Authors: Lindsay McKenna
Linc told her. As an agent, he thought, honesty certainly wasn’t
policy. It could get him killed. Still, his conscience nudged him where Brie was concerned. She seemed incapable of lying—so far.
She turned to him. “And I suppose you’ve never said one thing and meant another, Tanner?”
He reached out, his fingers outlining her cheek and delicate jawline. He saw her lips part beneath the unexpected caress. “One thing you’ll find out about me—I’m honest,” he lied. “The truth may hurt, but it’s better than the alternative.”
He scowled. Somehow she’d gotten under his skin. He ached to continue his featherlight exploration of her. His body was going rigid just from that fleeting touch. What the hell was happening here?
To my sisters:
Ruth Gent, René Anderson, Ann Roher,
Betsy Lammerding, Cinda Garland,
Linda Dubnicka and Karen Mylnar.
And to our Mother, the Earth,
who needs our protection.
here’s no way in hell I’m working with a woman in hazardous material,” Linc said. He got up from the leather chair and faced his superior, Brent Cramer, who sat behind the massive oak desk. The scowl on Linc’s lean face deepened as he gauged Cramer’s unruffled reaction to his caustic statement. He didn’t care. He was bone tired from his last assignment and hadn’t been given enough time to recoup before Cramer had decided to throw him on another one.
“She knows what she’s doing, Linc.” Cramer lifted his narrow shoulders beneath the three-piece gray pinstriped suit. “I’m getting plenty of heat from the senator from Ohio to do something about this pronto. The Hazardous Material Bureau is his pride and joy politically. He can’t have haz-mat people being blown away
with no suspects. It won’t look good to the voters in that state. And he’s up for reelection soon.”
Linc Tanner stopped pacing and threw his hands tensely on his lean hips. He glared out the window through the venetian blinds. He stared unseeing at the other government buildings surrounding them. I need rest. I don’t need a damn broad who’s fingered to be blown apart, he thought savagely. He twisted his head in Cramer’s direction and, with barely veiled anger, said, “I don’t care about the senator’s voting problem in Ohio. My job and his politics don’t mix.”
Cramer calmly steepled his fingers. “I know you could care less about politics. That’s my job. Yours is to go into the field and assume an identity. I chose you for this assignment because you’re the best, Linc.”
Tanner shot him a venomous look out of the corner of his eye. “Spare me the platitudes, Cramer. Chances are, if I look at the roster, I’m the
available agent for this mess.”
A hint of a smile curled Cramer’s thin mouth. Ever since Linc had joined the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, he had been considered a master of sorts. Of sorts, he reminded himself sourly. A few well-chosen adjectives summed him up: acerbic, a loner and damn good at his job. He knew it was the last reason that kept Cramer from firing him outright for his constant insubordination.
“You’re probably right,” Cramer acknowledged. “Now, let’s talk about this problem with the haz-mat team in Ohio.”
Linc tensed. “I just got off a heavy assignment. I want a couple of weeks’ rest. I almost got exposed on
this last one, and you want me to stick my neck out a week later. This time I’m saying no.”
Cramer unsteepled his slender hands and leaned forward, a crafty gleam in his gray eyes. “You take this one, Linc, and it will earn you that desk job you’ve been wanting for some time. Think for a moment. Six years out in the field as an ATF agent is a long time. You crack this case, and I’ll get it for you. Anywhere in the United States, Linc.”
Linc studied his boss in the taut silence. It wasn’t like Cramer to promise him a plum just like that. No, Cramer was a politically savvy animal on the Hill who manipulated others as easily as puppets. But Cramer had never promised him something and not delivered. He rubbed his square jaw, considering and weighing the offer. Finally, he sat down opposite Cramer.
“One of two things has happened. Either this is a hell of a lot bigger than both of us or you’re getting political pressure even you can’t control.”
“A little of both. The senator from Ohio just happens to be on the Appropriations Committee, which holds the purse strings to our budget. We’ve got some big requests coming up before them soon. If I don’t give him what he wants, he could turn on us. We’re strung out too thin in the field and we need to hire more agents.”
“Tell me about it. I’m so used to leading a double life my real one was destroyed years ago.”
Cramer nodded, looking grim. “I know.”
“You’ve got my attention,” Linc muttered. “Go on.”
“You’ll take the assignment?”
“I didn’t say that. I want to hear the details,” Linc countered.
Cramer smiled and opened the file beneath his hands. “The players involved are the Ohio State Fire Marshal’s office, the Hazardous Material Bureau, one murdered hazmat tech, one suspicious explosion—and no answers.”
Linc scowled. “A murder?” Who would want to blow away a haz-mat tech?
“Yes. A man by the name of John Holcomb, who’d been employed by the FM’s office for five years, bought it. His partner nearly went with him, but she managed to pull through and is now back on the job.”
“Who’s playing rough?”
“No leads. Your guess is as good as mine.”
“You said ‘she.’ Was that Holcomb’s partner before he died?”
“Yes.” Cramer pulled out a large black and white photograph and handed it to Tanner. “Meet Brie Williams, the unknown quantity in this puzzle. She’s a qualified haz-mat tech. Been working for the FM’s office for the past three years. Report is, she’s very good at her job.”
Linc studied the photo intently, missing nothing. It showed a tall woman in a one-piece dark uniform directing several fire fighters toward what appeared to be a haz-mat accident involving a derailed tank car. Linc looked closer. Brie Williams was not what he’d call a beautiful woman. Her face was square, holding large, expressive eyes, an aquiline nose, full lips and a mildly stubborn chin. The high cheekbones emphasized her eyes, which were her best feature, in his opinion. Her hair was dark and short. Linc halted a smile, thinking that with the baseball cap on her head, she could almost pass for a man. Except for her rounded breasts. Her
shapely rear and hips would also persuade any man that she was definitely female. His gaze came back to her face, and he waited for his gut impression, which had never led him astray and had often saved his life. Despite the tension in her face, the intentness reflected in her eyes and thinned lips, she didn’t seem all that tough. Maybe on the outside, but Linc would bet his life she was vulnerable beneath that exterior. He fervently hoped so or there wouldn’t be a prayer for them working together as a team.
“How did a woman get that high up in the state on something as specialized as haz-mat?” he asked.
Cramer pulled out another paper and held it out to him. “Here’s Williams’s bio. Read it and you’ll see why.”
“She was a fire fighter for five years?” Linc muttered in disbelief. Another rarity. Out of one million, three hundred thousand fire fighters in the United States, only one percent were women.
“Williams has paid her dues,” Cramer defended. “When the FM’s office hired her on, she was a lieutenant with her fire department up near Litton, Ohio.”
Another unique quality, Linc thought. What were the odds of a woman fire fighter becoming an officer? One in a hundred thousand. She was sure beating a lot of odds. Tiredly, Linc rubbed his face, tossing the papers on the desk. “That’s all I need: a woman who’s in male territory.”
Cramer’s eyes grew hard. “Look, I know you think all women belong barefoot and pregnant, but this one time, you’d better put your opinions aside. Williams has nothing but commendations in her file.”
Linc raised his chin. “Is she a suspect then? A pawn? The next victim? What?”
“We don’t know. That’s what you’re going to find out and tell us. Her partner was murdered, judging from all the evidence that was gathered. Although officially, it’s being soft-pedaled as an accident with an ongoing investigation.”
“So?” Linc challenged. “Did she walk away from it and let Holcomb get killed or what?”
“No. She was going back to the haz-mat truck to get some tools when the explosives detonated. Williams was in the hospital for three months afterward.”
It wasn’t making sense to Linc. Either he was as tired as his thirty-three-year-old body felt or Cramer was being handed a royal gift that could blow up in several directions. And he didn’t feel like teaming up with a woman who might be a suspect herself, and becoming a target in the bargain. “For all we know, she could have had Holcomb fingered. Maybe they were lovers. Maybe she got scorned and blew him away.”
Cramer’s mouth tightened. “Always the woman’s fault, isn’t it?”
Linc glared at him. “That’s been my experience.”
“The odds point to her innocence. According to the FM, she’s a possible target, too. They don’t want to lose their highly skilled people, Linc, regardless of whether they’re males or females. I know it makes a big difference to you, but that’s tough. If you take this assignment, you’re going in to protect Brie Williams.”
He snorted. “More than likely, from herself. She’ll probably get me killed screwing up a detonation.”
“Well, now, that’s your problem. You’re the explosives expert. I’m sure you’d speak up and let her know if she was doing something wrong.”
“You bet I would. Women have screwed up too much of my life already. I’m not going to let another one finish off the job and get me killed.”
Cramer held his angry stare. “So you’ll take it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
Linc rose. “Protect Super Woman, huh? Okay, I can do that. The price is high, Cramer. You’d better come through with that desk job or else.”
Cramer grinned. Linc knew the older man was used to his bark, which was generally much worse than his bite. “You name the city and state, and you’ll have your desk job, Tanner. Now go home and shave, will you? You look like hell.”
Linc picked up the folder marked Williams and tucked it beneath his arm. He’d get home to his dingy, rarely used apartment, shave, take a hot shower and read her file. No, on second thought, he’d catch up on sleep first, then read the file. He didn’t want any nightmares.
“You what?” Brie stammered in disbelief.
Chief Craig Saxon obviously girded himself internally. He must have known without a doubt that there was going to be a minor explosion in his large, well-appointed haz-mat office. He nodded his craggy head, the silver in his hair giving his bulldog face a saintliness it didn’t deserve. “Calm down, Brie,” he soothed in his gravelly voice.
“Calm down!” Brie repeated, whirling and planting her hands on her hips. “You call giving me a
rookie nothing? What are you trying to do to me, Chief?” There was an odd catch in her voice. “I’ve got one trainee
right now. Jeff is coming along fine, but he won’t be fully qualified for another month. Why a second trainee? Give the guy to Jim McPeak over in Quadrant Two. He’s got the nice, quiet sector of Ohio.” She ran her fingers through her sable-brown hair. Saxon had requested her to come down from Canton for a meeting on her only day off that week. Brie had arrived in a peach-colored dress of silk instead of her haz-mat uniform.
“Sit down, Brie,” Saxon tried again. “Come on,” he entreated, giving her that fatherly look that always got to her.
Brie’s green eyes narrowed speculatively on her superior’s face. Saxon was like a father to her in one way. Ever since she had been hired by him three years ago, she had never made him sorry for that decision. Brie recalled the furor that had hit the newspapers over the appointment of a woman to the haz-mat team. There wasn’t a fire chief interviewed around the state who didn’t parrot the same tired old spiel: she was a woman, she couldn’t do a man’s job. Well, she had proven them all wrong. Just as she had when she had been one of the few female fire fighters in the state.
Reluctantly, she acquiesced to Saxon’s plea. “Okay,” she said, sitting down and smoothing the silk over her long thighs.
Saxon smiled benignly. “I’m sorry to have to call you down here to the Fire Academy on your day off, Brie. I know it’s a three-hour drive one way. But I’ve received orders directly from the FM to assign—” he raised the official-looking paper, squinting at it through his bifocals “—Linc Tanner to you.”
Brie digested the information, feeling as if she were being torn apart. She knotted her cold hands in her lap, the
knuckles whitening, as she tried to control the fear eating away at her. Few people saw Brie Williams down and out, but for the good of all, she had to level with the chief.
“Ever since the—” Brie choked and lowered her gaze. Blinding tears stabbed her eyes. Her voice had been low and unsteady, which wasn’t at all usual. Groping for control Brie sat silent a long time before she spoke again. “What are you trying to do? Pressure me out of my job, Chief? Because if you are, I’ll hand in my resignation now. I can’t take—”
“No,” Saxon uttered in astonishment, his gray eyebrows raising in alarm. “My God, no!” He got to his feet, pushing the chair back.
Brie winced beneath his whiplash tone. Neither of them was overtly emotional, but ever since the—accident? murder?—of John Holcomb, she had been riding a daily roller coaster of vitriolic emotions. She knew the Chief felt responsible for John’s loss almost as much as she. But not quite. At least Saxon could sleep at night. She couldn’t. Desperate to regain some calmness, Brie forced words out. “Look, you pushed a green kid on me one week after I got out of the burn unit up in Cleveland and you asked me to train him to be my partner to replace…John.” She paused, still fraught with recent pain and nightmarish memories. “So, in the past three months I’ve trained him. Now you’re telling me Jeff isn’t going to be John’s replacement. Jeff’s going to the southeast quadrant. And this—this…”
“Tanner,” Saxon provided softly. “Linc Tanner is his name.”
Brie jerked her head up and looked across the desk at Saxon. “He could be the archangel Gabriel and I
wouldn’t care, Chief!” She tried to still her rising temper. Licking her lips, Brie concentrated on breathing more slowly before she went on. “Jeff’s doing fine. He’s enthusiastic and he learns fast. I need someone up in the northeast quadrant who’s quick and alert. I don’t need a rookie to babysit again.”
Saxon looked down at the file on Tanner. “Brie,” he murmured apologetically, “this one is out of my hands. If it were my decision, Jeff would stay. You’ve been through hell. I can see you need more time to recover, but it simply isn’t possible under the circumstances. I need you and your experience back up there now.”
“Since when does the FM stick his nose into our business? You’ve always had total control of haz-mat. Why now? I could understand if things were getting worse up there, but they aren’t. Since you created this unit three years ago, Chief, we’ve accomplished so much.”