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By FERN MICHAELS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2008 Fern Michaels
All rights reserved.
Her name was Erin Powell, and she was almost perfect. She was beautiful, intelligent, kind, generous, and had a megawatt smile. Almost perfect because there was no such thing as "perfect." Or so said her mother. She was also considered the best of the best. She knew it, and so did the man standing in front of her. The others ... They knew it, too, but would never admit it out loud. She'd told herself so many times over the years that no man would ever admit a woman could best him in anything.
Special Agent Erin Powell had graduated first in her class at the FBI Academy. She'd taken first place in the gun trials, first place in the endurance trials, first place in the triathalon, first place in everything. She didn't get any special medals or awards. What she got were scorn, snide remarks, and a gallon of grease to put on her sneakers to outrun all the lascivious agents hot on her trail. She knew the male agents had a pool going on as to who would get into her bed first. Like that was ever going to happen.
Erin Powell wasn't the name on her birth certificate. Her mother had named her Honey Sweet because she was such a little honey when she was born, all pink and beautiful, just the way a baby was supposed to be. And the reason her mother thought she was perfect was because she had all her toes and fingers, not to mention a full crop of curly hair. A trifecta for a newborn. Her parents were true romantics. She'd changed her name to Erin the day she turned twenty-one because even then she knew she wanted to be an FBI agent. Who in their right mind would ever take an agent seriously with a name like Honey Sweet? No one, that's who.
She'd done everything she could to join in, to try to belong, simply to fit in, but she was met with belligerence and hostility — forget those sensitivity classes. She'd even gone so far as to attend a retirement party with her colleagues and somehow managed to drink them under the table and still remain standing, much to their chagrin. She'd been sick for four days afterward, and to this day never drank more than one glass of wine. That, she'd heard through the grapevine, was the biggest thing that they held against her. Stupid, stupid, stupid. From that point on, she'd focused on her career and tuned them all out. She told herself over and over, at least a million times, that she didn't want them watching her back. She'd watch her own back, thank you very much.
She'd hoped for more in this career of hers, but it hadn't happened. For the most part she put in her time and went home at night to read procedure manuals and write her dissertation. She wondered how she would feel when she was finally, after all these years, addressed as Dr. Powell. Where would she fit in at the Bureau then? Her gut told her it would be worse. Maybe it was time to move into the private sector.
Erin looked up when the man standing in front of her cleared his throat. Finally, he was going to get to the reason she'd been summoned to this private room along with five of her colleagues. They thought they were the best of the best. Her insides started to quiver with laughter when she thought about how the vigilantes had escaped their clutches and left them standing there, looking like the fools they were. Cocky, sanctimonious bastards.
"Something funny, Agent Powell?" Elias Cummings, the head of the FBI, asked quietly.
"No, sir," Erin said. She liked Elias Cummings. She'd been told by the women in the office when he stepped up to the plate that he was a fair man, a learned man, a man who knew and took his job seriously. If he didn't approve of women in the Bureau, he never let it show. She liked his grandfatherly looks, the twinkle in his eyes. He had a sense of humor about everything except the Bureau, and that's the way it was supposed to be. She wasn't sure he knew anything about her other than her name and Social Security number, so she couldn't help but wonder why she was standing here in this hallowed room with what the Bureau considered its other top agents.
Elias Cummings motioned for all six agents to take seats. They obliged, their eyes on the director and the six colored folders in his hands. They all knew something was up, something important. Erin could see the questions in her fellow agents' eyes as they wondered why she was here.
Cummings addressed Erin first as he opened her file. His eyes were thoughtful as he skimmed through her performance evaluations. He didn't look at her until he got to the background check report. There was no twinkle in his eye when he asked her why she hadn't informed the Bureau that she knew several members of the vigilantes.
"I beg your pardon, sir. Would you mind clarifying the question?"
"It says right here," Cummings said, waving a sheet of paper in the air, "that you grew up with Barbara Rutledge, Myra Rutledge's daughter, and Nikki Quinn, Myra Rutledge's adopted daughter. Nikki Quinn is a member of the vigilantes, as is Myra Rutledge."
"That was twenty years ago, sir. We were children, we played together. We were friends. We stayed in touch for a while, but we got on with our lives. I did go to Barbara's funeral, and I cried the way everyone else cried. She was too young to die. Nikki, Barbara, and their mother came to see me when I graduated from the Academy. They gave me a lovely pearl necklace. When I bought a house, Nikki's law firm handled the closing. After a while the Christmas cards stopped, and we lost touch. I'm sure that's all in your file ... sir."
Erin could hear the five agents sitting around in a half circle snickering. Well, maybe not all five were snickering, but she knew Doug and Joe were. Somehow, some way, she was going to make them pay for those snickers. Her nerve endings started to twitch as she wondered if there was any way for Director Cummings to know how she had secretly rooted for the vigilantes the day they were arraigned in court and how her fist shot in the air when she'd heard they'd gotten away. Was there any way for the director to know she followed their missions with joy in her heart? Impossible! She let her elation show only in the privacy of her own little cottage, which she shared with a big old cat named Dancer.
"It is, Agent Powell. So, what you're telling me is you've had no contact with the infamous vigilantes?"
Erin's nerve endings screamed. "Yes, sir, that's what I'm telling you." The silence in the room thundered in her ears. Was she being set up for something here?
"In the interests of clarification, you have not contacted them, and they have not contacted you. Is that right?"
"Yes, sir, that is right. With all due respect, sir, why are you asking me these questions? I'm sure there are hundreds of people who knew and have interacted with the members of the vigilantes in the past. Are you questioning them, or is it just me?" she asked coldly, her eyes flashing with anger.
"You're a federal agent, Agent Powell. That puts you front and center. The others you speak of are too numerous to count, but rest assured we are talking to everyone we can find. Someone is helping those women, and I believe there is a mole right here in this building who is helping them. I'm not saying it's you, Agent Powell. Having said that, I am appointing the six of you in this room as a special task force to apprehend the women known as the vigilantes. You, Agent Powell, will use whatever you know about Myra Rutledge and Nikki Quinn, to figure out a way to catch them. I want you to do everything possible to figure out where they are and how to get them somewhere we can arrest them."
Erin's heart fluttered wildly in her chest. She knew the director was watching her carefully, waiting for her to respond. Of all the stupid, dumb luck, for her to pull a case like this. Suddenly the private sector was looking better and better. But for now, she couldn't refuse. She felt her body go ramrod straight. "How would you suggest I go about doing this, Director?" She couldn't resist a sarcastic shot of, "So far no one else in the FBI has had any success in capturing them, and when we've tried they made us look like fools. And, sir, while I am attempting to do as you request, what will my colleagues be doing?" This last was asked coldly and boldly, leaving nothing to the director's imagination.
Erin's sarcasm was not lost on Director Cummings. "They'll be your backup, Agent Powell. You are to apprise them of every movement, every detail the moment it occurs. Are we all clear on this?"
Six heads nodded in unison.
"Good. That means we're all on the same page. A room has been set up on the fifth floor for your use. Althea Cook is being assigned to you for the length of this special investigation. I hope there are no questions."
"Excuse me, sir, I have a lot of questions," Erin said, her head buzzing with wondering what she was expected to do.
"If you have questions, Agent Powell, you don't belong in this job. Treat it like any other case. Start at the bottom and work upward. Use your colleagues' expertise. I thought it was understood that you, Agent Powell, are in charge of this task force. And, let me make something else crystal clear. I want no tattling. If any of you agents have a beef, if your feelings get hurt, if you don't like your assignments, take it up with your boss, and for now Agent Powell is your boss. She and she alone will report to me in a timely manner, which in this case means once a day."
Erin was so stunned she was suddenly speechless. Finally, after all these years, she was the agent in charge. All of the yahoos standing behind her were going to have to take her orders, do what she said, when she said it. Oh, yeah!
As was the rule, the agents waited until Director Cummings exited the room before they moved or uttered a word. Erin was prepared for the storm that would no doubt erupt the moment the door closed. But nothing happened — which worried her.
Erin looked down at the Mickey Mouse watch on her wrist. A gift from Myra Rutledge when she graduated from the FBI Academy. It had been a joke at the time and was followed by the exquisite string of pearls, but she loved the watch with the big hands and equally big numbers even more than she did the pearls, and she wore it every day. There was no need for anyone to know where the watch had come from.
Erin allowed herself a few moments of pure victory. She eyed the men, who wore angry looks and were waiting for her orders. She played it for all it was worth. It was her due, pure and simple. She looked at her watch again. Then she took a few seconds to look the men up and down until they grew uncomfortable.
"Since it's almost lunchtime, gentlemen, let's decide what we want. Joe, today you get the honors. I'll take a pastrami on rye with two pickles. Two. Not one. Two. Write it down, Joe. Then I want it entered in the new logbook I'm going to set up."
Joe Landos was a buff, good-looking, sandy-haired six foot-four guy with a beacon smile who cheated on his wife left and right, then bragged about it. Landos nodded, his eyes spitting sparks.
"Doug, I want you to go with Joe to help him carry lunch. Oh, I'd like some coffee. Light. No sugar. Tell me you understand this order."
Doug Parks was also buff, and tanned, thanks to a tanning bed. He had an atrocious combover that was laughable. He called himself a bachelor, divorced twice with three kids. He showered at the Bureau and on many occasions slept in one of the rooms they reserved for all-nighters. Right now he was an unhappy camper, and he let it show. Erin watched as he bit down on his lip to stop one of the hateful comments that were his trademark. Somehow he managed to spit out the words, "I understand."
"Charlie, you, Bert, and Pete come with me. We need to set up our workroom. We'll need some extra phones, a fax, and a copy machine. I don't want to overwork Althea. She is, after all, a woman, and you guys know how delicate we females are."
Charlie Akers grinned. Charlie was seasoned, a good agent who went by the book. He was in his fifties with a sweet wife, who was a wonderful homemaker, and two kids in college. A man who loved his family and his job. She'd never heard a derogatory remark come out of his mouth.
Pete Mangello was near retirement and a grandfather to seven girls. He was someone you could count on to do his share and never complain. He was known to partner with Charlie, and Erin knew for a fact that they were also social friends. Neither one would give her any trouble. Joe and Doug would try to throw monkey wrenches into the case, not caring about the end result. Sending them for lunch was her first shout of authority. She made a mental note to ride their asses till they were scraped raw. She was up at bat, and it was a whole new ball game.
The fifth man and her favorite agent, looked at her, his eyes full of questions, but he didn't say a word. He simply waited.
Erin smiled. There was a time when she seriously thought about dating Bert Navarro, but something told her to keep the situation the way it was. And she had listened to her own advice, which didn't mean she couldn't enjoy his company. He was Cummings's number-one man, and for the director to lend him out was not only the highest compliment he could pay her, it was telling her Cummings had faith in her abilities. She looked around at the others as they waited for her next words. "Bert, you're my number one."
"Okay, boss. Just tell me what you want me to do."
"Right now, give Joe your lunch order, then you and I are going to map out a little strategy, which we will share with the others."
Landos shot Navarro a look of pure hatred that was outdone only by the more intense glare he shot in her direction. Erin smiled and made shooing motions with her hands to get the two lunch runners to move.
Right now, the score was one–zip. But she was the umpire.CHAPTER 2
It was a chilly day even though the sun was bright and golden with more than a hint of autumn in the air. The gorgeous canopy of colored leaves overhead attested to the fact that October was coming to a close on Big Pine Mountain in North Carolina. At the stroke of midnight it would be All Hallows' Eve, and there still wasn't a pumpkin or scarecrow in sight.
A light breeze whispered through the trees stirring the brilliant gold and bronze leaves. They whirled and twirled with abandon as Annie de Silva and Myra collected them from the blanket they'd spread for a light picnic lunch. They were waiting for the girls to finish their ten-mile run.
Annie sniffed at the deep aroma from the pungent pines the mountain was known for. "I just love the smell of pine. It reminds me of Christmas when I was a little girl, and the house was full of evergreens."
Myra thought Annie sounded sad, which was not at all like Annie. Normally she bubbled and babbled nonstop. Myra raised her eyebrows in question but then only nodded.
"What do you think it will be like up here when the snow comes, Myra?"
Myra thought about the question for a moment. "I imagine it will be just like it was in McLean, Virginia, Annie. The only difference will be our outlook. And we won't be able to drive anywhere. By the same token, there isn't anywhere to go. There are snowmobiles here so we can spin about the mountain if we want to. I'm thinking it's going to be bitter cold up here, and we won't want to go anywhere. There's a lot to be said for roaring fires, good food, wonderful books, and listening to music. We have good friends here and, best of all, Annie, no matter what anyone says, we have made a difference in a lot of people's lives. All for the better. Are you getting homesick?"
"Sometimes," Annie answered honestly.
"Memories are wonderful, but sometimes they become our worst enemies." Myra leaned closer and whispered because she knew even a low-voiced comment carried over the mountain. "Supplies came in this morning, and if I'm not mistaken, I saw a whole crate of pumpkins being unloaded. I think Charles has a surprise for us, and that's why he arranged this little picnic. He wanted us out of the way. I think he's going to decorate the porch the way Nikki and Barbara did our porch back home when they were girls. Then I think he's going to make pumpkin pies, pumpkin bread, and pumpkin soup for dinner tomorrow night. You a betting woman, Annie?"
"Nope. It's a sucker's bet, Myra. I saw those pumpkins, too, and was wondering what they were for. I hope he saves a few so we can carve them. I think the girls need a little diversion. How is it that we lucked out on avoiding that ten-mile run?"
Myra smiled. "I told Charles we'd do the time on the treadmill later this afternoon. Now, if we suddenly get too busy ... oh, well."
Excerpted from Collateral Damage by FERN MICHAELS. Copyright © 2008 Fern Michaels. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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