Brutal August heat held them like a fist. Allison Jacob turned her back to the hot wind that peppered her with dirt and debris and ducked behind her vehicle with two of her agents.
“What’s taking them so long?” Grace grumbled beside her while they waited for the Milwaukee Police to enter the house across the street. Bonnie stood at the back of the SUV, adjusting her vest and swiping at her face.
Allison squinted down the elegant street with its manicured yards, flowers, and century-old trees. How had they ended up here? It had mostly been back streets, condemned houses, and alleys with Chief William Whiteaker’s Special Forces during their temporary summer assignment. Worse, if this wasn’t the headquarters of the trafficking network they’d been chasing, they’d be out of the loop after today. Her new ATF task force began tomorrow.
Finally, the police went through the front door, and it was quiet for a few minutes. Then there were shouts, and two people ran from the back, across the yard. It looked like an adult woman holding a kid’s hand as they ducked into the alley. Skidding on loose stones, Allison and her two agents moved right, guns drawn. Grace led the charge as they rounded the corner.
“He was falling before he hit the garbage cans…like he was fainting,” Grace said, hands braced on her knees as she caught her breath. “The woman ahead of him just disappeared.”
Heart racing, Allison went to her knees by the young boy and checked for breath and a pulse, but there was nothing. She shook her head at Grace.
“Bonnie, get the medics. Look at his skin. It’s yellow.” She shoved the hair off his forehead. “He’s just a kid.” An ambulance squeezed down the alley toward them.
“What the hell, AJ?” Chief Whiteaker called out, walking around the EMTs working on the young boy. “Did you shoot?”
“No shots fired.” AJ watched them work on the kid, still hoping. “Is the house under control?”
“Yes, but the freakin’ place is like a furnace. Only four kids in there, but they look well fed and healthy. I saw a woman’s touch to the place.”
“There was a woman leading this one, but she disappeared at the end of the alley. Was it the right house?” AJ pulled in a breath when he nodded. “Good.”
The medical team shook their heads and stepped back from the body.
“Wait for the ME. I’ll get him identified,” the chief said as they walked back up the alley.
“Poor kid.” Grace tossed her sweat-soaked vest into the back of AJ’s vehicle and pointed at the clock tower. “Look at that.” The LED thermometer sizzled at ninety-five degrees.
“God.” AJ threw her light body armor on top of Grace’s and Bonnie’s. Black clouds were building up to the north. “Go help Bill process that house and make sure they call CPS for the kids. Catch a ride back with his cops, and I’ll wait for the medical examiner. I want to know what happened to this boy.”
At home, AJ braced herself against Katie’s car in the garage as she tried to get her wet boots off. The storm had broken while she and the ME stood over the body in the alley, and she was soaking wet.
The boot finally came off, and she hurled it against the kitchen door. The noise was sudden and loud, followed by complete silence. She looked around the garage. A few months ago, she’d known exactly what her job was, but now she was out of the drug world, chasing sex trafficking. Worse, she couldn’t get the young dead boy out of her head.
She picked up the boot just as the back door flew open. Katie stood there, wrapped only in a towel with a stunned expression. Her wet, black curls hung across her face. “What was that?” she said.
AJ held up the soaked boot. “It wouldn’t come off. When it finally did I—”
“Um…yes. You were in the shower?”
“What do you think? Drop everything in the garage and go to the shower.”
AJ looked down at her sopping, dirty clothes. The pants and shirt were salvageable. Maybe. “I have to go out again.” She dropped the boot and began to pull off her clothes. “Is this how you open our door?” she snapped.
“Hey.” Katie looked hurt.
AJ strode past Katie toward the shower wearing only a frown. She turned the water on and stepped inside. Katie followed, slipping an arm around her.
“Here, stand still. Let me wash your hair. I assume you got caught in the rain?”
“The storm broke while I was outside.”
Katie’s warm, strong fingers calmed AJ, but when she closed her eyes, the dead boy was still there. She grabbed Katie’s shoulders to steady herself.
“I’m sorry for what I said,” AJ murmured against Katie’s ear, starting to explain why she didn’t know how the boy had died and neither did the ME. Katie kissed her, long and slow. She said something else, but AJ was beyond listening. The world was manageable in Katie’s arms.
Later, lightning painted the sky over Lake Michigan as AJ sped north through dark city streets, water licking at her tires. They’d eaten dinner, both wrapped in big robes, and afterward, she’d fallen asleep in Katie’s lap. The temperature had dropped into the low sixties, and she now wore dry boots, a clean black hoodie, and jeans.
She stopped at a red light. Milwaukee had been a battlefield since May, including two full-blown weeklong riots. The city was struggling with drugs, guns, and car thefts. The house they’d taken down today might solve the murder they’d chased all summer, but they were just beginning on the human trafficking operation they’d stumbled into. In all of her years of law enforcement, she’d never seen anything like it. It was huge. She’d fought to continue working with Chief Whiteaker’s group, but her bureau chief, Lawrence Kelly, was dead-set on his new task force in northern Wisconsin. He’d hardly paid any attention to any of her requests.
She pulled over to the curb in the quiet, dark neighborhood and checked her time. Right on schedule.
A full August moon hung in the sky behind the retreating storm but began to fade behind thick patches of Lake Michigan fog that turned the ancient brick church ahead of her gray and silver. Her boots scraped on the old stone steps, and she settled into the dark doorway. The wood vibrated against her shoulder as the church revved up for its single night song, the stroke of midnight bell. One deep note rolled out through the air, trembling across the city.
She jammed her hands into her black hoodie and waited for her confidential informant. Last fall, she’d found Frog, homeless and selling drugs on the streets, the orange jacket with the frog on it catching her attention. For a couple of months, Frog was invaluable for the drug task force until AJ had found her almost dead from meth after a winter blizzard and gotten her into rehab. Frog had gotten a job and gone back to school. Then everything had gone to hell.
They’d met right here three weeks ago when Frog had told her about human trafficking at the group house. AJ had immediately taken it to the Department of Justice as part of the FBI’s ongoing national investigation. The next day her bureau chief had surprised her with an order to take a week’s vacation. Katie had been thrilled with their first-time-ever time away but AJ had been puzzled at the timing. Then, when they returned, she’d found she had a task force on her hands and Frog was going north, right in the thick of the trafficking. She hadn’t intended on Frog going anywhere and was still angry.
Steps sounded to her left, and a young voice said, “AJ?”
“Damned fog. Can’t see more than two feet in front of me. Hurry, they’re leaving soon.”
AJ pulled the girl into the doorway. “How many are going with you? Be careful. This is dangerous.”
“Eleven girls and two women, brought in this afternoon in a big box truck. We’ll ride in that on the trip up north.” Frog impatiently shuffled her feet, looking every bit of her nineteen years, her spiked hair weaving shadows in the fog.
“Here’s the phone. Leave it on but toss it after you settle.” AJ shoved it into Frog’s light jacket. “Greg and Jeff will be about twenty minutes behind you. Any idea where you’re going?”
“No, but here’s the bank card for the money they gave me.” Frog handed her a debit card. “You know…just in case.”
Her heart lurched and she grabbed Frog’s arm. “Someone gave you money?”
“The two cops that hired me to go with the girls.”
“How do you know they were police?”
“What the hell, AJ? I’ve known cops for years. They had IDs and badges.” She backed up. “I gotta go,” she said, fading into the fog.
AJ gripped the bank card and moved back into the dark doorway. She didn’t know anything about someone paying Frog to do this.
An owl hooted in the trees behind the church. The fog lifted for a moment, and she stopped. She thought she heard footsteps. Suddenly, there was a sharp gunshot. A bullet lodged right above her shoulder with a jarring thud. She went down, ears ringing, and crawled forward, trying to get to her weapon.
The second shot hit the wood just above her head, and she sprawled on the wet stones. Heavy footsteps moved away into the fog. She took a breath so deep it hurt and dialed her team.
Chief Whiteaker sank down on the church steps beside her. His police and her ATF group were still going through the side streets.
“We’ve got the brass,” he said over a tired breath.
“This is crap. My task force’s not even official until the meeting tomorrow, but look.” She held out Frog’s bank card. “She said two policemen gave her cash to go undercover. She put it in the bank.”
He gave her a stunned look. “I don’t know of any police that have contacted her.”
“She’s dealt with police for years and believed them, right or wrong.”
“I have Frog marked everywhere as ours. There isn’t a cop in this city that would have touched her. That money’s off, damn it.” He stood and started toward his car. “My team’s waking people up, and I’m going to finish the neighborhood. Go home. Get some sleep. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
AJ pointed her agency SUV toward home on back streets, sliding carefully through patchy fog. She’d argued when Frog told her about the undercover scheme, but the kid never said a word about money. The kid.She thought about the young boy this afternoon.
“Damn this day.” She hit the steering wheel with her hand. For the first time in her career, she wanted to fight an assignment but she was busy. There was the meeting in the morning to pull Chief Whiteaker’s group into her new task force, the press conference to announce the new Milwaukee human trafficking task force, separate from hers, and then pick up the surprising new member of their group at the airport tomorrow afternoon.
Crashing glass jolted Tag Beckett out of an exhausted sleep, and she groaned at the noise. A man swept up the spilled tray beside her. Her head felt like a bowl of Jell-O as she lifted it off the bar. The bartender placed a glass of ice water and a bottle of aspirin in front of her. “They said you’d probably need these,” he said kindly.
“They?” Embarrassed, Tag read Mitchell Int’l Airport, Milwaukee on his shirt. “Do I owe you anything?”
He pointed at three women at a nearby table. “They paid.”
Tag rubbed her bleary eyes, following his hand. Hell.She was about to meet her new team. The two women in dark suits probably were agents, but the third, smaller with dark loose curls, was too relaxed…and damned adorable. The pale green summer dress was mostly business but a little risky. She straightened for a better view.
“Aren’t they amazing?” A female voice came from behind her left ear. An attractive blonde with amused brown eyes was looking at the same table that Tag was. She turned to Tag with a smile. “Your bag’s ID says Captain Tag Beckett, US Army, IIC. If that’s you, I’m Allison Jacob, but call me AJ.” She held out her hand and Tag automatically shook it. “I’d take that aspirin if I were you.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Tag washed two pills down with the water. Trying to stand, she knocked her bag off the stool, but AJ caught it before it hit the floor.
A hand on her shoulder steadied her. “How long since you’ve eaten?”
“Early this morning when I got on the plane.” Tag tugged at her clothes. Her khaki cargo pants looked as if she’d slept in them. She had but remembered changing her shirt in a restroom somewhere. “What time is it?” she said.
“Time to get you some food. Come with me.”
She followed AJ’s easy path through the crowd watching people automatically move out of her way. Of course they did. Taller than average, her new boss was lightly muscled with sun-streaked blond hair and tan skin.And all that authority shining around her.Her almost gold, elegantly tailored suit matched her bright hair. Tag went over things she’d heard about. Allison Jacob had earned a lot of respect, but she was also the woman who’d killed one of her own ATF agents.
The two women in dark suits stood as they arrived at the table. The third stayed seated with a friendly smile. AJ placed Tag’s bag under a chair. “Ladies, meet our new team member, Tag Beckett.”
Both women shook Tag’s hand, strong grips followed by nice grins, and she relaxed a space.
“Bonnie Logan,” the more muscled of the two said, moving her long brown-gold braid over her shoulder.
“Grace Fields,” the other woman said.
“They were supposed to watch for you and get you to the table,” AJ said to Tag. “Are you certain you want to work with them? They’re supposed to have your back.”
Bonnie rolled her eyes. “C’mon, AJ. She was out like a rock.”
“She didn’t even drool.” Grace shot a mischievous glance at Tag.
AJ placed her arm over the back of the chair next to her. “And this,” she said with something else in her voice, “is Katie Blackburn.”
“Hi, Tag, and welcome home.” Katie extended a hand. “Thank God I don’t work for the ATF. These women are relentless.”
Tag held Katie’s hand, feeling about sixteen. Katie was vibrant and yes, adorable.
“How about a steak or would you rather see a menu? The chef is a friend,” AJ said, a smile playing at the corner of her mouth. “You can let go of Katie’s hand.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Tag sat abruptly and felt her face warm.
“The chef has a restaurant downtown, but his wife runs this little business.” AJ sat next to her. “We’re a team, not a platoon, so the ‘ma-am’ isn’t necessary. You’ve done your time and darned well. Here’s the cook.”
A short Asian man in a green T-shirt and white jeans stopped beside AJ. She leaned back, shook his hand, and pointed at Tag.
“Uh, steak, medium rare, baked potato, and house dressing on the salad.”
“Make that two, Jimmy. I’m starving. How’re the kids?” AJ said.
Jimmy held up his hands in mock despair. “The worst kids on the block.” He turned to Grace. “How was the food, Miss Grace?”
“The best Thai in town.” Grace pointed at her empty plate.
Jimmy repeated the orders and left.
AJ shook her head. “He’s still crushed on you, Grace, but watch your back around his wife. She’s dangerous.”
“That’s one of the better chefs in town. You’re in for a treat,” Katie said.
“She’s right.” Grace stood. “I’ll get the drinks.”
“I’ll have what Katie has,” AJ said.
“I’m sticking with water. My final run is tomorrow,” Bonnie called after Grace.
Tag’s numbed brain cleared a bit, and she checked her pocket for her thumb drive, a large part of the reason she was home. Risky business. It wouldn’t involve this group, but AJ would have to know at some point.
“Sorry to be late.” AJ took her drink from Grace. “The meeting ran over, but our task force is a go, and better yet, we’re officially separated from the DEA. The press conference to announce the other task force, the new Milwaukee human trafficking task force, also ran late.”
“Awesomeness.” Bonnie saluted her with a water bottle, rummaged in her suit pocket, and laid a paper in front of AJ. “Bill said you need the report on the bullets from last night.”
There was a loaded silence, and Tag felt the energy around her change into anticipation.
“What?” Katie swiveled to AJ.
“I’ll explain at home.”
“No,” Katie said. “Explain now.”
“I’m okay, I swear.” AJ bent to look into Katie’s face, her hand over her heart. “You were asleep when I got home and gone early so I didn’t get to tell you.”
Tag watched the group’s interaction and wondered how long they’d worked together. Her last deployment in the field had that same close feeling, but the last two years in the office on base hadn’t. She caught Grace’s curious gaze and her heart gave a quick bump. Never in her life had she seen eyes that shade of blue.
A trace of surprise ran across Grace’s face followed by honest interest. “Is it true you’ve done four tours in Afghanistan?”
“First three tours were hard duty, but the last was intel. I rarely left base.”
Grace studied her. “The information said you led the cyber division.”
Tag perked up and smiled. “Is that your gig here?”
“No, Tag, she’s definitely our geek and worked in Cyber Crime for a while. She’s my right-hand woman,” AJ said. “Tomorrow, after you’ve had a good night’s sleep at Grace’s, we’ll go across all of this at the office. We share space with the Milwaukee Police Special Investigations group. And before I forget, are you going to be okay with Grace chauffeuring you around or are you going to whine if you don’t get your own vehicle?”
“Whatever it takes.” Tag tipped the beer back for a long drink.
Grace reached for the necklace that Tag never removed. “What is this?” Grace held the tiny silver pendant in her fingers.
“A dragon from the unit I commanded. We all wore them.”
“It’s beautiful, and thank you for your service,” Grace said. “I never served. I went directly from college into the Bureau.”
“And I was a Milwaukee cop last week,” Bonnie said, moving closer to Grace, her arm possessively over the back of her chair.
“And I’m in public relations and advertising,” Katie deadpanned. “Don’t I get something for battling the boardrooms of Milwaukee?”
“Me.” AJ held up her hands, laughing as everyone threw napkins at her.
Tag felt a little dizzy when the food arrived. The first bite told her they were right. It was out-of-this-world delicious.
After the meal, they walked to the parking garage through lengthening shadows of the late August afternoon. Tag looked up at the seagulls running on the airport’s glass roof and the creamy blue sky above them. Despite her exhaustion, something tight inside her began to uncoil. She could hardly believe she was here. Home.
“Let me get those bags,” Tag said.
“No.” Bonnie switched the luggage away and tossed it into the agency SUV. “You still look like the walking dead.”
Tag watched AJ and Katie get into a beat-up dark blue sedan and looked over her shoulder at Grace and Bonnie. She might look like the walking dead, but everyone except Katie appeared exhausted and they all displayed the same hyper-vigilance.
“The hell…what’s she driving?” Tag said as AJ backed out of the parking space. The big motor growled and then echoed in the parking structure.
“An unmarked police car she picked up down south.” Grace laughed and snapped her seat belt. “You don’t want to mess with that. It’s got a Dodge Charger cop engine, six on the floor, with a 340 hp Hemi V8, heavy-duty brakes, and zero to sixty in seconds. It looks like crap, but it’s all about speed.”
“You should see her motorcycle,” Bonnie said from the front seat. “That car’s like AJ. Appearances are deceiving and you’ll never see it coming.”
Tag leaned forward for another look at AJ’s car, her mind at cross-purposes trying to imagine that striking woman on a Harley.
“God almighty.” AJ slammed her office phone down the next morning after another heated discussion with her bureau chief, Lawrence Kelly. He’d overridden all of her ideas, adamant about the full-blown task force in northern Wisconsin. Cursing under her breath, she swiveled her chair to the window, staring at the familiar Copper Penny bar across the street. Her life had done a one-eighty in the eleven months she’d been in Milwaukee.
They’d promoted her to special agent in charge last spring and turned this extra conference room into an office. While she’d been stuck in bed and then on those damned crutches recovering from her leg injury, Grace and Katie had decorated here, and she really liked it. It beat the old closet she’d had when she arrived last September. She’d moved into Katie’s house and she more than liked that. She loved it.
She saw no new updates on the takedown of the house two days ago. “Well, damn,” she muttered and pulled the worn manila envelope out of her desk drawer that held the details of the murder that had started the whole summer.
Last spring, sweating in post-surgical physical therapy for her leg, she had watched breaking news on the hospital television. A teenage girl had been found in an abandoned warehouse, nailed to the wall in an exaggerated X pose, dead and mutilated, hands cut off and acid on her face. The medical examiner had declared it a homicide, but privately he’d said the girl was raped to death. The ME identified five sperm donors. AJ had called Chief Whiteaker immediately, a conversation she’d never forget.
When AJ’s doctor released her a week later, her ATF team was temporarily assigned to Chief Whiteaker’s group, chasing the young girl’s murder. The victim became known as the “X-Girl,” and every law enforcement person in the city wanted this solved. The FBI’s Human Trafficking task force had taken charge and, in a rare moment of cooperation, had allowed AJ into the morgue to view the devastation. She still had no words for that moment. Their investigation over the summer had led them to the house they’d just taken down as the beginning of the young girl’s dark journey. Or so they thought. There was still a lot of work to be done to prove it.
AJ scanned photos and papers she knew by heart. Dr. Bergs, the therapist she had to see every other week, was convinced that her murder of their young ATF agent, Ariel, had intersected with this girl and she was obsessed. She closed the folder. The doctor might be right. It had even nagged its way into her dreams, hadn’t it?
“Are you okay?” Chief Whiteaker stood in the doorway.
She held up the folder and he gave her a grim look.
“Have a minute?” he said. She nodded and he walked into her office. “Nice job on my department at the meeting yesterday.”
“Just theater, Chief. I had to come up with something to get you involved and basically shuffled my bureau chief’s words around. I just spoke to him and still have nothing. He still isn’t clear why we’re going up north or why as a task force.”
“He’s probably waiting for more information.” The chief’s uniform was an immaculate dark blue against a white shirt and a silver tie matching his hair. “You impressed my chief at yesterday’s press conference. Did you see the photo in this morning’s newspaper?”
“No, I got up late.” She gestured at her denim shirt and faded jeans. “I wasn’t happy. Your chief only talked about local prostitution regarding that house we took. What about the human trafficking we uncovered? And he never even mentioned X-Girl. He should have.”
The chief held up a placating hand as they walked into his office next to hers. “Just politics. He tried to keep it simple to introduce our new human trafficking task force.”
“I wouldn’t call it simple. We start out with murder and stumble into human trafficking. It’s huge and organized and we’ve only seen a small part of it. And yes, I know it’s the world’s oldest business, but I’ve known madams, working girls…not to mention Frog, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“I agree, but I certainly am not going to tell my chief that.” He handed her a photo. “Here’s our young victim, Kevin Owens, with his older brother, John, our prime suspect from that house. The kid was fifteen and John’s thirty. Their grandfather owned that house and sold it to John. Did you see the autopsy on the boy?”
“No, and why are there no updates on that house?” AJ studied the photo as they walked to Bill’s office. “Can we help?”
“I know you’re off the case, but we need your group’s skills on the confiscated computers. The new Milwaukee Human Trafficking will take the lead, but I’ll begin the arrest process. Today I’ll show them the surveillance video of you and Grace contacting John Owens. Here, let me show you.” He ran the video on his big plasma screen.
“You know I want to stay here and work with you. If you hadn’t asked when the doc released me, the ATF would have assigned us to the tsunami of guns in town or the heroin and opioid epidemic. Again, what about X-Girl? You’d think the FBI would have the DNA nailed down by now.”
“Who knows what they have? I’m hoping they’ll work with the new task force.” He backed the video up. “We wouldn’t have had this without your group, especially you and Grace.”
“That was Grace following social media and why we hung out where they meet at the gym on Forest Avenue. John Owens fumbled over the money.” She held up the photo. “Look at the clothes he wears. Those have to be thousand-dollar suits. He wants to be noticed, and he’s calculating. It’s all money. Power.”
“I know.” He pointed at the screen. “I need to mark our people and your group inside the room with some kind of little mark so they can see how you set it up. See? You’ve got people posted on each wall and on the machines beside you. I don’t know how you two did it, but you looked like a seller, and Grace appeared so innocent.”
“But she is, Chief. That kind of innocent.” AJ sat at his desk and backed the video up to the beginning. “I can put a little mark on all of our people.” She inserted a little “zero” on each person. “Will that do it?”
“Perfect.” He stood off to the side of his desk, scanning the video. “What do you mean? Grace is thatkind of innocent.”
AJ looked up at him. “That’s what she is…actually, more immunethan innocent.”
“You’re kidding. The way men…and women…hit on her?”
“She doesn’t even see it, as in unaware. She’s the real deal.”
“I thought she was just ignoring them.” The chief frowned.
“Nope.” AJ took a closer look at the video. “Wait. This is different from what I have. Let me show you.” She retrieved her laptop and placed it on the chief’s desk. “See? You’ve got the security from the north door. Mine is from the front.” They both watched the scene unfold. “Look.” AJ stopped the video and pointed at a table. “There’s the victim, Kevin, with three older men.” She zoomed in a bit, frowning. “Did the new task force identify those men? They have to do that as soon as possible.” She stopped the video. “Let’s go back to my office. We picked up Tag Beckett at the airport yesterday afternoon, and she and Grace will be here any minute. I want to show you something else.”
Back at her desk, AJ swiveled her computer monitor so he could see it. “I sent you this yesterday. Tag’s résumé and service history.”
“I didn’t see it. I had to meet with the new trafficking group after the press conference and it lasted past dinnertime. Then I was on time for Bonnie’s run at the training facility this morning so she can transition into your group.” The chief sat and scooted closer to her desk.
“How’d she do?”
“Aced it, of course,” he said absently, reading the information on her computer. “Tag Beckett, Wisconsin’s most decorated female soldier. And Menominee Indian.”
“PartMenominee. Her father’s English. That’s where Beckett comes from.”
“I remember when she played basketball at UW-Madison. All-American. Look at her education and all those decorations. Plus…” He pointed at a line. “She led the Dragons, the first all-female special operations unit, and got a medal for those two years.” He adjusted his glasses to see the screen better. “And I thought youwere something, graduating from West Point with honors and a Presidential Commendation.”
AJ took a drink of her now-cold coffee and tapped the screen. “Something’s off here. Tag asked for Wisconsin and, even more interesting, asked for the ATF.”
“This is her home state. Maybe she just wants to be here.”
“She’s qualified for much more. Computers, for example. One of her degrees is in that field. She was in charge of an entire section of intel during the last tour, so it wouldn’t be much to switch to cyber crime, so why is she a rookieagent out in the field and why the ATF? She could have gone anywhere.” She tapped the screen again. “She was up for a promotion too. I’ve never read recommendations like this.”
He looked up from the monitor. “Where’s the psych evaluation?”
“When I spoke to the Bureau this morning they said they’d send it. Tag’s only been stateside two months and they’ve rushed her through everything. That’s concerning.”
He looked at his watch and stood. “Yeah, it is. I’ve got to get this information downtown. Are you staying here?”
“I want Tag up and running before my last appointment with the doctor this afternoon, and don’t forget the barbecue at our house tonight. Bring your wife. Katie’s cooking the chicken you love. Around six is fine.”
“Katie called the wife about a recipe. Tell her we’re bringing the nut salad, the one with cashews and spinach.” He started to leave but turned back. “Which doctor?”
“Dr. Bergs. My therapist over Ariel’s shooting. It helped, but I’m glad it’s over.”
“That doctor’s been a great help to the task force. Bonnie said she gave you the ballistics report from the shooting at the church. My group did a full day search in that neighborhood but found nothing. You didn’t hear a vehicle?”
“As I said, only footsteps running away, but they sounded big and heavy.”
“I don’t like this. It’s weird, like Frog’s money.”
AJ wondered again about her own new task force and the connection between the money and the police. “Frog is pretty savvy, but is there any possibility it could have been Milwaukee Police?”
“Why would you even think that? I would have known since I have Frog marked throughout our entire system.”
“I’m wondering what’s behind my new task force, not to mention that unexpected vacation Lawrence Kelly orderedme to take. Did you talk to him?”
The chief shook his head and moved toward the door. “I’d have told you.”
“I’m sorry. Of course you would have. Don’t forget the meeting with the two men from Niagara tomorrow morning.”
He flashed a smile and was gone. If there was anyone she valued in this office, it was Chief William Whiteaker. He’d hung in there with her throughout that whole screw-up last winter and spring. She looked at Katie’s photo, thinking about yesterday. She had been exhausted, but the night had been great…after the two-hour argument over the new assignment and the damned shooting with Frog. Katie had loved the shakiness out of her, and she’d slept long and deep. Katie had been gone when she woke but had left a note, and AJ placed it on her desk now, rereading it. You need rest. I’m going to feed you lots of food tonight and put you to bed early. OXOX. She dialed Katie’s number.
“Morning, sweetie,” Katie said, her voice dropping to intimate.
AJ closed her eyes. “I love you and missed waking up with you this morning. How’d the meeting at the bank go?”
“The next month is going to be insane, and I’m bracing myself for long hours. I can see why David Markam is the senior vice president at Bennings Bank. He reeled them in. Zack’s already working on graphics.” Katie’s voice picked up as she added details, and AJ let her ramble until she ran down. Katie had said long hours.Had she already forgotten that she’d be out of town, or was she saying it was okay to go because she was going to be really busy?
“I just called to say hello. I reminded the chief about the meal tonight, and he said they’d bring the nut salad you like.”
“Not just nuts. That’s a Chesapeake salad.” Katie laughed. “I’ll be home this afternoon. Mom’s helping, so don’t worry if you have more people at the dinner than we talked about. Don’t forget to tell Dr. Bergs about the shooting. Wait…nice photo in this morning’s paper.”
“Haven’t seen it yet.” AJ heard voices nearing her office. “Gotta go. See you soon.” She hung up as Grace peeked inside with Tag behind her. Both of them had cups in their hands and looked rested.
“Did you get breakfast?” AJ said, seeing their smiles.
“Grace could run a B and B with no problem,” Tag said, folding her tall body into the chair.
AJ handed Grace some papers. “Tag’s office is ready, but will you complete these? Send her the Michael’s Angels file and then what little we have on the new assignment. Oh, and include the summer’s work with Bill. If I had my way, we’d still be working with them.”
“Will we still report to Justice?”
“Yes, and list Peter Adams as our liaison over there. I want Tag to read everything as a timeline of where we’ve been, what we’ve done.” AJ watched Grace’s reaction. “I have a five o’clock doctor’s appointment this afternoon, and then I’ll see both of you at our place around six o’clock. Today we’ll have lunch across the street and talk over what you’ve read, Tag.” She held up the worn manila envelope. “If there’s time, we’ll look at this together.” Grace nodded and left for Tag’s office, leaving AJ alone with her new agent.
Tag gestured at the door. “Want me to close the door?”
AJ nodded at her. Tag wore confidence like her clothes, easy and naturally. The jeans, boots, and white collarless shirt stressed comfort before fashion. Straight black hair fell just below her ears, and warm, dark eyes matched the hair. A silver necklace was half hidden by the top open button.
AJ blinked. Tag looked exactly like Katie’s favorite fiction character, Bren Black. “Great boots. I’m fond of boots myself,” she said, bending to look at the footwear to hide her grin.
“Big feet,” Tag said, sitting and crossing her long legs, a boot resting on her knee. She smiled with practiced ease, and AJ saw that Tag had done a zillion interviews. “Nice office,” Tag continued. “I like it. Not overwhelmingly professional.”
“Katie and Grace did it while I was recovering from an injury last spring.”
“Grace said as much. I was surprised you weren’t downtown.”
“Don’t like the politics down there…or anywhere. This building houses municipal police, Chief Whiteaker’s Special Forces, and our ATF group. It’s quiet out here,” AJ said. “Since you went to college in Madison, I assume you’re familiar with Milwaukee?”
“I spent a lot of time here. Some of it academic, working with a mentor at Marquette, and some with my parents when they taught Native American Culture at UW-Milwaukee.”
AJ turned her monitor so Tag could see it. “I see your parents are involved with the College of Menominee Nation.”
“They love it. Will there be time to get up to Keshena?”
“Is that where they live?”
“Actually, north and east, out in the country where I grew up. I haven’t been there in a long time and I’d really like to see them.”
“We’ll be in that area with the new task force but not sure exactly where.”
Tag’s dark eyes widened. “Something’s wrong up there?”
“The bureau chief, Lawrence Kelly, believes trafficking, but let’s do the personal stuff first.” She pointed at the computer. “You ran government backgrounds, so you know I have everything from your shoe size to your fingerprints. Any questions?”
“No, but Charles Ryan said to mention his name.”
“I’ll bet he did.” AJ laughed. “We’ve worked together since I left the army, and you’ll see him all over our last assignment, the Michael’s Angels task force. He was in charge of three states. I ran this end in Milwaukee, a combined DEA-ATF task force working with Chief Whiteaker.”
“Charles is your number one fan.”
“He was my mentor, and I taught at that facility before I came into the field. Then he had me undercover for a while, which I really liked—still do—but the last assignment in California was an experience I’ll never repeat. After that he talked me into the ATF and it’s been a fit, so fire away with anything you want to know. We won’t get much time once this begins.”
“Well, the obvious. How did you happen to kill your own agent?”
AJ’s gut tightened. It sucker-punched her every time. “That agent, Ariel, was rogue and none of us knew. She reported to Charles and blindsided him too. She put a gun to my head. Believe me, I had no choice. It was that simple.”
“And that complicated.” Tag frowned at the floor. “I’m sorry.”
“Me too. She had no living family, so Charles and I took her home and buried her beside her parents. Today’s my last doctor’s appointment over that.” The ghost of Ariel’s last breath as she died beside her swept through her mind, and she paused. “That brings me to this question. With all of your experience, skills, and education, why are you here as a rookie? And why the ATF? You could have gone anywhere. And it appears you were up for promotion.”
Tag’s eyes flashed. The confident smile slid away and she straightened in her chair. “It’s complicated, but some of it is my family. Menominee County is the poorest in Wisconsin and one of the most poverty-stricken in the United States. The annual per capita income is less than eleven thousand dollars, and they tell me the whole area is drowning in drugs.” She pulled in a breath. “Maybe I’ll teach there someday like my parents. I’d love that.”
“You came home for your family? I wasn’t aware of the poverty, but of course know about the drugs. It’s a pretty good dream, Tag.”
Tag turned to the window. “I’m grateful to the military for what they taught me, plus it gave me the best friends of my life. I believe in protecting our country.” She was quiet for a moment. “If I’m going to fight for my country, I’ll do it right here. In America.”
AJ took a mental step backward and waited.
“How’s the mood here? In the city? The state?” Tag turned back to AJ.
“Restless with this election. People are divided and polarized. Bad vibes everywhere, not to mention all the crime or drugs. You name it, we’ve got it, and I don’t like politics.”
Tag looked down at her hands. “Do you know where I’ve spent the last six weeks?”
“I thought you were on base, training for my group, here.”
“No. I was hauled all over Washington DC doing PR or something like it. As you just said, I don’t like politics either. Lots of photo shoots, and I hardly ever got out of my dress greens. Congressional committees or individual politicians, all wanting to talk to the big hero…blah, blah, blah. The one good thing was a meal and night out with what remaining Dragons I could find.” Tag scowled at the desk. “As to whythe ATF, Mom’s mother, my grandmother, married an American-Swede after WWII, and he worked for the ATF in northern Wisconsin during the last mob years. I loved that man.”
AJ looked back at her computer. Had she seen that information? “Your grandfather was an ATF agent? So you’re…?”
“About half-Indian and I’m sure you know my father’s English. His mother was Irish so by the time you get to me, it’s a real stew. I got the black hair, eyes, and darker skin from my grandmother and the Nordic bones from my grandfather.”
AJ studied her. “Nordic bones” was a spot-on description of her stunning high cheekbones, straight nose, and wide, expressive mouth.
“What about your family?” Tag gestured at the photos on the desk.
AJ picked up a group picture and handed it to Tag. “I was adopted as an infant along with four other girls and raised on a farm in Maine. That farm is home to me. This is us, my four sisters, Mom and Dad. These two are married, supplying all of us with nieces and nephews. This one’s in post-grad work on the West Coast, and the youngest is an army medic, just transferred to Afghanistan two weeks ago.” She frowned at the picture. “I worry about her.”
“Let me know where she ends up. I’ll track her for you.”
“I’d appreciate that.” AJ set the picture back on the desk. “Anyone special in your life?” AJ said casually. The rumor mill loved Tag Beckett.
“My stupid reputation.” Tag laughed with a shrug. “Truth? Lots of women that ended in friendship but nothing close to anything more, and not for trying. I can’t seem to find the right fit and I’ve about given up.”
“Oh, I know. I was in the same spot when I met Katie here, last winter.”
“Oh God. Katie.” Tag rubbed her face. “I apologize for that moment with her at the airport yesterday. Can I plead exhaustion, and the appreciation of an adorable woman?”
“She is adorable with the best mind plus a wicked sense of humor, and you might have noticed her quick temper.” AJ held up a hand. “Fair warning? Katie’s father was city police for decades, and she spent a lot of time inside police stations.” She glanced at the photo of Katie on her desk. “Like Charles Ryan, you’ll see a lot of her in what you read today.”
“Speaking of beautiful women, Grace—”
“My second in command and quiet.” AJ glanced at Tag’s hopeful face. She obviously hadn’t given up, no matter what she said. “Like Katie, men and women flock to her. Bonnie has drooled for months, but Grace is firm on friendship only. I have no idea what she prefers except horses. She loves horses.” AJ handed the remaining papers to Tag. “You’ll meet most of our ATF group at our house tonight including the chief’s police that work with us. Greg and Jeff are already up north, so you’ll meet them up there. Our task force doesn’t have a name yet and we’ll be undercover. You’ll be a huge help because you know the area, plus you have experience with small ops. We have a meeting with two people from up there tomorrow morning. You’ll be here for that.”
“What about this group’s last assignment? That was kind of a big deal.”
“The Michael’s Angels task force was covert, ferreting out high-end meth dealers and manufacturers in this area, not street-level commerce or gangs. We tracked boardrooms, doctors, banks, that kind of thing. Charles Ryan still has a DEA group here, but they work the streets. I’d rather you’d read it first and then we’ll talk.”
“One last thing. Someone shot at you?”
“Ballistics says forty caliber pistol.” Anxiety slid inside AJ again just as a light knock sounded on the door. “We’ll break for lunch when you’re hungry.”
Grace took Tag to her office, leaving AJ with all the things she hadn’t said. That shooting could be a lot of things. Something still lurking from Michael’s people to the group that Frog was a part of up north or something they’d run into this summer. A random robbery gone bad? Her worst fear was that it was connected to the new assignment. She glanced at her computer. At least she now knew some of the reasons Tag had come home and not taken the promotion, but there was more, something sliding around in the background. Something Tag hadn’t said.
“She likes the setup,” Grace said, back in AJ’s office.
“And I like her. She listens hard, and leadership oozes off her. And listen to this. They rushed her through the last six weeks with almost no training, and coming home is a big adjustment. Seriously, Grace, keep an eye on her for me. I doubt she’s even had time to breathe, and there’s no psych evaluation yet.”
“I noticed the psych eval was missing, and that’s a first.” Grace leaned back. “One thing I can tell you after less than twenty-four hours. She spent a lot of time on the phone and computer last night and appears highly organized. Also, she did some work with human trafficking over there.”
“She’ll need the organization for undercover. How’d you know about the trafficking?”
“She told me this morning when we ate. Did you see her necklace, that nice thin silver chain with the little dragon that I asked her about yesterday? I thought that whole thing was really cool, that all-woman group.”
“I do too,” AJ said. She had noticed the necklace and knew about the Dragons but hadn’t checked all of Tag’s ops. She would now. “What about Frog?”
“The GPS is working fine, and I talked to Greg this morning. The girls are west of Niagara in a motel by Crooked Lake, the resort where you and Katie vacationed. There are two adult women, one man, and twelve girls including Frog.”
AJ opened her desk and handed Grace the bank card. “This is creepy. When I met Frog at the church she gave me this. Said two cops paid her to go undercover.”
Grace studied the card. “That’s not possible. Our police? The chief has her marked.” She shook her head, frowning. “Does the chief know?”
“Yes, and he agrees all of this is weird. As to the task force, we might get something useful from the two men from Niagara tomorrow.” AJ brought the file up on her computer. “What do you think of Pete Adams’s suggestion if we end up in Niagara?”
“I like his idea but I didn’t know he grew up in that area. Being undercover at his uncle’s delivery business would get us into the community,” Grace said. “Did you see this morning’s Milwaukee paper, the press conference yesterday?”
“No. I haven’t looked at today’s paper.”
“I filed the link to it under our missing people too.” Grace tapped her pen on the desk. “The chief kept us connected with the new task force so we’ll be alert to the locals.”
AJ shoved the photo the chief had given her across the desk. “The chief needs help, so while you’re working with Tag, I’ll search the group they arrested at that house. The victim, Kevin, had relatives involved. His older brother, John, owns the house. That was the man you and I met with at the gym when I tried to sell you.”
Grace snorted a little laugh and tossed a newspaper onto the desk. “Tag found this on the plane.”
AJ read the British Guardianheadline. “Milwaukee’s a Human Trafficking Hub? You’ve read it?”
AJ laid the paper on her desk to read later. “I argued with the bureau chief on the phone again this morning about this assignment. What if we run into the FBI-DHS operation up there? I tried to tell him we’d be a lot more effective here, working the source, but he didn’t buy it. We’re going up there with nothing, no actual suspects. It’s like we’ll just be there to protect Frog and the eleven girls, and that’s okay…but a whole task force doesn’t make sense.”
“I see it too. I agree with you.”
“Our tax dollars at work.”
Grace leaned back in her chair and changed the subject. “Tag said you are striking,” she said with a grin.
“It was probably the suit Katie’s mother made for me, but I don’t think so.” She laughed. “Oh hell, there goes my badass reputation.”
“What badass reputation? Get serious.”
“One can only hope,” AJ said, still grinning.