"Echo One, this is Echo Five, I'm in pursuit of suspect." FBI Agent Angel Farin panted as she ran past a boarded up house, her heart pounding in excitement. She sprinted into the alley, the stench so foul she sucked in her breath and held it. The narrow space wasn’t her friend, more than the fact the bums used it as a bathroom; it limited her movement. This part of Chicago wasn’t on the must-see list for out-of-towners.
Cars raced by on the other end of the alley, their roars magnified by the close walls. The skinny teen sprinting past a dumpster matched the photo she had in her pocket perfectly. Didn't matter, she would know the kid anywhere; she had been tracking this particular gang of bank robbers for six months. She could pick him out from a crowd of clones, easy.
Still running, she frowned. Strange he would take the tracker. This group wasn't sloppy. Taking the electronic device which tracked their location was careless, especially for an experienced bank robbery team like this group.
"Roger, Echo Five on our way. Be careful," her team leader said.
"FBI. Stop, now!" Angel pointed her Glock 22 directly at the suspect. He skidded to a halt and turned to face her.
"Get down. Get down, now!"
The arm that held the bag of money he had taken from the bank twitched; other than that, there was no sign he was going to comply with her orders.
Angel tensed, a million thoughts cascading through her mind.
Is he armed? He's moving. Is he going to reach for a gun? He's just a kid… Can I shoot him? Will I be able to shoot a fourteen-year-old boy? Am I in the best position to shoot him? I don't have my vest on. If he shoots me—he could kill me.
"Get your hands up." Angel circled around him, trying to place herself in the optimum position for defensive action. He wasn't listening to her. He had that wide-eyed look, the one kids had when they were high on crack, or whatever the drug of the day was.
"I will shoot you. Slowly raise your hands."
He wasn't responding to her commands. Then it happened, faster than she dreamed it could. His hand flew to his waist, grabbed something out of his belt, and raised his arm. He moved too fast for her brain to register what he was reaching for. She wasn't positive about taking the shot. She hesitated. Christ, he's a kid.
He fired, and suddenly she was sure. As the bullet struck her, she fired her own round. One shot was all she got off before the bullet tore through her shoulder and she went down. Another shot hit her leg.
Falling, she was falling. She didn't feel the ground come up and meet her body until she lay flat against it. She didn't feel anything. Strange subjects floated through her mind.
My dog, I left Wana inside. If I die, no one will let her out.
Everything around her moved in slow motion. Her ears were ringing.
The suspect stood over her, pointing his gun directly at her head.
Angel squinted as her vision narrowed on the gun. Then the kid turned.
She heard someone yelling at him. He swiveled back to her. She knew at that moment she was staring into the eyes of her executioner, the kid she couldn’t shoot. Her hesitation had caused her death.
Another bullet sped through the air. She didn’t feel the pain as it struck her. Warm liquid oozed down the side of her face. Angel dropped her head to the right and tried to see, but her vision blurred. She wanted to raise her arm, wanted to get off another shot, but her limb wouldn't move. It seemed as if someone had tied her arms to the pavement. She could feel her heart pumping, feel it in her head and the slow pulse of her blood dripping out of her body onto the pavement.
A voice came, sounding far away although she knew it was nearby. "Get into the car, Sam, you idiot. She's already dead. She's a fucking Federal Agent. There'll be a million cops here in a matter of seconds. Get into the fucking car, ass-wipe! We did what we were ordered to do. Don’t get thrown in jail because of it."
Red, the car was red, old, it was an old car, and the man was a white male, scruffy. With one final look, the kid tucked the gun back into his belt and ran toward the car. He ducked in. She tried to file the facts in her head before she lost consciousness. She knew it was coming, a whirling black hole. She felt it hover on the edge of her brain, waiting to suck her in.
The COM attached to her ear blared, the sound piercing. She winced.
"Echo Five, status? Echo Five, where are you? Echo Five, report. Angel, what's happening?"
In a last ditch effort to save her life, Angel slid her arm off the pavement to her COM. It took all her remaining energy to press the broadcast button.
"I'm down, shot, corner of ninth and Sorell. Need ambulance." Her hand dropped back to the pavement, her strength seeping out of her along with her lifeblood.
"Angel, Angel, shit … hang in there. Help's on the way."
Right. Easy for him to say. She closed her eyes as the world disappeared.
"Zeik, where are you?"
Holding up the newspaper to cover his face, Carlos Zeik pressed a button under his shirt. The wire was connected to the Secret Service issue COM, the earpiece that was tucked in his ear barely visible.
"I'm in the coffee shop. Got an eye on the suspect,” he murmured. “Amazing what you can find in one of these places. Like the girlfriend of a murderer. Stand by."
"I told you to stay outside." By the saw-edged tone of her voice, his boss, Special Agent Jo Clarin—a force to be reckoned with—was not happy.
Zeik shrugged, even though she couldn’t see him. Jo was a little over seven months pregnant, coordinating this well planned operation from her desk and as grumpy as a mama bear awakened early from her winter nap. Zeik and all of the other agents tried to keep out of her way.
He’d begun the surveillance by lurking outside the corner of 78th street and International. But as much as he tried to fit in, his blond surfer-goes-to-college looks didn’t blend in with the gang members and the occasional working girl strolling by. He was as out of place in this neighborhood as the locals would be on Rodeo Drive. It wouldn't take them long to spot him, and when you were fingered as a Law Enforcement Officer in Oakland, it came in the form of a bullet.
"Needed to come inside. Let me do my job, Jo." He kept his voice low. He didn't want to be made by the suspect's girlfriend, Callie Jones. She was their link to the fugitive of the day, a major gangbanger wanted for murder and she was sitting in the coffee shop not twenty feet away. Callie's boyfriend was Jacob Warner, a career criminal who, if Zeik had his way, would be delivered into Federal custody very soon.
"Okay, Z." She sounded as if she spoke through clenched teeth. "It's your case. Run it the way you want."
Thank you. He sat back in the chair to watch Callie while he sipped his coffee. He'd worked under Jo Clarin for nearly five years now. It was time to break off on his own. The squad used him, his looks and his smarts, to get what they wanted. He wasn't bitter. He had skills that would catapult him to the top of his career with the FBI. He’d learned what he could from Jo, and now it was his turn to run an operation.
Making up his mind to get the action started, he held his still warm cup of coffee, got up and walked to the counter. The mousy counter girl simpered under his smile. Using a small amount of charm and a little social engineering, he found out what his target was drinking and ordered one.
He approached Callie's table, the two coffees in his hands. Sliding into the chair across from her, he pasted on his I-think-you're-gorgeous smile and set the coffees down.
"How ya doing today?"
Callie glanced up from her book. She smiled back, her face turning a subtle shade of pink. She was sweet and so young, a shame she was shacked up with such a loser. He noticed she sported a black eye unsuccessfully covered by makeup. In that instant, he decided what tactic to play.
"What's a beautiful woman like you doing here all alone?" He pushed the coffee toward her. "And in need of a refill, as well."
"Oh, wow, thanks." She flipped her hand back and forth. Nervous; she was nervous. He knew what she saw; a good-looking man paying attention to her, telling her she was pretty. Parking his elbow on the table, he rested his chin in his hand and studied her. He let his expression show the real concern he felt.
"Tell me where the man who beat you is and I'll take care of him for you. A woman like you should be cherished, not abused."
Her hand flew to her eye and she sucked in an audible breath. "No, no, it's not what you think."
He captured her flailing hand in his. Gently, he turned it over. He rubbed his thumb over her palm, feeling the calloused and rough skin. This woman lived a difficult life. His eyes connected with hers as he slowly raised her palm to his lips and pressed a kiss in the middle. "Way too beautiful to be beat on."
Her eyes widened, tears welling up.
"Tell me where Jacob Warner is, Callie. I swear I'll protect you. I’ll see to it, personally."
She snatched her hand from his and sat back in her chair. She stared at him, horror in her doe brown eyes.
He held out his hand in greeting. "FBI Special Agent Carl Zeik, at your service." He winked.
Her teeth chewed on her lower lip. She hesitated, making him think of a filly that needed soothing.
"I’ve never make a promise I can't keep," he whispered as he moved his hand closer to hers. She jerked further back. "I swear it." He kept his voice low with a sleepy quality, his ‘horse whisperer’ voice, Jo called it.
Tentatively, she inched her hand forward. Bit by bit, she laid her hand into his and clasped down.
"Where is he?"
"You swear I'll be safe? You promise? He'll kill me," she squeaked out, her voice breaking off in a sob.
He released her hand. Using his thumb, he wiped the single tear from her face. He loved women, all women, tall and short, wide or small. Jo joked God made him to please women. And this girl touched his heart.
"I swear," he said.
She gave him a single nod. "945 Orchard Street, apartment five. He's dangerous, has a bunch of guns and is drunk most the time. Don't go in alone or he'll kill you."
"Is there a back door?"
When she nodded, Zeik bounced to his feet and pointed at her. "Don't leave here." He spoke into COM. "Jo, 945 Orchard Street. Get SWAT. He's in a bad mood. I'll lead them."
"Roger that. I'm on it. How did you get the information? Please don't tell me it’s fruit from the poisonous tree. I don’t want to jeopardize a case for you by getting information illegally."
Zeik rolled his eyes. "I used my God-given gift."
"Ahhh, Z, you charmed her."
Striding out of the coffee shop, Zeik smiled. "Yeah, I used my charm. I want an agent over here to pick up Callie. Need to get her into protective custody until we pick this bastard up."
"You got it."
"Thanks. Let's meet at the office for an ops briefing, then hit it. I need to grab a judge."
"Roger that, see ya there."
* * * *
Zeik stood in front of a group of over thirty agents. They were sprawled all over the office conference room, some in chairs, some sitting on the conference room table, and some standing. Against the wall was a huge gold shield with the words ‘Fidelity, Bravery, and Integrity,’ the watchful eye of the FBI. The enlarged badge reminded him of their mission as he planned his operation. Zeik pointed to the white board.
"There are two points of entry, here and here." He touched the front and back door on the sketch. "We can expect him to be armed and dangerous. I've got an after-hours warrant, guys. No knock. Be quick, if you know what I mean. Here's the operation plan." He snatched papers off a desk and started passing them out. "There's a photo in there of Warner."
As the team read his plan and memorized Jacob Warner's menacing face, Zeik grabbed his tactical vest and slipped it on. The letters FBI stood out in bright yellow on the front of the vest. His movements automatic, he slipped on his protective SWAT hood. He'd been a member of SWAT for three years, an added duty for all Violent Crimes agents.
"Ready?" he asked.
The room erupted in a wave of affirmatives.
"Sandy, you're with me. Jim, take the back."
"On it," Sandy said, his voice gruff. His squad and SWAT mates, Jim Ellis and Sandy Krane, jumped up, ready for action. Jim was tall and slim like a marathon runner, with a shiny bald head and tidy scruff of a goatee. Sandy supported a short hairstyle left over from his military days. With Sandy you could take the soldier out of the active duty service, but you could never take the Marine out of him. They'd trained, worked, and partied together for years. Working with men like these was the reason why he was alive and breathing. The best of the best, that's what they called their squad. He slid onto the chair next to Jo. Gently, he rubbed her bulging belly.
"Can't come out on this one, boss," he said. "Not this time. Troy would kill me."
She overlapped his hand with her own. "I know. It's okay. You have it covered. Nice work. Be careful, OK?"
Lately there were times the lioness turned into a pussycat. It was a miracle to see, this strong woman softened with the gift of pregnancy. Obviously, her hormones were fluctuating, scary one minute, lovable the next. There were times when he didn’t know whether to hug or growl at her.
"I'll be fine." He patted her belly. "Take care of Troy, Jr."
Troy Vinstonie was her husband and former world famous NASCAR driver. Zeik had never seen such a deep, binding love as they had.
He envied them.
"Go get that bastard." She poked her finger at him, her expression stern. "He's been a thorn in our side for over a year."
"You got it." He jumped up and followed his squad out the door.
* * * *
"Ready the ram." He steadied the MP-5 assault rifle in his hands.
He could see the apartment from the surveillance van. The white-sided, brick-front building sat in a fairly crowded middle class neighborhood. An outside apartment, this was good.
It was early, the horizon still pink from the rising sun, most people still asleep. The street was quiet, not even birds chirping. As if sensing an approaching battle, they’d flown away. Now his squad was getting ready to wake up the area.
“Five Delta, radio check. You ready?” he questioned over the general COM.
"Roger, Five Delta here,” his leader spoke into his ear. “We read you, five by five. Standing by for the green."
"Go. Go. Go," he said calmly into his radio. Even though he felt energy pulsing in his blood and every cell was at attention, now was not the time to let adrenaline get the best of him.
Ten agents sprinted in formation toward the door. Another set would be coming from the back, the remainder surrounding the side of the house. Zeik joined the front group. His heaviest agent took the battering ram and busted the door as if it was kindling. The team raced into the apartment, each taking his assigned route, some right, some left.
Zeik went down the middle. They meticulously cleared each room. He sensed the tension, so thick it seeped into his bones. Until they found their suspect, everyone would be on edge.
"Clear," he screamed as he moved into the next room.
Faster than he could blink, a tall, heavyset thug jumped from around the corner with a shotgun cradled in his hands. Jacob Warner. Zeik reacted without thought. Pivoting his body to the right, he turned, brought his hands up, grabbed Warner’s arm, gave the gangbanger’s wrist a violent twist and snatched the gun right out of his beefy hands. Just like they taught me to do in training, he thought and inwardly smiled.
Sandy immediately tackled Warner, taking him to the ground and cuffing him before he could spit.
"God damn, Sandy, nice tackle." Zeik thumped Sandy's back.
"Thought he was going to take you out with that shotgun, Z."
Zeik pushed Jacob over onto his back and began a full body search. He pulled a knife from Warner’s pants and another gun from his belt. He handed the weapons to Sandy, who cleared the gun and pocketed the knife. Warner was swearing something, fierce words like, “fuck you pig, get off me, you’re hurting me.” Zeik felt no sympathy for him.
"Nah, I had it all under control," Zeik said, back to normal. All in a day's work. They were still alive, weren't they? "However, let's just say at that moment, I was happy to be teamed with a combat trained and tried Marine."
Sandy chuckled as Zeik hauled Jacob to his feet. "And you, Jacob Warner, are under arrest for murder,” Zeik said. “I'm happy to inform you this time you get Federal prosecution as a career criminal." Zeik pressed his COM button. "Jo, we're bringing Jacob home." He heard a hint of pride in his own voice and didn't feel embarrassed.
This case had been his from the very beginning. He'd been trying to nab Jacob for over a year. Now he tasted victory, and it was sweeter than the flavor of his favorite beer.
"Nice work, Z. Jack Farin needs to talk to us when you get back."
"Roger that. On my way in." With Sandy's hand locked on one of Jacob's arms and Zeik's on the other, the man didn't stand a chance of escape.
"What does Farin need?"
"Don't know, but he specifically asked for you and me."
"All right, see ya in a few."
* * * *
Supervisor Special Agent Jack Farin sat back in his high back leather chair and steepled his fingers under his chin. Usually calm and collected, it appeared Jack hadn't slept in a week. His thick hair was tousled and new lines scored the corners of his eyes.
"I asked you both here, not for a professional reason, but for a personal one."
Zeik shifted in his seat and raised a single eyebrow at Jo. She shrugged and gave him her I-don't-know expression.
"It's my daughter." Jack's face softened. Zeik frequently saw the same look on Jo's face when she talked about Troy.
"Sir, I didn't know you had a daughter," Zeik said.
Jack pulled a photo from his wallet and set it on his desk. Zeik leaned forward and picked up the picture. He felt as if he'd been hit over the head with an anvil. The woman in the photograph was exquisite. She had long raven hair, light green eyes with an exotic tilt, dark brown chocolate skin and a smile that nearly knocked him out.
A shiver tripped down his body. He swallowed. He'd never had such a strong reaction to a picture of a woman before.
"Her mother and I met in Hungary, when I was training in Budapest. She was a law enforcement officer from India," Jack said.
Zeik nodded, still holding the picture, not wanting to let it go. That explained her exotic look, her foreign appearance.
"Carl," Jack continued, "I know you've worked undercover at Berkeley College."
Zeik glanced at Jo, hoping for some sort of answers. She shrugged. "Um, yeah," he said. "Sure, all the time. I look young enough to blend in."
"Something's wrong," Jack mumbled. His fingers drummed his desk and he appeared to be speaking to himself instead of Zeik and Jo.
"I'm sorry, sir, I don't understand." Zeik frowned. Jack was falling apart in front of him. This was getting creepy.
"What's going on?" Urgency rang in Jo's voice.
Jack lifted his head, his fingers stilling as he snapped out of his musing. He took a deep breath, his bulky chest expanding. "Angel used to be an FBI Agent in Chicago."
Zeik mentally whistled.
"Really, what Squad?" Jo asked as she took the picture of Angel from Zeik.
"She worked Violent Crimes, like us. The Bank Robbery Squad."
"Wow, really? Is she still there?" Jo handed the photo back to Zeik. He gazed at it, as if caught in a spell, even as he tried to peel his eyes away from her compelling image and listen to Jack.
"She quit. Left after a shooting."
Zeik sat up in his chair, his gut clenching. Somehow, he knew the answer before Jack said it. He remembered now. An agent was shot in Chicago over a year ago. Agents weren't often shot, and when they were, you listened and learned. The higher ups didn't give too many details on this one, kept it under wraps for some reason. Maybe that's why it remained in his memory. Unfinished business.
"Jack, it wasn't her, was it?" Jo's fist clenched in her lap. "The one shot last year?"
"Yes." Jack's jaw tightened, his eyes darkening.
"We were never really clear. Only Angelina knows the story and she can't remember. The squad was following a suspect. He'd taken a tracker from the bank. They had his position narrowed down. Angel arrived first. Next thing the squad knew they were getting a call she was down. She was shot." He tapped the side of his face, at his temple. "In the head."
Zeik’s heart pounded furiously. For some reason, he didn't want to hear the rest, but he knew he had to.
"Three shots, one to the shoulder, one to the head, and one to the leg. She doesn't remember anything, not much at all. Not just the shooting, but the whole case. After her recovery, she quit and took a teaching job out here, at Berkeley."
"Lately…" Jack loosened his tie and ran his hand through his hair, disheveling it even more, wisps sticking up in the air. "Lately she's been out of sorts. I can't describe it. She came for dinner the other night. In the middle of our meal she received a call. I could hear her asking someone how they had gotten her number. She seemed scared. That's not like her."
Jo leaned forward. "Jack…”
He held up his hands. "She's a strong woman, rarely frightened by anything, but when she came back to the table she was white as a sheet. Her hands were shaking so bad she couldn't hold her water glass. I asked her what was wrong. She blew me off. Said it was a wrong number. I know it wasn't. She’s never been a good liar." He paused and swallowed. "I'm worried."
"Did they catch the man who shot her?" Zeik asked.
"No. The case was left unresolved and closed." His open hand slapped down on the desktop.
"Do you think the phone call has something to do with the case?"
"I don't know. I had the files pulled and sent from Chicago." He pointed to the folders on his desk. About five, crammed full. “There are also several boxes logged into the evidence room.”
"Wow." Jo grabbed a folder and started flipping through it.
"I know you guys are really busy, but I'm asking as a favor, Jo. Could you release Zeik to help?"
She glanced at Zeik. He nodded.
"Sure, Jack," she said. "What can we do?"
"I want Zeik to analyze her case. Study it." He turned to speak directly to Zeik. "Then I want you to go undercover, enrolling in one of Angel's classes. Get to know her, befriend her. See if I'm going crazy or something is going on."
Zeik blew out a strained breath. "What will happen if she finds out you sent me?"
"She'll never forgive me."
"Yeah, that's what I thought." Zeik began loading the files into his arms. "I'll be enrolled by tomorrow. What does she teach?"
"Perfect." Zeik stood and moved to leave. "Happens to be the only class I needed to finish my degree."
Zeik nodded, pretending he didn't see the moisture in Jack's eyes. "No problem. No problem at all." And he meant every word. He never believed in psychic powers but couldn’t shake the feeling everything that had happened so far in his life had led to this assignment: To watch over Angel.
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