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He wasn't one of those people who had an obsession about cleanliness. Tate Colton had never had a problem with getting his handsor any other part of him, for that matterdirty, if the job required it. That kind of dirt he could put up with and ignore.
But dealing with these subhuman creatures who made their living trafficking in human flesh, in destroying young lives and thinking absolutely nothing of it, was an entirely different matter. It made him want to go back to the hotel room where he was registered under his assumed name and take a shower. A long, scalding-hot shower to wash away their stink.
Once he received the assignment from his supervisor, Hugo Villanueva, he knew that going undercover in order to find and save the Amish young women who had been kidnapped would require him to associate with, in his opinion, the absolute dregs of the earth.
Dregs in expensive suits.
You could dress a monkey up in fine clothes, but he was still a monkey, Tate thought. No amount of expensive clothing could change that, or change the fact that the people he was forced to interact with were lower than scum.
He'd think more about stepping on a beetle than he would about terminating the existence of one of these cockroaches.
To look at the man who had brought him up to this particular hotel suitehis current tour guide to this underworldsomeone might have thought the man was a successful businessman or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company instead of the utterly soulless lowlife that he actually was.
Impeccably dressed in what was easily a thousand-dollar suit, his guide to this lurid world of virgins-for-sale smirked at him confidently as he opened the door leading into the suite's bedroom.
"I'm sure we can find something to pique your appetite, Mr. Conrad," he said.
Tate scowled at the shorter man. "I said no names," he snapped, mindful of the part he was playing in this surreal drama.
The other man laughed, enjoying what he considered to be the display of ignorance on the part of this new client.
"Nothing to be worried about. What are they going to do?" he asked, gesturing at the bedroom and the young women being held there. Each and every one of them were dressed in identical long, slinky white gowns. "Post it on the internet? None of them even know what the hell the internet is," he stressed, jeering at the young women who were virtually prisoners in this suite. "They all live in the Stone Age. Trust me." He patted Tate's arm and the latter shrugged him off as if he was flinging off an annoying bugan act that wasn't lost on the man. "Your nameand your sterling reputationare both safe here," he assured Tate.
"C'mon, c'mon," the man snapped at the young woman he was herding into the room for his "client's" final review. "He hasn't got all night. Or have you?" he asked, looking over his shoulder at Tate, a lecherous grin spread across his angular face. "You know, if you've changed your mind and want to make your purchase now" He left the sentence open, looking at Tate expectantly.
"I haven't changed my mind," Tate answered formally. The deal was that he got to see the young women in person in order for him to finalize his choice, and then the negotiations regarding the pending "purchase" would go from there.
Inside, Tate was struggling to contain his fury. The woman he'd "requested,"
"Jade," was looking at him apprehensively like a mistreated animal afraid of being beaten.
Had she been beaten?
Tate looked her over quickly. "What's wrong with her?" he demanded, channeling his anger into the part he was playinga man who wanted the "goods" he was considering purchasing to be perfect. He was well aware of the fact that the blue-gray eyes continued to watch his every move. Tate swung around to confront the other man. "She looks like she's been manhandled," he accused angrily.
The man shrugged indifferently. "Don't worry. Nothing happened that would have left a visible mark on her." His flat, brown eyes raked over Hannah from head to toe, as if to reassure himself that she wasn't displaying any sign of bruising in plain sight. "That's the one ruleother than payment up frontthe boss won't tolerate any visible marks left on the merchandise."
Out of the corner of his eye, Tate saw Hannah flinch at the label the man had contemptuously slapped on her. Merchandise.
His anger flared.
"She's a person, not merchandise," Tate retorted, glaring at the guard.
"Hey, at the price you're going to pay, she's anything you want her to be. You want a person? You got it, she's a person." He turned to look at the redhead he'd led out of the bedroom for Ted Conrad's perusal. "A soft, sweet-smelling person, aren't you, honey?"
Smirking, he slid his hand along her cheek and down the side of her neck.
It was obvious that the guard didn't intend on stopping there.
"I'll thank you to take your hands off her," Tate warned darkly as the man's hand just grazed the swell of her breasts.
Anger flashed in the other man's eyes, but just as quickly, it subsided. The main reason he'd been told to bring this client here was to get Conrad to make his final decision so that the deal could proceed.
Apparently, it looked as if the deal was about to be sealed. The bottom line was, and had always been, money. So, much as he would have personally rather shot out this client's kneecaps, the guard raised his hands in the air in mock surrender.
"They're off," he declared dramatically, wiggling his fingers in the air to underscore his point. The smirk on his face deepened as he looked at Hannah knowingly. "So, this is the one you want, eh?"
"She's the one," Tate replied, his tone scrubbed free of any emotion.
The other man nodded his approval. "Gotta say, you've got good taste. She's a beauty." With hooded eyes, he looked her over again. It was obvious that he was putting himself in the client's place. "She also looks like she might last you awhile."
Hannah drew in a breath. They'd given them all some sort of pills, but she had managed to fool her captors into thinking she'd swallowed hers when she hadn't. Each word from the guard felt like a dagger, stabbing into her heart.
Her eyes swept over both men. "Please don't do this," Hannah pleaded.
It was impossible to know which of them she addressed her plea to.
For his part, though he took care not to show it, Tate felt terrible. He could certainly imagine what was going through Hannah's mind. What Caleb's sister was anticipating. He would have given anything to comfort her, but that wasn't what was going to save her.
In order to accomplish that, he had to be convincing in his role. Which meant that he needed to go on with this charade, continue to maintain this facade so that he could, ultimately, get her and her friends away from these men.
If he went about it the traditional way, pulling out a service weapon and threatening to shoot the other man if he got in his way, Tate knew that he mightor might notbe able to get out of the hotel with Hannah. Most likely, they'd be stopped before they ever made it to the street level.
No, this way was more effective. It just required a great deal of focus and an iron willand the ability to block out that look in her eyes to keep it from getting to him.
"What did I tell you about opening your mouth?" the guard was demanding angrily. He pulled back his hand, ready to bring it down on her face.
Hannah's alarmed cry tore at his heart.
"If she has one mark on her, the deal's off," Tate warned him in a voice that was deadly calm, belying the turmoil that lay just beneath.
The guard stopped in midswing. The expression on his face told Tate that the guard was getting fed up with what he undoubtedly considered a high-and-mighty client. The man let his guard down for a second, the sneer on his face telling Tate that he thought he knew his type. Not just knew it, but hated it because he felt inferior to the supposedly rich client.
"You don't buy her, someone else will," the guard jeered contemptuously. But he dropped his hand to his side nonetheless. "Sit!" he ordered Hannah with less compassion than he would have directed to a pet dog. Only when she complied did the guard finally look his way. "So, I take it we've got a deal. You're interested in acquiring this tasty morsel?"
Tate's expression gave nothing away, including the fact that he could easily vivisect him without so much as a thought. "I might be," he replied after a beat had gone by.
"Might be," the man echoed with contempt. He was at the end of his patience. "Look, the man I represent doesn't like having his time wasted. We're alike that way because neither do I."
Tate slowly walked around the young woman, deliberately pausing and taking a lock of her hair between his fingers. He made a show of sniffing it. "That goes both ways."
Suspicion immediately entered the guard's eyes. "So what do you have in mind?"
There was no hesitation on Tate's part. "A man doesn't buy an expensive car without taking it on a test run, seeing how it handles," he pointed out, his voice continuing to be flat.
It killed him to see that Hannah had winced again in response to his words, and he saw real fear in her eyes as she watched him.
How did he get it across to her that he was one of the good guys without blowing his cover?
"Go on, I'm listening," the other man said.
"I'd like a private session with her, to see how we 'get along,'" Tate proposed.
"The boss doesn't deal in damaged goods," the other man snapped.
"I have no intentions of 'damaging' her. Just 'sampling' her," Tate informed him. "There are a lot of ways a man can see if he likes the goods he's getting."
He was standing in front of Hannah now, looking into her eyes, wishing there was some way to set her mind at ease. His back was to the other man and he smiled at Hannah. The smile was kind, devoid of the lust that had supposedly brought him here. Lowering his head so that his lips were right next to the young woman's ear, he whispered, "Caleb sent me," before straightening and backing off.
Her eyes widened, but she held her tongue.
Tate said a quick, silent prayer of thanksgiving to whoever it was that watched over law enforcement officers.
"What did you say to her?" the guard demanded. There was no arguing with his tone.
Tate turned to look at him, emulating the latter's previous smug look. "I told her that paradise was at hand."
As he said that, Tate slanted a look toward Hannah, hoping she would put two and two together and take some comfort in the covert message. He couldn't tell by her expression if she'd believed himor even understood what he was trying to tell her. He wasn't even sure if she'd heard him say that Caleb had sent him.
Terror, he knew, had a way of blocking out everything else.
The man relaxed a little, then laughed. "Good one," he pronounced. "That's where she and some of those other girls come from, some backward hole-in-the-wall called Paradise Ridge."
Tate tried to sound casually uninterested. A man making small talk, involved in a meaningless conversation that would be forgotten before he walked out the door. "Is that where all the girls are from? This Paradise Ridge place you just mentioned?"
His question was met with a nod. "This batch is. They picked up others from" He abruptly stopped his narrative. His eyebrows narrowed over small, deep-set eyes. "What's with all the questions?"
Tate shrugged. "Just trying to find out how big a selection you've gotin case things don't work out with this one," he explained.
"Oh, it'll work out," the man promised. There was no room for argument. He looked at Hannah pointedly. "She knows what'll happen to her if it doesn't. Don't you, honey?" The smile on his lips was cold enough to freeze a bucket of water in the middle of May.
This time, instead of fear rising in Hannah's eyes, Tate thought he saw anger. Anger and frustration because, he guessed, there was nothing she could do right now about the anger she was feeling.
The other man was apparently oblivious to her reaction. It was clear that fear was all he looked for, all he valued.
"Don't want to wind up like your girlfriends now, do you?" he taunted her.
Things suddenly fell into place. The annoying little troll was referring to the two dead girls Emma and Hannah's brother had initially discovered. Solomon Miller, a so-called "repentant" Amish outcast had brought them straight to the bodies, hoping to use the fact that he was informing on his "boss" as a bargaining chip.
Initially part of the group of men involved in the sex trafficking ring, Miller had become the task force's inside man, trading information for the promise of immunity once all the pieces of this case came together and they got enough on the men running this thing to take them to courtand put them away for the next century or so.
If they didn't wait until they discovered exactly who was behind all this and bring himor herin, if they just grabbed up the two-bit players they were dealing with in this little drama, the operation would just fold up and relocate someplace else.
And Amish girls would continue disappearing as long as there were sick men to make their abductions a profitable business.
No, they had to catch the mastermind in order for this operation to be deemed a success.
"Don't threaten her," Tate warned. When the guard shot him a malevolent look, he told him, "I want her to be willing to be with me, not because she was threatened with harm if she wasn't."
The guard looked at him as if he wasn't dealing with a full deck. "Hey, man, don't you know? It's better when they fight you."
The world would be a much better place if he could just squash this cockroach, Tate thought, struggling to hang on to his temper. With no qualms whatsoever, Tate would have been more than willing to put everyone out of their collective miseryhimself included.
But instead, he was forced to tamp down his temper and nonchalantly tell him that "We each have our preferences."
"Yeah, well, you're the man with the bankroll," the guard grumbled resentfully.
"Yes, I am."
Tate was grateful for the elaborate lengths the department had gone to in order to give him a plausible backstory. His brother, Gunnar, had funded his huge bank account.
Whoever was running this sex trafficking operation wasn't a fool, Tate concluded. He was very, very careful to get everything right. That included vetting his clients rather than just accepting them at face value, or going with hearsay.
Nothing was simple anymore, Tate thought. Not even the peddling of flesh.
"So it's settled?" Tate asked the man. The blank look he received in return forced him to elaborate. "I can have a private session with her?"
"Soon as I run it by the boss" came the reply.
"And how long is that going to take?"
He knew things had to progress at their own pace, but he hated the idea of leaving the girl alone with this thug for another moment, much less for another day or two. There was no telling what could happen in that amount of time, and he didn't want to take any more chances than he had to.
"Anxious?" the other man jeered, enjoying himself. He liked having the upper hand and, in this case, he clearly got to call the shots. "Tomorrow. Come back tomorrow. She'll be ready for you then."
Just what did that scum mean by "ready"?
A premonition had a shiver zipping down Tate's back, but there was absolutely nothing he could do about the circumstances. Tate was well aware that if he pressed, if he remotely said that she looked ready now or tried in any way to hurry this along, the whole thing could just fall apart on him. There were steps to take and he knew it.
That didn't make taking them any easier.