Excerpt from The Guardian
"Damn, I'd like to get with that bitch," Jamal Ibn Nasser exclaimed as they drew close enough to make out the woman's supple curves.
"Watch your mouth," Jackson snapped, as much annoyed by the lanky man's outburst as he was by the fact that he felt the same way, even now that he'd learned who she was: Lena Alexandra, freelance editor for Crime and Liberty tabloid.
He'd received a text from Ike confirming his suspicions just an hour ago.
The woman had trouble written all over her. And he knew he ought to keep his distance, except he was dying to discover her agenda. Given her come-hither smile and the fingers she waggled at them invitingly, it was obvious she was after something—hopefully not him.
"I'm going to talk to her," announced the parolee named Muhammed. Switching course abruptly, he inspired the others to trail after him, including Jackson, who kept a sharp look-out for anything resembling a camera.
If the beauty was alarmed at being swarmed by ex-cons, she didn't show it. "Hello," she called, her lush lips curving into a heart-stopping smile.
Damn if there wasn't something about her that made a man think of sex.
"How you doin'?" Muhammed purred, putting a swagger in his stride.
"Super." She tucked a dark curl behind one ear as she regarded them one by one. "How are you all?"
They lined up on the opposite side of the picnic table feasting their eyes on her. "We good now," Muhammed declared, his gaze wandering toward her cleavage. "Wha's your name, baby?"
A spark of cynicism flared in her eyes, but her smile remained fixed. "Maggie," she said, setting her elbows on the table top and giving them a mouthwatering view of the tops of her coconut sized breasts. "I work here now." She nodded toward Artie's.
Jackson couldn't believe his ears. The woman hadn't wasted any time insinuating herself into the local scene, finding the ideal vantage from which to keep tabs on Gateway and making up a fictitious name. Why? Had the media caught whiff of the Taskforce investigation?
"My name's Muhammed," said their spokesperson. "This here is Nadim, Hasan, Jamal, Sulayman, and Abdul."
"Nice to meet all of you." Her gaze lingered a split second longer on Jackson than on the others.
"Maggie, huh," Muhammed continued, giving his chin a thoughtful rub. "Is that short for somethin'?"
Her sexy shrug shifted the pink gemstone dangling from her neck. "What do you think it's short for?" she asked, batting her eyelashes at him.
"Margaret," guessed Davis, looking smug when she gestured that he was right.
"Smart man," she praised him. "It is Margaret."
She was lying through her pearly white teeth. Jackson battled to hide his growing scowl.
"You live here?" he demanded on a note that made her glance at him sharply.
"As a matter of fact I just moved here from D.C.," she answered.
Another lie, Jackson thought.
"No shit. We all from D.C.," Muhammed exclaimed, "'cept for Abdul. He from Baltimore."
"Small world." She sat a little taller, tantalizing them again as her breasts jutted out. "What neighborhoods are you all from?"
"I'm from Anacostia, baddest 'hood in the city," Jamal replied.
Sulayman Ibn Surad, whose real name was Rupert Davis, spoke up suddenly. "I used to be a cop—Metropolitan police," he boasted.
Maggie shifted her whole body to face him. "Oh, dear," she said with a sympathetic look.
Jackson eyed her incredulously. Couldn't the men tell that she was reeling them in?
"Yeah, we all got busted for one thing or another," Muhammed corroborated. "But don't you worry, baby," he rushed to assure her. "We all cleaned up our act. We God-fearin' men now," he added with conviction. "Ain't that right, fellas?"
"Tha's right," three others confirmed.
"Well, that's a relief," she stated, "especially since I'm writing a book about prison conversions and I'd love to interview some of you, if you're interested."
"You writin' a book?" Muhammed thumped down onto the bench across from her.
Jackson scowled. What book? She wasn't here to write a goddamn book.
"Absolutely. My goal is to show the positive, long-term effects of prison conversion on parolees."
The men gaped at her in awe.
"I want to be in it," Muhammed declared, slapping his hand on the table.
"Well, okay then!" Maggie flashed him a megawatt smile, her gaze jumping up expectantly. "What about the rest of you? I'd love to interview a former cop," she said to Sulayman.
The tension ebbed slowly out of Jackson. He didn't believe a word about her so-called book, but at least she didn't seem to be sniffing out a government spy.
"Not me," Sulayman declared, taking a backward step.
"Man, why not?" Jamal demanded. "I'll do it. I used to be a bank robber, but now that I found Allah, I'm a saved man."
"We all saved," Muhammed insisted. "You could interview all of us."
Ike wouldn't stand for this, Jackson assured himself. It didn't matter if she was hunting him or not; the woman was a threat to his cover.
Nadim, the only Hispanic man, shattered the moment by announcing that break time was almost over.
"Aw, man." Jamal slid a mournful look over Maggie's outrageous curves.
"Time to go." Grabbing Muhammed by the scruff, Jackson hauled him off the bench.
"Bye, baby," Muhammed sang out as Jackson herded them all toward the building.
"Bye." She fluttered her pink-tipped nails at them. "Come visit me soon. I'll be here every night at six," she called, setting Jackson's teeth on edge.
As the men filed into the store to buy their drinks, Jackson handed Muhammed a dollar and told him to buy an extra water while he waited outside. The surveillance cameras in the store, like Lena's camera yesterday, made him uncomfortable unless he was wearing a billed cap. Standing alone on the curb, he sensed the journalist staring at him.
Reluctantly, he looked over at her. "I trust you deleted those photos," he called across the parking lot.
But a mutt in the back of a pickup truck started barking, muffling his words.
Lena put a hand to her ear and shook her head. "I can't hear you."
He directed his glare at the annoying dog. "Quiet," he said with authority he had learned from K-9 handlers in the military. "I said, I trust you deleted those photos," he called to her again when the dog fell silent.
All she did was cast her eyes heavenward and shake her head.
Just you wait, Jackson thought, stewing at her stubborn refusal to acknowledge the truth. She'd regret it when the Taskforce lead stepped in to protect him.
Muhammed reemerged and handed him his water. The dog started barking again as the men spilled out in his wake, waved farewell at the journalist, and started back across the highway. Jackson could feel her speculative gaze on his back, keeping him prickly in his skin.
He probably wasn't the reason she was here, he acknowledged, but a woman as accomplished as she was at eliciting information was a danger to his cover. Somehow, some way, Ike needed to get rid of her.
There was already one spy in this town; two was just too many.