/ Language: English / Genre:thriller / Series: Nick Bracco

A Touch of Greed

Gary Ponzo


Gary Ponzo

A Touch of Greed

Chapter 1

When the blood stopped oozing from James Braden’s head, FBI Agent Ricky Hernandez knew his partner was finally dead. Hernandez was tucked behind a steel column in an abandoned airport hanger just inside the Mexican border. His partner was sprawled on the floor ten feet away, his body riddled with bullet holes from the ambush.

“Mr. Hernandez,” the man’s voice called out from behind him in a Mexican accent, “we have two kinds of soup today. We have chicken soup and we have screw-you soup. Unfortunately for you, we are out of chicken soup.”

A roomful of laughter echoed throughout the empty chamber of aluminum roofing and corrugated steel walls. Hernandez judged about thirty men surrounded him with AK-47s, while Hernandez had an FBI issue 9mm pistol with just one solitary bullet left. He stared at Braden’s corpse lying there in such an unnatural position, his eyes wide in horrified shock. Hernandez’s legs trembled. His left eye had an uncontrollable twitch. The desert heat was so viciously oppressive, his sweat-soaked shirt stuck to his chest.

The voice taunting Hernandez belonged to Antonio Garza, known as El Carnicero throughout the world of Mexican cartels. The Butcher. He was an infamous assassin with a legendary reputation for torturing anyone who crossed him. Including undercover FBI agents posing as drug dealers. Hernandez had seen the remains of the bodies Garza had left behind. Fingers, eyes, tongues, all severed and stuck inside the victim’s mouth, while the body floated in a vat of boiling water. The assassin was known to have a doctor on hand to continuously revive the victim and prolong the torment for hours, sometimes days.

“Mr. Hernandez,” Garza said, closer now. “I make you a deal. Come out right now and I let you speak with your family. You can say a proper farewell, eh?”

Hernandez was in shock, his mind numb to the statement.

“You can’t be saved, so make your peace,” Garza ordered.

Among other things, Garza was a chronic liar. Hernandez was lured into Mexico while undercover, so there would be no rescue. He was out of US jurisdiction. Then it hit him. He still had a minute or two to say good-bye to his wife. He fumbled into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.

“I’m waiting,” he heard Garza say.

Tears blurred his vision as he tried to find his Nicole’s number in his contact list. He was bawling now, warm urine leaked from his bladder. Once he’d heard her voice he realized he wouldn’t be able to speak. He was wasting too much time just trying to gather himself. Then he saw the name just above Nicole’s. Nick Bracco. Hernandez knew then what he needed to do with the remaining seconds of his life. He pushed the button.

“Time is up,” Garza called out.

“Hey, Ricky,” came the voice on the phone.

“Nick,” Hernandez stammered. “Nick can you. .”

“What’s wrong?”

Hernandez’s hands shook, tears crawled down his face. “Please tell Nicole. .” he hiccupped and whimpered, “how much I adore her.”

“Where are you, Ricky?” Nick demanded.

“Now!” the assassin screamed, a barrage of bullets exploded all around the agent as he shriveled up behind the column for protection. His legs were getting pounded by direct hits and ricochets.

“Ricky?” Nick shouted into the receiver.

The shooting stopped. The tops of Hernandez’s feet were missing, only two toes stood out among the bloody stumps. Hernandez’s stomach spiked up into his throat. “Nick,” he uttered. “Promise me you’ll kill him.”

Footsteps came shuffling up behind him and Hernandez dropped the phone between his legs. He took one last look at his partner, then said, “I’ll be right there, Jimmy.” As he braced the tip of his pistol tight under his chin, the one thought which remained, the one glimmer of solace which contained him, was the thought that Garza would not survive long. Hernandez had an irrational rush of jubilation. Nick Bracco had been notified. Ricky Hernandez smiled.

Then he pulled the trigger.

* * *

Walt Jackson was considering going home. It was almost seven and his stomach was beginning to growl. He stood behind his desk, searching for a couple of secure flash drives he needed to take home, when his cell phone chirped. “Nick Bracco,” came up on his display. As the Special Agent in Charge of the Baltimore field office, Walt was the head of an elite anti-terrorist task force simply known as, “The Team.” Four of the shrewdest investigators the FBI had ever trained. Along with Nick and his partner Matt McColm, the team was split across the nation. Nick and Matt were in Arizona, while the other two worked out of the Baltimore field office. Nick Bracco was the lead agent of the group and rarely called to chitchat.

“What’s up?” Walt asked, finding the two flash drives and slipping them into his pocket.

“Sorry, Walt,” Nick said with a somber tone.

Walt’s instincts told him to prepare for the worst.

“Tell me,” Walt said.

“Jim and Ricky are dead.”

Walt’s pulse quickened. He felt lightheaded and plopped down in his leather chair with wobbly legs. He ran a hand over his face and looked at the floor. His new team was only six months old. They’d been grooming new members carefully ever since four of the original six members were murdered by a Russian assassin last year. Now the newborn group of four was down to two.

Walt had the overwhelming sense that he’d come too close to touching the sun and was now paying the price. He tried to control his breathing with mild success.

“You still there?” Nick asked.

“Yeah,” Walt croaked.

“Jill and Nicole need to know.”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“Sorry,” Nick repeated.

“Damn it,” Walt muttered. “Someone gave them up.”

“Yes.”

“Someone on our side.”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know, but I will.”

Walt took longer breaths while Nick patiently waited for him to recover.

“You took every possible precaution, Walt. There was no way to eliminate all the risk.”

“No I didn’t, or we wouldn’t have two more dead agents on the team.”

Walt’s stomach tightened, while his head throbbed. He was clearly losing the battle with his emotions, but needed a clear mind. He needed to make the right choices or the damage could accumulate.

“Nick,” Walt said into the phone, rubbing his temple. “You can’t go down there.”

“I know.”

“I’m serious. Once you cross that border, you’re alone. Completely.”

“I know.”

“I mean, these cartels, for crying out loud, Nick, they are the law down there.”

“I understand.”

Walt looked around to assure his solitude. He was in his office with the door closed, yet still knew enough to keep his voice low. “You’re going to need help.”

This one seemed to stop Nick. Walt could tell his lead agent was surprised by his suggestion.

“You mean. . Tommy?”

There was no other help Walt could’ve been suggesting. The CIA was constantly at war with his division and adding untrained FBI agents to the body count simply wasn’t acceptable. Nick’s cousin Tommy, however, had roots within a well-known Sicilian family which occasionally operated outside the law. A family whose information had been very instrumental in capturing terrorists in the past. It was a relationship Walt found uncomfortable, but the return on investment had been remarkable.

“Yes,” Walt confirmed. “He’ll have contacts which could be extremely valuable.”

“Okay,” Nick said.

“I mean, we can’t afford to send shoes down there to muddle things up. The more agents we send, the scarier it gets. We use the surgical tactic we’ve planned. The smaller, the better.”

“That’s fine, Walt, but I’ll need Stevie to bring some tech toys with him.”

Walt looked out the bulletproof window behind his desk. The setting sun cast a shadow over the few cars left in the parking lot. His wife probably had his cold dinner already wrapped and in the refrigerator. After thirty years of marriage, she’d still be waiting for him with a smile and a kiss.

“I’ll have Stevie on the first flight out in the morning.”

“Good,” Nick said.

There was a silence while the two of them put their thoughts together. Walt wanted to tell Nick he’d hop on a plane and be there himself, but as he stared outside, he could sense the sun setting in too many ways. He owed it to his wife to be there. She’d seen too much action.

As if Nick could translate the silence, he said, “Stay where you are, Walt. You’re more valuable to me inside the beltway where you can get decisions made.”

Walt took the cue and said, “Nick.”

“Yeah?”

Walt squeezed his eyes shut. “Please. Be careful.”

Chapter 2

Not far from the US border, Antonio Garza, El Carnicero, stood inside the walls of his complex with a hose, watering the vincas and grumbling to some nearby soldiers about the status of his plants.

“Lo siento,” one of the soldiers said with an uneasy expression.

“In English,” Garza snapped. “Always, in English, you fool.”

“Sorry,” the soldier apologized.

Garza insisted his inner circle used their second language, because they needed the practice for when they crossed the border and tried to assimilate into the American public.

The late summer heat might have caused his garden to wilt, but that’s all that was drooping. His income had been growing remarkably over the past couple of years and the future looked bright. Being an independent contractor for the various cartels made him a necessity to everyone, yet no one’s enemy.

Just in case, his complex was surrounded by a ten foot block wall with subtle parapets for his guards to monitor the perimeter. The complex was able to withstand an attack from any number of weapons-including rocket-propelled-grenades. It was topped with a rectangular balcony which doubled as a watchtower.

Not by chance, the eight-thousand-square-foot building itself was built of brick on the side of a hill and housed thirty-five militia warriors, ready to follow his orders at a moments notice.

From behind him, Garza heard a window creak open and his primary lieutenant, Victor Sanchez, nodded for his attention.

Garza waved back. “Okay, I’ll be right there.” He handed the hose to one of the soldiers and gave instructions, then ran up the outdoor spiral staircase to his second floor office. It was an oversized room with dark tiled floors and rounded doorways with views from every direction. From there it was easy to spot anyone approaching the complex.

Garza passed a couple of armed guards on the way and as he arrived, he found Victor standing beside his desk holding out a cell phone.

Garza took the phone and smiled as he sat down and stretched his feet up on the desk. “How are you, my American friend?” he asked.

The man on the line didn’t sound like he appreciated the comment. “I have your information.”

“Please,” Garza waved his hand in a wide circle, “tell me everything.”

“His name is Nick Bracco,” the man said. “He’s been the Bureau’s top anti-terrorist agent for over a decade. He has a wife and an infant son. His partner’s name is Matt McColm. McColm is a sharpshooter who used to be with Special Forces before joining the Bureau. Neither of these men are stupid. They should not be taken lightly.”

“Excellent,” Garza said. “How motivated are they to come get me?”

“Very. You just killed two of their friends. They will retaliate.”

“Fantastic.” Garza’s eyes sparkled. “What else?”

There was a silence, which meant the American was considering how much to contribute.

“My friend,” Garza said. “Now is no time to be shy. We have much too much at stake. No?”

The line remained quiet for a few seconds. Garza waited.

“There is one other thing you should know,” the man said. “Bracco comes from a Sicilian family. His cousin, Tommy, has connections within a particular crime family out of the Baltimore area. No one knows how deep these relationships run, but there’s been rumors throughout the Bureau that Tommy has actually helped the FBI capture terrorists. He supposedly has informants all over the place. Maybe even below the border.”

Garza pulled his feet down from his desk. “You mean the FBI is using criminals to help them? Is that legal in your country?”

“Technically they’re informants, but they’re treated like consultants. The information flows both ways, however. There’s certainly some questionable ethical debates, but no one within the government is anxious to prosecute someone who’s rounding up bad guys.”

Garza twisted his chair to get a good look out the window. In the distance, past the airport hangar and the two-mile stretch of high desert landscape, was the border. He had so many good ideas roaming in his mind, he couldn’t help but smile.

“Where does this Agent Bracco live?” Garza said, pulling a notepad from his desk drawer.

“In Payson, Arizona,” the man said.

Garza found a pen in the same drawer. “And exactly what is his address?”

The man gave it to Garza and he wrote it down. El Carnicero circled the address and leaned back and sighed. “I have many surprises planned for this agent.”

“I’m sure you do,” the man said with no emotion in his voice.

Garza disconnected the call and placed the phone in his lap. He considered his next move. After a few minutes, he pushed a button on his phone. When a man answered, he said, “Expect company.”

“We’ve been waiting,” the man said.

Garza hung up the phone and went over to his window. Just below him, within the secure walls of his compound, his seven-year-old son Julio was waving a baseball at his dad.

“Papa,” he screamed. “Play with me.”

Amidst the soldiers with assault rifles, Julio was tossing the ball in the air and catching it with his baseball glove. It was a lonely existence for the boy, not being able to play with friends like a normal child. Since his mother was shot during a drug bust, Garza had been the boy’s sole friend.

Garza smiled. Julio was the only person who had received his unconditional affection. The boy’s attitude and zeal for life was the antidote to the daily stresses of his work. He picked up a worn baseball glove from a side table near the door and opened the window. “I’ll be right down,” he yelled.

Chapter 3

It was only 6:15 AM in the Bracco house, but infants couldn’t read digital clocks so Nick’s son, Thomas, was up and ready to go. Thomas was on his back kicking his legs in the air with a playful smile. Julie Bracco changed his diaper on one side of their bed while Nick threw underwear into a canvas bag on the other side.

Julie tickled her son’s tummy while she asked Nick, “How long will you be gone?”

“A few days,” Nick said, acting as casual as possible about his treacherous assignment. He tossed some shirts into the bag and caught a reflection from the lake in their backyard.

From their second floor bedroom window, Nick could see the lake glistening in the early morning sunlight, while pine trees cast long shadows across its shoreline. He’d moved his family to Payson, Arizona, to escape the threat and stress of dealing with terrorists, but the move hadn’t changed the landscape. It certainly didn’t dissuade a Kurdish terrorist from tracking him down and attempting to murder him and his wife. It was the final act of the terrorist’s career and prompted Nick to install a high-tech security system just for times like these.

Nick decided to remain in the mountain community hoping his wife and infant son would be safer, while he operated the west coast division of the Bureau’s anti-terrorist task force. Now, he wanted his wife to feel secure while he left and found revenge for a couple of his close FBI teammates.

As if she could sense the tension in Nick’s mind, Julie looked up from the bed with a worried expression. “What’s going on?”

Thomas kicked his tiny legs in the air and giggled while Julie patted his bottom with powder.

Nick grabbed a few shirts from the closet, then sat next to her. “Ricky and Jim are dead.”

Her mouth opened and her face scrunched up into a combination of horror and confusion. “But, how?”

Nick locked eyes on her and kept them there. “They were outed while working undercover.”

Julie glanced down at Thomas and secured his diaper.

“Where?”

“Mexico.”

Julie glanced at the open canvas bag, then back to Nick. “That’s where you’re going, isn’t it?” She scooped up Thomas and clutched him to her chest as if he might need extra security.

“No.”

“Nick.”

He gave his son a soft kiss on his smooth cheek, then brushed back an imaginary hair on Thomas’s head. “I’m not taking any chances,” he said with as much conviction as he could.

Julie looked up at the ceiling with glossy eyes. “It’s been so quiet. Have you been keeping things from me?”

“No,” he lied.

She looked down at Thomas wiggling in her arms. “Are we in danger?”

Nick stood up, folded his shirts and shoved them into his bag. He tried to act casual for this one. “I don’t think so, but I’m going to have Jennifer stay with you just in case.”

Julie examined his demeanor while he opened a dresser drawer and grabbed some socks. Having the lone resident FBI agent from Payson staying at your house would seem like an extreme measure for an average family, but Jennifer Steele was no ordinary FBI agent. She was Matt McColm’s girlfriend. The same Matt McColm who’d been Nick’s partner for the past decade. Jennifer and Matt were regular visitors to the Bracco home and many times had spent the night in the guest bedroom when the beer and wine flowed in abundance.

Thomas became fussy, maybe sensing the anxiety between them. Nick went over and took him from Julie. He smiled at his son and received a smile back.

“Who’s my good boy?” he asked Thomas.

Julie put her head on Nick’s shoulder and seemed to accept her fate. “How long will you be gone?”

“A week, maybe less.”

“You take your pills?”

“They’re packed,” Nick said, referring to the medication to keep his PTSD in check. He’d been diagnosed with the disorder a year back when the stress of battling terrorists had become too much for his brain to handle.

She sighed, the two of them now staring jubilantly at their proudest possession.

“Jule,” Nick said, still looking at Thomas.

“Yeah?”

“He has your eyes.”

He could feel her face smile.

A car pulled up in the front of the house. Nick went over and glanced out a side window to catch a view of the vehicle.

“Hey, check this out,” Nick said, calling Julie to the window. “You’ve never witnessed the good-bye ritual before.”

Julie came over and leaned into the window to get a better view. They could see Jennifer Steele grab a bag from the back seat and move around to the driver’s side and duck in through the window. She gave Matt a kiss, then dropped her bag and wrapped both arms around her boyfriend, while Matt pulled her halfway into the car, the two of them voraciously going at it, time seeming to be no option.

Julie sighed. “Remember when we were like that?”

“C’mon, Jule,” Nick said. “We’re still like that. Only difference is, we aren’t as insecure about our relationship.”

“So that’s what this is,” she said, watching the two lovers keeping the embrace alive. “Insecurity?”

“Of course,” Nick said, grinning now, because the kiss didn’t seem to have a shelf life. “I mean, who needs that long to express their feelings?”

Julie reached her free arm around Nick’s waist and gave him a long kiss. Thomas gurgled up spit on Nick’s neck and the expulsion quickly ended the romantic interlude.

Nick handed Thomas back to her and grabbed a towel from the dresser. He returned with a disgusted expression while wiping his neck. “Maybe, there’s another reason for our lack of romance.”

The front door opened and footsteps came up the stairs.

“Knock, knock,” Jennifer Steele said from the foyer.

“We’re in the bedroom,” Julie called out.

Jennifer came in wearing jeans, a Phoenix Suns T-shirt and a baseball cap with a ponytail hanging from the back. She dropped a heavy duffle bag on the floor and rubbed her shoulder.

Nick lifted the bag, then quickly returned it to the floor. “What kind of protection are you packing, Agent Steele?”

“The usual,” Steele smiled and left it at that.

A car horn honked. Steele pointed a thumb over her shoulder. “He’s waiting.”

Nick quickly threw his shaving kit into the bag, then kissed Julie and Thomas before heading for the door.

“I’ll text you when we get there,” he said.

Steele held his arm, a little longer than necessary. She looked at him with a deadpan stare. “Be careful.”

Nick nodded casually, not wanting to add to the tension he could see in Julie’s eyes. “Of course.”

He left the house and tossed his bag into the back seat of his partner’s Ford Expedition. Matt McColm handed him an apple as he strapped himself into the passenger seat.

“Thanks,” Nick said, taking a bite from the apple.

Matt drove to the end of the driveway and stopped, looking over his left shoulder at the house.

“Julie okay?” Matt said.

“As okay as she’ll ever be.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means, she doesn’t want to know where I’m going, but she asks anyway. Then she frets about every possible scenario.” Nick ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t know, buddy. These days I wonder if a job with the postal service isn’t a good choice.”

“Yeah, well, they’re laying off a lot of postal employees these days,” Matt said. “So you’d probably be out of work and scrounging around for mortgage money. Be grateful you haven’t had the financial stress most Americans have had to face.”

Nick sighed, thinking of what lie ahead of them.

“Stevie coming?” Matt asked.

“Uh, huh.”

“It’s going to get ugly,” Matt said.

Nick glanced back at his house where both of his prized possessions resided. “It always does,” he said.

* * *

After picking up Stevie Gilpin at the airport, Nick and Matt debriefed him on the way to Tucson. Gilpin was a slim young man with thin, frameless glasses and an insatiable penchant for all things technical.

Nick looked over his shoulder at Stevie who was playing with one of his mechanical toys. “Are you listening to me?”

“Of course,” Stevie said with an easy smile. “Unlike some older agents, I can multitask.”

Matt grinned from behind the wheel. “I’m not even forty, so don’t go shoveling dirt on me just yet.”

Nick pointed to an abandoned building in the center of an empty parking lot. “There,” he said. “Park in the back.”

The building was the size of an enormous superstore with no other marking but the faded letters where the original sign covered the paint. In the rear of the building was a row of cars parked under a strip of metal covering to protect against the Arizona summer heat. Matt pulled into one of the empty spots and turned off the car.

Nick twisted in his seat. “Stevie?”

While still pushing buttons on a small electronic device, Stevie said, “I know. Stay close to you and don’t talk to anyone.”

Nick got out of the car satisfied his instructions were heard. When they approached the white metal door, Nick spied the miniature camera above a wall light. To the unobservant eye it would seem as if this were a vacant building instead of the Southwest’s largest Homeland Security office.

Before pushing the button on the wall next to the door, Nick turned to Matt and said, “You ready?”

Matt stuck a piece of chewing gum in his mouth and nodded. “Uh huh.”

Nick hit the button next to an employee card scanning device and waited only a few seconds before the door opened. A chiseled man in fatigues with an assault rifle strapped around his neck stood waiting for them.

Nick held up his FBI shield and received a nod from the man who stepped aside and allowed the three agents to pass. Without a word spoken, they entered the building. The place was an enormous hollowed out warehouse with a high ceiling and no walls to separate anyone. To their left was a large cage where several German Shepherds paced around each other, prancing on their toes, anxious for action. On the opposite side of the massive facility was the only closed-in room, the size of a volleyball court. That’s where all the impounded drugs would be stored.

Throughout the gutted warehouse were dozens of desks with computers and small lamps. Border Patrol agents banged on keyboards and moved around the facility with an organized choreography which denoted years of practice. The floor had been stripped down to the cement so an echo rang out with every phone call and every conversation. A concrete stairway led up to a second floor loft with just enough room for a secretary’s desk, a couple of waiting couches, and the one large office which would be the command center. Nick knew the Deputy Director would be working up there.

Nick led the way, walking with authority in order to diminish any chance for confrontation. Although he was seething, he kept a placid expression and nodded as he passed people at their desks. They headed up the staircase and upon reaching the top, Nick approached the solitary desk where a woman eyed the three men warily. He held out his credentials and smiled.

“Margie, you don’t know us,” Nick said, affably, “but we’re old Navy buddies of Roger’s and I want to surprise him.”

The secretary looked over the three agents who acted like they were visiting Santa. “Well, he’s on the phone right now, but once he’s off, I’ll let him know you’re here.”

Nick pointed to the phone on her desk with a solitary green light designating a current call in progress. He held his index finger to his mouth in a mischievous gesture. “Shh,” he said, heading toward the closed door. “Once he sees us, he’ll hang up. Promise. He might get a little animated, though. We were a pretty close group.”

Nick headed to the door with Matt and Stevie behind him. As he grabbed the doorknob, he turned to the secretary, who was halfway out of her seat. “If he doesn’t get off the phone within five seconds, you can come and chase us out.”

This put the secretary back in her chair with a dubious glare.

Nick smiled. “Start counting.”

The three agents entered the windowless office. Matt closed the door behind them.

Roger Decker was a stocky guy with a beefy, motorcycle cop mustache. His desk fronted a gigantic wall map of Arizona with mountains and buttes protruding from its surface to accent the topography. Decker sat behind his desk with the phone to his ear. As soon as he saw the trio approach, he pulled the phone down and said, “Who the fuck are you?”

Nick calmly grabbed the phone from Decker’s hand and slammed it down on the cradle. A complete look of astonishment covered Decker’s face. Matt came around the desk and pulled up on Decker’s white, button-down shirt, until the man was upright, then shoved the Deputy Director against the wall.

“This is a hostile takeover, asshole,” Matt spat at him.

Nick slid into the Director’s chair and began tapping on the keyboard.

Stevie seemed to want to explain things, so he held up his FBI shield. “We’re with the Bureau,” he said.

Decker looked confused.

Matt gave Stevie an angry glare. “Did you forget your instructions already?”

The technologist looked apologetic.

Nick pointed to a chair in front of Decker’s desk. “Sit down.”

Matt reached for Decker again, but this time he shoved Matt’s arms away and moved to sit in the chair on his own. A tiny show of defiance in an otherwise submissive situation.

Decker’s face twisted into a nasty snarl. “What gives you the right to barge into my office like this?”

Nick found the page he wanted, then twisted the thin monitor so Decker could get a good view. “This gives me the right,” Nick said. “I received this picture from Antonio Garza a few hours ago.”

The Deputy Director’s face became pale and his eyes wide. Subconsciously, he rubbed his neck. “El Carnicero?”

“The very same.”

Stevie stretched to see the photo over Decker’s shoulder. He looked like he might get sick. The picture showed two headless males sitting with their backs against a gray wall, nothing but bloody stumps on top of their shoulders. Their heads sat in their laps with forced smiles on the faces.

“These two men were working undercover,” Nick said. “There were only three men who knew their identity and one of them had to give them up to Garza, there’s no other explanation for this.”

Decker looked as if he had just bit into a lemon. He twisted the monitor away from him.

“Okay,” Decker said, “you made your point. But what has this got to do with me?”

“These three men work out of this office.”

“What?” Decker held up his hands. “You were running an undercover operation out of my office and you didn’t consult me?”

Nick folded his arms. “I don’t have time to explain our motives. The less people who knew meant the less people who could tip off Garza.” Nick gestured toward the monitor. “Obviously, we had one too many people involved already.”

Decker seemed disgusted. “Who are you? You never told me your name.”

“Nick Bracco.”

“Bracco?” Decker said, his eyes darting side-to-side until a flicker of recognition came across his face. “You’re the terrorist expert. What are you doing messing with drug cartels? This is way out of your league.”

“No, Mr. Decker, I’m not messing with cartels. I’m messing with Antonio Garza. He’s not a drug smuggler. He’s the gatekeeper for any cartel who wants a guaranteed entry into the United States. These drug lords know that thirty percent of their product will get confiscated, that’s already built into the price. But if someone needs assurance that a certain product will make it across-they contact Garza. He’s the one who can make it happen.”

Decker shook his head. “You’re talking to me like I’m in kindergarten. I know more about Antonio Garza than you ever will, so don’t come in here and act like you’re a genius because you’ve figured that out.” Decker got out of his chair and roamed the interior of his office, looking at the three agents with disdain. “You’re upset Garza killed two of your men. . well, shit, he’s probably killed over a hundred of my men. Men with families and courage and integrity. This war on drugs is expensive in more ways than one and no one outside of this building has any idea what’s going on out there.”

Decker returned to his chair and waited for a response. Nick looked up at Matt who was itching for conflict. Stevie stood in the background waiting to help.

Nick leaned forward and dropped his elbows on the desk. “First of all, I don’t give a crap about the drug war. If it were up to me I’d legalize the stuff and let nature take its course.”

“Then what?” Decker said. “Revenge? You think you’re going to get to Garza when the entire force of eight thousand Border Patrol agents couldn’t?” Decker glanced around the room. “You three?” He laughed. “Boy, are you in for a surprise.”

Nick stood up and ran a hand through his hair. He wasn’t about to give out any more information than he had to. He pointed to Matt. “Give him the names.”

Matt pulled a card from his pants pocket and handed it to Decker.

“What’s this?” Decker asked.

“Get these guys in here now,” Nick said.

Decker examined the card. “These are three of my best agents. I’m afraid your information is faulty.”

Nick was growing impatient. His stomach simmered with an intense desire for answers, but he wasn’t sure how much to trust anyone. Even Decker. He sat at the edge of the desk and glared at the Deputy Director. “Now,” he said.

Decker didn’t seem to have options. Any hesitation on his part could cause the appearance of a cover-up. Even if he thought his men were clean, he couldn’t afford to be complicit. He grabbed the cell phone from his desk and made three calls. His tone was firm, but not forced or phony. When he finished the final call, he looked up at Nick and asked. “What now?”

Nick turned to look at the physical map on the wall behind him and pointed to a specific spot. “Now, you’re going to tell me everything you know about this region of the border.”

Decker’s face lost its angry tone and was replaced by a new emotion. Pity.

“Please don’t tell me you’re going to do what I think you’re going to do,” Decker said.

Nick said nothing. The frightened look on the Deputy Director’s face was enough to allow a shred of doubt to creep into Nick’s mind. He just wished his plan didn’t include so many variables.

Chapter 4

Antonio Garza sat at the kitchen table helping Julio with his homework. School was starting earlier in the year and Garza was adamant about Julio’s education. He wanted the boy to grow up and live a clean life, without the stress and terror his father had to endure. The dirty dinner plates were still beside them on the table.

“Papa,” Julio said, writing in his notebook. “Donde esta mi madre?”

“En Ingles, mi hijo.”

“Por que?”

“Because,” Garza said, looking around to assure their solitude, “we may not always live in Mexico.”

“Why?” the boy asked.

“Well,” Garza said, “one day we may decide to live far away from here where English is the main language and it would be important for you to be able to speak with your neighbors.”

The boy’s eyes brightened. “You mean we could have neighbors? Like Pablo and Salvador? We could live next door to them?”

Garza smiled, ruffling up his son’s hair. “Maybe,” he said.

A thought seemed to cross Julio’s mind and his face became somber. “Is that where Mama is?”

Garza had waited as long as possible for this conversation, but needed to wait just a little longer. “Maybe,” Garza said, keeping the lie alive.

“When?” Julio asked, anxious to know his fate.

“I don’t know, hijo. Maybe soon.”

Through the upstairs kitchen window a pair of headlights could be seen traveling up the dirt road toward the complex. The road was three miles of pure desert landscape with no shelter along the way. It was the only way in and the only way out.

Following his father’s gaze, Julio began to gather his homework.

“Yes, Papa,” Julio said without being told a thing. “You have a business meeting, I know.”

Garza sighed. He took his son in his arms and said, “I do everything for you, Julio. Do you understand?”

Julio looked up into his father’s eyes. “No, Papa.”

Garza pulled him into his chest and smiled. “Someday you will, hijo. Someday.”

The boy left the room and Garza headed downstairs, passing three soldiers on the way. The last one was bigger than the rest and didn’t carry an assault rifle around his shoulder. When Garza saw him, he slowed his stride down the final couple of steps.

“Visitor, Jefe,” Victor Sanchez said.

“Yes, I know,” Garza said. “Bring him to the basement.”

“As you wish.”

Garza grabbed Victor’s arm. “Make sure you check him thoroughly, eh?”

Victor nodded.

Garza crossed the tiled foyer, down a wide corridor to an open room where five of his soldiers sat around a card table, playing Mexican Poker. One wall was lined with large surveillance monitors, two of which were infrared cameras scanning the perimeter of the facility.

Garza pointed to the wall. “Is anyone paying attention?”

They all looked at their boss with startled expressions and three of them spoke at once. Their voices overlapped, but two of them gestured toward a soldier at the table with no cards in front of him. It took Garza a moment to realize they were telling him that one person sits out each hand to watch the monitors.

Garza waved the back of his hand, then headed down a second set of stairs. The basement was bare cement walls with no pictures or decorations of any kind. There were dim spotlights recessed in the ceiling and a large screen television fronted by a leather sofa and wooden coffee table. It was a place for Garza to relax and watch baseball games at night. He’d grown to love the sport and became a big Los Angeles Dodger fan. There were a couple of recliners on either side of the sofa, but Garza always preferred to stretch out on the couch and rest his feet on the coffee table.

Garza chose the basement for his meeting because it was out of eavesdropping distance from the rest of the building. Once the door was shut it offered complete solitude. There was a bar at the far end of the room and Garza felt the need for a drink.

He poured himself a shot of mescal, then threw his head back and downed it in one gulp. The door at the top of the stairs opened and Victor Sanchez came down the steps followed by a man wearing a white Polo shirt, chinos and topsiders with no socks. He had a neatly trimmed beard and a large briefcase. The man looked like a tourist, but for the aged eyes. Two piercing tunnels of intensity which had Garza checking with Victor and getting the nod that the man was unarmed.

The man approached with his hand extended. “Mr. Garza. I’m Sadeem.”

Garza gave Sadeem, or whatever his real name was, an extra firm handshake, then pointed to one of the recliners. “Have a seat.”

The man sat and put the briefcase between his legs. Victor took a few steps back to stand guard, but Garza motioned him out of the room and Victor hesitantly complied.

Garza knew some negotiating techniques from the many books he’d read and when he sat down in the opposite recliner, he crossed his legs and kept his mouth shut. According to his books, the first person who broke the silence was the weaker of the two.

But when Sadeem finally spoke, it was with a Mid-Eastern accent that Garza couldn’t quite determine. It was either the accent or those cold vacant eyes which made Garza’s book knowledge seem irrelevant.

“You have quite a reputation, Mr. Garza,” the man said with a sly grin, which passed as his smile.

“Yes, I do,” Garza said.

Sadeem positioned the briefcase onto the coffee table and fell back into his chair. Garza couldn’t help but gaze at the case.

“The shipment will be ready in two days,” the man said. “Will you be ready?”

This was meant to be antagonizing, but somehow it came out as a threat to Garza’s ears.

“Do you question my abilities?” Garza responded.

“You have a tunnel?” Sadeem asked. “Is that how you guarantee the transfer?”

Now Garza was certain this was some test. The man glanced around the room as if searching for a security camera.

“You begin this relationship with an insult?” Garza said. “Is that correct?”

The man’s demeanor changed. He seemed more of a businessman than an interrogator. He reached with both hands and unlatched the briefcase, then opened it up and turned it toward Garza.

The first thought that went through Garza’s mind was, there’s too much there. He’d seen stacks of hundreds which added up to a quarter million or even a half million, but this was way more than expected.

As if Sadeem could read Garza’s mind, he said, “Five million.”

Garza tilted his head. No one overpays by four million dollars unless they want something extra. Something more than expected. Something dangerous.

“Now do you understand why I ask so many questions?” the man said.

“I understand that you want more than we agreed upon.”

“No,” Sadeem said firmly. “We want nothing more than what you said you could provide. Safe passage to the United States.”

The basement was completely still as the two men stared each other down.

Garza rubbed the back of his neck and it came to him. Why hadn’t he thought of it sooner?

“This shipment,” Garza said. “It is not drugs, is it?”

Sadeem shook his head. “It’s the reason I ask whether you are using a tunnel. There are certain. . uh, requirements the shipment needs in order to remain stable. The temperature outside is too hot. This load should not be left outdoors for long periods of time.”

Now Garza understood the payment. “Precisely how dangerous is this shipment?”

“In its current form it is completely harmless. However, should the container be opened, there is no guarantee.”

Garza was ready for another shot of mescal. He was also ready to send this man and his briefcase and his smug attitude on his way. But there were five million reasons why he didn’t. The man seemed to understand this and he became even more comfortable in his recliner.

“Recently, you have invited the interest of some American law enforcement officials,” Sadeem said. “Is that a wise decision?”

Garza could feel his blood pressure rise. He wasn’t used to having his decisions questioned and it didn’t sit well with him. He wondered why the man was so at ease in Garza’s lair, swollen with soldiers geared to protect him.

Garza came to his feet and felt the man’s eyes follow him as he began a slow pace behind the recliner. “You spoke about my reputation,” Garza said. “Did it occur to you that I might have provoked this attention on purpose?”

“No,” Sadeem said. “That hadn’t crossed my mind.”

“Then please allow me to do my job.” Garza pointed to the briefcase. “Obviously, someone thinks very highly of my abilities.”

The man nodded. Garza had made his point. Sadeem was obviously a courier and no more. People of importance had hired him to make the delivery and he appeared to be overstepping his boundaries.

“Okay.” Sadeem stood and slowly made his way to Garza. “I have enough information. You will meet our men precisely when we have agreed. Yes?”

Garza looked at the man’s outstretched hand. One last gesture before he could take custody of his largest payday ever. Deep inside he didn’t trust this man, yet he couldn’t place strict evidence on his suspicions. Over Sadeem’s shoulder sat the open briefcase, the five million taunting him. Garza wondered whether it was designed to be positioned that way on purpose, or whether it was pure greed which had him firmly shaking Sadeem’s hand.

“Yes,” Garza. “We will be ready.”

Chapter 5

The three Border Patrol agents sat across the desk from Nick, side-by-side, with nervous ticks and darting glances between their fellow employees and the Deputy Director who sat in a chair next to the desk facing them. Matt and Stevie stood in the rear of the room. It was just past lunchtime, but without windows, Nick had to rely on the digital clock on the wall to determine the time of day.

“Now listen,” Roger Decker said, leaning forward with his hand on his knees, “no one is accusing any of you of wrongdoing.”

Nick was allowing Decker to save face and discuss the matter with his agents first, but the fact Nick sat behind the desk let them know who was in charge. Decker had no interrogative skills whatsoever. His main detainee spoke a different language so many details ended up lost in translation. Nick felt his phone vibrate and when he pulled it from his pocket he could see the name of the person who had just left a text message. Nicole Hernandez. Ricky’s widow. A spike of bile rushed up his throat. He’d made a personal guarantee to Nicole that Ricky would be fine going undercover. He assured her the FBI would keep close tabs on both agents.

Now he touched the screen on his phone and cringed when he saw the two word message.

“YOU PROMISED!”

Nick’s face flushed as he leaned back and shut his eyes before anyone could detect the episode he was having. He felt the outside of his empty pocket and realized he’d forgotten to take his PTSD meds for the day. He practiced his breathing exercises and gained control of his emotions. As his heart pounded, he gathered his thoughts, trying to grasp just what had gone wrong. Ricky and Jim were supposed to be picking up a client of Antonio Garza’s at the makeshift runway when they were ambushed by Garza’s men. Both FBI agent’s were exceptionally talented and couldn’t possibly have tipped Garza with their actions. Someone had to set them up. And Nick was convinced it was someone in the room with him right then.

When Nick came upright again, the three Border Patrol agents looked as if they were getting sick listening to Decker explain the understandable consequences of dealing with nasty people. The scolding was a bit tame for Nick’s taste.

“Roger,” Nick said. “Why don’t you run out and grab a sandwich.”

Decker seemed annoyed at Nick’s patronization, but he must’ve seen the burning hostility brewing in Nick’s eyes because he retreated with a simple nod and was out the door.

Matt shut the door behind him while Nick gestured to Stevie to get ready. The FBI techie took a flat stick from his duffle bag and began pushing buttons on the stick. The three Border Patrol agents kept an eye on what Stevie was doing until Nick snapped his fingers and said, “Over here. I need your attention on me.”

As they returned their attention to Nick, Stevie waved the flat wand behind the men, slowly working up and down their bodies.

Nick gestured to the desk in front of him. “Please place your cell phones on the desk.”

The three agents did as they were told.

Stevie worked his wand meticulously until he stood behind the agent to Nick’s left and nodded.

Nick looked at the other two agents and said, “Get out of here.”

The men looked bewildered, but didn’t hesitate at their good fortune. They gathered their cell phones and moved. Just before they left, Nick said, “Don’t leave the building until I say you can.”

Matt closed the door behind them and took the vacant seat two chairs away from the remaining agent. He glowered at the agent. Intimidation was half the battle.

“What’s your name?” Nick asked.

“Greg Chapin.”

The way Chapin fidgeted convinced Nick he had the right guy.

Nick pointed to the front of his desk at Chapin’s cell phone. “Now let’s see your other one.”

Chapin seemed confused. “My other one?”

“Your other cell phone,” Nick explained. “The one you kept in your pocket when I asked for your cell phones.”

Chapin hesitated too long. It seemed he was trying to decide how Nick could’ve known about the phone, or how much it mattered that he withheld the device. He looked at Matt who sat stone-faced, chewing on a piece of gum.

“What makes you think I have another cell phone?” Chapin asked, being somewhat evasive and putting the burden of proof on Nick.

Nick wasn’t in the mood for playing games. Not now. He leaned forward and glared at the agent. “Put the damn phone on my desk or I’ll have my partner rip your clothes off.”

Chapin turned to see Matt cross his legs. He offered a menacing grin.

Chapin reluctantly pulled a cell phone from the inside of his jacket pocket and placed it on the desk.

Nick grabbed the phone and tossed it to Stevie, who began to play with it.

Chapin paid too much attention to Stevie which added to Nick’s suspicions.

“Why the extra phone?” Nick asked.

“I don’t want my government to hear every conversation I have with my family,” Chapin said with a rehearsed tone.

Nick nodded. “I see.” He looked at Matt. “How many phones do you have?”

Matt held up his index finger.

“Stevie,” Nick said, “how many phones do you have?”

“One,” Stevie said, examining Chapin’s cell.

Nick returned his attention to Matt again. “Who tends to have more than one phone?”

“Drug dealers.”

“Who else?”

“Anyone who’s trying to hide something.”

Stevie came around the desk and handed the phone to Nick and pointed to something on the screen. Nick nodded while Stevie returned to the back of the room.

While examining the screen, Nick said, “Where does your family live, Mr. Chapin?”

The Border Patrol agent seemed to be thinking of the best answer to use in this situation. It certainly wasn’t going to be the truth, because the truth didn’t take that much time to consider.

Finally Chapin said, “Phoenix.”

“Then why is there only one phone number in your contact list and the number is a San Diego area code?”

Chapin gave it a few moments to mull over. He put his head in his hands and closed his eyes. “It’s nothing sinister.”

“I’m listening,” Nick said.

Chapin bent over, groaned in pain, then came up with his gun, his eyes wild with fear. He pushed away from his chair and stood with the pistol trained on Nick.

“I’m getting out,” Chapin said.

“No you’re not,” Nick assured him.

“You can’t stop me,” Chapin said, a crazy delirium planted on his face. He whirled around and pointed the gun at Stevie.

Even though he knew it was coming, Nick winced as the gunshot rang out in the small room. Chapin howled, while clutching his bare hand. The same hand which held a gun moments earlier. Stevie quickly picked up Chapin’s gun from the floor.

By the time Nick came around the desk, Matt had already holstered his Glock. He was the quickest draw in the Bureau and possibly the nation. Nick examined the Border Patrol agent’s hand. It was red and scraped up, but nothing permanent. It was only Matt’s pinpoint accuracy which saved him.

Resigned to his fate, Chapin fell to his knees, grasped his damaged hand and began to sob. He curled up on the floor as the anguish oozed from his body in the form of tears and moans and undecipherable words.

Nick didn’t feel the least bit compassion for the man. He was certain Chapin was the reason Ricky and Jim were dead. The reason Nick had to call Nicole Hernandez and explain why he hadn’t kept his promise.

The office door opened and Decker stood there with two armed agents. He stared at Chapin as the agent moaned, but otherwise seemed unharmed.

“We’ve got it under control,” Nick said, then slammed the door shut.

Matt opened the door and stuck his head out to say a few words, then pulled his head back and shut the door again.

“You stupid bastard?” Nick spat, standing over Chapin, every muscle taut and ready to unleash a fury of kicks. “How much did Garza pay to have my friends killed?”

“No,” Chapin uttered, his arms covering his head ready to be assaulted.

Nick got down to a knee and burrowed into the man’s face. “How much!”

“No,” Chapin murmured again. “She’s going to die.”

Nick looked at Matt who stood beside him with a quizzical expression.

“What did you say?” Nick asked.

Chapin found the strength to shove Nick and sit up against the wall. “My daughter,” he said staring at the ceiling. His breathing was labored and his head flopped to the side. A look of pure despair showed in his eyes. “Garza kidnapped her two weeks ago. He’s going to kill her if I don’t tell him everything.” He looked up at the three FBI agents. “She’s thirteen.”

“Shit,” Matt muttered.

“Why didn’t you come to us?” Nick said. “You’re a government agent. We would’ve brought our best people to handle it.”

Chapin rolled his eyes deliriously. “Yeah, right.” He pointed his thumb to the closed door. “Half the damn staff is on Garza’s payroll. He already knows you’re here.” Chapin covered his eyes. “She could be dead already.”

The agent was near catatonic. He was of no value to Nick in his current condition. Nick was certain Chapin was overstating Garza’s reach, but he understood the paranoia.

“You have no idea what you’re up against,” Chapin’s voice was weak and shallow. “He has connections everywhere.” With this, Chapin looked straight up at Nick with swollen eyes. “I’m serious. The guy has informants on both sides of the border. He’s unreachable. You can’t get to him. You have rules and regulations to follow. He doesn’t.”

Nick and Matt exchanges glances.

“He’s right,” Matt said, raising his eyebrows. “We need help outside of the agency.”

Nick understood the connotation. “I know. Walt suggested the same thing.”

“Then why not call him?”

Nick stuck his finger into the bullet hole Matt left in the drywall. “I tried. He’s out of the country. I’m not sure he has cell coverage.”

Matt shrugged. “All he’d have to do is make a few calls. He could get us information.”

Nick looked at the expression on Matt’s and Stevie’s faces, wanting him to contact his cousin Tommy like it was a call to Batman.

“Relax,” Nick said. “He’s in Africa somewhere. I’ll find a way to get him a message. In the meantime, let’s find another way to get Garza.”

In the corner of his eye, Nick could see Chapin wordlessly shaking his head, as if to himself. “You have no idea,” he whispered.

Nick looked up at Matt. “Have Decker call in three random agents.”

Matt cocked his head. “Why?”

“Because if there really are any other moles I want to know about it,” Nick said. Then he looked at the mess of flesh sitting quietly on the floor. The man who had Ricky and Jim killed. “Besides, if there are others, they’ll report to Garza that the entire building was interviewed and it won’t arouse any suspicion toward this asshole.”

“What do we do with him?” Matt asked.

Nick came to his feet and patted Matt’s shoulder. “First, we get his daughter back.”

Chapter 6

The basement of the FBI’s Baltimore field office housed the most sophisticated War Room in the nation, which required an iris scan and a short elevator ride to gain access. The FBI’s information technicians worked long hours, so to avoid disorientation the walls were dotted with recessed TV monitors in the shape and position where windows would normally be placed. The monitors displayed the security images from the perimeter of the building with such clarity it felt like you were looking directly outside. Even the ceiling portrayed images of the actual sky above so the brain was fooled into believing it was in a ground floor office instead of fifty feet underground.

The perimeter of the room was lined with computer stations where techs would decipher data they’d received from the field and analyze their level of validity, then their level of threat. More than a third of the staff there were multilingual and many more were pure interpreters.

A weekly department head meeting was held there strictly for discussion of terrorist threats on US soil. Even though it was Walt Jackson’s home office, he was there early to mitigate any animosity between his boss, FBI Director Louis Dutton, and CIA Director Ken Morris.

Dutton and Morris sat across the round table in the center of the room, pretending to be occupied on their tablet computers, while Walt and Defense Secretary Martin Riggs waited for the final member of the group to arrive.

Riggs was an ex-Marine with little patience for politics and seemed to sense the tension around the table. He waved a finger between Dutton and Morris and said, “You two know each other?”

Walt said nothing, while Dutton and Morris maintained their fascination with their tablets. The elevator chimed and out stepped Secretary of State, Samuel Fisk. He was a large man with a slow methodical gait. He held a plastic cup full of trail mix and placed it on the table as he took his seat next to Walt.

Fisk patted Walt’s arm. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah,” Walt said, lamenting the loss of two of his men. “Me too.”

Fisk popped a handful of trail mix in his mouth and looked around the table. “Are we ready?”

Morris and Dutton both shoved their tablets aside and nodded.

Fisk looked at the CIA Director first. “Ken, what’s going on with Templeton in Cairo? I thought that was taken care of?”

“It is,” Morris said.

“Then why am I getting e-mails from Interpol stating he’s still able to recruit as a detainee?”

“Recruiting is a strong word,” Morris said. “He’s been able to send messages through a courier acting as his attorney. We’ve got it under control.”

Fisk seemed satisfied, then roamed the table until his eyes landed on Walt. “What’s going on with the border? How did Garza get to our men?”

Walt glanced at Morris briefly before he said, “There was a mole in our Homeland Security division. We figured out who it was, but apparently there’s been more penetration than we’d anticipated.” He looked at Morris. “We could use a little help.”

Fisk swiveled his head back and forth between Walt and Morris. “Is there a problem guys?”

FBI Director Louis Dutton glared across the table. “Apparently there’s a plant inside the Mexican border, yet we’re not able to use him because we’re not receiving any data.”

Fisk raised his eyebrows. “Ken, what’s the deal?”

Morris seemed prepared for that and didn’t take the bait. “We’ve contracted with a private firm to infiltrate Garza’s circle. Apparently, the operative has made contact with Garza and has actually been inside the compound. That’s as much as we know.”

Fisk looked at Dutton who gave him a “see what I mean?” expression. The Secretary of State dipped his large fingers into the plastic cup and came out with some nuts and raisins. He placed them in his mouth and chewed with a thoughtful stare.

“Do you know who this plant is?” Fisk asked.

Morris remained stoic. “I’m not jeopardizing this operation, Sam. There’s too much at stake. Besides,” Morris looked down at his hands, “he’s missed a couple of scheduled communications.”

“So what does that mean?” Fisk asked.

“It means he’s either dead or worse,” Walt finished for him.

“Worse?” Fisk squinted.

Walt let Morris take that one. The CIA Director tapped a finger on the table.

“He may have turned,” Morris said, with a disgusted tone.

Fisk rubbed a hand over his eyes. “Boy, you guys have all kinds of good news for me, don’t you?”

“It gets worse,” Morris said, taking in everyone at the table. His subdued demeanor made Walt’s mouth dry. He poured a glass of water from the pitcher in front of him.

“Our intelligence has confirmed the transport of a dirty bomb to within a mile of the Arizona border,” Morris said.

Fisk reached for more trail mix, then stopped mid-dip. “What?”

“Yes,” Morris seemed to take it head on. “It’s true.”

Fisk looked at Walt and must’ve caught him nodding. He pointed to Walt. “You knew about this?”

“Yes,” Walt said, and Morris couldn’t keep the surprised look from his face.

Fisk seemed to notice the same thing. “Ken,” Fisk said, “did you know Walt was aware of this?”

Morris looked dejected. “No.”

Fisk looked at Walt. “Did you know Ken knew about this?”

Walt shook his head.

Fisk leaned over the table and craned his neck. “Are you telling me, both of you knew about a nuclear threat and neither of you spoke to each other about it?”

Walt pursed his lips, but said nothing. Morris kept up his fascination with his hands.

Martin Riggs had been listening intently to the proceedings, but his laconic personality kept him from entering the discussion. He’d always found a way to utilize the smallest amount of words to accomplish his thought.

“After Navy SEAL Team Six took care of Osama bin Laden,” Riggs said, “the Navy’s forecasted budget was increased by thirty-two percent.”

Riggs said it matter-of-factly, as if reciting a baseball player’s batting average. There was no accusatory tone. Just the facts.

Fisk stopped. His face tightened and his hands clenched into fists. “Are you shitting me?” Fisk glared at Ken Morris, then Louis Dutton, then Walt. His mouth curled up into a nasty scowl. “Is this what we’ve become?” he asked. “Keeping intelligence from each other to gain budgetary dollars?”

“It’s more complicated than that, Sam,” Morris said.

Fisk ignored Morris. He looked to his left with disappointment on his face. “Walt?”

Walt took a breath. “Sam, if you saw the intel which came across my desk every day, you’d never leave your house. The enemy uses diversion and disinformation as a tactic to keep us occupied. Agents Hernandez and Braden were on the verge of verifying the legitimacy of this lead when they were ambushed. They’d been imbedded in one of Antonio Garza’s crews for six months before their murder. Did I know for certain the threat was legit? No. But we’ll find out.”

“And that’s why Dennis isn’t here?” Fisk said, commented on the absence of the Director of Homeland Security.

“We can’t afford any more leaks,” Riggs said. “The smaller the circle, the less chance for an ambush.”

Fisk turned toward the CIA Director. “Ken?”

Morris drummed his fingers on the table waiting his turn. He seemed to consider his words. “Well, I agree with Walt. We’d heard through our Mid-East operatives there was a delivery coming into Mexico so we contracted with a private firm which already had active contacts within the cartels. They were doling out information sparingly as we negotiated terms for payment.”

“You mean we were paying them for information?”

“Yes.”

“And how far along did we get?”

“Like I said, we were in negotiation-”

“Negotiation?”

Morris looked to Martin Riggs for help and the Defense Secretary nodded.

“Yes,” Riggs said. “Sometimes these firms will become aware of a huge source of information and raise the price. Like paying someone to mine for copper, then they strike gold and want to renegotiate.”

“Only we can’t see the gold until we pay them,” Morris finished for him. “We have to take this lead seriously though. There’s too much buzz out there.”

“How much money are these guys asking for?”

“Two million,” Morris said.

“And?” Fisk held out his open hands and looked at Riggs.

The Defense Secretary shrugged. “That’s more money than we had available for this operation. It puts us in a position to bring it to a Senate Committee for approval.” Then Riggs gave Fisk a curious expression. He seemed to be looking for a tacit answer to an unasked question.

Fisk gazed around the table at the group of department heads staring at him. “You want me to ask the President if we can use black ops money to fund this thing?”

Everyone knew Fisk was the second most powerful man in the world. He’d grown up childhood friends with President Merrick and had gained Merrick’s confidence almost to a fault. Merrick had allowed Fisk to run foreign affairs on his own terms, even against Merrick’s own policies, but Fisk had never let him down.

Fisk sighed. “Okay, who’s our enemy here? And how are we going to proceed?”

“They’re a group of militants out of Syria,” Walt said. “Former members of Hamas who were displeased with the passive direction the organization was headed. They want to make a name for themselves and this seems to be the quickest route.”

Fisk tapped a fist over his mouth. “Who do we have down there right now?”

“Nick and Matt are running the operation,” Walt said.

Fisk blew out a breath. “Thank goodness.” He glanced around the table. “You need to understand something. President Salcido is in a tough battle for reelection down there. We’ve spent years on an agreement to work with the Mexican Army on their side of the border. We could have access to information we’ve never been able to see before. But if Salcido loses the election and Rodriguez takes over. . well, he’s practically owned by the cartels.”

Fisk examined his audience as if to determine how much further he needed to go. “So if we step one foot inside their border to attack anyone, even a known assassin-it will give Rodriguez all the ammunition he would need to show how Salcido is owned by the US. And we can’t afford for that to happen.”

Fisk made eye contact with each department head. “Understood?”

Everyone nodded.

Walt waited until Fisk was finished before he said, “I’m not sure we can wait for this shipment to cross the border, Sam.”

Fisk maintained an even stare. “Let me rephrase this,” he said. “We cannot be caught in Mexico doing anything antagonistic, period. If someone crosses that border, they may as well be on the moon. We can’t help them.”

That’s when Walt realized they were on their own. His team would have to operate without support from any other agency or department. Politics had been a dangerous component of his job, but now he was practically given orders to confiscate a nuclear weapon inside another country while offering the executive branch complete deniability.

“Don’t worry,” Walt said. “No one will get caught.”

Chapter 7

Nick and Matt were in the parking lot, leaning against the wheel well of Matt’s SUV watching the sun lower in the western sky, while Homeland Security employees made their way to their own cars, beginning a procession of vehicles south toward Tucson’s suburbs. The only people who made eye contact were the ones who parked nearby and only for a moment, maybe to get a look at the jerks who had messed up their office.

“I don’t like it,” Nick said. “This is messier than I expected.”

“No shit.”

Nick looked at Matt who was eyeing the exiting employees like he was profiling their trustworthiness.

“You have any hunches?” Nick asked.

Matt shook his head. “They all look guilty to me.”

“We have to treat it that way. There’s no one here we can trust. Just the three of us.”

Nick pulled out his cell phone. “I’m getting the girls out of Payson and into a safe house.”

Matt nodded while examining the parking lot. “Yeah. We’re not exactly making any friends here, are we?”

Nick called the Phoenix field office and spoke with the Hostage Rescue Team. When he was done, he told Matt, “They’re sending a crew in a chopper to get them. Call Jennifer and let her know what’s going on.”

It was Matt’s turn to talk on his cell while Nick shaded his eyes and searched the sky. He heard Matt trying to convince Jennifer Steele she would need help.

“Baby,” Matt said, “there’s some real dirt going on down here. I don’t trust anyone.” Then there was a silence while Agent Steele made her case for staying put. “It’s only for a few days until we get to the bottom of this,” Matt pleaded.

Nick spotted something above them in the distance. It was the size of a large hawk and seemed to be gliding on the breeze, until it made an erratic turn, signaling to Nick it was manmade. As it came closer, Nick could hear the hum of the electric motor as the device whizzed overhead, just twenty feet from where they stood.

“Okay,” Matt said into the cell phone as he spied the mechanical device buzzing by. “I’ll tell him.”

The device was configured like a stealth bomber and circled around to make another pass. This time it dove sharply toward the two agents gaining speed as it zeroed in on them. At the last moment it pulled up, but not before it smacked Matt on his shoulder.

“Jeesh, Stevie,” Matt screamed. “What the fuck’s wrong with you?”

“Sorry,” Stevie yelled from across the parking lot, holding the controls for the mechanical drone. “I’m trying to get it calibrated.”

Matt said his good-byes, then stashed his phone back into his pocket. “I hate this shit.”

“What?” Nick said.

“When we were back in Baltimore, the world seemed a lot smaller. Everything was nearby.”

“You mean help was nearby?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Nick looked up at the drone now back in the sky making bank turns like a bird, soaring higher and higher. “I know what you mean,” Nick said, rubbing the side of his face. “I’d go out of town and there were ten FBI agents within five minutes of home. Now I have to call Phoenix to have a helicopter fly into Payson.”

Matt folded his arms across his chest. “Let me ask you something,” he said. “When you proposed to Julie, how did you do it? Did you do the whole get-on-a-knee thing?”

Nick grinned. “Really? You think you’re ready for this?”

“I know I am.”

“Well,” Nick said, “if you really want to know, when I first proposed to Julie, we were having dinner at Flemings, and I actually did get down on my knee.”

“And?” Matt asked, his eyebrows raised. “How did it go?”

“She said no.”

Matt laughed. “Are you serious?”

Nick nodded. “You bet. We’d only been dating four months and she thought it was too soon.”

“Wow, what a bummer. That must’ve been an awkward dinner. Did you at least wait until desert before you asked?”

“I wish,” Nick said. “We hadn’t even gotten our drinks yet. I was so nervous I just wanted to get it out of the way. She came to me two weeks later, though, and said she was ready.” Nick patted his partner’s shoulder. “Listen, Jennifer’s completely head-over-heels for you. You’re a changed man from your younger days. She knows that. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Matt had a distant stare. Maybe he was imaging what came after the proposal, maybe he was thinking of something else. The both stood there watching the drone make its passes around the parking lot, until finally Matt said, “I’m going to get some coffee. You want something?”

“Yeah,” Nick said. “What about food?”

“What about it?”

“Forget it,” Nick said, holding his stomach, thinking about the corruption they were going to have to confront. “Just get coffee. I can’t eat a thing.”

* * *

Julie Bracco was in the kitchen feeding Thomas when Jennifer Steele came in and told her to pack up.

“What do you mean?” Julie said, swirling a miniature spoonful of mashed peas and landing them into her son’s mouth.

“I mean, Matt just called and said we weren’t safe here.”

Thomas became fussy in his highchair, kicking his legs flailing his arms.

“Okay, sweetie,” Julie said with a forced smile. She waved the next spoonful of peas. “Here comes the airplane.”

Thomas’s eyes sparkled in delight as he gobbled up the food. Julie used his cotton bib to wipe up his green chin.

“They’re sending a helicopter to take us to a safe house in Phoenix,” Steele informed her.

Julie kept smiling at Thomas while she said. “It shouldn’t be this way. I thought we left Baltimore so we could relax and avoid the hustle and bustle of the city. Now it just seems we stand out. I think I liked it better when we were surrounded by buildings and neighbors.” Julie glanced out her kitchen window. “I can’t even see my next door neighbor.”

Steele followed her gaze, but Julie knew that Steele was a country girl at heart and tempered her anger toward their surroundings.

“I mean,” Julie said, “It’s quiet and peaceful, but. .”

“I know what you’re saying,” Steele said. “It’s nice up here. But, look, I don’t like being a target either.”

They watched the setting sun while Thomas slurped at his meal.

The security alarm beeped and the TV on the kitchen counter came to life. On the screen a white pickup truck made its way up the long gravel drive to the Bracco’s cabin.

“It’s Miguel,” Julie said, recognizing the truck. “He’s our landscaper.”

“He comes this late in the day?” Steele asked.

“Sometimes,” Julie said, adding another spoonful to her son’s open mouth.

Steele left the kitchen for the living room.

“Come here,” Steele said.

Julie frowned, but handed Thomas a plastic train from the table to keep him occupied. She turned off the alarm button and met Steele by the front window as the landscaping crew drove up. There were two men in the cab and two more in the back of the truck, jumping out as soon as the vehicle came to a stop.

“You see Miguel?” Steele asked.

“No,” Julie said, eyeing the truck closely. “But that’s his truck. He doesn’t come every time.”

Even as the words left her mouth, Julie felt her heart pound a little faster. The crew was pulling rakes and chainsaws from the back of the pickup, but they seemed fascinated with the front of her house.

“Get out,” Steele said. “Right now. Get Thomas and run out the back door. Go to a neighbor’s until I call you.”

Julie wanted to tell Steele to relax, that she was rushing to a wrong conclusion. But with every unfamiliar face Julie saw, she knew what she had to do. She ran to the kitchen and scooped Thomas from his highchair. He screamed and reached for his toy as it fell to the floor. Julie picked it up and handed it to him, her eyes on Steele as the FBI agent went into action.

Steele pulled the pistol from her holster while keeping her attention on the action out front.

“Go,” Steele urged with her back to Julie.

Julie crept out the kitchen door and trotted through her backyard with Thomas in her arms. She ducked down behind a patch of bushes on the outskirts of her property and waited. At first, there was no activity, while Thomas cooed at his toy train. Then, the back door opened and Jennifer Steele came out with her gun drawn, swinging it side-to-side as she inched toward Julie.

They came at her all at once, two from her left, two from her right. They dashed around each side of the house with controlled precision. One gunman came wide, the other remained close to the building. Steele fired off the first round to her left, then dove to the ground and let off another round. The shots echoed throughout the woods and startled Thomas into a loud shriek.

Steele put down one gunman, then rolled over and caught another one on the same side of the house, but the two behind her had too much time and they fired off successive rounds, relentlessly shooting as Steele desperately tried evasive maneuvers. Even as she was taking on bullets, she attempted to steer away from Julie and drag herself in a different direction. She returned fire until she’d emptied her magazine and struggled to get to her feet, but it was too late. The two gunmen were on top of her now firing direct hits while her body collapsed onto the ground.

Julie watched with blurry eyes as the two gunmen stood over Steele’s lifeless frame firing shots until they were obviously wasting bullets. As the firing ceased, the silence was filled with the sound of Thomas’s cries. With a frantic whisper, Julie attempted to hush her baby, but it was too late. The lead gunman had spotted her and he crouched low and headed straight for her. Julie backed away and began to run. Her mind raced with crazy thoughts of stopping and pleading for mercy. She pumped her legs as fast as they could go, but when she dared to look back, the gunman was gaining too quickly. With the remaining moments she had, Julie managed to pull her phone out, knowing she had to slow even further to push Nick’s contact button.

Thomas fought to get out of her grasp as she clutched him with all her might and heard the phone ring.

Chapter 8

Nick was sitting at Decker’s desk when his phone vibrated. He checked the number and saw it was from Julie.

“Hey, sweetie, I was just about to-”

“Jennifer’s dead,” Julie blurted. She was panting and Thomas was nearby crying. “They came in Miguel’s truck and shot her and now they’re coming for us.”

“Where-”

“Help!” she screamed. “Help, please help!”

Nick strangled the phone while scrambling for a way to help his wife and child.

“Stevie,” he called over to the techie who was sitting by himself, playing with his drone. “Call 911 and get some deputies over to my house in Payson. Now!”

Nick jumped to his feet. “Julie!” he shouted into the phone.

Julie desperately screamed for help while Nick ran in circles around the office frantically thinking of answers. He pulled at his hair, groping for something. He felt completely useless. Julie’s screaming suddenly stopped, while Thomas kept crying. Nick thought he’d heard whimpering. It seemed like Julie wasn’t moving anymore. It seemed as if she was hiding.

Stevie moved into his path, nodding. “They’re on the way,” he said.

Nick didn’t want to yell into the phone and possibly give away her position. He wished he could jump outside and fly there. He knew, no doubt, it was one of Garza’s crew who was going after his family. Stevie looked anxious to help, standing in front of Nick with open hands, waiting for him to say something.

“Julie?” Nick whispered.

Nothing. Even Thomas had stopped crying and that gave him a shiver. He wanted to hear their voices. Something. Let him know they were alive.

A moment later he got what he wanted. Julie screamed, “No!” Thomas began crying again. Nick was getting lightheaded from the rush of adrenalin surging through his body. Just the sound their frightened voices made him seethe.

A man’s voice came on the line with a thick Mexican accent and said in a strong tone, “Adios.”

Then the line went dead.

For a moment Nick stared at the phone in disbelief. Then a thought occurred to him. He pointed to the computer. “Stevie, get on our site and get me the live satellite feed for Payson, Arizona.”

The door to the office opened and Decker walked in.

“What’s going on?” Decker asked.

“Get the fuck out,” Nick ordered.

Decker didn’t hesitate. The door closed behind him.

Nick furiously scoured his phone’s contact list before hitting a button. Two rings later a man’s voice answered.

“Gerry?” Nick said, loud and hurried. “They leave yet? We’ve got a hostage situation.”

“Nick? Yeah, they’re already in the air.”

“Patch me through to the pilot,” Nick blurted.

“Sure, hold on.”

Nick heard a sequence of keypads being tapped, then he heard static, followed by the roar of an engine and the piercing drone of helicopter blades cutting through the air.

“Hello?” Nick said.

The static persisted. Stevie was sitting behind the desk and pointing to the screen. Nick recognized the image. It was downtown Payson.

“South,” Nick said. “South and east. Look for a white truck with a large dent on the front hood.”

Nick couldn’t keep his eyes from the computer monitor, desperately searching for something. Stevie Gilpin had the most advanced knowledge of the FBI’s satellite images and how to get where he wanted.

“What’s up, Gerry?” came Dan Wells voice over the cacophony of engine and rotors.

“This is Nick Bracco,” he yelled into the phone. “Dan, we have a hostage situation. How far are you from Payson?”

“Less than five minutes,” Dan said. “Where’s the hostage?”

“In a white Ford pickup with a dented hood.” Nick spoke fast and loud. “It’s my wife and kid.”

Nick heard the helicopter’s engines rev up. “I’ll be there in one minute,” Dan said. “Where are they?”

Nick pointed at the computer monitor for Stevie to maneuver the cursor further east. “They’re close to my place, Dan. I’m scanning the area from the satellite. They can’t be far.”

Nick’s heart pounded as he scoured the streets for the white pickup. Every time they’d spot one, Stevie would zoom in and come up empty. There was so much fury built up, Nick’s vision was blurring. He couldn’t focus properly. A thought ran through his mind about the pills he’d forgotten to take that morning.

“What’s this?” Stevie said, hovering the cursor over a small cloud of dirt which seemed to be moving south.

“Zoom in,” Nick said.

As Stevie closed in, the screen became temporarily distorted. When the image cleared up a white pickup truck came into view.

“Closer,” Nick urged.

Stevie tapped the keypad and the screen became distorted, then returned with a crystal clear picture. The image caused Stevie to let out a small gasp. The truck was speeding down a graded dirt road, bouncing and jostling enough to toss debris from the bed of the vehicle. Sitting among the landscaping machinery, up against the cab, was Julie and Thomas. Julie was gripping Thomas to her chest, while a man sat next to her with a pistol trained on her head.

“I’ve got them, Dan,” Nick shouted. “I’m using our satellite image. They’re on a dirt road east of town, heading due south.”

“I’m going up to get a better view,” Dan said.

Nick heard the helicopter’s rotors whirl softer as the chopper lifted away from the ground diminishing the echoes. The truck was in a clearing but would get to the tree line within the next mile or two.

Julie seemed frightened, but she was no amateur hostage. She’d been an FBI agent wife for fifteen years and knew to search for ways out. She wasn’t going to go easily. It was probably why they threw her in the bed. The driver was the only one visible in the cab.

“Got ’em,” Dan said.

Nick felt a rush of anxiety. He was grateful to see his family still alive, but knew these gunmen would not give up and he forced himself to stay focused.

“Listen, Dan,” Nick said. “These are drug-running experts. They’ve been chased by choppers before. They know where to shoot. Keep your tail away from them.”

“Roger that,” Dan said.

By the reaction of the gunman in the back of the truck, the helicopter must’ve come into their view. The gunman in the bed of the truck pulled Julie into a choke hold and held the muzzle of the gun to her head. A threat to back off.

“Dan, who’s with you?” Nick asked.

“Parker and Jenson.”

“Have them put on their headsets.”

“You got it.”

Nick thought it through. Both men were adroit sharpshooters. Julie was alive because the gunmen needed her for protection, but the sun was setting fast. Once they had the cover of darkness they’d ditch the truck and go it on foot. In that terrain, they had a solid chance of escaping. He needed to give them hope. He needed them in that truck as long as possible.

“Okay, Dan, get out of there,” Nick said. “Move west. Stay low to the ground, just over the treetops.”

The helicopter’s engine whined again, changing speed and direction.

“We can’t afford to lose them, Nick,” Dan said. “It’s pretty dark up here.”

“I know,” Nick said. “When you’re out of viewing distance I want you to double back, go even further south. The road they’re taking makes a sharp turn to the east into the trees. I’ll guide you there.”

“Back it up more,” Nick said to Stevie. They watched the helicopter move away from the truck. “Stay with the chopper.”

Stevie’s fingers glided over the keypad with the agility of a stenographer.

Nick pointed to the screen. “There,” he said. “Mark that spot.”

A red X popped onto the screen right next to the road, ahead of the speeding truck.

“Dan,” Nick said. “You’re too far east. Head northwest from your location.”

“What are we doing?” Dan asked.

“You’re going to drop off Jenson and Parker on that dirt road ahead of the truck. Have them roll a spike strip on the path. Then have them ready to make a nest up in the trees ten yards apart. When the truck hits those spikes, I want Parker to take a shot at the gunman in the truck bed. Then have Jenson take out the driver.”

There was a pause on the line while Nick and Stevie watched the helicopter follow a northwestern flight path.

“Nick,” Dan said. “That’s pretty risky for the hostages.”

Nick understood the behavior of terrorists; once those gunmen realized the hostages were simply cargo-they were dead. They could see the truck in the distance, flying over potholes, a trail of leaves floating in its wake. Nick’s chest tightened. “Dan, they killed Jennifer Steele. I trust Greg to take the shot.”

There was another long pause, until Greg Parker’s voice came over the phone. “I’ll get him, Nick.”

Of course it wasn’t the gunman Nick was worried about taking a bullet and Parker knew that. The helicopter was following the dirt path now, low to the ground, approaching the red X.

“Slow down, Dan,” Nick said. A moment later, he announced, “Right there. Drop them off right there.”

The chopper hovered for a moment while the two men scrambled out and rolled a spike strip across the narrow dirt path. The helicopter’s nose came down and moved along the road directly at the truck which was coming around a corner a hundred yards away.

Nick knew what the pilot was doing; he was attempting to distract the driver so he wouldn’t spot the snipers waiting for them.

“Don’t get cute, Dan,” Nick ordered. “You’ve got their attention, now get up high and out of range.”

A pool of sweat gathered around Nick’s ear where the phone had been fastened. He switched ears and wiped the damp one with his shoulder.

Stevie and Nick watched the truck take the final turn too fast. They watched it almost tip over, coming up on two wheels before recovering and slamming back down on all four. The sweat continued to drip down the side of Nick’s face as the vehicle approached the spike strip lying across the road.

Stevie put his hand on his forehead as if waiting for a head-on collision between two passenger trains.

“Lord, be with them,” Nick murmured, the tightness in his chest growing stronger.

As the driver spotted the spike strip, he did what every criminal has ever done in that situation. He slammed on the accelerator. Something about the brain which creates the belief that a vehicle going fast enough can fly over the spikes with impunity.

Nick’s lunch worked its way up his esophagus as the truck plowed over the spikes. A puff of dust emerged as the wheels scraped against the ground. The truck hobbled forward, leaning right and struggling ahead with a maniacal demand from the driver.

Watching from the satellite gave the images a creepy feel. The absence of sound gave the scene more gravity.

Julie was still holding Thomas to her chest when the gunman’s head next to her lurched back. A blotch of red instantly appeared on the back window. Julie and Thomas went down too. The driver must’ve heard the gunshot and immediately skidded the truck to a stop. Nick’s first thought was, he’s going to kill them. If they’re not already dead. There was no telling where the bullet came from and where it went after penetrating the gunman’s head.

The gunman in the truck bed lay slumped, his head unnaturally drooped to his right.

The driver jumped out of the truck and placed his hands on his head, turning in a circle, looking for the snipers. Nick didn’t trust him; he hoped Parker and Jenson didn’t either.

Julie and Thomas were still down, with no sign of movement. Nick had his hand over his mouth, while Stevie craned his neck closer to the screen.

Parker emerged from his nest, his rifle out in attack mode. He approached from the rear of the truck.

On the wireless headset, Nick heard Parker say, “You got the driver, Bill?”

From the opposite side of the road, and the front of the vehicle, Bill Jenson crept out of the woods, knees bent, rifle ready.

“I’ve got him,” Jenson announced.

It was over. But Julie and Thomas weren’t moving. Nick was paralyzed with fear. What had he done? Parker dropped his rifle and pulled himself over the tailgate. Nick could hear him breathing hard as he maneuvered around a lawnmower and got to his knees. First he examined the dead gunman, then shoved his corpse aside. He bent over Julie. Silent. Nothing. Nick’s knees were giving out. He leaned against the desk for support.

Parker placed a hand on Julie’s back. It was dark and hard to see, but there seemed to be some subtle movement.

“Are you okay?” Parker said.

Then Nick saw the most glorious sight he’d ever seen. Parker leaned back and held his thumb up to the satellite image.

“They’re fine,” Parker said into the headset.

Nick gripped Stevie’s shoulders, while Stevie clapped his hands in celebration. Nick had to wipe his eyes while he caught his breath.

The door to the office opened and Matt walked in carrying a cardboard container with three coffees as Nick and Stevie finished off a high five.

“What’d I miss?” Matt asked, with an innocent grin on his face.

Chapter 9

Garza rubbed Julio’s back while the boy lay in bed next to him taking deep, meaningful breaths. He lowered his head and gave his son a gentle kiss on the back of the boy’s neck.

“Sleep tight, Nino,” Garza said, lifting off the bed and softly backing out of the room.

Once in the kitchen, Garza found Victor sitting at the wooden table looking over his laptop computer.

“Any word?” Garza said, grabbing a bowl from the cabinet and opening the freezer.

“Not yet,” Victor said. He nodded to a brown paper bag sitting on the counter next to the refrigerator. “Emelio has paid us for the month.”

“Good,” Garza said, scooping some vanilla ice cream from a container into his bowl. “What about Hector?”

“He paid last week. He is frightened of being late.”

Garza grinned. He appreciated the power of his reputation. He sat down across from Victor and enjoyed his ice cream. A nightly ritual.

Victor’s phone quietly chirped. He picked it up from the table and read from the screen. On his face was a mixture of displeasure and approval.

“Our American contact,” Victor said. “The female FBI agent is dead.”

Garza liked the way it started.

“But Bracco’s wife and child survived.”

Garza dropped his spoon. He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “And Juan?”

Victor finished reading the text message, then looked up. “Juan is in custody. The others are dead.”

Garza rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. From all the books he’d read on warfare, he knew how important it was to keep on the offensive. Even though he was virtually untouchable in his lair below the border, he wanted to conduct his business with the least amount of interference from the US government.

Garza stood and placed his bowl in the sink. He grabbed the brown package from the counter and looked inside. It seemed to be the correct amount of money. He gestured for Victor to follow him and the two men walked down a hallway to the front door. When he reached his office door, he held up a finger for Victor to wait as he went in and opened the safe behind his desk, grabbed a satchel, then returned to the hallway.

As they exited the building, a black Cadillac Escalade idled in the driveway. Garza motioned Victor to get in the back seat with him as they had done a hundred times before. Victor would play with his phone and find information for Garza while they drove to town or to pick up a payment. This time, however, as they reached the bottom of the driveway, instead of turning right toward the airstrip where ultra lights would make drops from above, or left toward town, they drove straight. Victor looked up from his phone when the SUV didn’t turn.

“Where are we headed, Jefe?” Victor asked.

“You will see,” was all Garza said, staring out into the night sky, the satchel between his legs.

Victor appeared apprehensive, suddenly studying their surroundings rather than his cell phone. The two men in the front seat remained suspiciously quiet. The dirt road was straight and bumpy and lined with oversized cacti. Their arms jutted out into the headlights like strangely deformed beasts reaching for their prey.

Victor had to know something was wrong because the road they’d taken led nowhere and eventually dissipated into a sea of open desert. His cell phone was now on his lap and his head moved side to side searching for answers.

After a couple of minutes, Garza made eye contact with his driver and nodded. The vehicle jerked to a stop and the two soldiers in the front seat jumped out and pulled open Victor’s door.

The driver pulled Victor from the car while the other soldier pointed an assault rifle. Victor looked back at Garza with shock on his face.

“Jefe?” he cried, as they dragged him from the SUV and threw him down in the middle of the dirt road, the intense headlights forcing Victor to blink back his confusion.

Garza rolled down his window so he could hear the confrontation.

“You are a spy!” shouted a soldier.

“No,” Victor pleaded from his knees. “You are wrong. I am completely faithful.”

“Don’t lie. We have your cell phone records. We know you’ve been calling the United States.”

“Yes, to speak with our people.”

“No, you lie again. Tell us who you’re speaking with and we’ll spare your life.”

“Are you loco? I speak with no one but our contacts.” Victor desperately pointed to the SUV. “Check my phone. You will see.”

“Just tell us a name. That is all. Then you shall live. We will drive away and leave you here.”

Victor seemed to accept his fate. He held out his arms like a martyr and said, “Go ahead and shoot me now. There are no names. I would never be unfaithful.”

“You lie. We know.” One of the soldiers spat on Victor’s pants.

Victor remained with his arms out. His eyes closed. “Please, shoot me. There will never be anyone more loyal to El Jefe.”

The two soldiers hesitated. The one on the passenger side leaned to his left to gain a better view of Garza’s open window. Garza held out his arm with a thumb up. The soldiers lowered their rifles and nodded. Garza opened his door and went around to the front of the car. He gestured with his head to his men and they wandered off into the desert.

On his knees Victor opened his eyes. “Jefe?”

Garza reached out with an open palm. “Come on,” Garza said, pulling Victor to his feet.

Victor was stiff and suspicious. He glanced into the desert to see the two soldiers lighting a match and smoking a joint.

Garza gripped Victor’s shoulders and locked him into a ferocious stare. “You are my number one warrior. I will never doubt you again.”

Victor just breathed.

Garza nodded to the SUV idling next to them. “Come on,” he said. “Get in. We have much to talk about.”

Victor returned to his seat in the SUV and remained quiet while Garza closed the door.

“Relax, Victor,” Garza said. “There’s a spy within our midst. I needed to be sure it wasn’t you. That’s all.”

“So this was just a test?” Victor said, a little puzzlement in his voice.

“That is all.” Garza shrugged. “I apologize if I frightened you.”

Victor shoved his boss affectionately. “Frightened? You want to see my underpants?”

Garza laughed. “You seemed rather nervous, eh?”

“I was prepared to die,” Victor said.

Garza pointed a finger at him. “Because you are loyal,” he said. “You had nothing to barter with.”

Victor took a deep breath and slumped back in his seat, finally convinced he was going to survive.

Garza reached down into his satchel, grabbed a large brown bag and handed it to Victor. He turned the interior lights on so his warrior could examine its contents. “This is for you.”

Victor looked into the bag and turned to Garza with a look of disbelief. “One hundred thousand dollars?”

Garza had trained his men to recognize packages of money and to formulate an approximate amount according to size, weight and denominations.

“Very good,” Garza said. “That is the precise amount.”

“But. .”

“Because you are my most valuable asset,” Garza said. “I need you to be my eyes and ears. I need you to protect me and to find out who this spy is.”

“Yes, Jefe,” Victor’s voice had regained a sense of authority.

“There is something else,” Garza said, peeking outside at the two soldiers in the distance. “We have a shipment to bring over in forty-eight hours.”

“Okay.”

“This particular shipment is different. It is not something we normally do.” Garza raised his eyebrows for affect.

“Different?”

“Yes. This is not from one of our people. This is from overseas.”

Victor seemed in deep thought. “That man, last night. Him?”

“Yes. I don’t like dealing with such people, but,” Garza pointed to the bag full of money in Victor’s lap. “Their pockets are simply too full of oil money and we cannot afford to miss the opportunity to take their funds.”

“I do not trust that man, Jefe,” Victor said.

Garza frowned. “Me neither, my friend. But once we make this transport we will never have to hear from him again.”

There was a chirp and Victor leaned over to retrieve his phone from the floor. He looked at the screen and said, “They want to know what to do with the border agent’s daughter.”

Garza shrugged. “Tell them to keep her alive for now. She might still be worth something. But they can do whatever they wish in the meantime.” Then he gave Victor a sinister grin. “And I do mean anything.”

Chapter 10

President John Merrick was getting his hair cut in the White House salon while making small talk with Georgia Faucet. Georgia had been the White House beautician for nearly two decades and understood the dynamic of a multitasking Commander-in-Chief. Merrick nodded and gave monosyllabic answers while retrieving e-mail updates on his tablet computer.

“So when’s he coming?” Georgia said, working her shears along the side of his head.

Merrick looked up from the tablet on his lap. “When’s who coming?”

“You know.”

“No,” Merrick said. “I don’t. Tell me.”

Just then, a large man wearing a gray suit carrying a napkin full of olives came into the small three-chair salon.

“Him,” she said, pointing her scissors.

Secretary of State Samuel Fisk finessed a greasy green olive into his mouth and chewed.

Merrick laughed. “Have we become that predictable, Georgia?”

The beautician grinned. “Yup.”

Fisk sat in the vacant chair next to Merrick and offered him an olive.

“No, thanks,” Merrick said. “You know, Sam, just because the food here is free, doesn’t mean you have to eat all of it.”

Fisk ignored the comment and popped another olive in his mouth.

“How’d the meeting go?” Merrick asked, as he was swiveled away from Fisk so Georgia could trim his right side.

“I’ve had better times,” Fisk said.

“How are Louis and Ken getting along?”

“They’ve hit an all-time low.”

Georgia backed away from the President and said, “Do I need to leave for a minute while you two talk?”

Merrick looked at Fisk with a raised eyebrow.

“Sure,” Fisk said. “Just for a couple of minutes, if you don’t mind.”

Georgia placed her scissors on the counter. “I’ll be outside with the boys,” she said pointing to the hallway where two Secret Service agents stood guard. She shut the door behind her and Merrick swiveled around to face the Secretary of State.

“How come you never call me Mr. President?”

Fisk looked appalled. “I call you that all the time.”

“Yeah, at fundraisers or special ceremonies, but never when we’re alone.”

Fisk seemed to examine the integrity of Merrick’s questioning. He finally came to a conclusion, then shook his head. “Fuck you.”

“That’s better,” Merrick grinned. “I thought for a moment you’d forgotten why I cajoled you into this position in the first place. I don’t need yes men, Sam.”

Fisk shrugged.

“Well?” Merrick asked. “What about your War Room meeting?”

Fisk chomped on the last olive, then crumpled up the napkin and tossed it in the trash can under Georgia’s counter. “An offspring of Hamas is trying to get a dirty bomb across the Arizona border.”

“Who?”

“The United Palestinian Force. UPF.”

Merrick pulled his hands out from under his protective cape. “How close are they?”

“Close,” Fisk said. “The committee is still dubious about the potency of the bomb, however.”

“Which means?”

“They feel it’s lacking a main component to achieve full detonation.”

“So, what do we do?”

“Nothing.”

Merrick squinted. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means just what it sounds like.”

Merrick jumped up from the chair and tossed the cape onto his vacant seat. “I’ll announce a press conference,” Merrick said, rubbing his hands together and taking random steps around the small room. “I’ll denounce this new terrorist organization and put them on everyone’s radar.”

“No,” Fisk said. “It’s what they want. They understand how Al Qaeda became a household name after 9-11 and they want that kind of global attention. Attention brings in new recruits and draws more funds.”

“So we ignore them?” Merrick said in a huff. “Then what happens when the bomb explodes and we haven’t been ahead of the incident, warning our people?”

Fisk stood and wiped his hands on a small white towel hanging from a hook on the wall. He went over to the President and gripped his shoulders. “Listen to me,” he said. “I know these guys. They’re publicity whores. They’re like a five-year-old screaming in a grocery store. Let them scream. We’ve got the right people in place. Let them do their job.” He let go of Merrick and remained in front of him while the President folded his arms and looked up at the bigger man.

“Who’s down there?” Merrick asked.

“Nick Bracco.”

Merrick winced. “Hasn’t that guy done enough? Does the entire country’s safety fall on the shoulders of one man?”

“It does seem that way, doesn’t it?” Fisk looked down for a moment. “Also. . Matt McColm’s girlfriend, Jennifer Steele. . she was killed by one of Antonio Garza’s crew.”

Merrick stood still and shook his head. “Shit,” he murmured.

“Walt’s in Arizona this morning for the funeral,” Fisk said.

Merrick put it together in his mind. “So Garza’s the one transporting the bomb?”

“Yes.”

Merrick nodded. “And Nick is going after him for killing three FBI agents.”

“That’s another motivating factor, yes.” Fisk walked around Merrick with his hands behind his back. “There’s one other thing. We have an operative down in Mexico. Someone who has dealt with Garza. He seems to know where the bomb is and will notify his contacts when the time is right.”

“And?”

“And Ken needs two million in black ops money to fund their contractor’s operative.”

Merrick sighed. “What’s going on, Sam? How come I’m being told this at such a late date?”

Fisk pursed his lips. “Because we have issues down in the terrorist War Room. If we continue on this same path of information segregation, we’ll be relying on luck more than data.”

Merrick turned his back to Fisk and contemplated his options. “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll approve the black ops fund, but only. . and I mean only if we schedule a meeting for the end of the week where I’ll put an end to this info divide.”

“Okay.”

“And I want a plan “B” set up immediately. I’m not going to sit at my desk and wait for a bomb to explode before we react. I have a responsibility to the civilian population to protect them from these types of attacks. I want a continuous update e-mailed every couple of hours. If I have to evacuate a city or county, I’ll do it. I don’t care about the political ramifications.” He turned back to face Fisk. “Is that clear enough, Sam?”

Fisk nodded. “I’ll pass it on.” As he headed for the door, he added with a grin, “Mr. President.”

A large crowd of family and friends milled around Jennifer Steele’s gravesite clutching balled-up tissues and wiping their puffy eyes. They held each other close as one sob bled into another. The priest dipped his fingers into a chalice and sprinkled holy water over the casket while reciting a prayer in Latin. Nick felt Julie tremble in his grip, her head dug deep into his shoulder.

The cemetery was on a twelve acre lot of green rolling hills and overgrown pine trees in Payson, Arizona. A dirt lane curled around the grounds for cars to drive into the appropriate grassy parking area. Matt stood next to Jennifer’s mother who flew in from New Mexico; occasionally the widow would collapse into Matt’s arms while grieving over her only child’s premature death.

Finally, the priest turned toward the assemblage of mourners and opened the Bible. “Beloved members of the Steele family, friends, acquaintances, and all who gather to pay their respects to this wonderful woman,” the priest began.

Just the tone of his voice sent the throng of onlookers into a frenzy of anguish. He continued on about Steele’s courageous life and how she was in a better place, but this wasn’t going to stop the agony. Nick couldn’t bear to hear much more. He kept a close eye on his partner who was holding up quite well under the circumstances.

Nick looked over his shoulder to see Walt Jackson standing in the periphery, respectful, but not wanting to mingle too much. He’d already been to two other funerals that week. He looked as if he’d aged five years over the past seven days.

“So it is worthy of note that her soul will be with our Father. .” the priest continued. This certainly didn’t help. Even the believers were blowing their nose.

To Nick’s right, a small cloud of dust meandered across the hilltops finding its way toward them in a serpentine fashion. The trail was preceded by a blue sedan.

“She’s in Heaven, right?” Julie whispered in Nick’s ear.

It caught him off guard. There was a man who’d devoted his entire life to the Lord standing fifteen feet away from them, and yet Julie still needed to hear it from Nick. The voice of authority.

“Yes,” Nick whispered. “She’s in Heaven.”

Julie nodded to herself, satisfied with the answer, still trusting her husband with the important stuff.

Movement came into Nick’s periphery. The blue sedan slowly pulled into an open patch of grass and stopped. The door opened and Nick breathed a sigh of relief. His cousin, Tommy, came around the rental car wearing a black sports coat and chewing on a purple toothpick tucked into the corner of his mouth. In his left hand was a single red rose. He greeted Walt with a firm handshake, then fist-bumped Stevie who seemed thrilled to see him.

Nick nodded and Tommy winked back. Julie followed Nick’s gaze and gasped with delight when she saw who’d arrived. She immediately twisted out of Nick’s grip and ran into Tommy’s arms, squealing with a combination of joy and heartache. Tommy gathered her into a bear hug. The spectacle even caused the priest to lose his focus for a moment before gaining his stride once again.

For Nick it was pure pleasure. Tommy and Julie had shared some real history together. He was much more than just family. Nick heard Tommy say, “Where’s my godson?”

Julie explained in a soft voice how Thomas was being watched by some neighbors. Actually, Thomas was being watched by some neighbors and a squad of FBI agents who’d flown into Payson just to protect Nick’s family.

The priest continued with a passage from the Bible Nick recognized as John 11:25. “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in Me, though he may die, yet shall he live.”

Once again this didn’t achieve the desired effect as the sniffles increased and the sobs gained volume.

Tommy took a wide route around the gathering until he slowly approached the casket. He stood over the remains of Jennifer Steele with his hands together and lowered his head. He stayed in that position for a couple of minutes while the priest seemed to be winding down his sermon. Finally, Tommy leaned over and placed the red rose, then bent all the way down to kiss the top of the casket. There was something intimate about the way he gently caressed the mahogany, then turned and walked around to the back of the crowd.

As with most funerals, there was an awkward period at the end where the family feels the need to thank the guests for coming and Matt did most of the leg work for Mrs. Steele while she tried to maintain her composure.

Nick, Walt, Stevie and Tommy found their way up a hill to the shade of a tall pine and greeted one another properly.

“Good to see you, Tommy,” Walt said, letting him know the FBI is still grateful for his past assistance with rounding up terrorists on US soil.

“Yeah,” Tommy said. “Good to be back in the States.”

“Where’d you go?” Stevie asked.

“Nairobi. I have a friend whose daughter runs an orphanage for AIDS babies.” Tommy shook his head. “Boy, you think things are bad here, until you go over there and see what’s going on. It’s disgusting.”

Tommy looked over his shoulder at Matt, who was finishing off the final few good-byes. “How’s he holding up?”

“Better than I thought,” Nick said. “But he may be keeping it all in.”

Matt spotted the group and labored his way up the hill as if carrying a loaded backpack. As he approached, his swollen eyes became visible. He grabbed Tommy’s handshake and pulled him into a hug.

“Thanks for coming,” Matt said.

Tommy said nothing. He simply patted Matt on the back and gave a terse nod.

Matt looked at Walt, shifting his weight from foot to foot, clenching and unclenching his hands. “I need to get to him.”

Walt was the consummate pro. He let Matt’s anger stew. It was all Matt had right then and Walt wasn’t about to take it away from him.

“As long as we get this dirty bomb along the way,” Walt said.

“This Garza, is he hard to find?” Tommy asked.

“No,” Nick said. “We know where he is.”

Tommy jabbed the purple toothpick into a back molar. “Then what’s the problem?”

“The problem is, he’s in Mexico,” Walt said, making eye contact with everyone to get his message across. “So we can’t exactly barge into the country and make a scene.”

“There’s an election to consider,” Nick finished for his boss. “So we can’t be seen taking control of the situation. It would make President Salcido look weak.”

Tommy cringed. “What the-”

Nick held out his hand to cut him off. “Don’t,” Nick said. “This isn’t Walt’s decision, so let’s not make this out to be something it isn’t.” He looked at Matt. “We’re still on the same team and have the same goals. It’s just a little trickier.”

“So,” Matt said. “Where do we start?”

“We start at the bottom,” Walt said. “Find the weak link.”

“Won’t that take time?” Matt asked, glancing back at the casket, his mind clearly torn.

“Maybe not.” Walt pulled a small stack of fresh hundred dollar bills from his coat pocket and handed them to Nick.

“Is there something special about these?” Nick said, looking them over, then handing the stack to Tommy.

Walt seemed to wait until Tommy had a chance to examine the bills.

“Notice anything?” Walt asked.

“They’re good,” Tommy said, taking a single bill from the pack, then holding it up to the sunlight. “I mean, they could pass as real.”

Walt grinned. “Yes they could. In fact they did, until DEA made a cocaine bust in downtown Tucson last week. The drug dealers themselves had no idea. Even after they were booked. Do you know which smuggler made the transfer?”

“Garza,” Nick said, finally putting it all together.

Walt pointed a finger at him. “Bingo.” He looked at Tommy. “Any idea who made it?”

Tommy shrugged. “Not really. If we were back home I might know a name or two. You want me to make a couple of calls?”

Walt scratched the side of his face. “We don’t have time for that. There is another way. One of the field’s best counterfeiters is imprisoned right here in Arizona. I’m hoping he’ll help.”

“Who?” Tommy asked.

“Frank DeRosa.”

Tommy waved his hand. “Naw. You’d be wasting your time.”

“You know him?” Nick asked.

“Not really. I know who he is though, and there’s no way Frank DeRosa is going to squeal on anyone. For any reason.”

“Even if we offer to lessen his sentence?” Nick asked.

Tommy looked off into the horizon, deep in thought. After a few moments he said, “Look. The only way this guy will tell you anything is if I make an appointment with him personally and discuss his release.”

Walt made a sour lemon face. “Make an appointment? He’s in prison.”

“You don’t know this guy,” Tommy said. “He’s more powerful in prison than most guys are on the street. I make sure he knows who’s coming and why. It’s a sign of respect. You show up with your suits and yellow legal pads and he’ll sit there stone-faced.”

“So,” Matt said. “Can you make an appointment for this afternoon?” He turned to see workers in dirty jeans preparing to lower Jennifer Steele into the ground. He came back with both of his hands curled into fists. “Because I’m not sure I have the patience to wait much longer.”

Tommy pulled his phone out and backed away from the group. “I’ll do it.”

As Tommy walked off, Walt stared at a text on his cell phone. “We just got word from the operative in Mexico. That bomb is making it over the border in two days. Uranium can’t be brought in by boat, or by plane. It’s too easy to detect. So it limits Garza’s options.”

Walt pointed to Stevie. “Get a couple of drones set up along the Arizona border and have them transmit images back home for the next forty-eight hours.”

Nick looked over at Matt whose entire body was a tightly wound bomb just waiting to explode.

“You okay, partner?” Nick asked.

Matt shook his head. “No. But I’ll get there.”

Nick looked over Matt’s shoulder to catch Julie waving to him as she was escorted from the ceremony by two FBI agents. He waved back. She blew him a kiss.

Tommy returned with his palms open. “Mr. DeRosa will allow me a few minutes of his time this afternoon.”

“Okay, then,” Walt said. “Let’s get on the road.”

Matt grabbed Walt’s arm and glared at him. “You know I’m going to kill him, right?”

Walt gently tapped Matt’s hand. “You do what you have to do.”

Chapter 11

The black SUV weaved cautiously between saguaro cacti and mesquite bushes along the Mexican desert. As always, Victor sat next to Garza in the back seat, staring at his phone.

“What does that thing tell you now?” Garza asked, adjusting his sunglasses.

“Our American friend has confirmed the presence of a spy,” Victor said. “Someone is down here working with the US government.”

Garza frowned. “That is old news. I suspect he is holding back and rehashing the same information. He is stalling.”

“Maybe he’s had it confirmed from a new source?” Victor said.

Garza turned to his first lieutenant and pulled the sunglasses down to the brim of his nose. “Is that what you believe?”

Victor appeared anxious. “I am merely offering options, Jefe. If you want I should keep my mouth shut and agree with every comment you make. . then that is what I will do.”

Garza replaced his sunglasses and smirked. “No, Victor, do not change. I sometimes forget who I am speaking with.” He returned his attention to the desolate desert floor under the bright noon sun. “Please, continue.”

In the distance a large, beige tent came into view. Two green Humvees sat parked beside the tent.

“Jefe,” the driver said. “Is this them?”

“It is them,” Garza said with certainty. “Stop the car fifty feet from the entrance.”

The driver carefully rolled toward the tent while everyone else in the SUV kept their eyes moving along the horizon. Finally, the driver came to a stop and shifted the vehicle into park. Two soldiers stood on either side of the entrance, their AK-47s on their shoulders.

Garza had the driver sit still while he examined the landscape. He searched for extra tire tracks signifying the delivery of more men possibly waiting inside. There were none. Garza did not make enemies. He was simply an agent of transportation. He kept the flow of product flowing freely from one side of the border to the other. The cartels were used to an annual success rate of sixty-five percent. Garza boasted nearly a ninety-five percent success rate. And that included the necessary decoys he would employ.

Garza nodded to Victor and his number one opened the door and approached the tent. Victor held up his hands as the two soldiers frisked him for weapons. Once they were satisfied, they motioned him inside the makeshift meeting place.

Victor emerged a few minutes later with his right hand balled into a fist. This signaled to Garza there were no soldiers inside the tent. If he suspected something, he would’ve been scratching his shoulder. It was safe to enter.

“Stay here and keep watch,” Garza instructed his two men in the front seat.

As Garza approached the tent, he took off his sunglasses and placed them in his shirt pocket. He held out his arms as the soldiers frisked him, then gestured for him to enter.

Once inside, Garza met a man wearing khaki clothes and sandals. The man was older than Garza remembered, a mop of curly hair turning gray down his sideburns.

The man opened his arms with a genuine smile. Garza hugged the man and returned the back pat.

“It is good to see you again, my old friend,” the man said in Spanish. “El Carnicero.”

“Yes,” Garza returned the greeting in Spanish as well. “You look well.”

The man pointed to a beach chair in the middle of the tent. “Please, sit.”

Garza lowered himself into the seat and smiled at Francisco Rodriguez. One of the most powerful men among the world of cartels. The Mexican government was bringing down massive heat on the cartels and Rodriguez was their way of infiltrating the system. He was the opposition to President Salcido and if he took power, the cartels would control the country from the inside.

Rodriguez removed a flask from a canvas bag on the floor. He poured tequila into two separate shot glasses and handed one to Garza. They raised their glasses.

“To the future,” Rodriguez said.

“To the future,” Garza said.

They downed the drinks together. Rodriguez wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “So how is Julio?”

“He is very well. Thank you.”

“Getting prepared to take over the family business?” Rodriguez said with a grin.

Garza wanted nothing of the sort, but knew the correct response. “Of course. He is a good student.”

“Good, good. So, tell me, how do you do it? How is it you find a way to transport goods over the border without any trouble?”

Garza smiled. “If I told you that, then why would anyone need me?”

Rodriguez laughed. “My friend, you will always be needed. Especially when I become president. I am here to tell you the three cartels leaders are all in debt to you. They call you, ‘El Presidente de la Frontera.’”

Garza certainly was the president of the border, but it was good to hear the cartel leaders speak of him that way. He held up his shot glass. Rodriguez filled both glasses and they downed the tequila with a satisfying, “Ah.”

“Antonio, once I am in office I will parcel out the territories and eliminate much of the violence. The leaders have already agreed on their specific regions and have arranged for a treaty amongst themselves. Once the violence subsides, the civilians will appreciate the calm and the protests will stop. This is my platform and I will perform my duty with honor.”

Rodriguez sounded more and more like a politician now and Garza could see the transformation in front of his eyes. A marijuana farmer turned drug runner turned ruler of the cartels. Then a familiar smile came across his face.

“When I am president,” Rodriguez said, “we will both rule this country together.”

“Pardon me, Francisco, but I already rule this country. And I do not need voters to keep me in power.”

“This is very true.” There was a gleam in Rodriguez’s eyes. He held up the flask with a questioning look.

“No, thank you.”

In the distance, the sound of helicopter blades emerged from the silence of the desert. Outside the tent, Rodriguez’s soldiers were shouting, “Federales, Federales.”

Rodriguez looked at Garza. “Something I should know?”

“I have brought you a present,” Garza said. “Something for you to offer our friends. They will know our relationship is sound and not question your authority.”

Rodriguez stepped outside and saw the helicopter heading their way, low to the ground, nose down. Below the Federale chopper, following its path, was a white panel truck. It looked like a medium-sized moving van, spitting dirt as it moved along the desert floor.

As the helicopter advanced, Rodriguez’s soldiers were ready to fire their weapons. When Garza saw this, he yelled, “No. They are with me.”

Rodriguez’s men all turned toward Garza with confusion on their faces. There was a unique trust between Rodriguez and Garza, so the presidential hopeful told his men to lower their weapons.

Garza pointed to the truck as it slowed to a stop in front of the tent, then signaled the pilot of the helicopter. A Mexican policeman waved back to Garza from the pilot’s chair, then lifted up the chopper and turned toward the direction he came.

Garza had the impulse to put on his sunglasses and smile as Rodriguez looked at him with complete astonishment. It was one thing to own the police, but quite another to have them actually escorting your illegal substances for you. Such a brash display of power.

Garza greeted the driver of the truck as he moved to the rear of the vehicle and pushed up the sliding door until it was completely open. Once the contents were exposed, Rodriguez shook his head in amazement. The entire wagon was filled with wooden crates.

Rodriguez followed Garza who hopped into the back of the truck. Garza grabbed a hammer from the floor and pried loose a panel of wood from the top of a crate, then another, until the entire lid was gone. Garza reached down and spread apart the bubble wrapping until a layer of assault rifles was exposed.

“There are three hundred fifty of them,” Garza said. “Plus ten thousand rounds of ammo.”

Rodriguez’s expression told Garza all he needed to know. He gazed at the bulk of weaponry with absolute intoxication, as if he were imagining the amount of clout he would acquire with such a gift and it pleased him to a childlike smile.

“You will let them know where this came from,” Garza said. “It will solidify our bond and they will show you the support you need for election.”

“Yes,” Rodriguez replied, still appearing dazzled by the display of power Garza had produced. He peeled his attention from the box of toys to take in his friend. “I certainly will,” he said, glancing at the Federale helicopter in the distance.

Garza held out his hand. Rodriguez slapped it away and pulled Garza into a bear hug.

“There is so much backstabbing in this country,” Rodriguez whispered in Garza’s ear. “It is good to know there is still loyalty among old friends.”

“Always,” Garza said. “Always.”

Florence State Prison was only a couple of hours from Payson so Tommy had no problem making his 1:00 PM appointment. The facility was over a hundred years old and looked and smelled the part.

Tommy sat in the interview room waiting for the prisoner to arrive. He’d never been offered the interview room to visit a prisoner before, but he’d never visited someone of Frank DeRosa’s stature. A simple wooden table sat in the middle of the room with names and initials carved into the wood. Tommy thought he might have seen Jesse James’s name etched in there somewhere. On the table was a pair of old-fashioned microphones.

The jail cell doors opened and an older man with a full head of white hair strolled in without any cuffs or chains. He wore a freshly ironed orange jumpsuit and had freshly manicured nails. Tommy held out his hand to greet the man and smelled expensive Chardonnay on his breath.

Frank DeRosa didn’t lift his hand to return the gesture; he simply sat down across from Tommy and stared vacantly.

Tommy sat as well. “Mr. DeRosa, my name is Tommy Bracco. I used to work for Mr. Capelli back in Baltimore.” Tommy looked up and made the sign of the cross over his torso. “May he rest in peace.”

DeRosa didn’t move a muscle.

Tommy felt like he was being timed, so he quickened his pitch before he’d lost the guy’s attention altogether.

“Mr. DeRosa,” Tommy said, “my cousin is with the FBI. He chases terrorists. It’s the only thing he does. Anyway, he’s trying to get to a particular terrorist down in Mexico who’s about to transport a nuclear device into the United States.”

So far the only thing DeRosa found interesting was a fly which flew around his head.

“Anyway, I was hoping you could help us out. I told my cousin you might be able to inspect a phony bill and tell us where we might find the printer of such a thing. In return, he would have you released within forty-eight hours.” Tommy showed the palms of his hands. “Mr. DeRosa, if this phony bill was created by a friend of ours, then I wouldn’t expect you to ever roll over on such a person. But if he were just an independent contractor, someone we’re not close with, well, you might be interested in the offer.”

DeRosa remained still. He stared at Tommy as if waiting for the punch line of a joke. After a moment he found the fly again and watched it land on the table between them.

Tommy waited for a full minute before he’d realized he was wasting his time. He stood up and nodded. “I appreciate you taking the time to listen to me, Mr. DeRosa. I won’t be bothering you anymore. And I’ll be sure to tell my cousin to leave you alone as well.”

Tommy was two steps from the door when he heard something which made the hair stand up on the back of his head.

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

Tommy turned to face his accuser and held up his hands. “Mr. DeRosa, I can assure you, if we had met before I would certainly have remembered that meeting.” Now he was feeling the temperature rise in the room. He may have stepped over some line which he shouldn’t have crossed.

DeRosa pointed to the chair across from him. “Sit,” he ordered.

Tommy wasted no time taking his seat.

DeRosa raised his head and looked down at Tommy as if examining him. “It was a long time ago, Christmas Eve,” DeRosa said. “You came to my daughter’s home back in Baltimore. She lived in the same neighborhood as you.”

Tommy’s mouth became dry. He didn’t like stories which he couldn’t remember the ending.

“You came over dressed as Santa, carrying a gigantic stuffed lion for my granddaughter.”

Tommy waited for the knockout.

“Anyway, my daughter says you were a nice guy and brought the local kids gifts every year.”

Tommy shrugged, hoping for a reprieve. “She’s not lying about that.”

“Maybe not,” DeRosa said. “But me, I’m a suspicious guy. Some casual acquaintance happens over the house while I’m staying there, and I’m not comfortable. Especially someone who works for another family.” DeRosa raised his eyebrows. “Right?”

“I agree. There’s no other way to look at that.”

“Of course not,” DeRosa said. “So, once my granddaughter went to bed that night, I had that stuffed animal torn apart. Every inch of that thing was inspected for bugs. Know what I found?”

“A bunch of cotton?”

DeRosa broke out into an all out laugh. He slapped his hands together, the memory seeming to keep his demeanor light and Tommy was all for that.

“I spent the entire night having that thing stitched back together. Piece by piece. Boy, what a long Christmas Eve.”

“So I met you?” Tommy asked.

“Naw, I watched your visit from the back of the room.” DeRosa cocked his head. “Do you remember who my daughter is now?”

“I apologize, Mr. DeRosa. I don’t have any children of my own, so I’ve been delivering toys to kids in the neighborhood for probably fifteen years. I simply don’t recall which one was your daughter. I am so sorr-”

“Stop,” DeRosa held up his hand. “You don’t owe me any apologies.” He looked around the room, then grabbed the microphone in front of him. “This thing on?”

“I doubt it,” Tommy said. “I haven’t touched a thing.”

DeRosa flicked a switch at the base of the microphone a couple of times to assure it was off, then he rested his elbows on the table and gave Tommy a reflective look. “I hear you’re coming to see me and I’m wondering what’s this guy up to. So I had you checked out. Everyone I talk to says the same thing. This guy plays it straight. He don’t talk out of both sides of his mouth.” DeRosa nodded to himself. “So what’s the first thing you tell me? Your cousin is with the feds. You don’t bullshit me with some cockamamie story about helping our country or being with my family. No, you tell me straight out, your cousin needs help. See, I understand wanting to help out family.”

“Mr. DeRosa-”

“Frank,” DeRosa corrected. “Please call me Frank.”

“Sure, Frank. I wouldn’t dream of disrespecting you by playing games.”

“I know,” DeRosa said. He appraised Tommy with a paternal smile. “You like kids, huh?”

“I do.”

DeRosa nodded. “Me too.” Then his expression changed. His face became sullen. “So, tell me about this guy your cousin is after.”

“His name is Antonio Garza,” Tommy said. “He’s a Mexican assassin who transports drugs over the border for the cartels.”

“And now he’s expanding his business to include nuclear devices?”

“Something like that. He also killed a friend of mine. She was also an FBI agent who helped catch terrorists as well.”

DeRosa nodded.

“Plus, he’s kidnapped a Border Patrol agent’s teenage daughter. Heaven knows what he’s done with her.”

DeRosa cringed at the notion. “I’ve heard enough,” he said. “Tell me how I can help.”

Tommy pulled the one hundred dollar bill from his pocket and handed it to DeRosa. At first, the man seemed to examine the paper with his fingertips more than his eyes; then he held it up to the overhead light and squinted. After a few seconds a grin spread across his face. He handed the bill back to Tommy and placed his hands on the table in front of him.

“Okay, so let me understand,” DeRosa said. “If I tell you who made this, I get out of here in forty-eight hours?”

“Exactly.”

“We’re not talking about needing a conviction or anything, right?”

“No. You give us the name and that’s it, you’ve held up your end of the bargain.”

“And what happens if the guy denies it, or you can’t find him?”

“Let’s put it this way,” Tommy said, spreading his hands over the table like he was smoothing sand at the beach. “Forty-eight hours from the minute we locate the guy, you’re out of here.”

That put a gleam into DeRosa’s eyes. He held out a perfectly manicured hand and Tommy shook it. “I trust you.”

“I’m glad.”

DeRosa leaned back in his chair and said, “I can tell you his name and where you can find him almost every day of the week.”

“Fantastic. You have no idea how much I appreciate this.”

Then DeRosa folded his arms across his chest. “I can even do you one better.”

“How’s that?”

“I can round up a crew to help you tackle this creep. One phone call and I could have an entire army of friends ready to follow your instructions.”

Tommy sat up straight and placed a hand over his heart. “Oh, Frank. I think you’re gonna make me blush.”

Chapter 12

President Merrick sat behind his desk in the Oval Office with a video image of the CIA Director on his computer monitor. Ken Morris appeared uneasy as he tried to answer some of Merrick’s questions. Simple questions which needed answers before Merrick made certain decisions to protect US citizens.

Merrick felt his blood pressure mounting an attack. He leaned closer to the screen to drive home his point. “Ken, I allocated a large sum of funds this afternoon in return for information and so far I’m not getting any return on my investment.”

“Well, the problem is, we can’t control when the intel will be retrieved. When someone is embedded like this, they might be on top of the situation and yet not be able to make contact in fear of compromising their identity.”

“Is this what your team believes?”

“Yes.”

Merrick put a stranglehold on the neck of his monitor. “Ken, I want you to e-mail me hourly updates. Do you understand me? I want to hear from you every sixty minutes, even if it’s just to tell me you don’t know anything.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And with every hour you don’t have something of value to tell me, you’re that much closer to finding a new career in the private sector. Am I clear on this point?”

“Absolutely, sir.”

Merrick slammed his keyboard which disconnected the transmission. At the same moment, and without coincidence, a brief knock came on the door followed by the arrival of Secretary of State, Sam Fisk, and a man Merrick had never met before. The man was thin with a trim beard, a blue shirt and red tie. Merrick could tell by the knot, the man hadn’t worn a tie in years.

Fisk guided the gentleman over to the desk while Merrick stood and held out his hand.

“Doctor Jake Peterson,” Fisk said to Merrick.

Peterson shook Merrick’s hand with wide eyes. “A pleasure to meet you, sir.”

“Have a seat, Doctor,” Merrick said, pointing to the chair across the desk from him.

Fisk remained standing beside the visitor, his hand resting on the back of the man’s chair. “Dr. Peterson holds a PhD in Nuclear Physics from Georgetown University,” Fisk said.

“He also has Top Secret Clearance.”

Merrick sat back down. “Very nice of you to come down here on such short notice.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Sam told you why you were needed, correct?”

It seemed to take Peterson a moment to realize that Sam was the Secretary of State standing next to him. “Oh, yes, sir,” he said, smoothing out his pant legs with nervous energy. “He explained the situation.”

“Good,” Merrick said. “Well, as far as we know, this dirty bomb is on the verge of crossing the border into the United States. We don’t know the size of the bomb, nor the potency of the material inside. What I’m looking for is some rudimentary understanding of the danger our nation might face should this crossing occur. Can you help me?”

Peterson seemed to anticipate the question. “Of course. Do you know if the word ‘salted’ has ever come up?”

Merrick tilted his head. “Salted?” He looked up at Fisk.

“A salted bomb has more radioactivity,” Fisk explained. “It’s much more dangerous.” He paused a moment. “No, I don’t think that word has ever come up.”

Peterson edged forward in his seat. “Mr. President,” he said anxiously, “is there any way I could get a glass of water?”

Merrick smiled and gestured toward a small refrigerator on the west wall where Fisk was already reaching down and acquiring a cold bottle of water. He handed it to Peterson and watched the doctor take an ample drink.

Peterson let out a big breath and twisted the cap back onto the bottle. “Thank you.” He looked around the room. “It really is oval, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Merrick said. “First time I entered this room, my mouth dried up as well. Are you okay?”

“Sure,” Peterson said. “Sir, without any data regarding dimensions of the bomb, it will be difficult to give you solid information.”

“Understood. Maybe you could give me some insight as to the dangers of a typical dirty bomb?”

“Of course,” Peterson said. “I must tell you, however, the overwhelming majority of these devices don’t carry nearly enough radioactive material to cause major fallout. Because of the nature of this weapon, it’s meant to disperse the radioactive material over a large area rendering its potency rather unproductive.”

“How so?”

“Well, a nuclear weapon uses fission to provoke an enormous explosion of radiation, whereas a dirty bomb is normally created with conventional weaponry which then scatters the radioactive material.” Peterson hesitated, glanced at Fisk, then back to Merrick. “Mr. President, do you want my opinion, or do you want just the factual data?”

“Yes,” Merrick said. “That’s a great point. I want your opinion. That’s why you’re here.”

“Well, terrorists are normally pursuing an immediate reaction. They want to deliver the most damage in the quickest amount of time. They’re not after the long-term effect of a radioactive spill. I would suggest they are attempting to create more psychological harm than physical damage. Mass panic and terror are normally what they are after.”

Merrick could see Fisk nodding his head and liking what he was hearing.

“So, in your opinion, Doctor,” Merrick said, “a dirty bomb wouldn’t carry enough radioactive material to cause major long-term fatalities?”

“That’s correct, Mr. President. Decontaminating the affected area would require considerable time and expense, but no, I would doubt there would be a cluster of fatalities.”

Merrick tapped the top of his desk with his index finger. “Okay,” he said. “I think that tells me what I need to know.”

Peterson got to his feet. “Sir, I don’t want to trivialize the danger involved with a dirty bomb. They are extremely dangerous, especially in a crowded space. Depending on its size, anyone within one hundred yards probably wouldn’t survive such an explosion. But if you could control where it’s detonated, you could contain its fallout.”

Merrick stood and shook Peterson’s hand. “Thank you again, Doctor. You’ve been a great help.”

When Peterson left, Fisk took his seat and crossed his legs. “So? Are you feeling better about my suggestion?”

“You mean your clever tactic of doing nothing?” Merrick said.

“Ingenious, isn’t it?”

“What was that explanation of ‘salted’ all about? I know what the fuck ‘salted’ means.”

“You looked at me like you didn’t know.”

“I looked at you because I hadn’t heard it used in our conversations with the War Room.”

“Oh.”

Merrick picked up his tablet computer and handed it to Fisk. It was opened to a page on the BBC’s website. The headline read, “The United Palestinian Force a New Player in the Terrorist Game.”

Fisk read through the article with a scowl on his face. When he was finished, he placed it on Merrick’s desk and slid it back to him. “It’s what I’ve been telling you,” he said. “These punks want attention in the worst way. Who do you think was the anonymous source they quoted?”

Merrick clasped his hands together and tapped his chin. “So how much of a player are they?”

“Look, it took them eighteen months to get a dirty bomb into Mexico. They paid millions just to get Garza to transport the thing over the border. From what I understand, they’re tapped out on funds. They put all their chips into this venture. If Garza gets this thing into our country and they are able to detonate the device anywhere near a populated area, the gamble will pay off. They’ll immediately become a new player. The funds will start rolling in and membership will thrive.”

“And if they don’t?”

“They’re done. Finito. Never to be heard from again.” Fisk put his index finger to his lips. “Mum’s the word.”

Merrick leaned back in his chair. “All right, buddy. I’m trusting you here.”

“It’s Garza we need to stop. He gets this done and he’ll expose a major weakness to our border defense. Every terrorist organization on the planet will be paying him a visit.” With a distant stare, Fisk said, “Give Nick and the boys a chance to get this done.”

Merrick cocked his head. “When you say, ‘the boys,’ exactly whom do you mean?”

Fisk smiled knowingly and returned his finger to his lips.

Merrick shook his head. He knew Fisk was protecting him, keeping him from being culpable with whatever Nick’s ‘family’ may be doing without law enforcement compliance. He also knew their involvement had saved many American lives in the past.

Merrick swiveled his chair around to face the South Lawn behind his desk. A hummingbird was flapping its wings furiously while pecking at a flower petal. “You ever wonder about the consequences of our choices, Sam?”

Fisk said nothing.

“Sometimes my choices allow a family to afford a new home or a schoolchild to afford a smaller classroom.” The hummingbird dipped and rose erratically, until it flew off in a fury. “Then other times my choices cause a homeless person to lose a meal.”

Merrick turned to face Fisk. “Sometimes I wonder if that homeless person knows I took that meal away from him so I could pay for us to capture a Mexican terrorist and save hundreds, or maybe thousands of lives. You ever wonder about that, Sam?”

“I try not to swim that deep,” Fisk said.

“Well, if this country has a beating heart, it’s because of people like Nick Bracco and Matt McColm.”

“Hallelujah,” Fisk said. “Now. . can we find something to eat around here?”

Chapter 13

Just one look at the outside of the off-track betting place and Tommy knew he wasn’t in Baltimore anymore. There was a large patch of desert with some sort of beat-up cactus and a few wilted shrubs along the front wall. Along the side of the building an asphalt parking lot had a half-dozen pickup trucks and a couple of small foreign cars. Tommy parked in the back by himself, giving the rental a chance to survive a door ding.

As soon as he stepped inside, however, he felt right at home. It was a struggling sports bar whose owner probably decided to lure degenerate gamblers to bolster his lunch business. The rectangular bar was centered in the middle of the room with a scattering of round tables around the perimeter. To the right was the restaurant with booths and tables. To the left was the wall of OTB tellers.

Tommy took a seat at the bar and gestured to the bartender. “I’ll take a bottle of Bud and a Form please,” he said.

The guy behind the bar seemed bored as he placed the beer on the bar and handed Tommy the Racing Form.

“Seven-fifty,” the guy said.

Tommy gave the bartender a ten and told him to keep it. He took a swig of beer and examined the room. He spotted his mark instantly. The guy was sitting in a booth on the restaurant side, a pretty girl snuggled up next to him wearing the shortest shorts he’d ever seen. The guy stuck out because the crowd was mostly gray-haired men straining to see one of the dozen TV monitors hanging from the ceiling. He also stuck out because he was pushing three hundred pounds of pure fat.

Tommy glanced at a TV and discovered it was seven minutes to post time for the third race at Hollywood Park. He opened his Form and studied the charts. After a minute he glanced back up at the TV and said, “Shit.”

There was an older guy sitting two stools down from him who noticed Tommy’s mild outburst. He was a burly guy with a two-day stubble and a pair of reading glasses hanging around his neck.

“You okay?” the man asked.

“Aw, sure,” Tommy said, pointing to the TV, disgusted. “It’s just that the four horse is scratched.”

The guy looked down at his Form on the bar in front of him. “Of course he’s scratched, he’s a pig. Should be pulling a plow out in a field.”

Tommy nodded at the old-timer. “Yeah, but he’s the only other speed in the race. Who’s gonna wear down the chalk?”

The guy kept reading the paper in front of him. “What about the eight?”

“The eight?” Tommy laughed. “Shit, I could outrun that horse to the first turn.”

The guy put his reading glasses on and placed his index finger on the Form next to the eight horse’s past performances. While staring at the Form, the guy’s face broke out into a sheepish grin.

“I guess you’re right,” he said. “So I shouldn’t bet on the five to close up on him, huh?”

“Not without the four to force the pace.”

Tommy noticed the man’s beer glass was nearly empty. He waved at the bartender and said, “Please pour another beer for my friend here.”

The guy looked over to be certain Tommy was talking about him. “You sure?”

“Of course.” Tommy slid over one stool to sit next to the guy. He held out his hand. “Tommy Bracco.”

“Ben Westfall,” the man said, shaking Tommy’s hand.

“Hey, I hate know-it-alls,” Tommy said. “Bet whoever you want. I’m just a big mouth sometimes.”

“Don’t worry, I always do.”

“You’ve spent a few afternoons down here betting the ponies, eh, Ben?”

“A few,” Ben said, as he took his beer from the bartender and held it up to his new friend. “Thanks.”

“My pleasure,” Tommy said. He looked up and saw a line forming at the teller. “You better get your bet down on the third.”

“Nah,” Ben said. “I’m not betting the favorite at that price. It’s not worth getting up twice to make twenty cents.”

“Twenty cents? You’re a two-dollar bettor?”

Ben sipped some of the foam off his beer. “Yes, sir.”

Tommy smiled. “My uncle was a two-dollar bettor as well. He used to bet just for the thrill of knowing he was right.”

“He still around?”

“Naw, he died when I was a kid. He was an ex-cop, Baltimore PD.”

Ben put his glass down. “I’m ex-Chicago PD. Your uncle and I would’ve gotten along great.”

“I’ll bet you would’ve,” Tommy said. “Once he died, my cousins Nick and Phil ended up living with us. Nick followed his footsteps as a Baltimore cop, then went on to become an FBI agent.”

“How about Phil?”

“He’s in Vegas gambling his way to bankruptcy.” Tommy shrugged. “You just never know.”

“No, you don’t.”

A distant bell rang and both men instinctively looked up to see the horses break from the gate at Hollywood Park. A low murmur filled the room as the favorite settled into an easy lead.

“You’re right,” Ben said. “He’s going to run away with it.”

As the favorite came down the stretch, the banter and cheering swelled. The moment he crossed the finish line two lengths ahead of the field, the cheering stopped and a handful of men slapped their hands with their Forms, trying to cash in on a long shot which was never going to make it.

Ben looked at Tommy. “How come you didn’t bet?”

“Too much on my mind.”

“Like what?”

Tommy stood and faced Ben. “You see this big guy over my left shoulder.”

Ben gave a cursory glance, then took another sip of his beer. “Yup.”

“You know him?”

Ben gave Tommy a cautious look. “You a friend of his?”

Tommy chuckled. “Hardly. I just want to make sure I got the right guy. His name is Jerry Lemke, right?”

Ben nodded. “That’s him. Why?”

Tommy gave Ben a surreptitious grin. “My cousin’s an FBI agent and he needs some info from this guy. We don’t have time for a formal question and answer session, so I’m going to need to speed up the process a bit.”

“You going to play rough with him?”

“Very.”

Ben gave a satisfied smile. “Good. The guy’s an asshole. Comes in here every day and sits in that booth and makes out with that slut all afternoon. He’s rude to the staff, cuts in line at the teller’s window right at post time, and then he does that.” Ben shot the large man an angry glare. The guy was lighting up a cigarette without a care in the world.

Tommy cringed. “You kidding me? He gets away with that?”

Ben returned his attention to the Form. “They’re all afraid of him. He must be with some drug cartel, or maybe a gun runner, because he comes with an entourage.”

Tommy nodded to the two burly men sitting in the booth next to Lemke, nursing martinis and acting bored. “Yeah, I’ve seen the muscle.”

“That’s just part of the team. They’re all over the place, maybe half a dozen, maybe more. I’m not sure, I’m seeing a lot of unfamiliar faces today.”

Tommy peeked down at the windbreaker draped across the back of Ben’s stool. “You carrying?”

Ben lifted his glass of beer and examined it. “Never leave home without it.” Then he swallowed half the glass in one long pull.

Tommy placed a gentle hand on Ben’s back. “You’re a good man, Ben Westfall. Can you do me one favor?”

“Sure.”

“I’m going to go over there now and make a scene. Don’t get involved. Let the bartender know to be cool as well. It should be over pretty quick.”

“I can do that.”

“Thanks.” Tommy turned to go, then paused and looked back at the ex-cop. “Listen, should I do something stupid and get myself shot. Would you do me a favor and kill the fat fuck for me?”

Ben held up his glass of beer in a mock toast. “Be glad to.”

Tommy slapped a ten-dollar bill on the counter for Ben’s beer, then adjusted his toothpick and headed toward the restaurant seating. As he approached the booth, the burly gentlemen next door straightened up. Tommy slid into the booth next to Lemke and across from the skinny girl with the short shorts.

“Hey, Jerry,” Tommy said, affably. Then he pulled the cigarette from Lemke’s hand and dunked it into the guy’s beer. “There’s no smoking allowed in this establishment.”

Lemke jerked back in surprise, never expecting insubordination like that in public. He glanced to his right, but the two thugs were already out of the booth and on top of Tommy, tugging him from his seat, a tight grip on each arm. Tommy hung limp in their grasp. By now the entire posse had formed a semicircle around the booth, maybe eight guys in total, seeming anxious to engage in battle.

“What do you want to do with him?” one of the thugs said.

Tommy looked over his shoulder and saw Ben fumbling with his windbreaker. Tommy gave him an angry shake of his head to warn him off.

An arrogance blossomed over Lemke’s face. He looked at his cigarette floating in his beer and slashed an index finger across his throat.

“Got it,” the guy said.

That’s when the restaurant was swarmed with a group of dark-skinned men who seemed to appear from the shadows. Men with vowels at the end of their names. They had filled the remainder of the restaurant and flanked Lemke’s crew. Maybe twenty guys, with serious expressions and no need to show their guns to make it known they were packing.

“Let him go,” an authoritative voice growled. Coming forward was a square-jawed man with thick eyebrows and a penetrating glare. Dino Manato elbowed one of the thugs holding Tommy and both men let go of their grips. Tommy smoothed out his shirt, then returned to his seat in the booth. Dino stood at the head of the table, stone-faced.

Lemke’s crew knew they were outnumbered and waited on their boss for direction. The large man appeared interested in the situation but not quite convinced it was a serious event in his day.

“Get out of here, Trixie,” Tommy told the girl.

With a look of shock, the girl glanced at Lemke, who nodded his approval. As she began to slide out of the booth she said, “How’d you know my name?”

“Your name is really Trixie?” Tommy asked.

She bobbed her head in a mixture of fear and confusion.

“Then go home and call your mother and apologize for everything you’ve ever done. Capisce?”

With the girl gone, Tommy examined the contents of the table with a disgusted expression. A half-eaten burger next to a giant plate of fries and two empty chocolate milk shakes with a thin film of grime on the glasses.

“You’re a real piece of shit, Gerald,” Tommy said. “You realize in Nairobi, there are young kids who would feast on that crap for a month just to keep alive.”

Lemke’s face scrunched up into an angry scowl. “Who the fuck are you?”

Tommy scratched his head and glanced around to make sure his coup hadn’t upset too many customers. “I’m the guy who gets what he wants. Every time.”

“And exactly what is it you want?” the obese counterfeiter growled.

“I need to know where Garza’a safe house is here in Tucson. Maybe he’s got a few. I want the one where he might be keeping a kidnapped thirteen-year-old girl.”

A couple of Lemke’s crew didn’t take kindly to being shoved in toward the booth and they shoved back, but a quick punch in the face from a ‘family friend’ stopped the struggle quickly.

“Garza?” Lemke asked, looking sincere. “Who the fuck is Garza?”

Tommy nodded, ready for the ignorance card to be played. “Okay, so you’re here in an OTB playing kissy-face with some bimbo while your daughter Chelsea has a half-day of school. You do know Chelsea, right?”

At the mention of his daughter’s name, the blubber on the guy’s face tightened into confusion.

“And,” Tommy continued, “you probably don’t know she’s been taken hostage as well. Some very dangerous men picked her up twenty minutes ago.”

Lemke looked around at his crew as if searching for confirmation, but no one could give him anything.

“Call her,” Tommy said.

Lemke didn’t move.

Tommy picked up the beer with the floating cigarette and threw it into Lemke’s face. “Call her, asshole.”

When Lemke’s fat fingers wiped the beer from his face, he seemed to realize he wasn’t in control anymore. He picked his cell phone off the table, pushed a button, then held it to his ear.

Tommy lowered his head and ran a hand through his hair. While waiting, he looked at Dino Manato and shrugged. “Guy’s not all there, is he?”

Dino didn’t move a muscle. He seemed experienced at this type of warfare.

After a minute, Lemke said into the phone, “Hi, honey, this is Dad. Call me.” He returned the phone to the table, then said to Tommy. “Do you know who I am?”

Tommy scoffed. “You mean, are you the guy who prints funny money for certain cartels so they can pay for their weapons with worthless paper? That guy?”

Tommy felt the table rise as Lemke leaned his girth forward and shook his head with disdain. “No, jerkoff, I’m the guy who owns the southwest. I snap a finger and people are motivated to make things happen.”

“Uh, huh.” Tommy leaned back in the booth. “Go ahead and snap. . I’ll wait.”

Lemke didn’t remove his stare from Tommy’s poker face.

“All right,” Tommy said. “I’ve had enough. Call Vivian and ask her where Chelsea is. She’s waiting to pick her up at Washington Junior High. They had a half-day today because of teachers’ conferences. Of course you wouldn’t know that because you’re here eating unhealthy food and smoking cigarettes.”

Lemke appeared uncomfortable with the ease in which Tommy rattled off his personal information. He picked up the phone again and pushed a button.

Tommy waited. A hostess came over to check on the crowded restaurant, but Ben pulled her aside and explained things. Tommy motioned with his hand that he needed something to write with.

Lemke said, “Hi sweetie,” into the phone. “What’re you doing?”

While he listened, his face lost its color and his eyes grew into soft round plates of distress.

Tommy pulled the toothpick from his mouth and jabbed it between a couple of molars, always keeping his gums vibrant.

When Lemke put his phone down, he looked around to see if there was an out. Tommy knew the guy needed to compromise without his crew seeing him cave. He’d lose respect.

Tommy motioned to Dino. “Get rid of these mongrels. They’re causing too much of a scene. Have them wait outside.”

Dino turned and nodded. A minute later the only people left in the restaurant were Tommy, Dino and Lemke. Dino sat down across from Tommy, boxing Lemke in, figuratively and literally.

“What do you want?” Lemke said.

“So, here’s how this works,” Tommy said. “First, you’re going to give me bogus information so you can stall, maybe the cops will show up or maybe you’ll get reinforcements, I don’t know what kind of plan you have going, but I’m short on time so I’m gonna have them chop off Chelsea’s pinkie and bring it in here for you. She’s out in the car.”

Tommy looked at Dino, who got out of the booth and began walking away.

“No,” Lemke blurted. “I’ll tell you what you want.”

Dino didn’t stop.

Lemke tried to get up, but his stomach would only allow so much leeway, so the table came up with him. “Stop!” he screamed.

Tommy shoved him back down and said, “Shut up, Jerry. This is just foreplay.”

The guy must’ve genuinely liked his daughter because he tried sliding out of the booth, looking like a whale hopping on its tail. “Don’t do this,” he muttered. “I swear, I’ll tell you what you want. You just have to promise this never gets back to Garza.”

“Oh, it won’t get back to him,” Tommy said. “I promise.”

The hostess came to the table with a legal pad and pen and handed them to Tommy.

“Thanks, sweetheart.”

Just then Dino returned with a white bar rag with something beige sticking from the top. A pinkie with red fingernail polish.

Lemke looked like he was going to faint. He slumped back in his chair, his jaw open, his eyes staring at the pinkie, full of recognition.

“I. . I. . told you I would. .”

“I’m sorry, Jer,” Tommy said, taking the pinkie from Dino, holding it up for Lemke to see. “I can’t afford bullshit. Now you tell me the exact address where I’ll find Garza’s Tucson hideout and we’ll leave the rest of Chelsea’s body intact.”

Tommy slid the legal pad and pen over to Lemke. “I want every address. Then I want names of his contacts here in Tucson.”

Lemke looked at the pad and hesitated.

Tommy slapped Dino on the arm. “Go get the rest of her fingers, will ya,” Tommy said.

Dino got up.

Lemke screamed, “No! I was just trying to think where this girl would be, that’s all.”

“Hold up,” Tommy said to Dino. Lemke’s lips were trembling. Even the best method actors couldn’t fake that kind of fear.

“Okay,” Tommy said, holding up the palm of his hand. “Just write the information down and we’ll keep your daughter alive.”

Lemke began writing furiously, his chubby fingers moving over the pad with a purpose.

“This didn’t come from me, right?” Lemke said, without looking up.

“Course not,” Tommy assured him.

After a couple of minutes, Lemke examined the paper and seemed satisfied. He handed it to Tommy with shaky fingers. “It’s everything I know,” he said.

“I believe you,” Tommy said.

The pinkie was beginning to leak enough blood to soak through the bar rag. Lemke’s eyes locked on the pinkie like it was a rare gem.

“Could you please let her go?” he asked politely.

Tommy inspected the pad and was impressed with how detailed the directions were. He ripped off the top sheet, then dropped the pad back on the table.

“Give me your cell phone,” Tommy said.

Lemke quickly slid his phone over to him.

Tommy handed the phone to Dino and said, “You know what to do.”

Dino nodded, then folded his arms across his chest.

Tommy got up and tossed the rubber pinkie at Lemke. The big guy scrambled for it once it bounced off his chest. It took a couple of moments of playing with it in his fingers before he’d realized the dupe.

“It’s fake,” Lemke looked astonished and confused. “Where’s Chelsea?”

“We took her out for some ice cream,” Tommy said. “The only thing we may have hurt is her appetite.”

Lemke seemed relieved and pissed all at once. “You mean. .”

Tommy became disgusted. “Unlike some of your friends, I don’t mess with kids.”

Lemke stared at the piece of paper in Tommy’s hand as if he’d just given him the password to his online bank account. It convinced Tommy he had the real deal.

“Listen,” Tommy said, zoning in on Lemke’s large torso, “mix in a salad every now and then, huh?” He headed for the door, pausing only to point at Ben Westfall and mouth, “Thank you.”

Once outside, Tommy slid into the back seat of the SUV. Matt was behind the wheel, Nick in the passenger seat. Stevie was back there with a lapful of rubber fingers and a bottle of red nail polish. Tommy handed Nick the piece of paper, who gave him a fist bump.

“Let’s go,” Nick said, putting an address into his GPS.

“He cause a scene?” Matt asked through the rearview mirror.

“Naw,” Tommy said, looking out at the passing desert landscape. “How tough can you be living in a town without sidewalks?”

Chapter 14

Matt parked the SUV a hundred yards from the house. They were in a rundown residential neighborhood in west Tucson. Most of the front yards blended into each other, just one long stretch of overgrown mesquite trees and dry dirt between patches of dead grass. There were scooters and tricycles resting on their side in random yards, but no kids.

Tommy thought if they built a police station on this street, it wouldn’t stop the flow of crime. Nothing would. You could smell it in the air.

“The Hostage Rescue Team is on the way,” Nick said to Tommy. “We’re going to sit tight until they get here.”

“Place looks like a bomb hit it,” Tommy said.

They sat silent for a minute until Stevie said, “What was Nairobi like?”

“Sad,” Tommy said. “Very sad.”

“You were at some orphanage?”

“Yeah, a buddy of mine has a daughter who runs the place, Susan Walker. She’s a real gem. Most of them are AIDS babies. She treats them like they’re her own children.”

“So what did you do exactly?” Stevie asked.

“Mostly scrounged for food or boiled water. I’d go to the local churches and ask for supplies. But the most important thing I did was hug these little creatures. They need human contact so badly. Did you know if you took a child at birth and kept them in complete darkness for the first four months of childhood, they’d be blind for the rest of their lives?”

“Get out,” Nick said. “Is that true?”

“I’m not shitting you,” Tommy said. “Something about the optic nerve needing to connect with the brain and it only happens in the first four months. After that, it won’t connect anymore. That’s why baby toys are all primary colors. They need to calibrate their eyesight.”

“Geez,” Stevie said. “Where’d you learn all this, in Africa?”

“Yeah, apparently some of these orphanages over there are basically babysitting kids whose parents already died of AIDS, so they just sit there in some kind of a pen, like a baby corral, and they get fed three times a day and that’s it. No one touches them and they don’t receive human affection, so just like the optic nerve, their ability to give and receive love never quite attaches. They grow up like zombies. They don’t smile, they don’t cry, it’s useless, because they’ve been conditioned to be ignored. So we go around and hug these babies all day long.”

“Wow,” Matt said. “Tommy Bracco, baby hugger. Who knew?”

“Yeah,” Tommy said with a smile. “I just wish the pay was better.”

They waited another minute before a slow-moving gray panel truck came up and parked behind them. Nick hopped out of the car and met with an HRT soldier, who seemed to be wrapped in Kevlar. The guy’s entire body was covered with black material all the way up to his black gloves. He pulled off his full-faced helmet to talk with Nick.

Tommy’s phone chirped and when he looked at the caller’s name he immediately became suspicious. Hector Gomez. Someone Tommy had known a long time, but wouldn’t exactly call a friend. The guy was unreliable, shifty, drug-addicted and had wild mood swings. The part which concerned Tommy was the fact that Hector resided in Mexico. Tommy tried to digest the coincidence.

“I’ve got to get this,” Tommy said, jumping out of the SUV and walking briskly away from Nick and the commander of the Hostage Rescue Team.

Tommy pushed the talk button and put the phone to his ear. “Hector, how the heck are you?” he said casually, not raising any red flags.

“Good, my friend. How are you?” Hector said in his thick Mexican accent.

“Great,” Tommy said, walking down the desolate street away from the action behind him. “How are things below the border?”

“Loco,” Hector said. “Too much violence down here. Makes your skin crawl.”

“Hector, you sound sober. What happened, too early to get your buzz on?”

Hector offered a fake laugh. He was trying too hard to seem normal and Tommy had never had a normal conversation with the guy. He was a paranoid, coke-sniffing, wild-eyed maniac with little tolerance for subtlety. Hector didn’t know how to have a normal conversation, so this was obviously difficult to pull off.

Tommy glanced over his shoulder to see the HRT work their way out of the back of their truck and stealthily spread out. They moved like athletes, on their toes, knees bent with their helmets on and laser-guided assault rifles at the ready. Nick and Matt were right there with them, pistols at their side.

“So, Hector, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Huh?”

“Why’d you call?”

“Oh, well, just seeing how things are going. We haven’t spoken for a while.”

Tommy stopped. Something was very wrong and he couldn’t finger it just yet.

“I just got back from Nairobi,” Tommy said.

“Where’s that? Africa?”

“Yeah, in Kenya.”

“I see,” Hector said. Then, casually, with way too much effort trying to be nonchalant, he said, “So where are you now?”

Hostage Rescue had circled the house. Tommy could see them blend into the landscape. Instinctively, he began to walk toward the place, across the street, but parallel.

“I think we both know where I am, Hector,” Tommy said.

There was a pause. Too long.

Tommy began to jog, not knowing yet why, but getting closer to his cousin.

“Uh, why do you say this?” Hector managed.

“Listen, I don’t hold this against you at all, Hector. I’ve got mad love for you, man. But it’s your system down there which causes the problem.”

Tommy’s heart raced too hard, so he slowed his pace searching for Nick, but not seeing him.

“Which system are you speaking about?” Hector said.

It was the strangest conversation he’d ever had with the guy. Hector never spoke for more than thirty seconds before he asked if they were being recorded or the line was tapped.

“It’s not your fault,” Tommy said, finding Nick and Matt along the side of the house taking cover behind a couple of wide palm trees. “You can’t help it. It’s just you surround yourself with idiots who say ‘yes’ to you all day long and your brain goes soft. It doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it means you’re conditioned to make mistakes. It’s more environmental, than genetic.”

Tommy snapped his fingers to get Nick’s attention, but he was focused on the front of the house. A couple of Hostage Rescue guys were at the front door, swinging a battering ram, ready to attack.

“Why do you speak to me like this, my friend?” Hector acted hurt.

Tommy recalled a signal from his youth. A whistle he would use whenever he and Nick were in trouble and needed to run. He held the phone down against his leg and blew a short warning whistle.

Nick turned and saw him.

“I’m not talking to you, Hector,” Tommy said, returning the phone to his ear. “I’m talking to that piece of shit, Garza. The guy who’s forcing you to make this call. The asshole standing right next to you.”

Tommy waved his arms furiously at his cousin.

Nick swiveled his attention between the front door and Tommy.

Tommy pointed down.

Nick hesitated. The battering ram was in its third swing, the last one before it busted the door. He grabbed Matt by the shoulder and pulled him down to the ground.

The battering ram hit the door.

The explosion lit up the sky.

Garza heard the explosion from Hector’s phone, leaning in and feeling the sense of satisfaction as screams turned into cries, then orders barked out by male voices. Garza nodded, then backed away and told Hector he could turn off his phone. They were in Garza’s office with Victor standing by silently awaiting Garza’s instructions.

Garza pointed to a chair in front of his desk. “Sit down, Hector.”

Hector Gomez tried to act brave as he followed instructions.

Garza paced with his hands behind his back. “Hector, you did the right thing by coming to me with this information. This was smart.”

Hector seemed pleased to be hearing the tone of Garza’s voice.

“Tell me, how did you know I was troubled by this Bracco family?”

“Word gets around, El Carnicero.”

“Of course,” Garza said. “However, I’ve known you a long time, Hector. How come this is the first time you come to visit me with information?” Garza withdrew a folding clip knife from his pocket and extended it to its full length of eight inches.

Hector remained still, his eyes darting back and forth between the knife and Garza. “I was at a party last night out in the desert. There was a lot of tequila flowing. A lot of liquid bravery. People trying to be macho. There was a man who said you had killed some FBI agents. He said you were going to kill some more. The man mentioned the name Bracco.”

“And who was this man?” Garza asked, wiping his knife on his pant leg.

“His name was Philippe.”

“Philippe? Philippe who?”

“I didn’t get his last name. We exchanged first names only.”

On a small table next to Hector sat a bowl of fruit. Garza took an apple from the bowl, tossed it in the air and caught it like a baseball. He took his serrated knife and carved a slice of the apple and placed it in his mouth. Hector’s forehead glistened with moisture.

“So only first names?”

“Yes.”

Garza glanced at Victor who stood between Hector and the door. Victor shrugged, seemingly unsure what to think.

Garza sliced a piece of apple, jabbed it with the point of the knife, then extended his arm to offer Hector the slice. The apple was just inches from Hector’s face and he reached for the slice as if reaching for a rattlesnake’s fangs.

Garza snapped back the knife with a quick pull as Hector grabbed the slice.

“Thank you,” Hector said, cautiously taking a bite of the apple slice.

Garza looked out the window overlooking his wilting flowers. A soldier absently stepped on one of his geraniums. Garza opened the window and screamed, “Puta! Watch where you are walking.”

The soldier searched his path and found the damaged flower. He cowered, mumbling apologies.

Garza returned his attention to his visitor who was taking everything in with anxious eyes.

“Hector, is there something else?”

Hector looked at his hands on his lap. “The Zutons are honing in on my piracy business,” Hector explained. “I used to make five hundred dollars a week, but now I’m forced to pay fifty percent of my profit to them. Some weeks they don’t believe my sales figures and I actually lose money.”

Garza stared.

“It’s getting crazy out there,” Hector said. “I say the wrong thing and I could turn up dead. I was wondering if you were needing some. . uh. . help?”

“You want to be on my payroll?”

“Mr. Garza, you are a very powerful man. It would be a comfort to know I was under your umbrella.”

Garza considered the request. Hector was fairly unreliable and mostly paranoid. For him to be sitting here was either an act of desperation or sheer stupidity.

Garza wiped a hand over his face. “Okay, Hector, let me consider your situation.”

Hector sat there for a moment seemingly uncertain what to do. From behind him, Victor slipped a steel wire around his neck and pulled it taut. Hector grabbed franticly at the wire, his eyes shocked open, his legs pushing upward, getting to his feet to alleviate the pressure. But Victor was too strong. The wire dug into Hector’s skin with such force, a red line appeared where the wire was imbedded into his neck. Hector only fought and kicked for a few seconds before the lack of oxygen had him unconscious.

Hector’s head dropped forward, then his entire body slipped to the floor. Victor kept up the pressure until Garza said, “Enough, he is dead.”

Victor let go of the wire, then checked for a pulse. He looked up at Garza and shook his head.

“Good.” Garza pointed to a couple of towels sitting on the counter. “Now, clean it up quick. I don’t want a big mess in here.”

Chapter 15

Nick took the elevator to the basement of the Homeland Security Office and made his way to the detention cells. He tapped the bandage on his ear to make sure it was still in place while passing the three cells to his right, full of Mexican nationals who would be deported sometime soon. The very last cell on the left was reserved for individuals who required special attention, or the necessity to remain separated from the current detainees.

A Homeland Security agent stood guard outside the cell and opened the door when Nick approached. Sitting alone on a cot was Greg Chapin. The man was hunched over, elbows on his knees, rubbing his hands together. When he spotted Nick, he jumped to his feet with an eager expression.

Nick sat on the cot and motioned Chapin to sit next to him.

Chapin sat. He looked at the burn marks on the side of Nick’s face. “What happened?” he asked.

Nick felt his bandage, knowing he and Matt were fortunate to leave the scene with just scrapes. He looked over at the agent who stared at him anxiously.

“She’s dead,” Nick said.

Chapin’s reaction was delayed, as if the words needed to absorb into his bloodstream before they took effect. He stood and ambled toward the closed cell bars. He grasped a couple of bars and fell into them, his head pressed against the cold steel, his breathing labored.

Nick pulled a legal-sized sheet of paper from his back pocket and smoothed out the creases. He waited as Chapin struggled to gain his composure. The agent let go of the bars and wiped his eyes. He turned to see Nick holding the sheet of paper.

“What’s that?” Chapin asked with a husky voice.

Nick held up the paper. “This is your only chance to keep the rest of your family safe.”

Chapin seemed to understand. “WITSEC?”

Nick nodded.

Chapin seemed surprised. “You would offer it to me?”

“Only if you want to be part of the solution.”

“But, he’ll get to me,” Chapin’s eyes were pleading for hope. “Even in Witness Protection, he’ll get to me.”

“Not if we get to him first.”

“But how? It’s not like he gave me any information. We had a one-way relationship. I gave him info and he kept my daughter alive.”

Nick wanted to ask how that worked out for him, but he had to corral Chapin’s attention and get him to focus.

“You’re still a law enforcement official with investigative skills,” Nick reminded him. “He must have said something, anything which gave you insight to who was on his team here in the States. You have your suspicions.”

Chapin must have known his daughter wouldn’t survive. He seemed to be on the road to acceptance as he paced around the tight quarters in his cell, head down, mulling over something to himself.

“Don’t be selfish,” Nick said. “Think of your wife and son. They deserve to be protected.”

Nick didn’t want to push too hard, but he needed help and this was his best opportunity.

Chapin seemed lost.

“Listen,” Nick said, “every minute you waste beating yourself up over the past, you’re putting Kevin and Linda at risk.”

Chapin wheeled with surprise on his face. Nick held up the paperwork to show how he’d known their names. The Border Patrol agent was tormented and dropped down on the cot next to Nick, the burden appearing too heavy for him. He gazed out the cell bars with a distant stare.

“I did hear something once,” Chapin murmured. “One of Garza’s men uttered a name when I was relaying intel to him. The man said, ‘Just like Sandoval.’ I don’t know who or what Sandoval is, but Garza wasn’t pleased at the slip.”

Nick waited for any other insights from the beaten man, but after a few minutes Chapin placed his hands over his eyes and began to sob. Nick got up and motioned the guard to open the cell door. Once the door was shut behind him, he looked back at Chapin and wondered how many more Chapins were out there. Garza’s tentacles had reached over the border and into the heart of Arizona’s law enforcement. Nick would have to be smart about his moves. He was going to do everything he could to prevent Matt from getting in his SUV and storming Garza’s complex with a gun in each hand.

Nick left the basement with one word on his mind. Sandoval.

* * *

CIA Director Ken Morris still had a half-eaten bagel from breakfast on his desk while he conducted three online conversations with some of his finest Mexican contacts. None of them could help track the name of the undercover agent currently operating within one of the cartels.

He took a sip of six-hour-old coffee and hit the enter key to send the latest update to President Merrick, stating there has been no progress in the ability to discover who the agent was.

One thing was for sure, the agent had quit sending messages forty-eight hours earlier and frightened many into believing the man had turned. The President was willing to throw more money at the independent contractor and Ken was willing to endorse that philosophy, but he knew deep down it signaled a new sense of desperation.

At the same time he was struggling with a cryptic message left on the CIA website the night before. A series of letters were left anonymously and his tech team could only track the message to somewhere in Mexico. Even as his team worked on the message, Ken still played with them on a yellow legal pad, switching the letters around to make sense of them.

The letters were: nvloaads.

His cell phone buzzed. Walt Jackson. He snapped the phone into the docking station on his desk and pushed the speaker button.

“Hey, Walt,” Ken said.

“You sound dejected.”

“Yeah, well, lately that’s my normal tone. What have you got?”

“I’ve got an olive branch,” Walt said.

Ken dropped his pencil on the legal pad and leaned back in his chair. “You know, Walt, it’s never been personal.”

“I know.”

“It’s just. . well, I feel responsible to keep our department secure. I have a lot of mouths to feed over here. You understand, right?”

“Of course,” Walt said. “We’re no different over here.”

Ken squeezed the back of his neck. “Walt, I am truly sorry about your losses. I’ve been on the phone nonstop pressing my contacts for a name down there and it’s just not coming. Whoever is embedded with the cartels is remarkably stealthy.”

“Or dead.”

“Or that,” Ken said, picking up his pencil and tapping the eraser on the legal pad. “Do you have anything?”

“Just one thing.”

“Yeah?”

“Does the name Sandoval mean anything to you?”

Ken shrugged. “Boy, off the top of my head I’ve got nothing, but I can run it by the analysts and see what they come up with.”

“I’d appreciate it.”

Ken wrote the word, ‘Sandoval,’ on the legal pad. “Are Nick and Matt still thinking about storming over the border?”

“It’s a miracle Matt hasn’t gone already.”

“Sure,” Ken said, swirling a circle around the eight mysterious letters. He noticed something peculiar about the series of letters he’d just written on his pad. He drew a line from the first letter of his jumbled message to the ‘n,’ in Sandoval. Then he took the second letter from the message and drew a line to the ‘v’ in Sandoval. He did this six more times until it became clear the letters matched the exact letters in the word ‘Sandoval.’

“You still there?” Walt asked.

Ken grinned, circling ‘Sandoval’ over and over, pressing the pencil tip so hard, it broke in two. “Walt,” he said. “I think I have something for you.”

Chapter 16

Garza was watering his flowers when his phone rang. He looked down at the name on his display and frowned. Julio was behind him throwing a tennis ball against the side of the building, so he handed the hose to his son and instructed him to finish watering.

Garza walked to the back of the complex and pushed the talk button on his phone.

“Yes,” he said, in a tired voice.

“Mr. Garza, are you prepared to transfer the device?”

“Yes, Sadeem,” Garza said.

“Very well. I shall meet you at your complex tomorrow night.”

Garza sighed. He found Victor eating a burrito on the back patio and sat next to him at the table. “No,” Garza said. “I don’t want you bringing that thing here. We’ll meet out in the desert. I’ll have a car meet you in town at Guedo’s Taco Shop at three. You’ll follow them to our meeting place.”

“If that is your wish. There is one other thing,” Sadeem said. “My people want me to travel with the package until it arrives into the United States. They are concerned about the stability of the device.”

Garza tugged at his hair. “This is not what we had agreed upon.”

“This material is simply much too sensitive to be left to inexperienced transporters. I am doing this for your safety as well.”

Garza could feel his pulse quickening. His expression must’ve seemed extreme because Victor had put the burrito down and was staring at his boss.

“No,” Garza snapped. “You will not be going with the package.”

There was a pause. After a few seconds, Sadeem said, “Very well. I will come by first thing in the morning to pick up my briefcase.”

The words hung there in the air and Garza recognized them for what they were. A bluff. Sadeem was in no position to call off his assault. He would have to find another method to cross the border with a nuclear device and Garza doubted he’d be able to find a substitute within a reasonable time frame. Yet, the man kept quiet and let it stew in Garza’s belly. In his mind, Garza had already spent the money and Sadeem seemed to know that. Returning the briefcase would be like returning a winning lottery ticket.

Finally, Garza said, “I do not trust you.”

“There is no need for trust. This is a business transaction. You either accept the offer or you do not. Would you like a few minutes to talk it over with your people?”

Another insult. As if Garza needed permission to make such a decision on his own.

“Okay,” Garza said. “We will bring you. But you will not be allowed to see our entry point.”

“As you wish,” Sadeem said. “As long as I am with the material.”

Garza hung up the phone and slammed it onto the table. Victor’s burrito jumped up a few inches.

“I have a bad feeling about this Sadeem character,” Garza seethed. “He insists on coming with us while we bring the nuclear device across the border. This is not how I planned things.”

“Then don’t do it,” Victor said.

Garza squeezed his eyes shut. “I must.”

“Why?”

“Because, Victor. I am simply too greedy.”

* * *

Nick, Matt and Stevie were in Roger Decker’s office contemplating their next move, while Tommy slept on the couch still battling jet lag from his cross-continental flight. Stevie sat behind Decker’s desk, his fingers scurrying across the computer keypad while he searched for a connection with the word, “Sandoval.”

Matt leaned back in a chair, writing notes on a legal pad as Nick paced.

“You’re sure there’s not one Sandoval with any law enforcement in the Tucson PD?” Nick asked Stevie.

Stevie placed his index finger on the computer screen to mark his place. “How many times do I need to say no?” Then he resumed reading something on the screen.

Nick felt a buzz in his pocket and pulled his phone out to see a text message from Julie.

“How are things going?” she asked.

Nick messaged, “Great. Getting closer every hour. How’s Thomas?”

“He misses you.”

“Love you guys.” Nick sent the final message, then returned to pacing. He would call before bedtime as usual.

Matt seemed to be drawing something on his legal pad.

“What do you have there?” Nick asked.

“You’ll see.”

Nick was glad to see Matt productively helping the process. There were two directions he could’ve gone after Jennifer Steele’s murder: depressed and distraught or bent on getting revenge. So far Matt had shown great restraint by following the plan and not jumping in a car and crossing the border all by himself.

Another buzz and Nick looked at his phone. This time it was a call from Walt Jackson.

“Hey,” Nick said, picking up the speed of his pace. “Anything from the analysts?”

“Not yet. How about Stevie?”

Nick looked at the tech busy speed-reading the computer screen. “I’m not allowed to interrupt him anymore.”

“I see. Well, we have some new info from one of Ken’s contacts south of the border.”

“Tell me.”

“Apparently the plant down there is still alive and he’s in close proximity to the bomb. Also, he’ll be there when the bomb is transported across the border. Possibly as soon as tomorrow night.”

“That’s good news, right?”

“You tell me? What’s one good agent going to do if he’s all by himself?”

“Maybe he could cause a scene and disrupt their plans.”

“Maybe he could get himself killed doing that.”

Nick placed a hand on his forehead and thought about the scenario. One double agent embedded within a foreign organization was close to useless, unless he could communicate with someone up here.

“So this cryptic message, ‘Sandoval.’ Ken still believes this was left by the plant?”

“Yes.”

“Well shit, Walt. We can’t just sit here and expect to come up with an answer online. We need to get proactive.”

With that comment, Matt sat upright in his chair.

“Nick, you can’t go down there. You guys have gotten away with crap in the past, but this one you won’t walk away from. I promise.”

“Gee, thanks. For a minute I thought we were in trouble.”

“I’m serious, Nick.”

Nick looked into his partner’s eyes and saw an anxious desperation. He didn’t want to fan the flames of hope too much.

“Okay, Walt. We’ll stick to the plan. But if we haven’t found a solid lead by morning, I can’t make any guarantees.”

There was an awkward silence as Walt seemed to understand his dilemma. He wanted results, but at what cost?

“Please. . at least tell me when you’re going.”

“Why? So you can document our insubordination?”

There was another long pause. Nick realized he’d taken out his frustration on the wrong person and immediately regretted the accusation. In the political world inside the beltway, Walt would be the last person to ever turn on Nick and he didn’t deserve such a harsh comment.

“Sorry,” Nick said.

“It’s okay. I understand.”

Stevie waved to Nick while remaining glued to his computer screen.

“All right, Walt,” Nick said. “I’ll keep you posted.”

“Be careful out there.”

“Will do.”

Nick hit the end button, then said, “What do you have, Stevie?”

“I have a story from eighteen months ago in the Tucson Citizen about a reporter of theirs name Donald Sandoval.

“Yeah?”

“Apparently he’d been reporting on the drug traffic crossing the border in southern Arizona. He was in the middle of a yearlong investigation when he was involved in a horrible accident.”

“What kind of accident?”

“It doesn’t specify. It merely states he was leaving the newspaper to pursue other interests.”

“What other interests?”

Stevie looked up from the computer screen. “It doesn’t say. The article was buried in the local section of the paper.”

“Hmm.” Nick looked at Matt who was still fascinated with the notes he was writing, while Tommy was snoring away on the couch.

“Do you think you can track down a current address for him?” Nick asked.

Stevie looked disappointed. “Of course I can.”

“Good. Get it for me and I’ll check it out.” Nick walked a semicircle around Matt’s chair to see what he was writing. Once Nick saw the image in his lap, he froze. Matt had printed a recent satellite image of Garza’s Mexican compound and was writing notes about the information he was able to acquire from the image.

“If we could get even a dozen Special Forces down here,” Matt said, pointing to the entryways to the compound, “we could storm that complex and grab Garza.”

All the while, Matt was simply creating his own attack plan. It was becoming apparent Nick wouldn’t be able to hold him back much longer.

“We go over there with a chopper and do what you want, we lose,” Nick said.

“How?”

“Salcido will be blamed and virtually hand the election over to Rodriguez.”

“How can he be blamed?” Matt asked.

“It doesn’t matter. If he’s not responsible, then the media will say he’s out of touch. Either way, it will cause more friction and the Mexican voters want less friction, not more.”

“Fuck the voters,” Matt said. “Let Rodriguez take over. Why should we give a crap?”

Nick didn’t even entertain a return answer. Matt knew better than anyone what a Rodriguez presidency would mean for the US. He was fuming about his inability to get his hands on Garza and it was clouding his judgment.

“If we don’t find this bomb by tomorrow night,” Nick said, “we’ll go down and get this son of a bitch. I promise.”

That brought a gleam of life to Matt’s demeanor. He smiled. “Thanks, partner.”

President Merrick sat at a table in his private office eating Chinese food with Defense Secretary Martin Riggs and Secretary of State Sam Fisk. Unlike the Oval Office next door where Merrick would meet dignitaries, Prime Ministers and other diplomats, here, Merrick could loosen his tie and walk around in stocking feet.

A TV hung on each of the four walls. All four were muted. One TV was constantly set for CNN. The other three had Fox News, MSNBC and ESPN.

Riggs pointed to a TV screen behind Merrick. “Did you see this?”

Merrick shoveled a forkful of Beef Chow Mein and turned to see a replay of the Auburn Tiger mascot performing halftime tricks at a basketball game. The tiger jumped from a trampoline and misjudged a slam dunk, finishing upside down inside the basket.

The group chuckled at the scene.

ESPN fast-forwarded to show someone climbing a ladder and retrieving the poor kid from his plight. After returning to the floor, the tiger waved to the crowd and received a standing ovation.

Merrick returned to his meal, shaking his head with a smile.

“That was staged,” Fisk said.

“You think everything is staged,” Merrick said.

“And you think reality TV is real.”

Merrick took another bite of his Chow Mein. After swallowing, he pointed his fork at Riggs. “Where are we with the troop reduction in Pakistan?”

Riggs wiped his mouth with a white cloth napkin. “We’ll be down to bare minimum by Thanksgiving.”

“Is it affecting stability?”

“Of course, but it’s manageable.”

Merrick followed Fisk’s gaze to the CNN broadcast on his left. There was footage of protesters in Mexico City over President Salcido’s hard-line tactics, preventing travel to certain parts of the country because of the cartel’s stronghold. The violence had escalated to enormous proportions and Salcido was doing everything he could to protect his citizens.

“He can’t win,” Fisk said. “If he does nothing, he’s considered weak. If he tries to maintain control of certain districts, he’s considered restrictive.”

There was a knock on the door.

“Come on in,” Merrick said, with a mouthful of food.

White House Chief of Staff Paul Dexter entered holding up a computer tablet in his left hand. He looked completely flustered. “Rodriguez just took the lead in the latest poll.”

Merrick dropped his fork and sat back in his chair. Riggs followed Merrick’s lead and stopped eating. Fisk went on unabated as Dexter handed his tablet to Merrick.

“Shit,” Merrick said, scanning the poll results.

Riggs sat there shaking his head. “This is not good.”

“Rodriguez has a compelling story,” Dexter said. “He’s going to offer the cartels unbridled passage on certain corridors to maintain their traffic. It will reduce violence and keep the majority of civilians safe.”

Riggs rolled his eyes.

“Don’t scoff, Marty,” Merrick said. “These people are living in a hopeless situation down there. Every president claims they’ll crack down on the cartels, yet all it ever does is pile up dead bodies in the streets. You think these people trust the government?”

“But Rodriguez is in collusion with these guys,” Dexter said.

“You think they care?” Merrick said, wiping his mouth and tossing the napkin on the table in front of him. “Rodriguez is offering the Mexican people safer streets. He’s offering them a way to keep their children out of harm’s way. Shit, I’d vote for the guy myself.”

“But what happens when he’s in office?” Dexter asked.

Riggs tapped a finger on the table. “He’ll get a cut of their profits, then he’ll give them unrestrained access to as many weapons as they’d like. It’ll be like arming an entire country. At that point, we couldn’t stop them from moving freely across our borders. They’ll own it.”

“Maybe we could offer them Arizona so they’ll leave us alone?” Fisk said, between mouthfuls.

No one laughed.

Merrick crossed his arms. “Are we interrupting your meal, Sam?”

“I think better on a full stomach.”

Dexter glanced nervously around the table. “Maybe we could send a team down there to. . um, assassinate him?”

Merrick looked at his Chief of Staff as if he’d spoken Japanese. “Really?”

Riggs gave Dexter a sympathetic grin. “We’ll figure something out, buddy.”

Dexter seemed to take that as a cue to leave the room. “Okay, well, I just wanted to get that info to you.”

As Dexter made his way to the door, Fisk placed the fork on his plate and held up his hand. “Hang on, Paul.”

Dexter paused.

Fisk took a deep breath. “There’s a debate tomorrow night between Salcido and Rodriguez in Mexico City. Tell Fredrick to make them aware that I’ll be attending.”

Merrick tilted his head. “I’m listening.”

“I think it’s important we stay close to the situation.”

Riggs seemed to understand something. He nodded. “And you’re going to endorse Salcido?”

“No,” Fisk said. “I’m merely going to show respect for the process. Let the Mexican people know the United States will support whoever wins the election.”

“And what does that get us?” Merrick asked.

Fisk grinned. “I have a plan.” He looked at Dexter. “And it doesn’t require sending a team of assassins to Mexico.” He looked at Riggs. “And it doesn’t require sending the Eighty-Second Airborne.” He looked at Merrick. “And it doesn’t require amnesty for cartel leaders.”

Merrick sighed. “Even if you go down there and throw our support around, how will it be spun by the media? Their newspapers are petrified of the cartels. We can’t afford Salcido to lose this thing, Sam. There’s too much at stake.”

“Trust me,” Fisk said, standing up and lifting a fortune cookie from the table. “I can fix this.”

Chapter 17

It was dinner time and Walt Jackson was still behind his desk waiting for FBI analysts to come up with answers to the ‘Sandoval’ mystery. His wife had left him a snooty text message and his stomach was beginning to growl, but he was determined to give Nick and Matt something to work with.

His intercom beeped and his secretary’s voice came over the speaker. “Walt, I’ve got this call from somewhere in Mexico. Apparently the guy doesn’t care if we track his call.”

“What’s he want?”

“He wants to speak with you about a bomb.”

“Okay, have the call tracked and recorded, then put him through.”

Walt’s phone only rang once before he picked up. “This is Walt Jackson.”

“Mr. Jackson,” a Middle Eastern voice said. “You are about to have a nuclear explosion detonated on American soil.”

Walt pursed his lips. “I see.”

“Are you prepared to have such a devastating attack?”

As the head of the antiterrorist division of the FBI, Walt had read or heard dozens of threatening messages and he was experienced at assessing their legitimacy. This one seemed different somehow.

“Yes, we’re prepared,” Walt said.

There was a pause. Walt knew to keep his answers short and force the caller to show his cards.

“Your country will never be the same, Mr. Jackson.”

Walt finally figured out what was missing. The demand. Nobody called to threaten the FBI without a list of demands.

“Are we finished?” Walt asked.

“Don’t you want to know who I am?”

“Okay. Who are you?”

“The United Palestinian Force.”

Of course Walt knew exactly who this guy represented, but he still didn’t know why he called. And without demands, Walt didn’t see the reason to carry on. He was certain the tracking would end up with a cell phone in a trash can somewhere in Mexico.

“Okay,” Walt said. “Is there anything else?”

“You don’t seem concerned.”

“Should I be?”

Another pause.

“The American people expect you to protect them, Mr. Jackson. This could prove to be your greatest failure.”

Something occurred to Walt. There was a sense of insecurity in the man’s voice. As if he was disappointed in Walt’s lack of reaction.

“Is there something you want?” Walt asked.

“How will you be preparing your civilians for this attack?”

So there it was. What the man wanted was some form of recognition.

“I won’t be doing anything,” Walt said. “We have our best people on this and they’ll find the bomb before it breaches our border.”

“The UPF is not an organization to be trifled with. Thousands of Americans will lose their lives over this. The President will not be happy if he knew we made contact with you and you didn’t alert the public.”

“Listen,” Walt said. “We lose thousands of lives on our highways every year, but I don’t see the President declaring war on our interstates.”

This didn’t seem to sit well with the man and his voice changed. It reached a new level of frustration. “We will take as many lives as we can, Mr. Jackson. And when you put your head on your pillow at night, you can know those lives were your responsibility.”

Walt let the anger boil up in the man’s heart. Then he said, “Good luck with that.” And he hung up.

He had to sit back in his chair and consider the wisdom of his reaction. After a few moments of gathering himself, he picked up his cell phone and pushed a button. When Sam Fisk answered, he said, “I received that call you anticipated.”

“And?”

“And I didn’t give him what he wanted.”

“Good.”

“Was that a smart choice, Sam? I mean, are we underestimating these guys?”

“There’s only two ways this can go. One of them will cost innocent lives and terrorize the country for an indefinite period of time. Of this, I’ll take full responsibility. The other way could reduce the UPF to a trivia question and maintain our dominance over domestic terrorism.”

“Seems like a big gamble.”

“Do you know who I’m gambling on?” Fisk said. “Nick Bracco. I’m putting all my chips on that guy, because I’ve never lost a bet doing that.”

Walt sighed. “It’s an awful lot of pressure to put on one person.”

“I’m going with my strengths, Walter. You guys find that bomb and I’ll take care of the politics. Either way, I’ll take the hit.”

“All right, Sam. I’ll keep you posted.” Walt hung up the phone. He’d suddenly lost his appetite.

It was dark by the time Nick pulled into the apartment complex. He came alone hoping to mitigate any anxiety a visit from the FBI might bring. He found the visitor parking and roamed the grounds until he’d located the building Donald Sandoval resided. The complex was fairly rundown with dead patches of grass and rusted railings.

The apartments all faced an inside courtyard with a metal swing set and monkey bars which were missing half the bars. Nick discovered the man’s apartment on the first floor and knocked. He could hear the television blaring.

Nick knocked again, louder this time. Immediately the TV was shut off. A few seconds later the door opened and a man sitting in a wheelchair looked up with extreme caution.

“Yeah?” the man said.

“Don Sandoval?”

The man’s eyes darted around the courtyard, maybe for help, maybe for Nick’s backup. “Who’s asking?” the man said from the darkened room.

Nick showed the man his shield. “FBI.”

The man flipped on the porch light and examined Nick’s credentials until he seemed satisfied they were legit. He murmured something under his breath and with a click and a whir, the motorized wheelchair rolled back from the doorway.

“Come in,” he said.

Nick entered the apartment searching for light. Apparently when the TV went off so did all the light in the apartment.

The man swiveled around in the center of the room to face him. He pushed a button on his wheelchair and the interior lights illuminated the room. The man came into clear view. He was missing both of his legs and one arm. His lone arm sat on the armrest of the chair.

“What do you need?” the man said.

Nick was certain now he had the right man. “I merely have a few questions for you,” Nick said, polite, but not patronizing.

Sandoval looked as if he were asked for his tax return. He was sour-faced and appeared completely dubious of Nick’s intentions.

“What kind of questions?”

Nick took in the room. It was much more organized than one would expect for an apartment in this neighborhood. There was a picture of two smiling girls on the wall.

“Those your kids?” Nick asked.

Sandoval sneered. “What’s your business here, Mr. FBI Agent?”

“You’d written articles about drug trafficking over the Arizona border a while back. I’d like to know some of your findings.”

Sandoval took his one good hand and rubbed it across his face. His eyes became glossy.

“What brought you here?” he asked with a cracking voice.

“You spent a lot of time reporting on this issue. I could use some help tracking down an assassin who works with the cartels.”

This piqued Sandoval’s interest. He pushed a button on the arm of his chair and motored up to Nick. “Who?” he asked.

“Antonio Garza.”

Sandoval grimaced as if Nick had spiked a knife into his chest. “You think I’m going to help you get Antonio Garza?”

Nick said nothing.

“Do you?” Sandoval asked.

Nick looked around the apartment at all the family photos. A chess trophy sat on a narrow table against the wall. Next to the trophy were more photos. In one, Sandoval wore a coach’s jersey with his arm around a young girl wearing a soccer uniform. Next to that were various soccer trophies.

“Where’s your family?” Nick asked.

Sandoval followed Nick’s gaze. “They’re gone,” he said, vacantly.

Nick waited.

“The girls left with their mother six months ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

Sandoval looked down at his truncated body and forced out a phony laugh. “Yeah, well, would you stay married to this thing?”

The man was in pain, yet he seemed on the verge of purging something from his soul. He whirled around, away from Nick, and sat with his head down. The room was stone silent. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked.

“What happened to you, Mr. Sandoval?”

This was too much for the man. His shoulders bobbed up and down and he began to sob. Nick had struck a nerve and he was beginning to formulate a theory. He let this go on for a minute before he walked around the man’s wheelchair and got to a knee.

“I might be able to help you,” Nick said. “Please, tell me what happened.”

“How did you find me?” Sandoval asked, tears meandering down his cheeks.

“One of my computer science techs tracked you down.”

Sandoval suddenly wheeled up to a window and pulled up one of the slats on the blinds. He looked outside searching for something.

“What are you afraid of, Mr. Sandoval?”

Sandoval raised his voice. “Who do you think, asshole?”

Nick finally put it together. “I can get him for you.”

Sandoval’s face scrunched up into a tight ball of pure agony. “Oh, really?” he said, sardonically. “And could you get my arm and legs back for me as well? And when you’re done, could you explain to my daughters why their father can’t play soccer with them or even go bowling? I mean, you said you could help me.”

Sandoval whirled away from Nick again and gazed up at a photo of his two girls. They looked to be in their early teens.

“Did you know how he got his name, El Carnicero?” Sandoval asked.

Nick said nothing.

“His father was a butcher,” Sandoval said. “Garza grew up cutting sides of beef. He could slice a full cow down to the bone inside of twenty minutes. Eventually his father wanted Garza to take over the family business, but he refused. Garza was already gaining a reputation as a rebel. He decided cutting up humans paid more than slicing up animals.

“One day his father opens the shop up early and discovers Garza cleaning up the remains of one of his victims. Garza didn’t even hesitate.”

Sandoval spun around to face Nick. “His father was never seen again.”

Nick looked down at the man. His eyes were red. His lips trembled.

All Nick could think to say was, “I’m sorry.”

Then, Sandoval’s expression changed. There was a seed of determination growing on his face. “No,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’ve been a coward for so long, afraid to lose what little I’d had left.” He looked around the apartment and waved his hand. “It doesn’t seem I have anything else left to protect now, does it?”

Sandoval motored into the kitchen. The refrigerator opened and Sandoval said, “Would you like a beer?”

“Sure.”

Sandoval returned with two beers between his leg stumps. He gave one to Nick, then ripped off the top of his beer with expert agility and took a long gulp. This seemed to change his behavior. He pointed his beer at a nearby couch and said, “Have a seat.”

Nick sat and took a sip of beer.

Sandoval appraised Nick with a renewed sense of curiosity. “So, you want to get Garza, huh?”

“No, you misunderstood me. I will get Garza. I just wanted to know if you could offer an insight to his drug carting business.”

Sandoval grinned for the first time. “You have no idea how screwed you are, do you?”

“Tell me.”

Sandoval took a long swig of his beer. When the can came down, his face had lost all emotion. He looked down at his torso. “When Garza did this to me, he didn’t know how much I knew. I was about to expose everything in my latest installment, but it never left my computer. To him, I was just a pest.” He raised his beer. “He said he’d leave me with one hand so I could still whack off, since that would be the only pleasure I would ever have again. He was right.”

Nick watched the journalist carefully eye his beer and put his thoughts together. When his eyes met Nick’s, he seemed to consider something.

“They’re in Canada now,” Sandoval said, pointing to a photo of his family on the wall. “My wife changed her name back to her maiden name, along with the kids. Do you think they’re safe up there?”

“You mean from Garza?”

Sandoval nodded.

“Yes,” Nick said. “He’s been under intense scrutiny over the past few weeks. We have a few of his men in custody right now. Even though they’re not speaking, he has to assume one of them will turn. Anything I learn tonight would never be tracked to you.”

This seemed to be what the man wanted to hear. He finished his beer, motored into the kitchen and returned with two new cans. Nick accepted a second one even though his first was still full.

After another dose of liquid courage, Sandoval wiped the back of his mouth with his one functioning limb. He looked at Nick conspiratorially. “I know how he does it.”

Nick was smart enough to stay out of the way.

“There’s a small border town fifty miles southwest of Tucson, named Denton,” Sandoval said. “It’s a mining town. Every one of the three thousand people living there work at the copper mine. That’s besides the people at the few retail stores or the motel. The mine itself is just south of town and probably a hundred yards from the border. During my investigation, I’d interviewed several employees trying to figure out how much copper was mined from the place. I couldn’t find a single person who’d seen any of the finished product. I went to the mine and requested an interview with the owner, Sonny Chizek.”

Sandoval looked down at his beer. “That same night I was pulled from my motel room and taken to Garza’s chop shop.”

Nick said nothing. He couldn’t help but stare at the missing appendages.

“I have firsthand knowledge that Garza and Chizek are in business together,” Sandoval said. “I’ll never reveal my source, but it’s a fact. There’s no doubt in my mind, Garza uses that mine to distribute the cartel’s product. It’s less than a mile from Garza’s main residence.”

Sandoval met Nick’s eyes and must’ve seen the question lingering in his mind. The journalist still had a few instincts left.

“I didn’t tell anyone because Garza threatened my family. He had a guy come to my daughter’s school and scare the crap out of her.”

“What did he do?”

“Nothing,” Sandoval said. “He told her she was being watched and that’s it. He was just sending a message.” Sandoval wheeled over to a table where the girls’ soccer trophies sat. He picked up a flash drive and wheeled back to hand it to Nick. “Everything is there. I edited out my sources’ names, but you’ll see what I found. You probably know most of it already. The mine was really my next story.”

Nick pocketed the flash drive and said, “Thanks.”

They sat there sipping their beers for a few awkward moments until Nick was compelled to get this information back to his team. He put his beer down and said, “Is there anything else I should know?”

“Yeah,” Sandoval said. “Don’t take Chizek lightly. He owns Denton. And I mean literally. It’s like a cult. They can sense an outsider coming before you park the car.”

Nick nodded. “I can have your family watched for the next few days until I get Garza.”

Sandoval seemed to like Nick’s bravado. His eyes flashed a glimmer of hope. “You really believe you’ll get him, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

Sandoval went to the kitchen and returned with a piece of paper. He handed it to Nick. “Here’s their address in Vancouver.”

Nick gave Sandoval his card and said, “Call me anytime.”

Sandoval took the card and put it in his lap.

Halfway out the door, Nick turned and said, “You’re a very brave man, Mr. Sandoval.”

Sandoval appeared to appreciate the concept. He nodded gratefully.

Nick headed back to his car, the vision of Donald Sandoval still vivid in his mind. The man all alone in an apartment full of family photos. Once he was behind the wheel, Nick dialed his cell phone and waited. When Julie answered, he said, “Did I tell you how much I love you today?”

“No,” she said. “But I’m a really good listener.”

Chapter 18

Nick returned to the Homeland Security office around ten and was surprised to find Decker standing behind his desk pointing a pen at the map on the wall, while Matt and Stevie stood next to him.

“What’s going on?” Nick asked.

“Roger was just showing us the soft spots along our border,” Stevie said.

“Is that so?” Nick said, opening the lid to an empty pizza box on the desk. He looked around the room. “Where’s Tommy?”

“Getting coffee,” Matt said.

Nick sat down on the couch and gestured to the map. “So where is our weakest position?”

“Well,” Decker said, “if I were searching for a crossing point for something important, I’d look over here, away from the high traffic areas.” Decker’s finger pointed to a section of eastern Arizona.

“What about Denton?” Nick asked, leaning back on the couch and crossing his legs.

That stopped Decker. He turned his head and said, “What made you say that?”

Nick shrugged. “Just a hunch.”

“A hunch?” Decker said. “It doesn’t even show up on this map.” Decker dropped his pen on the desk and faced Nick head on. “You still think I’m on Garza’s payroll?”

“I don’t know,” Nick said, truthfully. “Let’s go on the premise you’re not and see how far that gets us.”

Decker sat in his desk chair and folded his arms. “We’d seen surveillance shots of Sonny Chizek and Antonio Garza shaking hands at a local taco shop near Garza’s compound. The image was fuzzy, but we had our suspicions.”

“So what did you do?”

“First of all, you don’t go down there without some form of protection.”

“Okay,” Nick said, waiting for it.

“Three months ago we had a squad of Marines escort a crew of our agents into town. We spent forty-eight hours interviewing people and scouring the buildings for anything suspicious. Know what we found?”

“Nothing.”

“Exactly.”

“Did you examine the mine?”

“With a fine-tooth comb.”

“And?”

“Nothing.”

Nick nodded. “Did you bring mining experts with you to determine if there was any unusual equipment on site?”

Decker tilted his head. “No, we didn’t. But we brought a team of drug-sniffing dogs and they didn’t as much as whimper.”

“You speak with Chizek?”

Decker let out a small laugh. “He doesn’t exactly show his face.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means he works and lives a few hundred feet from the border and he’s concerned about cartel thugs coming to kidnap him for a shitload of ransom. The guy is worth millions.”

“How often do your men patrol Denton?”

Decker glared at Nick, the questions seeming to get to him. “Never.”

Nick raised his eyebrows.

“I have too much respect for my men,” Decker said. “You try to go there and you’ll find snipers hiding in the buttes along the way. They know every delivery vehicle that comes and goes. No one sneaks in and no one sneaks out.”

Nick exchanged glances with Matt. The two of them already knowing their next move.

Decker seemed to notice Nick’s demeanor change. “You don’t understand, it’s not a place to be messing with. I’ve lost too many men who tried to probe activity in the area.”

“What do you mean, lost men?”

“I mean anytime someone goes near Denton, they never seem to return. We investigate and come up empty every time.”

“How come no one ever hears about this?” Nick asked.

“You’re kidding, right?” Decker said. “This is the Mexican border. There were three hundred murders in the border town of Nogales alone last year. No one pays attention to cartel violence anymore. It’s simply a fact of life along the border.”

Decker looked back and forth between Nick and Matt. “You’re not considering going down there, are you?”

“No,” Nick lied. “Of course not.”

Garza woke up before the sun and had already downed two cups of coffee before

Victor came into the kitchen, yawning and scratching his head.

“Why are you up so early, Jefe?” Victor asked, pouring himself a cup of coffee.

Garza pointed to his head. “Too much on my mind.”

Victor took his steaming mug and sat across the kitchen table from Garza. It was still dawn and the sun had yet to create shadows on the desert landscape.

“Is it the package today?”

Garza shrugged. “This is part of it.”

“Something else?” Victor asked.

“This spy,” Garza said, with a scowl. “Someone is a double agent and it is troubling to know this fact so close to our delivery.” He glanced up at Victor to measure his reaction. His first lieutenant seemed to consider the dilemma.

“Our contacts cannot offer any names?” Victor asked. “Don’t they have suspicions?”

It was the reasonable question to ask. “No,” Garza admitted. “They do not have any idea who might be posing as a drug smuggler. However, I do have my own ideas.”

“Tell me,” Victor said, putting the hot coffee mug to the tip of his lips.

“I keep thinking about Sadeem. I have this feeling all along, this man is not who he pretends to be.”

Victor was nodding, something in his eyes gaining momentum. “Yes, Jefe. This is a logical conclusion.” Victor glanced up at the clock on the wall. “We have several hours before our meeting with him. Let me make some calls and find out what I can.”

Garza liked this thought. “Yes. We need to know who this man is. I had little concern until he requested to join us. Now, he becomes a liability. And maybe even a threat.”

“Who is a threat, Papa?” Julio said from the entryway to the kitchen.

Garza turned to see his son rubbing his eyes in his flannel pajamas.

“Julio,” Garza said. “What are you doing up?”

“I heard noises.”

Garza gathered his son into his arms. Julio fell into his father’s embrace.

“Mijo, you need to go back to bed,” Garza said.

“Can I have a glass of milk first?”

“Of course.”

Victor poured a glass of milk and handed it to Julio.

The boy finished the drink, wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve and placed the empty glass on the kitchen table.

“Who is the threat, Papa?” Julio asked again.

Garza searched for the proper words, finally looking at Victor for help.

“There is a coyote attacking some of the desert animals,” Victor said. “And your Papa is going to chase him away.”

Julio’s eyes seemed to brighten. “Really? Can I come with you?”

“Yes,” Garza said. “But first you need to sleep.”

“Okay, Papa.”

“Good boy.” Garza gave him a kiss on his cheek, then patted him on the butt as he went off to bed.

Garza went over to get another cup of coffee, then returned to the table. “He is getting too old and he is understanding too much.”

Victor nodded. “Of course, he is your son. It is only natural that he have your instincts.”

“Yes, but he must learn to avoid certain people and certain places.”

“You are thinking too much, Jefe.”

“Maybe,” Garza said. “But when Rodriguez wins the election, the Zutons will own the northern territory and there will be a bloodbath. I think it would be wise to leave Mexico for a while.”

The house was completely still while the two men were quiet with their thoughts. Finally, in an assuring voice, Victor said, “I can watch after him.”

Garza considered the comment. There was a tiny sense of relief which came with the notion. An insurance policy for his only child.

“Yes,” Garza said. “That would be good.” Then another thought occurred to him and Victor seemed to notice his expression change.

“Something else?” Victor asked.

“This package we are taking. It will be dangerous. I do not want this thing to linger. Tell Chizek to be prepared to accept this delivery by tonight. I want this out of my hands quickly.”

“What about the FBI?” Victor asked. “Are they getting close?”

“Maybe,” Garza said. “But they are already too late. Chizek will be ready for them.”

A ray of sunshine peeked through the kitchen window onto Garza’s face and the warmth brightened his mood. That and the image of the briefcase full of cash hidden in his basement.

Chapter 19

White House Chief of Staff Paul Dexter’s office was a tidy room, filled with carefully crafted cabinetry, and a bookshelf which filled one entire wall. Sam Fisk was finishing his arrangements for his trip to Mexico City when Dexter gestured to the flat screen TV above them.

An angry mob of people were gathering around a building while a line of police attempted to hold them back. Demonstrators held placards saying, “No More Blood!” and “We’re Fed Up!” The words at the bottom of the screen read: “Protests in Mexico City.”

“You sure you want to do this, Sam?” Dexter asked. “It’s pretty nasty down there.”

“Not really,” Fisk said.

“Sounds like the people just want peace,” Dexter said. “Isn’t that what Rodriguez is offering them?”

Fisk grinned. “Yeah, like offering a piece of candy laced with arsenic.”

“You still here?” President Merrick stood in the doorway with a thick manila file in his right hand.

“Just leaving,” Fisk said.

“Sam, you don’t need to do this,” Merrick said.

Fisk pointed to the TV. “If you’ll notice, those signs are written in English. Those people are asking for our help. If we just sit here and let nature take its course, we’ll have the same protests outside this building in a couple of months.”

Merrick nodded. “Okay. I have a call scheduled with President Salcido this afternoon. He’s going to want to know if we’re endorsing him.”

“Yeah,” Fisk said, “I’ve thought about that.”

“And?”

“And tell him I want to meet with each candidate individually before we make our decision.” Fisk looked at Dexter. “Then let the Rodriguez people know I want a personal meeting with their candidate. And make sure that gets leaked to the press.”

“Okay, Sam,” Dexter said. “I’ll take care of it.”

Fisk grabbed his passport from Dexter’s desk and put it in his inside jacket pocket, then looked at Merrick. “I’ll take care of my end, just make sure Nick takes care of things on the border. Otherwise this thing will blow up in our faces.” Fisk raised an eyebrow. “Literally.”

Merrick handed Fisk the thick manila file. “Some easy reading for your trip down.”

Fisk frowned. “I asked for his profile, not his life story.”

Merrick put his hands in his pocket. “Listen, Sam. I just spoke with Ken and the United Palestinian Force has just threatened to sever an oil pipeline in western Syria. It seems they’re upset about the way we’ve been treating them.”

“What does Walt think?”

“I’m not taking a damn poll, Sam,” Merrick snapped. “I’m just telling you the head of the Central Intelligence Agency thinks we should put these guys on our radar and raise the threat warning.”

Fisk thought about his plan. Everything he did was predicated on stopping the UPF’s dirty bomb from reaching US soil. He felt like he had just rolled a pair of dice and desperately needed a seven to stay alive. Maybe he’d become too cynical. Maybe he’d become too jaded. Either way, he was pulling Merrick’s presidency into turmoil if his plan failed.

Fisk sighed. “Tell you what. If I’m wrong about this, I’ll resign immediately. I’ll take full responsibility for these foreign policy blunders and explain how I made huge mistakes based on my experience with Middle Eastern terrorists and their past behavior.”

Merrick narrowed his eyes. “I’m not looking for a scapegoat. I trust you. I’ve always trusted you. I just want to do the right thing.”

Fisk patted his friend on the arm as he headed out the door. “Do me a favor. Tell Nick I highly recommend finding that bomb.”

* * *

Francisco Rodriguez walked across the desert terrain next to the leader of the Zutons, Santiago Valdez. They strolled casually with their sunglasses and their sandals and twenty armed soldiers making sure their meeting was secure.

Rodriguez had his hands behind his back and spoke with reverence to the cartel leader.

“You seem preoccupied, Santiago,” Rodriguez said. “What is troubling you?”

Valdez nodded. “You are very perceptive. I have a very large package which needs to be delivered by tonight. It is more than my people can handle.”

“Is there something I can do to help?”

Valdez appeared to appreciate the gesture. “That is okay. I will find a way.”

“Have you contacted Garza?”

Valdez stopped and turned to face Rodriguez. “I am curious. Do you make a percentage from Antonio’s service?”

Rodriguez jerked his head back. “Are you joking?”

“This is no joke,” Valdez said, glancing back where their Humvees were parked in the middle of the desert. He waved his arm at the expanse of open land. “We control many miles, but the most crucial territory along the border, you have selected that land to be controlled by Garza. How else can I take that decision?”

“Antonio Garza is the conduit to the United States. He can move product freely from one country to the next. How can I impede that corridor? It would only hurt your business.”

“Maybe,” Valdez said, regaining his stride and moving forward again. “But he also works with our enemies and that concerns me.”

“How so?”

Valdez walked a circuitous path around low-lying shrub while Rodriguez followed closely, wondering why the man was acting this way.

“I must be careful what I say around certain people,” Valdez said, then continued his stride without further comment.

“Do you not trust Garza?” Rodriguez asked, sincerely.

Valdez shrugged. “He has done nothing to warrant my suspicions. It is simply my nature to probe.”

Rodriguez didn’t like the direction the conversation was headed. He needed to regain the leader’s focus.

“Have you heard about the American Secretary of State coming to the debate tonight?” Rodriguez asked.

“Yes,” Valdez said. “I understand you will have a personal meeting with the man.”

Rodriguez’s chest swelled with pride. It was a great honor to be singled out by the Secretary of State. “Yes, we will be meeting after the debate. I suppose the Americans have been reading the latest polls and realize I will be the next President. They want to create a dialogue so they can maintain good communications during my presidency.”

“I see,” Valdez said. “Do not lose your way once you become President Rodriguez. The Zutons are still in control. Adding President to your name does not change that fact.”

Rodriguez walked ahead of the cartel leader, then stopped abruptly, facing Valdez who didn’t seem pleased to suspend his pace. “Why do you speak to me like this?”

Valdez glanced over his shoulder at the squad of soldiers who were paying close attention to his body language and finding it necessary to remove their assault rifles from their shoulders.

Rodriguez had stirred up the hornet’s nest and suddenly felt extremely vulnerable. Valdez had always insisted on one hundred percent loyalty to his business interests and would never allow anyone to survive such an infidelity.

“There is a spy among us,” Valdez said, removing his sunglasses and baring his shark-like teeth. “There are people who suggest the spy is close to Garza. I would be careful what you say.”

Rodriguez could feel twenty pairs of eyes boring in on him. He understood how paranoid these cartels had become lately, killing scores of innocent people just because of a wrong word spoken, or a meeting with the wrong person.

“Santiago, I have known you for many years,” Rodriguez said, with open palms. “Have I ever given you a reason to be suspicious about my behavior?”

Valdez’s expression changed. The creases around his eyes deepened and his mouth turned into a warm smile. He reached out and held Rodriguez’s arm with a gentle touch.

“Do not act so defensive, my friend,” Valdez said. “Until this spy is discovered, there will be many more nervous discussions.”

Valdez replaced his sunglasses and began his return to the vehicles. There was always a finite period of time where a meeting could be considered safe. The cartel leader seemed to know exactly how long that period was and never exceeded its limit.

Rodriguez followed, the soldiers opening a path for the two men to travel.

Valdez added, “A famous man once said, ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.’” He looked over at Rodriguez. “Do you know who said that?”

Rodriguez was familiar with the phrase, but reverentially said, “No. Who?”

“Mahatma Ghandi.” Valdez smiled behind his shaded eyes.

Even though Valdez had unwittingly twisted the pacifist’s words to suit his needs, the man was a sinister foe who needed to be treated with caution.

Valdez approached his Humvee, and as one of his men opened the back door for him, he turned to Rodriguez. “Do not forget about us, Mr. President,” he said. Then with a venomous smile, he added, “We will not forget about you.”

Chapter 20

Tommy drove a white BMW sedan with Matt in the passenger seat, and Nick and Stevie in the back seat. The two lane road stretched out straight and barren; waves of heat rippled off the asphalt and created the illusion of water dancing on the horizon.

Tommy pointed to the instrument panel. “Is it really one hundred and one degrees out already?”

“Slow down,” Nick said, from behind him. “Keep it five over the limit.”

Matt surveyed the desert floor. “You see anything back there, Stevie?”

Stevie was busy playing with a laptop computer, while Nick examined the monitor.

“Nothing yet,” Stevie said. “But we’re still ten miles out.”

Stevie had his hawk drone above them scanning the perimeter for snipers.

“I don’t like this,” Tommy said. “There hasn’t been one damn car in either direction for nearly an hour. How is that possible?”

“The freeway is thirty miles north of here,” Nick said. “There’s no reason to drive this way unless you’re going to Denton. The road dead ends there.”

Tommy glanced over his shoulder and saw Nick looking at his phone. “Well?” he said.

“Walt suspects the bomb is being transported today.”

“And you still think we’re better off alone, than calling in a team of agents to help find this thing?” Tommy asked.

From the rearview mirror, Tommy could see Nick looking out his window.

“We overwhelm this town with agents and they’ll modify their plans,” Nick said. “Maybe dig in and wait until it blows over. We don’t have time for that. We need them to underestimate us.”

Tommy grinned. “That’s okay. I like being the underdog.”

The BMW cruised over the asphalt with smooth precision. They’d rented the car because it didn’t necessarily raise any red flags like an SUV or a black American sedan might.

“What if they bolt town?” Tommy asked.

“They can’t,” Nick said. “We’ve got a DPS roadblock cutting off traffic before it gets to the highway.”

“I’ll bet that’s a pretty exciting place to-”

“Got something,” Stevie said. Nick hunched over the screen, while Matt craned his neck to look over the back of his headrest.

“See him?” Stevie said, pointing to a spot on the monitor.

“Yeah,” Nick said. “Can you zoom?”

“You bet.”

Tommy could hear Stevie tapping his keyboard. After a few moments he heard the response to the drone’s image.

“Shit,” Nick muttered.

“Where?” Matt asked.

“Two miles ahead of us, to our left,” Stevie said.

“Let me see,” Matt said.

Stevie twisted his laptop to show Matt, while Tommy glanced back at the image. The car swerved to the right, hitting a couple of shoulder bumps as Tommy examined the screen.

Matt grabbed the steering wheel and steadied the car back to the middle of the lane.

“Come on,” Matt said. “Keep it on the road.”

“Relax,” Tommy said. “What am I gonna hit out here, a lizard?”

Stevie returned the computer to his lap and gave commentary. “He hasn’t taken notice of us yet.”

“Is he alone?” Matt asked.

“Yes.”

“Rifle?”

“Yes.”

Matt twisted in his seat to look at Nick. “Should I take him out?”

Nick seemed to contemplate this. He examined the image on Stevie’s computer.

“He just spotted us,” Nick said. He waved at Matt. “Turn around, he’s grabbing his binoculars.”

Matt twisted back into his seat and tried to look casual. Tommy did him one better. He turned up the volume on the XM alternative station and began to bounce the heel of his hand on the steering wheel. His head bobbed up and down to the beat of a Guster song with a maniacal grin spread across his face.

“He’s checking us out,” Stevie announced.

Tommy kept up the act, while intermittently slapping Matt’s arm to get him going.

“Cut it out,” Matt said, seeming ready to shoot his gun at someone, anyone.

“It worked,” Stevie said. “He’s put down the binoculars and went back to eating a sandwich.”

As the car whizzed past low hills to the left, Tommy saw the hawk making a slow, deliberate circle over a stand of large boulders.

“Is he behind those rocks?” Tommy asked.

“Exactly,” Stevie said.

“He doesn’t notice that drone, huh?”

“Nope. It’s a common occurrence out here. I have it programmed to emulate the exact flight pattern of a Red-Tailed Hawk.”

“You spend a lot of time with machines, don’t you?” Tommy said.

Matt lowered the volume on the radio. “We should just go straight to the mine?”

“Stick to the script,” Nick said. “We need to get intel before we barge in there.”

But when Tommy saw the look on Matt’s face, he wondered whether the FBI agent was working off the same script as everyone else in the car.

* * *

Garza stood in the driveway with Victor and went over the final instructions. The caravan began with a couple of Humvees full of his men, then the pickup truck where Victor would be, then another Humvee trailing behind.

“Do not allow any variance,” Garza warned. “I won’t put up with any more last minute demands.”

Victor nodded. “Yes, Jefe.”

“Also,” Garza said, “make sure this device is secured properly and the tarp covers it completely.”

“Yes.”

“Do not take chances. I have a few Federales watching out for you. They will offer a safe path in and out of town.”

“Yes.”

“And if this thing-”

“Jefe,” Victor held up his hand. “Do not fret. I am aware of the dangers. I will take care of it.”

Garza sighed. “Yes, of course.” It was at that point that Garza realized how much he’d relied on Victor. He had a sudden urge to send someone else. Someone more expendable. But for something this big, he needed Victor’s brains to control things.

Garza took his sunglasses off and met his first lieutenant’s eyes. “Be careful.”

Victor gave him an assuring nod, then hopped into the back seat of the pickup truck and waved a hand out the window to signal the lead driver.

The hydraulic gate yawned opened and Garza watched the caravan head to town. His phone rang and he looked down to see the caller. Santiago Valdez.

“Yes,” Garza said into the phone.

“Are you busy?” Valdez said.

“Never too busy for you, Santiago.”

“Good, because I need a delivery made today.”

Garza felt his throat tighten. “Today?”

“Yes,” the cartel leader said. “I need this done by tonight. No exceptions.”

“Santiago, I have my men already taking care of a delivery as we speak. We cannot handle any more deliveries today. I can have it done tomorrow morning, however.”

There was a pause. Every second that passed, Garza could feel the desert temperature rise. He watched as a trail of dust followed his team down the dirt road toward town.

“So you are working with one of my competitors, and they are more important to you than the Zutons? Is that what you are telling me?”

“Of course not. The Zutons are my most valuable client. I simply had this scheduled ahead of time.”

“I see.”

Valdez offered another gut-wrenching pause, while Garza scrambled for a way to avoid a conflict. He kicked at small rocks and waited for a response.

“I have been a very good customer, Antonio. I do not believe you want to deny my request. It might not be the best decision for your future.”

The man left it at that, the words hanging in the air like a butcher’s knife over Garza’s neck.

“Santiago,” Garza began without knowing what to say.

“Yes.”

Garza mined his brain for a way to make it work. This was no time to accrue enemies. Somehow he needed to make the bomb and Santiago’s product fit in the same transfer.

“I can do it,” Garza said with authority.

“Very fine,” Valdez said. “We shall meet at our usual location at five.”

“We will be there,” Garza assured him.

“I know you will,” Valdez said, then disconnected the call.

Garza looked down at his cell phone as if it were a loaded weapon. He had many calls to make, but the first one needed to go to his American partner. He could do nothing if the northern side of the border wasn’t ready for him. He pushed a button on his phone and put it to his ear. When Sonny Chizek answered, Garza said, “We have a double order to place tonight.”

“Just make it worth my while,” Chizek said.

Garza put his phone away and grinded his teeth. He could tell something wasn’t right. There were too many new players in his system. He began to consider who the infiltrator might be and how he might deal with him. Then a new thought occurred to him. How many ways could he dissect a human body while still keeping the brain alive long enough to see the mutilation.

This one thought sustained him long enough to dial his second number on his phone. When the man answered, Garza said, “You’d better know where the American FBI agents are right this minute.”

Chapter 21

In Hebron, Israel, Shimon Yosef sat cross-legged in the back of the prayer room patiently waiting for David Zuri to finish speaking with a crowd of older men. The men stood in a circle in front of the otherwise empty mosque. There was no furniture, simply a large expanse of carpet to allow the visitors the room to pray.

Yosef watched the young man bow and shake hands with the elders while the knife beneath his thobe scratched his inner thigh. The men began to exit the mosque and Zuri walked them to the door before kneeling beside Yosef and leaning over to pray. When he sat back and crossed his legs, Zuri handed Yosef an envelope. Yosef didn’t need to count the money inside to know it was light. Too light.

“What is this?” Yosef asked.

Zuri seemed to understand the vague question. “The money is simply not there. They’ve been threatened by Hamas to discontinue donating to us.”

Yosef dropped the envelope and bowed and prayed for the strength to be patient. He took a deep breath and returned upright, grabbing his knees for stability. “We cannot sustain these reductions.”

“What did the American FBI man say about our warning?”

“He is a fool,” Yosef snarled.

“But he must know about the bomb.”

“He is a fool, David. Do not let his actions dictate yours.”

There was a long, quiet stretch of time where the two men recited the words of the Quran written on the walls of the mosque, periodically lowering their foreheads to the carpet.

Yosef waited for Zuri to finish his prayers. The young man lowered his voice even though they were alone in the building.

“Hamas is too strong,” Zuri said.

“Hamas is a weak political tool. They choose words over actions. Words will never affect change as much as action will.”

Zuri seemed to digest this. “I do not know, Shimon. I feel we may have made a mistake. Too many of our followers have returned to Hamas for the protection they offer.”

Under his clothes, Yosef’s right hand found the handle of his knife. “By this time tomorrow, word of our attack in America will have spread across the globe. Then what would you say?”

There seemed to be some doubt on Zuri’s face. “This Sadeem. I do not know.”

“What do you mean?”

Zuri turned to face him. “We discovered him in the United States. He’s been with us for less than six months and we give him this kind of responsibility.” Zuri returned to face forward. “I do not know.”

“You have many doubts, don’t you?”

Zuri nodded absently. “I believe I shall accept an offer to return to Hamas.”

“They have made you an offer?” Yosef seethed beneath a stoic demeanor.

Zuri nodded. “They have the type of political muscle we will never see. Not in our lifetime.”

Yosef could stand it no longer. He pulled the knife from under his thobe and drove it into Zuri’s stomach, the force of the blade thrusting all the way up under the man’s ribcage and into his heart.

Zuri turned with shock on his face, trying to mouth words, but nothing came out. Finally, he dropped into Yosef’s lap.

“No,” Yosef whispered. “Not in your lifetime indeed.”

Zuri’s body lost all balance. Yosef held up his frame with the knife inside him. Like a puppeteer, he maneuvered him into a deep forward prayer position. His head against the carpet.

Yosef removed the blade with a sucking sound as the bloody instrument vacated Zuri’s internal organs. He wiped the bloody knife on the inside of Zuri’s shirt, then tucked it away. He picked up the envelope and stood over the dead man.

“You will not be alive to see the trauma we will inflict, David. That is too bad for you.”

As Yosef exited the mosque into the night air, his hand felt moist and he realized he needed to clean up. He found a coffee shop and used the bathroom to wash his hands. As he did this, he wondered for just a moment about the responsibility he had bestowed upon Sadeem. The man was a loyal follower and the cousin of one of Yosef’s closest friends. It was not someone they had stumbled upon arbitrarily. His conscience was clear.

As Yosef wiped his hands, he heard a beep from his cell phone. When he looked to see the text message, he smiled. It was from Sadeem:

Device is on the way. All is well.

Yosef had just taken one step closer to becoming a large player in the world of international terrorism. His words would no longer be a frail voice in the wind. He was about to bring the United Palestinian Force to the front of the pack and this one fact kept the smile on his face all the way home.

They pulled into the motel parking lot and entered the small office with the ragged look of four weary businessmen looking for a place to stay. It was an easy act to pull off.

The office was situated at the end of a single row of motel rooms. It was an L-shaped building with the office jutting out as to allow a perfect view of the entrance to each room. It was a small office with wood-paneled walls and a plastic brochure dispenser next to the door which held pamphlets advertising facilities like water parks and shoreline vacation spots many miles from the desolate border town.

The man behind the counter sat on a stool and was watching a rodeo on a small TV. He was young and seemed annoyed to be dragged away from his show.

“Can I help you?” the man said, standing and assessing the four men with a leery expression. He was bone thin and Nick thought he looked a little too much like Norman Bates.

Nick stayed back and let Tommy do his thing. He engaged the man with his million dollar smile.

“Yeah,” Tommy said. “We need a place for the night.”

The man looked up at the clock on the wall showing that it hadn’t yet reached noon.

“You do have a place available, right?” Tommy asked, looking out the window at the near empty parking lot.

The young man glanced at the four of them and asked, “How many rooms?”

“Just one,” Tommy said with an easy expression. He pointed to Nick and said, “Me and my boss are staying the night, the other two are leaving and coming back tomorrow.”

Even after this explanation the man didn’t move. He didn’t reach for a log book or a key, or even gaze at his ten-year-old computer behind the counter. Instead, he asked, “What are you guys in town for?”

This didn’t dampen Tommy’s enthusiasm. He reached into his pocket and slapped a business card on the counter. “We’re here to install a new Dexa Scanner in Dr. Mitchell’s office.”

“A what?” the man said, examining the card of a real businessman who allowed Tommy to use his identity for the charade.

“A Dexa Scanner,” Tommy said. “It’s a machine which measures bone density.”

Still, the man remained motionless and watched Matt examine the facility with his FBI-trained eyes.

“What’s the doctor doing with something like that?” the man asked.

“Excuse me?” Tommy said.

“I mean, why does he need some kind of scanner in a town this size?”

Now, Tommy tilted his head. “Do you have any idea how prevalent osteoporosis is?”

The man shrugged.

“One in every two women over the age of fifty will fracture a bone due to this condition. Did you know that?”

The man stared.

“Are there any woman over the age of fifty living in this town?”

“I guess.”

“Well, then Dr. Mitchell is installing a new device to help diagnose those woman with low bone density and get them headed toward a healthier lifestyle.”

This seemed to satisfy the guy’s curiosity, so he finally looked at his computer screen and moved his mouse around. “We have room eight available.”

“Room eight sounds just peachy,” Tommy said.

“That’s eighty-nine dollars.”

Tommy handed him the phony credit card to match the phony business card. Both of them set up on short notice using FBI muscle to expedite the process.

As the motel clerk swiped Tommy’s card through the credit card machine, he said, “Will you be using the phone?”

“You’re kidding, right?” Tommy asked.

Nick could tell Tommy was running low on patience with the guy, so Nick gave him a look and his cousin frowned.

The clerk handed Tommy back his card along with a key.

As the four of them headed out the door, Tommy looked back at the man and said, “Thanks for the hospitality.” Then he added another winning smile for good measure.

As they grabbed their bags from the trunk of the car, Tommy said, “Punk,” under his breath.

“Relax,” Nick said. “They’ll know we’re here soon enough. We don’t need to give them a head start.”

The parking lot was gravel with nothing but desert lining the opposite side of the street. A six foot aluminum fence ran parallel to the road across from them representing the border to Mexico. Nick thought one swift kick could bring down the entire fence.

They made their way to room eight and when Tommy opened the door, the musty smell hit them like a rotten sack of potatoes.

“Aw, shit,” Matt said.

Nick waved his hand in front of his face, like he was leading a pack of hunters through the African Bush. “Jeez, how long has this been vacant?”

Stevie set up his laptop computer on the night table next to the first bed and began hitting the keypad with authority. Nick dropped his duffle bag while Matt went into the bathroom and closed the door.

Tommy whispered to Nick, “I’m a little worried about your partner.”

“He’ll be fine,” Nick said.

Tommy shook his head, but said no more.

When Matt came out of the bathroom pulling up his zipper, Nick said, “Stevie will get the drone back in the air while Tommy gets the lay of the land.”

Tommy whirled the car keys around his index finger. “Okay,” he said, pulling open the door. “I’ll be back.”

“Tommy,” Nick said.

“Yeah.”

“Don’t do too much,” was all Nick could say.

Tommy grinned. He said, “I wouldn’t dream of it.” Then the door shut behind him like a vault, sealing the three FBI agents inside the dungeon of dust.

Matt pulled apart the curtains and stood by the window, watching Tommy spit up gravel as the BMW sped out of the parking lot. They were less than five miles from Antonio Garza’s compound and Nick could practically smell the revenge oozing from Matt’s ears.

On Stevie’s computer screen, an aerial image of the desert floor came to life. Nick watched the landscape while dialing Walt on his cell phone.

“You in?” Walt asked.

“Yeah.”

“They know you’re there?”

“Not yet,” Nick said, watching Matt stare out the window like a caged tiger.

“Nick,” Walt said. “Are you doing the right thing?”

“I doubt it. But someone has to find that bomb before it leaves the neighborhood.”

There was a sigh on the other end of the line.

“I could send in a squad of Special Forces,” Walt said, stating the obvious.

“No,” Nick said, firmly. “They’ll just crawl under rocks like cockroaches. We don’t have time to search every inch of this place.”

“You do understand I don’t like this plan. Not one bit.” There was a bite to Walt’s words. He’d just lost three FBI agents in the past few days and there was a pain lingering in the tone of his voice.

“We’re okay,” Nick assured him. “Any word from the agent in Mexico?”

“The last communication said he was with the bomb. That’s all.”

“He’s pretty worthless without our help.”

Walt didn’t need to respond to that.

“Okay,” Nick said. “We’ll try this tactic until midnight. If we don’t recover the bomb by then, go ahead and bring the cavalry.”

“Listen, Fisk is on a plane right now to Mexico City for the presidential debate. He’ll be speaking with President Salcido, trying to get help with this.”

“Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath,” Nick quipped.

“I’m trying everything.”

“I know you are, Walt. Just keep this place quarantined. I don’t want anything to escape.”

“You’re positive the bomb is going through Denton?”

“Yes.”

“Good, because it’s sealed up tight. Only one road in and one road out.”

“What about the desert?”

“We have satellites tracking the perimeter,” Walt said. “If you’re right about this, we’ve limited the damage to that border town.”

“Good,” Nick said, checking on Stevie, who seemed ready for instructions. “Let me get back to this.”

“Nick?”

“Yeah.”

“Please. Don’t. Once you find the bomb, we’ll get Garza. I promise.”

Nick watched Matt continue his fascination out the window.

“I’ll do the best I can,” Nick said, seeing Matt tap his foot on the worn carpet. “But I can’t make any guarantees.”

Chapter 22

President Merrick sat behind his desk and ran a hand through his hair while reading the latest e-mail update from CIA Director Ken Morris. There was no new information for him to relay so the Director had used hypothetical scenarios as substitutes for solid intelligence. Merrick was a master at detecting long-winded reports without substance, so he deleted the e-mail halfway through reading it.

He grabbed his cell phone and pushed a contact button. On the third ring, Fisk answered, “Hello, Mr. President,” in a sarcastic tone.

“Forget I ever said anything. I don’t want you calling me that again. I’ve had people call me asshole with a nicer connotation.”

“So what’s up?”

“Ken has nothing for me,” Merrick said. “Nick and Matt are holed up in this border town trying to find the bomb and I thought you might have landed already.”

“Nope, we’re circling the airport now,” Fisk said. “There’s so much smog down here, I can barely see the city.”

“Well, despite my warning, everyone’s excited about your visit down there. Salcido thinks you’re coming to bring our endorsement and Rodriguez thinks you’re coming to kiss his ring before he’s sworn in.”

“Do you know the focus of the debate?”

“Yes,” Merrick said. “How to deal with the cartels.”

“Great,” Fisk said. “One wants them all dead, the other wants to offer them half the country as ransom for not gunning down the civilian population.”

“Be careful down there,” Merrick said. “Don’t go wandering off the trail.”

“You sent the Eighty-First airborne with me, for crying out loud. I could take over the country if I wanted.”

“I’m serious, Sam.”

“I know.”

“Also,” Merrick added, “your meeting with Rodriguez has been leaked to the press. It’s already hit the New York Times webpage.”

“Good,” Fisk said. “They’ll be zeroing in on us while I’m here.”

“It’s a risky move. It makes us look like we’re kowtowing to the cartels.”

“I realize that.”

Merrick leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. “Sam, do you think this will work?”

There was a long pause while the sound of plane engines hummed in the background. Finally, Fisk said, “Salcido’s been fighting these drug dealers for too long to give up now. We’re making some real progress and they know it. It’s imperative he remains in office.”

Merrick nodded. “Okay, buddy. Make this quick and get home. We have all this extra food leftover without you.”

“Yes, Mr. President.”

* * *

Garza saw the Humvees coming from his office window. A line of dust trailed laterally across the desert floor until it reached the narrow road which led up toward the compound. He ran down the steps to the courtyard and waited as the gates creaked open and the vehicles paraded around the semicircle driveway and parked. Victor exited from the back seat of the last Humvee. He greeted Garza with a smile and a handshake.

Neither man spoke as Victor pointed to the blindfolded man in the front seat. Everyone followed their instructions precisely. Victor opened the tailgate and exposed the package. A plastic case the size of a small golf bag, wrapped excessively in black tape. Without a word, a couple of soldiers wearing gardening gloves gently lifted the bomb from its resting place. They carefully maneuvered the explosive onto a waiting flatbed cart.

As the soldiers secured the bomb onto the cart with rope, Sadeem turned his blindfolded head in the front seat and said, “I hope you are being careful with that.”

The soldiers methodically wheeled the bomb down the path to the back of the building, the wheels squeaking on the brick pavers.

“Shut up,” Victor said, as Garza motioned him to get their passenger.

Victor opened the car door and pulled Sadeem from his seat. The man stumbled momentarily, then regained his footing.

“I hope you are keeping me with the package because it is very dangerous,” Sadeem said, his voice sounding defensive and not at all authoritative.

The group of soldiers surrounded Sadeem as Victor escorted him down the driveway to the back of the building. Garza had jumped ahead and went underneath the secured overhang of the rear entrance to the complex. The canopy had been added to the structure to prevent satellite images to view the entrance and the oversized elevator which was used to transport numerous paraphernalia to Garza’s personal basement hideaway.

Garza pushed the button as the soldiers approached. The door opened and the elevator offered plenty of room for everyone, including Sadeem, Victor and three of the soldiers manning the flatbed cart.

“We are going down,” Sadeem said, as the elevator descended. “I assume that means we’re heading toward a tunnel.”

Garza didn’t like this sort of narration. He signaled to Victor by padding his chest and his number one nodded, assuring him the man had been checked for a wire.

“You will now be silent,” Victor said. “Or your next words shall be your last.”

Garza smiled at Victor, the man taking control of the situation with perfect timing.

Sadeem frowned, but remained wordless.

Victor took Sadeem’s hand and placed it on the bomb. “You feel this?”

Sadeem nodded.

“It will be with you at all times,” Victor said.

The elevator jolted to a stop and the doors whined open.

“Now, I am going to take you to a room where you will remain until it is time to transport the device,” Victor continued. “Nod your head if you understand.”

Sadeem nodded again.

“Good.”

They exited the elevator into the basement. Victor took Sadeem by the arm and walked him up the stairs into the main floor of the building, while Garza stayed behind and pointed to a spot for his crew to leave the bomb.

Once Victor shut the door behind him, Garza finally spoke to one of his soldiers. “How did it go?” he asked.

“Very good,” the man said. “We drove around in circles before coming back here.”

“Nice,” Garza said. “Go ahead and keep watch on this man. I want him in complete isolation until we are ready to move.”

“Yes, Jefe,” the soldier said.

Garza watched the men leave. He went behind the bar and placed two shot glasses on the counter. While pouring mescal into the glasses, Victor returned to the basement, the door shutting solid behind him.

“He is in the observation room,” Victor said, holding up a cell phone. “I took this from him just in case.”

Garza handed one of the glasses of mescal to Victor and they toasted. Victor threw the shot down his throat then slammed the glass back down on the bar, blowing out a short breath. Garza swirled the clear liquid and took a sip, savoring the flavor in his mouth.

“We have a new delivery we must make tonight,” Garza said.

Victor squinted. “Tonight?”

Garza nodded. He took another sip of mescal while Victor poured another shot and threw it back.

“We are going to make two different deliveries?” Victor asked.

“No, we will combine them. Valdez insists on moving the product tonight. He believes we are transporting another cartel’s product and he will not have us give anyone priority over the Zutons.”

“But it is not another cartel we are working with.”

“Yes, but I cannot afford to let him know that,” Garza said, gesturing toward the device by the elevator. “The less people with knowledge of this delivery, the less chance for a mishap.”

They both stared at the bomb. In the stillness of the room, Garza imagined he heard a ticking sound.

“The American called,” Victor said. “He believes the FBI agents are going to Denton.”

This caused some concern for Garza. He tipped the remainder of the mescal down his throat, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He considered the amount of people he had on payroll in the border town.

Garza grinned. “Then we will just have to give them a nice reception, won’t we?”

Tommy drove down Main Street and thought he’d entered a time warp. One long strip of storefronts covered each side of the road with a wooden overhang protecting shoppers from the sun. The hardware store had a statue of a cowboy whipping a rope over his head about to lasso some unsuspecting cow, and the movie theatre actually showed just one movie. What struck him was the pace people moved. Women gradually made their way to their parked cars with the groceries. Men walked on the sidewalk with their heads down. A morose death walk. The one thing he’d noticed missing were kids. There wasn’t one child visible. Not even a stray bicycle.

He parked in the street amidst the pickups and Jeeps. The mid-afternoon heat hit him as soon as he opened his door. As he walked past the storefronts along the street, he peeked into each business and saw the same bleak expression on the faces of the employees.

Tommy found the Denton Bar and Grill and decided it might be the best place to acquire information. When he entered the grill, it seemed every head in the place turned his way. He sat at the end of the bar, closest to the waitress stand. It wasn’t a random choice.

There were several round tables scattered around the room pretending to be restaurant tables, but nobody came to this place for the food, Tommy was sure of that. From the two speakers behind the bar, some old-time country singer was croaking about a lost love. The steel guitar whined like a hungry puppy.

A deputy sat around one of the tables gripping a longneck bottle and chatted with a couple of buddies. Of the fifteen or so patrons in the place, only one wouldn’t let go of his gaze. The guy had a thin frame with a bowling ball gut and he leaned back so far in his chair the front two legs were airborne. The guy joining him seemed to take up the sport of eyeballing Tommy as well.

A lanky, pimple-faced bartender came over to Tommy and raised his eyebrows.

“Bottle of Bud,” Tommy said, hoping the guy was there to take his order.

The bartender left. That was a good sign. Maybe he was getting a beer.

A perky waitress in a T-shirt and blue jeans passed Tommy and gave him a smile as she dropped her tray on the counter next him and waited for the bartender.

“Hola,” Tommy said.

“Hi,” she beamed.

She was only nineteen or twenty so it appeared she was too young to be contaminated by the town’s glum disposition.

“You seem happy,” Tommy said. “Something happen?”

The girl seemed to consider this. “I don’t understand.”

Tommy glanced around the room at the gloomy patrons. The bowling-ball gut was still glaring at him. “I mean, why aren’t you suicidal like everyone else?”

She seemed to catch on and smiled. “Oh, well, they’re just stuck here. I’m here by choice.”

“Ah, I get it. They all work at the mine and can’t leave because the pay is too good. That what keeps them here?”

“Exactly.”

“So what brought you here?”

The girl shrugged. “My parents are both writers. They like small towns.”

“Yeah? What kind of stuff they write?”

The bartender returned with an open bottle of Budweiser and put it in front of Tommy. No glass. No coaster.

While Tommy fished out a twenty, the bartender looked at the girl, which removed the smile from her face. She told him, “Dirty Martini for Bill.”

The bartender took the twenty, then lingered a moment.

“Didn’t I see you at Lonny’s Comedy Club in Baltimore last year?” Tommy deadpanned.

The bartender kept his eye on Tommy as he turned and left.

Tommy looked at the girl. “He’s probably a blast at the Christmas party, huh?”

“You’re not afraid, are you?” she said.

“Of what?”

“I don’t know. Mr. Chizek?”

“Who’s that?”

The girl’s eyes widened. “You really don’t know, do you?”

“No. Why don’t you tell me about him?”

“Well, he’s, uh, he sort of runs this place.”

“This bar?”

“No, silly, he runs the whole town.”

“Get out,” Tommy said. “He’s like the mayor?”

“Maybe.”

“He must live in a nice place, huh?”

“I don’t know. I think he moves around. Nobody ever knows where to find him except Doug.”

“Doug?”

“Yeah, the owner of the bar. He’s one of his. .”

The girl grabbed a bar rag and began wiping imaginary spills on the bar. Tommy sensed a shadow cross his shoulder. He turned to see the bowling-ball gut guy standing over him. He had a short stubbly beard and a lump of chewing tobacco in the side of his cheek.

“You two know each other?” the man asked.

The waitress busied herself with the order pad on her tray and flipped through the pages as if checking any outstanding orders.

“I was just talking to her about her parents,” Tommy said, sensing the fear in the girl’s actions. “They’re both writers. Did you know that?”

This didn’t seem to impress the guy. He craned his neck and drooled a long stream of tobacco juice onto the floor by Tommy’s feet.

Tommy cringed. “That’s disgusting,” he said. “You’d better not let Doug see you do that.”

The man showed Tommy a toothy, brown grin. “I am Doug.”

Great, Tommy thought. Now he had to reexamine his tactic. He didn’t want to cause a scene.

The deputy seemed to notice the conversation. He and his drinking buddy stood up and waited cautiously by their table. The waitress grabbed her martini from the bartender and swiftly left the bar.

“What brings you to Denton?” Doug asked.

“You kidding?” Tommy said. “This is like Vegas without the casinos, the pretty women, or the stage shows. Who wouldn’t want to visit this tropical paradise?”

Doug gestured toward Tommy’s beer and said, “Why don’t you take your drink to go?”

Tommy took a long swallow of his beer, then turned to Doug and said, “If you’re trying to intimidate me, you’ve got to get rid of that lump in your mouth. Makes you look like a relief pitcher from the seventies.”

Doug’s cheek bones tensed. “You’d better get going now before it gets much worse for you.”

“Is that really what you want to say?”

Doug squinted.

“I mean, you’re trying to chase me away, but you say, ‘You’d better get going before it gets much worse for you.’ Is that really a threat? Am I supposed to run out the door screaming after hearing you throw that doozy at me? What the fuck, you think I’m one of your redneck buddies?”

The deputy and his friend came up behind Doug, looking to cut down any conflict.

Tommy nodded to the man. “Afternoon, Officer.”

“Is there a problem, boys?” the deputy asked.

“No problem,” Doug said. “This guy was just leaving.”

“I’m not sure I’ve done anything to deserve this treatment,” Tommy said, shrugging innocently. “I’m drinking a beer, minding my own business.”

“The guy was just asking Samantha about Mr. Chizek,” Doug said, without turning his head.

Tommy looked at Doug. “Those big ears are coming in handy, aren’t they?”

The deputy unsnapped the holster to his nightstick. His expression changed. He gave Tommy a slight grin.

That’s when Tommy realized the guy wasn’t there to keep the peace.

Chapter 23

From over Stevie’s shoulder, Nick saw the image on the laptop being sent to them by the hawk drone. They’d just seen a blindfolded man being led into the rear of the complex. Garza’s men were patrolling the perimeter of the building, but Garza himself remained inside.

The laptop sat on a side table next to the bed, a crusty layer of dust settled over the top. Nick flicked a dead fly from the tabletop.

Matt kept pacing in the corner of the room, the sun getting lower in the sky and Nick feeling like his methods were being questioned.

“Where is he?” Matt said.

Nick checked his cell for any text messages, but found none.

“He’ll be here,” Nick assured him. “He’s just being thorough.”

Matt kept patting his gun. A comfort move. Linus and his blanket.

Stevie sat on the side of the bed, playing with the computer mouse, trying to get better images of the compound.

“Maybe we should get help,” Stevie said, without looking up.

It was an odd comment coming from Stevie. Normally the tech would keep to his area of expertise, but with Matt wearing out the carpet and Tommy missing his deadline, the tension was conspicuous.

Nick moved aside the curtains an inch and saw nothing but a vacant road and a wide expanse of desert. He could feel the heat seeping through the window. He turned to see Matt staring at him.

“What?”

“You know what,” Matt said, pointing out the closed-curtained window. “There’s a bomb about to be transported across the border and the guy who killed Jennifer and Jim and Ricky is a couple of miles away. Why don’t we bring the damn Marines down here and get this job done right?”

Nick rubbed his hand over his eyes. He’d been feeling the pressure for a while and took a breath. When was the last time he’d taken his medication? Could that be the reason he was being so rigid? He could feel an attack coming on, but suppressed it with deep breaths.

“Your problem,” Matt continued, “is you’re a control freak. You want to do everything yourself. Sometimes we need backup.”

“Look,” Nick said, “the town is quarantined. No one gets in or out. We come into this place with a battalion of soldiers and Chizek will know what’s going on. He’ll burrow down and get lost in the shuffle. We need them to go forward with their plan.”

“Why?” Stevie said. “Isn’t it better if they don’t go ahead with their plan? If we announce our presence, wouldn’t that dissuade them from transporting the bomb over the border?”

That’s when Nick realized he was doing this for revenge. He didn’t care about the bomb anymore. The whole damn town could blow up and he wouldn’t give a crap. He wanted to catch Garza on this side of the border so he could finish him off. He didn’t want a soldier shooting him with an assault rifle. Nick wanted to be there when Garza exhaled his last breath.

The doorknob jiggled. A moment later Tommy lumbered into the room. His face was distorted from lumps and gashes, while his right eye was swollen shut. Bloodstains covered his ripped shirt. He took two drunken steps and dropped onto the bed.

Nick rolled him over and saw Tommy wince in pain as he examined his cousin’s face.

“Hey, Nicky,” Tommy smiled through bloody teeth. “I think they know we’re here.”

“Fuck,” Nick said. His stomach twisted into a knot. Another casualty of his selfish plan.

Stevie grabbed his medic bag and uncapped a bottle of saline to pour over Tommy’s forehead. Then he ripped open a package of gauze sponges and inspected the wounds.

“He needs attention,” Stevie said, scrutinizing the lacerations on Tommy’s scalp.

Nick jumped up and yanked his phone out.

“What’re you doing?” Tommy asked through swollen lips.

“I’m ending this game right now,” Nick said, clenching his teeth.

“No, no,” Tommy shoved Stevie’s hand away and forced his way up, leaning on an elbow. “Don’t do it, Nicky. These guys are punk-ass rednecks. They’re like the Klan or something. You don’t wanna bring a bunch of law here, they’ll send Chizek to Mexico, if he isn’t there already.”

Nick looked at Matt.

“Make the call,” was all Matt said.

“Don’t, Nicky,” Tommy pleaded. “You need to bait them. You’re Nick Fuckin’ Bracco, for crying out loud. You’ve got all you need in this room.”

“We’re outnumbered three thousand to four,” Matt snapped. “How does that grab you?”

Nick hesitated. The phone in his palm, while Stevie nodded encouragement and Tommy shook his lumpy head.

The door opened, then shut. Matt was gone.

“Where’s he going?” Stevie asked.

Nick looked at the closed door. In the decade he’d been with Matt, he’d never had a rift with him before. They’d always been on the same page. Now, he needed to be assertive. He needed to give his partner what he wanted and get Garza. At any cost.

Nick strangled his phone as he devised a plan. Somewhere on his cell was a text message which read, “You Promised.” His chest tightened at the thought of the widow’s message. He’d let her down and would never forget that. Then, he remembered her husband’s last words to Nick. ‘Promise me you’ll kill him.’

Nick nodded to himself and whispered, “I’m going to keep your promise, Ricky. No matter the cost.”

Garza sat in the backseat of the Humvee and waited for the entourage to meet them. Victor was next to him, checking out the desert horizon, his sunglasses gleaming against the setting sun.

“I don’t see them,” Victor said.

“They will be here,” Garza assured him. “I know Santiago well. He is simply making us wait as payment for our infidelity.”

“But we-”

“It doesn’t matter,” Garza said. “We take his shipment and bring it with us. It’s over.”

“What about Sadeem?”

“What about him?”

“Does he know we are bringing an additional package?”

“Chingow, Victor. I do not care what Sadeem thinks. We will make it work.”

In the distance, the desert floor was disrupted by the traction of tires beneath a convoy of trucks and SUVs. They both saw the cloud approaching at the same time. Garza looked at the time on his phone.

“Only ten minutes late,” Garza said. “He is being nice.”

Ten vehicles surrounded Garza’s Humvee and the large delivery truck he had parked behind them. Victor shifted in his seat.

“Relax,” Garza said. “He needs us more than we need him. This is merely a show of power for his men. He wants them to see he is in charge of the transaction.”

The cartel’s soldiers jumped from the vehicles with assault rifles pointed and knees bent. Garza took a breath and opened the door.

“Stay here until I signal you,” Garza said. “Do not take action.”

Victor nodded.

Garza met Santiago Valdez in a clearing of cacti and sagebrush. He greeted the stoic cartel leader with an affable smile. Valdez stared at Garza behind his sunglasses, while a dozen soldiers carefully watched every move.

“It is a pleasure to do business with you again,” Garza said.

“This is a highly important shipment,” Santiago said. “It will be moved tonight.”

An order, not a question.

“Yes,” Garza said. “It will go tonight.”

“What time tonight?”

Now the guy was pushing too much and Garza needed him to back off without losing face. It was a creative dance which Garza had managed to perfect along the way. He scratched his left shoulder with his right hand. The signal.

“Now, Santiago,” Garza said. “The timing of this move is going to be determined by the actions of the American Border Patrol. There is never a set time.”

Valdez was about to argue that point when a conspicuous thumping sound emerged from the south. The cartel leader turned along with his soldiers. Garza didn’t bother.

Three Federale helicopters moved in formation toward the circle of vehicles.

Valdez scowled at Garza. “Is this some sort of trick?”

“No trick,” Garza said. “They are simply our protection.” Garza tapped his head twice and the three choppers split up and moved to the perimeter of the convoy, hovering low to the ground. A sense of authority had transcended from Valdez to Garza. Even Mexico’s largest cartel didn’t have the type of muscle Garza was putting on display.

Valdez seemed ready to refute the assassin’s influence, but the helicopter’s blades growled like a guard dog waiting to pounce.

“Maybe you can show me the package,” Garza said with an easy tone, not wanting to provoke any unnecessary hostility.

Valdez stood motionless. Garza knew this was another way of showing his control of the situation, no matter how juvenile it appeared. Finally, Valdez raised his hand and a panel truck left the formation and maneuvered around in the desert until it backed up into the circle, next to Garza. Two men jumped out of the truck and opened the back doors.

Two pallets were loaded full of packages of cocaine wrapped with the Zutons trademark wolf face on the top of each package. Garza figured the load to be around half a ton of product. Not a large shipment, but still a couple of hundred packages which needed to be handled. He waved to Victor and immediately his crew of eight men exited the delivery truck and formed a single line to move the merchandise from Valdez’s truck to theirs.

As Garza supervised the transfer, he stood by Valdez with his hands behind his back.

“We will have this to the safe house in Tucson before dawn,” Garza said, casually, letting the cartel leader know it was time for the payment.

Once again Valdez stood still a moment before turning to one of his soldiers and holding out his hand. The man handed him a manila envelope wrapped with a rubber band. Valdez gave the envelope to Garza, who slid it down the front of his trousers. He didn’t dare insult the man by inspecting the weight or size of the package. He knew it was all there.

“One day,” Valdez said, looking around at the helicopters looming in the background, “you will have to tell me how you wield such influence.”

Garza smiled. “Yes,” he lied. “One day.”

Chapter 24

Fisk sat next to the American Ambassador, Dennis Blake, with a plate of mini burritos on his lap. They were in a large meeting room backstage from the auditorium where the presidential debate would take place in a couple of hours. Nearly three hundred journalists from around the world would be there to document the historic event, but the Secret Service would not allow anyone in the room until Fisk gave the word.

“President Salcido is insisting on an endorsement,” Blake told him. “He feels he deserves it, after all he’s done fighting the cartels.”

Fisk nodded while finishing off a burrito. “Yes, he’s done more than any president before him and he deserves our support.”

Blake sat with his eyebrows raised. “And?”

Fisk gave Blake a paternal smile. “We have to look at the big picture, Dennis. We don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves should Salcido lose the election.”

Blake shook his head in frustration, while Fisk chewed another burrito and held out the paper plate. A moment later, one of the twelve Secret Service agents assigned to protect him surreptitiously took the plate from Fisk’s hand and tossed it in a nearby trash can.

“He will not lose the election,” Blake said, firmly.

“So you say,” Fisk said, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin. “But the polls differ with you.”

“Is that why you requested a private meeting with Rodriguez?” Blake asked.

Fisk glanced at the buffet table to see what deserts they had on display. When he spotted a plate of sopapillas, he went to get one. Blake followed closely.

Fisk turned and squared up on the ambassador. “Look,” Fisk said, “I can’t discuss our entire foreign policy position in the few minutes we have before the meetings. If you would do me the great honor of introducing me to the two candidates, it would greatly enhance your importance to my trip here. Is that something you can do?”

Blake took a half-step back and almost bowed.

Fisk felt he was too strong on the man, just doing his job. “Hey, I’m sorry,” Fisk said. “It’s just I’m on a tight schedule and my stomach is growling. I can be real grumpy when I’m hungry.”

Blake’s face brightened, slightly. “Sure,” he said, gesturing to the buffet table. “Enjoy.”

The table was covered with a white linen tablecloth and two servers stood behind the buffet with their hands behind their back. They were the only people in the room who weren’t with the State Department, or Secret Service.

Fisk nibbled on a couple of pieces of broccoli, before placing a sopapilla on a plate. When he reached the front of the buffet, he noticed a large prime rib sitting under a heated lamp. He was going to ask for a slice, then saw a man in a suit with an earpiece standing next to the cutting board with a boning knife in his hand.

“You know how to cut that thing?” Fisk asked the Secret Service agent.

“I can try,” the man said, holding the blade like a weapon.

“No thanks,” Fisk said.

Just then, a partition slid open and two dark-skinned men with earpieces and military uniforms entered the room. The Secret Service circled the men and exchanged IDs along with handshakes and firm instructions. They pointed to a couple of tall-backed chairs where Fisk would be meeting with the candidates separately.

Fisk gestured to the head of his security team and the man allowed the media to gather along the opening to the room. A silk rope separated the two rooms. Fisk took a bite of his sopapilla, then tossed it away and approached the gaggle of reporters with a smile.

“Mr. Secretary, Mr. Secretary,” they yelled and shoved for position. Fisk held out his hands. “Please, stop pushing. I’ll answer all of your questions. I promise.”

This seemed to calm the crowd and they settled into a tight mass of cameras and microphones.

Fisk pointed to a Mexican reporter first.

“Mr. Secretary of State, who will the United States be endorsing for the election?” the man asked.

Fisk nodded cordially. “Yes, this is the question I keep getting asked and let me put it to rest right away. The United States will not be endorsing any one candidate. I am here to show support for the process. Our neighbors to the south deserve our support. Let’s face it, politicians will come and go, yet the Mexican people will still be here long after they are gone. It is these people who we will be supporting.”

Fisk pointed to a female CNN reporter.

“So, in your eyes, President Salcido has not done enough to garner the support of the United States?” the woman asked.

“I didn’t say that,” Fisk said sternly. “As a matter of fact, President Salcido has far exceeded any expectations we could have projected. He is a good man and we wish him well. We simply want the process to be fair and unbiased.”

The questions went on along the same theme for ten or fifteen minutes, before a side door opened and President Salcido walked in, followed by a handful of men in military uniforms. Salcido walked tall and greeted Fisk with a grandiose handshake.

Ambassador Blake tried to head off the greeting, but it was too late. Instead, he led the two men to the tall-backed chairs and stood beside them with a smile painted on his face.

“I am grateful to see you, Mr. Secretary,” Salcido said, once they were seated.

The room was filled with camera flashes and questions being blurted out. The two men posed in their seats briefly to allow for the photo opportunities.

“It is my great pleasure to be here, Mr. President,” Fisk said, above the noise. He looked the man directly in the eyes, then added, “I cannot offer you the president’s endorsement, but I can tell you I am here to assist you with an election night victory.”

The president’s head tilted. “How is that, Mr. Secretary? Please explain this to me.”

Fisk turned in his chair toward Salcido and folded his hands on his lap. “All I can tell you is, we have a plan in place. I apologize for not going further with this discussion, but I need something from you which our two nations cannot survive without.”

“Please,” Salcido said. “What is it you need?”

“Trust,” Fisk said, and left it there.

Salcido’s face seemed to take it in, then something in his eyes convinced Fisk he understood.

President Salcido made a terse nod, then said, “You have my trust, Mr. Secretary.”

There was a commotion as the side door opened again. Five men in matching blue suits and bulges under their jackets came barging in like foxes in a henhouse. They scanned the room for targets, while the Secret Service confronted the men with the usual exchange of credentials.

President Salcido pressed his lips together tight and shook his head. “He has no regard for anyone but himself.”

“Rodriguez?” Fisk asked.

Salcido nodded.

Francisco Rodriguez emerged from the crowd of security agents and smiled and waved as the throng of reporters focused their cameras at the new meat in the room.

Salcido stood.

“Don’t leave yet,” Fisk told him. “It will seem as if he chased you away.”

Salcido shook Fisk’s hand and said, “It will only get worse if I stay. He wants a spectacle.”

Fisk could see by Rodriguez’s actions that Salcido was right. The man never once removed his eyes from the cameras and knew exactly how to appear affable even during the interruption.

Salcido and his men had to steer around Rodriguez’s men and were almost out the door when Rodriguez called to the president and hurried over to offer an open hand. Salcido looked at the man’s hand, then shook it quickly before leaving the room.

Fisk made eye contact with Ambassador Blake. The man came to life, remembering his responsibility. He approached Rodriguez and gestured toward Fisk, who pointed to the empty seat next to him.

Rodriguez immediately jumped on the opportunity. He strode over to Fisk with a great big politician smile and held out his arm ten feet before he got there, ready to press flesh.

“Mr. Secretary, it is a great honor to meet you,” Rodriguez said, shaking Fisk’s hand with a hearty pump.

“The pleasure is all mine,” Fisk said, gesturing for Rodriguez to take his seat.

Rodriguez sat next to Fisk as the two men posed for the reporters and smiled like old friends.

“President Merrick appreciates your position on the cartels,” Fisk said, over the noise of the reporters. “He believes your proximity to their leaders allows you to control the violence. A very smart tact.”

“Thank you,” Rodriguez said, waving to the journalists. “Will he be endorsing anyone for the election?”

“No” Fisk said. “We don’t believe in meddling with your country’s election process. We think the people should decide their leaders, not us.”

Rodriguez seemed to like the answer. “That is a very noble position.”

“How is your wife?” Fisk asked over the noise of reporters jockeying for their position. “Miranda, right?”

Rodriguez smiled, almost giddy with the attention he was receiving. “Yes, Mr. Secretary, she is fine. Thank you.”

“Good,” Fisk said, his voice low so Rodriguez needed to lean toward him to hear. “You keep her happy and the rest comes easy, eh?”

“Yes, Mr. Secretary.” Rodriguez laughed with approval, clapping his hands to show the press they were sharing a real moment.

Fisk gently placed his hand on Rodriguez’s shoulder and whispered in his ear, “I appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to meet with me.”

“Mr. Secretary.” Rodriguez turned to Fisk, his face serious. “It was very considerate of you to invite me here.”

“Of course,” Fisk said. “It’s only appropriate to begin our relationship prior to you taking office. The United States is committed to working with Mexico to keep both of our nations strong and prosperous.”

Rodriguez seemed to like the way the conversation was going. He almost forgot about the reporters shouting questions just a few feet away.

Fisk leaned toward Rodriguez and spoke into his ear. “Also, should you win the election, President Merrick would like to invite you and Miranda up to the White House.”

Rodriguez was eating it up. His eyes rose unexpectedly and seemed genuinely unprepared for such a kind gesture.

“That is very generous of you, Mr. Secretary,” Rodriguez said, patting Fisk on the back. “Tell the president we would be honored to join him.”

They spoke casually for a few more minutes, before Fisk looked at his watch. “I apologize, Mr. Rodriguez, but I must be heading back now.”

Fisk rose and Rodriguez stood as well. The two men faced each other, smiling and shaking hands, knowing every nuance was being recorded for the evening news.

Fisk leaned over and said, “I look forward to seeing you in Washington.”

Rodriguez beamed. “Yes. Thank you again for your invitation, Mr. Secretary.”

Fisk made sure they faced the cameras for one last time with his arm on Rodriguez’s back. He wanted to throw up in his mouth as he smiled and nodded to the media. He’d done what he came for, now he just needed the tough part of the plan to come through. If it didn’t, Fisk would come off as the laughing stock of Washington. The images of him joking around with a narcissistic cartel supporter would live on for eternity.

He could almost feel himself falling on the sword as he waved to the press.

Chapter 25

Walt Jackson was pacing in his office, waiting to hear an update from someone, anyone. It was the hardest part of the administrative side of the job. The wait. When you were in the field, time flew. You were marking assets or following leads, but now the walls surrounded him like a cage.

“Ken is on one-nineteen,” his secretary said, over the speaker on his desk.

Walt quickly pushed a button on his phone and put the receiver to his ear. “And?”

There was a sigh on the other end and it forced Walt down into his chair.

“The plant is in Garza’s compound with the bomb,” the CIA Director said.

“That’s encouraging,” Walt said, glad to hear anything remotely positive.

“Maybe,” Ken said. “I can’t confirm a name or even a gender, but the person is working alone and can’t stop the transfer. He or she can only stay with the device until it reaches our border.”

“Then what?”

“Then we have Nick take over from there,” Ken said. “He is in position, right?”

Now it was Walt’s turn to sigh. “Yes, he’s in position.”

“So what’s wrong?”

Walt looked at his cell phone sitting on his desk as a reminder of what had set him off on a ten minute pace. “I just received a text from him telling me to keep the troops out of Denton. He’s about to do something and needs room to operate.”

“What’s he up to?”

“I don’t know. He said to have ambulances waiting at the end of the exit road from Denton. He expects casualties to be leaving town within the hour and told me to make sure we were there to take their cell phones away immediately.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means he’s. .” Walt considered who he was speaking with and thought carefully about revealing his own translation to Nick’s words. “It means, I don’t know. I don’t even want to guess. He told me if we don’t hear from him by midnight to bring the entire force into town.”

“How many people do you have ready?”

“Including FBI, Marines, Special Forces and National Guard-around five hundred.”

“Geesh, Walt, you expecting a war?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m expecting,” Walt said, tapping his foot. “I have no intention of losing any more agents.”

“All right,” Ken said. “I’ll keep pounding the phones and see what I can get for you.”

Walt hung up and leaned back in his chair with his eyes shut. He wasn’t about to tell Ken that Nick had stopped returning his calls forty-five minutes ago. Something his top agent had never done before. In all the years he’d worked with Nick, the longest he’d ever waited for a return call was three minutes.

His phone chirped with a text message and he swiped it from his desk and read the sender’s name. His wife. It was the third consecutive night he’d missed dinner. She’d been way too patient with him and he couldn’t stand how much he’d failed to be there for her. He tried to imagine the thoughts running through her mind as she sat in their empty nest and waited for him to be with her.

Walt winced in preparation as he opened her message:

“I love you,” was all it said.

He held the phone to his chest and sighed. “I love you too, Sweetie.”

* * *

Nick opened the door to the Denton Bar and Grill and felt the examination begin. Twenty patrons were scattered around round tables, while three sat at the bar. He could tell almost immediately which ones would be trouble and which were bystanders. There were five men who Nick thought were the culprits. A manageable number.

George Straight was singing a love song from the wooden speakers behind the bar, while a large ceiling fan with two missing blades slowly spun overhead. He stepped up to the bar and ordered a Bud Light. The pock-faced bartender looked just interested enough to make that happen.

Nick turned and saw the same five men trying to avoid detection; their surveillance technique was the worst he’d ever seen. But then, they probably weren’t used to professional investigators stopping by for a drink. In the back was the deputy and his friend. They seemed to be in high spirits, clinking their beer bottles to some inept toast.

When the bartender returned, Nick thanked him and gave him a twenty. He saw the waitress at the end of the bar looking sullen, not the cheery girl Tommy had told him about. Her left cheek was blotched with red marks and there was a long scratch down the side of her face. He took a drink of his beer and went up to the girl.

“Samantha?” Nick asked.

The girl gave him a suspicious glare. “Yes.”

“Relax,” Nick said. “These guys can’t hurt you.”

Samantha’s face scrunched up tight. “What guys?”

“You know what I’m saying.”

“No, I don’t,” she said, her movements jittery.

“My cousin Tommy was here a little while ago.”

She covered her open mouth with her hand.

“It’s okay,” Nick said. “He’s in a hospital recovering. He’ll be fine. He wanted me to thank you for trying to stop them. He said you were very brave.”

Samantha’s eyes became glossy. She saw something over Nick’s shoulder and stepped back to tend to her order book.

When Nick turned, he saw the thin guy with a big gut coming his way.

“Get out of here,” Nick whispered to Samantha. When she hesitated, he said more forcefully, “Now,” and watched her exit the bar through the kitchen entrance.

The man walked up into Nick’s face about to say something when Nick grinned and said, “You must be Doug.”

The guy cocked his head. “Yeah.”

Nick pointed at his dirty boots. “Didn’t you notice that?”

Doug followed Nick’s finger. Big mistake.

With his knees bent and his hand clenched, Nick swung his fist up into Doug’s chin with a ferocious uppercut. The power came from Nick’s legs and drove Doug’s lower teeth into his uppers with such a force, his head snapped back and a short whimper escaped as he hit the floor.

Nick unclenched his fist and rubbed his knuckles, while he kicked Doug’s face.

“I don’t like bullies,” Nick said. “Never did.”

The bartender pulled up a twelve gauge shotgun from behind the bar. Three men around another table stood with their pistols stretched.

From the back of the room the deputy held out his pistol and said, “That’ll be enough.”

Nick didn’t care. The adrenalin was just beginning to peak. He stepped on Doug’s throat and watched blood bubble out the side of his mouth and down his face.

“I said, that’s enough,” the deputy shouted now, closer along with three or more friends gaining strength from the numbers. Nick was drawing them out, making sure they were all in the open.

The bartender placed the butt of the shotgun against his shoulder and aimed it at Nick, who ignored every instinct and stepped even harder on the bar owner’s face.

That’s when the gunshots rang out in rapid succession. Five, six, seven, eight. The burst of shots rang out through the bar with a high-pitched squeal. When the gunfire had stopped, a handful of men were on the floor, clutching their arms or legs. The bartender had dropped behind the bar and gave out a painful wail.

Nick was the only person in the room left standing. Untouched.

From one of the side tables, sitting by himself, was a man in a cowboy hat, twirling a government-issued 9mm pistol with professional dexterity.

Matt McColm.

He pushed up on his cowboy hat with the tip of his gun and scanned the room as if to say, “Anyone else?”

“I think I have your attention,” Nick said. There were still three or four tables of customers who looked panic-stricken and held up their hands like they were being robbed.

Without looking at his partner, Nick said, “He can shoot a dime out of midair from fifty yards, so be grateful he didn’t choose headshots.”

There was a movement to Nick’s right, followed by a gunshot. The bartender had reappeared with the shotgun only to have Matt clip him in the opposite shoulder from his first shot. The guy stumbled backward, unable to grasp at his wound because both shoulders were now damaged.

“You really don’t learn, do you?” Nick said, watching the guy slide down, about to go into shock.

Matt was standing, taking it all in, anxious to be challenged. The tension seemed to evaporate from his face like steam from a boiling teapot. Nick felt it was cathartic for him to get the rage out of his system.

“Now listen to me,” Nick said, above the country music. He made a face, then gave his partner a look. Matt fired one shot at the radio behind the bar and the music stopped. The silence allowed for the sobs and heavy breathing to fill in the space.

Nick held up his shield. “My name is Nick Bracco. I’m an FBI agent. All I want is Sonny Chizek,” he said, making eye contact with everyone in the room. “The rest of you goons are useless to me. However, my partner and I will be back every couple of hours to rip this town apart. The visits will not stop until we get what we want.”

“You can’t just shoot people for no reason,” the deputy said from the floor, grabbing his wounded shoulder.

“I’m not sure you’re paying enough attention,” Nick said. “Now, tell Chizek I want to meet with him and the shooting spree will stop.” Nick straddled Doug’s bloody face and looked straight down at him. “I’d buy a larger first aid kit if I were you, Dougie.”

Matt stepped around the table, his back to the wall, his gun twirling one way, then back. He joined Nick by the entrance and opened the front door.

Nick said, “Tell Chizek we’re staying at the Denton Motel, room number eight. We’ll be expecting him.”

They took one step out the door and heard the deputy say, “You have no idea what you’ve just done.”

Nick stopped and looked back. “Maybe not,” he said, then gestured toward Matt. “But I have him on my side. . and you don’t.”

Once outside, Matt put his arm around Nick. “Thanks, partner. I needed that.”

“I know you did, buddy,” Nick said, flexing his right hand. “We both did.”

Chapter 26

Garza sat in the basement and squeezed his phone while getting the news about the FBI agents’ actions in Denton. The government employees acting like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. And Garza happily remembering how that movie ended.

“Where is Chizek?” Garza asked the man. The guy was practically the only one who wasn’t shot during the incident because he claimed he’d been too startled by the whole thing.

“He does what he always does,” the man said. “He barks out orders, then runs and hides.”

Garza knew the agents were trying to shake him up, maybe force him to delay his transfer, or try to bait him into crossing the border. Garza was too smart for that tactic. The agents were obviously working alone, probably ignoring their superior’s orders and looking for revenge, otherwise the entire town would be flooded with law enforcement. Instead, Garza’s lookouts had assured him no one else had entered Denton and the only ones leaving were on their way to the hospital in Rio Rico.

“What orders did he give?” Garza asked.

“He told us to kill them,” the man said.

“Okay then,” Garza said. “What are you waiting for?”

“Yes, Jefe.”

Garza shook his head and dropped the phone on the side table next to him. He sat on the couch and looked up at the clock on the wall. It was almost eight o’clock. Almost time to get the shipments going. He stared at the bomb sitting on the cart in front of him. He wondered how dangerous it really was.

Garza got up and went behind the bar to pour himself another shot of mescal. He threw the warm, spicy liquid down his throat, then slammed the glass down on the bar. It settled him for a moment. He picked up the remote and turned on his large-screen TV and switched the channel to CNN. There was a news program showing the two podiums where the presidential debate would take place in Mexico City, while a journalist spoke about the monumental event. They showed footage of an earlier meeting between the two candidates and the United States Secretary of State, Samuel Fisk. The large man shook hands and posed for photos with President Salcido. The two men seemed stiff and formal, but when Fisk met with Francisco Rodriguez they spoke and laughed like old friends. An odd twosome.

Garza muted the TV, then opened the briefcase sitting on top of the bar and stared at the money for the third time in the past fifteen minutes. He had to put it away before it drove him mad with greed. As he shut the briefcase, he heard the basement door open and a pair of footsteps creak down the staircase.

Victor appeared and came over while Garza slapped a shot glass on the bar and filled it with mescal. Victor took the glass and downed it with one swig.

“Thanks,” Victor said.

Garza pointed to the TV. “You see that?”

The two candidates had just shaken hands and were heading toward their separate podiums. There was no sound, but Garza didn’t need to hear a word to know who would come out on top. Francisco Rodriguez was a masterful orator with a dynamic public persona.

“Politics.” Victor made a face. “It does not go well with mescal.”

“You don’t like it, eh?”

“No,” Victor said, pouring himself another shot. “It’s a waste of time anyway. Everyone knows Rodriguez will be the next president.”

Garza nodded, then turned and pressed on a wall-mounted display of knives from the Mexican Revolution. One side of the display opened like a door on hinges and exposed a wall safe. Next to the safe was a keypad, where Garza pressed a sequence of numbers and watched the safe pop open. As he placed the briefcase in the safe, he thought of something.

“You probably know the code to get in this thing, don’t you?” he asked, without turning.

Victor shook his head in mock disgust. “You use the same numbers for every password, Jefe. How many times do I tell you to change them?”

Garza smiled. “I know. I have too many things to remember already. I guess I am getting lazy.”

Victor tossed the shot of mescal down his throat and said in a raspy voice, “When do we go?”

Garza closed the safe and turned. “There are two FBI agents in Denton, this Bracco and his partner.”

Victor nodded tersely. “They want revenge for killing their fellow agents.”

“Yes,” Garza said. “But they are alone and desperate. They went into the Grill and shot up a bunch of customers, including the deputy.”

“How?”

“Like I say, they are desperate. They are alone and trying to lure me into their country.”

“Where are they now?”

“In a motel room waiting to die,” Garza said, filling the two shot glasses with mescal. “As soon as they are dead, we move.”

Victor held up his glass to toast his boss, but Garza hesitated and stared at Victor with a serious thought running through his mind.

“Listen,” Garza said, holding up his glass, but not ready to toast. “Anything ever happens to me, you promised you would take care of Julio.”

Victor smiled. “Of course, Jefe. He will always be well taken care of.”

The two men toasted their drinks and tossed them down. A sense of relief came over Garza as he picked up the remote and switched it to a Dodger baseball game. They were playing the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“Come,” Garza said, sitting in one of the two recliners. “Let us enjoy a few minutes of baseball before we earn our money.” Then he gestured at the bomb sitting next to them. “And make America a little more dangerous than it was yesterday.”

* * *

“He needs help,” Ken Morris said. “He’s trapped with a bunch of Garza’s men and needs a way out.”

Walt was behind his desk, watching the Mexican presidential debate on CNN when Ken called to give him the news. They’d finally had contact with the CIA operative below the border.

“But he’s still in Mexico?” Walt asked, turning down the volume on the wall TV.

“Yes, but if he gets even a slight opening, he’s going to take it.”

“So how can we help?” Walt asked.

“Where is Nick?”

“He’s close,” Walt said, watching prior footage of Sam Fisk shaking hands with Francisco Rodriguez like they were college roommates. “He has until midnight before we send in the troops.”

“Why are we waiting?” Ken asked, a level of frustration in his voice. “Let’s get down there and confiscate this device.”

“Because the device hasn’t crossed over the border yet,” Walt said. “And if we go barging in there, they’ll see us coming.”

“So?”

“So, Nick has a plan.”

There was silence for a few moments before the CIA Director said, “Walt, does this plan include a bit of revenge for what Garza did to Ricky and Jim?”

Walt jumped to his feet. The names of his slain team members bristled the hair on his neck. “This is my turf, Ken, and I run this operation the way I see fit. That area is walled off. No one gets in or out. This is still a nuclear device and we have to treat it with respect. We have to allow for the possibility this could be a suicide mission. If Nick tells me he needs another three and a half hours to get this done, then he gets it. No one is going to force me to make a bad decision and put more men and woman at risk.”

There was a short sigh on the other end of the line. “Okay,” Ken said. “It’s your game. Just do me a favor, Walt.”

“What’s that?” Walt asked, clenching his fist.

“If this device goes off on US soil, just remember who told you about it.”

Walt hung up the phone before he could respond to that. He stood there gripping his cell with enough strength to crush a walnut. Ken was wrong about the intel on the device, but that was getting at the heart of the matter. The FBI and CIA had budgets to consider and if one appeared weak or incompetent, then the budget committee would scrutinize the amount of funds they earmarked. Survival of the fittest.

Walt looked at the time, then stared at his phone, willing it to blink with a message from Denton. Was he giving Nick too much leeway?

“C’mon, you guys” he muttered. “Don’t get greedy. Just find the damn thing and get out.” But he knew they were trolling for sharks with chum around their necks. He also knew he was dealing with two alpha males who weren’t likely to forget what happened to their fellow agents.

Especially Jennifer Steele.

Carlos Grider slowed the Ford pickup as they approached the Denton Motel. The neon sign was missing a couple of letters, but it was still the only light coming from the building. The only other glow came from behind the curtains in room number eight. He had two friends in the cab and five in the back, waiting for his signal.

There was virtually no moon out, so Grider coasted in the dark, looking for anything suspicious. The office was already closed and the only car in the parking lot was the white BMW which belonged to the FBI agents. Mr. Chizek gave them direct instructions. Either kill the agents or die trying. There was no returning without succeeding with their chore.

He rolled the truck into the gravel parking lot, checking his rearview mirror to see Edgar Santos already with the rocket propelled grenade up on his shoulder. Before the clerk left for the day, he’d confirmed the two agents entered their room and now Carlos could see their outlines on curtains inside the room. One of them seemingly animated over something the other was saying.

Carlos slowed the truck until it was just twenty yards from the room. The agents’ shadows were clearer from this close and he was positive they were both there. Carlos stopped the truck, but kept idling. He checked up and down the road and saw nothing for miles, then waved his arm, signaling Edgar to take the shot.

The rest of the guys had their guns out all ready for a gunfight. They’d known about the one agent’s skill with a pistol, but there were eight of them now and they were all motivated to take the guy down.

Carlos waited, but he was impatient. “Let’s go,” he whispered, wondering what was taking Edgar so long to pull the trigger. The shadows were still there, but Carlos imagined them opening the door any minute. He heard voices from the room. The two agents were having a heated discussion.

Carlos was watching the argument when he heard the whistle and felt the heat of the rocket as it launched into the window and detonated. The explosion was instant and powerful, causing the entire wing of the motel to burst outward, sending flying shards of debris at the truck. Carlos covered his face with his arm and ducked as he was pounded by bits of glass and stucco. Some of the men in the back were screaming from excitement. In just a few seconds five of the motel rooms had completely disintegrated, like the remnant of a Midwest tornado strike.

As the debris still rained down, Carlos stepped on the gas pedal and jerked away from the site, his tires spitting gravel as it spun out of the parking lot, the guys in the back whooping and hollering as they hit the road.

Carlos took one last glance back at the decimated motel and knew even a cockroach wasn’t going to survive that blast. He pushed a button on his phone and smiled.

“Yeah,” answered a man with a beefy voice.

“They are dead, Mr. Chizek,” Carlos said.

“Are you sure?”

“Oh, yeah,” Carlos said, looking into his rearview mirror and seeing smoke drifting over the opening where a building once stood. “I’m sure.”

Chapter 27

President Merrick sat in the dark, his tie loose, his feet on the coffee table. He leaned back on the couch in the comfort of his private office and placed his hands behind his head. With the barrage of digital communications assaulting him twenty-four hours a day, he needed to shut down for a few minutes each night. He turned off his computer and his cell phone and attempted deep breathing exercises. Normally, he would take out a book and read for a few minutes before going to bed. But tonight would be different.

As he sat in the dark, his office door opened.

“Knock, knock,” a man’s voice said.

“I’ve been waiting for you.”

“What are you doing?” Sam Fisk asked.

“Rebooting.”

Fisk dropped in a chair opposite the couch with a heavy sigh.

“I saw your routine,” Merrick said. “Very convincing.”

“Somehow, I feel dirty,” Fisk said, just a silhouette in the dark.

“How was Salcido?”

“He took it well. I think he knows I’m up to something.”

Merrick grinned. “You’re always up to something, Sam. That’s why I like you.”

“How are things on the border?”

Merrick rested his head back even further and shut his eyes. “There’s a big dispute over how to proceed. Ken wants to send in the military and create a war zone. Walt wants Nick and Matt to do everything by themselves.”

“Since it’s on US soil, I take it you’re waiting for a phone call from Walt.”

Merrick thought about his daughter sleeping in the safest building in the country and wondered what kind of world she would inherit once the White House was no longer her residence.

“You know, Sam,” Merrick said. “Remember when all we had to worry about were the Russians?”

“Are you lamenting about the old days when you had to hide under your desk at school for bomb drills? Is that what you’re yearning for?”

“Killjoy.”

“I’m just a realist, Dad. Everything seems prettier once Father Time’s had a chance to shine it up.”

“Yeah, well, this Rodriguez is a bad man. If he wins the election down there, we might be wishing for Russian missiles.

“He won’t.”

“You haven’t seen the latest polls. He killed at the debate tonight. He’s almost ten points ahead.”

“Shit,” Fisk murmured.

“Exactly.”

They were quiet for a while. Two old friends comfortable with the silence between them. After a few minutes, Merrick couldn’t stay disengaged any longer. He turned on his cell phone and checked his messages. Nothing from Walt. He looked at the time.

“Less than three hours before Ken gets his wish and they swarm that little town with black helicopters and a few hundred soldiers.”

“Mind if I stay?”

“I wish you would.”

“Got anything to eat?”

“There’s pizza in the fridge.”

Fisk got up and carefully maneuvered around the furniture until he reached the small refrigerator next to Merrick’s desk. The door opened and the light broke through the dark. Fisk fished around until he found what he wanted.

“You want a water?” Fisk asked.

“I’m good.”

Fisk shut the refrigerator and managed to return to his chair in the shadows.

“You know, Sam,” Merrick said. “When this is over, we’ve got to find a way to make these agencies play nice together. Instead, they distribute intelligence like it’s a competitive sport.”

“That’s because it is.”

“Well it has to change. People are dead because the CIA won’t give out specific information about this imbedded agent.”

“Technically he’s a contracted employee.”

“It doesn’t matter. We needed that information.”

“I don’t think they have the info to give. I think they’re in the dark as well.”

Merrick could hear Fisk chewing his pizza.

“Tell me something, Sam. Now that you’ve met the guy, if Rodriguez wins, what are our chances of negotiating with him?”

Fisk choked on a piece of pizza. He drank some water and rasped out, “He’s an egomaniac with his hands in everyone’s pockets. You’d need to threaten him with something fierce or he’ll just continue to fortify the cartels’ power.”

Merrick looked down at his phone. Nothing. “Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“Amen, brother. Amen.”

“They are dead,” Sonny Chizek told Garza over the phone.

Garza let out a long breath and briefly smiled. “Good. We will be there within the hour.” He clicked off the Dodger game and gestured to Victor on the recliner across from him. “Go get our guest.”

Victor left and Garza’s stomach tightened as he glanced over at the bomb and once again considered its potency. He went over to the bar and slid a panel from the base of the structure which exposed a hidden keypad. He entered a series of numbers and a giant section of the basement wall began to recess into a false back. From behind the slab, a hydraulic arm hummed as it slid open the huge chunk of concrete, exposing a seven feet high by ten feet wide tunnel. The basement wall was creatively made with the concrete seams every ten feet to emulate a standard construction break.

The tunnel had taken forty men over a year to install. It had halogen lighting, ventilation, wood floors and an electric rail system used to roll the shipments the three hundred yards to its American destination.

Just inside the tunnel was the Zutons’ pallet of cocaine. Five of Garza’s men were already loading the packets of cocaine onto the flatbed cart for transport.

The basement door opened and a pair of footsteps creaked down the stairs. Garza poured another shot and downed the mescal while pointing Victor toward the tunnel entrance. Victor led Sadeem by the arm, as the blindfolded man felt the air ahead of him with his fingertips. Garza followed them into the tunnel pulling the dirty bomb inside, then pressed a button on the wall and watched the hydraulic arm move the slab back into place.

Once the wall was shut, Garza motioned Victor to remove the blindfold. The man stood with his shoulders tall, a look of irritation on his face.

“Is that how you treat your business associates?” Sadeem said. “Drive around the country in circles, then drop them into a tunnel?”

“Is that what you are?” Garza asked. “A business associate?”

Sadeem glanced around the tunnel, finding the bomb, then seeing the electric rails and the cart being loaded. He nodded to himself.

“This is impressive,” Sadeem said.

“I am so happy you approve,” Garza said, pushing Sadeem down onto a wooden bench against the wall.

Sadeem jumped back up and pumped out his chest. “Don’t,” he said. “I am not one of your lackeys you can push around.”

Garza felt the blood rushing to his head and wanted to slap this guy for making him so tense. He removed his knife from his belt holder, held it up, and slowly pressed the tip down Sadeem’s chest.

Garza looked the man in the eyes. “I want the address of your drop.”

Sadeem’s face held resolve which surprised Garza. The man was by himself in a tunnel with a knife against his chest, yet his expression didn’t waiver.

“There is no address, you fool,” Sadeem said. “This is a one way mission. I take the bomb and detonate it myself. You have the car waiting for me, correct?”

This was Garza’s main concern. A suicide bomber has no fear of dying and a man with no fear of dying is dangerous to anyone around him.

“Have you ever worked for the CIA?” Garza asked, just to see the man’s reaction.

Nothing.

“You imagine I am an American spy?”

“Only when I think about it,” Garza said.

“Do not get any funny ideas, Mr. Garza. Just because we paid you the money up front, does not mean you can go unsuccessful. My people are not with the American government, so we do not have any concerns of crossing the border to get to you. If I do not leave with the package tonight, there will be a team sent out by morning.”

The man was either telling the truth or the bravest spy Garza had ever seen. He lowered his knife and replaced it on his belt, then tapped his pants pocket. “I will keep your cell phone until we are on the other side,” Garza said.

“Very well,” Sadeem said, but with his first sense of hesitation. His eyes seemed to be judging something. Maybe the number of men around him. Maybe the amount of weapons.

Garza looked down at the bomb sitting there, waiting to cause havoc. He thought about Julio upstairs and how close he was to the device. Had he not been given the money first he probably wouldn’t have gone as far as he did. Between the nuclear device, the five million dollars and the FBI hunting him, he was feeling a pressure he’d never experienced before. The hum of the ventilation system added to his edginess.

On the floor next to Garza sat a stack of thick blankets. He picked one up and placed it into a second transport cart, then pointed to the bomb. “You can put it in the cart,” he said to Sadeem and watched the man lift the device with both arms and place it into the cart like he was carrying an infant. The man was surprisingly strong for his wiry body.

Once both carts were loaded, Garza pressed a button and the first cart began rolling on the rails. With a practiced routine, his men walked beside the cart with their assault rifles on their shoulders. Garza then rolled the second cart a few feet until it was on the live portion of the railing and it began to slowly roll down the tracks at the same walking pace. Garza gave Sadeem a slight push to get him going. The man turned with an angry glare, but didn’t resist the order to move with the cart.

Garza and Victor walked next to the rails behind Sadeem who seemed to be taking in the landscape with extreme interest. They didn’t have many guests inside the tunnel so it was the first time a visitor had seen the construction. As Sadeem seemed to examine the ventilation system, he glanced back at the two men and it caused Garza to remove his gun. Victor must have sensed the anxiety because he had his pistol at the ready as well.

“Where do you plan on taking the bomb?” Garza asked.

“You will have to read about it in the paper,” Sadeem said, casually.

A thought suddenly crossed Garza’s mind. “Just how do you plan on detonating the device?”

“With my cell phone,” Sadeem answered.

Garza felt his pocket to make sure he still had the suicide bomber’s phone. As they walked further down the tunnel, Garza noticed Sadeem’s pace slowing, leaving a gap between them and the lead group.

Victor was glancing at his cell phone as usual.

Garza shoved Sadeem with the tip of his gun and once more the man turned.

“Do not touch me again,” Sadeem demanded. “This is not a video game, Mr. Garza. Real people are going to die tonight and people like you who delegate your manhood for profit, will be left staring at an empty image in the mirror each day.”

Garza felt the man was beginning his descent into the next world already. He wasn’t even making sense now.

They continued deeper into the tunnel. Occasionally an overhead light flickered. Sadeem’s pace continued to slow, so Garza added another push of his gun to get him moving.

The man swung around and stepped toward Garza with determination on his face. Garza readied himself as the man approached.

A gunshot rang out in the tunnel and reverberated throughout the long underground tube. Garza’s men whirled and crouched into an attack position, their rifles ready to fire.

Sadeem fell to the floor. Another gunshot. Sadeem writhed in pain, clutching at his chest while a couple of dark stains grew on his white shirt. Victor stood with his arm outstretched and his gun still aimed at Sadeem.

“Why did you do that?” Garza asked.

Victor held up his cell phone with his free hand. “I just received word from a contact in Libya. Sadeem was the CIA plant. He was sent here to kill you.”

A sense of relief washed over Garza. Sadeem was a constant source of stress for him, but now he had to consider the reality of Victor’s actions.

Garza took a breath and watched the spy slowly slipping away on the floor of the tunnel. The man lifted his head to say something. He moved his lips, but nothing came out.

Garza looked at Victor. “I appreciate it,” he said. “But now what? We’ve already been paid to have this bomb detonated in the United States. A lot of money, I may add.”

“No,” Victor responded. “We were paid to transfer this man and his bomb across the border. Once he is there, we cannot control what he does.”

“Go ahead,” Garza said, liking what he was hearing so far. “Then what?”

“We drive his body and that bomb out into the desert,” Victor said. “We call our Border Patrol contact and have him send a man out to retrieve the body. While he’s there, he pumps the corpse full of bullets and finds this nuclear weapon in the trunk. The Border Patrol agent is a hero and we did our job. Everyone gets what they want. Back home, Sadeem is declared an incompetent.”

Garza watched the bomb still rolling away from them in the cart and gestured to his men. “Can you please stay with the weapon?” he asked in a fiery tone.

All five men scrambled back down the tunnel to catch up to the bomb.

“Okay,” Garza said to Victor. “Let’s get to work.”

Chapter 28

Sonny Chizek was in the recreation room of the Chizek Mine Company’s main building, walking around the pool table, looking for his next shot. He had his iPod playing on the overhead speakers while he stalked the nine-ball in the corner pocket. He was a heavy man so it allowed him great stability when he leaned over and drew back the pool stick between his large fingers. He hit the cue-ball with such force, it skidded sharply into the nine-ball and knocked it into the pocket so hard, it jumped up an inch before dropping in.

Chizek swaggered around the table, chalking the tip of his pool stick as Aerosmith wailed overhead. The recreation room was an open portion of the bottom floor with a pool table, a couple of vending machines, and a long countertop against a window overlooking Denton. Since the mine sat on a hill, the window offered Chizek a picturesque view of the Denton skyline at night.

Steven Tyler was screaming, “Walk this way,” as Chizek lined up his next shot. He slammed the cue-ball into the five-ball and almost sent it over the lip of the table into the dark fringes of the room. On the opposite wall from the window was a large industrial garage door which gave access to the loading dock just outside.

From a mile away, Chizek could see a truck’s lights coming up the solitary road which led to the mine; the road paralleled the Mexican border by just a few yards. He kept the interior lights low so he could keep an eye on the exterior of the building at all times.

Chizek grabbed his bottle of beer from a tall side table next to him and took a long drink. The truck stopped at the fenced-in entrance and blinked its lights. The lack of moonlight accented the truck’s headlights as Chizek pulled a remote control from his pocket and entered the four digit code. The gate opened and the truck found a parking space just below the window.

Chizek put down his beer and lined up another shot on the pool table. He cracked the six-ball against the cushion for a bank shot and watched it jump into the side pocket with a crisp thump.

A buzzer sounded and Chizek pushed a new set of numbers into the remote and the front door unlocked. Eight of his men came through the door, all smiles and looking for praise.

“Nice work,” Chizek said, giving Carlos Grider a fist bump.

“Edgar took the shot,” Carlos said, as he opened the fridge and handed out beers to the crew.

“Good job, Edgar,” Chizek said, over the sound of Joe Perry’s lead guitar. “Carlos, I need you to be ready for the delivery. The rest of you go scout the perimeter and make sure we remain alone.”

When the men left, Chizek glanced at the clock. “It’s nine thirty. They’re supposed to be here in a half hour.”

Carlos sat on a stool by the window and glowed in the aftermath of his accomplishment. He drank his beer while Chizek lined up another shot.

“How much will it cost me to repair the damage?” Chizek said.

“To the motel?” Carlos asked.

Chizek looked up. “What else did you damage along the way?”

Carlos gave an impish grin and shrugged. “Nothing else, I guess.”

Chizek tried a combination, hitting the three-ball into the eight-ball, but missed the mark. The balls scattered around the table, but didn’t fall in a pocket.

George Thorogood and the Destroyers were now playing “Bad to the Bone,” while Chizek strutted around the table, prowling his next shot and bobbing his round head to the beat of the drums.

“You did good, Carlos,” Chizek said. “We’ll have to get you a nice little bonus once this job is completed.”

“I like the sound of that,” Carlos said, raising his beer bottle up in a mock toast.

Chizek was mentally preparing for a special package. Garza had told him it was a volatile piece of merchandise, not the typical drug shipment. He’d hinted about its explosive nature, so Chizek didn’t have to guess it was a bomb. What bothered him the most was that Garza had paid him five hundred thousand dollars up front for the transfer. Ten times the going rate. It made him wonder how much Garza was making on the deal.

Chizek was lining up his next shot when the music overhead came to an abrupt halt. It left the cavernous room in barren silence. From the darkness came three figures, all dressed in black, with black ski masks covering their faces. They approached the pool table with a calm, unfettered stride. They didn’t wave any weapons. The one on the left had a pistol tucked into his waist, the one on the right had a black bag.

“How the fuck did you get in here?” Chizek snapped.

The one in the middle took off his ski mask.

A beer bottle crashed to the cement floor and echoed throughout the room. Carlos’s eyes widened in terror as he saw the man’s face. “No. . no, this can’t be. You can’t be. .”

Chizek gritted his teeth and glanced outside.

“They’re all dead,” Nick Bracco said.

Chizek gripped his pool stick and whacked Carlos on the side of the head. The guy went down fast; his arms covered his face as Chizek kept swinging the stick and connecting.

Bracco came over and yanked the pool stick from Chizek, getting between the two men.

“It’s not his fault,” Bracco said, throwing the pool stick into the darkness. He pointed to the guy with the black bag removing his mask as well. “That was all Stevie’s doing. He shot a hologram image against the curtain to make it look like we were inside the motel room. He blasted a recorded argument to go with it.”

The third guy removed his mask and Chizek recognized him as Bracco’s partner. The sharpshooter who had messed up his bar. The guy stood with his gun tucked into his waistband, almost daring Chizek to make a wrong move.

“Then Matt here shot his truck with a GPS device wrapped in an adhesive glue-ball,” Bracco added. “You surround yourself with suck-ups and it gives you a false sense of your intelligence.”

Chizek looked at the wall clock. Almost ten. Garza and his men would be arriving soon. He smiled at Bracco. “You have no idea how fucked you are.”

The FBI agent seemed to nod at that. “Yeah,” he said. “I think I know.”

Walt was still pacing with the phone in his hand, his long strides taking him around his office in just three or four seconds. With every minute that passed, he wondered the prudence of his strategy. Was he feeding his best agents to the wolves by letting them operate alone in the hostile environment of Denton, Arizona? Just a couple of miles from Mexico’s deadliest assassin.

His phone chirped.

FBI Agent Ron Mantle was calling from the Arizona barricade.

“What’s up, Ron?”

“We’ve got reports of an explosion at the Denton Motel. You know anything about that?”

Boy, was that a great question. That’s where Nick’s team was staying, but he had no idea whether they were there at the time. “I don’t,” Walt said.

“Well, you want us to head down there early?”

Walt looked at the clock on the wall. They were inside of two hours from Nick’s time limit. “Listen, Ron, how far are you from Denton?”

“Forty miles.”

“Okay, take one team down there with you. Drive an undercover car. No markings. Drive the speed limit.”

“All right,” Mantle said. “What about the rest of the crew?”

Walt chewed on his fingernail, then spit out a sliver. “Tell them to wait until the deadline.”

“Got it.”

“And, Ron.”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t cross the border, no matter what. You understand?”

“Whatever you say.”

Walt pressed the end button not sure if what he’d said was right or wrong. He’d lost sight of that line long ago. Now it was a matter of survival. How many lives could he save while keeping his team alive? He’d finally felt the weight of his decisions and dropped down into his chair; every limb was exhausted.

He leaned back and placed the phone to his forehead. “Please, guys. Just tell me what’s going on.”

Nick moved around the room, examining the contents, looking for something to tell him he was on the right track. His heart was running a little quick and he took a deep breath while searching for clues.

The guy who Chizek smacked was holding the side of his face, blood trickling between his fingers. Nick gestured to Stevie and he pulled something from his bag to take care of the guy’s wounds.

Bracco kept lurking around the pool table, his eyes darting left and right.

“What exactly are you looking for?” Chizek said, suddenly looking smug about the security of his facility.

“I won’t know until I find it,” Nick said.

“Well, the Border Patrol was just here a while back,” Chizek said. “They spent two days, scrutinizing every inch of this place. They had dogs and guys with black bags like him and you want to know what they found?” Chizek made a circle with his index finger and thumb. “Zilch.”

Nick kept looking. “Yeah, well, maybe you were tipped off ahead of time. Maybe the Border Patrol agents weren’t searching where they should’ve.”

Chizek chuckled. “Agent Bracco, you’re wasting your time as a government employee. You should be a fiction writer.”

The room was still while Bracco got on his knees and examined something on the floor near the base of the pool table. Something about the table bothered him. It sat on a wooden platform which served no purpose. The floor was cement, so there was no need to protect it from scrapes or scratches. He squeezed his finger under the platform and felt a crack in the cement. Maybe a forced break, maybe not.

He looked up to see Chizek acting casual, like he was having a cup of coffee with friends. Matt just kept staring at the guy, dying for him to do something stupid.

“He okay?” Bracco asked Stevie, working on Chizek’s henchman.

“He’ll be fine,” Stevie said.

“Good. Tie him up.”

Stevie sat the guy on a stool against the counter and pulled his hands behind his back and began taping him up.

His partner seemed to focus on a set of lights which stood out among the desert landscape. Garza’s complex.

“That’s Mexico,” Chizek told him. “No need to look over there.”

Matt said nothing, but Nick knew what his partner was thinking. There it was, beckoning him like a meteor being pulled into the earth’s gravity.

Nick was fighting time now. Within a couple of hours Garza would see the cavalry coming and scurry back into his hole. He’d be out of reach and untouchable. Nick wanted to lure him over the border and snatch him up before he was warned. Especially since Nick and Matt were now considered dead.

Nick found a remote control sitting on a side table next to Chizek’s beer. He held the device for a moment, then walked over to Stevie and handed it to him.

“Look at this,” he said.

Stevie removed a microscope from his black bag and placed it on the pool table. Then he slid the remote under the lens.

Chizek didn’t seem to like that move, but he wasn’t lawyering up, so he must’ve felt comfortable with everything so far.

“Three digits,” Stevie said, while staring through the single eyepiece. “That’s how many buttons are depressed routinely.”

“Good,” Bracco said. “That means there’s only six combinations of that sequence. Try all six.”

Stevie picked up the device and tried pushing the three numbers all different ways.

Nothing happened.

Chizek smiled, looking more confident with every minute that passed. “Do I need to be here while you do this?” he said. “I could use some beauty sleep.”

“You’re a funny guy,” Nick said.

Stevie kept playing with the remote while Nick pulled out his mini-flashlight and found a set of tracks on the floor leading to the garage doors on the north side of the room.

“You have a lot of mining equipment on this floor?” Nick asked.

“Nope,” Chizek said. “This is strictly the administrative wing of the building.”

“I see,” Nick said, following the tracks to the massive door and shining the light outside. “What’s the loading dock for then?”

Chizek hesitated before answering that.

Nick looked at him.

“We throw parties sometimes,” Chizek shrugged. “We need a wide access for our deliveries. Sometimes we’ll have a band play for the Christmas party.”

“Now who’s the fiction writer?” Nick said.

Chizek’s face became even wider, showing Nick a mouthful of teeth.

Stevie was back at the microscope, eyeing the remote again. “I think I know what’s going on,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“I think it’s a four digit number, but the first three are the same, that’s why they’re so worn. The fourth number is different for each command.”

Chizek’s smile vanished.

“Go on,” Nick said. “I’m listening.”

“Well, if I’m right about this,” Stevie said, taking the remote and holding it out in front of him. “I simply need to find the correct sequence for the first three digits, then keep trying a different fourth until I come up with a match.”

Chizek lost his enthusiasm altogether. He seemed to be checking out an exit strategy, but Matt was paying close attention.

Stevie played with the remote, pressing a sequence of numbers, then glancing around the room for activity.

Nothing.

“You look worried,” Nick said to Chizek.

The man stood there like a trapped squirrel.

Stevie tried a new sequence.

Nothing.

Nick pointed to Chizek and said to Matt, “Get him wrapped up, so we don’t waste any time.”

“You’re playing with fire, Agent Bracco,” Chizek said, taking a step back.

Chizek’s henchman also seemed concerned, but kept still.

“You need to work on your threats,” Nick answered, examining the room for movement every time Stevie tried a new sequence.

Matt secured the large man to a stool, wrapping his legs around the legs of the stool, then needing both arms to drag his bulk along the cement floor until he reached the refrigerator. He handcuffed the man to the handle of the fridge, then followed Stevie’s attempts.

Stevie held out his arm each time he imputed a new series of numbers. Now, he held it out and said, “Shhh.”

“What?” Nick asked.

“I hear something.”

Stevie repeated the sequence into the remote, then stood still. There was a distant creaking noise. Chizek pulled at his bindings, making noise as he rubbed the handcuffs against the refrigerator door.

Matt pulled out his pistol and aimed it at Chizek with an angry glare.

Chizek stopped.

Stevie did it again.

Again a scraping sound.

Finally, Matt pointed out the window. “There.”

The front gate was opening.

Stevie smiled.

Nick’s heart raced. He knew they were onto something. He pulled out his pistol and checked out his surroundings. He felt like they were being watched.

“Okay, Stevie,” Nick said. “Next number.”

Matt was on his toes now, prowling around the room with his Glock ready to go.

This time there was a single click coming from the entrance of the building.

Stevie pressed the buttons again and the same click. Matt went over toward the front door and gestured for Stevie to hit it again.

Click.

“It’s the lock on the front door,” Matt said from the darkness. “Try the next one.”

Stevie held out the remote and pressed the buttons.

The balls on the pool table began to tremble, then roll to the north side of the table. The floor seemed to move beneath their feet. The table itself began to shake and quiver as it rose from the cement, the hydraulic lift churning beneath it to move the massive piece of slate and wood.

Nick felt his pocket to see if he had any pills left. None. He could feel his head throb as the lift reached the pinnacle of it journey. The pool table stopped and exposed a giant opening in the earth below.

Nick crept up to the opening with wobbly steps, his gun out, his eyes peeled for the slightest movement. Matt was there instantly. He shined his flashlight down and said, “Oh my.”

There was a fairly wide tunnel in complete darkness, with an electric lift at the bottom and a metal ladder running down the side. Nick added his light to the mix, finding a pallet full of packages. His head pounded with needle-sharp pain when he spotted the Zutons’ wolf face logo wrapped around each package.

“See that?” he said.

“I see it,” Matt said. He reached back into Stevie’s bag and tossed a pair of night vision goggles to Nick, then slipped on his own pair. Before Nick could figure out a plan, his partner was climbing down the metal stairs, his gun out.

Nick grabbed Matt’s arm and was shaken off with lightning speed, like trying to hold back a hungry lion with a string-thin leash.

“Matt, wait,” Nick said.

“Wait, my ass.” Matt scowled at him. “I’ve waited too long already.”

Nick knew this was coming. Matt was below ground before he could react.

“Shit,” Nick said, slipping on night vision goggles and heading down the ladder. Just before he went below, he said to Stevie. “You stay here and watch these guys. Don’t come down no matter what.”

“Do I call Walt?” Stevie asked.

Nick was three steps down the ladder, then came back up and said, “Yeah, call Walt.”

Matt was down in just seconds, Nick close behind, wanting to stop him, but realizing now their biggest commodity was silence. They had obviously found Garza’s conduit to the United States and needed stealth to survive the discovery. He glanced quickly at the pallet of packages. Cocaine. Maybe half a ton.

Matt crept up against the wall and Nick mirrored his pace against the opposite side. As they moved away from the opening, the night vision goggles kicked into gear. Through the lenses, the green image showed a highly sophisticated passageway with wooden floors and a rail system to transport drugs into the country.

They took slow steps as they advanced down the tunnel. The air was musty and cool. The passage was wide and tall enough to move without crouching. As they moved deeper into the tunnel, the light began to dissipate. Even the night vision goggles were needing more illumination. Matt gently snapped his fingers and pointed to his headset. Nick understood. He turned on his infrared illuminator to intensify their ability to see.

In the middle of the rail, an object came into view. Matt was a few steps ahead of him and he was pointing furiously at the object. After a couple of steps, Nick saw that it was a cart. Inside the cart sat an object the size of a large guitar case. Except it was wrapped in black tape.

The bomb.

For a moment, Nick thought they should get the bomb out of there and finish their mission. But the moment passed as Matt’s silhouette faded into the darkness. As much as his partner was blinded by revenge, he couldn’t leave him down here by himself.

Nick kept his head on a swivel, keeping his eyes as far ahead as the lenses would allow, but watching the wall as well, looking for an ambush. Matt’s pace began to quicken and Nick felt they were being lured somehow, as if Garza knew they would be coming eventually.

The tunnel was deadly quiet. Their footsteps creaked slightly with each step. Something up ahead moved. Matt held up his hand and Nick stopped. The noise was coming toward them. Nick squinted, but saw nothing. Getting closer now, Nick squeezed the handle of his gun, ready to fire.

The movement came at him quickly, low, at his feet. He nearly fired his gun, before capturing the image of a rat scampering along the side of the wall, bristling against his pant leg as it scurried between his feet. Matt had already tracked the rat with his pistol and shook his head as Nick tried to get his breathing under control. He looked back and saw how far they’d gone from the opening, realizing they would be passing over the border soon.

Nick’s pulse pounded in his ear as he tried to match the cadence of Matt’s stride, keeping the noise of their footsteps to a minimum. Another object came into view through the infrared illuminator. It was on the floor on Matt’s side of the tunnel. A male body. As his partner approached the man, he leaned over and felt the neck. He examined the corpse through his goggles which were becoming increasingly more difficult to see as the light diminished even further. He turned to Nick and shook his head.

Matt stepped over the corpse and continued on. Nick didn’t know if it was the confined quarters or his PTSD, but he found it harder to breathe as well. He felt drops of sweat trickle down his temple as his gun hand began to tremble. He couldn’t afford an attack. Not now. But Dr. Morgan had warned him about the possibility under extreme stress.

There was a sound ahead. It wasn’t a mechanical sound, but a thicker, more complex noise. Matt must’ve heard it too, because he stopped and lowered himself into a crouched position. The movement continued on for a few more seconds, then stopped. It was probably only twenty yards ahead of them, but still outside the reach of their vision.

A powerful light pelted Nick’s eyes and temporarily blinded him as he squeezed his eyelids shut and threw off the night vision goggles. He tried to open them, but immediately squinted into submission. The intensity had assaulted his pupils and forced him to crouch down with his head between his knees.

From next to them, he heard an ominous voice crack the silence of the tunnel.

“Welcome to Mexico,” the voice said.

The voice had power and confidence and Nick was certain it was surrounded by a large supply of armed soldiers. It was the voice of death.

Nick heard Matt murmuring curses, obviously just as blind as Nick. The overhead lights had come to life and left them helpless.

“I would drop those guns now if you would like to survive a few more seconds,” Antonio Garza said. “I will allow you a proper good-bye. One deserving of a respected government agent.”

Nick dropped his gun, but didn’t hear Matt’s gun land. His eyes began to adjust. Through squinted vision, he was able to see Matt crouched down, his gun still in his right hand.

“Please, Mr. McColm, do not try any of your Mad Max crap,” Garza said. “It will only quicken your death.”

Nick could see Garza now, standing behind a tall man with his rifle pointed at Matt. There were another five soldiers with their assault rifles also trained on his partner. They were never going to survive this encounter and Nick knew this was their only chance to take Garza with them. Matt was capable of taking three or four down in just a second.

“Shoot him,” Nick urged.

Matt seemed to examine the entourage of weapons facing them and his expression lost all its vengeance. As if he’d resigned himself to the fact they were leaving this earth and might join Jennifer Steele in a better place.

“Shoot, damn it!” Nick shouted now, his voice bouncing off the walls.

Matt held out his gun with two fingers. As the weapon fell to the floor, Nick’s heart dropped into his stomach and immediately thoughts of Julie and Thomas flooded his mind. The ones he’d left behind.

“Good boy,” Garza said. “Now, let’s step inside and have us a quick drink.”

The group of soldiers spread apart and left a path to an opening in the tunnel forty yards away. Nick and Matt walked between the soldiers, getting some shoves along the way.

As they stepped up through the opening, Garza gestured to a couple of wooden chairs waiting for them in the middle of the room. The soldiers patted them down thoroughly, then pushed them into the seats, while Garza walked over to a bar and poured a drink into a shot glass. One of the soldiers began tying Nick’s hands behind his back with bailing wire while Garza’s main enforcer tied up Matt’s. The soldier squeezed Nick’s wrists so tight, he instantly lost feeling in his fingers. The wire dug into his skin and his capillaries began seeping blood down his hands. The more he tried to fight, the more pain it caused.

Garza raised his shot glass and said, “This one is for you, Victor.” He pointed to a TV screen hanging on the wall and added, “He’s the one who suggested we monitor the mine for company.”

On the screen was a clear image of Stevie sitting on the pool table, talking on his cell phone with his gun at Chizek, who looked smug as ever.

Garza downed his drink, then went behind the bar to produce a chainsaw with red stains and bits of meat clinging to its teeth. “And it was Victor’s idea to lure you into our basement,” Garza said, casually plugging the power cord into the wall. El Carnicero.

Victor acknowledged Garza’s words with a terse nod, then grabbed his assault rifle and looked at their hostages with a penetrating glare.

Once Nick and Matt were tied up, Garza reached behind the bar and seemed to press something. A moment later, there was a mechanical noise while the basement wall began sliding back into place. The wall groaned until it slammed shut like a tomb. All the marines in the world couldn’t save them now.

Garza turned to Matt and sighed. “Revenge is a dangerous aphrodisiac, my friend,” he said, almost looking remorseful.

Nick felt a spike of bile rise up and attack his throat. He forced himself to hold it down, his chin quivering with the need to vomit. He exchanged glances with Matt. A tacit good-bye. In a way, Nick was glad they were together at the end, the way it should be.

Victor stood in front of the two agents and kept his rifle trained on them. He gestured with his head to the other soldiers. “Get upstairs,” he ordered. “Make sure the perimeter is secure. We don’t want any surprises.”

The soldiers immediately stomped up the stairs without hesitation.

Garza held up the chainsaw and smiled. “My father was a master butcher. He always warned me about using chainsaws to cut up the cows. He said it left bone chips in the meat.” Garza shrugged. “That’s where he and I disagreed. I could cut up a cow in half the time it took him with a band saw.”

El Carnicero put on a pair of safety goggles and turned on the chainsaw, holding it up with experienced dexterity. The high-pitched motor pierced the room, the chain rattling with anticipation. Nick thought about pushing off the chair. He needed Victor to shoot him, get it over quick, before the pain began. Garza was known for prolonging the torture for hours, even days, leaving a victim to watch their body parts torn from their torso until the heart could no longer support the remaining organs.

Garza turned off the chainsaw and held the handle at his side. By his expression, Nick could tell he was extending his sick pleasure, enjoying the moment as long as possible.

“Do not worry about the noise,” he said. “The room is soundproof.” He turned to pour another drink into his shot glass.

Nick was ready to roll off the chair, maybe push quick enough to force Victor to fire at him. The man was watching him carefully, prepared to make it happen. Nick’s brain was flush with neurons firing and blood rushing and floaters skewing his vision. His body was all ready to shut down. Before it malfunctioned completely, he needed just enough energy to cause the gunshot.

Garza tipped his head back and dumped the drink down his throat.

Nick blinked back tears of frustration. He’d allowed them to be trapped and suddenly wanted more than anything to say good-bye to Julie. He was going into shock and needed to control his breathing and regain his composure.

Nick realized his brain had been completely corrupted, though, when he saw Matt stand up.

Garza was wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, when Matt kicked the chainsaw from the assassin’s hand and grabbed him around the throat. Nick had to blink a couple of times to be sure it was really happening.

Garza looked confused as Matt’s grip forced his upper body to bend unnaturally backward, over the bar. As Garza fought off Matt’s attack, he glared at Victor through the corner of his eye. He tried to say something, but his windpipe was crushed.

Matt punched Garza straight-on and drew blood from the assassin’s nose, while Victor stood there with his rifle out in a firing position.

Nick watched like he was at a movie theatre, his mind not able to comprehend what he was seeing.

Garza hit Matt with an uppercut and dazed him. Matt lost his grip for a moment and Garza looked at his enforcer with fire in his eyes.

“Victor!” Garza shouted. “Shoot him. Now.”

Matt kicked Garza in the chest and forced him up against the bar, his back cracking with the collision.

“His name is not Victor, you piece of shit,” Matt snarled at him.

Garza looked puzzled.

Matt connected with a roundhouse kick to the side of the head which buckled Garza’s knees.

“His name is Marco Diaz,” Matt sneered. “We were in the same Special Forces Unit together. A brotherhood which can’t be washed off with money or power.”

At the same moment Nick put it together, the reality came to Garza’s startled face. Victor was the CIA’s plant.

That’s when Matt moved in and pummeled Garza with a barrage of punches. The fury came out of him with rapid combinations. One to the head, then the body, then two to the head. Whack. Whack. Whack. Whack. The sound of knuckles hitting flesh filled the room, while Garza’s body reacted to every punch like a crash test dummy.

From behind him, Marco Diaz said, “That’s enough, Matt.”

But Matt didn’t stop. He kept punching, uttering small sounds of grief as he pounded the assassin until Garza finally slumped to his knees. Every time Matt connected, he muttered, “Jimmy,” then, “Ricky,” then “Jennifer,” purging the anguish from his heart. Garza’s bloody face held no sense of comprehension. He lingered on his knees with vacant eyes, then collapsed forward onto the floor.

Matt stood over the man with pent up anger still oozing from his soul, breathing like he’d just sprinted a marathon.

Marco came behind Nick with a pair of wire cutters and snapped his wrists free. Nick rubbed his wrists, smearing blood all over his hands and grateful for the opportunity.

Matt seemed to notice his Special Forces teammate for the first time. He took two long, exasperated steps toward Marco and wrapped his arms around the man’s shoulders in a bear hug.

“When I saw you in the tunnel. .” Matt gasped. “I thought I was seeing things.”

“I know, buddy.” Marco patted Matt on the back, then pulled away to look him in the eyes. “I am so sorry.”

He didn’t need to finish. They all knew what he meant.

Matt nodded and gave Marco a crooked smile. “We got the bastard, didn’t we?”

“That’s right,” Marco said. Then his face turned serious. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

Nick’s mind began to clear. “What about the bomb?”

Marco rolled over Garza and pulled a cell phone from his pocket and handed it to Nick. “Here’s the detonator. It’s not on a timer, so we should be okay. But the sooner the bomb squad gets to it, the better.”

Nick checked Garza’s pulse. The assassin would survive the beating. Barely. He patted Garza’s body and removed a gun and a blade from his belt holster. On the TV screen, a squad of soldiers were already flooding into the mine, following Stevie’s arm as he pointed down the tunnel entrance.

Marco went behind the bar and pushed a button. A second later the hydraulic wall began to open. Then he came over and pulled Garza up to hoist him over his back and carry him into the tunnel and drop him into an open cart.

“Tell me something,” Nick said. “Is Decker on his payroll?”

Marco nodded, then pulled out his own cell phone. “It’s all right here. You’d be surprised how high it goes.”

Marco suddenly ran up the stairs, two steps at a time.

“Where you going?” Matt asked.

“Give me thirty seconds,” Marco said, then shut the door behind him.

Nick grabbed Matt’s arm. “You okay?”

Matt’s eyes glistened from the emotional strain he’d just endured. It must’ve been therapeutic, however, because Matt grinned for the first time in days. “I’m okay,” Matt said.

The basement door opened. Nick grabbed Garza’s gun and readied himself, until Marco came down the stairs, holding a young boy in his arms. The boy was still half-asleep and in his pajamas. He was rubbing his eyes when Marco gently placed him on his feet next to Matt.

Nick raised his eyebrows at Marco.

“I keep my promises,” Marco said, running behind the bar and pulling open a knife display on the wall.

“What’s your name?” Matt asked.

“Julio,” the boy said, softly.

Marco returned holding a briefcase in his right hand. “C’mon,” he said, grabbing Julio and tossing him over his shoulder. “Let’s go home.”

“What’s that?” Matt asked, pointing to the briefcase.

Marco smiled. “We’ll talk.”

Chapter 29

The East Room of the White House was a large, high-ceiling room, elegantly decorated with chandeliers and gold curtains. Because of its size, it was used for special ceremonies, entertaining dignitaries and the occasional dinner. This time the large room was set up for a special press conference.

Behind the podium, in a walkway, hidden from the crowd of reporters, Samuel Fisk stood still while a couple of White House aides groomed him. One woman patted his face with a round sponge pad, while a male aide fixed his tie.

President Merrick lingered next to him, examining the sheet of paper containing Fisk’s opening statement.

“You ready for this?” Merrick asked.

“I’m a little hungry.”

“Of course you are.”

Merrick seemed to scrutinize the speech until he dropped the paper by his side and looked at the two aides. “Are we about done here?”

In a matter of seconds, Fisk and Merrick were left alone. The only sound came from the gaggle of reporters milling around, anticipating the sudden press conference.

“What about the bomb?” Merrick asked in a soft voice.

“What bomb?” Fisk replied, with an innocent expression.

While Merrick stared, Fisk could see the wheels turning inside.

“So, we don’t mention it?” Merrick asked.

“Why?” Fisk said. “Nothing good could come from it.”

Merrick nodded. “You think this United Palestinian Force is finished?”

Fisk wiped his hands in the air. “They’re done,” he said. “They’ve exhausted all their resources and their top three officials have been spotted leaving Israel. Why kindle a fire which is already dead?”

Merrick cracked a smile and handed the briefing notes back to Fisk. He slapped his friend on the arm and said, “Go get ’em, Tiger.”

* * *

Francisco Rodriguez sat on his leather couch with his feet up on the ottoman smugly watching his wall TV screen. The American Secretary of State was about to give a press conference and his sources had told him the Secretary would be announcing the President’s endorsement of the Mexican candidate for president. Rodriguez was already fifteen points ahead in the polls with less than a week before the election. No matter who the United States decided to endorse, the outcome was in little jeopardy. In fact, his advisors were even suggesting he would benefit more from a Salcido endorsement.

Rodriguez was in the upstairs loft of his mansion, where he entertained guests and spent most of his down time relaxing. Two of his advisors were sitting on the couch alongside him, with drinks clinking in their hands. Three members of his security team stood in their defensive positions, by the door, the window and the back of the room.

On the screen, Secretary of State Samuel Fisk approached the podium to a cacophony of camera flashes and shuffling feet and electronic devices being switched on or off.

Fisk offered a genial wave, instructing the crowd to settle down.

“I have a brief statement,” Fisk said. “After that I’ll answer any questions you may have.”

Fisk glimpsed down at his notes, but Rodriguez knew there would be a teleprompter there as well to assist him. “The President has deliberately shied away from commenting on the upcoming election down in Mexico,” Fisk began.

“This is true,” Rodriguez said, holding up his glass of whiskey and taking a sip.

“But the recent events which occurred down in Denton, Arizona, have caused the President to favor one of the candidates and felt it was worthy of note.”

Fisk, of course, was referring to the news that a tunnel was discovered between Antonio Garza’s complex and the Chizek Mine Company and the shipment of cocaine which was confiscated in the process.

“Over the past few weeks we’ve been able to infiltrate the most powerful cartel currently operating in Mexico. The Zutons,” Fisk continued. “This organization has been responsible for over five thousand murders during the past decade and are becoming only more dangerous with every passing day. It is with this in mind which had us form an alliance with a great leader below the border. This man was able to penetrate the Zutons’ inner circle and offer confidential intelligence which allowed us the ability to find the Denton tunnel and seize the large amount of cocaine which was recently impounded.”

This was excellent news for Rodriguez. If President Salcido were known to have collaborated with the United States to undermine the Zutons’ influence, he would be considered a great traitor. Did the American President not realize the importance of patriotism within his country?

Fisk cleared his throat and took a sip from a small bottle of water. “This brave man has used his close relations with these cartels to turn over valuable information leading to numerous arrests, including the capture of one of the most dangerous assassins in the world, Antonio Garza.”

Rodriguez was shaking his head now, wondering if Salcido was aware of this press conference ahead of time. Surely he must understand he couldn’t possibly survive this announcement. There wouldn’t be enough protection in the world to prevent the Zutons from chopping his body into small pieces.

“It is the reason I made a special trip to Mexico recently to speak with this gentleman,” Fisk continued. “He was instrumental in our covert operation and will continue to be an enormous teammate in our fight against the cartels.”

At this point the screen split in half, showing the Fisk press conference on the left half and the right half showing file footage of Fisk’s visit with the two Mexican presidential candidates. Fisk was sitting next to President Salcido with a stiff back and a very formal expression common among two leaders who’d never met before.

“So it is with great pleasure,” Fisk said, “to announce that President Merrick will be endorsing Francisco Rodriguez for President of the great nation of Mexico.”

Rodriguez’s mouth hung open. “What did he say?” Rodriguez asked.

On the screen now was footage of Fisk’s recent visit with Rodriguez, sitting next to him with his arm around Rodriguez, laughing and smiling. Rodriguez would dip his head close to Fisk’s ear because of all the noise in the room, making it seem as if he was talking secretively. He suddenly remembered Fisk constantly speaking soft to Rodriguez. Too soft at times.

“No, no!” Rodriguez shouted. He stood up and found everyone in the room staring at him. “What are you looking at? He is lying.”

Fisk was now giving details of the subversive plot Rodriguez had devised to infiltrate the Zutons’ followers and gain the confidence of their lesser known gunmen.

Rodriguez felt his pulse pounding in his head, while his chest convulsed erratically.

“No, this is all a big conspiracy!” Rodriguez called out, throwing his glass of whisky at the TV and shattering the flat panel screen.

His security team observed him like a zoo animal, not knowing what to believe.

Rodriguez had to think fast. With each passing moment, Fisk was offering more evidence of his imaginary scheme.

He pointed his finger at his lead security agent. “Go get the car and bring it around back.”

The man hesitated, uncertainty on his face.

“Now!” Rodriguez yelled.

The man exited the room, leaving an awkward void behind.

The remaining occupants simply stared at Rodriguez with a trace of pity in their eyes.

Chapter 30

Nick and Matt watched the Diamondbacks play the Dodgers from Nick’s couch; they rested their stocking feet on the coffee table and sipped beers, while Tommy and Julie played with Thomas on the floor in front of them.

Thomas anxiously crawled to Tommy with a big toothless smile and drool glossing up his lips. Julie looked on with a mother’s joyful expression as her son reached for Tommy.

“He loves you,” Matt said.

“He knows good people when he sees them,” Tommy cracked, a bandage still covering his chin and forehead to protect the stitches.

The Diamondbacks’ new second baseman lined a double to right field and scored two base runners. Thomas briefly turned his head as the crowd cheered through the TV.

Nick took a drink of his beer, then raised his bottle to receive a clink from Matt’s bottle. The two partners were taking some down time together, Nick trying to keep an eye on Matt to make sure he recovered from the loss of Jennifer Steele.

“You know,” Matt said, quietly, “she was the only woman I ever said, ‘I love you,’ to.”

Nick had been reading up on how to deal with the death of a loved one. He knew Matt wasn’t going to get professional help, so he needed to administer some of his own.

“She was special. No doubt,” Nick said. He let it hang there for a while. If it were a month from now, Nick would’ve added, “But you’re not even forty yet.” However, it was too soon for his partner to be thinking of the future. He needed to grieve and Nick was going to be there for him every step of the way.

“You want another beer?” Nick asked, getting up.

“Sure,” Matt said.

Tommy was racing in circles now with Thomas cradled in his arms, squealing with delight.

As Nick reached the refrigerator, his cell phone vibrated in his pocket. When he saw the name, he walked out the back door and pushed the on button.

“Hey, Walt,” Nick said.

“They found Rodriguez’s body in the middle of a busy street. He was naked and missing a few limbs.”

Nick shook his head in amazement. “Wow. How long did it take for the Zutons to get to him-four hours?”

“If that long.”

“Are they going to delay the election?” Nick asked.

“They’re not changing a thing.” Walt said. “By the way, Ken seems to think there’s a large amount of money missing from Garza’s compound. He says the UPF paid Garza five million dollars to move the bomb. You know anything about that?”

Nick looked over his shoulder at the house where Thomas had just screamed out a cry of laughter. He was so glad to be able to hear his son and know he was safe and in the arms of his cousin.

“Yeah,” Nick said. “I just spent three million of it on diapers and formula.”

“That’s not what I was saying,” Walt said, sounding disappointed. “I just thought you might’ve had a hunch.”

“My hunch,” Nick said, “is that Garza probably buried it out in the desert somewhere.”

“Exactly what I was thinking,” Walt said. Then his tone changed. “How is Matt?”

Nick saw some movement in the darkness of the woods behind the house, his investigative nature taking over, his heart rate increasing. “He needs some time,” Nick said. “He’ll be staying with us for a while.”

“Sure,” Walt said.

“How about Julio?”

“Marco is adopting him,” Walt said. “Apparently Garza really loves that kid and insists Marco take him. Especially since Garza will never see the outside of a prison again.” Walt stopped for a moment and added, “How are you doing?”

Nick squinted as a neighbor’s dog came trotting out of the woods wagging his tail. He took a deep breath and said, “I could use a break too.”

There was a long pause.

“Walt?”

“Well, there is something else brewing,” Walt said.

“Yeah?”

Walt hesitated. After a few seconds, he said, “Forget it. I need you guys rested up.”

But Nick already knew they would be talking about this again. After a couple of weeks at home, Nick and Matt would be climbing the walls, and by the silence on the other end of the line, Walt seemed to know it too.

“Hey,” Walt said. “You need to get back to your family. Tell Julie I said hi. We’ll finish this conversation some other time.”

Nick shut his eyes and rubbed the back of his neck. “That’s the problem,” he said. “We will never finish this conversation.”

Epilogue

Susan Walker had watched the two boys acting casual as they passed the orphanage for the third time. Nairobi was a hard enough place to raise HIV babies, but when scavengers were casing her garden, Sarah went into protective mode. Her shack was made from cardboard and mud with a sheet of corrugated tin acting as a roof, but it was home to over fifty abandoned children who needed her support.

On the side of the orphanage was a garden surrounded by a plastic sheet to keep the rodents and thieves out. There was spinach and spring onions among others, but her prized possessions were the sweet potatoes which were just about to be harvested.

One of the boys was checking out for onlookers, while the other came up closer to the garden. They didn’t notice Susan on her knees, tilling the dirt with a hand trowel. She took her largest sweet potato and came to her feet.

The boy heading toward the garden froze.

Susan held out the sweet potato and nodded. The boy looked back at his friend who gave him a look of approval.

As the boy approached Susan, she handed him the prime catch and said, “I see you rummaging through my garbage at night. I don’t have much, but next time, come to me and I’ll help as best I can. Okay?”

The boy looked astonished to hear such an offer. He snatched the potato from her outstretched hand and walked backwards, as if Susan might turn on him. After a few steps, the boys ran silently on their bare feet down the dirt path like jewel thieves being chased by the law.

Susan sighed. She had so many needs, but the slums of Nairobi had no middle class. The adults in the area knew of her quandary and tried to protect the orphanage from scavengers, but the young kids with their hungry stomachs only knew survival and hadn’t yet discovered the etiquette of the slums.

“Susan,” a female voice called from the shack’s front doorway. “Your formula has arrived.”

“Oh, thank goodness,” Susan said, brushing off the dirt from her knees and heading inside.

The front room held the older children who watched out for straying toddlers who might wander into the street. Susan patted one of her ten-year-olds on the head as she passed and went through the nursery where several of the nine infants were at different stages of crying from their basinets. Susan could tell by the tone this was their hungry cry, and although her order of formula was three days late, she was grateful to see the box sitting on the floor in her office.

The room was no more than a closet where she would sit on an upside down bucket and scribble her letters to different organizations for funding which would never come. But Susan was the ultimate optimist. She had to be, because no one else was.

She tore open the box from America and as she ripped apart the inner packaging, she stopped. Inside the box was a briefcase. Susan’s heart dropped as she realized this wasn’t the formula for her babies. She tried to contain herself as the infants next to her sobbed. She immediately considered where she could scrounge up enough milk to make a diluted version of lunch.

Susan snapped apart the latches and opened the briefcase. She pressed a hand to her mouth and shrieked. Inside the briefcase were stacks of hundred dollar bills. Too many stacks. She touched one of the piles with trembling fingers. It looked real. She tried to imagine the amount and quickly realized it must’ve been millions.

Just then an eighteen-month-old girl with chocolate brown skin staggered up to Susan wearing nothing but a diaper. Susan scooped her up and dropped the girl on her knee.

“Hey there, Tasha,” Susan said, following the toddler’s eyes to the briefcase.

“Yes,” Susan said. “It’s a gift from God.”

Tasha lifted an envelope from the mound of money and shook it.

“What’s this?” Susan asked, taking a pack of bills and handing it to the girl in trade for the envelope. The girl seemed agreeable to the exchange.

Susan opened the envelope and read the note inside:

HUG A BABY FOR ME.

LOVE, TOMMY

Susan’s eyes filled with tears. She couldn’t even dream of what this meant for her children. Susan coddled Tasha in her arms. “Baby, I think we’re going to get you some shoes today.”