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Nicholas Cole hurried toward the White House special in-house security chief's office in the West Wing, gripping the leash for his K-9 partner, Max. Two Secret Service agents emerged from the office, wearing gloves and carrying a folder. Both nodded toward him as he entered the room.
General Margaret Meyer stood behind her oak desk, her hands fisted on the tan blotter, a fierce expression on her face, her intense blue eyes narrowing on him. He swallowed hard. He rarely saw her this upset, but tension poured off her.
"Shut the door, Nicholas." The general moved from behind her desk, gesturing toward its flat surface. "This office has been searched."
After following her instruction, he came to attention in front of his boss, having a hard time shaking his military training in the Navy SEALs. "What happened?" He scanned the neat desk and the bookcase to the right, and wondered how she knew.
She straightened to her full height of five feet three inches, her shoulders thrust back. "When I went to get a folder from the bottom left-hand drawer, the stack was out of order. I have a very precise way of arranging everything in here, and thankfully I do or I might not have known someone went through the Michael Jeffries file."
The Jeffries case was an investigation being undertaken by the Capitol K-9 Unit, comprising fourteen cops, soldiers and special agents who looked into important cases and reported to Margaret Meyer, a former four-star general who worked under the president's direction. "Anything missing?"
"No, but it would be easy to take pictures of the papers and evidence the team has uncovered so far."
"What do you want me to do, ma'am?" Nicholas knew the murder of Michael Jeffriesson of the prominent congressman Harland Jeffries, who had been wounded in the attack against Michaelwas important to the general, as well as to his unit captain, Gavin McCord. He and the rest of the team had pledged to find who killed Michael and left his father to bleed to death.
"Coordinate with Special Agent Dan Calvert who just left. You're to work with him on this. I want to know who was in my office. It could be the break we've needed on this case. I have Congressman Jeffries breathing down my neck. He wants answers to who killed his son. Not to mention Senator Eagleton insisting his daughter had nothing to do with Michael Jeffries's murder. Those two men have never been friends, and each one has a great deal of political clout."
Erin Eagleton, who'd been Michael Jeffries's girlfriend, was a person of interest in Michael's murder and the shooting of the congressman. Her starfish charm, with her initials engraved on it, had been found at the crime scene. Considering that Capitol K-9 Unit member Chase Zachary had run into Erin only hours before the murder and she'd been wearing the charm, the team desperately wanted to find Erin to bring her in for questioning. They'd been searching for her since Michael's murder. "I noticed Dan carrying a file from your office. Is he processing it for latent prints?"
"Yes, and any other physical evidence he can get. With the Easter Egg Roll today, the White House has been crawling with visitors since early this morning. Dan is going to view the security tapes and no doubt come up with a long list of suspects who had access." She shook her head, a scowl wrinkling her forehead. "Especially with the Oval Office and the Situation Room here in the West Wing being used for the festivities."
A security nightmare in his opinion, but the Easter Egg Roll was a long White House tradition. "When was the last time you opened that drawer?"
"Yesterday evening before I left for a reception in the Roosevelt Room then attended a state dinner for dignitaries from the UN. After that, I went home. I didn't come back here."
"Then we're looking at a sixteen-hour window."
General Meyer adjusted her horn-rimmed glasses. "So you see the problem. The list is much longer than I would like." She checked her wristwatch. "In fact, I need to put in an appearance at the Easter Egg Roll. I know the event is covered by the Secret Service, but I want you out there with Max. My office was breached and the perpetrator could likely be among the guests outside."
"May I inspect your office first?"
She nodded once. "I'll see you later. If you discover anything, find me right away. I want to be kept informed on everything."
After the door closed, and he and Max were alone in the office, he unfastened the leash to his rottweiler and let him investigate. In addition to his usual duties as a guard/suspect-apprehension dog, Max was cross-trained on bomb detection, as an extra security precaution due to their post at the White House.
While Max moved around the room, Nicholas snapped on latex gloves and crouched behind the desk on the left side. He inspected the bottom drawer, then slid his hand back as far as he could under the piece of furniture, feeling for anything that might have fallen and rolled beneath it. Nothing.
Next, he examined a cabinet behind the desk. Underneath, his fingers touched something small. A cufflink? He pulled it out and scrutinized the gold cufflink with a bald-eagle imprint and the initials VG. How long had this been there? Did it belong to a visitor or the intruder?
After putting the piece of jewelry into an evidence bag and pocketing it, he continued his search of the office. Ten minutes later, other than the cufflink, he and Max had come up empty-handed.
"Time to go to the party, boy. General Meyer requires our attendance."
His rottweiler turned his amber-colored eyes on Nicholas and gave one bark.
Dressed in his black uniform with the emblem of the Capitol K-9 Unit on each sleeve and over his left pocket, Nicholas exited the West Wing by the West Colonnade and cut across the Rose Garden toward the South Lawn where the Easter Egg Roll was taking place.
For a few minutes he stood on the outskirts of the crowd assembled to enjoy the special party for the young children who'd won tickets by a lottery system. The kids were joined by various government officials, which included the president and his wife, and celebrities. The highlight was a visit by the Easter Bunny, but other costumed characters mingled among the crowd.
He scanned the people gathered, looking for anyone with the initials VG. His survey came to rest upon Selena Barrow, the White House tour director, responsible for planning this event. Even from a distance, Selena commanded a person's attention. Tall, slender with long wavy brown hair and the bluest eyes, she was attractive, but what drew him to Selena was her air of integrity and compassion. Since Erin had disappeared, Selena had been relentless in her support of her cousin's innocence, and he admired that kind of dedication.
When a couple with their two little girls stopped to talk to her, she smiled, bent down and spoke to the children. He glimpsed the radiant look on Selena's face. She probably was having as much fun as the kids at the event. Whenever he saw her with children, he got the feeling she must love being around them.
Last year he'd dated a woman who'd wanted half a dozen kids. It hadn't taken him long to know they weren't a good fit. He didn't want to be a parent after the childhood he'd had. His father had certainly not been a good example to follow, and his mother hadn't been much better. He pushed thoughts of his past away and concentrated on the job he had to do today.
Selena would have an updated list of people invited to the party. It might save him a trip to the front gate if he asked her for it. And give him a reason to talk to her.
After slipping her keys back into her jacket pocket, her computer tablet nestled against the crook of her arm, Selena checked the schedule to see which age group of children would be doing the Easter Egg Roll next. Her friend Amy and her daughter were attending this year, and she wanted to cheer for Courtney in the egg roll.
Everything was set up. All the other activities were progressing according to planthe Eggspress Yourself, the Eggtivity Zone Obstacle Course, the Rockin' Egg Roll Stage and the Storytime Stage with Senator Eagle-ton, her uncle, reading a Peter Cottontail book. A special appearance by the Easter Bunny would occur at the end of the story.
She watched her uncle entertaining the children sitting on the ground around him, his deep voice expressive, with the right inflection to convey the emotions of the characters. If only things had been different in her past, she and her uncle might have been on good terms. Instead, he barely acknowledged her because of her mother, his younger sister. He was polite but distant and reserved around Selena.
Selena wove her way through the crowd preparing to watch the Easter Egg Roll competition for the three-and four-year-old children. The president stepped into the fenced-off area to demonstrate what they were to do and start the race.
Selena pushed closer toward the activity. Moving quickly through the throng, Miss Chick, one of the costumed characters, bumped into her and nearly knocked Selena down.
Miss Chick, dressed in a feathered chicken outfit, steadied Selena and said, "Sorry. Late for the Eggspress Yourself," and scurried away, the daisy on her large straw hat swaying in the breeze.
Selena turned from watching Miss Chick disappear to continue toward the Easter Egg Roll and ran right into Nicholas Cole. Slowly she raised her gaze to his face, taking in his strong jawline, lips tilted in a grin, his deep brown eyes.
"Where are you going in such a hurry?" His smoky voice with a slight Southern drawl always sent a thrill through her.
"The Egg Roll. To see if everything is going smoothly."
Being at least six inches taller than her five-nine, he scanned the mass of people who tried to get closer to the Easter Egg Roll. "From what I see everything is fine. You've done a good job."
"Thanks, but it isn't over with until this evening. I won't relax until then."
As if she could relax with her cousin missing. Since Erin's disappearance, Selena had constantly asked the Capitol K-9 Unit for updates about Erin's whereabouts, but she'd pestered this man the most because he was assigned to the White House. What was the Capitol K-9 Unit doing to find her cousin? To find the real killer of Michael Jeffries, Erin's boyfriend? There was no way she had murdered Michael. So far, Selena hadn't been successful in proving Erin was innocent, but she was getting closer. She'd been spending her off-hours investigating the cases Michael had been working on as an attorney. Maybe one of them was the reason he was killed.
"I have a favor to ask you." The dimples in his cheeks appeared.
And as usual she melted at the sight of them. He had the most engaging smile. "If I can help, I will." She didn't want to antagonize every member of the unit.
"I need a list of all the people attending today's events."
"All thirty thousand?"
"And the volunteers, too."
"Oh, what's an additional thousand or so. Security has that list."
Now, on top of the dimples, his brown eyes sparkled, luring her to forget she was working. "I know, but I thought you might have it on your tablet. It's important." He tapped the device she held in her hands.
"Only the volunteers. The full list is in my office." She glanced toward the West Wing and realized it was closer than Security. "I can pull it up on my computer for you."
"I'd ask you why, but I'm sure you won't tell me for security reasons." His grin grew.
Maybe if she did him a favor, he would return it and help her concerning Erin. "Let's go. Everything seems to be going fine. If not, I'm sure I'll be notified."
Nicholas looked toward General Margaret Meyer. "I need to tell the general something. Go ahead and pull the list up. I'll be right there."
As Selena headed toward the West Wing, she glanced at Nicholas talking to General Meyer. The older woman frowned, clearly upset about whatever they were discussing. Did it have anything to do with Erin or the murder case? She knew her uncle, Erin's father, was insisting the general's team find the real killer.
Selena walked past the Rose Garden and entered the West Wing through the West Colonnade entrance. When she reached the door to her office, she slipped her hand into her jacket pocket for her keys. Nothing.
They were gone!
She just had them outside. She tried the knob, and it turned as though she'd never locked the door when she left hours ago. She always did. As she eased it open, it was wrenched from her grasp, and Miss Chick, in her yellow-feathered costume, latched onto her arm and dragged her into the office. Before she could react, Miss Chick smashed a vase against her skull. Selena fell backward, hitting the floor as Miss Chick fled.
She started to get up to alert Security, but the room spun before her. She sank back and closed her eyes. The darkness continued to swirl
"Selena. Selena, are you okay?"
She pried her eyelids up and saw Nicholas's face looming close to hers. Worry lined his handsome features. A pounding in her head quickly reminded her of what had occurred. She tried to rise.
Nicholas clasped her shoulders. "Stay still. I've called Security and the doctor. Someone hit you with a vase." A latex glove on his hand, he held up a shard of a beautiful green-and-pink ceramic vase the president had given her when she'd first come to work as the White House tour director and his assistant.
"Do you remember what happened?"
"Did you see Miss Chick leave?"
Nicholas shook his head. The same costumed characters were hired every year for the event, and Nicholas had to be long used to seeing them all. "Does she have something to do with this?" He gestured to the mess in the office.
This time, despite the throbbing head, Selena propped herself up on her elbows and scanned the usually neat area. "She hit me with the vase and fled." Had she lost any consciousness? "How long did you talk with the general?"
"About five minutes then I came straight here." He spoke to Security through his invisible headset. "Miss Chick needs to be found and detained." He quickly described her costume. "She attacked Selena Barrow in her office."
Shortly, two security guards came into the room as well as Secret Service agent Dan Calvert. He took one look and said, "Fill me in."
Selena sat all the way up, trying to ignore the light-headedness swarming her. "I came to get the visitor list for Nicholas. That's when I discovered my keys were missing and the door was unlocked. The next thing I know, Miss Chick is grabbing me and yanking me inside then hitting me with a vase. She ran out after that. I don't know anything else."
"Your keys were stolen? Any idea when?" Nicholas asked, helping Selena to her feet and guiding her to a chair nearby.
She eased down, gripping the arms to steady herself. "I know exactly, but at the time I didn't realize it. Miss Chick bumped into me outside a few minutes before you and I talked. I had my keys until then."
Dan directed the security officers to stand guard outside the office. "What keys were taken?"
"To this office, my file cabinets, a storeroom around the corner and my house. I keep my car keys separate in my purse, which is locked in the top left drawer of my desk."
"Was that drawer key taken, too?"
Nicholas peered behind the desk. "Everything has been emptied." Donning a second glove, he moved toward the purse on the floor and held it up. "Check to see if anything was taken. We'll get to the bottom of this."