I arrive at Valencia's house at 5:00 that morning. She is awake, but barely, and I want to fall asleep myself after a mere two hours of sleep. But Valencia's eyes widen when she sees me, and her fear helps me wake up.
"Did you get my voicemail?" I ask her.
"No, what's going on?"
"Call in sick to work." I shut and lock the door behind me as I enter her house, and I make sure all her blinds are closed. "The man who wants you killed is impatient. Does the date November 15 have any significance to you?"
Valencia's eyes are wide. "That's his court date."
I shove Valencia's cat into the laundry room and shut the door. "Why is he going to court?"
"My husband--Dale--he was an accountant for Skylar Keeson's company. After he was promoted to manager, he found out that there were some--illegal things going on. The company was charging the employees fees for things like use of technology and breakroom supplies, but none of that money went to anything good." Valencia's voice trembles. I guide her to her sofa and place a blanket around her. She clutches it around her shoulders and takes a deep breath. "Two weeks after Dale confronted Keeson about it, we were eating lunch together, he started throwing up, I thought it was food poisoning--"
She wipes her eyes. I hand her a Kleenex, and she buries her face in it before looking up at me. "But not before he filed a claim. There was a hearing scheduled for November 15, and I was going to testify in Dale's place."
"You need to give that testimony now," I tell her. My eyes begin to water; I stand and rifle through her cabinets until I find a Benadryl. Then, I take a glass and fill it at her sink.
I glance up at the sheer curtain that hides the inside of Valencia's house from the rest of the world. It is a lovely cream color, except for a single red dot of laser light. Briefly, I scan the room for its source, but the dot moves as I do. My mouth turns dry.
Outside, something explodes. Glass shatters with an earsplitting crash, and something pricks my bicep as I turn to run. I grab Valencia by the arm and fly out the door into my car. More shots ring out, but they hit the ground around us. We zoom away, ignoring stop signs and speed limits, hopefully before whoever shot at us was able to recognize the make and model of my car.
"Max, what's happening?"
I take Suzanne off my dashboard and toss it to Valencia, who is sitting on the floor of the passenger's side. "Where's the nearest police station?"
"Just tell her where the nearest police station is. She'll get us there."
"Just do it!"
I'm about to reach the end of Valencia's neighborhood when I finally hear Suzanne's voice: "In point three miles, turn left onto Eleventh Street." I hardly slow down to turn. Someone honks at me, but I ignore them.
Valencia buries her face in the passenger's seat. "You almost hit that car."
"In five miles, turn right onto South Brockett Street."
I move into the right lane. I check my mirrors, but I see no one following me. But just because I see no one does not mean that no one is there.
"Valencia, there's a zipper under the passenger seat," I say. "Can you open it?"
I hear the pocket unzip. "It's just seat stuffing," Valencia says. "What do I do with it?"
"Dig through it."
My face is set as I focus on the road, and on making sure no one is following us. Yet part of me anticipates Valencia's reaction to what she's about to find, and the other part of me dreads it.
Her voice is like a scolding teacher's. "Max, do you have a permit for this?"
I smile as I take the pistol she hands me. "I sure don't."
M. J. Piazza is a Jesus-loving, dog-walking country girl who just so happens to write books.