A Taste of... Storm's CAGE
Ian Strausbaugh leaned against the granite breakfast bar, watching his wife as she ferreted around the living room, randomly picking up and stashing odds and ends in her suitcase.
After zipping her overstuffed bag, Dana looked up. Her expression shifted from frantic to wistful as she met Ian’s gaze. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with me?”
He lifted an incredulous eyebrow, though he wasn’t at all surprised by the invitation. “Am I even allowed? It wouldn’t exactly be The Dana and Sarah Show if I’m there, would it?”
The corners of her vivid blue eyes creased with a few fine lines as she grinned big enough to show all her teeth. “Sure it would. You’d just be like an extra, you know?” She flipped her dark hair and gave him a saucy wink. “Or maybe a roadie.”
Ian held up both hands in surrender. “That’s okay. I think I’ll pass. The roadie life just doesn’t really have any appeal to me.”
Dana rolled her eyes and laughed.
He loved her silly high-pitched chuckling. In the close to twenty years he’d known his wife, her laugh had always held that childlike quality that couldn’t help but bring a smile to his face. They’d only been married ten of those years, but Dana had always been a part of his life. She and Sarah, his sister, had been friends since elementary school.
The Dana and Sarah Show.
That’s what Ian had dubbed them in their college years. Between party antics and their shared crass sense of humor, they had earned quite a reputation throughout campus. Wherever The Dana and Sarah Show went, a good time was sure to follow.
Of course, after first marriages, kids, careers, divorces, and remarriages, Dana, Sarah, and even Ian had grown into a more laid-back adult lifestyle. The ladies, however, still reserved a few days each year to take a break from their responsibility so they could raise a little hell. Ian was always welcome to join, but he couldn’t deny them their fun.
Normally, little vacations like these would mean Ian and the kids could spoil themselves with massive portions of deep-dish Chicago pizza and horror movies. This year, however, the ladies’ trip paired with the teenagers’ non-custodial parent weekend, leaving Ian kid-free on Labor Day. Not wanting to be alone, Ian’s Plan B was to invite the boys from the precinct over for a little five-alarm chili and a Cubs game.
After readjusting the handbag on her shoulder, Dana gestured to the counter behind Ian. “I guess you can’t abandon your slow cooker, can you?”
“You know the answer to that.” Ian let out a huff of feigned exasperation and crossed both arms over his chest. “You and the kids hate when I make chili, so I have to save it for people who actually appreciate my hard work.”
Dana rolled her eyes and took a step forward to close the distance between them. “Your hard work involves, like, fifteen habanero peppers and could probably peel the paint off the side of the house.”
He grinned as he pulled her close and wrapped his arms around her. Leaning in, he took a slow breath, letting the vanilla and honey scent of her hair fill his nostrils before whispering in her ear, “Thank you, sweetie. I’ll keep that in mind in case we have to redo the siding any time soon.”
Dana tilted her head and gazed up, meeting his eyes. With a flutter of lashes, she beckoned him closer and planted a sweet kiss on his lips.
Ian tightened his arms around her shoulders. He didn’t want her to go, but at the same time, he couldn’t deny her the weekend of fun she had planned.
As they separated, Dana brushed both hands down the front of his gray t-shirt. With another of her bright smiles, a look he’d fallen so hard for and still made him forget all of life’s problems, if only for a moment, she gave his hand a slight squeeze.
“Okay, honey. Try not to let your baseball watching party get too out of control.” With a wink, she produced a set of car keys from her purse. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Ian slapped her bottom as he followed her down a short hall to the garage door. “That doesn’t rule out much. You know that, right?”
Her grin widened mischievously. “It only rules out Jägermeister, really.” Twisting the doorknob, she stepped into the garage, wiggling her fingers behind her in a half-wave. “I’ll see you on Wednesday night. I love you.”
“Love you too, honey.” He waved as she made her way to the driver’s side.
Ian watched his wife slide behind the wheel, and he didn’t pull his gaze away from the black sedan until it had backed out of the driveway and disappeared from his field of vision.
He and Dana had always been honest with one another, even before marriages and divorces had brought them back together. They told one another everything, with one exception…Ian’s work.
Five years in the military had given Ian a healthy work ethic, and he’d maintained that same hardworking attitude over the last sixteen years. Like most of his colleagues, he’d started as a beat cop with the Chicago Police Department, but since childhood, Ian had only ever wanted to be a detective. He’d busted his ass to make that happen before he turned thirty.
The job had always seemed black and white to him—look for clues, find the bad guys, and put their asses in jail.
What he hadn’t known, and could never have anticipated, was the baggage that came with police work in a city that produced some of the highest rates of violent crime in the country.
With one more wistful glance at where his wife’s car had disappeared, he considered dropping his weekend plans and going with her after all.
“Don’t be an idiot,” he muttered and flicked off the garage’s overhead light and locked the deadbolt of the door. He turned on the TV, hoping the sound would keep his mind occupied until his friends arrived.
Time alone meant time with his thoughts, which was the biggest reason he sought to fill the house when it was empty.
His thoughts, especially lately, were traitorous.
Pressure swelled in his head as his mind began to race. Double fisting his hands into his hair, Ian gripped as many strands as he could and tugged, wishing he could pull the memories out before they drove him crazy. Even now, just shy of turning forty, his raven hair showed no sign of graying.
Not yet, at least. With the way his job had been going, he was liable to be completely bald or gray by the end of the month.
Stop it. Just stop thinking about it.
He knew that was a pipe dream.
The warm scent of chili pepper mixed with onions and garlic wafted up to him as he stepped into the sunlit kitchen, but the pleasant aroma did little to stop the darkness from clouding his mood.
Propping both hands on the gold-flecked granite counter, he let his blank stare fall on the slow cooker as condensation formed inside the glass lid.
Once upon a time, he’d looked forward to the days when he invited his detective friends over to watch a Cubs game.
In those days, he’d been sure that he was one of the good guys. His buddies too. He’d never questioned the career he’d chosen. It was his dream job. Even if he occasionally did little favors for the Leóne crime family, he and his buddies on the force made choices for the greater good.
After all, he hadn’t ever committed a violent crime on the Leóne family’s behalf, had he? All he’d done was look the other way. He’d never turned on his fellow detectives, nor had he knowingly facilitated the death or injury of an innocent civilian.
Maybe he was naïve, or maybe willful ignorance was his way of keeping sane.
He could deny it all he wanted, but the truth was there. Ian had been feeding a monster.
Not even a year into working with the Leónes, their agreements had graduated from minor drug deals to drug trafficking, and eventually homicide. As each new case came across his desk, he’d continued to rationalize his alliance with the notorious crime family.
They hadn’t killed innocents.
They’d killed rival drug dealers, traffickers, other monsters.
Any time Ian looked the other way or let a key piece of evidence slip through the cracks, he’d tell himself he was part of the greater good.
If he hadn’t assured himself that the murders he’d helped cover up were nothing more than the casualties in a war between the Leónes and another evil, he would have been unable to live with himself.
The oversight of a few offenses here and there was a small price to pay for all the good he did as a homicide detective. He brought justice to countless families who’d lost loved ones. He was damn good at his job, but without the extra income from the Leóne family, finances would have been next to impossible.
Life in Chicago was expensive, and he and Dana were both public servants. Even when combined, the salaries of a city cop and a social worker were hardly enough to make ends meet, much less live comfortably.
More than half of the Chicago Police Department owed allegiance to one criminal organization or another—the Leónes, the D’Amatos, the Russians, the San Luis Cartel—so all Ian had done was follow along. Word around the precinct was that the crime bosses had Feds on their payroll too.
Which had been fine.
A few weeks earlier, however, the narrative changed.
When the FBI had issued a press release about the Leónes’ kiddie porn ring they’d busted, reality smacked Ian across the face.
For all these years, he’d kept his head buried in the sand. And for what? A few extra bucks? A bigger house? A nicer car? Trendy clothes for his teenage kids?
Kids that the Leónes would have no problem selling to a pedophile halfway across the world.
Ian swore to himself that he hadn’t known, but the truth was that he hadn’t wanted to know. Ignorance was bliss, as the saying went. But when the ignorance faded, revealing the true nature of the beast, what then? How was he supposed to live with himself if he sat by and did nothing?
Squeezing his eyes closed, Ian sucked in a sharp breath and rubbed his forehead.
Pull it together, asshole.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d kept his unseeing stare fixed on the pot. Ian gave his hair another tug as he glanced over to the microwave’s digital clock. In two hours, the first of his guests would arrive. As much as he wished that his intent was to kick back with good company and good food, he had an ulterior motive.
Though each of the detectives he’d invited were longtime colleagues and friends, they shared another commonality…the Leóne family. Ian didn’t know the specifics of each man’s involvement with the Leónes, and until recently, he’d told himself it was none of his business. However, with reports of the Kankakee County farm so fresh in his mind, he needed to know that none of them were involved in that.
Each detective was a close friend, and though he was confident none of them were capable of assaulting a child, he needed to confirm that none of them could be part of that happening to children.
Swallowing the bitter taste in his mouth, Ian forced his attention back to the kitchen. For the next couple hours, he went about in preparation for the evening.
The doorbell chimed as he was setting the food up along the granite breakfast bar.
Dusting both hands on the front of his gray ZoSo t-shirt, Ian made his way through the living room and to the tiled foyer. As he pulled open the heavy wooden door, he forced an amiable smile to his lips. A rush of humid air greeted him, along with two familiar grins.
The taller of the pair, Detective Dale Berwick, raised a nine-by-thirteen glass casserole dish as he stepped over the threshold. “You know Prudence would give me hell if I ever came over here without bringing food.”
Despite his rapidly beating heart, Ian chuckled and closed the door behind his two friends. “Your wife sure knows what it takes to get invited back to a place. What did you make us this time?”
Kicking off his sneakers, the second man’s gaze flicked to the foil-covered pan. “Cheesecake, believe it or not.” Liam Rollins was only a hair over five-ten, but his broad-shouldered, muscular build more than made up for the difference in height. Not to mention the fact that he’d played football for Northwestern University for the four years of his undergrad.
A proud glimmer shone in Dale’s eyes. “Prudence is out of town visiting her parents, but she sent me a recipe and told me to use the cream cheese in the fridge before it went bad.”
The two men followed Ian to the breakfast bar, and Dale set down the cheesecake beside the seven-layer dip.
Ian gestured to the pan. “So, this is a Dale Berwick original?”
Dale scratched his reddening cheeks and looked away. Ian found it funny to witness his friend looking bashful. “I don’t know if I’d go that far. It was someone else’s recipe, and I just followed the instructions.”
As Ian let out a lighthearted chortle, he almost forgot the reason he’d set up the evening get-together.
Another thirty minutes passed as they waited for their other two friends. Ian had told all his companions that they were welcome to bring their spouses or kids, but Cliff Allworth and Scotty McClellan both arrived alone.
Conversation flowed easily as they rehashed the previous night’s game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs. They were all lifelong Cubs fans and hoped their team might redeem themselves after Sunday’s decisive loss.
Once they’d loaded up bowls of chili and plates of snacks, the little group gathered on the spacious sectional couch that took up much of the living room. The discussion turned to their respective Labor Day weekends, and as soon as Scotty brought up a case he’d been stuck working over the holiday, Ian saw his opening.
His heart hammered a relentless cadence against his chest, and he took a long drink of soda to chase away the sensation of a hundred cotton balls stuffed in his mouth. He wanted the mention of the Leónes’ Kankakee County farm to come across as a natural part of their conversation, though the notion that a mafia-run child exploitation ring was a natural part of any conversation was just short of ridiculous.
He hadn’t bothered to recite or practice any part of the dialogue, and as he swallowed, he wondered if he should have put some more thought behind his half-cocked plan.
Clearing his throat, Ian set the bowl of chili on the stone coffee table and straightened. “You guys heard about what the Feds found out on that Kankakee County farm, didn’t you?”
A crease formed between Scotty’s eyebrows. His pale blue eyes shifted to Ian as he slowly shook his head.
When Ian turned his attention to Cliff, the tall man merely shrugged. “I hadn’t been following it. Why? What happened?”
“Hey, wait.” Liam returned his spoon to the bowl of chili he held in one hand. “Kankakee County? Wasn’t that the farm the Feds busted a couple weeks ago? The one the Leóne family was running?”
Ian’s stomach threatened to revolt. “Yeah, that’s the one.”
Blowing out a sigh, Liam shook his head. “The Feds busted a pretty big trafficking ring. Something about the Leónes running that acreage with a bunch of illegals they tricked into working for free. It’s nasty shit, if you ask me.”
The cold caress of dread clamped down on Ian’s heart. He knew that Liam had been affiliated with the Leóne family for almost his entire career with the Chicago PD, and a voice in the back of his head told him that Liam’s admonishment of the traffickers was feigned.
This wasn’t how the conversation was supposed to go. Ian wasn’t supposed to catch any of his brothers-in-arms in a lie or a half-truth. They were all supposed to be just as disgusted as Ian had been when he’d heard of the FBI press conference.
Cracks began forming in the illusion Ian had held for so many years. He’d always assumed that the rest of his colleagues held to his same standards of morality, that they knew where to draw a line in the sand, and most of all, that they knew when to stop.
Had the cracks always been there? Had Ian just been willfully ignorant this whole time? One thing was certain. Now that Ian was seeing them, he could no longer turn a blind eye.
Anxiety had Ian’s heart playing his ribs like a xylophone. He took another sip of his soda, more to give his hands something to do than because of thirst. He might be feeling anxious, but he couldn’t let on, not now. He couldn’t spook anyone with his odd behavior, especially when talking about Leóne business.
“Yeah, it was nasty shit. The Feds said a few days ago that the Leóne guys at that farm were running a kiddie porn ring on top of everything else they were doing.”
Liam’s dark eyes shot open wide, but the reaction was delayed. “They were running a…a what?”
The fires of anger crept in beside Ian’s trepidation. Maybe if any of you had actually paid attention to who you were dealing with, you wouldn’t be so surprised.
Ian kept the thought to himself as he looked over the shell-shocked expressions of the other three detectives. With any luck, the fabric of their reality would fray as completely as his had.
Scotty combed a hand through his mop of deep copper hair and let out a long breath. “That’s some sick shit, all right. Did the Feds bust all the guys running it?”
Ian scooped up his bowl of chili in an attempt to look casual. “They didn’t say specifically, but it sounded like everything was a done deal. If there was anyone else involved in it, the Feds are keeping it to themselves.”
With a snort, Scotty cracked open a blue and silver can of beer. “That sounds like something the Feds would do. They never tell us anything unless it suits them.”
Ian swallowed a sarcastic remark. Considering that all five of them were affiliated with the Leónes in one way or another, the Feds were more than justified to keep their investigations close to the vest.
“Yeah, well.” Ian pushed the chili around in the bowl. “I’d just heard about it, so I figured I’d mention it. I’m sure the rumor mill will be churning at full force when we get back to the precinct tomorrow.”
The living room lapsed into silence as the four men turned their attention to the game on TV. When Scotty finally broke the spell of quiet, the topic had shifted back to baseball.
Though Ian was glad for the reprieve, he couldn’t shake the gnawing sensation in the back of his head.
At least one of his so-called brothers knew more than they’d let on, and this time, Ian didn’t think he could look the other way.
This time, he had to do something.
* * *
For the rest of the night, the Leóne family hadn’t been mentioned, but Ian had kept a close eye on his four friends. Truth be told, the only two who seemed to react to the news were Liam and Scotty. The obvious worry and disappointment on their faces had resonated with Ian, and he could only hope that the reason behind their anxiety was the same as his.
He’d wanted answers, but he was still stuck at square one. His plan to ask his fellow detectives about the Kankakee County farm hadn’t been thought through, and he’d gleaned little to no information from the stinted discussion.
Draping an arm over his eyes to block out the meager glow of the digital clock, Ian groaned. Though he’d headed for bed after the game ended, sleep wasn’t likely to come easy, if at all. He never slept well when Dana was out of town, and with the thoughts whirling through his head that night, he knew his eyes wouldn’t close.
As he shifted to face the nightstand, he pulled the comforter up over his shoulders. Even if he found answers to his questions and had proof that one of his brothers-in-arms was a bottom-feeder who preyed on children, what then?
He could conduct as thorough of an investigation as he wanted, but if he had no plan of action to follow up with, then the effort was pointless.
Internal Affairs was out of the question. If Ian was stupid enough to bring information to the IA department, he’d go down right along with the others. And worse still, he’d be branded a rat. He’d lose everything. Dana, the kids, his home, his life.
He couldn’t do that to them. To himself.
But his alternative options were nonexistent. Internal Affairs or the Feds—those were the only avenues available. Both would end his life as he knew it. Dana would leave, the kids would too, and Ian would be on his own.
Squeezing his eyes closed, he tried to ignore the stone in his stomach as he jammed his face into the pillow. That was a bridge he would cross if and when he came to it. Right now, all he wanted to do was sleep. Maybe after some rest, he could come up with a better plan.
As Ian focused on his breathing, his thoughts became more scattered and distant. To his surprise, the fog of sleep rolled up to greet him like an old friend, and tension eased away from his tired muscles.
Before he could give himself over to the pull of unconsciousness, a faint click and a beep jerked him from the pleasant drift like a parachute halting a skydiver. Instinct sent him springing upright in his bed as his hand found the gun in the top drawer of his nightstand.
He and his family had no pets aside from a few fish. The display on his phone showed no light to indicate a new notification. Dana or one of the kids couldn’t have come home early. They had the security code, but there was no way they would be this silent, even at this hour of the night.
He remembered arming the security system before turning in. If someone had tried to break in through any door or window, alarms loud enough to wake the dead would blare through the house.
Ian held his breath and strained his hearing to its limits. He could have sworn he’d heard a sound, but as the seconds ticked away in complete silence, he wondered if he was losing his mind. After all, he had been contemplating the Leóne crime family before he’d fallen asleep.
Gritting his teeth, Ian glanced to his phone and then to the matte black Glock in his hand. Even if he suspected the sound was part of his dream, sixteen years as a cop had taught him to check and secure the house before going back to sleep. Better to be safe than sorry. He’d rather laugh at himself for jumping at shadows than find himself staring down the barrel of a mafioso’s gun.
With a deep, silent breath to calm his racing heart, Ian swung both legs off the side of the bed. As his feet met the cool hardwood, he tightened his grip on the nine-mil and glanced around the dim room. The only light sources were the blue glow of the alarm clock and the faint nightlight that he and Dana kept in the master bathroom.
He snatched up a pair of sweats from the top of a wooden dresser and quickly slipped into them. In the unlikely event an intruder waited for him downstairs, he’d be damned if he was about to be caught in his skivvies. As an afterthought, he grabbed his phone and dropped the device into a pocket.
Tightening his grip on the handgun, he padded across the floor until he reached the doorway. His vision was adjusted to the darkness, and a ruddy orange streetlight nearly blinded him as its light glared through the window at the end of the hall.
The bathroom door to his right was open. As he replayed the sound that had ripped him from the edge of sleep, Ian was confident he hadn’t heard a door open or close. The disturbance had been faint. The click and the beep had come from downstairs.
Satisfied that no one was lurking in wait on the second floor, Ian turned his attention to the wooden steps to his left. The house was an older building, but Ian had lived there long enough to memorize the creaky spots of the stairwell. There were plenty of nights where he’d come home from a late shift and crept through the house like a burglar to avoid waking Dana or one of the kids.
His trip down to the landing was silent. He paused at the turn of the stairwell to listen. Just as he started for the second set of steps, there was a faint scuffle.
All the carpet had been ripped out of the house ages ago, and an intruder would have a difficult time masking the sound of their footsteps on hardwood and tile…which was exactly the sound he’d just heard. He wasn’t losing his mind, though the realization offered little comfort as he prowled down the rest of the stairs.
When the hum of the air-conditioner came to life, Ian barely stopped himself from spitting out a slew of four-letter words. His advantage was silence and surprise, but the playing field had just been leveled. Adrenaline rushed through his veins like ice water.
He had to be fast. He had to find the intruder before the intruder found him.
The thought of moving back upstairs to dial 911 occurred to him, but he knew there was only one reason a person would disable the security system to break into his house in the middle of the night.
They wanted him dead. Or worse, they wanted him alive.
In either case, he doubted he’d survive until the cavalry arrived. Not if he was unaware of his adversary’s location.
With the barrel of the handgun leading the way, he tiptoed down the hallway and into the kitchen. The glow of streetlights cast the granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances in an eerie horror-movie-like hue.
The hair on the back of his neck prickled to attention like the hackles of a guard dog. He hadn’t heard a sound yet, but intuition told him he wasn’t alone.
The intruder’s shoe scuffed the ceramic tile floor, and Ian immediately spun on his heel to face the sound. As he raised the Glock, taking aim at his assailant, his eyes fell on a familiar face.
His mouth opened and closed, but he couldn’t speak.
How could this be real? Surely, he’d fallen asleep. This was just a nightmare. It had to be.
Even with the hooded sweatshirt shrouding his face, Ian would recognize that man in a sea of thousands.
As his thoughts whirled and he told himself this showdown couldn’t possibly be happening, Ian’s eyes shifted to the silenced handgun clutched in the man’s gloved hands. His heart skipped more than a few beats.
This life—Dana, his family, his career—had all been a lie. A half-truth forged in the blood of the Leóne family’s victims. He’d take that lie to his grave.
“I’m sorry, Ian.”
Ian’s finger tightened on the trigger, but his surprised mind wasn’t fast enough.
The muffled pop was the last sound Ian heard.
Special Agents Amelia Storm and Zane Palmer had left the FBI’s Chicago Field Office bright and early, filled with high hopes.
She should have known better.
Carlo Enrico—a Leóne soldier who’d worked alongside two other men to run part of the crime family’s forced labor trafficking ring—had been moved from the Cook County Jail to The Metropolitan Correctional Center Chicago a couple days after his official indictment by a grand jury. He was scheduled to remain at MCC Chicago along with over five-hundred other inmates awaiting their day in a Federal court.
This morning, Carlo Enrico’s new lawyer informed them that he wanted to cut a deal. Amelia had felt certain the day would be productive and had jumped at the chance to get it in writing.
Carlo had been indicted for a laundry list of charges, due to his involvement in the child exploitation operation that his partners, Alton Dalessio and Matteo Ricci, had conducted out of the basement of a farm warehouse.
The men had kidnapped children and young family members of the workers who tended to the massive acreage, and then they’d filmed themselves as they took advantage of the helpless kids. Details were kept silent once the FBI’s Cyber Crimes Division had taken on the investigation.
The abductions had ostensibly served as collateral to keep the laborers in line, but Dalessio had taken an already despicable practice to an entirely new level of evil.
Now, however, Alton Dalessio and Matteo Ricci were dead—Matteo by his own hand, and Alton by a single slug from a twelve-gauge combat shotgun. A shot that Amelia had fired, leaving her wondering if it had been justified.
She clenched her hand into a fist at her side and shoved away the thoughts. The matter was settled in the eyes of the Bureau and the law, and ruminating over the fateful moment wouldn’t bring her any sense of resolution.
With Alton and Matteo dead, Carlo Enrico was left to shoulder the blame for the shady operations at the Kankakee County farm.
Carlo had sworn that he hadn’t touched any of the kids in that warehouse basement. He claimed he’d only cooperated with Alton and Matteo out of fear for his life.
Amelia didn’t buy a single one of Carlo’s lies.
She’d learned over the past few weeks that he had a penchant for sexual assault. She trusted him as far as she could throw him, and based on his broad-shouldered, muscular frame, that wasn’t far. Amelia was in good physical shape, exercised regularly, and practiced a variety of hand-to-hand combat techniques, but shot-putting grown men wasn’t part of her repertoire.
Though MCC Chicago was a towering twenty-three stories of solid beige concrete, Amelia and Zane had only been as high up as the third floor of the triangular building.
Not even Federal agents were allowed to traverse the veritable fortress without a corrections officer to chaperone, so a black-clad officer—Cole, his badge said—met them outside the interview room door.
“We need to meet with the warden as quickly as possible.”
According to Carlo’s new lawyer, a direct trip to the warden was the fastest way to have their soon-to-be informant placed in the jail’s protective custody. There, Carlo would be away from the general population, which included inmates who might have been affiliated with either the Leóne or D’Amato family.
Inmates who would want Carlo dead if they knew he’d cooperated with the Feds.
Though Carlo had changed lawyers and kept his intent to make a deal as quiet as possible, word of his betrayal would inevitably reach the Leónes. If Amelia and Zane didn’t move him out of gen-pop soon, the only witness who could identify the fourth man in Alton Dalessio’s child exploitation ring would be in grave danger.
To complicate matters, the man they sought, the unidentified man from the videos they’d recovered from the warehouse basement, was a detective in the Chicago Police Department.
Scratching the side of his scruffy face, the corrections officer raised his arm to check the time. “Warden’s in a meeting right now.” With a quick jerk of his head, Cole gestured for them to follow. “I’ll take you back to the lobby while you wait. The warden’s office is just off the lobby before the security checkpoint. He ought to be back in about thirty, if that works for the both of you.”
Pushing a piece of dark brown hair from her eyes, Amelia bit back a curse. Thirty minutes in a place like this could mean the difference between life and death. But what would cursing the CO do to help their cause? “That’s fine. We’ll wait.”
Cole turned to lead them down a hall and to a door Amelia assumed could withstand the force of a nuclear blast. Their footsteps echoed off the concrete like the walls of a tomb.
Cole offered a short greeting to the corrections officer manning the metal detector on the other side of the sturdy door, but Amelia and Zane remained silent. In the next room, a corrections officer stationed behind a pane of bullet-proof glass returned their service weapons.
By the time they finally reached the horseshoe-shaped desk at the back of a drab waiting area, Amelia was sure their half hour must have already elapsed. To her chagrin, however, a clock mounted to the gray drywall told her they still had another twenty-five minutes to go.
Rapping his knuckles against the sturdy wooden desk, Cole shifted his green eyes to a middle-aged fellow dressed in the same Bureau of Prisons uniform. Based on the man’s portly stature, his duties were primarily administrative.
Waving a hand at Amelia and Zane, Cole tilted his chin at his companion. “These two are here to see the warden when he gets back from his meeting.”
With a smile that exuded a grandfatherly sort of charm, the older corrections officer produced a clipboard as Cole offered a departing nod. His badge introduced him as Artie.
The corrections officer scanned the paper before he returned his gaze to Amelia and Zane. “Agents, good morning. Feel free to have a seat if you’d like to wait in here. Otherwise,” he pushed himself to his feet and pointed to a set of tinted glass double doors at the other end of the room, “there’s a coffee shop across the street if you need to grab some caffeine. It’s just a chain, but it sure beats the sludge they’ve got for us in here.”
Zane stifled a yawn. “I could use a little coffee, actually. Thanks, Artie.”
Amelia couldn’t tell if her brain was playing tricks on her or if Zane’s faint Jersey accent had gotten stronger after spending a few days on the East Coast with his family.
Though she had been prepared to sit in the relative silence of the unadorned waiting area for the next twenty-five minutes, the temptation of liquid energy was hard to resist. “I think I could use some too, now that you mention it.”
Dropping back to his office chair, Artie grinned. “Sounds good. I’ll see you when you head back over here, but if I don’t buzz you in right away, just hit the call button.”
She shot the older man a little salute. “Oh, we’ll be buzzing all right.”
Snickering softly, Zane strolled toward the doors and pushed the first set open.
Amelia shot her partner a why are you laughing at me glance. “What?”
He shook his head as they stepped out into the cool, albeit humid, morning air. “You and your terrible puns.”
Amelia would have socked him in the arm if they hadn’t been in public. “Coffee. Buzz. It’s punny.”
“If you say so.” He readjusted his silver and black striped tie before smoothing a hand over his tailored suit jacket.
She nudged him with her elbow. “You laughed.”
As they strode toward a crosswalk at the end of the block, Amelia gestured to Zane’s tie. “Is that new? I swear I’ve never seen you wearing that particular one before. Since I see you pretty much every day, I think I’ve got a good handle on your tie collection.”
Snorting out a laugh, he stopped a few feet behind a cluster of people. “No, I’ve had it for a while. Guess it just got buried under the pile.” He glanced at the black and silver fabric, running a hand over the length to smooth it down.
“A pile?” Amelia’s eyebrow arched sharply. “You keep your ties in a pile? Aren’t you supposed to hang them up or something?”
Zane snorted. “Only the expensive ones, or only if you care about them.”
He was the most perplexing man she’d met, and the more quirks she learned about him, the more intriguing he became. “So, you’re saying that you sometimes wear cheap ties, huh?” The light changed, and the little crowd began its procession across the street. Though Amelia assumed their trip to the neighboring donut and coffee shop was just to pass the time, the first whiff of roasting coffee was like the embrace of an old friend.
The morning breeze rustled Zane’s sandy-colored hair, but as always, not a single strand seemed out of place. “I’ve never spent more than ten bucks on a tie. I don’t see the point. I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between a hundred-dollar tie and a four-dollar one, not even if someone paid me.”
Wondering if he was lying, Amelia inspected the fabric. “I don’t disagree. I just didn’t figure a guy in an Armani suit would wear something off the discount rack.”
As they stepped onto the sidewalk, Zane shook his head. “This one was on clearance for five bucks, I’ll have you know.” He patted his black jacket. “And it’s Tom Ford, not Armani.”
She nudged the door to the little coffee shop, opening it with her shoulder. “Armani was the only brand I could think of. I’m not much of a men’s fashion connoisseur.”
Before they reached the short line of patrons, Zane had retrieved a worn but expensive looking wallet from an interior pocket. Unlike Amelia, Zane Palmer came from money.
She’d gathered that his childhood was marked with its share of strife, but finances had never been an issue for Zane and his family. At least not after his mother had landed a spot at one of the East Coast’s premier financial management services.
Anne Palmer had managed assets for some of the world’s wealthiest families, which had sent her own net worth skyrocketing. Though she no longer worked as a hedge fund manager, Zane claimed she was still a sharp investment wizard. If someone gave Anne a dollar, within thirty days, she’d turn it into a hundred. In a year, she’d have increased that to many thousands.
Six months earlier—after they’d both transferred to Chicago—Amelia and Zane had been assigned as partners. During those awkward early days, Amelia felt slighted by Zane’s attempts to pay for her coffee or lunch. It wasn’t until they’d gotten to know one another during the Leila Jackson case, that Amelia came to understand that Zane’s acts of generosity were not meant to show off or flaunt his financial status.
The truth behind Zane’s kindness was simple…he was a kind person. Rather than live a life of luxury in the financial industry, he was here, in the same stressful line of work as Amelia. Her year and a half as an FBI agent paled in comparison to Zane’s near-decade, but she’d been with the Bureau long enough to understand what a toll the job could take.
He flashed her a grin, and the weariness she’d sensed in him disappeared.
Once they’d received their orders, they headed back across the street. As promised, Artie buzzed them into the building as soon as the doors at their back had latched into place.
Amelia and Zane took a pair of seats in a row of cushioned chairs lining a wall. For the first time since they’d left the FBI office that morning, they were out of earshot of any potentially curious bystanders.
“So.” Even though they were the only two occupants of the drab room, Zane’s voice was hushed. “What do you make of Enrico’s sudden change of heart? You think he’s stringing us along?”
Taking a sip of her coffee, Amelia prayed it was the former. The last thing they needed was to chase down dead ends. “It’s hard to say. He might have heard ‘death penalty’ and had a change of heart.”
Tapping a finger against his paper cup, Zane nodded. “Could be. But he’s given us jack shit so far, which makes me wonder if he’s got anything at all.”
Amelia refused to head down that dark train of thought. She had to hold out hope for something positive to follow up on. “I think he’d have to know something. The mystery man in their little basement of sin was their cameraman. He’s got to have a first name, and he’s got to know what the guy looks like.”
Zane stretched both legs in front of himself. “And all he’s got for us is that the guy’s a detective and that he’s been on the force for a while.” He snorted. “That doesn’t really narrow it down much.”
“No, it really doesn’t, but…” she glanced at him with a hapless shrug, “there’s only one way to find out, and that means we’ve got to get that idiot to protective custody before one of the Leónes’ errand boys sticks a shank in his liver. It’s only a matter of time before they know he’s up to something.”
Before Zane could reply, the heavy set of metal doors to the right of the reception desk opened. A man stepped through the doorway, and his neatly pressed gray suit jacket and slacks proclaimed him an authority figure. Auburn hair, streaked with silver, was combed straight back from his bearded face, and a pair of black-rimmed glasses gave him a scholarly air.
The man’s eyes flicked from Amelia to Zane and then back. “You must be Agents Palmer and Storm. I’m Donovan Gillem.”
With one more glance at Zane, Amelia pushed to her feet.
As Zane extended a hand, he stepped forward. Even at six-three, Zane only stood a hair taller than the older man. “Warden, nice to meet you. I’m Special Agent Palmer, and this is my partner, Special Agent Storm.”
The warden offered a smile as he shook hands with them, but the warm expression didn’t reach his eyes. Gesturing for Zane and Amelia to follow, Donovan led them down the hall he’d just emerged from. A left turn at the end of the corridor brought them face-to-face with the wood and glass door of an office.
“I’m not usually this tardy, so please accept my apologies.” Donovan unlocked and pulled open the creaky door. “There is always a never-ending stream of meetings at the courthouse.”
Zane nodded politely. “Not a problem at all. Thank you for squeezing us in.”
Donovan waved a hand at two squat chairs. “Have a seat, Agents. What brings you to MCC Chicago?”
Once the warden took his spot behind a gray metal desk, Amelia and Zane took their seats. Resting her coffee cup on one knee, Amelia met Donovan Gillem’s curious stare. “We’re here about an inmate. It’s a sensitive issue, which is why there weren’t any details in the message we left.”
As if a fog had rolled away from the warden’s brain, the man’s eyes sharpened, and he straightened in his seat. “What do you need from me?”
Amelia pushed at the cup’s sleeve with her thumb. Wardens were always a wildcard. Some were completely cooperative while others hated when orders came down from on high, telling them what to do with their inmates. She hoped Gillem would be the former. “We need an inmate put in protective custody as soon as you’re able. Today, preferably…please. He’s a Federal witness.”
Donovan’s eyebrows shot up to his forehead. “A Federal witness? How long has he been working with the Bureau?”
Zane glanced at his watch. “Since about a half hour ago.”
“Oh.” Scooting forward, Donovan rested both elbows on the desk. “Well, we can get him moved, but our protective custody spaces are currently full. Since this is a temporary facility, we don’t keep as many spots reserved for something like that.”
A stone sank into the pit of Amelia’s stomach. Nothing could just be easy, could it? “How soon can you move him?”
The warden rubbed his bearded chin. “We’ll need the paperwork from the prosecutor to show he’s a high-value witness before we can begin the moving process. It takes a couple of hours.”
Zane raised a hand before Amelia could reply. “Wait. You need the paperwork from the U.S. Attorney’s Office? The Assistant U.S. Attorney hasn’t even stepped into a courtroom yet.” He gestured to himself and then Amelia. “We’re the agents working the case. The agents who’ve been working it. He’s a witness. Unfortunately, an important one too. I can tell you right now that if anyone finds out that he’s a witness, which they will, then he’s as good as dead. And if he’s dead, then our whole damned case is dead.”
Holding up both hands, Donovan gave them both a look that Amelia would have labeled as patronizing if it didn’t also hold a hint of arrogance. “I understand the urgency, but even I have to get approval to do something like this when protective custody is full. Putting a new inmate in a more secure location means that we’ll have to remove another, and to get approval to do that, I need paperwork from the case prosecutor.”
As much as Amelia wanted to spit out a slew of four-letter words to describe the urgency of the situation, she bit her tongue. Donovan Gillem might have been a prison warden, but his status didn’t render him above reproach. For all she and Zane knew, Donovan was a rat.
Amelia considered their options. The U.S. Marshals could be called in but that could also take a couple hours. They could take Carlo to an FBI safe house, but they’d need a shit ton of paperwork for that too.
“Then put him somewhere temporarily.” She nodded at the warden’s closed door. “Put him in a broom closet for all I care. Please. Anything to get him away from the general population. We don’t have the Federal prosecutor on call, you know that, right? It might take two days, maybe three. And in the meantime, every minute our witness is in gen-pop is a minute someone could kill him.”
The warden dropped both arms to rest on the desk. “I’m aware, Agents, but my hands are tied here. If we move another inmate back into general population without properly vetting the situation, there’s a distinct possibility that the ousted inmate could be killed or injured too. We’re at capacity, which means we don’t have any spare rooms in the more secure areas.”
Though Amelia wanted to protest, Donovan had a valid point. Prisons across the country were notoriously overcrowded, and she didn’t have to stretch her imagination to realize the issue extended to protective custody. Inmates weren’t moved to secure locations without a valid reason. If Donovan had to pull an inmate back to gen-pop, chances were good they’d be in almost as much danger as Carlo Enrico.
Zane must have been in agreement with her thoughts because he didn’t jump in to protest as the office lapsed into silence. And he didn’t look happy, either.
The warden readjusted his glasses, offering them both a sympathetic smile. “Look, I understand what you’re saying. I really do. I go through the protective custody roster regularly to make sure the only inmates in there are the ones who need to be there. I don’t doubt that this inmate needs our protection, especially if he’s a Federal witness. But I can’t just tell the rest of the prison officials to take my word for it. They’re going to want some kind of documentation from the prosecutor.”
“Do we have any alternatives? Any other options?” The combative tinge had dissipated from Zane’s tone.
Drumming his fingers against the metal desktop, Donovan slowly shook his head. “Not many. We could move him to a different location, but that would require the same type of approval as protective custody. It’s not something we could do within minutes.”
Amelia tapped her fingertip to her lips. “Are you sure there’s not a spare broom closet you could toss him in?”
The remark was far from professional, but a hint of amusement flashed across the warden’s face, and the tension evaporated from the air. Amelia and Zane had only been at the Chicago FBI office for half a year, and she didn’t want to make an enemy of a Federal prison warden before she hit the one-year mark. She’d learned from Zane that a little levity could go a long way when it came to maintaining alliances.
“Unfortunately, no.” Donovan flattened his palms and glanced from Amelia to Zane. “I can have the COs on that floor keep a close eye on him over the next couple days, or I can order increased security around the area.”
Zane was shaking his head before the warden finished. “No. I appreciate it, but I think right now, the fewer people who know about this, the better off we are. We’ll get the U.S. Attorney’s office to push through that paperwork as soon as they can.”
“That sounds good. I’ll keep an eye out for the message.” Donovan pushed to his feet. Amelia and Zane followed suit, and the three of them made their way through the hall and back to the lobby.
After handshakes, she and Zane headed back out to the bustling Van Buren Street and then to a parking garage catty-corner to the prison. The temperature had risen since their coffee trip, and to Amelia’s chagrin, her phone advised that the high for the day was in the nineties. Again.
Groaning as she took her spot on the passenger’s side of Zane’s silver Acura, Amelia slumped down in the seat.
Closing the driver’s side door, Zane glanced at her, an eyebrow crooked in concern. “Was that about Carlo or something else?”
Amelia pulled her handbag from where she’d crammed it beneath the seat. “Both. I don’t suppose you have the Assistant U.S. Attorney saved in your favorite contacts, do you?”
His gray eyes were fixed on the windshield as he turned the key over in the ignition and pursed his lips. “Not in my favorites, no. But I might still have her number.”
Amelia did a double take. “What? I haven’t even met the prosecutor for this case yet. How is it you’ve got her number?”
As he shifted the car into reverse, Zane gave her a fleeting glance before backing out of the parking spot. “We, uh, we went on a couple dates.”
“Wait.” Amelia held up a hand. “Hold on, you what? Is that…something you can do? Are you even allowed to date the person who’s prosecuting a case you worked on?”
He thrummed his thumbs on the steering wheel, avoiding her curious stare. “We’re not dating. We went on, like, three dates, and that was a while ago. It was before we worked the Leila Jackson case.”
A pang of relief wriggled into Amelia’s thoughts, but she ignored the sentiment and all its implications. “That’s good, I guess? Does she know that she’ll be prosecuting a case you worked on?”
He nodded, but his expression was unreadable. “Yeah, she does. That’s why I know she’s the one working it, actually. She called me to tell me, and she said she’d already disclosed our past…um, relationship.” He paused, pursing his lips as they finally turned onto the busy downtown street. “Her boss, the U.S. Attorney, gave her the green light. You know, since it was a while ago, and it wasn’t really…serious.”
Though she considered Zane Palmer one of her good friends, Amelia knew very little about his dating history. Granted, they hadn’t known one another well before the Leila Jackson case, and romantic relationships weren’t a topic they often broached in casual conversation.
For good reason.
When Amelia was a teenager, she’d spent four years in a committed relationship with the son of a prominent D’Amato family capo. No one aside from Amelia’s closest family and friends knew about Alex Passarelli, and as far as she was concerned, that particular secret could stay buried for the rest of her life.
“Huh.” Amelia tapped an index finger along the doorframe, wondering how far she could press into his dating life. “I guess you guys ended on good terms, then?”
As they slowed to a stop behind a sea of morning commuters, Zane rubbed his chin. “Something like that. We weren’t ever really together. It was just, you know…” He left the remark unfinished as he turned up the air-conditioning.
“Just fun?” Amelia was careful to keep her tone neutral and non-accusatory. She and Zane were both adults, and the occasional fling was normal for single people in their age group.
His eyes finally met hers. “Yeah. I met her on one of those dating apps. One of my friends back home kept telling me that online dating was a good way to get out and see some of the city. He wasn’t wrong.”
A howling sort of chortle slipped from Amelia’s lips before she could stop herself, but when she spotted the alarmed look in Zane’s eyes, she slapped a hand over her mouth until she could regain control. “I’m not laughing about you being on a dating app. That’s what all the cool kids are doing these days, anyway. I met an ex of mine on one of those things when I was stationed in Virginia. No, no, you’re fine. I’m just imagining what your profile must look like.”
With an exaggerated eye-roll, he gave her shoulder a playful shove. “Whatever, Storm. Yours was probably full of bad puns and dad jokes anyway.”
Slapping her hand back over her mouth, Amelia lapsed into a fit of laughter. “It was, actually. My intro line was, ‘Big, huge, enormous…I don’t like small talk.’”
Zane snorted. “Oh, I would have totally swiped that one.”
“I made it for the same reason your friend told you to make yours. I’d been living in North Carolina for years before the Army moved me to Virginia, and I didn’t know anyone or anything about the city. Modern problems and modern solutions, you know?”
Zane readjusted his seat, not stopping until he was leaning back a couple inches. “Speaking of modern solutions. It might be a year and a half before we get back to the office in this shit.” He gestured to the endless line of cars on the road ahead of them. “We’ve got plenty of time to figure out what we need to take care of while we wait for the prosecutor to get the paperwork over to the warden.”
The simple statement jerked Amelia out of the cloud of joviality and none-too-gently deposited her back in the real world, where she and Zane were trying to track down a corrupt Chicago PD detective who had appeared in more of Alton Dalessio’s child exploitation videos than Amelia could count.
“Right. Well, for starters.” She pulled a notepad and pen from the bag she normally carried. “We need to make sure that this guy doesn’t try to retaliate against any of the other potential witnesses from the Kankakee farm.”
His expression had turned grim. “You mean the Flores kids and Hazel Pomales.”
“Yeah, and all the others. They’re being monitored by the Marshals, but we’d better let the Witness Security detail know that there’s a Chicago cop out there who might be after them.” Amelia jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “The Marshals are a few blocks east of the prison. And we’ve made it.” She paused to check the nearest street sign. “Two blocks. You know what.”
Repositioning his seat until he was fully upright again, Zane glanced at her. “What?”
As she set the black and teal tote on her lap, Amelia grabbed her phone from the cup holder. “The Marshals are only a few blocks away. You’ve got the paperwork thing under control, right? Or do you need me for anything?”
He pinned her with a knowing stare. “Are you about to get out of the car and walk over to Dearborn Street?” He pointed to the upcoming intersection. “I can turn around here and drive you over there, you know. Or you can call them when we get back to the office.”
“First of all.” Amelia lifted an index finger. “I can probably walk over there as fast as you could drive there. And secondly, I might have to fill out paperwork for the Marshals, and it’ll be faster if I’m there to do it in person. When I’m done, I can just take the L and then grab a rideshare or a cab.”
“I get it. Divide and conquer. Good plan. We’re just sitting here at a dead stop anyway, and we’re only one lane away from the sidewalk.” With a grin, he pressed a button, and the locks disengaged with a click. “Go get ‘em, Tiger.”
Shoving open the passenger side door, Amelia raised her middle finger. Zane’s laughter followed her out into the warming afternoon.
With a quick wave to the driver next to Zane’s Acura, Amelia hurried around the front fender and sprinted to the sidewalk. Each step she took away from her friend and fellow agent came with a renewed dose of reality.
Somewhere in the city, a man sick enough to sexually abuse children on camera was going about his duties as a Chicago police detective. To call him a wolf in sheep’s clothing was a grave understatement.
She could dig and dig, could shovel through layers of corruption until her hands were blistered and bloody, but she wondered if she’d ever reach the other side.
Maybe not, but she’d be damned if she didn’t try.
Clenching her jaw, Amelia set off toward the Marshals office at a brisk walk.
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