"Hey, Bella, the briefing starts in 10 minutes." I glanced up from the stack of papers piled high on my desk. Mike Newton was leaning into the doorframe, eager to escort me to the case briefing. "Coming?" He smiled his familiar boy-next-door grin, gesturing toward the hallway.
Ever since high school Mike seemed to be a nearly-permanent fixture in my life. I'd managed to get away during college but we had re-connected at work, thousands of miles from Forks. I still remembered the day I was sitting in my office, going over a file, when his mother called me. I had only been an agent for two years at the time. She was concerned at his lack of direction and wanted to know what her son could do to get into the FBI. Little did I know at the time that by giving him a recommendation he'd end up here, not Seattle.
To make matters worse, Mike had somehow wound up in my department after moving to DC two years ago. I suspected he'd had a hand in the matter. My glowing recommendation probably hadn't helped. Why wouldn't I want to work with someone I'd so heartily endorsed?
"Yeah, in sec. I've got to finish reading this report." The last thing I needed was another "friendly" conversation with Mike. Clearly he hadn't gotten over our two-week fling in eleventh grade. I preferred to walk the 30 feet to the conference room alone.
"Okay, see you in there." Mike's friendliness was obnoxious only because he never took a hint. Maybe that was part of what made him a great analyst: persistence. The boy was nothing if not tenacious. When he picked up a lead he followed it further than most, never giving up. Still, in personal matters, I found his constant attention suffocating.
I quickly wrapped up, filling out a forest's worth of paperwork, and went to the conference room. It was more packed than usual. The new case must be important.
"Good afternoon everyone. This morning, around 8:05, an attempt was made on the life of Edward Cullen. Some of you may be aware that he is the CEO of Cullen Corporation, one of the largest defense contractors in the world." Mitchell Scott, the deputy director of our branch, was in his element. He continued, describing the incident and possible suspects. Nothing was conclusive at this point.
"Special Agent Swan, you'll be running point on this one. I want you to assemble your team and get to work immediately. Mr. Cullen is expecting a contingent from this office sometime before the end of the day."
It took a few seconds for his words to sink in. I'm running point? What was he thinking? I'd never been in charge of my own case before. And this was no time for me to sink or swim, not when the life of a major figure hung in the balance.
I waited until the end of the briefing, after everyone else had filed out, before I approached him. "Um, Mitch, are you sure that I'm ready for this?" I asked, hesitantly. "I mean, I've never done this before and I don't want—"
"Bella," he interrupted, "you're more than ready to take the lead on this one. Besides, we have reason to suspect that there might have been some Italian involvement in this job. I didn't say anything in the briefing because we've got no hard evidence. But it's a pretty big coincidence that an attempt was made on Mr. Cullen's life the day after his company beat out the Volturi Corporation for the single largest government contract in the past 10 years."
I was still wary, but his reasoning made sense. "You'd better go over the case file—you're scheduled to be at Mr. Cullen's office by 2 pm." I glanced at my watch. It was almost 12:30. Crap! I'd have to hustle if I was going to review the file in time. So much for lunch.
I spent the next hour poring over his file. Edward Cullen was 33, unmarried, with no children. He held a degree in Biology from Georgetown and an MBA from Harvard. When he was only 25 he had launched Cullen Corp., quickly growing it from a meager start-up to one of the major world-players in defense.
I also examined the report from today's attempt on his life. It was pretty sparse. There had been no witnesses aside from Mr. Cullen. No physical evidence had been found at the scene so far. I had very little to work with at this point.
Finishing up at about 1:30, I slogged through DC's tangle of mid-afternoon traffic on my way to the Cullen Corporation's main office. I didn't particularly enjoy driving around town, especially in the huge government SUV. Thankfully the trip turned out to be relatively short, just a few miles past the Potomac River.
Mike sat next to me in the passenger seat. Though his advances were annoying, he was good at his job. I'd wanted him on my team immediately. My team. The thought was still weird. I would be heading this investigation. I hoped I could pull it off.
After clearing security and parking, we stepped into one of the most modern-looking lobbies I'd ever seen. If I hadn't already donned my professional expression, I might have ogled the high-class walls and glittery fountains of the reception area. That certainly wouldn't convey a sense of authority. Come on, Bella, get it together.
"We've got a 2 pm with Mr. Cullen," I informed the receptionist. Dressed in a skimpy designer skirt and silk blouse that put my tired office suit to shame, she made a striking figure. Long blond hair fell in waves down her back, her features expertly highlighted by makeup that likely cost more than I earned in a week.
"And you are?" she nearly sneered from her office throne. Clearly she hadn't picked up the federal vibe suits like mine usually send. "FBI here to see Mr. Cullen. At 2 pm," I demanded. "So, if you don't mind, could you direct me to his office?" For effect, I flashed my badge. That bought a bit more cooperation. I didn't feel bad for being snippy; she was bitchiness personified.
"Of course," she cooed, "just take the elevators up to the top floor. Mr. Cullen's personal secretary will assist you from there."
My eyes followed her out-stretched arm, finding a set of elevators across the lobby. Mike and I proceeded to the elevator, surprised to find an armed security guard inside. I guess that made sense since the CEO's life was in danger.
I nodded at the security guard and pushed the button that would take us to the top. The elevator whirled us upwards, making short work of the 20-something floors now beneath us.
I stepped off the elevator and found myself in the presence of an impossibly gorgeous woman. Her looks put the receptionist downstairs to shame. What's up with all the hot women?
"We're here to see Mr. Cullen," I repeated. "He's expecting us."
"Of course, this way please." Obviously she could sense government agents better than her ground-floor counterpart. I followed, noticing her perfect figure and glossy auburn hair. She was flawless and obviously knew it. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Mike ogling her as she sashayed in front of us. Give me a break.
"Mr. Cullen," she said as she opened two ornate doors, "these FBI agents are here to see you."
"Show them in," I heard a velvety voice reply from within. The secretary beckoned for us to enter.
The office was spacious, taking up a large percentage of the top floor. Glass walls ran from ceiling to floor, sporting a breathtaking view of DC's skyline from afar. Exquisite, and expensive, furniture was tastefully tucked into every corner.
But it wasn't the view or the furniture I noticed. It was the man behind the desk. He was simply the most stunning person I'd ever seen. His bronze hair was amassed messily upon his head. His chiseled jaw framed a face so incredible I hardly believed it was attached to a human body. And his eyes—oh his eyes—I gazed at molten puddles of emerald, accentuated by thick, dark lashes.
"Is there something wrong with her?" I heard the voice ask in frustration. Oops. I guess I had been staring a few seconds too long.
"Bella?" Mike looked at me quizzically, nudging me slightly.
Huh? "Oh, yes. Mr. Cullen," I stumbled, "I'm Agent Swan and this is Agent Newton. We're here to ask you a few questions about this morning's incident."
He nodded. I watched his face, mesmerized. He motioned for us to sit in the plush chairs opposite his.
"May I offer you something to drink?" he asked. Interesting. The man had nearly been killed today and he was being hospitable.
Again, I was caught in his gaze and words failed me. Mike jumped to my rescue, "No thanks." What was wrong with me?
I took another second to try to pull together some semblance of a sentence and began, "Mr. Cullen, can you tell us what happened this morning?"
"You should already know," he barked. I noticed his eyes were hard and his jaw was set in an angry line. His sudden animosity caught me off guard. What was his problem? He looked positively pissed.
Bella, my inner voice soothed, he's just been through a near-death experience. Cut the man some slack.
"We have our initial report, but we need to hear the details from you. There's only so much a report can tell us." He seemed slightly mollified by my explanation, but his eyes still held an edge of hostility.
"This morning, around 8, I was sitting in my car alone talking to an important client. I was so focused on my conversation that I didn't notice a car pull up near me. I heard a loud bang when a shot aimed at my head ricocheted off the window, leaving a small mark. If I didn't drive a bulletproof vehicle, I'd be dead. I saw a black Mercedes speed away. The windows were tinted so I couldn't see anyone inside. Our cameras no doubt caught the plate number."
"What did you do next?"
"I called security and waited in my car."
"Do you have any idea who might want you dead?" He pondered that question for a bit, not appearing to be shaken in the least.
"Honestly, I think you'd be better off asking who wouldn't want me dead. I run the largest weapons manufacturing firm in the country. Not even counting nut-jobs who oppose national defense, nearly every terrorist organization on the planet would be eager to see my company destroyed. There would be no better way to halt the United States' foreign policy than if she had no means by which to defend herself."
Hmm, this was going to be harder than I thought.
"So there's no one who stands out as a likely suspect in your mind?"
He shook his head. Damn.
"Has there been any recent violence against you or your family or anyone who works here?"
"No, nothing. In fact, it's been unusually quiet as of late. Typically we receive dozens of death threats a year, but we've gotten nothing in the last few months." He puzzled over his revelation as I puzzled over him. Why was I so violently attracted to this man?
"Those are all the questions we've got for now. We'd like to take a look at your tapes and try to find the weakness in your security system." He bristled at my words, almost like I'd physically struck him.
"There's nothing wrong with our security!" he snapped, his verdant eyes suddenly afire. "It's obviously a mistake to let a child handle my case." He glared at me and I actually felt like a bumbling child, for a second…but only for a second. Any charity I'd previously felt for him evaporated. Normally not a confrontational person, his words sparked my ire.
"Obviously," I spat the word, "they got through your security somehow! Finding the weak link might provide a lead." His expression flickered for a moment and something akin to surprise briefly contorted his features. Surely he would have deduced that much himself. Maybe he was just too proud. After all, it must be embarrassing for the CEO of a defense firm to have his own defenses breeched.
"Fine," he growled, pushing a button on his phone. "Nancy, will you come in here?"
The modelesque woman opened his door, "Yes, Mr. Cullen?"
"Take these agents to the security room. Let them see anything they need."
He turned to look back at us, dismissing us with his eyes. But I wasn't finished quite yet with my questions.
"Are you reachable here?" I asked. He nodded, curtly. His eyes were still angry. "Plan on staying in town for awhile."
I had no idea what I'd done to illicit such a response from him. I hardly knew the man. Maybe there was something wrong with him, like a mental illness. I hoped that whatever problem he had wouldn't impede my investigation. I'd likely see a lot more of Mr. Cullen over the next few weeks, or months, and the last thing I needed was an irritable witness.
"Well then, have a nice afternoon and we'll be in touch." I infused my voice with as much professionalism as I could muster and rose to leave.
In my haste to get away from his penetrating gaze, my foot caught on the leg of the chair I had been sitting in. I tumbled forward, landing hard on my hands and knees. Shit. That was the last thing I needed, as if I hadn't already been an oafish fool before.
Mike quickly leaned down to help me up. "Are you okay?" he whispered. I rose shakily, nodded and swiftly retreated. Warmth filled my cheeks and I was glad to be facing away from Mr. Cullen. I didn't want him to see me red-faced. If he had thought I was a child before, seeing me embarrassed wouldn't help instill confidence in him now.
"Agent Swan?" I heard a voice—a voice I didn't want to hear—behind me. "Try to be more careful around my security system. It's very expensive and I really don't want to replace it." I turned then, hoping the color had dissipated from my face. He smirked, obviously entertained by my clumsiness. Ass.
I resumed my flight, trying not to trip again. I could tell my time at the Cullen Corporation would be far from pleasant.
Mike and I spent a few hours reviewing the security tapes from earlier in the day. The black Mercedes didn't have a license plate so we wouldn't find much on that front. The cameras outside the parking garage weren't much help either. We checked and re-checked footage from every camera. Since Cullen Corp. had hundreds, it took awhile; luckily, we knew precisely what timeframe to analyze. Finally, we double-checked to make sure that nothing else unusual was recorded and went back to the office.
Having skipped lunch, and now dinner, I was famished—not to mention tired and cranky from dealing with Mr. Cullen.
"Hey Mike, I'm going to go home. See you tomorrow." I was beat. He was briefly surprised—usually I didn't leave the office much during a big case. I needed to clear my mind though. Mr. Cullen was disconcerting and my concentration was shot.
"Uh…okay Bella. See you tomorrow." He looked a bit glum. Clearly he had expected to spend some more time with me tonight. "Goodnight."
I walked the few short blocks from FBI headquarters to the Federal Triangle metro stop. A metro ride, one short car trip and 30 minutes later I was home. My cramped two-bedroom apartment, located just outside DC in Alexandria, cost almost as much per month as my entire rent for a semester in college.
I grabbed a quick microwave dinner, too tired to bother with cooking, and hopped in the shower. The hot water eased away the day and I felt myself relaxing for the first time in hours.
I needed to think. Edward Cullen's life depended on me and my ability to crack this case. True, he was a prick. But he didn't deserve to die just because he had said a few less-than-kind words to me today. I would try my hardest to capture the people who had tried to kill him.
I went to bed that night and slept, but not restfully. Green eyes that grew more and more angry haunted my dreams. Somehow they morphed into blue eyes, the pair that had stalked my nightmares for a decade. They never lessened in intensity. When I saw those same green eyes glazed and milky, attached to a dead body, I woke with a muffled scream. Years of nightmares had conditioned me to sleep into my pillow. My neighbors would appreciate my efforts if they knew how often I yelled out in the night.
A familiar feeling gnawed in the pit of my stomach. It had been years since I slept without dreaming some permutation of that day. Obviously today would be no different. The only difference was Edward Cullen's intrusion into my nightmare.
My clock read 5:13 am. I guess it was about time to get up anyway.
I got dressed and headed to work. I needed to expend a little bit of energy. Luckily, the FBI had spared no expense when installing a gym in its expansive basement.
As I pounded away at the punching bag, my mind retraced what I knew of the case so far. Whoever had tried to kill Cullen was good, too good. This was obviously a professional job, funded by a person or organization that knew security systems quite well and had the resources to overcome the best technology on the market.
That narrowed down the suspect list quite a bit, but only made things harder. A professional organization was much tougher to bring down than a few thugs. I had my work cut out for me.
I glanced at the clock and realized it was nearly 8:30. Crap. I'd let my thoughts wander way too far. I needed to get dressed and upstairs now.
I managed to rinse off, dress and rush upstairs with just a few seconds to spare. I dropped my purse on my desk and headed to Mitch's office. His door was slightly ajar and I could hear him talking to someone on the phone. Not wanting to eavesdrop, I started to head back to my office. His tone surprised me as I heard the next words explode from his mouth.
"Well Mr. Cullen, I'm sorry you feel that way, but she'll be staying on the case. What she lacks in age she more than makes up for in experience. I know you think you've got some say in the matter, but you don't. I decide who takes what case and I've decided Special Agent Swan is in charge of yours!"
I couldn't breathe for a second. Edward Cullen wanted me off the case? Because I was young? I was beyond stunned. Why on earth was he acting so erratically? I mean, sure, he was angry yesterday for whatever reason, but to have me pulled from the case? And for what? I'd just started working on the case. There's no way anyone could've unraveled it within a day.
"Well you're welcome to do that. But I don't care how many senator friends you have, my authority in this matter is non-negotiable." Mitch was clearly beyond livid. I knew it was wrong to keep listening, but I couldn't pull myself away.
"Good day to you too Mr. Cullen."
I tapped lightly on the door. "Come in!" Mitch bellowed. Hmm, maybe now wasn't the best time…
"Oh hi, Bella, I was just about to come and talk to you. Please shut the door and sit down." Gulp.
Better to fess up. "Uh, Mitch, I wasn't trying to eavesdrop but I caught the last bit of your phone call there. So, I'm off the case?"
Anger flitted across his nearly-purple face. Maybe I shouldn't have admitted to spying on him.
"Absolutely not. I don't care what Cullen says, you're more than qualified to handle this assignment." Whew, he wasn't mad at me – and he wanted me to stay on the job. I could deal with Edward Cullen later.
"Good. I actually came to ask if there has been any new information?"
He shook his head. "Have you made any progress?"
"No," I hesitated. Would he have me removed after all? "But I think it's pretty clear that we're dealing with a pro." He nodded as I continued, "I know that you've got your theory about the Italians, but I have to see where the evidence leads so I'm keeping that one on the back-burner for now."
"I think that's wise. I also wanted to let you know that I'm assigning a round-the-clock detail to Cullen. His death would have some serious repercussions for national defense so I don't want to take any chances."
"Who's going to lead the team?" Hopefully someone I worked well with.
"Hale," he said.
Oh good, Rosalie was one of my favorite agents. Although tough as steel, she and I had a great time together. She was my sparring partner and drinking buddy all rolled into one.
"Good choice, sir." He smiled—it was no secret Hale and I worked well when paired. She'd kick Cullen's ass if he stepped out of line. That visual image cheered me.
"What's on your agenda for today, Bella?"
"I was planning on going back over to Cullen Corp. to interview some of the employees. It's probably a fruitless endeavor, but I want to make sure to speak to anyone who saw something that might be even remotely helpful."
"Okay, good. Let me know if you need any more resources. I'd like to put this one to bed as soon as we can."
"Yes, sir. And…thank you. For sticking up for me, that is. I'm glad you've got my back."
Mitch grunted, uncomfortable at my brief display of gratitude. I think emotion scared him more than armed terrorists. A sudden flash of Charlie's face danced before me, eliciting a pain I'd tried so hard to suppress. Mitch and Charlie were alike in a lot of ways. I took a second and shoved the memory back down. It wouldn't be good for me to break down in Mitch's office.
"Sure, now get back to work Special Agent Swan." I hid my smile at his sudden formality, shuffling from his office, then walked back down the hall.
"Hey, Mike, I need to talk to Cullen again. Can you review the case file? I have a feeling that we're missing something."
"But…er…don't you want me to come with you?" No, I didn't, not in the least.
"No, I've got it covered. I'll be back in a few hours so we can brainstorm a bit."
"How may I help you?" The blonde bombshell I met yesterday was definitely alluring. Seated behind her desk with an array of flashing buttons she looked more like a pilot at the controls of a complicated aircraft than a mere receptionist.
"I'm here to see Mr. Cullen again," I informed her, trying to sound as authoritative as possible.
"I'm afraid he's out of town on an important business trip. Did you need anything else?"
"Out of town?" That was unexpected, and foolish. Why would he leave town when it was obvious that his life was in peril? "When will he be back? I've got some more questions that I need him to answer as soon as possible."
"He didn't leave his schedule with us so we really don't have any idea when Mr. Cullen will return," she purred, smiling at me. I could tell it was fake. She was the perfect actress but her words were laced with too much saccharine sweetness to be genuine.
"Well, Mr. Cullen is part of an ongoing investigation. Unless he would like to face legal sanction, I suggest he make himself available," I threatened, knowing it would make no difference. If he had friends in the Senate there was no way he'd ever be penalized for skipping town.
"I'll be sure to let him know. You have a nice day now," she hinted.
"Actually, there are a few other people I need to question. Would you please direct me to the employee parking garage?" I'd been to the public lot before but, for security purposes, Cullen Corp. had a separate lot for its employees. She gave me directions after a puzzled expression momentarily distorted her face.
"Thanks so much," I said sweetly while mentally flipping her off. What a bitch.
I found the garage easily enough—the attendant's booth was another matter. This lot was impossibly large. After searching for what felt like days, I finally found the exit and approached.
"Excuse me," I said while tapping on the glass, "I need to find the security guard on duty."
The attendant hesitated long enough for me to flash my badge then he was suddenly much more cooperative.
"Frank's on the clock now. His office is right over there," he said, pointing.
"Thanks," I called behind my shoulder, walking toward Frank's office.
Knocking again, I jumped a bit when a kindly older man opened the door on the first tap.
"May I help you?"
"Yes, I'm Special Agent Swan from the FBI. I need to ask you a few questions."
"Come in, Agent Swan." Frank was nearly 60 and, I surmised, close to retirement. Mischievous blue eyes sparkled from beneath peppery-gray brows. His lined face betrayed a life that had one time been full of adventure. I took note, of course, of a futuristic-looking gun strapped to his hip. Instinctively, I touched my own firearm, nestled in its holster within my suit-coat.
I began questioning him about yesterday morning. He was the security officer on duty. He had noticed nothing out of the ordinary until he heard a car crash through the security barrier. "I don't know how they got into the garage. We have the place on lock-down. They would have needed a security card."
"Who issues those cards?" I asked.
"Mr. Cullen's personal secretary is in charge of granting someone the proper clearance. I don't know who actually makes the cards, but Nancy would be able to tell you."
After asking a few more follow-up questions and thanking him, I headed back inside the main building. Pressing the button that would whisk the elevator to the top floor, I took a few moments to gather my thoughts, all but ignoring the uniformed man riding along with me. The perpetrators had access to the garage. They were probably in such a rush to leave that they had just driven through the gate. The Mercedes would have extensive damage to the front or have been recently repaired. That would narrow the search somewhat.
The shrill ding of the elevator snapped me out of my thoughts. I stepped off and approached Nancy's desk. She was engrossed in whatever she doing, obviously startled when I spoke.
"Excuse me, Nancy, I need to talk to you," I began. She looked at me with an odd expression, like she was guilty about something. Maybe she was involved in this plot? My musing ceased when I heard a familiar, smooth-sounding voice seep through her intercom.
"Nancy, would you please get Senator Billings on the phone? I need to review some contract details with him. Oh, I could also use some coffee."
"Yes, Mr. Cullen," she responded, woodenly.
"He's in his office?" I stated in disbelief. Why had he manufactured a story about leaving town if he was, in fact, still very much in town? Would he really manufacture a story just to avoid me?
She hesitated. "You know," I began casually, "it's a federal offense to lie to a sworn officer of the law." She gulped as I continued, "So, if Mr. Cullen is in his office and you lie to me about it you'll be in some deep water."
"Yes," she whispered, "he's in there. But he's busy…" She trailed off as I walked toward the doors. This was going to get ugly, fast.