Joy Posten is at work, of course, the night she almost loses her brother. It's late enough that most of her floor is empty, but not so late that a cup of coffee is out of the question. While she waits for the machine, a relic from the Johnson administration, to finish brewing a cup of liquid ambrosia, she chats with Howard Parker. For weeks, Howard had made it clear to anyone with a working set of ears that he wanted Joy's job. Now he just wants in her pants. He is no more subtle in this equally futile pursuit.
The machine finishes its final burble when every phone in the building goes off. The explosion of sound makes Howard jump and curse. Joy rolls her eyes. While agents and professional paper-pushers scramble for phones, she reaches for a cup. The phone on her hip vibrates. She temporarily forfeits her caffeine fix to glance at the screen. Her brother's assistant (her future sister-in-law, she just knows it) calling on a Thursday night? What has her clueless, sometimes tyrannical, brother done now? She flashes Howard a tight smile and slips into the tiny office she mostly hates.
Three agents race past her window on their way to the director's office. Two are stony-faced veterans, but the third hasn't quite mastered the art of schooling his expressions. Panic is written in every line on his young, rugged face. Adrenaline floods Joy's veins.
Static crackles in her ear. Tess is speaking in a low, hurried tone but only every third word comes through. Joy watches as more agents head upstairs. "Hey, Tess, I'm going to have to hang up soon. It looks like something big is going down."
The phone on her desk rings. In an attempt to read the name on the display, she twists and bends in a way that would make her yoga instructor proud. The director. Damn.
"The President was in Arlington giving a speech about the changes he wants to make to the VA," Tessa says, voice cracking. "There were shooters. Three, four. No one knows."
Joy's heart drops like a stone. She knows President Donald Lawton. Has eaten barbecued chicken coated with the Lawton family secret recipe. She spent three weeks of her vacation time volunteering for his campaign. Granted, that had been the only way to get any time with her brother, but it counts. He is a good, honest man, though she doesn't always agree with his decisions. Most importantly, he is her brother's boss.
"Is the President...?"
"No. He's fine. A little bruised from Secret Service manhandling, but…"
"The point, Tessa?" Joy snaps. The atmosphere in the building has grown ever tenser as alarm and worry seep out of every body under the roof. She's itching to muscle her way to the front of the crowd and be the first to volunteer for whatever taskforce is formed.
"Adam was with them," Tessa blurts. "Adam was with them. He was one of the bystanders hit. They flew him to MedStar. On Irving."
Tessa doesn't get a chance to explain any further. Joy kills the call and stuffs her phone in her pocket. She punches in her director's extension while tossing files and her laptop in her backpack. The telltale echo that comes from being on speakerphone keeps her walking the line between professional and personal. "Sir, I am aware of the situation. I don't know details, but a senior White House staffer was hit. DCOS of Policy, sir. Adam Novak. Yes. My brother. Thank you."
She slams the receiver onto the cradle and dashes out into the hallway. Her name is called by several of her coworkers, but her mind is already out of the building and in the hospital. She doesn't recall much of the drive from her building to the hospital parking lot. There are suits and lights flashing in front of the hospital, so she leaves her gun locked in her glove box but clips her badge to its chain and slings it around her neck.
The ATF doesn't have the prestige or immediate name recognition that other, more high profile agencies have. Thanks to a few dumbasses undeserving of the title Special Agent, its reputation has taken a few recent blows. Her job is demanding and dangerous and frustrating and makes her want to cry at times. Standing in front of the Secret Service agents guarding the emergency room door, though, she's never been happier with her chosen profession.
ATF Special Agents have a broad range of authority - a range so expansive it's been to known to make a several FBI jerkwads weep with jealousy. She is willing to take back every horrible thing she said about those intense weeks at FLETC. All that training, after all, is what got her the shiny badge around her neck.
On a Thursday night outside the MedStar Washington Hospital Center, Joy realizes that her badge and her stratospheric security clearance are her two most precious possessions. An agent she remembers from a joint training seminar on homemade explosives leads her to a private waiting room filled with grim-faced Secret Service agents and even grimmer White House staffers.
Her eyes fall on the blonde perched on the edge of a plastic chair. For years she's teased Tessa McRae about her uncanny ability to appear perfectly polished no matter the situation. There will be no teasing tonight. Tessa's blouse and trousers are wrinkled. What was once a neat French braid has come undone. There are tear-tracks and mascara streaks on Tessa's porcelain cheeks.
She marches across the room and falls to her knees in front of Tessa. Watery blue eyes stare beseechingly at her. "What's the latest?" Joy asks in the careful, gentle tone she uses with victims and wounded animals.
"He's in surgery. They think a f-f-fragment or something hit his lungs, and -," Tessa sucks in a large, shaky breath. In her lap, her long fingers twist anxiously. "H-he was tr-trampled. Everyone was panicking. They think something happened to his sp-spleen."
"Okay. Okay." Joy wraps her arms around the other woman and guides Tessa's head onto her shoulder. The rocking motion does little to soothe either of them, but it's better than being still. Anything is better than being still.
For two hours she rocks Tessa, paces the length of the waiting room until the others complain, and kicks at every unoccupied seat. She dials Adam's - their - mother's number six times but never presses send. She harasses two nurses. Nearly punches a doctor. Drinks enough crappy coffee to make her fingers twitch and her pulse pound like a drum in her throat.
While Tessa is escorted to the cafeteria by a few of Adam's fellow staffers, Joy stares at the ticking clock and thinks.
She hadn't asked for a brother. In fact, she'd lived the first fifteen years of her life without one. Her parents, the Postens of San Diego, had never made a secret of the fact that she was adopted. She'd accepted it in the way one does when they are secure in their parents' affection and moved on. She hadn't cared to meet or know about the couple who hadn't cared enough to keep her around.
Seven weeks after her fifteenth birthday, a rain-slick California road had taken away the parents who'd actually wanted her and given her back to the parents who'd given her away. She'd tried to find the irony in the Postens naming the Novaks as her guardians, but it had never come. Mostly, she'd just been angry.
Sixteen years later (and isn't it a kick in the gut to know she's lived longer without the Postens than she did with them?), she can be ashamed of how she acted. She'd refused every bit of kindness Deborah and Jacob Novak had offered her. She'd been as polite as Mama had taught her to be, but she'd acted like an unwilling guest and not a prodigal daughter.
Adam had driven home from Boston her first weekend in Vermont. Though just as stunned by the revelation about a new sibling, he'd listened to her bitch about having to move from California, having to change schools in the middle of the year, and how she didn't need new parents. She'd been perfectly happy with her old set. He hadn't pressed her to call his mother "Mom" or his father "Dad", but he'd offered to be her brother. Since she hadn't had one before.
And then he'd told her the story behind her adoption. He'd had an older sister. Elizabeth. Nine years older than him and the best sister a boy could ask for. They'd been playing in the yard when she'd run out in the street after a ball the same time a drunk driver had careened around the corner. She'd never had a chance to scream. Five-year-old Adam had watched his adored sister die. Four weeks after burying her daughter, Deborah Novak's pregnancy test came back positive.
Some of Joy's anger had faded. Some. She'd toned down the aggressiveness and tried to treat Deborah and Jacob as if they were her aunt and uncle. Adam had always been there though. He'd never been too busy for his new sister. And he'd never compared her to Elizabeth. At least not to her face.
She's reaching for her phone when a shadow falls across her face and a warm body wearily drops onto the chair beside her. Adam's co-workers have mostly ignored her, choosing to remain huddled on the other side of the small room. She's not sure if it's out of respect for her grief or out of fear of being caught in the crosshairs of her fury.
She's not surprised that it's Gene Donnelly who's chosen to cross the invisible line. He was her father's political crony and has been Adam's mentor since high school. He was the only one who hadn't been shocked, when she'd shown up at the temporary campaign office in Scottsdale, to learn that Adam had a sister.
"How are you holding up, kid?"
"Fine." She unlocks her phone with her thumb and tries not to squirm under those sharp, penetrating eyes. "I really should call Deborah."
"I've spoken with her three times. Her flight leaves in twenty minutes. I will have someone pick her up at the airport," Gene says.
Guilt, like a jagged knife, stabs her already aching heart. "She deserved to hear it from me."
"Her only son's been shot. It would have sounded the same no matter who she heard it from."
That Gene is right does little to ease the guilt. Joy pulls her knees to her chest and burrows deeper into the lightweight jacket Victor Esposito, one of Adam's co-workers and college buddies, had draped over her shoulders during one of her sulking periods.
"It should be me," she murmurs. No matter how she tries to run from it with twists of fancy and logic, her thoughts always return to the same place. If Deborah Novak is going to lose a child, she should lose the one she never wanted in the first place. Not the one she held on to so tightly.
Adam is the one with the desk job. He does his world saving through phone calls and meetings and powerful words. The closest he should ever come to guns is in the regulation legislation he helps craft regarding them. She's the one who is more hands-on with the world saving. She's the one who spent eight months undercover in Brownsville shutting down a gun-running operation. She's the one who has worked in law enforcement, in one role or another, since her junior year of high school. She's the one who takes the bullets. He's the one who makes it harder for nutcases to buy them.
The pity buried behind the worry in Gene's eyes sends Joy to her feet. She rakes a hand through a riot of short, sun-streaked curls. "I need to go."
Away from all that concern and worry and fear, she leans against the outside of the building and calls her boss. The director of the D.C. office picks up on the third ring. He sounds as harried as she expected.
"I want in. The taskforce. Manhunt. Whatever it is, I want on it," she says.
"Can you be objective?" he asks. Dave Hernandez is renowned for being blunt. It's the reason he got to the top of the food chain in every field office he ever entered. It's also why he'll never make it through a Congressional confirmation.
"As objective as anyone can be when someone shoots at the President of the United States. Sir."
"Posten." Her name is a sigh. She's only been at the D.C. office for three weeks, but they worked together in Dallas and Kansas City and that bloody, heartbreaking month in Spokane. There's history. Not all of it's good, but it's theirs. "Joy. Where are you?"
"I'm at the hospital. I can be there in twenty. Fifteen if they get rid of the blockade outside."
"How is your brother?"
"Still in surgery." Joy shifts her weight. "How many other bystanders were hit? What do we know about the shooters? What type of rounds were they using? I haven't been able to get anything from Secret Service or the doctors."
"I want you on this. You'd do a hell of a job representing our agency, especially after all the shit we've got on our face. You're damn good." He sighs again, and Joy knows there's a 'but' coming. "I can't have you on this. If things were different. If your brother hadn't been hit…. You're too close."
"Yeah. Yeah, I figured. Thanks, Dave. Will you at least keep me posted?"
"Joy, your focus right now needs to be on Adam."
Her dry, achy eyes drift closed. The warm affection in Dave's voice wraps around her like a fuzzy blanket. In her mind, he's not the harried field director of a government agency in the middle of a national crisis. He's not her boss. She wants to tell him how scared she is for Adam. How she's dreading her mother's arrival because Deborah Novak never fully recovered from burying one child, and Joy is certain that burying another will push her past the point of no return. How she wishes she could turn back time and take Adam's place because the fiery pain of a bullet tearing through flesh and muscle and bone is not something her beloved older brother should ever have to feel. How she wants two minutes, just two damn minutes, in a room with the shooters so she can teach them what happens when you try to take potshots at the President and his entourage. What happens when you go after her family.
Someone in the background on Dave's end of the call speaks. The moment passes. Dave isn't the man she'd wanted to spend the rest of her life with. Not anymore. She isn't that starry-eyed, gung-ho newbie, and they aren't what they were. Can never be what they were. Spokane saw to that.
"Keep me posted," she insists. He will. She knows it because she sees the look in his eyes when she heads out for an assignment. She's felt the tingle when their hands brush as she turns in her reports. They can't be one diamond ring away from forever, but they'll never be just director and agent. He'll keep her posted.
She hangs up without saying goodbye. She turns to head back inside the hospital. Back to that room so full of misery it makes her want to puke. Tessa hovers just outside the doors flanked by two agents. Hope wars with anxiousness in her damp eyes.
"They're moving him out of surgery."