JUSTICE “Grey” Greystone was fired from the FBI for insubordination. Now the FBI wants him to use his reengage skills to take down a serial killer who’s above the law. To trap the Lion, he’ll need to send the perfect woman undercover.
SYDNEY Banfield runs a women’s shelter and bends the law daily to help victims of abuse escape their painful lives. Three of the women she’s recruited for government jobs have become victims of the Lion. If Syd has her way, the vicious killer will never touch another woman again.
GREY and Sydney set a trap–with Sydney as the sexy bait–but the Lion adds a complex twist to his homicidal agenda. With Sydney’s life on the line, Grey must race against the clock to catch a killer who’s as unstoppable as he is evil.
Targeted Age Group: 16+
The Book Excerpt:
Justice “Grey” Greystone stood in the shadows near the main staircase of the mammoth mansion, his ear bud in place, his security service badge in plain view, and his eyes roaming the crowd as senators, diplomats, and other male politicians moved past him. In a sea of navy, brown, and black suits, pops of red, pink, and bright blue caught his attention.
Beautiful women, their taut, young bodies dripping with diamonds, brushed seductively against the men, offering a drink, a snippet of conversation, a laugh. A private encounter behind closed doors.
Inside the Panthera, sixteen miles north of Washington, D.C., drinks flowed, deals were made, and powerful men ignored the fact that one of them was a killer.
A woman bumped Grey’s arm. “Oh, excuse me.”
Her dress, nails, and lips were a matching wine color. Her brown hair was twisted and pinned on top of her head. But those eyes, even with the makeup, screamed young. She couldn’t have been legal, and yet according to the Smoking Gun Escort Service, they never hired anyone under twenty.
Yeah, right. And he was the Pope.
The woman grabbed a champagne glass from a passing waitress. “Do you know when the entertainment is supposed to be here?” She turned her big eyes to him over the rim of the glass.
Hazel. Just like Molly’s. Grey stuttered. Not now. Don’t think of her now. “Entertainment?” Didn’t she know she was the entertainment? “You mean the actor running for a senate seat? I believe Chas Loughlin is simply attending tonight’s function to talk to the politicians, not to perform.”
Hence the increase in security.
“Oh.” She gulped the champagne, her gaze now scanning the crowd. “Damn, I was hoping for a distraction.”
The vibe she gave off made him curious. Not just young—inexperienced. “First night at the Panthera?”
“How did you…oh, shit,” she ducked behind him. “Shit, shit, shit.”
He glanced in the direction she’d looked and saw a man who generated a similar response in his own gut. Ahmed Khourey. “The Lion” as Grey had dubbed him, since he prowled the Panthera Leo like he owned the place.
Moving so he blocked the woman from Ahmed’s view, he reined in the instant anger boiling inside. “He giving you trouble?”
She waved a hand in the air, signaling a waitress. Another glass of champagne. Another big gulp. “He’s handsome and charming and very, very rich.” She chuckled. “He’s also … intense.”
The sound of her soft laugh was so similar to his sister’s, Grey flinched. Molly…
Not. Here. “If he’s bothering you…”
She downed the last of the champagne, set the empty glass on a nearby bookshelf. Hiked up the fur shawl that had slipped down her shoulders. “I can handle it.” Her gaze lifted to his once more. “Thank you.”
Before she whisked away, Grey touched her arm and handed her his business card. He resisted telling her she should lay off the booze, that in this place a drunk woman would be easily compromised. “Here’s my card if you need …assistance. My personal number is on the back.”
She gave him a look that told him she thought he was flirting with her. If she only knew the truth. Sticking the card in her tiny evening bag, she sauntered away, deliberately avoiding The Lion and cozying up to an overweight representative from Alabama.
Grey locked his back teeth and resumed his stance, keeping an eye on her and The Lion.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
The voice came from behind him, but Grey didn’t need to turn around to recognize his former boss’ irritation. “Since when do they allow FBI agents into the Panthera, Donaldson?”
“The Attorney General invited me.”
“Brown-nosing does have its perks I suppose.”
Special Agent Harold Donaldson moved so he stood next to Grey. His bland, watery eyes scanned the party as he unbuttoned his too-tight suit jacket. “Since when do they let ex-FBI agents in here?”
Grey held up his ID badge. “Security.”
Donaldson snorted as he read the badge. “Jason Black, Front Range Security Specialist. How did you manage that?”
“Front Range has expanded into several new markets, including high-risk security management, bodyguards, and diplomatic protection services. A natural fit for the Panthera.”
Another derisive snort. “Let it go, Justice.”
So they were using first names now? “Let go of what, Harold?”
The man’s bushy eyebrows lowered. “Your obsession with this serial killer is going to land you in jail. Or worse.”
Worse had already happened. He’d let women die on his watch. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just a lowly security guard making ends meet.”
“Ahmed Khourey is not your guy. Look at him.” He motioned toward the center of the ballroom where Khourey stood, telling a story about his latest vacation in Africa that involved a run-in with a rhinoceros while hunting big game.
Men and women crowded around him, laughing at his sense of humor and gasping at his narrative of the attack. He was a natural-born storyteller and far more entertaining, Grey bet, than the actor who was due to arrive any minute.
“He doesn’t fit a serial killer profile,” Donaldson said. “If anything, he’s the Lebanese version of the Dos Equis man…the most interesting man in the world.”
Or at least in the Panthera tonight. “Ted Bundy was handsome and charismatic, too.”
“You’re no longer part of the FBI. Stop obsessing over The Lion. You’re chasing the wrong guy.”
In his earbud, Grey heard the security supervisor give him the call sign for the actor. “Excuse me, Harold. I have work to do.”
He headed to the front doors, emerging into the night a moment later, a warm September wind flapping at his buttoned jacket. A Bentley limo came to a stop in front of the grand sweeping entrance, the outside lights shimmering off the highly-polished black car. Grey took his position next to the rear passenger door, double checked the surrounding area for anything or anyone out of place—all clear—and opened the door for Chas.
The actor was in his mid-thirties, blond, and blue-eyed. He rose from the backseat, one hand in the air as if to wave to his fans. Seeing no one but the security guards waiting for him, he covertly turned the wave into a gesture of smoothing down an errant hair, nodded once at Grey, and made his way up the carpeted stairs. One of Grey’s security team opened the double doors, and after the actor was inside, smirked.
Yeah, Mr. Hollywood’s a dick. He’d fit right in with the Panthera crowd.
Grey closed the limo door and spoke into his comm unit. “This is Black. Package delivered, sir.”
His supervisor, somewhere in the bowels of the house, acknowledged the information, then told Grey to do an outside perimeter check.
“Roger that.” Grey kept the frustration out of his voice. He needed to get back inside and keep an eye on Khourey, but the job was the job. He wasn’t FBI anymore, as Donaldson had reminded him, and he needed this gig in order to have access to the killer. “Black out.”
He double-timed his reconnaissance around the grounds but didn’t cut corners. Everything was normal, all security measures in order. He’d just cleared the back door, checking in with his supervisor, when he heard a woman scream overhead.
Inside, the majority of people had moved into the ballroom, listening to a speech by the actor. Grey ran past the open ballroom doors where those in the back of the room had heard the scream and turned to look out at the stairs.
He took the stairs two at a time—get there— ran down the hall, his brain ticking off commands—weapon ready, clear the rooms—as he threw open the closed doors of the various bedrooms. Opening the second door, a man, the Senator from Virginia, sat up while the woman on top of him scrambled to cover herself. Jesus Christ.
“What the hell?” the senator hollered.
Grey slammed the door, continued his search until he found one already open. With his back to the wall, he swung into the room, weapon drawn, his eyes assessing the layout from left to right. Dresser, closet, bed.
A woman was splayed on the bed, naked from the waist up, her long hair draped over her face and across the pillow. Her legs were tangled in her dress. A wine-colored dress.
Another woman, also an escort, leaned over her, shaking her arm, and half-sobbing. “Wake up, Skye! He’s here. That guy you wanted to see.” Skye was probably a false name—the escorts all had fake identities. “Oh, please, wake up.”
Adrenalin pounding his system, Grey hustled her out of the way. In his mind, Molly’s ghost stood next to the bed with accusing eyes. He’d blown it again.
Skye had a scarf around her neck. He stuck two trembling fingers under it, searching for a pulse.
No pulse. CPR. “Woman down,” he said into his comm unit. It was too late, he knew. He was always too goddamn late. “Call 911. Upstairs bedroom, third door on the right.”
“Is the girl alive?” Donaldson stood in the doorway. When Grey kept compressing her chest and didn’t answer; the FBI agent, unused to being ignored, raised his voice. “Is she alive?”
No. Skye would never watch her favorite actor in another grade-B movie. Never see him elected to the senate. Grey continued CPR, beads of sweat dripping down his face as he prayed the fates would grant him a miracle.
Donaldson turned on the woman who was sobbing silently by the window. “Who was she with? Did you see anyone?”
Did he seriously expect her to answer? These women knew when to keep their mouths shut. Not one of them would risk losing a gig worth a couple grand a night. Even to save each other.
She shook her head. “She came up here to take a break from the party. She told me to let her know when that actor guy showed up. I never saw her with anyone.”
Donaldson knew this killer’s case as well as Grey did—they’d worked on it for nearly two years before Grey had been fired. The Lion didn’t leave witnesses.
As if his former boss had read his mind, Donaldson said, “It’s not his MO. He’s never killed inside the Panthera.”
“Secure the premises,” Grey said into his comm unit, meeting Donaldson’s hard gaze with his own as he finally stopped compressing Skye’s chest. “We have a killer inside the Panthera.”
Two Days Later
“We’ll be there in twenty minutes. We’re doing fine.” Sydney gripped the steering wheel, ignoring the sweat slicking the surface, and flicked a glance at the rearview.
Half a mile behind Syd’s beat-up sedan was another car, its headlights cutting into the blackness of the country road. Forty-five miles out of D.C. and now a car shows up? Syd had driven this road six times in the last ten weeks and never once had she spotted a car. Not at one in the morning.
“What is it?” Lauren-now-Kelly asked.
Syd glanced at her passenger, and even with only the dashboard lights throwing shadows across Lauren-now-Kelly’s taught, pale skin, she had the look of a woman waiting for the first slap. At thirty-five, Lauren-now-Kelly had spent the majority of her adult life on the receiving end of knuckle sandwiches from a bastard husband who considered it his duty, as he’d put it, to keep his wife in line.
“Another car,” Syd said. “Don’t worry. It’s nothing.”
But Syd wasn’t so sure. She pressed the gas pedal and her ancient compact’s engine growled at the increased speed. Come on, baby, don’t quit on me now.
She couldn’t have a tail. Couldn’t. She’d been careful by looping around the city, then alternating main roads with back roads until she reached Titanville, population four-sixty-five.
But the car behind them created problems. Big ones. Even if it wasn’t a tail, the driver of that car would spot her pulling into the drop-off point. What if it were a sheriff’s deputy on patrol? If Syd, after having driven this road only a handful of times found another car suspicious, a deputy most certainly would. Well, you see, Officer, this woman’s husband beat the shit out of her and I’m helping her disappear.
Damn, this could be a panty-twister.
She focused on the road ahead. Five more miles before the drop off. All she needed to do was lose the second car. If not, she risked the entire underground operation. And if Lauren-now-Kelly’s husband found any of them, they’d be sure to suffer his ungodly wrath.
And she wasn’t about to let that happen.
The road curved into a perfect C and when Syd hit the upper part of it, she glanced in the mirror. No headlights. They’d hit the blind spot. Now. She punched the gas again, the little car sputtering and growling, but responding.
“What’s happening?” Lauren-now-Kelly asked.
“Just a precaution. I need the car behind us to drive by and I have an idea how to make that happen.”
Lauren-now-Kelly swung to look in the backseat where her seven-year-old daughter slept, her breathing offering Syd a calming distraction. Just get them there.
Somewhere ahead, smack in the middle of the field to her left, was an access road for tractors. On one of her earlier trips, she’d spotted a mammoth John Deere parked there overnight— the unexpected, hulking monster scaring the hell out of her.
If she found that road, she could duck into the field, kill the engine, and vanish into the darkness until their unwelcome interloper drove by. Not a perfect plan, but if it worked, perfection wasn’t necessary.
Syd roared out of the curve, her gaze bouncing left every few seconds, hoping she wouldn’t miss the road. So damned dark. “Help me look. It’s a road on the left. Cuts right into the field.”
Lauren scooted forward, gripping the dashboard as she focused on the field. “There it is!”
Syd hit the brakes, thanked whatever power above that no giant tractor blocked her path, and swerved onto the rutty road. She floored the gas and the car bounced along, the bumpers and undercarriage scraping as they went. She had to be doing major damage. Please, don’t let this car fall apart.
The jarring and bouncing had woken Lauren-now-Kelly’s daughter. Don’t get distracted. She’d let the child’s mother handle it.
“Sshh, honey. It’s okay. Just a bumpy road. Go back to sleep.”
Syd smacked the lights off and checked the rearview. Total blackness. Far enough. She eased her weary car to a stop and breathed in. Lauren-now-Kelly reached across the console and squeezed her hand.
“Two minutes and that car should roll by. Then we’re good.”
Syd’s heart slammed, all the ferocious blood funneling in—buh-bum-buh-bum-buh-bum—and her head began to pound. Please drive by. Please.
Not daring to light the interior of the car by checking the time on her phone, she counted in her head as she kept her gaze glued to the rearview. Had it been two minutes?
“Sixty seconds,” Lauren-now-Kelly said. “I’m counting.”
“Okay. Almost there.”
“Twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one…”
Suddenly, headlights flashed against the road they’d left, the shadow becoming brighter as the car neared and Syd’s body went to full-on alert, every nerve sparking and banging. Please drive by.
Please drive by. Syd watched, waited. Any second now. Whoosh. The car sped by, not even slowing to check the access road. “There it goes!”
Lauren-now-Kelly threw her head between her knees and Syd, still keeping watch in the rearview, rubbed her back. Not home free yet. The car could spin around and come back.
“We’ll wait a few more minutes just to make sure they’re gone.”
Syd’s cell phone chirped and she scooped it from the cup holder. Grace. Not her real name, but for safety reasons, Syd didn’t concern herself with that. Syd’s only concern was getting Lauren-now-Kelly and her daughter to Grace, who would usher them into a maze so complex that Syd didn’t know where they’d wind up. “Hi. We’re two minutes away. Did you see that car?”
“Yes. Does the husband have a Dodge Challenger?”
Syd refused to look at her passenger. The tension, like a snapping live-wire, firing off the woman was enough. “No. An SUV. GMC.”
She’d covered this with Lauren-now-Kelly before they’d left D.C. Having done this enough times, Syd had learned to watch for the husbands or any other family members who might be following. “I detoured every which way and there weren’t any SUV’s tailing us. Did the driver of the Challenger see you?”
“The car slowed as it went past, but didn’t stop. My car is behind the barn.”
“Is it safe for us?”
Crunching noises filtered through the phone. Grace walking along the gravel drive of the broken-down barn that sat on the backend of a giant farm. At that barn, Syd would turn Lauren-now-Kelly over to Grace. “I think so. I ran to the road and watched the taillights dim. I got a bad feeling about that car though. After this, we need to change our spot.”
“I agree.” Syd started the car. “We’ll see you in a few minutes.”
Syd backed the car to the road and drove the half mile to the driveway leading to the dilapidated barn. It was too bad they’d have to switch drop-off locations because this one served their purposes. Remote locations miles from surrounding homes weren’t exactly easy to find in the D.C. area.
They’d work it out. Somehow. Even if Syd had to drive an extra hour, she’d do it.
She parked in the driveway, cut the lights but kept the engine running. They wouldn’t be here long. Grace walked around the side of the barn, her stride as swift as a two hundred pound, fifty-year-old woman could make it. By morning, Lauren-now-Kelly and her daughter would be in another state with another handler. Hopefully, the start of a new life without a battering husband.
“Okay,” Syd said. “Let’s get your things.”
She grabbed her purse from behind her seat and dug for the white envelope. “Here, take this.”
Lauren stared at the envelope, shook her head. “What’s this? You gave me our new ID’s and social security cards already.”
“I know. This is some cash. It’s not a lot.”
All she had and part of next month’s rent, but it was worth it.
“No. I can’t take your money.”
Syd dropped the envelope in Lauren-now-Kelly’s lap. “You can and you will. It’s only money. I can make more. Besides, it’ll take you a while to get cash flow going. You’ll need it for your daughter.”
Whatever argument Lauren-now-Kelly had conjured evaporated at the mention of her daughter. She gripped the envelope. “Thank you. I’ll pay you back. I swear. You’ve done so much.”
“Blah, blah,” Syd said.
Never a fan of the emotional goodbye, she shoved her door open to retrieve the single suitcase from the trunk. Lauren-now-Kelly had walked away from her life with only one suitcase. All of her photos, mementos, a lifetime of memories—weddings, baby showers, the first day of school—erased because of a husband who, if she’d stayed, would someday cause her death.
Well, Syd wouldn’t allow it. Not for Lauren-now-Kelly or any other woman who had the spine to walk away from a bastard husband.
She lifted the suitcase from the trunk, handed it off to Grace while Lauren-now-Kelly gathered her daughter for the next leg of their journey.
“She okay?” Grace asked.
“Nervous. She’ll be fine though. She’s ready. He worked her over good last night. She’s all busted up.”
Grace nodded. “I’ll take care of it.”
“I know. I’ll be in touch.”
Grace strode back around the side of the barn to retrieve her car and Syd turned to Lauren-now-Kelly. “Grace will take care of you. Remember what we talked about. No calls, no letters, no emails to anyone. Not even your parents or sister. I’m sorry. I know it’s brutal, but it has to be this way.”
She nodded. “I know.”
And then out of nowhere, Lauren-now-Kelly stepped forward and threw her arms around Syd. Oh, crap. Syd raised her arms, thought about it, and dropped them again. No hugging. Too personal. Too connected. And in her line of work, too connected could earn her a beating from a pissed-off spouse. Self-defense training only took her so far when faced with an enraged bear.
She opened her mouth, took a small breath, but the air clogged in her throat. Nowhere to go. Crap, crap, crap. She slammed her eyes closed. Refused to give in to the emotional drama. What good would it do?
“You need to go.”
Lauren-now-Kelly gave her one last squeeze. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll never forget you.”
Headlights from Grace’s minivan shined on them and Lauren-now-Kelly released Syd, grabbed her daughter’s hand, and headed for the next step in her new life. Syd waited for them to get settled in the car and then stood back, offering up a brief wave as they drove away.
I’ll never forget you either.