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Saturday, December 26, 10:00p.m.
New Orleans had three inches of snow.
Thus far the month of December had been tagged as the coldest on record the past several decades, as well as for the most snowfall.
Just his luck.
Coming south in winter was generally associated with warmer temps. But not this trip. This time was different on a number of counts.
When Victoria Colby-Camp had called Riley Porter into her office on Christmas Eve, he had known that the case would be different from any other she'd assigned him. He'd put aside his plans to go home to Kansas City and visit his folks.
There was no client in this situationnot a single, official paying client anyway. The parents of the children Von Cassidy and Trinity Barrett rescued mere days ago had called Victoria from the hospital in Alabama where they had been reunited with their children and implored her to use the assets of her agency to stop this human trafficking network.
In addition, Von had gotten a glimpse of a young woman, Tessa Woods, involved in the network who had gone missing almost six years ago. How many other missing teens and children would be rescued by infiltrating this organization?
Victoria had made a solemn promise to do all she could to make that happen.
The FBI in Chicago, New Orleans and Huntsville, Alabama, had formed a task force to get to the root of this evil network.
Right there in the hospital, on Christmas Eve, a preliminary strategy had been put into place. One of the captured kidnappers, Russell "Buzz" Smith, had spilled his guts hours earlier in hopes of a lighter sentence. He'd sworn that this had been his first job with the trafficking organization. He was relatively young and seriously scared and straight-up desperate enough to do whatever was asked of him.
With his cooperation an opportunity had presented itself. Since the names of those captured or fatally injured in the Huntsville showdown had not been released to the press at the time, it was entirely possibleas far as the public knewthat one of the bad guys had escaped.
The end result had placed the Colby Agency in a very unique situation. Riley was the right age and possessed the necessary coloringbrown hair and gold eyesand build to pass himself off as Buzz Smith. Those who had met Buzz were either dead or being detained. No one else in the organization had seen Buzz face-to-face or spoken directly to him. He had been hired by one of the kidnappers who'd lost his life in the course of the operation.
Putting through a call to the contact provided by Buzz Smith had set an operation in motion. Posing as Buzz, Riley had been instructed by the contact to come to New Orleans and report all that he knew.
Riley sipped the whiskey he'd ordered an hour ago. He needed to fit in with the not-so-low-key crowd partying the night away in this rebuilt warehouse-turned-bar on the fringes of downtown New Orleans. But he couldn't risk dulling his awareness in any capacity, so he sipped the drink slowly and tipped the waitress whenever she stopped to ensure he stayed on her good side.
Riley had made the call less than twenty-four hours ago. This placethe Rusty Hinge, a sleazy bar way, way off Bourbon Streethad been named as the rendezvous point by the contact. Buzz Smith had sworn that he'd given up all the information provided to him in the way of a briefing when hired, basically just enough to get Riley in the door.
It would have to be enough.
With only a scumbag's word, Riley had arrived at the rendezvous location an hour early for the meeting with the network's contact. Riley had taken a position with his back to the wall at a table for two as far from the entrance of the Rusty Hinge as could be gotten.
The weapon hidden in his waistband at the small of his back would be worthless if he wasn't prepared and on his toes. He set the nearly empty tumbler on the table and surveyed the crowd of after-Christmas revelers.
Any one of them could be watching him, waiting for an opportunity to take him out. Determination tightened his jaw. Considering the importance of his part in this operation, he wasn't afraid of dying, only of failure. This case was far too important to be put off for any reason. Every squandered minute could mean the loss of another child or teen. Riley couldn't waste a single moment, not even the time wasted in dying.
Two men swaggered through the front doors, the only entrance or exit for the establishment Riley had noticed in the public area. There would be one in the back somewhere. The fire code would never permit only one access route. He assumed the door marked Employees Only led to a stock area where another entrance must exist. So he'd been keeping an eye on the bar as well.
The newcomers inventoried the crowd, their gazes eventually settling on Riley's table. When they moved in his direction tension rippled through his muscles. This was it. One man was a head taller than the other. The shorter guy sported a shiny, bald head. Both wore heavy coats, likely concealing weapons.
Riley adjusted the ball cap he wore to ensure the twoif they were his contactsunderstood he was the man they sought. The cap was red and sported a popular Alabama college football logo. Buzz Smith hailed from Alabama and wanted the world to know it.
Levi Stark, a colleague from the Colby Agency, and Special Agent Lee Ross from the local New Orleans Bureau office were in the vicinity for backup. But the success of this operation depended upon the two staying in the background. To that end, Riley was unaware of their exact locations except that they were nearby. Communication devices had been left out of the scenario due to the increased risk. They could take no unnecessary chances.
Tracking devices had been installed in Riley's boot heels. That was the extent of the precautions he could afford to take for the moment. But he wasn't worried. Backup was close. He fully trusted both men to do their jobs. One of the two was likely stationed outside in preparation for efficient relocation if necessary. The other, the Bureau agent, was likely amid the crowd. Riley hadn't spotted him but if the agent was good at his job that was to be expected.
And Riley was highly trained to deal with the unexpected. His former career as a Navy SEAL ensured he was fully prepared to evade, outstrategize and outmaneuver the enemy as well as to operate in the midst of that same enemy.
A sense of mind-clearing calm settled over Riley as the two new arrivals stopped at his table; one eyed him with blatant suspicion, then with a quick look around, asked, "Smith?"
"You the man in charge?" Riley demanded with an arrogant thrust of his chin and without bothering to confirm his identity. "I don't want to talk to some peon." He leaned across the table showing no fear. "Somebody set us up. Now everyone else is dead. Whoever did this knew exactly what our movements would be. Knew everything." He shook his head. "I'm not trusting just anybody. I want to talk to the man in charge."
The two men exchanged a look.
Three, four beats passed.
"Seems like you got yourself an attitude, Mr. Smith. What makes you think," the shorter guy with the shiny head and a hawklike nose asked, "we care who you trust or what you think?"
"Or" the first man who'd spoken leaned down and braced his palms on the tabletop to look Riley more closely in the eyes "if you live or die?"
"Maybe" Riley downed the last of his whiskey "because you're here. And because you and your boss might want to consider that whoever set us up is damned smart. If he did it once, chances are he'll do it again. And until you know who he is, then you can't protect yourself. Or your operation."
"We don't need you to figure that out," the taller guy said with a smirk. "Chances are" he mocked, indifference in his tone and in his eyes, "you won't be around long enough for it to matter to you one way or another." He straightened and hitched his head toward the door. "Let's go," he said to his buddy. "We're done here."
"Folks get nervous," Riley said, causing both to hesitate, "if they think there's a loose end hanging around." His gaze zeroed in on the one who appeared to be in charge, the taller one. "Makes 'em desperate. Desperation fuels panic. Next thing you know they make a mistake and give themselves away before they have a chance to get in the wayif you know what I mean, again. But then, maybe you've got the situation under control and aren't worried about anyone on the inside setting you up a second time."
The indifference in the man's narrow gaze shifted to uncertainty. "Outside. Now." He turned his back and cut through the crowd, his buddy following.
Riley had pushed all the right buttons. He scooted back his chair and stood. At least he had their attention. Taking his time, he pulled on his coat, then made a path through the crowd of bodies. The waitress smiled at him as he passed a table she was serving.
The instant the entry doors cracked open the sharp sting of cold air greeted Riley. Damned cold. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Just his luck, he reflected for about the tenth time today.
Nature's white blanket still cloaked the landscape, drawing the light from the full moon. Even the bare limbs of the trees served as shelves for winter's unexpected gift, adding an eerie glow to the landscape.
Riley had taken a mere three steps away from the door when a muzzle nudged firmly into his back. "Keep walking," the owner of the weapon instructed. "All the way to the gray SUV on your left."
Hawk-nose. Riley didn't have to glance back, he recognized the gruff voice. The taller one was likely close by or in the SUV already. Riley followed the instructions, crossing the parking lot to the specified vehicle.
"Now what?" Riley asked, not about to make any aspect of this easy.
Hawk-nose patted him down, discovered the weapon and claimed it. "Get in."
Riley reached for the front passenger door.
"Where we going?" Riley asked. "To the boss?"
"Just get in."
The muzzle burrowed deeper into Riley's coat, reminding him that his choices were limited for buying additional time for his backup to prepare for following. He opened the back passenger-side door and climbed in. As he'd presumed, the taller of the two sat behind the steering wheel.
"Take off your clothes," the driver ordered, his gaze on Riley via the rearview mirror.
Now there was one Riley hadn't expected. "Say what?"
"Take 'em off," he repeated and tossed a pair of gray coveralls over the seat.
Riley wasn't happy about it but he understood exactly what they were up to and it wasn't good. He had little choice but to comply. Getting inside this operation was the goal, whatever the risk.
Taking his time, he peeled off his coat, then the restincluding his boots. When he'd pulled on the coveralls he reached for his boots to tug them back on. There was snow on the ground after all.
"You won't need those," Hawk-nose, who still loomed in the open door, said. He snagged the boots as well as Riley's clothes.
"In case you hadn't noticed," Riley reminded the two, "it's cold as hell."
"Socks, too." Hawk-nose stuck his hand in front of Riley. "Hurry up. It's cold out here," he tacked on in a mocking tone.
Riley peeled off his socks and tossed them to the guy. "Anything else?" Not that he had anything else to fork over.
The rear door slammed shut in his face. Riley glanced at the guy in front of him, then swung his attention to the one outside. It was tough to see beyond the darkly tinted windows, but the clothes Riley had shed, boots included, were dumped between two parked cars. The boots were his favorite pair. Not to mention they carried the tracking device. Nothing he could do about that.
The hawk-nosed guy headed back to the SUV. He opened the rear passenger door. "Slide over." He gestured toward the other side of the seat with his weapon.
Riley scooted over and the other man climbed in next to him. "Let's get out of here," he said to his buddy.
The driver started the engine. "I guess you're gonna get your wish, Mr. Smith. There's someone who wants to talk to you after all."
"As long as he's higher up the food chain," Riley said.
Hawk-nose rammed the muzzle of his handgun into Riley's temple. "Your mouth is going to get you killed. You should keep it closed for now if you want to keep breathing, pal."
Riley turned his face toward the man next to him, ignoring the business end of the gun. "I'm not your pal. I'm the guy who's going to provide you and your partner here with a little more job security."
Fury detonated in the man's eyes as the interior light faded to black. "I don't know why we can't kill him right now," he snarled.
"You make a mess in my SUV," the driver warned as the vehicle rolled out onto the deserted street, "and I'll kill you."
Hawk-nose wasn't put off by his colleague's threat. "I think he's bluffing," he mused. "Probably working with the cops."
Riley didn't flinch, didn't take his fierce glare off the man with the gun. The streetlights provided enough illumination for him to see that his scare tactics weren't working.
"He don't know nothing," Hawk-nose suggested.