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Death Angel (Chapter Twenty-four)

"IS DOG FOOD BAD FOR KIDS?"

Andie stopped in her tracks and stared at the two women in the booth. They were both youngish women, clad in jeans and sweaters, hair pulled back in ponytails, and with almost identical harried expressions. They looked nothing alike, but they were the same in their situations: young mothers, multiple children, impossible schedules. That they were here in Glenn's at three p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon suggested they were grabbing some time for themselves while the kids were either at day care or grandma's.

"Don't mind me," she said, shamelessly eavesdropping. Waitresses overheard a lot of interesting conversational tidbits, but this one made her want to laugh.

The woman picked up a fry and swabbed it in ketchup before heaving a sigh. "My youngest is a year old. Since he started walking, every time I feed the dog he comes running and tries to eat the dog's food. I keep him away when I can, but if I turn my back he's right back in the dog's food bowl. He really likes Iams," she finished helplessly.

"At least it's not a cheap brand," the other woman said, shrugging. "My kids eat dirt. Count your blessings."

Laughing, Andie continued to the counter with her loaded tray of dirty plates and cutlery. The television mounted on the wall was muted, but as she passed by one of the truckers seated at the long counter said, "Hey, turn up the TV. That's a weather bulletin."

Shifting the weight of the heavy tray to her hip, Andie picked up the remote and hit the volume button. Immediately the voice of one of the local meteorologists filled the room, and the din of conversation died down as everyone turned to look at the screen.

"-Weather Service has issued a tornado watch until nine p.m. for the following counties in east Kansas. This watch does include the Kansas City area. The dynamics of this storm have been impressive-"

She took the tray on to the pass-through where the waitresses left the dirty dishes to be collected by the kitchen staff. She hadn't dealt with any tornado watches when she'd been living in New York, but now that she was back in the Midwest the whole drill had quickly become as familiar as if she'd never left. Spring was welcome, with its longer days and warm relief from the bitter cold and blowing snow, but spring weather was volatile: warm one day, cold the next, with warring air masses chasing each other back and forth. Just last week they'd had another three inches of snow. Now the weather was warm and humid, and giant thunderheads were building high into the sky.

Keeping an eye on the weather was second nature to everyone in the Midwest and the South. "Tornado watch until nine tonight," she sang out to the kitchen crew.

"Lord," another of the waitresses, Denise, said as she wiped her hands before reaching into her pocket for her cell phone. "Joshua was going to spend the night with one of his buddies. I'd better make sure he lets the cats in the house before he leaves."

"The cats will be fine," Andie said absently. "Just tell him to make sure he turns off the stove."

"Stove? Joshua doesn't cook-Oh!" Her eyes went round as she realized Andie had kind of drifted off, mentally, which they'd learned was a signal. Cassie had shot off her mouth, telling some of her trucker pals about Andie's near-death experience, and some of those pals had asked the other waitresses about it, and even though some of them had considered her slightly psychic before, now they were really paying attention to what she said.

Furiously Denise punched the buttons on her cell phone. "Voice mail!" she muttered with annoyed frustration. Instead of leaving a voice message, she texted her son; teenagers found it almost impossible to resist reading a text message, whereas they could ignore voice mail with ease.

Her phone rang within two minutes. "No, I don't have a spy camera set up at home," she said after listening to an outraged teenager squawking so loud Andie could hear the tone of it from ten feet away. "But it's a good idea, thank you for giving it to me. Now go home immediately and make sure the stove is off, do you hear me? Immediately! Joshua, if you say one more word, you'll not only go home, you'll stay at home. Is that understood? You may say 'yes.'"

With an air of satisfaction, Denise disconnected the call and winked at Andie. "Thanks. Now he thinks I either have spy cameras all over the place, or I'm psychic. Either way, he'll think twice before he does something he shouldn't be doing."

"Glad to be of service."

With a little start of inner surprise, Andie realized that she felt good. She liked being able to help people even in small ways, though preventing a kitchen fire that could have burned down Denise's house probably didn't qualify as "small," certainly not to Denise. She liked working and paying her bills. Physically, she felt damn good, not just for someone who had been impaled and died, but better than she'd felt in years. She was active, she had plenty to eat, she slept well. If she could see her way clear to using that two million dollars for her own benefit, well, life would be better, but her conscience wouldn't let her do it.

Whoever said money corrupted had had it the wrong way around. Money was okay; money was good. Having it was way better than not having it. The corruption came from the person, not the money itself. She would love to use at least part of the two million to buy herself a nice house and a new car, but every time she had herself halfway talked into doing it some bitchy little inner voice would say "Nope, can't do it."

But the money was sitting in her bank account, tempting her every day, and she knew she had to get rid of it before a weak moment caught her when the bitchy little inner voice was on a coffee break or something. She just wished that this one time, doing what she wanted to do and what was right had both happened to be the same thing.

Ah well. She still had her jewelry, and she hadn't stolen it, so selling it and using that money shouldn't be any problem. The amount wouldn't be anywhere close to two million, but she'd still have a nest egg-unless the inner voice told her to repay what she'd used of the two million, in which case she was shit out of luck. Doing right definitely wasn't easy.

A thunderstorm rolled overhead about five p.m.; that was usually a busy time at the truck stop, with people getting off work, but the heavy sheets of rain kept people in their cars, inching along the interstates and surface streets. Stopping might have been the better option, but no one wanted to get out and get soaked. Even the big rigs kept rolling past. The customers who were already in the truck stop stayed put, lingering over a last cup of coffee or deciding to have a slice of pie after all, but overall both the kitchen staff and waitresses had time to catch their collective breaths.

Business remained slow. Storm after storm marched across the city, and though they dodged the bullet regarding tornadoes, the thunderstorms were magnificent. Huge sheets of lightning flashed overhead, and straight-line winds blew trash like missiles across the parking lot. Andie had always kind of liked thunderstorms, so when she could she'd go to the windows and watch.

Around dark the storms eased and the rain lessened, and business picked up a little. Mother Nature wasn't finished with the fireworks, though; the last line of storms marched through, providing a little more drama even though this one wasn't nearly as intense as the earlier storms had been. One particularly brilliant and long-lasting flash of lightning lit the sky, and automatically Andie looked out the windows.

If the man had been walking toward the restaurant, she wouldn't have paid any attention to him. But he wasn't walking; he was just standing there as motionless as a rock, while the lightning flashed around him. She couldn't make out any of his features, he was wearing a long rain slicker and was nothing but a dark shape, but the bottom dropped out of her stomach and her breath caught, and she knew. She had this reaction to one man, and one man only.

She forced herself to turn away from the window as if she hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary. She wanted to run screaming, but letting herself panic was the last thing she needed to do; look what had happened before.

The way he was just standing there, staring inside, reminded her of how Cassie had described the man she'd seen last month. Had he been watching her even then? How long had he known where she was? At least a month, she was certain. So what was he waiting on? Why hadn't he made his move?

She couldn't begin to understand what he was doing. Maybe he was toying with her, like a cat with a mouse. Maybe he was playing some kind of game, waiting to see how long it took her to spot him. If she ran, it would trigger his pounce.

When the next bolt of lightning flashed she couldn't stop herself from whirling to look out the window, but the dark figure was gone. No one stood outside watching her through the rain, almost daring lightning to strike him. She would almost have thought she was seeing things-almost, if not for the fact that Cassie had seen him, and if not for the way her nerves were twitching and her stomach flip-flopping.

She made herself finish her shift. She made herself take orders, refill cups and glasses, clean away the debris. While she did, she thought about what his appearance meant, and she faced some facts she'd been avoiding for the past eight months.

When her shift ended, she sought out Glenn, who worked longer hours than any of them. Good short-order cooks were hard to come by, and Glenn didn't want to hire someone who was just adequate; he did too much business for that. If he couldn't find two other cooks who met his exacting standards, then he worked doubles, without complaining.

"I need to talk to you," she said as she pulled off her apron and tossed it in the laundry basket. "In private, if you can spare a minute."

"Do I look like I can spare a minute?" he groused, his beefy face shiny with sweat. He cast an expert eye over the two order slips hanging from clothespins on a line in front of him. "These two won't take but a minute, so cool your jets until then. Go wait in my office."

She went into his office and sank down on one of the straight-backed chairs, sighing with relief as she got her weight off her feet. She stretched out her legs and bent her feet back toward her as far as they would go, feeling the pull in her Achilles tendons as they loosened. Then she rotated her ankles, and next her shoulders and neck. God, she was tired; tired of running, tired of looking over her shoulder, and there was only one way she'd ever be truly free.

Glenn came hustling into his office and closed the door. "Okay, what's up?"

"I saw a man out in the parking lot tonight," she said, jumping right into the middle of the subject. "He's been stalking me for almost a year, and now he's found me again. I have to leave."

Glenn's face went dark red. "Point him out to me, and I'll make damn sure he never bothers you again," he growled.

"You can't protect me from him," she said gently. "I don't think even around-the-clock guards could stop him. The only thing I can do is stay one step ahead of him."

"Have you been to the police?"

"Glenn, you know restraining orders aren't worth the paper they're written on," she chided. "If he's caught violating it, then it's a felony misdemeanor or something like that, I don't know the right term, but a restraining order never stopped anyone from doing something he really wants to do."

He chewed on the reality of what she'd just said, scowling as he finally admitted she was right. "Damn, I hate to lose you. You've turned into a good waitress. Provided some entertainment around here, too. Got any idea where you're going?"

Andie took a minute to get past the idea that she'd been providing entertainment, though she supposed he might have found a certain amusement in her threat to skewer some guy's balls on a fork. "No, I'll drive until I find somewhere that feels safe. I'll shake him for a while, but he knows how to find people." She knew exactly where she was going, but it was better that Glenn stay in the dark.

He heaved himself out of his chair and went to the electronic safe behind his desk. Keeping his bulk between her and the readout he punched in the numbers; there was a whirring sound, then a click as the lock opened. "Here's what I owe you," he said, counting out some cash from the day's take. "Drive carefully, and God-speed." He flushed again, then leaned forward and gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "You're a good woman, Andie. If you ever see your way clear to come back, there's a job waiting for you."

Andie smiled and impulsively gave him a quick, affectionate hug, then blinked back tears. "I'll remember that. You take care, too." She stopped suddenly, her gaze losing focus as she stared at him and through him. "You need to change your routine," she blurted. "Stop taking the cash by the night deposit on your way home."

"Well, damn it, when else am I supposed to take it?" he asked irritably. "The bank's right on the way home and it isn't as if I have a lot of time-"

"Make time. And use a different branch for the next week or so."

His mouth opened, then he pressed his lips together in a grim line. "Are you having one of them visions?" he asked suspiciously.

"I don't have visions," she denied, her tone as irritated as his. "It's common sense. You've been taking a chance going to the night deposit at the same branch every night, and you know it. Make better decisions, and you won't get shot."

She'd actually had the thought that he'd get knocked on the head and have a concussion, but getting shot sounded a lot more dramatic and serious, so maybe he'd listen to her. He still looked obdurate, so she muttered, "Go ahead and be bullheaded then," and left his office before she started crying. She was really fond of the stubborn jackass, and she hated the idea of anything happening to him, but at the end of the day the decision was his, not hers.

She had enough big-time decisions to handle on her own, she thought as she trudged out to her Explorer. The other second-shift waitresses were leaving at the same time, so she wasn't alone and she supposed that was as safe as she was going to be. She didn't see him, but then she hadn't expected to. He was gone. Just as she felt his presence, she also felt his absence. He didn't know she'd seen him, and the cat had gone off to take a nap somewhere, confident the mouse would stay in its hole.

She felt oddly…calm, now that her decision was made. The first thing she would do was take care of dispersing that two million dollars, because if she got killed before she did anything then the money would just sit there, not doing anyone any good. St. Jude's could always use the bucks, and she would be helping sick kids. There. Decision made. It was so easy she wondered why she'd wrestled with the problem for so long.

Her second decision was that she would never be free as long as Rafael was alive. He would keep the assassin hunting her, and in the meantime he himself would keep on bringing drugs into the country, ruining lives, killing people, while he raked in the dough. She couldn't let him continue.

She'd been a coward when she lived with him, making sure she never looked deep enough to find any hard evidence that could be used against him, deliberately ignoring the opportunities she'd had to discover more about what he was doing. She hadn't wanted to know, and as a result she had no knowledge she could take to the FBI that might result in his arrest. Rafael had the money to fight the legal system, anyway; even if he was arraigned, he could keep the case dragging on in court for a long time.

But she knew him, knew the brutality he hid under his three-thousand-dollar suits and designer haircut. She knew his ego, and the rules of the world he lived in. If he actually saw her, if he knew she was alive and right under his nose, it would drive him nuts. He might lose all sense of caution, because his machismo couldn't tolerate letting her go. He'd stop at nothing to kill her.

The FBI might be able to keep her safe. She hoped so, but with a sense of fatalism she accepted that they might not. One way or another, though, she had to do what she could to stop Rafael, to break up his business. This, then, was the cost of her new life-and the price might well be her life.

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