Right and wrong.
Good and evil.
Black and white.
These are the parameters of the world in which we live, and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise—who argues that nothing is absolute, and that there are always shades of gray—is either a fool or trying to con you.
At least that is what I used to believe.
But that was before I met him. Before I looked into his eyes. Before I gave him my trust.
Maybe I’m a fool. Maybe I’ve lost my balance and my edge.
I don’t know.
All I know is that from the moment I met him, everything changed. One look, and I feared that I was in trouble.
One touch, and I knew that I should run.
One kiss, and I was lost.
Now the only question is, will I find my way back to who I was? And more important, do I want to?
Nothing is ever as easy as it should be.
My dad taught me that. He served as a special agent with the FBI for twenty years before leaving that post to become the chief of police in Galveston, Texas, an island community with enough crime to keep his life interesting, and enough sunshine and warm weather to keep him happy.
During the years I was growing up, I’d watch as he spent hours, days, weeks, even months putting together a kick-ass case against some of the vilest criminals that ever walked this earth. Thousands of man hours. Hundreds of pieces of evidence. All those little ducks lined up just the way they should be—and it didn’t make one bit of difference. The defense would spout some technicality, the judge would cave, and poof, all that work went down the drain.
Like I said, nothing is ever easy. That’s the first truism upon which I base my life.
The second is a corollary: No one is what they seem.
My stepfather taught me that. He was a fast-rising major league baseball player that the press took a liking to. They called him the golden boy, predicted he’d spearhead his team to the World Series, and did everything but genuflect when he entered a room. What they didn’t report was the way he beat my mother. The way he forced me to watch, threatening that my turn was coming. His hands, his fists, a broken beer bottle. Whatever was handy. I’d flinch with every blow, and when her bones snapped, I’d feel it too, and my scream would blend with hers in some horrific, discordant melody.
Somehow none of those hospital visits were ever reported in the local paper, and on the rare occasions when the cops showed up at our house, nothing ever came of it. Harvey Grier had the face of a prince and the smile of a homecoming king, and if his fourteen-year-old stepdaughter called the cops one night with a bullshit story that could ruin his reputation and queer his lucrative deals, it must be because she was your typical bored teenager. Certainly it couldn’t be that she lived with the monster day in and day out, and saw all too clearly under the pretty boy disguise.
My stepfather is dead now. As far as I was concerned, that was a good thing. The man wasn’t worth anything except driving that second lesson home: There are monsters hiding under the most innocent of countenances, and if you don’t keep your guard up, they will bite you. And hard.
The takeaway? Don’t take anything for granted. And don’t trust anyone.
I guess that makes me cynical. But it also makes me a damn good cop.
I sipped champagne and thought about my job and those two axioms as I leaned against one of the white draped pillars in The Drake hotel’s cloyingly elegant Palm Court restaurant. I didn’t know a soul there, primarily because I’d crashed the party, and I was doing my best to blend with that pillar so that I could simply sit back and watch the world—and the people—go by. I was looking for one face in particular, because I’d come here with a plan. And I intended to stay in my little corner, holding this pillar, until I spied my mark.
I’d been standing there for an hour, and was beginning to think that I had a long night ahead. But I’d survived worse stakeouts, and I am nothing if not determined.
I’d been to the Palm Court once before when my dad had me for a weekend and we decided to have an adventure. But tonight most of the familiar tables had been moved out, giving the guests room to mingle around the elegant fountain and massive floral arrangement. As far as I could tell, the dress code for the evening was anything that had premiered during Fashion Week, and the only reason no one was pointing a finger at me and snickering was that my off-the-clearance-rack dress was so utterly pedestrian that it rendered me invisible.
Flowing strains of classical music filled the room, provided by an orchestra tucked into the corner, but no one was dancing. Instead they were mingling. Talking, laughing. It was all very proper. Very elegant. Very festive.
And I was very much out of my element.
My natural habitat is Indiana, where I’m actually a bit of a celebrity within the force as the youngest female ever to make detective with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. I’d come to Chicago because I’d been going out of my mind while I rode out a stint on medical leave, and when one of my confidential informants, Candy, asked me to track down her former roommate who’d fallen off the planet, I’d decided to do a little off-the-books investigation.
According to Candy, Amy had been working as an exotic dancer at an upscale Chicago gentleman’s club called Destiny until about two weeks ago. “She’d been there almost a month and was jamming on the tips. She even liked the other girls. And I’m pretty sure she was banging one of the owners. So it wasn’t like she had a reason to just split.”
To my way of thinking, banging the boss might be reason enough, especially if the boss is the one who told you to move on.
“Yeah, but she would have told me,” Candy said, when I suggested as much. “She might take another job or even move, but she’d call once she got settled. Something happened.”
Normally, I wouldn’t worry. After all, twenty-two-year-old exotic dancers pull up stakes and disappear all the time. Maybe they’re just trying to shake off the old life. Or maybe they’re following a guy. Amy had been on her own since she was fifteen and knew how to handle herself. She was clean, so I didn’t expect that she was laid out in a heroin den somewhere. Plus, I knew she fantasized about Prince Charming riding in and whisking her off into the sunset, so maybe she’d realized that banging the owner wasn’t going to stick, and she’d set out for New York or Vegas or someplace else with a surfeit of rich, horny men.
But I didn’t believe any of that. Candy had been more than seven months pregnant when Amy moved to Chicago, full of promises to come back loaded down with presents for the baby and, most important, to be there for the birth. Assuming the kid came on schedule, that was just over two weeks away.
I hoped to hell she’d just gotten carried away with a guy and would surface any day now with stories of hot nights and wild sex. But I worked homicide, and it was in my nature to fear the worst.
While I was making the drive from Indiana to Chicago, I’d put in a call to a friend in the Chicago PD, and he’d confirmed that she wasn’t cooling her heels in a Cook County cage. I was somewhat relieved to know she was either staying clean or playing it smart, but I’d secretly hoped that she’d gotten arrested for shoplifting and was too proud to call Candy for bail.
I’d rolled into Chicago just after seven on a Wednesday night, and I’d made Destiny my first stop. The place was clean and classy, with drinks that weren’t watered down, girls who looked happy to be there and not at all used up, and a clientele that skewed heavily toward the professional end of the spectrum. The place had a full bar, including Guinness on tap, and a decent menu that included some rather delicious cheese fries.
I’d certainly seen worse places, and as I sat at the bar and looked the joint over with a cop’s eye, nothing wonky popped for me.
Enter the Second Truism: No one is what they seem. Or, in this case, no place is what it seems.
I learned that when I met Agent Kevin Warner, an FBI buddy, for breakfast the next morning and he laid out a whole list of bad-ass shit that he thought was going down in that club. He tossed allegations around like candy. And when he hit the Mann Act charges—prostitution, white slavery, and other nasty felonies—my ears perked up.
“Slow down, cowboy,” I’d said. “They got busted for that shit?”
“Fucking immunity,” Kevin said. “They helped shut down a white slavery ring that was working off the West Coast and spreading all the way toward our fair city.”
“They?” I repeated.
“Black, August, and Sharp,” he said, naming off Destiny’s three owners—three celebrated businessmen who were the toast of Chicago. I mean, hell. I’m not even from Chicago, and I knew all about those guys. “They’re slick, those three,” Kevin continued. “Slick and smart and as dangerous as sharks in dark water. Got the immunity deal to hide behind, and that cut my investigation off at the knees.”
I nodded. Immunity was part of the game. The whole point was to protect a suspect from prosecution. If there wasn’t guilt there in the first place, that protection really wasn’t necessary. In other words, it was a rare suspect who was given immunity without being dirty.
Frankly, the whole idea of giving a suspect immunity irritated me, but I knew it was a necessary evil. Besides, I figured that justice would find a way. At least that was what my dad always said when one of his defendants pulled a technicality out of their ass and shot the finger at the law.
Karma really could be a raving bitch, and I wondered if she was baring her teeth in the direction of Black, August, and Sharp. Were they as dirty as Kevin said? Were they simply good citizens who shared their knowledge with the Feds? Or were they somewhere in the middle?
I didn’t know, but I figured the odds ran toward the first or the last. “How broad’s the immunity?” I’d asked.
“If I have my way, they’ll wish it was broader. I’m dead certain they’re neck deep in all sorts of shit. Gambling, smuggling, money laundering. Bribery, kickbacks, fraud. You name it, they’re in it. But they’ve got powerful friends, and I’m not authorized to officially pursue any of it.”
I heard the frustration in his voice. He wanted these guys—wanted them bad. I got that. There were a lot of reasons I’d become a cop, but in the end it all boiled down to protecting the innocent and stopping the bad guys. To making sure the system worked and that those who crossed that line paid for the breach.
I lived and breathed my job. It was both my redemption and my salvation. And I was very good at what I did.