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RIVER NYMPH excerpt

St. Louis, Missouri, February, 1876


It was not every night a crowd on the St. Louis levee got to see a female riverboat gambler. It for sure was not every night they got to see Clint Daniels lose his shirt as he sat across from her in the made-over salon aboard his stern-wheeler, The River Nymph.

The boat's long, narrow card room overflowed with goggle-eyed spectators of every stripe, from wizened wharf rats and hard-eyed harlots to staid tradesmen and even a few elegantly dressed bankers and other swells. The lower classes lined the bar at the far end of the room while the rich men sat around tables in the shadowy corners.

Bright lights from the St. Louis waterfront flickered through the windows, but every eye in the place was fixed intently on the center table. A large globe lamp overhead illuminated the players seated around its green baize surface-Clint Daniels, Ike Bauer, Teddy Porter...and the female.

Although no lady would ever set foot in a gambling establishment, she certainly looked like one, dressed in a pale green linen suit with dark green piping. The frilly lace collar of her white blouse peeped tantalizingly above the jacket's high neckline, caressing her slender throat. Rich chestnut curls were piled atop her head, where a tiny hat with a dark green feather perched. She had an arresting face with a slender nose, high brow and full pink lips. But the deep-set jade eyes were her best feature. If she knew every man in the place desired her, she gave not the slightest indication.

This was a very high-stakes game, five-card stud St. Louis style: first card down, next three up, last card down. Ike Bauer, who was the dealer, folded after the second round of cards. After the fourth round and final up card, Clint bet a thousand. The woman examined his cards and counted out a stack of bills from the obscenely large mound of cash in front of her. "Your thousand and two thousand more." Mrs. Delilah Mathers Raymond possessed a rich whiskey voice, even though she never touched a drop.

Teddy Porter stared at the globe lamp above him as if seeking a miracle to keep him in the game. The freight company owner was an obese man whose tiny mustache could not stem the flow of perspiration dribbling down his upper lip. "Damnation! I ain't got that much in my stack." Porter pushed his cards into the middle of the table and started to pocket his remaining few hundred dollars.

"You know better, Teddy. What's left of your table stake remains for the winner." Clint deliberately did not look at the fat man, but every spectator knew that Teddy Porter was within a hair's breadth of being turned into fertilizer.

Porter tossed the money into the pot, then pried himself out of his chair. "Now I know why men oughta keep women barefoot and pregnant." There were snickers of agreement from the bar.

Ignoring them, Mrs. Raymond fixed Porter with a calm stare, then said in that throaty voice, "A woman might find it difficult to deal a hand while nursing a child, sir. But I'm certain even a barefooted woman with a babe at each breast could separate a player of your...skill from his money." The room filled with laughter. Porter's sweaty red face glowed like the globe lamp overhead when she added, "As for handling cards with a bloated stomach, you could perhaps enlighten us regarding the difficulty?"

The laughter became raucous, drowning out the freighter's snorted obscenity. When he placed his meaty fists on the table and leaned across it, the woman's chaperone, a tall cadaverously gaunt man of indeterminate age, slid his hand inside his frock coat.

"Teddy," Clint Daniels said in a deceptively soft Southern drawl, "you started the mouthin' and you got bested. Hell, you know a man can't beat a woman in a barkin' contest. Take your whipping like a sport and leave...while you're still upright."

Porter hesitated for a moment, looking from Daniels to the thin man in the high starched collar. Unclenching his fists, he backed off and waddled out of the room.

Mrs. Raymond ignored his retreat. "I repeat, Mr. Daniels, two thousand to you...or should I say 'woof'?"

Clint threw back his head and laughed. " 'Woof' would definitely be the wrong language for a lady with cat's eyes." Her deep green eyes did not blink. "You have three spades up, same as me." The odds were getting better. "I'll just call your two thousand."

Bauer dealt the last down cards. Clint watched as she looked at hers. Damn, she's good. Absolutely no expression. After playing against her all evening, he expected she would give away nothing. He looked at his last card, his face revealing no more than hers.

"Well, since I'm still high, I'll bet..." Clint counted his remaining cash. "Seventeen hundred dollars."

"Call and raise five thousand." Her gaze was cold as ice.

Clint smiled. Well, that's what you get for playing poker with a beautiful woman. Mrs. Raymond was a professional, and she was doing what any professional would do. Hell, what he would do in her place. Having cleaned him out of his ten-thousand-dollar table stake, she raised. Since he had no money left to call that raise, he would have to forfeit the game.

"I'd love to play this hand, but at the moment I'm sufferin' from an obvious financial embarrassment." He shrugged carelessly and smiled at her.

Delilah Mathers Raymond tapped her delicate chin with one slender finger as she examined the tall gambler lounging so carelessly in his chair. She did not return the smile. His eyes were palest blue, almost gray, fathomless. Thick coarse hair the color of straw fell across his forehead. His jaw was firm and his chin possessed a slight cleft. The smiling lips could be either cruel or sensual, or both. Regardless of which, the arrogant clod probably had women from both sides of the tracks swooning over him.

Delilah was maliciously pleased to detect a few minor imperfections. A small scar in one eyebrow and another thin white slash that ran from the corner of his right eye an inch down his cheek. His patrician nose was slightly off center, too, probably broken in a fight over a woman. She had seen his type from Boston to New Orleans. Mrs. Raymond smiled inwardly. The way her luck was running tonight, perhaps someone might knock out a couple of those white beautifully even front teeth!

Damn but she detested Southern cavaliers! She had spent almost a decade holding her own against what they had done. Far easier to handle a bloated pig like Porter. At least he showed his bruised male ego rather than hide behind supercilious courtesy. She was determined to wipe the smile from Clinton Daniels' face.

"For shame, Mr. Daniels. Capitulate so easily? I have a proposition for you."

Clint's smile broadened into a full-blown grin. "A proposition? From a lady? This must be my lucky night."

"Not that I have detected so far." She stared pointedly at the empty expanse of table in front of him. "But that could change." Lady! Delilah knew no woman who played cards for a living was ever considered a lady, least of all by a Southern gentleman, even if he was a gambler. "Since you and I are the only players remaining in this game, I propose an alteration to the rules. I'll waive the ten-thousand table stake restriction so you may call my bet...if you so desire."

Though his face betrayed nothing, Clint felt a little rush of triumph. So, Gorgeous, you filled that flush. "All right, ma'am, I can arrange to have the cash--"

"No cash," she interrupted calmly. "I understand that you own this boat. I will allow you to call my raise with the deed to The River Nymph."

The room could have been a mausoleum. No one moved. The silence was absolute. Even old Timmy Grimes, the waterfront drunk, paused his whiskey glass halfway to his mouth.

Daniels tipped his flat-crowned Stetson even farther back on his head. The corners of his mouth lifted slightly. "Mrs. Raymond, your raise-in fact, all the money in the pot-isn't equal to the value of the Nymph."

Delilah counted out a stack of bills and handed them to her gaunt protector. Then she pushed the rest of her winnings into the pot, arching one brow in a dare. Her smile was contemptuous.

"All right, ma'am, we'll say that's close enough. Consider yourself called."

Delilah shook her head. "Oh, I think not, sir. I don't accept markers."

A collective murmur rustled through the card room. Clinton Daniels had been a fixture on the St. Louis waterfront for seven years. His reputation for fair play was legendary. As was his skill with cards and, when needed, a gun.

And this female had just insulted him.

Clint tipped back his chair and stared at the woman as if she were some curiosity in a freak show. He shrugged and motioned to a man behind the bar. "Banjo, please fetch Mrs. Raymond the deed." Banjo Banks, whose nickname was derived from the unfortunate bulk of his posterior relative to that of his upper body, scurried out of the salon.

In the silence that once again settled over the room, Clint decided that it was his turn to catalogue Mrs. Delilah Mathers Raymond as she had so thoroughly done to him earlier. As soon as their eyes met in the thickening silence, she averted her gaze. Calmly, she studied the flickering lights along the St. Louis levee revealed through the door Banjo had left open.

Clint was certain that she was not the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. But he was damned if he could recall when or where he had seen one better. Her hair was a rich brown-except when she turned so the lamplight streaked it with sparkling bursts of dark flame. Her face was that of a mature woman, perhaps in her late twenties. There was none of the pouty softness of a schoolroom miss. She possessed high cheekbones, a stubborn chin and a delicate nose-but it was the dark green eyes, the lush shade of river moss that held his fancy most. That and her slightly plump lips. Positively wicked, they begged to be kissed.

Clint nodded to Delilah's hand resting on the table. "I take it that you are a widow, Mrs. Raymond?" he said in a soft drawl.

Delilah twisted the simple wedding band. "Yes. I lost my husband during the war. 'Sixty-four."

"You must have been very young. My condolences, ma'am."

"I don't want your condolences, sir, just your boat." The tone of her voice was underlaid with a snappishness at odds with her earlier cool professionalism.

Daniels noticed. "I take it from your Eastern accent that your husband fought for the North."

"And quite obviously, judging from your accent-if you fought at all-you fought for the Rebels." Delilah struggled to control a spurt of dangerous anger.

"You just might be surprised," Clint murmured.

Banjo came barging into the room and hurried to the table. He handed his boss a sheet of heavy vellum. After glancing at it, he gave it to Delilah. She quickly scanned the document and then pushed it back for his signature. Clint shook his head. "Only if you win, Mrs. Raymond. And another thing," he added, his lips thinning, "Since you're such a stickler for details, I still don't reckon that the pot equals the value of my boat, so I consider this deed as calling your bet and a raise equal to the amount of the money you just passed to...?" He looked at the black-clad man towering protectively behind her.

"My uncle, Horace Mathers." She paused and moistened her lips. "Mr. Daniels, there is over thirty thousand in that pot-"

"And a prime shallow-draft stern-wheeler like the Nymph will go for over forty. Do you call my raise, lady?"

Delilah looked at Daniels' three up cards, all spades. She nodded to Horace, who tossed the stack of bills into the pot. The brunette looked her opponent squarely in the eyes. "Now you can consider yourself called."

Clint flipped over his two down cards, both spades, one the king. "King-high flush, ma'am." The tension broken, the spectators expelled a collective sigh.

Delilah turned over her two down cards, also both spades, one the ace. "Ace-high flush, sir. I believe I hold the winning hand."

From the moment that Horace had tossed in the money to cover Clint's raise, neither Clint nor the woman had bothered looking at the table. They had locked eyes and had never broken contact. His eyes were empty, even when he smiled. She almost shivered. But when the crowd broke into astonished cries of disbelief, Delilah deliberately allowed a fleeting spark of triumph to flash across her face.

Daniels registered no response. In fact, his eyes, intently studying her, remained devoid of any emotion; certainly they did not reveal the anger or sense of defeat she had hoped to glimpse. After a moment, he merely smiled that smile that did not reach his eyes, pulled the deed across the table and signed it with a flourish, then tossed it cavalierly on the pile of currency.

"Well, ma'am, you wouldn't accept my condolences, but I do trust you'll accept my congratulations." He rose, touching the brim of his hat, and turned to leave.

Delilah was furious. The bastard was patronizing her. Refuse to admit defeat, would he! She waited until he almost reached the bar. Then her husky voice stopped him. "Mr. Daniels, please don't leave just yet. I pride myself on being a magnanimous victor."

Her uncle Horace bent down and put his hand on her arm, whispering something, but she shook her head.

"I always like to leave my less fortunate opponents with something. How about one last bet, sir, a chance to win back a stake for another game? I'll bet a thousand dollars against the clothes you're wearing that I can beat you cutting for high card." The crowd was stunned into silence. No one up or down the river had ever heard such an outrageous proposition.

Clint cocked his head, studying the beautiful woman.

Delilah had expected shock or anger, but not curiosity...or was it disappointment? At least his eyes were now alive. She flushed, suddenly uncertain of her triumph.

Clint finally replied, "I'll accept your wager, ma'am, if you'll allow me to exclude my weapons and cigar case from the bet."

Delilah nodded woodenly. She had done what no professional ever did. What Uncle Horace had warned her not ever to do-let her emotions interfere with business.

Clint moved back to the table but did not take a seat. Delilah had not realized he was quite so tall. He picked up the deck and riffled it contemplatively. Then he handed it to Ike Bauer, who was watching from the sidelines. "Would you shuffle the cards?" When Bauer nodded, he looked over at Mrs. Raymond's protector. "If that's all right with you?" he inquired.

With a disgusted look at his niece, Horace agreed, eager to terminate the distasteful business. Bauer shuffled, then laid the deck on the table and stepped back. Clint nodded to Delilah. "Ladies first."

She drew a three of hearts and sighed with relief. This was one game she would be happy to lose. She had been a fool to taunt the hometown favorite into making the bet.

The room grew deathly silent when Clint flipped over a deuce. The crowd groaned.

But Delilah's whisper-thin voice echoed over the noise. "You may send the clothes to the boat in the morning, Mr. Daniels."

Her face burned and she could not bear to look at any of the people surrounding her, least of all Clinton Daniels. Delilah knew she had humiliated him. He represented the life she hated, but the man had nothing to do with her past. A hard lump formed at the back of her throat. She turned away, staring out one of the side windows, recently installed to turn the open hurricane deck into an enclosed salon. The winking lights from the city above the levee seemed to mock her.

Suddenly her attention was pulled back to the table by a soft thump.

Clint's hat dropped onto the pile of cash in the center of the table. Next came his coat, his waistcoat and a handful of shirt studs. An alarmed Delilah looked at his face with something akin to terror. "My God, Daniels, send the clothes tomorrow...or don't send them at all-I was just making a bad joke."

Clint shrugged off his shirt, revealing a muscular chest flecked with gold hair narrowing to his waistband. Smiling, he said, "I don't think so, ma'am. Remember? You never leave a table without collecting your winnin's...no markers."

The stillness remained palpable as he continued to undress. But everyone's hostile eyes fixed on her.

Delilah could not seem to stop staring at the cunning pattern of his chest hair until he bent down and yanked off his hand-tooled leather boots and socks. When he straightened up and reached for the top button of his fly, her face was flame red. She bit her lip to keep from gasping aloud. But she could not force her gaze away from his hand as he deftly unfastened his trousers and shucked them down his long legs. Calm as could be, he peeled off the last item, silk unmentionables which almost floated onto the pile of clothing littering the money-covered table.

Finally, he was newborn-naked, the most striking specimen of masculine beauty Delilah could ever have imagined. Like a Greek statue. Sinking her teeth into her lip with renewed vigor, she forced herself to look away from his coolly detached gaze. He was completely unconcerned about his nudity in a room full of people-in front of her. And why not? The rotter knew how humiliated she felt. He knew, too, that she had been fascinated looking at his body.

He casually slipped into the shoulder sling of his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson, picked up the small Colt Derringer that had been tucked in his waistcoat, then held up a cigar. "Do you mind?" he asked.

She shook her head in a daze. He fired up the stogie, then picked up his wallet, knife and cigar case. Clinton Daniels strolled out the door in an easy, long-legged gait, completely at his leisure, leaving pandemonium in his wake as the room exploded with furious whispers and muffled curses.







TRAFFICKSTOPPER excerpt

It all began innocently enough when Corrie and Cannon's old friends Bill Alred and TC were working security at a fancy party...

Chapter One

The women were young and blonde, beautiful enough to make Miss America jealous. They hung avidly on every word their older companions uttered. Soft background music wafted on the balmy Miami night air, punctuated with tinkling feminine laughter and the baritone hum of gentlemen's voices. A few couples danced on the large flagstone patio while others remained inside a great room the size of a modest cathedral.

The bartenders efficiently served up what TC called "frou-frou drinks" to the girls and pricy labels of hard stuff to the men. The array of curves spread around the room revealed an abundance of smooth pale skin barely covered by designer gowns. Here and there a young beauty draped an arm insinuatingly on a guy's shoulder. Some playfully fed elegant h'ordorves to their companions. Each paid rapt attention to the male voices and replied in soft murmurs to what was said.

"You'd think those old farts was smart as the friggin Dali Lama," Bill Alred muttered to his new security guard, Pete Wolosovich, a squat muscular man with a crew-cut and a uni-brow. His buzz cut was sprinkled with gray but not an ounce of fat shown on his body.

Pete ventured, "Bet they ain't rich as Johnny Fisk."

Jonathan Harold Fisk was the wealthy banker who had hired them as security guards for the party at his Spanish style mansion off Old Cutler Road. He paid well and it was one of the first jobs Al-Secure had landed since Bill and his friends formed the company the previous month.

"All I care about is the check we collect when this shindig is over." His eyes swept the crowd, checking for his other employees. Seeing the hulking frame of his partner TC, a tall rangy black man patrolling the balcony that encircled the great room, he said to Pete, "Take a swing around the patio and then check the cabana and the dock. We don't want any party crashers."

"Got it, boss." Pete took off.

Alred sent a quick text to TC, telling him to check the long hallway leading to the bedrooms on the second floor. He had an uneasy feeling about this gig. All of the girls were young and the men mostly middle aged or beyond. Dammit, I'm not a vice cop. If they're hookers, it isn't my problem.

His cop friend Frank Cannon might disagree and he knew for sure Doc Waterstone would. But building a business on a shoestring the way he, TC, Randy and Gwen had, they couldn't afford to be picky. The broads were dressed to the nines and dripping expensive jewelry. Then his troubled gaze settled on the youngest man in the room, a handsome dude with curly black hair sporting a wristwatch that would meet payroll for a month at Al-Secure.

Something about the guy was off. Like every other man in the place, he had a woman clinging adoringly on his shoulder, but he seemed to ignore her, his dark eyes roving restlessly around the crowd. Like he was watching everything going on.

Alred's phone vibrated in his pocket and he pulled it out, checking the text. It was from TC:

Get upstairs pronto! I think we got trouble.

Careful not to alarm the guests, Alred circled the perimeter of the big room, hastening his steps as he climbed the stairs. Thomas Collins, known to his friends as TC, or the Top Cat, had never been an alarmist. A former over the road trucker, he had proven himself to Bill during a desperate shooting situation when they first met. Alred spotted the larger man near the end of the long hall. That was when he heard sounds of a struggle and a woman's hysterical voice carrying through the heavy door.

"It's locked," TC said when Alred approached. "Should we break it? I can't make out the lingo, but that don't sound pretty, good buddy."

Alred cursed when he heard female sobbing and babbling in a foreign language as a man yelled in English. The sound of a fist smacking flesh made him pound on the door and say, "House security. Please open the door."

"Get the hell away and mind your own business," the man inside snarled, his voice slurred from too much booze or some less legit substance, but the feminine sobs continued, one weaker, higher pitched.

"There's two of 'em in with him," TC said.

"Break it," Alred replied. Although he was above medium height and muscular, he was dwarfed by his companion.

TC put his shoulder to the door and smashed the lock on the first hit. The door swung open and both men stepped inside. They saw two girls, the older one naked, kneeling on the bed, trying to restrain the man from reaching the kid, who cowered behind a heavy oak nightstand. The man was pushing Medicare age with a Jell-O-like paunch and spindly legs displayed beneath white boxers that emphasized his dead fish pallor.

Red faced, he screamed at the two larger men, "I'm a guest of Jon 's! Get the hell out of here or you're fired, you dumb shits!"

As TC moved closer to the bed, he replied, "If we get fired, we still won't be near as dumb as you."

Alred circled between the drunk and the little girl. God, she can't be more than twelve years old! She wore a Bo Peep kind of kiddy dress that turned his guts. Gasping in fright, she cried out in an alien language, perhaps pleading for help. Tears leaked from her wide blue eyes as she huddled against the wall.

The older girl on the bed wiped the blood from her cut lip as she looked from TC to Alred. On close inspection, she, too, appeared underage with her makeup smeared, mascara running and long blond hair tangled around her shoulders. Her expression appeared world weary yet defiant as she attempted to cover herself with her hands.

TC pulled a brocade coverlet from the foot of the bed and offered it to her gently as Alred said, "We won't let him hurt either of you, miss."

When she tried to respond, the drunk raised his hand, saying, "Not a word, you little bit-" TC spun him around, crushing his expensively manicured hand in a steel grip that brought a yelp of pain from the older man.

The girl wrapped the coverlet around her shoulders and nodded as she climbed off the end of the bed. She said in halting English, "Myself..." she touched her chest with one hand, "Don't care... Mila is sister. Too young." She shook her head. "Not do what he want."

TC pushed the drunk onto the mattress and glowered down at him. "Son of a bitch, you wanted a threesome with these kids!" he said, incredulously.

"Looks that way," Alred said through gritted teeth, battling his own instincts to beat the bastard till he looked like the skewered canapés downstairs. Instead, he grabbed a pair of expensive slacks and a silk shirt from a chair next to the bed and shoved them at the guy. "Get dressed, he said in a tone that made the man shut up and clumsily start to put on his clothes.

"What we gonna do, good buddy?" TC asked.

Sighing, Bill replied, "Let's see if we can get these two girls out of the house without disturbing the other guests. Put them in our van. You stay with them while I deal with this bastard and make a call for help."

"Fair enough. Give him a good whack for me-just to keep him quiet. Collins knew Bill Alred had been Special Forces and could disable an enemy effortlessly.

Bill waited while the trembling older girl put her clothing on. When she was dressed, he turned to her and asked, "What's your name?"

"Nadia."

"A pretty name. Your accent is foreign. Russian?" He made a stab in the dark.

She shook her head. "Ukraine."

"You're a long way from home," he replied with a sinking feeling building in his gut. He'd read about international human trafficking. This was way above Al-Secure's pay grade.

He glanced at the kid still crammed against the wall. "Can you explain to Mila we want to help you? We'll take you to a safe place. No one's gonna hurt you or her again."

"She studied the muscular man with the acne-scarred face and faded red-gray hair. His gaze was direct and she sensed that he meant well. "Take Mila. I-I must stay. For others. He hurt them."

"Who's gonna hurt them?"

"I think she mean the other gals downstairs," TC said, adding, "Bet none of 'em old enough to buy a drink."

"We'll get the cops here to arrest those men and help your friends," he said to Nadia. "You'll all be safe." As he spoke he pressed 911 and gave a quick report.

Nadia listened, knowing the police would come. She stepped over to Mila and spoke in Ukrainian, her voice soft, soothing as she pulled the girl up and enfolded her in an embrace. But when she tried to get the girl to accept Alred's outstretched hand, the kid started to cry again, hugging Nadia even tighter. Another rapid exchange ensued. It appeared obvious Mila wasn't leaving her sis.

With a resigned sigh, Nadia said to Alred, "I go. You...promise help others?"

"I promise." His voice was solemn as he told TC, "You do the honors while I start for the van."

As soon as the door closed, TC landed two swift punches, one to the man's paunch, the other to his jaw. "That's one for each of 'em. Damn, my knuckles hurt," he muttered, shaking his hand as the child molester crumbled to the floor, out cold.

He quickly caught up with Alred a ways down the hall leading to the back of the mansion where their company van was parked. As they reached the top of the narrow stairs, Nadia stopped. "In there," she said, pointing to a closed door.

Having no time to lose, Alred tried the knob, which he was certain would be locked. It was. "I'll get the bruises this time," he said to TC. This door took two tries, flying open to reveal two more young blonde girls dressed similarly to Mila, eyes wide with fright at the violent entry.

"Son of a bitch," TC muttered in disgust.

Alred said to Nadia, "Hurry, make 'em understand they have to come with us. I'm calling a friend. She'll know what to do, how to help you."

When Nadia entered the room, the girls ran to her, looking fearfully at the two big Americans. A rapid exchange followed between them with Nadia doing most of the talking. They followed Nadia and Mila into the hall and down the stairs as TC led the way and Alred followed, touching a number on his phone. When her soft voice answered, he breathed a sigh of relief. "Doc, it's Bill and we got big trouble on the security gig we had tonight. Underage girls from Ukraine. Whole bunch of 'em."

As they slipped out the back and headed across the big parking lot, he explained what they'd found.

"Just get the kids you've got out of there before the police arrive. There could be shooting. Their pimp must be on the premises and he'll have guards of his own. I'm on the board of Kristi House, a shelter for trafficked children. They'll care for them, even find a volunteer who speaks the language." She quickly gave him the address.

They were half way to their van when a man yelled from the side of the house. "Hey, you're stealing Arnoldo's girls."

A tall dark-haired guy in a cheap suit emerged from a bougainvillea hedge, flicking a cigarette as he spoke into a phone, then drew a weapon and pointed it at them.

Alred and TC shoved the girls behind a Bentley parked nearby. Using a Saab for cover, both men drew their Glock 17s. No use being in the security business if you weren't packing heat.

"Don't be stupid. The cops are on the way," Alred yelled as a shot whizzed by his head, puncturing a gleaming bright red MG fender behind him. As if on cue, they all heard a distant wail of sirens. The stranger was joined by a second man with a gun. Intent on holding onto Arnoldo's "property," both opened fire.

"We gotta get these kids outta here before they get hurt," TC said

Alred gave TC the address Corrie had provided. "Get them into the van and scoot while I cover you," Alred replied over the loud reports of gunfire. Hedges weren't bulletproof, so he sprayed a series of shots across them and was rewarded by a grunt. As he shoved a second magazine into his weapon, the van revved up and took off for the opposite side of the house where the circular driveway allowed wrong way access to the street.

By this time pandemonium broke loose inside the house. While guests dropped their drinks and rushed through the doors like rats escaping from a lab, Jonathon placed a frantic call to his lawyer.

A well built man of medium height with curly black hair and a strikingly handsome face yelled at the girls. "Follow me if you know what's good for you! Police will throw you in prison." Arnoldo Fuentes was their pimp. He knew how to handle emergencies. In spite of the noise and confusion, most of them did as they were told. Hearing the distant sirens getting closer, he had no time to drag the handful who ran upstairs to hide, although he did grab his favorite, Irena, by her wrist, glaring her into submission. Bitch would pay for that when they got away.

He herded the obedient majority to a side entry as his phone vibrated. His driver told him he was pulling up at the prearranged spot. The burley driver jumped out of the expensive stretch limo and helped his boss shove girls into a pair of wide open double doors. Fuentes pushed Irena toward his driver, then jumped in the front passenger seat, hissing, "Tarik, get that fucking door closed and hit it!"

Irena had other ideas. She pulled a small glittering blade from inside her dress as she wrenched free of the driver's grip. He raised his fist to knock her into the car, but before he could strike, she plunged the small blade into his chest, cutting a lucky pathway between two ribs on the left side, directly into his heart. He tumbled over with a startled gurgle. She ran across the parking lot, back into the house.

Cursing in Spanish, Arnoldo yelled to the girls in back, "Pull the damn doors shut while I drive!" Two of them did as Fuentes commanded while he climbed across the console and put the racing engine into gear. As the big limo glided down the driveway, several of the girls stared impassively out the back window at Tarik's dead body. The limo made it around the corner just before the flashing lights of two cop cars appeared.

Seeing their boss had taken off and Tarik lay dead, the two goons exchanging shots with Alred hit the bricks. One was limping thanks to Alred's lucky shot. He crumpled to the ground but the other man vanished in the expensive shrubbery. Alred caught up to the wounded man and kicked his automatic away. It skittered beneath a Mercedes as he stood over his prisoner.

"Police. Drop your weapon!" a deep voice commanded from the open door of a car emblazoned with the familiar shield of MDPD.


* * * *

"I wonder how Bill and TC's big night is going," Cannon said idly to his brother Jim as they sprawled across two well worn sofas in front of a flat screen that took up most of the wall in Jim's basement den, or "man cave" as his wife Meara called it. The ballgame was on commercial break. The Fish were losing eight-zip. Neither man was much interested in watching more.

Taking a long pull on his beer, Jim said, "Bet you're wondering a lot more how your doc's night is going. Hear from her lately?"

"No," was the terse reply as Cannon polished off his beer, indicating the subject of Corrie Waterstone was off limits. Jim knew that, not that it ever stopped him or any other of the family from sticking their noses where they didn't belong.

"Mom said the dinner with the Davidsons didn't go so good."

Cannon barked a bitter laugh. "That's a masterpiece of understatement if I ever heard one."

"Meara's friend Betty just broke up with some jerk. I think you'd like her. Why don't-"

"Will you quit with the matchmaking. I'm not looking for a date. If I needed one, I could get it without help."

Jim shrugged, muttering, "Goddamn rich people. Almost enough to make me vote for a socialist."

That brought a genuine laugh from Cannon. "Fat chance." Just then his phone rang. He slid it out of his pocket and checked the number, then answered. "Cannon here. What's up, Sarge?" After jotting a few words on the small notebook he was never without, Cannon signed off. "Gotta go. Murder at some fancy mansion down on Old Cutler."

"They ain't got any homicide cops they can call but you?" Jim asked, but being a MDPD uniform himself, he knew Cannon was on call for emergencies and lived for his job.

"This one's kinda interesting," he replied, picking up his shoulder holster and strapping it on. "Seems some hooker stabbed a guy at a very fancy party for the rich and infamous."

"So, a guy with more dough than brains gets offed. What's so unusual about that?"

"It may involve international trafficking and guess who was working security for the shindig? Al-Secure."

Jim whistled low. "Your buddy Alred's new outfit. Damn, he was in that mess with secret government defense contractors last year. I see why they called you."

"Gotta run. Thanks for the beer. Tell Meara I'm sorry I can't stay for supper."


* * * *

By the time TC had turned the four rescued girls over to social workers at the shelter, Corrie was on her way to the party scene on Old Cutler Road. Bill Alred had called a quarter hour earlier about another girl from the party who had stabbed one of her captors before the pimp escaped with most of them. Corrie told him to stall until she could make some arrangements.

As she drove, she called the MDPD director, an old friend with whom she'd worked on a human trafficking task force in liaison with the US Attorney's Office for Florida's Southern District. Once apprized of the situation, Director Hayes told her the girl would be handed over to a female officer from Special Victims. He promised to personally call the Human Trafficking Task Force and get the issue expedited. No one wanted to see a teen who spoke little English confined in a holding cell unless absolutely necessary.

Corrie thanked him, assured the girl would not be swallowed up in the maze of social services, but she was not certain how the police would handle the matter. The girl's pimp was dead at her hand. She thought fleetingly of calling Cannon. Decided against it. They both needed space after the debacle when their families had met several months ago. Shoving that disturbing picture out of her mind, she concentrated on driving the twisting, tree-shrouded road.

Something about the address Bill had given her was nagging at the back of her mind. When she saw the red flashers lighting up the night around the moss draped trees of the Spanish house, she knew why. The Fisk mansion! She was stunned. Jonathon was sole heir of a socially prominent banking family. Her late husband Paul had been friends with Jon and she herself had attended several parties at the lovely old place. How could a man such as Jon condone human trafficking? But according to Bill, it was true.

Bill Alred, a Special Forces vet who suffered from PTSD, had become her dear friend. He had certainly turned his life around over the past year. She scanned the grounds for his familiar face, but he was nowhere in sight. Serving on community task forces with Director Hayes allowed her to pass the crime scene tape with no questions asked.

She saw the body of a middle aged man lying in a pool of blood on the pavement near the porte cochere with an older uniform standing carefully nearby, preserving the integrity of the so-called murder scene for CSI techs. If you call a young girl defending herself from a man twice her size murder.

The cop walked over to her and said, "You Dr. Waterstone?" He had salt and pepper hair and a face like a sharpei sucking on a lemon. Corrie recognized an undercurrent indicating irritation that a civilian was messing in police business as he identified himself. "I'm Officer Herman. CSI should be here in a few. A homicide detective's supposed to decide what to do with the kid who stabbed the guy-and the other party girls waiting inside. He ain't here yet. Officer Burke's guarding the suspect and the rest. Security guy's upstairs with the EMTs who're patching up the john your pal decked."

"Thank you for the information, Officer. I'd like to speak with Mr. Alred and the girl accused of stabbing that man," she said, nodding to the corpse."

"You can talk to Alred, but you gotta wait for the detective to decide if you talk to the kid or her pals. Wouldn't do much good, anyways. Most of 'em either can't or won't speak English. Had a devil of a time getting the one who killed the pimp to hand over her knife." He pointed out a side entry to the house. "Be smart to wait inside. Techs and the suit should be here soon."

She had spent enough time around Frank Cannon to know "suit" referred to a detective. "Will someone from the Special Victims Bureau be here to help the other girls you're holding? They're all victims of sex trafficking."

"The others didn't pull a shiv and kill a man, Dr. Waterstone." Herman replied flatly. "Let's see what the detective and Special Vic officer want to do with 'em."

Corrie knew it would do no good to antagonize Herman. Trying to be conciliatory, she said, "I'll wait inside and speak with them when they arrive." She walked over to the port cochere but just as she reached for one of the double doors, a familiar van bearing a CSI crew pulled up and went promptly to work. A second police car drove in next followed by a beat up sedan that Corrie recognized immediately.

Her heart stuttered when she saw Cannon step out of his car, blond hair rumpled and suit jacket slung carelessly over one shoulder. Unshaven and looking as if he'd slept in his clothes, he was still heartstoppingly handsome. Any woman with 20/20 vision would feel a strong flutter, at least.

After getting out of her vehicle, a small, rather voluptuous female with a heavy plait of black curly hair gave Cannon a thorough inspection and obviously approved of what she saw. She must be the special vic officer, Corrie thought despondently. Strikingly attractive in a crisp uniform, she had the strong features and golden skin of so many Latina women. She and Frank walked over to where the body was being processed. Corrie watched Cannon take out his small notebook and start jotting information down as Herman gave it to him...

Corrie and Cannon once again are thrown together on a murder case, but this one has international implications. They unravel a huge human trafficking network reaching from the Ukraine to Miami. They also are faced with unraveling the knots in their troubled relationship. The wealthy society doc and the blue-collar cop face a lot of obstacles, not the least of which is the deadly enmity of a Russian Mafya chief who wants both of them dead.

 

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