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Excerpt: Shameless

Excerpt: Shameless

Book 3: The Black Brothers

“Drinks tonight at SoHo to celebrate your first assignment!” my friend Kate announces as she pops her head into my office.  “Seven o’clock. My treat. No arguments.”

I can’t help but laugh at her quick fire volley of orders.  Although I’ve known Kate exactly one month, the same amount of time I’ve been assigned to the San Antonio branch office of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, I’ve already learned that she doesn’t take no for an answer.  It’s easier to just give in when Kate’s on a mission.  Although she’s probably one hundred pounds soaking wet and all of five feet four inches tall in the killer heels she loves to wear, Kate McMillan is a force to be reckoned with.  I’m pretty sure even our boss, who earned the FBI Medal of Valor for his service in Afghanistan, is a little intimidated by her.

Kate’s friendship, which has been given freely and genuinely since she inadvertently walked in on me having a panic attack in the bathroom on my first official day on the job, has been one of the unexpected perks of my new job.  

“Are you okay?” she’d asked with concern when she’d stumbled in on me assuring myself in the mirror that I wasn’t going to puke.  

I had just completed five months of intensive training at the FBI Academy, graduated with honors in both academics and physical fitness despite my long-standing personal motto to never run unless I was being chased by a zombie, and was the proud new owner of a Bureau-issued handgun.  I was unequivocally supposed to be okay.

“Sure,” I’d said with false bravado.   Secretly, I was convinced I was going to be the first FBI agent to die on the floor of the office bathroom.

“I’m Kate,” she’d said nonchalantly, joining me at the mirror as she swiped red lipstick across her mouth expertly.  “First days are tough.  My first day here I accidentally spilled a glass of water on my computer, smashed the screen trying to catch the glass, and fried the entire machine.  I went home and cried myself to sleep.”  She’d shot me a sidelong glance filled with humor.  “Of course if you tell anyone I told you that I’ll categorically deny it and then kill you in your sleep.”

I’d smiled back.  “Of course,” I agreed.

“It’s okay to be human.  It’s what makes women good agents—the ability to be vulnerable and still kick ass. Sometimes in the same day.” She’d given me a wink and left but made it a point to drop by my office later that afternoon and invite me to happy hour with her and a few other agents.   A month later, she’s my closest friend in San Antonio and my unofficial mentor despite being only four years older than me.

Whenever I’ve second guessed my decision to go against my father’s wishes and give up my career in public relations, move halfway across the country, and jeopardize my two year relationship with my boyfriend Kyle to pursue my dream job, Kate’s chutzpah—just the thought of her unwavering, bold self-confidence—makes me feel stronger.

“Are you sure?” I ask now, scrutinizing her pixie face.  “I feel bad that I got the assignment instead of you.” I know Kate has been waiting a long time for an undercover assignment, and she’s been here a lot longer than I have.

“No apologies, Tori,” she reprimands me good-naturedly.  “The last time I checked, an agent’s job responsibilities didn’t include making sure everyone is whistling zip-a-dee-doo-dah out of their asses.” She glances down the hallway.  “Here comes Miles.  I’ll pick you up at seven.  Can’t wait to hear about it.”

She’s out of my office and halfway down the hall by the time my boss walks in.  

“I’ve got the details of your assignment,” he says seriously.  I’ve never seen the renowned Miles Carter be anything but serious, but I guess that’s how you become the Special Agent in Charge of a large branch office of the FBI.  “Meet me in the conference room in five.”

  I nod, still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I’ve been selected for a field assignment, and an undercover one at that.  My fluency in Spanish—thanks to being raised by a Hispanic nanny—had landed me a job in the San Antonio, Texas field office, much to the surprise and disappointment of both my father and Kyle. Neither of them had been supportive of my decision to join the FBI in the first place, but they had finally reluctantly accepted it, assuming I’d get assigned to DC, New York, or somewhere else close to home.

Although I’m technically trained as a special agent, I was primarily hired to work as an intelligence analyst, leveraging my Spanish fluency to help the FBI bring down the Mexican drug cartel, not going undercover.  But I’d felt an undeniable tendril of excitement when my name had been called this morning at the weekly staff meeting.  It was the same spark I’d felt when I’d filled out the FBI application, and I feel it again as I walk into the conference room—that undeniable feeling that something is about to happen, something that will make me feel alive, like the precise black and white lines that have illustrated my life up to this point are about to be suffused with color.

Miles is already there, his ever-present cup of coffee in front of him along with one for me.  He gestures to the seat next to him and I sit down. 

“These are unusual circumstances,” he begins.  “I know you weren’t hired as a special agent per se and you’ve only been active for a month, but you’re a perfect fit for this assignment.  However, if you feel unable to do it, please let me know.”

“I won’t!” I exclaim. “I mean I will.  I mean, I won’t not want it.”  I stop and take a breath. “What I’m trying to say is I really want the assignment.”

Miles pins me with a cool stare.  I feel like a babbling idiot and remind myself to play it cool. Then again, maybe that’s why I’m perfect for this job.  Every agent I’ve met so far has been calm and totally pulled together, so maybe there’s an actual need for an agent who’s a babbling idiot and that’s why I got this assignment.  Belatedly I realize Miles has spoken.

“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” I say.

“Your assignment will be to go undercover as the girlfriend of Drake Maddox,” Miles says, looking at me expectantly. 

I look at him blankly.  

He shakes his head in wonder.  “Drake Maddox?  Country music superstar?  Three platinum albums…CMA artist of the year?”  He sighs. “You’ve never heard of him.”

“No, I’m sorry, sir,” I say.  “I grew up in New York City.  We didn’t even have a country music radio station until a few years ago.”

Miles steeples his fingers and looks at me thoughtfully.  “Hmmm.”  Shaking his head once more, he continues, “Never mind. Here are the basics of the case.  Maddox received some crazy fan letters during the last part of his tour last summer, pretty typical stuff for a public figure with his following.  Nothing threatening or too out of the ordinary except for an incident in San Diego on Labor Day when someone—most likely the person sending the letters—paid a stage hand to manhandle a woman who’d been hanging out backstage with the band before the show and whom Maddox had singled out and pulled up on stage during the concert.  Investigators believe whoever it was thought she was Maddox’s girlfriend.  Turns out she was actually the girlfriend—and now fiancée—of his Navy SEAL brother.”

Miles’ smile reminds me of a shark.  “You can imagine how that went,” he says wryly. “When the guy finally came around, he couldn’t provide much information on who hired him and since the letters stopped after that, the case was considered inactive.

“Maddox finished up the West Coast part of his tour and took some time off for the holidays and his oldest brother’s wedding.  He kicked off his spring tour, which encompasses a dozen cities across the East Coast, a month ago.  Another letter appeared in his dressing room at the third show of the tour in Oklahoma City.  This one was a bit different.”

Miles slides an envelope across the table to me.  I open it and read, Time’s up.

I look at Miles questioningly. He shrugs.

“Security was beefed up. Another letter followed when he played New Orleans.  Then girls started disappearing.  In Birmingham, a twenty-one-year-old fan went missing after the show.  Another young woman in her twenties disappeared after the Charlotte show.  Both women had been singled out by Drake and brought on stage.  

“The FBI was called in.  Maddox hired extra security. He played his next three shows over a three day period in Georgia and Florida and nothing happened. Then, a young woman named Anna Alvin disappeared from Nashville last Friday.  According to her family, she had not been at one of Maddox’s concerts, but she was a model and actress who had been in one of his music videos and her name had been recently linked in the press with Maddox’s.  Apparently they had dated casually a few times.”

He slides a photo across the table to me. “This photo, along with coordinates to where her body was found, was left in his dressing room last Saturday night in Bristow, Virginia. No one saw anything out of the ordinary.”

I glance down at the photo and my stomach lurches. I wonder if I will get more used to this part of the job. 

“The model from Nashville?” I guess.

Miles nods. “There’s a definite connection between Maddox and the women who are disappearing.   Our initial guess is that the suspect is most likely a Drake Maddox fan who has some psychopathic tendencies and is personally affronted when Maddox exhibits any sort of interest in a woman.  Our profiler believes it’s possible the unknown suspect is a female, or even a male, with an unhealthy crush on Drake.  He or she may believe they are destined to be with Drake, or maybe they are delusional and think they’re already together and see him singling other women out as cheating.  Of course, it could just as easily be some psychopath whose girlfriend or mother left him for a country music artist, or half a dozen other things.” He runs his fingers through his crew cut hair with agitation. “We really don’t have shit to go on.”  His frustration is evident. 

“Forensics is working on it, but so far there’s no DNA evidence.  The letters were clear of fingerprints.  We have agents talking to the friends and families of the victims, but so far we have no real leads. Our goals at this point are to flush out the suspect, stop the disappearance of any other women, and find the women who have disappeared, hopefully still alive.”

Miles looks at me grimly.  “That’s where you come in.  Drake Maddox is about to fall in love.  Our plan is to incite the suspect into acting by having an agent pose as Drake Maddox’s girlfriend.  If the perp is provoked by a few dates or a woman singled out on stage, a serious girlfriend should trigger a more significant reaction.  If our psychologists are correct, he or she will make a move against the agent and we’ll be able to apprehend him or her.”

“And I’m the girlfriend?” I guess, excitement and nervousness battling with each other at the thought of the assignment.

 “Your age, your appearance, even the fact that you’ve barely worked for the agency, all make you the perfect candidate,” Miles says.   “Maddox is thirty and only dates extremely attractive women, so whomever we assign has to be young enough and pretty enough to believably pass as his girlfriend.”

I blink at the implied compliment.  Although I suppose I’m pretty enough, I’ve certainly never thought of myself as extremely attractive.  My lips are too full, my butt is too big, and I feel forever cheated that I got brown eyes to go with my dark blonde hair instead of blue.  Slightly discomfited, I take a sip of coffee.

“He gets a lot of media coverage as it is since he’s famous, charismatic, talented, and attractive.  Since he tends to be a bit of a ladies man and doesn’t typically date anyone seriously, we anticipate that the fact that he has a serious girlfriend will definitely intrigue the media.  You can bet they will leave no rock unturned when trying to find out who Maddox’s arm candy is.”

I accidentally snort coffee through my nose at the thought of being anyone’s arm candy.  Miles waits patiently while I recover my composure.

“We can easily censor your brief ties to the agency. Here’s your dossier.  You relocated to Austin, where Maddox lives, six months ago.  I understand you come from some money?”

I nod uncomfortably.  My father owns a well-known public relations company in Manhattan and is well off even by New York standards, but I’ve spent my whole life trying to prove myself based on my own merit instead of riding on my dad’s coattails.  It was one of the main reasons I refused to work for my dad’s company when I graduated from Columbia and instead took a job working for a non-profit in Washington.  I hate to take advantage of what was essentially luck of the draw, and I of all people know just how much luck has to do with it, but I try to rationalize that it’s for the better good.  It seems petty to care about my personal pride and independence when the lives of two women are at stake.

“Good.  It would be hard to fake a job for you for the last six months, so the fact that you have family money to float you will make your alibi more believable.  You wanted a change and liked Austin’s vibe.  You moved there and started doing some freelance PR work while you looked for something steady and tried to establish yourself.  Maddox’s label hired you to do publicity for the tour a few weeks ago, which is how the two of you met.”

“Okay,” I say.  It sounds well thought out and legit.  

“You dating anyone?”

“Um, no.”  I don’t mention Kyle, since he and I had officially decided to take a break when I refused to turn down the assignment in Texas and get my dad to pull strings to get me a position in Washington.  

“I’m announcing my candidacy for the US Senate in May!” Kyle had protested.  “We were going to get engaged.”  I’d looked at him in surprise.  We’d never talked about marriage.  “I need a woman…you…by my side during this time in my career.  If you cared about me and our future, you’d stay.”

In a moment of anger at his assumption that his career was more important than mine, I’d suggested that we take a break.  He’d quickly agreed, saying that he’d have to take dates to the numerous social functions he’s constantly invited to while I was gone anyway.

“Good,” Miles says now with satisfaction.  “For the sake of the girls who are missing, we don’t have a lot of time.  You’ll have about a week and a half to meet Drake and be seen with him as much as possible to establish your relationship before his next tour date in New York.   That is, if you’re still sure you want the assignment.”

Excitement has officially trumped terror. This is what I wanted when I applied to the FBI—the chance to make a difference, to do something real and exciting, to find my own path instead of the one that I have always traveled for everyone but myself.   

“Absolutely sure,” I say definitively.

Miles eyes me approvingly.  “You’re going to do alright, Agent Raine.” He pushes the file across the table to me.  “Welcome to the team.  Remember you have the entire agency behind you. You won’t be on your own on this case.  The satellite office in Austin is fully informed and instructed to help you as needed, and Agent Meadors will be placed on Maddox’s crew as a stage hand.  He’ll be in Austin as well and can provide back up as needed.”

I nod.  I’m familiar with the beefy Texas agent whom I’m pretty sure Kate has a secret crush on.  He seems like a nice guy, and I’m grateful to have another more experienced agent working with me.

Miles continues.  “You’ll leave for Austin in the morning.  There will be a briefing at Maddox’s house tomorrow afternoon with the agents involved in the case and Maddox to get a course of action lined up.  Everything you need is in the file, including the lease on an apartment in Austin and the information that has been gathered to date on the case.  However, I suggest you do your own research on Drake Maddox before you meet him.”  He flashes me a rare smile.  “It would be advisable to have at least heard one of his songs since you’re going to be dating the guy.”

***

I’m more than ready for a drink when Kate picks me up four hours later.  Wanting to share my excitement about my new assignment,  I’d impulsively called Kyle after I’d gotten home, although all I’d told him was that I was going to be working on PR for a famous musician, not pretending to date him. Our conversation had ended with us both hurt and angry.  Again. He’d apparently thought that after a month on the job I’d be ready to run back to Washington and resume our relationship.

“May is still two months away,” he’d warned before we hung up.  “I’ll need you here. Hopefully this assignment will be finished by then and you’ll have gotten this nonsense out of your system.”

Although the SoHo Wine and Martini Bar is located in a restored old bank vault off the Riverwalk, it’s dark and intimate with a jazz band playing seductively in the background, and I feel like I’m back in New York. It’s oddly comforting, as is the easy camaraderie of the women I’m with.  In addition to Kate and me, there’s Sofia, a Spanish linguist I work with, and Sarah, another special agent that I’ve only spoken to a time or two.  That doesn’t really matter though, because with infinitely more men in the agency than women, the bond between female agents tends to be pretty instantaneous.

“Tell us about your assignment!” Kate demands as soon as we’ve all ordered martinis.  “We’re dying here.”

“I’m going undercover as the girlfriend of some country singer named Drake Maddox.  The goal is to try and catch a possible serial killer who’s targeting women he dates or shows an interest in,” I say nonchalantly, taking a sip of my Pear martini.  “This tastes just like a Jolly Rancher!  Anyone want a sip?”

I look up to see all three women staring at me, dumbfounded. Kate recovers her voice first.

“Shut up!” she squeals.

Sarah chimes in, “That man is hotter than a car in Texas in August.” She fans herself dramatically.

“He is pretty good-looking,” I admit.  I’d peeked at the photo of him in the file and with his dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and hint of scruff, I can see how he’s the heartthrob of the country music world.

“Pretty good-looking?” Sarah replies incredulously.   “He’s panty dropping gorgeous!”

I laugh at her description.

“You’ll have to excuse Tori,” Sofia says in her melodious South American accent.  “She’s sworn off all men, especially the good-looking ones, since she broke up with her hot lobbyist boyfriend in DC.”

“We’re just taking a break,” I say automatically.  

“You’re too good for him!” Kate says bluntly. 

“I doubt that,” I say ruefully, running my finger absentmindedly along the rim of my martini glass.  “Most people, including my dad and the entire Republican Party, think he’s pretty perfect.  Actually, he is perfect.  I think that’s part of the problem.  I have to constantly work at being perfect when I’m around him.”  I sigh.  “I’m tired of trying to be someone I’m not.  To be honest, I’m looking forward to this assignment and the opportunity to check out of my own life for a while.” 

Eager to change the subject, I turn to Kate. “But I still feel bad that you didn’t get the assignment.”

“You’re a better fit for the job,” she assures me.  “I’m too old anyway.”

“Yeah, thirty is downright ancient,” I say teasingly.

“Plus I’m not really his type, although I would love to ride that cowboy!” she adds wickedly. 

“Kate!” I say, laughing.

She takes a sip of her martini and looks at me consideringly.  “You aren’t really his type either, though.”

“Really?” I ask curiously.  “What’s his type?”

The three women exchange a look.

“What?” I say suspiciously. 

“Um, have you done any research on Drake Maddox?” Sofia asks.

“Not really, other than what was in the file. I haven’t had much time.”

“He has a reputation as a bit of a bad boy,” Sarah says carefully.

Kate snorts.  “A bit!  He’s a lone wolf.  He’s very personable and oozes charm onstage, but he doesn’t let anyone get too close. He’s also a total womanizer; he’s rarely seen with the same woman twice.  But he’s wicked good-looking with a face and body built for sin, and he uses it accordingly. If you believe the rumors, he’s on the adventurous side and has a taste for the dark and forbidden.  He typically doesn’t go for the sweet and innocent type.”

“I’m not sweet and innocent!” I protest, but I have to admit I can see her point.

Despite the fact that I can shoot a target with precise consistency and take out a man twice my weight, my life has been spent trying to be that agreeable girl who always does what’s expected of her.   It was the least I could do after my father stepped in after my mother’s death and gave me a home and a new life—a life of money and privilege that was a far cry from the hand to mouth existence I’d lived with my mom.

I hadn’t even known I had a father, much less one as rich and well-known as Charles Raine,  until I was ten years old and my mother died in a car accident, leaving me heartbroken,  alone, and penniless in Miami where my mother was a dancer and sometimes choreographer for a small dance company.   My grandparents were old and ill-equipped to take on the rearing of a ten-year-old girl on the cusp of adolescence, and after many hushed conversations behind closed doors, they told me I would be going to live with my father in New York City.

From the beginning, I tried to be the perfect daughter so he wouldn’t be sorry he’d agreed to take me, or worse, decide to send me away.  At the time, I didn’t know why he hadn’t wanted me or visited me or even sent me a birthday card, but I was determined to make him love me.  It wasn’t until years later that I learned he’d never even known about me until that phone call from my grandparents that changed both of our lives.  

 I’d done my best to not disappoint him or give him any cause for worry.  I’d studied hard in school, made the right friends, dated the appropriate (albeit boring) boys in the right social circle, and unquestioningly followed in his footsteps, getting my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public relations from Columbia.  Up until I applied to the FBI, my biggest act of rebellion had been insisting on taking a job in Washington instead of joining my father’s firm.  Even Kyle was the perfect boyfriend for the perfect life my father wanted and expected for me.  Not surprisingly, my father adores him.  

While I may have been that sweet and compliant girl who has spent her life trying to please everyone, I’m not entirely sure that’s who I am anymore.  The more time I spend with her, the more I’m starting to like the girl who impulsively ducked inside the FBI office while walking past on her lunch hour and spent the next hour talking to an agent there, the girl who filled out the application and took a chance on creating a new life for herself that excited her rather than settling for going through the motions of a life that had become so comfortable that she felt the walls were closing in. 

Remembering that girl, I say, “I may look sweet and innocent, but I’m an FBI agent.  I’m a card carrying badass.” 

“Of course you are,” Sofia says soothingly.  She looks at me with concern. “But just because you can be a badass on the job doesn’t mean you can handle a man with the sexual appetites of Drake Maddox.”

I look at her in horror.  “I’m not going to sleep with him! I just have to pretend to be his girlfriend.”