Cease and Desist (The IMA Book 4) (5 page)

What she had done for Michael couldn't carry her forever. I was grateful to her for saving his life — I couldn't bear to lose him, too — but I also would have liked to see more concentrated effort on her part.

Loyalty was all we had, and if we couldn't count on that, we had nothing, nothing at all.

The quiet screech of hinges made me pause. I craned my neck, looking over my shoulder, and saw Michael standing in the doorway.

His face was tight with restraint. That was never a good sign. I watched him carefully, but this time his expression betrayed nothing of his inner mind.

Cliff noticed me tense and his hands stilled.

“Can I have your attention? Suraya,” Michael barked. “Where are you?”

In the other room, the faint strains of Hindi stopped. The door opened, and Suraya stepped out of the conference room, her slim brown arms folded over the front of her dress.

“What's going on?” she demanded irritably.

I opened my mouth to ask her who the hell she thought she was talking to him like that. But Michael caught my eye and shook his head.

Fine
. I pressed my lips together, and waited.

Michael cleared his throat, shifting something under his arm. A file folder. Packed full of paper.

“We have a problem.”

Chapter Three

Predicament

 

Christina

We have a problem
.

I swallowed hard.

When Michael said there was a problem, that usually meant someone was trying to kill us.

My irritation with Cliff fizzled out like a wet sparkler as Michael handed me the manila envelope he had been carrying under his arm.

I ran my fingers along the matte surface. Apprehension eddied through my thoughts until I felt almost carbonated by the sheer, bubbling force of my anxiety. I knew I wouldn't like whatever lay inside this folder. Not at all.

Why was he giving me the folder now, in front of everyone? He'd talked to Angelica in private; he could have done me the same courtesy, instead of leaving me hanging out to dry for everyone to see.

Sweat dripped down my forehead and into my eyes. It had gotten suffocatingly hot under the lights.

I sneaked a look at Michael.

Was this about trust? Or was this a test?

I paged through the folder, trying to get a grasp of what I was dealing with before I was forced to acknowledge it publicly. My first thought was that it would involve blood and death.

Why else would he look so grim?

Well. I was half-right. There was plenty of blood.

It took me a moment to process the images I was looking at. I had never seen their like outside of the movies, and even that had been toned down for a viewing audience. This was uncensored reality in all its gritty, gory glory.

Those poor girls
.

Because they were, without a doubt, girls.

Adrian had told me in our last meeting that he had trouble getting women to come home with him.

I'm afraid I've developed somewhat of a reputation
was what he'd said. Slyly. As if he were joking about the weather, or sports.

For what?
I'd asked.
Sending girls home in boxes?

I shook my head. The spaces to which these women had been confined were coffin-small. Hardly enough room to move, to even breathe. They must have been entrenched in their own waste, because there was nowhere for them to go to the bathroom.

My skin crawled at the thought. I knew what that was like. Being humiliated. Being filthy, hungry, and alone. Robbed of the most basic human privileges that so many of us take for granted until they're gone.

Death was not the scariest thing out there; no, the denial of it could be far worse. I studied the faces that were so painfully, heartbreakingly young beneath the murky veneer of blood and grime and sweat, and I saw in those eyes a look of hopeless resignation and — sickeningly — acceptance.

My stomach cramped in unease.

Some of them wore scraps of soiled clothing. Many were naked. On many I could not tell where the dirt ended and the bruises began. Stories had been written into their skin, every drop of blood and smear of filth a single sentence in their long tale of suffering.

I passed the folder on.

I couldn't stand to look at their eyes anymore. They were the eyes of people who have glimpsed a world without hope, and I didn't want to think about what must have happened to them to put that terrible quality there, because those things could have just as easily happened to
me
. Some already had, I was sure.

There had been a point, not long ago, when I had been forced to come to terms with what I had wholly believed was my impending death.

Even now, I could be killed before the week was out. Many powerful men out there wanted me dead, and this world was ruled by powerful men who were all too used to getting their way.

Adrian had taught me that lesson all too well.

Oh, but hell, like many things, exists on earth. It's only a matter of finding the right path to get there, and believe me, Christina, I know the way. I can take you there.

He was Satan with a human face, and I wanted to put him back where he belonged.

In hell.

Michael's eyes met mine for a moment. He had incredible eyes — cat-like one moment, and then forest green the next. The color was dependent on luminescence and shadow, affected by something as small as the tilt of his head. Up close, in the light, they were even more stunning, with yellow flecks caught in the iris like beads of honey.

His eyes were dark now, foreboding, and even though I knew that had everything to do with his facing away from the light source and nothing to do with his state of mind, he still cut an imposing figure, like the deadly, muscular men who graced the covers of dark romance novels with the subtle whisper of violence. Michael's jaw was tense, and I had the impression that he wanted to speak to me. But of course, he wouldn't. Not here. Not now.

My own face, never stoic no matter how hard I tried, must have revealed my despair. I saw his mouth relax slightly in sympathy, the lip soften as he unclenched his teeth. I knew from experience that he was attempting to look reassuring, and instead of consoling me it had the opposite effect because if he felt that he had to protect me, we really were screwed.

Suraya cursed aloud, in Hindi, bringing my train of thought to an abrupt halt. I twisted around to look at her along with everyone else.

The folder had reached her. One of the papers had fluttered to the ground, but she didn't seem to notice. Her face was flushed, and there was a spark of animation in her normally dead eyes that I'd never seen before. Not with such vivid clarity.

Michael glanced at Suraya, a look of annoyance flickering over his face briefly before he managed to seize control. “Something you want to share with the rest of the class?” he drawled.

If that was intended to subdue her, it failed.

“This man is a demon.” She smacked the folder violently, hard enough that the sound made me flinch. Michael noticed that, too. I saw his eyes flick towards me again before returning to Suraya.

“We're getting to that.” His voice resonated with the taut restraint of a finger poised on the trigger of a gun with a lot of recoil.

Suraya paid him no notice. “He is a scourge upon humanity.” Spittle flew from her lips, and she didn't seem to notice that either. She was beyond registering anything as she was carried along by the momentum of her own hatred. “This is the fate he promised my sister if I did not cooperate with his plans.”

And there it was at last, out in the open.

Maybe that was why Michael kept looking at me in that odd way, with the slight softening that wasn't quite pity. He knew what Adrian proposed to me. I'd told him, and his temper had flared more violently than it had in a while. I'd had to go out and buy some bandages and topical ointments as he picked out the pieces of plaster lodged in the wound he'd gotten from putting his fist through the wall.

Once his rage had dissipated, and he could speak without cursing, Michael told me that what Adrian wanted would never happen, not as long as either of us breathed. I remember wishing that he hadn't used those exact words —
as long as either of us breathed
—  because it sounded an awful lot like tempting fate.

An odd thought occurred to me. Maybe this was why Michael had given the folder to me to open. Had he been curious about my reaction? Why?

Maybe it is a test
, my brain whispered.
To see how far you've come. To see if you're strong enough.

“Mr. Callaghan has been very quiet as of late.”

That was Angelica, the voice of reason. She was standing in the doorway Michael had only recently vacated — I hadn't even heard her come in.

She paused for a moment. “Now we know why.”

Did we?

Adrian Callaghan isn't quiet
, I wanted to say.
He only bides his time.

When he wasn't speaking, that's when you needed to watch out, because it meant that he had decided to hurt you, and was planning on how best to go about it as ruthlessly and painfully as possible. His words could sting, yes, but they weren't what would end up breaking your bones.

I dug my fingers into my thighs and told myself not to cringe before these people.

Michael gave Angelica a slow, measuring look, but there was no surprise in it. They must have talked about this in their meeting earlier. I couldn't help wondering why I hadn't been included.

“Well?” Suraya again. “What are you going to do about this? I haven't heard a solution.”

Fear uncoiled deep down in my gut, snaking its way around my insides like a lasso and squeezing tight. Finding a solution meant facing Adrian again, and I didn't want to do that; because I knew that the next time I did, I might not walk away.

I almost hadn't, last time. Neither had Michael.

What can we do? We're already living on borrowed time, as it is.

But I didn't have any alternatives.

I just wanted somebody to take my hand and make the bad man go away.

I was so pathetic.

Suraya's words circled my head, mocking my lack of drive. Here I had been condemning her for an utter lack of participation, and now she was at this meeting doing
my
job, asking all the right questions, while I tried to figure out a way to avoid conflict.

Her choice of pronoun was odd, though. Not
what are
we
going to do about it?
But,
what are
you
going to do about it?
Did that mean anything?

“Obviously, this has to stop.” I said the right words, but they sounded hollow, even to me.

“It will cost too much time and resources to pinpoint each shipment.” Angelica dehumanized the women, turning them into objects, like something that could be shipped through FedEx. I had never borne any ill will against her before, but in that moment I hated her a little for being so
blasé
.

One look at Suraya told me she felt the same way.

As Angelica glanced our way, discreet diamond studs in her ears caught the light and winked jauntily. “If we do succeed in cutting them off,” she continued, purposefully, “another operation will sprout up elsewhere — and the girls will be killed.”

I thought of the pictures again. Those frightened human faces. I wondered again if I would be sick.

Steeling myself against the nausea, I tried to think of it in the abstract. In words and numbers, only. It didn't quite work. All I could see were their eyes.

“All you're succeeding in doing is going around in circles.” Suraya's face hardened. “I ask you again — what are you going to do about it?”

“Infiltration,” I said.

The moment I spoke, I saw Michael's head whip towards me. His face was interested. Too interested. Almost … intent. I faltered.

“Maybe — maybe we can't do anything about it from the outside” — courtesy dictated that I at least concede Angelica's points, even if I didn't agree with them “ — but if one of us could figure out a way in, we could find out more details. The hows and whys and wheres — how they're getting the women in, what their motivation is, and where, exactly, it is that they're operating from. Maybe then we could do more than shut down a single, tiny branch. And if we did manage to implicate Adrian, that could stop him for good. We could lead the FBI right to his door.”

Michael nodded, so imperceptibly that I'm not sure anyone else noticed. I did, and my heart fluttered a little under the warm glow of his regard.

“How?” he asked.

The way he looked at me, it was as if we were the only two people in the room.
He is testing me
.

But there was only one possible solution.

“Go undercover.”

The slight hitch in my voice made Suraya narrow her eyes. “You mean … prostitution?” Her voice was accusatory, but unsurprised.

“Not exactly. The men in this industry are very paranoid, and very trigger-happy. If we were going to do this, it would have to look authentic.”

He leaned back, throwing his eyes into shadow.

“One of us would have to sell another. One of us would have to be trafficked to Adrian Callaghan's men.”

 

Michael

Reconnaissance. It was the tactic of the desperate, like folding at a game of cards. But we were out of options, and the IMA was growing more powerful.

I knew the exact moment Christina had reached the same conclusion that I had. Her soft, sweet face was incapable of deception. And yet in spite of her naivete, or maybe because of it, she could be very quick to put two and two together.

Whether she wanted to be or not, Christina was a survivalist. She would call the term too cold-blooded and callous, but few women — or men — could have gone through what that girl had, and survived.

No, she had been pulled into my world against her will; and rather than allowing it to crush her she had bent to it, molding, adapting. Becoming stronger. More durable. But also more remote.

I hoped being around a group of mercenaries — being around
me —
wouldn't extinguish that brave little flame of raw goodness inside her. Even when her ramblings about God and compassion drove me up the wall, I knew deep down that she was the best thing that had ever happened to me, and lately I had noticed that where I had once been able to see through her as clear as glass, there was now a wall.

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