Once Upon A Time…Has Never Been This Hot.
PLAYING FOUR KEEPS
Reese Bailey snagged a towel and dabbed at the sweat stinging her eyes. Ninety minutes riding her bike strapped to a trainer in front of the TV wasn’t exactly her idea of a fun workout, but until her surgeon cleared her to ride outside again, it was the best she could manage. She rubbed at her left shoulder, tracing the lines of the plates and screws. Three months, and the bloody thing still ached as if she’d only shattered it yesterday.
She sighed and tossed the towel on the bike seat. Grabbing a bottle of water, she stalked to the window. The late April sun was just setting beyond the distant hills, staining the gathering clouds a deep shade of orange. She watched as a flock of geese dotted the sky, their lopsided V heading north. What she wouldn’t do to join them...head north and start fresh, not that starting over would solve her issues. She loved being a federal agent. It was waiting to get back on active duty that was killing her. One more month, and she might just fail that stupid psych test once she returned.
Reese cursed and kicked at the floor, jumping when the doorbell interrupted her thoughts. She headed for the door then paused, wondering if she should grab her gun. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had simply ‘dropped by’, and she wasn’t certain what to make of it.
She brushed off the uneasy feeling and palmed the handle, stealing a quick peek through the small window. “Damn.” She swung open the door, swallowing past the lump in her throat as she nodded to the man standing on her porch.
“Director Chambers.” She found herself leaning against the door for strength as she looked past him, wondering where the other agents were. “This is...unexpected.”
“We’re both off duty, Reese, so you can drop the formalities.” He nodded at the sliver of space beside her. “Are you harboring a harem of naked men in there you don’t want me to see, or can I come in?”
She laughed. “I wouldn’t call half a dozen a harem, but...” She stepped back, swinging open the door. “You’re welcome to enter at your own risk, sir.”
Jacob Chambers raised one eyebrow slightly. “I thought I said we could drop the formalities.”
“You did.” She met his piercing stare. “And I have, sir.”
Jacob sighed and walked inside, heading straight for her leather couch. She followed him, stopping when he took a seat. She didn’t know whether to offer him a drink or just take the chair across from him.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
He looked around the room before meeting her eyes. “Do you have anything that doesn’t contain fruit juice or wheat germ?”
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “Domestic or imported?”
“I hope to hell you’re talking about beer.” He paused, his gaze never leaving hers. “Imported.”
She nodded and headed for the fridge, grabbing two lagers before returning to the couch. She handed him one, finally taking the seat across from him. “I hope you like your beer thick.”
A hint of a smile touched one corner of his mouth. He looked at the label. “Smithwicks. Didn’t take you for an Irish girl.”
“My grandparents are Irish. I got hooked a few years back when I went over for a visit. Nobody does ale better.” She took a swig then leaned back against the chair. “But something tells me you didn’t drop by on the off-chance I had good taste in beer.”
“Maybe I just wanted to check up on my star agent. See when she was ready to rejoin the team.”
“I’ve been ready for two months, but HQ won’t assign me to active duty until I’ve gained back more mobility in my shoulder.”
“That, and until you submit to the psych evaluation.” Jacob gave her his signature look— the one that usually made her cringe. “They tell me you’re a bit...resistant.”
Reese tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “What point is there taking the test when they won’t let me work? I’ll just have to take it again.”
“Maybe. But it would look better if you just did the damn thing.” He leaned back and took another swig of his beer. “Despite the fact you pulled one hell of a move...one that nearly cost you your life...you saved that girl, and for that alone, I’d like to see you back where you belong.”
“Then tell my surgeon to sign off on me.”
Jacob chuckled and pushed to his feet, ambling over to the window. “While I realize the rumors say I can strike fear with just a look, it has its limitations.” He turned to her. “And your doctor seems to be one of them. I’ve asked, but he’s determined to give you more time.”
Reese took to her feet, bracing her hands on her hips. A sharp pain stabbed through her left shoulder, and she cursed as she lowered that arm. “I don’t need more time, Jacob. I need a life. One that has more than just a TV and my bike trainer in it. I’m going crazy.” She cradled her left elbow and broke his gaze, staring down at the floor. “My arm might not be a hundred percent, but surely my profiling skills are still worth something.” She forced her eyes to meet his. “Even if I can’t go into the field, isn’t there a case I can work?”
The cocky, half-smile that greeted her took her by surprise. Jacob motioned to the chair, and she sank into it. He returned and sat down, pulling a yellow envelope from his jacket and tossing it on the coffee table.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Open it.”
Uncertainty flared down her spine, mixed with the inklings of excitement. She reached for the offering, sighing at the cool feel of the paper against her fingertips. She held the envelope up, inhaling the scent of spice and smoke. The original owner must have a taste for fine wine and cigars, based on the aromas fused into the paper.
Reese slipped the end open and removed a folder. It was typical dull beige, with nothing more than the word Trinity scribbled across the front. She cocked an eyebrow at him. “Trinity as in the Holy Trinity, or that band everyone’s ga-ga over?”
Jacob merely looked at her. She scowled and opened the folder, flipping through the collection of photos and reports. It appeared her second guess was right, and Jacob wasn’t handing her information about some secret cult. She scanned through one of the sheets, glancing at the accompanying image.
“Looks as if these boys have gotten themselves an admirer.” She glanced at Jacob. “And not the good kind.”
“The writing is only part of it. Someone tried to run them down in an SUV last night. Damn good job those men are in shape, or there’d be a couple less of them.”
Reese nodded, staring at a picture of the band. Though she’d never openly admit to being a fan, she couldn’t deny they were three of the sexiest men she’d ever seen. All very different, but with the same piercing expression. It was almost like looking at three versions of the same man.
She shook the thought away, trying to focus on the other information. “Wasn’t their band involved in some kind of accident a few years back? I seem to recall reading about it in the news.”
“Their touring bus went off the side of a ravine three years ago. There’s been a lot of speculation about who was really at fault, but they were the only three in the bus to survive. The report says they were trapped for a week before highway patrol finally found them. From what I’ve heard, it had quite a lasting effect on them.” Jacob leaned closer, placing his beer on the table. “After they’d recovered physically, they packed up their life, moved up here to Seattle and started fresh, away from the lure of Hollywood. They took a year off then returned, stronger than ever. Their last two albums have topped the charts for months at a time.”
Reese flashed Jacob a smile. “You sound like a fan. Funny, I wouldn’t have taken you for the gritty, alternative type.”
“Please tell me it’s not still rumored I only listen to opera.” He grinned then pulled his lips tight and narrowed his eyes. “What I’m about to tell you, I consider extremely classified information.”
She nodded, not sure what else to say.
“I know all this trivia because Trinity’s manager just happens to be my step-brother.” He held up his hand when her jaw hinged open. “I know. It’s not something I publicize, and I’m certain you can imagine why. Anyway, after the attack last night, Dave called and asked me to investigate. Apparently, the police have done all they can, but with no physical evidence, other than those photos and some tire impressions, there’s really nothing they can do. And quite frankly, they seem to feel that it was nothing more than a publicity stunt.”
“So why share this with me? I’m not even on active duty.”
“Some might view my involvement in this situation as a conflict of interest. However, if someone unrelated to the band were to offer their services, consulting only, then there wouldn’t really be any conflict, would there?”
Reese stared at him, certain she was finally losing her mind. “You want me to discover who’s behind the attacks?”
“Preferably before their admirer actually kills them.”
She swiped her tongue across her lips, hoping to ease the dry feeling growing in her mouth. “But why? I mean, why me?”
Jacob shrugged and pushed to his feet. “Because you’re the best profiler I’ve ever seen, not to mention one hell of a field agent. Those algorithms of yours just might come in handy. But be prepared. Whoever’s behind this isn’t going to make things easy for you. No fingerprints, no DNA, not one concrete clue to link the bastard to the crime. Just words on a wall.” Jacob nodded and headed back to the door.
Reese jumped up and raced after him, still not sure what the hell he was asking her to do. “But I’m not cleared for active duty.”
“This isn’t a bureau investigation, Reese. It’s a private affair. And as you’re still on medical leave, that means you’re free to consult with whomever you choose, as long as you don’t violate any state laws, or give out any confidential information.” He turned to her as he grabbed the door handle. “I can’t make you take the case, but I think we both know you’re just fooling yourself if you think you’re not interested. I saw the way your eyes bulged out of your head at the mere thought of getting back out there.” He reached into his pocket and handed her a piece of paper. “This is Dave’s number. He’s expecting a call from you. He’ll set up a time for you to go over to the house and meet the band. I think after talking with them, you’ll know what decision to make. Though don’t expect an easy ride with them, either. I’ve heard they’re quite stubborn.” He opened the door and stepped out, pausing to glance at her over his shoulder. “You’ve got my home number if you need anything. Good luck.”
Reese watched him walk to his car and hop inside. She finally closed the door as the vehicle turned at the end of the road and disappeared. She looked down at the folder still clutched in her hand. Something in her stomach fluttered to life as she glanced at the number written in ink across the crisp white paper. Excitement tingled down her spine as she headed for the kitchen and grabbed the phone.
“Mr. Dave Chambers? This is Reese Bailey. I think we should talk.”