—It’s always a good time to do the right thing.—
“Hey, thanks for seeing me,” Hazel said to Leighton as she stepped into the lobby of Redemption Harbor Consulting. Instead of her normal FBI “uniform” of a pantsuit, today she wore jeans, a sweater and sneakers.
“Of course.” Leighton nodded as he moved to lock the front door. No one else was at the office this late.
Hell, no one except a select few even knew this building existed. Gage, hacker extraordinaire, had worked his magic, and while they paid taxes on the building, this particular warehouse was listed as something else entirely. Redemption Harbor Consulting was a building on the other side of town. It had desks and offices and everything one would expect from a consulting company. But they didn’t actually do any work there. Instead, they had it rigged with security cameras, and monitored it remotely. It was their front in case they ever needed it.
But FBI Special Agent Hazel Blake wasn’t just anyone. She was a federal agent who had done them more than one favor. Of course, they’d done favors for her as well.
More than that, she was Leighton’s friend. They’d been overseas at the same time together on occasion and, other than his crew here, she was one of the few people he truly loved and trusted with his life.
“You sounded urgent,” he said referring to her text. “What’s up?” Since she was a Fed, it seemed strange she’d be here asking them for help with a job, but maybe she needed to go off the books for something.
Expression tense, she pulled a manila folder out of a purse the size of a backpack. She’d cut her jet-black hair since the last time he’d seen her. It was now in a sharp bob around her face. “We can do this in one of the conference rooms or right here.”
“Conference room is fine. No one else is here tonight. Is this a case you want us to take on?” he asked as they headed down the nearest hallway.
Recently Skye, one of the cofounders, had added a giant oil painting of a crab tap dancing to one of the walls. He had no idea why but it made him smile every time he passed it. Hell, maybe that was the why. For all her tough exterior, Skye loved this crew.
“Nice,” Hazel said, snorting softly as they walked by it.
In other words, no explanation necessary.
“This is all off the books,” Hazel said as they sat at one end of the long conference table.
He gave her a dry look.
“I know, I know. Everything you do is off the books. I just want that clear up front so there’s no misunderstanding. This is personal for me. It has nothing to do with the Bureau. Not really anyway.”
“All right,” he said.
Sighing, she flipped open the folder. “All the details are here. But basically, my grandmother’s neighbor got into debt with the wrong person. A loan shark who works for Alexei Kuznetsov.”
Okay, now she had Leighton’s attention. “I thought you guys were building a case against him.” She’d never actually said the FBI was, but she’d hinted at it once over beers a few weeks ago.
She lifted a shoulder, not confirming one way or another. “You know I can’t talk about that. But…hypothetically, say we are building a case against him. That would be another reason I can’t get involved with this. I hate to say it, but this thing I’m giving you is too small for my people. I have to look at the bigger picture. We need to bring down the entire operation. Cut off the head of the snake. Not take down a small portion of his operation. Because this would do nothing, and he’ll just keep going and keep hurting people.” She motioned to the file even though he wasn’t sure what was in it yet.
Leighton thought he knew what she was trying to say. Because on an intellectual level, he understood the greater good. Even if he sometimes morally struggled with it, he absolutely understood that sometimes the needs of the majority counted more than a few small fish. It was just very hard to digest when you were staring directly at one of the “small fish” right in front of you and unable to save their life.
He closed his eyes once and a long-ago image flashed in his mind. A photograph of a charred teddy bear with one eye and a missing foot.
He opened his eyes, shoving that image right back where it belonged. Far away from the present. “We’ve been building a file on him,” Leighton said. It was a secret but not one he needed to keep from Hazel. Hell, she must know they were. Kuznetsov was on their radar now.
“I hoped you guys were. It also goes without saying, you guys better stay off the Bureau’s radar.”
“Come on.” They knew how to be ghosts, how to be invisible. Two of their crew, Skye and Colt, had been actual spies. And Savage had been pretty damn close to being one, with all the covert work he’d done.
“So my grandma’s neighbor got in deep with this bookie. To pay off the debt,” she shook her head, her jaw tightening as she seemed to collect herself, “the bookie made an offer. This family would lose everything and he would kill the father—Rico, the loser who got them into debt in the first place—or one of Rico’s daughters could work off the debt on her back.”
Leighton balled his hands into fists. “How old is this girl?”
“In her twenties. Of age. Doesn’t make it any better.”
Hazel moved one of the papers out of the way and Leighton got a good look at the girl. Her name was Maria Lopez. She was young, college-aged, with long brown hair, pretty brown eyes, a nice smile. Hell. “So what do you need me to do?”
“This guy, Marco Broussard, is part of Kuznetsov’s organization. He and his crew run women out of three of his hotels—allegedly. They’re all in New Orleans. One’s a hotel and casino. I don’t know where she is exactly, but I promised my grandmother I would bring the girl home. The mom found out about the situation too late. She’s already left her piece-of-shit husband and is desperate to get her oldest daughter back. But she can’t find her and has no one to turn to.”
“You’ve got to have an idea where she’s being held if you know he runs women out of three hotels. You guys seriously can’t go after her?”
“We could, but it would tip Kuznetsov off that we’re on to him. The Feds aren’t going to stick their neck out over one girl. Or even a bunch of girls. And he knows that. So he’d know we were looking at him. He could shut down all of his New Orleans operations. And we’re already working other angles there—we’re so close to bringing him down.”
Leighton frowned, understanding but not liking it. It was why he could never work for the government. Never again. “How did the family even know to come to you?”
“The neighbor saw a picture of me in my Air Force uniform on my grandmother’s mantel. She’s got my military picture and a picture of me the day I graduated from Quantico.”
Leighton nodded. “Okay. So you want us to extract the girl and then what?”
“If you get her out, I’m going to get the girl and her mother somewhere safe. I don’t give a shit what happens to Rico. That sorry excuse for a human basically pimped out his own daughter, making her feel guilty enough that she left of her own volition when her mother was out of the house. He can rot in hell.”
Leighton nodded again. “What about the rest of Kuznetsov’s operation?”
“We’re working to bring it all down. Before that happens, I need to do this for my grandmother. For this girl. I can’t save everyone, but if I can just save one…” She shook her head. “Jesus, I just need to do this.”
Leighton understood what she wasn’t saying, could read it in her expression and hear it in her tone. There was so much shit in the world every day it was like an avalanche of garbage that they were all drowning in. She wanted to do this one thing to help balance the scales, and he would definitely help her. “If I can get more girls out, I’m going to. I’ll go after this one for you. But I know my crew. You do too. If we can help more than just her, we’re sure as hell going to. We’re not gonna stop at one.”
Hazel gave him a small grin as if she’d expected that. “Why do you think I came to you? I’m focused on what I need to be focused on. But since you said that…” She pulled out another piece of paper and laid it on top of the stack. “This should be interesting to you. And you better burn this shit once you memorize it.”
His eyes widened slightly as he scanned the details. As soon as she was gone, he needed to contact the rest of the crew.
It was time for a company meeting.
He straightened the papers and shut the little manila folder before looking back up at Hazel. “You’re out late tonight.”
“Yeah,” she said. “And headed home after this. Melissa said she’d have dinner waiting.” Hazel shook her head once. “I seriously don’t know what I did to deserve her.”
He nearly laughed. Hazel was one of the most giving people he’d ever known. She deserved happiness if anyone did. “You guys set a date yet?”
His friend grinned. “Yeah. If it was up to me we’d just do a courthouse wedding.”
“Tell me you didn’t suggest that.”
Hazel winced slightly. “Maybe.”
He laughed, shaking his head. “Damn, woman. Even I know that’s not cool.”
Hazel lifted a shoulder. “Well, now I know too. Melissa looked at me like I’d said we should sacrifice kittens, so I figured we better do this right. And you’re definitely going to be my best man.”
“Sounds good,” he said, standing. “Get home to your fiancée. I’m going to call a meeting with everybody tomorrow. I’ll keep you updated when possible.”
“Thank you for this.” She pulled him into a tight hug before stepping back. “I know the way out. Talk to you soon.”
* * *
Leighton sat with the others the next morning as Gage worked his magic on his computer, his fingers moving at warp speed. Everyone had arrived this morning ready to go over the file Hazel had given him. Thankfully, Skye had brought a box of pastries—though she’d eaten half of them herself already.
“Okay, so I took what Hazel gave us,” Gage said, leaning forward slightly in his chair as he pulled up a document on one of his many oversized screens. “I’ve got the schematics of each hotel and I managed to hack into two of their security systems using weaknesses. I don’t have full access, but I’ve got enough right now that I’m piggybacked onto their exterior cameras and some of their interior ones. But…I couldn’t get into this one. The Sapphire. The one Kuznetsov’s niece manages.”
“Why not this one?” Leighton asked. According to the files, they were all in New Orleans and fairly close to one another. One was in the business district and two were in the French Quarter.
“I hacked the others using unpatched—and potentially unknown—vulnerabilities. One using an old webcam, and the other…” He trailed off, frowning as he appeared to hit another wall. “I don’t want to say this place is unhackable, but I need to be inside it to see if I can find any weak spots. This one is a casino as well as a hotel, while the first two are just hotels. The security is tighter here. And given how tight it is, if I go in there and get tagged by a security camera—if he knows who I am—there’s a good chance it will negate the peace between Brooks and Kuznetsov,” Gage added, saying what they all knew.
They’d gotten tangled up with Alexei Kuznetsov on a previous job. More specifically, Brooks had. It was very likely that the criminal didn’t know exactly what Redemption Harbor Consulting truly did or how much they’d been digging up on him. But it also stood to reason that if Brooks was keeping tabs on Kuznetsov, the other man was doing the same, and he might know more about their crew than they wanted. So they had to be smart about how they went after him. Kuznetsov knew Brooks had blackmail material on the guy’s son, and that Brooks knew about the existence of a daughter he’d worked very hard to keep secret from most people.
Despite all that, clearly someone needed to be inside The Sapphire. If that woman was being trafficked through one of Kuznetsov’s places, they needed to know where. Either through hacking the camera systems or with eyes on the ground.
“I’ll be the one who goes into his hotel,” Leighton said, looking at the rest of the crew: Skye, Colt, Savage, Olivia, Brooks and Nova. Darcy might be married to Brooks, but she had her own business to run and wasn’t here for this.
“Nah, we can figure it out later,” Colt said, shaking his head. “You don’t have to take this on.”
“I’ve been out of town for the last few jobs. Hell, most of my jobs have been far away from the South. And…I’m the only one without a significant other. I know we’re all capable, but this shit is going to be dangerous if Kuznetsov figures out what I’m up to.” For some reason, his friends seemed to think he was fragile lately. Maybe not lately, even. He’d been withdrawn since making the move to civilian life—as civilian as this would ever be—but he could handle his business.
“If he does, we’ll all be targets regardless.” Skye’s tone was neutral.
“I know, but I still think I should be the one to go in. I don’t have anyone to worry about back home. Or to worry about me.” Which meant he’d be completely free of all the baggage that could wear on someone while on a job. “And if we need to target his niece for information…” He trailed off, not needing to finish the thought. They weren’t in the business of using sex to gain information. Ever. But he was single and none of the other guys were. That little fact mattered, since Kuznetsov’s niece basically ran the hotel and casino. And Hazel had come to him with this. He wanted to be the one leading this op. Hell, he needed to—maybe it would cleanse his soul. Or at least even the karmic scale a little.
“I’m with Leighton on this,” Gage said, right before he grinned like an evil cartoon villain—which was usually how he acted when he’d already come up with a plan on his own. “I knew we’d be infiltrating this place so I’ve already created a persona for you,” he continued. “Actually, it’s one of the cover IDs I’ve been working on for a while, so it’s solid and established—and you’re going to take it over. Your name is Spencer Johnson. You’re a big baller who doesn’t mind throwing around his money. You’re a trust fund jackass who’s not quite like the normal trust fund crowd. You’ve started some businesses of your own that are successful and you’ve gotten into real estate development on the periphery. A silent investor of sorts on some projects. You like to have a good time, you’re not flashy, and you don’t dress too extravagantly. And you don’t have many vices…except prostitutes. High-dollar escorts, to be specific. That and occasionally gambling. Blackjack mainly. Since this is your first time in New Orleans, you’re going to want to enjoy yourself.”
“Classy,” Nova muttered.
“Anyway,” Gage continued after grinning at his fiancée, “Once you’re inside, I can do the rest remotely and see if I can hack into their system. After that happens, I should be able to get eyes everywhere and see if we can spot the girl. Obviously I haven’t seen her at the other two hotels or this would all be a moot point. But that doesn’t mean she’s not there either, so I’ll be monitoring the cameras with facial recognition software. More than anything, we need feet and eyes on the ground in New Orleans.”
A new picture appeared on screen, this time of a beautiful woman in her twenties. Luciana Carreras. Kuznetsov’s niece. His dead brother’s daughter. For some reason, she didn’t have the same last name as her uncle, but had taken her mother’s maiden name instead. Long dark hair, pouty lips, petite and curvy. Leighton recognized the woman from the file Hazel had given him. She was stunning, and he didn’t give a fuck. Because she was related to a monster and okay with running the very business that might sell women into sex slavery.
“A beautiful monster,” he muttered.
Gage turned around in his chair, frowned. “We don’t know that she’s involved yet.” He turned back and started clicking away on his keyboard. “In fact, her financials indicate that she lives a pretty normal life. Well, normal-ish. When her parents died, her uncle was in charge of her trust. He’s used some of it for her schooling, but mainly he’s paid for her college and other expenses directly. Her trust is basically untouched, and she started working for him as soon as she graduated—even though she had a lot of offers on the table. Better offers. If I had to guess, she might’ve taken the job because they’re related. Not that it matters. But from the surface, she looks clean. Her only crime is being related to the man. Most of his businesses are directly on the East Coast, with a few exceptions—the three hotels in New Orleans being some of those exceptions. With what Hazel has told us and the Feds’ presence there now, it’s likely because he’s starting to run shit through the Gulf Coast.”
Leighton grunted once. “She could have taken his job offer because they’re making money off the pain of others.”
Gage lifted one shoulder. “Maybe. If so, we’ll bring her down too. But…just let me keep looking. I’ve found some interesting things about her.”
“Interesting how?” Skye asked, straightening slightly next to Colt. It was a miracle she was sitting still at all. Normally she was pacing.
Gage’s shoulders stiffened ever so slightly, as they always did when someone tried to rush him. He claimed that his genius couldn’t be rushed. “I’ll let you know what I find when I find it. For now, I’ve got everything we need to stealthily infiltrate the hotel and casino.”
“All right. So what else have you got for us?” Skye asked.
“Patience. I’m not your dancing monkey,” Gage muttered, his lips twitching.
“Exactly. Dancing monkeys listen better.”
Gage laughed lightly as he pulled up another screen. “That extra intel Hazel gave us was spot on.”
Leighton looked at the rows of information scrolling across the screen. “That bastard really has his dirty fingers in everything, doesn’t he,” Leighton muttered. The list was written in a sort of code, but some of the codes were clear enough that one of Kuznetsov’s front businesses was smuggling people and weapons.
“Vienna already got back to me,” Skye said, referring to a smuggler she and Colt had worked with in the past.
Leighton had met the woman before and she was all right. Her job was unconventional, aka shady as fuck, but who was he to judge? Because she sure as hell wasn’t smuggling people or anything that could hurt others. “Already?”
“Yep,” Skye said. “She hates Kuznetsov, said a few of his guys have screwed up a couple of her transports. Said they’re all a bunch of violent thugs with no sense in their big dumb heads. And that’s a direct quote.”
“Does she know how dangerous he is?”
Skye nodded. “I’ve set up another meeting with her tonight just to reiterate things and to go over some details. She knows the deal. She’s not doing anything that can get herself hurt or caught. She’s just doing recon from afar and using some of her assets to keep tabs on some of his shipments. If that extra intel Hazel gave you is right, then Kuznetsov is bringing over a bunch of people and weapons in the next nine days, and he’s using one of the ports in New Orleans—so he’ll be in town.”
Leighton had no reason to doubt the information. He was surprised Hazel had given it to him, but he’d learned that she wasn’t the straightest arrow. Which, in a world full of gray, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. They weren’t planning on doing anything about the incoming shipments—that was the Feds’ job to handle. But if for some reason the FBI dropped the ball, they’d make sure this information fell into the right hands. There was always the DEA or even the CIA.
“Make sure she keeps her head down.” He didn’t like the thought of anything happening to the smart-ass smuggler. And it seemed that most people who tangled with Kuznetsov got dead fast.
“I’ve got a few places in New Orleans we can use,” Brooks said, speaking for the first time as he typed something into his phone. “A couple homes in the Garden District that aren’t listed under my name. They’re owned by one of my dad’s corporations. And unless Kuznetsov has a really deep file on me, he won’t know about these homes.”
“We?” Leighton asked, frowning.
Brooks lifted his head, pinning him with his dark eyes. “Yeah, we. Even if you’re the one going to be on the ground at the casino, we’re all going on this job. No one is working anything else right now and we need to help bring Kuznetsov down any way we can. If we can save one girl, we can save all of them. The Feds can do whatever the hell they want, but I’m not sitting by now that we have this information.”
“I guess I could use the backup,” he said, half-smiling. The truth was, this was the kind of job they all needed to be there for. There could be no room for error.
“Please. You need all the backup you can get, old man.”
He snorted. He was less than six months older than Brooks. Instead of responding, Leighton looked at the screen again and frowned at the image of Luciana Carreras, the beautiful woman smiling at something just off camera. Her smile was wide and inviting. And her eyes…the bright blue was startling against her bronze skin.
If she was involved in her uncle’s organization, it seemed even worse somehow because she was a woman. Sure, Gage said she might not be entrenched in Kuznetsov’s bullshit, but Leighton couldn’t believe it. There was no way she wasn’t involved. She’d basically been raised by him, was college educated, worked at one of his hotels, and if women were being moved through there, she would have to know. She was the executive hotel manager.
And she was going down just like her uncle was.