Her story sets off a violent spark.
His investigation puts them in the line of fire.
Journalist Erin McKenna is not only investigating a major defense contractor suspected of complicity in the international sex-slave trade but testifying against them in court. Her world collapses when that same firm buys her newspaper and she's fired without explanation. Her home is ransacked, her computer stolen and she is attacked.
FBI agent Jerod Westlake is haunted by the disappearance of his sister long ago, and has dedicated his life to ending the international sex-slave trade. When he discovers Erin wounded on the floor of her apartment, he swings into action to protect her as a witness-and as a woman.
Jerod needs to protect Erin's life and track down her source.
But once they start working as a team, the real danger begins.
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About the Author
Rachel Lee was hooked on writing by the age of twelve, and practiced her craft as she moved from place to place all over the United States. This New York Times bestselling author now resides in Florida and has the joy of writing full-time.
Read an Excerpt
Special Agent Jerrod Westlake sat at his desk in the FBI's Austin office, looking out a window at the late-afternoon sky. The ordinarily exquisite February weather was about to give way to one of those window-rattling, tree-toppling thunderstorms for which Texas was known.
He watched the clouds turn blacker by the second over toward Balcones. If it had been raining up in the hill country to the west, floods wouldn't be far behind.
But Jerrod wasn't really thinking about the storm. At thirty-eight, he had a decade under his belt as an agent, and he looked at the building storm with the uneasy sixth sense that life was about to imitate meteorology.
The case file that lay all over his desk, sorted into types and sources of information, screamed things that burned into his brain. Fourteen-year-old runaway female, last seen hawking herself on the streets of Houston. This time, unlike most times, she had been reported missing by another prostitute, an older woman who had tried to take the child under her wing and protect her. It was this woman who had reported the girl's disappearance. Usually they just disappeared into inky silence, without a trace.
Another rumble of thunder, too low to be audible, but strong enough to be felt, passed through the office.
Lately too many of his cases seemed to settle around government contractors. The rush of often poorly overseen privatization of government work, coupled with the spending bonanza of the "global war on terror," had led to a boom in contractor fraud. For a while, it had gone largely unnoticed and un-checked, but then courageous whistle-blowers had begun to come forward. Sadly, despite the whistle-blower protection laws, he knew that those witnesses would probably find themselves out of work and unemployable in the government-contracting sector.
But those cases were not his passion. They were just his job. As another rumble of thunder passed through the room, he looked at the framed photo on his desk. The girl who looked back at him from a face framed by blond curls appeared to be just on the cusp of womanhood, entering the awkward stage of life where her smile was the impish one of childhood mixed with the almost-sensed mysteries of adulthood.
Elena. Resident forever in his heart, an ache that would never end.
He'd known he wanted to be a cop from the time Elena had disappeared. He'd been sixteen then, six years older than she was. Family tragedies hit in a lot of ways. His sister's abduction had sent his mom into an alcoholic spiral and his dad into a withdrawal from which he'd never fully emerged.
After Elena disappeared, all that remained was the silence.
It was his father's sudden, overwhelming sense of powerlessness that had energized Jerrod. He decided he would become a cop. He would step in for fathers whose invulnerability had been irretrievably shattered. He would rescue his father, even if he never found Elena.
That had led him into the army's military police program, the fastest way to get into uniform and on the job, and a way to pay for the college education he would need in order to work for the FBI. His rugged athleticism and quick, keen mind had attracted the attention of recruiters in the special-ops community, shadowy heroic figures who'd told him he was destined for better things than waving cars through the front gate.
Six years later, he'd passed through the revolving door that led from special operations into private military contracting, where the pay was better and the missions even farther from public awareness. The company he'd worked for had specialized in overseas personal security, protecting U.S. businessmen and key employees in parts of the world where a U.S. passport was all too often irresistible bait for rebels who financed their operations with ransom money.
It was there, in that dark, shadowy world, that he'd learned what happened sometimes to those little girls and boys who disappeared. It was the first time he'd learned that there really was a white slave trade.
He'd become an expert in finding the missing, sniffing out clues that others might miss, able to project complex networks of informants, sources and dark alliances onto a screen in his mind. He followed links that seemed obvious only in retrospect, guided by intuition, supported by a twenty-hour-aday work schedule when he was on a case.
And then he'd blown the whistle himself.
Ultimately, the case had gone nowhere. He knew what he knew, but too much of what he knew lay in inferences he had drawn from that screen in his mind. The investigator who had worked the case couldn't verify any of Jerrod's claims, at least not enough for prosecution.
But it had pushed him out of the private sector and into the job he'd always wanted. He'd joined the FBI. And he'd joined with a résumé and a passion that had quickly turned into a specialty.
He worked all kinds of cases, but Special Agent Jerrod Westlake had quickly emerged as the go-to guy on abductions. A photo album in his desk drawer was filled with the faces of kids he'd found. The bulletin board over his desk was also covered with photographs, those he hadn't yet located.
And on his desk, surrounded by a simple white frame, was a photo of Elena.
He looked at her now, sensing more than hearing the rumble of thunder that reverberated through his window, strong enough to feel in the arms of his chair.
Elena, as sweet as a spring morning, a tiny little elf of a girl who had come into the world one day after his sixth birthday. His mom called her a surprise gift from God. His dad just plain doted.
And it still pained Jerrod not to know. Despite all the resources he could call on, he could find no trace of Elena Westlake. Not even among the hundreds of Jane Does who filtered through morgues and into anonymous plots of ground provided by cities, counties or states.
His reputation now preceded him, and he claimed a network of friends and allies throughout law enforcement who kept him abreast of new cases. When local authorities wanted help, they asked for him by name. And whatever field office he was working from, his special agent in charge would book him on the next flight out.
Twenty-two years ago this week. That was when Elena had disappeared. A ten-year-old girl waiting for her school bus had been yanked into a car by a dark-haired, middle-aged man of medium height and build, driving a late-model blue sedan. The recorded story of Elena Westlake ended on that cold February morning, the description of her last known moments dragged out of the terrified boy who had been awaiting the bus with her.
He knew Elena must be dead. Still, he hadn't given up. One day he would find his sister's body. At least his mom and dad would know what had happened.
The storm rumbled again. Georgie Dickson appeared in the door of Jerrod's cubicle and placed a Starbucks coffee on his desk. Then she sat in the chair beside the desk and sipped her own coffee.
She was a beautiful woman, her café-au-lait skin shining with the good health that came from being physically fit. Georgie had no vices, although the rest of the crew was always trying to find one. It had become a game. Did Georgie ever have a drink? Did she eat meat when she thought no one was looking? Did she really go to church every Sunday?
Georgie knew about it, and Jerrod was sure she enjoyed every moment of being a mystery.
She was also one of his best friends in the office. As if she'd been reading his mind, she leaned over and picked up Elena's photo. After a moment, she sighed and put it down again. She didn't say anything. She didn't have to.
"Big storm," she remarked.
He nodded, glancing toward the window. There was an ugly swirl to some of those clouds now, the kind of swirl that might portend a tornado. "Has anyone listened to the weather?"
"The usual. Severe storm warning, tornado watch. Were you expecting something else?"
Almost in spite of himself, he chuckled. Georgie was good at dragging him out of his brooding.
"So how did it go, testifying in the Mercator case?"
"Pretty well, I thought. I hung around afterward to listen to some of the other testimony. I got the feeling there might be another whistle-blower, one we never identified."
"Is it worth looking into?"
He shook his head dubiously. "I honestly don't know. This was the stupidest case of fraud I've ever worked. The prosecution won't rest their case until next week, though, so I guess we'll hear about it if they want us to look any further."
Government fraud cases were as varied as the human mind's capacity for dreaming up ways to root a few extra dollars from the public trough.
Jerrod divided them into three categories: the sinister, the slick and the stupid. The sinister were the most dangerous, occurring at the junction of policy and profit. The slick were the most clever, often using one set of regulations against another, tucking away sometimes obscene piles of money, so close to the legal line that they were often impossible to prosecute.
The Mercator Industries case, on the other hand, was in the category of the stupid, a case where the acts were so obvious and the payoff so small that you had to wonder why they'd even bothered.
"Really dumb," Georgie said, apparently thinking over the facts of the case. She laughed. "I mean, c'mon. Persian rugs and Italian leather executive chairs? What were they thinking?"
"It was a cost-plus contract," Jerrod said, shrugging almost humorously. "They were real costs, right?"
Cost-plus contracting required the contractor to itemize the costs of performing the work. The government paid the costs, plus a profit percentage specified in the contract. Slick contractors looked for creative ways to pad the costs and thus increase the base from which their profit was calculated. This padding often involved layers of subcontracts to companies that were subsidiaries or even mere shells for the principal. Those subcontracts included a profit which was added to the prime contractor's cost, even though that cost was simply money being shifted from one accounting column to another in the corporate books.
When the contractors were slick enough, this padding slipped right through the audits, enabling them to "profit on profit." The Mercator people weren't that slick. Not even by half.
Instead, they'd claimed that the contract had required them to open a temporary office in Houston to oversee the work being done locally. Under the regulations, if the office was temporaryopened solely for that one contractreasonable office costs were chargeable to that contract.
The key words were temporary and reasonable. And the office complex in Houston was neither.
Mercator had bought two floors of a downtown high-rise, and its Houston complex housed two dozen executives and their staffs, overseeing no less than ten different contracts throughout Texas and Louisiana. The lavish furnishings might still have slipped through, had Mercator not billed the whole cost of the complex on each of those ten contracts. Fortune magazine had broken the story in a three-part whistle-blower saga aptly titled Deca-Dipping.
"Y'know what I can't understand?" Jerrod asked, as Georgie thumbed through one of the stacks of paper that had been resting on his desk. "What's that?"
"Why are they even fighting it? It makes no sense. They have no defense. Christie Jackson said she offered them a quarter-million-dollar fine to plead out. That's spare change for a company like Mercator. Why not just pay the damn fine and move on?"
"They're worried the three-strikes law will actually get passed," Georgie said.
She did have a vice, and Jerrod knew what it was. Georgie was a news junkie. She subscribed to a dozen online newspapers, from the Times of London to the Beijing Evening News, and a score of news-feeds. If you wanted to know whether a pilot was missing in Afghanistan or a panda mating in China, all you had to do was ask Georgie.
Which Jerrod did. "What's that?"
"There's a joint contracting reform bill winding its way through committee," she said. "Among other things, it has a three-strikes rule. Get popped for fraud three times and you're out of the government contractor pool."
"Like that will ever pass," he said.
She shrugged. "It might. There's a lot of support for it in the Netroots."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Houston Examiner fired investigative reporter Erin McKenna because the Mercator Media Group bought the newspaper placing her in the obvious crosshairs as she testifies in federal court against the parent company Mercator Industries. Although expecting this outcome but still depressed, she goes home only to interrupt a break-in to her apartment. When Erin awakens, she finds FBI agent Jerrod Westlake insuring she is okay. She wonders why a Fed arrived so soon for a burglary that she did not have time to call 911. Erin finds her computer, DVDs and CDs stolen nothing else taken.----------------- Both assume that her testimony against Mercator Industries is the prime reason for the theft. To keep her safe, Jerrod spends the night with Erin at a hotel where they discuss another case he is working involving a missing teenage girl that he believes is a victim of the international sex-slave trade business, which the Fed feels links to the Mercator investigation. They team up to end the abomination knowing the enemy will kill them to keep their lucrative business profitable.------------- From the moment readers learn about Jerrod¿s obsession to find his probably dead sister snatched from a school bus twenty-two years when Elena was ten, fans will be hooked by this powerful romantic suspense thriller with the emphasis on the intrigue. The romance is used to enhance the thriller as the courageous lead pair are THE HUNTED by deadly antagonists whose business interests include brutally selling young girls. Rachel Lee pulls no punches as some of the appalling conditions kidnapped females placed in the sex trade industry face are graphic (rightfully so). As the afterward points out that ¿Girls as young as five are bought and sold¿ on a real international flesh peddling commodity exchange that comes horrifically alive in this exciting gritty FBI thriller.-------------- Harriet Klausner