Cut and Run


By Ridley Pearson

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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 1, 2006. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A spellbinding thriller pitting a U.S. federal marshal against the mob’s most resourceful killer–in a race to save the woman he loves Six years ago, witness protection marshal Roland Larson did the unthinkable: He fell in love with a protected witness, Hope Stevens, whose testimony was to put away prominent members of the Romero crime family. When Hope’s plan to “cut and run” is interrupted by both the government and the mob, she disappears into a new identity, taking with her not only her testimony but also a secret never shared with Larson. Larson, who has been looking for her ever since, is put back on her trail when the Romeros intercept the master WITSEC list from the Justice Department and Hope is believed to be among the first protected witnesses targeted for execution. In a series of terrifying encounters, Larson matches wits with a brutally ingenious killer whose sole target is Hope Stevens. For Larson, the stakes couldn’t be higher–he must find Hope in order to protect her and simultaneously prevent the mob from auctioning off the master witness protection list–an act that will put seven thousand innocent, and not-so-innocent, lives in jeopardy. Taut and edge-of-the-seat compelling, Cut and Run is a unique thriller that skillfully blends romance and suspense–Ridley Pearson at his heart-pounding best.




Of all things, Larson thought he recognized her laugh. Here, where he least expected it. It carried like a shot, well past his ears and spilling down into the audience where it ran into a waterfall of others—though none exactly like it—and broke to pieces before the footlights and spots that made the dust in the air look like snow. It might as well have lodged in his chest, the way it stole his breath.

He’d started the day perfectly, the way he wished he could start every day, busting his body into a sweat while pulling on twin sticks of composite carbon painted on the scoop in a diagonal of rich burgundy and black, the owner’s college colors no doubt, driving the borrowed scull through swirls of no-see-ums and gnats so thick he clenched his teeth to filter them out, the occasional dragonfly darting swiftly alongside as if challenging him to a race. He’d been up before the birds, and would be done—put away and showered, Creve Coeur Lake behind him—before the rush-hour traffic made the city’s famous arch stand still.

He’d taken in the play on a whim, calling the box office to see if there were any singles available, a guilty pleasure he wouldn’t have told anyone about if he hadn’t engaged the receptionist, Lokisha, in a discussion of Shakespeare on the way out the door.

The fact was that in over five years of secretly searching for Hope at Shakespeare festivals and performances—in places as far away as Ashland, Oregon, and Cedar City, Utah—he’d become passionate about the Bard himself: the violence, the romance, the lies and deceptions, the cunning, the manipulation, the symmetry of the plays. It had never occurred to him that he might find her here in his own backyard. The belief in coincidence had been trained out of Larson in the way a dog could be made to lie by the dinner table and not look up to beg.

He’d felt his BlackBerry purr silently at his side several times over the past ten minutes, but it was after hours and it did that for any incoming e-mail, spam or legitimate, and he wasn’t about to bother the people sitting next to him by lighting up a pale blue electronic screen in his lap while they tried to remain firmly in the sixteenth century. The intermission was fast approaching. He’d check e-mail and messages then.

This city was the last place—the absolute last place—he might have expected to hear her laugh: a combination of wild monkey and a Slinky going down a set of stairs. Even almost six years later he would have known her musical cackle anywhere. But St. Louis, in the Fox Theatre? Not on your life. Not on hers, either.

But it was Shakespeare, which he knew to be in her blood. If he were to find her, it would be at a performance like this—and so a part of him was tempted, even convinced, that he’d finally found her.

The balcony. He imagined her selecting a seat that offered the strategic advantage of elevation, because that was just the kind of thing he’d taught her.

Onstage, Benedick, having dived into a horse trough, addressed the audience, his black leather riding pants and billowing shirtsleeves leaking water. Another volley of laughter rippled through the crowd, and there it was again. Larson felt like a birder identifying a particular species solely by its song.

He was no longer laughing along with the others. Instead, driven by curiosity, he was turned and straining to look up into the balcony.

Being too large for the closely crowded seats, his temperature spiked and his skin prickled. Or was that the possibility running through him? He represented Hope’s past, her former self. Would she want that as badly as he did? Had she somehow found out about his transfer? Through all his training, coincidence nipped at his heels. Baffled, unsure what to do, he stayed in his seat.

The Fox Theatre, a renovated throwback to a bygone era, dwarfed its audience. Its combination of art deco, gilded Asian, quasi-Egyptian splendor, with anachronistic icons, like a twenty-foot-tall cross-legged Buddha, lit in a garish purple light, looked intentionally overwhelming. Despite the vastness of the hall, Larson felt impossible to miss. At well over six feet, and with shoulders that impeded both the theater-goers on either side of him, he would stick out if he stood. It seemed doubtful she might spot him, might recognize him from the back at such a distance, but he hoped she would. He glanced around once more, amused and concerned, intrigued and feeling foolish, his muscles tense. His shoulder ached, as it had ached for the past six years every time a storm drew near. He’d carried the same badge all these years, though now his credentials wallet showed a different title, Larson having been reassigned, along with Hampton and Stubblefield, to the Marshals Service’s elite Fugitive Apprehension Task Force. Part bounty hunter, part bloodhound, part con man and actor, FATF marshals pursued escaped convicts and wanted felons in an effort to return them to their predetermined incarceration.

If she spotted him before he spotted her, what would come of it? Larson wondered. Would she fight through the crowd to be in his arms? Would she run? Again he put his own training onto her, deciding for her that she’d selected an aisle seat near an exit. She’d probably make for that exit rather than risk running into him.

He’d lost all track of the play. The audience erupted in laughter, and he’d missed the joke. He continued to imagine various ways this could possibly be her, but none made sense. Not here. Not St. Louis. Not unless she, too, were looking for him.

Six years. It seemed alternately to him like both a matter of days and a lifetime. What would he say to her? Her to him? Would she even care?

Larson wiped his damp palms on the thighs of his khakis. Again, a wave of laughter washed over the crowd. But this time, something different: her distinctive laugh was no longer a part of it. Larson turned again in his seat, scanning various exits. No sign of Hope, but slightly behind him, a pair of men in dark suits stood with an usher, both dutifully scanning the crowd.

In an audience of twenty-five hundred, there were plenty of men wearing suits—but none quite like these two. Conservative haircuts, thick builds. The big guy looked all too familiar. Federal agents, like himself. Though not like him at all. FBI maybe, or ATF, or even Missouri boys, working for the governor. A WITSEC deputy? The federal witness security and protection service was now a separate entity, but had recently been part of the Marshals Service.

Larson knew many of those guys, but not all. These two, WITSEC? He doubted it.

He might have thought they were looking for Hope, but the big one looked right at him and locked on. This man somehow knew the row, the seat—he knew where to find Larson. Cocking his head, the agent directed Larson to meet up with them. Larson held off acknowledging while he thought long and hard about how to play this, the earlier buzzing of his BlackBerry now more persistent in his memory.

As with Hope’s laugh, two deputy marshals, or agents, materializing at the Fox was anything but coincidence.

He felt tempted to check the BlackBerry but didn’t want to leave his head down that long. The big guy’s posture and the way he bit his lower lip revealed a gnawing anxiety, a nagging unrest. This wasn’t a social call.

A nearby woman wore too much perfume. He’d been struggling with it through the performance, driven to distraction. Only now did he find it nauseating.

The audience laughed uproariously.

Larson chanced a last strained look toward the balcony, then gave it up.

Hope didn’t miss anything. Whether she’d seen Larson or not, she’d likely have spotted the suits by now, and therefore was already well on her way to gone.

Intermission arrived with a wave of crushing applause. The stage fell dark. By the time the houselights came up, Larson had already slipped past four sets of knees, avoided a handbag, and laid his big hand on a stranger’s shoulder.

Hope would now head in the opposite direction from the two agents; she would quickly put as much distance between herself and the theater as possible. Seek cover. Avoid public space. She would never look back and would not hurry, no matter how desperate she believed her situation. Her walk would be controlled, yet deceptively swift, her demeanor casual though determined. She would never return to the theater again, no matter what the show. If he were to catch her, he would have to run; and if he ran, the two bloodhounds were sure to follow; and if they followed, and if he led them to her, then he’d prove himself a traitor to her.

Stuck. Larson tested the agents’ purpose by mixing himself into the throng and making for the opposite exit. But his head traveled a full head above most, like a parade float.

As expected, the two immediately followed, rudely pushing open a route to attempt to intersect Larson’s path. Larson got caught in a snag of people as a wheelchair blocked the aisle. He cut through a now-empty row, working away from the men. Copies of Playbill littered the floor. He joined the right flank and pressed on toward an interior lobby, where people mingled looking lost.

Out of habit, he tested his skills, scanning the crowd for any woman wearing a headscarf or a hat, any woman making quickly for the main lobby and the doors beyond. He didn’t spot her, and all the better. He had no desire to get her tangled up with these two.

Someone shouted and he knew it was for him. Adrenaline pricked his nerves. His stomach turned with the mixture of human sweat, cologne, and perfume. He pushed on to his left, his swollen bladder taking him down a long, wide set of elegant stairs as he joined a phalanx of men eager for urinals. He heard his name called out and cringed. It reminded him, not favorably, of being singled out by a coach, or the school principal.

He hazarded a look: The big one with the leather face and edgy disposition was following him, the younger one immediately on his heels.

He stopped on the stairs, and the current of impatient men streamed around him. He addressed his two pursuers as they drew closer, the face of the more senior of them revealing his surprise that Larson would allow himself to be caught.

“Gimme a minute of privacy,” Larson said as he continued down, determined to appear unruffled.

Reaching the basement level, he entered a cavernous anteroom that held only a mirror, a small wooden table, and twin tapestry chairs that looked to be from a museum. Beyond this anteroom was the actual bathroom, about the size of a soccer field. Sinks straight ahead. To his left, a room of stalls; to his right a roomful of old porcelain urinals—there must have been thirty or forty of them. Built into the wall and floor, and so obviously antiques, the urinals looked surprisingly beautiful to him.

Larson took his place in line and emptied his bladder. One of the great pleasures in life.

“We need to talk.” The same low voice, now directly behind him. The big one had followed him down. Junior Mint was no doubt standing sentry at the top of the stairs, ensuring that Larson didn’t slip out.

“And I need to pee,” Larson said, not looking back, but the magic of the moment spoiled.

A hand fell firmly onto his shoulder.

“Fuck off!” Larson shrugged and wrenched himself forward, dislodging the grip. Thankfully the man stepped back and let him finish. As he washed his hands he saw two images of the big pain in the ass in the cracked mirror.

“That was unnecessary,” Larson cautioned. He wanted to establish some rules.

The agent said, “We were told you could be slippery. To respect that in you. That’s why the hardball.”

The guy at the next sink over stopped washing and eavesdropped on them.

“You trying to butter me up?” Larson asked. “You’ve got a funny way of doing that.”

“I’m trying to get a message to you.”

Larson had to stare down the man at the adjacent sink to get him to leave.

“So, deliver it.”


Larson turned and faced the man, Larson taller by several inches. “Here.”

Seen close up, this other guy’s face carried an unintentional intensity—something, somewhere, was very, very wrong.

The man cupped his hand and leaned in toward Larson, who did nothing to block him, as his own hands were now engaged with a paper towel. The guy’s breath felt warm against Larson’s neck, causing a shiver as he said, “I was told to tell you that we’ve lost Uncle Leo.”

Larson dumped the towel into the bin and heard himself mumble, “Oh, shit.”


Larson had picked up people from private jets before: a supervisor; some WITSEC brass; a witness or two came to mind. But he’d never flown in a private jet himself, so although the cause was a man’s disappearance, and the resulting tension inside the aircraft nearly palpable, he got a kick out of it nonetheless. Leather seats the size of first class held his large frame comfortably. Wood trim, polished like the dash of a Jaguar, surrounded a wall-mounted flat-panel TV that currently displayed their flight route over ground but probably could have handled a video, had either of the agents been interested in some entertainment. There was even an air phone that none of them had permission to use. Heady stuff, despite the lack of any offer of food or drink, beyond bottled water, and the general mood of its inhabitants, both of whom bordered on morose.

Larson wished his parents had been alive to hear about this, but he’d lost them both to twentieth-century plagues: his father to smoking, his mother to drink. He’d had a sister once, but she’d gotten lost in her high school years and had run away, never to be heard from again. He’d never used his tracking skills to hunt her down, and he wondered if someday he might.

The explanation for him taking this flight had been cryptic at best—Uncle Leo had gone missing. The wherefore and how had yet to reach him. But the promise of a nearly instant return flight once there, also on the private jet, had convinced him not to challenge this assignment. Few people could summon a government jet at a moment’s notice; fewer still to transport his rank of deputy marshal. He was considered little more than a glorified bounty hunter, so why the special treatment? He’d decided to ride this one out, despite his tendency to question orders and cause headaches for his superiors, because he suspected that Scott Rotem, his immediate superior and boss, was behind the order. Neither of his companions would confirm this.

He thought once more of the woman’s laugh in the Fox, and the state of panic in him that it had caused. He laughed out loud at his flight of fancy, then covered his mouth with his hand and tried to wipe the grin off his face: Of all the unhealthy indulgences. Why her? Why now?

The agents looked at him like he was supposed to share the joke. Both of his keepers carried Justice Department credentials. The older one with the pained eyes answered to one of those names that rang familiar to Larson: Wilcox. Larson knew a couple different guys named Wilcox, one a running coach at a private college, the other a former FATF deputy said to be one of the most reliable and most entertaining stakeout partners out there. This guy was neither of them and, whereas Larson felt a little tired, Wilcox saw eleven o’clock pass still rigidly upright and wide awake in his padded seat, like he had a broomstick up his ass. He typed aggressively, as if the laptop had pissed him off in some way, or else the report he was generating was his last will and testament.

“What about Hampton and Stubblefield?” Larson asked suddenly. Hampton and Stubblefield had survived their wounds. The two had transferred with him and were members of his FATF squad. Larson depended upon them. “Have they been called?”

Wilcox pursed his lips and returned to his typing. “You find out when we get there.”

Larson stared out the window, the night’s black canvas mixing with his own reflection of deep set green eyes, lips set in a constant smirk, and skin that needed a shave. Below, city lights shimmered, small and clustered. The world looked so simple from above.

Hope’s offer, six years earlier, had been straightforward enough itself. The bus incident, the failed attempt on her life, had forced the Marshals Service to request her immediate placement into WITSEC, an unusual but not unheard-of pretrial tactic.

There had been nothing romantic or sentimental in Hope’s proposal perhaps because, like him, she feared they were being watched. There was never time for just the two of them. While Larson appeared at briefings covering the bus incident, Hope had been placed into a safe house—the Orchard House, an old farmhouse out of town—and guarded by Larson’s team, limiting Larson’s contact with her. The days ticked down toward a full “identity” wash, after which Hope Stevens would cease to exist, even for Larson.

“Come with me,” she’d said in a businesslike tone.

They were standing in the safe house’s backyard. A winter wind blew through his clothes; this was how he explained to himself the full-length shiver that swept through him at that moment.

His fantasy and the culmination of his fears. “What?”

“Request a new identity and come with me. We’ll start over together.”

She knew—they both knew—that this was nothing short of a proposal of marriage. Where she was going, it was permanent. Once into WITSEC, there was no going back, no reconnection to one’s past. It was a case of self-invoked amnesia. Suddenly it seemed to Larson that on so many levels they barely knew each other. Could he make this decision without thinking it through, without a chance to say some important good-byes?

Adding to the difficulty was his insider’s knowledge of how difficult—impossible—WITSEC could be on the protected witness. Even the most hardened criminal cracked when shut off from all contact with family members. Many ended up attending baptisms, weddings, or funerals, exposing themselves, breaking the anonymity of their protection, risking their lives for a few minutes of the familiar.

How long would Hope hold up? What if he gave up the years of his training and employment only to have the relationship self-destruct six months into the struggle to remake themselves? How well would he hold up?

He didn’t speak any of this, didn’t voice his concerns, but he clearly wore them on his face, for she grew pale, turning away from the wind and him along with it.

“Oh,” she said.

“It’s not that . . . It is just so out of the blue is all . . .”

“Is it?”

“Me joining the program? WITSEC? Yeah, it is. It’s like a doctor becoming a patient. The warden becoming a prisoner. It’s just something you don’t ever see happening to you, when you’re on this side of protection.”

“Well, I’m asking you to see it.”

“Will they even let me? I doubt it.” He had no idea how such a request would be treated. Fraternization was discouraged, sometimes punished. All deputies were instructed to avoid what most protected witnesses wanted most: safety in the form of friendship with the marshals. “It’s complicated.”

“No, not really,” she said. “It’s about as simple as it gets, Lars. You either see us together or you don’t.”

He coughed out a nervous laugh, and this hurt her. He wished he could take it back.

“There’s a lot to get done,” he said.

Her face brightened. He knew it was the right decision.

She came into his arms eagerly but tentatively, like a child asking a parent for forgiveness. “I’m not asking you to suffer with me, I’m asking you to live with me.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll suffer plenty with me in your life,” he teased, returning the hug.

“Penance I’ll gladly endure.”

“I have to make some calls, say some good-byes. Clear this through channels.” The list grew longer in his head.

“What if they refuse you?”

Only then did he fully understand the extent of her proposal, and he had to wonder if this was her original intention all along. “I can’t do that, Hope.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Sneak you out of here somehow? Run away with you without the . . . the firewall . . . of WITSEC to protect us? I’m one person. It doesn’t work like that.”

He realized immediately she underestimated WITSEC’s importance to her—to their—survival. This, in turn, caused him to reassess his own willingness to destroy Roland Larson in the coming twenty-four-to-forty-eight-hour period, all in the name of love. A love less than three months old. A love fashioned under the threat of death and in the heat of battle.

“Rotem will try to talk me out of it. At the very least they’ll make me meet with a psychologist or psychiatrist. There will be papers to sign, releasing them of responsibility. It’s not a matter of breaking out the champagne and waiting to be relocated.”

“Second thoughts?”

“It’s too soon to have second thoughts. These are original thoughts,” he said. “I just need a little time to think it through and put it together.”

“There isn’t any time, is there? Do you think they’re going to warn you before they take me off? Do you think they’re going to warn me? No way.” She was right. It would be done in the dead of night, like a criminal act. Two or three vans all leaving at the same moment, all heading different directions. She’d be inside one of them, gone for good. She’d already been placed on the fast track. Her new identity would arrive any moment.

He explained his situation again, detailing his need for a day or two at least. “I do love you. But I owe some explanations. I won’t leave my friends in false grief. I’ve seen enough of that.”

They kissed, though for the first time without passion, and that kiss would haunt him as he told Rotem of his plan to join her, and later considered her offer through the night, phone off the hook, his bed not slept in.

In the morning, his mind made up, he returned to the farmhouse.

He found it empty and deserted. Even the tire tracks had been swept out of the dirt, as if no one had been there in years.

He blamed Rotem, though never to his face. He blamed her for waiting so long to ask. He blamed himself forever for wavering, for leaving her side, even for a moment, that day.

Touchdown returned him to the present and delivered the requisite black Navigator to the jet’s stairs. This kind of service made Larson feel both important and uncomfortable, neither of which pleased him. The three federal employees were whisked off by a driver, who also carried Justice Department creds. Larson was once again reminded of how serious this must be.

Uncle Leo. It was little more than a name to Larson, but it carried weight, of legendary import in the realm of WITSEC. Uncle Leo had had something to do with the witness protection program’s modernization which had begun in the mid-1990s. Leo’s name spoke as much of secrecy as anything else, as did so much of the WITSEC program’s overhaul. It was the equivalent of the program’s very integrity, its security, and the security of its protected witnesses. Uncle Leo’s predicament had rallied the big hitters. It might be nothing more than an unscheduled vacation, or a trip to a hospital, but Uncle Leo had disappeared and Rotem had obviously been ordered to move heaven and earth, along with a sizable private jet, to find the man. It was as if WITSEC and FATF, separate entities, with one rarely having anything to do with the other, would be working together. The presence of these Justice agents spoke volumes. This was the varsity squad; if Larson was being called off the bench, as it appeared he was, then people wanted Uncle Leo found. The desk jockeys were ready to sit back and watch people like Larson work.

This particular October night in Princeton, New Jersey, left Larson wishing he’d brought a sweater, rather than the black jeans and black blazer he’d been wearing at the play. The smell was of car engines and tire rubber as he climbed out of the Navigator, stepping onto a blacktop driveway alongside a modest, unremarkable home in what was probably called a “nice neighborhood,” a place where kids could ride bikes and skateboards at any hour but the current hour of four A.M.

Larson, for no reason other than his own experience, had been expecting a crime scene—local cops, a crime scene unit, maybe an effort to hold back the press. Instead it was the Navigator, a Town Car, and one other Navigator, also black. The house was dark, and it took him a minute to realize someone had taped black Visquine or garbage bags over the interior windows. He followed his two escorts inside.

He was struck both by the hideous color of the living room’s yellow carpet and the abundance of printed matter—books, magazines, and more magazines. The owner was a reader. The place was a litter basket. The furniture wanted to be contemporary but stopped at modern and so looked like the before-shot of a custom-renovation ad. A ’50s ranch for a scientist who belonged in Back to the Future, judging by the few shots of Uncle Leo and various dignitaries and politicians that hung on the wall amid copies of Warhol lithographs and some fairly decent black-and-white portrait photography that included John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

“He knew everybody, once upon a time.” Scott Rotem, forty-one or -two going on fifty-five. He sported bulging eyes a comedian would kill for if they’d been capable of carrying any expression at all. A patch of missing hair cried out for Rogaine. Rotem was all right if you liked your bureaucrats with zero sense of humor, a mean streak burnished into a crease between the eyes, and the vague aura of foot odor following one about. The man not only woke on the wrong side of the bed, he also willingly entered it from that side, too. Not simply a stick-in-the-mud, but a phone pole, pile-driven at that. Larson liked him, though it confounded him exactly why this was. It might have been the beauty and polish of Rotem’s stubborn persona, that never-give-an-inch, bastard-at-a-glance attitude that made him both an asshole and yet someone Larson could rightfully respect. Rotem was consistent, if in a vaguely pernicious way, and that struck Larson as a noble attribute in this day and age.

“You owe me half a performance of Much Ado about Nothing. Your guys pulled me at intermission.”

“Come in here.”

Larson followed. Whenever possible he took the high ground against Rotem, took it early and fought to hold it, because the man had a way of getting under his skin, getting him to do things, to take assignments he didn’t want. Larson would say yes before he meant it, even if the one time in his life he should have, he hadn’t.

The moment he entered the side hall, now passing framed snapshots of what had to be family, he smelled the blood. Once you’ve been around it a few times, your nose can pick it up at a distance, and Larson had been around it more than a few times, so the memories attached to that odor like ticks. Each step down the hall was a step down memory lane, only the snapshots on the walls of his recollection were all of victims.


On Sale
Mar 1, 2006
Page Count
448 pages
Hachette Books

Ridley Pearson

About the Author

Ridley Pearson is the award-winning co-author, along with Dave Barry, of Peter and the Starcatchers, Peter and the Shadow Thieves, Peter and the Secret of Rundoon, Peter and the Sword of Mercy, Escape From the Carnivale, Cave of the Dark Wind, Blood Tide, and Science Fair. In addition to Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark, Kingdom Keepers: Disney at Dawn, Kingdom Keepers: Disney in Shadow, and Kingdom Keepers: Power Play, he is also the author of the young adult thrillers Steel Trapp: The Challenge and Steel Trapp: The Academy. He has written more than twenty best-selling crime novels, including Killer View and Killer Weekend. He was the first American to be awarded the Raymond Chandler/Fulbright Fellowship in Detective Fiction at Oxford University.

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