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Reporter Violet Kramer looked up from her laptop— relieved the drapes were drawn and the doors locked— as the car passed her house yet again. The sound of the souped-up engine and pounding bass cut through the otherwise still night.
A gang of rowdy troublemakers had moved into Missoula, prowling the streets and bringing a wave of crime that worried local residents, especially the older folks who lived in her neighborhood. Concerned though Violet was about the increased crime, her attention tonight was focused on her computer screen and the information she'd compiled over the last few weeks.
Violet could smell a good story, and this one was as strong as Limburger cheese. She just had to keep digging until she uncovered all the bits and pieces that would turn a good beginning into a great front-page spread, sure to improve her current odd-man-out status at the Missoula Daily News.
Even more important, the story would warn other women who might be in danger. Women who had somehow tangled with organized crime. Like Ruby Summers Maxwell and Carlie Donald, both murdered in Montana. Both young and attractive with the dubious distinction of having testified against the mob.
Another interesting similarity, both women had green eyes. An important clue or coincidence? Violet wasn't sure.
She had little to go on concerning Ruby's death, except a funeral announcement and an e-mail from a reporter friend who worked on the local rag in the town where Ruby had been killed. The full story never appeared in print. Women in Witness Protection didn't make the headlines in the morning news.
Luckily, Violet's diligent search of area newspapers had paid off with a photo of Jade Summers—the very-much-alive twin sister of the murder victim— standing next to her beau, Deputy U.S. Marshal Micah McGraw. In the forefront of the picture sat swarms of preschoolers watching a clown at the library where Jade worked. The kids were cute, but Violet was only interested in the woman at the marshal's side. Slender frame, expressive eyes and a crown of russet hair that swept over her shoulders. At least now, Violet knew what Jade's murdered twin—Ruby Summers—had looked like.
Inserting her flash drive into her home laptop, Violet pulled up the file containing Carlie Donald's autopsy report—acquired through another contact.
...remains of a slender female...cause of death strangulation...abrasions and contusions of the anterior neck...no foreign materials evident beneath the fingernails...graphite noted on the right hand...froth in the trachea and bronchi...
Closing her eyes, Violet tried to block out the details playing through her mind. Her day had started early with a five-mile run before church. She had spent the afternoon working on the story, which had stretched the long day into an even longer night.
Right now, she needed to go to bed and forget about the two Mafia hits in-state since the New Year. And it was only February. Most folks believed bad luck came in threes. So, who would be the next to die?
Life was sacred, and those who preyed on the weak needed to be apprehended and brought to justice. If the police couldn't handle the job, Violet would.
Her cell rang. She glanced at her watch—twelve-fifteen—and reached for her phone, noting the caller's Chicago area code. "Kramer."
"I planned to check online in case you left a message," Violet said. The informant had told her never to phone lest her boyfriend—a mobster who worked with the Martino family—answer the call.
"Angelo's away for the night. I bought one of those nontraceable cell phones. Wanted you to know the latest."
Violet's stomach tightened, hearing the wariness in Gwyn's voice. "You're okay, aren't you?"
"Angelo's acting strange. He said everyone's on edge. Vincent Martino's making changes. Angelo knew where he stood when the old don, Salvatore, was in charge. With Vincent, things aren't so clear. Angelo said the new don has to prove himself to his father before Salvatore dies. Somehow it involves those women who were killed in Montana."
Just as long as Gwyn didn't get hurt.
Although Violet had never met her informant in person, she and Gwyn had connected online a little over a year ago when Violet had researched a possible story lead on the mob. She'd never completed the story, but the mobster's girlfriend had kept in touch, providing more and more insider information. With Violet's encouragement, Gwyn had recently admitted she wanted to make a new life for herself free from Angelo and the mob.
"Some of the capos are upset," Gwyn said. "Evidently, the hit men went after the wrong women."
"You mean, Ruby Summers Maxwell and Carlie Donald weren't supposed to die?"
"The target was someone else. A gal named Eloise Hill. At least that's what Angelo heard. She testified against Salvatore years ago."
"And Vincent wants her dead to gain favor with his ailing father?"
"Vincent lacks Salvatore's charisma. Some say he's more interested in women than in running the organization."
"Can you find out more about Eloise for me? And let me know if any other women are being targeted?"
"I'll see what I can do." Pulling in a deep breath, Gwyn continued. "Remember Cameron Trimble, that sleazy pimp I told you about?"
"The guy who's in the hospital?"
"That's right. He'll be laid up awhile thanks to the undercover cop you know."
A rush of warmth fluttered over Violet's midsection. "You mean, Clay West? We met a couple times, that's all."
"Whatever." Gwyn paused for a moment. "You called him, didn't you?"
"Three nights ago. I thought he'd tell me something new about the shake-up in the Martino family."
"Did you…?" Gwyn's voice hitched. "Did you mention my name?"
"Of course not. I promised you the first time you contacted me that I'd never divulge your identity. I told Clay I'd heard his cover had been compromised, that's all."
"No one's upset about Cameron getting hurt. What they're upset about is your cop friend infiltrating a portion of the mob operation. Evidently, Clay West was after the guy who runs prostitution in the city. The cops had a sting planned that would have exposed him."
"So because Clay went after Cameron, the cops lost their opportunity and had to back off?"
"That's right. Now the mob's worried Cameron might talk. The family sent in one of their high-power lawyers who plans to have the pimp sue for damages. A concussion, three cracked ribs and a broken jaw constitute police brutality. At least that's the argument the lawyer will use."
Violet hated hearing about any law-enforcement officer shoving his weight around, but Clay West didn't seem the type to lose his cool. There had to be more to the story.
"What about that feature you're writing?" Gwyn asked. "You said it would be picked up by papers across the country. The mob would be forced to lay low for a while, which would give me a chance to make my break from Angelo."
"An overview of the story is on my editor's desk. I'm hoping he'll give me the go-ahead soon. As I've told you before, Gwyn, if there's any way I can help you, just let me know."
Once Gwyn had disconnected, Violet placed the phone back on the cradle. The main obstacle keeping the story from print would be her editor. Stu was more interested in local news than what was happening in Chicago. Hopefully, the tie-in with two in-state murders would make the difference.
Three nights ago, Violet had called Clay, hoping he would provide additional information to beef up her submission. But instead of helping, he'd accused her of being an idealist. Not the worst name in the books but her spine had stiffened when he threw naive into the mix. Déjà vu of what he'd told her two years ago in Chicago.
Of course, back then, she had been naive and foolish. Closing down her computer, Violet smiled at her own audacity the night she'd stopped by the hole-in-the-wall Chicago bar and grill some of the Martino soldiers had been known to frequent. Luckily, God had been watching out for her.
Instead of the Mafia, she'd found Clay. Scruffy beard. Unkempt hair. Piercing black eyes. The guy in the corner had "don't mess with me" written all over him, along with rugged good looks that made him impossible to forget.
He'd stopped by her table long enough to warn her she was out of her element and to hightail it back to safer parts of the city. A hardcore Mafia-type wouldn't have worried about her safety. The concern she heard in his voice had said more than words.
Putting the investigational skills she'd learned in journalism school to the test, she'd come upon an old photo of the graduating class at the Illinois Police Academy. The too-considerate mobster was none other than Detective Clay West.
Once she had a name, she learned he'd married young and divorced soon thereafter. His ex had died a few years later. The handsome cop fought crime with as much passion as Violet had searching the Internet for clues to the mob's corrupt control.
Realizing the wealth of information an undercover cop could provide if they teamed up, Violet had staked out the grill and tried to follow Clay home a few nights later. She'd lost him on the street, never suspecting he had doubled back. When he'd pulled her into a nearby alleyway and had given her a piece of his mind, she'd been hard-pressed to focus on his anger.
Standing way too close in the shadows, she'd noticed the scent of his leather jacket and the woodsy smell of his aftershave, as well as the tiny nick on the cleft of his chin. He'd tried to convince Violet she was in way over her head and getting into his business could cause problems for both of them.
Despite his raw appeal that had caused her heart to trip along her rib cage, the story came first. Violet had ignored his warning and planned to dig deeper into the mob's activities. All that ended a few days later when the permanent position she had hoped to land at the Gazette went to another intern. With no other journalism openings in the Windy City, Violet had accepted a position on the Missoula Daily News, where she'd languished for the last two years.
Fast-forward to a few days ago when Gwyn had mentioned an undercover cop named Clay West. Since Violet and the cop had a history of sorts, she had phoned him, hoping he'd provide more information about the murders in Montana. Clay's terse responses to her probing questions confirmed calling him had been a big mistake.
Monday morning, Violet was still thinking about her Mafia story as she stood at the end of her editor's desk, listening to Stu Nelson lecture her about staying on task. As much as Violet wanted to set Stu straight, she needed to pick her battles.
Keep the editor happy.
Violet had imprinted those words on her brain in Chicago. She was a good writer. Stu had said as much on more than one occasion. But he refused to assign her the hard-hitting features she wanted to write. Two years on staff and she continued to get the fillers and fluff stories.
Anyone could pull together a litany of facts and feed them to the readers. Violet's strength was finding the story within the story. She prided herself on going deeper, thinking bolder, writing stronger than anyone else on staff. And that wasn't egotism. It was fact.
A fact her editor didn't seem to realize.
"The number of cops on the force has decreased while crime is on the rise," Stu continued, his slightly this-side-of-sixty face wrinkling like a prune. "That's the story I wanted you to write. Not your biased opinion of the chief of police." Stu wagged his finger close to her face for emphasis.
Aware of the office door hanging open, Violet knew her peers had overheard his lambasting.
"Did you happen to look at the information I typed up concerning the two murders?" Violet threw the question into the mix.
Stu raised his brow, and his finger returned to the aforementioned position. "There you go again, chasing windmills. The fact that two women died on opposite ends of Montana has no correlation to anything you think might be happening in Chicago, Illinois."
"The mob exists, Stu."
"Maybe in Chicago, but we're over twelve-hundred miles away. If you change the slant of a story I assign again, you can head back to Chicago. As I recall, the Gazette didn't ask you to stay on staff."
Oh, yeah, Stu was on a roll and had just gone in for the kill. "It was an internship after college," she offered in self-defense. "There was never any promise of permanent employment following the nine-month training period."
Backing her way to the door, she grabbed the knob, and when Stu waved her off, she slipped out of his office, feeling as if she'd just missed a head-on collision with a tractor trailer on Interstate 90.
Her heels clipped across the tiled floor. Quinn Smith looked up from his computer as she passed his cubicle and gave her a thumbs-up. "Keep the faith, Violet."
She tried to smile back at one of the Missoula Daily News's lead reporters. Medium height but athletic for a midfifties guy with a receding hairline, Quinn seemed to understand how she ticked.
Violet threaded her way across the length of the newsroom to her small desk, tucked along the far wall. One of the realities of her position was her distance from the editor's office.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Stu would see her in a more favorable light after she turned in the completed story that tied the Chicago crime family with the two women who had died in Montana.
A story he had just rejected, her voice of reason cautioned. Advice she chose to ignore.
She slipped behind her desk, into the swivel chair that had lost its swivel probably last century, kicked off her shoes and logged on to a Web site she'd created in college.
A lone partition separated her desk from the main hallway leading to the elevators where Jimmy Baker now stood, peering down at her. Gangly tall with a school-boy smile, the junior reporter was a friend from her University-of-Montana days.
"Sounded bad." He smiled with encouragement as he rounded the partition and sidled up behind her desk.
She lowered her voice so only he could hear. "FYI, I'm on to something big."
"Ah, Violet, you're gonna get into trouble. I can feel it coming."
"Not if the story increases subscriptions and establishes the Daily News as the number-one rag in Montana."
"Before success goes to your head, check your voice mail. Your phone rang off the hook while you were in with Stu."
Violet pulled the receiver to her ear and punched the message button.