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A glint of light pushed through the skyscraper-gray dusk, allowing the sun to offer one more ray of hope to the city of New Orleans before the hungry, humid night engulfed it in shadows. Just as that sun slipped behind the tall buildings up and down Canal Street, a muffled shot hissed downward through the air and made contact with human flesh.
At about the same time, Connor Randall adjusted his formal bow tie and stepped out of a still-purring black sports car. Holding the car door away from the sweating valet, Connor looked up and around, old habits dying hard.
And he spotted none other than Louis Armond standing a few yards away, the unmoving body of a beautiful blonde lying still by his feet. The Mafia king's shocked gaze zigzagged up in a jagged path. He drew a weapon and pivoted in a nervous circle before he fell down on his knees and pulled the unconscious woman into his arms. His olive-skinned face twisted in grief and terror. Then he glanced around until his scowl hit on Connor and stopped.
Connor got back in his car and peeled out of the parking garage. He reached Armond, shifted down and hit the brakes. "Get in," he called. "Mr. Armond, get in the car."
FBI Special Agent Josie Gilbert's cell rang at the same time she was about to bite into her first slice of veggie pizza. Still holding the pizza with one hand, she groaned and grabbed the offending device, squinting down at the caller ID.
Her confidential informant. The FBI considered him an asset. She considered him a pain in the neck. Right now, she sat in an unmarked car near the French Quarter, waiting to hear from him. He'd called her an hour earlier, stating that he'd been summoned by Louis Armond. The crime lord wanted to tell him something important. They were to meet at the opera house.
Please tell me this is all over and we finally have Armond. Josie's prayer filtered through her worry. She always prayed when she was on a stakeout. Tonight, she just prayed that Connor wouldn't do anything stupid.
"I hope you have good news," she said on a hopeful breath.
His slightly British accent tickled at her earlobe. "Gilbert, we've got a problem."
Well, that didn't take long. She'd only been paired as Randall's handler for a week or so, and that mostly meant keeping him alive or constantly questioning him about the Mafia boss he'd been shadowing for over a year now.
The Mafia boss who'd hinted at turning. Maybe tonight? He'd wanted to see Connor tonight. In his private booth at the opera. But only if Connor came alone and with no security or listening devices.
Josie's pulse moved too fast, causing her nerves to tighten like a twisted wire. "You're in trouble already?"
"Big trouble." He sounded breathless and not-so-cool-and-calm, that trace of an accent just barely detectable.
Trying to picture him untying the knot of his tuxedo tie, she focused on the here and now. "Did you kill someone?"
"No. But Armond's mistress is dead. He's with me and he insisted I bring him out to Armond Gardens."
Insisted. Past tense. Connor was on the move. That meant she needed to be on the move right behind him.
Josie did a visual. The narrow side street glinted like a dark ribbon around shadows and shapes. No sign of anyone, though. Not even a stray cat. The opera house was a block away.
"Turn back, and we'll bring him into headquarters." When Connor didn't respond, she said, "I don't have time for games, Randall."
"You can't bring either of us in. We're heading out of the city. And this is no game."
Dropping the pizza slice back into the small box on the seat, Josie sat up, her thoughts whirling. Maybe her new boss didn't like her, since from the minute she'd arrived at her new assignment, he'd teamed her up with the most notorious asset this division had ever encountered. Still wondering if that was a plus or a double negative, Josie figured babysitting a suave art thief turned informant must be punishment, pure and simple.
After a case gone bad in Dallas, she still carried a shield of guilt mixed with a solid need to find redemption, but Connor Randall was a live wire, not her ticket off the hot seat. Not redemption quality.
Connor Randall. Reformed con man now trying to save his own skin. Good-looking in a classic way with dark curly hair and rich blue eyes, he was comfortable in any situation and in any setting. The man moved so smoothly inside criminal circles it was hard to tell if he truly had turned toward the good side of the law. He had several aliasesConnor Simpson, Connor Clarence, Connor Butler. He could get in and out of the country like Houdini popping out of a water tank.
But he also knew how to escape just like Houdini.
Was he working with Armond to pull a fast one on her?
Okay, Josie, think. He's watched all the time. We can track him. No way he 'd try to escape. No way he 'dpurposely be involved in a shooting. He 'd go back to jail. Forever.
But he'd gone in without a wire or any trackers. "Are you telling me the truth or"
"I'm not playing you, Agent Gilbert. I need your help. And soon."
Josie held the phone between her left shoulder blade and her chin while she maneuvered her car out of the parking space. "Tell me everything. Now."
"Someone shot Louis Armond's mistress right in front of the opera house. I saw the whole thing and so did he, but it came from the roof of a nearby building. A sniper with a silencer. Now he could be in danger. We need to hide him."
Josie almost laughed out loud. Hide Louis Armond? That was like trying to hide the statue of General Stonewall Jackson centered in the Square. Near impossible.
But if someone was onto them.
She'd read the file, knew the history. These two men both had a lot of enemies.
Randall's cover had almost been blown last year during the Benoit art heist involving Princess Lara Kincade but he'd managed to smooth that over enough to get back on the notorious Mafia lord's good side and work toward either turning him or bringing him to justice. He'd been seen out and about with Armond all over New Orleans. But Connor Randall wasn't the kind to sit around waiting. If the deal was off, they could both be on the run.
And this was a very big deal. Josie swallowed the bile of failure and glared at her phone. Please, dear Lord, give me the strength and wisdom to get it right this time.
Then she asked, "Are you kidding me?"
"Why would I kid about a thing like that? The man is in shock and he's pretty sure he's next. He even thinks the hit might have been meant for him." He went silent then added, "And if you can't do your job, I might be right there with him, since he's practically blackmailing me into helping him."
Josie wanted to say good riddance, but even though she'd been hardened by witnessing the worst kind of crimes imaginable, she hadn't resorted to letting people get killed on purpose. She'd become an agent after her father had been carted off to jail when she was a teenager. Her father, a con man who'd fooled everyone, even his own family, had masked his crimes behind the persona of a successful financial adviser and businessman.
No wonder she didn't trust Connor Randall.
She'd made up for the sins of her father by helping to bring in a couple of other most-wanted criminals. But then things had taken a bad turn. She didn't like being glued at the hip to a man who represented everything she hated, but maybe that was the price she had to pay right now.
Since that art heist had also involved the infamous Mafia lord, everyone at the New Orleans division of the FBI had been on the alert. Connor Randall had been there that night in the dank, dark wine cellar of an old mansion in the Quarter. And he had shot and killed Frederick Cordello, the man who'd wanted the princess dead so he could take the priceless Benoit paintings he'd believed she had.
Ironically, Louis Armond, allegedly a millionaire con man himself who mostly dealt in fake designer purses and shoes and illegal sales of priceless art, had proof that the paintings belonged to him. But after the ensuing publicity and scandal behind the whole affair, Armond had decided to take the high road to stoke some of the heat. He'd sent the paintings off on a museum art tour and then he'd become a very important witness for the FBI. A reluctant secret witness who had yet to give them anything of significance.
"You need to come back to New Orleans," she said now, her gaze scanning the street behind her.
"No can do."
Anything could happen with Randall. Nice to look at but hard to read. She hadn't managed to get a bead on the real Connor Randall. Yet. But she couldn't leave him hanging. Armond wouldn't have any qualms about either shooting Connor or pinning the blame on him. Or worse, persuading Connor to turn. If he hadn't already.
She worked her own persuasion. "Louis Armond agreed to immunity in exchange for information, remember?"
"I took that into consideration when he scrambled into my car and held a gun on me. I can't come back to the city right now. Too hot. I found him right after it happened, holding a weapon."
He lowered his voice. "Whoever did this sure scared the man. I'm his last hope and he's my only hope. If I don't help him cover this up, he'll kill me and be done with it."
"Well, that sure makes this more understandable," she said on a sarcastic note. Then she regretted that note. She'd learned not to take anything for granted, not even an informant who grated on her last nerve. Heading northwest out of town, she decided to play along. "Tell me what you need."
He let out an exasperated sigh. "Look, this is bad, but it's a chance to get you inside his world."
Good point. That way, she could keep an eye on both of them and maybe convince Armond to cooperate.
"But what if this is a setup?" she asked, her mind moving through several scenarios. "Maybe he's luring you out so he can kill you. I mean, has he told you the big secret he wanted to share?"
"Not yet." She heard a chuckle. "As for him killing me, yes, he could do that. I've already considered that angle, but right now he's in no shape to kill anyone. He says he didn't kill his mistress and I believe him. I think a sniper made this hit. He thinks they're onto him and that they'll come after anyone associated with him, including me.
"He's so scared he might be willing to save us a lot of trouble by cutting an even better deal." He went silent for a second or two. "Armond isn't the kind to scare easily, so I'd say we're onto something big here. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now I'm not at liberty to walk away."
Josie read between the lines. The man had him right where he wanted him. Connor could testify against Armond, and if he told the truththat he'd seen the man holding a gun over a woman lying on the streetthings could go bad for Armond. But if Connor could be persuaded to put a different spin on that story well he might get to live.
Right. She'd never known a Mafia boss to have a change of heart unless he thought there was something in it for him. This could get messy. Connor could turn back to the dark side to save his own hide.
"Where are you now?" she asked. She had the car out on the street, moving.
"We just arrived at his estate on the Old River Road. It's like a fortress, so he should be safe here for a while. I'm not sure how safe."
He gave her the address and some directions, but Josie was pretty sure this place wasn't on any map.
"Okay, got it. On my way."
"Oh, and by the way, we have to make him believe you will help us clean up this mess. If he asks, and trust me, he will, you have to be prepared to make this go away."
Connor ended the call before she had a chance to burst out laughing. Or protest.
Wondering why she hadn't become a teacher like her mother had suggested, Josie quickly called Special Agent in Charge Joseph Sherwood and explained what Connor had told her. "I'd like to go in alone and undercover for now, sir."
After a long silence, the older man said, "You can go in alone, but I'll have a team on standby in case you get into trouble. We've worked too hard to bring Armond in to let anything go wrong now."
There was another slight pause and then he added, "Meantime, let me know if you need any backstopping. I'll get the techs involved and I'll work with the locals on the shooting."
"Yes, sir." If he was willing to set up an undercover background for her, Sherwood must understand the magnitude of this mission. She might be in this for days, possibly weeks.
She'd go out to the Armond compound and get Armond and Connor to safety. That is, if someone else didn't beat her to the place and do harm to both of them.