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"THANKS, GORDON." Maggie Fitzgerald took the cup of coffee from her favorite techie's hand and weighed the pleasure against the pain of taking a sip.
Her doctor said she should cut back on the caffeine if she ever wanted to get rid of her ulcers. But the smell of coffee—even the crappy stuff from the bakery on the corner—was too much to resist. She tore open the small square on the plastic lid and took a sip.
She was so used to her ulcers at this stage, what would be the point of getting rid of them?
Gordon collapsed into the stiff reception chair beside hers and stared at Deputy Walters" closed office door.
"So." Gordon yawned but talked through it. "Why do you suppose we got the royal summons at 6 a.m. on a Saturday?"
"Your guess is as good as mine," Maggie said, watching the steam escape from the coffee cup.
"You're lying." Gordon gestured with his cup and coffee sloshed over onto his brown corduroy pants.
"You are totally lying."
Gordon was the best surveillance tech she'd ever worked with and he was—in certain lighting and on special occasions—vaguely loveable. But not so much this early on a Saturday morning. "What makes you say that?" She took another sip of sugary coffee. She was lying. She did have an idea why they were here. But she wasn't about to share that with Gordon.
"'Cause you always know more than you let on." Gordon shrugged and slumped deeper into his chair.
"When you're not around the guys in bank robbery call you the freaking Cheshire Cat."
"I think I'll take that as a compliment." It was, after all, better than some of the things she'd been called since entering the hallowed halls of Quantico four years ago.
"You think it's got anything to do with your brother?" Gordon asked.
"No." Her voice was cold, her heart colder. "I don't think it has anything to do with my brother."
"But with Delgado—"
"I don't think it has anything to do with Patrick." She looked at Gordon, feeling the bite of anger and grief that she'd been fighting since the accident six months ago.
She was getting better. Most of the time those emotions only surfaced at night—in disjointed dreams of her brother lost and cold someplace and her unable to find him. But sometimes she was ambushed by her feelings, caught unawares by the terrible reality that Patrick was dead. Gone.
Murdered. "Okay." Gordon raised his hands in truce. "But I think you're wrong."
Maggie didn't say anything and they drank in stiff, uncomfortable silence.
"Whatever it is I hope I'm being reassigned to the Delgado task force. I've had it about up to here—" he held his hand about a foot over his head "—with bank robberies and celebrity stalkings."
Maggie smiled. They were in L.A., after all. Celebrity stalking, bank robberies and gangs composed about seventy-five percent of the workload.
"How is it over at gang violence?" Gordon asked.
"I wouldn't say better. I'd just say less mundane." He nodded his head. "I like less mundane. But since your brother got killed and that witness—"
"Gordon," she said through tight lips, "shut up."
"Right. Shutting up."
She had the sinking fear that Gordon was right. She was here because of her brother. Maybe she would be removed from the Delgado case because of the media coverage surrounding Patrick's death.
Nothing like a few headlines shouting Dirty Cop or, worse, Dead Cop Linked to Drug Lord to sully a whole family's name. No matter if they were true or not.
"Hey, did you see the Lakers game yesterday? I swear I keep betting on the wrong team—"
Luckily, Gordon's small talk was cut short by the sudden opening of Deputy Walters" door.
Curtis Johnson, the agent in charge of the Delgado task force and the closest thing she had to a mentor in the Bureau, stood in the doorway like a huge black shadow in an ill-fitting suit.
"Come on in," he said in his deep baritone that sounded like the voice of God in the cartoons Maggie had watched as a kid. Gordon leaped up and Curtis stepped out of the way as Gordon walked past him. Maggie took her time, trying to catch Curtis's eye before going in those doors, but she couldn't discern anything from his locked-down expression.
Her ulcers didn't like this one bit. "Relax," Curtis whispered as she walked by. "Easier said than done," she whispered back. Curtis chuckled and followed her into Deputy Walters's inner sanctum.
Maggie took a deep breath and pulled the loose collar away from her throat. The oak paneling and oil paintings seemed to close in on her with every breath. Her father had this dream of her being the first female assistant deputy director of the West Coast Bureau, but if that meant working in this ever-shrinking room every day, dear old Dad could forget it.
Deputy Walters was a small man who looked far younger than his years and much too young to be the assistant deputy director in charge. He was dwarfed by the large oak desk he sat behind, which Gordon loved to make penis compensation jokes about. But there was no joking about this meeting.
Walters had held his position for five years and in the year since the Bureau had put Delgado on the Ten Most Wanted list, Walters had already gone through two agents in charge. Flores and Smyth hadn't managed to bring down Delgado and were now fielding bomb threats and UFO sightings at their desks.
Curtis had been put in charge a month ago and she'd been angling to get on his team from the start. Two weeks ago, he'd brought her on board. And so far she'd turned up nothing. Trying to get information on Delgado was like running into a brick wall headfirst. No one in the neighborhoods would talk. No one in jail would talk. They'd offered one convict reduced jail time on a twenty-five year sentence and the guy wouldn't budge.
I'll take the time, he'd said. Better alive in jail than dead on the street.
They had thrown in relocation and protection to sweeten the deal, but he'd only scoffed. You can't take me where Delgado won't find me.
Delgado ruled his syndicate with fear and brutal violence. Anyone even suspected of talking to the Feds was killed, their families were killed, their dogs were killed.
So far it had been a pretty effective deterrent. "Have a seat," Walters said with a smile that was about as warm as an ice bath. She and Gordon sat in the chairs across from him and Curtis stood to the right of the phallic desk.
"What's going on?" Gordon asked, his eyes darting between Walters and Curtis.
"Delgado is on the move," Curtis replied.
He turned and hit a button on his remote and the screen on the right wall was illuminated with the face of the handsome Hispanic man who'd been all over the newspapers and television in the past few days.
"Caleb Gomez was released from the naval hospital in San Diego four days ago," Curtis said and Maggie sat back, wondering what a Pulitzer-prize winning hostage survivor had to do with one of the most brutal gang lords in Los Angeles. "According to his press release, he is planning to spend time recuperating in New York City."
Curtis clicked the remote and a bad surveillance photo of Gomez dressed out like an East L.A. native standing in front of a taco stand with Delgado filled the screen. "What's Delgado doing with a journalist?" Gordon voiced Maggie's thoughts. "That's like suicide for Delgado."
"Or the journalist," Maggie added.
"That's what we're wondering, too," Curtis said and jerked his thumb toward the screen. "This photo was taken three and a half years ago. According to Gomez's editor at the Los Angeles Times, that's about when Gomez stopped taking assignments and was working on what he called his "next Pulitzer." The Times had commissioned Gomez's mystery story to run in the fall of 2003, but when Iraq really started heating up, Gomez requested to be embedded with the troops near Baghdad. He spent the better part of two and a half years over there before the kidnapping." He shrugged, a nervous tick he had, as though he was uncomfortable in his skin and constantly wanted out. "The details of what happened to him there will be in your files."
Maggie swallowed. The whole world knew many of those details—he'd been brutalized over there. Beaten. Tortured. For three days.
But their files would hold classified—and much more grisly—information, thanks to the military and medical personnel who had assisted in Gomez's escape and recovery.
Her stomach turned.
Professional detachment could only take you so far in the face of the evil man could do.
"You think he infiltrated the Delgado gang?" she asked, shoving thoughts of torture aside. "You think that was his mystery story?"
"Three years ago, Delgado was just entering our radar. It was before he murdered Hernandez and took over his syndicate in East L.A." Curtis shrugged a massive shoulder and clicked ahead to the next photo. A closer image of Gomez and Delgado in front of the taco stand. Delgado was clearly smiling at something Gomez was saying. "Delgado was far more accessible then. He was just a soldier in the Hernandez syndicate. If a good journalist was going to get in on the ground floor, that would have been the time to do it."
"Good and crazy," Gordon muttered and Maggie had to agree, but things still didn't add up.
"That's a huge conclusion to jump to," Maggie said.
"Maybe they just happened to be in line together at a taco stand."
"Well." Curtis grinned like the Cheshire Cat her colleagues claimed she was and clicked onto the next image—mug shots of two of Delgado's top men.
"Hernando and Boyer were spotted in New York City yesterday outside of the apartment Gomez used to rent."
All the short hairs on Maggie's neck stood straight up. This smelled like a break in the case.
She could see Gordon beside her, grinning in the half dark. "Delgado must think Gomez knows something or why would he send his two best thugs all the way to New York?" Gordon asked.
Curtis nodded. "So where is Gomez?" Maggie asked. If he was in that apartment, he was as good as dead; however, a certain gleam in Curtis's eyes indicated that wasn't the case.
"Summerland, California." Curtis turned and smiled at her while he advanced onto a photo of a stucco house behind high hedges. "He's renting a house in the foothills."
Curtis set down the remote and turned on the light behind him. Maggie could feel the electric hum of excitement radiating off him. It filled the air and she breathed it in with relish.
This was a gift. A break. A possible crack in an uncrackable case.
Now, if only it didn't require her to go undercover again, then things would really be looking up. But she didn't get called into this kind of briefing to do surveillance or research.
She was undercover. And she was supposed to love it.
He lifted the three files from the corner of Walters's desk and handed two of them to Gordon and Maggie. The third he handed to Walters.
"What's our angle?" she asked.
"Well, Delgado is going to find out he's got his two dogs standing outside an empty apartment in NewYork City and start looking elsewhere." He arched an eyebrow. "And we know it won't take Delgado long to find him."
"So Gomez as bait? We just wait for Delgado to find him? Send some guys to kill him and hope we can implicate Delgado?" She hated even saying the word bait. Putting an innocent man in grave danger was an ugly way to break a case. And the odds of its success weren't high. Delgado's men wouldn't roll on Delgado.
"That's one option." Curtis nodded.
"What's the other?" Gordon asked.
"We find out what Delgado is clearly ready to kill Gomez to keep hidden."
"Does that mean going undercover?" Gordon grinned like a kid being taken to Walt Disney World.
Maggie felt an inevitable tide at work here and she tried not to fight it. Tried to get excited about her role, her job. She looked down at her hands.
One more time, she told herself. For your brother. You can go undercover one more time.
For Patrick she would do anything.
She would sell off a little bit more of her soul.