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Thursday, November 20th, 9:48 p.m.
Jason Grant couldn't stop thinking about the note he'd received last month. So far he'd come up empty trying to determine the source. He wanted to write it off as a prank, but it wasn't the kind of humor any of his friends or associates indulged in. Although he knew he was considered the next in line for the deputy director post at Mission Recovery, it wasn't how his bosses would announce a promotion.
If this current assignment was any indication, the reality appeared to be that he was next up to either get fired or die of boredom. The sport coat he wore suddenly felt too warm; the tie he'd already loosened still felt too confining.
He looked around the hotel bar. Too early for a big crowd, but there were plenty of people coming and going and gambling. His deep well of training-induced patience was running dry. Not a smart thing in his line of work as a Specialist, but true all the same. Although impatience wasn't the ideal, he knew the value of being aware of his strengths and weaknesses throughout a fluctuating operation.
He signaled the bartender for another beer and thought about what he might have done to deserve such a low-level assignment.
Specialists were sent in to recover the impossible situationsnot to sit back and watch for potential signs of trouble. Last month he'd been told to observe, and he had done so. Right up until the point when Director Casey needed hands-on assistance. This time it felt much the same, except he had no idea who might be in trouble. In fact, he had no idea what the hell was going on here.
All he'd been told was that the operative in place might need backup. He was supposed to hang out in and around Caesar's Palace, observe and make himself available to get her out if necessary. They didn't even tell him which her he was looking for.
It didn't feel right. A lot of things in Mission Recovery weren't feeling right these days.
Still, gut feelings aside, this was the job and here he was in Sin City. He'd found a cover story with a nearby convention on security systems and emerging technologies and booked an upgraded room in the Caesar tower, though he didn't expect to see it much.
He tipped back the dark bottle of beer but didn't risk drinking any more than the half bottle he'd already sipped away. Instead, his eyes scanned the constantly shifting crowd for any female who looked like a covert operative. Evening hoursreally any hour in Vegas from what he'd seen so farmeant women were decked out like there was a Bond girl audition nearby. It made for colorful and entertaining scenery, but Jason was ready for action.
This gig of sitting around watching was getting staler than the beer he pretended to drink.
He pulled out his phone and, per his habit, checked the police scanner app for any crime news. For the past two days, aside from a seven-car pileup on Interstate 15 the state troopers suspected had been started by a blown-out front tire of a limousine, it had been mostly routine stuff. Muggings, prostitution, disputes over money or lovers. Nothing that pointed to a spy in trouble. Certainly no high-speed shoot-outs involving highend automobiles.
He turned his attention to the hockey game televised on the set above the bar. The odds were running like a stock exchange ticker across the bottom of the picture. If something didn't break soon, he might have to resort to the preferred entertainment and place a bet on something.
"Pardon me," the bartender said. "Is your name Grant?"
He nodded. The bartender slid him a shot of tequila with a salt shaker and lime. "Courtesy of the blonde across the way." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder to the other end of the bar.
Grant took a long look and smiled when the woman raised her own shot in salute. The hair was different, probably a wig, and from this distance in the subdued light he couldn't be sure about the eyes. But the dress.
He recognized the vibrant emerald dress that skimmed her sensual curves. A certain bold redhead had worn it when she'd crashed a wedding reception in Colorado last month.
At the time he'd considered her the prime suspect behind the cryptic You're next note he'd received. But the brief investigation and limited evidence disproved that theory. No one remembered a redhead or even a woman anywhere near the note. In the weeks since, he'd been looking over his shoulder and jumping at shadows, though he'd never admit any such thing. As much as he hated the wide-open, let-it-ride atmosphere in the gambling capital, the constant motion of Vegas was at least curing him of the jumpiness.
What the hell, he thought, and tossed back the shot. If Olin was the agent in need, the alcohol might dull the edginess he felt whenever he thought about the stunning redhead. Of course, tequila was better known for boosting the potential for trouble than preventing it.
Either way, this being Vegas, he might as well enjoy the ride.
Ginger Olin slid a fifty-dollar chip onto number twenty-five and considered herself lucky even before the croupier set the roulette wheel spinning.
Why couldn't all her targets have the good taste to conduct business in Las Vegas? The themes were over the top, but that was the beauty of it. Vegas catered to the bold and overwhelmed the inhibitions of the shy. It made for a delightfully level playing field.
As she strolled through the gaming rooms of Caesar's Palace amid the glamorous theme and thorough details, she noticed the atmosphere exuded luxury with an undercurrent of excited energy. One couldn't help joining in the fun. That energy drew like a magnet, made her feel alive in a way that only this kind of decadence could.
The ball dropped in, and she listened to it zip around the wheel as she scanned the nearby tables for any sign of the man carrying the deadly virus she'd been tracking all over the globe. Hearing the bounce and clatter as the ball landed, she timed her squeal of glee perfectly as the dealer called out the winning number.
Smiling, she accepted the congratulations and admiring glances along with the slightly taller stack of chips and stepped back from the table. Her target, a slick crime boss out of Europe, was on the move, but who was he here to meet? That was the million-dollar question, and she sought the answer.
She strolled along, just one woman among thousands dressed to the nines and looking for the next place to burn through her money. Waitresses cruised through knots of gamblers and hangers-on in an intricate ballet, trays held high, smiles wide and full of temptation. She supposed some people might find the glitter and glam overdone, but Gin enjoyed it. Here a spy could find the right background to blend with, no matter the circumstances. The perfect playing board for dangerous games.
She spotted her target, an older man with thick gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses, moving toward the craps tables and Gin shadowed him, wondering if he was enjoying the setting as much as she was. The virus wasn't with him, though. Her tracking tag showed it was stationary, probably in his room. Joining the growing crowd cheering on a lucky run at a craps table, she used the raucous, shifting party as cover while she tried to spot the buyer.
Her pulse stuttered when she met the hard, icy gaze of Bernard Isely. He was looking too closely, and not at her well-displayed cleavage. He preferred his women cheap, his vodka expensive, and those who betrayed him dead. He didn't know it yet, but she would soon fall squarely into the last category.
She felt an unprecedented surge of insecurity. Would her wig and contacts be enough to protect her? Her intent was not to dress the same way twice during her stay here. Her well-calculated costuming would, she hoped, be enough to keep her alive throughout and after this assignment.
She dragged her thoughts away from the edge of panic and focused instead on her extensive training and reliable intel. A few weeks ago while she was following a different lead, she'd been told this low life had entered the States, but he should never have been here. Not in person. He usually sent someone else to do the face-to-face work.
But there was nothing usual about this particular business. His appearance shouldn't have been a shock. She told herself it wasn't a shock. Everyone who should know believed his father had commissioned the deadly virus up for sale this weekend. It might not fit his profile, but then this particular exchange wasn't standard fare for the Isely crime family. The son might want to watch his father's greatest coup go out into the criminal world at last. Maybe that was reason enough to take such a high risk.
Regardless, she understood it was his abrupt appearance right across from her that could rattle her. Rattled spies didn't last long. Experience kept her reactions in tune with the excited crowd and her gaze averted from her enemy. Her heart might be in her throat, but there wouldn't be any outward sign of her distress. She had too much practice to give him that advantage.
Immediately she considered her options. This was one of the most wanted and most evasive men of the criminal underworld. They'd almost caught him last month by accident, but somehow he'd slithered out of custody before the right authorities arrived.
The player rolled again and won again, and in the subsequent roar of celebration, Gin slipped back and away, putting the other revelers between her and Isely.
She tagged along on the fringe of a group of women cruising out toward the slot machines. If he was on to her, it would be obvious right away. Unfortunately, her worst-case scenario was confirmed when she spared a glance over her shoulder. It was too late to make a preemptive bold move, but it was still too soon to panic.
There was always a way out.
Well, almost always.
She needed the right crowd or the right loner, she thought, turning toward the low lights of the nearest bar. And she needed one or the other right now.
The crowd was light and most of the patrons were paired up or in small groups. Gin sought the solo acts. There was another blonde woman in a deep emerald dress, only a shade or so darker than Gin's, who might do in a pinch. Gin had the long-lost school chum routine down to a science.
But her first choice would be a man. Men were typically less suspicious and far less likely to admit they couldn't remember a hot chick from a prior rendezvous. She spotted a man in the corner sipping a cup of coffee and squinting into a book that was most likely a tutorial on blackjack. Too serious and sporting a wedding ring, she crossed him off her mental list.
Then she noticed the ideal candidate at the other end of the bar. She strolled right up to the only familiar face she could potentially define as a friend in this town and pressed a light kiss to Specialist Grant's cheek. "Oh, the whims of fate," she said in a flat Midwestern accent.
"More like the whims of my boss," he replied, signaling the bartender.
"Have you been waiting long?"
"A couple of days. What'll you have?"
"White wine," she told the bartender. Taking the bar-stool next to Jason, she swiveled so her knees brushed against his thigh.
He glanced down and then gave her an interested half-grin. "You don't have to bait me."
"I beg your pardon?"
He leaned closer. "I'm a sure thing, remember?"
She tipped her head back and laughed, playing along. "That's good to know." Studying him, she wondered how much he'd had to drink. Any alcohol beyond a few sips to set his profile meant he was here for pleasure rather than business. Grant, she suspected, wasn't the sort to bend the rules on a mission. His brown eyes were a little unfocused, his pupils dilated. So maybe he wasn't here on business. Still, even in the midst of tying one on, he was her best bet to get out of here.
Using the mirror behind the bar, she checked for Isely. He'd stepped just inside the doorway and was checking out the milling crowd. He didn't come closer, but she could feel his gaze land on her back. If he didn't know for sure, he'd suspected she was trouble. Well, Jason Grant could help her prove otherwise.
The bartender delivered her wine and she sipped, rubbing her palm across Jason's knee. Isely had to believe she was involved with him, that they were simply a couple here to enjoy a long weekend.
"Need a hand?"
"Why, Mr. Grant, that sounds like a wonderful start. I think you're just the lucky charm that would be helpful to me at the craps tables."
He shook his head. "Iah, don't gamble," he mumbled with a laugh that sounded almost drunken.
Alarms sounded in her head. A man who didn't gamble didn't do Vegas for pleasure. Something was wrong here. "Sweetheart, are you feeling well?"
"Fine." He picked up her hand and stroked her palm with his thumb. "Your hand is is so soft."
And his was quite strong, but something was clearly wrong. Careful not to break cover, she scanned the room for whoever had drugged him. She needed to get him out of here before he was too loopy to walk.
He started to slump to the side, and she signaled for the bartender to settle the tab. Jason managed a signature and she caught the room number he'd listed along with the drink tally. Two beers wouldn't have put him in this state.
"Why don't we take a walk?" she suggested.
"I'd like that."
"Good." She looped his arm over her shoulder and with hers at his waist she steadied him as they maneuvered through the bar.
The gun she felt in the waistband at the small of his back implied he was on the clock and only solidified her theory that someone had decided he was a target for something. As they exited no one seemed to care, not even Isely, but she couldn't be sure because it took all her concentration to keep Jason upright. His height of just over six feet and lean but muscular build were far more appealing when he was supporting both on his own power.
His hand slid down to cup her bottom and she jumped a little, surprised by his touch. She covered her reaction with a laugh. Maybe he was faking the drunk part. Was he taking advantage and hamming it up, or was there a real problem? It helped the cover, so she wouldn't complain. She guided him toward the main entrance, hoping the fresh air and surroundings would help revive him if this wasn't for show.
"What did you have to drink, sweetheart?" she asked. The crowded streets and traffic noise meant no one could eavesdrop and she wanted as much information as she could get.