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Garson Klepper liked going to black-tie events. Wearing a tuxedo made him feel suave and debonair. It made no difference that he looked like Homer Simpson, and made his living manufacturing fish meal for cattle. He always walked in as if he was the most important person in the ballroom, which he usually was. His sizable donation, made possible by his fish meal fortune, often made whatever charity event he was attending possible. Like the night’s soiree at the Cleveland Ritz-Carlton.
Klepper wasn’t sure what calamity he was raising money for tonight. War, famine, homelessness, illiteracy. It didn’t matter to Klepper. He wrote the checks for the tax deductions and attended the events because he could always count on leaving with a smoking-hot twenty-something gold digger on his arm.
He was walking away from the bar with a lemon drop martini in each hand, one for him and one for the lucky gold digger at his table, when a man crossed his path, cutting him off.
The man was in his early thirties, with impeccably cut, casually styled brown hair and a warm smile. He wore his custom-tailored tuxedo with a devil-may-care savoir faire that Klepper wished he could manage for himself.
“Excuse me, Mr. Klepper,” the man said. “I just have to tell you how impressed I am by your generous donation.”
“It’s a horrible tragedy when a kid steps on a land mine,” Klepper said. When he saw the confusion on the man’s face, he quickly added, “Especially if he has a cleft palate.”
“Or suffers from malnutrition,” the man said, “like the children we’re raising money for tonight.”
“Exactly. I’m just doing my small part to make the world a better place.” And if it got him laid, even better. That wouldn’t happen if he didn’t get back to the gold digger, a platinum blonde in a gold lamé halter-top evening dress that left nothing to the imagination. Klepper tried to edge past the guy, who cut him off again.
“I’m sure that’s also why you share your amazing collection of Peruvian antiquities with the public at the Cleveland Museum of Art.”
Klepper did his philanthropic work to gain prestige. The kind of prestige he couldn’t get from making food for cows that were destined to become Big Macs. But he wasn’t stupid. He knew this guy was sucking up to him for a reason.
“Let’s skip the ass-kissing, shall we?” Klepper said. “Who are you and what do you want?”
He was Nicolas Fox, international con man and thief, and what he wanted was to clean Klepper out.
Fox smiled at Klepper and gave him a small nod of approval for his bluntness. “My name is John Drake. I’m with Intertect Security. We understand you’re lending your entire collection of Peruvian artifacts to the Getty in Los Angeles. We’d like to make sure your collection gets there safely.”
“I’ve already got people for that.”
“They aren’t up to the task. The artifacts were looted from sacred tombs. The Peruvian government would love to get their treasures back. This move from Cleveland to L.A. is the perfect opportunity. You’re going to need world-class security.”
“I’m covered. The company I’m using hires ex-soldiers, ex-cops, and ex-spies who know every trick,” Klepper said. “They put the same cutting-edge alarm system in my house that’s in the Louvre. Nothing gets past these guys. I think they can handle a simple delivery.”
“You’re probably right. But if you change your mind, I gave your friend my card.”
Nick gestured to Klepper’s table, where the gold digger was sitting.
Klepper looked over at the woman and had a moment of confusion before he fully realized what he was seeing. She’d had long, straight unadorned blond hair when he left the table, and she was now wearing a crescent-shaped headdress of elaborately hammered gold. Klepper recognized the headdress. It was a one-of-a-kind treasure worth millions of dollars, and it had been looted from a royal crypt inside a pyramid in Peru. Until this very instant, Klepper thought the headdress was safely locked in a vault in his mansion, protected by an impassable alarm system, constant video surveillance, and armed guards on patrol. But this guy had managed to steal it without even wrinkling his tux. It was frightening. And damn impressive.”
Klepper took a big slurp from one of his lemon drop martinis and turned to Nick.
FBI Special Agent Kate O’Hare was slumped in her chair in her cubicle on the fifteenth floor of the Wilshire Federal Building in West Los Angeles. She had thick auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail, and blue eyes that were glazed over in stupefied boredom. She wore a sensible navy Ann Taylor blazer over skinny tan slacks and a stretchy white T-shirt. The blazer nicely covered the Glock on her hip. A pile of bulging files sat on one side of her computer monitor, and a dozen Oreos were stacked like poker chips on the other.
Her cubicle was five feet wide, five feet deep, and framed on three sides by five-foot-high partitions that doubled as bulletin boards. She was sure that federal prisoners would be delighted to know their cells were roomier than the offices of the agents who’d arrested them. Not that she’d put anyone away yet.
Kate was twenty-eight years old and had graduated from the FBI Academy in Quantico just six months earlier. So far she’d only been assigned basic fieldwork, such as running background checks and interviewing witnesses on cases other agents were investigating. She was currently wading through low-level clearance applications, and when she felt herself nodding off, she snapped herself back with an Oreo.
“I bet that’s better than eating bugs,” said Cosmo Uno, popping up on the other side of the partition like a hyperactive mole.
Uno was 5′4″ and had to stand on a file box to peer over at her. His voice had the same pitch as a squealing smoke alarm, and when he started talking, almost nothing could stop him.
“I heard that when you were a Navy commando you were dropped into the Nicaragua rain forest and had to live on beetles and rainwater for two weeks while tracking drug smugglers,” Uno said. “Is that why you quit and joined the FBI? I don’t think I could eat a bug unless it was a Squiggly-Wiggly, which aren’t really bugs but jelly candy shaped like bugs. Have you ever had a Squiggly-Wiggly? Do they taste like bugs? I bet bugs are more crunchy than chewy, but you tell me.”
He rested his chin on the top of the partition, waiting for an answer.
Kate would have gladly spent a week in the rain forest, munching on beetles, rather than endure another minute in a cubicle beside Special Agent Cosmo Uno.
“Go away,” she said. “I’m busy on a very important case.”
She stared at her computer and pretended to be enthralled by someone’s job application for a State Department janitorial position.
“Is it true you’re trained to kill a man using any object within reach?” Uno asked. “I can see how you could kill me with those scissors or a pen, but could you kill me with a file folder? With an Oreo? With one of those Dr. Scholl’s inserts in your shoes? Is that how you got blood on your shirt?”
Kate glanced at her shirt. Sure enough, there was a red stain on her chest.
“It’s barbecue sauce,” Kate said.
“That’s what happens when you eat McNuggets for lunch. I told you not to eat McNuggets. Who really knows what’s in a McNugget? Could you kill me with a McNugget?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “but I’m willing to try.”
Something caught Uno’s attention. He lifted his head to look past her, gave a gasp, and abruptly dropped behind the partition. Kate turned to see Carl Jessup, the special agent in charge, striding toward them on his way to his office. He was a lanky, weather-beaten Kentuckian in his fifties who looked like he’d be more comfortable on a horse.
She bolted up from her seat and covered the stain on her shirt with her hand.
“May I have a word with you, sir?”
“Of course,” he said. “How are you settling in?”
“To be honest, I’ve been doing background checks for so long I feel like I’m a personnel director and not a special agent.”
“Security clearances are important work, Kate.”
“I know that, sir, and I mean no disrespect, but isn’t it time to put my FBI training and military experience to use on a real case? I’m ready and I promise I won’t let you down.”
He glanced at her hand on her chest. “It’s not necessary to take a pledge.”
She dropped her hand. “I was hiding a stain on my shirt.”
“Relax. Stains are okay. They give you character.”
“I don’t want to be a character. I want to be the best special agent you’ve got.”
“I know you do. I haven’t forgotten about you. I’m just waiting for the right case to come along.”