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Author's Chapter Notes:

I know I keep saying it, but really I can't tell you enough how much I appreciate the reviews; they make the posting of stories as enjoyable as the writing of them. Especially with a story like this, to know that I'm managing to evoke the emotions I was striving for is such a reward...thank you!

LA FBI headquarters had sent up three agents, two men and a woman, all experienced professionals. The woman and one of the men had started out as police detectives themselves, in New York and Chicago respectively, and were experts in organized crime. The third agent was a profiler who specialized in assassins; Gerald Kladinski had been one of his special projects for some years.

They were all at the station already when Juliet arrived at eight AM sharp, hopped up on three shots of Starbucks espresso to counter last night's insomnia. She joined them and Lassiter in the conference room, said her good mornings and took her seat at the table, trying desperately to recall which one was Simmons and which one was Simpson. The profiler, Ivan, short and hyper with curly hair pulled back in a tail, she remembered.

"If Kladinski's here," he was saying as Juliet sat down, "then it's mainly a question of finding his target before he does. We might be able to arrange a trap."

"But if Kladinski knows we're here, he might just pull out. It's how he's lost us before. Biding his time. He's good enough that he can afford to be patient."

"The guy's eluded us this far by being that careful," answered the profiler, "but he's got an near perfect success ratio with his hits, and he's not going to blow that. His reputation depends on it. This target's as elusive as he is himself; Kladinski won't give up now that he's onto the Whisper."

"How does he even know the Whisper is here in Santa Barbara?" Juliet asked. "I didn't think the mob had a copy of his day planner, any more than the Bureau does."

Lassiter gave her an admonishing look for that jab, but the female agent--Simmons or Simpson--chuckled. "No, but the lead Kladinski's following is pretty solid. About the most we've ever been able to confirm on the Whisper ourselves, actually."

"How so?"

The third agent--Simpson or Simmons--said, "You're familiar with the Whisper's methods, yes, Detective O'Hara? Chief Lassiter here tells us you're a fan, so to speak."

"Well, I followed some of his earlier cases..."

"No need to be coy." Ivan smiled at her, not quite so flirtatiously as to be inappropriate. "You're not the only one in law enforcement to be keeping up with him. There's a Whisper club in the Bureau--though no one admits to knowing the secret handshake."

"So you know," Simpson-or-Simmons went on, "that usually he--

"Or she," interjected Simmons-or-Simpson, "or they; whoever's acting as the Whisper in a particular case."

"They, then. The Whisper are not exactly vigilantes; they've never made a citizen's arrest. They're very advanced informers; they work by making sure the police catch syndicates, from the top down, leaders and all, red-handed. Possibly by framing them, though that hasn't been proven. The extent of evidence the Whisper has provided is nothing short of staggering; it's some of the best information gathering and deduction work--"

"Obviously Simpson knows the handshake," Ivan remarked in an undertone.

The man-now-confirmed-as-Simpson gave his colleague a look, and continued, "In most cases, the Whisper makes a couple contacts within the local police, a while before making their final move. They start small, feeding the cops accurate tips to gain trust, things that have nothing to do with the syndicate in question at first, but eventually leading up to the major bust months later. They usually communicate by email or texting, occasionally by phone.

"In Tampa, the Whisper's contact was a young policeman--not a detective, a beat cop, though he's bound to get a promotion out of this. In the recent pretrial hearings, when testifying about the Whisper's assistance, this officer happened to mention a personal exchange with the man--or woman--the individual acting as the Whisper at the time. In that exchange, the Whisper made a reference to going to Santa Barbara in the near future. Given the connections the Vincetti's lawyers have, that information is sure to have gotten to Kladinski's employers by now."

"The big question now is why he's coming to Santa Barbara," Ivan the profiler said. "There's no syndicate here big enough to be one of his usual targets. Actually, you have one of the lowest rates of organized crime in the country--you've put away a few guys, but your last major incident was a good ten years ago. A drug ring case that lead to a bombing at a private investigator's office, wasn't it?"

"Police consultants'. And I wouldn't say a good ten years," Lassiter said. "We lost two good men in that incident."

"But there's barely been anything here since, and what there has been, you and your people have had a handle on it. So why is the Whisper here now? Does he know something we don't, or does he have another reason? Is he maybe about to start on another vendetta? Or is it personal?"

"You sound as interested in tracing the Whisper as Kladinski," Juliet observed.

"We are," said Simmons. "Truth be told, we'd probably be here even if Kladinski wasn't. The Whisper's high on the Organized Crime division's most wanted. Just for questioning, though; no warrant, because no one's decided whether they should be locked up, or given medals."

"Or hired as instructors," Simpson said. "We could learn a lot from their methods, if we could figure out how they worked. Even the mob bosses the Whisper's brought down don't have a clue who betrayed them. There's always a few small-fry assistants who get away with every bust, but the leaders always swear that no one person had access to all the information the Whisper provides--that includes financial records, bank account numbers, internal bookkeeping that they somehow copy before it gets shredded. They're always accurate."

"He can't be that good," Lassiter pointed out. "He slipped up and lead you and Kladinski here, didn't he."

"Actually, that's in keeping with their method," Simmons said. "Or lack of one, maybe I should say...for all they've done, sometimes they screw up. Make mistakes, false leads. They've put a few police officers and agents into some embarrassing jams--some of the syndicate bosses, too, for that matter. Nothing illegal, just dumb. It's more evidence that it's probably a group of people. Some of them are better at it than others."

"One person, or a gang of a hundred--either way, Kladinski's after them," Simpson said. "And we're going to stop him before he succeeds."

Juliet caught up with Ivan the profiler after the briefing, offered him coffee from the break room and sat with him. From the appreciative looks he gave both her and the coffee, he didn't mind. "Back in there," she said, "you were talking about the Whisper's reasons for being here. That he might be starting on a new mission."

"It's a theory. Not a likely one, he seems pretty committed to what he does, but you never know. You call him 'he'," he remarked. "The Whisper, I mean."

"So do you."

"Point. I'm not on board with the Bureau's main line on this one."

"So you think it could be one man?"

"Pretty sure of it. His methods are too consistent, too difficult to duplicate. Besides, if it were some fantastically talented group, then why does he always go after only one syndicate at a time? And there's time between some of the busts, too. He's either trying to take them off-guard, or going on vacation from his chosen cause."

"You called it a vendetta," Juliet said.

Ivan nodded. "If it's one guy--or woman, I'm not ruling that out--but for one person to be doing what he's doing--to go under deep cover like this, running a one-man sting, a successful and therefore convincing one, over and over, and never get any reward for it, not even any credit...I can tell you two things about him for sure.

"One," and he held up an index finger, "he's got personal reasons. A vendetta, like I said: he hates these guys. I don't know what they did, but some crime boss somewhere screwed up and made a worse enemy than they could've imagined. He hates these guys so much that he's willing to give up himself--his very identity; his life, or worse, if they can catch him--just to bring them down."

Juliet nodded. "Makes sense. And two?"

"Two." Ivan held up a second finger. "He's insane. Dissociative identity, narcissistic delusions, martyr's complex, I couldn't say; but he's psychologically completely unbalanced. There's no way he could manage this if he weren't."

* * *

When her cell phone buzzed with an unlisted number, Juliet didn't think; she just got up from her desk and went to the west handicap bathroom. It was a single stall, rarely used, the best place in the station to be sure no one would overhear. "Hello?" she answered the phone.

"Hey, Jules," replied Shawn's voice on the other end of the line, cheerful as before, utterly natural. "How's it going? We still on for tonight?"

"I wouldn't miss it," Juliet said, smiling in spite of herself. "Meet at Jeff's again?"

"Already went there for lunch, actually," Shawn said. "How about I grab some take-out Chinese--the Iron Wang's still your favorite, right?--and you meet me over here tonight, whenever you get off."

"Sure. Over where?"

"My dad's place," Shawn said. "See you tonight. Oh, and come in the back way," and he hung up.

She didn't mention the call to anyone. Though when that evening as she was heading out, the agent Ivan asked her if she'd like to join him for a drink--"Beer, wine, cappuccino, Mountain Dew, whatever's your poison"--she told him apologetically, "Maybe tomorrow, I've got plans tonight."

His face fell. "Boyfriend?"

"Not really. An old friend's in town."

He nodded understandingly and didn't follow her out. But Lassiter met her at the station's main exit, walked with her to the parking lot. It could have been a coincidence of timing; but she knew it wasn't, even before he asked, "Have you mentioned this case to anyone? Kladinski's name, or anything else?"

"Carlton, you've known me for how long? You trained me, for Pete's sake. What do you think? I know my job."

"I think..." Lassiter hesitated, glanced around the lot like a spy afraid he was being tailed. "Depending on who that friend you're meeting tonight is, maybe you should drop a name or two. Just to see what happens."

Juliet didn't meet his eyes, busying herself getting out her car keys. "And if I already have?"

She could feel Lassiter's gaze on her. "You're a good cop, O'Hara, and you know your job. Whatever you think you need to do, it's probably the right thing. Just be careful, damn it."

She let out a long breath. "Thank you, sir."


to be continued...

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