Authors: L.J. Sellers
Tags: #thriller, #suspense, #police procedural, #crime fiction, #FBI agent, #undercover assignment, #murder, #murder mystery, #investigation, #medical thriller, #techno thriller, #corporate espionage, #sabotage, #blockbuster products, #famous actor, #kidnapping, #infiltration, #competitive intelligence
Detective Jackson Mysteries
The Sex Club
Secrets to Die For
Thrilled to Death
Passions of the Dead
Dying for Justice
Liars, Cheaters & Thieves
Rules of Crime
Crimes of Memory
Agent Dallas Thrillers
The Baby Thief
The Gauntlet Assassin
The Lethal Effect
Copyright © 2014 by L.J. Sellers
All rights reserved. Except for text references by reviewers, the reproduction of this work in any form is forbidden without permission from the author.
Cover art by Gwen Thomsen Rhoads
ISBN (ebook): 978-0-9840086-6-7
ISBN (print): 978-0-9840086-7-4
Published in the USA by Spellbinder Press
eBook editions by eBooks By Barb for
This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual people, locations, or events is coincidental or fictionalized.
Monday, July 7, 1:35 p.m., Phoenix
Jamie Dallas sat in the open doorway of the plane, resisting the urge to grip the sides. The wind roared like a freight train as she glanced down at the earth ten thousand feet below. A dark shape plummeted under her, about twenty yards behind the plane. She could catch him, but she had to go now. Fear, queasiness, and excitement rolled up into her throat. She crossed her arms and leaned forward, letting herself fall into space.
A rush of cold air stunned her and she fought to remember her training. Slow count to three to clear the plane. Arms back and head down. She leaned right, aiming at her target. The earth rushed at her as she plummeted through space, the noise deafening, like the world’s biggest storm rushing by in an endless stream.
Her target was upright but still free-falling. To escape, he wouldn’t open his chute until the last minute. Neither would she. But could she catch him? So much was riding on this.
Her stomach roiled after a minute of headfirst descent. She’d made many jumps but had never gone into a nosedive before. Her FBI training hadn’t prepared her for this. Nothing had. It was the craziest thing she’d ever done.
But she was gaining on him, closing the gap with every second. For a moment, she closed her eyes to calm her nerves and think through her next moves.
When she opened them, she and her target were dangerously close to the patchwork fields below. But he was almost within reach. Another two seconds and she would have him.
A thousand and one, a thousand and—
He reached for his ripcord.
She had to make contact now or get the hell away. Dallas threw her arms forward, and her fingers brushed his.
She’d done it.
She arched her back to right herself, with feet down. Another pause to create space between them, then she grabbed her ripcord. The chute opened, jerking her body upward. The floating began, a peaceful conclusion to an exhilarating adventure. But she wouldn’t get to enjoy it for long. They were close to the earth, and she braced for a hard landing. She couldn’t wait to gloat about her victory. Not only did Sam owe her a hundred dollars, but for the next week, he had to call her “sir” and give her sex whenever she wanted it.
He’d bet that she couldn’t catch him in a free-fall, counting on her being too nervous to try a headfirst dive or too scared to stick with it long enough to pull it off. Hah! Sam obviously didn’t know her well yet and probably never would. With any luck, she’d pick up another undercover assignment and get out of Phoenix for the rest of the summer. If she were gone long enough, their relationship would fizzle, and that was just fine. Her job was too rewarding to let a guy interfere with it.
In the hangar, while Sam was still packing their equipment—part of his dues for losing—she peeled off the flight suit, then checked her phone. She’d missed a call from Special Agent Gossimer, her supervisor. So much for her afternoon off. She’d been working overtime on a fraud case involving a convenience store owner and food stamp cards, so she’d earned the time off. But the deskwork, sorting through transactions, had been so deadly dull, she’d started plotting crimes in her head just to feel alive.
She stuck in her earpiece and returned the call. “It’s Dallas. What’s up?”
“An agent in San Diego is dead, and his office is asking for you.”
Travel! And maybe an undercover assignment.
Her body started to hum. Then she realized an agent was dead, possibly murdered, and remembered that her job was sometimes more dangerous than her hobbies. Dallas headed for the exit. “Why me? I don’t have homicide experience.”
“We’ll talk when you get here.”
“Hey, wait.” Behind her, Sam hurried to catch up.
She’d momentarily forgotten him. It almost made her laugh. Straight-faced, she turned back. “Sorry, but I have to return to work.”
“What about our movie date?” The disappointment on his face didn’t detract from his looks. She’d met him here at the airport on her last jump, and they’d been dating only a month.
Why did guys get so invested? “It’ll have to wait. My boss is sending me out of town.” She kissed him before he could respond, then whispered, “Think how great the sex will be when I get back. Absence can be good.”
He pulled away and locked eyes with her. “How long will you be gone?”
“I don’t know yet.” She didn’t want to discuss it, but she needed an escape plan. “We don’t have a commitment. You’re free to do what you want while I’m gone.” And so was she.
Dallas headed for the door.
Two days earlier, San Diego
Carla River had only been to one other funeral, her mother’s, and that had been long ago. Now she stood in a crowd of FBI agents, mostly men in suits, listening to a eulogy for a man who’d changed her life—twice. Tears ran down her face, blending with the light drizzle that dripped from the sky. It almost never rained in San Diego, but today, maybe because sunshine wouldn’t have been appropriate, the sky was as dark as the suits around the grave.
The first time she’d met Joe Palmer, he’d come to her childhood home and arrested her dad, then led the investigative team that had dug up the bodies under their house. Her serial-killer father had gone to prison, and a year later her mother had killed herself, leaving River homeless as a teenager. But she’d hung onto the business card Joe had given her and remembered his offer of help if she ever needed it. After a year on the streets, she’d finally called and asked for that assistance. He and his wife had taken her in and supported her through high school, then helped her access grants to attend college. River had later joined the bureau, modeling her life after Joe’s, but she’d never really had an opportunity to repay him. Now he was dead, and her heart ached with loss.
After the service, she sought out the only person in the crowd she knew. Flanked on both sides by agents as she walked to her car, Jana Palmer looked surprisingly stoic. As River approached, her heart fluttered. She had changed so much since the last time Jana had seen her. Would Jana even recognize her? She glanced at the other agents, older men near retirement age, then touched Jana’s arm. “Can we have a moment alone? I’m Carla River with the Eugene office.” This moment could be awkward, and she’d already taken her share of grief from coworkers, mostly men who didn’t understand.
The other agents walked away, and the widow stared at her, eyes puzzled. “Carl River? Oh my god.”
“I had the surgery a year and a half ago. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you and Joe. I didn’t think he would understand.” River was still five-ten and broad shouldered, but her face had softened and her sandy hair had grown to her shoulders.
Mrs. Palmer opened her arms and pulled her in for a hug. “Joe wouldn’t have, but I do. Thank you for coming. It’s so good to see you.”
More tears threatened to spill, so River pulled back, self-conscious of her thick, androgynous body. “What happened? I didn’t even know Joe was sick.”
The widow repressed a shudder. “It was very sudden. And they still don’t know exactly what he died of, but it was most likely an infection. He had a cut on his hand that became red and swollen.” She grabbed River’s arm and steered her away from the nearby group. “I want you to investigate. There’s something going on at the company I work for. I told Joe about it and two weeks later he died.”
“What are you saying? You think Joe was murdered?”
She sighed. “I don’t know. But someone has to find out.”
River was torn. “I’d like to look into it for you. I owe both of you. But I don’t think the San Diego bureau will want me involved.”
“I don’t care. I want you to do this, and I think you’ll need my help. Those stuffed suits can just get over it.”
There was the spunk she’d come to love all those years ago. Mrs. Palmer had gone to bat for her many times when River was a teenage boy, taking on school administrators and social workers with equal zest.
“Come to the house,” she continued. “And I’ll tell you what I know and show you Joe’s notes. It may be nothing, but someone has to investigate.”
The Palmers’ home sat on a gentle slope in the Mission Hills area, with a peek-a-boo view of the ocean. The property was a step up from the small tract house she’d shared with them twenty-five years earlier. River climbed from her car and instinctively turned west. The clouds had cleared, and the sight of the ocean filled her with a homesickness she hadn’t expected. She waited while Mrs. Palmer parked in the garage, then followed her inside.
“Make yourself comfortable on the terrace,” Jana said. “I’ll bring Joe’s notes and some iced tea.”
River stepped outside and sat in a plush patio chair. The air was warm, damp, and unusually still for San Diego. She took off her jacket and tried to relax and enjoy the gorgeous view. But Joe Palmer was dead, possibly murdered. And Jana wanted her to stay in town to investigate. River owed it to her mentor, but she also loved her private, rural home outside Eugene, Oregon, and she was already eager to return.
Jana came out with two glasses of tea and a folder tucked under her arm. Her long-ago foster mother seemed shorter and softer than she remembered, but her face hadn’t aged much, and her hair was dyed dark brown.
“Where do you work now?” River didn’t have the heart to make small talk. Grief still gripped her, and, if Joe had been murdered, she had to get moving before the leads disappeared.
“TecLife. It’s a medical device company that’s doing some innovative things.”
“What’s going on that made you want Joe to investigate?”
“It’s not so much what’s happening at TecLife, but what’s been happening to another company.” Jana took a long sip of tea. “First, our main competitor had a warehouse full of magnet-based migraine devices destroyed by a fire. It’s a new product, and the fire delayed the launch, which was a financial setback.” She leaned toward River, her voice more intense. “Our company’s lead product is an electrical stimulator that treats migraines.”
Probably coincidence. But River would humor her for a while. After spending her life with an FBI agent, Jana had probably come to be overly suspicious.
Before River could respond, Jana added, “A security guard died in the fire. They think he’d been drinking and fell asleep.”
“Maybe he started it accidentally.”
Jana shook her head. “They suspected arson but never found an accelerant.”
Probably a pyromaniac with no connection.
“There must be a reason you think the fire is connected to your company.”
“I overheard a snippet of conversation between the two cofounders. They were in a conference room, and I was in the adjacent copy room. Here’s what I think I heard.” Jana opened the folder and read from the top paper. “ProtoCell’s delay buys us time to expand our market share, but they’ll rebound quickly if we don’t escalate this.”