Excerpt from The Thing About Love

Three

When John walked into the office Tuesday morning, he found a small crowd of his squad mates waiting around his cubicle.

“Look who’s back,” Ryan said, doing a slow clap as John approached. “So? Was it as bad as they say?”

“Worse,” John said. And he had the aching muscles to prove it, too. In the shower this morning, he’d cursed up a storm just trying to raise his arms to wash his hair.

“Was it nonstop drills?” asked Jin, another one of his squad mates.

“Let’s just say they set the tone the first morning by waking us up at four a.m. for physical fitness tests. Swimming, running, and stair climbing while wearing a fifty-pound vest and carrying a thirty-five-pound battering ram—with no breaks in between. And that was the easy day,” John said.

The Hostage Rescue Team selection process, as John as his fellow “selectees” had quickly discovered, was designed to break down the candidates both mentally and physically in order to identify the individuals who would perform the best in high-pressure situations. And indeed, the exercises and drills they’d been put through were no joke. During the course of two weeks, John had scaled a narrow ladder to a grate seventy feet above the ground and crawled up the outside of a four-story building with no net to break his fall. He’d walked blindfolded underwater for seventy-five feet while carrying a thirty-pound weight, participated in a simulated hostage rescue in a shoot house while the evaluators observed him from an overhead catwalk, slept in cramped tents and barracks for no more than one or two hours each night, and been put through the “dog run,” a training exercise where candidates ran with a large raft to a lake and paddled their asses off toward a target point while a helicopter flew low over the water to slow them down.

In other words, it had been two weeks of hell.

And John had thrived on it.

Still feeling like a fool for not knowing that his girlfriend and friend had been screwing around behind his back, he’d shown up for Selection angry and with a lot of energy to burn. But from that very first morning when the HRT evaluators had woken him up at four o’clock and told him to strap on a fifty-pound vest for a little “light” exercise, he’d stopped thinking about the shitty state of his personal life. Instead, he’d fallen back on his Ranger training, concentrating only on two things: (1) surviving and (2) executing the orders he was given to the best of his ability.

He had no idea what the evaluators had thought of him. To further mess with their heads, the candidates—who were known only by the number on their clothes, not by name—weren’t given any feedback, positive or negative, during the entire process. But in some sense, it didn’t matter. John had set out to prove something to Piser by showing up for HRT tryouts, but maybe he’d needed to prove something to himself, too.

And when he’d stood there at the end of those two weeks, sweaty, starving, exhausted, and with his muscles screaming in agony, but still ready to take on any other shit the evaluators wanted to throw at him, he’d felt surprisingly . . . good. Spending fourteen days in constant crisis mode tended to put things in perspective, he supposed.

“Well, we’re glad to have you back.” Ryan grabbed John’s shoulder in camaraderie. “And I think I speak for all of us when I say”—he feigned a quizzical expression—“Dude, what happened to your hair ?”

The rest of the group laughed as John grinned and ran a hand through it. “Thought it was time to change up the look.” Normally, he wore his hair a little longer, seeing how it was tough to play an organized crime thug if one looked suspiciously like a clean-cut FBI agent. But since having his hair in his face for two straight weeks of drills was never a smart idea, and ponytails didn’t work with the combat helmets, he’d trimmed off a few inches before leaving for HRT tryouts.

Jin pretended to wipe away a tear. “But . . . I didn’t even get to say good-bye to the man bun.”

“Still with that?” John asked dryly. One time he’d made the mistake of wearing his hair tied back in a knot to work, and, boy, had his squad mates ever had a field day with that. For two damn weeks, all he’d heard was Rapunzel! Rapunzel! Let down your hair! every time he’d walked into the office.

Fortunately, all color commentary about his hair fell by the wayside when Brandon, a younger agent who’d recently joined their squad, walked over with a grin. “Guess who I just rode the elevator with?”

“The director?” Ryan quipped.

“The new agent,” Brandon said.

Immediately, he had the group’s full attention.

“And are the rumors true?” Jared asked eagerly.

“Do we have visual confirmation that she’s cute?” Ryan wanted to know.

Brandon leaned against the cubicle, clearly enjoying having the inside scoop. “Indeed, we do.”

John was obviously out of the loop. “Who are you guys talking about?”

“That’s right, you were off yesterday,” Brandon said. “A new undercover agent joined the public corruption squad. Rumor is she’s a former lawyer—I heard she was giving Sam Wilkins crap about going to Yale.”

“What is it with these former attorneys and their law schools?” Ryan nudged John. “Hey, how many postgraduate degrees does it take for a white-collar-crime agent to figure out how to use his pistol?”

John feigned surprise. “They let white-collar-crime agents carry pistols?”

He grinned as the rest of the agents cracked up. Yes, it was an old joke. And in truth, there were a lot of really good agents on the public corruption and other white-collar crime squads. Even the former lawyers, John could acknowledge, despite the fact that some of them seemed to fancy themselves a little more refined and intellectual than everyone else.

Not that he was biased against former-lawyer types.

Okay, maybe he was a little biased.

There’d been this one woman he’d met at the Academy, a former lawyer who’d worked at one of Chicago’s top firms before joining the FBI. She and John were the only two trainees in their class from Chicago, and, normally, one might’ve assumed their local connection would foster some camaraderie between them.

But in this case, not so much.

Because in this case, said former lawyer had been a real pain in the ass.

Ooh, look at me, I’m soooo smart with my Stanford law degree, I should be teaching these classes instead of sitting here with the rest of you schmucks.

All right, maybe she hadn’t said those exact words, but that had been the gist of her attitude. She was smart and quick on her feet, and a natural at interrogations, and there was no doubt that she’d been the shining star of their training class.

And she’d loved rubbing his face in it every chance she got.

Fortunately, that woman was across the country in Los Angeles, undoubtedly impressing the entire office with her wondrous brilliance or whatever.

“Any other intel on the new agent?” Ryan asked Brandon. “Like, whether she’s single?”

“Going straight to that question, are you?” John said to Ryan.

“Hey, have pity on those of us who don’t already have a gorgeous girlfriend waiting at home,” Ryan shot back.

Right. John cleared his throat, adding “drop vague hints to co-workers about not seeing Alicia anymore” to his mental to-do list.

“Did you at least get the new agent’s name?” Jin asked.

“As a matter of fact, I did. It’s—” Brandon trailed off, looking sheepish as their squad leader, Special Agent Reece Gunnar, approached the group.

“As much as I hate to break up the sewing circle, gentlemen,” Gunnar said wryly, “Shepherd here has a meeting with the SAC to get to.”

This was news to John. “I do?”

“I just got off the phone with him, and he asked me to send you up.” Gunnar’s gaze settled on John’s newly shorn hair, and the corners of his mouth curved. “Aw. Just when the man bun was starting to grow on me.”

John looked up at the ceiling, shaking his head.

Seriously. One time.

* * *

At the end of the hallway on the twelfth floor, the assistant to the Special Agent in Charge waved John through from behind her desk.

“You can go in. Mr. McCall is expecting you,” she said.

Nick looked up from his computer when John knocked on the door. “Agent Shepherd. Either you made it all the way through Selection—in which case, hats off to you—or you flunked out and have been on a very unauthorized vacation these past few days.”

John took a seat in front of the desk. “If that was a vacation, I really need to find a new travel agent.”

Nick chuckled. “When do you find out if you made the team?”

“A few weeks.” During his outbriefing, John had learned there were several steps to the decision-making process. If he’d earned the recommendation of the HRT operators, his candidacy would then be passed up the chain for approval by both the Bureau’s Tactical Section and the Mid-Level Leadership Selection Unit.

“And when would you report to NOTS?”

NOTS, or New Operator Training School, was the eight-month-long program held every year at Quantico for new HRT recruits. “The Tuesday after Labor Day.”

Nick nodded. “Then we’ll keep you off any long-term investigations until you hear from headquarters. I spoke with Gunnar, and he says you have plenty of reports you can catch up with now that you’re no longer traveling to Detroit every week.”

John pictured the huge stack of paperwork waiting on his desk.

Probably, he’d rather be starved and tortured for another two weeks.

Nick grinned. “I had a feeling that would be your reaction. So I took the liberty of assigning you to a short-term investigation. Assuming you don’t mind traveling again.” He grabbed a file off his desk and handed it to John. “The Jacksonville office needs two Chicago agents to help out with a sting op. This one is a little different from your usual roles.”

Intrigued by that, John took the file from Nick and opened it. He quickly skimmed the summary provided by the case agents. “A private equity investor? That is a new one for me.”

“I figured we should let you have a little fun, seeing how this could be your last undercover assignment.”

Last undercover assignment. The words were a little bittersweet. “I see the sting op calls for two investors,” John said.

“You’ll be partnered with an agent from the public corruption squad. She’s new—just transferred in yesterday.” Nick checked his watch. “She should be here any moment, actually. I asked her to meet us this morning, so we could go over the details of the assignment.”

Interesting . . . the new agent. Meaning, presumably, the new cute agent. John could only imagine the looks on his squad mates’ faces when they heard about this. “Where’d she transfer from?” he asked conversationally.

“Los Angeles. But like you, Chicago is her hometown—which makes you both perfect for this job. Without even faking it, you two can wax poetic about deep-dish pizza, why the Cubs are America’s team, and how putting ketchup on a hot dog should be a federal offense.”

Hell yes, it should be, but John was focused on something else his boss had just said. “She worked in the L.A. office?”

“For the last six years.” Nick cocked his head. “That puts her right around your year, doesn’t it?”

Oh, indeed . . . it did. Which meant this was all either one hell of a coincidence, or John was about to come face-to-face with the one person who’d not only managed to get under his skin at the Academy but also succeeded in making him look like a total jackass.

Purposely.

Nick looked over at the doorway and smiled. “Ah. Perfect timing. We were just talking about you. Agent Harlow, I’d like you to meet Special Agent John Shepherd, your fellow ‘shady Chicago business entrepreneur.’”

John closed his eyes momentarily, then stood up and turned around.

There she was, standing in the doorway with her tailored gray pantsuit and heels, looking sleek and stylish and so perfectly. . . white-collar-crime-esque.

Her hair was different, he noticed. Still a warm blond, but instead of the long ponytails she’d favored at the Academy, it now fell to her shoulders in a straight, sophisticated cut.

“John,” she said, her light blue eyes widening in surprise.

“Hello, Jessica.”

Nearly fifteen thousand special agents in the FBI, spread throughout the United States in fifty-six field offices, and she had to show up in Chicago for what was quite possibly his last undercover assignment.

As his new partner.

And here he’d thought HRT tryouts had been hell.

 

Four

John Shepherd.

Admittedly, Jessica was caught off guard at the sight of him in her new boss’s office. For one thing, he was supposed to be in Quantico, already part of the Hostage Rescue Team and at this very moment engaged in a live-fire close-quarter battle exercise, or scaling a burning ten-story building. Probably while inverted and holding on to the bricks only by his pinky toes, just for extra kicks.

And for another thing, wow , he looked different from the last time she’d seen him.

Six years ago, John Shepherd had shown up at the FBI Academy looking every bit the former Army Ranger. With military-short hair, cobalt-blue eyes, and six feet, four inches of ripped muscles, he’d had the kind of clean-cut, all-American good looks that belonged on a Wheaties box.

But the man standing before her seemed . . . grittier. Gone was the buzz cut; instead he wore his deep gold hair in a semi-unkempt, textured style that was a bit longer and choppier. Also gone, apparently, was his razor—at least judging from the week’s growth of scruff along his strong jawline.

No tie, she noticed. And an open-necked shirt underneath his suit jacket. Technically, both were violations of the FBI dress code.

Just saying.

“Isn’t this a coincidence?” she said, recovering from her surprise and putting on a smile for the benefit of her new boss as she walked into the office.

From behind his desk, Nick pointed between her and John. “Do you two know each other?”

“Jessica and I were in the same class at the Academy,” John explained. From the easygoing nature of his tone, he, too, didn’t intend to let the SAC in on their little personality clash.

“Funny. Small world, huh?” Nick asked.

“It sure is,” John said.

“You can say that again,” Jessica agreed, at the same time.

They looked at each other and chuckled, as if this were all just so funny . Ha ha ha, good times . . . yeah, it would be a miracle if they made it through this assignment without throttling each other.

“So,” Nick said, clapping his hands. “Since you two are already acquainted, I think we can just dive right in. Jessica, if you’ve had a chance to review the case file, why don’t you bring John up to speed?”

“Of course.” She refocused her less-than-equanimous feelings for the person sitting next to her and got down to the task at hand. She was a professional, after all, and an experienced undercover agent to boot. She could fake playing nice with the best of them.

Although she noted, for the record, that this dirty-hot, I-hang-with-unsavory-types look John had going on hardly screamed private equity investor .

And she also noted, for the record, that she was glad there was not, in fact, an actual record of her thinking of John Shepherd as dirty-hot .

Moving on.

“The target is Patrick Blair, mayor of Jacksonville, Florida,” she began. “The son of a high school teacher and a Navy lieutenant, Blair attended law school at the University of Florida and, at age twenty-six, became the youngest city councilmember in Jacksonville history. The report the case agents sent over didn’t include a photograph, so I snagged one off the Internet this morning.” She handed one over to John. “A copy for your convenience, Agent Shepherd.”

In response to her sweet tone, he threw her a look so dark and scowly she expected to hear an ominous boom of thunder outside.

Trust me, big guy. The feeling’s mutual.

“Four years later, Blair ran for mayor, and lost by only three thousand votes to a retired judge running on a nonpartisan ballot,” she continued. “He then ran again in the next election with a campaign that emphasized his experience on the council and focused on Jacksonville’s economic growth. He won that race, becoming the second-youngest mayor of a top-twenty U.S. city. His popularity continued to rise, particularly after he sponsored legislation designed to revitalize key neighborhoods through investment by the private sector, and earlier this year he was reelected to a second term by a whopping eighty-five percent of the vote. By all accounts he’s quite charismatic and is especially popular among female voters.” Jessica smiled. “I’m sure that has nothing do with the fact that he’s single and was recently included in People magazine’s ‘Sexiest Politicians Alive’ edition.”

John snorted, flipping through the file on his lap. “So what’s the catch?”

“The catch is that Jacksonville’s golden boy is running a side business: taking bribes in exchange for political favors,” she said. “The investigation started eighteen months ago, after a local lobbyist approached agents in the Jacksonville office with a tip that another lobbyist, Anthony Morano, was arranging bribes for the mayor. The tip turned out to be a good one and, after two agents visited Morano at home and had a chat with him about the advantages of cooperating with the FBI when one has been caught conspiring to engage in honest services fraud, he flipped on Blair and agreed to wear a wire.

“Through that, the Jacksonville agents learned that Blair has several real estate developers lining his pockets. And we’re not talking penny-ante stuff here; these guys are paying Blair upwards of fifty grand a pop in exchange for his assistance with various zoning and permit issues. It’s a nice little arrangement: For the right price, Blair makes a few phone calls to his friends on the city’s Land Use Committee and, voilà, all the red tape and delays the developer would normally face magically disappear.”

“Is there any evidence these other city officials are on the take?” John asked, his eyes meeting Jessica’s.

She paused, flashing back six years to the many times she’d seen that focused, determined gleam in his blue eyes. Except, around her, that look typically had been accompanied by an irritated tightening of his jaw.

Ah, yes. There it was.

“That was one of the questions I asked Agent Leavitt in Jacksonville when I called this morning to introduce myself,” Jessica said. “He says that, to their knowledge, Blair’s the only crooked one of the bunch. There’s no evidence that the other city officials are aware he’s making money off this scheme—from their perspective, they’re just helping out the mayor when he asks for a favor. Basically, being politicians.”

“Do they have an estimate of how much bribe money Blair has raked in so far?” Nick asked Jessica.

“Around five hundred thousand. But the one concern the U.S. Attorney’s office raised as a potential trial issue is the fact that, so far, all the individuals with firsthand knowledge of the bribes—Morano, plus the developers who’ve paid Blair off—are part of the scheme themselves. Once the arrests are made, we know how this will shake out: These guys will all turn on Blair in exchange for a deal. Which, while helpful, also leaves them open to impeachment on cross-examination that they’re just saying what the government wants in order to save their own skins.”

“An issue that’s far less of a concern if the U.S. Attorney’s office also has testimony against Blair by two undercover agents with firsthand knowledge of the scheme,” Nick said.

“Cue the two ‘shady Chicago business entrepreneurs,’” John said.

Exactly. “The specifics of the assignment are all there,” Jessica said, pointing to the file John held. “You and I will pose as partners from a successful Chicago-based private equity firm interested in opening a restaurant in Jacksonville. Morano will set up a meeting with the mayor, under the guise that we’d like to discuss a few zoning and permitting issues with a property we have our eye on for the project. Then we go from there.”

Nick rested his forearms on the desk. “I’ve already informed the Jacksonville office of your potential time restrictions,” he told John. “They’ve assured me that you and Jessica will be able to wrap this up in a handful of trips. Frankly, either Blair takes the bait or he doesn’t.”

“I’ll get started on my undercover legend right away,” John said.

“Good.” Nick grinned. “By the way, when I spoke to the SAC down in Jacksonville, he mentioned that, as part of your cover, they’re going to put you up at some swanky hotel on Ponte Vedra Beach. So when you two are drinking mai tais by the ocean and swapping stories about the good old days at the Academy, don’t forget who you can thank for this assignment.”

Jessica and John laughed along as if that were just so darn hilarious . Ha ha, chuckle chuckle, ah . . . the “good old days” at the Academy.

Yeah, they were so screwed.