To those around him, Paul Randolph had everything-a six figure income, a mansion on the boulevard, a beautiful wife, a high performance stock portfolio. He drove a Rolls-Royce, owned a private jet and a condo in Tahiti, had Sunday brunch with the governor, played golf with Supreme Court judges. His was a true rag-to-riches story, having grown up on a dirt farm in Kansas as a boy, then working his way through college by holding two jobs. He graduated at the top of his class and had his MBA a little over a year later. He took a job in what was then Hansford Mutual Financing, Limited and quickly rose through the ranks to become the youngest partner in the company's history.
Through his leadership, the company grew with leaps and bounds, and he easily filled the role of CEO when the position opened a few years later. He had expanded the company's holdings and weathered the times of recession when other companies were failing all around him, emerging as a giant in the financial world. The media haled him as the next Allen Greenspan, while his enemies admired his business sense and leadership. Charities throughout the west held him dear as a generous philanthropist. He donated money to fund schools, homeless shelters, and civic organizations.
Every Christmas, he held a charity ball in the Clairmont Resort, of which he owned controlling stock, to raise money for the local children's hospital, and every June, he personally gave out scholarships worth full tuition for four years to the institution of their choice to deserving graduates across the city. He was chairman of the board of Denver's Economic Council, a position which he had held with much success for the last four years, and was an honorary member of the University of Colorado's Alumni Association. His employees respected him as a fair man, his friends envied his success, and many believed that he would easily be a future governor or senator, if he so chose.
But few knew the true Paul Randolph, nor his little secret. By day, he was a successful entrepreneur and one of the most well-known and looked up to figure in Denver, but by night, he was the director of one of the largest criminal organizations in the country, with ties to the Russian mob, the mafia, and many of the American crime families. He wielded great power on the black market, buying and selling goods around the world. He owned interest in opium fields in East Asia, marijuana plantations in South America, and chemical plants in Mexico. He was a money lender to several crime organizations, and was a silent partner in several Swiss banks. He routinely bought and sold munitions of all kinds with little thought or care into whose hands the merchandise fell.
To those who knew the true man, Randolph was cold, calculating, and utterly ruthless.
"Ladies and Gentlemen. I thank you all for attending this special concert by the Denver Symphony Orchestra to benefit the widows and orphans fund of the Denver City Police Department. The officers of the DPD stand as a wall of protection between us and the evils of our society. They lay their lives on the line everyday to ensure our safety, sacrificing their own safety and sometimes, their very lives, for the greater good of those around them. They are true heroes, deserving of our highest honor and respect.
"But even as we lift them up and praise them, we must not forget that they are human too. They are fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. They have wives and children, families that depend on them and love them. And at those times when the unspeakable happens and an officer is called upon to give the ultimate sacrifice-their very life-those families are left behind with much grief and sorrow, and many times, without a provider. Yes, their families make a sacrifice as well, a sacrifice that can have dire consequences on their well being.
"We are here tonight to honor those who have fallen in service to this city by providing a way to support those left behind. And indeed, what better way can we express our gratitude to them then by ensuring that their families are taken care of? So, as you open your souls to the music presented tonight, I ask that you open your hearts as well, and contribute to this most important charity. And now, without further adieu, I present Ms. Catherine Caldwell and the Denver Symphony Orchestra. May you enjoy the show!" Applause roared across the symphony hall as a tall, blond woman dressed in black crossed the stage to take the microphone. She warmly shook the hand of the host, smiling brightly in the glare of the spot light. "Thank you, Mr. Randolph!"
Paul Randolph kissed her lightly on the cheek and gave the audience one last smile and wave of his hand before he exited the stage. Behind him, the conductor introduced the first piece of the program, an aria by Mozart. Randolph took the towel handed to him by one of the stage hands and wiped the sweat from his brow before taking a drink of the cup of water waiting for him on a side table.
"That was simply marvelous, Paul!"
He looked up to find a distinguished older woman wearing a very flattering blue evening gown heading toward him, followed by a bemused man in a tuxedo. He quickly set the cup back down and turned to greet his friends with a wide smile.
"I do am to please, Evie my dear." He took her hand and kissed it gently.
A rough cough sounded behind him, and he rose up to grin at the lady's companion. "Orrin! You did make it, after all," he said to the gentleman as he shook his hand.
"Surprisingly, the board meeting finished on time for once," Orrin Travis greeted his old friend warmly.
Evelyn Travis took her husband's arm and smiled up at him, a hint of mirth shining in her dark eyes. "A true miracle, indeed, especially considering that it was a performance evaluation of the field teams," she quipped.
"I'm sure it wasn't all that bad. After all, I've heard nothing but goods things about your boys, Orrin," Paul protested in good nature.
Travis snorted. "I'm afraid your sources are not telling you the truth, my friend. A greater pack of trouble magnets and misfits I've never seen the like!"
Evie swatted his arm gently. "Now, Orrin, that's not true. Why, in the last six months alone, they've managed to cut the firearms traffic through our city by ten percent, not to mention bring down one of the largest crime lords in the state." She turned to Randolph. "They're up for a commendation for that."
"Yes," her husband broke in, "but they also received an official reprimand, as well, and the city is still clearing the rubble left behind from the fire that burned down half a city block in the warehouse district last month!" He turned to his old friend with a mild look of distaste coloring his weathered features. "And do you know what their explanation was? They said, and I quote, 'the city was planning to demolish that section of buildings, as it was, and were tied up in negotiations between contractors. We did the city a favor by clearing those buildings, free of charge, and as such, the city should be compensating us'." He winced at the memory of that particular meeting with the team in question.
His head still ached at even the mention of the whole fiasco.
"Well, the city was going to tear those buildings down to make room for the new economic park planned for the area," his wife teased.
The judge raised his eyebrow at her in exasperation. "Don't make excuses for them," he sighed. "Sometimes I think I'm the assistant director of an elementary school instead of a Bureau of highly trained federal agents." He raised his eyes toward the ceiling and shook his head ruefully.
"But unorthodox problems sometimes call for unorthodox solutions," Paul reminded him before reaching for his water cup to take another drink.
Orrin smiled at his friend in agreement. "Yes, they do. And when it comes to unorthodox methods, those boys are the best. And I do have to admit, they get results. They took down the entire Finnich cartel in two months, something the FBI had been trying to do for years."
Paul raised his eyebrows at the other man over the rim of his glass for confirmation and shook his head in wonder as he set the glass back down. "Quite an accomplishment, especially for a team that has only been active for six months," he remarked with surprise. "I'm impressed."
"Yes, it is. I believe we can expect great things from those boys." Orrin agreed with a bit of pride.
At that moment, the music rose in crescendo, reminding them of where they were, and they glanced back at the stage behind them, a bit startled. "Oh dear," Paul grimaced before turning back to his friends and smiling apologetically. "You're here for the concert, and here I am tying you up backstage." He motioned toward the side exit. "Go on. Enjoy yourselves."
Evie gave the judge's arm a slight tug. "Mary must be wondering where we are right now." She looked back at her friend with a smile. "That was a marvelous introduction, Paul. Thank you for coming on such short notice."
Randolph gave her a slight bow. "Anything for you, my dear. But this wouldn't have happened without your efforts. I should be applauding you!" he protested.
Orrin smiled down at his wife and patted her hand gently. "She does have a wonderful talent for pulling these things off, doesn't she?"
Evie blushed and lifted a hand to her cheek in her embarrassment. "Go on, you two. And it wasn't as though I planned the whole thing on my own. I just gave the suggestion, and the committee took things from there."
Orrin tightened his arm around her shoulders in a slight embrace. "Yes, but who is the chair of the committee?" he chided her gently.
Paul laughed. "Just accept the compliment for what it is, Evie." He gently pushed them toward the door. "Now go on before you miss much more. I do know how much you enjoy the symphony."
"Are you not going to be seated yourself?" Evie asked, pausing in the doorway and looking back at him with a questioning frown.
"I have a few things to take care of back here first. But I will be out a little later, I promise you," he smiled in answer.
The judge reached around his wife and opened the door. "Then we should stop monopolizing his time." He turned back to his friend. "Are we still on for racquetball Saturday?"
Paul's smile widened. "I wouldn't miss it. I still owe you for the last game!"
Travis laughed. "You can try, my friend, you can try." He lifted his hand in a wave before following his wife through the door.
Randolph smiled and returned the wave before pivoting to head for the control room but was stopped by a hand on his shoulder. He turned to face the stagehand and lifted an eyebrow in question.
"Mr. Randolph, sir?" the young man asked politely, "You have a telephone call." He motioned toward one of the dressing rooms. "You can take it in there."
Paul frowned; then nodded his head at the boy before crossing to the room and entering. He gently closed the door before reaching for the phone sitting on the vanity, not bothering to take a seat in the plush folding chair in front of him. He lifted the receiver to his ear. "Yes?" he said softly.
"We have a problem," the gravely voice on the other end uttered shortly.
Randolph immediately recognized the owner and his features twisted into an expression of extreme displeasure. "You know better than to call me here!" He hissed sharply. "Take care of it. That's what I pay you for."
"Yes sir, but this needs your personal attention. Mr. Banning has been doctoring the books."
He ran his hand down his face. "How much?"
"I haven't had a chance to look through them thoroughly, but it looks like several thousand right now."
"That little b*****d! I can't afford this right now, not with the new supplier coming in next week," he growled and slammed a fist down on the vanity top hard enough to cause the mirror to rattle slightly. "You're right. I will take care of this myself."
"What do you want me to do?"
"I'll be there in an hour. Hold Mr. Banning until I get there. We'll sort this out then." He made to lay the receiver down, but paused. Oh, and Tony?" he said as an afterthought.
"Feel free to show Mr. Banning what happens to those who cross me. Just make sure that he is conscious and coherent for our little discussion."
"Yes sir!" the voice on the other end said gleefully before breaking the connection.
Randolph smiled coldly and placed the phone receiver back on the hook before straightening his tie and exiting the room. He found the stage manager in the control room, directing the lighting crew members, and tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention. "Carlotta? I'm afraid an urgent business matter has come up that I must attend to immediately. Will you give my regrets to Mrs. Travis for me?" he asked charmingly as he quickly slid back into his upright citizen persona, all traces of his anger well hidden from view.
"Oh sure, Mr. Randolph, I'll let her know. It isn't bad news, is it, sir?" the young lady asked in concern.
He smiled at the Hispanic girl and patted her arm. "Nothing I can't take care of. Thank you, my dear."
She smiled back brightly before her attention was diverted by one of her assistants, giving the older man time to slip out of the room. He pulled out his cell phone to call his chauffeur as he quickly and purposefully strode down the corridor and pushed through the exterior exit door, the smile dropping from his face to be replaced by a chillingly cold expression. "Harrison? Meet me out front. We have a business matter to attend to."
* * * * * * *
Antonio "Tony" Vitalis had literally grown up in the business of crime. His father had been a pusher for years, as well as a small time arms fence in Phoenix, and Tony had learned the trade at his knees. At the tender age of thirteen, he had hunted down and gutted the three gang members who brutally murdered his father, earning him instant fear and respect in the community. He joined a local street gang soon thereafter and quickly rose through the ranks to become leader after the former one was killed in a drive by shooting by a rival gang. Through his leadership, they won the ensuing gang war and viciously defeated their opponents to rule that area of the city for the next couple of years.
At seventeen, he dropped out of high school to focus on his 'career' after receiving a job offer from one of the local mafia men. Tony had a business head and natural leadership abilities, gaining him a reputation of efficiency and loyalty to friends, family, and employers. He proved to be shrewd, calculating and quite efficacious, traits his employers found especially beneficial, and he quickly rose from lackey to body guard to advisor.
When he suddenly found himself needing a new location after a nasty bit of business involving the now-deceased boyfriend of his little sister a few years later, Randolph, having met the man through a business connection, gave him an offer he couldn't refuse. Tony found that he liked Denver, and he quickly proved to be a very valuable asset to Randolph. As his holdings expanded, Randolph needed a foreman, so to speak, and gradually turned more and more control over to Tony. Together, they took the criminal world by storm.
As with any business, records of any transactions had to be kept and accounted for. Tony was a great manager, but did not have the time or the expertise to be accountant as well and thus hired Chester Banning, a small-time manager of a seedy little bank in the poorer part of Denver, to do it for him. Banning was a nervous, puny little man, with a receding hairline and thick glasses that only served to magnify his watery, beady eyes. His wife of fifteen years had divorced him because of his gambling troubles, and took him for everything he had, leaving the man nothing but his clothes and several thousand dollars in debt, not to mention a ridiculous alimony, while she ran off to New York with her lawyer.
Banning found himself caught between a rock and a hard place, as he also owed several local bookies a couple of thousand apiece, so he had jumped at the chance to make more money on the side and willingly turned a blind eye to the shadier dealings of the organization he worked for. He dealt directly with Tony, and knew of no one else in the 'company'. He was smart enough to realize that Tony answered to someone else, but frankly, he was afraid to even speculate who that might be.
The arrangement he made with Tony worked well for a few years until he had found himself in a bind and needing a little more money. He carefully skimmed it from Vitalis's accounts, and when he wasn't found out, gradually became a little bolder, took a little more money. But as it always does, the inevitable eventually happened, and he was caught.
Tony sat on the edge of the desk in the small, cluttered office of the old airplane hangar, cleaning his fingernails with the rather large switchblade he carried on him at all times. Chester Banning sat tied to a chair in front of him, his head drooping to his chest and his eyes squeezed shut from the pain of the bruises and knife cuts on his person. He was frantically trying to come up with a way to get out of this predicament, all the while wondering how he ever thought he'd get away with embezzling money from a criminal lord.
The noise of the unloading several crates of armaments from the back of an eighteen wheeler could easily be heard through the thin walls, providing a bit of distraction from the tense silence. The office itself was small, windowless, and filthy, with grimy walls and grungy floors, and a drop ceiling missing several tiles. An old, battered, metal desk occupied the center of the room, and the walls were lined with boxes and filing cabinets. A tall, metal storage cabinet filled the far wall, one of its doors hanging open and slightly crooked.
The hangar itself was not in much better shape, but that didn't really matter since this was only temporary storage. Tony's people would be by later in the morning to take the shipment to their permanent location outside of the city. It had been a last minute change brought about by the seller, but Tony didn't mind too much. One could never be too careful nowadays, especially with the new ATF teams prowling the city. But he didn't really worry about the ATF, despite the rumors about one team in particular. They just presented a challenge, made things more interesting for him, instead of being a true threat.
He had been beating the feds at their own game for years now; what was one more bunch of them?
He slid off the desk as he heard the large exterior door open and walked to the office doorway to make sure it was who he thought. He grinned back down at Banning, his white teeth a gleaming contrast to his tanned skin and dark hair. "Now we settle this," he sneered, taking great pleasure in the obvious fear that radiated from the captive man.
He stood back as the door opened to admit the tall, silver haired form of Paul Randolph. "Mr. Banning," he said, "meet Mr. Randolph, our boss."
Banning went sheet white and his eyes bugged out as he recognized the smartly dressed man in front of him. "M-m-mr. Randolph? Mr. Paul Randolph?" he squeaked.
Randolph merely gave the man a cold once over before quickly scanning the office, his features drawing into an expression of distaste. He turned back to his lieutenant, his displeasure clearly shining in his icy blue eyes. "Was nothing better available for this delivery? I understand that you would prefer to do business in neutral territory, Tony, but I do not want to give our business associates a poor impression of our holdings. It could lead to trouble in the future."
Tony nodded respectfully. "Yes sir, I know that, but we had to change the location at the last minute, and this place is really safer than most. There's not a place for the feds to hide for a hundreds yards all around and the power station next door provides interference for surveillance equipment. And this delivery is with someone we've dealt with for years."
Randolph focused back on him. "And the reason for the change?"
"Donnell's the one who asked for it. He's been spooked by that new ATF team, and keeps seeing feds around every corner. He would have backed out of the deal otherwise," Tony shrugged an apology.
Randolph's eyes narrowed. "Travis's new team. I have heard that they are very proficient. Do you think they will be a problem?"
His lacky shook his head. "Nah, they've just been lucky so far. I can handle them. And if they do interfere," he flicked his knife out with a snap, "I'll take care of them," he grinned malevolently, his eyes glittering with determination.
Randolph waved his hand in dismissal. "Yes, yes, I'm sure you will. Now to the business at hand. Show me the books."
Tony picked up a briefcase that had been sitting at his feet and opened it on the desk, pulling out two ledgers from inside. He opened both of them on the desk's surface, one above the other for easy comparison. "This is the one that I had," he pointed to the lower one, "and the other is the one I found in Banning's office safe. Both of these are tallies for the shipment we took in last month. The numbers he showed me say that we paid out fifteen grand for it, and made a little over twenty-two grand in profit. However, this book," he motioned to the upper one, "says that the actual profit was closer to twenty-three grand, making us about a thousand short."
Randolph examined the two books closely, flipping back several sheets. "What tipped you off?"
"That sell of weapons we made to the IRA in December. I knew those rifles were worth fifty grand easily by themselves, not to mention the grenades and the explosives, but the profit from the sales was only about fifty-five grand. I talked to some people, found that my numbers didn't agree with theirs, and I got to wondering why. Asked him about it, and got some double-talk, which started making me curious. So I did a little research and found some interesting information." Tony pulled a sheaf of papers out of the briefcase. "These are the deposit statements for a few bank accounts across the city. This one is registered to a Mr. Charles Billings, this one to a Clarence Baldwin, and this one to a Clay Brentwood. All three accounts had large deposits made on the fifteenth, the same day as the sale. When I totaled the deposit amount, it came to about three grand, which just happened to be the exact amount we were short by. It took some work, but I traced those accounts back to one Chester Banning. Got to looking deeper, and found that all three accounts were opened around July, and have had several deposits all coinciding with the dates of the last four big transactions. The total amount always tallies up to the same amount we were missing." He shook his head at Banning. "You should have covered your tracks better than that."
Randolph rifled through the bank statements, his expression neutral. He finally looked up at Banning, who was sweating profusely. "Your explanation?" he asked mildly, fixing the man with a deceivingly bland stare.
"Well, you-you see, Mr. Randolph, s-sir, I needed some money to p-pay off a debt to Little Monty, my bookie. H-he wanted his money and threatened t-to break my legs. I only borrowed a little, and I-I was going to pay it back, I swear!" Banning squeaked, his voice pitched high in his desperation to be believed.
"I'm sure you were," Randolph placated the little man with a belittling tone as he laid the papers on the desk and leaned back against it with crossed arms. He raised an eyebrow at Tony, who nodded in agreement.
"Yeah," the thug verified, "that part of his story checks out. He was moving the money into the accounts of several bookies across the city."
Randolph tsked and shook his head. "Terrible habit, my friend. Gambling leads to all kinds of trouble. You really should get some help."
"Yeah, join Gambler's anonymous or something," Tony agreed with a smirk.
"Then d-does that mean you're g-going to let me go?" Banning turned his wide eyes from Tony's malicious gaze to Randolph's disimpassioned face, hope filling his pallid, sunken features.
Randolph settled himself more firmly on the worn surface and propped his right elbow in his hand, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. "Well, now. You did steal from me, and I don't take kindly to thieves, Mr. Banning. I do believe some sort of punishment is merited. What do you think, Tony?"
Tony walked around behind the chair, flicking his knife open and closed all the while, before he stopped behind the man and leaned down to breath in his ear. "Yes, sir. We can't give our other employees the wrong impression about us-makes for bad PR." He grinned as Banning jerked around to meet his glittering black eyes, the man's own filling with horror before he twisted back toward the older man with a beseeching expression.
Randolph rested his arm on his leg and leaned the other arm across it as he studied the little man. "Indeed. In this line of business, to appear soft is a death warrant. I can't afford to lose face, you understand, especially with this new venture I'm trying to set up overseas. Therefore, punishment must be meted out and must be equal to the crime. What do you think I should do, Mr. Banning?" he asked calmly.
Banning licked his lips and swallowed harshly while glancing wildly around the room. "I-I don't know," he stated nervously. "I-I don't have much to offer, lost it all in t-the divorce. Don't own my house, and my c-car is old. B-but I know I could come up with something. Maybe borrow it from the b-bank?"
Randolph shook his head. "Now that would be robbing Peter to pay Paul, and you would still be in a bind. Besides, that just wouldn't set the example I need. I must give an appropriate warning to others that I am not to be trifled with. Tony, do you have any ideas?"
"We could give him a visible reminder, like maybe a nice, deep cut." The thug grabbed the accountant's hair suddenly and jerked his head back. He flipped his switchblade out and pressed it beside Banning's right eye, drawing a thin line of blood.
Banning trembled and whimpered in terror as all blood left his face. Tony flicked the knife closed and pushed Banning's head forward, then walked around in front of him and picked up a lead pipe that was laying on the floor, tapping it against the small man's leg. "Or we could break his legs."
"P-please, n-no! I'll do anything! Anything you want! Just please don't hurt me!" Banning begged, jerking his leg as far away from the pipe as he could while looking from Randolph to Tony with wide, imploring eyes.
"Don't hurt you?" Randolph raised an eyebrow at the quaking man before him. "But you have greatly hurt me. You were more afraid of a small-time bookie than you were of me. Do you realize what damage that will do to my reputation if this gets out?"
"I'm s-sorry. I won't do it again. I-I'll pay you back, I swear! Please, just give me a chance," the bank manager pleaded desperately.
Randolph studied the man for a moment before lifting his eyes to meet the gaze of his foreman. He nodded in decision and motioned for Tony to free the man. "Cut him loose."
Banning hiccupped and closed his eyes in relief as he felt the ropes fall away. Rubbing at his wrists distractedly, he looked up at Randolph with gratitude shining in his eyes. "You won't be sorry, sir. I won't let you down again!"
The crime lord stood and smoothed his jacket front before raising his cold, feral eyes to meet those of the timid mouse of a man before him. "No, you won't." He looked toward Tony and turned away with an air of finality.
Banning's breath caught in his throat as he suddenly caught the layered meaning of those words and he spun around in his chair to see the large thug pull a gun from the shoulder holster under his leather jacket and aim it between his eyes. "Mr. Randolph? Please, don't do this! Please!" he screeched.
A single gunshot roared through the night, causing the men in the hangar to pause in their work and look at each other warily before returning to their tasks. Inside the office, Randolph pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed lightly at a few dark stains on his sleeve while Tony replaced his gun in its holster and nudged the body in the floor with his foot in distaste. Randolph gathered the papers and placed them in the briefcase, then casually flipped through Banning's ledger, taking a closer look at the figures he had glanced at previously. He sighed. "I am disappointed in you, Tony," he said without turning around, his censor clearly heard in his tone of voice.
The thug shrugged an apology. "I'm sorry, sir. I know I should have caught onto him sooner, but what with the increase in sales this winter, and the need for tighter security with the new feds out there, I was stretched pretty thin."
The older man turned to face him. "We can't afford mistakes like this. This is a cutthroat business. When my associates get word of this, they may get the wrong ideas." He stared at his manager piercingly until the other man turned away in contrite. He placed the ledger back into the briefcase with the other. "How are the negotiations going with the new supplier?" he asked as he shut the case, effectively changing the subject.
"They are going very well. He was impressed with our record and with our merchandise. He is definitely interested in doing business with us. He'll be here next week to look over our operation. If he likes what he sees, then he said he would seal the deal." Tony answered.
"Good, good. This deal means a lot to me, Tony. It would prove to be very lucrative and advantageous to both of us. I have wanted to break into the European market for a while now, and he has wanted an outlet on the west coast. Hammings is a big deal in Europe. To be aligned with him would gain us much influence and power. I will not allow anything to mess this up," Randolph warned.
Tony shifted uneasily. "I understand, sir. This incident won't happen again."
His employer nodded. "See that it doesn't." He drummed his fingers on the briefcase; then sighed. "I suppose we'll need a new accountant, now, especially before the meeting with Hammings. It is going to be troublesome to find someone dependable on such short notice." He pinched the bridge of his nose tiredly.
"Maybe not, sir," Tony spoke up. "We have a new guy working for us, Miles Walker. He helped me out in this incident. He's good, sir, real good. He's a whiz at accounting."
Randolph looked up at him sharply as he dropped his hand to rest lightly on the case. "How long has he been working for us, and is he trustworthy? I do not want a repeat of this matter."
Tony flinched slightly at the thinly-veiled reprimand but continued on. "He's been with us for about a month. He's good. He's originally from Miami, got his degree down there, worked for some big company until he got caught covering up for his employers. Lost his license and spent a couple of months in prison. He got out and headed out here looking for a new start. He was working for Carnelli when I met up with him."
Randolph tapped his finger against his lips thoughtfully. "Carnelli? That's the pawnshop owner over on 5th and Carver?" Tony nodded. "He recommended this man?"
Tony again nodded. "Yes, sir. We've been doing business with Carnelli for years. When I told him about my suspicions about Banning here, Carnelli sent me this guy."
"And you said this man knows his work and knows how to be, shall we say, discrete?"
"Definitely. He's a regular wizard with a computer and financial documents. The only reason he got caught in Miami is because his boss turned him in to save his own hide."
Randolph nodded. "When can we get him in here?"
Tony smiled. "He's already here. I had him oversee this shipment while we took care of this business."
Randolph returned the smile and motioned for the door. "Well, then. Let's go meet Mr. Walker."
Tony opened the door and they stepped out of the room, paying no heed to the body on the floor.
* * * * * * *
A few seconds passed after they left before the crooked door on the storage cabinet slowly eased open. The girl hiding inside peered cautiously out from the murky depths; then pushed the door open wide enough to slip through. She pointedly avoided looking at the body and the growing puddle of blood on the floor, her stomach unsettled and her face pale from the shock of what she had witnessed.
She had been looking for a warm place to spend the night out of the cold rain and had slipped into the building by way of an old forgotten window in the back in the early hours of the evening. When Tony and his men had entered the building, she had quickly ducked into the office to avoid discovery, trying to find a back exit. She had hidden in the cabinet when Tony dragged Banning into the office, tied him to the chair, and called his boss. Trapped in the cabinet, she was an unwilling bystander to the following beating and torture of the man and the meeting with Randolph. She had hunkered down in the far corner of the dark space, having a clear view of the desk and the drama unfolding beyond, praying all the while that she did nothing to reveal herself. She had been horrified when she realized what she was about to witness, but knew there was nothing she could do that would not result in her own death. She squeezed her eyes shut tightly and had bitten down on her finger when Tony pulled the gun. She jerked with the shot, but had not given herself away. She sat trembling in the dark, trying to distance herself from what had just happened and waiting for them to leave so she could make her escape.
She pulled her scruffy backpack from the floor of the cabinet and crept to the office door, peaking out into the main room at the group of men a scant fifty feet away. Shadows lingered in the corners, and she realized that this would probably be her only chance to escape without detection. She looked back into the room, catching sight of the body and quickly pulling her gaze up as her stomach again rolled rebelliously. "Not now! Get control of yourself, Ally. Get out of here first-then you can fall apart!" she commanded herself angrily. She once more looked around the room, hoping that an alternate exit would magically appear and sighed when none presented itself. "Front door it is, then," she muttered. Her gaze fell on the briefcase laying on the desk, and on impulse, she grabbed it up. "I may not have been able to stop this," she whispered to herself, "but I can do something to make sure they pay for it!"
She moved to the door and took one more peak out before hitching her bag higher up on her shoulder. "Here we go," she muttered and slipped out into the main room. She was almost to the exit when the shouts from the group of men caused her to spin around in surprise. When she realized what was about to happen, she frantically looked around for something, anything she could use as a distraction. She spied a pile of oily rags and several old jugs and tools lying beside an old broken down cart across from her, while a ladder leading to a low hanging catwalk that stretched across the room lined the wall nearby. She picked up a jug and smelled the contents, then eyed the catwalk, a hazy plan forming in the back of her mind. She stashed the briefcase and her bag underneath the cart, grabbed a couple of rags, and began to climb the ladder. "I am not going to witness another murder tonight!" she vowed fiercely as she stepped onto the catwalk. She stuffed a rag into the top of the jug and fished in her pocket for a book of matches. With her cocktail in hand, she strode determinedly toward the scene unfolding beneath her.
The man known as Miles Walker stood at the back of the trailer, clipboard in hand, as the last of the crates were lifted to the ground. His cool green eyes scanned the hangar for the hundredth time that night, cataloguing sights and sounds and faces to be recalled later. He pointedly tried to ignore what was going on in the office, silently praying that what he knew was about to happen didn't occur. He was sickened by the thoughts of the small part that he played in it and the fact that he could do nothing to stop it, but sternly reminded himself it was not his actions that led to this-it was Banning's and he was not responsible in any way. Of course, that wouldn't stop this night from haunting his dreams.
He sighed inwardly. There were aspects of this job that truly weighed a man down.
Outwardly, he remained cool and detached, looking slightly bored and focused on his current assignment instead of the closed office door. He knew that Tony answered to someone else, and assumed that was who he was waiting for. He had hoped for a look at this person, but had been inside the trailer when they arrived. When the shot echoed across the hangar floor, he shut his eyes momentarily, a grim look stealing across his face, but he quickly smoothed it away and ordered the men back to work.
A few minutes later, he was slightly startled to hear his name called out, and looked up in surprise. "Yes, Mr. Vita-" His words died in his throat as he recognized the figures coming toward him. The blood drained from his face and his heart froze as he found himself staring into the startled, wide blue eyes of Paul Randolph. He muttered a quick curse.
His cover had just been blown to smithereens!
His mind was flying, trying desperately to find a way out of his current predicament with his hide intact. "Why, Mr. Randolph. Fancy meeting you here," he drawled. He dropped the clipboard to the ground and held his arms slightly away from his side, a sardonic smile curling on his lips.
"Standish!" Randolph exclaimed hoarsely in shock. Travis had introduced him to his new team back in August at the initiation ceremony held to officially swear in the newest members of the Denver law enforcement community, and he instantly recognized the man before him. He whirled around and grabbed Tony's shirtfront. "You idiot!" he yelled. "That is no small time hood! That is Ezra Standish! He's one of Travis's men, you fool!"
Tony stumbled back out of his boss's grasp in surprise. "W-hat?" he stammered.
Randolph rubbed his forehead distractedly; then turned back to his lieutenant. "He's a fed! He's a ***d**n fed! And you let him waltz right in here! You said you had it covered!" he shouted.
"I did!" Tony shouted back. "He checked out, I swear he did! Carnelli vouched for him!"
"Well, somebody messed up, because there he is!" Randolph paced back and forth for a few moments before finally getting control of himself. He stalked up to Ezra. "How much do you know?" he demanded.
Ezra stared back at him passively and shrugged. "I know many things. I attended some of the finest schools in Europe during my youth and have a MBA from Harvard. What do you want to know?" he asked mildly.
Randolph's hand whipped up with lightening speed and he slapped Ezra hard across the mouth with enough force to nearly knock him off of his feet. "I'm asking about my business," he growled.
Ezra reached up and tentatively dabbed at the corner of his mouth, frowning at the blood that marred his finger tips. He gazed dispassionately at the man in front of him. "What does it matter? You are going to kill me anyway," he returned; then winced. 'That's it, Ezra. Antagonize the man who holds your life in his hands,' He cursed himself silently.
Randolph turned back to Tony. "Send some men out to look around. Make sure that no one else is here." he ordered. He turned back to the men standing in a loose circle around them, their guns drawn and pointed at the undercover agent. He motioned to the two nearest the agent. "Bring him into the office," he commanded as he stalked into the room himself, not looking back to see if he had been obeyed.
One of the big thugs grabbed Ezra's arm in a bruising grip and half-dragged him into the office, Ezra's protests echoing loudly across the space behind them. As they entered the office, he jerked his arm away. "Unhand me, you ignoramus!" He growled, straightening his jacket in annoyance. He saw the body of Banning lying in a pool of blood and grimaced slightly before pulling his gaze up to glare icily at Randolph. "You, Sir, are surrounded by barbarians."
Randolph's eyes narrowed but he ignored the comment and instead glared at the thug behind the agent. "Search him," he barked. The man handed his rifle to the other guard behind him, then slammed Ezra against the wall hard enough to cause his head to bounce off the drywall and used his foot to force him to spread his legs out and lean against the wall on his hands.
He proceeded to pat him down, pulling a pistol from his shoulder holster and a Sig from the small of his back. He also found the small gun in the ankle holster, much to Ezra's disgust. He laid the firearms on the desk, then jerked Ezra's jacket off before he shoved the man into the empty chair brutally, almost tipping him onto the floor. "Was that necessary?" Ezra snapped as he barely regained his balance and rubbed his arms gingerly while glaring up at the man.
The guard just shrugged as he began slicing up the seams with a knife in search of wires before dropping the remains into the dark puddle on the floor. Ezra shook his head as he watched yet another fine article of clothing come to an untimely end. 'The things I sacrifice in the line of duty,' he thought in disgust. The thug pulled the agent's head forward and felt along the collar of his shirt, then ripped said shirt open to the waist. "Hey!" Ezra yelped in protest as buttons flew in all directions. "This is a $100 Moschino shirt you're abusing!"
The man ignored him and reached down to pull the undershirt up to make sure that no wires were missed. Ezra jerked the shirt down out of his grasp. "I'd thank you to TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF of my person!" he snapped indignantly.
"He's clean, sir," the guard stood back and addressed his employer respectfully, taking his gun from the man beside him and aiming it point blank at the back of his captive's head.
Ezra glowered at him as he straightened the collar of his shirt and rebuttoned the remaining buttons on the front, very aware of the gun barrel inches from the side of his head, but paying it little attention, focusing instead on his surroundings. He knew they wouldn't find any surveillance equipment on him, just as he knew they wouldn't find anyone outside. He was on his own in this one. 'As always,' he thought wryly.
'Now that's not being fair,' another voice in his head argued back, sounding suspiciously like Josiah. 'Chris has had someone on watch whenever he could. The change in plans tonight didn't give him enough time to set something up.'
Ezra was forced to concede that point, but then another voice spoke up. 'Yes, but if he truly valued your personal well-being, he would have found a way. You are just an expendable commodity,'-this voice sounded very much like his mother.
He snorted to himself. 'Oh, wonderful. My cover has been compromised, I'm literally up to my neck in s**t, for lack of a better term at this moment, and about to be liquidated, and here I sit having a mental argument with Josiah and Maude in my head, like the proverbial angel and devil shown in animated television.' An absurd picture of Josiah in a white robe with a harp and a glowing halo about his head, and his mother dressed in a skintight red leather jumpsuit with a long forked tail and holding a long red pitchfork flashed across his mind, and he rolled his eyes at himself. 'Well, that certainly proves it. My teammates have driven me completely and unutterably insane!'
His attention was drawn back to his current predicament when Tony entered the room. "There is no one there, sir," he reported submissively before taking a place beside the open door.
Randolph ran a hand down his face before turning back to Ezra. "Now, what do we do with you?" he asked as he finally calmed himself down and leaned back on the desk with crossed arms.
"Let me go?" Ezra suggested hopefully.
Randolph shook his head. "No, I'm afraid that wouldn't be prudent. You know too much. I can't have you reporting back to Travis, now can I?"
Ezra smiled up at him pleasantly, his gold tooth catching the fluorescent light above. "Ah, but what if I pledged to keep all knowledge of your more nefarious activities to myself?"
Randolph laughed. "Promise not to tell? And what would that cost me?"
Ezra cocked his head and tapped his lips with his forefinger, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Oh, no more than twenty thousand, deposited in my personal Swiss bank account. And maybe a new mode of transportation. The mileage on my jag is becoming rather high." He smiled up at the man brightly.
Randolph raised an eyebrow then chuckled again. "I had heard the rumor that you could be bought. Though I believe the amount I heard you took in Atlanta was thirty grand."
"A discount, I assure you." Ezra remained nonchalant outwardly, but inside he flinched at the implication. Would he ever be able to escape his past? he wondered a bit morosely.
The crime lord slipped his hands into his front pockets and eyed him thoughtfully. "Being a close, personal friend of the assistant director of the ATF does have its advantages. I know he has a special interest in your team, had Larabee in mind when he hatched his plan. I also know that he was very concerned when Larabee wanted to add you to the team, especially when he saw your records and heard about the rather nasty business in Atlanta. One can't help but wondering if there were any truth to the stories, even if no substantial evidence was ever found. After all, all legends are started with some grain of truth, aren't they?"
Ezra only shrugged. "I suppose so," he replied.
Randolph continued to regard him with some amusement. "The stories about you say that you are a maverick, that you hold allegiance to no one, that you are an arrogant, pompous, insubordinate b*****d who would sell out his own mother if the price was right. I have to admit, it does make me wonder what Larabee ever saw in you."
"You and me both, dear sir," Ezra agreed as he sat back in the chair and crossed his ankles, folding his hands over his stomach. He presented the man before him with one of his infuriatingly insolent smiles. "I suppose it just gives ample evidence that Larabee is a bigger fool than he appears." His smile widened. "So, do we have a deal?"
Randolph burst out laughing. "You really are a pretentious son of a b***h aren't you?" He pulled a white silk handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at the corner of his eye, then held it at his lips as he regarded the agent before him intently. "I think not," he said slowly, putting the handkerchief away and pushing himself up from the desk to walk around Ezra's chair. "There is something about you that worries me."
He stopped directly in front of the smaller man, the mirth dropping from his eyes to be replaced by a glint that was decidedly chilling. "You are not who you seem to be, Mr. Standish, and I am not willing to chance betrayal. I would prefer to behead the snake and make sure that it cannot come back to bite me when my back is turned. I have too much at stake." He turned to his lieutenant. "This is your mess, Tony, and you will clean it up. Take care of Mr. 'Walker' and dispose of the bodies somewhere out of the way. Preferably somewhere that will not get back to me." He favored the man with a piercing stare, a frown of disproval marring his stately features.
Tony averted his gaze. "Yes sir, I won't let you down again."
"See that you don't. I will not tolerate mistakes, Tony. You have been warned." Randolph glanced at his watch. "I must be getting home. I'll take the ledgers with me. Come to the house when you are finished here," he commanded.
"Yes, sir." Tony motioned for the two guards to pick up the late accountant's body while he grabbed Standish's arm and pulled him to his feet, pressing his gun to his ribs. "Let's go for a ride, shall we?" He began dragging the agent toward the door, pausing as the two thugs manhandled the body through the opening.
Ezra glanced down at the gun digging into his ribs and licked his lips, his mouth dry. "I'd rather not," he drawled, frantically trying to think of a method of escape as he scanned the room once again, vainly looking for anything that he could use.
Randolph turned to pick up the forgotten briefcase from the desk and froze with his hand in midair when he noticed it was gone. "Tony? What happened to the ledgers?" he asked sharply.
Tony turned back in confusion, slightly averting the gun from Ezra's side as he did so. "What?"
Suddenly, the room was rocked by a loud explosion just outside the door. A few ceiling tiles fell with a crash, and a shelf toppled over, sending it contents to the floor as smoke billowed into the room. Randolph ducked down beside the desk in surprise, while Tony and Ezra both stumbled backwards from the doorway. "What the-" Tony coughed.
Ezra didn't have time to wonder what had happened-he just sent a quick prayer of thanks skyward and took full advantage of it. In the instant after the explosion, he was jerking his arm out of the larger man's grip while spinning him into the wall with the other arm. Tony slammed face first into the hard surface with a surprised grunt. Ezra pressed his advantage and whirled into a roundhouse kick to the head that his old sensei would have been proud of.
The thug collapsed to the floor in a heap.
Ezra quickly pulled the gun out of his grasp and slipped out the door. Randolph looked up in time to see him disappear into the smoky exterior and stumbled to the opening, his eyes watering and his chest heaving. "He's getting away!" he screamed at the scattered men outside.
Chaos reined in the hangar as men scrambled to contain the blaze. After pitching her homemade bomb at the office door, Ally had taken off back across the catwalk in the direction that she had come. One man noticed movement above him and shouted a startled" hey you!" before letting loose with a spray of bullets from his assault rifle. The girl jerked as bullets pinged around her and without second thought, vaulted over the side. She dropped two stories to land in a graceful tuck and roll in the aisle below. She was instantly on her feet, running flat out and weaving around the various crates standing in her path. Several men took off in chase, firing wildly at her.
Ezra didn't notice any of this, as the hangar was still smoky and he was too intent on his own survival. He eased his way down an aisle, listening careful for sounds of pursuit. He peaked around the corner, then quietly slipped up behind the man standing with his back to him and slammed his gun butt onto the man's head.
The man slid bonelessly to the floor.
Ezra dropped to one knee, holding his confiscated gun up while he rifled through the man's pockets with his other hand in search of more ammunition. He heard a noise behind him and spun around to find another thug grinning down on him with a large semi-automatic pointed at his head. Ezra stood up slowly and lifted his arms into the air, holding the pistol upside down in his hand in a non-threatening position. "I don't suppose we could negotiate this?" he asked hopefully.
The man's evil smile grew wider and he shook his head no as he raised the gun to point it directly between Ezra's eyes. Ezra's breath caught in his throat as he stared down the black barrel of the gun before looking into his soon-to-be assassin's gleaming eyes. The man slowly began to pull back the trigger-then inexplicably stopped suddenly before his eyes widened in confusion and rolled up in the back of his head. He dropped to the floor with a thud.
Standing over him was the girl, breathing hard, a large pipe in her hand. She looked up at Ezra. "Come on! This way!" she motioned for him to follow her then took off back the way she had come, dropping the pipe as she went.
Ezra stared at her in shock for a moment, trying to figure out just where the h**l she had come from, but nearby shouts broke him from his reverie. He stepped over the fallen man with barely a glance at the hulk and sprinted down the aisle behind her.
His first priority was to get out of the building alive-he could figure out that mystery later.
They crept away from the loading dock, sticking to the shadows as they eased silently through the aisles, like ghosts. They came to a wide open area and paused a moment to catch their breath and clear the smoke from their lungs. The exit beckoned them enticingly from across the expanse, but little cover lay between them and it. The girl looked up at Ezra and raised an eyebrow-he responded with a slight shrug. She took a deep breath and started across, Ezra hot on her heels. Unfortunately, one of the gunmen turned at the same moment and spotted them. "There they are!" he yelled as he opened up his weapon.
Ezra and the girl dove in opposite directions, and he hit the ground in a roll, coming to his feet in one quick movement and sliding behind a crate. He fired a couple of shots back towards the gunman, while trying to see where the girl had gotten to, but was distracted by another storm of bullets ricocheting around him. He cringed down beside the crate as large splinters and chunks of wood rained down on him. He quickly jumped up and fired a few more rounds before sliding back down in his position. He checked the rounds left in his gun and grimaced as he found three bullets in the clip. "Frying pan into the fire," he muttered to himself as he peaked around the corner of the box. Seeing an opening, he jumped to his feet and sprinted across to the next crate a few yards away, diving down behind it just as a hail of bullets filled the air space he had occupied seconds before.
Tony stumbled out of the office with his boss on his heels. "What the h**l happened out here?" he yelled as he rubbed his head gingerly.
"Some kid threw a firebomb from the catwalk, sir!" the gunman who had raised the alarm answered smartly.
"A kid? Where the h**l did a kid come from?" Tony asked in disbelief, his hand dropping to his side.
Randolph grabbed his arm and spun him around to face him. "You said the place was clear! First Banning, then Standish, and now this?! You are becoming frighteningly slipshod, Vitalis!" he growled menacingly.
"I'll take care of it!" Tony snapped back, jerking his arm out of the other man's hold.
A shout directed their attention to where Ezra and the girl had been spotted. He watched as his men fired continuously at the area, and stalked in that direction to take command.
Ezra crouched down in his hiding spot, running through his limited options mentally. A strange smell penetrated his thoughts, and he sniffed the air suspiciously, a feeling of dread creeping up his spine at the alarmingly familiar scent. He looked up at the wall behind him and his heart plummeted into his stomach as he realized what the pipes running the length of the surface carried. A slight hissing sound and the strong odor indicated that said pipes were leaking. "Oh l**d," he breathed as he scrambled away from them as quickly as possible.
As Tony reached his men, another shout of "There he goes!" directed his attention to the far wall, even as the gunmen again began spraying the area with bullets. His eyes widened as he caught sight of the gas lines and meter. "Stop!" he screamed, but he was too late.
A large explosion ripped through the building as the bullets tore into the pipes, igniting the natural gas inside.
A wall of heat knocked Tony and his men to the floor as flames began racing across the floor. Tony sat up groggily, surrounded by groaning and scorched men. He stumbled to his feet as the fire quickly grew in intensity and smoke filled the building. Though the protective measures put in place on the gas line kicked in instantly, cutting off the gas feed, the fire had already taken hold of the old, brittle wooden framing of the building and the debris lying on the floor and stacked along the walls, the flames consuming anything in their path. He glanced toward the crates that had just been unloaded that evening, and fear froze his veins as he saw the flames surrounding them, slowly advancing toward them. He turned and raced back to his boss, shouting at his men to get out. Randolph climbed to his feet as Tony reached him. "Where is he?" he shouted furiously. "Get Standish!"
"We don't have time for that!" Tony shouted back. "The fire is headed toward the shipment! There's gunpowder and explosives in those crates! We have to get out of here before this whole place is blown to bits!"
Randolph looked back toward the crates and cursed in fear. He and Tony began running for the only clear exit across the building, their men stumbling after them and the fire closing in from all sides.
The ball of heat knocked into Ezra even as he dove across a pile of old pipes and boards, and he literally flew across the heap and slammed into the wall beyond. He lay on his stomach on the floor in a daze for a few moments, the breath knocked out of him. He felt hands turning him onto his side, and he looked up into the clear and watering blue eyes of the girl. "Get up! We have to get out of here now!" she wheezed as she helped him to his feet and pulled him further into the hangar and away from where the others had ran.
He balked, pulling in the opposite direction. "The exit's this way!" he shouted over the roar of the flames.
"It's blocked by the fire!" she yelled back. "There's another way out this way! Trust me!"
Ezra looked into her eyes for a moment and was drawn by the intensity he saw there. He then glanced back at the fire and saw the crates of ammunition in its path and quickly scrambled after her. He followed her through the shadows, even as the fire grew behind them. Just when he was about to protest again, He saw it-an old window about twenty feet in front of them. The glass had long been broken out and the opening boarded over, but he could see that some of the boards had been recently pried loose. He raced up to it and quickly knocked the remaining covering to the ground outside before boosting himself into the opening and dropping to the ground below.
He immediately turned back around to help the girl through-but she wasn't there. He stuck his head back in the window to spot her on her knees beside an old cart several feet away, trying to reach something underneath. "Come on!" he shouted.
"Just a minute!" she poked her tongue out the side of her mouth as she continued to grope underneath the cart. She hadn't thought she had pushed them so far back!
"We don't have a minute! When the fire reaches those crates this whole place is going to blow!" Ezra yelled back furiously.
Just as he was preparing to re-enter the building after her, she pulled a black backpack and a battered briefcase out and leaped to her feet. He stood back as she tossed them both out the window and scrambled after them. She scooped them up and raced toward a small opening in the fence across the muddy parking lot, Ezra hot on her heels. She slid through the hole; then held the fencing back as Ezra slipped through after her, and together they ran for the next building beyond. Just as they turned the corner, a huge explosion rocked the ground and they stumbled a bit from the concussion but quickly regained their footing and continued to flee from the bedlam behind them.
She led him through the darkened streets, following a twisting, convoluted path through the seeder parts of the city in their bid for escape. As they ran, the heavens opened, and the clouds that had been threatening all day again unleashed their bounty in the form of a steady, cold rain that quickly had them both drenched. Ezra had no idea where they were, and followed blindly without thought, trusting her to get them to safety.
Finally, they reached an old storm culvert in the suburbs of the city and stopped to get their breath. Ezra bent over, his hands on his knees as he gasped for air, his breath crystallizing into white puffs in the cold surroundings, while the girl leaned back against the wall and wiped a long, wet strand of hair from her face.
After a few moments, she peaked out into the night, making sure they hadn't been followed, before turning back to him. The steady staccato of the rain on the pavement outside drummed quietly in the background, adding a slightly ethereal feel to the night. She looked him up and down for a moment before finally stopping at his eyes. He stood up slowly as she stared intently into the glittering emerald depths and he had the distinct, eerie, and entirely uncomfortable feeling that she was looking into his very soul.
He also took his first good look at her as they stood there studying each other in the faint glow from the street light above. She was a little taller than average, probably about five foot seven or eight, and was thin to the point of malnutrition. Her hair, plaited into a loose braid, was straight and long, ending at the small of her back, and though it was dark now with rain, he figured it to be a warm shade of brown. Her eyes were a pale blue and sparked with intelligence and confidence. Her jeans and T-shirt were faded but clean, and the jean jacket was obviously well-worn and a little large for her while her scruffy tennis shoes had clearly seen better days.
It was quite obvious that she was a street kid, but there was something about her, some spark of life that spoke of an inner strength that set her apart from the rest. Though obviously wary of him, she didn't try to cover her caution with false bravado. As she stood in front of him, she seemed to hold herself with a quiet confidence, as though she knew her strengths, her weaknesses, and her limitations, and was at peace with that knowledge. She projected a sense of awareness of what was going on around her, and a touch of true courage. He saw no fear in her steady gaze. Her eyes were clear, bright and intense, with no evidence of drugs or alcohol abuse.
She obviously kept herself clean within and without.
She finally broke her gaze and nodded to herself, as if she had made a decision, and took a step forward. She held her hand out to him and smiled at him warmly. "I don't think we've been properly introduced. I'm Alex."