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September 29, 2008
"I don't understand," Ellen Farley said, gripping the arms of her chair. "I didn't pad my résumé. My references are genuine, and I have the experience required for the position. So why am I here?"
"Because if you had nothing to hide, you wouldn't care," Jessa Bellamy murmured as she watched the disgruntled young woman through an observation panel.
"North and Company retains Phoenix, Inc., to perform standard background checks on all their new employees, Ms. Farley." Caleb Douglas, the intake interviewer who sat with his back to Jessa, kept a perfect blend of sympathy and authority in his tone. "You're here because they'd like to hire you."
"Oh." She smiled, relaxing her shoulders. Her frosted pink fingernails, however, remained curled into the armrests. "Then I've got the job?"
"Almost. I'll let you get started on these"—he handed Ellen a clipboard with a number of blank forms on it—"while I grab some coffee. Would you like a cup?"
"No, thank you." She took a slim gold pen from her oversize blue leather bag and began filling out the top form. Absently she crossed her ankles, showing off her metallic silver pumps.
As soon as Caleb left the room, however, Ellen Farley put the clipboard on his desk, stood, and came over to the panel. Jessa knew that on Ellen's side of the wall, the panel appeared to be nothing more than a mirror with an ornate frame hanging behind Caleb's desk.
"Nicely handled," Jessa said as Caleb joined her at the panel and watched as Ellen fluffed and shook out her layered red hair. "What do you think?"
"Seems legit to me." The interviewer considered the preening woman. "She's not happy to be here, but North and Company gave her ten minutes' notice, so that's to be expected." He rubbed the end of his nose. "She smells like she was baptized with Chanel No. 5."
Jessa had already caught a whiff of the woman's French perfume, which seemed almost a cliché: Expensive is as expensive does. "Credentials?"
"Angela says they're sterling. Ellen Farley is the perfect candidate for comptroller." Caleb studied her expression. "Or not. What's setting off your bells, boss?"
"Her shoes. They're knockoffs."
Cal glanced down. "So?"
Jessa gestured at Ellen's tasteful floral sheath. "So you don't invest in a Michael Kors dress and a Balenciaga bag unless you can also afford five hundred bucks for the real Anya Hindmarch pumps."
The interviewer chuckled. "You should be a gay man."
"Maybe in my next life. Bring her to me after she finishes the busywork. And, Cal." Jessa nodded toward his empty hands. "Don't forget the coffee before you go back in."
Walking up the back stairs to her office gave Jessa time to think. She often used small, seemingly insignificant details like Ellen Farley's designer-clone shoes as rationale for further assessment of the applicants sent to them by their clients. By doing so she'd acquired a reputation for having a keen eye, and even Caleb, one of her most trusted employees, believed in it. Jessa had been very careful to cultivate that misconception.
Her ability to discover exactly what people hid from their employers had made Phoenix, Inc., one of the top personnel agencies in the South, but no one could ever know the truth of how she did it.
Angela Witt, her technical supervisor, intercepted her outside her office. Tall, rawboned, and a little awkward, Angela was barely out of her teens, and had originally come to the agency as a temp. Jessa had quickly discovered the very young secretary had a natural gift for computers, multitasking, and resource management, as well as a desperate need for permanence and a sense of purpose.
"Ms. Bellamy, Caleb said you flagged Ms. Farley." Angela sounded as stiff as she looked. "I checked every one of her refs, but they all came back a hundred percent. What did I miss?"
"Nothing," Jessa said. "Her shoes are wrong."
"A fashion mistake? Oh, good." Her shoulders drooped as her chin lifted. "I mean, it's not good, not at all, but at least I didn't ..." She stopped herself and released a sigh. "Sorry."
"It's all right, Angela." Accustomed to her office manager's mild but perpetual paranoia, Jessa suppressed a smile. "I could be wrong about this one."
"No way, Ms. B." Her office manager shook her head, almost dislodging the stubby pencil holding her topknot of hair in place. "You're never wrong. It's like you have liar radar. I'll run her name again and see what I can find." She turned and hurried down the hall to the data center.
Jessa stepped into her office and closed the door. She'd personally designed her workspace to be quiet and uncluttered. Two clear Lucite columns supported the massive slab of polished black granite that served as her desk. Against one white wall, Asian black lacquer cabinets inlaid with delicate mother-of-pearl lotus flowers concealed her office equipment, and faced a four-by-five-foot print of Ansel Adams's Birds on a Beach over a modular black leather seating unit that surrounded a coffee table that was merely a smaller version of her desk. In the center of the table stood a crystal vase filled with fresh flowers. She'd had the back wall replaced with a single panel of glass, which provided a wide view of Peachtree Street and the Armstrong building.
For the floor she'd commissioned and imported labradorite stone tiles from Sweden, which glowed with an ever-changing blue-green-amber light under the recessed incandescent fixtures in the white ceiling. At the corners of each tile were small, silver disks that to the naked eye appeared to be decorative touches. Each disk was hardwired to perform three different functions when activated by the remote: sealing the room, tripping the security alarms, and administering enough of an electrical charge to knock out whoever stood on them.
Her workspace appeared more like a room in a minimalist art gallery than an office, but it suited her tastes and kept anyone else who entered from getting too comfortable.
Jessa opened the doors to the cabinet nearest her desk to check her surveillance equipment. Six monitors showed six different-angled views of her office via the minicameras hidden all around the room. She picked up a small transceiver, switched it to take over her office line, and tucked it over her ear. She removed a slim remote sitting inside the cabinet and placed it in her jacket pocket.
A knock sounded, and Jessa went to stand behind her desk before she called for the person to come in.
Caleb entered with an unhappy Ellen Farley following him, but after performing introductions and handing Jessa a file, he excused himself and left.
"Please sit down, Ms. Farley." Jessa waited until she had before she did the same and opened the file. "I have a few more questions for you."
"More?" Ellen crossed her arms. "I filled out all of your forms. What else do you want to know?"
Unhappy and defensive, Jessa thought.
"You were born in 1974, an only child, is that correct?" She glanced up in time to catch Ellen's tight nod before returning to the file notes. "Very good education, majored in economics at Brown, graduated with honors. You were recruited to work for CitiCom, where you were promoted to assistant comptroller, paid very well, and then resigned a year later." She met Ellen's resentful gaze again. "Why leave a good job like that?"
"There was no possibility for advancement," Ellen said. "Citi doesn't place women in the top executive positions. It's one big old-boys' network."
"You relocated from New York to Atlanta before you found a new position." Jessa pretended to skim through the rest of the forms, letting the other woman stew for a moment before she asked, "What brought you down here to look for work?"
"I've always liked the South." She moved her shoulders. "The weather is great and the country is beautiful, and the people are nice."
Jessa closed the file. "Established corporations like North and Company are somewhat more conservative than their New York counterparts. I believe our old-boys' network is in its fifth generation."
Ellen's lips thinned. "What are you implying?"
She was as suspicious as she was defensive, which might mean she was everything she claimed to be, or not. "Merely that your ambition may come up against yet another glass ceiling."
"I don't think any of this is your business, Ms. Bellamy," the other woman snapped.
"I am certifying for my client that you are who you say you are and therefore are also suitable for employment with them." Jessa offered her a cool smile. "At present, everything about you is my business."
"Yes, of course. I'm sorry." The faint lines around Ellen's mouth eased. "It was really a shock to find out I'm being investigated, or whatever you call it. Then they told me I had to come over here right away, or I wouldn't eligible for hire. It scared the heck out of me."
"No need to be afraid. It's all over now."
Ellen smiled. "Really? That's all I have to do?"
"That's it." Jessa stood. "I appreciate your taking the time to come in and fill out the paperwork." She held out her hand.
"Thank you." Ellen Farley's hand joined hers.
Jessa stood in the center of what appeared to be a cheap hotel room. The odors of cigarette smoke, sweat, and sex nearly choked her as she gazed down at the two bodies writhing together on the worn paisley carpeting. Neither had undressed completely, but the man's buttocks gleamed white beneath a low tan line, and shook as he thrust himself into Ellen Farley with eager, frantic movements.
She could feel their lust crawling inside her head, dragging with it everything they thought. While Ellen's mind focused on the need tightening in her pelvis, her lover Max's thoughts were at odds with his enthusiasm.
"We're going to be rich, baby," the man panted as he grabbed her bouncing breast through her damp silk blouse and dug his fingers into the mound. "So fucking rich. We'll never have to work another day of our lives."
Max Grodan was already rich, Jessa knew. Beyond rich. He could leave Ellen and never have to work another day for ten lifetimes—and he had worked very hard to keep Ellen from discovering that.
Ellen groaned. "What if I get caught? This time they'll know it was me. I'll go to prison, Max."
"Ellen Farley will go to prison, if they bother to dig her up out of the ground." Max nuzzled her neck. "Judy Tulliver is going to Rio with me and five-point-nine million bucks."
The image in Max's mind was of a shallow grave, but it was empty. At least until he shoved Ellen's limp body over the edge.
Jessa released the other woman's hand, smiled, and watched her leave the office. As soon as the door closed, she dropped down into her chair and buried her face in her hands. She sat like that until the worst of the shakes from her vision stopped and she could think of something other than running after Ellen and pleading with her not to go anywhere near Max.
She couldn't do this. Not here, not now.
With a trembling hand she picked up her phone and dialed a two-digit extension. "Angela, check the U.S. interment database and see if you can find a listing for an Ellen Ann Farley, date of birth February nineteenth."
"What year, Ms. Bellamy?"
She flipped open the file and gazed at Ellen's date of birth. To use identity records belonging to another person, Ellen would have had to choose someone born prior to 1936—the year the United States began issuing social security numbers—with digits that could be easily doctored. The digit 1 could be easily changed to a 4—or a 7. "Try 1914."
"Searching." After a few moments, Angela took in a quick breath. "One hit. Holy Moses. Ellen Ann Farley, born 1914, died 1916. Interred in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Albany County, New York."
"Good." Jessa put the phone on speaker so she could walk around the office and work out the last of the trembling weakness from being in the shadowlight. "Call the Office of Vital Statistics in New York, and have them fax a copy of Ellen Ann Farley's actual birth certificate to us. If the certificate numbers match, we'll move on to social security."
"Yes, ma'am." Angela hesitated before adding, "See what I mean? You're never wrong about people, Ms. Bellamy."
"No." Jessa looked down at the vase of white roses on the coffee table, and touched one of them. "This time I wasn't."
"Adele, standing there and breathing on it ain't gonna get that window clean," Maribeth Boden said as she finished rubbing the last streak from the glass in front of her.
Adele Watkins didn't reply, but swatted the air with her hand.
"Come on now." Maribeth walked over to help her friend, and studied the dusty inside of the pane. "We got three more offices to do before ... we—" She stopped and gulped. "Sweet baby Jesus."
"Uh-huh," Adele murmured.
The man on the other side of the window stood in the shade the recessed arch over it provided. While Maribeth saw a lot of men during her rounds of the office buildings she cleaned every day, she couldn't recall ever noticing one put together like this one.
He was too dark to be white, and too light to be black. She would have pegged him as Hispanic or Indian, if not for his dark blond hair and light eyes, but that wasn't right either. If someone had asked her, she would have said his skin reminded her of her mama's homemade pralines, all hot and smooth as they cooled on waxed paper in the kitchen.
His pretty skin covered broad, heavy muscles, the kind she'd never seen on a white man, not even the ones at the gym around the corner. When he shifted position, they didn't ripple; they flowed.
"You think he's gonna put that jacket back on?" Adele murmured.
The white sleeveless shirt he wore clung to his chest and torso like body paint, and made it clear to Maribeth that everything it covered was just as fine as what it exposed. "God wouldn't be that hateful to me."
Adele sucked in a sharp breath as the man turned his head to look at the window. "He knows we're watching him."
"No, he don't," Maribeth chided. "It's privacy glass; the outside's like a mirror, 'member? He's just looking at himself." But he didn't do much of that before he went back to watching the street. "You think he works here?"
"If he does we're blind." Adele pressed her dark hand to the dirty window. "Damn, Mari, but if he ain't the finest man I've seen in my whole life, I'll eat my mop."
Maribeth thought of her man, Darnell, who was still home in bed after a long night on the road. "Think I'm gonna go home for lunch today."
Adele sputtered a laugh. "I was thinking I'd take my coffee break in the back of my husband's cab."
"Morning, ladies." Carter Burleigh, one of the young attorneys who worked on the floor, walked up behind them. "Have either of you ... found—" He stopped speaking, but his jaw remained in its dropped position.
Adele glanced back at him. "That your boyfriend, Mr. Burleigh?"
"God wouldn't be that kind to me, Adele." Carter wedged himself between the two women to have a better look. "Damn."
"Amen," Maribeth said on her own sigh.
On the other side of the window, the man who had taken the name Gaven Matthias decided he'd concealed himself long enough to dispel casual suspicion, and moved out of the shade to cross the street. As he did, he heard the groans of the two women and the one man who had been watching him, and smiled a little as he kept his jacket slung over his arm.
On the other side of the street, he walked down the block, went to a meter, took out a handful of coins, and counted them. Everyone who walked past him paid little attention to what he did; he was simply a man avoiding a parking ticket.
They were not aware that he'd claimed the spot many hours before dawn, or that he had spent the time either watching the phone booth next to the parking space or feeding coins to it so he might eavesdrop on every woman who came to use the booth. Fortunately in this era of mobile phones few seemed to have need of it, and there had been only two since dawn.
The third came as he selected a quarter to add to the meter. He heard the click of her heels on the concrete sidewalk and smelled her scent as she passed. He didn't look directly at her, but from the corner of his eye he saw the gleaming twist of black hair at the back of her head and the smooth fit of her gray jacket over slim black trousers.
She dressed like a man but smelled like good clear water, crisp and cool. He closed his eyes briefly, taking her scent deep into his chest and letting it warm him. Few of his boyhood beliefs had withstood the passage of time and life, but he still kept faith in his senses. They whispered that she had come to him at last, the one he was meant to find. She smelled of tears and melting snow.
She smelled of rain.
Coins chimed as she fed them into the phone, and then her voice brushed against his ears, low and sweet, a taste of dark honey. She asked for an agent by name, waited, and said, "I have important information for you. Please listen carefully."
Matthias pressed a button on his watch to switch it to its timing function before he fed another quarter into the meter and listened. The woman spoke rapidly, offering names, dates, monetary amounts, and the electronic method used to commit the crime. She gave the address of a hotel and the room number where the criminals responsible could be found. She finished the call with a polite refusal—probably for a sizable reward—and hung up the receiver.
She walked away without looking back once.
He checked his watch. She had related everything in one minute and thirty-eight seconds. As he watched her turn the corner, he saw her remove first one black leather glove and then the other.
He took out his own phone and pressed the number two before bringing it to his ear. "Whom did she call?"
"FBI headquarters in New York City," Drew told him. "Did you get a clear shot?"
"There was no opportunity." Matthias went around and climbed into his rental car. As he pulled out and drove around the block, he repeated everything he had heard the woman say. "You can check what she reported to see if it is true?"
"Already on it." The sound of tapping keys came over the line. "Got a hit. The details she gave the FBI match an unsolved case that happened two years ago. Electronic embezzlement. The company lost close to a million dollars. No suspects."
"Soon there will be."
"No doubt," Drew agreed. "Why doesn't she report them to the local office? They're there in Atlanta."
He considered that. "Too close to where she lives."
"Then you were right. She lives in the city."
"Lives, or perhaps works." Matthias searched the faces of the pedestrians walking on either side of the street before he spotted the woman standing at a corner and holding her hand in the air. "She came by taxi."
"Smart lady. No car, no license plate we can use to trace her identity. Do you think she suspects that someone is looking for her?"
"She would not stay here if she did." Matthias kept one hand on the wheel and used the other to lift his camera to his face. He was able to snap three profile shots as the woman entered the taxi that had stopped for her. "Find out what you can. I will call you later."
"Good hunting, boss."
Matthias noted the number and license plate of the cab before he pressed the number 1 on his phone.
"Hit me," Rowan's cool young voice said.
He gave her the numbers along with the company name stenciled on the side of the taxi. "The driver took her from the street at one thirty-three."
"He picked her up at one thirty-three," she corrected him. "Kidnappers like us take people. Cabbies pick them up."
The subtle and sometimes maddening intricacies of American language still challenged him. "But he does not lift her. He takes her to her destination."
"To pick up can mean lifting a person, seducing a person, or giving them a ride in a vehicle."
"Seducing." He didn't know the woman yet, but the idea of her giving herself to anyone did not sit well with him. "You are certain of this?"
"It's my language, pal," Rowan reminded him. "Drew's faxing a bunch of police reports. You think she's the one who's been tipping off the feds?"
Her scent still lingered in his head and chest, a silent waterfall. "I know she is."
Rowan's tone changed. "Then you should take her as soon as possible."