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Gotta love Uncle Sam. He carried a big stick and an even bigger ego, which was the only explanation Diego Santero could think of for the presence of an actual frea-kin' sign on the door of the Department of Homeland Security's ICE attache office advertising its presence in Panama City.
Not that Diego's ego was any less bloated than the federal stiffs who issued him a salary, but at least he had the common sense to practice discretion. Too often his life and the lives of his crew depended on it.
Diego breezed past the office's main doors without slowing, striding around the rear of the building to an unmarked entrance. Flipping the bird to the goons watching him through the security camera, he slipped his key card through the slot, verified his fingerprints on the scanner, then shouldered the heavy door open.
The first floor corridor reeked of bureaucracythe stale odor of air conditioning and burnt coffee and the dust of constantly shuffled reams of paperwork. He peeled his sunglasses from his sweat-sticky face and tucked them in his shirt pocket, squinting up at the fluorescent lights lining the corridor's ceiling.
Most people preferred a climate-controlled office to the humid heat outside, but if ever there was a man not cut out for white-collar work, it was Diego. Thank God the U.S. Navy had offered him an alternative when he was an eighteen-year-old punk. A childhood spent under the fluorescent lights of the New Jersey public school system had been enough desk work in government buildings to last him a lifetime.
Two members of his crew met him at the base of the stairwell leading to the second-floor briefing rooms.
He nodded his greeting to Alicia and bumped forearms with Ryan. "You been upstairs yet to get a sense of what the stiffs want from us?"
Alicia shook her head. "Waiting for you."
"Chiara brothers. Gotta be," Ryan added in his deep, pensive voice.
Ryan had been Diego's right-hand man since the beginning. Before they'd signed on with ICE, they were SEALs together and had clicked instantly. Mostly because Ryan was a man of few words who let Diego run the show.
"You think everything's about the Chiara brothers, Ryan. Your brain's in a rut." Diego tapped his temple for emphasis. "You're like that dude, Moby Dick, with the white whale."
Ryan shrugged noncommittally.
Alicia, Diego's intelligence specialist and honorary sister, arched a perfect eyebrow. Stubborn as she was, she caked on the makeup and left her hair long as though to remind the rest of the crew that not only did she match them in strength, smarts and experience, but she did so without sacrificing an ounce of estrogen.
"You've read Moby Dick?" she asked.
Ryan snickered. "Naw, he's never read it."
"How the hell do you know that?" Diego asked, squaring his shoulders with mock indignation.
Ryan's lips twitched into a grin. "Because Moby Dick's the name of the whale, not the dude."
"Who names a whale? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
As Alicia and Ryan chuckled good-naturedly, Diego allowed himself a small smile. He never got on his crew about razzing him. With the way he was constantly asking them to risk their lives for Uncle Sam, seizing on humor whenever possible was as necessary to their sanity as their firearms.
He tipped his head toward the stairs. "Enough with the book-club chat. Let's get this briefing over with. These artificial lights are hell on my complexion."
He swiped his key card to unlock the stairwell door and preceded Alicia and Ryan to the second floor.
"SeaWorld," Ryan said behind him.
Diego pushed through the door at the top of the stairs and into another unremarkable, climate-controlled hallway. "What about SeaWorld?"
"They named a whale. They've got Shamu."
Diego stopped in front of the closed briefing room door and pivoted, gesturing his hands in a circle. "Are we actually having this conversation still, or is this some sort of freaky dream I'm having 'cause I ate too much garlic sauce last night?"
Alicia gave him a playful shove out of the way and pushed through the doorway. "Don't forget Free Willy'" she said in a singsong voice as she walked into the room.
Diego and Ryan filed in after her, nodding hello to the other two members of their team, John and Rory.
Though the stench of bureaucracy was bad in the hallway, it had nothing on the briefing room. Beige tile, white soundproofed walls and row after freakin' row of fluorescent lights on the ceiling.
The circular table that dominated the room was loaded with laptops, stacks of files and maps. A tray with a water pitcher and glasses anchored the middle. A blank projector screen occupied the far wall of the windowless space, ready and waiting for an industrious government official to start a PowerPoint presentation, no doubt. Everything a federal stiff needed to feel right at home.
The way Diego's crew stood around, shifting their weight or fidgeting with their firearm holsters, the ambiance left them as twitchy as it did him.
Thomas Dreyer, a pale-faced, pencil-pushing ICE director Diego had done business with in the past, looked up from his laptop and stood, extending his hand. "Agent Santero, good to see you again."
Diego disagreed, but until he knew what ICE wanted with his crew, he'd hold his tongue. "Sir," he said instead as they shook.
"I appreciate your team being here. Grab some refreshments and let's get started." He gestured across the room to a long table covered with pastries and coffee.
Ignoring the refreshment offer, Diego exchanged brief handshakes with the other man in the room, Special Agent Aaron Montgomery. Diego tried to keep his nose out of ICE gossip, but the last he'd heard, Dreyer and Montgomery had been tapped by Washington to head up Operation ICEWALL, the bureau's shiny new media-friendly mission to block the flow of drugs and money through Central America.
Yeah, right. Good luck with that, guys.
Despite Diego's cynicism over Operation ICE-WALL's potential for success, he understood Dreyer's and Montgomery's presence in Panama, given that the countryalong with Costa Ricawas wedged between Colombia and Mexico. What piqued Diego's curiosity was why, with the entire weight of the American, Panamanian and Mexican governments backing them, and with squads of ICE agents prepared to undertake the mission's execution, they still saw fit to bring in Diego's black ops crew.
Black ops only handled the sensitive, hush-hush problems that would do more harm than good if word got out. Diego and his crew were ICE's ace-in-the-hole problem-solving and crisis-management team, executing everything from covert extractions to well-timed diversionsnot overhyped, billion-dollar, multinational government projects. That is, not unless those projects had gotten out of control in a way that would be detrimental to either the government or the public's support of the operation.
Dreyer clapped his hands together. "Okay, let's get you briefed."
Thoroughly intrigued by the reason for the briefing, Diego crowded near his crew, arms folded. Dreyer consulted his notes, then flipped on the projector. His crew groaned under their breaths.
"Jesus, Dreyer. Hand me one of those dossiers."
Diego waved a hand at the table. "I can't stand another freakin' PowerPoint presentation. Where do you think we are, the Pentagon?"
Undisturbed by Diego's protest, Dreyer handed each operative a navy blue binder, then started his PowerPoint presentation anyway. A photograph of a woman's face glowed from the projector screen. Diego found the coordinating page in his dossier and stared into the woman's striking, midnight-blue eyes.
"Vanessa Crosby, age thirty. A U.S. expatriate who has resided in Panama for seven years as a senior analyst in the criminal detection department at RioBank," Dreyer said. "Yesterday, ICE intelligence analysts intercepted an email from Crosby to her boss expressing concern over a possible pattern of criminal activity she discovered within the bank's system."
"Well, that's terrific news," Diego couldn't help but interject. "Bet she makes Employee of the Month. You want me to bake her a cupcake?"
Dreyer gaped at him. Like he was caught unaware of Diego's tendency to be a smart aleck, despite that they'd worked together on and off for twelve years. Diego flashed his best "you got a problem with me?" face.
Dreyer cleared his throat and adjusted his tie.
Montgomery, sprawling in a chair, took over the briefing. "It seems that Miss Crosby has created an algorithm to track the movement of bulk cash using small deposits and wire transfers. If her program worksand we think it doesit would revolutionize ICE's coun-terterrorism efforts."
Now they were getting somewhere.
ICE had an entire department with a massive budget devoted to combating bulk cash, aka the millions of American dollars in drug and weapon revenue that crime organizations busted their tails to launder and repurpose without tipping off authorities.
Diego knew nada about algorithms or number analysis or whatever the heck this Crosby broad did for the bank, but he was personally and painfully aware of the many ways bulk cash funded terrorist activities all over the world.
"What exactly did her email say?" Diego asked. "Is it in the dossier?"
"We didn't include it because it doesn't have any impact on the mission we're asking you to perform. To sum it up, she asked her boss for permission to initiate a more expansive test of the algorithm using customer account data. She thinks she can pinpoint the exact account that the bulk cash she detected is being funneled into."
"What was her boss's reaction?" Diego asked. "Seems like the bank's bigwigs would be falling all over themselves to get their hands on a program like that."
"You'd think, but instead he reprimanded her," Montgomery said. "Told her to hand the program over to him because it was outside her job description."
What a prick. "Did she give him the program?"
"No. She put him off. She told him it wasn't user-friendly yet and she'd need to clean it up before anyone else would be able to make use of it. He gave her a deadline of Monday morning."
Alicia slapped her copy of the dossier on the table. "How can you be sure there's a bulk cash scam at all? I find it hard to believe Crosby created an algorithm that no ICE bulk cash investigators or international banks have come up with. And then to find criminal activity that everyone else along the line of checks and balances in RioBank's infrastructure missed? You know what they say about things that are too good to be true."
Diego nodded. Great point. Who was to say Crosby knew what she was talking about? "What's the likelihood this lady's math is wrong?"
"Turn to page two in your dossier," Dreyer said. "Look at her stats and then tell me if you think Vanessa Crosby's theory is wrong."
Diego and his crew flipped the page. In his periphery, he saw Dreyer click to the next slide in his little projector show. He nearly sniggered until a glance at Vanessa Crosby's personal history stopped him cold.
PhD from Princeton after double-majoring in applied mathematics and economics, paid for in part by a load of academic scholarships, probably because she'd finished high school with a 4.4 GPA. Diego didn't even know a 4.4 GPA existed.
He toggled to her photograph. Long, straight brown hair, a smattering of freckles, those almost-black eyes. She looked sharp, smart even, but not like her life story read. He skimmed her credentials againher transcripts and accolades from college, followed by her meteoric rise through the ranks of RioBank. No doubt about it, Vanessa Crosby had a brilliant mathematical mind.
Diego liked that. A lot.
Not that a man such as he, who'd chosen the life of a soldier and who'd barely squeaked out of high school with a diploma, had any business getting turned on by the size of a woman's brain.
Irritation washed through him. Clearly, the feds behind Operation ICEWALL wanted something big from Crosbybigger than that algorithm she'd created. Why else would Diego and his crew be brought in?
Scowling, he snapped the dossier closed. Here was a lady who'd probably worked her tail off to get where she was and seemed to have a pretty good life going. The last thing she or any civilian needed was the U.S. government sweeping in and mucking everything up in their neverending war against the scourges of the world. "Okay, so we can assume Crosby's not wrong about her findings. What's your plan for her?"
Dreyer's expression took on a shimmery, Christmas morning type of glow. Like Vanessa Crosby was some sort of gift-wrapped present for the Department of Homeland Security to do with as they pleased. "We believe Vanessa Crosby is the key to breaking Operation ICEWALL wide open. The weak link in the banking industry we've been waiting for."
Diego seriously doubted weak was an apt description of Crosby, but he decided to keep his trap shut and hear them out.
Montgomery shot to his feet alongside Dreyer. "Our plan is to convince Crosby to work as an ICE insider in the bank. Get her to run the algorithm test without her boss's knowledge and lay out her findings for us. You remember the Chiara brothers crime ring your crew chased in Honduras ten years ago?"
How could he forget, when Ryan never let him? Leo, Nico and Enzo Chiara were scumbag Italian mercenaries who'd created a hell of a business as pawn brokers for the criminal elite, coordinating million-dollar sales of everything from small arms and tanks to nuclear devices. "Yeah, I remember."
"We believe there's a connection between the bulk cash scam Crosby discovered and intel we received from an informant about a submarine sale the Chiara brothers are brokering next week. ICE has been tracking these bastards for years. This is our best chance at shutting them down. Thanks to Vanessa Crosby."
Diego glanced at Ryan, his brows raised in question. If anyone would have a hunch about the Chiaras using RioBank as a bulk cash laundering vehicle, it would be him. He'd been hunting them longer than anyonefor reasons he was irritatingly tight-lipped aboutand had made it his number-one goal in life to dig for new intel on them every chance he got between missions.
Ryan's jaw grew tight. "It's a viable lead, for sure. The Chiaras are here in Panama City. I can feel it."
Diego squelched an eye roll at his hoodoo logic. The man took the Chiara brothers chase way too personally. Diego was the oppositehe never took a mission to heart. Bring down one criminal and another took his place on the Wanted poster. Each was just another target for the business end of his Sig Sauer.
"So you want me to convince Vanessa Crosby to work with ICE?" he asked.
"God, no," Dreyer said with a derisive chuckle. "You'd have her running in the opposite direction, screaming in terror."
The assessment was a stab to the gut. Here he was an elite black ops agentthe best of the best, with a service record that spoke for itselfand yet his bosses didn't trust him to open his mouth around a potential informant. True, he wasn't exactly qualified to match wits with a brainiac like Crosby, but it stuck in his craw that the stiffs thought so little of him in the smarts department.
To hide his frustration, he slipped into easy sarcasm. "Aw, that hurts. And here I thought I had a way with the ladies." He looked at Alicia to back him up on that.
She'd been around him enough to know he could talk a good game when the situation demanded.
She scrunched her face and gave a little head shake. "Sorry, you're not exactly a smooth operator around women."
"Well, hell." Life as a nomadic agent didn't exactly allow him a whole lot of opportunity to hone his seduction skills. Wasn't like he spent weekends trolling bars between missionsthat was prime training time.