Death Angel (Chapter Thirty)

THE NEXT MORNING, ANDIE WORKED HER WAY THROUGH all the barricades and security checks at Federal Plaza. She was given a visitor's ID and an escort, shown where to wait, and eventually she went into a small office. Special Agent Rick Cotton got to his feet when she entered, shaking the hand she held out. He had a nice firm handshake, not too tight and not wimpy, but at first glance she didn't see what was so special about him.

He was middle-aged and graying, though still trim, and he had a calm, mild expression. The impression she got from the way others acted around him was that he was liked, but there was no sizzle of electricity that said he was a mover and shaker. She knew sizzle, because she'd been in very close contact with it one summer afternoon last year. The force of Simon's personality dominated any room he was in, while Rick Cotton would barely be noticed.

"Please have a seat, Ms. Pearson," Agent Cotton said, indicating a battered-looking straight-backed chair. "I believe your message said you have some information about someone named Rafael Salinas?"

If those cards got any closer to his chest, Andie thought, he wouldn't be able to see them himself. He wanted her to show her hand first, which was fine with her.

"My name isn't Pearson," Andie said. "It's Andrea Butts. I used to go by the name Drea Rousseau, and I lived with Rafael Salinas for two years."

She saw the shock in his face before he could school his expression. He blinked, staring at her. "I had long, blond, curly hair then," she added helpfully.

He said, "Just a moment," and picked up his phone and dialed an extension. He said, "Drea Rousseau is sitting in my office," and replaced the handset.

He sat silently, and so did she. She honestly had no idea if she would be of any use to the FBI, or they to her, but they were the logical place to start. Offering herself as bait would work only if someone was watching the trap, otherwise the bait was just a meal. She might not be able to do anything about Rafael; if she couldn't, then at least she had tried.

A sandy-haired man opened the door and came in. "Ms. Rousseau," he said, "I'm Special Agent Brian Hulsey; I'm in charge of the Salinas investigation now. Would you step into my office, please?"

Andie paused, her head cocked a little to the side as she studied him. He hadn't knocked before entering Agent Cotton's office, and she had caught the slight emphasis he'd placed on the word "now," which had been completely unnecessary unless he was making a point to the agent who had been in charge of the investigation before. Office politics, she guessed, with ego and a power display thrown in. Agent Cotton, on the other hand, looked mild and unperturbed. No ego there, and he wasn't interested in power.

"No," she said, drawing the word out a little as she reached a decision. "I'll talk with Special Agent Cotton."

Special Agent Hulsey said, "You misunderstand. Agent Cotton is no longer in charge of-"

"I didn't misunderstand anything," she replied, her tone going cool. "English is my first language, so I know a lot of the words." English was also her only language, but he didn't need to know that.

His face turned red. "I apologize. I didn't intend to imply-"

"That I'm stupid? That's okay. A lot of men make that mistake." She smiled at him, a sweet smile that, if he'd been paying close attention, would have made his blood curdle. "Rafael Salinas was one of them."

"I assure you, Ms. Rousseau-"

"Butts," she said, putting hard edges on all the consonants. "My real name is Andrea Butts. I thought you knew that."

"Of course I-"

She hadn't let him complete a single sentence after he'd introduced himself when he came in, so she saw no reason to start now. "Special Agent Cotton," she said firmly, "or no one. Your choice."

There it was, dumped in his lap. He either delegated his role in the investigation to Special Agent Cotton, or he would be the one responsible for losing the contact that could possibly bring down Rafael Salinas once and for all. He would see the first choice as an almost intolerable affront to his authority-he was the type-but the second choice could be a career-killer.

"I'll get it cleared with the assistant director," he muttered resentfully, walking out of the office and leaving the door open.

Andie got up and closed the door with a firm thud.

"I didn't like him," she confided as she resumed her seat.

Special Agent Cotton allowed himself a little smile, but all he said was, "He's a good agent."

"I assumed so, or he wouldn't be stationed in New York, but I can also assume the same thing about you." Agents vied to be posted in the larger cities, with D.C. and New York at the top of the heap, where the action was and where everything was high visibility.

"I work with some very sharp people. It's easy to look good when all the people around you are on their toes."

What Andie got from that was that he was willing to spread the credit around, while Hulsey wasn't. She was satisfied with her decision in sticking with Special Agent Cotton.

"If you don't mind, I'd like to call in an agent who worked with me when I was assigned to the Salinas case," he said, lifting the phone again. "His name is Xavier Jackson, and he's a genius at what he does. It was his bad luck to be partnered with me, but we still talk sometimes even though we aren't on that case now."

She gathered they'd been reassigned because they hadn't produced any results, though she'd bet the farm that Hulsey hadn't done any better than they had. No wonder Hulsey had been adamant that she talk with him rather than Cotton; she would have been a big feather in his cap, and maybe just what he needed for the case to reach the tipping point and actually produce some prosecutable evidence against Rafael.

She and Cotton chatted casually while waiting for Genius Jackson. Some fifteen minutes later there was a polite rap on the door, and a wait until Cotton raised his voice and said, "Come in."

Xavier Jackson was young, maybe her age, and lean and dark and handsome, his features faintly exotic, his skin olive-tinted. He was a more dapper dresser than most of the FBI employees she'd seen in the building; though he wore the de rigueur sober suit and white dress shirt, his tie was a deep, rich red with a tiny design that, when she looked closer, turned out to be highly stylized horses in an even deeper red. Instead of the flat rectangular fold of white handkerchief, his breast pocket sported a few subtle peaks in the same rich red. Altogether he was subtly more flashy, his movements faster, his accent was as undefinable as that of a television news anchor. The expression in his eyes was decidedly sharklike, but unlike Hulsey, his attitude toward Agent Cotton was that of respect.

Neither of them was going to die anytime soon.

She got that, plucked the sudden conviction out of the air as if it were a ripe apple dangling in front of her, but saw no need to tell them. Jackson thought he was bulletproof, and Cotton was looking forward to retirement and having more time to spend with his wife, doing things he enjoyed. No death worries darkened their minds, so she didn't introduce the subject.

Jackson gave her an incredulous look. "Are you really Drea Rousseau?"

She laughed, and he immediately said, "Oh, yeah, I recognize that laugh." Curiosity burned in his eyes. "I thought you might be dead. You just disappeared."

"On purpose," she assured him. "Running for my life."

"Salinas wants you dead?"

"He did. After I left town, though, I was in a car accident and the news release mistakenly said I'd died in the accident, which was actually a lifesaver because Rafael called off his hounds." There had been only one hound, and he'd been the one to report to Rafael that she was dead, which was true, but her glib skirting of the truth was much more believable than what had actually happened.

"So he thinks you're dead," said Cotton. "You're safe. Why come back to the city, back to his territory?"

"Because if I know anything about him that would help you build a case against him, help put him in prison, then it would be wrong for me to play it safe while he goes on bringing drugs into the country every week. Rafael's smart," she said. "You might never be able to get enough evidence against him, unless you somehow catch a break. I might be that break. I don't know that I am, but I'm willing to give it a shot."

"Do you know who his accountant is? The real one, not the one who does the books for the public stuff?"

She shook her head. Knowing the accountant, and his, or her, location, would have been the linchpin to Rafael's entire operation. "I never heard a name mentioned. He was careless about a few things"-like his bank password-"but not about that. I don't think any of his men know, either. They talked in front of me, but they never mentioned anything about books, or an accountant."

"Did he ever disappear, and not take any of his men with him?" That was Jackson chiming in.

"Not that I know of, though he could have left with his usual guard and ditched them somewhere afterward. But like I said, I never heard them talking about anything like that. Rafael's paranoid about going out by himself. He thinks the streets are knee-deep in rivals waiting to knock him off. He wants to be surrounded by other bodies, at all times."

They both peppered her with questions, about any detail they could think of. They talked for hours, with Andie pitching in any detail she could think of, but she began to despair because nothing seemed to be enough to hang on him. She'd been afraid of that, afraid she might have to resort to more desperate measures.

"There's one option I have to mention," she finally said, when even the two agents seemed discouraged because their golden opportunity to nail Salinas was turning out to be a dud. "It isn't a federal charge, but the idea is to get Rafael out of business and off the streets, right? If he sees me, he'll go nuts. I'm supposed to be dead. When I left, I…took something that was very important to him." Yeah, she could honestly say that two million dollars was important to him, but equally important to someone like Rafael was the affront she had landed to his ego. Come to that, his ego might be more important. He'd convinced himself that he loved her, and she'd thrown that love in his face. "If he can, he'll kill me where I stand. So how can we use that against him?"

"IT WON'T WORK," Jackson said softly, after Drea Rousseau left-a vastly changed Drea, but it was definitely her. "Even if we could use a civilian as bait, which the A.D. would never allow anyway, an attempted murder charge doesn't carry a severe-enough sentence to keep him off the streets for much more than a year or so-and that's if he even did any jail time."

"I know," said Cotton. His voice was tired. "I know. We still can't nail the bastard, even with her help. And God forbid if we set her up as bait and he actually did shoot her down in the street. I couldn't forgive myself if that happened."

ANDIE STOPPED AT a diner for lunch, so discouraged she could barely swallow the soup she ordered. She had been so certain she could come back to New York and, in short order, somehow have Rafael either in federal custody or dead. She had honestly been thinking "dead," as if there would be some big dramatic shoot-out, which would certainly juice up a slow news day, and Rafael would be killed. Looked at logically, now that she was here, she couldn't say how she had arrived at that scenario. This wasn't like the sudden impressions she had concerning other people; she'd never had one relating to herself.

Her plan, if it could be called a plan, had been big in scope but very sketchy on details. Now that she was here, she felt pretty foolish. She hadn't thought anything out, which was so unlike her she could only shake her head. She wasn't brave, she wasn't intrepid, she wasn't any kind of heroine, but she had conceived of this grand scheme without having any way of carrying it out. What the hell was wrong with her?

Unless she really was meant to die here-unless her death would be the avenue by which Rafael was finally put away for good.

Blindly she stared out the window at the street, with its endless stream of pedestrians. She wasn't afraid of death, but she was afraid of not being good enough to go back to the place where Alban was. She had tried hard to become a more worthwhile human being, to work for what she had in life, to stop using her looks and sex to get what she wanted, but only eight months had passed. Eight months, stacked against fifteen years, was bound to be on the light end of the scale. If she died now, had she gotten enough attagirl points to make a difference?

Maybe her death, a final death, was the true test. A greater love hath no man, and all that. If it came down to it, and her death was what it took to bring Rafael down, then she would do it. Somehow she'd get the courage to do it.

But oh, she didn't want to leave Simon. Despite their history, what was between them felt new and tremulous, barely explored. And despite his history, despite telling herself that he was the bad choice to end all bad choices, she wanted to place her hands along his beard-roughened jaw, look into the dark opal colors of his eyes, and watch tenderness bloom where before there had been only emptiness.

She wanted the time to get to know him, really know him. She wanted more than the superficial knowledge he'd given her during their question-and-answer session at the IHOP. She wanted to tell him silly jokes and make him laugh, she wanted to share meals with him, she wanted to be with him as he changed from a man who sutured his own wounds to someone who could let others help him.

He was so alone. If she died, what would happen to him? Would he stay on the path he'd chosen, or would he return to his old ways? She didn't believe she was so unique that he could never find anyone else he could love, but the question was: Would he? Would he try? Or would he wall himself off even more solidly than he had been before? She knew the answer to that, because she had seen how completely he shut down all the overtures she'd made during their afternoon together, refusing even to tell her his name. He hadn't wanted her to kiss him, either; she remembered how he'd frozen, at first, as if about to push her away. But he hadn't; something in him had craved being held, being kissed, and when he had started kissing her in return she had felt as if she'd never before been kissed so deeply, so hungrily.

If she hadn't seen him at the truck stop, if he hadn't gone to her place to reassure her, if he hadn't kissed her, she would have always thought of him with the pain and regret she hadn't been able to shake, but she wouldn't long for him. Thoughts of him wouldn't make her regret doing what she knew she should do.

After finishing her soup, she left the diner and took a bus across town to the Holiday Inn where she was staying. The route went fairly close; she had to walk only a couple of short blocks. She got into the squeaky elevator alone, and rode up to her floor. A housekeeping cart was parked at the end of the hallway, and from the open door she could hear the drone of a vacuum cleaner.

Inserting her key card, she opened the door and froze, holding it open.

"Don't scream." Simon loomed in front of her, his expression enigmatic.

She swallowed the sound just in time as he pulled her against him and closed the door, putting the chain in place and then turning the deadbolt. "What are you doing here?" he growled in a very annoyed tone.

"This is my room. I was about to ask you the same question," Andie said, gulping, dropping her purse on the floor and throwing her arms around his neck. Tears stung her eyes and she almost burst out crying, but she blinked them back. If she hadn't been thinking about him just then, thinking how much she wanted to see him, she could have restrained herself, but the relief at hearing his voice and feeling the muscled hardness of his body against her was too intense, her longing too close to the surface. She might die soon, and she wanted to have him again before she did. Going up on tiptoe, she pressed her mouth to his, moaning a little at his taste and the well-remembered softness of his lips.

He had hesitated before when she kissed him, but he didn't hesitate this time. His arms tightened around her and he swung her around, half-carrying her and half-pushing her past the bathroom and into the main part of the room-

�C where the bed was.

He broke the kiss long enough to lean down and catch the bedspread, whipping it completely off the bed and to the floor, then he took her down across the bed with him.

His kisses held the same heat, the same hunger, that she remembered. He covered her with his heavy weight, pressing her into the mattress, and Andie coiled her legs around him, sliding her thighs up his hips to cradle him between them. Slowly he began rocking his erection against her even as he levered his torso up enough that he could begin taking her coat off. "You'd better be sure about this," he murmured, his gaze meeting hers. "There's no going back."

The intensity in his narrowed eyes shook her, burned her. She framed his face with her hands, just as she had imagined doing, and took the leap. "I love you, Simon." She wanted to say it at least once, in case she didn't have another chance to tell him. She wanted him to know that he was loved, that he was cherished, that he wasn't alone.

He faltered then, his arms abruptly wobbling and refusing to support his weight. He sank down on her, breathing hard, his forehead pressed to hers. "You don't have to say that," he muttered, something in his tone so humble it broke her heart.

"It's true. When you wouldn't take me with you, I fell apart. I cried for hours." She stroked his hair, her hands tender. "I could barely think, I hurt so much, and I had to convince Rafael I was upset because I'd realized he didn't love me, and that you'd said I was too much trouble and didn't touch me at all."

His head jerked up a little and he stared at her, nose to nose. "You mean he bought it?" he asked incredulously.

"Of course. I have a talent for lying," she said, her mouth twitching a little with amusement.

"Damn. I knew you were good, but that's world-class."

"Thank you." She laughed, raising her head for a quick taste of those soft lips again. She felt them curve in a smile, and her heart squeezed.

Gently he nipped her chin, stroked his hand down to grip her thigh and pull it higher. "Let's get out of some clothes. I really, really need to fuck you for a while."

"How long is a while?" She began unbuttoning her blouse, but abandoned the effort to work at his buttons, because she'd much rather feel his skin than her own. "Want to go for a personal best?"

"You mean more than four hours?" He shook his head, smiling. "I can't. Not this time. Let's shoot for twenty minutes."

"Slacker. I know you can do better than that." She didn't need twenty minutes, she thought, her hips lifting and rubbing against him, seeking the hard ridge of his erection. Five minutes would do it. All her internal muscles clenched as she suddenly remembered how it felt when he entered her, pushing deep. His penis was thick enough to make her feel stretched, even then; how would it feel now, when she had been celibate for months? It was as if her sex drive had dried up, because she hadn't even thought about sex since the accident-until he showed up in her kitchen, and she realized it hadn't dried up, it had just been dormant because she was preoccupied with other things.

She got his shirt unbuttoned and pulled it free of his pants. The broad span of his chest, the light sprinkling of hair, enticed her and she spread her hands over it so that the hair tickled her palms and her fingers found the small flat coins of his nipples, centered with tiny nubs that hardened as she stroked them. His cheekbones darkened with color as he braced himself over her, letting her play.

Enough of that. She really, really liked his chest, but what she wanted most was in his pants. Abandoning his nipples, she went for his belt buckle, all but ripping it open. "Watch out for the zipper-" he managed, then rescued his erection from her dangerous eagerness to set it free. She was suddenly frenzied, batting at his hands in an effort to get to him.

"Move," she muttered. "Let me have it."

"Slow down. You can have it-Shit. Wait a minute."

"No. Hurry."

"Get your clothes off, too."

He rolled to the side and impatiently she surged to her knees, tugging and tearing at her clothes and tossing them aside. As soon as she had her jeans and underwear off she tossed them aside and straddled him, concentrating on something that was far more rewarding.

"I love you, Simon," she said as she grasped his penis and guided it between her legs. She used his name deliberately, reinforcing that she loved him, the man, not just the sex. White-hot anticipation tightened her stomach muscles. She sank down, just enough for the swollen head to push against her opening. The heavy pressure burned as her flesh gave, opened, molded around him. It hurt, but she didn't care. She pushed some more, hungry for more, then tantalized herself by lifting slightly.

A growl rumbled in his throat and he grasped her hips, pulling her downward with a quick jerk that pushed him all the way inside her. His head arched back, his eyes closing as he savored that moment of penetration, then he relaxed his grip and his body and a beautiful smile curved his mouth as he said, "There. Go for it, sweetheart. It's all yours."