Driven by Fire

By: Anne Stuart

Chapter One

She never should have been there. Normally Jennifer Parker would have waited for the smoke to clear for a call for her services as a pro bono lawyer. She’d already acquired a small but stellar reputation for dealing with the poor and disenfranchised, and a cargo ship with seventy-three women and children bound for the sex trade would require her help sooner or later.

She had the perfect excuse to show up. She would have gotten a phone call from the DA’s office, or the Red Cross, or any of a number of charitable organizations in need of her expertise, and if anyone questioned her presence, she could simply explain that she saw no reason to wait when she might be needed. The police and the FBI and their ilk were doing an excellent job clearing the ship, but these victims would be better off dealing with a sympathetic woman than a gun-toting police force.

But that wasn’t her real reason for driving her ancient Toyota down to the docks and ferreting her way past the police barricades and news crews and gawkers.

“Do you want to be responsible for your brother’s death?” Her father had thundered at her from the end of the phone line, the father she hadn’t spoken to in three years. “I know you have no family feeling when it comes to most of us, but this is Billy, your baby brother! What would your mother have said if she knew you let him walk into a trap and did nothing to save him?”

“He got himself into it,” she said, fighting back the guilt. “If he’s been making money from sex trafficking, then he deserves whatever he gets.”

“A bullet between the eyes? I may have spent a fortune paying off the New Orleans police but there are other agencies involved in this, including some mysterious foreign group called the Organization or the Committee. They won’t hesitate to blow his brains out.”

“There’s nothing I can do that you can’t,” she said stubbornly.

“I can’t do anything. He’s not answering his cell phone, and if I or any of my men show up at the docks, they’ll think we’re a part of this mess.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Don’t be disrespectful! I know better than to get involved in a half-assed scheme that crumbles so easily. Why else do you think I’ve prospered for so long?”

“Because you pay off the police?” she suggested brightly.

The silence at the other end told her she’d gone too far, but there was nothing left of her relationship with her father to salvage. Finally he spoke.

“Are you going to save your brother? You know someone had to have played him—he’s the best of all of us,” Fabrizio Gauthier said ruthlessly, ignoring his daughter’s lifelong efforts to break free from her family’s pernicious influence.

He was right, though. Billy was the baby, too young to be mired in the illegal activities of the rest of the infamous Gauthiers. The boy . . . no, man . . . she knew would never have involved himself in something as filthy as sex trafficking. Fabrizio was right—someone had to have set him up.

“I’ll go,” she said finally. “Not for your sake, but because he was Mama’s baby. There’s a chance he hasn’t been totally corrupted yet.”

She didn’t expect a thank-you, and he didn’t offer one, breaking the connection rather than spending one more moment with his recalcitrant daughter. That suited her fine—she would be just as happy never to exchange another word with the man she thought of as a sperm donor and nothing more. She’d always felt like a changeling in her family of criminals, and once her mother died, only Billy had felt like her real kin.

It hadn’t taken her long to reach the crowded docks of the Port of New Orleans. Women and children were being herded onto a school bus, all of them looking dirty and pale and frightened. Instinctively she started toward them, then remembered she had come to find her brother. The people milling around were so busy that no one noticed when she slipped past the barriers and onto the container ship.

She came across the first body in the narrow stairway leading upward and she froze in horror, bile rising inside her. He’d been shot between the eyes, as her father had predicted, and his bowels had loosened with the suddenness of his death.