Opal, GEM, Book 1

GEM agent, Opal’s strengths are adaptation and infiltration. Assigned to go undercover at a youth center when several teenagers disappear, she’s shocked to recognize a ghost of her own traumatic past at the helm. However, her worry for the missing kids is greater than her concern being recognized and she risks her own safety to discover the truth. 
To complicate matters, an FBI agent with the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team she’s worked alongside before, shows up conducting his own investigation and almost blows her cover. It takes some convincing, and cooperation is reluctant at first,  but the common goal sways them to join forces.
Working together to uncover an organized group of child molesters, they find themselves falling—for each other.
GEM: a privately-funded organization operating independently in the search for—and the rescue and recovery of—missing and exploited children. Although at times  working in conjunction with law enforcement, GEM aims to ensure the victims receive justice…by whatever means necessary. 
Janey and I get dressed for bed quietly.
Mostly because we know we’re being watched. 
Compliance comes easy when even at only seventeen you’ve been made to believe you have no rights, no importance, no voice.
Yesterday we were told it was time for more ‘personal development.’ Like Pavlov’s dogs, we immediately fell silent as we climbed into the van taking us from the group home to our destination, our minds automatically detaching from our bodies. It’s how we protect ourselves, knowing the next however many hours our bodies are no longer ours to command. 
I barely get into my bottom bunk after turning off the lights when Janey’s whisper sounds over my head. 
“Do you think Raj will come back?”
I glance over at the single bed on the other side of the room, barely visible in the dark. Up until two months ago, Raj would sleep there. The three of us arrived here at Transition House within a few months of each other and shared this room for the past three years. 
Raj was a year older than Janey and me, but the three of us became close. As close as sisters, something none of us had ever known. As the eldest, she’d looked after us as best she could, comforting us with the promise of better times ahead. 
I miss her soft voice in the dark room as she would talk to distract us from the dark thoughts that inevitably crept in with nightfall. Especially on nights like these, when I could still feel unwanted hands on my skin. 
She was simply gone one day, without so much as a goodbye. It was the day after she turned eighteen and was of legal age.
“I don’t know,” I lie, secretly convinced we’ll never see Raj again. “Anything’s possible, I guess.”
“I can’t do this anymore…” I can barely hear Janey’s voice, but the desperation is clear and it scares me.
“Yes, you can. You will. Just like I will.”
“…are you there?”
Janey’s voice crackles through my earpiece.
I slide my hand under my hair and push the tiny button behind my ear twice for yes. If I wasn’t in the middle of a group of volunteers, waiting to be briefed by a search coordinator, I would’ve stepped away and used my voice, but I might draw attention to myself, which is something I don’t want.
“Keep an eye on James Genzel, one of Ricky’s teachers. Fifty-one, five foot nine, glasses, dirty blond, and balding. No facial hair.” My eyes immediately roam the crowd and zoom in on the slightly overweight man standing about twenty feet from me, at the edge of the search group, as Janey’s voice continues to fill me in. “School secretary says he left school in the middle of the day for a health emergency, and she didn’t see him until yesterday when he showed up fidgety. Her words, not mine.” 
I hit the button twice more to let her know I got all that and start inching my way in Genzel’s direction. It’s not unusual for perpetrators to join the search for their victims. Some of those sick bastards feed off that, and they’ll often spend more time observing everyone around them than actually doing any searching. It also wouldn’t be the first time a perp tried to steer a search away from where they dumped their victims. 
Either way, if the teacher had anything to do with thirteen-year-old Ricky’s disappearance forty-eight hours ago, his behavior could give him away and I’ll be watching.
“Can I have your attention please?”
The rich voice belongs to a tall, gray-haired man wearing sunglasses that obscure a large part of his face. A face, that from the lower half visible, is the kind that would earn him the moniker, silver fox. Luckily, I’m immune to appearances. A good thing, since I’m here to do a job.
As the man introduces himself as Agent Kenny with the FBI CARD team, I quickly return my attention to the teacher. He appears to be engrossed in the instructions the agent shares, nodding every now and then in understanding. Then we’re split up in groups and I shuffle a little closer to Genzel, to ensure I’ll be in the same group with him, when a hand taps my shoulder.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” the deep cultured voice sounds behind me. 
I turn to find a pair of intense, hazel eyes focused on me. His shades are shoved up into his hair, and at this proximity, I can see faint freckles dotting his face. Definitely a silver fox.
“Were you planning on joining the search?”
My feathers are instantly ruffled, I hate being underestimated, but I remind myself this is exactly what I hope for when I’m in the field. The terrain we’re supposed to search is a stretch of wooded area along the Potomac River, just a mile or so from the middle school Ricky went missing from the day before yesterday. A rugged stretch with ample undergrowth, fallen limbs, and dense trees.
I’ve been in much worse terrain, but he wouldn’t know that.
“That’s why I’m here. This isn’t my first search,” I can’t resist adding. 
Agent Kenny raises an eyebrow, clearly not convinced, but he doesn’t press the issue and points me to the group that started forming a few feet away. Fortunately, my target is in that group.
We line up about six feet apart, most of us carrying a stick or a pole, and start slowly moving into the trees, occasionally calling out Ricky’s name. I’m right beside the teacher, glancing his way from time to time, while still scanning the ground in front of me for any signs of Ricky. 
It takes us a couple of hours of inching our way through when the trees open up and we hit the bank of the river. Kenny orders a small break before we retrace our steps downriver from where we ended up. I pull a bottle of water from the small backpack I have strapped on. I notice Genzel didn’t bring any so I take my second bottle from my pack and hand it to him. 
“Thanks,” he says, twisting the top off and taking a swig. “I’m clearly not that well prepared. This is my first time doing anything like this. It’s a little unnerving.”
“Are you family?” I ask innocently, hoping to keep him talking.
He shakes his head. “No. I’m a teacher at Springfield. Ricky is in my math class. You?”
“Just a concerned citizen.”
I don’t detect any subterfuge in the man, but he could be a good actor.
He opens his mouth to say something when Agent Kenny’s voice calls us all to attention. A few minutes later, the two groups are lined up with our backs to the river, and we start working our way through the next stretch of dense growth. 
We’ve barely hit the trees when someone down the line calls the boy’s name and I hear a sound from up ahead. I stop in my tracks.
“Hold up!” I yell out before cupping my hands around my mouth. “Ricky!” 
Again, I can hear what sounds like a whimper and turn to glance at Genzel, who is looking at me, surprise on his face.
“I heard that.”
“Keep calling out to him,” I tell the teacher, as I start moving forward, trying to pinpoint where the sound is coming from. 
Five minutes later I find him, the FBI agent close on my heels. His skinny body is mostly hidden by the large trunk of a felled tree. His leg sticks out at an unnatural angle.
Keeping my back to the man behind me, I mumble in the microphone tucked under my hair.
“Found him. Looks like an accident.”
“Ten-four,” I hear Janey’s voice in my ear.
“Hey, buddy.” I kneel down beside the pale boy and grab his hand. “You’re gonna be okay.”
Behind me I hear yelling down the line of volunteers, and Agent Kenny’s voice barking our coordinates into his radio. I ignore them and keep my eyes on the child, digging up my water bottle so I can give him a few sips. The kid must be dehydrated. 
It takes another hour and a half for EMTs to find us, stabilize Ricky, and carry him out.    
“Glad for this outcome.”
I’m watching the stretcher being loaded in the back of the waiting ambulance when the agent steps up beside me. I glance over at him and grin. 
* * *
She definitely should smile more.
It would seem I underestimated this woman on more than one front. 
I’m not sure what drew my eye to her in the first place, but something about her looked out of place in the group of volunteers. I guess she looked almost too innocent. I’ve been at the occasional search where a volunteer would not be prepared for the kind of scene we found and ended up more trouble than they were worth. Maybe I was afraid this woman would be like that.  
Don’t think anyone was as surprised as I was when she took control of her group and, without hesitation, walked ahead to discover the injured boy. She stayed with him, talking to him quietly, and keeping him calm until the medics arrived. 
I didn’t believe her when she said this wasn’t her first search, but it’s clear I was wrong. I also thought she looked unremarkable, but now that I’ve seen her smile, I realize I was wrong about that too.
“We should grab a sandwich before they’re all gone,” I find myself saying. 
I point to the crowd at the back of a van belonging to a local restaurant kind enough to provide lunch for the volunteers. She looks over and seems to hesitate for a moment before she makes up her mind.
“Sure. I could eat.”
She’s made herself comfortable sitting on the open gate of a maroon pickup truck when I return with a couple of bottles of water and some sandwiches. 
“Yours?” I indicate the late-model Silverado, trying to hide my surprise at her choice of vehicles. 
“It is,” she says, her mouth tilting up at one side. “Hop on up.”
I set the food and water down before hoisting myself up beside her.  
“Nice.” I settle in with a bottle and unwrap one of the sandwiches, sneaking a glance at her. “Name’s Mitch Kenny.” I wipe my hand on my jeans and hold it out.
“Nice to meet you, Mitch,” she says, firmly gripping my hand with her smaller one. “I’m Opal.”
The name seems a bit frivolous. She strikes me as unpretentious and simple, but then she pulls the ball cap from her head and a wealth of hair drops down to her shoulders. Thick, wavy, russet-blond hair you’d want to bury your fingers into. My body involuntarily responds and I quickly focus on my sandwich before I give myself away. 
“So, Opal,” I start, after swallowing my bite. “What brought you out today? Are you local?”
When I turn to her, she eyes me with a hint of suspicion. 
“Nope. I’m a Kentucky original, but I happened to be visiting Hagerstown when I heard about the boy’s disappearance. I thought I could help.”
“And you certainly did.”
She opts not to respond to that and instead takes a decent bite of her sandwich. Even that suddenly seems appealing. I like a woman with a healthy appetite. One too many times I’ve taken someone to a nice restaurant, only to sit across from them while they play around with a few lettuce leaves on their plate. It’s annoying as hell.  
“How long have you been with the CARD team?” she asks in between bites, turning the tables on me.
“Wow,” she says, surprised. “You’re one of the original ones, then.”
She clearly knows more about CARD than most, which I also find intriguing. Few people know what the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team is, let alone the year of its inception. 
“I was already with the Crimes Against Children Unit so it seemed like a logical step. Never looked back.”
“Really?” She looks at me dubiously. “It’s gotta take a toll on you, dealing with young victims day in and day out.”
There’s a hint of an edge to her voice.
“That part eats away at you, but each sick bastard we bring down makes it worth it,” I admit.
She nods as if she gets what I’m saying. I’m not sure how she could, since she doesn’t know me from Adam. Even my ex didn’t understand and she knew my history. 
“Excuse me?” 
One of the guys in the search party—he looks a little like George from Seinfeld but older—walks up, his eyes flitting between Opal and myself. 
“Oh, hey. I’m sorry,” she says with a kind smile for the man, “I’m afraid I never got your name.”
“James. Look, I don’t mean to interrupt, but I just wanted to thank you again for the water.” 
He avoids looking at me, which is probably good because I’m afraid my annoyance at the interruption may be showing. A sharp whistle draws my attention and I look up to see one of my teammates wave me over. Reluctantly, I slide off the tailgate and turn to Opal.
“I’ve gotta run.” I hold out my hand to her and she places her palm against mine. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Opal. And thanks again for your help today.” 
I give the guy a nod and just as I start walking toward my team, I hear him say, “Opal, care for some company?” 
It’s probably for the best. Despite my initial impression of a plump, somewhat frumpy-looking woman, Opal managed to surprise me in ways that had my libido sit up and take notice. Apparently, I’m a sucker for smarts and confidence, and this woman has both in spades. The truck, the abundance of hair, and the sharp gray eyes only add to her appeal. 
Any more time spent with her might’ve proven to be a distraction, and I have a job that requires my full attention. 
“We need to roll out,” Matt Driver informs me when I join my team. “Just got a call. We caught another one. Sixteen-year-old female in Huntington, West Virginia. Left work at the local Walmart last night around eight thirty, but never made it home. Feed from one of the store’s surveillance cameras caught her being forced into an old cargo van in the rear parking lot.”
I check my watch. It’s one thirty, she’s been gone for seventeen hours; it’ll take us at least another five on the road. 
That’s a lot of fucking hours in the hands of a predator.
“Let’s go,” I confirm, swinging my pack on my back and jogging to the black, Bureau-issued Expedition. 
Right before I climb behind the wheel, I throw one last look over my shoulder and catch a glimpse of russet-colored hair. 
Then we roll.

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