Two months of planning, two days for the execution, Operation Heatwave had commenced.
More than 150 police officers and federal agents from every major law enforcement organization coordinated to serve active warrants on violent criminals in the largest sweep to date in San Antonio, Texas. Newly minted FBI Agent Lucy Kincaid was thrilled to have been chosen to participate in the action, though it wasn’t a surprise—half the Violent Crimes Squad had been tagged. The sweep landed on her three-month anniversary as a sworn FBI agent; ever since her arrival in San Antonio ten weeks ago, she’d been working on this operation.
They were starting at five o’clock Saturday morning and would be working for sixteen hours straight, then start again at five a.m. Sunday. A separate processing center had been set up for those arrested in the sweep. The task force had processed over seven thousand active state and federal warrants to narrow and prioritize cases to those where they had verified intelligence on fugitives’ whereabouts, focusing on the most dangerous predators.
Lucy had been briefed and trained, but the execution was far bigger and more intense than she imagined. She and her team would serve the warrant, search the property, arrest the fugitives, and then turn them over to a patrol unit for processing while the team moved to the next target.
DEA Supervisory Agent Brad Donnelly headed Lucy’s group of ten cops—eight on the ground and two in the tactical van. Quiroz from her unit was the only other FBI agent. The van was manned by two Bexar County Sheriff’s deputies.
Working with so many different levels of law enforcement had been overwhelming at first, but she loved that she could jump in with both feet and learn as she worked. She realized quickly that she didn’t love being stuck in her cubicle at headquarters. Ryan Quiroz was a great partner to learn from—he’d been a cop in Houston prior to joining the FBI and seemed to know almost everyone they encountered. He reminded Lucy of her brother Connor—a bit hotheaded and arrogant, but as sharp as they came. And there was the added benefit that everyone liked him, so his goodwill rubbed off on her.
The first house they targeted Saturday morning was textbook. The low-level drug dealer gave up without fanfare. At the second house, the suspect wasn’t home. They did a routine search, but the girlfriend (ex-girlfriend according to her) told them she’d kicked him to the curb the week before for stealing from her.
At a staging area near the third target house, Team Leader Brad Donnelly gave a brief rundown of the situation, though they’d been given a file the night before on the targets.
“You know who we’re looking for—George and Jaime Sanchez. Brothers, twenty-nine and twenty-six, respectively. You have their photos; know them. They are considered armed and dangerous.”
The Sanchez brothers had missed their court date on an attempted murder charge. That they’d been out on bail in the first place had been a stunner to the prosecution, who thought they’d had a high enough bail to prevent their release. But the money was there, and now they weren’t.
“We have information that they‘re staying with their sister, Mirabelle Sanchez Borez. She has a rap sheet but no active warrants. She’s hostile, but we’re hoping she won’t cause a fuss—she has two young girls and seems to have kept her nose clean for the last few years. Her crime, if any, is harboring her fugitive brothers. We have a warrant to search her house.”
San Antonio Police Officer Crane scowled. “Bastards got Easy Axe. Should never have been let out of a cage.”
“Easy Axe?” Lucy asked.
“Judge Eleanor Axelrod,” Crane said with a snort. He was about to continue, but Donnelly cut him off.
“This is a gang-related battle, not directly Texas Mexican Mafia, but the Sanchezes may have gone over or have an allegiance agreement. The younger brother has extensive ties to the drug cartels in Mexico, and we believe that he’s the one who took the hit on one of the TMM’s rivals. It’s going to continue to escalate if we don’t shut this down.”
Donnelly looked at Lucy. “Kincaid, you’re with me this time, you and French. If the girls are in the house, and we believe they are, they may only speak Spanish. They’ll be more comfortable with a female Spanish-speaking cop.”
“Quiroz, you’re with Crane and Everston in the back. Rollins and Butcher, back me up. If sister answers the door, I’ll be sending her to you to secure. Our intelligence says that there are only those five people inside, three adults and two children. However, the brothers are prone to bringing home women, so there may be others—hostile or a package, I don’t know.”
That was a new one for Lucy—Donnelly was the only person she’d met who’d called hostages “packages.” But she wasn’t surprised—every unit seemed to have a different term for suspects and for innocents.
“Questions?” Donnelly asked.
“Age of the minors?” Quiroz asked.
“Seven and eleven.”
Crane said, “Let’s rock-and-roll.”
They were in full protective gear, except for helmets. As soon as they left the tactical truck they fanned out to their assigned posts. Donnelly rapped loudly on the door. “Federal agents, we have a warrant. Open the door.”
There was movement inside, and Lucy saw a pair of large, round brown eyes looking at her through the blinds. She motioned to Donnelly, and he nodded that he’d seen the child.
Donnelly repeated the command in Spanish and Lucy winced. His Spanish was rough and threatening. She took the liberty of talking to the girl directly.
“My name is Lucy, and it would help if you could open the door, please,” she said in Spanish. “Your mommy isn’t in any trouble. But we need to come in.”
It was clear Donnelly didn’t understand exactly what she said, but the girl did, and she dropped the blinds. She undid the chain before a loud female voice shouted in Spanish, “Bella! Get away from the door!” Then she shouted at Donnelly in English, “Go away, you got nothing on me.”
“Ms. Borez, we have a warrant for the arrest of George Sanchez and Jaime Sanchez. We know they’re inside.”
“They’re not here.”
“We need to come in and look for ourselves.”
“I don’t have to let you in. I know my rights.”
“We have a search warrant, Ms. Borez. Make this easy on yourself and your kids.”
In her earpiece Lucy heard Crane say, “One of the suspects is climbing out the bathroom window.”
“Rollins, you and Butch take him,” Donnelly said into his mike. He nodded to Lucy and French. “Cover me.”
Gun drawn, Donnelly tried the door. It wasn’t locked thanks to the little girl, and he pushed it in.
“Down, down, down!” he shouted.
The two girls looked terrified, particularly the younger child. “Get them out, Kincaid!”
Lucy spoke quickly in Spanish, telling the girls to come with her. Fortunately, they did, and Lucy took them immediately to the tactical truck. She had them behind the truck, to protect them from any potential gunfire.
“You’re not going to hurt my mommy, are you?” the younger girl asked.
“No.” Lucy hoped Mirabelle didn’t do anything stupid. “You’re Bella, right?”
“Isabella. My mommy calls me Bella. And my friends. My teachers call me Isabella.” She wrinkled her nose.
“That’s a pretty name. I’m Lucy. It’s short for Lucia.” Lucy looked at the older girl. “What’s your name?”
The eleven-year-old glared at her. She was scared and angry, but mostly distrustful. “I’m not telling you anything.” It pained Lucy that so many parents, particularly those on the wrong side of the law, taught their children to hate and doubt law enforcement.
Bella said, “Are you here because of the boy?”
Lucy’s radar went up. “What boy?”
“The boy in the basement. Michael.”
The older sister hit Bella across the face, and the girl cried out.
Lucy said with thinly restrained anger, “Do not touch her again.” Into her mike she added, “I need an officer.”
One of the sheriff’s deputies in the tactical van came around back. Lucy stepped aside with Deputy Lawrence while keeping her eyes on the girls. “I need to talk to the younger girl away from her sister. Keep a close eye, though. She’s not cooperative.”
Lucy pulled Bella aside even though her sister was shouting at them.
“You’ll be in big trouble, Isabella!” the older girl called after them. “Don’t say anything to no cop, I swear, I’ll make you pay.”
“What’s your sister’s name?” Lucy asked.
Through tears, Bella said, “CeCe. It’s short for Priscilla, but she hates that name.”
“I c-c-can’t.” She shook her head.
“I won’t let CeCe or anyone hurt you.”
Bella looked at Lucy with big, frightened eyes. “You’re lying.”
What had happened to this little girl?
Lucy tried, but Bella wasn’t talking, her scared eyes on the house. Lucy listened to her team with one ear. They had George Sanchez in custody, but not Jaime. They were still searching the house, but believed Jaime had left before their own arrival. Mirabelle’s car was missing, and it had been there the night before during a surveillance check.
Lucy said into her mike, “Donnelly, there may be someone in the basement. A minor.” She didn’t need to warn him that Jaime could be hiding there as well.
To Bella, she said, “It’s going to be okay.” But that felt like a lie. Here were two minor girls, one who had attitude about authority most likely learned from her family. Their mother was in custody for harboring a fugitive and resisting, and their uncle was in custody for attempted murder and jumping bail. The mother might be released, but what did that mean for Bella and CeCe? Either they would be back home and involved in their mother’s sketchy lifestyle, or they would be subjected to foster care.
Neither option was ideal. Lucy would much prefer them to be with family, but what kind of life was this for children?
“Do you know when your uncle Jaime left?”
She shrugged. “I was supposed to be sleeping. But they were arguing and woke me up.”
“Do you have a clock in your room?”
She shook her head. “It was still dark. But I didn’t go back to sleep, and it got light real quick.”
Probably between four and six in the morning.
“Do you know what they were talking about?”
She shook her head, keeping her eyes averted. “I put a pillow over my head. But Uncle Jaime was very upset. Mama was worried. Then I heard the car. That’s our only car.”
In her ear she heard Donnelly say, “Cellar is clear. But someone was living down here. Kincaid, I need you.”
“Two minutes, sir,” she said. She motioned for the two officers who were standing next to the patrol car. “I need one of you to stay with Bella.” She glanced at CeCe. “And keep her and her sister apart.”
One of the officers squatted down so he was eye level with Bella. “My name is Officer Jim Wyatt. Do you want to see the inside of my patrol car?”
“Am I going to jail?” Bella spoke English well enough, Lucy realized. She probably understood even more.
“No. You can sit in the front seat, okay? We have a computer and a bunch of neat stuff. Some stickers, I think. And my wife made me cookies. Chocolate chip. They’re really good.”
She gave him a tentative smile and took his hand.
Lucy nodded her appreciation to Wyatt and hightailed it back to the Sanchez house. George Sanchez was cuffed and sitting on the ground with one officer covering him. Nicole Rollins had custody of Mirabelle Borez. Mirabelle stared at Lucy. “You can’t talk to my kids! I know my rights, you can’t talk to them without me! They’re just babies, you have no right, puta.”
“Shut up,” Nicole told her. She rolled her eyes at Lucy.
Lucy ignored Mirabelle and caught up with Donnelly, who took her down the long narrow driveway to the detached single-car garage. A door flush with the ground led to a basement under the garage; stairs led down to a dimly lit and musty room.
Donnelly said, “I’ve called in a team of dogs. They’ll be here in less than an hour. I have a feeling, in my gut, there’s something here, but instead of ripping the place apart I’ll let the dogs sniff it out.”
“Bella, the younger girl, thought we were here because of the boy in the basement. She called him Michael.”
He motioned to the opened door. “This was locked from the outside. And it’s clear someone was living down there. It’s not pretty.”
Lucy was used to not pretty. She went down the stairs.
The smell hit her first, before she was halfway down the rotting staircase. Human waste. A bare lightbulb hung from the ceiling on a wire; it cast the only light in the room, except for Ryan Quinoz’s flashlight. There was a plastic bucket in the corner that had been used as a toilet, and it hadn’t been recently cleaned. Flies moved freely around it. Four cots on rusting metal frames took up half the room. Three had no blankets; one had a solitary sheet and an old, torn sleeping bag with a broken zipper. A shelf had remnants of food—crackers mostly. A few bottles of water remained; several more were empty and had been tossed under the cots. Restraints were chained to the beds.
“My first thought was a sanctuary for illegals coming up from the border,” Donnelly said. “But the external lock makes it unlikely.”
“Unless they were kept down here for involuntary servitude.”
Ryan spoke up. “I busted a place like that when I was a cop in Houston. Sweatshop. Much bigger-scale than this. Illegal immigrants were kept in a storage room under the factory. Eight hours sleep, sixteen hours work. Our numbers guys cracked the books. The average illegal worker would have had to work nine years, six months to pay off the so-called debt. This”—he waved his hand—“this doesn’t make sense.”
Lucy slipped on plastic gloves and searched the small confines. There was a dirty plate under one cot. A shoe box of cookies, homemade. Both hidden in the far corner, where two cots met, hard to see unless you were looking for them. She also found three paperbacks, in English. She frowned, flipping through the pages. The books were stamped SAN ANTONIO PUBLIC LIBRARY. Mirabelle spoke English, and the girls seemed to understand and speak well enough, though they were more comfortable with Spanish. These were action-adventure books, not really the type two young girls would read.
Lucy hadn’t seen a room like the basement before, but she knew all too well what this place had been used for. Prison.
“I’d like to bring Bella down here.”
“She thought she was in trouble because of the boy in the basement. Her uncle was worried and angry, and the adults were arguing before Jaime left in Mirabelle’s car. What if it wasn’t because they got wind of Operation Heatwave, but because of this Michael?”
“This is out of bounds of our warrant,” he said.
“If Michael is a minor child in danger, we have an obligation to pursue this.”
Donnelly didn’t seem like he wanted to agree with her, but she held her own and didn’t avert her eyes. She didn’t apologize for her opinion, a bad habit she’d worked hard to break over the last year. Finally, he said, “Call her in.”
Lucy contacted Officer Wyatt and asked him to bring Bella around to the back of the house. She met him outside the garage. “Wait here, please,” she said.
Bella was eyeing the cellar door with fear and apprehension. “It’s okay, Bella,” Lucy said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“What do you think you did?”
“I made everybody mad. But they don’t know it was me. Not even CeCe knows,” she added in a whisper.
“I’m not mad at you.” Lucy squatted. “Bella, I need your help. Michael needs your help. Can you please come down to the basement with me for just a minute?”
She bit her lip. “You’re not going to lock me inside, are you?” she whispered.
Lucy’s chest tightened. She shook her head. “You can leave as soon as you want to. I need you for one minute. It would be a big help.”
Lucy took the child’s hand, and together they went down the stairs. Bella didn’t flinch at the smell, though she moved closer to Lucy when she saw Donnelly and Quiroz. The two broad-shouldered men filled most of the available standing space.
Lucy pointed to the books on the end of the cot. “Did you get Michael those books?”
Bella hesitated, then nodded. “CeCe was responsible for feeding him and cleaning his toilet, but she hated doing it. Sometimes, she would let him go all day without food, and once—well, she said he touched her so she hit him with a paddle. He was bleeding and I brought him ice. I snuck him my leftovers. I got the books at the library.”
“They’re in English.”
“He spoke English. His Spanish isn’t good.”
That was odd.
“Was Michael Hispanic?”
She shrugged. “Yeah.”
“Why do you think you made your uncle mad?”
She looked around, eyes wide. “I let Michael go. I let him go because Uncle Jaime was going to send him back to the bad place and Michael told me he would die if he ever went back.”
She shook her head. “He called it the bad place. Michael ran errands for Uncle Jaime. But he went to the bad place and got locked up here. He said he broke rules.”
“There are four cots,” Lucy said, gesturing.
“Sometimes there are other boys, but I never talked to them. They never stayed long. Michael was different.”
“How long was Michael here?”
She frowned, her brows furrowed. “Three or four weeks. I guess.”
Over the com, one of Donnelly’s people said, “The dogs are here.”
“I’ll be right up.” Donnelly seemed preoccupied, but he turned to Lucy. “We need to talk to the mother.” He ordered Ryan to work with the dog handlers, then motioned for Lucy to follow him.
Lucy handed Bella off to Officer Wyatt. Donnelly said to the officer, “Contact Child Protective Services and tell them we need someone who can take the girls.”
Lucy’s stomach twisted. She didn’t say anything until Wyatt left with Bella, then turned to Donnelly. “Is that necessary?”
“We’re taking the mother into custody; someone has to watch the kids. The mother refuses to give us the name of a relative, and unless she cooperates we don’t have a choice.”
“Can I talk to her?”
“To what end?”
“I don’t want to see that little girl become part of the system.”
“Neither do I, but there comes a time when you realize you can’t save them all. You’re still green.” He said it with marginal disgust, and Lucy almost corrected him. It was clear that Donnelly was thinking about something different than this situation.
Instead, she said, “Bella said there had been boys here before Michael.”
“There were four cots. That’s a good guess.”
“It’s not a guess.”
“The girl is seven years old.”
“She told us the truth.”
Donnelly glanced around, made sure that they were alone, and said, “I’m a drug cop. That’s what I know. If you think this is something else, spill it.”
“I don’t know what to think at this point. But in all the briefings we’ve had over the last two months, I remember an agent talking about how gangs often force young boys to move drugs for them. Threatening their families, threatening them. Or luring them with promises of money.”
“Why lock him up?”
“I don’t know.” Since her time in San Antonio, Lucy had been immersed in the drug business. Being so close to the border, San Antonio and the outlying areas had become a major hub for drug transportation and distribution, in addition to weapons and human trafficking. The Texas Mexican Mafia and other, smaller gangs worked with the cartels south of the border to move their products. It was a highly profitable, extremely dangerous business. The drugs themselves were one thing; Lucy was focused more on the people the drug trade affected. People like Bella. And Michael.
Donnelly sighed and ran a hand over his face. “I wouldn’t put it past Jaime Sanchez to use kids in his operation. I’ve seen it a hundred times. It fits his personality. He’s violent and volatile. But why lock up the kid? Most of the time drug runners like Jaime bribe or manipulate the kids, using their friends and family as leverage.”
“Michael is young.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s how she talked about him. A boy, not a teenager. A boy capable of being abused by her older sister, who’s eleven.”
“We need to pin this down.” Donnelly continued, “I need you to help me get Mirabelle Borez to talk.”
“She’s not going to turn on her brothers.” Of that, Lucy was pretty certain.
“We have leverage. We have her girls.”
Lucy hesitated. “I don’t think we can use them as a threat.”
“Are you going soft on me?”
“I mean, she’s not going to budge if we tell her we’ll remove the girls from her care, or put her in prison and she’ll never see them again.”
“And how do you know that?”
“The way she looked at them. Confirmed by the fact that she won’t give you the name of a relative who will care for them.”
Donnelly closed his eyes briefly. “I forgot for a minute that you were a shrink.”
“I’m not—” she began.
He interrupted. “Then how do we make her talk?”
“I don’t know. Not until I get her in a room. I’ve read all the files on the Sanchez family, what you gave us in the briefing last night as well as the original files when we narrowed down the target list. One thing stuck out—George is the weak link. He’s the oldest in the family, but has the lowest IQ. Every time they’ve been arrested, it’s George who slips up. He’s also the least violent of the family, and I include Mirabelle Borez in that.”
“You read her files, too?”
Lucy nodded. “She may be clean on the surface, but I suspect she’s been helping her brothers for a long time. Her deceased husband was Jaime’s best friend.”
“You have a plan?”
“I think we can use the girls as leverage against their uncle.”
Donnelly was skeptical. “What makes you think that he cares about them more than their own mother?”
“In the original police report, when they were arrested after New Year’s, he asked several times if he would be out in time to go to his niece’s birthday party. He seemed unusually upset that he might miss it.”
Donnelly obviously didn’t remember the conversation. “And,” she continued, “I watched the videotapes of the interrogations. He’s remorseful.”
“Meaning,” Lucy continued, “Jaime is the thinking brother. George loves his brother and goes along with anything he wants. But to George, it’s about his whole family, not just Jaime. I think I can get him to talk.”
“He won’t turn against his brother.” Donnelly said it as if it were fact.
“No,” she concurred. “Not intentionally. Maybe we can play Mirabelle and George off each other, as long as they don’t realize they’re being manipulated.”
Donnelly’s face lit up. “I have an idea. You have a thick skin.” He said it as a statement, but his eyes showed doubt.
“I’m counting on it. I like your idea, playing George and Mirabelle off each other. If you’re right about George, then this might work.”
“What might work?”
“I need you to trust me. I’m going to wing it, but this is what I’m thinking—we talk to Mirabelle where George can hear us. If you’re right and she won’t help, then we play good cop, bad cop. You’re the squishy compassionate do-gooder who doesn’t want the girls in foster care, and I’m the big bad brute who doesn’t give a shit what happens to them.” He assessed her. “I may have to dress you down in order for George to buy it.”
“I understand.” She hoped. She wished they had more time to plan it, but maybe spontaneity had a place.
“Follow my lead. I’m going to brief Nicole, and you talk to Quiroz. Tell him to keep the com up and be ready. We’re doing this now.”
Copyright © 2014 by Allison Brennan