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"Ren Villarino's gone missing," said Stratton flatly.
My heart sank. Ren was the only man I called friend.
"You up on your cable traffic? Don't answer--you won't have to lie. Your secretary at the embassy said the telexes piled on your desk go back two months and she hasn't heard word one from you in over a month."
"Well where the fuck have I been?" I said, fighting to control my temper.
He glared at me, lifted a knee to rest the case, snapped it open and shoved a red jacketed cable at me. It was marked TOP SECRET, which meant national security was involved. I started to read it and felt guilty when I saw that it had been received at my office a week ago.
"Don't bother reading it now," said Stratton. "It's yours. Bottom line is Ren has been working a deep cover special out of Panama for the past eight months. Forty-eight hours ago he receives a call at his UC residence in Panama. Notifies his contact at HQ. He sounds rushed and excited. Says he's on to the source of this new drug--you'll read about it in the Teletype. They want him to come to Argentina to talk. He says he'll check in the moment he knows something. He arrives at Rio where he's supposed to change planes. He vanishes.
"We track his UC ID. He never passed Brazil Immigration. He either transited to another country using a different ID or boarded a private plane. We've eliminated all but a half-dozen private flights to Argentina and Bolivia. We can't go any further without risk of burning him."
"Why the fuck wasn't I notified about a UC operation in my jurisdiction? I'm still the Country Attach. I should've been coveringhim."
Stratton put his big hand up, like a traffic cop.
"Nobody told me squat either. You think I'd put a man out there without backup? This thing's been top secret for eight months. That's why I'm here and this ain't a phone call. I hear you two were close. You got the same fucked-up reputation--hotshot undercovers, loners. You like to do things your own way, don't you?"
I started to speak. The big palm rose again to stop me.
"Sooner or later your luck runs out and somebody got to come and pick up your fucking pieces."
"Say what you like about me," I said. "I know I'm no fucking hero in headquarters, but Ren does things by the book. I know him twenty years, he's never blown his cover. The guy's made more Mafia cases on his own than the whole New York FBI. Two days with no word could mean he's living with dopers. We go in we'll blow his cover."
"We're not going public," said Stratton. "And you're right: you're definitely no hero in headquarters. You don't follow rules, you're arrogant, you piss people off. Some people say you're a certifiable fucking loony tunes. Your mouth is usually running long before your brain. But your case record speaks for itself and whoever I talked to on the street all agreed on one thing--if they were jammed up, they'd want Mike Levine coming after them. I don't mind telling you, a lot of them don't even like you." Look, Bobby. The last UC bit I did with Ren he got stood up the last minute and asked me to play his bodyguard for one meeting with some Mafia capo in New York. A ten-minute meet. I was just supposed to drive and keep my mouth shut, like a good man. Window dressing. An extra.
"Ren rehearsed me for a week--how I should dress, jewelry, shoes, the kind of cologne I should wear, how I should position myself in the driver's seat. He checked every item I'd be carrying in my wallet and pockets, just in case we were searched. He checked my shirt for identifying laundry marks. For a ten-minute meet? If I didn't love the guy and respect the way he did things, I wouId've told him to go fuck himself. This is a guy who once went to Italy and bought himself a count's title to help bring off a scam. Ren is an artist, a perfectionist. Two days missing doesn't mean anything."
The big hand came up again. Stratton glanced over at the chopper. The engine blades were still whipping the air. The pilot stared straight ahead, unrecognizable in helmet and dark glasses. There's more. Ren was working with a CI, a Panamanian banker. He was hit this morning."
"A fender bender on the street in downtown Panama City. The CI bends to check the damage--the driver of the other car pops him with a twenty-two behind the ear. Broad daylight and a dozen witnesses don't see a thing."
"That might not have anything to do with Ren," I said, desperately wanting to believe it. "Stool pigeons get offed every day."
Stratton shook his head. "Maybe, maybe not. Until we know he's okay we don't take nuthin' for granted."
"What about tasking NSA and CIA?"
"Done. NSA's programmed tapes of Ren's voiceprint into the system. He makes a call from anywhere, we'll have him....How do you get along with the head spook in Buenos Aires?"
"Forrest Gregg? Never had any problems with him. You know him?"
"I met him. The guy knows his job. He says he has a lead. When you get back to B.A. check with him first. Then turn your dogs loose--all your CIs, every cop on your payroll, all your counterparts. Get as many eyes out there as you can. I have some surveillance shots of Ren you can distribute."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. No photos," I said. "Ninety percent of these Argentine cops are for sale. If I put out photos and they know he's DEA, we'll burn him. Even if he's in trouble, Ren's a guy that can talk his way out of anything."
"You're right," said Stratton. "I should've thought of that."
For a moment I was taken aback. I'd never heard a DEA boss admit he was wrong about anything.
Stratton removed a manila folder from the attach case and handed it to me. It contained a typewritten list of names, each with a date of birth beside it and several copies of an eight-by-ten undercover surveillance photo.
The camera had captured the handsome Ren as he strolled down a crowded street with a man in a dark hat. Ren wore his black beret, his dark hair fashionably long, curling just above his suit collar. He smiled broadly, his big hands gracefully gesticulating in a typically Italian gesture, as if describing a beautiful woman. Just behind were two heavies in dark glasses--bodyguards. Several stores and a restaurant were visible with signs in Italian.
"He looks a little like that Italian movie actor in this photo," said Stratton. "I forget his name."
"Marcello Mastroianni," I said. "Back in the '60s, when Mastroianni was a big star, people used to stop Ren on the street and ask for his autograph."
"The other dopers in this photo are dead," said Stratton. "You can distribute it if you think you need to. The list is all the aliases Ren's been using."
I looked down at the smiling face of my friend in the photo and wondered what he was thinking at that moment. Did he feel the slightest chill of apprehension? I believe that there are key moments in life when we are warned of danger. We must stay alert for them, remain open to vibrations, to premonitions, to primal senses no longer understood--the tiny ripples on a still pond. There are no second chances.