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Necessary Proof

Sonoma series, book #4.1 (novella)

(Inspy Kisses, March 2014)

Originally published in First Kisses, a novella anthology with Linda Goodnight, Janet Tronstad, Debra Clopton, Margaret Daley, and Lacy Williams.

After opening his heart to Jesus in prison, Alex Villa has left his criminal past behind him. However, his efforts to take down a gang producing meth in Sonoma have made him a target. Set up to look like he’s being bribed by the gang, the police blame him for the death of a cop. Only the evidence on an encrypted laptop can prove he’s innocent.

Software engineer Jane Lawton has been betrayed by the men closest to her, including a God she thought would protect her. She won’t let Alex down, because she knows what it feels like to be disbelieved and abandoned.

However, the men after them have orders to repossess the evidence and make sure Jane and Alex take their knowledge to the grave. Can they prove Alex’s innocence before time runs out for them both?

** Those of you who have read Formula for Danger will recognize Jane and Alex as minor characters from that book. I was excited to finally be able to write their own love story!
Order print book:
Amazon
Right now, you can only buy my book in print copy in First Kisses, an Inspy Kisses novella anthology.
I will be releasing my novella as a separate print book in 2015. If you're on my newsletter, you'll be sure to hear about it.

Ebook:
Kindle
iBooks
Kobo icon
Nookbook icon
Smashwords

Read an excerpt below

Necessary Proof extras

Read an extended excerpt of NECESSARY PROOF

The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying:
"I have loved you with an everlasting love;
I have drawn you with loving-kindness.
I will build you up again
and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel.
Again you will take up your tambourines
and go out to dance with the joyful."

Jeremiah 31:3-4 (NIV)

CHAPTER ONE

For the second time in his life, Alex Villa was accused of a crime. Except that this time, he didn't do it.

He crept through the underbrush, trying not to crunch the dry grass under his work boots, with his eyes on the figure of the lean man in a dirty T-shirt and torn jeans who strode confidently through the trees thirty yards ahead.

It was difficult to stay hidden from the man because the trees here on Harman Ridge in Sonoma County were scraggly, and even the hardy oaks and laurels looked a little shriveled after the dry winter. Soon, the spring rains would turn the California foothills green again, but today the sun beat hot, and the dry undergrowth threatened to give away Alex's presence to the man he was following.

At first glance, the man had looked like a Hispanic migrant worker, with darkly tanned skin and straight midnight hair. But every so often, his shirt would hike up and reveal tattoos across his lower back of strange writing. The letters weren't the standard English alphabet, and certainly not Spanish. The swirling symbols twisted with the movement of the man's torso as he clambered over manzanita and slithered between juniper bushes.

This man had started the stories about the meth lab near Graves Peak, the stories that had begun Alex's recent troubles. This man was the one who had framed him. This man was the reason Alex was facing prison. Again.

He had to pause to take a deep, sharp breath. Prison had been a brutal place, and the memories were like dark ghosts that hovered at the edges of his vision. But prison had also been a place where his life had taken a drastic turn and he'd found peace for the first time in years. He'd found love. He'd found Christ.

The memory calmed the churning in his stomach, and he hunched lower and crept after the man. He'd been feeling mildly nauseated since Detective Carter had reluctantly revealed the "evidence" against Alex. He'd been released, but he wasn't about to wait around to see what other planted evidence would surface that would enable the Sonoma police to convict him.

The trees grew thicker here, and he hung back even more. If this was a second meth lab site, there would be more people around guarding it.

But there weren't other guards. The man headed directly for a mobile home that seemed sunken deep into the scrub brush. A narrow, deeply rutted trail ran from the building back down the other side of the ridge, where the distance to the nearest road was several miles. In contrast, he and the man had been walking cross country from the opposite direction for only about twenty minutes.

With no guards and only a few people aware of this remote location, this lab site would be difficult for law enforcement to find.

Not anymore. He would inform Detective Carter about this meth lab, too, just as soon as ...

He clenched his jaw. Just as soon as he cleared his name. He'd forgotten about his predicament for a pitiful moment. He was no longer a trusted confidential informant for the Sonoma PD. Instead, he was implicated in a police officer's murder.

He circled the mobile home. An acrid toxic gas burned his nostrils, and he gagged at a combination of cat urine and rotten egg smells that wafted over him, emanating from the chemicals in the lab. The drone of a generator almost drowned out the sound of voices, and he crept toward the other side of the trailer. He lay on his stomach and peered through the weeds.

The man he had followed was talking rapidly to two other men. After a few minutes, Alex recognized the language as Filipino. He'd known several Filipino gang members in prison, and after he came to Christ, he was still friends with some of them, visiting the two still in prison and doing what he could to help the others stay out of jail. Two of them had come to church with Alex once.

He had suspected the language of the man's tattoos were Filipino. It looked like a Filipino gang was involved. Not a big surprise. Alex was friends with many of the local farm workers, who had mentioned seeing more and more Filipino strangers in the area in the past couple years. It matched what Detective Carter had told him about the Tumibay Filipino gang, based in San Francisco, who had been ramping up meth production in the rural areas outside of Sonoma.

The two men he talked to were a study of opposites. One was taller, dressed in a dirty, long-sleeved shirt and jeans despite the heat, sweat running down his shaved head. He was lean, and some wicked knife wound scars running across his left cheek made him look as if he had a permanent one-sided sneer.

The other man was shorter and even more slender, but with paler skin and long black hair pulled into a ponytail. His polo shirt and shorts, while casual, were expensive, as was his watch. He wore glasses, although they couldn't have been very strong because they barely distorted his heavy-lidded black eyes.

Both men responded in Filipino, and the shorter one gestured to a nearby folding table and chair set up several feet away from the mobile home, near the generator that powered the meth lab. A laptop stood open on the table.

The men argued for a few minutes more, then the one he had followed turned and stomped away, back the way he'd come. Alex flattened himself further into the grass, glad he hadn't remained behind the man. He'd have been spotted in a heartbeat.

The two men stood and talked in low voices. From their body language, they appeared to be equals in authority, despite the differences in dress. Another man's voice called from inside the trailer, and the taller one went back into the lab.

The shorter man pulled out a cell phone and frowned at it. He then lifted it up, still staring, and walked in a widening circle.

Straight toward Alex.

God, don't let him find me. He stilled, hearing his heartbeat in his ears. His dark shirt and khaki pants made him hard to spot against the undergrowth, but it wouldn't matter if the man simply stumbled over him.

The man stopped, then backtracked, still staring at his phone. He moved around the trailer and away from Alex while dialing someone. His voice carried over the sound of the generator as he seemed to be giving instructions to someone in rapid Filipino.

Alex made his decision in the space of time between one breath and another.

He leaped to his feet and sprinted to the table. He closed the laptop as quietly as he could and unplugged the power cord, which tangled among some other electrical equipment under the table which he hadn't noticed. One looked like an external hard drive, snarled in a mass of wires. He reached for it, but the man's voice grew louder again.

No time to unplug the external hard drive. Alex took the laptop and ran. He didn't bother to hide the noise as he crashed through bushes and circled around the other side of the trailer. He picked up speed as he headed back the direction he'd come, jumping over bushes and dodging trees.

Shouts sounded behind him, but he didn't look back. There was the crack of a gunshot, and he ducked his head but tried not to slow his speed. More gunshots, but he heard the bullets hit trees several yards behind him. They stopped firing, probably since the trees made him a more difficult target to hit.

He sprinted past the tattooed man that he had followed. The man was several yards away, but apparently unarmed. All he could do was shout as Alex dashed by.

On the way to the meth lab, they'd taken a straight route through the wilderness, about a mile or a little more. The man had parked on the remote access road at the back of old Mr. Rivers's farm, but Alex, trying not to be seen tailing him, had parked on an unused farm track on Mr. Rivers's property, hidden from the road by rows of dead grape vines.

Once out of the trees, he raced for his truck. He stumbled over some clods of dirt from the unused track and nearly dropped the laptop, but he was used to keeping his balance in uneven dirt thanks to his hours working in the fields of his mama's farm and in his brother's greenhouses, and he was able to right himself quickly. He scrounged in his pocket for his car keys and hit the unlock button only a second before he yanked the door open.

As he turned over the engine, the three men he'd seen exploded from the tree line and dashed toward him. The tallest man was in front, and he now pulled out his gun and fired again. Alex ducked low as his window exploded in a cloudy spiderweb of cracks around the bullet hole. He slammed his foot on the accelerator and the truck leaped forward.

More shots, but these hit the frame of his truck. He bumped and jolted down the farm track, but quickly skidded to turn onto the access road. He looked in his rearview mirror and saw the men running toward the tattooed man's car, but he was far down the road before they even reached it. He slid onto the curvy highway that wound through the foothills, and after a few turns, pulled into the long driveway belonging to the farm of a family he knew. He parked behind a stand of trees a little ways back from the road and waited.

The tattooed man's car soon passed by the driveway.

Alex leaned back against the seat. He'd wait to make sure they didn't double back, then he'd find his way to the main highway to Sonoma.

He laid his hand on the laptop on the passenger seat. He was comfortable with electronics, but he was a hardware guy. He understood enough software to know he was a bull in a china shop, so he didn't want to fiddle with the computer in case it had a security feature.

He needed help. He needed to clear his name. His race for his life couldn't have been for nothing.

#


Jane Lawton nearly dropped her steaming pot of Mac-N-Cheese at the sound of a powerful fist knocking at her apartment door. "Coming!" She spooned the gooey, bad-for-you goodness into a bowl, then ran some water in the pot in the sink.

The urgent knocking sounded again. Somehow it didn't sound like one of her neighbors, wanting Jane's help with a computer problem. She looked through the peephole.

She felt a sharp pulse at the base of her throat. "Alex?" She opened the door.

Normally a walking Calvin Klein ad, he now had a grim, serious cast to his face as he hurriedly entered her apartment with a messenger bag slung across one broad shoulder. "Quick, close the door."

"What's going on?" She locked the deadbolt.

It frightened her that he looked so different now, lacking his usual smile and dimples. "I need your help, Jane."

She couldn't control the bitterness that burned the back of her throat. It seemed that was the only thing she was good for, helping the men in her life so they could leave her and move on. She swallowed and said carefully, "Doing what?"

He pulled a laptop from his messenger bag. "There's information on this that I need, but I'm not sure if there's any type of security protecting it."

"Whoa." Jane took a step back. "You're saying that's not your laptop, and you want me to get into it? What's going on?" She knew he had been in prison for a few years, but she thought he'd put his illegal past behind him.

He scrubbed his hand over his high forehead. "It's not what it looks like."

"That makes it sound even worse."

He exhaled and seemed to study her. His intent, dark eyes made her squirm. She knew she'd changed a lot in the past year. She'd only spoken to him once in all that time, a few months ago at the party celebrating his brother's engagement to Rachel, Jane's second cousin but as close as a sister. After a minute or two of chit-chat, he had been quick to leave her to speak to Detective Carter, which had given her a pang even though she hadn't been in a sociable mood. What a difference from when she and Alex had first met years ago. He had seemed interested in her, but she'd been ...

She shoved the memories aside. "I'm only going to ask this one more time. What's going on?"

"I just ... I can trust you, right?"

"Trust me with what?"

"Could I sit down? Have some coffee?" He sniffed. "Is that Mac-N-Cheese?"

"Did you want some?"

He gave her a smile that caused that sharp pulse at the base of her throat again. "I haven't eaten since breakfast."

And it was already past seven. "But it's Mac-N-Cheese. From a box."

"So?"

"You eat Mac-N-Cheese? Isn't your mother good enough to be on Iron Chef or something like that?"

The smile disappeared, and long lines were drawn on either side of his mouth. "I haven't been home all day."

The wooden tone of his voice made Jane wonder if he hadn't gone home because he couldn't, not because he chose not to. Unlike Jane, Alex and his brother had a solid relationship with their mother and would do anything to protect her.

The combination living room/dining room in her one-bedroom apartment was currently her office, so she hastily swept aside some electrical equipment and notes from the dining table and set them in a neat stack on the floor. "Have a seat. I don't have decaf coffee."

He sank into a wooden chair with a sigh. "I need leaded right now, anyway."

As she retrieved her bowl of food from the kitchen, she eyed his six-foot-plus frame, at least two hundred pounds of solid muscle. She set the entire thing in front of him. "Go ahead."

"No--" he began.

"I'll cook some eggs."

His eyes softened. "Thanks, Jane."

She tried not to think of those eyes as she started the coffee maker and whisked eggs with soy sauce. He made her feel ... special, and she couldn't trust her own feelings anymore. Rachel had accused her of becoming too cynical this past year, but could anyone blame her after what had happened?

So in her frying pan, she scrambled the eggs mixed with soy sauce and served it on some rice she'd heated in the microwave. "Shoyu-egg-rice," as her Japanese mother called it, and it was Jane's comfort food. She needed comfort right now, in preparing to deal with the handsome man at her dining table and whatever trouble he'd brought into her home.

When she returned to the dining table, he had just finished the Mac-N-Cheese, but she had anticipated that. She served him some of the eggs and rice. "Here."

He frowned at the brown-colored scrambled eggs. "What's this?"

"Japanese-style breakfast. Try it."

She bowed her head to say grace, but she felt self-conscious. Not because he wasn't Christian, because she knew he was, but she only said grace these days out of habit. She'd been feeling like a chasm had opened between her and God. She couldn't understand why He'd allowed her to be so hurt, and maybe her distrust of men had extended to Him, too.

She took a bite of salty egg, hot rice, and remembered breakfasts at home with her mom and her brother, a peaceful and innocent time before she'd been aware of how little her father had cared for her.

Of how little anyone cared for her, apparently.

"This is good." He paused from shoveling food into his mouth. "What's wrong?"

She realized she'd been frowning into her bowl. "Nothing." She stabbed at the rice with her fork. "That should be my question."

He grimaced and slowed his eating. "Look, Jane ..."

"I want the full version. Not the version you'd tell your mama."

The glance he sent her could almost have been playful, but Jane steeled herself against the dimples that appeared briefly in his cheeks. "It's a little unnerving how you can read me, Jane."

"You're stalling." She could hear the coffeemaker burbling. "You don't get coffee until you explain yourself."

He took the last bite of eggs and rice and pushed the bowl away from him. "I'm being set up, Jane, and I have to clear my name. You heard about the police officer who died in that shoot-out at a meth lab in the foothills last week?"

She nodded.

His face tightened and he stared at her wooden tabletop. "That man is dead because of me."



CHAPTER TWO



After a beat of shock, Jane said, "Aren't you being a little melodramatic? The paper said it was a gang member who shot him."

"I gave the police the location of that meth lab, but it was a trap."

"How did you know about the lab?"

He ran a tanned hand through his short, dark hair. "I know a lot of the farm workers around Sonoma, and some of them found out about the lab and told me."

"How'd they find it?"

"A meth lab smells pretty potent."

"Oh."

"I told Detective Carter, but there were gang members waiting for the Sonoma PD to arrive."

She could see how he might feel it was his fault. "There's no way you could have known that would happen."

"Then the next day, five thousand dollars were deposited into my bank account from an offshore account."

"From who?"

He shook his head. "I don't know. I told Detective Carter about the deposit right away, but it looks like I was paid to tell the Sonoma PD about the lab so they'd get gunned down. I'm under investigation."

"But you help Detective Carter all the time. Doesn't that count for something?" When Jane had first met Alex, she'd overheard the detective asking to speak to him about helping the police with a case. Alex's brother, Edward, had explained to her that Alex was a confidential informant for the Sonoma PD. Alex was friends with many of the farm workers in Sonoma, and if they had a concern, they told him, who would tell the detective. This roundabout way to get information to the police protected the identities of people who weren't comfortable going to the police directly.

"Detective Carter knows I'm innocent, but it looks bad." A muscle in his jaw flexed. "I'm being set up. I'm thinking that it's only a matter of time before the police find planted evidence that will get me convicted."

He must feel trapped. Suffocating. It would be intolerable to someone like him, who was full of life, full of energy, and always transparent. "I'm sorry." She touched his forearm.

She didn't feel a jolt, but something about touching him made her feel ... different. As if he'd flipped on some switch inside her.

She snatched her hand back and stood up. "I'll get the coffee."

She had to remember this was Alex, for goodness' sake. She'd known him for a few years already. What was more, when they'd first met, he'd asked her out to dinner, and she'd turned him down, admitting that she was interested in someone else.

And she had been, at the time. She'd had grand hopes of a lasting, meaningful relationship built on respect.

What a colossal idiot she'd been to think there was anything about herself that would attract anyone.

But Alex had been attracted to you, a small voice whispered.

Except she was no longer that woman he'd asked out on a date. And she never would be again.

She needed to focus on the issue right now. She put his coffee in front of him, black, the way he liked it. "Who's setting you up? Although if people know you help the police, that list might be long."

"I know exactly who it is. The Tumibays."

The Filipino gang who had meth labs scattered in the wilderness areas around Sonoma. "The police raided a few of their labs in the past few months. You told the police about them?"

He nodded. "I found out from some day laborers. Lots of people are worried about the meth. Kids are getting addicted, especially in the poorer areas."

"I know," Jane said in a low voice. "Monica was telling me that there have been more and more meth overdose cases at her free children's clinic."

"I've been following up on any leads I can ferret out about the Tumibays. They threatened me a few times." He shrugged. "They soon figured out it wouldn't work. But then they tried to attack Mama."

"When did this happen?" Jane sat up in her chair. "Is she all right?"

"She's fine. It was a month ago. I was at the greenhouses, but three of the farmhands live with us at the house, and they held the gang off until the police arrived. They arrested the gang captain in charge of the meth operation here in Sonoma."

"So shouldn't that have ended it all?"

"There's a new captain the Tumibays sent to take over the operation."

Jane finally saw what was happening. "The new captain is trying to ruin your reputation with the police. He saw that threatening you or your family wasn't effective."

"After the officer was killed, I went to talk to the farm workers who told me about the meth lab in the first place. They had heard about it from a day laborer who spoke Spanish with a strange accent. I have a couple Filipino friends who speak Spanish with an accent, and I thought he might have been planted by the Tumibays. I found the guy and followed him to Graves Peak." He told her about the meth lab and the three men he'd seen.

"So you stole the laptop from the new Tumibay captain?"

"No, it wasn't the captain. I know what Talaba looks like. These were just his men."

"Still." Jane stared at the innocuous-looking laptop. "You should turn this in to the police."

"And tell them I found another meth lab? How convenient. If they were on the fence about if I'm involved with the Tumibays, I'm sure that wouldn't change their minds at all."

"But they're the police--"

"And they think I gave them information that got one of their own killed. I'm not their favorite person at this moment. If I hand this laptop to them, they're going to view it with suspicion. They're not going to be careful about any kind of data it might have, because I could be feeding them more false leads. If it were my laptop, I'd set up security protocols in case it was taken, some program to erase sensitive data. That means we only get one shot at this, and the data on this computer might be the only thing to clear my name." He reached out to cover her hand with his. "Jane, you're the only one I know who can find a way to bypass any security protocols."

His palm was large and warm. Derek used to touch her like this, and it had made her stomach flutter like it did right now with Alex.

She pulled her hand away from him.

Could she trust him? She'd trusted Derek and look how that had gone.

But she knew Alex. She trusted his brother, Edward. And the fact he was being set up, that people who knew him were no longer believing him, must feel like a spear to the gut. She knew, because it had felt that way when her father hadn't believed her.

She wanted to help him because she couldn't let someone else feel he was being abandoned by his friends.

At that moment, her neighbor's dog began barking. "That's strange," Jane murmured before she could stop herself.

"What's strange?" He had grown tense.

She shook her head. "I'm being paranoid after what you've been talking about."

He gave her a hard look. "Just tell me, Jane."

"Well, Wiley--the dog--hardly ever barks. Sarah's a dog trainer, and her well-behaved pets are a point of professional pride for her."

His eyes narrowed. "Now that I think about it, the dog didn't bark when I came to your apartment."

"The last time Wiley barked was when some kids were fooling around on the fire escape."

There was a heartbeat of silence, then he shot to his feet. "Jane, get down."

#


To her credit, Jane didn't ask why or demand to know what was happening. She stared at him with her wide, gold-flecked brown eyes for a moment, then she dropped to her knees.

"Where's the fire escape?" he asked.

"Bedroom window."

He snapped off the lights as he made his way to the dark bedroom. The dog's yapping pierced through several apartment walls to reach his ears, but he hoped it masked the sound as he eased open the sliding glass window. He grabbed a small facial mirror propped up on Jane's dressing table and stuck a corner out the window. It took him a bit of tilting to find the right angle to see the fire escape balcony.

There was a man on the fire escape, heading his way.

He had to get Jane out of here. He'd guess there was also a man heading down the hallway toward Jane's apartment. It's what he would do, in this situation.

Thank You, Father God. If the dog hadn't barked, or Jane hadn't noticed, they might have been trapped. He'd figure out later how they'd found him.

He weighed his options. The fire escape was narrow and difficult fighting terrain, but he didn't know how many men were nearing the front door, whereas there was only one outside Jane's window.

He hurried to the bedroom door and gestured to Jane. "Grab the laptop," he said in a quiet voice.

She scurried toward him, shoving the laptop into the messenger bag he'd brought with him.

"Stay down," he told her, "but be ready to follow me."

She nodded. Her face was even paler in the dimness of her bedroom, and he saw the trembling in her hands, but she had a firm determination to her chin.

He hesitated beside the open window. He had only one shot at this. He took a deep breath, then lightly leaped over the sill onto the fire escape.

His boots hit the metal with a clang. He immediately sprinted toward the man, who was only a few feet away now.

The man had stiffened when Alex appeared out of the window, and he hadn't yet recovered when Alex barreled into him. The man was shorter but still taller than average, and even though Alex had had the element of surprise when he attacked, the man was faster. His elbow snapped out, and although Alex ducked his head, the blow grazed his temple.

The two of them hit the floor of the balcony with a thundering shudder from the metal. The narrow width of the fire escape and Alex's broad shoulders made his punches awkward, and his blows were weaker than his sparring sessions at the gym with his buddies. But he only needed to incapacitate the man until he and Jane could get away.

Alex grabbed a fistful of shirt and slammed the frontal bone of his own skull into the man's face. He felt rather than heard the man's nose break, and blood spurted across his cheek. The man gave a sharp groan of pain, and Alex followed with a jab to the jaw.

The man's body stiffened, then fell back. He wasn't completely out because his arms waved feebly, but Alex yelled, "Jane!"

She was already climbing out the window with the messenger bag thrown over her shoulder. Her eyes slid over the man as she leaped over his body on the fire escape, but she didn't glance back as she followed Alex down the stairs.

They were on the ground in seconds since Jane was only on the third floor. He had his truck keys, but realized the men probably knew the make and model of his pickup. "Do you have your car keys?"

Jane pulled the keys from her slacks pocket. "Over here." Luckily, her parking slot was near the fire escape.

Of course, her car was practical and sensible, like her. The hybrid would be uncomfortable for him to sit in, much less drive. He shook his head when she offered him the keys.

She stared for a quick moment. "Really? Not what I would have expected from a guy." She scrambled into the driver's seat.

"I'm secure in my masculinity," he couldn't resist teasing. As they buckled up, he added, "Besides, I'm probably better than you at spotting a tail."

She backed out of the parking slot like a rocket, slamming his body against the seatbelt. He thought her driving might be attributed to nerves, until she got onto the street.

The woman drove like a maniac. Who knew that lurking under Jane's neutral colored, professional clothing was a Grand Theft Auto leaderboard winner?

"Where to?" The tires screeched a little as she took a corner onto the expressway.

"Into traffic." He searched the cars behind them. "If we're being followed, it won't hurt to be somewhere we can try to lose them."

She wove between cars, darting left and right without warning and without hitting the brakes. He had to grab the door handle so he wouldn't fly out of his seat.

"See anyone?" She finally had to brake hard when she cut in front of a minivan and behind a convertible who had just moved into the lane.

"I think we're safe," he said.

She eased up on the gas a minuscule amount. "Now where to?"

He nodded toward the backseat, where she'd tossed the messenger bag containing the laptop. "Anywhere you can get the information off of that computer."

"You're kidding, right?"

"What do you mean?"

Jane turned exasperated eyes to his. "All the equipment I needed to examine that laptop is in a place currently crawling with Filipino gang members--my apartment."



CHAPTER THREE



Even though it looked like they'd lost anyone trying to follow them, Alex closely observed the cars around them as he directed Jane outside of Sonoma toward Jorge's tavern. It was in a remote area, he had a lot of friends there, and more importantly, he'd left his computer toolbox there last week.

Jane turned into the tiny dirt parking lot in front of the brown building. It stood in a small lot between two orchards, both in bud with new fruits soon to appear as spring swept into the county. His expert gardening nose smelled cherry blossoms as he unfolded himself from Jane's car and stretched.

"Does Jorge have wireless internet?" Jane grabbed the laptop from the backseat.

"No, he's hard-wired."

"How close is the nearest house?"

"A couple miles in either direction." He nodded toward the narrow road that fronted the tavern. "There's only farms and orchards in this area. Why?"

"I'm probably being overly cautious, but I don't know what kind of security this computer has. The security program might be instructed to find the nearest wireless network and broadcast data so the owner can find it again."

"And you don't want there to be a wireless network it can find."

"Exactly. And you said you don't know anything about software." Jane's tone was almost teasing, although her eyes were still somber from the events of only an hour ago.

"I know only enough to make me dangerous." He led the way up to the narrow front porch, then opened one of the two swinging double doors to the tavern.

It had been an old farmhouse before Jorge bought it for his tavern, useless because the farmland had been sold around it. He'd torn down most of the walls on the first floor in order to put in scarred, mismatched tables and chairs, but there was still the stairs to the second floor living quarters on one side of the front hallway. There was no one inside except the deeply tanned, old Hispanic man standing behind the counter at the back of the front room, near the kitchen door.

"Alejandro!" Jorge raised his hands in greeting and waved them toward the counter.

In Spanish, Alex said, "Thanks for letting us come so late, Jorge."

"For you, anything, my friend."

Alex turned to Jane and said in English, "This is Jorge."

Jane shook Jorge's hand and surprised them both by answering in Spanish. "I'm Jane Lawton. Nice to meet you."

"You speak Spanish?" Alex asked her.

"I took it in high school." She shrugged. "And a couple of my neighbors are Hispanic, so I use it often enough."

"Are you hungry? Adelita should be almost done cooking." Jorge disappeared behind the kitchen door.

"Where's your toolbox?" Jane asked.

"Later. Adelita and Jorge rarely cook this late. They're doing it just for us."

Jane looked around the empty tavern. "Why aren't they open for dinner?"

"Jorge and Adelita started their business by making burritos and selling them cheaply to the farm hands in the fields. They got so popular that they opened this tavern, but it's for breakfast and lunch only because they still send the lunch wagon out to the fields every day. They're usually in bed by now because they get up so early."

Jane's delicate cheeks colored a strawberry pink that reminded him of some of the rare roses his brother cultivated for clients at the greenhouses. "They shouldn't have cooked for us."

"They enjoy being hospitable."

A silence fell between them that was more awkward than the silence in the car. Then, Jane had been concentrating on driving and he had been keeping an eye out for anyone following them. Here, in the quiet of the tavern, he became aware again of how beautiful she was, with her slightly slanted eyes and high cheekbones, the graceful neck exposed by her dark straight hair swept up into a twist at the back of her head. It had been perfectly smooth when he'd arrived at her apartment, but now wisps fell, probably from their mad dash down the fire escape.

Every time he saw her was like a kick in his gut, no matter how many times they happened to meet. He had been eager to ask her out when they first met, but she'd shyly confessed she was interested in someone else. He had been jealous of the guy who could put the glow in her cheeks and the golden glitter in her brown eyes.

But when he'd seen her at his brother's engagement party, he'd been surprised at the faint lines alongside her pink mouth, the deadness in her eyes. Someone had hurt her, badly. He'd wanted to ask, but hesitated because it was obvious she was still in pain. And in the end, Detective Carter had waved urgently to him, and he'd had to leave her to speak to him.

"How have you been lately?" The question seemed a bit lame, considering they'd spent the better part of the last two hours together. "The last time we met, you said you had a new job."

There was a flash of pain that tightened the skin around her eyes, and he wanted to kick himself. But she answered in a quiet voice, "It's fine. It pays the bills."

What a change from when they'd first met, and she'd talked excitedly about the startup she worked for and the voice recognition software she was helping to write. "Are you still writing voice software?"

Her jaw flexed before she answered him. "No. I'm doing IT support for an insurance company."

"Oh," he said faintly. Jane was brilliant. Why was she doing routine IT work rather than shining like a star at a tech startup?

She obviously didn't want to talk about it. "You're still helping to run your mama's farm?"

"And helping Edward with his greenhouse business."

"And being a CI for Sonoma PD. When do you sleep?" Her attempt at a joke didn't quite lighten the brittleness in her voice.

"All I do is talk to people, be friendly. It's not work." He liked feeling that he was helping the community. He could take risks others couldn't, like fighting against the Tumibays' meth production. What if he couldn't do it anymore? What would happen to him?

He didn't want to think about it. He would clear his name. He had to.

"Are you still dating that one guy?" He tried to sound casual, to hide the fact he wanted to know.

She stiffened, all her muscles rigid. "What guy?"

He just couldn't stop making things worse. "You, uh, told me about that guy at work ..."

She turned her face away from him. "It didn't work out," she said in a wooden voice.

"I'm sorry." He wasn't. How long ago had it been? What kind of a loser didn't appreciate the jewel she was?

Thankfully, Jorge and his wife, Adelita, entered with steaming plates of food. Adelita laid the plate she carried in front of Alex, then reached across the counter to grasp his face and kiss his cheek. "So good to see you, Alejandro."

"You smell like cinnamon." He grinned at her. "Does that mean you made me sopapillas?"

She rolled her eyes. "You and your bottomless stomach."

"I just like your cooking."

Adelita then turned and kissed Jane, too, which made her cheeks flush with pleasure. "Call me Adelita."

"I'm Jane."

"Eat, eat." Adelita gestured to the plates of food.

"I'll pray for us," Alex said to Jane.

Before he bowed his head to say grace, he saw the bleakness that shuttered over Jane's eyes for a brief moment. She had always been a strong Christian. Had whatever gave her that brittle, fragile quality struck a blow against her faith in God, too?

He glanced at her as he finished saying grace, but her face was a polite mask. However, that slipped to reveal awe as she took her first bite of the bean burrito Jorge and Adelita had made.

"That's amazing," Jane said to Adelita. "You make your own tortillas?"

"Of course." Jorge seemed offended she would think he'd serve anything else.

Alex hid his smile as he wolfed down a burrito. The flour tortilla was soft and slightly crispy on the outside from being lightly pan-seared, while the beans were silky and flavorful with Adelita's secret spice mix.

Jorge set two bottles of Mexican orange soda in front of them. "Now, you tell me what kind of trouble you're in."

Alex hesitated.

"Alejandro, you must let me help you," Jorge said quietly.

So he told them about the shootout at the meth lab, about the money appearing in his bank account, about following the tattooed man to the second meth lab on Graves Peak.

Jorge's dark eyes narrowed, making the lines deepen on his broad forehead. "I know the man you speak of. The tattoo, the accent. His name is Rodrigo."

"You don't know his last name?"

"No. I saw him in the fields once, last week or the week before, but never again. He never came here with the regulars."

Many of the Filipinos Alex had known had Spanish names, so that didn't help him much. The man had probably been working in the fields in order to spread the information about the meth lab trap.

He told them about the laptop and the men at Jane's apartment. Adelita's chocolate colored eyes grew large, and she covered Jane's forearm with her hand. "You are all right?"

"I'm fine." Jane smiled and it transformed her, revealing a radiance that made his chest tighten.

"You stay here and rest tonight," Jorge said. "We have extra bedrooms."

"No, too many people will come for breakfast in the morning," he said.

"Leave before then," Adelita said. "No one will know you were here."

"Thank you."

"We must go to bed," Jorge said. "We wake at four to start breakfast."

"You know where the bedrooms are upstairs?" Adelita said, and Alex nodded. "There are fresh sheets in the hall closet."

She kissed his cheek again, then also kissed Jane. Her hands lingered on the girl's smooth hair. "Alejandro is a good man. He will take care of you."

Jane's neck turned scarlet, and her gaze dropped.

Adelita's words only reinforced his protective instinct toward Jane. He wouldn't let anything happen to her. He wanted to make sure no one hurt her ever again.

Jorge and Adelita said their goodnights, then headed up the stairs.

Jane and Alex picked at their food in silence for a while. Her neck was still red with embarrassment, and he didn't know what to say to smooth over the moment. He cleared his throat. "They're good people."

"They trust you, which makes me feel better about trusting you, too. I don't want to put them in danger."

The way he had put her in danger. "I'm sorry to drag you into this. I didn't think. I just knew I needed your help."

"Don't feel bad. I would never refuse to help you." She sipped her soda. "To help anyone," she added.

Ouch. But a part of him suspected that she was pushing him away as a defense mechanism, due to whatever had changed her so much in the past year.

He wanted to put his arms around her, to surround her with his strength so she wouldn't have anything to fear, but she had a quality of barbed self-sufficiency emanating from her body language that kept him in his seat.

She had always been quiet, serious, even geeky in her conversation, but she'd never before looked so ... desolate. What had happened to her? He knew she wouldn't tell him.

"How did those guys find you?" Jane asked. "You ditched your cell phone, right?"

He nodded. Jane had done the same within minutes of escaping her apartment.

"Did they follow you to my apartment?"

"I know they didn't, because I was looking out for them and I drove in circles for a while to make sure no one was behind me. They saw my truck, but the only way they could have tracked that was through traffic cameras."

Jane gave him a sidelong look. "If they have someone in Sonoma PD, they could have."

He hadn't thought of that. "They may not have been able to track your car here. There aren't many traffic cameras out near these farmlands."

"We probably shouldn't stay here, regardless. But they might spot my car when we leave the area."

"I know a way back to Sonoma through back roads." Before he had spoken to Jane, he had agonized about simply turning the laptop over to the police, but he'd been desperate and he knew the police hadn't trusted him, not after the death of that officer. Now he was glad he hadn't turned in the laptop. What might have happened to it if the Tumibays did indeed have a mole in the Sonoma police department?

He suddenly realized, "I didn't check the laptop for a GPS tracker."

"I'll check, but I doubt it. An installed GPS tracker requires a continuous connection to a cellular network or satellite, and I can't see a gang member who's doing illegal things on a laptop signing up for a GPS subscription that the FBI can trace back to them. Plus it's a major drain on the battery. Tracking software is more practical than GPS." She picked up the messenger bag and pulled out the laptop. "Where's your toolbox? I want to look under this baby's hood."

"Jorge said he'd leave it behind the counter for me." He slid off his stool and went behind the pitted wooden counter. His toolbox lay on the floor, and he hefted it up to set it before Jane.

"Why is your toolbox here?" She opened it and sifted through the small gauge screwdrivers.

"One of Jorge's kids gave him a larger memory card for his computer, so I came over to install it for him. Then I started playing soccer with Jorge's grandkids and stayed for dinner. After dinner, I left and forgot my toolbox here."

"You didn't need it at home?" She started unscrewing the back of the laptop.

"This is my computer toolbox. I have other toolboxes at home for the cars and the farming equipment." He was comfortable around computers, but Jane began unscrewing components left and right. "You're taking it apart without booting it up first?"

"I'm removing the wireless adapter and bluetooth card." She attacked something with a pair of tweezers. "I don't know what kind of security software it has, but if he was paranoid, he'd have installed a LoJack type of software in the UEFI that would connect to the internet as soon as it had a chance. It could even be programmed to delete sensitive data. I don't want this laptop to phone home and give our location away."

He winced as something snapped, but Jane wasn't unduly worried as she removed an electrical piece from the vicinity of the motherboard. "Hardware isn't my specialty, but if I can get the hard drive out, I might be able to use another computer to hack the information off of it."

He thought of her computer at her apartment. "What kind of computer?"

"I can't use just any computer." Jane stared at the hard drive in the laptop, chewing her bottom lip as she thought. "But there's one at my workplace."

"Those guys were at your apartment. They'll know by now where you work and they might be looking out for you."

"This late at night? And this soon after they raided my apartment?"

"You want to go tonight?"

She shrugged. "Part of the job is being on call for emergencies. I've had to go into work late at night lots of times."

"They still might be watching the building. They know you're with me and that we have the laptop, so they're not going to leave any stone unturned. At least, that's what I would do if I were a desperate drug gang captain."

Jane leaned forward over the countertop toward him, and there was a calculating light in her eyes. "What if we could get into the building without being seen?"

© 2014 Camy Tang