ATF Agents Kathrin Benson and Mike Pennington sat opposite their shared desk when Special Agent Roger Morrison popped his head into the cubicle. “My office in five.” Without waiting for acknowledgment, he strode down the hall.
Minutes later, they eagerly entered Morrison’s office. Before sitting, the boss hefted an evidence box onto the desk, Travino scrawled across the top.
“Omar ‘Vino’ Travino?” Mike leaned forward and lifted the lid.
“The mob boss?” Kate peered over Mike’s shoulder.
“This is your next assignment.”
A ripple of anxious excitement shot through Kate’s belly.
“This is big. Travino crime-family big.”
He had her attention.
“Read up on the family history. We have little time to prepare.”
“How much time, Cap?”
Mike and Kate exchanged glances.
“In a joint-effort task force, several agencies have already been integrated into Travino family businesses. The DEA, Vice Squad, fellow ATF agents, plus Guns and Gangs, all headed up by the Organized Crime Unit. We’re talking long-term investigation. Some undercovers have been in for years. They’ve got people on the inside. I’m talking inner sanctum.”
He pushed another folder toward Kate. “I’m aware you two have been wrapping the Levinson case and it’s difficult to keep up on what’s going on in the real world, but as of this moment, we have two agents unaccounted for.”
A shiver traveled Kate’s spine. The fear of being made was a real-and-present danger. Were these agents MIA or DOA? With Travino’s history, the latter seemed imminent.
“From all reports, Travino’s about to receive a massive shipping container of drugs, arms, maybe even human cargo between now and next month.”
“There’s some specific intel,” Mike commented, sarcastically.
“It’s all we’ve got.”
“What do you need from us, Cap?” Kate asked.
“We need replacement agents, asap. Travino’s only son has a club called In the Flesh.”
“A…uhhh, gentlemen’s club, I assume?” Kate mused.
“Booze, gambling, strippers—”
“Dancers,” Kate automatically corrected.
Without skipping a beat, Morrison continued, “Whatever. Obviously, it’s a front. A perfect set-up for drugs, human trafficking, prostitution and any other nefarious transgression, including tobacco and alcohol offenses. Because of your teamwork on the Levinson case, and your unique talents, the higher-ups are comfortable putting you right back undercover.”
“Unique talents?” Kate repeated, unaware she’d honed any.
“We want you two to get hired on. So, Penn, brush up on your bartending skills.” He tossed a mixology book at Mike.
“And, Benson, I hope you still own diamond-studded thongs and pasties.”
Her cheeks warmed and her stomach tightened. “Oh, no.” She raised her index finger. “No fucking way.”
The delight in Mike’s expression made her want to punch him in the face.
“Shut up,” she warned before he could make some crack. “I’ll do anything but that.”
“Get hired! If you need to use your background in…dance, so be it.”
Kate rolled her eyes. She wasn’t ashamed of her past. But the guys would razz her unmercifully. She busted her butt to prove she was as good as her male counterparts. This would destroy any respect she’d gained.
“This is short term. The shitwork’s already been done. Now, In the Flesh has a principal dancer who packs the joint. I hear, from some very reliable sources, her act is phenomenal.”
Mike’s eyebrows rose.
“She really gets the crowd going. She’s also in charge of the other dancers and is very particular about who she hires.”
“Travino’s okay with that?” Mike asked.
“Tavis Travino and this girl are close. He lets her do what she pleases. And it’s working. Business is booming.”
“How much does Omar have to do with Tavis’ business?” Kate inquired.
“Generally, not a lot. They’re trying to make this place seem legit. Vino knows we’re watching his joints so we think the club is where the goods will be stored.”
Morrison handed them résumés under their new aliases, along with a separate folder containing respective background stories. “Get familiar with these. We don’t need any fuck-ups. This is dangerous. Our missing agents disappeared from that club.”
“Yes, sir.” Mike nodded.
Kate scanned her new identity. “Ugh, I’m blonde again.”
“Don’t complain, ginger. I’m bald again. Wanna switch?” Mike ran his hand over stubbly hair, just grown back in.
“Not sure I could pull it off as well as you.”
Morrison ignored them. “You’ll find everything we have on the Travino family in your inboxes.”
“Everything?” Mike questioned.
Morrison bristled. “You have everything I’m privy to.”
Small reassurance. Two agents were missing. It didn’t get more serious than that.
“You said there are several agencies at work here. People embedded. How are we supposed to discern the good guys from the bad if we don’t have cooperation from all branches?”
“That’s so the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.” Kate nudged Mike.
“Yeah, and that’s exactly how mistakes are made and innocent people get killed. Whatever happened to full disclosure? Oh, wait, we work for the U.S. government, where transparency is clear as mud. May as well have need to know basis stamped on these.” Mike sent a chart spinning across the desktop. “Even then, we’re only told what they want us to know, not what we need to.”
“Watch it, Pennington,” Morrison cautioned. The two men eyed each other.
“One small hurdle, though,” Kate said, trying to smooth things over. “Families like the Travinos don’t take kindly to outsiders. I don’t think it’ll be easy to simply walk in and fill out an application.”
“That’s where the embedded undercovers come in. They’ll vouch for you. If that’s not enough, if you have to prove yourselves in some way, so be it. The bureau has too much time and manpower invested to let this implode now. Now get to work.”
Kate gathered the folders and Mike hefted several boxes.
Back in their cubicle, they enthusiastically dove into mounds of information.
“Wow, this guy’s a real bastard,” Kate said.
“That’s too nice a word.”
“You know what’s weird, though?” Kate fanned herself with an empty folder. “Tavis has no record whatsoever. He’s squeaky clean. No arrests. Not even a speeding ticket.”
“Must take after his mother.” Mike spread out a series of surveillance photos. “Here’s some key players.” Kate took her time, memorizing faces and noticeable features. Mike paused, staring at a photograph extensively before passing it along.
The moment Kate glanced at it, she realized why. “This has to be the head dancer.” Kate eyed the gorgeous blonde.
“She goes by Carly.” Mike passed another stack.
“Did you notice she looks different in every one? Always a different hair color and style.”
“Here are some more of her, if you want to drool over these, too.”
“Drool?” She leafed through them.
“You haven’t taken your eyes off that photo since I handed it over.”
“She’s bangin’, right?”
“Indeed she is. But if she’s as close to Tavis as Morrison said, we’re probably going to have to take her down, too.”
“I’d like to take her down,” Kate mumbled.
Mike grinned and closed his folder. “Shall we call it a day?”
Adding her file to his, Kate stood. Pulling on her jacket, she studied the lovely Carly again.
“What say we go out tonight? We can decompress before diving into this new venture.”
“I’ll take you dancing.”
She didn’t like the gleam in his eye.
“See if you’ve still got the moves.”
“You’re enjoying this way too much.”
* * * *
Within the week, under aliases Vivienne Tremblay and Mac Dawson, Kate and Mike were hired at In the Flesh—Mike as a bartender and Kate as a server-slash-ensemble dancer.
An hour before opening, Kate wiped down the bar top in front of Mike.
“Did I mention I like your new blonde locks?”
“I prefer strawberry-blonde.” She fluffed her waves.
“Mmm, I prefer strawberry-blondes myself.” He waggled his eyebrows.
“Give me a break. It’s not a woman’s hair color you notice first.” She shined another glass.
“You’re right. It’s her eyes.” He placed his hand over his chest.
“Sure, that’s what I notice first too.” She replaced the glass. “On the subject, have you noticed the women here are stunning?” It wasn’t an exaggeration. From dancers to servers to administration, it was wall-to-wall hotness.
“Hadn’t noticed.” He watched one of the female employees sashay by.
“Look who’s drooling now.”
“So are you. But I’ll bet your mind is on the knockout from the office.”
“How’d you guess?”
“Ever since she had you filling out paperwork, every time that door opens, you practically give yourself whiplash.”
“Guilty. She’s gorgeous.” Unfortunately, they’d had little chance to interact. The entire time she’d had a phone to her ear, multitasking, while ‘Viv’ filled out forms.
Another server brought out a freshly washed tray of mugs.
“Looks like a full house tonight.” Kate took the rack of glassware.
“It’s always like this when Carly’s performing,” the waitress replied before returning to the kitchen.
“So we’re finally going to see the illusive Carly,” Kate muttered to Mike. “I was beginning to think she was a myth.”
“I’d settle for some info on the shipment. Or for either of the Travinos to show their ugly faces,” Mike said in a low voice.
Security let in a stream of customers. To Kate’s surprise, there were as many female patrons as male. “Here we go.” Kate joined Mike behind the counter and observed the room.
“I got one of the Gardellas at the end of the bar. And ‘Stymie’ Collins, corner table.”
“I thought he was still on the inside.”
“Nope. Paroled last month.”
“I see one from the Varlamov crew, stage left.”
“If there’s one there’s more.”
“Like cockroaches.” He nodded. “If I’m not mistaken Tommy ‘Thumb’ Pelusi just walked out of the restroom. He’s got new ink on his neck. We’d better make note of that.”
The audio techs started sound checks. A number of ladies, all dressed in thin white T-shirts and black boyshorts, began to mingle with the increasing crowd. The tees and shorts sported the In the Flesh logo—a silhouette of a dancer in a spotlight. Kate wore the same uniform.
The bar was suddenly overwhelmed. Kate stayed to help Mike, along with several other bartenders.
“Who’s next?” she called.
“A shot of Blue Label, please.” Kate looked up at the handsome, well-dressed newcomer.
“Straight up?” She grabbed a square tumbler.
He smiled. “No other way to drink it.”
“I don’t get many orders for that.” She reached for the bottle.
“Let me guess. I’m the first,” he said, as she faced him. A deep dimple appeared in his right cheek.
“That’s because I stocked the bar myself.”
Kate smiled. “You must be Mr. Travino.” The surveillance photos didn’t do him justice.
His grin widened, showing perfect white teeth. “You got it.” She set the drink in front of him. “And you’re Viv.” His gaze flicked from her name tag.
“In the flesh,” she replied cheekily, with a wink.
He chuckled. “Call me Tavis.”
“Rockin’ crowd tonight, Tavis.”
“It’s always like this when Carly’s in-house.”
“So I hear.”
He cocked his head. “You sound dubious.”
“I’ll reserve my opinion. The way everyone talks her up, she should be principal dancer for the New York Ballet.”
“Fair enough. But she’s gonna blow you away. And, I agree, she should be head of some lucrative dance company.”
“So why isn’t she?”
“Same reason you’re waiting tables in a strip club, I imagine.”
“Viv!” Mike barked.
“Sorry, Mac,” she called over the noise. “Duty calls. It was a pleasure to meet you, Tavis.”
“The pleasure was all mine. Catch up with you later, gorgeous.”
“Looking forward to it, handsome.”
The staff kept up with the orders and the first few acts took the stage, priming the crowd. Much later, when the bar rush calmed, Kate started serving tables. She fended off several patrons, until one grabbed her bum.
Before she even had a chance to give the miscreant a piece of her mind, he was seized by security, accompanied by Tavis.
“Toss him out.”
“Come on, Travino. Ya can’t put these luscious babes in here and not expect the odd grope.”
The bouncer pushed him toward the exit.
“You know the rules. Don’t touch my staff.” Tavis rounded on Kate. “No matter how luscious they are. You okay?”
“I’m fine. I can take care of myself.”
“I’m sure you can, but in here we watch each other’s backs. You’re part of the family now, Viv.”
The family? She had to stifle a shudder. Being a Travino went against everything she’d sworn to uphold.
“Besides, Carly would kick my ass if her girls were mistreated.”
“I’m hardly one of Carly’s girls. And you make it sound like she runs the place.”
“She does. I put up the money and she does the rest. Enjoy the show.” He gave her shoulder a friendly squeeze before leaving.
The lights lowered and the next act took the stage.
As she strolled along, Kate picked up empties while listening for any useful info. There didn’t seem to be any shoptalk tonight. It was all about Carly.
With the audience trained on the act, and the bar, for the time being, manageable, Mike made his way over. “What was that all about?”
“One of the regulars got handsy. Tavis had security throw him out.”
Mike snorted. “It’s a wonder you didn’t break his arm.”
“Right? I think I showed great restraint.”
“You’re doing well. But this is going way slower than I’d hoped.”
Several of the men around them hollered raucously as another one of the girls took the stage. “Shake it, Jasmine!”
“Apparently, her name is Jasmine.” Mike chuckled.
Jasmine wasn’t the best dancer. She was off-beat and slightly inebriated by the way she kept losing her balance every time she tried to spin. Halfway through the song, she ripped open her top.
“Look, Mike, she’s your type. She has nice big…eyes,” Kate joked, fluttering her lashes.
“Her tits ain’t bad, either,” he answered, deadpan.
“I’ve seen better.”
“Come on…nothin’? Not even a tingle?” he teased.
“Not a twinge.” It wasn’t true. She was slightly on edge merely seeing bare, jiggling breasts. It had been a while since she’d been in a stable relationship, but she wasn’t terribly turned on.
The crowd jeered as Jasmine once again lost her balance.
“I thought Carly ran a tight ship,” Kate said. “So why has Miss Topless-Turvy not gotten the hook yet?”
Someone tossed a beer on stage. The dancer ran off and the offender was promptly removed.
“Bring on Carly,” one guy shouted, inciting the horde into a steady chant.
“My God.” Kate rolled her eyes. “Could they drag this out any more?”
“I believe this is called fever pitch, baby.”
The entire place plunged into darkness. A hush fell over the audience. Several seconds ticked by before the spotlight hit center stage.
In the circular glow stood a woman with her back to the crowd, dressed in a navy crop-top and high-cut leather shorts, barely covering her shapely bottom. Thigh-high black boots hugged long beautiful legs, spread wide in a provocative stance.
Shrill whistles and lewd comments ensued, but Kate hardly noticed. A low hum of excitement began in her stomach.
An obscure warble pulsed through the sound system. The dancer rolled her shoulder to the weird rhythm.
It was a strange song. The beat seemed off for the kind of bump-and-grind expected.
With an impressive one-eighty, Carly faced the crowd, dressed as a cop. What Kate had mistaken for a crop-top was, in fact, a standard blue, beat cop’s dress shirt, tied at the waist, giving a tantalizing view of her belly. Pinned to one breast pocket was a shiny gold badge. On her head, an official-looking cap. Dark-lensed, gold-rimmed aviators topped off the look.
Oh, yeah, there was a twinge.
Another round of catcalls faded when the beat of the music tripled, fast and loud. It pounded in Kate’s chest.
In an exaggerated runway walk, Carly strutted the long catwalk splitting either side of the audience. A set of handcuffs swayed at her waist. She had a rockin’ body. A dancer’s body. Strong and muscular in all the right places, not bulky or angular.
She removed the sunglasses, tucking them at her ample cleavage, again diverting Kate’s attention to the swell of breasts pushed up in the vee of the shirt.
After inventorying her lovely assets, Kate zeroed in on her face. At that moment, Kate realized she’d met this gorgeous woman before. Several times. But always in another capacity. She was the sexy-as-fuck woman from the office. Body and brains.
Awesome investigative work, Kate, she berated. Granted, she always seemed to have a different hair color and style, along with slightly altered makeup. A true chameleon, an asset in this sort of work.
Carly looked down at her and winked before making her way back to the main stage. Kate’s gaze went straight to her shapely ass, following the long line of her dynamic legs.
Unexpectedly, when Carly reached her mark, there was a male dancer standing there. The well-built man in a white T-shirt and jeans. Very West Side Story-esque.
They circled each other. Carly seemed to overpower him. She pushed him against the wall and, with her feet, kicked at his ankles, opening his stance.
Sensually and playfully, Carly frisked him, covering every part of his body, further rousing the crowd. It was obvious from the lewd comments that any one of them would gladly take his place. Especially when she molded his trousers, thoroughly framing the evidence of his arousal.
The music built and the most thrilling choreographed fight scene ensued. The lone lady cop in pursuance of the muscle-bound fugitive. The two amazing dancers tussled, chasing and escaping in turn.
It was more of a performance than a striptease, but Carly held them in the palm of her hand. She was spellbinding. A true performer and storyteller.
In a flurry of leaps and bounds, they came back together and pulled at each other’s clothes. She ripped off his thin shirt.
Seemingly angry, the thug, for the moment, overwhelmed her. He controlled her, yanking her hands above her head. One-handed, he held her wrists while letting his free hand roam over her in the same slow, exploratory way she had him.
Leisurely, he manhandled her breasts, greedily squeezing and plumping. The bastard even played with her nipples.
At first, Carly seemed appalled to find herself in the position. But as he continued to maul her, she acted as if she enjoyed it. Perhaps she did. Her eyes fluttered and her lips parted.
Roughly, he jerked her lapels apart, giving the crowd a peek at her see-through bra. There was a collective gasp. Under the hot lights, and from the exertion, perspiration made the garment cling to her. Her hard nipples tented the fabric. Kate’s body reacted in kind, her breasts prickling.
Carly appeared to capitulate. The gangster grinned cockily and made a great show of sliding his hand down her core, heading for her waistband. The gesture excited the crowd.
Carly used her captor’s smugness against him. Lightning fast, she turned and delivered a chop to his Adam’s apple. Incensed, he lunged. They grappled and twirled across the space with such technical precision, it was as if watching a movie. Her body tensed, humming with anticipation of what might happen next.
Suddenly, Carly jumped and landed the most athletic spinning kick to his chin. He stumbled, breaking through a set-design chair.
Furious, the criminal picked himself up while placing his fingers to his mouth, as if checking for blood. He let out a shrill whistle and another male dancer, dressed similarly, appeared. The two of them stalked her.
Carly raised her hands chest-high and shoved them both. They stopped in their tracks. From nowhere, she held a gun on them.
Where the fuck did it come from? There was no way she’d had it stashed in those skin-tight shorts.
The music warbled again, a strange, almost haunting sound. This time it sent a shiver up Kate’s spine.
Another spotlight appeared not far from where Kate stood. Carly swung around and pointed the weapon. She closed one eye, taking aim.
For a moment, Kate imagined the spotlight on her, Carly exposing her for the cop she was, in the center of the mafia stronghold, singling her out with the barrel of the gun.
Carly pulled the trigger. A blast made Kate jump, but it was Carly’s face that contorted. She flew forward, her ample chest concaved, and she crumpled to the floor.
So caught up in the drama, Kate’s first instinct was to help. If not for Mike grabbing her arm, she’d have made a fool of herself.
From behind, another male dancer stepped around them and dove on stage.
The men swarmed Carly, moving over her, covering her in a wave of undulations. The music swelled to a crescendo of manic drumbeats. The offenders each grabbed a limb of the seemingly lifeless Carly. They carried her, splayed wide, back to center stage. In a dramatic flourish, they tossed her in the air. Collectively the crowd gasped. The stagehands rendered the space pitch black once more and the throbbing music stopped abruptly.
It was over, but Kate fought for breath. She wasn’t the only one. In the silence, all she could hear was rapid panting. It was as if the room itself were breathing, the walls closing in and expanding.
Shakily, Kate wiped the fine sheen of sweat from her upper lip. She was both hot and cold at the same time. Her heart pounded. Her legs trembled.
It seemed an eternity but was only a matter of seconds before dim lighting lit the area once again. The stage remained dark. Kate stared at it, hoping to catch a glimpse of the dynamic dancer, but there was no one there.
Slowly, people came back to themselves and moved to the bar, washrooms or exits.
Kate was no longer a doubter. Carly was everything everyone raved about and more. Tavis was right—she’d been blown away.
“You okay?” Mike chuckled at her side.
“I think I’m in love.”
He snorted. “You and every other person in the joint. And she didn’t even have to take off her clothes. That’s talent.”
In total agreement, Kate followed him shakily back to the bar.