U. S. Marshal Ron Toledo pulled the beige file folder from between the driver’s seat and the console of the black government issued Tahoe. He got out, having parked in front of Maxwell’s Houze in beautiful downtown Dismal, South Carolina. The mid December afternoon was cool enough to justify the sport coat he wore to cover the Glock on his right hip. He sighed, slipped the Ray Bans off his face, hung them on his open collared dress shirt, and headed into the coffee shop.
It was late afternoon, and the place was almost empty with just a couple of shoppers taking a break on a couch near the back and Maxwell Houze was behind the counter. He filled a big white mug with dark black coffee when he saw Toledo come in and handed it over the counter.
Mary Anne was sitting on a stool on the stage playing her Fender softly and Toledo and nodded to her. She smiled and slid into an instrumental version of Blue Christmas.
“Think I’ll have one of those zucchini muffins too.” Toledo blew on the coffee and took a sip.
“Merry Christmas, Marshal.” Houze put one of the muffins on a plate, microwaved it for 15 seconds and passed it over. “It’s on the house.”
“Much obliged. Let’s sit up front.”
They sat in a pair of well-worn brown leather recliners near the front of the store with a view of Main Street and watched the sporadic traffic for a while.
“So how is married life?” Toledo pinched off the top of the muffin, took a big bite, and followed it with coffee.
Across the street, a brown and gold late 80’s Ford Aerostar van pulled into a parking spot. Toledo’s eyes narrowed and as Maxwell began to speak, he only half listened while his thoughts turned back to earlier in the day…
“When your Chief Deputy first sat us down and we had “The Talk” about both of us being in WitSec, I thought Mary Anne was going to kill me…”
Toledo had rolled into Dismal about eleven that morning and his first stop was a visit to the Dismal City Police Department. One of the detectives there was on the Fugitive Task Force and Toledo rode out to the Sheriff’s Office with her to meet with the Sheriff and his representative in the group.
“…but Mary Anne finally realized that she had lied to me the same as I had lied to her and then, you know, obviously we worked it out.”
“Obviously.” Toledo said.
The van, or one just like it, had been parked across the road at the convenience store when the group parked to eat lunch and, thinking back, Toledo thought he’d seen it later when he left the Police Department. It wasn’t really an uncommon vehicle, but you didn’t see them nearly as often as you once did and the color combination stood out.
“….it was a small wedding, just a quick service here with a notary public. Sorry you couldn’t make it… but it was nice of Amanda to come.”
Amanda being Chief Deputy Amanda Barnes, his boss, who should be here in about twenty minutes.
“I’m going out the back,” Toledo stood. “I don’t much like the look of those guys sitting out there in the van.”
But Toledo had turned, then headed past Mary Ann and to the back door. He slipped out the door, walked through the alley, and came out almost a block behind the van. He crossed the street and slowly approached it from the rear. There were two good old boys sitting in the running car with the windows down. They were smoking something that didn’t smell much like Winstons. The radio was jacked up with Garth Brooks singing about not coming home till the sun comes up.
The sawed off shotgun sticking out from under a dirty Carolina Panther throw in the back seat told him his intuition had been spot on. The Glock was in his hand instantly.
“Keep your hands where I can see them!” Toledo yelled and pointed the gun at the passenger.
The startled man spun his head toward Toledo, then turned to reach for the shotgun. Toledo smashed his nose with the Glock, blood exploded onto the dash and the windshield. The driver reached for the gearshift and Maxwell Houze, the peaceful proprietor of Maxwell’s House, hit him once, breaking his jaw in two places.
“That was fun!” Max looked over the van at Toledo.
“Shit.” Toledo said, pulled his phone, and dialed 911.
They were back in the coffee bar an hour later. The temperature had gone down with the sun and Max had closed the place early. Chief Deputy Amanda Barnes commanded everyone’s attention as she stood in front of them. She ended her phone call, and then nodded at Toledo.
“So… the Dismal Police Chief just confirmed the two guys out front were low level muscle and Marshal Toledo was the target. We will be securing a federal warrant for “Big Mike” Jensen tonight—“
“I’ll serve it, I bet I know where he’s…” The look Toledo got from Barnes not only stopped him mid sentence, it told him he wouldn’t be serving anything, except possibly fries at McDonalds, if he persisted. Knowing better than to push his luck, he got up from the table and went to stand beside her.
“Okay,” she continued. “Back to the matter at hand. I know it’s only a few days until Christmas, and this is kind of sudden, but what do you think?”
The contents of the beige file folder were spread out on the table in front of Mary Anne and Max. There were legal papers, medical records, court documents, and photographs.
Max surveyed the documentation and thought that while all of it mattered, none of it really mattered. Max had watched Mary Anne’s eyes as the matter at hand had been discussed. The decision had been made, it just hadn’t been announced.
“If we agreed, when would this happen?” Max looked up and asked as Mary Anne squeezed his hand.
“It’s now or never. Sorry but if it’s a ‘no thanks’ we have to move on to plan B. It’s in everyone’s best interest.”
Mary Anne looked at Max, they both nodded in unison.
Chief Deputy Barnes spoke into her walk-in talkie, the front door opened, and two female agents escorted the newest member of WitSec into the coffee shop.
She had short brown hair, matching huge brown almost doll-like eyes, and slightly chubby cheeks that were rosy now from the chill that had fallen outside. She carried her three-year-old self with a certain confidence and walked right up to the table to stare at her prospective adoptive parents. And then she smiled, and the room lit up with the sheer brilliance of it.
“Merry Christmas?” she asked.
And it was.
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