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B. J. Chase had worn her black tank top and khaki shorts for too many hours to count in the Venezuelan climate, where the heat and humidity were often measured in terms of ripe, riper, and "for God's sake, take a shower."
Restless and on edge, she tapped her thumbs on the steering wheel of a rusted-out red Jeep Cherokee, circa 1990. She felt a trail of perspiration trickle down her back. No time to worry about her deodorant letting her down now. Weeks of surveillance, back alley connections, and righteous fieldwork were finally going to pay off. The deal was going down and it was going down tonight, right here in this dark, garbage-littered back alley in Caracas.
"Provided Eduardo actually shows up," B.J. reminded herself under her breath.
Oh, yeah...and she had to get out of here alive once he did.
Somewhere in the distance, the feral snarls of a catfight rose above the rough idle of the Jeep's motor. The driver's seat creaked and groaned when she shifted behind the wheel. She'd bought the Jeep at a used car lot three weeks ago when she and three other DIA agents had first arrived in Caracas. The seat was sprung; the fenders were rusted out. Some genius had hacked off the top at some point and done a sloppy job of welding a roll bar to the frame. A spiderweb of cracks burst away from a bullet hole on the passenger-side windshield. Beneath the pitted hood, the engine knocked like a Jehovah's Witness rapping on a front door but the guys in the motor pool at the U.S. embassy had done a little tinkering and pronounced it sound. A luxury ride it was not. B.J. didn't need luxury. She needed speed and reliability and that's what the Jeep would give her if this meet went sour and she had to burn rubber out of here.
She checked her watch and frowned. It was nearly three a.m. Eduardo was late.
"Where the hell is he?" she muttered into the commo mike hidden in the center of the Celtic cross that nestled between her breasts.
"Cool your jets," Maynard's voice whispered sharply in her earpiece.
Like Hogan and Collins, Maynard wasn't exactly thrilled that this was her show. They were older, had more seniority, and were openly unimpressed with her military background, her education, and the fact that she'd spearheaded this DIA operation from its inception back in D.C. nearly six months ago.
Nope, the boys didn't like that she'd drawn team leader assignment. That was fine. They didn't have to like it, just like they didn't have to be impressed. They just had to do their job, which was guard her back. And regardless of the crude message implied by the set of brass balls that had mysteriously appeared on her desk the day after her immediate supervisor, Dale Sherwood, had put her in charge, she knew they would do it.
She tamped down her impatience, then made herself draw a settling breath. She wished she had a piece of chocolate. It always calmed her but in this heat, chocolate was off the table. So was breathing easy.
She felt more jumpy by the minute. Eduardo had set up the time and place. He'd told her to come alone. Yeah, right. The three other DIA officers lurked in the shadows with a little insurance in the form of M-4s with night scopes. She had, however, followed Eduardo's instructions to park, flick the headlights three times, then kill them. Now she waited in the dark, heat pulsing from the potholed alley, sweat trickling between her shoulder blades and her breasts and soaking her shirt while her heart tripped at double time.
She had to believe he would show. Men like him parasites without conscience or scruples would sell out their own mothers for a helluva lot less than the twenty thousand dollars she'd already paid him for partial information. No way was Eduardo going to miss out on the other half of his forty grand, which she would trade him tonight for the rest of the info he'd promised to deliver.
Yet when she searched the darkness ahead of her all she saw were shadows. The alley was narrow and winding, flanked on both sides by an endless row of three- and four-story adobe and brick buildings. Some, she assumed, housed businesses, some residences. All but one were dark. A pale light spilled out of a firststory window several yards ahead of her. It was the only light other than the dim, pale green glow of the gauges on the Jeep's dashboard.
She lifted damp blond hair off her neck and swiped at the perspiration coating her nape. Her hair and humidity were not friends. Even though she'd used a scrunchie to wrestle the unruly mass of it into a tail, some of the thick, springy curls had escaped around her face.
"Heads up." Hogan's voice sounded in her earpiece. "There's movement, your twelve o'clock."
All of her senses slammed into overdrive. It was showtime. They were finally going to get what they'd come for. Last March a cache of controversial computer files had been recovered in Colombia tying Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez to FARC the communist rebel group intent on ousting the U.S.-friendly Colombian government from power. The treasure trove found on a dead guerrilla leader's laptop during a military raid had been just the tip of the iceberg. Since then, B.J. had been setting things in motion, ferreting out contacts, paring down informants, and finally scoring tonight's meet with Eduardo of no last name. He was supposed to provide enough additional intel to make it possible for the U.S. to ratchet up the pressure on Venezuela to stop aiding FARC without having to impose sanctions on one of America's most important oil suppliers.
"Come on, come on," she muttered under her breath, then damn near jumped out of her skin when she heard the sound of footsteps on the gritty pavement.
A man appeared out of the shadows: Eduardo. Short, swarthy, black hair hanging in a long braid down the middle of his back, a gold hoop in his left ear. If he had a conscience, or if a heart beat within his chest, both were buried so deep neither had seen the light of day in a very long while.
Now it would get dicey. This is what she got paid the little bucks to do.
Her Glock 19 pressed against her right kidney where she'd tucked it into the waistband of her khaki shorts. The weight and pressure were both comforting and reassuring. So was the sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun lying lengthwise at her feet on the floor of the Jeep, stock facing the driver's door.
She pulled up on the door handle, put her shoulder into it, and pushed. The rusted hinges squawked but finally swung open. Her sandaled foot hit the pocked pavement. Mindful of both the position of the shotgun and her distance from it, she left the door open. "I was beginning to think you weren't going to sho "
The distinctive metallic click of a safety on an AK-47 assault rifle had her freezing mid-sentence. Her heart rate ratcheted up to triple time as Eduardo stopped abruptly about three yards in front of her, slowly lifting his hands above his head.
A man dressed in a black wife-beater and dark camo cargo pants and wielding the AK stepped out from behind him. He gestured with the business end of the rifle for her to raise her hands, too. "Up high. Let's see 'em, cara."
The look on Eduardo's face told her that he was as surprised as she was. And that they were both as good as dead if she didn't do what she was told.
Stall, she thought, as adrenaline zipped through her blood like rocket fuel. She needed to make something happen until her backup took charge of the situation.
Very slowly, she lifted her hands, all the while inching closer to the open door of the Jeep and the shotgun that lay just out of reach on the floor.
Where were they ?
Oh God. Her runaway heart rate plummeted when she saw Maynard, Hogan, and Collins suddenly illuminated by the beams of three powerful Maglites, marching slowly toward her.
Their hands were linked on top of their heads. Three men walking behind them pointed assault rifles at their backs, prodding them forward. The lot of them looked ready to chew nails. They were pissed and embarrassed that they'd been caught with their pants down. Join the club.
What kind of men were they dealing with that they could get the drop on experienced DIA field officers? She quickly decided the men either had known they were coming or had skills the DIA officers lacked.
She cut a cautious glance toward the Jeep. Knew that if she was going to make a move, it had to be now.
She dove toward the 12-gauge.
The man with the AK struck like a viper. He grabbed her arm, yanked her away from the door, then slammed her up against the vehicle.
"Not smart." He pinned her against the Jeep with the weight of his body. "Now I'll tell you again. Keep your hands where I can see them. That way no one gets hurt."
He could hurt her, she had no doubt about that. Hell, he could have killed her by now, she thought as he turned Eduardo over to one of his men. One bullet. Close range. Clean and simple.
For whatever reason, she was still fit and fine. The others were fine, too, which gave her reason to hope that they still had a prayer of getting out of this alive. To do that, she had to play heads-up ball, which meant she had to work through the adrenaline rush that mixed with fear and made her shaky, and quickly assess her adversary.
This close, it wasn't that difficult. The face that was mere inches away from hers was not a face she would expect to meet in a dark alley on the wrong side of a mission that was rapidly heading south. Wholesome was the word that came to mind. Altar-boy angelic providing she overlooked the assault rifle.
She'd caught a glimpse of a tattoo on his upper arm that appeared to be a cross of some sort. It did not, however, put her in mind of altars or boys. Neither did the gold crucifix that hung from his neck and lay against a broad chest so smooth it could have been waxed.
The bright beams of the Maglites lit up the alley. She could see that his eyes were dark, almost black, like the hair that he wore cut military close. His skin was caramel toned, his face clean shaven and flawless but for a small, triangular scar that rode at the left corner of a full, sensuous mouth. She was used to assessing and cataloging adversaries on the fly. What she wasn't used to was thinking of the enemy as disarmingly handsome or that she would be ultra-sensitive to the fact that he was plastered so tightly against her she could feel the heat radiating from his body like a pulse.
He wasn't a big man maybe five nine, five ten but the body pressed against hers was as lean and hard as the Jeep at her back. The steely grip on her arm was capable of inflicting pain, yet he only used it to restrain her.
Even though his English bore a Spanish accent, something about him made her think he'd spent some time in the States. He was clean, his bearing disciplined and practiced. He knew exactly what he was doing, where his men were, and how to take control. Situational awareness. Like a soldier. Like a merc, she thought, and knew that alive or not, they were still in deep trouble.
Or worse, he could be on Chavez's payroll possibly police, maybe even paramilitary. Chavez wouldn't take kindly to Eduardo's passing along secret government information and would sure as hell want to stop the transaction. But she knew how Chavez worked. If these were his men, she'd be bleeding out in the gutter by now, no questions asked.
So no, this detail had not been sent by Chavez. CIA maybe? This guy had the look they all did the skills, and the "no one can touch me" attitude. And if not CIA, then a close equivalent: badasses with a license to kill, thrill, and wreak havoc wherever they decided havoc needed to be wreaked.
Which brought her back to the immediate problem. If they were CIA then someone somewhere had screwed up royally because no way should one government agency interfere with another's sting. Regardless, his guns were still just as big and just as bad, and she was still in just as much trouble because, in her experience, spooks didn't care about rules or diplomacy.
"Let's back away from the Jeep, okay, querida? Easy, now," he warned in a voice that was as sultry as the night and lightly laced with that Spanish accent. Even though he spoke softly, there was no mistaking the order or the threat as he pressed the nose of the AK against her rib cage and, with a firm grip on her upper arm, guided her away from the Jeep and, thankfully, several inches away from him.
He peered around the open driver's-side door, turned off the ignition, then smiled when he spotted the shotgun on the floor. "Cute gun," he said, like he was complimenting her wardrobe which felt mighty damn inadequate when his dark gaze raked her body up and down before he shouldered past her and plucked up the shotgun.
With hardly a backward glance, he tossed the gun to one of his men, then leaned in close and started patting her down. She gritted her teeth, readying herself to suffer pain, humiliation, and rough hands. But he surprised her again when he tugged her Glock out of her waistband then made quick and painless work of searching her.
"I do like a woman who knows her weapons." He glanced from the pistol to her face and smiled again as he pulled the earpiece out of her ear and tossed it away. "You have any other surprises, mi chica bonita?"
Smooth. Smooth and smug. While she was both surprised and grateful that he hadn't manhandled her, she could have done without the condescending attitude.
"I'm not your pretty girl."
His smile faded. "But you are my pretty problem. And you're a complication I don't have time for. Come on, let's go."
"Go where?" She put on the skids when he urged her forward.
He grunted out something that might have passed for a laugh as his men bound Maynard's, Hogan's, Collins's, and Eduardo's hands behind their backs with flex cuffs. "You don't get to ask questions. You get to do as you're told."
When he started hauling her down the alley toward his men, she dug in her heels and latched on to the Jeep's roll bar in a death grip. "I'm not going anywhere."
He expelled a weary breath. "You don't get to call the shots, either. Now I said, let's go." He didn't mess around this time. He jerked her hard, breaking her hold.
"Look," she reasoned, fighting him at every step. "You need to let us go. You've got to know we're all American citizens."
He stopped, leaned in close, and growled in her ear, "That's not something you want to broadcast in this part of the city. But since you're so proud of the fact, why don't you tell me what four Americans are doing here this time of night?"
When their eyes met this time, a shocking heat arced between them that transcended the hottest South American night.
Holy God, she thought. Where had that come from? Shaken, she forced herself to hold his gaze, told herself it was only anger and adrenaline that had her heartbeat revving and every self-preservation instinct she possessed warning her to look away.
"We're with the USDA. On an agricultural exchange program." She lied like the good DIA officer she was, launching into the cover story they'd developed in the event something like this happened. She knew the cover was lame but it was all she had. Three veteran DIA officers with assault rifles and high-tech commo equipment were supposed to have ensured she wouldn't need to use it.
He looked at her like she'd grown two heads, then barked out a laugh. "USDA officials with American military-issue M-4s? I don't think so. Wanna try again?"
"Check my pocket." Anything to buy time, stall, minimize their profile until they could figure out how to either get away or stay alive until the intelligence officer at the embassy realized they were in trouble and sent a team to find them. "My credentials are in there."
"I'm sure they are. But fake IDs are a dime a dozen." His warm breath fanned her nape as he tugged her hands behind her back and secured her wrists with the flex cuffs one of his men had tossed him. "I've got a hundred of 'em. Who would you like me to be? The Welcome Wagon? Scooby-Doo? Or maybe you'd like me to be Batman. You choose. It'll be fun."
Oh, yeah. He'd definitely spent time in the States. The way he carried himself might be all sexy Latino swagger, and sure, he spoke with a Spanish accent, but this guy's attitude and jargon were definitely a product of American culture.
His grip tightened on her arm and he forced her down the alley and away from the Jeep.
"Where are you taking us?"
"Someplace where I can minimize the problem you're making for me."
His fingers still in a vise-like grip around her upper arm, he guided her a couple of blocks, then around a corner where two black vans sat under the pale beam of an ancient streetlight. One of the men pulled a hood over Eduardo's head then shoved him into the rear vehicle. Then they roughly tugged black hoods over Maynard, Hogan, and Collins and guided them none too gently into the other van.
Oh, God. She was next. Her captor pushed her in the same direction; the gaping darkness inside the open door had her heart slamming. She put on the brakes again. She wasn't going to give up that easily. She was losing her mole and the information she'd worked for months to uncover. She had no idea what they planned to do with them beatings, rape, torture
She blocked the images from her mind. This was not going to end here. She wasn't going to let it. She'd worked too hard; Eduardo mattered too much.
"You really need to let us go," she tried one last time.
"Be a good girl and that might happen."
Then he pulled a hood down over her head.
Copyright © 2009 by Cindy Gerard