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Victoria Colby-Camp stared out the window of her new home, watching the scene that would have once torn at her heart with an unbearable ruthlessness. Children, backpacks swinging, rushed to climb into minivans and SUVs. Harried mothers slid behind steering wheels all the while calling off the usual morning checklist. "Buckle up!"
"Do you have your lunch?"
"Where's your coat?"
Victoria had missed out on most of those tender years with her son. She'd scarcely gotten him through first grade before evil had descended upon her family.
She drew in a deep breath and pushed away the pain that lingered still. It was over now. Her son was home and safe from the bastard who had tortured him. Jim Colby was healed, for the most part. However, there were changes not so easily overcome. The brainwashing techniques that had been used on her son had lingering effects. But he was strong. Just like his father had been. He would continue to improve, continue to regain the life that had been stolen from him. And, most important, he had a woman who loved him close at his side.
Victoria smiled. Another woman besides his mother. Tasha North had proven a vital element in his recovery. Victoria thanked God for her each and every day. Jim and Tasha were currently spending a much-needed getaway in the Caribbean. The doctors had agreed to a two-week hiatus from treatment after three long months of intensive therapy. Though Victoria missed him immensely, she knew that her son was in capable hands with Tasha.
The smile faded from Victoria's lips. Despite the joy of having her son back and knowing that Leberman was rotting in hell, there were still questions related to his legacy of terror. Questions that had to be answered, though she was loath to admit as much.
Lucas was right. They had to discover how Leberman had gotten his information and they had to find the man who had helped him kidnap Jim all those years ago. He would have answers they desperately needed.
Victoria would never believe that a member of her own staff had knowingly betrayed her. Never. Nothing anyone could say would convince her. However, she did recognize that there were ways of getting information without a person's knowledge. Even her seemingly invincible Colby agents were human. That, in her opinion, was the only way the information Leberman used could have come from her agency.
With that solemn realization, she had reluctantly agreed to Lucas's plan. An internal affairs investigation would launch today. She swallowed, a knot of emotion making the task near impossible. No matter how much sense this step made, no matter how good the man in charge of the investigation, Victoria couldn't help feeling guilty.
She felt like a Judas.
Everyone at the agency insisted that they understood and welcomed the scrutiny. And yet, it felt utterly wrong. But it was the only way. She could not accept the risk that the second man involved with Leberman's long-ago plot to destroy the Colbys might learn of some future tactic that involved Jim. The doctors had repeatedly acknowledged that some parts of Jim's memory could not be unlocked.
As a longtime secret agent for the United States government, Lucas knew far too much about mind control techniques to assume that the inaccessible parts of Jim's memory were harmless. It would be just like Leberman to have built in an encorea backup plan in case his machinations failed. All it would take was the right word or set of circumstances and a deeply embedded neuro-command might just overtake Jim's ability to think for himself. Might force him to do the unthinkable.
That possibility represented a risk Victoria would not take.
She had to trust Lucas as well as the man he'd chosen to oversee this investigation. Someone outside the Colby Agency. Someone who would be completely objective.
Victoria had only met him once, but she had immediately sensed a coldness about him. He appeared distant and untouchable, unfeeling actually. His reputation marked him as relentless, savagely so.
But Lucas trusted him.
She had to remind herself of that all-important fact.
She glanced at the clock on the mantel8:00 a.m. The meeting would start now and she couldn't be there. Lucas had given her orders to stay clear of the investigation. Any interference on her part would be detrimental and only prolong the discomfort.
This had to be done.
She understood that.
But she didn't have to like it.
"I've prepared your favorite breakfast," Lucas said as he came up behind her.
She hadn't heard him come into the room. How long had he been watching? Unguarded, her every thought had certainly etched the echoing emotion on her face. He would have easily read each one. He knew her so very well.
Her husband slid his strong arms around her waist and pulled her against his reassuringly strong body. She felt the steady beat of his heart, experienced an instant sense of relief. "You have my word," he whispered softly against the shell of her ear, "that all will be well."
Tears brimmed before she could suppress another abrupt surge of emotion. How she prayed he was right. She gave herself a mental shake. How could she doubt Lucas? He had never failed her. She leaned her head against his shoulder. "I know."
"This will be over very soon."
She nodded. Cole Danes had assured her that he would waste no time. He knew what to do and he would do it without hesitation or question. He was the best. His reputation unparalleled in the arena of internal affairs.
Still, the worry gnawing at her would not be allayed. Victoria placed her hand over Lucas's and said out loud the words that filled her heart with tormenting dread. "But nothing will ever be the same."
Lucas didn't have to say anything. He knew, just as she did, that this step would forever change the dynamics of the Colby Agency. There was no way to pretend away the inevitable.
Nothing would ever be the same.
Inside the Colby Agency
Heath Murphy surveyed the conference room as the remainder of his colleagues at the Colby Agency made their way to fill the vacant seats around the long mahogany table. He nodded a greeting to Ric Martinez, the guy who'd taken Heath under his wing the past couple of months to show him the ropes. Ric and his lovely wife, Piper, had acquainted him with Chicago's nightlife and cultural offerings, as well, since Heath was new to the city in addition to being new at the agency.
More greetings were exchanged and coffee cups filled before the room settled, leaving the quiet crammed with simmering anticipation. Heath recognized all the faces, had been befriended by most. There were a couple folks from research who kept to themselves, offering only a cursory acknowledgement of other humans when absolutely necessary. Heath imagined that those guys spent so much time in cyberspace that they'd forgotten how to be truly social with like life forms.
Maxwell Pierce, Ethan Delaney, Nicole Reed-Michaels and Mildred Parker, just to name a few others, were the ones who went above and beyond the call to make the new feel welcome on a daily basis. Heath gave one person in particular an extra wide smile. Mildred, the secretary/personal assistant to the head of the agency.
She kept everyone straight. Knew the Colby Agency inside out. He doubted there was a person here who could do without Mildred's special brand of guidance from time to time, especially a newbie like him.
The door closed and Heath glanced in that direction. Simon Ruhl and Ian Michaels, both second in command only to Victoria Colby-Camp herself, moved to the front of the room. Neither man looked particularly happy this Monday morning. Heath couldn't actually blame them. Like everyone else at the agency he'd been briefed on what was about to take place. And, like the rest, he felt somewhat less than comfortable with the situation though he didn't have a real problem with the process.
As a former police officer he was aware of what an internal affairs investigation involved. Depending on the investigator in charge it could get pretty ugly. But then, this wasn't an official police proceeding, this was a civilian firm. He doubted the inquiry would be anything like the real thing. He surveyed the polished, professional group seated around the table. He couldn't see these people tolerating the kind of crap cops had no choice but to endure. Heath clenched his jaw hard and forced the bitter memories away. He'd been cleared, eventually. No point going back down that road again. He wasn't a cop anymore. He was a private investigator. At one of the most prestigious firms in the country.
He didn't have to rehash the past.
He would not.
This was his home now.
Forcing himself to relax once more, he tuned out the past and focused on the pep talk Simon Ruhl had launched.
"We've all been briefed on the necessity of this investigation," Simon said. "I've been assured that it will be accomplished in as efficient and nondisruptive a manner as possible. However" his gaze moved from face to face before he continued "Ian and I will be available for anyone who wishes to talk or who has a problem with any part of the proceedings." He looked from one attentive listener to the next. "Do not hesitate to come forward at any time."
Acknowledging nods jogged through the group. Simon's words had the intended effect. Heath could feel the change in the atmosphere of the room already. Tension relented and anticipation receded to a degree. There was no reason to be concerned, that was the message Simon wanted to impress. No one present really believed that a traitor existed among their ranks.
Heath was too new to speculate but his gut feeling was that the internal affairs investigation would be an exercise in futility, not to mention a monumental waste of time. These were the good guys. He'd worked with enough bad guys to know the difference.
"From this moment forward and until this investigation is completed," Ian Michaels said, taking the floor, "you will take your instructions from Mr. Danes."
A new kind of hush fell over the room. Heath frowned. The apprehension ratcheted back up a few notches. Maybe the staff wasn't as prepared as he'd presumed. A ping of dread made his own instincts flinch, but he quickly dismissed the uneasiness. Semantics, method of delivery, those were the reasons for the sudden reversal in the climate of the room. From his observations Heath had noted one distinct difference between Simon Ruhl and Ian Michaels. Simon went the extra distance to smooth ruffled feathers, to inject calm. In vivid contrast, Ian's demeanor was distant, quietly intimidating. The man did not mince words. Yet he was well liked. Two very different men, both very good at their work. Like everyone else employed by this agency. Heath couldn't help feeling a little rush of pride at having been brought on board. This was his new home. He liked it and intended to make a fresh start here. No looking back.
"And just when are we going to meet this Mr. Danes?" Mildred piped up with her usual blunt flair. Heath smiled. She was a definite original. One of a kind.
"Now is as good a time as any."
Every head in the room turned to stare in the direction of the unfamiliar voice. A stranger leaned casually against the wall next to the door. Heath felt certain he wasn't the only one who had not heard the newest arrival enter the conference room. As the man pushed off the wall and strolled leisurely to the front of the room, a different level of uneasiness nudged at Heath. Just who the hell was this guy? Anyone who could catch a room full of highly trained agents off guard was good.
Heath's gaze settled on the man in question as he assumed the position of authority as smoothly as drawing a breath. Simon and Ian stepped aside, giving him the floor without further ado. Ian settled into a chair next to his wife, Nicole, and Simon took the last remaining seat on the opposite end of the table. The whole transition of power took a single second with no pomp and circumstance.
The man at the front of the room braced his hands behind his back, assuming a typical military stance of attention. But there was nothing typical about his expression. He surveyed those seated around the table with a kind of primal intensity that spoke of extreme confidence and uncanny perception. This man would not only be very good at his work, he would also enjoy every moment of the effort as well.
Heath would bet almost anything that Mr. Cole Danes was not only ex-military, but ex-CIA, too. Or perhaps some group more subversive. Heath had met his kind before. Nothing would get in the way of the job. Ruthless was the word that came to mind.
Cole Danes trusted no one. Heath sensed with wrenching certainty that ice likely filled his veins. The man epitomized the phrase "commanding presence." Tall; broad-shouldered; deep, authoritative voice. Total control. He would accept nothing less. His tailored suit, while elegant, suggested careful attention to detail. All business. But his overlong hair gave him the untrustworthy look of a shady character from the wrong side of the tracks and the silver hoop that winked from one ear only strengthened that perception. A dichotomy.
"My name is Cole Danes."
Heath's attention shifted forward once more. Now the games would begin.
"As Simon told you, I will conduct this investigation as quickly and with as little disruption to the status quo as possible. Each of you will be subjected to close scrutiny that will involve extensive background investigation and repeated interviews."
A tiny smile tugged at one corner of Heath's mouth. He didn't see the big deal in that. Hell, he'd been through that already just to be considered as a Colby Agency investigator.
"You may believe that you've been exposed to this very sort of investigation before." Danes's gaze settled on Heath as if he'd spoken his thoughts aloud. "Perhaps when you were hired."
Heath felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. What was this guy? Psychic?
"Let me warn you now," Danes went on, his penetrating attention, thankfully, advancing to someone else, "this will be a new experience. That I can assure you. When I'm finished" that relentless gaze moved from face to face while the room held its collective breath "I will know more about you than you know about your self."
"That sounds strangely like a threat, Mr. Danes," Ian Michaels suggested in that quietly intimidating tone that marked him as a man who refused to be disconcerted by mere talk.
Danes relaxed his stance ever so slightly. His mouth quirked into a casual smile but there was no sign of amusement in his expression. "No, Mr. Michaels, that was not a threat at all." The smile vanished, ferocity lit in his eyes. "It was a promise." He turned back to the room at large. "Any questions?"