she asked, searching his face.

He nodded, reaching for his bag. She picked up her purse, turned out the light and walked toward the door. As he opened it for her, he knew she couldn't see the icy grip of fear pinching his stomach. If she noticed the tremor in his hands, she didn't comment. He followed her out, closing the door behind him. Stomping ruthlessly on fear, he fell in step beside her.

A black Pontiac Trans Am was parked beside the cottage next to his. "I feel a little better," he said, grinning. "At least I remember the car."

She smiled, unlocked the door for him, moved to the other side, and slipped behind the wheel. He tossed his bag into the back seat as the car started with an authoritative roar. She drove carefully, dodging rocks and chuckholes. Once on the highway, the car quickly gathered speed. Two miles later, she turned off in front of an all night coffee shop.

"I'd feel better if you called Amanda." She didn't look at him as she spoke. She looked straight ahead through the windshield.

"No need," was all he said. He was rewarded with a dazzling smile. The powerful car leapt back onto the highway.

----- [snip] -----

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CHAPTER 3

MONDAY

"Judge Tofler, the Vietnam war has marred this nation deeply." Jeffery Walden was persuasive. As Brad remembered, the judge was nodding; he was making no effort to hide his boredom. Walden straightened his perfectly positioned tie, settled his coat on his shoulders with an elegant shrug and continued. "But what concerns us here is the impact of that war on the individual soldier who fought it."

Walden was a dynamic force in the courtroom. His slight stature was lost to those listening. Alone at the defense table, Brad loosened his new tie; it felt foreign, restrictive. He wanted to walk out, despite the two armed marshals.

He looked around the room. Most were concerned about other items on the court's agenda. A few were curious, perhaps drawn by the magic of Walden's presentation. Hank sat behind the rail near the prosecutor's table. He caught Brad's glance; whatever concern he felt was carefully hidden behind his nearly black eyes. His coarse blonde hair contrasted nicely with his light green sport coat. He pointed his thumb to the ceiling as if to say, "So far, so good," then turned his attention back to the judge.

Brad knew Amanda and Josie, seated behind him, were listening carefully. He tried to ignore the trickles of fear, to concentrate on what Walden was saying. He wished the judge would do the same.

"You have his war record before you. The patrols he led were extremely effective. Night after night, Lt. Ashton and a few selected men, vastly outnumbered, fought a deadly guerilla war. The medals and citations he received are ample evidence of his success."

Walden paused, considering his next point. The judge looked up as if suddenly remembering where he was. "As a prisoner of war, Lt. Ashton faced a different kind of war for two years. The record shows he fought these battles equally well, with great personal courage. The record does not show the impact of violence, treachery, and torture on the individual man. We must—"

"Mr. Walden," interrupted Judge Tofler with a sleepy nod, "that will be sufficient for now. Bail is hereby reinstated." Brad breathed deeply; it felt good. The drama was unfolding according to the script. At least Amanda would get her money back. "As to the charge of flight to avoid prosecution," Judge Tofler continued, his sleepy voice barely audible, "does anyone have anything to say?"

He glanced toward the prosecutor's table and mumbled, "Ninety days. Suspended." He rapped his gavel lightly and continued, still gazing at the prosecution's table. "I believe, Mr. Danielson, you have something to say."

Mr. Danielson rose, trim and neatly groomed, wearing a gray three piece suit. "I presume you're referring to an earlier discussion of dropping charges?"

The judge scowled darkly, studying the man suspiciously. He spoke bluntly. "I was not speaking of a discussion, but of an agreement."

"My office would like additional time to study the matter, your Honor. We're not prepared to dismiss at this time. We're not—"

"You're not what?" interrupted Judge Tofler, totally awake now.

Brad didn't hear what was said. He was dealing with a personal earthquake of a magnitude immeasurable on any scale. His grip on the arms of the chair turned his knuckles white. The trickles of fear had become waves, thundering and pounding at every part of his being. Everyone had told him he'd be free today. They were wrong.

Brad had been returning to LA to clear his name. But he had planned to come in quietly, unseen, to act in subtle fashion to achieve his goal. But now he's in the spotlight. Every move he makes will be noted. A realist, he knows he may not succeed, that he may die. But he also knows that life without freedom is an unacceptable alternative.

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