Late Spring, Maryland
Before tonight, the closest Tess Bailey had come to a strip club was on TV, where beautiful women danced seductively in G-strings, taut young body parts bouncing and gleaming from a stage that sparkled and flashed.
In the Gentlemen’s Den, thousands of miles from Hollywood in a rundown neighborhood north of Washington, D.C., the mirror ball was broken, and the aging stripper on the sagging makeshift stage looked tired and cold.
“Whoops.” Nash turned his back to the noisy room, carefully keeping his face in the shadows. “That’s Gus Mondelay sitting with Decker,” he told Tess.
Diego Nash had the kind of face that stood out in a crowd. And Nash obviously didn’t want Mondelay—whoever he was—to see him.
Tess followed him back toward the bar, away from the table where Lawrence Decker, Nash’s longtime Agency partner, was working undercover.
She bumped into someone. “Excuse me—”
Oh my God! The waitresses weren’t wearing any shirts. The Gentlemen’s Den wasn’t just a strip club, it was also a topless bar. She grabbed Nash’s hand and dragged him down the passageway that led to the pay phone and the restrooms. It was dark back there, with the added bonus of nary a half-naked woman in sight.
She had to say it. “This was just a rumor—”
He pinned her up against the wall and nuzzled her neck, his arms braced on either side of her. She was stunned for only about three seconds before she realized that two men had staggered out of the men’s room. This was just another way for Nash to hide his face.
She pretended that she was only pretending to melt as he kissed her throat and jawline, as he waited until Drunk and Drunker pushed past them before he spoke, his breath warm against her ear. “There were at least four shooters set up and waiting out front in the parking lot. And those were just the ones I spotted as we were walking in.”
The light in the parking lot had been dismal. Tess’s concentration had alternated between her attempts not to catch her foot in a pothole and fall on her face, and the two biker types who appeared to be having, quite literally, a pissing contest. Not to mention the unbelievable fact that she was out in the real world with the legendary Diego Nash . . .
They were now alone in the hallway, but Nash hadn’t moved out of whispering range. He was standing so close, Tess’s nose was inches from the collar of his expensive shirt. He smelled outrageously good. “Who’s Gus Mondelay?” she asked.
“An informant,” he said tersely, the muscle in the side of his perfect jaw jumping. “He’s on the Agency payroll, but lately I’ve been wondering . . .” He shook his head. “It fits that he’s here, now. He’d enjoy watching Deck get gunned down.” The smile he gave her was grim. “Thanks for having the presence of mind to call me.”
Tess still couldn’t believe the conversation she’d overheard just over an hour ago at Agency headquarters.
A rumor had come in that Lawrence Decker’s cover had been blown and there was an ambush being set to kill him. The Agency’s night shift support staff had attempted to contact him, but had been able to do little more than leave a message on his voice mail.
No one in the office had bothered to get in touch with Diego Nash.
“Nash isn’t working this case with Decker,” Suellen Foster had informed Tess. “Besides, it’s just a rumor.”
Nash was more than Decker’s partner. He was Decker’s friend. Tess had called him even as she ran for the parking lot.
“So what do we do?” Tess asked now, looking up at Nash.
He had eyes the color of melted chocolate—warm eyes that held a perpetual glint of amusement whenever he came into the office in HQ and flirted with the mostly female support staff. He liked to perch on the edge of Tess’s desk in particular, and the other Agency analysts and staffers teased her about his attention. They also warned her of the dangers of dating a field agent, particularly one like Diego Nash, who had a serious 007 complex.
As if she needed their warning.
Nash sat on her desk because he liked her little bowl of lemon mints, and because she called him “tall, dark and egotistical” right to his perfect cheekbones, and refused to take him seriously.
Right now, though, she was in his world, and she was taking him extremely seriously.
Right now his usually warm eyes were cold and almost flat-looking, as if part of him were a million miles away.
“We do nothing,” Nash told Tess. “You go home.”
“I can help.”
He’d already dismissed her. “You’ll help more by leaving.”
“I’ve done the training,” she informed him, blocking his route back to the bar. “I’ve got an application in for a field agent position. It’s just a matter of time before—”
Nash shook his head. “They’re not going to take you. They’re never going to take you. Look, Bailey, thanks for the ride, but—”
“Tess,” she said. He had a habit of calling the support staff by their last names, but tonight she was here, in the field. “And they are too going to take me. Brian Underwood told me—”
“Brian Underwood was stringing you along because he was afraid you would quit and he needs you on support. You’ll excuse me if I table this discussion on your lack of promotability and start focusing on the fact that my partner is about to—”
“I can get a message to Decker,” Tess pointed out. “No one in that bar has ever seen me before.”
Nash laughed in her face. “Yeah, what? Are you going to walk over to him with your freckles and your Sunday church picnic clothes—”
“These aren’t Sunday church picnic clothes!” They were running-into-work-on-a-Friday-night-at-10:30-to-pick-up-a-file clothes. Jeans. Sneakers. T-shirt.
T-shirt . . .
Tess looked back down the hall toward the bar, toward the ordering station where the waitresses came to pick up drinks and drop off empty glasses.
“You stand out in this shithole as much as I do wearing this suit,” Nash told her. “More. If you walk up to Decker looking the way you’re looking . . .”
There was a stack of small serving trays, right there, by the bartender’s cash register.
“He’s my friend, too,” Tess said. “He needs to be warned, and I can do it.”
“No.” Finality rang in his voice. “Just walk out the front door, Bailey, get back into your car, and—”
Tess pulled off her T-shirt, took off her bra, and handed both to him.
“What message should I give him?” she asked.
Nash looked at her, looked at the shirt and wispy lace of bra dangling from his hand, looked at her again.
Looked at her. “Jeez, Bailey.”
Tess felt the heat in her cheeks as clearly as she felt the coolness from the air-conditioning against her bare back and shoulders.
“What should I tell him?” she asked Nash again.
“Damn,” he said, laughing a little bit. “Okay. O-kay.” He stuffed her clothes into his jacket pocket. “Except you still look like a Sunday school teacher.”
Tess gave him a disbelieving look and an outraged noise. “I do not.” For God’s sake, she was standing here half naked—
But he reached for her, unfastening the top button of her jeans and unzipping them.
“Hey!” She tried to pull back, but he caught her.
“Don’t you watch MTV?” he asked, folding her pants down so that they were more like hip huggers, his fingers warm against her skin.
Her belly button was showing now, as well as the top of her panties, the zipper of her jeans precariously half pulled down. “Yeah, in all my limitless free time.”
“You could use some lipstick.” Nash stepped back and looked at her critically, then, with both hands, completely messed up her short hair. He stepped back and looked again. “That’s a little better.”
Gee, thanks. “Message?” she said.
“Tell Decker to stay put for now,” Nash ordered. “They’re not going to hit him inside. Don’t tell him that—he knows. That’s what I’m telling you, you understand?”
“I’m going to make a perimeter circuit of this place,” he continued. “I’ll meet you right back here—no, in the ladies’ room—in ten minutes. Give the message to Deck, be brief, don’t blow it by trying to tell him too much, then get your ass in the ladies’ room and stay there until I’m back. Is that clear?”
Tess nodded again. She’d never seen this Nash before—this order-barking, cold-bloodedly decisive commander. She’d never seen the Nash he’d become in the car, on the way over here, before either. After she’d made that first phone call, she’d picked him up downtown. She’d told him again, in greater detail, all that she’d overheard as they’d headed to the Gentlemen’s Den. He’d gotten very quiet, very grim, when his attempts to reach Decker on his cell phone had failed.
He’d been scared, she’d realized as she’d glanced at him. He had been genuinely frightened that they were too late, that the hit had already gone down, that his partner—his friend—was already dead.
When they got here and the parking lot was quiet, when they walked inside and spotted Decker still alive and breathing, there had been a fraction of a second in which Tess had been sure Nash was going to faint from relief.
It was eye-opening. It was possible that Diego Nash was human after all.
Tess gave him one last smile, then headed down the hall toward one of those little serving trays on the bar. God, she was about to walk into a room filled with drunken men, with her breasts bare and her pants halfway down her butt. Still, it couldn’t possibly be worse than that supercritical once-over Nash had given her.
“Tess.” He caught her arm, and she looked back at him. “Be careful,” he said.
She nodded again. “You, too.”
He smiled then—a flash of straight white teeth. “Deck’s going to shit monkeys when he sees you.”
With that, he was gone.
Tess grabbed the tray from the bar and pushed her way out into the crowd.
Something was wrong.
Decker read it in Gus Mondelay’s eyes, in the way the heavyset man was sitting across from him at the table.
Although it was possible that the wrong he was reading was due to the four beef enchiladas Mondelay had wolfed down at Joey’s Mexican Shack twenty minutes before meeting Decker here.
But Deck didn’t trust Mondelay any farther than he could throw him. And something about the sound of the man’s voice when he’d called to set up this meeting with Freedom Network leader Tim Ebersole had made Decker leave early enough to follow Mondelay as he left work, and to trail him over here. But aside from the Shack, Mondelay hadn’t made any other stops before arriving at the Gentlemen’s Den. He hadn’t talked to anyone on his cell phone either.
Mondelay gestured for Decker to lean closer—it was the only way to be heard over the loud music. “Tim must be running late.”
Jesus, Mondelay had a worse than usual case of dog breath tonight.
“I’m in no hurry,” Decker said, leaning back again in his seat. Air. Please God, give him some air.
Gus Mondelay had come into contact with the Freedom Network while serving eighteen months in Wallens Ridge Prison for possession of an illegal firearm. The group’s name made them sound brave and flag-wavingly patriotic, but they were really just more bubbas—the Agency nickname for homegrown terrorists with racist, neo-Nazi leanings and a fierce hatred for the federal government. And for all agents of the federal government.
Such as Decker.
Even though Deck’s specialty was terrorist cells of the foreign persuasion, he’d been introduced to informant Gus Mondelay when the man had coughed up what seemed to be evidence that these particular bubbas and al-Qaeda were working in tandem.
Those insane-sounding allegations could not be taken lightly even though Deck himself couldn’t make sense of the scenario. If there was anyone the bubbas hated more than federal agents, it was foreigners. Although the two groups certainly could have found common ground in their hatred of Israel and the Jews.
So Dougie Brendon, the newly appointed Agency director, had assigned Decker to Gus Mondelay. Deck was to use Mondelay to try to work his way deeper into the Freedom Network, with the goal of being present at one of the meetings with members of the alleged al-Qaeda cell.
So far all Mondelay had given him were leads that had gone nowhere.
In return, Decker sat with him night after night, watching emotionally numb women gyrate unenthusiastically in one sleazy strip club after another where he was assaulted by crappy rock music played at brain-jarring decibels. He, of course, paid for the drinks.
Mondelay made the come-closer-to-talk gesture again. “I’m going to give Tim a call, see what’s holding him up,” he said as he pried his cell phone out of his pants pocket.
Decker watched as the other man keyed in a speed dial number, then held his phone to his face, plugging his other ear with one knockwurst-sized finger. Yeah, that would help him hear over the music.
It wouldn’t have been quite so awful to sit here if only the DJ played some Aerosmith every now and then.
Or if the strippers or waitresses in this place bothered to smile— Jesus, or even scowl, for that matter. But their perpetually bored expressions were depressing as hell. They didn’t even bother to be pissed at the fact that they were being exploited.
Mondelay sat back in his chair as whomever he was calling picked up. Decker couldn’t hear the conversation, but he could read lips. He turned his head so that Mondelay was right at the edge of his field of vision.
What the fuck is taking so long? Pause, then, No way, asshole, you were supposeda call me. I been sitting here for almost an hour now, waiting for the fucking goat head.
Fuck you, too, douche bag. Mondelay hung up his phone, leaned toward Decker. “I got the locale wrong,” he said. “Tim and the others are over at the Bull Run. It was my mistake. Tim says we should come on over. Join them there.”
No. There was no way in hell that Mondelay had been talking to Tim. Decker had heard him on the phone with Tim in the past, and it had been all “Yes, sir,” and “Right away, sir.” “Let me kiss your ass, sir,” not “Fuck you, too, douche bag.”
Something was rotten in the Gentlemen’s Den—something besides Mondelay’s toxic breath, that is.
Mondelay wasn’t waiting on any goat head. He was waiting for the go ahead. The son of a bitch was setting Decker up.
Mondelay began the lengthy process of pushing his huge frame up and out of the seat.
“You boys aren’t leaving, are you?”
Decker looked up and directly into the eyes of Tess Bailey, the computer specialist from the Agency support office.
But okay, no. Truth be told, the first place he looked wasn’t into her eyes.
She’d moved to D.C. a few years ago, from somewhere in the Midwest. Kansas? A small town, she’d told them once when Nash had asked. Her father was a librarian.
Funny he should remember that about her right now.
Because, holy shit, Toto, Tess Bailey didn’t look like she was in small-town Kansas anymore.
“There’s a lady over at the bar who wants to buy your next round,” Tess told him as she shouted to be heard over the music, as he struggled to drag his eyes up to her face.
Nash. The fact that she was here and half-naked—no, forget the half-naked part, although, Jesus, that was kind of hard to do when she was standing there half-fricking-naked—had to mean that Nash was here, too. And if Nash was here, that meant Decker was right about Mondelay setting him up, and he was about to be executed. Or at least kidnapped.
He glanced at Mondelay, at the nervous energy that seemed to surround the big man. No, he’d gotten it right the first time. Mondelay was setting him up to be hit.
Son of a bitch.
“She said you were cute,” Tess was shouting at Decker, trying desperately for eye contact. He gave it to her. Mostly. “She’s over there, in the back.” She pointed toward the bar with one arm, using the other to hold her tray up against her chest, which made it a little bit easier to pay attention to what she was saying, despite the fact that it still didn’t make any sense. Cute? Who was in the back of the bar?
“So what can I get you?” Tess asked, all cheery smile and adorable freckled nose, and extremely bare breasts beneath that tray she was clutching to herself.
“We’re on our way out,” Mondelay informed her.
“Free drinks,” Tess said enticingly. “You should sit back down and stay a while.” She looked pointedly at Deck.
A message from Nash. “I’ll have another beer,” Decker shouted up at her with a nod of confirmation.
Mondelay laughed his disbelief. “I thought you wanted to meet Tim.”
Decker made himself smile up at the man who’d set him up to be killed. Two pals, out making the rounds of the strip clubs. “Yeah, I do.”
“Well, they’re waiting for us now.”
“That’s good,” Decker said. “They can wait. We don’t want to look too eager, right?” He looked at Tess again. “Make it imported.”
Mondelay looked at her, too, narrowing his eyes slightly—a sign that he was probably thinking. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
“He’ll have another beer, too.” Decker dismissed Tess, hoping she’d take the hint and disappear, fast.
Mondelay was in one hell of a hurry to leave, but he was never in too much of a hurry not to harass a waitress when he had the chance. “Whatcha hiding there, honey?”
“I’ll get those beers.”
Tess was just a little too late. Mondelay had already caught the bottom of her tray, keeping her from leaving. He tugged on it, pulling it away from her, and she let him, but not because she wanted to. She was still smiling, but she wasn’t a good enough liar to hide her discomfort completely. Decker had to look away, hating the fact that she was subjecting herself to this, for him.
Yeah, who was he kidding here? She was doing this for James “Diego” Nash.
“How long’ve you worked here?” Mondelay asked her.
The volume of the music dropped as the routine ended and the stripper left the stage. There’d be about ten minutes for their ears to recover before the next woman started to dance.
“Not very long,” Tess said. It was still noisy, but she didn’t have to shout quite so loudly anymore.
“You need to work on your all-over tan.”
“Yeah,” she said, cool as could be. “I know.”
“Let her get those beers,” Decker said.
“I’d throw her a bang,” Mondelay said as if Tess weren’t even standing there. “Wouldn’t you?”
Deck had been trying to pretend that a woman who was pole dancing on the other side of the bar had caught his full attention, but now he was forced to look up and appraise Tess, whom he knew had a photo of her two little nieces in a frame on her desk along with a plastic action figure of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He knew it was Buffy because Nash had asked her about it once, and she’d told them it represented both female empowerment and the fact that most people had inner depths not apparent to the casual observer.
Decker felt a hot rush of anger at Nash, who, no doubt, had been taking his flirtation with Tess to the next level when the call came in that Decker needed assistance. He wasn’t sure what pissed him off more—the fact that Nash had sent Tess in here without her shirt, or that Nash was sleeping with her.
“Yeah,” he said now to Mondelay, since they’d been talking about the waitresses in these bars like this all week. He gave Tess a smile that he hoped she’d read as an apology for the entire male population. “I would also send her flowers afterward.”
“Tell me, hon, do women really go for that sentimental bullshit?” Mondelay asked Tess.
“Nah,” she said. “What we really love is being objectified, used, and cast aside. Why else would I have gotten a job here? I mean, aside from the incredible health plan and the awesome 401(k).”
Decker laughed as she finally managed to tug her tray free and headed toward the bar.
He watched her go, aware of the attention she was getting from the other lowlifes in the bar, noting the soft curve of her waist and the way that, although she wasn’t very tall, she carried herself as if she stood head and shoulders above the crowd. He was also aware that it had been a very long time since he’d sent a woman flowers.
They were in some serious shit here. Whoever set up this ambush had paramilitary training.
There were too many shooters in position around the building. He couldn’t take them all out.
Well, he could. The setup was professional, but the shooters were all amateurs. He could take them all out, one by one by one. And like the first two he’d encountered, most of them wouldn’t even hear him coming.
But Jimmy Nash’s hands were already shaking from clearing that roof. A cigarette would’ve helped, but last time he’d quit, he’d sworn it was for good.
He washed his hands in the sink in the men’s, trying, through sheer force of will, to make them stop trembling.
It was that awful picture he had in his head of Decker gunned down in the parking lot that steadied him and made his heart stop hammering damn near out of his chest.
He’d do anything for Deck.
They’d been Agency partners longer than most marriages lasted these days. Seven years. Who’d have believed that was possible? Two fucked-up, angry men, one of them—him—accustomed to working alone, first cousin to the devil, and the other a freaking Boy Scout, a former Navy SEAL. . . .
When Tess had called him tonight and told him what she’d overheard, that HQ essentially knew Decker was being targeted and that they weren’t busting their asses to keep it from happening . . .
The new Agency director, Doug-the-prick Brendon, hadn’t tried to hide his intense dislike of Jimmy Nash, and therefore Decker by association. But this was going too fucking far.
Jimmy used his wet hands to push his hair back from his face, forcing himself to meet his eyes in the mirror.
After he got Decker safely out of here, he was going to hunt down Dougie Brendon, and . . .
And spend the rest of your life in jail? Jimmy could practically hear Deck’s even voice.
First they’d have to catch me, he pointed out. And they wouldn’t. He’d made a vow, a long time ago, to do whatever he had to do, so that he’d never get locked up again.
There are other ways to blow off steam. How many times had Decker said those exact words to him?
Other ways . . .
Like Tess Bailey.
Who was waiting for him in the ladies’ room. Who was unbelievably hot. Who liked him—really liked him. He’d seen it in her eyes. She pretended to have a cold-day-in-July attitude when he flirted with her in the office. But Jimmy saw beyond it, and he knew with just a little more charm and a little bit of well-placed pressure, she’d be giving him a very brightly lit green light. Tonight.
He’d let Decker handle Doug Brendon.
Jimmy would handle Tess.