Justice “Grey” Greystone stood in the shadows near the main staircase of the mammoth mansion, his ear bud in place, his security service badge in plain view, and his eyes roaming the crowd as senators, diplomats, and other male politicians moved past him. In a sea of navy, brown, and black suits, pops of red, pink, and bright blue caught his attention.
Beautiful women, their taut, young bodies dripping with diamonds, brushed seductively against the men, offering a drink, a snippet of conversation, a laugh.
A private encounter behind closed doors.
Inside the Panthera, sixteen miles north of Washington, D.C., drinks flowed, deals were made, and powerful men ignored the fact that one of them was a killer.
A woman bumped Grey’s arm. “Oh, excuse me.”
Her dress, nails, and lips were a matching wine color. Her brown hair was twisted and pinned on top of her head. But those eyes, even with the getup, screamed young. She couldn’t have been legal, and yet according to the Smoking Gun Escort Service, they never hired anyone under twenty.
Yeah, right. And he was the Pope.
The woman grabbed a champagne glass from a passing waitress. “Do you know when the entertainment is supposed to be here?” She turned her big eyes to him over the rim of the glass.
Not now. Don’t think of her now. “Entertainment?” Didn’t she know she was the entertainment? “You mean the actor running for a senate seat? I believe Chas Loughlin is simply attending tonight’s function to talk to the politicians, not to perform.”
Hence the increase in security
“Oh.” She gulped the champagne, her gaze now scanning the crowd. “Damn, I was hoping for a distraction.”
The vibe she gave off made him curious. Not just young, inexperienced. “First night at the Panthera?”
“How did you…oh, shit,” she ducked behind him. “Shit, shit, shit.”
He glanced in the direction she’d looked and saw a man who generated a similar response in his own gut. Ahmed Khourey. “The Lion” as Grey had dubbed him, since he prowled the Panthera Leo like he owned the place.
Moving so he blocked the woman from Ahmed’s view, he reined in the instant anger boiling inside. “He giving you trouble?”
She waved a hand in the air, signaling a waitress. Another glass of champagne. Another big gulp. “He’s handsome and charming and very, very rich.” She chuckled. “He’s also … intense.”
The sound of her soft laugh was so similar to his sister’s, Grey flinched. Molly…
She downed the last of the champagne, set the empty glass on a nearby bookshelf. Hiked up the fur shawl that had slipped down her shoulders. “I can handle it.” Her gaze lifted to his once more. “Thank you.”
Before she whisked away, Grey touched her arm and handed her his business card. He resisted telling her she should lay off the booze, that in this place a drunk woman would be easily compromised. “Here’s my card if you need …assistance. My personal number is on the back.”
She gave him a look that told him she thought he was flirting with her. If she only knew the truth. Sticking the card in her tiny evening bag, she sauntered away, deliberately avoiding The Lion and cozying up to an overweight representative from Alabama.
Grey locked his back teeth and resumed his stance, keeping an eye on her and The Lion.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
The voice came from behind him, but Grey didn’t need to turn around to recognize his former boss’ irritation. “Since when do they allow FBI agents into the Panthera, Donaldson?”
“The Attorney General invited me.”
“Brown-nosing does have its perks, I suppose.”
Special Agent Harold Donaldson moved so he stood next to Grey. His bland, watery eyes scanned the party as he unbuttoned his too-tight suit jacket. “Since when do they let ex-FBI agents in here?”
Grey held up his ID badge. “Security.”
Donaldson snorted as he read the badge. “Jason Black, Front Range Security Specialist. How did you manage that?”
“Front Range has expanded into several new markets, including high-risk security management, bodyguards, and diplomatic protection services. A natural fit for the Panthera.”
Another derisive snort. “Let it go, Justice.”
So they were using first names now? “Let go of what, Harold?”
The man’s bushy eyebrows lowered. “Your obsession with this serial killer is going to land you in jail. Or worse.”
Worse had already happened. He’d let women die on his watch. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just a lowly security guard making ends meet.”
“Ahmed Khourey is not your guy. Look at him.” He motioned toward the center of the ballroom where Khourey stood, telling a story about his latest vacation in Africa that involved a run-in with a rhinoceros while hunting big game.
Men and women crowded around him, laughing at his sense of humor and gasping at his narrative of the attack. He was a natural-born storyteller and far more entertaining, Grey bet, than the actor who was due to arrive any minute.
“He doesn’t fit a serial killer profile,” Donaldson said. “If anything, he’s the Lebanese version of the Dos Equis man…the most interesting man in the world.”
Or at least in the Panthera tonight. “Ted Bundy was handsome and charismatic, too.”
“You’re no longer part of the FBI. Stop obsessing over The Lion. You’re chasing the wrong guy.”
In his earbud, Grey heard the security supervisor give him the call sign for the actor. “Excuse me, Harold. I have work to do.”
Two minutes later, Grey closed the limo’s door and spoke into his comm unit. “This is Black. Package delivered, sir.”
Inside, the majority of people had moved into the ballroom, listening to a speech by the actor. Grey ran past the open ballroom doors where those in the back of the room had heard the scream and turned to look out at the stairs.
He took the stairs two at a time--get there— ran down the hall, his brain ticking off commands, weapon ready, clear the rooms, as he threw open the closed doors of the various bedrooms. On the second door, a man, the Senator from Virginia, sat up while the woman on top of him scrambled to cover herself. Jesus Christ.
“What the hell?” the senator hollered.
Grey slammed the door, continued his search until he found one already open. With his back to the wall, he swung into the room, weapon drawn, eyes assessing the layout from left to right. Dresser, closet, bed.
A woman was splayed on the bed, naked from the waist up, her long hair draped over her face and across the pillow. Her legs were tangled in her dress. A wine-colored dress.
Another woman, also an escort, leaned over her, shaking her arm, and half-sobbing. “Wake up, Skye! He’s here. That guy you wanted to see.” Skye was probably a false name – the escorts all had fake identities. “Oh, please, wake up.”
Adrenalin pounding his system, Grey hustled her out of the way. In his mind, Molly’s ghost stood next to the bed with accusing eyes. He’d blown it again.
Skye had a scarf around her neck. He stuck two trembling fingers under it, searching for a pulse.
No pulse. CPR. “Woman down,” he said into his comm unit. It was too late, he knew. He was always too goddamn late. “Call 911. Upstairs bedroom, third door on the right.”
“Is the girl alive?” Donaldson stood in the doorway. When Grey kept compressing her chest and didn’t answer, the FBI agent, unused to being ignored, raised his voice. “Is she alive?”
No. Skye would never watch her favorite actor in another grade-B movie. Never see him elected to the senate. Grey continued CPR, beads of sweat dripping down his face as he prayed the fates would grant him a miracle.
Donaldson turned on the woman sobbing silently by the window. “Who was she with? Did you see anyone?”
Did he seriously expect her to answer? These women knew when to keep their mouths shut. Not one of them would risk losing a gig worth a couple grand a night. Even to save each other.
She shook her head. “She came up here to take a break from the party. She told me to let her know when that actor guy showed up. I never saw her with anyone.”
Donaldson knew this killer’s case as well as Grey did – they’d worked on it for nearly two years before Grey had been fired. The Lion didn’t leave witnesses.
As if his former boss had read his mind, Donaldson said, “It’s not his MO. He’s never killed inside the Panthera.”
“Secure the premises,” Grey said into his comm unit, meeting Donaldson’s hard gaze with his own as he finally stopped compressing Skye’s chest. “We have a killer inside the Panthera.”