Clayton Lee entered the Checkwolf base through the back door. He was returning from his three-week vacation, time that he had taken off for personal reasons. More specifically, he had taken leave to try to get over losing Michele Jones. For the second time.
In mid-April of the previous year, Michele had come to the Checkwolf base under the pretense of desiring membership. She had been quickly accepted and, in the two or three weeks that she had stayed there, Clayton had fallen in love with her, a case of love at first sight. He had believed that she felt the same way. Then on a routine assignment, Michele's first, she had actively tried to kill Sean, succeeding only in hospitalizing Sean for the next week.
Clayton had never forgotten the exchange that had occurred that day. He had recited it in his memory many, many times.
"Michele!" Clayton called. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah," Michele said, her voice cool and calm, still sighting along her rifle for targets.
"What happened?" Sean asked as he approached at a jog, his pistol held down and to one side. He saw Tyler slumped down opposite Michele. "Tyler?" he said. "Is he . . . ?"
"He's all right," Michele answered. "Somebody ambushed us from behind then ran back out there," she said, indicating the workroom floor. At that information, Clayton brought his rifle back up to the ready and started scanning out.
"How did that happen?" Sean asked, still looking at Michele.
Clayton glanced back at Michele to see her response, then saw with horror that she was panning her rifle to aim directly at Sean. Quickly, Clayton jammed the butt of his own rifle down on Michele's. The rifle barked and Sean collapsed to the floor, clutching his stomach.
"Michele, what are you doing?" Clayton asked in disbelief.
"Fulfulling a contract," she said coldly as she brought her rifle butt into the side of Clayton's head. He was spun around by the impact and sprawled on the floor. "And it's Bounty to you," he heard her say as blackness swam over him. When he awoke, Michele was in jail, Sean was in the hospital, and Clayton had a pounding headache, a broken heart, and a million unanswered questions.
Through the rest of the year, Clayton had constantly thought of Michele, all the while knowing that the love was still unreciprocated. And yet he couldn't get over her. Even after what she had done, he found that he still loved her.
Then, less than a month before, they had encountered an enigma known only as Raven. When they finally had confronted the person, Clayton had discovered that it was Michele. All of the feelings that he had been desperately trying to repress for the previous nine months immediately came rushing back. He had wanted to hold her, hug her, kiss her, just look at her, even though he knew that she hated him.
But then, to his complete astonishment, she had proclaimed her love for him as well. When he had tried to convince her to renounce her life of crime and become a member of Checkwolf, for real this time, she had told him that she couldn't and had pleaded with him to let her escape, to leave the city. He had relented and had let the woman that he loved leave his arms a second time. It had hurt worse that second time. This time instead of a rejection of his love, she had given him a vindication of it.
So a request to Sean for some leave wasn't out of the question, and Sean had immediately granted it. Clayton had then left the base and had only his feelings to deal with. After three interminable weeks of that, Clayton had finally decided to return to active duty.
He collapsed onto his bed, looking around the room, when all of a sudden his intercom came to life. "Clayton, this is Sean. Come to my office, please."
Clayton sighed. He stood and left his room, traversing the corridor that he had just come down less than a minute before. He passed Tyler's apartment on his left and Ryan's on his right before he came to the staircase. He took the stairs one at a time, not in much of a mood to hurry. He stepped out of the staircase and went to Sean's office door.
Clayton knocked lightly on the door.
"Come in," came Sean's invitation from inside.
Clayton entered, shutting the door behind him. "You wanted to see me?"
Sean looked up from his work. "Yes. Go ahead and have a seat."
Clayton sat in the proffered seat and leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands together.
"Relax," Sean said as he leaned back in his own chair, placing his reading glasses on the desk.
Clayton remained in the same position, perfectly comfortable.
Sean shrugged. "First, I wanted to welcome you back."
"Thanks," Clayton said.
"Second, I'd like to say, 'Have a good trip.'"
Clayton's eyes narrowed. "You lost me there."
Sean smiled. "You're aware, I'm sure, of the search for new members that we'd been having?"
"Well, we completed the search shortly after you left." Sean reached into a drawer and pulled out a folder. He extracted a sheet of paper and slid it across the desk to Clayton. "This is one of our choices."
Clayton leaned forward and picked up the paper. After quickly scanning it, he said, "What does this have to do with me?"
Sean leaned forward, smiling slightly, and placed his arms on the desk. "I'd like you to go to New York and contact her. Attempt to convince her to join. If she doesn't want to . . . ." Sean shrugged. "Then she doesn't want to and you can return. But if she does, go ahead and help her wrap everything up there and accompany her back. I'm giving you complete discretion otherwise."
Clayton finally leaned back in the chair, gazing at the sheet. "Why me?"
"Well, you've been to New York on several occasions."
"So have Ryan and James."
"I'm sending Ryan somewhere else, and James is going to be sorely needed here in Kewanee while everyone else leaves. You're the first one I'm asking. Tyler, Jay, Ruben, and Ryan are also going other places. Leaving us a bit understaffed here."
"Plus, you've had a hard time lately, and I didn't think you needed the added stress of picking up the slack of everybody else."
Clayton smiled slightly. "Thanks for the consideration." He looked at the paper again. "Leah Thomas, huh? Well, I'll convince her to join."
Sean smiled. "Good. Go ahead and get the necessary information from Jesse-he's already made all the arrangements-and then leave as soon as possible."
Clayton rose. "All right. See you later."
Clayton left through the inner door, to the communications room. He strode over to Jesse and got a hard copy of all the information he would need, mainly a detailed account of the data they'd compiled on Ms. Thomas, as well as his hotel and flight reservations. Next, he headed back up to his room, took the bags that he hadn't even had time to unpack yet, as well as a few other things, and headed out. On his way out, he passed Tyler headed in the direction of the comm room. He then exited through the back door and hailed a taxi.
"Where to?" the cab driver asked as Clayton slung his bags into the cab.
"Concorde Airport," Clayton responded.
The cabbie nodded and pulled away from the curb. Clayton leaned back in his seat and watched the scenery pass by outside.
Two hours later, he was on a jet headed for New York.
The Bronx. Borough of New York City, New York State.
Clayton tossed his bags onto his bed in his hotel room in the Bronx Palace, supposedly the best hotel in the whole borough. And since he wasn't paying for it, he deserved the best.
Clayton stepped over to the window and looked out at the hustle and bustle of New York, wishing he could have had a room on the other side of the hotel, facing the Hudson River. Although not quite as populous as Kewanee, it seemed like it was busier. Which was really no big surprise since New York was crammed onto a few small islands not much more than twenty or so miles in diameter, whereas Kewanee sprawled out to cover several times more area.
Almost directly southwest of where Clayton was standing now was midtown Manhattan, the place where they had taken down Michael Davidson just eight months before. Now, though, Clayton had a different objective in New York, to find one Leah Thomas, aged twenty-nine years, a potential Checkwolf member. From what he understood of the information he had gotten from Jesse, Ms. Thomas was a freelance detective associated with the NYPD. So, Clayton saw his "mission" as quite simple: go to the NYPD, ask for Leah Thomas, ask her to join Checkwolf, go back to Kewanee, say, "hey, Sean, we got ourselves a new member."
"How much?" Clayton asked, astounded.
"Wait a second." Clayton stared at the cab driver. "It went up another ten cents? How?"
The cabbie jerked his thumb at the meter. "Meter's still runnin'."
Clayton muttered under his breath while he pulled out the necessary money. "And don't be expecting a tip."
"Cheapskate," the cabbie muttered as he drove off.
"Highway robber," Clayton muttered as he walked off. He climbed the steps to the headquarters of the New York Police Department. He had tried Thomas' office already that morning and found nobody there. He was now following up on his second lead. He went to the front desk and asked for Leah Thomas.
The desk sergeant barely looked up from her work to answer him. "Yeah. Who?"
"Uh, Leah Thomas, please."
Now her full attention was on Clayton. "You're gonna have to be a little more specific, pal."
"She's a detective."
"All right, now we're gettin' somewhere." The sergeant gestured with her hand. "And . . . what precinct might she be in?"
Clayton frowned. "Well, I'm not sure she's in one."
"I think she's just . . . affiliated with the police department."
"I tell you what," the sergeant said. "Rather than play twenty questions with you all day, how about I send you back to see Captain Perkins?"
"Yeah, sure. That's fine," Clayton said, nodding.
"You'll have to go over here," the woman continued, pointing to the map on the countertop between them. She was pointing to a section named Investigations.
"Thanks," Clayton said, flashing a smile. He strode toward the indicated department, hands in pockets, whistling. He walked into the corridor under the sign that read Investigations.
The officer behind the reception desk looked up. "Can I help you?"
"Yes," Clayton said. "I'm looking for Leah Thomas. Do you know where I can find her?"
The look he received from the officer was similar to the one he had initially received from the first desk sergeant. "Oh, yeah," he said, his voice level. "She's right back there." He pointed to a location near the back of the department.
"Hey, thanks," Clayton said, starting to head that way.
"Hold on," the officer said.
The man was beckoning with his first two fingers for Clayton to return.
"Who are you looking for?"
"Leah Thomas. She's a detective."
Clayton sighed. "All right. Maybe a more technical term would be 'private investigator'. She used to be a detective."
The officer smiled broadly, if a bit patronizingly. "Ah, now we're gettin' somewhere." He punched in her name into his computer, then frowned. "Well, her file's been flagged. Why don't you go back and see the captain?"
"That's what the desk sergeant said, too."
The officer nodded. "He's right through there, take a left, and you're there," the man said, gesticulating with his hands. "I'll let him know you're coming."
"Thanks bunches," Clayton said. He followed the directions and entered the office of Captain Samuel Perkins. The captain rose when Clayton entered the office. He was a big man, tall and very muscular, a fact made more evident by the short-sleeved dress shirt that seemed a touch too small for his frame. His hair was jet black, parted immaculately; his eyes were dark; and his chin was wide, adding to the impression of size. Clayton grasped his outstretched hand. And a powerful handshake, too. "Captain Perkins, my name is Clayton Lee."
"Mr. Lee," Perkins acknowledged with a nod of his head. He motioned toward a chair with one of his large hands. "Please, have a seat."
"Thank you," Clayton said as he lowered himself into one of the chairs on the other side of the mahogany desk.
Perkins sat down in his own chair on the other side. "What can I do for you?" he asked.
"Well, sir," Clayton started, "I'm looking for a detective by the name of Leah Thomas."
"May I ask why?"
"I'm from a . . . uh, police force in Kewanee. Checkwolf is the name."
"Ah. I've heard of you people. Good things."
"Is that so?"
Perkins nodded. "Yeah, the chief of the Kewanee PD used to be a captain here before transferring out to Kewanee. Anyway, he's kept in touch with us a bit, and he's had nothing but praise for you people."
"I see. Well, thank you," Clayton said, smiling slightly. "Anyway, I'm here to ask Ms. Thomas to join us. Would you happen to know where she is?"
"I see." Perkins leaned back in his chair. "I'd hate to lose such a good investigator again. She's done a lot of good work here, both when she was still on the job and now that she's working on her own," Perkins said with a smile. "But you guys are a good organization, too. And anyway, it's Leah's choice as to whether or not she wants to leave here, not mine," Perkins said with what seemed to be a sad smile. He sighed. "Yes, I do know where she is, or, at least, where she was."
"Where she 'was'?"
"Last time I talked to her, earlier this week, she was just starting on a new case," Perkins said.
"Any information on that?"
Perkins shook his head. "None. Sorry."
"All right, then."
"However, I do have her card here, for the agency that she works out of," Perkins continued. He opened a drawer and took out a business card. He handed it to Clayton. "There's her card. I don't know when she'll be there next, but that ought to get you a step closer anyway."
"Thanks," Clayton said, accepting the card and sliding it into one of his jacket pockets. Jesse had already given him one, but there was no need to worry the captain about that.
"No, I don't think so."
Perkins stood as Clayton did the same. "Well, good luck finding her. I can't say I hope that she accepts your offer," he said with another of those little smiles, "but I suppose I hope that she does for your sake."
"Well, uh, thanks," Clayton responded. "And thanks for the information, too."
"No problem," Perkins said with a dismissing smile as he sat back down and returned to his work. Clayton turned and walked out of the office. After leaving the building, he hailed a taxicab. The one that pulled up had a note of familiarity to it, though of course it was yellow like most of the other cabs. He got in.
"Aw, not you again!"
Clayton looked up sharply. The cabbie was the same one that had brought him to the police station. Clayton groaned. "Just take me back to my hotel. Quickly, please."
Clayton dialed the number on the card from the phone in his room and listened to it ring. After the fourth ring, an answering machine clicked on. "This is the Thomas Agency," came a woman's voice over the phone's speaker. "I'm not in right now. Please leave your name, number, and message at the tone and I'll get back to you as soon as possible."
A tone sounded.
"Leah Thomas? This is Clayton Lee of the Checkwolf organization in Kewanee. I have an offer for you. Call me as soon as possible, please. You can reach me at my hotel anytime." He then left his number and hung up. All that was left to do now was to wait for the call. Clayton checked his watch. The time was thirteen minutes to four.
Clayton sighed. He grabbed the remote control and turned on the television. He settled back in the almost too-comfortable seat and started channel surfing.
Clayton started, opening his eyes. He had heard a ringing sound through his near-slumbering state. He scratched his head and looked at his watch. He had been out for four hours; it was now past eight.
The phone rang again.
Clayton snatched it before it could ring for a third time and brought it to his ear. "Hello?"
"Hello, Mr. Lee?"
"Speaking. Is this Leah Thomas?"
"Yes." A pause on the other end of the line. "You said you had an offer?"
"Yes. As I mentioned, I'm a member of Checkwolf in Kewanee. We're having a membership drive of sorts and you're right at the top of our list."
Thomas paused briefly, almost as if she were mentally changing gears. "Really? And which list might that be?" she asked.
"The list of prospective members."
"Ah. I see. And I suppose your offer is for me to join your organization, right?"
"You suppose correctly," Clayton replied. "I assume you've heard of Checkwolf?"
"I've heard some reports. Mostly good."
The phone hissed with dead air as both parties were silent for a few moments.
"So are you interested?" Clayton asked.
"Possibly. I have a few questions, first."
Thomas took a breath. "What's the pay? How about room and board? What kind of hours are we talking about here?"
Clayton took a breath. "Upper-twenties. Yes. Eight per night."
"'Upper-twenties.' Per year, I assume."
"Doesn't sound like much," Thomas commented.
"Keep in mind that you wouldn't have to find an apartment or anything and you wouldn't have to pay for your own food, or anything like that," Clayton told her. "Most of the necessities are covered. That'll save you a ton right there, what with housing prices in Kewanee being what they are."
"All right, that sounds better. What are the accommodations like?"
"Fairly spacious, nice, and you get your own room."
"How big is 'fairly spacious'?"
"Something like twenty-seven by twenty-seven."
"Are you kidding?" Leah asked. "Does each Checkwolf member get their own house?"
"Uh, no," Clayton said. "Our HQ is pretty big."
"Well, I'm sure that would be plenty of space, especially if you don't room with anyone."
"Right," Clayton said. He paused. "Yards."
"That was twenty-seven yards square."
Thomas was silent again. "But that's huge!"
"Yeah, it's pretty big."
"My God, what do you need that much space for?"
"Ms. Thomas," Clayton said, "I haven't a clue. This base that we work out of was co-opted and remodeled for us, and it is simply immense. I don't understand why they set us up with stuff like we have, and quite frankly, I don't ask questions." He smiled. "I just accept what the good Lord has given us."
"Okay," Thomas responded. "So what kind of work, exactly, do you do?"
"Well," Clayton began, "we've been described as a kind of 'elite police force'. We take care of some touchy cases; we have a bit more room to work with than the regular cops do; we can go places and do things that they can't. We're kind of like an extra hand for the cops. Plus we have the resources and time to concentrate on one case for longer than cops can, because we have fewer distractions. People like Awe, Marksman, and uh . . . other more 'regular' cases." Clayton had considered mentioning Belsky, but they still didn't have anything resembling solid evidence on him, so he thought better of it. He didn't want to be accused of slander on the chance that Thomas decided not to join.
"Yeah, I've heard of those guys; I've even tangled with Marksman once."
"Yeah, none of us care for him too much," Clayton said, recalling his shooting of Ruben.
"I don't blame you."
"Any other questions?" Clayton asked.
"No, I think that's all for now."
"Then I have one for you."
"Are you interested in joining?"
Clayton smiled, glad that he was being so successful here. "So when can you leave town?"
"Well, to tell you the truth, I'm in the middle of a case right now," Thomas said by means of explanation. "I've got an obligation to finish it up before skipping town."
"I understand," Clayton replied. "Would you like some help?"
Clayton imagined that he could hear Thomas shrug on the other end of the line. "Sure, I'd appreciate any help I can get."
"Great. So what's going on with this case?"
"Well, it seems there's this underworld smuggling ring going on through Long Island Sound. I sort of stumbled onto it and almost kicked the can because of it," Thomas related. "I'm taking more precautions and I think I'm closing in on the ringleader himself, a man that goes by the name of Kingpin."
Thomas snorted a derisive laugh. "Yeah, that's what I thought. Anyway, this guy's a major dealer: arms, drugs, you name it, he deals in it."
"Major major," Thomas concurred. "I've been going through literally all of my contacts to find out just the barest minimum on this guy. Then, I had to watch the actual workings of the group to determine their exact methods. From all of that information I've conjectured where Kingpin is going to be for the rest of the week. And I tell you, this guy's not easy to track. But I think I've done it. I'm gonna check it out tomorrow, make sure I don't get caught, and take him down."
"You mean physically take him down?" Clayton asked, anxious to bust some heads after a month of sitting around feeling sorry for himself.
"What, are you nuts?" Thomas asked. "Get real. He's got so many hired thugs that I wouldn't have a prayer of doing that. No, I'm just going to make sure of my information, like I said, and then call in the cops to do the dirty work. And, voilá! Another successful Leah Thomas Operation."
"Okay," Clayton said after listening to her recount her plan. "And after that, you'll be ready to come back with me to Kewanee?"
"Well, after I do that, it'll probably take me at least a week to wrap up everything here in New York; you know, get rid of my apartment, retire from the NYPD, close up shop here, say bye to my friends, my mom and dad, et cetera. You get the drift."
"Okay," Clayton said. "And after that, you'll be ready to come back with me to Kewanee?"
"All right. But first, let's take down Kingpin."
"Hey, you got my vote on that one."
Clayton nodded. "Yes. When are you going to do this, again?"
"Tomorrow. Why don't you come here at six or so tomorrow evening and we'll go from there?" Thomas suggested.
"Sounds good to me."
"You know where it is?" Thomas asked.
"Yeah, I have your card from Captain Perkins."
"All right. See you tomorrow."
"Hey," Clayton said before she could hang up.
"What are you gonna do until then?"
He could hear Thomas grinning. "Check you out and make sure you're legit."
"Ah, I see."
"See you tomorrow."
"Yeah, bye." Clayton heard a click from the other end of the line and, in turn, returned his phone to its cradle. He took out the card and looked at the address. Six o'clock.
Clayton picked up the phone again, got an outside line, and dialed long distance to Kewanee. The connection was made quickly and the phone rang twice before it was picked up. "Checkwolf headquarters, Jesse Ince speaking."
"Yeah. How're you doing?"
"Same as I was a couple of days ago when you left, just a little busier. It seems kind of empty with you, Tyler, Ryan, Jay, and Ruben gone," Jesse lamented. "Especially Jay and Ruben. Me and Sean are the only ones on duty here in the comm room most of the time."
"Hang in there," Clayton encouraged. "And while you do that, patch me through to Sean."
"What do you mean 'can't do'?"
"I said, 'Can do'," Jesse reiterated.
"Oh, sorry. Well, go ahead."
"All right. One sec."
A click sounded, followed by a brief tone. Then Sean picked up. "Matts."
"Hi, Sean. Clayton here."
"Clayton. How's it going?"
"I assume you've made some progress and didn't just want to call to chat."
"You assume correctly," Clayton responded. "I've made contact with Leah Thomas. She's accepted."
"Terrific! When are you going to be back?"
"At least a week, maybe two."
"Why so long?"
"Well, she's finishing a case up right now," Clayton explained.
"I understand that compulsion," Sean said.
"Yeah, I guess it's a smuggling ring headed up by someone named Kingpin."
"Kingpin?" Sean sounded impressed.
"Yeah. I'm going to help her on that one. Then she said it would take her at least a week to wrap everything up here in New York," Clayton continued. "Then we'll be headed back to Kewanee. Plus one member." He smiled, almost proudly.
"Good," Sean said. "Just be careful with Kingpin's racket. They're rough and ruthless. I don't think they'll kill you on sight. Unless they're in a bad mood," Sean mused.
"Thanks for the good word."
"Just be careful."
"I always am. But thanks for the reminder, anyway." Clayton checked his watch. It was running up on nine. "I think I'll get off the line. I'm probably running up quite a bill here."
"Why are you worried? You're not paying for it."
"I'm just nice that way. Also, aren't you supposed to be sleeping at this time?"
"Usually. Our schedules are all messed up around here, so I sleep whenever I get the chance," Sean said. "But surely you're not overly concerned about getting off the phone on my account."
"Hey, you got me dead to rights. Actually, I want to try out the deluxe entertainment accommodations at this terrific hotel. And I've heard the nightlife in New York is nothing to sniff at."
"Well, I'll let you get to that," Sean said. "I'm sure you'll have more fun than me. Hasta luego."
"Yeah. Bye." Clayton returned the phone to its cradle. He stood and headed for the door, for some relaxation.
Clayton knocked on the door to the Thomas Agency. He stood there, looking around as the traffic and pedestrians passed by on the slush-covered streets, whistling. He looked back at the door and saw a sign reading "Enter". Clayton sighed, shook his head, and stepped inside.
That the interior of the business was well-heated was the first thing that Clayton noticed after stepping in off the chilly street. No one was in sight. Clayton checked his watch and saw that it was still a few minutes until six. I'm actually early. So where's Ms. Thomas?
Clayton heard a sound from the other side of the door on the opposite side of the room. He spun around. Then the door swung open and a woman walked through. Clayton nodded at her as he quickly looked her over. Leah Thomas was approximately five and a half feet tall, with dark brown hair and piercing blue eyes. At the moment her hair, which passed below her shoulders, was tied back. She was wearing a very warm-looking dark green sweater and a pair of jeans. Beneath the warm attire, the curves of her body were vaguely evident. Clayton smiled. "Ms. Leah Thomas?"
"Yes," she answered, giving Clayton the same once-over that Clayton was giving her. "And I must say, you haven't made a very good first impression."
"You're almost an hour late."
"What?" Clayton exclaimed. He looked at his watch again. "It's six sharp."
"Wrong," Thomas said as she pointed to a clock on the wall that was chiming the hour. "It's seven sharp."
"What?" Clayton exclaimed again, this time baffled. He looked at the clock. It did, indeed, read seven. Then suddenly, it was as if a light bulb were turned on in his mind. He turned to Thomas. "I forgot to set my watch ahead an hour," Clayton said in an apologetic tone. "It didn't even occur to me."
"What, you didn't notice that all of the shows on TV were starting an hour early? Or that places closed down or opened up an hour early?" Thomas asked, her head cocked to one side, eyes boring into him.
Clayton shifted uncomfortably. "Actually, no. I didn't notice."
Thomas looked at him for a while longer, then shrugged and dismissed the problem with a wave of her hand. "Well, no problem. That's no major setback. I would advise setting that watch ahead an hour, however. Could save you from some major problems."
"No kidding," Clayton commented as he set the watch. "Sorry, again," he said.
Clayton smiled as he straightened up with his newly-set watch. "So, Ms. Thomas, are you ready to go?"
"Please," she said with a smile. "Call me Leah. Especially since we're going to be coworkers."
"Leah, then. And I'm Clayton."
Leah extended her hand, which Clayton grasped, noting the strength and assurance in the handshake. "Nice to meet you, Clayton."
"Likewise, I'm sure," Clayton said, smiling.
"I'm ready to go, then," Leah said, disengaging her hand. "My car's in back."
Clayton grinned. "I didn't think New Yorkers drove cars."
Leah shrugged as she turned off the lights in the room and led Clayton toward the back of the office. "Well, I actually tried to do this job without a car for awhile. But I've left the city on jaunts so many times that I've found that a car is actually better." She glanced back at Clayton. "Pain in the butt getting that driver's license, though."
Clayton laughed as they stepped into the garage.
"That wasn't a very long drive," Clayton commented as Leah turned off the car. He looked over at her, her face only partially lit from the streetlights.
Leah turned to face him. She shrugged.
Clayton nodded. "Where to now?"
Leah pointed ahead of them. "You see that building there, near the dock?"
Clayton squinted. "Yes."
"This is one of the main places that they receive their smuggled goods," Leah explained. She checked her watch. "Kingpin himself is supposed to be overseeing the whole shebang this week, starting tonight. In fact, tonight's load should be here any minute." She grinned wryly and looked at Clayton. "Looks like your being late wasn't as big of a thorn in my side as I thought it'd be."
Clayton smiled. "Heh."
"So, anyway. All we're doing is just making sure that Kingpin is here, and that your information is correct?"
"Correct," Leah said, nodding as she suppressed her smile.
Clayton saw a light coming toward them over the water. A boat, with the shipment, most likely. Leah grabbed a tiny pair of binoculars and took a close look at the activity on the dock. "Ha!" she exclaimed. "I knew it! There he is," she said, pointing. Clayton looked closely but couldn't make much of the individual figures. Leah put the binoculars away. "Let's get outta here before we're spotted." She started fumbling for her cell phone.
Suddenly, a pair of headlights shined through the rear window. Clayton and Leah turned in their seats to see who it was. "I think we've been spotted," Clayton said as the doors to the car opened and two men with guns stepped out. "What now?" Clayton asked as the men came toward the car.
"I don't know," Leah said.
"We could act like we're making out," Clayton suggested.
Leah narrowed her eyes and glared at Clayton. "I don't think so."
Clayton raised his hands. "Hey, just a suggestion."
At that point, both of their doors were opened. "Get out of the car," one of the men ordered. Clayton felt a large hand close around his arm. He then was yanked out of the warm car into the cold outside. The other man helped Leah out the other side. A third man got into the car on the driver's side and started it up.
"Hey!" Leah yelled. "What are you doing?"
"Shut up!" the man holding her ordered.
The person inside the car put it into drive and steered it toward the water. Helpless, Leah watched, enraged, as the car rolled down the hill and splashed into the East River.
"Hey, why are you doing this?" Leah said. "We just came up here to make out."
Clayton shot Leah a glance and Leah shrugged.
"Yeah, whatever," the evident leader of the group said. "Well, you picked a bad time and a bad place to be makin' out." He laughed. "This way," he said, motioning toward the pier. Clayton and Leah were pushed ahead, also toward the building near the water.
"You're funny," Clayton said quietly when Leah was next to him.
"Well, it was worth a shot," Leah said, also quietly. "That was a brand new car!"
"I said, shut up!" Clayton's captor said, cocking a gun and holding it against the back of Clayton's head.
Clayton's heart rate increased exponentially, it seemed, and he nodded. "Right. Sorry."
The leader of the group held the door of the building open when they got near it, and Clayton and Leah were shoved in. Over a dozen people were milling about the small room. In the center was Kingpin himself.
Kingpin looked up from overseeing the operation at the two intruders. He stood. "What have we here?" He was a balding man in his late forties or early fifties, about Leah's height but probably twice her weight, wearing an obviously-expensive tailored suit.
"We found them in a car up on the hill," the leader of the trio that had captured them said from near the door as he tossed Leah's phone to one of the men standing next to Kingpin.
"Really?" Kingpin said. "And what were you doing there?"
"Uh, making out," Leah said.
Clayton suppressed a laugh.
Kingpin glared at him. "Something funny, kid?"
Realizing the seriousness of the situation, the humor was suddenly lost. Clayton looked up. "No, sir."
Kingpin looked back at Leah. "Who are you?"
The leader of the capture group stepped up next to Kingpin and showed him Leah's driver's license. "Leah Thomas, huh?" Kingpin said, looking up, a slight respect washing over his face. He walked over nearer to them. "I've heard of you. I've heard you've been messing around in things that you shouldn't be." He shook his head. "You should have known better. This is all way over your head." More quickly than would have been thought possible, Kingpin balled up a fist and punched Leah in the gut.
Wordlessly, she hunched over slightly, a grimace on her face from the sudden, unexpected pain. Clayton tried to look on impassively.
Kingpin straightened his sleeves and looked at Clayton again. "And who is this?" Another license was shown to him. "Clayton Lee," he said quietly, musing. The name seemed familiar to him. "Checkwolf?" he asked.
Clayton nodded, impressed.
"You know Sean Matts used to be a p. i. here, too, years ago." Kingpin looked back at Leah, who was standing straight again, though still obviously hurting. "He had enough sense to stay away from all this," he said, gesturing at the commotion in the room.
"You can't get away with this," Leah said, trying to keep the pain out of her voice.
Kingpin barked a short laugh. "Save your heroics, girl. Of course I'll get away with it." He turned his back. "I always do."
Throughout the entire exchange, from the moment they entered the room, through Leah being punched, through the following conversation, Clayton had been noticing that the man that was holding him had been continually loosening his grip slightly; it seemed to be a feature in common with low-level thuggery. As Kingpin confidently turned his back on them, Clayton quickly broke free of his captor, pushed the man backwards, and leapt toward Kingpin. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Leah looking at him, astonished. He grabbed the shorter man around the throat and maneuvered him between himself and the rest of the occupants of the room, holding him as a shield. Several guns were instantly cocked and lowered. "Don't shoot, you idiots!" Kingpin gurgled.
Leah took advantage of the situation and broke free as well, grabbing a machine gun that her captor had been holding before drawing his pistol. She backed over toward Clayton and lowered it at the rest of the room. "Everybody drop your weapons and then drop to the floor, face down." Nobody moved. Leah fired a staccato burst into the wall. "Now." Instantly several weapons dropped to the floor, followed by the drawn-out thump of bodies following.
"What about the ones outside?" Clayton asked, still holding Kingpin in his stranglehold.
"Nothing we can do about them," Leah commented as she methodically swung the machine gun back and forth, ensuring that everybody was obeying her directive. "I should probably call the police." She stepped toward the man that had her phone. "Give me my phone back." He slid the phone across the floor to her.
Clayton nodded. "That would be a good idea. Before you do, grab me a gun, too." Leah grabbed a large automatic off the floor next to her phone and handed it to Clayton. He accepted it and released his hold on Kingpin, who rubbed his reddened neck. Clayton trained the gun on Kingpin. "Nobody try anything. Don't try to shoot me because I can take Kingpin down before you take me down. If you take me down."
"Don't try anything," Kingpin ordered his men through gritted teeth.
"Good boy," Clayton said, patting Kingpin on the shoulder.
Leah put her phone back in her pocket. "Police are on the way," she said. "Okay, now everybody move over to that corner over there and stay away from the guns," she ordered, pointing the way with the machine gun.
"Another excellent job, Leah," Captain Perkins complimented.
Clayton cleared his throat.
"Uh, you too, Mr. Lee."
Clayton rolled his eyes.
Perkins directed his attention back to Leah. "Have you accepted Mr. Lee's offer, then?"
Leah nodded. "Sorry, Sam. I have."
Perkins nodded and sighed. "I'll miss you, Leah."
"I'll miss you, too, Sam. It's been great working with you."
"Well," Perkins said with a smile, "at least you went out with a bang in the traditional Thomas way."
"Yeah," Leah said, smiling self-deprecatingly. "Well, we've gotta get going."
"Right," Perkins said. "Goodbye. And good luck."
Leah nodded. She hailed a taxi. While they waited, Clayton turned to her. "I guess I didn't realize what kind of ties you had here. This is quite a sacrifice you're making, isn't it? Coming to Kewanee. Are you sure you want to?"
Leah nodded. "Of course. New life experiences, you know. All that jazz."
"Still, you're giving up a lot. Why?"
Leah looked at him askance. "Well, why do you do it? It's more than just a paycheck, cause the pay's not that good. But it's still something that I want to do, something I want to be a part of." She paused. "And I'm really looking forward to working with Sean Matts."
Clayton stepped up and hailed a taxi, too. "So you checked us out like you said you would?"
"Well, of course," Leah said. "You know, you guys are very well-respected. I don't think I was able to find even one negative report about the work you've been doing. Curious, considering the kind of funds that had to be diverted to cover the cost of prepping those headquarters."
"Yeah, I imagine it was a lot," Clayton said. "I mean, I know they just remodeled an old factory, but still . . . it's a nice place."
"I've seen pictures," Leah said. "You know," she continued as a cab finally came toward them, "the city didn't foot the cost of that building."
"Right, there was some mysterious benefactor," Clayton said as the cab pulled to a stop. Clayton opened the door for Leah. She slid in. Clayton slid in after her.
"Where to?" the cabbie asked.
Leah held up her index finger to Clayton. "One sec." She leaned forward and informed the cabbie of the address of her office.
He nodded and moved out into traffic.
"I'm gonna get those punks for trashing my car," Leah muttered. She glanced over at Clayton, who didn't appear to be listening to her.
"Wait a second," Clayton said, leaning forward. The cabbie glanced back at him. Simultaneously, they said, "Not you again!"
"You two know each other?" Leah asked, looking back and forth between them.
"All too well," Clayton muttered as he fell back in his seat.
Leah grinned, shook her head, and sat back as well. She turned toward him in the seat. "You know, Clayton-"
"Yeah, I know Clayton. Really great guy once you get to know him."
Leah cocked one eyebrow, not bothering to dignify the comment with a response.
Clayton grinned sheepishly and cleared his throat. "Anyway. You were saying?"
Leah paused as she collected her thoughts. "You know, I never got a chance to ask you if you really would have shot Kingpin had they rushed you."
Clayton ducked her gaze, concerning himself instead with the traffic going by. "Well, I wouldn't have killed him." He glanced back at her. "Let's put it that way."
"I see. So you were bluffing?"
Clayton smiled. "Yeah, kind of."
Leah smiled, too.
"Have you ever had to kill anybody?"
The smile fell from Leah's face. "Yes. It's not a pleasant thing. Even though you know you're totally justified, it's too much like playing God." She paused, then looked over at Clayton. "That wasn't a very polite question," she said, with only the barest hint of a smile on her face.
Clayton reddened slightly. "I'm sorry."
Leah waved her hand, dismissing it. "No problem. But that's another reason that I like Checkwolf," Leah said. "You guys don't use lethal force. Those air tasers you've got are a much better solution than bullets. I imagine that with the results you've been getting, you'll convince some police departments to go that route instead."
Clayton nodded. "Yes, I like that myself." He paused. "I don't think I could ever bring myself to kill another person, no matter what he'd done. And if I did, I'm not sure I'd like myself afterwards."
"You don't. Not for a long time," Leah said quietly.
Silence fell between them.
"Well, let's change the subject here, shall we?" Clayton said.
"Wanna hear a joke?"
"I'm not sure."
"Then who are you?"
"If you're not 'sure', then who are you?" Clayton said smiling.
Leah shook her head. "If this is how humor goes in Kewanee, maybe I don't want to live there after all."
"Sean Matts, Leah Thomas. And vice versa."
Sean offered his hand and Leah grasped it firmly. "Pleased to meet you, Ms. Thomas."
"Mr. Matts. And please, call me Leah."
Sean nodded. "And call me Sean."
"Well, Leah, over the next few days, while you get settled and we get the rest of our team back, Clayton will show you the ropes of the organization and we'll put you through a couple of training room simulations." He paused. "That is, if you're not already sick of him."
Leah smiled. "That sounds fine. I've been looking forward to seeing this training room of yours. And to working with you, Sean. I followed your career fairly closely while you were in New York. I admire your ability."
"Well, thank you," Sean said. "I've heard some very positive reports about you, as well, and I'm anxious to work with you, too."
Sean directed his gaze to Clayton. "Question?"
"Any idea when the others are going to be back?"
Sean shook his head. "It's not really concrete. Jay and Ruben have run into trouble finding Ms. Hassan and I haven't heard from Ryan for awhile, but they should all be back by the end of the month. I hope. We'll institute our new procedures then."
"I don't remember exactly what room we assigned you, Leah . . . ," Sean said as he turned to one of the subsidiary monitors on the comm board.
While Sean looked, Leah looked around at the size of the comm room. "This place certainly is big," she said to Clayton.
"Yeah, pictures don't really convey the size, do they?" Clayton asked.
Leah simply smiled and shook her head.
"Ah, here we go," Sean said. "You have this room on the western side of the building, near Cop and Wil. Clayton will show you the place." Sean neglected to mention that it was also the room directly north of the room that Michele Jones had occupied during her brief tenure as a Checkwolf member. He hoped Clayton wouldn't notice.
"Right, chief." Clayton hefted some of Leah's bags, his expression still the same.
"It was nice meeting you, Sean," Leah said as she shook his hand again.
Sean nodded and smiled. "Maybe after you've settled in a bit we can talk and you can catch me up on the New York investigations scene. I've been away for awhile."
"I'd like that," Leah said.
"All right, then. I'll see you later."
Leah nodded and Sean turned his attention back to the communications board.
Leah picked up the rest of her bags and went over to Clayton, who was ready to leave the room.
"So, Leah," Clayton said as he opened the door for her, "how do you like our little hovel?"
"Hovel?" Leah said. "You have a certain flair for understatement, Clayton," Leah commented.
Clayton grinned. "I guess I do."