CONTROL WAS ALL THAT WAS REAL. I had learned from a young age that planning, calculation, and observation could avoid most unpleasant things—unnecessary risk, disappointment, and most importantly, heartache.
Planning to avoid the unpleasant though wasn’t always easy, a fact that had become glaringly apparent in the dim lights of Cutter’s Pub.
The dozen or so neon signs hanging on the walls and the weak track lighting from the ceiling, highlighting the bottles of liquor behind the bar, were only slightly comforting. Everything else made it evident just how far I was from home.
The reclaimed barn wood made up the walls, and the blond pine smudged with black stain had been designed specifically to make the Midtown space look like a hole-in-the-wall bar, but it was too clean. A hundred years of smoke hadn’t saturated the paint. The walls didn’t whisper about Capone or Dillinger.
I’d been sitting on the same stool for two hours since I’d quit unpacking the boxes in my new condo. For as long as I could stand, I’d put away my items that made up who I was. Exploring my new neighborhood was much more appealing, especially in the amazingly mild night air even though it was the last day in February. I was experiencing my new independence with the added freedom of having no one at home who expected a report of my whereabouts.
The seat cushion that I was keeping warm was covered in orange substitute leather, and after drinking a respectful percentage of my relocation incentive that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had so generously deposited into my account that afternoon, I was doing well to keep from falling off of it.
The last of my fifth Manhattan of the evening slid from inside the fancy glass into my mouth, sizzling down my throat. The bourbon and sweet vermouth tasted like loneliness. That at least made me feel at home. Home though was thousands of miles away, and it felt even farther the longer I sat on one of the twelve stools lining the curved bar.
I wasn’t lost though. I was a runaway. Stacks of boxes sat in my new fifth-floor condo, boxes that I had packed with enthusiasm while my former fiancé, Jackson, stood and sulked in the corner of our tiny shared Chicago apartment.
Moving on was key to climbing the ranks in the Bureau, and I had gotten very good at it in a small amount of time. Jackson had been unfazed when I first told him I was being transferred to San Diego. Even at the airport, right before I’d left, he’d promised that we could still make it work. Jackson wasn’t good at letting go at all. He had threatened to love me forever.
I dangled the cocktail glass in front of me with an expectant smile. The bartender helped me set it soundly on the wood, and then he poured another. The orange peel and cherry were in a slow dance somewhere between the surface and the bottom—like me.
“This is your last one, honey,” he said, wiping the bar on each side of me.
“The Feds never do,” he said without judgment.
“Is it that obvious?” I said.
“A lot of you live around here. You all talk the same and get drunk the first night away from home. Don’t worry. You don’t scream Bureau.”
“Thank God for that,” I said, holding up my glass. I didn’t mean it. I loved the Bureau and everything about it. I’d even loved Jackson, who was an agent, too.
“Where did you transfer from?” he asked. His too-tight black V-neck, manicured cuticles, and perfectly gelled coif betrayed his flirtatious smile.
His lips pulled back and puckered until he somewhat resembled a fish, and his eyes widened. “You should be celebrating.”
“I guess I shouldn’t be upset unless I run out of places to run to.” I took a gulp and licked the smoky burn of bourbon from my lips.
“Oh. Getting away from your ex?”
“In my line of work, you never really get away.”
“Oh, hell. He’s a fed, too? Don’t shit where you sleep, sweetie.”
I traced the rim of my glass. “They don’t actually train you for that.”
“I know. It happens a lot. See it all the time,” he said, shaking his head, while he washed something in a suds-filled sink behind the bar. “You live close?”
I eyed him, wary of anyone who could sniff out an agent and asked too many questions.
“Will you be frequenting here?” he clarified.
Seeing where he was going with his inquisition, I nodded. “Likely.”
“Don’t worry about the tip. Moving is expensive, and so is drinking away what you left behind. You can make it up to me later.”
His words made my lips curve up in a way they hadn’t in months even though it probably wasn’t noticeable to anyone but me.
“Not if they want to drink here.”
Anthony tended to the only other patron at the bar on this late Monday night—or some might call it an early Tuesday morning. The pudgy middle-aged woman with swollen red eyes wore a black dress. As he did so, the door swung open, and a man around my age breezed in, sitting two stools down. He loosened his tie and unfastened the top button of his perfectly pressed white oxford. He glanced in my direction, and in that half second, his hazel-green eyes registered everything about me he wanted to know. Then, he looked away.
My cell phone buzzed in my blazer pocket, and I pulled it out to check the display. It was another text message from Jackson. Beside his name, a small six fit snuggly between parentheses, noting the number of messages he’d sent. That trapped number reminded me of the last time he’d touched me—during a hug I’d had to coax him out of.
I was two thousand one hundred and fifty miles from Jackson, and he was still able to make me feel guilty—but not guilty enough.
I clicked the side button on my cell phone, darkening the screen, without replying to Jackson’s message. Then, I lifted my finger to the bartender while gulping down the remainder of my sixth glass.
I’d found Cutter’s Pub right around the corner from my new condo in Midtown, an area in San Diego nestled between the International Airport and the zoo. My Chicago colleagues were wearing FBI-standard parkas over their bulletproof vests while I was enjoying the warmer than usual San Diego weather in a tube top and blazer with skinny jeans. I felt a little overdressed and a tad sweaty. Granted, that could be from the amount of liquor in my system.
“You’re awfully little to be in a place like this,” the man two stools down said.
“A place like what?” Anthony said, raising a brow while practically fisting a tumbler.
The man ignored him.
“I’m not little,” I said before taking a drink. “I’m petite.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
“I also have a Taser in my purse and a mean left hook, so don’t bite off more than you can chew.”
I didn’t give the man the gratification of attention. Instead, I stared forward. “Was that a racist remark?”
“Absolutely not. You just seem a little violent to me.”
“I’m not violent,” I said although it was preferable to coming off as a vapid, easy target.
“Oh, really?” He wasn’t asking. He was antagonizing. “I just recently read about female Asian peace leaders being honored. I’m guessing you weren’t one of them.”