“Thanks for coming with me,” I said to Special Agent Meaghan Bates as we pulled out of the parking garage and onto Adams Street. “I really appreciate it.”
“You owe me,” Meaghan replied without hesitation. “I definitely didn’t want to be out here this late. What are we doing exactly?”
“Going on an interview.”
I didn’t even have to look at her to know she’d rolled her eyes. “Gee, thanks. Do you think you could be any more vague?”
I grinned at her sarcasm. “A buddy of mine from WFO asked me to take a run at a guy who passed a counterfeit hundred down in Maryland.”
“Since when do you do favors for the guys from Washington?”
“Since she did a favor for me. Quid pro quo and all that.”
“Why didn’t you just pass it along to the counterfeit squad?”
“Because she asked me.”
Meaghan sighed and slumped down in the passenger seat. “You know Mark’s going to crucify you for this if he finds out, right? That man has made it his mission in life to destroy you.”
“Trust me, I know.”
“So why are you taking this chance? Can’t you find less consequence-laden ways of annoying your boss like a normal person?”
“I told you, because she asked me. Besides, how’s he going to find out?”
“That man’s the devil. If there’s a way, he’ll find out.”
“I’ll keep you out of it, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“It’s only partly what I’m worried about.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?”
“This has disaster written all over it,” Meaghan muttered.
I grinned again.
In case you’re wondering, I’m a special agent for the United States Secret Service. I won’t be offended if you don’t believe me. When most people think about Secret Service agents, they think of tall, broad-shouldered, dark-haired males wearing mirrored sunglasses, an earpiece, and no facial expression. Medium height, blond-haired, blue-eyed, smirking females never enter anyone’s mind.
Because of that, I’m a natural choice for undercover assignments. And my air of innocence helps me get anyone to tell me anything during an interview, given enough time. Usually my friends laugh when I say as much. Okay, they always laugh.
Most people think we work only out of Washington, D.C. and only protect the U.S. president and his family. Not true. President Lincoln actually founded the Secret Service in 1865 to combat the growing counterfeit-currency problem plaguing America. We didn’t even get in on the protection gig until 1901.
While every agent dreams of going to a permanent protection detail like the Presidential Protective Division or Vice Presidential Protective Division—commonly referred to as PPD and VPD, respectively—those have only so much room. The rest of us in the field—and we have offices covering every state, as well as several overseas—wait to be called to The Show by guarding visiting dignitaries and investigating various crimes. We deal with counterfeiting, financial-institution fraud, credit-card fraud, and identity theft. We also investigate threats against the president, vice-president, their families, former presidents, and foreign heads of state.
Meaghan and I are assigned to the Protective Intelligence Squad, which handles the threat cases. Any time anyone threatens a Secret Service protectee either verbally or in writing, an agent gets sent out to look into it. The majority of the threats we receive are made toward the president or the vice-president, but people also make them against former presidents and their spouses or other dignitaries sometimes, too.
Many times, the people making the threats are just venting. Or drunk. Sometimes they’re just plain nuts. Occasionally, it’s an interesting combination of the three. And every now and again, someone’s just acting like an idiot. But we take each and every threat seriously and investigate it thoroughly because the person making the threat might like to do someone else harm, if given the chance. That’s normally where I come in.
Today, however, I was getting into the spirit of Throwback Thursday. I’d transferred to the PI Squad from the Counterfeit Squad early last year, so I’d become accustomed to a certain type of investigation. This would be a good chance for me to reuse some techniques I hadn’t needed to employ in my PI cases.
My phone rang before Meaghan could find another way to tell me to punt this to the counterfeit guys, and I smiled when I saw the caller ID.
“Hey,” I said as I lifted the phone to my ear.
“Hey,” Lucia Mendez, the NYPD Intel detective I’d been seeing, replied. “Where are you?”
“On my way to an interview with Meaghan. Where are you?”
A long pause. “So, I guess it’s safe to say you forgot we had dinner plans.”
My heart sank. I was such an asshole. “Oh, shit. Luce, I’m so sorry.”
I sighed and clenched the steering wheel. “Of course I am. I feel terrible.”
“Yeah. I’ve heard that before.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“You never do it on purpose.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that lately I feel like your job is more important to you than I am.”
What the hell was she talking about? “Come on. You know that’s not true.”
Another pause. “I’m starting to have my doubts.”
Irritation swelled inside me, and I struggled to remain calm. She’d known about my lifestyle when she’d started pursuing me. Hell, we’d met on a detail, so none of this should’ve been a surprise. While I’d been wrong not to cancel tonight, I didn’t appreciate her implication that I didn’t care about her or my job was more important. She was a cop herself. She understood that things cropped up without warning. Or so I’d thought.
“Look, I’m sorry. I should’ve called. I’m still playing catch-up from UNGA, and I’m distracted. That’s all. Once I get out from under my casework, it’ll be better. I promise.” No need to mention that what I was about to do wasn’t strictly within my purview. Nope. None at all.
“Are you sure that’s all it is?”
“Of course. What else would it be?”
“Nothing. Never mind.”
Hmm. Clearly she had something big on her mind. Unfortunately, now wasn’t the time to press her on it. For one thing, I wasn’t alone. For another, we were almost at our destination. Time for damage control. “I’ll be over as soon as I can.”
“Forget it,” Lucia said, sounding resigned. “We’ll do it another time.”
“I’d really like to see you.”
“And I’d like to see you, too. I—I miss you.”
“Well, then let me come over after I’m done. I promise I’ll make it worth your while.”
Lucia chuckled lightly, and my tension eased. “As great as that sounds, we both know there’s no way for you to tell how long this’ll take. And I have to get up early tomorrow.”
Damn. She wasn’t wrong. I didn’t want her to be waiting on me. “How about tomorrow night? Are you free?”
She hesitated. “Yeah. Sure. Tomorrow night would be great. Be safe, okay?”
“You, too. See you tomorrow.”
I took a deep breath as I re-holstered my phone. What would be the best way to make this up to her? Flowers wouldn’t be enough. Jewelry would be too much. I could offer to cook for her, but I wasn’t great in the kitchen. Maybe I could pick up dessert from her favorite bakery and—
“How’s that going?”
“Hmm? How’s what going?”
Meaghan let out an exasperated huff. “That was your girlfriend on the phone, wasn’t it?”
“Then who was it?”
“Just someone I’ve been seeing.”
Meaghan looked skeptical. “But not your girlfriend.”
I shrugged. “Not officially.”
“Ah. You haven’t had the exclusivity talk.”
“Why not? Is she seeing other people?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, I know you’re not.”
I scowled at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t you think I’ve realized you don’t date?”
“I didn’t realize my love life fascinated you. Something you want to tell me?”
Meaghan scoffed. “Please. Even if I were into girls, you wouldn’t be my type.”
“I am everybody’s type.”
“Stop quoting that stupid TV show.”
“Hey, if you’re going to open the door…”
“And stop trying to change the subject. Unless you want to tell me who made you swear off love. I’d be willing to let you distract me with that.”
Every nerve ending in my entire body started humming in warning. I loved Meaghan like a sister, but no way were we going to talk about that. Now or ever. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure you don’t. Fine. Then let’s stay focused on how this girl has managed to do what many others have tried and failed to achieve.”
“There haven’t been that many others,” I muttered.
“There’ve been a few. Yet none of them have made it past what? Two dates? Three? I was starting to think you had commitment issues.”
“I don’t have commitment issues. I’m not opposed to the idea of dating someone exclusively. It just has to be the right girl. I refuse to settle just so I’m not alone.”
“Well, this girl must be pretty special. I mean, she’s made it a lot longer than any of the others.”
“Good God. You make it sound like I’ve been participating in my own version of a reality dating show. There’ve been like three.”
“Three who’ve never made it past a couple dates,” Meaghan pointed out smugly as she moved the radio mike a little, shifted so she was facing me more, and crossed her legs. “And how long have you been seeing this one?”
I tugged on the cartilage of my ear as I did the math. “About six months.”
“Wow. Isn’t it past time for you guys to have moved in together and adopted a cat?”
I made a face and shook my head in exasperation, trying not to laugh. “If you try to tell me stereotypes exist for a reason, I’ll be forced to punch you.”
“Fair point. But still, that has to be some kind of record for you.”
“You’re an asshole.”
She ignored my name calling. “So what is it about her?”
“She’s persistent as hell,” I quipped dryly, glancing at her out of the corner of my eye.
Meaghan’s expression was disbelieving. “That’s it?”
“That can’t be it.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“How about something real, for starters?”
“That is real. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. Wore me down. And here we are.”
“Maybe that’s how it started. But that doesn’t explain why she stuck around.”
“She’s a glutton for punishment.”
Meaghan smiled. “Cute. But we both know I meant why you let her.”
I tapped my fingernails against the steering wheel as I considered the best way to explain it. “It’s easy.”
“Did you just call your girlfriend a whore?”
I rolled my eyes and made a face. “Not my girlfriend. And I said it’s easy, not she’s easy. Jesus.”
“Ah.” A pause. “So what exactly does that mean?”
“It means we have fun together. She’s funny and smart, and it’s not any more complicated than that.”
“Complicated by messy feelings, you mean.”
“There are feelings. I’m not a sociopath. I really like her.”
“If she’s so amazing and she’s managed to tie you down for this long, why the hell isn’t she your girlfriend?”
“I don’t know. We’ve never talked about it.”
“Well, do you want to talk about it?”
“Meaghan, I don’t like having women I’m actually seeing push me into talking about my feelings. What are the chances I’ll tolerate it from you?”
Meaghan was unfazed and unrelenting. “So if she said she wanted to make it official?”
“I don’t know. I think she likes things the way they are, too.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“She’s never said anything to lead me to think otherwise.” Sure, I’d occasionally wondered whether she wanted something more official or permanent, but she was a big girl. I trusted her to use her words. I’d also suspected she had her own reasons for wanting something easy and casual, and the last thing I wanted was to be backed into a position where I’d be forced to reveal my own rationale for craving simple.
“Because women are so direct when it comes to feelings.”
“Yeah, well, you’re the exception to just about every rule.”
I grinned. “Thanks.”
“Not a compliment.”
“Oh, sure it was.”
“Seriously, though. You know the talk’s coming sooner or later.”
“And when it does?”
I pursed my lips and bounced my left knee. “Then I’ll think about it.”
“Okay, this is clearly going nowhere. New topic. How tired is your not-girlfriend of you always having to cancel plans because of the job?”
“Not nearly as tired as she is of me actually forgetting to cancel plans because of the job.”
“How many times has that happened?”
“I don’t do it on purpose!”
She held up both hands. “Hey, I get it. I’ve been there. We all get caught up. She’s a cop, right?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Intel.”
“I’m surprised she’s giving you a hard time. You’d think another LEO would understand.” She gave me a pointed look I chose to ignore.
“Yeah, well, I should remember to call.”
“You should date another agent.”
The skin on my face was suddenly warm and a little too tight. “What?”
“It’s easier. I can’t tell you how much less stressful dating has been since I started seeing Carter.”
Oh, thank God! She was just talking about generally dating someone else we worked with, not referring to the last agent I’d been involved with and telling me I needed to go that route again. What a relief. I’d taken great pains to hide that relationship for various reasons. And I didn’t want to think about that right now. Or ever, if I could help it. Which I usually couldn’t.
“I don’t have to explain anything to him,” Meaghan said. “He gets all the subtle nuances of our job, so we never have these problems.”
“Great.” When had the air become so stuffy and hard to inhale? I cracked my window.
“I just…I just want you to be happy.”
“Mmm.” I stared out the windshield as I circled the block, looking for a place to park, Meaghan’s words ringing in my ears.
I didn’t need a relationship to be happy, but since she’d brought it up, that particular brand of bliss had eluded me for some time: that ass-over-teakettle, rocket-ship-to-the-moon, heart-stopping, nerve-wracking kind of love that simultaneously hijacked and destroyed your entire existence. I’d tasted it once, several years ago, and it’d been achingly glorious.
Comparisons between holding my hand over a candle and jumping bodily into a five-alarm blaze didn’t begin to describe the difference. Lucia was great, and I enjoyed her company. But what I felt for her was nothing compared to the pull—to be near, to touch, to hold, to protect—the draw, the all-consuming fire of the love I’d once felt for someone else.
“That right there tells me all I need to know,” Meaghan said.
“If you were happy, you would’ve argued with me.” She pinned me with a mysterious look and opened her door.
I swung my own open and hopped out, taking a second to adjust the gear around my waist. I shut the door and rested my hands on the roof of the car. I tried to think of a rebuttal, but all I could come up with was, “I’m not unhappy.”
Meaghan’s smile was laced with sadness. Or maybe it was pity. Whatever it was, I didn’t like it. “I don’t have to tell you there’s a big difference, though, do I?”
She turned and headed toward the building, leaving me to stare after her. “No,” I said softly, even though she couldn’t possibly hear me. “No, you don’t.”
I snagged the file folder I’d need out of the backseat and hurried to catch up to her, determined to stay on task and keep all thoughts of love and happiness out of my mind for at least the next couple of hours.
Bang, bang, bang!
My very best police knock broadcast throughout the dreary hallway that something was about to go down. I winced. But people in New York tend to mind their own business. I wasn’t knocking on their door, so they wouldn’t get involved. Still, I looked up and down the hall. No one and nothing moved.
My back to the wall, my weapon side canted away from the door, I glanced across the doorway at Meaghan, who appeared to be listening for some indication of life inside the apartment. She lifted her eyes, head cocked to one side.
“Anything?” I mouthed silently. I hadn’t heard a damn thing, but I’m not infallible. Maybe she’d picked up something.
Meaghan frowned and shook her head. The furrow in her brow deepened, and she broke eye contact. She leaned closer to the door, keeping to one side so she wouldn’t be caught in the so-called fatal funnel.
Bang, bang, bang!
I pounded with the side of my fist, harder than before, then hesitated as I considered whether to verbally announce our presence. I glanced at Meaghan again. She shrugged.
“Police. Open up.” Surely the occupant would hear my demand. Again, I checked the other apartment doors. Everything seemed still.
A soft scuffle sounded from just inside the doorway, and I met Meaghan’s gaze. She nodded, and her right hand strayed toward the butt of her gun. We just wanted to interview this guy, not arrest him, and didn’t suspect that he was either armed or dangerous, but Meaghan’s weapon side was close to the doorway. It never hurt to be proactive.
I retrieved my baton from my belt and opened it, the clack ominously loud as the metal pieces fell into place. Using the weapon’s tip, I pounded on the door again, a small part of me childishly hoping whoever was skulking there had their ear near the door.
“Police. Open the door.” I struck the door a few more times.
Turning locks clicked, and I slammed the tip of the baton hard against the faded-yellow cinder-block wall. It collapsed back in on itself, and I jammed it back into its holster. The door opened as far as its chain allowed.
“Yes?” The slightly accented voice from within sounded mildly annoyed.
I held up my badge to the crack in the door. “Amin Akbari.”
“We’d like to talk to you.”
A long pause followed. I held my breath. My patience with this situation was already becoming threadbare, and I was tempted to free the side of myself that had reduced grown men to tears and force this man to open the damn door. But I’d learned patience as well as situational awareness. It might be best to wait until I was actually inside to unleash the thunder and lightning. So, as the lone eye peered at me somewhat warily through the crack in the door, I flashed my brightest smile and tried to appear nonthreatening.
“Mr. Akbari, I’m Special Agent O’Connor. This is Special Agent Bates. We’re with the United States Secret Service. We just have a couple of questions.”
The eye blinked once, but at least the door wasn’t slammed in my face. That was a good sign.
“I know it’s late, and I apologize for interrupting your evening. We won’t take up much of your time. Definitely less than an hour. We don’t want to keep you from your evening prayer.”
The eyebrow above the petulant-looking eye went up, and I spotted a hint of surprise in that dark gaze. The door shut softly but firmly, and my shoulders sagged. As I debated whether to resume my assault on the door, I heard the scrape of a chain being released from its fastenings. A moment later the door opened.
Mr. Amin Akbari wore a dark-blue galabia and a matching pair of linen pants. Comfortable-looking slippers covered his feet. He rubbed his close-cropped beard with one hand as he looked at me somewhat resentfully.
“May we come in?” I slid my commission book back into my jacket pocket and gave Meaghan a reassuring glance.
He stepped back, and we entered. The man’s name and garb and the fact that he didn’t refute my allusion to his evening prayer confirmed what I’d suspected. Akbari was Muslim. Crap.
Some Muslim men simply don’t want to deal with women. Several I’ve encountered have flatly refused to acknowledge my presence, and Akbari’s guarded expression indicated that might be the case here. I wished I had a male with me. This would probably go a lot better if I had.
The smell of spiced lamb hung heavy in the air. I cringed. Had we interrupted the man’s dinner? The darkened kitchen behind him and the equally dim dining room to the left of it led me to think not. At least I hadn’t earned any strikes there.
“Thank you.” I walked into the apartment, giving Meaghan plenty of room to shut the door behind me, and gestured toward the empty dining-room table. “Would you like to sit here?”
Akbari merely turned away without a word.
Meaghan’s long look said she was seriously contemplating kicking my ass later for dragging her out on this call. I shrugged one shoulder in apology and followed Akbari to the table.
“Before we start, Mr. Akbari, is anyone else in the house with you tonight?” The living room, visible from our vantage point in the foyer, was obviously empty, and I could see most of the bathroom through the open door at the end of the hall. That left the bedroom unaccounted for. I didn’t detect any other signs of life.
“No.” He flipped a switch to turn on a chandelier over the table and took a seat.
“So, you’re here alone?” I wanted to be absolutely clear. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’d had someone wander out of a back room in the middle of an interview and then listened to the interviewee claim they hadn’t understood exactly what I’d meant.
“Yes. It is just me.” A pause. “And now you.”
Akbari’s intense stare was giving me the creeps, as if I needed yet another reason to hurry the hell up and complete this interview. I laid the packet full of papers I’d brought on the dining-room table and helped myself to a chair. The one I chose allowed me to face the bedroom, and I turned it slightly so I had a partial view of the front door out of the corner of my eye, if anyone decided to join us.
Meaghan hesitated for a fraction of a second before taking the seat next to me and arranging her chair in a similar fashion. She opened her notebook to a blank page and retrieved a pen from her pocket, ready to record the pertinent facts. She was taking notes so I could focus all my attention on the subject of my interview.
“Mr. Akbari, do you know why we’re here?”
Akbari shook his head, but recognition flickered behind his eyes.
I nodded once, as if I accepted his answer, and put my hands on top of the papers I’d brought. His gaze was drawn to them, and now his expression was equal parts curiosity and caution. Perfect.
“I have some questions. As I said, we’ll try not to take too much of your time.”
Akbari remained mute.
Okay. He was going to make me work for it. I could do that. If he thought the silent treatment would intimidate me, he was clearly misinformed about the tenacity of American women. And he’d really misjudged me. I saw his reticence as a challenge and became that much more determined to break him.
I managed to restrain a smile. Barely. “Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way,” I suggested casually. “Do you have any identification?”
Interesting. He was reluctant to provide me with ID. Why?
Now I did smile. “I just want to make sure I’m talking to the right guy. Plus, it’ll allow my partner here to get the necessary information, so you and I can keep talking. It makes this whole process go faster.”
Akbari swallowed once and took a deep breath. He’d tensed, and I ensured that my own body language conveyed complete ease.
Akbari stood and retrieved a worn leather wallet from a nearby credenza. Slowly he fished out a driver’s license, his hands shaking almost imperceptibly. If I hadn’t specifically been looking, I’d have missed it.
I took the license and passed it to Meaghan without even turning my head. Akbari resumed his seat and fiddled absently with the wallet, which he’d placed on the table in front of him.
“How long have you lived here, Mr. Akbari?”
“And where did you live before this?”
“Did you like California?”
“Yes. It was very nice.”
I inhaled deeply and adjusted myself in my chair, leaning forward and resting my weight on my forearms. I held his gaze until he dropped his eyes.
“Mr. Akbari, before we go any further I should probably explain something to you. Just because I ask you a question doesn’t necessarily mean I’m looking for an answer.”
Akbari appeared confused. His brow pulled down as he looked at me. “I don’t understand.”
“People don’t tell the truth, Mr. Akbari. Unfortunate, I know, but those are the times we live in. Me? I like to know where I stand with people, whether I can trust anything they tell me. Many of the questions I’m going to ask you, I already know the answers to. I ask them anyway to see whether you’re going to be straight with me.”
I paused deliberately. Akbari’s jaw tightened, and a light sheen of sweat broke out across his forehead.
“We’re already off to a bad start, Mr. Akbari. You’ve just lied to me twice, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the interview.” I paused again. “Are you familiar with criminal law?”
Akbari shook his head and licked his lips.
“Title 18, United States Code 1001 is a particular favorite of mine. I won’t bore you with all the legalese. You can look it up yourself sometime if you’re so inclined, but basically it says that it’s a crime to lie to federal agents. Did you know you can go to jail for up to
five years for violating that statute? Eight, if the matter under discussion relates to terrorism. And that’s in addition to a hefty fine. You’d be amazed how often I need to bring that up. I’ll admit, it makes me long for a simpler time when people were honest and respected the law and those who work tirelessly to uphold it. It breaks my heart when I have to remind people of their duty as human beings to do unto others.”
Meaghan bumped my leg under the table, and I used my hand to hide my grin. Okay, she was right. I was laying it on a tad thick. But the bastard had lied to my first two questions. And they were the easy ones. What was I going to get out of him when I started asking questions I didn’t know the answers to?
“Let’s try this again, Mr. Akbari. How long have you lived here?”
“Three weeks.” His shoulders slumped, and his voice came out a bit shaky.
I nodded. That was the answer I’d been looking for. “And where did you live before this?”
“Who did you live with down there?”
Three for three. Perfect. Now came the hard ones. I opened the folder on the table in front of me and retrieved a clear plastic envelope containing a counterfeit one-hundred-dollar bill. I laid it flat on the table between us and studied him to gauge his reaction.
Akbari’s eyes went flat as he stared at it, and he clenched his hands together.
“Do you recognize this?”
Akbari hesitated. “It’s a hundred-dollar bill.”
“Very good. Do you have any idea why I might have driven over here so late in the evening to ask you whether you’d seen it before?”
Akbari shook his head, but he couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the bill. I didn’t expect him to recognize it. Not that exact bill anyway, which was a prop I’d borrowed from the Counterfeit Squad for dramatic effect. We’d gotten it from a bank in Manhattan, which had received it from some store’s night drop bag. It was scheduled to be entered into evidence later in the week. We had no idea where it’d come from or who’d passed it off to the store. The only things that bill had in common with the one I was asking him about were that it was fake and it was a hundred. Everything else—identifying numbers, the paper it was printed on, the method in which it’d been counterfeited—was completely different.
Showing him the bill did serve a purpose, however. I mean, besides making him think I was a superagent and had gotten my hands on the fake hundred he’d passed at a grocery store down in Maryland. I peered at him as he looked at the note, watching carefully for the recognition I was positive wouldn’t come. I was right. It didn’t. And that alone said more than anything he could utter for the rest of the interview.
When my friend Sarah had called me from D.C. earlier that day to ask me to run down this lead, she’d suspected this guy was just a low man on the proverbial totem pole, and if he did have any involvement in the actual printing of the counterfeit currency—an unlikely scenario, as far as she was concerned—it was superficial at best. If his reaction, or complete lack thereof, was anything to go on, he wasn’t involved in the printing at all. If he had been, he’d have recognized that the bill I was showing him wasn’t his work and would’ve known I was bluffing. Clearly, this guy wasn’t a major player in the operation. But I suspected he knew who was, and that was the information I was really after.
I gave him another moment to formulate a reply. He didn’t. He just sat there looking at the bill with a dazed expression. Time to turn up the heat.
“A few weeks ago you visited a grocery store in Maryland and attempted to use a counterfeit hundred-dollar bill to pay for a carton of milk and some eggs.” I was very careful to word my statement so as not to claim that the bill in front of me was the bill he’d used. “The clerk recognized that the bill was fake, and you left abruptly when she mentioned it to you. They pulled video surveillance of the cash-register and parking-lot areas and tracked you to your car. You were identified by your vehicle’s license plate. The store footage of you that our agents in Maryland viewed matched your Maryland driver’s license photo. There’s no doubt it was you on the tape, but, just to be sure, the cashier was shown a photo lineup. She identified your picture immediately.”
Akbari said nothing for a very long time. His unflinching eyes merely continued to look blankly at the bill in its plastic envelope. Every now and again his hands balled up into fists, but that was his only reaction. I let him wallow in his own thoughts for a bit. As he did, I leisurely read through the papers in the folder I’d brought with me, and every once in a while, I jotted down a note.
Eventually, I’d had enough. I glanced at my watch and noticed that we were quickly encroaching on prayer time. I cleared my throat to get Akbari’s attention. He jumped and looked up at me for the first time in several minutes.
“Mr. Akbari, I just want to know where you got the bill.” I retrieved my prop from the table and slid it back into my folder.
Akbari’s expression was almost pained, and indecision warred in his dark eyes. “I don’t know.”
I raised one eyebrow and restrained the impulse to fold my arms over my chest, as most people saw that move as antagonistic. I wasn’t quite ready to take that tack with him. Yet.
“You don’t know.” My tone was borderline questioning, though it’d taken a considerable amount of willpower to refrain from sounding sarcastic.
He shook his head. “No. I don’t know.”
“Do you often walk around with hundred-dollar bills in your wallet, Mr. Akbari?”
He didn’t reply.
“What do you do for a living?” I asked, my voice light. I regarded him steadily as I awaited his reply.
“I am sorry?”
I held out my hand to Meaghan, who wordlessly deposited Akbari’s driver’s license into it. I glanced at it for confirmation of his age before I handed it back to him. I’d been told he was in his mid-twenties. The date on the license verified that fact.
“For a job,” I said. “Where do you work?”
Akbari hesitated. “I’m a graduate student.”
“So you have no means of income?”
He shook his head.
“Yet somehow you have enough hundred-dollar bills at your disposal that you can’t remember where you got the one you tried to use three weeks ago to buy milk and eggs?” Now I allowed my skepticism and disbelief to bleed into my words. I didn’t ask where he went to school. Since I was fairly confident he was lying to me, I didn’t really care. There was no need to poke more holes in his story. We both knew he was full of shit. And we both knew that I knew.
The uncertainty was back in Akbari’s eyes. He picked at the edges of the driver’s license in his grip but didn’t seem aware he was doing it. The sweat on his brow was more pronounced, and beads of it dotted the visible skin of his neck.
“Tell you what. I know you have to pray. I’d never stand between a man and his God, so I’ll leave you to it. Why don’t you think about it after you’ve communed with Allah. Try to remember where you might’ve gotten the bill, and give me a call. How does that sound?”
I stood up to go but stopped just short of actually making a move toward the door. “Is there a number where I can reach you?”
“I don’t have a phone,” Akbari said quickly.
I glanced pointedly toward the credenza where a cell phone lay. Akbari said nothing to refute his previous denial. I sighed theatrically and walked over to pick it up. Akbari didn’t move as I placed it on the table in front of him. While I was doing that, Meaghan had risen and plucked the landline phone off the wall in the kitchen. She nodded when I looked to her, letting me know there was indeed a dial tone.
“Do you want to try that again, Mr. Akbari? I can get these numbers another way if I have to, but doing that extra work won’t make me feel very kindly toward you. You do want me to feel kindly, don’t you?”
Looking almost angry, Akbari rattled off two telephone numbers in rapid succession. Meaghan jotted them on her notepad and gave me a thumbs-up to indicate she’d gotten them. I extracted one of my business cards from my commission book and laid it on the table next to his cell phone.
“Thank you for your time this evening, Mr. Akbari. If I don’t hear from you in a few days, I’ll be in touch.” I moved to the door and opened it to allow Meaghan to exit ahead of me. I hesitated in the doorway and looked at Akbari until he met my eyes. “Amin. It means ‘honest,’ doesn’t it?”
Akbari’s own eyes grew wide, and his mouth dropped open.
I smiled. “Your parents named you well.” I stepped out of the apartment and shut the door softly behind me.
Meaghan gave me a look of exasperation as I joined her in the hallway. She smiled slightly and shook her head as we walked. She managed to maintain her silence until we’d gotten into the elevator, but I could tell the effort was killing her. When we began our descent she turned to me.
“That was much, even for you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure you don’t.” Her tone was teasing, and she playfully bumped my shoulder with her own before she mimicked me. “‘It makes me long for a simpler time.’”
“Hey, I thought that one was pretty good.”
“You have to stop shoveling that bull in interviews, Ryan.”
“Works, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, but do you have any idea how hard it is for me not to burst out laughing?”
“And there’s the other upside.” I grinned at her.
Meaghan shook her head again and exited the elevator ahead of me. She was trying hard to affect a demeanor of annoyance, and I think she was becoming irritated that it wasn’t working.
“What was in the folder, anyway?”
I opened it and held it up so she could see. “Crossword puzzles.”
Meaghan threw back her head and laughed.
I’d barely walked through the door to my office early the next morning when I heard my immediate supervisor, Mark Jennings, bellowing my name from the other end of the hall. Clearly, he required my presence in his office, though I wondered what I could’ve managed to pull off in the two minutes I’d been in the building that made him feel the need to yell with such contempt. Maybe if I’d had a chance to stop for coffee on my way in, I’d have had enough brain power to figure it out.
Rolling my eyes at yet another blatant display of unprofessional behavior on his part, I made my way to his office. The sooner I got this over with, the quicker I could search for caffeine, and the happier everyone would be.
I entered Mark’s office mildly aggravated and ready to make that fact abundantly clear, but then I noticed the prominent theme of his office décor and stopped.
Pirates, I thought dumbly. Mark must’ve had some sort of weird pirate fetish I was just finding out about. I never ventured anywhere near his office, so I hadn’t known about this quirk. Someone really should’ve warned me. It’s tough to school my face into a completely impassive expression when I’m surprised.
And, boy, was I surprised. Signs of pirates abounded: Jolly Roger screen saver and mouse pad, pirate calendar, skull-and-crossbones coffee cup, little skull heads wearing bandannas as erasers on his pencils, a sticky-note pad, a row of tiny pirate figurines accompanied by miniature ships and cannons and treasure chests lined up like sentinels on the bookshelf. (Admittedly, I wanted to play with those.) A print with a skull and crossbones and the motto “The beatings will continue until morale improves” adorned one wall. A skull-and-crossbones tie even hung lazily from the doorknob.
I frowned as I took it all in. I mean, hell, I like pirates as well as the next girl, but this was bordering on an obsession. One that made me wonder—completely and utterly against my will, I assure you—whether he was wearing pirate boxer shorts. Which then led to musings of whether he was a boxers or briefs type of man. I shuddered, vaguely sickened, and banished the thought.
I’d been so busy examining my surroundings and trying to combat my nausea at the detour my mind had taken, I’d failed to notice Mark was looking at me intently. He didn’t seem particularly happy. I allowed my eyes to hold his for a long moment but didn’t speak. He’d called me in here. He could be the first to break the silence. I’m terribly stubborn about some things, and this happened to be one of them.
“I have just one question for you, Ryan,” Mark said finally, his voice a low rumble in his chest. His eyes were narrowed, and I’d bet that if I could see his mouth through his large, bushy, seventies-porn-star mustache, I’d see that his lips were pursed as well.
I waited impatiently, trying not to roll my eyes or let my annoyance show. I had things to do. I didn’t have time for these ridiculous power games.
Mark let out an irritated huff—presumably at my refusal to speak, though who could really tell—and finally got to the point. “What were you doing on Utica Avenue last night?”
Just beneath the surface of my skin, a flash of blistering cold turned immediately boiling. Of all the accusations I’d been expecting, that hadn’t been an option. I stalled for time and fought to keep my expression neutral. I inhaled slowly, willing myself not to flush. No small task when you have Irish skin as fair as mine. “Excuse me?”
A dimple stood out on Mark’s cheek, indicating he was smirking behind his mustache. I was caught, and we both knew it. “Utica Avenue,” he repeated, a note of triumph in his voice. “What were you doing down there?” His eyes were positively gleeful as he waited for my reply.
Let it be known that, unfortunately, loving my job does not translate to loving my boss. Mark and I’d had a rocky relationship ever since I’d started working for him about eighteen months ago, and judging by the encounter we were currently engaged in, our relationship wasn’t going to smooth out any time soon.
Mark’s title is Assistant to the Special Agent in Charge—AT for short—of the Protective Intelligence Squad, and Meaghan had been right; he did appear to hate me. Ever since I’d transferred, my life had been a living hell, through absolutely no fault of my own. Now, I know that when most people say things like that, they’re usually sugarcoating a situation to avoid taking responsibility for some bad choices. I’m also aware that ninety-nine times out of one hundred, I’m the author of my own misery, which anyone close to me will be more than happy to confirm. In this instance, however, I did nothing more to earn Mark’s disdain than be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I swear.
One of the very first threat cases I’d investigated after joining the squad had been a veiled threat to the President of the United States, or POTUS, that’d been included in a high-school senior’s current-events term paper. Normally, I wouldn’t have been allowed over into New Jersey to look into the matter, as the Secret Service is an extremely territorial agency and that particular case was something the Newark Field Office really should’ve investigated. However, I’d grown up in Jersey. I’d actually attended the high school in question, so I already had a rapport with the majority of the kid’s teachers, who’d all need to be interviewed as part of my investigation. Also, my mother had reported the threat, since it’d come from one of her students. In light of all that, the bosses of both offices thought perhaps the investigation would go more quickly if I handled it.
On the afternoon when my life began its downward spiral, I’d arrived at the high school to start the corroborating-interview phase of my investigation. Armed with a copy of an extremely hostile and disturbing rant of a term paper straight from the mind of an angry teenager and mountains of forms to be filled out, I’d been ready to work.
School had just let out as I’d arrived, and I’d been busily dodging hordes of screeching adolescents, cursing the parents who’d had the nerve to raise such inconsiderate, insolent little brats and vowing never to procreate as long as I lived, when I’d caught sight of someone across the parking lot I thought I knew.
Mark Jennings, my new boss, had been there picking up his daughter and some of her friends from class, loading the riotous crew into the backseat of his government vehicle, which is a huge no-no as far as Uncle Sam’s concerned. His gaze had snagged on mine, and we’d looked at one another for a long moment before I’d sketched a tiny wave, shaken my head, and turned to head inside the school.
In my opinion, what he did on his own time was his business. Unless one of the higher-ups asked me specifically whether I’d ever seen him putting nongovernment employees into his government vehicle on a day he was supposed to have been on sick leave, I was keeping my mouth shut. These things had a way of working themselves out that didn’t involve me. I’d also figured the incident was a nonissue. Naïveté at its best.
The repercussions of that inadvertent sighting had been swift, severe, and ongoing. Mark had done his best to make my life as miserable as possible, giving me the crappiest cases and shittiest assignments to send me a very clear message: it would only get worse if I fucked with him. Somehow I’d been unable to convince him I wasn’t a danger.
Which brings us back to Mark still trying his damnedest to make his power obvious as he glowered at me from amid all his pirate memorabilia. He was sure he had something on me. And, for once, he was right.
If another office is investigating a case whose leads redirect the case to another district, that office has to send the other district a formal request for assistance, describing the leads to be run out in as much complicated governmental jargon as one can cram into the report without being overly obvious. It could be a real inconvenience, but it was policy. Until last night, when I’d broken it.
My interview the previous evening with Amin Akbari had been a favor to an old friend, off the record and completely against the rules. Obviously, I’d known exactly what I’d been doing when I was doing it; I just hadn’t thought I’d get caught. How had Mark even found out I’d been in that section of Brooklyn at that time of night? I guess it didn’t matter. Either way, I was busted. The transgression wasn’t worthy of formal disciplinary action, but I was going to pay. Somehow.
“I asked you a question, O’Connor,” Mark barked.
“Agent O’Connor.” My voice was low and icy.
“Excuse me?” Mark demanded after a startled pause, sounding thoroughly outraged.
“It’s either Ryan or it’s Agent O’Connor. I respect you enough to address you as AT Jennings. I expect the same courtesy from you. I worked hard to earn my title. Use it.”
Okay, that line about respect was a lie. But he was my boss—someone somewhere probably respected him, at least a little—and I wanted to keep my job.
Maybe I should’ve just let that go and not stood on principle, just this once. Nah. I folded my arms across my chest as I waited. I scowled and briefly entertained the idea of trying to don a neutral expression. But I blew past that thought as swiftly as the last. Fuck him. He’d disrespected me one too many times. I didn’t care if he knew I was angry.
“Fine.” Mark’s voice was clipped and strained. “Agent O’Connor.” The address sounded more than a little sarcastic to me, but I let it go. For now. “I asked you a question. I’d like an answer.”
“Very well. I was looking into something.” I played the semantics game extremely well. If he wanted answers from me, he’d have to work for them.
“I was unaware of any threat calls connected to Utica Avenue. You weren’t even the duty agent last night. You don’t have any active cases right now. Your annual report on Webster isn’t due for another three months, and he’s confined to a mental hospital in Queens, not Brooklyn. So whatever you were doing, it wasn’t threat-related. What was it?” That last was definitely more of a statement than a question.
“Counterfeit.” I answered him only because it seemed pointless to lie. I was screwed regardless. He was going to hammer me for this. No sense making it worse.
“You don’t work counterfeit anymore.”
“Did the Counterfeit Squad need extra bodies for something last night?” He frowned, and I was willing to bet he thought he’d been left out of the loop.
He eyed me, his expression speculative. “Who were you doing counterfeit for?”
I shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”
And it honestly didn’t. At least not as far as I could see. Nothing would be gained by giving him Sarah’s name. She’d most likely get into trouble for even asking me to talk to Akbari.
That she’d broken protocol with the unofficial request was problematic enough, but I wasn’t supposed to be working anything except threat cases. Counterfeit was off limits to me because I wasn’t in that squad anymore. Sarah hadn’t known that.
She also hadn’t known what a complete prick my boss could be, or she wouldn’t have bothered asking. But I’d known. And I’d chosen to help her anyway. I refused to drag her under the bus with me. Mark would call her boss just to spite me.
“It matters to me.”
“Well, I’m not telling you.”
“You’re not telling me,” he repeated flatly.
“Like I said, it doesn’t matter. I was looking into something for a friend. You don’t need any more explanation than that.”
Mark glared at me for a long time. “I can slaughter you for this, you know.”
“You still won’t tell me?”
“I don’t rat out my friends.”
“I ran,” he murmured.
I blinked at the abrupt change in subject matter. “I hate running.” Where was he going with that remark, and why had he suddenly decided to exchange workout tips?
Mark appeared confused. “What?”
“Why did you say you hate running?”
“Why did you tell me you ran?”
Mark looked a touch smug. “No. The country. Iran.”
“Oh.” I paused and waited for him to elaborate. He didn’t. “What about it?”
“Iran comes in next Thursday. He’s scheduled to stay eleven days. The visit may get extended.”
“I heard.” I definitely didn’t like the direction this conversation was headed.
“I want you to do the intelligence advance.”
“Jay’s doing the intelligence advance for Iran.”
“I’m pulling him. His son’s sick.”
“His son has a cold,” I shot back. “I’m sure he’ll be better by Thursday.”
“Still, I want him to be able to spend some time with his family. You take the lead.”
“Fine.” It could’ve been worse. I could use the overtime anyway.
Mark’s eyes positively glinted. Clearly he hadn’t quite finished doling out my punishment. “I’m also reassigning the Dougherty case to you.”
What sort of game was he playing, and how was he planning to get away with playing it? A few months ago, I’d been assigned as the Secret Service rep to the Joint Terrorism Task Force. The JTTF was an FBI-run collection of law-enforcement officers from different agencies who worked together to combat the country’s ever-expanding war on terror. When I wasn’t on a protection assignment or doing my required timekeeping paperwork for my own agency, I reported to an FBI-controlled office in Manhattan and assisted with investigations into targets suspected of funding terrorism in one way or another.
I still wasn’t sure how I’d managed to score such a coveted assignment. Mark would never nominate me for the position. I had my suspicions, of course, but no concrete proof. And the how behind my good luck wasn’t important enough for me to make a proverbial federal case out of it. I loved the task force, and I got to spend less time under Mark’s thumb. No way was I going to argue with that.
Being assigned to the JTTF also relieved me of the burden of conducting regular threat investigations. Since our threat cases were extremely time sensitive, and my duties at the JTTF would keep me from getting them done, all my ongoing cases had been reassigned when I’d transferred. I had only one annual update to status for a subject confined in a local mental institution.
“Okay,” I said, drawing out the word. I wasn’t yet positive whether I should point out that I wasn’t supposed to be carrying a regular case load, so I refrained.
“You don’t have a problem with that, do you?”
“I suppose not.” I mentally reviewed my JTTF caseload. I could probably manage to squeeze in the Dougherty case without too much hassle. But why had Mark suddenly departed from his beloved protocol? As I turned to go, he revealed his reason.
“The report—which should be a final, closing report, by the way—is due in five days.” Mark sat back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head, looking relaxed and smug.
“Five days. Timing fits perfectly with the visit, doesn’t it?”
That did it. My stoic veneer, which’d been shaky at best, finally shattered. “How the hell am I supposed to start the lead for Iran and conduct interviews for a thirty-page report due in five days?”
“Hmmm, it’ll be tough, but I’m sure you can handle it. You’re a superstar, right? Isn’t that why you’re in this squad?”
A knock on the door saved me from torpedoing my career.
“Come in,” Mark said.
Still seated, I cast a glance over my shoulder so I’d know who to thank later, and my gratitude quickly vaporized as the ground seemed to disintegrate beneath me the instant my eyes fell on the new arrival.
Allison Reynolds stood in the doorway, her near-black eyes sparkling with amusement. My heart promptly stopped, skipped a beat or two, and resumed pumping double-time. An unwelcome heat rose to my face, which contrasted to the icy feeling that slithered down my spine, freezing all my internal organs on the way down. The bitter notion that this day kept getting better and better flitted through my jumbled thoughts.
“Agent O’Connor,” Mark said, his voice sounding far away and tinny. “You remember Agent Reynolds. Agent Reynolds, please come in. I was just about to tell Agent O’Connor the good news.”
Allison stepped into the office and moved to take the seat beside me. My body was humming unpleasantly, and my mind had gone completely blank. Allison’s sudden reappearance had been so out of left field I couldn’t have prepared myself for it if I’d wanted to. I also couldn’t adjust to it, apparently.
Mark’s phone rang, giving me something else to focus on besides the vision now seated next to me. “Excuse me.” He picked up the receiver and spoke into it. “Secret Service, Jennings.”
Allison turned to me then, and my muscles seized. “It’s great to see you, Ryan.”
Her low, throaty voice sent the chills back up my spine and sparked warmer feelings in other, more intimate places. The air molecules in the room were suddenly too large to fit comfortably inside my lungs and seemed to have a weight and texture to them. Damn, even smug, the woman looked incredible. Stop thinking about her like that, I scolded myself. My tongue felt like it had swelled three sizes, and a horrendous taste dribbled down the back of my throat.
“Allison,” I finally managed, ignoring how choked the word sounded. My body felt both feverish and clammy. I tried to swallow, but my mouth was completely devoid of moisture. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where that dampness had gone, and I couldn’t seem to stop the tumult in my heart. I also couldn’t think of anything else to say. Not something I wouldn’t later regret, anyway.
Allison tossed her jet-black hair back off her forehead and out of her eyes in a familiar careless gesture that made me clench my teeth and catch my breath. Her olive skin was, of course, absolutely flawless, and as much as I hated to admit it, she was a vision of strength and beauty in her exquisitely tailored pin-striped suit. A bittersweet ache spooled inside me and continued growing larger and larger until I was sure my body would no longer be able to withstand the pressure. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d burst open, gushing an embarrassing array of emotions messily onto Allison’s shoes.
“I’m sorry, Agent Reynolds,” Mark said, his voice breaking against my dark thoughts. “I have to take this. Would you mind getting Agent O’Connor up to speed?”
“My pleasure,” Allison said. Her gaze slid back over and locked onto me with such force that I was pinned to my chair. “Agent O’Connor, is there somewhere we can speak privately?”
I nodded, but my mind had fixated on the “privately” part of that statement, and I had to force myself not to hyperventilate at the notion that I was going to be alone with her for the first time in years. Heads couldn’t explode like they did in the movies, could they? I hoped not.
“Sure. Follow me.”
I left Mark’s office in a daze, acutely aware of Allison Reynolds trailing me.
The walk to my office wasn’t far, but it gave me more than enough time to tie myself up in knots. I tried forcing my muscles to relax, but my efforts didn’t make so much as a dent. My thoughts were rapidly traversing some seriously rough terrain, and all the twists and turns rattled me.
I opened the door to my office with a trembling hand and blinked at Meaghan, seated behind her desk. She grinned at me, but her face fell almost immediately, and she appeared concerned.
“Ryan? Are you okay?”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t know how. I shook my head a little and took a step inside. Allison was hot on my heels, literally, so close I could actually feel the heat radiating off her body. I so didn’t want to go there. Trying to ignore her, I moved toward my own desk in the hopes of gaining some distance and much-needed perspective.
“Meaghan.” Allison’s voice was warm as she greeted my officemate, who’d stood and approached the door. She opened her arms and hugged Meaghan briefly. I was irritated that the move ignited a small fire of jealousy in me, though I pushed it aside. I didn’t need even one more negative emotion churning inside me. “It’s nice to see you. How’ve you been?”
Meaghan returned the hug, although her expression seemed odd. Guarded. “It’s nice to see you, too. How’s D.C.?”
Allison gestured with one slender hand, and the sight of her unadorned fingers sparked memories I really didn’t want to get lost in at the moment. “I hate it. I absolutely do not want to be there, and I’m practically counting the minutes until I can come back. But I’m making the best of it. How about you? Are you ready to move on yet?”
“No. I’m content to stay here for the rest of my career.” Meaghan glanced at me again as she said that, her face still unreadable. “What brings you up this way?”
“You haven’t heard? Harbinger planned a last-minute trip to the Stock Exchange for Monday. I’m doing the lead advance.”
That explained a lot. The President of the United States, codename Harbinger, was coming here. Allison was on PPD. In fact, now that I thought about it, the only thing that surprised me was that she hadn’t returned to New York sooner. She’d been on the detail for years now. POTUS was up here all the time. She should’ve been up at least a handful of times, even just to work the shift, but as far as I knew, she hadn’t set foot in New York since she’d left several years ago. Maybe she’d engineered that deliberately. The only way for me to know would be if I asked, and that wasn’t about to happen.
“Congratulations.” Meaghan’s expression and her tone contrasted with the word.
I’d quickly begun to tear through the disaster that was my desk, trying to locate the office phone list. That intelligence advance for Iran wouldn’t conduct itself. Plus, I wanted to seem hard at work. I was staying out of the conversation and focusing all my efforts on extinguishing the fire in my cheeks. And I was becoming annoyed because my blush might actually be getting worse. I inhaled slow and deep as I counted four beats and then exhaled to the same tempo. It helped. Somewhat.
“Hey, Meaghan,” a voice called from the hall. “Can you come read this over for me?”
Meaghan’s smile was flat. “Excuse me. Duty calls. It was nice to see you again, Allison. Good luck.” She breezed out the door and disappeared before I could think of an excuse for her to stay.
Allison refocused her attention, and the force of her gaze settled heavily on me as if it had actual weight. Her smile widened even more, and she sauntered farther into my office, her movements and posture radiating confidence and purpose. Her eyes seemed to bore into mine, and she exuded sexuality.
I was having a hard time remembering how to breathe, and the dull roar I was hearing had to be my own blood rocketing through my veins. My head was too full of thoughts all of a sudden, and it was hard to get a firm handle on any one in particular. Not that it would’ve mattered. None of them would be remotely helpful in getting me through this conversation with dignity. I attempted to ignore the useless litany and appear unaffected. I didn’t think it really worked, but I tried.
Allison shut the door behind her without averting her gaze, and I gulped, marveling at the effect she still had on me. It’d been more than four years since Allison had ended our affair—not that I was keeping track—yet an excruciating ache still pierced my chest every time I thought about her, every time anyone even said the name Allison, whether they were talking about her or not. The hope that my agony would eventually subside flickered through my head, there and gone in an instant.
“Don’t I get a hug?” she asked finally. Her soft voice with its slightly teasing edge made me bristle.
Refusing to comply would only make me look petulant and immature, so I rose from behind my desk and wrapped my arms around her. For a moment, I closed my eyes and allowed myself to take in her familiar scent, a combination of shampoo, perfume, and her naked skin that still made me want to bury my face in her hair and never let go. I pulled away and resumed the much safer position of having a desk between us. Straining to find normalcy in a situation that presented none, I gestured to the chair opposite my desk. “Have a seat.”
“Thanks.” Allison settled herself across from me, her face still alight with some secret I had yet to figure out. “How’ve you been?” Her low intonation was intimate. It spoke of our history together, the history she’d thrown away as if it’d meant nothing to her. That tone sparked a painful fury inside me.
“I’ve been fine. How about you?” I struggled to keep my words from sounding sharp, but even I thought I sounded a touch huffy.
Her smile never faltered. Was this all some sort of game to her? “I’ve been great, thanks. How’s your family?”
“They’re doing well, thank you. And yours?”
“The same as always. Mom’s busy with some committee or another, and Dad’s just now realizing that his rush into retirement means he has to spend more time with Mom.”
“Mmm,” I murmured, noncommittally. “Glad everyone’s well.”
The silence stretched out for a time, heavy and viscous. Allison continued to smile at me, and I continued to let it annoy me. Again, my stubbornness kicked in, and I refused to be the first one to speak. After years of no contact whatsoever, she’d sought me out. It was up to her to drive this conversation. It was her show. Besides, I’d said plenty to her the last time we’d spoken, during which I’d made a complete fool of myself, crying so hard I was barely coherent and insisting I’d love her forever. She had the majority of my dignity. No way in hell was I just going to hand her the rest.
“So, I just had a chat with your boss.” Allison’s demeanor became distinctly more businesslike.
“Better you than me.”
Allison’s brow furrowed, and her expression became confused. “I thought you liked the SAIC. He certainly seems fond enough of you.”
I sucked in a startled breath and willed my own countenance to remain completely neutral. I hadn’t realized she’d been talking about the Special Agent in Charge, although that did make more sense. “Oh, I thought you meant Mark. What’d you talk to him about?”
“I’ve requested that you be my field-office counterpart for the visit.”
I blinked and stared at her for a long moment waiting for the punch line to what was obviously an extremely unfunny joke. There wasn’t one. “What?”
“You heard me.”
Sure, I’d heard her, but her statement had made no sense. How could I be the field-office counterpart for a POTUS lead? I was in PI. In this squad we only did intelligence advances. Ever. I couldn’t think of one good reason to alter that policy. Not only that, but the bosses didn’t generally allow the PPD leads to handpick their counterparts. Something about this entire situation felt off to me, and I didn’t even try to hide my suspicion.
Allison waved in an offhanded way. “They thought that since we have so little time to complete this lead, it’d be in everyone’s best interest for me to work with someone I’m comfortable with. The SAIC agreed. And here we are.”
The last thing this disaster was sure to be for either of us was comfortable, but I didn’t think pointing that out would help. “And whose brilliant idea was this?”
“Mine. But I ran it by my SAIC, who called ahead and floated it to Flannigan.”
“Ah. Of course.”
I gritted my teeth, grounding myself by concentrating on the throbbing ache in my jaw, and took extreme care to make my expression go blank, although I didn’t know whether I succeeded. Allison was the golden child. The superstar. She always had been. That had been true when she’d been here in New York, and I had no doubt the trend continued down in D.C. She got everything she asked for. It’s just the way it was. And, secretly, even still, the thought filled me with a kind of pride.
Well, normally. Now, not so much. I shoved my hands into my lap so they’d be hidden behind my desk and she wouldn’t see me clenching them into iron-tight fists. My fingernails dug deeply into the flesh of my palms, and hot little bursts at my temples felt like someone was setting off tiny dynamite charges. What about what I was comfortable with? Did she even care? Probably not. I suspected that my comfort level, or lack thereof, was most likely last on her very long list of considerations, which is why I didn’t bother to argue. So what if I was in a squad that didn’t do that kind of protection work? Who the hell cared that this would cause office gossip for months to come? Allison Reynolds had asked for something. Who was I to stand in her way?
Not that my opinion really mattered anyway. That Allison and I were even having this conversation indicated that the bosses had already given her their blessing. It’d been decided without requiring any input from me, apparently. Oh, I might be able get out of this if I really wanted to, but there was no guarantee. And my reticence would most likely cause more of a stir than just going along with what everyone else clearly wanted. Sometimes you had to pick your battles. Even I knew that.
Allison seemed to sense my acceptance of the situation even before I said anything, because when I looked back into her eyes, they were sparkling again, and she was grinning. “Come on. You know we’ve always made a great team.” The low, intimate tone slipped back into her voice as she spoke, and something I couldn’t quite place flickered briefly behind her eyes.
“Can you give me an hour or so to tie up a few loose ends?” I asked finally, trying to convince myself that I didn’t sound as beaten to her as I did to me. How was I supposed to finish everything else when I’d be spending the next few days wrapped up with this assignment? I fought the urge to massage my forehead.
“Take the rest of the day,” Allison replied. “Pick me up at my hotel at oh-seven-hundred tomorrow morning. I’m staying at The W on Lex. We’ll grab a quick breakfast and get started.”
I nodded absently as she stood and exited my office. Only after she shut the door behind her and I knew I was completely alone did I put my head in my hands and squeeze my eyes shut.
Son of a bitch! I ran my fingers through my hair and let out a sigh. This was going to suck in so many ways, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. Just my luck. I took a deep breath and stared at the mess on my desk, marveling at its resemblance to my life all of a sudden.
This wasn’t helping. I needed a plan. No way was I just going to sit back and embrace the suck. That wasn’t my style. But in order to come up with a realistic coping mechanism, I’d need to stop lying to myself and start getting real. Okay, so not a single day had gone by that I hadn’t thought about Allison. Not one. I’d thought about her yesterday, as a matter of fact. But first love is like that, from what I’d heard, though that old adage never made me feel any better about it.
It’d been getting better though. Slowly. In the beginning, thoughts of her had been nearly constant and had made it impossible to concentrate more often than not. But they’d slowly tapered off as time had passed, and the agony that’d seemed permanent had eventually faded into a dull ache. Yet I’d be a fool to deny that I did still think about her. And not all my reflections were appropriate.
Almost immediately, my mind shifted gears, and I smiled wistfully as I drifted to memories of Allison back when we’d been happy and in love. The playful way she used to cock her head to the side when she’d been teasing me. The light in her beautiful eyes when she smiled. The naked desire on her face when she’d looked at me. The smell of her skin. The feel of her silken hair sliding between my fingers. The taste of her lips. The sound of her breathlessly moaning my name in my ear while I—
“Ryan?” A voice broke into my reverie.
“Huh?” My head shot up, and I balled my hands into fists in my lap, trying to banish the almost palpable memory of what it felt like to slide my hands over Allison’s flesh. That was not a good coping mechanism.
Meaghan stood framed in our doorway looking at me with a curious expression. “You okay?” Her voice was soft, her expression tinged with concern, which caused a heavy pang of guilt to resound deep in my gut.
“Yeah.” I rubbed at my eyes without thinking about what I was doing and then swore softly. I’d probably just smeared my makeup everywhere. Great. “Just tired.”
“You sure?” Meaghan stepped closer to my desk to peer at me intently.
I nodded, but my thoughts kept drifting elsewhere. I was trying, I really was. But Allison’s sudden and completely unexpected reappearance had stirred up a whole host of emotions I’d spent a considerable amount of effort burying. Unsuccessfully, it seemed. With barely a thought, she’d thrown my entire world into chaos. Again.
“Here.” Meaghan handed me a manila envelope. She was obviously choosing to accept my explanation, though not looking as if she really believed it.
Meaghan’s eyes twinkled with something close to pride as she took the seat Allison had just vacated. “Photos. From last night.”
Meaghan nodded, and her smile widened as I shook the pictures loose from the envelope. “What do you think?”
Impatiently, I shoved some of the clutter on my desk to one side, so I could splay the photos out in front of me.
Meaghan was something of an amateur photographer, a hobby she studied tirelessly in what little free time she had. She’d even converted her spare bedroom into a darkroom. I found her work absolutely breathtaking and actually had a few of the pictures she’d taken while we’d once gone hiking hanging up in my living room. But she always shrugged and gave an absent wave of her hand when I complimented her considerable skill, stating she was merely okay.
Meaghan’s new obsession of late had been night photography. She’d been raving for weeks about this fancy, high-tech-sounding equipment she’d bought, and her entire body had practically vibrated every time the subject came up. It was all way over my head. She might not have wanted to go interview Akbari with me, but once she’d gotten over being mad at me for dragging her along in the first place, she’d decided it was the perfect opportunity to test her new toys.
“These are great, Meg.” I marveled at the work spread out in front of me. She hadn’t been after photos of anything in particular when she’d set out. But the details I could make out of people’s faces, even in the almost nonexistent light, amazed me.
“They’re fantastic.” I pushed one across the desk at her, so she could admire it, too. “Look at this. You can see this guy’s face perfectly. And that right there.” I ran my fingertip over the area in question. “You can see the license plate on that car. Hell, you can even almost make out that sticker in the back window. It was nearly black out when you took these. Great job.”
Meaghan gathered up the pictures and slid them back into the envelope she held. “Thanks. I’m just glad I was able to test my new stuff. I’d been dying for an opportunity.”
Something clicked in the back of my mind as she said that, and I was suddenly apprehensive. “Uh, Meaghan? Did you see Mark today?”
I hesitated. “He lit into me about going to Utica Avenue last night.”
“I told you he’d find out. Wait, how did he do that?”
“I have no idea. Did he say anything to you?”
The relief that surged then made me dizzy. I hadn’t dragged her down with me. “Good. He didn’t mention your presence to me, either. I’m hoping he didn’t see you.”
Meaghan shook her head, a small smile touching her lips.
“Where’s all your bravado from yesterday? Not so much of an adventure now, is it?”
My thoughts wandered immediately to Allison. “My life’s a nonstop adventure. That’s the problem.”