A Lot like Love (FBI/US Attorney #2) by Julie James

One

FROM THE MOMENT Nick McCall walked into his boss’s office, he knew something was up.

Being a special agent for the FBI, he was an expert at both observing body language and reading between the lines, often gleaning all he needed to know from a carelessly chosen word or the subtlest of gestures. A skill that frequently came in handy.

Upon entering the room, he watched as Mike Davis, the special agent in charge of the Chicago field office, toyed with the sleeve of his venti Starbucks coffee cup (even he refused to drink the crap they had in the office)—a gesture many of the senior agents in the office had noted long ago. It was Davis’s tell, and Nick knew exactly what it meant.

Trouble.

Another long undercover job, he guessed. Not that working undercover bothered him—in fact, for the past few years, that was almost exclusively the type of investigation he’d handled. But having just finished a particularly grueling assignment, even he was ready for a break.

He took a seat in one of the chairs in front of Davis’s desk, watching as his boss now twisted the sleeve around the base of the Starbucks cup. Shit, he was screwed. Everyone knew that twisting of the sleeve was even worse than sliding.

Nick saw no point in beating around the bush. “All right. Just lay it on me.”

Davis greeted him with a grin. “Good morning to you, too, sunshine. And welcome back. How I missed our pleasant chats while you were working on Fivestar.”

“Sorry. I’ll start over. It’s good to be back, sir. Thank you.”

“I assume you were able to find your office without too much trouble?” Davis asked dryly.

Nick got comfortable in his chair, letting the sarcasm bounce off him. True, while working on Operation Fivestar over the last six months, he hadn’t been in the office much. And it felt good to be back. Surprisingly, he realized that he had missed his chats with Davis. Sure, his boss could be prickly at times, but with all the crap he had to deal with as special agent in charge, this was to be expected.

“I wandered around the floor until I found a door with my name on it. Nobody’s kicked me out yet, so I figure I must be in the right place.” He looked Davis over. “You’re looking a little grayer around the temples there, boss.”

Davis grunted. “Spent the last six months of my life worrying that you’d screw up your investigation.”

Nick stretched out his legs in front of him. He didn’t screw up investigations. “Have I ever given you any reason to doubt me?”

“Probably. You’re just better at covering it up than most.”

“That’s true. So you want to go ahead and give me the bad news?”

“You’re so convinced I’ve got something to tell you.” Davis feigned innocence as he gestured to his Starbucks cup. “Can’t a guy simply catch up over coffee with the top agent in his office?”

“Oh, so I’m your top agent now.”

“You’ve always been my top agent.”

Nick raised an eyebrow. “Don’t let Pallas hear you say that,” he said, referring to another agent in their office who’d recently been on a run with some very high-profile arrests.

“You and Pallas are both my top agents,” Davis said, as diplomatically as a mother who’d just been asked to name her favorite child.

“Nice save.”

“Actually, I wasn’t kidding about the catching up part. I heard the arrests last week got a little rough.”

Nick brushed this off. “That can happen with arrests. Funny enough, it’s typically not an experience that catches people at their best.”

Davis studied him through sharp gray eyes. “Coming off an undercover job is never easy, especially a rough one like Fivestar. Twenty-seven Chicago police officers charged with corruption is quite a coup. You did a great job, Nick. The director called me earlier this morning and told me to extend his personal congratulations to you.”

“I’m glad both you and the director are pleased.”

“I can’t help but think that the arrests might’ve struck a nerve, given your background.”

Nick wouldn’t necessarily say the case struck a nerve, although it was true: busting police officers wasn’t high on his list of fun things to do. Cop blood ran through his veins, after all—he was a former police officer himself, having worked vice for the NYPD for six years before applying to the FBI. His father had served on the New York Police Department for thirty years before retiring, and one of Nick’s brothers was a cop. But the twenty-seven police officers he had arrested last Friday had crossed the line. In his opinion, the fact that the bad guys happened to wear badges only made them less worthy of sympathy.

“They were dirty cops, Mike. I didn’t have any problem taking them down,” Nick said.

Davis seemed satisfied. “Good. Glad we got that out of the way. And I saw that you put in for some time off.”

“I’m heading back to New York for a few days to surprise my mother. She’s turning sixty this Sunday and my family’s having a big party.”

“When are you leaving?”

Nick sensed that this question was less casual than Davis’s tone would suggest. “Tonight. Why?” he asked suspiciously.

“What would you say if I asked you to consider postponing your trip a few days?”

“I’d say you obviously don’t know my mother. If I don’t get back home for this party, you’ll need a bulldozer to dig me out of the layers of guilt she’ll pile on me.”

Davis laughed at that. “You don’t need to miss her party, you can still be in New York in plenty of time. Say . . . Saturday night. Sunday morning at the latest.”

“You’re joking, obviously. Seeing how I’ve asked for all of about two days off in the last six years, I’m thinking I’m kind of due for this vacation.”

Davis turned more serious. “I know you are, Nick. Believe me, I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important.”

Nick held back what would normally be his sarcastic reply. He respected Davis. They’d been working together for six years, and he found Davis to be a fair boss and a straight shooter. And the entire time Nick had worked in the Chicago field office, he’d never heard of Davis asking anyone for a favor. Which made it virtually impossible to say no.

He sighed. “I’m not saying yes. But out of curiosity, what’s the assignment?”

Davis sensed the beginnings of his capitulation and leaned forward in his chair. “I’d call it a consulting job, of sorts. There’s been an unexpected development in an investigation being run jointly by the financial crimes and organized crimes divisions and I need to bring on someone with your level of undercover experience. Things might get a little tricky.”

“What kind of case is it?” Nick asked.

“Money laundering.”

“Who’s in charge of the investigation?”

“Seth Huxley.”

Nick had seen Huxley around the office, but probably had exchanged less than ten words with him. His first—and only—impression had been that Huxley seemed very . . . organized. If Nick remembered correctly, Huxley had come to the Bureau by way of the law program and had gone to some Ivy League school before joining the financial crimes division. “What do you need me to do?”

“I’ll let Huxley fill you in on the details of the case. We’re meeting him in a minute,” Davis said. “I’ve assured him that you’re not being brought on board to take over—he’s been working on this case for a couple months now.”

Nick realized that his agreement had been somewhat of a formality the entire time. “So why do you need me?”

“To make sure Huxley isn’t in over his head. It’s his first undercover assignment. I don’t like holding back an agent, and Huxley hasn’t given me any reason to do that here. Everyone has to have his or her first undercover assignment sometime. But the U.S. attorney has her eye on this case, and that means there’s no room for error.”

“Is there ever room for error in any of your cases?”

Davis acknowledged that with a grin. “No. But this time, there’s particularly no room for error. It’s the way I classify things: basically no room for error, no room for error, and particularly no room for error. It’s very technical.”

Nick thought about something Davis had just said. “You mentioned that the U.S. attorney is watching the case. Is it part of the Martino investigation?”

Davis nodded. “Now you understand why there can’t be any mistakes.”

He didn’t need to say anything further. Three months ago, a new U.S. attorney, Cameron Lynde, had been appointed after a scandal that resulted in the arrest and resignation of her predecessor. Ever since Lynde had been appointed, she’d made the Martino investigation her top priority. As such, it was the top priority of the FBI’s Chicago field office as well.

For years, Roberto Martino had run the largest crime syndicate in Chicago—his organization was responsible for nearly one-third of all drug trafficking in the city, and his people extorted, bribed, threatened, and killed anyone who stood in their way. Over the course of the last few months, however, the FBI had arrested over thirty members of Martino’s gang, including Roberto Martino himself. Both the attorney general and the director of the FBI had declared the arrests to be a major victory in the war on crime.

Since he’d been working undercover on Operation Fivestar for the last six months, Nick hadn’t been involved in any of the Martino arrests. Some of the other agents had received all the glory on that front, a fact that somewhat rankled his competitive ego.

“Want to find out more?” Davis asked, a knowing gleam in his eyes.

Hell, it was less than a week, Nick figured. Over the next few days, he could lend his much-learned undercover expertise to a junior agent, score brownie points with his boss, kick some gangster ass, and still be in New York by Sunday to sing “Happy Birthday” to his mother. From where he stood, it was a win-win situation all around.

“All right,” Nick nodded. “Let’s go meet Huxley.”

AGENT HUXLEY WAS already waiting for them in the conference room. Nick did a quick assessment of his new partner: carefully groomed blond hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and an expensive three-piece suit. His eyes held on the article of clothing Huxley wore underneath his suit jacket.

A vest.

And not the bulletproof kind. A sweater-vest. As in, Huxley wasn’t wearing just a suit; he had this whole ensemble going: dark brown pants and jacket, crisp pinstriped shirt, V-neck vest, and tan silk tie.

Nick, on the other hand, was dressed in his standard-issue, no-frills gray suit, white shirt, and navy tie. Because men who grew up in Brooklyn didn’t do ensembles. And they certainly didn’t do sweater-vests. True, it was early February in Chicago and about ten degrees outside, so he supposed the vest served some sort of functional purpose in keeping Huxley warm, but still. In Nick’s opinion, the only accessories an FBI agent should pair with a suit were a shoulder harness and gun. Maybe handcuffs, depending on the formality of the occasion.

Nick nodded at Huxley and said a quick greeting as he took the seat opposite him at the marble conference table. Davis sat at the head of the table and got things started. “So I told Nick how you’ve been working on the Eckhart investigation for the past couple of months.”

At least he had a name now, and one he was familiar with—a name many people in Chicago were familiar with. “Xander Eckhart? The restaurant guy?”

“Nightclubs and restaurants, actually,” Huxley corrected him. He adjusted his glasses, sitting straight in his chair. “Eckhart owns three restaurants and four bars in the Chicago area, all expensive, upscale establishments. The crown jewel is a French restaurant, Bordeaux, located just west of the Loop. It sits on the river and has an exclusive VIP-only wine bar that caters to a wealthy clientele.”

“I’ve already filled Nick in on the fact that the investigation is connected to the Martino cases. Why don’t you pick up from there?” Davis suggested.

Huxley had his laptop out, prepared to do just that. He picked up a remote control, and with the push of a button, a screen dropped down from the ceiling in the front of the room. The lights in the conference room dimmed, and Huxley began his presentation. “Subsequent to the arrests of Roberto Martino and other members of his criminal organization, we’ve begun to realize that the scope of Martino’s illegal activity is far wider than we’d suspected. Like his connections to this man here.”

On the screen before him, Nick found himself looking at a photograph of a man in his midthirties who had medium-length brown hair stylishly swept back from his forehead. He wore a suit that appeared even more expensive than Huxley’s and had a tall, willowy brunette in her early twenties on his arm.

“That’s Xander Eckhart,” Huxley said. “The girl’s inconsequential, the flavor of the month. Based on evidence we’ve acquired over the last few months, we believe that Eckhart has been laundering large sums of drug money for Roberto Martino. Martino combines his money with the profits of Eckhart’s restaurants and bars—the nightclubs in particular deal heavily in cash, providing the perfect cover. Eckhart then reports the dirty money as part of his revenue, and voilà, it’s clean. We’ve been working with the IRS to find proof in the tax records that Eckhart has filed for his businesses over the last couple years, but in the meantime the U.S. attorney has asked us to come up with additional evidence.”

“Something a jury would actually pay attention to,” Davis explained to Nick.

Nick understood the U.S. attorney’s thinking behind this. He’d worked with enough prosecutors to know that they disliked cases where the evidence was primarily document-driven. Putting a boring IRS investigator on the witness stand to walk through pages and pages of indecipherable tax filings was the surest way to put a jury to sleep—and lose a conviction.

“So what other evidence do we have?” he asked.

“I’ve been watching Eckhart for the last few weeks and observed him meeting with this man.” Huxley pulled up another image, a photograph of a man with jet black hair who appeared to be in his mid to late forties. He wore a dark overcoat with the collar turned up as he hurried into a building Nick didn’t recognize.

“That’s Carlo Trilani, being photographed outside Bordeaux,” Huxley said. “He’s been there on several occasions to meet with Eckhart, always when the restaurant is closed. We suspect that Trilani is one of Martino’s men, although we don’t have enough evidence yet to make an arrest. Hopefully, we’ll nail both him and Eckhart as part of this investigation.”