The moment he saw the smirk on Bill’s face, Jared knew he was going to be given a job he wouldn’t like. So what did a man have to do to finally be able to choose his own assignments? he thought for the thousandth time. Get shot? Naw, he’d done that three times. How about getting kidnapped? That had happened twice. Hey! How about being home so seldom that his wife leaves him for some other guy, a used car salesman who is now the father of their three kids? Nope. That had happened too. So how about getting too old for the field? Too late. At forty-nine, Jared felt that he’d reached that age about six years ago.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Bill said, holding his office door open for Jared to enter.
Groaning, Jared put on a pronounced limp as he hobbled toward the chair opposite Bill’s overloaded desk, WILLIAM TEASDALE on a plaque in front. Sticking his leg out stiffly in front of him, he ostentatiously rubbed his knee, as though he were in great pain.
“You can cut it out,” Bill said as he sat down behind his desk.
“I have no sympathy for you, and even if I did, I couldn’t let you out of this one.” He picked up a folder, then looked across the top of it at Jared. “Most agents are glad to get out in the field. Why not you?”
Jared leaned back in his chair. “Where should I begin? With pain? I was in the hospital for three weeks after the last job. And life. I like living. And then there’s — ”
“Got a new girlfriend?” Bill asked, his eyes narrowed.
Jared gave a bit of a grin. “Yeah. Nice girl. I’d like to see her sometimes.”
“She’s a reformed what?”
“Stripper,” Jared mumbled, giving Bill a sheepish grin. “So sue me. After a wife like Patsy — ”
“Spare me,” Bill said, and once again he was the boss. “We need somebody to find out something, and you can do it. Remember that agent we found out had been a spy for the last fifteen years?”
“Yeah,” Jared said, bitterness in his voice. He’d worked with the man about ten years ago, and had filed a report saying that something wasn’t right about the guy, but he didn’t know what. No one paid any attention. A few months ago, they’d found out that the agent was a spy and that he’d been feeding information to his mother country for years. “So what did you find out from him?”
“Nothing. Suicide before we could get to him.”
“Please tell me that you don’t want me to travel to wherever he was from, go undercover, and find out — ”
“No,” Bill said, waving his hand. “Nothing like that. The truth is that we can’t figure out what his last big project was. He knew we were coming about ten minutes before we got there, so he had time to destroy a lot of evidence. But we found disks hidden under the floors, and a list of names inside a light bulb. He had time to get rid of it all, so why didn’t he destroy it?”
“But he didn’t,” Jared said, feeling the old wave of curiosity well up inside of him and trying hard to suppress it. Why? was the question that had caused most of the problems in his life. Even after a case was considered cold, Jared’s “why” often made him continue. “What did he do?”
“He wadded up several pieces of paper into tiny balls and swallowed them.”
“I bet somebody had fun retrieving them.”
“Yeah,” Bill said with a half smile. “We lost most of what went down him, but forensics managed to get a name and part of a Social Security number.” He pushed a clear plastic folder across the desk, and Jared picked it up. Inside was a small piece of paper that seemed to have some writing on it, but Jared couldn’t make it out.
“Eden Palmer,” Bill said. “That name and a few numbers were the only things the crime lab could recover.”
“Her. As far as we can figure out, she’s nobody.” He pulled a piece of paper from the folder in front of him. “She’s forty-five, had a baby when she was eighteen, no husband then and not one since. She worked at one low-level job after another until her kid started college, then she went back to school and got a degree.” He looked at the paper. “A couple of years after she graduated, Eden Palmer moved to New York, where she worked in a publishing house. When we first heard about her, she didn’t know it, but an old woman she knew had died and left her a house in eastern North Carolina. The lawyer taking care of the case was looking for her, but we fixed it so he was delayed in finding her. We wanted to find out about her first.” Putting the papers down, he stared at Jared.
“So how did she get connected to somebody who’s been spying on the U.S. for umpteen years?”
“We have no idea.” He was still looking at Jared, as though he expected him to figure out something.
“Maybe it was personal,” Jared said. “Maybe the guy was in love with her. Or is she too ugly for that?”
Bill unclipped a photo from the file and pushed it across the desk.
“Not bad,” Jared said, looking at the photo. It was her driver’s license picture, so Jared figured she was actually three times that good looking. He studied the picture and the information. She was short, only five three, her eyesight was good, and she was an organ donor. Limp, blondish hair with a bit of curl in it surrounded blue eyes, a small nose, and a pretty mouth. She looked tired and unhappy in the photo. Probably had to wait in line for three hours, he thought. He gave the picture back to Bill. “So where do I come in?”
“We need you to find out what or who she knows.”
Jared blinked a couple of times. Bill had said that only he, Jared, could do this, but this was a job for a rookie, not a senior agent. They could bring her in for questioning and find out what she knew. Probably something that she didn’t know she knew. That wouldn’t be too difficult. Where had she been in the last few years? Carried any packages for anyone? Jared almost smiled at the last thought, then he glanced at Bill’s intense stare. What was he missing?
It hit him all at once: they wanted him to seduce the information out of her. Cozy up to a lonely spinster, then ask her what she knew. “Oh, no, you don’t. I will risk my life for the agency, but I don’t kiss for it.”
“But James Bond — ”
“Was a made-up character,” Jared said, ignoring Bill’s smirk. “James Bond doesn’t really exist. He — ” Jared ran his hand over his eyes, calmed himself, then looked at Bill. “I respectfully request that I not be given this assignment. Sir.”
Leaning back against his chair, Bill folded his hands over his well-toned stomach. “Look, Jared, old friend, this case has us baffled. We don’t want to haul her in here and scare her into telling us whatever she knows. If she knows anything, that is. And, as you said, maybe this was personal. This woman lived in New York for a while, so maybe she met this guy” — he glanced at the paper — “Roger Applegate — good American name, huh? — in New York. Maybe he met her, liked her, maybe they fell in love. Maybe he was planning to retire and marry her. Maybe when he knew that he’d been found out, his only thought was of protecting her name. He didn’t seem to care if we investigated the criminals whose names were on the disks, but maybe he did care that we didn’t involve the love of his life in something sordid. On the other hand, maybe this Ms. Palmer had no idea this man had a crush on her. He was a mousy-looking little thing who nobody noticed, so maybe Ms. Palmer was the secret object of his affection and she never knew about his great love for her.”
“Or maybe she knows everything,” Jared said tiredly. “And maybe you want me to find out one way or the other.”
“You always were heavy in the brains department,” Bill said, smiling.
Jared gave a sigh. In all his years in the agency, he’d tried hard to never get personally involved with the people connected to his investigations. Emotions kept you from seeing things clearly. But now, if he was understanding this, he was being asked to get to know this woman in a personal way and find out what she knew. She wasn’t some underworld figure, wasn’t a reformed anything. She was a — He looked at Bill. “She go to church?”
Jared groaned. “But she did have a child out of wedlock.” There was hope in his voice.
“She was seventeen and walking home from choir practice when a man leaped on her. Her parents kicked her out when she came up pregnant.”
Jared looked like he was going to cry. “Lord! A persecuted heroine. Tragic happenings to an innocent,” Jared said, his mouth a tight line. “Deliver me!” He glared at Bill, but Bill just grinned. Jared knew that he’d been chosen because of his age and his looks. He had dark hair, dark blue eyes, and a body kept trim by years spent in a gym. If he drank gallons of beer and ate lots of doughnuts, could he get fat in about four days? “So who left her the house?”
Bill leafed through the papers in the folder. “Alice Augusta Farrington. Born rich, but her druggie son spent everything. At least he had the courtesy to die before his mother did, so she had a few years of peace. She left the house and what was left of her fortune to our Ms. Palmer.”
“How did our perfect heroine meet the rich old broad?”
“Seems the old gal took her in when Ms. Palmer was just a kid and pregnant. She, the old one that is, wanted someone to sort out all the papers in her attic. The house was built in” — he glanced down — “about 1720 by one of the ancestors of the old woman’s. Ms. Palmer spent years cataloging the family papers.”
“Another virtue and another talent,” Jared said with a grimace. “Truly an angel. Let me guess, Ms. Palmer and her kid stayed for years, beloved by all.”
“She stayed until her daughter was five years old, then left in the middle of the night.” Bill looked at Jared hard. “The old woman’s son was a registered sex offender. Little kids. Girls, boys, he didn’t care which. We have no way of knowing, but we figure he went after Ms. Palmer’s daughter, and she left her comfortable home in a hurry.”
Jared looked away for a moment. He really hated people who hurt children. He looked back at Bill. “Okay, so she’s not had an easy life. A lot of us haven’t. But it sounds to me as though she’s been enough places and seen enough that she could have met this guy Applegate. Maybe if you just ask her what she knows she’d tell you. Maybe — ”
“Remember Tess Brewster?”
“Sure,” Jared said, his jaw muscle working. “But what do you mean, remember?”
“About a month ago, we started making some discreet inquiries about Ms. Palmer. New York turned up nothing. Neither did the town where she was born. But we moved Tess into Arundel, that’s where the old house is. We rented a place for Tess down the road from the one Ms. Palmer has inherited. Well, last week Tess was killed in a hit-and-run. We investigated as quietly as we could; it looks like it was a professional job.”
Jared sighed. He’d liked Tess. She could drink any man under the table, and she’d been a good agent. “Do you think it’s the house or the angelic Ms. Palmer?”
“We don’t know, but we’re sure something’s there. One of the two is being watched very closely, and that’s one reason we need you.”
“I see. I have managed to keep my mug out of the paper.”
“Yeah, for the most part, you’ve been hidden from public view. Tess — ”
“Was easily recognized. Her face was all over the papers for about six weeks when she testified against that mobster.” Jared’s head came up. “Maybe he — ”
“Maybe that hoodlum she testified against killed her? He died two years ago, and we don’t think he was powerful enough or beloved enough that anyone would risk killing a federal agent on his behalf. And why wait seven years? No, we think someone recognized Tess for what she was and she was killed so she wouldn’t find out what Ms. Palmer knows — or what’s in that house.”
Jared felt that Bill knew more than he was telling, and he doubted if anyone really thought the woman was innocent. “Do you have any idea what this Palmer woman knows? Is it someone’s name? Or is it information? Or is it something that she has? Maybe she knows what’s buried in the backyard.”
Bill lifted a file box from the floor onto his desk. “This is full of info about her. Everything we could find. Tess made two reports before she was murdered but found out nothing. I’ll tell you what, you take that box home, read it over the weekend, then tell me what you think on Monday. If you agree to do it, fine. If you don’t, then that’s fine too.”
Jared had worked with Bill for too many years to fall for that. If he knew Bill — and he did — a new identity was already waiting for him. Jared reached for the file box. “What’s my cover?” he asked.
Bill tried to keep from smiling but failed. “We rented the house next door to her. It’s just a fishing cabin that used to belong to the old woman, but she had to sell it to pay her son’s debts. Between drugs and lawyers, he cost her millions. You’re to be a retired policeman, out early on account of your knee, your wife of twenty-six years has just died, and you’ve rented this house in the middle of nowhere so you can go fishing and hunting and forget all your troubles. You need something to cry on her shoulder about. Women like that.”
Jared bit his tongue to keep quiet. Bill had been married to the same woman for thirty-five years and liked to think that he knew all about women and marriage. The truth was that his wife spent nearly half the year in another state living with her never-married sister, who was rumored to be a real hellion. There was a lot of laughing speculation as to what Bill’s wife got up to when she was with her sister.
“If this woman hasn’t been told yet that she’s inherited this house, how do you know that she won’t sell it sight unseen? What makes you so sure she’ll move away from the city lights to go to the wilds of rural North Carolina?”
He looked at Jared. “The truth is that we think this woman knows something and it has to do with that house. If she sells the house right away, then our theory is shot, but if she quits her job, runs out on her pregnant daughter, and jumps on the first plane to Arundel, it’s possible that she’s in a hurry because she knows something.”
Jared took the box off Bill’s desk. “So when do I leave?”
Grinning, Bill opened his desk drawer and withdrew a set of keys. “A three-quarter-ton, four-wheel drive, dark blue Chevy pickup awaits you in parking space number eighty-one. It’s full of fishing gear and whatever Susie in accounting ordered for you from the L. L. Bean catalog. There’s a marked map on the passenger seat and a key to the house on the ring. It’s late, so you can stop in a motel tonight and read every word about Ms. Palmer before you meet her.”
Jared hated that Bill knew him so well that he’d arranged all this before he’d been consulted. “What’s my name to be this time?”
“We were kind to you and let you keep your first name. I hear you complained that you didn’t like the last name we gave you. What was it again?”
“Elroy Coldheart,” Jared said with a grimace. Kathy in the records department had let him know that she was interested if he was, but he wasn’t. The next time he saw her, she’d handed him his new passport with a smile. It wasn’t until later that he saw the name.
“This time you’re named Jared McBride. Whatever did you do to Kathy to make her come up with the name of McBride?” Bill was chuckling, but he was also curious. He wanted to know everything that went on in his department.
Jared didn’t answer. Lugging the big file box, he left the room smiling. He wasn’t going to tell Bill anything. His only thought was to get this assignment over and done with as quickly as possible.
Copyright © 2005 by Deveraux, Inc.