For Disclaimers see Ch. 1

Author's Note: It has occurred to me, just today in fact, that I have spent far, far longer on this story than I ever intended. Granted, I know a lot has happened to me in the past few years, that's still no excuse to walk away from this when so many people have sent me emails begging me to finish. Rereading them really helped kick me in the ass, let me tell you. I managed to write this in only a couple of weeks. A record for me! And, believe it or not, we're in the home stretch. So, as always, read, review and enjoy.


A Chance Encounter Ch. 14


Bobbie Halchishak


* * *

Luce didn't manage more than two steps from her cellphone when it began ringing again, the sound suddenly harsh and shrill. She sighed and scooped it up. “Donovan.”

“We know your informant is gone, we want to talk to you, now .” Agent Smith nearly growled over the line.

Upon hearing what was could only be an order delivered by an obviously pissed off voice, Luce felt something inside of her snap.

She had just had the blinders ripped off her eyes about Mac, someone she once thought of as a good, trusted friend. Making her question all their past interactions and his current motives.

Worse still was the implication of Don's involvement in a money laundering scheme. Whether willingly or not,it was the loss of someone she liked and respected. All of it added up, quickly, exponentially. And she had had enough. And she was going to let the agent have it.

“To damn bad, I really don't want to talk with you right now.” She sneered into the phone, only peripherally aware of Kylie giving half an ear to the conversation.

“This is a federal investigation.” His angered voice carried far past the phone, audible to nearly anyone standing in the room. There was practically smoke coming out of her phone and she was sure she could detect a spike in his blood pressure.

Having no wish for it to either catch on fire or burst an eardrum, she moved the phone, putting some distance between it and her ear. “And tomorrow is soon enough for me to meet with you and Jenkins. I'm done for the night.”

That didn't seem good enough for him. “Donovan, if I think, even for a second that you're holding out on me, I'll slap you in cuffs so damn fast, it'll make your head spin.” There was no hiding the venom in his voice.

Luce sneered at the threat. “Go fuck yourself, Agent Smith. Why don't you try bullying someone else because you've got a snowball's chance in hell with me tonight. Its almost nine o'clock at night. What the hell do you think you're going to accomplish tonight?”

He paused, as if unsure of the question. “I have a judge waiting for this evidence.”

She found that hard to believe. “Let me guess, you've got a raid squad in the wings, just waiting for a signature too? Go get some sleep, Smith, you'll get it tomorrow. Tonight, you're shit out of luck.”

With a violent flick of her finger, she hung up on him, suddenly missing the days when slamming the receiver down on someone brought about a more savage sense of satisfaction. Deciding to ensure that she wasn't disturbed by him any further, she powered down her phone and set it down on the table. That ought to put a distinct twist in his panties.

Then, a wolfish, devilish, almost pissy smile crossed her face as she stood, walking over to the nearby intercom. She pressed the button for the doorman, deciding it might be fun to thumb her nose at Agent Smith a bit more.

There was a click and a rather annoyed but still professional voice came over the speaker. “Yes, Ms. Donovan?”

Luce could hear Agent Smith shouting in the background, clearly enraged at her denial. The sound made her smile in sheer, unadulterated, childish joy.

In spite of her joy at the agent's rage, her voice brooked no argument. “I've had enough disturbances tonight. No one, and I mean no one is allowed up here tonight.”

There was a slight pause from the doorman as her words rang clearly through the lobby, silence following in its wake.. “Of course, Ms. Donovan. But they are federal agents.”

She laughed dryly. “Without a warrant. I mean what I say, no one, not even my own mother is to be allowed past that desk. Am I understood?”

The doorman seemed to collect himself, almost as if finding himself stepping onto firmer ground. “Of course.” He assured her.

“If they keep harassing you, feel free to call the cops.” This time her laugh was genuine and rich, echoing through the speaker into the lobby for several seconds before being overrode by Smith's angered shouting. She released the button just as he started yelling directly at her before walking back into the kitchen.


* * *

The night was just what the doctor ordered to ease Luce's troubled soul. True to her word, Kylie entrusted the salad to Luce's inexperienced culinary care, both of them gratefully aware that knives were far less dangerous than an open flame. Even if they were both sober.

It turned into a game for her, working in the kitchen. Luce found herself chopping the random items Kylie placed in front of her, even as she also found interesting ways to get the chopped bits into the salad bowl. Which was fine until it somehow got out of hand and she had only herself to blame.

One rather excessive flick of her wrist sent a chunk of carrot sailing through the air, popping an unsuspecting Kylie in the face before plopping down into the pan she was cooking with.

There was a startled yelp and narrowed green eyes zeroed in on her. Luce found herself biting her lip to keep from laughing at the flummoxed look on her lover's elfin face. Instead, she turned her best puppy eyes on Kylie, hoping they would somehow buy her forgiveness. It worked, somewhat.

Disarmed and her anger thwarted by those beloved baby blues, Kylie did the only rational thing she could. She fired back. However, the spicy noodles were a great deal messier than a mere chunk of carrot. She watched as the glob of pasta sailed through the air, hitting Luce's shirt and sticking there, smearing their pungent sauce onto the bright colored cotton.

Luce flinched as the noodles hit, her eyes growing wide as she looked down at the mess on her chest. She looked at Kylie who, unlike her, was unable to keep from laughing at the shocked look on the taller woman's face. Her eyes narrowed and she reached out blindly for ammo. Her hand closed around the oil bottle she was given to make the dressing and she held it up, a wolfish smile on her face.

Kylie shook her head and backed up a step. “Now, Luce. There's no reason to do anything rash.”

Luce closed the distance between them with slow, measured steps, stalking the shorter woman with clearly devilish intent. “Rash? This isn't rash, this is payback.” She purred gently. And before Kylie could react or escape, Luce snagged the collar of her shirt, jamming the oil bottle down it and into the other woman's bra, and gave it a healthy squeeze.

Kylie gave a startled yelp as the oil squirted out and soaked into her shirt and bra. She reached out herself, her hands closing on the nearest thing they encountered before scooping it up and smearing it across the other woman's face.

Luce gasped as her face was covered in the fresh avocado Kylie had set aside for garnish. They both stood there for a moment, waiting to see what the other would do. Then, they both started laughing like loons. The laughter seemed to open a flood gate between them. Before either of them knew it, there was a full on war going on, food bullets flying fast and heavy through out the whole kitchen.

Half the time, Luce wasn't even completely aware of what she was throwing. She just grabbed the nearest things on hand, sometimes even dipping into the fridge for more ammo. And for a while it was beautiful, lovely chaos.

But the flour bomb changed everything. Its explosion between them drawing everything to a startling and brilliant halt. Luce wasn't sure if she threw or if Kylie did, but it filled the kitchen with a large white cloud, coating them and nearly every surface in its radius.

Luce stood there a moment, blinking rapidly as the dust settled. When she could see again, she found Kylie standing just a few feet from her, face coated in white, brilliant green eyes standing out in stark contrast with the flour. The raccoon effect struck her as really funny and she started laughing. She must have looked as ridiculous as Kylie did because the shorter woman started giggling uncontrollably.

Luce closed the space between them, reaching out to draw Kylie into her arms as she dissolved into a fit of giggles herself. “Looks like we made a mess.” She surveyed her kitchen ruefully.

Kylie laid her head on Luce's gooey, flour covered chest and giggled again. “Looks like it.”

Luce pulled back slightly, looking deep into Kylie's eyes. “How's about you jump in the shower and I start cleaning this disaster up?”

There was a devilish smirk on the other woman's face as she shook her head slightly. “How bout you join me in the shower, we wash each others backs and then we clean this mess up?”

Luce smiled. “Does that plan include the front too?” She trailed her hands down Kylie's sides, relishing in the shiver it caused.

Her eyes closed slightly at the sensation and she gasped. It still amazed her how she reacted to Luce; even the simplest touch seemed to go right to her core, making each and every moment between them so much more.

She opened her eyes and found intense blue eyes, glazed with desire and love, staring back at her. She reached up, gently drawing Luce down for a kiss. Their lips met and even through the flour, it was electric. She lost herself for several seconds, feeling the kiss deepen as they both fell.

With one last lingering touch, she drew back, knowing her own eyes were just as glazed and intense. She gave Luce a devilish smile. “Does that answer your question, Tiger?”

Luce merely grinned before dragging her out of the room, both of them shedding clothes as they went. Each piece lost gave the other person more access. And with each piece lost, their need grew and grew. Frantic touches, light kisses, muffled groans and curses as they bumped their way into the bathroom.

Luce fumbled her way into the bathroom, unable to stop touching Kylie even as she struggled to remove the last of her clothes and start the shower. She could feel something pushing at her, needing to be let out, needing to be released. It was more than the sex, more than the moment. It was a driving need to connect with Kylie again and it was making her insane.

She reached up to remove her bra, suddenly frustrated by the last vestige of clothing between them. The hooks caught in the back and she found herself on the edge of tears for no reason. She needed this, needed Kylie, her touch, her taste, everything she had to give, she just suddenly needed it and nothing inside of her would let her wait. She tugged on the bra uselessly, wordless, muffled sounds coming from her as she tried to get it off.

Kylie, sensing the taller woman's frustration, reached up and stilled her frantic hands. Her touch seemed to calm the other woman for a moment as Kylie took over, deftly removing the offensive clothing item before turning her attention to the shower. She knew that something was different between them this time, she could sense something intense and almost violent in the other woman.

The hands roving over her body as she bent over the faucet were stealing her ability to think or even move. She just wanted to stand there and let Luce have her way. But she knew if they started outside the tub, the mess would be completely horrible. Somehow she found the iron will she needed to push Luce away slightly, before stepping into the tub. She held out a hand and Luce followed, the look in her eyes beyond anything Kylie had ever seen.

Luce reached up, gently cupping Kylie's face in her hands. “I need...” she struggled for a moment, trying to find the words to explain what she was feeling. “I need...” she trailed off, eyes frantic, as her voice failed her.

Kylie took pity on her and reached out to kiss one of Luce's thumbs. “I need you too.” She met Luce's intense gaze and smiled gently. “Do what you need.” Luce still hesitated, almost uncertain. Kylie reached out, drawing the other woman's larger hands away from her face, trailing them gently down her body, placing them firmly on her own breasts.

The sensation drew a startled gasp from Luce her eyes darkening even more. Kylie gave her a sensual smile, her own eyes clouding over as Luce began touching her breasts. She shivered as Luce's hands firmed and began moving on their own, lightly pulling and pinching on her nipples. “Love me, Luce, please.”

That seemed to snap something inside the dark haired woman and she surged against Kylie, pressing her against the shower wall. And they were both suddenly swept up into a sexual haze that made their minds go blank and every sense they had blaze to life. Luce's hands were everywhere at once, touching, squeezing, stroking and it set her on fire. It was mind altering, overwhelming and everything they both needed.

Luce was a bit rough, urgent, feeling the need building within her unlike anything else before. She pressed Kylie against the shower wall, only distantly feeling the hot water beating down on them as she let her senses and desires have free reign. She wanted to touch, to taste, to feel everything at once and it brought eager sounds out of her mouth.

When she finally pressed her hand between Kylie's thighs, her leg behind it to grind her fingers eagerly and roughly against the shorter woman, she was seconds away from her own cliff. She rocked against Kylie, groaning loudly when Kylie's hand touched her, fingers sliding home, just as rough, just as urgent as her own.

They came together in a blinding fit, less than a dozen strokes later, their eyes locked as Luce struggled to keep them standing. For the first time in her life, Luce felt her shields fall, standing there in the pounding water, her veins singing with the climax, staring into green eyes gone ancient and almost feral.

In that moment, she recognized something truly profound between them and nearly wept at having rediscovered it once more. One look into Kylie's face told her she was feeling almost the same thing. Touched beyond words, Luce could only reach out to shut the shower off and blindly grab for a towel. She wrapped one around Kylie, then herself before sweeping the shorter woman up in her arms and carrying her out of the bathroom.

Kylie didn't protest as she was carried through the apartment and into the bedroom, where Luce almost reverently set Kylie down on the bed. She spent several moments simply admiring the view in those emerald eyes.

“Thank you.” Her voice was gruff and strained with emotion and she felt tears sting her eyes. It was all so much, almost too much.

Kylie smiled. “Lay with me a minute.”

“But the kitchen,” the protest was weak even to her own ears, but she found herself suddenly afraid of what was happening.

Kylie shook her head, expression firm. “Forget it; its not everyday you realize you've found your soulmate.”

It was too much for Luce and the tears slid down her face. She looked down, both afraid and suddenly overjoyed. She felt Kylie reach up and brush the tears aside before she pulled her down to lay next to her. Luce went willingly, laying her head on Kylie's chest.

Kylie's hand reached out to stroke her damp hair. “I love you, Luce.”

Luce smiled against Kylie's skin, tears still sliding down her face. “I love you too, Kylie.”

* * *

I could be asleep right now, cuddled up with Kylie, dead to the world. Luce thought angrily at herself as she scrubbed away at the remnants of the food war that had taken place in her kitchen only a short while ago. She'd agreed that calling it a mere fight didn't do the destruction around her any justice. This had been a battle, a war, a conflict to stun the ages.

I should be asleep. I'm punchy and stupidly debating adjective use with myself. So why wasn't she?

"That's a damn good question." She muttered to herself as she scrubbed away at a particularly stubborn spot.

It wasn't as if she wasn't tired; truth be told she was nearing the point of exhaustion, her eyes feeling like lit coals smoldering slowly through her skull. With the day she'd had, the intense sex with Kylie should have knocked her out as easily as it had the blonde woman. But it hadn't. And she now found herself scrubbing down the kitchen while wrestling with just why that was happening. Or more precisely why it wasn't happening.

Ok, maybe that wasn't quite true. She had a pretty good idea what was bothering her and why. But no clear idea of what to do about it.

She felt like the Grinch, puzzling out the meaning of Christmas with her feet freezing in the snow. Waiting for that life altering epiphany to hit her so she could finally come in out of the cold.

But it, like her brain, seemed bound and determined to be ridiculously stubborn.

Against her better judgement, she started muttering lines to herself. "It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!" She groaned, realizing that was probably going to be stuck in her head for the rest of the night.

Ok, maybe I need to just pull this thing apart, one thread at a time. She pushed the rhymes aside, trying to focus her sluggish, stubborn mind on something else. For once that night, it seemed willing to go along.

She began laying out the gist of what was bothering her the most: namely Don's involvement with the cartel. First and foremost was the fact that he was involved at all. The man was such a straight shooter, she never, in a million years, would ever have suspected him of such a thing.

And that led immediately into the second thread, that she'd somehow missed it, even given who it was. Which led to a whole another set of questions. What bothered her more, that she'd been snowed in the first place or that she'd been snowed by someone she knew? Did it even matter which it was?

She realized that it did in fact matter, it mattered a lot. If she'd been fooled that was one thing. After all, plenty of people had managed to outsmart her, for a while any way. She'd always managed to figure it out, catch them and stop them. But if she'd allowed herself to be fooled because of who the person was to her, that was something else entirely. Because that meant a lapse in judgment somewhere, a flaw in who she trusted.

And she wasn't a person who trusted easily. Her job and life experiences had taught her to be wary of blindly and easily trusting. She could count on one hand the number of people she intrinsically trusted and, sadly, Don had numbered among them. He'd earned that trust, repeatedly. Time and time again he'd proven to her that he was a man who stood by his word, his people and his decisions. But that was all gone now, destroyed in the face of his duplicity.

Had she been wrong to trust him? Had she let the trust she had in him blind her to even the remote possibility of his involvement? Could she trust herself anymore?

She sighed loudly, knowing that was what was truly bothering her in all this mess. This feeling that somehow she'd lost her ability to read people. Because if she'd lost that, how the hell could she continue doing her job? Did she even want to?

She'd been completely serious when she told Kylie she'd been having second thoughts about staying at her job. She wasn't just burned out or in need of a vacation, she was tired of it all.

Tired of the stress, tired of the threats, tired of having to play the uber bitch from hell just to get anything accomplished. She was tired of walking that line inside herself just to do her job. Most of all, she was tired of being the scapegoat, the person everyone looked at to fix things no matter what the cost.

She loved the challenge of it, the thrill of putting things together and finding all the pieces of the puzzle. Pitting herself against whoever it was that was doing wrong, with nothing but her wits and personality to find her way through.

She'd loved the job from the first moment she'd stumbled into it over 12 years ago. Back in the days when she'd only been hunting down missing office supplies. There'd been something extremely satisfying in hunting down the small group who'd been sneaking out boxes of pens and reams of copy paper.

But now, now there was very little she could point at and say she felt that same long lost feeling.

Luce threw her sponge into the bucket, disgusted and annoyed at the dark and morose train of thought. Maybe she was just overly tired. Maybe she was just emotional fragile at the moment. Given what had happened between her and Kylie and her monthly visitor pretty much around the corner, there was a good chance this whole glum line of thought wasn't really her fault.

But did it really matter what was responsible for it? She was feeling it, it was here, it was real. Obviously not the best time for it, but now that it was here, maybe it was time to reflect on it.

If she quit, she knew she'd have to fill the void the job would leave in her life. She needed a change, she needed a challenge. If she stopped what she was doing, now, what could she do instead? Was there anything she could think of that would appeal to her?

For some reason, she found her mind going back to a conversation she'd had with Kylie some time ago, before they began dating, when they'd both still been tiptoeing around how they really felt. She'd been distracting the other woman while taking her stitches out, talking about Tunkaschila, her maternal grandfather, and his dream of breeding horses.

She hadn't told Kylie at the time but until the older man had died, she'd been dead set on following in his footsteps, taking over for him at the ranch and taking his horse training program far beyond anything he'd ever dreamed of. She'd even decided to start from the ground up, breeding the horses herself and training them right from the start.

But, like so many of her dreams from that time period, it slowly fizzled and died without him there.

So why was she thinking of it now?

She put away her cleaning supplies and went out into the living room. She found herself staring out the window, gazing at the city lights below her, wondering just where her brain was taking her and why.

But the thought wouldn't let her be and that got her pondering even more. Was this a possible solution for her? To start Tunkaschila's ranch again and fulfill the childhood dream she'd had so long ago?

She still had connections in the industry thanks to having kept in touch with many of the people Tunkaschila had worked with when he was alive. They'd all told her the same thing throughout the years, if she ever changed her mind about her corporate life, they'd all come running, no questions asked. They'd be glad to help her continue her grandfather's dream.

And thanks to some prudent investments on her part, and living far below her income, not to mention all the bonuses she'd earned over the years, start up capital wouldn't be a real problem. Finding the right place might be, but then again she wouldn't have any real idea until she actually started looking.

Then she'd have to find breeding stock, outfit the ranch, hire some help. Maybe she could find a place where she had to build from the ground up. Something she could design from the ground up. Something she could point to later and be proud of, something that was truly hers.

She really liked the idea of it.

She shook herself a bit, pausing a moment. Was she really considering this? Throwing her career down the toilet to start over from scratch in such a tight, competitive industry? Ending that part of her life and simply walking away? She paused, pushing at the doubts, hoping to drive them back down.

No, tonight was about ideas for the future. Tonight was about possibilities, her thoughts and desires. Tonight was about being positive. Tomorrow was soon enough to tackle the problems behind all of it. For tonight, she would let the dream have hold. Reality would come soon enough when she awoke up.

Feeling something inside of her unravel at that final thought, she felt her brain finally slow down and stop snapping at her. She sighed loudly, knowing that now she could finally, finally get to sleep. She turned off the lights in the living room and kitchen, letting the cool, pleasant darkness wash over her and the apartment around her.

She smiled slightly as she walked through the darkened rooms into the bedroom. She paused in the doorway, taking in the sight of Kylie's peacefully sleeping form as her eyes adjusted to the dim city light coming in through a crack in the blinds.

She stood there a moment, feeling a wave of something wash over her, a stupid, pleased smile on her face at the sight of Kylie curled up asleep in her bed. There was something so gratifying about seeing her lover there, and knowing they were both exactly where they wanted to be.

They hadn't been together very long and she knew that was part of the reason she felt in such awe of it all. But she hoped that she never lost that feeling, ever. She hoped it was just as strong and intense 50 years from now.

She pushed away from the door, quietly climbing into bed behind Kylie. The other woman gave a soft slow sigh as the movement woke her slightly. Luce settled herself in the bed and felt Kylie shift as she rolled over, still sound asleep, and curled herself around the taller woman. Laying her head on Luce's shoulder before sighing again and drifting back to sleep.

Luce smiled in the dark, reaching out to kiss the top of Kylie's head before she too settled down to sleep. For the first time that night, she was no where as worried about the coming day as she had been. When she finally drifted off, that small, silly smile was still plastered on her face.

* * *

Luce walked into the boardroom to find Carl already there waiting for her. She set her briefcase down in an empty chair before throwing herself into the one just next to it.

Carl gave her a nod. “Morning.”

She gave him a beaming smile. “Morning, Carl. I hope you ate your Wheaties this morning. We've got a huge snafu landing in our laps anytime now.”

He chuckled. “Bigger than last week?”

She laughed. “Much bigger. You're going to finally meet our two esteemed federal agents. They're coming this morning to get the info we've gathered.”

He gave her a strange, puzzled look. “Why do I get the feeling this isn't a good thing?”

She sighed as she started pulling out folders from her briefcase, stacking them up on the table. “Because one of them ain't too happy with me. I sort of told him off last night.”

“I'm sure you had a good reason.”

“Oh I did. He didn't seem to think so. So we agreed that he would stop trying to get into my apartment and I wouldn't call the cops on him. I don't think he's going to be too happy to see me this morning.”

He chuckled again. “I don't think I would be either.”

She finished pulling out folders, a rather impressive stack sitting next to her. “Just be warned, he might be a bit hostile.” She paused, cocking her head slightly in thought. “Hell, that shouldn't worry you all that much. He's been hostile from the moment we met when they arrested me.”

Carl laughed. The incident hadn't been that long ago but for some reason it felt like months since it had occurred. “Sometimes you just bring out the best in people.”

She paused, blue eyes pinning him with an intense, shrewd stare. “What are trying to say there, Carl? That I can be a right bitch when I need to be? That I just enjoy pissing people off?”

He smiled at the dark tone. “Yes. Its like vitamins to you.”

She laughed aloud at that one. “I've never heard it put quite like that.”

“What can I say, its nice to see someone enjoy their work so much.”

That made her pause, the smile faltering a bit as the results of last night's personal reflection came drifting back. She gave Carl a strange, unreadable look.

He paused at the uncertainty there. “Was it something I said?”

Before she could reply, there was a knock on the door and Colleen's head popped into the room. “Luce, Ah have two federal agents here lookin' fer ya'll.”

Luce sighed, pushing the smile and uncertainties aside. She'd explain everything to him after the meeting. “Show them in, Colleen.” The door shut and she turned to Carl, her poker face firmly in place. “I need you to play along, Carl. No matter what I say or do, don't show any surprise and don't ask me any questions until they're gone.”

He gave her a searching look. “You want me to play it like we did that time with embezzlement ring in Europe?”

She nodded. “Just like that. I don't want them thinking you don't know everything.”

He snorted. “Luce, I don't know much.”

“When they leave, I'll explain everything.”

“I'm holding you to that.” He managed to get out just as the door opened again and in walked the agents.

Luce looked past them to the still open door. "Colleen, would you bring in coffee for our guests, please?" She stood, greeting both agents. "Agent Jenkins, Agent Smith, this my college Carl Davis."

Agent Jenkins took a nearby empty seat. "I take it he knows what's going on?"

She nodded, watching Agent Smith take a seat next to the other agent. "He knows."

He sneered at her from across the table, not even attempting to be professional. "I thought you were going to keep this all quiet. Avoid tipping anyone off."

She resisted the urge to sigh. Smith's contentious and antagonistic nature was really starting to get on her damn nerves. But she managed to keep her reply civil at the very least. "I needed his help, so he needed to know."

They were interrupted for a moment by Colleen's return with coffee. Conversation stopped for a few moments while everything was sorted out and Colleen showed herself back out.

Agent Jenkins took a tentative sip of the coffee and then a much bigger one when he realized the liquid in his cup was more than palatable. "Not bad. Beats the tar they serve down at the office "

Luce smiled, pouring her own cup. "Colleen has a knack for it."

He took another sip, closing his eyes in sheer enjoyment. "Hmmmm, you should double that woman's salary."

She laughed. "I've recommended that a time or two, for various reasons."

This innocent small talk seemed too much for Agent Smith and he interrupted the conversation with a violent slap to the table. "Alright, Donovan, cut the bullshit and start talking.”

"Smith." Jenkins practically barked his name.

Luce had been waiting for Smith to crack; even looking forward to it. She focused her forceful personality in his direction, giving him a venomous sneer "Careful, Agent Smith, you might give the bureau a bad name. Make people think they don't teach you any manners." Her tone was almost acidic.

Agent Smith opened his mouth, only to be forestalled by Agent Jenkins' hand on his arm. The senior agent shook his head. "Recall our conversation in the car. This is not the way to go about it."

Smith shook off his superior's hand angrily. "Screw it, Jenkins. She's been belligerent and competitive from day one. I'm tired of protecting a witness who seems to enjoy making my job difficult." He jabbed an angered finger in Luce's direction.

She laughed at him, her smile became even icier. "Smith, if you had a brain in your skull you'd realize you have no idea just how difficult I can really be."

"I want this investigation over with so I can go back to protecting people who actually believe me when I say they need it.” His face flushed bright red and for the first time, Luce could see a small vein pulsing in his forehead.

"You want to deal with people you can bully, you mean." She couldn't resist another jab, despite worrying that he might be ready to blow a gasket and have a stroke right in front of her.

He jabbed another angry finger at her. "I'm trying to do my job."

That seemed to piss her off more. As if she had no idea what he was doing. "And so am I."

He snorted loudly. It seems his manners were long gone. "It's hard to tell considering how cooperative you were last night."

It was her turn to snort loudly, leaning back in her chair, clearly showing him the disdain she was feeling. "I was in no mood to deal with the shit pile that fell into my lap last night. so you'll forgive me if I got a little nasty. But it wouldn't have escalated like it did if you'd listened to me in the first place."

He stood up, towering over the table trying to intimidate her. "In case you haven't noticed, this is a federal investigation here. People's lives are in danger."

That was the final straw and she snapped. She surged to her feet and met him, angry glare for angry glare, across the table, their faces mere inches apart. There was a small, small voice in head that was hoping he'd remembered to brush his teeth that morning.

She jabbed his shoulder with a pointed finger. "What did waiting 12 hours really cost you? I'll tell you, nothing.” She growled at him as she browbeat him back into his seat.

“The only thing you'd have gained from last night if I'd have let you up would been a swift kick to the testicles for bothering me.” Both agents winced as she gave them an evil smile. “And as much as I would have enjoyed taking the potshot at the moment, it wouldn't have been worth the jail time.”

She crossed her arms and leaned away from the table. “Besides, what could you do last night? Go knocking on a judge's door for a warrant at 9 o'clock at night? I'm sure that would have gone over real well. If you were lucky, they would have just slammed the door in your face. If not, we might have ended up sharing a jail cell. Either way our night would have been very unpleasant." She sat back down, giving him a murderous glare.

Agent Jenkins cleared his throat softly. "Ms. Donovan, perhaps it would be best if you gave us the information you've gathered. The sooner we remove ourselves from your life, the better, I think." He didn't spare Smith even a glance, clearly having reached his limit with the cantankerous agent.

Luce took a deep breath, letting her anger fade as his words penetrated. "Agreed." She reached for a one of the folders that she had stacked on the table earlier. "After you arrested me, I did some digging on the warehouse you were staking out.”

She tossed the folder at the agents and watched as they started looking at the photos in it. “I had some surveillance done and it seems the cartel is using it as a base of operations.”

Agent Smith gave her a pointed look. “Who did the surveillance?”

She shook her head. “I can't give you that information. This person needs to remain anonymous to keep doing work for us.”

Jenkins shrugged, still looking through the photos. “It shouldn't matter, I doubt we'll need him to testify any way.”

“As I was saying, we staked out the warehouse and several other business locations that came to our attention during the investigation. They were all fake, existing only on paper.” She pushed forward the rest of the folders sitting next to her.

That statement caught the agents' attention and they both looked at her and the stack in front of them.

Agent Jenkins grabbed one and opened it, scanning it, while Agent Smith looked at Luce, for once no hostility evident in his face. “Fake, all of them?”

She nodded. “Last count was about two dozen.”

Agent Smith whistled softly.

She agreed wholeheartedly.

Smith grabbed his own folder, leafing through it. “Is that how they're doing this, using fake companies?”

Luce nodded. “It took awhile to figure it out, but we think we have an idea how they're managing to do this. Each of these fake companies has a physical address, messaging services answering their phones, pay rolls, expenses, bills for services, even medical claims. But the buildings were all empty,. Not a single sign of a business being run anywhere on the premises.”

She went on. “Digging deeper into the messaging services turned up nothing. No way to actually talk to a human being; just a spiraling run around with automated menus. We couldn't even find a way to contact the company running the messaging service.”

That seemed to surprise Agent Jenkins. “Well surely if they had a payroll, you could call the employees to try and track down someone to talk to.”

Carl spoke up next to her for the first time, shaking his head. “That led to another dead end. All the employee information we had for these companies, all the people on the list eventually came up phony.”

Luce nodded, pointing to the rest of the stack next to her. “Nothing about a single company in these files is real. They have websites, but don't appear on any search engine I've run their names through. They have no employees, no actual expenses and as far as we can tell, they don't actually offer any services. And the physical addresses of these companies all point to out of the way, nearly abandoned buildings.”They also happen to have been purchased within the last eight months, near as we can tell, they seem to be the only ones at the moment.

This time, Jenkins whistled softly. “How in the world are they pulling this off?”

Carl took up the thread of conversation. “We think that the cartel has created a bunch of fake corporations. Small ones that might be easier to slip under the radar and avoid scrutiny.”

Luce nodded. “The only time these corporations seem to exist is when they pop up to sell a satellite company.”

Carl nodded. “Right, so they sell a small piece of their “business”. The money for that sale is clean. Then, for the next several months, the satellite company “collects” money from their clients.”

Luce pulled out a piece of paper, giving it to Agent Jenkins. “All fake; nothing but a list of dead ends supposedly leading back to the cartel.”

Agent Jenkins seemed puzzled by one thing. “So how does the cartel get the dirty money to your company?”

Luce held up a new list. “In the last year, we've sold off over a dozen of these fake satellite companies. If we didn't sell them, we gutted them and sold everything off.”

Carl interjected. “We didn't get to do much digging on who exactly bought those, but I'd bet my last dollar that whoever bought them turns out to either be fake or in bed with the cartel somehow. Either way, the money from those sales is what's dirty.”

Luce spoke up. “It also means they're bribing a bunch of people to pass due diligence.”

Smith shook his head, suddenly unsure of the whole damn thing. “That sounds like it would take too long. These guys aren't exactly known for their patience.”

She shrugged. “We think that they're only willing to do this with each company for so long. About six months, from what we've been able to tell.”

Jenkins sighed. “This is a lot more intricate than we expected.”

She handed over the last of the folders to the agents. “The only thing we can't quite prove is just how much money is exchanging hands here.”

Jenkins didn't seem too worried about that issue. “We'll have to hand over your numbers to our accountants; I'm sure they can find the smoking gun. Good work, Donovan.”

Agent Smith spoke up. “Any leads on the front man?”

She paused for several seconds before shaking her head. “I have a couple of theories. Its going to take me a few days to figure it out.”

Jenkins shook his head. “You might not have that long.”

That surprised her. “What? Why?”

“Someone tipped them off.” Smith looked pointedly at Carl as if he was responsible for the leak.

She snorted. “You mean you've got a mole.” And pointedly ignored his look.

He shrugged, still digging away at her temper. “Maybe, we don't know for sure. Maybe the problem is on your end.”

That made her laugh. “Or maybe your guys weren't as good at hiding who they were as you thought they would be. Kylie managed to spot them in less than a week.” She took a sip of her coffee, leaning back in her chair to give him a dismissive look.

His jaw tightened and he stood up, clearly insulted by the remark. She smiled wickedly, resisting the urge to wink at him and make it worse. No need to kill the man by giving him a stroke.

Jenkins cleared his throat and Smith looked at him. There was a slight shake of the senior agent's head. Smith gave Luce a pointed look and sat back down without having said a word.

Jenkins turned back to Luce. “Be that as it may, we have to wrap this all up, fast. If you don't find out who the front man is, we will, eventually. Keep that in mind.” He grabbed the stack of folders, sliding them under his arm before reaching across the table to shake both Luce and Carl's hands. “We need to look this all over and get in front of a judge. We'll be in touch.”

He walked to the door, Agent Smith on his heels, silent and glowering.

The minute the door closed, Luce sighed loudly, feeling a great deal of tension just drain right out of her.

Carl turned to her, a great deal of puzzlement on his face. “What the hell is going on?”

She laughed as she started gathering up the coffee cups. “Come on, Carl, you know what's going on, you were sitting there with me.”

He shook his head, pointing at the closed door. “No, not about the money laundering. I mean what's with you and Agent Smith. I thought he was going to jump the table and kick your ass at one point.”

She sneered at the memory of it. “I'm just in the kind of mood to want him to try that.” And that was the truth. Maybe deep down inside she'd known that and picked at him to piss him off.

He rebuked her gently. “Luce.”

She shrugged. She really had no idea what Smith's problem was with her. “Look, I don't know what his problem is. He's been like this since the day we met. Of course I might have made it worse last night when I told him to fuck off.”

He started laughing. “Only you could get away with saying that to a federal agent and not winding up in jail. How the hell did you manage saying that to his face?”

She gave him a rather sheepish look. “It wasn't really to his face, it was actually over the phone. And it made him back off, so it was worth the risk of him finding a way up to my apartment.” She sighed again, her eyes unfocused as the reason for all that rage came back to her.

He seemed to sense the mood change. “You alright?” He asked gently.

She shrugged again. “Maybe, I will be. I've got another meeting soon. I should be better after that.” She was really not looking forward to the confrontation with Don. She suddenly realized that she didn't want to know the truth. Didn't want to know the answers she'd been seeking for when she started this whole thing.

Carl studied her for a moment, something clicking in his face. “You do know who the front man is.”

She managed to keep from wincing at the excitement in his voice and nodded. “Yeah, I figured it out last night.”

“Then why lie about it?” He seemed flabbergasted by that.

She sighed, not sure if she could explain. “Because of who it is. I want to talk to him first. I need to understand why he did it.” He didn't look completely convinced; not that she blamed him. If their rolls had been reversed, she would never have let him get away with keeping it from her. But now she needed him to trust her and forget what he knew.

She held up her hand, shaking her head when he opened his mouth to speak. “Look forget you know that, OK? It might get you in more trouble than its worth.”

He studied her for several tense minutes and then nodded. “Alright”

She decided a change of subject was in order. “On a brighter note, I'm quitting.” She smiled to take the sting out of the abrupt words.

That threw him for a loop. “Wait...What????” He stuttered.

She smiled again feeling a great deal better about the decision after saying it out loud. “I'm quitting. Just as soon as all of this starts blowing over. I just need to tell Jerry.”

He shook his head slightly. “But, Luce, I thought you loved this job.”

“I do, Carl, I really do. But after this whole fiasco, tell me you're not a little bit disgusted by who we work for.”

“Point taken.” There was a quiet pause for a moment as her words really penetrated. “But quitting, I mean, that's huge.”

She sighed, nodding as she rocked back in her chair a little bit, suddenly restless for everything to be over. “Yeah, I know. I just need out. And if not now, I might never find the right reason to leave. So, this'll be the last time we work together.”

“I'm going to miss seeing you browbeat everyone.” He gave her shoulder an affectionate squeeze, surprising her.

She smirked. “Hey, just cause I'm quitting doesn't mean I'm completely turning over a new leaf. You want to see me browbeat people, just look me up.”

He laughed at that.

He sobered a bit and then asked. “So what are you going to do now?”

“Now? Now I'm going to tie this all up for everyone, go home to Kylie and have a wonderfully cooked meal that I didn't nearly burn and forget all about this damn investigation.”

“And then?”

“And then,” she shrugged. “Maybe I'll start looking for a place to build a horse ranch.”

That surprised him. “A horse ranch? What the hell are you getting into?”

“The family business, I think.” She smiled as she said that, feeling that Tunkaschila would have approved.

He shrugged, still not completely convinced she hadn't lost her mind but willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. “Well call me when you figure it out and get started. Me and the wife don't want to miss out on Hurricane Luce being pointed in someone else's direction.”

She started laughing. “You make me sound like a carnival sideshow.”

He laughed with her. “No, just vastly entertaining when you're not the one in the cross hairs.”

She reached out and squeezed his shoulder this time, giving a beaming smile. “Don't worry, I'll call. Besides, how else will I spoil the hell out of your daughter?”

He groaned loudly at the sudden implications of that. “Damn, a young girl, given free access to horses? This might end up biting me on the ass after all.”

* * *

Luce stood outside the door to Don's office, smacking the folder against her leg, still trying to decide on her approach. She was angry. No, honestly, she was livid. And she was worried she wouldn't be able to control that anger well enough to get to the truth of it all.

If she went on the offensive, walking in there in attack mode, swinging away, it might shut him down. And he might not tell her a damn thing. Which would be even worse than if he told her he'd willingly and knowingly done everything she suspected him of.

She took a deep breath, deciding to wing it before swinging the door open. She walked in to see a new face standing at his desk, pad and pencil in hand.

He looked up at her entrance and smiled warmly. "Luce, what a pleasant surprise. I was just about to order lunch. Will you join me?"

She ignored the invitation and stalked up to his desk. She leaned on it, invading his personal space and growling at him softly. "We need to talk." She didn't take her eyes off him as he sat further back in his chair, trying to escape from that forceful wall suddenly in front of him.

He spared a glance for his assistant, who'd grown pale as a sheet suddenly. "Give us a few moments."

The assistant nodded and practically ran out the door.

Luce never spared her a glance as the door closed, saving all her attention for Don as she sat down in a chair across from him. "Didn't take you long to replace Jack." She nodded at the closed door.

Don shrugged. "He's just a temp. Until Jack makes it back."

"Cut the shit, Don. Jack's dead." She snapped at him.

He looked at her in complete surprise. "What?"

That stunned her a second. "You didn't know?" She found that hard to believe. Was he in denial? Was he that good an actor? Or had no one told him?

"No, I..." he trailed off, his face suddenly pale and tight. He looked like he was three seconds from throwing up.

She didn't dare believe that he didn't know. "You honestly expect me to believe no one told you?" She pressed him. "Dammit, Don, this isn't a game."

He looked at her, his chest heaving slightly as he fought to calm himself. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"I'm talking about this." She reached into the folder and drew out the photo of his son and tossing it down onto the desk between them.

He stared at it for a few moments. "I wasn't aware you knew my son." He said quietly.

She shook her head slightly. "I know of him. Enough to identify him when someone showed me this photo."

He picked it up, studying it closely. "And just who showed you his photo?" He asked quietly.

She shrugged. "A friend of mine, one I hired to check into a bunch of satellite companies we own. Funny thing is, when he got there, most of them were abandoned. Or filled with drug dealers and thugs." She leaned forward in his chair, taking the photo back. "But you wouldn't happen to know anything about that would you?" She studied him closely, wondering if he'd give anything away.

He crossed his arms, not rising to the bait. "Is this your subtle way of accusing me of something? I thought you were more direct than this."

That made her angry. She jabbed a finger in his direction. "We both know I was called in here to investigate something. Imagine my surprise when I'm arrested by the Feds one day and told they suspect this company of laundering money for a South American drug cartel."

Don went completely still behind his desk.

She went on, her voice rising in anger. "And imagine my complete and utter shock at discovering the CEO's son,” she nearly shoved the photo in his face, “fraternizing with some very disreputable characters, who also happen to be highly placed members in that same cartel." She reached into the folder and drew out the tagged photos Mac had given her. She threw them on the desk.

He stared at them for a long, moment, still silent.

"Do you want to tell me what's going on?” She prompted.

He picked up the photos, studying them closely, clearly wrestling with something. Finally he sighed and as the air left him, he seemed to shrink in his chair. Deflating before her very eyes.

He looked at her then, his eyes haunted by fear and sin. "You don't have children, Luce, so you cannot begin to understand the joy and the utter burden they can sometimes be."

That was all she needed to hear from him. "You let them in, didn't you? You gave them a way into the damn company."

"I didn't want to, I knew it was wrong but I had no choice." He threw the photos down onto the desk.

"You could have said no." She threw back at him. She stood up, her anger needing an outlet and began pacing.

He shook his head. "If I had done that, my son would be dead. They were going to kill him."

She sank into the chair, feeling so defeated by all this. "You don't know that for sure." She sighed loudly, wishing that Kylie hadn't been right.

"Don't I? He called me, in hysterics. Said that he'd done some stupid things and now, some drug dealers were looking to collect. He said that if I gave them access, let them do what they wanted, they'd leave him be, let him live." Don looked at her pleadingly, hoping she would understand.

"And you believed him?" She was incredulous at his stupidity.

"He's my son!" He yelled, slapping the desk.

"He's a thug!" She roared back.

That took the wind out of his sails for a moment. He looked at his son's picture once more and sighed loudly, on the verge of tears over what he'd been forced to do.

He took a deep breath and composed himself before meeting Luce's gaze. "I made the only choice I could. I thought I was saving his life."

That didn't make her feel any better. In fact, that admission just pissed her off more. He wasn't dealing or manufacturing the drugs himself. But by giving them a way to launder their money, he was just as guilty as they were.

"And what about everyone else? Save your son, damn the world? You've never hung anyone it to dry before, why now?" She threw at him, the hurt and betrayal evident on her face.

He tried a different tactic. Still desperate to have her understand. "What about you? What if it'd been someone you loved? Would you have let them die? That you wouldn't have made the same choice I did?"

She paused at that, wondering. That was the question here, really. Could she have faced the same thing he had and made a different choice? Could she have found a way to walk away unscathed, holding both to her honor and those she cared about safe? Truth be told, she didn't have a clue. And she hoped she'd never be forced to answer that question.

She sighed, feeling the anger draining out of her at the absurdity of it all. "You could have come to me, you could have gone to the Feds. Asked for help, something. I'd have done anything I could to help you." And she meant that.

"And my son?" He asked quietly.

She shook her head, taking back the photos. "He made his choice, Don."

The implication was crystal clear. “And I've made mine.” He said quietly.

“I still want to help you; I spoke with the Feds today. I can put you in touch with the Agent in charge. He's a good guy, he might be able to help if you tell him what happened.” She jotted down the Agent Jenkins' number, giving it to him. Then she went to the door.

He took it, staring at it a bit before letting it fall onto the desk. “For what its worth, Luce. I'm sorry.”

She stopped at the door, sighing loudly. “So am I.” Then she quietly walked out.

To be continued...

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