Brian Foster didn’t look like a genius.
He sort of looked like what Zachary imagined an accountant should be, though. Small and lean, Foster stood several inches below Zachary’s six foot three on the other side of the rusting screen door. The unruly mop of brown hair crowning his head didn’t reach Zachary’s chin. Foster tipped up eyes the color of melted chocolate to focus a cool, assessing stare on Zachary. Those eyes — too pretty for a man — were magnified behind the lenses of wire-frame glasses.
The accountant’s wiry body, nerdy glasses, the shaggy hair overdue for a cut all spelled geek to Zachary. Genius, though? He smothered a grin. Foster’s wrinkled cargo shorts and Mötley Crüe T-shirt argued otherwise.
THEATRE OF PAIN.
The clothes made him look like a sloppy punk rather than the brilliant twenty-seven-year-old forensic accountant whose skills the bureau had decided America had lived too long without. That distinction fascinated Zachary almost as much as it pissed him off.
“The answer was no half a year ago,” Foster said, voice clipped and unfriendly, “and it’s stayed no with every phone call since.”
No who are you or why are you here?
The cocky little dweeb glared. “Tell Landis I’m not coming back.”
“Mr. Foster” — Zachary’s temporary partner flashed a stiff smile — “I’m Special Agent Rodriguez. This is Special Agent Murdock.” She nodded to Zachary, and they both produced credentials the geek ignored. “We aren’t here to lure you back to the bureau.”
Foster snorted ripe disbelief.
Didn’t take a genius to figure that lie out, though.
Zachary schooled his features to a professional mask. “Your name cropped up in terrorist chatter recently. You’ve hidden yourself well, so no one anticipates any immediate danger, but after what happened last year…” Returning his ID folder to his pocket, Zachary shot a suspicious glance over his shoulder. Nothing but towering oaks and lots of them, but Foster was reportedly twitchy. Zachary didn’t mind using that to his advantage. A scared principal was a careful principal, and a scared principal might welcome the umbrella protection of TFOS — Terrorism Financing Operations Section — with more appreciation. “Can we discuss this inside, sir?”
Foster’s disapproving glare pinned Zachary to the worn floorboards of the front porch.
He beat back the urge to fidget.
Foster’s lips thinned, one corner quirking up in a strained, not-quite smile. “Are you gay, Special Agent Murdock?”
Zachary jolted upright. His brow furrowed. “Excuse me?”
“It’d be just like Landis to send someone like you. He thinks he’s so clever.” Foster rolled his eyes in disgust. When his attention returned to Zachary, his jaw hardened. “This is private property. Unless you have a warrant, stay off my land, or I’ll call the sheriff.”
The door swung shut.
The crack of it slamming rang in Zachary’s ears.
Rodriguez arched a sardonic eyebrow. “At least he didn’t shoot at us.”
Zachary gritted his teeth.
No, Foster hadn’t shot at them, but the little shit had still gotten the drop on him.
When Foster had prodded, Zachary should’ve been calm, collected. Slightly amused. He’d pulled it off a million times, his standard response to the occasional digs and jibes that blew his way. His coworkers in the bureau weren’t ignorant of his sexual orientation. He didn’t hide it, but he didn’t advertise whom he chose for his bed partners either. Work was work. Play was play. And never the twain shall meet. He’d never had any difficulty compartmentalizing those two parts of his life before.
Foster had rubbed his nose in it.
What an asshole.
Didn’t matter that Zachary knew Foster was gay too.
Still an asshole.
Zachary’s long strides ate the distance back to the car.
Rodriguez fell into step beside him. “I’ll watch him today. Check us into the nearest hotel, then call Landis with the sit rep: subject uncooperative. Given the case history, he won’t be surprised.”
No, Landis wouldn’t.
Which only annoyed Zachary more.
Rodriguez snatched a water bottle from the rental they’d picked up from the field office in Hagerstown and peered at her watch. “We’ll trade off at eight?”
Rodriguez was senior partner; she called the shots. The question was just a courtesy. So Zachary nodded and climbed into the car. Rodriguez moved into the tree line, off Foster’s property yet close enough for loose surveillance. The local police were unlikely to run them off, but antagonizing the asset that the bureau intended to court wasn’t wise.
Zachary shoved the key into the ignition. Firing the engine, he choked back foul temper and nosed the sedan down the deeply rutted road.
Brian Foster’s uncanny ability to track small deposits and transfers among thousands of credible business transactions until — like pixels in a photograph — a bigger and eminently more feral picture emerged had become legendary in the Financial Intelligence Analysis Unit of TFOS. Foster saw patterns no one else could. By following the money trail, he’d identified terrorist activity and had prevented incidents.
He’d saved lives.
Too bad he was such a snotty little shit.
A snotty little shit who smelled of soap, fresh pine, and — underlying both scents — the tangy sweat of fear.
Zachary pointed the car to Friendsville.
Foster put on a good show, but the man was scared.
Zachary had the rest of the day with Foster’s file to refamiliarize himself with why.
* * *
Zachary leaned against the headboard of his bed in the hotel room, paging through reams of data on his laptop. The incident last year made up the bulk of Foster’s file. Initial reports intrigued Zachary by the scarcity of witnesses and leads. How did a guy vanish during rush hour at a busy Washington, DC strip mall without attracting attention?
With his lover at a conference in New York, no one had even realized for two days that Foster was gone.
His father, Brian Phillip Wentworth Foster III, filed a missing persons report after his son and namesake failed to make an appearance at a family gathering on the Sunday following his disappearance. No answer on his cell. After the boyfriend caught an early flight back, he and Foster’s family had retraced Foster’s steps and spotted his Prius near an office supply store at the strip mall.
Debit card records showed Foster had purchased ink cartridges that matched the printer in his home office at 5:21 p.m. the preceding Friday. No one had seen or talked to him since. No interior security camera vids — they’d already been wiped. Thank God the store hadn’t cleared the exterior surveillance files yet.
Not that the outdoor cameras helped much.
Zachary watched the grainy video on his laptop, noting the professionalism of the hit. Two men visible, three counting the driver. The pair of unsubs leaning against the truck in the parking lot wore nondescript blue jeans and white T-shirts available in every discount store in America. No help there. Both men had dark hair and medium builds; narrowing to a specific ethnic group had proven difficult. Landis had argued, persuasively, for homegrown militia. Others had posited Amerindian by way of Central America, but the poor quality of the surveillance cameras made further identification impossible.
Foster had paid scant attention to the men he’d passed in the parking lot.
That was all they’d allowed him.
Then his body stiffened and dropped. Even enhanced, the images were too fuzzy and distorted to make out the Taser, but Foster’d still had the bruise in the meat of his shoulder when he’d been recovered, and the presentation was too typical to be anything else.
With a distance of a couple of yards, muscling the immobilized vic into the white panel truck wouldn’t have been easy. Foster was shorter than Zachary, but he hadn’t been thin. Then. The pair of blurry figures handled the accountant’s deadweight with a smooth efficiency that bespoke experience and training.
The snatch and grab lasted nine seconds.
Zachary watched Foster disappear into the truck, his assailants following after. The truck pulled out, driving off screen. No tag number. They’d muddied the license plates, and though local PD had consumed hundreds of man-hours scouring the surrounding area, the panel truck was never found.
Zachary exited the video window and scrolled down the screen.
The tip that led to Foster’s recovery hadn’t been documented either. Sloppy record keeping on the tip-line had eliminated identifying who had taken the information — no leads there. No one ever came forward to claim the reward.
The accountant had vanished into thin air and had reappeared nine days later the same way. Like magic.
Zachary didn’t like it.
His attention returned to the laptop.
The medical reports weren’t bad for a guy who’d been missing nine days. Not good. But not bad considering the focus of the investigation had shifted to body recovery. Foster’d been damn lucky. Bones mended. Bruises faded. Dead was forever.
Other than the events of Foster’s disappearance, the file was frustratingly thin on details.
He’d gotten his undergraduate in accounting at a precocious twenty at some backwater college, then earned his master’s at George Washington at a sprint. He’d clocked in less than two years working money laundering cases for the bureau before he’d been tapped for TFOS. There, Foster’s professional trail ran cold for Zachary. No case summaries, no descriptions.
Zachary’s security clearance didn’t run that high.
Family. His parents lived in the suburbs of DC. The father was a Baptist preacher. According to the reports, until last year’s incident, he’d been close with his parents and both of his brothers too.
Foster’s boyfriend had been investigated after the disappearance but had never been seriously considered a suspect. Zachary squinted at the picture on his monitor, scanning the stats running alongside it — big bear of a guy. The boyfriend was a lobbyist for a gun-control PAC on the Hill but nothing that had triggered alarms in the bureau. He and Foster had been involved for a respectable five years, bought a home together in Silver Springs two years before, and were, by all reports, happy.
Until Foster disappeared anyway.
Well, that sucked, but five years was four years longer than Zachary had ever managed to hold a relationship together. A hidden miracle, Foster, for all his brain power, probably didn’t appreciate.
Before his abduction, the guy had been born under a lucky star. Beloved by his family, cosseted by his lover, he’d enjoyed a meteoric rise in his career. Foster had lost it all over nine harrowing days, true, but guys like Zachary could only dream of having half of what Foster had tossed away when he left Washington for western Maryland a year ago.
He could have it all again too. TFOS was desperate for the wonder boy’s return. His family would welcome him back with open arms, probably throw a parade in his honor, and Zachary had to believe if Foster was capable of a five-year commitment to a lover once, he could do it again. If he found the right guy.
Zachary’s gaze darted to photos splayed over the faded, threadbare blue comforter of his hotel room bed.
Given Foster’s luck, he wouldn’t have to look. The right man would simply materialize when Foster crooked his finger.
But Foster was pissing it all away.
His cell vibrated against the tired nightstand. Scanning the case file, Zachary reached for it. “Murdock.”
“Your pet accountant has grown teeth — he threw us off his property.” Zachary’s mouth thinned at the assistant director’s chuckle. “Check your e-mail for the full report. Rodriguez took first shift outside the perimeter to avoid antagonizing Foster while we finesse our way in. I’m reviewing his file until I relieve her later tonight.”
He slid a Mentos from the roll, balled the empty package in his fist, and tossed it into the trash as he popped the candy into his mouth. Strawberry. His last one too. He’d swapped nicotine for a sugar addiction three years ago, but finding the non-mint variety was probably impossible in this armpit of nowhere. He mentally condemned all sugar-free Nazis to hell. “It won’t be easy. He’s not buying our cover story.”
“But there is a threat.”
Zachary snorted. “He fell off the radar when he left TFOS. Vague feelers about where he might be and what he’s doing aren’t a credible threat.”
Landis growled, “Once they locate him –”
“Once you dangle Foster as live bait, you mean.” Zachary smiled at the assistant director’s sputtering outrage.
“He was on to something last year, something big. I can smell it.”
“He smells something too: the ripe aroma of TFOS bullshit.” Zachary had agreed to improve Foster’s immediate security and get him back to work, though, so the argument was pointless. “He also asked if I was gay.”
“He implied that you sent me, specifically, to fuck him back into Financial Intelligence.”
Landis cleared his throat. “You’ve been temporarily reassigned to Terrorist Financing Operations, Murdock. Not Melrose Place.”
“I appreciate that distinction.” Zachary also knew Landis would stop at nothing to get his darling boy back in the field. “I just wondered if you did.”
“From what we can tell, Foster’s lived like a monk since his boyfriend dumped him last year, which isn’t a stunner considering western Maryland isn’t a hotbed for the gay community. Getting him back where he belongs means reminding him of what he’s given up for his self-imposed exile in the mountains, including his personal life. He must be restless if he marked you so quickly.” Landis harrumphed. “Hands off. You’re a reminder, not a refresher course.”
Zachary glared at his laptop. “You’re a shithead, Landis.”
“Be glad you aren’t permanently assigned to TFOS.” The deputy assistant director grunted. “Keep my boy safe, convince him to return to the unit where he belongs, and you’ll be back in operations in no time.”
“I could file a complaint. Sexual harassment.”
Landis snickered. “You won’t.”
Annoyance dug into his spine because Landis was right. He wouldn’t. “I’ll tell Monica.” He scowled when the threat was met with booming laughter. “You won’t get laid for a month.”
“You think your aunt scares me?”
Aunt Monica terrified everybody, which was how Zachary had ended up working this clusterfuck in the mountains to start with. Say no to his favorite aunt?
Not in this lifetime.
“Thanks for doing this for me, Zach. I wouldn’t trust Foster with anyone else.”
His favorite aunt who had lousy taste in men.
“Fuck you, Landis.” Zachary hung up.
* * * * *