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Camille Fisher stood in a bathroom stall wearing the navy blue suit she'd picked out from a JCPenney clearance rack. The jacket buttoned across her chest, but it was a tight fit. With any luck, it would hold until after the press conference. She smoothed a hand down her skirt to make sure it covered her scar. It did, but she scowled at the streak of sweat her palm left on the polyester. Running too late to do anything more about the way she looked, she shielded her eyes from the mirror over the sink and reemerged into the bustling precinct.
Her boss caught up with her in the hallway, wringing his hands. "Look, I know public speaking isn't your cup of tea, but I think it's a good move for you. Gets you out from behind your desk for a change."
Camille stopped short, reeling at the note of sympathy in his tone.
"I only agreed to this arrangement because a child's involved. I happen to enjoy working the dispatch desk." That was a whopper of a lie, but how dare Williamson pity her.
Five years ago, she was a force to be reckoned with, the youngest officer and only female ever promoted to the Special Forces unit in San Diego law enforcement history. As happened every time she thought about those days, the best six months of her life, she experienced a split second of exacting pain in her heart. Not a widespread pain like the bullet had been, but that of a needle. Worse than the pain, reflecting on her past left her feeling weak.
Above all else, Camille hated feeling weak.
"No need to get your back up, Fisher. We all appreciate you stepping up to the plate on this one. I'll see you out front in five."
Inside the lobby doors, Camille opened the three-day-old kidnapping file with trembling hands. She ran her fingertip around the edge of the glossy photo clipped to the front. If Williamson thought her involvement improved Rosalia Perez's chance of being recovered alive, then she owed it to the five-year-old smiling at her to do everything she could.
She pushed the double doors open and froze, stunned by the scene before her. The space between the San Diego Central Precinct and the surrounding high-rises was packed with spectators and journalists. The odor of hundreds of people standing in the midday sun swirled with the stench of car exhaust and city grime. Already on the verge of losing her breakfast, she gagged a little as she took her place in the line of law enforcement officers and government officials.
Camille didn't recognize the man dressed in civilian clothes who stepped to the podium. She tried to concentrate on his introduction of her, but she was working so hard to look confident that it took a nudge from Williamson for her to realize it was her turn to speak.
"Uh I mean welcome." She cringed. So much for a smooth beginning. The stares and expectations of the audience bore into her and she shuffled her notes, dumbstruck. Then she noticed Rosalia's photograph peeking out from behind some papers.
This one's for you, Rosalia.
With a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and began.
"At approximately eight o'clock on the morning of Tuesday, February 10, Rosalia Perez boarded a school bus to Balboa Elementary. When class started at eight-thirty, she was marked absent by her teacher. Following the school's unverified absence protocol, a phone call was placed to her home at eight-forty-five and was answered by Rosalia's maternal grandmother, who is a non-English speaker. An interpreter at the school was summoned and a second phone call was placed at nine o'clock, during which the grandmother said that Rosalia had ridden the bus.
"The school bus driver confirmed that his bus dropped Rosalia off in front of Balboa Elementary at eight-ten. By nine-thirty, the girl's mother, Maria Delgado, had arrived at the school. She, along with the school secretary, contacted the police to report her daughter missing. An Amber Alert was issued at nine-forty-five.
"Rosalia Perez is five years old, weighs fifty-one pounds and stands forty-four inchesor just under four feettall. She has shoulder-length brown hair and a strawberry-colored birthmark on her forehead above her left eyebrow. You'll find a photograph of her in your press packet.
"Interviews conducted with adults present on the Balboa Elementary campus that morning yielded no information regarding Rosalia's disappearance, but two student eyewitnesses report seeing Rosalia, before school, approach a brown two-door sedan driven by a dark-haired man.
"At this time, our main suspect is Rosalia's biological father, Rodrigo Perez, aka El Ocho, a member of the crime organization in Mexico commonly known as the Cortez Cartel. He is suspected of being in the United States illegally. He is approximately five feet eight inches tall with light brown skin and short, black hair. In every photograph we've acquired, he's wearing black leather gloves. He is considered armed and extremely dangerous.
"I will be conducting briefings at twelve o'clock each day in the main conference room of this precinct to keep the public as informed as our investigation allows." She glanced around for the man who had introduced her. "Am I taking questions?"
He nodded and the entire throng of reporters stood at once, shouting.
Camille gestured to a woman wearing a red suit in the front row.
"How can the police be sure Rosalia hasn't been taken to Mexico by her father?"
"The Border Patrol is immediately notified of all Amber Alerts, but with the nearly two-hour gap between the time Rosalia was last seen and when she was reported missing, we have no way of knowing whether she was taken out of the country, especially since the abduction site is only twenty minutes north of the Mexican border. We are working to gain permission from the Mexican government to widen our search to include Baja."
Camille took a dozen more questions before gathering her notes and giving the podium over to the man who introduced her. Trembling with adrenaline, she nodded to her boss and walked past the line of officials and back through the double doors.
The relative silence of the precinct was a relief. Mostly, she couldn't wait to change out of her suit. From the chair at her desk she grabbed her duffel bag and heard her cell phone ringing in her purse.
When she saw the text message, she smiled and snagged Williamson as he walked by. "I just got word my sister's in labor. I'll be back at work tomorrow in time for the press briefing."
"Congratulations to your family. And give your dad my best. Remind him I still owe him for the burger he bought me last month."
Camille's father was retired, but his years on the force were legendary. She was constantly asked by her superiors to give her father their regards or forced to sit patiently through retellings of his most heroic moments. There had been a time Camille dreamed of following in his footsteps. The familiar needle of pain pierced her heart, but she refused to dwell. No more thoughts of dying dreams, not when she was about to become an aunt.
Juliana was two years Camille's junior and as different from her as a sister could be. A lifetime of strained relations had finally given way to friendship two years ago, after Juliana fell in love with Camille's former partner, Jacob. That he was the man responsible for Camille's accidental shooting was immaterial. She'd known the risks of her high-stakes job when she signed on.
She grabbed her duffel and kept moving. She'd change out of the uncomfortable skirt and flats after she checked in with her sister.
Aaron Montgomery's eyeballs hurt.
He could barely see the sun through the heavily tinted windows of the meeting room, yet it was still painful. Not even his special hangover energy drink helped when his head ached this badly. Sure he'd wanted to celebrate Tuesday's big arrests, but what in God's name made him down those last three tequila shots instead of calling it a night?
The answer, of course, was a petite college seniorat least, that's what he thought she saidwith long chocolate-colored hair and a waistline so tiny that when she ground against him on the dance floor, her little black skirt kept sliding down to reveal her thong.
Ah, good times.
"Something funny, Montgomery?" barked Thomas Dreyer, the ICE Field Office Director, who stood at the head of the table.
Aaron mashed his lips together in an effort to stop smiling. "Just thinking about how those cartel runners almost crapped their pants when we caught them, sir."
"Add those two to the ten we expedited in December and we're starting to send a clear message that these low-lifes can't move guns through our country's deserts and get away with it. If the cartels want to wage war against each other in Mexico, I'll be damned if they're going to do it with American firepower."
"I couldn't agree with you more, sir." Staying on Dreyer's good side was proving to be a tricky actthe man had no sense of humorbut Aaron was an expert at being a team player. And this was a team he was determined to rise to the top of.
As was usually the case in his life, Aaron had been handed the opportunity. His best friend, Jacob, referred to his luck as Aaron's Golden Ticket. The label was fine for a joke, but Aaron knew better. He didn't wait for luck to strike him where he stood, but instead kept his eyes open, ready to move into the path of the bolt at the first sign of a spark. So when, a year ago, the Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, better known as ICE, handpicked him to participate in a regional joint task force to combat drug, guns and human trafficking through the Southern California desert, Aaron seized the opportunity.
And he had a goal for himself. A big one.
He had no interest in being a boss man, standing at the head of the table as an administrator like Dreyer. His ultimate goal was to prove his worth as an ICE field agent. Maybe undercover. Definitely abroad.
As one of two Park Rangers on a unit comprised primarily of Border Patrol officers and ICE intelligence agents, Aaron was in ambitious company. Although he came to the unit with thirteen years' experience as a Backcountry Park Ranger, he'd invested months of rigorous field training in weaponry and combat tactics and countless hours of classroom time to understand border policing laws so when the opportunity to transfer from Park Ranger to ICE agent presented itself, he'd be ready.
The challenge couldn't have come at a better time. The diversions that used to satisfy his wanderlust had lost their flavor. Though he still thought his Mustang Shelby GT 500 was the best money he'd ever spent, he no longer took it for day trips simply for the thrill of the drive. Even the club scenes he frequented felt like a waste of time. Rock climbing, speedboating, skydivingnothing he tried could take away the restless dissatisfaction that had settled into his bones.
Last night, he'd stayed out way too late with Little Miss Thong because she was exactly the type of girl that got his blood pumping. But sometime during the night, the pointlessness of what he was doing dawned on him. Time and youth were slipping away from him at an alarming rate, a revelation he counteracted by drinking and dancing more than usual.
Since Jacob's wedding a year and a half ago, Aaron felt
At first, he thought it was because Jacob no longer had much time to spend with him, but it was more than that. Maybe he was subconsciously jealous of Jacob's marital bliss or maybe Aaron was bored, but the discontent that had dogged him since his friend's wedding was damned annoying.
"As I was saying," Dreyer said with a hard glance at Aaron, "the latest intel is that the Cortez Cartel's weapons distribution operation is being headquartered near the Baja capital city of La Paz, along the Sea of Cortez." He pushed a button on his laptop and a satellite image of the Baja peninsula projected onto the wall behind him.
"As we already suspected, the Mexican government's crackdown on cartels within Baja's border cities has spurred them to move to obscure locations and utilize more creative means to smuggle weapons into their country."
With another push of a button, Dreyer projected a grainy photo of a Hispanic man with jet-black hair and a round, oily face. "This is our next target, Rodrigo Perez, Alejandro Milan's second-in-command. Perez has been running the weapons-smuggling division of the Cortez Cartel for approximately one year and manages a crew of at least thirty men."
Aaron felt the vibration of his cell phone in his shirt pocket. He flipped it open to find a short text message
Jul n labr.
"Look at that," he muttered to himself. "I'm about to be a godfather."
He caught the eye of Nicholas Wells, the other Park Ranger in the unit, and held up his phone. "Family emergency," he mouthed, scooting out of his chair. He opened the door and slipped into the bright afternoon, his headache forgotten.
She should have known he'd be at the birth of Juliana and Jacob's childhe was her brother-in-law's best friend, after allbut Camille's stomach still lurched when she heard the deafening rumble of Aaron's obnoxious car pull into the hospital parking garage behind her.
Unwilling to park on the same level as him, she drove past whole rows of available parking spots, waiting for him to choose one first. To her chagrin, he passed every open spot, too. In her rearview mirror, she saw Aaron chuckling behind his wraparound sunglasses and knew he was onto her plan. Even in the dim light of the garage, his dimples sparkled. The man was like a barbed thorn in her sideirritating and impossible to dislodge.
Finally he conceded and pulled into a space on the fourth level. Camille drove to the roof.
Then it occurred to her that in a matter of minutes, she'd be sitting in a waiting room with the man she'd successfully avoided for over a year. She thunked her forehead on the steering wheel and groaned.
She first met Jacob's best friend two years earlier, and it had been a miserable experience. Simply put, Aaron was the most arrogant man she'd ever known. Handsome to a fault, with wavy blond hair and a body so meticulously ripped it was the perfect advertisement for his bloated ego, he'd made her feel like a piece of meat from the moment he introduced himself without raising his eyes higher than her chest.
When he figured out she wasn't going to drool all over his showy muscles, lame jokes and expensive car, he'd been equally put off by her.
At Juliana and Jacob's wedding, Camille put on her game face and tolerated Aaron for the single dance required of the maid of honor and best man, then spent the rest of the reception watching him hit on all the young, single women in attendance. She couldn't believe how easily they fell for his boyish good looks and perfect body. They didn't even notice he was treating them like interchangeable objects. She made a game of predicting which one he'd invite to his room that night. Because the wedding party had rooms on the same hotel floor, it was an easy mystery to solve.
And her prediction had been correct.