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Critical Witness
Author: Tara Grace Ericson






Her heart was going to explode, there was no other explanation for the intensity of the pounding in her chest. Hannah thought watching the scene unfold before her at the loading dock the other day had been scary, but that was nothing compared to the adrenaline surge and absolute terror overwhelming her at the sight of the three giant men running toward her vehicle.

She kept watching her rearview mirror, waiting for them to show up behind her. Why weren’t they chasing her? She wasn’t even sure what car they were driving though. A red minivan pulled out a few blocks behind her. Was that them? Her breathing remained rapid and her hands were trembling as she turned at the next light. It wasn’t the way toward her appointment at the café, but she had to see if the van followed her.

Who were those men?

Perhaps trying to run them over might not have been the best course of action. She probably wouldn’t have if they’d had on suits like the men at the hotel, or looked like any law enforcement she’d ever seen. Instead, they sported casual clothes and brown utility jackets. She’d definitely caught a glimpse of a gun though. Which was enough for her to do whatever it took to get out of there.

She might be broke, but she’d always been a survivor, and she wasn’t going to stop now when everything she’d dreamed of was within her grasp. All she had to do was go meet this guy from KBC and sign the paperwork he said he would bring. It had been so easy. Too easy, something inside her had tried to whisper, but she ignored it. Mr. Lloyd reached out using the email address she’d set up. They’d agreed to her price, and a job, and credits on the story. It was everything she’d asked for. And it was happening fast.

The van didn’t reappear behind her, and Hannah started to relax, turning back toward the shopping district. She’d offered the Screaming Peach as a meeting place, since it was one of her favorite coffee shops. This time four days ago, she’d been hiding behind boxes of paper plates and disposable silverware. Today, she was going to be introduced as a new investigative reporter for KBC Florida.

Take that, Jeremiah.

Her deadbeat stepdad had done everything in his power to cut her down and break her spirit before he was arrested. Hannah wished her mom could just forget him in that cell to rot, but the damage he’d done to her was irreversible. Jennifer Byers was a shell of the woman she’d been when Hannah was a kid and absolutely no support to her twenty-nine-year-old daughter struggling to make ends meet.

The only thing Jeremiah had given her was this crappy car. Well, given was probably a strong word. And even that was about to meet the expiration date of its usefulness. The check engine light had been on for almost a year. It kept starting, mostly due to the desperate prayer she said every time she turned the key.

She was still a few minutes early for the meeting. She ordered a coffee, celebrating what was hopefully the last time she had to pray the charge didn’t get declined due to lack of funds. The restaurant was busy, as usual. One of the workers helpfully cleared off a small table in the back corner for her. She sat, fluffing her red scarf so Mr. Lloyd could identify her like they discussed.

She took a deep breath and patted her backpack. Her laptop was in there, but she’d put the edited video on a flash drive currently resting in her front pocket. The whole thing felt very clandestine.

She checked her watch. Mr. Lloyd should have been here by now. Her phone didn’t have any data left, but she used the Screaming Peach Wi-Fi to check the burner email address to see if he’d sent anything. Nothing.

Movement at the door caught her eye, and her breath caught in her throat. The camel-colored jacket looked just like one from the guys on the street. She watched as the man casually scanned the restaurant. She couldn’t remember their faces. Was he one of them?

There was no sign of the other men, and she started to relax. Until she saw his eyes land on her and he started heading her way. His blonde hair was trimmed short, and his silver-blue eyes scanned the entire restaurant carefully as he walked toward her table. Her heart rate accelerated, and she clutched her backpack tighter under the table. She prepared to run for it. But what if this was Mr. Lloyd? Maybe he just happened to have a brown jacket.

The handsome stranger pulled out a chair. “I’ve been trying to talk to you, Melanie. You’ve had quite an exciting few days.” His voice was light and laced with a hint of a southern accent, but his expression was solemn and hard.

Despite the confused thoughts running through her head, Hannah schooled her features.

Melanie? There was no reason Mr. Lloyd would call her Melanie. Why would anyone call her… The memory of the nametag now casually lying on her kitchen counter flashed in her mind. She’d been Melanie a few days ago. Her cover at the hotel.

She needed to know who this was. Debating how to get information from this unusually intense stranger, she chose her words carefully.

“Do I know you?”

He shook his head. “I’m afraid not. But I know you have something very important in your possession, and you’re about to make a huge mistake.”

Crap. She tightened her grip on her bag. How did he even know about the video? She had to get out of here. She stood up abruptly, looking around for the closest exit.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” The quiet confidence of the man’s voice made her pause.

She looked down at him. “And why not?”

His steel-blue eyes seemed to see deep into her soul as he looked back up at her.

“Outside right now, from his perch on the top of the building across the street, your Mr. Lloyd is waiting for you to walk out of the building after he doesn’t show up for your meeting. Drone footage confirms he has an MK11 sniper rifle with him, the same one he used to shoot the president of the United States.”

Hannah felt her legs wobble beneath her. How could he deliver news like that so calmly? She sat back down.

“We’re moving on the shooter, just as soon as we secure you, Ms. Byers.”

Hannah’s brow wrinkled at the name, a reminder of Jeremiah. Somehow they thought she was someone named Melanie Byers? She’d never taken Jeremiah’s name when he married her mother. She’d wanted to stay Hannah Stone, her name the last remaining link to the father who raised her.

“Who are you? Military?”

One corner of his lips lifted. “Call me Will. My team has been authorized by acting President Coulter to bring in the man responsible for the assassination attempt. His current target is you and the video footage you’re carrying that would implicate him.”

Hannah let out a shaky breath. “Why is this happening? Who is he?” She didn’t miss the fact that Will hadn’t answered her question.

“We don’t know yet. But he seems convinced that your little video will tell us. Which is why he wants you dead.”

It was all too much. She shook her head, unable to accept what he was telling her. This was supposed to be her big break. This was her chance to escape the cycle of pinching pennies to buy enough groceries for the next week. “No, you’re mistaken. I talked to him. He was legit,” she insisted.

Will simply raised an eyebrow. and her irritation rose at the condescension she felt in the action. She stiffened her shoulders. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull here, but I don’t have to turn over my video to some government tough guy just because you say so.”

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