Authors: Carsen Taite
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery, #Crime, #Lgbt, #Romance, #Thriller
Ellery got it. When you offered a service, you had to sell yourself first. It had been the same with her law practice. Lots of glad-handing, sucking up to people with money and power in hopes they’d send their business your way. Now, her work sold itself in the furniture she restored. People looked at the pieces she’s transformed and they liked it or they didn’t. They could afford it or they couldn’t. Either way, whether she made money or not wasn’t personal, it was pure economics. But still, this hadn’t been at all what she’d expected when April had suggested they go out tonight.
She wasn’t sure if she even cared. April was clearly still immersed in this world where money and appearance were paramount, but Ellery wasn’t interested in being dragged back into her old life. She glanced across the room. April was surrounded by a circle of her sorority sisters and, judging from the raised drinks and loud laughter, they were having the time of their lives. She didn’t begrudge them their fun, but she did want to kick herself for not staying home. Now that she was stuck here, she may as well get a drink and settle in since it didn’t look as if April was going to be ready to leave anytime soon.
The bar was crowded, but luckily, she’d picked the fast line. When she finally reached the front, she ordered a beer and got a grateful smile from the bartender who’d been asked to pour all manner of complicated concoctions by the women who’d ordered before her. She declined a glass, left a generous tip, and started to walk back to her corner of the room when she heard a familiar voice call her name.
She turned and saw Danny Soto standing at the bar holding a beer bottle and a martini. She smiled and Danny walked toward her. “Hey, it’s nice to see a friendly face.”
“Tell me about it. I’ve been to a bunch of these things, but I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like I fit in. I don’t recall ever seeing you at one of these. Were you an Alpha Nu?”
“Nope. My dad would’ve had my hide if I did anything in college that distracted from studying. What are you doing here?”
“My wife, Ellen, is the executive director for the national office. I’m here in my capacity as supportive spouse. She’s so busy, I probably won’t see her until the end of the night.”
Ellery pointed at the two drinks in Danny’s hands. “I guess your role requires extra fortification.”
Danny laughed. “Actually, one of these is for a friend. You remember Sarah Flores? She was in my office the other day when you came by.”
Ellery started to reply, but she was interrupted by a voice from behind her.
“Are you going to stand there and talk about me or deliver my drink?”
Ellery turned and sucked in a breath. She’d never expected to see the aggravating woman she’d met earlier in the week at Danny’s office again, but here she was, looking like she’d stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine. This Sarah Flores looked nothing like any federal agent she’d ever met before. She finally realized she was staring and stuck out her hand. “Nice to see you again. Don’t let me keep you from your drink delivery.”
Sarah’s smile flashed bright. “Nothing will accomplish that. And don’t go.” She took the drink Danny held out to her. “Stay and hang out with us. Please.” She accented her words by tilting her drink as if to toast.
Ellery took longer than necessary to consider the simple request. Her first impression had been so clouded by Sarah’s forceful cop attitude that she hadn’t let the full depth of her stunning beauty seep in. This woman was every bit as captivating as she was aggravating, and Ellery was held in place by the magnetic pull of inexplicable attraction. She clicked her bottle against Sarah’s glass. “I can stay for a bit. Are you here just to keep Danny company or to support one of the candidates?”
Sarah leaned close. “I don’t know any of these people. I heard there would be an open bar and lots of beautiful women. I wasn’t wrong, apparently.”
“Cool it, Special Agent Hotshot,” Danny said. “Ellery, I must apologize for my friend here. She’s a bit of a cad.”
“I am not. I just believe in taking life by the horns. Enjoying every moment. Even when I find myself at a stuffy event, I’m bound and determined to have a little fun. Besides, I was paying a compliment. Nothing wrong with that, is there?”
The candor Ellery had found annoying at the courthouse was refreshing in this venue full of people posing in order to garner votes. What harm could come from engaging in a little light banter? She raised her bottle. “Thanks for the compliment. Special Agent, huh? Is that a nickname or do you have a badge to back that up?”
“Oh, I have a badge, a gun, the whole thing. Would you like to see it?”
Danny cleared her throat. “Okay, that’s my cue to find Ellen and see if she needs anything. You two have fun. Sarah, if you’re going to leave without me, at least have the courtesy to send me a text.”
As Danny walked away, Ellery took a long pull on her beer and tried to remember that she too was here with a date. Sarah’s flirting was fun in the abstract, but she had no business flirting back when she planned to leave with April at the end of the evening. Time to strike a more serious tone. “Seriously, what agency are you with?”
Sarah looked around, like she was searching for an exit, and Ellery was instantly sorry she’d asked the question. She started to change the subject, but Sarah replied, “FBI. I just transferred from D.C.”
“No wonder we’ve never crossed paths. What division?”
“Fraud. Nothing flashy.”
“Do I detect a slight bit of regret?”
“No, it’s just been a big adjustment for me. I mean the move. Different place, people. You know.”
Ellery sensed there was more to this adjustment than Sarah was letting on, but she didn’t push. “How do you know Danny?”
“Uh, I met her through work. You know, all paths lead to the same place kind of thing.”
Again with the evasiveness. A local assistant district attorney and an FBI agent stationed in the nation’s capital weren’t likely to just run into each other at work. There was something about their connection that Sarah wasn’t willing to share, which made Ellery instantly curious.
It’s none of your business.
Before she could process her thoughts, Sarah changed the subject.
“So, Danny says you used to practice law, but now you’re doing something else?”
“I restore and repurpose furniture.”
“That’s a bit of a change.”
“Sometimes you need a change to make you feel alive. You know what I mean?”
Sarah didn’t answer right away, but Ellery could tell by the light in her eyes, the idea resonated. Finding comfort in the warmth reflected back at her, she stared a bit too long into Sarah’s eyes. She was still staring when she heard a voice over her shoulder and the feel of an arm around her waist.
“Ellery, dear, I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” April’s voice held a low, possessive growl. “Jana Kaplan would like to meet you. She’s running for city council and she has some great ideas about small business development that I told her you would love to hear.”
Ellery glanced at April and then back at Sarah who didn’t appear to have broken her stare. She cast about for some way to keep the connection. “April Landing, meet Sarah Flores.”
April reached out a hand. “A pleasure to meet you. Any chance you’re related to Angel Flores, the city councilman?”
Ellery shook her head at April’s inability to turn off the networking gene.
“Not that I know of,” Sarah said, a hint of mischief in her eyes. “Is he one of the honest ones?”
“She’s new in town,” Ellery said, offering April a fake smile. Ellery knew April well enough to know she was conducting an internal calculation of how nice she had to be to the new girl based on how valuable she might be to her in the future. FBI agent might hold a lot of credibility for some people, but for April, a politician or business mogul was much more interesting. Time to steer April away before she could grill Sarah some more. “You said Jana was waiting.”
“Yes, she’s over by the bar. Come on and I’ll introduce you.”
April’s smile was real now and Ellery supposed she should be glad. Smiling April was actually very beautiful and, if you could get past her constant need to be in the spotlight, she was a fun and interesting date. But she wasn’t glad because walking off with April meant she was walking away from Sarah. She met Sarah’s eyes and raised her shoulders in a gesture of defeat. Did she imagine she saw regret reflected back?
She started to tell April to go on and she’d be right there just so she could have one more moment of this magnetic connection, but at that moment, the floor shook and a loud boom echoed through the room. At first she chalked it up to one of the many small earthquakes that had been shaking the ground around Dallas in the previous months, but as people began to line the windows, pointing and shouting, she had a chilling sense of doom. Seconds later, a loud ring cut through the cries of the crowd, and she saw Sarah pull out her cell phone and glance at the screen. Sarah’s entire demeanor morphed from flirting partygoer to duty bound cop. Her eyes took on a steely glint and her jaw was set.
Ignoring April’s tug on her arm, Ellery asked Sarah, “Is everything okay?”
Sarah looked up, a far away expression in her eyes, as if she’d forgotten Ellery or anyone else was in the room. “I’m sorry. I have to go.” She’d only taken a few steps before a voice cried out.
“Someone’s bombed the arena!”
Sarah watched as more of the crowd ran toward the windows in response to the shout about a bomb. She gripped her phone tighter as if she could squeeze the bad news out of it. She read the three-line text twice to make sure she wasn’t hallucinating.
NTAS ALERT. Explosion at high value target. Report in immediately.
Holy shit. The very first National Terrorism Advisory System alert and it was in her backyard. No need to look out the window to know what happened. She started toward the doors, but Ellery’s voice cut through the dark cloud of her thoughts. She started to answer, but she was interrupted by more shouts.
“Was it a bomb?” “Look, it’s burning like crazy!” “It’s on Channel 4, right now.” She couldn’t tell who was doing the shouting, certainly more than one person. With no televisions in the room, everyone started whipping out their cell phones and calling out whatever facts poured in from Twitter, Breaking News, and Facebook. She grabbed Ellery’s arm and pulled her close. “Find an exit and wait there. Stay inside. Find a TV if you can—it’s your best bet for getting news, cell service might get sketchy real quick.”
“What’s going on?”
Sarah shook her head. “I don’t know, but it’s bad. Do whatever you can to keep folks calm.” She looked down at her hand that was still on Ellery’s arm. Ellery who was here with a date. For all she knew, this might be the first day of the end of the world. Deciding she didn’t give a damn about Ellery’s date, she leaned in close, so close her lips grazed Ellery’s ear, and whispered, “Sometimes you do need a change to make you feel more alive. Let’s hope we all get a chance to find out what makes us happy.”
She didn’t wait for a reaction before she took off. She made it as far as the door of the bar when she heard a voice calling her name. Danny. She waved for Danny to follow her, pausing only when they were out of the room.
“What is it?” Danny asked.
“Don’t know, but I just received an NTAS alert with a report right fucking now text.”
“So where do you report?”
“Good question. I’m a hellavu lot closer to the arena than I am to the field office. I’m headed there now and I’ll figure out the rest on the way.”
“I’m going with you.”
“Slow down, pal. You should stay put. Your wife’s in there and someone needs to make sure everyone stays calm.”
“TV says there’s a lot of casualties.”
“It’s probably too soon for them to know that. Besides, I wasn’t aware prosecutors were on the list of first responders. Seriously, Danny, staying here and keeping people calm is as important as anything else you could do.”
“You feds, always hogging the glory.”
“Yep, that’s us.” Sarah knew Danny was kidding, but she also knew Danny realized the potential severity of the situation. “I’ll do better if I know my friends are safe. Go find your wife. Okay?”
Danny nodded. “Promise me you’ll check in when you can.”
“Deal.” Sarah didn’t risk another look at her face before hauling ass out of the room, cursing the shoes she’d coveted in the store. She didn’t bother with the elevators, instead locating the nearest stairwell, removing her heels, and jumping the steps three at a time as she practically slid down the banister. When she reached the ground floor, she spotted a group of security guards near the door, working hard to keep guests from flooding out into the street. She looked at her phone and, as she had suspected, she no longer had any signal. She strode up the nearest guard and flashed her badge. “Special Agent Sarah Flores, FBI. You have a radio?”
The guy glanced at his buddies and then reluctantly handed it over. As she ran through the frequencies, he asked, “What can you tell us?”
What she wouldn’t give to have an answer to that question, but rather than admit she was just as clueless as every civilian clamoring at the doors, she merely shook her head. Finally, she found the local police band and listened for a moment before chiming in with her name and location as she started walking toward the site of the explosion, ignoring the protests of the security guard who wanted his equipment back. It could be the end of the world for all he knew, but he was squealing like a baby over a walkie-talkie.
As she got closer to the arena, the smoke and dust hung in the air, making it difficult to assess the location and extent of damage. She heard shouting and she could see the distant red and blue lights of emergency vehicles approaching. She pushed through until she saw a group of Dallas police officers standing by the fountains in front of the arena in a semblance of organization. They’d strung yellow tape between two traffic cones in a makeshift perimeter. She jogged over, but the officer standing closest to her stepped closer as if trying to keep her at a distance.
“Ma’am, we need you to stand back while we assess the damage.”