Victim/Villain:
Chapter 1: Pleasure Doing Business

by Amanda & Michelle

Synopsis: The FBI recalls Ezra to Atlanta for a special mission. But the consequences are far beyond any the FBI or Team Seven could believe, as both agencies begin to question Ezra’s sanity.

Prologue


The sun was setting over Atlanta.

Golden rays bounded off the Southern city’s dwindling parade of traffic. They impacted the storied magnificence of historic buildings and burst against the mirrored sides of modern skyscrapers, both of which cast deep shadows on streets spotted with pedestrians. The setting sun might indicate the end of a business day, but in Atlanta night signified the beginning of much more. Nightlife thrived in Atlanta. There were always diversions, always a party.

It was to such a party that a luxurious black limousine now headed. The limo’s driver, Vin Tanner, adjusted his rearview mirror to reduce glare and caught the reflection of his backseat passenger, Ezra Standish, quietly fussing with the cufflinks of his shirtsleeves. The undercover agent was being excessively anile about his appearance for the event tonight, Vin noted. Always conscious of his appearance, the undercover agent never left the house outfitted in anything less than the latest and most stylish fashions, but Vin had seen Ezra go out on dates with less preening then had been done in the back seat of that limo.

“Geez, Ez, are you gonna be fiddling with your clothes all night? You don’t even primp this much when your ma comes to town.”

“Appearances are everything, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra murmured without pausing in his preparations. “More so tonight than ever.”

Vin conceded the point. Perfection was paramount tonight. The stakes were no less than Ezra’s career and reputation, Reilly had made that very clear.

It had been four days since Agent Reilly’s intrusion into the Denver ATF, culminating to this night when Ezra would be introduced as Zachary Bennett to the Russian mafia. Four days. It was an insanely short period to send an agent undercover, but time was a luxury the FBI did not have. Reilly had said as much when Chris had complained.

“The negotiations can’t be held off forever. I expect your boys will just have to toe the line. Or don’t you have confidence in your men?”

To which of course Chris Larabee had growled something obscene at the FBI agent and put up with the haste. But he didn’t have to like it, and neither did Vin.

The sharpshooter pulled the limo up to the sidewalk in front of their destination. The Texan swore under his breath.

The Grand Tributary Hotel didn’t just shout brilliance and majesty, it proclaimed it with trumpets and banners. The Tributary, situated overlooking the banks of the Chattahoochie River, was the hotel that Southern crime boss Elijah Jericho and the Russian mobster Nikolai Romanov were dwelling for the duration of their mutual business. It would also be the site of the negotiations that Ezra would be presiding over, provided all went smoothly this evening. For tonight, the Grand Tributary was the place where criminal elements from two continents gathered to carouse.

Tanner needed Ezra’s vocabulary to describe the hotel. Twenty-four stories loomed in extravagant elegance over any who dared approach the establishment. Victorian-style architecture bespoke the hotel’s age and lent it a feel of stepping into the past; fancy carvings embellished columns which ran up the stories and framed the windows for decoration more than support. A small view of the lobby, warmly-lit and glowing, sparkling, indicated that the exterior was merely icing on the cake. Lavish, Vin decided. The word could have been invented to depict the Grand Tributary. Suddenly Vin understood Ezra’s excessively fussy grooming. Tanner had cleaned up what he considered ridiculously nice for his role as chauffeur, donning a pricey suit and tie, even black leather gloves. But he still felt like a tool next to the overpowering presence of the Grand Tributary.

“We’re here,” the sharpshooter announced quietly.

“It’s about damn time,” Chris Larabee’s brusque voice barked at the two agents through their earpieces. “Jericho got here ten minutes ago.”

Ezra made no acknowledgement to their leader’s peevish statement, but Vin smirked. Tanner was glad he was playing the part of chauffeur on this mission, not stuck in the van with Larabee and the surveillance team. Besides Chris, the cramped van housed Team Seven’s JD Dunne and Josiah Sanchez, as well as the notorious Agent Reilly. Larabee must be going out of his mind, Vin thought with a grin. The sandpaper relationship between Reilly and Larabee was quickly becoming infamous. Agents from both the ATF and the FBI had wagers going over who would kill whom first.

“Romanov got here half an hour earlier,” Chris continued. “The hotel owner came out to escort him inside personally.”

“Haven’t seen either Jericho or Romanov join the party on the roof yet . . .” Buck Wilmington pitched in through the wire, speaking on behalf of himself and his surveillance partner, Nathan Jackson. The two agents were staking out the party at the Grand Tributary on the adjacent roof of an office complex across the street. “. . . them or the hotel owner, what’s-his-name? Pancheckers, Pamchick, Pam-”

“Never mind Pamchenko,” Agent Reilly’s gruff brogue cut Buck off. “He hasn’t been active in the Red Mafia for two decades. Keep your focus on the objective.”

Vin could have sworn Larabee growled. “Look, Reilly, that’s my agent going in there. Every person in that building is relevant.”

“Agent Standish,” Reilly barked back, “is here because of Jericho. He should be concentrating on that son of a bitch, not some Russian son of a bitch.”

Larabee’s deep intake of breath translated itself through the wire. ATF and FBI agent seemed to have forgotten they were on a party line, as Chris responded, “Jericho may be the target, but that hotel is filled with both American mobsters and Russian mafia. Ezra’s life is at stake if any of them discover he’s a fed.”

“Then if I were you I would be less worried about Pamchenko and more concerned about Romanov. The last lawyer who worked for him caught early retirement in a meat locker.”

“You might have mentioned that earlier!” Chris berated.

“Everybody knew the risks here. It shouldn’t be an issue if Standish is as good as he’s reputed,” Reilly retorted.

“You conceited son of a-”

“Jericho and Pamchenko are both in the lobby,” Josiah’s voice came over the line, recalling everyone back to business. “I believe they’re waiting for Ezra before joining the party.”

ATF and FBI agent shut up for the moment. Ezra had made no discernable reaction during the exchange between Chris and Reilly. He sat quietly with a pensive look on his face, his chin resting on steepled fingers. At Sanchez’s comment, Vin asked, “You hear that, Ez? Are you ready for this?”

Standish slowly brought his head up to face the sharpshooter. Green eyes met blue for a moment, and then a self-satisfied smirk crept onto Ezra’s face. He squared his shoulders and tugged the sleeves of his tuxedo to a crisp line.

“What do you think, Mr. Tanner?” he asked Vin.

Tonight Standish had outdone even himself. The undercover agent wore a black tuxedo, sans tails. His cummerbund and matching bow tie were a bright red striped with darker shades of red and burgundy, laced with gold. It was a striking look. Tanner knew Ezra’s considerable ego didn’t need stroking, but the agent honestly did pose a dashing figure.

“You look like you belong in there,” Tanner admitted.

Ezra’s smug expression increased. “Then yes, by all means, I’m ready.”

Vin exited the driver’s seat and walked around the vehicle to open the passenger door. He watched Ezra stroll under the Grand Tributary’s green satin awning, past the doorman at the entrance and into the glowing lobby, to all outward appearances supremely confident. Vin wondered how much of Ezra’s bravado was real and how much was an act for the FBI’s sake.

“He’s in,” Vin mumbled into his wire as he got back into the limo and drove off to find a parking spot.

>>< <> ><<

Ezra stepped out of the limousine. The night air was pleasantly warm after the artificial coolness of the limo’s air conditioning. A beautiful night for a rooftop fête, the air stirred with just the lightest hint of a breeze and a full moon shone brightly out of a clear sky filled with stars.

The red carpet beckoned. Standish set foot to the crimson runner leading into the Grand Tributary Hotel.

Ezra’s swagger betrayed nothing but confidence. Appearances were everything. Look like you owned the world, and the world would believe it. It would never know that inside raged an inferno of fear and doubt, the cause of which were three little letters: F B I. They dragged him around like a puppet on a string, throwing him back to a time and place he would sooner blaze from his memory, and every time he drew the short stick. Take tonight for instance. He was entering a operation with minimal preparation, an operation whose success Reilly had pretty much placed the entire responsibility of on Ezra’s shoulders.

The neurotic Irishman was another source of consternation. Ezra could fool himself and believe that he was back in Atlanta because Reilly trusted him, didn’t believe the rumors of his duplicity. Ezra could believe it – if he was naive. Reilly trusted his abilities, not him. Which Ezra supposed would have to suffice.

Besides, Ezra had Team Seven at his back. So everything would be fine.


Standish took a deep breath and made himself believe it, tossing away any doubts and mentally shrugging into the role of Zachary Bennett, mob lawyer. The time to contemplate Reilly and the FBI was done. Now came the time to do his job.

A man in a cream tuxedo opened the door for Ezra as he approached the hotel and the Southern agent took a good look at the Grand Tributary for the first time. From the black, diamond cut buttons on the doorman’s jacket to the intricate marble relief decorating the entrance, the establishment bespoke of money, lavishly applied. It was impressive, even to Ezra who had been educated in most all examples of expensive extremes.

Standish recalled the details he’d learned of the Grand Tributary over the weekend. The old building had been purchased fifteen years earlier by Vladimir Pamchenko, an ex-mobster himself and a mutual friend of both Elijah Jericho and Nikolai Romanov. A derelict wreck on the verge of being demolished, the hotel had been rescued and restored and was now a thriving tourist attraction. Standish remembered from his days in Atlanta that the hotel had acquired a reputation of sorts for being haunted, which only served to heighten its appeal. The brochure touted the hotel’s historic origins, the deluxe accommodations, four star restaurant, two swimming pools, modern internet access and a full sized bathroom in each of the suites. Pamchenko had graciously declined his other clientele for the night in order to host the negotiations between mob and mafia. In the meantime, all his guests were invited to partake in the amenities that the hotel had to offer.

Good gracious, the oriental carpet in the lobby is alone worth the price of a luxury sedan, Standish thought as he stepped onto the pricey floor covering. The hotel owner, Pamchenko, obviously had as much money as he had taste. A lifetime of murder, robbery, embezzlement and all sorts of crime had loaded Pamchenko’s coffers.

Ah, and speaking of wealth derived from illicit ventures, here came Jericho. He certainly didn’t resemble the stereotypical crime lord. In fact, he looked less like Marlon Brando than he did Colonel Sanders. A tall, lean man with prematurely gray hair and beard neatly trimmed into a point, he wore his black tuxedo with a blue brocade vest and slender bow tie.

“Mr. Bennett,” the Southern mobster who fancied himself a gentleman greeted Ezra with a firm handshake followed by a friendly clap on the shoulder. “So good to see you again.”

Standish returned the polite smile with apparent ease. “Mr. Jericho,” the undercover agent acknowledged.

“I was so pleased to receive your phone call the other day,” Jericho confided. “Ascertaining your whereabouts was proving to be a challenge.”

“One finds that in my business, it is better to stay out of sight but with an ear to the ground,” Standish’s response was as smooth as melted butter. “Nonetheless I was gratified to hear you sought my services again.”

“I never expressed my thanks for your extraordinary services the last time you aided in my negotiations. I have never seen a lawyer since who was so adept at giving both sides a fair dealing.” Jericho raised a short crystal glass filled with amber liquid in toast before taking a sip.

“You flatter me, Mr. Jericho. I was merely doing my job.”

“Nonsense. You are brilliant at what you do. I only hope you have not lost your touch in the past six years. Ah, there is Vladimir. Come, Mr. Bennett, you must meet our generous host.”

The mobster led Standish deeper into the lobby. Ezra allowed himself an arrogant smirk. He hoped Team Seven and Agent Reilly had noted Jericho’s statement.

“Vladimir,” Jericho saluted as they approached the hotel owner. The Russian, who had been speaking to a tall brunette in a clingy red gown, turned with a toothy smile. Ezra was immediately impressed by the man’s striking resemblance to a corpse. Deep set eyes peered out darkly from a face pale and gaunt. The bony hand that shook Ezra’s trembled noticeably, as did the old man’s slightly sloped shoulders. The only features that did not bespeak age were the Russian’s dark lustrous hair and his perfect set of teeth.

“This is the man I was telling you about,” Jericho told Pamchenko. “Zachary Bennett. The last time we met he allowed me to conduct business in a civilized manner.”

Ezra and the hotel owner exchanged polite pleasantries, Ezra complimenting Pamchenko’s exquisite hotel and the Russian boasting about a few cherished details. It was obvious from the way he spoke that Pamchenko took a great personal pride in the Grand Tributary. Pamchenko’s accent was almost imperceptible, revealing how much time he had spent in the States. Reilly muttered incomprehensibly in Standish’s ear, obviously still upset about wasting any time whatsoever on the hotel owner. Standish ignored it.

As Jericho and Pamchenko took a sip of their drinks, the Grand Tributary’s owner suddenly realized that Ezra didn’t have a beverage of his own.

“Ah! Where are my manners? Would you care for a drink, Mr. Bennett?”

Jericho stroked his beard and gestured to Pamchenko’s glass of clear liquid with his own drink. “You can have anything you desire as long as it’s vodka or bourbon,” he deadpanned.

“That is a pity. I was really hoping for some bourbon,” Ezra replied good naturedly.

“You, Sasha, get Mr. Bennett a bourbon,” Pamchenko abruptly turned to the brunette with whom he had been speaking. She was now hanging on the arm of a young man who was virtually ignoring her.

The brunette stared in affront at the shriveled old codger. “I am not a waitress,” she huffed.

“Don’t backtalk me, woman. Make yourself useful and get this man a drink.” Pamchenko’s tone brooked no further argument. Sasha looked to her escort for protest, but he hadn’t even paused in his conversation, so she silently disengaged herself from his arm and walked away with a hurt expression on her face.

“Elijah tells me that you make a living of this, negotiating between two parties,” Pamchenko continued nonchalantly. A slight cough punctuated the statement.

“Yes,” Standish confirmed. “My former occupation as a lawyer allowed me to hone my skills in that area but this is, shall we say, more lucrative.”

“Oh? What manner of lawyer were you?” the Grand Tributary’s owner inquired.

“A divorce attorney,” Ezra answered with a grin.

Jericho and Pamchenko chuckled mildly as Sasha came back with Ezra’s drink. The beautiful woman still retained a sullen pout. Ezra considered himself too much of a gentleman to allow that expression to stay. He graced the under-appreciated woman with one of his most charismatic smiles.

“Thank you, my dear.” Ezra reached for the glass with both hands. With his left he took the drink, with his right the undercover agent took the brunette’s hand and brought it to his lips. “Makes the drink taste sweeter,” he said to the charmed woman after he kissed her hand.

A coy smile lit Sasha’s face, though she cast her eyes down shyly. Pamchenko, however, frowned deeply. He must have noticed, just as Standish did, the brunette’s escort approaching angrily.

“That my woman! Me fight nasty man, try steal my woman!” the Neanderthal growled as he grabbed the brunette forcefully by the arm and shoved her behind his back.

Or so Ezra translated. In heavily Russian-accented English the phrase sounded more like, “Hey, buddy, do you think you can move in on just any girl? This one is mine. Keep your hands off.” If a hunchbacked Java Man ever donned a silk suit or diamond rings, Ezra had never seen the pictures; but despite fine attire and impeccable grooming the Russian exuded decidedly prehistoric mannerisms.

“Isaak, please, he was only-” Sasha tried to intervene.

“Shut up,” her escort barked at her. Standish raised a cool eyebrow as the stoneman encroached his personal space to breathe menacingly in his face. If this uncouth cretin thought he could intimidate Ezra by grandstanding, he had another thing coming.

“Isaak, was it? As the difference between manners and ‘moving in’ is evidently unclear to you, allow me to explain that I was merely being polite to the darling Sasha here. However,” Ezra’s eyes narrowed warningly. “I would advise you to take better care of that which you consider to be yours. Assets have a way of slipping through fingers.”

The Neanderthal clenched a fist and took a deep breath. “I don’t like the way you talk,” he hissed.

“Isaak,” Pamchenko said sharply, stepping forward to glare at his countryman, “I do not appreciate people harassing my guests, even if it is by one of my other guests. Go upstairs and get a drink. Try to remember your manners.”

The mobster took a step away from Ezra and nodded to the hotel owner. Shooting one last glare at the undercover agent, Isaak grabbed Sasha by her wrist and proceeded to the elevators. The brunette’s heels clicked rapidly as she tried to keep up, but she did spare a backward glance and pretty smile for Ezra.

Pamchenko watched the couple retreat then turned back to Standish and Jericho. “I do apologize for that little scene. I assure you it will not happen again.”

“Not at all, Mr. Pamchenko,” Ezra replied. “Indeed, it is I who must apologize. I did not realize that my harmless flirtation would be so inflammatory.”

“Mr. Bennett hails from the South. It’s hard to train chivalry out of us Southern boys,” Jericho interjected with a dry chuckle. He continued to stroke the point of his beard.

Pamchenko stifled another cough as he smiled and shook his head. “Think nothing more of it. Come, I am sure you will be wanting to join the party upstairs.”

JD’s buoyant voice resounded loudly in Ezra’s ear. “Geez, Ez, if we wanted to start a fight over a woman we would’ve sent Buck in!”

>>< <> ><<

“Very funny, kid,” Buck’s voice returned over the wire. “Hey, was she hot?”

In the van, JD grinned. He looked at the monitor that was relaying the video from Ezra’s hidden camera. “Man, Buck, you should have seen her! She was wearing this tight red dress, and she had these legs that went up to-”

“Wait, wait, wait. I think I see her on the roof. Ezra, you dog! Try to get her phone number for me, would ya?”

Squeezed at the console to Dunne’s left, Agent Reilly rolled his eyes.

“Agent Larabee, would you kindly remind your agents that they are not on holiday. This is a serious operation.”

JD Dunne wondered if Reilly ever loosened up. The man apparently shopped the same expensive catalogs as Ezra did, but sported a personality and temperament that rivaled Chris’. At least Chris knew when to lighten up and enjoy himself. It seemed as if every moment of Reilly’s life was dedicated to his job. Or maybe it was just Elijah Jericho that Reilly was obsessed with, JD considered. So far Dunne had not seen Reilly make one move that was not centered upon bringing down the Southern crime boss.

“Shove it in your ear, Reilly,” Larabee shot back, but he then added into his microphone, “Buck, JD. Keep it G-rated for the FBI, okay?” Reilly shot a dark look at Team Seven’s leader over JD and Josiah’s heads.

“G-rated for the G-men! Ha!” JD laughed at the pun, and Josiah cracked a smile before noticing that JD had earned the distinguishment of being under both agents’ glares.

“C’mon Chris, we’re here to observe and record,” Buck protested. “I’m just doing my part in observing. Oh, Ezra, observe this gal in the blue dress a bit more. I hope you got pictures of her, Nathan. That is a zoom lens, right?”

Reilly grumbled obscenities under his breath while unbuttoning the buttons on and rolling up the sleeves of his dark blue shirt.

“Damn, I gotta get out of this limo and see what you guys are seeing,” Vin complained over the wire. “The only headlights I’m observing in the garage are on the BMW in front of me.”

“So much for keeping it G-rated,” Josiah commented.

Buck gave a low whistle. “You know, I don’t think we have to worry about the FBI. You should see this blonde that Ken’s schmoozing it up with. If her dress were cut any lower . . .”

“Shit.”

The men in the van looked at JD, who was looking at a monitor which currently showed Ezra up on the roof engaged in conversation with some mobster. Dunne tapped some buttons on his keyboard with no apparent results.

“What?” Reilly barked the question.

“We lost audio,” JD explained, getting up from his seat to examine the nest of wires behind the monitor.

“Crap. Can you get it back?”

JD shook his head in irritation. “I’ve got to find out what the problem is before I can fix it.”

Reilly shook with irritation. “Romanov could approach Standish any second, we need to hear what’s going on up there!”

“Cool down, Reilly,” Chris glowered at his FBI counterpart. “JD, can Ezra still hear us?”

>>< <> ><<

Yes, I can. Would you all please shut up?

Standish attempted to keep annoyance off his face as he struggled to stay abreast of the schizophrenic swell of voices crashing in his ears. Trying to carry on a dialogue with the mobster in front of him at the same time attempting to eavesdrop on potentially important conversations while keeping track of the network of agents monitoring the undercover agent was dizzying.

Jericho approached with a tall slender blonde hanging on his arm, one of the many startlingly beautiful females gracing the Grand Tributary’s roof. Buck would truly be in heaven on this roof, but despite the brazen display of flesh Ezra’s attraction to these ladies was minor. Women involved in organized crime were shallow and heartless in his experience, only after power and money for themselves. The crime boss had to be at least thirty years this blonde’s senior. She smiled vapidly and Jericho patted her hand absentmindedly.

“Mr. Romanov had been apprised of your arrival,” Jericho addressed Standish. “He will be joining the party shortly. Until then, please mingle and enjoy yourself.”

Standish nodded and Jericho disappeared with his escort into a swarm of partygoers.

Ezra casually strolled over to stand by the pool, taking a deep breath in an attempt to maintain his focus. Up on the roof the breeze was stronger than it had been on the sidewalk. The stars were brighter too. But up here thunder rumbled in the distance. Ezra couldn’t so much hear it over the music of the band as he could feel it. The skies were clear now, but there was a storm approaching.

“ . . . What’s taking so long?”

“. . . I know something’s not hooked up right but I’m still trying to figure out what.”

“. . . excellent caviar-”

“ . . . hurry up-”

“ . . . so I left his body there, as a warning-”

“. . . Leave him alone. If your guys had hooked it up right in the first place . . .”

Ezra attempted to maintain a grip on his wits under the pretext of studying his new environment. Although not as lavishly expensive as the interior, the Grand Tributary’s rooftop bespoke an equal elegance in design. Enormous stone pots were strategically placed around the extent, housing some exotic flora that Ezra had never seen before, tall feathery fronds ranging from a deep forest green to a pale yellow. They cast eerie shadows as they danced in the breeze. The hanging lanterns, likely hung specifically for tonight’s party, swayed also, heightening the strange effect. The buffet had been set up on the north end, offering a delicious and unusual spread of Russian and Southern delicacies. A few intricately iron-wrought tables and chairs were available; however, most guests mingled while they ate. On the east side the band was playing a lively jazz-rock hybrid, and people crowded the dance floor. The centerpiece of it all was a long, in-ground pool, its aqua waters lit from below. Pale green tiles inlaid with an intricate design in lemon yellow surrounded the pool while waist-high gold railings paralleled the length of it.

“ . . . Standish is not wired so I could hear him make small talk with the hotel owner. If we miss Romanov-”

“ . . . the Little Czar does not need these people . . .”

“. . . JD is working as fast as he can. Either help or-”

“. . . Jericho is doing fine on his own. I don’t see why-”

“. . . think I see the problem. Hang on . . .”

“You are so alone.”

Ezra blinked. The statement, carried to his ears on a whistling breeze, seemed to speak directly to him. Yet its sentiment was accurate. The undercover agent stood alone.

“I can end your loneliness,” the soft voice offered.

Behind him. Ezra turned curiously.

A solitary young woman stood across the width of the pool, staring provocatively into Ezra’s green-eyed gaze with eyes black and wide. Wavering reflections off the water’s surface cast dancing green light onto the skirt of her sleeveless gold dress, shadowed her delicate pale features and illumined dark hair wild and disheveled, turning the entire woman into a shimmering mirage. She was, perhaps, the most attractive woman Ezra had ever laid eyes on.

Ezra licked his lips. Suddenly it was hard for him to remember that mob girls were cold and heartless.

“Were you speaking to me, my dear? I assure you, I’m not alone. I was just waiting-”

“You are alone,” the nymph interrupted. She ran her hand down a slender waist and curvaceous hip. Her pale lips curved up seductively. “But I’m good company. Shall we go for a swim?” She lowered her lashes to indicate the pool in front of them.

A swim with this rare beauty was indeed tempting. The young woman was so alluring that in any other circumstances Ezra would have said “hell yes,” at the very least asked her for a dance. Unfortunately, his circumstances were not so ideal. Besides, this woman was obviously trying to seduce him. Ezra was not so easily manipulated.

“Why do you hesitate?” She frowned almost petulantly.

“As lovely as that sounds, I fear I must decline. Business before pleasure.”

Ezra began to turn away from the pool.

“Please. I’m lonely too.”

Her voice caught him more than her words. Ezra could not ignore that tone, soft and dignified but with undertones of pain and despair. Emotions that Standish understood quite well. He looked across the shimmering aqua pool water at the girl. She hugged her arms around herself, her eyes burning him for an answer.

“Alas, my dear, I cannot,” Ezra responded sincerely. “Another night, perhaps.”

Standish turned before she could stop him again and nearly bumped into Isaak. The brute had been lurking a few feet behind Ezra. He too was staring at the woman in the gold dress. When he noticed Ezra looking at him he returned an evil eye and stalked away.

>>< <> ><<

“I think I’ve got it,” JD commented with satisfaction.

“Are you sure?” Reilly asked sharply.

“Just had to reverse the connections.” Dunne slapped at the side of the monitor.

Chris frowned. “Ezra,” he said into his walkie. “Everything okay?”

“Perfectly copasetic, Mr. Larabee,” Standish returned in a soft voice.

“We had a disruption in the transmission momentarily,” Chris said, “but we’re with you now.”

Ezra didn’t answer as Jericho approached, undercover agent Ken Owens at his side. All surveillance operators were quiet as they listened to the undercover agent engage in polite conversation with Jericho and Ken.

“Have you presented such a case of my abilities that Mr. Romanov does not feel required to meet me? Where is the illustrious Mr. Romanov?”

“Mr. Romanov is feeling somewhat out of sorts tonight, so I hear. He’s resting in his suite but shall join the party presently. Rest assured, he is very eager to meet you.”

“Splendid.”

“In the meantime, I don’t believe you’ve met Ken. Kenny is my aide, and I’ve instructed him to look out for you as well. If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask him.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Bennett.” Agent Owens smiled politely, but he winked behind Jericho’s back at the joke that was on him.

The topics of the discussion never strayed much from the weather, everyone’s heath, and the splendors of the Grand Tributary as Ezra mingled among the criminal element. Here in the laid-back South, business came after pleasure. If business could not be avoided, it would be enjoyed. JD wondered what Casey was doing back in Denver.

“We were fortunate to have such temperate weather for this event,” The agents in the van heard Ezra’s remark through the wire.

“A touch breezy, but . . . that . . . –ly ideal,” was Jericho’s static-distorted response.

“. . . unusual to . . . –ch nights . . . spring.”

Reilly tugged irritatedly at his ear. “I thought you fixed the sound issues,” he turned to JD. The young ATF agent was already behind the monitor again.

“Yeah. Me too.”

JD began checking his connections as Jericho commented how a storm was surely on its way. At least he thought that’s what the mobster said. It was hard to tell with the sound cutting in and out.

Josiah, Chris and Reilly still watched the monitors, riveted. Dunne guessed they were trying to read lips, because he couldn’t hear anything intelligible. He took a moment to look at the monitor. As Jericho filled the television screen momentarily, Reilly absentmindedly loosened the knot of his tie. JD noticed for the first time a wedding band on Reilly’s ring finger.

Curiosity temporarily disabled Dunne’s self-preservation instincts. “Hey, Reilly,” the young man asked, “what do you think is a good gift for a woman?”

The FBI agent shot JD a questioning look before turning back to the monitor. “How should I know, kid?”

JD shrugged. “I don’t know. But I mean, if you were buying an anniversary present for your wife, what would you get her?”

Reilly didn’t say anything as he continued to watch the monitor. With his thumb he rubbed the ring on his left hand. Josiah glanced over at the FBI agent. Reilly was silent for so long that JD thought he wasn’t going to answer. With a sigh the computer genius turned his attention back to his wires.

“You gotta get her something that won’t go obsolete,” Reilly spoke without looking. “An MP3 player is no good. Technology changes, and changes fast. Get your girl something that will last.”

Chris glanced quizzically at Reilly. JD raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“Gee, I never thought of that. Thanks, Reilly.”

Reilly grunted in acknowledgement, ignoring the wordless looks he was getting from the ATF agents in the van. Josiah started to say something, but apparently thought better of it. The profiler simply nodded and turned back to the television monitor.

“All the wires are hooked up right,” JD said, sitting back down, “but I’m going to have to shut down and reset. That should fix our sound.”

“How long will it take?” Chris asked.

“Just a couple of minutes.”

Reilly grinded his teeth but finally nodded his consent. “We’re going to lose you for a minute, Standish,” he told the undercover agent. “Don’t let anything important happen.”

>>< <> ><<

Oh, absolutely. Not a problem.

Ezra excused himself from conversation with Jericho and Owens, claiming a slight headache from the noise and the need for some air. He accompanied the excuse with a significant look to Ken. The FBI undercover agent, although not connected to the surveillance network, seemed to understand Standish as he returned a barely perceptible nod and directed Jericho to the buffet. Before following the mob boss, he leaned back and murmured over his shoulder:

“We’ve got maybe five minutes before Romanov comes up. Can they get their act together by then?”

“Lord only knows,” Ezra muttered back. Ken huffed a short laugh.

“I’ll do my best to delay then,” he said.

Standish watched Owens depart and ambled to the north ledge to lean on the short stone wall. The lights of distant downtown Atlanta sparkled almost as brightly as the stars in the sky.

Ezra turned around and uttered a soft sardonic chuckle as he watched the party from slightly afar. This was a far better scenario than he had ever envisioned when he reflected on going back to Atlanta. He had often woke with nightmares about returning to the rumors and distrust of his previous employment. The lies that had circulated about him accepting bribes had driven the undercover agent to a perilous point of despair. If not for the friendship and acceptance of Team Seven . . . well, Standish hated to think about what might have happened.

But that was yesterday. Today the FBI had come more or less crawling back to him, he was surrounded here by wealth and luxury and backed up by people who respected him. It was almost heaven. Although the company Standish was presently keeping would most likely never make it past the Pearly Gates, Ezra contemplated sardonically, only God could help him if he screwed up.

Across the roof the elevator doors parted and the Red Mafia’s leader stepped out. With a fleeting thought for JD to hurry up with his audio repair, Ezra stepped forward to rejoin the party. He thought for a moment he saw lighting flash in the corner of his eye. He turned his head towards the heavens but saw only clear skies.

Ezra brought his head back down and noticed for the first time that he was not quite alone on this end of the roof. About fifteen feet to his right a woman stood on the balcony, balancing on the ledge.

It was the dark-haired woman in the gold dress, the siren who had come on to him earlier.

The girl’s dangerous proclivity to the edge made him wonder if she contemplated jumping off. Perhaps she was one of the mobster’s cast-off girlfriends, Ezra considered. Could an unsuccessful search for company have brought her here?

Ezra turned away and took another step forward. He had no time to address the mob’s every dysfunctional personal relationship. It wasn’t as if the girl would do anything rash amidst such a crowd of people. Of course, Ezra considered, he himself never felt so alone as when he was surrounded by laughter and gaiety. Parties usually depressed the hell out of him, so why should she be any different? Ezra glanced back over his shoulder at the dark-haired young woman. A female who looks like that should have no trouble finding companionship, he reasoned. Standish scanned to the throng of partygoers, but not a person was looking to the balcony.

Oh, hell.

“Now I find you alone,” Standish spoke to her back. The gold material of her dress shimmered, or Ezra would never have noticed her slight movement. He took a step toward her. “You should not linger so close to the ledge,” Ezra advised.

“Why?” the woman asked Atlanta’s skyline.

Ezra’s eyes narrowed in puzzlement over the odd question. “You might fall,” he answered.

“We might fly,” she returned. Her voice invited him to join her, a dare and a seduction. Some reckless spirit certainly possessed that slender frame.

Ezra moved forward. “We would die,” he said.

At his words the dark-haired woman finally moved, but it was only to turn her head to look at Ezra over her shoulder. Ezra got the feeling that he was being measured. An angry breeze blew across the rooftop but the seductress remained firm on the ledge, a brazen challenge.

“You won’t,” she spoke at last. “Your kind lives with no heart,” the woman accused breathlessly.

So she took him for a mobster. From what he had seen, most women attached to the Red Mafia were treated as nothing more than possessions, beloved trophies at most, and despite Jericho’s claim of chivalry the American mobsters seemed equally bigoted. Even in these modern times the world of organized crime remained a very chauvinistic world.

Ezra did not have the leisure to explain the difference between them and him. He just wanted this unsettled beauty to step down to safety.

“Please come down, my dear.”

“Why don’t you come up?” She offered her hand to him.

Lord, she was beautiful. A shame she was crazy.

From the corner of his eye, Ezra saw commotion to his far left. Romanov was slowly approaching Jericho. Standish didn’t have time to dither here anymore.

The undercover agent stepped up to the woman in the gold dress. Taking her hand, he pulled her down from the ledge. The momentum carried her past Ezra and they halted with arms outstretched, like a dance arrested mid-motion. Retaining his grip on her hand, Ezra walked around the woman, turning her so that she faced away from the roof’s edge.

“Another time.” Ezra smiled and gently dropped her hand. As he turned to the party, he saw the woman frown quizzically, then turn away.

>>< <> ><<

Undercover agent Ken Owens had all the makings of a great time - good music, good food, pretty women and an open bar.

Ken sighed. Too bad he was too busy to enjoy the music, the food was giving him indigestion, the women were all attracted to the big fish, and as an FBI agent he was refraining from alcohol.

At least I’m not the agent in the spotlight tonight, Ken considered. Tonight was Standish’s baby. Not that Owens didn’t have his concerns. He was growing weary of the whole meet the lawyer, reject the lawyer, look for a new lawyer process. After seven months of playing Jericho’s lackey, he was ready for this case to break. Hopefully, Ezra Standish will be the agent to break it.

Elijah Jericho appeared to have confidence. The mob don was in a fine mood tonight, laughing, sampling the delicacies, groping the women. In great contrast, from what Ken had seen and heard of Romanov tonight, the Russian was feeling murderous. Damn finicky, the Little Czar.

Speak of the devil, here he came. Jericho noticed Romanov’s imminent arrival also.

“Kenny, inform Mr. Bennett that Romanov . . . ah! Never mind. It seems that Mr. Bennett is well aware. Here he comes.”

Owens followed Jericho’s gaze to the west-side ledge where undercover agent Ezra Standish approached. If the ATF agent felt nervous at all, his manner did not betray it. Ken looked to the east, toward the elevator, where Nikolai Romanov and his entourage proceeded towards Jericho.

“Elijah,” the Russian mafia boss hailed his counterpart, coming to a halt to meet Jericho.

“Romanov, wonderful that you could finally join the party,” the Southern mobster returned. Standish finished his approach to stand at Jericho’s left shoulder. “I would like you to meet . . .”

“Zachary Bennett,” Romanov finished. He shifted slightly to focus his complete attention on Standish. Ken, standing behind Jericho’s right elbow, felt a sudden influx of nerves. Standish had made his ignominious departure from the FBI well before Owens had been transferred to Atlanta, and Ken had been unaware of the man’s existence before that day in Reilly’s office. Although he had spent some time with Standish briefing him on Jericho and Romanov over the past four days, the object had been getting the undercover agent prepped, not getting to know him. Now, as Standish faced Nikolai Romanov, Ken wished he had more to go on than rumors and a few fleeting one-sided conversations.

“At your service,” Standish greeted Romanov. “And you, of course, would be the renowned Nikolai Romanov.”

The man known among the criminal underworld as the Little Czar was young for a mafia don. Only in his mid-thirties, Nikolai Romanov contrasted Elijah Jericho in more than age. Romanov had eschewed a tux for this occasion, opting instead to wear a black sport jacket made of shantung silk over a royal purple shirt tight enough to show off his powerful physique. Like Jericho, the Russian wore his facial hair trimmed and stylized, but Romanov’s thin beard was trimmed close with only a narrow line along his jaw. Violet-lensed shades rimmed in black shielded his eyes, despite night’s darkness.

“Shall we get you a drink and get down to business?” Jericho suggested, gesturing to the bar with his own tumbler of bourbon.

“No,” Romanov said brusquely. “Business now.”

Ken raised his eyebrows in surprise. Throughout the process of choosing a lawyer for their negotiations, Owens had never seen Romanov turn down alcohol. The Russian mobsters usually drank vodka like it was water.

Jericho gave a nod. “As you wish.” He moved to the side to give “Zachary Bennett” center stage.

Romanov’s abrupt behavior had not shaken Standish. He stood before the Red mafia don wearing a cocky and confident expression.

“Mr. Romanov, I’m sure you’ve been told of my abilities. Let me assure you-”

“It is not your abilities that concern me,” Romanov interrupted. “I want to know why I should trust you. We’ve never met. Elijah found you. You both admit to working together in the past. What reason do I have not to believe that he has paid you to sway our negotiations to his advantage?”

“In your position I would be suspicious as well. Though your concerns are well founded,” Standish conceded, “they are misguided. I am in my own employ. It would be bad business for me to favor one side over another as the continuing success of my career depends upon your satisfaction and word of mouth. I cannot advertise in the Yellow Pages.”

“Your words make sense, but talk is cheap. I need proof.”

Standish shrugged nonchalantly. “What can I offer you besides my word?”

For a moment, the circle of Romanov and his entourage and Jericho and his company held in complete stillness as the party moved around them.

“Let’s say I kill Elijah.”

One of the Russian’s men shoved Jericho toward Romanov. Jericho’s glass of bourbon fell to the ground and shattered. Romanov grabbed the unsuspecting Southern mob boss, pressing a small blade against his throat. The sound of Ken’s gun cocking was echoed by a host of others as both Russians and Southerners drew arms.

“Romanov . . .” Jericho’s usually smooth tone gained a jagged edge under his duress. “What are you doing?”

The mafia don ignored Jericho, ignored the ring of guns surrounding them. Darkly shaded eyes remained fixed on Standish. Standish, the only person in the circle besides Jericho who had no weapon, raised his own glass to his lips and took a sip unconcernedly.

“Kill him if you wish,” the undercover agent told Romanov, “but do try not to get any blood on my shoes. They’re imported.”

Son of a bitch! Reilly had to be having an apoplexy. Ken would have loved to know what was going on in Standish’s head. An agent undercover always had to make independent decisions on the spot, but adding another agent to the equation, especially an unfamiliar one, complicated matters immensely.

“His death would not concern you?” Romanov asked.

Standish shrugged. “I would remind you that I was promised a certain fee, regardless of whether or not I was accepted for these negotiations. If you kill Jericho it will fall on you to provide me that entire amount.”

The stillness remained unbroken for a moment longer, then Romanov abruptly released Jericho. The Southern mob boss touched fingers to his throat, staring murder at the Russian. On all sides drawn firearms lowered slowly and Ken reluctantly lowered his own gun as well. But he did not reholster.

“Does this indicate you accept?” Standish asked.

Romanov’s lips stretched in a smile, a humorless grimace beneath sunglasses which made his eyes a permanent glare. “You think I am convinced because you would let him die? It means nothing.”

Behind Standish, a gun cocked. Ken cursed under his breath as a goonish Russian held the weapon to the ATF agent’s back.

Standish directed a small glace over his shoulder. “Ah, Isaak. Does this belong to you?” Ezra asked Romanov with a jerk of his head toward the thug behind him.

Romanov stepped forward. “Elijah must be paying you a substantial sum to sway these negotiations, but I have a counter offer for you: walk away now and I’ll let you live.”

Owens fingered the trigger of the gun in his own hands. The smart thing to do would be to take Romanov’s proposal. Walk. Other agents had done it; Standish wouldn’t be the first to fail in gaining the Russian’s approval. Ken bit the inside of his lip nervously. Those other agents had nothing to lose in walking away. Owens looked to the ATF agent from Denver.

Wearing a deathly serious expression for the first time since Ken had seen him tonight, Standish considered Romanov. The undercover agent stared Romanov in the eyes, though mirrored shades merely threw his own image back at him, and Owens wondered what advice Reilly and Larabee were offering through the wire.

“I don’t make repeat offers,” Romanov’s patience broke. “Make a decision.”

Ken considered his own options. As a member of Jericho’s following he couldn’t make a move to defend Standish without the mob boss’s approval, but as an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation he couldn’t allow harm to come to a fellow undercover operative. Jericho, standing between Ken and Romanov, looked irritated but unconcerned. If Owens drew on Isaak it would be at the cost of his own cover. Ken drew a determined breath.

“Very well,” Standish spoke abruptly. “I see there is nothing that can convince you of my good faith. I will take what I am owed for my inconvenience and apologize for having inconvenienced you.”

Standish nodded to Jericho, but Isaak’s gun remained at the agent’s back.

“Mr. Romanov,” Standish said. “If you tell this cretin to desist, I will take my leave.”

Ken exhaled in a relieved sigh as, at Romanov’s unspoken command, the Russian mobster withdrew. Isaak glared at Standish and strolled over to stand behind his boss.

Jericho ordered one of his lackeys to get him another drink. Ken cautiously reholstered his weapon and started a mental list of where the agency could find another prospective lawyer. He looked over to Romanov, who had backed away but was still watching Standish expectantly. Standish made no move to depart.

“Mr. Romanov. Are we through with these games?” Ezra’s words regained the attention of both the Russians and Southerners. Isaak took a menacing step toward Standish, and Ken reached for his gun again, but Romanov restrained his man with a hand on Isaak’s chest.

“You and I are both aware,” Ezra continued, “that no words of mine would be sufficient proof of my impartiality. That said, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by contracting my services as mediator for your negotiations.”

Romanov remained unmoved. “How is that so? You admit I cannot trust you.”

“Let me prove myself at negotiations. You will see that I conduct them to everyone’s advantage without favoring one side over the other.”

The Russian nodded slowly as he considered. Romanov reached up and removed his sunglasses. “And if I find otherwise?” he asked.

Standish smiled archly. “Then you’ll kill me.”

“I could do it now and save myself the trouble.”

“What trouble? It will be just as easy then as it is now, but now you turn down much in potential profits.”

Ken held his breath. He’d been through four of these things with other undercover agents, but none had gone this far.

Romanov studied Standish silently. Slowly the Russian mafia don turned his gaze from Standish to Jericho. Romanov smiled grimly.

“I accept.” He extended his hand, which Ezra shook graciously, unpleasantness seemingly forgotten.

“Mr. Romanov,” Standish wore a cocky grin, “I can see it will be a pleasure doing business with you.”

>>< <> ><<

JD heaved a sigh of relief, echoed heavily by Josiah. The audio had returned only just as Romanov issued his ultimatum to Standish.

Reilly ripped the mic from his ear as over the cameras Jericho, Romanov and Ezra toasted the beginning of a beautiful partnership.

“My other eye! Larabee, your agent sure pulls the devil by the tail! The thundering blaggard did it! I’ll put the tin hat on Jericho for sure! That was a right rare display. We’re on the pig’s back tonight, or I’m a Kerry witness!”

JD stared at Reilly rant thrilled skinny at the results of Ezra’s bravado. The paragraph might have been complimentary, but the Boston native couldn’t tell through the swarm of Irish euphemisms. Reilly’s exuberance was short lived, as he quickly whipped out his cell phone and gruffly began issuing orders.

Larabee was for once ignoring his FBI counterpart. He sat quietly back in his seat, staring steadfastly forward.

“Good job, Ezra,” he murmured very softly.

>>< <> ><<

“Mr. Bennett? Mr. Jericho sent me to give this to you.”

“Thank you,” Ezra nodded to his fellow undercover operative. Owens smiled back as he handed Standish a key with the number 407 engraved on it. “A trophy of tonight’s victory, I see,” Ezra commented.

“Trophy, hell,” Ken muttered in a low tone. “You deserve a medal for that performance. What were you thinking?”

Ezra regarded his comrade quizzically. He wasn’t used to receiving praise from . . . well, actually anybody, but especially not the FBI.

“I was thinking like a criminal. Does that surprise you?”

Owens stared at Ezra like a math equation he couldn’t figure out. “Jericho is in room 401 down the hall from yours,” Ken finally confided. “I’ve got the room right across from yours, 408. As Mr. Jericho says, call me if you need anything.” He looked as though he was going to say something more, but a voice cut in first.

“Kenny! Go get the pictures of my grandkids, would you?” Ezra and Ken were interrupted by Jericho, who had turned from his discussion with an elderly Russian to command Owens. “They’re in my room, in the blue bag.”

“Yes, sir,” Ken acknowledged. Then to Ezra: “Duty calls, Mr. Bennett. Enjoy the party,” he added with a self-depreciating as he departed. As he watched Ken disappear into the crowd of partygoers towards the elevator, Standish felt a hand touch his shoulder.

The undercover agent turned around.

>>< <> ><<

In the van, the monitor that Ezra’s camera fed into suddenly filled with static. Reilly and the three ATF agents continued to stare at it a second longer, but the picture did not return. JD jumped up and began fiddling with the wires that hooked into the back of the monitor.

“What now?” Reilly demanded.

“I don’t know.”

>>< <> ><<

Pale collarbones led to a gold peach blossom charm resting around the neck of the young woman Ezra had pulled away from the ledge. She stood close before Ezra. Her hand had remained as he had turned, so that it now rested on the front of his shoulder.

“First you ask me to swim, then you ask me to fly. Will you ask for a dance now?” Ezra asked.

“No,” she replied quietly.

Her pale and elegant hand traced its way down Ezra’s arm. The undercover agent gasped softly as the feather touch of her ivory fingertips tickled his skin beneath the fabric of his sleeve. His gaze traveled up the hand on his wrist to follow the curve of her pale arm, up to marble-white, bare shoulders brushed by soft, dark hair. As his regard touched her face, he didn’t know what emotion he expected to find there; and as her dark glassy eyes gazed dispassionately up into his own, Ezra could read nothing.

>>< <> ><<

“Get it back,” Reilly command.

“He’s trying,” Chris snapped as JD continued to check the connections to the monitor.

Reilly ripped the tie from his neck. “I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of the danger to your agent in there,” he growled in frustration. “We need to know what’s happening.”

“Maybe we should ask Ezra,” Josiah suggested evenly.

Chris glared at Reilly as he raised the walkie to his mouth.

“Ezra,” Chris called. There was no response. “Ezra, if you can hear me say something. Anything. Ezra!”

The airwaves remained ominously silent.

>>< <> ><<

A light breeze brought with it the strong, clean smell of chlorine from the pool. That light gust seemed to roar in Ezra’s ears, drowning out the band whose music had become muted to Ezra’s senses. Ezra frowned and strained to hear the song to which mobsters and mafia now danced. Sad, haunting notes hung thick in the air and bore into Ezra’s being. The band had switched their tone. What they played sounded like an old Russian folk tune.

Standish blinked and attempted to shake off the feeling of being in a dream. He looked up.

The dark-haired girl still stood an arm’s length away from him. Standish wondered if he should have left well enough alone – left her on the ledge. Inside the young lady’s impassive face, some passion lit her eyes that Standish couldn’t quite identify. The undercover agent wondered if that expression meant trouble for him.

She uttered not a word.

The band struck a high note and held it. Into the wavering fermata Ezra inhaled and opened his mouth to speak, but the words died on his lips as the woman moved. She advanced slowly, yet it happened fast all the same.

In a single breath her lips rested upon his.

>>< <> ><<

“Buck, Nathan, can you see him?”

Wilmington scanned the Grand Tributary’s rooftop through his binoculars. Partygoers crowded the roof in one mass of tuxedos, sequins and silk.

“Do you see him?” Buck asked Jackson.

Beside Wilmington, Nathan shook his head while keeping his eye to the viewfinder of the long-lensed camera he was holding.

“No.”

>>< <> ><<

Startled, Ezra attempted to draw away. Yet her lips, light and soft as a touch of mist upon his own, held him like a magnetic pull. Ezra knew that he should stop it, that this had potential to be dangerous. But he didn’t want to stop. Her hand still rested on his wrist. Bringing up his other hand he rested it on her cold, bare arm . . .

. . . and returned the kiss.

Her mysterious starry eyes were gently shut. The party vanished around them as Ezra allowed his own eyelids to descend.

>>< <> ><<

“There’s too many people,” Buck’s voice told the agents in the surveillance van. “We can’t spot Ezra.”

“Maybe you should have spent more time keeping an eye on Standish and less time bird watching,” Reilly growled, accusation heavy in his tone.

“Look, Reilly, if you don’t have anything constructive to add-” Chris threatened.

“If your agents, Larabee, had been doing their job-”

JD spared a moment to share a look with Josiah as they both rolled their eyes.

>>< <> ><<

Ezra saw nothing, heard nothing of the gathering going on around him. In the whole of Ezra’s life there had never been a kiss like this. It was neither casual nor wanton, but rather like a gift given unselfishly. Yet it needed and demanded something in return.

Wrapped in the sensual darkness of the kiss, Ezra suddenly tasted salt on his lips. His eyelids lifted slightly only to be met with more darkness. Her eyes, black and inscrutable as the void of space, gazing intently into his. In that field of blackness a crystal star blossomed and fell. Ezra beheld the tear slip down the girl’s cheek and into her mouth.

The mysterious woman broke away from him.

>>< <> ><<

“You want me to go up there?” Vin’s concerned voice broke Chris and Reilly’s heated words. Larabee snatched up his walkie.

“Hang on, Vin. JD, what’s the status of our equipment?” Chris asked.

Dunne shook his head. “Everything seems fine on our end. It’s gotta be a problem up there.”

Reilly glared at Larabee. “Wilmington, do you or Jackson have line of sight yet?”

“No, we still can’t . . . Hang on! I think I see him.”

The agents staking out the Grand Tributary waited in baited silence.

>>< <> ><<

Silence resonated in Ezra’s eardrums. The dark-haired woman’s lips parted and she leaned in again, quickly, her lips brushing his ear.

“Save me,” she whispered.

Wilmington’s voice suddenly boomed through Ezra’s earpiece.

“There he is! We see him!”

Standish winced as Buck’s excited declaration reverberated in his eardrum. The undercover agent looked back up but saw only unfamiliar mobsters and their girlfriends, dancing to the band’s moderate tempo. The woman in the gold dress was gone.

“Keep it down, Buck,” Ezra muttered. He made a full turn. Still nowhere in sight. “See who?”

“See you, Ez,” Wilmington returned in a more hushed tone of voice. “What happened?”

Ezra meandered away from the crowd, back to the balcony. He realized that he was out of breath and inhaled deeply.

“Ezra,” Larabee’s voice snapped through the wire. “You still there? Are you okay?”

“Fine, Mr. Larabee,” the Southern agent assured them. “Just fine. Am I to take it from your queries that you missed that exchange?”

“We lost all video and audio communication for a minute or two. What happened?”

A minute or two? Surely the kiss could not have taken more than a few seconds. Ezra felt a cool breeze on the back of his neck. He looked to his left and to his right, but this close to the edge he was alone.

“Nothing,” Standish murmured as he took a step away from the ledge. He looked to where he had only just seen the strange woman. There was nobody.

“Ezra, I don’t like this. Do you want to pull out now?”

Angry brogue in the background told Standish that Reilly did not agree with Chris’ suggestion.

“No,” the undercover agent returned. “No need. Everything is fine. Let me get back to work.”

“All right,” Larabee said reluctantly. “We’re here if you need us.”

Ezra nodded even though he knew the surveillance team could not see the gesture. With one last look behind him, Standish rejoined the party.

The gala lasted long past the setting of the moon. Ezra schmoozed with mobsters from both Russia and Atlanta but, though he looked, never again encountered the dark-haired woman in the gold dress. When the party finally declined and Ezra retired to his sumptuous room for the night, he could still taste her tear on his lips.

END
Chapter 2: Conflict of Interest

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