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 makeup, 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.
Hazel. Just like Molly’s. Grey stuttered. 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…
Not. Here. “If he’s bothering you…”
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.”
He headed to the front doors, emerging into the night a moment later, a warm September wind flapping at his buttoned jacket. A Bentley limo came to a stop in front of the grand sweeping entrance, the outside lights shimmering off the highly-polished black car. Grey took his position next to the rear passenger door, double checked the surrounding area for anything or anyone out of place—all clear—and opened the door for Chas.
The actor was in his mid-thirties, blond, and blue-eyed. He rose from the backseat, one hand in the air as if to wave to his fans. Seeing no one but the security guards waiting for him, he covertly turned the wave into a gesture of smoothing down an errant hair, nodded once at Grey, and made his way up the carpeted stairs. One of Grey’s security team opened the double doors, and after the actor was inside, smirked.
Yeah, Mr. Hollywood’s a dick. He’d fit right in with the Panthera crowd.
Grey closed the limo door and spoke into his comm unit. “This is Black. Package delivered, sir.”
His supervisor, somewhere in the bowels of the house, acknowledged the information, then told Grey to do an outside perimeter check.
“Roger that.” Grey kept the frustration out of his voice. He needed to get back inside and keep an eye on Khourey, but the job was the job. He wasn’t FBI anymore, as Donaldson had reminded him, and he needed this gig in order to have access to the killer. “Black out.”
He double-timed his reconnaissance around the grounds but didn’t cut corners. Everything was normal, all security measures in order. He’d just cleared the back door, checking in with his supervisor, when he heard a woman scream overhead.