Returning Soon! (I need a new cover. 🙂 )
Julian's wanted to be an FBI agent for years, so when he's approached to go undercover while on a student internship and with the promise of a guaranteed admission to Quantico if he agrees, he leaps at the chance. And finds himself in the middle of a situation he was in no way prepared for.
Leo's been undercover for so long he doesn't know who's real--him, or his cover identity Dale Leon. But things are finally starting to move in the investigation. He's been offered a promotion in the trafficking ring they're investigating, and the Bureau is sending him a partner to get deeper into the organization. He wasn't expecting the partner they sent him, or the raw and dangerous feelings the other man would rouse in him.
But the criminals are into more than just human trafficking and blood will be spilled before they can win free of this Flesh Market.
“Ethan, you should go to bed. Now.” Ethan’s dad stood in his bedroom door, shaking his head in mild disbelief. “I didn’t think you liked chemistry that much.”
“I checked my average today. I need to get it up about two points to keep my scholarship, and chemistry is my rate-determining step.” Ethan grinned, and the two men guffawed at his pun. But his dad—a chemical engineer himself—was probably right. The clock was creeping closer and closer to midnight, and he had an eight o’clock class tomorrow morning. His last one for the year—hooray! “Okay, I’ll shut it down. I think I’ve finally figured it out anyway. Who knew soil samples involved this much chemistry?” To prove his point, he put down his pen and closed his study-time playlist.READ MORE
Environmental science was his thing. He’d been working on projects to protect wetlands and to clean up polluted land since before his teens. Last year, he’d landed a prime summer job working on estuaries in Florida. The year before, he’d been in Alaska, which was awesome, but scary when he saw all the damage they were doing to the ecosystems up there.
His dad shifted, resting his arm against the door frame. “Good. Don’t want you to fall asleep in the middle of the big celebration.” He had an excited look on his face, almost as if it were him turning twenty and not Ethan.
Oh, man. He was going to be twenty. Big step, leaving behind his teenage years. It shouldn’t feel like such a…thing. After all, he’d graduated high school, gone to college. Lost his virginity—he had to duck his head to hide the smile at that. Yeah, that had been a real milestone. Too bad the guy had turned out to be a dick, in more ways than the obvious one. Still, he’d done it, and it had been awesome, and now Ethan knew he wanted to do it again. A lot.
In two years, he’d have his degree, and then he’d really be able to go to battle against the people who were destroying the world. Ethan had already planned the beginnings of a serious social media campaign to help control carbon dioxide emissions—it was going to be part of his fourth-year thesis. The idea had come to him while he worked in the Everglades last summer. Thinking about that project made him kind of sad. He’d felt like things were just starting to take shape when the summer ended, and he’d had to come home. If the job came up again this year, he’d like to go back, finish what he started. Maybe it would work into something permanent. Assuming he snagged enough grants to support himself.
Ethan stretched and waggled his fingers at his dad. “All right, you can say you’ve done your duty. I’m going to bed.” He got up, and driven by some weird impulse, he walked over and hugged his dad. “Thanks for everything. I love you.”
His dad smiled and hugged him back. “Love you too.” He closed the door behind him with a gentle click, and then Ethan was alone.
He peeled off his T-shirt and tossed it in the general direction of the laundry hamper, missing it completely. Meh, I’ll get it in the morning. He cracked his window open—he couldn’t sleep without a bit of fresh air blowing about, even in the middle of winter. It was technically spring now, exams starting next week, and the air coming in the window had finally given up its frigid edge, though it wasn’t anything anyone would call warm. The street was dead at this time of night. Ragged, dirty piles of snow hid the curbs as the season made a last-ditch effort to hang on. A surprise snowstorm—thanks, global warming—had landed last week, and its slushy remnants were still hanging around.
The only movement was a single car turning down the street. He glanced up the road out of habit and let the curtain fall when the car’s high beams skated across the glass.
“Bedtime, George.” He dropped a sunflower seed into the hamster’s cage and smiled as the little guy raced over to stuff it in his cheeks.
A yawn took him by surprise. Wow, more tired than I realized. He stretched and crawled into bed, checking that his alarm was set before he turned out the light.
The last thing he heard was the soft thump-thump of one of his parents walking across the kitchen downstairs.
Leo stopped at the smoothie bar in the mall’s food court and ordered a green tea with acai and raspberries. He’d just turned thirty-seven, and according to his mother, it was time to start loading up on antioxidants. Head off those destructive free radicals before they got the better of him.
He didn’t care that she thought he was taking her advice—he liked smoothies, even if they didn’t quite fit in with the tough-guy image.
The teenager behind the counter popped a plastic top onto the cup and poked a straw through into the olive-green slurry inside. “Here you go,” she said cheerfully and slid it across the counter.
“Thanks.” He sipped, and stuffed a dollar into her tip cup.
She smiled even more brightly. “Thank you!”
Leo took his cup of mixed yogurt and water-soluble vitamins and wandered down the mall toward the lotto booth. Off to one side, a thin man with lank ashy-blond hair put down the dress shoe he was examining far too closely and drifted along in Leo’s wake. There was another as well that Leo was aware of, his usual tail, but that man was behind him now and out of his peripheral vision.
It used to be that just one would follow him on his trips to the mall or the bookie’s, but today there was a second one.
There was only one logical explanation. Leo hated to believe it, but there was no other choice—he’d screwed up, and now his bosses were suspicious of him. Not his real bosses at the FBI, but his fake bosses in this sex-trafficking ring he had infiltrated.
Leo stepped into line at the lotto booth and waited with feigned patience, sipping on his smoothie as he glanced around to locate his tails.
One of them browsed the shelves of a small store that sold knickknacks and did custom engraving. It took Leo a moment to track down the blond man, but he eventually found him standing at the cash register of the specialty candy store, holding a small brown paper bag. Leo kept an eye on both of them. When there’d only been one, he hadn’t let it bother him. He’d been nearly a year establishing the identity he wore now. The bureau had called in a lot of favors to build his cover. Criminals, federal agents, and police officers had all been involved in some fashion or other. The blinds and double-blinds almost had him convinced that he was Dale Leon. The history of Dale Leon, ex-cop and bully, was rock solid.
They’d learned their lesson after losing the first two agents.
Given how hard it was to infiltrate this crew, he hadn’t been surprised that he was followed every time he left the brothel. If it were him, he’d be following the new guys too until he was sure they were clean, going by what Leo now suspected was the extent of the operation. What had surprised him was that they had someone they trusted enough to use. Though he supposed once you made it past the first hurdle, you were part of the gang. Apparently Leo was about to do a face-plant instead of moving on to the next stage of the operation.
He shrugged his shoulders to check the lay of his gun under his long-tailed leather jacket and pretended to scratch his neck so he could casually loosen it in its holster. Just in case.
He’d been working security at an underground poker game when a man in a business suit approached him, offering some under-the-radar security work at a very attractive rate of pay. Leo had accepted, after a reasonable display of suspicion so he didn’t look too eager or too dumb or too much like a cop. The first tail had shown up right after.
Step one of the operation—complete. Success, but also very real and, to some degree, unexpected danger. The moment he said yes, Leo’s cover went so deep he was almost out of contact with his handlers.
Only one person ahead of him now. Leo could see the clerk clearly, though final identification would have to wait until he was at the counter. He checked his back pocket but didn’t pull out his wallet, keeping his hands free just in case one of his tails started something and he had to run. Or fight. They were a paranoid bunch, that was for sure. Everything was locked down to the point that the surveillance struck him as overkill. The question of the day, of course, was whether it was paranoia, or—if the theory tentatively advanced by the powers that be was right—were they scoping him out for a possible advancement? Or both?
He doubted it mattered now—it wasn’t likely that two spies was a sign of increased confidence in him. Not for the first time, he regretted the loss of Dale Leon’s cell phone on the day he’d started working for the ring.
The one they’d given him in return was bugged. Running in the background of the operating system was a tiny app that recorded everything going in and out of the phone. Calls, texts, video messages—everything. It was all packaged up and sent off to some random phone number the IT guys were still trying to pin down. The thing was well hidden too—so well hidden he’d looked at it twice and never recognized it, until he’d woken one night in his seedy rooming-house bed with the knowledge shining like a warning beacon in his mind. Given his background in cyber-security, that was saying something.
And if he’d nearly missed that one, there might be something else even better hidden, which meant he didn’t dare just create a work-around to slip past the logging app. Even carrying on conversations where the mike on the phone could pick them up was a risk he couldn’t afford to take. Which meant that using the company phone to keep his supervisors updated was out of the question.
His backup means of communication—drops to other undercover agents, calls to his “ex-wife”—became the primary contact. It was slow and uncertain and left Leo on much shakier ground than he really liked.
It was a game of chess played on a board he could only see part of, and the adrenaline rush was incredible. They did come up with one contact that he could use with this phone. His “ex-wife”—in reality, another FBI agent who had taken part in creating his cover—could take calls from him. Their calls were carried on in an ad-hoc code, like verbal charades, that barely got half the information across and made them only marginally useful.
The real use for the ex-wife was as a hot-switch, in case something happened that couldn’t wait for his biweekly drop at the lotto booth or for the dogs to be running. If he hit the jackpot, he’d call her to tell her he had “that thing for the kids that she was really looking for,” and the FBI would be there within an hour. If he needed out, he was to ask about his ex-mother-in-law’s gout, and the Hostage Rescue Team would mobilize.
Leo’d been on the inside in this part of the trafficking ring for almost six months, playing doorman and security in two separate brothels in two different cities, both filled with kids. All of whom looked like they should still have been in high school.
The kids came and went, moved around for “freshness” on some schedule Leo hadn’t quite pinned down yet. But over time, listening to conversations, asking a few casual questions, Leo had become convinced it was actually a front for something else, something more serious. He’d kept track of the comings and goings and listened when the kids talked. There were at least four different brothels that he had an address for—two here in DC, one in New York, another in LA. Several others he could place in a specific city but didn’t have an actual address for. A week into the operation, he’d started recording which ones the kids came from and which ones they went to.
And which other victims they saw in each separate location.
He still wasn’t sure what had made him look more closely into that. A lot of what he was doing on this job was instinct—nothing in his classes at Quantico had prepared him for something of this magnitude. But the careful notes he took in his head and then passed on to the analysts back at the Washington office had borne fruit—there was a pattern of disappearances. Most of the missing hadn’t adapted well to working in a brothel; they fought, or cried all the time. But some of them stood out, both gorgeous and obedient, which didn’t make any sense at all. He wanted to know where they were going. All of them.
The blond got into line behind him. Fuck.
Six months in close contact with men running an interstate trafficking ring, it was a guarantee that he’d screw up at some point, say something that raised suspicions, know something he shouldn’t have known. It could hardly be avoided, not when he spent so much time with them; he’d practically lived at the two brothels they had him working in, seeing his skeevy rooming house only to sleep. Realistically, he hadn’t expected the lie to last, but its lifespan had been even shorter than he’d feared.
The biggest problem lay in some of the fringe benefits of his job. The men working the brothels had free choice of the young men and women working there as long as no customers wanted them. Leo, as an FBI agent, was caught in the gears of the legislation limiting FBI powers. It was right in the regulations that he couldn’t initiate illegal activity or do or say something that would encourage someone to engage in criminal activities. Sure, there were exceptions and loopholes in everything, but damned if he could figure out which ones would apply here.
Some agents would have thrown caution to the wind, figuring it was a small evil to destroy a greater one, and risked the possibility of the case being thrown out in court because of inappropriate conduct. Leo might have picked one of the victims and let them in on the secret, except most were so worked over, so beat down, he couldn’t trust them not to give him away. Weighed against the risk of wasting a year and half of his life, the two agents who had tried to infiltrate the ring and had disappeared, and the thought of leaving these kids trapped in this nightmare for another year, he didn’t dare do anything but toe the line with a laser-beam focus.
He’d laid the problem in his team’s lap and hoped they or the special agent in charge could come up with a solution that didn’t involve pulling him out. In the meantime, he made excuse after excuse and redoubled his efforts to track the missing kids. He wanted more than just these four brothels.
Now he wondered if he’d even have enough warning to put an escape plan in play, let alone find the information he needed to tear this organization down to its foundation.
Lately he’d noticed whispers, low conversations that stopped when he entered a room. Fewer special assignments came his way. He was left behind to run the brothels more often while the others were out, and some of the looks from the others were decidedly unnerving. Then the extra tail had arrived. He hated knowing he’d screwed up, but there was no reason to believe that it meant anything else.
When he’d prepped his last drop to his contact at the dog track, he’d passed on not only what little he’d learned, but he’d given the FBI a heads-up that his cover was in danger of being blown and they needed to be ready to implement his extraction plan. He hoped to hear back today. It was shit luck, when he thought he’d been making headway in the place, and he wanted to know what he did wrong. Just, not enough to stick around and find out where the bodies of the last two agents they’d tried to insert had disappeared to. After this long, for sure they were dead.
The guy ahead of him tapped his lottery tickets into a neat pile and slid them into his wallet, then stepped out of Leo’s way. Leo recognized the man behind the counter, but he still checked the ring finger of the man’s right hand, looking for the twisted gray-and-black dragon. He lived with the constant low-level fear that he’d arrive for his drop and find someone else waiting at the counter, someone who wasn’t associated with the FBI. Most undercover work was a day job, with occasional evenings or weekends. This one had taken over his entire life.
He’d never been in so deep or had such a tenuous connection to any help if things went bad. And yet, he wouldn’t want to do anything else. He loved pitting his brain and his balls against criminals. He’d never lost yet, and he wasn’t planning on breaking the streak.
Leo pulled out his own tickets. “Check these,” he said brusquely. He pushed a stack of Powerball tickets across the counter. “And gimme some of those scratches.” He shoved a couple of twenties over too and spent the next five minutes picking out scratch tickets with the help of the agent.
The blond waited patiently behind him.
Some careful sleight of hand put one very special ticket in Leo’s grasp. Leo stepped to an empty stretch of counter to scratch off the silver coating with his “lucky” fifty-cent piece. He didn’t start with the communiqué—the blond man was at the counter now and could see what Leo was looking at. Instead, he scratched a few of the other ones, tossing the winners to the left and the losers to his right. It was just luck that the blond man took his own tickets and walked away, because the eighth one was the message from the bureau.
Hold on. Sending help.COLLAPSE