FBI Training Center. Quantico, Virginia.
Special Agent Colby Mitchell was about to drop Special Agent Sonny Vasquez.
He pivoted, leading with his right elbow, intent on driving it home and ending a sparring match that had gone on far too long.
Vasquez was a legend, a chimera, a fantastical figure the cadets had heard about but seldom seen, so their attention was rapt. Then again, they probably would have enjoyed watching anyone get the better of Mitchell, who ran a grueling two-week training session. Although most of the trainees were in good shape, they valued the cerebral over the physical, and called Mitchell a meathead behind his well-muscled back.
Legend or no, Vasquez was the underdog, or had been before this impromptu demonstration started. Despite the considerable differences between them in height and weight, which should have tipped the scales in Mitchell's favor, he was the one dripping sweat and grunting with exertion, while Vasquez remained as cool and elusive as a goddamned ghost.
Mitchell added the energy of desperation to his blow. He did not want to lose to this particular opponent. His colleagues would never let him live it down, and Vasquez, too superior to gloat, would merely study him calmly, assessing his weaknesses, making it apparent to all that he wasn't up to snuff.
So he said a mental prayer as he swung his arm around, visualizing success, anticipating the winning impact of his triceps against Vasquez's smooth, perfectly shaped jaw.
But as his powerful body turned, he knew he'd miscalculated. Vasquez was a ghost, and Mitchell's prayer went unanswered. Instead of being in position to receive the blow, Vasquez had ducked under and down. In leading with his elbow, Mitchell made another fatal mistake: leaving open the vulnerable expanse between his armpit and waist.
Of course, Vasquez struck with the swiftness and ferocity of a mythical creature. The jabs to Mitchell's side were startlingly painful—how Vasquez wrung that amount of strength from those scrawny arms was an elliptical mystery.
Sucking in a sharp breath, Mitchell dropped his arm to protect his burning midsection, focusing only on preventing Vasquez's bladelike fists from striking into his sore ribs. Then he saw a premonition of his own defeat in those strange, light eyes, and Mitchell didn't have time to blink before Vasquez dropped him, with a blow to the temple so well placed it was almost a caress.
An excruciating, debilitating caress.
From the ground, Mitchell looked up at his nemesis in wonder, fighting nausea and gasping for breath, his eyes stinging with sweat and tears. The circle around them clapped and cheered, oblivious to his torture, or perhaps excited by it.
Bloodthirsty little guppies.
Vasquez's head gave a slight shake, indicating to the group that celebration was unnecessary. Mitchell groaned, letting his head fall back against the mat while Vasquez made a sanctimonious little speech about never underestimating a smaller opponent. After the crowd dispersed, Mitchell focused his eyes long enough to see Vasquez standing over him, neither smiling nor smug, offering a hand to help him to his feet.
At the sight of that hand, so slender and deceptively innocuous-looking, the same that had dealt his ego, not to mention his temple, a crushing blow, Mitchell snapped. He took the proffered hand and yanked on it, bringing the victor down to his level, and in a split second, Sonora Vasquez was on her back, with Colby Mitchell on top of her.
"How'd that sex change operation go, Vasquez?"
He grinned as beads of sweat from his forehead fell on her face. She needed to be reminded she was a woman, and if he wasn't man enough to do it on the mat, he was more than willing to have a go at her on the mattress.
More amused than insulted, Vasquez wiped away the offending drops of sweat like she was swatting at flies. "It's called sexual reassignment surgery, Mitchell. Don't they teach you anything in sensitivity training?"
"Yeah. I'm feeling real sensitive right now." He was aware of her breasts crushed against his chest and the soft apex of her thighs, an inviting warmth beneath him. She might not fight like a woman, but she felt like one, and although he willed his body not to, it began to respond to hers. He was enjoying dominating her a little too much. Still, he feared for his manhood. Vasquez would go ballistic if he got hard.
But she didn't go ballistic—she laughed. "The doctor said if I wanted to live my life as a man, I'd have to be happy with three inches, so I told him to forget it. I couldn't bear to look like you."
Mitchell grunted. "Keep wiggling, Vasquez. Those three inches will turn into six."
For a moment, she looked startled, as if she'd only just realized he'd been flirting with her. Before she could shield the reaction, her unusual eyes betrayed her panic, and Mitchell experienced an intense surge of satisfaction. Vasquez couldn't dislodge him, because she sucked at wrestling, and now he'd found her secret vulnerability: she was afraid of men. The vindictive side of him wanted to press her further, but he rolled away, because he was a meathead, not a jerk, and the last thing he needed was a sexual harassment charge.
"You're such a Neanderthal, Mitchell," she said, recovering.
"Ooga booga," he replied with a smile. "Want to go back to my cave?"
"No," she said, using the serious tone women affected when scolding a child, making it embarrassingly clear that she did not encourage his advances.
He shrugged, feeling amiable. Vasquez may have beaten him in front of everyone, but now he had her number. Good agents knew that most warfare was psychological, and Colby Mitchell was a very good agent. He was also smart enough to do damage control, and sensitive enough to treat Vasquez with respect, albeit belatedly.
"I was just fooling around," he said. "No hard feelings?"
The tension in her face faded. "Whatever, Mitchell." She brushed invisible lint from her jogging pants. "Next time you want to rub your wiener on someone, ask Stacy."
"Really?" Like most young, single males on the prowl, his attention was easily diverted. Vasquez was hot, but Stacy League was . . . built. His eyes roved over Special Agent League's very pleasing form as she sparred with another female trainee. She wasn't half as good on the mat as Vasquez, but who wanted an assassin in the sack? "She likes me?"
"You didn't hear it from me," she said, pulling herself to her feet. This time, he let her help him up.
"Thanks for the tip, cutie." He knocked her lightly on the chin.
She wrinkled her nose. "Don't push it."
"Do you want to know who likes you?" He scanned the room for a man who wasn't more afraid of her than attracted to her.
"Why not?" He smirked. "Oh, I get it." He took her by the shoulders and turned her toward the openly gay female cadet Stacy was sparring with. "Is she more your style?"
"You wish," she said, shrugging away from him. "Do I need to kick your ass twice?"
"Yeah. Show me how to do that temple thing."
She shook her head. "You're too strong to use it for immobilization. You can only do it with lethal intent."
He rubbed his hands together. "Goody."
Sonny took a deep breath before she entered Grant's office.
Although the summons ordered her to come right away, she'd taken the time to shower and make herself presentable. Contrary to popular belief, Sonora Vasquez was a woman, and sometimes she liked to look like one.
She knew her appearance added to her formidable reputation, so she usually didn't bother to accentuate her femininity. Her features were too strong to be called pretty, her eyes too fierce to put a man at ease, her mouth more appropriate for biting than kissing. For a _blue-_eyed blonde, her complexion was dark, giving her the unusual appearance of a dusky waif or a washed-out gypsy, and her hair was an unremarkable champagne motley. It was thick and unruly, so she kept it cropped short, which pleased her, not any man she'd ever met.
She'd always been a tomboy—by chance, if not choice, having been forced to wear her brother's hand-me-downs throughout childhood. She still couldn't afford designer clothes, expensive makeup, or sexy shoes, but she worked well with what she had: good bone structure, great instincts, and a killer bod.
The pride she took in her figure was mostly professional. She was a lean, mean, fighting machine, and few men wanted to tangle with her, in or out of the bedroom.
Special Agent in Charge Leland Grant was the only man, besides her brother, she'd ever trusted enough to get close to, but there were no sparks between them. Perhaps because he was happily married, and old enough to be the father she'd never had.
She knocked on the frosted glass office door before she entered, just to be polite, knowing he could see her more clearly than she him. Grant was on the phone, raising a "just another minute" finger in her direction, a gesture that had been annoying people for decades and didn't fail to elicit the same reaction in her.
Sonny slumped into a chair across from his desk, going for a posture somewhere between apathetic and insolent.
His lips curved as he watched her, and she knew she'd succeeded only in amusing him, so she let out the breath she was holding and sat up straight. This was her boss, not her best friend, and it would behoove her to act that way.
"Going somewhere?" he asked as he replaced the receiver.
She looked down at the slim-fitting jeans, high-heeled half boots, and snug sweater she was wearing. Why did everyone have to comment when she wasn't dressed like a slob? "The movies," she decided.
She frowned. "Hell, no."
"I saw you two training."
She wasn't surprised. The gym had a two-way mirror, which intimidated the cadets to no end, because they never knew when superiors were spying on them. It had been awhile since anyone had judged Sonny's performance, however. She'd been active for more than five years, and proven herself resourceful and adept on many occasions.
"For a second there, you froze."
Her spine stiffened, and she had to force herself to relax. "I didn't freeze, I considered. He's cute." Crossing her arms over her chest, she dared him to dispute her.
Grant didn't bother to. "It can't happen in the field."
She knew what he meant. He didn't give a damn if she screwed every agent on the payroll as long as she didn't turn into a helpless female at an inopportune moment. His concern was not for her safety, although such a mistake could cost her her life, but for the success of the team he led. He wanted to catch bad guys, and if she panicked during physical contact, she was more of a liability than an asset.
She gave him a cold stare that had withered lesser men.
Undaunted, he leaned back in his chair. "I have an assignment for you."
Her mood shifted. "Yeah?"
"It's a mother."
"Don't tease me."
"I'm not." He handed her a slick three-ring binder containing pages of glossy photos behind clear page protectors.
The man in the pictures was the most recognizable professional surfer on the planet. "Ben Fortune? You've got to be joking."
Grant was on the phone again, so he didn't answer her. She flipped through the file, studying a copy of Fortune's driver's license and memorizing much of his personal information at a glance. With his dark good looks and tall, muscular physique, the man was very easy on the eyes. In the not-so-distant past, his likeness had been used to sell everything from deodorant to men's sportswear. The candid shots, featuring him in a body-hugging wetsuit, low-slung boardshorts, or just plain old jeans and a T-shirt, ran like an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.
There was one full-length photo, obviously taken from a distance, that was particularly striking. Fortune was standing alone on a rock-strewn beach, looking out at the ocean, surfboard wedged under one arm. It must have been taken in the early morning, because the picture had a grainy, grayish cast, like a fine coat of mist coated its surface.
Sonny associated surfing with crowded beaches and fun in the sun, but neither element was present here. The sky was overcast and the mood somber, even solitary.
This was not a picture that would have sold toothpaste.
After she finished perusing the file, with more attention to detail than was probably necessary, Grant handed her another, holding the phone to his ear with his shoulder.
It contained pictures of women. Like Fortune's, their faces were familiar, but not for world-class surfing or lucrative corporate sponsorships. They were victims of a serial killer who had been hunting off the coast of Southern California for the past two years. The bodies had been found along a relatively small stretch of land north of San Diego, in a ritzy, bohemian community known as Torrey Pines.
Sonny knew the area and its people well. Before attending the FBI Academy and accepting a job at VICAP, the most prestigious criminal apprehension program in the country, she used to live there.
Torrey Pines was a prime section of real estate, encompassing a couple of beachside neighborhoods just outside of San Diego's busy metropolis. La Jolla, the jewel, boasted a breathtaking coastline, shallow tide pools, and some of the best surfing beaches in California. In contrast, Torrey Harbor was quiet and low-key. It purported to be a quaint fishing village, although these days more of its residents made their living as artisans than on the sea.
Both communities had lost one of its local girls to a killer.
Hanging up the phone, Grant leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest, awaiting her reaction.
"You think the SoCal Strangler is a surfer?"
He gave a noncommittal shrug. "It's a lead."
"Based on what?"
"Trace evidence." Picking up a list from the top of his desk, he read, "Titanium, neoprene, petroleum jelly, and sand." At her puzzled expression, he went on to explain. "Most wetsuits are made of neoprene, a synthetic, water-resistant material. The water is cold in California, and many surfers wear them year-round."
"Sand is obvious enough, but petroleum jelly?"
"Hardcore surfers get contact dermatitis from wearing a wetsuit all day. They put Vaseline around their necks, where the fabric tends to rub."
"What about titanium?"
"A component of high-quality wetsuits. The kind you buy when money is no object. They keep you warm in the winter, but rub the hell out of your neck."
"Are you saying that he was wearing a wetsuit when he perpetrated the killings?"
"Perhaps. A wetsuit would inhibit movement, but it would also be good protection against defensive injuries."
She frowned down at the photo in her lap, finding the idea difficult to wrap her mind around. Ben Fortune was the stuff dreams were made of, and she wasn't just considering female fantasies. Boys of all ages aspired to be like him. "Surfers are a dime a dozen in Torrey Pines," she argued. "La Jolla is crawling with trust fund babies who have nothing better to do than ride waves all day. What links Fortune to these crimes?"
Grant deliberated for a moment. "There are some unusual circumstances surrounding his wife's death."
From the Paperback edition.