Copyright © 2009 Nikki Duncan
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Time was running out. Every minute of the clock on the sea blue wall ticked with a spine-tingling intensity. Returning to the office empty handed, losing that stupid bet, and proving to her unit that she didn’t belong with them was not an option. She’d already tried a power play and failed—you had to have power to pull them off. It was worse since the guys on her team were too set in their ways.
Like Ian Cabrera and the security guard—Dante, according to the sign on his desk—blocking the way to the inner sanctum of his lab. Dante’s militant bearing might intimidate some—likely anyone who came into contact with him—but she was here. She was determined. They wouldn’t block her forever. She would use any tool at her disposal to see Cabrera.
“Dante.” If flattery didn’t work, she’d wait him out. “Please call him and ask.”
“You’ve heard his answer.”
“Not in person.” Cabrera’s refusal to help, passed through Dante and paperwork stamped Reject, had every man in her unit goading her.
“I’m sorry, Agent Beckett. It is policy that all requests be submitted in writing. He is not to be disturbed.”
Her jaw clenched painfully. She drew on the patience she’d worked so hard to maintain since starting her job a year ago and bit back her instinctive smartass reply. If working in the FBI Specialized Crimes Unit had taught her one thing it was how policies worked. And how they had to be manipulated in certain cases.
“I submitted the paperwork.”
“To which he responded.”
“I understand that Mr. Cabrera doesn’t see anyone without an appointment.” Desperate not to fail, Kieralyn ignored the internal feminist that insisted on women’s equality and pulled out the big guns. Affecting her sweetest smile, she leaned forward on the granite-topped cedar desk and hoped her charm worked on Dante.
His pupils flared. His dark gaze shifted briefly to the V of her sweater.
“It’s a matter of life or death for at least six women.”
“Every case is life and death.” He shook his head sadly. “You have his answer, Agent Beckett.”
“Dante.” Beginning to feel desperate, she reached down and grasped his hand. When he met her gaze, she creased her forehead in concerned interest. “Do you have a family? A wife? A daughter? A sister?”
His eyes narrowed. His head cocked to the side. “Yeees.”
He may be suspicious of her, but she had his attention.
“If they went missing, wouldn’t you do something? Something possibly against regulations, but that you knew to be right? Something that could mean getting them back?”
He hesitated. His dark eyes and chocolate-skinned face softened.
Yes! She mentally pumped her fist in the air. She was close.
“Mr. Cabrera is very particular about not being interrupted.”
“It’s just a phone call, Dante.” She squeezed his hand and shifted a little closer. Intimacy, flirting, whatever. She wasn’t afraid to use her femininity for the greater good, which in this case meant finding kidnap victims and stopping others from being taken. It meant doing whatever was necessary to help Lana, even if her use of guile was one reason her teammates gave her a hard time. Some situations didn’t allow for pride.
“I would really appreciate it. The women I’m trying to help could be depending on his expertise.”
“He is not going to like this, and that argument will not work with him.” He picked up the phone and an instant later was speaking quietly. “Sorry to interrupt you. Yes, I know. There’s an… So you’ve said.” He cleared his throat. “There’s an FBI agent here. She insists on seeing you.”
Half the battle won, Kieralyn stepped away and surveyed the plush lobby complete with a flat-screen plasma on one wall for entertainment and deep chairs that would offer hours of comfort. Did they really have so many visitors to this small building, set apart from the others in the NSA business plaza, that they needed such luxury? Or did people have to wait that long to be seen?
Tension pinched between her shoulder blades. She would see Ian Cabrera. He was the only person who could prove her right. Or wrong, as her unit insisted. If they were right, if she’d manufactured the theory for personal reasons, if her theory was entirely off-base it would be one more arrow in the target on her back. If they were wrong, she just might win a little respect. Finally.
“Yes, I told her… She is.” Dante frowned and bowed his head slightly. “She insists… I will let her know.”
She gripped the handle of her bag in her fist and bit back her anxiety long enough for Dante to return the phone to its cradle. Standing a few feet away, her stomach lurched as if she’d just jumped from a plane with no parachute. She swallowed the fear of failure bubbling in her throat.
“What did he say?” He had to say yes. Just had to. Otherwise, she would be reduced to … Well, she wasn’t sure what she’d be reduced to in her mission for answers.
“You have one chance to convince him.”
The tightness eased between her shoulders. She was certain she could convince Cabrera to listen to her recording. “Thank you, Dante. Thank you so much.”
“He is not pleased.” Dante moved around the desk and headed toward the hall. “I may not have done you any favors.”
“He’s not going to come down on you for this, is he?” She might have considered it earlier, but she’d been too focused on her end goal. On her need for answers. For resolution. Those needs still outweighed any sense of guilt.
“On me, no.” He led her around a corner and keyed in a code on the keypad by the second of two doors.
Possibilities and answers waited on the other side, closer than she’d expected to get. Cabrera could dish out whatever he wanted. She’d take it. She’d formed a thick skin thanks to her teammates. Good guys beneath gruff surfaces, they were set in their ways and entertained archaic ideas about where women belonged. She couldn’t change everyone’s opinion.
Only one mattered at this moment.
“A word of warning, Agent Beckett.” Dante gripped the door handle without opening the door. “He doesn’t like people in his lab. Touch nothing.”
“Got it.” So the NSA employed an eccentric listener. If he could isolate something useful, some truth from the recording, she’d gladly meet the terms of the bet and fetch coffee and bagels for the team for a month. More was at stake than who did coffee runs.
With a nod, Dante pushed the door open and stood back.
“Thank you.” She stepped into the chilly darkness of the lab she’d heard had been custom built and outfitted to suit him.
Giant flat-panel monitors had been mounted on the walls and illuminated a seemingly large room in shadowy greens, yellows and reds. A circular desk, equipped with technology that could make a NASA control room look like a video game controller dominated the middle of the un-carpeted floor.
Ian Cabrera tapped controls and tilted his head at an angle that indicated he was listening closely to something. He was a large-framed man with a shaved head silhouetted by lights flashing from the control panel. Headphones sat beside his monitor. The undertones of a classical piece of music—no, opera floated from speakers high on the walls. A conversation badly garbled with static was slightly louder than the music. He touched one button and the conversation ended. Another button shut down the music.
She heard nothing aside from her thoughts. Whatever she’d expected, this wasn’t it. “It’s quiet in here.”
“Soundproofed.” His smooth, Enrique-Iglesias voice, laced with a touch of gruffness sent a shiver down her spine. “You’ve got two minutes. Don’t waste them.”
If he looked half as good as he sounded he’d be a threat to any woman with a pulse. But she was running out of time and wasn’t interested in men or relationships beyond work.
“I’m Kieralyn Beckett with the FBI.”
“I know who you are.”
“I’d like you to listen to a recording.” Her blood thrummed. “I’m looking for a connection between a series of kidnappings.”
“And you think a recording is going to do what? Provide a manifest of victims and their fate?”
“If the world were perfect, yes.”
“If the world were perfect your job would not exist.”
“Nor would you be needed to analyze crime tapes.”
“Perhaps.” He rolled his chair to another section of the desk and tapped a few keyboard keys. “Tick tock.”
Small talk wasn’t his thing. Fine. She moved deeper into the room. “The recording was sent to me by an anonymous source.”
“Meaning you secretly did surveillance on your own?”
“No. It was emailed to me hours before the latest victim was taken. She’s a journalist.”
“Not anonymous at all. You believe the journalist sent the recording knowing that she was going to be next.”
How could he have known that? She couldn’t let anyone know why she’d been the one the recording had been sent to. “Yes.”
He returned to his original spot and pushed some buttons. Several TV screens turned off, almost obliterating all light from the room. “Why you? Why not one of the men in your unit?”
She fisted her hand on her purse and blinked to adjust her eyes to the darkness. “You too?”
“Is it a thing with all men or just men in what they themselves see as positions of power? You think that because I’m a woman I don’t have a brain? That I don’t deserve enough credit for someone to trust me with potentially valuable information?”
“You’re wrong.” Her heart danced an aggravated jig. Her hands shook at her sides. She was sick to death of arrogant men. “And it doesn’t matter why I was sent the recording. It only matters that I was.”
“Fed up. Pissed, actually. Women are being kidnapped and—if I’m right—shipped into another country where they’re sold into slavery. And not a single man I deal with seems to give a shit!”
“Yelling is not necessary.” Cabrera turned his chair toward her.
“You son of a bitch.”
“Most women use flattery or charm when trying to get something from a man.” He kicked back with his hands linked behind his head as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “How’s your approach been working out?”
Arrogant jackass! Maybe with an enema for your personality you wouldn’t have to live your life in the dark with no one around. It was on the tip of her tongue, ready to slip off. Damn it, he was right. She wasn’t going to get his help by yelling and cussing.
“I’m waiting. And why do you need my help if the recording told you enough to send you down the path of slavery?”
She dug her thumb and forefinger into the corners of her eyes and growled low in her throat. She took a deep, slow breath and worked to keep her voice calm. “The recording came with a note saying that kidnapped women are being sold into slavery. And that I have to stop them if she can’t.”
“She, as in the reporter?”
“You know her.”
Thinking about Lana now and all they’d been through over the years wouldn’t help her case. It only served to agitate her. “We have no video, and there is too much background racket on the recording for me to make anything out with certainty.”
“You know her.”
“I’m hoping for a name. Hell, I’m to the point that I’ll take anything that will validate my theory.”
“That the kidnappings, while appearing random, are connected.”
“Yes.” Finally he dropped the insistence that this was personal.
He shook his head. “The door is behind you.”
“These women may well become slaves!” If he wanted her out he would have to escort her. “Who knows how they’ll be treated. They deserve to live their lives here.” He wasn’t budging. “What if you had a sister? What if she was one of the women I’ve been assigned to locate? Could you ignore this then? Let it go unstopped?”
He straightened and tilted his head as if he was actually interested. “If anyone tried to take my sister I would kill them.”
“So help me. These women are sisters, daughters, wives and mothers.”
“Tell me something.” He leaned forward and braced his elbows on his knees. He seemed attentive, but oddly she wasn’t sure he really saw her. Or maybe he saw too much. “Why are you so convinced, aside from an email, that these cases are connected? Why wasn’t any of this mentioned in the formal request for my services?”
“My gut makes me think it.” He was close to giving in. She refused to believe differently. “Every woman taken has been between eighteen and twenty-eight. Caucasian with blond or very light brown hair. Pale eyes, though no one particular color. They are the kind of women that might be appealing to a certain class of man in nearby South American countries. Maybe Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Colombia or Venezuela.”
“That’s a bit of a jump, don’t you think?” His voice hardened. Each word was a precise clip of judgment. “You’re stereotyping Latin men and essentially accusing countries that have no reputation for such atrocities. Besides, slavery was abolished.”
“In the US it was. Yet rich white men buy women, little more than girls, from other countries and enslave them. They force them into marriages.” She strode forward, unable to stand still and listen to another man tell her she was inventing problems in her head. “It happens in this country on a daily basis. What makes you think that girls wouldn’t be taken from here and sold into other countries? Countries where slavery and women’s rights in general are not necessarily a high priority.”
“I didn’t say it was impossible. Just that it seemed a bit of a leap.”
“If you’re going to be a closed-minded ass and refuse to help me—these women—just say so.”
“There you go again with the insults.” He chuckled. “You interrupt my work, invade my space, call me names and then accuse me of not being willing to help. I should be angry. Instead you have me wondering…”
She waited, but he didn’t continue. He was playing some game that only he understood. “What?”
“Is this how it works for you, Beckett? Is this how you solve your cases?”
She shifted her weight to her left foot and sighed. “You’re right. I’m being a bitch.”
Not that he was going to argue. “I’m tired of slamming into concrete walls of maleness on this. Tired of not being taken seriously. Of being treated like I’m inferior and incapable of intelligent thought.”
“So, I’m your solution?”
“And you come here with your mind closed and defenses up. What are you going to do if I disprove your theory?”
“I’ll fetch coffee and bagels for a month,” she mumbled. She approached his desk to make her plea more personal. Maybe to get a better look at him. “I’ll accept what you tell me you hear, or don’t. I need the truth. All of it, one way or another.”
Cabrera stood and pointed at a chair opposite the desk. “Give me the recording. Sit there.”
She fished the disc out of her bag as she closed the remaining distance. “Thank you.”
“I haven’t done anything.” He took the CD she’d made and turned away before she could get a good look at his face. He was dark and had strong bones. Even with her eyes adjusting to the light, she could see little else.
“Don’t move. Don’t speak.”
Clearing her throat, she sat in the chair. Reaching down to place her bag on the floor, her arm brushed the leg of the seat. She creased her brows, ran her fingers along the other legs. The entire chair was covered with corduroy. Flicking her fingernail across the grooves, she watched Cabrera walk to a cabinet beneath the desk. He bent down and slid the CD she’d handed him into a slot.
Curious about the reason for covering chair legs, she scooted the chair on the floor. Not a sound. He’d covered the bottom too.
Wow. That’s some sensitive hearing. Humoring him, she settled in to study him as best she could.
He moved easily, but with a cautious alertness that kept his moves from being smooth. Effortless.
“Does having the lights off somehow help you hear better?”
“Aside from the constant buzz that sometimes interferes, it makes no difference.” He sat in his chair and rolled to the section directly in front of her. “Don’t speak.”
Shrugging, she settled back and studied him in the flickering lights of his control panel. Judging from the shadowed intensity of his bone structure, the strong jaw and prominent cheekbones, she guessed he could claim some Latino lineage. His long and thick dark eyelashes remained unblinking for long stretches of time. He intrigued her despite his irritating arrogance. She wanted to study him in the light, but doubted he would allow them to be turned on.
Cabrera pushed a series of buttons. The recording she’d listened to for the last day and a half flooded the room. All she could determine was that it had probably been made on a cell phone in a crowded club.
She shifted cautiously on the chair, wishing it had a bit more padding. He lifted his head. An amber light from the panel before him hit his black-rimmed eyes like a fire reflecting off a glass of bourbon. Basic. Intensely predatorial and blank in the shadowy light.
She nodded and resolved not to move again.
“Don’t even nod.”
He wasn’t looking at her. How could he know she’d nodded?