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Inside the Colby Agency Monday, 9:05 a.m.
Ted Tallant waited in Victoria Colby-Camp's office as requested. This morning's briefing had been a little wild and a lot freaky. The merger talks between the agency and the Equalizers had been going on for months. Contracts and benefits and legal technicalities had been resolved. A number of orientation and training sessions had been conducted between those in charge here at the Colby Agency and the staff members of the former Equalizers.
The deal was done and all involved would have to get used to the changes. Today the four from the Equalizers shop who had opted to make the transition had been officially introduced as new agency staff members. Ben Steele, Leland Rockford, Evonne Cassidy and the infamous Nora Friedman.
Irritation tightened Ted's jaw even as her name filtered through his brain. Nora. The woman was a looker; he couldn't deny that. Tall and willowy, with sleek black hair and dark, dark eyes. Her presence in a room set him on edge.
She specialized in deception.
Ted rolled his eyes. Yeah. Deception. The whole idea rankled the hell out of him. But it was an Equalizer thing. Jim Colby, Victoria's son, had started the Equalizers five years ago, and he'd made it a point to hire the very best at going around and through the law.
Five months had passed since Victoria and her son had made the decision to move forward with the merger. Tension had been running high since. Nothing about the plan had been easy. Jim had acquiesced to Victoria's operating rules and code of conduct for the most part, but keeping the members of his former staff in line had proven a pain in the butt.
Not that a single one of his former Equalizer team was anything other than highly skilled and admittedly brilliant. But they had their way of doing things and change wasn't coming easy.
What ticked Ted off the most about Nora was the fact that she not only understood she was brilliant, but she also reveled in the idea.
Ted was just a regular guy. Born and raised in the heartland of Idaho. He'd spent a few years working as a skip tracer back home. After earning a criminal justice degree at Boise State University, he'd quickly learned that law enforcement—at least as a cop— wasn't for him. Too much red tape, too often the victims were the victims on both sides of the law. So he'd committed to freelancing for a couple of P.I. firms.
Six years of experience had landed him an opportunity with the Colby Agency—the very best in the business of private investigations.
And Nora Friedman wasn't going to make him miserable no matter if she questioned or challenged every word he said. She had, apparently, selected him to be her verbal punching bag. Maybe she was still frustrated with the change in rules dictated by the merger. After all, following rules, period, didn't appear to be her preferred professional model.
The door behind him opened and Ted kicked Nora Friedman right out of his head. He stood and turned to greet his boss as she strode into the room. "Morning, Victoria."
"Good morning, Ted." She beamed a smile that only Victoria Colby-Camp could produce. The woman was amazing. Nothing stopped her. And the bad guys tried. Oh, did they try. January's siege was a prime example of just how unstoppable the lady had proved time and time again. One of the aspects of working at this agency that pleased Ted the most was a boss who never expected anything out of her investigators she wasn't prepared to do herself.
When she'd rounded her desk, her gaze locked with his. "I'm sorry to keep you waiting, Ted." Victoria gestured to the chair he'd vacated. "Let's sit. This may take some time."
"Yes, ma'am." Ted dropped back into his seat while Victoria settled into the big, lush leather one behind her desk. Sounded like he had a new assignment. He would be only too happy to get away from the office while the dust settled on the merger. Nora Know-It-All Friedman was making him crazy.
The boss took a moment to organize what appeared to be notes she'd made. When she turned her attention back to him, he didn't miss the worry in her eyes. "I had a very disturbing call this morning, immediately following the weekly briefing."
Ted wasn't really surprised to hear that. Since the siege back in January and the subsequent steps the agency had been forced to take, there had been a series of disturbing events. The powers that be at the Colby Agency, Victoria, Jim, Ian Michaels and Simon Ruhl, had been working overtime to sort out legal details and to smooth ruffled feathers. With the help of Victoria's husband, Lucas Camp, most of the trouble, legally speaking, was behind them at this point. But there remained a considerable ways to go in getting all phases of the numerous changes reconciled.
Thankfully the media frenzy had calmed. The trials against former district attorney Timothy Gordon and crime lord Reginald Clark were under way. Leonard Thorp, the stepfather of one of Clark's victims, was extremely ill and very near death. He'd already outlived the few months he'd been given when diagnosed with terminal cancer. His devoted wife, who kept the agency posted on his condition, claimed the oncologist treating her husband insisted the man simply didn't want to die. Most of the folks here at the Colby Agency figured he had no intention of dying until he saw that Reginald Clark was sentenced to a proper punishment for his vicious crimes.
Thorp, due to his illness, had been sentenced to house arrest for orchestrating the siege against the Colby Agency. No one, including the new Cook County D.A., wanted to see the man go to prison when he would certainly be dead before his three attorneys finished their stall tactics. An acceptable plea bargain had settled the issue. Particularly since Thorp's hired gun, Pederson, had been the one behind the two fatalities. Pederson had taken it upon himself to cross that line. For all his extreme measures, Thorp hadn't actually wanted anyone to die—except Reginald Clark.
Then the merger between the Equalizers and the Colby Agency had commenced. To Ted's way of thinking, the presence of Nora and her colleagues was almost another siege in and of itself. But Ted kept his mouth shut and hoped it would all work out… eventually.
"A call?" Ted repeated when Victoria remained seemingly lost in thought.
She gave her head a visible shake. "I'm sorry. I…" Victoria drew in a deep breath. "I was so surprised when I received the call. I'm still a little stunned."
After all Victoria had been through the past year, Ted had to wonder what could shock her as much as this call clearly had.
"I have a distant cousin—by marriage—in Los Angeles." She paused, her expression reflecting the faraway path her thoughts had taken. "I haven't heard from her in years…decades actually."
"There's a problem," said Ted, guessing. Whatever the situation, Victoria was genuinely shaken.
"Yes." She nodded, the movement hesitant, thoughtful. "She's only thirty-eight. My mother's younger sister was her stepmother. But my entire family died out years ago. Heather…" Victoria looked directly at Ted. "Her name is Heather. She never clicked with her stepmother, my aunt. In fact, it's safe to say Heather wanted nothing to do with any of our family…until now."
That was relatives for you. Win the lottery or let someone you haven't heard from in decades have a problem and suddenly you're family again.
"Her husband is a cosmetic surgeon and she believes he is cheating on her."
Ted wanted to feel sorry for the woman but the only person he really felt sorry for at the moment was Victoria. Her pained expression told just how deeply the situation had affected her. "Does she have reason to believe he's done this before?"
Victoria considered the question a moment. "Heather is certain this is nothing new. She says she can prove a pattern over the past several years. But this time is different." Again Victoria's gaze met his. And this time the pain had turned to worry. "Heather believes her husband wants her out of the way… permanently."
"And California is a community property state," Ted observed. He got the whole picture now. A divorce would mean the husband would have to share. A sudden, accidental death would leave him every-thing—including any death benefits from life insurance policies.
"Her brakes went out in her car," Victoria went on. "Her one-hundred-ten-thousand-dollar car. The crash was minor only because of her quick thinking and sheer luck. She's terrified to leave the house now."
"Did a certified mechanic find evidence of foul play?" Brakes occasionally went out…even on the high-end vehicles. Usually a faulty part or system. It wasn't unheard-of and happened to the best of automobiles. But he didn't have to tell his boss that.
Victoria shrugged. "Her husband insisted on seeing to the repairs, so Heather can't say for an absolute certainty."
"Could be paranoia," Ted suggested simply because it was a plausible possibility. He didn't know this Heather but he did know Victoria. If she thought the situation merited looking into, there had to be more than the brake failure incident.
"She awakened to a gas leak just last week. Her husband had already left for work." Victoria sent Ted a pointed look. "I suppose it's possible their five-star gas range had some defective part, as well."
He agreed. A second accident in such a short time frame was a little too neat for a mere coincidence. "I see your point."
"Her husband also has a practice in Vegas," Victoria explained. "He spends one week each month there. The woman he is allegedly seeing on the side lives there. She's a manager at one of the casinos.
According to Heather, her husband is in Vegas this week. She wants to find out what he and his mistress are planning, particularly if it involves her continued well-being—or lack thereof."
"What about protection for your cousin?" Ted didn't have to point out to Victoria that being out of town when his wife got murdered during a robbery attempt at the house was a useful alibi. Ted felt confident she had already considered that scenario.
"I'm sending Leland Rockford to L.A. to keep an eye on Heather," she said, confirming his speculation, "but I'd very much like you to look into the husband's activities. Your background in finding people and information will be immensely useful."
Ted had never been to Vegas. It would be hotter than blazes this time of year, but the assignment sounded intriguing personally as well as professionally. This was his specialty. "Absolutely. I can leave immediately."
"Good. Mildred is working on travel arrangements now." Victoria cleared her throat, glanced around her desktop, avoiding eye contact. "As you know, we're working to integrate Jim's team with ours, and the best way to do that is to share assignments. Let those folks see how we do things firsthand."
Ted had known that was coming. Victoria didn't need to be worried about his cooperation. "Not a problem. I'll work in conjunction with Rocky. Keep him up to speed so that the wife knows what's going on at all times." Leland Rockford, Rocky, was a cool guy. A team player. Ted was immensely grateful that he would be working with Rocky and not that uptight, snobby…
"I'm glad you feel that way," Victoria replied, cutting into his assessment. "Jim is briefing Nora now. I'm certain the two of you will make a great team."
"Nora?" He couldn't have heard that right. "I thought you were talking about Rocky." About forty pounds of concrete settled in Ted's gut.
"I'm aware," said Victoria, broaching the subject gingerly, "that you and Nora don't see eye to eye on many things. But Nora has experience in the Vegas casino world. She knows her way around that setting. Her knowledge will be an invaluable asset."
Ted felt sick. "As long as she is aware that I'm lead in this investigation," he said, hoping like hell that would be the case.
"Of course," Victoria assured him. "You will be lead. No question. Nora's job is to watch and learn. She's a skilled investigator, but it's very important that Jim's staff becomes acquainted with the way we do things here at the Colby Agency. My goal is to see that each of the Equalizers who opted to come on board works with each member of the agency.