I should have listened to my mother.
Stomping down the panic surging up my throat, I gripped the priceless painting. “Yes, we’ve definitely got a deal,” I said, repeating the code phrase that should have brought the SWAT team charging into my hotel room.
The door’s electronic lock clicked.
Relieved, I gulped a breath, then quickly turned it into a cough to divert the bad guys’ attention; maybe give my FBI cohorts the element of surprise when they barged in . . . any second now . . . any second . . . any—
A gun swung in my face. “You a cop?” the art dealer I’d just paid snarled.
Seriously? This was happening on my very first undercover assignment? “Do I look like a cop?” I barked. Let alone look stupid enough to fess up to it?
The flat-nosed, bald-headed crook scrutinized me with an unnerving twitch in his right eye as his six-foot-six sidekick flipped through the stacks of bills in the Gucci bag on the bed.
Resisting the urge to back step toward the door, I moistened my lips and tasted the salty tang of sweat beading my skin. Where was my backup?
Baldy edged toward the still-closed door, his gun leveled at me, as I mentally eeny-meeny-miny-moed the best cover to dive behind. After a quick gander out the peephole, he shoved his gun back into his waistband.
Okay, okay. Okay! Deep breath. I was still in the game and I couldn’t mess this up. Not when the undercover agent who’d reeled in this guy and passed me off as his art authenticator had balked at my suggestion that SWAT take me down with the crooks. I could do this. I had to. I’d finally made the FBI Art Crime Team. But if I hadn’t been the only available agent who could reliably distinguish a real Kandinsky from a fake, they never would’ve brought me in.
And they’d never use me again if I freaked out over a little setback.
To buy time to shift my racing heart back into the nonlethal zone, I propped the painting on the desk and admired it from a couple more angles, imagining how thrilled the owner would be . . . if I got it—and me—out of here in one piece.
“It’s all here,” Sidekick declared, zipping closed the bag of money I’d delivered.
I casually slanted a glance past the partially drawn drapes. Not so much as a shadow darkened the window ledge.
The guys in St. Louis wouldn’t have left me hanging this long. I glanced at the digital clock on the bedside table. Okay, it’d been less than a minute, but this wasn’t a two-bit drug buy. These guys were about to stroll out of here with half a million taxpayer dollars. In a Gucci bag, no less!
Baldy eyeballed the peephole one more time, then pressed his ear to the door.
My mother’s hysterical “You should be giving me grandbabies, not buying paintings from bad guys in some flea-bitten motel room where it’ll be days before a maid finds your cold, dead body” babbled through my brain. I hadn’t even told her why I was going to Buffalo. She’d guessed.
Well, the hotel was a notch or two above flea-bitten. I had an image to project, after all. Although, considering these guys’ mob connections, the rest of Mom’s predictions were a little too accurate for comfort. And guys like this wouldn’t stop at killing an undercover agent.
They’d go after my family too.
I gulped down another deep breath and started bargaining with God. A minute and thirty seconds, maybe forty, had passed since I’d voiced the code phrase the second time. Another attempt would be too obvious. I’ll be a better person. I promise I will.
I’ll even listen to my mother. Okay, maybe not all the time, because then I’d have to give up the job all together. But I’ll try harder.
Sidekick sized up my reflection in the mirror over the bureau. Thankfully it bore little resemblance to my usual image: bare-bones makeup job, scarcely styled long blonde hair, pale hazel eyes. I hardly recognized myself with the colored contacts, the tightly bound gray-streaked hair, and the caked-on makeup meant to make me look twenty years older. Seemingly satisfied with what he saw, Sidekick grabbed the Gucci bag. It was a crime for those disgusting nicotined fingers to be touching Gucci. But better contaminating the bag’s handles than crushing my throat.
Reflexively, I splayed my hand over my neck. After the dozens of what-if scenarios we’d run through, I should know exactly what to do. “If something goes wrong, keep them talking,” the undercover agent who’d prepared me for the assignment had said. “If they’re talking, at least they’re not shooting.”
An involuntary shiver rippled down my limbs. I could do talking. Maybe . . . maybe I could even get a lead on Granddad’s stolen painting.
My chest squeezed, but I tamped down the pang of grief and casually swept a gray-chalked lock of hair from my face. “One more thing”—I fixed my contacts-enhanced baby blues on my target—“if you happen to come across a Blacklock landscape, I have another client who’d—”
The door burst open, spewing Buffalo’s finest into the room.
I jerked the desk forward and the Kandinsky slid down the wall behind it as shouts of “FBI! Drop your weapons!” met with gunfire. I dove underneath the desk.
Baldy face-planted the carpet in front of me, his gun bouncing out of his hand.
An agent kicked the gun out of reach and cuffed Baldy’s hands behind his back as a second agent took a bead on me. “Come out from under there, lady. Slow and easy. Hands in the air.”
Baldy narrowed his eyes at me, clearly suspicious of my role in the takedown.
To the agent’s credit, he ordered me around, roughly frisked me for weapons, then yanked my arms behind my back and ratcheted on the cuffs. His muscular build, shaved head, and scarcely contained grin, reflected in the wall mirror, reminded me of actor Vin Diesel and spurred me into top form.
“I don’t understand,” I whined in my best imitation of a confused, helpless female. “What are you arresting us for?”
Another agent scooped the Kandinsky from behind the newly aerated desk.
My breath stalled with fear, but—Thank you, Lord—the priceless painting emerged unharmed.
The agent propped it on the desk. “We’ll start with possession of stolen property.”
I gasped. “It was stolen?” I pivoted toward Baldy, my eyes wide. “You sold me a hot painting?”
His shoulder rose and fell in a noncommittal half shrug.
His sidekick was too busy howling in pain to comment. By the looks of it, he hadn’t gotten off more than one shot toward the door before someone took him down, which must’ve been when he emptied the rest of his gun in my direction.
Agent “Vin” tightened his grip on my arm and shoved me out the door ahead of Baldy. “I’ll take this one down on the elevator.”
Over my dead body! I gulped air, regretting the word choice that came to mind at the unbidden image of Granddad’s body.
“She’ll never make eight flights in those heels,” he went on, as if he was doing me a favor.
Forget it. I’d climbed the eight flights. I’d go down that way, handcuffed, leg-shackled, however they wanted.
I stumbled and glared and tried to jerk out of his hold and hoped against hope I looked as if I was resisting arrest. Yes, we’d recovered the Kandinsky, but if these guys didn’t convince Baldy and Sidekick to turn informant, sooner or later—and more likely sooner—the pair would be back on the street. And criminals had a code of justice all their own. Not to mention, long memories.
They’d come looking for the person who double-crossed them, and I needed to make sure they didn’t think that person was me. Stifling a shiver, I glanced at the hall window.
It was plastered in snow—typical February weather for upstate New York—cold and blizzardy. The chance of scoring a flight home to St. Louis tonight didn’t look good. And the frigid Buffalo temps would be nothing compared to the cold shoulder my cat would give me if he had to spend a second night with only Zoe to look in on him.
“The stairs are fine,” I ground out under my breath as the agent steered me around the corner. “What was the holdup?”
“Sorry, our keycard didn’t work on the lock.”
Sorry? He sure wouldn’t sound so cavalier if he’d been the one with a gun in his face.
“I had to run down for a new one,” he went on as if I didn’t nearly get killed while he was traipsing up and down the stairs.
Well, okay, he must’ve run like the wind to do it in under three minutes. “Impressive,” I whispered grudgingly.
He shrugged. “Good job holding it together in there. We’d take you on our team any day.”
If he only knew. My stride wobbled, and he glanced down at my high-heeled T-straps. “Nice shoes.”
“I borrowed them for the job,” I admitted, even though my shaky steps were more likely from my fading adrenaline running amok.
He tightened his hold on my arm and propelled me forward. “They look good on you,” he said, then, leaning close to my ear, added, “After we get this lot squared away, do you want to come with us for a bit of a celebration?”
“Uh . . . I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to be seen around town with a bunch of FBI agents. Do you?” I glanced over my shoulder and lowered my voice. “The wrong people might catch sight of me.”
“You’re probably right.”
His voice dipped as if he was disappointed, or I might’ve imagined it, because my attention veered to the closing doors. Elevator doors!
“Wait!” I lurched out through the shrinking gap a second before the doors made a SWAT sandwich out of Vin.
He let go of my arm and slapped the doors as they bounced off his chest. “What are you doing?”
“I’m sorry,” I squeaked. “I, I—” I wasn’t about to admit I was claustrophobic. Not when I’d managed to conceal it through twenty weeks of training at Quantico and ten months on the job. I mean, if I really had to go into a confined space, I could do it. Fisting my hands, I lifted my chin. I could.
But no one was going to die if I didn’t get on that elevator.
Down the hall, Baldy and his escorts stepped into view.
Oh, great. Here I was just chatting with the guy who was supposed to have arrested me.
Vin grabbed my arm once more as Baldy threw me a glare frostier than Buffalo’s nastiest wind chill.
My mom was looking smarter by the minute.
In the lingo of the art world, if a young artist’s work was significantly influenced by another more experienced artist, we say his work was “of the school of that artist.” In FBI terms, you could say my work is of the school of my former field-training agent, Tanner Calhoun—the dark-haired, muscular guy standing at Arrivals. Irrationally, the sight of him made me want to give in to the tears I’d been dodging all night while waiting for the plane that had ended up permanently grounded.
But Tanner was a face-your-fears kind of guy. He’d probably disown me if I went all girly-girl on him.
As I weaved around passengers toward him, I decided that I favored the ignore-your-fears school. I hitched my overnight bag higher up my shoulder. Yes, ignoring my fears was definitely the way to go.
After all, it was working for me so far. I still had a lot to learn, but at twenty-eight, I was the youngest agent on the FBI Art Crime Team, and last night I’d cemented my reputation for being fearless.
Whether or not it was true was best kept on a need-to-know basis. And nobody needed to know.
“You didn’t have to pick me up,” I said, secretly glad he had. “I could’ve caught a cab.” Thanks to being bumped to a 6:00 a.m. flight, it was already practically midday.
He grinned. “Cute hair.”
I shot him a don’t-make-me-hurt-you scowl and tugged my knit hat over my temporary dye job as we stepped outside. Compared to Buffalo, St. Louis was blissfully brown and almost balmy.
Tanner relieved me of my bag and nudged my arm. “C’mon, spill. How’d it go?”
I plunged my hand into my coat pocket and crossed my fingers like a six year old. “Not much to tell.”
“Uh-huh.” His eyes raked over me far too perceptively. ….
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