Excerpt: Slow Hands

PROLOGUE

Alec Dempsey preferred to stay north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Way north. Like Seattle.

He wasn’t happy to be in Tennessee, in a suit and tie, in the stuffy conference room of the Memphis FBI field office.

He also preferred to work with his own kind. ATF. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

FBI agents hogged the spotlight in joint ventures. They had huge egos, big superiority complexes. Little dicks.

The two FBI agents sequestered with him were prime examples. Condescending, but polite. After all, they wanted something from him.

His boss said he’d been specifically requested for this assignment, had urged him to consider it. Alec’s gut told him that wasn’t a good sign. He’d just been cleared for active duty after two months warming a desk. He wasn’t in the mood to play second string.

Special Agent Horace Phelps, balding and overweight, sat directly across the table. He bared his teeth in what Alec presumed was a smile.

“I’ll cut to the chase, Dempsey. We want you for an undercover job in Freedom, Arkansas.”

The tightness in Alec’s middle increased. “You’re joking.” He looked from Phelps to the second agent, leaning silently against the wall. Neither man laughed. “Undercover? In my hometown?”

“Yeah. You’ll go in as yourself,” Phelps went on. “The prodigal son.”

From what Alec recalled, the prodigal son was welcomed home with open, loving arms. Few arms would be open in Freedom. He doubted anyone even remembered him.

And the one person who knew him best would probably prefer to see him crucified.

Though he already knew he’d refuse the assignment, he feigned interest, more than a little curious. “What does the FBI want in Freedom?”

Phelps slid a mug shot across the table. “This guy look familiar? Ian Griggs. AKA inmate number 84736. You went to school with one of his younger brothers.”

Alec looked at the photo, eyes narrowed. He remembered the brothers Griggs. They’d been the town scourge. Bad seeds, all three of them. And they’d come to an even worse end.

“I think half the country remembers those boys,” Alec drawled.

Five years ago, Ian Griggs and his two brothers had hijacked an armored truck outside Little Rock and made off with two million in cash. The money was never recovered.

Alec recalled the story. Or at least the sensational headlines the media frenzy generated. As rumor spread that the pilfered cash was stashed in the Ozarks, treasure hunters descended in droves, clashing frequently with private landowners, and even forcing the closure of several state parks.

The news coverage had also brought to light another, lesser-known story Alec had followed with far more interest. His unease grew.

“Two of the brothers died in a fire after a shoot-out with police,” Phelps continued. “Ian Griggs went to prison, refusing to plea-bargain the location of the money in exchange for a reduced sentence.”

Alec’s frown deepened. “I thought he claimed one of his brothers hid the money. That the secret died with him.”

“Yeah, right.” Phelps made a jerking-off motion with his hand. “Everybody believed that one.”

“Then what’s the deal? Has the FBI decided to search for the money again?” If they thought Alec would make a good tour guide, they could think again.

Phelps shook his head. “Griggs’s sentence just got commuted. Which means he qualifies for parole at the end of this month. He’s been a model prisoner, and we believe the request will be granted.”

“Commuted?” Alec stiffened. “And you’re not opposing it?”

“We’re pressing for supervised probation in a halfway house in Freedom.” Phelps leaned forward. “He’s got two million reasons to return, and we want someone there to watch him.”

Alec glanced at the mug shot. While the news of Griggs’s likely parole surprised him, it wasn’t shocking. He’d been with ATF five years. Army Special Forces before that. He knew justice wasn’t always served; accepted it.

Except in this instance.

Ian Griggs had never even been tried for the worst of his crimes. Assault and battery. Attempted rape.

“You’re perfect for this job,” Phelps pressed.

No, he wasn’t.

Alec shoved the photo away. He’d heard enough. He’d left Freedom ten years ago, sworn he’d never return. It had been the right choice then. It was the right choice now.

Pushing his chair back, Alec stood. “Find someone else.”

Phelps’s fake smile evaporated as he scrambled to his feet. “There is no one else, and time is short. You know yourself how tight-knit those people are. Fucking clannish. And they can spot a Fed a mile away.”

Meaning the FBI had already tried and failed.

Alec could imagine the problems they’d encountered trying to plant an agent in town. Ignorant people, like Phelps, thought of Freedom in terms of Dogpatch. Thought everyone there was a hillbilly relative of Snuffy Smith. A little condescension went a long way in Freedom.

Of course, from what he remembered, the town could give as good as it got.

Alec snorted. “An ATF agent would be particularly unwelcome there.”

Besides being the hometown of the state’s most notorious criminals, Freedom, Arkansas, had a pre-Civil War history of producing the finest moonshine in the South.

Thanks largely to ATF anticrime initiatives, few people actually made a living making ‘shine anymore, though lots of old-timers kept stills. And believed the only good revenue agent was a dead one.

“Obviously we’ll fudge that part.” Phelps had an answer for everything. “You’ve been undercover since joining ATF, which is another reason you’re perfect for this. Outside of your immediate supervisor, who knows your real employer?”

“My mortgage company. American Express.”

Phelps didn’t blink. “I’m serious.”

“So am I.” Finished, Alec took a step toward the door. “I’m not interested in this job.”

“Keira Morgan is in danger.” The second agent, Miles Ostman, who’d been quiet up to then, moved forward. Mr. Nice Guy.

Alec turned. He recognized the ploy. Good cop, asshole cop. Agent Phelps cleared his throat and sat back down, grinning, arms tucked behind his neck, his part of the job complete.

Alec closed the door and leaned against it, legs spread slightly, eyes hooded. “What about Keira?”

“Ian Griggs blames her for the death of his brothers,” Ostman said. “Word is he’s going back to Freedom to claim his cash and to settle the score with Miss Morgan.”

“Take her into protective custody. Now.”

“The request got denied.”

“By whom? Did they know what Griggs did to her before the robbery?”

“Officially, those charges were dropped.” Ostman shrugged, noncommittal. “But maybe it’s just jailhouse talk. Griggs would be a fool to jeopardize his parole for the sake of vengeance. My professional judgment says he’ll grab the loot and run. Be in and out of Freedom within a week.”

Alec’s jaw tensed. Ostman wouldn’t know professional judgment if it bit him on the ass.

Alec was being manipulated, didn’t like it. He knew Griggs’s history, knew the man posed a very real danger to Keira. And they knew he knew.

The FBI had obviously snooped into Alec’s background before approaching him. Oily bastards. He didn’t like it, but he understood the rules of the game; had bent them himself a time or two.

He cut straight to the real problem. “If you know about my past with Keira Morgan, then you know I’m the last person she’d want to see.”

“We’ll handle that,” Ostman countered smoothly. “Before you go in.”

“Using what cover?” Prodigal SOB?

“We’ll play it like you’ve just been discharged from the army, following an injury from an explosion. You’ve completed physical therapy and are looking for a quieter, safer line of work.”

Alec had just completed physical therapy for an injury received during an ATF raid. “And why would I look in Freedom?”

“You used to be fairly close to Keira Morgan.”

Fairly close was the mother of all understatements. At one time, Alec couldn’t envision life without her.

“She’s still attractive as hell, currently unattached…” Ostman let the sentence hang. “In fact, you used to work construction with her, didn’t you? Electrical contracting? She owns her own business now, and we hear she’s hiring.”

Ostman’s innuendo didn’t faze Alec. Exploitation – or sexploitation – was the chief weapon in an undercover arsenal. The FBI wouldn’t think twice about asking him to seduce his way back into town.

What bothered Alec was the underlying note of desperation in the other man’s voice. What was he hiding?

“Quit blowing smoke.” Alec called his bluff. “What are you really after?”

The two agents glanced at each other. Phelps shrugged. Ostman shook his head once, slightly.

Alec turned away, uninterested in playing games. “I’m out of here.”

“Wait. Shit, you win. But this doesn’t leave the room.” Ostman pulled out a crushed box of Marlboros. “The truck Griggs knocked off that night was one of old man Ciccone’s. Used to transport his freshly laundered money.”

Alec recognized the name. Joseph Ciccone headed up the south-central mob. Had his fingers in everything illegal from Memphis to New Orleans, then ran legitimate businesses, like the armored truck service, to cover. He had a nasty reputation for eating his own kind. Few federal authorities cried over the news that one of Ciccone’s trucks had been hit. In fact, Ciccone had probably been a suspect himself until Griggs was arrested.

“Don’t tell me you want to protect Griggs from Ciccone.”

Ostman shook his head. “Don’t need to. They’re practically in bed together.”

That surprised Alec. Most people who crossed Ciccone ended up dead. Hell, Ciccone could have had Griggs executed in prison. Easy.

“Griggs has something Ciccone wants. Bad,” Ostman continued.

“The two million?” Alec raised an eyebrow. “I guess that’s a lot of dough to lose even for Joseph Ciccone.”

Ignoring the NO SMOKING placard, Ostman lit a cigarette. “Believe it or not, Ciccone’s not out a dime. Insurance ate the loss. Ciccone’s real good at covering his tracks, so on paper it all looks legit.”

Which was why Ciccone was so damn hard to nail. Alec knew ATF had tried to tie him to gunrunning a few years ago. Their key witness disappeared. “And now the greedy bastard wants the stolen money back, too, right?”

“Exactly. We believe Ciccone offered Griggs a deal. Ciccone bribes a judge or two, calls in a favor from someone on the parole board. Griggs gets out, recovers the money, and gives it back to Ciccone, who makes out like a bandit.” Ostman paused, exhaled. “Until we bust him with stolen property.”

Bingo, Alec thought. The FBI didn’t care about Ian Griggs or the money. Or Keira. They wanted a mob bust. They wanted Joseph Ciccone. He’d be a huge star on someone’s record.

Which meant this case had a wider scope than these two clowns let on. Alec made a mental note to check on a few things.

“Have you considered that my sudden reappearance in Freedom, right on the heels of Griggs’s return, will raise questions?” Coincidence only stretched so far.

“Not with the right romantic spin, it wouldn’t,” Ostman said. “We’ve done our homework. You’ll go in right away, before news of Griggs’s release is even made public. We’ll let it slip you and Miss Morgan have been corresponding on-line for a while. Worked out your differences. Then we’ll cement it with rumors of an impending engagement.”

Alec almost laughed. No wonder the FBI had been so unsuccessful in planting their own agent in Freedom. Homework? They didn’t know jack.

“I can tell you right now Keira Morgan won’t buy into that one.”

Phelps guffawed, then tried to cover with a cough. Ostman shot him a quelling look.

Alec didn’t miss the exchange. “You’ve already talked to her, haven’t you? And she turned you down. Probably told you where to stick it.”

Ostman sighed. “We figure she’ll come around when we mention your name.”

Now Alec did laugh. Ostman had no idea who he was up against. Keira would not come around. Not where Alec was concerned. And with good reason.

Though they didn’t realize it, he was off the hook. “I’ll tell you what. You get Keira Morgan to agree up front to hire me on those terms, I’ll do it.” Alec opened the door, confident he’d heard the last of the subject. “Good bye, gentlemen.”

As soon as Alec left, Ostman turned on the other man and started swearing. “You almost blew it!”

“Sorry.” Phelps didn’t look apologetic.

“Have you talked with the Morgan woman again?”

Phelps shook his head. “She won’t return my calls. And her secretary’s a real snot. Want me to fly over and see her in person?”

“No. It’ll raise more flags. I’ll try her at her home tonight myself,” Ostman said.

“So what’s this big fucking secret you promised to let me in on?”

For a moment, Ostman remained quiet, debating the wisdom of showing his hand.

Thus far, Phelps had followed his lead blindly. But Ostman knew his partner was growing nervous. Uncertain. Ostman needed to throw him a bone if he wanted continued loyalty.

And Ostman definitely needed help to pull this off quietly, help from someone who’d follow orders with a minimum of questions.

He picked up his cigarette, inhaled, blew out a stream of smoke. “You know all that crap about angels looking out for fools? It’s true. Besides the cash, that armored truck was transporting a cache of stolen, rare gold coins, scheduled to be fenced in Miami.”

“Where the hell did you hear that one? Two million plus a bonus in gold. Right! Bullshit stories always pop up after sensational crimes.” Phelps hee-hawed. “This sounds even better than that hokey story the Freedom Chamber of Commerce prints in their tourist brochures about the Lost Confederate Gold. Supposed to be a cache of it hidden in the Ozarks.”

“That’s an unproved legend. This isn’t.”

Phelps quieted at the other man’s tone. “What makes you so sure?”

“I recently busted a guy in New Orleans for running crooked slot machines on the riverboats. He started talking in hopes of cutting a deal. This guy gave the gold to Ciccone to have it fenced in lieu of protection money. But get this: He didn’t trust Ciccone to give him credit for the gold’s full value, so he had the coins privately appraised and photographed. Gave me a copy of the report.”

Phelps nearly fell out of his chair. “Jesus H. Christ! We recover those coins, we can tie Ciccone to money laundering, racketeering. It will be the bust of the century.”

Ostman nodded. Possession of stolen property was an easy rap to beat. RICO violations were a different ball game.

“No wonder Ciccone’s playing nice to Griggs.” Phelps lowered his voice. “So what did the boys upstairs say?”

“They don’t know the full story. Yet. I figure we’ll hand them Ciccone’s head on a platter.” That way no one else in the Bureau could claim the credit.

Nailing Ciccone meant a guaranteed promotion. And tremendous stature. Ostman had been beaten out of both before. It wouldn’t happen again.

“One thing: We have to make certain Ciccone gets his hands on the gold first.”

“I don’t follow,” Phelps said.

“We have to let Griggs recover the loot and actually turn it over to Ciccone. When it’s in Ciccone’s possession, we move in.” Ostman stubbed out his cigarette. “This is so big, I figure Ciccone will keep a finger on it personally. So while Alec Dempsey does the grunt work on the inside and follows Griggs, you and I will keep an eye on Ciccone.”

“What if Dempsey makes the bust too soon and blows it?”

“Won’t happen.” Ostman shook his head. “I plan to pull him off the case at the last moment. It should be a cakewalk.”

“Cakewalk my ass.” Phelps winced. “You haven’t talked to the Morgan woman yet.”

#

The inside of Ian Griggs’s prison cell was dank. Dark. Lights out was an hour ago, but sweet dreams eluded him.

He heard the inmate in the next cell urinating. Muffled voices drifted as the guard stopped to talk to another inmate, a planned distraction. Behind the guard’s back drugs were passed from cell to cell.

Griggs paced the short distance to the calendar he had scratched in the wall. Lighting a single contraband match, he marked an X through another day, then closed two fingers over the flame, relishing the slight burn.

The line from an old Janis Joplin tune rolled through his mind. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

Griggs had nothing left to lose in Freedom. And everything to gain.

He contemplated his plan, reviewed the steps. One, two, three.

Money.

Revenge.

Whiskey.

Not necessarily in that order.

Five years behind bars had taught him the virtue of patience. Of restraint. Of moderation. And of keeping a few cards up his sleeve.

“Soon, Keira,” he rasped to his empty cell. “Soon your nightmare will begin.”