“Drop the gun!” Caitlyn Tierney shouted to the FBI agent.
The agent hesitated, chin bobbing as she tried to decide the correct move to make. Tough choice since Caitlyn held the agent’s male partner against her chest as a shield. She’d grabbed his weapon and now used his greater height as an advantage. The only portion of Caitlyn’s five-six frame visible to the female agent was Caitlyn’s hand holding the male agent’s own weapon to his head.
The female agent held her weapon steady, aiming at her partner and Caitlyn behind him. Fat lot of good that was going to do her, but it was standard procedure.
Caitlyn braced herself against the larger agent. He smelled minty fresh, as if he’d chewed gum or used mouthwash before following his partner into this squalid dump of an apartment. Sweat trickled down from his hairline, beading at the back of his collar. His hair had been freshly trimmed; his skin still held tiny nicks from the razor.
She glanced around. He was her only cover. The rest of the apartment was bare of furniture except for a sagging tweed couch shoved against the far wall and a coffee table made of cheap two-by-fours. Back to the wall, Caitlyn’s only exit was the door to the right of the female agent across from her.
“Let’s talk about this.” The female agent’s voice quavered, but her aim didn’t falter. “Let him go and we’ll talk.”
“Shut up or I shoot him!” Caitlyn responded, effectively removing the agent’s best weapon: her command authority. Hard to negotiate or intimidate when you can’t speak. “Drop your gun. Now!”
Make a choice, make a choice, Caitlyn thought. The overhead ceiling fan swooshed, barely stirring the air with its listless movements. The place stank of mold and sweat, of windows that didn’t open, shag carpet decades out of date, and too many years of too many people making too many bad decisions. The FBI agent was just one more, standing in the weak light of a naked sixty-watt bulb, her mind stuttering through a minefield of options.
Don’t make me do it. Choose. Just choose.
The agent didn’t choose. Her aim faltered, dropped down, then raised halfway up in indecision.
Caitlyn shot her in the forehead, followed by a double tap to the chest.
Then Caitlyn touched the muzzle of her weapon to the male agent’s temple. “Bang. You’re dead.”
* * *
“Tierney!” The scenario leader yelled her name from his observation post. “What the hell you doing?”
Trying to teach them how to stay alive in the real world, Caitlyn thought. She’d been where these New Agents in Training were: forced to choose between following procedure and taking a chance on her instincts.
Six months ago when she’d had a gun to her head and another pointed at her partner, Caitlyn surrendered her weapon. If she hadn’t, she’d be dead—and so would five hundred innocent civilians. But she’d done it consciously, knowing her Glock wasn’t her only weapon. That it wasn’t even her best weapon.
These NATs needed to learn to think like that. It might save their lives someday.
The scenario leader, Mike LaSovage, one of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team members, clomped over to her, aiming his clipboard as if it were a weapon. “Supervisory Special Agent Tierney, a word, please.”
Caitlyn removed her helmet and rubbed her right temple, lifting her short red hair, matted by the training gear, away from the itchy scar. She glanced at the female NAT she’d shot. The woman trembled. Her hand touched her face shield, coming away with neon green paint on her fingers—the color of Caitlyn’s Simunition.
“She needed to make a decision,” Caitlyn muttered, wiping her own sweaty palms against her black cargo pants. Simulation or not, the scenario hit close to home, awakening memories as well as a surge of adrenaline.
“The purpose of this exercise is to allow agents in training a chance to follow proper arrest procedure, not to throw them into a hostage negotiation.” LaSovage turned so his back was to the NATs. Didn’t want them to see Mommy and Daddy fighting. The Bureau was above that. Follow the bible—a four-inch binder crammed full of rules, regulations, and standard operating procedures—and you’d go home at night, was the catechism the kids were meant to learn from these exercises.
Despite the fact that a few were close to Caitlyn’s age, they were just kids. No idea what the real world held for them. Decisions made in a heartbeat, bullets fired that could never be unfired, good people lost because of your actions—or inaction.
“You saw the way they entered,” Caitlyn argued, feeling older than her thirty-five years as she spied the crushed expressions on the NATs’ faces. Nine years carrying a loaded weapon, almost dying twice, killing a man in close-quarters combat, watching a good man sacrifice his life to save hers: Permanent scars crisscrossed her body and her soul. She couldn’t remember ever being as young as these new agents. “He was more concerned about following her lead than the threat I posed. Totally opened his weapon side to me. How could I resist? No real suspect would have.”
LaSovage looked over his shoulder to where the two dead agents huddled together commiserating and, hopefully, dissecting their mistakes. “It was a sloppy entrance. But this is their first exercise outside of FATS video training. First real-life scenario. You didn’t need to push it that far.”
“I’ll bet they don’t make the same mistakes next time.”
He grimaced in agreement. “Maybe. But let’s play the rest of these by the book, okay?”
Caitlyn had never done “by the book” well. Used to be she could fake her way through it, pretend her actions were guided by rules and regulations, but after returning from an extended medical leave for emergency brain surgery that saved her life, she’d given up the pretense. Which was why the powers-that-be had left her in limbo, on temporary assignment here at Quantico.
“You doing okay?” LaSovage asked, trying not to stare at her hair, still not fully grown back after her operation. “Can’t be easy after—”
“I’m fine.” How many times a day did she have to tell people that? Or pretend she didn’t notice their stares as she walked through the halls at the academy.
Six months ago she’d have embraced the idea of continuing on as a permanent instructor—she enjoyed teaching and loved challenging her students. But to be stranded here as temporary duty, merely so she could remain under the scrutiny of the bosses without becoming a PR risk? Suddenly her office in Jefferson Hall felt as cramped as a prison cell.
Her last case had earned her an unofficial reprimand from the Office of Professional Responsibility and an official, but grudgingly given, commendation for uncovering corruption in the FBI’s higher ranks, the U.S. Marshal Service, and even the sacrosanct FBI National Laboratory.
The brass would have preferred if she’d taken their offer of a medical pension and left the Bureau quietly, but no way was she going to let them bully her into quitting. Given that she knew of several embarrassing skeletons hidden in the FBI’s closet, they couldn’t fire her, not without risking another blot on the Bureau’s public image.
Which left Caitlyn and her career in limbo.
“You sure?” LaSovage persisted. “We could grab a beer or something after we’re done here. If you want to talk.”
His glance dropped to the top part of the scar that ran vertically up her chest, visible above her tactical vest. The rest of the scar formed a letter K with the crossbars slashing above and below her left breast. If it weren’t for her fair skin the scars would have been less noticeable, but after six months they were still reddish and she’d given up trying to hide beneath turtlenecks. Just like her attitude, they were now part of her, take it or leave it.
His concern seemed more genuine than the morbid curiosity most of her colleagues had exhibited. Interesting since, although LaSovage was a four-year veteran of the Hostage Rescue Team, the FBI’s vaunted equivalent to an elite SWAT unit, he’d never actually had to kill anyone.
During the course of their careers it was rare for FBI agents to draw their weapons outside the range. Which made Caitlyn, so young, yet already almost dying a violent death twice and killing a man up close and personal, a distinct anomaly. She heard the whispers: Was she reckless? Stupid? Or just plain unlucky?
She wished she had an answer. “Thanks, but I need to be somewhere tonight,” she told LaSovage. “Maybe next time.”
He nodded, gave her an uncertain smile as if wondering if she was trying to protect him or herself, then turned to usher the next group into position.
They finished out the remaining training for the day, and she returned to her office in Jefferson Hall to grab her laptop and car keys. She was surprised when the female agent in training from the earlier scenario appeared at her doorway, now wearing clean regulation khakis and a blue polo shirt.
“What would you have done?” the NAT blurted out, ignoring the strict protocol that usually guided NATs’ interactions with their instructors. Belatedly she added, “Ma’am.”
“What’s your name?” Caitlyn took the seat behind her desk, but left the NAT standing at attention. This group was new, hadn’t taken any of her classes yet, so she didn’t know them personally; she’d merely been playing a bad guy in today’s scenarios to help with evaluations.
“Garman, ma’am. Mary Agnes Garman.”
Mary Agnes? Sounded like a nun’s name. She was only a year or two younger than Caitlyn, in good shape but not as fit as the recruits coming from the military or law enforcement, with an hourglass figure that did not fit her name. Although who knew what nuns looked like under those habits?
Caitlyn filled her mind with an image of a mother superior holding a compass—a mnemonic technique she’d cultivated after her brain trauma made remembering things like names a struggle. Not that she’d ever share that secret with anyone.
“What did you see as your options, Garman?”
Mary Agnes hesitated, not in indecision as she had earlier, but in thought. “You didn’t give me any.”
“Exactly. What’s wrong with that statement?”
Her rigid posture sagged. Caitlyn nodded to the chair across from her, and Mary Agnes slumped into it. “I gave you the power. But—” She scowled in thought, her gaze drifting past Caitlyn to the window, already dark with the early-January sunset. “But I still had no options.”
“Tunnel vision. The adrenaline makes you focus on what’s in front of you, the direct threat. It does that to your mind as well. But there are always possibilities. Don’t ever forget that.”
“I could have lowered my weapon, but regulations—”
“Do the bad guys play by the rules?”
“In here”—Caitlyn gestured to the cement-block walls surrounding them—“you have to know the rules, live by them. And that’s not a bad thing. Nine times out of ten they’ll save your butt.”
“And the tenth time?”
“Look for options. You never considered any other options today. Instead you hesitated, couldn’t commit to a course.”
“I froze. I got my partner killed.” The remorse and fear in Mary Agnes’s voice was real. Good. Better she learn the hard lessons now before the gun pointed at her shot something more lethal than a paintball.
“You did. Next time you won’t.”
“What would you have done?”
“You still controlled the exit.”
“It was too far away.”
Caitlyn shook her head. “No. It was only three steps to your right. Adrenaline. It distorts everything. Good thing is, the bad guys are affected as well, have the same limitations.”
“I could never abandon my partner.” Her voice made it sound like sacrilege, reinforcing the mother superior image in Caitlyn’s mind. As if what Caitlyn suggested was as bad as betraying a family member. Which, in a sense, it was. Unless you imagined past the knee-jerk blind obedience to ethics and codes of conduct.
“Yes. You could. Three steps and you would have been behind cover, able to observe, negotiate, call for backup, or shoot if the hostage taker took further action.”
“Further action. You mean kill my partner.”
Caitlyn stood. Stretched her arms wide. “Look at me, Garman. I’m all of five-six, can bench one thirty, maybe one fifty on a good day. What good would a six-foot, two-hundred-pound deadweight do me?”
“You wouldn’t have shot him?”
“Not unless he was no longer useful. And that would only happen if—” She arched an eyebrow, waiting for Mary Agnes to put the pieces together.
It took a moment, but the frown faded as the answers fell into place for the agent in training. “I blocked your escape. If I was out of the picture, dead, you could make a run for it. By standing there, I gave you more reason to kill us both.”
“Exactly. You were thinking about what you wanted, but you should have been focused on what the hostage taker wanted. Embrace the possibilities, decide how you can control the outcome.”
Mary Agnes took a deep breath, chin bobbing in agreement. She stood with renewed energy. “Thank you, Supervisory Special Agent Tierney. You gave me a lot to think about.”
Caitlyn smiled, remembered why she enjoyed teaching so much. “No problem, Garman. Have a good night.”
Mary Agnes headed back to the dormitory while Caitlyn took the steps down to the lobby, waved to the guard there, and jogged through the cold, her coat flapping open, to her Subaru Impreza WRX parked in front of Jefferson Hall. A thin coating of frost crackled across the Subaru’s windshield, but she didn’t waste time scraping it clear. She still had thirty-six miles to drive to Paul’s place in DC.
She took back roads, avoiding 95 and the constant snarl of traffic on the interstate. Usually she enjoyed the hour-long drive. It provided needed breathing space.
As extroverted as she was introverted, Paul often joked that if it weren’t for him, she’d be living the life of a hermit. She never let him know how close to the truth that was. She’d yet to invite him to her place in Manassas for a night, was more than willing to let him think it was because as a neuroradiologist he had to stay close to GW.
In reality, she simply didn’t do entertaining. Or strangers in her space. So much easier to make the drive, enjoy Paul’s company, and leave when she wanted. She liked the freedom, needed the control—another thing Paul teased her about.
Only lately he wasn’t teasing. He was hinting. Emptying a dresser drawer and shelf in the bathroom for her. Talking about how much her drive took away from the time they had together.
He was ready to settle down. With her. For the long term. And it scared the shit out of her. Caitlyn didn’t do relationships, never had. She did longer-than-average flings that ended in shouting matches, bruised egos, guys storming away, and her sighing in relief at another bullet dodged.
Paul didn’t shout. He wasn’t an alpha male, not like her usual guys, and his ego didn’t bruise. He cuddled. Comforted. And actually enjoyed it.
Worse, so did she. Being taken care of was a foreign experience to Caitlyn. Paul wrapping his arms around her, sharing his strength, putting her first—it was sweet and sexy and so very addictive. Another thing that scared her. Ever since she was nine and lost her dad, Caitlyn had lived her life and guarded her heart with one rule: Trust no one.
Paul had snuck past that barbed-wire rule and now she was at a loss how to handle things. Part of her wanted to embrace the life he offered: a normal, stable, caring, trusting relationship.
The child in her screamed to run, run, run before she exposed herself too much.
She’d loved every moment of their six months together. Paul had reminded her that there was more to life than just her work. After almost dying, she’d needed that, needed a little of what everyone else seemed to have: someone to come home to, a connection with the world outside the FBI.
Despite the fact that Paul had given her more than any other man she’d ever been with, she knew she didn’t have the feelings for him that she should have. It worried her. What was wrong with her that a normal relationship with a terrific guy terrified her more than facing an armed felon? Paul had saved her life six months ago when he diagnosed her brain aneurysm. If she couldn’t bring herself to trust him, would she ever be able to trust anyone?
Caitlyn hesitated before pulling into the underground garage at his building. She could call, make an excuse about the training going late, drive back to Manassas and the peaceful solitude of her apartment. He’d never know she was lying—she was pretty good at it. Her chest tightened. Mouth went dry. She didn’t want to lie. Not to Paul.
But she was afraid of what she might be facing when she went inside. Afraid of what she’d do when he forced her to make the choice. She didn’t want to lose him, wasn’t ready to return to her solitary ways.
Not a ring, please not a ring, she thought as she left the Impreza and waited for the elevator. Her cell rang and she grabbed it like a drowning woman lunging for a lifeline.
“Excuse me, Supervisory Special Agent, this is the operator at the Washington Field Office. I have an urgent call for you from the prison chaplain at Butner Federal Correctional Institution. Will you accept the call?”
The elevator came and she entered, hit the button for Paul’s floor. Who the hell did she have behind bars at Butner? Maybe one of the convictions from her time in Boston had turned and they moved him to the facility in North Carolina? After all, Bernie Madoff and Jonathan Pollard were doing time there, as well as a smattering of mobsters turned witnesses for the prosecution.
As always, her curiosity got the better of her. Not to mention an excuse to delay seeing Paul—the thought felt strange, as if she were betraying Paul, but it also gave her a weird sense of relief. Why did relationships have to be so damn confusing? Give her a felon to take down any day of the week. “Sure, put him through.”
“Caitlyn Tierney?” The man’s voice was unfamiliar. “I’m Pastor Vince Whitford, one of the chaplains at Butner.”
She left the elevator and stopped outside Paul’s door. No sense knocking if this was something that was going to take her back to work. “Yes. Why are you calling, Pastor?”
He cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable. “I’ve been counseling a prisoner here at Butner Medium who tried to kill himself a few days ago. Eli Hale.”
Hale, she’d never arrested anyone—oh, hell. She did know that name. Hadn’t heard it in twenty-six years. The image of a man, taller and broader than her father, as black as Sean Tierney was pale, his voice low and husky and shaking with laughter as he chased after his daughter and Caitlyn, playing the scary monster to their damsels in distress, a game that always ended with Caitlyn and Vonnie gathered under Eli’s massive arms, giggling as he twirled them around until they were dizzy with delight.
“Eli Hale?” It was her turn to clear her throat as childhood memories flooded through her. Vonnie, her best friend in the whole world—until they’d been yanked apart after Caitlyn’s dad was forced to arrest his own best friend, Eli Hale. For murder. “Is he okay?”
“He is now. The doctors are releasing him from the medical unit tomorrow, but I convinced him to agree to meet with you. I think you’re the only person who can help him.”
Anger and confusion twisted through her, tossing her childhood memories aside. Except the one that never left her: the image of her father lying dead, killed with his own gun, by his own hand. Unable to stand the guilt of seeing his best friend convicted of murder.
She swallowed bile. “I think you have the wrong person. There’s no reason on earth why I’d want to talk to Eli Hale. Or him to me.”
“Please, Agent Tierney. Don’t hang up. A girl’s life is at stake.”
Caitlyn’s fingers closed around the cell phone, almost but not quite touching the end-call icon. She wanted to hang up, to end this painful trip down memory lane. But … “What girl?”
“Eli’s youngest, Lena.”
Copyright © 2013 by CJ Lyons