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Domingo Garcia staggered toward the storefront and artistically fell against the large window, which shivered from the blow but didn't break. He slid to a sitting position on the sidewalk.
Crouching on a concrete staircase dropping to a basement apartment not thirty feet away, Conall MacLachlan watched with admiration. Garcia played a homeless guy like no one else; Conall didn't even want to know what he'd rolled in to make him stink like that. The sacky army fatigue jacket did a great job of hiding a bulletproof vest.
As they'd hoped, the steel door to the storefront slammed open. Two big men appeared, one with a snarling Rottweiler on a leash, the other using his body to prop open the door.
Clutching his bottle of cheap wine in a brown paper bag, Garcia peered blearily at them. "Hey, dudes." He pretended to look alarmed. "Your dog won't bite me, will he?"
The handler laughed and told Garcia in obscene terms that yes, indeed, the Rottweiler would rip him to shreds if he didn't move on.
Garcia whimpered and got to his hands and knees, coincidentally a few feet closer to the door and the dog's frothing muzzle. Then he demonstrated his one true talent. Everyone had to have one. Garcia's was handier than most, however, for a special agent with the United States Drug Enforcement Agency. He could puke at will, assuming he'd primed his stomach in advance. Conall had sat with him an hour ago while he consumed two huge burritos in green sauce at a little Mexican joint a few blocks away. Now, with sound effects and spectacular retching, he brought them back up. Vomit spattered the dog handler's shoes and pant legs; even the Rottweiler backed up in alarm. Garcia managed to drop the wine bottle and shatter it, adding to the mess and stench. The other guy swore. All their attention was on the stinking pool of vomit and the seemingly drunken homeless man crawling on the sidewalk. The dog whined and scrabbled backward toward the door.
Conall murmured into his transmitter, "Now," and moved, coming in fast while Johnny Harris did the same from the other direction. At the same time Garcia sprang to his feet, his Sig Pro pistol in his hand.
"Drop your weapons! This is a police raid. Drop them now!"
Conall slammed the doorkeeper to the sidewalk and went in first, low and fast. Garcia leaped over the dog and was on his heels. Reinforcements sprang from a van parked halfway down the block and within seconds were on the two guards, dragging them away from the window glass in case of flying bullets before cuffing them.
The interior was poorly lit, the window having been covered with butcher paper, the bare overhead bulb maybe forty watts. Two men burst from a rear hallway, firing as they came. Conall took one out with his Glock while Garcia brought down the other. They kicked weapons away and plunged down the hall. The back of the store was the drug distribution facility; the guys packaging coke were already wild-eyed at the spray of bullets and had their hands up before Conall went through the door.
Garcia and Harris checked out the bathroom and office while Conall kept his gun on the pathetic trio in front of him. Within moments, other agents arrived to cuff and arrest.
It was all over but the cleanup. Conall's experienced eye weighed and measured the packets of cocaine, leaving him disappointed. They wouldn't be taking anywhere near as much off the street as they'd hoped. Either this operation was more small-time than they'd realized, or a shipment was due and their timing had sucked.
That was life, he thought philosophically, holstering his weapon.
And I'm bored out of my frigging skull.
As he all too often seemed to be these days.
Lia Woods sat on the middle cushion of the sofa, a boy perched stiffly to each side of her, and watched Transformers. She'd seen bits and pieces of it before; Walker and Brendan were addicted. This was the first time she'd sat down with the intention of watching beginning to end. In her opinion, the movies were too violent for the boys at eight and ten, especially as traumatized as they were. But their mother had given them both the first two Transformers movies on DVD, and Lia couldn't criticize Mom, even by implication. Not when she'd died only three days ago.
Besides, she could see the appeal of the movies to the boys. Chaos erupts, and regular, nerdy guy seizes control and ultimately triumphs. The fantasy must be huge for two boys who'd now lost both parents, who had no idea what would happen to them. For them, it was a fantasy worth clinging to.
The sound of a car engine outside made her frown.
People didn't drop in on her unexpectedly. Her farmhouse on ten acres was reached by a deadend gravel road she shared with five other houses. Only one was past hers. There were new neighbors there, renters, Lia thought. She hadn't tried to get to know them. She'd as soon keep her distance from all her neighbors, and was glad the men she'd seen coming and going weren't friendly, or nosy.
This car, though, had definitely turned in her driveway. She touched each of the boys reassuringly and murmured, "I'd better go see who's here."
Walker turned his head enough to gaze blankly at her before looking back at the TV; Brendan kept staring as if she hadn't spoken.
Lia left them in the living room and paused at the foot of the stairs, listening. Quiet. Arturo and Julia must still be asleep. Thirteen-year-old Sorrel was most likely lying on her bed listening to her iPod, or prowling the internet on Lia's laptop. Maybe harmless, maybe not, but Lia couldn't watch her 24/7. She could and would check later to see what websites Sorrel had visited. Outside, a car door slammed. She opened the front door and had a freezing moment of panic. The dark sedan, shiny except for a thin coat of dust from her road, was clearly government issue, as was the man walking toward her, wearing a suit, white shirt and tie. If he was from Immigration, she was screwed. There was no time to hide Arturo and Julia.
He paused at the foot of the stairs. "Ms. Woods?"
"Yes." She stepped onto the porch and drew the door mostly closed behind her. "What can I do for you?"
He was a large man, in his late forties or early fifties at a guess, with a receding hairline and the beginning of a paunch. "I'm with the United States Drug Enforcement Agency. I'd like to talk to you."
Lia knew she was gaping. "To me?"
He smiled. "You're not under suspicion, I promise you. I'm hoping that you can help us."
"Help you." She must sound like an idiot, but wow. She'd never even smoked marijuana. Excessive drinking had been a way bigger problem in her high school than drug use. Her crowd in college hadn't been into drugs, either. Was there any chance he was lying and really with Immigration after all?
"May I explain?" he said.
She blinked. "Yes, sure. Why don't you Actually, let's stay out here on the porch. Give me a moment to check on the kids."
He remained politely outside while she dashed in, peeked at Walker and Brendan, then tore upstairs to Sorrel's room. The teenager was indeed using the laptop.
"There's a government type here I have to talk to," Lia said. "Will you listen for the little ones and take care of them if they wake up?"
"I guess so." Sorrel wrinkled her nose. "Unless Arturo's diaper is gross. I don't want to do gross."
"They should keep sleeping for another hour. But just in case. Okay?"
She shrugged, her attention returning to the monitor.
The teenager didn't know that two-year-old Arturo and eight-month-old Julia were in this countryand being harbored by Liaillegally; Lia made sure her legitimate foster children never had a clue. Kids came and went here. There was no reason any of them would question why one social worker brought some of them to her door and a different one the others.
Then Lia bounded downstairs and went out on the front porch, closing the door behind her this time. The man turned to face her.
He held out his badge. "I'm Special Agent Wes Phillips."
She scrutinized the badge, as if she'd know a fake if she saw it, nodded and said, "Please, sit down."
He gingerly settled into one of the pair of Adirondack chairs. She took the other one.
"I'd invite you in, but I'm a foster parent and have kids napping. Plus, I thought maybe you'd rather we weren't overheard."
"I'd definitely rather not be overheard by children." He hesitated. "This is actually a matter that concerns your neighbors to the south."
Her first reaction was relief. It was hard to make herself think, to orient herself. The south? "That nice place? Someone new is in it. I'm afraid I haven't even met them."
"Have you noticed them coming and going?"
"An occasional car. Either there are several men living there, or else whoever is renting the place has lots of friends."
He nodded. "We have reason to believe the house is being used by members of a drug distribution network."
"You're not talking about methamphetamine, are you?" she asked in alarm. "Are they making it there? Can't it be really volatile? Are my kids in danger?"
"No, no. We're frankly not sure what's up in that house, but don't believe meth is involved."
Wariness returning, Lia straightened her spine. "How is it you think I can help you?"
"I came out to determine whether the house can be viewed from yours." He had his back to it currently, although from here woods blocked all but the rooftop and a corner of the enormous garage. "We'd like to place it under surveillance. Yours is the only building within visual range. What we'd like is to, er, rent your house from you for a period of time."
"A period of time."
"It may be weeks to several months."
She didn't even have to think about it. "No."
"I'm sure we could provide you with"
"No. This is my home. I'm currently caring for five traumatized children. Two of them lost their mother to leukemia this week. One is a teenager prone to acting out. This is their home, too, the only security they have right now. I will not uproot them."
Plainly, he didn't like that. "You don't mind that your nearest neighbors may be dealing drugs?"
"Of course I mind. But what you're asking is impossible."
He studied her. "This is a large house." Oh, damn. "Yes, it is," she said cautiously. He seemed to ponder. "Perhaps it would work best if your neighbors see life continuing as usual here." She waited.
"Do you use your attic?"
She'd known that was coming. After a hesitation, Lia admitted, "No. It's pretty bare-bones up there, though."
"Would you consider allowing two agents from the DEA to conduct a stakeout from your attic?"
She queried what that meant; he explained. Assuming there actually was an adequate view from upstairs, they would use advanced surveillance equipment to watch the nearby home from the attic windows. The agents could sleep up there as well. He did concede that they'd need to use a bathroom if one wasn't available in the attic.
"There isn't," she said flatly.
"It would also, er, be convenient if you could be persuaded to provide them with meals. We'd give you reimbursement for groceries and an additional stipend, of course."
The entire time he talked, Lia thought furiously. Would the DEA have any reason to investigate which children had legitimately been placed in her home? Perhaps Arturo and Julia could be moved. They were short-term anyway; she didn't expect to have them for more than a week or two. Their mother had been swept up in a raid on a tulip bulb farm here in the county and immediately deported. Supposedly a family member would be coming for them if the mother couldn't make her way back quickly.
Lia might look more suspicious if she refused than if she agreed. And she did hate the idea of something like cocaine or heroin being sold from her next-door neighbor's house. The whole idea was surreal; she might have expected it in New York City, but not in rural Washington State.
But weeks or months?
"Would these agents be respectful?" she asked slowly. "I'm a single woman, and I currently have a thirteen-year-old girl living here."
Phillips's smile held the knowledge that he was about to get what he wanted. "I guarantee you have nothing to fear from our agents."
Oh, yes, she did, but she couldn't say that. Lia sighed and stood. "Then let me show you the attic and you can see if it's suitable. Please try not to wake the children."
She felt nothing but apprehension as she led the way upstairs, shaking her head slightly at Sorrel's startled look when they passed her open bedroom door. At worst, the resident government agents would discover that she regularly harbored illegal immigrants. At best well, having two strange menor maybe a man and a woman?living in her house, sharing one of only two antiquated bathrooms, expecting to be fed, would be a horrible inconvenience. Neverending houseguests she hadn't exactly invited in the first place. But how could she say no?
She couldn't. And that's what, in the end, it came down to, wasn't it?