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Author’s Note

In my new romantic suspense book (to be released later this month), the heroine is Nikki Gower, an actress who plays a sexy FBI agent on the hit TV series TRACE ELEMENTS.

 

In the book itself, Nikki is assisting the real  FBI on a real  case because the only witness to the crime is a four-year-old girl who is hooked on the TV series and is only willing to talk to the FBI agent from Trace Elements.

 

Throughout the book, we get glimpses into the storyline for the TV show. We know that there’s a pilot episode where Nikki’s character – Special Agent Annika Trace – meets a hunky, reclusive scientist named Cole for the first time. Another episode where Annika is bitten by a snake and Cole tries to develop an antidote; one where Annika and Cole discover modern day Neanderthals; and so on and so forth.

 

I thought it would be fun to write those episodes as short stories to be included on this website and in the back of the book(s).

 

So here we go with the official pilot episode of TRACE ELEMENTS.  I hope you enjoy it!  I should be posting more of them soon, so stay tuned.

 

Kate

 

 
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Trace Elements by Kate Donovan
  Trace Elements  
  Pilot Episode  

 

 

After a long, torturous drive, Special Agent Annika Trace arrived at the mountaintop retreat where chemist Cole Ember had both his home and his laboratory. A rusty gate stood half open, so she pushed it aside and ventured into an overgrown courtyard, alert for any sign of inhabitants or guard dogs. She would have rung a bell if one were evident, but visitors were clearly being discouraged, so she walked up to the huge front door and knocked.

No response.

She had been warned that Ember might not welcome her with open arms, so she knocked one last time, then turned the doorknob and pushed her way into a stone entry hall dominated by an imposing staircase to her left and a gorgeous fifteen-foot tapestry depicting a vineyard on the right. Straight ahead was a long, narrow hallway, which she knew from her colleague’s notes would lead her to the witness’s laboratory.

“Dr. Ember?” she called out. “It’s Annika Trace. I left you some messages that I need to speak with you. Are you around?”

After enduring a few more moments of silence, she ventured down the hall, resisting the urge to pull her weapon just in case. It was a creepy place, probably by intention, but there were no cobwebs or rodent droppings, so someone was apparently keeping it clean and tidy.

A second door protected the lab, and she gave it a perfunctory knock, called out Ember’s name again, and let herself into the room. A giant domed ceiling was ringed with high windows, but given the cloudy day, they didn’t provide much light. Luckily, a large chandelier and ten or so wall sconces did the job fairly well, and each of four long stainless-steel tables sported task lighting, so she was able to quickly survey the scene.

Equipment, refrigerators, rolling carts, cabinets—everything but the mad scientist in residence.

There were computer monitors at every workstation, but only one display was active, so she walked over to it, confirmed that the words were scientific gibberish, then turned her attention to a glass dish filled with pink gel. Some exotic concoction, no doubt. Probably highly confidential and extremely lucrative, given Ember’s reputation.

Leaning down, she sniffed the air above it, but there was no detectable odor, so she tentatively positioned a fingertip over the bowl, daring herself to touch the goop.

“Don’t,” a harsh voice advised at the same time a strong hand grabbed her by the wrist. “Unless you want to eradicate your fingerprints.”

Annika spun around to a tall, well-built man in a plaid wool shirt. Dark, unruly hair, unshaven face, accusatory green eyes—not exactly what she had expected, but definitely Cole Ember despite the shaggy embellishments.

“You invented something to remove fingerprints?” she asked with a sheepish smile. “That sounds illegal.”

“It’s intended to remove rust. But the criminal possibilities are endless to anyone with a high pain threshold.”

“I’m Annika Trace—”

“Yeah, I heard the announcements. Sorry I wasn’t quick enough to bar you from the premises.” He flashed a mocking grin. “What kind of name is Annika? Like Anakin Skywalker?”

“Sadly, yes. My parents were Star Wars freaks who lacked impulse control.”

“How do you spell it?” He listened to her reply, then shook his head. “That’s wrong. It should be A-n-a-k-a.”

“There is no right or wrong, it’s a made-up name.”

Adopting a Vaderesque voice, he intoned, “Luke, I am your federal agent. Somehow it doesn’t have the same kick.”

“I agree, so let’s move on, shall we?”

“I’m busy. Make an appointment, or better still, just go away completely. I haven’t seen or heard from my father in two years, and I don’t expect to see or hear from him again. End of story.”

“The story is just beginning, Cole.”

“Dr. Ember.”

She smiled. “I know you talked to my colleague, but I have a completely new angle on your father’s case that I think you’ll like.”

“Yeah, I noticed the new angle.” He looked her up and down with feigned lust. “You’re hot, and you’ve got a cool name, but the novelty’s wearing off. So go away.” Waving a hand in dismissal, he turned his attention to the monitor.

“Excuse me, I’m still standing here.”

“Yeah, I noticed. It’s annoying.”

“Like I said, I have a new angle—”

“The answer is ‘no,’” he assured her, looking up with icy eyes. “It was ‘no’ last month and it’ll still be ‘no’ next month. Not sure I can make it any clearer.”

“Do you know what a calling card is?”

He glared. “Don’t bother. I’ll just throw it in the trash.”

“You think I drove all the way up the Highway of Death to give you a business card? I have a proposition for you, Ember.” She pulled out a photo showing a dingy parking garage. Four short streaks of something resembling oil had been brushed on the side of a pillar, each streak a different color.

“What is it?”

“The color came out terrible, but in person I’m sure you’d be able to identify them. You are a chemist, aren’t you?”

“I don’t like games.”

She smiled confidently. “Your father leaves it—or some variation of it—at each crime scene. The Bureau thinks it’s just a calling card—bragging rights, to prove he was there. To prove he masterminded the brilliant scheme. But I think it’s more than that. How about you?”

“I’d like to analyze it.”

“Yes, I thought you might. And I can arrange that if you agree to cooperate with me.”

“I never heard anything about this calling card before.”

“We withheld it from the press for strategic reasons. I’m sure Agent Dillard would have shared it with you if you’d cooperated a bit more.” She moved closer. “So what about it? Will you help me?”

“I’ll think about it. Can I keep this photo?”

“No, I don’t think so. It wouldn’t be much help anyway, since like I said, the color didn’t come out well.”

“I can already tell it’s copper, osmium, carbon, and iron. So? Are we done now?”

“You can’t tell that from this crappy picture.”

He arched an obnoxious eyebrow. “Am I wrong?”

“Does it mean something?”

“It wouldn’t be much of a calling card if it didn’t.” He grinned. “I’m bored again. What else do you have?”

“A lot,” she bluffed. “But it’s a two-way street.”

“Actually, it’s not.”

“You know what? I think you’re right. It’s a shame, but you’re the real loser. When you’re lying in bed tonight, tossing and turning, tormented for more information about this message, feel free to give me a call.”

“I’ll definitely think about you in bed tonight,” he said with a suggestive chuckle, “but I’ll figure out some other way to get relief.”

“Lovely.” She shoved the photo back into her briefcase and strode to the door, adding over her shoulder, “Like I said, it’s your loss.”

• • •

Annika loved driving—the faster the better—as long as the terrain was relatively flat. These hairpin turns on the edge of rocky cliffs were something else entirely, and her heart shot into her throat with every new panoramic vista of doom.

If she needed yet another reason to seethe, this was it. Cole Ember could have maintained his laboratory anywhere—he certainly commanded the prestige and paycheck to do so—but instead he had to live on the side of a remote mountain. Thank God he hadn’t agreed to a partnership if it meant driving this road ever, ever again.

“Hey, Big Boy,” she muttered to the dashboard of her fire-engine red Audi Quattro. “Find me something soothing to listen to. Some Nat King Cole—oh, wait, scratch that. No more Coles in any incarnation. Try Johnny Mathis.”

“Are you requesting that I find a song by Johnny Mathis? There is one in your playlist: ‘Misty,’” the rich, automated voice informed her. “There are four songs tagged as ‘soothing’: ‘Misty,’ ‘You Don’t Know Me,’ ‘Yesterday,’ and ‘Islands in the Stream.’”

Annika sighed. It was hardly a coincidence that those were her mom’s favorite songs. She had heard them so often at the end . . .

“Play all four, Big Boy. If we’re going over a cliff, I want it to have a celestial soundtrack.”

“Shall I alert 911?”

“My hero,” she said with a laugh, knowing he was preprogrammed for cries for help, especially ones involving cliffs. “But we’re fine. Just play the music, okay?”

In her rearview mirror she could see the traffic piling up behind her, so she pulled into a widened cutout on the shoulder, then tried to figure out exactly where she’d gone wrong with Ember. He had a reputation as a temperamental genius and had turned the last agent away without wasting any breath, so she didn’t feel bad about it, or at least not exactly.

You shouldn’t have shown him the photo. But sheesh, who knew he’d guess from that half-assed shot?

Pulling the picture from her briefcase, she studied it soberly. Yes, the color seemed off, but the differences in shades probably helped him. And some texture was evident, reflecting the light in subtly different ways.

You’re an idiot, Nikki. You handed him the calling card without even realizing it. He does this for a living, for crap’s sake. You should have known he’d figure it out in three seconds.

But that had only been half the problem. Cole Ember had been taller, and more muscular, and more—well, masculine—than anticipated. Where was the pocket protector? The horn-rimmed glasses? Why wasn’t he shy? Sure, he had a reputation for rudeness, but she had assumed it just covered up some weird antisocial fear of women. Instead, he’d been the dominant sexual participant of their little psychodrama, and Annika had been the stammering loser.

Just let it go. You gave him the calling card on a silver platter. He’ll figure out the rest by himself. He doesn’t need your help, so consider yourself screwed.

After stuffing the picture back into her case, she reclined her seat, closed her eyes, and tried to relax to the strains of “Yesterday,” but her brain wasn’t ready to let go. Would Ember really figure it out? The calling card, sure, but what about the reason for his father’s signature mark? Everyone else at the Bureau considered it to be Ash Ember’s middle finger to the rest of the world, but Annika didn’t believe that. She saw it as something more complicated—a father reaching out to the son he abandoned so many years ago. The son who doggedly followed in his footsteps, neither disowning nor trading on the family name.

“He’s trying to intrigue you, Cole,” she assured the son softly. “To communicate with you, his only son. It’s not about bragging, it’s about reconnecting. And that’s why you need me. You can identify the chemical elements, but you can’t translate them. I can do that for you, or at least I could have if only I hadn’t shown you that stupid, stupid picture.”

• • •

Over the next three days, Annika worked alone, resisting the impulse to bring one or more of the chemists at the Bureau into her theory. They would scoff at her, and if they believed her, it would be even worse. They would blow it, overplaying their hand, trying to outsmart Ash Ember, the smartest man on the planet.

And that wasn’t an exaggeration. It was a documented fact.

Their best hope was the son, a genius in his own right and one who knew Ash better than anyone. Annika needed to get close to him, but obviously that was going to be difficult for several reasons. Logistics, because he lived on top of a mountain. Psychology, because he didn’t want anything to do with his father. And finally, his sexy recluse routine. It had left its mark on Annika’s imagination to the point where she was the one tossing and turning every night. She had expected him to be intrigued enough by the calling card to want more information, but instead she was the one obsessed with the chemistry of the situation.

Meanwhile, she received a totally unrelated assignment involving a small-time gunrunner who had been picked up on suspicion of committing a hate crime. As a flight risk, he couldn’t qualify for bail, so his tricked-out Ford Escalade was impounded. Every law enforcement agency within a zillion miles wanted a look at that vehicle, hoping to discover secret compartments, shell casings, or other clues to his armament business. Not to be outdone, the FBI sent Annika to take part in the feeding frenzy.

While going through the motions of the assignment, her thoughts remained on the Ashton Ember case. Not content with reading the voluminous files, she had visited a couple of key witnesses over the last few days, just to confirm that, indeed, no one knew anything. But at least now she had a clearer picture of the infamous “quantum alchemist.” Unlike his son, he had a reputation as a charmer. A people person. A con man with the brains to outsmart everyone. Rising from poverty, his smarts had made him rich as a self-proclaimed quantum chemist—a career path he himself invented—but he had wanted more. Like so many scientific geniuses before him, he had fallen into the trap of seeking infinite wealth and immortal existence.

The world was a greedy place, but Ash had found someplace even greedier—the underworld of mob bosses and terrorists.

Forcing herself to pay attention to the Escalade, she decided it was remarkably shiny for a two-year-old vehicle. “Is this the original paint job?” she asked the lead detective, Will Sanderson.

“Yeah, probably. There aren’t any records of accidents . . .” He pursed his lips, then pulled up the detailed information on his tablet. “Originally silver. Nice catch, Trace. Not sure it means anything, but still, nice. There must have been some damage at some point, and he thought it would link him to something. We’ll strip it and then—”

“Wait!” She flashed an innocent smile. “Could you do me a little favor?”

“I fell for that routine once before,” he reminded her with a laugh.

She laughed too, remembering how he had done some off-the-record surveillance for her in exchange for a dinner date that had ended with a kiss on the cheek.

“So what do you want?” he persisted. “And what do I get in return?”

“I want one of my guys to remove the paint. And in exchange, I’ll owe you a favor. How’s that?”

The detective scowled. “That’s not little, it’s huge.”

“Then I’ll owe you a huge favor in return.”

“And your guys’ll take care of repainting it? Good as new?” When she nodded, he muttered, “Yeah, that’s probably fine. The whole project’s been a bust anyway. If you find something—”

“You’ll get the credit. One hundred percent.”

“That’s not necessary, but I’ll take it.” He scowled again. “But you’ll still owe me?”

“Absolutely.”

“Okay, then. Set it up.”

Thrilled, she hurried to a corner and found Cole Ember’s contact information on her cell phone. She didn’t actually expect him to answer the call and was ridiculously pleased when he picked up on the first ring.

“Hey, Agent Skywalker, what’s up?”

His deep voice sent a thrill through her and she had to take a deep breath before asking, “Does that rust remover of yours strip paint too?”

“What kind of paint?”

“Automotive.”

“Yeah, sure. Why do you ask? And by the way,” he said with a chuckle, “nice ploy.”

She grinned. “If you help me with this, I’ll let you see the genuine article, not just a photo. Don’t tell me you haven’t been curious.”

He was quiet for a moment, then told her, “Fine, be here in an hour. I’ll be ready.”

“No, no. You need to come here.”

“Nope. You’ve got one hour, then I’m on to other projects.”

She could hear the chirp signaling disconnection, but still shouted “Ember!” in frustration. Then she redialed, but he didn’t answer, and so she left a detailed, curse-ridden message even though she knew from experience he either wouldn’t listen to it or would listen then delete with no response.

“Nice work, Annika,” she muttered under her breath. “Now what?”

• • •

By the time she pulled the Escalade into Cole Ember’s driveway, her temples were throbbing from the dizzying effects of the narrow, twisty road. To the left of the house stood a barnlike garage equipped with a metal door that had been lifted and an impressive metal grate that had been slid to the side. Cole stepped out into the light, waving cheerfully, his expression victorious.

He looked good again but Annika wasn’t in the mood, so she drove right by him into an empty stall beside a beat-up Toyota Tacoma. Then she jumped out of the SUV and strode over to him. “Don’t ever hang up on me again. If we’re going to be partners—”

“We’re not.” He arched an eyebrow. “Where’s the calling card?”

Annika glared. “Like I’d trust you to follow through on your part? No way. We’ll do the paint first, then the card.”

“It’s a huge vehicle.”

“Which you would have known if you’d let me finish my sentence,” she told him with a sniff, then continued in a more conciliatory voice. “You don’t have to remove all of it. Just enough here and there so we can figure out what the gunrunner was trying to hide.”

He nodded. “Pop the hood. Let’s see what we’re dealing with.”

She wanted to argue but decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he wanted to test his pink goop on an inside spot first. Of course, it was always possible he wanted to sabotage her engine. She wouldn’t put anything past this guy.

Reaching into the vehicle, she activated the hood release, then joined Cole as he ran his finger over an edge.

“This isn’t automotive paint,” he said.

There was an absentminded quality to his voice, as though he was thinking on one level while talking to her on another. She remembered this from their first meeting—the way he had spoken when she’d shown him the photo of the calling card. To her surprise, she realized this was the odd, seductive quality that really attracted her. Sure he was good-looking, and probably knew his way around the female form, but this multileveled awareness stimulated her more than any of that.

A good thing to know.

“What kind of paint is it? Bulletproof or something?”

He turned his complete focus back to her. “You’re very linear, did you know that?”

“I am not.”

He chuckled, then pulled a coin from his pocket and slid a miniature blade out of it, watching Annika’s reaction. She refused to give him the satisfaction, though, so he turned away and used the knife to pry a sample of black paint from the edge of the hood. “Let’s go see what we’ve got.”

“Okay.” She shut the hood, then activated the SUV’s lock and alarm, explaining, “If anything happens to this, it’s my ass.”

He hesitated, then touched a button on his wristwatch, and the metal grate slid back across the garage opening. “Safe and sound.”

“Okay, that’s cool,” she admitted. Then she looked past the Tacoma to a gleaming black Porsche Carrera. “So is your car. It might almost make driving that road bearable.”

“It really bothers you? Do you have vertigo or something?”

“Something.”

“Too bad.” He seemed about to say more, then just shrugged and walked through a side door that led to a covered walkway adjacent to the house.

Thanks for the sympathy, jackass.

As soon as they arrived in the lab, he took a seat in front of a microscope and got to work, ignoring Annika completely. She didn’t want to hover but had learned her lesson about exploring his experiments on her own, so she just chose a stool a short distance away and amused herself by looking out the windows. They were too high off the floor to provide a view of anything but treetops and clouds, but she didn’t dare watch Cole too closely, aware now that his scientist mode made her tingle.

“You know what I think?” he asked her finally.

“What?”

He arched an annoyed eyebrow. “Why are you making me shout? Move over here.” When she had scooted her stool closer, he looked pointedly at her pantsuit. “I liked the skirt better. If you’re trying to motivate me—”

“I’m not.” She laughed at herself and added, “Not with my body, I mean. The calling card is my motivator, and the details that go with it. Details I’m willing to share if you play nice.”

“Better stick with your body. It’s a lot more interesting than my father. Anyway”—he leaned closer—“I don’t think your guy used this paint to cover up evidence. It was designed for something else. As some sort of beacon.”

“How can paint be a beacon? Wouldn’t that make the whole Escalade a giant one?”

He locked her attention into place with his dark green gaze then nodded.

“Who’s he signaling? Martians?”

“Hard to say. The point is, he can locate the vehicle in an instant when it’s out in the open. So it’s a good thing we garaged it.”

“He’s in jail, so no worries on that score,” she began, then bit her lip. “It’s a lot of trouble to go to, just to keep track of one vehicle. Even if the vehicle is full to the brim with weapons.”

“I agree. There are likely more of them with this paint. And not necessarily to smuggle armaments. But I can still strip it for you if you want. A deal’s a deal, right?” Cole added with a teasing smile.

“No, no. I’m sure you’re right. The paint is the evidence. You’re going to make Detective Will Sanderson look like a hero.” She enjoyed his confused look then explained. “I promised to give him full credit—”

“Why? The credit goes to you. Or actually, to me. But since you were smart enough to involve me, I’m good with deferring. But not to this Sanderson clown.”

“It gets worse. He gets the credit, and after that I still owe him a big favor to be named later.”

“Fuck that,” Cole growled. “Is this how you operate? Promising sex to every guy you meet? How about some actual detective work?”

She forced herself not to react. Instead she smiled and said, “Speaking of detective work, do you want to see the calling card or not?”

His eyes flashed with annoyance, but he recovered quickly. “I can go get it out of the Escalade—”

“It’s right here.” She opened her briefcase and pulled out a piece of plywood that had been painted gray and streaked with four trails of chemically accurate replicas of the calling card from the parking garage.

“What the hell is this?”

“It’s a perfect duplicate—”

“You promised me the original.”

“The original was on a concrete wall.”

Cole exploded. “And this is what passes for evidence to your forensic team? Where did they study chemistry? Clown college?”

“I’m sure they examined the actual wall. They even brought a chunk of it to the lab—”

“And why would they do that? If painting the chemicals on a board was good enough, why bother? I’ll tell you why. Because they’re dealing with Ash Ember, not some art deco muralist. Chemicals react, Skywalker. With the air and with other substances. If my father applied these solutions to a concrete wall, he did it for a reason. Jeezus.”

“Hey! You’re the one who dragged me up here, remember? I wanted you to come to the lab, but no. That would have been too logical. Too linear. So I risk my life to bring you the next best thing, and you complain that it’s not authentic enough? That I should have stuffed an entire parking garage in an SUV?”

He grinned. “The linear thing really got to you, huh?”

“Shut. Up.”

His tone softened. “I didn’t know the drive bothered you that much. Have you seen a shrink about your problem? I’m sure there are exercises—”

“Would you please shut up? I don’t need exercises, I need to get off this stupid hill, and then stay off it.” She slung her briefcase over her shoulder. “You’ve got the calling card. If you want more information, call me and make an appointment in my office.”

A series of sharp beeps interrupted her, and she grimaced as Cole brought up an image on his laptop screen. Video from a surveillance camera mounted in the garage showed two men examining the Escalade with guns drawn.

“Oh, Lord,” she murmured. “Stay here. Call this number.” She scribbled her partner’s information on the gray plywood with a felt-tip pen. Then she pulled her Glock and moved quickly toward the door, glancing back to ensure Cole wasn’t following her.

For once he seemed to be cooperating, so she pushed through the door and moved cautiously along the covered walkway, alert to any other intruders. When she reached the side door to the garage, it was ajar, so she edged through it and was relieved to see that the two men were completely distracted and had their weapons at their sides.

The larger of the two was complaining, “How the hell are we supposed to open that fucking grate? There’s no control panel or switch, and no remote in his car or truck.”

“There’s gotta be something here somewhere,” the second man insisted, opening one cupboard door after another along the workbench side of the structure.

“Okay, boys, take it easy,” Annika advised them coolly. “Set the weapons on the ground and put your hands behind your heads.”

“The fed,” muttered the skinny guy.

His counterpart gave Annika a sympathetic smile. “You’re making a big mistake, honey. Pissing off the wrong bunch, big-time. Why don’t you just let us go? I’d hate to see that pretty face busted up.”

“I’m terrified,” she drawled. “Put the weapons on the ground. Now.

“Do what she says, Joe,” he advised. “We tried to save her, so our conscience is clear.”

Joe nodded. “A waste of a perfectly good broad, but whadda ya gonna do, right?”

Annika rolled her eyes, then watched them follow her instructions, placing their pistols on the garage floor, then straightening slowly and locking their fingers expertly behind their necks. “I can see you boys have done this before,” she taunted them, but before she could truly revel in her victory, a sharp whack to the back of her head sent her reeling into a world of bright lights streaking through inky darkness.

• • •

The next thing she knew, she was being shaken back into consciousness. “Hey, doll face, wake the fuck up,” a harsh new voice insisted. His grip tightened on her forearms. “Stop wasting time and show us how to open the goddamned gate.”

Annika struggled to stay focused. To keep the bile from her churning gut from entering her throat. “How long was I out?”

“Not long enough for the cavalry to arrive,” he assured her with a snarl. “You can blame that bitch of a road. By the time they get here, you’ll be dead. But not before I get a piece of that sweet ass of yours.”

“Actually, help is here,” Cole’s voice corrected him, followed by the sound of a shotgun being pumped. “Let her go and back away.”

He couldn’t dare shoot, not without the risk of hurting Annika. She knew that, and so did the man in the suit, who shifted her more completely in front of himself, then produced a blade from his sleeve and held it to her throat. “Put it down, asshole.”

“You can kill her, and you can even kill me,” Cole said with a shrug, “but you can’t get the gate open without my help. And meanwhile, the cops are on their way. So tick tock.” He grinned. “Let her go and I’ll open the damned thing.”

“Open it or I’ll slit her throat.”

“Tick tock,” was Cole’s cool reply.

“Hey, boss,” the skinny intruder murmured. “Just let the broad go. He wants to save her, right? For the pussy. He won’t try to stop us as long as he knows she’s safe.”

“Yeah, Gus,” said Joe. “Let her go and see if he opens it. If not, I’ll plug him myself.”

“Listen to them, Gus,” Cole advised him. “I couldn’t care less about the stupid SUV. The pussy, on the other hand, has some value. Tie her up and leave her here. I’ll ride down the hill with you to get you past the feds. Then you can dump me off. You won’t want to kill me,” he added with a grin. “I mean, you do know who my father is, right?”

“Oh . . .” Annika felt the first ray of hope. Of course! Ashton Ember, criminal mastermind. This guy Gus seemed pretty important in his own right and was undoubtedly connected, but he was still someone’s errand boy and certainly not in the same league.

Gus seemed unimpressed. “Some senator or something? I don’t give a flying fuck.”

“Trust me, my father doesn’t like politicians either. He prefers to dine with your personal heroes. Cannon, Edelman, Sorvino—those fellows. But to them, Ash Ember is the real hero.”

“Fuck me,” Joe said nervously.

Cole chuckled. “And meanwhile, tick tock.”

“If Doc Ember’s your father, you’d better hope we get away clean,” Gus told him with a suggestive smile. “He’s not gonna be too happy with you if you fuck this up.”

Oh, no . . . Ash is behind this?

Resisting a flood of panic, Annika decided Cole had done more than his share of the heavy lifting on this mess. Time for her to take over, pain and nausea be damned.

“Okay, Gus, here’s the deal,” she announced in a no-nonsense tone. “Dr. Ember—junior—will open the gate. You’ll tie him up, being careful not to hurt him, because let’s face it, you’re a dead man if you do. I’ll ride down the hill with you and you won’t dare hurt me because if you do, the LAPD and the FBI will hunt you down like the dog you are.” Shifting her attention to Cole, she assured him confidently, “The pussy will be fine. Just do what I say, okay?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Cole agreed.

She had expected him to argue but took this as a nod to her professionalism. She was the law enforcement agent, so she should be the one to die. He had been irreverent but seemed to at least understand this basic truth.

Not that she had any intention of dying. But better her than a civilian, especially one who held the key to solving the Bureau’s biggest case.

• • •

Once Cole surrendered his shotgun, Gus and his colleagues got to work, tying his hands in front of him with a length of cord from a spool on his workbench, then doing the same to his ankles. Turning their attention to Annika, they bound her wrists with traditional cuffs, her feet with more of the cord. Then they loaded her into the passenger seat of the Escalade, belting her in as though they actually wanted to keep her safe.

Then Gus turned to the rest of his crew. “Follow me in Joe’s car. Stay close. Once the feds know I have her, they’ll let us pass.”

“Okay, boss.”

“Doc? You’re up. Activate the gate, then we’re out of here.”

Cole nodded, then touched a button on his shiny watch. Immediately the gate sprang to life.

Gus stared in amazement. “What’s that?”

“Cool, right? You’d be amazed by what it can do. A programmer gave it to me as a gift and set it up to operate anything I want. It also starts my car, kills the engine if I want it to, and scans any room for bugs.”

Don’t brag, Annika warned him silently. They might steal it from you.

And worse, if they knew he had gimmicks, they might frisk him and find the coin with the knife hidden in it, taking away his best chance for freeing himself and calling the Bureau.

But it was too late. Gus’s eyes shone with greed, and he told Joe simply, “I want it.”

“Hey!” Cole tried to resist, but Joe and his skinny friend overpowered him and took the watch from his wrist.

“I’ve got a guy who can reprogram it for me. And meanwhile”—Gus grinned—“Ash Ember will agree it’s a small price to pay for his son’s life.” Turning to Joe, he instructed, “Frisk him again. See what other goodies he has.”

As Joe complied with his boss’s orders, Annika kept her eyes on Cole’s face, mesmerized and inspired by his calm demeanor. Neither of them were going to panic, no matter how bad things got. And if the worst happened, and Gus killed her? Well, at least she’d die in the line of duty, and Cole would live to invent amazing things.

Then Gus ruined her dream by telling Joe and his buddy, “Stay close, but not too close. There’s a turnout halfway down the mountain. Give me some privacy with Blondie when I stop there.”

Cole reacted with an angry tirade, struggling against his bonds, but to no avail, and Annika did her best to appear brave for his sake. He had done his best, and now he’d be haunted forever, whether Annika lived or died, knowing she had been sexually assaulted. She had wanted to protect him from this, but it was an unthinkable but real danger for every female agent, and in time she hoped he’d understand that.

• • •

As the Escalade raced down the hill, Annika tried to stay focused. Her stomach churned, not just from the vertigo but the concussion she now knew she had sustained. Maybe she really would barf after all—hopefully at the very moment he dared try to molest her. Not that it would deter him for long, since women undoubtedly vomited on him nightly, but still, she would enjoy that brief triumph in the midst of pain and humiliation.

The FBI and LAPD—maybe even Will Sanderson himself—would be there in droves, waiting in unmarked cars at the bottom of the hill. By now, Cole would have freed himself with the blade in his fifty-cent piece and would have given them the update. Maybe he would even grab his shotgun, hop in his Porsche, and speed to her rescue.

She hoped not. Joe and the other guy would kill him if he tried that. It didn’t take a linear thinker to figure that out. Either Annika would find a way to overpower Gus at the turnout or she’d succumb to his creepy advances, biding her time, waiting for the better opportunity. She might end up dead, but her death would be more bearable knowing her key witness in the Ember case had survived.

When Gus reached the turnout, she struggled one last time against her bonds, but they were solid. She would have to wait for him to untie her feet, an action he’d surely perform if he wanted to make full use of her body.

“Don’t panic,” he told her as he killed the engine. “It’s better for me if you’re alive when we pass the feds.”

“Trust me, I understand.”

He walked around to her side and opened the door. “It won’t be so bad. You might even like it.”

“Just get it over with,” she advised. “I’m not feeling too good.”

“Who cares?”

She winced and nodded, expecting him to attack her on the spot, but instead he yanked her out of her seat while activating the remote to open the rear hatch.

Ugh . . .

When a tear slid down her cheek, she cursed herself. Was she actually willing to give this guy such emotional satisfaction? She couldn’t control the physical, but she could be a man about it, woman-style.

Still, when he dragged her to the rear of the SUV, she resisted with all her might, calling him every name in the book and promising vengeance from every quarter. It only made him laugh—laugh and pant, as though she were fueling his passion instead of his fear—and she knew she should just shut up.

But she couldn’t, so she shrieked until he stuffed a handkerchief in her mouth, shoved her back onto the floor of the storage area, and climbed on top of her.

And then he collapsed—suddenly and surely—his body going so limp it half crushed hers. It was almost as though he’d had a heart attack, but that was too much to pray for.

Wasn’t it?

As she lay there, horrified and relieved, a black Porsche skidded onto the loose gravel of the turnout and came to a halt. Then Cole strode over to her, pulling Gus off, then grabbing her into a brisk embrace. After a long moment, he pulled the rag out of her mouth and asked, “You okay, Skywalker?”

“Cole . . .”

“Here, sit for a minute.” He propped her against the fender, then leaned down to Gus’s motionless body and retrieved his watch. With a wink toward Annika, he stuffed it in his own pocket, explaining, “I’ll clean it before I wear it again. Just in case there’s any residue.”

“Watch residue?”

“Try not to be so linear,” he reminded her, then the sounds of an approaching car distracted him, and before she knew it he shoved her back into the rear compartment of the Escalade and slammed the hatch shut. After pulling a gun from his waistband—her Glock, apparently—he leveled it in the direction of the oncoming vehicle.

Annika expected it to be Joe and Skinny, and apparently Cole thought so too, but it was an LAPD squad car, lights blazing, that roared into view. And when Will Sanderson jumped out, Annika had to laugh. It was so perfect—so absolutely, bizarrely perfect.

Will opened the hatch and stared in disbelief. “Annika? You’re okay?”

“I’m fine.”

He uncuffed her and untied her ankles, then helped her to her feet.

“Hey,” Cole muttered. “Are you Sanderson?”

“Yeah. You’re Ember?”

“That’s right.” He shoved Will in the chest. “You and Trace are square, got it?”

“Huh?”

“You made a deal with her. Now you’re even.”

“Yeah, sure. No problem.” Will turned back to Annika. “You look terrible.”

“She’s concussed,” Cole explained. “Get her to an ER, will you?”

“Sure, no problem.” Sanderson eyed the officer who was examining Gus. “Is he gonna make it?”

“It’s some sort of allergic reaction. The paramedics will know more, but I’m sure he’ll survive.”

An allergic reaction to Cole’s wristwatch? How was that possible? Had he triggered something remotely? Maybe with the bizarre half-dollar gizmo?

She wanted to talk to him privately. To compliment him. To thank him. “Cole?”

“Just close your eyes and relax,” he advised. “The ambulance is on its way.”

“But—well, what about us?”

“What about us?”

“Are you going to help me or not?”

He chuckled dryly. “Yeah, I’ll help. Just don’t bring any more a-holes to my lab, okay?”

“Okay.” She waited for him to do something. To move closer, speak gently, maybe even take her in his arms again.

But all he said was, “Looks like you’re in good hands. Call me when you have something to say.”

She stared as he strolled back to his Porsche like they had just finished a picnic. Then he slipped into the driver’s seat, executed a noisy U-turn, and sped back up the hill.

“What an ass,” Will muttered.

“He saved me,” Annika corrected him sharply. Then she smiled and admitted, “But yeah, he’s an ass for sure.”

 

 



 

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