Pearl, GEM, Book 2

GEM agent, Pearl—protective and cunning—is hot on the trail of a young accomplice in a child exploitation ring. Her assignment has her posing as a teenager to get close. Unfortunately, joining a group of kids on a wilderness quest means stepping out of her comfort zone and into uncertainty. But with the target in her sights her focus stays razor-sharp.
The last thing she needs is the dogged journalist who’s been close on her heels catching up and rattling her cage. The man is clearly on a mission and cannot be deterred, so when he inserts himself into her investigation, proving himself more an asset than a liability, she has no choice but to collaborate.
Thrown together in a mutual pursuit of justice, the negative energy between them sparks up in a new way. 
GEM: a privately-funded organization operating independently in the search for—and the rescue and recovery of—missing and exploited children. Although at times  working in conjunction with law enforcement, GEM aims to ensure the victims receive justice…by whatever means necessary. 
“Hi, Janey. My name is Sandra. I’m a social worker with Child Protective Services.”
I hear her voice but I don’t want to turn around. I’m too embarrassed.
Stupid Billy Crocker and his big mouth. He’s the reason the teacher brought me to see the school nurse, and now I’m in a heap of trouble. Even the principal got called in.
I should’ve worn my black sweatshirt, but it’s been hot out for days and I was afraid I’d get laughed at. Hoping my back had scabbed over, I ended up putting on a T-shirt and kept my long hair loose. 
That was a mistake.
Billy, who sits behind me in class, noticed blood on the back of my chair. 
“Janey?” The nurse bends down in front of the bed I’m curled up on. “I’m going to show Sandra your back, okay?”
I squeeze my eyes closed when she reaches over me and pulls the sheet down. I’m mortified when I hear the other woman hiss between her teeth.
I’ve never looked at my back, but I’ve felt the ridges and scars my mother’s switch left behind.
“Who did this to you, Janey?”
* * *
I peek out from under the scratchy blanket and look around the dark room. 
It looks spooky, with only a little bit of moonlight coming in through the windows. 
I share a bunk bed with Kate, another new girl here. She already picked the bottom bunk, so I took the top. I would’ve picked that one anyway, I feel safer up here.
We share the room with Rajani, who seems nice enough, even though I haven’t said much to her. Or anyone else, really. There are five other girls who share the room next door, but they’re all older and mostly ignore us. 
The boys have a dorm room on the other side of the building and we’re kept mostly separated, except at meal times. 
It’s only been four days since the social worker brought me here, but I already know I don’t like it. Every day I have to meet with this woman for therapy. She’s supposed to be a doctor, but she asks strange questions and makes me feel really uncomfortable. 
There’s also a guy—his name is Josh—and he runs education and activity programs. Some of the kids seem afraid of him. 
He gives me the creeps.
I’m pretty sure something weird is going on here.
Asshole. How the hell did he find me?
“Pearl, fancy meeting you here.”
I’d like to wipe that arrogant smirk off his handsome face. What a waste of good looks.
“You’re trespassing,” I snap, pointing at the small sign indicating ‘Private Beach.’ 
The beach house I’m staying at sits on a few acres of land with about two hundred yards of ocean frontage. GEM—the organization I work for—rented the place when the rest of my team joined me here on Grand Cayman a few weeks ago. The rental I had before only had one bedroom and was in George Town, near the airport. Nothing much to look at, unlike this house.
Sadly, I’ve spent most of my time here holed up inside, working. Raj, Kate, and Mitch—the rest of my team—headed back home yesterday, and I’m supposed to fly out in two days. 
I stayed behind to follow up with the captain of a luxury yacht scheduled to be back sometime tomorrow from a two-week-long chartered trip around the Caribbean. The captain has eluded me for the two months I’ve been here—doing little more than dropping off a load of passengers and picking up the next before taking off again—but I plan to be at the dock when he shows up tomorrow. I’m not going to let him slip through my fingers again, but today, I’d promised myself a leisurely day on the beach. 
Well, so much for that. There is no way I’ll be relaxing with Lee Remington hovering over me. 
The first time I met him was in a parking lot, and I gave him a bloody nose when my car door slammed in his face. That’s by far my favorite memory of all the interactions we’ve had since then. The man just rubs me the wrong way. 
Maybe it’s because I suspect he’s one of those guys who wouldn’t hesitate to use the fact he’s tall, dark, and good-looking to open doors for him. Or, perhaps, it’s his job as a freelance journalist that doesn’t sit well with me. 
Another reporter who caught me in the parking lot outside the club I worked at in Cincinnati, many moons ago, had left a sour taste in my mouth. He claimed he was doing a story on an assault that had taken place behind the club a couple of days prior. I guess I’d still been a little naïve at the time and shared way too much with the guy. A few days later, a covert picture taken of me dancing inside the club was featured in a local newspaper, next to his article titled Sex Trade in the City. 
The bastard used my name as he blasted the industry. It cost me my fiancé, my job, and quite a few friends I’d made. 
So yeah, I’m not a fan and I have a really long memory.
I huff when Lee wordlessly plops down in the sand beside me, looping his arms around his knees. I’m trying hard not to notice how he looks even better in cargo shorts and a well-washed Pink Floyd shirt than he does in jeans.
“I don’t recall inviting you.”
He turns his head and grins at me. His eyes are hidden behind the shades he’s wearing, but I swear I can feel him scrutinizing me. 
“I bumped into Mitch and your friends at the airport when I was getting in yesterday. They told me to check in on you.”
“Bullshit,” I grumble, wrapping my towel around me. 
Although…I wouldn’t exactly put it past either Kate or Raj to send him by to needle me. They know how I feel about the man.
“What are you doing in the Caymans anyway?”
“I’m not allowed to have a vacation?”
I roll my eyes at him. He’s as likely to take a vacation as I am. There’s a reason he’s here.
He stretches his long legs, crossing them at the ankles, getting comfortable. His dark skin gleams in the sun, mocking my almost pasty complexion. I’ve barely caught any rays while here, having spent most of my time inside behind the computer. 
“Sorry, not buying it.” 
I get up, tying my towel tightly around me as I gather up my things. The man makes me uncomfortable, and I’ve got better things to do than hang out on the beach with him.
“Where are you going?”
“Some of us have work to do.”
I know I’m being snippy, but Remington brings it out in me. It doesn’t deter him from jumping to his feet and following me back to the house.
“You’re meeting with Robert Justice tomorrow,” he states casually, stopping me in my tracks.
“How would you know that?” I ask suspiciously.
I’d be shocked if my teammates shared my hopes of intercepting the captain at the dock.
He shrugs, turning his eyes to the endless blue ocean.
“I’m here to talk to him and assume, since you’re not on the flight with the rest of your team, you’re hanging around for the same reason.”
It shouldn’t surprise me Remington is chasing down the same leads I am. The big difference is he’s chasing a story for a byline, while we’re chasing down criminals to make sure they receive justice. Not exactly the same objective. Although, I grudgingly admit his knowledge came in handy earlier this year when we managed to shut down a youth center in Lanark, Kentucky. 
Several teenagers had gone missing and we uncovered what can only be described as a ring of sexual predators. What had been a shock was finding Josh Kendrick at the helm. A man who was supposed to have died twenty years ago. 
Oh, he was using an alias and his appearance had changed dramatically over the years, but Kate, who’d been at the center posing as Opal Berry—her cover name—recognized his voice immediately.
You’d think, after two decades, the sound of a voice would be hard to remember, but I don’t think any of us would ever forget Kendrick’s voice.
The man is dead now, his center shut down, and the sick perverts using his services are in jail and awaiting trial, but we have reason to believe this case was only the tip of the iceberg. 
It’s why I ended up in the Caymans, following a lead by the name of Jesper Olson. He’d gone missing from the center as well, however, we discovered later he was not a victim but rather part of the plot, acting as a decoy to lure the other kids. 
Jesper ended up on the islands where I tracked him down. He was working on the Distant Promise, the yacht captained by Robert Justice, but sometime in the past few weeks the boy disappeared again.
I suspect he may have been dropped off somewhere during the yacht’s previous cruise, which is why I need to talk to the captain.
* * *
I watch her stomp off. 
Although, with her small feet sinking into the fine beach sand, it doesn’t really have the required effect. 
As small as the woman is, I know better than to underestimate her. The one and only time I did, I ended up on my ass. That tiny package packs a big punch in more ways than one. 
You’d think someone who weighs significantly less than what I bench press wouldn’t be able to take down a man twice her size, but you’d be wrong. Pearl looks deceivingly young and innocent with those delicate features and funky, angled, bob haircut.
I don’t bother following her, knowing I’d undoubtedly get the door to the beach house slammed in my face. She’s prickly, to put it mildly, which is why I opt not to share how I ended up here. Given that it was Jacob, her boss, who asked me to come and, apparently, he didn’t share that with her, I can only assume she wouldn’t be happy.
He’s touched base with me from time to time these past months, looking for the same answers I am. Recognizing the mutual benefit to sharing information, I’ve been keeping him abreast of any progress I’ve made and vice versa. 
Even though I’m not sure what his motivations are, our objectives seem to run parallel: to bring down the three individuals responsible for atrocities that took place two decades ago. Including the murder of my mother, who’d been a housekeeper at Transition House—a youth home at the center of the depravities—and was killed for what she knew.
Transition House burned down, its management supposedly having perished in the fire, but I’ve always had my suspicions around that. With good reason, as it turned out. Josh Kendrick—once program manager for Transition House—appeared back in Lanark as the director of the new youth center.
The sick bastard wasn’t back for long though. If he hadn’t made the mistake of kidnapping the daughter of an FBI agent, he might’ve gotten away and started up shop elsewhere, but Opal—another GEM operator—took him out. 
One down, two more to go.
I get to my feet and wipe the sand off my ass. I’m hungry and could go for some conch fritters. For a second, I wonder if I should ask Pearl along to try and break the ice, but I’m pretty sure that would be wasted energy.
I’ll catch up with her tomorrow morning at the dock.
* * *
I can’t hear what she mumbles under her breath when I saunter onto the dock, but I have no doubt it’s far from complimentary. 
Pearl’s almost-black eyes regard me with disdain.
“You’re going to be in the way.”
I shrug. “Who knows? I could be useful. I understand you haven’t had much luck so far.”
Her scowl makes it clear she’s not happy with the reminder.
“You think you can do better because you’re a man?”
“Yes, I do,” I tell her honestly.
It just so happens, in this case, being a man—a Black one at that—he is more likely to talk to me than he would to an Asian woman. Not because I think I’m superior, but Robert Justice might.
 It’s on my tongue to tell her Jacob Branch called me for that exact reason, but with the yacht coming around the end of the pier, this might not be the best time to get into that.
Pearl caught sight of it as well and spreads her stance, folding her arms over her chest as we wait for the ship to dock. I catch the older man eyeing her suspiciously as he orders his crew to fasten the lines. 
The moment he sets foot on the dock, Pearl marches up to him, determined not to let him pass her by.
“Excuse me, Robert Justice?”
“Wah gwaan,” I interrupt, asking the man how he’s doing as I brush by her and hold out my hand.
With his narrowed eyes still on Pearl, he accepts the shake.
“Wah duh yuh want?”
“Lee Remington, mi ah journalist,” I introduce myself. “Mi a luk fah information, cyaah wi talk?”
I can feel the steam coming off Pearl, but I ignore her as I follow Justice, who starts walking toward the small office building at the end of the dock. 
“Mi know nutten,” he mutters, trying to cut me off.
“Eh bout Martin Duyvenvoorde he wuk fi yuh.”
At the mention of his employee—the name Jesper Olson used here in the Caymans—he glares at me with guarded eyes.
“Nah nuh muh,” he responds.
Maybe not anymore, but we know he went out on the previous cruise as part of the crew.
It takes a bit to get him to admit the kid debarked in Florida three weeks ago, but that’s about as much as I can get out of him.
Last year, his yacht was chartered by a company by the name of Glan Development, but the moment I mention that name he blanches, shutting me down.
“Deh ask tuh bai questions a dangerous,” he warns me before he shuts the door in my face. 
He’s obviously scared and I don’t blame him. 
Glan Development is a subsidiary of Glan Industries, which is part of an almost impenetrable network of shell companies I’ve tried to untangle. 
Pure Caribbean is another one we found when following the flow of illegal funds. This company has a physical address here on Grand Cayman, but there’s nothing but a run-down, empty warehouse. The moneys handed over by rich fuckers paying for the sexual exploitation of minors landed in Pure Caribbean’s local bank account, where due to Cayman banking laws it is shielded. 
These people are sick and ruthless. They have money, connections, and will do anything to protect those interests and their own asses. They wouldn’t flinch at killing Robert Justice or anyone else for that matter.
“Of course you speak Patois,” Pearl snarls when I turn to her.
“Jamaican born,” I explain. 
Portmore, Jamaica, to be more specific, although I did most of my growing up in Kentucky. My mother moved us there when I was only three but continued to speak Patois at home. 
“What did he say?”
“The kid was dropped off on Key West. That’s all he was willing to tell me.”
“He’s back in the U.S.?”
“So it seems.”
She mutters a string of unladylike expletives before she turns on her heel and heads for the parking lot.
“Hey!” I call, jogging after her. “Wanna grab some lunch? I know a place—”
“I have to pack,” she evades, already getting into her rental vehicle.
Of course she has an excuse ready. 
Don’t know why I even bother trying to be friendly, she obviously hates my guts.

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