“Get out of the road!” someone screamed as they blared their horn at me.
“Get out of the crosswalk!” I snapped back. I had the right of way, and I was in no mood to deal with entitled, vehicle-equipped bullies trying to turn right on red.
He honked again, so I opened my jacket and flashed my badge. It was hard to see him through the tinted windows of his sporty little car, but I was pretty sure I’d made my point. I wasn’t one of those people who liked to throw my position around so I could flaunt the rules, but there were times when being an FBI agent had its perks.
But those perks wouldn’t stick around for long if I ended up late for work. Picking up my pace, I pulled my collar tighter around my neck with one hand, my other juggling two cups of coffee. The October wind was just beginning to gain a biting edge, and I was predicting the city would get snow before Thanksgiving.
If someone would’ve told me my lifelong dream to become an FBI agent would involve circus-level aptitude for balancing multiple items in one hand rather than tracking down bad guys, I wouldn’t have believed them. But after a couple of months in the white-collar division, the reality of bureau life had taught me that for every exciting moment in my job, there would be a hundred dull ones.
Still, I didn’t regret my decision to pursue a career with the section of the FBI that specialized in the sort of crime that had ruined too many lives, including my own.
I strode through the main doors of our office, using my foot to force the entryway open. As soon as I did, I saw my boss, Colman Gau, standing just on the other side. I cringed, but he stepped out of the way of the violently swinging door with an agility that his build hid. He was a relatively solid guy, about five-eleven with broad shoulders and muscle that was still solid despite the fact that he was closer to fifty than forty.
“Careful there, Melendez. I wouldn’t want to have to explain that injury to HR.”
I managed a contrite expression, although I half-wished the wooden slab had bashed into him. Something about him just rubbed me the wrong way. “Sorry, sir, won’t happen again.”
He smirked, the corners of his dark blue eyes crinkling. “Good to know. And I see you’ve got some talented hands there. Quite a lot going on at once.”
It took everything in me not to roll my eyes. I wasn’t sure whether my boss thought he was charming, but he usually strayed too close to the border of inappropriate for me to be amused at his cheesy passes. “If you think this is impressive, you should see how quickly I can drop a man with a single shot.”
I hurried away before he could make an excuse to extend our conversation. Most men shorter than me – and at six feet without heels, there were a lot of them – were too intimidated to hit on me, so I’d been spared a number of the problems I knew most female recruits were subject to. Unfortunately, Agent Gau didn’t seem to be one of them.
I kicked open another pair of doors much more carefully this time and walked into a large room filled with about ten different desks. Mine was all the way in the opposite corner of the room, where the stagnant air liked to hang out. I navigated the minefield of coworkers, binders sticking off of desk corners, and rolling chairs before I finally set down the drinks on my designated workstation.
“Please tell me that’s hot coffee.” A voice came from behind me.
I turned to see my partner and mentor. “Eh, lukewarm coffee is probably more like it now.”
“Uh, I don’t care. Gimme, gimme!”
I handed the woman a cup, giving her a once over. She certainly looked a little more worn around the edges than she usually did. She usually kept her short, onyx-colored hair impeccably coiffed, but today she was definitely a victim of some pretty prolific bed-head. Her tanned skin was missing its usual glow, and her sharp, yellow-green eyes had some pretty dark bags under them. She was a striking woman with unique coloring, but at the moment, she just looked washed out.
“Late night?” I asked. “Crime ring, cute guy, or both?”
She sighed and sank into her chair in the desk right across from my own. Despite the fact that she was more than half a foot shorter than me, she had the sort of presence that made her seem larger-than-life. “I wish it was something so fun, but…I might have gotten behind on paperwork.”
I groaned. “Again?”
“Don’t use that tone.” She gave me a stern look that I was pretty sure she used on her kids. “And yes, again.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. When I’d first joined the white-collar division and was assigned to Benita Alverez, the woman had been so overwhelmed with backlogged paperwork that she’d been stuck on desk duty until she caught up. I had been so excited to finally be an agent that I’d offered to help her as much as possible. What had followed was two solid weeks of copying, scanning, filing, and organizing over twenty case reports, seventeen arrest records, ten case follow ups, six refresher courses, and four training proposals. It had been a great crash course on the more clerical side of law enforcement, but I wasn’t eager to repeat that again. Especially since I’d made sure to keep up with my own side of the work ever since.
“I don’t suppose you would mind lending a hand again?” my mentor asked, eyeing me over the lid of her coffee.
“You know, when I decided I wanted to join the FBI to make sure no other family had to go through what I did, this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”
She rolled her eyes. “Are you really going to play the shitty childhood card?”
I grinned at her. From anyone else I would’ve been pissed at the assessment, but my mentor and I were at that comfortable place where we could hassle each other. She’d done her research on me the moment she learned I’d be her partner, so before we’d even met, she’d known my history. She knew about my father and the crook who’d stolen all his money. My mother’s disappearing act. Worse of all, she knew about the suicide that had sent me to live with my aunt when I was only fifteen.
Like she said. Shitty childhood.
Rather than tiptoeing around it like some people might, she’d treated it as just a series of facts about me, like how I’d gone to NYU for a degree in criminal justice or the fact that I spoke both Russian and Spanish. I liked that she didn’t treat me like I was breakable or a charity case. I’d never liked being pitied.
“Fine.” I sighed. “You order the take-out every night, and I guess I can lend a hand.” I crossed my legs and ran my fingers through my still-slightly damp curls. They were a dark, rich brown that on days like today almost looked black. As I slipped off my jacket, I continued, “It’s not like I have anyone waiting for me at home like you do.”
She actually had several people waiting at home for her. Three kids and a husband of eighteen years. I glanced at the picture of her family that sat on her desk. I never really spent any time with kids, but hers were adorable.
“Is that a tone of regret? Karis Melendez, are you trying to tell me that you’re actually craving human companionship?” Benita finished gulping down her drink and tossed the cup towards the corner garbage can. She missed, of course. “Who are you and what have you done with the brooding loner I trained?”
“Very funny,” I replied as I turned toward my computer.
I couldn’t deny that she had a point. I was a quintessential workaholic. I didn’t need a boyfriend, pet, or group of friends who wanted to hang out every weekend. I needed food, water, a generous supply of caffeine, and my sparse but comfortable apartment.
“Uh-oh, here comes El Jefe. Try to make yourself look unattractive.”
I let out a long sigh and grabbed a notepad, trying to look like I was extraordinarily busy. Of course, being occupied wasn’t enough to appease Colman unless I was occupied with him.
“Hello, ladies,” he said jovially as he sat on the edge of my desk.
I managed not to scowl as I looked up.
“I got those reports this morning, Benita. Good hustle last night.”
“You know me,” she said, her face blank. “I just love pretending to be your favorite secretary. Shall I go fetch a pencil skirt?”
Somehow he missed the bite to her voice, but I bit my bottom lip.
“I wish those kinds of dress codes were still in effect,” Colman said wistfully. “Those were the times.” Of course, his gaze drifted to me. “I’m sure you’d look amazing in one of those retro secretary outfits from way back when.”
“Way back when my job would’ve been getting coffee and lunch orders rather than finding criminals, right?”
My comment went right by him as well. “Did either of you hear about that accidental homicide-suicide on the news this morning?”
I stiffened. “No.”
“Yeah, this father and his teenage son were making a haunted house, setting up some props, all that jazz. Dad went inside to use the restroom, and when he came out, his son had apparently tried to scare him by pretend hanging from the fake noose they set up. Turned out to be less fake and more an actual death trap. Dad cuts him down, and paramedics can’t save ’em. After making a statement, dad goes home and leaves his truck on while locking himself in the garage.” He took a sip of his office-brewed coffee. “Crazy, isn’t it?”
“Hey, you know who would really like that story?” Benita asked, probably a bit more tersely than she should have. “Gavin over in the evidence locker.”
He gave us both puzzled looks. “Is something wrong?”
I realized that my expression was somewhere between a grimace and a scowl. I didn’t want to talk about this with him. “It’s nothing.”
“Ooh, right. Your dad offed himself. Didn’t he?”
My temper flared. “Yeah, after his wife left him for an investment banker. Kinda like how yours left, except…that was a football player, and she actually took your kid with her, right?”
His smarmy, obnoxious look faded into what I could best describe as a grown man-pout. “I guess it’s someone’s time of the month. I’ll see you ladies later.”
As soon as he was out of ear-shot, Benita let out a gasping laugh. She shook her head. “My god, Melendez, you try to seem so stoic, but there’s a real sarcastic asshole buried under all that professionalism of yours, isn’t there?”
“I can take his caveman shit, but there’s only so far I can go.”
“Good for you.” She reached under her desk and pulled out a large box crammed with papers. “Shall we get started?”
I looked from her to the unholy mess, then pushed up my shirt sleeves. “You’re lucky I never turn down free food.”
“Don’t I know it. Chinese tonight?”
“Nah, I’m feeling pizza. Pepperoni and extra cheese.”
“Melendez, you help me finish this all tonight, and I’ll get you as many pizzas as you can eat.”
I gave her a sideways look. “You have seen me eat before, right? You could go broke.”
“There’s a lot of work here,” she countered.
“Good point.” I reached for the first file. It was going to be a long day.