It was the biggest stack of money Athena had ever seen up close. A bundle of Benjamin’s lying on the table to entice her. When she hesitated, two more stacks were thrown down upping the temptation ante. A total of thirty thousand dollars for the taking, though with a price.
Coming into SoDo Suds from the rain twenty minutes earlier, Valerie Wilson made an alluring offer. The woman was a past enemy who had injured members of the Divine Devils while killing others as part of a kidnapping over a year ago. A brutal woman with a warped mind, getting joy out of controlling men, inflicting pain when it suited her. Now trying to woo them with enough money to buy the soon to be closed SoDo Suds bar in exchange for helping her with a dangerous task. An offer neither Hunter nor Athena trusted, knowing their past with the callous adversary.
“Who is this woman?” asked Colt, the owner of the bar.
“A foe from our past.” Athena pointed to herself and Hunter.
“A rich foe it would seem,” declared Colt with a smirk. “Is her offer to buy the bar legitimate?”
Not certain the answer, Athena couldn’t give a concrete reply. With the plan to close early tonight, she glanced around the bar, not seeing anyone else in the place.
“Why don’t you take Penny and go into the back while we talk,” suggested Athena. “Best you don’t hear the details for they could be—how should I put it—not for the faint of heart.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “If you don’t mind.”
Colt nodded, then grabbed Penny, who wanted to stay and learn more, before heading to the back room. Each was curious about the exchange happening in the bar, resisting the temptation to eavesdrop.
Athena walked to the front door, locked it, and turned off the open sign. Standing before Valerie, she crossed her arms, ready to rumble if necessary, the two having battled hand to hand in the past. A furrowed brow of seriousness on display waiting to ascertain the details.
“Are you ready to hear my proposition?” Valerie gave her a toothy grin. “The cash before you is real. Plenty more where that came from. All yours as a down payment to purchase this establishment if you want to take the job.”
“You’re wanting our help to find your sister?” inquired Athena, recalling words she had heard earlier.
“That would be correct.”
“If you’re reaching out to us for assistance, she must be in deep trouble,” noted Hunter, who stood next to Athena.
Valerie held up her hands, pointing at her coat. “I’m pulling out a picture—be cool.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out the square polaroid, handing it to Athena. “A photo of my sister—though from when she was younger. I don’t have a recent picture of her. Bad people have her—own her to be precise. I want to get her out—set her free.”
Athena looked at the faded photo. The girl looking to be in her early teens. “Why us? We don’t exactly have a chummy history between us.”
“Who else? You and Hunter have a team with resources and one who is tough. Tough enough to defeat myself and the infamous Conn Ives Reinbach. And we’ll need every inch of those resources and toughness to free her.”
Known as Brushstroke for his knack for painting, Conn Ives Reinbach had been a mobster who had kidnapped two children from a past love of Hunter’s, using the teenagers as leverage to track down his brother-in-law who was in Witness Protection. Hunter being a former US Marshal with access to the brother-in-law’s hidden location. A plan Brushstroke hatched with Valerie’s help. One which ultimately failed. Though not before a lot of death along the way.
Athena handed back the photo. “Cute girl. How old is she now?”
“Should be in her mid-twenties.”
“Why don’t you have a more recent picture?”
“I haven’t seen her in over twenty years.”
Athena frowned. “That will make it challenging to find her. Do you have any idea where she is or who she is with?”
Valerie stood eyeball to eyeball with Athena, wanting to show her words were true. “She’s entangled in a human sex trafficking ring. Having been sold to the highest bidder when she was twelve or thirteen. Creepy men and occasionally women wanting young girls for their warped pleasures. I want her free of these people and their organization shut down.”
Athena looked at Hunter, who whistled. He’d known of these types of organizations, and they were brutal and well-funded, living in a seedy underground world of perversion. Going up against them to free the girl was tough enough. Shutting them down would be nearly impossible.
“You must be fucking insane,” stated Hunter with a fiery tone. “People like this live in the shadows and are hard to track down. Do you know what it will take to accomplish this?”
Valerie walked over and put her arm around Hunter.
“I intimately understand what they are about,” she claimed. “You see I was once in their clutches and sold when I was thirteen. To a creepy husband and his wife. Passed off to others when they were through with me. Yet eventually, I broke free. I know it’s possible for my sister with the right people providing support. And your team, I believe, has the balls to pull it off.”
“Not a chance in hell we can destroy an organization like that,” Hunter replied vehemently. “They’ve been around for years, ingrained in society and with powerful and, at times politically backed people, to protect them. It would take an army to break them.”
“A small army, like what you put together to stop Brushstroke?” Valerie scowled at the memory. “Who came in guns-a-blazing to free you and the young Hawkins girl. Impressive work by the way.”
His team with tactical help provided by his boss, Amari, had indeed taken down a small army of twenty plus men protecting Reinbach. That would be peanuts compared to the resources an illegal organization like this would have. Not to mention his team was still recovering from injuries from their last case of the fallen star in Reno.
“I know it’s a long shot,” remarked Valerie, sensing his hesitation. “At the very least we find her and set her free. If we can accomplish that, I’ll be satisfied.”
Valerie laid a soft kiss on Hunter’s cheek, the scent of wet leather and perfume filling his nose. He knew working with her had trouble written all over it. Trouble that could lead them all straight to hell. A place he’d wondered if his team of Divine Devils were on track to make their permanent residence.
“The team is wounded right now.” Hunter pushed her away, not caring for her touching him. “Shen with a broken collarbone, Cameryn healing from a knife puncture to the ribs, and Athena a gunshot wound to the shoulder. Hell, I’m still limping from a dislocated ankle. We aren’t ready to go back out and do battle. And I’m not prepared to ask them to help out. Especially for a woman who was trying to kill us last year.”
Shrugging, Valerie walked over to Athena, though she didn’t put her arm around her. The sour expression saying there was a punch in her future if she did.
“What do you say, Athena?” Valerie waved for Nicole, who’d been sitting and watching to come over. “It’s a lot of money to turn down.”
Strolling over, the woman who’d seduced Hunter, threw him a kiss, before pulling money from her jacket. Tossing two more stacks of bills—now fifty thousand as a bribe.
“That’s half of my offer. One hundred thousand to help me find her. Money of a lifetime to live off, even if you didn’t want to buy this dump of a business.” Valerie waited for a reaction at her disparaging remark. “If that isn’t enough, then name your price. I happen to be flush with cash right now, and I’m willing to pay what it takes to get my sister free!”
Going back to her chair, Valerie sat, crossing her legs, with no more to say, hoping for an answer.
Nicole eyed Hunter, fond memories of their passionate time together fueling excitement in her. “What do you say Hunter?” She stood before him, looking up from her 5’9” stance, leaning her leather-covered body into him. “Wouldn’t it be fun working together? On our downtime we could hook up—take the edge off. I’m game if you are.”
Temptation was always rearing its ugly head. First the money and now this sexy creature. Hunter shook his head and walked toward the door.
“I’m sorry Athena, but I can’t sign off on this. You’re on your own. I hope you don’t get sucked into this crazy woman’s schemes.”
Before Hunter reached the door, Athena came up behind him, grabbing his shoulder. The two had an animated conversation, which went on for ten minutes, their back and forth getting tense. Athena with her finger on his chest, Hunter looking back at the other two women, pointing at them with anger in his eyes. The conversation eventually ending, a hug shared between them. Hunter giving a final cold stare to the women across the room before leaving. Athena returning to Valerie and Nicole, grabbing the fifty thousand in cash.
“I’m in,” she stated to the two women. “But for two-hundred-fifty thousand, plus expenses. Take it or I walk.”
It was a lot of money, but Valerie didn’t care, knowing she had a stockpile multiple times larger to work from. She stuck out her hand to Athena. “Deal.”
Athena hesitated, then shook her hand quickly, the two barely touching skin.
“And Hunter?” asked Valerie, pleased at what she’d heard.
“I convinced him to think it over. He’s going to sleep on it back at his hotel. He’ll give me a final answer in a day or so.”
“Fair enough. Nicole might be able to persuade him.”
Nicole took a deep breath and grinned. “It would be my pleasure. He’s easy enough to manipulate.”
Athena gritted her teeth at her words, knowing they were true.
“Either way, I have time to wait,” stated Valerie. “What if he says no?”
“Then I’ll make do and work around him.” Athena’s mind was already on possible options on who to hire. “It would be helpful to have him on board, for he has a strong investigative background which could come in handy. I’ll talk with Cameryn and Shen. Though, like he said, they’ll need time to heal.”
“I have some other tasks to do first. We won’t need the full arsenal immediately.” Valerie smiled at the thought of having an armed team at her disposal.
“You have a starting point?” queried Athena.
“Florida. Humid and hot. A nice change from the Seattle gloom.”
There was likely a story behind why Valerie wanted to start in the Sunshine State which Athena would get the details of in time. Grabbing the stacks of money, she tucked it away behind the bar, her intention of giving one of the bundles to Colt, while the others she’d keep and deposit to use to help pay for resources and out of pocket expenses. She walked back over with a stern expression, staring at Valerie.
“I want to make one thing abundantly clear,” she said, pointing a finger at Valerie’s chest. “If you screw me or any of my people over, I’ll be certain to rain hellfire down on you.” She paused to let the threat soak in. “Understood?”
Smiling, Valerie gently cradled the hand, kissing it, soaking in her fragrance which she found alluring. “My dear, you have nothing to fear. I look forward to a beautiful partnership that will be satisfying beyond your wildest dreams.”
A hair-raising statement that didn’t provide Athena any comfort about her decision.