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Shades Of Doubt

How far would you go for a friend? Ireland? Underground? To bed with the enemy?

Charlize Deseu had it all, great looks, great career, money...none of which can save her from herself. She thought her troubles with The Outfit were over. She'd seen to their prosecution only to discover the local unit was only one of many. One of many ugly truths her best friend has decided to investigate for an expose. Problem is Danni's gone missing, and Charlie's off to find her.

The kidnapping of his childhood friend has forced Brock O'Bannon to forgo his vow to never return to Belfast. He'll do what it takes to see her found and justice delivered.

From two vastly different worlds, Brock and Charlie must team up to find their friend, right the current misconception about the origin of nefarious activities, and survive. Tensions run high, chemistry higher in this winner takes all.

Book 2 of the Luck of the Irish series

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Kally Jo Surbeck

Kally Jo Surbeck is a multi-award-winning best-selling author of several genres. She has over thirteen books, including participation in several anthologies.

A few of her accomplishments are Colorado Author of The Year, the EPPIE (Excellence in electronic publishing) Action category. Ms Surbeck, was, at that time, the first woman to have written and won in said category.

She is also the winner of the Daphne duMaurier in thriller/suspense. Her poetry was her first writing sale at the tender age of twelve. Her works are in several different anthologies, commemorative additions, and one is even in the Holocaust Museum.

https://www.facebook.com/Kally.Surbeck.Owren

Coming Soon...
Excerpt

Intro

For those who don’t know me, I’ve always been a civic-minded, patriotic, do-my-duty tax attorney who definitely would not consider herself paranoid, lawbreaking, or overly emotionally fragile. At least, that’s how I would have described myself four years ago. The description fit me to the proverbial T.

Until I met the woman who changed my world. Mackenzie Harmon. And him, her husband -- Gabriel Zumbrenen. Those two turned my life from state-of-the-art, run-of-the-mill complacency to topsy-turvy, borderline lawbreaking in no time flat.

A matter of days, really.

Sure, I was my mother’s little darling and maybe raised a teensy bit on the sheltered side. Not bad, just a little. I knew I lived the good life, and was perfectly contented with that static norm. It suited me. For the majority of my life I’d had two parents, a family Dalmatian, old money... some new. I had it all and thought life good. My career looked solid, if only I could choose where I wanted to work.

Yes, I know; the dilemma!

See, when I met her, I was visiting a firm in Toronto. Thought to set up some good cross-communications between them and us, and well, maybe see if we could figure out some beneficial joint tax breaks for all of the Canadian/American commuters. The trip had been a huge success of mixed blessings.

The firm thought they’d like to hire me.

I thought I’d like a change of pace. The challenge of something new -- even though I wasn’t certain that I wanted to travel daily to Canada, trekking the fair-sized commute -- did hold appeal.

When the partners came into the conference room and proposed the promotion, I played it cool. At least I hoped I did. I told them I’d think about it. And I did. Boy, did I ever think about it. The possibilities cornered my thoughts the rest of the day, batting the fragile idea into the corner and caging the vacillating views there where the only relief they received was being batted from one wall to the other. Finally, when I thought I couldn’t think about it anymore, I made a long list of black PROs and red CONs -- love lists -- then stared at that for hours.

Hard not to see the beauty and lure of how the new job would be an incredible opportunity. It would also open the chance for me to be a junior partner and that was something I had worked hard to achieve at a young age. It would show my father I had what it took to be away from his name, his company, his money. But, and there is always a but, right? I loved where I lived, my friends, and as mundane as it sounds, the routine of it all.

Advancement on one hand.

Security on the other.

Ambition won.

Eyes blurry from lack of sleep and from staring endlessly at the list, I looked up. The green neon light on the hotel nightstand warbled the squared-off numbers saying that it was O’dark and pushing light. The oblong table was covered with my lists and supporting evidence. I stood, stretched, and muttered a prayer of appreciation for the chairs in my office. Hotel chairs were just not made for extended usage.

I’d need to get ready for work soon. With the time remaining, I decided to take a walk, watch the wonder of a sunrise in Canada, and try not to contemplate just how the day would proceed. That’s the problem with attorneys. We’re always trying to see every angle, foretell every argument. It’s enough to make a body tired, and I was tired enough without allowing my thoughts to run me around in endless circles.

Task for the day was to negotiate a part-time schedule. If I held off taking the title of junior partner, then maybe they would be more lenient with the schedule I thought to propose.

Maybe not.

Maybe if I took the title junior partner, it would be all right that I still crossed over, split my time between Canada and the States. Maybe, if I negotiated the conversation well, I could get that in as part of my job description.

I headed down the eleven stairs from the hotel lobby to the street and out into the morning freshness just knowing I could parlay the contract for a job offering in my favor.

A win-win situation. That was what I needed. That is what I would make happen.

The crisp air tickled my skin into tiny goosebumps. Yes, this was how I wanted to see the city. Perhaps, if I really liked it, I’d lease an apartment as well. Be a jet-setter of sorts. Save on some of the commuting.

With no particular destination save maybe a gourmet coffee shop I’d spotted the day before, I headed north. The morning was cool and gorgeous. The air smelled fresh. The world seemed to be awakening. Not at the hurried pace with which I was accustomed, but a slow unfurling of the arms and a catlike stretch of leisure. Pinks and oranges were just beginning to burst across the sky. It reminded me of Monet’s Sunrise. Simple. Beautiful. A work of art defying adequate representation through words.

So there I was, admiring the day, the country, the city, deep in thought over God’s miraculous creations, when I was attacked. Bombarded out of the blue. Assaulted. So stunned by the vile man himself, his roving hands, the cold steel of his gun against my skin, his foul breath, I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even move. Looking back, I’m now certain I was in shock. But I quite literally could not reboot my brain into functioning. He shoved me from the main street down a long, empty alley.

She saved me.

From nowhere, she appeared. A little shorter than I, though I was in heels, decked out in sweat pants and sweatshirt, ill-fitting and differing shades of black, Mac. Her thick hair pulled away from a beautiful face. She had wise eyes and a wiser mouth.

In seconds, she had the situation under control. The filthy bastard’s face pressed hard against the gutter in that side alley right where it belonged. Instead of mine, his grunts of surprise and displeasure echoed off the stone walls and asphalt. Quite a moment. For me, an eye-opening one.

It was there, on that day, underneath that breathtaking sunrise, that Mackenzie, Mac, became a permanent fixture in my life. I owed her…well, everything. And I always pay my debts.

This debt wasn’t so bad. Not in the beginning. Then, it was right up my alley (in a manner of speaking). Mac had somehow uncovered -- I didn’t want to know how -- a colossal amount of felonious business practices and private horror stories about her bosses, a particularly nasty batch of baddies who claimed to be a mafia of some acclaim.

I had a deep-seated suspicion that The Outfit was far worse and sunk in much deeper to the Underworld than the tax evasion and money laundering paperwork Mac had on them, but the information she had was definitely a good start to bringing them down. Beyond that I, truthfully, didn’t want to know more about The Outfit.

Working with the CIA, Mac got them apprehended by the authorities. My job was to see them prosecuted to the extent the law would allow for their crimes against the Federal Government as they related to Tax Fraud, Tax Evasion, and possible Money Laundering.

And that’s exactly what I did.

 

Chapter One

March 17

Detroit, Michigan

Sentencing day

I arrived at the courthouse early. The rains were in, soaking the city in a hazy grey fog of cold and ick. By arriving a bit before the call, I hoped to salvage a few precious moments to air dry in the lobby before setting foot into the cramped confines of the courtroom, pressed elbow to elbow with complete strangers in musk, wet wool, and stale cologne.

I wore my favorite power suit, charcoal gray with tiny pink pinstripes. Mother loved it. When she and I bought the ensemble on a trip to San Francisco, Mother’d said that it was exactly the impression a career-oriented woman wanted to present: sophisticated, simple, yet still alluringly woman.

She’d known better than anyone. At thirty-seven-years-old, Yvette Deseu-Renyard had taken over as majority shareholder in her own investment firm. Although she’d lost her life at fifty-eight to a long battle with breast cancer, she’d influenced my life forever. Mother’s delicate taste and strong sense of self gave me confidence on pivotal days.

And there was no more important day than March seventeenth, Saint Patrick’s Day, the day The Outfit went down.

“We the jury – “

Lips pressed together, I held my breath. My knuckles ached from having all of the fingers on my right hand crossed. I didn’t want others to see so I carefully concealed the right hand under the left. My foot tapped. My charcoal Weitzman’s clipped a clear, crisp staccato on the tiled courtroom floor.

The poised bailiff cocked his brow at the noise.

I hadn’t worked the prosecution myself, though in a way I felt it was very much my case.

The feds handled it. However, they had asked for my participation and the partners at my firm were all about that exposure, so they’d turned me loose. They told me however involved I wanted to be, I could be. Yes. I had stayed with my firm and taken the in-house promotion.

I enjoy trials, always have, but it’s not really where I shine. Research, that’s my cuppa. Cross-examination is fun. Discovery of twists, turns, and facts is what I love. The enormity of this case weighed heavily on my heart and I was not willing to risk everything on any of my skills. Help, yes. Spearhead? No.

No. This was too important. I owed a debt I would see fulfilled. The best way to do that was to leave the case to those whose job it is to prosecute. Still, I did want to help. I felt I had to. So, I’d assisted with the research, exploration, and the collation of extensive data on all of the known members of The Outfit involved in the Four Corners operation of Detroit, Michigan.

Over the course of the investigation and prosecution, my free time ran nonexistent. Not that I’d had a lot before. My life was filled with the few close friends I considered my family, several yearly gatherings, endless meetings, and some charities, but even those niceties were curtailed by my involvement in this case.

Every waking hour I wasn’t working on my assigned caseload at the firm, I poured my heart and soul into cementing this case. Actually, all four cases, but it was one and the same to me. The Outfit. An organized crime society in Michigan. Their business would be abolished. Their society defunct. Each man, his face, his cologne, his accent, hell, his preferred clothing designer, all of it seared into my mind and collated on the evidence tables.

I could probably even offer up each man’s shorts size for evidence if I were called upon to do so. I had it all there, recorded on paper. So, research and more research, then collation. Then the trial began and I’d spent almost three full weeks testifying. All of that ensured I had the pleasure of sitting in the courtroom when the verdict was delivered.

The bailiff covered his mouth and coughed, looking directly at me.

Nothing would have kept me from being there -- it was the day. Overweight, balding bailiff’s raised brow of reprimand and all.

Mustering my strength, I offered him a dazzling smile.

“ -- guilty on all counts -- “

Mon Dieu! We did it.

“On the fourth count of -- “

I couldn’t believe it. My heart stuttered. It skipped. It lodged high in my chest wedged between my breastbone and my pride. I mean I was thrilled and it was exactly what needed to happen, but – Holy crap! A shout of elation tickled my throat and had my toe tapping twenty-four beat until court was dismissed.

“Sentencing is scheduled for four p.m. -- “

A ruckus began in the back of the courtroom as the press jockeyed to be first out the door, first in line, ready to snare a covetous first quote from the victorious side.

“ -- that’s a Thursday. Court dismissed.”

What? What day? Never mind, I’d get it from the desk.

The viewers, attorneys, and witnesses spilled out into the main lobby with the rush and clamor of excitement, into the waiting media frenzy.

“Congrats!” Slaps on the back. “Great job. We did it!”

Bouncing between the congratulatory poundings and jovial shouts, I let myself be jostled to the back of the crush. There were so many people and they all seemed to speak at once. The camera operators hustled to get ahead of the wave of onlookers, craving the best shot. The reporters jabbed their microphones at everyone, catching snippets of conversation. The experience was overwhelming. I felt the noxious murmurs of claustrophobia clamor for footing in my mind.

Our attorneys nodded at me over bobbing heads and high-fives, but they quickly moved off down the hallway. I’m sure I could have joined them, maybe even should have, but I didn’t feel like it. I needed space, fresh air, a moment without people touching me, pushing me, moving me against my will.

Then I had it. The crowd spilled out and down the steps of the courthouse, leaving me behind, and I suddenly felt very alone. I slipped on my overcoat, tied the sash. Even with the warmth of the jacket and leftover body heat, I suppressed a shudder as a chill rushed the length of my spine. Running a hand through my long hair, I looked around. There were many people left, different attorneys, their clients, other witnesses for other cases, but no one for me to share my joy with... except, I bit my lip, maybe Mac.

I could call her. She’d definitely want to know.

I checked my Villemont. It was after six a.m. in her part of the world. She’d be up. She was always up. That woman didn’t sleep. I’d die if I went as long as she did without sleep. I flicked my nail as I thought on my options.

Of course, I’d have to call the service that paged her and she’d have to call me back, but this was truly a momentous occasion and she wouldn’t mind the disturbance. Before I had a chance to pull the phone from my purse, it rang.

“Hello?” I tucked stray hairs behind my ear. “This is Charlize, how may I help you?”

“Hey there, Charlie.”

Despite myself, I smiled. “Mac. Nice to hear from you. I was just thinking of giving you a jingle to let you know the verdict.”

“Guilty.”

Her husky voice said the one word with such a mixture of humor and sadness; I was confused as well as frustrated. She’d just stolen my fun! She never phoned from the same number, and all rang through as “restricted” on my caller id so I had no way of knowing when it was her calling. I wished, not for the first time, for a means to give her her own ringtone.

“Word has it the official call was a guilty verdict on all counts, even, Charlie. Your team did a good job. Congratulations. You should be proud.”

“How would you -- ? Do you?” I sputtered. Shook my head and glanced around the quickly emptying lobby. The case in the next courtroom had been called so the few remaining people in the lobby seemed far away. They paid me no mind. Sequestered into a handful of small groups, they seemed contented with their own business. Their heads hung, dipped toward each other. They spoke in hushed tones. Still, one could never be too careful.

“I could tell you, but...”

I allowed a steadying breath before saying anything else. Thanks to her, this is what my life had become -- jam-packed paranoia.

“Never mind. I don’t want to know how you know.” I didn’t. By now, I knew not to even ask. The answers were always worse than the wondering. And that was if I got an answer. That was a very big if.

Mac’s throaty laugher sounded across the airwaves. No one listening in would have been able to guess she was all the way down in Bora Bora, sitting on the beach, probably watching the brilliant Tahitian sunrise, but I could visualize it. Without even shutting my eyes, and more than a little envious, I pictured her lying in a hammock with Gabe, snuggled up close.

“Really, Charlie. I’m disappointed in you. After all this time together, I thought you knew better. Having invested so much, I can’t afford to not to be on top of every single detail.”

Very true. The Outfit had nearly cost Mac her future, her life, and those she so dearly loved. Had I truly thought she’d stay out of it? No, not really. Still, for all those electronic ears who might be listening... “I just left the courtroom. Your contact told you quickly.”

A deep, masculine voice rumbled in the background. Ahh. There he was. Gabe.

Again, she laughed. “So that’s how it is, Charlie?”

“That’s how it should be.” A noisy couple passed by, laughing and joking. “That’s how you taught me it should be, anyway.”

“All right. You’re right. You’re right.” She paused for effect. There was a muffled shuffle on the phone as though she had her hand over the mouthpiece. Though feigned, when she came back on line her version of exuberance could have been convincing, to some. “Hey, Charlie, can you believe it? The call came... early this morning, telling me all about it. You did great. Congrats.”

To some, that is, but not to me. I shook my head. Insufferable. Pushing the limits -- always. “Yes. We did it, Mac.” Work with me. Please. At least while I’m still in the courthouse! “We got them.”

She instantly sobered, mumbled something to Gabe, then came back to me clearing her throat. “Not exactly.”

All of the warm, happy feelings bouncing around in my brain dropped straight out of my body and puddled in a pool on the floor along with the sloughed off rainwater. “Yes. We did.”

“Uhh, unh-uh.”

The pattern on the floor began to jump up at me. The tiny black squares pulsed with the same strength and agitation I felt beginning to gnaw at my stomach. “Guilty on all counts. All remaining members of The Outfit have been indicted. They’ll be incarcerated for a very long time, I might add.”

“‘All remaining members’ is a rather broad statement.” Her voice sounded thin. It took a great deal to truly make Mac angry, but whatever this was, it had.

Where only moments before my heart had hammered in my chest with excitement for a job well done, it now thudded with dread. Same crazy cadence, far different emotion. I hated it when Mac took that tone. That nothing-is-that-easy tone. That someone-has-pissed-me-off tone. That tone that said a curve ball had been thrown. Yes, I knew that tone. “What?”

“Did you listen to all of the verdicts? Did you happen to hear there was a plea offered to Sorrenson? Henderson’s already brokered a deal. Lippencot apparently is in negotiations as we speak. I don’t know about Treadway yet, but they’ll all cop.”

“Wh-hat?” No. I’d been so pleased to hear the guilty my mind had shut down after that. What had I missed?

“Charlie, there are some complications you need to be made aware of.”

I knew that vagueness. When Mac became vague, it meant only bad things. I rubbed my eyes. They burned. Pulling my hand away, I checked it for mascara. No smudges. Good. That was all I needed, humidified hair and raccoon eyes.

“I take it from your silence, Charlie, you appreciate the gravity of that statement.”

Did I ever.

“I also take it you understand that their copping out can raise… further problems.”

“No. It doesn’t. Not for me. I did my job.” Why hadn’t I listened? I knew appeals could go on forever, but I’d assumed if any of the men were copping a plea, it would have been done before the very public trial, not after.

“Yes, you did. And you did it wonderfully, but it’s not over.”

“My part is.”

“Not exactly.”

Slowly, I slumped back against a tall support pillar. The solid structure offered false assurance. I closed my eyes. The floor pattern continued to pulse behind my lids.

“Charlie? Are you still there?”

I don’t know how I worked the pleasantness into my voice. “Still here.”

“You understand the significance of what I’m saying?”

I remained silent.

Remorse laced Mac’s words. “That makes things easier. This stage of the prosecution, what you all took them to court for, was for the tax evasion and fraud. As much as it should’ve been bigger crimes, it wasn’t. The Outfit has money and connections. Neither should be taken lightly. They’ll get time served or a slap on the wrist with restrictions.”

“What? You mean you haven’t already heard?” The sarcasm in my tone was biting and I felt petty and childlike and loathed myself for it. I heard what she was saying, and I knew she was right, but I could not accept it. “They’ll all do time, Mac. Solid time.”

“Look, we can’t go into this right now, but I’ve sent a friendly face to talk to you about it. You know why I can’t do it in person. He’ll explain everything.”

That didn’t sound like the Mac I knew. “Everything?”

“As much as you need to know, anyway.”

There she was.

A brief silence filled the line. When she spoke again her voice dropped a notch. “Really, Charlie, I wish this call were only for pleasantries. You did a great job on your end, all you could do. You worked your butt off. A lot of sacrifices. Don’t think I don’t know it. I do and I’ll appreciate it, always.”

Damn her! She sounded so sincere. “Not good enough,” I sighed. Tears stung the back of my eyes.

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. I’ll be in touch.” She hung up before I could ask about her contact.

“No!” You can’t do this to me, my mind howled. I stared at my phone. The LCD automatically powered down after five seconds. The muted picture of a tropical sunset replaced the timer. No more Mac. No more happy feeling. No more job well done. The resounding pulse resonating in the deep muscles of my shoulders from the pats on the back thudded.

Great. Just great. A beautiful day crushed to pulp in less than five minutes. Long distance, no less. That took skill. “Thanks, Mac.”

“She says to tell you ‘You’re welcome’.”

That voice. I knew that voice. Sort of. Deeper than I remembered, but it possessed that same strum of cockiness, confidence, and amusement. I looked up, my head nearly clipping his angular chin. “Bobby!” Then stopped. It was not a boy who stood in front of me, but a strapping young man. “Bobby?”

“Yeah.” He stepped right into my hug, like a long-lost friend. Which I suppose he was, in a manner of speaking. His arms -- much enlarged from our last meeting -- encircled me. They pulled me tight to his chest. A hard chest. A defined chest. Rock hard with ridges. He smelled of some exotic blend that might have held the hint of flowers, but was too spicy to keep the floral impression long.

After he kissed me on both cheeks, he smiled. There it was, the kid’s lopsided grin. “Not quite what you remember, huh?”

“No.” That was a huge understatement. “It’s not Robert or Bob or something now, is it?”

A huge smile, one that lit the room, graced his handsome face. “Nope. I’ll always be ‘Bobby’. It suits me.”

My gaze slid from the top of his sun-bleached head to his toes. The caramel and tan of his trousers and overcoat, with the contrast of the crisp, starched white of his open-necked shirt, set off his surfer looks perfectly. “Mon Dieu, you are now a man!”

“I was a man before,” came his indignant reply, though tempered with a laugh.

No. No. I definitely remembered a boy. “Let me look at you.”

Humoring me, he did a three-sixty and posed. G-Q. “What’d you expect? It’s been a long time.”

Four years. A long time, indeed. Years of work that, apparently, was not enough. Four wasted years. Still trying to reconcile what I remembered with what he’d become, I ciphered the math. “That makes you twenty-one now.”

“Yes, ma’am. Pushing the double twos.”

His age and the ma’am thing shook me out of my stupor. Nothing like seeing the transformation before me to make me feel old. He’d grown up. I’d aged. “You look good. Great even. It seems island life suits you.”

“For the most part.”

“Ahh.” I dropped the phone into my purse and slung it over my shoulder. “There’s that vagueness I’ve come to dread. You’ve spent too much time with Mac.”

He shrugged. “Love the water, the waves, and the babes, but I’ve got a new gig now.”

“Me.”

He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“I don’t like the sound of that so much.”

He shifted uncomfortably from one loafer-clad foot to the other. They were nice shoes -- a deep caramel that matched his trench. Sebagos, if I wasn’t mistaken, and when it came to quality shoes, I rarely was. At least he hadn’t taken after Mackenzie in fashion sense. Little blessings.

“Yeah. Mac said you’d probably say that, too. Wanna go grab a cup of coffee and I can explain things?”

I shook my head. “Somehow, I don’t think an espresso is exactly what this situation calls for.” Double bourbon. That was what it called for.

“You’re probably right,” he conceded. “No use getting you more excited than need be, but I’ve been on a plane all night long and I need caffeine. In a bad way. Stale pretzels and a half a soda don’t cut it.” He offered me a sheepish smile as he twisted his long torso from side to side. “It’s going to be another long day. Besides, my sweet, beautiful attorney, I have my orders on how this works. A crowded diner or something.”

Ahh, yes. The buzz of conversation to cover our own.

A general meeting place.

A location to blend and mingle.

I could almost hear Mackenzie chastising me for slipping. How many times had she and I spoke down by the tracks with the rattle and clank to cover our words, or at the Garden Bowl? I should’ve known that she would have ingrained her safety mechanisms in the kid, er, the man. I shook my head. That might take a little getting accustomed to. “There’s a good place down that way.”

Like a true gentleman, he offered me his bent elbow. “Shall we?”

I slipped my hand through his arm. The slick material of his overcoat rested easy under my palm. Its smooth, unwrinkled texture temporarily placated my growing frustration. The need for information warred with patience. Why all the need for secrecy? We’d just managed the impossible. The men were indicted on all counts. Keep telling yourself that. Mac has never given you even partially false information. You dropped the ball.

As we departed the courthouse Bobby tilted his head a little to the side, whispering in a way that lovers might. I watched the admiring glances from young women as we passed. I was suddenly invisible, but he definitely wasn’t. The reversal of my life set a little uneasy on my conscience.

At least the rain had stopped.

“Natasha, please stop wrinkling your forehead. It doesn’t suit you.”

I cocked a brow at him. I hated that silly name. “It’s Charlie, or Charlize, and I need answers. The questions before us trouble me. That is why my brow is creased. Mac sounded worried and that worries me.”

He laughed. “Natasha’s better.”

Taking a deep breath, I let him lead. We crossed the busy intersection. I couldn’t believe he still insisted on the corny code name he’d created when we first met. What was wrong with Charlie? “Too bad, because Charlie’s the name.”

He frowned. “You’re no fun.”

“I’m not in this for the excitement. I’m not in this for the game, like you and Mac. I owed Mackenzie. I paid Mackenzie. And though, apparently, the trials are not completely finished, once they are, I’m no longer a part of this.”

“It’s not like turning a television on and off. It’s not that simple.”

I allowed him to hold the door to the restaurant open for me. “Yes. It is. That’s a perfect analogy. The show is over.”

The restaurant was bustling with the lunch crowd significantly increased by the early dismissal of court. All types of businesspersons filled the tables and booths. They lined the counter as well. The waitress, short, cute, and with huge blue eyes batting up at Bobby, sat us near the kitchen. It was noisy, busy, and perfect for our needs.

Bobby took the north seat, the one facing the entrance. As he sank onto the creaky turquoise plastic seat with the easy grace of the confident, he informed our server, “I’ll take the Grand. Maple syrup. A large Coke, and a water with lemon.” He cocked his head to the side. Tapping the Formica tabletop he prompted, “Natasha?”

If it wouldn’t have been so obvious, I’d have used the blessed pointy-toe of my shoe to tag him. Hard. In the shin. Deep down I’ve always harbored the belief that my Weitzmans could draw blood. Instead, I swallowed my pride and swore I would get my revenge later. “The Reuben. Light on the dressing. With fries, not touching. Ranch, on the side, and a water, please. With lemon and a straw.”

The cute little waitress scribbled on her notepad, nodded, gave Bobby a wink, and took off with a bounce in her step I knew I couldn’t possess working tables.

I extracted several napkins from the dispenser and wiped the table down. There wasn’t anything there, but before I would open my silverware, I wanted to be certain. “So, Bobby, what’s so important that Mac had to send you? She said that several of the members were going to cop a plea. That’s not really my area, but I’m certain the attorneys will keep me posted on how the process plays out.”

Bobby shook his head. “You know Mac wouldn’t use you for information. She has better connected sources. Not that you aren’t well connected, but that’s not it. Your deal was you would bring The Outfit down. Am I right?”

I suddenly felt extremely wary. This conversation gave me the uneasy sensation of balancing on very thin ice. With each breath I could hear it cracking, feel it give way. Without notice I could be submerged, in over my head, with no escape. “No. I told Mac I would see the members prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

“How’s that different?”

Semantics. I tried a different approach. “Why does Mac think that this isn’t settled now?” Just then my purse vibrated. I held a finger in the air. I opened my phone to find a text message from one of the partners.

Cases settled. PO. TS. They’re gone. We’re Done.

No!

“What’s that?”

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The Outfit had done it. They pled out. Time served. And they were gone. It was a nightmare. “Just work.” I slapped the phone down.

Bobby scratched his chin. “About this?”

“Tell me what you know. Now.”

“What do you want to know first?”

“You say my involvement is not finished. You know the…” I hesitated. “The men got off. Are the situations related?”

He nodded. “In a manner of speaking, yes.”

That did not bode well. My heart skipped a beat. This was wrong. So wrong. I twisted my earring making certain the back was firmly in place. Then I suddenly felt better. This wasn’t my problem. It didn’t affect me. “Maybe it really doesn’t matter, overall. My part in this is done. I took the paper trail to the authorities. I aided the authorities. Hell, I even testified. I’m done.”

Bobby’s Adam’s apple dipped low in his throat. The bright white of his shirt set off the smooth, even tan on his skin. “I guess Mac didn’t teach you as much as she thought she did.”

I arched a brow.

“Once you’re involved, you’re always involved.”

“No.” The resistance was out of my mouth before he finished speaking.

“Yes. It’s a sad and ugly fact, but a fact just the same. Even had they not pled out, The Outfit does not let go. They do not forget nor do they forgive…anything.” He leaned back in his chair, one arm hooked around the metal back. “Danni. Who’s she to you?”

The crowded luncheonette faded, my questions all disappeared. The snide comment about what he could do with his “fact” died on my tongue. Mindless chatter in the room swirled into a hum of nothingness. Bobby’s face wavered and the image of my dearest friend coalesced.

Tall. Taller than I. She stood five foot nine inches without heels. Where our hair was the same length, hers had the natural spirals all women admire. My straight blonde paled next to her vibrant auburn. Danelle Nolan, sapphire-eyed investigative reporter, sorority sister, and the only person I’d ever considered family after my mother died.

My father was technically still around, but he’d grown distant, consumed by his business and his new bride, who was two years my junior. They traveled a lot. They were even talking of starting a new family. One without me. That was just fine. Danni was my sister. She had no family here. When she’d left Ireland as a teen, she’d forfeited all of her relations. I counted on her and she on me. My mouth grew suddenly dry and I desperately wanted my water.

As if on cue, the waitress arrived at our table to deliver our drinks. Bobby winked at her and offered his courteous thanks. His large brown eyes, the color of buffed amber, fringed with dark lashes, held the woman captivated for a moment. Oh, the kid had it. The world was in jeopardy with him loose. The action was enough to jerk me from my sadness and back to the present.

He took a long pull on his Coke. “So who is she?”

“She’s my friend and she has no bearing on this conversation. This is between me and Mac. It doesn’t even involve you, though I can appreciate why you’d think it would.” My voice sounded calm. Modulated. How was control possible when my insides shook like an eight-point-O? Mac and Bobby had no business asking about Danni. She was special. Even her name was sacred.

His gaze slid past me, over the inhabitants of the room. The scan took almost a full minute. His sharp gaze missed nothing. It made me want to look around the room as well, to see what he saw. But then again, I wouldn’t. He’d been trained by the best. After he finished his sweep, he took another drink, nearly finishing the Coke in two additional swallows. “She was in contact with Mac. Did you know that?”

No. No, I hadn’t.

“So, Charlie, you see, this conversation is all about her.”

“Why? Why would Danni have talked to Mac?”

“After the bust...” He scraped his hand over his face. Only his eyes looked tired. They gave the impression of an old soul, a soul that had witnessed too much. “I don’t even know how far back to go.” He sighed, apparently waiting for me to say something, give him some direction, but I had no voice. He’d have to wing this on his own. “Okay. How about this? The feds were tied up with the bust, so Mac had some... free time before she moved.”

My eyes narrowed but my mouth remained tightly shut. Mac should never have free time. It was dangerous.

“She knew how to get into The Outfit’s offices, so she thought she should make certain there was a thorough investigation, if you know what I mean.”

Still silent. I sat and waited. The legal consequence of any response was too risky. Even my listening to this bordered on bad decision making. Why would Mac break the trust she had with the feds just to get data? I didn’t buy it.

“There were things she knew to look for. Things she’d seen or heard about over the years. Since she was an assistant there, at one time, she knew her way around the place and places to investigate. Places that might be overlooked by the feds.”

Nothing.

He shifted uncomfortably. “Okay, so in the conference room, under the meeting table there was a lockbox.”

I’d been in that room. And there was no such thing. Had Mac purposely fed Bobby the wrong information so he would never be held responsible for her behavior? It was a thought.

“Not too big. Not too heavy.”

Convenient.

“Mac Bogarted it before the feds got there to do their search.”

No. She’d told him this sad story so if he ever cracked, not that she believed he would, but if he did, no one would believe him. But why? To protect him or to sway me?

“Inside she found some paperwork on Treadway, the whole Outfit really. And when I say whole, I mean whole.”

She had cleaned out that safe in Johansen’s office when she went in to get her daddy’s contract, that I knew. Was there more than one safe? Of course there were. All of those men had dirty secrets—even from each other—especially from each other. I licked my lips and found my voice. “Say I believe any of this. And that is a huge if since I don’t want to believe she was not wholly up front with the feds when she made her deal. What kind of paperwork?”

“The kind that said the boys here in town have more than a few contacts. Their grasp is far-reaching. Farther than the Four Corners. Deeper than Detroit.”

“Oh, dear.” That did have to be from a different safe. There was no way Johansen would have had or kept that information. I’d bet she got it from Treadway or maybe Lippencot. That bastard had blackmail on everyone.

“Yeah. The kind of paperwork that said no matter what you or the courts did, The Outfit would not go down. Sure, they might serve a little time, but guys like Sorrenson -- ?”

“What about Sorrenson?” I choked.

Bobby looked down. I give him credit. He knew this was hard for me, so I can only imagine how hard it was for him to deliver the news.

“Word came down on this already.”

How the hell was that possible? “Word that is common knowledge? Word that has been publicly announced?”

“No. Not that kind of word, but reliable word on the street.”

I nodded I understood.

“His sentence is mostly time served. Being a legal freak apparently has its bennies.”

I wondered if I should tell him about the text message.

“He knew the right out and he used it. He’ll be free and clear before the end of the day.”

“Unfortunately you’re correct.” I had fleetingly considered Sorrenson’s lackluster fight, but had foolishly attributed it to the breadth and scope of intel we had, plus all of them being caught in the commission of several felonies. I was having trouble thinking straight, trouble swallowing past the rising bile in my throat. What in God’s name had I spent four years doing?

“From what I hear,” Bobby continued, “there was a roster of sorts in the paperwork that Mac found, some contacts in case of trouble. Branches of the organization where it melds with other organizations. Names to go to if there were a dissolution here in Detroit or if they needed to increase the work force. There were a couple pictures and some other stuff that I’m not sure about.”

“Why aren’t you sure?” Realization dawned just as quickly. “She didn’t let you see what was inside. Did she? Mac didn’t let you see the file.”

He shifted again, his gaze on the man behind me. “No. Said it was too dangerous.”

“Too dangerous? She’ll send you out in the middle of...of,” what the hell was this? I shook my head. It was almost humorous, if it didn’t involve people’s lives. “What’s more dangerous than not enough information?”

Dear, earnest Bobby stared me down. “Too much.”

C’est un tas de merde!” He couldn’t believe that. I had too much respect for him and his intelligence to believe he believed that. If I’d had a bit more information, I could have done more to ensure these men were sentenced long and hard... maybe. How many of the feds were involved? Just the thought made my stomach roil.

Our food came, but the idea of ingesting sauerkraut on the waves in my stomach appalled me. I pushed the plate away. Water didn’t even appeal. Maybe I should have ordered club soda. I smoothed the ridges of my napkin as I carefully manipulated it into a tri-fold that slid under the side of my plate. “So this all boils down to one simple fact.”

“One?”

“Mac was wrong.”

Bobby looked as though I’d said the flag was purple. His square jaw grew slack, then snapped shut, then opened again. “No.”

Blood pumped in my ears. Four years! Four stinking years, and for what? “Yes. She was, young acolyte.” I raised my hands in the air. “She told me this was it. We’d gotten them all and that we were taking The Outfit down.”

He glanced around at other patrons. Offered a few of them a weak smile and a shrug. “Lower your voice, Charlie. You know the rules. You never know who all’s involved.”

“Son, you are on a thin, thin line.” If I slipped in over my head, I swore I’d take the handsome youth with me and I felt dangerously close to that edge.

“You know Mac better than that, Charlie. She wouldn’t have said that. She never talks in absolutes unless she’s absolutely sure. Besides, this is a United States legal system failure, not yours, not mine, and certainly not Mac’s.”

The small muscle beneath my eye jumped. The visible sign of my weakness further infuriated me. What was it with this woman that she inspired followers? Give her cyanide Kool-Aid and...

I could hear Mac’s voice in my head. That confident, cocksure voice of hers telling me exactly what I needed to do, what she would do, what Gabe would do, what the feds would do, hell, what Bobby would do and how the end result would be one everyone liked. Memories of conversations rolled through my mind, jumbling all together into a confused ball of nothing. My jaw clenched. “She told me this would bring The Outfit down.”

“Their manifestation as the Four Corners business association, yes. And it did, sort of. You saw the results this morning. It’s interrupted their business. They’ve had to scatter.” He reached out and touched my hand. His was warm, comforting. Mine was cold. “But no organization like that can remain broken by taking out only the leaders. And at that, taking them out of operation for only a short period of time. These men have wielded power for so long, their teams, the people in the organization will do whatever it takes to re-stabilize the institution of Four Corners and The Outfit as we know it and hate it. As bad as that is, it’s their livelihoods.”

Did he know what he was saying? “So we have to worry about it re-raising its ugly little head here. That’s what this is about?”

“We don’t have to worry about that if we take out the institution and their connections. From the top.”

How could one ever take out the top? Even with Mac’s contacts, and even with her followers, with all of that, how could something so big actually be tackled and brought low? It was too big. It was a Hydra, chop off one head and three more grew in its stead. “Say I swallow this story, this half-assed explanation.”

He nodded.

“How do you know what they were looking into is really the top? At one point, we thought these men were the top.”

He scratched his chin. “In a way, they are.”

“A way?”

“Yeah. Look, I know this seems huge.”

I nodded.

“Insurmountable, but it’s not. If we work together, we can do anything!”

“Did you not hear the news you brought me?” I scoffed. “You told me we failed.” The partners told me we failed.

“Mac tried the legal route. She tried the system. The system failed. Today proved that. The last four years have proved that. And...” His voice trailed off, as did his eye contact.

I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what to say. I had the distinct impression what he just said alluded to something illegal, though I wasn’t sure what or how it would work into the future. It gave me the uncomfortable feeling of someone watching me. “And?”

“And they’ve made it personal from the start. You need to understand the difference. You did a good job, Charlie. Don’t negate that.”

I pulled my hands away from him and into my lap. I was tired of hearing about what a good job I did. It wasn’t a good job if it accomplished little to nothing. “This is where Danni comes into the picture?”

“Sort of.”

“Mac contacted her because of me? She thought there was one more thing left to exploit?” I felt as though I’d betrayed Danni by associating with Mac.

“No.” He shook his head. “It wasn’t like that at all. Danni contacted Mac.”

I crossed my arms over my chest. “No one contacts Mac unless Mac wishes it so.”

He held his bottom lip between his teeth, then let out a long sigh. His shoulders slumped a bit. “Danni did it because of you, all right?”

That stopped me.

Gesturing with his hand, he said, “Come back on a little time trip with me. ‘Kay? When you started researching the case, you asked her to help you. Am I wrong?”

I had. “Go on.”

“She caught wind of something deeper, for lack of a better word, than what you, your bosses, even the feds were looking for, cared to look for. Don’t deny it.”

Had I been going to? Yes. I would have said something.

“You didn’t want to know or understand them.”

“Hell no I didn’t. They are sick men!”

“Yes, they are. And Danni saw that. She’s like Mac. Once she gets her teeth into something, she doesn’t let loose. She digs and digs until she can out it, understand it, or cure it. Sometimes all three.” He whistled in wonder. “She’s impressive, that woman, and boy, does she have a nose for news. Her articles are great.”

“You’ve read them?”

He shrugged. “Most. Gotta know the people you work with.”

I was willing to lay money he hadn’t looked that far into my case history, but I let it pass. It might disturb me too greatly to know the truth.

“Look, Charlie. Don’t hold her nature against her. She was doing what God created her to do. Some people just know their talents and their destiny. She’s one of those people. She’s your friend. You know that about her. There are so many paths of deceit and uncertainties, trust what you know.”

I nodded. I wouldn’t hold it against her, but I might hold it against Mac.

“Besides, you already had Danni involved past her eyebrows.”

The sting of tears returned. It was true. Everything he’d said. Those very qualities, the ones I loved and despised at the same time. Bobby seemed to know her as well as I. Nodding mutely, I listened.

“She wanted an interview. She wanted details. She wanted to know The Outfit. Not many know The Outfit like Mac. Mac spoke with her with the explicit understanding that any information would remain... confidential. Her identity could not be associated with any of it.” His brow pulled together. “Mac didn’t sell you out, Charlie. Danni was doing her job and a damn fine one at that.”

“I didn’t say Mac did.”

“You don’t have to. It’s there, in your eyes.”

I refused to turn away from his scrutiny though I focused on the swinging kitchen doors and not the fidelity of his expression.

“Mac didn’t do anything wrong either. Know that, okay? It was your friend who wanted to talk to her. She’s the one who wanted the story.”

“Mackenzie didn’t want anything, right?” I mocked. “That’s just her style.”

“Mac wanted The Outfit broken. It’s never been a secret that’s her goal. It always has been. Always will be. She and Danni had a mutually beneficial relationship.” His chin jutted further out with every word. A slight flush crept up his tanned neck, leeching into his cheeks, staining them rose. He finished his second Coke. His color evened out. His hands shook. Though he’d grown, though his voice had deepened, Bobby was still a kid. A young man who idolized Mackenzie Harmon-Zumbrenen. After a long moment, he lifted his gaze to mine. “You know, Charlie, I love Mac like you love Danni.”

Ahh. Perceptive. I nodded. He hadn’t asked it as a question, but something made me acknowledge it as such. “She’s family.”

“That’s what she told Mac. Said that if anything bad happened, to tell you. No one else.”

“Bad?” The single syllable sounded choked. After that came the garbled laugh and the pain. Now this was real. This I felt. I ran my hand through my hair. “Of course, it’s bad. It has to do with Mac, and you, and Gabe! What else could it be?”

A little abashed, he said, “I kinda thought you knew about her talking to Mac.”

I should’ve.

“They did a really good job working together and you know how Mac’s not into working with anyone.”

Did I ever.

“Well, they were, they are a team. A good one. Where one’s thoughts drop, the other picks up. It’s cool to watch. Freaky, but cool. You’d think they were life-long friends.”

Danni’s like that, I thought. A gust of wind blew through the restaurant and the mixture of food smells assaulted my senses. My stomach recoiled.

“They plowed through mountains of paper. They searched the net. Files compiled, evidence stacked, and weaknesses presented themselves. Or so I was told. Both Danni and Mac spoke with contacts and they discovered how this nasty little situation reaches further than we thought.”

My expression must have said it all because he nodded and brushed the hair back out of his face. “Yeah. Not good.”

Slowly, I pieced the puzzle together. “So Danni was going to write an expose on The Outfit?” There wasn’t a better investigative reporter I knew. It made sense. Actually, it made damn good sense and I should have known she’d hone in on the case.

On this, Bobby was right. Danni’s articles were insightful and emotional. Fun and informative, her style garnered a large reader base. Courageous and uninhibited, she wasn’t afraid to delve where she shouldn’t or write what she was told not to. Danni believed in the freedom of speech almost as much as she believed Viggo Mortensen should be her husband -- a close tie.

Bobby, again, nodded. “She thought it would be a great piece for when the sentencing was handed down. She even thought the AP would pick it up.”

It would have been fantastic. Too bad it didn’t work that way. “That’s where she went on this last business trip, down to see you all?”

“No. Not this time. She was down about a month ago, I guess. This time, she went to Ireland.”

I shook my head in disbelief. That wasn’t possible. Danni long ago swore she’d never set foot back on Irish soil. Things had to be out of control for her to volunteer to participate in the madness.

“Yeah. She flew to Belfast two weeks ago.”

“Belfast?” This time I did choke. Now I knew I was dreaming. Somehow the croissant I had for breakfast had mold spores hidden inside or something and I was in the middle of a bad trip. I continued shaking my head, hoping the action would somehow make a difference. I had no idea how, but I hoped.

“What? She’s Irish.”

I blinked, long and hard, stunned. “She’s...she’s. My mother was French. You don’t see me running off to join the Foreign Legion, do you? Why would she do that? Why would she go there?”

He finished his pancake in one huge bite. He’d polished off a short-stack, three sausage links, two halves of toast, two Cokes, and most of his water, and we’d been there under a half-hour. Amazing. “That’s where The Outfit’s trace led. Sorrenson and Henderson have their hands mired in a few businesses over there. I’m sure the others have connections too, but as far as I know, that wasn’t the focus of what Mac and Danni were into, at least not while I was around.”

I blinked. “So?”

“So. I guess she went where the story was.” He reached for my plate. “You gonna eat those fries?”

I pushed the plate closer to him. “For the love of all that’s holy, hasn’t she heard of the internet? Research the damn story that way!”

He popped a fry in his mouth. “Mac knows some people.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah. I just bet she does, but if she knows them, she knows how to contact them and Danni didn’t need to fly over there and meet with them face to face.”

Suddenly, there was no more of the boy I’d met. Someone completely grown up stared back at me with soulful brown eyes that had seen far too much in their limited life. “Yes. She did.”

Maudit. The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach didn’t have much farther before it began to drag bottom. “It’s that kind of information, then?”

He nodded. “You know how this works, Charlie. You know firsthand about all the double-dealing going on. This isn’t something that could be done from a distance.”

The information had to be huge for her to make that sacrifice. After the fallout with her family, Danni had sworn no matter what she’d never go back to the isle that stripped her of friends and family. There were too many bad memories there. Too much pain Danni wanted to forget.

“Sorrenson, Lippencot, Henderson, Treadway, and Johansen as the business entity of Four Corners was only a small part of their U.S. involvement, and their U.S involvement is only a small part of the problem. They’ve got their dirty little fingers in everyone’s pie.”

He wiped his hands on his napkin before speaking, rapidly, accentuating his thoughts with erratic hand movement. “These bad boys roll wherever there is a loophole in the system. That way they know where they can work it, they can get the contracts. It’s almost brilliant really!”

“Did you just call them brilliant?”

“They are, in a manner of speaking.” He shrugged. “I can appreciate great minds.”

“Like Mac’s?”

“Yes, like Mac’s,” came his defensive reply.

“Why didn’t she go take care of this?” Anger punctuated each word. Why should Mac be safe and Danni be in danger?

“You know she’s not leaving her current location.”

“Not even for this?”

He shook his head, and then laughed. “How do you think I finally got to do something? I swear that woman is more protective than a mother hen, and I know you wouldn’t know anything about that, so in your case, the manager at LaLonde’s. Mac’s not leaving the one place she has total asylum. Don’t worry though. She can coordinate from where she is. She’s tapped in, just like always.”

“Involved but not looking involved?” Classic Mac M.O.

“Right you are.” He gave me the thumbs up. “Besides, this is Danni’s baby. Her story.”

Danni traveling to Ireland was not only unsafe; it was pure foolishness. Mac had to know about Danni and her family connections. Of course, Mac knew. There wasn’t anything that woman didn’t know.

I wouldn’t forget this.

My fingernails bit into my palms. The pain helped me focus. “You said if something bad happened. What happened, Bobby?” My voice cracked and I couldn’t look at him. The frustration and anger coursing through my veins might kill him, and I needed information first. He could die later.

Bobby toyed with his maple-syrup-stained napkin for a moment. I watched his hands. The sun-kissed skin. The short cropped nails. The freckle on his middle finger. “Like I said, she flew out two weeks past. Her route was a little convoluted, but that’s where she ended up. She had stops to make. People to see. She went to London, then to Glasgow, and finally to BCA.”

“You’re sure she got there safely?”

“I know she called Mac and checked in as soon as she landed and