US Marshal Evan Spears gathered the members of her team around her in the shadows of a loading dock near the runway used by private aircraft at Piedmont Triad International Airport. For over a year, her squad of four had assisted DEA in bringing down a large drug operation. She was proud of them. But the big guys, the brains behind everything, and the one responsible for orchestrating a murder, had persistently eluded capture. Tonight, their luck would run out.
Her informant said the three major players would be at the airport, attempting to flee the country on a chartered plane. The Embraer Phenom 100 light jet was already on the tarmac, fuel hose running to the right wing. As she watched, the hoses were disconnected, and the pilot conducted his exterior check of the plane in preparation for takeoff.
In a few minutes, the three criminals would be out in the open. There was no other way for them to board the plane. It was the perfect bottleneck. Too perfect? No. Evan pushed the nagging doubt away. Even the smartest criminals were stupid sometimes. And her source assured her they did not know their exit plan was compromised.
“Okay, guys.” Evan didn’t have to make eye contact with her agents to make sure they were listening, but she did anyway. As expected, their focus was absolute. “Just to review. Hank, you’re covering the north side, Todd south, Maddie’s got east, and Aaron will cover the west from the shadows here, in case they try to double back into the building.” She pointed to the side of the loading dock. “Who has the warrants?”
“Here.” Hank slapped the front of his vest.
“Good. Any questions?” Evan waited, but no one spoke. “Okay, let’s get these guys. Take your posts and be careful.”
She watched the team spread out across the tarmac, uncomfortable with just the five of them to arrest three fugitives, but this was a large coordinated operation and all the agencies were spread thin. Her guys knew what to do, and she trusted her informant, but a twinge of uncertainty shot through her. Just her overly cautious nature and adrenaline. Nothing more.
Her life was right on track—supervising agent, renovating the home of her dreams, exhilarating love life—and if this operation went well, she’d be top candidate to replace her boss when he retired in a couple of years. She’d be living the dream with an interesting woman, taking home a comfortable salary, and doing the work she loved, but first, she had to pull this arrest off without a hitch.
She glanced around the target area trying to spot her agents. If she could see them, the suspects probably could, but the guys had positioned themselves well in the shadows. She’d chosen not to use the airport staff’s yellowish-green reflective vests because too many people on the tarmac this late at night would raise red flags.
“I’ve got movement on the south side,” Todd whispered into the com unit. “Lone male.”
“Hold,” she replied. “Wait for the other two. We don’t want to spook them.” Evan watched the man walking toward the plane. Her pulse hammered, and sweat gathered under the heavy ballistic vest. Seconds ticked slowly past, and the man got closer to the plane. Where were the other suspects?
Her phone buzzed in the side of her vest and she started to ignore it, but her informant might have more information. Maybe there’d been a change of plans. “Spears.”
“I fucked up.”
The heat building under her vest turned to chills. “What do you mean you fucked up? Where are the other two?”
“They’re not coming. I fucked up.”
The informant’s tone was harsh, almost trance-like. Evan’s stomach tightened into a sick knot and she felt lightheaded. She tried to focus on the words but only caught a few.
“Not coming…escaped…warned them.”
“What?” The line went dead, and the tarmac exploded with activity. A utility vehicle beeped at her from behind and breeched the target area. The jet engines whirred to life, drowning out other sounds.
“Evan, should we take him down?” Hank asked. “He’s almost at the plane? Evan?”
She was still processing the phone call, and the grayish luggage train kept barreling forward. “Behind you, Aaron.” He’d moved too close to the plane and couldn’t hear over the engines. The driver swerved the vehicle suddenly, plowed into Aaron, and knocked him to the ground. “Take the suspect, Hank. You have command.”
Evan dialed 911 as she ran toward Aaron. “This is US Marshal Evan Spears. I need an ambulance on the tarmac at PTI. Officer down.” How had this happened? What had she done? As she knelt over Aaron and checked his pulse, she heard the answer as clearly as if someone screamed it. You trusted the wrong person.
A month later
Frankie Strong lay in bed and drew an imaginary connect-the-dots line through ceiling stains that resembled high-velocity impact blood spatter but could’ve been red wine. Still groggy from sleep, she took in the beige walls, beige carpet, and beige curtains of another hotel room, but where? Six years of DEA undercover had her changing legends and locations so often that every place felt the same—cold and lonely. She glanced at the notepad by the bed. Marriott Downtown. Greensboro.
“Damn.” She jumped out of bed. Her boss was meeting her in the lobby in thirty minutes. She grabbed her clothes and thought about her last assignment shadowing another agent during a drug operation in the homeless community. She’d miss some of the colorful characters she’d encountered while posing as a mentally challenged street urchin. In some ways the homeless community had been more like family than her own. The lifestyle had a degree of predictability, an understanding that survival came first and treating everybody with respect was a given. She’d never felt she had to prove anything, but just like with her family and every other assignment, she’d never quite belonged because she was an imposter.
She wet her fingers and ran them through her hair to fluff the flattened parts and looked at herself in the mirror. But she’d also shot and killed a man during that operation, something she never imagined herself capable of. What came next, she had no idea. Maybe that was why Ted Curtis wanted to talk to her. She exited the elevator and spotted him in the lobby, and he waved her toward the restaurant.
“You didn’t think I’d pass up a free meal? The agency is paying your tab, and I’m getting in on that action.” Ted patted his abs and gave her a grin than colored his face all the way to the top of his bald head. “I don’t run every day for nothing. I hear they have a great breakfast buffet for under twenty bucks. Have you tried it?”
“I’m not really a foodie or a morning person.”
“You seriously need to eat more. You’re looking a little twiggy.”
Frankie trailed him through the buffet line and ended up with a small bowl of cottage cheese, some fruit, and coffee. Her stomach growled at the prospect as they settled at a table.
Ted scooped a forkful of omelet into his mouth and followed it with a slice of crispy bacon. “So, what happens now?”
She’d once dreamed of following in her parents’ footsteps and traveling the world, but the experience had been spoiled. DEA briefly provided her with a feeling of stability and camaraderie until she landed in covert ops, which felt like being a drifter again. She’d enjoyed the freedom and results of undercover work, but since her last assignment, that too was tainted.
“I’m not sure.” What she really wanted was a steady day job and a place to put down roots to test what normal might be like. She’d hoped to transition slowly, maybe start with a semi-permanent living space, but Ted was only concerned about her next assignment.
“You still don’t know…because of the shooting,” Ted said. “I get that, but you’ve got to move on.” His green eyes sparkled a certain way when he was about to deliver what he considered a great idea. He already had something in mind.
“Just tell me the job, Ted.”
“This is an opportunity to get back to work without going under again so soon.” He waved a piece of bacon at her. “We don’t have enough manpower to keep looking for Matthew Winston and Grady Tyndall from our drug diversion operation, so we’re turning it over to the Marshals’ Violent Fugitive Task Force. I thought you’d be an asset as a liaison. You can opt out of any operational stuff and won’t need to be armed, if you’re still uncomfortable with it.”
“And who exactly would I liaisewith?”
“The Marshals, of course. It’s just a buzzword, for the record. Admin term.”
Frankie stirred the multicolored fruit and lumpy white cottage cheese together in the bowl and felt sick. She hadn’t realized until this moment how much she needed a break, a long one. “I don’t know, Ted.”
“As an incentive, while you’re gone, I’ll keep digging into that other matter you’re so interested in. I can also ask the supervisor at the Marshals office to cut you some slack, if you work on the side. I’ve heard the task force leader is a real ballbuster and probably wouldn’t appreciate you pulling double duty.”
“What makes you think the Marshals will take me on?”
“You surveilled Winston’s crew long before our other agent, Colby Vincent, went undercover with them. You know everything about the guy and how he operates. They’d be crazy to turn you down. Besides, helping to clear this case could do wonders for your career. It got Colby promoted to supervisor. And you’ll still be on active status and have time to get over the shooting and adjust from being undercover. A smooth transition into a routine operation and casework, if that’s what you want. What do you say?”
Maybe the new assignment was a good compromise, for the time being. And if she could kill two birds with one stone, all the better. She’d considered quitting after the incident, but it wasn’t entirely the shooting that had thrown her off kilter. Just before the drug diversion operation started, she’d been wrapping up a human trafficking case in New York and seen a homeless man on the street who’d reminded her of the past, a past she’d sooner forget. The chance encounter had propelled her on a search for justice and redemption that was ongoing. “When do you need to know?”
“Before close of business today. You’d report to the Marshals office in the morning.”
The offer didn’t sound bad, and a task force meant more regular hours, a close-quarters supervisor, and rules—things she hadn’t had in years and wasn’t sure she could handle. Time and distance from the shooting and other memories of the assignment sounded good. If she had time, she’d surveil her potential boss, but Ted wasn’t giving her much of a window.
Anyway, surveillance was detached—observations, times, dates—which left room for interpretation, nothing personal, no connection. She relied more on her senses, reading people’s eyes, expressions, behaviors, and then tailoring her approach. Rule number one in swindling and undercover—know your mark. She’d have to go in blind on this one. “Fine. I’ll do it.”
Evan leaned against the iron railing of her loft bedroom drinking a lunchtime coffee and taking in her warehouse residence. She and her brother, Eli, had converted a portion of the upstairs into her master suite and added an industrial catwalk that encircled what would eventually be the living area downstairs. She loved the new windows set into exposed brick walls that let in light at all times of the day. Eventually, the space would feel more like a home than a construction zone. She envisioned retro furniture dotting the polished concrete floors, several comfy sofas and recliners for lounging, and plush rugs for the times when she wanted to roll around like a kid. Homey it was not, not yet.
But for now, the bleakness and solitude were what she needed, most of the time. However, today she wanted someone to confirm she was doing the right thing by keeping her team of US Marshals sidelined, that she wasn’t being overprotective or paranoid. She squeezed the railing, feeling the dimpled texture bite into her palm and drawing strength from the rough reclaimed material. She got paid to make the tough decisions, and taking her team off active status had been one of the hardest.
At the bottom of the floating staircase, she placed her coffee cup on a rolling cabinet that served as a temporary kitchen island and glanced longingly at black wiring coiled against the walls like serpents. She’d much rather stay here and install outlets. The deadline she and Eli had set for that particular task had come and gone. She gave herself a pep talk on the drive back to her office at the federal courthouse, but it lacked conviction.
Evan aligned the case file in the center of her desk and glanced up at the three current members of her Violent Fugitive Task Force as they came in from an afternoon break. Today was the first time they’d all been together since Aaron’s injury, and she’d wanted to say something…what? Inspiring, apologetic, sincere? But morning had slipped into afternoon and she’d said nothing. She tried to pretend this was like any other day. The guys were getting on with their work, minus some of their usual levity. She’d left them to reestablish their routine again, but the air felt heavy with tension or possibly her own guilt. “How’s it going?”
“We’re finishing the paperwork from yesterday, but with all due respect, we’d be more productive chasing fugitives.” Hank, her second-in-command toed the line between hard-nosed marine and politician but usually erred on the side of politics. She appreciated his tact because she often leaned more toward the hardline.
She’d heard the argument before and didn’t answer. After Aaron’s injury and Madeline’s transfer, Evan was left with only a functional two-man team and herself, which presented an unacceptable risk in the field, a risk she wasn’t willing to take, especially after the last botched arrest. So, at her request, the team was managing background, research, and tech support for other active operations.
“Yeah, you’ve got to get us off this desk surfing gig before we start gnawing off our fingers,” Todd added in a distinctive Southern drawl. Diplomacy was a dirty word to him. He always said exactly what he meant, but he was a hell of an agent. She’d gladly take a whole team like him, even if she had to spend more time doing cleanup with the brass.
Aaron stuck his head between the two large computer screens that served as his workstation, took off his round Harry Potter glasses, and shrugged. “Sorry, guys, if I could walk, you know I’d be just as eager to take a case.” He shouldered more than his share of the blame for the team being sidelined.
Evan was the reason he couldn’t walk now, possibly ever, and she’d never forgive herself. She met his gaze and tried to convey her apologies for the millionth time, but it didn’t make her feel any better and doubted it helped him either. Her carelessness cost Aaron his mobility and what she thought would be her happily ever after. The only thing left in her life was work and the burden to prove once again that she could handle the job.
She couldn’t face these men every day and have them think she was a spineless supervisor who couldn’t accept responsibility for her mistakes. She took a deep breath and summoned her courage. “Hey, guys, it’s Aaron’s first day back, and I need to say something.”
Hank and Todd placed their papers on their desks, and Aaron rolled his wheelchair from behind his computer. Everyone focused on her.
“It’s my fault things went wrong on the arrest, and I can’t fix what happened. If you want to transfer or ask for another supervisor, now’s your chance. No hard feelings. I’ll give you good recommendations.” The room was quiet for several seconds, and Evan held her breath.
“Fuck that,” Todd said. “Shit happens. I’m staying put. We’re a team.”
Aaron inclined his head toward Todd. “What he said. You’ve apologized like a thousand times. Stop already. It’s getting embarrassing.”
She could’ve kissed him. Aaron was not only smart but he also had a huge heart and sometimes too much compassion.
Hank was usually the last to answer any question, cautious and discreet to a fault. “We’ve been through a lot, and we all share responsibility for what happened that day. Someone we thought was a friend wasn’t, so stop trying to be some kind of martyr. Nobody’s transferring or asking for another supervisor. You’re stuck with us and vice versa.”
Evan’s throat tightened, and she fought back the tears clouding her vision. “Thank you, guys. You’re the best US Marsh—” Her phone rang, saving her from making a complete ass of herself. “Hello?”
“Evan, come to my office,” her boss said.
She rose from her desk and pointed to the ceiling, the group sign for orders from above. “Call it a day, guys. See you in the morning.” She took the stairs of the Preyer Federal Courthouse to Michael English’s office, and his receptionist waved her in.
“Ah, you’re here. Good.” Michael rose and offered his hand. She liked working for him because he’d made his way up through the ranks, not been handed his position by some politician, and he was honest and dedicated to his agents.
“Afternoon, sir.” She stood at attention, affording him the respect of his former military rank of colonel.
He gave her a careful visual once-over. “Still not sleeping?”
“Some better, not much, but I’m managing.”
“And you’re FFD?”
“Of course, I’m fit for duty, sir. And Aaron’s back with us. It’s all good.” She told herself that every morning while staring in the mirror and willing her mind and body to comply. She’d messed up, gotten an agent hurt, and would wear the scar the rest of her life.
He motioned to a leather chair in front of his desk and sat back down. “Excellent, because I have good news and bad. Which do you want first?” Michael flipped his head and a shock of blond hair shifted sideways across his forehead and back into place, a tell she recognized as nerves.
“I’m returning your team to field duty. I need you to find Matthew Winston and his associate, Grady Tyndall, from that DEA drug diversion operation.”
Evan’s knees trembled, and she lowered herself into the chair. The guys would be ecstatic, but she was having trouble seeing past the complications. “Aaron is still on light duty.”
“And he can do his techie thing from his wheelchair. He’ll continue to provide the same excellent support he always has.”
“That still leaves us an agent short for field operations.”
Michael picked up a file but didn’t make eye contact, and Evan prepared for the rest. “Which brings me to the bad news. You’re sort of getting a new team member—”
“Let me finish, Evan. You’re getting a new team member as a liaison for this case, not permanently. A DEA agent with extensive knowledge of Winston, his associates, and operation. This is a gift-wrapped bonus for us.”
Evan shook her head. “I don’t have time to teach a DEA agent our protocols. He’ll need to bond with the guys before we work together as a team. And seriously, boss, DEA and the Marshals operate on different wavelengths. You know how it is.”
Michael flipped his head twice. “About that…it’s not a he.”
Evan felt the blood rush from her face and her body chilled. “Sir, please.”
“It’s a done deal. We need the intel she has.”
The team could be further fragmented by the introduction of some random agent so soon after Aaron’s injury and Madeline’s transfer. And she damn sure wasn’t ready to trust another outsider, agent or not. “Can’t we just debrief her and move on with our guys?”
“No, we can’t. She’ll be here in the morning. Here’s her file.”
She didn’t reach for the folder Michael held, not ready to accept the inevitable. “Full personnel jacket? Background and everything?” Evan wasn’t leaving anything to chance.
“Her work file, which is all that’s relevant at this stage. Her childhood, psyche eval, blah, blah, blah won’t tell you anything about how she operates. Look at her past performance.”
Evan continued to stare at the folder with its curled and brown edges. Someone had reviewed this file, often. “I’d like a complete picture of who I’m being stuck with, if you don’t mind, sir.”
“And I’m saying it’s not relevant. The important part for you is that she’s been unsupervised for a while, but you can handle that. Like I said, she’s a liaison, not really your direct report. Think of her as your equal, so no supervisory headaches. Read her file before you go and leave it on my desk. You can use the conference room. Winston has a three week jump on us because the locals and DEA have been chasing leads in the States, not thinking he’d left the country.”
“Are we sure he has?” Evan was grasping at anything to keep this roller coaster from barreling over her, but Michael’s expression said she couldn’t refuse the case.
“Not definitely, but he’s a man with extensive international resources, and the trail has gone cold here.” He placed the case file on the edge of his desk and tapped the cover. “Can you handle this, Evan?”
She stood, finally took the personnel file from his hand, and met his gaze, trying to convey confidence she didn’t feel. “Yes, sir, but I still want to see her complete personnel file at some point.” What else could she say? She’d worked too long as a US Marshal to admit that a single mistake in judgment had her questioning every decision. “Is there anything else?”
“Just one more thing. I’ve given her leeway to tie up loose ends on an old case.”
“So, she won’t be totally focused on this assignment?” The thought sent a shiver down Evan’s spine. Distractions led to mistakes, which resulted in bigger problems. She shook her head. “I have to take on a rogue DEA agent whose attention will be divided between our fugitive case and whatever else she’s working on.”
“She won’t be actively pursuing another case, just searching for information. I granted her a degree of flexibility as a favor to DEA in exchange for her expertise on Winston.”
“That doesn’t exactly reassure me, sir. Flexibility to an agent who’s been undercover so long can mean anything.”
“I trust you to handle the situation as you see fit.”
Evan couldn’t help digging for more. “Do her loose ends have anything to do with Madeline’s case?” Madeline’s case, which had everything to do with Evan’s latest mistake and would definitely spill over to this operation.
“No, it’s nothing that will affect your pursuit of these fugitives.”
Maybe not, but worrying when the new agent’s agenda would jump up and bite her in the ass would certainly be distracting. Command was a double-edged sword, sometimes a blessing, others a curse. Today definitely felt like the latter. She gave Michael her best blank-faced smile. Mental or emotional preoccupation could be just as dangerous as a physical liability, and she was betting the new agent came with plenty of both.
Frankie stood on tiptoes and peeked through the square window in the office door to get a lay of the land before going inside. A typical government office—open rectangular space with conference room and a hallway leading farther back, probably to interview areas. Three old wooden desks, two occupied and one covered with papers, a more modern setup with computer stack, also occupied, and a sleek metal and glass desk off to the side completely clean. She balanced the biscuit bag on top of the donut box with one hand and opened the door with the other. “Somebody order room service?” She shouldered the door wider and smiled.
The three men gave her skeptical stares until a guy with a military haircut moved forward, blocking her path. “We seldom turn down food, but are you sure you’re in the right place?”
“Violent Fugitive Task Force?”
“Damn right.” A guy with sandy red hair and a light mustache, resembling a young Ron Howard, rose from his desk. “Let her in, Hank. She had to have ID to get past security.” He turned to Frankie. “We’ll gladly unburden you.”
When marine guy stepped aside, Frankie headed straight for the vacant desk and spread the food out on top. The guys gawked, but she put it down to her spiked hair and eclectic clothes and offered her hand. “I’m Frankie Strong, DEA, assigned to your task force temporarily as a liaison on the Winston case.”
“Todd Dean.” The red-mustached man spoke first. “Welcome aboard. What’s in the bag?”
“Biscuitville biscuits, half ham and egg, half bacon and egg.”
“Sweet.” Todd took two donuts from the box and slid them on his thumb like rings and pulled two biscuits from the bag. He walked to the third man in the room who sat in a wheelchair behind two huge computer screens and deposited half his bounty on the desk. “And this is Aaron Isley, aka Harry Potter.” Todd drew circles around his eyes and pointed to Aaron’s black, round-rimmed glasses. “Potter’s our tech genius.”
“Hi, Aaron, nice to meet you.” Aaron pushed the glasses up on his nose, and Frankie could’ve sworn he blushed. She wondered how he’d ended up in a metal chariot, but a first meeting wasn’t the time to ask no matter how many biscuits and donuts she brought. “Please tell me you have coffee.”
“Always,” Aaron said, pointing to a corner cabinet with a Keurig on top.
Frankie waited for the military man to introduce himself, but he was still evaluating her. There was always one who required more work, but she’d learned the fine art of wooing and winning friends at an early age. “Have I screwed up already?”
He finally offered his hand but kept looking to where she’d deposited her bribes. “Hank Korley. Thanks for this.”
“Is something wrong, Hank?”
He turned to Aaron and pointed at the food-strewn desk. The three men shared a laugh, and Hank added, “I’ll let you find out for yourself. Experience is sometimes the best teacher.”
Frankie made a cup of coffee, perched on the edge of the desk beside the food, and grabbed a chocolate glazed custard filled donut. She chewed for a bit and let the silence settle while the others enjoyed the treats. When the time felt right, she said, “Wish I had a dollar for each stale donut I’ve fished out of dumpsters.”
“I was so hungry on a stakeout one time…” Todd said, his tale was drowned out by boos and hisses from the other guys.
“Not that tired old story again,” Aaron said.
Pretty soon everyone was sharing war stories, the yarns growing bigger and the laughs louder. When the laughter died, they all migrated toward the coffee pot again, and Frankie got down to business.
“So, who’s the boss of this crowd? If I had to guess, I’d say Hank.” She already knew the answer from her late-night intelligence gathering, but stroking the reluctant one sometimes produced results, and a few minutes alone with the troops went a long way toward bonding.
“Nope,” Hank said. A cautious man or a political one. She wasn’t sure yet.
“Evangeline Spears,” Todd said, “Evan when she’s nice. Spears when she’s not and stabs you with those black eyes.”
“Is she a ball breaker?”
Hank stuffed the remainder of a donut in his mouth to keep from answering, and Aaron chose that moment to adjust the arms of his wheelchair but finally looked up and said, “She’s a good supervisor.”
“She could stand to loosen up a bit,” Todd added. “Too by the book sometimes, but she has her reasons.” He glanced at Aaron.
Hank and Todd seemed particularly attentive to Aaron, and neither of them was telling Frankie everything, but she understood their reluctance. She was the new kid who had to prove her loyalty and reliability, but she tried once more. “What reasons?”
Hank cleared his throat. “I’m not sure we should talk about this right now.”
“Why not?” Todd asked, flicking donut sugar from his moustache. “Everybody knows what happened.” His tone was a cross between sadness and anger, but Frankie couldn’t tell which was dominant or to whom his anger was directed.
“Not now,” Hank said. “Leave it.”
“Okay, no problem, guys,” Frankie said. “Guess I better be ready for anyth—”
The office door swung open, and Evan Spears stood framed in the doorway. She was taller than Frankie had imagined, and the ankle-length black coat gave off a Gestapo vibe. The guys straightened a little as she passed. When she briefly focused on Frankie, a feeling shot through her as intense and fleeting as Evan’s dark gaze.
“What’s going on?” Evan’s tone was cool, matter-of-fact, and her presence filled the room with confidence and the protectiveness of a mother bear for her cubs. “Who are you, and what can we do for you?”
“Boss, this is—”
She stuck out her hand. “Thank you, Hank, but I asked her.”
Frankie imagined the mental ticks as Evan visually assessed her—small stature, weird hair, eccentric vibe, and shabby clothes, which now seemed a poor statement choice. Frankie looked like a vagabond off the street compared to Evan’s tailored shirt, trousers, and dapper tweed jacket that screamed money, style, and control—three things Frankie couldn’t claim.
Without her usual surveillance to fall back on, she had no idea what Evan was like, so she kowtowed, offering her hand and infusing her tone with deference. “DEA agent Francesca Strong, reporting for duty, but you can call me Frankie. You must be Evan Spears. Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
Evan didn’t shake her hand. “I am, and it’s customary to report to the agent in charge on a new assignment.”
“But you weren’t here—”
“I’m not sure how DEA operates, but in the Marshals Service we follow protocol.”
The line was clearly drawn—hard-ass supervisor, by the book operation. Nothing to do but play along and try to win her over. “I apologize, ma’am. I meant no disrespect. I brought a goodwill gesture.” She motioned toward where she’d left the food. All that remained were the empty biscuit bag, donut box, and the crumbs and powdered sugar that coated the glass surface of the desk.
Evan’s face paled. Shit. The boss’s desk. From her horrified expression, Frankie guessed Evan was a control freak. The learning experience Hank mentioned. She was off to a terrific start.
Evan bit her lip to keep from saying something she’d regret. Michael had refused her final appeal this morning, and she’d returned to the office in a foul mood. She’d watched from the hallway as Frankie, with the blond spikes of an eighties rocker and ill-fitting thrift store clothes, threw the room and her agents into chaos. Evan’s desk had become a health hazard while the guys swapped war stories and scattered biscuit crumbs instead of work. But Frankie also laughed and bonded with the guys easily, something Evan envied. She wasn’t sure she’d managed that after three years with them.
“Let me clean this up,” Frankie said. “Sorry. I didn’t realize this was your desk and you were so—”
“So what?” Evan snapped.
The guys snickered behind her, and Evan whirled and waved the case file at them. “Get back to work, if you’re not in a carb coma.”
“Right, boss. On it, boss,” Todd answered, grinning like a drunken fool.
When she turned around, Frankie was bent over the desk, working furiously at the mess, her butt swaying side to side. Her cropped top had crept up, revealing the pale skin of her back and a prominent spine and ribs—the embodiment of the street urchin, Sing Song, she’d portrayed in her last undercover job. Had she starved herself for the role or had the assignment and subsequent shooting taken its toll like Evan’s last case? She shook her head. As long as Frankie could physically perform the job, it was none of Evan’s concern.
“Again, I’m sorry for this.” Frankie rubbed the powdered sugar with her hands, smeared it, and wiped the residue down the legs of her black tights.
“You’re just making it worse.” Evan shooed Frankie away and took a pen from her inside jacket pocket to push the box and bag off the desk into the trash can beside it. “Go to the bathroom down the hall, get some wet paper towels, and take care of this. I’ll wait for you in the conference room.” She nodded toward a small glassed-in space.
When Frankie disappeared down the hall, Evan turned back to her team. “Quick. What do you think? We could be stuck with her temporarily.”
“She fits nicely in our gang of misfit toys,” Todd said. “I like her.”
“You like anybody who feeds you, Todd. What about you, Aaron?” He often sensed nuances the rest of them missed, and his opinion mattered most.
“That’s all? She’s nice?” Somebody besides her had to see the problem with Frankie.
Hank sat at his desk clicking his favorite Marines logo pen on the surface and catching it as it sprang in the air. “Hank, care to weigh in?”
“She’s friendly and seems to fit in…”
Evan had chosen the perfect team to supplement her deficits—Todd was personable and completely open; Aaron’s emotional intelligence and tech skills were invaluable; and Hank kept her politically informed, but he was holding back. “I’m sensing a but, Hank. Hurry. She’ll be back any minute.”
“The two of you’ll clash, big time. Oil and water. But if you can handle the pressure, we’ll be fine with her. Your call, boss.”
Hank nailed it. According to her file, every assignment Frankie had worked at DEA in her six-year career had been long-term undercover, basically unsupervised. Reintroducing an agent with that kind of experience to a team with defined protocols would be a supervisor’s nightmare, regardless of Michael’s reassurance that she’d have no direct supervisory responsibility.
She started toward the conference room and remembered her other news. “By the way, we’ve got a new case. In the field. I’ll brief you as soon as I finish her orientation.” The guys cheered as she closed the door behind her. If they were as happy a week from now, she’d be astonished. Francesca Strong was trouble.
A few minutes later, Frankie tapped on the door and came in without waiting for an answer. “I think your desk is as clean as before, but I didn’t know where to put your stuff.”
“Fine.” Evan waved her to a chair on the opposite side of the table. First order of business, maintain distance and keep things professional. “Tell me about the Winston case.”
Frankie pinned her with blue eyes so wide that she looked almost frightened, but in their depths, Evan detected only determination and curiosity. She quickly glanced away. Staring into someone’s eyes was a gift that conveyed respect, interest, or sexual curiosity, none of which she was about to afford Frankie Strong.
“The Winston case, a prescription drug diversion operation utilizing homeless vets as the distribution ring. I was undercover as a homeless, mentally ill woman and conducted extensive surveillance on the boss and the group’s MO before agent Colby Vincent infiltrated the gang.”
“The homeless are basically invisible to the world, but a mentally challenged individual is even more so. People avoid you like three-day-old fish left in the sun. I got close, really close.” Her voice dropped to a suggestive timbre on the last two words, and Evan shifted uncomfortably.
Frankie swiped a hand through her hair, and Evan noticed a hole under the arm of her beige linen shirt. The fabric was so worn Frankie’s nipples stood out prominently. She obviously didn’t wear a bra but really didn’t need one, a distinction Evan shouldn’t have noticed as a supervisor but found hard to ignore as a woman. She looked back at the open folder in front of her. In her experience, an agent who didn’t take pride in her appearance probably let other things slide as well. Her reservations about Agent Strong increased by the minute.
“Do you have other questions, Agent Spears?”
Frankie smiled, revealing slightly crooked top teeth, compatible with the rest of her eccentric appearance, which gave Evan a sense of appreciation for the uniformity. After reading Frankie’s file, even one degree of consistency was appreciated.
“Your record in undercover assignments is impressive. Weapons smuggling operation with a group of skinheads, human trafficking in the Asian community, and back-to-back drug cases, one involving a motorcycle gang, the other in the homeless community. You’re apparently quite resourceful.”
“And that worries you.”
Frankie picked up on her tone and accurately interpreted its meaning, which didn’t surprise Evan, because Frankie survived dangerous situations by reading people’s emotions and the subtleties of their behavior. But Evan was usually better at hiding her own feelings, and would be again. “My concern is the amount of time you’ve spent undercover, which can lead to isolation, temptations of the criminal lifestyle, and problems readjusting to the real world.”
Frankie nervously twirled a black and silver ring on her left thumb with her index finger before meeting Evan’s gaze. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage. You’ve obviously read my file. Personal history too or just the work parts?”
“Why? Is there something in your background I need to know? Something relevant?” Frankie shook her head, and Evan added, “Work history only.”
“Care to share your assignments, Agent Spears?”
Frankie had courage for someone in what amounted to an employment interview, and Evan admired that, but asserting it so early was also another warning sign, an indication of her years without supervision and lack of command etiquette. “This meeting is about whether you can adapt to working with other agents.”
“Let’s be honest, Evan.”
“Fine, Agent Spears. This meeting is about sizing me up. I’m on the team whether you like it or not, and my guess is you don’t. Not sure why, but the vibe is clear.” Frankie lowered her gaze and let out a long breath before continuing in a softer, more conciliatory tone. “All I ask is that you judge me by results, not words on a page.”
Evan bit back a retort about ends not always justifying the means and turned to the other issue. “I hate to bring it up, but are you still having problems from the shooting? PTSD?” Frankie didn’t move, her expression blank, and her eyes focused on something in the distance—a trained response Evan also used to portray calm and control while covering her emotions.
“An occasional bad dream, but I’m managing.”
Evan had told Michael she was managing as well. Everybody had the right to handle their emotional issues as they saw fit until it interfered with the job. She’d have to afford Frankie the same courtesy. “Medication?”
“That’s good.” Evan jotted a few notes and tried to get a read on Frankie, but her expressions were as impassive as the roles she’d played in the field were varied.
“Is there something else you want to ask, Agent Spears?” Frankie slouched in the chair, stretched her legs out under the table, touched Evan’s foot, and didn’t pull back.
Evan’s muscles tightened at the contact, but she forced herself not to react. Was the touch inadvertent or was Frankie testing her, pushing for a reaction, hoping to throw Evan off kilter? Men in positions of authority had tested her in the past, and she’d managed them with ease. Whatever Frankie’s game, it further proved her recklessness, and Evan wasn’t playing. After a few seconds passed to acknowledge the contact and show she wasn’t bothered by it, Evan pulled her feet up under her chair and took a deep breath. “How do you feel about working with a team under supervision?”
Frankie glanced up at Evan through thick black lashes that contrasted with her blond hair. “Honestly, I get along with most people. Guess that’s why I’m your liaison, which doesn’t really make you my boss, Agent Spears.”
“So Michael tells me, but every team has a leader. Since we’re being honest, I’m not comfortable having you work on something that distracts your attention from this case. Care to share what that’s all about?”
“I’ll be tracking down some information on a cold case. Nothing to do with Winston, and I assure you, I won’t be distracted, even if you try to play boss.”
Was Frankie trying to irritate her or was she flirting? Evan tamped down her snarky comeback and kept it professional. “The Marshals have strict policies and procedures that must be followed to assure our cases are legally sound. If you work with us, in whatever capacity, you have to follow the guidelines, and it’s my job to see that you do. Can you understand that?”
“I understand policies and procedures, but I don’t agree with always following them to the letter. You have heard of the spirit of the law and officer discretion?” Frankie grinned and brushed the edge of her top teeth with her tongue.
The action was as provocative as Frankie’s comment, but Evan would not be provoked or distracted, not again. “Maybe that approach works in undercover work, but not here. If that’s your attitude, this arrangement isn’t going to work. I’d appreciate any intelligence you have about Winston’s activities, but we don’t need you.” She gathered the file and stood to leave. Convincing Michael that Frankie was unsuitable would be a problem, but she’d damn sure try again. “I’ll brief my supervisor, and he’ll contact yours. Thank you for coming in.”
“Evan…Agent Spears, wait.” Before Evan got to the door, Frankie was at her side. She held her palms up and all flippancy vanished. “Wait.” Her tone was almost pleading.
Evan wavered at the sad tone and its underlying urgency. Why did Frankie want this so much? What wasn’t she saying? An image of another eager face masking deceit flashed through Evan’s mind and her resolve returned. “I can’t risk the safety of my team on someone who can’t take direction. I won’t.”
Frankie reached out and almost touched Evan’s arm before pulling back. “Give me a chance? You don’t have to trust me yet. I know I have to earn that. Just let me work.”
“Why should I take a chance on you?”
Frankie fiddled with her ring again before answering. “Because Matthew Winston is responsible for the death of a good man and the betrayal of honorable veterans. I was almost sexually assaulted on this case, starved myself for months, killed a man, and came face-to-face with part of my past I never knew existed. The bastard owes me. We want the same thing. I promise I’ll make this work.”
Evan held Frankie’s gaze and felt her anger, pain, and frustration. And damn it, she believed her. She prayed her instincts got this one right. “Let’s brief the team.”
“Should we hug it out first?” Frankie opened her arms and moved toward Evan with a roguish grin, her energy once again playful. Whether she was being purposely unprofessional, stupid, or just risky, it was hard to tell.
“Don’t push it.” When Evan opened the door and waved at Frankie, the guys cheered.
“Guess we have a new squad member, right?” Todd asked.
“Looks like you’re stuck with me.” Frankie gave Todd and Aaron a fist bump before glancing at Evan. “For now.”
“Let’s get you guys back in the field before I end up in an insane asylum.” Evan slid four stapled packets of information from a folder and distributed them. “This is what we have on the drug diversion case and Winston’s possible connection to the murder of Franklin Weber. Read it tonight and let’s discuss recommendations for how to locate Winston and Tyndall. We’ve had a nationwide alert out for the past three weeks with no results, and international inquires have turned up nothing. He might have left the country, but we’re not sure.”
“What can the new kid tell us?” Hank asked, nodding at Frankie.
“Let’s hold off on that until tomorrow,” Evan said. “I’d like fresh eyes on the details before we hear from Agent Strong.” She looked at the clock and decided the guys deserved a break, and she needed time to process her impressions of Frankie and make one more appeal for access to her full personnel file. “Let’s make an early day of it. You’ve got reading to do. See you tomorrow, and be ready to hit the ground running.”
“Lunch is on me at Stumble Stilskins,” Frankie said, to another round of cheers. Hank led the way, and Todd helped push Aaron out, but Frankie stopped in front of Evan’s desk. “Are you joining us?”
“No, but thanks for asking.”
“And thank you for giving me a chance.”
Without looking up, Evan replied, “Don’t make me sorry.” Anger, pain, and frustration like she’d seen in Frankie’s eyes motivated good agents, but it could also make them careless. She watched Frankie walk away and already regretted her decision.