Monday, July 7, 1:35 p.m., Phoenix
Jamie Dallas sat in the open doorway of the plane, resisting the urge to grip the sides. The wind roared like a freight train as she glanced down at the earth ten thousand feet below. A dark shape plummeted under her, about twenty yards behind the plane. She could catch him, but she had to go now. Fear, queasiness, and excitement rolled up into her throat. She crossed her arms and leaned forward, letting herself fall into space.
A rush of cold air stunned her and she fought to remember her training. Slow count to three to clear the plane. Arms back and head down. She leaned right, aiming at her target. The earth rushed at her as she plummeted through space, the noise deafening, like the world’s biggest storm rushing by in an endless stream.
Her target was upright but still free-falling. To escape, he wouldn’t open his chute until the last minute. Neither would she. But could she catch him? So much was riding on this.
Her stomach roiled after a minute of headfirst descent. She’d made many jumps but had never gone into a nosedive before. Her FBI training hadn’t prepared her for this. Nothing had. It was the craziest thing she’d ever done.
But she was gaining on him, closing the gap with every second. For a moment, she closed her eyes to calm her nerves and think through her next moves.
When she opened them, she and her target were dangerously close to the patchwork fields below. But he was almost within reach. Another two seconds and she would have him.
A thousand and one, a thousand and—
He reached for his ripcord. Shit! She had to make contact now or get the hell away. Dallas threw her arms forward, and her fingers brushed his. Yes! She’d done it.
She arched her back to right herself, with feet down. Another pause to create space between them, then she grabbed her ripcord. The chute opened, jerking her body upward. The floating began, a peaceful conclusion to an exhilarating adventure. But she wouldn’t get to enjoy it for long. They were close to the earth, and she braced for a hard landing. She couldn’t wait to gloat about her victory. Not only did Sam owe her a hundred dollars, but for the next week, he had to call her “sir” and give her sex whenever she wanted it.
He’d bet that she couldn’t catch him in a free-fall, counting on her being too nervous to try a headfirst dive or too scared to stick with it long enough to pull it off. Hah! Sam obviously didn’t know her well yet and probably never would. With any luck, she’d pick up another undercover assignment and get out of Phoenix for the rest of the summer. If she were gone long enough, their relationship would fizzle, and that was just fine. Her job was too rewarding to let a guy interfere with it.
In the hangar, while Sam was still packing their equipment—part of his dues for losing—she peeled off the flight suit, then checked her phone. She’d missed a call from Special Agent Gossimer, her supervisor. So much for her afternoon off. She’d been working overtime on a fraud case involving a convenience store owner and food stamp cards, so she’d earned the time off. But the deskwork, sorting through transactions, had been so deadly dull, she’d started plotting crimes in her head just to feel alive.
She stuck in her earpiece and returned the call. “It’s Dallas. What’s up?”
“An agent in San Diego is dead, and his office is asking for you.”
Travel! And maybe an undercover assignment. Her body started to hum. Then she realized an agent was dead, possibly murdered, and remembered that her job was sometimes more dangerous than her hobbies. Dallas headed for the exit. “Why me? I don’t have homicide experience.”
“We’ll talk when you get here.”
“Hey, wait.” Behind her, Sam hurried to catch up.
She’d momentarily forgotten him. It almost made her laugh. Straight-faced, she turned back. “Sorry, but I have to return to work.”
“What about our movie date?” The disappointment on his face didn’t detract from his looks. She’d met him here at the airport on her last jump, and they’d been dating only a month.
Why did guys get so invested? “It’ll have to wait. My boss is sending me out of town.” She kissed him before he could respond, then whispered, “Think how great the sex will be when I get back. Absence can be good.”
He pulled away and locked eyes with her. “How long will you be gone?”
“I don’t know yet.” She didn’t want to discuss it, but she needed an escape plan. “We don’t have a commitment. You’re free to do what you want while I’m gone.” And so was she.
Dallas headed for the door.
Two days earlier, San Diego
Carla River had only been to one other funeral, her mother’s, and that had been long ago. Now she stood in a crowd of FBI agents, mostly men in suits, listening to a eulogy for a man who’d changed her life—twice. Tears ran down her face, blending with the light drizzle that dripped from the sky. It almost never rained in San Diego, but today, maybe because sunshine wouldn’t have been appropriate, the sky was as dark as the suits around the grave.
The first time she’d met Joe Palmer, he’d come to her childhood home and arrested her dad, then led the investigative team that had dug up the bodies under their house. Her serial-killer father had gone to prison, and a year later her mother had killed herself, leaving River homeless as a teenager. But she’d hung onto the business card Joe had given her and remembered his offer of help if she ever needed it. After a year on the streets, she’d finally called and asked for that assistance. He and his wife had taken her in and supported her through high school, then helped her access grants to attend college. River had later joined the bureau, modeling her life after Joe’s, but she’d never really had an opportunity to repay him. Now he was dead, and her heart ached with loss.
After the service, she sought out the only person in the crowd she knew. Flanked on both sides by agents as she walked to her car, Jana Palmer looked surprisingly stoic. As River approached, her heart fluttered. She had changed so much since the last time Jana had seen her. Would Jana even recognize her? She glanced at the other agents, older men near retirement age, then touched Jana’s arm. “Can we have a moment alone? I’m Carla River with the Eugene office.” This moment could be awkward, and she’d already taken her share of grief from coworkers, mostly men who didn’t understand.
The other agents walked away, and the widow stared at her, eyes puzzled. “Carl River? Oh my god.”
“I had the surgery a year and a half ago. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you and Joe. I didn’t think he would understand.” River was still five-ten and broad shouldered, but her face had softened and her sandy hair had grown to her shoulders.
Mrs. Palmer opened her arms and pulled her in for a hug. “Joe wouldn’t have, but I do. Thank you for coming. It’s so good to see you.”
More tears threatened to spill, so River pulled back, self-conscious of her thick, androgynous body. “What happened? I didn’t even know Joe was sick.”
The widow repressed a shudder. “It was very sudden. And they still don’t know exactly what he died of, but it was most likely an infection. He had a cut on his hand that became red and swollen.” She grabbed River’s arm and steered her away from the nearby group. “I want you to investigate. There’s something going on at the company I work for. I told Joe about it and two weeks later he died.”
“What are you saying? You think Joe was murdered?”
She sighed. “I don’t know. But someone has to find out.”
River was torn. “I’d like to look into it for you. I owe both of you. But I don’t think the San Diego bureau will want me involved.”
“I don’t care. I want you to do this, and I think you’ll need my help. Those stuffed suits can just get over it.”
There was the spunk she’d come to love all those years ago. Mrs. Palmer had gone to bat for her many times when River was a teenage boy, taking on school administrators and social workers with equal zest.
“Come to the house,” she continued. “And I’ll tell you what I know and show you Joe’s notes. It may be nothing, but someone has to investigate.”
The Palmers’ home sat on a gentle slope in the Mission Hills area, with a peek-a-boo view of the ocean. The property was a step up from the small tract house she’d shared with them twenty-five years earlier. River climbed from her car and instinctively turned west. The clouds had cleared, and the sight of the ocean filled her with a homesickness she hadn’t expected. She waited while Mrs. Palmer parked in the garage, then followed her inside.
“Make yourself comfortable on the terrace,” Jana said. “I’ll bring Joe’s notes and some iced tea.”
River stepped outside and sat in a plush patio chair. The air was warm, damp, and unusually still for San Diego. She took off her jacket and tried to relax and enjoy the gorgeous view. But Joe Palmer was dead, possibly murdered. And Jana wanted her to stay in town to investigate. River owed it to her mentor, but she also loved her private, rural home outside Eugene, Oregon, and she was already eager to return.
Jana came out with two glasses of tea and a folder tucked under her arm. Her long-ago foster mother seemed shorter and softer than she remembered, but her face hadn’t aged much, and her hair was dyed dark brown.
“Where do you work now?” River didn’t have the heart to make small talk. Grief still gripped her, and, if Joe had been murdered, she had to get moving before the leads disappeared.
“TecLife. It’s a medical device company that’s doing some innovative things.”
“What’s going on that made you want Joe to investigate?”
“It’s not so much what’s happening at TecLife, but what’s been happening to another company.” Jana took a long sip of tea. “First, our main competitor had a warehouse full of magnet-based migraine devices destroyed by a fire. It’s a new product, and the fire delayed the launch, which was a financial setback.” She leaned toward River, her voice more intense. “Our company’s lead product is an electrical stimulator that treats migraines.”
Probably coincidence. But River would humor her for a while. After spending her life with an FBI agent, Jana had probably come to be overly suspicious.
Before River could respond, Jana added, “A security guard died in the fire. They think he’d been drinking and fell asleep.”
“Maybe he started it accidentally.”
Jana shook her head. “They suspected arson but never found an accelerant.”
Probably a pyromaniac with no connection. “There must be a reason you think the fire is connected to your company.”
“I overheard a snippet of conversation between the two cofounders. They were in a conference room, and I was in the adjacent copy room. Here’s what I think I heard.” Jana opened the folder and read from the top paper. “ProtoCell’s delay buys us time to expand our market share, but they’ll rebound quickly if we don’t escalate this.”
Aggressive, but not conclusive. “Who was talking?”
“I think it was Max Grissom, the CEO, but I can’t swear to it. The copy machine was running.”
“And the other person?”
“Higher pitched, so maybe Cheryl Decker, the president, or Curtis Santera, head of R&D.”
“When did that conversation take place?”
“Feb 17th, two days after the fire. But I’d heard them talking about ProtoCell’s product before the fire too.”
River grabbed a notepad from her bag and jogged it down. “You said first. What else happened?”
“In April, ProtoCell’s health tattoo started causing skin infections and had to be pulled from the market while they looked into the problem. The PR was horrible, and the sales of all their other products plunged.”
River felt old and uninformed. “What’s a health tattoo?”
“It’s a thin skin patch with electrodes that monitor vital signs.” Jana looked over her glasses at River. “Guess what TecLife’s newest product is?”
Interesting. “A health tattoo?”
“Yep. Ours transmits data to the wearer and/or their doctor’s smartphone, so it’s more advanced, but being second to market is always a disadvantage.” The widow sighed. “I hate to think badly of TecLife, but it’s struggling. We have innovative products in the pipeline, but the development has been slow and expensive. The company may not have enough cash-flow to continue, and I think the founders are feeling desperate.”
“You think an executive committed acts of sabotage?” River heard the skepticism in her voice.
Jana frowned. “Not personally, no. But I think they might have hired someone.”
“These are serious accusations. Tampering with medical devices could be lethal.” River thought about Joe’s sudden death from a possible infection. Had they killed him with lab-grown bacteria?
“That’s why I told Joe about my suspicions. He was skeptical, but he agreed to investigate.” Jana’s eyes misted over. “I never thought he’d end up dead.”
River shifted in her chair, planning how she would handle this. “Did Joe take this to the bureau?”
His widow shook her head. “He wasn’t convinced, so he decided to look into it on his own until he had something solid. But there’s another development.”
River picked up her pen again.
“The real profit is in wide-scale prescriptions. So both companies are developing weight-loss devices with biologicals. ProtoCell, our competitor, will soon release a weight-loss implant, and TecLife is working on a similar product they’ve been very secretive about. It’s potentially a billion dollar market.”
Stunned by that number, River reached for the black folder. “Let me see Joe’s notes.”
The paperwork was thin, but it included a copy of the fire marshal’s report of the warehouse blaze, which had been ruled inconclusive. Joe had also talked to the head of security at ProtoCell, but the conversation had been brief, and Joe had noted: Failure to follow sanitation protocols.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Jana said, abruptly standing up. “But I’m not crazy, and I have something else to show you.”
She came back a minute later with a plastic evidence bag and handed it to River. Inside was a translucent one-inch square of plastic film, with fine black lines intersecting through it.
“I found it in Joe’s coat pocket yesterday. It’s a PulseTat, one of the recalled ProtoCell health tattoos. What if it killed him somehow?”
Was it possible? River’s gut knotted into a ball of dread. She had no choice but to put her life on hold and pursue this. Her boss in Eugene would be supportive and transfer her cases to other agents. But the San Diego bureau might not welcome her intrusion in their jurisdiction. She took long slow breaths to release her tension. She would push past any resistance, as she had before. When she’d gone through the change from male to female, she’d been assigned to Portland, and some of the men—people she’d worked with for years—had given her a hard time, pressuring her to quit. She’d finally transferred to Eugene for a fresh start where everyone knew her as Carla from day one. But none of that mattered now.
Getting inside TecLife would be the key to solving this. Even if Joe hadn’t been murdered, the bureau still needed to stop the sabotage before innocent people were hurt. Could she infiltrate the company? She looked up at Jana. “Are you still in the human resource field?”
“I’m the HR director at TecLife.”
“Can you get me hired? I need access to investigate.” Another flash of dread rippled through her. Undercover work was not her strength. Her favorite mantra came to mind. I can only do my best and control my part in this.
Jana’s brow creased. “I don’t know. The founders like to hire young people.”
Ouch. She was barely forty. Still, River felt relieved, and a better idea came to mind. Agent Jamie Dallas. Young, talented, and quick at gaining access. River had worked with her before to stop an eco-terrorist. Now she just had to convince the local bureau to work with her and Dallas in handling the investigation. She would start by calling the Phoenix director.
Monday July 7, 3:07 p.m., Phoenix
For a minute, the air conditioning in the Phoenix FBI office felt fabulous, cooling her skin after the short but unbearably hot walk from the parking lot. But as she trotted upstairs, Dallas pulled on her business jacket to keep the refrigeration at bay. She entered Gossimer’s office on the third floor and promptly sneezed. Damn. She’d been too late with the jacket. When her skin cooled rapidly, she started sneezing. Stopping the outburst was nearly impossible.
She sat down and sneezed again.
“How many more you got?” Gossimer asked. “Should you come back later?” He was old enough to be her father but still attractive. She’d come to like short gray hair on men, after being surrounded by it in the bureau for years.
“I’m fine.” Dallas pinched the cartilage between her nostrils. Sometimes it helped. Her record was twenty-six sneezes, and it had happened right here in this building just a few months on the job. She’d grown up in Flagstaff, and after her training at Quantico, she’d requested a position in Arizona to be close to her aunt and her best friend. Because no other agent in their right mind wanted to live in Phoenix, she’d landed her first-choice location. Every July and August, she regretted that decision. “What have you got for me?”
“Special Agent Joe Palmer of the San Diego bureau died earlier this week. He’d been sick for a few days, then went into septic shock in the ER. He had a nasty sore on his hand and his blood count indicates an infection, but the autopsy was inconclusive.” Gossimer’s eyes were troubled. “But that won’t be your focus.”
Curiosity was killing her, but Dallas nodded and waited, holding back a sneeze.
“Palmer’s wife, Jana, works for TecLife, a medical device business. She thinks the company is engaged in corporate sabotage against its competitors. She asked her husband to look into it, and two weeks later he was dead.”
Dallas’ pulse quickened. She finally had a glimmer of her role in the case. “Did he have an open file?”
“No. Palmer was looking into it on his own and only had some personal notes.”
“The bureau wants me to get inside the company and see what I can find.”
“Jana Palmer works in HR and can get you an interview.”
Yes! Dallas lived for undercover work. Yet this one made her nervous. “I don’t have enough science or tech background to pose as a researcher, so it would have to be an administrative job.”
Gossimer smiled. “They have an opening right now for an assistant to the president. I take it you’re interested in the assignment?”
“Of course. If someone in the company killed one of our agents, I want to help get the bastard.” As soon as she said it, she realized what it meant.
Her boss raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure? If they murdered one agent, they might try to kill another.”
She swallowed a lump in her throat. “I’ll be careful. They won’t suspect someone from the inside.” Dallas wondered what Palmer had done to flag their attention.
“On the upside, none of this is a given. The wife could be wrong about the company, and Agent Palmer could have died of an infected spider bite.”
“What makes her think TecLife is conducting corporate sabotage?” The bureau wouldn’t send her out to San Diego unless they had something solid.
“One of their competitors had a warehouse fire, in which a guard died, around the same time Mrs. Palmer overheard the executives talking about the competitor’s product. A month later, another device company had to recall its new product, some kind of skin patch that monitors blood pressure.” Gossimer scowled and handed her a file. “These are medical devices, and tampering with them endangers lives. Which is why we’re taking the allegation so seriously.”
“Who’s my contact in the San Diego office?”
“It’s a little complicated. Carla River, from the Eugene office, knew Palmer years ago when she lived in San Diego. She came down for his funeral and asked to investigate. She also requested you for the undercover assignment.”
Dallas’ apprehension eased. She’d worked with River in Oregon and liked her style. “Why is it complicated?”
“Politics.” Gossimer gave a small shrug. “Agent River is the one who talked to the wife, heard her concerns, and located Palmer’s notes, so she will be your contact. But the SD director appointed someone to head the investigation into Palmer’s death.”
“So they’re treating them like separate cases?”
Her boss offered a phony smile. “Yes, but they kept Palmer’s investigation in the white collar unit, and they’ll share information.”
“Good to know.” She hoped the politics wouldn’t undermine her role in the case. Undercover work required a 24-7 support team. “When do I leave?”
“As soon as you can. I’ll get the UC people started on your new ID and background right away.”
Who did she want to be this time? It would be her first undercover role that required her to show up for work. “If I’m going to interact with people in an office, I should stick with something familiar. What about J.C., the initials, for a first name?”
“What goes on the driver’s license? The motor vehicles people don’t like initials.”
“Why not Jamie? Jamie Hunter. No one is going to see my license.” She’d had a dog named Hunter, a black lab, when she was a kid. Her father had run over him in a drug-induced rage. But what she liked best about the name for this assignment was its obviousness. She’d already used the FBI acronym as her initials, as well as SOB. “I’ll introduce myself as J.C. or Jace.” In the bureau, everyone called her Dallas, and she preferred it. “What about my background?”
“It’s probably not as important this time, but let’s brainstorm anyway.”
Her last UC assignment had required her to infiltrate a group of survivalists, and the background had been critical to getting accepted. “What do we know about TecLife’s founders?”
“Max Grissom and Cheryl Decker both went to Stanford, so we’ll add that to your résumé.” Gossimer glanced at his notes. “They both also worked for other medical technology companies, which are now their competitors.”
“I need a history in the industry, but one they can’t check out too thoroughly. Maybe a tech company that’s gone out of business.” Dallas tried to recall headlines from the business section of the Times, but she typically focused on computer and digital technology, as well as financial news.
“We’ll have our background people work on it.” Gossimer gave her a sly smile. “We have some new toys and tactics you might get to try out.”
Another shimmer of pleasure. “Like what?”
“Dime-sized tracking devices that slide into purses or pockets and the ability to activate webcams on computers without the users’ knowledge.”
Dallas resisted the urge to rub her hands together. Damn, she loved spying. “I assume I’m targeting both founders. Anyone else in the company worth checking out?”
“Curtis Santera, the head of R&D, owns fifteen percent of the company’s stock, so he has a lot to lose if TecLife goes under.”
Pumped and ready, Dallas couldn’t sit any longer. “I need to start packing and prepping.”
“We’ll have your new paperwork by noon tomorrow, so you can get to the DMV and buy a plane ticket. Once you hit San Diego, you can trade in your new driver’s license for a local issue.”
“Where will I stay?” Dallas grabbed her tablet computer from the desk, realizing she’d been too excited to take notes.
“Agent River is working on that. She knows the area and will call you tomorrow.”
Dallas would have more questions later, but right now she had to move. “I’ll be in touch.”
“Good luck. Keep me posted.”
She hurried out, eager to transform into J.C Hunter. Slipping into the skin of another person made her neurons sing. It wasn’t the same heart-thumping thrill as skydiving, but the challenge—and delicious deception—lasted for weeks or months. The high was far better than any drug or short-term adventure. She’d discovered the thrill as a teenager, after taking acting lessons and practicing characters on strangers.
The classes had been just one of the many activities her sweet Aunt Lynn had enrolled her in to keep Dallas from thinking about, or copying, her drug-snorting, good-for-nothing parents. All of those endeavors—archery, tennis, piano lessons, language classes—served her well now and helped her fit in almost anywhere. But it was the acting skills that made her an excellent infiltrator.
She practically skipped out of the building, feeling lucky to have a job she loved. Undercover work was a license to lie, cheat, and spy—all for the good of her country.