Although the grounds seemed to be wide open and vulnerable, he knew better. Intel from the cell phone chatter and closer satellite feeds told him the place was crawling with guards and attack dogs, sweeping security cameras, and laser alarm fencing around the water side of the property.
But with a little creativity, it was possible to get in anywhere.
Using the pleasure boat traffic as a cover, Anthony silently slipped into the water and waited. Lieutenant Butcher was making an approach at the front of the house. As soon as the guards left the yacht that was moored on Salazar’s dock, he could rig it and the two security speedboats with explosives, board the main vessel, quickly upload a viral image to their security camera software, then cover the grounds in less than seven minutes to strategically plant C4, and be out.
Anthony looked at his watch and stayed low behind his small moored fishing craft. As soon as he heard shouting and saw a huge, blond, bouncer-like guard stand up in the yacht’s pilothouse, he moved in.
“Don’t shoot the fucking dogs!” the blond guard shouted, coming out to assess the problem. “Are you stupid? You wanna draw cops here because a neighbor heard something? What did Roberto tell you?”
From the edge of the water beneath the dock, Anthony watched guards scramble to fan out with guard dogs pulling them forward.
“Pop the chains!” a burly Latino guard shouted. “It’s not our fault if the mutts crossed the property line!”
Anthony packed C4 under the dock and slipped out of the water. Chaos was his cover. The alarms were already going berserk. A fence breach would be blamed for his diversion. By now, porn should have been showing up on the security cameras in the house as well as the boat; wireless networks were a bitch to secure and his people were the best at hacking in. Some poor bastard in Salazar’s camp was going to take the fall for it, but who cared?
Laughter rang out along with booming curses. That’s how he knew his strategy had worked. It was an insane one, but one the older vets had told him killed a lot of good men in WWII. Starving stray dogs were cheap and expendable. In that war, the enemy wired the animals with explosives and trained them to run under tanks to get fed, then kaboom.
His strategy this afternoon was a somewhat subtler approach. It was a known fact that male guard dogs could be trained to resist anything except a female in heat. Release four or five strays in heat on a compound, and you no longer had an effective pack of male guard dogs to contend with.
Up and out of the water in seconds, Anthony peeled off his black wet suit like a viper shedding his skin, then began running as if he were an animal control officer who had scaled the border property fence. In his peripheral vision, he could see Lieutenant Butcher dashing across a section of landscaped lawn with four henchmen running after their out-of-control Dobermans.
“We ought to shoot you for letting them get out of your truck,” one henchman yelled out.
The blond in charge raked his fingers through his hair as one of the guard dogs that had mounted a female snarled at him when he approached it.
“I’m sorry, man,” Lieutenant Butcher called out, purposely allowing a skinny female dog to dodge him. “Why don’t you just let him finish, bro … like, it won’t be that long, then I won’t have to trank him so you can get him get back on a leash.”
“Fine!” the blond yelled. “But you get this bullshit off our grounds pronto!”
“Done,” Butcher said, trying to tuck away a smile as all five guard dogs became adhered in ecstasy to the strays, totally ignoring their primary job functions. “My partner went over the back wall to be sure there’s no more running loose on the property, sir. He’s got a van patrolling the area on an assist. So don’t get trigger-happy if you see a tall black guy in a beige uniform, dude. We’ll be out of here as soon as the Dobermans dismount.”
The ruse worked. Several of the guards laughed, making lewd comments about female anatomy, but all seemed generally sympathetic to the temporarily powerless state of their attack dogs. Butcher had played his role beautifully, as if he was going for an Academy Award, even down to showing the guards how the lack of county funding had left his vehicle cage locks half-busted and unreliable.
The lieutenant’s claim was that they’d gotten a local call about a small gator, and he and his partner’s trucks were the only ones nearby in this area that had room in them at the moment. A speed bump on the cul de sac had jarred everything loose—that, along with eager female canines pushing on the doors after clearly smelling male dogs in the vicinity, was the culprit.
Now he had to play his role, and thanks to Butcher, even if he was spotted, he wouldn’t cause immediate suspicion. Dogs had been disabled. Cameras were on the blink. Guards and garage staff were in the front of the main building trying to get their animals back under control. Five minutes was all he needed to conceal C4 bricks wired with cell-phone detonators in the pool cabana, at the house foundation, and under the cars in the garage. In a matter of minutes, Plan B would be in full effect. Lieutenant Hayes was on airport detail, already tailing Salazar and Assad, gathering more intel to execute Plan A.
As he set down the last explosive, hiding it behind a drainpipe, Anthony looked up from the back west wall of the house as the unmistakable click of a gun hammer cocking pierced his right ear. Instinct made him immediately throw a hard elbow jab backward to catch the would-be shooter in his Adam’s apple. But this assailant was shorter than he’d judged, didn’t have an Adam’s apple, and deftly moved away, anticipating the jab as though an expert in martial arts. The blow never fully connected, only grazed her cheek.
For a split second their eyes met, assassin to assassin. She was the beauty he’d seen in the briefing and now held a nine-millimeter on him. Her hard brown gaze told him that she’d seen him stash the explosive. They both knew she had no problem pulling the trigger, but he couldn’t allow her to alert the guards.
Only two precious seconds had ticked by. In a flash he nodded forward with a powerful neck thrust to butt his forehead against hers and quickly deflected her right wrist to keep from getting shot. But she’d jerked her head back in a strong snap to avoid the collision, yet hadn’t properly judged her own distance from the brick wall. Her skull slammed against the masonry with a crack and he could see it in her eyes that she was temporarily dazed when she tried to point her weapon at him again and needed both hands. He also knew that her uncertainty would make her more deadly. Once a person tasted fear or was wounded, they were more likely to do something erratic as panic set in.
Not giving her time to think or regain her balance, he moved in. Size and clarity were his advantage, but speed and adrenaline seemed to be hers. She rolled out of his attempted grasp and then delivered a gun butt blow to his temple that would have dropped him, if her aim had been a quarter inch better. But in the vastness of those frenetic fighting seconds, he could sense that she meant to capture him, not kill him.
She had a gun and yet hadn’t fired it. If she were merely protecting herself and the property, she should have put a bullet in his skull at close range by now. After he’d reached for her and kept attempting to disarm her, she should have screamed. If this was a normal civilian … as a terrified girlfriend, she should have shot blindly and wildly—squeezing her eyes shut to pull the trigger, something to suggest that she was just a civvy. But she didn’t. She was actually battling him in hand-to-hand freakin’ combat, trying to apprehend him without alerting the guards? That had to mean she wanted information. This was a pro.
Then she made a miscalculation, a defensive move to match his aggression. She’d turned too slowly, her pivot being off by a hair, and his elbow jab caught her in the back of her skull. She went down hard, and he caught her before she hit the ground.
This was not a part of the plan. Who the hell was this woman?
If he left her body here, Salazar would be on high alert; the shipment might even be aborted and they’d lose months of surveillance work. Assad would slip back into the shadows. The entire mission would be in jeopardy; their targets would know that someone had gotten on the inside. If he left her in the grass with a gun in her hand, his lieutenant would probably be swiftly executed or worse—tortured for information.
Anthony peered up at the glass French double doors leading out to the patio where the female assassin had obviously emerged. A woman’s purse was on the floor along with her high heels. She’d literally come to fight him Ninja style in her bare feet. Oh, no, this wasn’t a civilian by any stretch of the imagination.
“Shit!” he murmured and then quickly ran across the patio, grabbed her purse and shoes, gathered her up in his arms, and began running toward the marina.
If he took one of the moored speedboats, it could be made to temporarily appear as though she’d gone out on the water. If she was missing from the house and no one saw her leave by car, his lieutenant wouldn’t have time to get out of there.
He flipped her body, purse, and shoes into a boat and quickly covered her with a tarp, stashing her gun in the back of his Animal Control uniform pants. Snatching up his wet suit and goggles in a flash, he untied the boat and eased away from the marina. If she woke up before he got her secured, he’d have to chloroform her to keep her from screaming. Anthony felt for the small vial in his buttoned uniform pants pocket, relieved that it had survived the brief battle.
Nothing could be allowed to abort the mission, even if it meant that this mystery woman had to be detained to appear as though she’d left the house in a huff. After all, the guards had been talking shit about bitches and hoes and rudely speculating about which chica they would gladly do doggie style. Text messages could be sent to her lover from the cell phone in her designer purse for all he cared. But the next forty-eight hours were critical.
* * *
She woke up with a dull ache at the back of her head and a wicked case of nausea. Bright lights and oxygen tubes were an intrusion on her senses. Then as she slowly came around, pain snaked up from the back of her skull to the top of it, making her grab her head with both hands and squeeze her eyes shut.
“Easy, easy,” a familiar male voice murmured. “You’ve got a concussion and took a dose of chloroform.”
She instantly recognized her boss’s voice and relaxed. “Did you get the name of that Mack truck or what, Hank?”
Sage slowly opened her eyes and then froze. The same guy who’d just tried to kill her was standing beside her boss?
“Captain Anthony Davis, let me introduce you to Special Agent Sage Wagner.”
“My apologies, ma’am,” the captain said in a solemn tone. “It wasn’t until I made contact with my lieutenant that DELTA Force learned—after the fact—that DEA had an embedded agent in the Salazar compound.”
Now she was pissed. Royally so. Even the need to puke wasn’t going to keep her rebuttal in check.
Struggling to sit up, she ripped the oxygen tubes away from her nose. “You mean to tell me that you military guys just went into our setup, in our jurisdiction, and not only gave me a goddamned concussion and chloroformed me when I woke up in the boat, but possibly blew my cover?”
“Wagner, I don’t think you should get up so quickly, and there’s an explanation,” her boss said as she swung her legs over the side of the bed, then winced.
“Do you know how long I’ve been working on this case? We are this close to nailing those bastards!” she said, her voice escalating for a moment until both the headache that yelling gave her, as well as her boss’s glance toward the door, made her lower it. “Screw you, Captain. No offense. But bringing this guy down has been my life’s work and you have no idea of what I’ve put on the line. Not a clue.”
She winced again and glared at the man who’d possibly given her a permanent brain injury, but she was glad that he hadn’t shoved her nose through her gray matter or broken her arm in two places to take her gun.
“Agent Wagner,” the captain said in a contrite tone, “I am really, really sorry that neither of us was alerted prior to our stealth operation.”
Sage rubbed the back of her head. “So this is what’s known as friendly fire, I suppose?”
He didn’t answer her question, but looked out the window. “We were not given the intel that we needed at the onset. Information had to go through channels, and by the time it got to our unit, we were already locked and loaded. We’re on the same team…”
“Like hell,” she spat back, growing testier the more she thought about it. “Jurisdiction belongs to—”
“Stand down, Wagner,” her boss said gently. “Posse Commitatus doesn’t apply. They were in hot pursuit of Assad from Afghanistan, so they are within their rights to get involved. It just so happens that their target is doing a deal with our target, hence the overlap.” Hank Wilson smoothed a thick palm over the bald section of his scalp. “I know how much this case means to you, Wagner. I do. I’m not taking you off of it, but I really don’t know about you going back in there. We’ll figure this out and no matter what, we aren’t letting the Salazars walk.”
Sage released a long, weary sigh and nodded. What else was there to say or do? Bureaucrats had again mucked up the works and had the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. She could have shot Captain Davis; he could have blown her up or snapped her neck like a twig. It made no sense. However, as irate as she was, she had to admit that they were both putting their lives on the line for a cause they deeply believed in, and were probably both victims of bureaucratic stupidity. Hank was right. He usually was, and that annoyed her too at the moment.
“If you are up to it,” the captain pressed on, after a glance across the room at Sage’s boss, “I can give you a full briefing and would appreciate the same.”
“Yeah … I bet you would,” she said, still annoyed, but not knowing where to vent her frustration. “And I definitely want to know what you guys have planned, since you’ve packed the house foundation with C4. Anything else I need to stay away from?”
“The marina. The yacht. The garage and all vehicles.”
She just stared at the captain. “Even the cute little red Mercedes?”
He gave her a lopsided half-smile. It was a nice smile, actually, and she offered him a grudging one in return.
“No, ma’am. It was obvious that the coupe was yours … the pink-and-red heart dangling from the keys that were hanging up in the garage was a dead giveaway.”
She chuckled even though it hurt.
“And that’s the thing, Wagner,” her boss said, rubbing his palms down his meaty face. “It’s too dangerous for us to send one of my best agents back in there. I was thinking remote surveillance from this point. Plus, if they’ve gotta blow the—”
“Hold it,” she said, about to stand up until she felt the cool breeze at the open back of her hospital gown. “I have to go back or Salazar will know something’s wrong.”
The DELTA Force captain nodded. “Affirmative, sir. It would be helpful if she made a call to Salazar and feigned disgust at what happened on the grounds of the compound today, citing that as the reason she fled by boat—not wanting to walk past the display of dogs to go get her car out of the garage. We’ve put it in a slip over in South Beach … I recovered her shoes and her purse. If she has a cell phone on her, she can call Salazar and sound completely offended by the lewd male commentary made by the guards—and trust me, sir, it was foul.”
“The dogs were you guys?” she said, shaking her head and then wincing with a smile. “Oh … my … God. That was insane, but brilliant! And, yes, I heard some of that … it was indeed rude. I can make it work—I know Salazar. I’ll throw a phone tantrum and make him send a car for me. All I have to do is be lunching at my favorite restaurant with shopping bags filling the seats, and I can fuss and tell him how horrified I was by the language … and seeing dogs humping in front of the mansion.” She pressed a palm to her chest. “What would the neighbors say?”
“Thank you, ma’am,” the captain said, and kept his handsome smile respectful. But she could tell he really wanted to laugh.
She studied him in total now, noticing his massive, six-foot-four frame with appreciation rather than dread, since he was no longer an enemy combatant. He had a really nice smile, a solid, square jaw, and was handsome in a rugged, not pretty-boy, way. Black, short-cropped waves made his hair almost appear to be velvet and his intense dark eyes were rimmed with thick black lashes. His medium brown coloring and the hint of a very slight accent that she detected made his ethnicity hard to judge. He could have been Hispanic, African American, Dominican, or from any Caribbean island.
“Captain Anthony Davis, right?” she said, after a moment and then extended her hand to officially offer the olive branch of peace.
He nodded and shook her hand. “Also known as Juan Morales during this mission, if it goes beyond what we normally do.”
“Aka Camille Rodriguez, back atcha, Captain.” She raised an eyebrow. “What do you guys normally do?”
“Hard extractions of hostages or very straightforward target eliminations.”
“Semantics,” she said, folding her arms. “But I like it.”
“It’s what we do.”
“For God and country.”
“Yes, ma’am—for both.”
Her boss smiled. “Well, since you guys didn’t kill each other, how about if I get one of the fellas to bring up some coffee from the cafeteria for an in-room briefing while you get dressed?”
Copyright © 2012 by Alexis Grant