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The Real Deal
By Fern Michaels
Pocket BooksCopyright © 2004 MRK Productions, Inc.
All right reserved.
Quinn Star had known she was special the day she was born. No plastic baby bottles with a hard rubber nipple for her. No sirree, she wanted the real thing, much to her tattooed, hippie mother's dismay. The hippie mother who stayed around just long enough to wean her from her breast at six months, then went off to climb the Himalayas in search of Enlightenment, Quinn's tattooed, hippie father in tow. First, though, they dumped her on her aunt Birdie, who was a real flake but nice and almost normal. If you could count writing flowery, sometimes humorous, obituaries and hanging out in funeral parlors normal.
All in all, though, Quinn had no complaints about her upbringing. Birdie had taken care of her. She made sure she did her homework, brushed her teeth, and ate her vegetables. She attended PTA meetings, saw to her social life, and made sure she got into a good Ivy League college, where she'd graduated magna cum laude. But most of all, Birdie had loved her. That love said it all as far as she was concerned.
It was Birdie who insisted she follow her dream of being a Secret Service Agent after she graduated law school. Unfortunately, it hadn't worked out that way. She'd done her stint in Treasury and moved into the FBI when she finally realized the Secret Service and a White House detail were never going to become a reality.
Quinn looked down at the black-and-white photo of her parents standing on a mountaintop in some third-world country. She winced at their flowing garb and turbaned heads. It was the only picture she had of her parents. She always brought the picture to work with her in the morning. At night she put it in her briefcase to take back home. She didn't know why. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that during her almost thirty-two years she'd only seen her parents twice. Once when she was nine, and she'd been so frightened of them she'd hidden out in her room. The second time she almost missed them. They had arrived when she was seventeen and about to board the bus that would take her to Camp Wicheguma, where she was to be a camp counselor for the summer. They'd stood away from the camp bus on the tarmac in the parking lot and waved. She wasn't proud of the fact that she'd pretended not to know them. Birdie herself had stood apart from them and said she understood.
Her parents had never sent her letters or postcards over the years. They'd never sent her any gifts either, not even a trinket she could hold close and wish on for something more.
Sometimes life was a bitch. Like now.
Quinn clenched her teeth as she finished packing her belongings into a cardboard Xerox box. There wasn't much. A photo of Birdie, the photo of her parents, a trashy paperback novel riddled with impossible sex scenes, a spare toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, some nail polish, a small change purse full of quarters for the vending machines, a box of tissues, and a bottle of Visine. Her duffel bag, with her gym clothes and sneakers, rested at the bottom, making the box lopsided. Like she cared. All she wanted to do was to get out of there so she could go home and cry.
She looked around the small office she had called home when she wasn't out in the field. Once she had literally lived out of the office for three straight days when she was working a case the other agents had given up on. All she'd gotten for her efforts when she'd solved it were surly looks from her colleagues and a "good job, Star," from her section chief, Ezra Lapufsky.
She'd played the game for six long years. The only problem was, she went into the game not knowing there were two sets of rules, one for male agents and one for female agents. Being female, she'd lost out before she'd even gotten started. Angry with the garbage detail, the good old boy mentality, she'd hunkered down. And before long, she knew in her gut she was the best agent in the section. She could run rings around her fellow agents, both mentally and physically. She'd graduated first in her class at the Academy. Her best friend and fellow agent, Sadie Wilson, had come in second. Did that count for anything? No, it did not, she realized one week into the job. At best, she'd hoped for civility from the male agents, but she hadn't gotten that either. What she had gotten, even with all the sensitivity classes the agents attended, were snide comments, crude sex jokes, and blistering commentaries on her performance ratings. And, worst of all, weak backup when the action in the field got down and dirty. And yet, she'd saved their asses numerous times, covered for them at other times, and on more than one occasion kept quiet about some of their escapades. The Air Force's Tailhook scandal paled in comparison to some of their hijinks.
"Your loss, you bastards," Quinn seethed as she put the lid on her box of belongings. She poked her head out the door to make sure the coast was clear before she put on her coat. At that point in time, she didn't care enough about anyone in her section to want to say good-bye. She didn't even care about Puff.
And then he was there. Suddenly they were eyeball-to-eyeball because she was tall, and Puff was exactly the same height. He was a heartbreaking blot on her vision, one she would carry away with her forever. How could she banish those incredible dark brown eyes that crinkled at the corners, the cleft in his chin, his broken nose, which had never been set right. Not to mention the wry smile that always made her think he knew a secret she didn't. He wasn't handsome, but he was devilishly attractive. What her friends called a heart-stopper. Ezra Lapufsky was the first one to look away when Quinn refused to let her gaze waver.
He moved forward a step, forcing her back into her cubbyhole. "The guys elected me to be their spokesperson. They all wanted to say good-bye, but you know duty, it calls, and we, as the nation's protectors, have to obey that call. They took up a collection for this plant," Lapufsky said, holding it out as though it were the Holy Grail.
Quinn looked down at the sorry-looking potted plant with yellow leaves. She reached for it and dumped it in the wastebasket, the dry soil and the little white beads of vermiculite scattering in a thousand different directions. "Kiss my ass and get the hell out of my way, Puff. I saw that plant in the cafeteria this morning when I had my coffee. I can tell you exactly how many yellow leaves it has because I counted them. What are you doing here anyway?"
"I came to say good-bye."
"Well, you said it, so move out of the way so I can be on my way."
Once, she would have fallen for the contrition in his voice. Once, she would have whirled around, her whole being breathless with what was going to come next. Now she just gritted her teeth and kept moving.
"That was an order, Agent Star."
Quinn looked down at her watch. "I ceased being a federal agent at twelve noon. I'm a civilian now because my watch says it's twelve-thirty. Save your breath."
She felt herself being jerked backward, her feet literally leaving the floor. She dropped the box and brought her elbow straight back at the same time she brought up the heel of her right foot smack in the center of Ezra Lapufsky's groin. "I could chop you right in the neck for a stunt like that. Tsk, tsk, all those sensitivity training sessions, and you still put your hands on me. I'll just add that to my harassment and discrimination suit when I file it."
He groaned, falling to his knees.
"You miserable witch! Why'd you do that?" Lapufsky managed to gasp.
"Because I hate your guts, that's why. I wanted to leave here in a dignified manner, the same way I came in the first day on the job. I still can't believe I allowed myself to have an affair with you. That was stupid of me, but it's the only stupid thing I did while I was here. I plan to mention that in my harassment and discrimination suit, too. I'm outta here, so it won't matter to me, but it will matter to you since you plan to live out your days in this job. They'll never make you director of the FBI. Never! If it takes me the rest of my life, I'm going to get every female agent on the payroll and drag them into court so they can testify about how those sensitivity sessions don't work. Sadie Wilson is going to be my star witness. You'll be famous, Puff. I'm not going to tell you again, get the hell out of my way."
The color was starting to return to Lapufsky's face. He reached for the arm of the chair to pull himself upright. Quinn kicked the chair out of reach and watched it sail into the hall on its well-oiled wheels. He flopped back down to his knees, the expression on his face murderous.
Quinn leaned against the doorjamb. "I documented everything. I have reams and reams of tape. I just might go up to Capitol Hill and drop this off on some congresswoman's desk. You know how those guys and women up there hate you guys down here. Yeah, yeah, that's what I'm going to do. Start getting your résumé in order, Puff."
"Why are you doing this?" he snarled.
She wasn't going to sue anybody, but Puff didn't need to know that. Let him sweat and wonder when the subpoenas would roll in. "You have the balls to sit there - excuse me, kneel there - and ask me a question like that? You're dumber than I thought. You sidetracked my application to the Secret Service and the White House detail - a job I've coveted for years, that's why. After you snookered me into your bed. You said you would do everything in your power to get me assigned to the White House. You damn well single-handedly prevented me from getting what I dreamed of since I was a little kid. You, Puff. You called in all your markers and made sure it didn't happen. I should be the one asking you why, not the other way around. So, that's my question to you. Why?"
Puff was on his feet now, his face an unhealthy shade of red. He winced as he tried to straighten up. "Because you were the best agent ever to come out of this office; Sadie was the second best. I didn't want to lose you after she packed it in. Hell, the director was calling me once a month to congratulate me on picking such a fine agent as you. I had to be tough on you because of the others. If you're so damn smart, how come you didn't figure that out? I didn't snooker you into my bed either; you came willingly."
Quinn stood rooted to the floor, stunned at her section chief's revelation. She needed to say something, and she needed to say it immediately. "You'll say anything so I don't file this suit, won't you? I suppose you're going to tell me you loved me, too, but in a back-alley kind of way. Screw you, Puff. I wouldn't believe anything you said even if you swallowed the Bible whole." She jerked her head backward. "Tell your manly buddies back there to update their résumés, too."
Outside, in the crisp, cold November air, Quinn looked around. Her original intention had been to go home to her narrow little town house in Georgetown. Now she realized she didn't want to go home and be alone.
She stared up at the lettering on the cream-colored building. J. Edgar Hoover. He was a male chauvinist pig, too. She shrugged as she struggled to get a firmer grip on the cardboard carton. As far as she was concerned, this was just another building in Washington.
Since she didn't want to go home, she headed for her aunt Birdie's house on Connecticut Avenue. Birdie and her dog Winifred were what she needed. Birdie would hug her and say all the things she needed to hear. Winnie would lather her with kisses and crawl into her lap.
Quinn turned for one last look at the building where she'd spent so many years. Tears glistened in her eyes as she stared at it. This part of her life was over. Not just the professional part of her life but her personal life as well. She had to get out of here before she started to blubber. She did her best to choke back a sob threatening to escape her lips. She needed to get angry, down and dirty angry at what she considered Ezra Lapufsky's betrayal. She shifted the box under her arm again so she could remove her bright red glove. She flexed her cold fingers before she offered up Birdie's favorite good-bye when someone made her angry. Her single-digit salute did not go unnoticed by the crowds of people rushing by.
Quinn pulled on the bright red glove as she turned away. The sob in her throat escaped as tears rolled down her cheeks.
Excerpted from The Real Deal by Fern Michaels Copyright © 2004 by MRK Productions, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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