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“I don’t know who I am anymore.”
Okay, I know I sounded like a drama queen, but that was exactly how I felt. As if my sense of self, my identity as a butt-kicking federal agent, had been erased, replaced by an empty void. Since I’d been fired from my job as an IRS special agent a few days ago, forced to turn in my gun and badge, I felt like a mere stick figure, a black-and-white, two-dimensional version of myself. Like a hollow chocolate Easter bunny with the ears bitten off, no longer recognizable as a rabbit. Like a snowman that had melted and was now only a carrot and a soggy stocking cap sitting in a wet spot in the yard. But I suppose that’s enough similes, huh? Let’s just use southern shorthand and say that I felt like a sorry sack of shit.
My gumption was gone.
Nick rolled onto his side in the king-sized bed, propping his head on his elbow as he looked down at me with his whiskey-colored eyes. He reached out a strong, warm hand and stroked my cheek. “You may not remember who you are, but I do. You’re Tara Holloway. You’re smart, you’re smart-mouthed, and you don’t take crap from anybody. You can even be sweet when you want to be.” He leaned his dark head in to nuzzle my neck, planting a soft kiss just below my ear. “You’re also my woman.”
And Nick was my man. He’d proved that multiple times over the past couple of days.
I snuggled up against him, reaching down to stroke him to arousal for the third time that day. Yep, I was using sex to help me forget my troubles, but when Nick drove himself into me he also drove every thought from my head. Well, every thought but the one that went, Woo hoo! He gave me sexually induced amnesia. Sexnesia. It’s a recognized medical condition. Look it up.
Ready now, Nick obliged me once more, treating me to mind-blowing, thought-scattering sex. Nick was a fantastic lover, an athletic lover, one with strength and stamina and a primal, powerful, and possessive approach that might have offended a lesser woman. But not me. I viewed sex as part romantic interlude, part contact sport. Halfway through, I grabbed Nick by the shoulders, dug my nails into his flesh, and flipped him onto his back, taking possession of him, seizing control. I might only be five foot two, but I was feisty.
Nick looked up at me with half-closed eyes. A grin spread across his lips, exposing a slightly chipped tooth that, in its imperfection, only added to his raw masculinity.
I sat up straight, putting my hands on his chest for balance and straddling him, squeezing him tight with my thighs as if he were a bronc I was trying to break. I posted for a rhythmic few laps around the ring, then spurred my stallion to a full-fledged gallop. He reached out and cupped his hands around my hips, helping to stabilize me as he bucked, taking me for the ride of my life.
As climax overtook me I arched my back, involuntarily crying out with desperation and pleasure.
Nick was that damn good.
Afterward, I melted, as if my bones had liquefied. If not for Nick’s grip on me, I would’ve fallen sideways off the bed in a post-coital oblivion. He flipped me back over under him and issued a final, forceful thrust that finished him off.
He lay on top of me for several moments, until we’d both cooled down. His face buried in my hair, he said, “It goes against everything in me to say this, but I think we should put our clothes on and tackle this problem head-on.”
“Party pooper,” I said, though he had a valid point. We’d been in bed for forty-two hours straight, climbing out only to take a quick shower and nuke frozen dinners in the microwave. While sex could make me forget my problems, it couldn’t make them go away.
How did these problems begin? With a runty pig of a man named Donald Geils who ran a strip club called Guys & Dolls. Nick and I had gone undercover inside the club, along with a local cop named Aaron Menger and Christina Marquez, a female DEA agent who’d become a personal friend after she and I worked some cases together. Our multiagency team had joined up to investigate allegations of prostitution, drug dealing, and money laundering at the club. I’d worked as a bookkeeper in the cash office, using my financial smarts to examine the numbers, determining that a produce company was supplying more than fruits and vegetables to Guys & Dolls and that a liquor distributor was Geils’ primary customer for the crystal meth hidden among the limes shipped to the club.
Unfortunately, despite careful advance planning, the bust didn’t go down as expected. Thanks to a break in a water main, the SWAT team wasn’t in place when the shit hit the fan. I’d rushed back into the club and put a bullet into the foot of each of the club’s bouncers who were attacking Nick. In the club’s VIP room, I’d found Christina drugged, stripped half-naked, and covered in bite marks from a john poised to take full advantage of her. When Geils ran into the room and shot at me, I’d returned the favor by putting several bullets into Geils’ leg.
So far, I probably sound like a hero, huh? But here’s the problem. Those bullets I put in Geils’ leg? Well, I didn’t fire them one right after another. I paused between shots for a second or two, thinking what a bastard the guy was, how fun it was to give the pig-nosed prick a little justice.
Though they hadn’t come right out and said so, I suspected it was those short pauses that gave my superiors at the IRS pause, made them think I should have stopped shooting. Geils had dropped his gun by that point and the SWAT team had arrived and stormed the club. In the minds of the internal affairs officer, the director of field operations, and George Burton, the overall head of criminal investigations based in Washington, D.C., there’d been no good reason for me to continue shooting. In my mind, there’d been no good reason to stop. Geils had arranged to have Christina drugged and raped, he’d allowed customers to physically abuse the dancers in the club, and he’d enticed dancers into using the crystal meth he dealt, leading at least one of them to become hooked. She’d nearly lost her life to an overdose, and she’d temporarily lost custody of her young daughter.
Don Geils had deserved every one of the bullets I’d put in his leg and dozens more. But the federal government wasn’t happy with my performance. I’d become a liability to the department, and they’d let me go.
As much as I hated to admit it, part of me didn’t blame them. If I were in their shoes, I might have made the same decision. It was hard to fault them, though I’d hazard a guess that each and every one of them might have reacted the same way I had if faced with such a situation. I was a human being, and I had a human response to an inhuman, inhumane situation. Still, without a job I felt as useless as tits on a boar hog.
Reluctantly, I climbed out of bed and retrieved my panties from the mouth of Nutty, Nick’s geriatric golden retriever mix. The fabric was soggy with dog spit. Urk. Looked like I’d have to go commando. I slid back into stretchy yoga pants, a long-sleeved tee, and sneakers and pulled my chestnut hair back into a ponytail.
Nick dressed in his rumpled jeans and sweatshirt, and together we made our disheveled way to his kitchen.
Nick had recently leased a town house in my neighborhood, half a block down and on the other side of the street. But while his floor plan was the same as mine, his décor was totally different. My living room, on the one hand, contained a tasteful, traditional tapestry sofa and chair set, with a cherrywood coffee table and accents. Nick’s, on the other hand, held a masculine faux leather couch in dark brown, along with an oversized, overstuffed recliner in a manly block print of earth tones. His coffee table was an amorphously shaped slab of natural wood cut years ago from a fallen tree on his parents’ farm near Houston. A television the size of a life raft hung on the wall. The only art in the room, if you could even call it art, was a poster from a fishing tournament held long ago in Galveston, the last Nick and his father had participated in before Nick’s father had died from a heart attack. The two had taken second place with a thirty-six-pound yellowfin tuna.
Nutty padded after us, following us into the kitchen and squeezing his way out of his doggy door. I peeked into the freezer. We’d pretty much depleted our options and were left with only a box of freezer-burned waffles and a bag of black-eyed peas, harvested from Nick’s mother’s garden. I let the black-eyed peas stay in the freezer. As is customary in the South, we’d eat them on New Year’s Day for good luck.
While Nick went out front to collect the Sunday paper from the stoop, I slid six waffles into the oven to warm and retrieved the syrup from the pantry. There’s no rule against eating breakfast at three in the afternoon, after all. Nick poured us two glasses of juice and we sat down at his dinette set.
Nick riffled through the Dallas Morning News, pulling out the sports page for himself and handing me the classifieds and a ballpoint pen.
I perused the want ads as I crunched my way through the freezer-burned waffle. A car dealership in the southwestern suburbs was looking for a person with financial experience to process auto loan applications. The pay was good, but the location was at least an hour’s drive from my town house. Not exactly convenient. A fast-food outlet sought a person with payroll experience to work as an assistant manager. Not sure I wanted to go home smelling like grease, though the thought of unlimited free curly fries was definitely tempting. A hospital needed help in their insurance billing department. No thanks. The tax code was difficult enough. Trying to make sense of the goobledygook in multiple insurance policies would be a nightmare.
An ad in the construction section caught my eye. “Think I could handle a jackhammer?” It would be an awesome workout for my biceps. Plus, the thought of working out my frustrations on a piece of asphalt sounded enticing.
“A jackhammer would be loud. Wouldn’t that rattle your nerves?”
True. Any stress relief the jackhammer provided would probably be offset by the irritating noise.
“Think the federal government would hire me back as a sniper for the CIA?” I was a sharpshooter after all, and I’d proved I had no qualms about putting a bullet in someone. Besides, I’d dropped hints to my dad that I wanted a rifle for Christmas, which was coming up in a matter of days. My personal gun collection contained a number of handguns but no longer-range weapon. Might as well round out the set, huh? Besides, given the current shambles my life was in, I was trying to avoid thinking of the present and had focused on the longer range.
“A sniper?” Nick said. “Nah. You wouldn’t be able to kill anyone.”
I sighed. Nick was right. As furious as I’d been at Don Geils, I hadn’t even been able to bring myself to kill him. I would’ve been totally justified, too. After all, he’d shot at me first. Hell, in my training as a special agent I’d been taught to respond to lethal force with the same. If I’d done what I was supposed to do, if I’d shot the bastard dead, I’d still have my job. Instead, I’d let him live and gotten myself fired.
How that’s for irony?
Nutty eased back through the doggy door, plodded over to his food bowl, and began crunching his kibble as Nick gestured to the newspaper in front of me. “Keep looking. Tax season’s coming up. I bet there’s all kinds of jobs for preparers.”
I made a gagging sound. Blegh. “I don’t want to do tax prep.” Not that preparing returns was bad work. It just involved a lot of sitting in an office, and I wasn’t a creature who adapted well to captivity. Being a special agent had involved a significant amount of fieldwork, part of the reason why the job had been perfect for me. But I supposed beggars can’t be choosers, huh? If I took a tax prep job, perhaps I could make do by going outside and taking a lap around the building every hour or so.
“Maybe you could just work through tax season while you look for something more permanent.” Nick put the sports page down. “What about going back to Martin and McGee?”
I’d worked at the downtown CPA firm for four years before joining the IRS. The managing partner, Scott Klein, told me if I ever changed my mind about leaving they’d welcome me back with open arms. And why shouldn’t they? I was a hard worker, skilled, reliable. I’d enjoyed many of my projects. The clientele at the firm had been varied and the work was interesting, a challenging combination of tax and consulting work. I’d felt trapped in my tiny cubicle before, but they’d promised me a management position with an office if I returned. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
“Good idea. I’ll check in with Scott Klein in the morning.” Even if I didn’t intend to return to the firm permanently, they could surely use a hand during the upcoming spring tax season. Those weeks were insanely busy. It had been hard to even find time for a potty break. I’d learned to limit my liquids at the office and survived on potato chips, candy bars, and microwave popcorn from the vending machine.
I finished my waffle, stood, and took my plate to the sink. “Guess I’ll head home now.”
Nick rose from his seat. “Nutty and I will walk you home.”
He clipped the leash on to Nutty’s collar and the two followed me out the door and onto the sidewalk, Nutty’s toenails clicking happily on the concrete.
Having Nick just down the block was wonderful. It made spending the night convenient and meant he was close by if I needed a jar opened or an errant bug corralled. I was available to feed Nutty or to take him for a walk if Nick was tied up with work. Yet, with our own places, we could maintain a modicum of independence, too.
It was the perfect scenario. At least for now. Someday, maybe even someday soon, I’d want more. My two closest friends had both recently become engaged, and my ring finger was beginning to feel a little bare. Still, Nick and I had only been dating a matter of weeks. It was much too soon to talk about marriage.
When we arrived at my place, Nick gave me a final soft kiss. He leaned his forehead against mine. “You know Lu’s fighting for you, right?”
“Yeah. I know.” My boss, Lu “The Lobo” Lobozinski, had been none too pleased that George Burton had demanded I be fired. After my hearing, when she’d met with the others privately, she’d argued on my behalf, insisted I was an essential asset to her department, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. She’d tried to console me by saying she’d keep up the fight, that maybe they’d change their minds once things cooled down, but frankly, I didn’t hold out much hope. Hiring me back would be admitting they’d made a mistake letting me go, and who wants to admit they’ve made a mistake? Especially men. They seemed to fear that admitting an error would shrink their testicles.
If only there was a way I could prove, without a doubt, that they’d been wrong, that the agency needed my unique skills, that I wasn’t the out-of-control agent they’d believed me to be.
I wasn’t, was I?
Nick took my hand and pressed it to his lips now. “I’m not giving up hope yet.”
I sighed. I didn’t want to be a pessimist, but I didn’t want to hang on to false hope, either. What good would that do?
My firing had come at a bad time, too. I’d just been assigned two great cases. Both involved transnational criminal organizations and posed the possibility of foreign travel. They’d been primo assignments, the kind of cases that didn’t come along often. I’d been lucky to land the files, excited to embark on what would surely be complex and interesting investigations. Now they’d be in another special agent’s hands.
I stepped back, careful not to step on Nutty lying sprawled on my doormat, and looked up at Nick. “Any idea who Lu gave my cases to?” It pained me to think of my cases being reassigned, of my coworkers vying for them like vultures pecking at the rotting carcass that had once been my career.
Nick shrugged. “Lu divvied them up all around.”
“I’m talking about the two big ones. Tokyo Discount Telecom and United National Debt Recovery.”
Nick diverted his eyes, taking a sudden interest in the Christmas wreath hanging on the front door behind me.
I crossed my arms over my 32As and narrowed my gray-blue eyes at him. “You? You took my cases?”
I wasn’t so much mad at Nick as I was at the situation. The cases were some of the best to ever come through the office. Intriguing, intricate, high dollar. Sure to put an agent on the fast track for promotion.
The Treasury Department and its foreign counterparts were buckling down on transnational criminal organizations, called TCOs for short. These organizations engaged in all sorts of sordid activities, ranging from extortion, to illegal weapons trading, to drug and human trafficking. Some even traded illegally in endangered species or their parts, such as rhino horns.
The Treasury had designated a number of organizations and their members and was doing what it could to put an end to their violent, illegal reign, including freezing their assets and prohibiting persons in the United States from doing business with the TCOs. The U.S. government had recently imposed sanctions on members of the Brothers’ Circle, a multiethnic crime syndicate composed of criminal groups based in former Soviet republics, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. The Treasury had also set its sights on the Japanese Yakuza criminal network, as well as its largest clan members, the Yamaguchi-gumi and Sumiyoshi-Kai families.
Of course the only way to successfully take down these groups was to work in conjunction with law enforcement in the countries where the organizations were based and operated. A multinational crime ring could only be defeated by a multinational crime-fighting force. As a girl who’d grown up in a small town in East Texas, I’d been proud Lu trusted me with cases of international importance.
“Tara, the cases weren’t…” Nick trailed off. He’d probably been about to say the cases hadn’t truly been mine, that they belonged to the IRS, but he apparently thought better of it. You can’t fight an emotional reaction with logic. He took my hand again. “I’m sorry. It sucks.”
I released a long breath. “I suppose if anyone had to get those cases, I’m glad it was you.”
I’d already done some legwork on the cases. I’d spoken by phone with an agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement about counterfeit electronics being shipped by Tokyo Discount Telecom. I’d also met with an assistant state attorney general about the collections fraud case. I’d been looking forward to working the investigations, especially because they’d involve foreign travel. The only international travel I’d done was an occasional trip to Mexico, standard vacation fare for Texans given the close proximity and relatively low cost. I’d been looking forward to visiting Asia. Now I’d be stuck at home.
Or would I?
“I’m going to Tokyo and New Delhi with you.” The airfare would put a huge dent in my savings, but I had to go along. These cases were mine, dammit. I needed to see them through.
Nick dipped his head in acknowledgment. “Had a feeling you’d say that. Already bought your plane tickets.”
The guy knew me well, huh?
“I’ll pay you back.”
“You’ll do no such thing. We could use your help. Besides, I’ve got money in the bank and no one counting on me but a smelly old dog.”
Nutty looked up on hearing the word “dog.” Not realizing he’d been insulted, he wagged his tail, causing it to thump-thump-thump against my door.
“Thanks, Nick. So much.” It was a generous, thoughtful gesture. I put my hands on Nick’s cheeks and stood on tiptoe to give him a final peck and a tight, warm hug. Nutty received an ear ruffle and a kiss on the nose. “Bye, boy.”
The dog replied with three wags of his tail and a woof!
Copyright © 2013 by Diane Kelly