Today was Leo’s last day at the brothel. As part of the transition, DeGraff was taking him on their final sweep of the DC area before they moved on to Las Vegas. Standard operating procedure, according to DeGraff. They set up in an area, farmed it for a while, then closed up shop and staked out another territory before local law enforcement got suspicious. Nothing the bureau hadn’t already figured out, but Leo nodded and pretended it was all new to him.
Today’s trip was to show him what to look for and, Leo was sure, to see how Leo reacted to drugging and kidnapping someone’s son or daughter.
Leo let himself out the nondescript door and sat down on the front steps to wait for DeGraff to pick him up. Unlike the men working the brothels, the procurers all lived with the victims to make the training easier. He set his duffel bag with all his clothes and personal items on the step below him. A year and a half of living in rooming houses meant there wasn’t much to move.
DeGraff pulled up in a late-model BMW, hardly noticeable in the DC traffic. Leo tossed his bag in the trunk and got in. He wasn’t sure if it was the air-conditioning or DeGraff in his leather jacket and aviator glasses that made him shiver. Despite all his efforts to find something likable about the man, something about him always creeped Leo out—something in the dead gray of his eyes or the way he looked at people like he was setting a price on them, deciding if they were worth the trouble of killing or selling. This was a different side of DeGraff from the one that sent his girlfriend flowers or kept a box at the football stadium for staff to use at will.
“Where are we going?” Leo asked as DeGraff pulled back out into traffic.
“We’ll just cruise a bit. Try the parks, the mall. Here.” He held out a new phone. “Give me the other one. The gun too. You won’t need it.”
Leo handed over his gun but hesitated before giving DeGraff the phone. “Uh, I need this one. The ex will shit kittens if she can’t tear me a new one each week.” Damn, he had photos of most of the victims on that phone. It had been a calculated risk, but he’d hoped they’d just take it as a fetish if they looked at the pictures.
DeGraff gave him a look that clearly asked why he let a woman boss him around.
Leo stared back. “I want to be able to see my kids.”
With a snort, DeGraff said, “Okay. She can’t have that number, but I’ll get one set up that forwards to it. We’ve got an inclusive plan, so we’re paying no matter what you use it for.” He shot Leo a glance. “Don’t let anything slip. After all, you want to be able to see your kids, right?” The implication was clear—several of them, actually—and Leo nodded as he let DeGraff take the phone from him.
Dammit, he’d have to let Harrow know that he’d lost the photos.
DeGraff turned the wheel with lazy confidence, heading into suburbia. Which now meant they were heading away from his meeting point. He needed to put some pressure on DeGraff to get them back on track. “We’re not going to check out the shopping malls?”
“Maybe if there’s no luck in the open. Can be hard to get them out of those buildings. We only shop indoors if we have a very specific order.”
Leo nodded and looked out the side of the car. He had until six to get them over to the shopping mall on Pennsylvania Avenue. He’d figure something out.
DeGraff grinned. “You’re thinking about getting your tickets, aren’t you?”
Leo shrugged and stared stonily out the window. It was as good an excuse as any and might be something he could work with later.
DeGraff chuckled and left him alone.
They cruised the streets, watching for single kids, kids who looked lost, kids who looked angry and alone, the giggly, silly ones who were clearly skipping school. But only the well-dressed ones, the ones who obviously had parents of some sort, well fed, clean. They wanted kids who weren’t already selling themselves or getting high on a regular basis. One hour, that was all they needed, DeGraff said. One hour, and as far as the outside world was concerned, those kids might never have existed.
They saw a couple of prospects, but it led nowhere. The potential victims never isolated themselves, or they met friends, or some sixth sense alerted them to Leo’s and DeGraff’s persistent surveillance, and they jumped on a bus and left. And if they didn’t, Leo made sure they got spooked.
He’d expected DeGraff to get frustrated and impatient, but the man was as cool as if he were out for a day’s fishing. If anything, it was Leo who was impatient, antsy about finding his new partner, frustrated with the wait.
At around six, their stomachs growling, Leo talked DeGraff into hitting the food court at the mall. DeGraff grumbled, but agreed when Leo pointed out that the mall would be full of teenagers by then and they might get lucky.
Leo hit the lotto booth as soon as they got there, ignoring DeGraff’s crack of laughter behind him. His contact was working, appearing as bored as any other day. While Leo dithered over a choice of scratch tickets, the man pulled his phone out of his pocket as if he’d received a message, tapped out something quick, and slipped it back into his pocket.
Leo traded some cash for a few scratch tickets, but there was no way to pass on the message about the phone with DeGraff hovering beside him, weighing the different fast-food choices available. He gave the agent behind the counter a significant “I need help” look. Then he and DeGraff went to order food and moved to the tables to watch the kids.
And there were kids—dozens of them. Anywhere from ten years old and up, boys and girls, good-looking and plain, heavy or athletic or just ordinary. Once they’d finished eating, Leo methodically scratched the silver foil off each card in turn, flicking his gaze around the area, watching for Julian Fitzroy. DeGraff watched as well, though Leo knew he wasn’t looking for anyone in particular, just some kid that fit the parameters of the business.
At least when Julian came, it would mean the other kids would be safe. The look in DeGraff’s eye was all business; it chilled Leo more than it would have if DeGraff had shown any amount of lust.
DeGraff noticed Leo watching him. “You’re not into this, are you?”
Leo grunted and swept the silver flakes onto the floor. “It’s a job.”
“With nice perks.” He waved casually in the direction of the burger stand and a well-developed sixteen-year-old girl with blonde hair and a lip ring. “Like them. Those are some nice perks.”
“Haven’t seen anything I like.” Leo stacked the tickets on the table. He sat back and scanned the crowd.
He also kept a watch on DeGraff, who regarded him with narrowed eyes and a speculative expression.
Behind him, a couple of teenaged boys started arguing. “Dammit, Julian, just drop it.”
Leo turned around in time to watch one boy, dressed in a black T-shirt and the tightest pants Leo had ever seen, wind up and shove another one hard enough that he took a step back. “Why should I drop it? I come all the way across town to meet you here, and I find you with your tongue jammed down some slut’s throat. What the hell, Mark?”
“Well, maybe if you’d put out, I wouldn’t have to get it somewhere else.” The first boy, a good-looking African American who seemed more than a few years older than the other boy, smoothed his shirt over his chest and looked down his nose at his angry boyfriend.
“Maybe I’m not ready,” the first one gritted out through clenched teeth.
“And maybe I’m tired of waiting on a frigid little uptown virgin. You shouldn’t be advertising if you aren’t selling.”
The boy in the tight pants looked shocked. Then his mouth tightened like he wanted to cry. “Fuck you, you asshole.” He spun around and stormed off toward the narrow hallway leading to the bathrooms.
The other boy laughed and yelled after him, “We wouldn’t be fighting if you would!”
Leo got a good look at Julian as he passed their table—this was his man. He turned his head slightly to catch DeGraff’s eye and raised his eyebrows.
DeGraff glanced after Julian. He looked amused. “So that’s what it takes. Acceptable. How well do you know this building?”
Leo smiled. “There’s a service entrance at the end of that hall.”
DeGraff nodded and patted his pocket, where Leo knew from an earlier conversation that a syringe filled with ketamine and other drugs awaited their victim. He got up from the table, threw out his garbage, and turned toward the bathrooms. Leo followed mere moments later. Inside the bathroom, DeGraff peered behind the door and moved an OUT OF SERVICE FOR CLEANING sign from the back to the front.
Julian was at the sink at the far end of the room, staring into the mirror with water dripping off his face. DeGraff stepped into a stall, and Leo went to wash his hands at one of the other sinks. Julian glanced up at him, then tore off some paper towel and wiped his face dry. He tossed the towel in the overflowing garbage can and slunk past Leo with all the angsty self-consciousness of a hormonal teenager.
Leo wished he had time to appreciate the performance, but he had a job to do. As Julian passed him, Leo spun and grabbed him from behind, pinning Julian’s arms to his sides and covering his mouth. Julian made a startled noise, muffled by Leo’s hand, and began to thrash. He kicked Leo painfully in the shin, but by then DeGraff was out of the stall and had jabbed his syringe into Julian’s shoulder. Leo fought the young man down to the floor while DeGraff stood watch by the bathroom door. Five tense minutes later, Julian was completely spaced out, limp as a rag in Leo’s arms.
“We good?” DeGraff asked.
Leo slapped Julian’s face gently. The young man stared dreamily off into space, his eyes no more than slits. He made an odd sound, halfway between a whine and moan, then fell quiet and didn’t respond to Leo’s second slap. Leo checked his breathing, but Julian seemed to be fine. He looked up at DeGraff and nodded.
“Okay. I’ll go out first. You get an arm over your shoulder, and we’ll take him out the back door here.” He peeked out into the hallway, then beckoned Leo with some urgency and held the door open for him. Leo got Julian up off the floor and hauled him across the room. DeGraff had to help him get the man through the door, but once they were out, it was smooth sailing. The back entrance to the mall was only ten feet past the bathrooms.
Once outside, Leo laid Julian on the ground and waited while DeGraff retrieved the car from a nearby parking lot. They bundled Julian into the backseat with Leo, then pulled out of the parking lot. DeGraff grinned at him in the rearview mirror. “Now I know what turns your crank. Good. You can look after teaching him his manners.”
Leo grunted, and when DeGraff returned to navigating the streets, he breathed a silent sigh of relief.
Stage One accomplished.